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Tuesday, September 21—11:10 p.m.
As promised, a man with a mule-drawn cart waits a mile or so from the turnoff onto Moonvale Hollow Road. Lily Ross spots them in her headlights as she eases around a sharp turn.
She pulls off to the side, relieved to come to a stop. Ever since turning off from Kinship Road, her Model T rattled in protest at ruts and jags, wheels jittery on dirt and gravel at her initial fifteen-miles-per-hour speed. She’d had to slow to ten. No use losing a tire.
Now as she stops, she sees the man—young, early twenties, one hand on the mule’s lead, the other thumbing his overall strap. Lily turns off her automobile, picks up her flashlight, opens her door. She steps out carefully, her sight needing a moment to adjust to the moonlit night.
When it does, she notes the man gaping at her. Then grinning slowly. He can’t see, or maybe can’t read, “Bronwyn County Sheriff” emblazoned on the door.
As she slips her key ring into her skirt pocket—she’s recently added pockets to all of her skirts and dresses, even her Sunday dress—she briefly pulls back her jacket and touches her revolver, holstered around her waist. Then she reaches back in her vehicle, grabs the sheet she thought at the last moment to bring with her, and tucks it under her arm. She shuts the door, turns on her flashlight, shines it directly at the young man. He’s still grinning. Must not have noticed the revolver.
“Ma’am, you need some help?”
She turns the flashlight onto her sheriff’s star pinned to her lapel. She takes a deep breath, notes the loamy dryness of the autumn air. Good. Rain would only disturb the body she has come for, the area around it. She hopes to see both as intact as possible. She turns her flashlight back on the young man.
He’s no longer grinning.
“My apologies, ma’am, Sheriff, no one done told me—”
“You work for the B and R Railroad?”
The young man straightens with pride. “Flagman. In training.”
Lily nods, steps forward toward the mule and cart, waiting at the head of the dirt path that actually leads to Moonvale Hollow Village.
“Don’t know how clean the straw bales in back are; if I’da known—”
The mule fusses as Lily approaches. She pats the flank of the poor beast. More than likely tired out from a day’s work, and now called into service at night.
Lily, too, is bone weary after a long day.
* * *
Just an hour earlier, she had been tempted to ignore the knock at her door—probably Missy Ranklin again, given to coming late at night to complain about her husband, Ralf, but never willing to file formal charges.
On the off chance Missy might actually file a complaint that Lily could follow up on, Lily had answered her door. Instead of mousy Missy, a telegraph delivery boy greeted her. Lily’s hand had trembled as she reached for the thin slip of paper. The last telegram she’d received, just over a year before, had been from the powerful Cincinnati attorney, business mogul, and big-time bootlegger George Vogel; that telegram brought a cryptic message Lily had deciphered quickly enough: an offering to expel those responsible for her husband’s death from the region.
This telegram, though, was from the deputy stationmaster for the B&R Railroad line in Moonvale Hollow Village: someone had fallen from the top of the Moonvale Hollow Tunnel onto the train as it headed east to west. A B&R Railroad man would meet her on Moonvale Hollow Road by the narrow dirt path that led to the village: population one hundred souls—depending on the ebb and flow of birth and death—existing only to serve as a rail switching yard and depot, and inaccessible by automobile. Folks can get in and out only by train, mule, or foot.
She’d tipped the telegraph boy a dime to go fetch her closest friend, Hildy Lee Cooper, who lived a few doors down from the sheriff’s house. Hildy, who also worked as the jail mistress, could always be relied upon to come stay with Lily’s children—seven-year-old Jolene and five-year-old Micah—when duty sometimes called Lily away of an evening.
A few minutes later, the boy was back—neither Hildy nor Hildy’s mother was at the Cooper house. Lily spared a moment’s worth of surprise to wonder where the two could be, so late at night—but the more pressing matter was the dead person along the rail line in Moonvale Hollow Village. Two more dimes sent the telegraph boy back out to fetch Lily’s own mama, residing at the end of the street.
