Muletrain to Maggody (Arly Hanks Series #14)by Joan Hess
Away down south in Maggody, Arkansas, Police Chief Arly Hanks, "the sharpest small-town sleuth since Miss Marple" (Kirkus Reviews), must keep the peace when the Civil War or a darn good replication masks a modern-day murderer!
Muletrain to Maggody
A few dozen die-hard Yanks and Rebs, a dewy-eyed belle, and a general or two have/b>/i>
Away down south in Maggody, Arkansas, Police Chief Arly Hanks, "the sharpest small-town sleuth since Miss Marple" (Kirkus Reviews), must keep the peace when the Civil War or a darn good replication masks a modern-day murderer!
Muletrain to Maggody
A few dozen die-hard Yanks and Rebs, a dewy-eyed belle, and a general or two have rolled into town...and so has a documentary film crew, to re-enact a piece of Maggody history. Not that the Skirmish at Cotter's Ridge was particularly significant (it wasn't), or that folks care overly about the 1863 scuffle (they don't). But rumors are flying like musket-fire that two saddlebags of long-lost Confederate gold are holed up in a local cave, and frankly, my dear, everyone gives a damn about getting their hands on it. Authenticity goes overboard when the body count starts rising, and Arly must catch a killer to ensure that the people of Maggody can live, not die, in Dixie.
Read an Excerpt
Once again I found myself trudging toward the high school cafeteria for a meeting. The last one had been courtesy of the school board, and mayhem and murder had followed within a matter of weeks. That, I believe, is a pretty damn good reason to ban all meetings, especially in Maggody, Arkansas (population 755 or so, depending on what you count). I don't object to the Missionary Society getting together at the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall to grumble about the heathens over coffee and cinnamon rolls, or the Wednesday night potluck suppers where paper plates runneth over with ham, green bean casseroles, and lemon squares. The ladies of the County Extension chapter are welcome to their weekly discussions of the blatantly biased judging of pickled okra at the fair every fall. For that matter, what business is it of mine if Mayor Jim Bob Buchanon huddles with his cronies to play poker in the back room of Roy Stiver's Antiques Shop?
But this was an official town meeting, and my appearance as chief of police was mandatory or so I'd been told by Mrs. Jim Bob only that morning. She'd refused to say what the meeting was about or why I had to be there, but I had a feeling I was neither going to be fired (who else would have my miserable job?) nor presented with a raise (miserable and miserly have a certain similarity). When I'd slunk back to Maggody after a nasty divorce from a Manhattan advertising hotshot who appreciated the finer things in life as long as they were blond and mindless I hadn't expected much more than a semblance of sympathy and a whole lot of home cookin' from my mother, Ruby Bee, proprietor of a bar & grill of the same name. I'd declined her offer to let me live in one of the units in the Flamingo Motel out back and had instead rented what was supposedly an efficiency apartment above the antiques shop. It was cold and clammy in the winter, and steamy in the summer. The cockroaches thrived in both climates, and I doubted global warming (or an ice age) would deplete their numbers.
Ruby Bee didn't have a clue about the reason for the meeting, and she knows darn close to every last thing that happens within the city limits, including sneezes, wheezes, and sexual trysts outside the confines of holy matrimony. Her best friend Estelle Oppers owns Estelle's Hair Fantasies out on County 101. What Ruby Bee doesn't hear about in the bar is gleaned there during perms and manicures, when a mere hangnail can lead to sobbing admissions of unrequited love or shoplifting at the supermarket. Growing up in Maggody was always a challenge for someone of a teenaged persuasion who liked to drink a little beer on the banks of Boone Creek and count the lightnin' bugs.
If you don't know what that means, settle for a literal interpretation.
I caught up with Ruby Bee and Estelle at the front door of the high school, and we walked down the corridor together.
"You still don't know what this is about?" I asked them.
Ruby Bee growled. "No, I don't reckon anyone in town except Mrs. Jim Bob knows. Lottie Estes said all the teachers were ordered to attend. None of them's happy about it."
"But this ain't a school board meeting," Estelle pointed out, waggling her red beehive of hair for emphasis. She and Ruby Bee make a very odd couple, since one resembles a fire hydrant atop a fencepost and the other a short stack of unbaked biscuits.
