FOOTPRINT OF A GHOST

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Part 1: THE BOY Chapter 1

The boy stood in a sizable patch of Johnson grass that had been mostly trampled down, and watched as his father and uncle shoveled dirt out of a hole in the ground that had been intended for a cedar fence-post but had expanded considerable when one of them tossed out a bone that the boy’s uncle figured was most likely that of a human.

“Why would you even think that?” the boy’s father asked looking down at the thing- which was sort of unremarkable as far as old bones go. About seventeen inches in length and a little more than an inch in diameter, it was possibly a human femur but just as likely from a bovine or canine or white-tailed deer. Crusted in sort of dark coffee and ochre colored dirt, it curved in the middle a bit and was jagged on each end. One end actually looked like it might possibly have been a ball and joint socket once, the way it flared out.

The question was academic really; the boy’s father knew... why.

He was a fair skinned lad with full, rosy cheeks and blue eyes though his skin had been tanned by the sun, sort of like a gingerbread boy but not quite so brown. He wore his hair buzzed by the small town’s barber’s shears, close to the skin... but not by choice. He wanted his hair long enough to slick back with Brylcreem or Vitalis and then part on one side like some of the other boys he had seen at the school he was attending. But his father said ‘no’ to that for some reason, though the boy’s father wore his hair like that.

He had been sort of helping the two men re-string an old rusted barbed wire fence that prevented the handful of cattle and two horses his uncle and aunt owned from wandering out to far into the mesquite and creosote brush where they would eat the pokeweed and occasional larkspurs which usually made them sick- when they found the bone. A few of the existing fence posts had either rotted out or been broken off at the ground. It was not the kind of work the boy liked. He liked feeding the chickens or gathering eggs from their nests, some of them still warm, or putting corn cobs and bits of table scraps and whatnot in the pigs’ trough or sometimes riding into town in the pickup to the feed store get more feed for the farm animals. But digging holes and replacing fence posts was work that made him sweat so the dirt would stick to his face and in the corners of his eyes and in the crooks of his arms and between his fingers.

“Maybe we should call the sheriff...” the boy’s father said. He was almost six feet tall, and of sturdy build- not too thin but not too muscular. He had worked for the telephone company as a lineman until he began to develop idiosyncratic behavior. Once, he thought he’d overheard snatches of a conversation traveling through the telephone line he was repairing even though he knew that was not scientifically possible. His hair was a medium brown and he wore large black, plastic rimmed glasses and had on a blue, button up shirt with the sleeves cut out.

“No... no!” the boy’s uncle said. He was a shorter man and married to the boy’s aunt, the sister of his mother. He had hard, hairy arms that were on full display because of the sweaty, dirt stained, wife beater type undershirt that he wore.

The boy was sort of intermittently listening to the constant hum of the katydids that were everywhere this time of year and the dull thud that the metal edge of the shovel made as it was stabbed into the ground, and some kind of bird calling in the distance- when his uncle unearthed yet another bone that had been hidden in the dark, loamy, occult soil for... who knows how long: a shorter bone that looked more complete and like maybe a hand belonged on one end of it or a foot. A strand of disintegrated, corroded cloth adhered to it somehow that kind of looked like maybe clotted spider web or a tendril of molded vegetable matter.

“God forbid...” his uncle said as he used the back of his hand to wipe sweat and grit off his forehead, “...but if these are the bones of Juke Jackson... the last thing we want, or I want anyway... is to get the Sheriff involved.”

The boy had heard the name Juke Jackson... Isaiah Juke Jackson to be exact, although he did not really understand the story about him. His father was the one who’d told him. He was only in the second grade after all, eight years old. He’d heard mention of “the birds and the bees” before and he had seen his aunt and uncle’s bull get on top of the cow and his thing come out from under him like some kind of thick, pink snake and fumble around at the cows backside, but he had no actual comprehension, as yet, what sex was. He especially didn’t understand the dire consequences that were associated with certain types of sexual activity.

“They were wife swapping...” the boy’s daddy had said to him once in a private, almost secretive moment.

He didn’t know what that meant exactly. It seemed like it wasn’t a good thing. He’d ‘swapped’ marbles at school occasionally, on the playground, during recess. The boys were advised not to do it because sometimes scuffles broke out when one boy wasn’t happy with a trade. The same with food sometimes, in the lunchroom, a couple of kids might trade sandwiches or pieces of fruit and then one wouldn’t be satisfied with the swap and want their food back but the other kid wouldn’t agree and a quarrel would start and a teacher would have to settle it.

The boy had determined that “wife swapping” must be something like that- a reasonable assumption for a kid about eight. And he was pretty smart after all- by most accounts.

He had developed the ability to speak coherently at a fairly early age and would frequently astonish adults with his vocabulary. But even more unusual, was the fact that he didn’t really speak much for a kid who did well in reading and writing and was known to have a respectable command of the language. He was just sort of quiet.

And he was also haunted by frequent nightmares and premonitions... though he had not figured out exactly how to explain that... the premonition part. He sort of knew what they were but now how to describe them.

“Your uncle’s grandfather and this man named Juke Jackson got to swapping wives. But then your uncle’s grandfather wanted it to stop but Juke didn’t. Next time he caught him with his wife, your uncle’s granddaddy put a twenty-two caliber pistol up to Juke’s right temple and pulled the trigger and killed him on the spot.”

The boy’s eyes widened at that. He knew exactly what killing was. He’d seen his daddy kill the neighbor’s dog when he caught it in their chicken coop- shot it dead with an old double barrel, twelve gauge shotgun they had loaded with buckshot. The dog had let out a yelp and flown backward and part of its guts fell out and it had laid on the ground, in the dirt, and cried for minute or two before his father reloaded and silenced the animal.

