In mid-1947, Jefferson Barnes, the prosecuting attorney of Polk County, Arkansas, finally died. Upon that tragedy -- the old man fell out of one of those new golf cart things on vacation in Hot Springs, rolled down a gully screaming damnation and hellfire all the way, and broke his neck on a culvert -- Sam Vincent, his loyal Number 2, moved up to the big job. Then in '48, Sam was anointed by the Democratic party (there was no other in western Arkansas), which ran him on the same ticket with Harry S. Truman and Fred C. Becker. As did those worthies, he won handily. For Sam, it was the goal toward which he had been aiming for many years. He had always wanted to be a servant of the law, and now, much better, he was the law.
Sam was six foot one, forty-four, with a bushy head of hair and a brusque demeanor that would not be called "lovable" for many years. He stared immoderately and did not suffer fools, idiots, Yankees, carpetbaggers, the small of spirit or the breakers of the law gladly. He wore baggy suits flecked with pipe ash, heavy glasses, and walked in a bounding swoop. He hunted in the fall, followed the St. Louis Browns during the summer, when he had time, which he hardly ever did, and tied flies, though he fished rarely enough. Otherwise, he just worked like hell. His was classic American career insanity, putting the professional so far above the personal there almost was no personal, in the process alienating wife and children with his indifference, burning out secretaries with his demands, annoying the sheriff's detectives with his directions. In what little time remained, he served on the draft board (he had won the Bronze Star during the Battle of the Bulge), traveled five states to interview promising high school seniors who had applied to his beloved Princeton, played a weekly round of golf with the county powers at the country club, and drank too much eight-year-old bourbon. He knew everybody; he was respected by everybody. He was a great man, a great American. He had the highest conviction rate of any county prosecutor in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, or Tennessee for that matter.
He was not reelected. In fact, he lost in a landslide to a no'count lawyer named Febus Bookins, a genial hack who smelled of gin all the time and meant only to rob the county blind during his term of office. He called himself a reformer, and his goal was to reform his bank account into something more respectable.
Sam had made one mistake, but it was a mistake which few in his home state, and in fact not many elsewhere, could ignore. In 1949, he prosecuted a man named Willis Beaudine for raping a young woman named Nadine Johnson. It was an unremarkable case, save for the fact that Willis was a white person and Nadine a Negro girl. It is true she was quite light, what some would call a "high yeller," and that she had comely ways, and was, perhaps, not normally so innocent as she looked when she appeared in court. But facts were facts, law was law. Certain evidence had been developed by Sam's former investigator, Earl Swagger, who was now a state police sergeant and was famous for the big medal he had won during the war. Earl, however, risked nothing by testifying against Willis, for Earl was known to be a prideful, bull-headed man who could not be controlled by anyone and was feared by some. Sam, on the other hand, risked everything, and lost everything, although Willis was convicted and spent six months at the Tucker Farm. As for Nadine, she moved from town because even in her own community she was considered what Negro women called a " 'ho," and moved to St. Louis, where her appetites soon got her murdered in a case of no interest to anyone.
Sam had taken his defeat bitterly. If his family thought he would see them more often, they were mistaken. Instead, he rented a small office on the town square of Blue Eye, the county seat, and commenced to spend most of his days and many of his nights there. He worked such small cases as came his way, but mainly he plotted out ways to return to office. He still hunted with Earl. His other friend was Connie Long-
acre, the smart Eastern woman whom the county's richest, most worthless son had brought back from his education at Annapolis in '30 and his failed naval career thereafter. Connie had soon learned how appetite-driven a man her Rance was, and while trying to raise her own hellion son, Stephen, fell to friendship with Sam, who alone in that part of Arkansas had been to a Broadway play, had met a gal under the clock at the Biltmore, and who didn't think Henry Wallace was a pawn of the Red Kremlin.
Sam was never stupid, not on a single day in his life. He understood that one thing he had to do was to regain the trust of the white people. Therefore he utterly refused to take any cases involving Negroes, even if they only revolved around one dark person suing another. There was a Negro lawyer in town, a Mr. Theopolis Simmons, who could handle such things; meanwhile, Sam worked hard, politicked aggressively, kept tabs, sucked up to the gentry who had deposed him so gently, and tried to stay focused.
Then, one day in June of 1951, an unusual event occurred, though nothing in that day or the day or week before had suggested it would. Sam, alone in his office, worked through probate papers for a farmer named Lewis who had died intestate and whose estate was now being sued for back taxes by the state, which would drive his widow and four children off the property to -- well, to nothing. Sam would not let this happen, if only he could figure out a way to --
He heard the door open. In the county's employ he had always had a secretary; now, on his own, he didn't. He stood, pushed his way through the fog of dense pipe smoke, and opened the door to peer into his anteroom. An elegant gentleman had seated himself on the sofa and was paging absently through an old copy of Look magazine.
"Sir, do you have an appointment?" Sam asked.
The man looked up at him.
