Heading to the Pullman Square area of Huntington, W.V., say “hi” to some nice folks and hopefully move a few books! If you happen to be in the area, please stop by. Thanks to Empire Books & News for hosting me. The Long Shadow of Hope is also available in paperback and electronically on Amazon.com.
IT’S OUT there now
In our little world
Floating like poison
Consuming the unsuspecting
Tearing the very fiber
Author’s note: As I said in “About,” this blog will include original song lyrics, which in my mind is often poetry. A phone call from a great friend yesterday reminded me of this song and his often-used quote, “There’s some things you just can’t dwell on.” That’s why, Derek Watson, if it is ever sung by someone other than me on the porch, you will receive half the royalties. Cheers. A.S.
I’ve been thinking hard every night, worrying ’bout the way things might be,
Getting high with the fire flies, blending with the stars.
Trying to see into the future, wondering how I got so old,
And knowing that this little town can’t hold me.
But there’s some things you just can’t dwell on.
Sometimes you stumble and fall.
Some people must live and learn, and forget about the past.
But sometimes the lesson’s never learned.
All my friends they know what they’re doing,
They planned their lives in the right few steps.
But 9 to 5 and a wife and a home won’t do me.
Where do you turn when you feel alone,
When the whole damn world has got you down,
And you’re weary of the comforts of the bottle.
And the last thing that you want to do, is take the walk to your empty bedroom,
You tell yourself you’re not always so smart…
Mistakes are made fairly often,
Sins committed rarely forgotten,
Seasons change and life goes on, and tomorrow’s another day,
But the memories of lovers never fade away.
Lovers come and lovers go, years go by and dreams grow old,
And some of us are not so bold to keep searching…
But I’ll keep hoping till my dying day, to find what it takes to make me happy,
And pray this time I don’t let it slip away
But there’s some things, you just can’t dwell on.
Sometimes you stumble and fall.
Some people must live and learn, and forget about the past.
But sometimes the lesson’s never learned.
I’ve been thinking hard every night, worrying ’bout the ways things might be,
Getting high with the fireflies, blending with the stars…
Andrew Spradling, Derek Watson
Author’s note: This began as an exercise in first-person and became nearly 11,000 words. Thanks for the interest. A.S.
THERE WERE AT least five reasons I believed that Joe Early murdered Carmel Richardson. But they didn’t become clear to me until I read the flower-arrangement card signed by Joe and some railroad co-workers some ten years after Carmel’s funeral.
Can you imagine? Eight names on one of ten or twelve cards, tucked away in a file by my grandmother, Audrey Fulks Raines Richardson, saved in an upright, four-drawer file cabinet my mother refused to get rid of after Grandma’s death eight years ago. That cabinet has been relocated twice as I’ve moved my mother’s unsellable, garage-full of obsolete, particle-board furniture. I’m not talking about estate sale items, if you catch my drift. She’s a hoarder, plain and simple. Not to the point of paths through the home. She has a weakness for keeping anything that was owned by someone on the family tree, anything that might again be used by her or some other nameless acquaintance. But when I discovered the cards, as I desperately, for my own sanity, filled garbage bags during yet another move, a move with a deadline, I could not throw them away.
I realize now that the “reasons” I carried with me all these years were not even coherent thoughts. They were just feelings, unrelated memories, rationalizations gaped by half a decade here, two or three years there. They were invasive moments in dreams that ran in my mind like old home movies. There were other jagged bits and pieces. The overheard fragments of two men talking in the bathroom of the funeral home, a semi-rude slight by another man one year, a third or fourth-hand story that painted a surprising picture of Carmel in another.
It all seemed to crystalize when I read the names on the card… not just who each man was, but their grouping. The constellation of dots represented their places in the world, their standing, and they all connected. It wasn’t just an epiphany, it was an awakening. Maybe Joe Early didn’t act alone, but I guarantee he was the leader. What’s that Latin phrase, Cui bono? Who benefits? Who had the most to gain? Joe Early, without question.
Carmel Richardson was a bull of a man. At only five-foot-seven he was well over two-hundred-sixty pounds. Not fat, but thick, wide in the waist, with powerful legs and arms, an untiring worker. His bald head was a stump on his shoulders. If a fat man is built like a pear, Carmel had the silhouette of a potato. He’d put a full day in with the railroad, eat his supper, drinking iced coffee, then work in the garden till dark.
On Saturdays, if potatoes needed to be turned, the garden needed to be weeded, or something needed to be picked, he’d work endlessly in the scorching sun, sweat bees buzzing about, as we children wilted. His disposition would remain jovial. He loved owning and working his land. On the occasions he brought Grandma down our way – to town — he was the type that couldn’t relax and visit. He had to have something to do. He’d find what he called Paw-Paw wood growing in the wilds behind our house and with his knife he’d create for me a whip, the hand-woven bark serving as the lash, a bow and arrow set, or, most impressive, a flute.
CARMEL’S passing was ultimately deemed of “natural causes.” There were circumstances, though, leading up to his death that were more forced than natural. The accident at work, taking the full brunt of a railroad tie in the chest, weakened him, bruised him internally, palpitating his rhythms. Who was responsible? His underling, Joe Early.
A week later he was back on the job. When he had a heart episode, disoriented and gasping for the nitro pills in his lunch pail, who tripped and fell, allowing the metal box to roll down an embankment into a creek? Again, the normally sure-footed Joe Early. Two accidents that remained as such in most people’s eyes. Joe was remorseful, and over a pitcher of draft beer at a roadside tavern spewed sad words of regret and guilt, but I felt them insincere.
Carmel’s service was held at Parsons Funeral Home in the obscure hamlet of Frametown, just down the road from Gassaway, population: too few to matter. Which doesn’t mean the hundreds that live there aren’t good, strong-willed, surviving, God-fearing people. It’s a great place to be, it’s just that their collective voice couldn’t move a molehill, much less mountains. But their labor could.
Carmel had relocated to Gassaway from the farm, a move dictated by my mother and her two sisters, because they felt life on the farm was becoming too tough for their Momma. Grandma Audrey, though, was tough and loved farm life. She loved to cook vegetables right out of the garden. She had a flair for preparing meat Carmel killed while hunting, pounding it with flour until her knuckles were red. She routinely canned green beans and tomatoes for winter. She could, despite being in her late fifties, pick for hours. She would — without hesitation – take a broom to George, the farm’s resident black snake, all six feet of him, to get him off the kitchen table when he made his way into the house for attention. That’s what she would say.
But there was more to Grandma Audrey. She was decisive. She didn’t hem-haw around. It was yes or no. “I don’t want to do that,” or “Ok, let’s go.”