We continued into the cafeteria and sat down at a lunch table in the back of the room. Quite a few folks were already wiggling uncomfortably on the plastic benches, muttering among themselves about how some damn fool meeting was interfering with their constitutional right to vegetate in front of the television. Earl and Eileen Buchanon nodded at us, as did Elsie McMay and a visibly disgruntled Lottie Estes. Darla Jean McIlhaney sat with her parents, Millicent and Jeremiah. Larry Joe Lambertino, who's the shop teacher, and his wife, Joyce, were hissing at each other, which they did a lot.
At a table in the front of the room sat Hizzoner the Moron (aka Jim Bob Buchanon), his wife Mrs. Jim Bob (aka Barbara Ann Buchanon Buchanon), Roy Stiver, and a stout woman with steely gray hair and the expressiveness of a bass beached on a gravel bar in the midday sun.
Ruby Bee nudged me. "Who in tarnation do you think that is?"
"How would I know?" I said, still scanning the room to see who all had been bullied into attending the meeting. A fair percentage of them were Buchanons, but that was not remarkable, since there are more Buchanons in Stump County than flies on a dead possum. Most of them have protuberant foreheads, thick lips, and yellowish eyes, and there's nary a college grad among them, mostly due to the dropout rate long about eighth grade. Nevertheless, a few of them are as wily as pole cats. Raz Buchanon's been running his still up on Cotter's Ridge since the dawn of time. When I'm truly bored, I pack a picnic lunch and go looking for it, but the sumbitch stays a step ahead of me. The Arkansas two-step, I suppose.
Jim Bob banged his fist on the tabletop. "Okay, I'm calling this meeting to order. We're gonna skip the minutes from the last meeting and the treasurer's report and all that crap. Mrs. Jim Bob has the floor, so y'all listen up."
Even though Mrs. Jim Bob has plenty of Buchanon blood, her lips are thinner than paper matches and her eyes are dark and beady. She has never risked eternal damnation by painting her face like a common floozy, and her hair was reminiscent of a style predominant in 1960s high school yearbooks. As usual, she was wearing a starchy white blouse buttoned to the top despite the lack of air-conditioning.
She stood up and waited as her audience settled down for what well might be an interminable session. "Thank you for coming," she said with a brief smile. "A most exciting thing is about to happen right here in Maggody, and it's going to require full cooperation from all our Christian, law-abiding citizens. I am pleased that so many of you put aside your self-indulgent and slothful ways to attend this evening."
"Good thing Raz ain't here," whispered Ruby Bee.
Mrs. Jim Bob frowned at her, then continued. "Now I'd like to introduce Miss Harriet Hathaway, who lives over in Farberville and is the president of the Stump County Historical Society. Let's give her our full attention."
She began to clap, so the rest of us dutifully followed suit. Once the pitter-patter faded, the woman stood up and said, "As you were told, I am Harriet Hathaway, and I've been the president of the Stump County Historical Society for fifteen years. The society manages the Headquarters House, which was controlled by both Confederate and Union forces during the Civil War. We also publish a quarterly digest called Remembrances of Stump County's Past, provide programs for schoolchildren, and sponsor an ice cream social in the summer. I'd planned to bring slides, but I was informed that a projector and screen could not be made available."
"Hallelujah," mumbled someone off to the side of the room.
"Excuse me?" said Mrs. Jim Bob, rising to her feet. "Do you wish to contribute to the discussion, Earl Buchanon?"
"No, ma'am, it's just that there's a baseball game what's already started, and I was hopin' we'd be done right soon so I can "
"Then you'd best stop interrupting. Now, Miss Hathaway, if you'll tell us your exciting news..."
Miss Hathaway appeared a little flustered, probably because the historical society meetings were exercises in tea and cookies. In Maggody, we're more into RC Colas and Moon Pies.
"Well, then," she said, "as I'm sure many of you know, this year will be the one hundred and fortieth anniversary of the Battle of Farberville, fought primarily on the hillside above the Headquarters House. Over three hundred Confederate troops died or were wounded before the Union forces prevailed."
"Damn Yankees," said Jim Bob, then ducked his head as his wife stared at him.
"So what's this got to do with Maggody?" asked Estelle.
