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AND OTHER AFFLICTIONS
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF
WILLIAM NATHAN MCCASKILL
a novel by Chris Sherrill
copyright 2012 by Chris Sherrill
BRUCE AND CRAZY JANE
Amanda and I continued to date. Kate and I continued to see each other. There was no emotional attachment with either. I didn’t know what Amanda’s agenda was. She never mentioned marriage. She did talk a lot about going off to college in the fall. Kate kept seeing me because she liked me and liked being with me. Ours was a physical relationship. We talked some but we got together for sex.
In May I went back to work for Garvin Williams at his farm. I got Gwen a job, but she found a job with the Pinckney Daily Record (which came out three times a week). Writing was her passion so she didn’t even consider working at the truck farm even though it would have paid twice as much as the newspaper. Mr. Williams asked me to consider taking a permanent job with him, and I promised I would.
That month I also took flowers and set them on Jane’s grave.
In June both Jake and Charlotte got married, Jake to Ann Marie Gordon, who’d been his girl friend since grade school and Charlotte to Bill Chambers who she’d known in high school but only dated for a year or so. And I graduated high school. Some of the other kids headed off to Myrtle Beach for a week. Still at the bottom of most ladders, I wasn’t invited.
“What’re your plans, Billy,” mama asked.
We were sitting at the table after Sunday dinner.
“Mama, he just graduated,” dad said.
“It’s never too early to plan ahead. Fact is he should have made a decision long ago.”
“I’m not going to college, mama.”
“Billy, I sure wish you’d reconsider. It’s not too late to get in.”
“I’m not college material.”
“Of course you are. You’re plenty capable. You just have to bear down and study hard.”
“That’s the rub, mama. I’m tired of books and papers and writing assignments.”
She blew a little snort through her nose.
“I love you, mama.”
“Don’t you try to manipulate me with words like that, Billy McCaskill. Those words are too important to use glibly.”
I looked her in the eyes.
“I love you, mama.”
“You are an absolute rascal sometimes.”
The next Saturday mama asked me to bring home a gallon of blackberries from the farm. I worked a fourteen hour day and was thinking about seeing Kate that night, and I forgot. Sex or blackberries, which would you remember? I promised to get her blackberries Sunday afternoon.
After Sunday dinner I drove to the Tilton place. I remembered a huge blackberry thicket one hundred yards or so from the house and figured it wouldn’t have been raided since it was so far from the road and on private property. Picking blackberries is a labor of love. It was hot, but I wore a heavy long-sleeved shirt to protect my arms from the briars. I was right; the fruit hadn’t been picked so there were lots of ripe, juicy berries on the fringe of the thicket. Why is it that the biggest, most tempting berries are deeper inside the thicket? I picked a half a gallon then sat down to eat a few berries and enjoy the serenity.
After clear cutting, the timber company had planted trees everywhere except in three or four locations where they’d left the blackberry thickets. Why? Blackberry thickets were of no value to a timber company. I noticed that I was sitting on sloping ground. I stood and looked all around. I was on the rim of a bowl seventy feet in diameter. I remembered that all of the thickets were in bowl-shaped depressions, ancient sink holes. That’s why the timber company had left them.
As I raised a blackberry to my mouth I noticed a drop of blood on my hand from where a briar had scratched me. I rubbed the blood onto my pants. Mama would fuss at me for that. I froze. Nah. Nah. Couldn’t be. What was it dad had said? Tom Tilton had scratches all over his face and arms. Nah. You haven’t figured it out, Billy. Don’t be a fool.
What the hell? There’s nobody watching if you make a fool of yourself.
All sides being equally uninviting, I started where I was. The thicket resisted me, the long, thick stems of the wild plants lashing out at me. It took more than an hour to beat down a twenty foot path into the thicket, and I had the scratches that were my reward. Even my ears had bloody scratches. In the very center was a depression, the heart of the sink hole, four feet across and a foot deeper than the surrounding bowl. Nothing grew there. I found a stick and probed the hole. I didn’t know if it had any solidity or was just a deep, leaf filled hole that might swallow me. It was soft, suggesting that the leaf accumulation was quite deep.
But there were hard spots, rocks? I began to shovel the leaf litter with the stick. How deep should I go? Was there any point in this?
The stick struck something solid, too long and narrow to be a rock. I shoveled, found the edge of the thing and wedged up a long bone. Shit! No, probably an animal bone. I dug with more vigor. What is that? They look like ribs, but even still they could be animal bones. I leaned over and shoveled the litter by hand. And there it was.
I hurried home and told dad what I’d found. The family stood around silently while I dialed the Sheriff’s office. The man who answered was reluctant to disturb the Sheriff.
“It’s Sunday,” he said. “I can’t disturb the Sheriff on his day off. What’s this about?”
“Tell the Sheriff that it’s Billy McCaskill and that I found Sam Good.”
“Just tell him. He’ll understand.”
The Sheriff didn’t make me wait long.
“McCaskill, if this is your idea of a joke I’ll have your skin.”
“No joke, Sheriff. I found him.”
“I found his skeleton.”
“Skeleton? What makes you so all fired certain it’s Sam Good?”
“Trust me, Sheriff. Meet me at Tom Tilton’s place. I’ll show you everything.”
“You might want to have someone bring bush axes and shovels.”
“Trust me, Sheriff. You won’t be disappointed.”
Mama had sat silently at the kitchen table the whole time, her gaze off in the distance. As I started to leave, I kissed her cheek and noticed an odd look between mama and dad. Mama took his hand and pressed it to her cheek and dad leaned over and kissed her on top of the head. I assumed those were apologies of some sort.
