Pale Horse Coming (Earl Swagger Series #2)

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Mississippi, 1951: The last place any sane man wants to visit is Thebes State Penal Farm. Of the few who make the journey there, even fewer return.

But when an old friend disappears inside Thebes, ex-marine and Arkansas State Police Sgt. Earl Swagger takes a personal interest in the case. As he infiltrates the prison, what he experiences defies his wildest nightmares -- a savage world where death is the only salvation. As tough as he is, ...
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Overview

Mississippi, 1951: The last place any sane man wants to visit is Thebes State Penal Farm. Of the few who make the journey there, even fewer return.

But when an old friend disappears inside Thebes, ex-marine and Arkansas State Police Sgt. Earl Swagger takes a personal interest in the case. As he infiltrates the prison, what he experiences defies his wildest nightmares -- a savage world where death is the only salvation. As tough as he is, Swagger barely escapes with his life -- and his mind -- intact. But he's not going to stay away for long. Recruiting six of the hardest, deadliest gunmen ever known, bloody vengeance is soon at hand. Because Earl Swagger is going back to Thebes.

And Hell follows with him.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Earl Swagger, the gritty WWII-vet hero of Hunter's bestselling thriller Hot Springs, is back in this virtually un-put-downable gothic chiller about unspeakable evil in the murky Mississippi bayous. In 1951, five years after the conclusion of Hot Springs, straight arrow ex-county prosecutor Sam Vincent tells Earl - his trusted friend and former investigator, now a sergeant in the Arkansas state police - that he has been hired by a Chicago attorney to travel to Thebes, a mythic prison camp in the remote backwaters of Mississippi to verify the death of a black man who is the beneficiary of a will left by a one-time employer. When Earl hasn't heard from Sam by an agreed upon date, he goes looking for him and discovers that he is being held in the prison. Earl frees Sam, but is taken prisoner himself. Tortured by the prison hierarchy who fear he has been sent by a federal agency to expose their abominable secrets, Earl, aided by a trusty, escapes, vowing to return to destroy the camp and kill its evil warden and his henchmen. A staunch upholder of the law, self-righteous Sam refuses to participate in Earl's plan for retribution, but promises not to interfere. Assembling a strike force of seven of the country's most able gunmen, Earl sets out to wipe Thebes from the face of the earth. Meanwhile, probing the fate of a famous doctor who worked for the military researching biological warfare during WWII, Sam realizes Thebes may harbor an even darker secret after a bomb attempt on his life. Unforgettable characters in vivid settings more than offset the melodramatic, credibility stretching scenarios of the hard-driving thriller. Once again, Hunter proves he is a master of the cinematic prose. Agent, Esther Newberg, ICM. (Oct. 12). Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Rocky Mountain News

"If you want thrills, you needn't seek further."

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Stephen Hunter has done for the rifle what Tom Clancy did for the nuclear submarine....Score it a bull's-eye."

The Washington Post Book World

"Visceral and raw."

Library Journal
In the early 1950s, the seemingly innocent errand of an Arkansas lawyer sets in motion events that cause the downfall of the Thebes State Penal Farm (Colored) in Mississippi. When Sam Vincent's inquiries lead to his imprisonment, his friend Earl Swagger frees him, only to become a prisoner himself. Earl, a former Marine and World War II hero, suffers incredible torture and abuse. He eventually escapes, then returns to settle accounts. This historical thriller graphically depicts violence, cruelty, and bigotry. Narrator William Dufris's performance is unusually dramatic; he displays an amazing range of vocal characterization but with the occasional tendency toward shrillness. Although the story is engaging, the listening experience is not entirely enjoyable. Recommended with reservations.-Ray Vignovich, West Des Moines P.L. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The Hunter assembly line cranks out another of his gunzapoppin' thrillers. With a nod to Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes, Hunter has his stalwart ex-Marine and Congressional Medal of Honor winner Earl Swagger (Hot Springs, 2000, etc.) recruit seven legendary gun-hands to join him in one of those dirty jobs somebody has to do. The time is 1951, and the remote, unbelievably savage Thebes Prison Farm lies half-buried in a Mississippi swamp. How Earl managed to become incarcerated in this place of lost souls is a twisting tale rooted in an American samurai's inflexible code. Never betray a friendship: words Earl lives by, and when Sam Vincent fails to return from a certain mysterious mission Earl knows he has no choice but to find him, free him, and restore him to the bosom of his family. Which he does. Breaking Sam out of Thebes, however, proves no better than an even exchange. A sadistic sheriff, a conscienceless warden, and a band of corrupt, black-hearted minions now have Earl in their clutches, a prospect filling them with delight. (Think imbecilic boys pulling wings off flies.) Relentlessly-and, ugh, gratuitously-they torture him within an inch of his life. But Earl being Earl, he survives and eventually escapes. No way, he decides grimly, that a hellhole like Thebes can be left to its own devices and sets about assembling his crack demolition force: seven storied, if grizzled, gunslingers, old-timers, but still as lethal as ever they were. They strike at night, kill in bunches, and when-the smoke having cleared-the geezer brigade lowers Colts, Winchesters, Thompsons, etc., Thebes once again is history. A case of a successful formula overworked. The result? The pacing slackensnoticeably, and the writing, particularly the dialogue, can seem downright slapdash. First printing of 125,000; author tour
From the Publisher
The Providence Journal-Bulletin Cements Hunter's status as the best thriller writer going today. Maybe ever.

