From Part One: Sam's Journey
In mid-1947, Jefferson Barnes, the prosecuting attorney of Polk
County, Arkansas, finally died. Upon that tragedy -- the old man
fell out of one of those new golf cart things on vacation in Hot
Springs, rolled down a gully screaming damnation and hellfire all
the way, and broke his neck on a culvert -- Sam Vincent, his loyal
Number 2, moved up to the big job. Then in '48, Sam was anointed by
the Democratic party (there was no other in western Arkansas),
which ran him on the same ticket with Harry S. Truman and Fred C.
Becker. As did those worthies, he won handily. For Sam, it was the
goal toward which he had been aiming for many years. He had always
wanted to be a servant of the law, and now, much better, he
was the law.
Sam was six foot one, forty-four, with a bushy head of hair and a
brusque demeanor that would not be called "lovable" for many years.
He stared immoderately and did not suffer fools, idiots, Yankees,
carpetbaggers, the small of spirit or the breakers of the law
gladly. He wore baggy suits flecked with pipe ash, heavy glasses,
and walked in a bounding swoop. He hunted in the fall, followed the
St. Louis Browns during the summer, when he had time, which he
hardly ever did, and tied flies, though he fished rarely enough.
Otherwise, he just worked like hell. His was classic American
career insanity, putting the professional so far above the personal
there almost was no personal, in the process alienating wife and
children with his indifference, burning out secretaries with his
demands, annoying the sheriff's detectives with his directions. In
what little time remained, he served on the draft board (he had won
the Bronze Star during the Battle of the Bulge), traveled five
states to interview promising high school seniors who had applied
to his beloved Princeton, played a weekly round of golf with the
county powers at the country club, and drank too much
eight-year-old bourbon. He knew everybody; he was respected by
everybody. He was a great man, a great American. He had the highest
conviction rate of any county prosecutor in Arkansas, Oklahoma,
Missouri, or Tennessee for that matter.
He was not reelected. In fact, he lost in a landslide to a no'count
lawyer named Febus Bookins, a genial hack who smelled of gin all
the time and meant only to rob the county blind during his term of
office. He called himself a reformer, and his goal was to reform
his bank account into something more respectable.
Sam had made one mistake, but it was a mistake which few in his
home state, and in fact not many elsewhere, could ignore. In 1949,
he prosecuted a man named Willis Beaudine for raping a young woman
named Nadine Johnson. It was an unremarkable case, save for the
fact that Willis was a white person and Nadine a Negro girl. It is
true she was quite light, what some would call a "high yeller," and
that she had comely ways, and was, perhaps, not normally so
innocent as she looked when she appeared in court. But facts were
facts, law was law. Certain evidence had been developed by Sam's
former investigator, Earl Swagger, who was now a state police
sergeant and was famous for the big medal he had won during the
war. Earl, however, risked nothing by testifying against Willis,
for Earl was known to be a prideful, bull-headed man who could not
be controlled by anyone and was feared by some. Sam, on the other
hand, risked everything, and lost everything, although Willis was
convicted and spent six months at the Tucker Farm. As for Nadine,
she moved from town because even in her own community she was
considered what Negro women called a " 'ho," and moved to St.
Louis, where her appetites soon got her murdered in a case of no
interest to anyone.
Sam had taken his defeat bitterly. If his family thought he would
see them more often, they were mistaken. Instead, he rented a small
office on the town square of Blue Eye, the county seat, and
commenced to spend most of his days and many of his nights there.
He worked such small cases as came his way, but mainly he plotted
out ways to return to office. He still hunted with Earl. His other
friend was Connie Long-
acre, the smart Eastern woman whom the county's richest, most
worthless son had brought back from his education at Annapolis in
'30 and his failed naval career thereafter. Connie had soon learned
how appetite-driven a man her Rance was, and while trying to raise
her own hellion son, Stephen, fell to friendship with Sam, who
alone in that part of Arkansas had been to a Broadway play, had met
a gal under the clock at the Biltmore, and who didn't think Henry
Wallace was a pawn of the Red Kremlin.
Sam was never stupid, not on a single day in his life. He
understood that one thing he had to do was to regain the trust of
the white people. Therefore he utterly refused to take any cases
involving Negroes, even if they only revolved around one dark
person suing another. There was a Negro lawyer in town, a Mr.
Theopolis Simmons, who could handle such things; meanwhile, Sam
worked hard, politicked aggressively, kept tabs, sucked up to the
gentry who had deposed him so gently, and tried to stay
Then, one day in June of 1951, an unusual event occurred, though
nothing in that day or the day or week before had suggested it
would. Sam, alone in his office, worked through probate papers for
a farmer named Lewis who had died intestate and whose estate was
now being sued for back taxes by the state, which would drive his
widow and four children off the property to -- well, to nothing.
Sam would not let this happen, if only he could figure out a way to
He heard the door open. In the county's employ he had always had a
secretary; now, on his own, he didn't. He stood, pushed his way
through the fog of dense pipe smoke, and opened the door to peer
into his anteroom. An elegant gentleman had seated himself on the
sofa and was paging absently through an old copy of Look
"Sir, do you have an appointment?" Sam asked.
The man looked up at him.
