Each day is a journey, and the journey itself home.
--- matsuo bashō
Two hours west of Washington, Henry Jernigan finally gave up on his book. This Mr. John Fox, Jr., might have been a brilliant author --- although personally he doubted it --- but the clattering of the train shook the page so much that he found himself reading the same tiresome line over and over until his head began to ache. The November chill seemed to seep through the sides of the railroad car, and even in his leather gloves and overcoat, he did not feel warm.
He thought of taking a fortifying nip of brandy from the silver flask secreted in his coat pocket, but he was afraid of depleting his supply, when he was by no means sure that he could obtain another bottle in the benighted place that was his destination. Prohibition had been repealed eighteen months ago, but he had heard that some of these backwoods places still banned liquor by local ordinance. He repressed a shudder. Imagine trying to live in such a place, sober.
A man lay dead in some one-horse town in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Well, what of it?
The only thing that made death interesting was the details.
In point of fact, the death of a stranger no longer interested Henry Jernigan at all. In all his years on the job he had seen too many permutations of death to take much of an interest anymore, but even if the emotion was lacking, the skill to recount it was still there in force. Jernigan would supply the telling particulars of the story; his readers could furnish the tears. All that really mattered to him these days was a decent dinner, a clean and quiet place to sleep, and a flask of spirits to insulate him from the tedium of it all.
He brushed a speck of cigar ash from the sleeve of his black wool coat. Henry Jernigan may have been sent to the back of beyond by an unfeeling philistine editor, but by god that didn’t mean he had to go there looking like a yokel. True, his starched linen shirt was sweaty and rumpled from the vicissitudes of a crowded winter train ride, and his shoes, hand-stitched leather from a cobbler in Baltimore, glistened with mud and coal grit, but he fancied that the essential worth of his wardrobe, and thus of himself, would shine through the shabbiness of the suit and the dust of the road. Henry Jernigan was a gentleman. A gentleman of the press, perhaps, but still a gentleman.
He looked without favor at the book in his lap, and with a sigh he closed it, marking his place only because he was reading Fox’s novel for research, not for pleasure. After sixty interminable pages he had begun to think of the book as “The Trail of the Loathsome Pine,” a quip he planned to spring on his colleagues as soon as he met up with them. At last winter’s trial in New Jersey, clever but ugly Rose Hanelon had made a similar play on words with a Gene Stratton Porter title. When the family governess had committed suicide, Rose took to referring to her as the “Girl of the Lindbergh-Lost.”
No doubt Rose was on her way here, as well. He thought of going to look for her on his way to the dining car when it was closer to dinnertime. At least one need not lack for civilized conversation, even in the hinterlands.
He knew all the big wheels on the major papers, of course. The places changed, but the faces and the greasy diner food stayed the same, no matter where they went. He didn’t see those smug jackals from the New York Journal American, though. That was odd. The word was that the Hearst syndicate had paid for an exclusive on this trial, so he had expected to see their people. Either they had already arrived, or they had what they needed and went home, relying on local stringers to send them the facts of the trial.
Henry’s paper seemed ready to fight them for dominance of the story, though. They had even assigned one of the World Telegram photographers to accompany him to this godforsaken place.
Rose Hanelon of the Herald Tribune would be here, though. Henry was fond of Rose. While technically she was a competitor, they got along well, and he flattered himself that his serious readers and the sentimental followers of her sob sister columns were worlds apart, so that, in fact, no rivalry existed. He even looked the other way when Rose slipped Shade Baker a few bucks to take photos for her, too.
The brotherhood of the Fourth Estate: it was as close to a family as Henry had these days. He went back to thinking up clever epigrams to entertain Shade and Rose at dinner.
They never printed their heartless little jests, of course. Mustn’t disillusion their readers, who saw them as omnipotent and benevolent deities meddling in the affairs of mortals. At least, Henry liked to think his readers imagined him in such an exalted position, if only for a few fleeting hours before they wrapped the potato peels in his newspaper column, or set it down on the kitchen floor for the new puppy. Sic transit gloria mundi.
