Buy my new novel now, The Angels of Valley Junction Ebook available everywhere
Buy my new novel now, The Angels of Valley Junction Ebook available everywhere
Mid-day on Friday found Lou Gianni was on his way home to St. Louis, from somewhere in east Texas. He had just finished a job, which involved tracking down a police informant, a witness to a crime that was to testify in an upcoming trial in St. Louis. The cops assumed the poor man would be safe far away from Missouri, staying with a distant cousin he had met only once before. However, Big Lou was good at finding witnesses, snitches and people that owed him money or that his boss needed to find. He had a few friends on the police force that had trouble making ends meet. Trading hard to get information for money was Big Lou’s way of helping support his local law enforcement.
There were many tools that the huge Italian employed to do his job. Each situation was different and called for different tools. Sometimes, most times, Lou had to hurt people. Sometimes he had to hurt people very bad and still other times he had to hurt people very, very badly. A few times in his career he left his victims feeling no pain at all, just a silent, pitiful corpse who had crossed the wrong person. The latter was to be the chosen outcome of this trip.
Unfortunately, this particular job did not go as Big Lou had planned or as Mr. Tortilo had instructed. The current trial, one of nearly a dozen his boss had gone through successfully so far, was a very serious matter. Big Lou knew he was not to leave behind a breathing witness, those were his instructions, but for the first time in his stellar career he had messed up. Still, though he left the client alive, he was positive that the little man understood the dangers of taking the witness stand.
Most of the time his employer allowed Lou to make the important decision of how badly he needed to hurt his client. His boss had every confidence in Lou’s ability and instincts. Not everyone could judge the sincerity of a man whose arm was bent the wrong way and broken in two places. Lou could. There was something in a painful moan that Lou was able to discern as honesty and trust. It was a rare gift, but Big Lou Gianni was a rare man.
Still, he knew Vince Tortilo was going to be ‘one very pissed off wop’, at least until the little weasel didn’t show up to testify and the case was dismissed. Then, Lou hoped things would be back to normal. It was a difficult task driving all the way from St. Louis to East Texas and finding the little worm. But, as always, Lou found him and hurt him. Hurt him very badly but didn’t kill him. Big Lou Gianni was slipping.
Lou could have finished the job correctly, but there were extenuating circumstances this time. He knew what the issue was; Lou felt a little pang of a mobster’s most grave enemy - pity. Not that he had those feelings often; he had forgotten those emotions during childhood in the slums of Chicago, where he was born at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties. No, Big Lou had only a deeply buried sliver of a conscious, no fear, a huge ego and few regrets. Feeling he had still accomplished his mission without killing the snitch, he had no regrets on this day either.
This brilliant, sunny, spring morning, Lou was in fact, very happy the job was over and anxious to get back to the big city. On Highway 65, when he was in Southern Missouri, Lou started having trouble with the car over-heating. It would get hot, and then the needle would retreat down to normal, only to rise again a few minutes later. Lou, not being a car guy, didn’t know what the mechanical issue was, but he knew he would be stranded soon if he didn’t get professional help for his blue 1953 Ford Crestline Victoria. When he came to the sign that said Valley Junction with an arrow pointing left, down Cliff Canyon Road, he took it though he wasn’t sure exactly what he saw.
The narrow, scenic road meandered down the mountain a few miles with one hairpin curve after another, revealing snippets of the breath-taking valley below. It slowly exposed its hidden glory, a few feet at a time, until on the sharpest curve on top of Mathew’s Ridge the panoramic view of the entire three-valley intersection was illuminated in its colorful springtime splendor. Stands of cedar and pine dominated both the mountainsides and the valleys. They remain green and vibrant year-round, where as the hardwood trees mixed among them are left sad, naked and embarrassed throughout the winter months. The elms, oaks and sugar maples are looked down upon by their coniferous neighbors during the colder months for their skeletal appearance. But this April day they arrogantly showed off their bulging buds in anticipation of a beautiful transformation.
This time of year the dogwood trees were the first to explode into life. The large white blossoms covered the trees appendages in proud fashion, a couple weeks ahead of their hardwood brethren. As you looked through the forest from the winding road you saw dozens of bright white ghosts wandering amongst the lime colored cedars and pines.
