Hale County – Prologue
A brilliant flash of light lit up the small iron fenced cemetery, followed by a loud clap of thunder. Large drops of rain began pelting the century old headstones. The wrought-iron fencing leaned heavily in places, the soggy earth no longer able to support the heavy weight of the iron barrier after a half century of neglect. It was the oldest cemetery in Hale County. As the rain began falling harder, it was no doubt the last place anyone wanted to be, especially Sheriff Jake Hooks.
The tall, imposing Sheriff wore an irritated expression as he shined the large Mag flashlight on the unmarked grave his deputies were now digging up. He was a throwback to a different era of lawmen, straight out of the Old West. His manner was rugged and non-amused, and while the local Indian Medicine Man called him an “old soul”, the truth was that Jake was just perennially pissed off. If his gruff demeanor wasn’t enough to warn the unaccustomed to his dangerous disposition, the fresh scar that jaggedly ran from beneath his cowboy hat certainly was. It started at the corner of his left eye, ran over the bridge of his nose, down the opposite cheek just above his lip before disappearing under his jawline. It was enough to give even the stoutest of men pause and avert their gaze.
Jake cared little for what people thought of him. Hell, he wasn’t even that old. But life didn’t count years, it counted mileage, and he had plenty of that in spades. When it came to his job, there was no one with more tenacity. Even as he watched his men digging into the earth, the Sherriff knew he wasn’t going to like what they found.
The grave was fresh, and he knew no one had been buried in that graveyard in the last fifty years. An unknown caller had phoned in the tip; another mystery in a county that needed no more mysteries. His gaze hardened as he watched his men dig deeper into the muddy earth, the thunder and lightning reflecting the mood in his eyes.
The rain bounced uncaringly off of the Sheriff’s cowboy hat. It was only the three of them out there, searching for any clue as to who had dug the grave. He put his deputies to digging as he lorded over them, suspicious eyes attuned to his surroundings. Jake doubted they would find much, especially in this god-awful monsoon. Still, it gave them something to do other than irritate him with questions he couldn’t possibly have an answer to…yet. He had no doubt he would find the culprit. His mother used to say he was “part blood hound, part Cherokee” and that he could “tree a coon better than any hunting dog”. Probably some damn high school kids playing a prank, videoing us and going to upload it on that damn YouTube, he thought angrily. If that was the case, they would regret it.
His face hardened even more, if that was possible. It wasn’t that Jake Hooks was an ugly man, quite the contrary according to most of the women in Hale County. It was more his sour disposition than the scar that rubbed people the wrong way. He didn’t care. Hale County was his, and you didn’t cross Sheriff Jake Hooks…everyone knew that.
He heard the loud thud of a shovel hitting something solid, bringing him out of his train of thought. As he turned his gaze to the noise, a beam of light blinded his vision then was quickly removed. The Sheriff gazed into the face of the trepid deputy holding the offending flashlight. Jake didn’t blink. “Well?” he asked irritated.
“Um, it looks like a coffin, sir.”
Sure enough, just about three feet under the surface, Jake could make out something made of wood. The deputy seemed to shrink under the Sheriff’s withering stare. “Get it out.”
Why wouldn’t there be a coffin you damn fool, you’re in a cemetery. Yet that was the point. There shouldn’t be any new coffins here.
Jake motioned for the other deputy to come over and help. The steady rainfall made the object hard to grasp and even harder to lift. Finally, the deputies managed to hoist a six foot long makeshift wooden casket out of the hole. It was covered in mud, grass, and rain. The newness of the casket was obvious as the wood still had its light sheen as opposed to the grayish aged wood one would expect to find in an old cemetery.
The thunder and lightning increased in intensity as the rain pounded the earth harder almost in outrage of the casket being removed from its place of rest. The skinny deputy with the offensive light looked up at the Sheriff in hesitation. They were fidgety, more-so than usual, and Jake knew why. Ulterior motives, everyone in Hale County had them and his deputies were no different.
Jake stared steadily back, unflinching. “Open it.”
The deputy with the flashlight climbed his way out of the gravesite, leaving the other deputy to remain in the freshly excavated hole. “Y-y-yessir,” the flashlight deputy said as he kneeled over the wooden casket.
Uncertain, but doing as they were told, the deputies used crowbars to pry off the lid of the fairly new looking casket. The deputies flinched back as a putrid odor rushed over them. Almost as fast as the lightning that was raging in the skies around them Jake whipped his .44 Magnum from his holster.
The muzzle of the gun flashed in the storm, quickly followed by a deafening report that was almost masked by the thunder. The bullet slammed into the face of the larger deputy that was still in the hole, exploding from the back of his head and spraying the simple marker and mud with his brains.
The flashlight deputy had the temerity to actually look surprised before his face became a blank mask, all timidity gone. Jake didn’t hesitate. His finger expertly squeezed the trigger of the massive hand gun. The deputy made no expression as the bullet tore into his chest. The force was so great it lifted him slightly off his feet and flung him into the grave where he landed atop the corpse of the other deputy.
If he had any regrets Jake didn’t show it as he holstered his gun, nor did he look to see if anyone else had seen or heard him. It was Hale County. They were alone. If someone had heard well then so be it, everything was going to Hell anyway. The time for self-restraint was over.
Jake knelt down by the casket to get a better look, his knees sinking into the rain soaked mud. He pointed his flashlight inside, ignoring the odor. The only emotion on his face was the set of his jaw and the tightening around his eyes. “I’ll be damned.”