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Authors: Reavis Wortham

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Chapter Nine

John coasted to a stop in the bare yard. The sun was hot, and he'd driven with the windows of his cruiser open all the way from Chisum. His sweaty shirt stuck to his back, but he didn't feel the heat because he was smiling at a gaggle of kids watching from the shady porch.

He got out, opened the back door, and lifted out two brown paper bags full of groceries, bought by money from his own pockets and from the worn billfolds of Ned and O.C. Rains.

“Howdy!” he called through the gaping door. There were no screens on the house, and insects flew in and out without impediment.

The slender black woman he'd seen days before on the way to the abandoned still stepped out and shaded her eyes with one hand. The baby on her hip wore nothing but a cloth diaper.

“I'm John Washington.” For the first time in years he found himself admiring a woman. He liked the way she cocked her head and knew she was taking stock of what she saw.

She raised an eyebrow. “My man ain't here.”

“That's all right. I can see him later.” John stopped at the edge of the porch and set the bags down. “Y'ain't got no dogs here, do you, that'll tear into these here bags?”

“We can barely feed ourselves, let alone dogs.”

“Good.” He smiled and motioned toward the kids. “Y'all come on and help me unload these groceries. We need to move fast, before the ice cream melts.”

“Ice cream!” They charged the car. The older children grabbed the heaviest bags and started back toward the house.

“Hold it!” The woman shouted and the kids braked to a stop. She frowned and rested her free fist on a hip covered by a shapeless house dress. “We cain't pay for no ice cream, ner other groceries, neither.”

“It's already been bought.”

“We ain't takin' no charity, not from nobody…not even a nigger in a uniform. What you want?”

John waited in the middle of the yard, both hands full. The raggedly-dressed children stood around him in a protective circle, as though to defy their mother's wrath against a uniformed Santa Claus. There wasn't one shoe among them.

“It ain't charity. It's from Mr. Ned Parker to pay you for some work you're about to do, and for some questions I have to ask.”

“I ain't turning in no kinfolk to y'all.”

“Ain't asking for that.”

“I don't work for no Parker.”

“You do now.”

“What's he want?” She frowned again. “Uh uh, I don't do that, not even when we're hungry.”

John felt his face flush. “We ain't asking for nothin' ain't right. Let me get up there in the shade out of this hot sun and we'll talk. I ain't a-kiddin'. This ice cream's done rode from Chisum, and I imagine it's pretty soft already. Let the little'uns eat while we visit a minute.”

“My man'll be here any time.”

John understood. “I'll stay right out here.”

She finally came to a decision and sat primly in a straight-back wooden chair. The cane bottom was almost rotted out, but it held her slight weight. She bounced the baby on her knees. “All right.”

The kids squealed again and charged up on the porch. In seconds, the paper bags were ripped to shreds as they pawed through the canned and dried groceries. In the bottom of one bag, two sweating and soft square cartons of chocolate Mellorine brought even more shrieks.

“Y'all go get something to eat out of,” the woman said. Two of her oldest girls ran inside.

John grinned down at the smaller kids, and picked a piece of grass from a girl's thick black hair. “I figgered they'd like chocolate.” He sat on the lip of the porch, just in the edge of the shade, with his back against a gray post.

“They like anything sweet.”

Two shirtless little ones climbed up in John's lap. He figured they were around three or four, and knew one was a girl by the braids in her short hair. When a toddler saw them, he wanted up too. He soon lost count of how many there were, because they were as busy as a bag full of kittens.

The oldest girl appeared to be about seventeen. She dipped melting ice cream in to a variety of utensils, ranging from cups to bowls. Small hands reached out eagerly, but she followed a system that worked downward by age. The boy and girl quickly abandoned John's lap and joined their siblings, leaving him with the toddler. The oldest girl finally handed John a cracked bowl with little blue cornflowers around the outside edge. He glanced around.

“They all eatin', 'cept the baby there in your lap. I'll feed him some after I've had mine.”

His bowl contained one small scoop. The teenager handed her mama a brown bowl. The woman picked up the fork that rattled on the edge. “I know you.”

He met her tired eyes.

“You the one saved them two little white kids down on the creek a while back.”

“Yep.”

“You took up with that old constable.”

“I work with him.”

She took a bite, scraping the ice cream off the fork with her teeth. “That why you here?”