It was her decisiveness that brought her Carmel. He wasn’t our grandfather. Our grandfather was Roy Raines. He died at fifty-seven from complications following heart surgery. I was three, which means my mother was twenty–one. Both her sisters were in their mid-twenties still. Everybody was young, it seemed. Snapshots weren’t of great quality then. So Carmel, a friend from the country, came along courting Grandma Audrey, who was born on Strange Creek. Maybe just to spite her disapproving daughters, she married him before I was seven. He was much younger than Grandma, nearly twenty years. Perhaps that’s part of the reason they disapproved. The post-nuptial transition was as smooth as the hide of the hogs Carmel and Grandma raised on the farm.
Most of the folks in Gassaway had people on the farm, or people on the railroad, or people down south in the coal mines. Carmel’s farm was on Strange Creek, at least twenty-five minutes off the last hard road. It seemed like a perilous trip when we cousins were young. The Interstate system not yet complete, we’d follow a route that ran mostly parallel to the winding Elk River. We’d sing songs or play games but inevitably one child or another would get carsick, and if we were lucky we’d be able to pull off the road before the vomit sprayed the backs of the seats, doors, and fellow passengers.
When my cousins and I were there Carmel would take us to the best swimming holes on Strange Creek, and we would laugh, hunt for crawdads, and innocently splash about as he, bar of soap in hand, washed the railroad soot from his face, neck, and arms. I realized later he could have showered in the farmhouse but Carmel would see that as a senseless depletion of the well water if the weather was good, and he knew us kids would love it and never forget it.
Since he wasn’t a blood relative and the three sisters were indifferent, nobody other than Grandma really knew too much about Carmel’s family. Turns out, Joe Early and Carmel were first-cousins. Carmel was an only child and sort of the black sheep of the Richardson family. His parents had died young, and he was left at seventeen to fend for himself. Joe’s mother, Maybelle, was Carmel’s father’s sister, Carmel’s aunt, but she was the same way with Carmel as everyone else, that included her four other siblings and all their children. He was a troll they preferred left under the bridge.
I’d been a pall-bearer many times in my life, and my cousins and I are all tall and strong. But carrying Carmel’s casket on wet, unstable ground, to his side-of-a-hollow, ultimate resting place, was an unnerving, physically demanding experience. And yet what stood out to me from that gray day was an absence of family members at that graveside service from Carmel’s family. It was all Grandma’s people.
Carmel’s passing would likely have been one of those deaths that simply faded into the cobwebs with all the other stored memories save for a couple of distinct incidents. I was working two jobs during my second try at college. One, as a bartender at a place called “Downtime,” which was popular for its tasty sandwiches and wet beer. The second, as a part-time weekend rail rider. One evening, about four days after we’d heard Carmel took that swinging pendulum of a cross-tie in the chest, Grandma Audrey called me at Downtime. After a few seconds of chitchat, she put Carmel on the phone. That never happened. I asked about, then listened to his account of how he was faring. He downplayed the accident, changing the subject.
“I’m glad you’re back in school,” he told me. “Stick to your guns and stay with it. Labor work is no way to get ahead. I’m proud of you… and I love you.”
A few days later he was gone.
My name is Luke Westfall. Carmel’s memory was part of the reason I became a labor lawyer. Because of the aforementioned “second try” at college, I didn’t graduate from law school until I was thirty. I’ve been at it for three years. It was on a burned vacation day, taking care of my mother’s move, that I discovered those cards. That was the second incident. It caused a mushroom cloud of awareness in my haunted psyche. The pieces I didn’t even know were related lined up like the catacombs.
It was my position with my firm, Knapp, Little & Simpkins that occasionally took me back to Braxton County, home to Gassaway, Frametown, Strange Creek, and so many childhood memories. The cases were usually small, unwanted irritations to colleagues that felt them unworthy of their time in Podunk places they didn’t want to visit. For me, with the Interstate system now in place, Gassaway was but one lively compact disc away with a heavy foot. Awaiting were visits to old stomping grounds like Sutton Lake, a man-made water hole whose jaunting mountains served as both bank and privacy fence to its cool waters. It was a majestic place to consume a bagged lunch. But I seemed to connect with the people too, and my superiors recognized and utilized that. Little did I know how important that fact would be.
SINCE CARMEL Richardson’s death, Joe Early had risen to a position of great authority with the railroad. That ascent, though, did not warrant or earn him enough to pay for the statuesque mansion Early built for himself and his family. His wife, Thelma, and his two teenaged children, Leslie, 17, and Chip, 15, played the part well, a posturing of class that was as foreign to that region of West Virginia as caviar. He wanted his children to walk with the sternness of the privileged, wear haircuts like the children of the preppy Ivy-leaguers he occasionally rubbed shoulders with on lavish vacations.
There were faceless rumors floating about that Joe was tied to the harvesting of natural gas, the professional priority of another name on the that fateful flower arrangement card, Flint Hendricks. Hendricks was notorious for his business practices, namely land acquisitions, as the gold rush for acreage tsunamied across West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York after the discovery of the Marcellus Shale. Venture capitalists wiped their feet on a blue and gold rug and pushed their way on into the Mountain State, buying up huge tracts of mountainous woodlands, hoping for a strike. Their intentions then, not to stay for the harvest, but to unload to Shell, BP, Chevron, or some other gigantic distributor.
I had become familiar with Hendricks’ name before I saw it on the card, through trade magazines and word-of-mouth complaints about work conditions. After three years on the job, I walked into one of his makeshift offices, what looked to once be an RV, now on cinderblocks, near a series of wells twenty miles west of Gassaway, i.e., nowhere. When I saw his face I was transported through time to that funeral home bathroom. His full salt-n-pepper beard was brown then, but his eyes were the same hard charcoal. The phrase I heard from his lips when I was a younger, bereaved man, his arms extended in explanation, his tone an angry whisper, “He wouldn’t sell, damn it.” The man he said it to, turned his back and faced the sink when he heard the door open, his partial reflection just a peripheral tidbit in a small, round wall mirror.
“Mr. Hendricks,” I said, trying desperately to mask my shock. “Thanks for seeing me on such short notice.”
“Well how could I turn you away, Westfall, if you were willing to drive here. There’s no place else to hide shy of a four-wheel Mule ride up the hollow.” He stood from behind his messy desk and extended his hand. It was dry and rough as sandpaper.
“I appreciate it nonetheless.”
“Well, it’s a necessary evil I suppose,” Hendricks said. “You know, you can call me Flint. No point in us being so formal.”
“I’m good with that. I’m Luke.”
“You look familiar to me. I feel like I should ’member you from somewhere.”
“I don’t know where that would be,” I lied. My heart was pounding so hard in my chest I thought he would see it. I was hoping sweat wouldn’t bead my forehead. “I’ve been with the firm a couple of years or so.”
“Hmm. From these parts?”
“No. Grew up around Charleston… just east.”