The Washington Post Book World Classic hard-boiled fiction....Features some of Hunter's best writing.

San Francisco Examiner One of the best storytellers of his generation.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786239504
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 3/28/2002
  • Series: Earl Swagger Series , #2
  • Edition description: Large Print
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 825
  • Product dimensions: 5.78 (w) x 8.82 (h) x 1.46 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Hunter has written eighteen novels. The retired chief film critic for The Washington Post, where he won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism, he has also published two collections of film criticism and a nonfiction work, American Gunfight. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

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Read an Excerpt

From Part One: Sam's Journey

Chapter 1

In mid-1947, Jefferson Barnes, the prosecuting attorney of Polk County, Arkansas, finally died. Upon that tragedy — the old man fell out of one of those new golf cart things on vacation in Hot Springs, rolled down a gully screaming damnation and hellfire all the way, and broke his neck on a culvert — Sam Vincent, his loyal Number 2, moved up to the big job. Then in '48, Sam was anointed by the Democratic party (there was no other in western Arkansas), which ran him on the same ticket with Harry S. Truman and Fred C. Becker. As did those worthies, he won handily. For Sam, it was the goal toward which he had been aiming for many years. He had always wanted to be a servant of the law, and now, much better, he was the law.

Sam was six foot one, forty-four, with a bushy head of hair and a brusque demeanor that would not be called "lovable" for many years. He stared immoderately and did not suffer fools, idiots, Yankees, carpetbaggers, the small of spirit or the breakers of the law gladly. He wore baggy suits flecked with pipe ash, heavy glasses, and walked in a bounding swoop. He hunted in the fall, followed the St. Louis Browns during the summer, when he had time, which he hardly ever did, and tied flies, though he fished rarely enough. Otherwise, he just worked like hell. His was classic American career insanity, putting the professional so far above the personal there almost was no personal, in the process alienating wife and children with his indifference, burning out secretaries with his demands, annoying the sheriff's detectives with his directions. In what little time remained, he served on the draft board (he had won the Bronze Star during the Battle of the Bulge), traveled five states to interview promising high school seniors who had applied to his beloved Princeton, played a weekly round of golf with the county powers at the country club, and drank too much eight-year-old bourbon. He knew everybody; he was respected by everybody. He was a great man, a great American. He had the highest conviction rate of any county prosecutor in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, or Tennessee for that matter.

He was not reelected. In fact, he lost in a landslide to a no'count lawyer named Febus Bookins, a genial hack who smelled of gin all the time and meant only to rob the county blind during his term of office. He called himself a reformer, and his goal was to reform his bank account into something more respectable.

Sam had made one mistake, but it was a mistake which few in his home state, and in fact not many elsewhere, could ignore. In 1949, he prosecuted a man named Willis Beaudine for raping a young woman named Nadine Johnson. It was an unremarkable case, save for the fact that Willis was a white person and Nadine a Negro girl. It is true she was quite light, what some would call a "high yeller," and that she had comely ways, and was, perhaps, not normally so innocent as she looked when she appeared in court. But facts were facts, law was law. Certain evidence had been developed by Sam's former investigator, Earl Swagger, who was now a state police sergeant and was famous for the big medal he had won during the war. Earl, however, risked nothing by testifying against Willis, for Earl was known to be a prideful, bull-headed man who could not be controlled by anyone and was feared by some. Sam, on the other hand, risked everything, and lost everything, although Willis was convicted and spent six months at the Tucker Farm. As for Nadine, she moved from town because even in her own community she was considered what Negro women called a " 'ho," and moved to St. Louis, where her appetites soon got her murdered in a case of no interest to anyone.

Sam had taken his defeat bitterly. If his family thought he would see them more often, they were mistaken. Instead, he rented a small office on the town square of Blue Eye, the county seat, and commenced to spend most of his days and many of his nights there. He worked such small cases as came his way, but mainly he plotted out ways to return to office. He still hunted with Earl. His other friend was Connie Long-

acre, the smart Eastern woman whom the county's richest, most worthless son had brought back from his education at Annapolis in '30 and his failed naval career thereafter. Connie had soon learned how appetite-driven a man her Rance was, and while trying to raise her own hellion son, Stephen, fell to friendship with Sam, who alone in that part of Arkansas had been to a Broadway play, had met a gal under the clock at the Biltmore, and who didn't think Henry Wallace was a pawn of the Red Kremlin.

Sam was never stupid, not on a single day in his life. He understood that one thing he had to do was to regain the trust of the white people. Therefore he utterly refused to take any cases involving Negroes, even if they only revolved around one dark person suing another. There was a Negro lawyer in town, a Mr. Theopolis Simmons, who could handle such things; meanwhile, Sam worked hard, politicked aggressively, kept tabs, sucked up to the gentry who had deposed him so gently, and tried to stay focused.

