“No,” I rasped. “I’m a reporter.”
Probably should have figured that wouldn’t have been the panacea. The barrel came up. Just a notch.
I mean, this was Southern Illinois - a quantum void from what lie north of a line roughly from East St. Louis to Olney, famous for white squirrels and sharply divided loyalties during the Civil War.
And I was about five counties south, in the virtual tailbone of the Land of Lincoln. I covered federal beat, and the last time I’d been this far south was The Mike Dodge Flood of ’93 Tour, schlogging from Quincy to the southern tip in the company of farmers and merchants and Corps of Engineers strategists rassling the Lower Miss, goose hunters who saw the natives’ crisis as a half-full glass, and an energetic band of Ukrainian volunteers who heralded their arrival at each site by blasting the 99-cent Jackson Browne cassette I’d hastily gifted in exchange for a plastic nesting doll one of their guys presented me. The tour closed in tiny Olive Branch, where the nation’s to-date only black ag secretary had choppered into a diner that made In The Heat of The Night look like Biscuits and Gravy at Tiffany’s, in possibly the whitest reach north of the real Mason/Dixon. I almost begged Secretary Espy for a seat on his bird.
A decade later, the old man on the porch kicked a shell into the chamber. He wore a seed cap so far down over his forehead that all I could see was a knobby, possibly melanomic nose and a hard line of mouth.
“A farm reporter, not a real one,” I amended. “The ag secretary’s supposed to be speaking around here, at the Kendricks’, but my stupid GPS fouled up.”
The old man’s expression didn’t shift, but after a tick, the shotgun dropped back to standard trespasser elevation.
“You thought it was 1100 North ‘steada South, din’tcha?” he inquired, quietly. There was an intelligence, a vigor in his voice I hadn’t expected. “You’re looking for 1100 South. Reset your little magic box, and it oughtta take you right to the door. Go peddle it elsewhere.”
The Kendrick place was, as advertised, right off County 1100 South and 300 East. Up the long drive, near a huge Morton building, I could see the usual crew of ag radio folks and my Prairie Farmer and Successful Farming buds, a Reuters guy I only saw at high-faluting soirees like this, and a couple of local general assignment guys probably asking the others what to ask.
A portly county cop leaning on his cruiser spat into the berm, and a subtle smirk kinked his mustache. “Reporter, right? Sheriff Latraub. Secretary lady’s plane hadn’t got delayed, you’da been interviewing cows. GPS on the fritz?”
“I went to 1100 North, instead of South, stopped for a chat with one of your local guys,” I related. “Not exactly a down-home welcome. I think the shotgun might be worth something on Antiques Roadshow.”
The sheriff came off the car. “Who we talking about?”
I grinned dismissively. “Suspicious old guy, probably hadn’t had visitors in a decade.”
“No matter,” Latraub grunted. “Can’t have some dumbass old redneck playing chicken especially with the press. You get a name?”
“Harwood,” I sighed. “The mailbox.”
“Ray Harwood? That don’t sound like Ray. He’s a little quiet, maybe too quiet, but he’s not the violent type. I’m thinking maybe we pay Ray a call, see he wants to explain himself.”
“Really not a big deal…” I began.
“Look, you like fried chicken? ‘Cause Ray’s right on the way to the best in the county. Finish your chat with the secretary lady, we’ll do a little recon and grab some lunch, OK? It ain’t coq au vin, but otherwise, you got Hardee’s at the exit or minimart pizza.”
“Coq au vin?”
“Sorry,” Latraub grinned, yanking his driver’s door open. “Playing the rube’s about the only fun I get these days.”
The old man was on the porch, in an aluminum lawn chair from the Kennedy era. The shotgun was nowhere in sight. Under his bill, I saw placid blue eyes buried in laugh lines that hadn’t had a good chuckle in years.
“Figured you’d be back,” he muttered, low and calm.
“Well, you figured right,” the sheriff said, cheerfully. “What were you thinking, Ray?”
Harwood shrugged. “Wrong thing, obviously.”
