Beulah Hillby William Heffernan
A novel of rare literary distinction, an erotic thriller combined with a true mystery, and a look back at a little-known part of the American societal patchwork -- Beulah Hill, by bestselling author William Heffernan, is a brilliant and deeply original work of fiction.
Set in the 1930s, the story follows the investigation of a racially motivated murder in/i>… See more details below
A novel of rare literary distinction, an erotic thriller combined with a true mystery, and a look back at a little-known part of the American societal patchwork -- Beulah Hill, by bestselling author William Heffernan, is a brilliant and deeply original work of fiction.
Set in the 1930s, the story follows the investigation of a racially motivated murder in a rural Vermont town and the shocking ramifications it has on that backwoods community, which had once served as a stopping place for runaway slaves. Having made new lives for themselves there, many of these former slaves had married interracially. As a result, over several generations, the progeny of what were originally black families became what was known as "bleached" and were absorbed by the white community. Still, they were not accepted by all, and not all the blacks joined in interracial unions.
The result was an atmosphere of tension and distrust that -- as so vividly rendered in this novel -- occasionally exploded in acts of violence...and even murder.
Played out against this vivid backdrop, at a time when the Great Depression had created an atmosphere of fear and Adolf Hitler was just beginning his reign in Germany, Beulah Hill tells the story of a white man who was murdered in an almost ritualistic manner on land owned by the only remaining black family in that small town. Heading the investigation is a young constable who is himself a deeply conflicted member of the "bleached" underclass and who is intimately involved with the proud and headstrong black woman at the center of the killing.
Depicting larger-than-life characters, including a black patriarch who rules his farm on Beulah Hill with an iron fist, Heffernan paints a startlingly authentic portrait of a town caught in the grip of seething prejudice, forbidden eroticism, and hard times.
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Saturday, September 30, 1933
Jerusalem's Landing, Vermont
Saturday, September 30, 1933
I laid down my pen and stared at the page. I was seated at the small desk in my kitchen, which also serves as my official office, going over the list of delinquent taxes, which as town constable it is my sworn duty to collect. In truth, I was trying to find a way not to collect these taxes. This Great Depression we are now enduring has made payment an impossibility for most of our citizens, and I have come to believe that the law must be subverted wherever possible.
I was pondering this dilemma at eight o'clock in the morning when Abel Turner burst in on me awash in sweat, eyes wide with disbelief and terror. Abel is a big man, well over six feet and a good 220 pounds, and terror does not rest easily on his broad, bearded face.
"They kilt Royal," he stammered. "The niggers. They kilt him an' left him in the woods gutted like a goddamn deer."
I stood and shook myself, then walked toward him, still not wanting to believe what he was saying. "Hold on a minute, Abel. Are you talking about Royal Firman?" I asked.
"Tha's right. Tha's right," Abel stammered. "He's up in the woods off Nigger Hill, layin' upside an old maple. His guts are in his goddamn lap." He shook his head; shuddered.
Abel's words sent a chill through me as well, but for a different, more personal reason, and it took me a moment to gather my thoughts.
"What were you doing up there, Abel?" I threw the question at him like a punch to the belly. I knew he lived in another part of town, in an area known as Morgan Hollow, close to his job at the sawmill run by Royal's father. I also knew there was no logging being done in the area he was talking about, so there was no reason for him to be on Nigger Hill.
He stared at me, eyes filled with disbelief. "What the hell diff'ence does it make. I'm tellin' ya that Royal's been kilt, an' the niggers done it."
"I need to know it, Abel." I waited, casually running one finger along my mustache; feeling its slight droop at the corners of my mouth. Then I snapped out at him, "So just tell it." I knew if I didn't get Abel to tell me everything now, I'd get none of it later. Then everything he said would be colored by what he and Royal's father and their friends wanted me to know.
He shifted his weight and refused to meet my eyes. "I was in scoutin' fer deer." He looked up and glared at me. "But I din' take none."
I nodded, but said nothing. Deer season was still several weeks off, and as town constable I am supposed to help the wardens with poachers. But as I said before, this Great Depression we are living through has hit this area hard, and I decided long ago that poaching was another law I would try to ignore. There are a bit more than five hundred souls living here in Jerusalem's Landing, some two hundred odd families, and if each of those families needs an extra deer to see them through the winter, so be it.
I stared hard at Abel. Like most people in town, he knew my stand on poaching. It had been a safe answer for him.
"Were you alone in the woods?" I asked.
"What the hell diff'ence..."
I raised a hand, cutting him off. "I'm not worried about deer right now, Abel. But if Royal's been killed there's the question of evidence," I explained. "Tracks. Anything left behind. A cigarette butt, the button off a coat. So I'll need to know where you were when you first went in the woods, and every place you went after you were in there. I'll also need to know about anything you left behind, where you might of taken a piss, everything. And I'll need to know the same about anyone who was with you. Otherwise I might confuse tracks and things that you or someone else left behind with those of the killer."
"Hell, ya know who kilt Royal, dammit. There ain't no question 'bout that." Abel's face was red, anger now replacing the terror and disbelief.
"I don't know anything yet, Abel, and neither do you," I said. "Not unless you saw the killing. Did you?"
A tremor seemed to course through his body. "No, dammit. I jus' found him like I said. But I know who done it. And so do you. It was that goddamn nigger, Jehiel Flood. Ain't no question 'bout it."
