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He made it to the outhouse, though he didn't remember if he actually managed to do his business inside or not. He did remember that there was a good sized stash of moonshine in the barn, and he navigated that fifty or so yards with only a couple of stops to rest and regroup. He got somewhat turned around in the barn, and after he had retrieved a jar, he realized that he had gone out the back and was headed for the woods instead of the house.
This fact in itself put him in a bad mood, for he couldn't quite get his feet headed back in the right direction. But as he drew near the trees, he could hear voices murmuring. Having to think about this quite put him out.
When he drew near enough to recognize the voice of his nineteen-year-old son, John Lee, Harley's irritation turned to anger. Something about that boy made Harley mad, especially since the boy had become so contrary. John Lee was supposed to be slopping the hogs now, and it occurred to Harley that he hadn't seen the boy in the barn. Indignant, he staggered toward the voices, then stopped, swaying in his tracks, when he realized who John Lee was talking to.
It was that Tucker girl.
It seemed like there were hundreds of Tuckers in Muskogee County, and Okmulgee County, and they were married to everybody and held every third office and owned every other business in the area. Harley hated the Tuckers, with their highfaluting ways, and he hated the fact that John Lee was talking with Phoebe Tucker, whose father's large property nearly wrapped around Harley's ratty little eighty-acre farm.
Harley's anger turned to rage. He could see them through the trees, sitting with their heads together on a little hillock, so engrossed in their conversation that a mule could have sat on them and they wouldn't have known it. Harley dropped his jar and lunged at the pair, feeling murderous.
The young people saw him at the last minute and scrambled apart, he with a yelp and she with a shriek of terror. Harley took a swipe at John Lee with his right hand and missed, but he managed to grab Phoebe's arm with his left.
Phoebe was a small girl, but her alarm gave her strength, and she almost twisted away. Harley managed to hold on and jerked her toward him, and she stumbled and fell to her knees. Harley was aware that John Lee was yelling at him. John Lee often yelled at him, lately. But there was something new in the tone of John Lee's voice that penetrated the fog of Harley's thinking.
John Lee sounded angry. Not afraid, like he usually did, or desperate, but angry. A righteous anger, like the preacher at a revival. For a second, Harley's curiosity got the better of his fury and he looked at his son.
John Lee's eyes, big and black and usually as mild as a deer's, were snapping. "You let her go, Daddy," he ordered.
The fury was back as suddenly as it had abated. "Boy, you should have listened to me when I told you never to see this gal again," Harley yelled.
"Let her go," John Lee repeated. His voice had dropped a register, and was as taut as a barbed wire fence.
"Don't you be talking to me like that," Harley warned. "I'll skin you alive. You get on back up to the house. I'm going teach this little piece of baggage to stay at home...." Harley had planned to say a lot more, but he didn't get the chance. John Lee punched him in the jaw.
For an instant, the wonder of this inexplicable event knocked every thought out of Harley's head. For nineteen years Harley had been abusing John Lee at his pleasure, and never before had the boy retaliated. At most, he would try to escape, or sometimes he'd run off and not be seen for the entire day. For the last year or two, he had been objecting when Harley hit the boy's mother, though sensibly she always told John Lee to mind his own business when he tried to intervene. In fact, there had been an incident with the boy recently, Harley remembered. Was it this morning? But this was the first time he had actually struck his own father.
Harley's befuddlement only lasted for an instant, and then the fury returned, doubly intensified by John Lee's unforgivable outrage.
Harley let go of Phoebe's arm and grabbed something off the ground. It may have been a stubby tree branch, or a clod, or a rock, Harley wasn't sure. He swung, aiming as well as he could through the red haze that glazed his view, and connected. There was an odd crunching sound and John Lee was flung face down into the leaf litter and lay still.
Phoebe screamed, but did not run away as any sensible girl would have. She tried to reach John Lee's prone form, but Harley seized her by the shoulders, and she turned toward him. He was vaguely aware that she was making a high-pitched sound, part fear and part outrage. She was fighting him. She attempted to jerk out of his grasp. Harley wasn't steady enough to keep his feet, and they went down together. Harley fell on the girl like a sack of potatoes, and her breath whooshed out past his ear.
Harley thought that Phoebe was struggling and crying under him. He thought that he saw John Lee sit up, then brace himself unsteadily with his hand on the ground. The boy said something that Harley didn't understand. He turned his head enough to look at his son, who was coming at him. John Lee reached into the bib pocket of his overalls.
Alafair had not seen John Lee Day much since he had gotten so well grown, but there was no mistaking who he was. He still had the same stunning, big-eyed face that he had had when he was a ten-year-old and used to hang around the farm with all the other kids in the vicinity. He looked like a man, now, Alafair thought with a pang. A young man, to be sure, downy-cheeked still, but those cheeks were surely more gaunt than when she had last seen him. He looked to be a little less than middle height, but that still made him taller than Alafair's little Phoebe.
"Well, look what Phoebe has drug in," said the girl in the porch swing to Alafair's left. "It's John Lee Day as I live and breathe."
"Don't you have something to do, Alice?" Alafair asked, without taking her eyes off the advancing couple.