“Obviously. This gent wants to cause trouble for you, not much I can do. What’s up?”
“Kids,” the old man grunted, as if that explained volumes. “Buzzing the place at night, shit-faced, lobbing their beer cans at the house. Suppose it’s put me in a foul frame of mind.”
Latraub turned to me. “Well, Ray, can’t have you pulling this kind of crap. You know?”
Latraub looked to me. “Whaddya think?”
“They got slaw?” I asked.
Sheriff Latraub waved a drumstick. “Ray and his folks been here, wow, probably since we became a state. Seven, eight generations, I guess. Private folks, scarcely ever saw ‘em in town, me or my folks or my folks’ folks.”
The lawman had been chatty since they’d arrived at the packed diner, whether out of relief or fear I’d change my mind. “What you have to understand about the Harwoods is, they’re no gun-totin’ right-wing militia types. Ray’s great-grand uncle helped drive those sheet-wearing Klan mo-rons right out of the county. In the ‘60s, Ray’s first cousin called out the state’s attorney when he found out some of the locals were hassling the Mexican veggie-pickers. And Ray? Well, last fall, he caught some local toughs beatin’ crap outta some queer kid behind the coffee shop. Well, I’ll just say those punks got a little lesson in social tolerance from ol’ Ray. That one wound up on the Chicago news – biggest thing around here since the Great Martian Invasion of ’79. Without Ray, of course. He’s no dumbass – him and his family all went off to school, but they always came back. Ray’s people always got a bumper-load of corn off some pretty marginal ground.”
“Excuse me,” I said, swallowing a cud of macerated cabbage. “The Great What of When?”
The sheriff grinned. “Oh, yeah, the Martians. Back in 1879, Ray’s great-great and a few others reported seein’ lights in the sky, creepy shadows in the fields. Idiot wrote a book about it 30 years ago, and a local business guy tried to get a campaign going – the ‘Roswell of Southern Illinois.’ Never took off.”
He nodded and plucked the check from the wood-grained formica. “Ray’s great-great grandpa got kicked in the head by a Belgian. Horse, not human. Could be he was seeing little green men. Might explain what’s so hinky about the whole family. Oh, hey – I got this.”
“The cows,” I stated on the way back to the Kendrick estate. Sheriff Latraub had finally shot his conversational wad, and I’d settled back to enjoy the pleasant monotony of Midwest monoculture.
“Big dairy area,” the sheriff answered. “You write for the farm weekly, right?”
“More congressmen than cows, though it’s a fine distinction. No, I just thought of something I read a little bit back. You notice anything strange about these cows? According to this article, satellite images show cattle tend to align their bodies in a north-south direction. Theory is, they’re influenced by the Earth’s magnetic fields.” I pointed to the intersecting county road. “That’s a north-south route, right?”
I pointed to the pasture out my window. “All but one of those Holsteins are facing away from us. On an east-west line. We’ve passed County Road 1100. And every cow for at least 15 miles to the east or west of it’s been lined up in an east-west orientation.”
Sheriff Latraub shrugged. “Well, that’s kinda interesting. but what does it mean?”
“Mm, just saying.”
“Closed,” Alice Falstaff half-shouted from the Plaindale Community Library New Books shelf, which currently held five volumes. “Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 to 4.”
“It’s 3:20,” I called. Alice edged forward, past the checkout counter and a fundraising thermometer for the proposed new book van. She fumbled for a key.
“Clock’s another thing we gotta replace,” she groused.
I stepped inside the faintly musty cool of the small-town library. “Sorry to bother you, but I need some information about the area, maybe back to the 1870s?”
Alice crossed her arms. “I have a church meeting in an hour. You can’t come back Thursday?”
“I’m only here overnight – got a story tomorrow next county over. Oh, and a history of the county would be great, too.” I glanced past Alice at the cardboard thermometer. “Look, would $10 help you get a clock?”
She considered. “OK, I’ll show you to the basement stacks. You got a half-hour, or I’ll issue you a temporary card if you drop it all in the box outside before you leave town tomorrow.”
