Flashes of green, unfurling black; the road had a mystic sameness that was stultifying. Maybe she should have stayed on Interstate 20 to Clinton, Mississippi, as the chief ranger had instructed, instead of following the tortuous directions for a shortcut she'd gotten when she called one of her soon-to-be field rangers in Port Gibson, a jovial fellow who called himself Randy.
She rolled the window up. With the sandman already in hot pursuit, the last thing she needed was a hypnotic. The road coiled around on itself in a hairpin turn. She was going too fast. The U-Haul bore down on the Rambler, then drifted, slewing the car to the right. She slammed on the brakes. Taco slid to the floor, clawing her leg in a last bid for stability.
The tail was wagging the dog both inside the Rambler and out. Anna stopped fighting the wheel and steered into the skid as if she was on black ice. In the hectic instant that followed, headlights slicing impossible colors from the night, animal caterwauling foretelling the end of the world, it crossed her mind that black ice was a thing of the past. What would replace it in the way of hazard and adventure, she had yet to find out.
Soundlessly, painlessly, the trailer left the road, dragging the rear wheels of the Rambler with it. The coupled vehicles came to a stop with nary a bump. The car tilted unpleasantly and the red-lighted trailer in the rearview mirror held a drunken pose.
"Everybody okay?" Anna's voice shook, and she was glad only furry and therefore sympathetic ears were there to hear. Taco scrabbled up onto the seat, his untrimmed nails doing the aging vinyl no favors. The engine had died. Anna rested her head on the steering wheel. Regardless of the situation, it was good to be still. Silence, after twenty hours of radio, trucks, tapes and the high-pitched whine of rubber on pavement, hit like the first drink on an empty stomach.
Something warm and wet and vile penetrated her ear, and she remembered she was a dog owner. "Two seconds," she begged.
The tongue insinuated itself into her armpit and Anna gave up. Having pulled the leash from under the cat carrier, she fought the usual battle to overcome the dog's joy at a potential walk long enough to clip it to his collar. "Me first," she insisted, and in a fit of good manners Taco waited till she'd slid clear and stood on shaky legs before bounding out the driver's door. The leash slipped from fingers numbed from too long clutching the wheel, and the black lab loped off toward the taillights of the U-Haul.
"Don't go chasing 'coons or whatever the hell dogs chase down here," she muttered. Outside the car, silence was shattered. Stunned by the sheer magnitude of sound, Anna leaned on the door and listened. A chorus, a choir, a nation of frogs sang from darkness curtained close by trees. Wide and deep, the sound chortled, chirped, tickled underfoot, overhead, from every direction. Basso profundo croaks, rough and guttural, were buoyed up by a cacophony of lesser notes.
Big damn frogs, she thought. Or alligators. She'd seen live free-range alligators a few times when she'd been on assignment on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia, but they hadn't uttered a word in her presence. Without questioning it, she'd come away with the idea gators were dumb. Maybe that wasn't so. Mississippi had a whole new natural history she would have to learn.
Big frogs, she decided for the moment, and turned to follow in Taco's paw prints, to see what, if any, damage had been done. One step and she was on her butt, amazed and outraged but otherwise unhurt.
Wet grass lay over earth as liquid and slippery as warm Jell-O. A good surface to take a fall on. A foul surface to try and pull an over-loaded trailer off of--or out of, as the case might be.
Using the door, she pulled herself upright. Slipping and grabbing in a parody of a vintage Jerry Lewis routine, she made it around the Rambler's hood and onto the asphalt. By the glare of the headlights she saw she was covered from the elbows down in caramel-colored liquid. Taco padded up next to her, grinning in idiotic doggie bliss. "We're not in the desert anymore, Taco," she said, paraphrasing Dorothy's observation as she wrenched open the passenger door to fumble under the seat for a towel and a flashlight.
Reprinted from Deep South by Nevada Barr by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Nevada Barr. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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