Author’s Note: In Beneath the Harvest Moon, a Middle Grade work in progress, thirteen-year-old Jack Pritchard's world is turned upside down when his mother is killed and his father is arrested for the crime. Though his small southern town is quick to judge, Jack believes in his father's innocence and sets out to find the true killer and clear his father, or else lose the only family he has left.
“Come a’runnin’, Jack. You’re gonna want to see this.”
Dalton called through the screen door of the Pritchards’ kitchen and tore off up the road spraying sand and gravel behind him as he went. Jack swirled the last bite of a biscuit around the rim of his plate, trying to soak up any remaining drops of grease from the country ham he’d just finished. He gulped down half a glass of milk, wiped his chin with the back of his hand, and hit the summer at full tilt. The screen door slammed behind him and Amelia Pritchard looked at her husband, shaking her head as she began clearing the breakfast table. Jonathan Pritchard grinned at his wife and said, “I reckon the summer has officially begun.”
Down the road about a half mile or so, Dalton led Jack off the road and onto the familiar path through old man Rutherford’s woods and straight to the tree house the two boys had spent the last six months constructing.
They bounded into the small clearing around a grand old locust tree to find the third member of their construction crew, Lilly Clayton, standing with her hands on her hips amid a tremendous scattering of broken plywood, shredded comic books, and about two dozen shattered green Coca-Cola bottles. Worst of all, though, were the strips of rough, brown tweed fabric and the billowing tufts of white cotton stuffing hanging down from the entrance of the treehouse like soapsuds overflowing a washtub. Smaller puffs hung from the branches all the way down and littered the ground below.
“The couch,” Lilly said, her voice a mixture of sadness and disgust. “Do you know how long it took us to get that couch up in that tree?”
“I got that couch from my granny,” Dalton sighed. “We’ll never get another one.”
“What happened?” The words had barely crossed Jack’s lips when the breeze shifted and his nose caught a good strong whiff of the answer. “Aww, what is that god-awful smell?”
“I’ll tell you what it is.” Dalton cut his eyes back over his shoulder. “Hellion.”
“Oh, Dalton, you blame that panther for rain on a Saturday. Fact is, we’ve been all over this mountain a million times and never seen so much as a paw print. How do you know it wasn’t a coon or a possum that got up in there last night, rootin’ around? Better yet, it was probably Adger Crain and his brothers—waiting for us to get the dad-burned thing finished so they could come and tear it up.”
Jack wanted there to be another explanation for the destruction of the tree house. They all did. Hellion, as he had come to be known throughout Walker County, was a figure of legend. The stories were older than Jack and his friends—older even than their parents. And there wasn’t a soul in town who didn’t feel the hint of a chill on their backbone whenever someone mentioned the black panther that prowled the mountainsides by night.
“That smell is panther scent,” Dalton continued. “And you can argue all you want, Jack, but that ol’ panther’s done marked this tree house as his territory. It belongs to him now. Unless you’d like to reclaim it.” Dalton glanced over his shoulder at Jack with a half grin.
“Maybe we can scrub the scent off and Hellion won’t remember it if he can’t smell it,” said Lilly.
“We can try, I guess,” Jack mumbled. He and Dalton looked at each other, neither wanting to seem like the coward of the group. “Long as we’re here, we might as well pick up some of this trash. We can pile it up and bring a wheelbarrow for it later.”
The three friends began to gather the debris, carefully sifting through the remains of their treasured hideaway. The remnants of the early morning fog burned away and the midday sun rose high above them as Dalton chattered without end about the mighty panther. “Did y’all hear the one about Miss Dorothy Reed’s baby?” he asked.
“Yes,” Lilly and Jack replied together. They had long since grown tired of the stories and Dalton’s voice in general, but their groans and sighs did not discourage the storyteller. He continued.
“Miss Dorothy Reed lived up on Poplar Bluff. I reckon she must’ve been a little bit older than our folks. Her husband went off to Germany to fight in the war. They had a baby that was born right soon after he left, a little boy, I believe it was, and Miss Dorothy was left to raise it all by herself.
“One evenin’ about dusk, she was out taking the wash down off the line, before the dew could set on it, when she saw some lights around the front of her house. The baby was layin’ in a basket underneath the clothesline and she left him there while she walked to the front yard. When she got there she saw that the lights were from a jeep that had come up the mountain and stopped in her yard. Two men in army uniforms got out and handed her a letter signed by the President of the United States. It said he was real sorry to tell her that Mr. Reed had been killed in a trench in Austria. Mustard gas is what I heard.
