Dark River Road

Dark River Road
Virginia Brown

November 2011 $26.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-055-8

Unchallenged, until now.
 
Our PriceUS$26.95
Code978-1-61194-055-8
 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

One powerful man...has always controlled this small Southern town.  Unchallenged, until now.

Like everyone else in Cane Creek, Mississippi, Chantry Callahan grew up in the shadow of town boss Bert Quinton.  Quinton held the lives of local people in his harsh grasp, never letting go.  He knew where all their secrets were buried, along with the bodies of anyone who had dared to defy him.

As a boy, Chantry couldn't best Quinton.  Couldn't protect the people he loved, including his own mother.  But now Chantry is grown.  He's come back for answers.

And for justice.

Virginia Brown writes the bestselling Dixie Divas mystery series and the Blue Suede Memphis mysteries.

Reviews

"…an entertaining regional drama told in two distinct periods with both eras coming vividly to life… fans will enjoy Chantry's return home that shakes decades of status quo." -- Klausner’s Bookshelf

"There were so many layers to each character, and I could not put [the book] down…Virginia is a master at describing the South and the people in it." -- Michelle Clarke, Net Galley

"A marvelous coming-of-age saga in the new Old South.  I couldn't stop reading." -- Bertrice Small, author of The Border Chronicles

"A page-turner filled with small-town passions, dark secrets and danger.  I loved it."  -- Janelle Taylor, bestselling author of the Lakota Skies series

Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

June, 1987

It was the Catahoula Cur from Pontchatoula, Louisiana, that started it all. Maybe some of it would have happened anyway. But for Chantry Callahan, life changed at precisely nine-o-two on a Saturday night the summer he turned fourteen. Nothing was the same after that.

Rainey Lassiter, Chantry’s stepfather of nearly ten years, had taken one thousand dollars he won gambling and gone down to Louisiana and bought a Catahoula bitch about to whelp. At six on that Saturday night he’d put the dog in a pen in the back yard of their white frame house in Cane Creek, Mississippi, and come inside to brag about how much money he was going to make selling the pups. An investment, he claimed when Chantry’s mama said that the money could have been put to better use.

Rainey stood in the kitchen by the table, his dinner ready but untouched. White beans, cornbread, fresh green onions, and fried potatoes congealed on the chipped yellow plate. A big man, still thick-muscled from years of construction work and general labor, he swayed a little and stared belligerently at his wife.

"Folks around here need good dogs, an’ I’ll have the best. She’s a champion with good blood. A money maker.” Rainey’s narrow eyes got narrower when he’d been drinking. He looked at Carrie Callahan Lassiter with a mean squint that usually promised trouble and always made Chantry’s stomach clench into knots. "You ain’t so smart just because you got education. I know what I’m doin’.”

Chantry doubted that, but he kept his mouth shut. He knew better than to speak up and risk a fat lip. Rainey didn’t like being crossed or sassed. And he didn’t much like Chantry, either. A reminder that his wife had been married before.

"Used goods,” he’d called her one time, and it’d made Chantry so mad he’d said his mama was better than Rainey Lassiter deserved. It hadn’t mattered that Rainey hit him for his smart mouth. Mama had smiled a little when he said it and he knew she agreed with him.

Now Rainey pushed a freckled hand through his sandy red hair and rocked back on his heels. "That dog’ll make us some money, dammit. One look at her and you can see that.”

"Can I go see her?” Chantry asked after a minute, and Rainey gave him a hard stare.

"She ain’t some toy. You keep away from that dog, you hear? I catch you messin’ around with her and I’ll strip six inches of hide off you.”

"Yessir.” Chantry sat still at the kitchen table. Outside, light dwindled, shadows softening the bare look of the yard where grass had given up trying to grow. The edge of the garage with the pen built off to one side was visible through the screened door. Rainey had once tried his hand at doing woodwork, put up a sign out front that said Cabinet Making, and turned the garage into a woodshop. He’d made some extra money building cupboards and cabinets, but it’d all gone to drink and cards and he’d stopped bothering after a while. The saws, routers, and drills were sold for whiskey and poker money, and the garage settled deeper into the red Mississippi clay a little more every day like it’d given up trying to be anything but what it was, a knocked together afterthought made from old wooden pallets.

He could hear the dog out there in her pen, and wondered if Rainey’d had sense enough to give her any water or food. It was four hours to Pontchatoula, a long trip in the bed of a truck for a dog ready to whelp.

"Rainey,” Mama said, sounding weary and careful, "you know how I feel about raising dogs. We have gone through this before.”

"Yeah, but this is a stock dog, not a fightin’ dog. Farmers ‘round here always need good stock dogs and huntin’ dogs. Catahoulas do both.”

"But a thousand dollars could have been put to much better use. That is far too much money to pay for a dog. Just how much money do you plan on getting per puppy?”

"Three hundred dollars easy. A’piece. She has six pups, that’s over a thousand bucks back on my investment.”

Eighteen hundred dollars in all. Chantry slid his mother a quick look to see if she was pleased. A tiny frown tucked her brows together. She wore her pale brown hair pulled straight back from her face into a tight knot on the back of her neck. Faint lines marked her eyes. They were the blue like his own, but seemed to fade a little every year that went by. Sometimes it seemed that Mama faded too, getting softer and more indistinct, her lines blurred as she drifted through the days so solemnly he’d almost forget the sound of her laugh and how beautiful she was when she smiled. That wasn’t often. She most always looked... sad.

"An eight hundred dollar profit,” Mama said, "if she has six puppies. To get top dollar, you’ll have to pay vet bills, buy quality food, and send off for the proper paperwork to verify pedigree. To continue making money you’ll have to breed her again. There will be breeding fees, then more puppies. Eight hundred dollars will disappear quickly. This isn’t that big a town. Who will buy all these dogs?”

Rainey slammed his meaty hands down on the kitchen table, making the pan of cornbread and Chantry jump a little. "Damn you. Always got to lick the red off my apple, don’t you. Don’t you think I done thought of that? I got three buyers already interested. All the bitch’s got to do is drop the pups. That’s what quality bitches do, y’know. Whelp pups. Healthy pups, not sickly ones.”

Bright red spots flamed in his mama’s cheeks and her mouth went flat. Chantry looked down at his dinner plate, pushed a few white beans around with the back of his fork, feeling sick.

Mama’s voice was low and tight. "How dare you speak of your own son like that?”

"I didn’t say nothin’ about him. I was talkin’ about dogs.”

"We both know you meant Mikey. It’s not his fault he was born like that, and I won’t have you constantly degrading him with your thoughtless cruelty. Isn’t it enough that you took money to gamble, without thought of how we’ll be able to afford surgery for Mikey? Did you have to go and buy a dog that will only be one more drain on our finances as well?”

Rainey kicked the table, his florid complexion going even redder with anger. It made his freckles stand out like mud splatters. He shoved a finger at Carrie. "I won that money. I took five hundred dollars and doubled it. Don’t you tell me how to spend my money.”

"It’s not just your money. It’s supposed to be our money. Schoolteachers only make so much, and I cannot keep covering all the expenses with what little you’re bringing in from disability. Mikey needs so much medical care. We need to save money for him, not waste it. How am I supposed to do it all?”

"All I know is, I got two big healthy boys from my first wife, but you birth me a kid that can’t walk straight and looks like a damn ghost most of the time. Doctors done said can’t nothin’ else be done to make him walk better, so savin’ that money’s a waste.”

"The doctors here cannot do anything, but surgeons in Memphis can. My insurance only covers a small portion. We have to have money for that, Rainey. Don’t you care about your own son?”

"My son? Shit. He ain’t my kid. He’s yours. Just like that other brat you got sittin’ here at my table eatin’ my food.”

