April 4, 1927
Dixie Clay was squelching through the mud along the creek’s swollen banks, shooing mosquitoes with her hat, when she saw a baby coffin bobbing against a sycamore snag. For a second the idea that her son, Jacob, buried two years back, might have come home nearly collapsed her. She dropped her hat and her rifle and plunged into the stream. She was crashing hip-deep through the foamy, coffee-colored water when she got hold of herself. It wasn’t Jacob in the coffin. Wasn’t, in fact, a coffin. She slowed and trudged closer and saw that the box had rivets on metal bands, that it was a small steamer trunk, a hat trunk.
Sounds could carry for miles, echo weirdly, in these wooded hollows, but the last thing she expected now was men’s voices. And that they reached her over the hissing, fumbling stream meant the men were yelling. Her husband, Jesse, wasn’t supposed to be home this afternoon. She reversed direction in the swirling creek and fought equally hard to reach the bank and stumbled out, waders filled with water.
It was a quarter mile back to the house and she ran it, glad she’d borrowed an old pair of Jesse’s trousers and glad too that she’d brought the Winchester. Dixie Clay was light of foot but the rains had swamped their hundred acres and shin-deep mud pulled and slurped at her boots. As she ducked pine branches and dodged a blackberry thicket, she could hear Jesse’s voice, though not his words, and the voices of perhaps two others. A few years back customers sometimes came right up to the house, but Jesse stopped it, didn’t want her talking to men. Anyway, they didn’t sound like customers.
When she crested the ridge, she dropped to her stomach, but the back door of the house was clear. They must be out front. She started down the gulley, terrified when her foot slipped on wet leaves, releasing a cascade of pebbles and pinecones. She went on more carefully and kept to the dense, shaded woods as she made her way around to the front gallery. The voices were clearer now but she still couldn’t see their owners. She was about two hundred yards off and to get closer she’d have to leave cover to dart to the stand of tulip poplars at the far end of the clothesline. She was halfway there, low and fast, when she heard a gunshot.
She flung herself at a poplar and crouched, heaving.
Now the voice, unknown to her, grew louder. “You want I should just kill you now?”
A mumble in reply. “Then shut your piehole.”
Dixie Clay was determined to move closer. Then she heard a staccato clacking. A rattler, she thought. But it was early April and rattlers should still be underground. Unless the rains had choked them out? She took a breath and forced herself to look down. Her trembling fingers were knocking her wedding band against the barrel of the Winchester. Dix, she told herself. Dixie Clay Holliver. Steady now.
She worked her way among the slick poplars and finally hunkered close enough to look down the slope, past the moat where the scraggly rosebushes had drowned, onto the front gallery. There was Jesse, sitting in the rocker, and beside him two men stood, one early twenties and clean-shaven, nosing his handgun into a shoulder holster. The other, older, bearded, wore a homburg hat and leaned against crates of whiskey stacked on the hand truck.
At first they were strangers, but then she remembered a few days back, how she’d been standing at the counter of Amity’s store, testing the weight of different ropes, when she sensed a man at her side. She didn’t turn. “I wonder if this will hold shut a busted valise,” he said, and snapped a rope between his hands. She pretended the comment wasn’t addressed to her and moved down the counter toward the fishing lures, letting Amity swoop in. Still, Dixie Clay felt his eyes. She was a small woman and men liked that, liked too her brown curls and the constellation of freckles across her nose. But she felt no pleasure in it. Long had it been since she’d thought of her legs as good for something other than walking to the still, her arms for something other than stirring mash. That day, exiting the store, she’d seen the man leaning against a car, talking to another—talking about her, she could tell. Maybe if she’d looked them over instead of hurrying away, she would have realized what they were. But she hadn’t. The rain had brought plenty of strange men to town, some working as sandbaggers, others as engineers, or journalists, or National Guardsmen patrolling the levees for saboteurs.
And now it had brought these two revenuers. Dixie Clay crouched, her heart galloping, and peered through the scrubby azaleas that footed the poplar copse. Jesse looked small, like a naughty schoolboy. His arms were folded behind his back and through the rocker slats and she guessed he was handcuffed. Handcuffed, but not shot. His lemon-yellow shirt still tucked in.
“But if we come back here,” said the younger agent, tapping a Lucky Strike from its pack, “with a newspaper writer?”