Dad rode with me. He’d called Jake who met us there with Ann Marie. The Sheriff was prompt. He was followed by another squad car and a pickup with three men. He got out of his car, adjusted his gun belt and hat, and came toward me with an angry look on his face.
“Alright, McCaskill, this had better be good. Where is it?”
I took them to the thicket. The Sheriff went in with me; there was barely room for two.
“Okay, it looks like a human skeleton, but what makes you so sure it’s Sam Good?”
“This,” I said.
I brushed back some leaf litter.
“What is it?”
“I believe it’s his locket. It’s right where his pants pocket would have been.”
“McCaskill, if you’re right…”
“Yes, sir, Sheriff.”
We went back out. Someone had already laid out a sheet on which the bones would be placed. The Sheriff squatted above the sheet. Everyone waited silently as he gingerly worked the edge of his pocket knife along the rusted edges of the locket and slowly wedged them apart.
“Well I’ll be damned,” he breathed.
Everyone leaned in to see the faded, weathered little photo and the tiny nugget.
The next several days are something of a blur. I was the man of the hour. Newspapers and radio stations from all over the state interviewed me, as did television stations from Charlotte and Columbia. It was quite a story: an innocent man vilified for twenty years and the guilty man never brought to justice. Every interviewer asked if I had any idea where Sam Good might have found the nugget. Why ask me? So many treasure hunters descended on the Tilton place either to dig for the cash or to pan the creeks for gold that the timber company had to put up chain link fence and the Sheriff’s office had to send by regular patrols.
The Sheriff reopened the Good/Tilton case and, though there might not have been enough evidence to convict him before a jury of his peers, Tom Tilton was found guilty in the court of public opinion. Sam Good was exonerated.
On the day of Sam Good’s funeral the church was packed and a huge crowd stood outside. Dad and I were ushered in to find that they had saved a place for us on the front pew. Sam’s remains were buried beside his wife and Jane. After the service dad and I started toward the pickup.
“Excuse me, Mr. McCaskill.”
“Yes, sir, we, uh, don’t want to take up your time, but some of us sure would like to say ‘thank you’ to Mr. Billy for what he done.”
A large crowd stood quietly behind him.
“What did I do?”
“You give an innocent man back his name, Mr. Billy, an’ you was a friend to poor Jane when even her own folk shunted her. We ashamed o’ that, but we wanna say thank you.”
He seemed not to know what to do with his hand. A white man didn’t have to shake a black man’s hand back then and a black man seldom presumed to offer his first. I extended my hand and Elam took it firmly. I shook a lot of black hands that day since nearly every man and woman there came up to thank me for clearing Sam’s name and for being a friend to Jane.
I was just a kid, but as the folks came up one by one I began to see what was going on. We humans are automatically inclined to believe everything is about us, but this wasn’t about me. In restoring the reputation of one black man, the reputation of the black community had been lifted, even if just a little. They were thanking me for that, but they were also apologizing, in a way, to Jane and her family for shunning them, and that was something they needed for themselves.
Cyrus McGilroy paid to have the nugget assayed. It was forty percent gold. Some people had the decency to go by and apologize to him. Most of his visitors, however, came to beg him to tell where Sam had found the nugget. Cyrus finally had to put a sign in his drive forbidding trespassers. He had a stroke and died a few months later.
I liked being in the limelight. I liked being at the top of the pecking order. Some of my classmates called and acted like they’d been on my side all along. They should’ve stood up at the time.
Amy Gooden called and went on and on about how she had read all the newspaper accounts and seen my interviews on television and how impressed she was with my bearing and how happy she was with my sudden fame. She said there was going to be a party at Buster McQuiston’s parents’ lake house, and she’d sure like for me to take her. Men like to have pretty women on their arms. I guess women like to be seen on the arms of men at the top of the ladder. I told her I was seeing someone. She hinted that I wouldn’t be sorry if I took her. I don’t know if it was lust or curiosity that won. I took her. She hung on me like a Christmas ornament and after the party she let me take her.
“You’ll call me, won’t you?” she asked.
I was walking her to her door.
“Of course I’ll call.”
I didn’t call. To hell with her. She screwed me and I screwed her back. That’s what it’s about sometimes.
It took a month or so for the hoopla to die down. I asked the Sheriff for the locket. Even though it was a critical piece of evidence, there would be no trial and he gave it to me. I told him where he could find it, if it was ever needed. Late one night I buried it under Jane’s headstone. I don’t know why I felt that she should have it.
In July, I announced my future plans. Mama hid her disappointment when I said I was going to join the Army. She turned it to find the most appealing facet.
“Maybe you’ll be ready, in four years, to pursue that college degree. I understand the GI Bill will pay a lot of that for servicemen.”
I hugged her.
“A lot can change in four years,” I conceded.
In late August, Amanda and I said our good-byes since she was preparing to head off to college. I thought maybe she’d finally let me have sex with her, but our final date was quite low-key, two friends moving on and wishing each other well. Like I said, I didn’t understand her motivation in dating me.
I finished the summer at the truck farm. In early September, I said good-bye to Kate.
“I sure am going to miss you, Billy McCaskill.”
“I’m going to miss you, too.”
“When you come home on leave, you’ll come see me, won’t you?”
“You’ll find yourself a real boyfriend, or a husband, before long.”
She smiled and cupped my cheek. “Come see me when you come home.”
On September 10th, 1954, one week after my eighteenth birthday, I joined the Army and became a Military Policeman. I learned about police procedure and also learned a lawman’s most valuable skills: patience, tact and finesse. I did some more boxing and saw a little of the world. And I met the woman who would become my wife, my first wife. It didn’t end well, but that’s a story for another day.
END – BOOK ONE