The three men wore blue overalls and dark flannel shirts and cloth caps pulled low over faces blackened by coal dust. In the moonless hours before dawn, under the phosphorescent glow of starlight, they appeared as no more than smudges against a landscape of shadows, suggestions of shape and motion in the elusory night.
“Where d’ya reckon that night watchman is?” asked one of the three. He craned his neck as he spoke, as if moving his head a few inches would give him a better view of the town below them.
“We been over all that, Boone,” said one of the others.
“A hunnert times,” said the third.
“Yeah, but Jesus Christ, if we get caught they’ll send us to the pen,” said the one named Boone.
“No one’s goin’ to the pen,” said the second man. Something about the way he said it made Boone more rather than less uneasy.
“Hab,” the second man continued. “You keep that dynamite clear of the water while we’re crossin’ the creek. We damn sure don’t wanna get down there and have a bag full a wet sand.”
Habakkuk Neal shifted the rucksack slung over his right shoulder.
“No sweat,” he said. “The water’s not more’n a foot deep here anyway.”
“Just keep that dynamite out of it.”
“I sure hope Jim Malloy is where he’s supposed to be,” said Boone. His name was Boone Fletcher, and unlike the other two he had grown up in the town below. He had friends there – acquaintances, anyway. And his sister and her family lived there. They rarely spoke anymore, but they were blood kin all the same.
“Goddamit, Boone, shut up about that damn cop,” said the one giving the orders. “As long as he follows his usual schedule there won’t be a problem.”
“But what if he doesn’t stick to his schedule? What if he decides to have his coffee and biscuits a half-hour early? What then, Joe?”
“Get movin’,” said Joe Turk.
There was no more discussion. The men filed down the embankment to the creek, shallow but swift and spring-fed through fissures in the underlying limestone. Boone Fletcher led, followed by Hab Neal with his rucksack full of dynamite and blasting caps and primer cord, and then Joe Turk. Fletcher and Neal each carried pistols; Neal in his rucksack, Fletcher in his right hand. Turk, in the rear, cradled a 1906 Springfield rifle as if he expected to use it. A Model 1911 forty-five automatic was holstered on his right hip.
The stream was called Wildcat Creek. Boone Fletcher had gigged frogs here as a boy and fished for perch in shallow pools the stream scooped out and filled back in with the seasons. The town was above them now, on a low bluff cut by a long arcing bend in the creek. Boone had been born up there, in a two-room shanty long torn down and replaced by a two-story Federal style house with a flower garden and picket fence. It was called Carterville and back then it had been just a whistle stop between McAlester and Tulsa. Now, in the spring of 1917, it had more than a thousand people, four scheduled trains a day, paved streets and running water. All the businesses and most of the houses were hooked up to electricity generated by the town’s own coal-fired steam turbine.
The three men crossed the creek and followed the curving base of the bluff for a hundred yards. Here it was darkness itself, shadow within shadow, the embankment cutting off even the starlight. The men stepped in holes and tripped on roots, biting their lips to stifle the grunts and curses rising automatically to their lips.
“Goddamn, Boone, I thought you knew this ground!” Hab Neal whispered savagely.
“Quiet!” barked Joe Turk
Neal said nothing more; didn’t have to. Boone Fletcher knew what Neal was thinking. Fletcher himself had a few things he wanted to say. He wanted to say he might not know where every hole and washout and tree root was, but he did know where Betsy Creek cut through and into Wildcat Creek; he knew the new power plant, the steaming behemoth lighting Cartersville’s houses and streets and stores, sat just above the spring that gave rise to Betsy Creek.
“Here,” he said softly when they had gone another fifty yards. He turned up the draw and heard the other two clamor after him.
The draw was narrow and steep-sided, the stream small but brisk even in July. Once, as a boy, Boone Fletcher had stumbled onto a fox den in this draw. He had watched it, off and on, for weeks, staying upwind and out of sight, sometimes lying in the grass for hours without seeing a thing. His patience had been rewarded when two kits poked their noses out of the hole at dusk. Fletcher tried to remember the den’s exact location, wondered what became of the kits.
They had reached the patch of marshy ground where Betsy Creek seeped to the surface. Fletcher wiped sweat from his face with a big blue bandana that he then folded and returned to the hip pocket of his overalls. The air was thick, fetid; Fletcher slapped at mosquito boring through the left sleeve of his shirt. He looked at Turk and Neal and signaled with his thumb, indicating it was time climb the embankment. Turk nodded.
Dynamiting the Carterville power plant had been Boone Fletcher’s idea, one he immediately wished he’d kept to himself. There were just of five of them that night, meeting in Philo Watts’ milking shed, talking about how to wake up the countryside to what was going on, the war and the draft and the bankers, always the Goddamn bankers. And Boone had blurted it out, just like that.
“We could blow up the electric plant at Centerville.”
