The Crime Writers' Association

Slipher’s Rail - Sherry Rankin

One summer in Arkansas, I fell in love with my cousin.

When I first told Marta, she said, “How original” in that dry, measured tone of hers.

“That’s a disgusting stereotype with absolutely no basis in—well, that’s a disgusting stereotype. You’ve never even been to Arkansas,” I remember answering.

And then I married her. Marta, I mean. Not my cousin.

Don’t judge me too harshly—nothing ever happened between me and Ruby Rose, I assure you. She was five years my senior and had a steady boyfriend at the time. But for one long, strange summer, I worshipped her in silent misery from afar (if “afar” can be defined as 100 yards of rusty beer cans and Johnson grass).

Ruby didn’t seem to mind; she tolerated my crush with the exasperated good humor you might extend to the puppy nipping at your toes as you walk. She only brought it up once. We were sipping sweet tea on the porch one sultry evening in early June, the whine of the locusts loud in our ears, when Ruby glanced over and caught me in the middle of a particularly soulful gaze.

“Oh, for God’s sake, Philip—you’re not going to sturm und drang your way through the entire summer, are you?” she laughed. “I can’t handle it—I’m not the sentimental type.” And she called me “Young Werther” for the rest of my visit.

I borrowed Aunt Fran’s Oldsmobile the next day and drove forty-five miles to the Texarkana library to look it up.

My passion for Ruby burned itself out fairly quickly, as such things tend to do when you’re seventeen. She and I drifted apart over the years, only keeping up with each other through Christmas cards and family gossip, so when she died recently it was a bit of a shock to learn she had named me her sole heir. Ruby never married, never had children. And now that I’ve flown down from New York to sign the papers and take possession of the property, I can understand why: the farm was her child. Once Uncle Morris and Aunt Francille were gone, Ruby focused all her energies on the homestead and grew it into a thing of magnificence.

Little remains of the shabby, weed-choked place I remember; the tiny frame house with its peeling paint is gone, replaced by a handsome red-brick structure nestled in a grove of towering pecans. The mouse-infested camper I slept in that summer was long ago sold for scrap, and the once-swampy fields, now drained, are some of the best corn-producing bottomlands in Arkansas, I’m told. Only the old barn remains, still as weathered and rotten as ever—thank God. I guess Ruby was sentimental about some things, after all.

But I’m getting ahead of my story. Let me start from the beginning…

It was 1974, the year of Nixon and Watergate. My mother, recently divorced and a firm subscriber to the idle-hands-are-the-devil’s-workshop philosophy, decided it would be a good idea for me to spend the summer working for her brother on his farm. Uncle Morris, the most tight-fisted old miser ever to till the soil of Miller County, agreed (attracted, no doubt, by the notion of cheap captive labor), and I was bundled unceremoniously onto a Greyhound bus.

Morris’s farm sat on the banks of the Red River in the southwest corner of the state, near enough to the Louisiana bayous for alligators to get lost occasionally in the maze of drainage ditches and wind up in the bar pit by the levée, where Morris would shoot them for target practice.

The farm was not much of a “going concern,” as they say. Morris had tried his hand at cotton, soybeans, corn—but the land was too boggy to grow much besides skunk weed. Any sensible man would have taken out a loan and paid to have the fields professionally drained, but Morris, a hard-core alcoholic with bad credit and little cash, insisted on doing it himself to save money and thought that, with my help, we could accomplish the task in one summer. It became quickly evident even to a city kid like me that it would take a century to lay all the necessary pipelines using nothing but Morris’s World War II-era ditch-digger, but there was no arguing with Uncle Morris.

Aunt Francille, called “Fran” by everyone but Morris (who for some reason called her “Frenchie”), was a city girl at heart. She had grown up in Texarkana, the daughter of a banker, and always considered herself to have “married down,” I think. Prim and bitter, she spent much of her time in town with the ladies of her birding club and had them out to the farm every Saturday morning for bird watching and brunch—not that Fran cared about birds, really; but if you were one of the refined women of Texarkana back then, it’s what you did.

I spent much of that summer trying to puzzle out Morris and Fran’s relationship. They were resentful of each other and yet locked in a strange symbiotic bond. Fran was intensely jealous, Morris intensely spiteful, and both a little deaf, all of which made for a turbulent household. Fran believed Morris was attracted to Hattie Poole, one of the bird club ladies, and they fought about it constantly, which made me grateful for my little camper out back, mice or no mice.

