During the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression in America, George Pemberton returns to Western North Carolina after spending three months in Boston settling his father’s estate. Pemberton steps off the train at the town of Waynesville, where he is met by a young pregnant woman, Rachel Harmon, and her father Abe, who hides a Bowie knife beneath his shabby coat. Also waiting for Pemberton are Wilkie and Buchanan, his two partners in a logging business, the Boston Lumber Company.
Pemberton is not traveling alone. While in Boston he met and became engaged to a woman from Colorado named Serena, who has accompanied him back to North Carolina. Pemberton introduces his new wife to his business partners, who are impressed by her height, beauty, practical clothing, and the fact that she offers to shake their hand. Although Serena has come to live at the lumber camp, neither Buchanan’s wife nor Wilkie’s has made more than a single visit to the area.
Pemberton asks his partners about the state of the camp. Buchanan replies that there have been few problems aside from talk of a mountain lion. He says that although the big cats are hardly common in the areas, locals claim that a single, jet-black lion still roams the countryside. Unafraid of the talk, Serena comments that the panther would make excellent prey for her husband’s hunting.
Abe Harmon approaches the party and says that he has business with Pemberton. Serena calmly tells Abe that his daughter is lucky to be bearing Pemberton’s child but that she will receive no assistance from them. Furious, Abe comes at Pemberton with his knife. Harmon lunges with his knife, but Pemberton dodges the blow and plunges his own hunting knife into the old man’s chest. Harmon collapses and dies instantly.
Serena picks up the bowie knife and gives it to Rachel Harmon. She tells Rachel to sell the knife because it will be all she will ever receive from the...
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The next morning Pemberton introduces his wife to the workers at the camp. Serena rides out in front of everyone on a white Arabian horse, her wedding present from Pemberton. Astride the great horse in a male riding style, Serena appears imposing to the men in the camp and unlike any other woman they have ever seen. While Wilkie and Buchanan wear suits every day, Pemberton and Serena wear clothing reminiscent of the comfortable, practical clothes worn by the men.
Pemberton explains that Serena’s father owned a lumber company in Colorado and that she’s the equal of any man at the camp, her orders to be followed just as his.
After Pemberton’s speech, one of the men, a bearded fellow named Bilded, spits loudly on the ground. Serena gets off the Arabian, takes a pencil and paper, and walks over to Bilded. She gestures at a cane ash tree near the office that has been left standing for its shade and offers to make a wager with Bilded on the total number of board feet that could be produced from the tree. They agree to a bet of two weeks' pay and each logs their estimate with Campbell, Pemberton’s trusted overseer.
The crews go off to work and Serena follows on her horse. Pemberton reflects that he knows little about his wife, only that she grew up in Colorado and was orphaned at a young age when her entire family succumbed to the flu epidemic.
Pemberton spends the morning in the office, working on invoices and paperwork, while Serena is out with the crews.
Harris the copper magnate joins them for lunch. They discuss the maneuverings surrounding the national park. Harris reports that Albright, the Secretary of the Interior, has secured nearly all the land he needs in Tennessee and is starting to buy land in North Carolina.
Later that afternoon, workers gather in front of the office for the announcement of the winner of Serena and Bilden’s wager. One crew is led by Snipes, a loquacious local with opinions on everything. One member of Snipes’ crew is an illiterate preacher named McIntyre, given to frequent proclamations about the coming apocalypse. McIntyre refers to Serena as “the whore of Babylon,” who he sees as a figure out of the Book of Revelations.
Campbell announces that Serena is the winner of the wager. Buchanan, Wilkie, the Pembertons, and the doctor of the camp, Doctor Cheney, retire to the office to celebrate with fine Scotch. They talk of local culture, the obscure dialect of which Buchanan has made a study, the legendary estate Biltmore, and a local writer named Kephart who is a great champion of the national park movement.
