By Any Other Name

by Geron Kees

© by Geron Kees 2019 All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. All characters, situations, and places are imaginary, even whimsical. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation. Please observe the laws of your jurisdiction with regards to reading this material.

When I got to the shack, Joey Brand was out front, holding a flower.

A lily, actually - a large white one still on the full stem, leaves and all. He was holding it almost solemnly, gazing down at it, as if he wanted to take a sniff, but didn't quite dare. I paused to stare, and then to grin.

Joey was dressed in his usual finery - dark jeans over black boots; black tee-shirt with a pair of stylized demon-head emblems that I recognized, but couldn't quite put a name to; and his signature black fishnet hand covers before studded black leather punk biker wristbands. A military-style belt with a big stainless steel buckle completed the look, with the little silver chain that ran around to Joey's biker wallet gleaming in the sunlight.

His black-painted fingernails actually reduced the deadly look of the whole ensemble, adding to it an unaccountably effeminate tone that Joey would have bristled at had he known I was even thinking such a thing. Joey was the rebel of our group, and his refusal to conform ran fairly deep. His adoption of a dark look accented his serious nature, and most of the kids at school had simply taken one look and then decided to leave him alone, which was all Joey really wanted, anyway.

On any dude six feet tall and pushing two hundred pounds, the get-up would have definitely looked menacing. People often seem to focus on a person's clothing, and so can miss really seeing the guy inside of them. For Joey and strangers, the look worked just fine. What he wanted was the room to be himself, and the clothing he wore generally assured that he got it.

But I knew the guy that lived inside that outfit, and so what I saw was entirely different.

As displayed on Joey's slight, sixteen year-old frame, and topped by his sweet face circled by soft, longish brown hair, the clothing mostly made me smile. Think of it like putting a barbed wire necktie on a fuzzy little bunny rabbit. If you petted such an animal, you might get scratched, but that was certainly going to be the extent of the damage.

His eyes flicked up at me as I stood there, and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "What are you looking at, Markstrom?"

I couldn't get rid of my own smile. "And what are you supposed to be, with that lily?"

He gave me a soft sigh, and shook his head. "It's an exercise in counterpoint, dum-dum. I'm supposed to be the wild, untamed energy of youth, briefly reeled in and enthralled by the beauty of nature. I signify the wild youth, of course, and the flower --"

"Is the nature part," I finished, nodding. "I get that much."

"I knew you were smarter than you looked," he decided.

I waved a hand around at the great willow tree he stood before, the painted faces and figures on the pavement at his feet, and the brown, rain-swollen river that ran beyond the edge of the pier behind him. "This place isn't weird enough, without you standing out front posing as a flower urn?"

"I told you --" he began...

Another voice interrupted him, a voice I also knew quite well. "If you're weren't standing there with your dumpy ass in the way, I could take the picture, and we'd be done."

I turned to find Rich Heckler standing there before the open door of the shack, his little blue Canon digital camera gripped in one hand.

"Oh, that explains it! You put this art crap into Joey's head?"

Rich frowned, and narrowed his eyes at me. He was blond-haired and green-eyed, dressed in baggy khaki shorts and a tee-shirt that said Banana Republic on it, and wore old brown sandals on his tanned bare feet. My smile turned into a grin. If you wanted counterpoint, just stand Rich next to Joey!

"Just because you don't have culture, is no reason Joey shouldn't have some," he said, in a slight huff. "And polite people don't just walk into the middle of a photo shoot!"

"I didn't see you there," I said, stepping to one side. "Never let it be said that I got between you and your boyfriend."

His annoyance slipped away at that reminder, and he flashed white teeth at me. He motioned with one hand for me to step back even farther, and then carefully took several shots of Joey looking all serious over the flower. "There!" He sighed, lowering the Canon. "Whew! Creating beautiful art is hot and tiring. I sure could use a beer!"

I squinted at him, suddenly suspicious. "Since when have you liked beer?"

He looked briefly guilty, and then looked away. "Beer's cool. We all drink it.

We'd all tried it, he meant. Joey had brought a six pack to the shack one Friday night, cold and ready to go. We'd all sampled one, and said how great it was, even though it was kind of plain that none of us except Joey could sip the stuff without being a little tongue-fucked. Drinking a beer or two was cool according to everyone at school, but so far the drink had not made a big impression with us.

The experiment had been repeated a few times, and had proven - at least to me - that we were still a ways off from being true drinkers. Even at sixteen, we were all still kind of lightweight, scarcely the football-hunk types. One beer made me silly, and two caused me to get rank stupid. My boyfriend Devvy was not any better, and Rich always struggled to finish one bottle, grimacing with each swallow, all the time saying how great the stuff tasted. Only Joey seemed at home with the taste and effects of beer, and two bottles didn't seem to faze him one bit.

Of course, Joey's brain cells were already different than ours, a little wacky all on their own, and a little alcohol dumped into the mix only seemed to allow him to smile a little more than his normally serious, dark mood allowed. I thought it was an improvement, myself, though I would have never said that in front of him or Rich. They shared a strong bond, and Rich loved Joey just the way he was. And, I guess I did, too. You should love your friends as-is, because you sure can't expect to change them to suit yourself.

"Oh." I was not willing to be pulled into another of Rich's beer conversations. I already knew he praised the stuff because he hated the taste of it, and the only way he could work himself up to guzzle a bottle on Friday nights was to talk about it all week long like it was pure heaven and that he couldn't wait to have at it. I wasn't crazy about the taste myself, which had first presented to me as laying somewhere in between battery acid and rocket fuel. It made me wonder how people could swill the stuff down in the amounts that they did, and when I had once broached the subject to my granddad (no way was I going to ask my dad, and get him all suspicious), gran had sighed and nodded, and raised his own bottle to me. "It's an acquired taste, Kelly. I didn't much like it the first time I tasted it, either. You have to persist with it, until your taste buds give up the fight a little and learn to tolerate having their tails twisted. Then you'll like the stuff. More or less."

I'd managed to avoid any more conversation that day that might clue him into the fact that we were actually testing out the product at the shack, but I was secretly relieved to learn that it wasn't just me that thought the stuff tasted like drain cleaner. Devvy muscled through it all because I did, and because he wanted to be as cool as everyone else...and because he loved me, and wanted to please me. I was still working up the nerve to tell him I wasn't as cool as he thought, and that it would be okay if we both just stuck with cola.

Man, it's hard being a role model!

Rich eyed me. "Tomorrow night, right? It's your turn to bring some. You and Dev."

I just waved a hand at Rich. "Okay, okay. Let's not even get onto the subject of beer right now. Is Devvy here?"

"No." Rich patted the pocket of his shorts. "He called my cell a little while ago and said he was running late, and to tell you." He cocked his head at me. "It was your phone number, too."

"That's 'cause Devvy's got my phone. That jerk Brad Kisner tripped Dev up in the hall the other day at school, and Dev's screen got wrecked when he fell into the lockers. You know how Dev is with his phone. I loaned him my cell because he can't stand to be out of contact with people. He said he'd call you and let you know when he'd get here. So I guess he did, huh?"

"Yeah. About fifteen minutes ago. Um...he sounded a little out of breath when he called. Like he'd been running."

I perked up at that. "Really? Man. I hope Kisner and his gang of criminals isn't bothering Dev again. You didn't ask him what was up? Did he say anything else?"

"No. I was busy with the camera, and I guess I didn't realize...he just said that he was on the way." But now Rich sounded worried, too.

Great. The story goes that the gay guys always get bullied at school by the jocks, right? But at Rufus T. Munson High, the jocks were usually too busy battling it out with each other to be bothered about what four harmless gay guys were doing. So seeing a need going unfulfilled, Brad Kisner and his little horde of Muskrat Hill miscreants in the wood shop had taken up the banner of 'homobusters', and had been making our lives a little miserable this school year.

"I hate guys that think wood is for sucking on, instead of building stuff," he'd told me once.

He never actually messed much with me, other than the occasional verbal sling or arrow, because my dad was one of six deputies under county Sheriff Mike Dizzard, and no one wanted Mike Dizzard to take an unhealthy interest in them. He was an old still-buster, a young deputy back in the day when illegal liquor was still big business in these parts, and he had just never gotten over that attitude towards lawbreakers. A gray-haired old cuss now, he was less active in the field, preferring to direct his deputies in their summer duties from the comfort of his air-conditioned office. But if you got him riled enough, he would come out of that office, and lord help the fella that made him do it.

"There's only a few weeks of school left until the summer break," Joey said, coming over and sticking the lily in an empty beer bottle near the door. "Then we can relax. Kisner ain't coming all the way over here to Bent Fork to mess with us when there's better stuff to do."

That was probably true. The high school sat in the middle of the two towns - our town of Bent Fork, and Kisner's town of Muskrat Hill. Even though the kids of both towns went to the same schools, there had been a rivalry between the two factions for as long as anyone could remember. It made it hard for the school sports teams to function, because one town was always trying to show up the other one, even though they were supposed to be teammates. The competition between towns was so fierce that the teams spent all their time fighting amongst themselves. I was pretty sure this dumb rivalry was the cause of our football team not winning the championship in almost thirty years, because we'd had some pretty darn good players in that time.

But with the jocks fighting among themselves, they had no time for us, and had it not been for Brad Kisner and his mob of idiots, life would have been peaceful.

"Yeah. They won't show their faces in our town just to bug us," I pointed out. "But even if they did, I have no intention of hiding from them."

"You don't have to hide from them," Rich pointed out. "Your old man is a cop."

I fumed a little at that, but nodded. "I know it's me that Kisner especially hates. He's just been hawking on Devvy and you guys lately to get at me. That makes me mad, but I'm not sure what to do about it."

"You should never have built a bookcase that was better than his," Rich complained. "You know how Kisner is about wood."

I made a rude noise at that. "Hey, the hell with Brad Kisner. It's not my fault I'm better with a keyhole saw than he is! What should I do, lay down and let him win all the time? All my woodshop projects have turned out better than his."

"He hates it, too," Rich reminded. "His daddy runs that little furniture shop on Maybell Street over in Muskrat Hill, and he expects Brad to take it over one day. He's always bragging about how good Brad is with wood tools. He was pissed when you got the award in wood shop for your bookcase, instead of Brad."

"And every other award you've won in wood shop, instead of Brad," Joey injected.

"That's because Brad's old man is just like him," I pointed out. "Stupid."

Rich nodded. "He thinks because he's on the town council over there that everything should go his way. I can see why Brad's such an asshole. His daddy is an even bigger one."

I fumed. "Well, what do you want me to do about it? Make crappy projects just so Brad can look good? I'm not doing it."

"You could kick his ass," Joey put in, pointedly.

I probably could, too. Mad as I was over Kisner's continuing harassment of all of us, I could probably level the guy, no problem. But...that would piss off my dad, who felt that fighting was never the way to solve problems. And besides, Kisner was seldom by himself, and when he was, he stayed quiet and kept moving. He was only really vicious when he was at the head of his pack, and then he was a force for evil to be reckoned with.

I'd heard that it was much cooler now to be gay in the city, or the burbs. But here in the sticks there was still a little bit of a problem with it, and only the fear of the law kept some people in check. That was one thing that had changed pretty much everywhere, and that was the hate crime laws on the books now that dished out some stiffer penalties to people who let their evil side do their thinking for them. Live and let live was not the American doctrine, no matter how much they wanted the world to believe that. If you were different in America, there was always someone who wanted to make you pay for it.

"That wouldn't solve anything," I finally said. "That would just make things hotter. They'd get back at us, and then we'd get back at would just keep going, around and around."

Joey made a face. "We haven't really gotten back at them yet, Kelly. They do crap to us, and we don't do anything about it."

I sighed. "You know what I mean. But if you let a war get started, it gets nasty."

Rich shook his head at that. "Better to fight a war than to just get rolled over."

He had a point there. Being the son of a deputy had its drawbacks as well as its perks. Yeah, idiots like Brad Kisner were less anxious to do physical harm to someone when a badge and a gun might show up at their door as a response. But I had to live to a higher standard than other guys, because everything I did reflected back on my dad. And dad had a thing about people taking the law into their own hands, and acting stupid when they had the sense not to.

It left me in a bind, because I hated not doing anything about Kisner and his apes causing trouble for my friends - and especially my boyfriend. Kisner seemed to have singled out Devin at school for some antics, and I could not be with Devin all the time, in every class. I was constantly worried about what would happen next, and I was getting damn tired of it, too.

Damn Brad Kisner and his crazy mania for wood! His projects in wood shop were actually very good - better than anyone else's in class, except for mine. I just had a knack for building stuff, like my granddad, and a sense for design from my mom's side of the family, that kept winning me all the awards in class that Brad wanted; and that had Brad and his old man furious at me. The elder Kisner just couldn't get how some pansy could be better with wood than his own flesh and blood. As far as he was concerned, there was something wrong with the world about that.

So Brad's dad was always after him to do better, to show me up. I'd even heard the rumor that Brad's dad had pulled some strings on the town council to get Brad awarded a special town merit certificate for his work on the new pews over at the Muskrat Hill Baptist Church, even though old man Kisner had done most of the work himself! Brad was supposed to receive the award at the Deke Hawkins Commemoration festival in Muskrat Hill right after school let out for the summer.

Egos. It was all about egos, and nothing more, at least for Brad and his dad. For me, it was more than just my ego. I plain refused to give in to Brad's desire to be top wood guy in the class at school. I had every right to do the kind of work I liked and wanted to do, and the only way Brad was going to be better than me was to really be better than me.

It was simply a nice extra up until now that my woodwork was the only way I could get back at him, and I was not going to let it slide, and let him win. But that I felt guilty about what was happening to the guys as a result was eating me up inside, and I didn't know how much longer I could hold on. Damn.

I turned and looked up the path, hoping that Devvy had not gotten into trouble again. That Brad was after him to get back at me I knew, and that infuriated me. But what was I going to do about it? I'd told dad about what was going on, and he had asked if anyone had been hurt, and I'd had to say no, not really. But being taunted and having small injustices done to you on a daily basis was draining, and it was hurtful, even if there was no physical damage involved. It just couldn't go on.

Rich came closer and laid a hand on my shoulder. "Dev'll be okay, Kelly. Kisner's a jerk, but he knows he can't really hurt us and get away with it. It's just taunting shit. He won't do anything really stupid."

"You hope," Joey added.

Rich bit at his lip, and nodded. "Yeah."

I looked around at the shack, the concrete pier, the river that flowed through the stretch of woods that shielded the place from a valley full of rolling farmland. This was the back end of my granddad's property, and it was posted 'no trespassing'. Kisner wouldn't come here, not ever. Not with my dad working for Mike Dizzard and all, and my granddad's place just up on the hill, and him known for his hot temper and his collection of shotguns. This was our safe place, the old boathouse on the river and the weirdly painted concrete pier outside of it the one place the four of us could go and utterly be ourselves. Be free.

"I should go and look for Dev," I said then, feeling another small slice of my peace sliding away into eternity. Crap. Why did life have to be such a bitch sometimes?

"I'm right here," said a voice, and my heart did a little flip-flop in my chest.

The three of us jumped, and turned as one...and gaped as one.

There stood the love of my life, dressed much as I was: tee-shirt, shorts, running shoes...all now a ghastly white in color. Dev's hair was white, his face was white - everything, from top to bottom, was a pure, pearly white

I jumped forward, to stop in front of him. "What the hell happened?"

Dev shook his head, and spit some white out onto the ground. "Brad Kisner is what happened."

The three of us crowded around Dev now, all talking at once, until I finally stuck a couple of fingers in my mouth and blew my best freight train whistle. Three sets of eyes snapped to attention, and I immediately pointed a finger a Dev. "What happened?"

"I went over to the elementary school with my folks this morning, for the little spring fair they have there. They wanted to stay, but I wanted to get here, so I walked it. I was walking along Route Two past the old Potter place, heading here, when I heard a car coming up behind me, but I didn't pay it no mind. It passed me, and it was a pick up, and the back was full of guys. Brad Kisner and his squad of dickheads. Emmet Castleby was driving, and you know what a brainless turd he his. Brad yelled for him to stop, and he did."

"What'd you do?" Joey asked.

"I stopped, too. I'm not stupid. You don't walk up on a bunch of idiots like that."

I pointed at his new covering. "So how did that happen?"

Dev blew a frustrated breath between his lips. "They started calling me names. You know, like sugarplum fairy and Devin-dik-likker. I got mad, and flipped them the bird."

I winced, seeing where that would lead. Where it had led.


"And, they turned the truck around and chased me. I lit out across Potter's field, but they just came on through, too. Emmet had that truck hopping and jumping across the ground, and no matter which way I turned, they followed. They finally passed me, and Brad stood up in the back of the truck. He had a paint can in his hands, and he drew back and pitched what was in it at me." Dev patted the sodden front of his tee-shirt. "And what you see is what I got."

I closed my eyes, feeling anger and sorrow at the same time. "I'm so sorry, Dev."

"What? It's not your fault."

"Yeah, it is. Brad gives you hell because he hates me."

Even under the coat of whitewash, I could see Dev's face pinch up in denial. "No, Kelly. Brad did this 'cause he's an ass, and his stupid buddies laughed and thought it was great. It's not your fault at all. It's theirs."

I stepped closer, and put a hand out. "I love you, Dev. I can't stand this shit happening to you."

He grinned at me then. "I'd give you a big, sloppy hug right now...but as you can see, that would only make things worse."

I had to smile at that. "Right." I pointed at his new, ghostly look. "That's paint, I take it."

Dev cleared his throat and spit out another gob of white. "Tastes like whitewash. I'm just glad it's not an oil-based paint."

I nodded. "Okay. Come on over here by the water and unload your pockets."


"I want you to dunk in the river. That stuff will come off pretty easily while it's still wet."

We went out onto the concrete pier that hugged the edge of the river. Dev was careful to walk along the edge, so as not to drip whitewash on the awful artwork there. The concrete surface was covered with all sorts of odd painting - faces, figures, groups of maybe-people, and a few things that looked like they were drug-induced. When I was ten I'd asked my gran how all that weird stuff got there, and he smiled and said a roving band of hippies had squatted in his boathouse one summer long before I was born, and he'd had to get Sheriff Dizzard to run them off.

"But by then they'd painted all sorts of weird stuff all over that concrete pier."

"You could have painted over it," I'd pointed out.

"Yeah, but why should I? I don't use that boathouse or that pier. You and your friends use it as your clubhouse. If you don't like the art that goes with it, you paint it."

And so it had stayed. It was weird, but there was a certain something about it that was kind of cool, and well...there was also something not quite right about the smile that went along with gran's story, that made me think there was some other explanation than a band of roving hippies. Whatever they were.

There was a black iron ladder that went down the side of the pier into the water, where you could draw up a boat and get aboard it. Dev carefully unloaded his pockets (I noted with a sigh the white fingerprints on the side of my new cell), and then climbed down into the water. I stood at the head of the ladder, unable not to smile just a little at my boyfriend's dilemma. It was a crappy thing to happen, no doubt. But after we rinsed Dev off, he'd have to get out of those wet clothes, and...

Things might happen. We were totally at ease in the shack, just the four of us. There was a large mattress on the concrete floor, an old sofa nearby, a small fridge with goodies in it, a TV and a DVD player - just like home, but without the worries.

"It's cold," Dev complained, as he settled into the water.

"I'm sorry," I returned. "But dunk your head under and run your fingers through your hair. You need to get that stuff out of it before it clumps any more."

We were late into the spring, and summer was just around the corner. But the Yarrow is a cold river even on the hottest days of summer, and I could sympathize with Dev's plight. He was a good sport about it, and when he next emerged from the water most of the white was gone. I pointed out a few places that still needed work, and he sighed and dunked himself again. The next time he surfaced he quickly ascended the ladder, and climbed back onto the pier.

"I don't care what's left. I am not getting back in that water."

I smiled at him. "Come summer, and those ninety-five degree days get here, you'll love this water."

He made a face at me, but didn't say anything more.

I walked around him, inspecting, and then came up behind him and put my arms around him. The water from his clothes seeped into the front of my shirt, but I didn't care. I laid my chin on his shoulder and kissed the side of his neck. "I'm sorry this happened. I'll kill Brad for you, if you want."

Dev sighed, but raised his hands and rubbed my arms. "That would be too much. But I would like to find a way to get some back from him."

I kissed him again. "We'll think of something. I guess it is time we take a stand." I sighed, feeling we were turning a corner now, and that there would be no looking back. "Come on in the shack and I'll get you out of those wet clothes."

"I don't need any help."

"Yeah, you do."

Dev twisted around in my arms then, and smiled at me. "Kiss me, and you've got a deal."

I did that, and then we went inside.

"How do you get rid of a rat?" Joey asked, later, as we all relaxed inside the shack.