He was tanned softly, as if from an expensive vacation at the beach, balding, and looked well tended, of an age that could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty. He was certainly prosperous, in a smooth-fitting blue pinstripe suit, a creamy white shirt and the black tie of a serious man. A homburg, gray pearl, lay on the seat beside him; his shined shoes were cap-toed black bluchers, possibly bespoke, and little clocks or flowers marked his socks. The shoes were shined, Sam noticed, all the way down to the sole, which was an indication that a professional had done them, in a rail station, a hotel lobby, a barbershop.
"Why, no, Mr. Vincent. I'd be happy to make one, or if you prefer, to wait here until you have the time to see me."
"Hmm," said Sam. He knew when money came to call.
"I am currently in the throes of a case," he said. "Mr., ah -- "
"My name is Trugood, sir."
"Mr. Trugood. Have you a few minutes while I file and clear my desk?"
"Of course. I don't mean to interrupt."
Sam ducked back in. Quickly he gathered the Lewis papers up, sealed them in a file, and put it into a drawer. His desk was a mess; he did some elementary rearranging, which meant he'd have to derearrange after the man left, but Sam could use a fee, he didn't mind admitting, for any return from the poor Lewises, or the Jenningses, or the Joneses, the Smiths, the Beaupres, the Deacons, the Hustons, all that was in a future that seemed quite distant. More or less prepared, he removed a fresh yellow legal tablet from his cabinet and wrote the word trugood, and the date, atop it.
He opened the door.
"Sir, I can see you now."
"Thank you, Mr. Vincent."
Trugood stood elegantly, smiled at Sam as he walked through the door, pretended not to notice the debris, the mess, the strewn files, the moth-eaten deer's head, or even the fog of sweetbriar gas that hung, almost moist, in the air.
Sam passed him, gestured to a seat, and as he moved around the desk to sit, watched as the man placed a business card before him on the desk.
"Ah," said Sam. "A colleague."
"Indeed," said the man, whose card announced him to be Davis Trugood, Esq., of the firm of Mosely, Vacannes & Destin, 777 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, Hillcrest 3080.
"Mr. Trugood? I am at your service."
"Thank you, Mr. Vincent. May I say, I've heard a great deal about you, and I've worked some to find you."
"I've always been here, sir. I had no idea any reputation had spread beyond our little benighted state. Certainly not as far as a big sophisticated city like Chicago."
"Well, sir, possibly it hasn't reached that far. But it has reached all through the South, or, I should say, a certain South."
"What South would that be, sir?"
"That South occupied by our population of color, sir. Our Negroes. They say you are the rare white lawyer who is fair to the man of Negro blood."
"Well," said Sam, somewhat taken aback, "if by that they mean that as a prosecuting attorney I laid the same force of law against white as against black, then they are correct. I believe in the law. But do not understand me too quickly, sir. I am not what you might call a race champion. I am not a hero of the Negro, nor do I ever mean to be. I believe history has dealt our American Negroes a sorry hand, as do many people. But I also believe that sorry hand will have to be corrected slowly. I am not one for tearing things down in service to various dubious moral sentiments, which in fact would turn my own race against me, which would unleash the savagery of the many embittered whites of the South against the poor Negro, which would in fact result in destruction everywhere. So, Mr. Trugood, if you thought I was someone to lead a crusade, change or challenge a law, throw down a gauntlet, burn a barn, sing a hymn, or whatever, why, I am not that man, sir."
"Mr. Vincent, thank you for speaking straight out. I must say, most Southern lawyers prefer to speak a code which one has to have attended either Ole Miss or Alabama to penetrate. You, sir, at least speak directly."
"I take a pleasure in that. Possibly the product of an Eastern education."
"Excellent, sir. Now, I need a representative to travel to a certain town deeper in the South and make private inquiries. This man has to be extremely smart, not without charm, stubborn as the Lord, a man of complete probity. He must also be somewhat brave, or at least the sort not turned feeble by a show of hostility. He also has to be comfortable around people of different bloods, white and Negro. He has to be comfortable around law enforcement officers of a certain type, the type that would as soon knock a fellow's hat off as talk civilly to him. The fee for this service, perhaps lasting a week, would be quite high, given the complex diplomatic aspects of the situation. I would suppose you have no ethical objections to a high fee, Mr. Vincent."
"High fee. In my career those two words rarely appear in the same sentence. Yes, do go on, Mr. Trugood. You have my attention, without distraction."
"Thank you, sir. I am charged with executing a will for a certain rather well-off late Chicagoan. He had for many years in his employ a Negro named Lincoln Tilson."
Sam wrote: "Negro Lincoln Tilson" on his big yellow pad.
"Lincoln was a loyal custodian of my client's properties, a handyman, a bodyguard, a gardener, a chauffeur, a man whose brightness of temperament always cheered my client, who was negotiating a business career of both great success and some notoriety."
"I follow, sir," said Sam.
"Five years ago, Lincoln at last slowed down. My employer settled a sum on him, a considerable sum, and bid him farewell. He even drove him to the Illinois Central terminal to catch the City of New Orleans and reverse the steps by which he arrived up North so many years ago, for Lincoln's pleasure was to return to the simpler life from which he had sprung in the South. Lincoln returned to his birthplace, a town called Thebes, in Thebes County, Mississippi."
