The Magic Gumball Machine, Part V

By Wil Forbis

Click here for Part IV

Our story so far: After seeing their ice cream man, Tom Humphries, enjoy the fruits of a mysterious gumball machine, the citizens of the small town of Honey Bluff must face the mystery of their disappearing residents. The search continues...

Tom awoke to a loud rapping on the window of his truck. Groggily, he righted himself and looked out the window. Sheriff Hewly was staring in at him. The Sheriff held up his watch. It was 7:05 in the morning. Tom rolled down the window.

"I thought you were going home," Hewly said puffing on a freshly lit cigarette.

"Seemed easier to stay," Tom replied.

"Folks are gathering." Hewly walked away.

Tom looked outside. It was a miserable day for a search. Grey clouds filled the sky and the temperature was a good 15 degrees lower than it had been the day previous. Tom coughed into his fist. With all that had been going on, now was not the time to be coming down with something. He grabbed some vitamins from the glove compartment and swallowed them.

Surrounding Tom's truck were at least ten cars belonging to fellow inhabitants of Honey Bluff. Tom hopped out of his cab and walked over to the crowd that was again gathering in the middle of Farmer Whitman's field. They were an unhappy looking bunch, some of them still half asleep, all wearing heavy jackets or wool flannel. Lucy Dwiller, a middle aged widow Tom had known for over forty years was there with her quilting club. The old gals had set up a small table and were serving coffee and pastries. Tom helped himself to a strong cup of java and a blueberry danish.

During the next ten minutes eight more searchers arrived, bringing the total to about thirty, including Hewly and his two deputies. Tom noticed that Naomi Rully was not present, though Herman Dalwood and the Reverend seemed to be on speaking terms. Once it seemed like everyone who was going to show had done so, Sheriff Hewly waved to everyone to gather round.

"We're going to run this just like last night," he shouted. "Two men to a group, and we'll head out in every direction - south, north, east, west - with the Rully car as the starting point. Remember, we're looking for three people now. If you come across that wretch Danny McDouglas, give him a mild thrashing and then turn around and march him back here. The ladies." Hewly motioned to the quilters, ".will have a walkie-talkie and can give me a call. Everyone clear?'

The group nodded affirmatively. Hewly broke the group into pairs and sent them off in their assigned direction. Tom was gladdened to be sent southeast, nowhere near the forest grove that had so chilled he and Deputy Straw. He was less happy with his partner: Bill Miller.

The burly ex-marine sauntered up to Tom and motioned to a silver thermos he was carrying. "I filled this up good," he said. "So there's no excuse for us running out of steam."

"R-Right." concurred Tom, contemplating how to get through the next several hours of uncomfortable conversation. It wasn't exactly that he disliked Miller, but the two of them simply came from different mindsets. When Tom had been in the army, he'd been one of the smaller fellows in his platoon, and had taken more than his fair share of ribbing and teasing from the bigger, brawnier types; oafish vulgarians who spent their off hours drinking, gambling or chasing loose women. Bill Miller was what Tom expected those boys had grown into: an aging rhinoceros who didn't want to admit that his best years were behind him. Still, in all the time Tom had known the oversized barber, Miller had certainly never been overtly unkind to him. In fact, Tom was still surprised at the philosophical overtures Miller had made in their conversation several night's previous, about the nature of stars and the universe.

For the first twenty minutes of their search, Miller and Tom traveled in silence aside from some cursory conversation of landmarks and things to look up for. The direction they were headed in was mostly grassy flatland, with an occasional Chesnut Oak. The ground was covered with dew and the omnipresent grey sky seemed to indicate the moisture would be slow to leave.

Finally, Tom spoke. "How's Neil?" he asked, referring to the druggist Miller shared his barbershop with.

"Oh, Neil don't change much," Miller replied, looking straight ahead. "He's been a bit under the weather, but if anyone can fix up Neil, Neil can."

"Mmmm," Tom said, for no other reason to fill in the silence.

"I'll tell you one thing, he's crazy about your gumballs," Miller added, with a slight smile on his face.

"Yes," Tom chuckled." They certainly seem to be popular."

"I heard about what happened. About you opening that machine up and the money just come pouring out."

"It was something," Tom agreed. "I'll tell ya, my heart durn near jumped out of my chest!"

Miller was silent for a spell before speaking again. "I tell you something, Tom. I hope you're going to use that money wisely. I hope you ain't just going to line Neil's pocket's with it."

"No, no." Tom hurried to respond. "That money pulled me back from the brink of disaster. No-one appreciates that more'n me, you know."

Miller grunted, but it was a positive grunt. Then he proposed that they stop and refill their coffee mugs. Tom was more than happy for the change of subject. They took a breather and sipped their beverages.

They were in a slightly hillier area, though one still with few trees. By looking back and squinting his eyes Tom could just catch site of Route 15 and beyond that, Farmer Whitman's field. Then Tom looked off to his left and right, trying to catch site of the other searchers, but none were visible.

