Author’s note: Blood and Bluegrass takes place immediately after the events of The Moon Buck. If you haven’t already, take a moment to give the previous story a read!
The tracks were the same.
Annabelle stared at the impressions in the muddy leaf mold, ears ringing from a sudden surge of adrenaline.
The story was there, trampled by the searchers that found her sweetheart’s body, the coroner, sheriff, and crime scene investigators.
Jeremiah’s tracks picked their way through the brush from the road. He’d staggered mid-step and fallen to his knees, his boots cutting gouges in the dirt. A larger set of tracks followed his, superimposed over his prints in a few places but the same age. The tread on the second set of boots was chunky, size fourteen, and brand new. Their owner was standing right behind her, calling her name.
“Belle?” Jimmy sounded nervous, almost afraid. “There’s things out here a lady shouldn’t rightly see. And it’s an active crime scene and all.”
“I know. We had to cross the tape, remember?”
Stale blood soaked the brown leaves and turned the earth a darker shade of black. Lots and lots of blood. An appalling amount…
“This is where they found him, isn’t it?” she asked.
“How would I know?” Jimmy managed to sound both scared and slightly aggrieved.
“The sheriff said you were with the team who found him.”
“It was probably old man Aldred. You know how he is about trespassers. His property is just over the way.”
“But Jeremiah wasn’t on the old man’s property,” Annabelle said softly. “And look at these marks. He was walking away from the road, and he staggered forward. Someone shot him in the back. Someone followed him.”
“We really shouldn’t be here,” Jimmy said again. “I know you’re grieving and all, but this won’t bring him back. You’re just hurting yourself.”
“Don’t you want to know what happened? He was your friend too.”
“He tried to take you from me.”
“Is this what it comes back to?” she asked sadly. “Jimmy, I was never yours.”
His dark, closed-up expression told her everything she needed to know as they stood staring at each other over the spot where her sweetheart breathed his last breath. She struggled to keep her eyes away from his feet, lest he guess that she recognized his boots. The wind sighed through the trees and the evening twilight grew deeper.
“We should go,” Jimmy said suddenly. He grabbed her arm and jerked her toward the road, his grip hard enough to leave bruises.
She’d found Jeremiah’s killer –Jimmy had all but confessed– and now he was dragging her toward his truck. Annabelle wrenched her arm out of his grasp and ran.
Branches whipped her face and jacket as she plunged into the thicket. Jimmy howled in outrage and lunged after her, but she was already gone, leaping over fallen trees and hurdling the collapsed fence at the edge of an overgrown pasture. As the woods opened up and she accelerated into the record-setting sprint that had earned her scholarship, she reminded herself to thank Ma for convincing her to take track and field.
Behind her, a series of crashes and a steady stream of swearing signaled Jimmy’s progress through the thicket.
The wind whistled in her ears as she streaked across the overgrown pasture. Blue grass swayed in the breeze, bathed in the light of the rising moon. A majestic white buck raised its head and appraised her with glowing eyes.
Not real, her mind whispered. Definitely not real. There was an old tale about a moon buck, but it was like Bigfoot– the only folks who ever saw one usually had a bad drinking habit.
“Belle– ” he already sounded out of breath “–get back here right now! You’re not in your right mind!”
The buck’s head swivelled, lowering as if it perceived Jimmy as a threat.
“I swear t’God, if I have to hunt you down like a wild animal I will!”
A gap at the edge of the old clearing beckoned, and Annabelle ducked through and sprinted down an overgrown game trail as if demons were on her tail. A startled fox dashed for cover, white tip glowing in the fading light.
“Annabelle! Annabelle!” His shouts were full of rage, but they were growing more distant.
Then Jimmy screamed.
The sound was so startling and full of pain that it froze her in her tracks. The whole forest seemed to hold its breath as more screams rose from the clearing, punctuated by grunts and curses. The moon crept higher in the sky. Jimmy fell silent.
* * *
“Never seen anything like it,” the sheriff said. “I’ve seen bucks bluff charge a hunter, but nothing like this. Without a firearm that poor Higgins boy didn’t stand a chance. Your daughter’s lucky she’s a good runner.”
“That she is,” Ma said, giving Annabelle’s shoulder a squeeze.
“Have you considered getting her to see a counselor? She’s been through an awful lot, losing both Jeremiah and Jimmy in a matter of days.”
Annabelle grimaced at the way the sheriff mentioned their names together, as if they’d been anything close to equal, and let her eyes drift off to where the porch light gilded the edge of the woods. Was it just her imagination, or had she caught a flash of white?
As the Sheriff and her Ma continued talking about her like she wasn’t there, Annabelle quietly excused herself and slipped out the back door.
Fireflies danced in the growing dusk and the round disk of the waxing moon peeked through the trees. A luminescent shadow lingered at the forest’s edge, antler-crowned head tilted down at an angle that reminded her of Jeremiah at his most bashful.
I’d be honored if you’d accompany me to prom.
Annabelle remembered how his hands shook as he held out the bouquet of spring wild flowers. Of course she’d said yes. They’d been childhood best friends, the weird gangly girl and the tan boy with the stutter. She’s grown into beauty and he’d grown out of his speech impediment, but they remained the same inside– a little weird. Outsiders.
The moon buck sauntered into the forest, pausing to glance over his shoulder as if asking if she was coming. Annabelle followed without a second thought.