Twelve years after Hannah Hunnicutt was committed to a Dallas asylum, her body is brought home to northeast Texas to be buried alongside those of her husband and son. Etched on all three gravestones is the same date of death: May 28, 1939.
Home from the Hill is the story of that tragic day and the dramatic events leading up to it. The biggest landowner in the county, Captain Wade Hunnicutt was a charismatic war hero whose legendary hunting skills extended to the wives of his friends and neighbors. Humiliated by her husband’s philandering, Hannah grew to despise Captain Wade but was too proud to ask for a divorce; instead, she devoted herself to her only child. Torn between his mother’s adoration and an overwhelming need to win his father’s approval, Theron tried to become his own man. And he might have succeeded if he hadn’t fallen in love with the beautiful and innocent Libby Halstead.
William Humphrey’s dazzling debut novel, the inspiration for a major motion picture starring Robert Mitchum, is a masterpiece of twentieth-century American literature, as intense and thrilling as the Hunnicutts themselves.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of William Humphrey including rare photos form the author’s estate.
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About the Author
A longtime professor of English and writing at Bard College and other schools, Humphrey was the recipient of awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Texas Institute of Arts and Letters.
Read an Excerpt
Home from the Hill
By William Humphrey
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 William Humphrey
All rights reserved.
Early one morning last September the men squatting on the northeast corner of the town square looked up from their whittling to see, already halfway down the west side and passing under the shadow of the Confederate monument, a dusty long black hearse with a Dallas County license plate.
The cottonseed mill had just begun to waft downtown its hot sweet nutty smell. Dew was beginning to rise, steaming above the rooftops, hovering above the grass in the plaza, above the bale of cotton, the county's first for the year, that stood upon a wooden platform wrapped in red bunting there. On the air around the Confederate soldier, martens from the building eaves eddied and swirled like scraps of paper ash. Stores were just opening, the only sounds were the distant hum of the gins and occasional cries from the band of children playing up and down the empty walks, and at that moment not a car of the dozen or so in the square was in motion. Yet so noiselessly had it materialized that the hearse was halfway down the block before anyone saw it. At that moment the courthouse clock commenced tolling the sixteen chimes before the hour of eight.
Silent, but without stirring—for despite its slowness it could be just passing through—while the clock tolled the men on the corner watched the hearse move south down the west side. Only when at the corner it turned and headed into the band of shadow overhanging the south side did they close their pocketknives and get to their feet and begin brushing the shavings off their laps. It went as solemnly slow as a hearse leading a procession, but looking back at the corner by which it had entered, they saw no cars following it. It turned and came their way and through the bug-spattered windshield they saw two men riding in the cab. The clock began the second round of eight chimes. It had picked up on its journey a coat of bleached white autumn dust. It was long and lean and there was restrained power, throttled-down speed, sinister-seeming in a death conveyance, in the pulse of its engine. It turned at their corner back towards its starting point, as if it was leaving, as if it had just cruised in for a look, like a disappointed buzzard circling away. Then as the clock finished chiming, halfway down the block it swung in and nosed up to the curb in front of the confectionery.
The men saw the man on the passenger's side get stiffly out and stand at his door looking around and stretching himself and yawning. Then his partner the driver came around and joined him at the curb. Both were dressed most inappropriately, the passenger in white, his partner in a blue-and-white-striped suit, white shoes, and a sailor straw hat. Seeing this, the men on the corner lost hope.
"I suppose they mean to change into their work clothes when they get to wherever the job is," said Otis Wheeler.
"Anyhow," said Jake Etheridge, "maybe it's empty."
They watched. They could see that the two strangers were having a discussion and were looking the square over as if searching for something. They saw the one who had ridden as passenger go into the confectionery while his partner set off down the block. He passed under the shadow of the monument, reached the corner, and jaywalked and strode up the south side until he reached the hardware store, where the clerk was just then rolling a garden tractor out on the walk. The clerk listened to him, nodded once, and the two of them disappeared into the store.
