It was the surprisingly loud and unexpected explosion, that accompanied the shattering of my rear windshield, that gave me the first indications that I might not be entirely welcome back in these hills. The glass fragments, of the rear safety glass window, erupted into the interior of the vehicle, in a hail of crystal menace. It was the surprise of the attack, more than actual fear, that had startled me. I had just barely noticed, in the rear-view mirror, the ugly twin barrels of an old shotgun peering from the side window of the battered pick up behind me, when the explosion occurred.
Only the good reflexes of an old athlete, and the remembered lessons from a security driving course at Quantico, saved me from veering over the edge of the mountain road and into the yawning and final embrace of a frighteningly precipitous ravine. I slammed on the brakes, turned into the skid and when the vehicle straightened itself, hit the accelerator. The aging Chevrolet surged forward with all of the pent-up velocity that the supped-up, V-8 engine could deliver. God Bless the agency mechanics that serviced her! I roared up the narrow and winding incline, until the adrenaline rush began to ebb. The rear-view mirror was free of pursuers and the quiet calm of the hill country returned, as if nothing had happened. Shakily, I piloted the vehicle into a small, off-road area, turned off the ignition and took stock of the last few minutes. As always during events like this, time ran in slow motion. I could see, in my mind's eye, the evil looking shotgun as it barked fire and lead, the window glass imploding, like splintered crystal. I would relive that scene many times in the nights to come.
" That was a close one,” I thought as I breathed deeply of the pine scented air. Several of the spent buckshot pellets lay on the dash, radiating the kind of inert menace that only metal projectiles, aimed at you personally, emitted. "Who the hell was that?” I wondered aloud.
It took me a few minutes to clean the glass fragments from the seat. Several deep breaths, of the brisk mountain air, composed me. I would contact the local authorities, in short order, and see what could be done about finding my assailants. I think I would recognize that pick up pretty easily. There couldn't be too many battered, 1949 Ford pick-ups, with a missing left front fender, driving around. Even up in these parts, it must be an oddity.
I got back in the car and continued on up the narrow dirt lane. I was looking for a small side road. Our informant had said that it would be marked by the remains of an old brick well house. Down that road, lay the Brennerman place. We were told that a pretty good sized illegal still that brewed a considerable quantity of bootleg alcohol.
There it was, just up ahead on the right. I turned into the road gingerly and continued on until it ended about a quarter mile into the woods. I didn't see any signs of a house or still, just the leafy quiet of a forest glen. On the other side of the clearing, a small opening led onto a path that looked like it would take me to the top of the hill. What the hell, I had come this far. In for a penny, in for a pound. I made my way up the path.
As I broke free of the forest, I saw that a weather-beaten, ramshackle barn commanded the hilltop. A worn footpath wove its' way circuitously through the brambles and withered stubble of a worn-out land. The path emerged from the gorse, to the left of the barn, just opposite what had served as a house in better days. Three of the four front windows were broken, as if missing teeth in a jagged smile. Tiles and lumber lay strewn about a yard that had once been bordered by a picket fence and smartly trimmed hedge. The front door lay ajar, its' upper hinge torn away from the frame. Inside, the house was thick with the dust and grime that accompanies long periods of disuse. The fireplace, in the parlor, had been formidable. It was framed by a massive oaken mantle piece. Above it, a large bare spot showed where a portrait had rested for many years. It was probably some founding ancestor who had scowled down on the successive generations who worked the place. A short staircase led to a second-floor hallway. Three rooms, presumably sleeping quarters, branched off the upper hall. A trap door in the ceiling, of the corner room, promised a loft or attic of some sort.
The quick inspection of the premises confirmed my original opinion that the place had been abandoned for many years. The Parlor looked like the most suitable place to bed down. Hopefully, the flue in the fireplace had been open when it rusted in place.
It had been a long day. At five A.M., I had left my home office in Charleston, West Virginia, in the damp of a rising day. From there, I drove south along U.S. # 77 and then west on Rte. # 119. Three hours later, I now found myself in the upper reaches of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After the run in with those rascals on the road, I had discovered a blown rear tire, as I parked in the clearing. The empty trunk cheerfully announced that the aging Chevrolet, that I had checked out of the motor pool, had no spare tire. Murphy's Law, I guess.
