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Authors: Bev Marshall

Walking Through Shadows

BOOK: Walking Through Shadows
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A Novel by Bev Marshall

ebook ISBN: 978-1-59692-857-2

M P Publishing Limited

12 Strathallan Crescent
Isle of Man
Telephone: +44 (0)1624 618672
[email protected]

Originally published by:

MacAdam/Cage Publishing
155 Sansome Street, Suite 620
San Francisco, CA 94104
Copyright © 2002 by Bev Marshall
All rights reserved.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Marshall, Bev, 1945–
through shadows / by Bev Marshall.
276 p.
      ISBN 1-931561-05-2
      1. Murder victims—Fiction. 2. Trials (Murder)—Fiction.
      3. Mississippi—Fiction. 4. Farm life—Fiction. 5. Girls—Fiction I. Title.

PS3613.A77 W35 2002

Book design by Dorothy Carico Smith.

Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

For Butch, Angela, Chess, and Dad
Your love carries me through the shadows


Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

— T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men” 1925


My name is Leland Graves, and I’m a reporter here, in Jackson, Mississippi, for The Clarion-Ledger. I work on the crime desk now, but I wasn’t always a hard-news reporter. In fact, I always fancied myself a novelist, and I would never have predicted that a murder that took place nearly five years ago, on August 31, 1941, would change my career — and my life forever.

Back then, I was working for The Lexie Journal in Zebulon, a small town about fifty miles south of here. I covered the society page, writing about local weddings and parties, and if Guy Peters had not quit the paper, I wouldn’t even have been there on that day. But I was there, to capture and report the events of a story that would introduce me to a cast of characters I would never have known otherwise. They were, for the most part, good-hearted and simple people and no one, least of all me, suspected that on that hot, humid day, our innocence would be taken from us.

I remember, as though it were yesterday, them bringing the corpse up the small rise. As I stood watching them come, my anxiety grew until I felt light-headed. I had never seen a dead person except in a casket, rouged and neatly stitched. And though my recollection of the events of that day is muted by intense emotion, I will never forget the scene at Cottons’ Dairy, where the first murder in Lexie County in nearly a decade occurred. Clyde Vairo, the sheriff, had everyone who had come out to join the search for the girl corralled like a herd of sheep. He vowed no one was going to leave until he had questioned them all.

These are the bare facts, written in my reporter’s notebook, which I still keep here in my desk: “Sheila Carruth Barnes, found dead at 4:13 p.m., body found in Lloyd Cotton’s cornfield. Nine-foot cornstalks. Muddy ground.”

I recall asking one of the stretcher-bearers to cover her for decency and respect, but my notes do not reflect the true horror I believe we who saw the tiny body rolling to and fro on the canvas felt. My notes continued: “Green nightdress. Yellow trim. Purple bruises around the neck, several contusions, lacerations. A violent death. Victim may be 15 or 16 years old.” Beneath these lines I wrote, “Bio: employed at Cottons’ Dairy, married to Stoney Barnes. Address — Route 2, Zebulon, tenant house Carterdale Road.”

I couldn’t interview Mr. Lloyd Cotton, the owner of the dairy, that day, as he was given permission to go home to his wife. But I would get to know him as well as his wife, Rowena Cotton, their young daughter, Annette, and many others whose lives were affected by this tragedy when the awful truth of it all unraveled around us.

I tried to talk to the victim’s husband, Stoney Barnes, on that gray day, too. But he was walking in a daze, his handsome face and six-three frame crumpled with grief. He was a boy really, no more than a teenager himself. He had asked me, “Who would want to kill her?” and had stared at my notebook as though I were going to write the name of her murderer upon it.

I wish it had been that simple. But we were all, then, living out a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare’s attention, and I can only imagine the impact it had on those who knew and loved Sheila Barnes.