"So you say, Abel. That's what we're going to go and find out."
I went for my red hunting jacket and my wide-brimmed Stetson, and strapped on the old Colt pistol I had inherited from my father when I had taken over his job. I turned back to Abel. "I want you to take me to where you found the body. But first I want to stop and pick up Doc Hawley and Johnny Taft. If you haven't messed up all the tracks, might be Johnny can lead us straight to whoever did this."
I followed Abel's truck up Nigger Hill, Johnny Taft seated beside me, silent as a stone. Johnny was small and thin and wiry, an Abenaki Indian and the best tracker I'd ever known -- better than my father, who'd been known to follow a deer track unerringly for miles, even when the ground was hard and dry as bone.
Behind me, Doc Ben Hawley followed my old Ford, none too happy about being pulled away from his patients. But he's paid an annual stipend to act as medical examiner for the southernmost towns of the county, so he had little choice but to come. In my rearview mirror I could see his lips moving as he drove, still grumbling about the inconvenience, perhaps even the unfairness of it, and certainly the condition of the road, the last being the only legitimate complaint.
Nigger Hill is served by a narrow dirt road, little more than a wagon track, and it is indeed a trial to drive. It runs steadily up along the northern ridge that rises above Addison Hollow. The houses, what few there are, are scattered considerable distances from each other, and much of the land has been abandoned. The hill also has some of the deepest and oldest woods within the county. This is because much of Vermont was clear-cut by the timber barons of the last century and is only now returning to what it once was. Here, however, the land was never logged, save for the fields that were cleared by the Negro farmers, and much of it is covered with ancient oak and maple, stands of beechnut, pine and hemlock and scattered thickets of red sumac.
Now, as we are about to enter October, the hill is awash with color, red and orange already dominant over a background of yellow and fast paling green. It is my favorite time of the year, the time I most like to be in the woods, a time when grouse explode with a fearful thunder of wings that sends already fallen leaves swirling up from the ground in a hurricane of color. There is a splendor about it, and serenity. Yet today, I knew there would be neither.
Johnny Taft grunted, interrupting my thoughts, and I looked to my right and saw we were approaching the handcrafted sign Jehiel Flood had placed at the edge of his farmland. It read Beulah Hill, his own renaming of the place where he lived, his rejection of the name given it by his fellow townsfolk. Johnny saw me studying the sign and grunted again. He had heard Abel's rant-ings when we picked him up, and offered this now as some unfathomable comment.
"That supposed to mean you think Abel's right -- that Jehiel did this killing?" I asked.
"Don't much care if he did or not," Johnny said. He spoke in a typical Vermont dialect, something most educated Vermonters struggle to be free of. The accent is almost southern in the way words are formed and mangled, the major difference being that they are bitten off sharply, rather than extended in an elaborate drawl. They also are formed at the back of the throat, something that produces a hollow sound that seems, at times, to give off its own echo. Johnny pushed a lock of straight black hair that had fallen across his forehead up under his red-checked hunting cap. "Never much liked Royal," he added, unasked. "Always thought he was a cocky shit an' a goddamn bully. An' old Jehiel's always been nothin' but a pain in the ass. To me this is jus' a trackin' job, an' I sure as hell kin use the money."
I thought about what he had said. Royal Firman was indeed a bully when he sensed vulnerability, and certainly a cocky young man. Or had been. I thought about that, let it sink in; then considered Royal again. He had been a husky, handsome fellow, with wavy blond hair that he had always fussed with, and dark blue eyes that seemed to devour any good-looking woman -- married or not -- that he happened across. He would be twenty-five now, only two years younger than I, and we had been in school together through much of our youth. But we had never been what you'd call friends. Royal and Abel and three or four others had been part of a small clique since those school days, boys who had grown up together into adulthood, and who -- going back to when they were about twelve years old -- had developed a reputation as low-level troublemakers. They had never done anything serious; nothing to get the law after them, just mostly mischief that came after some extended bouts with hard cider.
Jehiel Flood, on the other hand, had had countless run-ins with the constable's office. Not criminal matters, mind you, but endless difficulties with the town, the county and the state, and with white public officials of each of those governmental entities. He was not a friendly man, and had once told me that he and his family intended to live their lives according to "The White Man's Law of The Four G's: God, Gates, Guns and Get the Hell Off My Land." To a large extent, during the years I'd observed him, he had succeeded in that goal.
In truth I had known Jehiel since I was a small boy. I had gone to school with his oldest daughter, Elizabeth, who had always been the brightest child in our various classes. Elizabeth and I had been the only town residents of our generation to attend college. We had both received academic scholarships -- she to Middlebury, and I to the University of Vermont. I had heard it said -- though I had no way of knowing if it was true -- that she was only the second Negro woman in Vermont ever to have graduated from a four-year college. Now she lived in her own cabin with her two younger sisters, Maybelle and Ruby, each having moved in with her upon coming of age. Jehiel lived in their family homestead a quarter of a mile distant with his eighteen-year-old son, Prince, who had been named for Jehiel's maternal great-grandfather, the nineteenth-century Negro activist Prince Saunders.