Unlocking the old-school door to my motel room was an acrobatic chore, especially juggling a stack of yellowed oversized volumes.
The History of Peterson County, Volume I was no barnburner, but Volume 2 made up for it with a heap more genealogy and regional ass-kissing. Volume 2 covered the ‘20s through to the Big War, and the last tome the more recent affairs of the Petersonians. Rounding out my treasures were the bound Peterson County Herald-Guardians for 1934, 1967, and 2002.
In 1879, strange objects were reported over Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Illinois. The first sightings were April 5 in Omaha — more than a 100 people saw a spherical flying object roughly 12 feet long, with a steel-like body. A cigar-shaped craft appeared over Sioux City, Iowa, several nights later. The Peterson County witnesses included a local pastor who offered a conveniently theological theory about the UFO, but only Delbert Harwood and a scattering of area farmers suggested landfall and any unauthorized extraterrestrial tourists.
The Herald-Guardians provided a sketchier history of the Harwood clan and Ray. A fundamentally asocial man who tried to stay out of the public spotlight, but stood up to a group of young bullies on behalf of a locally unpopular cause. Just like his great-grand uncle and first cousin in their day.
Stranger yet, most multi-generational farms pass from father to son to grandson, or at least between siblings. But from Ray’s great-grand uncle to his first cousin to Ray? And the cows, who seemed to dance to a different magnetic pull. Two, maybe three, conundrums (conundra?) in the same podunk county was pretty intriguing.
The 1933 clip on Luke’s standoff with the hooded clowns was accompanied by a high-contrast portrait of a sullen, hard-featured man strikingly similar to Ray Harwood, wearing a low-slung Stetson. When asked to comment on the encounter, Ray’s great-grand uncle told the reporter to “peddle your papers elsewhere.”
The October 1967 story did not include even a thumbnail of Cousin Carl, “a grain farmer who himself does not use migrant labor.” Harwood would offer no comment on his official complaint, other than to tell reporters to “go peddle their papers elsewhere.’”
September 2002: “Peterson County Prosecutor Glen Faulkes indicated no plans to bring charges against Harwood, despite a 17-year-old assailant’s broken arm. Harwood himself was silent regarding the incident – ‘Go peddle your crap somewhere else,’ he told a Springfield TV crew.
“Yeah, Mr. Harwood?” I greeted cheerfully. “This is Mike Dodge. Remember me? Sorry to interrupt your evening, but I have a few questions.”
I watched the shadow behind the front room curtains, tethered by a twisted cord. Old-school landline.
“Nah, not about this morning. Wanted to chat about your Great-Uncle Luke and your cousin Carl. And some visitors your folks had, oh, about 130 years or so ago.”
The figure stopped pacing. This was insane, but no HBO at the Stop Inn, and I’d emailed the Veneman piece and sidebar an hour earlier. Boredom seemed to breed stupidity in me.
“Tell you what: I’m probably about a half-hour away, but I remember where the place is. See you soon.”
I ended the call quickly, before the old man could protest. I stealthily negotiated the embankment at the edge of the Harwood property, and followed a line of oaks to the backyard, where a single lawn chair kept watch on the cornfields beyond. The kitchen light was off, but I had a straight line of vision through to the living room, where the agents of NCIS were stalking a shady character in a warehouse. I hadn’t remembered any TV in the background on the call…
“Think I was born yesterday, Mr. Dodge?” Ray Harwood mused as I felt cold metal between the scapulae.
“Actually,” I sighed, “quite the opposite.”
Harwood placed the shotgun on the broad, ‘40s-era department store kitchen table.
“Want some coffee?”
I did not glance at the weapon on the table. “Sure. Thanks.”
Harwood nodded. “Not loaded, you know. Do some harm that way.” He reached into a cabinet above the huge old basin sink, and soon placed a steaming china mug and a small, dusty old book with the legend “Farmer’s Pocket Companion” and the imprint of the John Deere Plow Company. The volume fanned momentarily. It was filled with tight sepia script.
