by Brad McLelland
“Yep, there he is,”
Claude said, grinning, “just like I figured.”
Ray glanced out the passenger
window as they drove by the house. It was old and small, no more than two bedrooms, and sat half-hidden inside a pocket of
thick forest. Pallid red shudders hung at perilous angles from two filthy windows; the windows, in turn, seemed to stare at
the gravel road like chalky eyes. The foliage around the house, deep belts of maple and birch and knobcone pines, looked scarred
and abused, their naked limbs turning from the structure’s old gray walls as though being punished for centuries of
Beyond the house, shadowed
in the back yard by hems of thicket, stood a tall man in dark fleece and faded jeans. His legs were spread the breadth of
his shoulders, and he wielded what appeared to be a heavy-looking, double-edged axe, raising it high above his head and driving
it down into a torn, stumpy log between his feet. Ray heard no sound as they drove by; the wind had blown the thump of the
axe deep into the woods. As they passed, he caught a glimpse of the man’s face and shuddered. Under his broad black
beard, a beard that tapered down into his buttoned-up coat, the man appeared to be grinning.
“What’s the story
on him?” Ray asked. “Why is he grinning, I wonder?”
The older man chuckled. “Oh,
the Axeman always grins. You’ll never see him without it. When you do, it’d be a strange day, I reckon.”
mumbled. He turned back to catch another glimpse, but the woods had swallowed the house and the man with it. The grin, however,
stayed in his mind. “Seems a little … creepy.”
“Yep, a little,”
Ray Martin had started with
the road department only three days ago, so he hadn’t seen half the roads in the county until today. Claude was the
assistant road foreman, which meant he was responsible for taking Ray up and down the roads, showing him what to expect come
maintenance season, which usually began two months from now in March. The road they were traveling now—CR 395, one of
1,057 gravel roads in the county—wasn’t slated for blacktop until two more years. The gravel, however, was beginning
to wear thin here, which meant another round was due.
Claude eyeballed the ditches
as he drove, sizing up the rights-of-way, and spat his chew into a wrinkled Pepsi can between his legs. Every now and then
he’d throw the kid beside him a slight glance, just to size him up. He’d never say it out loud, but he just didn’t
think Ray Martin here could cut this kind of life; it took a special breed of man to endure the drudgeries of roadwork, and
Ray Martin, although nice enough, looked a little too soft and fidgety to make the grade. Poor candy ass wouldn’t last
another week, probably.
“Yep, we got a bold
list this year,” the foreman said absently. “Ten miles new construction, fourteen miles chip and seal, ten new
bridges, five miles state-aid overlay. That’s all if the weather holds, too. If we make this list, we’ll be doin
Ray was ignoring him; his
thoughts were still on the man with the axe. Something about him had not seemed … what was the word? Right? Good? Maybe
it was the fleece coat he’d been wearing, a coat that had made him look five times the size of a normal man. Or maybe
it was that grin, how familiar it had seemed …
“Yep, 160 miles of paved
road in this county,” Claude continued, staring at the gravel straight ahead. “And everybody wants it, too, until
you start bringin in the graders and dump trucks and excavators and start tearin things up, then they start bitchin how you
done torn up their road.”
“Tell me about the man,”
Ray said. “You know something about him.”
Claude grinned. “Who,
the Axeman? Yeah, sure, a little bit. We all do, I reckon. It’s part of this county’s history, I guess. But you
don’t want to hear it, trust me. It’ll make your skin crawl. We gotta re-gravel this road come spring. You hear
this, you won’t want to come back.”
Ray glanced back again, even
though they were now two miles away. “No, tell it. I’m interested.”
Claude grinned again. “It’d
make something for the campfire for sure, but I don’t think you’d hear it at no Boy Scout camp. Too rated ‘R,’
if you understand me. You got a strong stomach?”
“Strong as they come,”
Claude took a deep breath “—this happened forty years ago, mind you. Remember that: forty years. You won’t
believe it when I come to the end, but it’s true, every word of it. This fella, Doyle Smith, he used to work for a lumber
yard over in Gainesville, except he didn’t work no office or run no mill or anything like that. He was what they called
contract muscle, would go out with small, independent crews and cut down the timber for the truck boys to come haul out. Completely
separate payroll. Well, one day, the lumber mill goes on strike and Doyle Smith, he gets shafted out of a nice, big paycheck.
He marches up to the union office to make a bunch of noise, tell the men in the white collars he’s got himself a family
and they’re just about to go hungry and he needs that galldamn check. He gets rewarded back by havin his contract pulled.
