"Four and Twenty Blackbirds"
By Joshua Reynolds
About the author
LEAPT AND PLAYED in the red Carolina mud like mini Texas twisters, screeching
out gasping laughter and yelling nonsense nursery rhymes. On the
white columned porch of the Jackapo county rest home, Ed Grange and his
grandfather, Eli Hampton, sat in creaking wicker rocking chairs and watched
with the lazy lethargy a southern summer always brings out. Several
of the children joined grimy hands and began to sing in warbling falsetto
voices. “Fo’ an twenny blackbirds baked in a pie…” the words flowed across
the yard like spilt honey over kitchen tiles.
Hampton, old bones
creaking like tree branches in the wind, suddenly sat up straight with
a grunt. Grange sat up as well, alertly scanning his grandfather’s
features for some sign of pain or discomfort. “Damn. Been years
since Ah heard that ‘un. Brings back some bad memories sho’‘nuff.”
Hampton murmured in a voice rusty from drink.
“What was that granpa?”
Grange asked as he studied the older man.
“That thar nursery
rhyme. Reminds me o’ somethin’ what happened nigh on thirty years
ago. A murder…” Eli Hampton’s voice became almost a whisper
and his watery eyes went blank as he relived events from years ago…
Hampton, old bones creaking like tree branches in the wind, suddenly sat up straight with a grunt. Grange sat up as well, alertly scanning his grandfather’s features for some sign of pain or discomfort. “Damn. Been years since Ah heard that ‘un. Brings back some bad memories sho’‘nuff.” Hampton murmured in a voice rusty from drink.
“What was that granpa?” Grange asked as he studied the older man.
“That thar nursery rhyme. Reminds me o’ somethin’ what happened nigh on thirty years ago. A murder…” Eli Hampton’s voice became almost a whisper and his watery eyes went blank as he relived events from years ago…
Now at the time Ah was a-workin’ for the county newspaper, th’ Jackapo Times. So, of course, Ah’m on th’ scene a little while after Althea’d been found, tryin’ to take everybody’s statement an’ all as well as takin’ pictures. She looked so sad and pitiful a-layin’ there on the reservoir bank like that. Ah felt bad about takin’ her photo, but reminded myself that this here was big news. Leastways, back then it was. Now don’t be gettin’ me wrong. It ain’t like nobody got theyself’s hurt or killed back then, it’s jus’ that them things was all crimes a’ passion an’ such; nothin’ like this. This thing had been done outta pure rattlesnake mean, just fo’ the fun of it. Althea was a good woman from what Ah ‘member. She deserved better.
The sheriff at th’ time was John Slope. You ‘member me tellin’ you ‘bout Big John Slope? Well this here was his youngest boy, Little John. Anyway, Slope was under a whole pig pile of pressure from the community leaders to wrap things up quick like. Which he did. Slope was a lotta things, but a bad policeman weren’t one of ‘em. ‘Bout two, maybe three days after the corpse was found, so was it’s creator--Cole Fitch.
Cole Fitch was a bad man. He’d done hisself a tour in Vietnam and done come back mad dog mean an’ fightin’ shadows. When he come back he built hisself a little cabin out in the woods near the reservoir. Slope an’ one o’ his deputies went up there to question him, to see if he’d seen or heard somethin’ around ‘bout the time Althea’d been killed.
Well, Fitch musta figured that Slope suspected him or somethin’, ‘cause he burst outta the door wavin’ a big knife like a demon outta Hell. Slope was never one to mess around, so he hauled off an’ drew his pistol an shot Fitch in th’ shoulder. Course shootin’ a man like Fitch with a pistol is like shootin’ a elephant with a B.B. gun. He slammed into Slope like a truck and knocked him down, tryin’ to put that knife o’ his into the sheriff’s throat. The deputy pulled Fitch off a Slope just barely, and then Slope proceeded to pistol whip Fitch for all he was worth. That stunned him long enough for them to get him into the back of the police car.
Word got around pretty quick let me tell you. No sooner does Slope pull up to the county jail than a whole crowd a folks starts shoutin’ questions an’ the like. Well Slope hustled Fitch into a cell and went back outside to talk to everyone. Things was getting’ louder an more chaotic by the minute as Slope tried to answer everybody at once, when all of a sudden, everybody just done shut up. The reason for this was ol’ Doc Crow, who was amblin’ on up through that crowd like Moses through the Red Sea.
Now Doctor Crow weren’t no ‘real’ doctor you might say, leastways he didn’t have no fancy degrees or nothin’. He was a root doctor is what Ah mean. Crow could either cure or kill a man with a look my daddy used to say, an’ he was real good at whippin’ up potions an’ the like. Some folks thought he was almost as good as Doctor Buzzard over in Beaufort, or even better. Now that was sayin’ somethin’.
