Reenacting a Murder and Other Smoky Mountain Mysteries by Wayne Zurl on the Independent Author Index
One potential witness said, “Whitey wasn’t the best-liked member of the reenacting community, but who would have thought he’d end up like this?” When Prospect, Tennessee Police Chief Sam Jenkins attends the town’s annual heritage festival it not only satisfies his interest in Early American history, it draws him into the investigation of another murder on “the peaceful side of the Smokies.”
Fresh bacon sizzling over a wood fire makes one of the most heavenly smells on this planet. I put six strips into the forged iron pan sitting on top of Rollie Hutson’s small brazier. When the bacon crisped to my satisfaction, I’d remove it from the pan and fry the four eggs that sat awaiting their fate.
“You makin’ love to that pig-meat or cookin’ it?” Rollie asked, while I fiddled with a long-shanked fork, moving the bacon around.
“You could do this yourself, you know.” I didn’t like criticism while creating a culinary masterpiece.
Our campfire was one of thirty in the Prospect City Park. Other old-fashioned braziers and open fire pits smoked away as historical reenactors began their day at the Annual Prospect Heritage Festival. Everyone there volunteered to show the paying public what life in early Tennessee had been all about.
Smoke from hickory, oak, and cherry swirled around the encampment. Additional cooking smells filled the air–coffee, oatmeal, parched corn, and more bacon.
Several people walked among the canvas shelters carrying water buckets, all of them wearing 18th century-style clothing. Wedge tents, crude lean-tos, and large marquees made up a temporary canvas city within the park.
Besides being one of the two men there to portray local gunsmiths, I’m also the police chief in Prospect, Tennessee, a small city on the northwest corner of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“You reckon the bacon’s done yet?” Rollie sounded impatient.
A commotion four tents away interrupted my answer.
“Je-sus Christ! Hey, somebody, come here! Gat dag, somebody, I need a li’l he’p!”
“Sounds like a job for the local po-leece-man.” Rollie said, showing me a wide grin.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” I said, removing the fry pan from the flames.
I stood and looked toward the bell-backed wedge tent thirty yards down the row. A small crowd began to gather while a big man, dressed in a linen hunting shirt and knee-britches, held open the entry flap. Several people looked into the ten-by-twelve lodge before recoiling from the sight and smell.
“Excuse me, folks,” I said, pushing through the crowd, “if there’s a problem, I need to take a look.”
“Jesus Christ, Sam,” Bo Worley, the man holding the canvas flap, said, “I came lookin’ fer Whitey to show him this here powder horn I jest made and found him like this. Lord have mercy!”
I grimaced at G. Noble Whitehead, who sprawled face-up on his red wool blanket. The unusual thing I noticed was a pipe-tomahawk buried deep in his forehead.
I had no doubt Whitehead was dead. But as part of the public relations obligation a police officer incurs, I entered the tent, laid three fingers over his carotid artery, and felt for a pulse. As I suspected, not a flicker of life.
The small, enclosed space smelled of murder. Spilled blood acquires a peculiar odor only someone familiar with the aftermath of violent death knows. The other resultant, involuntary bodily functions inherent to such a demise punctuated the atmosphere. I felt a strong urge to leave the tent.
As I began to stand, I felt my troublesome left knee lock up. That presented a minor dilemma. More than a dozen people stood there watching me. Normally, I go through a few elaborate gyrations–none of them any too graceful–to straighten my leg with a minimum of pain. But a middle-aged police chief, behaving like a cripple, doesn’t inspire much confidence in the public he’s paid to serve.
I bit an imaginary bullet and stood up quickly. My knee made a sound not unlike the report of a .22 caliber rifle fired in an open field. A pain shot through my leg that must have shown on my face. I stepped out of the tent, glad to be away from the smell of the corpse, and needing a fistful of Advil.
“I know it’s not 18th century correct,” I said, to no one in particular, “but does anyone have a cell phone handy?”
A woman in her fifties, dressed in the simple outfit of a seamstress, pulled a phone from the cloth pocket tied around her waist.
“Thanks, Frannie.” I flipped the phone open and realized I didn’t have a clue what to do next. “How do I turn this thing on?”
She did it for me. I pressed 911 and spoke to the Blount County dispatcher.
“This is Chief Jenkins. I’ve got a homicide at the Prospect City Park. I’m at the 18th century camp just off McTeer’s Station Road. Send me two Prospect cars, a crime scene unit, and the ME.”
“10-4, Chief,” the operator said.
“Hey, Rollie, Bo, get something–chairs, ropes, anything, to cordon off this spot and keep an eye on things,” I said. “Folks,” I addressed the crowd, “don’t wander off. Stay at your tents. I’ll speak with each of you as soon as I can. And please, don’t touch anything anywhere around this tent or the general area. If you see anything remotely connected to the murder, leave it alone, have someone protect it, and find me or one of the other officers who’ll be here shortly.”
The crowd took the hint and began moving back to their camps.
Sirens yelped in the distance, as two Prospect PD units drove south from the town square. The 21st century screams of high-powered police vehicles sounded incongruous when I looked at all the people dressed in wools, linens, and brain-tanned deerskins.
My old pocket watch showed 7:40. The day shift had just come on duty. On a Saturday in April, my regular day off, I’d start processing a crime scene. I could still smell someone’s bacon frying. I was hungry and not a happy reenactor.
Copyright© Wayne Zurl. All rights reserved.