The Ballad of Frankie Silver - By Sharyn McCrumb


" I WANT TO show you a grave,” the sheriff said.

Three rocks stood alone in the little mountain graveyard: smooth stubs of granite, evenly spaced about four feet apart. The stone pillars were uncarved, weathered from more than a century’s exposure to the elements and farthest away from the white steepled church in the clearing at the top of the mountain.

Tennessee deputy sheriff Spencer Arrowood wondered why Nelse Miller had made a detour up a corkscrew mountain road to stop in this country churchyard. He could see nothing out of the ordinary about the old white frame church or the surrounding array of tombstones, ranging from newly carved blocks of shining granite to older markers, tilted askew in the dark earth, scarcely readable anymore. Nearly every burying ground had stones like these.

It was pretty enough up here, Spencer allowed. The view of Celo Mountain across the valley and the blue haze of more distant peaks beyond made a fine sight on a summer morning, but Sheriff Miller wasn’t much on admiring scenery no matter how magnificent the vistas before them. He barely glanced at the view. On a hot summer day like this, Nelse was more likely to be in search of a cold drink and a shade tree, and in truth Spencer Arrowood would have preferred such a rest stop to this peculiar excursion to a little mountaintop graveyard. He was twenty-four, and impatience was pretty much a permanent state of mind for him. They could have stopped in the store in Red Hill instead of heading off up Route 80, past Bandana, North Carolina, and up another couple of elliptical miles that spiraled to nowhere. Or they could have headed back across the Tennessee line to Hamelin and got on with the day’s work. Spencer was still new enough at the post of deputy sheriff to relish every hour of duty, every moment of patrol in his shiny new ’74 Dodge. Much as he respected the old sheriff, he often found himself impatient with Nelse Miller’s unhurried serenity. The sheriff, in turn, sometimes seemed to be amused by his eager young deputy, as if he were a new puppy barking at sunbeams.

Spencer looked at his watch. Nearly noon. This old cemetery couldn’t have anything to do with business. They were still on the North Carolina side of the mountains, at the Dayton Bend in the Toe River, according to the map. Just over the state line the Toe River would change its name to the Nolichucky and the two sightseers would change into peace officers on duty instead of idlers looking at golden hills on a pleasant summer day.

Their morning’s errand had been the delivery of a fugitive to the jail in Bakersville, a little courtesy exchange between peace officers on different sides of the state line. The prisoner hadn’t been much in the way of a felon—a car thief, barely old enough to register for the draft. Since he had sobered up after a night in a Tennessee jail cell, the boy had seemed overwhelmed by the consequences of his joy ride. He had wrecked the car in a high-speed chase, and had come out bruised but otherwise uninjured. “God protects fools and drunks,” Nelse Miller declared, with some disgust.

The prisoner was handcuffed and shackled in the back of a patrol car, filthy, unshaven, and fighting back tears of panic. The two officers transporting him were not ungentle, but their lack of interest in his predicament was evident.

“What’s going to happen to me now?” the young man kept asking.

“You’re going to the jail in Bakersville,” Nelse Miller had told him. “And after that, we’re done with you.”

They had delivered the prisoner to the Mitchell County sheriff at ten o’clock, and Sheriff Miller proceeded to spend the next hour drinking coffee and swapping stories with his North Carolina counterpart while Spencer curbed his own thirst and impatience, and smiled at the yarns as if he had not heard them a dozen times before. Finally Sheriff Miller conceded that the prisoner exchange had taken up enough of Tennessee government time. He signaled for Spencer to bring the patrol car around. Nelse Miller seldom did his own driving, a trait that bewildered his young deputy, who thought that driving a cop car was the only childhood dream that had lived up to his expectations.

As Spencer slid behind the wheel of the new Dodge, he felt his impatience slip away. He left the courthouse square of Bakersville, dutifully following Sheriff Miller’s directions,