“It’ll come to me. Part of growing old though. Might take a few days.”
Against every instinct I had I smiled. His voice was higher than his look would seemingly allow. But the octave, pitch and tempo of that phrase was bad music in my memory: “He wouldn’t sell, damn it.” And it matched the voice I heard before me. The déjà vu was chilling.
“Let me know what you come up with,” I said. I chuckled, hoping he would think my anxiety was over our business. “Can we talk about Phil Reed’s case… Flint?”
“Sure. You’re aware I paid the hospital yesterday for everything his insurance wouldn’t cover.”
“Yes and thank you. This is more about conditions. He’s worried the same thing could happen again without some change. Do you have a stance there?”
Hendricks scratched at the beard on his chin. He stared at me. Then his tongue seemed to go to work extracting a food particle from his lower gum line. I felt like mental fodder for Flint, my being a taste test. He was nibbling around the edges.
“So he wants money for pain and suffering because he’s worried about conditions?”
Sounded paper thin coming from him.
“Just a bump to get him through this recovery period,” I heard myself say.
Again he stared. Then he took his first good bite.
“Listen, I’m sure you’re a competent lawyer in your other cases… but there’s something you don’t know here. Our buddy Phil was digesting a liquid lunch that day. Like most days. I’ve known about it… and maybe should have done something about it. But Phil, he’s a grunt, and usually keeps his feet on the ground. Why he climbed that scaffolding in his condition I’ll never know. Unless he was completely drunk.”
It was my turn to stare… I had a decision to make. The word “proof” was bouncing around my brain like a soccer ball. I had it. I wanted to see how far he’d take this line.
“He neglected to share that, I presume.”
“If that’s true, yes sir.”
“It’s a simple thing. Better you learned now than in court right? Phil has a history. Everybody knows it. As you approach your job remember you have to look deep. It’s nothing for some of these folks to lie to their own lawyer if they see a flashing payoff at the end.”
My dignity – at first shaken by his ‘other cases’ comment – was completely restored. I didn’t necessarily want to play my hand, or seem overly confrontational. The serendipitous discovery that Hendricks was an associate of Joe Early wasn’t helping my judgment.
“Or if not lie, neglect to tell the whole truth,” Hendricks went on. “Hell Luke, we brag and wave the flag about what great, hard-working, red-blooded Americans we are. But there is a minority of folks, given the opportunity, would go on disability in a heartbeat.”
“As far as I could see, Phil’s never had a claim before now.”
“But they’re always thinking about a way to beat the system.”
“And I guess all his co-workers would attest to his drinking? Least the ones that want to keep their jobs?”
“It’s common knowledge, Bud. I’m not trying to crawfish nobody here. In fact, you just tell Phil I’ll keep paying his wages until he can get back to work. I’ll have come out ahead.”
“Well, that would be cheaper than me hiring a lawyer. And it brought me a good lawyer the next time I need one.”
“Uh, Mr. Hendricks I… I have the blood toxicology report from the hospital. No alcohol in his system when he was admitted.”
“It’s Flint – and don’t even talk,” he said, leaning back in his chair, a guilty smile stretching his lips. Then his confrontational demeanor evaporated. “See, this is what I’m saying. I’m expanding operations with some partners and it would be smart to have a lawyer on call. I’m sure your firm wouldn’t disapprove of sending me a bill for a retainer’s fee.”
“No, they wouldn’t.”
“Great. All settled then. I can tell you, Luke, this shale work is going to get damned interesting. It’ll probably be the last of the great strikes before the EPA makes Detroit go electric.”
Twenty minutes later I pulled back onto the hard road for my return to Charleston. I contemplated my performance, cussed myself thoroughly for letting the past temporarily screw with my train of thought. I swore I would never let it happen again. I would be an ice man, keeping my cards close to the vest. I made myself a mental checklist to go through with each new case. Heading south along the Elk River, I was about to pass a “farm use only” truck when I noticed a whitewashed, cinderblock building to the right, a roadside bar named simply “Joe’s.”
It struck a chord with me. One of my cousins heard a story, details completely sketchy, that Carmel had been in a bar called Joe’s one night. This was long before he was with my Grandma. After an hour of straight whiskey, Carmel and the man he was drinking with began to argue. Neither one of them could stand up well enough to fight, but the other man pulled a gun and pressed its muzzle against Carmel’s forehead. Carmel, in a drunken stupor, said “Do it. Pull the trigger. End my miserable life.”
I pulled into an open slot in the parking lot, unknotted my tie and tossed it on to the passenger seat. I could hear Merle Haggard singing about being on the “fighting side of me.” I opened the door and without hesitation, stepped into the darkness.
As my pupils adjusted I looked around the room: bar on the right end, juke box on the left, ten mismatched tables with an assortment of old chairs in between. Someone had taken the time to adorn the walls with framed photos of groups of workers and old sports teams between West Virginia University and Braxton County High School pennants.
Eight blue, vinyl-covered stools were mounted to the concrete floor in front of the bar, the two to the right occupied by locals watching a game show on TV. Tending was a surprisingly-attractive woman of about twenty-five or so, a brunette who looked – despite her thin stature – as though she would have no problem moving a keg beneath the counter and changing its tap.
“What can I get you, Hon?” she asked me.
“Bottle of Bud, please.”
She dug in the cooler in front of her, twisted the cap, and set the longneck on the wooden bar.
I laid three ones on the bar.
“Thank you. So, are you lost?”
“Salesman… that’s all we’re getting through here now. Well parts, drilling hardware, heavy equipment, salt solutions, cleaning foams.”
“No, I’m a lawyer.”
One of her eyebrows raised, what I always identified as the perception that a lawyer was a notch up the food chain somehow.
“Just passing through,” I said.
“Thanks. I’m actually familiar with the area… I used to come up here as a kid…. my grandma had a place out on Strange Creek.”
“Really! I grew up on Strange Creek. What’s her name?”
“It was Richardson. Audrey Richardson.”
“No,” she said. Her disbelief seemed genuine. “I’m a Barker. My parents had the farm just before her driveway turned in.”
“You’re not that little pig-tailed girl I used to see behind that electric fence. Seemed like you always had a litter of puppies on your heels.”
“Yeah, that was me. I always wanted to keep’em, Mom and Dad always wanted to give them away.”
“What’s your first name?”
“Mary Beth, my goodness, all grown up. Well, it’s nice to see you again. I’m Luke Westfall.”
Both smiling, we eyed each other briefly with nostalgic regard. Finally, she broke the silence.
“I remember when all you grandkids would come to visit. I’d watch you playing games and run around screaming. I thought, ‘Wow, wonder what cities they come from.’ I always wanted to talk to y’all about your schools and homes and friends.”
“Your folks ok?”
“Yeah. They’re still out there on the farm. I was sorry to hear about your Grandma passing. She was always real nice to us.”