The older man shook his head, but the younger continued. “How did those Jackson fellas get their pictures in the paper? You wonder how?” He paused to pinch the cigarette between his lips and light it with a match. “They called the damn paper, that’s how.” He exhaled and dropped the match to the boards. “They don’t hack open kegs of giggle juice out in the country by theirselves with no one standing by.
No sir. They telephone the paper. Then they tie a goddamn necktie. Brilliantine their hair. And only when the tripod’s up do they make like Jack Dempsey.”
Dixie Clay willed Jesse to look at her, to communicate what she should do, but if he knew she was there, he gave no sign. He stared out, chin raised. From that distance, his eyes looked black, not different colored as they were, the right one blue and the left green.
The older man crossed his arms and propped them on the handles of the hand truck, then propped his foot on the metal bar. He was shod with brogans, not boots, so there wasn’t a weapon there, and Dixie Clay could see he wasn’t wearing a shoulder holster. Beside the front door rested a shotgun. Perhaps that was his only one. “You want your mug in the paper so bad?”
“Don’t you?” said the younger agent. “Give your wife something to crow about at Temperance? Besides, it’d be good for the campaign. And fetch us a raise, I bet.” He brought his cigarette to his lips and glanced at his partner. “Think of us out yonder”—he jerked his cigarette in the direction of the still—“whiskey spraying up from a dozen barrels, us with our axes raised. And it’s a big still, bigger than the one they found in Sumner, I promise you that, and those collars ain’t paid for a restaurant steak in a month.”
“No phones out here. We’d have to drive in, call the paper, drive back out, take better part of an hour.”
“Then we’d best get going before it gets dark. I’ll fetch the car.” For the first time Jesse spoke. “Gentlemen—”
With that the older man whirled and backhanded Jesse so hard that the chair rocked on its rails, balanced for an impossible moment on the curved tip, and then careened forward again.
Dixie Clay hadn’t aimed, hadn’t meant to fire, but the shot blasted from her gun, and the men on the gallery leaped and she leaped too. They dropped low, the bearded one scrambling behind the crates of whiskey and the other diving behind Jesse. Dixie Clay looked down, shocked, at the Winchester. Now they’d be in even more trouble. And she certainly wasn’t willing to shoot these revenuers to save Jesse. At times, in fact, she’d entertained the dream of shooting him herself. No, not shooting him, just getting him gone. Disappearing him, bloodlessly, and at a distance.
As if reading her mind, Jesse hollered into the eerie ringing birdless silence. “Boys! Don’t shoot yet. I know you got ’em behind the crosshairs”—Dixie Clay saw the two men exchange a glance—“but don’t kill ’em till we see if we can’t work things out.” Jesse turned his face to the man using him for cover—“Now, if you ever want to see your picture in the Delta Democrat, you’ll drop your gun and unlock these cuffs. Unless you favor the obituary section.”
Across the porch the older man was gazing at his shotgun by the door, a full eight feet from where he crouched behind the whiskey.
Jesse noticed and pressed on. “Just one of you with a weapon at hand, and I got me four godless shiners aiming at your tenders. So drop your gun and uncuff me.”
Instead, behind her husband’s rocker, the young man’s elbow flashed and a handgun snaked up and pressed itself to Jesse’s jaw. The agent yelled, “Give yourselves up and I won’t blast him to hell, like I’ve a mind to. We’ll take y’all in nice and peaceful.”
Jesse tossed his head back in what looked like merriment. “Hey, now,” he told the revenuers, his voice droll, “that threat ain’t worth a pinch of coon shit. These fellas don’t care if you kill me. It’d just mean one more slice of the whiskey pie for them. And as for you?” Jesse made three quick clucks with his tongue. “They might shoot you just for target practice.” He commenced to rocking as if it were a Sunday afternoon filled with nothing more pressing than shelling peas. A fist flew up from behind to steady the rocker and Jesse’s chair stilled, but his body seemed at ease and he crossed his feet with their two-toned boots.
“Yup,” he continued, flexing his foot, then circling his ankle. “They’re bored and ornery. Sharpshooters from the war, that’s who I’ve got working for me. Just itching to trade some lead.” Jesse lifted his chin and called to the woods, “Hey, Clay! Show ’em how you beat the kaiser!” He paused, surveying the gallery. “Hit the pie plate!”
