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Let The Dead Bury The Dead


Joan King






Published 2017 by Beating Windward Press LLC


For contact information, please visit:

www.BeatingWindward.com


Text Copyright © Joan King, 2016

All Rights Reserved

Book & Cover Design: Copyright © KP Creative, 2016


First Smashwords Edition

ISBN: 978-1-940761-34-3


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This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.






Dedication


To Uncle Jimmy, Private, 1st Armored Force, US Army

Captured December, 1942 by Rommel’s Afrika Korps, North African Theatre, Tunisia

Interned in Stalag 3B Furstenberg.

Forced marched to Stalag 3A Luckenwalde, February 1945.

Fled Stalag 3A after Russian advance on Germans. Crossed the Elbe River to freedom and waiting Americans, May, 1945


Always my hero, a kind and loving man.





Table of Contents


Title Page

Copyright Information

Table of Contents

Dedication

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Epilogue

Author’s Note

Acknowledgements

About the Author





Prologue

The Philippines—1943



The shouting of the Japanese guards awakened Sergeant Aaron Timmons, but his survey of the prison yard revealed nothing.

“Everybody here?” he whispered.

“What’s going on?” a voice from the bunk above him asked.

Aaron ignored the question while the men in his group murmured their names. They were one short.

“Where’s Whitehead?” Aaron asked.

A young private from New Mexico kicked the still form beside him. “Dead, I think.”

Aaron shrugged. Whether the man died or not made little difference to him—the body was accounted for. If one man escaped, the other nine in his group would face execution. Tonight, they would live.

The guards dragged a prisoner across the muddy yard. Sweat pouring off the man’s face glinted in the light of the full moon. The constant creak of the bunks ceased as those who remained human enough to care heard the pleas for mercy. They waited for the screams to begin. In the morning, another body would be added to the fifty or sixty who died of disease and despair during the night. Aaron and his men would dig the shallow pit for their emaciated remains.

Aaron rolled over and dozed until an agonizing wail chilled the sultry air.

“Let the dead bury the dead,” he chanted in his attempt to block the sound.

He was not a religious man, yet the words he had read that afternoon in Corporal Lowell’s New Testament echoed in his mind. Let the dead bury the dead.

The screaming intensified.

Between malaria and dysentery, Aaron felt as dead as the prisoners he buried. Perhaps that was why he and his men, the sickest and most wasted of the walking, were chosen for the detail. What other disease could they catch?

Let the dead bury the dead.

The man screaming was lucky. A few hours of torture, a shot to the back of the head and his suffering would end. The living had no hope, no relief from the fevers, the diarrhea, the toil, the beatings. Some men gave up and refused to eat the handful of worm-infested rice given them. Within days they became a meal for feral dogs and the stench of rotting flesh in Aaron’s nostrils.

Aaron clamped his palms over his ears. Why fight death? What had he to go home to? He had walked out on his wife and never answered her letter telling him he had a baby daughter.

Let the dead bury the dead.

He was as lifeless as Corporal Lowell. Yesterday, he rolled his friend’s body into a swampy burial pit with no more thought or care than if he had removed a dead animal from the road. Lowell died for him—executed for stealing quinine from a Japanese officer, quinine for Aaron’s malaria.

The cries became unbearable.

“Let the dead bury the dead,” Aaron murmured.

He prayed for his body to grow cold like those he buried. Let the dogs drag his body from the burial pit. Better to die than try to make up for the pain he had caused. Better to die than see the disappointment in the eyes of his child he had never held or acknowledged. His wife named the baby Grace.

Grace. The fragrant flower of hope. Where had the phrase come from? He banged his head against the edge of his bunk to stop the thought. In this hell, hope drove men mad. Yet, the words flowed. I came upon a flow’r with petals pale and dewy leaf. The flower God christened Grace.

“No,” he moaned. Better to die than go insane. “Let the dead bury the dead. Let the dead bury the dead.”

A cloud slipped over the moon. Across the compound, a shot ended the screaming. A man whimpered somewhere in the barracks. Another coughed. Aaron drew his legs to his chest and in the moonlight, rocked to his chant.

“Let the dead bury the dead.”






Chapter 1



Every spring and fall when I was a child, Gypsies passed through our county and camped in an area known then as the Cottonwood Flats. They came with their rusted cars and trailers, lit their fires on the banks of the river and stayed until they ran out of work or were run off. On the Gypsies’ arrival, the small children of Iron Mound, Oklahoma hovered near their mothers, while the young men, itching to be free from toiling in the fields, sneaked away at night to hear their fortunes told by exotic women in long black skirts.

How much of that time is actual memory and how much I absorbed from stories told during holiday gatherings and late night reflections, I’m not certain, but I remember early March of 1945 when I first met Sam. It was the day I learned about my father. The day my grandpa found the moonshiners’ still.

I was six. And a half. At that age, those half years were as important as the number itself. Grandpa had kept me home from school because I woke up that morning with a cough. Since Mama’s tuberculosis, he fussed over every little tickle in my chest. His closet became a refuge where my sadness and loneliness couldn’t find me in the months following her death. The opening where he hung his clothes wasn’t much wider than a regular door, but the closet went deeper and was filled with the treasure of suitcases and boxes of dresses, hats and shoes that once belonged to my grandmother. I loved to poke through her things.

Grandpa told me to stay in bed, but by midafternoon I was fidgety and sneaked into his closet. At the time, I didn’t realize finding the snapshot of my parent’s wedding day would spark a longing for a father. I’d never met him. Nor had I been particularly curious. I simply grabbed the photograph from the bottom of a shoe box, stuffed it into the bib of my overalls and scrambled out into the blustery afternoon before my grandfather caught me and sent me back to my room.

