Authors: Rob Riggan
Also by Rob Riggan
Free Fire Zone
Copyright Â© 2007 by Rob Riggan
All rights reserved under
International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions
The paper in this book meets the guidelines
for permanence and durability of the Committee on
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of the Council on Library Resources.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The Blackstone commentaries / by Rob Riggan.
p.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â cm.
ISBN-13: 978-089587-345-3 (alk. paper)
ISBN-10: 0-89587-345-1 (alk. paper)
1. North CarolinaâFiction. 2. Southern StatesâSocial conditionsâFiction. I. Title.
To three Southerners in my life:
W. Stanley Moore, who was passionate about the news,
truth and democracy, and wise in it all;
My father, who plowed with mules and learned Greek;
And always Margalee
“For the man who has will always be given more, till he has enough and to spare; and the man who has not will forfeit even what he has.”
Matthew 25: 29â30Â Â Â Â Â Â
“In a democracy, where the right of making laws resides in the people at large, public virtue, or goodness of intention, is more likely to be foundâ¦. Popular assemblies are frequently foolish in their contrivance, and weak in their execution; but generally mean to do the thing that is right and justâ¦. In aristocracies there is more wisdom to be found â¦ but there is less honesty.”
Sir William Blackstone
It had been raining for days when Charlie Dugan first appeared in Damascus, North Carolina. Streams tore out of the mountains into the Creek River, lapping the grass of a great meadow where Andrew Jackson once raced, and wagered on, horses. Some would say what happened to Charlie Dugan was kind of a wager, too.
Dugan, driving the tent truck for an itinerant preacher, peered through the downpour at the textile and furniture mills as he rolled by, at the large churches and obvious prosperity, and knew the preacher had made a mistake. They should have headed back to Texas or Oklahoma, where the word of God could race over the prairies free as the sunlight. Out there, he'd seen a lean hunger for absolution, but here he sensed no such appetite; he was certain that the message, the revival itself, would be smothered by the conviction of the people of Damascus that they were already tasting the fruits of God's blessing.
Not even the rural areas surrounding the town, with their brick ranch houses and occasional small businesses sprouting in what once were pastures and cornfields, looked inviting. The landscape didn't feel smug or even hostile, just uninterested.
Dugan had been with the preacher almost a year. Though never much
of a churchgoer after he entered his teens, he'd grown up with the Bible and appreciated what a hair shirt was. He was twenty-nine years old, and the wreckage of one life already lay behind him. He knew that to wrestle alone with one's conscience and convictions, to endure that kind of loneliness, was a great trial.
Like a fallen dove, the evangelist's tent materialized the next morning on a vacant lot on North Charlotte Street, a startling white mass within sight of the city hospital. A banner sagging in the rain between two poles proclaimed, “Revival.” There hadn't been a tent preacher within the city limits since before World War II.
Contrary to what they might have done a generation or two earlier, the local clergy paid no attention. Their churches were full, and there was plenty of work and money. If a theme other than illegal whiskey were needed for a sermon, the threat of communism and labor unions would do.
The tent held three hundred people, but in Damascus, a town of over twenty-five thousand, the most under it at any one time was perhaps fifty, including several local drunks looking for a dry place and free entertainment. The preacher kept saying God would bring the sun to shine on those who came to Christ in Damascus, but it went on raining.
On the third night, Dugan was on the podium singing with the other workers when he saw a man duck under the flap behind the very last row, take a seat, cross his legs and stretch his arms across the back of the chairs on either side of him. The man was in a raincoat, the kind a yachtsman might wear, about calf-length and yellow, and smart in design. He also wore khakis and penny loafers and a white dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar. His hair was black, and with a day's growth on his cheeks, his skin looked especially pale. His eyes, but his mouth in particularâthe lips holding a fixed curl that was almost a smileâimpressed Dugan, for they conveyed not only a keen intelligence but amusement, too, though not of a generous sort. The man's ease, casual and possessiveâas though he could go anywhere and do anything, invited or notâgalled Dugan.
Dugan glanced around at the rest of the congregation sitting out there in front of the podium with its pulpit and electric piano and saw a musty, familiar collection of tired-looking men and women. Their faces expressed a need and desperation that ordinary people would have been loath to
reveal. But he knew these people were beyond caring for appearances; like himself, everyone there was floundering in some fashion. He believed desperation more than religion was their bond and knew that he was probably the only one present who would admit that. The tent had often felt to him like a wide, lonely river, its human wreckage bobbing along beyond the reach of earthly solace. Yet he also knew that solace was thereâthe poor had each other, if nothing else. He could smell their poverty.
When it came time to take the collection, Dugan went toward where the man in the yellow raincoat sat. Even in those early days, there was already something in Dugan's bearing that made people notice him. They did now, turning their heads as they sang. Dugan approached the back row holding the wooden plate the preacher had pulled from the wreckage of some country church in Mississippi. Sidestepping between chairs, he thrust the plate and its assortment of crumpled bills and coins under the outsider's nose.
The man, whose thoughts had been elsewhere, looked up, startled. Dugan nodded to him in an encouraging way. In the man's bewilderment, his look of disdain vanished, and for a moment Dugan thought he'd made a terrible mistake. But then the man's mouth worked into a wide smile of recognition. Reaching under the raincoat into his back pocket, he withdrew a black leather walletâa nice one, Dugan saw. He pulled out a fresh dollar bill and, watching Dugan, let it float into the plate.
The congregation and piano fell silent.
Unaware of the sudden hush, Dugan stared at the bill, then at the man. Then he heard the rain splash in from the darkness beyond the half-rolled walls. “You can do better than that, mister,” he said, not loudly but, now fully conscious of the silence and an expectation, loud enough for his audience. He'd never done anything quite like this before, not in front of a group of people, and he was surprised to discover that he didn't mind. His initial flush of self-consciousness gave way, as did his anger and resentment, to an extraordinary clear-headedness. He was even calm; he hadn't been wrong about the man. “That's cheap for the entertainment,” he said.
“I'm just here to learn about Jesus,” the man replied in a soft, refined drawl.
“No,” Dugan countered, “I don't think so. I don't think that's true,”
and as he spoke and the color rushed into the man's face, Dugan realized he was enjoying himself.
In another time
, he thought,
we'd fight a duel over this, for sure
The preacher's wife, who had always held Dugan's motives for being with them suspect, threw up her hands and launched the congregation into another hymn, the singers at once wholehearted in the effort. But the preacher, a gaunt, pitiless-looking man whose entire appearance, including the brown suit he wore, bespoke a life of poverty far deeper than just his pocketbook, continued to watch the scene at the back of the tent as though he'd forgotten where he was.
“You are something else, my friend,” the man in the raincoat said, his voice barely audible over the singing. He'd regained his composure with such remarkable speed that Dugan realized he wasn't alone in his excitement.
He thinks it's a game
, he concluded with a touch of bitterness.