Forsaken Land first appeared in Story and Grit Magazine and it is also included in the book Chicken Liver Blues.
Randall King stabbed out his unfiltered Pall Mall and then upturned his Busch Light. Three cold swallows rolled down. He set his can on the bar top, grabbed his cigarette pack, shook one loose, and lit up. The beer, the tavern, the general atmosphere made him forget his mind-numbing week. The drug busts, the domestic disputes, the multiple overdoses were more than the average man could handle, but when you’re sheriff of Scott County it’s a normal week at the office.
Everyone in the tavern knew Randall and most didn’t mind the Sheriff’s presence. Randall had grown up here, lived here his entire life. There was one or two in the joint that Randall had hauled in years ago—a marijuana charge for one, and the other was an outstanding warrant for an unpaid traffic ticket. But those were the by-gone days and neither man held a grudge against the Sheriff. There were a few who kept their distance avoiding any association with the law, but others appreciated Randall’s commitment to cleaning up the town and the rest of the county, ridding the area of crime, drugs, and the general dope head.
The town, and county, did have its share of self-righteous hypocrites who thought Randall King was a no-good drunken barfly known for his unorthodox ways of enforcing the law. Though, Randall didn’t give a fuck about what they thought of him or the way he ran his county.
He drew from his cig and sucked from his can. A Keith Whitley song rang softly through the jukebox speakers reminding him of his ex-wife, Mandy, and the good times they once had before their marriage went to hell. He motioned to Vicki, the barmaid, and ordered a bourbon.
A Saturday night and The Lounge filled as it usually did with a middle-aged crowd mixed with a few twenty-somethings. They came out after working all week at their dead end jobs. The Lounge was a sanctuary for the beaten-down and, often times, broken. People came to let loose, to forget, to find hope in a crowd comprised of likened souls that could lift each other up, make each other laugh, and that could create a few drunken memories.
Vicki set Randall’s bourbon in front of him and he said thanks in his low smoker’s rasp. Wasting no time, he tossed back the bourbon and followed it with a long steady guzzle of beer, emptying the can.
“Want another beer, sugar? said Vicki.
“Yeah, I’ll have another,” said Randall exhaling smoke.
Then a short, square-shouldered man settled onto a stool two down from Randall.
“Be right with ya,” said Vicki to the man.
“No hurry,” said the man.
Vicki set Randall’s beer in front of him and cracked it open. She stepped to the other man and wiped off the bar. “Now, what can I get for ya?”
“Whiskey. Water chaser,” said the man.
“This ain’t the wild west, Doc,” said Vicki with a sly grin. “Any particular kind?”
“Surprise me,” said the man.
“You got it,” said Vicki.
Tipping his can, Randall glanced again at the man, taking note of his features. Bald head on top with signs of heavy stubble along the side. A thick, dark forest of beard covered his bulldog face. Randall had encountered many people and faces over the years. He’d remembered some, others he’d forgotten over time. The bald man gave not a hint of recollection.
But this was the way of life for Randall King, always looking over his shoulder, always checking his surroundings. Some considered him a crazy paranoid, but for him it was a matter of life and death. He’d put away countless men and women over the years, disrupting their lives, breaking up families. Being on the defensive had kept him alive.
“Thanks, said the man as Vicki served his whiskey and water.
“You’re welcome,” she said.
Randall drew from his cig a last time and snuffed it into the ashtray.
“Mind if I get one of those?” asked the bald man.
“Terrible habit,” said Randall, sliding his pack and lighter down the bar.
The man grabbed the pack and tapped one out. “I only smoke when I drink.” He lit up and returned the pack and lighter. “Thanks.”
“Me too,” said Randall. “I’m down to two packs a day.” He drank from his can.
The man grinned and nodded. He sipped from his glass and then drew from his cig. He struck up a conversation about politics, which Randall didn’t give two shits about. He was a politician of sorts. He’d always ran a tight campaign, tapping into the heart and soul of the county—the working class, poverty stricken, gun-toting conservatives. He’d joined the department all those years ago because it was in his blood, a make-up of his heritage. His daddy had been sheriff, and his granddaddy before him a conservation officer. Being a lawman was all he’d ever known.
