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While Sam waited inside the Plymouth, anxiously wringing his hands on the steering wheel, Hadley used the combination of idling headlights and incandescent lantern glow to shuttle a few last-minute items from the hut to the ferry. Whistling a cheery tune, and with the deft sureness of familiar work, the ferryman first deposited a burlap sack of animal feed beside the bench on the starboard wall, then, on the next trip, a stack of empty fruit crates that wobbled with each step, threatening to topple overboard until being lowered precariously down to the deck.
Ignoring the colorful ferryman for a moment, Sam regarded the lantern hanging on the far side of the remote river crossing. Despite the distance and the fading light, it was surprising that he hadn’t noticed the worker on the opposite bank before now, especially as it had appeared every bit as deserted over there as it was on this side. Even more baffling, from what little he knew about the fairly straightforward world of river ferries, one operator was usually sufficient for the task at hand. The redundancy of employing two men to do the job of a single person was precisely the reason that places like Hazlehurst got trampled under the efficient feet of progress, Sam reasoned.
And if the other operator is anything like Hadley here—now unhooking the skinny chain that blocked the ferry’s loading ramp, letting it drop limply across the gravel road—then this is probably about the only kind of work that he’s cut out for as well. Maybe the TWA will have something that even these two can manage to do for a living.
Satisfied that everything was finally in order for the day’s last trip across the river, Hadley moved to the back of the deck. Stealing a glance at the distant lantern, he turned around and motioned for Sam to pull his car aboard, urging him closer with his left hand while using the right to shield his eyes from the harsh headlights. As the car’s tires came into contact with the metal loading ramp, Sam felt the old barge sag lower into the water, groaning in protest as the piecemeal deck boards rubbed against the inside of her rusted hull. Slowly creeping forward, when the car reached the approximate center of the deck, Hadley held up a hand and shouted, “Whoa! That’ll do right there, friend.”
Turning off the car, the echo from the engine raced across the diminutive waves as Sam contemplated staying in the driver’s seat for the short trip across the Oostanaula. It would spare him from any more frustrating and banal chatter with Hadley—good for several reasons—and he could finally eat his meager supper while he worked out what to say to Ellie Garnett that would convince her to sell Sam her land along the river. It was already far later into the night than he’d originally planned on being there, but he was too close now to give up. With a little luck, he could be delivering the good news to Mr. Bennet first thing tomorrow morning.
After that, we’ll see how people treat the guy who saved this agency, he thought to himself with beleaguered satisfaction. If this isn’t enough, I don’t know what is.
His mood finally improving at the prospect of soon reaching Miss Garnett’s, Sam decided that he’d get out of the car after all. It would likely be a short trip across the river, and besides, Hadley might even slip up and unknowingly reveal some information that could aid him in his upcoming pitch to the land-rich widow.
Transplanted from the wrought-iron hook on the outside wall of the hut, the boxy lantern now hanging from a similar mount at the bow of the ferry gently rocked and swayed in cadence with the gradual listing of the hull. As Sam climbed from his car and walked into the bubble of light—carefully stepping over the up-curled ends of several loose deck boards—Hadley greeted him with his usual buoyant energy.
“Now juss’ check this out here, misser fancy pants, an’ you tell me you ever seen somethin’ so quick an’ clever.”
Sam ignored the veiled insult for the moment and watched as Hadley bent down to the ferry’s deck beneath the lantern. Grasping a small metal handle, he lifted a trapdoor lid to the crawl space below. After nimbly climbing down into the hole, he crouched beside a large motor that appeared to be leaking oil from every gasket and fitting meant to contain it. Curious, Sam knelt down to the deck, watching as Hadley performed a ritual of tightening loose bolts, twisting tiny knobs, and fastening wires where, presumably, they belonged.
While homemade, and indeed clever, to Sam it looked like a pretty simple machine. A cable entered into the crawlspace via a hole in the bow just below the deck but well above the waterline. The cable then passed through a set of nearly-touching wheels, down-and-over a pully, and then back up again before disappearing into the pitch-black darkness of the crawlspace and finally making its escape through a matching hole in the stern. The pullies were attached, using trussed metal brackets, to the top of the motor where the driveshaft extended.
Finished with his mysterious pre-operation tasks, Hadley glanced up at Sam with a proud grin. “You ready to hear ol’ Eda sing?” he asked with theatrical showmanship. Curious, but decidedly less enthused, Sam just nodded affirmatively.
