Creamy White Thighs

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Creamy White Thighs

a novel

By Kevin McDermott

For Mackenzie.

And so it is to the printing pressto the recorder of man's deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his newsthat we look for strength and assistance, confident that with your help man will be what he was born to be: free and independent.

—John F. Kennedy

Facts are stupid things.

—Ronald Reagan


Squirrel Day

Albino Rodents Spark The Great Newspaper War of Olney, Illinois

Only a NUT Would Read The Times’
RICHLAND COUNTY, Ill.—On a damp spring dawn in 1902, William Stroup set into the dripping woods, Remington shotgun snugged in the crook of his arm, squirrel on his mind.

William had a weakness for them, the squirrels, that stretched back to his hungry boyhood in northern Indiana, when squirrel was often all there was. Dorothy didn’t mind skinning and frying them as long as it wasn’t more than one or two a week. She would seldom eat them, and their two boys, not yet ten, wouldn't touch them on principle, having made a pet of a baby one the previous summer. So William generally had the squirrels to himself—though he always waited to eat them until the boys were out at school or chores, to avoid their protests.

He spied this morning’s squirrel from ten yards off, a shadowy silhouette wriggling up the tree trunk with starts and stops, fat tail fluttering. He sighted off the end of the barrel, leading her, and fired just as she reached the nest. The shot crackled through the woods. The nest burst apart and rained down, a confetti of shattered sticks clouding around her spinning gray body—and within the falling mess, William saw at once, two little white balls of fur.

The kits were squirming, both of them, when he pulled back the woody debris. Half the size of fists, barely old enough to stand, tails not yet filled in, the whole of their wooly little bodies white as cow’s milk, but for the pink eyes. Their eyes glowed like tiny hot coals embedded in snow. In William’s many years in and around the woods, he had just once before come across such a white-bodied, pink-eyed creature: an owl in a tree under which he’d ridden one summer dusk before his marriage, its cold gaze fixed and following him, a ghostly enough visage that it would spawn a recurring and uncomfortable dream in which the white owl talked.

Back home, he considered eating them—with squirrel as with anything else, the youngest meat was the tenderest—but he pondered whether whatever it was that made them so strangely white also might make them dangerous to eat, or at least unappetizing. Dorothy, eyeing the whining white little apparitions distrustfully, advised against it. In any case, she announced, she wouldn’t prepare them. While William still was pondering, the boys bounded into the kitchen and of course they saw the two wriggling white fur balls on the table and that was that.

They pestered William into building a hutch, a sloppy affair of scrap timber and some baling wire. They kept it by the garden, feeding them seeds and bugs and table scraps. Soon, Fiddler and Ghost were full-sized, regular-acting squirrels, chattering and flapping their tails and scampering about as squirrels do—though they remained white as the midday sun, their eyes embers. Dorothy’s unease around them grew as they grew, through the summer. She would give a wide berth to the hutch when she went to the garden. William, consumed with his crops and his repairs around the farm and his daily treks through the woods, more or less forgot about them. When he did happen to notice them there in the cage, barking at him and waving their tails like white flags of surrender, his mouth would water a little.

With the first frost, Dorothy told the boys the squirrels would have to be set free. They would freeze in the hutch with no natural shelter and she wouldn’t be responsible for causing unnecessary suffering, even just for squirrels. The boys lobbied hard for the squirrels to be allowed to live in the attic, and though they dogged William mercilessly about it, and though he was inclined to agree to it if only for the sake of peace, Dorothy was unyielding. The squirrels had to go. She specified that they should take the hutch far out into the woods before opening it. She felt her summer-long weight of unease lift as she watched the wagon leave, William and the boys swaying in its seat, the two white specters bobbing in the cage behind them.

It was a full month later that Dorothy was in the barn retrieving a bucket and heard the chattering overhead. She looked up and there, tucked in the corner of the rafters, sat one of the white squirrels, bright tail fluttering, pink eyes aglow. Dorothy shrieked and dropped the bucket with a clatter and ran into the house. Upon William’s return from his supply run to town, she immediately sent him into the barn and he confirmed it: Both the white squirrels were there. One of them appeared to be pregnant.

Dorothy was in favor of him shooting them both where they sat, even after he patiently explained that shooting up into the rafters of one’s own barn wasn’t a good idea, roof-wise. He offered to just chase them off, but she wouldn’t have it. They had come back once, what if they did again? What if they made their way into the house! Couldn’t he climb up there and hit them with a shovel or something? Dorothy’s insistence on mortal violence against the squirrels was unsettling to William. Though he had killed countless animals in the course of his life out of plain necessity, he wasn’t at base a violent man—certainly not a man to go around beating squirrels to death for no good reason. Instead, he said, he would lure them into the hutch, which still sat back by the garden, and remove them to a spot further out into the woods. He viewed it as a reasonable compromise, if an ironic one—a man of his particular appetite, releasing a pair of squirrels, and for the second time—but he remained uncertain about the wisdom of eating such strange-looking creatures. Dorothy didn’t like the compromise at all and she was just starting to press her case about the shovel when the boys arrived home from school and they had to stop talking about it.