Then, one day in June of 1951, an unusual event occurred, though nothing in that day or the day or week before had suggested it would. Sam, alone in his office, worked through probate papers for a farmer named Lewis who had died intestate and whose estate was now being sued for back taxes by the state, which would drive his widow and four children off the property to — well, to nothing. Sam would not let this happen, if only he could figure out a way to —

He heard the door open. In the county's employ he had always had a secretary; now, on his own, he didn't. He stood, pushed his way through the fog of dense pipe smoke, and opened the door to peer into his anteroom. An elegant gentleman had seated himself on the sofa and was paging absently through an old copy of Look magazine.

"Sir, do you have an appointment?" Sam asked.

The man looked up at him.

He was tanned softly, as if from an expensive vacation at the beach, balding, and looked well tended, of an age that could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty. He was certainly prosperous, in a smooth-fitting blue pinstripe suit, a creamy white shirt and the black tie of a serious man. A homburg, gray pearl, lay on the seat beside him; his shined shoes were cap-toed black bluchers, possibly bespoke, and little clocks or flowers marked his socks. The shoes were shined, Sam noticed, all the way down to the sole, which was an indication that a professional had done them, in a rail station, a hotel lobby, a barbershop.

"Why, no, Mr. Vincent. I'd be happy to make one, or if you prefer, to wait here until you have the time to see me."

"Hmm," said Sam. He knew when money came to call.

"I am currently in the throes of a case," he said. "Mr., ah — "

"My name is Trugood, sir."

"Mr. Trugood. Have you a few minutes while I file and clear my desk?"

"Of course. I don't mean to interrupt."

Sam ducked back in. Quickly he gathered the Lewis papers up, sealed them in a file, and put it into a drawer. His desk was a mess; he did some elementary rearranging, which meant he'd have to derearrange after the man left, but Sam could use a fee, he didn't mind admitting, for any return from the poor Lewises, or the Jenningses, or the Joneses, the Smiths, the Beaupres, the Deacons, the Hustons, all that was in a future that seemed quite distant. More or less prepared, he removed a fresh yellow legal tablet from his cabinet and wrote the word trugood, and the date, atop it.

He opened the door.

"Sir, I can see you now."

"Thank you, Mr. Vincent."

Trugood stood elegantly, smiled at Sam as he walked through the door, pretended not to notice the debris, the mess, the strewn files, the moth-eaten deer's head, or even the fog of sweetbriar gas that hung, almost moist, in the air.

Sam passed him, gestured to a seat, and as he moved around the desk to sit, watched as the man placed a business card before him on the desk.

"Ah," said Sam. "A colleague."

"Indeed," said the man, whose card announced him to be Davis Trugood, Esq., of the firm of Mosely, Vacannes & Destin, 777 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, Hillcrest 3080.

"Mr. Trugood? I am at your service."

"Thank you, Mr. Vincent. May I say, I've heard a great deal about you, and I've worked some to find you."

"I've always been here, sir. I had no idea any reputation had spread beyond our little benighted state. Certainly not as far as a big sophisticated city like Chicago."

"Well, sir, possibly it hasn't reached that far. But it has reached all through the South, or, I should say, a certain South."

"What South would that be, sir?"

"That South occupied by our population of color, sir. Our Negroes. They say you are the rare white lawyer who is fair to the man of Negro blood."

"Well," said Sam, somewhat taken aback, "if by that they mean that as a prosecuting attorney I laid the same force of law against white as against black, then they are correct. I believe in the law. But do not understand me too quickly, sir. I am not what you might call a race champion. I am not a hero of the Negro, nor do I ever mean to be. I believe history has dealt our American Negroes a sorry hand, as do many people. But I also believe that sorry hand will have to be corrected slowly. I am not one for tearing things down in service to various dubious moral sentiments, which in fact would turn my own race against me, which would unleash the savagery of the many embittered whites of the South against the poor Negro, which would in fact result in destruction everywhere. So, Mr. Trugood, if you thought I was someone to lead a crusade, change or challenge a law, throw down a gauntlet, burn a barn, sing a hymn, or whatever, why, I am not that man, sir."

"Mr. Vincent, thank you for speaking straight out. I must say, most Southern lawyers prefer to speak a code which one has to have attended either Ole Miss or Alabama to penetrate. You, sir, at least speak directly."

"I take a pleasure in that. Possibly the product of an Eastern education."

"Excellent, sir. Now, I need a representative to travel to a certain town deeper in the South and make private inquiries. This man has to be extremely smart, not without charm, stubborn as the Lord, a man of complete probity. He must also be somewhat brave, or at least the sort not turned feeble by a show of hostility. He also has to be comfortable around people of different bloods, white and Negro. He has to be comfortable around law enforcement officers of a certain type, the type that would as soon knock a fellow's hat off as talk civilly to him. The fee for this service, perhaps lasting a week, would be quite high, given the complex diplomatic aspects of the situation. I would suppose you have no ethical objections to a high fee, Mr. Vincent."

"High fee. In my career those two words rarely appear in the same sentence. Yes, do go on, Mr. Trugood. You have my attention, without distraction."