"Sure I do, Mama," Alice answered in that light, sassy way of hers. "But this here is much more interesting."
Alafair had long ago learned to school her pleasant features to look all business, but her mouth often betrayed her with unbidden smiles, as it did now as she looked over at Alice. Alice and Phoebe were twins, both seventeen and beautiful, but so unlike that it was hard to believe that they were even sisters. Alice was tall and incorrigible, blond as wheat and blue-eyed as the sky. Phoebe was like the little bird she was named for, small and neat, with an abundance of waving dark russet hair and fine, deep-set hazel eyes that could be either green or gold depending on the light and her mood. She was brave, Phoebe was, and could stand up for herself when she had to, and with Alice for a twin, she often had to. But left to her own devices, Phoebe was by far the sweetest of all of Alafair's children, and a real dreamer. "I can't remember the last time I saw John Lee," Alafair observed to Alice. "He used to be around a lot to play with you kids when he was a youngster."
Alice shrugged. "Ever since he's gotten old enough to walk behind a plow his daddy's kept him as a slave, I think. You know how we've got to walk by their place on the way to town? Seems like he was always there by the road, at the gate in front of their farm, watching us go by when we went to school."
"Didn't he go with you?"
"He left school when he was about thirteen, if I remember right. He still shows up at that gate, though. Especially when Phoebe walks by. I think he's sweet on her."
Alafair looked back out at the advancing pair and rubbed her arms, wishing that she had thought to throw on a shawl before she stepped outside. Her breath clouded the air as she sighed. "Now, why haven't I heard about this?" she wondered aloud.
"Why, you know how Phoebe is, Ma."
"I know you'd never let her hear the end of it if she got her a beau."
"True enough," Alice said with a laugh. "And you know what? Now that I think on it, Phoebe sure has taken a liking to strolling up and down the road lately."
Alafair shot Alice a stern look. "You just go inside, now, and help your sisters with supper, or find something else useful to do. It's too cold to be sitting around doing nothing, anyway."
Alice looked as though she might say something else annoying, but apparently thought better of it and stood up. "Want me to make the cornbread tonight?"
"Ask Martha. She's in charge of supper this evening. Now hurry up. Your daddy and the boys will be in directly."
The screen creaked and the door clumped closed behind her when Alice went inside. Alafair walked down the porch steps to meet Phoebe and John Lee as they came in the gate.
A white fence defined the front yard where in summer Alafair grew herbs in small plots along the stone walk, and sometimes flowers, when she had the inclination. Native elms dotted the yard, and a large hackberry tree shaded the side of the house. A square stone well graced one corner of the yard, though it was covered and seldom used, now that a pump had been installed next to the back door. There was no back yard, only a fire break of twenty feet or so between the back of the house and a patch of woods which served as playground, dog run, pig buffet, and home to a small flock of wild turkeys.
Alafair acknowledged Phoebe with a smile before she looked beyond the girl toward John Lee, who had stood aside to let Phoebe pass. He snatched the wool cap from his head when Alafair looked at him, releasing an untidy shag of black hair that fell across his forehead.
Alafair leaned against the support beam and placed the fist clutching the dishtowel on her hip. "John Lee Day," she greeted. "I haven't seen you since before there was dirt. What brings you around?"
John Lee drew himself up and looked her in the eye, shy but straightforward, and pressed his cap against the breast of his threadbare coat. Alafair caught her breath when the boy looked up at her. She hadn't realized what a looker he had become. For just an instant, she was bemused. The fist on her hip dropped to her side, and the dishtowel unfurled like a flag.
"Good evening, Miz Tucker," John Lee was saying, when Alafair came to. "I met Phoebe on the road yonder, and figured I'd walk her home and say hello to y'all, being as I ain't been by here in so long."
Phoebe came up to Alafair's side, quiet as a shadow. She slipped her hand into her mother's, but kept her gaze on John Lee.
Alafair said, "You've grown up since I saw you last, son."
"I don't get away from the farm, much," John Lee admitted.
"How is your mother?"
He hesitated. "Well enough, ma'am," he conceded. The words "given her husband" were unspoken but understood.
"And all them young'uns?"
"Growing right along, ma'am."
"What happened to your eye?" Alafair asked, in the same polite tone of inquiry, though more gently.
John Lee's hand flew to the gash next to his right eye before he could stop himself. It was a rather ugly gash of about three inches, not very old, since it was just beginning to swell and redden. It had been carefully cleaned, but still oozed a little. John Lee sighed a barely perceptible sigh and smiled a rueful smile. "Reckon I run into a door, Miz Tucker," he said.
Alafair nodded. She didn't look at Phoebe, but the girl's hand tightened around hers. Harley Day's reputation was well known in Muskogee county. It had long been rumored that he struck Mrs. Day, and Alafair expected that John Lee was plenty old enough to object. Her heart tightened. He probably ran into a lot of doors.
"Why don't you come in and let me doctor that?" Alafair offered. "It don't look too bad. Shouldn't take but a minute."
John Lee shook his head. "Thank you, ma'am. I expect my ma can put something on it."