“Yep. Did you hear about them two was killed down the road a piece?”

“Don't surprise me. They was cars going in and out—and my first thought they's up to no good.”

“That's what I'm talking about. Somebody set up a still way back up in the woods down there, and then some others came along and left 'em in a shaller grave.”

“So
that's
why you here?”

“Partly. I saw y'all when we went by, and figgered you might need some help. I also figgered you might have seen who's been driving in and out, before we showed up.”

She snorted like a colt. “A-course I noticed. There ain't no door or screen on this sorry-assed shack, so I hear everybody that comes by.”

“You know what they look like?”

“The dead'uns?”

“Or them that did it.”

She stabbed the melting chocolate with the tines. “I watched the moonshiners come and go, but they didn't come by much. They only made a trip or two. I knew what they was doin' down there, 'cause they had a truck with a tarp coverin' the back. Don't nobody cover nothing like that 'less they don't want anybody to see what they got back there.”

“Could have been anything under that tarp.”

“But it weren't.” She tilted the bowl and drank the cool chocolate.

“What about the others?”

“Four of 'em. Three was greasy-looking no-account white mens. The other'n was big, like you, only white, and he wore shades.”

“Would you know 'em if you's to see 'em again?”

“Yeah, they slowed once to get a real good look while I was hanging out clothes one day. I's facin' the road, and gave 'em a good look right back.”

John dipped his finger in his bowl and let the baby suck on it.

“You got kids?”

“Ain't married.”

“You handle 'em like you know what you doin'.”

One little girl draped herself over John's big shoulder. He could tell they were all starving for love. He patted her hand, and gave the least one another chocolate-covered finger to lick.

“I know about kids. My sister has two. You from around here?”

“Not really. We moved here from Jefferson when I was carryin' the oldest girl there, Belle. My husband Walter said things might be more better for us here than back on the Caddo, but he was wrong, as usual. It's as hard here, as there.”

“What does he do?”

“Sheeeiiittt. I don't know. I ain't seen him in a year. Probably laid up with somebody else.” When she realized that her story was blown, she stopped.

“How do you get by?”

She ducked her head, but didn't say anything for a long minute. “We manage.”

“Well, you got a job now. Mr. Ned'll send a truck by to get you.”

Her eyes flashed. “I ain't no field hand.”

“Well, there's a difference in a
hired
hand, and there ain't no shame in working a field. Mr. Ned pays good wages for a day's work. He'll pay them older kids, too, the same wage.”

“Who gonna watch these little 'uns?”

“Bring 'em all along. There's always a young gal or two who'll watch 'em while everbody works.”

“Maybe I don't want to.”

“I guess you figure a car's gonna drive out here from Chisum to give you money, or a job at the soup factory. It's a
job
, and it'll make a difference here.”

She stared at the empty road. “I heard the shots.”

“When them fellas was killed?”

“I figger it was about that time. Them four drove past, and then a while later there was a whole bunch of shooting, a lot more than it takes to kill two people. Then, they drove back past with only two in the car. Two more was driving the first truck.”

“That must have been it, then.”

“Shades stopped for a minute.”

John waited.

“He got out of the car and came up here in the yard, pretty as you please, like they was decent folks out on a Sunday drive and stopped to ask direction. Said he liked what I had and was I interested in sellin' any of it.”

“Sellin' what mama?” a girl asked.

She studied her for a moment. “Eggs.”

“We ain't got no chickens.”

John saved her. “So what did you tell him?”

“I told him to get on out of here. Then he offered me five dollars and some reefer to go along with it. Said he'd come back later and bring some more, but I had a butcher knife tucked here in the back of my belt and I took it out. That sharp cuttin' edge backed him off right quick.”

“Reefer?”

“A joint, you know, weed.”

“They been back?”

“Nope. They left real quick and I ain't seen 'em since.”

John used his spoon to rake the last of the sticky chocolate from the bowl and fed it to the toddler. “Was that good?”

The sticky face belied no expression at all. He struggled to get down. John lifted him off his knee. The toddler wandered off to examine the other empty bowls scattered on the rough porch, hoping his brothers and sisters had left something.

“Well, I know more than I did when I got here.”

“About what?” She gave him a quick smile.

John liked the dimples in her cheeks. “About a lot, I guess.”

