Authors: Delia Owens
The September sea and sky glistened pale blue from a soft sun as Kya churned in her little boat toward Jumpin’s to get the bus schedule. The thought of busing with strange people to a strange town unnerved her, but she wanted to meet her editor, Robert Foster. For more than two years, they had exchanged short notes—and even some long letters—mostly discussing editorial adjustments for the prose and art in her books, but the correspondence, written so often in biological phrases blended with poetic descriptions, had become a bond welded in its own language. She wanted to meet this person on the other end of the mail line, who knew how ordinary light is shattered by microscopic prisms in the feathers of hummingbirds, creating the iridescence of its golden-red throat. And how to say it in words as startling as the colors.
As she stepped onto the wharf, Jumpin’ greeted her and asked if she needed gas.
“No thanks, not this time. I need to write down the bus schedule. You have a copy, right?”
“Sho’ do. Tacked up right on the wall, left a’ the doah. Hep yurself.”
After she stepped from the shop with the schedule, he asked, “Ya goin’ on a trip somewheres, Miss Kya?”
“I might. My editor invited me to Greenville to meet him. Not sure yet.”
“Well then, thata’ be mighty fine. It’s a fur piece over there, but a trip a’ do ya good.”
As Kya turned to get back into her boat, Jumpin’ leaned in and looked at her more closely. “Miss Kya, what’s done happened to yo’ eye, yo’ face? Look like you been beat up, Miss Kya.” Quickly she turned her face away. The bruise from Chase’s slug, almost a month old, was faded to a faint yellowish stain, which Kya thought no one would notice.
“No, I just walked into a door in—”
“Don’t ya go tellin’ me a story now, Miss Kya. I didn’t jus’ fall off the turnip truck. Who done hit ya like that?”
She stood silent.
“Was it Mr. Chase done this to ya? Ya know ya can tell me. In fact, we gwine stand right here tills ya tell me.”
“Yes, it was Chase.” Kya could barely believe the words came from her mouth. She never thought she had anyone to tell such things. She turned away again, fighting tears.
Jumpin’s entire face frowned. He didn’t speak for several seconds. And then, “What else he done?”
“Nothing, I swear. He tried, Jumpin’, but I fought him off.”
“That man gotta be horsewhupped, then run outta this town.”
“Jumpin’, please. You can’t tell anybody. You know you can’t tell the sheriff or anybody. They’d drag me into the sheriff’s office and make me describe what happened to a bunch of men. I can’t live through that.” Kya dropped her face in her hands.
“Well, sump’m gotta be done. He cain’t go an’ do a thing like that, and then just go on boatin’ ’round in that fancy boat a’ his. King of the World.”
“Jumpin’, you know how it is. They’ll take his side. They’ll say I’m just stirring up trouble. Trying to get money out of his parents or something. Think what would happen if one of the girls from Colored Town accused Chase Andrews of assault and attempted rape. They’d do nothing. Zero.” Kya’s voice became more and more shrill. “It would end in big trouble for that girl. Write-ups in the newspaper. People accusing her of whoring. Well, it’d be the same for me, and you know it. Please promise me you won’t tell anybody.” She ended in a sob.
“Ya right, Miss Kya. I know ya right. Ya don’t gotta worry ’bout me doin’ anythang to make this thang worse. But how d’ya know he ain’t comin’ after ya again? And ya a’ways on yo’ lonesome out there?”
“I’ve always protected myself before; I just slipped up this time because I didn’t hear him coming. I’ll stay safe, Jumpin’. If I decide to go to Greenville, when I come back, maybe I could live out at my reading cabin awhile. I don’t think Chase knows about it.”
“A’right, then. But I wantcha to come in here more of’en, I wantcha to come by and let me know how things’re goin’. Ya know ya can always come out and stay with Mabel and me, ya know that.”
“Thank you, Jumpin’. I know.”
“When ya goin’ over to Greenville?”
“I’m not sure. The editor’s letter mentioned late October. I haven’t made arrangements, haven’t even accepted the invitation.” She knew now she couldn’t go unless the bruise had disappeared completely.
“Well, ya let me know when ya gwine over thar and when ya get back. Ya hear? I gotta know if ya outer town. ’Cause, if’n I don’t see ya fer more’n a day or so, I’m goin’ out to yo’ place maself. Bring along a posse if need be.”
“I will. Thank you, Jumpin’.”
Prosecutor Eric Chastain had been questioning the sheriff about the two boys who discovered Chase Andrews’s body at the base of the fire tower on October 30, the doctor’s examination, and the initial investigation.
Eric continued. “Sheriff, please tell us what led you to believe that Chase Andrews had not fallen from the tower by accident. What made you think a crime had been committed?”
“Well, one of the first things I noticed was there weren’t any footprints around Chase’s body, not even his own. Except those made by the boys who found him, so I figured somebody had destroyed them to cover up a crime.”
“Isn’t it also true, Sheriff, that there were no fingerprints and no vehicle tracks at the scene?”