Dorothy sent the boys to gift a loaf of bread to their nearest neighbor, which would keep them occupied for a good hour. William got the two squirrels into the hutch easily enough; they took to it as if coming home. He loaded the hutch onto the wagon and pointed the horse up the lane. Dorothy watched him go from the doorway, feeling more trepidation this time than relief, certain now that she’d not be shut of the white squirrels while they lived.

Halfway into the edge of the woods, William took the left fork instead of the right and veered toward the town of Olney. He was a generally well-behaved man by the standards of his time and place, not overly weak to temptation, but that today Dorothy’s unreasonableness about the squirrels had him wanting a drink. She’d demanded that, if he insisted on releasing them again, he release them practically in Kentucky, so he figured he had some time.

He braked the wagon to the side of Jasper Banks’ saloon—it didn’t have a name posted out front, so the name of the owner was the name by which the local populace knew it—and he hitched the horse and he strolled in, the two white squirrels barking in protest at him from inside the cage. He was barely into his first sip of the amber shot when Jasper Banks approached him, smiling and motioning toward the door. Jasper said: “Bill, those your squirrels out there?”

William glanced around the bar, half-full of patrons who were now, with Jasper, awaiting his answer. William breathed his annoyance. He’d been hoping to avoid conversation, lest his presence here get back to Dorothy, and anyway he didn’t especially feel like explaining about the squirrels. He nodded and said, as flatly as he could, hoping to end it: “They’re mine.”

Jasper, grinning wider now, asked: “Why do they look like that? All white like that? And those eyes?” William noticed with deepening concern that the patrons near the front window were looking out it now, toward his wagon. Two of them stood up and walked out the door to get a better look.

William said: “I dunno. They’re just white.” He took another sip, sincerely hoping that would end it.

Jasper, still with that grin, asked: “Where are you taking them?” And William realized for the first time that he had no good answer to that question. The actual answer—that he was taking them far from his land to release them because their strange-looking presence unnerved Dorothy and he wasn't comfortable about eating them because they looked so strange and he wasn't comfortable about killing them if he wasn’t going to eat them—suddenly sounded daft. It was more trouble than a man would go to in dealing with a lame horse, and here they were just two strange-looking squirrels and he’s hauling them across the whole damned county just to let them go. He opened his mouth thinking to say some version of all this, but now everyone was watching and nothing came out. All he could think was that he wished he had hit them with the shovel.

Jasper asked: “Are you selling them?”

William heard himself answer: “Why . . . yes! Yes, I am!” It hadn’t occurred to him before that moment that the squirrels might have some monetary value—what squirrel ever did?—but he could see through the saloon window that the two in the wagon were drawing a crowd.

Jasper noticed it, too. He said: “How much you asking?”

So it was that Olney’s previously nameless saloon got its name: The White Squirrel. Jasper set up the hutch in the front window, so they could be seen from the street. The squirrels performed their function admirably, drawing gawkers to the window, where they would become potential saloon patrons. The problem was with the squirrels’ other function. By the end of the following summer, Jasper had to get a bigger hutch to accommodate what were now seven squirrels, all of them white as bleached bone.

By the second summer, he had to start selling them off, their number having outgrown the space in the window. The market was a continuing surprise. It was unthinkable that anyone would pay one red cent for a regular live squirrel in a land so busy with them, but turn that squirrel white and suddenly it was worth a nickel, sometimes more. The grocery store and the hardware store each bought one to put in their respective windows, on the theory that if it increased business to the saloon, maybe it would do the same for the stores. Several families in town purchased them as pets. A competing saloon tried to buy one but Jasper wouldn’t sell, so the owner put a regular gray squirrel in his window for a time, only to discover it wasn't the same.

The Olney Daily Mail, the town’s newest newspaper, bought one of the white squirrels to put in the front window of its office and also incorporated it into the front-page masthead of the newspaper: a little white silhouette of a squirrel in profile, sitting at the end of the word “Mail,” eating an acorn. A testimony under the squirrel, presented as if the squirrel was saying it, read: “Only a NUT would read the Times!” It was the latest affront by the Daily Mail against the Olney Daily Times, Olney’s older newspaper, with which it was embroiled in an aggressive bid for readers.