"Three days before the battle, a small unit from the Arkansas Fifth, garrisoned in Little Rock at that time, arrived at the edge of Stump County after an arduous six-day trek. They were bringing two saddlebags of gold to pay the soldiers of General Lambdin's brigade, which was coming from the west to halt a Union attempt to secure the Arkansas-Missouri border. They rode mules because they were pulling a cannon on a caisson and a wagon filled with munitions. Their numbers had been depleted due to swollen creeks and the muddy conditions of the road. Also, according to a journal entry made by a young private named Henry Largesse, they'd gorged themselves on green persimmons and many of them had to remain behind as the rest moved north." She paused for effect, but no one seemed overwhelmingly entranced by the narrative. "When they arrived not too far from here, the lieutenant decided to camp near what is now called Boone Creek and allow the men a full day and night of rest before what would surely be a bloody battle."
Ruby Bee flapped her hand. "So this is what we're all supposed to be so excited about? They came, they camped, and then went and got theirselves shot?"
"If you will please allow me to continue," said Miss Hathaway, her voice as steely as her hair, "I'll be succinct. It seems the soldiers found a small, squalid farm and took a pig back to camp to be roasted. Despite the fact this was an unfortunately common practice on both sides, the rightful owner was so incensed that he threatened them with a shotgun and was severely thrashed for his lack of patriotism. He was quite lucky not to have been hanged. In retaliation, he rode to the Missouri border and informed a Union general named Alessio of the proximity of the Confederate unit, although most likely not in those exact terms. General Alessio immediately dispatched a cavalry troop to ambush the unit from Little Rock and take possession of the cannon, wagon, and mules. It is unlikely that he was aware of the gold in the saddlebags."
Estelle elbowed me and whispered, "This is gettin' kind of interesting, ain't it? One side's got gold and a cannon, and the other side is aiming to bushwhack 'em. I wonder why we never heard any of this before."
"Could be because no one's written a comprehensive history of this meadow muffin of a town," I whispered back. "Remember when that genealogist tried to chart the Buchanon family tree? Supposedly she had an accident after driving away, but I've always suspected suicide."
"Chief of Police Hanks," chirped Mrs. Jim Bob, "please save your discourteous behavior for a more appropriate moment. My apologies, Miss Hathaway."
Miss Hathaway nodded at her. "Yes, of course. During the night, while the Confederates were sleeping off their fine feast, the Union soldiers took a position in a field near the road and waited for sunrise." She picked up a notebook and flipped it open. "I will now read the pertinent entry from the private's journal, written several weeks after the incident. The journal itself only came to light a few weeks ago, when a family member found it in a trunk and donated it to the historical society. Here is an excerpt: 'Come dawn we got the gear stowed and the mules saddled, then headed out. The lieutenant, scared as the rest of us, said we'd most likely meet up with General Lambdin's troops by nightfall. My second cousin from down by Booneville was one of their gunners, so I was looking forward to seeing him and swapping family news. I found out later he'd died of dysentery only a month earlier, likely without never hearing about his sister's baby.'" Miss Hathaway looked up. "He now digresses about family affairs, and then continues. 'We'd gone mebbe not a quarter of a mile when out of nowhere comes musket fire from a field off to the east. We hunkered behind a low stone wall and tried to figure out where the Yanks was. Custiss volunteered to scout 'em out, but was shot square in the back afore he could take three steps. Some of the boys was shaking so hard I thought they'd pass out, but somehow we all grabbed our muskets and returned fire. This goes on for most of the morning. We could see the bastards, but we was already outnumbered and couldn't seem to force them back. By noon, we were down to six boys and the lieutenant, who was getting mighty grim. He ordered Emil Jenks to take the gold up on the ridge behind us and hide it in a cave so it wouldn't fall into Yankee hands if we dint make it. Soon as Emil got back, all covered with mud and panting like a coon dog, the lieutenant took a hit to the side of his head and took to bleeding like a stuck pig. He ordered us to git ourselves on the mules and get the hell out afore we was all slaughtered, saying we should come back for the gold later. Emil was trying to tell us where he'd hid the saddlebags when a minié ball took him in the throat. I don't reckon I can ever forget the look on his face when he fell. The rest of us lit out like Satan was snapping at our heels and didn't ease up till we was a good mile away.'"
Miss Hathaway stopped reading and said, "The entry goes on to describe how the young private was shot in the thigh during the Battle of Farberville and had his leg amputated by a field surgeon. He managed to survive long enough to make it to his home, where he eventually died of complications from the surgery."
