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