Johnny grunted a third time as we passed the house of old Elisha Bowles, the Negro preacher who ministered to the Free Baptists out of a battered old church on the Main Road. Bowles's house sat between Jehiel's homestead and Elizabeth's cabin, and as I looked out the window I could see him splitting wood in his front dooryard, dressed in the too-small, formal black frockcoat that never seemed to leave his back.
"What's that grunt supposed to mean?" I asked Johnny.
"Jus' that ol' Bible thumper. Every time I see him I member how he tol' me I was goin' ta Hell back when I was ten. Stopped me on the Main Road one day an' axed me if I believed in Jesus, an' when I tol' him my people was Abenaki an' follered the Indian Way, the ol' fool called me a heathen. Said my soul was damned fer eternity. Then the mizzable old bastard started singin' a hymn at me."
"He was just trying to save you, Johnny." I grinned out the windshield.
Johnny grunted yet again. "Shoulda scalped the old nig."
I laughed at the idea. Elisha was as bald as an eagle, had been as long as I'd known him. "Thought you did," I said.
Abel's army surplus Nash flatbed stopped at the side of the road. I passed him and pulled in just ahead and Doc Hawley came in behind me in his shiny new Hudson Super Six. We were halfway between Reverend Bowles's place and Elizabeth's cabin. I stared at the thick stand of hardwood that dotted the small rise behind which Elizabeth's cabin stood, and the realization of her proximity grabbed at me. I pushed the thought away, then glanced across the road at the battered old shack that belonged to Jeffords Page, the only other resident of Nigger Hill. Jeffords was a bit touched, according to most -- a retarded mulatto boy of sixteen, whose parents had died within months of each other the previous year, leaving him to fend for himself. There had been talk about placing him in a county home. Then Jehiel had taken him in tow and hired him as a day laborer, claiming he was a distant relation. Now, like the man he worked for, Jeffords, too, had become isolated and was seldom seen off Nigger Hill.
Abel came around the back of his truck, breaking my reverie, and pointed to some tracks leading into the woods. "Tha's where I went in," he said.
Doc Hawley had come up to where we all now stood. "How goddamn far in is it?" he demanded. Doc was scowling, and his skimpy, reddish beard and angular body made him look almost demonic.
"Two, three hunnered yards. No more," Abel said.
Doc looked down at his shoes. They looked fresh out of the box new.
"You bring boots?" I asked.
"Forgot to," he said. He glared at me, took off his derby and mopped the sweat from his brow with a red handkerchief. "It's no wonder, the way you rushed me out the damned door." His glare returned to his shoes as if they, too, were somehow responsible. "Just got these damned shoes. Come in the mail yesterday from Sears and Roebuck. Those goddamn woods'll scuff 'em all to hell."
"There's an old pair of rubber boots in the trunk of my Ford," I told him. "They'll be a little big, but you're welcome to use them."
Doc snorted derision, but went to the trunk of my Model A and retrieved the boots.
Johnny Taft was crouching by the side of the road where the tracks led into the woods. He looked up at me and raised his eyebrows a notch. "Only one set," he said.
"So we know Abel went in alone here," I said. "After we see the body, and check for tracks there, we'll want to find the place where Royal went in. If his truck's down the road, we should find that spot close by."
What I didn't say was if we didn't find Royal's truck, it might mean he came here with someone else; maybe that he was already dead; his body carried into the woods. I looked at the track Abel had identified as his own. The ground was covered with leaves and was too hard and dry to tell if Abel was carrying anything heavy. There also were no obvious signs of blood. But if Royal had already been dead there might not be much blood at all. I took Johnny aside and asked him to look for the things I was concerned about, then told Abel to lead us to the body, using the same route he had taken earlier, and stopping anywhere he had stopped before.
We moved slowly, taking time to examine crossing trails made by the many deer that populated the area. A good two hundred yards in, we hit a streambed. Johnny checked the track there, looked at me, and shook his head. He had stopped several times on the way in to closely examine leaves for possible blood sign, but in each case it had been spots of red seeping through the autumn orange of the many maples that made up much of this stand of hardwood. It was an hour later, almost ten o'clock, when we reached Royal's body.
Royal was propped up against a tree in a sitting position, and but for the dry, crusted blood that covered his shirt and his open field jacket he could have been resting. His chin was against his chest and a shock of curly, blond hair was splayed across his forehead. I dropped to one knee to better see his face. His eyes were open and glazed like the windows of some abandoned house blindly reflecting the sunlight, but in Royal's case the eyes seemed to be staring in disbelief at his bloodstained chest and the gaping wound in his stomach from which a bundle of gray intestines protruded. I tried to look carefully at the wounds, but they were obscured by leaves stuck in a haphazard pattern across his chest and belly, apparently blown there while the blood was still wet and tacky.
Doc knelt beside the body and began pulling the leaves away.
"Has he been shot, or stabbed, or what?" I asked.
Doc carefully opened Royal's blood-soaked shirt and exposed a row of neat holes across the center of his chest. "Looks to me like a pitchfork did him." He pointed to the wounds. "Got both lungs and the heart," he said. He lowered his hand to the gaping wound in Royal's belly. "I'd say this one was done first, and it ripped him open as he twisted and fell. Then he was finished off with the stab to the chest."
"It happen here, you think?" I asked.
Doc shook his head. "Not near enough blood on the ground. Plenty on his belly, though. I'd say whoever did this let him lay for a bit, lay and suffer from the belly wound before they finished him off."