“I remember how bad I felt for her when we heard Carmel died. Course they’d moved away by then.”
“That caused a stir though.”
“Miss Audrey holding on to Carmel’s share of that piece of land – at least for a while. It like to drove Joe crazy. I heard him many-a-night, belly-aching about it. I never told Joe I knew Audrey. He’s been good to me. I commute to Glenville State and he always makes sure I’m taken care of if I’m short. But I didn’t want him knowing I knew her.”
“Are you talking about Joe Early?”
“Yeah. This is his place.”
I glanced over at the two men five stools down. Our conversation had become more interesting to them than the rerun of “$25,000 Pyramid” they were watching. My stool squeaked as I swiveled till my back faced them.
“Well, what’s the story with the piece of land?”
AS I BEGAN MY drive back to Charleston I thought, it was good to have an ally. Not just an ally, an insider. Turns out that knowing Audrey and Carmel Richardson, but showing discretion about it, put Mary Beth Barker within earshot of some interesting conversations over time while tending bar. And, what doesn’t get said in a bar? Especially after the neon “Open” sign had been turned off for the evening, when alcohol-fueled bravado between the owner, Joe Early, and his closest friends and business associates reached its height, when the unhappily-married men – or just flat-bored men — attempted to sound important to the young, attractive bartender. Between what she heard there and conversations with her parents, she pieced together much of the preface.
According to Mary Beth, Joe Early took his job with the railroad for the benefits, having started his family accidently. He built the cinderblock building that became “Joe’s” realizing that he could turn a good profit selling beer and liquor to the local laborers who drank away their lives week after week. He also had a bit of a drinking problem, but he could walk from the bar to his nearby home, his first home, not his sprawling new spread, when he had to. He was full of big ideas, and never really saw himself as a lifelong railroad man. When the opportunity arose to purchase land with Flint Hendricks – when he finally decided to get himself together — he started showing the initiative that garnered attention from railroad chiefs. The only person ahead of him on the ladder was Carmel Richardson. He realized if he rose to management status he could keep taking their money and still have time, and more importantly, energy, to pursue outside interests.
The tract of land they had in mind enjoyed long, easy sloping hills, shallow hollows, and meadows as far as the eye could see, sort of an anomaly for the region, unlike the steep, jagged mountain formations that were more typical. Hendricks had had seismic tests taken for its potential. The soil and ground rock readings were perfect. He’d even paid for satellite images. He guaranteed Joe it would produce natural gas. There was a catch, and this was the only reason Flint was willing to include Early in his growing empire. The access to this land was twelve acres owned and occupied by Carmel’s grandmother, Grandma Richardson. Also included was the shack she lived in, and an old barn still as strong as the day it was built.
Grandma Richardson didn’t share her family’s attitude about Carmel. In fact, she loved him dearly. Her son, Llewelyn, Carmel’s father, was her first child to live past infancy. She was heartbroken when Llewelyn died before his time. A brain aneurism took him as he plowed a field. Carmel returned to see his Grandma Richardson weekly. He embraced her country ways unlike his own cousins, and continued to learn from her. She respected that in him, and she marveled at his incredible work ethic.
When she became bed-ridden from old age and God knows what else – she’d never seen a doctor — she was irritated by the noise of testing “thumper” trucks, hired by Flint Hendricks, invading the peace and quiet of her home. She’d taken a decent sum of money from Hendricks for a temporary right-of-way, so she could pay for her own burial. She knew her time had come, but she didn’t understand the extent of what Flint was up to. In her final hours, she flinched at the rhythmic thud and ear-piercing mechanical screeches made by the trucks, and that angered Carmel. He’d gone to Flint and respectfully asked him to cease and desist for a short while so she could rest comfortably, but Flint turned him away cold, saying the cost would be too great.
Carmel honestly hadn’t considered what would become of Grandma Richardson’s property, but when he learned she’d left it to all the grandkids to squabble over, he found it befitting her personality. She always liked a good joke. None of the grandkids agreed with Carmel that they should keep the land as a family tribute, part of their heritage, a place to keep a garden, and have reunions and picnics. They all wanted their share of its value, small as it was. But nobody had an interest greater than Joe, and he immediately went about buying his cousins out. Interested only in a fair sum, they all complied. All but Carmel, who dug in like a tick on a hound.
As I drove into Charleston from the north I thought about the demeanor of Carmel and Grandma Audrey. He never seemed the least bit confrontational, though I’d never imagined him in a situation other than that of a loving grandparent, actually more impressive, a step-grandparent. He didn’t have to love us, but he did. Now that I’d met Flint Hendricks, I imagined that, had he wanted to, Carmel could have ripped him in half, or drove him into the ground like a railroad spike.
Grandma Audrey’s decisiveness could be razor sharp, but again I only witnessed it applied to her home economics. It pained me to think of all the wisdom she’d taken with her to her grave. Despite giving up driving years earlier, she was incredibly self-reliant. “Learn to drink your coffee black,” she once told me, “because you never know when you might be stuck without cream and sugar.” She knew first-hand from being snowed in on the farm and unable to get supplies. She deprived herself. She bought little for her home, but when she did, she got the best because she wanted it to last. Her refrigerator was going strong at twenty-five, and her three-piece couch set we kids slept on never showed any wear. She wouldn’t do anything important, start a project, make a major purchase, if it wasn’t in the new of the moon. She quit smoking cold turkey after thirty-five years during a new moon… and it took. She swore by the moon, and quoted The Farmer’s Almanac as though it was the Bible.
Despite her grit she was soft-skinned, with kind eyes that were almost robin-egg blue in the sunshine, with a loving sparkle. She smiled often, and she could get tickled and laugh hysterically. She listened to her shows while she worked around the house or sewed, but when she wasn’t working she was reading. That, she instilled in me. When she and Carmel moved to Gassaway from the farm, she had quite a large library. On visits there I could always find something of interest, Mutiny On The Bounty or Last Of The Mohicans, and she would make sure the books I read would find their way to me afterwards. Inside the front cover would be a sticker that read “From the Library of Audrey Richardson.”
But I never had an inkling of the Joe Early situation, and I’m not sure her daughters did either. Like everything else, I’d bet she took it head on. I wondered though how he approached her after Carmel’s death, what tactics he used to purchase Carmel’s split of the land. Did he try to squeeze her, or charm her? I wanted to know.
As I pulled into my firm’s leased parking spaces in a downtown garage to shuffle papers concerning the Flint Hendricks-Phil Reed settlement, I thought of Mary Beth Barker. She’d become emotional at times telling me the story. With the two eavesdroppers nearby, at one point she had me follow her out the front door where she could speak her mind without having to whisper. It touched me that she cared so much about Grandma Audrey and Carmel. She’d really only known them as a child. I guess their memory stayed with her through her parents. But there was something else. There was a light about her. Some deep, unspoken yearning that made me want to return to Braxton County as soon as I could. She’d stood with her back to that cinderblock building and waved her open hand to the mountains across the river. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” she said. “I can’t wait to leave.”
