THE ALABASTER RIVER cuts diagonally across Black Earth County, Minnesota, a crooked course like a long crack in a china plate. Flowing out of Sioux Lake, it runs seventy miles before crossing the border into Iowa south of Jewel, the county seat. It’s a lovely river filled with water that’s only slightly silted, making it the color of weak tea. Most folks who’ve grown up in Black Earth County have swum in the river, fished its pools, picnicked on its banks. Except in spring, when it’s prone to flooding, they think of it as an old friend. On quiet nights when the moon is full or nearly so and the surface of the Alabaster is mirror-still and glows pure white in the dark bottomland, to stand on a hillside and look down at this river is to fall in love.
With people, we fall in love too easily, it seems, and too easily fall out of love. But with the land it’s different. We abide much. We can pour our sweat and blood, our very hearts into a piece of earth and get nothing in return but fields of hail-crushed soybean plants or drought-withered cornstalks or fodder for a plague of locusts, and still we love this place enough to die for it. Or kill. In Black Earth County, people understand these things.
If you visit the Alabaster at sunrise or sunset, you’re likely to see the sudden small explosions of water where fish are feeding. Although there are many kinds of fish who make the Alabaster their home, the most aggressive are channel catfish. They’re mudsuckers, bottom feeders, river vultures, the worst kind of scavengers. Channel cats will eat anything.
This is the story of how they came to eat Jimmy Quinn.
Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
IN 1958, MEMORIAL Day fell on a Friday. This was long before the federal government made the celebration officially the final Monday of May. Back then it was still referred to as Decoration Day. Like many rural communities, Jewel took its holidays seriously. The people of Black Earth County were mostly farmers, sensible, hardworking folks. Their days were long, their labor backbreaking. But when they could legitimately give themselves permission to relax and enjoy life, they did a pretty fair job of it. Decoration Day was the first real celebration after the relentless work of spring. By then, the ground had been plowed, harrowed, planted. The honey wagons had spread manure across the seeded fields, and near the end of May, that aroma, which is a peculiar hallmark of farm country, had pretty much disappeared. In its place was a different scent, the fragrance of green shoots and leafed trees and early-blooming wildflowers and, in town, lawns freshly mowed. What had come by the end of May was the smell of promise.
Jewel had always called itself “The Gem of the Prairie.” The grand courthouse on the hill was built twenty years after the Civil War, constructed of granite quarried in the Minnesota River Valley seventy miles north. The shops that lined the main street were all family-owned, and proudly so. It was a small town by most standards. There were no stoplights and the only grocery store was Huber’s, in business since before the turn of the century. If you came from the city, you’d probably have thought of it as sleepy. But in 1958, it was bustling, with lots of life in it. And death, too, as it turned out.
The Decoration Day parade was a grand affair. The veterans dressed up in their uniforms. The oldest was Gunther Haas, who served with Colonel James W. Forsyth’s 7th Cavalry at the battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. The uniforms of the old vets were generally faded and ill-fitting, but a lot of the younger men, who’d fought in World War Two or the Korean War, still looked pretty snappy in their khaki and braid or their navy whites. The veterans were at the center of the parade, Gunther Haas among them, pushed along in his wheelchair, a frail wisp of a man with ill-fitting false teeth and barely enough strength to wave the little flag he held. Up front marched the Jewel High School Band in its final official performance of that school year. The fire department, as it did for every parade, rolled out its two engines and hit their sirens many times along the route, so that the spectators on the sidewalks screamed with delight. Jack Harris, the mayor, was there in a shiny red Edsel convertible that Wheeler’s Ford dealership was still trying to get rid of. Near the end came the Black Earth Trotters, a group of local show riders, on their mounts, the horses decked out in ribbons and high-stepping proudly. The parade moved down the entire length of Jewel’s business district—three blocks of shops and businesses—and turned at the corner of Main and Ash, where chairs had been set on a high platform so that Harris and a few others could speak, offering the kinds of platitudes expected on such a day. Afterward, in Veteran’s Park, there would be picnics and fireworks.
In those days, Jewel’s population hovered around four thousand. A lot of them turned out for the celebration, and a good many farm families came into town as well. Absent that year, as usual, was Brody Dern, sheriff of Black Earth County. Brody would have been among the most decorated of veterans had he chosen to march with the others, but Brody never did. He had duties to attend to, he would say as an excuse, and folks let it go at that.
On the Decoration Day when this story begins, Brody was, in fact, occupied overseeing the one prisoner the county jail held, Felix Klein. Felix wasn’t the kind of man who needed much oversight. When he was sober, he was every bit as decent and peace-loving as the next citizen of Jewel. But Felix had demons inside him, or so he claimed when he’d been hitting the Wild Turkey, and these demons sometimes made him do things he regretted. He tried to set fire to the water tower once. When he sobered up and Brody demanded an explanation, Felix was stumped. And late on the previous New Year’s Eve, Brody had found him wandering Jewel in his long johns, his feet bare. Brody had taken him to the emergency room of the little hospital, where, because of frostbite, they’d had to amputate a couple of toes on both feet. When Brody questioned him, Felix said he couldn’t stand to be in his house any longer, not with Hannah there, crying like that. Hannah was Felix’s wife. By then, she’d been dead a dozen years.
But get him off the bottle and Felix was a man who could carry his own in an intelligent conversation, and he was one hell of a chess player.
That’s precisely what he and Brody were doing that afternoon when the Decoration Day parade was taking place on Main Street. Brody could hear the high school band and the cheers and the applause of those who’d gathered to watch, and now and again he heard the fire engine sirens. Later, when everything had moved to Veteran’s Park, he planned to join his brother’s family and his mother for some cold fried chicken. But at that moment, he was content to be right where he was.
Hector, Brody’s golden retriever, lay on the floor not far from the men. Brody had named him for the noble hero of Troy, and when you looked into that beautiful dog’s soulful brown eyes you knew why.
The sheriff was thirty-five years old, tall and lean. His hair was the color of acorns. He wasn’t handsome, not in the way of Hollywood. In fact, the Amish of the neighboring county would probably have called him very plain and meant it as a high compliment.
With his queen, Brody had just checked Felix’s king and had lifted his coffee mug for a sip when the door to the jailhouse burst open and Herman Ostberg rushed in, breathless.
Brody and Felix looked up from the chessboard, and Hector sprang to his feet. Ostberg was a small, excitable man. For several moments, he just stood there panting, his eyes opened impossibly wide.
“Brody,” the little man managed when he finally caught his breath. “You’ll never guess.”
“No,” Brody replied. “I don’t suppose I will.”
“Jimmy Quinn,” Ostberg gasped.
“What about Quinn?”
“The catfish,” Ostberg said. Then said again, “The catfish.”
Brody was a man who’d seen things in war that had inured him to the shock of normal emergencies in a place like Jewel. No one knew the details of his war experiences but they knew of the medals. To settle the little man, Brody said, “Take a deep breath, Herman, then tell me about Quinn and the catfish.”
Ostberg stared at the two men, one on either side of the chessboard, tried to calm himself, and finally, as if he couldn’t quite believe his own words, said, “They ate him, Brody. They ate him right down to the bone.”