A spiritual and riveting follow-up to Jacob's Ladder, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is ultimately a story about redemption, and the chariots that carry each of us from hardship and darkness, to understanding.
When her husband left her for a younger woman, Rose Franklin bought a camper and started traveling. Eventually, she put down roots in Shady Grove, a campsite along the Mississippi River in West Memphis, Arkansas, where she has lived for almost two years now.
After helping to solve two murders in the area, Rose is now entangled in the murder of a young man from South Dakota—a murder which Chariot, a young woman at the Shady Grove campground, stands accused. As Rose tries to help her friend Chariot out from under the shadow of suspicion and solve the murder, she also struggles with unresolved maternal instincts, and her own difficult choices.
About the Author
JACKIE LYNN is a writer and journalist. Writing under the name Lynne Hinton, she is the New York Times bestselling author of Friendship Cake, as well as the author of Hope Springs and Forever Friends (The Hope Springs Trilogy), among other books, and writes a monthly column for The Charlotte Observer. She lives in New Mexico.
Jackie Lynn is a writer and journalist who divides her time between New Mexico and North Carolina. Writing under the name Lynne Hinton, she is the New York Times bestselling author of Friendship Cake, as well as the author of Hope Springs and Forever Friends (the Hope Springs Trilogy), among other books, and writes a monthly column for The Charlotte Observer.
Read an Excerpt
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
By Jackie Lynn
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Jackie Lynn
All rights reserved.
Chariot Stevens dropped her head on the steering wheel and closed her eyes. She was lost. Parked alongside State Highway 14, she was trying to figure out where she could cross back over the Missouri River and head south. She had stopped at an old turnoff that was really nothing more than just a picnic table and a parking space. She was, however, able to back the car off of the road and remain out of sight behind two large side-by-side city Dumpsters while she tried to figure out what to do next. The sun was just beginning to rise and a faint pink light emerged across the eastern sky; the prairie, flat and wide, stretched behind, in front, and all around her. A dusting of snow covered everything and Chariot looked out of the window and felt disoriented. Nothing seemed familiar. Nothing was right.
Chariot flipped on the radio, thinking that hearing the sound of talk-show hosts or early-morning disc jockeys might help with the feeling of homelessness she was suddenly facing. She listened to a news report recorded earlier that day. Maxine Dilliard, a senator from her hometown of Mitchell, was talking about her push to stop drug trafficking in South Dakota and her efforts to shut down the meth labs taking over the plains state. Chariot turned the radio off. The chatter was not helpful.
Chariot left Pierre, South Dakota, in such a hurry that she hadn't even had a chance to study a map and it had been a long time since she had ever thought to go this far from home. When she turned out of Pierre, heading toward Holabird, she figured that there was a map in the backseat of the car and she would find a place to pull it out and read it. Once she finally did have the opportunity to stop and look in the seat pockets and the glove compartment, however, she could not find one.
The young woman leaned back against the seat and thought about where she was, what she was doing, how much she was messing things up by leaving town. She took in a long breath and considered the idea that maybe she should turn around, drive back to town, go to the police, and tell them what she knew, try to figure out everything that had happened in the last couple of hours, but she shook her head at the idea. She was too scared. Watching Jason die right in front of her was terrifying. And the way he had told her to get out of town sounded too desperate. She hated what would happen to her once she drove away and what she would lose, but she was terribly afraid of what would happen to her if she returned to Pierre.
Chariot glanced around in the car. She was relieved to see that she had the necessary supplies for camping. Jason had thought to pack the tent and sleeping bags. He had already made sure to take the blankets off of the bed, throw them in the backseat, and box up bottled water, peanut butter, chips, and crackers. He had loaded the car with everything they would need to get lost and stay missing. Chariot had what she needed to leave South Dakota. She just didn't know why she had to leave, why Jason had insisted that she grab her things and get ready to go in the wee hours of the morning. She didn't know where he was planning to drive them and now that she was alone, she didn't know where she was going.
It had all happened so fast. When she woke up, he was standing over her, shaking her, and he told her only that she needed to get up and get ready, that he had already gathered up some of her clothes, but that she needed to figure out what else she might need for a trip. Half-asleep and still lost in a dream filled with laughing children, she had asked him what was wrong and where they were going and he had said only that they had to go right away, that they had to get out of the apartment at that very moment, and that he would explain it all once they were out of town.
He told her to get out of bed and put on her clothes, the ones he had thrown on the chair in the bedroom, the ones she now had on. He said that she had a few minutes to gather as much as she could and not to worry about what she couldn't take, that money wasn't a problem and they would buy clothes and extra stuff later. He assured her that even though it looked bad at that moment, everything was going to be fine, that she just needed to do what he said and to trust him.
Chariot refused at first. She didn't want to leave Pierre. She had made a home for herself there. She said she wasn't going to go, couldn't go, but in the end she did what he asked. She listened to his instructions, heard the desperation in his voice, and she followed them. He hated doing this, he had said, and he promised her that he would make it right.
