It was the damndest thing, the song in the woods. Deer season. Bad enough that the county had teamed up with bleeding-heart liberals to ban antlerless deer, now some songbird scaring off all the bucks between here and Carolina.
Go Johnny go
Quiet. That’s what you needed. Just you and the forest and the wind in the trees. When he was a kid he’d got within a few feet of a doe, close enough to see the ticks moving on her pelt. He counted them, one two three four, then he pulled the trigger. She never heard him coming, that’s how.
Go Johnny go
Go Johnny go
His vantage was screwed. No deer was gonna show its antlers within a mile of this damn ruckus. He slung his crossbow over his shoulder and climbed down the tree. Scrubbed the pinesap from his hands. At least he could find them, him or her, and nicely ask them to shut the hell up, then maybe he’d have the chance to scout a new lookout before he lost the light.
He tracked the voice easily. Damn thing, he was pretty sure it was a girl’s, seemed like it was stuck on the chorus, cos it was all go Johnny go go go and never the log cabin or the boy with the guitar on his back. He wasn’t stupid, he knew it was a story that went somewhere.
He came on something between a shack and a deer stand, a couple boards hammered into an enclosed structure between two white pines, where the song was coming from. He spat first then clomped up the steps. Squinted into the gloom.
Go Johnny go the girl was crumpled on a blanket. A cable binding her ankles padlocked to the wall. A dog’s water bowl half full within reach. She was staring at him but not seeing him. She wore a filthy SpongeBob SquarePants tshirt too small and a pair of dingy underpants.
With one eye swollen shut she blinked up at him through a ratnest of hair, almost like she was winking. Go Johnny go she sang in the hoarse voice he’d heard through the trees go go Johnny
“Hey! Girl, you with me?” He waved his hand in front of her face.
Johnny B Goode
She smiled. Her lip split and blood ran down her chin.
“Girl, what the hell you –”
Go Johnny B Goode,she repeated.
He pulled his hunting knife from its sheath at his waist and she flinched from him, scrabbling against the wall.
“Girl, I aint gonna hurt you, I’m tryna cut you loose.” He used his cornered-animal voice, the one he used when he tracked a wounded deer to the place it fell and rested a hand on its fur before gently slitting its throat. Didn’t work on her so he hummed tunelessly, trying to remember how the song went.
Worked like a charm. She grinned at him, revealing a bloody mess of mangled gums and broken teeth.
Carefully, deliberately, he went to work at the cable around her ankles, buried in swollen flesh and trapped circulation. “C’mon girl,” he said when she was free but she couldn’t stand, even braced against his shoulder. So he picked her up bride-style, she didn’t weigh nothing, and got them out of the shack. He was glad for his bow on his back and his knife in his belt, he’d be a fair match for
but the woods were silent, reassuring, they’d tell him if anyone was close.
She never got any heavier. He retraced his steps, putting some distance between them and that shack, then veered west up to the road. Standing on the shoulder of County Road G with her in his arms he wondered what to do. He’d been in the woods three days now, miles out from King’s County. Not even a half-dead cellphone and service was shit anyway. He looked down and made sure she was still breathing. Her eyes were shut and he wondered if she was asleep, or maybe passed out.
So he set off towards town. Ten, fifteen miles out, but she didn’t weigh nothing. Trickle of blood leaking from that awful gaping mouth. Then finally an act of providence, headlights in the distance. He flagged down the passing truck.
Daryl had to prod the startled truck driver into action, pounding on the window til the man unlocked his doors. He hauled the girl into the cab, unconscious and all sprawled over his lap, smearing blood across the vinyl seat.
“Call the cops,” he ordered.
“What the fuck – the fuck is this?” the man stammered, looking terrified. “You do that to her?”
“No, dipshit,” he snarled. “I fucken found her, out in the woods, now call the cops ‘fore she stops breathing.”
The driver scrambled for his phone, nearly dropping it before he got the three numbers punched in. 9-1-1. Please state the nature of your emergency.
“There’s a girl here, she’s hurt – guy found her in the woods. We’re on the road – County G, maybe forty miles from Atlanta – yeah, we’ll – no, she aint conscious. We’ll be here.” He clicked off. “They said twenty minutes.”