The train clattered on, and he stared out at the barren fields edged by a forest of skeletal trees. In just such a landscape, the broken body of a child had been unearthed.
Now that had been a story. A golden-haired baby kidnapped . . . Father a dashing pilot, who gained worldwide celebrity as the first man to fly nonstop across the Atlantic . . . Mother an ambassador’s daughter . . . Frantic searches . . . Ransom demands, and then all hopes dashed when the child’s remains were found in nearby woods in a shallow grave . . . that story had everything. Wealth, culture, celebrity, tragedy, and since it had all happened in New Jersey, a comfortable distance from Washington and New York, the reporters had been able to make excursions back to the city.
That had been the perfect assignment. All of them thought so. A case that transfixed the world, enough drama and glamour to sell a year’s worth of newspapers, all set in a civilized locale convenient for the national press. And for a grand finale: the execution of the guilty man, a foreigner --- a detested German --- who had been caught with the ransom money hidden in his garage. If they had invented the tale out of whole cloth, they couldn’t have done better.
In this case they wouldn’t be so lucky. This time a backwoods coal miner had got his head bashed in, and because the culprit --- or the defendant, anyhow --- was a beautiful, educated girl, the newspaper editors thought that Mr. and Mrs. America would eat it up. Provided, of course, it was served to them in a palatable stew of sex, drama, and exotic local color. Henry Jernigan was just the chef to concoct this tasty dish.
He directed his gaze out the window, hoping to soothe the pain in his temples with the calming effect of the austere view: more brown, empty fields, bare hillsides of leafless trees, and beyond that the distant haze of blue mountains, indistinguishable from the low- lying clouds at the horizon.
In the stubbled ruin of a cornfield, he saw a ragged scarecrow swaying in the wind, which summoned to mind a favorite verse from the Japanese poet Bashō: “A weathered skeleton in windswept fields of memory . . .” He looked around at his fellow passengers, bundled up in drab clothes, sleeping or staring off into space. Surely he was the only person present conversant with the works of Bashō. Yes, once Henry Jernigan had possessed a soul above the cheap pratings of a tabloid newspaper, and in his cups he still could quote from memory the masters of literature from Li Po to Cervantes. But what good had it done him?
Scarecrows in dead land.
The chiaroscuro vista sweeping past him only succeeded in further quelling his spirits. Jernigan hoped he liked the countryside as much as the next man, but as a city-dweller born and bred, he preferred nature in cultivated moderation: a nice arboretum, for example. This temperate jungle spread out before him, tangled underbrush and dense forest, hedged by dark, forbidding mountains, simply reinforced his belief that he was leaving civilization. At least, he was leaving single malt scotch and the Paris-trained chefs of Manhattan’s restaurants, which amounted to the same thing.
It was the fault of Mr. John Fox, Jr., that he was on this journey in the first place --- all the more reason to loathe the man’s book. Still, he would persevere, hoping that if he kept reading, the text might provide him with a few wisps of atmosphere to spice up the story he would have to write. The book, first published in 1908 and popular again now only because of the film currently being made of it, took place in the 1890s, but surely nothing had changed around here in the ensuing four decades. Besides, where else could you turn for a primer on the backwoods culture of the Southern mountains? He needed some telling details, a few quaint folk customs, some strands of irony to elevate the sordid little tale to the level of tragedy.
Details were Henry Jernigan’s specialty. Well, all of their specialties, really. Each of his colleagues-cum-rivals, all of whom were probably holed up somewhere on this interminable train, had his own forte in transforming an ordinary account of human vice and folly into an epic saga that would sell newspapers. Jernigan’s own skill lay in framing an incident in the classical perspective, so that every jilted lover was a thwarted Romeo, every murdered wife a Desdemona. He regaled his readers with his cultural observations, making allusions to historical parallels and literary counterparts, working in a telling quote to elevate the tone of even the most sordid little murder. High- brow stuff, so that the readers could tell themselves they weren’t wallowing in the squalor of poverty and misery; they were gaining a new perspective on the essential truths of classical literature.