She threw on her jeans and the navy blue sweater that he had picked out for her. She pulled on her hiking boots and stuffed a duffel bag with her makeup and purse and underwear. She grabbed as much of her jewelry as she could and she managed to find the tiny pair of yellow ceramic boots that her grandmother had given her when she was a child. She added her stuffed teddy bear won at the county fair, a box of toys, and a few baby clothes she had been saving. She threw in a few CDs, a photo album, the picture she kept by her bed of a baby wrapped in a thin pink blanket, and the birth certificate in the bedside table. She didn't have time to get anything else.
Jason rushed her out to the car with her arms full. He handed her the keys and told her to start the engine and try to scrape the windshield while he packed a few more things from his desk. She followed his instructions without questioning him because she could see that something was wrong, something was causing Jason to push her to leave quickly. She could only trust him.
She found the car exactly where he had said it would be, not in their usual spot in front of the apartment unit, but behind in the alley, next to a tall chain-link fence. She hurried over to it, found the door unlocked, and piled her things on top of the stuff already in the backseat. As she tried to get the car started, she heard the distant sound of a motorcycle and noticed that it seemed to be coming toward the front of the apartment.
It took ten minutes to crank the engine of the car. It was an old Plymouth, one Jason had when she met him; they had often laughed that it had a mind of its own, especially in the winter. Finally, after a number of tries, the engine started, and Chariot revved the motor and turned on the heat. She got out and tried to clear the windshield with a piece of old cardboard she found on the floorboard. There had been a late spring snowstorm early in the night and everything was covered in three or four inches of the large wet flakes.
She scraped as much as she could, shivering in the cold and dark, and wondered how long her boyfriend had been awake before he had gotten her out of bed, how long he had known they were going to leave Pierre. She wondered how she would explain things to the parole officer and the manager of the diner. She wondered how she would ever recover what she was sure that she was losing.
She slid the cardboard from side to side across the icy windshield and figured that once again everything in her life was falling apart. Once again, just when she thought things were going to be fine, that she was finally going to have a normal and happy life, something was happening to bring her down. Something Jason had done was going to take away everything she had worked so hard to achieve.
She cleared the windshield and reached into the car and turned on the wipers. She threw the cardboard over the fence and headed back toward her apartment, heading back to tell Jason that she couldn't go, that he was going to have to take care of things himself. And then she saw someone coming out of the front door. She didn't get a good look at his face, but he reminded her of men she had seen before. There was something familiar, she thought, about the way he walked, the way he glanced around, always watching, the way he stepped with authority.
He was tall, had a silver helmet on his head, and was wearing a thick black leather jacket. He was dressed in dark clothes, with tall black leather boots. He hadn't noticed her because when Chariot saw him, she moved away from the light and stood against the building. When Chariot heard the motorcycle start up and when she thought that he was gone, she stepped out into the light.
Chariot carefully glanced around in all directions and, seeing no one else, quickly ran to her apartment. She looked in the den and kitchen and finally down the hallway. That was where she saw him. Jason was crumpled on the floor. Blood was splattered across the walls. She made her way over to him and knelt beside him, trying to see if he was still breathing. He opened his eyes just as she pressed her fingers against his neck. She was just about to jump up and dial 911. But with his last breath, he grabbed her and pulled her to him.
"Go!" he said, his voice only a harsh whisper. "They think you're at work, the graveyard shift. They're going there now because they think you've got it. You've got to go now. I'm sorry, Chariot, I didn't know it would turn out like this. Just don't" — his voice fell away — "president ..." And then he released his grip on her collar and collapsed.
"Jason!" she screamed his name. "Jason!"
Chariot felt for his pulse again and found none. She thought again to call 911, to get an ambulance, to get the police. She wanted to get help for Jason and for her, but she felt paralyzed, frozen. She knew that calling the authorities would be the smart thing to do, but she was torn because of what Jason had said. There was something about the way he warned her with his last breath, something about the way he had pulled her from her sleep that night, something even about the way he had acted all week that made her know she needed to do what he had said.
She was still kneeling next to Jason when she heard the motorcycle making the turn a few blocks from the apartment. She shook her head, gave Jason one last look, and ran out of the front door and got in the car. She backed out of the alley and began speeding down the side road that eventually intersected with the state highway. She hoped that she hadn't been noticed by anyone, especially the man on the approaching motorcycle, and she drove the seventeen miles that led to Highway 83. She went past the turnoff for the highway and headed toward Miller.
Chariot drove without stopping. She kept watching the rearview mirror, but didn't see anyone following her. She hurried along Highway 14, heading east. She thought she'd get to Huron, about an hour and half away, and then call the police there. If she was able to get to the next town without being seen by the murderer maybe she'd be safe. She'd tell them everything she knew, including a description of the man she saw leaving the apartment, the man who had killed Jason.