"Goddamn fuckin' nigs."
It was Abel and I rounded on him. "Keep your damn mouth shut," I snapped. "Doc just told us he wasn't killed here. That means anybody could of brought his body in and left it."
Abel sneered back. "Ya know it was that goddamn nig, Jehiel. Ya better watch yerself, Samuel, or some folks might get the notion that yer protectin' his sorry, nigger ass. An' we'd all sure as hell know why, wouldn't we?"
I took three quick steps, grabbed Abel by the shirtfront and pushed him back against a tree. "One more word, Abel, and I'll slap on the cuffs and lock up your sorry ass. You got that?"
I could feel Abel's body tense. He glared at me, but said nothing. He had me by a good thirty pounds and could probably pound me into the ground. But I wasn't worried. I'd known Abel a long time and I knew he didn't have the backbone to try.
I spun away and went back to the body. "Johnny, I want you to look around first. See if you can find a track other than Abel's coming in here. There has to be one somewhere. After you're sure you have the right track we'll rope off that area. Then we'll search inch by inch for any evidence the killer might have left behind."
There was another stream some thirty yards behind the body, and it took Johnny little more than twenty minutes to find the track that led out of it. When I came to his call he was staring down at a heavy impression, his face as close to a smile as it ever came. "Whoever made this, either he weighed four hundred pounds, or he was carryin' somethin' a mite heavy," he said.
I crouched beside the track.
"One problem, though," Johnny said. "The boot tread. It's the same as the one Royal's wearin'."
I stared at the track and cursed.
We returned to the body and I asked Doc to remove Royal's boots. He looked at me as though I was mad, but did as I asked, then grunted and gave me a sly look. The socks were wet and held traces of crumpled leaves. "So you think whoever lugged him in here wore his boots." He pulled back one boot flap and checked the size. "Hell, it's a size twelve. Just about anybody could of fit into these."
"Looks like somebody was playin' this real smart," Johnny said. "I'll go up and down the stream, see if I can find where the track went in. Maybe that'll tell us somethin'."
"Maybe," I said. "But I think the socks are wet because his boots were pulled off in the stream. I think you're gonna find different boot tracks going in, and that's not gonna tell us much of anything. Not the way this land is hunted."
"I'll check 'long the bank, see if I kin find the place they laid him down," Johnny said. "Maybe there'll be a diff'ent boot track close by."
"Do it," I said, then turned to Doc. "How long has he been dead?" I asked.
Doc scratched his scraggly red beard. "Since sometime yesterday. Rigor mortis is almost gone." He pulled a pocket watch from his vest. "I'd guess five or six last evening."
I stared down at the body. "I don't understand why nothing got to him," I said. "These woods are overrun with coyotes and ravens." I shook my head. "It's almost like somebody stayed here with him through the night."
Johnny pointed to impressions in the leaves to one side of the body. "Coulda been two people," he said. He knelt and studied the ground, then picked a bit of white substance mixed among the leaves and held it between his fingers. "Candle wax," he said. "Looks like they sat with 'im a long time."
I moved back to the body and lifted Royal's head. His neck was still stiff from the lingering affects of full rigor, but I forced the head back. I wanted a better look at something I thought I'd seen earlier. I brushed away the lock of hair that hung across his forehead. Three small crosses, the middle one larger than the two at either side, had been painted in the center of his forehead.
"Ba-stid," Abel said. "Candles. Crosses." His shoulders shook as another shudder went through him. "Goddamn nigs is doin' voodoo."
The back of Jehiel Flood's house was tucked up against a copse of hemlock and was barely visible from the section of streambed where Johnny and I were crouched over a new track he had found.
"This is the only track north of where we found the body. I haven't checked south yet. I also ain't found no place where Royal was laid down to get his boots off. Course whoever stuck him coulda worn the boots right from the start, then stumbled in the stream and gotten Royal's socks wet." Johnny scratched his narrow, pointy chin. "My guess is we'll haveta find the place where he was kilt before we'll know anythin' for sure."
"You boys know yer trespassin' on my land?"
The words had boomed out at us with the deep rumble of a fast-approaching storm, and when I looked up I saw Jehiel Flood's bulky frame stepping through the copse of hemlock. His face was solemn at first, then broke into a wide grin. "I 'spect you think bein' constable gives you the right to go anywheres you pleases." His coal-black eyes snapped to Johnny. "An' you bein' an Injun, you jus' kinda feel all the woods in the world belongs ta you."
I stood and took a step toward him. I am not a small man -- six feet tall and one hundred and ninety pounds -- but I instantly felt dwarfed by the man's size. Jehiel is easily six foot four, with 240 pounds of hard-packed muscle. He's fifty-five if he's a day, but except for a slight bulge at his middle there's not much fat to the man. The word formidable always crossed my mind whenever we met.
"I'm afraid I'm here on business, Mr. Flood."
He raised his gray-tinged eyebrows under the red hunter's cap that covered what I knew was a full mane of nappy white hair.
"All of a sudden you doan call me by my given name no more, Samuel? Hell, I thought all my taxes was paid up to date." He winked at Johnny, enjoying his fun.
"There's been a killing back south in the woods a bit," I said. "Johnny and I are looking for tracks, trying to figure out where the killer went."
