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After Sunday dinner, my father and I often went out to the old sunken road where we'd walk to burn off the pecan pie topped with vanilla ice cream. Like the tightrope tumbler in Dick Tracy, I'd scamper down the crooked spine of a rock wall. Sometimes a rat snake thick as my thigh would laze on a sun-washed slate slab.

Do you think we should dispute its right to exist? my father asked.

I shrugged my shoulders.

You bet we shouldn't, he answered. Live and let live.

My father worked long hours at the local newspaper, The Fauquier Democrat, and wasn't around the house that much. But I had an imaginary buddy named Scratch -- we were inseparable. Together on the old sunken road we faced down the ghosts of Civil War bushwhackers who once plundered its secluded stretches. Try as we might though, we never recovered Bluebeard's gold skull. Staking out a life for herself alone in the tarpaper shack atop Lucky Hill, a blind mojo lady - her name was Aunt Yasmine, I believe -- insisted over and over that the gold skull was buried there. We must've dug enough craters along the old sunken road to fill the entire Sea of Tranquility -- Aunt Yasmine's strange dreams put us ever closer to the right spot.

One sultry July morning, Scratch and I were mixing up mud pies in the country spring beside the old sunken road. Not one car had passed us all morning. That wasn't too surprising. Folks in those days lived and worked according to a communal sun dial. There was a time to make hay, a time to sew oats, a time to bushhog jungle undergrowth. That is to say, everybody knew everybody else's place at any given hour. My father called it "minding everybody's store except your own." But that morning the dull clink of a steel spade biting flint alerted me to the real presence of humans. Scratch turned saucer-eyed and hauled ass. I wasn't about to face the music alone. Scrambling in the same direction, I discovered Scratch nestled behind the rock wall. Pressing on my shoulder, he bade me to scrunch down low.

Oh shut up, I hissed back at him.

Peeping over the wall, we watched four men materialize from around the bend in the old sunken road and trudge toward the country spring. They were but a pebble's toss away. I trembled, betting that we'd been spotted. Yet their stride remained unhurried, unchanged; each man maintained his position in a tidy column. Their formation was like Amish oxen set to a steel plow. A chain rattled and, gazing down, I shuddered -- they were a road gang of convicts! Leg irons were fastened about ankles and their wrists were hampered with another set.

No more than a dozen paces behind their dragging shackles and confined gait stalked a tall, reed-thin man exuding a know-it-all smugness. In the cradle of his sleeveless elbows nuzzled a 12-gauge, double-barreled Savage shotgun. He wore cobalt-blue aviator shades and his head twisted to and fro like a mantis does before eating her mate. His jaws, thin and jagged, chewed a cud. His trousers were the high-water style. Scratch tapped my shoulder, pointed, and we snickered, agreeing to call the guard Hatchet Face.

Once at the spring, the cons ceased shuffling, legs and arms still and stiff. Loudly yawning, Hatchet Face fished a key from a vest pocket. He flipped it to the nearest prisoner who undid his neighbor's handcuffs, then passed the key to the next man who did likewise until all their hands were unfettered. Hatchet Face, his weight slouching on one hip, leered, taking evident pleasure in their discomfort. The key returned down the line to him for safekeeping. Rubbing sore wrists and calves, the cons' apelike movements reminded us of Alley Oop. Sweaty bodies oozed a vinegary reek -- I held my breath to stifle my nausea. Tattoos of semi-nude women danced on their biceps, rippling and dangerous. Hatchet Face yanked his crotch, spat an exaggerated ptooey, and beckoned to then with flattened palms. Flopping to the mossy bank, they sure were a sullen ditch-digging crew.

Nowhere nearly as terrified as before, my heart settled like a leaf from my throat back to my chest. Eavesdropping, I was an exotic Turkish envoy in the medieval court of Prince Valiant. Turning, I spotted Scratch perched now on the low branch of a persimmon tree tossing me a lopsided grin.

You best climb down, I warned him.

Meanwhile, a swaggering Hatchet Face pitched a dirty paper bag to each convict.

"Gosh, thanks you, Mr. Bates," I heard the biggest (and perhaps not the brightest) one say.

This convict, Scratch now at my elbow whispered, should become Baby Huey. Baby Huey then reared up, a giant of a man, and flexed his forearms. Wincing, he sagged to all fours and like a dog lapped the spring water. With a cherishing grunt, he plunged his entire head in. Hatchet Face trained the Savage shotgun at the other cons, and divining his next intentions, they scowled back.