Ever since I agreed to take this assignment, as a favor to the Washington Office, I had run into bad luck. Chasing moonshiners was a job for TV Shows, not portly and aging Treasury Agents. And now, I was stranded in God knows what area of the hill country, in Appalachia.
At least, I had had the presence of mind to pack my camping gear and some supplies this morning. It could have been worse. I figured I would hike out to the highway and look for help, first thing in the morning. Clearing the accumulated rubbish, from the ancient fireplace, proved to be quite a chore. I kindled a small fire and opened some canned beef stew. A thermos of stale coffee capped off this elegant repast.
Stifling a yawn, I re-read my case notes and suspect profiles by the flickering firelight. Some of these old boys had been up here brewing white lightning for generations. They could rest easy for one more day though, before I waded in with my warrants and broke up their still.
I had forgotten how hard a floor is when you are trying to sleep on it. It doesn't fluff up for nothing. After a time, the day's fatigue claimed me and I drifted off to a fitful sleep. Sometime deep in the night, I stirred. It was that odd hour when the eyes are still heavy and everything is in shadows. The fire had receded to glowing coals and the damp of night was in the air.
A flicker of movement attracted my peripheral vision. I tensed and rolled to the left. There, standing over me, was a bearded man with a raised pitchfork, whose eyes looked like they were straight from hell. It was reflex training that saved me. I rolled right and away, just as the tines of the fork punctured the floor in an evenly spaced pattern that would have skewered my heart lungs and brain. I scrambled to my feet, heart racing and glands pumping pure adrenaline. Only the soft rush of wind disturbed the silence. A flash of white cloth and a flurry of movement, ascending the stairs, caught my eye. " Hey " I shouted, with the hoarseness of surprise, " Stop where you are, U. S. Treasury." By the time I fumbled for my .38 service revolver and a flashlight, the room was still. Slowly, I walked towards the stairs. The hairs on the back of my neck were as stiff as bristle. "Come down, I'm armed,” I shouted. The silence mocked me. In a fit of pique, I fired a warning shot into the landing wall and waited. The silence was deafening. "Damn it,” I thought, "now I will have to go up and get him."
The first two rooms were empty. The last room's door was slightly ajar. In a shooter's crouch, I approached and hollered through the door. "U.S. Treasury, for the last time, I am ordering you to surrender! " The silence was getting louder. It was unnerving. The hall door collapsed under the onslaught of a good kick. I entered the room tense and ready to repel an attack. It was empty. There was only one door left, a closet in the corner, just beneath the trap door to the attic. I approached the closet cautiously, slightly unnerved with the continued silence. A last warning proved equally useless. I approached the closet and placed my hand on the door knob. I didn't see or feel the trap door open above me.
Two wrinkled arms descended from the trap door, with a razor-sharp scythe. They swung the instrument with the practiced motion of someone long accustomed to mowing wheat and barley. "Swish,” "Thunk" were the sounds. The Agents' body reached the door, its' hand on the knob, as though hesitating. The severed head, with the astonished look of genuine surprise, rolled into the corner. The body collapsed in a spurting heap of arterial blood, that was fast covering the dirty floor. The trap door closed slowly.
Many days later, two local hunters discovered the camping gear in the parlor. Puzzled by the protruding pitchfork, they searched the house until they came upon the severed head, with the genuine look of surprise frozen on it, in a grim rictus. " Lord 'a mercy,” one murmured. The other turned and vomited. Later, after the local police had been summoned, a thorough search was conducted, but the body was never found.
The Sheriff and his deputy sat dejectedly in the front seat of the patrol car. The unsolved murder of a federal agent was bad enough, but it had to happen on the first day of hunting season. By the time they had finished filling out reports and conducting investigations, the best few days of the season would be over. Nobody had respect for anything anymore. " Let’s pack this in and go back to the office,” said the Sheriff. "We ain't gonna find nothin’ in the dark."
As they drove resignedly down the dirt road, the younger deputy remarked casually on the condition of the adjacent cornfield. "No wonder those birds eat all the corn," he scoffed.
"Look at that stupid scarecrow." "Hell, the least they could've done was make it look realistic."
"Yeah, well some of these old farm boys aren't too bright,” drawled the Sheriff in lazy contempt.
In the field, one of the crows perched on a shiny object in the area of the scarecrow's breast. Inscribed on it was the legend " Special Agent United States Treasury Department."
Joseph Xavier Martin