The bald man continued talking. He said Donald Trump was going to be the country’s savior and the greatest president ever to sit in the Oval Office. “He’ll put North Korea in its place. You can bet on that. And run out all these god damn illegals.” He tapped an ash into a tray and sipped again.
“Yep,” said Randall. He hit his cig and then exhaled, hoping the windy son of a bitch would shut the hell up.
The man said, “Let me guess. You voted for that damn ‘Crooked’ Hillary Clinton.”
Randall bypassed the man’s brashness. He had no desire to answer questions or talk politics. But he said, “Didn’t vote for either. Fact of the matter is, buddy, I just want to sit here and enjoy my beer and my buzz. Trust me, being in a bar around a bunch of drunks ain’t no place to discuss politics.”
The man smashed out his cig in the ashtray. “You probably right. Sometimes my political spirit takes over.”
“Ain’t a thing wrong with having a little spirit,” said Randall.
“The name’s Justin Pratt,” said the man.
“I know who you are, Sheriff.”
“Most folks do.” He paused, and then said, “Pratt? Don’t know any Pratts around here.”
“The Pratts ain’t from ‘round here. Same as me. Got some kin up here though, but most my people are down around Jackson, Kentucky.”
“Who’s your kin,” asked Randall.
“Related to the Clarks,” said Justin.
“Johnny Boy Clark? That bunch?”
“Yeah, that bunch. Nathan White was a cousin of ours,” said Justin outright.
That name alone summoned a dark, sick feeling within Randall. He said, “Hope that son of a bitch is rotting right about now. He got what he deserved.” He spared no feelings. The year before he’d had a shootout with Nathan White, ending his life in the middle of a soybean field. Randall had no proof, but felt deep down that the low-life scum had murdered his baby sister, Darlene. And he’d handled the matter his own way as he was known to do.
“I reckon he got what was a comin to him,” said Justin “I’ll be first to admit he weren’t good for much, but some my folks is sayin it was an execution.”
“The bullet that went through my left shoulder says different,” said Randall.
Justin grinned. “Heard about that too. Nathan wasn’t known to shoot too straight.”
Randall didn’t care for where he thought the conversation was going. He said, “Maybe you best head on back to Jackson, son.”
Justin Pratt threw back the rest of his whiskey. Pulled a ten from his pocket and tossed it on the bar. He stood and said, “Nah, not yet, Sheriff. Have yourself a good evening.”
Randall watched the man step across the room and out the door, surefooted and cocky. He felt an urge to follow, to catch the son of a bitch in the parking lot and stomp his ass. Instead, he pulled from his beer and then lit up a smoke. He heard Merle Haggard’s “Mamma Tried” crooning from the jukebox. Mamma should’ve tried harder, he thought. He drained his beer and ordered another.
The glow of the muted television lit up Randall’s tiny bedroom. Sitting with back against the headboard, bare chest exposed, he stared blankly at the screen, hitting the Pall Mall compressed between his fingers. Piled dirty clothes lay in the corner. His gun belt looped over the back of an old wooden chair.
The toilet flushed and the bathroom door opened. Vicki ambled out naked, just the way she had entered. Her hair free of its usual ponytail hung over her soft shoulders. Her middle-aged breasts caught the television’s glow as she scooted onto the bed.
“You wanna go to the lake tomorrow?” she said. “Get the hell away for the day?”
“I don’t know,” said Randall. “Maybe.”
“What’s the matter?” said Vicki. “You been distant all night…ever since we left the bar.”
“Hell, I’m fine. Wore out a little.”
She laid her head on his shoulder. “Really, what’s wrong?”
Randall didn’t make a habit of revealing his personal thoughts, but he told of the conversation with the man named Justin Pratt and how those old emotions of his sister’s murder came bubbling up. He thought of her every day, remembering the grim scene of her lifeless body, contorted, laying amongst the mud, muck, and debris down in the Bottoms, a backwoods wasteland. He knew she had been murdered, the autopsy confirmed it, although she had lethal doses of Opana in her system. Foul play was involved on all fronts.