They all looked at him, even Joe Turk – especially Joe Turk – and Fletcher blushed, thinking why couldn’t he leave his mouth shut just once.
Turk’s dark eyes gleamed.
“That is exactly what we need to do,” he said.
“Oh, well, now Joe, it wouldn’t be easy,” said Fletcher. “Carterville has a night watchman. And he’s not some old rummy pensioned off from the railroad. I know him. He’s a real hombre.”
“You know him?” asked Turk.
The other three – Philo Watt, Jas Stowall and Hab Neal – watched silently, intently, mesmerized by the audacity of such an undertaking.
“His name’s Jim Malloy,” said Fletcher, eyes downcast. “We all know him.”
“I don’t,” said Philo Watt.
“I know who he is,” said Jas Stowall, “but I can’t say I ever met him.”
“What about you?” Turk asked Hab Neal. “Do you know this man Malloy?”
Neal turned away and spat tobacco juice beyond the halo of their single lantern.
“I’ve met him a few times.”
Turk turned back to Fletcher.
“How do you know him?”
“We were kids together. Played ball together. Used to go fishin’. But I ain’t really talked to Jim in years.”
An ill-concealed smirk played at Hab Neal’s hard, thin mouth. He had pegged Boone Fletcher as the sort who liked to talk about what ought to be done but pissed down his leg when the time came to actually do it.
“Do you know this Malloy or not?” Turk demanded.
“Yeah,” Fletcher finally conceded. “I know him.”
And so here they were, blowing up the Centerville power station.
The brick power plant glowed with the light and heat generated inside it. Smoke from the coal fire rose through the long, thin chimney stack in black, sulfuric billows invisible against the night sky except where they blotted out the stars. The noise almost overwhelmed them. Even Joe Turk, a man to whom the din of the industrial age was not unfamiliar, stopped dead, disoriented by the whine of the steam turbine and general clatter of the machinery. Light and shadows flickered across an open doorway, the door itself propped open by a stone, and as the significance of the figures thus outlined registered, Turk covered his lower mouth and face with a dark bandana. Neal and Fletcher did the same.
The gun barrels in their backs were the first the two men minding the boiler knew of the intruders. The pair were blindfolded and gagged, taken outside and tied to a tree.
“We could have killed you but we didn’t,” one of three masked men, bending close, said in a throaty whisper. “Remember that.”
Ten minutes later the people of Centerville were rocked from their beds by an explosion so concussive it shattered windows on Main Street and set the bell of the Methodist Church to ringing.
The news reached Laz Mabry five days later, on a Sunday, at the little Holiness church on Cottonwood Creek. Lige Gilcrease had taken a wagonload of corn into Aquilla the day before and got the details from J.M. Philpott, J.M. having read about it in a day-old Ada Evening News left in the waiting room at the railroad depot.
“They’re sayin’ it’s a bunch of reds,” Gilcrease said each time he retold the story. ”Or maybe German infiltrators.”
Laz listened without comment; unsettled, naturally, but exhilarated, too, in the way only the catastrophes of others can. Carterville was more than fifty miles away as the crow flies, considerably more by wagon or train; Laz didn’t know anyone from Carterville or bear any personal grievance against the town. But Laz knew town people. He knew their contempt for men like him, for families like his. He knew their smugness, their superiority, their schools and whitewashed fences and electric lights, and for that alone he silently praised God for Carterville’s comeuppance.
“Did they catch ‘em?” asked J.L. Long.
“Nope,” said Lige Gilcrease, air whistling through gaps where teeth used to be. “Got clean away.”
The explosion had practically vaporized the Carterville power plant, Lige said, and left a crater twenty-five feet across and five feet deep. Two men tending the plant were tied to a tree fifty yards away, unhurt, their drawers worse for the excitement. Gilcrease had invented this last detail, delivered with a guffaw and rheumy-eyed grin that neutralized whatever humor his listeners might have found in the remark.
“These two men said there must’ve been a half-dozen or more of ‘em. All of ‘em with repeatin’ rifles, shoutin’ about a revolution.”
“Must be reds,” said J.T. Long.
“Wobblies,” said Ed Farmer.
Their disapproval was not altogether genuine. J.T. Long had voted for Debs in 1912 and named one of his sons Eugene. Farmer’s brother-in-law belonged to a band of nightriders terrorizing bankers deemed unduly usurious; only a week before, they burned the barn of one particularly despised small-town financier and threatened worse if he did not change his ways. But a man had to be careful, even among supposed friends, and so no one expressed even the slightest sympathy for the Carterville saboteurs.
“Reckon they’ll show up around here?” Laz asked.
“Oh, I doubt it,” said J.T. Long.
“I guess they had better not,” said Lige Gilcrease, a little wistfully Laz thought.
