THE SOUND OF DISTANT THUNDER
By: Jack R. Pyle
I watched Mama as the foreman read from the piece of paper in front of him. It was another hung jury, just like the other
time. She knew there wouldn't be another trial. The quick flash of hatred for Buck Price that showed in Mama's eyes was real,
but it was gone so fast I couldn't swear I'd seen it.
We all knew the truth of it. It would be hard to convict a Price, even in Madison County, and impossible in our own. One
way or another, the Prices were kin to most of the folks within fifty miles.
Damn the Prices, damn them to hell, all of them, but damn Buck Price to the hottest fires, way down in the lower reaches,
down where there ain't no flames, just white hot cinders.
That's the kind of wild, dream-like, vicious thoughts I had every time I stopped the work I was doing, even for a minute,
and yet I knew my damnations, however good they made me feel at the time, would not bring justice.
But I wanted to do something. I truly wanted to think of something I could do that would make him pay. Buck killed my
My own shame in laying-up with Buck Price came out in court, and now the whole town knows all about it. They know how
I slipped off to Granny's old cabin to meet him. We never had a date, not a real one, but there was more than a few of the
other kind. I ain't excusing myself. Once we done it the first time, I'd be there whenever he told me to.
And in the courtroom, in front of my kin and everyone for who knows how many miles around, I had to tell about carrying-on
with him, and how mean he got one day when I didn't just roll over when he told me to.
Back then, Buck wasn't doing right by me, keeping me hid like he did. I wanted to talk it out; I wanted to make him take
me into town and treat me like someone he was courting instead of a fat girl from up in the holler who'd do anything he asked
But in that courtroom, when I had to testify, I did what the sheriff said. I told them what they asked, every question,
but I didn't look at Mama the whole time I was sitting there being dishonored in front of the whole world.
Them lawyers picked and picked at everything I said, digging at me, heaping on the shame, but I kept back some of it,
some that they didn't ask a pointed question about. I kept back the part that left me feeling naked: the names he called me,
the way he slapped me and backhanded me.
When I tried to fight back that last time, he picked up a log chain and he slung it around hard as he could, and it near-missed
hitting my head, but I could hear the sound of it as it brushed my hair. Yes, it's true, I know more than came out in court.
And I know he killed Bekka. I know that much for sure.
And I also know it's true, what Mama said last night. She was afraid that today the jury'd come back hung again, like
it done the other time. "There won't be another trial, Sarah. If he skids by this time, he'll walk out of there a free
man," she said, "and if he does, then there ain't no justice."
Mama poked at the burning log in the fireplace and put another one on top. It's spring, but there's a chill to the night
air. As the flames leaped up she said, "No, maybe there is. Maybe there's an older kind of justice."
That day, when the second trial was over, when I touched Mama's arm there in the courtroom, she turned toward me. That
earlier flash of pure hate toward Buck was gone, but I knew the thoughts of an older justice still lingered.
She didn't say much. Mama had almost stopped talking to anybody and especially to me. She had changed a lot, ever since
they found my sister Bekka's broken and bleeding body up the holler in Granny's cabin.
It was Buck Price that killed her, but not till he ruinged that pretty face. Bekka was dead, but Mama couldn't find a
way to accept it.
Maybe I think too much. Maybe my mind stays filled with things that never were and will never be. Maybe I should just
admit that I'll never be as pretty as Mama or my sister Bekka. I look more like my daddy's folks. I never was as pretty as
Bekka, even as a baby I'm fat, like the Pendleys.
Change what you can change and live with what you can't. That's what they say. I can't quite do that. I think too much.
I always have.
Maybe I should tell Mama all of it. Maybe it would help my own shame if I did, but Bekka's death, more than a year ago,
is still too fresh in all of our minds. Mama ain't said nothing to me about what I done, not a word. She's been too worked
up over Bekka, but one day it has to be my time to try to explain my own sin.
Someday she has to know that I couldn't help going up there whenever he asked me to.
When I try to be honest, I know I was as much in rut as he was, but knowing it in your head and having it spread all over
three counties ain't the same, and it don't excuse it none.
