The boys had seen it all before.
"Preacher's puttin' on a good show today," Harlan said, just loud enough for James to hear.
James laughed through his nose. "You're too cynical, man. What's it to you if he believes in something besides oxycontin?"
Harlan smiled and revealed a dull silver cuspid. "Oh, you're a funny one, you are. You should consider a career in comedy."
"Someday," James covered his smile with his hand. "Stop now. We gotta do this thing."
When it was over the congregants lit cigarettes and piled into cars. A few stragglers and zealots hung around and talked with one another. A married couple hopped on an ATV and tore out onto the road, the fat wheels of the vehicle throwing gravel everywhere. With their Mountain Dews in hand, the boys waited by the church van to talk to the preacher.
"Now how's your momma, James?" The preacher lit a cigarette and blew the smoke up in the air.
"She's ok, Reverend. She's got the cancer, you know. But she said to tell you she's gonna make it back to church one of these days."
"You tell her I'm prayin' for her. And what about your daddy, Harlan? Has he been to that clinic like I told him?"
"Yessir, he has. They got him an oxygen tank and some medicine to help him breathe. Thank you, Reverend."
"By God," the preacher said, "Black lung. Coal keeps us and kills us, don't it?"
"Yessir," the boys answered.
"So, you wanna borrow the van, right?" the preacher asked, his cigarette bobbing up and down as he reached into his pocket for the keys.
"Yessir," James said. "We got all kinds of baseball equipment to move out of the gym and into the building by the field."
"Can't you use your pickup?"
"No, sir," Harlan answered. "We need something enclosed, something with lots of room. Otherwise we'll have to make four or five trips."
The preacher gave Harlan the keys and told the boys to be careful. Get the van back by tomorrow night, he said, and avoid the devil's temptations, by God.
They agreed to all the terms and James followed Harlan to his trailer in the pickup.
"Look at this goddamn piece of shit," Harlan said in the driveway.
James gave the van a once over, though he had seen it hundreds of times before in the church lot. The once white Econoline was hand painted in a wild mix of upper and lower case letters, covered in scripture and misspellings. They shall take up serpints. And if they drink any dedly thing, it shall not hurt them. They shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recuver.
"Could've used a proofreader," James said.
Harlan shook his head. "Look at the state of it. Has he ever thought to clean it out? What would the Lord think of this kind of tribute?" He pulled on a half pint of Early Times and handed it over to James. "Fuckin' fast food bags and cups all over the dashboard. By God!"
James laughed and pointed a finger at Harlan. "Mocking a man of the Lord. That's sinful, you." He pulled on the bottle and looked in the windows of the van. "Well, so long as it gets up up that mountain and back down, I don't care what state it's in. The whole point is cover. Cops ain't gonna stop a church van."
"Yeah, let's hope so. And we'll need to move the baseball stuff afterward. To make it look good. Make sure Coach knows we're doing it, too."
"That part's easy," James said. "I just want to get up on that hill, get the shit, get it to Jubal's, and get paid."
"Damn straight," Harlan said.
Inside the trailer, Harlan's father sat on a La-Z-Boy and watched a game show. A tv tray of remote controls, a spit cup, and a vial of prescription pills sat within reach. There was a stack of official-looking letters from doctors and the insurance company, all demanding money or referencing some previous dispute. There were explanations of denials for coverage and urgent declarations of past due dates and actions to follow. Harlan had been reading them for years. Once he even wondered if the same person had written all of them. Each one sounded exactly like the next. The old man's oxygen tank sat on the floor on a little hand truck with wheels, though the only traffic it ever got was to and from the bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen. He said something to the boys that got lost in the oxygen mask and they nodded. Thirty years in a deep mine and fighting the insurance company for the last fifteen to see if he could buy another ten. That was his story. There were a lot like it around there.
"You need anything, Dad?" Harlan asked.
He lifted the mask long enough to say, "I need you to stay away from drugs is what I need."
Harlan rolled his eyes and slumped down on the couch with James. They passed the bottle back and forth. Then it was Harlan's dad who rolled his eyes.
"It ain't drugs, Dad. Just a little snort now and again. Good for a man," Harlan said.
Lifting the mask, his father hissed, "You got to live righteous."
"Yup, tryin' to. We just got back from church, matter of fact."
Harlan's father nodded an approval and the three of them sat there, the game show blaring, until Harlan judged enough time spent to justify a departure. "We're gonna go out, Dad. You need anything?"
Harlan's father shook his head and extended his hand in a gesture that nearly made James cry every time he witnessed it. Harlan rose and took the old man's bony hand. He held it in both his own and rubbed it gently, his fingers going over the collapsed veins that ran under the paper thin skin full of liver spots. Finally, he kissed the old man's hand and placed one of his own on the back of his father's neck, giving it a little squeeze.
