Once a Killer

Part One: Superlatives

Chapter One

Time for Mayhem

A murder of crows flapped down into the high limbs of the cottonwood and did their best to disappear among the leaves. Below them, Jack Smith was running across the corn field with his rifle and his little dog, Blackie. The crows hated Blackie. He’s not even black! one said. He’s got spots! They hated Jack, too — twelve years old, but a killer. Crow killer! they said. Mass murderer! They took turns naming all the friends and relatives he had killed Shorty, Beaks, Beady, Midnight, etcetera, etcetera. A million of us! But they laughed because none of them were dead yet. Just keep your eye on him, one said. The little prick never misses — you hear that gun pop, you can kiss your ass goodbye. By then Jack was at the far end of the field, reloading. The crows fluttered from branch to branch, knowing in the way crows know things, that it was time for mayhem. Already they were crapping on the roof of his house for revenge.


Jack and his dog had been running all summer. They fished and hunted and ran along the road and through the fields for no more reason than to feel the wind and sun. They played late and slept soundly, and as long as his father was sober, life was pretty good. Now they were in the shade of the hedge row, watching the crows at the top of the cottonwood. Jack had the highest one in his rifle sights. “Want me to pop him?” he said to his dog. “You let me know, I’ll pop him.” The crow hopped and fluttered from one branch to another. “I bet they’re crapping on the house," Jack said. "That’s all they know how to do, caw and crap.” He followed the crow in his rifle sights, breathed in, breathed out, felt his heartbeat, and when everything came together, he squeezed the trigger the last fraction of an inch until the rifle fired. It didn’t make much noise in the open — hardly more than a firecracker — but a second later the crow tipped backwards and dropped dead to the roof of the house. The rest of the flock flapped and scattered, then rejoined and flew all together in a wild black arc against the sky. Jack reloaded. He was going to shoot one of them mid-flight, but a plume of dust rose along the gravel road, and the Ford pickup appeared and turned up the long driveway toward the house. “Guess who,” Jack said, and shifted his rifle toward the dust. It was his father, back from the bar. He was driving too fast, so the dust rose higher than the hedge row. “Here we go again,” Jack said to his dog. “But goddamn it, he better leave mom alone.” His dog looked at him. “You know what I mean — he’s a mean fucker when he’s drunk. He beats her up, he whacks me, he kicks you. You know how it goes.”

His father got out of the pickup and stumbled toward the house. He was a small man with thick, black hair that he oiled with Rose hair oil and combed straight back. But no one ever saw his hair because of the black cowboy hat he wore day and night, even in the house, even at supper. He lurched across the porch, swung the screen door open, and went inside. A few minutes later Jack heard them yelling. He closed his eyes and cupped his hand behind his ear. “I knew it,” he said. “Same old shit — blah, blah, blah. He's drunk and giving her hell, and in two shakes he'll be knocking her around.” Jack stood up and cradled his rifle in his arm, but his fingers shook and his heart was racing because it felt like everything was about to come to an end. All his years, and now this. “Come on, Blackie. I can’t take it any more," he said, and they ran back across the corn field, Jack with his gun, swearing that, goddamn it, this time he would save her.


The crows dropped back into the high branches of the cottonwood, their necks bent. Pay attention, one said. This is where it gets interesting. Jack bounded onto the porch with his gun, his dog right behind him already yapping. Now what? a crow said. Mayhem, chaos? and another one said, Shhh. I want to hear them go bananas. The crows dropped to the lower limbs so they could hear everyone shouting -- mother, father, Jack. Their voices were loud and sharp. Did you hear that? one crow said. The kid's going to shoot the old man! I told you he’s a killer. And it’s not just us! The shouting went on, and the crows fluttered nervously because they knew that something exciting was about to happen. And then it did. The gun fired, the mother choked and coughed and then wailed, and the crows hopped and fluttered because they knew what the crack of a gun meant. Son of a bitch, he did it, one said, and a minute later Jack burst through the screen door with his gun and his dog, flew off the porch, and ran across the corn field. I knew it would come to this, one crow said. Patricide in the first degree! And the rest of them laughed and damned him to hell.


