Sunday lunch was always fried chicken, biscuits, and gravy, and though the women cooked as fast as they could, it still took an hour to prepare. We were famished by the time we sat down to eat. I often thought, to myself of course, that if Brother Akers didn't bark and ramble so long, we wouldn't be nearly as hungry.
Pappy gave thanks. The food was passed around, and we were just beginning to eat when a car door slammed close to the house. We stopped eating and looked at one another. Pappy stood silently and walked to the kitchen window. "It's Stick Powers," he said, looking out, and my appetite vanished. The law had arrived, and nothing good was about to happen.
"A Painted House"
Pappy met him at the back porch. We could hear every word.
"Good afternoon, Eli."
"Stick. What can I do for you?"
"I guess you heard that Sisco boy died."
"I heard," Pappy said without the slightest hint of sadness.
"I need to talk to one of your hands."
"It was just a fight, Stick. The usual Saturday foolishness that the Siscos have been doin' for years. You never stopped 'em. Now one of 'em bit off more'n he could chew."
"I still gotta investigate."
"You'll have to wait till after lunch. We just sat down. Some folks go to church."
My mother cringed when Pappy said this. Gran slowly shook her head.
"I been on duty," Stick said.
According to the gossip, Stick had a bout with the Spirit every four years, when it was election time. Then for three and a half years he didn't feel the need to worship. In Black Oak, if you didn't go to church, folks knew it. We had to have somebody to pray for during revivals.
"You're welcome to sit on the porch," Pappy said, then returned to the kitchen table. When he took his seat, the others began eating again. I now had a knot in my throat the size of a baseball, and the fried chicken simply wouldn't go down.
"Has he had lunch?" Gran whispered across the table.
Pappy shrugged as if he couldn't have cared less. It was almost two-thirty. If Stick hadn't found something to eat by then, why should we worry?
But Gran cared. She stood and pulled a plate from the cabinet. As we watched, she covered it with potatoes and gravy, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, two biscuits that she carefully buttered, and a thigh and a breast. Then she filled a tall glass with iced tea and took it to the back porch. Again, we heard every word.
"Here, Stick," she said. "Nobody misses a meal around here."
"Thanks, Miss Ruth, but I've already ate."
"Then eat again."
"I really shouldn't."
We knew that by then Stick's fleshy nostrils had caught a whiff of the chicken and the biscuits.
"Thank you, Miss Ruth. This is mighty kind."
We were not surprised when she returned empty-handed. Pappy was angry but managed to hold his tongue. Stick was there to cause trouble, to interfere with our farmhands, which meant he was threatening our cotton. Why feed him?
We ate in silence, which allowed me a few moments to collect my thoughts. Since I didn't want to act suspiciously, I forced the food into my mouth and chewed as slowly as possible.
I wasn't sure what the truth was, nor could I distinguish right from wrong. The Siscos were ganging up on the poor hillbilly when Hank went to his rescue. There were three Siscos, and Hank was alone. He had quickly stopped them, and the fight should've been over. Why did he pick up that piece of wood? It was easy to assume the Siscos were always wrong, but Hank had won the fight long before he began clubbing them.
I thought about Dewayne and our secret pact. Silence and ignorance were still the best strategies, I decided.
We didn't want Stick to hear us, so we said nothing throughout the entire meal. Pappy ate slower than usual, because he wanted Stick to sit and wait and stew, and maybe get mad and leave. I doubted if the delay bothered Stick. I could almost hear him licking his plate.
My father gazed at the table as he chewed, his mind seemingly off on the other side of the world, probably Korea. Both my mother and Gran looked very sad, which was not unusual after the verbal beating we received each week from Brother Akers. That's another reason I always tried to sleep during his sermons.
The women had much more sympathy for Jerry Sisco. As the hours passed, his death became sadder. His meanness and other undesirable qualities were slowly forgotten. He was, after all, a local boy, someone we knew, if only in passing, and he'd met a terrible end.
And his killer slept in our front yard.