"We're just about to sit down and eat a bite of supper. You're more than welcome to stay if you've a mind," Alafair urged.
The invitation seemed to alarm the boy. "No, no, thank you, Miz Tucker. Ma's expecting me. I got to get back or she'll be wondering what happened to me." He looked at Phoebe, and a transformation came over his face that gave Alafair pause. "I just seen Phoebe strolling down the road past our gate and I wanted to keep her company for a bit, if you don't mind. It's just a nice evening for a stroll."
Alafair couldn't help but laugh at that. It had been drizzling a freezing rain off and on all day. The wind was still, but if it were twenty-five degrees, she would have been surprised. The layered clouds warned of snow before morning. "I don't mind if y'all take a little stroll," she told him, "though you might have picked a better evening for it. I do wish you would take some supper with us."
John Lee tore his gaze from Phoebe and looked at Phoebe's mother. "Thank you, ma'am, but I got to get home. Maybe some other time." He looked back at Phoebe again, and that strange transformation again came over his face. "Good night, Phoebe," he said, backing out of the gate.
"Good night, John Lee," Phoebe replied in a voice like honey.
Alafair and Phoebe stood together in silence, hand in hand, and watched for a long time as he went back down the drive, until he turned out onto the road toward his own farm.
"So, you've started taking regular strolls on down by the Day place," Alafair finally observed. "Must be half a mile. That's quite an amble in this cold."
Phoebe did not normally have a high color, but the cold and her emotions had already reddened her face, so her mother's question caused her to flush alarmingly. "I get cabin fever staying in the house all the time, what with this weather, Ma. Sometimes I like to have a little walk. John Lee has spotted me a couple of times and come up to his gate to talk to me. There's nothing wrong with that, is there?"
"No, surely not," Alafair said. "I think you should invite him to supper, though. Let me and your daddy meet him. Especially if you're going to be doing any more 'strolling' in the future."
"He's a nice boy, Mama," Phoebe assured her.
"I'm sure he is, Phoebe. Especially if you like him. Now let's get inside before I freeze to death. I swear it'll snow before the night is out."
They turned and walked toward the deep porch that ran along the entire front of the long white house. Alafair paused and took Phoebe's arm before they went inside. "Honey, I know you'll use your sense now," she warned. "But I want you to be careful about going over there to the Day place. That father of John Lee's isn't the best of men. And I'd really like for your daddy to look this boy over before you get too fond of him."
Alafair feared that if Phoebe got any redder, the top of her head would blow off like an overheated thermometer. For an instant, Phoebe's mouth worked, but no words came out. "You're right about that old man Day, Ma," Phoebe finally managed, her voice rapid and low. "He's just an evil man. He strikes Miz Day sometimes, and John Lee, too. You could see that. And he drinks something awful, Ma. He makes his own corn liquor and sells it to the low types around. I think we ought to tell the sheriff about him. But John Lee ain't like that, Mama. He's so good. He feels real responsible for his mother and them kids, and he's so gentle and kind, even to animals. He's never been anything but a perfect gentleman, believe me, Ma. And he wants to improve himself, too, and learn...."
Alafair patted Phoebe's arm. "Calm down, now," she soothed. "I never said we were going to forbid you to see him. You just ask him over first chance you get."
Phoebe said, "Yes, ma'am," but she looked troubled, and Alafair thought that Phoebe was afraid that John Lee's father would be the real impediment to their relationship. It hurt Alafair to admit to herself that this was probably the case.
Excerpted from The Old Buzzard Had It Coming by Donis Casey Copyright © 2005 by Donis A. Casey. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted March 29, 2013
Donis Casey has written a wonderfully atmospheric mystery, set in 1912 Oklahoma, in a typical farming community, where everyone know everyone else's business. The Shaw and Alafair Tucker family are the central characters, with their 9 surviving children. When a no good neighbor man is found frozen to death, Alafair gets drawn into the mystery of his death. Her daughter, Phoebe, is "sweet" on the dead man's son, and Alafair fears that she may be involved in his death somehow.
The times are well drawn out in this story. Descriptions of farm and family life are vividly depicted, right down to the smell of the beans and cornbread. The mother, Alafair, is bound and determined to protect her surviving family, where family life involves everyone doing their part to keep life running well on the farm. The downfalls of less than honorable community members is deftly drawn out in this mystery also. Truly, a fun and intricate historical mystery. Looking forward to the second book in this series!!
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Posted July 26, 2013
Donis Casey's book is very well written. The tone made me feel I was right there along side Alafair as she cooked, cleaned, protected her family, as well as the stray chicks next door, and, oh yeah, solved a murder. The foreshadowing was particularly good. I had some of the denouement figured out , but the solution still surprised me. Still, her ending made perfect sense given the subtle hints we were given. Excellent storytelling,
I grew up in this part of Oklahoma. Ms. Casey's descriptions were dead on. I almost felt I had visited the town of Boynton, even though I'm pretty sure it's fictional. In some ways it was like going home again.
I've already bought the next 2 in the series. I'll probably end up staying up half the night reading again!
Posted July 26, 2013
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