Murder wasn’t all that unusual in the little towns that edge the Big Thicket, but this one was so cold-blooded, so layered with undertones of sex and race and social circumstance that it was bound to be the main topic of conversation all summer. The killer had stalked Billy Mac Fleming, a junior school coach—stalked him, executed him, and dumped his body in a section of the thicket so isolated and remote that it might have gone undiscovered for years. There was something primordial and foreboding about the Big Thicket, something so out of whack with time that in a spooky way murder was almost a metaphor for natural order.
There was a paradox to the lush spread of prairie and forest between the Sabine and the Trinity, a fatal charm peculiar to Southeast Texas. The thicket was desolate and hostile, but not the way West Texas is desolate and hostile, not in a clean, open way. Life was abundant here, but it was also tenuous and unforgiving. The desolation had reduced life, swallowed it in fact, until life was merely a faint shadow of death. It hung the way moss hung from ancient oaks, like malignant vestments at a black mass. Sluggish bayous teemed and slithered through the dense brush, and impenetrable walls of trees blocked out the sky. All the universe beyond this one damp spot appeared as a single ribbon of distant, diffused light. In its primal way the thicket was rich, and yet to the dismal procession of cowhands, log cutters, and roughnecks who cared up the wilderness, it had never promised much more than a hard life and a premature and sometimes ghastly death. The poet who called this God’s country had in mind a deity who was hellishly dark and brooding.
People said that ghosts lived back in the thicket, and there was no reason to doubt them. It smelled of ghosts and decay and superstition and fear of earthly illuminations. There was a seven-mile dirt cutoff called Ghostlight Road that started nowhere and ended nowhere. The past was always underfoot. Drillers in Daisetta or Batson occasionally dug up mummified heart pine boards, the remnants of board roads that once bridged the marshes between oil rigs and main highways. The old stagecoach road that ran from Nacogdoches to Liberty had mostly receded into the wilderness, but parts of it formed roadbeds for strips of U.S. 59 and Texas 146. In a tin shed in Batson a band wheel so ancient that hardly anyone alive remembered when it wasn’t there still turned almost inaudibly, pulling its broad cotton bands and working the connecting rods that pumped oil from a dozen shallow wells drilled around the turn of the century.
You could drive for what seemed hours along the narrow paved highways that cut through the thicket and maybe pass one or two logging trucks or maybe pass nothing. Traveling those roads at night, especially when it was hot and the breeze had been trapped and turned away by the curtain of pine, was like moving in a black vacuum. At such times the desolation was overpowering. It must have seemed that way on the night of April 12 when the killer drove Billy Mac Fleming’s body down a logging road southwest of Livingston.
April 12 was a payday Friday in the Hull-Daisetta school district. When Coach Billy Mac Fleming left his last-period gym class twenty minutes early, he planned to leave campus and deposit his paycheck. But first he had to see the principal, Hurley Fontenot. Another coach remembered hearing him mutter, “Damn, Fontenot is up to it again.”
Everyone at the Hull-Daisetta Middle School knew there were bad feelings between the coach and the principal. Everyone in the whole school system knew they loved the same woman, Laura Nugent, a clerk at the junior school. The principal had dated her for several years, at least as far back as late 1982, when he divorced his wife. Last January Laura dropped the principal and started seeing the coach, who had left his wife that same month and moved into a bachelor apartment just off the town square in Liberty. There had been so much talk that Superintendent Kenneth Voytek decided that the prudent course was to transfer Laura Nugent to the senior school for the remainder of the term. She didn’t have a contract, and it had already been decided that she wouldn’t be rehired. But her transfer didn’t stop the gossip or the feeling of some school officials that things were headed for a showdown. By Easter it was common knowledge that Fleming planned to marry her as soon as the school term ended.
“If we had just dismissed that little Nugent girl from school, Bill Fleming might be alive,” one member of the school board said. Although Laura Nugent was 36 and had been divorced two times, some people still called her that little Nugent girl. It was a way to classify her, a way to tell the world she wasn’t quite up to standard. In her unadorned way, Laura was attractive, but her lack of education and sophistication placed her near the bottom of the social structure, which in Liberty County was decadent and rigid. At a glance, Laura Nugent hardly looked like the sort of woman someone would kill over. She had dark hair, dark eyes, and a firm, supple body, yet there was something hard about her, something primitive and unyielding. But love makes men do strange things. The principal, Hurley Fontenot, had risked his career by dating Laura. The coach, Bill Fleming, was divorcing his wife to marry her.
They didn’t find Coach Bill Fleming’s body until April 22, ten days after he was last seen alive, in front of the field house at the Hull-Daisetta junior school. The next day, a Texas Ranger and several other lawmen grilled Hurley Fontenot. In mid-May a Polk County grand jury charged the principal with the coach’s murder.
The murder could properly