The Ugliest Man in Litucca County
Ugliest man I ever met was a fella named Buck Bacall. I only saw him that once, in the harsh glare of my flashlight shining into the backseat of an old Pontiac Tempest. But I promise you, in the unforgiving sun of broad daylight, Mr. Bacall wouldn’t have been one bit easier to look at.
It was a chilly night in early October. I have no trouble remembering the when of the story because the Litucca County Harvest Fair always comes second weekend in October and this was only a couple of nights before. Darnel Foxx had hired me and Travis Turnbow to keep an eye on the north-south road that runs through the middle of his ranch.
Darnel fancies himself a world-class poultry man, and late summer into early fall there had been a rash of hen house raids all over the county. With the poultry judging coming up that Saturday, Darnel didn’t want to take the chance any of his prize brood would turn up missing. That’s why he put me and Travis out on the road, to check up on any suspicious activity.
All the boys got a laugh out of me and Travis being hired to guard Foxx’s hen house, but it was no laughing matter. Best in Show for fowl was sponsored by Purina and carried a $1,000 first prize. Rumor was, Darnel had a Dominicker sure to strut off with this year’s cash.
The road through the ranch is dirt and gravel, lightly travelled. It’s a county owned road, but Darnel said he didn’t have any compunction asking me and Travis to stop folks to make sure they weren’t carrying extra cargo. Particularly cargo that clucked.
Travis had gone to the north end of the road, where it joins up with the pavement next to Alma’s All Night. Since I’m the easy goingest, I agreed to take the south end that tailed off into flat darkness, coyote yelps, and jackrabbits the size of antelope.
By midnight I’d only had three cars come through. Two were folks I knew who made good-natured sport of me standing out in the middle of nowhere hoping to catch a chicken thief. The other car was a fancy new somethin-another made by Japs or Germans, or maybe the Swedes. Tourists looking for some place I’d never heard of and they’d never find.
Shortly before 1:00 a.m., a car came down the road headed my way from Darnel’s direction. There wasn’t a lot of moon showing, so I thought it odd the car didn’t have its headlights on.
I have a watch that glows like a barn dance of lightning bugs do-si-doing on my wrist so I confirmed the time and wrote 12:50 on the note pad where I was keeping my night-watch log. I stuffed the pad and pencil back into my shirt pocket.
Holding my flashlight out to the side, I stood in the middle of the road swinging it back and forth like I’d seen signalmen do in rail yards when I was a boy. Only then did the car’s lights come on. It pulled to a stop about twenty yards shy.
You never know what might happen on a dark road in the middle of the night. I approached the driver’s side with an extra dose of caution. I kept my flashlight on, but by my side so as not to shine in anybody’s eyes and come across as menacing. The headlights of the car and the bald head of moon that had peeked out from behind black-bellied clouds made enough light so I could see where to walk.
The vehicle was a rusted out old Pontiac Tempest and there looked to be four or maybe five people inside. The driver’s window was open. Keeping some distance, I called out, “How you folks doing tonight?”
Though I couldn’t see for certain, I assumed it was the driver who answered. “Just a laughin’ and a scratchin’. ‘Bout yourself?”
“Middlin’, middlin’ ” I replied. “You know you’re running without headlights?”
“Just tryin’ to save on electricity,” the same voice came back.
I took a step closer. “We’ve had some thieving around lately so we’re checking up on folks out late. Nothing personal. And no offense, I hope.”
This time I could see for certain it was the driver who spoke. “None taken. Just had a few drinks over at the All Night and we’re headed back toward Thistleweed. Shaves more than twenty miles to come this way.”
“Makes sense,” I said, leaning over, hands on knees. The driver’s face was the only one lighted enough to show features, smiling a genuinely friendly kind of smile. “I got no legal authority,” I said, “and I know it’s nosey and not all that neighborly, but you mind if I take a look in the trunk?”
The engine cut off and the man stuck his hand out the window clutching the keys. “Help yourself. If you turn up a dead body, Randall here done it.”
There was a round of coarse laughter from inside, and I added a two-syllable chuckle to show we were all getting on.
I opened the trunk and shined my light inside. Empty beer bottles. Jumper cables. Rags that smelled of oil leaks long gone by.
Back alongside the car I handed the keys to the driver. “No dead bodies. Or live one’s for that matter.”
Another round of laughter made it’s way around the inside. I pulled the notepad and pencil out of my shirt pocket.
“I’m keeping a record for Mr. Foxx. You mind if I get your names?”