Daryl didn’t know what had happened to her, what all was wrong with her, so he kept her braced against his chest. Her head lolled back against his shoulder. A grotesque pantomime of intimacy. “You got a blanket or somethin?” he asked the driver.
The man dug out a ratty flannel which Daryl wrapped around her. He kept his eyes on the dashboard clock, drumming his fingers against the window. Day was fucked. Three days busting his ass in the woods, no big game to show for it, and now he’d walked straight into trouble. Felt like a little bitch, too, waiting for his first voluntary rendezvous with the cops. His brother would never let him hear the end of it, the bastard.
“You from round these parts?”
He jerked his head.
“I was driving back to Atlanta – can’t say I expected my day to turn out like this.” He stuck out his hand, which Daryl ignored. “Name’s T-Dog.”
“’S a stupid fucken name,” Daryl mumbled.
“Not as stupid as Theodore, which is the one my momma gave me.” He smiled good-humoredly. “What about you, Daniel Boone? Got a name?”
“Dixon. Daryl Dixon.” It was a concession, grudging. But he knew he’d be giving his name out, signing it, a dozen more times before the day was out, and at least this city boy with his wannabe gangster-ass name was too slicker to know ‘Dixon’ was something you was supposed to flinch away from, if you knew what was good for you.
“Aint it your lucky day, playin’ hero,” said T-Dog.
“Aint no hero, just my shit fucken luck,” Daryl said, reaching for the girl’s wrist. Finding her pulse. Slow and steady. “Rather be draggin home a buck, not her dumb ass.”
“How’d you find her?”
“Tied up in a shack,” Daryl said shortly. T-Dog sucked a sharp breath in, whistling through his teeth. Daryl fidgeted. His leg was gone to sleep beneath her weight. “You hear that?” He sat up straight.
The distant wail of sirens. A few moments later, T-Dog heard them too. “Damn boy, you got some kind of bat-sonar?” He flashed his lights.
Three squad cars and an ambulance pulled up in front of them, tires screeching. Daryl braced himself for the party.
T-Dog opened his door to a tall, clean-cut officer wearing a Stetson.
“We got your call about-” the cop’s eyes widened. “Christ, that’s her!”
“Who?” demanded T-Dog.
“She’s been missing for a week, that girl. She’s alive-”
Things happened quickly then. The EMTs came round and took her out of his arms, lifting her onto a stretcher. Her eyes, her good eye, that was, fluttered open. Everyone froze. “Go, Johnny go,” she said, and slipped out again. Daryl huddled into himself, watched the ambulance and first squad car drive away. He got out of the truck when a cop said to, put his bow and his knife and his game bag on the ground where they told him. His brother, he’d be pitching a fit by now, but Daryl knew when to keep his mouth shut.
Then T-Dog was revving up the truck – “see you at the station brother” – and following the second cop car back to town.
That left him, two cops, one car, and a coupla dead rabbits.
“Mr. Dixon.” That was the taller of the two cops, the one who had recognized the girl. He looked like a boy scout, all big blue eyes and smooth chin. Daryl glared at him. “You think you can lead us back to where you found her?”
“That a yes?”
“Told ya how I found her,” he said. “All tied up. Doubt whoever did that’s gonna be too happy ta see the law. Where’s your backup, officer?”
“I’ll worry about that,” said the cop, all confident. “We got the element of surprise now. Can you get us there?”
Daryl nodded. Reached for his crossbow.
“I gotta ask you to leave that here,” said the cop. “Accountability’n all.”
Fuming, Daryl let the other cop lock his weapons and his rabbits away in the squad car. He felt naked, vulnerable. Didn’t want to be stuck cowering behind these morons if shit went all OK Corral out in the woods.
I shoulda left her where I found her.
His brother Merle had a song he liked, a song he’d turn up real loud on the radio when it came on. It went “I Fought the Law But the Law Won” but Merle always changed it to “I Fought the Law And I Won,” let that be a lesson to you little brother. Merle said the guy who sang it, Bobby Fuller, internally combusted after swallowing gasoline in the summer heat.
“I’m Deputy Rick Grimes,” said the boy scout, “King County Sheriff’s Department. Let’s head out.”
They threw up a ruckus behind him, the two cops, tromping through leaves and stepping on branches. Daryl gnawed his lip in frustration. The other one, not the boy scout, he was the worst, and not twenty paces from the road he upped and tripped on a fallen log. Dumbass went sprawling with a yelp of pain and Daryl wanted to kick the little bitch in the gut.
