After supper, Stanley stared at the ceiling from his bed and pondered his father’s oft-repeated saying to “either fish or cut bait.” An hour later, Stanley decided it was time to fish. As soon as he heard his father’s snores, he dressed and crawled through his bedroom window. Because Pastor Trueblood often preached on “saving souls from the clutches of the devil” maybe his parents would understand his stealth after he rescued the most bound soul he knew.
It took ten minutes to walk to the last house along the two-lane highway where fields and woods replaced civilization. The small home was 200 feet from the road, its long dirt driveway overgrown with weeds. Stanley wondered why the owner had extended the highway’s drainage ditch through the driveway.
Must be to make it harder for people in cars to turn off and help the devil’s prisoner.
Stanley had met the chained-up boy only once. About his age, the boy had screamed whenever he saw someone walking by along the road’s shoulder. Out scavenging for soda bottles with his wagon a week before, Stanley had heard the faint screams and investigated. He had promised to return with help.
That help was a file borrowed from Jason’s toolbox. Stanley thought it would be of little use if the devil appeared. He had caught a glimpse of the huge cursing figure as he had crept from the property after his first visit. The devil had carried a pitchfork in one hand and blood red eyes in his head. When one of his hell hounds started yapping, the devil had hurled the pitchfork toward the direction the dog pointed. It had landed two feet from Stanley, who wet his pants. If not for the ten-gallon hat on the devil’s head, Stanley was certain he would have spied his two horns. But those blood red eyes and pitchfork were proof enough; he was the devil and the boy was his captive waiting to be set free by the servant of the Lord, Stanley Dalrumple, who had returned per the boy’s pleas.
He waited until he was under the windowsill before calling the prisoner’s name. “Hey Leroy. It’s me.”
“I knew you all would come on back and fetch me. Hurry on up before my pappy comes back.”
His pappy? Wow! The devil must’ve put a spell on him. Stanley climbed through the window and landed on the wooden floor with his hands and head.
“Oh, thank the Lord you came on back. How you gonna get me free like you promised you would?” He rattled his chain.
“With this.” Stanley pulled the twelve-inch file from his pocket and started to etch a groove on a link of chain fastened to the leg of a rusty woodstove. He filed nonstop until a blister formed on each hand. “I got to go before the devil comes back and chains me up too. You’re going to have to finish cutting through where I started. Once you get free go out to the road and go left. Run on over to my house. It’s the green one. My mom will figure out what to do next. She’s real smart.” He covered up the partially cut link with a log. “Just don’t let him see where you’re cutting. I figure it’s gonna take you a while to finish cutting it all the way through.”
“Okay. You be the onliest friend I gots in this whole big world. I be obliged to you forever and ever. I been praying you all would come along for years.”
“I’m going to skedaddle before the devil gets back and puts his pitchfork in me. He almost did the last time I was here. Don’t forget. The green house.”
“Good bye.” He went to work on the partially cut link.
A day later, Stanley walked the road again in search of soda bottles. In front of the devil’s house, he parked his wagon and jumped down into the drainage ditch. He tarried as he retrieved three bottles. Distracted by the playing of his role of passerby, he did not notice an approaching figure until it was thirty feet from him.
“What you doing on my property?” Gone was the pitchfork, replaced by a shotgun filled with rock salt.
“Just picking up pop bottles.” Stanley held two of them above his head.
The devil jabbed his gun at the intruder. “You better git right now. And don’t come back no more.”
Stanley scrambled out of the ditch and grabbed his red wagon’s handle. Several bottles bounced out of it but he did not stop running until he was home.
Five nights later, Jason heard someone pounding on the front door. He switched on the porch light and peered through a window at the small boy who kept glancing over his shoulder. Jason lowered his head to the brass mail slot. “What do you want this time of night?”
“Help me, mister. Stanley said to come over here.”
Jason opened the unlocked the door and stepped back from the ten-foot length of rusty chain that dragged after the boy into his living room. “What the heck?”
It took a police officer fifteen minutes to arrive and almost that long to piece together the story told by Leroy and Stanley.
“What happens now?” Jason handed the cop another cup of coffee.
“I’m calling for backup. Then we’ll go pay his father a visit. You think you can watch Leroy until we get the social worker over here first thing in the morning?”
The devil, alias Monroe O. Lithington, was certain that the police had arrived to shut down the still that he operated in the woods on the backside of his property. He sighed when the two lawmen explained their visit at 2:34 a.m.
Leastways they ain’t here after my moonshine. He spent the night in jail and said little until he appeared before a judge the next afternoon. The Dalrumples and a reporter from the Madisin News were the only spectators. Leroy sat at a table with a social worker fifteen feet from his father. Judge Bellow read from the court docket.
“This is a preliminary hearing of Monroe O. Lithington on the charge of child neglect. In the interest of time, I would like the defendant to give his side of the story. Then we’ll listen to his son. Any objections?”
The public defender turned to the social worker, who shook her head.
“No objections, your honor.” She spoke for both.
“Good. Mr. Lithington, is it true that you chained your son to a woodstove and if so, why?”
The accused coughed and his voice quavered. “Your honor, I had no choice. I was fearing that Leroy’s mama would come on back home and take him away once and for all.”
“Where is his mother?”
“I don’t rightly know. About six years back she runs off with some piano player. From what I be told he plays down around the Chtilin’ Circuit.”
“Chitlin’ Circuit. That be all the dance halls and juke joints that be spread out all over everywhere in the South.”
“Did she take the boy with her when she left?”
“At first. Then one day about five years back, she dropped him off. She said she’d be back for him but I ain’t seen her no more since.” He turned and pointed at Leroy. “I didn’t mean him no harm. I just wanted to keep her from snatching him when I wasn’t at home is all.”
“I see.” The judge turned toward Leroy. “Now it’s Leroy’s turn. Do you remember your mother at all?”
“Yes, sir. But just a little bit. Mostly I just remember one day she hugged me and told me to be good and she would be back to get me. I figured I must not have been good enough because she never came back for me.”
“How long has your father chained you up?”
“He only does it when he be gone a spell. Like when he goes on off to town or out to work on the fields. He takes the chain back off when he be in the house.”
“I meant how many years has he been chaining you up?”
Leroy shrugged. “Long as I remember for.”
The judge sighed and stared at the gavel he had wielded thousands of times to maintain his sense of order. “Will you two please approach the bench?” When the social worker and attorney were two feet from him he lowered his voice. “Any deal you two can work out between you?”
“I’d like to keep Leroy at the children’s home until we can investigate his home and their stories further, your honor.” She tapped her crimson nails on the oak top of the bench, reminders of the blood she had drawn in other court battles.
“Meantime I request the accused be released on his own recognizance, your honor.” The lawyer placed both his hands by the gavel.
“Very well.” He waited until the two had returned to their clients. “Leroy Lithington is hereby remanded to the children’s home. Monroe Lithington is released pending investigation of the living conditions at his home and verification can made of the mother’s whereabouts so that custody can be granted to the appropriate parent. Court adjourned.”
The lone detective from the Madisin Police Department stared at the teletype message from Mobile, Alabama. He tore off the sheet and walked across the street to the public defender’s cramped office. The balding attorney stared at him over stacks of dusty folders. “What’s up, Vic?”
“Remember the guy who kept his kid chained up?”
“Turns out his wife died in a car wreck about four and a half years back. The only ID on her listed a Georgia address so they never found out about her husband and kid.”
copyright 2013 Steve Stroble.