His front yard had a sprawling elm tree. I settled onto the rickety floor of a tree house built by my best friend John Caleb Parker. I pulled the photograph from my overalls. In the fuzzy image caught forever in black and white, Mama was dressed in a wedding gown, laughing, and dancing with my father. He was darker, his black hair shining. Because of his soldier’s uniform, I imagined him a hero, which was why I’d never seen him. He had gone to war. Someday he’d march down our driveway, his medals sparkling. Someday he would wave to me and call, “Gracie Timmons, come here and give me a hug.” By then the lady from the county would have confessed she made a huge mistake—my mother was alive, pretty like she was before she became sick. Just as in the snapshot, my father would take Mama in his arms, and they would dance to the buzz of locusts until sunset.

My eyes stung with tears. Everything around me became as out of focus as the photograph. Praying was new to me, something Grandpa taught me, and until that day my prayers were the Now, I lay me down to sleep sort. This one was different, specific. I prayed my father would be standing in front of me once I finished with the all important ‘Amen,’ such prayers a silly idea only to grownups.

I cracked open my eyelids and blinked. At the end of the driveway, a man stood inspecting our mailbox. He had the same black hair and dark eyes as in the picture. No medals. He probably had those in his pocket. When he saw me and waved, I shyly raised my hand. That was when I noticed the patterned scarf around his neck.

A Gypsy! I ducked behind a branch. I had waved to a Gypsy.

I’d never seen one this close, but John Caleb had told me enough to give me delightful shivers. Not that I believed his tales of Gypsies kidnapping children and concocting hexes, but neither did I feel the need to prove him wrong. I skidded down the trunk and sprinted to the backdoor where I pressed my face into the dusty screen.

“Grandpa.” I looked over my shoulder in terror. The Gypsy had followed me. “Grandpa, hurry!” Because of my sore throat, the plea came out more of a squeak than the scream I hoped it to be.

I let the screen door slam, breaking my grandfather’s most hallowed rule, and scrambled through the kitchen into his bedroom. He wasn’t there. The backdoor creaked. The Gypsy was inside. I flailed past the clothes in Grandpa’s closet and piled cardboard cartons atop an old suitcase to build a wobbly fort. Afraid to breathe, I slumped to the floor. My feet banged to the rhythm of my pumping heart. Grandpa had told me this practice was a bad habit. Until then, I thought him fussy. No more. I grabbed my feet in horror as his line of suits and shirts were swept away.

The wall of boxes collapsed. A hand reached through the gloom. Cold fingers wrapped around my ankle and pulled me toward the opening. I rolled onto my back to kick blindly with my free leg forcing the Gypsy to release me with a yowl that got Grandpa’s hound dog to barking. In the commotion, I crabbed deeper into the closet, only to have the Gypsy grab the back of my overalls. I shrieked and thrashed until one of my shoes flew off and bounced against the wall.

“Dadgummit, girl. Now stop that. What’s got into you?”

I caught a whiff of pipe tobacco and twisted around. “Grandpa?”

“Who’d you think it’d be?”

“The Gypsy?”

“Gypsy? Where?”

I pointed a shaky finger in the direction of the yard.

“You go back to bed,” he said.

He bolted from the room. I wasn’t about to miss out on a fight. I scrambled for my misplaced shoe. By the time I caught up, Grandpa had the Gypsy backed against the chicken yard fence. The hens had fled to the other side of their pen in a cloud of dust and feathers. Above their squawking, I heard Grandpa threatening to call the sheriff.

The Gypsy held out his empty hands to prove his innocence. “May I be trampled by my father’s horses if one of your chickens disappears into one of my pots.”

“I’ve heard that one before,” Grandpa said.

“And I hear you are the big man at school.”

“I’m president of the school board, so?”

“You have a hole in your water tank.”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“I can fix it.”

Grandpa rubbed his forehead as if the Gypsy had given him a headache. He did the same thing with me whenever I asked him too many questions. Grandpas could have bad habits as much as anyone.

“What do you want for it?” he asked.

The Gypsy removed his hat. “Teach me to read.”

“What?” Grandpa’s laugh erupted through his nose. “Never heard of a Gypsy wanting to do an honest day’s work, let alone read.”

I tugged at Grandpa’s overalls in warning and whispered, “John Caleb said the Gypsies’ll put a hex on you.”

“I want to learn for my poor babies’ sake,” the Gypsy said. “That is good, no?”

It wasn’t much of a hex. Nothing happened that I could see except Grandpa’s face softened a bit.

“I can read,” I said. “Mama taught me. If she was here, she could teach you, but she died.”

The Gypsy’s gaze flicked from Grandpa over to me for less than a second and no more, but in that moment I saw a sadness that reflected mine. I missed Mama, her smile, the way she hugged me just tight enough. She hadn’t died of tuberculosis like the lady from the county said. She died of a broken heart, a cliché, I know, but she did. She said those very words as she was taken away.

I leaned against Grandpa for comfort and let his arm find its way around my shoulder. The warmth of the day faded quickly this time of March, along with the fun of sneaking out of bed. My throat felt raw as if I had swallowed a handful of sandburs.

Grandpa nodded at me. “I got my hands full trying to find a teacher for this girl. The dang Parker twins ran off the one we had. Tied her up in the outhouse.”

The rest of our class watched in horror. John Caleb’s brothers were too big for any of us to stop them.

“A nice hen would fill my babies’ bellies tonight,” the Gypsy said. “They’re sick and hungry.”

“You come back tomorrow and fix my tank, then you can have your chicken.”

“That is good. I will go now and come back tomorrow.”

Like the hex, the fight was a disappointment. I should have stayed in bed.


After the Gypsy left, Grandpa felt my forehead. “We’ll go see Young Doc MacKay in the morning if you’re not any better.”

“I’m better, already.”

He smiled at my lie as he bundled me into a blanket in his car. His milk cans were loaded in back. Twice a day he delivered our milk to the Iron Mound Children’s Home, a dark stately building atop a hill scoured by prairie wind and children’s feet. I loved riding with Grandpa, but the fear of being left at the orphanage hung over me. I stayed in the car while he hauled the milk into the orphanage’s kitchen. After Mama died, I was left in such a place where there were too many children and too little affection. In the manner of bureaucracy, no one told me my mother had disclosed the name of my father’s father until I was brought before a stranger with a weathered face and a clinging sweet aroma of pipe tobacco which, for some reason, assured me I would be loved.