"Thank you, sir. I am charged with executing a will for a certain rather well-off late Chicagoan. He had for many years in his employ a Negro named Lincoln Tilson."

Sam wrote: "Negro Lincoln Tilson" on his big yellow pad.

"Lincoln was a loyal custodian of my client's properties, a handyman, a bodyguard, a gardener, a chauffeur, a man whose brightness of temperament always cheered my client, who was negotiating a business career of both great success and some notoriety."

"I follow, sir," said Sam.

"Five years ago, Lincoln at last slowed down. My employer settled a sum on him, a considerable sum, and bid him farewell. He even drove him to the Illinois Central terminal to catch the City of New Orleans and reverse the steps by which he arrived up North so many years ago, for Lincoln's pleasure was to return to the simpler life from which he had sprung in the South. Lincoln returned to his birthplace, a town called Thebes, in Thebes County, Mississippi."

Sam wrote it down, while saying, "That is the deepest part of the deepest South, I would imagine."

"It is, sir."

Thebes, as a word, rang ever so slightly in Sam's imagination. He recalled that the original was a Greek town, city even, much fought over in antiquity. For some reason the number seven occurred in concert with it.

"I see puzzlement, sir," said Trugood. "You are well educated and no doubt think of Seven Against Thebes, by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus. I assure you, no army led by seven heroes is necessary in this case. Mississippi's Thebes is a far distance from Aeschylus's tragic town of war. It is a backwater Negro town far up the Yaxahatchee River, which itself is a branch of the Pascagoula River. It is the site of a famous, or possibly infamous, penal farm for colored called Thebes Farm."

"That's it," said Sam. "It is legendary among the Negro criminal class, with whom I had many dealings as a young prosecutor. 'You don't wants to go to Thebes, they say, don't nobody never nohow come back from Thebes.' Or words to that effect."

"It seems they have it mixed up with Hades in their simplicity. Yes, Thebes is not a pleasant place. Nobody wants to go to Thebes."

"Yet you want me to go to Thebes. That is why the fee would be so high?"

"There is difficulty of travel, for one thing. You must hire a boat in Pascagoula, and the trip upriver is unpleasant. The river, I understand, is dark and deep; the swamp that lines it inhospitable. There was only one road into Thebes, through that same forbidding swamp; it was washed out some years back, and Thebes County, not exactly a county of wealth, has yet to dispatch repair."

"I see."

"Accommodations would be primitive."

"I slept in many a barn in the late fracas in Europe, Mr. Trugood. I can sleep in a barn again; it won't hurt me."

"Excellent. Now here is the gist of the task. My client's estate — as I say, considerable — is hung up in probate because Mr. Lincoln Tilson seems no longer to exist. I have attempted to communicate with Thebes County authorities, to little avail. I can reach no one but simpletons on the telephone, when the telephone is working, which is only intermittently. No letter has yet been answered. The fate of Lincoln is unknown, and a large amount of money is therefore frozen, a great disappointment to my client's greedy, worthless heirs."

"I see. My task would be to locate either Lincoln or evidence of his fate. A document, that sort of thing?"

"Yes. From close-mouthed Southern types. I, of course, need someone who speaks the language, or rather, the accent. They would hear the Chicago in my voice, and their faces would ossify. Their eyes would deaden. Their hearing would disintegrate. They would evolve backward instantaneously to the neolithic."

"That may be so, but Southerners are also fair and honest folk, and if you don't trumpet your Northern superiority in their face and instead take the time to listen and master the slower cadences, they will usually reward you with friendship. Is there another issue here?"

"There is indeed." He waved at his handsome suit, his handsome shoes, his English tie. His cufflinks were gold with a discreet sapphire, probably worth more than Sam had made in the last six months. "I am a different sort of man, and in some parts of the South — Thebes, say — that difference would not go unnoticed."

"You have showy ways, but they are the ways of a man of the world."

"I fear that is exactly what would offend them. And, frankly, I'm not a brave man. I'm a man of desks. The actual confrontation, the quickness of argument, the thrust of will on will: not really my cup of tea, I'm afraid. A sound man understands his limits. I was the sort of boy who never got into fights and didn't like tests of strength."

"I see."

"That is why I am buying your courage as well as your mind."

"You overestimate me. I am quite a common man."

"A decorated hero in the late war."

"Nearly everybody in the war was a hero. I saw some true courage; mine was ordinary, if even that."

"I think I have made a very good choice."

"All right, sir."

"Thank you, Mr. Vincent. This is the fee I had in mind."

He wrote a figure on the back of his card, and pushed it over. It took Sam's breath away.

"You are sending me to be your champion in hell, it sounds like," said Sam. "But you are paying me well for the fight."

"You will earn every penny, I assure you."

