The old Mercedes tooled along the nearly empty highway at a moderate speed, rounding curves solidly, slowing down occasionally as the driver glanced around here and there to examine the countryside. She’d left the interstate thirty minutes ago, traveling on the two-lane highway that led her closer to the village of Barton. It had been many years since Judge Penelope “Baby” Godbold had been in the remote foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains. She and Dan had gone to a concert at the University of the South–how long ago had it been? At least fifteen years. And now she was making this trip, fulfilling some need that had been building since Dan’s death almost two years ago. Funny how even her job had paled without him to discuss legal points and their respective cases. With his practice in civil defense litigation and her work in Chancery, they ran into many of the same issues. It was mainly because of the bleakness that now overhung her life, the emptiness that yawned before her, that she’d decided to retire much earlier than she’d planned. Life must hold more for her, and she was determined to seek out new adventures. Thus, this trip to the hinterlands of Tennessee. And she couldn’t have picked a more beautiful time for a trip to Barton.
The early April weather was always changeable in this part of the country, as if teasing the locals into believing spring had arrived. But even though the day had been mild when she left Nashville, and March had gone out like a lamb, spring was not necessarily around the corner, especially in the hill country. Of course, many of the trees had begun to sprout leaves, showing off their delicious new green colors, and some of the flowering ones like the dogwood and redbud were starting to bud out, giving the roadside a more decorative look. Backing the smaller trees were the conifers, huge and dense, and beyond them were what seemed to be virgin forest. But that wasn’t possible. Baby knew the land had been settled and, if not developed around tiny hamlets, was owned by timber companies with the trees routinely harvested and the strips, obviously, replanted.
The swelling hills she traveled over were like stepping stones across the deep gorges that cut into the land, a wild and wooly landscape to her eyes. She was more accustomed to the gentler slopes of the Nashville basin where the land undulated with the geosynclines that swept across middle Tennessee. These were formed during the subsidence of the inland sea from an earlier geologic era and had become rich farmland. Still, Baby appreciated the ever-changing landscape of this very different, rougher country. She suspected the people would be different, too, from what she was used to, as she believed the land played a role in developing the character of its inhabitants. She was curious to know how Guy and Marnie were adjusting to living in Barton. Dan would have been amused to think his citified nephew had actually taken up residence in a rather remote village, commuting to his law practice in Chattanooga. Unquestionably, this was a very strange sort of place for the both of them!
After passing the mountaintop hamlet of Monteagle, the road straightened out and before her lay the ribbon of highway, rising and sinking here and there but not a curve in sight for miles. She speeded up without thinking, even having to press rather hard on the stiff accelerator to jump the big motor into more revolutions. It settled into a cruising speed that seemed as easy and comfortable as riding in the gondola of a Ferris wheel. Then from behind a clump of trees in a lane, she glimpsed from the corner of her eye the distinctive outlines of a patrol car. The term “crouching” came to mind, but she braked swiftly. In the rear view mirror a light flashed and she heard the bleep of a siren.
She drove the car onto the narrow shoulder, came to a stop, and turned off the motor. She began to rummage in her capacious purse for her billfold and then rolled down the window, smiling at the young highway patrolman who seemed to be looking sternly at her from behind his dark glasses.
“Hello, ma’am, did you know you were going eight miles over the speed limit?”
“No, officer, I didn’t. The road was clear, the day is lovely, and I suppose I felt like flying. I’m terribly sorry to have gotten carried away.” She handed him her license.
“Well, even though there’s not much traffic–ah, are you by any chance Judge Godbold?” He bent toward her and gave her a sharp look. When she assented, he smiled at her. “I guess you hadn’t checked your speedometer, and with these big cars and the straightaway, it’s easy to speed a little.” He handed her back the license. “Where are you bound for, Judge?”
She told him about going to visit relatives in Barton for the first time, and he nodded. “You’re only about five miles from the turnoff. Let me escort you so you won’t miss it. Watch the speed limit in these parts, y’hear? We don’t want anything to happen to the famous Judge Godbold.” He saluted her briefly by touching his cap, turned and went back to his cruiser. Baby sighed and watched in the rear view mirror until a couple of trucks passed by and then the officer’s car pulled around her. She followed him as they proceeded down the highway at a stately pace, turning at a well-marked road toward the town of Barton. The sign invited visitors to the “Historic Barton Restorations. Houses and Lots For Sale.” It might prove to be an interesting place to check out, she speculated, but she could only hope she’d not be subjected to yawning boredom.
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