On the way home, we took the bone-rattling river road, a short cut which usually added thirty minutes due to the route’s neglect by the county. Grandpa preferred to have the bolts shaken from his car rather than contend with the traffic on the main highway. His idea of traffic was anything more than three vehicles.

We passed an abandoned tarpaper shack before our car clattered across a rickety wood-planked bridge. I raised my feet off the floor in hopes of making our car lighter. On the other side, a circle of trailers were parked in the Cottonwood Flats. Gypsy women in long black skirts looked up from their fires to shout unintelligible words to their offspring who, like other children, pretended not to hear. Men smoking cigarettes squatted near a string of horses. None of them was the Gypsy who came to our house.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“Who?”

“Our Gypsy. They got names like ordinary folks?”

“They’ve got more names than Carter’s got liver pills, but yours didn’t say.”

A fit of coughing overtook me to which Grandpa responded by ordering me back under the blanket. I pulled the photograph from the bib of my overalls to hold in front of his face.

“What’s my daddy’s name?”

“Where’d you find that?”

“The closet.”

“Thought I told you to play somewhere else. Someplace not so dark and musty.”

“You told me it was too cold outside.”

“Aaron,” Grandpa said, giving up. “Your mama ever talk about him?”

“Nope.”

“Not surprised.” The car meandered toward the ditch. Grandpa whipped the steering wheel to the left, taking us back to the middle of the road. He said nothing more and drove past our house to the orchard on the hill where he stopped to pull me from my cocoon. He set me on the ground beside a peach tree and snapped a twig from a branch.

“See this? Looks dead. There’s nothing here but gray trunks and branches. No blooms, no leaves, nothing.”

I wiped my nose and studied the twig.

“That’s how life is,” he said, handing me the twig. “Sometimes it’s pretty darn dreary and lonely. I know that for a fact. There’ll be times you don’t think you can make it through the winter ’cause it hurts so bad, but eventually spring comes and the orchard blooms. There’s nothing we can change about any of it, except keep believing and waiting. But I promise you I will. Spring’ll come.”

I couldn’t see how this had much to do with my father so I asked, “Where’s my daddy?”

Grandpa let out one of those long breaths meant to put me off.

“Where is he?” I asked.

“He got all mixed up and forgot who he was supposed to love. It hurt your mama awful bad.”

Remembering to love Mama came as easily as remembering my name. And I was only six. And a half. “How can a grownup forget something like that?”

“Don’t know, but he took off.”

“Did he forget me, too?” Afraid of the answer, I asked another question. “Are you mad at him?”

“Doesn’t have anything to do with mad. More to do with disappointment. I love my boys. Always will.” He fiddled with his pipe and eventually lit it. “No use getting into it.” He took a couple of puffs and patted me on my head. “It all happened before you were born. Do you remember living here?” He swung an arm in the direction of a house over the hill.

“Nope.”

He’d asked me before and shown me the place. I thought it a sad house and hid my eyes whenever we passed it.

“You did,” he said, “until about a year and a half ago. Then one day your mama up and left. Didn’t take much more than you and a few clothes. Left a note saying she had a job in Dallas and she’d write as soon as she got settled, but she never did. How did ya’ll end up in St. Louis?”

The memories of why my mother and I had been living in a place haven to rats and cockroaches and people abandoned to sorrow were too murky to answer. Each time I shrugged away his questions. I remembered little before Mama became sick.

I jammed my hands on my hips. Grandpa was weaseling again. “Where’s my daddy?”

“Last I heard, the Philippines when the Japanese invaded.”

“Where’s that?”

“Clear on the other side of the world.”

“Farther than St. Louis?”

“Yep. A lot.”

“Will he ever remember me?”

Grandpa sighed. “The army don’t know if he’s alive. Nobody knows. They say he’s probably dead. I’m praying he’s not.”

Dead was an ugly word. I had yet to get past the loneliness of my mother’s abandonment for that was what death meant to me.

He meant to help me understand my loss. Yet winter seemed to have settled over him as well. He shrank inside his denim coat. As he helped me into his car, he nodded at the photo in my hand.

“One thing about your daddy, he’s a good looking man with those brown eyes and black hair. He got that from his mama. She was Shawnee.” He patted me on the head. “Tell you what. Brownie didn’t come up this evening. I bet you she’s got a new calf. Let’s go find her.”

He steered us away from my daddy as surely as he steered us away from the ditch.

“Okay.”

“Promise you’ll let me take you to Young Doc MacKay and you won’t fuss.”

He’d caught me fair and square. I gave up without an argument and crawled back into my blanket to watch the sun set the sky above the horizon on fire. Could my father see the sunset halfway round the world, the same as me? I wouldn’t forget him.

“What you gonna name your calf?” Grandpa asked. He’d given me my own milk cow for Christmas.

I didn’t have to think long. “Peaches.”

He laughed. “What if it’s a bull calf?”

I smiled up at him, pleased I had made him happy again. “It won’t be.”

I must have gone to sleep after that. When I woke, it was dark outside. I was alone. Grandpa had gone to find Brownie without me. Condensation fogged the windshield. I cleared a spot with my sleeve to see his lantern twinkling through the trees.

I scrambled from the car. “Grandpa?” The night swallowed my voice.

A bitter wind whipped the tree branches into an eerie dance. I followed a cattle trail by moonlight until the path unraveled like a frayed piece of yarn. Each strand ended in a tangle of brambles where only rabbits or possums could go. All the straggly blackjacks looked alike, crooked and bare.

I was lost. My attempt at praying hadn’t worked out too well, yet I tried again.

In answer to my plea, a voice cut through the darkness.

“How could you do this to me? On my own land.” It was Grandpa and he was angry.

“You’re flat stupid if you think I’m planning on milking cows for the rest of my life.”

“It’s that or jail, again.”

“Go home Dad. This isn’t any of your concern.”