Mama sucked in a deep breath and Chantry’s fingers tightened around the handle of his fork. He hated these fights. They almost always ended up the same way, with Mama silent and Rainey taking his anger out in drink or hitting or both. It’d been that way since Mikey had come into the world with his feet twisted all up like little pink rosebuds. Rainey’d taken one look at him and said it’d have been better to have drowned him than let him live. At almost five, Mikey still had to drag his feet in braces instead of walk like other kids, but he never complained.

Mikey didn’t look anything like Rainey, who was big and broad, with a nose that’d been broken when he was a lot younger and hadn’t healed right. Rainey might’ve been handsome once. Now his features were blurred from too much drink, his pale green eyes like faded marbles. Mikey looked so much like Mama it was startling, light brown hair, big blue eyes, and pale skin so soft and clear there were times Chantry wondered if he wasn’t just a ghost like Rainey said.

Sometimes he felt guilty for getting bigger when Mikey stayed so sick. He’d grown some this past year, put on a few inches in height and added some weight. His skin was naturally a little dark, but he’d been working out in the sun a lot and Mama said he’d gotten brown as a berry. He hadn’t ever seen a brown berry, but he guessed there were some somewhere or Mama wouldn’t say he looked like one. Tansy said if it wasn’t for his eyes, he’d look like an Indian because of his thick black hair. He’d asked Mama if he was Indian, but she said he was part Irish, mostly just all American.

Outside, the dog barked, and Chantry said he’d go and see if she was okay. Rainey didn’t argue with that, and he slid from his chair and out the back door. Their voices followed him, Rainey’s loud and belligerent, his mother’s soft and despairing. He was glad Mikey was already asleep and didn’t have to listen to it.

Cooler evening air held the familiar scent of red dust and decay. A mimosa tree spread out at the edge of the garage, adding a faint peachy smell to the heat. Its leaves were already closing up for the night, folding in like tiny fans.

Chantry went around to the pen that had once held some chickens, another of Rainey’s money making schemes. The dog lay on her side, panting. He got an old tin pie pan and put some water in it, then pushed through the gate into the pen. She looked up at him and whined softly.

"What is it, girl?” He knelt beside her with the pan of water, but she only lapped a couple of times before getting up to turn around. She was a big dog, maybe fifty pounds. Sleek blue-gray sides bulged out, looking tight. Her fur was soft, sleek and shiny and spotted like a leopard’s. He stroked her a few times. "You about to have those pups, huh?”

He left the dog and went into the garage, then came back out with soft rags from the bin and some newspaper. An old wooden crate that had only three sides would be just the right size for a bed, and he put that in the pen, too. Corrugated tin formed a roof, and it was attached to the side of the garage, but the sides were open and made of chicken wire. It’d be enough shelter until cold weather set in. Then she’d need a house for the winter. If she was still here.

Catahoula hounds were stock dogs, bred to herd livestock and used by cattlemen to help find cows that had gone deep into the wild. Chantry didn’t know where they’d originated, but he knew there were a lot of cow men in Quinton County who favored the breed. Catahoulas had short hair, often with mottled fur. Quick, aggressive, and smart.

He knelt beside the dog a few minutes as she turned around and around in the bed, digging furiously until she mounded the rags just like she wanted. Then she flopped to her side and looked at him expectantly. He sat down to wait. Crickets beat a tinny melody, and bullfrogs sounded loud and gruff in the distance.

It was near dark now, long shadows claiming the yard beyond the garage. Just west of town lay the Mississippi River, a rushing muddy brown torrent that flooded cotton and soybean fields on a regular basis despite the best efforts of the Mississippi Corps of Engineers. Albert Parks Quinton, whose forefathers had founded Quinton County in 1813 and carved out a town here, owned most of the land along the river. He also owned the town, the hospital, the school, and even the new Baptist church. Sometimes it seemed like he owned Mama, too.

It’d been that way as long as Chantry could remember. His mama had come to Cane Creek when he was only three, a widow hired by old man Quinton to teach several grades in the local school. He’d offered her a house and a job and a safe place to rear her son, and when she’d been there only a year, a husband to take care of her since it wasn’t seemly for a single woman to be on her own. Maybe Rainey had been nicer then. Chantry couldn’t remember a day when he hadn’t been like he was now, surly and lazy. Drawing disability for a bad back didn’t stop Rainey from being strong enough to drink too much.

"Twelve ounce curls,” he called it when he was being funny for the benefit of his two sons.

Beau and Rafe, Rainey’s sons, were several years older than Chantry, big, slow, and mean. They’d made his life a misery when he was smaller, but since his growth spurt the year before he’d made it a lot harder for them to torment him so they pretty much left him to his own now. Besides, they stayed away a lot since they were older and had quit school, doing iron work on out of town jobs, and when back in Cane Creek, usually drunk somewhere and causing trouble.

The dog made another soft sound, and Chantry looked down when she washed the back of his hand with her tongue. It was unexpected and pleasurable. The sides of her belly went taut, and she grunted. He soothed her, murmured soft words and stroked her head.

The first pup popped out so quick and easy it took Chantry’s breath away. It lay still and silent atop the rags, a tiny dark comma against the old tee shirts. The mama didn’t seem upset, but set immediately to work cleaning it up, her tongue rasping over the wet, still form until it began to wiggle and make faint sounds. Chantry relaxed a little.

The screen door to the house slammed open and shut with a bang. Rainey came out of the house, looking mad at first until Chantry pointed to the pup. Then his face eased into a satisfied gloating. "Damn if that ain’t the shit. Puts ’em right on the ground and I ain’t even had to feed her a meal yet.”

"The doting owner,” Chantry muttered, but with his head down so Rainey wouldn’t hear.

"You stay out here and keep an eye on her,” Rainey said after another minute or two of watching. "Looks like she’s havin’ trouble, holler for me.”

As if Rainey’d know what to do. Chantry just nodded.

By almost nine, the dog struggled with eight pups already born and another one nearly out. It had tired her, Chantry could see. He hadn’t left her side, even when his mama had come out earlier to urge him inside for the night.

"Nature takes its own course, honey,” she’d said. "The mother knows how to care for her own by instinct.”

Chantry figured sometimes even mothers needed a little help, though, and had stayed by the dog’s side. He called her Belle, but he didn’t know what her real name was. Probably one of those long fancy names breeders used. Rainey didn’t come back, and probably wouldn’t until it was all over. He liked easy money, not something he had to put any effort into. Staying with a whelping dog would fall under that last category.

Now he heard the back door open and close again and knew it was his mother by the softness of it. She came to stand by the pen, smelling faintly of lavender bath powder. Her old robe was pulled tight around her, reaching almost to her ankles, and her hair was damp from a bath, pulled on top of her head and secured with some kind of clip. She looked a lot younger when she didn’t wear her hair slicked back so tight and strict from her face.

"It’s nine o’clock, Chantry,” Mama said, and looked at him with a worried frown.

"It’s okay. I think this is the last one. She’s tired and having a little trouble is all. Did Rainey pick up any dog food? She’ll need something to eat after this.”

"I’m certain he never thought of it.” Mama hesitated. "I’ll find something for her to eat, and tomorrow we will purchase her the proper food for a nursing mother.”

Mama spoke precisely, her voice soft and drawling and school-teacherish. It held traces of her Memphis childhood and education. Her parents were gone and she didn’t talk much about growing up, or about much of anything before coming to Cane Creek. It was almost as if her life hadn’t started until she got to this sleepy delta town even though he knew it had. After all, his father had been in her life once.