How the two of them ever managed to spawn a goddess like Ruby Rose I’ll never fathom. Willowy, raven-haired, and brilliant, she quickly outstripped the teachers at her small country school and had basically educated herself through voracious reading.

Although she could have done anything, Ruby’s true passion was science, and her goal was to teach biology. Morris refused to fund her education, though, so Ruby was working as a waitress in town and saving up for college, which is how she had met her boyfriend, George.

George was a thin, hollow-chested fellow with a face like congealed oatmeal and the personality to match, so I have no idea what attracted Ruby to him, unless it was the fact that he was a biologist. He worked for the EPA, and when he would visit, he and Ruby would spend hours traipsing around the property “studying the native fauna,” as he put it. I suspected that Ruby was the fauna he wanted to study most, so I would tag along to keep an eye on things as often as Ruby would allow it.

One muggy Saturday toward the end of summer, the three of us returned from our hike to find Aunt Fran’s bird club chattering excitedly in the kitchen. Morris was there, too, nursing a cup of coffee and blatantly ogling Hattie Poole.

I’d always steered clear of the house on “brunch day,” so this was my first encounter with Hattie, and, after having heard so much yelling on the subject, I studied her curiously. A widow in her early fifties, she was the youngest of the ladies, by far, and the prettiest, too. While the others had dressed in heavy dungarees and their husbands’ flannel shirts as protection against the underbrush, Hattie wore tight jeans and a lace-edged top, with a string of pearls around her neck.

“Man-eater,” had been Ruby’s acid assessment when I’d asked her about Hattie a few weeks earlier. “She’s the type who likes the hunt. It’s a power thing.”

Now, Ruby surreptitiously kicked her father on the shin to stop him staring, then reached for a sandwich. “What’s up?”

Fran was too busy glaring at Morris to answer, but Hattie, her eyes shining, replied: “We saw a bird by the bar pit—one we’ve never seen before!”

“Really?” George was instantly interested. “Can you describe it?”

“It looked a little like a yellow rail. But I’m wondering—”

A short, plump woman rolled her eyes. “It was a yellow rail.”

“No, Anne, it was too small,” said another.

“And didn’t you see the white throat?” added Hattie.

George’s eyebrows shot up. “Like a yellow rail but with a white throat?”

Hattie nodded. “Do you think…?”

“Probably not.”

“But what if it was? I got a shot, but I don’t know how clear it’ll be.” She held up her camera.

“What are you two talking about?” Ruby demanded around a mouthful of egg salad.

George turned. “Coturnicops slipheri. A Slipher’s rail.”

“A marsh bird thought extinct since the forties.” Hattie said. “There’ve been reported sightings, but never definitive proof.”

“Their habitat’s largely gone,” said George. “They’re very picky nesters. And with most of the land in this region drained for farming…” He shrugged.

“What happens if someone finds one?” I asked.

“The Nature Conservancy’s offering a reward for a confirmed sighting,” said Hattie, cradling her camera.

Morris perked up. “Reward? How much?”

“Ten thousand, last I heard,” said George.

Ruby nearly choked. Ten thousand was a lot of money in 1974. “That would pay for my entire college education!” she sputtered.

“Or to have my fields drained,” said Morris.

“It’s my camera—I took the picture,” said Hattie, suddenly defensive.

“On my land!”

There was a tense pause. “Maybe we could split the money,” Hattie finally conceded.

“Deal!” Morris extended his hand, and Hattie batted her eyelashes, smiling up at him as they shook. Even I noticed Morris’s deep blush.

“Aren’t you counting your rails before they hatch?” said Fran, icily. “We don’t know if Hattie got a clear picture.”

“And even if she did, how can we be sure it’s a Slipher’s?” added the woman called Anne. “We’re not ornithologists.”

“George is a biologist,” I said.

“Werther’s right,” said Ruby. “Let George decide. If he thinks it’s a Slipher’s, you can send the photo off to the Nature Conservancy.”

It was agreed that Hattie would have the film developed and bring the picture back the next Saturday for George to examine.

The days that followed were even more tempestuous than usual. Uncle Morris, lazy to begin with, stopped working entirely and instead spent his time on the porch swing, drinking Miller Lite and fantasizing about what he would do with five thousand dollars, while Aunt Fran sat across from him, harping about Hattie Poole. Ruby, sick of the bickering, packed a small bag and went to town to stay with a friend for the week, and I, with no car of my own and no means of escape, tried my best to lie low in my camper.

