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Verdict Mystery fans will zip through this, fans of historical fiction will enjoy the fin de guerre mood, but this novel is more noted for its characters and atmosphere than for an imaginative or mystifying plot.—W. Keith McCoy, Somerset Cty. Lib. Syst., Bridgewater, NJ(c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
We were eleven years old when we found the old man's body. It was the dead of winter and just about as cold as it gets in Vermont, and the body was frozen solid, a thin film of ice covering the eyelids and nose and mouth, making the man's dark brown skin seem eerily lighter than it had been in life.
"Tha's ol' Jesse, ain't it?" Johnny asked.
We both turned to look at Abel Johnson. Abel's father ran the town store and Jesse Brown was the old Negro who worked for him stocking shelves and unloading delivery wagons.
Abel nodded, his gaze fixed on the clouded, milky, dead eyes that stared back at him. He was a heavy boy, with plump cheeks that were now red with the cold. "I was jus' talkin' ta him this mornin'," he said. "He tol' me he was goin' out ta hunt up a squirrel fer his supper." Abel's voice was faint and distant, sounding as if he were talking more to himself than to us; his lips began to quiver as he spoke.
It was midafternoon and we were in the woods about a hundred yards up from the dirt road that runs along the river, a favorite hunting ground for squirrel and rabbit and the deer that move down the mountain at night to graze in the open meadows below.
The river cuts through our town of Jerusalem's Landing. It is a cold, fast waterway, fed by streams that live off the eleven-month snowmelt that runs off Camel's Hump Mountain. The town sits in the foothills of the mountain, its five hundred–odd souls forging a living mostly from dairy farming or logging, with the spring maple sugar season adding a few more necessary dollars. It is not a wealthy community, nor is it poor, and the people are largely content with their lives despite the hardships they endure.
"Jubal, ya better go an' get yer daddy," Johnny said. "An' ya better have him tell my pa what happened. He'll be a wantin' to come pray over Jesse."
"Ya better have him stop by the store an' tell my daddy too," Abel said.
My father, Jonas Foster, is the town constable. Johnny's father is the minister of the Baptist church. The town store sits between my house and the parsonage, so we all live within walking distance of each other.
"I'll tell him," I said. "You two better stay with the body to keep any varmints off him." I looked down at the old squirrel gun that Jesse had been carrying. "You better not touch nothin' less you have to," I said, trying to think what my father would want.
"Okay, sheriff," Johnny said. His blond hair peeked out from under his cap and splayed across his forehead and he was grinning at me, adding to the teasing quality of his voice. I wondered then, as I still do now, how he could be so light-hearted with a man we had all known lying dead at his feet.
An hour later I led four men up the wooded slope. They walked in a line behind me, my father first; Abel's dad, Walter Johnson, next; then Johnny's father, the Reverend Virgil Harris; bringing up the rear was the town doctor, Brewster Pierce, the one man we boys had forgotten. My father had not.
Dr. Pierce went to the body straight off and confirmed what we already knew. He opened Jesse Brown's coat, did a cursory check of his torso, then removed his hat and checked his head and neck. "I don't see any signs of violence," he said, still looking over the body. "My best guess until we do an autopsy is that he had a heart attack or stroke." He glanced up at Walter Johnson. "How old was he, Walter?"
Walter Johnson gave a small shrug. He was a moderately short, stocky man, with a prominent chin and deep brown eyes, a picture of what his son, Abel, would probably look like one day. He toed the ground as if the question embarrassed him. "Sixty, maybe, but tha's jus' a guess. I reckon I never axed him his age. Don't know why, but I never did." He paused, thinking about what he had just said, then quickly added: "He was strong, though; could unload a delivery wagon good as any man half his age."
"He was sixty-two," Virgil Harris said. "He cleared some tree limbs from the church grounds after that storm we had in September, and we got to talking. He moved here three years ago, as I recall, from somewhere in Connecticut. Said he had no family ... just had himself to look after." Reverend Harris spoke with his chin elevated, just as he did when he was giving his Sunday sermon. He was tall and slender with unruly blond hair that he had passed on to his son, along with piercing blue eyes.