Chantry had a couple of photographs of his father in his Marine uniform, looking out at the camera with a steely-eyed gaze that reminded him of Rambo. He’d died overseas in some far-off place named Vietnam. A hero. Chantry thought about him every day. He’d been named for him, the man who’d died before he was born but still had the most influence on him. Sometimes at night he dreamed about him. It was always the same kind of dream. His dad would be smiling at him and telling him it’d all been a big mistake, that he’d been on a secret mission for the American government and couldn’t tell anyone, even his wife and son about it. Now he was back and ready to be with them again. To be a family. Rainey would just go away, but Chantry’s real dad would take Mikey with them so he’d get his operation and be able to walk like other kids. Rainey and the dull despair of Cane Creek would then be just a memory best forgotten.

But the dream was always gone like smoke when he woke up, his dad vanishing from a place he’d never been. Chantry always felt so sad after the dream, as if he’d had something special just within his reach and it’d been yanked away.

"She’s having trouble with this last one, Chantry.” Mama knelt beside the wire fence and tucked the ends of her robe between her knees. "I think she’s just too exhausted to continue.”

He looked at the dog. The pup’s feet were sticking out, the rest of its body still inside. It was probably dead by now; it’d been so long coming, suffocated before it ever drew a first breath. Gingerly, because he’d never done anything like this before, but guided by some instinct, he reached up inside and curved two fingers around the pup’s slick body to tug gently. It felt weird, hot and wet and soft as he guided it with firm pressure. The mama dog didn’t protest except for a kind of little whining sound, and in a minute, he was able to work the puppy free of the soft folds and lay it on the rags. It was so still, a small thing all limp and soggy.

"Oh, I think it’s dead,” Mama said, and sounded sad.

Chantry wiped his hand on one of the rags and shook his head. "Maybe not. See? The mama’s taking care of it.”

Following some maternal instinct, Belle washed the pup to life with her tongue. After a few minutes of that the pup wriggled around, blind and seeking comfort. There were only eight nipples and nine pups, but the first and strongest puppy was already sleeping, its mouth making sucking sounds as if still attached. Chantry gently nudged the last puppy to the teat. It latched on with surprising strength. Tiny paws pushed against the mama, milking her.

"It’s no bigger than a shadow,” Mama said after a moment. "You know it may not make it through the night.”

"I know.”

"Come inside now. It’s after nine and I need to finish preparing my Sunday School lesson. You’ll need to sit with Mikey again. He has been restless tonight.”

He didn’t want to leave. He’d never seen puppies born before. He felt powerful, as if he’d been part of magic. And he felt a strong connection to the tiny scrap of dog nursing so fiercely. It got to him somehow, just watching it. He looked up, and saw something in his mama’s face that he hadn’t seen in a long time, a smile of pure pleasure. She felt it, too, felt the miracle that had just happened.

"Come along, Chantry,” she said, and held out her hand to him. "I know just what we’ll feed the mother. I’ll prepare it, and you may bring it out to her before you sit with Mikey.”

That night he lay in bed close to his brother and thought about the puppy he’d helped bring into the world. It was a male, and he’d live. He just knew it. Maybe he’d say a prayer about it. Then again, Chantry wasn’t much on praying despite Mama’s best efforts to make him a strong believer. He figured if God was so all-powerful, He’d do something to stop all the wicked stuff going on in the world. If He was there like Mama and Reverend Hale claimed, then He either didn’t care or had a really strange sense of what was right.

Still, lying there in the soft darkness with little Mikey’s breathing shallow and regular in the double bed next to him, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

"God,” he whispered, "if You can hear me and if You care, keep that pup alive. It’s the only one I’ve ever helped be born and I’m kinda partial to it.”

That was it. If God was going to listen, He’d know what to do.


 

 

CHAPTER 2

Sunday mornings were always the same. Chantry helped Mama get Mikey dressed and ready, buckling the metal and leather braces around his twisted little legs and combing back his hair. Rainey never went to church with them, but that was okay. It always felt better when they were by themselves without him around. He had his own brand of religion anyway.

The church was only a few blocks from their house, across the railroad tracks and around the corner from the Tap Room where Rainey usually worshiped beer kegs on a Saturday night. He’d attended services last night, too. Chantry had heard him come in late, stumbling and swearing, and held his breath until he heard bedsprings squeak as Rainey fell onto the mattress. Only then did he relax. Once Rainey passed out, he wouldn’t wake up until late. If they were quiet enough.

"Show me the dogs, Chantry,” Mikey said in his whispery little voice, and obediently put up his arms so Chantry could slide a blue knit shirt over his head.

"After church. Tilt your head back so I can button the neck of your shirt up.”

Mikey shoved his chin in the air, lips going straight with the effort. Chantry fastened the bottom two buttons and left the top open. Bedsprings squeaked when he moved to lift his little brother off the bed where he spent so much of his time.

"Is the dog gonna stay for a while, Chantry?”

"Maybe.” Mikey felt so thin, fragile like the pup he’d held last night. He stood him up, bracing him with a hand on his arm until he got his balance in the leg braces. "You okay?”

"Sure.” Metal squeaked as Mikey took a clumsy forward step. The thick ugly brown shoes attached to the braces scuffed over the bare wooden floor. "Take me to see the puppies, Chantry.”

"You’re a pest, you know that?”

Mikey grinned, blue eyes lighting up so bright it was like he was plugged in to electricity. "Sure. I know that.”

Chantry ran a hand down his bony arm to grab his wrist. "Later. After church. You know Mama doesn’t like to be late.”

Before Mikey could offer more argument, he lifted him up with both hands and carried him to the kitchen table, tickling him a little to make him laugh.

As soon as he’d eaten breakfast, Chantry raced out with table scraps for Belle. She lay in the bed he’d made her, the pups scrabbling around her belly like fuzzy little worms. He counted eight and his throat got tight. Then he found the pup, curled up and mewling complaint at the side of the crate. He tucked it next to a litter mate already nursing, watched as the tiny mouth fastened greedily to a nipple. Belle nosed the pup, licked it a few times, then lost interest and turned her attention to one of the others. Chantry put the pup back a few times when it got pushed aside by a stronger one. Finally it stopped trying, more exhausted then full. It lay so still on the rags, not moving when others crawled over him.

"So much for praying,” Chantry muttered as he cradled the pup in his palm. It laid there, warm and soft, eyes still tightly shut. Dark fur streaked the back, the belly was pink, the brown stub of stomach cord sticking up stiffly. Fragile sides heaved with the effort to breathe.

"Chantry. It’s time to leave for church.”

"I’m staying here this morning,” he called back to his mother without turning around, and in a minute, he heard her come out of the house and cross the dirt yard to the pen. She paused at the fence, stared at the tiny unmoving pup lying in his palm.

"Perhaps it’s not meant to live,” she said after a brief silence. "There are times it is best for small, weak creatures to make room for the larger, healthier ones.”

Chantry looked up at her. "You don’t feel that way about Mikey.”

There was a shocked silence. He couldn’t believe he’d said that, and saw that his mother didn’t either. Her face went so pale it made her eyes look like two large blue bruises beneath her brows. He wanted to take it back, but it was too late.

Hanging his head, he swallowed hard. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. It’s just that... well, I helped this pup into the world. I’d like to try to keep him here. If I can.”

A mockingbird chattered in the mimosa tree, and a train whistle signaled that it was nearly nine o’clock and time for the C&P to rattle by with freight on its way to New Orleans.

After another moment Mama said, "Very well. You may skip Sunday School, but I’ll expect you to attend the church services in time for Reverend Hale’s sermon.”

Fire and brimstone. Shouts of eternal damnation and Hell awaiting sinners. Reverend Hale liked to scare moral trespassers into Heaven.

"Yes, ma’am. I’ll be there, Mama.”