Brother Abernathy, as he did every Sunday, preached on lust, greed and avarice; his weekday job at Peterson’s dairy didn’t leave much time or energy for developing new material, and in any event the congregation did not seem to mind the repetition. Most of the men dozed, heads dipping, chins on chest, while their women thrilled primly to the wantonness of Bathsheba and the unnamed depravities of the woman at the well. And then they all rose for the closing hymn, booming away with hearty if not always harmonious enthusiasm, relieved to have fulfilled their evangelical responsibilities for another week. The rest of the day was theirs, and the Good Lord himself said it was not to be spent in labor.
At the last amen the adults filed out, pausing to greet Brother Abernathy, gathering at the foot of the steps to talk about the weather, the price of sorghum, the latest Sears catalog. The youngsters rushed past unceremoniously, eager to squeeze in a few minutes of marbles or wrestling or dolls. The adolescents coalesced into opposing packs, boys on one side, girls on the other, each pretending to ignore the other, boys smirking, girls giggling. And finally the wagons would load up, and the two or three Model Ts, and it was home to Sunday dinner, afternoon ballgames, rocking chairs and newspapers.
Laz Mabry helped his wife onto the bare bench seat of their buckboard and hefted himself aboard. Looking about for their various children, Laz saw they all intended walking the two miles home.
“I saw you in conversation with Lige and those others before service,” Willa Mabry said to her husband when they were underway. “It looked very serious.”
Pulling the buckboard were two mules that Willa had named James and John, a joke of sorts, Jesus having nicknamed the disciples James and John the Sons of Thunder and the two plodding mules being anything but.
“Well,” said Laz, “I guess it was serious for the folks in Carterville,” and then told Willa about the dynamiting of the power plant.
“Do you think it will spread here?” she asked. The possibility did not seem to disturb her in the least.
“Prob’ly not,” said Laz. “Lige is sayin’ it was reds but he don’t know. Prob’ly wadn’t dynamite a’tall, just a damn boiler blowin’ up.”
“What about the two men tied to a tree?”
“Prob’ly somebody horsin’ aroun’ an’ it got outta hand.”
They lapsed into silence at this, James and John clip-clopping along, kicking up dry puffs of dirt from the section line road. It was hot, unusually so for this time of year, and so dry Laz already feared for the cotton just now breaking the surface. The Mabrys lived on one hundred acres, good land, not theirs, but the landlord Mr. John X. Wilcox did not cause them undue aggravation and so sometimes it did seem like theirs. Laz sometimes even daydreamed it, dangerous he knew, but he had little enough else to daydream about, and now the years had stretched into a decade, a lifetime for a tenant farmer. Laz’ only real complaint, or his biggest one, was that John X. Wilcox seemed to think farming was like one of Mr. Ford’s factories, that seeds went in one end and came out cotton bales at the other without regard to what went on in between. What farming really was, it seemed to Laz, was a fight, a fight between man and nature and sometimes between man and God. Laz believed he had sound biblical support for this philosophy, particularly in Genesis and Job.
This was not a point of theology he cared to take up with Willa, who was not inclined to keep her opinions to herself, particularly as they pertained to politics or The Word of God. She came from a long line of Campbellites, and though Willa herself no longer held much to any particular doctrine she had retained and daily expanded on her childhood knowledge of The Good Book. Thus, rather than risk his unorthodox scriptural interpretation’s annihilation, Laz preferred keeping it to himself.
Willa gave the impression of being older than her husband, not because she looked older but because she acted older. She was tall, angular, erect, with fine and even handsome features and unflinching gray eyes, dark hair gathered into thick ropy braids coiled beneath a sun-bleached bonnet. She tended to speak firmly and confidently, but not loudly.
“Still,” she said at length, “I can’t help but wonder if this Centerville business is not connected to the sheriff in Freeman County.”
“Helpin’ them boys avoid the draft, you mean?”
“That’s not what I’d call it,” Willa said sharply.
Something like a smile twitched at the ends of Laz’ mouth.
“No, Mother, I don’t reckon you would,” he said.
They fell silent again, both staring straight ahead, the day sunny and warm. Beads of sweat appeared at each of Willa’s temples and followed the line of her jaw to her neck and into the fabric of her dress collar.
“What are we going to do about Zephaniah?” she asked.
Laz didn’t answer immediately, sighed, and still without looking at Willa said, “He’s twenty-one, Mother.”
Zephaniah was the oldest of the five Mabry children, all of whom at this moment orbited the buckboard in divergent ellipses. Zechariah, not quite twenty, a slighter version of his older brother, roamed moodily into a copse of native pecans and then a meadow, pausing periodically to fling dirt clods at listlessly grazing Jersey cattle. The two girls hunted wild onions, chattering like magpies, exchanging church gossip and speculating on its veracity. At fourteen and ten, Zipporah and Zoe shared Willa’s frame and coloring if not entirely her nature; each, in herself, distinct from the other and from their mother.