Grinning, Hatchet Face pressed the heel of his shiny black boot on the back of Baby Huey's head and stomped down. While Baby Huey struggled and splashed and slapped, Hatchet Face held his boot there for what seemed an eternity. In fact, he casually produced a pack of cigarettes and knocked one out, licked both ends, spiked it between his lips, and lit a kitchen match. Had himself a leisurely smoke while Baby Huey was slopping and drowning. Baby Huey's shaggy mane offered less and less resistance fell limp. Only then did Hatchet Face back off. The other cons dragged the inert Baby Huey up the bank. Shoved onto his right side, a trickle of muddy spring water gurgled out of his mouth.

Hatchet Face sneered. "Anyone else thirsty today?"

Oh balls, I heard Scratch mutter under his breath. This won't do. It won't do at all.

Shhh, I told him.

Not wishing to inflame matters any worse than what they already were, the cons mutely ate their K-rations. Sardines packed in mustard was the main course. Odd yellow balloons and those ubiquitous Luckies were included. Spoons clinked, scraped against the baby moon hubcaps inverted for lunch plates. Horns of smoke curling to either side of his head, Hatchet Face confiscated the odd yellow balloons. "You won't be needing these any time soon," he growled.

And what of Baby Huey? He continued to lay in a soppy, lumpy bundle. He may have been hungry, starving even, but was too weary to budge.

C'mon, Scratch coached Baby Huey. Get up, dammit, get up. Be a man, not a mouse.

Sitting on his heels cowboy-style, Hatchet Face smoked another cigarette. The Savage shotgun lay balanced loosey-goosey across his lap, ready to bark at his hairy touch. His gaze was one of pure evil and contempt. The unfortunate Baby Huey didn't bat an eyelash. Hatchet Face then removed his shades and I shivered -- he had the yellowest eyeballs I'd ever seen in a man.

"Girls," he drawled and nobody paid any attention. He continued. "It seems like to me we'll have to work some extra time." That last remark jerked up heads. "Yes, the Governor of our lovely Commonwealth has just decreed that this here road," which he indicated with the Savage shotgun, "needs all its ditches cleared no later than five o'clock today." Even Baby Huey was now staring. Hatchet Face popped open the fop to a silver pocket watch. "Time is fleeting. What's more, we're minus one man." Spitting into the spring, Hatchet Face's creaky laugh sent the heebie-jeebies down my tailbone. Scratch ducked lower.

The cons were glowering at Hatchet Face who now upended a silver flask. He must've owned the town. Not one wrinkle molested his pressed blues. He re-affixed the aviator shades. His japan black hair was combed to a perfect spiked duck-tail. He waved the Savage shotgun along the ready-made shooting gallery of sitting cons.

"One of you, go ahead. Make a run for it," Hatchet Face wheedled. "Hellfart, I ain't dirtied my Nancy all summer. No takers, huh? Back to play then, girls." He prodded their tense backs with the muzzle end. They slapped their bracelets back into place. "Attaway. By Gawd, haven't we got you apes trained?" Hatchet Face doubled over braying with laughter.

The foursome retrieved their discarded spades and mattocks to begin afresh, a backbreaking toil, let me assure you. Chop-bend-scoop, chop-bend-scoop. Irrepressible, Scratch urged me to follow them down the old sunken road. Oh, weren't we the sly spies? But where the road made a sharp dogleg bend, the rock wall abruptly ended.

And, just off to the left under the shady oak standing with legs apart and shoulders squared, the Savage shotgun a scepter, was Hatchet Face. I saw him sneak around behind the cons and backfill the ditch.

"Ahem, ladies. See here, this gawd-damn ditch ain't up to state spec. Dig it again."

Shackles afforded the cons precious little leeway to maneuver. Hatchet Face jabbered away, launching a string of choice four-letter words. Some were new to me. Scratch born with a face malleable as silly putty mimicked Hatchet Face's cursing and hollering.

Stop it, I demanded. You'll get us in trouble.

Hatchet Face paced up and down the row of cons, goosing them with his Savage shotgun or using the stock to whap the back of their skulls. And they took it. And, boy-o-boy, Hatchet Face sure relished what he was dishing out to them.

Through some undefined power, Scratch sensed that all Hell was about to break loose. And it did. Hatchet Face discharged the Savage shotgun twice into thin air. With the lead shot peppering down on them, the cons flinched and cowered under their arms. Again, Hatchet Face brayed until his laughter grew hoarse. Sweat flailed off his neck; his eyes bulged out.

"Run! Run, dammit, you scum! I'll make it easy for you!" He undid Baby Huey's leg shackles and manacles, then shoved him free. "Run! You've got thirty seconds. Then I'll commence shooting."