He heard her walk away and looked up. She wore her summer Sunday dress, a white cotton with tiny lavender sprigs. It flowed around her legs when she walked. Mama always walked with her head up, back straight. He’d heard Mrs. Pritchett say once that Carrie Lassiter had dignity and grace despite everything. He guessed that was good. It bothered him though, that people talked about her. He hated that part of living in a small town. Everyone knew everything about everyone else and there weren’t many secrets you could keep for long.

Everybody knew Rainey Lassiter was nothing but poor white trash and his wife had to try and keep him out of the beer joints since he’d got hurt on the job. Everybody knew their own jobs depended on Bert Quinton, too. He made all the big decisions about how much money people made, where they worked, where they went to school and even to church. Most people in Cane Creek owed their living to him and he didn’t mind reminding them of that fact if they ever tried to forget. He owned most everything in town. Even a few souls, Dempsey had said once. He also said Quinton was a ruthless old bastard. Dempsey ought to know. He’d worked for the Quinton family since he was only five, and he was ancient now. At least fifty.

Maybe he’d ask Dempsey what to do about the pup. He knew about a lot of stuff. He’d tell him what he could do to keep it alive.

Chantry pushed the pup back up to its mother’s side to nurse, fingers gently milking her so the pup didn’t have to struggle so hard. It was getting weaker. If it didn’t get regular feeding, it’d die. He just didn’t know if he’d be able to keep it alive by himself.

When the pup was asleep he moved it to one side so it wouldn’t get squashed by the others, gave Belle fresh water, and then cleaned up the pen a little. Rainey’d never think of doing that.

It was getting late and he dressed quickly and quietly to keep from waking up Rainey. The house was silent, but just knowing he was there alone with Rainey made it feel precarious. Mama was all that stood between them sometimes. Rainey might be free with his fists, but there were times Chantry thought he was almost afraid of Mama. He’d never dared try to hit her, and when he did hit Chantry, he’d seen Mama dissect him with a few soft-spoken words. Rainey’s reaction to that was always violent. Like he knew she told the truth and couldn’t stand it.

Chantry left by the back door, let it shut gently behind him. He’d have to hurry to get there before services started and everyone would turn around to look at him when he went in the front door. It was bad enough having to go, it’d be worse to give people a chance to talk about him always being late. They talked enough as it was. He’d only been in two fights in his life with anyone besides Beau and Rafe, but most of Cane Creek seemed to have the idea that he was always in a fight with someone.

Probably because of his fight with Chris Quinton. That’d been the year before and no one had forgotten it yet. Chris’s grandfather was old man Quinton, and everybody in town had talked about the fight for months afterward. Mama had been so upset with him, and he’d had to promise not to ever fight again even though he knew he might not be able to keep that promise. Lines got crossed a lot.

Some lines were pretty definite in Cane Creek. There were kids like Chris who wore expensive clothes and drove new cars, and there were kids like Donny Ray Caldwell, whose daddy worked at the cotton plant and made enough money to have a nice size house and almost new car. Then there were kids from Sugarditch. Like Chantry.

He hated being lumped in with the kids who lived in tarpaper shacks, missed school most of the time, and were regular visitors over in the Quinton County juvenile detention center. They drank too much, smoked dope, and caused trouble. He tried to stay away from all that. Mama would skin him alive if he got into that kind of trouble.

The sun was already bright, beating down on his bare head as he left the house. The street baked quietly. A hot smell hung in the air, jimson weeds and dust, and creosote from the railroad ties mixed with the smell of tar. There were only three houses on Liberty Road. It was gravel here at their end, and stopped at the blacktopped road leading into town. On the other end it dead-ended into some fields that had once grown sugar cane, but usually grew cotton or soybeans now. Blight or something like that had ended the sugar cane long before he’d moved here. Economic blight, Dempsey had said. Beyond the barren fields lay wooded land, some of it thick, some of it swampland. Sugar Creek meandered through oak, maples, wild dogwoods and pines to where it joined with the cut-off into the Mississippi River. Muddy banks rose surprisingly steep in some places, when farther south it planed out into flat fields edged with kudzu.

He took a shortcut across an empty lot with waist-high weeds, then crossed the railroad tracks that stitched a boundary line between Sugarditch and the rest of Cane Creek. Mostly, Sugarditch had shotgun shacks built on cinder block foundations that housed families who worked for Quinton. He owned the houses and he owned the people in them. The history books might say slavery had ended almost a hundred and thirty years before, but Chantry figured there were different kinds of slavery still at work in Cane Creek.

New Cane Creek Baptist Church sat on the corner of Main and Forrest Streets. It’d been built after the first church burned down twenty years before. Now it had white aluminum siding, a tall steeple with a bell, stained glass windows with white doves and blue flowers and red drops of blood, and had cost the congregation more money than the school cost the county. It wasn’t the only church in town, but the only one the white folks who worked for Quinton attended. There was a Methodist church and a Presbyterian church, and over near Tunica County there was a Catholic church for the papists. There was a black church, too, and sometimes Chantry heard glad shouting and singing that sounded a lot better than the solemn hymns sung at New Cane Creek. But any white man who worked for old man Quinton went to the Baptist church he’d founded. It wasn’t overt segregation, but a definite divide. A few years before, Reverend Hale had come to replace the retiring pastor, and he was the kind of shouting preacher that always made Chantry feel jumpy and anxious for the sermon to be over.

Strains of the organ playing Old Rugged Cross seeped from the double doors just as he reached the sidewalk in front of the church. He made it up the shallow stone steps right before one of the deacons shut the doors.

"Sorry,” he muttered when the man frowned, and pushed past him into the chapel. It was crowded as always. Wooden pews sprouted old ladies in hats, young girls whispering, and men looking bored and pious. Ceiling fans slowly stirred the air conditioning under a vaulted ceiling. Mama sat near the front, her back straight, staring straight ahead at the choir arranged behind the padded pastor’s chair. Mikey sat beside her, a Bible story coloring book and crayons in his lap.

He slid in beside them and got an appraising look from Mama that made him wish he’d taken time to put on a clean white shirt with his Levi’s. She wanted him to wear a suit, but didn’t complain as long as he was clean and his hair combed out of his eyes.

After the singing, Reverend Hale got warmed up by reading passages of doom and death from Revelation, then he launched into an hour long rant about the wickedness of sinners and the eternal punishment that awaited them. Sins of the heart, the flesh, even thoughts, bought a ticket to Hell. According to the good reverend, everyone in church that day stood in imminent danger of feeling the hot breath of sulphur and brimstone after death.

Chantry thought about the Catahoula Cur and her pups, wondered what he could do to get enough milk into the runt. Maybe he could buy some milk and feed it. Or say another prayer.

It occurred to him that maybe he’d been in the wrong place to pray. Maybe prayer would work better if he tried it here in church where God was supposed to be sitting every Sunday. It’d always seemed unlikely that God could be in every church in the world at the same time, but the reverend said God worked in mysterious ways so maybe it was possible. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and prayed that God would keep the pup from dying. Then he prayed that God would let him keep it. Last, he started to pray that God would do something about Rainey, then decided that was too much to ask. All at once, anyway. He’d better just stick to praying for the pup.

He opened his eyes, and first thing he saw was Cinda Sheridan sitting across the aisle to his left. Light gleamed on her pale blonde hair, loose strands stirring a little as she slowly fanned her face with a folded church bulletin. Fascinated, he watched her lips move in silent words as she read from a book in her lap. Maybe it was the Bible. Maybe it was a book about Hobbits. Cinda never seemed to care much about what people thought. Probably because her grandfather was Bert Quinton. Looking at Cinda made Chantry feel things he didn’t know how to explain. All hot and churning inside sometimes, cold as ice at others. Confused. Tight.