Yes, Lord, I've thought about telling Mama every bit of that last day with Buck up at Grannys cabin, I've rolled it around
in my head, but somehow I can't; I just can't bring myself to do it. Not right now, anyways. If Mama knew all of it--if she
knew all I know about how straight-out mean Buck can be--she'd want to know why I didn't warn Bekka.
I have to think about that, too. Why didn't I?
Now, after the two trials, there ain't nobody who don't know what I done with Buck Price. Everybody knows. It came out
in court. I had to tell it. The sheriff said I had to.
Yes, I knew Bekka made goo-goo eyes at Buck, but I didn't believe it was more than that. Well, maybe I did, maybe I did
think it could've been something more, because back then I was jealous of anyone who even looked at Buck; maybe I might have
thought Bekka was more than flirting this time.
I don't even know what I think now or what I thought back then, not for sure, because I have to admit I'm still jealous,
even though it's over between me and Buck.
After that day when he truly tried to hurt me, I never met Buck up there at Granny's no more.
But jealousy can make you blind. Maybe I wanted him to move in on Bekka, to scare the hell out of her; maybe I wanted
someone to punch some sense into her seventeen-year-old bubblehead.
Mama could accept what Bekka did, how she dressed, how she acted, but I just wasn't ever allowed to be wild, not that
I could have been like my sister if I tried.
And if I told Mama everything, all the scare of it--all about how Buck just went more than crazy for a spell--what good
would it do? It wouldn't bring Bekka back, and that's what it would take to wipe away the sorrow I could see on her face.
Mama didn't say much, but I knew. Her life, everything about her, ever since Bekka died, reminded me of an eventide gathering
in winter, with shadows that blur the edges, and with smoke that seems to hug the earth the way it does just before a storm.
None of that was like Mama. Before, she always seemed like she just couldn't hide the laughter that always seemed to be
there or the smile that was just waiting to shine through. But that was before.
Now, it's different. When she looks at you, the dark blue barrier just blocks you out, just shunts you aside. There in
the courtroom for a split second, had I seen behind that veil?
Had I, in that quick time, seen the fire that would be there if the only two people left in the world were Mama and Buck
Price? He's bigger and stronger, but she'd kill him, sure. No question of that.
Or were these my own feelings? The feelings I hadn't the courage to carry out? Were they my dreams of what I'd like to
do to Buck? And yet, aside from knowing he killed Bekka, I have to tell you, I'm afraid of Buck Price.
After that second trial was over, after we all realized it had come to an end, the air in that courtroom was still hot
and choked with the fear that came from both sides, from both families, every day of the trial.
That fear, along with a cold clutch in my stomach, clung to the walls of the courtroom, to the ceiling with its cobwebs
and cracks, and to the paneled section behind the judge's bench. It was a fear that filled my head and my lungs, just as it
filled every corner of the old building, because I knew it was not over. The trial was over, but the rest of it was not.
As we sat there in court, my fingers must have been too tight on Mama's arm. She pushed my hand away and her gaze went
back to his lawyer's table up at the front of the courtroom. Buck's folks were hugging him and crying, and I guess I can't
blame them for that, but they must have known, just as I did, that he was as guilty as homemade sin. They raised that boy.
They had to know about the mean part of him. That ain't something you can keep buried in a family.
They knew. But they hugged him and kissed him and wiped away tears like they thought he'd been saved from something he
Mama just sat there staring at the people up front. I thought we should get out of that courtroom. Folks were beginning
to look our way. They always do at a time like that.
I took her hand and said, "Mama, hadn't we better go?"
She pulled her hand loose. The glare she gave me stripped me of all kinship. I was a stranger. The look was accusing.
Didn't I know her daughter, her baby, had been raped, beaten and then killed? Didn't I know what it must have been like to
crawl all the way across that cabin floor, trailing blood and gasping for breath, trying to get to the old dinner bell to
call for help?
Yes, I knew.
I knew in a way Mama could not. I knew the kind of man he was. I had seen that blind rage. I had seen the golden-haired
boy at the front of the courtroom when he was a monster, a wild man with spit running out of his mouth and down his chin;
I knew him when he couldn't even make words come out. As he lunged at me, he could only make noises, like grunts and groans
or muffled screams.
Yes, Mama, I know about Bekka, because I knew Buck when he had no mind to reason with and no wish other than to crush
everything in his way.