It was Miller who glanced forward and caught sight of something. "Well, I'll be skewered," he exclaimed. "It's McDouglas!"

Tom looked in the direction Miller was pointing, and he too could see the tall, lean figure of Skeeter's father. Danny McDouglas appeared to be walking, more so stumbling, with no real indication of any direction. He wore no shirt and his bare chest was exposed to the elements. He was at the crest of a small hill they'd be climbing, about twenty yards away.

"McDouglas!" Miller called out. "Where the hell you been?"

They saw McDouglas turn and look at them, but his face was vacant, at least from the distance. He made no effort to reply.

"Come on" Miller said to Tom. "Let's drag this sonunvabitch back by his ears." They started marching up the incline.

McDouglas seemed intent on ignoring the two of them and continued walking in his wayward manner. However, his stride was so erratic that they had no trouble catching up to him. Within a few minutes they were close enough to get a better look at McDouglas. And what they saw shocked them.

The man looked terrible. His pants were covered with dirt and grass and his black hair seemed to run every which way. Dark circles ran under his eyes. His fingernails were covered with grime, as if he'd been digging. But this was all to be expected from a man who spent the night in the woods. What so shook Tom and Miller were the dark, glistening sores that festered on Danny McDouglas's face, chest and arms. The lesions appeared every six inches of so on his arms and more sporadically on his chest. They did not look like the work of an animal or attackers, but rather like body rashes that had finally burst forth with a dark oily liquid.

"Jesus Christ, man!" exclaimed Miller. "What happened to you?"

McDouglas turned to look at Miller. A long line of saliva hung out his chapped lips and trailed down his chest. In response he only moaned.

Miller turned to Tom. "Do you think it's safe to touch him?" he asked.

"I dunno," replied the Tom. "I never seen anything like that before."

Miller reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a pair of workman's gloves. "The wife makes me carry these," Miller explained to Tom. "They come in handy every so often." Bill Miller donned the gloves and walked closer to McDouglas. He spoke loudly. "McDouglas! What in Sam Hill happened to you?"

McDouglas grimaced slightly when he heard his name. It seemed as if the volume of Miller's voice caused him discomfort. But he made no effort to answer the question.

"This is foolishness," Miller said, and he reached over with his left arm and grabbed McDouglas by the hand. "Come on."

Tom was standing about five feet away from the pair and he almost didn't notice McDouglas use his other hand to reach into his jeans pocket and retrieve a metallic object. But once it was out in the open Tom recognized the item as a small pocket knife, blade extended. "Look out" Tom called to Miller, but the burly barber never had a chance to react. With lightning, almost inhuman speed, McDouglas brought the knife against the left shoulder of Miller's jacket and cut through the dense material, hitting flesh. He continued slicing downward, creating a gash several inches long on Miller's arm.

"Ghaaaaaaaaagh!" Miller called out. He released his grip on McDouglas and swung at him with a fist. The force of the blow caused dark blood to eject from McDouglas's mouth and the man to fall backwards against a tree.

"JESUS FUCKING CHRIST!!!" roared Miller as blood spurted out from his wound, soiling the right arm of his jacket. "You Goddam cocksucker!" He walked up to Mcdouglas, and kicked him twice in the ribs. He brought the sole of his foot down on Danny's wrist, pinning the arm that held the pocketknife to the ground. Miller reached down with his good arm and retrieved the weapon.

"Bill!" Tom shouted. "Are you all right?"

"Does it Goddamn look like I'm all right? This bastard cut me good." Miller grabbed his left shoulder with his right arm and pressed the jacket close, in an effort to stop the bleeding."

"We got to get you back to the field," Tom said, stating the obvious. "They'll have a first aid kit there!"

"Uhhhhh.." McDouglas said, lying on the ground.

"Well, I'll tell you who ain't coming with us," growled Miller.

"We can't just leave him!"

"Oh yes we can," said Miller. Using his right hand, he dexterously removed his belt and then took his foot off McDouglas's hand. Miller then grabbed man by the neck and dragged him over to a tree so he was leaning against it. Using the hand holding the belt Miller grasped one of McDouglas's arms and held it up parallel to a low, thick branch. "C'mon," Miller said to Tom. "Fasten him!"

Tom gingerly approached and took the belt from Miller's handed. Taking care to avoid Danny's sores, he wrapped the belt several times around McDouglas's arm and the branch and started to fasten it.

"No," commanded Miller, still holding McDouglas's arm to the branch. "Tighter!"

"But I might cut off his-"

"Tighter!" snarled Miller. His enraged eyes bore down on Tom.

Tom took a deep breath and fastened the belt down to the last notch. McDouglas looked over at what they were doing with a glazed expression.

The two men stood back and looked at Danny McDouglas belted to the tree. "Think that'll hold him?" Tom asked.

