A Painted House - Page 28

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Chapter 28

Sunday was gray and overcast, and my father didn't care for the notion of getting wet while riding in the back of the truck on the way to church. Plus, our truck was not exactly waterproof, and the women usually got dripped on while riding in the cab during a good shower. We rarely missed a Sunday worship, but the threat of rain occasionally kept us at home. We hadn't missed a service in months, and so when Gran suggested we eat a late breakfast and listen to the radio we quickly agreed. Bellevue Baptist was the largest church in Memphis, and its services were broadcast on station WHBQ. Pappy didn't like the preacher, said he was too liberal, but we enjoyed hearing him nonetheless. And the choir had a hundred voices, which was about eighty more than the one at the Black Oak Baptist Church.

Long after breakfast, we sat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee (myself included), listening to a sermon being delivered to a congregation of three thousand members, and worrying about the drastic change in the weather. The adults were worrying; I was only pretending.

Bellevue Baptist had an orchestra, of all things, and when it played the benediction, Memphis seemed a million miles away. An orchestra in a church. Gran's older daughter, my aunt Betty, lived in Memphis, and though she didn't worship at Bellevue she knew someone who did. All the men wore suits. All the families drove nice cars. It was indeed a different world.

Pappy and I drove to the river to check our gauge. The rains were taking a toll on Otis's recent grade work. The shallow ditches beside the road were full, gullies were forming from the runoff, and mud holes were holding water. We stopped in the middle of the bridge and studied the river on both sides. Even I could tell the water was up. The sandbars and gravel bars were covered. The water was thicker and a lighter shade of brown, evidence of drainage from the creeks that ran through the fields. The current swirled and was moving faster. Debris-driftwood and logs and even a green branch or twofloated atop the water.

Our gauge was still standing, but barely. Just a few inches remained above the water. Pappy had to get his boots wet to retrieve the stick. He pulled it up, examined it as if it had done something wrong, and said, almost to himself, "Up 'bout ten inches in twenty-four hours." He squatted and tapped the stick on a rock. Watching him, I became aware of the noise of the river. It wasn't loud, but the water was rushing by and streaming over the gravel bars and against the bridge piers. The current splashed through the thick shrubs hanging over the banks and pecked away at the roots of a nearby willow tree. It was a menacing noise. One I'd never heard.

Pappy was hearing it all too well. With the stick he pointed at the bend in the river, far to the right, and said, "It'll get the Latchers first. They're on low ground."

"When?" I asked.

"Depends on the rain. If it stops, then it might not flood at all. Keeps rainin' though, and it'll be over the banks in a week."

"When's the last time it flooded?"

"Three years ago, but that was in the spring. Last fall flood was a long time ago."

I had plenty of questions about floods, but it was not a subject Pappy liked to dwell on. We studied the river for a while, and listened to it, then we walked back to the truck and drove home.

"Let's go to Siler's Creek," he said. The field roads were too muddy for the truck, so Pappy fired up the John Deere, and we pulled out of the farmyard with most of the Spruills and all of the Mexicans watching us with great curiosity. The tractor was never operated on Sunday. Surely Eli Chandler was not about to work on the Sabbath.

The creek had been transformed. Gone were the clear waters where Tally liked to bathe. Gone were the cool little rivulets running around rocks and logs. Instead the creek was much wider and filled with muddy water rushing to the St. Francis, half a mile away. We got off the tractor and walked to the bank. "This is where our floods come from," Pappy said. "Not the St. Francis. The ground's lower here, and when the creek runs over, it heads straight for our fields."

The water was at least ten feet below us, still safely contained in the ravine that had been cut through our farm decades earlier. It seemed impossible that the creek could ever rise high enough to escape.

"You think it'll flood, Pappy?" I asked.

He thought long and hard, or maybe he wasn't thinking at all. He watched the creek and finally said, with no conviction whatsoever, "No. We'll be fine."

There was thunder to the west.

I walked into the kitchen early Monday morning, and Pappy was at the table, drinking coffee, fiddling with the radio. He was trying to pick up a station in Little Rock to check on the weather. Gran was at the stove, frying bacon. The house was cold, but the heat and smell from the skillet warmed things considerably. My father handed me an old flannel coat, a hand-me-down from Ricky, and I reluctantly put it on.

"We pickin' today, Pappy?" I asked.

"We'll know directly," he said, without taking his eyes off the radio.