Afterwards Campbell asks Pemberton whether he will hold Bilden to the price of his wager. Pemberton says that yes, Bilden will be forced to work for the next two weeks without pay, after which he will be fired, as a lesson for the men.
Rachel Harmon, her son Jacob now six months old, approaches the cabin of her only friend, the Widow Jenkins, who lives alone nearby. Rachel wonders if Jacob is teething, but Widow Jenkins says that he’s not nearly old enough to be teething. Widow Jenkins continues to say that if Abe Harmon had married after Rachel’s mother left, as she’d suggested, Rachel would know more about child rearing. Rachel was only five years old when her mother left. Widow Jenkins also says that she thinks a child should have his father’s name, but Rachel disagrees, saying that Harmon is a good enough name for anyone.
Rachel is dropping off Jacob with Widow Jenkins so she can go into Waynesville to buy a tombstone for her father. She’s already sold her horse and cow and will hand them over later in the week. She is having trouble getting by after losing her job in the cafeteria at the lumber camp. As Rachel walks the horse down the road, a car passes, and for a moment Rachel hopes it is Pemberton’s Packard.
Recalling back to the previous August, Rachel remembers how every day at noon she would deliver a meal to Pemberton’s house. Joel Vaughn’s job was to wait outside and make sure they weren’t disturbed. Rachel remembers being amazed at the lavishness of Pemberton’s home, the furniture and décor unlike anything she had ever seen before. Although the other workers at the camp, including Joel and Mr. Campbell, expressed their disapproval of the affair, Rachel wasn’t embarrassed at all. But when her period stopped, she began to worry. By her sixth month, Pemberton had left for Boston, but everyone at the camp could tell by looking at her that she was pregnant.
Arriving in Waynesville, Rachel visits Donaldson’s Feed and Seed, to whom she has sold the horse and cow, to ask for an advance on the money. Donaldson gives her thirty dollars, which Rachel takes to pay the bill at the general store.
Walking through town Rachel runs into Sheriff McDowell. McDowell asks how she and Jacob are doing and offers his help if there is anything Rachel needs. Rachel continues to the shop of Ludlow Surratt, the stone mason. Surratt has made Abe’s tombstone according to Rachel’s specifications, but Rachel is not yet able to pay him his full amount. Rachel offers him the saddle, but Surratt turns her down. Surratt says he will take the saddle and call it even, and then he offers to haul the tombstone up to Rachel’s plot and plant it himself. Rachel thanks Surratt enthusiastically and goes home.
Over a steak dinner, Pemberton and his partners discuss staff changes. Pemberton wants to promote Galloway, an older worker who’s known for being an expert tracker and woodsman as well as for spending five years in prison for killing two men over a card game, to crew foreman. Buchanan is skeptical, but Wilkie sides with Pemberton.
Doctor Cheney and Serena are also at the meal. Doctor Cheney asks Serena if she plans to spend the summer in Colorado. Serena replies by saying that she hasn’t returned to Colorado since leaving. Wilkie asks her who looks after her family house and estate, but Serena says that before she left she had the house burned and the timber holdings sold.
After dinner Pemberton goes to tell Galloway of his promotion. Galloway lives with his mother, a blind old woman said to have psychic abilities. Galloway’s response to Pemberton’s news is unemotional, and Pemberton wonders whether Galloway already knew of the promotion.
The next day a rattlesnake bites a worker. By the time he’s taken to Doctor Cheney, he’s already dead. That evening Serena asks how many men have been bitten, and Wilkie tells her five already, with one dead and the other four having to be let go. Wilkie comments that the snakes cost them money, not just because of bites but because the men work more slowly out of fear. Serena says that the snakes need to be killed off, and Wilkie says that the problem is that they are almost impossible to see, blending in with the brush. “Better eyes are needed then,” Serena replies.
Winter comes early, with snow littering the forest in October. Snipes’ crew works one of the toughest areas, the side of a mountain heavy with snow. For lunch they gather around a brush fire and talk. McIntyre, the apocalyptic preacher, testifies that the unnatural weather is a sign of the world’s imminent end, but the other men on the crew are doubtful. The conversation shifts to the fight...