I knew all this because I'd once been where my sister must have been.
I got away because I landed one lucky blow with a piece of firewood, and because even a fat mountain girl can be strong
and sure-footed. I could run, and I did.
Mama didn't have to accuse me. I knew. My own guilt had dug a strong toehold in my head.
I didn't tell anyone about Buck at the time it happened, because you don't tell when you've been a fool. You make up good
stories for where you've been or how you got the black and blue marks, but when your sister is found beaten and dead at the
place where your trysts had always been, you know--you know in the way the guilty always know--and you also know it could
have been you.
I said I didn't tell anyone about that last day with Buck up at Granny's cabin. That's not altogether true. I didn't tell
Mama, and I didn't tell my brothers. I was afraid of what they might do. But, after Bekka's death, I did tell most of it to
the sheriff. After they found Bekka up there in the cove, I told Wilfred Huskins. I told him about it, no matter how it shamed
me in front of him.
Wilfred is a friend of my brother John. He's knowed me all my life I guess. He could see I was holding back, so he kept
at it, careful with what he said and gentle with what he asked. Wilfred seemed to know how hard it was for me to say what
he got me to say.
It was easier for me to tell him all the things I did when he made me understand it would be Buck's defense. Buck would
say that he'd met me up there, lots of times. Wilfred said it would all come out in court. He said Buck's lawyers would bring
it out. But I held back some of it--I held back the pain I felt, my own personal shame.
There was sign that Buck had been up there at the cabin, plenty of it Wilfred said, and if Buck told his lawyers he'd
been up there with me, they'd say all that sign was from when he met me there, so that none of it tied him in with Bekka or
Wilfred wanted all the details, and I told him as much as I could ever tell any man, including some of my own deep guilt.
He was always nice to me, and when our talk was over he thanked me. He said it might help him to build a case, but I guess
it didn't help enough. Another hung jury, the second. I plain knew they wouldn't try Buck again.
Mama didn't know how much I knew about that old log chain either. She didn't know Buck had swung it at me. He missed,
but the sound of it still stays in my brain. I remember the chain, because the same one, covered with blood, was there in
the cabin when they found Bekka. She was dead by then, but she must have lived for a spell, because she managed to drag herself
as far as the door. The blood, pooled in places on that old puncheon floor, told how hard it had to have been for her.
In the courtroom, after Mama pulled her arm away and gave me that cold look, I was forgotten. Her eyes were on Buck. The
flash of hatred was gone. Not a sign of it showed. At that moment she seemed unable to move, unable to even blink. Mama watched
Buck Price almost as though she didn't see him, but I knew she did. She knew it was another mistrial; he was going to go free.
The thought that he'd walk out that door sapped Mama's spirits. However blind justice may be, Mama knew who killed my sister
and so did I.
Everyone knew who killed Bekka, the whole county knew, but proving it, like Sheriff Huskins said, was another matter.
I know for sure it was Buck. He'd hit me a time or two before when things didn't suit him, but he always apologized. One time
he was so sorry he even cried.
Then there was that last time, the time I'd seen the really wild and crazy side of him, when he had no control. One time
like that was enough for me. I stayed clear of Buck Price from then on. But Bekka didn't.
When that second trial was finally at an end, the courtroom turned stony silent. The meaning of what had happened was
slow in coming. It was over and done. Buck was about to walk away a free man. You could hear the babble grow. Then the noise
and confusion dampened, and Buck started to walk in our direction. With his arm around his mother, with that Asheville lawyer
and the whole Price clan bunched up behind him, he started up the center aisle of the courtroom.
Mama was on her feet. She was across in front of my knees so fast I hadn't been able to move. As Buck reached the end
of the row of seats we were in, Mama was at the last one waiting for him.
He had been laughing and talking as he walked toward the courtroom door, but then he glanced up that slanted aisle into
my mama's face. Buck always seemed like such a big man, a man who would know no fear if only because of his size, but I knew
then that wasn't true. I saw fear. Buck Price didn't have that sunburned, outdoor color to his skin then. He was afraid--afraid
of what she might do--and so was I.
