S H O R T S T O R Y
RAILROAD BILL: A TALE
b y j o d e e s t a n l e y ~ u r b a n a, i l l i n o i s
RAILROAD BILL didn't have a home in one place. Tall and dark, with hair like kudzu hanging in ropes down his back, he moved through the swamps of Alabama, righting wrongs and taking care of the families that needed him. If a family had no meat for their table, Railroad Bill brought them meat; if they had no dresses for the children, Bill brought them cloth to sew and wool to spin. Railroad Bill was known kindly among all the people of the swamp, and not so kindly among the rich people of the towns and plantations, for it was their meat and their cloth and their wool he was taking.
It was said that Railroad Bill had his pick of any woman in the swamp, and most any woman you asked would claim it, that Bill had shared her bed at night or snuck in the back door while her husband fished off the dock. But in truth there was only one woman belonged to Railroad Bill: her name was Mae, and she lived alone near the east edge of Big Slough, where snappers hung by their big turtle beaks from the lowest cypress branches. No woman had ever looked like Mae. Every day she wore a faded calico rag shift and never put on a shoe, but her skin was warm like the sun itself; her eyes were sweet and curious as a fawn's. Mae was the beloved in every swamp man's heart, but not one would ever dare touch her even in his dreams, for she was Railroad Bill's woman, and Railroad Bill knew the thoughts of every man. They said a man once dreamed of climbing through Mae's window and finding her naked in the bath; the next day that man was found next to his own chopping block, a hatchet through his head. No woman in Alabama was as safe as Mae when she was alone in her tarpaper shack, waiting.
One evening in June, Mae opened her door and he was there, holding a bundle of blood-spotted paper. Inside was a leg of lamb, freshly cut. Mae took the meat and set it in the iron pot over the fire, then wrapped her arms around his shoulders and let him lift her up. Railroad Bill loved her while the meat stewed, and loved her again after they had eaten the whole of the lamb and licked the grease from their fingers. As they lay on Mae's little cot, damp with one another's sweat, Bill said, Sheriff will be comin soon.
Whose was the lamb?
Don't matter. He put his fingers into the damp hair at the nape of her neck and pulled her to his chest.
They slept for an hour or two, until the moon rose high, and then Mae woke to find herself alone. She rolled over and fell back to sleep in the spot where he'd been; in her dreams, he never showed his face, but she knew he was there in the shadows.
Just before dawn, the sheriff came knocking at her door. She pulled on her calico and stepped outside. A passel of dogs ran around the yard, yipping and pulling at one another's tails, four brown hounds and a big black mastiff. The sheriff snapped his fingers at them, but they didn't seem to notice.
I guess you know what I'm lookin for.
Ain't seen him, Sheriff. Not for weeks.
Uh huh. Culpeppers had three lambs missin yesterday.
Shame. They got so many, how'd they notice?
The sheriff shook his head and clapped his hands at the dogs. The mastiff took notice and sauntered over, the hounds falling in line behind him.
I'm using Carmody's dogs, said the sheriff. Best noses in the county. He can't hide now, Mae.
Big swamp, Sheriff.
The sheriff seemed to take notice then of the spots on Mae's dress, near her hips, where the cotton had worn thin and a bit of soft brown skin showed through. His fat hands twitched. But the mastiff started biting at the hounds' hindquarters, and one after the other the dogs made for the swamp.
The sheriff shrugged. We're off to find him, then. Hope your lamb stew was a good one, honey, cause it's the last you'll see from Railroad Bill.
The sheriff searched the swamp all day until the sky began to fade to lavender. The dogs circled and ran and barked and smelled, but nowhere was there a sign of Railroad Bill. Finally the sheriff whistled sharp and high, and the dogs came back to him, their tongues hanging out cheerfully as if their failure to find the outlaw bothered them not at all, which it likely didn't. Only the mastiff didn't return. The sheriff called and called, the hounds sitting patiently at his heels, but the big black dog had disappeared as if the swamp had swallowed him up. As the shadows stretched to a dangerous length, the sheriff gave up and headed home. On the way, he stopped at Carmody's little patch of land. Carmody stood on his doorstep and sipped at a hot bowl of stew as he watched the sheriff walk up the dirt path. He did not offer any to the sheriff. With a snap of his fingers he sent the hounds racing off around back of the house.
One of your dogs ran off, Carmody.
That big black one. Gone into the swamp and never came back. Could've been a gator, I guess.
Carmody picked out a big hunk of meat with two fingers and chewed it thoughtfully. I never had no black dog, Sheriff. I just got the three hounds.
The sheriff looked up into the night sky, sprinkled now with stars. There ain't no such thing as magic, he said. But the sky didn't believe him.
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