Shrike

by Doug Hiser


The day we found Sammy Livingston dead in the cow pasture is still burned in my memory. Like the memory I have as a child of the Shrike. The “Butcher” bird impales insects on the sharp barbs of wire cattle fences.

Of course, barbwire in Texas is known as “Bob Wire” and the “Butcher” bird is really just a slang term for the Loggerhead Shrike. The Loggerhead Shrike is a small gray bird about the same size and colors as the Texas State Bird, the Mockingbird.

The shrike impales its prey on barbwire to keep it there for future feeding. Many a day you can stroll alongside the fence and see crickets, grasshoppers, small ground snakes, beetles, and even lizards impaled on the wire like a row of crucified miniature victims.

“Butcher” bird insect victims reminded me of the day we found Sammy Livingston dead out in the cow pasture. It was 1973 and I was only fifteen and had never seen a dead person before. Billy Davis, and Henry Copperfield, my two buddies, were with me out in the pasture, just throwing cow patties at the white cattle egrets for fun.

Billy and Henry were both sixteen, even though they were only a couple of months older than I was. Neither of my friends were very smart in school but they both knew everything about wild animals and weird stuff like, how to trap field mice, how to catch snakes, how to shoot quail in mid-flight, how to adjust the idle of a mini-bike engine, just stuff you should know in Texas.

We always went out in the cow pastures for fun. The nearest movie theatre was only about thirty miles away so it seemed logical to spend time in the cow pasture, since none of us had a car anyway. Out in the cow pasture Sammy Livingston was dead and he waited for us to find him.

The sun was invisible behind a gray covering of low hanging clouds but it didn’t rain, even though we had thought it might. Billy Davis, we usually just called him Davis, even said, “I think I smell rain in the air. It might come a gully washer and we could build a dam.”

Henry Copperfield, slapped Davis in the back of the head and shouted, “Heck boy! What do you know about smelling anything? You burnt the dang beans last time you tried to cook for your little sister. If you had any sense of smell you might smell yourself since you always stink!”

Davis growled and made an unhappy face but didn’t say anything. He was afraid of Henry because Henry was about a foot taller than him. Davis and I were both shorter than most of the kids around here. I told them, “Maybe if you both weren’t so noisy we might could sneak up on something? Half the animals are miles away from here by now since you two can’t keep your lips zipped.”

We hadn’t planned to sneak up on anything but it always worked to try and get those two to stop fighting and picking on each other. It was about that time that I saw a big pile of something, maybe logs or a pile of junk in the distance. We also saw a herd of about ten cows, calves and Johnson’s old red range bull. Usually we would never get too close to old “Red” but I wanted to investigate the big pile of junk in the far corner of the pasture so we decided to just move slowly and hope that the big bull would ignore us.

I could feel the brushing of the tall brown grass against my bare legs. We all were wearing our usual cow pasture attire, blue-jean shorts and white T-shirts. The bull turned his head in our direction and kept his eyes on us as we strolled past his herd. The cows were parked like old station wagons under a small stand of trees.

I was sure the bull didn’t have any interest in us this time, even though he had charged us before. I think he may have learned a lesson the last time when our BB guns had pelted his hide. We got safely past the herd and approached the junk pile, which was actually a pile of old fence posts, discarded wood, and pieces of tin.

That’s where the dead naked body of Sammy Livingston was lying, wrapped in an entire roll of barbwire, splattered with blood and dirt and pieces of grass. We were about ten feet away and we all stopped walking when we realized what we had just found.

Finding a dead armadillo or a dead ’possum was one thing but finding a dead naked man was too much for our young minds. We probably stared for five minutes before we ever said anything to each other. All I can ever see in my memory is splattered red and white skin and splotches of dirt and brown and green grass. These splatters dominate my memory.

Finally Davis said, “Somebody killed him.”

Henry spoke up, almost in a whisper, “Yeah, he was murdered and whoever did this might still be around.”

That is when I said, “He hasn’t been dead very long. The blood is still wet. The killer could be watching us right now.”

We all decided to run like hell out of that cow pasture. We ran all the way through two more cow pastures and didn’t stop until we were at my dad’s barn. I ran inside the hay smelling barn and two of my dad’s cows ran out, startled by my intrusion. Davis followed me. Henry, after tripping over the fence, finally fell down inside panting like a hound dog. We were all out of breath and I sat down on a feed bucket. I told them, “We have to get home and call the constable.”

That’s when we all heard the laugh. Davis wasn’t laughing, neither was Henry. I knew I wasn’t laughing so I looked back at the wide, open barn door. Davis and Henry also looked and we all saw him at the same time. He was still laughing that weird, chuckling, raspy laugh. It sounded like a nail scraping on metal.

He was a big man, about six-three or more with a barrel chest. We could see the tattoo on his right arm, a naked lady with a devil’s tail and horns. His T-shirt was muddy and he had on jeans that looked like they had every stain known to man on them.