He’d dreamed about her before, crazy dreams that had to do with soft pink skin and green eyes, images of her in tight white shorts and a halter top, playing volleyball on her front lawn when he went with Dempsey to deliver mulch for their flower beds. She had small, high breasts that nearly fell out of her top when she leaped up to hit the volleyball, laughing with her head all thrown back and lips parted. He’d just stood and stared, both in the dream and reality. But after the dream, he’d woke up to a heavy ache and messed up sheets. And he was sure he was going to Hell for even remembering that dream in church.

Mama nudged him, and he looked down as Mikey sagged against his side, falling asleep as easily as if at home. He did that a lot lately. Mama worried he had something the matter with his heart. He’d heard her say that to Rainey, but he’d not even acted like he’d cared.

Reverend Hale shouted about salvation and lost souls, pounded his fist on the pulpit and turned red in the face. "The wages of sin is death. Woe be unto those who heed not the call of the Lord to redemption, brothers and sisters. They will surely face the lake of eternal fire, cursed to unspeakable torments for days without end. Who among you will answer the call of the Lord to commit your life to Him? Is it you?” He stabbed a finger toward the congregation and Chantry heard someone gasp. "You, brother? You, sister? Or do you want to feel the flames of Hell sear your entire body...”

Sweat beaded on the reverend’s face, made it glisten. He wiped his fleshy jowls with a snow white handkerchief, stepped from behind the pulpit as if about to leap down among the sinners. Chantry stared in fascination. Hale had the kind of eyebrows that went all the way across his brow, bushy like caterpillars, and his eyes were so dark a brown they were almost black. His nose was thin, jutting from between the brows like an axe blade. He wasn’t particularly tall but gave an impression of height when he was up on that dais, looking like one of God’s avenging angels out to wrest sinners from the very hands of the devil.

Now he seemed to look straight at Chantry when he boomed, "Beware the pitfalls of envy, lust, and avarice, for those are Satan’s tools. Seek humility and peace, not pride and strife.”

Chantry squirmed, pulled Mikey closer to him and looked away from the reverend. His head pounded, throbbed with the verbal assault and uneasy feelings of guilt. He knew about lust. He knew about envy. Peace was unfamiliar but it sounded like something he’d want. Maybe he’d have to get humility first to qualify for peace.

Finally church was over and the ending hymn sung, and Chantry got up and carried Mikey so he wouldn’t have to try to walk down the crowded aisle of people busting to get out the doors first. Mostly grownups stood and talked in little groups, but kids cooped up for an hour only wanted to get outside.

Cinda and her best friend Mariah nearly bumped into him in the aisle. Mariah giggled, and Cinda gave him a look from the side of her eyes like she wanted to say something. His stomach got tight. He nodded at her.

"Hey Cinda.”

"Hey Chantry.” She looked at Mikey in his arms. "Your little brother looks heavy.”

"He’s not. He’s—still little.” God, it felt so awkward, walking beside her like this and talking about anything but what he really wanted to talk about. He wanted to ask her to go to the Dairy Queen with him. He wanted to ask her just to talk to him for a while, stand where he could just look at her and think how pretty she was with her hair all loose around her face and her lips pink and shiny with some kind of slick stuff girls used.

"See you later,” Cinda said then, and she and Mariah kept going down the aisle. She left a lingering scent of something sweet and flowery in her wake that made him feel all weird.

He must have squeezed Mikey too tight because he made a little squeaky sound and patted his arm. "Put me down. I can walk, Chantry.”

"No. I’ll carry you outside and then you can walk.”

Chantry stopped on the outside steps and set Mikey down, a hand on his shoulder to keep him balanced while they waited on Mama. She’d stopped to talk to Donny Ray Caldwell’s mother about the next start of school. Mama taught sixth through ninth grades, but not all at the same time. The school was pretty big for a country school, with nearly four hundred pupils registered. Donny had been in Mama’s class last year and would be again this year when he repeated eighth grade. His birthday fell too late for him to be in Chantry’s class, but he was only a few months from fifteen and big for his age. Donny Ray and Chantry hung out sometimes, but not often. It wasn’t that they didn’t like each other, just that they didn’t really have a lot to talk about. Chantry had no Atari games, didn’t listen to music that often, and spent a lot of his free time earning extra money by helping Dempsey Rivers keep the town park mowed, mulched, and landscaped.

"Hey, fag.”

Chantry looked up. His eyes narrowed when he saw Chris Quinton and two of his buddies grinning at him. He didn’t answer, just stared at them. There was no point in getting into any kind of insult trade with Chris. It wouldn’t matter what he said, and he didn’t want to get into a fight with him here on the church steps.

Chris took a step closer. He wore a white shirt, blue sports coat, sharp creases pressed into his khaki Dockers, and smelled of some kind of aftershave. His blond hair was neat and feathered over his ears, not ragged like Chantry’s. Mama cut Chantry’s hair, but Chris Quinton got his styled. He’d heard him say that once and thought it was funny that a guy talked about getting his hair styled instead of cut. Maybe Chris always wore new clothes and whatever haircut was in style, but his two friends wore cheap imitations and their mullets were shaggy instead of well-cut.

"Ain’t you got anything to say, Callahan? Looka here, dudes, he’s so gay he can’t even talk to us.”

Mikey looked up, frowning a little, and Chantry kept a hand on his shoulder and his eyes on Chris. It was hard not saying anything back, hard not to pop Chris in the mouth and have the pleasure of seeing his lip split, but he kept still. His chest felt tight and his hand had curled into a knot despite knowing he couldn’t do anything. Not here.

Chris was right up on him now, so close Chantry could see his own reflection in the light gray eyes looking at him with something like scorn.

"I saw you talking to Cinda. Don’t be talking to my cousin, Callahan. You’re just Sugarditch trash. Hear me? Stay away from her, or—”

"Or what?” Chantry couldn’t keep from asking, feeling the anger build up inside until it made his words come out all thick and raspy.

Something flickered in Chris’s eyes. Satisfaction that he’d finally goaded him into talking, maybe. "Or maybe you won’t like what happens if you don’t,” he said.

"Is there some kind of problem, gentlemen?” Chantry heard his mama ask, and Chris took a step back.

"No, ma’am. Me and Chantry was just discussing some... after school activities, Mrs. Lassiter.”

"Really. I hope those activities include grammar lessons. School begins in six weeks, so I trust you’re enjoying your vacation, Chris.”

"Yes, ma’am. We went to California to visit my mama’s family and I learned to surf.”

Chris was always polite to adults, acting the part of the perfect student and teenager until they got out of earshot. Then he reverted to the kid Chantry was most familiar with encountering.

Mama smiled at him, but there was something cool in her eyes and tone that let both Chris and Chantry know she wasn’t fooled. It always gave him fierce pleasure when she did that. Mama wasn’t stupid.

"It’s always nice to be able to travel, and I’m certain your class would love to hear about your vacation,” Mama said. Chris didn’t attend public school in Cane Creek. He went to a private school that his grandfather had founded. An all-white school. That didn’t stop him from attending any school activities at Cane Creek he chose to, though, and no one ever said anything when he showed up for the school dances or festivals. Maybe because Cinda went to the public school. And his granddad basically owned it.

Chris was being really polite. "Yes, ma’am. My teachers at the academy usually give us an assignment about our vacations the first week back at school.”

"Do they? I’m very pleased to hear it, Chris.”

"It’d be nice if you taught at the academy, Mrs. Lassiter. My father says you’re the best teacher in Cane Creek.”

