Law of the Whippoorwill, fiction by Cecile Dixon

In the dim, neon truck stop light, I stud­ied Gerald’s face. His jaw was clenched tight as he said, "Pharyl, these things are com­pli­cat­ed. It's not like work­ing at fuck­ing McDonald’s,” Ger­ald rolled the words off his tongue giv­ing sound to each let­ter. “You can't just quit."

Look­ing out over the emp­ty park­ing lot, I thought a long minute before I replied. "I nev­er give nobody a time or a date. It was just for a while, until I could get my shit togeth­er. Get the fuckin tax­es paid on my land.” My mouth sud­den­ly filled with bile and I spat it out the side win­dow of the car onto the ground. “Some peo­ple are startin to poke around in my busi­ness. Ask­ing ques­tions. Truth is, I'm get­ting skit­tish." Odds on my walk­ing away were slim.

"You just lay low. If it was me I'd let you walk away, but the man” Ger­ald paused, I guess to give me time to con­jure up the mon­ster-man. “He won't be hap­py. He doesn't like to lose earn­ers. When the man isn't hap­py, peo­ple end up hurt, hurt bad." 

"Tell your boss to give me a time, a date or an amount,” I said. “ Ask him how much shit I have to move to buy my free­dom. I climbed out of Gerald’s car car­ry­ing a black duf­fel bag. The same rou­tine we'd done for almost a year. “I want out." 

I threw the bag into the seat beside me as I climbed into the cab of my truck. Instead of pulling onto the high­way I exit­ed on the ser­vice road at the back of the lot. Ger­ald had said to lay low. Didn’t he know I was lay­ing as low as I could? I hadn't been in town for over a month. I didn't have a life. Just mov­ing dope and try­ing to keep the Kudzu from over tak­ing the farm. 

I knew Grand­pa had been strapped for cash the last few years of his life. Just not how bad. When Grand­ma got the can­cer, she hadn't want­ed to go to the nurs­ing home and Grand­pa promised her she could die at home, in the house where she'd raised my mama and then me. Grand­pa kept his word. He'd hired nurs­es from town to come in every day to give her med­i­cine and bathe her body as the can­cer ate it up.

After Grand­ma passed, Grand­pa just give up. Still, he nev­er said a word to me about the hard times he was hav­ing, not a word about debt. Seemed like Grand­ma took all his will to live with her. After I laid him in the ground, between Mama and Grand­ma, I went ram­bling through a shoe box of papers, look­ing for his bur­ial insur­ance pol­i­cy. Then I run across the papers that said Grand­pa owed the bank pert-nigh ten thou­sand dol­lars. To top it off, there were three years of back tax­es. I couldn't raise enough tobac­co to make a dent in the debt. I thought I'd found an easy, quick mon­ey scheme when I met Ger­ald. Grand­pa had been right when he told me noth­ing that's easy is worth having. 

I saw Lon­nie Earl's sher­iff cruis­er before I got to it. He was parked on the old rock quar­ry road at the foot of the moun­tain. Cut­ting my head­lights I pulled in next to him.

"Good evenin', Sher­iff. You wait­ing on me or tak­ing a nap?" I asked.

"Pharyl, don't go to get­tin' smart-assed with me. I got some news for you, Feds has got the road blocked about four mile up." He nod­ded his head toward the wind­ing moun­tain road. "They're loaded for bear. I think they're plan­ning on bring­ing you off the hill tonight."

I shook a cig­a­rette from my pack and lit it. "I appre­ci­ate the infor­ma­tion, but I don't right­ly under­stand why you, of all peo­ple, are telling me."

