This Edgar Award winner is "equal parts morality tale and page-turning thriller" (Denver Post)—classic American storytelling in its truest, darkest, and most affecting form, with echoes of William Faulkner and Harper Lee.
It's 1933 in East Texas and the Depression lingers in the air like a slow-moving storm. When a young Harry Collins and his little sister stumble across the body of a black woman who has been savagely mutilated and left to die in the bottoms of the Sabine River, their small town is instantly charged with tension. When a second body turns up, this time of a white woman, there is little Harry can do from stopping his Klan neighbors from lynching an innocent black man. Together with his younger sister, Harry sets out to discover who the real killer is, and to do so they will search for a truth that resides far deeper than any river or skin color.
Contains mature themes.
Release date: December 7, 2010
Publisher: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
Print pages: 336
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Joe R. Lansdale
I suppose there were some back then had money, but we weren't among them. The Depression was on. And if we had been one of those with money, there really wasn't that much to buy, outside of hogs, chickens, vegetables, and the staples, and since we raised the first three, with us it was the staples, and sometimes we bartered for them.
Daddy farmed some, and where we lived wasn't so bad for growing things. The wind had blown away most of North and West Texas, along with Oklahoma, but the eastern part of Texas was lush with greenery and the soil was rich and there was enough rain so that things grew quick and hardy. Even during dry periods the soil tended to hold some moisture, and if a crop wasn't as good as it might be, it could still turn out. In fact, when the rest of Texas was tired out and gone to dust, East Texas would sometimes be subject to terrific rainstorms and even floods. We were more likely to lose a crop to dampness than to dryness.
Daddy had a barbershop as well, and he ran it most days except Sunday and Monday, and was a community constable because nobody else wanted the job. For a time he had been justice of the peace as well, but he finally decided it was more than he wanted, and Jim Jack Formosa took on the justice of the peace position, and Daddy always said Jim Jack was a damn sight better at marrying and declaring people stone cold dead than he ever was.
We lived back in the deep woods near the Sabine River in a three-room white house Daddy had built before we were born. We had a leak in the roof, no electricity, a smoky wood stove, a rickety barn, a sleeping porch with a patched screen, and an outhouse prone to snakes.
We used kerosene lamps, hauled water from the well, and did a lot of hunting and fishing to add to the larder. We had about four acres cut out of the woods, and owned another twenty-five acres of hard timber and pine. We farmed the cleared four acres of sandy land with a mule named Sally Redback. We had a car, but Daddy used it mostly for his constable business and Sunday church. The rest of the time we walked, or me and my sister rode Sally Redback.
The woods we owned, and the hundreds of acres of it that surrounded our land, was full of game, chiggers, and ticks. Back then in East Texas, all the big woods hadn't been timbered out and we didn't have a real advanced Forestry Department telling us how the forest needed help to survive. We just sort of figured since it had survived centuries without us it could probably figure things out on its own. And the woods didn't all belong to somebody back then, though of course timber was a big industry and was growing even bigger.
But there were still mighty trees and lost places in the woods and along the cool shaded riverbanks that no one had touched but animals.
Wild hogs, squirrels, rabbits, coons, possums, some armadillo, and all manner of birds and plenty of snakes were out there. Sometimes you could see water moccasins swimming in a school down the river, their evil heads bobbing up like knobs on logs. And woe unto the fella fell in amongst them, and bless the heart of the fool who believed if he swam down under them he'd be safe because a moccasin couldn't bite underwater. They not only could, but would.
Deer roamed the woods too. Maybe fewer than now, as people grow them like crops these days and harvest them on a three-day drunk during season from a deer stand with a high-powered rifle. Deer they've corn-fed and trained to be like pets' so they can get a cheap free shot and feel like they've done some serious hunting. It costs them more to shoot the deer, ride its corpse around in a pickup, and mount its head than it would cost to go to the store and buy an equal amount of beefsteak. Then there's those who like to smear their faces with the blood after the kill and take photos, as if this makes them some kind of warrior. You'd think the damn deer were armed and dangerous.
