I've never told this to anyone before, at least not all of it. All through Sheriff's investigation and the court proceedings, I only told what they wanted to know, the facts--what I saw, what I did. I never told all that happened or how I felt about it. A murder comes hard to anyone, especially a twelve-year-old, mixes him up so's it can take years to get straight again. It's been five years now and this is the first time I felt I could lay it all out, just as it happened. I'll start at what feels like a beginning.
It was early spring that year, a season of dangerous skies. I was of an age when I'd wake up before sunrise with nothing but fishing on my mind. Some mornings were so sweet and cold and clear--still a few stars, a soft thick mist rising up from the glassy water.
I could have the skiff out on the creek in nothing flat. She was a light wooden boat, and low to the water, built with all the skill and love in an Eastern Shoreman's hands. I painted her dark green every year, scraped her clean of barnacles to keep her floating like a feather. My granddaddy'd built her, and she was my proudest possession.
It seemed a sin to turn on the engine in the quiet, with the rails still sleeping in the cordgrass, and the bullfrogs and peepers and other night creatures not up yet from winter. It was about as peaceable as any place on earth.
I could be down at the bend in front of Bartons' dock just before the sun was up, slapping my fingers against my thighs to warm them. The creek meandered down there; the ghosty hulks of old skipjacks run aground showed where the shoreline had been other years. It always seemed sad those beautiful old boats would never part baywater again.
Just there the clouds would loom and menace, so cold and wet you could feel them hover. If I kept on, more like than not I'd have a right smart skiff full of icy water to push home.
It was just one such Saturday morning when it all began. Through my bedroom window the faintest tangerine glow marked where the sky met the water. Soon as I threw back my woolen blanket, old Obie's tail whumped the floor. I swear that dog loved fishing more than I did.
By the time I had shivered into my jeans and flannel shirt and down vest, Obie was stretching and making groany noises in his throat, just dying to get out on the Bay.
There was something very special and secret about being quiet in the kitchen before sunrise, with the whole rest of the house asleep above me. My feet knew every chair and table leg, every creaky floorboard; the palms of my hands knew just where each door hinge squeaked. Obie drew in his claws and puffed up the pads on his feet. Every other minute of the day that Lab clattered around like a sackful of oyster shells.
A storm had come up the night before. Branches whipped and broke in the giant cedars all round the house, and somewheres near dawn it went away, suddenly as it'd come on. Limbs littered the winter-brown lawn down to the water, and the cordgrass lay flat at the edge of the creek. Those easterly spells slammed into the mouth of the Chesapeake with ferocity and trapped the high tide in the Bay and creeks like a giant stopper.
Part of our dock was still underwater. The creek was calm and still, but for a fast-moving tide that sucked at the pilings. My rubber fishing boots were slick and wet to the knees by the time we got to the boathouse.
I took my fishing rod, tackle box, net, and sounding pole out of the shed on the shore end of the dock. I could get in a good couple of hours hanging around the inlets up the creek, fishing for flounder or anything that'd bite.I was to meet Tunes at Bartons' dock at eleven. We were headed down to our special place on King's Creek to rake us some clams. April was early for clamming, but we always tried to get out by Easter. Night before, I'd sharpened my knife and could pretty near feel those cherrystones slide one by one, all slick and salty, down my throat.
Tunes Smith had been my best friend ever since I could remember. We'd grown together from infancy. Her daddy, Kneebone, was manager of my father's farm, like his father and his father's father before him, all the way back to the time when they were freed from slavery, which was how they first came to work the Smith land.
Tunes' mama had worked in our house, cleaning and cooking. Once Tunes was born, just a month after me, her mama brought her along and looked after the two of us babies together. After Tunes' mama died some two years later, Gran and Mama looked after Tunes like she was their own. When Tunes and me started school, Mama had Tunes' Aunt Mazie teach her to do cornrows. She sat Tunes before her on a stool and made her recite her times tables while she braided row after row. Mama and Gran gave Tunes over to Kneebone when he came in from the fields each evening.
Mama felt sorry for her. "Poor little motherless child," Mama'd say, packing up nut bread she'd baked extra for them. Sometimes it'd be a slab of ham, or extra crabcakes. She'd hand me the bundle and say, "Take it to them, son. What can become of a girl without a mama?" But it seemed to me Tunes and Kneebone made out just fine.