The upstart Daily Mail published photographs with its stories—dark, splotchy, barely distinguishable halftone photographs, but photographs nonetheless. The Times had never done that, which allowed the Daily Mail to editorialize harshly about how far behind the times the Times was. When the Times, under pressure, finally started running dark splotchy halftone photographs as well, the Daily Mail gleefully accused its older competitor of being a copycat. The Daily Mail was physically smaller than the Times, making it easier to hold, a newish trend in newspapers at the time and one that the Daily Mail promoted mercilessly, with a comical drawing showing a reader struggling to gain control of his bedsheet-sized copy of the Times, while nearby, another reader happily leafs through his neat, clean, easy-to-hold copy of the Daily Mail. Particularly biting was that the image of the Daily Mail reader was a well-dressed, well-groomed, young-but-successful-looking man, while the image of the Times reader was a bespectacled, portly old grump with steam coming out of his ears because of the trouble he was having with his unwieldy copy of the Times. It was of a theme, relentlessly promoted by the Daily Mail: Times readers were old-fashioned, out of style, no fun.

In fact, the Times’ readers did tend to be older, and to their more experienced eyes, the whole white-squirrel trend going on around town was the silliest thing since the bicycle, another new craze that made no sense. The Times’ editor, a bespectacled, portly, middle-aged man named Henry Jacobson, had been putting up The Daily Mail’s insults for awhile now, and the business with the white squirrel was the last straw.

What the Times lacked in newness, it made up for in what would one day be known as “clout.” The word didn’t yet exist—it would be invented some years hence and far north, in Chicago—but whatever it was called, the Times had it. The newspaper’s clout reserve was centered mainly at City Hall, where Olney’s leaders were, for the most part, men of a certain age. After months of enduring the Daily Mail squirrel taunting him from the front page every afternoon, Henry Jacobson finally employed the Times’ clout to do something about it.

A young girl in town named Millie had fallen ill and rabies was suspected. Her family owned one of the abominable white squirrels. Was there a connection? These were wild animals, after all, and pigmentationally deformed ones at that. Who knew what dangers they harbored? The Times began asking these and other questions in its pages, day after day, running splotchy halftone images of poor dying Millie with each of the stories. The City Council called a hearing to determine whether the white squirrels, now ubiquitous in homes and businesses all over town, might pose a public health threat. An ordinance was proposed to ban possession of them. The Daily Mail tried to rally the pro-squirrel forces, but the Times had the clout, not to mention a dying girl in its corner, and who was going to argue with that? The Council banned the white squirrels on a five-two vote, the two being Daily Mail readers.

The Times, flush with its victory, quickly set about promoting a plan to have a community-wide squirrel boil with the newly outlawed rodents, but the idea failed to pick up steam. There were a limited number of squirrel-eaters in town to begin with—it was mainly a delicacy of the older set—and those who did eat them weren’t keen about eating the white ones, their appearance being so strange. As it turned out, Henry Jacobson and his allies on the Council had faltered in writing the ordinance, failing to specify what was to happen to the now-contraband squirrels. So, in homes and businesses, at the grocery store and the hardware store and The White Squirrel saloon and all the other squirrel-owning venues all over town, people simply opened the cages and let them out.

After that, the battle over the squirrels moved from the homes and storefronts of Olney to the trees and yards and streets around the town. They soon overtook the new city park, becoming so common a sight there that to spy a regular-colored squirrel in the area became a novelty. From the trees around town, they barked down at Olney’s populace, pink eyes ablaze, white tails waving their victory. The Daily Mail invited its growing contingent of readers to view every boost in the white squirrel population as further proof of the Times’ deficiencies as a modern newspaper. The Mail published frequent reports of new places they’d been sighted: “A band of them in the apple grove south of town!” “A new litter in the Walkens family’s barn!” “Two of them chattering charmingly down from a ledge over City Hall!” Pretty much every time a child in town fell ill, meanwhile, the Times would quickly speculate about whether it was “yet another case of the dread rabies, attributable to our fair city’s dangerous infestation of genetically abnormal squirrels”—though there hadn’t in fact ever been a confirmed first case. Young Millie, whose putatively fatal illness had been the catalyst for outlawing possession of the squirrels, had recovered.

Ultimately, the Times wielded its clout to get the City Council to again declare burgeoning white squirrel population a health hazard—to be addressed this time by offering bounties for their eradication.

The new ordinance offered city residents twenty-five cents for each little white pelt. “Two bits per per pelt!” screamed the Times’ front page the day the ordinance passed, alongside a splotchy halftone photograph of several men in town readying their shotguns for the hunt. The Daily Mail again tried to rally its readers to the defense of the white squirrels, but it couldn’t counteract the Times’ clout—nor, certainly, the allure of virtually free money. While the Times was rabidly anti-squirrel, and the Daily Mail was stubbornly pro-squirrel, most of Olney’s residents were softer on the question, taking neither side strongly, until the money nudged them. The white squirrel population was a novelty, an entertaining fact about their town that no other town seemed to have—but two bits per pelt! A quarter of a dollar, for practically no work at all! Who was going to pass that up? Even those Olney residents who found the white squirrels charming didn’t find them that charming. Within hours of the passage of the ordinance, guns and rifles were coming out of cabinets all over town.

