The Other Half- By John W. Sloat

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Adams, holding the light, suddenly saw the maniacal glint in his partner's eye. He felt a surge of terror as Farris snarled at him, "Good bye, Adams. Been nice working with you."

Holding the axe in front of him, Farris aimed a vicious blow at the other man's chin. Adams screamed, raising his arm at the last instant so that the blow was deflected and snapped his collarbone like a twig. When Farris withdrew the axe for another blow, Adams sensed his closeness and reached out to claw at him. Their screams mingled with the grunts and moans of their struggle, the air stinking of sweat and hot blood and rage. Adams, unable to use one arm, could not defend himself effectively. Farris smashed the axe into the darkness again and again, punching into whatever he could find, using the point of the pickaxe to stab at his victim, sometimes striking the earthen walls, sometimes feeling the thud of metal on flesh. At last, Adams was quiet.

When Jim stopped in this Tuesday evening at the drug store to buy a copy of the evening paper, he greeted the pharmacist with a wave.

"What's new, Fred?"

"Nothin' much, Jimmy. How's things in the war zone?"

Jim smiled to himself. Because Fred viewed Jim's hook and artificial leg as honorable badges of courage, he looked on Jim as a hero. Jim glanced at the pharmacist and thought: He should have been in Nam. That would have cured his nostalgic view of war.

"Still hacking away at it," he answered as he picked up a copy of the paper. Glancing at the front page, he stopped in mid-step, totally unprepared for what he saw. The headline read "Murder Victim Found in Hopewell." But what shocked him was not the headline. It was the drawing alongside the headline--a drawing of himself.

He swayed for a moment on his artificial leg, almost losing his balance. He looked at the picture again. It was a pen and ink drawing of a portion of a map, and in the center was a human figure. The head, right arm and leg were normal. But he stared in disbelief at the left limbs. The arm was held away from the body so that the hook it had in place of a hand was clearly visible, and the leg, normal to the knee, became a narrow post ending in what looked like a claw for a foot. Too stunned to move, he read the article, searching for some explanation.

"The decayed body of a male in his twenties was found behind the municipal grounds in Hopewell yesterday, buried in an ancient mound. Authorities believe the man had been dead at least a month....

"The area in which the body was discovered forms a prehistoric burial mound, commonly referred to as 'Man Mound'.

Jim stared again at the drawing. It felt like some kind of grim joke, his deformities spread all over the front page of the paper like this--hook, leg post, both on the left side just like his. It was as though someone were shining a searchlight on him, exposing him to public scrutiny.

Ka, the eldest priest, remembered a story he had heard from traders who came from the direction of the setting sun. These men had seen burial mounds in the shape of spirits--bears, birds, serpents--far different from the rounded hills that his people always built. If he should bury Tukamne in a spirit mound like that, the spirits would have to receive her with honor, and she might be grateful and wait for him on the other side.

As the plan took shape, he began to see in his mind the form of the mound he would build for Tukamne. It would be an image of the Serpent-Spirit that had appeared to him in the forest, an image half man, half snake. He closed his eyes to remember the apparition more clearly. He could see the dark, featureless head, the powerful arm ending in a serpent's tail, the snake's body forming one leg, its open mouth biting into the earth as if preparing a grave for burial.

It was approaching midnight as they bent over the lock on the gate, Davis fumbling with the key while Jim held their flashlight. Just as the padlock snapped open, they heard a car coming up the street; it turned a corner and its headlights splashed along the fence toward them, sending their huge, distorted shadows racing across the trees surrounding the mound. Frozen to the spot, they watched the car. It turned another corner, and left. Darkness returned.

Casting a relieved look at each other, they carefully locked the gate behind them. The exploit was no longer a lark. The isolation of the place, its association with death, ancient and modern, was chilling.

Jim pointed to the right. "My fake note says the sculpture is back in the crotch of the mound."

"Let's hope so," she said, "I've had enough of this. I just want to get it and get out of here."

They walked the forty or so feet from the waist of the mound down around the right leg. As they were ready to turn the corner and start for the crotch, Davis said, "Shh! What was that?"

There was a cracking of twigs in the distance, up by the head of the mound, the sound of someone walking through underbrush. Whoever it was had not come through the gate; he must have come in from the back side of the mound, over the fence. He was behind them. If he were heading for the hole in the crotch, he would walk right past them!

Jim considered leaving, but knew they would never make it undetected. He whispered urgently to Davis, "Help me get my shirt and my arm off."

"Why?" she asked in alarm.

"Don't ask. Just do it!"

Excerpted from The Other Half. ©John W. Sloat, 2001.