Smith’s Ice Delivery Company, founded by Anson Smith shortly after the Civil War, had been providing ice in blocks to restaurants and residences for a little over sixty years. It prospered because its present owner, Willard Smith, had had the foresight to, first, add the distributorship of inexpensive wooden iceboxes to his business, and make them available to his customers on an easy monthly payment plan. And second, to invest in the machinery needed to produce “artificial ice,” thereby eliminating the need to ship ice south from New England or the Great Lakes. The money, he’d told his contemporaries, was in the ice, not the boxes, which he sold at or near his cost.
You would have thought that a man with the acumen to realize the advantages of artificial ice would have taken the next logical step in the sale and distribution of refrigeration in its many forms. Representatives from both Frigidaire and Kelvinator electric refrigerators offered distributorships to him on at least three separate occasions. Willard declined them all. His cousin Marlow stepped in and, to Willard’s great annoyance, now stood as his main competitor. With a dwindling market, Willard had been forced to centralize his business and assets. He decided he could redress his profit margin if he closed his auxiliary ice houses. These small distribution centers with their accompanying ice storage buildings and staff were spread around the county, and one by one he shut them down.
The latest one to be shuttered still had some usable blocks deep in the pit under sawdust. He sent Amos Krug over to collect them, close and lock the building, and bring the useable, that is to say, salable blocks to the main facility. Amos figured this job would be easy money. He felt certain Smith had no real idea how many blocks were salvageable and reckoned he could pull a half dozen out to haul downtown, then lock up the building and let nature take care of any still remaining.
At least that was the plan, until he discovered the body.
• • • • •
Jesse Sutherlin declared he was a “Man of the Century.” By that, he meant that he was born in its first year and marked its passing with each birthday. As did most of his contemporaries, particularly those whose lives began (and perhaps ended) on Buffalo Mountain, he grappled with the changes in life over the twenty-eight years he’d spent on this Earth. At eighteen, he’d been to France and fought the Germans in the Great War, the War to End all Wars, and somehow survived. He’d seen the people, his people, on Buffalo Mountain struggle to join the twentieth century and had been pleased that they had made some small progress in that direction. Progress due mainly to the arrival of the Reverend Bob Childress. The cleric arrived fresh from seminary intent on taming the mountain. Some of that goal he accomplished with a call to Christian values and patience, the rest with his willingness to dole out some bare-knuckle theology. Mostly Jesse marveled at the rapid progress in society, from a life of kerosene lamps to electricity, from illiteracy and ignorance to a level of education he couldn’t have dreamed possible eight years previously when, as a returning veteran of the war in France, he’d confronted his demons on the mountain and prevailed.
After eight years as a married man living on the mountain, he’d moved his family to Floyd. It wasn’t that he’d grown unhappy with his life there or his house up on the slope of the Buffalo where the air was clear and sweet. Serena, his wife, had surveyed their situation, estimated their future, and declared there were to be no more bumpkins in the family. Floyd had schools that went clear to the twelfth grade. She wanted their children to be schooled, even if it meant giving up a way of life they’d both enjoyed and railed against. The children—Tommy, age seven; Jake, five and three quarters (the qualifier was important to him); Little Jess, age four; and Adeline, Jesse’s daughter and the apple of his eye, aged three—weren’t as enthusiastic about the move as their parents and whined that nobody had even asked them about going to school in Floyd. Jesse told them they didn’t get a vote. The Nineteenth Amendment had done that for women nine years before, but it wasn’t likely to be an amendment for children anytime soon. Besides, he said, they could always go back to the mountain house in the summer and weekends when the hunting would be good.
They’d moved into a cottage on the edge of town out Locust nearly to Hensley Road. They rented it from Nicholas Bradford the lawyer, who said when they were ready, he’d cut them a deal for its purchase. So, on this lazy Sunday afternoon, Jesse sat in the backyard on a bench of his own construction and admired the last of the Kentucky wisteria. Its panicles still kept their blue to lilac color even in late September, but the tips had traces of brown and there were nearly as many florets on the ground as remained on the stems. The first frost would end their artful display for the year.
He’d just opened the top button on his trousers out of respect for the fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and greens he’d had for his mid-day dinner. In a few minutes he’d collect the children and Serena, pile them into the Piedmont Touring car he’d bought off his boss at the sawmill, and head up the mountain for their weekly visit with his mother and a light supper, but right now, all he wanted to do was bask in the sun while it lasted.