Hadley then grasped a handle on the face of the motor and—grunting sharply with the exertion—quickly cranked it around in a circle. Startled into action, the engine belched a cloud of black smoke that escaped through the gaps in the deck boards before disappearing into the night sky—and then fell silent again. Mumbling to himself despairingly, Hadley repeated the ballistic cranking a few times until—with one final plume of noxious exhaust—the motor rumbled to life.
Sam stood and took a few steps back in order to allow Hadley to climb from the noisy crawlspace. Back on deck, the ferryman dropped the trap door shut with a bang, muffling the throaty engine below. As more exhaust seeped through the deck boards, he quickly flashed Sam a wink before moving closer to the bow. Mounted just below the railing, four skinny levers protruded from a metal box affixed to the wall. With a glance over his shoulder at the riverbank, Hadley pulled the lever on the far left of the little box.
At first nothing happened, but then a high-pitched squeal pierced the night as Sam felt a vibrating hum beneath his feet. Briefly startled by the sudden commotion, he watched as the ferry’s loading ramp swung upwards into the night sky, climbing higher and higher until it slammed into position with a noisy clank. In the darkness, a shower of gravel and riverbank mud plopped down into the water, as though confirming that they were now indeed unmoored from terra firma.
With quiet satisfaction, Hadley stole a sidelong peek at Sam before turning back to his control box. Gradually easing the second lever up, there was another penetrating metallic squeal—lower in pitch this time, but now sustained—and the ferry lurched forward with a bump and was underway. Soon, as the inky waves splashed against the faded and chipped red paint, the little brick hut near the water’s edge began to fade into the total blackness.
“So, whatcha think?” said Hadley, raising his voice over the grumbling engine below deck.
“It’s very nice,” replied Sam politely, “did you design and build it yourself?”
The ferryman beamed with pride for a second but then shook his head. “Nah. Well, almost.” He glanced down to the floor quickly and then back up again. “But I helped ever’ step of the way. It’s my cousin got a brain fer things like this,” he said, gesturing vaguely at the hatch by their feet, “but not me—oh no, sir. But, ‘fore me an’ him put a heart in the ol’ girl, we’s had to use mule-wheels on both banks to get Eda over and back. Now juss’ look at ‘er go.” Hadley’s expression told Sam that he likely never grew tired of the glacial trip across the river.
Sam motioned with his chin to the distant lantern and asked, “Is that him up ahead then? Your cousin?”
Without looking, Hadley just laughed a loud, shotgun-blast guffaw and said, “Oh no. Percy left us years ago. Met hisself a city girl and split fer the north. I guessin’ he needed a bit more excitement in his life. I tried to tell him; I says, ‘now what’s more ‘citin’ than crossin’ the ‘Oos at a rip-tearin’ flood? Ya dang near need two pairs of drawers juss’ t’ get there and back!’” He laughed at his own joke—no doubt for the hundredth time—and said, “But naw, whenever I hear from Percy, he always asks about Eda.” His eyes narrowed conspiratorially, and he added, “I think he juss’ misses the big ol’ bitch,” and then erupted into another raucous bout of laughter.
Sam chuckled kindly and said, “I’m sure that he does. Well you certainly seem to enjoy it, that’s all that’s important.” A part of him was beginning to feel a little bit guilty that his chief aim in Hazlehurst was, in all likelihood, going to ruin this simple man’s life. The ferry clearly meant more to Hadley than just an ordinary job—it had become his entire identity. Sam briefly contemplated turning around and heading back to the city. He could always just tell Mr. Bennet that the widow had said “no” to the deal—a very plausible outcome from the onset of his journey.
No. This sale could be worth a hundred Hadley’s, he reminded himself. I’m not standing in line at a soup kitchen all because one or two bumpkins can’t accept reality.
“Yessir, I do enjoy it well and goodly,” Hadley was saying, beaming with pride, “I’ll be here takin’ care of these folks right up till the day they toss the dirt on top of ol’ Hadley.”
They were now approaching the midpoint of the river, bookended between the opposing banks under the cloudless sky and innumerable dots of starlight. The moon had slowly begun to crest the ridgetops that formed the horizon, and its silvery light reflected off the surface of the water like so many bolts of lightning.
As the ferry motored forward, Hadley’s attention had been transfixed on the lantern at the far landing, watching it expectantly as though it were about to say something of great importance. Then, soon after the ferry ambled through the middle of the river, Sam watched as the phantom light began to swing from side to side in long, slow arcs.