On a cord from the ceiling, she’d strung a tin pie plate and filled it with birdseed. Now she aimed the Winchester. Clay. Dixie Clay. You can do this. Are you not that girl who won the blue ribbon for down-the-line single-barrel clay pigeon shooting, back when you wore pigtails? She remembered the years of hunting alongside her father, remembered shooting a panther out of a pin oak. She visualized that shot, and visualized this one. She squeezed the trigger. The pie plate rang and danced on its cord and the birdseed exploded, then bounced on the floor and rolled still. She used the diversion to scuttle behind the sassafras, the last shelter before the downhill slide to the front gallery forty feet away.
“Hah!” Jesse yelled, watching the pie plate jangling. “Now it’s getting fun. Tell you what,” he said, addressing the revenuers and starting to rock again. “Let’s have us an exhibition. Yuh-huh. It’s Four-Fingered Fred’s turn.” For a second Dixie Clay was so caught up in Jesse’s fiction that she expected this phantom beside her.
Jesse continued, “Freddie, you big galoot, see if you can strike that there pack of Lucky Strikes.”
The revenuers looked at it, lying flat where the younger one had dropped it. Dixie Clay aimed at the red circle that centered the green package, calmer, feeling again that electric connection of gaze to target, as if her eye fired the gun, not her finger on the trigger. She shot and the package did not explode in a flurry of confetti. She’d aimed low, though the hole in the floor wasn’t more than an inch off. Not a bad shot, all told.
“Ah, Fred, Fred, Fred, I guess you needed that fifth finger to make that shot. Bit sloppy there, Fred. Your unlucky strike, I guess. Well, Bill, it’s up to you.” Jesse made a show of considering possible targets. “Tell you what, Bill. Tell you what I need. I don’t like the homburg hat.”
Dixie Clay looked to the older man’s hat, sticking a few inches above the stacked cases of whiskey. Jesse continued, “Don’t care for the crease running down the middle, see. All the gentlemen nowadays know it’s the smoother, rounded bowler that’s in fashion. Bill, I need you to take that crease out of our chum’s hat for him.”
Behind the sassafras, Dixie Clay didn’t move. Shoot the hat off his head? Surely Jesse didn’t—
Jesse was talking again, his voice still humored, and only because they’d been married for six years could she hear the strain in it. “Yup, I need a little haberdashery for this gentleman sporting last season’s fashion, cringing yonder behind the hooch we worked so hard to cook. You do that, Bill, and then, Bill, then maybe your brother Joe can trim the man’s whiskers.” Jesse angled his mouth to stage-whisper to the younger agent still holding the handgun to Jesse’s jaw, “We like our revenuers well groomed.” Jesse turned back to the woods. “Now, Bill—”
“All right!” the bearded man snarled. “You got us.” He jerked his head to his partner. The younger man tossed his revolver, which skidded across the floorboards. Then he shouted toward Dixie Clay, “I’m reaching for keys, you hear?,” and he bent his face to where Jesse’s hands were cuffed behind the slats of the rocker.
Freed, Jesse sprang up and lunged for the younger man’s pistol and then rose and backed to the door to grab the other’s shotgun. He aimed them at their owners. For a moment all three stood like stiff actors waiting for the curtain to fall.
“Alrighty then.” Jesse smiled, white teeth beneath the wings of his black mustache. “I’m taking these feds to town, see if we can’t come to an agreement. Y’all see any shenanigans, you got my permission to shoot. Otherwise, it’s business as usual.” Jesse put his foot on the grain bin beside the door and tucked the handgun in his bootleg. Then he waved the shotgun at the men and gestured at the gallery steps. They walked down and Jesse stooped beside the rocking chair where the handcuffs were dangling and threaded them through the slats and pocketed them and followed. “Well, well, well,” Jesse said to their backs as they splashed across the yard. “Where’d you hide your paddy wagon?”
Dixie Clay didn’t hear the answer but saw Jesse nod his glossy dark head as he marched them west, down the drive to Seven Hills. The sun was an orange smear behind the clouds at the crest of the ridge, and Dixie Clay watched until they disappeared and the colors of the sky leached after them. So Jesse would bribe them. Jesse would bribe them, and that would be the end of it. Nothing would change. She leaned her forehead against the puzzle-piece bark of the sassafras and let out her breath in a shaky stream. The damp bark smelled like root beer; she’d forgotten that. A string of sweat ran between her shoulder blades, down her backbone. She leaned there until the peepers set up their evening song around her.
