I recently read a person’s blog that had his favorite fifty opening sentences. One of them was the unforgettable “Call me Ishmael.” from Moby Dick. I humbly disagree. It’s a memorable line because of the powerful work that follows .
I do agree with another person’s favorite first line: it comes from Follet’s Key to Rebecca. It’s all in caps in the original: “THE LAST CAMEL DIED AT NOON.” A reader, looking at that line in an airport bookstore, trying to find something to read on the plane, would probably want to know more–and buy the book. That’s the idea of “the hook.” Grab the readers by the figurative collars an make him or her want more. Make the reader turn the page.
Over the next few days, I’ll be sharing, a few pages at time, bits of books I’ve written–or, in some cases works in progress.
Following is the first chapter of a new book. The working title is Rollin’ on the River (with apologies to the Creedence Clearwater Revival).
Enjoy and comment, if you’d like. I always appreciate comments.
Out here in the dark, miles from the nearest airport, an airplane was landing.
The noise seemed to come from the pasture east of the barn. Absolutely weird. Maybe somebody’s got problems, but the engine had not sounded wrong. The sound itself was wrong—alien to this old farm by the river bluff about fifty miles west of Chattanooga.
I eased out of bed to avoid disturbing Shannon. I was only wearing a pair of shorts, and the chill in the unheated bedroom quickly hit my bare arms, legs and feet. The room was on the second floor of the house, on the southwest corner, and from the windows that faced south and west I couldn’t see the pasture. I quietly opened the door and headed down the hallway to the other end of the house to a bedroom whose windows looked east and south. On the way, I stopped in the bathroom and put on a bathrobe and moccasins to help with the cool night.
In the empty room, I sat on the bare mattress of an old iron-frame bed and looked out the window that faced east. There were no curtains or blinds on the windows. I could see lights in the pasture, moving lights, but I could no longer hear the plane’s engine.
When I raised the window—taking care to make no noise—a flood of late-October air rushed over me. It was clean, cool and sweet and smelled like a fresh mountain stream. The almost-full moon silvered the landscape.
Voices came from the direction of the pasture. Indistinct but clearly human voices. Time to go investigate.
As I was starting to lower the window, I heard a soft sound and turned, Shannon came in the door. She was barefoot and wore only a long tee shirt. I stopped with the window half-open and went to her, hugging her close to me.
“What are you doing in here, Hon? Why did you get up and why is that window open?” She was half-whispering, although she had no obvious reason to do so.
I matched her quiet tones. “Someone is out there in the pasture to the east of the barn. Look. See those lights through the trees?”
Small flickers winked and disappeared and flashed again as we watched. She leaned around me toward the window to watch. When we moved to the bed, she sat beside me and curled her legs under her.
“I could hear voices just before you came in. Listen.”
She put her arm around my waist and her head on my shoulder. Her warmth against me and her personal scent, like roses in the summer sun, made me simply want to go back to bed and hold her close.
Shannon is a little more than five-three; slender, but nicely shaped with firm breasts and a cute, round butt. She wears her dark brown hair short and has the softest, warmest brown eyes I have ever known.
But it is her smile that can light a whole room and make my heart stop. We have been married for only a little more than two years and I cannot imagine life without her.
“It’s cold in here, Honey, pull the window down and let’s go back to bed. Those are probably just kids out there goofing around on their four-wheelers.”
“Wait. Did you hear it?”
An engine started, then brighter lights flicked through the row of cedars near the barnyard. More voices. Another engine churned into life.
I pulled the window down and took Shannon’s hand, leading her back to our bedroom. I picked up a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans that I had hung on the back of a chair and began dressing.
“I’m just going down there to see what those people are doing out there. After all, this is my farm, now.” As I spoke, I picked up my .45 pistol from the chest of drawers and slipped it under my waistband in the small of my back— just in case.
“You’re not going down there without me.” Shannon was pulling on a pair of jeans and tucking in the tee shirt. “And, if you think you may need your pistol, I’ll take mine.”
She had taken her little Kahr 9mm out of its purse holster.
I tried momentarily to dissuade her, knowing it would do little or no good.
“Okay, but stay close behind me and don’t take the safety off unless it’s absolutely necessary.” I think she stuck her tongue out at me, but it was too dark to see. She’s a sweet woman, but tough. I was always glad to have her backing me.
We went downstairs without turning on lights; through the kitchen and out the back door of the house, the side that was away from the activity we had heard and seen. I held her hand as we went around the west side of the house past my Jeep, and to the front porch.
We paused to listen and watch.
Faint voices, but no visible lights from here. Probably blocked by the barn and the dense line of cedars. I led the way across the chilled, dewy front yard holding Shannon’s hand, staying on the rock slab path down to the barnyard gate.