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One Sunday the Pembertons go on a hunting expedition. For the past month Galloway has been baiting an area near camp, so their prospects for success are good. Buchanan and Joel Vaughn go along as well.
Galloway expects a deer or bear to emerge, but Pemberton wants to kill the panther. As they walk through the forest, Buchanan brings up to Pemberton the fact that the Secretary of the Interior is interested in the land for the national park and wonders why they shouldn’t consider his offer. Serena interjects, but Buchanan raises his hand. Pemberton replies by saying that his opinion is the same as his wife’s.
They come upon some deer and fire away. As the day goes on, the Pembertons and Buchanan kill...
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In December, an eagle Serena ordered arrives in the camp. The bird’s arrival excites rumor in the camp as the workers speculate about the bird’s purpose. To train the eagle, Serena spends two days in its stall, starving the eagle and waiting for the bird to accept food from her hand. She also puts the Arabian in a stall next door so the eagle will get used to the horse’s presence.
After two long days, the eagle begins to eat from Serena’s arm, which is covered in a leather sheath. This is the signal that the eagle has been trained. Serena runs to get Pemberton to show him how the eagle has been trained, but Pemberton is disturbed at Serena’s weakened condition. After two days of not eating or sleeping, Serena...
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The winter weather lasts from December deep into May, creating a treacherous environment for work, and several men die from various accidents. The lingering winter becomes an oft-discussed topic among the men, who look for any and all signs of the season’s eventual breaking.
One sign of spring’s impending arrival is when Campbell kills a rattlesnake. When Serena learns of this, she has the rattlesnake collected and orders that every rattlesnake killed in the forest be delivered to her. This sets off another round of speculation as everyone wonders what she is doing with the snakes and the eagle.
In mid-July, with spring in full bloom, Serena rides out to a work site, the eagle perched on her arm. She...
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As summer deepens, the men work faster now that all fears of rattlesnakes have been wiped out because of the eagle’s frequent hunting. As the land is cleared, talk of the panther increases.
During a break from working, Snipes and his crew discuss the impending meeting between Secretary Albright, the Pembertons, and Harris. According to a local newspaper, Albright is planning to force the Pembertons and Harris to sell their land or else face eviction, but Snipes and his men doubt that anyone will be able to stand up to the forceful owners of the Boston Lumber Company.
Scouting for the panther with Galloway, Pemberton stops at the homestead of his adversary, the naturalist Kephart. Kephart is sitting on his...
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Before a scheduled meeting with the proponents of the national park, Pemberton and his partners are visited by Doctor Cheney and Reverend Bolick, who runs the church at camp. Bolick wants to discuss a possible pay rise for the workers at camp. Pleading to Wilkie specifically, Bolick says that even half a dollar a week would make a huge difference in the lives of his congregation. But the partners are unswayed.
As Serena rides down the hill toward the office, Pemberton calls the men’s attention to his beautiful wife. Wilkie makes a couple of crude remarks about how Serena would have inspired the Greeks and Romans in the creation of their deities, and Bolick leaves the room in disgust.
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Led by Galloway, the hunting party of Pemberton, Harris, and Buchanan gathers Sunday morning in an orchard. Joel Vaughn has come along to help, too. Galloway has seen fresh deer tracks and allows for the possibility of the panther.
The group rides into the forest. Harris notices a bit of exposed rock and goes to investigate for possible mineral deposits. Pemberton tells Harris that he’s been in touch with Colonel Townsend and that Townsend is as willing to sell to Boston Lumber Company as to Albright. Pemberton also mentions a tract of land in Jackson County, North Carolina that might be worth their investment, but Harris wants to make sure there are mineral deposits in addition to the lumber.
As they ride...