She pressed off the trunk and decided to pick her way down to the stream to fetch her hat and see if the steamer trunk was still there. She half stumbled, half slid her way to the front gallery and sat on the steps to peel off her waders. When she stood, she returned the chair to its correct angle. Then she went inside to fetch the lantern, every key she could find in the house, the Disston handsaw, and the bent-nose pliers. She grabbed a heel of bread and a hard-boiled egg for her supper and, after giving the mule his, she climbed the ridge again and forged her way to the stream and found her hat.
The trunk was still caught in the snag and she hoisted it to the bank, bruising her thighs and drenching herself all over again. It was dark now and she sat the lantern atop the trunk and tried every key in the lock, hoping one would have the magic silhouette, but key after key refused. Nor could she pick the lock with the pliers. She’d almost resorted to the Disston when she spotted one last key in her sack and inserted it and heard the tumblers give. Inside, there was a dry chamois leather sack and she loosened the drawstring and drew out a mandolin, a bowl-backed beauty carved of mahogany.
She left the trunk yawning open on the spongy bank and took the mandolin with her, plucking a few strings as she walked, musing on its worth. In truth she wasn’t of a mind to sell it, though neither she nor Jesse could play.
She wished he would come home, tell her he’d settled the matter with the revenuers safely. But it wouldn’t occur to him that she was frightened. Well, Jesse had said it was business as usual. And because her business was moonshining, and because at her back the moon was fixing to shine, it was time to go to the still.
April 18, 1927
The overhanging roof of the general store where federal revenue agents Ham Johnson and Ted Ingersoll hitched their horses was tin, so at first they didn’t hear anything but the rain, endless marbles endlessly dropped. They were quick about the hitching, keeping their heads down, water coursing off their hat brims. And even when they began climbing the stairs and heard the faint wailing over the rain, they weren’t sure what they were hearing, for then came the shock when they realized the sacks of flour they’d glimpsed on the floor of the gallery as they’d ridden up were wearing boots. They weren’t sacks of flour lying on a black tarp but two bodies in a thin scrim of dark blood.
Then the men had drawn their sidearms, were vaulting the final steps, Ingersoll’s boots slick in the blood, half a step behind Ham. The bodies lay facedown and Ham kicked their guns off the gallery, and then he and Ingersoll flattened themselves on either side of the door, pressing against the bead board. Ham nodded and they were through, into the dimly lit store lined with shelves and a glass display case on the left. Ingersoll took one aisle and Ham the other, both men scuttling low, meeting at a row of barrels.
Whatever noise they’d heard had stopped, but Ingersoll turned.
There was a door to a storeroom. And then that noise began again, ratcheting up, a climbing squall.
“I sure hope that’s a cat,” Ham said.
The baby lay in the middle of the room, on its back, wailing and flinging its arms and legs. About ten feet away, facing shelves stocked with cartons, lay another form on its side, black suspenders marking a Y over the shirt dark with blood, above apron strings dark with blood. Ingersoll kept his gun, a Colt revolver, on the front entrance while Ham darted to the figure and toed the shoulder, rolling it on its back, the head thunking on the wood floor. He was maybe seventeen, a rifle a few feet from his head. Ham didn’t bother to kick it away because when the boy’s eyes opened behind crooked, blood-speckled glasses, you could tell he was done for. Ingersoll scanned the store in front, the room behind. How much blood a bag of a body could release when punctured. It was puddled all the way to a back door and running out the crack beneath. Another arm of blood reaching toward where the baby lay screaming. Ingersoll kept his gun trained at the door but backed closer.
“Son,” said Ham, leaning over the boy. “What happened here?” The boy’s eyes tracked slowly to Ingersoll and then back to Ham.
“Looters,” he said. His t was crisp, likely a Scot. “What’s your name?”
“Colin . . . Stewart.”
“Colin, we’re going to get you and your baby to Greenville, to the hospital.”
“Not my baby.”
“It’s okay, your baby is fine. We’ll take him along, we’ll be careful, have him looked at—”
“Not my baby. Looters. Looter baby. I shot ’em. Looters.”
Ham and Ingersoll exchanged a look, and when they turned back to the boy, his lower lip was jerking. He spat an indistinguishable word and bloody foam flecked his chin.
