A Painted House - Page 25

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Chapter 25

Just before dark my father and Mr. Leon Spruill went for a short walk past the silo. My father explained that Stick Powers was preparing to arrest Hank for the murder of Jerry Sisco. Since Hank was causing so much trouble anyway, it might be the perfect time for him to ease away into the night and return to, the hills. Evidently Mr. Spruill took it well and made no threats to leave. Tally was right; they needed the money. And they were sick of Hank. It appeared as though they would stay and finish the harvest.


We sat on the front porch and watched and listened. There were no sharp words, no signs of breaking camp. Nor was there any evidence that Hank might be leaving. Through the shadows we could see him every now and then, moving around their camp, sitting by the fire, rummaging for more leftovers. One by one the Spruills went to bed. So did we.


I finished my prayers and was lying in Ricky's bed, wide awake, thinking about the Yankees and Dodgers, when an argument started in the distance. I slid across the floor and peeked through the window. All was dark and still, and for a moment I couldn't see anyone. The shadows shifted, and next to the road I could see Mr. Spruill and Hank standing face-to-face, both talking at once. I couldn't understand what they were saying, but they were obviously angry.


This was too good to miss. I crawled into the hallway and stopped long enough to make sure all the adults were asleep. Then I crept across the living room, through the front screen door, onto the porch, down the steps, and scooted to the hedgerow on the east side of our property. There was a half-moon and scattered clouds, and after a few minutes of silent stalking I was close to the road. Mrs. Spruill had joined the discussion. They were arguing about the Sisco beating.


Hank was adamant about his innocence. His parents didn't want him arrested.


"I'll kill that fat deputy," he growled.


"Just go back home, son, let things cool down," Mrs. Spruill kept saying.


"The Chandlers want you to leave," Mr. Spruill said at one point.


"I got more money in my pocket than these sodbusters'll ever have," Hank snarled.


The argument was spinning in several directions. Hank said harsh things about us, the Mexicans, Stick Powers, the Siscos, the general population of Black Oak, and he even had a few choice words for his parents and Bo and Dale. Only Tally and Trot went unscathed. His language grew worse and his voice louder, but Mr. and Mrs. Spruill did not retreat.


"All right, I'll leave," he finally said, and he stormed toward a tent to fetch something. I sneaked to the edge of the road, then scampered across it and fell into the depths of the Jeter cotton on the other side. I had a perfect view of our front yard. Hank was stuffing an old canvas bag with food and clothes. My guess was that he would walk to the highway and start hitchhiking. I cut through the rows and crept along the side of the shallow ditch, in the direction of the river. I wanted to see Hank when he walked by.


They had more words, then Mrs. Spruill said, "We'll be home in a few weeks." The talking stopped, and Hank stomped by me, in the center of the road, a bag slung over his shoulder. I inched my way to the end of the row and watched as he headed for the bridge.


I couldn't help but smile. Peace would be restored to our farm. I squatted there for a long time, long after Hank had disappeared, and thanked the stars above that he was finally gone.


I was about to begin my backtracking when something suddenly moved directly across the road from me. The cotton stalks rustled just slightly, and a man rose and stepped forward. He was low and quick, obviously trying to avoid being seen. He glanced back down the road, in the direction of our house, and for an instant the moonlight hit his face. It was Cowboy.


For a few seconds I was too scared to move. It was safe on the Jeter side of the road, hidden by their cotton. I wanted to retrace my steps, hurry to the house, crawl into Ricky's bed.


And I also wanted to see what Cowboy was up to.


Cowboy stayed in the knee-deep ditch and moved quickly, without a sound. He would advance, then stop and listen. Move forward, then halt. I was a hundred feet behind him, still on Jeter property, moving as fast as I dared. If he heard me, then I would duck into the thick cotton.


Before long I could see the hulking figure of Hank, still in the center of the road, going home in no particular hurry. Cowboy slowed his chase, and I, too, slowed my pursuit.


I was barefoot, and if I stepped on a cottonmouth I would die a horrible death. Go home, something told me. Get out of there.


If Cowboy wanted to fight, why was he waiting? Our farm was now out of sight and sound. But the river was just ahead, and maybe that's what Cowboy wanted.


As Hank neared the bridge, Cowboy quickened his pace and started walking in the center of the road. I stayed at the edge of the cotton, sweating and out of breath and wondering why I was being so foolish.


