After the brush quit shaking and the sparrows settled on their branches again, Stagger Lee snapped his wrist to open his aviators. He and Ronnie Bob stared into the knit of forest Solly had bolted into. He slid the shades onto the sweating red of his face and smiled. “Let the hunt begin.”
Ronnie Bob lumbered his flab into the lead. His finger licked at the 30-06’s trigger. It had been since Stagger Lee had hauled Solly from the covered cab of the F-150, sliced his duct-tape bonds and told him to get running.
“Bout fucking time,” Ronnie Bob said, eyes already leaping for targets in the amber drift of the Kentucky forest. “Don’t see why we didn’t blast that coon soon as we got here.”
“The plans to make it seem a hunting accident,” Stagger Lee said, strolling after smooth-as-you-please, like he were promenading Transylvania Park, not stalking the coal-rich hills of East Kentucky.
“Sure seems a load of sweat just to give a black boy his due.”
“It’s suspicious enough that you’re shooting your daughter’s dark-skinned boyfriend.”
“Maybe in these enlightened times. Used to be that polite society understood such things.”
“Polite society expects you to at least pretend to not break the law.”
“He’s the one breaking the law,” Ronnie Bob jabbed his rifle ahead.
“Ain’t no law about getting a girl pregnant.”
“Should be. And there’s laws against pushing dope.”
“How you so sure Solly’s pushing dope?”
“I just know.”
“Southern Daddy ESP, huh? Solly’s colored, so it goes to figure. Is that it?”
“Nah, I hear talk,” Ronnie Bob was already wheezing and wiping his brow.
“Talk from who?”
“From Aubrey, for one.”
“Oh, you believe her when she tell you that Solly’s a drug dealer, but not all the times she said she weren’t banging him?”
“You got to use the word ‘banging’ in the same sentence as my daughter and a coon?”
“If you got another euphemism, try it on for size.”
“I just know, Stagger.” Ronnie Bob sagged his old, fat bones against a stump. “I just know.”
Stagger sidled up and set the six-pack of Pabst he slung in his hand on the stump. He patted Ronnie Bob on the shoulder and took a moment soaking in the forest: The quilted, smoky smell of the oaks and the sharp pine tar and the green-yellow drift of it all, cooling in the dying day.
“Well, that’s why I’m here, Ronnie Bob,” he said. “That’s good enough for me. Let’s set awhile.”
They sat and drank beer and talked of better times. Ronnie Bob talked of how easy it was to raise a girl until she was too old for pigtails. He talked of how the weight of the mixed-race baby in Aubrey’s belly was sending all that tuition money he’d saved for her right down the drain. He got to slurring his words and only then touched on how Stagger Lee was the sole, decent, white man left in Lexington—the only one who would step up and do the right thing by seeing Solly got the death coming to him.
“I always knew you were more to me than a bookie,” Ronnie Bob blubbered, mouth wet on Stagger’s shoulder. “You a stand-up man of the old school.”
“Rumor has it,” Stagger said and drank.
When the sky had mellowed from electric blue to Navy, they kicked their empties away and got to walking.
Ronnie Bob was as quiet as Stagger. He wiped his eyes for a final time.
They went into the forest with guns up.
They followed Solly’s city-boy trail.
Ronnie Bob was back to sagging when Solly’s voice came from the hash of the tree trunks.
“I figured this far enough,” Solly sounded bored and sad. “Let’s finish it.”
Ronnie Bob swept his rifle around. No target caught it. He yelled at the trees.
“You man enough to knock up my girl, you be man enough to step out and get what’s coming!”
“You really can’t live with Aubrey and me together?” Solly said.
“What gave you the clue, nigger?” Ronnie said.
Solly stepped from behind an oak, shaking his head. He’d dried his cheeks but his eyes were still wet. He opened his hands.
“Go ahead, then,” Solly said.
Ronnie Bob raised the rifle and crushed the trigger. The bang shook the woods.
Solly was untouched. He just looked at Stagger. Ronnie Bob goggled his gun.
“What the fuck?” Ronnie Bob said, then fired two more rounds.
“Blanks,” Stagger said. Ronnie Bob turned on him. Stagger had his rifle aimed at Ronnie. “These ain’t, though.”
“Why?” Ronnie Bob quaked. “Why, after all he’s done?”
“Reckon that is why,” Stagger said. “Dope pushers as industrious as Solly are hard for me to come by.”
Stagger’s bullet hit home and Ronnie Bob’s grimace exploded. His body flopped to ground. Ants and flies wasted no time swarming.
Solly hung his head. “Poor Aubrey.”
“Don’t you worry none,” Stagger patted his shoulder. “This hunting accident’s on me.”