He makes some kind of threat, stomps out of the office, and they don’t think nothin else about Doyle Smith. Until he
comes back in a day lateržholdin this big old axe. He starts with the VP first, takes the guy’s head right off his shoulders,
just like the woodsman in Little Red Ridin Hood. Then he chops away at the pretty little secretary, cuts her up into five
different pieces. Then, I reckon because he’s blood-crazy at that point, or maybe just because he pure likes it, he
heads back home and hacks up his own family, a wife and two boys, very people he was tryin to feed. But don’t have to
feed what ain’t there, right? After he’s done, he scatters their parts all over the front yard. Throws the wife’s
arms and legs right into the flowerbed. The boys? He tosses their sweet little guts up into the pine trees, lets ‘em
dangle there like some kind of sick Christmas ornaments.”
Claude stopped, cocked his
eyebrows, and glanced at his twitchy passenger. Ray was staring at him, mouth slightly agape, the face of a man who’s
just been punched in the stomach.
“Hey, I told you it
was rated R,” Claude said. “Didn’t I warn you at the start?”
“No sir! Every word’s
true. Happened forty years ago. Over in Gainesville and right there at that house. God as my witness.”
“But the man back there
Claude grinned. “I said
you wouldn’t believe it, didn’t I?”
“So what happened after?”
“Well, the deputies
pull into the house, see, and find all these parts and shit, and they circle around the house, guns pulled, like they do.
They find Doyle Smith in the backyard, grinnin like a mad man what just caught himself a circus mouse. He’s out there
choppin, heaps of wood around him, and he’s usin that same axe, blood all over the blade, the wood, the ground, everything.
They draw their guns on him, but as it turns out they don’t need to because old Doyle, he just lays down that axe, holds
up those blood-smeared hands and gives in to ‘em just like that. Goes without a fight, just as peaceful as baby Jesus.
He does say one thing, though, and one thing only, as they carry him back to their car: ‘I’m gonna bring back
a legion, and we’re gonna chop this town up …’ he says.
“One year later, after
a confine in the state mental ward, old Doyle signs his walkin papers and heads out the door. Clean slate, Martin, clean slate.”
Ray sat up. “They let
Claude nodded. “Insanity.
Gets a person off every time. Hell, if I ever go killin, that’s my first defense, mark my word.”
Ray settled back in the seat.
“That’s just crazy.”
“Yep … pretty
They drove on in silence.
Ray stared into the woods, arm propped against the window, as the older man browsed left and right at the ditches, which had
cast off their weeds after last month’s first cold snap. At some point they turned left onto another gravel road and
Claude checked it off on a blue county map. Five more minutes passed before Ray broke the silence.
“It still doesn’t
spat into his can. “What’s that?”
“Forty years. Doyle
Smith would be an old man. That man back there, he looked in his late thirties, if that. Besides, an old man couldn’t
even swing a big axe like that … could he?”
“So what is it? What’s
“The deal is,”
Claude replied, “that ain’t Doyle Smith. Not all, anyway …”
Ray stared at him.
“Hey, I’m just
tellin it like I heard,” the older man said.
“I ain’t kiddin!
It’s a legend as old as I am!”
“Well, they say Doyle
Smith disappeared two years after they let him out. But that ain’t the interesting part. What’s interesting is
that when they did let him out, he took himself to a hardware store back over in Gainesville and bought himself the biggest
damn axe he could find and went right back to his house and right back to that choppin, just like he’d never even left!
They say he spent the next two years of his life doin that, just choppin any old thing he could find; then, just like that,
he stops one night and just walks away into the woods, never to come back to that house again. They also say that whoever
took that axe after he left … well … I reckon became him. Something about that ground bein cursed, bein bad …”
“Oh, come on!”
“Hey, believe what you
want, or don’t; it’s all the same to me.”
I don’t believe it.”
a free man, Martin, believe what you want.” Claude grinned, made another left, and put a checkmark on the map. “Believe
what you want.”
That night after supper, Ray
Martin sat alone in his trailer and looked up at the clock. Fifteen after eight. He butted his smoke in the leftovers of his
TV dinner and thought about his first three days with the road department. Ten miles new construction, that old fart had said,
and fourteen miles chip and seal. Sounded like hell to Ray, and Ray didn’t much like hell. He’d taken on management
of a 7-11 once and had to work an entire day, sunup to sundown, sacking groceries and pushing buttons after both of his employees
had called in sick, and that had been the extent of Ray Martin’s long hauls, not two entire seasons of rolling heavy
machinery over boiling-hot asphalt and razor-sharp gravel. Yessir, sounded like hell, and if he didn’t need the damn
job so bad, Ray didn’t think he’d stick around for another day.
He thought about something
The Axeman. The house. The
grin.Leave it alone, he thought. It’s just a story.But the grin—it was more.I’m gonna bring back a legion,
and we’re gonna chop this town up …“I know that grin,” he said to no one. “I know I know it.
