I Don't Swoon is the story of an ex-slave trying to make a life for herself in a small town in late 19th century Colorado. Propelled by her search for the murderer of a white preacher, the novel follows Sarah as she tries to keep a friend from becoming the scapegoat by working her way through town subtly querying its members. As she progresses, her relationship with one of the town’s leading citizens becomes clear and the intricacies of her role in this community and the personal dilemmas she faces are revealed.
Calvary, Colorado, 1870 or thereabout
The Reverend Cletus Jenkins was stretched out in the front yard of Miss Mattie’s whorehouse. Stiff like that wooden Indian that Virgil Parker sets outside his general store every morning, Jenkins looked like somebody had shoved him off the porch with the business side of a heavy boot and he’d landed splat on his back. Sarah imagined he wouldn’t have gone down with a little bounce like the wooden figure might have; the reverend would have flailed a bit before going down hard, his backside kicking up a cloud of dust. The sinner in Sarah felt a tickle of laughter at the thought. Cletus Jenkins was a mean man, but she had been brought up to be a Christian and the part of her that couldn’t shake that training made her recognize the thought as shameful so she quickly chastised herself. “A righteous woman should always try to be charitable even when truly tested,” she murmured to herself. And he was a trial; the spiteful man would have tried the Virgin Mary’s faith. Seeing the preacher doused in liquor and splayed out like a weed decorating the front yard of a brothel entitled even the most devout Christian to a bit of fun. Allowing the edges of her mouth to keep its grin, she leaned in closer, legs braced ready to jump back and run if he was playing possum. He was out cold, still as a log. She sniffed. No waft of sour liquor rose to snatch at her breath and then she saw his eyes through the loose lock of blonde hair. They were open, staring out at nothing and his mouth was wide with surprise, like he wanted to say something, but the words had been cut short. She swallowed the lingering bit of glee that she had been feeling. It wasn’t right to think ill of the dead, and Cletus Jenkins was sure enough dead.
Trying to conquer the urge to just back up and run, she shook her head, took a breath and then took a good long look at the body. She considered herself a good woman, always tried to do right, but trouble seemed to hover at her heels, always trying to trip her up. Not that she was trying to make this about her. After all, the preacher was the one dead. But this time she had been truly minding her own business. All Sarah wanted to do was to finish her morning deliveries, drop off Miss Mattie’s clean linens and give Mattie’s girls the scented soaps they’d ordered so she could get back home and have breakfast with Reba and Izzy. Now she had to contend with Jenkins or at least what was left of him. Trouble, trying to trip her again.
The blood that soaked his shirt looked to be nearly dry, but she couldn’t be sure without touching it and she really didn’t want to. When she’d first stumbled over him, she’d tripped and had nearly fallen on top of him. Luckily, her balance was good and not only had she caught herself she’d held on to her basket. The freshly washed bed and baths sheets in her basket amounted to a half-day’s work. Instinct and past experience with trouble had made her clutch the basket close to her body to keep its contents from spilling out into the yard. Miss Mattie’s laundry was still crisp, white and folded in the basket. But that lump of a thing lying there had given her a fright, and she’d yelped, sounded like a scared dog. She hadn’t known what the mound was and feared that it was something lying in wait, a feral animal, something hungry or with evil intention. A sudden and paralyzing panic had clotted her throat and that quick piercing nip of a sound had slipped out. It was never a good idea for a colored woman to call attention to herself especially when she was out alone or in a situation where there was some blame to be placed.
Like her ma told her the time she’d showed her how to kill and pluck a chicken for master’s supper. Black women don’t have time to swoon, girl. We too busy trying to stay alive ourselves. Somehow a little smile found its way deep inside her chest when she remembered her ma’s face, the round cheeks, nut-brown skin and the dimples that smoothed even the sternest words. The smile fluttered like the tickle of wings. Her ma had been younger than Sarah was now. She hadn’t seen that face in years, most likely would never see it again. She’d been sold off long before Sarah had run. Sarah closed her eyes to hold the memory of her ma or to fortify herself, she didn’t know which, but it was probably both. “I don’t swoon,” she whispered with the same stubbornness she’d said when she was ten years old, the last time she’d seen her momma. The words hung in the air like a prayer or a quarrelsome response to a pastor’s call as she stood looking down at the dead man, the crusty blood on his shirt and the empty eyes that had once raged with life. Clamping her lips shut to keep them from trembling, she straightened her shoulders and took another fortifying breath sucking at the fresh morning air. She hadn’t liked the man, but somebody had liked him even less.
