Crab Apple Valley Baptist Church sat high on a grassy knoll overseeing the sinners scattered along the valley floor. A gravel road curved up to a parking lot adjacent to the simple, white-framed structure. Our hearse was already backed up close to the front door.
On the other side of the church, the cemetery sprawled down the hillside. A green canvas awning rose over a freshly dug grave and advertised the services of Clayton and Clayton Funeral Directors. We had been able to set up close to the sanctuary because Martha Willard’s family had been one of the valley’s first settlers and enjoyed a family plot of choice proximity.
Wayne Thompson, my uncle, waved to me as I pulled into the far corner of the gravel lot and left closer parking for the family and mourners. For such a small funeral, he had brought only one other man. There would be no family limousine or procession.
Wayne smiled from underneath the oversized black umbrella as he came over to offer me its temporary shelter while I pulled my own from the back seat.
“Everything’s under control, Barry. Freddy and I have already positioned the casket in front of the altar.” He stepped back as I pressed the release button and my umbrella launched into shape.
“Good. Any problem with the vault?” I asked.
“No. Rain is flowing away from the grave. The immediate family can fit under the tent and the rest of us will be under umbrellas. I threw an extra ten in the hearse.”
“How’s the family doing?”
“Pretty good, I guess,” said Wayne. “Preacher Stinnett’s been dealing with them. I gather there’s a little family tension.”
We began walking toward the front of the church. I kept glancing down to avoid the puddles. Wayne glided along in the precise gait bred by years of escorting the bereaved, as he watched the main road for any sign of early mourners. Uncle Wayne and my father had been burying the people of Laurel County for over forty years.
“Norma Jean’s taken charge of things,” he continued. “She’s the one who prearranged the funeral.”
That had been unusual, even if the service was for someone like Martha Willard who got so out of it toward the end. Most of the mountain people I knew were too superstitious to finalize a funeral unless death was imminent—as in before sunset.
“And the others?” I asked. “Lee and Dallas? They doing all right?”
“Lee is doing what Norma Jean and Preacher Stinnett tell him. Dallas? Well, I ain’t seen him yet. Nobody’s seen him. Leastwise, that’s what Preacher Stinnett said earlier this morning. Norma Jean told him when Grandma Martha died, Dallas walked out of the room without saying a word. At first they were mad, then after two days passed, they got worried. I think they’re afraid he might have hurt himself. Lee and the preacher stopped by his cabin at seven this morning, but he wasn’t there.”
“I was afraid he’d take her death awfully hard.”
“Yeah,” said Uncle Wayne. “Well, Dallas is a strange one, that’s for sure.”
We spent the next forty-five minutes arranging flowers, placing folding chairs at the graveside, and setting up the “Those Who Called” book in the vestibule for attendees to sign. About quarter to ten, people began to arrive. I worked in the parking lot, passing out umbrellas and directing traffic. At ten o’clock, Wayne joined me. He scanned the valley, and the irritation broke through his voice. “I got the family all settled in the front pew, but no one has seen hide nor hair of Dallas.” He checked his watch. “I hate a third of the family ain’t here, but I’m giving Preacher Stinnett the signal in ten minutes whether Dallas has the decency to show up or not. You may as well go on in.”
Inside the narrow sanctuary, mourners sat in scattered clumps along the hand-hewn pews. Necks twisted around as my footsteps echoed on the wide-plank pine floor. I felt like a bride at the wrong wedding, and I made a hasty retreat off to the side. People continued to look toward the rear of the church, making me realize they were awaiting the arrival of Dallas Willard. Many faces were familiar enough to have names attached. Others belonged to the nameless folks you cross paths with in a small community, seeing each other at the post office or farmer’s market.
Across the aisle sat a man who seemed out of place with the simpler mountain folk. The tailored cut of his dark suit spoke of power, and the perfectly trimmed steel-gray hair and robust tan reeked money. I couldn’t place him though he looked at me and nodded a silent greeting. Then he glanced behind me to the door. I turned and saw Wayne give a single distinct nod to Preacher Stinnett.
The scripture was read in predictable order: a few passages of Psalms followed by New Testament assurances of Everlasting Life. Preacher Stinnett kept his eulogy brief, emphasizing Martha Willard’s good works and her love for her family. I suspected he wanted to get everyone out to the grave and back before the heavens opened up. He walked to the closed casket in front of the altar and gave a prayer for Martha’s soul with a plea that all would know Jesus like Martha now did.
At the “Amen,” our assistant, Freddy Mott, motioned for the pallbearers to stand. Then the congregation rose as Martha left the church for the final time.