The day that followed would, for years afterward, be known in Olney as “Squirrel Day.” To out-of-towners, the phrase might sound like something fun, like “Groundhog Day” or something. But to Olney’s residents, then and for a couple generations after, it was more akin to saying “Flood Day” or “Tornado Day” or “Earthquake Day.”
Henry Jacobson’s grandfather founded the Olney Times as a hand-pressed single-page weekly in 1852, just four years after the establishment of Olney as a town. The newspaper was born with the town and grew up with the town. Henry’s father took over the newspaper early in Henry’s childhood. Young Henry spent his formative years playing amid the metallic clicks of the typesetting and the oily scent of the ink in the way carpenters’ kids were immersed in the sounds of hammers and the scent of lumber.

His father died one fall morning, at breakfast, while going over his notes for that day’s edition. Henry, not yet twenty-three, suddenly was a publisher. Having never wanted to be anything else, he took to it with an evangelical zeal, appointed by destiny and torqued by youth. The afternoon that his first-ever edition of the Olney Daily Times hit the streets was, for Henry, like the taking of a wife or the birth of a son—experiences he would only ever have metaphorically, his calling in the two-room storefront newspaper office being too all-consuming for such detours.

In his second year, Henry added a credo along the top of the front-page masthead, something he’d read somewhere—Jefferson?—something to position his newspaper as a stolid beacon of freedom on the prairie. The credo read: “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty.” A few of his readers asked him at first what exactly it meant. Some felt it sounded like a suggestion that America should have some role in the growing troubles in Europe, a not-very-popular notion just then, what with the Spanish-American War still a fresh wound. Henry assured them that it wasn’t anything so specific, more just a general statement that, if you want liberty, why, you have to be vigilant about it, that’s all.

In fact, Henry’s credo would have been more fitting on the masthead of his grandfather’s newspaper, or his father’s, than on the newspaper it had become under Henry. On the eve of the Civil War, Henry’s grandfather, a Lincoln man, derided the City Council in print as traitors for passing a resolution that expressed support for the sovereignty of the southern slave states. “Where our new President begs the backing and good-will of his fellow Illinois countrymen,” wrote Henry’s grandfather, “he instead finds treason.” His words prompted a mob of his neighbors to gather in front of the newspaper office threatening to destroy it, before ultimately settling on the lesser punishment of vowing not to read his newspaper anymore, nor to speak to him. Years later, Henry’s father faced similar exile for a series of editorials he wrote supporting Chicago railroad workers in the Pullman Strike, an event that disrupted national rail service and so disrupted Olney's business community. Not only did Henry's father’s neighbors refuse to speak to him for writing in support of the strike, but he suffered an advertising boycott, cutting off his revenue for almost a year. The businesspeople in town ultimately, inevitably, chose business over principle and started breaking ranks and resuming their advertising contracts with Henry’s father, though they remained united in not speaking to him. That was fine with him. Henry grew up in a home where not being spoken to by your friends and neighbors was a badge of honor.

Henry himself, though he loved being a newsman, was less agitating by nature than were his grandfather and his father, less enamored of not being spoken to. “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty” looked good printed across the mast-head, but Henry’s interaction with Olney’s political and business leaders was defined less by vigilance than by accommodation. He knew that when it came to printed words in a newspaper, it didn't take much to agitate, intentionally or otherwise: a stray bit of skepticism about a township spending bill, or the suggestion that the condemned man sitting in the town jail awaiting his hanging perhaps didn't get as fair a trial as he should have, or siding with either faction in the roiling debate over what to name the new road going in on the south side of the square was all it generally took to get people feeling contentious. Henry didn't like contentiousness, so he stuck to news topics that wouldn’t get his readers upset. Business owners were always happy to let Henry in on their plans for expansion; prominent citizens were always willing to talk to him about their travels to Chicago or St. Louis; and of course the City Council meetings always provided voluminous if sedate copy. There was plenty for Henry to write without making people mad. He would occasionally hear of something going on in the town government or the business community that cried out for confrontation—he sometimes would even face lobbying efforts of angry citizens who appealed forcefully to his sense of duty and right to tell the stories, to dig up the truth and hold it to the light—but he always found reason not to. Sometimes it occurred to him that, strictly speaking, this approach might not completely comport with the credo he continued printing along the mast-head every day—“Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty”—but of course the credo wasn't necessarily intended to apply to all situations.

Henry’s grandfather and then his father had always covered the City Council meetings from the audience. When Henry covered the meetings, he sat at the front table, with the Council members, because it was easier to write his notes that way.

