Excerpt from The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Twelve-Mile Straight

A Novel

by Eleanor Henderson

The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson X
The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson
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    Sep 2017, 560 pages

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Genus Jackson was killed in Cotton County, Georgia, on a summer midnight in 1930, when the newborn twins were fast asleep. They lay head to toe in a cradle meant for one, Winnafred on one side and Wilson on the other. In their overstuffed nest, with the delicate claws of their fingers intertwined and their eyelids trembling with blue veins, they looked like a pair of baby chicks, their white skullcaps like two halves of the single eggshell from which they'd hatched. Only if you looked closely—and people did—could you see that the girl was pink as a piglet, and the boy was brown.

"He's just complected dark," Elma had told her fiancé, Freddie Wilson, that afternoon, when he'd peeked into the cradle for the first time. "It's my great-great- granddaddy's Indian blood."

"He don't look like no Indian," said Freddie, who was as freckled as Elma, with hair as pale and straight as straw.

It was Elma's father, Juke—who'd nearly killed Freddie himself for failing to make her his proper wife—who first accused Genus Jackson. Nine months back was harvest. There were plenty of colored men who worked as Juke's field hands in October, boys Juke picked up every morning in the Fourth Ward and piled in the bed of his Ford—civilized, God-fearing, Cotton County Negroes. But Genus was the one Juke had hired year-round, who'd moved into the tar paper shack behind their house after he showed up on the Twelve-Mile Straight looking for work, his clothes still black with the soot of the boxcar he'd leapt from. Juke had pitied him, folks said, for that was the kind of man Juke Jesup was. He'd give his last cow to the devil if the devil was hungry. He had a soft spot for colored folks, had liked to drink and dance with them since he was a boy—why else was he called Juke? So he kept Genus on even after he was discovered with a stolen pint of Juke's gin, even after he was discovered last fall in the barn with Elma. He should have run him off the farm then. George Wilson, who was Freddie's grandfather and the landlord, had told him as much. But instead Juke had given him another chance and a beating to remember. "You old enough to know better than to be found with no darky," he told his daughter, who was eighteen.

Late on Saturday night, coming up on Sunday, Juke and Freddie and three other trucks full of men left the mill village, drove to the farm, and walked the twenty paces across the scrubgrass yard from the house to the shack. Genus was asleep on his cot when the men came in without knocking, hauled him up by the collar, and threw him out onto his knees. He was wearing shoes on his feet, a pair of alligator boots. What kind of man but a guilty one slept in his shoes? Juke had never liked those boots. He shouldn't have trusted a man in those boots. The man took off down the dirt road like a swamp rabbit out of a briar patch, as though he'd already been running in his dreams.

A storm had passed that evening. That was the year drought had seized the state in its bone-dry jaws, but that night the Twelve-Mile Straight was pocked with puddles, the night air moist with the copper smell of rain on stone. Down the washboard road, into its white clay ditches, over the rabbit tobacco and wiregrass that grew along it, through the turkey oaks and hip-high cornfields, the men's torches lit after Genus's boot prints. At Tom Henry's farm, Tom joined them with his rifle; at Mancie Neville's, Mancie joined them with his hound. The Jesup girl's been raped! Find your daughters! Lock your doors! The men hopped in and out of the beds of their pickups; their headlights crept along the road. The Sloane brothers came on their horses. Lettuce Jones came on foot, his wife in her nightdress behind him. It was no night for a woman, but hell if he was going to leave her home alone with a mad brute roaming the country. Someone had seen him in Mancie Neville's peanuts; someone had heard him in Jeb Simmons's barn. The whole McArdle family streamed out of their house, the boys clutching slingshots, the girls armed with shovels, the baby in its mother's arms howling at the moon. Someone shut that kid up, a voice said through the dark, and the mother put the baby to her breast right there, another child's hand in hers as she rushed them along the edge of the road, hissing into the night as though looking for a lost cat. It must have been an hour the hunt went on; some said it might have been three. It must have been a mile they spread out, or it might have been ten. But it was in the creek not a stone's throw from Jesup's barn where they found him, only his mouth above the surface, gulping water and air, and Lord if those weren't baby Wilson's lips. He was so wet he might as well have been naked, his union suit slicked to his skin, when Juke and Freddie thrust him into the front room where Elma sat nursing the twins in her rocker, one curled in each arm, helpless to cover herself. Both straps of her overalls were undone, her shirt unbuttoned to the world. The other men stood behind him in the doorway, trailing out onto the porch. At the window just over her shoulder, two little boys pressed their faces to the glass, watching her through their dirty fingerprints.

Excerpted from The Twelve-Mile Straight by Susan Henderson. Copyright © 2017 by Susan Henderson. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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