On Thursday, Ruby called. She had bumped into Hattie Poole at the Piggly Wiggly; Hattie had just that morning gotten her photos back from the developer’s, and she showed Ruby the result—a perfect shot of a small, speckled bird pecking along the edge of the bar pit, its white throat gleaming in the morning sun. George was in Baton Rouge on an EPA assignment, but he would be back by the weekend, in plenty of time to evaluate the photograph at the Saturday brunch.

After that, the mood in the house, already tense, became unbearable. A notion occurred to me that I wanted to research, so Friday, I borrowed Fran’s car and drove to Texarkana.

The downtown library was cool and quiet. “I’d like to see any government documents you have regarding environmental protection and zoning,” I told the librarian.

She squinted at me suspiciously. “Why do you want those?”

“Just a little light reading,” I said.

When I got home, it was well after dark. I let myself into the camper and was startled to find Ruby watching TV on my sofa, a bottle of Chivas Regal in her lap.

“Oh, hi!” I said, cleverly. “What are you—”

“It’s like a cockfight over there.” She jutted her chin in the general direction of the house. “Mom’s convinced herself that dad’s planning to divorce her and marry Hattie if they get the reward money. And who knows? Maybe she’s right.”

She took a swig from the bottle and passed it to me. I sat down, wracking my brains for something profound and comforting to say. “It’ll be all right,” is what I came up with.

“No, it won’t. I’m never getting out of this place.” Ruby’s voice was bitter, and when she looked at me, I was shocked to see tears in her eyes. “You wanna know a secret? I had saved almost enough for my first year’s tuition, and dad took it—said if I didn’t give it to him, the bank would repossess the farm. That’s how it’s always going to be. He has all these grand plans, but what he’d actually do with that reward money is drink it up. I’ll spend my life waitressing and bailing him out of debt, because what kind of person lets her parents wind up on the street? And when they die I’ll be broke, with no career, a worthless, soggy patch of land, and no money to improve it.”

“That’s the Chivas talking,” I said, reaching awkwardly to pat her arm. “Things’ll look better in the morning.”

“I doubt it. But thanks for listening, Werther. You’re a sweet kid.” She smiled sadly. “Mind if I sleep out here? When mom’s this upset with dad, she always ends up in my bed, wanting to talk. I can’t deal with it tonight.”

“Y-you wanna sleep with me?”

“On the sofa. I want to sleep on the sofa,” Ruby laughed, wiping her tears away with her sleeve.

I could feel my ears burning. “Oh. Sure. Of course. But take the bed—I’ll sleep on the sofa.”

“And they say chivalry is dead.” She leaned over and kissed my cheek.

That was a long night. I tossed and turned, kept from sleep by love-sickness and the mice that kept scurrying across my pillow. Finally, I gave up, pulled on my clothes, and left the camper. I needed to think.

The next morning dawned hazy and humid. George arrived at eight o’clock and the birding ladies at nine—all except for Hattie.

“She must want to make a grand entrance,” said Fran tartly.

At nine-thirty, they called Hattie’s house, but got no answer. At ten, the bird club ladies were starting to worry.

“What if she had a fall?” someone asked.

“Ruby and I’ll go check on her,” George finally said.

“I’ll come with you,” I blurted.

The three of us piled into George’s pickup and drove to town.

“Her Buick’s here,” said George as he parked in front of Hattie’s neat brick home.

When no one answered the front doorbell, we walked around and discovered the back door ajar, its window shattered.

“Wait here,” said George in a manly tone. “I’ll check it out.”

Ruby rolled her eyes and pushed past him.

We found Hattie Poole on her bed, a pillow over her face. Her body was cold. Photographs of the farm lay scattered across the quilt.

We stood staring for a long moment. I was the first to speak, though my voice shook. “We should call the police.”

“Phone’s in the kitchen, I think,” whispered Ruby.

I nodded and left the room. When I returned, Ruby and George were leaning over the bed, peering closely at the photographs. “Better not touch anything,” I said.

“We’re not.” Ruby looked up, her face white. “The Slipher’s rail is missing.”

“What?”

“The photo Hattie showed me at the grocery store. It’s not here. Whoever killed her took it.”