She noticed all the bags and cans scattered on the porch for the first time. “Belle, y'all get these groceries in the house, then go on out back and pick us a mess of greens. I saw some fatback in one of them sacks. It'll taste good for supper.”

She gave John a hard look.

“We have a good truck garden out back. That's where we get most of what we eat, but sometimes it don't stretch far enough, 'specially this time of the year when things is jus' startin' to come up.”

“I figgered you had a garden. Y'all ain't starvin'. You're just po'.”

“That's how I've lived my life.”

He rose. “All right, then. I might be back from time to time, but don't be surprised when a truck comes at daylight to pick y'all up.”

John rubbed a couple of little heads and stepped into the sunshine. When he got to his car, the woman's voice stopped him.

“John Washington!”

He stopped and rested his arm on the roof of his car.

“My name's Rachel Lea.”

He grinned. “Good to meet you, Rachel Lea.”

“Not all these kids is mine.”

When John raised his eyebrows in question, she gave a laugh. “Belle and Bubba there, the two oldest are mine. The rest belonged to my sister. She and her husband got killed six months ago and I took 'em in.”

He waited.

“She liked makin' babies!”

John chuckled and opened the car door. “So it's you and them kids here all alone.”

“I tol' you the truth. Husband run off a while back and good riddance, he weren't no'count, nohow.” She lifted a hand. “Next time you come by, you stay for supper, John Washington. I believe I'd like to cook you a bite.”

“I might do that.”

“Where'd you say all these groceries come from?”

He didn't want to tell her that Judge Rains and Ned had given him money when he told them he planned to drop by. They were constantly buying food for people with little or no means, but it was always quiet.

“Folks that care.”

Chapter Ten

O.C. idly studied Frenchie's backside as she left their back corner booth and worked her way down the long, narrow café, refilling coffee cups and visiting with her regulars.

“What are you watching that thing for?” Ned took a cautious sip of his coffee and studied the remnants of scrambled eggs on his plate. “You're too long in the tooth to do anything with it these days.”

“I know it, but I ain't dead yet. It don't hurt to look.”

“She catches you at it, she's liable to knock your fool head off.”

O.C. chuckled. “She hasn't noticed for the last twenty years. I don't reckon she'll pick up on it now.”

Frenchie stepped up to the pass-through into the kitchen. “Four eggs, scrambled, hash, toast, bacon! Homer's hungry this morning!”

Potts the cook shouted from the smoky kitchen. “Comin' up!”

The air soon thickened once again with the aroma of frying bacon and mixed with cigar and cigarette smoke hanging low in the air.

Only half a block from the courthouse, the cafe had been their unofficial meeting place for years. Good coffee, better hamburgers, long, dark, and narrow, it was the perfect place to visit and still keep an eye on who was coming in and out the front door. The counter was once a bar back in Chisum's wilder days, and the mirror behind shelves full of foodstuffs and advertisements was original to the building's construction. On good days, the bell over the wooden front door jingled every few minutes.

The back door without a bell stayed busy as well, but the customers there were colored.

From Ned's position in the booth, he could see through the batwing doors and the mostly empty rough lumber tables at that time of the morning. By noon they'd be full of colored men and women laughing, talking, and eating greasy burgers, fries, and thick chicken-fried steaks covered with cream gravy. Frenchie served them the same food as her white customers, only they were required to eat in the back.

During that busy time, she shut a solid door beyond the batwings to further divide the café, not because she wanted to, but because those in the front demanded it. The Indians from Oklahoma were also expected to eat with the coloreds, and none of it set well with the white constable who was married into a Choctaw family.

Ned and O.C. sipped their strong, bitter coffee in silence, until Potts thumped a steaming breakfast through the order window. “Homer's up!”

“I heard it weren't Doak we dug up last week,” Ned said.

“No. That's a fact. It was a couple of old boys from Red River County moved in to start a new business. Somebody didn't like it, and they explained their opinion with a thirty-eight.”

“That'll do the job.”

“You don't reckon Doak had anything to do with it?”

Instead of answering, Ned noticed dried blood all over the back of the little finger of his left hand. He'd poked a hole in his finger with a piece of bailing wire that morning while he was feeding cows. He wet his right thumb by dipping it into a small water glass on the table and rubbed at the crust. He had to repeat the process twice to get rid of the blood. When he finished, he took several long sips of coffee to rid his mouth of the coppery taste.