Jack ran blindly, half crying, his mind everywhere but where he was. He heard the sharp crack of his rifle over and over, and then his mother yelling at him, calling him a killer, and then it was the shot again, his father collapsing, all of it coming back to him as he and his dog ran, as he cried and ran, not knowing where he was going, knowing only that he had to get away from what he had done. At the end of the corn field he stopped to look back. His house was there, just as always, the small ranch house with a tin roof, and the huge cottonwood was hanging over it the way it always had. That was his life, all his twelve years in that house, and now it was no longer his, and he kept thinking You goddamn killer, you goddamn killer, which is what his mother had said, Get out of my sight! and he knew he had to go. He took a minute to wipe his eyes, to spit, then to reload his gun. Already he could see fragments of his future, the blackness of it like startled birds. “Hurry, Blackie," he said. “They’ll be after us.” He turned his back to his life and pushed off through the woods — the walnut, the hackberry, the cottonwoods — his mongrel dog beside him bounding over the weeds.


High above him, skirting the bottoms of the clouds where it was so cold and damp that water beaded on their wings, the crows watched Jack run into the woods, and one said, Don’t let the door hit you in the ass, motherfucker. They laughed, then tucked their wings and swept and dove like swallows because he was finally gone.


A hundred miles, a thousand — he would run far enough that no one would have ever heard of Jack Smith — but when he tried to imagine that new place he saw nothing but emptiness, a world as gray and indistinct as the back side of the moon. Still, he ran, knowing only that everything behind him was ruined. And he had done it. Killer! A goddamn killer! All of it came back to him — his father's hands around her throat, her fingers scratching the backs of his hands, and his rifle aimed at his father's back. You worthless bitch! his father yelled in his drunken way. You goddamn worthless bitch! It came back to him so clear and sudden that he dropped to the ground and threw up something green and awful. He choked and spit and cried, and when he could speak he said, "What did I do? What did I do?" Blackie crawled into his lap. “My own dad? What the hell is the matter with me? Oh, man." Blackie was panting with his tongue out. "I could have just hit him," Jack said, "knocked him in the head, knocked him out. I could have done something else. Anything. I should have. I wish I could take it back." He spit into the grass and wiped his eyes. "But he was going to kill her -- I know he was -- you saw it, he was going to choke her to death. And I had to. But they’ll be hunting me down because I’m the one that done it.“ Jack spit, wiped his eyes, and caught his breath. Guilty. There was no shaking it. Guilty as sin, but he felt innocent, and it was those contradictions working on him that twisted his guts and made him throw up again.

When he could, they got up. They had been following a country road, but now climbed through a barbed wire fence and walked along the other side of the hedge row where they could hide if they had to. When they came to a stream they jumped it, then angled off through the woods, already thoroughly lost, already tired and thirsty. Jack was miserable and sick and half-crying. He spit and wiped his eyes so he could see, and they went on. "I'm not a crybaby," he said. "I just can't help it -- I ruined everything, and it's forever, and I just can't help it." He sat in the weeds with Blackie, scratched his dog's head and felt sorry for himself. He wiped his face with the tail of his shirt. “But I got to stop it,” he said. "I can't be crying all the time. And don't you be telling anybody."

They got a drink from the stream. The water was cold and clear enough, and Jack drank and washed his face. "You can go home if you want," he said. "Just go back the way we came. Mom will take care of you. I have to go hide the rest of my life, but you don't. Nobody would put a dog in prison.“ They sat beside the stream. "I'd never leave you, not for anything, but nobody wants to be around a killer, even if it wasn't what he wanted to do." He scratched Blackie's head. "I don't know," he said. "Maybe there's different kinds of killers. Maybe I’m not as bad as you think.“

They got up, and meandered against the stream up into the woods.