It was a quiet afternoon. The only sounds we could hear were the gentle lap-lap of river water as it moved against the concrete back of the center boat well, and a faint drone that was the far off sound of a tractor turning up some field. Days like this always made me feel content, and glad to live where I did. How anyone could stand city life, with the constant hum of cars by the thousands, and the accompanying sounds of human movement and life just everywhere, when they could have this? I just couldn't understand it.

My aunt and uncle lived in Dunkwater, a fairly good-sized city on the other side of the Chuckaluck mountains, and when we visited them, I had always wondered how they slept at night with all that noise. Jet airplanes seemed to fly over every two minutes, there were constant hoots and mumbles from a train yard somewhere nearby, and the steady roar of traffic was just non-stop. But they seemed not to even notice these disturbances in their world, and it made me realize that people can get used to anything, if they choose to do it.

I'd hate to have to do that, too. But even a quick look around Bent Fork and Muskrat Hill will show you that there just aren't a lot of opportunities for a smart boy to make a life for himself. Especially a gay smart boy. Unless I wanted to maybe be a deputy someday - and I didn't - I suppose I'll eventually arrive at a point in life where I'll have to decide when to go, and where.

"Mousetrap?" Rich suggested, rubbing a hand gently over the bare flesh of his boyfriend's belly. Those two had the old sofa, while Dev and I had laid out on the mattress.

Dev had a towel wrapped around his middle while his clothing dried, and Rich and I were each just in our shorts. Joey, who was a jeans man even on the hottest of days, was down to his unders, a sexy pair of powder blue briefs with little in the way of sides, and the word Pump! emblazoned across the waistband. It was a little distracting, and I had already made a mental note to get Dev a few pairs of these things for his birthday.

I sighed at Rich's suggestion. "We can't hurt those guys, much as we'd like to. Nothing illegal, or that makes us wrong, and my dad will kill me." I shook my head. "We need to find a way to make them pay, that won't get us in trouble, and won't hurt anybody."

"You don't want much," Rich said, sighing.

Dev turned and pushed his cheek against mine. "I do want to get those guys. Especially Brad. But if we do, wouldn't that make them just want to get back at us? Where does it stop?"

"Maybe." But I'd already made up my mind about this. "We can't keep letting Brad and his buddies take little pieces out of you and the others, just because they hate me. He needs a taste of his own medicine."

Dev shook his head. "It's not just you, Kelly. Yeah, Brad hates that you're better in wood shop than he is...but he hates all of us, 'cause we're gay."

"And from Bent Fork," Rich added.

"And because we're all smarter, and better looking," Joey said, deadpan.

We all laughed.

Joey nodded. "Okay, so what do we do?"

"Yeah." Rich looked like he was ready for something, but just had no idea what it might be. "How do you pull the teeth on a rat, without getting bit?"

"Well..." I sighed then, because I had no idea, myself.

Dev suddenly grinned against my cheek, and then pulled back and smiled at me. "You don't know, either. Face it, Kelly, we're not the evil shitheads that Brad and his bunch of loser buddies are. Doing cruddy stuff to people doesn't come natural to us."

I smiled, and kissed him. "You're right. So we need to open the doors and let our crazies out. Let's start with weird, and go from there."

Joey laughed. "I like it. about we sneak into Brad's room at night, drug him, take him into town, and tie him to a chair, naked, on the courthouse steps?"

Dev let out a startled burst of laughter, and even Rich grinned. "Yeah!"

I shook my head. "I love the idea, but that's assault, kidnapping, and something else stiff for drugging the guy. I want to get him, but I don't want to spend five to ten in Scatterburg for doing it."

"You would think of laws," Joey admonished. But the faint smile he wore told me he wasn't serious - not totally, anyway.

I rolled my eyes at him. "My dad's a deputy, remember? We can't do anything illegal." But then I quickly modified that. "Nothing seriously illegal, anyway. I can go with maybe a little trespassing, but that's about the extent of it."

Rich made a face. "So I guess jamming a fire hose up his ass and turning it on full-force is out of the question?"

I smiled. "Uh, yeah. Popular as that option might be, it would also get us in deep shit with Sheriff Dizzard." I sighed. "Not to mention my old man."

Joey patted Rich's hand, and then looked over at me. "Speaking of Sheriff Dizzard, couldn't Devvy just file a complaint against Kisner? Isn't that assault, throwing a can of paint at someone?"

"Yeah," I agreed. "Although whitewash is just lime and water and salt. If you get it on your skin and leave it there, you'll get a mild burn, but It isn't really dangerous, or poisonous, like some paints might be." I gave Dev a squeeze. "Good thing you didn't get it in your eyes, though. That might have been a different story."

"I had time to duck forward. What got on my face ran down out of my hair."

I shook my head, my anger returning again. "And Brad would have that whole truckload of guys who'd swear up and down that it didn't happen the way you said it did. My dad says cases where it's one guy's word against another's are tough to prosecute. Here there'd be all those other guys disputing what you said happened. I think nothing would happen with a complaint, and I think that would just make Brad happy."

"And I don't want to do that," Dev put in.

I gave him another small hug, and nodded. "No."

Despite what the others said, the root of all of this trouble was Brad's hatred of me. He knew I was gay, for one thing, and that rankled him. Gay was not okay in these parts, though people in Bent Fork at least pretty much kept their opinions to themselves as long as we didn't parade it before them. And, we didn't. Out in public we stayed very cool about things, reserving our affections for our alone-times here at the shack. Bent Fork looked out for it's own in it's odd way, and so long as we stayed kind of invisible, no one much cared what we did.

So there was the fact that the four of us were gay, that Brad didn't like. Then there was the fact of my dad, a deputy, which meant hands off me, at least, because underneath all that hate and anger, Brad didn't want to be in dutch with the law any more than the next guy. With Brad's dad on the city council in Muskrat Hill, anything his idiot son did reflected back on him, and much as old man Kisner hated gays himself, he knew the wisdom of keeping his opinion to himself so as not to mess up what he had.

And finally, there was the fact that I always outperformed Brad in wood shop, which was just the last straw for him. He acted like I was cheating in some way, even though he had been present in the same room when I'd created some of my pieces. My mom had said that Brad probably only had one thing he was reasonably good at, one thing upon which he could base his entire future, and that was building things with wood. Brad's dad made furniture for a living, and he expected his son to take over the business someday. To Brad's dad, his son had to be up to the task, had to be the best. Tad Baker, who also lived over in Muskrat Hill, had told me that Brad's dad was always yelling at his son in the shop, calling him incompetent, and saying that even 'that damn nancy-boy at school' built better furniture than he did.

I could kind of understand Brad's position, but that didn't make me sympathetic to his actions. And the fact that he seemed to control that group of sawhorse knuckleheads he hung with only made him more dangerous. Hate is a tough thing to deal with, especially when you can't hate back. Much as I couldn't stand Brad Kisner and his buddies, I didn't have that much hate in me to do them harm. All I wanted was for them to leave us alone.

But Brad was the key here. His buddies were followers, and without Brad around they never bothered us at all. Something had to change, and I knew that meant doing something about Brad.

I felt Devin's eyes, and then realized that all of them were watching me. "What?"

Rich grinned. "We're just waiting for that nefarious machine between your ears to crank out something suitable."

Devin smiled. "You usually do."

I looked at Joey, who just shrugged. "Most of what I can come up with is illegal as hell. This one's going to need a smoother touch."

I laughed at that. "What I need is some inspiration. Something to prod me."

Dev rubbed his nose against my cheek. "The Thinking Place?"

Rich hooted and grinned. "The Thinking Place."

Joey simply nodded. "Cool. Let's get dressed and go."

The county landfill over at Brovard is efficiently run, with the county working hard to please everyone from the EPA people to the local farmers and well-owners. Garbage goes in, gets deposited into a cell, is periodically covered with clay, and once the cell is full, covered with topsoil, and grass planted. Then a new cell is begun. All very efficient and environmentally friendly.

People weren't always this tidy, however. Once upon a time, they just found an out-of-the-way stretch of land, and dumped their trash there. Hawkmore County is dotted with these old dumps, some small and ancient, others larger and more recent. Many people aren't even aware of them. And until the demand for land catches up with what is available and cheap, it's likely to stay that way.

The backcountry can hide a lot of sins. The eight-odd acres between Cowlick Hill and Diamondtop Mountain is mostly tree-covered, a low-lying valley that isn't close to anything or anyone. It's private land, but I couldn't tell you who owns it. But I can tell you that those trees hide one of the coolest places on earth.

Starting somewhere in the mid-nineties, judging by the old cars scattered about the landscape, people began dumping their junk there. Not daily trash, so much - not bottles and cans and empty cereal boxes. No, this was genuine junk, the sort of stuff that you usually had to pay someone to haul away. Old cars; old refrigerators, dishwashers, ranges and washers; farm equipment; broken televisions, and electronic things whose original purpose could only be imagined; toys; bicycles; bed frames; furniture; carnival rides; broken tools; electric motors; lumber; metal; old trailers; old gas pumps; tires and wheels - a planet full of cool stuff, it seemed. Enough stuff to build a battleship, if you were of a mind to, and your budget was dirt cheap.

And I haven't even began to detail what was there, hidden away under the trees. And most of it was unaccountably fresh, a little dirt but no rust, as if time itself had wandered by and forgotten about the place. It was really something special, and a place we all had come to love.

I found the dump when I was young, and I thought it was just incredible to behold. Here was a place to come and browse, to treasure hunt, to build dreams. It was the sort of place one might find the bones of dinosaurs, if one looked long enough, and hard enough.

It was still in use, too, going by the periodic additions of truckloads of new material. How those trucks got there was a little bit of a mystery, as there were no roads to the place, just one narrow path that wound for a mile or so through the woods before finally hitting the shoulder of Route Two down from the Cafferty's place. As a boy I had imagined helicopters flying over under cover of darkness, and raining their contents down through the trees; but it was obvious that the stuff covering the ground had been set here, not dropped from any height.

That little mystery only added to the place for me. While most folk would just see a lot of trash, bees nests, and poison ivy, and nothing useful about the place at all, I saw it as the launching pad for ideas. A treasure house, where some very cool things could get started.

Dev and Rich - even Joey - shared my enthusiasm for treasure hunting, and we'd spent some happy hours here, exploring. The sofa in the shack had come from there, dropped overnight, it seemed, between our visits one day and the next. It hadn't had time to be rained upon, or shit upon by birds, and we carried its not inconsiderable bulk back to the shack just beaming at the ideas of what we were going to use it for. Lots of cool stuff had found its way back to the shack in the last few years, where it now stood in a corner or sat on a shelf, awaiting its return to glory.

I called this repository of lost treasures 'The Thinking Place', because it was a place full of ideas, and craft, and engineering, all of which had finally reached a point where someone had stopped seeing a use for it.

But that did not make it junk!

We'd changed into jeans for the trip, and we each had on a pair of work gloves. You had to be careful, because nature finds a use for everything, even discarded treasures. The occasional wasp's nest in an old dishwasher, and the poison ivy that's grown up here and there, are real dangers. We'd gotten very good at spotting these sorts of things, and no one had been stung or gotten an ivy rash in a couple of years now.

I had never seen another soul at this place, not in five years-worth of visits; but the winding paths among a lot of the stuff laying about spoke of the fact that we were not the only frequenters of the treasure house. There were others that shared the dream.

"So, what are we looking for?" Dev asked, his eyes roving among the stuff piled everywhere. "Hey...that stuff's new since the last time we were here."

I looked to where he was pointing at a large pile of boxes and things, and nodded. My little mental map of the thinking place wasn't perfect, but this close to the point of entry, it was pretty reliable. "Okay, we'll start there."

The boxes were mostly full of metal parts of some kind, all the same, with just a tinge of tarnish on them. Their purpose was completely unknown, and the cryptic part number and description on the boxes did not help to identify them.

"Someone cleaned out an old storeroom, looks like," Joey said.

"Doesn't inspire me, any particular way," Rich added. "Looks like horseshoes for a very tiny horse."

"Yeah." I nodded. "Not what we're looking for. Let's move on."

The carnival rides were mostly pieces, and all dumped in one spot. A few battered horses from a merry-go-round stood and grazed in tall grass near two dented cars from a roller-coaster, and another from a tilt-a-whirl. Around them were assorted signs and colorful sections of plastic and Bakelite, and some larger pieces of steel framework with pulleys and chains and cables still running through them, the paint dulled or even chipped completely away. The exterior of the big tilt-a-whirl car was very dented, like it had maybe come flying off the turntable that had originally held it. But the plastic seats inside were still serviceable, and there was room for four.

The tilt-a-whirl car had been set atop a real car - an old Ford of some type with the roof crushed down to the body - and so afforded a pretty good view of the immediate surrounds. We climbed the doors of the Ford underneath it, and got aboard.

The woods were quiet save for the pleasant songs of birds, and the faintest rustling of leaves moved by the faint breeze. Here was a spot where one could sit and contemplate the world. Or, at least our small part of it.

"I see some new stuff over there," Rich said, pointing off to the left.

"There, too." Dev indicated a clean new mound off in the other direction.

I shook my head. "I can't figure how this stuff gets here. I've never seen a truck up here in all the times I've been here. I know people aren't carrying all this in by hand."

"Yeah." Joey nodded. "And we've been here almost all day a couple of times, and then seen new stuff the next day They must be coming in at night or something."

"Why?" Rich asked. "I guess maybe it's illegal dumping, but it's been going on for years, and no one even hardly knows about this place. What's to hide?"

I had to agree. "Don't know. It is crazy that we've never seen anyone dumping shit here. But it's cool that they do."

Devin patted my knee. "We came here to think, and to figure out what to do about Brad and his friends, remember? We can worry about how stuff gets here some other time."

I had to confess that I hadn't had any ideas yet. Getting back at someone who is willing to play dirty is hard, because it means you have to get down on their level to do it. Brad and his cronies apparently didn't mind at all playing in the dirt, but it was a stretch for me to imagine doing it. It wasn't the way I was raised, and my dad, especially, was a guy who believed in the fair treatment of all. He had once said that being fair put a fella at a disadvantage, so that he had to be even stronger in dealing with others. Which, I had finally learned, meant the same thing as 'nice guys finish last'.

But my dad was good at his job, and the town probably respected him the most of everyone that worked in the sheriff's department. Sheriff Dizzard got a lot of respect, too, but as much of his was born out of fear of his devilish temper than out of admiration for his abilities. My dad's respect was clean, and I was proud of that. He got a lot done by talking sensibly to people, by being reasonable, and I guess that was how I had been trying to approach the problem of Brad Kisner and his friends. Reasonably.

And dad also liked and respected Mike Dizzard, despite the fact that the sheriff was not always fair, and not always nice in the way he treated people. My dad seemed to think that the sheriff's methods were a little crude, but that his results were good, and that that somehow balanced it all out. Gran would have snorted at that, and said it was simply saying that the end justified the means; but there was apparently some invisible, unknown quantity that most of us missed in Mike Dizzard, that my dad could see, and which he could respect.

Maybe I'd understand it all when I was older. I'd already come to get that some things needed time to take root, and that as far as myself and my friends went, we were still in the process of seeding our lives. My mother would have smiled at that notion, patted me on the arm, and said, "See, Kelly? You do have patience!"

So...maybe I needed to look at this problem less from my dad's point of view, and more from the eyes of Mike Dizzard, who even now seemed to see every problem as an illegal still. His answer to a still would have been an axe, applied just so, and with fervor, and the resulting demolition would have been justice in his eyes.

So maybe what was needed here was not reason, but just a good, old-fashioned axe!

"What are you smiling at?" Joey asked, looking strangely at me. "You see something we don't?"

I started, and then laughed. "Maybe. Maybe I do." I stood up and pointed. "Let's check out that stuff over there."

For the next hour we walked about, sifting through the latest piles and mounds of boxes and bags and junk. There were some interesting things to be found there, but nothing, not a one of them, sparked a plan in my mind. Even so, we had a growing pile of our own, of stuff just too cool to remain behind.

Joey was into things electronic, and his bedroom looked like the parts department at the Radio Shack in Farlund, before it went out of business. He was the first guy in Bent Fork to have one of those drones with a camera on it, which he flew about by radio control. We'd used it to explore a lot of the backcountry from the air, and the fairgrounds when the county fair was there, and even to do a little spying on what the folk in Muskrat Hill were up to. It had been a lot of fun when he'd first gotten it, but lately we had gotten on to doing other things again, and the drone was now sitting atop Joey's dresser, waiting for its next outing.

But that never stopped Joey from pulling anything that was electronic from among the masses of stuff, and just now he had the most contributions to the 'take back' pile. Some of it was recognizable - a table radio with a huge cigarette burn atop the plastic case; the chassis from one of those old televisions with the huge glass picture tubes; and something big and square in a green metal case, that had a beefy mechanism inside that was simply bewildering in its complexity.

"I'll bet you don't even know what that is," Dev told him, shaking his head.

Joey managed to look pleased with himself. "Sure, I do. It's an old jukebox - you know, that plays records?"

I gaped at him. My gran had a turntable system in his living room that played 'vinyl', as he called it. "That's some ancient stuff there!" I said.

Rich frowned at the case. "It doesn't look like a jukebox, Joe. I've seen them in the movies. They got flashing lights, and all kinds of chrome and stuff on them."

Joey grabbed the case and wrestled the thing around sideways. "It's military issue...see?"

On the side, in dirt-covered white letters, were the words, PROPERTY OF U.S. ARMY, and a long serial number.

"By the kinds of tubes in the chassis, this is early - to mid-fifties technology. Maybe Korean War. The case is messed up and dirty, but the guts are clean. If the tubes are good, they may be worth some money!"

"So take the tubes out," I suggested. "That thing must weigh sixty or seventy pounds, Joey. How are we going to get it back?"

Joey grinned. "It won't be that hard, if we all help."

Rich groaned, but immediately shook his head at me. "Just say yes, Kelly. You know you can't win."

I looked at Dev, who smiled and nodded. "Aw, what the hell. I'll help."

I sighed. "Okay. Leave it here for now. We'll get it on the way out."

But in the very next pile of junk we found a lowboy cart, with one of the wheels missing. It was flat, just a platform riding a few inches off the ground - originally on four wheels - with big steel handles at the ends to guide it. It was scratched and dented, and someone had spilled paint on it and let it dry at some point; but other than the missing wheel, still serviceable.

Joey immediately yipped in happiness, and turned to look back the way we came. "I'll bet one of the back wheels from that old lawnmower we passed a ways back will fit on that axle." He immediately patted the pockets of his jeans, and produced a pair of needle-nosed pliers. "Let me go and look!"

In a few minutes he was back, wheel in-hand. It was slightly smaller in diameter than the wheels on the cart, but not enough to matter, and it slid neatly onto the empty axle as if it belonged there. Joey used the pliers to push the cotter pin through the hole that would secure it in place, and then looked as happy as I'd seen him in some time.

"This trip was blessed by the junk gods," he said, grinning in an uncharacteristic display of good humor. "We can pile a lot of stuff on here and push it back. No need to carry my jukebox now!"

Dev grinned at me, and Richie threw an arm around his boyfriend's shoulders and squeezed him. "Careful. You're smiling."

Joey sighed, and wiped his face clean, returning the serious lines to their proper places. "Better?"

Richie laughed, and kissed Joey's cheek, but didn't say anything more.

We continued hunting, and adding things to the cart. There was some pretty cool junk, but nothing that inspired me to revenge against Brad Kisner's Muskrat Hill mob. The cart grew half full, and then three-quarters, and still nothing had prodded me to action.

And then, in a little clearing where the sun shone down between the trees, a pile of junk waved at us.

"Did you see that?" Devvy asked, in a hushed voice. "There's someone laying in that pile of junk!"

We had all stopped, and were all staring. Thirty feet ahead of us, an arm was sticking up out of a mound of stuff. It would lay flat on the pile briefly, and then raise and wave at us a moment, and then lay flat again.

"Someone needs help!" Rich said, rushing forward.

We left the cart and followed, and quickly neared the pile. As we arrived, we could see that it was two arms waving. The second one had been out of sight around the bulk of the pile. And between those arms was a head, wearing a big, floppy black hat, under which a strange face looked out at us.

"Holy shit!" Rich yelled, skidding to a halt. Joey bumped into him from behind, and Dev grabbed my shoulder to steady himself as he and I ground to a halt.

The face had two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, all of which looked human enough. The mouth was even set in a smile. But it was the kind of smile the devil might wear when he was teasing someone down the wrong path. There was just something utterly creepy about that face that gave me the shivers, which only moderated a little as I realized that this was not a living, breathing person laying there half immersed in junk.

"What the - ?" Dev began.

Joey laughed. "It's a scarecrow! Don't you see?"

I stared at the creature, and understood then. "Oh. One of those newfangled electronic ones, huh?"

