AJ CROCKETT HAD TWO SEEMINGLY OPPOSING SKILLS: he was a fast runner and a crack shot. His explosive foot speed earned him the nickname "The Crockett Rocket," and a reputation as the fastest white boy Crockett County had ever seen. His starting leg on the 4x400 relay team helped make tiny, backwater Crockett High a contender for the state championship.


But his ability to engage such a "blast-off" level of energy in track wasn't nearly as impressive to his friends as his ability to achieve a level of calmness so pure that he seemed to turn to stone with a rifle or pistol in his hands. Nothing was safe when he turned his sights toward it: a rat scurrying through a woodpile, a cottonmouth swimming in swampwater, a rabbit zig-zagging through the briars, a deer loping across a distant hillside.


After high school he joined the Army and became a sniper in Afghanistan and Iraq. Three dozen confirmed kills. And then one day on patrol he made a mistake, and a bomb tore off both his legs and his balls, and left a sliver of a little girl's cranium lodged dangerously close to his spinal cord.


But he could never tell anyone why he made that mistake--he could not confess what he saw that made him lose his legendary discipline and expose himself to save a little girl when he should have stayed back. He just told his doctors and therapists that he saw the enemy. He didn't tell them it was an enemy from back home.


And so when he got back to Alabama, when he recovered from his wounds enough to walk again, he started the Crockett Militia. And he prepared for a final war in Hell's Back Forty.

HORACE KING WAS A SLAVE IN THE AMERICAN SOUTH FOR MOST OF HIS LIFE, but not in the cotton-picking mold. He was born in South Carolina in 1807 of mixed-race ancestry--European, African, Amerindian--and had a clever, inquisitive mind, such that his owner taught him to read and write and joined him in an apprenticeship to a bridge builder.


Horace pursued that occupation and became, while still a slave, a well-known and respected builder of bridges and other architectures in Georgia and Alabama. He was freed, enslaved again, then conscripted to work for the Confederacy during the Civil War, after which he continued in his profession as a businessman and served as a Republican in the Alabama legislature.


His would be large shoes to fill, as young Horace King of Crockett County would find out more than a century after his namesake's death. Young Horace was well on his way, though; the only student in Crockett County ever to achieve a perfect score on his SATs, he was on track to go to college and study engineering. He had both academic and athletic scholarships, running the anchor leg of the best 4x400 track team in Alabama.


But something happened. A dropped baton. A forbidden trip into Hell's Back Forty. A double murder. The slow shredding of a fine mind under the whip of schizophrenia. And a return to Crockett County and the swamps of Hell's Back Forty for a final reckoning.


Young Horace King's story will be told soon. His namesake's story can be found here.

IN CROCKETT COUNTY, ALABAMA THERE'S A SECTION OF CURSED LAND CALLED HELL'S BACK FORTY. County land records cite "The Devil" as the owner, and though no one seems to know the origin of this peculiar citation, folks assume it was simply a joke, appended to a surveying mistake for which no official wanted to claim credit.


Hell's back forty is an inhospitable swamp, thick with briars, poison ivy, quicksand, snakes, and huge, fat, biting horse flies. A stench, as of rotting carcasses, putrifies the air. There are no fish or game animals to draw anglers or hunters, no ground firm enough to farm or develop, nothing to attract any normal human heart or eye.


And, legend has it, it is the home of a boogeyman called Rufus.


Some say Rufus is the spirit of an escaped slave who leaves Hell's back forty to haunt the shadows of night near homes, a demon who waits for children to wander away from their parents' care, then to snatch them up in his sack and tote them off, never to be seen again.


Most people say it's just a story someone made up to scare children into obedience. "Don't you go out there by yourself, little Jimmy, or Rufus'll get you!"


But some people swear they've seen him, walking along a county road at night, sack slung over his shoulder, and in it, a child, writhing, crying. They say that sound--of a doomed child crying from within Rufus's sack--is one that haunts you forever.


I have never seen or heard any such thing, but I know people who have. As time goes by I will tell their stories.