|Publisher:||Brown Posey Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.52(d)|
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Judd McCarthy tugged at the straps of the canvas bag he carried across his shoulders and looked down at his dirty leather shoes as they crunched through the gravel and small rocks on the railroad embankment. A leather holster and a large hunting knife were strapped around his waist, and the brim of a floppy black hat tilted awkwardly over his forehead. His right hand moved back and forth between the straps of the canvas bag and the .45-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver that protruded from the holster. His eyes constantly scanned the surrounding terrain, searching for any movement in the brush and clumps of trees on both sides of the railroad tracks.
Earlier in the day, he had been sent to Carson to bring the Hanley Brothers Construction Company payroll back to Danvers. He was now within a few miles of the construction camp, but the sun was bending into the western horizon, and he knew if an attempt were to be made on his life, it would probably be at dusk in the marsh he would soon enter.
It had occurred to McCarthy that there was something strange in Fred Hanley's decision to send him for the company payroll on a day when the trains were not running. Normally two or three heavily armed men went to Carson to accompany the payroll back by railroad car.
"The men are getting nervous about not being paid," Fred Hanley had said. "We can't wait for a day when the trains be runnin'. Besides, Mac, with your reputation, no one'll mess with ya."
Judd McCarthy had the reputation of being one of the most violent men in Carver County, a reputation he had earned in numerous bar fights and wrestling matches during his two years as a laborer for the Hanley Brothers.
He was a huge man, well over six feet tall, and his wide, muscular shoulders easily bore the weight of the canvas payroll bag. His large hands were callused from years of hard labor in heavy construction projects. Only his eyes betrayed a gentleness and sensitivity that contradicted his otherwise menacing appearance. There was a twinkle of life and good humor in his brown eyes, even as they moved apprehensively over the terrain.
Signs of Indian summer were all around him. The stubble of recently harvested wheat fields poked out of the parched earth. Dead leaves, propelled by steady autumn breezes, skipped across newly plowed fields. Hen pheasants clucked in the nearby brush, while an occasional rooster pheasant emitted a shrill mating call that echoed across the desolate Midwestern landscape. In sloughs and ponds, muskrats busily stockpiled reeds and fallen branches, and overhead a V-shaped formation of Canadian geese flew gracefully south.
McCarthy paused briefly to watch the geese as the formation slowly opened and closed high overhead. Their loud honking also echoed across the prairie.
"Damn, if me soul don't feel like going south like that," McCarthy blurted out in a thick Irish accent. "But Kate said it's time to do somethin' else with me life. An' she's right."
The thought of Kate reminded him of the present he had brought back from Carson, and he reached into the front pocket of his canvas overalls and pulled out a gold locket. The tiny piece of jewelry almost disappeared in his huge palm.
As he admired the locket, he remembered the wrestling match in Carson. While he was waiting for the payroll to arrive, Farmer Tobin had challenged him to a wrestling match, winner take all. Tobin was the strongest man in Carver County, stronger and bigger even than McCarthy. But McCarthy had managed to avoid Tobin's hammerlock long enough to wear him out. When it was over, Tobin was flat on his back, exhausted and unable to move.
"Ah, Tobin," McCarthy laughed to himself as he admired the locket. "Ya ugly Norwegian. Ya jus' ain't no match for an Irishman, lad. But I thank ya for the money to buy a locket for me Lady Kate." The thought of Kate brought the gentleness back into McCarthy's brown eyes. "I made a promise to ya, Kate, an' I mean to keep it. Above all else, Judd McCarthy means ta keep that promise. I loves ya, lass, more'n anything else in the world."
He carefully placed the locket back into his pants pocket, and again his dirty leather shoes crunched through the gravel and small rocks. Just ahead of him was the last marsh he would have to pass through before reaching the wheat fields just outside of Danvers. He was almost home. He knew that Kate was waiting for him farther south, by the banks of the Little Sioux River, but first he would have to leave the payroll with the company paymaster and collect his wages. Then he was free.
"Got a locket for me darlin', for me darlin' Lady Kate." He sang the chorus of an old Irish folk ballad and then stopped singing as he entered the fringes of the marsh. The railroad company had been negligent in caring for the Little Sioux line, and the weeds and brush grew almost to the edge of the trestles. McCarthy proceeded cautiously, his hand never more than a few inches from the revolver.
Suddenly there was a movement in the brush near the embankment. McCarthy came to an abrupt halt, his right hand drawing the revolver out of the leather holster.
"Who be it there?" he yelled into the reeds and brush. "If ya be waitin' for me, ya best come out or get yur head blown off."
The dried reeds swayed slowly on the fringe of the marsh, but there was no response to McCarthy's challenge. Slowly he knelt on the edge of the railroad embankment, his eyes never leaving the brush where he had spotted the movement. He picked up a large rock and stood back up to his full height.