"So what about the gold?" asked Earl Buchanon, who'd clearly forgotten all about home runs and double plays. "Is it still up there?"
Miss Hathaway shrugged. "According to the journal, the private was the only one of the Confederates involved in the Skirmish at Cotter's Ridge to survive the Battle of Farberville, and he was in no condition to be sent back to find the precise location. All he could tell General Lambdin was that there were a few dirt-scratch farms, a creek, and a ridge. That description could fit many of the communities in Stump County, even today."
"We got us a stoplight and a fine supermarket," said Jim Bob.
"I'm sure you do," she said, not turning to look at him. "In order to commemorate the Battle of Farberville, the historical society has received a grant for various projects. We can hardly stage a reenactment of the battle itself, since the hill where it took place is now cluttered with homes and power lines. Therefore, we have decided to make a documentary film of what took place here. With meticulous camera angles and editing, we feel as though we can end up with a reasonably accurate depiction. It will be shown at the Headquarters House as an important part of our educational program."
"Remember when those Hollywood folks tried to make a movie here?" whispered Estelle. "Now that was something."
Ruby Bee leaned around me. "These ain't Hollywood folks, Estelle."
"I doubt this documentary will have any sex scenes," I said drily.
Eileen Buchanon stood up. "So what does this mean to us? Are we supposed to get on mules and gallop around till we get shot?"
"Not at all," said Miss Hathaway. "We put out the word for three dozen reenactors and had more volunteers than we can possibly use. A filmmaker from Missouri has offered his services and equipment in exchange for expenses. Two impressionists with national reputations will arrive a few days in advance to speak at the schools about the hardships realized not only by the soldiers, but also by the civilians. One of them portrays a Southern widow, the other a Northern general. It's a wonderful educational opportunity for the students. They both have very busy schedules, so we were quite lucky to engage them."
"So how many folks are you expecting?" asked Ruby Bee. "I own the one motel in town, and it's only got six units."
"The reenactors will set up their camps so that schoolchildren and interested citizens can tour the facilities and learn how the soldiers lived during those infamous years. Mrs. Jim Bob has kindly offered to provide hospitality to myself, Wendell Streek, who is the treasurer of the historical society, and a few other selected parties. We will need to reserve units for the filmmaker and his assistant. He's told me that he will hire a few of your local teenagers to help them."
"Where we're going to make money," inserted Jim Bob, "is from the tourists coming into town to goggle at this play-acting. Some of 'em might pay to camp on various folks' pastures. The SuperSaver is gonna fix up box lunches and sell fancy bottled water. The pool hall's liable to do some lively business after dark on account of the nearest movie theater being twenty miles away. There's been some talk about the high school having a square dance in the gym, with the profits going to buy new uniforms for the football team." He gave me an evil smile. "And the town's revenue is bound to go up with all the tickets our dedicated chief of police writes for speeding, running the stoplight, illegal parking, trespassing, littering, and whatever else goes on. Maybe the town council will pass an ordinance that forbids spitting in public."
"I'll second that," I said. "You can recruit Raz to be your poster boy."
Miss Hathaway cleared her throat. "We have not publicized this because of the potentially volatile nature of the information in the journal. Members of the historical society have been informed, naturally, and might drive out to watch the filming. The reenactors will bring along a few family members, most of whom will stay in area RV parks and campgrounds. Word of the treasure will leak out eventually, but I doubt Maggody will experience an influx of tourists for a few weeks."
"Just who are these reenactors that are gonna be running all over town?" asked Lottie Estes. "Are they like actors on a movie set? I don't like the idea of a lot of armed strangers that think the Civil War is just an excuse to get drunk and start throwing punches at each other like those rednecks at the pool hall."
"I asked that question myself. Two members of the society were reenactors before their infirmities forced them to retire. For them, and apparently most of the others, it's a hobby, not a religion or an obsession. They told me there are more than forty thousand reenactors in the nation. The reenactment weekends are clean-cut family activities, camping trips, reunions with friends. They're trying to recapture, if just for the few days, an era of simplicity. Women in long skirts, peeling potatoes and swapping recipes. Children playing tag instead of computer games. Lanterns, campfires, and banjos instead of telemarketers and utility bills. They invest money in their hobby, but perhaps less than fishermen with their state-of-the-art sonar equipment and lures. I don't think we'll have to worry about unruly behavior, especially with such a small group."