"An' you 'spect ta find 'em here?" All humor fled his face and he glowered at me.
I explained about the streambed, and how I thought the killer had used it to cover his trail. "We're just checking every place north and south of where we found the body," I added.
"Who got kilt?"
Jehiel snorted, but said nothing.
"You don't seem surprised," I said.
"Ain't. 'Bout time somebody kilt that snotnosed fucker."
I turned to Johnny. I didn't want him around to hear more of what Jehiel might say. The man's mouth had already gotten him in enough trouble in the town. "Check on south a bit," I told Johnny. "I'll catch up with you when I finish up here."
When Johnny was out of earshot I walked over to where Jehiel stood. "This is a bad killing," I said.
He snorted. "Ain't never hear'd of a good one."
"What I mean is that Royal was nearly gutted, an' Doc says whoever killed him let him lay awhile and suffer before they finished the job. That's sure to get around and stir folks up. Fact that he was found up here on the hill might stir them up even more."
I never used the name "Nigger Hill" with Jehiel. I'm not certain why, since it was the legal name of the road leading up here. It was just something I had never felt I could do. I never used Beulah Hill either -- Jehiel's name for the land and the road. Instead, I just referred to it all as "the hill."
Jehiel snorted again. "Shi-it, young Samuel. If they had found that boy thirty miles from here, them nasty-assed white folks woulda found a way to blame us, anyways." He let out a low rumbling laugh. "We those bad people, with that bad Negro blood, that ain't been cured by a good dose of white bleach." His mood changed and he glared at me again. "An' don't you go sendin' people away, like you did with Johnny Taft, jus' cause you worried 'bout people hearin' what I say. 'Cause what I say is fuck 'em all. An' there ain't a man or woman in this town that don't already know it."
He was telling the truth. Everyone did know it. Nary a man or woman had failed to hear Jehiel's diatribes against the racism that permeates our town, even though most fail to understand that it truly exists. But that's a long and a difficult story that I am not certain I truly comprehend. Or, if I do, it's not one that I choose to acknowledge.
I do know that free Negros, men and women who were never slaves, migrated to Vermont early in the last century. Here they worked as servants in white households, or as day laborers on local farms. Then, as the years progressed, they were able to buy their own lands, and in doing so tended to cluster together in areas that were inevitably named "Nigger Hill," or "Nigger Road," or "Nigger Hollow" by the people in the various towns where they lived.
Here, in Jerusalem's Landing, some thirty-four Negro families made their homes on our Nigger Hill between 1810 and 1870. Then that number began to decline, until only seven individuals remained -- Jehiel's family of five, and the minister, and dumb Jeffords Page. It was a decline in population that everyone understood, but seldom spoke about. Some of those earlier Negroes moved away to seek better lives. But only a few. The main cause for the decline was "the bleaching."
Being largely an agrarian community, marriage and the raising of children who could help work the farms had always been an essential part of life in Jerusalem's Landing. But this was not easily accomplished. As in most rural Vermont towns, white women of marriageable age were always in short supply, with men normally exceeding the number of potential mates. Many poor, rural women simply abandoned the life to which they were born and moved to larger towns and cities to find work, eventually marrying men from those places. Conversely, women among Negro families, given that they had fewer opportunities, mostly chose to remain.
Thus, what became known as "the bleaching" occurred, a mixing of the races through marriage that continued over several generations, until succeeding progeny of original Negro mothers lost their color and, in the eyes of the state, "became legally white again."
It was a belief and a practice that dated back to Thomas Jefferson. It was also one that Jehiel Flood had fought and railed against all his life.
I lowered my eyes and drew a weary breath. I knew there was no point in discussing any of this with him, or the ways I feared it would all factor in to this killing. Jehiel was now giving me a heavy dose of his backwoods patois. It was a sign I recognized -- an end to any hope of reasonable conversation. To my knowledge Jehiel had no formal education beyond grade school. Yet he was highly intelligent and well read, and I had learned early in my youth that his mind was as keen as any I would encounter. But today there would be no intelligent discourse. Today he was hiding behind his country dialect and spouting an argument I had heard before. It was one I knew by heart, a diatribe he used as a shield, intended to end all meaningful intercourse. I surrendered to it. "Tell me about these tracks," I said, nodding back toward the streambed.
"My land. Prob'ly my tracks, or maybe my son, Prince. He likes to go back in them woods to hunt squirrel. We favor us a nice squirrel stew now an' then. Also cut our firewood back in there."
"Prince around now?"
"Nope. Sent him and young Jeffords inta town ta fetch some supplies at the store. They be back shortly, I s'pect." Jehiel tilted his head to one side, as if to study me better. "You gonna talk to all the Negroes up here so's you can decide which one of us kilt that little snotnose, Samuel?"
I felt myself bristle. "Dammit, Jehiel. I'm just trying to do my job here. Now why don't you help instead of playing this fool game with me?"
Jehiel threw back his head and let out a great, rumbling baritone of a laugh that seemed to shake the leaves on the trees. "Doan you get feisty with me, son. Weren't so long ago I caught you stealin' apples in my orchard, an' grabbed you by the scruff of the neck an' put a boot to yer bottom. You ain't so big now I can't do it agin."
I lowered my head and shook it in surrender. "I suspect you could. But I'm not here to fight with you. I need your help, Jehiel. If you'll give it. Please."
