Anticipating the filming of a Civil War documentary, Maggody citizens become excited over rumors that Confederate gold may be hidden in a local cave, prompting a flood of outside visitors including an apparently murderous ghost.
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Joan Hess is the author of twenty-eight mysteries, including fourteen in the Maggody series. A former president of the American Crime Writers League and current president of the Arkansas Mystery Writers Alliance, she lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Once again I found myself trudging toward the high school cafeteria for a meeting. The last one had been courtesy of the school board, and mayhem and murder had followed within a matter of weeks. That, I believe, is a pretty damn good reason to ban all meetings, especially in Maggody, Arkansas (population 755 or so, depending on what you count). I don't object to the Missionary Society getting together at the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall to grumble about the heathens over coffee and cinnamon rolls, or the Wednesday night potluck suppers where paper plates runneth over with ham, green bean casseroles, and lemon squares. The ladies of the County Extension chapter are welcome to their weekly discussions of the blatantly biased judging of pickled okra at the fair every fall. For that matter, what business is it of mine if Mayor Jim Bob Buchanon huddles with his cronies to play poker in the back room of Roy Stiver's Antiques Shop?
But this was an official town meeting, and my appearance as chief of police was mandatory -- or so I'd been told by Mrs. Jim Bob only that morning. She'd refused to say what the meeting was about or why I had to be there, but I had a feeling I was neither going to be fired (who else would have my miserable job?) nor presented with a raise (miserable and miserly have a certain similarity). When I'd slunk back to Maggody after a nasty divorce from a Manhattan advertising hotshot who appreciated the finer things in life -- as long as they were blond and mindless -- I hadn't expected much more than a semblance of sympathy and a whole lot of home cookin' from my mother, Ruby Bee, proprietor of a bar & grill of the same name. I'd declined her offer to let me live in one of the units in the Flamingo Motel out back and had instead rented what was supposedly an efficiency apartment above the antiques shop. It was cold and clammy in the winter, and steamy in the summer. The cockroaches thrived in both climates, and I doubted global warming (or an ice age) would deplete their numbers.
Ruby Bee didn't have a clue about the reason for the meeting, and she knows darn close to every last thing that happens within the city limits, including sneezes, wheezes, and sexual trysts outside the confines of holy matrimony. Her best friend Estelle Oppers owns Estelle's Hair Fantasies out on County 101. What Ruby Bee doesn't hear about in the bar is gleaned there during perms and manicures, when a mere hangnail can lead to sobbing admissions of unrequited love or shoplifting at the supermarket. Growing up in Maggody was always a challenge for someone of a teenaged persuasion who liked to drink a little beer on the banks of Boone Creek and count the lightnin' bugs.
If you don't know what that means, settle for a literal interpretation.
I caught up with Ruby Bee and Estelle at the front door of the high school, and we walked down the corridor together.
"You still don't know what this is about?" I asked them.
Ruby Bee growled. "No, I don't reckon anyone in town except Mrs. Jim Bob knows. Lottie Estes said all the teachers were ordered to attend. None of them's happy about it."
"But this ain't a school board meeting," Estelle pointed out, waggling her red beehive of hair for emphasis. She and Ruby Bee make a very odd couple, since one resembles a fire hydrant atop a fencepost and the other a short stack of unbaked biscuits.
We continued into the cafeteria and sat down at a lunch table in the back of the room. Quite a few folks were already wiggling uncomfortably on the plastic benches, muttering among themselves about how some damn fool meeting was interfering with their constitutional right to vegetate in front of the television. Earl and Eileen Buchanon nodded at us, as did Elsie McMay and a visibly disgruntled Lottie Estes. Darla Jean McIlhaney sat with her parents, Millicent and Jeremiah. Larry Joe Lambertino, who's the shop teacher, and his wife, Joyce, were hissing at each other, which they did a lot.
At a table in the front of the room sat Hizzoner the Moron (aka Jim Bob Buchanon), his wife Mrs. Jim Bob (aka Barbara Ann Buchanon Buchanon), Roy Stiver, and a stout woman with steely gray hair and the expressiveness of a bass beached on a gravel bar in the midday sun.
Ruby Bee nudged me. "Who in tarnation do you think that is?"
"How would I know?" I said, still scanning the room to see who all had been bullied into attending the meeting. A fair percentage of them were Buchanons, but that was not remarkable, since there are more Buchanons in Stump County than flies on a dead possum. Most of them have protuberant foreheads, thick lips, and yellowish eyes, and there's nary a college grad among them, mostly due to the dropout rate long about eighth grade. Nevertheless, a few of them are as wily as pole cats. Raz Buchanon's been running his still up on Cotter's Ridge since the dawn of time. When I'm truly bored, I pack a picnic lunch and go looking for it, but the sumbitch stays a step ahead of me. The Arkansas two-step, I suppose.