"You used the word 'most,'" I said pointedly, being the defender of law and order and all that.
Miss Hathaway looked down for a moment, clearly uncomfortable. "According to Mr. Mazurri, sadly confined to his wheelchair because of rheumatoid arthritis, there is a small faction of what are known as 'hard cores.' They take their roles very seriously, and have nothing but contempt for the 'farbs,' as they call them. The term 'farb' supposedly comes from the phrase 'far be it from authentic.' Whether or not this is true, I cannot say. In any case, none of the reenactors will have ammunition in their muskets, or even paper wadding, due to the danger of pasture fires. It will all be" she smiled "smoke and mirrors, in a manner of speaking. Rebels from the South, Yankees from the North, mules, a cannon, a caisson, and of course the two saddlebags of gold."
Estelle, no more interested in the reenactors than the majority of those present in the cafeteria, flapped her hand. "So you're saying the gold might still be up on Cotter's Ridge. Just how much is it worth today?"
"That's impossible to say. What records that were not destroyed imply that the saddlebags contained gold Double Eagles, valued at twenty dollars each at the time. Today numismatists value such coins at anywhere from a few hundred dollars to as much as fifty thousand dollars, depending on the year of mintage and condition."
"You're fuckin' kidding!" said Jim Bob, his yellow eyes glinting like doubloons.
His wife swatted him hard enough to leave his head spinning for several days. "Miss Hathaway, please overlook that crass remark. Our citizens will welcome this opportunity to contribute to the preservation of the significant role our community played in the history of Stump County. We'll do everything we can long about the middle of next week to ensure that the documentary is a fine and fitting tribute."
My turn, as I stood up and said with all the grace of a strangled bullfrog, "Next week?"
Miss Hathaway managed a less than convincing smile. "Yes, I'm afraid we weren't able to give you much notice. It's a delicate matter, historically speaking. Once the journal turned up with the reference to the treasure, we decided that it would be in the best interests of preserving the sanctity of the site to minimize publicity. The journal will not be made available for scrutiny by historians until after the reenactment has been filmed. Perhaps the soldier who takes the role of Emil Jenks will actually find the cave and return with the saddlebags of gold. Wouldn't that be thrilling?"
I drove back to the bar with Ruby Bee and Estelle, waited patiently while the former switched on all the neon signs (including that of the molting flamingo out front with a dubious "V can y" promise), unlocked the cash register, and bustled around until she was satisfied.
"Any chance of a grilled cheese sandwich?" I said wistfully.
Estelle, who'd poured herself a glass of sherry and was now perched on her favorite stool at the end of the bar, said, "I swear, Arly, if you keep eatin' this way, you're gonna end up looking like Dahlia. I wonder how many yards of material she has to use to make one of those tent dresses she wears?"
"At least she doesn't have to buy maternity clothes," said Ruby Bee. "Her and Kevin sure couldn't afford that, what with the way the two of them keep making babies. Kevvie Junior and Rose Marie ain't gonna be much more than a year old when they get a baby brother or sister." She gave me a hard look. "I hear Eileen's tickled pink to have another grandbaby. I suppose any of us would be."
"Maybe she'll sell you one of hers." I turned my attention to the pies under glass domes. "How about a slice of apple pie?"
Ruby Bee stalked into the kitchen. "Get it yourself," she said as the door swung closed.
I did as ordered, then glanced at Estelle, who was sucking on a pretzel. "So what do you think about this Civil War thing?"
"It might prove interesting. Jim Bob's probably right that it'll bring in some tourists, and gawd knows we can all use the business. Not that I'll see any of it, though. Folks don't think about stopping by to get their hair done before settling down on aluminum lawn chairs to watch a battle."
"It will be thrilling," said Mrs. Jim Bob as she and Harriet Hathaway came across the tiny dance floor. "The Civil War was a pageant of courage, sacrifice, romance, and patriotism. Brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, lovers cruelly torn from each other's arms, young men losing their lives to protect their cherished traditions. I'll never forget when Scarlett O'Hara stood there on the top of the hill and swore she'd never go hungry again."
Miss Hathaway eyed Estelle's glass and sighed. "Do you think I could have a small drop of sherry? It's been a very long day."
