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The Old Pickup hit a pothole with a bump that shook a few more flakes of faded blue paint from the rusted body. Joe Danner swore, but not aloud. He hadn't used bad language for six Years, not since he found his Lord Jesus in the mesmeric eyes of a traveling evangelist. He hadn't used hard liquor nor tobacco either, nor laid a hand on his wife in anger--only when she talked back or questioned his Scripture-ordained authority as head of the family.
It would never have occurred to Joe Danner that his wife preferred their old lifestyle. Back then, an occasional beating was part of the natural order of things , and it was a small price to pay for the Saturday nights at the local tavern, both of them getting a little drunk together, talking and joking with friends, going home to couple unimaginatively but pleasurably in the old bed Joe's daddy had made with his own hands.
Since Joe found Jesus, there were no more Saturday nights at the tavern. No more kids, either. Joe junior had left home the year before; he was up north someplace, wallowing in the sins he'd been brought up to hate . . . Only somehow the teaching hadn't taken hold. Not with Lynne Anne, either. Married at sixteen, just in time to spare her baby the label of bastard-but not soon enough to wipe out the sin of fornication. She lived in Pikesburg, only forty miles away, but she never came home any more. Joe had thrown her out of the house the night she told them she was pregnant, and Lynne Anne had spat in his face before she set out on a four-mile walk in the traditional snowstorm, to collapse on the doorstep of her future in-laws. They had raised a real ruckus about it, too. Methodists. What else coulda person expect from Methodists?
Another pothole lifted Joe off the seat, bringing his head in painful contact with the roof of the cab and ending his sullen musings about his thankless children. Darned county gov'mint, he thought. New roads, not even a year old, and already gone to . . . heck. Why they'd built it in the first place he'd never understand. Nothing wrong with the old one. This route was shorter, maybe, but . . . Well, he just didn't like it. Especially the steep -downhill slope into the hollow. Deadman's Hollow, the kids called it. Said it was haunted. Fool kids . . . He wasn't afraid of haunts or dead men, not with the power of the Lord Jesus in his heart. All the same, there was something funny about that low place in the road . . .
Joe stamped on the brake as the truck approached the downhill curve. The road was slimy-wet after the night's rain; tangled brush and twisted trees, thick with foliage, reduced the sunlight to a golden haze. The fields would be a solid sea of mud; couldn't use a cultivator till they dried. Gol-durned rain, gol-durned gov'mint . . .
Jesus Christ! The words came bursting out of the deep recesses of his mind, exploding in a high-pitched shout. His heavy boot slammed the brake pedal to the floor. The tires squawled and slid, and he fought the skid with the skill of long years of driving on bad roads in bad weather. The vehiclefinally shuddered to a stop, skewed sideways across both narrow lanes; and Joe sat staring down at the thing in the road.
Had he hit it? He hadn't felt anything. He knew how it would feel. Coons and possums and groundhogs, he'd run over plenty of the varmints. A body--a human body-would make even more of a bump.
Sweat slicked his lean cheeks and trickled into his beard as he climbed down from the truck. He was already composing the excuses he would give the police. It was on the road when he saw it-still and recumbent, dead or dead-drunk--not his. fault-sharp curve, wet road . . .
Not his fault. If he could back and turn, go the other way,the old way--leave it for someone else to find . . . Still, bet-ter check it out. He'd had enough trouble with the police. Thatfuss last year, about whipping the kids at church school --- allaccording to the Scriptures, spare the rod and spoil the child-but some busybody had raised cain, and he was an elder.
Slowly Joe went around the front of the truck, dreading what he would see. But everything was all right. He hadn't touched it. The wheels were a good foot away. Must be deador dead-drunk. It hadn't stirred. It? She. Woman's dress, but a durned funny one-long, coveting even the feet, a faded calico print that had once been blue. She lay facedown, the back of her head covered by a scarf or shawl. Her arms were crooked, one over her head, the other at her side. The voluminous folds of fabric were strangely flat, and as he edged closer, Joe's fears faded, to be replaced by rising anger. It was just an empty dress. Couldn't be a body under that. Some fool kids--could've caused an accident, playing a trick like that.
He lifted the scarf.
It grinned up at him, baring twin rows of earth-browned teeth. The ivory curve of the skull was pale against the black macadam of the road. A drop of water, caught on the rim of the empty eyesocket, winked in the sunlight.
Somehow he got the truck backed and turned. The last wild twist of the wheel produced the faintest crunching sound, and an echoing quiver ran through Joe's own bones. For some reason all he could think of was Lynne Anne, struggling through the winter storm. He could see her face drawn into ugliness by her hate, superimposed on that fleshless horror in the road.