Joey stepped forward excitedly, pointing. "Yeah, see? That floppy hat is covered with film-type solar cells. They keep a battery inside charged, and there's a circuit there that sends a pulse to the little motors in the shoulders every now and then, and the arms wave. You hang the thing in a field, and to the birds it looks like a real person is working there."

Dev laughed. "A real person? Maybe in a chainsaw murderer movie! That thing is weird looking!"

Joey gave out a little frustrated puff of air. "The birds don't know any better, ya goof. All it takes to keep birds away is something that moves like it's dangerous to them. They don't know the difference in the look of the thing!"

"Then why make it so scary looking?" Rich countered. "If it's just for birds, what does it matter how the face looks?"

Joey smiled at his boyfriend patiently. "They got to sell the thing to people, Rich. They make it look like a real scarecrow so that people will buy it."

I looked at the strange form, laying there, and slowly, the beginnings of an idea began to take form. "We'll take it along with the rest of the stuff," I said.

Rich and Dev turned to me as one. "Something?" Dev asked.

I shrugged. "The beginnings of something, maybe. We'll take it, definitely."

Joey grinned, delighted, and took the scarecrow by the shoulders and went to pull it out of the pile. It was then that we discovered that the lower half of the thing, below the waist, was crumpled and tattered, as if it had been run over by a tractor, or maybe an Abrams tank.

"Whoa," Joey said, softly, examining the damage. "This poor dude's had his nuts flattened."

I looked, too, understanding now why the scarecrow was here in the dump. was obvious that the lower half of the thing had only consisted of some sort of lightweight framework for the hips and legs, over which a reasonable facsimile of a pair of jeans had been attached. The jeans were in tatters, and pieces of the frame stuck through here and there, and the lower portion was definitely a mess.

"I can see why they trashed it now," I said. "But...we can cut off that junk. We'll figure out something to put in its place, and then just put an old pair of jeans on him. From a distance, you won't be able to tell he's messed up."

"From a distance?" Dev asked, squinting at me now. He smiled. "You do have an idea."

"Maybe. Isn't Deke Hawkins Day just a couple of weeks away, in Muskrat Hill?"

Dev scratched his head. "Yeah. What about it?"

I gave a little shrug. "I heard that Brad Kisner was going to get some kind of wood award at the festival. Get up on the stand in front of everybody, and get his hand shook by Mayor Stucky, and have the band play, and everything."

Joey snorted. "Wood award! Now I've heard everything!"

Rich grinned. "Oh, yeah. I heard that, too."

I nodded. "Brad's old man arranged it, to make Brad look good. Well, I was might be nice if Brad got a little extra attention, there in front of the whole town."

Dev put his arm around my shoulders and hugged me. "I love you when you're being nasty!"

I sighed. "I am never nasty. It's just inspiration."

Joey reached out and poked me with a finger. "Yeah, okay. What have you got in mind?"

I turned and looked again at the scarecrow, and felt an idea forming in the back of my brain. But it wasn't complete just yet, and would need some fleshing out to make it into something we could work with.

"I don't know just yet," I admitted. "It needs time to come to a boil."

Dev moved closer, and rubbed his hip against mine suggestively. "I can help bring you to a boil."

A little thrill ran throughout my body, and I grinned. "Oh, I know you can do that!"

Joey sighed, and looked again at the scarecrow, just as it moved it's arms again. "Sad, that they just tossed this guy here. Didn't even bother to turn him off."

"The sun must have charged him up," I suggested, pointing to the way the floppy hat caught the down pouring of sunlight.

"Yeah." Rich patted his boyfriend on the shoulder. "They could have fixed the legs. The rest of it still works. But I guess their loss is our gain, huh?"

"That's for sure," I said, moving closer to the scarecrow. "Come on, and let's get Boney onto the cart."

Dev moved with me, laughing. "Boney? Is that what you've named him?"

"Yup. He has to have a name, right?"

"Wait a second and let me find the switch to turn him off," Joey said.

The scarecrow was not heavy at all, and was obviously meant to be hung from a pole. The electronic parts of him must have been incredibly lightweight. We hauled him from the pile and placed him onto the ground, and Joey found that the pocket on the front of Boney's plaid shirt was only sewn on at the bottom, and held on at the sides by Velcro. He pulled that back, revealing a tiny, waterproof control panel, with a power switch and a setting knob for the frequency with which the arms would move. He slid the power switch to the 'off' position, and refastened the pocket.

"Bet this thing cost some money new, huh?" I asked, as we hefted Boney and started back to the cart.

Joey shook his head. "Nah. Maybe a few hundred bucks. Probably less. Electronics are dirt cheap since the Chinese came along."

I stared down at the strangely compelling face, thinking to myself that the look of this scarecrow would be enough on its own to scare kids at Halloween. Maybe birds didn't pick up on things like that, and so the arms waved, too. But whoever had designed this thing had a flair for the macabre, no doubt in my mind.

We reached the cart and laid Boney atop the pile of other treasures, and started back to the shack.

The idea in the back of mind grew with each step as we walked, and by the time we reached the concrete pier by the boathouse, I was trying hard not to grin.

"Can you get a little closer?" I asked, leaning on Joey's shoulder as we watched the view displayed on the screen of his laptop. "I want to make sure they haven't changed anything."

"Sure." Joey moved the little joystick, and the drone dropped a little lower, even as Joey zoomed the camera in on the freshly-built grandstand on the front lawn of the Muskrat Hill town hall.

It was early morning, just a half-hour after sunrise, and no one was about. But that the Muskrats were getting ready for a hoopla was obvious. Besides the new grandstand, a number of stalls had been erected, presumably so that local merchants could offer their wares at the festival. A flatbed truck covered with a tarp parked off to one side held a couple of hundred folding chairs, which would undoubtedly be arrayed before the grandstand come Deke Hawkins Day. The front of the town hall had a large canvas sign hanging down the front of it, hand-painted, that supposedly showed local hero Hawkins setting off the dynamite that had warned the town of the approach of Little Phil Sheridan's cavalry during the War Between the States.

It was a grand story, full of rousing adventure and heroism, and Muskrat Hill's one great claim to fame. The blast had been heard in Bent Fork, too, rousing the militia of both towns to action, thus adding the weight to the battle needed to deflect the enemy cavalry to the east, and thus spare the towns from Sheridan's famous policy of 'scorched earth' treatment of Confederate habitations. The Muskrats were proud of their ancestor, and celebrated his valiant warning each year at this time.

"Poppycock and malarkey," my gran always said, accompanying that verdict with a snort of derision. "And just pure bullshit. Your many-times great granddad, Silas Apache Markstrom, told a different story. Old Deke Hawkins was at his still on Hawkins Ridge, above Muskrat Hill, cooking up another batch of his famous Racoon Twister Yeller Hootch, when he saw the Yankees coming through Applesnort Pass. He lit out to save his own butt, and left the fire burning underneath his still. It blew up, and that was the sound that woke the towns to action."

This tale, told by more than just my own ancestor, was one of the reasons the two towns didn't get along. A hero in Muskrat Hill, old Deke Hawkins was just a chickenshit moonshiner who ran off here in Bent Fork, and who got lucky at the way things turned out. The Muskrats said that we were just jealous that Bent Fork didn't have a hero of equal stature, which was why we were always dumping on theirs.

It didn't matter to me. I'd attended one of the Hawkins Day festivals when I was thirteen, with my dad, who was there with Mike Dizzard to represent the county at the gala. Like Bent fork, Muskrat Hill had its own town deputy, but it was customary for the county sheriff to attend. Sheriff Dizzard, who lived outside of Bent Fork, simply gritted his teeth and did his duty, even managing to look and sound pleasant for much of the day-long function. He always took one of his own deputies along, for moral support, and to carry his little metal flask of Old Grandad, another sort of support. I'd gone the one time, since my dad was going, but once had been enough for me, and I hadn't been back since.

The Muskrats liked to dress up old fashioned for the day, with the women in hoop skirts and over-petticoats, and the men in the gray uniforms of the Confederacy, or in loose dark suits over white cotton shirts, with wide bow ties about their necks. I'd thought they looked plain silly, but dad said that was how people dressed in those times. They must have sweat like pigs in the early summer heat, is all I can say.

The set up this year was exactly the same as I remembered it from three years ago. Custom is a hard dog to teach new tricks, and once people set out places for regular functions to happen, they don't like to change things around. That made it easy for me, because I could visualize where everything would be. Mostly I was concerned with the grandstand, and the tall bell tower on the town hall. That last stood a good forty feet above the town square, and was just the right distance where people looking up at anyone standing on the little balcony that ran around the spire underneath the big clock would have trouble making out any details.

In the ten days since we'd found the scarecrow at the thinking place, we'd been busy, hard at work on our own contribution to Deke Hawkins Day. Joey had turned out to be even more of a tech wizard than even Rich had known, figuring out ways to make happen the things I'd dreamed up at the start, and to which we had all contributed as the plan evolved. What had started in my mind as kind of a prank had grown in that time, to the point where I knew that if my dad learned about it at any time before or after we did this, it would probably be a long time before I would be free to visit the shack again.

At first this had scared me. Dad and I got along well because we mostly thought along the same lines, and viewed the world in the same way. But as our plan grew and became both bolder and more dangerous, I knew in my heart that I was well over the line in terms of both the legality of what we were going to do, and in the moral area of how one treats his neighbors. Although I had singled out Brad for our vengeance, there would be other people around him, not to mention a square full of Muskrats, who would all become witness to what occurred come Deke Hawkins Day. the same time, the sense of satisfaction I was going to get if we pulled this off seemed worth the risk. It was a juggling act, one that could go either way, with us either maintaining our balance and succeeding, or us slipping up, and everything falling into a heap at our feet.

"Stop worrying," Devvy kept telling me, punctuating his words with a hug or a kiss. "No one is going to get hurt. We'll have a little fun, Brad will get his, and then we can go on and enjoy our summer."

School had let out the day before. I know that I was not the only one that breathed a sigh of relief at that. The guys had had to endure several more bouts of indignity from Kisner and his cronies, and of course Brad had smiled at me every time he saw me, as if to say 'you ain't doing squat about it!'. I responded by turning out the finest tea table for my final grade that Mr. Newcombe had ever seen in his wood shop, so superior even to Brad's in style and finish that I could see him fuming about it, and the tiny fear in his eye over what might happen once his daddy found out about it. I simply smiled at Brad after Mr.Newcombe had finished praising my work in front of the whole class, and winked. "Better luck next time, huh?"

That Brad thought he would not see me again for the whole summer was probably the only mitigating factor that morning, or otherwise he might have simply exploded there and then. But Mr. Newcombe didn't tolerate what he called 'shenanigans' in his class, and the last thing Brad wanted was to be kicked out of his beloved wood shop right at the end of the school year. So he had eaten it, and liked it, and that had made me so happy that I almost skipped down the hall as I went to meet the other guys for the walk home.

I had halfway expected to see Brad at some point, in the hallway or out on the grounds; but he and his buddies had simply left after the dismissal bell, off to start their summers, they thought, with no more complications from anyone from Bent Fork, let alone four harmless gay guys.

How little they knew! And now, the Deke Hawkins celebration was only three days away.

I watched the grandstand as the drone floated almost noiselessly about it. "Up a little higher, so I can see those cross members, okay?"


The front of the grandstand had no top, though there was a square framework set back from the front that supported a canvas canopy. There was a row of chairs at the back of the stand, and people sitting there would be beneath the canopy and out of the sun. But the front of the stand was in the clear, and anyone coming to the microphone would be out in the sun where everyone could see them properly. All I knew is that the design worked for what I had in mind, and that was all that mattered.

With the hundreds of chairs that would be lined up facing the grandstand also facing the town hall and the bell tower, the stage was set for us to have an audience of measure for our performance, one that would surely remember this Deke Hawkins Day for some years to come. And, with the front of the grandstand open to the sky, the principle players would also be able to turn about and see the tower, and witness what was to come.

The equipment we had assembled or built, with Joey doing most of the figuring out and instruction, was simply awesome. The Thinking Place had offered up a huge bounty in materiel, and what we had been unable to find there and adapt to our needs, we simply ordered online and had delivered by super fast mail. The four of us pooled our limited funds, and the final actual outlay of cash was hardly more than a hundred-twenty dollars. That was thirty dollars apiece. Small price to pay for total satisfaction!

We'd checked out the town square at Muskrat Hill twice with the drone, inspecting the new grandstand to make sure that our equipment would work as needed, and checking out the bell tower to ensure that what we were preparing for that structure would also perform as planned. And, lastly, we'd used the drone to scope out a place where we could run the operation from, settling on the roof of the old Hernshaw Hardware, closed up and shuttered for some years now, ever since old man Hernshaw had passed with no heirs.

Muskrat Hill was no bigger than Bent Fork, a main street passing through a center town square, with a few side streets off the square that were lined with shops close in, and which gave way to shaded lawns farther out, hosting rambling old homes that were new when Victoria sat on the throne of England. A lot of the locals lived outside of the town proper, along the winding two-lane blacktop that was Rural Route Two, and off the many gravel roads that ran off the main route and back into the hills.

The town's businesses were clustered around the square and at the heads of the side streets, and the Hernshaw Hardware building was on the square proper, to one side of the Town Hall, at the corner of the square. The old brick building backed up on woods, and now belonged to the town. Merlin Caspar, who owned the dry goods store, had simply added on a new section behind his building after Mr. Hernshaw passed, and filled it with the kinds of items the old hardware store had sold, kind of making another hardware store unneeded. So far, the town had been unable to let the structure, and it had remained empty. So we had what we felt was a safe base of operations, and a quick getaway route through the woods.

Everything seemed to work perfectly for what we needed. And now, with this last look at things to make sure nothing had changed, we were now ready for the most dangerous part of our plan: the actual set up of our equipment in the town itself. That needed to be done the night before the opening of the festival, so that everything would be in place the following morning. We could not risk placing even the simplest elements any earlier, lest they be discovered beforehand, and ruin our plan.

Through the drone's high resolution camera, I scoped out what I could see of the framework supporting the canopy at the back of the grandstand, and could see no changes that might interfere with our carefully-wrought plans. At this stage of the game, if no changes had been made to the stand by now, none would be forthcoming. Indeed, the stand did have a 'finished' look about it now, the row of chairs already lined across the back beneath the canopy certainly suggesting that no more work was to be done there. That the stand had also been built by Brad's dad and a couple of his friends kind of put the icing on the cake for me. Mr. Kisner had, so to speak, set the stage for his son's comeuppance.

I patted Joey's shoulder, and leaned closer to his ear. "Great. Now turn, and let's look at that podium one more time."

The drone turned and the camera came around, and the podium came into view. It stood in the center of the stand, behind the low front railing that ran to the stairs on either side of the grandstand. The outside of the stand had been wrapped in colorful blue and gray vinyl bunting, but the inside had been given a finished look simply by covering the frame with heavy blue waxed paper and stapling it in place. This went for the podium, too, which was just a frame of two-by-fours, and which would have looked clunky if left open. Had the grandstand been intended to be a permanent fixture of the green before the town hall, they would have no doubt sheathed everything in wood; but the stand was basically bolted together, and they simply put it up each year for Deke Hawkins Day, and then took it down again and stored it in the big shed around back of the hall.

The paper covering of the podium was a key feature in the success of our plan, and it wouldn't do at all for someone to get it into their heads to cover the podium with something a little nicer. But it was immediately apparent that that had not happened, and once again I could only grin at that stolid fellow that was 'custom'.

"Okay," I said, patting Joey's shoulder, "you can pull out now. Fly over the roof of the hardware store again for one more look, and then you can head her home."

The drone gained some altitude, turned, and headed for the indicated building. We planned to do a recon of the square each morning just after sun up, to make sure nothing changed. The night before the celebration, we would make our way to Muskrat Hill with our equipment, and set the final stage.

Deke Hawkins Day was on a Saturday, and by the night of the Thursday before, we were all a little nervous. We'd arranged to spend the next couple of nights at the shack, the four of us, not a problem for our parents, who figured if we were there, we were staying out of trouble. It was, after all, on my gran's property, albeit a fair walk through the woods from his house on the hill. Neither he nor meemaw had visited the old boathouse since we had taken it over, my grandmother just rolling her eyes and smiling knowingly at what sort of delicious mischief boys might get into when left to their own devices, but taking no interest in seeing for herself. I think she thought we looked at dirty magazines and told blue jokes, and just did teen guy things like any other teen guys. She was an innocent, a little less imaginative than she had once been before her little stroke, and if she had ever known that I was gay, she had forgotten it completely.

I suspected that gran knew, but if he did, he was neutral about it, having long ago decided that family was family, and not really something you could just dispense with. I knew my gran had a low opinion of the law, and of the government in general, and that the idea of his son being a deputy irked him more than a little bit. But he'd evidently gotten used to it, and no longer made the little comments about Sheriff Dizzard, and his one-time propensity to 'bust up' peaceful and law-abiding folk's stills. For a man who said he didn't really like the taste of beer, gran consumed more than enough of it, buying and tossing back at least a case of the stuff each week. It was his refrigerator from which I cadged the occasional brews for our Friday night hangs, and if he had ever noticed the few missing bottles, he'd certainly never wondered at his count being off. I just figured that he figured he'd had a few more than he thought!

Dev and I had the couch this night, while Rich and Joey were sprawled on the mattress. It was a warm evening, and a little sticky, and we were down to our unders for comfort, and know. Nothing like snuggling up against your boyfriend with scarcely anything at all between you.

We had a movie playing - something with zombies in it - but I hadn't even caught the title. The sound was turned low, and the crickets in the woods outside seemed closer to my ears. I was lying behind Dev, one arm over him, my chin atop his shoulder and my cheek pressed close to his ear.

"I love you," I whispered.

"I love you back," he returned, just as softly, and adding a smile for good measure. He gave a little sigh, and rolled over to face me, and I pulled him closer as he offered a sweet kiss. I could feel his other offering pressing against me, down low, and knew we'd be getting to that long before the little core of trapped heroes in the movie finally blew up the zombies and got away.

"Are you nervous about tomorrow night?" he asked then, referring to our planned midnight mission to place our gear.

I gave a little sigh of my own, having been distracted away from all of our plans by his closeness, and now feeling all of them come rushing back. He felt it, and pressed his face closer to mine. "Sorry."

I kissed him. "Don't be. I'm not."

He was quiet a moment, and then: "Kelly? Do you think what we're doing is wrong?"

I'd already mulled this whole question over, and had a ready answer. "Yes. If we get caught, there'll be hell to pay."

I could feel him biting his lip. "Then...why are we doing it?"

I smiled, and gave him a little kiss. "Because we should. Because if we don't, Brad and his bunch will keep taking from us, and we can't just sit and let that happen."

He grunted. "But how will this stop him from picking on us? He won't know it was us that did it."

I had to agree with that. "He might not. But...he's gonna feel what it's like to be made fun of, and I don't think he'll like it. I hope it will make him think about it."

"It's...a little scary, though. We're going to do this with a whole town watching."

"Yep." I had to smile at that. That very fact was part of the payoff! "Sometimes, the only way to deal with injustice is with another injustice. I doesn't make it right, but it does kind of even things out."

Dev laughed, and kissed me. "Bet your dad wouldn't think so."

I gave a little cringe at that. "No. I expect he'll be pissed at me, if he finds out. He may even suspect us, anyway. My dad zeroes in on stuff like that, sometimes."

"So you want to do this? You're not just doing it because of me?"

I pulled back to look at him. "You think that?"

"Well...I wondered."

I smiled, and had to kiss him again. "I'm doing it for you, yes. And for Rich, and for Joey...and for me. I'm tired of taking shit from those guys. Okay?"

Dev gave a little sigh, and snuggled closer to me. "Okay."

I held him, and knew then that what we were doing needed to be done. For Dev, and for Rich, and for Joey. And for me. Nice guys do finish last, if they let that happen. The world is full of unpleasant people, who seem to think they have some sort of right for everything to go their way. Even at the expense of others, who are simply doing their things, living their lives, not bothering anyone. It was unfair, and I'd been raised with fairness squarely in my sights. I had to do something to preserve that ideal, because I really did believe in it.

What I was coming to see was that there was fairness, and then there was fairness. As in equality. There needed to be a balance here, a leveling of the playing field. We had to stop being so nice, stop turning the other cheek, or just wind up with bruises on both of them. It was time for us to act.

It was time for...for...

I hesitated to use the word retribution. And revenge was even worse. They both seemed so small and angry - nasty things, not to be viewed directly. But that there was both revenge and retribution here was plain to me. We were about to be, in our own ways, as nasty to Brad as Brad and his bunch had been to us.

My gran has a saying - one he uses often to describe the events of the world. I'd always kind of smiled at it, because it sounds so much like an old guy thing. But for the first time, I think I really understood what he meant by it.

What goes around, comes around.