I never told Mama, but I saw the body. She had warned me to stay out of the way of the people swarming our land like fire ants escaping a poked mound. There were nearly one hundred pairs of feet stomping across our pasture, tromping down our tomato vines and butter bean bushes, kicking our milking buckets and stools across the slick cement floor of the dairy barn. But, despite the drama and confusion, I recall a sense of stillness that subdued the search. It seemed the mockingbirds sat like statues on the sticky resinous branches of the pine trees, and the bees, mosquitoes, yellow jackets, and dragonflies all seemed to slow the beat of their cellophane wings as they flew among the body seekers. From our raised back porch I could see fifty or more heads stretching out like sunflowers bobbing in the wind, swaying silently, seeming at times to float above the early morning mist that clung to the ground. The search had begun around six a.m. when Stoney had knocked on our back door to tell us that Sheila Barnes, his seventeen-year-old wife, was missing.

Her body looked older than seventeen. When the sheriff and three other men brought her out of the cornfield and laid her on the ground, she looked old and broken and defeated. Too short to see over the men’s shoulders, I squatted down behind Mr. Wells to view the corpse between his bowed legs. Stretched out on the ground she looked like a pretend person, a puppet with legs and arms at odd angles to her short torso. She was tiny, not much larger than a blue tick hound, and her blonde shoulder length hair, turned reddish brown with dried blood and mud, was matted to her head in uneven clumps. Her eyes were open, staring up into the men’s faces as if she had an urgent message for them; her mouth was an uneven oval, the bottom lip misshapen and swollen. Later I heard Bob Treacher retching in the weeds behind me. My stomach too rose up to meet my throat, but I kept the bile down even when I saw the beetle. It was stuck in her right nostril. Later when the facts were known, recorded in The Lexie Journal, I knew that, when her head was stomped into the ground between the nine-foot stalks of beautiful green and golden corn, the beetle must have tried to save himself by scurrying into her nose only to be squashed into death and entombed in her battered head.

Sheila was wearing a green nightgown that my mother had given her, with yellow piping around the armholes and neck. I remembered somehow knowing that she wanted to hug Mama when she held the gown against her flat chest, but I saw that she held herself back from that show of affection. When I read the words “love-starved” in a magazine left in Eatha’s Beauty Shop, I thought of Sheila’s yearning faraway look when she would watch Daddy crush my face in a hug against the bib of his overalls. Other words drifted in and out of my mind as I, with a giant-sized case of nerves, slipped in and out of the house the day she was found dead. I had heard neighbors and family members use the words “pathetic” and “feeble-minded” and “star-crossed” to describe her. But what I heard most was Sheila’s own voice that sounded like tiny wren’s wings flapping against window panes. One day beneath the fig tree she said, “Once I walked all the way to Brookhaven. Just took off and walked.” Brookhaven was over twenty miles away. Why, why did you go? I wanted to know. She had giggled, covered her mouth with her hands. “Just felt the road pulling me pulling pulling.” Had she been pulled to our cornfield? Or had she wandered there in a walking dream? Sheila believed all of her dreams held important messages that she didn’t understand. “I dreamed of a snake, a giant garter snake with the head of a lion. It wanted to warn me of something, but I’ve thought and thought and can’t tell what.” Only two nights before this morning when her entire family of fourteen fearful souls had stumbled out of the yellow school bus that brought them to our place, she had told me she dreamed about a secret no one knew. “No one,” she said. “And I ain’t telling it neither. Not yet.” We were sitting on the mossy ground beneath the water oak in her front yard, and she leaned into my body and bumped me with her elbow. “When I tell, you’re going to be one of the first ones I tell.” Then she grinned, a wide happy jack-o-lantern grin that scared me because it appeared unnatural on her thin, pinched face. I would never know the secret now, I thought. But I was wrong. By the time the trial began the whole state of Mississippi was privy to Sheila’s secret.

It was afternoon milking time, before the searchers shouldered their rifles, shotguns, pistols, axes, shovels, and scythes to return to their homes. The cows had come up and stood patiently in the field beside the lot, lowing softly, swatting flies with their tails as if nothing had changed. The sheriff would have questioned them if only they could talk. Clyde Vairo hadn’t expected to conduct a murder investigation during his term of office, and he went about this first one with a zeal that rivaled a puppy’s frantic rooting for its mama’s teat. After the body was loaded into the funeral home ambulance, the sheriff had looked around at the crowd of people standing in Sheila’s and Stoney’s yard. He held up his hands and yelled, “Nobody leave. This here is a crime scene now. It’s murder.” Somebody, Nellis Freeman I think, said in a high-pitched twitter, “Aw, sheriff, it was suicide. She beat herself to death,” but no one laughed.