Jim Bob banged his fist on the tabletop. "Okay, I'm calling this meeting to order. We're gonna skip the minutes from the last meeting and the treasurer's report and all that crap. Mrs. Jim Bob has the floor, so y'all listen up."
Even though Mrs. Jim Bob has plenty of Buchanon blood, her lips are thinner than paper matches and her eyes are dark and beady. She has never risked eternal damnation by painting her face like a common floozy, and her hair was reminiscent of a style predominant in 1960s high school yearbooks. As usual, she was wearing a starchy white blouse buttoned to the top despite the lack of air-conditioning.
She stood up and waited as her audience settled down for what well might be an interminable session. "Thank you for coming," she said with a brief smile. "A most exciting thing is about to happen right here in Maggody, and it's going to require full cooperation from all our Christian, law-abiding citizens. I am pleased that so many of you put aside your self-indulgent and slothful ways to attend this evening."
"Good thing Raz ain't here," whispered Ruby Bee.
Mrs. Jim Bob frowned at her, then continued. "Now I'd like to introduce Miss Harriet Hathaway, who lives over in Farberville and is the president of the Stump County Historical Society. Let's give her our full attention."
She began to clap, so the rest of us dutifully followed suit. Once the pitter-patter faded, the woman stood up and said, "As you were told, I am Harriet Hathaway, and I've been the president of the Stump County Historical Society for fifteen years. The society manages the Headquarters House, which was controlled by both Confederate and Union forces during the Civil War. We also publish a quarterly digest called Remembrances of Stump County's Past, provide programs for schoolchildren, and sponsor an ice cream social in the summer. I'd planned to bring slides, but I was informed that a projector and screen could not be made available."
"Hallelujah," mumbled someone off to the side of the room.
"Excuse me?" said Mrs. Jim Bob, rising to her feet. "Do you wish to contribute to the discussion, Earl Buchanon?"
"No, ma'am, it's just that there's a baseball game what's already started, and I was hopin' we'd be done right soon so I can -- "
"Then you'd best stop interrupting. Now, Miss Hathaway, if you'll tell us your exciting news..."
Miss Hathaway appeared a little flustered, probably because the historical society meetings were exercises in tea and cookies. In Maggody, we're more into RC Colas and Moon Pies.
"Well, then," she said, "as I'm sure many of you know, this year will be the one hundred and fortieth anniversary of the Battle of Farberville, fought primarily on the hillside above the Headquarters House. Over three hundred Confederate troops died or were wounded before the Union forces prevailed."
"Damn Yankees," said Jim Bob, then ducked his head as his wife stared at him.
"So what's this got to do with Maggody?" asked Estelle.
"Three days before the battle, a small unit from the Arkansas Fifth, garrisoned in Little Rock at that time, arrived at the edge of Stump County after an arduous six-day trek. They were bringing two saddlebags of gold to pay the soldiers of General Lambdin's brigade, which was coming from the west to halt a Union attempt to secure the Arkansas-Missouri border. They rode mules because they were pulling a cannon on a caisson and a wagon filled with munitions. Their numbers had been depleted due to swollen creeks and the muddy conditions of the road. Also, according to a journal entry made by a young private named Henry Largesse, they'd gorged themselves on green persimmons and many of them had to remain behind as the rest moved north." She paused for effect, but no one seemed overwhelmingly entranced by the narrative. "When they arrived not too far from here, the lieutenant decided to camp near what is now called Boone Creek and allow the men a full day and night of rest before what would surely be a bloody battle."
Ruby Bee flapped her hand. "So this is what we're all supposed to be so excited about? They came, they camped, and then went and got theirselves shot?"
"If you will please allow me to continue," said Miss Hathaway, her voice as steely as her hair, "I'll be succinct. It seems the soldiers found a small, squalid farm and took a pig back to camp to be roasted. Despite the fact this was an unfortunately common practice on both sides, the rightful owner was so incensed that he threatened them with a shotgun and was severely thrashed for his lack of patriotism. He was quite lucky not to have been hanged. In retaliation, he rode to the Missouri border and informed a Union general named Alessio of the proximity of the Confederate unit, although most likely not in those exact terms. General Alessio immediately dispatched a cavalry troop to ambush the unit from Little Rock and take possession of the cannon, wagon, and mules. It is unlikely that he was aware of the gold in the saddlebags."