"I be warnin' ya! If ya don't come out, ya'll be a mighty sore lad!" he yelled into the marsh.
Still there was no response. McCarthy fired the rock into the brush, and a shrill screech pierced the autumn air. There was a brief flurry of movement where the rock had entered the brush. Then there was stillness and silence.
McCarthy crept to the edge of the marsh and slowly, cautiously parted the reeds. In the middle of the dried vegetation, a rooster pheasant lay prone on the ground, its neck broken from the impact of the rock. The pheasant's eyes blinked twice, then remained open.
"Ah, no, me beauty. I only meant ta scare ya, not ta kill ya." McCarthy placed the revolver on the ground and gently stroked the beautiful red and brown feathers of the rooster pheasant. Beneath his hand, he felt a convulsive movement in the animal's chest.
"I only meant ta scare ya, lad," McCarthy repeated softly and sadly as he felt the bird stiffen and die beneath the stroke of his hand.
A few yards away, in the waters of the marsh, the early evening crickets began to chirp, and a frog leaped off a fallen log and splashed into the shallow slough.
McCarthy listened to these sounds as he stroked the dead body of the rooster pheasant. Then he dug a hole in the black soil with his hunting knife and placed the bird in it. He piled dirt and weeds over the pheasant, picked up the revolver and canvas bag, and walked back to the embankment.
The sun was dipping into the western horizon when McCarthy stepped out of the marsh and entered the wheat fields a few miles outside of Danvers. He paused briefly to watch the sun cast its shadows across the stubble of the wheat fields. In the distance, the Little Sioux River was curling south across the prairie. He remembered that Kate was waiting for him down by the river, as they had planned, and he walked faster in the direction of Danvers.
Suddenly he saw something in the shadows of a small clump of trees a few hundred feet to the east of the railroad embankment. As he looked in that direction, a gust of wind caused the dead autumn leaves to wave wildly in the thicket and tumble out into the prairie.
McCarthy reached instinctively for the revolver. He realized something was hiding in the shadows of the trees. As he drew the revolver out of the holster and pointed it at the clump of trees, a human figure stepped out of the shadows and waved to him. McCarthy recognized who it was immediately, and he placed the pistol back in the holster.
He walked down the railroad embankment, entered the wheat field, and approached the figure ...
But it did not end there. It was days later, maybe weeks. Maybe even months. It did not matter. Surrounded by the impenetrable darkness, time ceased to exist. Except as measured by his failing strength, his dying will.
At first he lashed out frantically, until the blade of the hunting knife shattered. When that failed, he fired the revolver into the darkness. He watched the orange flames spit out of the barrel as the muffled gunshots echoed harmlessly all around him. Still it did not end.
And each time he fell, the rats would scurry over to sniff at his mildewed clothing. Bolder they became with the passage of time, until he would lash out with the butt end of the knife, sending them scurrying away. But always they came back. And he grew weaker.
Sometime, near the end, he heard the scream. Loud and shrill, it echoed in the darkness. First in anger, then in agony. Growing weaker as his strength deserted him. When it too failed, he again heard the rats' tiny feet moving ceaselessly, relentlessly.
When the end came, he was lying face down. The rats sensed that he had lost his will to fight. He heard them padding softly across the ground to where he lay. They sniffed at his clothing and brushed against his cheek. Then a sharp pain tore through his arm like a thousand needles penetrating his flesh. But he was too weak to care. He lay there, enduring the pain until it turned into a moist numbness.
As the life poured out of his body, he was filled with rage at the horror of how he had been duped. And even as he yielded to the darkness, his soul held firm against the night and refused to accept what had been left undone.
It was then that he thought of the locket. He reached for his pocket to see if it was still there. But the numbness had spread over his entire body, and his arm would not move ...
* * *
When Judd McCarthy failed to return to Danvers with the payroll, the Hanley Brothers sent a search team out after him. At first they assumed McCarthy was the victim of foul play, but when no body was found alongside the Little Sioux Railroad, they concluded he had fled into the Dakotas with the money. A reward of five thousand dollars was posted, and McCarthy became a wanted man.
To the men who worked for Fred Hanley, McCarthy's disappearance was not exactly unexpected. He was a drifter, a man who lived for the moment, and it was not surprising that he would seize an opportunity to become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. The men on the construction crew cursed him because his disappearance with the company payroll meant they would not be paid for three months of work. But they also felt that Fred Hanley should have known better than to send a man with McCarthy's reputation to pick up the payroll.
Within weeks after McCarthy's disappearance, the Hanley Brothers Construction Company abandoned the Little Sioux Water Reclamation Project. Fred Hanley moved to the East Coast, where he retired and lived until his death in 1936. Ben Hanley disappeared somewhere in Florida. Some of the construction workers stayed in the area for weeks after the company folded, hoping that McCarthy might yet return with the long overdue payroll. Then they too drifted away.
