Shoved over the railing, Deputy B.L. Renfro hit the water of the open well, twisting through a half-flip and landing on his back. His feet were above his head and his shoulder shrieked in agony, but the cold wetness revived him. Which meant he did not drown in the next ten seconds.
Renfro opened his mouth and took in a half-swallow. The shock brought him further alert, and he rotated until his boots touched the bottom. Looking up, a second body was tumbling. He pushed hard against the wall.
Deputy Marcus Spears missed Renfro by inches and his plunge sloshed water up the sides. Glancing again, the opening was now round—backlit by cloud-laced stars—not blocked by looming man-shapes.
Renfro stretched for Spears’ throat and fingered for a pulse. None. He checked the gun-holster at his waist. Empty. He touched his own throbbing scalp wound. A ballooning lesion meant the blow aimed to kill.
“Anybody movin’?” said a whispery voice from above.
The words dripped with swamp-ese, slurred and bent, but Renfro did not know the speaker. He froze, closed his eyes, and lowered his head until the water tickled his nose.
“They was dead when they went in and they’s still dead now,” came the answer. This voice was deeper, louder, but also unknown.
A flashlight’s beam played down the well sides and onto the water. It circled Renfro’s crown and hovered on Spears. After five seconds, the light snapped off and darkness returned.
“Like I said, dead.”
“We’ll wait a few minutes,” said the whisperer. “Listen close. Shoot down in there if you hear anything. Don’t want to wake the neighbors, but better safe than treble hooked in the eyeball.”
“Waste of time but you the boss.”
Renfro breathed slowly, shallowly. He willed himself not to look up. A surprise flashlight reflection off his eyes would result in double-ought buck being sprayed down onto him. Now was the time to be as cautious as a cricket hiding from a mantis.
Hats spun down to the surface. Then two more big splashes. “Let them be our guns,”he prayed.
The minutes crept by. Despite the heat of August, well water was cold, and his body’s temperature dropped. As the first tremble rippled his shoulders, he heard the crunch of footsteps and two truck doors slam. An engine cranked and its drone subsided into the night.
He was alone, at the bottom of a pitch-black well, with an injured arm and a dead friend. And he was lucky.
He submerged and groped for the hoped-for pistols. One was choked with mud, but the other retained the slickness of gun oil on steel. He used Spears’ hat as a boat and placed both in it. His own hat he left floating in case the bastards returned, and he once more must play dead.
Now what? He was somewhere west of the Satilla River. Though dazed, he’d not lost consciousness and the bouncing truck-ride seemed short.
The unknown men picked an abandoned house and used the well as a grave. This meant they didn’t care if the bodies were sniffed out long-term. You bury dead folks in the nearby Okefenokee if you want finality, but they’d not taken the time. Were they just careless? He didn’t think so. Probably were outsiders. And in a big hurry.
Then he knew. They had a powerful protector and felt safe.
“And there,” Renfro whispered to Spears, “they are wrong.”
He tested the shoulder. Inhaling sharply, he stretched and rotated the arm. The pain was white-hot, but he could reach high, and the hand could grip. Broken bones are showstoppers. His were not. This knowledge felt like drawing to an inside straight and hitting your card. He grinned, but it wasn’t a smile of friendship.
He pulled a handkerchief and wrang it out, wiped the first pistol, and sighted its barrel at a star. It was clear. He did the same for the other gun. It was blocked and he had nothing to rod it with. “Use the second if I must make a last stand,” he thought to himself.
His watch was missing, but Spears’ still ticked: 3:45 a.m. Dawn was in just over two hours. Looking up, he began to figure how the hell he was going to climb out. Ten feet is a long way unless you have claws, and the well was wider at its bottom—too broad to bridge up with his legs. Sheriff Tombs would not start looking for them until 8:00. What to do? Risk a shot? Create a rope out of thin air?
And then he heard a mewling whine.
His heart hammered. McCue?
He’d left his dog with the squad car with orders to stay. McCue had found him.
He gave the “come to me” whistle, low but clear.
Two thumps overhead and a bark. “Stay!” shouted Renfro. The last thing he wanted was the animal to plummet down here with him. “Stay McCue – good boy.” A softer bark from above.
Now what? The dog was his loyal partner. But the creature could not understand detailed instructions – especially without eye-contact. And at the bottom of this dark well, all Renfro had was his voice.
Then he remembered. Thirty minutes before he and Spears went in on foot, they passed the house of Willie and Ada Mae Perkins. Ten-acre sharecroppers along a lonely dirt road, the Perkins were friends and he often stopped when out on patrol. They owned two tawny dogs that McCue joust-played with during the visits.
Renfro knew that dogs smell each other for miles and can navigate across a dark countryside with ease.
What did she call them? They had Muscogee-Creek names for Ada was descended from that people. Echo? Iffen? Iffow?
At last: Ifá. She called them both ifá.
“McCue! Go get the ifás.”
The sound of sprinting dog disappeared and the whispers of the darkness—night-wind rustles and the haunting calls of owls—closed in. He now had a prayer to hold onto and a gun if the killers came back.
McCue spun and bolted.
Partner say GO TO Ifás! Smell ifás faintly. Run fast.
The shepherd cleared the house’s yard in four bounds and hurdled the roadside ditch. He skittered sideways with paws scratching as he turned down the dirt road, lowered his head, and began the gallop he grasped was needed.
Big ifá always want to fight. Not afraid. Run hard!