There was an old black and white TV show that Chantry had seen a few times that had a kid like Chris on it. Every time he saw Eddie Haskell talking to Beaver’s mom he thought of Chris Quinton. They even looked a lot alike, as far as he could tell in black and white. And both of them were suck-ups.

Mama answered Chris politely, and then gave Chantry a little nudge with her hand. When they walked away from the church, Chantry helping Mikey down the steps when he insisted on doing it himself, he felt Chris staring at them. Cinda may be only thirteen and his first cousin, but Chris acted more like she was his girlfriend. Maybe Quintons married their own cousins. That’d sure explain a lot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 3

Dempsey was home when Chantry walked over to his house that afternoon, sitting out on his sagging front porch repairing a fishing net. Gnarled hands worked efficiently despite being bony and distorted from years of hard work, thick fingers weaving together small lines of hemp to close up a hole.

"Got it caught on a sunken log,” Dempsey said when Chantry sat down on the top step to watch. "Lost a big ole cat that woulda tasted mighty good in my fryin’ pan.”

Dempsey’s favorite meal was fried catfish and hushpuppies, and he knew just how to fry it up so it was flaky and tender without being tough no matter the size or age of the fish. He liked river catfish, not farm grown ones that had all the taste bred out of them, he said. Dempsey spent any free time on his john boat out in the river shoals where the strong current wouldn’t carry him off downstream. He knew a lot about the river and a lot about planting stuff, too. Dempsey was probably the smartest man Chantry knew, but not book smart. He’d only gone to sixth grade.

He wasn’t real tall but he’d always seemed big to Chantry, with wise eyes that seemed to see everything. His hair was short, wiry, and had streaks of gray, but his face was curiously unlined. Only around the eyes did he show his age.

"What’cha got on your mind, Chantry?” he asked when he set aside the net and got them both a Mason jar of iced tea from the house. "Come to see me, or Tansy?”

"You.” Chantry waited until Dempsey sat down again in the wooden rocker. It creaked on the cypress planks of the porch. He rubbed the slick side of the tea jar with his thumb and looked up at the old man. "Rainey got a dog.”

"Yeah, so I heard.”

That didn’t surprise Chantry. Dempsey heard everything. He said it was because he kept his mouth shut and his ears open, but Chantry thought part of the reason was some white people in Cane Creek said whatever they wanted in front of him, figuring he didn’t much count since he was only an old black man.

"She had nine pups last night. The last one, it’s so little. A male. The others keep pushing it out of the way.” Chantry paused, not sure how to continue.

"And you want to save it.”

He nodded. "Yeah.”

"Can’t save everything, boy.”

"I know. But I can save this one. Tell me how.”

Dempsey pursed his lips, rocked back and forth a few times. "What’s ole Rainey say?”

"The pups are worth three hundred each. He won’t want to lose one.”

"Hm.” Dempsey’s skepticism was obvious. Not that Chantry blamed him. Rainey often did inexplicable things. After rocking a few more times, Dempsey said, "Need bitches milk for it to get enough. Feed it six, seven times a day yourself until it gets strong enough to make it on his own. Might make it, might not.”

"Where do I get the milk?” Chantry had a sudden vision of trying to milk Belle like a cow or goat. That’d be weird.

"Buy it. Vets have it. It’s cheapest in powder, but comes in cans too.”

"Oh. So, Doc Malone would have it?”

"Yeah, most likely. I might have an old can of it here somewhere from when I raised beagle pups. I’ll look for it. Won’t last long, but should get you through until Malone opens his doors tomorrow.” He set his iced tea on his knee, fingers balancing it lightly. "It’s not easy to take on feedin’ a pup, Chantry. And Rainey most likely won’t thank you.”

"I’m not doing it for Rainey.”

Dempsey nodded. "All right. Think Rainey’ll pay for the milk?”

Probably not. Chantry chewed his bottom lip a minute, then looked up. "Got any extra work I can do?”

"Sure. Be at the end of the street by six in the mornin’. Bring heavy gloves. We got a lot of diggin’ to do.”

Chantry was right about Rainey not wanting to pay for milk. When he took Belle out some of the cheap food Rainey’d brought home for her that afternoon, Beau and Rafe were out there too, looking at the pups.

"Might just as well drown that li’l un,” Beau said. "It ain’t gonna live anyway.”

Chantry set the pan of food down carefully and looked up at Rainey. He was nodding his head like he agreed.

"And lose three hundred dollars?” Chantry said as if surprised, but he felt all tight inside.

"Huh,” Rafe said, "lose that much just tryin’ to keep it alive. Cut losses, I say.”

Rainey nudged the tiny pup with his boot toe. It made a weak sound and barely moved. "Yeah. It ain’t gonna make it.”

"Yes, it will.” Chantry stepped forward to put himself between Rainey and the pup. "I’ll help.”

Beau gave him a funny look, kinda surprised and suspicious all at once. He was near as big as Rainey but more solid, thick through the shoulders and just as freckled, big splotches across his square-jawed face. Rafe was taller, not as brawny, with close-set eyes in a thin face. Both of them looked at him like he’d just said something really stupid.

"What you wanna go and do that for?” Beau asked. "You think you’re gonna get the money for it?”

"No. Nothin’ like that. I...it just seems like a waste to not try to save it. Won’t cost much to feed it a little extra. I’ll make sure it gets it. Hate to lose that three hundred dollars.”

It was the thought of the three hundred dollars that finally swayed Rainey, as Chantry had hoped it would.

He gave him a narrow look but nodded. "You can try, but I ain’t wastin’ a lot of time or money on it. And don’t be thinkin’ you’ll get to keep it if it lives, neither. I’ll sell it first if I can.”

"I don’t. Won’t. It’s okay.” He put his head down so none of them would see his relief. It didn’t matter if the dog got sold as much as it mattered that it had a chance at living.

Beau gave him a shove that almost knocked him into the pups. "Candy ass.”

He didn’t care. He let it pass without saying anything. It wouldn’t do any good anyway. Not with Rainey standing there watching and listening. He’d only laugh like he usually did when Beau and Rafe ganged up on him. He liked to brag about how well his boys were doing, making good money as rod busters, buying new trucks and giving him money sometimes. Chantry thought they probably spent more than they made, but that wasn’t his concern.

He’d already mixed up the bitch’s milk just like the directions said, and when they all left to spend father-son quality time over at the Tap Room, he took it out to the pen.

"Come here, little bit,” he murmured to the tiny pup, and lifted it in his hand. The pink mouth nuzzled his palm. He remembered what Mama had called it. It did look almost like a shadow, a bare whisper of life. "Come on, little Shadow. Let’s get you fat.”

He took a soft rag and dipped it into the milk, then let the pup suck at it. It wasn’t the best substitute, but all he could manage for the moment. He just felt so big and clumsy and the pup felt so small. He tried squeezing milk into the little mouth but that didn’t seem to work well either.

"That ain’t gonna work, Chantry.”

When he looked up, Tansy knelt beside the pen. She grinned at him. "Daddy sent me down with this. I used to use it to feed my dolls.” She held up a small plastic bottle, waggling it between her thumb and finger. "And I can help. Everybody knows girls are better than boys at this kind of stuff.”

"Oh yeah?”

"Oh yeah. Move over.”

Tansy opened the gate and stepped inside. She wore a pair of yellow shorts and a bandana top that left her middle bare. Tansy was Dempsey’s daughter, his only child, but she looked more like her mother. She had pretty light skin and eyes like chunks of polished amber, with thick heavy lashes. She’d matured earlier than other fourteen year old girls, too. She already had a chest that made the boys stare. She wore her hair long most of the time, but now it was pulled back from her face into a ponytail high on her head. It wasn’t at all kinky, but soft and wavy and not nearly as dark as Chantry’s own hair. Sometimes in the sun, it almost had a red shine to it.