"Two rea­sons. First, your grand­pa was a good friend to me. I know he raised you right. Sec­ond is, they ain't no love between me and those Fed boys. They come in here act­ing like we're all a bunch of hill­bil­lies that don't know shit. I just decid­ed that I'm gonna throw a few mon­key wrench­es in their path." Lon­nie Earl's chuck­le sound­ed like a don­key bray­ing. "What them city boys don't under­stand is that I could take you in, and might still, but they got no busi­ness inter­fer­ing with ours. They's them and they's us. We take care of our own.” Lon­nie Earl paused and rolled his chew around inside his mouth. “The bitch of it is that they real­ly don't give a shit bout you. You're just small pota­toes. They want names that you can give. Why don’t you make it easy on both of us and sur­ren­der to me right now?" 

I swal­lowed hard and thought, Lord, I wish I could just say Gerald’s name and have this mess over, but I real­ly didn't want to find out what Gerald's boss would do if I sicced the Feds on him. I shook my head not trust­ing that “no” would make it around the lump in my throat. 

Hell, you’re as mule-head­ed as your Grand­pap. Won’t take help when the hand is held out.” Lon­nie Earl start­ed the cruiser's motor and pulled out onto the road toward town, with­out turn­ing on his head­lights. I fol­lowed suit, with­out head­lights. Head­ing up the moun­tain instead. Toward trouble. 

I was born on this old hunch­backed Ken­tucky moun­tain. Spent all of my twen­ty ‑three years here, walked my first steps here and drank my first sip of water from a spring here. My grandpa's grand­pa set­tled this place with his broth­ers when they weren’t noth­ing much here except Injuns. There's a straight line run­ning across this moun­tain from me to Ire­land. I was the last one left, liv­ing on the land, and I didn't plan on being the Mur­phy that broke the line.

At the back­side of my grandpa's place, there's an old log road. If you didn't know it was there you'd nev­er be able to find it. Twen­ty years of sas­safras bush­es and kudzu have hid­den the open­ing, but I had walked it all my life, first hunt­ing with my grand­pa, and then hunt­ing alone, after he passed a year ago. The Feds thought they had my only route home blocked, but there was too much out­law hill-jack in my heart to ever get boxed in. They didn’t know bout the log road that con­nect­ed High­way Eighty-Nine to Mount Scratchum. Glanc­ing at my black bag co-pilot, I made a sharp left and head­ed up the brush-cov­ered log road. 

Limbs scraped against the win­dows of the truck and at times if it hadn't been for the ruts in in the road left by long ago log trucks, I wouldn't have known where I was. Grip­ping the wheel tight to keep my hands on it, I tried to steer the truck in the ruts, using the full moon as my only light. I had to get to the cave about a half-mile up the hill and stash the black bag before the Feds caught up with me. Get­ting caught with four kilos of coke wasn't going to happen.

The brush on the log road was get­ting thick­er, and some­how I had steered out of the ruts. Still run­ning with no lights I strained my eyes and I searched for some sign of the road. All of a sud­den, there was two giant oak trees smack-dab in front of me. No time to turn the truck away from the trees. I tried to maneu­ver it between them. Not enough space. I locked my elbows and gripped the wheel with all my strength. Met­al crunched as the truck came to a bone-jar­ring halt. The front quar­ter pan­els caved in with a loud metal­lic screech sound as the truck wedged between the trees. "Moth­er­fuckin son of a bitch." 

Jam­ming the gears into reverse I tried to back out. No luck. I shoved the gear, hard into first, jammed the gas ped­al. The truck rocked, but didn’t move. I con­tin­ued to jam the gears for­ward, then reverse, shov­ing the gas ped­al to the floor. Sweat burned my eye­balls. The engine roared, protest­ing my ill treat­ment. Black smoke boiled from the tailpipe. I couldn’t shake loose. If I wasn’t being fol­lowed I could get my chain­saw and whit­tle away at one of the trees, get loose. If they weren’t after me, I wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.

I flipped open the glove box and shoved my Glock 19 into the waist of my jeans. As I climbed out of the truck, I grabbed the duf­fel bag and con­tin­ued up the hill on foot. The going was slow­er, but my sense of direc­tion was stronger. From my van­tage point on the hill, I could see a group of faint lights mov­ing around on the hill­side below me. The Feds must be look­ing for me with flash­lights. "Stu­pid ass­holes." Don't they know how far light car­ries on this hill?