But I've quit talking, and gone to preaching. I was saying how we lived. And I was saying about all the game. Then too, there was the Goat Man. Half goat, half man, he liked to hang around what was called the Swinging Bridge. Up until the time I'm telling you about I had never seen him, but sometimes at night, out possum hunting, I thought maybe I heard him, howling and whimpering down there near the cable bridge that hung bold over the river, swinging with the wind in the moonlight, the beams playing on the metal cables like fairies on ropes.
He was supposed to steal animals and children, and though I didn't know of any children that had been eaten, some farmers claimed the Goat Man had taken their livestock, and there were kids I knew claimed they had cousins taken off by the Goat Man, never to be seen again.
It was said he didn't go as far as the main road because Baptist preachers traveled regular there on foot and by car, making the rounds, and therefore making the road holy. We called it the Preacher's Road.
It was said the Goat Man didn't get out of the woods that made up the Sabine bottoms. High land was something he couldn't tolerate. He needed the damp, thick leaf mush beneath his feet, which were hooves.
Dad said there wasn't any Goat Man. That it was a wives' tale heard throughout the South. He said what I heard out there was water and animal sounds, but I tell you, those sounds made your skin crawl, and they did remind you of a hurt goat. Mr. Cecil Chambers, who worked with my Daddy at the barbershop, said it was probably a panther. They showed up now and then in the deep woods, and they could scream like a woman, he said.
Me and my sister, Tom-well, Thomasina, but we all called her Tom 'cause it was easier to remember and because she was a tomboy-roamed those woods from daylight to dark. That wasn't unusual for kids back then. The woods were darn near a second home to us.
We had a dog named Toby that was part hound, part terrier, and part what we called feist. Toby was a hunting son of a gun. But the summer of nineteen thirty-three, while rearing up against a tree so he could bark at a squirrel he'd tracked, the oak he was under lost a rotten limb and it fell on him, striking him so hard he couldn't move his back legs or tail. I carried him home in my arms. Him whimpering, me and Tom crying.
Daddy was out in the field plowing with Sally Redback, working the plow around a stump that was still in the field. Now and then he chopped at its base with an axe and set fire to it, but it was stubborn and remained.
Daddy stopped his plowing when he saw us, took the looped lines off his shoulders and dropped them, left Sally Redback standing in the field hitched up to the plow. He walked part of the way across the field to meet us, and we carried Toby out to him and put him on the soft plowed ground and Daddy looked him over.
Unlike most farmers, Daddy never wore overalls. He always wore khaki pants, work shirts, work shoes, and a brown felt hat. His idea of dressing up was a clean white shirt with a thin black tie and the rest of him decked out in khakis and work shoes and a less battered hat.
This day he took off his sweat-ringed hat, squatted down, and put the hat on his knee. He had dark brown hair and in the sunlight you could see it was touched with streaks of gray. He had a slightly long face and light green eyes that, though soft, seemed to look right through you.
Daddy moved Toby's paws around, tried to straighten his back, but Toby whined hard when he did that.
After a while, as if considering all possibilities, he told me and Tom to get the gun and take poor Toby out in the woods and put him out of his misery.
"It ain't what I want you to do," Daddy said. "But it's the thing has to be done."
"Yes sir," I said, but the words crawled out of my throat as if their backs, like Toby's, were broken.
These days that might sound rough, but back then we didn't have many vets, and no money to take a dog to one if we wanted to. And all a vet would have done was do what we were gonna do.
Another thing different then was you learned about things like dying when you were quite young. It couldn't be helped. You raised and killed chickens and hogs, hunted and fished, so you were constantly up against it. That being the case, I think we respected life more than some do now, and useless suffering was not to be tolerated.
In the case of something like Toby, you were expected to do the deed yourself, not pass on the responsibility. It was unspoken, but it was well understood that Toby was our dog, and therefore our responsibility. And when it got right down to it, as the oldest, it was my direct responsibility, not Tom's.
