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"Nobody likes the wicked witch, Corliss."
"Then why is she in the book?"
"I suppose books have to have bad people as well as good people." She looked down at the book, The Wizard of Oz, and ran her hand over her sister's blonde hair. "Don't you worry about it. There's no such thing as witches anyway."
"I like the cowardly lion."
"Why do you like him?"
"Because he wanted to be brave but he couldn't. But he will soon, won't he? Let's skip ahead to the part where the wizard gives everybody what they want." Corliss's blue eyes lit up. "The straw man got his brain, the tin man got a heart, and the lion got courage. I like stories where everyone gets what they want."
The old grandfather clock sent its message across the room that time was passing. As Corliss picked out the words she knew-sometimes whole sentences-and read them aloud, Lanie thought how Mama would have loved her. Sadness filled her heart as she recognized this couldnever be.
Booger, the bloodhound, and Beau, just a pure hound, had been watching. Beau had been peaceful as long as he could. He got up, came across the floor, and rearing up, put his front paws in Lanie's lap, his eyes soulful as he sought her gaze.
"No, Beau, you can't get up in my lap! You're too big. Now go over there and be good."
Beau stared at her for a moment, then walked across the room and threw himself down, staring at the wall.
"You hurt his feelings again, Lanie."
"He gets his feelings hurt too easy. I think he's the only dog in the world that pouts."
"I pout too, sometimes."
"No, you don't, honey. You're always a good girl. Now, let's go on with the story, but you ought to know it by heart by now. We've read it so many times."
Indeed, the two had read the Wizard of Oz ever since Corliss had been able to talk, which was at a very early age. She loved books, and the Wizard of Oz was her favorite. If Lanie, Davis, or Cody tried to skip sections, she called them on it immediately. "You're skipping the good part," she always said.
Booger, the bloodhound, got up and stretched. The sunlight streaming through the window caught the gold medal around his neck, which spelled out HERO in capital letters. The town of Fairhope, Arkansas, had given it to him when he used his talents as a bloodhound to find Roger Langley who had been hurt and unable to move in the deep woods. Booger's picture had been in the paper and now was tacked up on the wall with other snapshots of the Freeman family. Booger had been one of the bloodhounds at Cummins Prison where their father, Forrest, was incarcerated for a crime he had not committed.
"Booger wants to go out." Corliss put the book down and ran to the screen door, Booger at her heels. On her way back to Lanie, she glanced toward the stairs, looking worried. "Aunt Kezia doesn't feel so good, Lanie."
"I know she doesn't, honey. She's pretty sick."
"She got a new bottle of medicine in the mail, but it didn't help her any."
Lanie frowned. "I wish she would stop taking that patent medicine. It doesn't do any good at all." She stirred restlessly, and then said, "You sit here and read your book, honey. I'll go up and see how Aunt Kezia is doing."
Lanie, a well-formed young woman of eighteen with a wealth of auburn hair and striking green eyes, moved from the living room and quickly ascended the stairs. As she entered the bedroom at the end of the second story hallway, she found Aunt Kezia Pettigrew sitting in a rocking chair, staring out the window. Lanie was in awe of this ninety-two-year-old woman's adventurous life. When the state was going to separate the Freeman children after the death of their mother and the incarceration of Forrest Freeman, it had been God's miracle when Aunt Kezia was located and agreed to fulfill the state requirement of an adult in the house full of young people. She was a small woman, and age was beginning to tell its tale, but her eyes were still bright and clear.
"How are you feeling, Aunt Kezia?"
Ignoring Lanie's question, Kezia stared through the window. "I always liked fall the best of all. Back when we lived in Louisiana, there was no such thing as seasons. Look at the colors. The fall brings them out, don't it, now?"
"They'll be more colorful in October." Lanie moved closer and put her hand on the old woman's forehead. Aunt Kezia immediately struck it away and glared at her. "I will not be pawed at, thank you very much!"
But she did not fool Lanie. "I'm going to get Owen."
"You'll do no such thing. I'll be right fine. I've got me a new medicine." She picked up a brown bottle and held it high. "Doctor Oscar Bennett's Liver Rejuvenator. It's got four secret ingredients."
Lanie took the bottle, unscrewed the top, and smelled it. "Why, this is just plain alcohol, Aunt Kezia, with something put in it to make it taste bad."
"It is not! Doctor Bennett was brought up by the Cherokee Indians. An old medicine man gave him this recipe his own self."
"No, this won't do you any good. Don't you remember Estelle Tatum who started taking that patent medicine? It wasn't anything but alcohol. She became a regular addict."
"Well, she stopped aching, didn't she?"
"I guess so, but she was drunk all the time. I'm going to get Owen."
Kezia cackled and humor lit her dark eyes. "You likely won't find him."
"What are you talking about?"
"He's probably doctoring the widow Hankins. She's been after him ever since she lost her husband. She sees Owen Merritt as a likely prospect for number two."