#

The remainder of that summer is something of a blur in my memory. The Texarkana police conducted a full investigation, interrogating everyone involved. I was terrified during the interview, my teeth chattering, legs trembling. I was glad Ruby wasn’t in the room to see.

They were especially suspicious of Uncle Morris and asked him to take a lie detector test, which he passed with flying colors. That’s what made it such a shock when, after Aunt Fran returned from her second interview with detectives two weeks later, Morris put on his best suit and tie, kissed Fran and Ruby, and drove to the police station, where he turned himself in for the murder of Hattie Poole. He said he had gone to her house to argue for a bigger cut of the reward money, they had fought, and things had gotten out of hand.

He was sentenced by the judge to twenty-five to life. In prison, he sobered up and become a decent human being, from what I heard.

With her husband gone, Aunt Fran’s temperament improved, as well. She moved back to town and lived another decade in peace before passing away in her sleep one winter’s night.

Hattie’s photo of the Slipher’s rail never did turn up, and it haunted Ruby. Her father refused to say what he’d done with it, though she asked him many times.

“I just hope he didn’t destroy it—for the sake of science,” Ruby told me the last time I saw her, at Aunt Fran’s funeral.

Although the birding club disbanded after the incident, Ruby bought a pair of binoculars and continued to search for the elusive bird. After inheriting the farm, she saved up and paid to have the place properly drained, though she left a half-acre of swamp around the old bar pit, just in case the Slipher’s rail came back.

A few years after Aunt Fran died, I got a letter from Uncle Morris: Dear Philip, I am dying of cirrhosis and haven’t got long. I don’t want to burden Ruby with this, but I felt someone in the family should know the truth before I pass.

I did not kill Hattie Poole. Your Aunt Francille did. The night it happened, I was waked up sometime after midnight by the sound of Frenchie’s Oldsmobile pulling out of the drive. She was gone. When I heard that Hattie was dead and the photograph missing, I knew what had happened.

I was a bad husband, Philip. With my flirting and evil ways, I drove Frenchie to murder. The very least I could do to make amends was to stand up like a man and bear the punishment. It’s the only decent thing I’ve ever done in my life. I hope it’s enough.

Yours, Uncle Morris.

I honored his wishes and never told Ruby what her father said. From her Christmas cards, I gleaned that Ruby transformed the farm, became quite wealthy, and did eventually go to college, earning a Master’s degree in biology and teaching night-school science classes at Texarkana College in her spare time.

The last card I received from her said simply: “Merry Christmas, Werther. It turned out to be an okay life, after all.”

And now the land is mine. I suppose I’ll sell it eventually—I’d make a terrible farmer, and Marta would never agree to leave New York. In the meantime, I’ve arranged for a tenant to look after the place.

But before I go, there’s one last thing I need to do.

I push my way through the farmhouse door and cross the lawn to the old barn. Inside, I find the floorboard with the faint X that I scratched into it all those decades ago. Beneath it, the small tin box is still there, now covered with rust and dirt. I pull it gingerly out of the ground. Inside is the photograph, a bit faded, but the little bird’s white collar is just as visible as it was the day Hattie Poole snapped the picture.

You see, when I went to the library that Friday, I learned something Morris didn’t know—something none of them knew: that if the Slipher’s rail had been confirmed to be nesting on the property, the whole place would have been declared “protected wetlands.” No one could have drained or even farmed it again. For five thousand dollars of prize money, they would have lost their means of livelihood forever.

I couldn’t let that happen. Ruby deserved a happy and prosperous life.

Hattie Poole had wrecked a lot of marriages, so I’ve never felt that terrible about the murder, to be honest. I do regret that Uncle Morris took the fall for it, but really, prison life redeemed him, so I guess I shouldn’t feel all that bad. He thought he was protecting Aunt Fran by confessing, but I was the one driving off in her Oldsmobile that night. Fran was sound asleep in Ruby’s room, too angry to share a bed with her husband.

Like I said in the beginning, I hope whoever reads this won’t judge me too harshly. I did it for love, though Ruby would have been angry with me, had she known. After all, she was a student of biology and actually cared about the bird, which is why I couldn’t bring myself to destroy the picture.

And anyway, who knows? Maybe the Slipher’s rail is still out there somewhere, scurrying among the reeds by the bar pit, scratching and nesting and living its life, just waiting to be found.