By Adam Forcey
The desert horizon swam in the thick Texas summer on the road ahead and Huddie Ledbetter was both hauling ass and taking his time. His stride assumed a bizarre cadence as he snatched one bare, calloused foot from the asphalt and grudgingly lowered the other one several paces ahead, trying all the while not to let either foot rest on the tarmac for too long.
It had only been a week since Zeke Turners' bum ticker had stirred up enough panic among the guards of the Harrison County Chain Gang for Huddie to evade their patrols and achieve this precarious freedom. The guards excelled at beating men in shackles, shooting small animals from their horseback patrols and liked using words like 'nigger' in mock conversations; it kept the prisoners humble. However, they proved quite inept as physicians, first when they failed to anticipate Mr. Turners' fatal heart attack despite his painfully obvious pleas and symptoms, and then again as the subsequent corpse and the confusion it brought resulted in a two hour long, near-total lapse of security.
It had been a week and he'd spent most of it stalking Wade County, working when he found work and enjoying his regained liberty. After he bought food and clothes without white and black stripes, he treated himself to what in hindsight proved to be too much bourbon. After a night or two in the lovely arms of Ms. Grace and Ms. Lynette he found he had only enough money left for one of the multitude of treasures he'd been dreaming of over the past few months. His logical mind insisted he needed shoes. But he was tired of being logical, weighing consequences; there was something he yearned for a great deal more than footwear. He'd made up his mind.
He bought a beautiful six string acoustic guitar with pearl inlays on a rosewood fret board and spent the little free time he had working the rust from his aching fingers. The last time he had played he was several feet shorter, had no criminal record and was unable to grow facial hair. But the love of music Uncle Cyrus had kindled within him burned brighter than ever.
This morning he'd set off with his guitar on his back, up the road that lead him away from town and towards his destiny. Consequences be damned; he was through with hard labor and through with poverty. He'd made up his mind.
His heart simultaneously sank and skipped a beat as the road he traveled intersected a highway marked Knowledge Pike. He'd arrived, and knew it in his bones. He sat down under the apple tree and played like he'd never played before.
"You play very well, Mr. Ledbetter", said a shadow behind him.
"My name's Walter Boyd, Stranger", Huddie snapped. He'd been living under an alias...nobody within a hundred miles should know his true identity.
"There's no need for deception, friend", said the stranger. "My name is Mr. Marshall Abbadon, and I know why you're here."
Abbadon was impeccably dressed, resembling the scion of a great southern plantation family. Only his accent was off; his was not the laid-back drawl of Huddie's native Louisiana, it sounded like an amalgam of every accent Huddie had ever heard...
"I know what you are", growled Huddie, "and what you're after. I just want you to know that."
"Just what do you think you kn-", Abbadon blurted, and his demeanor seemed to change for a fraction of a second, he seemed to devour all light and warmth around him, but Huddie cut him off.
"Simmer down, I still mean to go through with it", he said firmly, "jus' want you to know you ain't never pulled one over on me. I do this on my own accord, for reasons...beyond you."
Abbadon's top hat was perched at an unnatural angle. Half of it was black, the other red. Huddie hadn't noticed until now, as the pair stared at one another in silence.
"It is a beautiful instrument", said Abbadon, suddenly jovial once more. "May I?"
Huddie nodded and the strange man began to play; slow, hauntingly beautiful and then rising in tempo. Fast, dark notes resounded as his pale, slender fingers danced across the fret board, faster and more furiously than any man ever could. Then he stopped, satisfied.
"Like a dream...one might say it plays itself", said Abbadon. "Let me just tune it...these new strings keep going flat."
Huddie stared as the man gently turned each gleaming, silver tuning key. He methodically checked and rechecked until each string sang with resounding precision.