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.

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.

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