Saturday, November 3, 2012

New Novel Chapter Nine

The Life and Times of William Nathan McCaskill
A Novel by Chris Sherrill
Copyright 2012 by Chris Sherrill
        Jane’s story was like a briar in my mind and the only way to get it out was to get to the bottom of it. Was it possible that Cyrus McGilroy was a double murderer? It’s easy to believe negative things about someone you already feel negatively about. Jane’s words had carried conviction, but how much confidence could you put in the words of someone who got her information from voices in her head?
            “Dad, tell me about Crazy Jane’s mama and daddy.”
            We were splitting wood. He leaned on the maul and looked at me critically.
            “Why do you want to know about Jane’s family?”
            “Homer and Horace heard some stuff about her killing her daddy and mama.”
            He released a little snort of a laugh.
            “Rumors about her and her family crop up every so often, then they die down.”
            I waited patiently for more, but there was no more.
            “Is there anything to any of the rumors?”
            “Not so far as I can tell.”
            He was silent. We split wood for several minutes.
            “How old was she when her father left?”
            He looked at me closely. “You’re not going to let this go, are you?”
            I shrugged.
            “Jane was just a baby when her daddy left.”
            “Did you know him?”
            He nodded and seemed to let go of something.
            “It was said that Sam Good was a rounder, walking all over the countryside to visit his far-flung lady friends. It leaked out through a white acquaintance that on one of his excursions, Sam had found a gold nugget in a stream. Since this region was the location of the first American gold rush in the early 1800s, a lot of people took it seriously and the thing began to grow.
            “I went to one meeting to hear what Sam had to say. He struck me as an honest man. He was well spoken for a colored man, and he spoke with a controlled excitement that made him persuasive. He was tapping into that deep well of human greed and a lot of people, white and colored, put up money to buy the land and equipment for a mining operation. He insisted that he wouldn’t tell where he found the nugget unless coloreds were allowed to invest in the enterprise, which made him that much more believable.
            “A lot of folk started putting up money, and some of the more knowledgeable men started working on setting up a stock company. Nobody wanted outsiders to get wind of what was going on and buy the land out from under them so while the legalities were being worked out, it was decided that instead of putting the money in the bank, Tom Tilton would hold it.”
            “Tom Tilton?”
            Dad nodded. “Tom was an honest, God-fearing man, one of the most respected men in the county, which was why he was elected eighteen times as the State Representative from this district. Tom held the money and kept a log book of everyone’s contribution. Sam went by Tom’s one night, assaulted him, stole the money and took off for parts unknown.”
            I stood there with my mouth open.
            “Someone found Tom wandering around in his back yard the next morning. He was dazed, bruised, blood all over his shirt, scratches all over his arms and face; said Sam had attacked him in the house, chased him out into the woods and beat him until he told where the money was hidden. Even though it wasn’t Tom’s fault, he was ruined by it. About a year later he was getting ready to move to Florida when he had a heart attack and died.”
            “Was there really gold?”
            Dad pursed his lips. “Sam carried his ‘proof’ around in an old, heart-shaped locket with a little photo of a colored gal he said was his mama. It was a little rough stone not much bigger than a mustard seed that had a yellow glint. He’d let you look but not touch. It could’ve been gold. My guess is the locket was the only thing worth anything.”
            “How much money was raised?”
            “I heard different figures, but I guess it might have been ten, twelve thousand dollars.”
            “Yeah. That’s a lot of money.”
            “Who was the white acquaintance?”
            Dad studied me briefly. “Cyrus McGilroy. I’m sure he was just taken in by Sam like everyone else, but it ruined him, too, in the community.”
            “Did you put up any money?”
            He laughed dryly. “Ten dollars and fifty cents, all the cash money we had at the time. Your mama was dead set against it and after Sam absconded with it, it was a source of friction between us for a number of years. I’d just as soon you didn’t talk about this in her hearing.”
            “Yes, sir.”
            Dad handed me the axe and I split for a few minutes.
            “Where is Tom Tilton’s land?”
            “Let me guess what you’re thinking. Sam didn’t rob Tom. Tom got rid of Sam, buried Sam and the money somewhere on the property and died before he could retire with it to Florida. That was one of the theories at the time; you heard it mostly from Republicans who would’ve done anything to defeat Tom in a general election. Lots of people have dug on Tom’s land over the years. All they got for it was dirt.”
            I shrugged and grinned.
            “Tom never married and soon after his death his heirs sold the land to a timber company who clear cut it and planted it in pines, 200 acres of pines.”
            He was trying to discourage me. I just nodded and held his eyes.
            “It’s about six miles west of here on highway 65, past the Antioch community. Go north on 65. I hear there’s a new diner out there; it would be another mile past that, on the left.”
            “Thanks, dad.”
            “If you’re going to play the fool with this, don’t mention it to your mother.”
            “No, sir.”