It was the same thing his father used to do when Harlan was just a little boy.
At around 4:00 a.m., there was no one else on the mining road. Still, Harlan drove carefully, and though the boys passed a pint of whiskey back and forth, they took only tiny sips. "A little for courage," James said. Harlan slowed to navigate a hairpin on the steep slope.
"What are you gonna do with your share?" Harlan asked.
"Don't know. My mom's behind on rent, again. So help out, I guess."
"Where you gonna say you got the money, dumbass?" The van slowed as it climbed the narrow mountain road, and something in the back slid and banged against the rear doors. "What was that?" Harlan said.
James turned to look but he couldn't see anything. "Not sure. Nothing important. Drive on, Jeeves." He looked in the back again, but didn't see anything. Then he said, "Where do I say I got the money? She knows better than to ask that these days. What you gonna do with yours?"
"Two words, my friend. Oxy Contins."
The boys laughed and James said, "Was it you who done the lettering job on this van?"
Harlan chuckled, "I will try to pay some of them medical bills. But it's a losing battle, you know? Fuckin' coal company. The guy worked, like, 30 some years, and the insurance is refusing to pay for half the stuff he needs."
"The system's fucked. All of Appalachia is fucked, actually. I can't wait to get outta here someday."
"Yup. Someday. That's what they all say."
"Tell you what," James said. "The day my dad died, I declared war on the company. On all coal companies, I mean. That's why I don't mind stealing from them. I'll use the money I steal to get the hell out of Kentucky once and for all. It's justified theft, way I see it. You oughta see it that way, too. Your dad is going the same way mine did, not to be morbid. Same stuff, though. Black lung, the respirator, the drugs, the letters from the insurance agency. Same stuff I saw for years. My old man dying was a blessing, in a way. Fuck this place. Fuck coal."
In the preacher's voice Harlan said, "Coal keeps us and kills us." He took a sip of the whiskey and passed it over to James. The van leveled out on a stretch near the top of the mountain and picked up a little speed. "So, I'm justified in stealing this shit because of my dad's situation, you're saying?"
"Damn straight," James answered. He took a sip of the whiskey.
"Good to know. You think the judge will go for that if we get arrested?"
James laughed in spite of himself, "Don't even joke about something like that."
Harlan slowed down as they neared the outbuildings furthest from the strip site. "Seriously, though. I'm with you. If I could leave today I would. But I can't. Not just because of my dad."
"Why, then?" James asked.
Harlan capped the whiskey bottle and slowed the van to a crawl, craning his neck and scoping the area. "Well, I don't know where I'd go or what I'd do. I mean, when we finish school. If we finish, that is, what are we gonna do with high school degrees? I don't know anyone outside of these hills. Do you? And you know something else? Everybody we know who left this place has come back. Every godddamn one. Hill folks are like fish out of water anywhere else. It's crazy, but I don't think I could make it outside these hills."
"You're not making it now, Coal Miner's Daughter. We gotta steal to pay our parents' rent and medical bills. This is one fucked-up cycle we're in. We need to get out, boy."
"Yeah, maybe. Look, let's get this done. We'll talk about it later." Harlan scoped the area again and pulled the van close to one of the outbuildings. "That's the one Jubal said's got the tools and the saws. We grab those, rip out the wiring, and we're outta here. Let's go." He opened his door.
"Hold up," James said.
"Let's just listen for a minute. We haven't done anything yet. We ain't in trouble. So just listen. See if you hear anything first."
"What the fuck are you talking about, man? There's nobody up here."
James took a deep breath and let it out through his nose. "You know, there's supposed to be a haint up here."
Harlan laughed. "Jethro, there ain't no such thing. Jesus, you do need to get out of these hills."
"I'm just sayin', let's be careful. There's been some accidents up here. Jubal said one of the guys he used to work with saw a haint one night, just as the sun went down, and the dude got his neck broke out here the very next day. He said she attacks the workers because of what they're doing to the mountain. She comes outta the woods. That's the story, anyway. That's what Jubal said. Lots of guys getting hurt on this site."
"Hellfire, a tree-hugger haint. Wonder what the preacher would think of that? It's a woman? Is she, like, a hippie? Good-looking, did the guy say? Before he broke his neck, I mean?"
"Fuck you. Let's go." James unscrewed the bottle and took a long pull. The boys opened the back doors of the van.
"Shit! This is what we heard before," James said, pushing aside a low wood box. "A fuckin' snake box." He moved closer to get a good look. "And there's snakes in it. Goddamn preacher. Leaves them in the van."
"I didn't see anything back here before," Harlan said.
"Must've been under the bench," James answered. At the disturbance, one of the snakes sounded its rattle, a long hiss that rose and fell, then rose and fell again.
"By God," Harlan said. "It's Satan's work we're doin'. The snake's trying to tempt us."