It was past six when I walked into the office, but there was still a feel of hustle and bustle at the firm. That was expected. Only the partners had gone home for the day. After an hour of work I became distracted with thoughts of what it would take to prove Joe Early planned the accidents that led to Carmel’s death. Then it hit me: Grandma Audrey always kept a diary. She filled dozens of notebooks with the events of her days, what she did, her appointments, who she might have spoken to, what came in the mail, what she was reading, what she heard about the grandkids from her daughters. I’d read a few random entries in my mother’s last move. Grandma’s handwriting was unmistakable: wide, sweeping letters with fat curves. Of course, despite my purging attitude towards my mother’s belongings, I would not have dared throw those notebooks away, and there’s no way she would have either. It would only be a matter of finding them – and convincing my mother that I could keep them safe if she let me borrow them. Reading what she wrote about Joe Early became my focus.
If there was an immature, pulled-straight-from-my-teens apprehension about visiting my mother, it was that there was no way to just visit and chat. The movement, rearrangement of junk from one area to another – never out to the curb – was inevitable. As was furniture rearrangement, then re-rearrangement, and many times, the return to its original spot. What’s a son to do but attempt patience? For the sake of time and sanity, the visit would need to be on the weekend. But I was hot for Grandma’s diaries. I had no current romantic attachments in Charleston and I pictured myself reading them late into the night. A quick call to my mother might reveal a window of opportunity through the week — a doctor’s visit or garden club meeting. And as adolescent as that sounded, that knowledge could save me hours.
BY LUNCH THE next day I had the notebooks in hand. I’d taken a surprise approach with my mother, who wasn’t one to meet the morning sun with a smile and a song. I’d gotten in and out before she was really thinking, before the water was boiling for her flavor of freeze-dried coffee. Despite my ambivalence about the visit, she had shown a caring, loving attitude about her mother and the notebooks, and the fact that I wanted to read them. I promised I would treat them with respect and return them intact before I told her I loved her and kissed her goodbye.
It was Friday and thus more casual at work. I had still arrived at 8:30, when the billing was to begin. At noon I grabbed a sandwich and one notebook across Kanawha Boulevard. I sat on bench overlooking the Kanawha River. It was a glorious day, warm and sunny with no humidity. It was early October, and in West Virginia you knew to appreciate a day like that. The tree leaves on the mountains that created the bowl that is the Kanawha Valley were a couple of weeks into their subtle turn — the orange, yellow, purple, and reds becoming more prominent. Often in fall the sky is nothing but cloud cover, from dawn till dusk, the sun unable to burn the morning fog. Those were the days you knew winter was not far off, that soon by five o’clock you’d be engulfed in cold and darkness. Today was a day to praise Mother Nature, a day for boating, or golf, or bicycles, or hiking… anything but work. I was at least thankful I had a familial theme to occupy my thoughts.
Because of Grandma Audrey’s organization it had taken me only a few seconds to find the notebook I was looking for, the one in the weeks following Carmel’s death. She was so pragmatic I had assumed that she went about her life as she always had, her books, her little dog, and her chores occupying her time. But she was lonely, had lost her sense of purpose, and that came out in her writing.
“January 21, 2004 — I couldn’t concentrate on my book today, Taylor Caldwell’s Ceremony of the Innocent. Not that she let me down. I just can’t get my head in it. “Love or perish, love or perish” a preacher says early on – that’s so true. I find myself walking from room to room looking for something to do. There’s a stack of sewing I’d put off — most of it Carmel’s work clothes. I need to bag all that up and give it away. Though no man I know can wear Carmel’s pants — 46×26. I caught myself moving pots and pans around to start Carmel’s dinner then I remembered that he’s gone. Lord, how I miss him. Prince walks around looking for him too. He lays with his chin between his front paws and stares at the door.
It’s so cold on this ridge top. The curtains move when the wind blows outside. I’ve kept a trickle of water running from all the faucets overnight. I wrote myself a note and put it on the fridge to have the propane tank filled. Despite the weather, or maybe because of it — to get his backside inside — ha — Rusty was early with the mail. Bills, bills, bills and a card — from Joe Early of all people. Said again how sorry he was about Carmel’s passing – hogwash – and that he wanted to stop by and see me sometime, that he has an “important matter to discuss.” Tracy called and said she’d be up Thursday morning to take me to the doctor… just a waste of time and money, but I will be glad to see her. Can’t say the same about Joe.”
“January 24, 2004 – It’s clear but cold outside today, a good day for Tracy to go back to Charleston. We had a nice visit but she said that she, Mary, and Ellen want me to move back down that way. It’s usually good to have daughters. I do miss the grandkids, but this is home to me and I don’t want to leave. When it’s warm, I love the way my hibiscus flowers spread out in the a.m., and how beautiful the reds are. I love just sitting and listening to the birds, counting how many there are. It’s so peaceful and quiet. Prince never barks at birds or rabbits or squirrels, just people. Protecting me. Which reminds me, Joe Early came by after Tracy left. Prince doesn’t like him. I have to say, neither do I. I knew why he was coming – wants to buy Carmel’s 1/8th split of Grandma Richardson’s land – for $6000. He was pleasant and all. But Carmel didn’t want that land to become part of a string of wells. Carmel knew what Joe and that Flint Hendricks were up to. What do I care? It’s nothing to me. But none of Carmel’s family cared about him, they treated him badly, so I decided to make Joe wait. I told him I’d have to think about it – and to come back in a week.”
“January 31, 2004 – It snowed overnight, about four inches. It was so pretty and white and extra quiet when the sun came up I put on my hat, coat, and Carmel’s boots and just stood on the back porch for five minutes – just to be a part of it. The only sound was the wind, far off… utter silence. Carmel didn’t like winter.
Joe Early is prompt, I’ll give him that. I had no more than finished my toast and coffee when he came knocking at my door — one week later nearly to the minute. He was the same with me, told me how they all missed Carmel on the job, what a tragedy it was. Asked me if there was anything he could do for me while he was here. He said he’d been having trouble sleeping because of his part in it the “accident.” I had to bite my tongue to keep from giving him a piece of my mind. But the test was coming. I figured I’d see his true colors. I told him I’d been thinking that the land, if it was going to be part of drilling site and all, must be worth a lot more than $48,000 together. I told him I wanted $12,000 for Carmel’s part. And also, the next new moon wasn’t till February 10. I wouldn’t sign the papers till then. Well, he turned about three shades of red – started stomping around the living room like a bear in the circus, got Prince barking again. Said I was being unreasonable, that he’d have to think it over. He tried to drive off so fast his truck slid in the ditch. That got me tickled.”