“Think I sprained it,” he was whimpering to Grimes.
“Can you make it back to the car?” Boy Scout asked. “Get back there and radio in for reinforcements.”
It was quiet again when the other cop was gone. “This is stupid, Sheriff,” Daryl said. “You got no idea what we might find out there.” He wasn’t a coward, he just picked his fights, and taking a bullet for the law wasn’t one of them.
But Grimes rounded on him, blue eyes blazing. “I know her!” he said fiercely. “Beth Greene, the girl. She looks after my children, and if you think I’m gonna let the sonuvabitch who blacked her eye and knocked out her teeth and Christ knows what else – I’ll go myself if you won’t.”
“An’ go crashin through the woods like an idiot?” Daryl found his trail and continued picking his way along it. The sun was out, that’s what was warming his cheeks, not some long-buried twinge of conscience. “You’re a sittin duck, Sheriff.”
“I’m not the Sheriff,” Grimes said from behind him. “I’m a deputy.”
Daryl rolled his eyes. The man was a damn pedant.
He led them deeper into the woods. Not something he’d ever confess to Grimes, but his skin was prickling. He had a bad feeling, couldn’t stop seeing the girl, Beth Greene, her gaping bloody mouth and swollen ankles. He’d had plenty done to him over the years, plenty of times he’d looked much worse than she did, but it sickened him, some sonuvabitch tying up a girl and leaving her in the woods like an animal. She musta been scared. He wondered why she’d been singing “Johnny B Goode.”
He flinched when Grimes put a hand on his shoulder. To his credit, the man withdrew it immediately. “We close?” he asked.
“Not far.” The enormous pines were closing in around them, blocking out the sunlight. Then Daryl had a thought and rounded on the cop. “How d’you know it aint me?” he demanded. “Aint me what did that to her?”
Grimes shrugged. “It’s obvious you didn’t.” Daryl raised a sardonic eyebrow that encompassed his filthy appearance, empty knife sheath, and bloodstained clothes. “And when I had headquarters run your name, one of the secretaries had seen you at the supermarket, same time as when Beth disappeared from the Greene farm.”
“Uh huh.” Daryl turned back to the trail. “You don’t know shit about me. Maybe I hate cops so goddam much I’d sooner leave you dead in the woods.”
Grimes just laughed, which pissed him off.
Then Daryl’s pulse began to pick up. “We’re real close,” he whispered, gesturing for Grimes to follow him. Carefully he zigzagged from tree to tree as the clearing came into view before them. Grimes settled behind a wide cedar, drawing his gun.
“This a stakeout?” Daryl whispered. “Thought you just wanted to see the hideaway.”
Grimes shrugged a little, his standard issue Glock loose in his hand. He had a second gun, some kind of revolver, still on his belt, and Daryl was tempted to ask for it.
Grimes was patient, Daryl had to give him that. He stayed still, he didn’t fidget. But he was still startled when Daryl tapped him on the shoulder and held a finger to his lips. Someone’s coming, he mouthed.
Hardly breathing, they watched a man emerge from the clearing opposite them. Daryl squinted at him. He coulda sworn the man looked familiar, something in the broad sloping shoulders and hawkish nose struck a chord with him. He shuddered.
The man approached the shack. He was halfway up the steps when Grimes leapt from behind his cover. “Freeze!” he ordered, his gun pointing at the man’s head. Daryl reached for his crossbow before remembering it wasn’t there. Cursing silently, he edged closer.
The man had a gun in his hand, an old-fashioned looking revolver, and Grimes was barking at him to get down on his knees and lay the weapon on the ground. He seemed to have it under control, the guy was dropping down to one knee and then the other. Daryl studied the man’s face. He knew he’d seen it before, the cruel eyes, the brutish mouth. And that must’ve been how he knew what was going to happen next, how he knew to throw himself at Grimes and knock him sideways, just as the man raised his gun and fired. He felt the bullet meant for the deputy graze his ribs, a burning trail of fire, and then he’d ripped the spare revolver from Grimes’s holster and leveled it.
He fired two shots. One in the forehead, one between the eyes. The assailant dropped like a sack of potatoes and Grimes was staring up at him like he’d lost his mind.