“Jesus,” said Ham, and holstered his gun to slide his hands beneath the boy’s shoulders. Ingersoll did the same to lift the boy’s ankles and he felt light, perforated. Ingersoll began backing toward the door, head turned to steer around the baby and down the aisle, blood dripping off in splatters. They were out on the gallery again with its loud roof and dead looters and Ingersoll was aiming for the steps when Ham called his name. Ingersoll turned and saw the boy was dead. He’d seen enough death to know it when it came. The body was sagging between them and they lowered it to the gallery beside the other two.
“For Christ sake,” Ham said, and removed his hat and raked a hand through his bushy orange hair, the heel of his palm leaving a blotch of blood on his forehead, reminding Ingersoll of Ash Wednesday, the sign of the cross. “What the hell will we tell Hoover?” Ham asked, and gazed beyond the overflowing gutter of the gallery roof to where the rain striated the world into needles.
They’d gotten their current assignment just a few hours ago. The day had been earmarked for R&R, but Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, now in charge of the Red Cross and overseeing flood relief for President Coolidge, had nixed that. First, Hoover’s men had telephoned Jackson’s Edison Walthall Hotel, where they’d just checked in, and summoned them to the train station. Hoover was crossing the flood region in a Pullman sleeper, dispensing relief and making sure to be photographed at each stop. It was quite a task, controlling—or acting as if he could—the record-high Mississippi. Twelve hundred feet of levee at Dorena, Missouri, had collapsed two days prior. One hundred and seventy-five thousand acres flooded. To calm the rest of the country, the River Commission had blamed Dorena, implying its levees were shoddy, subpar: “There has never been a single break nor a single acre of land flooded by a break on a levee constructed according to Government specifications.” But there had been, and there would be. Just looking at the river could tell you that.
So Ham and Ingersoll had gone to the station, where a Negro porter wearing a white jacket and cap ushered them into the smoking car and told them to wait. What seemed like a few minutes later, the porter was shaking Ingersoll awake and the train was stopping. He and Ham were led to Hoover’s Pullman, mostly filled with a polished mahogany desk. They stood before it and declined a drink and watched through the windows the frenzy of loading and unloading on the platform. Ingersoll had never met Hoover, though he’d seen—the whole nation had seen—the newspaper photo of Hoover giving the first public demonstration of the television. He’d delivered a speech from his office in Washington, and two hundred miles away, at the Bell Telephone Laboratory in New York, men stood before a glass box and saw Hoover in his double-breasted black suit, and when his lips moved they heard his voice. It said, “Human genius has now destroyed the impediment of distance.”
Ham lifted a folded newspaper off the desk and held it out to Ingersoll. Below chaplin asks for divorce and nation fears flood was a photo of Hoover taken the day before in Memphis, the river gauge behind him at record level, hoover proclaims levees will hold.
“He’s gonna be our next president,” Ham said, which was what Ingersoll had been wondering.
They’d been partners for eight years, Ham his commanding officer for a month at the ass end of the war, and they’d gotten along well enough, though when the war ended they fell out of touch. Ingersoll drifted around New York, sitting in with some bands in Harlem, though the blues wasn’t near as tight as what he’d known in Chicago. He’d been at it maybe a year when Ham strolled in, saying what a coincidence, saying he’d been strutting down 142nd Street when the siren call of Ingersoll’s A-minor guitar lick siphoned out of the Club De Luxe. “Let’s team up,” Ham told him as they pissed outside the club, facing the rising sun, after a dozen pints of lager. Ingersoll didn’t remember agreeing but left with Ham later that day. One of the dancers had taken a fancy to him and apparently her boyfriend, the club’s owner, former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, was planning to pay Ingersoll a visit.
It was 1920 then, the “Noble Experiment” still young, the revenuers its noble heroes. In January of that year, 1,520 agents were commissioned and paid fifty dollars a week. But even 1,520 clean agents couldn’t patrol eighteen thousand miles of coastline and borders, and they didn’t stay clean for long. Which was when the Prohibition commissioner got the idea to train a few pairs of mobile agents, who wouldn’t be assigned a single jurisdiction, wouldn’t get the chance to get chummy with the mobsters. The commissioner started with Ham, whom he’d known in the war and found “clean as a hound’s tooth,” or that’s what Ham told Ingersoll. Wherever things got out of hand, the pair would be sent, mysterious, ruthless, unbribable.