I thought of appealing to Mama, who was out at the henhouse gathering evening eggs, but I knew it wouldn't do any good. She'd see things same as Daddy.
Me and Tom cried awhile, then got a wheelbarrow and put Toby in it. I already had my twenty-two for squirrels, but for this I went in the house and swapped it for the singleshot sixteen-gauge shotgun so there wouldn't be any suffering. Kids back then grew up on guns and were taught to respect and use them in the manner they were meant. They were as much a part of life as a hoe, a plow, and a butter churn.
Our responsibility or not, I was nearly twelve and Tom was only nine. The thought of shooting Toby in the back of the head like that, blasting his skull allover creation, was not something I looked forward to. I told Tom to stay at the house, but she wouldn't. She said she'd come on with me. She knew I needed someone to help me be strong. I didn't try hard to discourage her.
Tom got the shovel to bury Toby, put it over her shoulder, and we wheeled old Toby along, him whining and such, but after a bit he quit making noise. He just lay in the wheel-barrow while we pushed him down the trail, his back slightly twisted, his head raised, sniffing the air.
In a short time he started sniffing deeper, and we could tell he had a squirrel's scent. Toby always had a way of turning to look at you when he had a squirrel, then he'd point his head in the direction he wanted to go and take off running and yapping in that deep voice of his. Daddy said that was his way of letting us know the direction of the scent before he got out of sight. Well, he had his head turned like that, and I knew what it was I was supposed to do, but I decided to prolong it by giving Toby his head.
We pushed in the direction he wanted to go, and pretty soon we were racing over a narrow trail littered with pine needles. Toby was barking like crazy. Eventually 'we ran the wheelbarrow up against a hickory tree. Up there in the high branches two big fat squirrels played around as if taunting us. I shot both of them and tossed them in the wheelbarrow with Toby, and darned if he didn't signal and start barking again.
It was rough pushing that wheelbarrow over that bumpy ground, but we did it, forgetting all about what we were supposed to do for Toby.
By the time Toby quit hitting on squirrel scent, it was near nightfall and we were down deep in the woods with six squirrels-a bumper crop-and we were tuckered out.
There Toby was, a cripple, and I'd never seen him work the trees better. It was like Toby knew what was coming and was trying to extend things by treeing squirrels.
We sat down under a big old sweet gum and left Toby in the wheelbarrow with the squirrels. The sun was falling through the trees like a big fat plum coming to pieces. Shadows were rising up like dark men all around us. We didn't have a hunting lamp. There was just the moon, and it wasn't up good yet.
"Harry," Tom said. "What about Toby?"
"He don't seem to be in pain none," I said. "And he treed six squirrels."
"Yeah," Tom said, "but his back's still broke."
"Reckon so," I said. "Maybe we could hide him down here, come every day, feed and water him."
"I don't think so. He'd be at the mercy anything came along. Darn chiggers and ticks would eat him alive." I'd thought of that because I could feel bites allover me and knew tonight I'd be spending some time with a lamp and tweezers, getting them off all kinds of places, bathing myself in kerosene, then rinsing. During the summer me and Tom ended up doing that near every evening. In fact, ticks were so thick they gathered on weed tops awaiting prey in such piles they bent the weed stalks over. Biting blackflies were thick in the woods, especially as you neared the river, and the chiggers were plentiful and hungry. Sometimes, late in the afternoon, the mosquitoes rose up in such a gathering they looked like a black cloud growing up from the bottoms.
To ward off the ticks and chiggers we tied kerosene-soaked rags around our ankles, but I can't say it worked much, other than keeping the bugs off the rags themselves. The ticks and chiggers found their way onto your clothing and body, and by nightfall they had nested snugly into some of the more personal areas of your person, sucking blood, raising up red welts.
"It's gettin' dark," Tom said.
I looked at Toby. There was mostly just a lump to see, lying there in the wheelbarrow covered by the dark. While I was looking he raised his head and his tail beat on the wooden bottom of the wheelbarrow a couple of times.
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