A mile down, a diamondback huntress was crossing. She sensed the pounding and coiled for protection, her rattle warning the stranger to stand clear. McCue saw her—glowing in his night vision—and bayed. His big feet hammered the road, and his roar trembled the air. The viper retreated, winding into the grass at top speed with head lifted and rattles whirring. McCue was lost to her tongue-sense in three seconds.
He passed one side-pathway and did not hesitate – continuing his sprint down the road’s middle for more miles. The repeating drum-roll of his feet on the packed sand alerted the small creatures of the night. At the second byway, he paused and lifted his nose to the wind.
Ifás beyond grass field. Leave road. Partner say GO TO Ifás.
He resumed his run and entered the field, stretching and leaping high to see. Nine rabbits made choices to race from the noise or freeze. One keeled over as its heart cracked from the stress. McCue saw them, but his orders were clear, and he bored a tunnel across the eight-acre hayfield.
A big stand of forest rose before him. He hesitated and sniffed again.
Yes! Ifás closer. Not far now. Straight through trees.
He slowed to a trot, winding through the woods while gulping air, stopping for two tongue-laps from a stream. A mob of deer, big and small, exploded away from the water. Splashing through it, McCue climbed the slope from the stream bottom. A cotton patch opened, and he drove in, following the bright odors of the ifás.
Two yellow dogs, glowing white in the moonlight, rose on a house porch and stared at the thrashing noise in the cotton. The union with their human partners gave them many duties. Without doubt, the primary of these was to guard. Intruders were not tolerated and here comes one now. Low grumblings began in their throats as they snuffed the August pre-dawn.
The bigger of the two threw a warning bark to whatever it was.
Do NOT come in this yard!
McCue cleared the cotton and stopped in the road fronting the house. He erupted in staccato yelps indicating emergency, assist me.
No time to fight. Get your partners, barked McCue. My partner hurt!
That’s McCue. We know him, yipped the smaller ifá.
Shut up! I’m in charge. Get back stranger! howled the big one. An erect ruff and bared canines signaled full-combat mode.
The front door opened, and Willie Perkins stepped out with a kerosene lantern.
“What the hell is going on out here?”
McCue continued barking. He jumped side to side and shook his head.
Tiny Ada Mae joined, in nightgown and shawl.
“That’s Deputy Renfro’s dog, ain’t it?” she shouted.
“Think so. McCue! What is it?” said Willie.
McCue began the whining he knew humans understand to mean trouble-danger or assistance-needed. He inched toward the porch and both ifás barked louder.
“You ifás shut up!”
Things got quieter.
“What is it boy? Where’s B.L.?”
“Dog’s covered with briars and burrs,” said Ada Mae. “Come a long way.”
The man stepped to McCue and felt him, looking for injury. McCue stood stock-still and the ifás watched with ears pointing and eyes wide.
“Ain’t hurt, Ada. Winded, but no cuts or broken bones. Needs water. Panting hard.”
“I’ll get the water. You wake the mule and ride to Mr. Walker’s. Get him to bring his truck. Take the ifás and let McCue show the way. Deputy Renfro’s in trouble.”
Renfro steadied himself at the bottom of the well. He checked the time again: 5:45 a.m.
He now knew that standing in chest-deep fifty-five-degree water sapped energy. He couldn’t sit down and there was nothing above to hold onto. All the things that could go wrong with his long shot bid to get out of this mess kept whipping his wits. Sooner or later, he would weaken and slip. After that, oblivion.
He thought about Charlotte “Charlie” Woodall, and their silly excuses for not getting married. Both felt it would happen and both wanted it to.
“She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said to Marcus. “You and I will get out of this hole and I’m going to show her how important she is.”
Have you told her you love her?
“No,” he answered. “But she knows it.”
You’re sure? I never said it enough to Mimi. Wish I had.
“I’m sure she knows.”
He thought about Pawpaw, his grandfather, now getting on in years.
“Who will look after him, Marcus? I can’t just leave him alone.”
Then stop thinking about how cold this water is. That just makes it worse.
But dominating all were thoughts of the two men who bushwhacked them, attempted to pulp their skulls, and tossed them into a watery grave with no second thought. These last feelings sustained him, gave him endurance.
“Don’t you worry, my friend. I’m going to find those degenerate in-breeds. And I’m going to make them pay for what they’ve done.”
I know you will, B.L.
Sound is deadened when you are at the bottom of a thirteen-foot hole. But vibrations are transmitted through the ground. He felt a slight tremor from the dirt wall his head rested against. Muffled and distant, he heard men talking.
He lifted the cleanest pistol from the floating hat, aimed straight up the side while making his silhouette small. Adrenalin flooded his system and drove the coldness from his mind. He was prepared to kill the next thing that looked over the top and he was a good shot.
A dog barked. Three dogs. A shouted voice: “Renfro – B.L. Renfro!” He squinted and heard scratching against the well’s wooden top-wall. The loudest bark was from McCue, and he knew he was going to make it.
A puff of relief was engulfed by a thunderhead of vengeance. “Now it’s my turn to be the hunter.”
Buck Brinson was farm-raised in South Georgia and earned a BA in Journalism and MS in Computer Science from the University of South Carolina. Over the past years, he has published three mystery novels: Footfalls on the Trembling Earth (2020), The Staircase (2021), and The Knowing Tree (2021). His career encompassed United States Navy active duty, computer systems analysis, small business development, and ED of a Midlands non-profit. Presently, Buck is completing two novels: Okefenokee Moon (2023) and a science fiction epic The Pitfall of One Percent Chance (~late 2023/2024). He spends his spare time gardening, watching his six grandsons grow up, and taking courses in anthropology at USC.