Zebulon, the youngest Mabry, remained affixed to Zephaniah for almost the entire journey home, releasing his brother’s thick forefinger only to examine a turtle that had wandered onto the road, and to briefly join Zechariah in bedeviling the neighbor’s milk cows. Zebulon was six, baby-faced, and spoiled to the extent possible in his family’s circumstances. No one was more at fault for this than Zephaniah, who managed to find the boy bits of hard candy and fashioned him toys from wood scraps.
Laz and Willa spoke to each other quietly, each mindful of the children’s proximity.
“Just because Zephaniah is twenty-one doesn’t give Woodrow Wilson or J.P. Morgan the right to send him off to be murdered!” Willa said, spitting out the words like bullets.
“Now Mother, I feel as strong as you do about this, but we gotta let the boy make up his own mind.”
“Posh!” Willa exclaimed, employing her strongest expletive. “If the boy wandered onto the railroad tracks would you let him get run over just because he’s twenty-one?”
Willa was no pacifist. There were plenty of people she would as soon shoot as look at. But Willa did object to being dragged into fights that were none of her affair – and the war in Europe definitely fit into that category as far as she was concerned. She came by this attitude honestly, her grandfather Ezekiel Lane having outraged every other white inhabitant of Hardin County, Tennessee, by refusing to take sides in the Civil War. The county was about evenly divided on the war, sometimes violently so, but Ezekiel Lane remained stubbornly neutral, professing equal disdain for Union and Confederacy alike.
“Abe Lincoln ain’t never done nothin’ for me,” he was supposed to have said. “Neither has Jeff Davis.”
If Zephaniah Mabry overheard his parents he did not show it, remaining absorbed, to all appearances, in his youngest brother. But he knew what was going on. The date was fast approaching when every young man in America was supposed to sign up for the selective service, what some people called the draft. There had been a draft during the Civil War but never one like this, one intended to bring in every able-bodied man between twenty-one and thirty. A lot of people, his parents and their neighbors among them, saw no reason why American farm boys should be sent to die in France. Resistance had spread throughout the Oklahoma countryside, feeding on the hopeless radicalism of people who believe they have nothing to lose. There had been a little ray of hope in 1914, when a half-dozen farmers tired of being run over by the railroads and bankers were elected to the Legislature on the Socialist ticket. The Republicans and Democrats, for once in agreement on something, had put a stop to that pretty damned quick. They put through changes to the election laws that made it harder for sharecroppers and tenant farmers to vote — and just about impossible for anybody not a Republican or Democrat to get elected.
Now the World War had come, and a draft, and people on Cottonwood Creek were finding it hard to be gung-ho about either.
“There’s a meetin’ Saturdee night,” said Laz, like maybe he’d been holding this back. “South of Aquilla. Thought me and the boy might go.”
Willa nodded, mollified for the moment.
“This is a shameful war, Lazarus, and I will not have my flesh and blood sacrificed for the vanity of Queen Victoria’s bickering grandsons.”
Laz agreed with his wife in principle but was less confident about the practicalities of simply ignoring a summons from the United States government. True, he doubted its ability to keep track of every American male twenty-one and older, but he doubted even more the ability of any one American to escape discovery. And, unlike Willa, Laz had some feeling for the adventurous and independent instincts of youth.
The shrieks of Zipporah and Zoe as they fled a skunk whose midday nap they’d unwittingly disturbed sliced through the discussion, leaving it unfinished. Willa and Laz turned on the bench seat as their two girls clamored into the wagon bed, screaming, laughing, “Go! Go!” Laz, bent with laughter, slapped the reins against the flanks of James and John, and the Sons of Thunder broke into a trot.
A hundred men and boys huddled in a remote meadow under a bright night sky, fretful and angry, cursing Woodrow Wilson and Wall Street and the War to End All Wars.
“Big Slick says you will be making the world safe for democracy!” shouted the man at the center, thin and dramatic in an old-fashioned frock coat and no hat. He stood precariously on the trunk of a great oak tree twisted out of the ground by a tornado, glaring out at his audience, daring them to disagree. He had no takers.
“Safe for democracy, hah!” the man shouted again. “Safe for J. Pierpont Morgan! Safe for the DuPonts! For U.S. Steel! Yes, my friends, you are being asked – no, ordered, under threat of prison – to fight and die for profits of the speculating class! For the lords and ladies and royal highnesses of Europe! But what about you? What about your families?”
The speaker unfurled a bony index finger that swept hypnotically around the crowd with hypnotic effect.
“What about you?” he repeated. “What about the producing classes? The men and, yes, women such as yourselves, who sweat and toil so that the parasites who steal the few means morsels from our children’s mouths can live in luxury!”
“You tell ‘em Hack!” shouted someone in the crowd.
Hack Gardner, for that was the man’s name, turned to stare in the direction of the interrupting voice. His eyes glittered feverishly, and he wiped his brow with a stained and tattered handkerchief.
