Join Our Newsletter

Read a sample mystery every week


...or Read FREE Stories on Your Phone
Hell to Pay
About the Author: Jim Courter is a writer and emeritus writing instructor at Western Illinois University, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and a winner of an Illinois Arts Council award for short fiction. His short stories have appeared in Aethlon, Downstate Story, Eureka Literary Magazine, Mississippi Valley Review, Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine, Shooter Literary Magazine, and the online journals Big Pulp, and Eastown Fiction, among other places. His novel, Rhymes With Fool, featuring Milwaukee private eye Barry Pool, is due out next year from Peasantry Press.

Neil Brody pulled the bill down on his park ranger cap to shade his eyes from the sun as it edged over the east rim of hills around the campground. Between the bright sunlight and the old man’s rambling, he was having trouble concentrating and getting the facts straight.

“Pure luck and chance is what it was,” the old man said for at least the third time. “Somebody coulda got killed, and that somebody coulda been me or my missus. Or the both of us.”

“I’m glad that didn’t happen,” Brody said.

The old man kicked at the dented hubcap near his feet. Brody looked over at the camper. From the skewed angle of the rear wheel, Brody guessed that the wheel mount, and maybe the axle, had been bent, and that the camper would need major repair before it could be driven again.

The boulder that had done the damage sat nearby; it was roughly spherical and about two feet across at its widest. Brody estimated its weight to be at least five-hundred pounds. It had come to rest on the grass in the campsite, out of the way of foot or vehicular traffic, and it might have passed for a decorative addition to the landscape. From where he stood, Brody could see a line of flattened grass that aligned with an abrasion across the asphalt lane and more flattened grass in the median strip. That line extended led to the steep, rocky hill on the other side of the campground from where he and the old man stood.

“The missus figures that hard rain a couple days ago washed it free from up the hill,” the old man said. He glanced toward the camper and lowered his voice and added, “Just between you and me and the woodchucks, I kinda doubt it.”

Brody doubted it, too. He had seen lots of hard rains in his twenty-five years at the park, some harder than the one a few days back, but never one that had washed boulders of that size from off a hillside.

“That thing’d gone over a tent or hit some place else than where it did …” The old man shook his head at the possibilities. “Woulda been hell to pay.”

Funny, Brody thought, he hadn’t encountered that expression in a long time, and this was the second time in recent days, but he couldn’t remember when and where the first time had been.

“Did you hear it coming?” Brody said.

“Nope. Just the crash. Sounded like a head-on collision. Felt like one, too. It knocked me and the missus awake, and we’s both sound sleepers. I sat up and looked at the clock—three thirty-seven it said. Still dark as pitch.”

As the old man spoke, it occurred to Brody that with his long whiskers and weathered face and his manner of talking, a hundred or a hundred-fifty years ago he might have come to these mountains as a prospector.

“We’ll have to get this towed, Mr. Scully,” Brody said. “We can put you up in the lodge or a cabin until it gets fixed. I’m just glad nobody got hurt.”

The old man nodded. “I reckon you ain’t as glad as we are, young feller.”

In his late forties and in the middle of his third decade on the job, Brody didn’t exactly feel young, but he supposed he was from the old man’s perspective.

“We’ll leave this rock where it is for now,” Brody said. “It’s not in anybody’s way, and my supervisor might want to see it.”

“Rock?” the old man said. “Rock of Gibraltar’s more like it.”

The hills around the campground formed a bowl, but open at one end where the lane came in from a park road. Most of the sites were occupied, about half with tents, the rest with a mix of small trailers and campers as big as a bus, like the Scullys’.

After hearing Mr. Scully’s story, Brody walked along the asphalt that wound through the campground in a long, narrow oval. Here and there, people were out and busy at making breakfast or other chores. Some kids used the playground equipment on the median strip, not far from the path the boulder had taken. At one site, where a young couple was tent camping, a man cooked while a woman hung laundry on a clothesline strung between two trees. The man gave Brody a smile and a friendly wave. Brody returned the wave and stopped. “Did you see anything or hear a loud noise last night?” he said.

“I got woke up by a crash,” the man said. “I went out to have a look. Some folks down the way were out and talking, but it didn’t seem like an emergency, so I went back in the tent.”

This story appears in our JUN 2016 Issue
(Visit Amazon for a print version)

Buy JUN 2016 Issue

Buy It Now

Digital Subscription

Price $24.75 Cdn

You will immediately receive the current issue.
Future issues are emailed on the 1st of each month.

Reader Discussion

Add Your Comments

Read stories on your phone