The Rambler's headlights caught a scrap of paper nailed to a tree, a handwritten sign: repent. Darkness swallowed it, and Anna was left with the feeling she was surely on the road to perdition. God knew it was dark enough. Her high beams clawed the grass on the left side of the narrow lane, plowing a furrow so green it looked unnatural: neon green, acid green.
At least it's in color, she thought sourly. Everything she knew--or imagined she did--about Mississippi had been gleaned from grainy black-and-white television footage of the civil rights movement in the sixties.
Her worldly goods in a U-Haul, a shrieking Piedmont in a cat carrier, and an ever-faithful, if occasionally disgusting, hound drooling on her thigh, she'd driven straight through from Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Twenty-two hours. And she'd done it the old-fashioned way: without drugs. Caffeine didn't count, and six hours north of Dallas-Fort Worth it had quit having any appreciable effect. A marathon drive seemed the lesser of two evils if one was to be a night in a motel room with Piedmont.
Anna poked a finger through the wire door of the carrier buckled into the passenger side of the bench seat. Taco, the black lab she'd inherited after she'd killed her dear friend and Taco's mistress, insisted on squashing his seventy-five pounds between her and the cat. Wearily celebrating this sign of life from his mistress, he brushed his rubbery tail over her wrist where she reached across him. Piedmont wouldn't even bat at her finger. Eyes squeezed shut, he howled.
"We're almost there," she said plaintively. "Don't you want to rest your throat?" Taco's tail thumped. Piedmont yowled.
"Suit yourself." Anna rolled down the window in the hope that the wind would ameliorate the wailings. Her eyes burned. It was too early and too late. It was pitch dark. It was April 15. She hadn't paid her income taxes, and she was in Mississippi. Only a thin and cracking veneer of civilization kept her from taking up Piedmont's lament.
Another hand-printed sign, this one riddled with bullet holes, flashed out of the night: repent. final warning. Ten miles back, Anna'd started having a bad feeling. Now it was worse. This was not at all what she'd expected the fast track to look like.
At forty-five, she'd finally heeded the ticking of her bureaucratic clock. The appeal of living out her dotage on a GS-9 field ranger's salary had begun to wane. Time had come to plan for the day she'd no longer want to sleep on the ground, swing a pulaski or argue with violent unsavory types. Promotions were not easily had in the National Park Service. First, one had to scour the pink sheets for a job opening one GS level above that currently held. Then one had to have, or fake, the KSAs--knowledge, skills and abilities--called for in the desired position. What made a good ranger at Kenai Fiords might be totally useless at Appomattox Courthouse.
That done, one sent in the application. The government then fiddled around in mysterious ways until half the hopefuls died of old age or went on to other jobs. With luck and timing, an offer eventually came.
Given the givens, it wasn't a good career move to turn a promotion down.
For Anna, the call had come from the Deep South; she had been offered a GS-11 district ranger position in the Port Gibson District of the Natchez Trace Parkway, the section that ran from Jackson to Natchez, Mississippi, ninety miles through the heart of one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the union.
"You'll feel better when the sun rises," she promised herself. "Surely the sun rises even in Mississippi." Taco slathered reassurance on her kneecap.
The air through the window was cool but lacked bite. There'd been snow on the ground when she'd driven down off the mesa above Cortez. Heady scents she didn't recognize swept the cab free of the odor of stale McDonald's fries and cat vomit, but they could not clear the head as the scent of pine or rain on the desert did. Smell was primal. This stirred an image deep in Anna's subconscious. Hunched over the wheel, eyes on the writhing black strip of asphalt, she waited as it struggled up through the layers of fatigue: Dorothy's poppy field, Toto, the lion, the girl, tumbling down in a narcotic dream on the outskirts of the Emerald City.
Flashes of green, unfurling black; the road had a mystic sameness that was stultifying. Maybe she should have stayed on Interstate 20 to Clinton, Mississippi, as the chief ranger had instructed, instead of following the tortuous directions for a shortcut she'd gotten when she called one of her soon-to-be field rangers in Port Gibson, a jovial fellow who called himself Randy.
She rolled the window up. With the sandman already in hot pursuit, the last thing she needed was a hypnotic. The road coiled around on itself in a hairpin turn. She was going too fast. The U-Haul bore down on the Rambler, then drifted, slewing the car to the right. She slammed on the brakes. Taco slid to the floor, clawing her leg in a last bid for stability.
The tail was wagging the dog both inside the Rambler and out. Anna stopped fighting the wheel and steered into the skid as if she was on black ice. In the hectic instant that followed, headlights slicing impossible colors from the night, animal caterwauling foretelling the end of the world, it crossed her mind that black ice was a thing of the past. What would replace it in the way of hazard and adventure, she had yet to find out.