"A Painted House"


Hank got to the river and started over the bridge. Cowboy began running. When Hank was about halfway over, Cowboy stopped long enough to cock his arm and throw a rock. It landed on the boards near Hank, who stopped and whirled around. "Come on, you little wetback," he growled.


Cowboy never stopped walking. He was on the bridge, heading up the slight incline, showing no fear whatsoever as Hank waited and cursed him. Hank looked twice as big as Cowboy. They would meet in the middle of the bridge, and there was no doubt that one of them was about to get wet.


When they were close, Cowboy suddenly cocked his arm again and threw another rock, almost at point-blank range. Hank ducked, and somehow it missed him. Then he charged at Cowboy. The switchblade snapped open, and in a flash it was introduced into the fray. Cowboy held it high. Hank caught himself long enough to swing wildly with his bag. It brushed Cowboy and knocked off his hat. The two circled each other on the narrow bridge, both looking for an advantage. Hank growled and cursed and kept his eye on the knife, then he reached into the bag and removed a small jar of something. He gripped it like a baseball and got ready to hurl it. Cowboy kept low, bending at the knees and waist, waiting for the perfect moment. As they circled slowly, each came within inches of the edge of the bridge.


Hank gave a mighty grunt and threw the jar as hard as he could at Cowboy, who was less than ten feet away. It hit him somewhere in the neck or throat, I couldn't tell exactly, and for a second Cowboy wobbled as if he might fall. Hank threw the bag at him and charged in. But with amazing quickness Cowboy switched hands with the knife, pulled a rock from his right pants pocket, and threw it harder than any baseball he'd ever pitched. It hit Hank somewhere in the face. I couldn't see it, but I certainly heard it. Hank screamed and clutched his face, and by the time he could recover it was too late.


Cowboy ducked and hooked low and drove the blade up through Hank's stomach and chest. Hank let loose with a painful squeal, one of horror and shock.


Then Cowboy yanked it out and thrust it in again and again. Hank dropped to one knee, then two. His mouth was open, but nothing came out. He just stared at Cowboy, his face frozen in terror.


With strokes that were quick and vicious, Cowboy slashed away and finished the job. When Hank was down and still, Cowboy quickly went through his pants pockets and robbed him. Then he dragged him to the side of the bridge and shoved him over. The corpse landed with a splash and immediately went under. Cowboy went through the bag, found nothing he wanted, and threw it over, too. He stood at the edge of the bridge and watched the water for a long time.


I had no desire to join Hank, so I burrowed between two rows of cotton and hid so low that I couldn't have found myself. My heart was pounding faster than ever before. I was shaking and sweating and crying and praying, too. I should've been in bed, safe and asleep with my parents next door and my grandparents just down the hall. But they seemed so far away. I was alone in a shallow foxhole, alone and frightened and in great danger. I'd just seen something that I still didn't believe.


I don't know how long Cowboy stood there on the bridge, watching the water, making sure Hank was gone. The clouds would move over the half-moon, and I could barely see him. They'd move again, and there he was, still standing, his dirty cowboy hat cocked to one side. After a long time, he walked off the bridge and stopped by the edge of the river to wash his knife. He watched the river some more, then turned and started walking down the road. When he passed me he was twenty feet away, and I felt like I was buried at least two feet in the ground.


I waited forever, until he was long out of sight, until there was no possible way he could hear me, then I crawled out of my little hole and began my journey home. I wasn't sure what I would do once I got there, but I'd be safe. I'd think of something.


I stayed low, moving through the tall Johnson grass along the edge of the field. As farmers we hated Johnson grass, but for the first time in my life I was thankful for it. I wanted to hurry, to sprint down the middle of the road and get home as fast as possible, but I was terrified, and my feet were heavy. Fatigue and fear gripped me, and I could hardly move at times. It took forever before I saw the outlines of our house and barn. I watched the road in front of me, certain that Cowboy was up there somewhere, watching his rear, watching his flanks. I tried not to think about Hank. I was too concerned with getting to the house.


When I stopped to catch my breath, I picked up the unmistakable smell of a Mexican. They seldom bathed, and after a few days of picking cotton they took on their own particular odor.


It passed quickly, and after a minute or two of heavy breathing I wondered if I was just imagining things. Not taking chances, I retreated once again to the depths of the Jeter cotton and slowly headed east, cutting through row after row without a sound. When I could see the white tents of Camp Spruill, I knew I was almost home.