            I let the story play around in my head for a few days. I knew dad was right; he was almost always right, but I had to go by the Tilton place. I’m like a dog with a bone, except sometimes I don’t know if I’m the dog or the bone.
            Two hundred acres is a lot of land, so I enlisted Homer and Horace. What fifteen year old boy could pass up the chance to look for buried treasure and a body in an abandoned well? Homer even proposed that the stream with the gold might be on Tom Tilton’s land. He generally stretched everything beyond its breaking point. One Saturday afternoon we jumped on our bikes and rode over.
            We spent the entire afternoon walking the land. The house and barn had begun to show definite signs of impending collapse so we avoided them. We fanned out, twenty yards between us, and began through the pines. There were lots and lots of pine trees, lots and lots of pine trees. The timber company had thinned them a few years before so the walking wasn’t difficult but it was monotonous: pines and not much else. Oh, there were a few little streams here and there where you’d find a few hardwood trees, and there were a few blackberry thickets, but mostly it was pine trees. We didn’t find anything that looked like an abandoned well.
            The twins were discouraged. I was, too, honestly. I let the idea slip into the back of my mind. It wasn’t hard. The weather didn’t cooperate and I had school and a girl friend. In the afternoons I had basketball, then baseball in the spring and always chores and occasional sparing with Bob Smith. Gwen got her driver’s license and took me to school socials. She even let me double date when she was dating someone for the first time or wasn’t really interested in the boy. When summer came, I got a job with Garvin Williams, a big time truck farmer up near the city of Overton. It required long days and hard work, but he paid well and by the end of the summer I was overseeing a small part of his operation. It was easy to let the buried treasure get buried in my own mind. I did sneak by to see Jane a few times. Each time she seemed more and more distant. I never mentioned going to Tom Tilton’s place. Maybe I should have.
            Years sweep by in short paragraphs.
            In September I returned to school, turned sixteen and got my driver’s license. I’d saved my money from the summer job because I had to buy most of my own school clothes, but I had enough left over to buy a 1938 Dodge. I’m a sucker for a deal, or just a sucker. It needed ever so much work, but I took on the challenge. When it was running, I drove that thing all over creation.
            In October, which seems to me a fatal month, I came home from school to find dad waiting for me in the yard. His demeanor was unpromising.
            “I’ve got sad news for you, Billy. Young Bob Smith is dead.”
            “Bob? How?”
            “Word is, Big Bob was drunk and took his stick to his missus and when young Bob stepped in, he used it on him. Cracked his scull. He was in the hospital for a day before he died.”
            I couldn’t believe it. Bob and I had never become bosom buddies, but we had come to respect each other. To the world, Bob was a bully, but I’d seen that he was just a guy, something he hid from the world. Dad went with me to Bob’s funeral. There were so few people there that dad and I were asked to help as pall bearers. Bob’s mama, her face bruised, sat like an oak, a hollow-eyed, lifeless oak with not even one more tear to shed, even for her only child. An empty sadness came over me. Dad respected my silence. We were back home before I spoke.
            “Was Big Bob mean because he was poor, or was he poor because he was mean?”
            “I don’t know just how those things go together, son. Poverty has a way of etching itself into the grain of families. Making no effort to escape it only etches it deeper. The only way to polish it out is for generations to try and fail until a generation loses its memory of the blight and can free itself from poverty’s fist.”

            When I went by after Christmas, Jane was more upbeat than I’d seen her in some time. When I showed her the tangerines, she laughed and hugged me. She’d made cookies hoping I’d come by. We had a wonderful visit. She didn’t mention the voices once. We laughed and kidded like brother and sister. I stayed for a long time and was sad when I had to leave. She didn’t want me to leave, either, and kept asking questions about basketball and school and my girlfriend. Finally I was at the door.
            “You a good friend, Billy McCaskill,” she said.
            “I like being your friend.”
            She smiled wistfully and gave me a hug then pulled back and kissed me on the cheek.
            “I gotta say thank you for loving a crazy colored gal.”
            It felt wrong at first. But it was true.
            “I…I do love you, Jane.”
            She smiled brightly and took my cheeks in her hands.
            “I glad you never went with me to my bed, ‘cause I know when you come, you coming for me and not for what I give you.”
            I gave her a tight hug and a kiss on the head.
            I felt so good about Jane. It felt like she had reached some milestone in her life. It also spurred me to make another trek out to the Tilton place. It was an impulsive decision so I didn’t mention it to the twins. I drove out, of course. What teenage boy will take his bike when he has a car? Alone, the place felt creepy. The leaning old house seemed to stare at me grumpily. I was surprised and annoyed at myself for letting my imagination get to me. I walked parts of the pine forest that the twins and I hadn’t walked before, but I got the same result.