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It is Christmas at the camp, and Campbell goes to the general store in town and returns with all manner of gifts for the workers, who are allowed to choose from the generous haul. Some choose hats, some fishhooks, some liquor. Snipes and his crew look on as Rachel Harmon chooses her gifts, and one of the workers notices that Rachel’s chosen gifts are much more practical than last year’s, when she got fancy soap and a hairbow. Vaughn takes Rachel aside and gives her a toy train engine, presumably on special instruction from Pemberton to give the train to Rachel for Jacob.
The next day work resumes as usual. Serena rides out with the workers. Although she is pregnant, no one knows but Pemberton. From Harris Pemberton...
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Harris reports that Webb and Kephart, apparently with the backing of the Cecils, have put an offer in on the land in Jackson County. Pemberton says that it is not as good a tract as Townsend’s, but Harris replies that he wants this land. Pemberton asks Harris if he’s not just interested in this land to spite Webb and Kephart, but Harris demurs. He says that although the deal is nearly done, the land’s owner has reached out to him and will sell them the land if they pay a little extra. Pemberton tells Harris that he will talk to Serena and get back in touch with him.
Serena says that they should go forward with purchasing the land but that their lawyer should put in the contract that Harris cannot begin mining...
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Accidents increase as the weather worsens: a log slips free and kills a worker, and later a boom falls into a man’s skull. The workers have different ways of coping with the danger, whether through prayer, whisky, or lucky charms.
One afternoon Snipes’ crew takes a break and discusses the strategies of fatalism and optimism. Snipes supposes that the amount of light one is exposed to has an effect, thus the term “sunny disposition.” Someone brings up McIntyre, who has been let out of the nervous hospital and put on bed rest. Someone remarks on Galloway’s return, and all agree that the man affects a certain ominous quality.
After finishing the conversation, Snipes and two workers, Dunbar and Ross,...
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One Sunday Rachel skips church so she can make some much needed repairs on her cabin. Toward twilight, Widow Jenkins visits her with a supper of bacon, fried okra and hominy. Jenkins compliments Rachel on her work, saying that Abe Harmon couldn’t have done it any better himself.
Jenkins is about to leave, but Rachel asks that she stay and visit a while. Jenkins reports that Joel Vaughn has asked after Rachel, worrying whether Rachel and Jacob are getting enough food. Jenkins adds that Joel is a handsome man and would make a good sweetheart for Rachel. But Rachel says that she doesn’t think Harmons do very well when it comes to love. Jenkins says that Rachel is still young and that she might have a chance to make...
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Serena leaves the hospital earlier than either the doctors or Pemberton wants her to. She returns to camp and the workers are struck silent as she passes by on the way to her house. It is early evening, a time in the day usually loud and rambunctious as the workers have just finished dinner, but this night all is hushed out of respect for Serena. Over the next few days, Pemberton takes care of Serena, and Galloway waits all the time just outside the door.
Two weeks later Serena is out of bed and full of talk of buying land for timber in Brazil, a pet dream of hers for some time. She’s in contact with potential investors as far away as Chicago and Canada.
Meanwhile, they are nearly finished cutting timber...
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Told to stay in bed for six weeks, Serena resumes her work riding with the crews after only a month. Galloway continues to follow after her devotedly. The crew work deeper into a valley, where the rains have left slippery, muddy conditions. A sawyer who once worked on the coast notices that the only difference between the land they’re working and a Charleston County swamp is the lack of cottonmouth moccasins, presumably because of Serena’s eagle.
Pemberton checks in with Scruggs, the man who has run the saw mill since Buchanan’s death. He finds Scruggs at the splash pond, supervising workers who are guiding the logs into the timber buggy. The two men jump from log to log, a precarious job made slightly less...
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Dressed up for the first time since his wedding, Pemberton goes with Serena to a party at Biltmore, the Cecils' mansion, where they plan to meet with potential investors. On the way Pemberton mentions that McDowell has been around recently asking the men about Campbell. Serena observes that if he is asking these questions, he must not know much. She asks about Meeks, the new overseer, and Pemberton says he is working out well considering he has only been on the job a week.