As one started down Cliff Canyon Road the White River appeared from the left, between two cedar covered mountains and wandered into the little town of Valley Junction and then back out again, searching for and finding another set of mountains to hide behind a few miles away.
It should be noted that folks from Colorado would take a quick glance at the Ozark Mountains in Missouri and sneer pathetically at their size. Compared to the Rockies or many other mountain ranges, they were no more than hills or foothills that lead to real mountains. And even though the folks that live in the Ozarks realize that they can’t compare to the Rockies in size, they would fight you just the same for the right to call them mountains. It was as if you said something bad about their mother, they would feel insulted. In fact, you can probably get by with one or two mild references to their mother’s reputation or quantity of teeth and only receive a mean glare. But one comment about how the Ozark Mountains are small and puny and lookout, you’re getting an Ozark ass kickin!
When it came to beauty and appearance, the Ozark’s compete with any mountain range, anywhere on earth. And the path to Valley Junction was especially awe-inspiring. Men had built this road to Valley Junction, but God was the project manager. He wanted you to know when you entered this scenically inspirational area, what He was capable of doing. Gazing upon the dramatic grandeur below inspired folks to take stock of their lives and repent. Many souls were saved on this ridge, as you were witness to a sight that only God could have created. The Ozarks were His art gallery and He displayed a masterpiece everywhere you looked.
Most visitors, especially first timers, stopped on Mathews Ridge to smile at the town below and sign their new contract with the Almighty. But Big Lou barely looked up from the temperature gauge, and when he did he could hardly find the road through the cloud of steam escaping from the hood. He didn’t notice the dazzling assortment of trees in the valley or the meandering sapphire, gleaming White River and he sure didn’t notice the young man on the side of the road, painting the tantalizing scene below. The teenager was well off the road, a few feet from a severe drop off, paint brush in hand with a nearly completed work of genius propped on an easel, when Lou’s iron horse came within a foot of real disaster.
The gust of air from the car blew the canvas off its stand and over the edge, fluttering into the top of a cedar tree below, spooking a surprised turkey buzzard from his perch. The boy could do nothing but shake his head impudently.
All of this was camouflaged by heavy steam and loud cursing as the mobster focused on the heat gauge, using all his mechanical know how by threatening the needle to retreat to normal, or else. The motor began to knock louder and louder as he descended into the valley and by the time he rolled up to Toughy’s Garage in Valley Junction, the car just gave up with a final puff of steam.
“Damn’d piece uh shit!” Lou rapped the innocent steering wheel with his massive, meaty fist.
Old Toughy was eating a white bass sandwich in a wooden chair leaning back against the gas stations outside wall. He watched the disabled Ford limp into the station. The steam was so thick he couldn’t see the door open and Lou get out. As if in slow motion a giant figure emerged through the gray cloud and walked toward him. Toughy nearly choked on his sandwich.
The giant’s shoulders were as wide as his car and he towered over the gas pump as he strode by it. By far, this Italian was the biggest human he had ever seen. He had a huge, square shaped head to go with his enormous body and his face was covered with a five O’clock shadow that was four hours early.
“Hey Junior? You a mechanic?” he growled. Toughy tried to swallow his mouthful of fish as fast as he could. He wondered if the man was blind because he hadn’t been called junior in sixty years. Toughy was seventy-five and looked ninety, yet he acted half his age. Heavy cracks and crevices hung on his tiny face and all over his five-foot wiry frame. Thick white hair covered his head with matching caterpillars over his eyes and a long droopy mustache flopped over his lip.
“I guess you could call me that. Closest thing to a mechanic in these parts anyway,” Toughy answered. “You’re not from around here are ya?”
“Uh…definitely not! Where the hell is, ‘around here’ anyway?”
“You’re in Valley Junction son. Didn’t you see the sign on 65 or the one on Mathew’s Ridge?”
“No I didn’t…well maybe…could barely see the damned road with all the smoke and steam and shit coming outta my car.” Lou grumbled angrily. “Can you fix it?”
“Didn’t see it? Well ya got to be an igit to miss it.”
“Excuse me Pops?” Big Lou flared with indignation, but his tiny friend seemed unaware of an insult or Lou’s anger.
“Well, I’ll take a look-see…no promises. I ain’t real familiar with these newer models. What’s your name stranger?” Toughy asked.
“Lou…Lou Gianni, but my friends and…well everyone, calls me Big Lou!”