And I could see it coming, even now. For Brad Kisner, it was about to come around in a hurry!

Someone stepped on a stick buried in the old leaves, and it snapped with what sounded like a rifle shot in the darkness. I froze in mid-step, and Devvy bumped into me, and I heard the others gasp and stop moving.

"Sorry," Rich whispered, after a moment of silence. "I can't see where I'm putting my feet. And this damn gas can is heavy."

Ahead of us, the lights of Muskrat Hill glowed softly in the night, muted, not nearly as bright as you would expect a town to look at just about midnight. The only streetlights were at the corners of the roads intersecting the square, and one short pole light glowed outside the courthouse, near the stone front steps. Most of the businesses showed a dim light inside, and maybe a few of the window signs had been left on; but for the most part, the square was in shadows. None of the practical townsfolk felt any desire to pay to light up an area that hadn't seen a crime in living memory.

We were arrowing in on the back porch light of Annie Ligget's little restaurant, the Come On Inn, a dim yellow bug-light bulb underneath a metal shade that did little to dispense the light beyond the worn wooden stairs at the back door. A light glowed inside the little window next to the door, but certainly the restaurant was closed at this hour. Even on Friday nights most area businesses closed at five, with a few - like places to eat, and the movie theater out on Route Two - staying open until nine.

There was also a bar a little further out of town, where all the local drinkers spent their evenings, but it, too, was closed by ten o'clock during the week, and eleven on the weekends. So the town square in Muskrat Hill should be silent and vacant at this hour. In this neck of the woods, most proprietors pulled in the welcome mats well before sunset, because most people wanted to be home for supper, and business died off to nothing at the dinner hour. The only place right in town besides the Come On Inn that did anything after dinner was the Baptist church, which had Bingo on Friday and Saturday nights. But even those activities were over well before the sun went down.

Proper folk were in bed at this hour, right? Only mischievous teenagers with a half-baked plan in mind were senseless enough to be out at this time of the night.

"Damn, it's hot," Joey whispered. "Makes me itch."

We were all dressed in black sweats, and wore dark brown garden gloves on our hands. We'd cut up and sewn into shape some old black tee-shirts to make headgear - simple tubes of cotton cloth that we pulled down over our heads to cover our faces. They had eye holes cut in them, but no others, and breathing and talking through the material left a lot of heat trapped within. It wasn't comfortable, but it was better than being seen. In the event we did encounter someone unexpectedly, we at least had the hope that they couldn't identify us later on.

"Yeah," I whispered. "Better than getting caught, though."

I received several grunts in reply, which told me that the others were once again considering the danger of what we were up to.

The restaurant was three doors down from the empty hardware store, and the only place on this side of the square that left a light on out back at night. We'd scoped it out with the drone, and so knew exactly where we were. Once we exited the woods near the restaurant, we would turn right, walk a short bit, and we'd be there.

Joey was the only one of our group with a driver's license yet, and he'd borrowed his older brother's pick up truck to ferry us and our equipment over to the spot on Route Two that was nearest the back of the line of stores containing the hardware. Joey's brother, Dave, was in the army, and home infrequently. He'd told Joey he could use the truck if needed during the day, but that he didn't want him out in it at night, cruising or getting into trouble. Joey, who didn't like trouble, anyway, had had no need for the vehicle until now; but it sure came in handy for our mission this night.

Joey's dad owned a gas station in Royce, six miles away over the ridge at the Holly Point exit off the Interstate, and opened it every morning at six a.m. to catch the morning rush. So he was in bed early, and Joey's mom followed suit, for the most part. Taking the truck without disturbing them had been easy enough.

We'd hidden it off the road behind a copse of big red loropetalum, which was kind of like hiding your sins under a streetlight. But it would make it easy to find again, if nothing else. The woods were thin here, with plenty of space between the trees, and while dark as pitch beneath the canopy of leaves, it was flat land and easy to cross. We'd made good time covering the near mile to the back side of the town square.

I blew out a little breath, trying to ease the tension I couldn't help feeling. I let my eyes roam over what I could see through the trees ahead, and there was no movement, no new lights, nothing to indicate that Rich's poorly placed step had garnered any attention at all. I suspected it had sounded a lot louder to us than it really had been, and that the sound had probably been lost among the crickets and frogs and night owls long before it had reached the town.

"It's okay," I whispered to him. "No harm done. We can't help stepping on shit we can't see. Come on, let's go."

Each of us had a lot to carry, and some of it wasn't light. We were all draped with the dark gray burlap sacks that held our gear, each with a big number written on it in black magic marker, to quickly identify it under the soft glow of the little LED flashlights we each carried. We'd taped clear red plastic over the lenses to mute the lights, and the flashes could hopefully be used without it looking like a team of burglars were skulking about the town. We didn't expect anyone to be in the square at this hour, but some of the houses outside of town were up on Blocker Hill and Hawkins Ridge, and had a good view down on the town square. Wouldn't do to have some up-late local out on his front porch spy all sorts of weird lights moving about down in the town, and get himself on the phone to Deputy Dawson.

Speaking of the local law, that also took in its shingle by dark, just like it did over in Bent Fork. Muskrat Hill only paid its single deputy to be about during the day, and while he was on call after dark, it was from his bedroom over on Shandy Street, between the covers, let the phone ring some, so I'll hear it.

We continued ahead, stepping carefully, and made it to the edge of the woods without setting off any more rifle shots. I breathed a sigh of relief then. We'd scoped the stretch of woods beforehand, during daylight, and it had looked pretty regular to our eyes as viewed through the camera on the drone. But leaves could hide a variety of pitfalls, and I'd had the small worry all along that someone might step in a hidden hole and twist an ankle, or even worse, break something. That would be the end of our plan, not to even mention that one of us would be hurt. I wanted Brad to get his coming around, but I didn't want any of us to pay for it with any further pain.

We squatted at the edge of the woods, behind a rotting pile of old firewood, and examined the back of the restaurant. It looked quiet, and all I could hear was the local wildlife happily conversing about their latest adventures. I pulled up my sleeve and looked at the soft glow from the face of my watch - midnight, just about on the dot.

Here we go!

"Okay," I said quietly, rising to my feet. "Let's get this show on the --"

Just then there was a squeak, and the back door of the restaurant opened and the screen door thrust outward. I simply froze, amazed and horrified at the same time, and only Dev reaching up and pulling me down probably saved me from being seen.

Cupper Dawson, the town deputy, emerged onto the dingy back porch, with Annie Ligget right on his heels.

The deputy wore a great big smile, and as the two emerged into the yellow light from the bug bulb, he turned and took Annie into his arms. She was also smiling, and kept smiling as they kissed and giggled at each other.

"That was wonderful," the deputy said. "Ain't nobody cooks like you do, honey."

Annie wiggled her middle against him, and laughed. "You cook pretty hot yourself, Cuppy."

I had to put my hand over my mouth not to laugh out loud. Cupper Dawson and Annie Liggett! And I thought I had a pretty good idea from the way they were acting that they were not talking about cooking food!

Small towns have their secrets, but they also have stories to tell, and gossip is the wings on which stories get around. My dad heard the best of it, and he and the other deputies passed it around amongst themselves, much to the delight of my mom, who always said that men were just as terrible a bunch of gossips as any group of old ladies.

So I knew what I was seeing right now. Annie Ligget was engaged to Mort Snodgrass, the son of the president of the Wells Fargo Bank in Royce, and the heir to the Snodgrass fortune. Well, it probably wasn't a fortune, if you looked at the house that old Mr. Snodgrass lived in; but it was more money than Annie made running the little restaurant she'd inherited from her mother, for sure. That Annie was 'marryin' into money' was well-known...and yet, here she was, stepping out at night with Cupper Dawson! Jumpin' Jesus on a pogo stick!

Devin leaned on me from behind, and I could feel him laughing silently. Rich couldn't quite contain himself, and let out an audible gasp followed by a snort, to which Annie immediately started, and pulled back from Cupper, her eyes looking about suspiciously.

"What was that?"

"What was what?"

"I heard a noise."

The deputy turned then, but couldn't see us in our black outfits, hunkered down behind the woodpile. "I didn't hear anything."

"It sounded like someone farted or something."

I squeezed my eyes shut and simply held on, trying not to go off, and heard small sounds from the others as they did the same.

"There it is again!" Annie said, her eyes darting about. The deputy's eyes also moved about, but more slowly, his gaze diving into the shadows and finding nothing there to see.

"Ain't nothing," Cupper said, turning back to Annie. "Deer, maybe. They're probably out in the woods, ruttin' or something."

Annie's mouth pinched up, and she shook her head. "Deer don't rut in the summer, dummy. They do it in the fall."

Cupper sighed, and pulled her closer again. "Honey, the only ruttin' I care about right now is between you and me."

At that Annie smiled, and allowed herself to be pawed a little. "Just remember, I'm spoken for, Cupper Dawson. Me and Mort will be married 'fore the end of the year, and then we'll probably have to stop playing like this."

Cupper drew back, and grinned. "Probably?"

Annie smiled coyly. "Well...we'll see."

The deputy sighed. "I don't get why you want to marry that guy. He's not like you at all. He's one of of them nerd fellas, what with those binoculars on his face, and all."

"Morty can't help it if he's farsighted," Annie admonished, giving the deputy a playful little slap right over his badge. "And it's mean of you to even say that!"

"You're a head taller than he is, too," Cupper went on, not to be silenced. "He's a runt."

Annie's smile only grew. "He's bigger in some places than others."

The deputy snorted, and shook his head. "I sure didn't need to know that!"

Annie sighed, and patted the front of the deputy's shirt. "You just be good now, and stop worrying. We'll still be friends, even after I get married. I already told Morty I wasn't giving up the restaurant, and he agreed with me. So I'll be here all day, and Morty will be in Royce all day, waiting for me to come home." She smiled. "That give you any ideas?"

Cupper snorted at that, and rolled his eyes. "Well --"

"Just wait and see," Annie said reassuringly. "Now git. I have a stand on the green, and I expect some extra business 'cause of the festival tomorrow. And you'll be busy keeping order and things. It's late, and we both need to get ourselves to bed."

"Yeah. We can talk more about this later." The deputy smiled again, and offered another kiss.

By now we had controlled our laughter, and were simply watching as the two sucked face a moment. I didn't know Annie or Cupper beyond a passing acquaintance, both gained from visiting the town with my dad. But I kind of found I didn't like either of them much just now. All I could feel at the moment was sorry for Mort Snodgrass, who obviously had no idea what he was getting into.

The pair parted then. Annie locked the door, and then they each went in different directions. There were narrow alleys every third or fourth shop, that let one through into the square, and they each went through a different one, to emerge near their parked cars. We heard them start up, and then drive away, and none of us moved until the night was once again silent save for the things that belonged there.

"How about that?" Rich finally whispered.

"Shit," Joey returned, sounding less than amused. "Talk about timing. If we'd gotten here a little earlier, we mighta walked right into that!"

I had to agree. We'd figured on no one being about the square at midnight, but now we had to consider the unforeseen, like what had just happened now. That meant being even more careful, and watching everywhere before moving or doing anything in the open. That would surely add to our time here. I'd allotted ninety minutes to get everything ready, and hoped it would be closer to an hour. The sooner we got out of here, the better. We all needed to get some sleep before tomorrow. The festival started at ten, and we needed to be back here and up on the roof of the hardware by nine.

"Let's go," I said, rising again. This time, no doors opened, and no one popped up to confront us. I guess every plan has unexpected moments where something can go wrong and ruin everything, and I hoped we'd just had our one moment, and narrowly avoided the consequences. Maybe there would be no more surprises.

Yeah, right.

We stepped quickly down the truck drive behind the buildings, past dumpsters and bins and empty crates and boxes, and rounded the corner to our destination. The back of the hardware was absent most of these things, but did have the one thing that all the other shops also had, and which we now needed: a steel ladder running up the back wall to the flat roof. We paused there, because here was where we split up.

We'd all practiced what we had to do, and knew our parts. We'd all be working together, but some things did not require all of us at once. By splitting up we could accomplish a lot more in the same amount of time, and reduce the risk presented by all four of us needlessly clomping about together.

I turned, and leaned over and pressed my face against Devvy's. "Be careful. I love you."

"Yeah, I love you, too. But I'm Rich."

I heard Joey laugh, and then another dark shape loomed closer. "Care to try again?" it asked, in Dev's voice.

I grinned, but leaned forward again, and pushed my cotton-clad face against his. "Be careful," I repeated. "I love you."

This time, I got a fond squeeze in return, and the little click of a kiss against my cheek. "I love you, Kelly. You be careful, too. 'Specially that climbing."

Joey and Rich exchanged kisses, too.

"Was that as good as what Kelly just gave you?" Joey whispered.

Rich laughed. "One more? Just to be sure."

They pushed against each other again, and more fond noises issued from between them. And then one figure turned my way. "Sorry, Kel. I have to go with Joey here."

"Like I expected anything else. Let's get to work!"

Navy Seals we were not. If this had been a secret mission behind enemy lines, we'd probably have been nabbed while kissing behind the target structure. I could imagine the newspaper headlines over that!

"Leave that gas can here," Joey told Rich. "And bags three and four. We'll take them around and leave them at the corner of the building. No use hauling them up there, and then lowering them back down."

Rich grunted. "I couldn't haul that heavy-ass can up this ladder, even if I tried."

Joey gave a soft laugh. "I was kidding."

Rich set the gas can down by Joey, and then pulled bag three off his shoulder. "At least this is light."

Dev set bag four beside me, and patted me on the shoulder. "Good luck."

I nodded. "You, too."

Dev started up the ladder to the roof of the hardware, and Rich watched until he was about eight feet up, and then followed. An alley was at the other end of the store, and Joey and I picked up the gas can and the extra bags, and headed for it. We quickly passed through it to the square, and paused there, surveying the quiet and shadow-filled green across the street. The pole light in front of the courthouse, which was down the street before us, was the only real light we had to contend with. We could see no one - no movement, anywhere - and no sound came to our ears. It was just what you might expect to find at midnight, and it was wonderfully reassuring.

"Let's set this stuff here, back a little from the sidewalk," Joey suggested. "It's shadowed, and someone could walk right by and not even see it."

We did that, and then looked out on the green once more. It was still quiet, the shadows draped about everywhere, still undisturbed.

"Let's go, Joe."

We emerged from the alley and headed down the sidewalk, the sacks we were still carrying bumping against us at we moved. The front of the courthouse was set out further than the facades of the shops to either side of it, and we'd had a devil of a time finding the access ladder that led up to the bell tower. We'd expected it to be out back, where every other business structure in town had its roof access ladder. And there was one for the roof of the courthouse out back, but a quick look via drone had shown no path from the flat rear roof to the bell tower up front.

I'd been getting nervous over this apparently serious flaw in my original plan, when Joey had leaned forward and pointed at the laptop screen. "There!"

The access ladder for the bell tower had turned out to be on the side of the left front corner of the courthouse, behind a small possumhaw holly tree growing at the corner of the building. From even the street it looked like more of the decorative brickwork that adorned the old building; you had to get right up on it before it was revealed to be the curved rungs of a steel ladder embedded into the brickwork. We arrived at the bottom of the ladder, and I put a hand on one rung and looked up.

The spire of the bell tower stood out against the stars, a great black void in an otherwise beautiful sky. The moon didn't rise tonight until almost two-thirty a.m., good for us when it came to sneaking about the poorly-lit square, not so good for things like climbing a ladder in that same darkness. This was why Joey and I had this part of the mission; neither Dev nor Rich could deal with heights. They could manage the fifteen feet or so to the roof of the hardware okay, but climbing almost four stories on an open ladder was beyond them.

To tell you the truth, I was not too thrilled about it myself. But I knew I was more stable with heights than Dev and Rich, and I would not allow them to take the risk if I could do the job. Joey wasn't scared of much except attention, and could have made the climb if it had been twice as high. Hell, three times as high.

We'd come ahead of plan a little to check things out. But everything looked clear, our signal to proceed. "Wait here," I whispered. "I'll get the line."

I hurried back to the hardware store at the corner of the square, looked nervously about, and then looked up. A dark figure was leaning over the edge of the roof, looking down at me. "Ready for it?"

"Yes!" I motioned with my hands, and felt something drop down into my arms. I quickly gathered up the thin line, and started back to the courthouse, feeling little tugs on the cord as it played out behind me.

For this critical part of our plan, we were using 550, type III, seven strand paracord. It was pale blue in color, had a diameter just over an eighth of an inch, and would, like its name said, hold up to 550 pounds of weight. Not that we needed anything like that much strength; but the ability not to stretch much under load meant that we could pull it tight between the bell tower and the roof of the hardware store, which is what we needed to do in order for our plan to succeed.

It's small diameter and light color meant that it would hopefully be nearly invisible against the sunlit sky, reducing the chance that anyone might notice it and give us away. There were a number of wires and lines up above the businesses around the square - hopefully this would just be one more, blending in. People sometimes notice anything new or out of place, even small things, and I wanted to reduce that possibility as much as I could.

You'd think something as utterly cool as cord made to work with parachutes would be expensive; but we'd purchased a thousand-foot roll on Amazon for twenty-eight bucks. We'd estimated that we'd need five-hundred feet of line to reach to the bell tower balcony and back down to the roof of the hardware store again, but had played it safe and got double that amount. Nothing would kill the plan quicker than being ten feet short on our line.

I reached the ladder, and wrapped the line around my waist and tied it off. Then I placed a hand on the first rung of the ladder, and turned to Joey. "Ready?"

"Yep. You go first. But if anything happens, yell, so I can get out of the way. No use both of us falling."

I grinned, recognizing gallows humor when I saw it. Joey was just as nervous as I was, underneath his veneer of cool.

"Right." I started up the ladder.

Actually, climbing at night was probably easier. It wasn't pitch black out - I could see the town square around me, in the dim lights from the buildings, and the starlit sky was quite beautiful overhead. But the ground below was dark, and as I ascended, I really didn't get the same sense of height I might have gotten during the day. Still, I could somehow feel the height, and it did nothing to settle my already jangly nerves.

Climbing nearly four stories takes time, but at long last I reached the balcony beneath the big clock. The face of the clock was lit, and the time was now twelve-twenty-two; but the glow of it didn't come down to the balcony much, and when I climbed over the railing, I was still mostly in darkness. The ladder continued upward past the balcony to a steel door that must have let into the guts of the clock or something. I would think that there had to be a way to get to the same place from inside the building, but you never know how these things work until you see them.

A moment later Joey was beside me. "Piss your pants?"

I laughed. "No. Came close, though."

He patted my shoulder. "Don't feel bad. Made me a little nervous, too."

I grinned under my cotton hood. That sort of admission from Joey was a rare one, indeed!

We moved to the center of the narrow balcony, beneath the big clock, and looked down. Across the street, on the center green, was the grandstand, in perfect view. I could even make out the podium at the front of it. Anyone standing there and turning to look up would have a perfect view of the balcony, and anything on it.

And perfect was just what we wanted.

"Oh, man," Joey breathed, taking in the view. "This is gonna be killer."

I nodded, and shrugged off the burlap sacks I was carrying, breathing a sigh of relief. They were fairly heavy, and I'd really felt that weight while climbing up the ladder. Joey did the same, and we quickly went to work.

It was easy to see where I needed to drill into the brickwork. We wanted Boney to look like he was a human being standing up here at the railing, so I drilled the four holes just above my own height, using the portable drill in the number one sack. I had a stencil, so that the holes would be properly placed. My portable drill made short work of the job, and after setting it at my feet, I found the hammer and the inserts, and quickly pounded the latter into the holes by feel. These would properly anchor the screws that held the pulley mount.

Next I got the pulley out. It was a five inch affair mounted on a swivel, so that it could turn ninety degrees to either side. I switched out the drill bit for a hex-head driver, and just as quickly drove in the three-inch screws that would secure the pulley mount to the wall. Once mounted, I grabbed hold of it and did a quick couple of pull-ups, just to make certain it was solid. It was. Then I returned the tools to the first sack, and turned to see what Joey was doing.

He'd removed Boney from his own sack, and was setting him up. We'd altered the scarecrow a little for what we wanted him to do, and repaired his lower section so that it looked like he had legs again. Joey had fixed Boney so that he could bend double at the waist for transport, yet become fairly rigid again by the simple insertion of a half-inch dowel rod between the two hinged halves. The missing legs and feet had been re-framed in light pine rods, glued together with builder's cement. After we'd dressed Boney in a pair of old jeans, we'd covered the framework of his feet by gluing cardboard over them, and painted them black to look like shoes. This kept him as lightweight as possible.