“Yeah, that’s correct. The lab reports stated there were no fresh fingerprints on the tower. Not even on the grate, which somebody had to open. My deputy and I searched for vehicle tracks, and there weren’t
any of those either. All this indicated that someone had purposely destroyed evidence.”
“So when the lab reports proved that red wool fibers from Miss Clark’s hat were found on Chase’s clothing that night, you . . .”
“Objection, Your Honor,” Tom said. “Leading the witness. And besides, testimony has already established that the red fibers could have been transferred from Miss Clark’s clothing to those of Mr. Andrews prior to the night of October 29 to 30.”
“Sustained,” the judge boomed.
“No more questions. Your witness.” Eric had known the sheriff’s testimony would be somewhat weak for the prosecution—what can you do with no murder weapon and no finger-, foot-, or truck prints—but there was still enough meat and gravy to convince the jury someone had murdered Chase, and considering the red fibers, that someone could’ve been Miss Clark.
Tom Milton walked to the witness box. “Sheriff, did you or anybody else ask an expert to look for footprints or for evidence that footprints were wiped out?”
“That wasn’t necessary. I am the expert. Footprint examination is part of my official training. I didn’t need another expert.”
“I see. So was there evidence that footprints had been wiped off the ground? I mean, for example, were there marks from a brush or branch to cover tracks? Or was there mud moved on top of other mud? Any evidence, any photographs of such an act?”
“No. I’m here to testify as an expert that there were no footprints under the tower except ours and the boys’. So somebody had to have wiped them out.”
“Okay. But, Sheriff, it’s a physical characteristic of the marsh that as the tides come in and out, the groundwater—even far beyond the
tide—goes up and down, making areas dry for a while, then a few hours later the water rises again. In many places, as the water rises it soaks the area, wiping out any marks in the mud, such as footprints. Clean slate. Isn’t that true?”
“Well, yeah, it can be like that. But there’s no evidence that something like that occurred.”
“I have here the tide table for the night of October 29 and the morning of October 30, and see, Sheriff Jackson, it shows that low tide was around midnight. So, at the time Chase arrived at the tower and walked to the steps, he would have made tracks in the wet mud. Then when the tide came in and the groundwater rose, his tracks were wiped out. That’s the reason you and the boys made deep tracks, and the same reason that Chase’s prints were gone. Do you agree that this is possible?”
Kya nodded slightly—her first reaction to testimony since the trial began. Many times she’d seen marsh waters swallow yesterday’s story: deer prints by a creek or bobcat tracks near a dead fawn, vanished.
The sheriff answered, “Well, I’ve never seen it wipe out anything so complete as that, so I don’t know.”
“But, Sheriff, as you said, you’re the expert, trained in footprint examination. And now you say you don’t know if this common occurrence happened that night or not.”
“Well, it wouldn’t be that hard to prove one way or the other, would it? Just go out there at low tide, make some tracks, and see if they are wiped out when the tide comes in.”
“Yes, it wouldn’t be that hard to determine one way or the other, so why wasn’t it done? Here we are in court, and you have no proof whatsoever that a person wiped away footprints to cover a crime. It’s more likely that Chase Andrews did leave prints under the tower and that they were washed away by the rising groundwater. And if some
friends had been with him to climb the tower for fun, their footprints would have been washed away as well. Under these very likely circumstances, there is no suggestion whatsoever of a crime. Isn’t that correct, Sheriff?”
Ed’s eyes darted left, right, left, right, as if the answer were on the walls. People shifted on the benches.
“Sheriff?” Tom repeated.
“In my professional opinion, it seems unlikely that a normal cycle of rising groundwater would completely wash away footprints to the extent that they disappeared in this case. However, since there was no sign of a cover-up, the absence of footprints does not, by itself, prove there was a crime. But—”
“Thank you.” Tom turned toward the jury and repeated the sheriff’s words. “The absence of footprints does not prove there was a crime. Now, moving on, Sheriff, what about the grate that was left open on the floor of the fire tower? Did you examine it for Miss Clark’s fingerprints?”
“Yes, of course we did.”
“And did you find Miss Clark’s fingerprints on the grate or anywhere on the tower?”
“No. No, but we didn’t find any other fingerprints either, so . . .”
The judge leaned over. “Only answer the questions, Ed.”
“What about hair? Miss Clark has long black hair—if she had climbed all the way to the top and was busy on the platform, opening a grate and such, I would expect there to be strands of her hair. Did you find any?”
“No.” The sheriff’s brow glistened.
“The coroner testified that, after examining Chase’s body, there was no evidence that Miss Clark was in close proximity to him that night. Oh, there were those fibers, but they could have been four years old.
And now, you’re telling us that there is no evidence whatsoever that Miss Clark was even on the fire tower that night. Is that a correct statement?”
“So we have no evidence that proves Miss Clark was on the fire tower the night Chase Andrews fell to his death. Correct?”
“That’s what I said.”
“So that’s a yes.”
“Yeah, that’s a yes.”
“Sheriff, isn’t it true that those grates on top of the tower were left open quite frequently by kids playing up there?”
“Yeah, they were left open sometimes. But like I said earlier, it was usually the one you had to open to climb on top, not the other ones.”