On the far side of the room, the sheriff had suddenly come alive too, and he was heading toward what was sure to be real
Only then did I remember the gun we had at home. It was an old service revolver, but that old gun was kept in good repair
by my brother John. Until then, I never gave it a thought. Did she have that gun with her? Was this a time when Mama might
do something foolish?
I don't know how I got to her side. I saw no gun. I thought, thank you, God. From the corner of my eye I saw the sheriff.
Buck's arm was no longer on his mother's shoulder. It was limp at his side. There was a moment that seemed to hang in
space, a moment when all eyes were on the two of them, a time when their eyes were on each other. Then, maybe because the
sheriff was there, almost as though the moment with my mother had not occurred, Buck Price moved forward and the crowd behind
The sheriff laid his hand on Mama's arm. "Mrs. Pendley," he said, "please--"
Mama's voice was without the warmth she always showed my oldest brother's good friend. "Don't try to lecture me,
Wilfred." That's all she said.
I've been in office about two years now. I know what it says on my office door: "Wilfred Huskins, Sheriff, Asa Gray
Right now, as I watch the Prices go one way and the Pendleys another, it's the first time I ever wondered if I might be
too young to be sheriff. Oh, I won the office fair and square, and I've done the job better than the corrupt guy before me,
but I sure as hell don't think justice had been done this time, and I wondered how much of it was my fault. I've taken every
course I could get at our two-year college and at UNC-A, but I couldn't help thinking that this whole ordeal had been the
blind leading the blind.
My deputy, Russ Silver, stood there with me on the back steps of the courthouse. He's an older man, the only one I kept
on after I was elected sheriff. Russ is honest and he's been a real help to a greenhorn sheriff. We watched the two families
move toward their cars. The Prices loaded into a Bronco and an older Plymouth Caravan parked beside it. The Pendleys, mother
and daughter, were still at the edge of the parking lot. I didn't see the boys.
Ora Lee Pendley seemed to be holding back, or maybe her energy had all drained away with her disappointment in the courtroom.
She had always been a strong woman. She didn't look it today. I knew how I'd feel in her place. I knew she wanted to kill
Buck with her bare hands, and although I'm working the other side of the law now, in her place I know I'd have had the same
I knew I'd have to keep an eye on Mrs. Pendley. I didn't know what she might do, and I don't think she knew either. But
right now, I had to see that nothing happened until they got out of the parking lot and away from the courthouse.
Buck Price hadn't turned or looked back until just before he got in the car, the driver's side, but now he did. I knew
he would. He looked back. It was one of those furtive glances, almost from under his eyebrows, the kind of glance that doesn't
really have a name, at least, not that I'm aware of. Oh, I know that kind of hidden look. I've seen it with a lot of the mountain
people I've known all my life. You drive down the road. They never glance up as you go by, but once you pass, they slide in
that hidden glance that takes in the whole scene.
Sure, I know the look--hell, I've done it a million times myself. I still do. It's a look that doesn't acknowledge the
other person, but it still keeps you aware of their presence.
"That got sticky for a minute, Wilfred, back there in the courthouse," Russ said. "I didn't know what Ora
Lee was going to do."
"Neither did I. It scared the bejesus out of me."
"Well, don't think it's over, buddy."
"I know," I said, "God knows I know."
Russ shifted that damned match stick he always has in his mouth. "I don't know what the Pendley boys are going to
think of this, but Ora Lee--"
"Yeah, I saw it, " I said. "You're right about Mrs. Pendley, and I know you're right about the boys, too.
They won't like this second hung jury one damned bit. Luke is the most hotheaded. Sometimes I think he's on something. I need
to talk to her and to Luke, though God knows how I'll go about it. I wish to hell Edd Price would move his family back to
"No chance. He's from here. Born here. All their kin lives here, both sides."
"I know. The pigeons have come home to roost."
It was a familiar story. A mountain man may move away to find work, as Edd Price had done years ago, but they come back;
they always come back. The mountain man may stay away for a day, a year, or for twenty, but when he can find a way, he always
tries to come home; he tries to find the place he dreamed about all the time he worked in the mills or whatever his job was.
He always dreams of coming back to the place that perhaps never was, but it's that memory, or that perception, that always
draws him back to the ridges and coves of his past. That's what had happened to Edd Price. And that's how we got young Clarence
"Buck" Price back in the county to make us a murder.