“Well, Miss Dorothy clutched that letter to her heart, fell down on her knees, and started bawlin’ right there in front of those two soldiers. They were trying to help her into the house when she told them she had to get her baby. But when they all got around back, the basket was empty and there was paw prints in the dirt, big as a man’s face.
“You know, they say a panther’s cry sounds just like a woman screamin’. Well, that’s what they heard just up the bluff. Miss Dorothy begged them two soldiers to go after her baby, but they looked at the size of the tracks on the ground and said they’d have to come back in the morning with some help. Now let me tell you, Jack Pritchard, if the U.S. Army is afraid of that cat, then you’d better be too, boy.
“Anyway, Miss Dorothy run into the house and got a lantern and went tearin’ up into the woods. The soldiers tried to stop her, but can’t nothin’ stop a mama from protecting her own. Wasn’t long before the men heard that sound again, except this time there was two screams—one from Hellion, and one from Miss Dorothy Reed. The screams echoed down through the holler and when it stopped, there wasn’t another sound. Not a cricket nor a hoot owl. Nothing. And neither Miss Dorothy nor her baby was ever seen again.”
As if to illustrate the silence on Poplar Bluff that night, Jack and Lilly, and Dalton stared long and hard at the ground. They remained that way for a long minute until a light thumping right above them broke their trance. They looked up and the idea slowly occurred to each that someone—or something—might still be up in the tree house. No one spoke; they just stared up dumbly until Lilly finally looked at the boys. “I’ll go,” she said hoarsely.
She turned and stepped up onto the trunk of the old locust and the boys said nothing, for neither Jack nor Dalton held any illusion that Lilly was any less capable of taking care of herself simply because she was a girl. The fact of the matter was that both the boys knew Lilly was at least as brave as either one of them. Even if they wouldn’t want to say it out loud.
Though the tree house had a proper front doorway, the real entrance ran up through the middle of the floor. No ladder or steps were needed because the locust tree provided a number of sturdy branches that made the twelve-foot climb simple. Lilly made her way to the entrance swiftly and effortlessly. She stopped at the opening, drew in a long breath, and eased her head up through the hole. She soon scrambled inside and the boys held their breath waiting to hear from her.
“Well, old Hellion didn’t tear everything up, anyway. He left you something, Jack.” Upon hearing Lilly’s voice, and thankful that she was alive, the boys exhaled and hurried up the tree to join her. When Jack climbed in he immediately saw the source of the thumping. Hanging from a nail by the small window opening on the back wall was a silver pocket watch with a worn leather strap. It had been Jack’s grandfather’s before he passed away. Granddaddy Pritchard gave it to him the last time Jack ever saw his grandfather alive. It didn’t hold a great deal of monetary value, but that watch was Jack’s most prized possession on this earth.
“I plumb forgot I left it up here,” Jack said as he cupped the watch in his hand and pressed down on the winding stem. The front cover popped open and Jack let out a relieved breath to see that his granddaddy’s timepiece was ticking away, steady as ever. He carefully placed the watch in his front pocket and hooked the chain through the belt loop of his faded blue jeans.
The three friends looked around the ruins one more time. “Might as well go home,” Dalton sighed. “There’s not much more we can do right now and I don’t think I can take the stink in here another minute.”
They trudged mournfully back home and none could muster an encouraging word. The sun had begun its downward arc by the time they reached the Pritchards’ back gate. They stopped at Jack’s backyard, nodded knowingly, and went their separate ways. Jack pulled the screen door and heard his mother call from the front room, “You’re late, young man. There’s a pot of beans on the stove and cornbread on the counter. They’re likely cold by now.”
“Thank you, Mama. I’m not really hungry.”
“Well that’s a first.” Jack’s mother smiled and leaned in the doorway. She pulled back a navy blue kerchief from atop her head and her auburn hair fell down her back. She mopped at her forehead and flung the kerchief over her shoulder. “Where have you been all morning? I thought you were going to help me stake my tomato plants today.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Mama. I completely forgot. I’ll make it up to you. I’ll weed the whole garden next week.”
“I know you will.” Amelia grinned. “So what did Dalton have to show you that took the better part of a day?”
“Aw, something got up in our tree house and tore it all to pieces. Probably a coon. You know how they like to root around.” He didn’t tell his mother about the scent. He didn’t want her to worry. Moreover, he didn’t want her to forbid his going back to the woods for the rest of the summer.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Jack, but look at the bright side—fixing it back up will give the three of you something to do for the rest of the summer.”