John Cecil greets the Pembertons in the entranceway of the great mansion. Women come forward to offer Serena condolences for her lost baby, which makes Serena uncomfortable.
Harris comes up with two men, Lowenstein and Calhoun, whom the...
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As Snipes' crew look over a plot of fresh graves at the timber camp, they talk about the dangers of mining and being involved with the Pembertons. Snipes gestures at his newspaper and discusses the recent death of Harris. The county coroner is declaring the death an accident, but Webb points out in his column that the coroner is in the pocket of the Pembertons.
Henryson wonders if Webb might be next on the Pembertons’ list and hopes that Webb doesn’t have a second storey house like Harris did or else he might take a similar tumble. The men are quiet after that. Stewart takes out his Bible and begins to read. Rain has fallen off and on all day, and Henryson asks Stewart if he has any dry rolling papers. Stewart says...
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The next day Sheriff McDowell drives into camp mid-morning and storms into Pemberton’s office without knocking. McDowell tells Pemberton there was a murder up on Colt Ridge last night. He says that Widow Jenkins’ throat was slashed. Pemberton asks why McDowell is telling him this, and McDowell said that the killers left two sets of footprints in the blood on the floor: a small set of brogans and a pair of narrow-toed, fancy women’s shoes.
Pemberton says he doesn’t have any idea how Jenkins’ death relates to him. McDowell says that Serena and Galloway must have been after her to tell them where Rachel Harmon and her son are. McDowell found the door to Harmon’s door wide open that morning, and cigarette butts...
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Rachel wakes up in the back of McDowell’s car as it speeds down the dusty mountain roads. They turn onto the road to Deep Creek and stop in front of a stand of maple trees with a path leading into the forest. McDowell tells Rachel she’ll be staying here with a man named Kephart and that he she can trust this man. McDowell tells Rachel that Widow Jenkins was murdered last night and that the murderers are more than likely after her and Jacob. Rachel asks about Pemberton, and McDowell speculates that he wasn’t involved, that he probably didn’t even know what Serena and Galloway were going to do.
After waiting for a little while to make sure they weren’t followed, McDowell leads Rachel down the path in the woods....
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Eating dinner, Serena notices that Pemberton’s appetite seems to have waned while his thirst for alcohol has increased. Serena is concerned, and observes that Pemberton hasn’t asked about where she went the other night. Pemberton reaches for his glass, but Serena stops his arm. “We’ve both killed,” she says. “We’re closer now that we’ve ever been before.”
Galloway comes in and says that he’s learned from the switchboard operator that it was Vaughn who tipped off McDowell. He also reports that McDowell was seen with Rachel Harmon and the boy driving east toward Asheville.
The next day, a recent Duke graduate named Edmund Wagner Bowden arrives at camp hoping to be the next sheriff. A few...
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In Kingsport in the home of Mrs. Sloan, McDowell’s aunt, Rachel has trouble relaxing. She can’t sleep and is constantly worrying that Serena and Galloway will come storming into her room and kill her and Jacob. On the fifth day, she finally works up the courage to go outside. She crosses the railroad tracks near Mrs. Sloan’s house, where there is a rhubarb patch. Using the bowie knife given to her by Serena all the way back in Waynesville, on the day Pemberton killed her father, Rachel cuts the rhubarb in preparation for a pie to give to Mrs. Sloan.
When Rachel comes back to Mrs. Sloan’s house, McDowell is waiting for her. Mrs. Sloan takes Jacob so Rachel and McDowell can talk. McDowell tells Rachel that he’s...
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By early October, nearly the entire lumber camp has been transported to the tract of land in Jackson County. Snipes’ crew is one of the last ones still working the old land. They are still one worker short, as Dunbar’s replacement was killed in an accident on only his second day of the job, and so the workers are all exhausted by having to make up for the lost labor.