Copyright © 20001 by Stephen Hunter

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Table of Contents

Read More Show Less

First Chapter

From Part One: Sam's Journey
Chapter 1

In mid-1947, Jefferson Barnes, the prosecuting attorney of Polk County, Arkansas, finally died. Upon that tragedy -- the old man fell out of one of those new golf cart things on vacation in Hot Springs, rolled down a gully screaming damnation and hellfire all the way, and broke his neck on a culvert -- Sam Vincent, his loyal Number 2, moved up to the big job. Then in '48, Sam was anointed by the Democratic party (there was no other in western Arkansas), which ran him on the same ticket with Harry S. Truman and Fred C. Becker. As did those worthies, he won handily. For Sam, it was the goal toward which he had been aiming for many years. He had always wanted to be a servant of the law, and now, much better, he was the law.

Sam was six foot one, forty-four, with a bushy head of hair and a brusque demeanor that would not be called "lovable" for many years. He stared immoderately and did not suffer fools, idiots, Yankees, carpetbaggers, the small of spirit or the breakers of the law gladly. He wore baggy suits flecked with pipe ash, heavy glasses, and walked in a bounding swoop. He hunted in the fall, followed the St. Louis Browns during the summer, when he had time, which he hardly ever did, and tied flies, though he fished rarely enough. Otherwise, he just worked like hell. His was classic American career insanity, putting the professional so far above the personal there almost was no personal, in the process alienating wife and children with his indifference, burning out secretaries with his demands, annoying the sheriff's detectives with his directions. In what little time remained, he served on the draft board (he had won the Bronze Star during the Battle of the Bulge), traveled five states to interview promising high school seniors who had applied to his beloved Princeton, played a weekly round of golf with the county powers at the country club, and drank too much eight-year-old bourbon. He knew everybody; he was respected by everybody. He was a great man, a great American. He had the highest conviction rate of any county prosecutor in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, or Tennessee for that matter.

He was not reelected. In fact, he lost in a landslide to a no'count lawyer named Febus Bookins, a genial hack who smelled of gin all the time and meant only to rob the county blind during his term of office. He called himself a reformer, and his goal was to reform his bank account into something more respectable.

Sam had made one mistake, but it was a mistake which few in his home state, and in fact not many elsewhere, could ignore. In 1949, he prosecuted a man named Willis Beaudine for raping a young woman named Nadine Johnson. It was an unremarkable case, save for the fact that Willis was a white person and Nadine a Negro girl. It is true she was quite light, what some would call a "high yeller," and that she had comely ways, and was, perhaps, not normally so innocent as she looked when she appeared in court. But facts were facts, law was law. Certain evidence had been developed by Sam's former investigator, Earl Swagger, who was now a state police sergeant and was famous for the big medal he had won during the war. Earl, however, risked nothing by testifying against Willis, for Earl was known to be a prideful, bull-headed man who could not be controlled by anyone and was feared by some. Sam, on the other hand, risked everything, and lost everything, although Willis was convicted and spent six months at the Tucker Farm. As for Nadine, she moved from town because even in her own community she was considered what Negro women called a " 'ho," and moved to St. Louis, where her appetites soon got her murdered in a case of no interest to anyone.

Sam had taken his defeat bitterly. If his family thought he would see them more often, they were mistaken. Instead, he rented a small office on the town square of Blue Eye, the county seat, and commenced to spend most of his days and many of his nights there. He worked such small cases as came his way, but mainly he plotted out ways to return to office. He still hunted with Earl. His other friend was Connie Long-

acre, the smart Eastern woman whom the county's richest, most worthless son had brought back from his education at Annapolis in '30 and his failed naval career thereafter. Connie had soon learned how appetite-driven a man her Rance was, and while trying to raise her own hellion son, Stephen, fell to friendship with Sam, who alone in that part of Arkansas had been to a Broadway play, had met a gal under the clock at the Biltmore, and who didn't think Henry Wallace was a pawn of the Red Kremlin.

Sam was never stupid, not on a single day in his life. He understood that one thing he had to do was to regain the trust of the white people. Therefore he utterly refused to take any cases involving Negroes, even if they only revolved around one dark person suing another. There was a Negro lawyer in town, a Mr. Theopolis Simmons, who could handle such things; meanwhile, Sam worked hard, politicked aggressively, kept tabs, sucked up to the gentry who had deposed him so gently, and tried to stay focused.

Then, one day in June of 1951, an unusual event occurred, though nothing in that day or the day or week before had suggested it would. Sam, alone in his office, worked through probate papers for a farmer named Lewis who had died intestate and whose estate was now being sued for back taxes by the state, which would drive his widow and four children off the property to -- well, to nothing. Sam would not let this happen, if only he could figure out a way to --

He heard the door open. In the county's employ he had always had a secretary; now, on his own, he didn't. He stood, pushed his way through the fog of dense pipe smoke, and opened the door to peer into his anteroom. An elegant gentleman had seated himself on the sofa and was paging absently through an old copy of Look magazine.

"Sir, do you have an appointment?" Sam asked.

The man looked up at him.

He was tanned softly, as if from an expensive vacation at the beach, balding, and looked well tended, of an age that could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty. He was certainly prosperous, in a smooth-fitting blue pinstripe suit, a creamy white shirt and the black tie of a serious man. A homburg, gray pearl, lay on the seat beside him; his shined shoes were cap-toed black bluchers, possibly bespoke, and little clocks or flowers marked his socks. The shoes were shined, Sam noticed, all the way down to the sole, which was an indication that a professional had done them, in a rail station, a hotel lobby, a barbershop.