"If you stay with me, it's me and you forever," Jack said, and they went on. Jack knew he would never forget what he had done, and knew that his old life was gone — his mother, his father, his home, all the things that made it, the fields, the stream, the paths through the woods, even the goddamn crows, the finches, the turtles, the fish — everything gone but Blackie. He picked him up and carried him through the woods because he was so happy he had stayed. “It’s me and you,” he said. “You’re all I got, and I’m all you got. It’s just the two of us, and we’ll be together forever.” He put the dog down because it was hard to carry him through the woods with his rifle. “I’d carry you the whole way if I had to,” he said. “Maybe you could get on my back and put your paws around my neck.” He laughed, and they ran together down a wooded hill littered with outcroppings of sandstone, the hard, knobby roots of the trees, and fallen leaves. Jack thought he could do that forever, just run among the trees and rocks with his dog, in and out of the trees. A little sunlight even made its way through the leaves.


By dusk they had gone ten or twelve miles and were so hungry and thirsty they couldn’t walk anymore. They dropped into the weeds beside the hedge row. “Want me to carry you some more?” he said to his dog. “I will if you want. Soon as I'm rested.” Blackie lay on the grass, his tongue out. “You can eat some grass if you want,” Jack said. “I might try some, too.” Jack nibbled on a blade, and even as hungry as he was, it was not good and he spit it out. Then they got up and walked slowly and without energy until they came to a farmhouse set back from the road that had corn fields on either side and a fenced pasture behind. Cows were standing in the pasture, and chickens were pecking about by a coop in back. “What do you think?” Jack said. “Want to see if they got anything to eat?” They eased up to the porch. Jack propped his gun where it wouldn’t show, and knocked on the screen door. Ida Wilson, a heavy woman with a limp, answered. She was older than his mother, and had short black hair with streaks of gray. She leaned on a wooden cane. “Who are you?” she said, her voice high and startled. “Where in tarnation did you come from?”

“Way back there,” Jack said, and pointed beyond the trees to the horizon.

“Well, what’s your name? Who are you?”

“I can’t tell you that part. We just come up here to see if you had anything to eat.”

“Are you on the run? Is that it, some kind of criminal?”

“I can’t tell you that part, either.” Jack held his stomach. “But we’re really hungry.”

“Runaway? Lost? You got to tell me what’s going on.”

Jack bent over and held his stomach. “Please,” he said. “Bread and butter — anything.”

She looked over the fields. “Is it just you?” she said. “Anybody out there hiding in the weeds? I don’t want nobody coming up here and knocking me on the head.”

“No, it’s just us.”

She eyed him suspiciously, looked over the fields again, then said, “All right, but you wait right here on the porch. I’ll see if I’ve got something.”

At the far end of the corn field the crows were circling above the trees. Jack looked away because they made him think of his father, and he thought he might cry. Killer, he thought. A lousy goddamn killer. He banged his fist against his forehead.

Ida Wilson brought him a chicken sandwich and a glass of milk, and gave Blackie a bowl of water and a bone with some meat still on it. He lay in the dirt yard, gnawing on it with his eyes closed. Jack stuffed the sandwich into his mouth, and it was so good he tried to say, “Thank you,” but it came out a mumble. “Don’t talk with your mouth full,” she said, and poked his shoulder with her cane. “We don’t have much, but we got our manners.” Jack finished his sandwich and licked his fingers. "Any way I could get another one?" he said. "I can't remember the last time I ate, and that was the best sandwich I ever had.”

"If you can be polite. Say, 'Thank you, Mrs. Wilson.'"

"Thank you, Mrs. Wilson."

She went inside to make another sandwich.

"She better not hit me anymore with that goddamn cane,” Jack whispered. "I'll give her what-for. But don’t worry, I’m not going to shoot her. I'm never ever going to shoot anybody else. Not unless I have to. I mean, really have to." He put his hands to his face because it was coming back to him. I’m a killer, he thought. And I bet I’ll do it again.

Ida Wilson limped out onto the porch and gave him another sandwich, then sat in her metal rocker and lay her cane across her lap. "When you’re finished with that, I want to know who you are and what you’re running from,” she said. "I want to know what kind of boy I been feeding." Jack ate and drank milk, and thought about what he would tell her. When it was gone, he set his empty glass on the porch. “I don’t know if you want to hear it," he said. "It's pretty bad. It was my uncle. He beat me, he beat my poor dog, too.”