"We could ask the courts to try him again," Russ said.
"No chance, not without new evidence. You know that. Unless someone comes forward, someone who knows something we
don't, there's no chance to reopen this case. Face up to it, Russ, it just won't happen."
Russ didn't answer because there is no answer.
And then the Prices were gone, gone out the back way of the courthouse parking lot. I watched as the two Pendley ladies
got into their little white car. They headed out of the lot toward Main Street. I was glad it wasn't the direction the Prices
It had been a bad day. I was as tired as if I'd spent these last long hours plowing new ground.
"Take me back to the office, Russ."
We headed toward the patrol car, but the thought wouldn't go away: If you know deep down in your gut that you would kill
Buck if Bekka had been your kid--or your sister--can you expect less from the Pendleys?
I knew the answer.</DIV>
AFTER MANY A SUMMER
By: Jack R. Pyle
CASSIE JEAN McMAHON found Bill Buchanan by accident, if anything in life is ever an accident.
His card was on a bulletin board in the Chamber of Commerce. Her eyes were drawn to it by its simplicity and design.
She knew a calling card was not a reason to decide on hiring a builder, but she charged on, ignoring her own good common
That wildness was all a part of the same uncharacteristic pattern. By the end of the first two weeks in the mountains
of North Carolina, she had bought a lot, a secondhand camper-trailer to live in, had temporary power turned on, and had nearly
decided on a builder. She was moving at a speed that wasn't safe, but it was exciting.
She wanted a house and a studio, and she wanted it now. She told herself, "You don't make a break with the past
and then sit around doing nothing."
Her Irish mind had always made her wary of anything that seemed too easy, and every day of the past two weeks certainly
fit that pattern; it had all been fast and much too easy, but the thrill of taking charge of her own destiny left her with
no capacity for wariness.
The builder's office was only a short walk from where she stood in the Chamber.
Her headstrong abandon continued unabated. She didn't logically decide to go check out the builder; she simply found
herself walking in the direction of his office. The farthest thing from her mind was the warning she heard at the airport
that last day in Miami.
"You are about to do a damned fool thing, Cassie Jean. You're jumping into something you know nothing about; you';re
wasting your money. And, what's worse, you're not wanted."
Cassie Jean had no room for thoughts like that.
When she entered the construction company office, she liked Bill Buchanan from the moment he looked up from his desk and
smiled. First impressions were important. She felt his warmth and friendliness.
Up to that moment, Cassie Jean had only done the easy part. Now, she had to put words to her mission; she had to explain
why she was there. She was in his office and face-to-face with a problem.
Without sounding like a silly ass, how could she clearly tell him what she wanted in a way that this man could help her
attain her dream? In her own mind, she could see her house and studio, but could she make such a wild idea clear to this
builder who could not see inside her head? She steadied herself; she made herself ready for the job
"My name is McMahon," she said, "and I'd like to talk to you about building a house on a property I have
out on Blue Rock Road."
Bill Buchanan scored another point with Cassie Jean by a simple gesture. He pushed his work aside. He asked her to sit
down and he listened. She told him about her ideas for the cottage and her studio. In her mind she knew every detail, so
the words came spouting forth like an endless fountain. He didn't interrupt. He let her dream unfold.
When Cassie Jean realized she had been doing a lot of nonstop talking, she brought the rambling to a close.
"I see," he said. "You need a house and a studio. Then you're an artist?"
It's one thing to dream of being an artist and it's another thing to say it out loud. At that moment, she felt like a
complete imposter. Even though she was aware of a genuine clutch in the pit of her stomach, she summoned every ounce of Irish
blood in her veins, and she said it.
Except for her children and her closest friends, she had never before said such an audacious thing. In her mind, she
had called herself an artist, and she had said it to the kids, but the words were more like, "I want to be an artist."
In the past she had only expressed the desire, but now she had boldly said it to the world. She had told this friendly man
that she was an artist.
Cassie Jean watched his face. Was there a smile? Was there the first hint of humor at the idea? She saw nothing.
"Well, Mrs. McMahon-- Do I have that right?"
"Yes. I'm a widow."
"Well, Mrs. McMahon, the idea of a studio presents a new challenge for me. I'm going to have to know a good deal
more about your requirements. You see, this is going to be the first artist's studio I've ever built. The house is no problem.
