WHEN CHET KIMBALL WAS THE SHERIFF OF CROCKETT COUNTY, he liked to stay involved in the community as a "civilian," and having been a track and field athlete in his youth, decided to start Crockett High's first serious 4x400 relay team.

There were three boys he had watched since elementary school--Horace King, AJ Crockett, and Charlie Hawk--who just so happened to be best friends and the fastest runners in their age group. In the summer before the eighth grade they added a fourth member to their little "tribe," a refugee from New York City named Cooper Benjamin. Coop's family had arrived in Crockett County by accident when their car broke down on their way to Florida, having fled the violence and bullying their boy had suffered in the big city.

"Coach Kimball" took a special pride in molding these boys into a formidable relay team, in part because of their fierce determination and competitiveness, but more so because of what he thought they could represent to the world: Four boys of quintessentially diverse American backgrounds--black, white, Indian, and Jew--with a natural friendship who could work together to achieve greatness. Four kids, from Alabama, no less, who would show the world how to overcome the 400 years of oppression and injustice with laughter in their hearts rather than chips on their shoulders.

As they went into their senior year, the team was aiming high: the state championship. But it wasn't until two radical lawyers moved to town that they realized their hope could be a reality. Abner Cole the third and Suzette Langtree were social justice warriors of the first rank, and they brought with them a troubled young man they were fostering from south Alabama named D'Mon Brown.

The "Trippentrees," as the boys called the lawyers, pressed Coach Kimball to give D'Mon a chance to make the team. He left it up to the boys, and so they decided to have a race. D'Mon won. In fact, without a shred of experience or training, D'Mon Brown was the fastest runner any of them had ever known. He would replace Coop, who, only by a step, was the slowest.

With D'Mon on board, the team was not only winning, it was breaking division records. But no one could have guessed the intensity of evil that smouldered in the heart of D'Mon Brown. Coach Kimball's dream of their being a symbol of reconciliation and redemption turned into a nightmare of sudden, unimaginable violence and a slow, tragic unraveling of the most beautiful friendship he had ever known.

And all because the boys told D'Mon the story of a local boogeyman named Rufus.

GROWING UP ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE OF MANHATTAN, Cooper Benjamin learned to use his unusual foot speed to run away from the bullies that tormented him in and out of school. But when he wound up in the emergency room, unconscious and with a broken orbital bone from an encounter with a player of the knockout game, his parents, Melvin and Millie Benjamin, packed up and moved the family South, with a "Florida or Bust" sign in the back window of their minivan.

They were heading for the panhandle when their car broke down in Crockett County, Alabama, a place Melvin thought was as close to the middle of nowhere as you could get east of the Mississippi. But they found a local man named Lamar Hawk to fix their car, and while he was working on it, Lamar's son Charlie invited "Coop" on a jaunt with him and his friends, AJ Crockett and Horace King.

Lamar had fixed the Benjamins' car by the time the boys got back that evening. But when Melvin said, "OK, hop in, let's go," Coop just stood there. He looked at his new friends and back at his mom and dad, and he said, "Y'all go. I'm gonna stay here." It just happened to be Coop's thirteenth birthday, and it was the first time in his entire life that he had used the word "y'all."

It didn't take more than that to convince Melvin and Millie to give Crockett County a try. At that time they were, as far as anyone knew, the only Jews in the county. But the way Charlie, AJ, and Horace welcomed him into their little tribe gave Coop a sense of belonging and camaraderie that turned his anxiety into confidence better and faster than any of his therapists back in New York ever came close to doing. Coop never missed a chance to gig frogs or shoot a rifle or eat grits and bacon or do anything that would burnish his country boy bonafides. But when the boys found how fast a runner he was, the die was cast. He was what they had been looking for: the fourth piece of the 4x400 relay team they had long dreamed of being.

But there was another reason Coop wanted to stay in Crockett County that day their car broke down.

Her name was Lizzie Crockett. She was AJ's 200-proof redneck big sister, and she was the most beautiful, sensual, beguiling creature he had ever laid eyes on. And when she gave him that wicked grin and winked at him, he thought it was the best bar mitzvah gift any Jew had ever gotten in the whole history of the world.

CHARLIE HAWK'S FAVORITE LINE FROM THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE was the one about "merciless Indian savages," and in that rebellious spirit he took "the Savage Creek" for his nickname as a member of Crockett High's 4x400 relay team. A full-blooded Creek Indian, he was as fast with his fists as he was with his feet. The Savage Creek was as tough a competitor as could be found in Crockett County, Alabama, but no one had a bigger smile, a more infectious laugh, or a more affectionate bear hug for a friend than Charlie Hawk.

Charlie's father, Lamar Hawk, instilled in his son a fierce pride of heritage as a descendant of the fearsome Red Stick band of warriors that fought against the white settlement of Creek territory in the early 1800s. Lamar was one of those weirdly talented shade tree mechanics who could fix any car; the only thing he couldn't fix was his own alcoholism. He couldn't keep a job. He occasionally landed in the drunk tank in the county jail. People talked. And Charlie hated it.

When he was a senior in high school, one of Charlie's track teammates committed murder. For strange, almost supernatural reasons, Charlie and his best friends were warped by the incident. He quit school. A year later, angry and disgusted, he dragged his father into the old stone church on the edge of Hell's Back Forty, now abandoned after the murders there, to dry out once and for all. But alcohol withdrawal can be deadly, and it was for Lamar. Before he died, and in the grip of the DTs, Lamar had a vision--of an apocalyptic reckoning that would cleanse Creek land of all invaders and return it to its rightful owners.

To Charlie, it became a prophecy. And an obsession. One morning four years later a little girl was kidnapped by a boogeyman with a sack.

That was the first sign.