“I could think of a whole mess of ways I’d rather spend my summer than redoing work I’ve already done.” Jack shook his head. His mother was always looking on the bright side of things. She could find the silver lining of the blackest storm cloud. It was a trait that sometimes annoyed him, but on the whole, he wished that he possessed a little more of it himself.
Hoping to change the subject, he asked, “Did Daddy come home for dinner?”
“Yes,” Amelia answered, “but he said he wouldn’t be home for supper. He’s got to run the paper tonight and he says there’s something wrong with the typeset. He’ll be redoing some work of his own, I suppose.” As she turned and headed back to her chores, she called over her shoulder. “It’ll just be you and me. We can finish that pot of beans.”
Jack went upstairs to his bedroom. He pulled his granddaddy’s watch from his pocket and looked at the engraving on the cover. A lone wolf atop a rocky peak, neck stretched upward, howling to the heavens, silhouetted against an oversized full moon. That wolf had always reminded Jack of his grandfather.
He snapped the cover of the pocket watch closed and twirled the black and tan leather strap around his index finger until the watch landed tightly in his palm. He placed it gently on his nightstand and lay back on his bed. The first day of summer hadn’t been at all what he’d hoped for and as the early evening breeze shimmied in through the window, he felt confident that in the days to follow the summer would surely start looking up.
Blood ran down the staircase like a waterfall. It seeped under the front door and painted the porch the color of crimson death. The boy put a sweaty palm on the knob and waited, mesmerized by the gore pooling around his bare feet. He drew in a deep breath and turned the knob. As the door opened, the red river behind it rushed ever faster and began to cover the grass and soak into the dusty dirt road. The boy waded into his living room, the blood knee deep now. And rising.
His shirt spattered and his pants saturated, he stepped onto the staircase and the blood now rose with every step he climbed. It wasn’t chasing him. It was pushing him. It was driving him up the stairs and it wouldn’t stop until he saw what it had to show. The blood had secrets to tell and the boy was going to have to open his eyes and listen. He looked back over the banister as he reached the top step, but the only thing he could see was a scarlet wave cresting and breaking around his ankles on the second floor.
He ran to his parents’ bedroom and found it empty. He felt the warm liquid envelop him up to his waist now. He splashed his way over to the closed window, pulled on it, beat it with his fists, threw his body against it, but it refused to grant him mercy. Chest high. He grabbed a bedpost and pulled himself up, but he knew now that it wouldn’t be much longer. Instinctively, he kicked his feet just as he had done so many times in the millpond and he felt himself being buoyed toward the ceiling.
As the blood reached his shoulders and the ripples licked at his neck, he tried to spit the salty, metallic taste out of his mouth. The boy craned his neck upward, refusing to relinquish the last gasps of oxygen, when he noticed something floating toward him. He thrashed against the waves and suddenly realized what he was seeing. A body. Face down. Drowned.
He tried to kick himself away, but the dead man drifted upon him too quickly. Trying hard to hold in a scream, the boy put a hand out to push the body away, but as he reached toward the corpse’s blood-soaked hair, its face slowly lifted. It was his father. His eyes were wide open and blood ran from the corners like tears. He opened his mouth and clotted gore poured out, and behind it a choked whisper escaped…
Jack sat bolt upright in his bed, beads of sweat on his forehead and a tear rolling down his cheek. He awoke just in time to hear himself whimper and he sat looking frantically around his bedroom. He lay across his bed with his feet still on the floor. He was still wearing yesterday’s clothes. It took him a moment to place himself. He turned his head, looked into the mirror atop his chest of drawers and whispered, “Why do I keep having that dream?”
It was the fourth time in a month that Jack had gone to sleep only to find himself being washed away in a torrent of blood—a sea that filled his own house and, most disturbingly, consumed his father. What did it mean? Was it haunting him or was it trying to tell him something? He didn’t know the answer, just as he didn’t know it the last time or the time before that.
He made his way blearily down the stairs, running his fingers through the tawny thicket atop his head. Morning light streamed through the kitchen window as Jack stopped at the icebox to empty the last drops of milk into a glass. When he closed the icebox door, he instinctively wiped his hand on his pants. The door handle was covered with dried black printer’s ink. There were also ink smudges on the back doorknob, the back of one kitchen chair, and a plate in the sink. Daddy must have come home, Jack realized. His father was constantly leaving ink stains on most everything he touched. It nearly drove Amelia mad, but more often than not her response was a sunny, “That’s what I get for marrying a newspaper man.”
