AFTER ABNER COLE III AND SUZETTE LANGTREE WERE MURDERED, their daughter, Rose, made her first trip to Crockett County, Alabama to deal with the aftermath. When she went back home to Pennsylvania she earned her degree in criminal forensics, found work as an investigator for the D.A.'s office in Pittsburgh, got married, had a baby boy, and never imagined she would ever return to Alabama.


Then one day she got a mysterious package in the mail. It was postmarked Crockett, AL and bore only a handwritten name in the return address section, that of "Myriel Justice." The package contained two items: a historical manuscript written around the end of the Civil War, and what looked like a ransom note--with photos and words cut out of magazines and newspapers and pasted on a single sheet of paper.


The manuscript was the confession of a woman named Myriel Justice, whose family owned a plantation the area that became known as Crockett County. The confession described a slave rebellion and massacre, never recorded in the history books, involving a slave named Rufus. It was a savage tale of both human and supernatural evil.


The Confession of Myriel Justice would have been just an artifact of her father's work, but for the ransom note. To Rose it looked like a threat against her and her family. She had long suspected that the young man convicted of murdering her parents did not act alone. But he was illiterate and in prison, and could not have assembled or mailed the package.


She began to suspect he was part of a cult that worshiped the idol of Rufus, like the girls in Wisconsin who tried to murder a friend to show their devotion to Slender Man, only more sinister and deadly.


The package insinuated into her normally rational mind a terrifying nightmare and a fear that something or someone was lurking in the shadows, a boogeyman with a sack, ready to snatch up her little child. Her rational mind would tell her: Rose, you're overreacting. Her husband and other investigators told her the same thing.


But she decided to return to Crockett County to find the truth, and when she got there, they told her the same thing. Rufus isn't real. It's just a story. D'Mon Brown acted alone. There's no cult.


And then a child was kidnapped from her own back yard by a man with a sack. And whatever hell was in Hell's Back Forty suddenly broke loose.

D'MON BROWN WAS BORN IN AFRICATOWN, a community near Mobile that was begun by people smuggled into Alabama in 1860 on the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to deliver human cargo to this country. His mother was a prostitute, a drug addict, and, according to some, a witch. She named her son D'Mon because she believed his father was the devil.


When he was five or six, his mother's pimp tied him up in a sack and threw him off a bridge into the Alabama River. He would have drowned had a man on a passing barge tug not fished him out of the water. He always remembered what the man on the tug said when he called the police: "Somebody threw a kid off the bridge again."


"Again."


After that, D'Mon was in and out of the foster care system, now and again back with his mother on occasions when she tried to get clean. Mostly, he grew up on the streets of Africatown and Mobile, an unschooled criminal, twisted of mind and fleet of foot. He had committed hundreds of crimes, large and small, but it wasn't until he sought revenge against the pimp that he faced hard time in the system. Lucky for him, a couple of radical lawyers got him out and petitioned to foster him until he reached majority.


And so Abner Cole III and Suzette Langtree took D'Mon to rural Crockett County, to an old, abandoned stone church they had bought and refurbished on the edge of a swamp that locals called "Hell's Back Forty." They enrolled him in Crockett High School and prevailed upon the coach of the track team, who was also the county sheriff, to find a place for D'Mon on the team.


Thus, D'Mon joined AJ Crockett, Charlie Hawk, and Horace King on Crockett High's 4x400 relay team. Already a formidable force in Alabama track and field, the Crockett team became championship contenders with D'Mon running anchor. He had never before so much as laced up track shoes, but he was the fastest and most natural runner the boys had ever met.


But D'Mon and Horace didn't get along. Though they were both black, they were as different as night and day: one, an illiterate inner-city thug, the other, a high-achieving intellectual, aiming to be an engineer. Horace had been the anchor until D'Mon came along. One day at practice before the state finals, a dropped baton. Each blamed the other. They got into a fight. The coach told the four of them to go do something together to reclaim their team spirit and chemistry.


So they went on a hunting trip into the swamp of Hell's Back Forty. After it was all over, D'Mon went to prison for a double murder and the others, friends since childhood, kept running--from each other, from their beloved old coach, from the hope he thought they symbolized, but mostly from a sound they could hear at night: the sound of a baby crying in the sack of a boogeyman named Rufus.

