The Echo of Neighborly Bones
Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor he couldn't seem to quit killing him. He killed him again whenever he felt unloved or blue or simply had empty hours facing him. The first time he killed the man, Jepperson, an opinionated foreigner from Minnesota, he kept to simple Ozark tradition and used a squirrel rifle, bullet to the heart, classic and effective, though there were spasms of the limbs and even a lunge of big old Jepperson's body that seemed like he was about to take a step, flee, but he died in stride and collapsed against a fence post. Boshell took the body to the woods on his deer scooter and piled heavy rocks on the man, trying to keep nature back from the flesh, the parts of nature that have teeth or beaks. For most of a week Boshell was content with killing his neighbor just once, then came a wet spattering Sunday, the dish went out and he couldn't see the ball game on TV, so he snuck away to the pile and cleared the rocks from the head and chest. Jepperson had died with a sort of sneer on his face, thick lips crooked to the side, his dead eyes yet looking down his nose in calm contempt. That look and Jepperson's frequent sharp comments had months ago prompted Boshell to put a sticker on his truck bumper that read, "I Don't Give a Damn HOW You Did It Up North!" Even dead, the man goaded a fella. The falling wet slicked his hair back from his greening face, and his lips seemed to move under the drops, flutter, like he had still another insult he was about to let fly. Boshell hunted a stout stick and thumped the corpse. Thumped the stick enough times to snuff a live man, thumped enough to feel better about the rain and the washed-out ball game, then went home to his wife, Evelyn.
She said, "Wherever'd you get off to?"
"Oh, you know. I just can't get to feelin' done with the son of a bitch."
"In all this rain?"
"I'm gonna have to move him. He's goin' high now the cold snap broke. Someplace further from the fire road."
"Well, his wife's got herself some company today over there, and they been sniffin' about, lookin' places." She pointed across the creek where there was a big metal barn, four penned horses, and a mess of guineas running loose, pecking and gabbling. Four people in raincoats and sagging hats stood near the horses, with their boots on the bottom fence rail and their elbows on the top. "Best wait 'til they leave."
Only two days later Boshell checked the can for morning coffee and found it empty, so he went out to kill the man again, kill himself awake without any joe to drink. Bird droppings had spotted the rocks over the man, and one of the hands had moved somehow so that a pinky stuck from between the rocks. The little bit of the pinky that showed had been chewed at, nibbled, torn. Boshell pulled the rocks away until Jepperson was open to the October sky. He went back to his truck for a hatchet, a beat-up hatchet with a dinged, uneven blade and a cracked handle. He stood over the corpse and said, "Say it. Go on and say it, why don't you?" Then he sank the hatchet into the chest area and stood back to admire the way the handle stood up straight from the wound. The handle was directly below Jepperson's nose, and his eyes appeared to find it to be kind of funny business, having a hatchet in his chest.
"Glad you like it."
Boshell left the blade in the man's chest, then dragged the corpse to his truck. He tossed a tarp over the raised handle and all, but knew he wouldn't likely run into anybody, not where he was going. He steered the truck downhill going west, onto a creek bed with shallow puddles but no flow, and eased south over the pale and reddish rocks, the truck bucking during the rougher patches. He turned uphill below the old home place, the land now overgrown by brambles and deserted by residents, and parked on the slope. One wall of a house with an askew window could be seen still standing back in the thicket. Boshell's people had lived on this dirt until the government annexed it for the National Forest in the 1950s, and lazy old time had slowly reclaimed the place for trees and weeds and possums. He came here often, to sit and wonder, and feel robbed of all these acres.
He shoved the corpse from the truck bed, and the hatchet fell loose when the body thumped to ground. Boshell set the blade back into the wound, then tamped it in snug with a boot stomp. The hatchet fell free twice more before he got Jepperson up to where his grandma's garden had been laid and she'd grown the tangiest okra he'd ever had and oddly shaped but sweet tomatoes you just couldn't find anymore. The corpse nodded when dragged and the head bent a bit to the side, as if he was taking an interest in this trip, noting the details, setting the picture in his mind.
Boshell said, "This all was ours, ours up until foreigners like you'n yours got here from up north with fancy notions'n bank money and improved everything for us." He looked on Jepperson, with his face yet smug in death, and remembered when the dead man said in that voice that came from way high in the nose, "If I come across one more eaten guinea, I'll shoot your dog." And Boshell had said, "That ain't the neighborly way, mister. If'n Bitsy was to rip a guinea or two, just tell us." And the dead man, so much younger and bigger and flush with money and newcomer attitudes, said, "I don't give two shits about being neighborly with you people. Have you not noticed that?"
Now Boshell nudged the corpse with a boot, put his toe to the chin, and shoved the head until the face was up again. He started to crouch, but the scent was too high, and he stood back a step to say, "They go for about a dollar fifty a bird, neighbor — still seem worth it?"
The old, original well was sided by short, stacked walls of stones. The well had gone dry long ago, in Grandpa's time, before the coughing killed him, and a slab rock the color of dirt had been slid over the gap so no playing child or adult drinking shine in the dark would wander over and fall into the hole, bust a leg or a neck. The hole was but eight feet deep, and there were a few shards of glass and earthenware scattered about the bottom where the spout had sealed shut after the water table dropped.
"Your new home, neighbor. Maybe I'll be back to tell you about this place. Family history."
Evelyn made his favorite dish that night. She'd thawed a couple of quail, split them and fried them in the black skillet, served them with sides of chowchow and bean salad. Boshell had whiskey, she had her daily glass of beer, and they watched the evening news on an East Coast channel the satellite dish pulled into their front room. The traffic reports made them laugh, shake their heads, and the weather was interesting to watch, what with the cold northern temperatures and early snowflakes swirling down between sun-thwarting buildings into gray canyons, but of no use. When a segment about lost dogs in Brooklyn came on he tried to turn the TV off, but Evelyn was bawling before he could find the button.
She ran outside and Boshell followed. She rushed past the ranks of firewood, the chopping block, a wheelless Nova that would never be fixed, and sagged against an oak tree lightning had split. Bitsy had crawled home hurt and collapsed beneath the split tree, gutshot, vomiting, looking up at Ev with baffled, resigned eyes, and it took two hours for her to bleed out and die with a last windy sound and a little flutter. Strands of silver hair waved across Evelyn's face, and her hands clenched onto her dress and squeezed the wad of cloth. The horses across the creek neighed in their pen, and the big house beyond was dark.
"Oh, Ev," he said. "We'll soon get you another."
"There wasn't never but the one Bitsy. Just the one."
Later, when the moon had settled, Boshell slid from bed and dressed. He fetched a big flashlight and went out back to the toolshed. He shoved cobwebs in the corner aside and searched among hoes, rakes, a busted scythe, until he came across his old three-tined frog gig. He tapped the ground with the gig as he walked, and started down the dry creek bed, splashing light over all those rocks, whistling like a child.
From The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell. Copyright 2011 by Daniel Woodrell. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.