I left the log road and stum­bled through the under­growth to the mouth of the cave. Using my cig­a­rette lighter, I searched around the wet lime­stone wall look­ing for a ledge to stash the duf­fel bag. Final­ly find­ing a crevice in the rock. I shoved the bag in as far as it would go.

OK, step one com­plete. Now I just had to fig­ure out what step two was. I lit a cig­a­rette and leaned against the damp cave wall to smoke and think. Lon­nie Earl was right. They's us and they's them. The Feds didn't have any stake in this mess. To them every­thing was black and white, right or wrong. I had to get back to town and turn myself in to Lon­nie Earl. I crushed out the cig­a­rette with my boot. It was going to be a long walk to town.

As I walked out of he mouth of the cave, I heard a loud rustling in the leaves. Drop­ping to a crouch I scanned the woods, look­ing for the source of the sound. After the dark­ness of the cave, the moon­light seemed as bright as day. To my left I caught a brief glimpse of a man just as he raised a pis­tol in his right hand up and fired a round. It hit the rock above my head and a spray of rock and lead frag­ments ripped through my shirt and embed­ded into the skin of my shoul­der. I fum­bled with the pis­tol in my waist­band. Before I could free it the man fired off a sec­ond round. Sparks danced off the rock beside my head.

Final­ly free­ing the pis­tol from my jeans, I aimed and fired two rounds off quick­ly in the man's direc­tion. I guess my night vision or aim was a lit­tle bet­ter than his because he screamed as he crashed into the under­brush. I dived behind a big log and lis­tened. I could hear him breath­ing heav­i­ly. Each exhale was punc­tu­at­ed with a soft moan. He wasn't moving.

I called out, "Don't shoot. I'm com­ing out. If you shoot me, we'll both die here on this hill­side. It's a lose-lose sit­u­a­tion." As I began cau­tious­ly scoot­ing toward the end of the log, I paused, lis­tened, still just the ragged, moan­ing breath­ing. I half-stood and began inch­ing my way toward the sound. The toe of my boot con­nect­ed with some­thing hard in the for­est leaf bed. It was his weapon. I picked up the Sig and shoved it into my pock­et. Once again I strained my eyes, search­ing the under­brush. He was lay­ing about fif­teen feet away, tan­gled in leaves and grapevines. Even with just the moon for light, I could see blood splat­ter on the leaves and in the spot where his kneecap should have been was a big hole that spurt­ed blood in time with his heartbeat.

Keep­ing my pis­tol aimed at his head, I watched as he weak­ly fum­bled in his jack­et pock­et and pulled out a shield. I couldn’t make out the words, but I could see the let­ters DEA engraved on it. "You shoot-hap­py moth­er­fuck­er, you just want­ed me dead. I guess things didn't work out like you planned." 

I tried to hold the Glock steady as I pulled my belt free of its loops. I threw the belt onto his bel­ly. "Put this around your leg, pull it tight, and when I get to town, I'll send some­body for you." I watched as he strug­gled to stop the flow of blood with my belt. "Hang in there. Somebody'll come for you,” I repeat­ed, even though he knew I was lying. We both knew that he'd bleed out before I would get help to him. 

I turned and start­ed mak­ing my way back down the hill. I could hear the man grunt­ing as he strug­gled with the belt. I could no longer see the dim lights. They must have wound on around the hill. That would explain why the man's bud­dies hadn't come run­ning at the sound of gun­fire. The hill must have muf­fled the shots, just like it now muf­fled their lights. I would walk about fifty yards then pause, lis­ten­ing, for the sound of any­one in the brush. 