The sheriff finally left when the moon appeared and cast its light into my bedroom where Mama held me limp and crying against her soft stomach. My friend was dead. The battered puppet wasn’t made of wood, but flesh and bone that I had touched and smelled and had once quickly and shyly kissed. I would miss our daily conversations, her hesitant walk, even the small hump that rose like a papoose from the center of her back. I would miss most of all having someone who would listen to me as if my words were important and not just sounds in the air to be brushed away like the gnats or mosquitoes that drove us all wild. I was not as a rule a crier, having learned by this my eleventh year that tears were generally wasted on my family who believed in “bucking up” when tragedy or disappointment visited, but that day I couldn’t seem to stop the rivers of tears that parted across my cheekbones and filled the hollows of my ears and overflowed into my straight brown hair that Sheila had promised me would curl when I got my period. I got it that night an hour after supper and, holding my pink-stained panties, staring in the bathroom mirror at my lank, still-straight hair, I began to realize that she might have been wrong about many things.

Two years before, when she was fifteen, Sheila trekked barefoot up our graveled driveway looking for work and a new home. I remember the date, July 24th, 1939, because it was Mama’s birthday, and Daddy had gone into town to pick up her surprise present, a new Singer treadle sewing machine. The storm that blew during the night, while I was dreaming of pulling taffy I could almost taste, had left puddles in the metal lawn chairs and I was mopping the seats with an old towel when I looked up and saw Sheila coming down Carterdale Road.

The first thing I noticed about her was the hump. Even though she hadn’t reached our drive, I could see the small mound, the size and shape of a canteen, rising from the middle of her back like a camel’s hump not yet fully grown. Her long blonde hair hung around the sides of her face obscuring all but her pointed nose which led her toward our house. She carried a cloth satchel like the one Grandma used for her yarn, and I guessed that it held only a few belongings as it swung so freely as she walked. Her feet were bare, muddy and wide. They looked much too big for her small frame and I remember thinking of butter paddles as they slapped along the road. She was wearing a yellow-on-white polka dot housedress that looked too elegant for bare feet, and I stopped my wiping and stood staring as she turned up our drive.

When she spotted me, she jerked her cloth bag to her chest and stood still as the lamppost sentinel beside our gate. Although she was standing near the sign that said “Cottons’ Dairy” in large loopy black letters, she lifted her hand to her eyes to shade them and called across the lawn to me. “Is this here the Cotton Place?”

I dropped my towel and walked toward her. “Yeah. I’m Annette Cotton. Can I help you?” I asked in my most polite voice, the one I used for customers, teachers, and anyone related to us on Mama’s side of the family.

She shifted her bag to her left hand, stuck out her right one. “Howdo. I am Sheila Carruth, first born of Thad and Effie Carruth out by the community of Mars Hill?”

I shook her hand heartily. Mainly because no one ever offered me a handshake before. Mars Hill was at least fifteen miles from our house and I wondered if she had walked all the way. Although there were no mountains around southwestern Mississippi, I pictured Heidi with her cloth-wrapped lunch gamboling over mountain paths to find our welcoming hut. I was a sucker for any tinge of foreignness, having lived with the dullest crowd of individuals I believed to have ever assembled in one spot. “You want to buy some milk or cheese? Orange drink?” My father had just begun bottling orange drink and it was fast becoming a best-seller and was the reason for my mother’s extravagant birthday present.

She laughed. Her laugh was unlike any I had ever heard, a child’s giggle reaching a shriek, but in a deeper adult tone. I hadn’t thought my offer was particularly funny, but she continued laughing until she wiped tears from her eyes. “No, no,” she said finally. “I’m not no customer. I’m here to work.”

I lifted my eyebrows. No women had ever worked in the dairy. It was a man’s place, a place of hidden whiskey bottles, drawings of half-naked women on tobacco-stained paper, and curse words, aimed at stubborn cows, that tickled my tongue when I repeated them to the chinaberry trees. “My daddy know about you?” I knew I sounded like a snotty kid and I immediately tried to take back my words by saying, “I mean he isn’t here right now.”

