Posted 04-08-2004 at 06:53:28
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I don’t belong in this prison. I’m innocent. I will swear that until the day I die, and God
knows it’s the truth. I didn’t kill Joe. Why would I? Joe was my partner. We worked for the county. He liked to say that we'd mowed enough ditch in our day that if we put them together side by side, we could build another country. I think that might have been an exaggeration, but that was Joe, he stretched the truth, and that's one of the things I always liked about him.
Except when he exaggerated about Bloody Bucket Road. When I found out on July sixth of eighty-nine that were scheduled to mow along Bloody Bucket, I thought real serious about calling in sick. That road has a history, and I would just as soon have not gotten anywhere near it, but like all the other roads, it had to be mowed, so mow it we did, until we broke for lunch.
At precisely noon, Joe shut off his county issued tractor and motioned to me that it was time to eat. We'd gotten as far as the river. I shut down my mower and got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I realized that Joe meant to step down and eat right there by the boat ramp. Since we never knew where we were going to end up at lunch time, we always carried a sack lunch, so all we had to do was find a shady spot to eat it.
"Whadya got today?" Joe had asked, like eating lunch in this creepy place was the most natural thing in the world.
I stood on the bridge gazing down at the rushing black water of the Peace River. A bird twittered nervously somewhere above me in the thick branches of the trees that hung out over the bridge. It was dark there, even in broad day light, and I shivered. I should have appreciated the cool gloom after mowing in the hot sun all morning, but rather than cooling relief, all I felt was a deep bone-chilling cold.
"Nothing I'll be able to swallow, if I have to stay here to eat it." I said, casting a furtive
glance at Joe over my shoulder.
"Aw c'mon, Bill, you don't believe all that nonsense do you?"
Joe had laughed then, a rumbling sound that came from deep in his belly.
"Big chicken." He said, slapping me on the back.
I just grinned sheepishly. Joe had been funny like that. He would tell you something designed to scare the life out of you, and then poke fun at you for getting scared. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and shrugged, remembering Joe's version of why Bloody Bucket Road had been so named.
"It was all the bodies." He’d said. "They found one after another over several months back in sixty-two, some floating in the water, some hidden in the weeds, some laying right out by the road."
"Who were they?" I asked. We were sitting in Sally's Sandwich Shop in the fall of eighty eight. Months before that horrible day when fate put us on our mowers on Bloody Bucket Road. I don't remember how the subject came up, but by then, I wished it never had.
"Hippies. You know the type, long hair, beads, all that crap. Free love." Joe took a bite of
his cheeseburger and then talked around it. "Some say they got what they had coming, they were warned not to camp there."
"Tell me again what happened to them." I insisted, trying to make sense of it in my head.
Joe stopped chewing.
"Well, they were dead, of course...as dried out as corn husks. Their skin was white... white as paper. Everybody thought it was drugs, but when they did autopsies on 'em they found out that they didn't have a drop of blood in 'em. Not a drop."
"What would do that to 'em?"
"They don't know to this day, but they did find the blood. For each body, they found two buckets of congealed blood...like somebody was, I don't know, savin’ it for somethin’. It was really creepy. That’s where the name comes from. Bloody Bucket."
I about jumped out of my skin when Sally suddenly appeared at my elbow.
"You guys need anything else?" She asked.
Joe had been laughing so hard at the way I jumped, that he couldn't answer. I just shook my head and turned a solid shade of red.
"Guilty conscience?" Sally asked, somewhat prophetically, and then made her way back to the counter.
The whole thing was ridiculous. It was too far-fetched to be believed but Joe had insisted it was true, 'to the best of his recollection'.
"Look," Joe had said, "let's just eat and get back to work." I stood there on the bridge that
day in July, feeling like it was a mistake to be there. Joe had laughed again, and I started to feel a little foolish.
"Fine, whatever." I replied, acting braver than I felt.
We found a spot down by the river and I choked down the roast beef sandwich and slice of chocolate cake my wife had packed for me. Joe seemed to be taking forever with his ham and cheese, but after what seemed an eternity, he crumpled up the cellophane his sandwich had been wrapped in, and began to dig in his lunch bag.
"Uhh...well! I need to answer nature!” He had said in his no-nonsense manner. “Ya got any napkins, a paper towel or sumthin'?"
"That's digustin'. Do ya have to talk like that right after I eat?"
"Do you have any dang napkins?" Joe pinned his eyes on me and I sighed, and handed him a wadded up paper napkin. "That's all I got."
"That'll do." Joe grinned and shrugged. "A country boy will survive." He reminded me for about the millionth time.
Thinking back, I don’t know how long he’d been gone when I started to get an uneasy feeling. I glanced at my watch. One-oh-eight. It wasn’t like we were religious about sticking to our one hour lunch period, but we did the best we could. The boss trusted us to follow the rules, and you didn’t earn somebody’s trust by cheating them.
“C’mon man! We’re late!” I yelled, expecting Joe to come walking out of the woods grinning his typical ear to ear, and sharing with me more details about his daily constitutional than I cared to know or wanted to hear about. I stood and wiped my hands nervously on my pants legs.
Joe!” I shouted again.
It had been just like Joe to pull a stunt like that. He was going to bait me into coming to
look for him so he could jump out and scare the waddin’ out of me.
“Joe! Come on!” I yelled again, and then almost of their own accord, my feet had begun to draw me towards the woods.
“I swear da God, if you jump out and scare me, I’ll stomp a mud hole in you!” I warned. I could almost see him in my mind’s eye, crouched behind a bush, just waiting for me to come close enough. “I can’t guarantee how bad I’ll hurt you if you spook me! I don’t know what I’ll do...you know how when you get scared you get super-human strength...!”
I just kept talking. Somehow the sound of my own voice kept me calm....until I found the wadded up paper napkin I’d handed to Joe not ten minutes before.
“Ha!” I shouted. “You lost the most important part...now whaddya gonna do?”
A twittering sound escaped my lips. Something that could have been a giggle had it not had a solid ring of fear to it. I swallowed around a lump in my throat and made up my mind that I was going to find Joe, and when I did I was going to beat the tar out of him. I began walking, briskly this time, with a purpose. I was about forty feet into the woods when my foot snagged on a root and I went face first into a palmetto bush. After a string of curse words I got to my feet. It was then I realized that it wasn’t any root I’d tripped over. I would have known those boots anywhere. They were Joe’s, on Joe’s feet, at the ends of Joe’s legs. Legs that were unnaturally still.
I remember thinking that if I had just turned around and ran, that I could be back to my mower and gone from that evil place in mere seconds, but I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t leave Joe. Joe was my friend, but I knew even before I looked what I was going to find. Joe’s pale blue eyes stared out at me from a face that had gone white as snow. His skin was dry and papery like the bark from a Maleluca tree. My throat closed down so tight that I couldn’t even manage a scream. I scrambled to my feet and began to run. The
daylight from outside the ring of woods beckoned me, hurry...hurry!
My left foot came into contact with something and I recognized the sound of the metallic twang of an aluminum bucket handle as I went down for the second time. As I scrambled to my feet I realized
that I was covered in blood from head to toe. Joe’s blood.
It was shortly after that, that the sheriff found me, wandering down Bloody Bucket Road, covered in blood and babbling out of my head. It was hours before I could make sense, but I could tell by their faces that they didn’t believe me. Why do you have his blood all over you, they wanted to know. They’ve kept me here ever since. Murder in the first degree, they said. I tried to tell them that it was the legend. The legend of Bloody Bucket Road that killed Joe. Not me. I didn’t kill Joe. Why would I? Joe was my partner.