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Authors: Reavis Wortham

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BOOK: The Right Side of Wrong
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Ned gave Carl's cuffs one last squeeze, finally clicking them into place. Furious, Cody launched himself off the floor as Tamara roared back for a third round. He shoulder-blocked her, lifted the enraged little woman off the floor, and threw her onto the ground like a calf.

Ned joined the battle, but it was like trying to hold a mad coon twisting inside its own skin. She squalled and bit him as he bent her arm back.

“Let go, Cody. I got her!”

For some reason, Cody didn't release his grip on her other arm. Ned's fear increased as she flailed around. This was the type of oddball fight that could reinjure Cody's barely healed spine. “Turn loose. I got her. Make sure Carl stays down.”

“I cain't, Ned!”

“I said turn her aloose!”

Frustrated, Cody locked Tamara's arm straight and twisted it around to show Ned the straight razor in her hand. “I told you, I can't!”

“Hang on to her, Cody! Hang on!”

Like a rag doll, Tamara dropped to her knees and arched her back. Getting enough leverage, she threw her head back and busted Cody's lip. Tired of trying not to hurt her, he grabbed her belt, lifted her completely into the air and slammed her face first onto the plank floor. The razor rattled across the boards and the fight was over.

“Dammit woman, settle down!”

Still face down on the floor, Carl shouted over his shoulder as Ned finished cuffing her free arm. “See! See! That's why I had to use a singletree on her. Like I told O.C., the bitch'll provoke ya!”

Chapter Fourteen

Tom Bell was standing beside his truck when Ned exploded through the door, pushing Carl ahead and ignoring his complaining.

Tamara came boiling out behind them, cussing a blue streak and threatening her husband for getting her in trouble. Cody had a good grip on the cuffs behind her back and yanked her when she kicked sideways like a cow, trying to get in a good lick on Carl, but she missed.

Cody kept her out of kicking distance, but he doubted Carl'd have felt it anyway, because by then the alcohol had kicked in and he was drunk as a skunk.

They thundered down the steps. Tom Bell grinned up at them. Ned shoved Carl toward his car. “Howdy, Tom, you got here just in time.”

“Seems like you Parkers are in some kind of trouble every time we run across one another.”

Cody laughed. It was obvious he was having fun with the fight, though his shirttail was out and his face was flushed red. “This ain't no trouble, a little family disagreement is all.”

Tom crossed his arms and leaned back against the truck. “I ran out of nails and figured Neal might have a few that I could buy. Then the domino hall looked good to me and I decided I'd like to sit in on a game or two, but it don't seem as friendly in here as Ned led me to believe.”

Ned opened the back door of his sedan and threw Carl onto the seat. He slammed it and joined them. “This don't happen too often. These two go at it pretty regular, but it usually ain't up here by the store. Cody, you gonna stand there holding her all day?”

“She needs to cool down for a few minutes.”

“I'm all right now.” Tamara panted with exertion.

“You say that, but your eyes tell me different.” Cody kept a tight grip on the cuffs.

The fight finally hissed out of her all at once. Her knees trembled as the adrenaline wore off. “I have to sit down.”

“All right. I'm gonna put you in my El Camino, but you behave yourself and sit there until I get in. I don't want to rassle you anymore.”

“I'm done.”

Cody deposited her into the seat as his radio squawked to life. “Cody, you there?”

He reached across the woman, who had suddenly begun to cry. Ignoring her tears, he stretched the cord across the cab, straightened up, and keyed the microphone. “Go ahead, Martha.”

“Cody you holler at Ned and y'all run over to Floyd Lake. There's been a drowning and someone there's calling for y'all.”

“That's barely four miles out of Chisum. Who's calling for a constable? I imagine the Sheriff's Department or the police need to handle that'un.”

“James Parker is there and asked for you.”

Cody went cold. He knew James and Ida Belle had taken the kids to the town lake for a little fishing and a picnic. “Martha, you tell me the truth. Is it any of my family that drowned?”