Sam wrote it down, while saying, "That is the deepest part of the deepest South, I would imagine."
"It is, sir."
Thebes, as a word, rang ever so slightly in Sam's imagination. He recalled that the original was a Greek town, city even, much fought over in antiquity. For some reason the number seven occurred in concert with it.
"I see puzzlement, sir," said Trugood. "You are well educated and no doubt think of Seven Against Thebes, by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus. I assure you, no army led by seven heroes is necessary in this case. Mississippi's Thebes is a far distance from Aeschylus's tragic town of war. It is a backwater Negro town far up the Yaxahatchee River, which itself is a branch of the Pascagoula River. It is the site of a famous, or possibly infamous, penal farm for colored called Thebes Farm."
"That's it," said Sam. "It is legendary among the Negro criminal class, with whom I had many dealings as a young prosecutor. ?You don't wants to go to Thebes, they say, don't nobody never nohow come back from Thebes.' Or words to that effect."
"It seems they have it mixed up with Hades in their simplicity. Yes, Thebes is not a pleasant place. Nobody wants to go to Thebes."
"Yet you want me to go to Thebes. That is why the fee would be so high?"
"There is difficulty of travel, for one thing. You must hire a boat in Pascagoula, and the trip upriver is unpleasant. The river, I understand, is dark and deep; the swamp that lines it inhospitable. There was only one road into Thebes, through that same forbidding swamp; it was washed out some years back, and Thebes County, not exactly a county of wealth, has yet to dispatch repair."
"Accommodations would be primitive."
"I slept in many a barn in the late fracas in Europe, Mr. Trugood. I can sleep in a barn again; it won't hurt me."
"Excellent. Now here is the gist of the task. My client's estate -- as I say, considerable -- is hung up in probate because Mr. Lincoln Tilson seems no longer to exist. I have attempted to communicate with Thebes County authorities, to little avail. I can reach no one but simpletons on the telephone, when the telephone is working, which is only intermittently. No letter has yet been answered. The fate of Lincoln is unknown, and a large amount of money is therefore frozen, a great disappointment to my client's greedy, worthless heirs."
"I see. My task would be to locate either Lincoln or evidence of his fate. A document, that sort of thing?"
"Yes. From close-mouthed Southern types. I, of course, need someone who speaks the language, or rather, the accent. They would hear the Chicago in my voice, and their faces would ossify. Their eyes would deaden. Their hearing would disintegrate. They would evolve backward instantaneously to the neolithic."
"That may be so, but Southerners are also fair and honest folk, and if you don't trumpet your Northern superiority in their face and instead take the time to listen and master the slower cadences, they will usually reward you with friendship. Is there another issue here?"
"There is indeed." He waved at his handsome suit, his handsome shoes, his English tie. His cufflinks were gold with a discreet sapphire, probably worth more than Sam had made in the last six months. "I am a different sort of man, and in some parts of the South -- Thebes, say -- that difference would not go unnoticed."
"You have showy ways, but they are the ways of a man of the world."
"I fear that is exactly what would offend them. And, frankly, I'm not a brave man. I'm a man of desks. The actual confrontation, the quickness of argument, the thrust of will on will: not really my cup of tea, I'm afraid. A sound man understands his limits. I was the sort of boy who never got into fights and didn't like tests of strength."
"That is why I am buying your courage as well as your mind."
"You overestimate me. I am quite a common man."
"A decorated hero in the late war."
"Nearly everybody in the war was a hero. I saw some true courage; mine was ordinary, if even that."
"I think I have made a very good choice."
"All right, sir."
"Thank you, Mr. Vincent. This is the fee I had in mind."
He wrote a figure on the back of his card, and pushed it over. It took Sam's breath away.
"You are sending me to be your champion in hell, it sounds like," said Sam. "But you are paying me well for the fight."
"You will earn every penny, I assure you."
Copyright © 20001 by Stephen Hunter
Pale Horse Coming
The time is 1951. A smooth-talking Chicago lawyer comes to chat with Sam Vincent, the former prosecutor of Polk County, Arkansas, about a dangerous subject—a big prison for violent black convicts near Thebes, Mississippi, up the Yaxahatchee River from Pasagoula. Thebes seems to have dropped out of the Union—letters and phone calls go unanswered, and the lawyer has questions that need answers. Would Sam—an ex-lawman, a white man and a Southerner—agree to go up there and find out what he can?
The ex-prosecutor takes on the job, but first he goes to see his old friend Earl Swagger, and tells him that if he isn’t back in a week, Earl is to come looking for him. When Sam vanishes into the mists and swamps around Thebes, Mississippi, Earl packs his gun, explains to a distraught Junie that duty is duty and a promise is a promise, and sets off for Thebes, Mississippi to track his friend down.
Soon enough, Earl—who approaches Thebes and its sinister prison with the stealth of a good Marine on a recon mission—realizes that something very strange indeed is going on there, that the prison is more than just a place that chills the blood of even the most hardened convict, that in fact the whole town of Thebes is hiding a secret—and it’s a place where people disappear all too easily, particularly inquisitive strangers, for whom burial in the swamps follows torture.