Well, Crow sauntered on through the crowd in his long legged way, an he didn’t stop ‘til he was on the jail steps right in front a’ Sheriff Slope. Then, he pulled off them blue tinted glasses o’ his an’ said in a voice like a rumble a’ thunder, “Ah heah ya’ll gots Cole Fitch up in that there jail, Sheriff, fo’ killin’ Althea Washington. Ah wants ta see him. Ah wants ta see th’ man what killed my child an hurt her soul so bad. Please take me to him.”
Now nobody in his right mind says no to a root doctor, but that’s just what Slope did. The Slope menfolk always did have big brass ones. About this time the crowd was all a-mutter, like a big hornets nest. See, everybody had thought that Crow didn’t have no children, an it surprised a whole passel a’ folks real bad that Althea was his.
When Slope told Crow no, the doctor surprised us even more by not blusterin’ or a-reachin’ for his hoodoo bag. He jus’ gave a little nod an’ walked on back through the crowd an’ away. Must a’ seemed odd to Slope jus’ like it did everybody else, cause he put three deputies to guardin’ Fitch then an’ there. Now about these things Ah’m a-gonna tell you now, Ah only know what Ah got told by a few other folks.
By the time night fell, most o’ th’ folks outside the jail had done gone home, but there was still a few curiosity seekers around. Inside th’ jail, Fitch was doin’ his level best to show them boys what was guardin’ him just how bad he could be. After he had finished explainin', in detail, just how he’d gone about cuttin’ up poor Althea, Fitch decided he was gon’ put them grisly details to song. Ah know at least one of the deputies musta considered puttin’ a bullet in him jus’ to shut him up.
Along ‘bout nine p.m., the deputies did evidently get fed up with Fitch, so one of ‘em--think it was Mrs. Brown’s boy Tom--went up to the cell an’ beats his nightstick ‘crosst the bars. That musta been just what Fitch was a-waitin’ fo’, cause he hauled off an’ yanked that boy’s arm right through them bars. An’ while he was at it he reached out an’ snagged his gun outta the holster.
Cole Fitch pulled that mean lookin’ revolver up outta th’ deputy’s holster and, Ah swear to Jesus, blew that boy’s head completely off. Just stuck the barrel up under his chin an’ pulled th’ trigger. Then, as them other two deputies done jumped up like scalded cats, Fitch calmly put a bullet in each o’ them, though he only killed one. The only boy still left testified that he couldn’t do nothin’ but watch while Fitch pulled the jail keys off’n the Brown boy’s corpse and opened his cell. Then he proceeded to open the gun cabinet in the front room and get himself another pistol and a shotgun to boot.
Fitch walked outta that jail and fired that shotgun into the crowd on th’ steps, an’ while they bolted, he stole himself one of th’ only police cars in town. He sped off into the night an’ towards Loogaroo swamp like swamp cat to it’s den.
About an hour later, Ah was sittin’ on th’ steps of th’ jail getting’ pictures of Sheriff Slope tryin’ to calm everybody down long enough to get th’ straight story an’ organize a posse all at once. Slope, in that big bull voice a’ his, was a-promisin’ to bring Fitch back in before dawn when, all sudden like, Doctor Crow appeared outta nowheres an’ said, “Ah’ll lend you mah aid sheriff. Just say th’ word an’ Ah’ll root him out real quick like.” Well, Slope sorta jumped, an allowed as how he didn’ think that would be too good an idea.
“Ah don’t think ah’d be wantin’ you to be practicin’ none of yer heathen ways on Fitch when we get him Crow. God knows what sorta savage thangs you’d do to him, on account a him killin’ your girl. Goan home Crow. Leave this thing to me, boy,” Slope growled.
“Nope. Don’ think Ah’ll be doin’ that, John Slope. Ah promised that girl’s momma Ah’d look after her, an’ Ah will. So you goan home, Sheriff, an let me get to work!” Crow replied in a voice as deep as the earth herself.
Ah remember that at ‘bout that time it began to pour down rain, hard and heavy, an’ overhead, th’ thunder rumbled an’ gunshot quick lightnin’ flashed in the night sky. One second Crow was there, th’ next he wasn’t, disappeared in between lightnin’ flashes. Slope cussed a good few minutes after that before he got his posse movin’ towards th’ swamp with me taggin’ along, hopin’ to get a few pictures.
