The old cuckoo clock on the shelf in the front room struck midnight. It's persistent chirping irritated Jack Kelly's already frayed nerves as he paced back and forth across the small room.
"Shut up! Shut up!" he growled beneath his breath, casting an anxious look at the crib in the next room. When no signs of disturbed sleep were forthcoming, he breathed a grateful sigh of relief. The last thing he needed right now was a squalling infant to further vex the burning demon within him. He had promised his wife he would not spend a cent on liquor. New babies meant new expenses, and those things must come first.
So far he had kept his promise; he'd had no choice. Every penny he earned with his hoe, day after blistering day in the cotton fields, was swallowed up in scratching out a meager existence. There never seemed to be a penny extra, to say nothing of the few dollars a bottle of whiskey would cost. With the addition of this new offspring, who knew when he would be able to quench the gnawing demon of thirst that drove him insane? He had to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. The arrival of more children would only make that job harder, and it was obvious Annie did not intend to stop at one pregnancy.
Another glance into the small bedroom revealed no unwelcome stirrings from the crib. A bright moonbeam, however, lay across the bed, and Kelly's tormented gaze fell on the lovely face of the woman he had married. He had considered himself a lucky man when she said yes to his proposal, despite her goody-two-shoes, Bible-thumping parents. If he loved anything on this poor excuse of an earth, he loved Annie. She was a perfect wife.
Their home might be barely more than a shack, but it sparkled, and she was a real wonder in the kitchen. He could not remember her voice ever raised in anger, even when he had fallen through the front door, dog drunk, a week after she married him.
Kelly's fevered mind wandered to his conversation with the poor fish in the cotton field. Had it only been eight or nine hours ago? It seemed an eon; every moment without the drink he craved was an eternity.
Poor fella don't know how lucky he is. Only has to worry 'bout that pretty little gal and hisself. I bet he could buy a bottle of whiskey if he wanted one!
With the thought, an idea was born, full-blown and itching for action. He actually stopped pacing for a moment, shocked to the core by the undiluted vileness of the seed taking root in his mind. He stood staring at the crib against the far wall and shook his head as if to toss out the evil thought.
"You're crazy," he whispered. His heart pounded painfully against his chest; little beads of sweat dotted his forehead and chin. "You've done gone stark, starin' mad!"
And perhaps he had, for suddenly he found himself across the room, gazing down into the hand-me-down crib. He was horrified at the darkness within his imagination, yet knew full well he hadn't the strength of mind or will to resist its powerful pull.
One more almost desperate glance at his wife's face ... if she would only wake up he would have to forsake this notion, and perhaps he could rid himself of the unforgivable intent. Indeed, Annie did stir a little and drew a deep sigh, almost as though she heard his desperate mental cry. But hers was the sleep of utter exhaustion and she slumbered on.
A few moments later, Kelly slipped silently out the back door of the little shack, clutching a tiny pink bundle in his arms and blinking back the tears of shame and self-loathing that sprang unbidden to his eyes.
He closed the door behind him, careful to make not the slightest sound as he stole through the back yard and around the house to the dirt road that fronted it. Moving now with purpose and determination, he slipped from shadow to shadow, toward another little shack just down the lane.
Standing for a long moment in the darkness beneath a large, gnarled old cottonwood tree, he held the little bundle close to his heart. "It's best like this," he whispered. "It really is best for ever'body."
One awkward stroke of a tiny cheek, then he strode to the front door, where he tapped lightly. A light sprang up in the front window, and he breathed a sigh of relief. A moment later the door swung open and he entered.