Sheila set her bag on the ground, brushed back her hair with the palms of her hands. “Oh, I ain’t needing to see him right now. I reckon I can wait. Long as need be.”

Her sleeveless dress exposed her freckled arms and I saw a purple bruise on the left one. The light brown freckles extended down her arms to her hands which, unlike her feet, were small and delicate-looking. A mismatch I thought to myself, like the one gray cat in the litter of black and whites, the battered straw hat my mother wore with her starched apron. I loved the unrightness of her, and I already knew somehow that she would become my Best Friend.

I invited her to wait in the house, but she pointed to her dirty feet and said she would just sit on the porch rocker. I brought lemonade and Mama out to her, thinking she looked in need of freshening and an adult who would most likely tell her my daddy didn’t hire women. But Mama walked over to the rocker and said, “You must be Sheila. I’m Rowena Cotton.”

Sheila jumped out of the rocker like there was a prickly bush under her butt. “I didn’t know when to come. Daddy he just said to go, so I come down and now…” Her words had started out rapid fire and died off to nothing like a racing engine suddenly running out of gas.

Mama was smiling. “It’s fine. Lloyd — Mr. Cotton — has gone into town, but he’ll be back soon to show you around the dairy. It’s my birthday, and he thinks I don’t know what he’s bringing home.”

“You know?” I asked. I couldn’t believe she had ferreted out our secret. I had congratulated myself for not giving a single hint and felt betrayed by her supernatural power to read my mind.

Mama patted the top of my head, taking the glass from me and holding it out toward Sheila. “It wasn’t you. Your daddy slipped up this time. Told me not to sew up the rip in his armhole yet. Two and two. It was easy to guess.”

“But what is it?” Sheila blurted out.

Mama and I laughed and said in unison, “A sewing machine.”

Later I learned that Sheila didn’t get presents on her birthday. “Birthdays ain’t nothing to celebrate at our house,” she told me. “Ten kids and no money. Just the little ones sometimes gets a candy or box of Cracker Jacks. I’m the oldest, so I stopped being young a long time ago.” She told me this after I had taken a huge piece of birthday cake down to the little dark room that was the smoke house behind the dairy where she would live for over four months. I couldn’t believe that anyone in their right mind would want to live in the place where Daddy used to hang hog carcasses, but Sheila acted like she had moved into the Taj Mahal. Mama told her she had some linoleum left over from the kitchen renovation that a hired hand would put down for her, and she gave her our old blue ruffled curtains for the one window, but looking around the cement walls, I doubted they would help much.

“When you been sleeping four to a bed, this seems like a triple-wide heavenly resting place,” Sheila said, patting the thin single mattress Daddy had dragged out of our attic.

“You don’t have anywhere to put your clothes and things,” I said looking around the empty space. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been told about something so important as a new person living in our backyard, but Mama said Sheila hadn’t been expected for another week, and I suspected the handprint bruises on her arm were the reason she came when she did.

Sheila smiled. “I ain’t got much, and I reckon I can keep them right here in this bag.” She lifted the satchel onto the bed and opened it. She pulled out a wooden-handled hairbrush, a pair of panties with tired elastic, a toothbrush, a pair of badly worn and scuffed brown shoes, a beige man’s work shirt, a calico skirt, and a small tin of saltine crackers. “In case I got hungry ’fore getting here,” she said extending them in my direction. I shook my head, and remembering the cake, I pushed it toward her.

She fell on it. I stood beside the bed watching as she shoved large clumps into her mouth like a starving mongrel. I had brought a fork balanced on the blue-flowered saucer, but she ignored it, using her fingers to break off chunks of chocolate icing which rimmed her small mouth when she finally licked the last crumbs right off the plate.

“Delicious,” she finally said. “I heared your mama was a good cook. A good woman too.”

I nodded. Being Rowena Cotton’s daughter had been a trial from my first step. People seemed to think I’d just naturally have all of her good traits, and no bad ones of my own. Suddenly, I felt envious of Sheila coming from a family that I had never heard of. The Cottons and the Bancrofts, who were my mother’s people, were well-known in the Lexie County community, and I was constantly being reminded that “other” people did this or that, but “we” knew better. My mother expected more of herself, and unfortunately, of me.

BOOK: Walking Through Shadows
3.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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