The house was quiet and Jack went to the screen door and looked out into the backyard. He could see his mother carefully turning her small watermelons on the vine to keep the rinds from flattening out or losing their color on the ground. She loved her garden and she cared for her plants with the same sweetness and gentle hand with which she cared for her family. Jack pushed on the door and the squeaking of the hinges caused Amelia to look over her shoulder.
“I’m starving,” Jack said.
His mother smiled. “I don’t doubt it. You’ve missed three straight meals. I came to get you for supper last night but you looked like you needed to sleep more than you needed to eat, so I left you.”
“Is Daddy home?”
“Home and gone again. He’s still running this week’s edition.” Amelia used her forearm to wipe sweat from the bridge of her nose and push back the brim of a floppy straw sunhat. “Go on and get you something to eat,” she continued. “There’s cornbread and molasses. That’ll have to do you until dinnertime. After you eat I need you to run over to Margie’s and get milk and butter.”
Jack polished off three good-sized pieces of cornbread with molasses and he sorely wished that he hadn’t already finished the last of the milk. It wasn’t much of a breakfast, but it would have to do. He changed his shirt and headed back out the screen door.
“Two gallons of milk and a pound of butter,” his mother called. “And Jack, try not to be gone all day.”
“I’ll be right back, Mama.”
He rounded the house and before he reached the gate he saw Lilly and Dalton heading down the road. He hopped the fence and jogged to meet them. “Hey,” he called, “y’all goin’ to work on the tree house?”
“Nah,” Dalton replied, “we just can’t see spending the whole summer on it. We spent most of the fall and spring building it and fixin’ it up. I say we just let it be for now. Summer’s supposed to be fun.”
“I guess,” said Jack. What neither of them said—what they didn’t have to—was that if it really was Hellion that ruined the tree house, they didn’t want to spend the entire summer afraid that he might come back.
“We’re going down to the millpond,” Lilly said cheerily. “Probably won’t swim today, just wade in. Want to come?”
“I have to go over to Miss Harper’s and get the milk for Mama. Maybe I’ll find you later.”
“Suit yourself.” Lilly smiled. She and Dalton passed the garden and waved to Mrs. Pritchard, who offered her condolences for the poor tree house.
Jack turned and headed toward town. The Pritchards lived just outside of Fairview proper, only a couple of miles from Main Street, where the newspaper office stood opposite the courthouse and the county jail. He wouldn’t make it into town today, though. A mile or so before the hard packed dirt road gave way to the paved streets of town, Jack veered off toward Miss Marjorie Harper’s place. Margie Harper kept six or eight milk cows and a good number of townfolk counted on her for their dairy needs.
Jack walked slowly, stopping to look for the woodpecker he heard rat-a-tat-tatting overhead and to pick a handful of honeysuckle blossoms. He stood one foot in the road and one in the ditch, popping the ends off the honeysuckle and squeezing out the sweet nectar. He tipped his head back to let a golden drop creep onto his tongue when a voice called from across the road.
“Hey, boy! C’mere! I seen you stealin’ out of my garden. I’ll fix you!”
Jack hung his head because only then did he realize he was standing right in front of Beet Gilbert’s house. Poor old Beet was well known in Fairview. He had the mind of a three-year-old and the mouth of a drunken sailor.
All of the old-timers down at Shakey’s barbershop had a Beet story to tell. Jack had heard lots of them and he decided that diplomacy might be the quickest route to getting himself down the road.
“Why hello, Mr. Gilbert!” he called. “I’m sorry for picking your honeysuckle. I didn’t realize—”
“POW! POW! POW!” To Jack’s surprise, Beet drew his weapon and fired. To his relief, Beet’s weapon was a crooked dogwood branch that he held like John Dillinger, spraying the countryside with hot lead.
“Now, Mr. Gilbert, there’s no need to—”
“POW! POW! POW!”
“I really didn’t mean to—”
“POW! POW! POW!”
“Dadburn it, Beet! You know good and well that honeysuckle ain’t nothin’ more than weeds on the side of the road. Now quit shootin’ me!”
Beet lowered his dogwood Tommy Gun, but he didn’t cease fire. “I know who you are. You the paper man’s boy. I know where you live. Yes I do! Can’t nobody steal flowers from my garden. I’ll burn yo’ house down! Yes I will! I’ll fix you, boy. I’ll fix you!”
Jack knew that Beet could go on for as long as he could stand in front of him. And so, Jack simply turned and headed toward Margie Harper’s. When he passed the reach of Beet’s high-pitched, nasally voice, he had to smile. Everyone in town knew that Beet Gilbert was about as harmless as dandelion tuft.
Crazy. But harmless.