"Casey depicts family ties that uplift and support and family ties broken by anger in a poignant, lyrical, authentic novel of early day Oklahoma." —CAROLYN HART, New York Times bestselling author
In the autumn of 1915, Shaw Tucker, his brother James, and their sons go hunting. Instead of a quail, Shaw's dog, Buttercup, flushes an old boot...containing the bones of a foot. Buttercup then leads the men to a shallow grave and a skeleton with a bullet hole in the skull. That night, Shaw awakens to see a pair of moccasin-clad legs brushing by his tent flap. He chases the intruder, but he has disappeared. His concern is justified when he realizes that someone—or something—has followed him home.
Dread turns to relief when he captures a young Creek Indian boy called Crying Blood. Shaw ties the boy up in the barn, but during the few minutes he is left alone, someone thrusts a spear through Crying Blood's heart. The local law is on the killer's trail, but Shaw Tucker has a hunch...
Only Shaw's wife Alafair might be able to forestall his dangerous plan. So Shaw sends her on a wild goose chase so he can confront the killer...
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Crying BloodAn Alafair Tucker Mystery
By Donis A. Casey
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2011 Donis A. Casey
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSix men spread in a line across the field, wary and still, shotguns at the ready. The sun had barely sunk below the tree line, but the few moments of the peach and pink of evening had faded, leaving the sky clear, cloudless, and the color of new cream. In the woods behind him, Shaw Tucker could hear the discordant gabble of birds gathering in the trees, settling down for night and making their plans for the following day. Grackles, sounded like. It was late in the season and any birds who were going to fly south for the winter were gone.
Shaw flexed the fingers of his free hand, trying to ease the stiffness out of them. It was getting cold. He had to resist the temptation to stamp his feet. A sigh of a breeze briefly ruffled the tall grass, making a shushing sound that faded quickly back into stillness. Nothing moved.
They were in there, he knew it. It was a test of nerves, now.
To his left, Shaw could just see his brother James and James' two teenaged sons out of the corner of his eye, arrayed across the clearing at twenty yard intervals. He turned his head to the right to look at his own two sons. Gee Dub and Charlie were standing tensely, watching the brushy field, unmoving as stone, only the fog of their breath in the sharp November air betraying the fact that they were alive.
It had taken the six of them a quarter of an hour to ease themselves out of the woods and into the clearing far enough to be able to get a clean shot, but Shaw figured that any further would be pushing their luck. Two black, tan, and white hounds were sitting close to his feet, one on either side, obedient but quivering with excitement. He could tell by their riveted attention that they had marked their quarry.
A speckled bird dog was working the field, back and forth in a zig-zag pattern, his nose to the ground. As the dog moved further into the field, only his back and feathery tail protruded above the tall, dried grasses.
The dog slowed and took a tentative step or two before his head popped into sight and his tail dropped, creating a straight line from nose to tail-tip as he froze on point.
Shaw emitted a tiny whistle between his teeth and his dogs shot forward into the grass like a couple of bullets, one to the left and one to the right, approaching the pointer in a wide circle. As they neared, James signaled the pointer with a piercing whistle of his own and the dog leaped forward. Faced with a three-sided assault and no escape route, the entire covey of quail flushed.
Shaw was peripherally aware that his companions raised their shotguns at the same time he did, aiming into the air above the dogs' trajectory. He barely had time to seat the stock on his shoulder before the half-dozen quail took to the air in a panic. He chose his prey and sighted it along the barrel of his gun as it rose above the treetops. A shot rang out to his right and one of the birds nosedived, but Shaw didn't allow himself to be distracted. He pulled the trigger and his target spun in the air, flapped a couple of times, then managed a crazy, zig-zag landing at the far edge of the field.
Shaw barely heard the blasts of the guns on either side of him. He had more than likely only winged his quarry. He huffed, torn between feeling disappointed that he hadn't killed the creature outright and pleased that he had hit it at all.
