A Painted House - Page 27

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Chapter 27

After a day of rest, there was no way my father would tolerate further absence from the fields. He pulled me out of bed at five, and we went about our routine chores of gathering eggs and milk.

I knew I couldn't continue to hide in the house with my mother, so I bravely went through the motions of getting ready to pick cotton. I'd have to face Cowboy at some point before he left. It was best to get it over with and to do it with plenty of folks around.

The Mexicans were walking to the fields, skipping the morning ride on the flatbed trailer. They could start picking a few minutes earlier, plus it kept them away from the Spruills. We left the house just before dawn. I held firm to Pappy's seat on the tractor and watched my mother's face slowly disappear in the kitchen window. I'd prayed long and hard the night before, and something told me she would be safe.

As we made our way along the field road, I studied the John Deere tractor. I'd spent hours on it, plowing, disking, planting, even hauling cotton to town with my father or Pappy, and its operation had always seemed sufficiently complex and challenging. Now, after thirty minutes on the road grader, with its puzzling array of levers and pedals, the tractor seemed quite simple. Pappy just sat there, hands on the wheel, feet still, half-asleep-while Otis had been a study in constant motion-another reason why I should grade roads and not farm if, of course, the baseball career did not work out, a most unlikely event.

The Mexicans were already half a row down, lost in the cotton and oblivious to our arrival. I knew Cowboy was with them, but in the early light I couldn't tell one Mexican from the other.

I avoided him until we broke for lunch. Evidently he'd seen me during the morning, and I guess he figured a little reminder would be appropriate. While the rest of his pals ate leftovers under the shade of the cotton trailer, Cowboy rode in with us. He sat alone on one side of the flatbed, and I ignored him until we were almost to the house.

When I finally mustered the courage to look at him, he was cleaning his fingernails with his switchblade, and he was waiting for me. He smiled-a wicked grin that conveyed a thousand words-and he gently waved the knife at me. No one else saw it, and I looked away immediately.

Our agreement had just been solidified even further.

By late afternoon the cotton trailer was full. After a quick dinner Pappy announced that he and I would haul it to town. We went to the fields and hooked it to the truck, then left the farm on our newly graded road. Otis was quite a craftsman. The road was smooth, even in Pappy's old truck.

As usual, Pappy said nothing as he drove, and this was fine with me because I also had nothing to say. Lots of secrets but no way to unload them. We crossed the bridge slowly, and I scanned the thick, slow waters below but saw nothing out of the ordinary-no sign of blood or of the crime I'd witnessed.

More than a full day had passed since the killing, a normal day of work and drudgery on the farm. I thought about the secret with every breath, but I was masking it well, I thought. My mother was safe, and that was all that mattered.

We passed the road to the Latchers', and Pappy glanced their way. For the moment, they were just a minor nuisance.

On the highway, farther away from the farm, I began to think that one day soon I might be able to unload my burden. I could tell Pappy, alone, just the two of us. Before long Cowboy would be back in Mexico, safe in that foreign world. The Spruills would return home, and Hank wouldn't be there. I could tell Pappy, and he would know what to do.

We entered Black Oak behind another trailer and followed it to the gin. When we parked I scrambled out and stuck close to Pappy's side. Some farmers were huddled just outside the gin office, and a serious discussion had been under way for a while. We walked up on them and listened.

The news was somber and threatening. The night before, heavy rains had hit Clay County, north of us. Some places reported six inches in ten hours. Clay County was upstream on the St. Francis. The creeks and streams were flooded up there and pouring into the river.

The water was rising.

There was a debate as to whether this would affect us. The minority opinion was that the storm would have little impact on the river near Black Oak. We were too far away and, absent more rains, a small rise in the St. Francis wouldn't flood anything. But the majority view was far more pessimistic, and since the bulk of them were professional worriers anyway, the news was accepted with great concern.

One farmer said his almanac called for heavy rains in mid-October.

Another said his cousin in Oklahoma was getting flooded, and since our weather came from the West, he felt it was a sure sign that the rains were inevitable.

Pappy mumbled something to the effect that the weather from Oklahoma traveled faster than any news.

There was much debate and lots of opinions, and the overall tone was one of gloom. We'd been beaten so many times by the weather, or by the markets, or by the price of seed and fertilizer, that we expected the worst.

"We ain't had a flood in October in twenty years," declared Mr. Red Fletcher, and this set off a heated debate on the history of autumn floods. There were so many different versions and recollections that the issue was hopelessly confused.

Pappy didn't join the fray, and after half an hour of listening we backed away. He unhooked the trailer, and we headed home, in silence, of course. A couple of times I cut my eyes at him and found him just as I expected-mute, worried, driving with both hands, forehead wrinkled, his mind on nothing but the coming flood.

We parked at the bridge and walked through the mud to the edge of the St. Francis River. Pappy inspected it for a moment as if he might see it rise. I was terrified that Hank would suddenly float to the top and come ashore right in front of us. Without a word, Pappy picked up a stick of driftwood about an inch in diameter and three feet long. He knocked a small limb off it and drove it with a rock into the sandbar where the water was two inches deep. With his pocketknife, he notched it at water level. "We'll check it in the mornin'," he said, his first words in a long time.

We studied our new gauge for a few moments, both certain that we would see the river rise. When it didn't happen, we returned to the truck.

The river scared me and not because it might flood. Hank was out there, cut and dead and bloated with river water, ready to wash ashore where someone would find him. We'd have a real murder on our hands, not a just a killing like the Sisco beating, but a genuine slaying.