He released the talk button and Martha was already speaking. “Oh god, Cody, I didn't mean to scare you. It ain't your family, they're all right. James saw the whole thing, and it was him called it in from the bathhouse. Your people are fine.”

Cody put his head on the cab's roof for a moment to collect himself. “All right, then. We'll be right out.”

He paused for a long moment. “Ned, we have to roll. There's been a drowning and they've called for us.” He sighed. “Tamara, for shit's sake, cool off and quit chewing on my microphone cord.”

***

They arranged for John Washington to meet them at the turnoff to Lake Floyd to pick up Carl and Tamara. They'd switched cars and were in Ned's sedan. Tamara rode in the front seat with him while Cody sat in the back with Carl. The precautions were unnecessary, though, because Carl passed out before they got on the highway, and Tamara wept for the entire drive.

John was waiting at the rock sign beside the turnoff. “Floyd Lake” was carved deeply into a limestone slab quarried far from Lamar County. The only thing under their feet was sandstone and red clay.

“You want me to follow y'all out there?” John agreed to take them to jail while the Parkers investigated the drowning.

Floyd Lake was off limits to coloreds, and Ned knew the sight of John near the small lake might set off a firestorm with relatives who were already shocked and grieving over the drowning.

“I don't believe so.” Ned and John drug Carl's limp weight out of the sedan and stuffed him into John's car. Tamara wiped her face and slid in beside him, cradling his flopping head as much as she could with cuffs on. She wiped his hair and kissed his forehead.

Ned shook his head in disgust. They'd be at it again before the week was out, and it'd probably happen in the middle of the night, interrupting his rest.

The trouble on Floyd Lake started back in the winter of 1935 when the park was finished by the Civilian Conservation Corps. After completion of the 1,000-acre lake, the Corps wanted to transfer ownership to the state parks board, but a committee led by then Sheriff Delbert Poole refused to allow the transfer of the land, because the proposed swimming facilities under the state park service would be open to anyone—black, white, or red.

Poole and a number of the long-gone city leaders didn't want to drink water coloreds swam in, so they blocked the transfer and the parks department gave up. After that, the lake was the municipal water source, but it was almost ignored by the City Council and most disturbances were handled by the local constabulary.

John knew full well why Ned didn't want him there, but he flashed the Parkers a grin. “I'll take these two from here. Y'all let me know what happened.”

***

Glad to be relieved of Tamara and Carl, they pulled up to a crowd surrounding the funeral home ambulance. Two boats were already on the sun-drenched lake, dragging for the body. It surprised Ned, because the lake was owned by the town of Chisum, and they were notoriously slow at responding to incidents at their own water source.

The milling onlookers parted as the lawmen made their way down to the rickety boat dock. It was a scene they'd seen all too many times. A woman shrieked on the nearby grassy bank, surrounded by several children that favored her. A number of shocked faces watched the men as they approached.

They hoped they could help, but as unfortunate tradition dictated, lawmen usually arrived too late to do much more than take reports and try to assist the living.

The dead were already gone.

James met them beyond earshot of the grieving family. Top and Pepper hung close, away from the crowd and weeping woman. “Dad, I know there ain't much you can do, but I figured you oughta be here anyway. I don't believe I've ever seen anything so terrible happen so fast, and weren't nothing anyone could do.”

He paused to gather himself.

“We were sitting under that tree over there, eating our dinner, when this family here came up in their little boat. Didn't none of them have a life jacket on, but nobody out here was wearing one today, the wind was so still.

“They came up to the dock here, and the daddy set the kids out one at a time. Then the mama got out while he steadied the boat. When she stepped off, the boat shot out from under him and he fell out and hit his head on the corner post there.

“Ned, that feller went in the water as slick as a snake and he never hardly caused a ripple, and he ain't come up yet.”

Cody nodded his head toward Top and Pepper. “They see it?”

“Sure 'nough. Everybody was watching them get out of the boat because they had a whole stringer of perch and were holding it up.”

Ned stared across the still lake and felt his heart sink. “My Lord. The angels come and get you just…that…fast.”

