The Hunt Club
“I think it’s time you told us the story,” Jake said as he jumped up from his chair and started mopping at the front of his hunting jacket with his napkin. Louise was already headed in our direction with a towel and another red-checkered tablecloth. Dale grabbed his plate and lifted it out of the way, but he didn’t stop chewing. The Trail’s End had the best BBQ sandwiches in a hundred miles. They contained a big pile of pulled pork topped off with a slug of industrial grade BBQ sauce. Their coffee was passable, even though it wasn’t anything to write home about. Jake had righted the cup, but the coffee still dripped on the floor in front of his chair. Jake had worn the same coat for as long as I could remember. You couldn’t have made a good dog bed out of what was left of it, but you wouldn’t think so by the way he was carrying on like a prom queen at a homecoming dance.
I had accidentally hit Jake’s cup with the side of my hand when the door opened, and a slender redheaded girl came into the restaurant. It scared the bejabbers out of me. My hand was still shaking.
“I’d like to hear the story if you ain’t afraid to tell us,” Muriel said while the beginning of a smirk formed around the corners of his mouth.
I glanced around the table at the rest of the guys and saw Doug wink at Jake.
“You were in the Gulf War, and you wouldn’t be afraid of the devil if he materialized right beside this table,” Doug said to me, “so why are you scared of every redheaded girl that comes scooting through the door? You jumped like a gut shot deer. You ain’t the same man you were a year ago, Harley. You used to party with us all the time, and now we don’t see you anymore. I think it’s time you let it out. It’s eating you up.”
I started to deny his accusations, but I knew they had caught me out. The girl who just came in wouldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds. Her head would have been below my shoulders if I had been standing. But then I reminded myself that Heather wasn’t any taller. I ran the sleeve of my shirt across my forehead and it came away damp with sweat. I didn’t say anything until Louise finished tidying the table and headed back to the bar. I had never told the guys about our hunt club or what happened afterward. It wasn’t because I didn’t trust them. We shared some secrets that would have gotten a choirboy lynched by a bunch of nuns. The reason I hadn’t shared the story with them was because I was ashamed of being afraid. I didn’t like making a fool of myself in front of them, but this had caught me by surprise. Jake dropped back into his chair, and the whole bunch of them leaned toward me. What the heck, I though. Maybe it would help if I talked about it.
“Here’s what happened,” I said to them.
* * *
Thinking back on it, I can’t remember how the Hunt Club was started any more than a drunk can remember why he beat his wife after having one drink too many. We used the old farmhouse over on the Craven place for our headquarters. Ray Crawford owned it, and he was a member of the hunt club. Everything went without a hitch for a dozen years or more. We would get together for a ‘hunt’ a couple of times during the fall. The fact that we didn’t do it often made it a lot more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise. We would pick up girls from as far away as Maryville, and sometimes from across the state line in Mississippi. When we lined them up to start the hunt, they were always scared silly. I should have known something was wrong as soon as I saw the little redheaded girl. I don’t know how Blake latched on to her, but I found out she was from Tupelo. There were six of us on this particular hunt. It was Blake Arnold’s first time out, and he kept asking me when we were going to get started. I checked my watch a couple of times and looked at the angle of the sun which was just a handbreadth above the horizon. I finally decided it was time. We usually had four girls, but this time there were only three. One of them had long brown hair and a puffy mouth like some of the girls you saw in those ‘X’ rated movies. She had been crying, but she wasn’t crying now. She just stood and stared into the distance like some dumb farm animal hitched to a plow. Jimbo had the cattle prod, and he would probably have to use it to get this one started.
The second girl was tall and built like a basketball player. They had taken her away from a half-witted druggy riding a shovelhead hog. There was a package in his saddlebags full of white power. He swore he had never snorted cocaine in his life, but he had a set of nostrils on him like a windblown mustang.
Not a bad looking face on this girl. She would have been pretty if she hadn’t spent most of the day blubbering. She moved around and shifted her weight like a nervous thoroughbred at the start of a race. Good legs too, so I decided she was probably a runner. Running barefooted would slow her down some, but not enough to ruin the fun. I moseyed across to where the redheaded girl was waiting. She was the first girl we ever had who didn’t seem to be scared out of her wits. When I walked up to her, she turned her head in my direction and winked at me. I found myself looking into a level gaze that didn’t waver when I checked her out from head to toe.
“What’s your name?” I asked, and was surprised when she answered without any hesitation.
“My name is Heather Sweeny. I live at 3478 Rhinecrest Road, apartment 3-C, in Tupelo, Mississippi. What’s yours?”
“You can call me Harley,” I said.
“I like you, Harley. You remind me of a teddy bear I had when I was a kid. You’ve got the same beard.”
I looked back into her eyes for a few seconds, and then I laughed. “You’re a friendly little thing, considering the circumstances. You’re trying to tell me you’re not afraid?”
“Should I be?” She cocked one eyebrow at me as if she were amused.