He called Grandpa Dad. My father? He had come home.

I sprinted in their direction. As I neared a ring of lanterns and several trucks, I stopped dead. Grandpa was arguing with my uncle Rag and three other men standing by a fire with barrels and big pots.

Uncle Rag looked nothing like the photo of my father. He had curly hair and something was wrong with one of his eyes. He didn’t live with us, and I only saw him once, which was fine with me. He’d wanted to borrow Grandpa’s car. Grandpa wouldn’t let him, told him now that he was out of jail he needed to get a job. Rag yelled and stomped around. I headed for Grandpa’s closet and stayed there until my uncle left.

“I was hoping you’d learned your lesson,” Grandpa said.

One of the other men pointed a gun at Grandpa’s chest. “Nobody’s going to jail, old man.”

“I’ll take care of him,” Uncle Rag said, easing the barrel to the side. “Go home, Dad.”

“I want all of you out of here by morning,” Grandpa said, his voice fading.

“All right. Now, go.”

If I had known which direction Grandpa’s car was, I would have flown to it. The last thing I wanted was for Uncle Rag to catch me. I picked my way through the low buck brush until I came to a fallen tree where I dropped to my knees. From there I hoped to follow Grandpa back to the car.

Grandpa stopped a few yards from me to wrap his arms around his chest. As he did so, his flashlight illuminated his pinched face and his struggling to catch his breath.

“Grandpa?” I whispered.

“Gracie?”

I raised my head.

“Stay down,” he said.

I ducked behind the log. He staggered over to the tree and sat beside me.

“You all right?” I asked.

“Brownie has a heifer.” A diversion even I could detect, but I let him get by with it for a moment. I wanted to make him feel better and my questioning wasn’t going to do that.

“I told you Peaches was gonna be a girl,” I said.

He moaned and grabbed at his chest. “Go to the car.”

“But I don’t know which way.”

“Go.” His grip on his chest loosened.

I tugged on his sleeve. “My throat hurts.”

When he didn’t move, I buried my face in his chest the way I did when I wanted to listen to his heart. I heard nothing but my own. The awareness that something terrible happened seeped under my skin like the cold. What was I to do? Go to the strangers or try to find the car?

My hands and feet grew numb while I contemplated the question. The beam of Grandpa’s flashlight grew dimmer.

“Hey, old man, you spying on us?”

I drew my shivering legs into my jacket and huddled closer to Grandpa. The man who had the rifle poked Grandpa with the barrel.

“Don’t hurt him,” I whispered.

Grandpa fell to one side. The man stumbled backwards.

“I’ll be,” he muttered, then shouted, “Hey, the old man’s dead, there’s a kid here.” No one answered him. He pointed a finger at me. “You stay here.”

Where could I go? I was lost and too cold to run.

His calling to the others echoed in the clear night air as he sprinted back toward the fire.

I clung to Grandpa’s jacket, hoping he’d wake up. A pebble landed next to me. At the light’s edge, a hand waved me toward the darkness.

“Little one,” a voice whispered. “Come here.” The hand motioned again.

I moved to stand, but it signaled me to stay low. I hesitated—what if I followed and got into more trouble? Someone from the camp approached. As I watched his shadowy form, a cold terror paralyzed my breathing. I scrambled toward the waiting hands. They pulled me into a thicket and covered my mouth. If my sore throat would have let me scream, I would have pierced the night.

“Hey, kid?” the shadowy man called.

The man carrying me didn’t answer, but jumped into a blackness that looked as if it had no bottom. He landed softly, tightened his grip on me and scrambled along a gully. His breathing coarsened, but he continued to hurdle logs and circle foggy sloughs until a horse snorted quietly.

“Shhh,” he whispered to the animal.

As he lifted me onto the horse’s back, I caught a glimpse of his sweaty face in the moonlight.

My Gypsy.

He wrapped his coat around me and swung himself up behind me.

“You have your Mama’s heart,” he said. He gently clucked to his horse.

“You remember my mama?”

He soothed my cheek with the back of his fingers. “Yes.”

“She died of a broken heart, but nobody believes me.”

“I do.”

His remark struck the sorrow of my mother’s death, and I buried my face in the crook of his elbow to sob.

I kept it there as I asked, “What’s your name?”

He leaned over and whispered into my ear. “Sam.”

Sam? A common, ordinary name? There were three Sams at our church alone. They were everywhere.

“Grandpa says Gypsies got more names than somebody’s got pills.”

“Ah. . . You call him Grandpa?”

“Uh huh.”

“And to some he’s known as Mr. Timmons, to others Henry, to his son, perhaps, Papa? See? One man and many names. So I’m Stefan to him, Sven to someone else. Eli to another.”

“I get it,” I said. “But I don’t know what my daddy called him. He forgot me. I thought you were my daddy when I saw you. Are you going to be my daddy?”

“We must be quiet.”

The shadowy man. I’d forgotten him. I leaned against Sam’s chest as we rode in silence, Sam humming a strange tune to the rhythm of his horse’s gait. Before I gave in to my exhaustion and fever, I wondered if I had been kidnapped by a Gypsy.

Then I remembered my grandpa, growing cold, and knew it no longer mattered.





Chapter 2



In murky dreams, I smelled horse’s sweat. A woman’s dark eyes reflected flames of a fire. She forced a bitter liquid between my lips and cooed words I couldn’t understand. The dreams ended abruptly with the sensation of cold. I forced open my eyes. Miss Louise, the tiny spinster who owned Iron Mound’s general store, tried to lay an icy cloth on my forehead. I turned my face away. For my trouble, I ended up with a cold wet ear.

After the lady from the county took me away from Mama, I was wary of older women. With Miss Louise, I made the mistake of placing my cheek against the cool display glass of her meat counter the first time I was in her store one hot September afternoon. No one warned me she took great pride in the case, that no child touched it and walked away unscathed by her tongue. Since then she tried to woo me out from behind Grandpa with a handful of candy corn, something hard to come by with the war on. I accepted her bribes, only to dart back to the safety of his worn overalls.