Chapter Fifteen

Miss Becky was stirring a pot of boiling rice when I came in for breakfast. She always considered rice a breakfast food. Long before the water cooked out of the pan, she shut off the burner and put a lid on the pot. It sure beat the corn flakes Grandpa liked to eat before she put eggs and bacon on his plate.

She kneaded the biscuit dough resting on a plywood breadboard. I had never seen her hands idle. They were always busy as all get-out with sewing, cutting vegetables from the garden, or washing.

“It's nearly dinnertime and you're just now stirring this morning. I guess it's 'cause you flopped around most of the night, little man. I heard you all the way in our bedroom.”

“I was having bad dreams.”

She rolled the dough flat with a glass rolling pin. “They weren't about the Rock Hole, were they?”

“No ma'am.” Those dreams I had about the swimming hole were bad for several months, but they finally led Grandpa and Mr. John to save us from the Skinner, a killer who terrorized people in Center Springs over a year earlier. “These are about a big ol' dark building and people with black hair. They keep trying to catch me and lock me up in caves.”

Some of us Parkers had always been either blessed or cursed, however you wanted to look at it, with a vague ability to see the future. Unfortunately for us, the dreams seldom made sense, and we usually couldn't figure them out until after something occurred. Then everything was usually clear, but always too late.

She used a biscuit cutter to remove round disks from the dough, and dipped each one in lard before crowding it into the pan. “Sounds like the Cotton Exchange. That place burned down, and good riddance. I'm thankful to the good Lord that Cody and John got out of there before it fell.”

“It ain't the Cotton Exchange.” I thought about it for a minute. “I was using my secret agent briefcase outside there in the hot sun and taking pictures with it of dark people talking. I don't know what all this is, but I wake up feeling like I'm in trouble or something.”

“You ain't in trouble, hon.”

“I know that, but I still feel like something bad is about to happen. There's kids in the dream, too, and it looks like one of them old timey movies with Model T cars, and horses, and people who look Indian.”

Miss Becky paused, turning something over in her mind. “I want to ask you something, but you don't say nothing to nobody after we're done here. There ain't nothin' wrong, but there's some stories and feelings that needs to be left alone.”

“Yessum.”

“In these dreams, are there colored people with the Indians, and are there little children that ain't right?”

By that, she meant retarded, because that's the way our people talked about anyone who wasn't right, the way they called some kids Mongoloid.

“No. They're Indian-looking people.”

“What about them horses? Do they act normal?”

I couldn't figure out what she was talking about. “They're horses.”

“Does it look like when me and your Grandpa were young?”

“I didn't say y'all were in the dreams.”

“I know, but was it around that time?”

“I can't say.”

Great-Grandpa could put his finger a time or two on things that he dreamed and understood, but his visions weren't dreams. They were real, like the time he and Great-Grandma were hurrying out of the bottoms in the wagon to get the doctor for his mama. Before they crossed the creek bridge in broad daylight, a wooden coffin floated across the dirt road. He knew what had happened, reined in the horses, and went on back home, because he knew his mama had already died.

She was gone when they got there.

“Where's Grandpa?” I didn't want to tell her about the angels, either. I had to study on that one for a while. I'd dreamed they were wrapping someone up with their wings so they wouldn't get hurt in a hailstorm, but I couldn't tell who it was that was in trouble. I thought it was Uncle Cody in the car wreck a few months earlier, but there wasn't any hail that night, only snow, and we usually don't dream of stuff after it happens, so I didn't want to worry Miss Becky about angels, 'cause I knew she'd have to take us to church and pray on it.

“He went with your Uncle Cody up to the store.”

The rice was still soupy and full of juice when she dipped a bowl full and sweetened it with sugar. “Eat this. Pepper and Ida Belle will be here in a little bit.”

“I remember one dream real clear, though. It was about Mark Lightfoot.”