You've detailed it very well indeed, but the studio is sure to sharpen my wits. I'm looking forward to seeing your plans,
"Oh, dear," she said. I have no blueprints; I have no house plans. I just have a dream. I had hoped--"
She thought she saw a hint of a smile in his eyes, but it was gone when he spoke.
"No problem, Mrs. McMahon. I can make preliminary sketches--see if I've caught the spirit of what you need-- and
then we can talk again."
"Will you need a check, a retainer, or whatever it's called?"
"Oh, no, ma'am. Not until I've done a few rough drawings. Let's try to see if I can come up with what you have
in mind. If I can, we can settle the details and get on with the job. Give me your phone number and I'll call you in a few
She told him she didn't have a phone, that she was living in a camper trailer out on the property, and that shed be there
until the house was constructed She told him where it was.
"Oh, yes," he said, "the old Arnold Thomas property. I know it. I'll just bring the sketches out there
for you to take a look at."
In another three minutes, Cassie Jean was on her way back to her car and back to the little trailer she had started to
call "the sardine can."
Her mind was in a whirl. What had she done? She had passed herself off as an artist, and she had virtually taken the
first builder she had even spoken to. Maybe she was as addled as everyone kept telling her.
As she walked to the car, she remembered Nan's words. They were true. None of her children had been at the airport to
meet her. No one was there to see that she got to a motel. No one helped her hunt for suitable land.
Nan was so right: None of her brood wanted Cassie Jean to move to North Carolina. It was better to have a mother with
a house in Miami, a place to go for a long weekend. Visits were more to their liking.
And, as for becoming an artist, none of her children had anything but laughter or contempt for that idea. It had been
a fun topic for them when they visited in the Miami house. It became a standard joke with all three of them. And it had
been that way since the first time she got brave enough to tell them of her plans more than two years ago. She was never
able to make them see how serious she was about her painting.
As Cassie Jean drove back to the trailer, the thought of Bill drawing up plans and building her house warmed her entire
being but the feeling didn't last. She simply could not enjoy the dream as much as she felt she should because of the other
thoughts that kept crowding in.
None of her children were even willing to discuss the art idea and Polly seemed to sum it up for the boys when she said,
"Artist? You're not serious? You? Oh, come on, mother. Bring it back to reality."
BY THE TIME Cassie Jean pulled her car in beside the metal trailer, the warm feeling had gone cold, her dreams were flattened,
her enthusiasm dimmed.
At that moment, if she had a telephone, she would have called Bill Buchanan and canceled the whole thing.
Her mind told her it had all been a wild, crazy idea. All of this had been insanity, two full weeks of insanity. The
wise move would be to try to salvage what she could from the property on Blue Rock Road, get rid of the camper-trailer and
go back to Florida. Take the loss. Forget the dream.
But she had no telephone.
THE NEXT DAY was too pretty for moping and crying more tears into the spilled milk she'd managed to make of her life.
In the bright light of day, she could see it all. She knew her two weeks of craziness had been another wild Irish idea,
a pipe dream, something her father might have done.
What she must do now is forget the losses she was sure to have--at least forget them for the rest of this glorious day.
What she had already done was neither wise nor mature, but it was not something that couldn't be undone.
What I should do now, she thought, is make the best of this day--make it into a mini-vacation. Forget about the stupidity
of my actions for all these past months.
So, she seized the day. She postponed seeing Bill Buchanan that morning. Instead, in the bright September sunshine,
she drove the unendingly beautiful back roads and the byways of Yancey, Mitchell and Burke Counties, with her camera close
by, and with not a negative thought in her head.
On an overlook, the one where you are supposed to be able to see the Brown Mountain lights, Cassie Jean sat thinking,
but not about the Brown Mountain lights. Her mind was back on on the earlier sale of her house and all the rest of the Irish
craziness of it.
Her Celtic ideas of a woman's lot in life came flooding over her again, and, in that instant, all those ideas were rigidly
back in place.
You cannot tinker with your fate, she thought. The shady leaves of destiny will obscure any effort to thwart it. What
is to be, will be.