The boy had thought about such a thing happening to his own dog, Hector, a little Chihuahua he had and slept with on account of his asthma. But since his was a house-dog and never got near the chicken coop anyway and was probably too small to kill a chicken, except maybe a baby chicken... the boy didn’t picture it too very seriously... his father blowing his Chihuahua to Kingdom Come.

Still though, Hector was a pretty feisty little ankle biter and the boy’s father did have some strong feelings about the special chickens he raised for contests and stuff... so maybe.

On the other hand however, the boy’s mother and father had gone to a lot of trouble to find Hector and paid a lot of money for him- surely his father would be discouraged by that fact from blasting his guts out if he became a bloody fanged chicken killer and wouldn’t stop.

Most dogs won’t stop killing chickens, once they start: that is what the boy had heard, anyway. That’s what people said.

The boy figured that must be the way it was with wife swapping.

“And they say that your uncle’s granddaddy hung Juke Jackson’s dead naked body up over the top wire of an old barbed wire fence, like Jesus on the cross, and let him rot for a while and the birds peck out his eyes and the foxes and raccoons eat his balls and dick, before he finally came back to take him down... only to discover... that Juke’s critter gnawed, rotted corpse was gone.”

“Gone?!” the boy said.

“Yep,” the boy’s father said. “But that’s bullshit- stuff that people who don’t have anything better to do, make up. Your uncle’s great granddaddy buried him somewhere on the family land. His body was never found... and then of course the family land was cursed... more bullshit.”And it was the family land in fact, the same land, where the two men and the boy stood; where they had just dug a hole intended for a cedar fencepost but uncovered human remains: land that had been defamed by rumor- poisoned perhaps by lust... and covetousness... jealousy anyway and... cursed by murder. There was definitely something hanging over it.

“Shit, shit, shit! Goddamnit and fuck!” the boy’s uncle said as he removed what was left of a human skull. The lower jaw was missing, chewed away by the decades in the earth and absconded with by the worms. The forehead and part of the back of the skull was still intact. There was a large, irregular hole in the right temple that looked possibly that it might have been purposefully inflicted. But it was also possible that it was caused by the mischief of nature.

“Goddmanit! Shit! Fuck!” the boy’s uncle screamed again.

His uncle’s great granddaddy, PT “Hack” Henderson, the first of the family to come down from the remote regions of the Appalachians, in good Hillbilly tradition, was known to have kept an active moonshine still and sell illegal whisky during the Prohibition years and even after. It was actually how he and Isaiah Juke Jackson, also a moonshiner and bootlegger, had come to know one another- distilling and brewing. Juke was a long time local and more established in the neighborhood but Hack had a bigger still and better whiskey... so instead of becoming rivals, the two became partners: distilling and brewing together on Henderson’s land, in the Henderson barn... until of course they got to fornicating with one another’s wives and Juke couldn’t stop and got himself murdered.

Juke had preferred to age his whisky longer in wooden barrels and had a big old Rottweiler looking mongrel dog to watch over the still. PT “Hack” Henderson on the other hand, stored his up in more traditional Mason fruit jars. And that was about the only difference in their illegal whiskey making.

The boy’s daddy and uncle unearthed a full skeleton that day, or what was left of it anyway. There were a couple of rusted, dirt clogged brass buttons in the grave and the remnants of an old work boot- the sole mostly- and something resembling a flap of mushy leather with a few metal grommets still in it, where a shoelace might have been. And a lead bullet, as luck would have it: they did find a small, corroded, oblong piece of lead that was surely a twenty-two caliber slug.

“Shit, shit, shit!” the boy’s uncle, Truman “Tru” Henderson shouted. He had calmed down a fraction but not too much.

Tru was a man who had carried on the family tradition: i.e. the making of moonshine and brewing of beer. The quantity of booze that he manufactured was probably not great enough to land him in serious legal jeopardy, though he was known to sell his wares around the county to a few who had a taste for it, and it was still illegal after all. He did not want the scrutiny that would be brought to bear upon himself and his family if it were released into the community that a much rumored, ancient murder was finally proven: the corpus delicti, in fact, discovered on Henderson land ascertaining that it was, sure enough, the long suspected Henderson who had been the frequently whispered perpetrator of said slaughter.

“No...” Tru had said, “Gonna let sleeping dogs lie!”literally, through clenched teeth.

And so it was decided then by the two men, mostly by Tru, that all the bones from that fencepost hole would be removed and beaten into fine particles with sledge hammers and then burned. He, like most other folks in that rural part of Texas in those days had their own “burn pits” or “burn barrels” where they incinerated their own garbage.

The boy watched as his daddy and uncle pounded the entire kit and caboodle of dirty old, fractured and fragmented bones into a sort of a powdery, brackish colored paste, the consistency of corn meal maybe, mixed with flour maybe and marrow. He had even wanted to help but his daddy had insisted that he have no hand it. And then afterward, his uncle would collect the obliterated osseous matter in a five gallon bucket used to slop the hogs and carry it to the burn barrel and dump it with a bunch of household garbage and pour gasoline over it all and strike and flip a red headed wooden kitchen match at it.

It was not far from the house- the burn barrel. The boy could see it from the window of the bedroom that he slept in. And neither was it that far from the clandestine grave where the bones had lain bypassed for all those squelched years. The boy could not see the hole in the ground where they’d uncovered the splintered skeleton... though it was not far... it was obscured by an old Live Oak tree and some other wild South Texas scrub brush.

To witness the powdered bones comingled with garbage combust, and then flames leap out the top of the burn barrel... gave the boy an odd feeling... a feeling that he did not understand at that moment but would soon... without much waiting. It was a spectacle that later in life he would liken it to a voodoo fire ritual.

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