We heard noises. The Spruills were back from the river.
The inquest took place under our tallest pin oak, about halfway between the front porch and Camp Spruill. The men gathered first, Pappy and my father stretching and rubbing their stomachs, and Stick looking particularly well fed. He carried a sizable belly, which pulled his brown shirt at the buttons, and it was obvious that Stick did not spend his days in the cotton fields. Pappy said he was lazy as hell and slept most of the time in his patrol car, under a shade tree near Gurdy Stone's hot dog stand on the edge of town.
From the other end of the yard came the Spruills, all of them, with Mr. Spruill leading the pack and Trot bringing up the rear, twisting and snuffling along in his now familiar gait. I walked behind Gran and my mother, peeking between them and trying to keep my distance. Only the Mexicans were absent.
A loose huddle formed around Stick; the Spruills loitering on one side, the Chandlers hanging around the other, though when it came down to it, we were all on the same side. I was not pleased to be allied with Hank Spruill, but the cotton was more important than anything else.
"A Painted House"
Pappy introduced Stick to Mr. Spruill, who awkwardly shook Stick's hand and then took a few steps back. It looked like the Spruills were expecting the worst, and I tried to remember if any of them had witnessed the fight. There'd been a large crowd and things had happened so fast. Dewayne and I had been mesmerized by the bloodletting. I couldn't recall really noticing the faces of the other spectators.
Stick worked a blade of grass that was protruding from one corner of his mouth, and with both thumbs hung in his pants pockets, he studied our hill people. Hank leaned against the pin oak, sneering at anybody who dared to look at him.
"Had a big fight in town yesterday behind the Co-op," Stick announced in the direction of the Spruills. Mr. Spruill nodded but said nothing. "Some local boys got into it with a fella from the hills. One of 'em, Jerry Sisco, died this mornin' in the hospital in Jonesboro. Fractured skull."
Every Spruill began fidgeting, except Hank, who didn't move. They obviously had not heard the latest on Jerry Sisco.
Stick spat and shifted his weight, and he seemed to enjoy being the man in the middle, the voice of authority with a badge and a gun. "And so I'm lookin' around, askin' questions, just tryin' to find out who was involved."
"Ain't none of us," Mr. Spruill said. "We're peaceful folks."
"Is that so?"
"Did y'all go to town yesterday?"
Now that the lying had started, I peeked from between the two women for a better look at the Spruills. They were clearly frightened. Bo and Dale stood close together, their eyes darting around. Tally studied the dirt at her bare feet, unwilling to look at us. Mr. and Mrs. Spruill seemed to be looking for friendly faces. Trot, of course, was in another world.
"You got a boy named Hank?" Stick asked.
"Maybe," Mr. Spruill said.
"Don't play games with me," Stick growled with sudden anger. "I ask you a question, you give me a straight answer. We got a jail over in Jonesboro with lots of room. I can take the whole family in for questions. You understand?"
"I'm Hank Spruill!" came a thunderous voice. Hank strutted through the huddle and stood within striking distance of Stick, who was much smaller but managed to maintain his cockiness.
Stick studied him for a second, then asked, "Did you go to town yesterday?"
"Did you get in a fight behind the Co-op?"
"Nope. I stopped a fight."
"Did you beat up the Sisco boys?"
"I don't know their names. There was two of 'em beatin' up a boy from the hills. I stopped it."
Hank's face was smug. He showed no fear, and I grudgingly admired him for the way he confronted the law.
The deputy looked around the crowd, and his eyes stopped with Pappy. Stick was hot on the trail and quite proud of himself. With his tongue he moved the blade of grass to the other corner of his mouth, then looked up at Hank again.
"Did you use a stick of wood?"
"Didn't need to."
"Answer the question. Did you use a stick of wood?"
Without hesitating, Hank said, "Nope. They had a two-by-four."
This, of course, conflicted with what someone else had reported to Stick. "I guess I better take you in," Stick said, but made no move for the handcuffs dangling from his belt.
