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.

I WAS STANDING IN MY GARAGE AT SIX THIS MORNING WHEN I HEARD A FAMILIAR SCREAM. I ran out to the driveway to watch a fawn run in terror across my front lawn and driveway, screaming as it passed ten feet from me. Death was following it twenty yards behind in the form of a dark-hued coyote. Silent and swift, chasing the fawn across the meadow behind the old farmhouse next door toward the pines. I didn't see the end. This is the third time I've heard a fawn scream. Twice from dogs, once from a coyote. It's a sound you don't forget.


Not fifteen minutes after this scene, two young deer appeared in my back yard. Grazing, watchful. Like drivers who pass a cop giving someone a ticket on the side of the road. He's busy with that guy, we're safe for a while.

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