She brightened at his name. Mark Lightfoot was full-blood Choctaw, and I met him up at the feed store in Hugo. He came to live with us for a while when his whole family was murdered not far from Grandpa's house. His no'count daddy went to jail, and nobody could find any of his relatives. I think Grandpa and Miss Becky were about to try and adopt him when some of his Choctaw kinfolk showed up in the yard one day and took him away.

“What was it about?”

“Not much, but he was talking about you and wanted some of your biscuits.” Mark loved her cooking, and while he lived with us, he must have growed three inches. “We talked for a while, but I can't remember what it was about, and then an Indian with his long hair tied back threw a handful of powder onto a fire and Mark disappeared.”

Miss Becky closed her eyes and moved her lips in a quiet prayer. “Well, let's hope he's doing all right. Was there anything else?”

I still had angels on my mind, but I kept that one to myself.

***

I was on my hands and knees beside the pasture, crawling up on a red bird sitting on the bottom strand of the bobwire fence, when Uncle James' car pulled up in the drive and Aunt Ida Bell and Pepper got out. For once Hootie wasn't interested in what I was doing. He was dozing on the front porch and out of my way. Aunt Ida Belle pulled a bag full of clothes out of the back seat and went inside the house.

Pepper walked over to where I was within ten feet of the bird, but she didn't sneak. The red bird cheeped, flipped the line, and was gone.

I stood up, frustrated. “What did you do that for?”

“What? What were you doing?”

“I was sneaking up on that bird.”

“What's in your hand?”

“Miss Becky's salt shaker.”

“What are you doing with that?”

“Uncle Cody told me that if I could sneak up and shake salt on a bird's tail, it'd let me pick it up.”

Pepper snickered. “You ignernt shit! That's what adults tell us, but it ain't true. You can't sneak up on a tee-tiny bird like that and shake salt on it. It'll fly away every time. What they're trying to say is if you can get close enough to shake salt on it, you're already close enough to catch the stupid bird, and that's all.”

I was suddenly embarrassed when I realized I'd been had again by an adult. I held the shaker down low beside my leg, to get it out of sight. I felt like giving her a punch in the kisser. “What are y'all doing here?”

“Mama had some clothes that needed sewing, and our machine is on the fritz, so she came over to use Miss Becky's treadle.”

Electric machines sometimes have problems with their motors, but Miss Becky's foot-treadle Singer always worked.

I noticed the pocket on Pepper's jeans was full of something. “What's that?”

With a grin, she tugged out a little transistor radio covered by a leather case. “Listen.” She flicked the ON dial with her thumb and Sam the Sham was counting in Spanish. Then his song “Wooly Bully” started.

“That's a nasty song,” I told her.

Pepper turned it up. “No it ain't. It's about buffalo.”

I wasn't sure, but she usually knew more about that stuff than I did. “Where'd you get the radio?”

“It belongs to Christine Berger. She got it for her thirteenth birthday, but the battery ran out and she didn't have a new one, so she let me borrow it for a while if I'd put a new one in. Look, it has
seven
transistors, that's the best, and it has a
marine
band, too, so you can hear about the ocean.”

“Let me see it a minute.” She handed me the radio and I slipped the case off, then used my thumb to pop off the back.

“Hey, what the hell are you doing?”

She snatched at my hand, but I jerked it away and held the open radio to my nose to take a deep sniff. Of all the smells in the world, I loved to smell the plastic and transistors best.

“Gimme that back. You're the damnedest thing I've ever seen.”

“Here.” Instead, I put the radio back together, but not until after one more sniff. The Beach Boys were trying to get Rhonda to help them when I gave it back.

This time Pepper slid it into her shirt pocket so we could hear the music. “Well, what do you want to do?”

“Look at these.” I took a package of pictures out of my back pocket. “Miss Becky had these developed at the drugstore. I took 'em with my spy camera.”

The pictures were stapled on one end, and bound inside a fold of yellow cardboard. The first shot was fuzzy, but you could tell it was Pepper standing on the front porch.

“I don't remember you taking that one.”