Lately, Miss Louise had been complaining of young men leering through her lace curtains as she undressed for bed. No one believed her tale. She was as withered as last year’s apple forgotten on the tree. The county sheriff grew tired of taking her nightly calls and dodged her, but most people overlooked this and her other peculiarities to patronize her store because they had nowhere else to go.

Miss Louise caught a cold dribble of water running down my neck as she sat beside me on the bed. “Don’t worry, dear. You’re here with me. Upstairs above my store.”

On the nightstand beside the bed was the twig Grandpa gave me and the photo of my parent’s wedding day.

“Grandpa,” I croaked with what little voice I had left. I wanted his reassuring hand resting on the back of my head. I wanted to smell the aroma of his pipe, to hear his assurance the orchard would bloom again.

“I know,” Miss Louise said. “I’ve sent Young Doc MacKay out to find him. Tell me what happened last night.” She squeezed my hand as if that would help free the memories of the night’s terrors.

They came back slowly. Grandpa, my cow Brownie, the men and the Gypsy.

“Did you know any of them?”

I twisted the sheet into a rope. “No.” I left out Uncle Rag. I hoped never to see him again.

Miss Louise closed her eyes. Tears gathered. One fell on my cheek as she leaned over to kiss my forehead. It helped absolve a little of my fear of her, but not the aching inside me.

She abandoned me to sit in a rocking chair. The chair and the floor creaked in protest of her movement until she planted both feet on the floor with a thump, startling me.

“No wonder that Gypsy wanted to get out of here so fast,” she said. “They know when there’s something afoot.”

“Sam,” I whispered. He had not been a dream. The thought brought both comfort and sadness.

“Is he the Gypsy who found you?”

I nodded and added, “Kidnapped.”

“No, dear, Gypsies don’t kidnap children.” She rocked another minute. “But yours could be in big trouble for other reasons. Listen to me. Don’t say a word to anybody about him. Promise?”

The same with all the rest of the men, especially Rag with his droopy eyelid. I nodded, then drifted back into strange and frightening dreams.


The next time I woke, Young Doc MacKay was sliding his stethoscope across my chest. There was nothing young about him. He had silver hair and a face as deeply wrinkled as the bark of a timeworn cottonwood. The town had given him the label to distinguish him from his father, Old Doc MacKay, who died at ninety-three after delivering a set of triplets. The description stuck.

Once he finished, he had me sit up so he could thump me on my back like a watermelon. Miss Louise offered him a cup of coffee which he turned down with an order to open my mouth wide. He stuck a tongue depressor down my throat to make me gag. The funny little sound he made worried me. When he finally accepted the coffee, I swallowed and blinked back the tears.

“Hurts, doesn’t it?” he said, patting me on the head. He looked up at Miss Louise. “What was it you gave her?”

“I believe it was elderberry tea?” Miss Louise said.

“You believe? You don’t know?”

Her twinkling eyes were the only reply.

The doctor sighed and stared at the ceiling like an exasperated teacher. “Miss Louise. . . Oh, never mind.” He put his stethoscope away. “Whatever it was, her fever’s gone.”

He pulled a sucker from his pocket, the only reason I ever put up with his doctoring. He handed out the reward for not squirming or bawling. I didn’t bother to unwrap it. My confusion and sadness were too much for a lollipop to fix, even a coveted cherry one.

He led Miss Louise to the far corner of the room where they had a whispered conversation while glancing at me. Children know nothing good comes from one of these discussions. I slipped below the blankets, wishing I could hide in Grandpa’s closet where it was dark and safe.

“I’ll tell her,” Miss Louise whispered.

I felt her hand on my head.

“Dearie?” she said, tucking the blanket under my chin. “Doctor MacKay found your grandpa. He brought his body back. He thinks it was a heart attack. That means something in your grandpa’s heart broke.”

“Mama died of a broken heart,” I said.

She blinked back tears. “I’m sorry.”

“There wasn’t a finer man than your grandpa,” Doctor MacKay said.

Their words were perplexing. What did I care if they were sorry or if my grandpa was a fine man? I wanted him to come and take me home. I’d promise him I’d never hide in his closet again or try on my grandma’s hats and shoes. I’d never snoop in boxes and find a photograph of my parents. If I’d never found the snapshot of my father or wanted Grandpa to find Brownie’s calf, Grandpa’s heart never would have broke.

The doctor peered over his glasses at Miss Louise. “While I was there, I couldn’t help but notice an abandoned still. The fire was smoldering. Didn’t look like your typical good ol’ boy operation.” He took a sip of coffee. “Which brings up a point. How did my little patient end up here?”

“I found her on my doorstep,” Miss Louise said, giggling, though she eyed me as a reminder to keep my promise. “There was a knock on the door downstairs and there she was.”

“I can swallow that if you want me to,” Doctor MacKay said, “but I’m not so sure Sheriff Lundy will. Just to let you know, he was tromping around the site when I got there.”

Miss Louise’s hands fluttered to her face, their skin as fragile and translucent as the tissue paper she wrapped ladies underwear in.

“Oh, Lordy, this day, the next one, then the briar patch,” she said.

“I don’t think you need to worry about the briar patch quite yet. But Lundy’ll be here before you know it. What’s going on?”

“Most bootleggers around here are just out for a good time and a little pocket change. They wouldn’t hurt a fly, but let’s say this somebody who left a little girl on my doorstep thought different or he wouldn’t have got in the middle of it.”

“I can understand that, but why not tell the sheriff?”

“Because Lundy’s a lazy idiot who might go blabbing this over town.”

I thought it best to disappear beneath the covers, again.


I knew little about Sheriff Lundy other than he disliked Miss Louise’s pestering him with stories of young men peeking in her windows. Like most children around, I stayed away from him. He was a huge man with jowls as floppy as a hound dog’s. His uniform was comprised of a wrinkled khaki shirt and a sweaty Stetson. My view of him that morning consisted mostly of his belly overflowing his trousers and a pistol nearly as long as my arm. Though snuggled under the blanket and pretending to sleep, I had left a small opening in which to peer through.

