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,
Sam wrote it down, while saying, "That is the deepest part of the
deepest South, I would imagine."
"It is, sir."
Thebes, as a word, rang ever so slightly in Sam's imagination. He
recalled that the original was a Greek town, city even, much fought
over in antiquity. For some reason the number seven occurred in
concert with it.
"I see puzzlement, sir," said Trugood. "You are well educated and
no doubt think of Seven Against Thebes, by the Greek
tragedian Aeschylus. I assure you, no army led by seven heroes is
necessary in this case. Mississippi's Thebes is a far distance from
Aeschylus's tragic town of war. It is a backwater Negro town far up
the Yaxahatchee River, which itself is a branch of the Pascagoula
River. It is the site of a famous, or possibly infamous, penal farm
for colored called Thebes Farm."
"That's it," said Sam. "It is legendary among the Negro criminal
class, with whom I had many dealings as a young prosecutor.
ŒYou don't wants to go to Thebes, they say, don't nobody never
nohow come back from Thebes.' Or words to that effect."
"It seems they have it mixed up with Hades in their simplicity.
Yes, Thebes is not a pleasant place. Nobody wants to go to
"Yet you want me to go to Thebes. That is why the fee would be so
"There is difficulty of travel, for one thing. You must hire a boat
in Pascagoula, and the trip upriver is unpleasant. The river, I
understand, is dark and deep; the swamp that lines it inhospitable.
There was only one road into Thebes, through that same forbidding
swamp; it was washed out some years back, and Thebes County, not
exactly a county of wealth, has yet to dispatch repair."
"Accommodations would be primitive."
"I slept in many a barn in the late fracas in Europe, Mr. Trugood.
I can sleep in a barn again; it won't hurt me."
"Excellent. Now here is the gist of the task. My client's estate --
as I say, considerable -- is hung up in probate because Mr. Lincoln
Tilson seems no longer to exist. I have attempted to communicate
with Thebes County authorities, to little avail. I can reach no one
but simpletons on the telephone, when the telephone is working,
which is only intermittently. No letter has yet been answered. The
fate of Lincoln is unknown, and a large amount of money is
therefore frozen, a great disappointment to my client's greedy,
"I see. My task would be to locate either Lincoln or evidence of
his fate. A document, that sort of thing?"
"Yes. From close-mouthed Southern types. I, of course, need someone
who speaks the language, or rather, the accent. They would hear the
Chicago in my voice, and their faces would ossify. Their eyes would
deaden. Their hearing would disintegrate. They would evolve
backward instantaneously to the neolithic."
"That may be so, but Southerners are also fair and honest folk, and
if you don't trumpet your Northern superiority in their face and
instead take the time to listen and master the slower cadences,
they will usually reward you with friendship. Is there another
"There is indeed." He waved at his handsome suit, his handsome
shoes, his English tie. His cufflinks were gold with a discreet
sapphire, probably worth more than Sam had made in the last six
months. "I am a different sort of man, and in some parts of the
South -- Thebes, say -- that difference would not go
"You have showy ways, but they are the ways of a man of the
"I fear that is exactly what would offend them. And, frankly, I'm
not a brave man. I'm a man of desks. The actual confrontation, the
quickness of argument, the thrust of will on will: not really my
cup of tea, I'm afraid. A sound man understands his limits. I was
the sort of boy who never got into fights and didn't like tests of
"That is why I am buying your courage as well as your mind."
"You overestimate me. I am quite a common man."
"A decorated hero in the late war."
"Nearly everybody in the war was a hero. I saw some true courage;
mine was ordinary, if even that."
"I think I have made a very good choice."
"All right, sir."
"Thank you, Mr. Vincent. This is the fee I had in mind."
He wrote a figure on the back of his card, and pushed it over. It
took Sam's breath away.
Excerpted from PALE HORSE COMING © Copyright 2001 by
Stephen Hunter. Reprinted with permission by Simon & Schuster.
All rights reserved.
Pale Horse Coming