He was lucky to work for a newspaper that could afford such literary extravagance. Some of his colleagues had to stagger along on blood and gore accounts not far removed from the True Detective pulps, and the sob sisters had to manufacture a beautiful and innocent heroine in every dung heap of a case they covered. He had heard that there were reporters who could do the job cold sober, but he wouldn’t like to try it.
His gaze returned to the infernal book on his lap, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. Absolute hokum and melodrama: Harvard engineer romances pure mountain gal against the backdrop of a feud. Its author had much to answer for. Of course, except for the geographic location, the novel was not even remotely connected to the death in question, but if Fox’s book had not existed, Henry Jernigan would be back in New York or Washington, enjoying a leisurely dinner in convivial company, instead of hurtling through the Virginia outback along with the rest of the carrion squad.
Bring out your dead, he thought. The phrase was apt. It made him think, not of plague corpses on London carts, but of the influenza victims in the Philadelphia of his youth. He shuddered, and pushed away the image. He and his colleagues scavenged not on carrion, but on the hearts of the victims: the loved ones of the slain; the family of the accused; and all the peripheral little souls whose lives were besmirched by the crime of the moment.
He was so pleased with the erudition of this observation that he looked around the car for some fellow sufferer to share it with, but the only other colleague he recognized was his assigned photographer, Shade Baker, slouched down in a window seat, with his hat over his eyes. Pity. Epigrams would be wasted on him. Baker was a son of the Midwestern prairie, an artist of blood and bone, using his artistry to illuminate the bruises, the blood-stained bodies, and the pathetic artifacts of the crime scene.
Last year Shade’s photos had illustrated the lurid stories that had waxed poetic over the battered body of little Charlie Lindbergh, unearthed from that shallow grave in the Jersey woods, so heartbreakingly close to the house from which he was taken. The Lindbergh case was the last time they had all been together.
Elsewhere, Luster Swann, whose gutter press tabloid made Henry shudder, was probably chatting up the most angelic-looking girl on the train, wherever she was. Swann, a gaunt bloodhound of a man, was invariably drawn to vacant-eyed blondes who looked as if they had just wandered out of the choir loft. The irony was that there was no greater misogynist than Luster Swann, who thought all women either treacherous or wanton, or occasionally both. He seemed always to hope to find some ethereal innocent who would convince him otherwise, but he never succeeded, which was just as well, because his journalistic specialty was a judicious mixture of cynicism and righteous indignation. To Swann every female defendant was a scheming Jezebel, and every weeping victim a little tramp who deserved whatever she got.
Jernigan scanned the car one more time, but no familiar faces gazed back at him. None of the others were around, but they might turn up later on in the dining car.
Oh God, he needed a drink.
“In death Pollock Morton would inconvenience a great many more people than he had in life.” A good lead, he thought, maybe even worth the smudge of ink his fountain pen had made on the cuff of his one good shirt. Writing in his notebook on the train passed the time, and, though he never would have admitted it, it made him feel important. He imagined his fellow passengers watching him scribbling away, and thinking that this was not just a scrawny adolescent on his way to visit kinfolks. In truth he wasn’t all that much older than his looks suggested, but he was a college graduate, and now he had a job that made him feel entitled to the occasional fl ash of self-importance.
He looked up from his notes to watch the fields and woods flash by as the train rumbled along the river. The November day was dreary with its brown grass and clabbered sky, but the branches of the bare maples made a tracery of silver against the dark hills, and the mist hung between the folds of ridges, white patches on a quilted autumn landscape. The valley was tame land, sectioned into farms and villages, but its beauty lay in its setting, among wild mountains that must have looked just the same when Daniel Boone passed that way, a century and a half ago. Some of the old-timers swore they could remember when wolves and buffalo roamed these hills. He wished he could have been here then. In those days there were Indian raids and gold mines and an unbroken wilderness to be settled. But those days were gone for good. Nowadays, some hysterical female brains her daddy with a slipper, and they call it news.