"It damn well better," said Miller. "Unless he decides to chew through his own arm."

"Let's look at you," Tom said, walking over to the side of Miller with the knife injury. The wound was bleeding heavily but Miller was managing to keep it in check by pressing the fabric of his jacket and underclothes against the incision. "I'll think you'll be fine 'til we get back to the field," Tom announced

"Holy Christ," Miller said. At first Tom though he was referring to the state of his wound, but Tom followed his gaze and realized he was looking back at the man they had just affixed to the tree. And then Tom saw what McDouglas was doing.

With his free hand, McDouglas had managed to pull the mud-encrusted pair of jeans he was wearing down to his ankles. He was now engaged in the process of what Tom's dear mother had often referred to as "abusing himself."

"Godammit," said Miller. He walked up to the black haired onanist. "Stop that!" he yelled. "Stop that!" McDouglas paid him no heed.

"Sons of bitches," Miller fumed. He looked at Tom. "Give me your belt."


"I said give me your belt."

"But I need my belt. I need it to-"

"I know! To keep your Goddamn pants up! Well I need it to keep this cocksucking booze hound from playing with himself while he's waiting for the Sheriff. If he's going to be tied up here I'm gonna make damn sure he doesn't enjoy it!"

Tom sighed, removed his belt and handed it to Miller. Miller grabbed McDouglas' free hand away from his swollen member and this time fastened the arm to a branch himself, grimacing when called to use the muscles in his left arm. When he was done, he stepped back to admire his handiwork. McDouglas looked like a sitting Jesus on the cross, each arm bolted to a branch. Drool ran down his chin and his body had a slight shiver.

"Goddamn sicko," muttered Miller. "That's one thing I don't stand for."

"Let's get going," suggested Tom.

The two made haste to get back to the meeting point. If Miller was in any pain or felt his strength diminishing, he made no sign of it. He merely grasped the wound on his arm with his good hand and stoically marched forward in silence. At moments, Tom almost felt like he was having trouble keeping up with his injured companion.

With a half hour they were down by Route 15. They crossed over, and headed for the small group of people gathered in the field. A few other search pairs had returned, obviously empty handed, and the Lucy Dwiller and her cohorts were handing out more cups of coffee.

"Call the Sheriff," called out Tom as they marched up to them. "We got a wounded man!"

"What happened?" said Lucy, reaching for the walkie-talkie.

"Danny-Goddamned-McDouglas happened," thundered Miller. He and Tom relayed the story as Lucy radioed the Sheriff. Another member of Lucy's quilting circle got the medical kit and began dressing Miller's wound. Various townsfolk gathered round the bull of a man, basking in the details of his adventure. Tom felt a slight twinge of jealousy.

Hewly appeared shortly and Deputy Morse soon after. Once they were filled in on the details, Hewly tagged a few off the searchers to stand by and join him to retrieve McDouglas from the tree to which he was fastened. He ordered Deputy Morse to take Miller to the hospital.

"I don't need no hospital," roared Miller, but Hewly was one of the few people in town undaunted by Miller's browbeating. The gash had to be looked at he said. Grudgingly, Miller got in Morse's police car and within moments they were gone.

"Have you seen any signs of Tricia or Ted?" asked Tom.

"Nothing," Hewly ruefully replied. "But it'll be awhile before everybody's back."

"Can't you call in the National Guard now?" asked Tom.

"I'll make the call later today," said the Sheriff. "And then, we'll see."

"Alright," sighed Tom. "Well, c'mon, I'll show you where we left McDouglas."

"Tom, go home."

"What?" Tom exclaimed.

"You slept in your truck. You look like shit. You smell like shit. You ain't doing anyone any favors by running yourself ragged. You found McDouglas. Consider that something and give yourself a rest."


"I know the area you left him at, Tom. It's an open field. We won't have any trouble finding it."

"Okaaayyy." relented Tom. "But, I dunno, take a look at the condition he's in. He's got those sores and everything."

"We'll be careful," said the Sheriff. "Now get out of here."

Tom walked over to his truck and got in. He sat there for a few moments, watching Hewly and three other men trudge off in the direction of Danny McDouglas. Then Tom gunned the engine and drove off.

When he first got into town he stopped by the shop. As promised, Stan Hughes had dutifully locked up the shop when Ted Rully had failed to return. Just to be safe, Tom checked both the safe and the bagged coins that he'd retrieved from the Magic Gumball Machine. Both were unmolested. Tom left the shop and headed home. He knew he was missing some business by keeping the store closed but people in Honey Bluff understood that the menfolk were out looking for their missing neighbors.

Tom parked his truck outside his apartment and got out. When he opened the door to his apartment he was greeted - as he'd known he would be - by angry chirping from his birds. They were hungry, no doubt, and Tom tried to sooth their nerves best he could by feeding them and changing their water. Then he walked into the bedroom and lay down on the mattress. Within moments he was fast asleep.

Click here for Part V


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