“But isn’t it true that the grate by the stairs and occasionally the others were left open so often and considered so dangerous that your office submitted a written request to the U.S. Forest Service to remedy the situation?” Tom held a document out to the sheriff. “Is this the official request to the Forest Service on July 18 of last year?” The sheriff looked at the page.
“Yeah. That’s it.”
“Who exactly wrote this request?”
“I did it myself.”
“So only three months before Chase Andrews fell to his death through an open grate on the fire tower, you submitted a written request to the Forest Service asking them to close the tower or secure the grates so that no one would be hurt. Is that correct?”
“Sheriff, would you please read to the court the last sentence of this document that you wrote to the Forest Service? Just the last
sentence, here.” He handed the document to the sheriff, pointing at the last line.
The sheriff read out loud to the court, “‘I must repeat, these grates are very dangerous and if action is not taken, a serious injury or even death will occur.’”
“I have no further questions.”
On October 28, 1969, Kya eased up to Jumpin’s dock to tell him good-bye, as promised, then motored to the town wharf, where fishermen and shrimpers as always stopped their work to watch her. Ignoring them, she tied up and carried a faded cardboard suitcase—pulled from the back of Ma’s old closet—onto Main Street. She had no purse, but toted her knapsack packed with books, some ham and biscuits, and a small amount of cash, after burying most of her royalty money in a tin can near the lagoon. For once, she looked quite normal, dressed in a brown Sears, Roebuck skirt, white blouse, and flats. Shopkeepers busied about, tending customers, sweeping the sidewalk, every one of them staring at her.
She stood on the corner under the
sign and waited until the Trailways bus, its air brakes hissing, pulled up, blocking the ocean. Nobody got off or on as Kya stepped forward and bought a ticket to Greenville from the driver. When she asked about the return dates and times, he handed her a printed schedule and then stowed her suitcase. She held tightly to her knapsack and boarded. And before she had time to think much about it, the bus, which seemed as long as the town, drove out of Barkley Cove.
Two days later, at 1:16 in the afternoon, Kya stepped off the Trailways from Greenville. Now even more villagers were about, staring and whispering as she tossed her long hair over her shoulder and took her suitcase from the driver. She crossed the street to the wharf, stepped into her boat, and motored straight home. She wanted to stop by and tell Jumpin’ that she was back, as she had promised to do, but other boats were lined up waiting for gas at his wharf, so she figured she’d come back the next day. Besides, this way she’d get back to the gulls faster.
So, the next morning, October 31, as she pulled up to Jumpin’s wharf, she called to him, and he stepped out from the small store.
“Hey, Jumpin’, I’m just letting you know I’m home. Got back yesterday.” He said nothing as he walked toward her.
As soon as she stepped onto his wharf, he said, “Miss Kya. I . . .”
She cocked her head. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
He stood looking at her. “Kya, have ya heard the news ’bout Mr. Chase?”
“No. What news?”
He shook his head. “Chase Andrews is dead. Died in tha middle of the night while ya were over’n Greenval.”
“What?” Both Kya and Jumpin’ looked deep into the other’s eyes.
“They found ’im yestadee mornin’ at the bottom of the ol’ far towa with a . . . well, they say his neck broke an’ his skull smashed right in. They reckon he fell right off from the top.”
Kya’s lips remained parted.
Jumpin’ went on. “Whole town’s buzzed up. Some folks’re puttin’ it down as a accident, but the word is, the sheriff itn’t so sure. Chase’s mama’s all riled up, says there was foul play. It’s a sho’-nuff mess.”
Kya asked, “Why do they think foul play was . . . ?”
“One a’ them grates on the towa flo’ was left wide open, and he fell plumb through, and they reckoned that was suspicious. Some people’re
sayin’ them grates are left open all the time with kids always messin’ ’round up there, and Mr. Chase coulda fell through by accident. But some folks cryin’ murder.”
Kya was silent, so Jumpin’ continued. “One reason was, when Mr. Chase was found, he wan’t wearin’ that shell necklace he wore ever’ day fer years, and his wife says he was wearin’ it that very night when he lef’ the house, ’fore he went to his folks for dinah. A’ways wore it, she said.”
Her mouth went dry at the mention of the necklace.
“Then, those two young’uns that found Chase, well, they heard the sheriff say thar weren’t no footprints at the scene. Nary a one. Like somebody done rubbed out evidence. Them boys been yappin’ all over town ’bout it.”
Jumpin’ told her when the funeral would be but knew Kya wouldn’t go. What a spectacle that would be for the sewing bees and Bible study groups. For sure, the speculation and gossip would include Kya.
Thank tha Lawd she’d been in Greenval at the time ’a his death, or they’d’a put this on ’er
, Jumpin’ thought.
Kya nodded at Jumpin’ and churned home. She stood on the mud bank of the lagoon, whispering one of Amanda Hamilton’s verses:
Capable of deeds
The mind cannot conceive.
The heart dictates as well as feels.
How else can you explain
The path I have taken,
That you have taken
The long way through this pass?”