Toughy crinkled his face at the gargantuan and nodded.
Toughy grinned a big yellow toothed grin. “I bet they do! You are bout tree sized, ain’t ya? My name’s Toughy, pleased to meetcha.” Toughy stuck out his hand and Lou’s massive meat hook surrounded it like Indians circling a pioneer wagon. Lou squeezed the old man’s hand tight, the way he always did to establish his alpha male status. But Toughy’s aged appendage took all Lou had and then gave back a little more. Lou was astonished that such a frail looking senior could put the squeeze on him.
“Toughy eh? How da hell did ya get that name.” Lou questioned as he released his fierce grip, his hand stinging.
“Ah shoot, back when I was a young-un I sorta had a temper. Got me into a lot of trouble…and out of a lot of trouble too!” Lou snickered under his breath, but his hand wasn’t snickering at all. Unless you can call a dull throbbing pain, snickering?
The old man lifted the smoldering hood with a greasy, red, shop rag and looked over the situation. He tried to diagnose the problem as Lou hovered about asking annoying questions. “How soon can you have this thing running old timer? You ever worked on one of these bastards before? Damnation…it’s only a couple years old; it shouldn’t have problems, should it? What the hell time is it?” He was like an annoying three-hundred-fifty pound, unswatable mosquito.
Toughy wiped his hands on a clean spot on his dirty faded jeans and finally suggested the anxious driver go across the street to The Barn and have a fish sandwich and a beer and he would come get him when he figured out the problem. “What’s…the barn?” Lou asked.
Toughy pointed across the street to the mammoth building and pushed Lou in the back to get him started. The tiny shove propelled Lou forward the first few steps. Back in St. Louis, no one dared to touch Lou like that, but the disgruntled mobster felt awkward mentioning that fact to his new friend. He was significantly impressed at the launching power the scrawny, old fart demonstrated and since he was working on his car, Lou let it slide.
The Barn stood out physically on the town triangle in Valley Junction. (There was not enough commercial business to support a town square). It was a huge structure painted deep red and trimmed in white; it was quite a sight to the newcomer. But The Barn was much more than a tavern; it was a meeting place for important events, from cooking contests and political rallies to funerals and bear wrestling. It shared a special connection with the two area churches, through mutual clientele and joint festivities. This was especially true in the spring; Saturday morning there would be a beautiful church wedding and Saturday night, a party at The Barn, sponsored by the bride’s parents.
The wedding parties at The Barn were just as important as the weddings in the church. The majority of couples that got married in Valley Junction met their spouse at a wedding party at The Barn or at least became ‘close’ at such an event. It was a spectacular place for town-bonding and the building itself was full of ghosts and stories.
It had originally been a large livery stable built in the mid-eighteen hundreds. One old timer claimed it was where the Pony Express started, but after a little research it turned out the story was bogus and the old man suffered from hardening of the arteries, a common malady in the Ozarks. It was refurbished during prohibition as a not-so-secret club that made its own hooch and has served booze ever since. In the winter and during the week, half of the massive building is closed off with two giant twenty-foot-high doors. But, during warm weather, when there are dances to be held and contest to be judged, the doors are opened wide and it can hold several hundred people.
There have been two hangings from the high, dusty beams in The Barn; one a suicide and one a lynching - both tragic. The first was in 1888, when a supposed horse thief named Bucky Riley got caught in the hills after stealing a mare from the livery stable. Bucky was a very wealthy man who was on business in Little Rock when he received a telegram reporting that his pregnant wife had taken ill at home in Kansas City and was on her deathbed. He rode his horse all day and all night, until it finally gave out and died near Valley Junction.
It was just before daylight when an exhausted Bucky ran into town and broke into the livery stable. He saddled a horse, then nailed two, $100 bills to the inside of the big wooden door for payment, more than twice its actual value. Shortly after he rode out sixteen-year-old Joshua Johnson walked by the door on his way fishing.
The teenager had been having terrible, brutal fights with his father and Joshua was ready to strike out on his own into the world. In his mind he had rehearsed it a hundred times. He would run away to St. Louis or Kansas City and get a high paying job and buy a magnificent house with servants. Then, he would write his family and invite his mother to come live with him in the lap of luxury, but Dad wasn’t invited. Then his dad would be sorry for the way he had treated him and beg him to come home.