That was stupid, though. He
hadn’t even lived in this county four weeks, so how could he know someone who lived on CR 395 in Nowheresville, U.S.A.
if he couldn’t even remember his own goddam zip code?I could talk to him, he thought. Put my mind at ease. He’d
be done with the chopping, sitting in the house, watching TV, eating supper, just like a normal guy. I could ask him how I
know him …Againžstupid.
But was it? Why?
He didn’t believe in
legends, was why. Nothing but words, that was all they were, thrown together to attempt immortality for the teller, but all
they were was a brutal raping of true history, an effort to catch a life of their own, to spark fire and burn inside people’s
brains and scar them into believing smoke and mirrors and absolute insanity. Was it worth all that? No, he decided, legends
were terrible things, the stuff of lunatics, an idiot’s means of killing time. Telling stories! Who did Claude think
he was! He was an old man, no more. No one but an old man running lonely dirt roads and mulling up stories to kill time and
scare off workers just for the shit of it. Don’t go! That grin!“It’s just a story,” Ray said aloud.
Five minutes later he was
climbing into his Jeep.
Ironically, had it not been
for Claude’s supervision earlier that day, he surely would have gotten himself lost. Some 1,057 gravel roads and they
were like a veritable maze, and with the awful darkness and the infinite woods crawling all around him in every direction,
CR 395 would certainly have stayed buried behind hundreds of other roads. But here it loomed, like a dead snake, three miles
of gravel, announced by a faded green sign with 395 mottled in white.
Ray made the turn.
He drove slowly, the Jeep’s
high beams fetching up shadows, and he didn’t think about his destination and didn’t want to, he just drove. What
good would it do to work himself up? He would simply talk to the man, square a few things safely away; then, armed with familiarity,
he’d go to work and finish out the seasons. He needed this job, hell or no … but not with that nameless, familiar
grin flashing and staring and bobbing at him in the dusk every time he drove by …
He saw the house. It looked
far different than this morning, the shutters now invisible, the windows now clear and seeing. At first he couldn’t
make out anything else, nothing but darkness; but then the oaks and pines began to emerge, stepping out into the indistinct
view like self-conscious nomads wrapped in tattered cloaks. He rolled the Jeep a little further and parked it in the ditch.
Stepping out onto the gravel, he pondered one more second exactly what he was doing here … and then made his way down
into the weedy lot and toward the backyard.
A sound of chopping filled
Ray’s eyes narrowed.
At nine o’clock?Shwop!
Go home!He turned back to
the Jeep … stopped.It’s just a story …
Shwop! Shwop!He swiveled back
toward the house and kept walking.
The backyard lay camouflaged
under the gloom, the only light a small lantern sitting on the ground and giving off a low, dirty white glow. A pair of dark
feet stood in the faint light, black boots nestled among a mountain of hacked wood. Ray’s eyes traveled up. A pair of
legs, spaced shoulder-length apart. A torso of black fleece. Arms raised high, colorless hands heaving a giant shape. A silver
A black beard. Beneath it,
A block of wood split; twin
pieces fell away.
“Excuse me ….
Can I ask you a question?”
The Axeman stopped chopping.
Glanced up slowly.
“Do I know you from
The Axeman grinned.
“Yep, still there,”
Claude said. “Just like always.”
The young man gazed out the
window as they drove by the house. It was small and very old, and sat half-hidden inside a pocket of deep forest. The dull
red shudders hung like crooked brows from two dirty windows; the windows, in turn, seemed to stare at the gravel road like
eyes squinting through a long, hazy distance.
Beyond the house, obscured
by thicket, stood a man in a brown jacket and faded jeans. His legs were spread the breadth of his shoulders, and he wielded
a heavy-looking, double-edged axe, raising it high above his head and driving it down into a thick log between his feet.
As they passed, the young
man caught a glimpse of the face below the axe. The figure was young himself, and beardless, and appeared to be grinning.
The passenger shivered.
A moment later, they passed
an empty Jeep.
“What’s the story
on him?” the young man asked, staring back at the house. “Why is he grinning, you think?”
“Oh, that’s a
long story,” Claude replied. “And it ain’t for the faint of heart.”
“Tell me,” the
young man said. “I love good stories.”
“Well, this one’s
really good. They say he always grins. They say he chops into the night. They say whoever dares speak to him, he hands over
the axe and disappears into the woods, never to be seen again. But sometimes, I’m told, you still see old Doyle around.
Sometimes, I’m told, old Doyle goes out lookin for his legion … because he gets mighty anxious to go choppin again
The young man sat listening,
eyes fastened to the Axeman’s house.
“I used to live there,
you know,” Claude said, spitting into his can. “But let’s get back to the roads. Lots to do this season,
and lots of miles to cover.”
Claude put a check on the
map and drove on.
Copyright Brad McLelland 2006