The boys laughed as James sat a heavy tire iron on top of the box. Their gear in hand now and headlamps on, they moved away. Jubal had a key made of the outbuilding and the boys were in quickly. They found the tools in a storage room and made several trips to the van. Once Harlan hauled out the copper wire, they broke a window on Jubal's instructions and headed to the van. It was a done deal.
But Harlan thought he heard something when he tossed the wire and his tools in the the back of the van. "What the fuck was that?" He flipped on his head lamp and the two of them looked toward the trees just beyond the access road into the site. A shock of long white hair flew out from behind the large trunk of an elm and disappeared again.
"Shit! Did you see that?"
"I sure as hell did," said James. "Let's get outta here. C'mon, hurry up with that shit."
As Harlan tossed in the bag of tools the hiss of a rattler startled him. "Shut up, you." When he moved to close the van doors, the the snake got him on the hand. "Goddamn!" he yelled.
"Fuck," James said. A lone rattler slithered down onto the pavement and headed in the direction of the tree line. The other snakes in the box began to hiss all at once. "Goddamn. Did he get you deep?" James asked. "He must've got out when the box slid against the door. Shit. Is it a deep bite? Is it a dry bite, or wet?"
"Hell if I know," Harlan said. "Motherfucker!" Fear was rising in him and he started to sweat.
"I'll drive," James said. "We gotta get you to the clinic. They got anti-venom there, don't worry, brutha. I saw a med kit in the building. Let me get that first. Gotta put a bandage on it. Let it bleed for a few minutes, though. Be right back. You're gonna be ok, man. You gotta breathe slowly. Take deep breaths. Don't accelerate your heart rate."
James ran toward the outbuilding, got inside with Jubal's key, ripped the med kit from the wall, and headed back to the van. Harlan was gone. James looked around and called for him, but got no answer. He felt the sweat falling in beads from his temples and he could hear his own heartbeat in his ears.
Then there was a muffled sound that came from the woods across the access road. James flipped on his headlamp and rushed over. When he got close he thought he saw some movement deeper into the woods where he heard something rustling in the brush. There was another sound, too, like a bobcat's wail, but lower, more guttural. He thought he saw a flash of white moving deep in there.
For an hour he looked for Harlan, first walking in the woods, and then driving the van all over the site and calling out his name. But when he saw the first signs of light in the sky, he knew he had to go. He told himself over and over that no one dies from a snakebite, and that surely Harlan would have enough sense to say nothing about the robbery when they found him.
Eventually, he made it to Jubal's and unloaded the gear. He didn't bother with details, though, just said that Harlan had to get home to his daddy. He took Harlan's cut for him and Jubal knew enough about the friends that he didn't suspect anything shady. The next day, James moved the baseball equipment with the assistant coach and returned the van. It was only later, when Harlan didn't turn up, that Jubal began to wonder about James' story. But what could he do, except wonder? He sure as hell couldn't go to the cops and explain that the boys were up on the strip site and that they should search for Harlan there.
Strange as it was, though, it wasn't the cops that Jubal was most worried about. "That goddamn haint," he said to himself. "Damn that goddamn haint."
At some point, Harlan finally fell down at a spot deep in the woods. And that's where it happened. There was definite pain, a hard throbbing in his hand and arm. But there was something else, too, a feeling not exactly like the oxy he loved so much, but more like that acid he took that time with James. He lay on his back in the leaves and looked up through the tree canopy. The light was coming in pale patches and he thought he felt the sun on his skin. But now his breathing seemed to come easier and he began to feel a heightened sense of things. There was the raw smell of the wet earth, and now and again the sound of a red-tailed hawk somewhere nearby. Harlan let himself take it all in. He was no longer worried, even when the timber rattler sounded somewhere close to him. Then, just before he went out, he was sure he saw her. She stood above him, naked and covered in splotches of dried black earth, her wrinkled breasts hanging flat against her torso and her skin sagging at the joints. The knees were rubbed raw and trails of blood, dried to almost black now, ran down the shins and over the feet. The last thing he remembered was the snake. It had begun to slither up her leg, but she took no notice. The sound it made now was deafening.
Harlan's body was never found and James never got out. Years later he was still working at the welding and metal fabricators' shop where he got on after high school. But it seemed like they were always cutting into his hours. Once in awhile he would run into a miner who knew someone who supposedly saw the boy haint. It was always second and third-hand stuff, though. Inevitably, the story ended with an injury to someone on the mining site where the boy was seen. Some people thought the sites were cursed, and, supposedly anyway, some miners wouldn't even work them, though James never met any such person. He always listened to the stories, politely, expressing wonderment at all the appropriate places. But he tried not to give the story much mind.
Still, he had a tough time of it when someone would mention the haint's scar, one that ran from fingers to elbow. The telltale sign of a snakebite.