The dawn broke clear again on the eighth of April, ending the longest stretch of bad weather anyone had seen in these parts since the Ice Age, sixty-three straight days of snow and sleet and rain. The sun that crested Canada Ridge that morning found me on my east sidehill, opening my cold frames to its first rays. I had one hundred flats of market produce out there—lettuces, herbs, and crucifers—all looking paler and leggier than I liked. The break in the weather would be fleeting, and I wasn't about to waste a second of it.
I took my breakfast (tea, yogurt, half a cantaloupe, and the last of Friday night's onion focaccia) out to the picnic table under my mother's budding lilac, where I ate listening to the white-noise roar of Ricker Brook in the softwoods below my greenhouse. The flooding down along the river would only worsen today. Already a long stretch of the county highway that skirted the shore of the lake from Tipton into Quebec was under three feet of water from the fishing access to Perry Crossing.
Having my view back again was a true gift. More than two months had passed since I'd been able to see from my hill over the ragged spruce woods and the village steeples all the way across the lake to the worn silhouette of Mount Joseph, ten miles off. The mountain's facade was in shadow at this hour, but its dome gleamed against the sky. At its foot the lake surface looked like paraffin, yellow-gray and dappled with patches of snow.
I picked up my bird glasses. By law, all the fishing shanties should have been off the ice a week ago, and yet one remained—particle board, with a sheet of corrugated Plexiglas for a roof. Larry Tetrault's, if I had to bet. When that shack went through, he'd get hit with a thousand-dollar fine from Fish and Wildlife plus the cost of dragging it up from the bottom—only it would be his girlfriend, Trudy Barrett, writing the check, since she was the one in that household with a steady income. Still, if he got right on it, Larry could at least snake a cable out there and save everyone concerned a lot of trouble and expense. I made a note to give him a nudge around noontime, when you could usually count on his being both awake and sober.
I had intended to spend this fine day transplanting squash and tomatoes in the greenhouse, and for a few blissful hours it went as planned. The soft, moving air threaded with the pungent aroma of the tomatoes was a tonic. All morning, even with the doors open at both ends, I couldn't hear a thing over the tumult of the brook except, now and then, the burble of a red-winged blackbird in the marsh, celebrating the sun. It wasn't until I was walking up across my soggy lawn for lunch that my spirits took a plunge at the sound of a woman's voice floating down from my answering machine in the kitchen: Ella McPhetres, our town clerk. She had a mission for me.
It was Ella who'd recruited me for the post of constable the year before, she and my half-brother, Spud. The town had been without a constable ever since Clyde Greeley remarried and moved to Springfield five years earlier, simply because no one among our two-hundred-and-some residents was remotely qualified for the job—no one, that is, until I came home. I was perfect. "And there's nothing to it," Spud promised me. "A little light peacekeeping's all it amounts to. Plus, you could use the stipend. You can't keep cornflakes in the cupboard on what I'm paying you."
That much was true. Spud and his wife, Brenda, ran the high, rolling dairy farm a mile past my mother's cabin. I'd been putting in a hand there when Spud needed one—sugaring, haying, pruning Christmas trees—as long as he could afford to pay me a little something, not to make him feel beholden. I took on the farmwork more for its social value than for the money, anyway—same reason I stood for constable, to keep myself in circulation. The stipend was two grand a year.
I hit Play.
"Hector, this is Thad Rowell up on the plateau. I got something real unusual here that I think you'll want to take a look at. Maybe you could call me when you get this . . ." He paused to listen to someone else in the room, a woman who sounded agitated, though I couldn't make out what she was saying. "OK, second thought, I'll call the sheriff. Thanks anyway."
By all means. Call the sheriff.
"Hector? Vaughn Higbee. I apologize for calling so early on a Sunday, but I was hoping to catch you. I need your help. Could you get back to me right away, please? Today? Thanks."
Higbee was a professor in the humanities department at the state college in Allenburg—wealthy Sierra Club type, raised a few steers on the side. He'd lost his second wife in an accident the summer before, and I had great sympathy for what he'd been through. Just the same, if he was calling me again about the condition of his road, as I supposed he was, there was very little I could do for him. As he already knew.