I grinned. “That's how you use a spy camera in a case. This is the first one I took and you didn't know it, but it's a little fuzzy.”

She flipped to the second photograph. Miss Becky and Grandpa were sitting at the table, and you could tell I shot through the window screen. The third picture of Grandpa asleep in his rocking chair was much better.

“These are boring.”

“The snow pictures are next.”

She flipped to the next one showing everyone standing outside St. Joseph's Hospital, looking worried. It was the morning we went to visit Uncle Cody after his wreck. “Did you take these through the case?”

I swelled up with pride. “Yep. I got better at holding it still and figuring how to aim.”

The last three shots were clearest of all. One was Pepper making a snowball. Another showed the street covered in snow. The last picture was Pepper making a snow angel in front of the courthouse while we waited for Grandpa to come down from visiting with Judge Rains.

She handed them back and I stuffed the booklet into my back pocket. “I'm bored.”

I grabbed my BB gun that was leaning against the porch, and Hootie stretched and trotted along behind us. “Let's go to Mr. Tom's.” We hadn't been over there in several days, though the sounds of constant hammering told us he was still working on the house. It was quiet that morning, though.

We walked down the hill and along the gravel drive to the highway, then darted across the cement and the bar ditch into the trees on the other side. Hootie ran ahead and then locked up in a point when he smelled quail hiding under a dead limb half-covered with last year's berry vines.

I stepped up like I'd seen Grandpa do, and the little hen exploded through the dried vine and whirred away. I threw the BB gun to my shoulder and sent a shot after it.

“You better be glad you missed that bird,” Pepper said. “It ain't quail season and she'll probably make a nest to set pretty soon. Grandpa'd wear your ass out if you'da hit it.”

She was right, and I felt bad about shooting, but it didn't seem right to let a flushing bird go after Hootie made such a good point. “Well, it's almost impossible to hit a flying bird with a BB anyway.”

“Colton Jenkins hunts them with a twenty-two.”

“I've heard that, but I don't believe it. You can't hit a flying bird with a rifle, especially not one as little as that, besides, it's dangerous, there's no telling where that bullet will go.”

“Well, they say he does.”

For my entire life, I'd wondered who “they” were. “They” were always telling people stuff that was both true and untrue.

We continued through the woods, intending to intersect the two-track road leading to Mr. Tom's house. It didn't take us long to get there, and the silence told me Mr. Tom was gone.

I wanted to turn around and go back home, but Pepper got that light in her eyes again. “Come on. I want to look around while he's gone.”

Walking around the house by ourselves didn't seem right to me, even though we'd been over there so much helping him work. The outside was finished, though not yet painted. The foundation was still open, but the floor joists in a couple of rooms resting on fresh new bodark posts were straight and level. I knelt to see if there were any critters under the house, but the only thing under there was Hootie sniffing around.

Everything in the still air smelled like fresh-sawed pine, and sawdust caught in the grass like yellow snow. There were still stacks of lumber covered with canvas tarps in the yard. The scrap lumber fire was almost completely out, though a tiny wisp of smoke rose straight up.

Pepper climbed the porch steps and peeked through the new windows. Mr. Tom hadn't gotten around to hanging curtains yet, and the living room was wide open to the outside. “There's that trunk still sitting in the middle of the floor.”

“So.”

“I've been wondering what's in it.”

“Oh no. You stay out of that house. That's Mr. Tom's trunk, and when he wants us to know what he has in there, he'll tell us.”

She left the window and stopped in front of the wooden door. She gave it a push, and it silently swung open. “Ooops.” There was that Betty Boop voice of hers, and every time she used it, we got in trouble. “Look, the door is open. He didn't lock it when he left. I bet we oughta to go in and make sure everything is all right. You know, bandits could have come around and robbed him.”

I stayed right where I was beside the dying fire, and didn't move. “Don't go in there.” We'd been in the house a hundred times in the last few weeks, but it didn't seem right to go in while Mr. Tom was gone.

She peered inside and called in a singsong voice. “Mr. Tom! You've got company! You home?”

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