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As winter approached southwest Louisiana in 1926, I knew I should have been about as happy as any man could be. I worked as the chief of police for Marshall's Bayou, a peaceful little settlement in a marsh filled with quiet beauty and generous folks. I also made a nice living raising cattle with my brother Alcide, and ate nearly every Sunday dinner at his house surrounded by a loving family. My nephew, Frank, helped me when I needed a hand with heavy chores, and Alcide showed up at my door to check on me when I stayed away too long.
To sweeten the pot, I'd been seeing Marceline D'Lonne fairly regularly for six months. My sister-in-law Becky had taken to humming the wedding march when she saw me.
All in all, life was good.
Which left me trying to figure out why I spent so much time at the beach staring out at the Gulf. I felt like a ship dragging around an empty anchor line. I should have been comfortably harbored, but something was missing.
I was pretty sure that something wasn't Grace Trahan. I'd fallen in love with Grace in my youth and had offered her my love as an adult, but two years earlier, the very day I'd planned to propose, she'd left me and the rest of Marshall's Bayou behind. She'd torn up my heart worse than any of my brother's crazy horses had ever torn up my backside, but I'd learned to survive. In fact, by that fall, I'd nearly forgotten how much I missed her.
I didn't have any idea what was wrong with me.
I was returning from the beach one sunny October morning, following the sun-baked trail that ran along the top of the levee beside the bayou, when my life changed.
Not that it happened all atonce. In fact, I had no idea what lay ahead when I met Henry Dozier on the trail. He was a man about my own age but more youthful in demeanor, and he trotted toward me waving like a kid.
I stopped and greeted him with a handshake.
"Henry. How's your family?"
He grinned, showing off a perfect set of pearly whites.
"Not bad, all things considered."
It was a much shorter answer than I'd expected--Henry had at least a dozen siblings, and several dozen nieces and nephews.
"Glad to hear it."
He motioned back toward his house with his head.
"Mama sent me to look for you. She says someone took her best milking bucket and an ax."
"Really?" I glanced out across the vast marsh, where roofs rose like mushrooms in a wet pasture and oak and pecan trees outlined homesteads. Somewhere, a dog barked as a soft breeze from the Gulf rippled the blanket of green and brown grass. Marshall's Bayou wasn't exactly a hotbed of criminal activity. "She's sure someone took them?"
I sighed and dropped a hand to Henry's shoulder.
"Let's go have a look."
I followed him along the narrow trail until it dropped off the levee heading east, paralleling the coast, and widened so we could walk side-by-side discussing the weather and upcoming celebrations. With All Hallow's Eve less than a week away, the community's thoughts turned to pecan pies and dancing.
"Papa's planning his fais do-do," Henry said. "You and your family are invited."
I nodded. "Thank you. I'll let Alcide know."
Belezaire Dozier, Henry's father, threw the best parties in the parish. Vats of gumbo and jambalaya led into music and dancing that often lasted two days. Once the children were put to bed on pallets in the back room--as the name fais do-do, or "go to sleep" suggests--liquor flowed and the place got crazy. I'd attended more than one of Mr. Dozier's parties, and gotten in more trouble than I should have.
In the Dozier's yard, half a dozen barefoot children dashed in front of us, a game of jailbreak well underway. I tipped my hat to Mrs. Dozier, a large, good-natured woman of dark beauty softened by years and progeny.
"Good morning, ma'am."
"Mr. Cormier," she said. "I'm glad my Henry found you."
"I understand you have some things missing."
"Yes, I do. We heard a ruckus out here last night and figured it was just an old coon hunting for eggs, but I guess it wasn't. I've never heard of a raccoon walking off with an ax and milking bucket."
"And you're sure they're missing?"
"I most certainly am. My children know better than to touch my bucket."
I recalled at least one occasion when I'd used Mama's milking bucket even though I'd known better, and understood how Mrs. Dozier's children knew to leave it alone.
She led the way to the woodshed, where a splitting log stood naked, surrounded by an apron of woodchips. As the children ran past, I knew it was futile to search for tracks, but I looked around anyway and found nothing that stood out.
I lifted my hat and scratched my head.
"Do you have any idea who would have taken them?"
"I just can't imagine." Mrs. Dozier patted her chest as if overcome with anxiety at the thought.
I had to admit, I also couldn't imagine a thief running around Marshall's Bayou. People in the marsh knew each other's dogs and horses, not just their family members. A new ax beside someone's woodpile would be noticed.
"Anything special about the ax or bucket?"