O.C. waited.

Ned finally seemed surprised he hadn't yet answered the question. “Why no, Doak's a lot of things, and he's a sorry son of a bitch, but he ain't no killer. Somebody else done for 'em.”

“Any ideas why?”

“Nary. Moonshiners don't usually kill one another. This is something else. It might have been over a woman for all I know.”

Ned watched John Washington come in out of the alley to get coffee. He waved. The uniformed deputy stepped up to the dividing entrance, but no further. “Mornin', Mr. Ned. Mr. O.C., I'll be by directly at your office, if that's all right.”

O.C. twisted around at the sound of John's deep bass voice. “Sure 'nough, I don't have court 'til one today. Why don't you come have a seat and let's talk now?”

John shook his head with a grin. “I imagine I'll need to come by the courthouse.” He recalled a few months earlier when he had important information for O.C. and had to come through Frenchie's front entrance.

Close to a panic for the first time in his life the day he learned the Skinner's true identity, John drove to Frenchie's café hoping to find O.C. having coffee. The Skinner had been spreading terror throughout Lamar County for months, first killing and skinning animals, and then graduating to humans. He finally set his sights on Ned's family.

The judge was there all right that afternoon, straddling a stool at the counter. Anxious to the point of carelessness, John nearly jerked the screen door off the hinges on his way in. The white customers bristled at his entrance, and Wilber Meyers, a mechanic at the Ford house and the toughest man on the north side of town, tried to stop John from coming in.

The big deputy snapped Wilber's wrist like a matchstick and was drawing the heavy sap from his back pocket when Judge Rains stopped two others who mistakenly thought they could beat John senseless.

He hadn't been back through the front door since.

“Nope.” Ned slid over. “Come set here with us.”

Obviously uncomfortable, Deputy Washington came in and quickly slid his huge bulk into the booth with his back to the café, as if the giant could be inconspicuous.

It didn't work.

Several of the café's customers frowned at his entrance. “Damn niggers.” Two men in greasy coveralls threw money on the counter in disgust and left.

John took off his Stetson, but there was no place on the table for it. He started to lay it beside one of the dirty plates when a slim hand appeared and took it from him. Frenchie placed it upside down on the counter, beside those belonging to Ned and O.C. They always put their own Stetsons there to block customers from taking the two empty stools beside their booth.

It allowed them to talk without someone sitting close and listening.

Frenchie set a thick white mug in front of John and returned to her counter. He ran a thick index finger through the mug's handle with barely any room to spare. His broad face widened in a soft grin. From behind the counter, Frenchie gave him one in return.

Daring anyone to say a word, O.C. glared down the length of the café through the cigarette and bacon smoke. The remaining customers focused their attention back to what they were doing, but the café's buzz became ominous. “What did you have to see me about?”

Instead of immediately answering, John glanced to the side to see how close the nearest customer might be. Ned noticed the collar of his shirt was worn through after years of scrubbing.

Keeping his back to the café, John rested his meaty forearms on the table that groaned slightly under his weight. “I picked a feller up at Sugar Bear's last night and took him to jail. He was drunk, but there was something else not right about him. His eyes was funny, and when I checked his car, the trunk was full of marywana.”

“I knew that stuff was gonna make its way down here for good,” Ned said.

O.C. grunted. “Well, it's here all right. Mostly they're finding one of them funny cigarettes every now and then. Except for them bales you found a while back under the creek bridge, Ned, I don't think I've seen much more than a pinch of the stuff at one time.”

“I've been seeing it here and there.” He ran a hand over his bald head. “But I haven't needed to take anyone to jail over it.”

O.C. knew Ned's penchant for dealing with issues on his own. More times than either of them could count, Ned had the opportunity to arrest young people for their stupidity, but instead, he sent them home with a stern lecture and the threat of jail the next time they jumped the fence.

Late one night in particular, Ned answered a call about a group of men shooting dice behind Oak Peterson's store. He parked his car a distance away and eased through the darkness, hearing muffled laughter and the sound of bets going down. When he peeked around the corner of the store, a huddle of young men near the opposite corner were shooting dice by the glow of a pole light.

Ned stepped into view and lit them with the flashlight in his hand. The other rested on the butt of his revolver. “All right boys, everybody set still.”

