Lightning on a Quiet Night, a 2015 Selah Award finalist by Donn Taylor, is an historical novel set in Northeast Mississippi in 1948. Rainwater is a minor character from the novel — but he knows major things!
Interviewer: Hello. I’m Robert Rogers from the Memphis Commercial Appeal. The sign on your desk says Sheriff Claibourne Rainwater. Are you he?
Sheriff: I’m him, if that’s what you want to know. Come in here and set where it’s warm. This February of 1948 is super cold, and that wind would freeze the ears off a cornstalk.
Int: Thanks. I was driving through and saw your town sign: Beneficent, Mississippi, A TOWN AS GOOD AS ITS NAME. I’m curious. Is it really that good?
Sheriff: ‘Course it is, or we wouldn’t have put up the sign. We’re doing what ‘most everybody else is doing now, trying to settle down after the war. A lot of building going on, everybody glad it’s peacetime and hoping those stinkin’ Russians don’t stir up another war.
Int.: That worries people everywhere. Say, does everyone here speak the local dialect like you do?
Sheriff: We don’t speak no dialect. We all speak plain good English like me.
Int: Sorry. I didn’t mean to offend. What makes your town so good?
Sheriff: It’s a town of good church people, but the main thing is that we don’t have no real crime. Can’t nobody in town remember if we ever had a felony committed. ‘Least that was true till last month, and then a high school cheerleader got murdered. None of the good people in town would have done it, so it must have been an outsider.
Int: You had a murder?
Sheriff: I’m sorry to say we did. See that big fellow sittin’ in the next office? He’s a detective from Jackson they sent up here to make sure I was doing things right. Truth is, he ain’t doing no better than I am. We’ve talked to ever’body we could and looked at all the evi-dence we could find, and we haven’t got nowhere. Right now we’re just hoping for some kind of break. But you was asking about that town motto . . .
Int: Yes. What makes the town that good?
Sheriff: Like I said, good people. I admit we’re kind of proud of our record of no crime. Good people—like the high school basketball team of 1942—only time we ever put a team in the state tournament. They’re good boys. You’d think they was brothers—always stuck together closer’n two layers of glue.
Int: What made them close?
Sheriff: That was the war year. Pearl Harbor in December of forty-one. Their coach volunteered for the Marines next day, but he made the boys wait till they graduated in spring. Coach was a fine man, got killed on Tarawa. Clyde Rakestraw and Jimmy Fletcher joined the Marines. Clyde got killed on Okinawa, and Jimmy served somewhere out west. Otis Hahn tried to join but he had flat feet. So he stayed here and raised crops and kids. Hollis Wilson and Jack Davis joined the Army. Jack went to Europe. But that Hollis—he’s a real go-getter. Got assigned to a headquarters in Atlanta, went to school nights and come back with a law degree. Now he’s the youngest state senator the state ever had.
Int.: That’s impressive.
Sheriff: They say he’ll be governor before he’s through. All he needs to complete the picture is a good-looking wife, and some say he’s got one lined up. That’d be Lisa Kemper. She and her father moved here from Indiana. He’s building a chemical plant to give us more industry. Lisa is sure good-looking enough for Hollis, but she may not like it down here well enough to stay.
Int: And the other man you mentioned?
Sheriff: Jack Davis. Ordinary man with a ordinary name. Nothing spectacular about him, but he always seems to get things done. He works himself to death trying to pay off the mortgage on his farm. His father borrowed to buy new land, but both parents died in a car wreck while Jack was overseas. The banker—Harry Pendleton, as good a man as ever walked this earth—had the farm sharecropped till Jack come home. Jack’s been working day and night ever since.
Int: That doesn’t sound like much of a life.
Sheriff: Well, he could marry. The school librarian, Vesta Childress, is kind of sweet on him. She was engaged to the coach, but like I say, he got killed. She’s maybe six years older than Jack , but it’d still work out if he wanted it to. But he don’t. He don’t see nothing but paying off that mortgage.
Int: You mentioned one other member of that basketball team . . .
Sheriff: Jimmy Fletcher. He don’t do much of anything. Lives out near Branch Bottom, just kind of hangs around. His old man was a bootlegger till we run him out of the county.
Int: You ran him out?
Sheriff: Yep. Shut him down tighter’n a mosquito hide stretched over a barrelhead. But Jimmy will come around. He’ll be good like everyone else. It’ll just take him a while to settle down after the war.
Int: Well, it sounds like this town has a good thing going. With all the church people here, I guess the Holy Spirit visits pretty often . . .
Sheriff: I don’t recall anything special. Seems like people do well enough on their own. They go to church twice on Sunday, prayer meeting on Wednesday, and just behave themselves good in between. Could be the Holy Spirit don’t think we need him to come down and goose us.
Int: Well, I hope it stays that way. Thanks for talking with me. And I hope you find that murderer.
Sheriff: And I hope it ain’t nobody local. That’d really bust up some people’s faith in this town, and I don’t know what they’d do. Then we might need that Holy Spirit to come down and do something. Y’all drive safe going back to Memphis. Some of them other sheriffs ain’t as tough on bootleggers as I am.
Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterwards, he completed a PhD at The University of Texas and taught English literature at two liberal arts colleges. Now retired from college teaching, he writes suspense and mystery fiction as well as literary poetry designed for the ordinary reader. He has also written one historical novel, Lightning on a Quiet Night. His latest release is Murder in Disguise, third book in the Preston Barclay mysteries. He lives near Houston, TX, where he continues to write fiction, poetry, and essays on ethics and U.S. foreign policy.