“Well, most of the girls wet their pants by the time we’re ready to start. You know what this is all about, don’t you?”
“It’s pretty easy to figure out,” she said. “You and this bunch of misfits are going to give us a head start and then hunt us down.”
I could feel the grin climbing up my face. “And you don’t have a problem with that?”
“I have a problem with it, but I’m not afraid if that’s what you’re asking.”
“So you played touch football with your big brothers and you know what having a rough time is all about?” I said.
“Something like that. You’re going to untie our hands, aren’t you?” she said, and turned where I could see the electrical ties looped around her wrist.
“Well, I am a southern gentleman. I wouldn’t want to take unfair advantage of a lady.”
And then she laughed the kind of laugh I’d heard a few times at a Tunica casino when some sweet young thing walked off with some rube’s life savings.
“Turn around and I’ll cut you loose,” I said as I pulled my hunting knife from its scabbard. It was a custom-made Thomas Rucker with a 440C forged blade. It sliced through the plastic ties with no more than a flick of my wrist. She turned back around and rubbed at her arms.
“Do I get to borrow the knife?” she asked.
The casual way she said this made me realize this wasn’t an act. She really wasn’t afraid. I felt the faintest touch of uneasiness. I had seen the same cocksure attitude from a few poker players, and they usually walked off with the pot. What did she know that I didn’t? I hoped she wasn’t going to tell me she was the daughter of some Mafia gangster. She evidently knew what I was thinking because she spoke up without any hesitation.
“Let your buddies chase Molly and Helen. You can run me down by yourself. If you think you need help, you can team up with the goofy looking guy with his gut hanging over his belt.”
“A little cocky, aren’t you? What do you do for a living?”
“I’m the girl’s soccer coach at middle school,” she said and grinned back at me.
It was my turn to laugh. “Rah, team!” I said and pumped my fist in the air. Benton must have heard the exchange because he walked over and stopped in front of Heather and gave her a quick once-over.
She glanced down at the gun Benton was carrying. “That’s a Browning A5 Light 12 Gauge, 26 vent rib barrel,” she said. I saw Benton’s eyes widen as if he had been insulted.
“Smartass kid,” he said, shifting the match he was chewing to the other side of his mouth. “You’re mine, missy. I can’t wait to get started with you.”
She gave him an amused pout. “Me neither. Do you fire into the air when it’s time to start or do you slap your hand against your fat butt?”
I grabbed Benton by his coat collar when he shifted the gun in his hands. I knew he was going to punch her face with the gun butt, and I didn’t want her stunned. “Cool it,” I told him. “You can rough her up later.”
I had started to turn away when I heard her snort. I hadn’t heard a girl snort since I was in the third grade. I grabbed Benton by the collar again and hauled him around.
“You touch her and I’m going to make you bleed,” I said. He backed off but I could see that he was still steamed.
* * *
It was almost an hour later when I heard a single gunshot from the direction of the house. I was a good mile down the ridge close to a dry creek bed. We always numbered the girls and the single shot was to let the rest of us know someone had bagged girl number one. Number one was the girl with the puffy lips. At the beginning of the hunt, she had raced away like a racehorse at the Kentucky Derby. If someone had bagged her, it left the girl with the long legs and the little redhaired girl. Both of them had enough sense to pace themselves. It might be well into the night before we found both of them.
I cut down through a dry ravine and followed the redhead’s tracks. She had skipped from boulder to boulder, but still left a faint trail of crushed moss that was easy to follow. Benton had cut toward the left so he could circle the pond and come back to the creek. I knew it would make more sense to follow her rather than trying to outsmart her. I hadn’t walked more than a hundred yards when I heard two shots in rapid succession. I was kind of amazed, for I had expected the basketball player to have lasted longer. This left the redhead. I hoped we would find her before she tried to slog through the marsh. It was fairly shallow toward the north end, but it was full of cattails, frogs and snakes. I didn’t want to spend half the night picking leaches off her pink and white body.
I was at the bottom of the hill now, and I could see her trail where it cut through a stand of thick brush and sawbriers. I stopped and listened. I hoped I would be able to hear her walking through the dry leaves. If I hadn’t been listening so intently, I wouldn’t have heard the muffled moan that had to be human. I wondered if Benton had found her, but it didn’t seem likely. Maybe he stepped in a stump hole and turned his ankle. I picked up my pace and went up the hill, shining my light back and forth to stay on her trail.