Scratch and I hunched closer. Tension was swarming thick as the thieves and just then Scratch punched me. Slipping and sliding to retain my balance, I stumbled backward from the rock pile and landed smack-dab behind them. But all eyes were clapped on Hatchet Face.

The road baked the bottoms of my bare feet; deer flies teemed about my ears and nose. I held out a water jug like a chalice, grabbing a hold of any plausible excuse for being there right then.

"Excuse me, sirs. My Ma figured you might accept some ice water. What, with the heat and all." My feet ballooned into ridiculous inner tubes and refused any common sense to turn tail and bolt home.

After several beats, Hatchet Face slowly backpedaled. Baby Huey deft as a dancing bear, jingles pronounced, waltzed further away from shackles and chains. He next dislodged a long, heavy crowbar. It slid slack between his mitts. Hatchet Face tried to act official but his high-pitched words made it hardly a secret that he was fast losing his mastery of the situation.

"Son, I appreciate your Ma's thoughtfulness. Really. Now tell her thanks. However, you're interfering with State business. You must vacate the area immediately." He dismissed me, the flutter of his hand shooing me away.

"Aw Hell, let him stay!" Baby Huey cooed. "I'm powerful thirsty, ain't you?" He nodded to his cohorts. "Oh yesh! We are damn powerful thirsty!" they repeated like a Greek chorus.

Baby Huey winked at me, a hint to scoot over to their side of the road, and I was scared witless to do anything but that.

Drained the dull color of oatmeal, Hatchet Face was shaking hard about the head and shoulders. He peeked at the two empty chambers in the Savage shotgun he'd broken open, then at Baby Huey', then the freed shackles. "Son, don't move another step or I'll arrest you." Fingers fidgeting inside his vest pocket, Hatchet Face sought another shotgun shell. But that shotgun shell simply wasn't there.

"Who gonna arrest who here? We wanna drink of water. That's no crime too is it?" Baby Huey readjusted his stance no more than a half-step, but a country mile away his former steel trappings . He sized up Hatchet Face like Popeye the Sailor. Cocking his head (I'll never forget the calculated care of his aim), he let the crowbar fly in one beautiful rainbow arc at Hatchet Face's temple. The thud was sickening. The struck guard, his face a mask frozen in disbelief, toppled to the ground. Baby Huey snatched the Savage shotgun, busted it in two pieces over his knee. He then quickly and quietly blocked my line of vision. However, the gruesome spectacle had already assaulted my eyes. He cloaked the mess with Hatchet Face's dress hat. Of course, I knew that Hatchet Face was no longer with the living. Odd as it may seem, a warm and lax relief flushed over my taut neck and shoulders.

"He's a God-sure goner. Dead as a damn duck." Baby Huey's shoetip nudged the senseless ribcage. Now I understood. Whistling, he unshackled his comrades who were looking every which way for the fastest, shortest escape route. Baby Huey regarded me, puzzled that I should even be standing there.

Unsure of what to do, I offered him the water jug and he gulped from it as did the other cons. Baby Huey and a second con dragged Hatchet Face to the end of the fence and had a glorious time piling loose stones on his new deep grave.

"Now see here, kid." Baby Huey, the big and dumb one who'd nearly drowned earlier at the country spring, spoke. "You done us a real kindness. We're obliged." The three behind him grinned in unison, their mood jovial.

"You really the bad guys?" I recall how I asked Baby Huey and how they guffawed as if my words were the funniest ever spoken.

Baby Huey wiped his dirty hands clean on the grass. "Yeah, we're the bad guys. But we win every once in a while."

The parting shot I had was their backs retreating down the old sunken road at full canter. Brimming with excitement, I called and called but, to my surprise, Scratch was gone. As with Baby Huey and the other cons, I never encountered Scratch again.

Years later, while I was down on a rare but welcomed visit from New York City, my father, arthritic and confined to a wheelchair in a retirement manor, read to me. The byline was his on the scrap of yellowed newspaper. It seemed that one "Edward Jefferson Johnson Taliaferro Bates, Prison Guard with Twenty-three Years of Faithful Service" had vanished under "peculiar, if not dubious, circumstances". Last witnessed on a road crew detail, Bates as well as his four prisoners were reported missing.

My father, who was still sharp as a tack and always up on local doings, asked if I could help him fill in the blanks to the old mystery. Lookit, I told him, all I can think is that Baby Huey and the others must've disappeared down the old sunken road like in the cartoons.

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