THEY SAY A DOG'S A MAN'S BEST FRIEND, and that may be true, but I'm here to tell you it can be an irritatin' relationship, sho'nuff.

We once had a dog named Pico, a brown and black mutt we picked up at the pound, and he was a good friend. But he had an unbreakably bad habit of getting into the kitchen garbage when we were gone and strewing it all over the living room floor. Chicken carcass grease, coffee grounds, ketchup and various unmentionables smeared on that berber carpet, turning it from a pleasant off-white to a septic splotch that should have been secluded with crime scene tape.

Normally when I got home from work he'd greet me with great enthusiasm. If instead he held back and looked guilty, then we both knew he was.

Training proved hopeless so we turned to architecture, which worked fine as long as we remembered to shut cabinet doors nice and tight. Pico had some persistent aggravating personality quirks, but it was a sad day when he passed, really, a sad day.

Now let's haul our butts to the present day and behold Pico's successor in all such things, a mix of border collie and James Cagney pugnacity quite appropriately named Goon. He didn't do the things Pico did until after a bout of IMHA, which very nearly killed him. Most of him survived, though he lost several toes and thus became a bit gimpy.

Part of his treatment, and it will be ongoing, involves steroids. And steroids make a dog mighty hungry all the time. Suddenly, Goon is channeling Pico, eating (not just chewing) the crotches out of underwear, shoes, and just this morning strewed a bag of kitchen garbage all over the floor. If he doesn't die of chicken bone lacerations by the end of the day I'll count myself surprised.

But he's a good friend, anyway. He's a country dog, and a little too aggressively territorial to ever be mistaken for a "nice doggy" by any visitor he doesn't know, but I like him. I just have to remember, when my wife leaves a bag of garbage on the kitchen floor for me to take to the bin outside, I need to do it lickety split. Even with his gimpy feet he can bust into a sprint if he sees the opportunity to tackle a meal, be it a squirrel or a bag of trash.

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."


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.