Soundlessly, painlessly, the trailer left the road, dragging the rear wheels of the Rambler with it. The coupled vehicles came to a stop with nary a bump. The car tilted unpleasantly and the red-lighted trailer in the rearview mirror held a drunken pose.
"Everybody okay?" Anna's voice shook, and she was glad only furry and therefore sympathetic ears were there to hear. Taco scrabbled up onto the seat, his untrimmed nails doing the aging vinyl no favors. The engine had died. Anna rested her head on the steering wheel. Regardless of the situation, it was good to be still. Silence, after twenty hours of radio, trucks, tapes and the high-pitched whine of rubber on pavement, hit like the first drink on an empty stomach.
Something warm and wet and vile penetrated her ear, and she remembered she was a dog owner. "Two seconds," she begged.
The tongue insinuated itself into her armpit and Anna gave up. Having pulled the leash from under the cat carrier, she fought the usual battle to overcome the dog's joy at a potential walk long enough to clip it to his collar. "Me first," she insisted, and in a fit of good manners Taco waited till she'd slid clear and stood on shaky legs before bounding out the driver's door. The leash slipped from fingers numbed from too long clutching the wheel, and the black lab loped off toward the taillights of the U-Haul.
"Don't go chasing 'coons or whatever the hell dogs chase down here," she muttered. Outside the car, silence was shattered. Stunned by the sheer magnitude of sound, Anna leaned on the door and listened. A chorus, a choir, a nation of frogs sang from darkness curtained close by trees. Wide and deep, the sound chortled, chirped, tickled underfoot, overhead, from every direction. Basso profundo croaks, rough and guttural, were buoyed up by a cacophony of lesser notes.
Big damn frogs, she thought. Or alligators. She'd seen live free-range alligators a few times when she'd been on assignment on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia, but they hadn't uttered a word in her presence. Without questioning it, she'd come away with the idea gators were dumb. Maybe that wasn't so. Mississippi had a whole new natural history she would have to learn.
Big frogs, she decided for the moment, and turned to follow in Taco's paw prints, to see what, if any, damage had been done. One step and she was on her butt, amazed and outraged but otherwise unhurt.
Wet grass lay over earth as liquid and slippery as warm Jell-O. A good surface to take a fall on. A foul surface to try and pull an over-loaded trailer off of--or out of, as the case might be.
Using the door, she pulled herself upright. Slipping and grabbing in a parody of a vintage Jerry Lewis routine, she made it around the Rambler's hood and onto the asphalt. By the glare of the headlights she saw she was covered from the elbows down in caramel-colored liquid. Taco padded up next to her, grinning in idiotic doggie bliss. "We're not in the desert anymore, Taco," she said, paraphrasing Dorothy's observation as she wrenched open the passenger door to fumble under the seat for a towel and a flashlight.
Piedmont had not stopped complaining. "You're getting on my very last nerve," she warned the cat. He remained unimpressed.
Flashlight and towel in hand, she closed the door on the vocalization of feline suffering. The towel smelled of things that had once been on the inside of the cat and the flashlight beam was only slightly less brown than the Mississippi mud, but it would suffice.
Taco danced like a puppy, though Anna figured him to be five or six at least, then dashed off to the rear of the little caravan, yipping and grumbling as if the news was not good for humans but extremely entertaining for dogs.
Anna followed, her moccasins squishing at each step. Frog music, velvet darkness, and perfumed air all closed around her, and the walk of twenty feet took on a bizarre timelessness. She'd been too long on the road.
At the back of the U-Haul she stopped and stared. Taco leapt about with glee. "This can't be right," she said stupidly.
Caught in the demon eyes of the taillights, a tree, a foot in diameter where it leaned against the bumper, lay over the trailer. Leafy boughs embraced the orange and white metal. Roots poked out of the ground, bent and angry as arthritic hands where the tree had been uprooted by the force of impact. Except there'd been no impact. Nothing but a gentle slide into this oblivion of sentient and predatory plant materials. Had she dozed off behind the wheel? She didn't think so, but it wasn't out of the realm of possibility.
Too dull with lack of sleep to do much else, she played her pathetic light over the rear of the trailer. No scrapes, no dents, therefore no impact. Unfortunately, logic had no effect on the tree. A locust, she guessed, twenty-five or thirty feet tall, had her vehicles in a death grip. If she pulled forward, the half-buried roots would act as an anchor and she'd dig herself into the slime. Back, and she'd ram the topmost branches down over the trailer and onto the roof of the car.
"Well, shit," she confided in the dog and stood a moment hoping things would be different. She could unhitch the trailer, drive off and return for it--or what was left of it--with the proper equipment. Assuming the Natchez Trace Parkway had the proper equipment.