I found Benton about a hundred yards from the top of the ridge. He was on his back with his eyes wide open. His throat had been cut from ear to ear. I stood there and looked down at him for a minute. My head came up when I heard a twig snap somewhere in the distance. I covered the flashlight with the palm of my hand and let a narrow beam of light escape between my fingers. I aimed it toward the ground and took a closer look at Benton. His shoes were missing and so was his knife and shotgun. Had someone bagged one of the girls earlier, or were the gunshots for another reason? And then the thought crossed my mind that someone else was out there, even though I knew that wasn’t likely. Grady was the game warden and he had made the locals wary of coming anywhere close to the place. It had to be the redheaded girl. Had Benton walked into some kind of trap she had set for him, or had he simply been too clumsy? During the war, I had seen a lot of experienced soldiers suddenly run out of luck after leading what appeared to be a charmed life. Maybe his luck had run out, but something told me there was more to the story. Had she been in the military at some time or the other? Benton was kind of dumb looking, but he wasn’t a fool, or at least he wasn’t when he was in the woods. She had evidently taken him by surprise. I stayed where I was and continued to listen. A squirrel started to chatter off in the distance. I flicked the light on again and looked for a trail leading away from the area. She had made no attempt to conceal it. Was that what had tripped Benton up?
I suddenly remembered my cell phone. I had turned it off before the hunt started. It wasn’t a good idea to have a phone ring when you were drawing close to your prey, especially when your prey was a redhaired girl that didn’t seem to be afraid of anything. I hit speed dial and heard Grady answer.
“We’ve got a problem,” I told him before he could say anything.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. His voice sounded a little shaky. “Benton called me a few minutes ago.”
“Well he won’t be calling you again,” I said. “I’m looking at him right now. He’s had his throat cut from ear to ear.”
“Figures,” he said. “I’m here with Leland and Abe. They got Leland first. Abe was in pretty bad shape when I found him. I figure this is the doings of that redhaired girl. The other two girls were scared too much to have planned it. I came upon the three of them while they were hogtieing Abe. I shot two of them, but I was too late. Abe bled out before I could do anything. You’d better look lively. Ain’t nobody left but me, you, and Benton. The red haired girl is out there somewhere.”
“It’s too late for the warning. Benton is already dead. She’s got his knife and gun.”
“What in blazes is she?” Grady demanded. “I had her in my sights, but she just melted away into the woods. She must be some kind of demon out of hell!”
“Looking at what she did to Benton, my guess would be Special Forces. His neck was cut right at the base of his throat. I’ve seen the same kind of wound before. You don’t learn how to use a blade in Sunday school.”
“I didn’t know they had women in Special Forces,” he said.
“You just look lively,” I told him, trying to keep the conversation going because I knew he was spooked.
I suddenly realized that Grady hadn’t answered. Heather had a lovely laugh, but for some reason it didn’t sound pretty when I heard it faintly over the phone.
“Oops,” she said and laughed again. I could hear her clearly this time. I knew she was holding Grady’s phone. I could also hear someone making a gagging sound and it didn’t take a genius to figure out it was Grady.
“Where are you, Harley?” she said into the phone.
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. I could still hear her breathing. It was the kind of long, even breaths an experienced elk hunter takes when he’s zeroing in on a big buck. I had spent a lot of time slipping through the hills in Afghanistan, but I had never been afraid. Jazzed up sometimes, but then I had never had a Taliban soldier on a phone talking to me while I tried to figure out where he was.
“Stay where you are,” she said. “I’ll come and get you.”
I jumped when I heard a noise like one of those haunted house sound effects you hear on Halloween. It took me a second to realize the sound was coming from me. I clamped my hand across my mouth and almost choked. I could taste blood and vomit in my mouth. I decided I had probably bitten my tongue. I took a step forward and a stone rattled underneath my boot.
“You’re in the dry creek bed, aren’t you,” she said.
“I’m on top of the ridge near the fence,” I whispered into the phone. I didn’t know why I was whispering. There wasn’t anyone else around. All of them were dead.
“You’re being a bad boy, Harley,” she whispered back at me.
“I’m not! Look, you can just leave. I’m not hunting for you anymore.”
“Harley, please don’t do that,” she said almost sadly. “It sounds like you’re begging and it makes me feel awful.”
“Listen, you just go toward the road and . . .”
“Call me Heather. I thought we were friends.”
“We are friends,” I said quickly when I felt my panic going up another notch.
* * *
I leaned forward and took another sip from my coffee cup. My throat was raw, and I felt as if I were running a fever just talking about this. I saw all of the guys look up and I realized someone had stopped beside my chair. An arm encircled my neck, and cool fingers caressed the side of my cheek. Then she reached past me and offered her hand to Jake.
“I’m Heather,” she said, taking his hand in hers and giving it a tight squeeze. “Harley and I got married last fall.”
She leaned down where her head was level with mine, and then her eyes swept across the guys seated around the table. “This is Harley’s birthday. I’m fixing him a special dinner tonight. You guys come over and celebrate with us.
Jake knocked his coffee over again, but this time he didn’t seem to be worried about his coat. “I promised the wife I’d be home before dark,” he said as he shoved his chair back. The rest of the guys were already on their feet, not bothering to put their chairs back under the table. They went toward the door like a herd of stampeding horses. Heather sat down on my lap and kissed me. Her lips were soft and hot and demanding. It made me shiver.
-- END --
If you liked this story, you might like Innocent and Gone In a Minute. You can find both novels on my website at: http://www.joeprentiswebsite.com