We led the procession down the steps and around to the cemetery. The weather had thickened. Umbrellas sprang up in the dampness like mushrooms. A British novel of forgotten title came to mind because it was the first time I had read the word mizzle—to rain so fine that the droplets hung in the air without falling to earth. Mist and drizzle merged to mizzle. The effect was “mizzlerable.”
Norma Jean and Lee joined Preacher Stinnett and the casket under the tent. The rest of us encircled them, the men giving way for the women and a few children to stand under the protection of the canvas. I wound up just behind the family, positioned beside a frail, thin tombstone, trying to keep the water on my umbrella from draining down the necks of my neighbors.
Preacher Stinnett cleared his throat, and then stopped short of speaking. Through the silence came the steady crunch of gravel from the footsteps of a latecomer. All heads turned toward the approaching sound.
Dallas Willard, lips drawn tight across his expressionless face, strode stiff-legged out of the mist, his head uncovered, his body shrouded in a long gray coat that brushed the ground, and his hands buried in his pockets. He materialized like some Civil War soldier snatched from a Mathew Brady photograph. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a ghostly cavalry horse had trailed him.
People parted to let him get to the casket. Dallas walked through them like they didn’t exist. He stopped at the foot, not crossing over to stand beside his brother and sister. He looked neither at them nor at Preacher Stinnett. Instead, his gaze fell upon only one person. His gaze fell upon me.
I nodded but said nothing. His hair looked like wet straw. Rivulets ran down his cheeks, but I couldn’t tell whether they were tears or simply condensed moisture. Then his thin lips broke into a smile of some shared secret that set my neck tingling.
“And now that we are all finally gathered here,” lectured Preacher Stinnett, “let us bow our heads, close our eyes, and pray together the prayer our Lord taught us.”
Reluctantly, I looked down, sensing that Dallas still stared at me.
“Thy Kingdom come” was followed by the ear-splitting blast of a shotgun. I snapped my eyes open to see Lee Willard hurled back against a tombstone. Dallas stood with the great coat open and the twelve-gauge level at his waist. Before anyone could take a breath, he pumped the action and kicked the spent shell onto Martha’s casket. Norma Jean tried to turn away, but the second blast caught her in the side, and I heard the sickening gasp as the life-breath was wrenched from her lungs. Again, Dallas reloaded, but this time he swung the gun at me. Steam boiled off the hot barrel.
“They’re goin’ to Hell,” he shouted. “And so am I. Tell Grandma I’ll save the land. Tell her I love her.”
Even before he began speaking, somehow the muddled gray cells of my brain realized Dallas Willard meant to kill me. In that split-second, I reacted. I threw the open umbrella at him as I flung myself toward the protection of the tombstone.
The buckshot blasted through the flying umbrella as if it were tissue paper. The pellets hit my left shoulder with such force that the impact twisted my mid-air flight and sent me crashing on my face lengthwise behind the grave marker. Pain seared down my arm and I couldn’t move.
Dallas fired again and the century-old tombstone disintegrated above my head. Dust and granite chips rained down on me. Somewhere, a woman screamed. I rolled over on my back and clutched my shoulder. The warm, sticky dampness spread between my fingers. I opened my eyes and saw only the thick gray sky.
Time passed in a blur of detached images. Preacher Stinnett’s face obliterated the sky as he knelt over me, trying to save my soul. I heard myself shout for Uncle Wayne which must have been alarming—a wounded, bleeding man calling for an undertaker. Wayne was the only person I knew skilled in first aid. Others rushed around me amid a continuous chorus of screams and moans. Hysteria predominated.
Suddenly, he was there, pulling my hand away from the wound. “Winged you,” Uncle Wayne said, and smiled with reassurance. “No artery damage, but your Sunday-go-to-meeting suit is a goner.”
I squeezed his arm and let him know I was okay. “The others?” I asked.
“Norma Jean and Lee are dead. Dallas got away in his pickup. It’s a miracle none of the bystanders were hit. I guess the buckshot never spread out enough.” Wayne looked up and yelled, “Freddy, get the hearse up here. Make sure someone phones the sheriff. And tell the hospital we’re coming in.” He turned back to me. “You don’t mind going by hearse, do you?”
“As long as it doesn’t become a habit.”
A few minutes later, I was lifted into the back of the long black vehicle. The floor was not padded, but then the regular passengers rarely complained. Several of the men shed their raincoats and tucked them under me. I felt a weariness wash over me, and my arm and shoulder began to throb. I closed my eyes. Sounds collapsed into a muffled roar as I tumbled down a long well into darkness.