He stood in a small clearing in front of his easel. Water was nearby, a fast moving stream that cut through bluffs of limestone. He liked water, the stream, the pond, the waterfall. Its movement and changing colors excited him. The sun, low in the northwestern sky, struck full across the side of the bluff and outlined its surface. As always, he seemed to see a face made by the shadows outlined in the rock. Sometimes he thought it was the spirit of the woods, sometimes his own face. Now from the corner of his eye he noticed a quiet, darting movement among the harboring trees. He turned to look, but it was gone. Nothing.
Painting like this, in these hills, he felt more strongly than ever his keen pleasure when as a youngster he ran among these woods. Sometimes, even then, he stopped to draw on the tablet his sister had bought him. Life had been good then. He remembered a dog they had–Blondie. Not his dog, though she ran with him. Sister’s dog. Both were gone now, many years, he thought. Poor Agnes. She was older, so she had to take him and move to Nashville after Mama died. She wrote things, little Bible stories for the man who paid her money. Then she died and he went to The Place. He didn’t draw or paint for a while. How long? He couldn’t remember.
They let him go finally, and he got his check once a month so he could buy his paints and canvases. Sometimes he’d go by the shelter where the people there would buy him canvases. He needed more and more canvases so he could go to the park in Nashville and paint. There, he felt more at home. Then he found out buses came near here, and he could walk the miles into the hills with his box of paints. He brought along cans of beans and a pan to heat them in. Apples, too. Crackers. He liked crackers to munch, and a candy bar or two. When he ran out of food and canvas he went home again to the old downtown hotel where they gave him a room that didn’t cost much. But there was a store here, and he thought he might dare to buy food now. He didn’t want to leave again except to go to Nashville and get his check so he could buy more paint and brushes and canvases.
He could barely remember his days in the old house not too far away in the little town, or his mother. He searched for the memory of that feeling when he could run and see with the happy eyes of a child. Mostly he got the feeling when he stood alone and watched his hand make the picture that was in his head. The colors he saw inside of him stood out the most; all the people and trees and lumps of hills and pooling waters were soft, bright colors that belonged to him.
He wiped the brush and stepped back to see his work. The palette knife now, for the water. He liked it quiet, not noisy like the city. But the silence of these woods was not silent at all. He had again grown used to the small sounds around him and overhead‑‑rabbits, woodchuck, squirrels, birds. He had made no friends among the creatures of the woods; he also kept away from the few people he saw in the woods. Sometimes he put the people in his paintings if he was sure they hadn’t seen him. He needed no one, no living thing except those few creatures, human or animal, he happened upon and could use in his paintings.
Footfalls came from somewhere beyond the clearing and blended with other rustlings. He would pay no mind to the sound, he decided, but still they intruded. Then he felt a creeping of the skin along his spine, a danger signal, not the first time he had had to take cover. He turned his head for a glance. But no, the figure coming nearer was a familiar one, safe, would leave him be. He turned back to his painting. The soft steps through deep wild grasses grew closer.
He couldn’t quite fix what happened when the blow came, the sensation of being struck hard, and again. Rock met bone, and a scream, his protest at extinction, arose in his head and died in his throat as the light faded.
The person beside him watched him fall like a log onto the earth. Blood seeped from the wounds, pooling and then mingling with the dry grasses under his head. It took no longer than a few seconds to walk to a nearby sinkhole hidden by a large hawthorn bush and toss in the bloody rock to endless depths.
Now to drag the body out of the clearing. It was too large to go into the hole, but the bush would cover it. The paintings and paint things were stuffed in the cardboard box and hoisted up onto a strong shoulder. Then the figure with its awkward burden set off and soon disappeared among the trees and underbrush.
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 sped 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.