As Joshua walked by The Barn, the wind caught the door and blew it open right in front of him, and there it was; his get out of town money. His stake in the New World handed to him by the all mighty Himself. He called into the building, “Hello? - Anyone here?” A horse whinnied in response. Joshua furiously ripped the bills off the nail and ran as fast as he could out of town and along the banks of the White River.
He made it about ten miles up the river before he ran into three desperate criminals who had robbed a bank in Joplin, Missouri and were camping out on the river.
The boy tried to escape and fearing he was going to turn them in, the wicked trio caught him in cold, knee-deep water and drowned him in the White River. They dumped poor Joshua in a shallow grave, never even checking his pockets. So the two bills along with Joshua’s new life and old life were buried in the shadow of Mount Baldy.
It was customary to bring the culprit back to the spot of the crime to serve justice. Back then your punishment was swift and speedy and if you were lucky and the sheriff found you first, you might get a trial. Bucky wasn’t lucky. He tried to tell them he had left money for the animal nailed to the door, but when the owner and employees of the livery stable caught him that afternoon as he stopped to water the horse in a stream, they laughed and snarled vengefully and wouldn’t listen. Within hours he was dancing at the end of a rope in The Barn. Bucky’s wife and unborn child died that night, so as catastrophic as the whole event was, at least they were together.
The other hanging came in 1952, when Judge McCain, the former owner of The Barn, did himself in, after being notified that his son was killed in the Korean War. His loving wife had just died of a stroke two weeks before and it was all just too much. He had retired from the bench in Chicago at age sixty and was hoping to live out his last years in the peace and quiet of the Ozarks he had come to love.
The night he found out about his son he closed The Barn down early, telling his friends he just needed some time alone. Though he rarely drank, the judge methodically emptied a full bottle of Jack Daniels, glass by mournful glass. As the last swallow went down he slammed the glass on the bar with a whack! It sounded just like the boom of his trusty old gavel. He sentenced himself and carried out the deed immediately. They found him the next morning. Max, who owns The Barn now, keeps a photo of him behind the bar. They all miss him.
An hour later Toughy walked across the dirt road to The Barn and found Lou surrounded by an entourage of admirers, all drinking Lou-bought-beers and listening to stories about life in the big city of St. Louis. The gruff gigantic stranger had become best friends with the regulars, especially Max, since Lou was paying the tab for the joint.
Big Lou was easy to spot, not only due to his size, but his sharply pressed double breasted black suit, white shirt and striped, red tie, stuck out amongst the Ozarker’s casual and rugged attire. Toughy was about to tell Lou the bad news when Lou’s eye locked on a photo on display behind the bar. “You know that guy?” Lou exclaimed, pointing at a photo of Judge McCain.
“Well, ya. That’s Judge McCain. He owned The Barn before me,” Max explained.
“Holeee shit…You’re kiddin me? He owned dis joint? I knew the judge when I lived back in Chicago, years ago,” Lou said. “He gave me a year in the joint. Tell ya the truth, I was happy. I was expecting a lot longer stretch than that.” The mobster smiled and shook his head with disbelief. “Well; I’ll kiss a fat woman’s ass! Small world ain‘t it. Where the hell is the old man?”
“He’s dead. Been dead a couple years,” Toughy interjected. “Retired from the bench and moved here from Chicago, bought The Barn and then...well...it’s a long story.”
Lou sighed sympathetically, “Gone huh? Well, we had our differences, but he was fair. I’ll give him that.” Lou raised his Schlitz beer bottle high and proclaimed, “To the Judge!”
“To the Judge!” The crowd agreed, and they all toasted the judge and downed their beers.
After he had guzzled his nectar, Lou turned to Toughy and inquired about the car. He took the news hard. It was the water pump. Not a terminal disease, but a water pump had to be ordered from Kansas City and wouldn’t arrive until next Monday morning on the bus. “Monday? That‘s three days! I can’t wait till Monday. I got things to do back in St. Louis; I gotta go...now!” Lou raged.
Toughy just smiled his old relaxed, worry-free smile. There was nothing to be done, plain and simple. Hollering like a banshee wouldn’t get the part to Valley Junction any sooner, but Lou hollered anyway.
Finally Max pulled Lou to the side and whispered into his ear. “Lou…I wouldn’t get Toughy riled up if I was you. Trust me, just let it be.” Max warned.