After he left again, in the scant time it took Lily to put water on the stove to boil, rush upstairs to change into one of her older dresses and work boots, and then hurry down again, Mama was letting herself and Caleb Jr.—Mama’s change-of-life baby, same age as Lily’s son—into the kitchen through the mudroom door.
Lily gave her little brother a quick hug and then tucked him in under a quilt on the parlor’s settee. She retrieved her notebook and pencil from the rolltop desk, pulled open the top drawer to grab her flashlight, then hurried back to the kitchen. As Mama finished making the coffee, Lily got her revolver and sheriff’s star from the top of the pie safe. While Mama poured Lily a cup of coffee, Lily explained, “I’ve been called out to investigate an accident on the rail line in Moonvale Hollow Village.”
Mama’s eyes widened; both knew of the remote village, the source of ghost stories children told one another, but neither had ever visited. There’d been no reason. The village had been founded by Adam Dyer just before the Civil War, on land his family had passed down generation-to-generation, the original claim given in lieu of cash as recompense for serving in the Revolutionary War. Two generations of Dyers had hardscrabble farmed the ornery land, riddled with hollows and ridges, until coal companies needed a quick shortcut through the area from points east to a bigger depot from which they could go to Cincinnati and Columbus. Cleverly, Adam Dyer leased out his land for a rail line—only wide enough for one track—and Moonvale Hollow became a remote village. Dyers had always been synonymous with Moonvale Hollow.
Until, of late, Perry Dyer—Lily’s opponent for the role of sheriff in the upcoming election. Perry, sole heir of the rail lease rights and village property, had moved with his wife, Margaret, into Kinship a year before, shortly after Perry’s father died. Talk was that Margaret had a strong preference for big-town life and, with her father-in-law gone, she could finally have her way. Perry, who’d opened a hunting supply store in Kinship, had pounced on the opportunity to run against Lily this fall. His editorial in the Kinship Daily Courier, which had only recently become a daily, another sign of the area’s growing prosperity, made clear his position: he knew the county inside out, even the most remote pockets, and though Lily’s tenure as appointed sheriff was a quaint novelty, it was time for a real sheriff to take office. Meaning, a male sheriff.
Lily said, “I’m sure this investigation will go quickly. Just a matter of some official paperwork with the rail company.”
Mama had looked relieved, said, “Good—you have the meeting first thing tomorrow morning to prepare for the debate with Perry Dyer, and the Woman’s Club meeting coming up, and don’t forget you need to get your pie into the county fair—”
“So you’re running for sheriff in your own right.” Mama cast a pointed glance at the top of the pie safe, from whence Lily had just grabbed her revolver and badge. Pushed to the back of the top was a red glass dish in which nested Lily’s old best-in-show county fair pie ribbons, once a point of pride, now gathering dust. “They still want to know you’re a woman.”
“According to Perry Dyer, that’s not a favorable asset.”
“Well, worse’n a woman in a man’s role is a woman who acts too much like a man.”
An argument Mama had made, years before, when Daddy had taken tomboy Lily on hunting and fishing expeditions. Lily gave Mama a reassuring smile. Mama had, after all, come quickly, dragging herself and Caleb Jr. out of bed and down to Lily’s home—the county sheriff’s house. As Mama did, every time Lily asked.
Even so, with her work and all the tedious campaign tasks necessary for election for a full four-year term in her own right as sheriff, Lily barely had time to bake and cook for her own children. She didn’t want to bake a damned pie for a contest. But she knew Mama was right, so she would—later. Right then, she gulped the strong boiled coffee, knowing she’d need it to stay alert for her drive to the designated meeting spot, and the investigation to follow.
* * *
Now, at the mule cart, Lily hoists herself up and sits on the driver’s bench. The mule heaves forward, but Lily pulls gently back on the reins. She looks at the young man, still gaping at her.
“You planning to drive us there, or walk behind?”