"Why, no, Mr. Vincent. I'd be happy to make one, or if you prefer, to wait here until you have the time to see me."

"Hmm," said Sam. He knew when money came to call.

"I am currently in the throes of a case," he said. "Mr., ah -- "

"My name is Trugood, sir."

"Mr. Trugood. Have you a few minutes while I file and clear my desk?"

"Of course. I don't mean to interrupt."

Sam ducked back in. Quickly he gathered the Lewis papers up, sealed them in a file, and put it into a drawer. His desk was a mess; he did some elementary rearranging, which meant he'd have to derearrange after the man left, but Sam could use a fee, he didn't mind admitting, for any return from the poor Lewises, or the Jenningses, or the Joneses, the Smiths, the Beaupres, the Deacons, the Hustons, all that was in a future that seemed quite distant. More or less prepared, he removed a fresh yellow legal tablet from his cabinet and wrote the word trugood, and the date, atop it.

He opened the door.

"Sir, I can see you now."

"Thank you, Mr. Vincent."

Trugood stood elegantly, smiled at Sam as he walked through the door, pretended not to notice the debris, the mess, the strewn files, the moth-eaten deer's head, or even the fog of sweetbriar gas that hung, almost moist, in the air.

Sam passed him, gestured to a seat, and as he moved around the desk to sit, watched as the man placed a business card before him on the desk.

"Ah," said Sam. "A colleague."

"Indeed," said the man, whose card announced him to be Davis Trugood, Esq., of the firm of Mosely, Vacannes & Destin, 777 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, Hillcrest 3080.

"Mr. Trugood? I am at your service."

"Thank you, Mr. Vincent. May I say, I've heard a great deal about you, and I've worked some to find you."

"I've always been here, sir. I had no idea any reputation had spread beyond our little benighted state. Certainly not as far as a big sophisticated city like Chicago."

"Well, sir, possibly it hasn't reached that far. But it has reached all through the South, or, I should say, a certain South."

"What South would that be, sir?"

"That South occupied by our population of color, sir. Our Negroes. They say you are the rare white lawyer who is fair to the man of Negro blood."

"Well," said Sam, somewhat taken aback, "if by that they mean that as a prosecuting attorney I laid the same force of law against white as against black, then they are correct. I believe in the law. But do not understand me too quickly, sir. I am not what you might call a race champion. I am not a hero of the Negro, nor do I ever mean to be. I believe history has dealt our American Negroes a sorry hand, as do many people. But I also believe that sorry hand will have to be corrected slowly. I am not one for tearing things down in service to various dubious moral sentiments, which in fact would turn my own race against me, which would unleash the savagery of the many embittered whites of the South against the poor Negro, which would in fact result in destruction everywhere. So, Mr. Trugood, if you thought I was someone to lead a crusade, change or challenge a law, throw down a gauntlet, burn a barn, sing a hymn, or whatever, why, I am not that man, sir."

"Mr. Vincent, thank you for speaking straight out. I must say, most Southern lawyers prefer to speak a code which one has to have attended either Ole Miss or Alabama to penetrate. You, sir, at least speak directly."

"I take a pleasure in that. Possibly the product of an Eastern education."

"Excellent, sir. Now, I need a representative to travel to a certain town deeper in the South and make private inquiries. This man has to be extremely smart, not without charm, stubborn as the Lord, a man of complete probity. He must also be somewhat brave, or at least the sort not turned feeble by a show of hostility. He also has to be comfortable around people of different bloods, white and Negro. He has to be comfortable around law enforcement officers of a certain type, the type that would as soon knock a fellow's hat off as talk civilly to him. The fee for this service, perhaps lasting a week, would be quite high, given the complex diplomatic aspects of the situation. I would suppose you have no ethical objections to a high fee, Mr. Vincent."

"High fee. In my career those two words rarely appear in the same sentence. Yes, do go on, Mr. Trugood. You have my attention, without distraction."

"Thank you, sir. I am charged with executing a will for a certain rather well-off late Chicagoan. He had for many years in his employ a Negro named Lincoln Tilson."

Sam wrote: "Negro Lincoln Tilson" on his big yellow pad.

"Lincoln was a loyal custodian of my client's properties, a handyman, a bodyguard, a gardener, a chauffeur, a man whose brightness of temperament always cheered my client, who was negotiating a business career of both great success and some notoriety."

"I follow, sir," said Sam.

"Five years ago, Lincoln at last slowed down. My employer settled a sum on him, a considerable sum, and bid him farewell. He even drove him to the Illinois Central terminal to catch the City of New Orleans and reverse the steps by which he arrived up North so many years ago, for Lincoln's pleasure was to return to the simpler life from which he had sprung in the South. Lincoln returned to his birthplace, a town called Thebes, in Thebes County, Mississippi."

Sam wrote it down, while saying, "That is the deepest part of the deepest South, I would imagine."

"It is, sir."

Thebes, as a word, rang ever so slightly in Sam's imagination. He recalled that the original was a Greek town, city even, much fought over in antiquity. For some reason the number seven occurred in concert with it.