“What’s that mean?” he asked Hadley, still standing beside him at the controls. But the ferryman didn’t immediately answer. Instead, he plucked their own lantern from its holder overhead and, in an equally languid manner, swung it back and forth in reply.
“Just making sure things are in order for our arrival is all. No need to fret now mister city.”
His voice was steady and even, if not slightly more subdued than normal. Still, something about the way he said it struck Sam as curious, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
Returning the lantern to its holder, Hadley gripped the second lever and slowly nudged it further up. The humming beneath Sam’s feet grew louder as the ferry gathered a slight amount of extra speed. By all means, save the speed for right before the end, thought Sam, sarcastically.
As they neared the far bank, the waiting lantern—hung on a dead tree from the nub of a broken limb, Sam now saw—cast a familiar orange glow across the landing. Though still too far away to discern much detail, he could plainly see a man standing beside the lantern..
If Hadley’s in charge of the operation, I don’t even want to meet the man who would be in his employ.
Sam decided then and there that upon reaching the landing he would get in his car, fire it up, pull off the ferry, and not stop driving until he was at Ellie Garnett’s house. When he did manage to leave town—likely after sleeping in the backseat along the road someplace—he would locate and then use the bridge, never having to speak to either ferry operator again.
Unprompted, Hadley spoke up without taking his eyes away from the impending lantern. “Yes sir, Mr. Bennet, I most certainly plan on taking care of these folks right up until my last breath. And now, the way I see things, the world is just one big mess out there. Bunch of politicians and businessmen like yourself thinking you’re the next messiah—going ‘round trying to fix everyone’s problems. Now you want to come up here, dragging the stench of your greed and failure with you.”
That’s it, thought Sam with sudden alarm and confusion, his voice! The drawl; the pronunciation—
As the ferry eased towards the bank, Sam didn’t notice that Hadley was no longer beside him—he was mesmerized by the man waiting patiently beside the dead tree in the amber light. It had been daytime when Sam had last seen the man, but even from the deck of the ferry there was no mistaking Israel’s hulking frame. Looking like a matchstick in his hand, the wooden axe handle gleamed in the light.
“It’s like I told you Jerry, up here, we can absolutely stop the march of time.”
Hadley set the basket of fresh rolls on the table—adding to the mountain of food already present—before taking a seat on the long bench. Dishes of fried chicken, greens, chopped potatoes, pies, and other assorted items were pinning the red gingham tablecloth down against the breeze wafting up from the river at the bottom of the hill. All around the picnic table, a dozen conversations were happening at once, as pockets of laughter, gasping disbelief, and general merrymaking floated up into the sunshine.
Ellie Garnett had just slapped Timmy Dewitt’s hand away from a strawberry pie—with the playful admonishment that the young man had better eat some ‘real food’ before his dessert—when a brown cloud of dust appeared on the road at the end of her long driveway. As dishes were passed around and the jovial chatter continued, Sheriff Ermine pulled his olive colored patrol car beside the front porch before shifting it into park. Climbing out, he adjusted the brim of his hat against the sun and strolled over to the lively supper.
“You joining us today Martin?” asked Ellie with an inviting smile from the head of the table. Her salt-and-pepper hair was tied back casually in a ponytail, and a thin strand of pearls adorned her neck. Like most Sundays, she had on a floral-print summer dress—this one with tiny purple and red flowers—and the thin fabric ruffled in the breeze.
“I’m afraid not today Miss Ellie,” said the sheriff, “but next week perhaps.”
Ever the gracious host, Ellie just smiled and nodded. “Well if you’re not here to help eat up all this food, am I to presume this is a business visit then?”
“Eh, I’m afraid so ma’am. I got a call from down in Atlanta earlier. Some sheriff…eh, Parker, I think he said his name was…anyway, he tells me this hotshot real estate whiz down there sent one of his lackeys up this way a couple days ago. Says he was coming up here to talk to you. Thing is, he never made it back to the city. Nobody’s seen hide nor hair of the kid. It’s like he just…poof…vanished into thin air.”
Ellie digested the news for a moment, and then said, “That’s the strangest story, Martin. But, nobody from the city has stopped by here—certainly not to buy the house,” and she laughed dismissively, causing a few of the other supper guests to chuckle as well.
Sheriff Ermine nodded and looked around the sprawling property. The main house was large, though far from the largest or grandest in Hazlehurst. Rolling meadows and pasture fields extended away from the two-story building like a fertile carpet draped across the earth, oozing down to the Oostanaula River below. The view had certainly improved over the decades, as more and more of the Garnett’s trees had been felled in order to build the town. These days, there was nary a house or structure in Hazlehurst—right down to Mr. Copper’s new chicken shed—that hadn’t been built using Garnett lumber from Garnett trees; always free, and always abundant.