He was tanned softly, as if from an expensive vacation at the
beach, balding, and looked well tended, of an age that could have
been anywhere between thirty and fifty. He was certainly
prosperous, in a smooth-fitting blue pinstripe suit, a creamy white
shirt and the black tie of a serious man. A homburg, gray pearl,
lay on the seat beside him; his shined shoes were cap-toed black
bluchers, possibly bespoke, and little clocks or flowers marked his
socks. The shoes were shined, Sam noticed, all the way down to the
sole, which was an indication that a professional had done them, in
a rail station, a hotel lobby, a barbershop.
"Why, no, Mr. Vincent. I'd be happy to make one, or if you prefer,
to wait here until you have the time to see me."
"Hmm," said Sam. He knew when money came to call.
"I am currently in the throes of a case," he said. "Mr., ah --
"My name is Trugood, sir."
"Mr. Trugood. Have you a few minutes while I file and clear my
"Of course. I don't mean to interrupt."
Sam ducked back in. Quickly he gathered the Lewis papers up, sealed
them in a file, and put it into a drawer. His desk was a mess; he
did some elementary rearranging, which meant he'd have to
derearrange after the man left, but Sam could use a fee, he didn't
mind admitting, for any return from the poor Lewises, or the
Jenningses, or the Joneses, the Smiths, the Beaupres, the Deacons,
the Hustons, all that was in a future that seemed quite distant.
More or less prepared, he removed a fresh yellow legal tablet from
his cabinet and wrote the word trugood, and the date, atop
He opened the door.
"Sir, I can see you now."
"Thank you, Mr. Vincent."
Trugood stood elegantly, smiled at Sam as he walked through the
door, pretended not to notice the debris, the mess, the strewn
files, the moth-eaten deer's head, or even the fog of sweetbriar
gas that hung, almost moist, in the air.
Sam passed him, gestured to a seat, and as he moved around the desk
to sit, watched as the man placed a business card before him on the
"Ah," said Sam. "A colleague."
"Indeed," said the man, whose card announced him to be Davis
Trugood, Esq., of the firm of Mosely, Vacannes & Destin, 777
North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, Hillcrest 3080.
"Mr. Trugood? I am at your service."
"Thank you, Mr. Vincent. May I say, I've heard a great deal about
you, and I've worked some to find you."
"I've always been here, sir. I had no idea any reputation had
spread beyond our little benighted state. Certainly not as far as a
big sophisticated city like Chicago."
"Well, sir, possibly it hasn't reached that far. But it has reached
all through the South, or, I should say, a certain
"What South would that be, sir?"
"That South occupied by our population of color, sir. Our Negroes.
They say you are the rare white lawyer who is fair to the man of
"Well," said Sam, somewhat taken aback, "if by that they mean that
as a prosecuting attorney I laid the same force of law against
white as against black, then they are correct. I believe in the
law. But do not understand me too quickly, sir. I am not what you
might call a race champion. I am not a hero of the Negro, nor do I
ever mean to be. I believe history has dealt our American Negroes a
sorry hand, as do many people. But I also believe that sorry hand
will have to be corrected slowly. I am not one for tearing things
down in service to various dubious moral sentiments, which in fact
would turn my own race against me, which would unleash the savagery
of the many embittered whites of the South against the poor Negro,
which would in fact result in destruction everywhere. So, Mr.
Trugood, if you thought I was someone to lead a crusade, change or
challenge a law, throw down a gauntlet, burn a barn, sing a hymn,
or whatever, why, I am not that man, sir."
"Mr. Vincent, thank you for speaking straight out. I must say, most
Southern lawyers prefer to speak a code which one has to have
attended either Ole Miss or Alabama to penetrate. You, sir, at
least speak directly."
"I take a pleasure in that. Possibly the product of an Eastern
"Excellent, sir. Now, I need a representative to travel to a
certain town deeper in the South and make private inquiries. This
man has to be extremely smart, not without charm, stubborn as the
Lord, a man of complete probity. He must also be somewhat brave, or
at least the sort not turned feeble by a show of hostility. He also
has to be comfortable around people of different bloods, white and
Negro. He has to be comfortable around law enforcement officers of
a certain type, the type that would as soon knock a fellow's hat
off as talk civilly to him. The fee for this service, perhaps
lasting a week, would be quite high, given the complex diplomatic
aspects of the situation. I would suppose you have no ethical
objections to a high fee, Mr. Vincent."
"High fee. In my career those two words rarely appear in the same
sentence. Yes, do go on, Mr. Trugood. You have my attention,
"Thank you, sir. I am charged with executing a will for a certain
rather well-off late Chicagoan. He had for many years in his employ
a Negro named Lincoln Tilson."
Sam wrote: "Negro Lincoln Tilson" on his big yellow pad.
"Lincoln was a loyal custodian of my client's properties, a
handyman, a bodyguard, a gardener, a chauffeur, a man whose
brightness of temperament always cheered my client, who was
negotiating a business career of both great success and some
"I follow, sir," said Sam.
"Five years ago, Lincoln at last slowed down. My employer settled a
sum on him, a considerable sum, and bid him farewell. He even drove
him to the Illinois Central terminal to catch the City of New
Orleans and reverse the steps by which he arrived up North so many
years ago, for Lincoln's pleasure was to return to the simpler life
from which he had sprung in the South. Lincoln returned to his
birthplace, a town called Thebes, in Thebes County,