The swamp smelled like green heat and dead things long rotted. The rain didn’t wash the stink away no matter how hard it pulsed down, it just made it worse. The dogs couldn’t find a damn thing in that green hell. Around about midnight, one of th’ posse, Leroy Floyd Ah think it was, stumbled over a piece o’ metal stickin’ up outta th’ mud. When we explored a lil’ bit more, it turned out that that piece o’ metal was the tip of the back fender of the police cruiser Fitch stole. He’d sunk it in a mud pit when he reached th’ swamp evidently. Slope had hisself another round a cussin’, but he didn’ get to finish this time, cause we heard gunshots off in th’ swamp. We knew it had to be Fitch, cause he was the only other fool out in th’ swamp at night with a gun besides us.
Slope leadin’ the way, we ‘bout near ran towards th’ sounds. We must a-been an awful sight covered in mud, hollerin’ an’ yelpin’ almost as loud as the dogs, lanterns held high.
Anyhow, some time later, Ah was never exactly sure, we reached where we thought th’ shots had come from. An’ there was Cole Fitch, hip deep in mud and rainwater, firin’ his pistols into the darkness all around him. The rain had plastered his pale hair to his skull, and his eyes blazed like pumpkins at Halloween time. His mouth was fixed in a bestial snarl as he blasted away at the shadows. “Come out an’ fight me, birdman! Ah ain’t skeered o’ yer haints an’ yer hoodoo! Come an’ get me!” Fitch roared, lion-like.
Only the squawking of birds answered his cries, for which Ah have always been grateful. Fitch was so wrapped up in shootin’ the local plant life to pieces, that he didn’ notice a one of us ‘til his ears caught the sounds of a dozen or so rifles bein’ cocked. Ah was scared for awhile that he’d try an’ shoot his way past us, but even mad dogs can be smart once in awhile. Slope an’ the rest of th’ posse fairly pounced on Fitch after he dropped his guns, an’ handcuffed him.
Ah ‘bout jumped outta mah shirt when Doctor Crow’s voice sounded from out in th’ darkness. “Ah tol’ you that Ah could help. Ya’ll wouldn’t never have found him if’n Ah hadn’t led ya’ll here.”
“You get outta here, Crow! Fitch belongs to th’ law now! Get yoself an’ yer tricks home!” Slope snarled. He wrapped one a his big arms around Fitch, almost protectively.
“Oh, Ah’ll go, Sheriff. For now. But ya’ll mark mah words, John Slope. Cole Fitch owes me a pound a flesh an’ bone for what he’s done, an’ Ah aim to collect what’s owed me , one way or t’other!” Crow’s voice rose to a shriek, like some huge bird’s then faded into silence.
The end of Cole Fitch came maybe two weeks later. Back then th’ court system was as ‘bout as bad as it is now. Jackapo county had only one judge, an’ when he took a notion to go fishin’ cases were backed up days at a time, maybe even weeks. An’ durin’ those days th’ death of a black woman an’ two volunteer deputies were on the short end of that list. It was lookin’ to be months afore Fitch went to trial, an’ in th’ meantime he sat in that jail cell like a king, getting’ fat off jail food.
Then, one day while Ah was talkin’ to Slope ‘bout somethin’ what seemed important then, a pie was delivered fo’ Fitch. A nice big blackberry pie, all hot and steamin’ fresh out somebody’s oven. Didn’t rightly see who delivered it, on account o’ my mouth a-waterin’ so. Slope took it back to Fitch himself an’ placed it where he could reach it. Fitch laughed like one a’ them hyenas you see on National Geographic, when he saw th’ pie. “Mebbe Ah should kill folks mo’ often, iffen Ah’s getting’ grub like this fo’ doin’ it!” He was laughin’ still as he pulled it through the bars .
Ah cain’t truly say what happened next. No one saw it. We’s was all in Slope’s office talkin’ ‘bout th’ trial when we heard Fitch screamin’…an’ the squawkin’ a’ birds. Well, sir, we all rushed to the door what led to th’ cells, but fo’ some reason it wouldn’t budge. Not for a few minutes anyway. By then it was too late. When we tumbled into the cellblock, the air was thick with blackbirds, which rushed out in a mad cacophony of blurred wings and screeching beaks as soon as the door opened. But we warn’t payin’ them no never mind.
Cole Fitch lay on his back on the floor of th’ cell, dead as a snake on a busy highway. His eyes were gone, pecked out like grapes off of a vine, and his chest looked like someone had taken a good size ice pick to it, all torn open, red and raw. His heart was gone, but in its place sat the pie, which looked like it had exploded.
An’ as we looked at Fitch’s ungodly remains, Ah thought Ah heard Doctor Crow’s voice from somewhere close by. He was singin’ in that hellishly deep voice a’ his… “Fo’ an’ twenty blackbirds baked in a pie…see how they fly…”
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