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In Easy Pickin's, Fred Harris vividly creates a nail-biting suspense novel set against the backdrop of a small Midwestern prairie town.
It was the Saturday morning before Easter 1938, which that year fell on April 17, that a human body hurtled out of a diamond-clear sky and slammed right down in the middle of a flat Oklahoma oat field.
The day'd been windy, but the local weekly, the Vernon Herald, couldn't have made a headline out of that. It wouldn't have been news. The wind always blew in southwest Oklahoma. Stud Wampler, my main deputy, liked to say that chickens in that part of the country had to carry rocks to keep from getting blown away.
The relentless "dirty thirties" wind of the awful Dust Bowl years, just earlier, had scooped up and hauled a lot of Oklahoma on down to Texas, dribbling out lives and dreams along the way. But 1938, itself, had not been a Dust Bowl year--like 1936 and 1935 had been. Thank God! And by Eastertime, we hadn't had any tornados, yet, in those parts.
So, you didn't have to be the Cash County sheriff--as I was, right then--to deduce that no diabolically fierce wind had suddenly snatched up the human body in question from somewhere else and then dumped it like a tree limb in the center of that wavy, green field of newly headed oats.
The field belonged to two uncles of mine, Uncle Joe Ray and Uncle Leroy Vanderwerth, bachelor brothers of my dead mother. The common saying around there about people like those two was that "their eggs got shook." They'd been all right, twenty-one years earlier, in 1917, when they'd left Vernon to go and fight in the Great War in Europe. But they'd come back from the hell-hole trenches "shell-shocked," as people said, never the same again.
The two brothers, slat-slim and all knees andelbows, were as poor as Job's turkey, as Mama would have said. They made a living the best they could on a 160-acre Indian lease, hunting and fishing, raising turkeys, selling cream and eggs, and making home-brew beer. Periodically, they sold dressed squirrels doorto-door in Vernon for the asking price of two bits, but now and then had to take fifteen cents because times were hard, and a lot of people didn't any more have an extra two bits to spare than my uncles did.
There was nothing addled about the uncles' report of what they'd found in their field that Saturday before Easter.
"Hit were one of our coondogs, that bluetick named Willie, that set up sich a ruckus out in them oats," Uncle Leroy said.
"That uz how we-uns got the idee somep'n other was out there," Uncle Joe Ray said.
They'd followed the coondog's baying and run out, barebacked and barefooted, to the oat field in front of their old house to see what was the matter. Finding the dead body, they'd looked it over quickly, then turned right around and jogged back to the house and jerked on their shoes-without socks, I could see--and their wrinkled gray work shirts, outside the suspenders of their ragged Blue Bell overalls. They'd hitched up their mismatched team, a big bay horse and a little sorrel jenny, to their frail wagon and careened off, north, to the rented house where I was batching--the old Billings place on the east side of Vernon-to bring me the news.
Telling me about what they'd found, the two of them were as excited as coondogs that've run an armadillo into a hole. Spraying snuff juice through snaggled teeth and talking over each other in their high-pitched voices, they blurted out their story, answering, when I asked, that the victim was dead when first discovered.
"Dead as Aint Idy's cat, Okie, hon" is the way Uncle Leroy put it.
I'd been named after these two uncles. My real name is Ray Lee Dunn. But my dad had put the nickname "Okie" on me when I was little because I was born on November 16, Oklahoma statehood day. The nickname had stuck. I was going on twenty-seven that Easter weekend of 1938, Oklahoma going on thirty-one.
"Deader'n ol' Woodrow Wilson," Uncle Joe Ray said.
The uncles were puzzled about one thing, though, and when they mentioned it to me, both of them, like twins, ran their bony fingers through spiky gray hair, which looked to me like they'd whacked on it themselves, maybe with their pocketknives. They'd been unable to decide whether the victim's death had come prior to the fall, or as a result of it.
"Acourse, hit don't make a heap a difference to the corpse," Uncle Leroy said.
"Deadfall or fall dead, all the same to the faller," Uncle Joe Ray said.
And fall was sure enough what that body had done, no doubt about it. Right out of a cloudless sky. It had neither been blown nor, as it turned out, carried to where itd landed in the Vanderwerth brothers' oat field, about three miles southeast of the county-seat town of Vernon, Oklahoma, twenty some-odd miles this side of Red River.
The train of events that led up to the body falling from the sky had begun two days earlier, though, on the Thursday before Easter. That's the day a small covey of three strangers showed up, separately, in our little town--all of them somehow connected, time would show, to the "Case of the Unknown Girl," as Stud Wampler would soon start calling it.Easy Pickin's. Copyright © by Fred Harris. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.