Lundy had a blustery voice and demanded Miss Louise tell him how I ended up at her house when my grandpa died near a moonshine still. She repeated the story she gave the doctor minus the giggles. Sheriff Lundy snorted his skepticism and hitched his gun belt to his waist only to have it slide over the rolling hill of his stomach down to his hips.

“She remember anything?” he asked.

At the question, a chill crept down my arms and legs.

“Not a thing,” Miss Louise said. “Young Doc MacKay’s not sure if it’s because she’s sick or in shock, but she’ll be all right. Children are quick healers.”

“How would you know? You’re an old maid.” The sheriff laughed so hard his gun belt fell. He caught it and squirmed it back into place. “Maybe you’re right, let’s see.” He sauntered across the room and whipped the blanket from my face. “She’s awake.” He winked at me.

I gasped, setting off a hacking spasm. Between coughs, I heard him mumble how I ought to be sent to the Children’s Home and Young Doc MacKay arguing I didn’t belong there with my infection. I was about to let loose a wail when Miss Louise hurried over to the bed and nudged the sheriff aside.

“Doc thinks it could be tuberculosis,” she said. “Her mother died of it, you know.”

Lundy moved back a step and licked his chapped lips. “No, I didn’t. You think she’s got it, Doc?”

“Maybe you ought to go,” Dr. MacKay said.

“If she remembers anything, let me know.”

“Most certainly.” Dr. MacKay shut the door behind the sheriff. When he turned around, his face glowed red. “Miss Louise, you’re the most exasperating woman I know. This child does not have tuberculosis. What gave you that idea?”

She looked puzzled at his outburst. “I didn’t say she had tuberculosis, did I?”

“Worse. You said that I said.”

They went down the hall to argue. Without them there, a gloom settled over the room, echoing the question I had been too terrified to voice, What’s going to happen to me?


Mrs. Ponder, the preacher’s wife, came to sit with me while Miss Louise worked in the store. I slept most of the day. When Miss Louise returned that evening, she looked at my eyes and throat before asking if I felt well enough to go to Grandpa’s house for my clothes and things.

Miss Louise drove an old Model A coupe with bouncy springs in the seat. She’d tried to make them behave by covering them with a scratchy wool blanket. Despite her efforts, they persisted in popping up like turtle heads in a pond. By the time, we arrived at Grandpa’s house, I had curled up in a fit of giggles.

“Can we feed Beau?” I asked. “He’s grandpa’s hound dog.”

“I want you to wait for me. Don’t go in the house by yourself.”

I felt too happy to listen. I was home. Against her advice, I jumped from the car before she could follow me. As usual, I skipped to the house. As usual, I let the screen door slam. Part of me expected to find Grandpa in his favorite chair, wearing his glasses to read the newspaper, or in the kitchen fixing supper. I sniffed the air for the sweet aroma of his pipe tobacco. It was gone, as he was.

I retreated to his closet where I sat on the floor and tapped my shoes together while watching, praying for him to peer into the door. Miss Louise called my name, her voice growing and fading as she walked through the house. When she discovered my hiding place, I jumped up and ran outside to sit next to Beau on the back step.

Spread across the hill were the bare peach trees. Where were their blooms? Where was the spring Grandpa promised?

Miss Louise handed me one of my grandfather’s faded blue handkerchiefs she must have found in his bedroom. I stopped scratching Beau’s ears long enough to wipe my eyes.

“Grandpa’s not here.”

“I know,” Miss Louise said.

“Where is he?”

“I thought you understood.” She sat beside me and cupped my face in her spidery fingers. “I’ve never had children, you see.”

What that had to do with my question, I didn’t know. “Is he in heaven with my mama?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Then why did the doctor bring his body to town?”

She explained about souls and bodies, funerals and cemeteries. I laid my head on her lap. Some things I remembered Grandpa telling me. My mother was buried in St. Louis. Someday he wanted to bring her “home.” I hadn’t understood it then. Together with Grandpa’s lecture about orchards and winter, I had learned two hard lessons in two hard days. I hoped there wouldn’t be another one tomorrow.

“I think your grandpa knew he wasn’t well,” Miss Louise said. “A few weeks ago, he asked me to take care of you if anything happened to him. At least until we hear something about your father.”

I didn’t tell her the Army thought my father dead. It was best to leave such things alone and not stir up talk of the Children’s Home.

“Who’s gonna take care of Beau?”

“Your Uncle Rag will milk and feed until we can get things settled.”

I was able to follow her back into the house. While she gathered my clothes, I found the small cardboard suitcase the orphanage in St. Louis gave me and placed in it my most prized possessions—my Raggedy Ann doll and the A-B-C book my mother made me. There were other things to add when I got back to Miss Louise’s, things to keep alive the memory of my Grandpa—his faded blue hanky, hope in the form of a peach twig and the snapshot of my father.





Chapter 3



Miss Louise moved me into a bedroom toward the back with blue flowery wallpaper. I added my new treasures to the suitcase and slipped it beneath the bed covered with a patchwork quilt. The room had a dresser and a closet. I never had a closet of my own before. Grandpa nailed pegs on the wall for my school dresses. This closet wasn’t much good. Except for a tiny place for my dresses, every inch was piled high with boxes of what Miss Louise said were her business papers. But the window overlooked the backyard with the biggest oak tree in town.

Mrs. Ponder stayed with me the next morning. She brought a half a dozen books that once belonged to her children who had grown and moved away. I suspected it was to keep me too busy to mope. She read one aloud to me. Though it was a Tuesday, Miss Louise and Young Doc MacKay thought I shouldn’t return to school until next week, especially since I would have to attend a different school in town, my old one being too far away.

When Miss Louise brought me lunch, Mrs. Ponder went home.

“She’s playing the organ for the funeral service this afternoon,” Miss Louise said. “Do you feel well enough to stay by yourself?”