Home was in that white and orange box, and a deep unsettling unease boiled up at the thought of leaving it on the side of a strange road in a strange land.
"Shit," she reiterated.
Headlights rounded the corner from the direction she'd come. In proper rabbit fashion, she stared into them. Engine noise and the metallic complaint of a derelict truck momentarily quieted the frogs. Fear, not even a thought before, sprang full-blown from some Yankee collective unconscious. James Dickey and Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and "squeal like a pig." Mississippi Burning, "I have a dream," and chain gangs in the cotton fields. Nothing personal, nothing even secondhand, yet Anna had been fed a nightmare of the rednecked heart of Dixie.
The truck clattered to a stop and was instantly enveloped by a toxic cloud of exhaust. A plaid-covered elbow hung out the window. Above it, thrust into the pale beam of Anna's flash, was a round face under a beat-up ball cap.
"Lady, you look to be in a whole heap of hurt." The voice was thick, its owner talking around a wad of chewing tobacco the size of a golf ball. Anna blinked, waiting to see if her leg was being pulled or if he really talked that way.
"A whole heap of hurt," he repeated.
"Looks like it," she said. Taco wandered back to resume guard dog duties. He leaned against her muddy thigh, beating a canine welcome on the bumper with his tail.
"Hunter?" the moon-pie face asked.
"Tourist," Anna said, too tired to explain about jobs and transfers.
The man's pale face split into a laugh, and Anna saw, or thought she saw, streaks of tobacco juice on his teeth. Her old Colt .357 wheel gun was in the glove box. The thought comforted her as she edged in that direction.
"What did she say, Baby?" a creaking voice cut through the one-sided hilarity.
Ancient laughter crackled from the window, leaking around the man Anna could see.
"Not you," the driver managed, merriment abated. "Your dog. He a huntin' dog?"
"Tourist," Anna said again.
"Tourist dog, Daddy." Much laughter. Anna found herself inclined to join in but was afraid it would turn to hysteria.
"Get on with it, Baby. I got work to do," came a querulous creaking from the invisible passenger.
The round face sobered, the wad of chaw was more securely stowed in the cheek and "Baby" got down to business. "Daddy wants to know if y'all need a hand."
By way of reply, Anna shined her failing light on the locust clutching her trailer. The verdant embrace struck her funny bone, comedy of the absurd, and she laughed. "You wouldn't happen to have a chainsaw on you, would you?"
Baby looked at her as if she was a half-wit, then said to the darkness beyond his shoulder: "Lady needs a chainsaw, Daddy."
Anna heard the unhappy notes of bent metal being forced as the passenger door of the truck opened and closed. Taco whined and wagged. Rummaging noises emanated from the pickup bed, then an old man--somewhere between sixty and biblical--came around the end of the truck, red brake lights lending his shrunken cheeks and spindly silhouette a devilish cast. In his left hand was a chainsaw with a twenty-four-inch blade.
"Whatcher need cut? That tree you backed on into?"
Anna was torn between efficiency and dignity. Efficiency lost. "I didn't back into it," she defended herself. "I slid ever so gently into the muck and, bingo, a tree was on me." Pretty lame, but it was the best she could do.
Daddy nodded. "Loess," he said, leaving her no wiser. "Melts like sugar. Back the truck up, Baby. You're just an accident waitin' to happen. Back on up now," he admonished sharply as the younger man started to pull ahead. "Git those headlights on the job. You know that."
Gears grated, meshed, and the truck lumbered back till the headlights threw the old man, the trailer and the tree into garish relief. Anna shaded her eyes from the glare and watched as, one-handed, Daddy drop-started the chainsaw and began cutting away the locust, smaller branches first. Baby, out of the truck so Anna could see the full effect, wore overalls over a plaid shirt and heavy boots. As his father cut, he swamped, hauling away the branches, some as big around as Anna's leg. Early on she offered to help but was warned she'd get herself "all over poison ivy" and so desisted. Pride was one thing, poison ivy quite another. She'd had it once and counted herself among the sadder but wiser girls.
The tree was quickly disposed of. A chain, appearing from the same rubble of necessities that had camouflaged the chainsaw, was hooked around the Rambler's bumper, and fifteen minutes start to finish, Baby and Daddy had Anna back on the road. Sensing an offer of money would be offensive, she thanked them by volunteering information about herself, an intellectual breaking of bread to indicate trust and a willingness to share as they had shared their time and strength with her.