He glances over his shoulder, winces. He’s holding his right shoulder tight to his collar. He looks back at her nervously. “Anyone else comin’?”
Lily bites her lip to stifle her sigh. It is, after all, 1926 and in the big cities—from what she reads in the newspapers, anyway—standards have relaxed, but here in rural Ohio, it’s still improper for an unmarried man and woman to be alone together.
“Son,” she says, though at twenty-eight she’s barely older than he, “like it or not, I’m the sheriff of Bronwyn County.” She’d been appointed a year and a half before to serve in her deceased husband’s stead, then won a special election last November. “I can question you while you drive us, or I can drive myself, and ask you later when you catch up on foot—and delay further your train getting back to running. I can reckon what your boss would prefer.”
The flagman in training hesitates, but as she lifts the reins he hoists himself into the cart, plops on the driver’s bench, and grabs the leads from her.
A few jolting steps forward and they’re down the path, ducking so their heads won’t knock into a broken, dangling limb of an oak. Overhead, tree limbs clutch one another, forming a tunnel of branch and leaf. Meager moonlight sifts onto their path, wide enough for the cart and mule. Lily glances over her shoulder. Already, she cannot see the dangling limb, or the rutted road where she left her automobile.
It’s cooler on the path, the dense forest exhaling the last of summer’s warmth while inhaling the coming winter. The quietness of night thickens, clinging to trunks like lichen. An owl hoots from a distance yet sounds as if it’s beside her. Another animal—raccoon or fox or bobcat—rustles in the thicket.
Out of the corner of her eye, something shimmers. A young boy. He dashes merrily, chasing something. A ball or a dog. Suddenly he disappears. Lily rubs her eyes, reprimands herself: She’s not really seeing a child. She’s just tired. Should have had more coffee.
Yet her temples pound, and she fights the urge to gasp for air.
She glances at her driver. He stares ahead, placidly. He starts whistling, off-key. Irksome, but it covers the sound of her nervous gasp. With her next inhale, she steadies her breath, focuses on the odors of the mule, the hay bales, the musk of the forest, finding comfort in their earthiness. She exhales slowly.
Then she asks, “You came from Moonvale on this path?”
The man startles. Lily smiles a little. Perhaps whistling is his cover for uneasiness.
He nods. “Widest and easiest path in or out of Moonvale, south toward Kinship, so I was told. There are other paths. Anyway, this rig belongs to a villager. The engineer laid claim to it for to fetch you. There’s another path like this ’un, but toward Athens. That’s it, other’n walking trails only the locals’d know.”
The way he draws out his vowels tells Lily he’s from Appalachia, but not her part of it. Farther south, she reckons.
“Where are you from to begin with?”
“Logan County. Kentucky.”
Coal-mining territory. “You’re not working the mines there?”
He straightens, a mix of pride and defensiveness, winces again. That shoulder. “I did, but I got out—work for real money, real job, not company scrip!” He glances at her, wary and apologetic. “I reckon you’re not from coal—”
“My daddy’s people were,” Lily says, meaning her father’s father. “He got out. He ran the grocery in Kinship.”
“That sounds right nice.”
“Yes.” No need to say Daddy had died alongside a union organizer and the common-law husband of her friend Marvena Whitcomb, trying to rescue miners from a cave-in, two years ago. On an autumn night, like this one. Lily clears her throat. “What can you tell me? All I know is someone fell from the top of the Moonvale Hollow Tunnel.”
He stiffens. “I was told to meet the sheriff, ma’am. Bring him—you—to the scene.”
“You didn’t see what happened?”
“No, ma’am. I was dozing in the crew car.”
“How’d you hurt your shoulder?”
The flagman stares ahead into the darkness.
“I hope the injury doesn’t get in the way of your training. Send you back home.”
He inhales sharply at the notion.
“Course, in that case, it would be good to have an official record of the injury not being your fault. You’d have time off, to heal up? Working for a real company, and all?”