“Read,” Harwood ordered.
Lucas Harwood tossed the last shovelful onto the mound and pounded the soil with the back of the broad iron blade, hoping to silence the humming. It was a low, regular rhythm unlike anything he’d ever heard in God’s Creation. Luke questioned, in fact, that this infernal machine was of His creation.
He slumped against the thick red oak that shaded the expanse between field’s edge and the rear of the house. Influenza had claimed his folks in ’56, and he’d stoically continued tilling the sod and tending to the animals. He had no friends, and scarcely any visitors in the years since their deaths – the “grave” would be barely noticeable once the spring grass emerged.
Now to the other grave – the chore he’d been dreading. If the ruined contraption he’d buried was of some other world, the creature some five feet beyond clearly was of Hell.
Lucas steeled himself, retrieved the shovel, and bit into the hard ground.
And dropped the shovel as a keening wail broke the night. With a jolt, he realized: He hadn’t so much heard the beastly cry as felt it. Luke stumbled over the shovel and was sent sprawling onto his belly, face-to-face with the abomination. And screamed as a heavy gray lid rose and moonlight caught the aqueous surface of a single black eyeball. From the damage to the machine, he had assumed the creature was dead.
Luke’s trembling fingers searched in the darkness, finally locating the rough wooden handle. Using the shovel as a lever, he planting his boots and raised the implement above his head, unconsciously chanting a verse from Psalms….
Then it blinked. In fear – the black orb retreated into a thick gray fold as the creature faced its impending mortality, its violent end at the hands of a strange being in a strange place, Luke somehow knew. It cried out again, this time aloud and in Luke’s skull. The eye contracted in pain and terror.
Another voice, clear and serene, his mother’s, broke through the cacophony. By divine command men are bound to be kind to strangers, and what God commands in others he will exemplify in Himself…
“God,” I whispered.
Harwood refilled his mug and shrugged.
“It knew what I was thinking, and I could see what it felt, its pain.” The farmer smiled distantly. “All these years, I don’t know if it’s a he or she, and eventually, it didn’t matter.” He pulled his cap from his head, revealing a slightly concave blemish on his temple. “They live a lot longer’n any of us, and they don’t think in terms of, you know, sex. I just called it Joe. Joe showed me the world, and not just mine. We been friends ever since.”
“That’s why you left. Kept leaving.”
“Had to disappear every once in a while, reappear as Carl, as Ray. Otherwise, they’d get suspicious, they’d ask questions. Joe stayed here. We got a well behind the corn. Guess you’d call it hibernation.”
“And the episodes with the Klan, the migrant workers, the gay-bashers?”
“I nursed it back to health, and it gave me 100 years I wasn’t entitled to. And it rewired my battered brain in more than one way. Joe was some kind of scientist, you know, back home. Maybe realized it was never going home, needed a friend for the long run. And you know, for me, things like black, white, Jew, Mexican, gay, Methodist didn’t seem to amount to much any more. I got more and more, I guess, angry, about we’d made of this world. So did…”
“What happened?” I asked.
Harwood laughed. “Shit. World War I, those night-riding fools, Hitler, Mussolini, fathers and sons strung up for God sakes just being, church bombings and Vietnam and Reagan and 9/11 and hate like nothing before it had even made a dent. I was resigned to it – pretty much – but Joe, well, had a more objective perspective.”
“What happened?” I repeated.
Harwood grinned then, painfully. “It reached an obvious conclusion. And told me it had the means to fix things in that beat-up ship I buried about 125 years ago. Best friend I ever had, but there are some things…”
“Joe’s still here. Took me a while to dig that grave. ‘Bout 124 years. I hope if there is a God, it took Joe home.” He laughed again, harshly. “Since you came out, anyway, like to see a photo?”
I studied the old guy, who was now becoming older with every sweep of the red plastic clock above the kitchen sink.
“Got an early morning. Okay if I go?” I asked.
“You can,” Harwood responded with a curious emphasis.