And so it went, comfortably enough, until the Olney Daily Mail appeared.

Appeared” was the proper description of its arrival, too: out of nowhere, like an ink-smeared apparition. Henry was in the general store one early evening picking up some salt pork and flour for his bachelor’s pantry when he saw it sitting there in a small stack on the counter: “Olney Daily Mail,” next to the larger stack of Olney Daily Timeses that Henry had personally delivered earlier that day. He stared dumbly at the new masthead, which anchored a page that was physically smaller than the pages in Henry's newspaper, a characteristic that made it oddly inviting to pick up. Dominating the Mail’s front page was a mostly-black square that, if you looked carefully, was actually a photograph, of a farmer from the county, standing stone-faced next to his mule team. A photograph! Right there in the newspaper! Of course, the larger newspapers in the bigger cities had been printing halftone photographs for a few years now, but it wasn't a technology that anyone, least of all Henry Jacobson, had expected to see any time soon in as rough an outpost as Olney, Illinois.

The Daily Mail, Henry soon learned, from delicately asking around, was the endeavor of two brothers from St. Louis, the Luttrell brothers. They had arrived in town a month prior, with two wagonloads of printing equipment and enough cash money to rent a small warehouse on the north side of Olney, so far toward the edge of town that it was almost tipping into the surrounding prairie. Their remote base explained why they'd been able to get up and running without Henry hearing word of it. When Henry rode over to their warehouse one afternoon—ostensibly to welcome them to town, while actually sizing them up—he was surprised at how young they were: young, thin, stoic men wearing ink-stained overalls and stringy beards and looking less like newspapermen than working men. They weren’t what you’d call overly polite to Henry as he stood in their doorway, mouthing his welcomes, but they weren’t quite rude enough to give him a grievance. Mostly they just nodded and mumbled their way through the conversation until he took his leave. He was shaking with fury as he rode toward home, though he couldn’t rightly have said why.

The following week, the shorter of the brothers attended the City Council meeting, taking notes from his seat in the audience. Henry, sitting at the table with the city leaders as they conducted their business, thought the whole time that he felt the young man’s eyes in his back. The Council approved the minutes from the previous meeting and voted to contract a carpenter to repair the leaking roof on the city stable and discussed multiple complaints about a family in town who kept more than a dozen dogs on their property. The Council also voted to purchase fifty-five acres of fallow land on the western edge of town for development of a city park. Several Council members questioned the price of the land purchase, which sounded high to them, but Councilman Bruce assured them that he had personally inspected the land and reviewed the sale offer and that it was a good and worthy expenditure for the taxpayers.

The next day, Henry’s story, dutifully reporting each item of the Council’s agenda in sleepy detail, greeted his readers from the front page of the Daily Times in its stack at the general store. “Council Discusses Barking Dogs, Other Issues,” burbled the small headline. Next to it, Henry saw, to his shock, on the front page of the stack of copies of the Daily Mail, a banner headline announcing, in bold, black words: “COUNCILMAN BRUCE IS SILENT PARTNER IN CITY LAND DEAL!” The grocer’s clerk, boyish man who would often comment to Henry about the news of the day when Henry came in to drop off the stacks of Daily Timeses, watched Henry's stunned reaction to the Daily Mail headline, then said: “Can you believe it? Ol’ Bruce sure knows how to grease the skids for himself, doesn’t he?” And then he smiled, a little too widely, it seemed to Henry.

And so it went: The Daily Times would report on the beautiful new road being built south off the town square, and the Daily Mail would expose the bid-rigging that inflated the cost of its construction. The Daily Times would report what a good time had been had by all at the city-sponsored community-wide picnic, and the Daily Mail would run a detailed account of what the lavish, overpriced event had cost and which politically connected businesses in town had profited at the expense of the taxpayers. The Daily Times would publish a warm and cheeky feature about the new history teacher who had just started at the county school, and the Daily Mail would publish an expose’ of how the man was run out of his last post at Evansville, Indiana, for being overly friendly with the female students.

Henry began to dread his daily visits to the general store to drop off the copies of the Times, for having to see what was exploding off the page of his vibrant new competitor. For awhile, he even made some tentative overtures toward more assertively progressive news coverage of his own—Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty, after all—but it didn’t come naturally to him, and the City Council members and business leaders who formed his world were less than encouraging about it. Why would you want to stir up all that dust? they asked; no one wants to read that. Still, it was difficult to ignore the fact that, when he retrieved each day’s unsold Daily Timeses from the general store, there always seemed to be more of them left unsold than there used to be, whereas the Daily Mails seemed always to sell out completely. The town’s leaders continued to assure Henry that he had their support, that the upstart muckraking Luttrell brothers and their upstart newspaper were a passing excitement, like bicycles. But more than once, Henry came across a City Council member or a business leader on the street and noticed the man quickly tuck away the newspaper he was carrying, lest Henry see it.