All eight men jumped in alarm, then settled back when they recognized Ned's voice behind the light.

“Damn! Ned, you 'bout scared us to death!”

“Howdy, Uncle Ned.”

He was startled to realize all eight of the crapshooters were kinfolk. He shook his head in disgust, recognizing nephews, cousins and one brother-in-law. “If this don't beat all.”

“You gonna take us in?”

“I ought to, because this is the sorriest bunch of peckerheads I've seen in a long time.”

He didn't arrest any of them, but for the next three months every ditch and fence row he pointed out in Center Springs, and every yard owned by a widow woman, was mowed and trimmed to his approval. He hadn't caught any of them shooting dice since.

John blew across his coffee and took a careful sip. Hot and sweet. “Well, I dug around some more and found out them killin's at the still might have something to do with this stuff. The story around our joints is them two been cookin' whiskey both in Red River County and across the river for a while, but was run off Little River by some boys who was starting to grow marywana up there.”

“You know that for a fact?”

“Nossir, Mr. O.C., I don't. All that's hearsay, and a couple of them folks don't rightly tell the whole truth all the time.”

“Lyin' don't know no color.” O.C. held up his near empty mug for a refill.

“Ain't that the truth? Anyways, he said they was a bunch workin' for some white boy with big muscles who sold it to him. They offered him a job to deliver it over to another feller in Sugar Bear's parking lot. If he did a good job, they'd give him a full-time job shippin' it up here from the Valley, and that it was coming through Chisum.”

“What does this have to do with them boys we dug up?”

“A lot.”

John paused when Frenchie appeared at the booth, popping her gum and giving them all a big grin. “Breakfast is over. Y'all want some pie? Fresh made.”

“Sure do.” O.C. watched her refilling the other mugs. “I'll have peach, if you got it.”

“You'll get what I bring you.” She winked and headed toward the kitchen.

“Them two was making their shine too close to a marywana crop up there in Oklahoma. This top feller was settin' up his own business by growin' it in the woods up there, but he intends to get a pipeline goin' from the Valley on somebody else's dime, and then undercut them with his own supply. I reckon the shiners might have seen more than was healthy for them. They left and hadn't no more than set up shop on the creek, when they was killed.”

“Burying them right there don't make no sense,” O.C. said. “Somebody was sure to find the still and kick around like y'all did until they ran across the grave.”

“Maybe that's what they wanted,” Ned suggested. “For them to be found, but after a while, when them who had been driving up and down the roads was forgot. It was a warning, and a finish to what they'd started across the river.”

“And what they wanted to finish with Cody.” Ned still couldn't figure how the ambush fit in, but he was sure they were connected and it was getting to him.

“They only problem was who's livin' on the road.” John sipped the steaming coffee and didn't even flinch at the hot liquid. “I've said it before. Folks look like y'all don't hardly notice my people, less they want something, or they're looking to pick 'em up. I went back and visited with one of them families we passed going in. The one y'all gave me some money for. They remember the car, and the men driving it. They described 'em to me. The same big muscled-up feller that wears shades, and one of 'em sounded like…” John checked over his shoulder again. “One of 'em sounded like J.T. Boone.”

“Why, he's a deputy.”

“Yessir, but he ain't always smelled right to me.”

“But no one's spoke his name?”

“Nossir, that's why I'm-a tellin' you right now.”

Ned and O.C. exchanged glances across the booth.

“All right, then.” O.C. drummed his fingers on the table. “Y'all keep looking, and we'll see what we find. But be careful. Anybody who'd kill two men and bury 'em for what they know ain't nobody to trifle with.”

Frenchie arrived at the table, balancing three thick slices of pie. John held up both hands. “No ma'am. Not for me, but thanks anyway.”

“Go ahead on, John.”

“Mr. O.C., I
might
come in here from time to time, and I
might
have coffee with y'all back here in the back booth, but
eatin'
is a whole 'nother thing. Miss Frenchie, can I have one of them slices of coconut in the back?”

Her eyes crinkled as she grinned at John. She slapped the other two plates between Ned and the judge. “Sure enough, hon, and it's on the house.”

John nodded goodbye and slid out of the booth. Ned reached out for the last slice of coconut pie. O.C. snorted and stared miserably downward. “I don't even like cherry.”

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