Mr. Spruill took a step forward and said to Pappy, "If he leaves, we leave, too. Right now."
Pappy was prepared for this. Hill people were noted for their ability to break camp and disappear quickly, and none of us doubted Mr. Spruill meant what he said. They would be gone in an hour, back to Eureka Springs, back to their mountains and their moonshine. It would be virtually impossible to harvest eighty acres of cotton with just the Mexicans to help us. Every pound was crucial. Every hand.
"Slow down, Stick," Pappy said. "Let's talk about this. You and I both know the Siscos are good for no thin'. They fight often, and they fight dirty. Seems to me they picked on the wrong fella."
"I got a dead body, Eli. You understand?"
"Two against one sounds like self-defense to me. Nothin' fair about two against one."
"But look how big he is."
"Like I said, the Siscos picked on the wrong fella. You and I both know they had it comin'. Let the boy tell his story."
"I ain't no boy!" Hank snapped.
"Tell what happened," Pappy said, stalling for time. Drag it out, and maybe Stick would find some reason to leave and come back in a few days.
"Go ahead," Stick said. "Let's hear your story. God knows ain't nobody else talkin'."
Hank shrugged and said, "I walked up to the fight, saw these two little sodbusters beatin' up on Doyle, and so I broke it up."
"Who's Doyle?" Stick asked.
"Boy from Hardy."
"You know him?"
"Then how do you know where he's from?"
"Damn it!" Stick said, then spat near Hank. "Nobody knows nothin'. Nobody saw nothin'. Half the town was behind the Co-op, but nobody knows a damned thing."
"A Painted House"
"Sounds like two against one," Pappy said again. "And watch your language. You're on my property, and there're ladies present."
"Sorry," Stick said, touching his hat and nodding in the direction of Mother and Gran.
"He was just breakin' up a fight," my father said, his first words.
"There's more to it, Jesse. I've heard that after the fight was over, he picked up a piece of wood and beat the boys. I figure that's when the skull was fractured. Two against one ain't fair, and I know it's the Siscos, but I ain't sure one of 'em had to get killed."
"I didn't kill nobody," Hank said. "I broke up a fight. And there was three of 'em, not two."
It was about time Hank set the record straight. It seemed odd to me that Stick didn't know that three of the Siscos had been maimed. All he had to do was count the battered faces. But they had probably been hauled off by their kin and hidden back home.
"Three?" Stick repeated in disbelief. The entire gathering seemed to freeze.
Pappy seized the moment. "Three against one, and there's no way you can take him in for murder. No jury in this county'll ever convict if it's three against one."
For a moment Stick seemed to agree, but he wasn't about to concede. "That's if he's tellin' the truth. He'll need witnesses, and right now they're few and far between." Stick turned to face Hank again and said, "Who were the three?"
"I didn't ask their names, sir," Hank said with perfect sarcasm. "We didn't have a chance to say howdy. Three against one takes up a lotta time, especially if you're the one."
Laughter would've upset Stick, and nobody wanted to run that risk. So we just lowered our heads and grinned.
"Don't get smart with me, boy!" Stick said, trying to reassert himself. "Don't suppose you got any witnesses, do you?"
The humor vanished into a long period of silence. I was hoping that maybe Bo or Dale would step forward and claim to be a witness. Since the Spruills had just proved that they would lie under pressure, it seemed sensible to me that one of them would quickly verify Hank's version. But nobody moved, nobody spoke. I slipped over a few inches and was directly behind my mother.
Then I heard words that would change my life. With the air perfectly still, Hank said, "Little Chandler saw it."
Little Chandler almost wet his pants.
When I opened my eyes, everyone was staring at me, of course. Gran and my mother looked particularly horrified. I felt guilty and looked guilty, and I knew in an instant that every person there believed Hank. I was a witness! I'd seen the fight.