“Yes,” he said, his voice suddenly low. “I will tell them. We will tell them. We will tell the world!”
The finger unfurled again, stabbing at the air now to emphasize his words, to single out individuals in the audience.
“We will tell the world that this war is not about democracy. It is not about making the world safe. It is about protecting the moneyed interests – the same moneyed interests that rob us of the fruits of our labor. And now they ask – no, demand! – that we surrender up our sons to be slaughtered on foreign battlefields!”
And so Hack Gardner had gone on for the better part of an hour, interrupted from time to time by shouts of agreement or encouragement, and once by a few drunken bars of “Buffalo Gals.” His audience gradually thinned, lost to boredom or a sniff of alcohol or the fear their names would be spread around.
But Laz and Zephaniah stayed until Hack Gardner talked himself out, until he half-stepped and half-fell from the tree trunk, hoarse and trembling from exhaustion like a man who has been through an ordeal. Which was true enough. Gardner had been a county attorney with larger ambitions until, in a paroxysm of conscience or miscalculation or poor judgment, he prosecuted a well-known banker for violation of the usury laws, an adventure that ended in his disbarment and the threat of prison time.
The others who stayed until the end shook hands with Gardner and clapped him on the back, offered him whisky — which he eagerly accepted — but Laz and Zephaniah hitched up James and John and turned toward home. They had a long drive home.
“That fella gets pretty wound up,” said Zephaniah when they had put a mile between them and the meeting ground.
“Yes, he does.”
“Is all that true, what he was sayin’?”
Laz pondered briefly.
“I don’t reckon anything is ever completely true,” he said.
Zephaniah heaved a silent sigh of annoyance.
“That don’t help me much, Pa,” he said.
“No,” Laz said, “I don’t suppose it did.”
Laz remained silent so long that Zephaniah concluded he considered the matter closed. Then, without warning, Laz said, “I reckon Heck embellished some. That’s what men like Heck Gardner do. But I’d say he was mostly right. That’s the way it looks to me, anyway.”
Zephaniah had never known his father to be so maddeningly indecisive. Always, in every situation, he had made crystal clear his expectations, often to the annoyance and exasperation of his children. Now when Zephaniah wanted to be told what to do, Laz kept his distance.
“What does it all mean?” Zephaniah finally asked.
“It means you got a decision to make,” Laz replied. “Ya either go reg’ster for this draft next week, in which case you stand a good chance of bein’ shot or gassed, or you can go intuh hidin’ and run the risk of bein’ caught and sent to jail.”
“That ain’t much of a choice,” said Zephaniah.
“No, son, it ain’t.”
The sky was chilly, the stars bright. A polished crescent moon hung in the sky like an ornament. The only sound, aside from father and son, was the rhythmic plodding of the Sons of Thunder.
“I ain’t a coward,” Zephaniah said.
“I know you ain’t, son,” Laz replied. “But there’s a differ’nce between bein’ brave ‘n bein’ a damned fool.”
“So yer sayin’ I ought not reg’ster.”
“I ain’t sayin’ that a’tall.”
“Yer sayin’ I should?”
“I’m sayin’ ya gotta do what ya think is right.”
They rode on, another mile, then two, then three. The early morning air was cool; Zephaniah dug out the old horse blankets beneath the seat and the two of them wrapped themselves in the musty wool.
“If I don’t reg’ster, whatya think the chances are I’ll go to jail?” Zephaniah asked.
“Pretty good, I suspect.”
“An’ if I do reg’ster, it don’t mean I’ll be drafted.”
“That’s what they say.”
Zephaniah shifted on the wagon seat.
“Thinkin’ about it that way,” he said slowly, “maybe I ought t’ reg’ster. I’m likely to go to jail if I don’t, but there’s a good chance nothin’ll happen if I do.”
Laz fiddled with the reins, flipping them lightly on the backs of the mules. James snorted, irritated, the sound muffled by the deep stillness of the early morning.
“Yer ma don’t want ya in no war,” he said. “I don’t neither. Yer a good hand. But that ain’t the point. Yer a man now, Zeph. You got to make yer own decisions. All I would say is that ya ought t’ make ‘em for the right reasons.”
The Fifth of June was a state holiday, declared by the governor, on account of the draft: fifty million men, every American male between twenty-one and thirty years of age, lined up to register on the same day. That was the idea. No one knew what to expect; nothing like this had ever been tried before.
Zeph Mabry left without telling his parents. Laz had taken the mules out early to mow prairie hay. Willa cooked breakfast, corn meal mush and bits of fried salt pork, and went out without a word to pick pole beans, taking the two girls with her.
“You two go on and start chores,” Zeph told his brothers. “I’ll be right out.”
Zechariah stared at him, muttered, “Come on, Zeb,” and guided the boy outside.
Zephaniah waited until he knew they were in the barn, then put two cold biscuits and some of the salt pork in a bandana and slipped out the door.