Then the men started across to the hearse. Meanwhile, cutting across the plaza, boys in the lead, girls hanging back, came their youngsters. Some were there already, in a ring at a respectful distance around the hearse, gawking, egging one another closer. The men—there were around a dozen of them—strung themselves out so as not to seem curious as a group, and when they reached the spot loitered casually. Then one by one they took turns looking in through the confectionery window glass. The stranger sat at the counter and before him were places set for two and two steaming cups of black coffee.
The men were struck by his youth.
"It beats me what could make a young fellow want to go into that trade," said Marshall Bradley.
"It's steady," said Peyton Stiles.
"Yes, and it's a business that's always good," said Ed Dinwoodie. "The worse things are the better it is."
"Pays good," said Peyton.
"Money ain't everything," said Marshall.
"Aw, you can get used to anything," said Otis.
"Besides," said Ed Dinwoodie, "it brings you in contact with all classes of people."
"I God! Hit's a Rolls-Royce!" announced Ben Ramsay.
Meanwhile Clifford Odum was taking advantage of that established right of townsmen to examine a visiting car, and had raised the hood. At the sight of the engine he whistled softly.
"Is it somebody we know in there, Papa?" said one of Peyton's boys.
"Run and play," said Peyton.
"Would you just look at them carburetors–" said Clifford.
Somebody raised his head and nodded towards the south side. The gesture was passed along. There came the stranger back down the block, and over his shoulder he carried two shovels and a pickaxe. Clifford Odum lowered the car hood with a show of care and appreciation.
He was burly and tough-looking, surly-looking. He looked like a bouncer or a bodyguard. He was red-eyed and his clothes were crumpled and creased and his jowls bristled with overnight beard.
"Men," he said, and grinned widely.
They nodded. He stepped off the curb and swung down his digging implements. Apparently he meant to stow them in the hearse. Apparently he changed his mind. He stepped back onto the curb and shouldered his shiny new tools again and entered the confectionery.
The men waited a minute, then began to stroll in in groups of three and four, some going to the counter and ordering coffee, leaving a space of empty stools on either side of the strangers, others collecting around the marble machine. The shovels and the pickaxe leaned against the counter beside the big man, and for a moment all eyes centered on them. Then all shifted to the two men. They ate their ham and eggs silently, sitting with strained, stiffened backs and necks and straightforward eyes, with that rigidity of strangers under scrutiny. The sound of the marble machine was like static.
They finished and ordered their coffee cups refilled, and when the waitress set them down the big fellow broke the silence:
"Which way to the cemetery, ma'am?"
You heard a marble drop into a slot in the machine and the counter clucking as it ran up the score, then no further sound from there.
"You heard of anybody dying that buries here?" said Ed Dinwoodie to his neighbor Ben Ramsay.
Ben thrust out his underlip and studied a minute, then shook his head. "Maybe they want the Cath'lic cemetery," he said. There was a little Catholic cemetery outside of town, about the size of a kitchen garden plot and with maybe half a dozen graves in it.
In the glass on the wall behind the counter, the big fellow's face appeared puzzled. "What about that, Doc?" he asked his companion.
"You mean to say you don't know!" the waitress could not help exclaiming.
"It's the regular," said the young one. "I mean the Protestant," he added hastily, scowling.
"You go out from the square due north, friend," said Ed, turning on his stool. "It's just up the street. You can't miss it."
But the stranger preferred dealing with the waitress. "Well, now tell us, ma'am, where we might find a couple of niggers that'd like to make a dollar."