The Little Sioux Railroad that connected Danvers and Carson was abandoned in 1927. As the seasons changed and the years passed, the vegetation crept steadily toward the tracks, completely burying them.
For thirty-three years the seasons passed with monotonous regularity. In winter the prairie was buried beneath the glistening snow. In spring the waters of the Little Sioux River would break free from the ice-covered lakes farther north and drift slowly south toward the Mississippi River and the Great Sea beyond. In summer the tiny heads of grain would dance playfully above the wheat fields that now grew almost to the very edge of the abandoned railroad. In late fall, Indian summer would settle over the marshes and newly harvested fields of wheat and corn, and the Canadian geese would fly high overhead in V-formation on their annual pilgrimages south.
The Great Depression wiped out most of the farmers along the Little Sioux River, forcing entire families to abandon their farms to follow their shattered dreams west to California and Oregon. World War II and the Korean War came and went. By October of 1959, so much history had passed through Carver County that the name Judd McCarthy was buried in the memories of all but a few of the oldtimers. Like the thousands upon thousands of itinerant laborers who had passed through the Midwest in the 1920s and 1930s, McCarthy and his mysterious disappearance became a forgotten issue, another of the eternal secrets buried beneath the prairie soil. Certainly his life carried no special significance for most of those who continued to live in Carver County into the middle of the twentieth century.
But Judd McCarthy had made a promise in October of 1926 before he journeyed from Danvers to Carson. And, more than anything else, he meant to keep that promise.CHAPTER 2
When Joel Hampton awoke, his body was drenched in a feverish sweat, and his wife, looking puzzled and frightened, was staring down at him. She was shaking him by his shoulder.
"Huh?" he managed to whisper through dried lips. His eyelids were heavy. They opened, then slowly closed again.
"Joel, wake up!" Susan insisted. She seemed to be calling to him from far away, pulling him out of the darkness. "You're having that nightmare again."
"Nightmare?" He only faintly recognized the word.
"You're talking in your sleep."
Slowly he pushed himself up to a sitting position. His eyelids blinked twice, then remained open. He was beginning to remember.
"Did I do it again?"
"Yes, Joel. God, you scared me half to death," Susan said, the concern evident in her voice.
He knew then why she was afraid. He had been having the same nightmare ever since he was a boy. It had gone away while he was in high school and college, but as soon as he became a junior partner in the law firm, it came back.
It was always the same. He was walking alone, somewhere out in the country. It was autumn and colorful leaves waved in the wind and blew out into the empty fields. He was happy, but also apprehensive about something. Something that was lurking in the shadows of a cluster of trees. He took a step into an empty wheat field and was suddenly surrounded by darkness. There were strange and threatening noises that he did not understand. Then he felt pain and fear, and he heard the scream as his body grew numb. The scream grew louder and louder and ...
As a boy he would awaken to look up into the eyes of his mother. She would be staring down at him, struggling to help him wake up. Now it was his wife who had pulled him out of the darkness.
"I'm sorry," he said gently as he looked into his wife's dark eyes. "What did I say?"
"Nothing I could understand. Then you just started to sweat and scream. Joel ..." Susan paused to sit up on the edge of the bed.
"You've got to stop working so hard," she said wearily. "I know it's your first year at the firm, and you feel you have to prove something to the others, but you can't kill yourself in the process. You're just trying to do too much."
"It isn't the firm, Susan. I've been having that nightmare for years, ever since I was a boy. Sometimes I would walk in my sleep when I was having it. My mother would find me in different parts of the house."
"I think it's time you see someone about it. Someone who can help you figure out what it means and why it keeps coming back."
"What are you suggesting?"
"I don't know ..."
"Mommy!" The voice of a child drifted into the bedroom, and Susan and Joel glanced toward the open doorway.
"Just a minute, Aggy," Susan yelled out to the hallway. "I'm coming."
Before she could push herself away from the bed, Joel reached over and gently grabbed her forearm. "Wait. Why have you started to call her Aggy?"
"It's just a nickname. The kids in the neighborhood couldn't pronounce Seneca or Angela, so they scrambled the two together and somehow came up with Aggy. She seems to like it."
"Mommy," the little girl's voice implored again.
"I don't like it," Joel said firmly. "I think it's wrong to saddle her with a nickname when she's only four years old."
"Mommy, I'm hungry," the little girl pleaded.
"I'm coming, honey," Susan yelled again. Then she looked at her husband. "It's harmless. Besides, she'll outgrow it. But, Joel, please do me one favor."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Search For Judd McCarthy"
Copyright © 2018 Dennis M. Clausen.
Excerpted by permission of Sunbury Press Inc..
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