It wasn’t just the content of the Daily Mail that taunted Henry but its physical attributes as well. His Daily Times was a broadsheet newspaper—a phrase that wasn’t yet in common usage because it was, until recently, pretty much all there was. To reference a “broadsheet newspaper” would be like referencing “wet water” or “hot fire.” Henry was proud of the sheer size the Daily Times, which required both hands and sometimes the assistance of a knee just to get it open and spread properly for a reading session. It was a newspaper so large that to read it required sitting down and clearing away one’s immediate vicinity of obstructions, to give plenty of room to unfurl its sail-like pages. Henry had heard about the idea of a tabloid newspaper, a thing that was gaining some purchase in the bigger cities, but he’d never seen one until the Daily Mail darkened his door. The Mail was something you could read while walking, which Henry, to his horror, saw people around town doing, even on somewhat windy days, which would never have worked with the Times. The smaller physical size of the Mail, combined with the generally larger headlines and print font and the dark grainy halftone photographs it displayed, meant there was room for just one or two stories on the front page, against the dozen or more that the Times offered there. You’d think more would be better in terms of the number of stories available to readers on the front page. And yet, every afternoon when Henry stepped into the general store to drop off that day’s edition of the Times, there were the unsold copies from the previous day.

Henry thought for a time that perhaps he and the Luttrell brothers could maintain, if not an alliance, at least a tentative peace. Olney was growing like a weed, surely there was plenty of room for two newspapers here. That notion went out the window on the day the Daily Mail published the cartoon of the Daily Times reader fumbling with his gigantic copy of the Times, with the steam coming out of his ears. That was the gauntlet. The Daily Mail wasn’t here to share Henry's readers, it was here to take them. Adding insult to insult was that the caricature of the Times reader bore a cartoonish but unmistakable resemblance to Henry himself: same round wire-rim glasses, same full, whitish beard, same notable midsection.

It was war, then.

By the time the business with the white squirrels arose, Henry and the Luttrell brothers had been entrenched for awhile. He found himself holding his breath each day when he stepped into the general store and glimpsed that day’s Daily Mail, bracing for whatever new outrage would be emblazoned across its diminutive front page. That day, it wasn't a headline that hit him, but the drawing of the squirrel in the upper right corner of the page, with its mocking words: “Only a NUT would read the Times!” It took him a moment to understand that it wasn't just any random squirrel sitting there—that wouldn’t have made much sense—but specifically a white squirrel, of the kind that had been popping up in store windows and backyard hutches around town for some time now, ever since The White Squirrel saloon started displaying its little barking mascots in its front window.

Jasper Banks, the saloon’s owner, was an advertising client of Henry’s, and the ads he submitted included a drawing of a white squirrel which, Henry now realized, was drawn in roughly the same manner as the mocking squirrel looking back at him now from the front page of the Daily Mail. The squirrel’s shape and general posture was too similar to be a coincidence. Henry decided in half a breath that The White Squirrel saloon would no longer advertise in the pages of the Olney Daily Times, ever.

It was the first of many banishments that Henry would decree from that point forward, as his general befuddlement regarding his taunting young competitor soured into a deep and bitter rage. This was Henry’s town, Henry’s readers. He’d been willing to share them, perhaps, to a point, but he wasn’t willing to put up with being humiliated, first by the Daily Mail’s aggressive reporting, then by its cartoon of the Daily Times reader (Henry, obviously) fumbling around with his newspaper, and now with that damnable squirrel. So The White Squirrel saloon could go hang a sign if it wanted to announce its business. So could the clients who’d been advertising in both newspapers—the bank and the blacksmith and the young lawyer on Pine Street who’d just moved to town—they could all go hang signs. And the general store, too. If they wanted to give counter space to the sneering Daily Mail and its sneering white squirrel, fine—it’s not like they were the only counter space in town. As Henry stormed out of the store that day, his stack of undelivered Daily Timeses under his arm, past the startled young clerk, he was mentally expanding the list of Daily Mail-related banishments to include even businesspeople that he only merely seen reading the wretched thing.

Of course, Henry had known for awhile of the white squirrels housed around Olney, an odd little fashion about which he’d thought once or twice he might write a feature story. But now a different kind of story came to mind. His bitterness swept like twilight across the entire populace of a town that he and his father and his grandfather had served faithfully for half a century now, only to be thrown over at the first fluttering eyelash of a smaller, sleeker, more modern journalistic suitor. The bitterness became all that Henry could see, and he saw it coalesce into the jaunty shape of a squirrel.

Only a NUT would read the Times!,” chirped the squirrel.

That squirrel would pay.