She would just have to remember this one perfect day and forget all the rest of her wild and fanciful experience with
a late-day career in the arts. She would just have to be content to remember all the beauty and wonders of the back roads
she had been on, and feel again the sun that warmed her spirits as she took three rolls of glorious film, each shot even better
than the last.
By the end of that wonderful day, it was decided--it was firm in her mind. She would return to Miami, or maybe one of
the smaller cities along the coast. She would buy another house, and find volunteer work to keep her occupied. The impossible
idea of painting would have to be forgotten.
But Cassie Jean had already taken a fork in the river of life and the currents and rapids were boiling and roiling there,
ready to make themselves known.
When she got back to the trailer, Bill was waiting in his pickup, with a big smile and a roll of drawings.
BLACK HORSE, WHITE RIDER
By: Jack R. Pyle
Elizabeth Chadwycke had been sitting at the window for a long time. The letter lay in her lap. How dare he pressure me,
she thought. Her cup of chocolate grew cold.
She could ring for another cup, but it would not obliterate the coldness she felt toward Byron Greenleaf, a brother-in-law
removed by a bitter divorce. And yet he was not removed, was he? His letter revived it all--all the grief, the bitterness,
Her fingers smoothed the creases her anger had put in the letter after the first hasty reading. It was dated May 12,1866
and it was Byron's careful hand. Each letter flowed with the beauty of the marsh grasses that surrounded the western edges
of Greenleaf Island, and yet the flow was as restrained and controlled as he always was.
It had been almost twenty years. "My dear Elizabeth," the letter began, "I have no right to ask favors.
I knew the grief you had because of my brother while I stood by doing nothing to help you, but time has a way of making beggars
of us all. I ask nothing for myself. Nonetheless, I am aware of the responsibilities that lie at my door. My own circumstances
make it impossible for me to live up to the accountability I know is mine alone. For that reason, I am begging for your forgiveness.
I want you to do for me what I did not do for you those many years ago, before the war brought havoc to a spot we both loved."
Yes, Byron could have stood up to Clay and Aunt Mattie. Was that the weakness he spoke of, or was it the fear that Clay
might expose his secret? Elizabeth looked back at the letter. "I am aware of the willfulness and pride that runs deep
in the Greenleaf blood. I need not tell you of this. You experienced it from both Clay and Aunt Mattie, and, perhaps to a
lesser degree, from me."
Her hand trembled. She had needed his help back then, if only his shoulder to cry on, but her memories of Byron centered
more on the sunshine that bathed the jut of land where his offices were on Greenleaf Island. In her mind, as clearly as if
she were there, she could see the tabby building bleached by sun and salt air so that the lime, sand and shell of its walls
grew whiter as the years passed.
Slavery had been abhorrent to Elizabeth every day of her life, and yet, when she arrived at Greenleaf Plantation for the
first time, she had virtually bathed in the adulation that greeted the master's return with his new bride.
The boat from Savannah was named for the river that brought the riches of the land from the interior of Georgia. It dumped
those nutrients from upriver on the islands and the savannahs where the river met the sea.
As the Altamaha chugged in, the water was alive with boats. The arrival of the coastal steamer was always a period of
great activity for Darien, Georgia. This time it brought even more animation. The smaller boats, many fashioned from logs,
bobbed on the choppy waters. It was a vivid picture she would always remember: a warm Southern winter's day, the blue sea
reflecting the blue sky, with sunshine bathing the vivid colors the boatmen wore. There was laughter and singing. There were
smiles of joy and welcome.
"Oh, Clay, I didn't know it would be like this.' She saw a young man with a pole balancing his log craft. His smile
showed large white teeth. She heard him clearly, "Oh, Massa, me glad to see you, Massa." And from down at dockside,
a large woman in two shades of red said, "Oh, skin-so-white Missus, you look so fine, you look so fine."
Then it started, almost like a Greek chorus, the chant, "Mistah Clay, Mistah Clay. You come home, you come home."
Where was the cruelty and repression? The noises around her were wild, but joyous. There were whistles, grunts, laughter,
shouts, but it was all so gay; it was all a holiday. She was sure Papa would have called it pagan, but to Elizabeth it was
a party, a wild and riotous party.
