In 1909, newspapers shaped the world, and Hector Browning was a newspaper man. He was a master at wordplay, a king of persuasion with the power of the press. The new century had dawned; it was time to turn a rustic people from their old ways, and more importantly, their homes. His assignment was simple: Get those people out of the hills. But Browning and his league of industrialists were about to run up against a different kind of power, one that didn’t rely on ink and intimidation.
Hector would soon discover that the people of Utopea held dear a heritage of supernatural gifts that had protected their village for a century. Will his skepticism and underhanded dealings persist, or will the magic of the town turn Hector from his own path instead?
Chapter 1 - Big News (excerpt)
The wagon wheel greeted the next rut in the road like a besotted girl flinging herself into the arms of her beau. Hector’s stomach lurched along with the creaky wooden seat beneath him. Apparently the rubes in these parts had neither heard of springs nor discovered the art of rudimentary upholstery. The battering his body suffered as the mule-drawn vehicle crawled along the dirt road made him nostalgic for the unbearable stone benches on the campus green at Oberlin. As the driver gee-hawed the team up a hill and remained cheerfully oblivious to his passenger’s discomfort, Hector Alistair Browning reassured himself that the trip was well worth the misery. His first solo newspapering job would be the editorial equivalent of a shot over the bow of the journalistic world. H.A. Browning was about to make his mark. Soon, special features bearing his byline would draw the civilized world’s attention to the barbarity of these neglected hills. Help would come, and progress would do its good work. H. Alistair Browning would make that happen through his persuasive prose and earnest rhetoric. ‘Conquering Hector,’ they’d call him, back in his collegiate halls. Thinking of honors to come and weighing which version of his name would look the best in print allowed Hector to ignore, for a few moments, the agony of travel. It returned in full force, unfortunately, as the wagon drew near a pond and disturbed several of its denizens. A trio of dragonflies buzzed Hector and his driver.
“Anisoptera,” Hector muttered, the Latin classification for the insects falling like a curse from his lips. He grabbed his halfbowler hat and took a swing at the tiny swarm.
“You leave them snake doctors be,” the youthful driver chided, “ ‘less you want your mouth stitched up.” When his charitable warning was met with a blank stare, Jim French shrugged. Giving the reins a flick he turned his eyes back to the road. “Well, I don’t suppose nobody’d notice. You don’t talk much.”
Jim adjusted his left suspender with a soft snap while he reminded himself of the twenty-five cent fare he carried in his pocket. The things it could buy were worth the hour it was taking to get this unfriendly sack from the rail spur at the mine to Utopea. Glancing sidelong at the clean-shaven, pudgy man seated next to him, Jim wondered how his kin and the other folk on the hill would take to him. The fellow had best find his tongue. A bit of chatter would go a long way toward dispelling the uppity impression given by his fancy plaid coat. Jim blinked at the pattern, which swirled for a moment in his mind to reform into the squares of a quilt. He chewed over that omen as the mules crested the hill and the community of Utopea came into sight.
“Here we are,” Jim said. “That building there with the porch is Doc Wiseman’s place. Last paper man set up a press in the old surgery when the Doc moved his seein’ parlor down to the mine camp. My sister Launy’s got the key for you up at the Hamilton place.”
Hector eyed the tiny village sharply, noting from journalistic practice the few details. Aside from the clapboard building that would soon become his place of business, he noted a grocery store, a wheelwright’s, a lumber yard, a small shed marked Utopea Post Office, and very little else. The wagon rolled to a stop by a large empty lot fenced by rough-cut pickets. A few old hay bales and a dozen sawhorses were penned inside, as if they were inanimate zoo curiosities.
“What’s the purpose of this enclosure?” Hector asked. Jim stared back at him for a moment as he figured out the gist of the question.
“That’s for market days,” he explained. “We have ‘em on every other Friday, give or take the weather. But weather’s generally good unless someone’s riled up the clouds. Next one’s tomorrow.”
Hector smirked at the second ridiculous folk superstition this man had shared in the last five minutes, but let it pass by unchallenged. Instead of scoffing at cloudy meddlers, he focused on information that might actually prove useful. “And what kind of wares might I buy on one of your market days?”
