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by K. B. Sluss
Dottie paused outside the drying barn where most of Poppa’s burley crop hung like baleen in the gaping mouth of a whale. She was tempted to pluck a leaf and inhale its aroma of dried fruit, but then she noticed the wooden figure of Bacco Joe guarding the shadows just beyond the doorway. Even in the dim light, she could make out the rope burn on Joe’s neck. Dottie’s hands flitted to her own neck and scratched the tender skin that itched with sympathy pains.
Until the previous summer, the old cigar-store Indian had always occupied a certain corner in Dottie’s house, passing along with the farm from father to son as a talisman of good harvest since the earliest generation planted his first row of burley. When she was still alive Dottie’s mother judged Bacco Joe sacrilegious and kept him covered with a quilt, out of fear that the statue likely challenged at least three of God’s Ten Commandments to Moses.
Now Bacco Joe was making appearances all over the farm. Before today’s sighting Dottie had last seen him standing on the back porch of the big house, the carved feathers of his war bonnet bristling like the quills of a porcupine expecting trouble. Each time he disappeared, Dottie prayed he wouldn’t come back. So far, her prayers had gone unanswered.
Dottie felt Bacco Joe leering at her, though his visage hadn’t changed from its usual stolid expression. Dottie knew from experience with her own father that a lot of things went on beneath the mask of a hard face. Thinking of Poppa and the wooden Indian at the same time evoked a memory of the previous summer, and of Uncle Leon and his ill-fated practical joke. Looking back on it, Dottie figured the trouble with Joe had begun with Uncle Leon’s fondness for telling a tall tale.
“Bet you didn’t know Bacco Joe likes to wander by the light of a full moon,” Uncle Leon said.
Dottie listened as she sat on the dirt floor of the empty drying barn, nibbling her lunch—a hardboiled egg and a couple of dry biscuits. She had wrapped the provisions in a napkin that morning before following Poppa and Uncle Leon to the fields where she and her little brother, Louis, would spend the day clearing the tobacco leaves of fat, green worms.
“I never seen him move from that corner in the big house,” Louis whispered to Dottie.
“Uncle Leon is yanking your leg,” said Dottie. “He’s making it up just to scare us.”
“But I ain’t,” Leon said. “You mark my words. Joe is gonna walk, and I aim to catch him.”
“What for?” asked Louis.
“Because he’s possessed by a hungry spirit. He’ll be sulking about, looking for something to eat.”
“What does he eat?”
Dottie laughed, but Leon gave her a sharp look. “You think a creature like him wants food like you got in your knapsack?”
Dottie expected Bacco Joe ate nothing at all, but her momma had raised her not to contradict her elders.
“How’re you going to catch him?” asked Louis.
Leon spread his hands wide apart. “I’m going to set a trap.” He clapped his palms together with a pop, startling Louis so that he lost his balance and fell on his rear. Everyone got a chuckle out of that, but then Poppa came and called them all back to work. Dottie thought nothing more of the story until that night when she woke to a flurry of dreadful screams.
“They came from woods near the south field,” said Poppa, who appeared in the front yard carrying his shotgun and lantern. Dottie followed behind him in her cotton nightgown, her heart beating high in her throat with excitement.
“The migrant cabins are out there,” said T.J., the oldest son, peering into the darkness as if hoping to discern the source of the screams even though the south field was over five acres away.
Dottie started behind the two men as they strode out of the yard, but Poppa turned to stop her. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“With you, Poppa.”
His eyes roamed over her and lit with humor before going dark again. “You get back inside. It’s too late for you to be roaming in naught but your night dress.” He did not wait for Dottie’s concurrence before disappearing into the blackness with T.J. at his side.
“It’s Bacco Joe, ain’t it?” said a sleepy voice at Dottie’s shoulder. Louis stood beside her, rubbing his eyes. “He ate somebody’s soul.”
“Don’t be a dummy,” said Dottie.
“Uncle Leon was right.”
“Uncle Leon is just pulling a prank like he always does.”
Louis gave her an unconvinced blink.
“I’ll prove it to you.” Dottie snatched up the little boy’s hand, and together they crept toward the south field. The moon hung in the sky, full and bright as Leon predicted, providing just enough light for the two to make their way.
Torches and lanterns lit the scene like nighttime at the county fair, and the crowd in attendance was nearly as large. They’d arranged themselves in a haphazard circle around the gloating figure of Uncle Leon. From a tree branch high over his head, Bacco Joe swung by a noose.
Poppa pushed his way into the center of the crowd. “What mischief have you gotten up to, Leon?”
Leon’s eyes went wide with innocence. “It ain’t mischief on my part. Bacco Joe was on the prowl, and I caught him like I said I would.”
Poppa took Leon aside so they could have words, and the two sets of ears hiding in the shadows listened with pinched breath.
“You’d never do anything like this if your sister was still around to see it.” Poppa speaking of Dottie’s mother had more power over Uncle Leon than an invocation of the Holy Spirit. Uncle Leon’s shoulders drooped with shame. “I got a crop to get in before the end of summer and barely enough help to do it. If you scare off any of the workers with your pranks, you’ll have to take up the slack.”
Leon hurked and hocked in his throat and then spat. Dottie was close enough to hear the wet smack of his saliva hit the ground. “I didn’t mean no harm by it. It was just a joke.”