“Mine’s Rection,” the driver said. “That’s R-E-C-T-I-O-N. Hugh G. Rection’s my full name, since we’re being formal and writing things down.”
“Farts Daley,” the guy in the passenger seat said.
In addition to Hugh, the driver, and the passenger side guy named Farts, I could see three figures in the back seat. A normal size man sat next to each window, with a real sawed off runt of a guy squished between them in the middle. The little guy had what looked like one of those Mexican serape things draped over his head.
“One of you gentlemen Randall?” I asked. “Hugh here said if I found a body, Randall done it.”
The man in the passenger seat spoke up, “That’s me. Randall Daley, folks just call me Farts. I’m sure you can guess why.”
On my pad I put quote marks around Farts and wrote Randall out to the side where a first name would go. I returned my attention to the backseat. “Gentlemen?”
The nearest to me said his name was Ben Dover and the one by the far window said, “Noah Count.”
“How ‘bout you?” I asked, nodding at the scrawny guy in the middle.
When he didn’t speak, I lifted my flashlight, casting a beam in his direction.
Holy Mother of God! Bless the poor man’s soul. His face was all shrunk up, like one of those heads you see in the cannibal stories in the National Geographic. Beady little eyes peered out from the serape shroud, and a sharp pointy nose protruded from the middle of a wrinkled red face.
I swallowed a gasp, and managed, “Could I have your name, sir?”
The man’s face quivered, he blinked, bobbed his head, and in a voice like somebody dragging a cheese grater over your eardrums said, “Buck. Buck Bacall.”
“Is that B-A-C-A or B-E-C-A?” I asked.
Hugh spoke up. “It’s B-A-C-A.”
“Like that actress Bogart married,” I said.
“Just like the actress,” Hugh said, which prompted a snorting laugh from the Noah fella by the back passenger-side window.
“She was one hot chick,” he said, following up with another snorted laugh.
I jotted down the forlorn man’s name beneath those of his companions, made a comment about the weather and how it would likely be getting colder soon, then bid the party goodbye. I snuggled and shuffled inside my coat to stay warm and make my way through the rest of an uneventful night.
Next morning, just after dawn, back to the north I saw a cloud of dust being dragged down the road behind Darnel Foxx’s shiny silver pickup. With brakes engaged, the truck slid a good fifteen feet atop the gravel before coming to a stop beside me.
Hopping mad is exactly what Darnel was, because he hopped out of the truck screaming at the top of his lungs before his feet even hit the ground.
“Tell me you caught the thieves.”
“What thieves?” was my reply.
Darnel spun in a circle and flung both hands to the sky, like he was down to his last plea and God was the only one who could intervene.
“The chicken thieves,” he screeched.
“Only four cars all night,” I said. “Searched them all, but didn’t find any chickens. Maybe Travis – ”
“Travis’s saw nothing neither.”
“They take much?” I asked.
“Oh, no.” Darnel said. “Not much. Only one thing – my Dominicker.”
To prove I’d been hard on the job, I pulled out my pad and pretended to study the times and list of names.
Darnel snatched the pad from my hand.
“Hugh G. Rection. Randall Farts Daley.”
He flung the pad into the underbrush and pointed his finger in my face. His mouth opened, but nothing but a spray of spittle came out.
As quickly as he’d hopped out of his truck, Darnel hopped back in and I was left standing in a chalk white cloud of gravel dust.
* * *
That Saturday, pretty much like everybody else in the county, I went to the Harvest Fair. I didn’t see Darnel Foxx there, but after what had happened with his prize hen, nobody really expected him to come.
I did see Travis, but he wasn’t all that keen to hang around with me. He said Darnel had given him his $25 for the night’s work. I said I figured I’d get mine whenever Darnel got around to it. Travis told me I shouldn’t hold my breath unless I looked good in blue.
I also saw that Hugh Rection fella who’d been driving the rusty Tempest the night Darnel’s hen went missing. In what I believe is called an irony, the man was standing on the stage in the poultry barn cradling the most picture perfect, god-amighty beautiful Dominicker hen that ever lived. Hugh and his hen had just won the thousand-dollar prize for Best in Show.
The thought came to me that I might go over and congratulate him on his good fortune, but I remembered it had been me holding the flashlight, so he’d probably never clearly seen my face and wouldn’t recognize me.
I didn’t see any of the other fellas who had been with him that night, but I have reason to believe they were somewhere there about. I had started making my way out of the barn when from the direction of the stage I heard someone call out, “Buck. Buck Bacall. Buck, Buck, Buck Bacall.”