As the memory faded, Elizabeth glanced down at the letter again. Whatever Byron's part in the war might have been, he
was now--a little more than a year after Lee's surrender--back in Philadelphia, back once again under the dominion of Matilda
Greenleaf. Aunt Mattie.
This was irony. For the first time since her marriage to Clay Greenleaf nearly twenty-three years ago, she had managed
to bring her life into focus. Her second husband, Spencer Chadwycke, had been buried for more than two years. This comfortable
home in Sudbury Square in Boston was a part of her legacy. Until the arrival of the letter, she had managed to achieve tranquility.
The bloody part of the war was in the past. She had no further need to write the articles, the leaflets, and suffer the
rigors of traveling to speak for the end of slavery. It was over. She had no further need to even think about the intolerable
conditions she had seen at firsthand during her stay at Greenleaf Island.
Now this, a letter from Byron. An unwanted letter. Not with news of her daughters, but one filled with words that picked
at the scabs of almost-healed wounds. This letter kept dragging her back through the years, forcing her to look at the things
she had left on the trash heaps of the past.
Every day since the divorce from Clay Greenleaf, her mind had been torn by the loss of the girls. And today, with the
arrival of the letter, her heart was all but wrenched from her body. Nausea crawled up her windpipe. Her eyes ached with dry
tears. She looked at the letter again. What had Byron said about her two daughters?
"The girls are fine. They were taken to Aunt Mattie before the worst of the war came to our part of the coast."
She paged through the letter. There was no further mention of Mary or Ann Frances. Mary had always been independent, but
Ann Frances, little Frannie, was of a different stripe. What had those years under the guidance of Clay and Aunt Mattie done
to her? What had it done to both girls? She had not seen either of them in over twelve years. They were young ladies now.
Frannie would be twenty-one in just over a week and Mary, only ten months older, would be almost twenty-two.
She had not seen either girl since the courts had awarded them to Clay when they were eight and nine.Who had been a mother
to her girls? And just what had Byron told her about the girls in his letter? Nothing. Nothing that helped. Nothing at all.
She reread the brief mention of Clay. "Clay is dead. His death was a waste, but war is a waste. I will send additional
information of your daughters and Clay with Gordy."
The letter was not about her girls, it was about Gordy. "He means more to me than I can say, Elizabeth. I feel
a great sense of responsibility for him," the letter went on. "While I am still alive I wanted to prepare him for
what lies ahead. He is intelligent, sensitive and, in time, can do a lot for his people. But, alas, dear Elizabeth, I am
unable to do more for him than I have already done. My health in these recent years has been failing. It was a difficult journey
for me to Philadelphia, but I knew I had to get Gordy to you. I will depend on you to see that he has the best education available."
She put the letter down.Was he thrusting this burden on her conscience? What did she owe Gordy--or Byron? Her opinions
on slavery were well known. Her articles, her abolitionist tracts, her speeches had been widely distributed. They were even
circulated in the South. Byron's letter contained no specifics. Perhaps she would find more detail in the "additional
information" he had briefly mentioned.
What kind of a man might Gordy be? He was a mulatto. His mother was Jude, the cook on the rice island, and his father
was Jonathan Rigby, the white overseer Elizabeth first met when she arrived at Greenleaf Island the winter of l844. Would
he be like his father?
The letter brought back the image of Gordy's father. Another scab--one only recently healed. If she had ever had the urge
to kill, it would have been Jonathan Rigby. Her hatred of him was still alive. Byron had managed to exacerbate this still
fevered wound with these flimsy five pages.
She glanced outside through the bay windows. Spring had come to Boston. The buds on the maples were ready to leaf. It
was a time of renewal for the world, but was she ready for it?
The pages burned in her hand. Because of the letter, this year Spring could be a renewal of something old. A revisitation.
She was not at all sure she wanted that.
The letter said Gordy would arrive at 11:00, "providing the train meets its schedule." It was ten minutes past.
As she reached the foyer, the doorbell sounded. She heard scurrying in the hall behind her. “It's all right,
Margaret. I'll get the door. I'm expecting a guest. Would you tell Mrs. Conroy that there will be two for lunch? Serve it
in my upstairs sitting room, please, Margaret."
She hesitated briefly, brought her shoulders back, and then crossed the marble foyer to the large oak front entrance.