She knelt beside him, long legs folded up under her, bare toes digging into the dirt. "Here. You’re holding it like it’s gonna break. Give her to me.”

"It’s a he.”

"Fine. Give himto me, butthead.”

He handed Shadow over, and she took the puppy gently, cradling it in her slender palm as if she had indeed done this a lot. Tansy’s long fingers worked the puppy into position while Chantry filled the baby bottle with some of the milk. He handed it to her, and she turned the pup and slid the end of the nipple into its searching mouth. Greedy sucking sounds quickly drained the bottle. Chantry put more in it and handed it over again. This time some was left.

"There you go. That’s all there is to it,” Tansy said and looked up at him.

"Don’t you have to... burp him or something?”

"Only if you intend to put diapers on him. Don’t you know nothin’?”

"Obviously not.” He sat back with his spine pressed against the side of the garage. "You do pretty good for a girl.”

"I do pretty good for anybody.” Sometimes Tansy talked that way, like she had all the confidence in the world. Only Chantry knew any different. They’d grown up together. He knew she felt a lot like he did. Two years ago her mama, Miss Julia, had died, and since then they’d talked a lot about how it felt to have only one parent. Tansy said Chantry was lucky to still have his mama. He said she was lucky to still have her daddy. Both of them knew what they meant.

"You like this color?” Tansy stuck out one foot so he could see the polish on her toenails. He squinted at her foot. Her toes were neon pink.

"Looks like you’ve been stompin’ on strawberries.”

She stuck out her tongue at him and he grinned. They watched the puppies a while, then he cleaned up after Belle and gave her fresh water. Tansy helped, knowing what to do without him saying anything. She was always good that way.

"So what now?” she asked. "Rainey gone for a while?”

"Probably. Sunday night services at the Tap Room.”

There was no Blue Law in Quinton County that prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays. Besides, the sheriff owed his job and salary to old man Quinton, and old man Quinton owned the Tap Room.

"Daddy said you’re gonna go to work with him in the morning.”

"Yeah. You gonna go, too?”

"Maybe.” She cut her eyes at him, lashes low to hide what she was thinking. It was such a girl trick. He waited, and in a minute she said, "We’re gonna do some work at Six Oaks.”

Damn. He frowned, looked down at his feet, kicked at a dirt clod. Chris Quinton’s house. He hated going out there. But he’d already asked for work, and he’d given his word. And he sure needed the money.

"You think Chris will be there?” Tansy asked.

"I hope not.”

"I hope he is. He... looks at me sometimes like he wants to... to talk to me.”

"Don’t be stupid. That ain’t what he wants to do.”

"Jealous?” Tansy arched a brow and put one hand on her hip, poking out her lower lip at him. She was teasing and he knew it, but it still made him mad.

"Damn, Tansy, you’re smarter than to like Chris Quinton. He’s a asshole.”

Tansy stood up straight. "You don’t know what you’re talking about, Chantry Callahan. He took me for a ride the other day in his new truck, and all we did was talk.”

"Jeez, are you crazy? You went off alone with him?” He stared at her. She stared back at him, her eyes all slitted like one of the stray cats that always hung around her house.

"Why not? He didn’t hurt me. He didn’t even touch me. He just... talked to me.”

It made him uneasy, but he couldn’t say exactly why. He just knew Chris wouldn’t be nice to Tansy unless he wanted something from her. He was pretty sure he knew what, but how did he say that to Tansy without her getting all mad again? She flipped her ponytail and thinned her lips.

"Look, Chantry, I know what you’re thinking. Boys like him don’t ever look at girls like me. I know that. But he does. So what if I want to see if Chris really likes me? It can’t hurt.”

"You’re wrong. Chris... he’s just not the nice guy he pretends to be. It’s only a mask he puts on when he wants something. Tansy, look—just don’t go off alone with him, okay? Don’t get in his truck anymore, and... and if you want to see him I’ll go with you.”

"Oh yeah, right. I’d be smack in the middle of a fight then. Why’d y’all fight last year, anyway? You never did tell me.”

"He’s a asshole. That’s why.”

Tansy shrugged. "Fine. Don’t tell me. I’m going home. See you in the morning.”

He watched her walk off through the side yard and down the street, bare feet flashing pink and tan through the high weeds along the road. As bad as he wanted money, he didn’t want to go to Six Oaks in the morning. He’d just hope Chris wouldn’t be at home.

Mama had packed him a lunch in a brown paper bag. He stood at the end of the road to wait for Dempsey, listening to the morning sounds of birds just coming awake. The day smelled fresh and new, not hot yet like it would be later. He’d gotten up real early to feed Shadow again, and the pup seemed a lot stronger. Mama had said she’d feed him a few times during the day, too. He should earn enough money to buy plenty of milk for him, and good food for Belle instead of the cheap crap Rainey bought for the dog. Not that Rainey’d notice, or care if he did notice. He’d be like Beau and Rafe and think Chantry was crazy. Maybe he was, ‘cause he sure didn’t want to be at Six Oaks today.

Dempsey’s battered old Ford truck rattled down the gravel and stopped, the motor humming better than a truck this old should be able to do. The body might look like it’d been in a train wreck, but the engine had been kept in good condition.

Tansy scooted over next to her daddy, and Chantry stepped up into the truck. She handed him a biscuit stuffed with ham but didn’t say anything. He guessed she was still mad about yesterday. He ate without talking, not that he ever talked a whole lot anyway. Dempsey had the radio tuned to a gospel station, one of his favorites. It was quiet on the town streets, a few folks just getting ready to open stores as the truck rolled down Main. Buford’s Department Store had big plate glass windows with dressed mannequins and July 4th Sales banners plastered across the front. Tyler’s Drugs sat on another corner, and the big new red and white gleaming tiles of the Dairy Queen sat at the far end of Main near Market Street.

He stared out the window as they passed fields of new corn stretching far as he could see. A mile or two down the road, cotton stalks bent buds that would soon turn into white fluff under the early morning breeze. The sky was so blue it looked polished. It was going to be another blistering hot day.

Amazing Grace came on the radio, and Tansy hummed along at first, eyes half-closed. The gospel singers on the radio cranked it up. So did Tansy. She had one of those voices that sounded as if it should come from someone the size and maturity of Ella Fitzgerald. Mama had some Ella Fitzgerald tapes that she liked to play when Rainey was gone. He didn’t like any of that "colored” music played while he was there, he always said before Mama shushed him.

"When we’ve been there ten thousand years,” Tansy sang, her voice soaring up from deep in her chest, "bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’ve first begun. Oh yeah, Lord, than when we’ve first begun. Um hmmm...”

He liked it when Tansy added stuff to the songs, personalized them and made them hers. He may not know much about music, but he knew when something sounded good. Man, she could sing her heart out, too. It never failed to make him look at her with new respect.

By the time they reached Six Oaks the sun was all the way up in the east and gleaming on the wide green front lawn of the house set way back off the road. Oaks lined the driveway, but it was the six ancient oaks in front that gave the house its name. Huge, with spreading branches that went out to tangle together in a thick canopy, the oaks had stood in front of the Quinton house since the first part had been built way back in 1827. He knew that because Dempsey had told him. Through the years the house had been added on to, until now it sprawled over several thousand feet of living space. There were a couple of sun rooms, covered porches, lots of French doors and a huge Olympic size swimming pool in the rear. A pool house bigger than Chantry’s entire house stood behind the pool. A waterfall splashed over high rocks into a fish pond, and bright gold fish called Koi darted among lily pads that bloomed with delicate purple flowers like orchids.