Occa­sion­al­ly when I'd stop I'd hear the rus­tle of small ani­mals in the leaves, then a Whip­poor­will began his lone­some cry far off in the deep trees. It trilled its sad cry, “Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, “the sound close, but just out of reach. A mem­o­ry flashed in my mind, my grand­pa and me coon hunt­ing, late at night, in almost this exact spot. My Grand­pa told me once that the Injuns said that the Whip­poor­will was the spir­it of the dead call­ing out to the liv­ing. Let­ting them know the dead was watch­ing over them.

I had come up on this hill tonight a dope mule, and I was walk­ing down a mur­der­er. I want­ed to howl at the dark sky, "I ain't no mur­der­er." It sure wasn't what my grand­pa want­ed when he left me this piece of dirt, along with all its debt and back tax­es. Until that bird began to sing, I thought Grand­pa meant for me to hold onto this land any way I could, but now I was begin­ning to under­stand that he want­ed me to not only sur­vive, but to thrive. He left me the land so I'd be ground­ed, to have some­thing to work for. The debt he couldn't help.

I turned around and head­ed back toward the cave, not lis­ten­ing for sound nor try­ing to be qui­et. As I stum­bled through the brush, I real­ized that I was more impor­tant to Grand­pa than a piece of dirt. Just own­ing a piece of land didn't mean noth­ing if you didn't have fam­i­ly around you. It didn't mean noth­ing if you had lost the part of your­self that was a human being. I pulled the two pis­tols out of my jeans and threw them hard as I could into the brush.

When I reached the DEA agent, he was pale and sweaty, but still breathing. 

"This is going to hurt, but I have to stop the bleed­ing,” I said as I pulled with all my might, cinch­ing the belt tight around his wound­ed leg. He cried out with pain, but the bleed­ing slowed to an ooze. I had to get him to help as quick as I could. Damn, if I hadn't got the truck stuck.…..If I hadn't jammed the truck into the trees, I wouldn't be here right now, try­ing to save the man I'd put a bul­let into. I was going to have to car­ry him off the hill. I'd car­ried gut­ted deer down before. I'd car­ry him in the same way, slung over my shoul­ders. If I could car­ry a deer, I could car­ry a man. 

Drop­ping to my knee I tugged his body into my arms. Sticky, thick blood oozed from under the belt and ran onto my hands. The Agent’s eyes were glazed, but he looked direct­ly at me just before I grunt­ed with every­thing in me and hoist­ed him onto my shoulders. 

He groaned weak­ly. A man, a dead-weight man, is a lot heav­ier than a gut­ted deer. The mus­cles in my legs quiv­ered as I strug­gled to rise to stand­ing. He groaned and I grunt­ed as I heaved myself to my feet. Brac­ing his injured leg against my chest, I tried to stop the stream of blood with my body. I stag­gered and stum­bled down the hill. The old log road would be eas­i­er walk­ing, we need­ed to get off the hill fast and the fastest route was straight down, through the underbrush.

With each step I stum­bled, my feet tan­gled in saw bri­ars. I cursed and prayed when I tripped over half-rot­ten tree limbs. "Please, God, don't let me be a mur­der­er." I wasn't pray­ing for the man's life. I was pray­ing for myself. With every blun­der­ing step, I repeat­ed my prayer. My right foot sunk into a deep hole and I crashed for­ward onto my face. As I fell, I dropped the man. He thud­ded to the ground and rolled for­ward about three feet with­out mak­ing a sound. I lay there, suck­ing air into my lungs around the leaves that now filled my mouth. With each breath I tast­ed the earthy-cop­per taste of the agent’s blood. My ankle throbbed. Stand­ing slow­ly I test­ed my weight on it. Painful, but not broken. 

I limped over to the agent and as I searched his neck with my fin­gers for signs of life he opened his eyes and in a weak voice whis­pered, "Thank you."

Now I prayed, "God, don't let this man die."

I once again hoist­ed my bur­den onto my shoul­ders and began strug­gling on down the hill. Just as the lights from the Feds' cars came into view, my boots became tan­gled in vines and leaves and I tripped, once again falling, dump­ing the agent into the tan­gle of kudzu vines.