His boots were dark and grease-stained, as if he just came from working on an oil derrick. His right hand held a small bloody hatchet and his left hand delicately cradled a halfway burned out cigarette. He laughed and took a puff of smoke from the cigarette. He blocked our only way out. None of us could take our wide eyes from him.

The big man leaned in the doorway and blew smoke out of his wide nostrils. He was dirty and sweat dripped from his forehead but he was a handsome man beneath the grime. He looked a little like Elvis Presley from those old movies. He watched the smoke come out of his nose and then he said, in a voice colder than the wisp of air when you open the deep freezer in the garage, “You boys still need to get home and call the constable?”

Outside of the barn I could hear one of our cows braying and the shrill song of a mockingbird. We didn’t say anything. I just kept thinking that we are going to die, right here in my dad’s barn, chopped up like T-bone steaks with a hatchet.

The smoking man said, “Nobody wants to talk to me? Well, it doesn’t matter. I need to talk to you. I followed you when I saw that you found Sammy. First let me tell you this, Sammy, he had it coming. It was his time to die. He also needed to die that way, too. You see, Sammy was a pervert, kinky and sneaky, but those were his good points. Sammy was also a hypocrite.”

He took another drag on his fast disappearing cigarette, flicked it in the dirt, and laughed again, before continuing, “He was a church-going bastard. He got on his perverted knees where he spent some time, and he prayed for salvation to God Almighty. He went to church every Sunday morning, swallowed the body of Christ and drank the blood of Jesus, and then went home and kept on doing his perverted dealings of lust and sin.

“Now me, I can tolerate a bunch of lust and a holy hell lot of sin, but I got to balk at praying for salvation after a week of lustful sinning. So you see old Sammy Livingston was over my line. You cross that line too many times and something’s going to happen, and it ain’t going to be good.”

I kept thinking maybe my dad might be coming out here to feed the cows and save us but then I would think if he did this guy would probably kill him too. I noticed his teeth and his eyes most. He ran his finger along the edge of the ax and smeared the blood. The man’s teeth were white and clean like a cat after eating fish and his eyes sparkled, shining in the dim light of the barn.

The big man was grimy and filthy and bloody and sweaty but he gleamed like a gem protruding from a mound of volcanic ash. He scared the hell out of me, even without the ax and the thought that he had killed Sammy Livingston and wrapped his naked body with barbwire.

The big man stood up and quit leaning on the barn doorway, saying, “Sammy is in a better place now, a place where he will stay for a long time. You kids know what’s about to happen here?”

Davis said, gulping, “You’re not going to kill us?”

Those white teeth snapped shut and then opened laughing again, laughing like metal thunder filling up the old tin barn with volumes of sound. He stopped abruptly and whispered, “Is it your time to die? Today? In this old barn, smelling like chickens and cows and rotten hay? Tell me boys, do you think it is your time?”

I started to raise my hand to reply, as if he was some bizarre schoolteacher I had to get permission to speak from, but he ignored my hand and continued, “Maybe I should strip you all naked and introduce you three virgins to new horrors of the flesh and the mind? Maybe I should cut your heads off when I am bored with you and watch you flop on the ground like dying turkeys the week of Thanksgiving? Are you three sinners? Most likely not? Hypocrites? I doubt it. Good boys who happen to find a nightmare? More than likely just a bad luck day of being in the wrong place at the damn wrong time.”

Henry had had enough of this and decided he was tired of being scared or too scared to know better but he stood up and shouted, “Look Mr. Whatever your name is, we ain’t seen nothing. We ain’t done nothing. You just need to let us go and get out of this county. I already forgot what you look like.”

The man merely smiled slowly, reached into his jeans pocket and produced another pack of cigarettes. He snapped his fingers and cupped his hand and lit a cigarette. Inhaling deeply like a whale surfacing from a long deep submersion, the man smiled through a haze of smoke and replied, “Sit back down, Henry. Yes, I know who you are, all of you. Don’t act so surprised, you all know me, too, and you won’t forget what I look like, ever again.”

He walked forward towards us and he reached down and touched my face with his large calloused hand. He raised the hatchet high up over his head, still smiling and looked deep into my eyes. I remember his hand being so warm that my face started sweating; my cheek grew hot like a sunburn. He lowered the hatchet slowly and lightly slapped my face, saying, “Don’t ever forget what I look like, boy.”

He turned his back on us and walked out of the doorway, stopping just beyond it in the outside light. He blew a puff of smoke into the air. I could see vapor all around him like a fog in the gray day. He looked back and winked and then he was gone.

All three of us walked slowly to the barn’s doorway and peered out into the pasture. The man was gone. In the dirt in the doorway where he stood we could see the outline of his boot prints. Those two deep impressions in the dirt were smoking.

We ran all the way to my house and told my dad about the dead man in the pasture but we had made a pact to never say a word about the man with the hatchet and the tattoo of the naked lady with the devil’s tail and horns.


Copyright © 2006 by Doug Hiser


[Proceed to Challenge 189]

Home Page