Big Lou pulled away and gave Max a look like he was out of his mind. He looked up and down Toughy’s shriveled frame and then back at Max with an unconcerned shrug.
Just as Lou was about to address the water pump dilemma with Toughy once again, the front door swung open wide and Harvey ran in, shouting and panting. “Hey, you’ll never guess what I found over on Oakmont Ridge!”
“What’d ya find?” someone shouted. Harvey was exhausted and he rambled to the bar and signaled for a beer as he caught his breath. The gang circled Harvey at the bar, “What was it? What’d did ya find Harvey?” Little Ike asked.
Max cracked the Hamm’s beer can with his church key and Harvey quickly surrounded the triangle opening with his lips. He took a big swallow, lowered his can and paused dramatically. He stared into space as if traumatized by the horrible sight he had just witnessed. Lou and the regulars, about a dozen in all, pressed in on all sides. Finally, Clarence stepped up though the crowd. Clarence was the biggest man in Valley Junction before Big Lou showed up. He was 6 foot, four inches, weighed two-hundred-seventy pounds and was a very proud WWII vet. The big hillbilly had little to no patience for liars and bullshitters which meant living in Valley Junction kept him in a permanent state of high agitation. He commanded attention and got it…always.
“Harvey, tell us. What in blazes did you see?” Clarence pushed.
Harvey breathed out and scanned the faces, making squinty eye contact with each one of his buddies and over dramatically announced, “A monkey.”
No one said a word. They took it in, and then they took it back out. “A monkey?” Clarence questioned. “What do ya mean a monkey?”
Harvey was disappointed that they didn’t ooh or ah. “What do ya mean, what do I mean a monkey? A damn monkey!”
“Ah holeee shit …you damn hillbillies and your moonshine.” Lou snickered.
“Like a big gorilla or something?” Toughy questioned.
“No, just a regular old monkey. A monkey...he had fingers and hands and fur, bout three foot high...a monkey.” he shrugged and took another swig of his beer. Clarence was getting steamed at Harvey for what he perceived to be a smart aleck attitude.
“How much you been drinking today Harve?” You gotta be drunk. There ain’t no monkeys in Missouri. It’s impossible.”
“Clarence, I ain’t had a drop. I know what I seen and I seen a monkey!” he defended himself. Clarence waved him off and took a seat a few stools down from the bunch. The rest of the guys were drilling for more information.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a squirrel or maybe a possum?” asked Butch as he sat next to Harvey.
“No it was a lot bigger. Black fur, no tale though.” said Harvey.
“You mean like on the Tarzan movies? Like uh, what’s Tarzan’ monkey’s name? It’s uh...” Lou searched his mind.
“Cheetah” Clarence interrupted!
“Ya, Cheetah, that’s it. He looked just like Cheetah.” Harvey squealed.
“That’s a chimp.” said Little Ike, the town liar. “Cheetah’s a...uh...what do ya call...chimpanzee. I saw one in Africa once, when I was on a Safari.”
“Shut the hell up Ike. You never been to Africa.” Clarence barked.
“What?” Little Ike demanded.
“You never went to...”
“Hey!” Harvey interrupted. “If you don’t believe me then I’ll just go get proof.”
An instant hush fell over the room, like the sacred silence that filled the air after Pastor Wilkins let fly a string of curse words, good ones too, after hitting his thumb with the hammer at McGee’s barn raising one year. What proof could Harvey get? He bowed his chest out so big the buttons threatened to pop. Of course it was the already strained buttons around his beer gut, but it was a bold and manly gesture just the same.
“I’m gonna go shoot that monkey and bring him back. Then you’ll see.” Well, that was just the thing to say all right. Everyone looked at each other, eyes gleaming, wheels spinning. “Max, can I use your twelve gauge, the one behind the bar please?”
“No you may not.” Max answered. “Last time you used it ya didn’t even clean it and the barrel was full of mud and some kind or white frosting or something. What the hell was that anyway?”
A quick flash of red surged through Harvey‘s face as the gang scratched their heads in wonder. Harve regained control, “Never mind. I’ll just run by the house and get my twenty-two.”
“Got my shotgun in the truck, I’ll follow ya.” said Little Ike.
“Me too said Butch. “I wouldn’t mind shootin’ a monkey at all.”