"Was he an escaped slave?" my father asked. My father is a big man, a good four inches over six feet and heavy through the chest and shoulders, and he seemed to tower over the other three. I, too, was big for my age, and I hoped one day to be as big as he.
"Never said that he was," Walter Johnson responded. "I always figured he was jus' like the other nigs who live hereabouts."
The Negroes who live in Jerusalem's Landing—slightly more than one hundred—were never slaves, but the offspring of former slaves who had escaped to the North years before. It is a tight-knit community whose members have their own small church, but who send their children to school with the rest of us. One, Josiah Flood, was in our class and usually ran the ridges with the three of us when he wasn't doing chores at the Billingsley farm.
My father stepped forward and placed the litter they had brought next to the body. He looked at Jesse for a long moment, then turned to Reverend Harris. "You go ahead an' offer yer prayer, Virgil," he said. "Then we'll load the old fella up an' take 'em down to Doc's office."
We all removed our hats as Reverend Harris offered his prayer. It was short and simple.
"Dear Lord, we didn't know this man well, but by all accounts he was a good soul, who worked hard and always offered his help when needed. We ask that You accept him as a favored child and offer him a place in the glory of Your heavenly kingdom. Amen."
My father had been standing beside me and now he placed a hand on my shoulder. "You boys should go on down an' get yerselves warm," he said. "We kin take care of the rest of it."
"Go on down ta the store," Mr. Johnson said. "My wife has some hot chocolate brewin' on the woodstove. It'll warm ya up quick."
We started down the hill, the wind cutting sharply into our faces. The sun had begun to fade, as the night comes upon you quickly in a Vermont winter, and soon the cold would become even more bitter, more cutting. Before we were too far away I glanced back. My father and Doc Brewster were just lifting the body onto the litter. It was rigid and ramrod straight, like a board being loaded onto a pallet.
When we got to the Johnsons' store Abel's mother fussed over us, concerned that coming across Jesse Brown's body had somehow been a terrible experience. Despite her mother's hovering concern, Abel's nine-year-old sister Rebecca kept asking us questions about the body and how we had come across it, and Mrs. Johnson repeatedly hushed her.
Partly to get us warm, and partly to distract us, Mrs. Johnson fed us all cup after cup of hot chocolate. Later, when she went to take care of customers who had come into the store, Rebecca started in on us again. She was a gangly girl, with long legs and skinny arms, and her small jaw jutted defiantly when she spoke to us.
"Tell me what happened, Abel," she demanded. Her voice had an edge to it, almost as if she were ready to stamp her foot.
"Ma said not ta talk about it," Abel said, glancing off to where his mother had gone.
Rebecca turned to me. "Jubal, you tell me," she insisted. "You gotta."
I shook my head no.
A large grin broke out on Johnny's face and he leaned forward and whispered into Rebecca's ear.
Rebecca had inherited her mother's soft green eyes and strawberry-blond hair, and now those eyes became as large as saucers and her cheeks took on the tint of her hair, and she spun on her heels and hurried off to the front of the store where her mother was working.
"What'd you say to her?" I asked, angry that Johnny had frightened her off that way.
Johnny grinned at me. "I tol' her that old nig was as white as a ghost an' as stiff as a board. Then I tol' her they was puttin' his body in Doc's icehouse an' that I'd take her down there later an' show her."
"You shouldn't of scared her," Abel said.
"No, you shouldn't of. That was dumb and mean-spirited," I snapped.
"Heck, it weren't nothin' ta be scared of," Johnny said. He was still grinning at us, unmoved by our anger. "It was jus' a dead man. It's the ones still walkin' aroun' ya gotta worry 'bout, least that's what my daddy always says."
Reluctantly, Abel and I nodded in agreement, thinking it the manly thing to do, yet deep inside something told me we were wrong. But we were too young to know that. We were only eleven and right then none of us knew how many dead men we would one day see.
Excerpted from WHEN JOHNNY CAME MARCHING HOME by William Heffernan Copyright © 2012 by William Heffernan. Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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