Rusty Jenkins sat in a rocking chair on the porch of the general store. The chair was almost as old as he was, and he was getting on up there. Nigh about eighty now.
He rocked back and forth, listening to the floorboards creak. A man could sit out here all day, chewing tobacco and rocking.
Shame about that Sutphin boy. He’d been sweet on that pretty young thing, that Thomas girl. Well, weren’t gonna be no wedding now.
The screen door flew open and Farmer Brown stepped out onto the porch. The door, worn out by all this activity and excitement, slammed shut behind him.
Rusty spoke. “What you think ‘bout this weather?”
Farmer Brown looked up. Rusty followed his gaze. The sky burned a bright hard blue. The air smelled of smoke and dead leaves.
“Killin’ frost comin’. Reckon I oughta go down to Tate’s, help him cover his pumpkins.”
Rusty reached down and picked up his Dixie cup, spat a stream of sticky brown tobacco juice into it.
“You be careful out there. Boy got his head tore plumb off out that a way t’other week. They found his body on Ol’ Knocky’s grave. Ain’t found his head yet.”
Farmer Brown nodded and stepped off the porch. Rusty watched him get in his brown pickup truck and pull out of the gravel parking lot, headed down to Tate’s.
Sure was a shame about that Sutphin boy.
Farmer Brown turned left on Redbrush Church Road. The Pleasant Rest cemetery came up on his right.
The spikes on the cemetery’s wrought iron fence leered at him as he drove by.
They found his body on Ol’ Knocky’s grave.
The grave was in the far southern end of the cemetery, down by the edge of Tate’s land. Folks said that if you knocked on the gravestone three times at midnight on Halloween, Ol’ Knocky would knock back.
He’d been down there a few times on Halloween with his friends as a boy. None of them had ever had the gumption to knock more than once. He’d gone back when he was older. He and Mae had left Ol’ Knocky in peace, but they’d sure had some fun.
He drove past the end of the fence. The sun tipped the trees with gold.
He parked his truck in Tate’s driveway and jumped out. The house was small, only two bedrooms. Tate had built it himself thirty some years ago.
He walked up the path of square stone blocks to the concrete porch. Leaves crunched under his shoes. When he reached the door he stopped for a moment, inhaling the smell that clung to the house. It was musty, closed-in, the smell of dust motes in a slanted sun beam.
The doorbell was dead. The wires hung loose where the button used to be.
He knocked once on the door.
He stood for a while and waited. A breeze sprang up.
He knocked again, louder.
The breeze shook the branches of the trees surrounding the house. Leaves spiralled to the ground.
Farmer Brown knocked a third time, as hard as he could.
He heard movement inside. Something squeaked, a door closed, and heavy footsteps came from the back of the house. The front door swung open. Tate stood there, silent. Farmer Brown spoke.
“Good afternoon. How are you?”
“I’m doing all right. Can’t complain. How about yourself?”
“Fine, fine,” Farmer Brown answered.
Tate was lying. He was not doing all right. His eyes were bloodshot, the skin under them bagged.
“I’d invite you in, but the house ain’t quite to rights. I ain’t felt too good lately.”
Farmer Brown looked down at Tate’s hands. The thick brown fingers slid across each other, like snakes crawling all over each other in a pit.
Tate noticed him looking. The hands went still, limp.
“You want something to drink? Water, tea? I might have some pop.”
“No thank you, I’m fine. Listen, there’s gonna be a killin’ frost tonight. You got anything to cover your pumpkins? I got a tarp in the back of the truck.”
No answer. Tate deflated, drew back into himself. A crow cawed in the distance. The breeze came again. Leaves skittered across the porch.
Inside the house, something squeaked.
Tate lifted his head. He stepped back into the house, started to close the door. Farmer Brown tried again.
“You got any old blankets in there?”
The door closed. The lock turned. The heavy footsteps receded, a door closed inside the house, and something squeaked.
Farmer Brown walked down to the pumpkin field, carrying his tarp. Wasn’t like Tate to just shut the door on him like that.
The crow cawed again.
He stopped at the edge of the field. The pumpkins were ripe, just days away from harvesting. Normally, this time of year, Tate was crazy about his pumpkins. He’d set up a sign on the side of the road, Tate’s Pumpkin Patch, and sell ‘em for Halloween. Some years he got all up into it, with hayrides and carving contests. Didn’t seem like he had a mind to do any of that this year.
Well, wasn’t his place to tell Tate what to do. He’d just cover up what he could and go on back home. It was getting on towards sunset. Mae’d be wondering where he was before too long.
He put the tarp down on the ground, found a rock nearby to hold it. He set off down the field, looking for more rocks.
He was at the end of the field, close to the cemetery, when he saw a good-sized heavy rock. He bent down to pick it up.
When he stood up, the scarecrow was there.
It had not been there before. He was sure of it. He saw the field in his mind. Rows of pumpkins, grass, dirt, the shadows of the trees stretched long across the ground. Not a straw man to be seen.
Tate had never had a scarecrow, not that Farmer Brown knew of.
He remembered the bloodshot eyes, the coiling hands. Might be a lot about Tate he didn’t know.