"Oh, Constable! Help me! I'm so frightened! There's this great big yellow thing in the sky, and I don't know what it is!" Wilma. Calling from her car. I could hear the radio playing beneath her flutey laugh. Wilma and I had been seeing each other for about six months. Smart and nervy and strikingly pretty, she was a prolific reporter for our local daily, the Allenburg Eagle. "Listen up, you recluse, you'll love this. You know Thad Rowell, farms up on the Bailey Plateau? His rabbit dog came trotting out of the woods this morning with a human hand in its mouth. Rowell called the sheriff, and Petey and the boys have just uncovered an abandoned vehicle and a bunch of human remains up in the old Space Research compound. I'm on my way there now. It's—let's see, it's eleven-sixteen. Be there or be square. Oh, and I have lunch all packed, so I hope you get this in time. If not, your loss, I'll just see you tonight at the convent. Over and out. Wait—what else did I want to say? Oh, yeah. Happy birthday! Hah! Thought I forgot, didn't you?"
When she and her husband parted ways last fall, Wilma moved into a spectacular apartment on the third floor of the old Notre Dame Convent, a limestone landmark just north of Allenburg on a long rise above the Passumpsic River. Wilma's rooms had been the mother superior's suite—arched casement windows with a view of the river and the town, a rooftop patio, a fireplace with a marble hearth—and she was the building's only resident. The first two floors were dental offices.
"Hector? Thad Rowell again. Hey, if you're around, maybe you could do me a favor. See, I got this dead hand here that my dog found out in the woods. The state medical examiner was supposed to come pick it up two hours ago, but he hasn't shown up, and I was hoping maybe you could come out and take possession of this thing. Sorry, I didn't know who else to call. Thanks."
The last message was Ella McPhetres's. "Heck? Ella. You know I hate to trouble you on the weekend, but Judge Larrabee has just issued a relief-from-abuse order for a local woman. I tried the sheriff's office, but they're all otherwise occupied, so you're it. Call me as soon as you get this. I'm home all day."
I punched in Vaughn Higbee's number.
"Hector! Thank you for calling back. What a day, huh? Look, I don't want to beat around the bush here. This is the deal: if our road doesn't get taken care of by the end of the day tomorrow, I'm going to sue the town. There it is. If not A, then B."
"Might be easier if you'd trade in that old diesel of yours for a Hummer, something with a little clearance."
He was in no mood. "I don't want a damn Hummer. I want the same services that every other taxpayer in this town gets. I'm right and you know it, Hector."
"Yes, and I know Marcel. You bring a lawsuit and you'll make his day." The town's road commissioner, Marcel Boisvert, was Vaughn Higbee's father-in-law. They'd been at odds for years. "As I said last week, Vaughn, you have to give him time. He'll come around eventually."
"Yeah, he'll die eventually, too. I'm through waiting. You know how many mornings he plowed me into my garage this winter? Now the old bastard's making his five-year-old grandson slog in and out every day through a mile of mud. You're the law in this town, Hector. What if we needed an ambulance out here? You want that on your conscience?"
With all the spring rain on top of the winter's burden of snow, we were in the middle of a brutal mud season, and nowhere was it worse than out through Greenwood Hollow, where Vaughn Higbee and his boy were living in the 1840 red brick Greek Revival mansion that he and Kathy Boisvert had spent a fortune refurbishing. All the while I was growing up, the Greenwood place hadn't been much more than a boarded-up shell. We used to go dig for old bottles there, out behind the tumbled barn. Today, slate-roofed and fitted out with fancy appliances and central air, it was still known in town as the Greenwood place, never mind that no Greenwood had hayed those fields since Eisenhower was president. Vaughn's commute between the hollow and the state college campus in Allenburg was long enough, but for a week now he'd been having to leave his car at the four corners and walk into the hollow, carrying his briefcase, his groceries, and his five-year-old boy, Marc.