She looked at the tool handles sticking up over the edge of the counter. Then she glanced quickly around at her fellow townsmen. In returning her gaze to the stranger she was again caught for a moment by the handles. "Well," she said at last, "they's generally some boys hangs out in the alley back of the place here in the good weather, waiting round for odd jobs. No-count town niggers, too lazy to pick cotton," she added hastily, as though to offer such was not to be too disloyal to her townsmen in this matter in which they were being snubbed. "I haven't seen any out there yet this morning, though," she said. "Still sleeping off their Saddy night Sweet Lucy, I imagine." She tried a little laugh, which did not come to much, as again her gaze fell upon the tool handles. "If yawl wait around a little they'll prob'ly be some turn up."
"We can't wait," said the young one.
"Oh," she said, and seemed to jump a little. "Oh. Well, I don't know. It may be some out there now. Only I don't guarantee they'll want your job. But I'll go see," she said and, glad to be gone, fled down the counter aisle and disappeared behind the swinging kitchen door.
"No family waiting, no mourners with them," whispered Otis Wheeler to the men around the marble machine, suspicious now, though ten minutes earlier he had been disappointed at the same possibility, "how do we know it's one of our'n? Who knows who they got in there? Or what they died of? I tell you what I think. I think they're just going from one town to another like somebody driving down a backroad looking for a spot to ditch a dead dog in, just trying to find some place to palm it off on. I tell you, men, they's something fishy with that corpse they got in there."
But others there knew what was up now. "It's somebody to go down in the back of the graveyard, down in the Reprobates' Field," one whispered, while the rest nodded. "If they is any family they want to keep it quiet."
"Yeah," said another. "I wouldn't be surprised if it was old Will Thurlow. Maybe he has served out his sentence at last. He's been in the Huntsville pen since—"
At that moment the waitress returned, followed by two shuffle-gaited young Negro men in coveralls carrying their shapeless caps in their hands. They shuffled out from behind the counter and stood waiting to be spoken to, their faces adjusted to a fine point between attention and curiosity.
"Yawl want to make a little easy money this morning?" asked the big stranger.
They both grinned. One said, "It's digging a grave, ain't it, boss?"
"It's digging a hole," he said with an attempt at rough friendliness. "What do you care what goes into it?"
"Ain't it peculiar," said Ed Dinwoodie innocently, "body coming home and no word sent ahead to the family so they could even get the grave dug?"
Ed had raised his voice. The silence that fell afterwards was such that the stranger saw he would have to say something. "In this case," he said to nobody in particular and without turning on his stool, "they ain't no family."
"No friends neither?" said Ed, emboldened now.
"No friends, neither. Besides, death came sudden."
"Shooting?" said Ed, smiling. "Or electrocution?"
Seeing his two Negroes make a move to shy away, the stranger said, "Nothing like that. No, she just—"
Everybody looked up.
"She?" said Otis Wheeler from across the room.
"A lady!" said Ben Williams.
"Now, who could it be, I wonder," said Ben Ramsay.
"Well, I bet you one thing," old Ross Holloway piped. "I bet you if her folks buries here then I know of her—poor soul."
"I was going to say a dollar, but maybe we better make it a dollar and a half on a warm day like this," said the stranger to the Negroes, while, lifting his hat, he mopped his forehead.
They glanced nervously around at their white townsmen.
"If it's a lady—a white woman—and her folks always buried with us and the poor soul hasn't got no family now," said Ben, "why we would all be glad—"
One of the Negro men plucked his buddy's sleeve and took a backward step. "What do you say, Doc?" said the stranger to his young companion. "Hell, she'll never know."
The young man gave his companion a scornful look, then to Ben he said, "Thank you," then to all the rest, "thank you, but this was how Mrs. Hunnicutt wanted it."
"Miz Hannah?" cried the waitress.
The two startled strangers wheeled on their stools. When they turned back, the two Negroes were stealing away.
"Here! Come back here!" said the big fellow. They stopped. He turned to his companion. "Jesus! You want us to have to dig the damn hole ourselves?" he said.
"You wouldn't," said Marshall Bradley. "You wouldn't have to dig." He said no more, and of course they did not know what to make of that.
"Her death didn't come sudden," said Ben Ramsay, as if just thinking aloud. "Not to her."