I nodded as I leafed through another one of the books.

“I’ve closed the store,” she said. “Most folks are going to the funeral, but if you don’t want to stay by yourself, I’ll find someone.”

“Can I go outside and play?”

“Not yet, but go ahead and get dressed.”

By midafternoon, I had grown tired of reading. I found Grandpa’s hanky in my cardboard suitcase and tied the blue bandana around my neck. I became a cowgirl galloping around the room, pretending to rope the bedposts with my nighty. A branch cracked in the backyard. I looked up to see my best friend John Caleb Parker take his last practice swing before he let go of the limb. He landed on the sill with a grunt, his legs dangling out the window. Something plinked against the house to our left. I dragged John Caleb inside before he slid the wrong direction. He flopped onto the floor like a landed fish.

“Whew, that was close,” he said. “Figured it was you when I heard the yehawing.”

“Wanna play cowboys and Indians?” Now that I knew my father was Shawnee, I claimed dibs on the Indian.

There was another thump against the house. We peeked over the window sill.

One of his pimply-faced siblings sneered up at us. “Hey, skunk, get down here.”

“I ain’t no skunk, Riley Parker,” John Caleb said.

“Maybe not, but you stink like one.”

“Go ’way.”

“Bring the pipsqueak with you.” Riley launched a piece of gravel. He was so cross-eyed his aim was pathetic.

Another rock ricocheted through the limbs and nicked John Caleb’s arm. He yelped. While Riley kept us distracted, his twin, Roland, had sneaked into the yard. Unlike Riley, Roland was a dead shot, but he wasn’t as bright, which was equivalent to saying one turnip in the patch was dumber than the next. Both had failed the eighth grade so many times they had sprouted whiskers on their chins.

“I’ll tell,” John Caleb shouted. “Miss Louise’ll come after you with Old Bluster.”

Old Bluster was a double barrel shotgun which Miss Louise often bragged could turn thieves into tea strainers. Our threat was pure bluff. Not the shotgun, but Miss Louise. She was at the funeral.

Instead, I stuck my tongue out at the twins—once I’d ducked out of sight. A bit cowardly, but no two boys were meaner than the Parker twins. John Caleb and I sat beneath the sill, listening to the ping of gravel against the side of the house. As dumb as the twins were, they were smart enough to avoid breaking Miss Louise’s window.

John Caleb sighed. “I’m sure gonna miss Mr. Henry.” His name for my grandpa. “You want my arrowhead?” He showed me a piece of flint, his only true possession. Everything he had, including his overalls and boots, once belonged to someone else, probably several someones. “I promise you can keep it forever. I won’t ask for it back, cross my heart and hope to die.” He looked at me with teary eyes.

I pretended to study it until the shadow of sadness moved over me. It was enough, and I gave it back to John Caleb.

Once the plinking against the house ended, John Caleb peered out the window.

“Coast is clear. Come on. We gotta get out of here,” he said, sitting on the sill.

I calculated how far the closest branch was from the house and came up with a long ways. “What for?”

“The sheriff’s downstairs and yapping about how you belong in the Children’s Home.”

“But Miss Louise’s at the funeral.”

“Not anymore. She’s here with a judge, and Pa’s all hot under the collar ’cause she won’t open the store for Ma to get groceries until they decide what to do with you.”

“I’ll play sick. The doctor said he wouldn’t send me to the Children’s Home as long as I’m sick.”

John Caleb rolled his eyes at me. “You can’t play sick your whole life.”

I thought about asking him why not—his father had. The common opinion was you could come nigher to persuading a horse thief to hang himself than persuading George Parker to work.

“What am I gonna do?” I asked.

“We’ll run away and join the Gypsies.”

His revelation sucked the air from my lungs. “How did you know?” I asked. Nobody was supposed to have seen Sam kidnap me.

“Cause I’m really a Gypsy.”

While I gawked at him in amazement, John Caleb rattled on about outlaws having kidnapped him from the Gypsies when he was a baby and selling him to the Parkers. Anybody with an eye in their head would know this was impossible because he shared the Parker family’s bright red hair and freckles, not to mention their curse of being unable to read. On the other hand, Sam couldn’t read either. That was why he wanted Grandpa to teach him.

I puffed up my chest. I couldn’t let John Caleb get the better of me, not when I knew a real Gypsy.

“One kidnapped me and left me with Miss Louise,” I said. “His name’s Sam.” I added the extra emphasis to rile John Caleb even more.

“No foolin’?”

I placed my palm across my heart, our sign of honesty. “No foolin’.” My excitement spoiled quicker than milk on a hot day. “I wasn’t supposed to tell,” I whispered. “Don’t tell Miss Louise or anybody.”

“Promise, cross my heart and hope to die.” He slapped his chest.

His word was enough.

Upon meeting me, John Caleb swore we would be blood brothers for life, despite my insistence I was a girl. When Grandpa caught us about to consummate our vow with John Caleb’s rusty broken-bladed knife, he suggested ketchup. We poured it on our palms and shook hands. John Caleb’s allegiance puzzled me at first. Where I’d lived in St. Louis, my playmates tended to be evicted when the rent came due, but Grandpa said it was easier to get rid of a sandbur in your sock than John Caleb, especially if we fed him fried bologna, our favorite supper.

“Let’s go find Sam,” John Caleb said.

Now that I had broken my promise to Miss Louise, I decided I might as well.

“Wait a minute.” I grabbed my cardboard suitcase with my treasures. “Okay.” But when I peered out the window again, the distance from the second story to the ground seemed to have doubled.

“Maybe we ought to take the stairs,” I said.

John Caleb eyed the ground. “Yeah, maybe.”

We sneaked down the hallway. Miss Louise’s house was twice as big as Grandpa’s. At the front was the kitchen and dining room on one side and her parlor on the other. Her bedroom was in the middle overlooking the side porch. Across the hall was the bathroom and the door leading to the stockroom downstairs, the only way in or out.