Jehiel grinned at me out of that great chocolate-colored face. "Well tha's different, then. What you need, Samuel?"
I took a deep, exasperated breath. "You didn't happen to see Royal Firman up in these woods yesterday, did you?"
"If I had, I woulda run his lily-white ass off'n this here hill." Jehiel's voice had lost its hint of humor; had a bit of a growl to it now.
"Why's that?" I asked.
"Cause I'da known why he was here."
I let out a breath, and continued the game. "And why would that be?"
"Same reason he ever came slinkin' roun' up here. Same reason all them white boys do. Hopin' they can do one of my daughters the favor of servicin' her with they puny white dicks." He narrowed his eyes at me as he spoke the words.
"Royal been up here lately?" I asked.
Jehiel was still studying me through slits. "Caught him hangin' roun' Lizabeth's dooryard couple a months back." Jehiel's face softened and he gave me a big-toothed grin. "Jus' showed him the bizness end of my Winchester an' he stepped along nicely."
"And that was the last time you saw him?"
Jehiel shook his head. "Come up here a few weeks back with his daddy. That ol' fool's been after me ta let him log my land, even though I ain't never let nobody put a saw or ax to nothin' I own." He shook his head again. "Fool must think I'm addled. Land's 90 percent maple. Wants me ta give up the trees that gives me the syrup that keeps me goin' year ta year. Also got a nice stand of black walnut he wants. Says he'll split the loggin' profits with me." He gave out with another rumble of laughter. "I wanted them profits, why the hell I wanna share 'em with him? I asks him. Then he starts screamin' -- you know how that fool is -- tellin' me I'm just some ol' nig don't know what's good fer him."
"And what did you do?" I asked.
Jehiel laughed again. "Showed him the bizness end of that Winchester. Then I watched him an' his snotnosed boy move along smart-like."
I thought about asking Jehiel if I could take a look in his barn -- at his pitchfork, really -- but thought better of it. I'd let it sit for now -- come back to it later if I had to.
"I gotta go check on Johnny," I said instead. "I'll be back to talk to Prince and Jeffords. I'd appreciate it if you asked them to stay around a bit."
Jehiel grinned at me, as if saying, maybe he would, maybe he wouldn't. "I'll ask 'em," he said, still grinning. "Jeffords'll probably do as he's told. But that boy Prince is like his daddy. Might decide he'd be better off huntin' up a squirrel or two."
I shook my head and turned to go. Jehiel reached out and took hold of my arm.
"How's your daddy?" he asked.
"Poorly," I said. "But hanging on, best he can."
He nodded. "You tell him I be by. Maybe tomorra. Next day fer sure."
I caught up with Johnny downstream, halfway between Reverend Bowles's place and Elizabeth's cabin. He was using his buck knife to separate leaves along the bank of the creek.
I liked to watch Johnny in the woods. There was something almost spiritual about the way he treated things, the soft way he moved about. He had once explained that the Abenaki believed you never went into the woods unless you needed to. It was the home of the animals, and you went there with the respect given anyone's home.
"Looks like Royal was laid down here," he said, looking up. "Whoever done it tried ta cover the spot with leaves. Problem is they drug over some leaves from back thataway." He raised his chin to indicate a spot farther back in the woods. "But they's beech leaves, an' there ain't no beech trees near this streambed -- only maples."
He carefully flicked away some leaves revealing a cluster beneath. It was splattered with dried blood. He looked up at me. "Could be deer blood," he said. "There's a bit of poachin' up here, I'm told."
I could tell he thought it was something else. "I'll take it to the university and they'll tell me," I said.
I picked up a handful of leaves and placed them in a paper bag I had brought with me. "You see that other set of tracks we're looking for?"
"There's some near where the body was laid down." He stared at me, asking if I wanted him to show me, and letting me know he thought the effort would be useless to anybody but another tracker. "They's in the leaves," he explained. "Just track sign that's hard ta see. Nothin' in any soft dirt that'd give a boot print."
I nodded, looked toward where I knew Elisha Bowles's house was and thought about cutting through the woods and talking to him. Then I looked downstream toward a distant path that led to Elizabeth's cabin. Again, I felt a rush of pleasure and anticipation. I decided I'd go there first.
I turned back to Johnny. "Check around here for anything that might of been left behind. Then check to see if you can find Royal's track coming in the woods. I'll meet up with you in half an hour, or so."
Elizabeth's cabin was in a small clearing about fifty yards from the road. It was large for a rural cabin, built to accommodate rooms for her two sisters; the entire structure made of timbers cut from the land. Next to it stood a small, one-room cottage where Elizabeth mixed up the herbal teas and medicines and salves that she had learned about years ago from an old Abenaki woman -- her dispensary, she called it, complete with a small bed she could use when she worked late into the night. I thought of the times I had visited her there, tried to fight off the pleasure those memories gave me -- mysterious, self-contained, beautiful Elizabeth. Always so much a part of my life.
I turned back to the main cabin and could see smoke curling from the fieldstone chimney. Moving across the rear dooryard, I glanced toward the small barn that stood behind the house. I would have to go there eventually; look for a pitchfork I hoped I would not find. But that would come later, I told myself. I pushed the thought away and continued toward the cabin door, scattering a handful of chickens that were working the hard dirt for any leftover feed.