When it had come to her that the lump she’d seen was a man and she’d seen how still it was lying, she figured he was drunk, one of Miss Mattie’s customers sleeping it off, and she certainly had no intention of waking him. Miss Mattie’s customers were always amorous, and when they were drunk some of them could get mean. The sun had yet to come up fully and the light was still hazy so she’d had to lean in to get a better look. That’s when she’d spotted the yellow hair; it was the preacher’s pride and he wore it long. His face was turned slightly away from her, but his hard jaw jutted out, his chin was a pointed shimmer of paleness in the half-light. She knew that jaw, had seen him lift it and turn his long nose up when he passed the likes of her in town and although she felt a little guilty now, it had tickled her that this spewer of fire and brimstone had succumbed to sin in such a public way. It hadn’t really been a surprise. It was usually the ones who professed their saintliness the loudest whose sins were the greatest.
She touched the tip of her shoe to his side, soft at first, then a little harder. He didn’t even grunt. The preacher was so pale he looked blue, but that might have been the light, the grey, shadow-like cast of near dawn. He stared back, mouth wide open, glassy fisheyes gazing up. Sarah couldn’t decide whether the look was one of pain or surprise, maybe a little of both.
Daylight was approaching and now she could easily see the iron rod, a fireplace poker, sticking straight out of his chest like a rusty arrow or a spear some savage had chucked at him hitting that dark bloody bullseye on the front of the bright white shirt that almost glowed in the near morning half-light. Sarah’s heart raced. She knew she couldn’t get caught out here with the body of a dead white preacher, especially a man who had made it clear that he didn’t like her kind. And he’d obviously been murdered. Sarah knew the best thing to do would be to just step right on over him as if she’d never seen his bloody carcass, but curiosity or maybe it was that second sense she always relied on that had her standing her ground. It was still early, but the townsfolk would be up stoking the fire in the cook stove and pumping fresh water for washbasins even though the sun wasn’t fully up.
Her heart was pounding hard, the blood rising up sharp in her head like the water pump when a heavy-handed somebody is anxious for a drink. A sudden dizziness made her stumble, but the weight of the basket reminded her of the freshly washed linen. She took a short step back and stood firm as she sucked in a large breath of air realizing that she had been holding her breath. Something, maybe a rabbit or a gopher, rustled in the grass. Her mouth was dry, but she worked up a swallow as she listened closer making sure that a harmless creature had made the rustling sounds. Satisfied that she was still alone, she took another breath, another step back and then set the basket off to the side, well away from the body.
Since this particular bit of trouble had come right up to her and had all but called her name, she figured she might as well take a good look. Like Auntie Grace always says, “Knowing the particulars of a thing oftentimes comes in handy.” So, Sarah lifted her skirts up well above her ankles to avoid any blood that might have seeped onto the grass and stepped closer to the body. Other than old blood, there was no particular smell, just dirt, dry grass and the scent of unwashed man. She wondered how long he’d been there and knew that she’d have to touch him to get a sense of how cold he was, but she still cringed at the thought of touching him.
After taking a calming breath, she touched the tips of her fingers to his forehead. He was cool, not cold, but just beginning to cool like maybe he hadn’t been dead too long, a few hours, maybe. So, it must have happened late last night or in the small hours of the morning. Back home in Virginia, before she ran, Sarah had helped wash and dress enough bodies for burial to be pretty good at telling how long a body had been dead.
Bending low, she made her way around the dead man searching for signs of blood that might have pooled onto the ground. There were none, so she figured he hadn’t been killed in Miss Mattie’s yard. He had been skewered and maybe had died somewhere else. Then the murdering culprit had brought him here and dumped him in the wildflowers, dust and crabgrass that decorated the front yard of the whorehouse.
Not far from the body was a set of long narrow ruts that looked like they’d been left by a wagon's wheels. The ground was damp with dew, but a set of mud-gray drying furrows scarred the dirt and long strips of grass had been crushed. Sarah lifted her skirts a bit more and leaned in closer to the ruts. They didn’t appear to have been made by a buckboard, looked more like it was a carriage. The wheel rims were slightly narrower and the grooves were not quite as deep as the ones a heavier, working wagon’s wheels might have made. A cleared driving path led directly to the front door of the house, but the carriage hadn’t used it. Seems the only reason a carriage would have veered this far off the path would have been to avoid being seen head-on and as it dumped the body.
