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?”

FOR THIRTY YEARS OR MORE, a black man people called Wavin Willie wandered the roads of Crockett County, Alabama, flapping an old burlap sack up and down, over his head. In the biting winds of January or under the roasting August sun he walked and flapped, sometimes mumbling, sometimes shouting, often silent but with an intense watchfulness. No one knew why, other than he was crazy.

He seemed to have a thing about children, and keeping them out of Hell's Back Forty, a cursed parcel of swamp and briar that was, legend has it, the haunt of a boogeyman named Rufus--a black man with a sack who snatched up children who wander away from their neglectful parents. A lot of people said Wavin Willie suffered from an identity disorder in which he thought he was Rufus. Others said he really was Rufus, and instructed their children never to go near him. But most knew he was from a respectable and prosperous family in Crockett. In his youth he had been a brilliant student with a promising future, and then schizophrenia put him on a different path.

Only once did Wavin Willie snatch a child. A little girl named Lizzie Crockett. They were found in an old, abandoned church on a seldom used dirt road. The Crocketts at first demanded Willie be prosecuted for kidnapping. But Lizzie would have none of it. They were friends, she said. He was protecting her from Rufus, she said. And so Wavin Willie was left free to continue his sack-flapping, prayer muttering, wandering ways.

No one ever found out what went on between them that day when she was six. But ever after, Lizzie and Willie seemed to share some mysterious bond, perhaps a secret, and not even her closest family and friends knew what it was.

One day when Lizzie was home with a two-year-old child of her own, a neighbor of hers noticed Wavin Willie out on the road nearby, acting unusually agitated. The woman ran a daycare in her home and became afraid for her children. She called 911. Chief Deputy Jake "the Snake" Boone, who had once arrested Willie King for a murder he did not commit, answered the call.

And then, what started with a viral video of police brutality became within a few short days a massacre known as the Rufus Rebellion.

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.