Joey had also altered the electronics inside the scarecrow, adding a tiny, multi-channel receiver between the control panel and the little motors that activated Boney's arms. A transmitter with a joystick that was in bag six back on the hardware store roof could now be used to control his arm movements. Pull the joystick left, and Boney's left arm waved. Pull it right, and Boney's right arm would respond. Push the joystick forward, and both arms would wave at the same time. The nice thing was that the joysticks gave Boney's arm movements a finesse that he had never had when he'd been standing out in a field guarding corn. Just tap the joystick and the arm in question would make half a cycle, bringing the arm up and stopping it extended in front of the scarecrow. Tap it again, and the arm cycled around again to the downward position.

Boney also had a voice now. A tiny amp in his chest delivered twelve watts of acoustic energy from the receiver to the lightweight speaker hidden inside the frame beneath his shirt. Joey had rigged a simple frequency modulator into the circuit, which would give his transmitted voice a deep, quite sinister tone as it emerged from the speaker. Demonic was the word that had actually come to mind, when we'd tested it back at the shack. I had a feeling that when Boney talked, people would stop and listen. The powerful amp assured that there would be plenty of volume, and that the voice would easily reach the square below.

"Okay," Joey said, nodding at me. "I need the battery."

I went to bag two, and pulled out the twelve-volt, sealed, lead-acid battery that would power Boney in his next life. We'd found a wrecked UPS back-up power supply at the thinking place, a big, desktop model in a sleek black case. The control panel in the front was cracked, and the case was dented as if the whole thing had taken a spill to the floor. The unit didn't work, of course, but it had two batteries inside that were still perfectly good. It had been a great find, because we'd happened to be in need of two good power sources for our little project, and after charging them, they'd both proven to be usable.

But at ten pounds each, the batteries were a fair load to carry. This battery was the single heaviest part of Boney's new gear, and would replace the smaller battery that had been charged by the solar cells in the scarecrow's hat. Those solar cells would still provide a charge to the new battery, though there would not be enough to counter the drain. But the battery would last more than long enough to complete Boney's star performance.

Joey had made a new mount for it inside the aluminum frame of Boney's chest, and he set the battery into it, and wrapped the leather strap around it that would secure it in place, and fastened the buckle. He connected the push-on connectors, and then closed Boney's shirt. Then he pulled down the scarecrow's shirt pocket, and pushed the switch that activated him. A tiny green LED lit on the panel, and Joey refastened the shirt pocket over it.

"Okay, I need the headset."

I went back to bag two, and pulled out the two headsets with attached mics, and handed one to Joey. I put my own set on as he donned his, and squatted down to watch.

Joey positioned the mic in front of his mouth, and cleared his throat. "Testing. You there, Rich?"

I could hear his voice in my earphones, and then Rich's reply. "Yeah. All set?"

"Yeah." Joey stood Boney up against he wall of the tower, and looked out at the hardware store. "Right arm first."

"Okay. Moving the right arm."

There was a soft whirr from within the scarecrow, and the right arm raised and waved, and then settled back to Boney's side.

"Good," Joey said, "Now the left one."

"Left one," Rich repeated. Again the soft whirr, and Boney's left arm came up, waved, and dropped back.

I felt a pulse of excitement pass through me. It worked!

"Now the voice," Joey said. "Just whisper, Rich. We don't want to wake up the whole town."

"Testing," Boney whispered, in his devil's voice. "One, two, three, four."

Even at a whisper, it was scary enough to send a chill up my spine. Boney could now give any movie demon a run for his money!

"That's good enough," Joey said quickly, following it with a nervous-sounding laugh of his own. "Man, is that ever good enough!"

"So we're ready to go with Boney?" Rich asked.

"Yeah. We need the line now."

"I'm on my way," came Devin's voice over the headset.

I got to my feet and reeled in a length of the paracord hanging over the balcony, so that a large loop lay at my feet, and then put a foot atop it. Then I untied the end of the cord from my waist. "Anchor it?" I asked Joey.

He nodded, came over and placed his foot on the back side of the loop. I could lift my own foot then, and took the end of the line to the pulley and fed it around it, and then pulled out the guard that would keep the line from coming off. I walked back to the rail, carefully drawing the line through the pulley, and began feeding it back over the railing.

"I'm below you," Dev's voice said over the headset.

"I'm feeding the line down," I returned.

It took a couple of minutes, but then I heard Dev speak again. "I see it...almost there...okay, I got it. I'm heading back to the store."

The cord took on a new life, and began feeding over the railing by itself. I looked below, and could just barely make out Devin as he walked slowly back to the hardware store. Our outfits were actually pretty good, and Devin only really showed as he passed near the faintly-lit shop windows. And even then he looked like a ghost, and not a person at all.

Finally, Devin reached the hardware store. I knew he would now be fastening the end of the paracord to a length of clothesline hanging down the front of the building, and that in a moment, Rich would be drawing the line upwards. I couldn't actually see that happen, and only knew it had been done when I saw Dev vanish down the side alley on his way back around to the ladder to the roof.

"Okay, I got it," Rich said, "As soon as Dev gets back, we'll start drawing it in."

Atop the hardware store, Dev would already have mounted a pulley of his own to the brickwork. His was a slightly more complicated affair, with two pulleys instead of one. His was also motorized like a winch, and designed to be able to move line at a pretty fair speed. Now that they had the original end back with them, they could cut the line off the spool and tie off that end.They would then pull the line from the bell tower through the pulley assembly, start the motor on low, and draw in the excess line, until it grew taut. Then they would fasten the two ends of the line together with two clamps, just outside of the pulleys, and cut off the excess. They would then have a closed loop that could run a length of cord from the bell tower to the roof of the hardware store, like a clothesline strung between two apartment buildings. The clamps would not pass through the pulleys, but then, they wouldn't need to.

Joey and I stood and watched our end, as the line slowly drew up the side of the building and grew taut. Even then it continued to vibrate another minute, and then Rich's voice came over the headset again. "I think that's all we can get. How does it feel?"

I reached up and felt the line. It certainly felt taut to me. Joey did the same, and nodded.. "Feels good." He went and checked the pulley, to make sure that the line was properly in the groove. "Okay, we're good here. Now run the line through, until the clamps get up here. Go slow, and stop when I say. Once we have the end here, we'll attach Boney, and then move on to the next phase."

There was a grunt over the radio circuit, and the line above us started moving. It took a full three minutes for the clamps to get to us under low power, but we didn't want to risk ramming them into the pulley on our end and possibly gumming something up. Joey kept a hand up on the bottom line, the one moving in our direction, just in case he didn't see the clamps until too late.

At last they arrived, and Joey called a halt to the line's progress, and then had Rich bump the winch pulley until the clamps were right up to our pulley. The power to the motor on the other end would now be reversed, so that when it was started again, the clamped joint of the line would head back to the roof of the hardware. When that happened, we would be there to receive the line's cargo.

Boney had two hardpoints, one on the back of each shoulder, where he was meant to be suspended from whatever sort of mount was used in a cornfield. There were two to presumably keep him from swaying and rocking in the wind, and that worked in our favor now. Joey had simply bent a steel bar into an inverted 'vee', so that the ends could be attached to the hardpoints on each shoulder, while allowing for a single attachment up top. I held up the scarecrow, while Joey reached up and fastened the two halves of Boney's cord mount together over the line, with the top of the mounting rod set into grooves between them, pushed bolts through the holes on each end, and slid lock washers over the end of them. He twirled the nuts down until they were snug, and nodded at me. I went back to bag one, retrieved the ratchet and the box wrench, and Joey quickly tightened the mount bolts. Boney was now securely attached to the paracord, his back against the wall, and no amount of wind short of a twister could turn him away from that position. His present placement should keep him from being seen from below until we were ready. Then, a light tap on the motor drive for the pulleys on the hardware roof would bring him forward to the railing, where he would easily be seen by anyone below.

"I think we're done here," Joey said, sounding relieved.

"This might actually work," I said, grinning beneath my face mask.

"I think it will," Joey returned, sounding pleased with himself. He'd put a lot into this project, and I felt he had a right to sound pleased. I clapped him on the shoulder, and sensed his grin, even if I couldn't see it. And then we helped each other get our sacks back on.

Mine was a lot lighter now, minus the pulley, its mount, and the battery, and Joey's was now almost empty, Boney himself having been the primary cargo. The trip back down to the ground was going to be a lot easier for both of us. The last thing I did was to pull out my flash, and, shielding the front with my hand, I played the red light over the floor of the balcony, just to make sure we hadn't left anything behind.. But it was clear, and so we headed back to the ladder.

"We're on our way down now," I said into my mic. "Have a line ready, so we can send up our bags."

"Okay," Dev replied. "See you in a few minutes."

This time, Joey started down first. He again told me to sing out if I slipped, so that he could get out of the way, and I just laughed. Joey's dark humor often masked his nervousness, and I'd come to understand that his serious facade hid a pretty sweet guy underneath. I think he really only ever deliberately showed that inner self to Rich, and perhaps that was the way it should be. But Dev and I had seen enough glimpses of it to know that Joey's darkness was only skin deep.

Going down was faster than coming up had been, and soon we were standing in the grass behind the possumhaw tree again. I gave a sigh of relief, feeling that the hardest part of our set up was now complete. I'd probably never be able to look at that bell tower again without remembering our midnight climb beneath the stars. But I also felt a sort of warm inner glow, that can only come from doing something you'd rather not, and completing the task successfully.

We scoped out the square, but it looked totally empty. The tower clock now read twelve-forty five. With any luck, we'd be back to the truck by one-thirty.

"Ready?" I asked Joey.

"Yeah. Let's go."

We stepped out from behind the tree and hastened along the sidewalk, hoping that we were as nearly invisible as we thought. I don't think I'd ever make a good burglar, because it's really unpleasant to skulk about in the dark hoping no one will notice you. And nothing makes a place more uncomfortable than the knowledge that you really don't belong there, doing whatever you're doing.

We arrived back at the hardware store, and I looked up to see a dark shape at the edge of the roof, outlined by stars. We moved left a little, and there was the clothesline, hanging down from above. We quickly pulled off our bags and attached them to the line, and they were whisked upward and away.

"Got 'em", Dev said into my earphones.

We could have just left the bags in the alley, but if something happened and we had to run, I'd lose my drill and my tools. They weren't that heavy, and sending them up to the others was not that big a deal. They would be leaving some of the things they had brought in their bags up on the roof, so carrying ours would be no problem for them.

"We're heading for the grandstand now," I told Dev. "Sing out if you see anything, okay?"

"I will. Rich and I are watching, believe me."

"Yeah," Rich added to the circuit. "You guys be careful."

Joey and I went back to the alley, and I grabbed up the gas can by its handle, while Joey slung the two bags over his shoulder. I grinned at that, because bag number four was pretty bulky, and Joey looked like dark Santa Claus about deliver his nasty gifts. And in a way - for Brad Kisner - that was even true!

"Let's go," he said, starting forward.

We crossed the street to the green, and walked through a gap in the line of shrubs that ran along the sidewalk. The grandstand loomed at the end of the green, in front of the courthouse, and we quickly crossed the grass to stand in front of it. I grunted, and set the can down. Rich was right - it was heavy!

"Damn molasses," I whispered. "Stuff weighs a ton!"

I heard Joey laugh softly, and he motioned for me to pick up the can again. "It's only about forty pounds. Come on. We're not there yet."

I grunted, but grabbed at the can's handle and hefted it again. Rich had toted this thing from the pick up truck all the way through the woods to the hardware store. I had to give that boy some respect for that!

We went around to the side of the stand, where there was a gap in the blue bunting covering the framework, and Joey bent low and started underneath. I went to follow, and found I had to set the gas can down and sort of drag it along the ground. There were upright supports everywhere, and I had no idea how far we had gone between them when Joey called a halt.

"We should be just about beneath the podium."

There were gaps between the floorboards above us, but all I could tell by peering through them was that we were not beneath the grandstand's canopy. I could see stars, very faintly, above us.

Joey turned to me. "Go ahead back out, and go to the podium. Take your tools with you. Let me know when you're there."

I nodded, fished my roll of tools out of sack three, and turned back the way we'd come. In a few seconds I was out, and walking around to the side steps. There were five of them, which I took slowly, looking about as I ascended.

Everything had gone smoothly after encountering Cupper Dawson and Annie Liggett behind the Come On Inn, and I have to admit it was spooking me a little. Bent Fork was probably just as quiet at this time of night, but I'd never been in the town square there so late, either, so I didn't know for sure. It just seemed ridiculous that we could walk around and do all this stuff, and there was no one to take notice. It was kind of eye-opening, in a way. I knew I loved it here in the sticks for the peace and quiet, but seeing how laid back it really was - and how safe our lives were compared to city folk - it was a little scary, too. If we could take advantage of the way life was here, others could, just as well.

Made ya think.

I crossed to the podium and squatted beside it. "I'm there," I said into the mic. "Right beside the podium." I took out my flash, and aimed the red light down between the floorboards.

"I see you. We were close. Stay there a minute while I move the stuff over underneath you."

I could see a trace of Joey's red flashlight through cracks in the boards, and heard him grunt. "You weren't kidding about the gas can."

I laughed. "It's only about forty pounds!"

"Fish got big lips, too," he returned. "Tell me something I don't know." There was more grunting, and then a satisfied breath of air. "Okay, I'm there. Let me see how these boards look. Hmm."

I turned my own flash off. I could see the red light of Joey's flash playing back and forth through the cracks between the floorboards.

"Okay. How about that wax paper on the podium? Is it thick, like we thought?"

I reached out a finger and prodded the covering on the side of the podium. "Yeah. Pretty thick stuff."

"Good. Get your tools out and start taking the cover off the side."

I unrolled the leather toolkit, and pulled a flat-bladed screwdriver from its loop. The paper covering the podium had simply been stapled on, and I used my light to locate each staple, and pried them out with the blade of the screwdriver. I collected the staples and put them in an empty pouch in the toolkit, so that none would be left laying about to draw attention. I was then able to open up the side of the podium.

"It's open, Joe."

"Good. Stick the shaft of your screwdriver down between the floorboards about at the middle of the inside, so I can mark it."

I did that, saw the red light move about, and heard the rough scrape of a carpenter's pencil being drawn in a circle around my screwdriver shaft.

"Okay, pull it up. I'm going to push the line through now. Grab it, and pull it up about six inches."

I returned the screwdriver to its loop, and took out the small roll of Gorilla tape.

I heard more scraping sounds, and then something poked up between the floorboards. I grasped the airline and pulled it up about half a foot. "Okay."

"Good. I'll hold it, and you secure it."

I let go of the airline, and pulled about a foot of the sticky tape off the roll and cut it with a razor blade knife. I took that length of tape and wrapped it around the airline, and then took the excess on either side and flattened the tape to the floorboards. This was good stuff, and would stick to almost anything. I gave the tape around the air line a final pinch, and nodded to myself.


"Great. Come on back and get the payload."

I had to grin at that. The payload. Joey was going to be a science nerd of some sort, someday, whether he knew it now or not.

I left the tools and scrambled back to the steps and down them. Joey met me at the gap in the bunting, and passed me the fat, Santa Claus bag he'd carried over from the alley. I took it and went back to the podium, and withdrew the large plastic trash bag from within the sack. The contents were lightweight and soft, and easy to handle. The bag had been set up back at the shack, sealed tightly with epoxy cement, and the fitting that would attach to the air line also cemented into place.

I went back to my toolkit and opened the little pocket that held the ferrule and the threaded cap, and took them out. The tube of sealant was in a loop next to the pocket. I got that, too, and laid all of them onto the leather kit, between the wrenches.

Next, I grabbed up the razor blade knife and took my flashlight around to the front of the podium. The waxed paper covering the podium was fairly thick, and we didn't want that to interfere with the working of our device. The paper on the sides and back of the podium didn't matter, but we had to be sure that the front would come off when we needed it to.

I took the knife and, pressing the paper gently so that I could feel the framework behind it, drew the blade slowly along the top, leaving the paper at each corner untouched. I did the same for the bottom of the front, and then the sides, leaving one-inch strips in the middle uncut. The paper on the front of the podium was now held in place only at the corners and in the middle of the sides.

I stepped back and played my flash over it - the cuts could hardly be seen. Hopefully, no one would notice.

Then I squatted at the side again, and set my light down so that the beam played over the airline. Carefully, I took the big plastic trash bag and turned it so that the fitting was down, and worked the bag into the interior of the podium. It was a tight fit, but the bag was lightweight stuff, and the contents of the bag were soft and easy to manipulate, and I got it all inside. I had to lay down on my stomach to connect the fitting, first pushing the cap onto the air line, and then the ferrule. I opened the tube of sealant and swiped a little around the front of the ferrule, and then pushed the end of the airline into the fitting on the bag until the ferrule seated in the concave opening. Then it was just a matter of sliding up the threaded cap, turning it down hand-tight, and giving it one final turn with a wrench from the toolkit.

"I'm done," I said into the mic. "The bag is inside, and connected."

"Great," Joey returned. "Come back and help me. Don't forget to put the paper back on the side of the podium."

I smiled at that reminder, but took no offense at it. With what we were doing, everything needed to be checked twice.

I put away the wrench and the sealant, and pulled out the little staple gun, and carefully reattached the paper to the side of the podium. Then I closed up the toolkit, put it in my sack, and headed back to the stairs.

"Hey, you guys! Wherever you are, freeze!" It was Rich's voice over the headset, and it sounded urgent.

I'd just reached the stairs, and I ducked back behind the bunting and squatted low. "What's happening?"

"There's a car coming up main street," Dev returned. "Stay down!"

I moved to the front of the stand and peeked over the railing. I could hear the car now, and see the headlights coming up the street to our left. It drew up to the stop sign there, and paused a moment. I felt my heart beating like mad in my chest, but couldn't move a muscle. I just watched the car, sitting there at the intersection.

The interior light came on, and I could see two people inside. They had something out and were looking at it. They talked back and forth for a bit, and then one of them pointed straight ahead, and the other seemed to be in agreement. The interior light went out, and the car surged forward. It crossed the square, and vanished up the other side of main street. I listened to the sound of the engine as it faded away, until only the sounds of the summer night remained.

And then I started to breathe again.

"Somebody was lost, I think," Dev said. "I was watching them through the binoculars, and I think they had a map out."

That made sense. The main streets of both Bent Fork and Muskrat Hill had once been a part of Route Two. But as that road became a busier thoroughfare, people in both towns got tired of the constant traffic through their central squares, and had gone after the state to create a bypass for the road so that regular traffic passed around the towns. Those bypasses had been built around ten years earlier, but even so, people got turned the wrong way now and then, and still wound up in town.

I heard Joey sigh over the headset. "Let's wait a moment, to be sure."

I had to smile at the sound of his voice. "Piss your pants?"

He laughed. "Damn near." We waited a moment longer, but the car did not reappear. "Okay. Come on back and help me."

"On my way."

At the other end of the airline leading up into the podium was a disposable canister of helium at 50 pounds of pressure. We'd experimented at the shack, and found fifty pounds to be about right for what we needed. Joey had strapped the canister to an upright, and mounted the receiver to the exhaust valve atop it. This part of the project had been tested back at the shack, but we could not test it here because we only had the one shot.

But how it worked was simple: at a certain moment, we would push the button on the transmitter that sent out a digitally coded pulse, which the receiver here on the canister would take as a signal to act. It would send current from the little nine-volt battery to the solenoid on the exhaust valve, and the valve would open, allowing the canister of helium to empty itself all at one time. That rather forceful shot of gas would jet up the tube into the trash bag above, and explode it with sufficient force to expel its contents in every direction. But only the paper covering the front of the podium had been weakened, and hopefully most of the force of the blast would go that way.

Hopefully. That part of the project had not really been tested, and there was no small amount of hope involved that what seemed to us should work, would.

Joey finished what he was doing and pulled out the telescoping antenna on the receiver, and turned the unit on. We both held our breaths for a moment, but nothing happened except that the little green LED that signified power to the unit lit up.

"I'm gonna need a serious nap after we're done," Joey said then.

There was a laugh on the headset, followed by Rich's voice. "I know just the thing to reduce stress!"

"You're on," Joey returned, and I could hear the grin in his voice.

I helped Joey to move the remaining equipment back about six feet from the canister, and then I went back up onto the stand and shone my flash down between the floorboards just beneath the edge of the canopy framework, right behind the podium. Joey marked the spot, and then I moved over to where the frame uprights supporting the canopy met the floorboards on the left side, and shone my light there.

"Great," Joey said. "Now hang tight a minute while I see if I can find a gap to put the hose through."

I could see Joey's light moving around underneath, and then it disappeared. "Found it. Can you see the light?"

I looked around, but could not see the red beam anywhere. "No. I don't see it."

Joey swore. "Isn't the inside of the stand also covered with wax paper?"

"Yeah, it is."

"That must be it. Go to the left corner and undo the paper there."

It was my turn to swear. "I didn't bring my tools back with me."

"Oh, crap. Meet me at the gap in the bunting, and I'll hand them to you."