"I got a job on the Natchez Trace," she told them after giving her name. "I'm working for the Park Service there in Port Gibson." She was careful not to mention she was in law enforcement. Either it made people feel as if they had to take a stand on the gender issue or it inspired them to relate every story they'd ever heard where a cop had done somebody dirt. Still, Baby and Daddy looked blank.`
"The Trace there by Port Gibson?" Daddy said at last. The old man leaned on the front of the pickup, the single working headlight shining past his scrawny red-cotton-covered chest in a rural depiction of the sacred heart painting that hung in the hall of Mercy High, where Anna had attended boarding school. "Then what're you doing in these parts beside getting yourself stuck?"
It was Anna's turn to look blank. "Going to the Natchez Trace?" she asked hopefully.
"Nope," Daddy said.
"You're going nowhere," Baby added helpfully.
"That's pretty much it," Daddy confirmed.
"One of the rangers I talked to on the phone said this was a shortcut."
Daddy and Baby found that inordinately amusing. Gratitude was fading, but Anna hadn't the energy to replace it with anything but pathos so she maintained her good cheer. At least outwardly.
"What you want is Highway 27 out of Vicksburg," Baby told her, and aimed a stream of tobacco juice politely the other way. "Where you're at starts out as Old Black Road and ends up as nothing down on the river. It's where me and Daddy goes fishing. All's down there is moccasins and mosquitoes."
"I must have read the directions wrong," Anna said.
"Way wrong. Those old boys was having a joke and you were it," Daddy said succinctly. "You go on a couple miles'n you'll see a place to turn around. Then you go back the way you come twenty miles or so. You'll find 27. If you hit the interstate, you gone too far."
Anna thanked them again. They waited. She waited. Then she realized they weren't leaving till they saw her safe in her car and on her way. Having loaded Taco, she climbed in the Rambler and pulled back into the twisted night.
Daddy was right. She'd not misread the directions; she'd followed them to the letter. One of her rangers wasn't anxious to see her arrive: Randy Thigpen, a GS-9 field ranger she'd be supervising. Anna wished she could dredge up some surprise at the petty betrayal, but she was too old and too cynical. Nobody involved in the hiring process had come right out and said anything, and in these days of rampant litigation and gender skirmishes, they wouldn't dare. But she'd heard the subtext in the pauses. There'd never been a female law enforcement ranger on the far southern end of the Trace, and there'd never been a female district ranger in any of the nine districts and four hundred fiftyÐodd miles of the parkway. It had been unofficially deemed too conservative, too old-fashioned for such an alarming development. From the gossip she'd picked up, she was hired because she was known to have an "edge." She was an experiment. They would find if she was to be a cat among the pigeons or the other way around. The "old-fashioned" people, Anna had thought, would be the park visitors. Randy Thigpen evidently wanted to carry the experiment into the office.
Jump off that bridge when you come to it, she told herself.
When she finally found her way onto the Trace, the sun was rising and, with it, her spirits. The vague picture she'd formed in her mind of a bleak and dusty place, overfarmed by sharecroppers, dotted with shacks and broken-down vehicles, was shattered in a rainbow brilliance of flowers. "Wake up, Taco," she said, nudging the beast with her knee. "Hang your head out the window or something useful. The place looks like it's been decorated for a wedding."
The Natchez Trace Parkway, a two-lane road slated, when finished, to run from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi, had been the brainchild of the Ladies' Garden Clubs in the south. Besides preserving a unique part of the nation's past, the federal government had believed, building the Trace would pump money, jobs and a paved road into what was then a depressed area. Unlike other scenic parkways, such as the Blue Ridge in Tennessee or the John D. Rockefeller Jr. National Parkway in Wyoming, the Trace would not be based on spectacular scenery but would conserve the natural and agricultural history of Mississippi. It would follow and, where possible, preserve the original trail made through the swamps and forest by Kentucks, entrepreneurs out of what would become Kentucky, walking back home after rafting goods down the Mississippi to be sold at the port in Natchez, and by the outlaws who preyed upon them, by Indians trading and warring and finally by soldiers of the Union Army bent on bringing the South to heel.
This morning no ghost of the violence remained. Mile after mile, the road dipped and turned gracefully through rich fields, grassy meadows, shoulders bright in red clover, daffodils, pink joe-pye weed and a water-blue flower Anna didn't recognize. Dogwood blossoms winked through the spring woods. Purple wisteria, vines covering trees fifty feet high, draped to the ground. Red bud trees added crimson patches. Carolina jasmine, yellow falls of blooms, draped over fences and downed timber. And there was no traffic. Not a single car coming or going. The dreamlike quality of the frog-song-filled night was carrying over into the light of day.
After twelve miles of garden beauty, the road widened briefly into four lanes and Anna saw the sign for Rocky Springs Campground.
"We're home," she told the animals. The words sounded mocking, though she'd not meant them that way. Mississippi was about as far from home as Anna had ever been, if not in miles, then in mind.
Reprinted from Deep South by Nevada Barr by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Nevada Barr. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.