The dogs were still crashing around through the tall grass, each heading for dead or wounded birds to retrieve. Shaw had never seen his brother's bird dog hunt before. He was impressed. He had only had the opportunity to see Happy at family gatherings and hadn't thought much of the pup's brainpower. He was aptly named, though, as goofy and good-natured as a creature could be.
Shaw had owned his two hounds for years. He had trained them himself and he had to admit that Crook and Buttercup were two of the best hunters he had ever run. They were 'coon hounds, natural stalkers, and unusually smart. They seemed to know automatically what kind of game their master was after and exactly which skills were required of them on each hunt. They could tree raccoons, trail foxes, keep a bear at bay, flush birds, and were good retrievers on land or water. Their only defect was that they were both terrible watchdogs since they were friends with everyone they met. But Shaw couldn't fault them for it. They loved children, and for a man with ten of his own, that was a good trait for a dog to have.
James and the boys all descended on him, laughing and excited and talking at once.
"I didn't hit nothing, Uncle Shaw, but I think Daddy did."
"I don't know, Jerry, I think mine got away, too."
"Gee Dub sure got his, Daddy. Blowed his head clean off!"
"I saw two more go down, Dad. One looked to be still alive."
Shaw put his arm around his oldest son's shoulders. "That was mine, Gee Dub. I just nicked him, looked like. When the dog fetches him back, I'll have to wring his neck, I reckon."
As he said the words, Crook emerged from the grass with a headless quail in his mouth. Shaw praised the dog before he took the bird by the feet and held it up with a laugh. "Well, I'll be switched! I guess Gee did blow his head clean off! Go on, Crook, bring me another one."
Crook disappeared and Shaw handed the bird to Gee Dub, who put it in the satchel slung over his shoulder.
James nodded toward a wave of moving grass. "Here comes Buttercup yonder with another bird."
The hound trotted out of the field with something in her mouth, her head high and her tail awag, obviously pleased with herself, and sat down at Shaw's feet.
Charlie leaned over to inspect her treasure. "What do you got, girl? This ain't no bird. Why, it's an old boot!"
"Thanks, Buttercup." Shaw sounded more amused than unhappy about it. "I believe I've got plenty of footwear."
Shaw's nephew Jimmy moved up to take a better look. "That old thing has sure seen better days! Looks like it's been lying out in the woods for a spell. There's something inside it."
"Probably a dead critter or some such," Gee Dub said. "I bet that's what interested her."
Amid the sounds of disgust at this suggestion, Charlie turned the boot upside down and gave it a shake. Dirt and leaf litter fell out onto the ground with a plop. The boy stirred it around with his toe before peering back down the boot top. "There's something still in here. Looks like a couple of sticks." He shook it again, but his only reward was a rattling noise.
Shaw was suddenly struck by foreboding. He extended his hand. "Let me have that, son."
A glimpse of two jagged, grey protrusions confirmed his fear.
"What is it, Uncle Shaw?"
"Nothing, Jerry. Some furry little thing built a nest in an old boot, is all. You children check the field for more downed birds. Charlie, you find Crook."
The boys scattered but James didn't move. "Shaw?"
"It's bones, James. Seems we got us a boot complete with its own leg and foot."
An expression of dread passed over James' face. "Old?"
"Yes, right old, no worry about that. Stick with the boys a spell and I'll see what Buttercup has dug up." Shaw knelt down in front of the dog and held the boot under her nose. "Where'd you get this, gal? Show me!"
He gave a short warbling whistle and Buttercup took off through the grass, heading toward the curve of woods bordering the clearing to the north with Shaw hot on her heels.
* * *
The dog put her head down and sniffed around in a little circle right at the edge of the woods. Because of the grass, Shaw was practically on top of her before he could see what had momentarily distracted her. Another small piece of grey bone with a finger-thick vine wrapped around it was lying on top of a flat rock that was half embedded in the dirt.
Shaw's first thought was that this shard of bone had fallen out of the boot when Buttercup was carrying it. He reached for it, but jerked his hand back when the vine moved.