He tapped his pen on the lead sentence. Now what? At least it was a start. Most of the meat of the story would have to wait until he had seen the town and conducted some actual interviews, but he knew that a compelling beginning was essential to an in-depth story, and no matter what else he might learn, that sentence was inarguably true. The late Pollock Morton was causing a lot of trouble to a lot of people.
Twenty years ago, murdered or not, that man would have lived and died in the obscurity of his little southwest Virginia coal town, and no one past the county line would have remarked on his passing. But the world was getting smaller, what with airplanes and telephones, so that now, in a manner of speaking, the whole country was looking over your back fence. One ordinary man who could have passed through life without once seeing his name in a newspaper was now a source of wonder to thousands, and to maybe a hundred people he was a downright inconvenience.
To his daughter Erma, for instance, in jail for killing him. And then to a bunch of lawyers and witnesses whose lives were suddenly going to revolve around the investigation into the circumstances of his demise. It was funny how one death might cause ripples that spread out into widening circles until they touched even strangers who knew nothing of the dead man at all. Such musings had no place in a little Tennessee newspaper, though.
He supposed that this conceit would cast him in the trifling role of a nosy neighbor, but he figured that a little humility was good for the soul. If he started giving himself airs about being the voice of truth or some such rubbish, he’d never hear the end of it back home.
Gettin’ above your raisin’, are ye, Carl?
A-lord, he hoped so. People always meant that remark as a dig, but Carl couldn’t see why they would think it so. His own never-expressed reply was: If some of us didn’t get above our raising, then all of us would still be living in caves.
The Morton trial would take him well above his raising in journalism, too. The big Eastern newspapers were all sending people to cover the story, and part of his joy in the assignment was the prospect of associating with these eminences of the fourth estate. When he was still in college, he began going to the library to read the works of the most celebrated journalists of the day: H. L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun; Fulton Lewis, Jr., of the Washington Herald; and the eloquent Henry Jernigan of the New York Herald-Tribune. Even the lady reporters Kathleen Norris and Rose Hanelon were streets ahead of him in experience, and he would have been honored beyond words to meet them. They were all familiar to him from their photographs, which appeared from time to time in their respective newspapers. In fact, so faithfully had he read their works over the years that he felt that he knew them already.
He was only a newly minted reporter on a no-account paper in a one-horse town, but it was a start. He was still a long way from smoky bars in Paris, or from striding over battlefields in a trench coat and cavalry boots, but if he didn’t make a hash of this assignment, maybe someday he would get there.
Right now, though, the extent of his “foreign correspondence” was crossing the Virginia state line. It wouldn’t be much of a train ride— Johnson City to Abingdon, Virginia. He’d pay for that one himself, since, strictly speaking, it was not part of his assignment. Then tomorrow another train ride— Abingdon to Kingsport, change trains, and then on to the small coal town of Wise, not more than four hours at most, even if the train made more stops than a dog at a tree farm.
The only reason Carl got the assignment at all was because sending him would save money for the newspaper. His father’s first cousin Araby had married a much older man who had prospered in the timber business, and they lived in a large house in the town of Wise. Araby Minter, now a childless widow, had turned her home into a boardinghouse, taking in businessmen on mine-related business, and sometimes tourists or traveling clergymen. Because of the Morton trial, she would have more guests than she could handle, but since Carl was family, and could be accommodated in makeshift style, she agreed to make room for him, and, of course, she would not charge a relative for lodging. The fortunate coincidence of having a relative in Wise had won Carl the assignment over his more seasoned colleagues.