I returned to the side of the stand, and Joey was there to hand me the rolled-up toolkit. I took it, and returned to the corner beneath the front edge of the canopy. Taking the screwdriver, I carefully pried out the staples, and pulled back the paper.

And there was Joey's red light, inside the framework, shining up through a large gap in the floor. "I see your light now."

"Great. This is even better than I'd hoped for, actually. It means that when we run the hose up, it'll be behind the paper, and there'll be no chance of someone spotting it."

I was relieved. Joey had been certain there'd be gaps we could run the hose through, but if he'd been wrong I would have had to go back to the hardware and have Dev lower my drill and bits. I had a one-inch spade drill bit I'd brought along, just for such an eventuality. But it seemed that luck was on our side here.

"Wait there, Kelly, and I'll pass you the hose."

A moment later the end of the hose came through the gap, and I grabbed it and pulled it up. It was just half-inch inch garden hose, with a standard female screw fitting at the end. I pulled about five feet of it up through the hole, and then laid it on the floorboards.

"Wait a sec, Joe, while I get one of these chairs."

I went and grabbed a folding chair from the line at the back of the grandstand, and brought it forward to the front of the canopy. The blue waxed paper only covered the walls, and the framework overhead supporting the canopy was all open. I retrieved the hose, stood on the chair, and pulled the hose along the overhead supports to the middle of the grandstand, just behind the podium. Then I jumped down off the chair and went back to the hole.

"It's about in the right spot."

"Good. I'll be up in a second."

The hose would carry the first element of our gift to Brad. Straight molasses would not only have been expensive to buy in a five-gallon quantity, it would have been almost impossible to pump through a regular garden hose. The stuff was five times as viscous as sixty-weight motor oil, and twice as viscous as honey. The four of us had learned a lot about the viscosity of liquids while researching our project, and we'd had to experiment a lot to arrive at what we'd brought with us.

Fortunately, we did not need the dense syrup in uncut form. It wasn't the thickness of molasses we needed, it was the stickiness. Fortunately, molasses mixed well with water, and you could cut the thickness of the stuff quite a bit while still retaining the stickiness. That, we had done.

Joey arrived next to me, and played his light carefully over the upper framework, shielding the red lens behind his hand. "Oh, cool. We can get this whole thing up, and put the paper back, and the only way someone will see the shower head is if they actually climb up into the rafters."

It wasn't a bathtub-type shower head he meant, but a high-volume garden sprayer head that we had also found at The Thinking Place. It was stainless steel, and despite the dents in it, it was watertight and worked just fine. We'd spray-painted it black so that it would be less visible. Joey had brought it with him, along with the mounting bracket to install it. The head was six-inches across, and it was rated at twenty-four gallons per minute. It produced a heavy, rain-like spray that covered a wide area, and so aiming it would be basic - just point it at the podium. At six feet it soaked an area eight feet across - more than enough to get anyone even close to the podium.

I went back to my toolkit and got the power screwdriver, and held the chair steady while Joey mounted the shower head. He got the bracket up, fastened the stem behind the head into it, and directed me to go and stand at the podium so he could aim it. Then he tightened the mount so that the head wouldn't move.

"I wish we could test it," he said, waving at me.

"Not on me!" I stepped away from the podium, and he laughed.

"Come on and let's secure the hose and put the paper back."

Joey attached the hose to the stem and tightened the fitting, and then I handed him clamps, which he used to fasten the hose to the cross member. While he finished that, I got out the stapler gun and reattached the paper over the run of the hose coming up through floor.

"All done," Joey said, stepping down off the chair. He played his light above, and you really couldn't see the hose at all, and the shower head only if you knew exactly where to look for it.

I felt a tingle of excitement. It's one thing to dream up a crazy adventure, and another entirely to see it all coming together. This was going to work!

Joey picked up the chair and returned it to its spot in the line, and then both of us went back beneath the grandstand.

"How's it coming?" Rich asked, across the radio link.

"You can hear us talking, can't you?" I asked.

"Yeah, but it's not the same as seeing."

"The head is up," I told him, "and the hose is run. We just have to set up the pump, and then we'll be done."

"I'm going to sleep well tonight," he returned.

I nodded. Me, too, definitely.

Back under the stand, we hauled out the last bag. It was another heavy one, because it contained both the pump and the other battery from the busted UPS. The pump was a small electric oil scavenger pump, rated to deliver 50-weight motor oil at nine gallons per minute. Another lost soul from The Thinking Place, it had needed a new electric motor, which had set us back thirty bucks. Unfortunately, everything under the grandstand had to be viewed as expendable, because there was no way we'd ever get any of it back. So that thirty bucks represented most of our actual loss in this project, as everything else had come from The Thinking Place except the molasses and the water.

Again, a small receiver was used, which would activate the pump at a command from the roof of the hardware. The tiny radio receivers and transmitter we were using were Chinese, and dirt cheap, and Rich had a box of them in his bedroom, and said he'd never miss the few we'd leave behind. We fastened the pump to one of the uprights as high up as we could, cut the garden hose, and pushed it onto the output fitting of the pump, and secured it with a hose clamp. More hose was attached to the input side, secured with a clamp, and then the other end placed down into the five-gallon gas can full of the water-molasses mixture, so that it was lying on the bottom. We used a length of clothesline to secure the can to the upright, just to bar the possibility of any sort of tippage. I opened the vent cap so we'd have a good air-draw, and then Joey connected the battery, and turned on the tiny receiver.

"Okay, Rich," he said, adjusting the mic on his headset, "Take transmitter three and give me a two second press on the button."

"Okay...hold it. Got it.!"

The pump hummed softly for two seconds - not long enough to do much - and then stopped. The pump was self-priming, and had a lift of 20 feet, more than enough to take our mixture to the shower head. And while the pump could only move motor oil at nine gallons a minute, it handled our diluted mixture much more quickly. Tests back at the shack had emptied the entire five gallons from one can into another in just under fifteen seconds. Anyone standing at the podium was going to get very wet, very quickly. And, very sticky!

"It works," Joey said. "Let me place the voice transmitter, and we'll be done."

This last was simply a tiny microphone on a tiny circuit board, with a single AAA battery for power. The antenna was just a foot-long length of wire hanging off one end. The whole thing was the size of maybe four postage stamps, but it had a range of a quarter-mile, more than enough to reach the roof of the hardware store. We wanted to hear what anyone on the grandstand might be saying, so that we could better gauge when to activate our various little surprises. We couldn't take the chance that they might turn off the podium microphone when things started happening.

Joey fastened the thing over one of the spaces in the floorboards near the podium, with the mic pointed up into the gap, and put a fresh battery into the holder. There was no 'on' switch - putting the battery in activated the unit. Joey looked over at me, and pushed the mic on his headset closer to his lips. "Rich? Turn your receiver to channel two. I want to test the pick-up mic."

"Okay, Switching."

Joey gave a big sigh, lifted the front of his mask, and grinned at me. "I can't wait to get back to the shack and cuddle with my guy."

I heard Dev laughing over my headset, and then his voice. "That came across clearly enough. Whatever you said put a big grin on Rich's face!"

"How could you see it?" I asked.

"We got our masks pulled up. No one can see us up here, and it's too damn hot to keep those things on for no reason."

I couldn't argue with that!

Joey was still smiling. "And I mean that, Rich. You and me, got it?"

"I'll be there!"

Joey sighed. "Okay, go back to channel one. We're done here. We'll be on our way back after we clean up."

We gathered up our stuff, and checked the stand above with our flashes to make sure nothing was getting left behind. Everything looked just as it had when we'd arrived. The additions we'd made were hidden away, and shouldn't be discovered.

We took our sacks - much lighter now - and headed back to the hardware store. The tower clock said one-forty - we were not too far off schedule. On the roof of the hardware, Dev and Rich would be placing their equipment back into their bags. Nothing would be left behind but the motorized pulley, which was screwed down to some part of the roof structure, anyway. The line upon it, which stretched away to the bell tower, had to stay, too, and we hoped no one would spot it and decide to investigate.

The guys met us at the ladder, and the four of us went back to the rear of The Come On Inn, turned into the woods, and headed for the truck, and home.

Joey and Rich were not the only ones that wanted to cuddle as we settled in to go to sleep. We were all tired, but there wasn't a one of us that wasn't just too keyed up to drop right off to dreamland. This night had been an adrenaline rush from start to finish.

And we still had to pull this thing off yet!

"I'm beat," Dev said softly, nuzzling my cheek with his nose. "But I don't think I can sleep. I'm too wound up."

"We need to sleep," I said simply, nuzzling him back. "Just put it all out of your head."

He laughed at that. "Can you do that?"

I smiled, and kissed him. "No. That was advice for you."

I could hear Joey and Rich whispering together, and imagined that they might be having the same conversation.

"Just close your eyes," I continued. "Listen to the crickets. It's really very restful."

And it was. The soft sounds of the woods at night had always been restful for me. They spoke of life, and a sort of contentment that I knew did not jibe with what was really going on there in the darkness. The endless struggles to eat, and mate, and maintain existence went on after dark, just the same as they did during the day. But the cast of characters was different, and the sounds they made as they went about their business had become a deceptively peaceful tune that humans had associated with a time of rest.

I felt Dev nod, and hold me a little tighter, and then the pleasant warmth of his face near mine. I closed my eyes, and listened to the cricket's converse, while my brain reviewed the night's activities, and pondered the as yet untested ones that would come with the new day.

We'd had no trouble finding the pick up truck, the path we'd made through the leaves in the woods still fairly clear under the red beams of our flashes. It wasn't until we were away from where we'd parked, and well on down Route Two towards home, that I finally stopped feeling like I was holding my breath, and relaxed. What we had done, and what we were going to do next, had really settled in then, as well as the realization that there was no turning back now. We were set up and ready to go, and to not do this thing now, to not to follow through, would be a kind of defeat that I just could not live with.

Yes, what we planned to do could get us in serious trouble if we were found out. The rift it might cause between me and my dad was scary to consider. He trusted me, pretty much, and it hurt to feel like I was betraying that trust now. But...some things you just have to do.

Standing up for who you are justifies who you are. Letting others attack you, and beat you down because you happen to be different, or because they don't like you, or because you just don't live the way they think you should, is the same as admitting that who you are is somehow wrong. That who you are is not just as good as who everyone else happens to be.

I wasn't having that, not anymore. You can only ignore but so much, and then you have to do something, or just kind of fade away. We were not wrong to be who we were. We lived peaceful lives, and bothered no one, and all we wanted was the same right to be us that people had been fighting for since it all began.

What we planned to do might not even register with Brad as revenge. He might not even suspect it was us who had engineered what was to come. This was going to be so far above the petty stuff he and his buddies had been doing to us that it would be almost impossible for him to believe that the four homos he had so much contempt for had had anything to do with it at all. If we were not caught in the act, if we got away clean, there was more than a fifty-fifty chance that Brad would never know who had done him dirty.

But we would know.

And that was all that really mattered.

We were dragging a little the next morning as we crept through the woods to the back of the Muskrat Hill town square. It was even warmer today than it had been the night before, the sun bright overhead, and our black sweats were definitely living up to their name. It was easier for us this trip, because we weren't carrying all the heavy things we'd been toting the night before, but it was just too warm a day to be so fully clothed.

Joey carried one sack with the transmitters inside, and Rich and I each carried an empty one for the equipment we'd be bringing back. Dev had the last sack, with our binoculars. We'd scrounged up a pair for each of us, of varying levels of quality. But each would gives us a better view of the goings on in front of the town hall than we'd have been able to get with just our eyes. There was also a camera in the same sack, one with a really good zoom feature, so that we could take a few shots of our moment of triumph. Just for posterity, you understand.

We could still see where we had come through the woods the night before, our passage documented in overturned leaves, which hadn't fully dried yet and been bleached by the sun. So as we neared the backside of the Come On Inn, we veered right, and managed to emerge from the woods right at the corner of the rows of shops, just at the old hardware store.

The whole town was supposed to be in the square in front of the court house in just an hour, yet it was surprising how many people were out behind the shops, tossing trash, unloading trucks, or cutting up boxes. We had to wait a little until the coast was clear, and the whole time the four of us were climbing the ladder, I kept thinking someone else would walk out a back door and see us. But it didn't happen, and we made it to the roof without getting caught. Things would hopefully be quieter here when it came time for us to leave.

This was my first chance to see what Dev and Rich had done on the rooftop. The facade of the store stood up about four feet above the roof itself, affording us some protection from being seen from the square in the bright morning sunlight. There was a central area on the roof consisting of a concrete pad with a brick chimney poked up from one side, and an old air conditioning unit parked squarely in the middle. There was a brick wall around the front of it, chest high, the reason for which was only known to some probably dead builder.

Dev and Rich had mounted their pulley atop one corner of the wall, sinking four studs into holes drilled in the brickwork, and using quick-release wingnuts to hold it down. The pulley atop the bell tower was expendable, but we wanted to take the motorized one with us. When our job here was finished, there would hopefully be time to undo the wingnuts and remove the pulley from its mount.

The battery that operated the pulley was just a big six-volt lantern battery, much lighter than the lead-acid batteries we'd used to power other parts of the project. It would go into one of the empty bags along with the motorized pulley when it came time for us to git. It wasn't just the dollar value of these things to be considered - we wanted to leave as little in the way of evidence behind as we could manage.

After looking over the pulley set up, I let my eyes follow the two runs of paracord that extended away from the rooftop towards the bell tower. They seemed to go about fifteen feet from the roof of the hardware store, and then just to vanish into the morning sunlight. We'd certainly chosen the right color for them! They were just about invisible by day, lending an air of confidence to the idea that no one had spotted them. That had been one of my chief worries, and I felt better now that I could see they didn't stand out at all against the sky.

The green before the courthouse was packed. Row after row of folding chairs stood before the grandstand, and while there were people sitting in some of them, for the most part the throng was still standing, split up into dozens of little groups just hanging out, talking. And those little groups were even further divided. It was already apparent that those men dressed in old fashioned Confederate uniforms had set themselves apart from the men dressed in black suits and bowties, while the women in their hoop skirts and over petticoats had formed yet a third group. I had to kind of smile at that. At every public function I'd ever attended, seemed the men and the women split up to talk amongst themselves before things got going, and only got back together again once the show - whatever it might be - started.

Most of the people sitting in the chairs seemed not to be of the other groups. Younger adults, wearing shorts and sandals, tee-shirts, and with lots of little kids with them, and the men and women actually seated together. People there to have fun, but not really into the spirit of all that history. That was the way I'd dressed when I'd gone with my dad three years back. History was history. I didn't want to relive it.

Off to one side of the grand stand, the band was set up with their own chairs. This was the same band that played for most town occasions, comprised of Muskrats who'd once been with the high school band in the past, so the ages of the group were all over the board. I'd heard them play three years ago, and they weren't bad. Mr. Bellevue, the choir coordinator over at the Baptist church, was bandleader and in charge of the music selection.

There were some large canopies beyond the rows of folding chairs, under which tables and chairs had been lined up, for the lunch come noontime. Some of the food was coming from here in the town, and some of it had been brought in. There were a half dozen trucks parked at one end of the canopies, with big stainless steel boxes on them, and sides that opened up to reveal little kitchens inside. The air was full of several aromas, one of which was certainly fried chicken, and another that might have been dirt peas.

Joey opened his bag and laid out the transmitters, while Dev opened his and handed out binoculars. Joey and I had our own, while the other two pairs had been borrowed for Dev and Rich. All would afford a good view of the things to come.

We found that if we sat on the wall before the old air-conditioning unit, we could just see over the facade of the building ten feet away, and had a good view of everything going on. Our black face masks would hopefully limit the chance of anyone spotting our heads from below. I also found that I could see Boney's floppy hat above the railing of the clock tower balcony. It was just our height that allowed that, and I was pretty sure that those on the ground couldn't see it. Even if they did, I recognized it because I knew what it was, but to them it would just be a dark shape high above. It was nice to know that Boney had not been discovered, anyway.

We'd discussed who was going to be the voice of Boney. The frequency modulator inside the scarecrow assured that no matter which of us spoke, the voice would sound the same. But we couldn't all be on our transmitter's channel two at once, or we'd risk talking over each other, and spoiling the effect. In the end, we'd decided that Dev, who'd had the worst of it from Brad, would have the honor of playing the part of Boney. But we'd all discussed the things to be said, and while there could be no script, because we didn't know how those on the ground would respond, there was a general outline of where we wanted things to go, and what we wanted to say.

We were peering at things through the binoculars when the county sheriff's car drove up and parked at the curb by the green. I dropped my glasses, watching as Sheriff Mike Dizzard climbed out of the passenger side, stretched, and gave a big sigh. That he'd rather be in his chair at his desk in his air-conditioned office was pretty clear.

I moved the glasses as the driver's door opened, expecting to see Deputy Len Cross, who my dad had said had the joy and honor of carrying on the battle for Mike Dizzard's moral support at the commemoration this year. wasn't Len Cross that got out of the car. It was my dad!

"Oh, shit!" Dev said, bumping his shoulder hard against mine. "Do you see...?"

"Yeah," I returned, nodding. I licked my lips, feeling my throat immediately go dry.

"I thought you said someone else was coming," Rich piped, his voice squeaking with alarm now.

I pulled the glasses from my eyes. "Something must have messed up with Len Cross." I thought fiercely, and then shook my head. "This...doesn't change a thing. So my dad is here. He's just another deputy for now, okay?"

The others looked at me, and I could see they didn't like this. But I think they were more worried about me than anything else, and I grinned, despite wishing I was home under my bed about now.

"He'll just have a good seat for the show," I finished.

Dev squinted at me. If anyone could see my discomfort, it was him. I nodded insistently at him, but when his expression didn't change, I raised an eyebrow and frowned. "What? Problem? We have to do this!"

He gave a short, amazed little laugh, and then shook his head. "Nope. No problem." He leaned over and kissed my cheek though, and I closed my eyes a moment and drank that in. The plan would still work, even with my dad a part of the crowd below. It was all in how you thought about it, and nothing more. He was just another deputy, here for the commemoration.

I'd just keep telling myself that, and hope that it took.

Dev drew back, and I opened my eyes and brought my glasses back to my face. I tracked Sheriff Dizzard and my dad as they wound their way through the crowd, stopping to talk to people, waving at others, until they finally arrived at the front row of seats to the left of the grandstand. The first five rows of seats there enjoyed the shade from a huge old evergreen oak that stood at the edge of the square, and the first row of those seats had been reserved for the town council and visitors of importance. The sun wouldn't get around to them until late in the afternoon, and it was about as close as Sheriff Dizzard was going to get to air-conditioning around here.

More cars arrived, and people got out of them, and I recognized Mayor Stucky in his trademark white suit and panama hat. He was a portly fellow, and looked like the bad guy from some old Bogart movie. Gran and meemaw were always watching those things, and I'd seen enough of them growing up to gain a small affection for them.

His arrival seemed to signal a massing of the crowd towards the chairs, and as the mayor and several other older fellows in period black suits and bow ties took seats by Sheriff Dizzard and my dad, I saw a few other people climbing the stairs of the grandstand, and zeroed in on them with my glasses. Hah! One was Brad Kisner, dressed in plain confederate grays, with his daddy beside him in a like uniform, though bedecked with gold braid and floppy ribbons, like he'd won the whole war all on his own.

They took seats at the back of the stand, underneath the canopy, along with a few other men and women who probably would also be getting some sort of recognition. It was traditional to give out ribbons for the best apple butter, and the best pies; for the owner of the horse that won the spring race at the fair grounds; for the biggest bull, and the most popular stud horse; for the winner of the quilting contest - stuff like that. I didn't recognize anyone else seated there, but that didn't matter. Brad was really the only one I cared about.

He looked excited and happy, one of the few times I think I'd ever seen him smiling without some kind of venom in it. I felt a pang of discomfort at that, but it couldn't be helped. Even the serpent smiled when he got Adam and Eve kicked out of the garden, right?

His daddy was also smiling, his chest all puffed up underneath those ribbons. This was a big thing for these folk, I guess. We had fairs and stuff over in Bent Fork, too, and people enjoyed going to them, though there was none of this dressing up in old fashioned clothes going on there. Muskrat Hill was like another planet, where there were people just like on Earth, but where a lot of what they did looked different, smelled different, and tasted different. Maybe it was this different outlook on life that also played a part in the two towns not getting along.

Muskrat Hill sort of lived in the past, I think. Change was something they carried in their pockets, and used in the few parking meters spaced around the square. Bent Fork was scarcely going to be the next Cape Canaveral, but at least we had allowed some of the present day to creep into our lives there. Looking around the square, I was suddenly struck by the notion that it had probably looked much like it did now for the last seventy-five years, with only the cars parked about an indication that it was not still nineteen-fifty. Just goes to show you what always looking back will get you, I guess.