"Pick up those tools," said the driver to the two Negroes. They did, and they and the young stranger went outside. The big man paid the check while the young one opened the rear of the hearse and pushed the two reluctant hired hands up inside, then locked the door. When the driver came out he said to one of the boys, one of Peyton's, who had taken a dare to climb on the running-board and see what he could see through the little barred window behind the front seat, and who had got caught there when the others broke and ran, "She still there, son? Thanks for keeping an eye on her." The stranger reached into his pocket and Peyton's boy's eyes rounded in fear. The stranger took his hand out and flipped and a coin spun brightly through the air, which Peyton's boy caught and at once popped into his mouth. Then the stranger climbed in and the hearse pulled away and swung about, cut across the square, and shot out the north corner.
The men split up and covered the square, going from store to store spreading the word. What few shoppers there were at that hour hurried to their cars and streaked out of town. The storekeepers phoned home, then came out onto the sidewalks pulling on their coats and locking their doors and went upstairs to the second-floor lawyers' and doctors' and dentists' offices with the news that Mrs. Hannah had come home to stay. The only other one of those three crazy tombstones that ever would was now to get its body laid beneath it, and the Hunnicutts (or rather, all the Hunnicutts who could be publicly acknowledged) had passed into story.CHAPTER 2
The Captain, Captain Wade (he had been commissioned in the A.E.F. and, the men in his company being mostly local men, county men, who brought it back with them after the Armistice, had kept his title of rank) was our biggest landowner, and even gave his name to a day in the calendar, the first Saturday in October, still called Hunnicutt Day, when his tenants from all over the county came into town for their shares in the year's cash-crop money. And though men have grown rich and men have died memorable deaths since him, none has been remembered as he is. You would have to go back to an earlier, more spacious time, say to something like the days of the opening of Kentucky, when a landowner took personal care of his vast plantation and took the lead in its defence against whatever threatened it, man or beast, or to Tudor England and the times before the gentry grew exquisite, to find another man like Captain Wade.
But then, maybe it takes one of us to appreciate his kind of man. We—at least we small-town Texans (for the cities are getting to have as many Northerners as Texans in them) have a name abroad for violence: grown men still playing guns and cars. Well, and it must certainly be owned that even those of us who have gone away to college, lived in the East, and ought perhaps to know better, never quite get over admiring a man who is a mighty hunter—and who, for the two things go together, takes many trophies poaching in the preserves of love. One who can hold his liquor, zoom down our flat straight roads at a hundred and more miles an hour, who is fast on the getaway, as the expression goes. It cannot be denied, we are all born machine-crazy, gun-crazy, and car-crazy, and never grow out of it. Is there a Texas boy (if there is one who can't then he does not grow into any man) who at the age of six cannot, at a distance of half a mile or as it goes past at whatever speed it is capable of, name you the make, the model and the year of not just Chevvies and Plymouths and Fords, but of ancient Reos and Cords and Dusenburgs, and Hudson Terraplanes, a Star, a Whippett, an Auburn Beauty Six? For a Texan the names of guns and caliber numbers are magic: Winchester and Colt and Remington and Smith & Wesson; .30–30 and .22, .44 and .45 and .32 and .38-Special. You could speak of a Texas boy's growth and manhood as his .410, his 20 and 12 gauge years. Certainly you could have of Theron Hunnicutt, who lived for hunting and who, more than a boy and not quite a man, died at about the 16 gauge. We love machines, and the kind of man we admire is one who handles them well, who masters them to the point of recklessness—such a man as Captain Wade Hunnicutt was, whose duck gun and worn old .30–30, whose car (though he wore one out a year) each took on a personality and might, any one of them, have stood proxy for the man, as the sword of a king off fighting a war in olden times could stand proxy for him to be married back home.
Excerpted from Home from the Hill by William Humphrey. Copyright © 1985 William Humphrey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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