Lanie bit her lip, for there was some truth to this. A small town like Fairhope had no secrets, and she was well aware that all the widows and single women in town suddenly enjoyed ill health. Doctor Owen Merritt was called regularly to treat women who had nothing wrong except loneliness.
"Now, you take that Ella Hankins. She wants a man. She's got her cap set for Merritt. Come to think of it, maybe you better go get him. I need to give him some advice on how to take care of these man-hungry females that are out to get him to the altar."
Lanie could not help smiling. She reached over, hugged Kezia, and nodded. "You just wait right here. I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Take your time, honey. I ain't going nowhere."
Lanie hurried downstairs and into the kitchen where a large black woman was ironing. Delilah Jones was the mother of the Reverend Madison Jones, the pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church. She looked up from the cast smoothing iron she had just picked up from the stove, spit on it, and watched it sizzle. "This is the way to iron clothes. Them newfangled electric irons ain't worth spit."
"I'd like to have one all the same, Delilah."
"Them inventions ain't gonna do nobody no good. If these solid irons was good enough for my mammy, they're good enough for them women today. They's jist too lazy to work, that's what their problem is."
Lanie had learned long ago that it was useless to argue with Delilah Jones. She had a will as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar, and as far as anyone could figure out, the last time she had changed her mind it had been another century. "I've got to go get Doctor Merritt, Delilah. Aunt Kezia isn't any better. You take care of her and Corliss."
Delilah put the iron down on one of Davis's shirts and smoothed out the wrinkles. She quickly lifted the iron before it could scorch the material. "I reckon we could pray her through, Miss Lanie. I could get the deacons of our church to come, and that preacher of mine. We could anoint her with ile."
"Well, we maybe could do that, Delilah"-Lanie smiled-"but first of all, we've got to get rid of that awful medicine she orders by mail. I'm hoping she'll listen to Doctor Merritt."
"She ain't gonna listen to nobody," Delilah said. "She's stubborn as a blue-nosed mule."
And so are you, Lanie wanted to reply but did not. Delilah Jones had been the Freemans' strong anchor since the death of their mother. Lanie had been only fourteen when she was forced to take over raising her younger brothers and sisters. With the Depression at its worst, they could not afford much, and Delilah Jones had come day after day, and year after year, to throw herself into the lives of the Freeman children. Lanie loved her dearly. Going over, she hugged the big woman's shoulders. "You're a treasure, Delilah. I don't know what we would have done without you."
"I don't know neither. Now you go on and git that doctor. We'll let him try his thing, and then when that don't work, we'll let the good Lord have His way. I knows that'll work!"
Lanie left the house and turned toward town. The old Freeman home place was composed of five acres, all that was left of a large plantation that had belonged to Forrest's great-grandparents. It was all gone now. Sold off to make city lots, most of it, and as she hurried along, Lanie wondered what it had been like back in the days when this was all open fields with no town at all except a general store.
Turning left on Stonewall Jackson Boulevard, she made her way through the town. She passed the library where Cassandra Sue Pruitt, the librarian, waved to her, then turning right on Robert E. Lee Street, she passed the Rialto Theater and Planter's Bank directly across the street.
She arrived at the office of Doctor Oscar Givens and entered at once. A short stocky woman with her hair done up in a Pentecostal bun looked up. "Hello, Lanie."
"Hello, Nurse Pickens. I'd like to see Doctor Merritt, please."
"He's not here. He's gone down to get lunch, at least so he said. What he really likes to do is go down and listen to the gossip at the Dew Drop Inn. Who's sick?"
Lanie knew that she could get a full diagnosis from Nurse Pickens but did not want to get into that. The woman had served old Doctor Givens for at least thirty years and knew the ailment of every citizen of the county. "Aunt Kezia's not feeling well, but I'll go find Doctor Merritt."
"You tell him to bring me back Sister Myrtle's special. It's greens and fried pork chops-and bring me a piece of pie. Whatever she made today."
"I'll tell him, Nurse Pickens."
* * *
The Dew Drop Inn, being the only café in Fairhope, did a brisk business. It was pinched in between the barbershop run by Deoin Jinks and Gerald Pink's pharmacy. The parking spaces were all taken, as usual, around the Dew Drop Inn, for it was the social center of the town, almost as popular as Bud Thompson's Pool Hall.
Sister Myrtle Poindexter exited from the kitchen carrying two plates burdened down with food. Sister Myrtle was pastor of the Fire Baptized Pentecostal Church. She was a tall, angular woman with sharp brown eyes and her hair done up in a huge bun. She always wore dark clothing, sleeves down to her wrists and no jewelry except for a simple wedding band.
Charlie Poindexter, Sister Myrtle's husband, was a short chunky man of few words. This was just as well since Sister Myrtle had enough words for both of them. They had, however, a sound marriage, having raised six children with all of them turning out well.