Marcel Boisvert was a direct descendant of the first Abenaki landholders in the valley and as untraveled and hard-hearted as the granite monadnock that overlooked it. An expert outdoorsman, he was regarded as the best deer hunter in the north country. Every November he'd bring home a ten- or twelve-pointer from Maine's deep woods, where the biggest whitetails could still be taken. As Tipton's road commissioner, he was valued for his mechanical skills and respected for the sixty-hour weeks he routinely put in. But he was a somber, uncompromising man, and he maintained our 890 miles of public thoroughfare according to an intricate collection of grudges and prejudices, which no one in this town could influence. Least of all me.
Marcel's daughter Kathy met Vaughn Higbee when she was a junior at Allenburg State. She fell for his unruly ponytail, his irreverence, and his scholarly passion for Abenaki culture. Vaughn was smitten by Kathy's beauty and wit, and her Indian blood. Twice her age when they met, he was in the middle of a divorce from a queenly equestrienne, a Connecticut blueblood nobody here had much use for, according to my mother. Long before the split was final, she and their two teenage girls loaded up the horses and moved back to Darien.
Just a day after her graduation, resolute in the face of her father's outrage at the prospect, Kathy married Vaughn and moved with him into an Airstream camper they'd installed under the dooryard maples on the derelict sheep farm in Greenwood Hollow. The place had come to Kathy on her twenty-first birthday, a bequest of her grandfather, Philo. Kathy and Marcel stopped speaking after that, and Kathy found she was forbidden to set foot on the home place whether he was there or not. Whenever Shirley drove out to the hollow to visit her daughter, it was understood she would pretend she was going shopping or to a church meeting.
Over the next few years Kathy and Vaughn turned the old Greenwood mansion into a showplace, and Kathy earned her master's in counseling, which led to a good position with the state's Department of Social Services, but it wasn't until she gave him a grandson that Marcel came around. Little Marc was a peach-skinned cherub. With his mother's big violet-blue eyes and blond curls, he was one of those babies you can't stop looking at. Gifted, too, as it turned out, speaking whole sentences before his first birthday.
Ella McPhetres always maintained it was the helpless love they shared for that baby that drew the family together again. Just how they managed to mend the rift no one knew, but the next October Kathy and Marcel went bow-hunting once again as they'd done each fall before she'd taken up with Vaughn, and all five of them began spending the holidays together over one of Shirley's fricasseed turkeys or maple-cured hams. Shirley's special joy was the baby. She looked after him on weekdays while Kathy and Vaughn were at work, and somehow managed to persuade Marcel to invest in a swing set and a jungle gym, which he set up in the Boisvert backyard.
Last June, Kathy and Vaughn flew out west for a hang-gliding vacation, leaving Marc with Marcel and Shirley. Kathy was killed out there, decapitated by a guy wire. The entire town was stunned and heartbroken. Marcel was consumed with grief. After the funeral service, he shunned the sight of Vaughn and his small grandson, but it wasn't until months later, when the snow began to pile up, that Vaughn realized the road crew had all but stopped keeping up the spur into Greenwood Hollow.
I glanced at the schoolroom clock above the fridge with the thought that if I could catch Marcel at home for his noon dinner, Shirley's presence might provide a buffer. Most men were more tractable when their wives were in earshot. "I'll talk to him, Vaughn. That's all I can promise."
"That's all I'm asking. Your family goes back in this town, Hector. He puts stock in those things."
I didn't bother to contradict him. "I'll talk to him," I said again, "but in return I'd like you to drop this lawsuit business."
"Sorry, Hector, I can't do that. Look, all I'm after here is fair treatment. Whatever I need to do to get it, I reserve that right."
"This isn't about your rights, Vaughn. It's about whether you have the grace not to saddle the town with attorney's fees by bringing a lawsuit you know you can't win."
"You're not hearing me. I'm giving you a chance to do the right thing here. You and the select board. Hire a new road foreman, I don't care what you do, but my road gets graded by Tuesday or I'll see you people in court." He broke the connection.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Fifth Season by Don Bredes. Copyright © 2005 by Don Bredes. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.