            Winter and spring followed their prescribed courses. Sally Murphy broke up with me to date an older boy with a job and a nicer car that usually ran, but who stepped into her position but Amy Gooden, the prettiest girl in school. I was still at the top of the social ladder.
            In May Garvin Williams called to see if I was ready to go work. It was time to plant. In late May I went by to see if I could help Jane with her early garden. She let me in but grudgingly. She seemed jumpy and kept eying me closely.
            “Don’t know as I be putting in a garden this year,” she said.
            “Why not?”
            “What the use? Ole Gil just come down and cut it all down, like he done last year.”
            I was at a loss. I’d not seen any evidence of that.
            “Why would he do that?” I asked.
            Her eyes pinched like she was trying to pick up some distant voice. She leaned close. “They saying he gonna kill Jane. Most all of ‘em saying that now.”
            “How many are there?”
            She looked at me blankly for a moment like I’d asked how many angels could dance on the head of a pin then her eyes got fearful. She leaned toward me and in a scared whisper said,
            I was a simple country boy. I’d barely heard of mental illness let alone had experience with it. Yes, Jane had said some strange things and done some unsettling things, like holding that butcher knife out of sight once before, but I liked her; I don’t know why, I just did. And for the most part I’d thought of her quirks simply as an interesting oddity, and frankly it had made me feel special to be the only friend of the local outcast. A part of me still fantasized about her supple body pressed against mine in a carnal embrace. I knew it could never be, but that didn’t prevent the fantasies. And I thought that as her friend I had some influence over her; I’d pulled her out of her sad moods before and helped her hear the music, but I suddenly realized that Jane was not an oddity and, more than that, she was far outside the pale of my puny opinion. She was deeply disturbed and needed help.
            How could I let anyone know she needed help without revealing that I’d spent time with her, alone? My mom would go through the roof. I struggled with it in my mind. Maybe she was just having one of her sad times. No, whatever it was, it wasn’t just a sad time. There was something else going on, something that needed to be addressed. I got dad alone.
            “Dad, I…I need your help.”
            He heard the tone and looked hard into my face.
            “What is it, son.”
            “It’s…it’s Jane. Dad, Jane needs help.”
            He just looked at me for the longest time. I answered his unspoken question.
            “I’ve been visiting Jane off and on for a couple of years.”
            His eyebrows went up.
            “Not like that, honest. We didn’t do anything but talk. She was just so sad and lonely and didn’t have any friends or family, so I’d go over once in awhile and we’d just talk.”
            “This is going to hurt your mama.”
            “Yes, sir, I know. I wasn’t going to say anything, but when I went by a few days ago she was just so scared.”
            “What’s she scared of, Billy?”
            “She hears voices in her head that tell her that people are out to hurt her. She’s certain that Mr. McGilroy is out to kill her. She’s terrified, dad. She’s terrified and has no one who cares about her or who can help her.”
            I don’t know why the tears began to burn my eyes. Dad, one hand on my arm, took me in.
            “I’m going to ask this one time, Billy, and I need an absolutely honest answer. Did you ever lay with that girl?”
            “No, sir.”
            He sighed deeply. “Okay. I think your mama will be able to deal with the disobedience. I don’t know how she would’ve dealt with that other.”
            “Is laying with a colored really a sin?”
            “I should’ve had this conversation with you a long time ago. Coloreds and whites have some different physical characteristics, but we share the same hopes and dreams. We’re all children of the same God, all washed by the blood of the same Jesus. The issue isn’t color. The issue is having and keeping your position in society. Your mama would be upset about you lying with any woman, white or colored, who was beneath you on the social ladder.”
            I was about to ask why social status was so important, but I didn’t; I already knew the answer, though I hadn’t known I knew it. All my life, I’d challenged those above me in the pecking order and looked down on those beneath me. I’d done it in response to some unspoken internal need to lift myself. Social status is important simply because it is.
            “Can someone do something for Jane?”
            “I’ll ask around,” he said. “She’s an adult and can’t be forced to take treatment she doesn’t want. Keep this under your hat until I can see if anything can be done for her.”

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