Nobody knew the Bay and the fish and the tides and winds as well as Tunes. It was all pure instinct with her, like the elements dwelled in her heart, and pure baywater pumped through her veins. She was proud of it and was sometimes right intolerant of folks who didn't know all that she did.
We were to turn thirteen that summer. It was 1991, and as I recall, even if what happened the day I'm telling you about never did happen, things were going to change right soon anyways. Fact was, Tunes would never have been able to put off facing up to being a girl any longer.
Up till then she had more respect around the fishing docks than most watermen. The watermen respected women as women, but not as fish finders, and Tunes could find fish better than any living thing on the Eastern Shore, better even than Obie, and Dad used to say he was 'bout the eighth wonder of the world.
The sports fishermen who hung out at Bartons' Fuel and Bait Dock would want to know where we'd been, what was taking bait, what kind of bait we'd used, how deep we'd fished, how fast the tide was running--everything save the length of your toenails was of interest to those sportsmen, most of them too lazy to go out and see for themselves.
Most of the sports were come-heres, retired folks moved down from up North, or folks who just came summers. They fished from big old stinkpots and wouldn't know a jimmy from a she-crab if it wore a sign.
They thought we were quaint, if somewhat backward--peculiar, with our old-fashioned language. Some Shore folks still talk like their ancestors in England. The come-heres took note of the fact we said things like "shoal" when they said "shallow" and that "poor" to us was not bad but good, or that many folks still used the word "Negro," instead of "African American" or "black," when that's what many of the black folks said themselves. And a fair lot of those come-heres only knew what we told them about fishing.
Any other black girl but Tunes Smith they wouldn't have expected to have much sense about anything. Tunes only ever told what she wanted, and if she and I found a really good fishing hole where the croakers were hunkered down in the green coolish bottom just waiting for us to come back in late afternoon, Tunes would tell them about a second-best place somewheres else, one maybe that even looked better than our fishing hole. It'd be better than a hole any one of them would've found.
And then, the summer before, some things happened that were irreversible. Tunes shot up in height, so that my reddish head, which used to be about even with her eyebrows, came only to her chin. I noticed her long skinny legs had started to round a little, and other places,too, so that I was embarrassed to look below her chin. Those wise, curious eyes looked different, like they could swallow you up. Instead of mischief, they looked like they held secrets. I began to wish with all my heart things would go back to where they'd been just the year before. But I knew sure as Colonel Pickett's apple trees bloomed every April things were different as they could be, and they weren't going to change back.
The questions had started to be different. Everybody was more interested in where Tunes and me had been. I mean, where had we been?--not where had we been fishing. We must've been a sight that spring, her tall, slim, and muscular, with cornrows, and me short and poky, with freckles and skinned knees. I didn't think much about it at first, but before long all the looks and questions were getting on my nerves.
But I'm getting ahead of myself, and Lord knows it will be hard enough to tell it straight even if I just stick to things as they happened, one by one.
As the skiff glided toward the mouth of the creek, I heard the steady pant of Doke Watkins's boat rounding the bend behind me. I'd been concentrating on looking for signs of a storm, but the soft dawn had ripened into an opal sky, and I knew we were in for a good day's fishing. I turned to see the Dora Mae's low, sleek hull narrow the distance to the last channel marker in the creek. The deck was piled high with bushel baskets, and Doke bent over a wooden barrel full of bait.
Doke's yellow Lab, Pup, a thin scarred male, straddled the gunwales in the prow. His tattered ears perked up when he saw Obie. They'd tangled a few months back when Obie'd made the mistake of going too near Pup's dock. Pup was a legend on the Eastern Shore. He killed water snakes and dove for skate on the creek. He never went crosscountry like other dogs'd do, following a scent. He always swam. I saw him swim by our place one day, fire-bent for someplace, and we're two mile downstream from Doke's.
Doke doused the lights in the wheelhouse then, came out, and waved.
"Where ye bound, Buck?" he shouted.
"I'm going out to find me some flounder, maybe some crabs."