Rich dropped his glasses, and sighed. He pulled up his face mask, and frowned at us. "Don't think I've ever seen Brad Kisner looking so happy before."

I nodded. 'I was just thinking that."

Dev turned to look at me, his eyes appearing thoughtful through the holes in his face mask. "This is going to mess him up."

There was no glee there, and I understood why. Dev had imagination, and compassion to go along with it. I had enough imagination myself to be able to see what it would be like to come to something like this commemoration day, all excited about being given an award in front of the town, only to have it all go wrong in front of everybody. I could see where that would hurt, and hurt a lot.

Joey grunted. "I hope it does mess him up. Then he'll know what it feels like to be the target of someone's meanness."

Rich looked aghast. "You think we're being mean?"

"Shit, yeah." Joey nodded his head vigorously. "You don't? That's the whole point of this plan. To learn Brad Kisner what it's like to be on the other end of mean." He chuckled. "I'm going to get plenty of satisfaction doing this."

Rich frowned, but it was Dev who turned to him and said what needed to be said. "I don't like being cruddy to people, either. But that doesn't mean I'll just lay back and take it when someone is mean to me." He waved a hand at the grandstand. "He's not gonna get hurt. He's just getting some of what he's been giving to all of us. It's no worse than him throwing a can of whitewash on me." He gave a small laugh then. "He's just gonna have a way bigger audience."

It was plain that we had doubts about what we were going to do. It had seemed like a lot of fun when we imagined the plan, and it had seemed like a pretty harmless way to get back at Brad. But seeing the crowd of people here was sobering. It's one thing to lay back in the shack and plot and plan and laugh about what we were going to do, and it was another thing altogether to sit here in the morning sunshine, with a few hundred people before us, and know what was going to happen next, when they didn't.

We were going to change the day of every single person here in this square.

Joey pulled up his face mask and glared. "If you guys are getting cold feet, now's the time to say so."

I looked at Dev, and he shook his head. "I'm not backing out. I'm in."

I sighed, but knew which way I had to go. "Yeah. Let's do it."

Dev and I looked at Rich, whose expression had gone neutral as he thought about the whole thing. He raised his glasses again and looked off at the grandstand, and then dropped them and nodded his head. He grinned, and bumped his shoulder against Joe's. "Okay. Let's go."

Joey grinned back, and pulled his mask back down, and Rich followed suit.

We were committed.

Slowly, the crowd organized itself, and sat down in the folding chairs. Mayor Stucky stood and turned to watch them, careful not to get out of the shade while doing so. He was not a man that liked to sun bathe, that was for sure.

Finally, everyone was seated, and except for a few babies crying and their mommas shushing them, the square grew silent. Mayor Stucky fixed a beaming smile on his face, and ascended the staircase to the podium. Even though it was pretty quiet, and all eyes were already on him, he waved his hands as if requesting everyone's attention. I raised my glasses to my eyes, and was aware of the other guys doing the same.

"Good morning, folks," the mayor said.

If there hadn't been a slight breeze blowing towards us, we might not have heard him at all.

The mayor frowned and tapped the microphone before him, but there was no response.

Jeff Willis, the town maintenance man, jumped up from his front-row seat and quickly ascended the other staircase, reached past the mayor, and did something to the mic. There was a blast of sound, a yowl of feedback from the speakers placed before the stand, and then Jeff's gravelly voice, sounding slightly amused. "You gotta turn it on, first, Mr. Mayor."

A chorus of laughter rippled through the crowd. But Mayor Stucky simply smiled, and nodded at the other man. "I thought that's what we paid you for, Jeff."

More laughter. Jeff Willis looked slightly embarrassed, and quickly left the stage, while the mayor grinned at the crowd and looked pleased with himself.

"A fine day we have here, isn't it?" he asked. "I cannot think of a more beautiful day for our commemoration, in fact."

"It was just like this last year!" someone called from the audience.

The crowd laughed again, and the mayor waved a hand at the disturbance as if shooing away a fly. "Yes, it's only right that the sun be shining and the temperature be warm, as we honor that famous defender of our town, Deke Zachariah Hawkins. What a story to tell, what a magnificent moment in the life of our fair town! On that precipitous day so long ago, this son of Muskrat Hill stood up and struck a blow for freedom, not only saving the homes we love, but the homes of our neighbors to the north, in Bent Fork. The men of our two towns rode forth that day, and helped to turn away the tide of destruction racing down upon them. What could have been an end was instead a new beginning, and today we are enjoying the fruits of their efforts in a quiet and safe Eden that maintains our way of life, the way of life that we love."

The mayor's voice quavered with emotion, his eyelids heavy, as if seeing the very moment.

Joey grunted. "What a windbag."

"It's the same speech he gave three years ago," I said. "He probably has it tattooed on his palm."

Dev snickered, and Rich gave his knee a quiet slap. "Mayor Tatum at home doesn't talk that way. Bent Fork sure is different from here, you know?"


But the crowd seemed to be sucking it up. For the next ten minutes, the mayor blabbed on, about what a great town Muskrat Hill was, and how fine an ancestor Deke Hawkins had been, how brave and selfless he was, and how much was owed to him by everyone present. There was no mention made of a still, nor any other blemish on the revered man's past. Gran would have puked if he'd heard it all, I'm quite sure.

The mayor also managed to get in that he knew the mayoral election was coming up soon, and that he hoped to be able to serve the 'citizens of this fine town' for yet another term. Mayor Stucky had held his office for nearly ten years now, mostly because he'd been running unopposed for most of them; but rumor had it that Zeb Pritchard was going to run against him this time, and Zeb was fairly famous locally as the winner of the county Musketball Rifle Contest for fourteen years running. Being a hot shot counted among the local male contingent, apparently, and all that Mayor Stucky had to offer in return was some years of pretty good service, and that he'd had the statue of Newt Hammond, considered the town's founding father, refurbished and made pretty again.

The band played The Bonnie Blue Flag, The Rebel Soldier, and When Johnny Comes Marching Home, and then the crowd sang along with Eatin' Goober Peas. Everyone seemed to be having a grand time, while we were slowly cooking inside our sweats in the hot morning sun.

"I wish they'd get on with it," Rich finally grated, any worry over what we were doing now burned away by the heat of the sun. "I'm starting to feel like a french fry."

We drank water from our canteens, but it was warm, and didn't do much to slake our thirsts. Hell, I'd even welcome a cold beer about now, and certainly the cool comfort of the shack.

But finally, the mayor must have been tiring of his own exposure to the sun. He called up and introduced Sheriff Mike Dizzard, while my dad wisely stayed in his seat in the shade. The Sheriff said how happy he was to be there again for yet another celebration, and how the whole county remembered Deke Hawkins and the brave thing he'd done. The crowd clapped, and then the Sheriff wisely got himself back to his seat.

The mayor then called up Cupper Dawson, and named him Master of Ceremonies, and then Myra Crawford, and named her Mistress of Ceremonies. Myra was the organist at the Baptist church, and used to having the spotlight. She was there along with Cupper so that the deputy wouldn't need to explain to the crowd the intricacies of making fine apple butter, or what sort of stitching had been used in the winning century quilt at the county fair. They were ladies things, and needed a feminine hand.

"Alright," Cupper said, as the Mayor hastened back to his seat in the shade. "I know you folks are getting warm, but it's still early. Don't forget the great lunch we'll be serving at noon, neither. I know all this celebrating makes me hungry, so I hope all of you will join us."

Myra Crawford smiled gloriously, and nodded. "I'm sure we'll all be there. And now it's come time for us to recognize some of our own, for outstanding accomplishments this last year, or for contributions to the town that have benefited us all." She turned to the row of seats underneath the canopy at the rear of the grandstand, and waved a hand magnanimously. "As you can see, there are a number of them."

The crowd clapped, but I was certain I heard a few groans mixed in there, too. And Emmet Castleby and a few of Brad's other buddies were seated a few rows back from the grandstand, and they whistled and cheered and stamped their feet. I could make out Brad beneath the canopy, smiling, and grimaced.

Smile now, I thought. While you can.

We passed through awards for quilting, and pies, and for the best stud horse at the county fair. Each recipient stood and came forward, collected their certificate and said their thanks into the microphone, and then went down the side steps into the shade, to shake the hand of the mayor. The heat was making me sleepy, and I think I fuzzed out a few times. I lifted my face mask and pushed it back on my head, and took a deep breath of the comparably cool air outside the mask. Dev looked at me, and then he had his mask up, too.

"Finally," Joey said, pushing up his own mask. "I was beginning to think we were taking this Mission Impossible crap too far." He turned and prodded Rich, who also lifted his mask.

The cooler air immediately brought me back, and I gulped some of it down gratefully, and took another drink from the canteen.

"And now," Cupper said, waving his hat gently in front of his face, "we have an award that's new this year, one for service to the town in the area of craftsmanship. As you all know, Kit Kisner and his son, Brad, have been installing new pews in the Baptist church, and aren't they looking fine?"

Emmet and his squad whistled and yelled and stamped their feet, and there was some polite clapping from everyone else.

Joey turned and looked at us. "Everybody be quiet now, okay? I'm going to cut Dev into channel two." He looked at Devin. "Ready?"

Devvy grinned at me, and nodded. I leaned against his shoulder and smiled, seeing the mischief in his eyes, and the eagerness with which he was ready to act. This was going to be good, there was no doubt in my mind.

What goes around, comes around!

"As you folks know, Kit is a member of the town council, and he has said he would be ever so proud to represent the town in handing out this particular award. So if you don't he is."

Brad's dad stood and marched forward towards the podium, the braiding and medals bouncing up and down on the front of his uniform. There was the slightest bit of tittering from the audience, but it was mostly drowned out by the chorus of cheers from Emmet and his friends. Mr. Kisner was a tall, hawk-faced man, and despite the slightly ridiculous look of his uniform, it fit him, somehow. He looked like an old-time, fire-breathing general, marching into the latest conquered town.

The man waited a moment for the cheering from Emmet and crew to stop, and when it didn't stop quickly, he glared at them. "Thank you, thank you.!"

Emmet, who had risen to his feet to lead the cheering, ducked at the force of the last words, and quickly sat down again.

Mr. Kisner smiled, and briefly examined the microphone before him, no doubt ensuring that it was properly positioned to catch his every word. "As Deputy Dawson has just said, my boy and I have been installing new pews in the church. And I'll say right now that these are not some store-bought pews, but made right here in town, at my shop over on Maybell Street. Many people have remarked positively on the fine level of the craftsmanship, and I want to say now that this is due in no small part to the efforts of my boy, who is well on his way to becoming a master-builder."

Someone deep in the audience snorted hugely, and there was a bout of tittering from the ladies. Mr. Kisner immediately glared, and pointed to someone in the back rows. "I know that was you, Ben Fetter. I assure you, this is not a moment for levity!"

I couldn't help grinning, just at the way the man spoke, drawing out the final word so that it almost crackled in the warm morning air. Lev-i-tay!

The accused raised a hand and waved it gently. "No harm meant, Kit. Just my allergies actin' up, is all."

Mr. Kisner immediately smiled. "You're forgiven, then." He cleared his throat, and squinted out at the crowd. " I was saying, my son, Brad, is mostly responsible for the fine work being done in the church. So when I was approached by the town council with an idea to acknowledge Brad with an award for his work, why, of course I wanted to be the one to hand it to him personally."

There was another huge snort from the back row, and Ben Fetter whipped out a huge hanky and made a show of burying his nose in it. "Sorry!"

The ladies tittered again, and I could see grins on a lot of faces. There just are no real secrets in a small town. Not for long, anyway.

Mr. Kisner glared again, and this one promised a payback of some sort. But he grimaced, and forced a smile onto his face, and turned to Myra Crawford. "You have the certificate?"

At some point a box had been set on the grandstand by the podium, which must contain the awards being handed out. Myra bent and retrieved one, and held it out to Mr. Kisner, whose chest immediately swelled beneath his medals. He turned to the back of the grandstand, and nodded. "Bradley? Front and center, son!"

Brad leaped up out of his seat and ran for the podium, causing another round of tittering from the audience.

Dev leaned against me and prodded me with his arm, and I knew he was ready for what came next.

Mr. Kisner beamed, and reached out and dropped a hand on his son's shoulder. With the other hand he held up the certificate, took a breath, and launched into his speech. "Bradley Kisner, it my great honor to award you this certificate of merit, for your outstanding work on the new pews at the First Baptist Church of Muskrat Hill, and to congratulate you on your --"

"Excuse me!"

The voice was huge, and baleful, and it echoed about the square like the crack of doom. I saw people in the crowd jump at the power of it, and it was everything I could do not to laugh out loud.

Dev gave the power to the winch pulley a nudge, and Boney stepped forward to the rail of the bell tower balcony. A push to the joystick on the transmitter caused the scarecrow to wave both arms, and a number of people in the crowd caught the movement and looked up.

"Look!" someone yelled, standing up and pointing. "There's a man on the bell tower!"

Mayor Stucky came up out of his chair as if he'd been stung, and shaded his eyes with a hand and stared upwards. Sheriff Dizzard was not far behind him...and my dad, as well.

Cupper Dawson, who with Myra had stepped to the side of the stage while Mr. Kisner made the presentation, turned, and also shaded his eyes and stared upwards. "Who's that?"

Sheriff Dizzard pointed skyward. "You come down from there, boy, before you get hurt!"

"I am not going to be hurt," Boney said, his voice somber with assurance. "I can't be hurt. I'm already dead. I'm the ghost of Deke Hawkins."

A total silence greeted that revelation.

Sheriff Dizzard snorted, and turned to Mayor Stucky. His voice was loud enough to carry to us, even without them being close to a microphone. "Is this a joke, Burt? This is a joke, right?"

The mayor turned and looked at the council members seated nearby, who all shrugged helplessly.

"If it is, I don't know about it, Sheriff."

The Mayor turned, and marched up onto the stage to face Cupper Dawson. "Is this some sort of entertainment that's been planned without my knowledge?"

Cupper's eyes grew wide. "I don't know anything about it." Their voices carried to the nearby mic, and emerged at a conversational volume from the speakers.

Sheriff Dizzard joined them, my dad in tow. "If this is not a joke, then maybe Deputy Dawson should go up there and bring that man down."

Cupper's eyes grew huge, and he glanced upwards at Boney. "Me? Why me? Send your deputy up."

I bristled at that, and gritted my teeth. Another reason not to like Cupper Dawson!

Sheriff Dizzard wasn't having it, either. "Because it's your damn town, that's why! It's what you're paid for, isn't it?"

Mayor Stucky, aware that what was being said was also being blurted out over the speakers, waved a hand and glanced at the crowd. All eyes were upon them. "Let's not let our tempers get the better of us, gentlemen," he whispered.

Sheriff Dizzard looked exasperated, shook his head, and turned and pointed up at the bell tower. "You there! This is Sheriff Mike Dizzard of the Hawkmore County Sheriff's Department speaking! You just get your butt back on that ladder and get it down here, right now, 'fore I send someone up to get you!"

"I wouldn't do that," Boney said, sounding almost cheerful at the prospect. "Not unless he can fly."

The sheriff actually took a step backwards in shock. "Are you threatening one of my officers?"

Boney gave out a sinister laugh that made my skin crawl. "I wouldn't do that, Sheriff. I'm just saying, the ladder up here isn't very safe, and I'd hate to be the cause of one of your boys taking a tumble!"

"Then come on down!" the sheriff bellowed.

Mayor Stucky raised a hand, and waved it. "There must be a reason you're up there, son! Tell us how we can defuse this situation."

Boney laughed, and it was just so scary that sounds of alarm issued from the crowd, and two youngsters on the edge got up and ran.

"There ain't nothing to defuse," Boney said then. "I come here every year, to hear you people talk about me, and I always just sit up here and listen. I've never said a word until now."

Mayor Stucky looked astounded. "You're up there every year?"

"I just said so, didn't I? And every year, you people use my commemoration day to hand out awards to people who made the best dish towel, or cooked up the best pie. I've never minded that, until now."

Dev nudged the joystick, and Boney's right arm came up and froze before him, as if he were pointing at the crowd below. "But now, you want to use my day to hand out an award to this peckerhead? I can't stay silent at that!"

Brad and his dad had been standing silently, frozen before the podium. The elder Kisner still had the certificate in one hand. Brad, who was looking up, too, suddenly frowned and looked at his daddy. "Is he talkin' about me?"

"Yes, I'm talking about you!" Boney yelled. "You little dirt weasel, muckin' up my day with your phony award! You ain't done an hour's worth of work on those pews. Your daddy has done it all, and he's just trying to boost you up to make you look good."

There were a couple of screams from the crowd, but it was laughter, not terror. I could see people convulsing, not just at the total craziness of what was happening, but at what had been said about Brad. Like I say, small towns have few secrets.

"I don't need no boostin' up!" Brad yelled, waving his fist skyward.

"Shut up," Mr. Kisner said crisply, swatting him. "Don't say anything else."

"I'm not totally unsympathetic, however," Boney continued. "I do think you need to get awarded something. Something in keeping with the truly little penis that you are. That's why I'm speaking out today. I want to present you with just what I think you deserve."

Only Brad and his dad were currently in front of the podium, so when Dev nodded at Joey, and Joey pushed the button on the other transmitter, I was reasonably certain that it was only them that would get wet. Still, there were a couple of seconds delay as the pump under the stand primed itself, and began pumping the contents of the gas can through the line.

There was a sputtering sound, and then a multitude of tiny jets of dark liquid erupted forth from the hidden shower head, striking both Kisners full on. They backed up in reaction, and threw their arms up, even as the fronts of their uniforms got soaked with the sticky liquid. But they had nowhere to go. Brad's back hit the podium, and his dad's the rail beside it, stopping their retreat. And then, again in reaction, they both turned their backs to the flow to protect their faces, thus ensuring a liberal coating of the stuff all over.

There was enough force from the jets to knock their hats off, and Brad's hair immediately fell down over his eyes in gooey strands, while his dad's balding crown glistened with black stickiness in the hot, hot sun. Both of them were drenched, no doubt about it.

"Yeeee-hah!" Boney yelled. "Sweets for the creeps!"

Joey let the stream of molasses run seven or eight seconds - a very long time under such a situation - and then lifted his thumb from the button on the transmitter. The flow of liquid from the shower head drooped, and then ceased. Both Brad and his dad took a couple of steps backwards then, and looked down at the fronts of their sodden uniforms.

"God...damn!" Mr. Kisner bellowed, brushing at his sticky medals and ribbons. "Somebody get that son of a bitch!"

"But I'm not done!" Boney called, sounding gleeful. "You can't have tar without --"

Joey pushed the button on the last transmitter.

There was a soft whump!, and the front of the podium blew outward. A cloud of white and gray erupted forth as between five and seven thousand chicken feathers, propelled by an instantaneous release of helium at fifty pounds pressure, filled the air in front of the podium, totally obscuring both Kisners for a full five seconds. The square settled into stunned silence as everyone, everywhere, simply stopped what they were doing and stared at the slowly dissipating cloud.

And then the breeze briefly strengthened, carried away some of the cloud, and the Kisner's reemerged, now covered from head to foot in feathers.

On the roof, Joey managed to cut the transmitter to Boney as the four of us keeled over, sputtering and gasping, trying not to make a sound as we laughed our asses off. Dev held onto me, hugging me, and I could feel his chest bouncing against me as he laughed. Rich and Joey were similarly engaged, and it was a full minute before we realized that what we were hearing now was a commotion from the square below.

"Let me up!" Dev hissed, his face still spit with a huge grin. I kissed him, and we helped each other up, and raised our heads just enough to see over the facade of the building.

Sheriff Dizzard was yelling up at Boney, but we couldn't understand what he was saying, because the crowd had gone crazy, laughing and carrying on, while the two Kisners stood in shock before the podium, looking at each other. The explosion of feathers had been better than our wildest dreams, and both Brad and his dad were evenly covered, head-to-foot.

Remembering the camera then, I grabbed it up, aimed it, zoomed in on the Kisners, and took a half-dozen pictures in quick succession. The looks on their faces were priceless as they just stood and stared at each other! Both of them had also gotten a pretty good faceful of helium, so when Brad brushed at the feathers stuck all over himself, and shook his head in complete shock, and yelled, "Just look at me!", his voice came out high and thin, like some kind of crazy cartoon character.

"Don't say anything else!", his daddy warned, but he also sounded like a Munchkin from The Wizard of Oz.

The crowd erupted into more laughter, and both Kisners quickly stepped to the back of the stage, disappearing underneath the canopy.

"I can't hear what Sheriff Dizzard is saying!" Joey warned. "We can't have him doing something we can't handle."

"I'll fix that," Dev said. "Everybody be quiet. Joey, switch me on."

Joey nodded, and reactivated the transmitter.

Dev took a breath, and then bellowed into the mic: "Shut up!"