For a long moment, the only sounds come from the forest—another owl cry. The chittering of crickets. A nearby stream.
The young man clears his throat. “Train stopped, all of a sudden. I got thrown out of my bunk. Hit the floor.”
“So the train was going fast?”
“No faster’n usual.”
There’s a tight defensiveness to his tone. Lily asks gently, “What’s usual?”
“Coming out of the tunnel, maybe twenty miles an hour, and the brakemen would be fixing to slow her down before crossing another trestle bridge into the village.”
“But you were asleep before the train stopped.”
So he would not know whether the train was going its usual speed.
“What did you do after the train stopped?”
“Well, me and the flagman got off. The engineer ran back to the caboose, must’ve talked to the conductor—”
“He’s in the caboose?”
Despite his sore shoulder, he straightens, preening at having knowledge she doesn’t. “Yeah. Conductor is in the caboose, with the rear brakeman. Front brakeman, engineer, are up front. Flagmen, fireman, we’re wherever we’re needed for the run—or can fit.”
Lily turns on her flashlight, gets her notebook and pencil from her bag. “Can you give me the names and titles of your crew?”
In the ambient light from her flashlight, she sees him purse his lips, reconsider how unconstrained he’d become with her. “May oughta talk to the engineer about that—”
Lily makes herself sound aghast. “I’d hate to delay the train for any longer than necessary. I reckon he’d appreciate you’re cooperating with me, speeding this along.”
He gives her the names and titles of the crew. When she finishes jotting them down, she shows him; he glances at the page, nods too quickly to have really proofed her work. Ah. Her earlier observation was right; he can’t read. She puts her notebook away, turns off her flashlight, and tucks it away, too.
“Did you see the body after the train stopped, or talk to other crew members?”
“No. I got off, waited with everyone else to find out what had happened.”
“So you stood alongside the train? And you didn’t do or observe anything?”
He frowns. Good. Let him be insulted enough to want to prove himself. “Well, yeah. Mr. Greene—”
“The conductor?” Lily hasn’t forgotten already—Greene is the engineer—but she’s willing to play the dumb “little lady” from time to time to get more information from men than they intend to share.
Sure enough, he says, “I heard Mr. Greene—the engineer—say he thought the person was female. The body clipped the side of a freight car, and the impact tossed it into the thicket, between the track and the telegraph line.” He clears his throat. “I’m sorry if this is too much.”
“No, go on.”
“Well, that’s about all I can tell you, anyway. The conductor sent me to run down the line to the village to fetch the stationmaster. He wasn’t on duty, but the deputy was, so he sent the telegram to you from the station. After that, I was sent to wait for you.”
They ride on in silence for a few minutes more until the mule stops shy of an embankment. A harsh crop on the mule’s flank and the beast pulls them up out of the branch and thicket tunnel, alongside the track.
It takes a moment for Lily’s vision to adjust to the brightness of the train headlight, to see westward down a steep grade of track to the tiny village, all shadows and torchlight. Lily cannot make out any buildings or people, but she imagines the torchlights are held by villagers, curious about the hullabaloo at the depot, about why someone’s mule and cart have been requisitioned.
Since her husband’s death, Lily has found that the absences of ordinary, predictable sounds—Daniel shaving in the washroom, Daniel humming, Daniel sitting on the edge of their bed to pull on his boots and then clunking his feet on the floor—are more noticeable than the sounds themselves ever were.
Lily wraps her arms around her midriff, a sudden hollowness roiling her gut.
Perhaps it was like that for the villagers tonight. They were alarmed by the absence of the regular train whistle, the aural ghost of the expected discordant wail, and gathered outside to ask one another what must have happened.
“Ma’am—you all right?”
Lily hoists herself off the cart and looks eastward at the train, the engine’s bright headlight flooding the single track, the tunnel a distance behind the caboose. Above the tunnel to the full moon and the tree-covered top of the Moonvale Hollow Tunnel, from whence the body allegedly had fallen.
Copyright © 2019 by Sharon Short