The agents stand­ing by their parked cars grabbed their lights to see the cause of the noise, the dark­ness was pen­e­trat­ed by beams of light from their high-pow­ered flash­lights. Sud­den­ly the hill was lit up like a city street. I held my hands in front of my eyes to shield them from the blind­ing light as I strug­gled to my feet.

"Down on the ground! Get your fuck­ing hands behind your back! Down on the ground or we'll shoot!" Ten voic­es yelled at the same time. Then the dis­tinct clack­ing of a pump shot­gun being racked. Quick­ly, I dropped to the ground. I didn't want to hear the next sound. 

Before I could get my hands behind me, a boot­ed foot stomped into the mid­dle of my back, forc­ing all the air out of my lungs. I coughed and sput­tered, as hand­cuffs were clamped tight­ly onto my wrists. Prac­ticed hands pat­ted down both sides of my body and tugged my wal­let free of my back pocket.

"We got him! Boys, meet Pharyl Mur­phy,” said the smart-ass with my bill­fold. “In the flesh. He's not a ghost after all." 

Rough hands pulled me to my feet and as I was shoved on down the hill, I saw men gath­ered around the agent. He wasn't dead. They wouldn’t be mov­ing so fast just to haul a body off the hill. Thank the Lord, he wasn’t dead, at least not yet. With­out much cer­e­mo­ny, one of the agents read me my rights and threw me into the back of an unmarked patrol car. He leaned against the side of the car rest­ing his hand on his holster.

"Man, is that guy going to be ok?" I asked.

"Shut the fuck up,” the agent growled. 

I leaned back in the seat and tried to get a glimpse of the man in the unsteady flash­light beams on the hill. I could only see the move­ment of arms and legs. It wasn’t long before I heard the whine of sirens com­ing up the mountain.

When the ambu­lance pulled up to the base of the hill, I was sur­prised to see Lon­nie Earl park his cruis­er behind it. He fol­lowed the para­medics up into the brush, and it seemed like an awful long time passed before he fol­lowed the medics car­ry­ing the cot back down. As they quick­ly loaded the man into the back of the ambu­lance, I caught a par­tial look at his pale face. He appeared to moan as one of the ambu­lance boys stuck a nee­dle in his arm. He was still alive. I might be a shoot­er, but I weren’t no killer. As I leaned back in the seat I became aware of the hand­cuffs dig­ging into my wrists and the throb­bing in my ankle. He was alive, and so was I. 

"Can I have a word with your pris­on­er?" Lon­nie Earl asked the agent who was guard­ing me.

"Guess it won't hurt noth­ing. As long as I'm lis­ten­ing,” the agent replied.

"You hurt?" Lon­nie Earl asked as he stuck his head through the car's front window.

"I’m all right. Is that oth­er fel­low going to make it?"

"Looks like he lost a lot of blood,” Lon­nie Earl nod­ded toward my shirt, which was stiff with the agent's dry­ing blood. “And most of its on you." 

"I guess it’s all on me."

"Son, keep your mouth shut, and I’ll see you in the morn­ing. Nothing’s going to get set­tled on this hill tonight.” Lon­nie Earl stood, rapped the side of the car with his knuck­les and walked slow­ly back to his cruis­er. Some­where far up the hill­side the whip­poor­will wailed a sad song.


dixonCecile Dixon is a retired ED nurse, who has returned home, to her beloved Ken­tucky hills to pur­sue her writ­ing. She holds an MFA from Blue­grass Writ­ers Stu­dio and her
work has appeared in Trib­u­taries, The Dead Mule, Pine Moun­tain Sand and Grav­el and KY Her­sto­ry Anthologies.

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3 Responses to Law of the Whippoorwill, fiction by Cecile Dixon

  1. Candace Cole says:

    Very good! That sam­ple real­ly leaves me want­i­ng to read the rest of the story!

  2. Sherry Woolery says:


  3. Kris Curtis says:

    Very well writ­ten. Keeps you read­ing to find out what hap­pens next.

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