But over the years they’d grown weary. In fact, the whole nation had grown weary, watching Volstead create more drinking, more crime, minting mobsters, crooking a finger to opium and cocaine. Although Ham and Ingersoll earned one hundred dollars a week now, they were itching to get out, had even trained a few sets of replacements. But when the still busts went bad, or when an undercover agent got nabbed, they were the pair the commissioner wanted. And now the commissioner had lent them to Hoover.
Hoover was everywhere in the news these days. Ham had said he was looking to capitalize on the success he’d had feeding the starving Belgians and decided a disaster closer to home would make his name. By March, Hoover had managed to get Coolidge to proclaim him chairman of a special committee of five cabinet secretaries to coordinate rescue and relief, a post that gave him authority over the army and navy. Right away he commenced with his massaging of the press, the photo shoots and statements praising his leadership attributed to various sources. In the weeks that followed, he announced that since he’d taken over, there’d been no flood casualties, no levee sabotage, no looters, no Negro levee workers shot, no refugee camp problems, and that, by God, there’d be no great flood. All of which was either untrue or unlikely.
The engine’s whistle blasted, signaling departure, and Hoover entered, wearing a burgundy smoking jacket with tassels hanging from the sash. He told the men to take a seat, they were along for the ride.
“Sir,” Ham protested, even as he sank into a leather club chair facing Hoover’s desk. “Our stuff ’s still in the hotel back in Jackson.”
“Yes, yes, but you’ll be compensated.”
Ingersoll didn’t doubt it but pictured his guitar in a locker in the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, where he’d stored it three assignments ago. His fingertips were losing their calluses, that was how long since he’d strummed her.
“There’s a town, a little town,” said Hoover, spinning his chair to face a small bookshelf secured by a chain, “on a bend in the river.” He lifted a large leather volume and swiveled back to them. “Hobnob Landing.” He balanced the book on his left palm and licked his right index finger and began flipping pages, pausing to lift a pair of spectacles to his nose. “It’s a modest town, Hobnob, ’bout three thousand folks,” he continued, spreading the page and scanning. “Small farms, mostly corn. Some river trade, some railroad business. Hilly, not good cotton country.” He looked at them over his spectacles. Bad cotton country meant good moonshining country.
He made a little cluck with his tongue and stabbed the spot with his finger, then angled the book toward them. “There. Two officers have gone missing.”
“How long?” Ham asked. “Two weeks.”
“Jesus.” Ham shook his head. “Who?” “Little and Wilkinson. Know ’em?”
“Yeah,” Ham said. He and Ingersoll had trained the younger one, Wilkinson. A bit of a hothead, but solid.
“Think they could be bought?”
“No. I don’t think so.” Ham paused as if remembering. “No.”
“Well, they’re bought or they’re dead.” Neither Ingersoll nor Ham replied.
“Problem is, boys, I’m responsible for this area now, and I can’t have any bad press coming out of it.” Hoover swiveled the chair around to slip the atlas back in its slot, then faced them again. “These agents have wives, and these wives have questions, so I can only hold off on this for so long. Pretty soon I’m going to have to announce these agents were killed.”
“Only thing that could make it better?” “Announcing you’ve found the killers?”
“Bingo,” said Hoover. “Listen, they were onto something big. We don’t know what, exactly, but Wilkinson had told his wife they’d be in the papers for busting this still. Unfortunately, he didn’t tell her where the damn thing was. So I need you two to go in there and find it. And, better, I need you to figure out who all is connected. Get me names— buyers, distributors, crooked police, whatever. I want to break a big story, so big the two dead prohis are just a footnote, got me?”
“But the one thing I don’t need? Four dead prohis. So use caution,” Hoover continued. “Tensions are high there, and not just because anybody involved with the moonshine is running scared. The whole place is divided. Apparently, Hobnob was offered a tidy sum by a group of New Orleans bankers, cotton merchants, who approached the levee board, offering to buy out the town.”
“Buy out the town?”
“Indeed. Offered fifty grand to let its levees be dynamited. Hobnob is weak because of that big horseshoe bend, levees in danger of bursting anyway. If they were to burst, that would take the pressure off the levees down south, save those big columned mansions in the Garden District.”
Ham gave a snort.
“So it started out as a straightforward business arrangement,”
Hoover went on. “Let us dynamite your levee that’s probably gonna blow anyway, and you all get a fresh start.”
“And it ended up?”
“Human. The people of Hobnob jumped at the offer, but then they couldn’t figure out how to divide the money. Some had more property. Some had better property. Some had no property at all. You can imagine the squabbles. In the end, they couldn’t agree, and the bankers withdrew their offer.” The secretary removed his glasses and put his thumb and index finger to the bridge of his nose. “Now we’re worried about saboteurs.”
“Like Marked Tree.” It was the first time Ingersoll had spoken, and perhaps he shouldn’t have, as Hoover glanced at him above the tent of his fingers. Four saboteurs from across the river had been shot while planting dynamite on the Arkansas side, and now Ingersoll guessed that Hoover had tried to keep this out of the papers.
“Yes,” said Hoover. “Exactly like Marked Tree.”
He rose and walked to the window and looked out while the men chewed on what he’d told them, the train rocking as it gained speed. “The Corps has sent men to Hobnob, engineers and levee guards. Which gives you an in—you’re just more engineers sent to examine the levee—but it’s gonna be harder to get people to talk. They’re suspicious.”
They nodded, though Hoover had his back to them. It was raining so hard that water was running down the inside of the glass, and Hoover removed a pocket square and wiped a swath free. The drowned landscape clacked by, rows of shriveled cotton combed by water. “Don’t linger. Infiltrate, telephone me for the go-ahead, bust the still, and then get out.” He turned to face them. “I’m giving you a week. Then I’ll have to announce the missing prohis. Don’t let me down.”
He walked to a coat tree and untied his sash and slipped the smoking jacket off and exchanged it for an army coat. Thumbing the buttons through their holes, he added, “We’ll be pulling into Greenville soon, and I can’t have you disembarking when I do, in front of the newspapermen with their flashbulbs. They’d blow your cover.”
“How will we get to the town, then?” asked Ham.
Hoover shrugged. “You’re enterprising gentlemen. I expect you can rustle up some horses.”
Neither acknowledged this. “Well?”
“Mighty wet for horses,” Ham said.
Hoover reached for a golden cord scalloping the wall over the window and pulled. A buzzer went off and the porter opened the door.
“Oliver, these gentlemen will be departing.”
“Here?” Ham asked, incredulous. They were nowhere near a town.
The porter pivoted and was gone. In a moment the train’s brakes squealed, like something punctured.
Hoover slid open his desk drawer and lifted two cream envelopes onto the leather blotter. Neither man reached so Hoover picked up the envelopes and walked around the desk and placed one in Ingersoll’s hand and thumped him on the back and then did the same for Ham.
“You served in France,” he told them, which caused both men to look up. “At the end of the day, this is just another war. A war against men who think they are above the law. And a war against Mother Nature.”
The door opened again. Hoover picked up his spectacles and an envelope from the stack on his desk and turned it over to examine the return address. “They’re ready.”
“Luggage, sir?” asked the porter.
“None to speak of.” He slid a brass opener into the envelope. “This war,” he said, levering the opener, “is the one I’ll ride all the way to the White House.” He looked at Ham over his spectacles. “And I’ll bring my friends with me.”
Ham nodded and stood and Ingersoll followed, looking back at Hoover unfolding his correspondence. The porter held the door and they stepped onto the metal grating between the cars, both clasping their hats against the sidewindering wind. Beneath their feet the clacking had slowed and the blurry fields grew definition, shriveled brown claws where cotton should have been. First Ham, with a grunt, and then Ingersoll jumped out into the scrolling world of mud.
At the first farm they passed, they asked where they could buy two horses, and the farmer said, “I’ll sell you two horses and throw in a farm to pasture them on, too.” Ham said no, just the horses, and they barely had to lighten their Hoover envelopes for the two ribby roans.
Now on the gallery Ham surveyed the three bodies, the clerk face-up and the looters facedown, and shook his head. “Goddamn it. They were looting for boots.” A lidless box beside the bigger body held nothing but cardboard boot lasts. Blood had soaked the bottom of the box and had climbed halfway up the sides.
Ingersoll knelt and turned over the other figure. A woman. The baby’s mother. She wore trousers, dark hair pulled back behind a man’s hat. Her mouth hung open and she was missing a few teeth. Her stomach was open, too, where it had been shot. Beside her in the blood lay a paper sack, a rip revealing a box of puffed wheat.