Because of the extra days to finish the deal, Grandma Audrey and run out of space and switched to a new notebook. My lunch hour was pretty much over anyway so I regretfully headed back to the office. When I got there, I saw that I’d missed two calls. Both left messages.
The first was from Flint Hendricks.
“I knew I’d come up with it,” he said from the phone’s electronic memory. “You’re Carmel Richardson’s kin – grandson — ain’t that right? Well it’s good to have you aboard, Bud.”
The second was from Mary Beth Barker. All she said was, “We need to talk. Call me please.”
FOR MARY BETH BARKER, the fine line between security and panic was crossed at 12:32 a.m. in that God-forsaken cinderblock building called “Joe’s.” Apparently my visit the day before made for dominant headlines in Braxton County, the buzz reaching up and down the Elk River and into the deepest hollows. When Flint Hendricks and Joe Early got together over whiskey and realized that Hendricks’ new lawyer – the grandson of Carmel Richardson — was the same Caucasian Early’s informants at the bar were trying to describe, further intensified by the revelation of Mary Beth’s long discussion, the paranoid Early couldn’t help but make it rough for the woman who for past few years had been his sexual fantasy.
“Joe knows he’s got a big mouth when he gets drunk,” Mary Beth told me when I reached her. “Flint’s always saying to him, ‘Loose lips sink ships, Peckerhead.’ Problem is, he doesn’t remember what he’s said when he’s drunk unless it comes back to bite him. It’s happened enough that he assumes he’s said too much about Carmel in front of me.”
“So what happened?”
“He grabbed me by both shoulders and shook me for about ten seconds, saying ‘tell me, tell me.’ Then he backhanded me right on the cheekbone — knocked me into the wall. I figured that would be it. But as I pulled my hair out of my face he grabbed my shirt and jerked it so hard he ripped half the buttons off it. I figured if he was drunk enough to rape me he was drunk enough to kill me after. I’ve been avoiding him for a while, but this was different. His eyes were different – crazed. I didn’t want to end up buried under some well pit – so I kicked him in the… well, you know. While he was doubled-over and waist-high I broke a fifth of Dickel on his head. I pointed what was left of the bottle at Flint, grabbed my keys and ran.”
“Thank God you got out of there.”
“Yeah, well, I went to a girlfriend’s apartment last night. When I tried to go home this morning, one of his goons was parked outside waiting. He didn’t see me drive past – probably asleep. So I came back here to her place and called you. If you don’t mind, if it’s cool, I’d like to come down, sleep on your couch. I didn’t sleep much last night. I want to get away from here. I don’t know what your situation is. I didn’t see a wedding ring.”
I laughed. I was so far from married it wasn’t even a blip on the radar.
“What’s that about?” she asked. She sounded vulnerable. “I just don’t want to cause any problems.”
“Oh, it’s fine, believe me. I’m alone, and… you’d be welcome. Just be careful.”
As I gave her directions to my condo, I shuffled to the next notebook of Grandma Audrey’s. After saying good-bye to Mary Beth, I got back into it, despite having work to do. Joe Early wasn’t mentioned until the February 9th entry, that he was due the next day. I didn’t expect to read what was next. Knowing Grandma Audrey, I figured she somehow got the best of him.
February 10, 2004 – I’ll give Joe Early credit, he played my bluff. He knew I didn’t want to keep the property of course — didn’t make a hill of beans to me. But, what he did showed me he’d used his days between our meetings wisely – or at least consistent with my opinion of him. He walked in without saying a word, laid four Polaroid snapshots on the table. The first three were of the homes of my daughters, all down around Charleston. The fourth was the burned out shell of a home that had been a competitor of Flint Hendricks’. Least that’s what I’d heard. I recognized the barn from a picture that had run in the paper with the story. Nothing left of that house but the foundation. The man and his wife didn’t get out either. It’d been declared an electrical fire. Then Joe dropped a check for $3,000 and the contract, held together by the lid of a pen, on the table. The “witness” line was already signed, by a Braxton County Deputy Sheriff named Dwayne Watkins, who was sitting outside. He’d driven Joe here in his cruiser. I signed it, without even moving Prince from my lap. I wanted that man out of here. When he left, I cried for just the second time since Carmel had died. Joe never spoke. When the door closed the air made me shudder. I’ve never felt so alone. It’s so cold and gray in February.
My blood was boiling by the time I’d finished reading the entry. Joe Early had intimidated and threatened my grandmother and her family – my family — and shorted her three grand from his original offer. I also recognized Dwayne Watkins as another name on that flower arrangement card from Carmel’s funeral. So Joe had some law with him at the time. What would that mean about now? How big have those two gotten up there? I couldn’t concentrate on work, hard as I tried. After a couple of hours I decided to call it a day. I looked at my watch. It was close to four p.m., about the time I expected Mary Beth to arrive at my place. Since she couldn’t go back to her apartment, she said she was going to stop at a store somewhere and pick up a few items. I’d told her where I hid my spare key, but I thought I should show up just the same.
I made it just before she pulled up. She was driving an old Jeep Cherokee, standard equipment for getting on and off Strange Creek in winter. I noticed she was moving a little slowly compared to her peppy demeanor the last time I’d seen her. She looked good though. She wore blue jeans, a black, athletic-looking fleece windbreaker, and sunglasses. Her hair was down, parted on one side, and styled with a swoop over one eye.
“Can I carry anything in for you?”
“I don’t have much, just a couple of bags. I borrowed some clothes from my friend, Jessica.”
I opened my screen door, propping it with my backside, while I unlocked the deadbolt and pushed that door open for her as well. A fragrance I couldn’t identify, maybe rose petals, invaded my senses.
“Welcome, Mary Beth. I want you to make yourself at home.”
“Thanks Luke,” she said. She sat her bags down beside a living room chair and turned to me. She pushed her sunglasses on top of her head. The area below her right eye was bruised and slightly swollen. I shook my head with empathy. I reached out slowly, touched her chin, and turned her cheek slightly to get a different angle.
“It doesn’t hurt. He got me just right.”
“Some shiner. I’m sorry if it happened because of me.”
“Something was going to happen sometime. This might have saved me from getting worse,” she said. “He’s out of control.” She stepped closer to me and touched my tie as though she was smoothing out a wrinkle. There was no denying the attraction, and no point in trying. I gave the door a light shove. By the time it clicked shut, our lips were together.
SATURDAY MORNING, I WAS in that euphoric place where I wanted no violence in my life. I never wanted to try a case, or even make an argument. I would be satisfied, given the means, to hold this sensuous creature tightly against me and just feel her breathe.