Poppa sniffed. “I don’t hear nobody laughing. Now go cut him down and put him back in his place—and don’t forget to cover him with the quilt.”
Leon vowed that night to refrain from further trouble-making, but the next full moon saw the return of Dottie’s family to the front yard, assembled like a coven of conjurers after an alarm of fearful shrieks startled everyone from their beds once again.
“What now?” grumbled T.J.
“I warned him,” said Poppa. “He’s gone too far with his jokes this time.”
“Who?” Louis whispered to his sister.
“Hush,” said Dottie. But she knew who, and wondered what Poppa had in store for him. She didn’t think Uncle Leon would get away with a stern warning like he did before. “If you stay quiet, we’ll follow after them.”
Louis pantomimed buttoning his lips.
They tromped past rows of tobacco ready for topping, careful to stay far enough behind Poppa and T.J. to avoid detection. From a distance, Dottie and Louis could make out a figure suspended from a tree, just like the last time.
“Is it Bacco Joe again?” Louis whispered.
Dottie started to answer in the affirmative, but then the words froze on her lips. As soon as she realized the truth of the scene before her, she grabbed her brother’s shoulder and jerked him around. “Go home, Louis.”
He wrenched his shoulder free. “No. I wanna see.”
Dottie snatched his wrist, crushing it so that he whined in pain. “It’s just another prank. We don’t want Poppa to catch us.”
Louis heard the fear in his sister’s voice and allowed her to tow him home. “Is Poppa going to punish Uncle Leon for playing a joke again?”
“No,” said Dottie, choking back a wave of bile and panic from her throat. “Uncle Leon already got his punishment.”
The funeral for Uncle Leon followed the style of the ceremony given to mourn the death of Dottie’s mother. It revived old feelings of anguish and grief that Dottie thought she had forgotten, but she staunched her tears for the sake of her little brother. Louis depended on her strength, and she would do nothing to deny him comfort. Dottie wondered if Uncle Leon had finally learned his lesson about playing practical jokes. If not, she hoped God had a good sense of humor.
The family laid blame for Leon’s death on migrant workers who took offense over his peculiar brand of wit. A handful of seasonal laborers disappeared the same night of Leon’s hanging, giving the theory credibility. Bacco Joe vanished with them, or so most people thought. Dottie and Louis suspected otherwise when, nearly a month after the funeral, they spied a shadowy figure with a crown of wooden feathers looming in the woods near the scene of the unfortunate incident.
That sighting was the first of many in the year after Leon’s death and before Dottie’s latest encounter with Bacco Joe in the drying barn. When the dinner bell called her to the house, Dottie left Joe standing among the ochre burley leaves where she had found him. She met Louis at the sink as they washed up for supper and told him what had happened.
“Aren’t you afraid of him?” asked Louis.
Dottie had tried to convince herself that someone else had taken up Uncle Leon’s joke, surreptitiously moving Bacco Joe around the farm, but no one else admitted to seeing him. Though not for lack of trying, Dottie had discovered no explanation for Bacco Joe’s behavior that could ease her dread.
“I am afraid,” she admitted, “but I also think if he intended to do us harm, he would have done it already.”
Later that night, Dottie was not surprised to find Joe waiting for her under that fateful tree limb, the full moon giving him a spectral glow. She approached with timid footsteps, keeping her head bowed in an effort to convey respect. In spite of her fear, Dottie drew in a breath of courage and looked Joe in his carved eye. His creator had whittled laugh lines into his russet face, but Dottie thought it unlikely that Joe had much cause for humor in his time.
Dottie cleared her throat and said, “In church, we’re taught that those who give mercy will be blessed with it in return. I’m here to put that notion to the test.”
When Joe offered no objection, Dottie dropped her bag of supplies next to his chiseled moccasins and then knelt and opened it wide. Along with a crinkled piece of sandpaper, she removed a tin of lacquer, a paint brush, and an old cotton rag. She worked for nearly an hour, repairing the remnants of rope burn on Joe’s pine neck. When she was finished, Dottie stepped back and admired her handiwork. She imagined she felt a sensation of begrudged gratitude wafting from the wooden Indian.
“Our family has had its share of hard times. I lost my momma, you know. She got sick and died a few years back. She didn’t like you much, but that gave Uncle Leon no right to treat you like he did. I reckon you and him are even now. After this, I hope there are no more hard feelings.”
Dottie packed away her repair kit and started for home. Her mother used to say that God helped those who helped themselves. Until this night, Dottie never fully understood the meaning of those words. When she reached the north corner of the south field, Dottie looked back. The spot where Joe had stood under the hanging tree was empty. The sigh she let loose was one she felt she had been holding the whole year long. In that release of breath was the freedom to believe that this time, Bacco Joe was gone for good.
While holding down a nine-to-five job in a public legal arena, K. B. Sluss also manages a home for wayward boys and dogs and cooks part-time in a commercial kitchen for a captive audience. Her fiction appears in the Return of the Dead Men (and Women) Walking horror anthology, and is forthcoming in Tales of the Talisman (for whom she also writes book reviews), Big Pulp, and Daily Science Fiction. She's a member of the Codex Writer's Group, and she and several of her cohorts blog about writing, books, and other things that make fangirls go Squee! at http://songsinsqueeminor.wordpress.com/.