“I about figured as much.” The sheriff’s eyes scanned the busy table until they found what, or rather who, they were after. Settling on Hadley—halfway through a juicy slice of watermelon—they narrowed inquisitively before he asked, “What about you Hadley, you seen a maroon Plymouth driving around town anywhere?”
Swallowing a mouthful of melon, Hadley wiped the juice from his lips with the back of his hand and then shook his head. “Nuh-uh Marty, sure ain’t.”
“I noticed that the sign and the barrier blocking off that old ferry road is missing again. You wouldn’t maybe know anything about that?”
Making a show of being deep in thought, Hadley again shook his head. “Nope. But what this town really needs is something more permanent closing that road off.” He scoffed loudly and added, “That little ol’ wooden blockade and rinky-dink sign ain’t no dang good. One day someone’s going to wind up getting hurt down there.”
The sheriff was unconvinced but played along. “Oh? Is that what you really want Hadley? To make sure that no one can ever reach your precious ferry again?”
The table had grown quiet as the various supper guests from town stopped to listen to the tense exchange.
“Well, maybe not for good,” said Hadley, trying to sound indifferent. “It’s a historical landmark after all. It should be on a registry or something.” Several of the men seated near him laughed under their breath as they avoided eye-contact with the sheriff.
“Don’t count on it. In fact, one day you just might get down to the ‘Oos and find ol’ Eda drifted away.”
Hadley flashed a cold stare at the sheriff. “Well I certainly hope not, Marty.”
Just then, Israel emerged from the house carrying two pitchers of lemonade, trudging down the front porch steps like an animated mountain. As he strode through the grass to the table, Sheriff Ermine took a cautious step backwards to make room for him to pass by.
“Just the other fella I was looking to see. You had a maroon Plymouth come into the station in the last couple days, Izzy? Fella from the city behind the wheel. Might have been askin’ about Miss Ellie’s here?”
Israel carefully set the pitches down on the table and then turned to face the sheriff, wiping his wet hands on the front of his overalls. Racking his memory with sky-turned almond eyes, his expression was just as confounded as everyone else’s.
“Hmm. No sir. Had a lady in a Packer stop by yesterday. She had herself a leaky tire. She was passing through to—”
The sheriff held up an impatient palm. “—Save it for your customers, Izzy.” Looking around the table, he said, “Alright. I expected about as much. Listen, if any of y’all see anybody matching that description, you know how to find me.” There was a chorus of agreement around the table, and sheriff Ermine just rolled his eyes before tipping his hat to Miss Ellie. “Ma’am. Y’all enjoy your supper now.” With that, he walked back to his patrol car, and before long another earthen comet soared across a sea of green.
Joy Duncan carefully balanced the coffee cup on a thin saucer as she placed it down in front of her husband. The summer had already been stifling in Knoxville, but Percy still enjoyed a cup of coffee after dinner while he read the newspaper. In the next room, amidst the intermittent hums of white noise, the disembodied voice of the radio announcer dramatically detailed some growing European unrest or another.
“Oh, did I tell you?” Joy began, still wearing her apron, as she took the seat opposite Percy at the kitchen table. “Ginny rang earlier. Apparently Jerry sent one of his underlings out to Hazlehurst for that property you mentioned to him. Well it’s the darndest thing, but the boy never made it back to town, she says. Like he just up and vanished.”
Percy lowered the newspaper that he’d been reading and looked at his wife with strained indifference. “Oh?” he asked, “ well why didn’t the drunken idiot drive up there himself—like I told him to?”
Joy laughed, “Who knows, Jerry always has to make things more difficult than they are.”
Percy stared down at his black coffee thoughtfully for a moment. “Yes, I suppose that’s right. Well, did she say if he was going to go up himself then?”
“Oh she didn’t say, but I would assume so—you know Gerald. You should put him in touch with your cousin. He can help show him around, keep him from getting lost too.”
“You didn’t mention Hadley to your sister, did you?”
Joy sighed with exasperation. “Oh, Percy, my word; I’ll never understand why you’re so secretive about your roots. But no darling, I didn’t mention Hadley.”
Satisfied, Percy smiled and took an airy sip of his steaming coffee. “Good. I just want him to be surprised is all, Hadley’s a special breed. But don’t worry, I’ll be sure an’ let him know to keep an eye out.”
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