The Ministerial Alliance of Fairhope was meeting at the Dew Drop Inn for lunch as they did every Monday at noon. Sister Myrtle did not even bother to take orders. They took the special or there was an argument. None of the preachers ever dared to order anything except the special. The plates were piled high with pork chops, collard greens, squash, and corn on the cob; in the middle of the table was a huge platter of corn bread.
Sister Myrtle slammed the plate down in front of Roy Jefferson, the Episcopal priest, and glared down at him. She had a running feud going with the priest about his collar. "I've told you before, Preacher, Jesus didn't wear no collar like that."
Jefferson looked up. "I don't expect he wore any kind of collar at all."
"Then why do you have to wear one?"
"It's just tradition among our church folks, Sister Myrtle. Now please don't start on me."
But Sister Myrtle plunked down a plate heaping with food in front of Ellis Burke, the Methodist preacher, and turned her guns on Reverend Jefferson. "You've got to make Carl Spivey go to work, Preacher."
It was difficult to have a ministerial alliance meeting at the Dew Drop Inn, for Sister Myrtle knew every member of every man's congregation (including all their shortcomings) and did not hesitate to bring them up in an open forum.
"I don't know how I could do that, Sister."
"He lets that poor wife of his do all the work. He's a lazy bum."
"He claims he's got a bad back," Jefferson protested.
"You bring him by our church, and we'll anoint him and get him healed. But it ain't his back. He's just lazy. All them Spivey men are lazy."
Jefferson caved in and nodded in surrender. "I'll have a word with him, Sister."
Ellison Burke, the Methodist pastor, was a small man with sharp, intellectual features. He was grinning at Roy Jefferson when Sister Myrtle turned to face him. "What are you going to do about that Bowden girl?"
"You mean Alice?"
"How many Bowden girls you got?"
"Well, I guess she's the only one, Sister Myrtle. What's she done now?"
"You need to keep up with your sheep, Preacher. She went over to Fort Smith with Aaron Dutton. He's no good, and he's going to get that girl in trouble. I think you got to jerk a knot in her and get her straightened out."
"I don't see I could do that."
"Well, the Apostle Paul would have did it! That girl's trying to be one of them flappers."
"I don't expect she means any harm."
"She wears ear screws. That's flat against the Bible, and you know it!"
"Where is that in the Bible?"
"I ain't got time for no theology lesson. You come by when this meeting's over, and I'll show you. But you've got to stop that girl before she goes plum down the wrong road."
"I'll see what I can do."
Sister Myrtle whirled and disappeared back in the kitchen. She came back almost instantly with two more platters. She put one of them down in front of the Presbyterian pastor Alex Digby. She opened her mouth but before she could speak Reverend Digby said, "Now don't you start on me, Sister Myrtle. I know some of my flock needs to be chastised, and I'll send them over for some of your sermon."
"Good! I'll give them a sizzling, red-hot dose of Gospel."
"I'm sure they'll profit by it."
Myrtle stared down at the plate of food and then at the rotund figure of Reverend Digby who was not pleasingly plump but downright overweight. "I've got a word for you from the Lord."
Laughter went around the table, and all the ministers kept their eyes on Sister Myrtle. She always had a word of the Lord for all of them, and Alex Digby flushed. "I don't think I want to hear it."
"Well, you're going to. You need to fast, my brother. You're digging your grave with that fork."
Colin Ryan, the interim pastor of the Baptist Church, was the youngest of the preachers at the meeting. He was twenty-six years old with black hair, dark blue eyes, a widow's peak, and a cleft chin. "Do you suppose we could just have the blessing and eat without the theology? These meetings always make me hungry."
Sister Myrtle suddenly laughed. She had a fondness in her heart for the young preacher who was anything but a typical Baptist. He often visited Sister Myrtle's church and was as loud with his amens and praise the Lords as any of her own flock. "You fly right at it, Brother Colin. You Baptists eat better than you do anything else anyhow."
Father Horatio Bates, the Catholic priest, always dreaded these meetings at the Dew Drop Inn. It humiliated him, somehow, that Sister Myrtle Poindexter knew at least as much of the doings of his flock as he himself knew. He bowed his head and said quickly, "Let's have the blessing."
"I'll ask it myself. I ain't sure any of you preachers are in fit spiritual condition to be thanking the Lord anyways," Sister Myrtle said. She prayed in a loud, strident voice as if she wanted the people across the street to hear. She put in not just a thanks for the preachers and their churches but for every item of food on the table.
Finally, as it went on and on, Colin Ryan broke in and said, "While Sister Myrtle finishes her prayer why don't we go ahead and eat."
Laughter went around the table, and Doctor Merritt, who was sitting at a separate table with the Sheriff Pardue Jessup, whispered, "I like this place, Pardue. You can get your stomach filled and your spiritual needs met."
Sister Myrtle whirled for she had excellent hearing. "I heard that. You missed the last two services at church, Doctor Owen Merritt. You're downright backslid."
Excerpted from The Courtship by Gilbert Morris Copyright © 2007 by Gilbert Morris. Excerpted by permission.
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