He covered the five miles without effort, walking quickly, self-conscious, afraid, eager and guilty all at once. Zephaniah did not suppose for a moment his mother would approve or even understand, or even that his father would, despite what Laz had said. Zeph knew he would never feel completely right about this no matter what happened. This in addition to the nauseating certainty of humiliation once he reached Aquilla, the eyes of the townspeople on him, sizing him up, looking him over, grinning at his overalls and worn out boots and broad-brimmed farmer’s hat. He and the other farm boys would be better than a circus come to town. A freak show. A minstrel troupe. And yet Zephaniah hurried on, not the least confident of his motivations or the honor of his intentions.
He had, at least, no trouble finding where he was supposed to be. A crowd had gathered on the lawn of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South; Judge Hargrave and Wilbert Simpson, the two registrars, sat in cane bottom chairs behind a table in the shade of a vast oak. The town band, consisting of a base drummer, three horns of various shapes and sizes, and two clarinets did its best to inspire martial patriotism. Zeph spoke to no one, saw no one he knew except for the two men at the registration table. And they hardly counted. Judge Hargrave was the most prominent man in town, and Wilbert Simpson was the postmaster.
“Well, Zephaniah Mabry,” Judge Hargrave said when Zeph stepped forward.
The Judge was a trim, clean-shaven man, dressed in a cream colored linen suit, starched white shirt and white straw boater. He smelled of talcum, peppermints and pipe tobacco, and smiled in a way that suggested Zeph had showed up at a party to which he was not invited.
“Hello, Judge,” Zeph said, clutching his oversized hat in his oversized hands. “Is this where I sign up?”
“Oh, yes,” said the Judge. “Yes, indeed.”
“I just turned twenty-one the end of last month,” said Zephaniah.
“Yes,” replied the Judge, “I know.”
Judge Hargrave was not really a judge. He was a justice of the peace whose official duties extended no further than an occasional marriage. Unofficially, he ran the town and half the county. He was president of the school board, deacon of the Methodist Church, more regular in his attendance at town council than the councilors themselves. He was chairman of the county Democratic Party and a state committeeman, and was said to be on a first-name basis with the governor, two congressmen and both U.S. senators – or had been, until the blind and raving Thomas Gore made himself an untouchable by opposing the war.
Wilbert Simpson, it was generally acknowledged, owed his job to the Judge’s intercession, though why the Judge would do such a thing was a mystery. Simpson had been a schoolteacher, and by most accounts not a very good one, when out of the blue he’d been appointed postmaster. Not even superficially agreeable, in personality or appearance, Wilbert Simpson was short and fat and almost always ill-shaved, having either missed a patch of whiskers or cut himself or both.
“Hear some of them Joneses is up in your neck of the woods,” Simpson said.
Zeph looked puzzled.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “But it is an awful common name.”
Simpson smiled nastily.
“I’d stay away from that bunch,” he said.
“Leave young Zephaniah alone,” said the Judge, though he did not seem very distressed by Simpson’s tone or direction. He took a card from the stack in front of him and brought his Waterman safety pen to the ready.
“Now, Zephaniah, I have to ask you some questions and I need you to answer them, even if it’s something I already know.”
“Yes, sir,” said Zephaniah, wondering at his own discomfort.
The Judge asked Zephaniah his full name and told him to spell it. Birth date. Place of birth.
“Are you a natural born citizen?” he asked.
“As far as I know,” said Zeph.
“Mostly my father, I guess, except I don’t get reg’lar wages. Sometimes when things is slow I har out and make a little cash money.”
“All right, that’s fine,” said the Judge. “You’re not married, are you Zephaniah?”
The Judge neatly wrote “Caucasian” in the next blank without bothering to ask.
“Last question,” he said. “Do you claim exemption from the draft, and if so on what grounds?”
Zephaniah pursed his lips. They felt dry and cracked and his throat tightened uncomfortably.
“Excuse me, Judge, but what does that mean, ‘exemption?’”
He knew of course, or thought he did, but wanted to make sure. The Judge looked him over thoughtfully, as if he suspected Zeph of mocking him.
“It means you don’t believe you should have to serve,” the Judge said. “Is there any reason you should not serve your country, Zephaniah?”
Zephaniah stared at the table, seeing nothing; thinking, this is it, this is the point of no return, thinking of his father and his mother and the strange incomprehensible urge overwhelming all else.
“No, sir,” he said. “No reason I can think of.”
“That’s fine, then,” the Judge said. “Sign here were I’ve marked the ‘X’.”
Zephaniah did, and turned aside quickly, wanting suddenly to get away, and in so doing walked straight into a young woman who had come up on him unnoticed. He spluttered incoherently, apologizing, crushing his hat in his agitated hands; embarrassed, he searched for an escape, only to come up against a face smiling up at him from under the brim of a broad summer hat.
“At ease, soldier,” she said playfully, almost intimately.
