Piedmont had not stopped complaining. "You're getting on my very last nerve," she warned the cat. He remained unimpressed.
Flashlight and towel in hand, she closed the door on the vocalization of feline suffering. The towel smelled of things that had once been on the inside of the cat and the flashlight beam was only slightly less brown than the Mississippi mud, but it would suffice.
Taco danced like a puppy, though Anna figured him to be five or six at least, then dashed off to the rear of the little caravan, yipping and grumbling as if the news was not good for humans but extremely entertaining for dogs.
Anna followed, her moccasins squishing at each step. Frog music, velvet darkness, and perfumed air all closed around her, and the walk of twenty feet took on a bizarre timelessness. She'd been too long on the road.
At the back of the U-Haul she stopped and stared. Taco leapt about with glee. "This can't be right," she said stupidly.
Caught in the demon eyes of the taillights, a tree, a foot in diameter where it leaned against the bumper, lay over the trailer. Leafy boughs embraced the orange and white metal. Roots poked out of the ground, bent and angry as arthritic hands where the tree had been uprooted by the force of impact. Except there'd been no impact. Nothing but a gentle slide into this oblivion of sentient and predatory plant materials. Had she dozed off behind the wheel? She didn't think so, but it wasn't out of the realm of possibility.
Too dull with lack of sleep to do much else, she played her pathetic light over the rear of the trailer. No scrapes, no dents, therefore no impact. Unfortunately, logic had no effect on the tree. A locust, she guessed, twenty-five or thirty feet tall, had her vehicles in a death grip. If she pulled forward, the half-buried roots would act as an anchor and she'd dig herself into the slime. Back, and she'd ram the topmost branches down over the trailer and onto the roof of the car.
"Well, shit," she confided in the dog and stood a moment hoping things would be different. She could unhitch the trailer, drive off and return for it--or what was left of it--with the proper equipment. Assuming the Natchez Trace Parkway had the proper equipment.
Home was in that white and orange box, and a deep unsettling unease boiled up at the thought of leaving it on the side of a strange road in a strange land.
"Shit," she reiterated.
Headlights rounded the corner from the direction she'd come. In proper rabbit fashion, she stared into them. Engine noise and the metallic complaint of a derelict truck momentarily quieted the frogs. Fear, not even a thought before, sprang full-blown from some Yankee collective unconscious. James Dickey and Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and "squeal like a pig." Mississippi Burning, "I have a dream," and chain gangs in the cotton fields. Nothing personal, nothing even secondhand, yet Anna had been fed a nightmare of the rednecked heart of Dixie.
The truck clattered to a stop and was instantly enveloped by a toxic cloud of exhaust. A plaid-covered elbow hung out the window. Above it, thrust into the pale beam of Anna's flash, was a round face under a beat-up ball cap.
"Lady, you look to be in a whole heap of hurt." The voice was thick, its owner talking around a wad of chewing tobacco the size of a golf ball. Anna blinked, waiting to see if her leg was being pulled or if he really talked that way.
"A whole heap of hurt," he repeated.
"Looks like it," she said. Taco wandered back to resume guard dog duties. He leaned against her muddy thigh, beating a canine welcome on the bumper with his tail.
"Hunter?" the moon-pie face asked.
"Tourist," Anna said, too tired to explain about jobs and transfers.
The man's pale face split into a laugh, and Anna saw, or thought she saw, streaks of tobacco juice on his teeth. Her old Colt .357 wheel gun was in the glove box. The thought comforted her as she edged in that direction.
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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