The door opened before I could knock and Elizabeth suddenly filled the frame. She was dressed in a loose-fitting house shift, the bodice cut low, revealing smooth, caramel-colored skin. She smiled at me -- perfect white teeth, behind delicate, sensuous lips. Her light brown eyes seemed to offer both pleasure and wariness, and her dark curly hair hung in soft ringlets along her slender face.
"You look as beautiful as ever," I said, unable to help myself.
She ran one finger along the sleeve of my jacket. "It's good to see you, Samuel. I've missed your visits. And your flattery." Her voice was like the soft, satisfied purr of a cat; the wariness in her eyes seemed to disappear.
She stepped back, opening the way into her home. I followed her with the familiar sense of pleasure and excitement I had always felt with Elizabeth.
The years we had spent in school together had been filled with an inexplicable closeness, a need to be in each other's company. At first I had tried to attribute those feelings to the fact that we had always been the two brightest children in our classes. But I knew it had been more. Those emotions had provoked a sense of protectiveness as well, and on the many occasions when the cruelty of children made her the victim of epithets and slurs I had always found myself striking out in her defense. Later, when we were older and in high school together I often accompanied her on the long walk up Nigger Hill, then lingered at her home, extending our time together.
Jehiel seemed amused by our friendship in those days, his fatherly concern for Elizabeth extending no farther than to assure himself that we weren't falling prey to any immature sexual mischief. Often -- perhaps when he thought my ardor was becoming too strong -- he would interrupt our time together by asking for help with certain chores. He and my father were close during those years, often hunting together on Jehiel's land, and I knew my father regarded him with both respect and affection. It was something that easily transferred to my impressionable young mind and made him a powerful figure in my youth. In any event, I always found myself unable to refuse his requests.
You will wonder, of course, if Elizabeth and I eventually became more than close friends. We did. It happened when we were in our teens, the innocent fumbling of two curious children. It occurred over a single summer, sporadic at best, then ended suddenly when we went our separate ways to different universities. We had continued to spend time together during the succeeding summer recesses, but Elizabeth had never allowed our youthful romance to blossom again. It was a rejection that had hurt and confused me. Then one day, we were walking together along a trail in the woods on Nigger Hill, ironically not far from where I would eventually find Royal Firman's body. We had stopped to rest by the stream, and it was there that I told her how I felt; how I had felt for many years. It seemed to both frighten and please her, though she remained reticent about her feelings. We sat there in silence for a long time, then she came to me, slipping her arms about my waist and resting her head gently against my chest. I want to think she was telling me that she loved me, too, but that this was the most she could give. But perhaps not. Perhaps it was only sympathy toward feelings she could not return. Elizabeth had always hidden her emotions well, offering only what she felt safe to show, and only when reasonably certain that rejection would not follow. Standing in her cabin now, I realized, as I often had in the past, that rejection was never possible for me. Not where Elizabeth was concerned.
Instead it was I who had felt rejection. It had happened over the succeeding years, when other young men had also sought to visit her -- Royal Firman among them. I had kept watch on her cabin throughout that time and had seen them come and go, and though I never knew to what extent any had succeeded, their mere presence had cut me deeply -- to the point that, though I continued to keep watch over her, I had stopped visiting myself. Yet, being back now in her small, isolated home seemed to wipe away those feelings, and I again felt the undeniable pleasure I had always known in her presence.
The main room of the cabin was small and neat and bright just as I remembered it. The interior log walls were still painted white and there were new colorful curtains at the windows. A brightly patterned hooked rug now sat in the center of the room, and there were two new chairs directed toward the hearth of the fieldstone fireplace. Beyond was an open kitchen, separated from the main room by a long, narrow dining table, also new, at which now sat Elizabeth's two sisters, Maybelle and Ruby.
Maybelle was nineteen, eight years younger than Elizabeth and I, and she had been a small child, then a young girl, during the years I regularly visited here, so I did not know her well. The same was true of Ruby, who was twenty. But there all comparisons ended. Where Maybelle was short and plump and normally cheerful, Ruby was tall and angular and given to moodiness and sharp words -- very much her father's daughter, Elizabeth had always claimed. Both women also had their father's deep chocolate skin tone, and while certainly handsome, neither possessed the near ethereal beauty I had always associated with their older sister. Now both sisters sat staring at me, eyes wary, faces filled with a barely concealed trepidation that also seemed to carry a hint of hostility.
Elizabeth took my arm and guided me to the table. "Would you like some coffee, Samuel?" she asked.
"Yes I would," I said. "I also have to talk to you -- to each of you."
The wariness heightened in the eyes of the two younger sisters, and I thought I detected a hint of it return to Elizabeth as well. But it quickly disappeared from Elizabeth's eyes, or perhaps was willed away.
"It's always a pleasure to talk to you, Samuel," she said.
I sat at the table as Elizabeth placed a cup of coffee before me.
"Did any of you see Royal Firman yesterday?" I asked.
Maybelle and Ruby avoided my eyes and said nothing.
"I saw someone," Elizabeth said, almost as if trying to speak before her sisters could. "It could have been Royal. It was a white man. I'm sure of that. I saw him from my window. He was walking through our woods behind the barn. I assumed it was a hunter."
"Did he have a weapon?" I asked.