Stewart reports on the continuing plight of McIntyre, the apocalyptic preacher who was spooked into senility by a rattlesnake dropped by Serena’s bald eagle. According to Stewart, the preacher is allowing himself to be let outside, but he still keeps mostly quiet. He was asked to preach at a funeral but just shook his head in response.
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Walking into Kingsport to buy groceries, Rachel sees Galloway standing outside the post office. The first thing she notices is the nub where his hand should be. Rachel steps back slowly, before he sees her, and runs all the way to Mrs. Sloan’s. Rachel changes her mind and runs to the train depot instead.
Rachel asks the ticket seller in the depot whether a man with one hand has been in the depot today. When the man says no, Rachel puts a twenty-dollar bill, which is all the money she has on her, on the table, and asks how far it will get her. He says she can go as far as St. Louis on a train that is leaving in one hour. She buys the ticket and, before leaving, asks the ticket seller not to tell anyone, especially a...
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The smoke still has not cleared by midmorning. Men move through the wreckage with buckets, pouring water on the few smoldering heaps that are left.
Snipes’ crew sits on the commissary steps surveying the destruction. With them is McIntyre the preacher, who has finally been rehired although he still refuses to speak. Snipes muses that if he were McDowell, he would have found a better way to kill the Pembertons than attacking them in the bastion of their own home. Henryson asks what he would have done instead, and Snipes says he would have driven stakes through their hearts.
Later that day, after being treated by the doctor summoned from Waynesville, Pemberton and Serena get dressed in clothes from the...
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Arrived safely and living in Seattle, Rachel finds the distant mountains visible from the center of the city one of the few consolations of living in such a foreign place. She thinks back to passing through the Midwest with Jacob, when they stopped in Kansas and waited two hours for a train, and wonders how someone could live in a world so flat.
Rachel has a job washing dishes and cleaning off tables in a café. She’s fortunate that the café’s owners, Mr. and Mrs. Bjorkland, allow her to lay Jacob on a quilt in the corner of the kitchen while she’s working as well as supply her with leftover food.
Startled by a car horn, Rachel reflects that she probably will never get used to the busyness and noise...
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The next night, Serena throws Pemberton a party for this thirtieth birthday. Things are quiet around camp, as nearly everyone has moved to the new site in Jackson County. Pemberton hasn’t seen Galloway around, and when he asks Serena where he has been, she says only that Galloway has been working but he cannot know why or where.
Before dinner, Pemberton has two glasses of whiskey and feels unusually tipsy afterward. Friends and investors arrive, a total of ten people, and they all sit down to dinner. Pemberton continues to drink heavily, downing seven more glasses of whiskey before his birthday cake is brought out. He blows out the candles on the beautiful cake and feels like the luckiest man in the world.
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The next day, Pemberton wakes up with the worst hangover of his life. Pemberton apologizes to Serena for drinking too much, but she is hardly worried about it and says that it’s fine. Serena says he does need to get up since Galloway will be there by eleven to accompany him on the mountain lion hunt.
Pemberton struggles to get dressed and ready. Finally Galloway comes to get him, and they head off for the meadow. Before he leaves, he sees Frizzell, the photographer, who is taking photographs for Secretary Albright of the way the land looks. Pemberton goes over and demands that Frizzell take a photo of himself and Serena. Serena is wary but she agrees. Already on her horse, she refuses to dismount, and so Frizzell...
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In 1975, an article appears in Life describing the long life and career of Serena Pemberton, a timber baroness in Brazil. In the article, Serena brags to the reporter about her plans to be buried in a lead coffin made in Birmingham, Alabama, because it won’t rot or rust. The reporter asks Serena if there is anything she regrets, and she says absolutely not, before moving on to a discussion of a Brazilian tract of land she hopes to purchase and turn into a timber camp. The article describes an old black-and-white photograph in Serena’s house, of the young Serena astride a horse with an eagle on her arm and tall, handsome man standing beside her, presumably the photo taken by Frizzell on the day Pemberton died....
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