"Did it rain last night?" I asked Gran, who had leaned over to kiss my forehead.

"All night long," she said. "Now go fetch some eggs."

I followed my father out of the house, down the back steps, until I saw something that stopped me cold. The sun was barely up, but there was plenty of light. There was no mistake in what I was seeing.

I pointed and managed to say only, "Look."

My father was ten steps away, heading for the chicken coops. "What is it, Luke?" he asked.

In the spot under the oak tree where Pappy had parked his truck every day of my life, the ruts were bare. The truck was gone.

"The truck," I said.

My father walked slowly to my side, and for a long time we stared at the parking spot. The truck had always been there, forever, like one of the oaks or one of the sheds. We saw it every day, but we didn't notice it because it was always there.

Without a word, he turned and walked up the back steps, across the porch, and into the kitchen. "Any reason why the truck would be gone?" he asked Pappy, who was trying desperately to hear a scratchy report from some faraway place. Gran froze and cocked her head sideways as if she needed the question repeated. Pappy turned the radio off. "Say what?" he said.

"The truck's gone," my father said.

Pappy looked at Gran, who looked at my father. They all looked at me as if I'd once again done something wrong. About this time my mother entered the kitchen, and the entire family marched single file out of the house and right up to the muddy ruts where the truck should've been.

We searched the farm, as if the truck could have somehow moved itself to another location.

"I left it right here," Pappy said in disbelief. Of course he'd left it right there. The truck had never been left overnight anywhere else on the farm.

In the distance Mr. Spruill yelled, "Tally!"

"Somebody took our truck," Gran said, barely audible.

"Where was the key?" my father asked.

"By the radio, same as always," Pappy said. There was a small pewter bowl at the end of the kitchen table, next to the radio, and the truck key was always left there. My father went to inspect the bowl. He returned promptly and said, "The key's gone."

"Tally!" Mr. Spruill yelled again, louder. There was a flurry of activity in and around the Spruills' camp. Mrs. Spruill emerged and began walking quickly toward our front porch. When she saw us standing beside the house, gawking at the empty parking space, she ran over and said, "Tally's gone. We can't find her nowhere."

The other Spruills were soon behind her, and before long the two families were looking at each other. My father explained that our truck was missing. Mr. Spruill explained that his daughter was missing.

"Can she drive a truck?" Pappy asked.

"No, she can't," Mrs. Spruill said, and this complicated matters.

There was silence for a moment as everybody pondered the situation.

"You don't suppose Hank could've come back and got it, do you?" Pappy asked.

"Hank wouldn't steal your truck," Mr. Spruill said with a mix of anger and confusion. At that moment almost anything seemed both likely and impossible.

"Hank's home by now," Mrs. Spruill said. She was on the verge of tears.

I wanted to scream, "Hank's dead!" and then run into the house and hide under a bed. Those poor people didn't know their son would never make it home. This secret was becoming too heavy to carry alone. I took a step behind my mother.

She leaned close to my father and whispered, "Better go check on Cowboy." Because I had told her about Tally and Cowboy, my mother was ahead of the rest of them.

My father thought for a second, then looked in the direction of the barn. So did Pappy, Gran, and finally the rest of the group.

Miguel was slowly making his way to us, taking his time, leaving tracks in the wet grass. His dirty straw hat was in his hand, and he walked in such a way that made me think that he had no desire to do whatever he was about to do.

"Mornin', Miguel," Pappy said, as if the day was off to the same old beginning.

"Senor," he said, nodding.

"Is there a problem?" Pappy asked.

"Si, senor. A little problem."

"What is it?"

"Cowboy is gone. I think he sneaked away in the night."

"Must be contagious," Pappy mumbled, then spat into the grass. It took a few seconds for the Spruills to add things together. At first Tally's disappearance had nothing to do with Cowboy's, at least to them. Evidently they knew nothing about the couple's secret little romance. The Chandlers figured things out long before the Spruills, but then we had the benefit of my inside knowledge.

Reality slowly settled in.

"You think he took her?" Mr. Spruill said, almost in panic. Mrs. Spruill was sniffling now, trying to hold back her tears.

"I don't know what to think," Pappy said. He was much more concerned with his pickup than with the whereabouts of Tally and Cowboy.

"Did Cowboy take his things with him?" my father asked Miguel.

"Si, senor."

"Did Tally take her things with her?" my father asked Mr. Spruill.

He didn't answer, and the question hung in the air until Bo said, "Yes sir. Her bag's gone."