Serena called him from the back door. He hitched up his galluses, re-buttoned his pants, and heaved himself up from the bench.
“Is it time to go already? Round up the kids.”
“It’s not that, Jess. There’s men here needing to talk to you.”
“They said they were police.”
“That’s what they said.”
Sure enough, Sheriff David Privette stood in his parlor, hat in his hand and wearing a sorrowful expression. Since the sheriff generally appeared sad about something or another, Jesse did not concern himself overmuch about that.
“You wanted to see me, Sheriff?”
“Jesse, I am sorry to have to be the one to tell you this—”
“Something has happened to Ma?”
“To my brother, Abel?”
“Jesse, listen. None of them folks has been hurt as far as I know. I came to tell you we found your father’s body.”
“You found it? You were in Norfolk and found his grave. That’s mighty nice of you to tell me, but that don’t need you making a special trip over to here for that.”
“Not Norfolk. Your pa’s body was found under the sawdust in Smith’s West Oxford Street ice house.”
“That there has got to be a mistake. My pa died from the Spanish flu in nineteen-eighteen in Norfolk, Virginia. Ma heard from a feller saying it were so.”
“Can’t speak to that, Jesse, but the body in the ice house has been positively identified as your pa.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It looks like he ran into a thief. Not much to go on, if you follow me, but best guess is some jasper whacked him on the head and stole his stuff. Funny thing is, pardon, not humorous, I mean, but he still had his money belt on and it had near to fifty dollars cash money and a letter from the Norfolk and Western Railway. That’s how we knew it was him. Whoever did him in must not have known about the belt. Pretty smart, wearing a belt like that.”
“What about the Onion?”
“Sorry. My dad carried his dad’s watch, that’d be my grandpa, Ethan Sutherlin, his watch. It was really old and big and round-like. Granddaddy received it for thirty years’ service in the AM and O Railroad which is now the Norfolk and Western. It was gold and big as an onion so, that’s what we all got to calling it—the Onion. It had a gold chain, too, and his Jefferson Davis Guard medal stuck on it like a fob.”
“Sorry, except for the money belt, the letter, and an address written on a scrap of paper, his pockets had been cleaned out.”
“You’re sure it was my pa? See, word was, he went to Norfolk to get work. He wanted to sign on with the N and W like his pa, my granddaddy. He reckoned he’d try his luck at the main office. The feller he was a-travelling with said he’d died there from the flu.”
“Who was he, this travelling companion?”
“I can’t rightly say. I was way off to France fighting the Germans. Abel might remember, or Ma, but she’s been fading lately, so I don’t ken how much she’ll remember from back then.”
“Maybe you’ll go with me and help find out.”
“I reckon I can do that. We were heading up the mountain anyway. You can follow us up the Buffalo.”
Jesse piloted his sedan along the twisting and rutted roads that wound up the west face of Buffalo Mountain. He could have moved along at a faster pace, but he had to consider the car behind him. Sheriff Privette had no experience with either the roads or the mountain and his Packard Estate car was not designed to navigate a road like this one. Also, lawmen, of whatever stripe, made it a practice to stay away from the Buffalo’s coves and breaks. The folks who lived there were not welcoming to the arm, long or short, of the law. Some of that enmity was the result of the mountain’s history of violence and its residents’ independent streak which held that they could and would handle their affairs without the help of a people they did not understand or trust.
Then there was the problem created by the mountain’s prime export: moonshine. Before Prohibition, the production of whiskey had been a cottage industry which supported the local economy in a small way, much as the gathering of chestnuts had earlier. The chestnut blight coupled with the enactment of the Volstead Act had catapulted this occasional avocation to full-time work for many of the mountain’s residents. Whereas before, men caught with an active still could expect their source of extra livelihood to be destroyed and a six-month vacation in the local lock-up, with Prohibition it had blossomed into the nearest thing to big business. Attempts by law enforcement officials—Revenuers—had become more frequent and violent, and the jail sentences stiffer. Hence, the presence of any lawman, irrespective of his motive for being there, would be a major concern and subject to who-knew-what sort of reaction. If Jesse did not keep his guests close and provide what amounted to safe passage, a confrontation and possibly gunfire could be the outcome, there being no room for conversation once the intruders had been identified as police. So he’d insisted Privette drive the Packard, his personal vehicle, wear civilian clothes, and stay close.