He could have skipped Abingdon and headed straight to Wise, but his editor had said that the big-city journalists would probably stay over at the fancy new Martha Washington Hotel in Abingdon, just a block from the train station. Carl hoped he was right, because then he wanted a chance to meet them before the start of the trial. He figured he could learn a lot from the aristocrats of journalism, if he managed to ingratiate himself with them. If he could contrive to be friendly and natural in their presence. If he didn’t act like a tongue-tied hayseed. After all, this wasn’t just an excursion. He had a job to do. He was a man with a mission. And somebody else was paying his way.
“A JOB.” The burly man at the news desk had eyed him skeptically. “You’re wanting a job. Well, who doesn’t these days, what with banks failing like houses of cards, and the government sitting on its hands while honest people starve. A job. Just how old are you, boy?”
This was a sore point with Carl Jennings, who had not yet turned eighteen and who looked even younger. He decided on a diplomatic evasion. “Sir, I am a college graduate,” he said, drawing himself up to his full five- feet- eight.
He had tried to look both mature and presentable for the job interview, although his brown suit was a little short at the sleeves and ankles since his last growth spurt, and the collar of his Sunday- go-to-meeting shirt was frayed from four years of wear. But he had shaved twice, and slicked back his brown hair with the tiniest dab of lard from his mother’s kitchen. He hoped his diploma would count for more than his looks. He knew he was jug-eared and unprepossessing behind his rimless spectacles, but he was smart enough. He had managed to finish college at seventeen, by the simple expedient of skipping the first two grades of primary school. On his first day in grade one, when his teacher had caught him hiding a Zane Gray novel within the covers of his copy of Spelling Is Fun, she had promoted him to third grade on the spot. Perhaps he had not been mature enough to be up there with the nine-year-olds, but in a little country schoolroom nobody cared about that sort of thing. He could read, which qualified him for a desk with the third-graders, and that was that.
He was accepted at East Tennessee State Teacher’s College in nearby Johnson City, but tuition was not within the family’s means. His father worked in the machine shop at the Clinchfield Railroad shops in Erwin, and he was lucky to still have a job, but his salary would not stretch to paying for an education. He had offered to speak to the shop foreman about getting Carl on at the railroad, but the boy would not be swayed, even by hints that another salary would be a godsend to the family. Instead, he had worked his way through college ten cents at a time. At night he set up pins in the bowling alley, and in the summer he picked blackberries for a dime a bucket, and he ate a lot of peanut butter on stale bread, but he made it through in three years because he couldn’t afford the luxury of taking four.
Now he had a job and he paid his parents ten dollars a month rent for his old room. He was a dutiful son who was feeling more and more like a stranger. When he wanted to talk about ideas and books and the news of the world beyond the neighborhood, the person he chose to visit was his young cousin who lived back up the mountain. They were kindred spirits.
The week before he got the assignment was clear and cold, with that sharp wind that people referred to as “the hawk flying low.” He had hitched a ride up to the Bonesteel farm on Ashe Mountain, because he was itching to talk to somebody about the world; that is, somebody who wouldn’t fuss over what he had for lunch, or ask him if the book he’d just read would put any extra money in his pay envelope. Nora wasn’t much more than a kid, but they saw things the same way. Carl thought of them as the family changelings.
He had found her sitting on the velvet sofa in the parlor in front of a hickory log fire. She was bent over her needlework, and her dark hair glinted copper in the firelight.
“Why are you making another old quilt, Nora?” he asked her. “You could buy a better bedspread in the Wish Book.”
She glanced up from her sewing, but she didn’t smile. At twelve she had the fine-boned grace of the Bonesteels and a self-possession beyond her years. “I reckon you could if you had the money,” she said. “But this coverlet won’t cost a cent. I’m using scraps from old clothes. All the same, we are grateful to Mr. Sears Roebuck for sending us his catalogue. It lasts us a good couple of months in the outhouse.”
Carl laughed. “Just as long as you all don’t use my newspaper out there.”
“No.” A spark of mischief flashed in her eyes. “No, we generally light the kindling with it.” Seeing the look of chagrin on his face, Nora relented, “But we wouldn’t burn any page with a story written by you, Carl. I always check.”