So it was that Henry Jacobson, having long eluded the fervor of the cause that had so gripped his father and grandfather, found his fervor. The snowy squirrels, he understood now, were a menace, an insult to the town, a literal infestation. As a journalist, he had a solemn obligation to confront the menace. Through the seasons that followed—through the raging debate over young Millie, who had and then apparently didn’t have rabies, through the banning and then the freeing of the squirrels, through their pernicious promulgation in the new city park, through Henry’s success, finally, at getting the wretched things put under bounty—through it all, right up to the morning of Squirrel Day, Henry felt the role of the happy warrior as never before. This was, he came to realize, how his grandfather had felt, using his little one-page weekly newspaper in defense of freedom against the Dixie bondsmen, and how his father had felt, siding with the workingmen of Pullman against the robber barons. He understood there were some distinctions around the edges—squirrels, instead of slavery; squirrels, instead of workers’ oppression—but those were details. He had his fervor.
The morning of Squirrel Day rose bright and warm, as beautiful a day as Henry could readily remember seeing. He had no plans to participate himself in the hunt. Words were his weaponry. His plan was to just walk around the town, chat with the good people of Olney as they hunted and watch the hunt—watch the tide of lead he himself had rallied against the ghostly rodent invaders, watch the white menace beaten back. Watch the sweeping, explosive, climactic effects of his words.

He would, in fact, see just that. In spades.

For the better part of that day, all over town, pistols and shotguns and rifles and slingshots and even just thrown rocks released their volleys upward, into the tree tops, like an upside-down rainfall, except with lead and stones instead of raindrops. Shots went up and white squirrels came down, a Biblical deluge of them, dropping dead or wounded into yards and streets, onto roofs and lower branches, onto people’s heads. The shots came down as well, gravity being what it is. More than a few hearty squirrel hunters ended up ungracefully scurrying like squirrels themselves to get out of the line of their own fire. The falling shots hit roofs, windows, carriages, horses, and legs or arms of their neighbors. Soon, heated fights began breaking out between neighbors as they accidentally shot one another or damaged one another’s property.

Complicating matters was that, in giddy anticipation of the profitable hunt, many residents had advanced themselves some celebratory drinks, which diminished both their aim and judgement. One resident, an aging bachelor named Clyde Kestler, had a few nips of corn liquor early in the day to prepare for the festivities, then had a few more, then got it in his head that the most efficient way to get at the dozen or so white squirrels he saw cowering in the big elm in his back yard was to bring them all down at once, along with the tree in which they sat, using a stick of dynamite he’d pilfered from a construction crew on which he’d briefly worked. The explosion took out both the tree and his back porch and added to the general Gettysburg-like atmosphere now rolling through the town.

For most of the daylight hours that day, Olney, Illinois, was a city under siege, from itself. Within minutes of beginning his informal patrol of town to watch the spectacle, Henry understood that the spectacle was out of control. He’d never been on a battlefield, but he was certain now that he knew what it sounded like. The scent of gunpowder was thick at every turn and the air soon took on a standing haze. In the yards and streets and porches at which he stopped, there were none of the friendly chats he’d envisioned with the townspeople as they calmly aimed into the treetops to pick off squirrels. They were too intent on the loading, aiming, shooting and reloading, some of them verbally recounting the math as they did—two bits per pelt! Each squirrel that fell for one neighbor was two bits out of the pocket of another. The blunt economics of it put friendships on hold and suspended politeness. Henry soon realized a number of them were drunk, though the morning sun hadn’t yet cleared the high woods at the eastern edge of town.

By the time the first falling white squirrel hit him, Henry had been expecting it so completely that it was barely a surprise. Two more struck him before he could make his way back to the safety of his storefront office, one of them sparking a confrontation between two townsmen over the question of whose shot had landed it—from the look of the mutilated carcass, Henry thought, it might have been both—and he wouldn't have been especially shocked to have seen the argument graduate to gunfire. He wasn’t going to wait around to watch. He got into his office and locked the door and retreated to the back of the shop, by the typesetting table, away from the windows. There, he waited out the day, listening to the volleys of shots echoing around town, punctuated with shouts and confrontations between neighbors. He marveled at the power of his words. He marveled at the fragility of civilization.

When it was over, the casualties stood at twenty-two wounded and one dead—the fatality being a small white cat belonging to Mrs. Pratt on West Main. The cat, whose name was Snowball, had panicked at the battlefield sounds and made a run for it across a low roof, presenting a sleek white blur that drew fire from several directions. The total in property damage was epic.“The town of Olney has ruined itself, over squirrels,” one astonished insurance adjuster would write to his office in Chicago.