"You best keep an eye out for a storm." Doke waved and headed the Dora Mae north outside the creek for his crab pots. We turned south and headed for a fishing hole I'd been wanting to try.
I was setting a minnow onto my hook when I felt the boat quiver. Obie was up on the gunwales, legs bent, head a foot from the water, and that meant fish. I fished across the hole a couple of times and took in a right smart mess, including one flounder big as a doormat, then left for a while to let the hole cool down.
Most times Tunes would have come, but Kneebone had said he would set her to doing chores that morning.
I turned up Little Creek, just one down from Pungotuck Creek, where we lived, to see if I could find someblue crabs. I dipped into my bait bucket and found a dead silverside big enough to gill-string. I was crisscrossing the edge of the marsh, dangling the line over the side and not paying much attention to where the tide was carrying me, when I heard a large-sized outboard motor in toward shore.
A faint land breeze had come up, carrying shore sounds over the water. A deep voice rumbled above the chortle of the idling motor. A narrow island of salt marsh lay between me and the shore, and I couldn't see the boat at first. I looked around to get my bearings.
My heart leapt into my mouth as I realized I'd drifted into Jumbo Rawlin's territory. James Beauregard Rawlin was mean as a green-eyed snake, and he didn't hold with kids being anywhere near his property on land nor water.
The Rawlin family had been on the Shore since the 1700s, like my family. Over the years they'd bought up land wherever they could, and Jumbo had become the biggest farmer in Northampton County, Virginia. He farmed more than two thousand acres, and he stood six foot seven, every inch lean, mean, and ill intentioned.
One Sunday, Tunes and me saw Miz Rawlin out on the creek rowing like the devil was after her. Miz Rawlin was a pretty woman, younger than Jumbo, his third wife. I used to see her down at the post office in Eastville, and she'd smile and talk to me. She could do tricks, like pull a quarter out of your nose. She was tall, with long dark hair.
I pulled the skiff over to say hello. We thought it waskind of funny she was out there without a motor. When we got close we could see her face was all swoll up, one eye bruised shut. She put her head down and waved us to go on.
Mama said she had some kind of illness and had to go away. But one thing's sure, she lit out for somewhere that Sunday morning, maybe back where she came from up North. But she never was seen again on the Eastern Shore.
Down at the docks they said of a Saturday night Jumbo'd drink a snootful of whiskey and sometimes get into fights. Another thing was Jumbo Rawlin hated dogs, and was known to kill them if they came on his property. But on the Shore many respectable gentlemen were known to tip a cup. And loose dogs killed deer and chickens, and generally raised a ruckus, so nobody looked sidewise at a farmer who shot dogs that ran.
While he was pleasant enough to grownups, Jumbo growled at kids when nobody else was around to hear, and we weren't at all sure he wouldn't do to us what he did to wandering dogs. To Tunes and me, he was bigger and badder than real life.
One time the fall before, Tunes and me were fishing on Little Creek upstream of Jumbo's place. Jumbo came along in his eighteen-foot runabout. We thought he was going to holler at us for being around his property. But he never said a word. Instead, he reached down and came up with his .22 rifle. He lifted it slowly and looked down the barrel, through the sights, straight at us.
"Wait!" I shouted. "Don't shoot!" A place right between my shoulder blades began twitching wildly. I was so scared I couldn't breathe right, like someone'd punched me in the solar plexus.
With that, Jumbo squeezed the trigger and a little splash went up just eight inches or so behind the skiff. Tunes clamped a hand on either gunwale. Her mouth was frozen open like she'd've screamed if she hadn't been so scared. Tears ran down her cheeks, but she wasn't really crying.
"Hey!" I shouted, my voice cracking with fear. "Stop it!" Jumbo pulled the trigger again and again and again, each time missing us by six inches or so, stopping calm and deliberate as you like to reload the gun. I pulled the starter rope on the skiff motor, but my hands were shaking so hard I couldn't pull it straight. It took several times, and it seemed half a lifetime before the motor caught and we got on out of there.
Jumbo couldn't follow us because of the shoal bottom, and soon as I realized we were clear of him--he was nowhere to be seen--I laughed out of sheer nervous energy and bravado. Tears streamed down my face, too, and my hands shook worse than ever.