The scarecrow was a good six foot. The pole looked weathered, like it’d been standing there in the rain and the snow and the sun for years. A pair of jeans swung in the wind, stuffed with straw. A red plaid shirt was tucked into the jeans, the arms stretched out across the cross pole. Bits of straw clung to the ends of the sleeves.
A fly landed on his hand. He shook it off.
He looked up, past the jeans and red plaid. Saw the white scarf.
It was a fine scarf. He wondered how much it must have cost. Must have been a pretty penny. Too bad about the stains. He stared at them. Listened to the flies buzzing.
In the distance, the crow cawed.
A snatch of song from childhood came back to him.
knock three times
three times dead
knock three times
and lose your head
The scarf uncoiled itself, reared, struck.
It wrapped around his neck and yanked him forward. Dragged him face to face with the scarecrow’s head.
The smell hit him full in the gut. Bile rose in his throat.
Bulging eyes stared at him. Blood dripped from the nose. The half rotted mouth hung open like a tomb on Judgement Day. The swollen tongue twitched.
The scarecrow squeaked.
He pulled hard against the scarf. In response, it tightened around his neck. Cut off his windpipe.
He was going to die and they would find him here in the pumpkin field, stinking to high heaven, and Mae would be alone and he would never see her again.
The scarecrow squeaked again and again, the squeaks rising in volume until the thing was shrieking. Its screams stabbed into his brain.
The scarf cut into his skin and he couldn’t breathe and he felt something hard and rough in his hand.
He was still holding the rock.
He brought his right arm up. Swung it around. Drove the rock right into the scarecrow’s nose.
The thing let out a single high pitched squeak that reached into his bones and turned them to water.
He lifted his arm again, brought it down with the force of a tidal wave. The rock slammed into the scarecrow’s cheek. The scarf went limp.
He could breathe now. He took a deep breath, filled his lungs with the odor of decay and putrefaction. Raised his arm.
Blood flooded through his veins. His muscles burned.
Unable to squeak, its tongue stilled, the scarecrow moaned out a dirge.
His arm whistled through the air and came down like a scythe. The rock smashed into the side of the scarecrow’s head and kept going. Bones crunched. Skin tore and fell away.
The head came off the pole and thudded to the ground. The rest of the scarecrow followed, taking Farmer Brown with it.
The moaning stopped.
All of Farmer Brown’s bits ached. He could feel bruises forming on top of bruises. He was bleeding. But he was alive.
His hand was empty. The rock had fallen and disappeared.
He rolled off the scarecrow and looked up. It was nearly dark now. The moon was already in the sky. He could see every crater, every valley.
He could hear the footsteps when they came. Heavy and slow.
“I didn’t ask you for no help.”
Tate was coming down the field.
“You shouldn’t have come out here. I didn’t ask you to come out here.”
The footsteps stopped. Tate stood over him. Farmer Brown took a breath, a deep sweet breath, and spoke.
“I didn’t know you had a scarecrow.”
Tate’s face twisted with rage.
Tate held something in his hand. Something long and thin. And sharp. The knife glowed in the twilight.
Farmer Brown pulled his knees up, braced himself against the ground. Before he could get up, Tate’s boot came down hard on his chest and knocked the breath out of him.
He watched Tate raise his arm and thought Mae. The knife plunged.
Tate put his arms under Farmer Brown’s shoulders and lifted.
He hadn’t asked the man to come down here. He hadn’t done anything.
He walked backward. Farmer Brown’s boots scraped over the dirt.
Tate hadn’t done anything. It was the voice. The voice that screamed and screamed and never gave him any peace.
He hadn’t done anything. It was Ol’ Knocky. It was all Ol’ Knocky’s fault.
Farmer Brown’s head bumped against his chest.
The wind rustled through the trees. Leaves rose and fell in little gusts.
He came to the cemetery fence. Dragged the body through the gap he’d made three weeks ago.
Ol’ Knocky’s grave was in the row nearest his land. He laid Farmer Brown’s body down on it. Knocked on the tombstone.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
He sat on the grass in the dark and waited.
Rusty Jenkins sat in the rocking chair on the porch of the general store. It’d turned cold. Winter was coming on. His daughter didn’t much like him being out in the cold air. He’d have to give up the general store and spend his time at home soon.
The door slammed. Mae Brown stood next to him, shaking and breathing fire.
“They said you was the last person to talk to him. What did he say?”
“Said he was going down to Tate’s. I told him. I said a boy got his head tore off down there t’other week.”
Mae stared at him, wild fear in her eyes.
“He didn’t pay no account. Went down there anyway.”
She didn’t wait to hear more. She ran down the porch steps and out to her Bonneville. She slammed the car door, gunned the motor, and peeled out of the parking lot in a shower of gravel. Headed down to Tate’s, he’d reckon. No one ever paid any account to what old folks said.
Rusty settled back in the chair. Rocked back and forth. Listened to the creak of the floorboards. Maybe he could get his daughter to buy him a rocking chair like this one.
He picked up his Dixie cup and spat a stream of tobacco juice into it.
Sure was a shame about that Farmer Brown.