“I know you miss her,” said Vicki. “I miss her too, but you got to move on. She’d want that.”
A glass and bottle of bourbon sat on the nightstand, along with an overfilled ashtray. Randall leaned over, deposited his cig in the tray, and poured a drink. “Hell, I know that,” he said and drank. He placed the glass back on the nightstand. “I should’ve been there. I should’ve protected her.”
“She was a grown woman,” said Vicki. “You tried reaching out to her. We all did. It ain’t your fault. She was into some fucked up shit.”
But to Randall, being sheriff, he felt responsible for ridding the county of the worthless dope fiends and pushers. He knew eliminating all of them would be impossible, but goddamn it, he would try. He poured another, drank, and sat the glass down.
And then from outside, a sudden flurry of blasts and pops erupted, piercing and shattering the bedroom window. He grabbed Vicki and plunged to the floor while live lead hornets buzzed past, lodging into drywall. A picture on the wall shattered and fell to the floor. Another bullet hit the flat-screen television blackening the room.
Under the bed Randall kept a loaded twelve-gauge. He grabbed it and said, “Stay down,” as he pumped a shell into the chamber.
The shooting from outside had stopped. Low and hunkered, Randall crawled out of the bedroom door. He stood and raced down the hallway through the living room and to the front door. He spied out one of the small diamond-shaped windows and in the darkness made out a fleeing shadow crossing his front yard, heading to a parked car, with lights on, down the road. Randall flung the door open, shuffled down concrete steps with shotgun raised. He sent buckshot flying and wasted no time pumping and firing again. The gunman jumped into the car, sped off, tires barking and chirping. Gun shoulder and aimed, Randall watched, heart pumping and heavy of breath, as the car sped off and out of sight down the dark country road.
The sun was going down when Randall eased his cruiser into the gravel parking lot of Uncle Roy’s Place, a tavern known to host the vilest bunch ever to gather in one spot. Nestled deep in the backwoods, the old two-story plantation home had been converted to its current state about ten years ago. The sign out front read ‘poker tonight’.
Randall scanned the parking lot examining the litter of old pickup trucks and cars with rusted out quarter panels. He parked beside a primer long-bed Ford, stepped out, and then headed toward the entrance.
Inside, Patsy Cline sang sweetly throughout as Randall entered. Cards stopped flying and necks turned to take notice of the sheriff in his brown uniform as he stepped across the room and up to the bar.
“What can I get ya, Sheriff?” said the barkeep, a decrepit coot with wiry gray hair and not a tooth in his head.
“Need to speak to Stratton,” said Randall.
“He’s in back. Lemme get ‘im.”
Waiting, Randall eyed the group of misfits who had gone back to their games. The tables were piled with cash and chips and cards. Those around the tables hoped to claim a jackpot that would eliminate any need to return to their dead-end jobs or add to their monthly benefit checks. Randall never held an urge to gamble, not with money. He’d gambled with booze and women many times throughout the years and lost on most occasions. He knew every man had a weakness including him.
He continued to scour the room and the faces not seeing the one for which he’d came, but he did spot a face that would do for now. Then, from behind, someone said, “Evening, Sheriff,” in a pleasant, welcoming voice.
Turning, Randall saw the voice belonged to Roy Stratton, or Uncle Roy, as most called him—but he was no uncle to Randall King.
“What can I do ya for?” said Uncle Roy.
“Need to speak to one of your guests.”
“Yeah? Which one?”
“Johnny Boy over there,” said Randall.
Uncle Roy scanned the room and saw Johnny Boy Clark rake a pile of winnings from the middle of the table.
“Not sure disturbing their game is such a good idea,” said Uncle Roy. “They’ve been going at it for a while now. Might upset ‘em pulling Johnny Boy away like that.”
Randall pulled a pack of smokes from his front pocket. He tapped one out and lit up. He said, “You tell ‘im I’ll be waiting outside. You tell ‘im, Stratton.” His voice was calm and straight, his look steady and fierce.