Jim grinned at the formal way his passenger spoke. “You can get yourself a horse, or a mule. Mules are better,” Jim added, glancing at his own with approval. “The women bring up sewin’ and sweets. Sometimes old man Kincaid has knives and irons, but he only fires his forge in the winter so you won’t see them things til next spring. My pa’s new wife’s a bee queen. You’ll buy her honey. Everyone does. Miz Howard – ”
“I see,” Hector interrupted. Utopea’s economy was clearly based around the mundane. He decided to change the subject before he was forced to hear about moonshine, poultices and chicken feed. “How far is Hamilton’s boarding house from here?”
“Quarter mile or so down that trace,” Jim said. “Just follow the lilac trees.”
Jim hopped limberly from the driver’s seat and moved immediately to the ear of the near mule. Hector watched incredulously as the skinny young man with thin, jet-black hair proceeded to converse by means of a long string of gibberish with the animal. When he moved to repeat the odd ritual with the second mule, Hector clambered down with far less grace from his own seat. He waited a moment to see if the driver would make any move toward retrieving the large leather case that contained all of his things from the back of the wagon. It soon became apparent that Judgment Day might come first, so Hector reached over the low side of the bed to drag it out himself.
As soon as Hector’s bag landed with a scrape on the patchy gravel expanse pretending to be a street, Jim began to walk toward the lumberyard. The mules followed him placidly, the wagon trailing at the end of the strange parade. Evidently Hector had been conveyed as far as his two bits would stretch. He grasped the stiff, hard handle of his new suitcase and hefted its heavy weight. Rather than raising regrets, the burden created by the numerous books it held consoled him. Those volumes might well be the only culture available to him here. Hefting his case, he managed only a few steps toward the shady path to his new home before being stopped short by a heavenly aroma and a child’s voice.
“Hey, Mister. Maw’s got biscuits.”
The purveyor of this news was a tiny brown-haired girl so slight her limbs seemed filled with twigs rather than bones. She stood, barefoot, in the doorway of the grocery, her hands supporting something alive and squirming in the large pocket on the front of her indigo-dyed apron. That garment covered an underlying primitive dress of faded yellow cotton. She smiled at Hector, revealing that several of her baby teeth had departed Utopea for some other promised land.
“Mary Maud, you get away from that door.”
The little girl dodged immediately back inside the store to be replaced by a middle-aged woman of substantially heavier build. Hector politely focused his eyes on the maternal figure’s face rather than the seams that were valiantly striving to contain the girth of her hips within the confines of her dark day dress.
“Good afternoon, Madam. I am Hector Alistair Browning, here to publish your town’s next newspaper.” Hector tipped his hat with a mild flourish as the woman quickly brushed some flour from her hands onto a blue striped towel she carried.
“How do, Mr. Browning,” she responded, stepping clear of the doorway and gesturing him inside. “We much miss The Weekly Arrow. Mary Maud, get the jelly and a plate. Mr. Browning should have a biscuit while they’re still hot.”
“Why not?” Hector smiled. The woman was clearly eager about his new endeavor and it would cost him nothing but time to gain her goodwill. And, the promise of a delicious biscuit was welcome. As he stepped into the dim interior of the store, the only seat he could see was a tall stool fronting a flat counter dominated by an archaic cash register. Setting his case down beside the stool, he canted one hip upward to settle himself on it as his hostess introduced herself.
“My name’s Martha Howard. But Mr. Howard died last winter so I may be Martha-something-else any time now.” The widow Howard smiled confidently and tucked a graying strand of black hair back up under the braided bun which contained the rest of her crowning glory. “Are you married, Mr. Browning?”
“Heavens, no,” Hector said. Noting a faint glimmer of disapproval in Mrs. Howard’s eyes over his relief at his single state, he amended. “That is, Heaven has yet to bless me with matrimony.”
“Well, time will tell. There are pretty girls in Utopea who ain’t spoken for. If you need any hints you just come see me.”
Mrs. Howard was looking him over in an appraising way as Mary Maud returned with a chipped white china plate and a halffull pint jar of golden gel. “Here, Maw. I brung the crab apple spread.”