The rains would get rid of Cowboy. And the rains would swell the river and move it faster. Hank, or what was left of him, would get swept downstream to another county or maybe even another state where someday someone would find him and not have the slightest clue as to who he was.

Before I fell asleep that night, I prayed for rain. I prayed as hard as I possibly could. I asked God to send the biggest flood since Noah.

We were in the middle of breakfast on Saturday morning when Pappy stomped in from the back porch. One look at his face satisfied our curiosity. "River's up four inches, Luke," he said to me as he took his seat and began reaching for food. "And there's lightnin' to the west."

My father frowned but kept chewing. When it came to the weather, he was always pessimistic. If the weather was fine, then it was just a matter of time before it turned bad. If it was bad, then that's what he'd expected all along. Gran took the news with no expression at all. Her younger son was fighting in Korea, and that was far more important than the next rain. She had never left the soil, and she knew that some years were good, some bad, but life didn't stop. God gave us life and health and plenty of food, and that was more than most folks could say. Plus, Gran had little patience for all the fretting over the weather. "Can't do anything about it," she said over and over.

My mother didn't smile or frown, but she had a curious look of contentment. She was determined not to spend her life scratching a meager existence from the land. And she was even more determined that I would not farm. Her days on the farm were numbered, and another lost crop could only hasten our departure.

By the time we finished eating, we heard thunder. Gran and my mother cleared the dishes, then made another pot of coffee. We sat at the table, talking and listening, waiting to see how rough the storm would be. I thought my prayer was about to be answered, and I felt guilty for such a devious wish.

But the thunder and lightning moved to the north. No rain fell. By 7 A. M. we were in the fields, picking hard and longing for noon.

When we left for town, only Miguel hopped in the back of the truck. The rest of the Mexicans were working, he explained, and he needed to buy a few things for them. I was relieved beyond words. I wouldn't be forced to ride in with Cowboy crouched just a few feet away from me.

We hit rain at the edge of Black Oak, a cool drizzle instead of a fierce storm. The sidewalks were busy with folks moving slowly under the store canopies and balconies, trying, but failing, to stay dry.

The weather kept many farm families away from town. This was evident when the four o'clock matinee began at the Dixie theater. Half the seats were empty, a sure sign that it was not a normal Saturday. Halfway through the first show the aisle lights flickered, then the screen went blank. We sat in the darkness, ready to panic and bolt, and listened to the thunder.

"Power's out," said an official voice in the rear. "Please leave slowly."

We huddled into the cramped lobby and watched the rain fall in sheets along Main Street. The sky was dark gray, and the few cars that passed by used their headlights.

Even as kids we knew that there was too much rain, too many storms, too many rumors of rising waters. Floods happened in the spring, rarely during the harvest. In a world where everyone either farmed or traded with farmers, a wet season in mid-October was quite depressing.

When it slacked off a little, we ran down the sidewalk to find our parents. Heavy rains meant muddy roads, and the town would soon be empty as the farm families left for home before dark. My father had mentioned buying a saw blade, so I ducked into the hardware store in hopes of finding him. It was crowded with people waiting and watching the weather outside. In little pockets of conversation, old men were telling stories of ancient floods. Women were talking about how much rain there'd been in other towns-Paragould, Lepanto, and Manila. The aisles were filled with people who were just talking, not buying or looking for merchandise.

I worked my way through the crowd, looking for my father. The hardware store was ancient, and toward the rear it became darker and cavern-like. The wooden floors were wet from the traffic and sagged from years of use. At the end of an aisle, I turned and came face-to-face with Tally and Trot. She was holding a gallon of white paint. Trot was holding a quart. They were loitering like everybody else, waiting for the storm to pass. Trot saw me and tried to hide behind Tally. "Hello, Luke," she said with a smile.

"Howdy," I said, looking at the paint bucket. She set it on the floor beside her. "What's the paint for?"

"Oh, it's nothin'," she said, smiling again. Once again I was reminded that Tally was the prettiest girl I'd ever met, and when she smiled at me my mind went blank. Once you've seen a pretty girl naked, you feel a certain attachment to her.

Trot wedged himself tightly behind her, like a toddler hiding behind his mother. She and I talked about the storm, and I relayed the exciting news about the power going out in the middle of the matinee. She listened with interest, and the more I talked the more I wanted to talk. I told her about the rumors of rising waters and about the gauge Pappy and I had set at the river. She asked about Ricky, and we talked about him for a long time.

Of course I forgot about the paint.

The lights flickered, and the power returned. It was still raining, though, and no one left the store.

"How's that Latcher girl?" she asked, her eyes darting around as if someone might hear her. It was one of our great secrets.

I was about to say something, when it suddenly hit me that Tally's brother was dead, and she knew nothing about it. The Spruills probably thought Hank was home by now, back in Eureka Springs, back in their nice little painted house. They'd see him in a few weeks, sooner if it kept raining. I looked at her and tried to speak, but all I could think about was how shocked she'd be if I said what I was thinking.

I adored Tally, in spite of her moods and her secrets, in spite of her funny business with Cowboy. I couldn't help but adore her, and I certainly didn't want to hurt her. The very thought of blurting out that Hank was dead made me weak in the knees.

I stuttered and stammered and looked at the floor. I was suddenly cold and scared. "See you later," I managed to say, then turned and backtracked to the front.

During a break in the rain, the stores emptied and folks scurried along the sidewalks, heading for the cars and trucks. The clouds were still dark, and we wanted to get home before the showers hit again.


Tags: John Grisham Mystery
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