A small, greenish brown snake lifted its head and regarded him. Shaw backed up a step. What on earth was a snake doing out at this time of year? The earlier part of the day had been mild and obviously the snake was soaking up whatever warmth remained in the rock. But still ...
It was November and the evening was frosty! That critter should have been curled up in a hole with his kinfolks for the past month.
Yet there it was. A snake wrapped around a bone, giving him the eye. Shaw fought off a flood of superstitious dread.
Buttercup reappeared from the woods and emitted a wuff. Are you coming? Shaw looked at her, then back at the rock. The bone was still there but the snake had gone.
Shaw blinked. Had he actually seen what he thought he saw, or had it been a trick of the shadows? He shook himself.
"Come on, Buttercup. Let's see what you've found."
Chapter TwoShaw stood next to his brother James and pondered the grinning visage that looked back at them from the ground. It was getting colder and a damp mist was forming close to the ground. There would be a frost before morning. Shaw's mustache felt stiff. He wondered if his breath was freezing into icicles above his lip.
Buttercup had led him several yards into the woods to a small, open area where a large tree had probably stood once, but was now overgrown with tall chokecherry bushes interspersed with fiery red sumac. After he had seen the leg bones protruding from the small mound under the bushes, he had walked back to the clearing and waved at James to join him. After a brief consultation the men sent the boys back to their campsite with the dogs and the day's kill, leaving the two of them to excavate the body. It had taken them nearly an hour to remove the rocks, dirt, and weeds from the makeshift grave, by which time dusk was pressing in on them and the woods were so gloomy that they were no longer able to make out much detail.
"Looks like he's been here a good long time," Shaw observed. "Five, ten years, at least, maybe longer."
James cocked an eyebrow. "Being as he's good and well reduced to bones I would reckon so." He glanced toward the clearing, barely visible through the thicket of scrub oak and sassafras trees.
Shaw bit his lip. "This looks like an old Indian burial. See how it was once piled over with rocks? Not deep, though. I'm guessing that the flooding we had back in January and February washed it out enough to finally expose that foot. He was more'n likely buried good enough to thwart any critters who might have been interested in him, until lately. These bones would have been dug up and scattered all over creation before long." He squatted down to get a better look. The body was stretched out on its back. The left foot, shod in a tall leather boot, protruded below. The similarly booted right foot was now standing sentinel at the side of its previous owner.
Dirt clogged the empty eye sockets and the lower jaw had been crushed and fallen over at an odd angle. Shaw dug his hands deeper into the pockets of his coat. "He was probably a Creek."
His brother's eyebrows peaked. "You expect so?"
"Well, look, James. He's been here a long time and this is Muscogee Creek country."
"Those look like army boots to me," James pointed out.
Shaw stood up. "That don't mean anything. Plenty of Creeks fought in the War between the States, on both sides. Can't tell by looking, though. He might just as well have been yu-ne-ga." He used their Cherokee mother's word for "White man."
"What do you figure happened to him, Shaw?"
"Who knows? Not a well-done burial. Maybe it was done in haste." Shaw removed his bandanna from his back pocket and knelt back down. He leaned over the body and carefully began to brush dirt away from the skull. A long crack across the forehead began to reveal itself, growing wider as Shaw worked his way across the brow. A dark clot of dirt fell away from a perfectly round hole at the point above the nose cavity.
Shaw's mouth quirked up on one side and he looked up at James, who was leaning over his shoulder. "Right between the eyes."
"I'll be switched!" James exclaimed. "Done to death! Now what do we do?"
Shaw stood, shook his head. "It's too late to make it into town before dark. Let's cover him up with one of them old blankets we have back at the camp and put some of these rocks back on top of him for the night. In the morning I can ride into Oktaha and see if I can rustle up a telephone, call the sheriff in Muskogee. Somebody around here may know all about this poor fellow. Let's see what the sheriff wants us to do. You and the boys stay and keep an eye on Slim, here, until I get back. Y'all can pack up the campsite."