She laughed at that, but not cruelly, or so it seemed to Zeph. He relaxed a little, and almost smiled. The girl looked him full in the face, dark hair billowing from under the hat to frame round high cheeks and a pointed chin.
“Here,” she said, and reaching up pinned a red, white and blue button, the word “Registered” printed across it in big block letters, onto the front of Zeph’s overalls. He stared down, transfixed by the girl’s hands, the flutter of her eyelashes, the fragrance of her perfume.
“Thank you,” Zeph managed to say.
“Thank you,” replied the girl, patting his chest with a casualness that took his breath away. She turned to the next man in line, a squat fellow in a linen suit; Zeph watched, the spot on his own chest where she touched him still warm.
“She’s something else, isn’t she?” said a voice.
Zeph turned in the direction of the question. A young man, round and pale and dressed in summer weight suit, said, “A regular Rosalind is our Miss Helen.” He winked, and added, “Although I doubt anyone would every mistake her for a boy.”
Zeph smiled back, wondering what the devil this foppish fellow had just said and whether he ought to be punched in the nose for it.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” the fop said. “Johnny Phillips. I expect we’ll be seeing quite a lot of each other once we’re in uniform.”
Johnny Phillips extended a soft white hand that Zeph accepted reluctantly, suspicious he was being made a fool of. Johnny Phillips’ grip was surprisingly firm.
“Have you known Helen long?” Phillips asked.
Zeph understood him to mean the girl with the red, white and blue buttons, and shook his head.
“I don’t know her at all. You say her name is Helen?”
Johnny beamed like a proud parent.
“Yes, indeed. Helen Stephens, the most popular girl in the entire county, I’d say. Her father’s president of a bank, you know, and chairman of the local defense committee. But I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”
Zeph stammered out an introduction.
“Zephaniah, you say? Don’t think I’ve ever met a Zephaniah. Knew a Jeff once. Named for Jefferson Davis, I believe. And I won a tidy sum at Hot Springs on a horse named Zephyr Red. Five-to-one on the nose.”
Zephaniah felt as if he’d been trampled himself.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Johnny Phillips continued after barely a pause. “You’re thinking, ‘If he’s so gung-ho, why hasn’t he volunteered?’ Well, Zephaniah, the truth of the matter is that I am lazy. A natural-born procrastinator.”
Zeph didn’t know what this meant either. He stepped back, thinking it might involve some sort of perversion, just as Helen Stephens said, “Johnny’s a natural born wind bag, is what he is.”
“Loquacious, moppet,” Johnny returned airily, “and, alas, due back at the old salt mine.”
Grabbing Zeph’s hand one more time, Johnny Phillips pumped it vigorously, professed great pleasure at their meeting, and sauntered away. Zephaniah watched him go, as one might watch a carnival train leaving town.
“Johnny works for my father at the Farmers and Merchants Bank,” said Helen Stephens, standing now at Zeph’s side. “He’s only a teller, but half the time he acts as if he owns it.”
“Farmers and Merchants Bank,” said Zephaniah. “Your father is Loyal Stephens?”
“I’m afraid so,” she replied; then, turning suddenly, said, “Sorry, I have to tend to my duties!”
Zeph observed her departure with unaccountable melancholy. He walked around to the north side of the church, out of the sun and seeking solitude, and found three steps leading up to a door that looked as if it hadn’t been opened in a very long time. Zeph sat, took out the biscuits and salt pork, and wished for coffee or cold tea. Having neither, he looked about for a pump handle or spigot; failing even that, he commenced eating his meager meal, chewing slowly, making it last.
A man Zeph recognized as a tenant farmer named Will Martin had lowered himself onto the grass a few steps away. He was a few years older than Zeph, married and working forty acres seven or eight miles north of the Mabrys. Zeph offered a biscuit but Martin waved it off.
“Obliged,” Martin said, “but I brought my own.”
Martin sat like a cocked steel trap, legs crossed at the ankles, knees wide apart. His forearms rested lightly on his thighs, hands loosely clasped. Martin wore blue overalls and a straw hat pushed back on his head. A tongue of black hair hung down across his forehead.
“I heard that bastard Simpson make some crack about the Jones Family,” Martin said. His small, dark, mean eyes fixed unblinkingly on Zeph.
“I told them I don’t know any Jones family.”
“But I don’t know any Jones family,” Zeph blurted. He knew it probably wasn’t the smartest thing he’d ever said but he was tired of pretending to know more than he really did.
Martin’s dark eyes narrowed.
“Just stick to that story and ever’thing’ll be fine.”
“I wish I knew who the heck these Joneses are that ever’body’s so interested in.”
Martin got to his feet. Zeph, desperate to keep him engaged, to find out whatever he could about this mysterious family, said the only thing he could think of.
“You here to reg’ster for the draft, too?”
The black eyes settled on him one last time. Martin grinned unpleasantly.