"A Painted House"


What would I tell about Hank? The truth, nothing but. I was burdened with enough secrets; there was room for no more, especially one as heavy as this. I'd crawl into Ricky's room, try and get some sleep, and when my father woke me to collect eggs and milk I'd tell the whole story. Every step, every move, every cut of the knife-my father would hear it all. He and Pappy would head to town to report the killing to Stick Powers, and they'd have Cowboy in jail before lunch. They'd probably hang him before Christmas.


Hank was dead. Cowboy would be in jail. The Spruills would pack up and leave, but I didn't care. I never wanted to see another Spruill, not even Tally. I wanted everybody off our farm and out of our lives.


I wanted Ricky to come home and the Latchers to move away, then everything would be normal again.


When I was within sprinting distance of our front porch, I decided to make my move. My nerves were frayed, my patience gone. I'd been hiding for hours, and I was tired of it. I scooted to the very end of the cotton rows and stepped over the ditch into the road. I ducked low, listened for a second, then started to run. After two steps, maybe three, there was a sound from behind, then a hand slapped my feet together and down I went. Cowboy was on top of me, a knee in my chest, the switchblade an inch from my nose. His eyes were glowing. "Silence!" he hissed.


We were both breathing hard and sweating profusely, and his odor hit me hard; no doubt the same one I'd smelled just minutes earlier. I stopped wiggling and gritted my teeth. His knee was crushing me.


"Been to the river?" he asked.


I shook my head no. Sweat from his chin dripped into my eyes and burned. He waved the blade a little, as if I couldn't see it already.


"Then where you been?" he asked.


I shook my head again; I couldn't speak. Then I realized my whole body was shaking, trembling in rigid fear.


When it was apparent I could not utter a word, he took the tip of the blade and tapped my forehead. "You speak one word about tonight," he said slowly, his eyes doing more talking than his mouth, "and I will kill your mother. Understand?"


I nodded fiercely. He stood and walked away, quickly disappearing into the blackness and leaving me in the dust and dirt of our road. I started crying, and crawling, and I made it to our truck before I passed out.


They found me under their bed. In the confusion of the moment, with my parents yelling at me and quizzing me about everything-my dirty clothes, the bloody nicks on my arms, why exactly was I sleeping under their bed-I managed to conjure up the tale that I'd had a horrible dream. Hank had drowned! And I had gone to check on him.


"You were sleepwalkin'!" my mother said in disbelief, and I seized this immediately.


"I guess," I said, nodding. Everything after that was a blur-I was dead tired and scared and not sure if what I'd seen at the river had really happened or had in fact been a dream. I was horrified at the thought of ever facing Cowboy again.


"Ricky used to do that," Gran added from the hallway. "Caught 'im one night out past the silo."


This helped calm things somewhat. They led me to the kitchen and sat me at the table. My mother scrubbed me while Gran doctored the Johnson grass cuts on my arms. The men saw that matters were under control, so they left to gather eggs and milk.


A loud thunderstorm hit just as we were about to eat, and the sounds were a great relief to me. We wouldn't be going to the fields for a few hours. I wouldn't be near Cowboy.


They watched me as I picked at my food. "I'm okay," I said at one point.


The rain fell heavy and loud onto our tin roof, drowning out conversation so that we ate in silence, the men worrying about the cotton, the women worrying about me.


I had enough worries to crush us all.


"Could I finish later?" I asked, slightly shoving my plate away. "I'm really sleepy."


My mother decided that I would go back to bed and rest for as long as I needed to. As the women were clearing the table, I whispered to my mother and asked her if she would lie down with me. Of course she would.


She fell asleep before I did. We were in my parents' bed, in their semidark bedroom, still and cool and listening to the rain, with the men in the kitchen not far away, drinking coffee and waiting, and I felt safe.


I wanted it to rain forever. The Mexicans and the Spruills would leave. Cowboy would be shipped home, back to where he could cut and slash all he wanted, and I'd never know about it. And sometime next summer, when plans were made for the harvest, I'd make sure Miguel and his band of Mexicans were not hauled back to our county.


I wanted my mother next to me, with my father nearby. I wanted to sleep, but when I closed my eyes I saw Hank and Cowboy on the bridge. I was suddenly hopeful that Hank was still there, still in Camp Spruill rummaging for a biscuit, still throwing rocks at the barn at midnight. Then it would all be a dream.


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Tags: John Grisham Mystery
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