As the same thought coursed through all the guys’ machismo drenched brains, the idea hit Max. “Boys, the one who kills that monkey and brings him back to the bar gets free beer the rest of the year.” And that was how it started. Max figured he could have the chimp stuffed and put him behind the bar in a ferocious pose and maybe folks would come from all around to see the thing and drink beer. It would be a huge tourist attraction with a daring tale of a dangerous hunting excursion, with a ‘kill or be killed’ climax to bolster The Barn as a must-see vacation destination point. Of course he formulated the plan in less than thirty seconds, but it seemed like it had promise.
With the pledge of free beer as their reward the bar emptied like it was on fire. Some jumped in the cabs of trucks, others in the backs.
“C’mon Lou, lets get to my truck.” Toughy ordered.
“What the hell for?” Lou questioned.
“I reckon we’re going on a monkey hunt…first one I ever been on. How bout you?”
“What about my car?” Lou whined as he ran across the dry and dusty dirt road trying to keep up with Toughy‘s pace. The old man sprang like a bobcat, deftly into the seat behind the steering wheel and yelled through the open passenger window.
“I told ya Lou, can’t do a thing till Monday. Now are ya getting in or not?” Toughy demanded an answer. Lou shrugged pathetically like a spoiled eight-year-old as he jumped in the truck and slammed the squeaky door.
“Son of a bitch! No one‘s gonna believe this shit back home…hunting damn monkeys in the middle of nowhere…this is crazy.”
Within thirty minutes every one was parked at the bottom of Oakmont Ridge on Turkey Creek, waiting for their leader and only witness to the whereabouts of the ferocious monkey, Harvey. The number of original monkey hunters had grown substantially. Instead of the original dozen, the hunters now numbered close to thirty.
Big Lou looked out of place on many fronts. He took his black suit jacket and tie off and left them in Toughy’s truck. He secretly stripped off his shoulder holster and his Smith and Wesson 38 special revolver with the jacket and folded it inside the coat, unseen. It was the police special that all the cops used in St. Louis. In fact, it used to belong to a St. Louis cop. His finely pressed trousers, stark white shirt and suspenders pegged him for a slicker. And his huge frame towered over the posse, like Godzilla over a Japanese village.
As a few of the guys stopped to pick up their firearms and ammo at home, they told neighbors about the dangerous adventure they were embarking on. Neal Barker told his cousin that Harvey had been attacked by some type of ape and barely made it to The Barn in one piece. Neal’s cousin Raeff joined the anti-ape militia and brought his old Ruger forty-five pistol, a huge cannon, only accurate at very close range. He also brought his brother’s bayonet, smuggled home from WWII, just in case the situation turned into hand-to-hand. Raeff envisioned the hunt as an opportunity to repair his reputation in Valley Junction. He was denied entry into the army due to a combination of flat feet and scoliosis. The Valley was big on patriotism and war vets, and even though they appeared understanding towards those who didn’t serve, Raeff knew there was talk behind his warped back.
But then again it wasn’t just veterans who were held in higher regard, but in fact anyone who had left the Valley for a significant time and returned again. It was as if they thought you might have possibly gained some secret knowledge of life you may be inclined to share with friends. Even if you just went away for a week to St. Louis, Kansas City or to a lesser extent, Little Rock, you were temporarily held in high regard, until they realized that you were the same old you.
Not going to serve his country with his friends had always been a sore spot with Raeff. But maybe, just maybe if he bagged this wild ferocious ape, the cold stares and gossip would stop. They would see him walk down the street and say, there goes Raeff Barker, the man who saved Valley Junction from that insane, furry monster - The hero who killed the vicious, uncontrollable ape despite his debilitating curvature of the spine and sore feet.
And now the gang nervously rolled homemade cigs and stuffed their cheeks full of Red Man chewing tobacco.” What are we waiting for?” Lou said as he nudged Toughy in the ribs.
“For him.” Toughy pointed in the distance. Down the hill rumbled Harvey’s green, beat-up, step-side truck, sliding to a halt on the loose brown gravel road, behind the others. He got out and slammed the creaky door shut and walked around to the back to let the tailgate down. Boomer, his big black and tan coonhound leapt from the truck with skill and grace. “Waiting for Boomer.” Toughy grinned.