"I see puzzlement, sir," said Trugood. "You are well educated and no doubt think of Seven Against Thebes, by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus. I assure you, no army led by seven heroes is necessary in this case. Mississippi's Thebes is a far distance from Aeschylus's tragic town of war. It is a backwater Negro town far up the Yaxahatchee River, which itself is a branch of the Pascagoula River. It is the site of a famous, or possibly infamous, penal farm for colored called Thebes Farm."

"That's it," said Sam. "It is legendary among the Negro criminal class, with whom I had many dealings as a young prosecutor. ŒYou don't wants to go to Thebes, they say, don't nobody never nohow come back from Thebes.' Or words to that effect."

"It seems they have it mixed up with Hades in their simplicity. Yes, Thebes is not a pleasant place. Nobody wants to go to Thebes."

"Yet you want me to go to Thebes. That is why the fee would be so high?"

"There is difficulty of travel, for one thing. You must hire a boat in Pascagoula, and the trip upriver is unpleasant. The river, I understand, is dark and deep; the swamp that lines it inhospitable. There was only one road into Thebes, through that same forbidding swamp; it was washed out some years back, and Thebes County, not exactly a county of wealth, has yet to dispatch repair."

"I see."

"Accommodations would be primitive."

"I slept in many a barn in the late fracas in Europe, Mr. Trugood. I can sleep in a barn again; it won't hurt me."

"Excellent. Now here is the gist of the task. My client's estate -- as I say, considerable -- is hung up in probate because Mr. Lincoln Tilson seems no longer to exist. I have attempted to communicate with Thebes County authorities, to little avail. I can reach no one but simpletons on the telephone, when the telephone is working, which is only intermittently. No letter has yet been answered. The fate of Lincoln is unknown, and a large amount of money is therefore frozen, a great disappointment to my client's greedy, worthless heirs."

"I see. My task would be to locate either Lincoln or evidence of his fate. A document, that sort of thing?"

"Yes. From close-mouthed Southern types. I, of course, need someone who speaks the language, or rather, the accent. They would hear the Chicago in my voice, and their faces would ossify. Their eyes would deaden. Their hearing would disintegrate. They would evolve backward instantaneously to the neolithic."

"That may be so, but Southerners are also fair and honest folk, and if you don't trumpet your Northern superiority in their face and instead take the time to listen and master the slower cadences, they will usually reward you with friendship. Is there another issue here?"

"There is indeed." He waved at his handsome suit, his handsome shoes, his English tie. His cufflinks were gold with a discreet sapphire, probably worth more than Sam had made in the last six months. "I am a different sort of man, and in some parts of the South -- Thebes, say -- that difference would not go unnoticed."

"You have showy ways, but they are the ways of a man of the world."

"I fear that is exactly what would offend them. And, frankly, I'm not a brave man. I'm a man of desks. The actual confrontation, the quickness of argument, the thrust of will on will: not really my cup of tea, I'm afraid. A sound man understands his limits. I was the sort of boy who never got into fights and didn't like tests of strength."

"I see."

"That is why I am buying your courage as well as your mind."

"You overestimate me. I am quite a common man."

"A decorated hero in the late war."

"Nearly everybody in the war was a hero. I saw some true courage; mine was ordinary, if even that."

"I think I have made a very good choice."

"All right, sir."

"Thank you, Mr. Vincent. This is the fee I had in mind."

He wrote a figure on the back of his card, and pushed it over. It took Sam's breath away.

"You are sending me to be your champion in hell, it sounds like," said Sam. "But you are paying me well for the fight."

"You will earn every penny, I assure you."

Copyright © 20001 by Stephen Hunter

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 77 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 78 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 17, 2012

    A dark yarn with plenty of excitement and action!!!

    I have a friend and we read the same book at the same time. I thought this book was fantastic, dark and full of gut wrenching action. My friend said it was the one of the best books she's read. So it's a highly recommended book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2002

    Shallow use of real heroes

    I've been thrilled by most of Stephen Hunter's books. Dirty White Boys, Point of Impact, Black Light, Time to Hunt and Hot Springs were fantastic reads. Others were disappointments. I couldn't even finish Second Saladin and The Master Sniper dragged on and on. Pale Horse Coming begins in great Hunter style with plenty of action along with a liberal dose of southern culture, albeit racist and mean, thrown in. Where Hunter errs is in the blatant use of some of hunting, shooting, law enforcement and the military's real life heroes, very shallowly disguised with cute names, to save the day. Anyone who has read the main outdoor magazines will have spoted Elmer Keith, Jack O'Connor, Charlie Askins, Bill Jordan, Audie Murphy and Ed McGivern in seconds. While their names may have been changed, and poorly at that, the traits and attributes of each weren't, at least not much. If anything, their personalities were stretched to the limits. As creative as Hunter is, he could easily have come up with fictional heroes every bit as interesting and captivating as his villains. Instead, he uses an old trick and rewrites history through the use of real people, fictionalized, and, in the process, cheapens both them and his work. By the way, the Askins character is right on: racist, irreverant, and an unrepentent cold blooded killer. I seriously doubt that Keith, O'Connor, or McGivern would have taken part in this battle. They were hunters, not killers. Jordan and Murphy probably would have. Stephen, I hope you're not getting tired. Please use your great creativity on both sides of the fence. Look what you've done with Earl, Bob Lee, and Sam.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Engaging historical fiction

