Sheriff Jim Woods sat at his desk and studied the photo given him at last night’s community meeting. In the black and white picture, a young bride stands beside her husband. She appears radiant and eager to step into her new role as wife. She’s beautiful, not in a way to win beauty pageants, but in a way that youth is beautiful. Youth is a rare gift and nowadays it seems abused in one way or another, but that’s not the story I want to tell.
I want to tell you about Cassandra, the bride in the photo, and Charley, who married her when she was seventeen and he was twenty-two. I wish I could tell you that they lived happily ever after, but that’s not how the story ends.
For you see, Cassandra died suddenly on a winter night not long after their tenth wedding anniversary. No one knew what caused her departure from this life although gossip, like an old wives’ tale, spread quickly through the county that she had died from complications of childbirth. And because of the rumor, life in Best Ole County changed drastically.
The two local physicians, Doc Bill Tyler and Doc Sam Henry, declared the tale an evil lie, because that kind of talk would cause all young women to reject marriage. And if nobody married, there would be little business for the good doctors because there would be no babies to deliver, and no children to treat for belly aches or sore throats.
Reverend Tom Larson got a little concerned, too, because a good bit of his income came from weddings. That is, when couples remembered to tip him, or if they had any money left after other expenses. There had not been a wedding in Best Ole County since the story got started of Cassandra’s mysterious death last winter.
If there were no weddings, there would be no divorces so the three attorneys, Smith, Smith, and Smyth, whose office was on the courthouse square, became alarmed as well. That would cut their paychecks tremendously.
Even the teachers at Winn Elementary and Park High School were worried. What would they do if there were no children to teach? What would they do? So, the teachers called a community meeting. They invited all interested persons, and requested the presence of Sheriff Woods, just in case the meeting got out of control.
The newly elected sheriff, a newcomer to the area, was eager to carry out his campaign promises, so he attended the meeting. Dressed neatly in his black uniform with his star badge shining, he was rather handsome. He gloated over the fact he had won the election despite his opponent’s negative campaign ads.
At the meeting, the sheriff heard for the first time how Cassandra had given birth to a bunch of kids. She had home-schooled the children and Charley continued to do so.
As the meeting ended, nothing had been accomplished, as far as the sheriff could tell, so he decided that his duty included halting the falsehoods. He could prove his worth and maybe show how wrong his opponent had been, during the campaign, when he accused him of not having what it takes to run this office. All that mud-slinging was an embarrassment to every one of Best Ole County’s voters, no matter which party they preferred.
Slowly, Sheriff Woods got up from his desk. He put the photo back in its file.
Such terrible lies circulating might cause the way of life here in Best Ole County to dry up and blow away like thistle on the breeze from a norther. So he set out, gun in holster, billy club in hand, on a door-to-door search to locate the women and in some cases—the men—who were spreading fabrications.
The sheriff encountered a problem at the first door opened to him, for standing there was the most beautiful girl in the county. The sheriff, a single man, fell promptly in love, and before the moon could rise that night, he proposed to Roxie Ann Sanders. Of course, she declined his offer, quickly expressing her fear of marriage due to Cassandra’s premature death.
The next day, though disappointed, the sheriff continued his task of halting the gossip, which gripped the people. Everyone kept telling him to go see Charley. During his campaign, he had not met the young widower, raising a big family. He’d heard how he adored Cassandra and he dreaded seeing the heart-broken man. Nevertheless, he called on Charley, who opened the door holding a toddler in each arm.
“Charley, I hate to ask this for I know how much you loved Cassandra,” the sheriff stammered.
Charley nodded and offered the sheriff the only chair in the house free of toys, baby bottles and unfolded clothes.
“But do you have any idea why your wife died?” Sheriff Woods continued.
“No,” Charley said.
“Was her death caused from childbirth?”
“The twins, here, were nine months old when Cassandra died,” Charley replied.
“How many times was she pregnant?”
“Four. No, five.”
The sheriff looked around at five little girls in the corner. They were the same height, dressed alike, and looked identical, all with straight blond hair.
“Our firstborn,” Charley said. “All girls. Our next set is over there.”
“Four of them?” Sheriff Woods counted on his fingers.
“Yeah,” Charley said. “Beautiful, like Cassandra.”
The sheriff nodded.
Charley pointed toward three more girls, slightly smaller. “The triplets.”
“That’s fourteen, all girls?” the sheriff said, counting on his fingers again. “You said five pregnancies.”
“That’s right. Cassandra was three months pregnant when she died. We were hoping for a boy.”
The sheriff’s mouth fell open. He shook his head. He thanked Charley and quietly left.
He stopped at the grocery store for a pack of gum. There, he overheard three young women discussing Cassandra. He figured the fear embedded within the townspeople was here to stay. He had failed.
Suddenly, Jim Woods was filled with repentance. He regretted trading moonshine for votes from those who signed their names with an X. He especially detested his black deed of paying someone to fix ballots with names crumbling from tombstones to count as votes for him. With all his heart, he felt sorry now for his actions that had won him the election.
Back in his office, he accepted his failure to quiet the falsehoods surrounding Cassandra’s death. He contemplated the political race that he had won. And the reason why he had moved to this town in the first place. It was such a calm, neighborly area, a restful, peaceful community nestled at the foot of a mountain, along a slow-moving river in a gorgeous, southern state. Where folks were real folks…genuine…honest…hard working, compassionate, church going, patriotic and politically determined to voice their opinion in government at all levels, especially the local level. When it came to local elections, you could bet your boots, voters would turn out in surprising numbers. And, if elected, you’d better be able to fulfill your promises or you’d for sure not be re-elected in Best Ole County.
He un-strapped his holster. He dropped it, gun and all, along with his Billy club, into the desk drawer. Unpinning his shiny badge, he held it a moment, and then pitched it into the drawer where it landed with a clink.
He went out the door and walked briskly to his Bronco. His opponent had been right, after all. Jim Woods did not have what it takes to make a good sheriff. So, he left and never again set foot in Best Ole County.
© Copyright, Freeda Baker Nichols