This entire whirlwind of activity wasn’t in its forty-eighth hour, and yet the encounter had gone much the way I had imagined it would, many times before. There were contradictions in her: vulnerability yet hunger, naivety yet passion, black eye yet natural elegance, a bit of that charming farm vernacular and yet a worldly sophistication.
As I laid there twisting her hair between my fingers, her head on my chest, I thought about the maturation process, or the lack of it in myself early on. As I thought back to that little girl on the farm, I pictured her through the eyes of the man I’d become, not as a ten-year-old kid who at that time was an annoyance to his big sister, picking fights and doing anything to show off in front of his cousins. Had I spent time with Mary Beth then, I likely would have done something mean-spirited, even though, looking back on it now, I would hope not. I can still remember – though I heard it as that child — my Grandma Audrey speaking about the Barkers with more than respect, more in the spirit of neighborly helpfulness, of communal bond. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes – at times — more than four hands to run a farm. I had been oblivious to these enlightenments. Maturity was a shadow that came upon me in my sleep apparently, when I wasn’t looking, or least expected it, along with a good dose of humility. Now through a twist of fate – or just dumb luck — I had a bond with Mary Beth Barker. And though full-fledged romance went against my nature, if I were asked in court, I’d have to say I was in love with her.
The comfort I felt was making my eyelids heavy, and just as I began to drift back off to sleep, a ringtone version of “Daddy’s Hands” began to play from the bedside table. Her eyes opened slowly. She smiled knowing it was one of her parents calling. I smiled knowing the tune she attached to her home number, and the love and respect it signified. As she rolled to her side, my free hand couldn’t resist touching her warm, bare back.
I waited to hear her say “hello,” but before it came, her muscles convulsed and she jerked to a seated position, phone to her ear.
“Ok – no cops — just – don’t you hurt them Joe! We’ll be there in an hour and a half! Don’t do anything!”
I was on my feet before she pressed the end button. She looked at me with such a forlorn expression, I didn’t even have to ask.
“We’ll talk about it on the way,” I said. “Get dressed.”
I threw on some jeans and a T-shirt and stopped to consider what jacket would best conceal the 9 millimeter I was licensed to carry and was certainly taking with me on this trip. As Mary Beth watched me check the clip and return the sidearm to its holster under my arm she didn’t disapprove. I’d yet to meet Joe Early other than a one-time fleeting glimpse but she knew him well. Her approval spoke volumes. I went to my closet and took out a canvas carrier that held the shotgun my father’s father had left me, in my dad’s gutless absence. I also grabbed a box of shells. Though food was far from her mind, she followed me to the kitchen before we departed. Our spontaneous rapture the night before – throughout the night — hadn’t included dinner. It wasn’t a movie where we broke for an omelet or ice cream. I was hungry, and I wanted to be full-strength against these unknown circumstances. I stuffed my windbreaker’s pockets with packets of peanut butter and crackers, she grabbed some bananas that hung on a hook. Five minutes later, we were on Interstate-79 headed for Braxton County.
“I didn’t know being an attorney held such responsibility,” she said. “Are you good with a gun?”
“Yeah, pretty good.”
“My dad taught me to shoot.”
“Oh, I’m sure,” I said. I looked over at her. She needed a diversion. “Guns weren’t really a big part of my upbringing. Grandma and Carmel were off the farm before I was old enough to be taught I guess. But I hear stories you wouldn’t believe. Well, you see it every day in the news. I never wanted to be on the front line. But the front lines came anyway, in the parking buildings, hell anywhere after dark. I’d die for my country but I don’t want to die because some random methhead thinks I have fifty bucks on me.”
I looked over again. Tears were streaming down her face. So much for diversions.
“I don’t understand what’s going on.”
“Sure you do. Joe Early thinks you’ve heard enough, and maybe told me enough, to prove that he planned Carmel’s death. Maybe that Flint Hendricks put him up to it. Just for that damned piece of land – access to their gas wells. Some men will do anything to get rich.”
“But my parents don’t know anything.”
“I know. He just needed leverage. He’s just using them to get you – or hopefully just me – out in the open. The thing is, what he doesn’t understand, it would all just be hearsay. As of right now, I have no way of proving he killed Carmel. Short of him saying it out loud, I can’t see how I ever would.”
“You think you can make him say it?”
“Yeah sure. Right before he plugs me full of holes. I mean, I don’t know what he’s thinking. Apparently he’s going to dispose of me. Does he think he’s that far above the law?”
“Strange Creek justice. They say the hogs have seen more dead bodies than the undertaker.”
I couldn’t help but look over. She smiled. “I don’t believe that though. The people there are mostly wonderful.”
We drove in silence for the next few miles. It was a clear, dry morning. The trip to Strange Creek from Charleston is all curves, hills, and descents. I had begun thinking about him hitting her, about threatening my grandmother years before. Acts of a coward in my book, and I looked forward to telling him. I looked at my speedometer. I was doing ninety.
“I have an idea,” Mary Beth said. “Do you have a tape recorder? Or we could use your phone.”
“Actually I have one. I keep it for depositions. It’s in my briefcase in the back seat.”
“Well, I know how to get into my house without him hearing, from the back of the property — with your shotgun, pistol, and the recorder. He’s not going to let you have anything on you anyway. But I’ll need fifteen extra minutes to go through the woods before you get there.”
“I don’t know, Mary Beth. What did he actually say on the phone?”
“He’s said for me to get you to my parents’ farm.”
“Those were his exact words?”
“Well, he might have called you a ‘prick’ or something. But he didn’t say anything about me actually being with you. He just wants you.”
“Then I should drop you off at your friend’s place.”
“Look Luke, we have a trap door on the floor of our enclosed back porch. It has a tunnel that leads to the basement of our cellar house. Dad built the tunnel in case the snow ever got so high mom couldn’t get to our canned veggies and cured meats and stuff – and if there was ever an emergency. I can get to the cellar house from the woods without being seen. Luckily there’s still some leaves on the trees. Did you have another plan?”
“Well, not yet,” I stammered. Joe Early was desperate – or out of his mind. He must be to have gone to these lengths. I’d be placing my life in her hands, and I’d be empty-handed with her life – and her parents’ — in mine. My hunch was that she’d be more than capable under pressure.
“You’ll have to trust me,” she said, as though she was reading my mind.
“You won’t go soft in there will you?”
“Believe me, after Thursday night, I want to pay him back – turn him in to the state police. But if he hurts my parents – or you – I’ll blow him away.”
So the plan was set, though she had one more twist for once we were both inside, a way to get me my gun. I pressed a little harder on the gas, to give her plenty of time to get through the woods before we were expected. Despite my reservations, I was allowing my new love to sneak her way into the lion’s den.