The hunters gasped at the sight and began to whisper about Boomer as he trotted behind his master. Boomer was the greatest coon-hunting dog the Ozarks has ever known, a true legend among dogs, men and coons. Out in the woods every coon knew his scent and trembled with fear each winter night as they sniffed the cold air in hopes to find Boomer was not about. And it was said that many a masked creature was found dead on the ground, the victim of a frightful heart attack or pure shock, after hearing Boomer’s trademark low and terrifying bellow and realizing escape was impossible.
Harvey refused to hunt him this past winter; preferring he save his energy for a final grand year at stud, assuming at age thirteen, it would probably be his last. The sight of the well-respected hound gave comfort to soldiers who stood at attention as Harvey and Boomer strutted past the ranks. All except for Clarence, who was the only dissenter in the wild bunch. There was no way he was going to believe there was a monkey swinging from trees in the Ozarks. He had more respect for Boomer than Harvey, as they approached triumphantly.
“You ready Clarence?” Harvey asked.
“Harve, if there is a monkey in there, I’ll give you fifty bucks and personally buy your beer at The Barn the rest of the year.” Clarence answered. This bold statement brought on the oohs and ahs from the group that Harvey had yearned for back at the bar.
“Hey…I’ll take some of that action!” Lou interjected merrily. “Put me down for a hundred!”
Harvey puffed up as big as his wiry frame would allow and simply nodded his approval to Clarence and Lou. He quickly got down to business and began shouting orders and pointing directions to his troops. Three this way, three that, two along the creek, two on top of the ridge, five spread out across the middle.
He looked at Raeff, fondling the forty-five on his hip and the bayonet in his belt. Seeing a kindred desperation in his eyes he ordered, “Raeff, you and Clarence go with me Lou, Toughy and Boomer.”
This secretly infuriated Clarence, who as a WWII vet had no tolerance for anyone like Raeff who didn’t serve, regardless of the reason.
And the hunt was on. The men all scrambled along their ordered routes, searching for the enemy. Boomer put his nose to the ground and ventured ahead of his company. Clarence, Raeff and Harvey topped the ridge and made their way through a thick tangle of buck brush to the next hilltop where Harvey gave the silent hand signal to halt. He whispered, “He was right over this ridge, bout halfway up a small elm tree. I say we charge it.” Toughy and Lou made their way around the thickets and met them on the other side a moment later.
The men nodded in agreement, Boomer re-joined them, hiked a leg and peed on a maple sapling. Charge! The men ran over the hilltop ready for the worse. As they ambled down the backside Raeff pointed to the top of a tree. “There it is!” he shouted victoriously. BOOM! His Smith and Wesson 45 filled the air. A dark object fell from the treetop and hit the earth, dead. The men gathered around it triumphantly, only to discover it was a large black cat.
“There’s yer chimp Harve. A stupid cat!” Lou roared with laughter as Harvey’s face grew red, then bright red.
Harvey rolled the animal over with his boot and shook his head. “No. This ain’t what I saw. I know the difference between...” Blam, blam, blam, blam! Shotgun blast on the next ridge! Hoots and hollers, familiar Ozark war calls. The cat hunters ran for the next ridge with the speed of a wounded mountain lion. Boomer knew what the sound of a gun meant and he lead the way for his platoon. As they reached the ridge most of the posse had arrived also. They all looked up to the top of a tall green cedar and saw him. No doubt about it, Harve was right. It was a chimpanzee, swaying back in forth precariously in the skinny, green branches.
Two men had fired, number four twelve gauge shot, but missed with four rounds. Monkey‘s, they discovered, have very quick reflexes. He had dropped to the ground and ran to this isolated tree after the shots were fired. Now he was trapped, with armed hillbillies surrounding the tree and no other tree within jumping distance. Realizing his dilemma, he shrieked a haunting and desperate chimp scream into the lonely cedar Ozark jungle. “Son of a bitch…” was all Lou could mutter as he stared and the primate.
“Let Harve take the shot.” Clarence ordered. He was big enough to admit he was in the wrong and that was his admonition. The others lowered their weapons as Harvey searched for an opening at the beast. And there it was. Not a perfectly clear shot but he knew it would be a lunger at least.
He raised his Henry, lever action twenty-two rifle and sighted in on the chimp’s chest. He held his breath and slowly squeezed and... Pop! Thud! The monkey whaled an ear piercing, loud shriek of pain and fell through the branches, flopping clumsily every few feet, getting hung up on a limb, only to slide off and down, smacking the next one until finally, a moment later, he plopped ungracefully on the ground.