Chariot drove until the sun started to rise. Finally, stopping at the little makeshift rest stop near Lake Louise, she stopped to find the map and to catch her breath. Checking her gas gauge, she saw that there was almost a half a tank. Thinking she would make it to the town with that, Chariot knew that she could get gas when she stopped to make the call in Huron. Everything would work out then. She figured she would make it there just as the main office at the police station opened and she would explain what she had seen, describe the man who killed Jason. She took a deep breath, resolved at what she had to do, and was just about to pull out from behind the Dumpsters when she saw the motorcycle speed past. She slammed on the brakes.
Chariot felt her pulse quicken. She knew the man on the motorcycle was the killer. She recognized him from the apartment. She could see right away the broad shoulders and the black jacket, the silver helmet, and the long black boots. Jason had warned her that they would be looking for her. She knew that he was now after her. But now, there was something even more troublesome about her situation, something she had not noticed or seen before. She was stunned by what she saw on the motorcycle as it sped past.
Flashing across the front fender of the murderer's bike was a panel of state-issued blue lights. The man who murdered Jason and the man who was after Chariot drove a police motorcycle. Suddenly, everything she had just planned was wiped away. The police were somehow involved. She wasn't going to be able to contact any law enforcement officer now, not even in Huron. She turned back in the direction she had come, then headed south on the first highway she found.CHAPTER 2
But I don't know how to dance." Rose had stopped by Ms. Lou Ellen's before heading over to the office to open up for business. Mary, the manager of Shady Grove Campground, had taken the week off to visit a sister who had just arrived in the States from their home country of Vietnam. Rose was in charge of the office while her friend was away.
"Darling, no one really knows how to dance, one simply dances." Ms. Lou Ellen, who lived in the cabin right across the driveway from the campground office, was trying to persuade Rose to go to the Spring Fling Dance that was being held in West Memphis later in the month. She was selling tickets to benefit St. Jude's Hospital, which was just across the bridge in Memphis.
"Just instruct Thomas to take his dark Sunday suit to Fiore's for cleaning, buy you a pink flower over at Judith's Florist, and escort you to a decent social outing. Once you hear the music playing, the dancing will simply happen." Ms. Lou Ellen was pouring herself a cup of tea. "Besides, it's in your horoscope. Would you like some ginger spice?" she asked.
Rose shook her head. "I've got to get the coffee going at the office, but I will take a biscuit." She knew Ms. Lou Ellen always had something baked for breakfast. During the time she had been working at Shady Grove, Rose always enjoyed stopping for breakfast at Ms. Lou Ellen's. "A dance is in my horoscope?" she asked. She knew that her friend followed astrology and studied the charts of everyone she knew.
"Of course," the older woman responded, reaching for a plate for Rose. "A social event is expected for you in this new season. And yes, we must make sure we have coffee for our campers," she noted with a smile.
"That's your son-in-law's motto," Rose added, referring to Lucas Boyd who was married to Rhonda, Lou Ellen's daughter. They were the owners of Shady Grove Campground and hospitality was their key policy. She took a bite of biscuit.
"Yes," Lou Ellen responded. "Free coffee and a picturesque spot on the river." She sipped her tea. "What more could a person need camping along the Mississippi?"
"Not much," Rose replied. "This is, after all, the finest riverbank campground in West Memphis, Arkansas." She wiped her mouth. "You are going to have to teach me how to bake a decent biscuit."
"Of course, dear, it is the only riverbank campground in West Memphis, Arkansas. And why would you want to learn to bake a biscuit when I am baking them for you?"
Rose smiled. "You're right. And regarding campgrounds, even if there was another, I bet Shady Grove would outdo them."
"In a flash," Ms. Lou Ellen noted. "Now, back to the Spring Fling debate."
Rose sighed. "I'm not debating it. Look, I'll buy a couple of tickets if you need to sell them, but I'm not sure that a dance at the VFW will be something Tom or I will attend. Besides, he has escorted me to a decent social outing."
"It's the Elks," Ms. Lou Ellen noted.
"What?" Rose asked, sounding confused. She ate her last bite and got up to place the plate in the sink.
"The Spring Fling, it's at the Elks Lodge, not the VFW." She put down her cup of tea. "I don't think the veterans honor spring with a fling."
"But the Elks do?" Rose asked, going over to the refrigerator to pour herself a glass of juice and then sitting back down at the table.
"In grand style," Ms. Lou Ellen replied. "And taking you to the RV and Camping Show at the Coliseum isn't really what I'd call a formal affair," she added.
Rose rolled her eyes. She drank the juice. "We've been dressed up together."
Ms. Lou Ellen glanced over at her friend. "Yes?" she asked and then put down her cup and interlaced her fingers together, placing her hands in front of her on the table. "Name me a time."
Excerpted from Swing Low, Sweet Chariot by Jackie Lynn. Copyright © 2008 Jackie Lynn. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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