In the aftermath, as people started counting up the squirrel carcasses, the true magnitude of Squirrel Day became clear: It wasn’t just a squirrel hunt, it was a squirrel slaughter, a squirrel massacre, a squirrel apocalypse. Many of them were initially raked up off the streets and yards like fall leaves, but more would keep turning up for weeks, tangled in bushes and scattered around roofs and stuck in chimneys and clogging gutters. It was ultimately determined that, in the heat of pursuit of the bounty, the town had shot, stoned, bludgeoned and exploded more than six-hundred of the pink-eyed mascots. Their numbers of dead were far greater than anyone would have guessed there were live ones to begin with. And, to the point, there were far more blood-stained white pelts now than the city leaders had budgeted for—about six-fold more. The financial impact of paying two bits per pelt was dire to the city treasury. The mayor and Council members began broaching the possibility of scaling back the promised payments, but abandoned the idea when its mere mention at a Council meeting provoked a near-riot among the populace. The bounty had been offered and in the frenzied course of collecting it the townspeople had possibly lost the one thing that made their town special. Were there any white squirrels left alive at all? No one was sure. In the cold, calm light of post-Squirrel Day, some were feeling awful about it, not to mention about the injuries and the property damage and Mrs. Pratt’s poor cat. All that and now the city was going to welsh on the bounty payments? No, that wasn’t an option.

The fiscal issues that arose as a result of Squirrel Day were ultimately the least of the City Council’s problems. Its bigger problem was that it was an election year. “Alas, no amount of money will compensate what we’ve lost of our collective soul,” the Daily Mail proclaimed in one of a long series of editorials on the theme. “Only a cleansing of our failed municipal leadership can begin to do that.” Henry did what he could to save the jobs of the Mayor and his allies on the Council, penning one editorial after another arguing their defense, minimizing the catastrophe of Squirrel Day and straining to make the case that Olney was better off now without all those ghostly rodents barking from the treetops. But he was arguing with the tide. It was clear well before the municipal elections that the political careers of his allies on the Council would fall like dead squirrels, and they did. Their defeat was utter enough to answer, once and for all, the question of whether the proud old newspaper of Henry’s forebears still had left even a whisper of what would one day be called clout.
A year later, Henry Jacobson, who for most of his life had not been much a drinker, sat on a mossy log in the woods east of Olney and drank a solitary toast to the death of the Olney Daily Times. Truth be told, he'd been toasting it more or less constantly for months, passing out nightly in the storefront office, waking up in pain each morning, often on the typesetting room floor. It affected production of the newspaper—it was regularly late to arrive on the street now, and three days in the past year he failed completely to put out an edition, a thing that had never previously happened in the newspaper’s whole history. The town hardly noticed the lapses, so far had the Times' readership fallen. Henry had won the battle of the white squirrels but in doing so had lost the stature that his newspaper had built and nurtured for three generations, and now he was losing what was left of his readers. The remaining pool was small enough that Henry, in those times when he was sober, could almost review the whole list of them in his head. With fewer readers came fewer advertisers, and what few advertisers remained had insisted on so many price reductions due to the sparse readership that their patronage no longer covered even the cost of the paper and the ink, let alone leaving any aside to support Henry.

That morning, checking inventory, he'd determined he had enough newsprint left to continue printing for less than two weeks, and insufficient funds to order more. In an instant, he decided to spend that time cranking out the bravest, smartest, finest editions of the newspaper ever produced—to spend his final days as a newsman living his credo: “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty.” But an instant later, he thought: What's the point? And he stopped production of that day's edition in mid-run, locked up the office, went home, pulled the latest bottle of rye from the kitchen cabinet and set into the woods to toast the end, alone.

The bottle was almost empty now, Henry cradling it and sitting on the mossy log and crying quietly. He cried for his grandfather's legacy, and for his father's, and for his own future. He cried for the Olney Daily Times, for the dreams he'd had for it, for the compromises he'd made for it, for the death of it. He cried, even, for the blasted white squirrels—innocent pawns, he understood now, in the great Olney Newspaper War, the war he'd finally lost.

He cried hardest for the squirrels, in fact. He had eradicated something rare and special, with ambition and fury as his motives and with the avarice of a town as his weapon. What kind of a man plots the wholesale destruction of an entire population of harmless creatures out of competitive spite, he wondered. Pondering it, remembering how they chattered whitely from the branches, such a startling and unnatural and strangely beautiful sight, he was sure that the death of the Times was his punishment for what he'd done—his punishment for Squirrel Day.

It was just then that he heard the chattering from above, so timely with his thoughts that he was sure he must be imagining it. He looked up and squinted. He stood, swaying with drink, and he squinted some more, unable to believe what he saw. For there, barely six feet above him, sat a squirrel the color of snow, its eyes pink jewels, its tail fluttering like a billowy white flag.

Henry held his breath and stared. He blinked hard, twice, making sure he wasn't imagining the radiant visage.

Then he flung the empty bottle at it as hard as he could.

Chapter One:

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