"I really couldn't tell," Elizabeth said. "I just assumed he was hunting. Few people -- white people, I mean -- " she smiled then continued, "come up here for anything else, unless they're here to see my father, or come for one of my remedies." She studied me for a moment, perhaps waiting to see if I believed her. "Has something happened, Samuel?" she asked at length.
"Royal Firman's been killed. Murdered." I held her eyes. "We found his body in the woods between this cabin and Reverend Bowles's place."
Elizabeth took a deep breath. "Murdered." She said the word as if it were incomprehensible.
"He was stabbed; more than once -- with a pitchfork. And someone stayed with the body for a time." I let my eyes fall on two candles that sat on the table, but my glance seemed to draw no reaction. I knew I had to be careful about what I said, yet knew immediately that I wanted to tell Elizabeth everything.
"So you sayin' somebody up hereabouts killed him?"
It was Ruby, her words angry, and spoken as sharply as the rigid lines of her face.
"I don't know who killed him," I said. "It appears he was carried to the place we found him. He could have been carried in from the road. Johnny Taft is out there checking for tracks."
"Then why'd you ask if we'd seen him?" Ruby snapped.
"Because that would tell me he was already here when he was killed," I said.
Ruby smirked at me; gave a derisive snort.
"So you do think it was somebody from hereabouts." It was Maybelle this time, and her heavy, pouty lips trembled slightly as she spoke.
"Girl, you are talking like a fool," Elizabeth snapped. Her eyes shot from Maybelle to Ruby. "You both are. Samuel is just doing what he is supposed to do -- try and find out where Royal was before this terrible thing happened. So help him, don't argue with him."
"I din see nobody," Maybelle said. "Not Royal or nobody else. Leastwise nobody that doan belong up here."
There was a small bandage on Maybelle's throat. "Did you hurt yourself?" I asked.
She quickly glanced at Elizabeth, then nodded. "I cut myself in the barn. I was movin' a roll of barbwire."
I looked at Ruby. Her eyes were still angry, still glaring with accusation. "I ain't seen Royal Firman since I doan know when," she said. She turned her glare on Elizabeth. "An' I din see no white man neither."
I sipped my coffee, then turned back to Elizabeth. She was shaking her head.
"I'm sorry Samuel," she said. She looked at each of her sisters in turn and let out a weary breath.
"What time was it you saw this man you thought was hunting?" I asked.
Elizabeth considered the question. "It wasn't long after I had gotten home from school," she said, then seemed to consider the question again.
Elizabeth taught first and second grade at our town school. She had been hired three years after she graduated from Middlebury College with a teaching degree. The position had been vacant for two of those years, and only after it was clear that no white person was interested had the school board offered the post to her. Until then the first- and second-graders had taken classes with the third- and fourth-grade teacher.
"I was changing into my house clothes," Elizabeth said, interrupting my thoughts, "and I looked out my bedroom window and saw a man headed farther back into the woods. But he was too far away to see him clearly."
"But you could tell it was a white man?"
"Yes. I remember thinking it was a stranger. If it had been a Negro I wouldn't have thought that."
"What was he wearing?"
Elizabeth seemed to think again. Her eyes took on a faraway look, then she shook her head. She looked at me. "I don't remember, Samuel. It could have been a hunting jacket. Maybe that's why I assumed it was a hunter, but I can't be certain."
"If you do remember, I'll need you to tell me," I said.
"Of course, Samuel," she said. "Of course I will."
Elizabeth went outside with me, and we stood together on the hard-packed dirt of the dooryard. The chickens wandered around our feet, still pecking away for any overlooked morsels of feed. I glanced toward the small barn off to my right.
"You'll be wanting to look in there, I expect?" Elizabeth said.
The question confused and embarrassed me. It had been exactly what I had been thinking when I had glanced at the barn, but hearing her say it made me feel as though I had accused her of Royal's murder.
"I'll be having to look in everyone's barn," I said.
"I know, Samuel. Come." She led the way across the yard, glancing back over her shoulder and smiling. When we reached the barn she swung back one of the large double doors and stepped inside.
The interior of the barn was divided into thirds. On the left was a penned area for the chickens with a double-tiered row of boxes for their nests and a small exterior opening out into the yard.
At the rear was a single stall for the one milking cow Elizabeth kept, empty now with the animal out to pasture. Next to it was the roll of barbed wire on which Maybelle had cut herself. To the right was an open storage area, and above it a hayloft with a ladder leading up. I glanced up and saw a pitchfork embedded in a bale of hay.
I drew a deep breath, went to the ladder and climbed it. The loft was dark and musty, and I could hear the scratching of a small rodent as it scurried away. I withdrew the pitchfork and held it to the best light, but even in the dim lighting I could tell it was clean -- almost new clean.
When I climbed down the ladder I walked around the barn, seeking out any telltale signs of blood. There was a patch of fresh straw a few feet from the ladder, and I returned to it and kicked the newer straw aside to see beneath it. There was nothing there.
I was about to apologize for even looking, when Elizabeth crossed the hard dirt floor and came up to me. She was close now, so very close, and she raised her hand and gently stroked my cheek. Her hand was soft against my face, and it sent a chill through me as memories came rushing back, the softness of her body, the sweetness of her taste.
"Oh, Samuel, I'm so glad you're here," she whispered.
"Yes," I said, unable to help myself. "Yes, so am I."
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