Sarah’s mind was racing, questions piling up and spilling over. How hard would somebody have to push to shove an iron poker through flesh and muscle? The preacher was in pretty good shape. So the killer had to be strong, but maybe not. Maybe he or she was just driven, mad enough to summon the strength. If there was a struggle, and it sure seemed like there was one since the poker was shoved in through the front and not the back, would the culprit have bruises or cuts or something to show that he’d been in a fight? Why use a poker? Didn’t the killer have a pistol? And why did the killer leave him here? Was somebody trying to shame the preacher? Did the murderer have something against Miss Mattie or one of her girls? Clearly whoever did it had no love for any of the women in that house. They could have dumped him outside of town, hid him out there in the shrubs and trees or in one of those caves in the mountains. Out there the body would never have been found especially after the wolves and coyotes had gotten to him. It seemed as though somebody wanted to make it look like Miss Mattie or one of her girls had done the deed. But that wasn’t too smart because anybody with any sense including Sheriff Mackenzie who didn’t have much, common or otherwise, would reason that if Mattie was involved she would have made sure the body disappeared for good. She certainly wouldn’t have left a feast to draw a pack of wild animals to her front yard. Coons and opossums will nibble on anything that’s not trying to eat them back, and even then they might escape with a chuck of the other soul’s flesh between their teeth. Sarah shivered at the thought; even the preacher didn’t deserve that.
The Reverend Jenkins looked like he’d been in a hurry; his shirt was tucked, none too neatly, into his trousers. Most of the buttons were undone and only one button held the trouser placket closed. The black serge suit coat was stretched and straining tight across his shoulders, hitched higher on one side, the sleeves kind of cockeyed. One sleeve was scrunched up to his elbow, the other still covered half his hand like somebody couldn’t get it all the way on. Maybe they’d had to pull it on after he was dead and had a hard time getting it past his tight fist. Maybe he was too heavy for whoever was trying to dress him, or maybe his body was beginning to get stiff. One of his shoes was tightly laced, but the other lay on its side near the body as though it had been tossed there like a leftover piece of garbage.
The messy way his clothes had been dragged on might suggest that he was in his or somebody’s bed before he was killed. Maybe one of Mattie’s girls had done it and was too scared to tell Miss Mattie. Or were his clothes all scrambled on like that to make people think he’d just come from the whorehouse, to shift the blame somewhere else?
Someone lit a lamp and the window of one of the rooms on the far end of the first floor brightened. The sudden light startled Sarah, whose heart had started to slow some as she examined the scene. The thud and pulsing of blood in her ears quickened and grew louder and she knew it was past time to leave. Pressing her palm to her heart, she forced herself to take another slow breath. She squatted low in the grass and watched, but no one came to the window. At least she didn’t see anyone. She needed to calm down; she didn’t want to be all fidgety and sweat drenched if she ran into somebody on the way home. After taking a last look around, she picked up her basket and hurried away. Before the town woke up, she wanted to get as far away from the dead preacher as she could.
Miss Mattie’s girls would have to wait for their soaps and linen; Sarah would come back after somebody else had tripped over the body and the sheriff had carted it off. Later, she would tell Mattie that she was running a little behind. Sarah didn’t like being late, but sometimes it couldn’t be helped. Mattie knew and trusted her judgment so she wouldn’t need to concoct a lie, but Sarah didn’t like leaving her customers hanging. However, the brothel’s laundry did take more time and work than most folk’s. Mattie’s girls could be thoughtless since they didn’t have to do the House laundry. It was one of the luxuries Mattie gave her girls. Lip rouge, face powder, blood, and all manner of smears and smudges ended up on the bed linens and bath sheets. Each girl got a new set once a week, and not one of them ever sprinkled so much as a drop of water on a stain to keep it from setting in. To get it good and clean it had to be spot scrubbed with lye soap before Sarah even set it to boil. The strong, gritty soap made her hands sting. They were always red well into the next day even after she’d used the salve Izzy made for her. Sometimes it was a good thing to let people know that things weren’t as easy as they might have thought so they could appreciate the work a body did. Maybe this little bit of a delay would be a good thing. Yeah, Sarah would come back later after the sun had come all the way up. A little smile curved her lips. Miss Mattie would get a kick out of her complaining. She could see the little sideways grin Mattie’d give her as she chided her asking, “You trying to raise your prices?” And Sarah would shrug and look thoughtful like she hadn’t thought of that, but maybe . . . then she’d laugh and shake her head.