A few crickets clicked and scraped. The light from the moon and the stars seemed even brighter out here in the country. There was enough light that we could find our way without stumbling.
The huge, black open front door of the barn was straight ahead as we closed the gate behind us. The dense line of cedars was to our left about twenty yards away to the east. There were no animals in the barn, so there would be no problem of our disturbing them and causing a ruckus.
I was about to lead us to the trees when the sudden growl and revving whine of an aircraft engine splintered the country night quiet like an explosion. Immediately, there were more lights filtering through the trees like flame to accompany the explosion.
“Cover my back. Stay close to this side of the barn. I’ll be right back.” I dropped Shannon’s hand after squeezing it and caught her nod as I jogged into the line of trees.
Grandpa had planted the cedars when he and Grandma had first bought the farm and built the house and barn. He had gone into the woods and found small, thick young plants that I grew up calling “Christmas Trees,” and brought them back here. He had planted them in three offset lines. The thick, fragrant trees with scaly bark made a sturdy windbreak for the barnyard from the sometimes-bitter winter blasts from the east. The winds cross the broad Tennessee River, climb the two-hundred foot bluff beyond the pasture, and rip the half-mile across the open ground to the barnyard.
Cows, horses and mules stood behind the cedars, turned their butts to the wind and sheltered from the chill. Now in October of 2010, seventy years or so after Grandpa had planted them, their dense branches hid the night’s intruders.
Pushing through the thick limbs, I moved cautiously from instinct and training and could now see the aircraft in the bright moonlight. Its lights flared across the open grass. The engine revved to the top of its range and it rolled only a short distance before it was airborne. Almost immediately after the wheels had cleared ground, all lights except the wingtip markers went off.
Just like the Agency’s STOLs I had known when Delta worked with them.
I stood there, stunned by the unreality of the situation—a plane taking off from the farm’s pasture in the middle of the night… Following the aircraft as best I could as it swung on its right wing and headed east then abruptly dropped below the cliff toward the river. Even stranger, it looked like it had pontoons as well as wheels.
What the hell…
Then vehicle engines started, and small yellow and red lights marked where they began to move. They were coming toward where I stood, probably to catch the small dirt road behind the barn heading back to the paved road that runs north and south next to the farm.
I stood there at the edge of the pasture with the cedars behind me, watching the humps of vehicles coming closer, trying to make up my mind.
Should I confront these people—these trespassers–by going to the road and trying to halt them? Probably stupid and dangerous. Or, should I just go back to Shannon and try to catch their tag numbers as they passed behind the barn to the paved road?
My mind was made up for me. A quick whip-snap burned past my left ear and pop-pop-popped through the thick branches behind me. The crack of a rifle followed.
Some asshole had just shot at me!
I had been standing with my back to the dark foliage, wearing faded jeans and a white sweatshirt. An easy target; but then I hadn’t expected gunfire.
Instinctively, I dropped to my belly and rolled to my left, snatching the .45 from my waistband and thumbing the safety off as I moved.
Engines jammed to a higher key and the lights jumped as the two vehicles accelerated, bouncing across the rolling terrain. They were heading for the dirt road as I had expected.
I raised up to one knee to see them and took aim with the pistol. Two more shots popped and ripped the grass and my right and left.
Damn! That first shot wasn’t an accident. These people were serious!
I rolled farther to my left and crouched behind a big cedar trunk and ripped off two shots at each vehicle, aiming over the glowing sights, between the front and rear running lights. Probably a useless gesture given the distance and the lack of real light, but it made me feel better. At least I had participated in the fight, and had not just been a target.
The vehicles, a pickup truck and a SUV reached the little road and gravel spattered as they accelerated then went out of sight beyond the trees and the barn.
I stood up, quivering with adrenaline and impotent rage.
Pop, pop, pop! Shannon’s pistol! Then a heavy rifle crack, just before tires screamed on the pavement and the engine sounds dopplered away.
“Shannon!” I yelled as I ran through the trees into the barnyard. “Shannon!”
Oh my God! Where is she?
“Shannon!” I yelled.
“Fort!” Shannon said.
I could breathe again. Her voice was strong. My knees felt shaky with relief.
“Over here, on the other side of the barn. Are you okay?” I said.
As I trotted over to where she waited, she was talking in a torrent of words. They were spilling out even before I got to her.
“ I heard them shoot, then I heard your pistol, and I heard them shoot again and again. Then I heard the trucks on the dirt road and ran over here to see their tags. I saw a guy in the back of the pickup with a rifle pointed back down the road. He saw me, and swung it toward me so I shot at him. I hope I hit the sonofabitch! I’m so glad you’re okay.”
The last she said as we held each other with grateful desperation. Her face was burrowed into my shoulder; the scent of her hair was in every breath as I gulped the chill air in relief. I felt her tremble as we embraced, but that may have been both of us.