Harvey and Clarence ran to the body, joyful and proud, guns at the ready for a possible, final desperate attack from the hideous monster. But as they approached cautiously the sight was disturbing. The chimp had landed on his back and lay sprawled out, his human looking arms wide open as if crucified. As the two men knelt down close, they saw the small hole in the lower right chest, oozing and bubbling, dark red blood. The chimp turned his face from the left all the way to the right, to face his attackers.
Lou, Toughy and the rest of the blood thirsty hunters joined Harvey and Clarence who seemed frozen in fear; the face was so human, so life-like. He looked like an old wise man with wrinkles and stories to tell you about how things were so much better in his day. The eyes, oh God the eyes burned into all the men with such pain. Big brown eyes, asking for help, begging, but not accusing, not blaming, just wanting comfort.
Just then Raeff pushed through the group and stepped up close and hooted a fake Indian hoot and stuck his pistol in the animal’s face. “I’ll finish him off. Stand back.” he ordered. Like a bolt of lightning Lou furiously ripped the gun from his hand and threw it far down the hillside.
“Get back asshole! Everyone get back! Give him room!” Lou shouted.
“Hey…!” Raeff started to complain, before he realized it was Lou that flung his pistol. He sulked away and retreated down the hill after his weapon. The monkey seemed to nod a sincere, thank-you, to Lou. Then he grimaced with tight monkey lips and moaned a terrible, woeful moan. Harvey looked at Clarence with a forlorn guilty expression.
“What are we gonna do? Look at him. This was wrong!” Harvey’s voice trembled frantically.
Toughy sighed heavily and frowned at the sight. He drew his fingers thoughtfully down his long gray mustache while searching his mind for words or answers. Lou didn’t know what to make of the unique situation or how to feel. As he gazed into the chimp’s soulful eyes, he felt more compassion for the animal than he ever did for a human. Or maybe this just caught me off guard, out of my element, he thought. He had witnessed the look before in job related situations, but this is the first time he felt sorrow or remorse for a dying creature. What was worse, he couldn’t fight the feeling or understand it.
No one knew what to say or do and the great white hunters just exchanges glances of guilt for a couple minutes. “We can’t let him suffer like this.” Lou broke the silence. “We gotta do…something.”
The chimp grimaced again and moaned louder and longer - more pitifully. Then he slowly lifted his left hand. It seemed to weigh a ton, but he struggled, higher and higher. He opened it wide, reaching up toward Lou. No doubt about it, he was asking for Lou’s hand. Though completely horrified Lou complied and clasped his huge hand around the chimps. The moaning victim squeezed his new friend’s hand and was comforted by the warm, brotherly touch of the Missouri mobster. The same hand he used to ‘put the squeeze’ on men he wanted to dominate, now was softly ministering to this dying creature.
The remaining hunters backed away slowly from the scene. Unsure what to do, or what to think, they only knew something immoral had just taken place. They walked back to their vehicles with their heads low and hearts aching and drove away without speaking a word.
Boomer had been watching from a distance, but now crept slowly in on the scene. He sniffed the chimp from foot to head and whined apologetically in the ape’s face. Then he licked his cheek several times, which seemed to soothe the poor primate. Having done all he could, Boomer turned tail and trotted back through the woods and waited at the truck for Harvey.
The distressed chimp breathed a few more heavy breaths and made a gurgling sound from somewhere within. The deep crimson blood now boiled from both nostrils. Harvey stroked his face tenderly and took hold of the monkey’s other hand. One more desperate gasp - one final strong, trembling squeeze of the hand, and the chimp closed his eyes and passed away beneath the tall green cedar in the Ozarks Mountains, no doubt far, far from home.
Clarence and Harvey buried the chimp there in the woods, in an unmarked grave not far from where he died. Both Lou and Clarence tried to settle up with Harve and pay him the money from the bet. “No…no…I don’t want it. It’s blood money. No…let’s all just forget about this. I don’t ever want to talk about it ever again…okay?” Harvey asked. Clarence nodded and Big Lou patted him on the back sympathetically.
It was almost dark as Lou and Toughy arrived back in town. Neither said a word on the ride back. There was nothing to say.
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