"The bucket's a good, solid oak bucket, nothing in particular. But one of my boys, Julian, carved his initials in the ax handle when he was six, trying out the knife he'd gotten for his birthday. You can still see them."
I nodded. "I'll take a look around."
After turning down several offers of coffee and cake, I ambled home, enjoying the cloudless sky and salty breeze. It couldn't have been a more perfect day for riding around the marsh, saying hello and checking out woodpiles. And the case of possible larceny had my thoughts focused on something other than my own unidentifiable problems.
By the time I reached the D'Lonnes' place, one of the most northern of the homesteads, I'd seen nearly half the axes in Marshall's Bayou and was getting tired of searching. Marceline stood in the doorway as I approached, her head lowered seductively, a grin gracing her pretty lips. She wore her long brown hair pulled up in back, and her rosy cheeks suggested she'd been performing some rigorous chore just before my arrival.
"Well, Dassas, what brings you way out here?"
I smiled as I swung down from my saddle.
"You know I can't stay away from you."
"You devil," she said, returning my smile.
I wrapped Midnight's reins around a hitching post and removed my hat as I climbed the stairs to stand before her.
"Is your mother home?"
I stepped forward and whispered, "Too bad."
She tried to act surprised but didn't quite pull it off.
I kissed her cheek and squeezed her hand.
"You want to come in?" she asked.
"I'd love to."
The D'Lonne home was comfortable, with more than enough room for the three it housed. Francis D'Lonne, Marceline's older brother, had his own place several miles east, and Emile and Anora D'Lonne had raised only two children to adulthood. Three tiny crosses in the Catholic cemetery marked Marceline's infant siblings, one taken by influenza and two stillborn. Anora D'Lonne always looked a little sad, and I wondered if she still mourned her lost children.
"Dassas," Mrs. D'Lonne said, "I hope you'll stay for dinner. I expect my husband at any moment."
"Thank you, ma'am, I'm afraid I can't. I'm here on business."
"What?" Marceline flashed a wounded frown. "I thought you came to see me."
"You're the reason I'm glad to be here." I winked at her.
She seemed somewhat appeased by my answer, but not altogether happy. I'd have to make it up to her.
"What business?" her mother asked.
"Mrs. Dozier had an ax and milking bucket taken last night."
"She thinks we took them?"
"Oh, no, ma'am. I'm simply asking around to see if anyone noticed anything."
The woman shook her head and frowned. "No, but I'm missing two chickens."
Her response surprised me. "You are?"
"Yes, sir, I am."
"Mama," Marceline said, "they're probably around here somewhere. Maybe they got out this morning while you were feeding them."
"No, child, I'm always careful about the chickens. I've lost too many to foxes coming out of the piney woods."
"When did you notice they were missing?" I asked.
"Morning before this, when I went out for eggs. There was no sign of a fox slipping in, either. And I only found two eggs that morning. My girls are better layers than that. We had seven this morning."
"Well, then, I guess I'm looking for an ax and a bucket--and two chickens."
Mrs. D'Lonne pushed her hair back from the side of her face. "Sounds like we've got a thief in Marshall's Bayou."
I sure hoped she was wrong. I knew pretty much everyone in the marsh and couldn't think of a soul I'd suspect of stealing from his neighbors.
Refusing the offer of dinner again, I followed Marceline outside.
"I'm not happy with you, Dassas Cormier. I don't see you for three days, and then you show up here on business. Maybe I should consider some of those other offers I keep getting."
"What other offers?" Although I suspected she might just be trying to worry me into being more attentive, I clicked through the list of eligible men in the marsh, trying to figure out who might be trying to replace me. I came up with one or two possibilities.
She didn't answer my question.
Once we were on the far side of my horse, I drew Marceline up close. "Let me make it up to you. How about supper at my place Thursday night? Then, maybe, you can tell your mama you're spending the night with Doralise."
"And do what instead?" She looked up at me with wide, innocent eyes.
"And sneak out to spend the night with me, that's what."
Her attempt to look shocked made me laugh, and she slapped my arm. "I should send you on your way without a prayer," she said.
"I sure wish you wouldn't."
She shook her head, glanced back at the house and stood on her toes to kiss me. "Pick me up at six."
"Yes, ma'am." I returned her kiss and then climbed up on Midnight.
Marceline waved as I started my trek south, headed for the east side of the community. I waved back, looking forward to Thursday. Only two days away. I fantasized about Marceline as I rode.
By the time I reached Alcide's four hours later, I'd practically forgotten her.