The open tread stairs creaked and moaned at us. A string of bare bulbs hung from a high tongue and groove ceiling, making the stockroom a big dreary place. It took up the back third of the building and had tall shelves filled with cardboard boxes and wooden crates. There were three doors. I hadn’t notice this when Miss Louise brought me through the day before.

“Which one?” John Caleb whispered. He glanced over his shoulder at my indecisiveness. “Don’t worry, we’ll find your Gypsy.”

I wasn’t so sure. Not when we couldn’t find our way out of the general store.

“I think it’s the one by the window,” I said.

We trotted over to turn the knob.

“Shoot, locked,” John Caleb said.

The door to the right swung open, sweeping us back against a crate.

Miss Louise grabbed me to hold me upright. “What are you doing down here?”

I wailed, “I don’t want to go to the Children’s Home. I got an infection.”

John Caleb put his hands on his hips. “It ain’t fair to send her there without her having a say so. It ain’t.”

“Are you through with your lecture?” Miss Louise asked. His head wobbled, which she must have taken for a yes. “And your name?”

“John Caleb Parker,” he stuttered.

“Should have known you were a Parker.”

The way she said it made John Caleb slump a couple of inches.

“Well Mr. John Caleb Parker, that’s about the wisest thing that’s ever come out of the mouth of a Parker and half the judges of the county. Are you Gracie’s friend that Henry told me about?”

“Yessum.”

“And what were you two planning?” she asked, eyeing my suitcase.

“Running away?” I said.

“Let me have that.”

I handed over my suitcase.

“Did you forget your grandpa wanted me to take care of you?”

I nodded, without mentioning my broken promise of Sam.

“As a favor to me and your grandpa, the judge is here to make that formal,” she said. “He came for the funeral. You are not going to the Children’s Home. Understand?”

I nodded so hard my eyeballs hurt.

“Good, let’s go say hello to the judge. Then John Caleb, I want a word with you.”


I was sent outside to sit on the front porch of the store after Miss Louise introduced me to the judge. She kept John Caleb inside. His only hope, I figured, was with the judge around, she wouldn’t use Old Bluster on him.

Miss Louise had put up a handwritten Closed until 5 sign on the door. The lumber yard, hardware store and the filling station down the street were open and busy. The town of Iron Mound that gave the orphanage its name was supposed to have dried up with the departure of the railroad, but no one told the folks who lived there, and the town hung on. Sullivan’s General Store was the hub—part grocery store, part dry goods, and more importantly, the weather bureau and rumor mill, which amounted to the same thing.

On the front porch, the hands of the RC Cola clock took their time going around the dial. Years ago someone had penciled beneath the clock, Time spent on the front porch ought to run slower than that of the world. Miss Louise liked it so much she never painted over it. Nobody knew who wrote it. It was the big mystery of the town.

The Parker truck was across the street. I recognized it by its rust, its general disrepair and the red-haired girl in back, John Caleb’s oldest sister, Maggie. John Caleb came out to sit next to me. He waved at Maggie.

“What’d Miss Louise do to you?” I asked.

He stretched back his lips to show off his yellow, orange and white “false teeth” before giving me a few kernels of candy corn.

“Nothing.” He spit out the candy corn. “Told me she’d come after us like a witch on broom, if we tried to run away. Then she asked how I got into the house. Said I was welcome anytime, but to come through the door.” He grinned and popped one of his “teeth” back into his mouth.

With our attention on our candy, we didn’t pay much heed to the man crossing the street until he was on the sidewalk in front of us. One look at his droopy eyelid, and I jumped to my feet, lost my balance and tumbled into his arms.

“Careful, Gracie,” he said.

I had convinced myself he wouldn’t come around again, that he couldn’t, but there he was, his one good eye studying me from the top of my head to my banging shoes. I put one foot on top the other to stop their bad habit. Rag knelt in front of me and pressed a discolored quarter into my palm. “You need something, you just come to your old Uncle Rag. We’re all we got, each other. I’ll take care of you. You take care of me. See?”

I stared at the quarter glued to my sticky palm. Did he know I was there the night Grandpa died? I had been too worried about the Children’s Home to consider the possibility of ending up with him. What if Miss Louise was wrong about my living with her?

Rag raised my chin with his finger. “I loved your mama. Everybody did. She was the prettiest, sweetest lady I ever set eyes on. What’s more, I know what it’s like to lose your mama. Mine died when I was a little boy. I missed her so much it hurt awful.”

He tried to hug me. I wiggled from his grasp, wondering if the eye under his droopy lid was thinking the same thing as his good one.

John Caleb grabbed my hand to look at my quarter. “A whole two bits, Gracie.”

Rag swept off his grimy hat to puzzle over John Caleb. “You gotta be one of George Parker’s brats.”

“I’m not a brat,” John Caleb mumbled.

“Course not. You know what they say about a Parker, don’t you?” He scrubbed John Caleb’s scalp with his knuckles. “If he ever had two nickels to rub together, he’d be too lazy to do it.”

John Caleb raised his upper lip like a growling dog. His candy colored teeth failed to make an impression. Rag laughed, but he reached into his pocket and tossed John Caleb a quarter.

“Here you go.”

“Wow. Thanks,” John Caleb said.

“And don’t say I never gave you anything for your trouble.”

John Caleb and I were comparing our coins when a wrinkled hand rested on my shoulder. I leaned into Miss Louise for comfort. My worries had worn me down.

“I missed seeing you at the funeral,” Miss Louise said to Rag.

“I’m here now.”

“Is that any way to treat your father’s memory?”

He sighed. “I couldn’t get his car started.”

I figured it was because Grandpa didn’t want him borrowing it, but knew better than to remind Rag. With Miss Louise beside me, my uncle seemed to forget me. He reached over to snap his fingers in front of John Caleb’s face.

“Hey, boy? How many brats your daddy got these days?”

“Nine.”

Rag hooted. “Never figured old George to have that much ambition.”

“Pa says Ma’s swallowed another watermelon seed. That’s her over there coming down the sidewalk.”


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