"What's in her bag?"

"Clothes and such. And her money jar."

Mrs. Spruill cried harder. Then she wailed, "Oh my baby!" I wanted to crawl under the house.

The Spruills were a beaten bunch. All heads were down, shoulders shrunk, eyes half-closed. Their beloved Tally had run away with someone they considered low-bred, a dark-skinned intruder from a godforsaken country. Their humiliation before us was complete, and very painful.

I was hurting, too. How could she have done such a terrible thing?

She was my friend. She treated me like a confidant, and she protected me like a big sister. I loved Tally, and now she had run off with a vicious killer.

"He took her!" Mrs. Spruill bawled. Bo and Dale led her away, leaving only Trot and Mr. Spruill to tend to the matter. Trot's normally vacant look had been replaced with one of great confusion and sadness. Tally had been his protector, too. Now she was gone.

The men launched into a windy discussion of what to do next. The top priority was to find Tally, and the truck, before she could get too far. There was no clue as to when the two left. They had obviously used the storm to cover their getaway. The Spruills had heard nothing during the night, nothing but thunder and rain, and the driveway passed within eighty feet of their tents.

They could've been gone for hours, certainly enough time to drive to Jonesboro or Memphis or even Little Rock.

But the men seemed optimistic that Tally and Cowboy could be found, and quickly. Mr. Spruill left to unhitch his truck from the tents and tables. I begged my father to let me go with them, but he said no. Then I went to my mother, and she held firm, too. "It's not your place," she said.

Pappy and my father squeezed into the front seat with Mr. Spruill, and off they went, sliding on our road, tires spinning, mud slinging behind them.

I went past the silo to the weedy remains of an old smoke shed and sat for an hour under the rotted tin roof, watching rain drip in front of me. I was relieved that Cowboy had left our farm, and for this I thanked God in a short but sincere prayer. But any relief in his departure was overshadowed by my disappointment in Tally. I managed to hate her for what she had done. I cursed her, using words Ricky had taught me, and when I had spewed forth all the foul language I could remember, I asked God to forgive me.

And I asked Him to protect Tally.

It took the men two hours to find Stick Powers. He said he'd been en route from headquarters in Jonesboro, but Pappy said he looked as if he'd been sleeping for a week. Stick was plainly thrilled to have such a high crime within his jurisdiction. Stealing the truck of a farmer was only a notch below murder in our code, and Stick kicked into high gear. He radioed every jurisdiction he could pick up on his old radio, and before long most of northeast Arkansas was buzzing with the news.

According to Pappy, Stick was not too worried about Tally's whereabouts. He guessed correctly that she had voluntarily run off with a Mexican, which was a low-class and disgraceful thing to do, but not exactly a felony, even though Mr. Spruill kept using the word "kidnapping."

It was doubtful that the two lovebirds would venture a long journey in our truck. They most certainly wanted to flee Arkansas, and Stick reasoned that their most likely means would be by bus. They would be too suspicious as hitchhikers; Arkansas drivers were not likely to pick up such a swarthy character as Cowboy, especially with a young white girl at his side. "They're probably on a bus headed North," Stick said.

When Pappy told us this, I remembered Tally's dream of living in Canada, a long way from the heat and humidity. She wanted lots of snow, and for some reason she had chosen Montreal as her place in the world.

The men discussed money. My father did the math and guessed that Cowboy had earned close to four hundred dollars picking cotton. No one knew, though, how much he'd sent home. Tally had earned about half that much and had probably saved most of it. We knew she'd been buying house paint for Trot, but we had no idea of her other expenditures.

It was at this point in Pappy's narrative that I wanted to bare my soul about Hank. Cowboy had robbed him after he killed him. There was no way of knowing how much picking money Hank had saved, but I knew for certain that there was $250 of Samson's money now in Cowboy's pocket. I almost blurted this out as we sat around the kitchen table, but I was simply too frightened. Cowboy was gone, but they might catch him somewhere.

Wait, I kept telling myself. Just wait. The moment will come when I can unload my burdens.

Whatever their finances, it was obvious that Tally and Cowboy had enough money to ride a bus for a long time.

And we were broke, as usual. There was a brief conversation about how to replace the truck in the event that it was never found, but the subject was too painful to pursue. Plus, I was listening.

We ate an early lunch, then sat on the back porch and watched the rain.


Tags: John Grisham Mystery
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