“Will do, Sheriff,” said Uncle Roy as Randall strutted away.
Waiting on the front porch, Randall drew from his cig, and a few moments after the front door swung open and out walked Johnny Boy Clark. Compared to Randall, Johnny Boy was a younger man in his late twenties. His fitted t-shirt revealed thick arms and shoulders, and his wide chest protruded like a sturdy, wooden shelf. His squared jaw covered with heavy stubble jutted out and described by many as being harder than a chunk of granite. He closed the door behind him.
“You wanted to see me, Sheriff?” asked Johnny Boy.
Randall nodded, stayed silent for a moment, and then said, “Doing any good in there?”
“Fair,” said Johnny Boy. “About even right now.”
“Never was worth a damn playing poker. Always lost my ass.”
“Cards ain’t for everyone,” said Johnny Boy. He stepped to the porch railing, spit over the side. He spun and said, “I got a feelin’ you didn’t drive all the way out here to ask me about my card playin’. Am I right?”
Randall drew long on his cig, dropped it, and crushed the cherry with the pointed toe of his boot. He peeked through the window at the crowd inside, and without looking at Johnny Boy, said, “You’d be right.” Then, “Where’s your cousin? Saw ‘im lately?”
“Who?” asked Johnny Boy.
“Oh. Yeah, I’ve seen ‘im.”
“Thought you might’ve,” said Randall. “Know where’s he’s at now?”
Johnny Boy was about to answer when someone cleared their throat and said, “I’m right here, Sheriff. Long time no see.”
Randall spun to see Justin Pratt walking up holding a half-empty bottle of Wild Turkey. He eyed Justin and instantly knew he’d likely slipped out the back when the cruiser rolled into the parking lot. For whatever reason, he reconsidered the sheriff’s presence, and ambled around to the front porch. Randall noticed Justin had acquired a leg-dragging limp since they had met the other night in The Lounge.
Justin stopped straight on from the sheriff, tipped the bottle, the brown serum sloshing inside, and let two swallows roll. He wiped his shiny lips with the back of his hand, and then said, “You come to gun me down too, like you did our cousin?”
“Shut the hell up, Justin,” said Johnny Boy. “He’s drunker ‘an hell, Sheriff.”
Randall nodded, already aware of the obvious. He’d dealt with more drunken sons of bitches than he could remember. Fought many. Received multiple punches to the head and body. Been stabbed, stitched up, and even threatened with an axe one time many years ago. He’d seen it all. He ignored Justin’s question and said to him, “I didn’t figure you’d heed my advice.”
“Advice?” asked Justin. “And what advice was that, Sheriff?”
“Getting your ass back to Jackson before something bad happens.”
“‘Before something bad happens’? Hell, something bad has already happened. Did you forget? You killed our cousin in cold blood. That’s god damn bad enough!” Then Justin added, “Did you enjoy your wakeup call the other night?”
“God damn it, Justin!” said Johnny Boy. “Shut your drunk-ass up. He don’t know what he’s talkin’ about, Sheriff. Justin, shut the fuck up.” He pointed a stern finger. “I mean it. Shut up.”
“I think he knows exactly what he’s talking about,” said Randall. “Get a little buckshot in your backside, Justin? That why you’re limping and dragging that leg around? You dumb son of a bitch.”
Randall’s words caused Justin’s drunken eyes to light up. Fury swept over his bulldog face. Holding the whiskey bottle in his left hand, his right swung to his backside where a tucked revolver hid behind his belt. He pulled the gun.
“No, fucking don’t!” yelled Johnny Boy.
But it was too late. Before Justin cleared his piece, Randall had already shucked his gun clean of its holster and squeezed two rounds into Justin’s left lung. He dropped the whiskey bottle, staggered, dropped the revolver, and then fell to his knees, gasping, clutching his blood-soaked chest. The patrons from inside filed out onto the porch. Stunned, ghost faces watched as Justin Pratt drew his last breath. It was then a calm, surrealistic dusk settled in and around them, going unnoticed, claiming yet another day and another life in this God-forsaken land.