He smiled and stretched, leaning back against the back of the applewood rocker that their great-grandfather had made when he came back from the War. It was so peaceful up here on the mountain that he always hated to leave, but he wondered how he would have turned out if he had been brought up here so far from town.
Carl’s father had grown up on a hill farm over the ridge from this one, but at eighteen he had moved down the valley to Erwin to work for the railroad, taking along his new bride, Sarah Bonesteel. He had known her all his life from school and church, and probably they were fourth or fifth cousins somewhere down the line, since all the residents of Ashe Mountain were descended from the same dozen pioneer families who had settled here in the 1790s. If you had to go and live in the town, it was a comfort to have with you someone who thought the same as you did.
In the sepia photographs in the family album, Carl’s mother had the look of her niece Nora: the same wavy hair and cold blue eyes set in an angular face, striking without exactly being beautiful. It was a face you didn’t forget.
Sam and Sarah Jennings had progressed from a rented wooden shanty near the railroad to a trim brick house on a corner lot in town, where Carl had grown up. If they missed that peaceful world high up the mountain, they never said so. From time to time they went back “up home” to visit the families, and every summer when the church had Homecoming Sunday, they always went with a basket of homemade pies, so that Carl never felt like too much of a stranger among his country kin. But he was always aware that he lived in a different world, although it was not as simple as “past” versus “present.” No one loved technology more than his uncles up the mountain.
Back on the farm, his father’s eight brothers, the mechanically- minded Jennings boys, had produced their own electricity when the town was still making do with gaslights and coal oil lamps. The Jennings brothers had rigged up a generator to run on water power from the creek, and they had strung wires to the house and to all the outbuildings, so that even the cows and chickens had electric lights, which burned all the time, because they hadn’t installed any switches to turn them off.
Carl’s uncles had a car long before most of the people in town had acquired one, but they seemed to think of it more as a toy than as a means of transportation. Before 1920 they pooled their money and bought a Model T Ford. When they got it back to the farm, they pushed it into the barn, broke out the tools, and proceeded to take it completely apart. Then they spent many happy hours figuring out how to put it back together. Once they had worked out how the car was assembled and what made it run, they took turns driving it around the pasture, dodging apple trees.
There had been eight young uncles up on the farm when Carl was still a toddler, but most of them had moved away by now. One had married and stayed to farm the homeplace for his aging parents, and two got farms of their own, but the rest had found jobs in keeping with their mechanical inclinations. The twins worked in logging camps over on the North Carolina side of the mountain. One found a job in Erwin with the railroad, thanks to brother Sam. The two youngest boys had gone off to Detroit to work in the car factories. Life in a Michigan city seemed to Carl like the biggest possible change from the placid life on the mountain. What did they make of urban life? Were they content up there?
Now the mountain settlements were mostly populated by the old folks and those of their children who were still too young to leave.
Carl knew that his world would have been smaller if his parents had stayed up here on the mountain. He might have left school at fourteen as some of his cousins had. By sixteen they were married, and by the time they had reached his current age of twenty, they were well into middle age, with a growing family and a job that would lead them nowhere but the grave. It wasn’t that they were backward or unintelligent. Some of the folks up here were smarter than anybody he had met at the college, and they read everything they could find, so that they salted their conversations with phrases from Milton, Homer, and Shakespeare. So why were they content to remain here? He wasn’t sure, but if he had to put a name to his hunch, he might have called it shyness or, more precisely, since it was not fear, a disinclination to involve themselves in the machinations of society. They had no truck with currying favor with the powerful, or telling social lies in their own self-interest, or any of the other forms of artifice. More than they wanted wealth or comfort or security, they wanted to be left alone.
There was a lot of that in him, too, but he considered it a fault, and he fought against that tendency to hang back, to be forever a stranger in any company. Perhaps he had chosen journalism for just that reason. Being a newspaperman forced him to talk to strangers, to encounter new people and new situations every day. Carl thought that if he kept at it long enough, he might be able to do it without having to force himself. He still wasn’t very good at ingratiating himself with people who outranked him, but he thought that maybe being smart and working hard would go part of the way toward making up for that.