But Tunes would have none of my mood. First thing she did was lean out over the side of the skiff and be sick. She put her hands into the cold, brackish water and splashed it over her face, rinsed her mouth, and spat it back out.
Then she turned back toward where I sat in the sternwith the most dead-serious expression I'd ever seen on her face.
"He'd'a soon as killed us, Buck," Tunes said. Her voice was shaky and low. I stopped laughing. Something about the way she spoke made me believe her. "Promise you won't tell anybody what happened."
"We're not supposed to be anywheres near his property. And who do you think will believe us? Promise!" It was with misgivings that I promised, but I did.
What Tunes'd said was true. Dad and Kneebone'd both warned us many a time to steer clear of the Rawlin property. It was marked with NO TRESPASSING signs every few feet along the waterway and road, so there was no question of mistaking it.
As for whether anyone would have believed Tunes and me if we'd told Jumbo had shot at us, folks didn't tend to think badly of Jumbo Rawlin, and they might not have taken us seriously.
Tunes never mentioned that incident again, and so I tried my best to forget about it. But it put the fear of the Devil in me where Jumbo Rawlin was concerned.
Some years before, when farmers were having a rough go of it, Jumbo sold off a large parcel of land to real estate developers. He used the money to buy up land other poor farmers had to sell to pay their taxes. I remember my granddaddy calling him a bloodsucker, but Dad always said anybody who gave as much as Jumbo did tothe church must be God-fearing. You couldn't blame a man for making money: it wasn't his fault folks'd fallen on hard times.
Jumbo Rawlin was a pillar of the community, folks said, because he was generous when it came to supporting good causes. He donated money for the new wing of the library, and they named it after his father. At the same time folks seemed to keep their distance from Jumbo. He never bothered most folks, but nobody really called him their friend.
At first I couldn't see who it was the other side of the marshy island. But then I heard that deep, low, growly voice again, and I knew I'd better sit tight. There was no mistaking it was Jumbo Rawlin.
I crouched down behind a tump of marsh grass and held on to two fistfuls of the wiry tough grass for dear life. I slipped the stern anchor into another tump, and it held. I lay flat in the bottom of the skiff, hoping and hoping Jumbo wouldn't come around the edge of the marsh and see me. Obie lay down beside me as if he understood perfectly what was going on. He made a space between his front paws and laid his chin there. The grass bowed and waved over our heads with the water's motion.
I couldn't get my heart to slow down and beat normal, and my breath came raggedy, but that was nothing compared to how I felt when I heard the outboard speed up and come nearer.
Jumbo was mumbling in an angry kind of way, and Icould catch only a few phrases that got picked up by the breeze.
"Where you think you ..." and "I'll dump you so far out ..." But most of what I heard was my heart in a deafening beat inside my head. Because the more Jumbo mumbled, the more I knew that I didn't want to hear a word of it.
When it sounded like Jumbo was right next to the skiff, I peeked over the gunwale. There he was, big as life, fishing around with his boathook, his back to me as he worked his way up the side of a smaller tump next to the one where I sat.
Don't panic, I said to myself, over and over. Don't panic, don't panic. Right beside the skiff was a small inlet that settled into the grass. I didn't know whether there was enough bottom for the skiff to get into it. I worked as quickly as my trembly-wild fingers would allow, letting out the anchor line and pushing the skiff with my hands along the edge of the grass. I eased us stern first into the opening, and was just hunkering down again as Jumbo turned to head out a little deeper.
The bottom of the skiff scraped on the marsh grass. I hoped we wouldn't get beached there with the tide going out, just me and Obie and the little crabs in the cold muck beneath us.
Then it occurred to me that Jumbo wouldn't bother with the backsides of those little tumps for long. Whatever he was looking for would be on its way out into the Bay on the retreating tide.
Eventually Jumbo followed the tide out, too. I pushed us out of that little inlet, started the motor, and made for the opposite shore. We slipped around the mouth of the creek without coming to Jumbo's notice. Only then did my breathing start to sound normal.
It wasn't until later, after I'd met up with Tunes, that I began to wonder what in heaven's name Jumbo was looking for out there.