“Thank you Mary Maud. Now go see if there’s any mail for Mr. Browning while he eats his biscuit. I told Mr. Ginch you’d be needing a postal box when we heard you were coming,” she said, proud of her foresight, and before Hector could object to the savage waif rifling through his important correspondence she was out the door like a shot. He consoled himself by running his index finger and thumb around the immense golden puff of layered dough that Mrs. Howard slid upon his plate. It smelled even finer at close range.
Save a fat spoon for the apple preserves, no cutlery was at hand. Hector had to tear the biscuit asunder with his fingers and his mouth watered as its heated flavor stormed its way up his nostrils. A dollop of sweet crab apple jelly doused the biscuit’s innate buttery temper, then the first bite greeted Hector’s mouth. He chewed enthusiastically. If the matron desired conversation, she’d have to wait until he was finished addressing her cooking.
“Let me see,” she was saying as she rummaged behind the cash counter. “I’m sure I saved a copy of the Arrow . . . ah, there it is.” She placed the December 3, 1907 issue before Hector, opening it flat and smoothing the crease that bisected the front page with a pride bordering on reverence. “This was the last paper Big Andrew printed before he died. We had terrible croup that year,” she confided. “I always thought it was such a shame that he never had another paper man to print the story of his funeral. It was a day to remember, it truly was.”
Hector, plied into a receptive mode by the delicious biscuit, decided that a delayed obituary honoring Utopea’s previous publisher might go a long way toward his own paper being accepted. After all, he’d be changing the Arrow’s name, and with it the antiquated typeface that was assaulting his eyes from page one. Sizing up the publication, Hector noted that it was an eight sheet affair dedicated almost exclusively to local trivia. The lead article was a gossipy examination of the circumstances around an outhouse fire. The prank must have been the crime of the century in these parts, judging by the column space it commanded.
“My sympathies on the loss of Mr. Andrew,” Hector said. And the outhouse, he thought silently.
“Mr. MacDonald,” Martha Howard corrected. “His name was Andrew MacDonald. Would you like to know why we called him ‘Big’ Andrew?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye.
Hector honestly didn’t care and was a little bit afraid of what earthy revelation lay behind the widow’s hinting. “Before you tell me, madam, be apprised that any information you give might be used in the tribute I plan to write.” He popped the last chunk of biscuit into his mouth as the proprietress of Utopea’s only grocery laughed heartily.
“Well, then you just get yourself down to the east hollow and ask any of the MacDonalds there to tell you something nice about Big Andrew. If you find Katie Pearl, she’ll show you where her daddy’s buried. It’s out by Spruce Knob where Big and his brother Charlie shot a white turkey once’t. Ain’t that something rare?” Mrs. Howard paused in proud recollection of what had probably been another headline-worthy event as Hector, his base gastronomical appetite satisfied, quickly mustered the will to be on his way. As he maneuvered his feet back onto the floor, Mary Maud returned with a half sheet of paper in one hand. The other was still occupied with whatever she held captive in her apron pocket.
“He got a telegram, Maw,” she announced.
“Give it over, then,” her mother ordered. Hector scissored the paper from the little urchin with two fingers, as if it might have some infestation of provincial fleas. Glancing at the type, he could see it was from Endicott and Taylor.
“Ah, this is from the head office,” he said, knowing the woman would be impressed. “I’m afraid I must attend to business now. Thank you sincerely for the society.” Unsure if Mrs. Howard would expect or even want payment for her baked good, Hector fished a nickel from his vest pocket and offered it to the daughter instead. “And this is for delivering my message, miss.”
The offer of the coin set Mary Maud’s gapped grin in motion and brought both her hands into view as she formed a cup to receive it. As Hector dropped the nickel into her palms, a blackfurred creature escaped from her pocket. Hector reared back, startled, as whatever it was bounced off his shoe and skittered in a blur toward the shelter of a stack of small crates. The little girl gasped, and threw the nickel into her vacated pocket before scrambling after the animal.
“Essie! Come back!” she squealed, as on hands and knees she sought the thing among the grocery’s barrels and boxes. Mrs. Howard grabbed a broom and joined in.
“That’s it, Mary Maud! She has to stay in the cage. I told you last time I wouldn’t have this happening no more!”
Hector tipped his hat with a muttered ‘ladies’ which went entirely unnoticed as mother and daughter proceeded with their hunt.