Now that he was a newspaper reporter, observing other people’s adventures if not having them himself, he felt he had gone a step beyond his father’s achievements, and miles past what some of the cousins had done. He hoped that little Nora would have more of a life than some of the other women he’d seen, old at thirty, living and dying without leaving so much as a ripple in their wake. Nora was too fine for that. He liked to stop in when he could, to tell her of the doings out in the world, to give her something to aspire to, something beyond this solitary mountain.
Now he was sprawled in his customary position in the apple-wood rocker, while Nora sat on the old sofa, with the quilt pieces spread across her lap. He set his glass of mulled cider on the floor and took a deep breath of mountain air, tinged with wood smoke and the beeswax from the newly polished furniture. From the kitchen came a hint of apples and cinnamon, which meant pies in the oven. Nora’s quilting was her way of passing the time of his visit until she was called to help with the supper preparations. Nora was always busy doing one chore or another, but as a visitor Carl felt no urge at all to turn his hand to anything. As far as he was concerned, this place was a respite from the real world. This was his sanctuary.
No matter how hot it was on a July day in Johnson City, up here on the Bonesteels’ mountain farm it would be spring. The chestnut trees, shaggy giants with trunks bigger around than he was, shaded the yard, and the little spring-fed creek at the bottom of the garden always ran cold as snow melt. They didn’t have ice or refrigeration up here on the farm. They didn’t need it.
It was peaceful up here, like a journey to another time. Telephones and electric lights hadn’t reached this far up the mountain yet. He expected they would in a year or two, and then he would give Nora a radio for her birthday, but for now, his uncle’s place was like an island, afloat in the twentieth century, but untouched by it.
Nora had gone back to her needlework. He thought she made a pretty picture with the red and black velvet patchwork covering her lap, and her dark hair curling a little at the nape of her neck. It wasn’t the sort of picture they’d run in the newspaper, though. You’d need to capture the colors of the scene to do it justice. The scarlet of the quilt squares, and beyond the parlor window the complementary quilt in the pattern of the landscape: the brown sweep of lawn, falling away to a vista of golden fields and bare gray forests in the valley far below. Beyond them lay a haze of blue mountains wreathed in clouds. It would take a landscape artist to capture the scene, he reckoned, and there wasn’t likely to be one of those passing by.
Summer or winter, Carl was happy to spend an afternoon visiting his favorite cousin and staying to supper, but he wouldn’t live up here. In town his course was set firmly toward the future.
“What’s it like being a reporter?” asked Nora. “Are you having adventures?”
“I’m too far down in the pecking order for that,” said Carl. “All the fires and sudden deaths go to the fellows who have been working on the paper as long as I’ve been alive. Mostly, I get assigned to do the stories none of them wants.”
“I expect that will change,” said Nora, still intent upon her sewing.
He looked up sharply, turning her words over in his mind. That was the thing about the Bonesteels’ bloodline. They might be content to drift along in this backwater remnant of the pioneer past, but folks said that when they had a mind to, the Bonesteels could see just as far into the future as they could into the distance.
Carl’s mother had been a Bonesteel, but he reckoned that the Sight must have skipped because she had never showed a sign of having the gift. He had inherited the family’s blue eyes, the angular body, and the quick intelligence, but their knack of knowing things before they happened had passed him by, as well. A pity, that was, because it would have been a useful thing for a newspaperman to have. Imagine being able to know the future: when and where things would happen. But when he had mentioned that thought once to Nora, she said it didn’t work that way.
“The Sight never tells you what you want to know,” she told him. “And I don’t think it even lets you see the most important things. It’s just…flashes in the dark, kinda.”
He had persisted in trying to get her to explain. Nobody in the family liked to talk about the Sight, but he wanted to understand it. “Can’t you focus on what it is you need to know?”