THE NUMBER OF TWISTING tributaries in West Virginia are immense. They will turn one-hundred-eighty degrees in a small area, based on rock formations blocking the water’s natural descent from the wooded hills. A straight stretch on a secondary or a rural-route road that runs parallel to a stream is as rare as a bloody steak. Near our destination, south of Frametown, the Birch River enters the Elk not far from the bridge that crosses to Strange Creek Road. Strange Creek is too narrow to be classified a river, but there are pools in turns where the water runs deep, where Carmel used to take us kids. Across that bridge in the old days was a “last-chance” General Store, the final vestige of commerce before taking to the Braxton County hills.
Crossing the bridge was always a relief because it meant you were at last on the final leg of the journey. We had a wiser-than-average Fox Terrier named Midget – three years older than me — we’d usually take on the trip. He would be unable to hide his excitement when our car’s tires left the asphalt. He knew we were going to the farm and he loved running free there. It’s in that last stretch – still a good half hour — that I drove my first car on a dirt road that was essentially a one-lane with an occasional wide berm to pass an oncoming vehicle. It was my mother who’d relinquished the wheel, and yet was still frantic in her instructions as I practically idled the last fifteen miles to Grandma’s long driveway.
I glanced to my right as we approached the spot Mary Beth would take to the woods. She was a cool customer. If there was a part of her on edge, she didn’t show it.
“I’m not so sure this is the best way to handle this,” I said.
“It’ll be fine. I want to teach Joe Early a lesson he won’t forget.”
We met at the trunk of my car, where she filled her jacket pockets with shotgun shells, the 9mm already in place against her left side.
“Take that out of the case for me,” she said. “I don’t want to have to unzip it later. You only have about three miles to go, once you’re around that curve. Wait here for ten minutes or so. It’s only a mile for me through the woods.”
“How’d you know about this way?”
“If I had to go to the store, this would save me two miles of walking each way. Believe me, I know the way of the crow.”
Before I handed her the shotgun I stepped closer and with my right hand on the small of her back I pulled her close. We kissed, her lips moist vessels of warmth. If there was short-sightedness to this we were ignoring it. A mountain justice had to prevail.
A rocky hillside was her point of entry. She took two quick steps, placed her left foot on an indenture, bound upward, and disappeared. I stood alone listening to her waning footsteps on dried leaves. I wondered now about my own courage. I envisioned a half-crazed man holding an old couple hostage. I could handle that… and him.
Twenty minutes later, when I coasted down the Barker’s driveway, I could see I’d underestimated the opposition. The inviting, covered front porch I’d seen so many times in my youth was crowded with four men, and they all stood to meet me. I recognized Flint Hendricks from a distance. Two of the men had longer beards. One had stringy, brown hair to match. The other had shorter, dark hair covered with a John Deere cap. He looked to weigh a good three-twenty-five. They both wore bib overalls. John Deere carried a shotgun. He was the only one armed that I could see.
The fourth man was slicker, beardless, with a fresh haircut, clean jeans, black cowboy boots and a gray tweed jacket over an Oxford shirt. Had to be Joe Early. My optimism dwindled. For an instant I considered throwing it in reverse and testing my exit skills. Then I remembered Mary Beth and her parents. If necessary, we had the firepower and the element of surprise if we had to get out of this violently. I shoved it in park and quickly stepped out.
“Luke Westfall, we finally meet,” Early said. “You know Flint Hendricks. This cutting figure is Chester Fields, and this long-bearded fella is Dob McIntire. I’m sure you guessed by now I’m Joe Early.”
Oddly, his handshake was like a cordial church greeting. I remembered the other two names, Chester and Dob, on that damned card from Carmel’s funeral.
“You two in on the gas deals?” I asked Chester and Dob. “You’re not just the muscle for hire are you?”
Dob McIntire grunted with no commitment either way. Chester laughed at the grunt, and spit on the gravel and dirt. It was only then I noticed the protrusion of a tobacco wad in his cheek.
“Did you help Joe murder Carmel too?” I asked them both.
“Shut the hell up, Westfall,” Flint Hendricks said. “And get your ass in the house.”
“Jesus, Flint. No point in being so rude,” Early said.
“Actually, there’s no point in being so God-damned nice, Joe. ’Specially where he’s going. Just don’t rough him up, boys.”
I followed the trio up the sidewalk to the house, Chester lingering behind. I glanced to my left. About two hundred yards away was Grandma and Carmel’s old, brown farmhouse, the unpainted barn behind it. It struck me that I’d never seen it from this vantage point. I’d always wanted to come back. I slowed my pace. The mountains behind it were bursting with autumn colors. It was beautiful. Chester nudged me with the barrel of his shotgun. Dob opened the screen door and held it. I followed Flint and Joe inside. The big boys stayed on the porch.
Sitting on the couch, casually having coffee was Mr. Barker. I couldn’t remember his first name, if I ever knew it. But he certainly wasn’t in distress. I could see Mrs. Barker in the next room, the rhythmic hum of her sewing machine jabbing away.
Christ, I thought.
“You grew up to be a good-looking man, son. Gettin’ successful too, I would assume,” Barker said. He stood and faced me. “I remember you. From this side of the fence, you seemed like a colossal pain in the ass.”
I shook my head to the negative.
“Were you the leader from the start?” I asked. “Does Mary Beth know what a two-faced son-of-a-bitch you turned out to be?”
Mr. Barker laughed. Flint and Joe joined in… real cozy. Then I realized — now that I’d seen Joe Early — it was Mr. Barker talking with Flint Hendricks in that funeral home washroom so long ago. Not that it mattered now.
“So what’s it going to be: suicide, hunting accident, or the hogs?” Flint Hendricks asked.
“He knows guns, but he’s no hunter,” I heard Mary Beth say. She stepped in the doorway that led to the kitchen. “There’d be a lot of questions if we went that way.”
I turned and faced her as my heart sank into my stomach. I could feel the blood draining from my face. She looked beautiful standing there, cold heart and all. How looks deceive. Behind her, on the kitchen table, was my shotgun, recorder, and holster.
“You gettin’ wobbly there Luke?” Joe Early said. “Don’t take it personal. We’re just doing too well to have the operation compromised — ’specially on account’a cousin Carmel.”
“So what’s the verdict?” Flint said.
“I’d say suicide,” Mary Beth answered.
“You sure you weren’t seen?” Joe asked.
“It’s quiet there. No one saw me — coming or going. Got his keys too.”
“I can’t believe you,” I said to Mary Beth. As I did I heard footsteps on plastic. Plastic I hadn’t noticed when I walked in.
“Besides, it’s perfect,” Mary Beth said. “We have his pistol.”
Looking straight into her eyes I proudly squared my jaw and shoulders, trying not to appear defeated. I felt cold steel on my temple, and as I recognized Joe Early in my peripheral vision, I heard the click of the trigger, and the collision of the hammer of my own gun.