Estelle patted the stool next to hers. "You just climb right up here, honey, and I'll fetch you one. Would you care for a pretzel?"
This left Mrs. Jim Bob in a most awkward position. Sitting on a bar stool in proximity to alcohol might cost her the presidency of the Missionary Society if the information was leaked and it surely would be. Then again, she was merely a commissioned officer in Miss Hathaway's brigade. She resolved the dilemma by remaining on the dance floor.
"We went by the police department," she said to me. "It was locked."
I shrugged. "I don't keep evening office hours. All criminal activity must take place between the hours of nine and five, excluding my lunch break. Maybe the town council should hire a deputy."
"Or a new chief of police," Mrs. Jim Bob said with a sniff.
"I hear there's an opening for a constable in Bugscuffle. Maybe I ought to apply for it."
Ruby Bee came out of the kitchen and banged down a plate in front of me. "What's all this about?" she demanded. "You aiming to order Jim Bob to fire Arly? You tell him if he does, he ain't never settin' foot in here again! I can get along just fine without him spilling beer all over the place, telling dirty jokes, spitting on the floor, and pinching women's behinds."
Mrs. Jim Bob stiffened. "I said no such thing. Miss Hathaway merely wants to finalize a few details before she returns to Farberville."
Ruby Bee looked down the bar. "I run a reputable establishment, Miss Hathaway, and you are most welcome
unlike some other folks. What can I do for you?"
"Please, call me Harriet. The documentary crew will arrive in five days, and as far as I've been told, will require rooms for three nights. Mr. Wallace will use one, and his assistant the other. May I assume your rates can be accommodated by our limited budget?"
"Just one assistant?" asked Estelle.
"He assured us that he has done this kind of thing before. Will they be able to have their meals here?"
Ruby Bee glared at Mrs. Jim Bob. "Their only other choices are the Dairee Dee-Lishus, which is run by a right surly Mexican fellow, and the deli at the supermarket, which was closed down during the grand opening on account of food poisoning. You recollect that, Arly?"
I put down the grilled cheese sandwich in order to hold up my hands. "Leave me out of this. I'm just going to arrest people for speeding and spitting, or maybe both."
Mrs. Jim Bob, who was in one sense in the limelight but also in a pink one above the dance floor, took a cautious step forward. "That problem was resolved, but thank you so much for mentioning it, Ruby Bee. Arly, you will need to coordinate with the sheriff's department concerning crowd control and parking. When particular scenes are being filmed, the road will have to be closed to traffic. We cannot have chicken trucks and station wagons inching past the muletrain."
"Oh, heavens no," said Miss Hathaway. "In fact, at least half a mile of the road will have to be covered with dirt in order to re-create the conditions of the era. Even tire tracks would be incongruous."
Estelle smirked at me. "I have a pretty good idea who ain't gonna win any popularity contests when the time comes."
"What else is involved?" I asked Miss Hathaway as visions of tar and feathers danced in my head. "Are you going to drape the bar in camouflage and shut down the supermarket?"
"Nothing like that," she said. "Any glimpses of them on film can be edited out. Most of the action will be limited to the armies' campsites, the half-mile stretch of road, and a pasture that I was told belongs to Earl Buchanon." She smiled at Mrs. Jim Bob, who'd been creeping closer to the bar. "A relative of yours?"
Estelle snorted so fiercely that sherry dribbled out of her nose. "I should say so! If all the Buchanons was to have a family reunion, they could spend six weeks trying to sort out stepsisters and half brothers, first cousins, second cousins, cousins once or twice or three times removed that also happen to be aunts and uncles, not to mention certain paternity issues best left undescribed. Ol' Bigger Buchanon that lived up in Badger Holler fathered six girls and fourteen grandbabies, all of 'em with very distinctive dimples in their chins. Once the social workers saw what was going on "
"Thank you for sharing that," said Mrs. Jim Bob. "Miss Hathaway would no doubt like to be getting home, so why don't we finish our business?"
"Didn't Posthumus Buchanon meet his wife at a family reunion?" said Ruby Bee, always eager to turn a tense situation into something that might require UN peacekeepers.