Nora blushed and shook her head. She didn’t care much for talking about it, either. “It’s like…well, like what you said once about tuning a radio after dark. Sometimes you get a faraway station for a minute, and then all you get is a crackling noise, and the next voices you hear will be something else altogether. It’s like that. Hard to make sense of.”
He persisted. “But sometimes you know things.” There were stories in the family. Little Nora seeing the funeral wreath a week before it was placed in the church. Or telling her mother to bake a cake for the neighbors who did not yet know they were bereaved. “Sometimes you do know, don’t you?”
Nora sighed and plucked at the quilt square with restless fingers. “Every now and again,” she conceded. “But I can’t make it happen. And it might be better not to know at all, because you can’t change anything.”
“Why can’t you? Surely if you know…Well, say you get a vision that your dog is going to be bitten by a copperhead. You can keep the dog in, so that it won’t happen.”
She shook her head. “But you don’t know when it’s going to happen, Carl. You can’t keep the dog penned up forever. Or if you tried, like as not he’d slip out the door one day, and that’s when it would happen. Our Grandma Flossie used to say, ‘Knowing is one thing. Changing is another.’ Be glad you don’t have the Sight. It’s awful to know what’s coming, and be powerless to stop it.”
“Well, do you see anything headed in my direction, little cousin?” He put the question to her lightly, but in his eyes she saw the anxious look that people always had when they asked her that.
She shrugged. “Maybe a train ride.” When a few more minutes had passed in silence, she looked up again from her needlework. “Well, Carl, aren’t you going to tell me what’s going on in the wide world?” she asked.
He smiled. “Why, Nora, I thought you said you had been reading that newspaper of mine before you used it for tinder.”
“Well, I think there’s more going on in the world than you tell about in your newspaper.”
He smiled. “After we finish recounting the local weddings, the funerals, the recipes, the advertising, and the high school football stories, I reckon we put in as much else as we can. What did you want to know about?”
“Well, I wish you could tell me that Will Rogers didn’t die in that plane crash in Alaska, but I reckon he did.”
Carl nodded. “You’re not the only one missing him. The column he wrote was about the most popular thing in the newspaper. When it stopped, folks came in to complain, and when we told them he wasn’t around to write it anymore, why, some of them started to cry. I never met a man who didn’t like him.”
Nora smiled to show that she understood the jest. “He’s not buried yet, though.”
“Well, hon, he must be. That plane crash was back in August.”
She shook her head. “He’s shut up somewhere in California, but he wants to go home.” She shivered a little, and drew the quilt closer around her. “Carl, what about that fellow that got convicted of kidnapping Mr. Lindbergh’s baby?” she asked.
“Bruno Hauptmann? Nobody’s crying for him, little cousin.”
“But have they executed him yet?”
“Set for April, I think. Why?”
“Well, your paper said that the governor of New Jersey visited him in his cell last month with a lady interpreter who spoke German, and I wondered why he did that. Maybe the governor’s not entirely sure he did it.”
Carl shook his head. “I don’t know who I’d trust the most: a convicted murderer or a Republican governor.”
But this time Nora did not smile. “Sometimes in trials they get it wrong,” she said. “And newspapers get it wrong, too.”
Newspapers get it wrong, too. He had looked into the details of the plane crash in Alaska, and found that Will Rogers’s body was in storage in a vault in California. Like most people, he had assumed that they buried him back in Oklahoma. Little Nora must have heard that somewhere, he told himself.
But maybe a train ride, she had said. Now here he was rumbling along in a drafty Clinchfield Railroad coach car, bound for a trial in a little Blue Ridge coal town. It was just a coincidence, he told himself. A lucky guess, that’s all. But he wondered what else she might know.
Excerpted from THE DEVIL AMONGST THE LAWYERS: A Ballad Novel © Copyright 2011 by Sharyn McCrumb. Reprinted with permission by Thomas Dunne Books. All rights reserved.
The Devil Amongst the Lawyers: A Ballad Novel