"For what?"

"For nothing. He made us work all day, picking weeds in his corn field, and he beat us if we missed one. He had a rubber hose, a stick, some brass knuckles, and some kind of thing I don't even know what was. But he beat us all the time for nothing. Right Blackie? So we run off, and now he's looking for us. If he catches us he's going to kill us."

“I never knew of a dog that could pick weeds. Sounds like some kind of fairy tale.”

“No, it’s real. But Blackie didn’t actually pick them — he’d sniff them out for me. He’d find a weed, and give a little yap. It was me that did the picking, and that’s no lie.”

“And you got no mom or dad, nobody to take care of you?”

“No because typhoid fever got them both. That’s why we had to go live with my uncle.”

She rocked a minute, the cane in her lap. “Where’s this uncle? If that’s the truth, the sheriff will take care of him. Any man that beats a child — ”

“You can’t tell nobody. He said he’d hunt us down and throw us in the well.”

She pointed her cane at him. “You can go to hell for lying,” she said.

“But it’s true! All of it. I never lie. You can feel the lumps on Blackie's head, and half these scratches are from him and his stick.” Jack showed her his scratched arms. Thin red lines crosshatched his forearms and the backs of his hands, and his hands and arms were smeared with dirt.

“Looks like bramble bushes,” she said.

“Maybe some of it, but mostly it was his stick that did it.”

“And now he’s after you?”

“He is, but he doesn’t know which way we went. That’s why you can’t tell the sheriff we’re here, and that’s why I can’t tell you my name.”

“You look like a Billy. That’s what I’d call you.”

“I’m not Billy.”

“Frank. That would be my second choice.”

“I’m not Frank. I’ll tell you if you promise not to tell.”

“There’s nobody to tell. You see anybody around here?”

Jack looked around, and there was nobody. He was trying to think of a name. “George Lincoln,” he finally said, thinking of the presidents.

“You don’t look like a George to me.”

“Well, I am.”

She rocked. The porch boards flexed and squawked as she rocked over them. “A boy and his dog on the run. I don’t know,” she said. “I just don’t know. And where do you think you’re going? Have you got people around here?”

“No, we’re just going. I figure a hundred miles will be enough.”

“That’ll take you a week, two weeks maybe. Are you going to sleep in the woods with the bears and wildcats, and the snakes slithering through the grass?” She shuddered at the thought of it. “You wouldn’t catch me out there after dark.”

Jack had his gun, so he could shoot a bear, a wildcat, or a snake. He could shoot anything because he never missed, but he wouldn’t be able to sleep, not with things creeping around the woods, and he didn’t think his twenty-two would kill a bear. And the woods were dense and dark and at night would be cold. He looked around the farm, the fields behind, the chicken coop with its fluttering of chickens, the well, her old pickup, and the barn. It was a big red barn with iron roosters on top — lightning rods. There were no cows in it and no horses, just stalls where they might have been. “Maybe we could sleep in that barn,” he said.

Ida Wilson rocked. “You’re not the kind of boy that would rob me, are you?”

“No, I’m not a robber. I never stole a goddamn thing.”

She hit his shoulder with her cane. “Don’t you ever take the Lord’s name in vain!” she said. “That’s the devil talking, and I won’t stand for it.” She glared at him.

“Sorry,” he said. “That’s the way my uncle talked. He made us talk like him.”

“Then he’s a heathen, and you sound like one, too.”

“I won’t do it no more,” Jack said.

She rocked a while and Jack pulled brambles from Blackie’s fur.

“You wouldn’t light no fires and burn my barn down, would you?”

“I got no way to start a fire.”

She rocked.

“It’s just tonight,” Jack said. “We’ll take off soon as the sun’s up.”

“People will think you’re a hobo — filthy, torn clothes,”

“Not much I can do about that.”

“You could at least take a bath so you look decent when you light out.”


Copyright 2021 by Philip Tate