Estelle elbowed me and whispered, "This is gettin' kind of interesting, ain't it? One side's got gold and a cannon, and the other side is aiming to bushwhack 'em. I wonder why we never heard any of this before."
"Could be because no one's written a comprehensive history of this meadow muffin of a town," I whispered back. "Remember when that genealogist tried to chart the Buchanon family tree? Supposedly she had an accident after driving away, but I've always suspected suicide."
"Chief of Police Hanks," chirped Mrs. Jim Bob, "please save your discourteous behavior for a more appropriate moment. My apologies, Miss Hathaway."
Miss Hathaway nodded at her. "Yes, of course. During the night, while the Confederates were sleeping off their fine feast, the Union soldiers took a position in a field near the road and waited for sunrise." She picked up a notebook and flipped it open. "I will now read the pertinent entry from the private's journal, written several weeks after the incident. The journal itself only came to light a few weeks ago, when a family member found it in a trunk and donated it to the historical society. Here is an excerpt: 'Come dawn we got the gear stowed and the mules saddled, then headed out. The lieutenant, scared as the rest of us, said we'd most likely meet up with General Lambdin's troops by nightfall. My second cousin from down by Booneville was one of their gunners, so I was looking forward to seeing him and swapping family news. I found out later he'd died of dysentery only a month earlier, likely without never hearing about his sister's baby.'" Miss Hathaway looked up. "He now digresses about family affairs, and then continues. 'We'd gone mebbe not a quarter of a mile when out of nowhere comes musket fire from a field off to the east. We hunkered behind a low stone wall and tried to figure out where the Yanks was. Custiss volunteered to scout 'em out, but was shot square in the back afore he could take three steps. Some of the boys was shaking so hard I thought they'd pass out, but somehow we all grabbed our muskets and returned fire. This goes on for most of the morning. We could see the bastards, but we was already outnumbered and couldn't seem to force them back. By noon, we were down to six boys and the lieutenant, who was getting mighty grim. He ordered Emil Jenks to take the gold up on the ridge behind us and hide it in a cave so it wouldn't fall into Yankee hands if we dint make it. Soon as Emil got back, all covered with mud and panting like a coon dog, the lieutenant took a hit to the side of his head and took to bleeding like a stuck pig. He ordered us to git ourselves on the mules and get the hell out afore we was all slaughtered, saying we should come back for the gold later. Emil was trying to tell us where he'd hid the saddlebags when a minié ball took him in the throat. I don't reckon I can ever forget the look on his face when he fell. The rest of us lit out like Satan was snapping at our heels and didn't ease up till we was a good mile away.'"
Miss Hathaway stopped reading and said, "The entry goes on to describe how the young private was shot in the thigh during the Battle of Farberville and had his leg amputated by a field surgeon. He managed to survive long enough to make it to his home, where he eventually died of complications from the surgery."
"So what about the gold?" asked Earl Buchanon, who'd clearly forgotten all about home runs and double plays. "Is it still up there?"
Miss Hathaway shrugged. "According to the journal, the private was the only one of the Confederates involved in the Skirmish at Cotter's Ridge to survive the Battle of Farberville, and he was in no condition to be sent back to find the precise location. All he could tell General Lambdin was that there were a few dirt-scratch farms, a creek, and a ridge. That description could fit many of the communities in Stump County, even today."
"We got us a stoplight and a fine supermarket," said Jim Bob.
"I'm sure you do," she said, not turning to look at him. "In order to commemorate the Battle of Farberville, the historical society has received a grant for various projects. We can hardly stage a reenactment of the battle itself, since the hill where it took place is now cluttered with homes and power lines. Therefore, we have decided to make a documentary film of what took place here. With meticulous camera angles and editing, we feel as though we can end up with a reasonably accurate depiction. It will be shown at the Headquarters House as an important part of our educational program."
"Remember when those Hollywood folks tried to make a movie here?" whispered Estelle. "Now that was something."
Ruby Bee leaned around me. "These ain't Hollywood folks, Estelle."
"I doubt this documentary will have any sex scenes," I said drily.
Eileen Buchanon stood up. "So what does this mean to us? Are we supposed to get on mules and gallop around till we get shot?"
"Not at all," said Miss Hathaway. "We put out the word for three dozen reenactors and had more volunteers than we can possibly use. A filmmaker from Missouri has offe...
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Book Description Simon and Schuster 2004/04, 2004. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. First Edition. Hardback Mystery 1st. Ed. As New/As New; 69658. Bookseller Inventory # 69658
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