    By 1951 Thebes, Mississippi is a ghost town converted to a penal colony for Negro criminals. Once in you never leave as the only egress is by boat in a casket. The warden and guards run a tight operation making life miserable for the prisoners because the standard operating norm is whipping and torture. The men in charge use all sorts of diabolical devices to keep the prisoners in line and cowed. <P>Attorney Sam Vincent travels to Thebes to meet a client, but is illegally detained by the law enforcement officials running the facility. Earl Swagger knows Sam is inside Thebes and sets out to free his friend. Earl frees Sam, but is caught instead. Big Boy, who runs the prison, periodically tortures Earl, who with a bit of luck escapes vowing to return to burn this little corner of hell to the ground. <P> PALE HORSE COMING is a juicy thriller that shows how little freedom blacks had in the 1951 south. The novel shocks, excites, and enthralls the audience. The plot serves as a testament to the unknown heroes fighting injustice to make things right for everyone. Stephen Hunter is a fantastic writer who knows how to entertain and educate his fans. <P>Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2014

    You are there

    As with most of Stephen Hunter's books, you feel as if you are in the same situation as the characters.

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  • Posted August 22, 2013

    Great story and well written

    I am a real fan of these books from Stephen Hunter. They are more enjoyable if read in the order of publication, but this was the first of Hunter's books that I read. I am now going back and reading all of them in order this time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2013

    Great book

    Hunter is an excellent writer. His characters are well developed and they are easy to follow in the book. This book was well done and a real page turner. I found myself staying up late just to find out how Earl handles the next challenge. Hunter doesn't create so many characters that it becomes difficult to follow the storyline. Earl Swagger has to be the ancestor to another great character - Jack Reacher!

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  • Posted May 17, 2013

    One of my favorites

    Before there was 'Bob the Nailer' there was his father, Earl...

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 29, 2013

    Haunting and filled with suspense

    Pale Horse Coming turned out to be a real page-turner filled with suspense at every turn. Some of the description of events is a wee bit graphic, although it fit perfectly with the subject matter. I love a great historical novel, and this is the best one I've read in a very long time. I'm happy to highly recommend it to mature readers of historical novels.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2013

    Improbable characters....stereotypical protagonists and antagoni

    Improbable characters....stereotypical protagonists and antagonists....geographically erroneous. Being from south Mississippi, I thought this would be an interesting read, but found the book to be a tedious read. I found myself saying &quot;aw.....come on.....really&quot; with every turn of the page. Without giving much away, I will say that there are no swamps in that part of Mississippi....the placement of the action is more likely in south Louisiana......

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2012

    great book

    very good

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  • Posted May 1, 2012

    I have been a stephen hunter fan for quite some time, and while

    I have been a stephen hunter fan for quite some time, and while i have not read all of his books,this is byfar one of my favorites. Hunter at his best would be a understatement.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2011

    HIghly Recommended

    I read this book a few years ago and thought it was stephen hunters best work. i wonder if this re-issue has and changes.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2011

    Keep coming back for more

    I've read all of the Stephen Hunter books and for some reason, I keep coming back to this one. I want to be Earl Swagger when I grow up. He is the epitome of cool and able to keep his senses in the worst situations. Always calm and collected.

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  • Posted February 13, 2011

    One of the best books I ever read!

    If you can get thru the first chapter you will not be able to put it down! I am a picky reader. If a book doesnt captivate me after 2 or 3 chapters I stop reading. This is a page turner. A must read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 4, 2008

    EaRL Swagger

    After reading this book now I know were 'The Nailer' got his steel will....and blood lust...

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2007

    Stephen Hunter outdid himself!

    This Earl Swagger story had me riveted from the first chapter. It is Hunter's best, filled with heart-pounding suspense and incredible action. I have read it several times already and highly recommend it, along with the other Swagger stories, and Dirty White Boys.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2006

    Gripping from start to finish

    Unforgetable story line and character development. Stephen Hunter's best book starts off at a fast pase and just keeps gaining momentum till the very end. This book is a must read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 29, 2005

    Excellant addition to the Swagger stories!

    Having read and enjoyed all the the previous Swagger books by Hunter I had to get this one as well and am very glad i did. Great story that keeps you interested from begining to end! Definately pick up this book when you get a chance, you won't be disappointed!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2005

    After you finish....

    This was a great book in many ways. A true 'humble American hero vanquishes evil' type of novel which I couldn't put down. But after you finish, go back and read chapter 60 one more time. That was one of the best four or five pages I've read in a long time!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2004

    Hunter Brings It Once Again!

    This book is simply amazing. Those that didn't like this book must also not like John Wayne, as this book is a good story about the old south with a 'Duke' like hero. It's far fetched in some places, but that just makes it all the better. You won't be able to put this one down, and at times Hunter really makes you cringe. Great story!

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