Sunday Sampler: Deadline News by Caleb Pirtle III
July 12, 2015
In our mission to connect readers, writers, and books, Caleb and Linda Pirtle has launched a new series featuring writing samples from some of the best authors in the marketplace today. Sunday’s Sampler is an excerpt from Deadline News by Caleb Pirtle III. If you’re looking for a great mystery revolving around an oil boom town, this is the novel you don’t want to miss. As one reviewer said: Reading this novel was like watching a classic John Ford black and white western. The setting is stark and desperate and so are the characters of Deadline News.
During the early days of the 1930s, a publisher and his young daughter become the conscience of a little town whose peace and serenity have been shattered by a brutal murder. Everyone’s a suspect. But no one has a motive.
The publisher only wants to turn out his weekly newspaper on time but discovers himself digging deep through the secret layers of the town to find love he thought had abandoned him forever and a killer that no jury would ever convict.
What I liked about death was that it sold newspapers.
It didn’t particularly matter who died since nobody was rich and even fewer were famous within the pine-blanketed hills and blackberry ravines surrounding Henderson, Texas, during those dark and dying days of 1930. Someone’s sudden departure from this earth always affected someone else, and I couldn’t write front-page obituaries long enough or often enough to satisfy the inquisitive meddling of friends, relatives, acquaintances, neighbors, strangers, and the morbidly curious.
What I liked about selling newspapers was that it put food on the table or at least had an outside chance of financing an occasional dish of pork belly grease down at Herb Smooley’s Café or Johnny Hampton’s chili joint. Smooley simply served a better class of indigestion.
What I liked about eating was that it kept me alive long enough to write about the dying and the burying and the grieving that was as frequent in East Texas as the drought in summer and chilled rain squalls in winter.
Sometimes there was a bullet or buckshot involved.
I always ate well when there was and sometimes even ran out of ink, which explains why I was standing by the bedside of Pauline Carter while an October rain chilled the night and peppered hard against a rusty tin roof above our heads. The flickering light from a kerosene lamp on a dresser in the corner was too dim to even cast a shadow, and, if my breathing hadn’t been so ragged, the room would have been devoid of sound.
There was no reason for anybody in his right or wrong mind to do what he did to poor Pauline during that precarious bridge of time when the hardships of a day past have been discarded in the darkness, and sleep, if only for a few hours, is the only way to forget they ever existed. For Pauline, sleep had drawn her into an abyss from which there would be no escape. It was the same journey so many had taken. She simply lay down one night, closed her eyes, and morning would come without her.
Pauline Carter had already suffered enough, mostly in silence, and I didn’t know of anybody in town who didn’t like her or respect her or stick a handful of her biscuits in their pockets when they walked out of her boarding house each morning, usually still owing her more money than they could earn chopping pulp wood or cotton for a year.
Pauline Carter was a friend to strangers who didn’t know a soul in town, a cook for the drifters who hadn’t eaten in a month of Sundays, a saint who took care of the lonely, the wayward, the worthless who came wandering through Henderson on their way down a dirt road that held little promise and less hope.
She was a small woman with frail shoulders and thinning black hair that she kept rolled into a tight bun on top of her head. Her eyes were too large and her face too thin, but she had probably been pretty once, back when she was a wife and praying, so I heard, to be a mother. Pauline would have been pretty still if somebody hadn’t taken a shotgun in the cold hours before daylight and left the remnants of her face splattered between the worn, goose-down pillows on her bed.
Doc Featherstone was seated in a hand-hewn, oak rocker beside her when I walked into the room. He was scribbling notes in his black, leather-covered journal and didn’t bother to look up. He was wearing the same rumpled black suit he had been wearing the afternoon before when he stopped by Smooley’s Café for a mess of pork rinds and a beer. Doc was old enough to retire, but he couldn’t retire, he said.
There wasn’t another doctor within twenty miles of Henderson, and folks still had a nasty habit of getting sick, getting hurt, having babies, walking into stray bullets, driving their two-bit trucks into four-bit trees, feuding, fighting, gambling, drinking hard whiskey, chasing the wrong woman, occasionally catching a woman who belonged to the wrong man, and generally finding all sorts of ways to pass from the toil and troubles of this earth.
Doc couldn’t save them all, cure them all, or lock death on the far side of the door, but he was around when anyone needed him.
“You’d probably sleep better tonight if you don’t look at her,” he said bluntly, brushing a thick shock of white hair from his eyes. His face was square and thick with wrinkles, and his black, piercing eyes could cut into the backside of a person’s worthless soul. He had obviously seen things I didn’t want to know about. I never saw Doc smile. He said he never had a reason to smile. He wasn’t smiling now.
“It’s nothing new,” I replied. “When you publish a newspaper, you get to know the dead on a fairly regular basis.”
“She died sudden,” Doc said.
“So I can see.”
“Probably while she was sleeping.”
“It’s better that way.”
Doc Featherstone sighed and closed his notebook. “Dead is dead,” he said softly. “One way’s no better than any other.”
“At least she didn’t know it was coming.”
“Wouldn’t have mattered.”
“I’d hate to think of a good woman like Pauline drying scared.”
“We’re all dying scared,” Doc said, ‘even when we’re not hurt, sick, or have a shotgun barrel shoved between our teeth. “ He shrugged. “Give a man a choice between a million breaths and a million dollars. See which one he chooses.”