"Come here, Luke," Pappy said, and I walked as slowly as humanly possible to a spot in the center. I glanced up at Hank, and his eyes were glowing. He wore his usual smirk, and his face told me that he knew I was caught. The crowd inched in as if surrounding me.
"Did you see the fight?" Pappy asked.
I'd been taught in Sunday school from the day I could walk that lying would send you straight to hell. No detours. No second chances. Straight into the fiery pit, where Satan was waiting with the likes of Hitler and Judas Iscariot and General Grant. Thou shalt not bear false witness, which, of course, didn't sound exactly like a strict prohibition against lying, but that was the way the Baptists interpreted it. And I'd been whipped a couple of times for telling little fibs. "Just tell the truth and get it over with" was one of Gran's favorite sayings.
I said, "Yes sir."
"What were you doin' there?"
"I heard there was a fight, so I took off and watched it." I wasn't about to include Dewayne, at least not until I had to.
Stick dropped to one knee so that his chubby face was eye-level with mine. "Tell me what you saw," he said. "And tell the truth."
I glanced at my father, who was hovering over my shoulder. And I looked at Pappy, who, oddly, didn't seem at all angry with me.
I sucked in air until my lungs were full, and I looked at Tally, who was watching me very closely. Then I looked at Stick's flat nose and his black, puffy eyes, and I said, "Jerry Sisco was fightin' some man from the hills. Then Billy Sisco jumped on him, too. They were beatin' him up pretty bad when Mr. Hank stepped in to help the man from the hills."
"Right then, was it two against one, or two against two?" Stick asked.
"Two against one."
"What happened to the first hill boy?"
"I don't know. He just left. I think he was hurt pretty bad."
"All right. Keep goin'. And tell the truth."
"He's tellin' the truth!" Pappy snarled.
I glanced around again to make sure Tally was still watching. Not only was she studying me closely, but now she had a pleasant little smile. "Then, all of a sudden, Bobby Sisco charged from the crowd and attacked Mr. Hank. It was three against one, just like Mr. Hank said."
Hank's face did not relax. If anything, he looked at me with even more viciousness. He was thinking ahead, and he wasn't finished with me.
"A Painted House"
"I guess that settles it," Pappy said. "I ain't no lawyer, but I could sway a jury if it's three against one."
Stick ignored him and leaned even closer to me. "Who had the two-by-four?" he asked, his eyes narrowing as if this were the most important question of all.
Hank suddenly exploded. "Tell him the truth, boy!" he shouted. "One of them Siscos picked up that stick of wood, didn't he?"
I could feel the stares of Gran and my mother behind me. And I knew Pappy wanted to reach over and shake me by the neck and somehow make the right words come out.
In front of me, not too far away, Tally was pleading with her eyes. Bo and Dale, and even Trot, were looking at me.
"Didn't he, boy!" Hank barked again.
I met Stick's gaze and began nodding, slowly at first, a timid little lie delivered without a word. And I kept nodding, and kept lying, and in doing so, did more to harvest our cotton than six months of good weather.
I was skirting around the edges of the fiery depths. Satan was waiting, and I could feel the heat. I'd run to the woods and pray for forgiveness as soon as I could. I'd ask God to go easy on me. He'd given us the cotton; it was up to us to protect it and gather the crops.
Stick slowly stood, but he kept staring at me, our eyes locked together, because both of us knew I was lying. Stick didn't want to arrest Hank Spruill, not then anyway. First, he'd have to put the handcuffs on him, a task that could turn ugly. Second, he'd upset all the farmers.
My father grabbed me by the shoulder and shoved me back toward the women. "You've scared him to death, Stick," he said with an awkward laugh, trying to break the tension and get me out of there before I said something wrong.
"Is he a good boy?" Stick asked.
"He tells the truth," my father said.
"Of course he tells the truth," Pappy said with a good dose of anger.
The truth had just been rewritten.
"I'm gonna keep askin' around," Stick said and began walking toward his car. "I might be back later."
He slammed the door of his old patrol car and left our yard. We watched him drive away until he was out of sight.