“Sure,” he said. “I reg’stered.”
Main Street was made up like the Fourth of July. Flags hung from angled poles over every door. Bunting trimmed every window. A cable stretched across the street between the upper floors of the opera house and the Grand Hotel carried an enormous banner with the inscription “Courage and Honor”.
Zeph peered up at it, thinking he should probably feel something; something besides guilt for being here in the first place, and in the second for not having already set out for home. He had no business here. His duty, if that is what it was, had been done. But his fingers, thrust deep in his front pockets, touched the quarter and two dimes in the right one, and knew he would stay a little bit longer.
The town fascinated Zeph, for all of his fear of the people who inhabited it. He knew of much bigger places – Ada, Oklahoma City, Chicago, New York. But he knew them only as a matter of faith, the same way he knew of China or the planet Mars. He’d never been to any of them, or to any place that James and John could not reach in a day. He had never ridden on a train, slept in a hotel, eaten in a restaurant. Aquilla wasn’t much, he supposed, but he could hear it and see it and smell it, and that was more than he could say for any other place on earth.
It was ten o’clock in the morning, already turning hot, the shadows across the south side of Main Street growing shorter. Zeph strolled along, looking in windows, examining the trucks and automobiles parked at angles into the curb. Fords, mostly. A few Chevrolets, one or two Cadillacs and an Oakland. No horses or mules. Aquilla was progressive; the hitching posts had been pulled up and Main Street paved — bricks overlaid with concrete – and the warped and broken boardwalk replaced with a raised concrete sidewalk. No getting buried to the axles in the middle of town, no wet shoes on rainy days or stepping in manure on dry ones.
Zeph took his time, taking in the sights the way he had eaten his biscuits and salt pork. He peered in windows: a dress shop, a dry goods, a dime store. He went back to the automobiles, looking them over one at a time, remembering the time a corset peddler picked him up in a Stanley. Zeph wondered, guiltily, if the Army might let him drive a motor vehicle himself, should his number be drawn after all.
Through the open door of a diner Zeph smelled fried eggs and bacon, though it was hours past breakfast time; his eyes rested on half a chocolate layer cake under a glass cover. His right hand, deep in his pocket, grasped the quarter and two dimes, holding on for dear might. He had brought them for strength, for security, determined not to spend them except in an emergency, having no idea just what such an emergency might be. He had held the money back from the two dollars Lige Gilcrease paid him in March to dig out some stumps. The rest had gone into Willa’s cigar box, repository of the family’s cash money, hidden beneath a loose floorboard in her bedroom.
A William S. Hart picture was playing at the Palace. Even Zeph, who had been to few movies in his life, knew the name William S. Hart. Zeph stared at the movie posters, for the Hart picture and the coming attractions — a Chaplin two-reeler, a Mary Pickford, a Harry Carey. Motion picture actors, someone had told him, made a hundred dollars a week or more and were driven around in big automobiles by men called chauffeurs. Chauffering, Zeph thought, sounded like a lot better job than pushing a plow or picking cotton.
He moved on.
Blue Button overalls were on sale at Massoud’s, the Lebanese department store. Zeph spent considerable time examining the Victrola in the window of Sims Furniture, puzzling, as he always did, over how the devil the thing worked. A grim-looking woman, the wife of the owner, glared back back at him through the window, arms folded across her chest.
He crossed to the other side of the street, past the opera house, where no opera had ever been performed; past a confectionery, a hardware store, the Sanitary Grocery. Kimes’, the licensed pharmacy, sold Coca-Cola at its soda fountain, or so the sign in the window said. The milliners didn’t interest him much, nor did the shoe store. Another grocer, this one with bananas hanging in the window. Another dry goods. A little coffee shop, barely wide enough for a counter and stools, the place empty, the man behind the counter leaning on it, smoking a cigarette, reading a newspaper.
Zephaniah came at last to the end, to the intersection where the two main roads through town met. An automobile garage, fashioned from an old store, gasoline pumps in front, a roadster on jacks visible through the open double doors on the side, occupied one corner. A restaurant promising the best steaks south of Kansas City occupied another.
The remaining two corners belonged to the town’s two banks. Across from Zeph, the First State Bank of Aquilla. Next to him, the Farmers and Merchants. Zeph’s knowledge of financial affairs may have been limited, but he was quite aware that the Farmers and Merchants was by far the larger and more important of the two. And it looked it. Three stories, brick, limestone façade, glazed and barred windows, huge columns at the front door. Through foreclosure and mortgage, the Farmers and Merchants controlled half the land in the county, or so it was said. Zephaniah’s father, ever distrustful of banks and bankers, had likened the men who operated the Farmers and Merchants to the moneylenders driven from the temple by Jesus. Willa had called them vipers and jackals. Zeph thought of Helen, the girl had just met that morning, and shook his head.
He headed home.
This post was written by firstname.lastname@example.org