The herculean voice echoed around the square, and the crowd fell silent as if a switch had been turned off. Even Sheriff Dizzard gaped upwards, temporarily at a loss for words.

"You people really should get a life," Boney said. "All this hoopla about a bunch of dead people like me isn't good for you."

Sheriff Dizzard swore, and turned to my dad. "That's it! Frank, take Deputy Dawson and go up there and get that bastard!"

"No need," Boney said quickly. "I'm leaving. I've had my fun."

"You're coming down?" the sheriff asked, smiling thinly and patting the little pocket on his belt holding his handcuffs.

"I didn't say that," Boney replied. "I don't need to come down to leave. I'll just fly away, and leave you people to your problems."

Dev bumped the pulley control, and it looked like Boney was now leaning over the rail.

Someone screamed, and then several someones, and a dozen women in the crowd sat down hard in their chairs.

"He's gonna jump!" Cupper Dawson yelled, waving his arms in alarm.

"And ruin my best suit?" Boney returned. "Don't be silly."

And with that, Dev flattened the pulley control. Boney leaped over the railing...but did not fall. Instead, he sailed across the sky, his arms waving like a giant bird's wings.

"Yeeee-hah!" the scarecrow roared, looking for all the world now like he was flying. "Yeeee-hah!"

The crowd simply gaped in disbelief; and then about a third of them turned and ran. Chairs went flying, and those not running had to jump to get out of the way.

But it diverted attention from Boney, who sailed over the sidewalk, down the line of shops next to the courthouse, straight towards us.

Rich and I jumped up and stood on either side of the line, and caught the scarecrow as he came over the facade of the building, and onto the roof. With the battery installed, he weighed at least forty pounds, and the impact nearly knocked us both off our feet. But we stopped him, and I whipped out my pocket knife and quickly sawed through the line on either side of the clamps, freeing Boney from the line. The loose end of the paracord skittered away across the roof as gravity took hold; but Joey had reversed the power on the motor control for the pulley, and now he mashed the power button flat. It took thirty seconds for the winch to reel in all the line from the clock tower, leaving a large pile of it at our feet. All that was left on the clock tower balcony now was the second pulley attached to the brick wall.

Dev tossed the transmitters into a bag, while Joey pulled down the pocket of Boney's shirt and turned him off. Then he quickly unbuttoned the scarecrow's shirt, reached inside, and worked out the dowel rod that kept him rigid. Joey and I folded Boney in half and put him into another sack, while Dev and Rich spun loose the wingnuts holding the winch-pulley in place, snatched it from its mount, and crammed it, the pile of paracord, and the pulley's battery into another sack.

We cleaned up the binoculars and the canteens, grabbed the camera, and into the sack with the transmitters they went. And then we were at the ladder, and Joey was heading down, and then Dev. We handed the bags down, one-by-one, to Dev, who handed them to Joe, who stacked them on the ground until he had them all. And then we got ourselves down that ladder in a hurry, grabbed up the sacks, and were heading into the woods. The whole thing, from grabbing Boney as he landed to stepping in among the trees, took less than two minutes.

We crossed that mile of woods in record time, tossed the bags in the back of the pick up, and were heading down Route Two for home while Sheriff Mike Dizzard was still yelling in the square for order.

* * * * * * *

We were tired. Not just from the physical exertion of all that climbing about and lugging things, but from several hours of operating under a load of adrenaline, heat, and worry that things would go wrong. The release we got when we arrived back at the shack, with the feeling that we had pulled this off and not been caught, was enormous. We danced around gleefully, then threw our clothing off and went skinny-dipping in the river, the cold waters doing much to remove not just the coating of sweat we wore, but the tension we'd absorbed while earning it.

After that we took quick showers, the old pump on the well up hill actually working for once, and then laid about wrapped in towels and recapped the morning, laughing excitedly over how well everything had worked. The key to the success of the whole thing was the speed with which we'd pulled it off. No one on the ground had had time to really think about what was happening, nor what they were seeing and hearing. The amazed reaction we'd garnered when Boney had actually taken flight was proof enough that no one really had any idea what was happening.

Later in the afternoon, we got dressed and ambled into town. The news was all over Bent Fork by then, with people recounting what had happened in their neighboring town with every degree of accuracy, from the bare-bones minimum to the outrageous and hilarious. Milo Parker was in the diner when we went in for Cokes, going on and on about how Boney had leaped from atop the bell tower and swooped low over the square, chasing folk as they ran away to hide. And that Mike Dizzard and the deputies had let loose with their guns then, but that the bullets had all bounced off Boney, while he laughed and swooped about.

Old Bill Shannon and his wife, Margie, who were sitting in a stall eating sandwiches, listened owl-eyed as he spoke, although Bill woke up and smacked a hand on the table and grinned when Milo mentioned Mr. Kisner and Brad getting tarred and feathered.

"Hah! About time that old goat got his! I sure wish I'd been there to see that!"

Rex Petty, behind the counter, was also enthusiastic about it, and said he'd heard that Boney had sounded like the devil himself, with a voice that made stuff catch fire when he spoke. It was everything we could do not to laugh our heads off over that, as the realization struck home that here was a story that was going to circulate around, and grow and morph, until it was basically unrecognizable from what had actually happened.

It's how legends get born.

Saturday night was slower, more relaxed. We were tired, and decided to forego the beers that evening. We drank fresh apple juice instead, a large bottle of which was supplied to us by gran and meemaw, in celebration of the news. Gran was all smiles at the story of the Deke Hawkins Day 'craziness', saying it was about time that all that hooey got shown up for what it was.

"I don't know who was behind what happened, but I tip my hat to them fellas!" he said, as he shooed us out the door with the bottle of juice.

It was a warm night, and we all got down to our unders, and laid about and kind of watched a movie. It had zombies in it, but I can't even say how many.

Dev wanted some affection, and I was more than happy to share some with him. We made love while the zombies chased those poor folk all over the countryside, and we didn't even know the movie was done until the screen went dark and the interior of the shack along with it.

It didn't matter. By then we were laying quietly, holding each other, sleepy and contented. Joey and Rich were much the same, over on the sofa. We listened to the crickets outside, and settled into a peace the like of which we had not felt for a very long time. I slept that night so solidly that I don't remember even dreaming. It was just me and Dev, and the crickets, and all of us seemed quite satisfied.

Sunday morning dawned, and we were up early. We cleaned up the shack, and put away anything that we had missed the day before, that might send a signal to someone that we had been involved in what had happened at Muskrat Hill. We wanted to eventually hang Boney on the wall, as a remembrance, and because he really deserved a place of honor that wasn't some heap of junk back in the woods. He'd earned a spot here, and just having him among us was cheering.

About noon, we were discussing where we wanted to go for lunch, when there was a rap on the door of the shack.

Joey had been talking; but all of us simply froze at the sound. No one ever came here. The shack was a good walk from everywhere, and being on private property meant that no one had any business back here.

I swallowed nervously, and looked at Dev, whose eyes were wide with questions.

And then I got up, and went to the door, and opened it.

It was my dad.

He smiled, his eyes going past me, already taking in the room behind me. "Hey, fellas. Mind if I come in?"

I stepped back and smiled. "Hey, dad. You surprised us."

He grinned. "That was kinda my intention. Just wanted to see how you boys were doing. You get so you live here in the boathouse during the summer, and your mom wanted me to make sure you were still around."

I closed the door behind him, and he started a slow walk about the room, looking over everything.

"Sorry," I said. "I guess I should check in more often."

He looked at me, and nodded. "You should. I called gran, and he said he'd seen you a bunch of times, and that you looked to be in one piece."

I smiled at that. "We're just hanging out, dad. It's summer. You know."

"I do." He smiled, and looked again around the room. "This old boathouse was my hangout, when I was your age."

I gaped a little at that. "You never told me that!"

He grinned. "Well, my buddies and I mostly fished here. But we caroused a little, drank a few beers, um, maybe smoked a know."

I gaped all over again. "You smoked?" I cringed a little at that. "Dad, cigarettes will kill you!"

He laughed. "I've never smoked a single cigarette in my life."

I blinked, and gaped, and blinked again, as what he meant slowly seeped into my brain. "You?"

His eyes were sparkly bright. "Uh huh. We all grow up, son. Lots of things happen while that's going on."

I shook my head, unable to imagine my dad and his friends hanging out here, smoking joints and acting crazy. My dad?

He leaned forward, grinning. "Who do you think did all that fine artwork outside?"

I gasped in disbelief. "Gran said a bunch of hippies did it."

My dad laughed. "That's about right."

I took a step back. "Gran said he had to get Sheriff Dizzard to run 'em off!"

"Uh huh. It was your gran that got me the job as deputy, when I got home from college." Dad sighed. "Oh, he doesn't know I know, and he never did much like Mike Dizzard. But he was looking out for me, you know? That's what dads do."

His smile slowly settled to something more serious, and he leaned towards me a little. "Hear about what happened over in Muskrat Hill?"

I heard Devvy give a little gasp, just a tiny intake of breath; but no one really reacted. I'd already steeled myself for this possibility, and so knew just how to play it. No outright lies, not with my dad. He could see that stuff in a heartbeat. And I was not so stupid as to think that not saying something was not also a lie. But unless he asked me outright, I didn't intend to lie to him.

I nodded. "We were in town yesterday, at the diner, and heard Milo Parker and Rex Petty talking about it. Sounds pretty crazy to me."

Dad watched me a moment, and then slowly smiled. "It was that."

He turned, and walked slowly around the room again, his eyes missing nothing. I was so glad we had cleaned up earlier now. Our stuff was still here, but dad would have to go snooping to find it. And I didn't think he would do that.

"It took us awhile to piece together what was done," he went on, still walking, still looking. "It was a rather ingenious plan, actually." He turned then, and grinned at me. "Some smart fellas were behind this one."

I licked my lips. "What exactly did happen? To hear Milo and Rex tell it, it sounds like the devil himself paid a visit to Muskrat Hill."

"It does, doesn't it?" Dad frowned. "And there are people in that town that actually believe something like that happened. It was the way that Deke Hawkins flew away at the end that kind of capped it in their minds. No human being can fly, ergo, what they saw wasn't human."

"Well, what was it?" Dev asked, finally finding his voice.

"I don't know yet." Dad frowned. "Probably never know, either. Not a real person, even though it appeared to move and speak like one." He smiled at me. "I think what we witnessed was a magic act, more or less. A bit of misdirection, rather artfully presented."

I cleared my throat. "Nobody was hurt, were they?"

That was my biggest concern. The way that so much of the crowd had simply run when Boney took to the air had left me worried that someone might have been trampled or something.

"No, no one was hurt." My dad watched me a moment, and then shook his head. "It's a miracle no one was, though."

It was Joey who couldn't resist asking the question that we all wanted to ask.

"I heard that Brad Kisner and his dad got tarred and feathered."

My dad turned to him, and laughed. "That's pretty close to what happened. But it wasn't tar, it was molasses, watered down quite bit. Still damn sticky, though. And the feathers were chicken feathers. Nasty things get everywhere."

I almost smiled, remembering us visiting half the chicken houses in town for six nights running, collecting those damn things. We'd nearly been caught by Kane Richmond, who thought we were foxes prowling about. We were lucky not to have been shot!

Joey smiled. "I'm not sorry to hear that. Brad Kisner is a pure asshole."

My dad laughed, and looked straight at me. "So I've been told. And his pappy is not exactly a gentleman, either. I could tell you a few tales about him, when he was young."

I perked up at that. "Really?"

Dad laughed again. "Yes. But not now." He started walking again, but I could already see that he'd satisfied himself that nothing incriminating was showing.

"So," Rich said, looking at Joey almost as if for guidance, but then plunging ahead anyway, "any ideas who was behind this?"

Again, my dad's eyes sought me out. "I have a few ideas. Nothing I can act on." He shook his head. "Nothing I want to act on." He sighed. "Just someone's idea of revenge, is what I think."

"You think it was revenge?" I asked. I just couldn't help myself. It was such a petty thing, revenge. "Not more what Gran always says. What goes around, comes around? Like justice?"

Dad frowned at that. "I'm reminded of Romeo and Juliet, son. 'That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet'."

I shook my head. "What does that mean?"

"It doesn't matter. I just hope that whoever did this is done now. I really do hope that this is the end of it."

I swallowed again. "Yeah, me, too. I'd sure hate to see someone get hurt."

"Me, too, son." Dad watched me a moment, and then smiled. "Actually, I don't see this cycle continuing, anyway. Nobody in Muskrat Hill has any idea what exactly happened, or who the target of all this mayhem actually was. Mayor Stucky suspects that Zeb Pritchard had a hand in it, to ruin his chances at re-election. Someone told Kit Kisner that everyone in town knew he'd twisted the arm of the town council to get his son that award, and so now Kit thinks it was some disgruntled townie that did it. He even mentioned Ben Fetter, though I really don't think that Ben had anything to do with it."

I simply shook my head. It had never occurred to me that the Muskrats would suspect their own of this prank. "Wow."

My dad nodded. "You see, things like this have a way of growing, son. Of getting out of hand. I talked to Deputy Dawson earlier, and he said he's had to step into several yelling matches in town between folk accusing other folk. It's just nerves, mostly, because half the town still thinks they were visited by something supernatural Saturday morning. They'd much rather find fault with each other than believe that something or someone from the great beyond had taken notice of what was going on in their small town."

That was kind of eerie. It had also never occurred to me that people might actually believe that the figure they were seeing on the bell tower really was Deke Hawkins. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

"Wow, " I said again.

"I climbed that bell tower," dad said then. "With Cupper Dawson and Jeff Willis, the town maintenance man." He gave a small shudder. "I don't think I'd like to do that again. Too high up for me."

I nodded, remembering that, myself.

"There was nothing there," dad continued. "Nothing at all." But then he smiled. "Just an old pulley attached to the wall, that Jeff Willis said they'd probably used to haul the bells up with."

I didn't say anything to that. Of course the pulley had been old. We'd found it at The Thinking Place!

"But I didn't believe that," dad went on.

"You didn't?"

"No. The pulley was old, but it was mounted to the wall with four bright and shiny new screws. I don't think the others noticed, and I didn't say anything. After all, this is still a town investigation, until Mayor Stucky elects to request that Sheriff Dizzard get involved. I don't think he'll do that, because the town already doesn't want any more publicity than it's gotten so far."

"What's the pulley got to do with it?" Joey asked.

My dad smiled at him. "Well, people can't fly, and I don't believe in ghosts. I think some sort of invisible line was used to make Deke Hawkins sail through the air, and that if I walked about the tops of the shops in the square, I might eventually find another pulley mounted up there."

He wouldn't, of course, as we'd brought the winch pulley back with us.

"Sounds like you've scoped out a lot of this," I said.

"Some. As much as I could, not being an official part of the investigation."

I raised my shoulders at that. "Why? Why bother?'

"Curiosity, I guess." Dad smiled. "And because I noticed something else that others seem to have missed, in all the commotion."

"What's that?" Dev asked.

My dad returned his gaze to me. "I noticed that Brad Kisner seemed to be the real focus of these events. He was specifically named by Deke Hawkins as the reason he was speaking up, and Brad and his dad got the feathers, you'll recall." He smiled. "And Deke called Brad a 'dirt weasel', and made some sort of nasty reference to the size of his penis."

All four of us busted up laughing at that. My dad grinned, and allowed us to work it off. "You hadn't heard that, huh?"

That was a direct question, and I knew I had to answer it carefully. "No one mentioned that to us until now, no," I agreed.

"Was Brad upset?" Devvy asked, looking far from worried that he had been.

"Yeah, he was pretty upset at first. Until the news crew from Royce interviewed him, and told him he'd be on TV."

The shock on all of our faces made dad laugh. "Didn't hear that, either, huh? Well, a news crew showed up in the late afternoon, and tried to interview Mayor Stucky. He basically told them 'no comment', and Deputy Dawson hauled out the old standby that he couldn't discuss an investigation in progress. But since they'd driven all that way, they wanted to interview somebody. Brad and his dad were kind of natural targets, seeing as how they both looked like giant roosters."

We started laughing again, but I could see Joey with a little bit of annoyance in his eyes that Brad Kisner might had gotten anything at all positive out of the experience.

My dad also laughed. "Kit Kisner just stomped off in a huff when they asked to interview him, but Brad was all for it once he learned he'd be on television."

I grinned at Dev, the whole idea just silly in my mind. "So Brad's gonna be on the news?"

"Six o'clock this evening," dad confirmed.

He watched the four of us grin and laugh about it, and then nodded to himself. He suddenly turned around and headed for the door. He reached it, opened it, and looked back at us. "Drop by for dinner one night, will you, Kelly? Your mom would like to see you."

"I will," I said, still grinning. "Sorry, dad."

He nodded, and looked about that shack one more time, and sighed. "I got a lot of fond memories of this place. You boys take care of it, you hear?"

"We will."

His eyes came back to me, just for a second. "And remember what I said about the rose, will you?'

He turned and left, closing the door behind himself.

I immediately held up a hand, indicating to the others not to say anything. I waited a moment, and then went to the door and opened it a crack and looked out. Dad was already up the path, just cresting the hill. I watched until he was out of sight, and then shut the door and turned back to the others.

"He knows," Dev said, looking worried and coming to me.

I shook my head. "He suspects," I corrected, patting his arm. "But he's done with it, too. You don't know my dad. If he wanted to make something out of this, he'd already be doing it."

Joey looked skeptical. "You mean he thinks we did this, and he's not going to do anything about it?"

"He did do something about," I countered. "All that talk was a warning, that one time was free, but that we'd better not take this any farther."

"I can't believe he knows, and he's not going to do anything about it."

I looked at the closed door, and smiled. Dad was always surprising me. I think he viewed all of this in the same way that he viewed the way that Mike Dizzard operated as sheriff. Dad didn't always like the man's methods, but he apparently saw some kind of justice in his results. That same thinking seemed to apply here.

"He's being kind of fair to us, in his own way," I decided. "He thinks we're even with Brad, and that it should be over. We're damn lucky no one got hurt."

"What was all that stuff about the rose?" Joey asked.

I didn't know that, either, and just shrugged.

"I know," Rich said. "It's from Shakespeare. It kind of means that, no matter what you decide to call something, it's still the same thing."

He looked over at the closed door, too. "Your dad was saying we got our revenge, and that's what it was, revenge, and that we'd better never forget it."

I grinned at him, seeing the perfect sense in that. "About time all that culture stuff you like came in handy."

Joey sighed, and put an arm around Rich's shoulder. "Should I get another lily?"

Rich grinned, leaned closer and kissed him. "No. But I could use some other attention, if you want."

Joey smiled. "I want."

Dev grinned, and circled an arm around me. "So we got away with it?"

I nodded. "More or less. But I think that if Brad messes with us again, we'll have to be more careful how we react."

We retired to the mattress, while Rich and Joey took the sofa. The rest of the day was spent doing fun things, like making love, kissing, and other good stuff you don't really say in front of polite company. It was all nice, and by the time the dinner hour rolled around, we were all pleasantly rested.

We got some eats from the fridge, and settled back to watch the six o'clock news. What had happened in Muskrat Hill was not the top story, and we had to wait until the end of the broadcast for the story to appear. The newscaster made light of it, as if it were all a big hoax, though there was a brief, amazing clip that someone had captured with a cell camera, of Boney leaping off the bell tower and flying away. The wielder of the camera had been one of the ones that had fled then, his voice being bleeped out as he yelled some not very polite things while running.

And then Brad came on. We busted up again, screaming with laughter and holding onto each other. Brad was covered with feathers, and kept picking them out of his hair, examining them, and then flicking them away as he talked, while the interviewer struggled to keep a straight face. Brad would be a long time living down that interview! He looked absolutely stupid, and when the clip was over, the two news people at the desk were red-faced and grinning.

"Quite a day in Muskrat Hill," one of them said, struggling to speak clearly.

The other nodded. "Just goes to show you that it never pays to irritate your ancestors, because you never know how they'll react."

The first newscaster laughed, and looked back at the camera. "And that's it for now. We'll be back at eleven, with another update. Goodnight, Chip."

"Goodnight, Carla."

Goodnight, y'all.


This story is part of the 2019 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: Light and Shade". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 8 March to 29 March 2019 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.

The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:

2019 Inspired by a Picture Challenge - Light and Shade

By Any Other Name

You may tick as many statements as you wish. Stories my also be discussed in detail on the Literary Merit forum

I will seek this author's work out
It grabbed my attention early on
I had to know what happened
I identified with at least one of the cast
Gritty - it had an edge to it
Realistic - it could have happened that way
I found it hard to follow
Good characterisation
I feel better for having read it
It was romantic
It was erotic
Too much explicit sex
It had the right amount of sex, if there was any
Not enough explicit sex
I have read and enjoyed other work by this author

Current Results

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead