Authors: Dayne Sherman
Tags: #Mystery, #Detective
Copyright © 2014 by Dayne Sherman
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, without prior written permission.
Accendo Books, L.L.C.
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Email: [email protected]
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
Author’s Note: No rednecks were harmed in the making of this novel.
Book Layout © 2014 BookDesignTemplates.com
Author Photo: Kristy Williams
Cover artwork: Dayne Sherman: Acrylic on Burned Southern Pine.
Zion: A Novel / Dayne Sherman. -- 1st ed.
To set the state of perfection too high is the surest way to drive it out of the world.
The Works of John Wesley
, May 13, 1772
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
Tom Hardin sat on the small back stoop of the old farm house with a cotton rag and an unloaded rifle in his hands. A half-dozen bullets were lined up on the top step like tacks in a row beside a small tin of Western Field gun oil. He was a meticulous man as precise as a surgeon, and he took good care of his guns and tools. He’d never put away the rifle after hunting without wiping it down with oil, thoroughly cleaning the barrel and action. He heard a vehicle cross his iron cattle guard near the blacktop road, the thump-thump noise of tires. Then his dog barked. Jubal was a large stud dog, half Catahoula and half bulldog, weighing over eighty pounds. The dog was chained in the yard under a live oak tree not far from the house. The vehicle was pulling into the gravel driveway. Tom picked up the Winchester and six bullets, stood, and walked around to the back corner of the house. The horn honked twice, a rapid beep-beep, and Jubal barked even more. Tom could not see the car, so he slid the six rimfire cartridges into the rifle tube and worked the pump action once.
He held the rifle in the crook of his left arm as he passed the front corner of the house and saw the Ninth Ward Marshal standing at the door of his white Plymouth. Both Tom and Marshal Donald Brownlow were lifelong members of Little Zion Methodist Church in the community of Zion in Baxter Parish. They sat on opposite sides of the center aisle of the church on Sundays with their families. Though never close friends, they were always cordial.
The lawman grimaced and said, “You aim to fire on me with that peashooter?”
“It’s not a peashooter. It’s a .22 magnum,” Tom said. “And I wouldn’t shoot a man unless he truly deserved it.” He pointed the barrel toward the ground.
Tom walked over to the patrol car. The men shook hands.
“You don’t deserve shooting, do you, Marshal?” Tom asked, smiling.
“Well, if I did, I’d never tell you.” He laughed a strange-sounding snort and fished in his shirt pocket for a pack of Winstons.
Tom was compact and thin, built wiry, the kind of man who could climb a tall tree by scooting up the trunk without any help beyond the strength of his legs and arms and will. Barely five-seven, he had good posture and muscled biceps and a natural discipline that caused him to appear taller than he really was. He was a contrast to the dough-faced Marshal Brownlow, a flabby man of six feet. In a fair fight, Tom would beat Brownlow to a ripe pulp.
“It sure is getting cool out in the evenings and mornings. I guess it’s getting to be a good enough Saturday to kill a few squirrels,” the marshal said.
“It is. I bagged three this morning,” Tom said.
“Any of them have wolf worms in the neck? I’ve seen them before in barn cats this time of year. That’s the bad thing about squirrel hunting early in the season.”
“No, we’ve had a frost. They were all fine.”
“Where’d you kill ’em?”
“Over on Turnpike Road. But you didn’t drive over here to talk about the weather and squirrels.”
“Then what can I help you with, Donald?”
“Why don’t you put that rifle on the hood of my car? You make me a little uneasy holding a gun.” The marshal struck a match on the car mirror and lit his cigarette. He took a drag.
“I kind of like holding the rifle,” Tom said. “It keeps me from feeling uneasy myself.”
Brownlow let out a lungful of smoke. He gazed at Tom for a few moments.
“Say what you came here to say. Or do you plan to arrest me for something I know nothing about?” Tom asked.
“I didn’t come over to arrest you,” Brownlow said.
“Donald, you’re kind of making me nervous. Please get to the point.”
“Okay. Last night more than a hundred acres of young pines burned. Land owned by Fitz-Blackwell over on Traylor Branch. It was torched to the point of ruin, at least two-thirds’ll have to be replanted, they say.”
“That’s a shame. Probably just heat lightning, an act of God.” Tom scratched his chin with his thumb and forefinger. “It did seem a bit smoky last night and this morning.”
“Look, I’ve heard that men are repeating a slogan, ‘For every oak a pine.’ It’s just plumb crazy talk. Folks can’t go around playing arsonist in the whole damned parish. Burning one pine for every oak killed, or a hundred pines for every oak killed. It’s just plain loopy. The fires are getting out of control. This is 1964. It ain’t 1864.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Well, a week ago, Fitz-Blackwell brought in some arson investigators from Salem, Oregon, plus Louisiana state forestry men, and the Lord only knows who or what else they’ve sent down here. That was on account of the Rogers Road fire, and more fires are ablaze all over God’s creation. They say somebody started the fire by horseback and on foot and maybe by automobile. Seems like it was more than one person, a true conspiracy. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about it, would you?” The marshal released a trail of smoke out of the side of his mouth.
Tom frowned. “No, I don’t know anything about it. Not about Traylor Branch or Rogers Road. Like I asked, what brings you to my door?” His forehead wrinkled with the question. He had wondered if his friend James Luke Cate and some others were behind the fires, but he’d never say a word to the marshal.
“Tom, I seem to recollect that you’ve got a riding horse?” The marshal took a pull from the Winston.
“Yeah, a horse that I use to plow a garden and ride, work my stock with, but having a horse is something I’ve got in common with about half the men in Zion.”
“Is your horse shod?”
“No, I don’t shoe horses. I don’t have the extra money to pay for somebody to come do it.” His horse, Sam, was not shod, but he could indeed pay the six dollars for a farrier to nail a set on the horse if necessary. The gelding was mostly Appaloosa, and his hooves were as hard as stone. Unless he rode the horse on asphalt, Sam didn’t need iron shoes.
“Tom, I’m here because one of the Fitz-Blackwell men said you was watching them whilst you was riding horseback off Kinchen Road. They was killing some hardwood trees to plant pines a week or so ago. Said you more or less tried to stalk them. They felt threatened. Said you had a high-powered deer rifle with you. And the investigators told me that the arsonist had him a horse that wore steel shoes. I’m just trying to look into this thing from all possible directions.”
“My horse doesn’t have shoes. He’s never had a set of shoes since I bought him four years ago. Now I did see them out yonder killing oaks with some kind of poison, jabbing the base of the trees with long hollow spikes full of herbicide. I was looking for my hogs, which had wandered behind the old Gibson place on the Big Natalbany. As you well know, I’ve been forced by the new law to catch up all my stock by the New Year. That said, it’s a free country, and watching somebody do their work isn’t illegal. Not yet. Watching them doesn’t mean I was the one that started the fires either. I tell you, I did not start any fires. The fires were probably from lightning anyhow. You’re welcome to go inspect my horse’s hooves.” He motioned to back lot with his hand and shifted the rifle to the crook of his right arm.
Tom hadn’t burned any woods, though he’d pondered doing it himself after watching the men kill healthy hardwood trees, grown trees, for no better reason than they were less valuable than the pines, and the pines needed space to grow, more daylight and less shade.
“It means something, you watching them out yonder,” Brownlow said.
“No, sir. It means nothing at all. I don’t know the men. They don’t know me. I was out there and saw them. I’m not denying it. But that doesn’t mean I was threatening them or burning pines. How would they know I was the one watching them anyway?”
“Sloan Parnell, Judge Parnell’s grandson, says you were out there last week riding a sorrel horse with a white snip or blaze on his face, a horse with a few black and white spots on his hips.”
“Hum. There’s your answer, Donald. Sloan would be my number one candidate for lighting the fires. That’s if you’re asking me. I had trouble with him once before when I was hunting in the woods near his place. I said near his place, not on his place. He’s no good. It’s like folks thinking the CIA had a hand in assassinating President Kennedy. Most unnatural wickedness is an inside job. Sloan is real sorry, just like his daddy and Judge Parnell, too. The Parnells and the timber companies have robbed the public coffers as empty as a dry well. All the land they stole from widows and poor people back in the Depression. But I never saw Parnell in the woods that day.”
The marshal stared past Tom. He smoked the Winston in silence. “I’m not accusing you, but you need to stay far away from the workers doing their jobs and—”
Tom cut him off. “It ought not to be any man’s job to kill perfectly good hardwood trees and let them rot in the forest. The hogs and what few deer we have live off the acorns. Squirrels like them, too. Besides, the trees are pretty to look at. Can you believe that they are leaving the trees in the woods? They won’t even let folks cut firewood off the dead timber anymore. It’s a true disgrace and a crime.”
“The men are required to kill the oaks because the pines are what keeps the lumber business going, and the timber companies pay a whole lot of taxes, and them tax dollars pay my salary.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. They don’t pay a mere tithe of their rightful taxes on what they ought to be paying. Fitz-Blackwell alone has more than thirty thousand acres in this parish, and the crooked tax assessor lets them pay nearly nothing. Pennies on the dollar. He assesses their land for fifty dollars an acre when everybody knows it’s worth two hundred, and some land’s worth more. Fact of business, a lot of it is worth close to four hundred dollars an acre. You ought to go today and lock up the assessor and every one of the Fitz-Blackwell men up at their Ruthberry office. But that would mean trouble, wouldn’t it? I hear the tax assessor has a daughter studying up at Louisiana College in Pineville on a full scholarship, as people tell it, paid for by Fitz-Blackwell. Don’t you reckon that’s more of a coincidence than me watching some men work while I was riding horseback and then a stand of pine trees catches fire? Doesn’t it all sound a little peculiar to you, Marshal Brownlow?”
“Be careful is all I’m telling you, Tom,” he said. “You’re a decent, God-fearing man, and you ought to keep it that way.” He got into his car and shut the door. “I’ll be calling on you again,” the marshal said out of the open window.