Addie Sutherlin stood on the porch watching the caravan grind up the grade to the cabin. For Addie, time stood still. She lived in the same log cabin in which she’d been born. The logs had been sheathed with clapboards and some rooms added over the years. The privy had been rebuilt a time or two and moved when necessary. The century had turned, two wars fought, but for her, nothing of any import had changed. She still drew water with the pump over the tin-lined sink—as long as the cistern was filled. When the water table dropped too low and her spring dried up, water had to be pulled from the dug well in the backyard. In winter, when it sometimes froze solid, water could be a problem. That’s why she made sure the cistern was full to the brim by early November. Lately, though, she’d become forgetful, and if one of her sons did not see to it, she might go a week having to make do with well water.
Jesse pulled up and unloaded his family. The children tumbled out and Serena led them to greet their grandmother. Jesse grinned as Serena moved across the patch of dried grass that served as a front yard with the children following in line, Tommy, tallest and oldest, first, decreasing in size to little Adeline, youngest and shortest, last. Like a mother duck with her ducklings.
“Son, you need a new hat. That one has had it. It is looking like one what we used to cut out ear holes and put on the mule.”
“It’s a very fine hat, Ma, and it ain’t going to decorate no mule.”
“Just someone who’s mule-headed. Who is that with you that you brung up here to the house, Jesse?”
“Ma, this here is Mister David Privette. He has some news he needs to tell you.”
“In a minute. Where’s Abel at?”
“Your brother and Nancy and their young’uns be by presently. So, what news?”
“Let’s all get settled in and wait for Abel. It concerns him, too.”
“Land sakes, you is making a proper stew out of this visit, Jesse. Now, why don’t you just get on up here with your friends and tell me what you have to tell me?”
Jesse waved to Privette and his deputy to alight and follow him to the house. The three men stomped up the steps to the porch and greeted Addie. She eyed them with the suspicion reserved for strangers in general, and flatlanders in particular.
“I didn’t plan on no extras for supper, Jesse,” she said as they stepped onto the porch.
“No problem there, Miz Sutherlin. Me and my, ah…friend can’t stay. We just need to have a minute of your time, you and your sons’ that is, and then we’ll be off.”
“Well, alright, but I ain’t gonna feed you.”
“Well, ain’t nobody said nothing about no company, Jesse, now did they? Well alright, then. I got some fresh-squeezed apple cider I can offer you and maybe an ice chip to cool it down.”
“Well, Ma’am, that would be most welcome, and thank you. It’s October, but there’s still some heat left over from summer, that’s for sure.”
“Well, don’t be just standing there, come on in. Jesse, you get them children an apple each out of the bowl on the table, you hear? Just one, now. I don’t want them be spoiling their supper. Hey do, Serena. Any news?”
“You still ain’t got you a baby in the works?”
“No, Ma’am. Done having babies, thank you very much.”
“Too bad. Children ’bout the onliest thing women can do that men can’t what can make a difference in the world.”
“I reckon four more Sutherlins is about all the world can handle just now.”
“Maybe you’re onto something there, Missy. Whoop, here comes Abel and Nancy and their two. So there be six Sutherlins fixing to turn the world on its ear, then.”
Abel and his bride of three years trudged down the path toward them. When he spotted Privette, he stopped.
“It’s all square, Abel,” Jesse shouted. “Ain’t no laws being broke or looked after here.”
Abel studied Jesse’s face, nodded, and continued his walk down the slope to the house.
“You’d better have a good reason to bring a lawman here, Jesse. Word gets out on the mountain and you’ll be hearing from some folks.”
“That there is about as nonsensical as it gets, brother. Listen, they’re here about Pa, that’s all.”
“Pa? What about Pa?”
“Come on in and find out.”
Serena held her sister-in-law by the arm and kept her from following Abel indoors. “Nancy, how ’bout you and me setting out here for a spell? Get them kids to running around and wearing themselves out so’s they’ll sleep tonight.”
“Something’s wrong? Is Ma in trouble? She won’t tell them nothing, Serena. You know that.”
“Won’t tell them? What would she know that some outsider would want her to tell them?”
“Well, Lordy, Serena, you know. Where all the stills is at.”
“Oh. Nancy, they ain’t here about moonshine, except maybe to have a sip or two.”
“They’re here about Abel’s pa.”
“His pa? He’s dead, ain’t he? Died of the ’fluenza in eighteen, Abel said.”
“Well, something has come up about that. Abel will tell you when he’s done with talking to the sheriff.”
Nancy sat back in her rocker with a frown on her face. Sometimes there were thoughts best left alone. The two women alternately rocked, interceded in their children’s antics, and strained to hear what the voices in the house were saying.