Mrs. Jim Bob crossed her arms. "As I said, let's finish our business. The reenactors will arrive on Thursday. That evening the Maggody Chamber of Commerce will welcome them with a picnic on the lawn of the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall. Their respective camps, one out past the bridge and the other on the hillside below my house, will be open the following day for sightseers and teacher-supervised field trips for schoolchildren. On Friday evening, all the participants and local dignitaries will be invited to a pig roast, and then the next morning the skirmish will be filmed."
"What Chamber of Commerce?" demanded Ruby Bee, who was clearly still pissed at Mrs. Jim Bob. "Maggody doesn't have a fool thing like that."
"I guess you don't hear quite everything that happens here. The board consists of Jim Bob, Roy, and Larry Joe. Brother Verber is the spokesman for the spiritual community. I myself agreed to represent the various civic organizations."
Estelle turned back to look at her. "Next you're gonna say the Kiwanis and the Rotary clubs have been holding secret meetings out by the low-water bridge, unless you're confusing them with the Ku Klux Klan." She patted Miss Hathaway on the shoulder. "Not that we'd tolerate any of them."
I decided to intervene. "Miss Hathaway, if this private didn't know where they were when the Yankees attacked, why are you so certain it was here in Maggody?"
"Good question," said Ruby Bee. "As you yourself said earlier, there are plenty of other towns in Stump County with a creek and a ridge."
"Historians and scholars have generally agreed that the skirmish took place here, but hardly considered it worthy of more than a footnote. General Alessio's cavalry troop had a fairly concise idea how far south they came, and when they returned north during daylight hours, noted a few communities and landmarks. The route assigned to the Confederate unit was chosen to avoid a few strategically placed Union troops known to be in areas adjoining Stump County. There is very little doubt about the location. The young private's journal, however, was the first link with that particular allotment of gold coins."
"But no clues about what happened to the gold over the next hundred and forty years?" I asked. "No one stumbled across it?"
"Or what if," said Estelle, lowering her voice for maximum dramatic impact, "this lieutenant kept the gold and gave that young fellow a saddlebag filled with rocks?"
Miss Hathaway shook her head. "The journal mentions that the five surviving soldiers took off with nothing more than their weapons, abandoning everything, including their haversacks, canteens, and bedrolls. Henry was quite saddened by the fact he'd been obliged to leave behind a scarf knitted for him by his mother."
Ruby Bee sighed. "Such a terrible thing. It don't strike me as a pageant, but just one long tragedy."
"Perhaps you lack imagination," said Mrs. Jim Bob. "Miss Hathaway, I know you must be tuckered out. I'll take you back to my house so you can freshen up before you drive home. As for the rest of you, I will be delivering your committee assignments as soon as I've decided how best to delegate responsibility."
"Just who told her she hung the moon?" sputtered Ruby Bee as Mrs. Jim Bob and Miss Hathaway went out the front door. "She may be able to boss around the likes of Joyce Lambertino and Elsie McMay, but she'd better be real careful before she tries that with me. If we hadn't had company, I would have said it right to her face!"
"Fat lot of good it would have done," said Estelle. "She'd come back in your face with a Bible verse that gives her a divine right to stick her nose in everybody's business. Speaking of divine, I wonder where Brother Verber was tonight. It ain't in his nature not to jump to it when Mrs. Jim Bob snaps her fingers." She looked at me. "You seen him lately?"
I finished the last bite of my sandwich. "Why, just this afternoon, come to think of it. He was headed toward Cotter's Ridge, wearing a miner's hat with a lamp and carrying a metal detector and a gunny sack. I thought it was peculiar, but now I have a pretty good idea what he was up to. Maybe the Assembly Hall will have a new roof by the end of the summer."
On that note, I ambled out of the bar, managing to ignore their spate of questions. I walked down the side of the road to the PD and went inside to grab a couple of the catalogs that had come that day. My social life in Maggody was on the dreary side, since everybody remotely my age had been married for more than fifteen years and had grubby children, leaky washing machines, unpaid bills, and lifetime subscriptions to TV Guide and the National Enquirer. I got along fairly well with the teenagers, but I wouldn't be welcomed if I dropped by their hangout (the picnic tables in front of the Dairee Dee-Lishus).
The telephone rang, but I ignored it since I was really, most sincerely off-duty. After a few minutes of thought, I left the catalogs on my desk and drove to Farberville to catch a movie. Gettysburg and Glory were not on my list.
Copyright © 2004 by Joan Hess
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