But right now, Sarah needed to get as far away as she could from the scene before folks were up and going about their business. She didn’t want to head home just yet, especially with her basket still full because she didn’t want to worry Izzy. Besides having a second sense, Izzy was quick to notice things and she’d start right in asking nosey questions. So, Sarah couldn’t go home until she felt more at ease and could talk calmly about what she’d seen. She needed to find a restful place to pass the time and think this through. She needed a place where someone white and respectable could vouch for her time so she headed across town.
“Sarah,” a man’s voice startled her. He spoke softly, but she jumped anyway. Already wound up, her mind was racing and she had truly hoped that she wouldn’t run into anybody, let alone Patrick. Even warned by the sound of his voice, she wasn’t ready for the hand that touched her shoulder.
She flinched, but she didn’t run. She stilled, caught hold of herself and then turned to face him.
“What you doing out so early?” she asked. Her heart slowed a bit, but the thud was still loud, relentless. She looked him over. He hadn’t shaved; his chin and jaw were bristly, covered in those tiny white-blond hairs that used to graze her face when he woke her up with early morning kisses. He wore a solid coat of road dust. Even so, he still looked good. His white shirt had gone grey, but his clothes always fit him perfect. The silver embroidery on his fancy waistcoat caught her attention; he must have had a card game. If he was still hers, she would have chided him, maybe even dusted the back of his coat with the flattened palm of her hand and made jokes about the clouds of dust as they billowed out. She shook her head. She didn’t have time for nonsense right now what with that dead preacher breeding flies just up the road. For that matter, she didn’t have time or the wherewithal to contend with Patrick. It was too much all at once. She took a bolstering breath.
“Just got in from Denver,” he said pointing toward the big bay he had tied to the rail. He watched her cautiously and wondered why she seemed so nervous. Even this early, she was scrubbed clean and looking fresh in her faded gingham, the tufts of her thickly braided hair strained against the pale blue scarf that covered it. Sarah who was always calm, mulling things over in that slow, southern way of hers took most things in stride, but just now she seemed anxious, maybe it was he that was unsettled. He knew she was still angry with him, but he’d been watching her as he rode up and she’d seemed unsettled even before he stopped her. “Where are you headed?” he asked.
“Away from you?” she said.
He smiled, same old sass. “Awh Turtle,” he said shaking his head, “I just saw you coming this way and thought . . .”
“Thought what?” she asked and then snapped, “and don’t call me that.” His smile put her in mind of a cocky outlaw putting his hands up cause the sheriff had a gun on him, but he was just waiting on the sheriff to drop his guard, waiting for the chance to draw his own gun. “Nothing’s changed. I don’t have nothing to say to you.” She turned and started walking away, but he started walking with her. When she sped up, he widened his stride, his long legs making it easy for him to keep up with her.
“Look,” she said stopping suddenly and turning to face him. “Can’t you just leave me alone?”
“No,” he said simply. “You are mine and I am yours. All the rest doesn’t matter.”
“I’m sure your wife wouldn’t agree.”
“I explained all of that to you,” he said.
“And I told you how I felt about it and about you.” Eyes straight ahead, she kept walking.
“I was hoping that by now you’d have begun to see things more clearly,” he said as he stepped in front of her causing her to stop. “I miss you. I don’t know what else to do or say.” As he spoke, he searched her face, but she wasn’t giving up anything he could use. She was just pressing her lips together showing her impatience. He reached for her hand, but she snatched it away and hid it behind her back.
“That’s what I get for messing with a white man. Y’all don’t know what ‘NO’ mean. Ain’t used to being denied nothing. I should have run when I figured out that you weren’t a breed.”
He’d heard all this time and time again. “You know race has nothing to do with you and me,” he said stubbornly.
“And money or privilege don’t either, right?” Sarah asked scornfully.
“Look Sarah, I . . .” he began.
“No, Patrick. I don’t have time for this. I’ve got things to do. Please stop. Please don’t follow me.”
“Sarah,” he said catching her by her upper arm as she stepped around him.
“No, Patrick,” she said and looked at the fingers wrapped around her arm.
He took a breath and then released her with a nod.
Sarah continued on her way and didn’t look back, but Patrick stood watching her until she stepped off the boardwalk, turned a corner and disappeared down an alleyway.