AND SO AJ TOLD HIS RUFUS STORY. IT WENT SOMETHING LIKE THIS:


When my granddaddy, Maize, was a little boy, about six years old, he had a little sister they called Pearl, and Pearl was only about three when this happened. This was before there were any paved roads around here and at that house they didn’t have any electricity or indoor plumbing, so they had to use an outhouse to go to the bathroom.


Anyway, their mama was pregnant and in labor, and the midwife was there, and they were all in the bedroom helping out with the birthing, and Pearl had to go to the bathroom, so they told Maize to take her to the outhouse. Well, it was night, so Maize got the kerosene lamp and lit it and he took Pearl by the hand to go out to the outhouse, which was about fifty paces from the house or so.


Well, when they got there, Pearl didn’t want to go in, she was afraid. Maize knew he’d get in trouble if he brought her back and she still had to go, but no matter what he said, Pearl wouldn’t even go near that old outhouse. And so Maize got mad and went over and flung the door open to shine the light in and show her there was nothing to be afraid of.


And when he flung the door open, he saw there was somebody in there. The light from the kerosene lamp was dim and it flickered, but he could make out this big man sitting there, and he was dressed in these raggedy old clothes and he had on a tattered old straw hat and his head was down so he couldn’t see his face, but he could tell it was a black man cuz the skin on his feet and hands was black like tar.


And Maize was froze in place. And the man raised his head up and his eyes was gleaming like fire and his teeth were sharp, like they had been sharpened into fangs with a file. And then he stood up and stepped out of the outhouse and when he did a bunch of big fat flies come buzzin’ up outta the hole, and Maize just turned and started to run.


He knew it was that old demon, Rufus.


And then he remembered his sister, Pearl. And he stopped and turned back and he saw the man wave this old sack over his head, once, twice, and he tried to scream at Pearl to run, but he couldn’t make his voice work and she was just standing there, too scared to move. And the third time, the man brought his sack down and snatched up Pearl, then he threw the sack over his shoulder and started off into the night.


And Rufus was taking her away from the light, and all Maize could hear was the buzzing of the fat flies and his little sister, crying all pitiful in the sack.


Scared as he was, Maize ran after him, and when he got about ten paces from him, he screamed the name “Rufus!” and Rufus stopped and turned toward him. And Maize heaved the lantern at him, and the lantern broke on the ground at his feet and the kerosene splashed on Rufus’s trousers and the fire got on him.


And Rufus was stumbling about trying to put out the flames and he dropped the sack. And the sack was on fire too. And so Maize ran up and he pulled his sister out of the sack and he just took off running back to the house, half dragging, half carrying Pearl.


When he got back to the house, the others saw how little Pearl was burned all on the leg and side, and so they tended to her and asking Maize what happened, and he tried to tell them about Rufus. So they went out there, the fire had spread back to the outhouse. And they didn’t find nothing, no sack, no straw hat, no nothing to tell them that Rufus had been there, just the broken lantern and the burnt up outhouse.


And so the adults figured that Maize had broke the lantern by accident and burned his little sister, and then blamed it on Rufus, cuz he didn’t want to get in trouble. But they didn’t punish him, because his grandma, that would be my great-great grandmother, she told’em the boy was telling the truth. She could smell Rufus on both the children. And she said they was lucky that the children were alive, that Rufus didn’t snatch’em both up and tote’em off to Hell’s back forty to roast over a fire for his dinner.


That was the only time anyone ever knew of that a child got snatched up in Rufus’s sack and lived to tell about it. Well, not exactly tell about it. For the rest of her life, Pearl lived with burn scars all up and down her leg and hip, and they always caused her pain. But she never could or would talk about Rufus. But she always stood by her big brother. For savin’ her life, I reckon.


They say Rufus lives in this swamp, right here in Hell’s back forty. He comes out every once in a while to snatch a child. Sometimes people see him walkin with his sack over his shoulder, or standing in the shadows, just waiting. And how you know he’s done his business? You can hear the baby crying from inside the sack. They say it’s a sound you never forget.


And AJ turns to D’Mon and he says, “That’s my Rufus story. What’s yours, hoss?”

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