“Probably drunk,” said Ham, but without conviction. The flood had made regular folks desperate, and desperate folks downright reckless. Reckless, jobless, hopeless. You can’t be hired as a corn sheller when the corn’s been drowned.
“We’ll send the police back when we get to Hobnob,” Ham said, patting the man’s pants, and then the woman’s. He stood. “No papers, no wallet. Don’t imagine they’re from around here. Gypsies, I guess.”
Ingersoll heard the baby again, wailing. It was a terrible sound. He stood.
As if to head off any crazy thoughts, Ham said, “Let’s go, Ing. We’ve delayed too long already.”
“Let’s go. Now. They got telephones in Hobnob.” “Ham, we can’t leave it.”
“Well, we sure as hell can’t take it. You heard Hoover. One week to find the still.”
“But leave the baby?”
“What? We should nursemaid the infant while the killer goes free?” “No, but . . .”
“It’s not our problem, Ing.” “It’s an orphan now, Ham.”
Ham’s gray eyes met his and relented. “Oh, for Christ sake. Fine. Fine. But I don’t like it.”
Ingersoll turned and entered the store again, Ham behind him, and they crossed their bloody footprints back to the storeroom and stood above the baby. It wore a shred of diaper. It had stopped crying but made wavery, raspy breaths. The men leaned over it.
“What do you think we should do with it?” Ham asked.
“Do with it?” They watched the baby kick. “I think we should pick it up.”
“Be my guest.”
Ingersoll hesitated, then squatted to lay down the Colt he’d forgotten he was carrying and rubbed his hands on his thighs and crab walked closer, his knees cracking, and inserted his big hands stiffly beneath the baby. The cloth was wet. No wonder the little fella was unhappy. “Ham,” he said, “go get me a diddie. Got to be one here somewhere.” “Jesus, Ingersoll, go get one yourself,” Ham said, but he was already walking toward the door.
Ingersoll lifted the baby to his shoulder, both of them so wet they couldn’t get much wetter, he figured.
“Bingo,” called Ham.
A blue box flew into the room and skidded to Ingersoll’s feet. He turned it over to read, in small cursive, Kotex.
“It’ll absorb just the same,” Ham yelled. “Try again,” Ingersoll yelled back.
And then, “Wait, here we go.” Ingersoll stuck his arm up in time to catch the package of diddies. He put the baby down and it started crying again. Ingersoll was unpinning the soggy cloth, with difficulty, pins so goddamn small, when Ham walked up, pulling on a taffy, grinning at the spectacle. The heavy slab of wet diddie fell open and the baby straightened his little legs as he screamed, an angry red acorn of a penis vibrating.
“Least we know he’s a Junior now,” said Ham.
Ingersoll yanked a cloth from the brown paper package and made several attempts to wind it through the baby’s legs and then he figured close enough and pinned it loosely. He picked the baby up with straight arms and held him out from his chest.
“What now?” asked Ham. “You’re the orphan expert.”
They decided the matter quickly, Ham agreeing to push on to Hobnob, find them lodgings, search for the moonshiners, while Ingersoll doubled back to Greenville. He’d drop the baby off in an orphanage; town of fifteen thousand, had to be one somewhere. But first he’d visit the police station, better to do it there than Hobnob if they wanted to stick to their story of being levee engineers.
“I’ll say we’re just some fellas that needed chewing tobacco and had the bad luck to arrive after the shoot-out,” said Ingersoll.
“Talk like that and they’ll know you’re a fed,” said Ham. “Most folks would call that good luck.”
They picked out supplies, Ingersoll filling his saddlebag with two cans of Pet evaporated milk for the baby and a bag of fried pork skins and a Nehi soda and two cans of tuna for himself. Then they went outside past the dead couple and collected their guns and Ham flung his saddlebag over his horse and took the reins and hoisted himself up with a grunt.
“Ditch it fast,” he said, jerking a thumb toward the baby on Ingersoll’s chest, “and get to Hobnob. I know you like that colored music, but don’t stay for no Greenville jamboree. Only thing them poor niggers are playing these days is shovels and picks.”
He kicked the horse to a trot and it flung back two crescents of mud that Ingersoll turned to take on the shoulder, shielding the baby. He watched Ham ride away, patting Junior in time to the hooves, feeling like a discarded wife, husband gone off to fight Hoover’s war.
Excerpted from The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly. Copyright © 2013 by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly. First published 2013 by William Morrow, An imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York. This edition published 2013 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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