James gave him a dry smile. "You expect our hunting trip is over?"
"I fear so, James."
James walked back to the clearing to send one of the boys for a blanket, leaving Shaw squatted down beside the grave.
Who were you, he wondered, without hope of an answer. His gaze wandered over the open hole, looking for a clue as to the identity of its occupant. There wasn't much to see; brownish-grey bones with shreds of degraded clothing still clinging here and there. A boot. The shallowness of the grave had at first led Shaw to think this was a hasty burial, but the bony hands had been arranged over the place the heart had once been. Perhaps the dead man had simply been interred by someone who didn't know how deep to make a grave.
He spotted something at the skeleton's side, something of a slightly different color than the surrounding soil. He leaned forward to dig it out with his fingers, then held it up to the fast-fading light. It looked like a small leather saddlebag with a short fringe on the flap. Years in the ground had done it no good, but it had held together better than its owner had.
The flap was stiff and cracked when he lifted it, but he was curious enough not to care. Water had seeped in over time, and frost, and all manner of things that live under the ground. Whatever the bag's contents had been they appeared to have melted together into a single mottled beige entity. Except for something white on top.
He drew it out. A necklace, it looked like, made of the vertebrae of a snake strung together on a stiff and degraded leather thong. He stared at it in the palm of his hand, mesmerized, until he heard James coming back toward him, crunching through the leaves on the ground.
Shaw often wondered in later years what possessed him at that moment. It seemed urgently important to him that this artifact not be seen by anyone. Not yet. He stuffed the necklace in his coat pocket and dropped the bag back into the hole as James came up behind him.
"Look at that!" James said. "Is that his medicine bag?"
Shaw's heart was thumping, but when he spoke he sounded nonchalant. "Could be. Kind of big. Maybe it's a saddle bag."
"Did you look inside?"
"I did. It's been in the ground too long. There's nothing in there but a waterlogged mess." A guilty thought arose. True, now that I've taken out the one thing I could identify.
Chapter ThreeTheir camp was set up at an old homesite. No one had lived on the property for many years, so even though the split log cabin had been fairly large and comfortable in its day, it had long since fallen into such disrepair that it was in danger of collapse. The boys had been eager to explore the house but were forbidden to go inside. So the Tuckers were camping rough, with three canvas pup-tents and blanket bedrolls around a fire in the forest clearing that once was a farm yard.
It had been a poor farm. A few sticks remained of a pig sty and a chicken coop. There had never been a barn, but there was a debris-filled well that if dug out and cleaned would probably be serviceable. The homesite was no more than a cleared circle in the middle of the woods. There had once been a path out through the woods to the main road that was now overgrown.
By the time Shaw and James had left the forlorn grave, it was so dark that they had some trouble navigating through the woods to find their way back. Shaw was in the midst of cursing himself for not keeping at least one of the dogs with them when James spotted the light of the boys' campfire through the trees. The mouth-watering smell of roasting rabbit hastened them along.
Fifteen-year-old Jerry stood up when the men crashed through the brush into the open. "There they are! What did y'all find? Was it a man buried up in the woods?"
They stacked their shotguns and made themselves comfortable next to the fire before James sated the boys' curiosity. "Some poor old devil passed into eternity back there in the woods, all right. Whatever happened to him happened a long time ago, but it looks like somebody helped him leave this life before God could call him."
Shaw took up the story so that James could stuff his mouth with rabbit. "We figured we'd better let the sheriff know what we dug up in case Slim's kin have been wondering about him all this time, so I'll ride into Oktaha in the morning. I don't know whether the sheriff will send somebody right out or not, or whether he'll want us to stay and answer questions or clear out. But I'm betting our hunting trip is done, boys."
A collective groan greeted this announcement and Shaw laughed. "I reckon the sheriff will want us out of the way eventually. Course, if y'all want to bag a few more birds before I return with with law in tow, help yourself."
Excerpted from Crying Blood by Donis A. Casey Copyright © 2011 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.
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