"Young Mr. Quinton wants a dry creek bed running behind the house,” Dempsey said. "He’s ordered white river rock for it, but we gotta dig the ditch.”

Young Mr. Quinton was Colin, old man Quinton’s son and Chris’s daddy. There was another son but he’d left Cane Creek a long time ago, so now there was just Colin living with his family at the house. There was probably enough room so none of them would ever run into each other if they didn’t want to. Chris’s mama and daddy were always off someplace, going to visit castles or pyramids, leaving Chris behind with his grandfather and a house full of servants. Chris got most anything he wanted. Like a new truck when he was only fourteen and not supposed to drive anything that wasn’t related to farm work. In Mississippi, it was legal to get a special license to help out on the farm, but as far as Chantry knew, Chris Quinton had never done a day’s work in his life.

"I didn’t think it flooded this high up,” Chantry said as Dempsey got out of the truck.

"It don’t. They just want it for looks.”

Chantry thought about having enough money to put empty creeks in flat delta land. It seemed pretty wasteful to him. While Dempsey took out a can of spray paint and the landscape drawing, Chantry got the shovels from the back of the pickup. He’d dressed for the heat in cut-off Levi’s and a sleeveless tee shirt, with brown lace-up work boots and white socks. Tansy wore snug red shorts and a halter top, and smelled like flowers.

"You come to a party or to work?” he asked her, irritated that she’d be so obvious. She gave him a narrow look and shrugged.

"I’m not digging. You are.”

"No? Just why are you here then? Besides to get Chris Quinton to look at your bare belly.”

Ignoring him, she swept her hair up off her shoulders and into a scrunchy piece of elastic atop her head, securing it with expert twists. Reaching over the edge of the truck bed, she picked up some gloves, a bucket, and a small spade and started off toward the flowerbeds that ran along a bricked veranda beside the house. Her compact little butt moved in a way he’d never quite seen before, and long golden legs flashed like scissors.

She was headed for trouble and he couldn’t do anything to stop her. He hated that.

By lunchtime, they had about ten feet of ditch dug out. It was long but shallow, with the banks sloped. Chantry sweated so much he’d taken off his shirt and tied a strip of cloth around his head to keep the sweat from dripping into his eyes. Dempsey kept on his tee shirt, but it was wet clear through, sticking to his wiry frame like a second skin. For a man in his fifties, Dempsey kept in pretty good shape, Chantry thought. He could outwork most men half his age.

Tansy pulled an old cooler from the cab of the truck and took out their lunches. She had a mad look on her face, and Chantry guessed she hadn’t seen Chris Quinton all day. He didn’t say anything to her. Anything he said would be wrong.

Dempsey didn’t say anything to her, either, even when she turned the truck radio to a pop station and turned it up pretty loud. A band called U2 played their new number one hit, then the DJ segued into a slower tune by Billy Vera. He knew this only because Tansy kept up with all the names of the songs and their artists. Some of it stuck with him, but most of it didn’t. When a really fast, loud song played, Dempsey looked pained but still didn’t say anything.

They ate sandwiches and drank sweet tea out of Mason jars. Mama had made Chantry two meatloaf sandwiches and he finished them both. He was still hungry, and when Dempsey offered, he took his extra sandwich, too. Thick ham slices on white bread.

"Good God,” Tansy said, and gave him a disgusted look, "how do you eat so much and stay so skinny?”

"I’m not skinny,” he said around the last bite. "I’m lean. Mean. Fit.”

"You just a skinny white boy.”

"Hunh.” He flexed his arms, sucked in his stomach and threw out his chest. "I’ve been working out. Superman ain’t got nothin’ on me.”

Some of Tansy’s good humor returned. She poked at him, laughing when he skidded out of reach. Sitting on the lowered tailgate of the truck in the shade, Dempsey watched with a faint smile as Tansy chased him around the truck.

"Too damn much energy,” he heard Dempsey say as they rounded the rear of the truck.

He let Tansy catch him after a minute, and she tackled him with both arms around his middle to take him down on a patch of grass under one of the old oaks. They rolled over a couple of times just like they used to do when they were small kids, roughhousing familiar fun. Panting and laughing, he lifted to his elbows to look at her. She’d rolled to one side, and her halter top had come down so that one of her breasts was bared. The pink nipple was tight and beaded, her breast full and firm, and he couldn’t help staring even as he moved to cover her.

"Hey,” he said, and started to reach to pull up the edge of her top, but Tansy had already caught the material between her fingers to give it a tug.

"Well looka here, the fag wants to cop a feel,” a voice said behind him, and he didn’t need to turn around to know it was Chris Quinton.

Chantry didn’t like being on the ground with Chris standing over him, and immediately got to his feet and turned around. Tension made his muscles tight, and he watched warily as Chris and his two friends made a half-circle around him. Behind them, Cinda and Mariah watched from the side veranda. They wore two-piece bathing suits and looked like they’d just gotten out of the pool. He wondered how much they’d seen and what Cinda thought seeing him roll around on the ground with Tansy.

"He trying to cop a feel?” Chris said to Tansy with a grin. "I didn’t think fags liked girls. Come on over here by me, and I’ll keep him from touching you.”

Tansy still sat on the ground. Chantry knew she didn’t know what to do, and he kept his eyes on Chris. The others would do whatever Chris wanted. He just had to keep his eye on Chris to figure out what would happen next.

When Chris stepped to one side Chantry pivoted to keep him a safe distance away, facing him without backing down. Adrenalin pumped blood fast through his veins, pounded in his ears and made him edgy. Indecision flickered on Chris’s face. Chantry waited; then he heard Dempsey come up behind him, his voice slow and easy.

"Hey boys, you come out to see how it’s goin’, or to help dig?”

Chris looked startled; then he shrugged. "We just came out to say hello. We’re on our way to town. So, is this where my father’s new creek bed is going to be?”

Dempsey went through the motions of showing Chris and his friends the proposed creek bed though Chantry was pretty sure he wasn’t fooled either. He didn’t relax until Chris was gone, his new red truck disappearing down the driveway. He heard the tires squeal when it got to the highway. When he looked at the house, Cinda and Mariah were gone back inside. The veranda was empty. Then he looked over at Tansy. She stood staring at the empty drive with something like disappointment in her eyes. You Keep Me Hangin’ On played loudly on the old truck’s radio. He felt like shaking her.

Someone came and burned a cross in Dempsey’s yard that night. Chantry woke up when he heard truck tires scratching off down Liberty Road. He looked out the window and saw a red truck fly past, then saw the glow of flickering flames light up the night sky. He put on his pants and climbed out his window and looked up the road. Then he saw the burning cross.

"Hold on, boy,” a thick voice said from the porch shadows when Chantry leaped off the porch to go see about Dempsey, "where you think you’re goin’?”

Rainey. Chantry stopped and turned to look at him. He sat on the porch steps smoking a cigarette, face lit up by the fire and moonlight. His eyes squinted with a mean look, but his lips stretched into a smile of satisfaction.

"You knew about this,” Chantry said. "Why?”

Rainey took a deep drag off his cigarette, then he flipped it out into the yard. "Some folks don’t need to forgit what they are.”

"If you’re talking about Dempsey, he’s a better man than you’ll ever be,” Chantry said back hard and quick. Anger made his chest tight and his hands curl into fists at his sides.

He’d forgotten Rainey could move so fast. He was up off that porch step in a flash, and swung his left arm so quick Chantry couldn’t jerk back fast enough. Rainey’s fist clipped his jaw and sent him staggering back against the side of the house. Then Rainey had him by a hand full of hair and banged his head against the wood siding.

"You lissen to me, boy, I done tolerated enough of your going off down to that house all the time. Now you’re dumb enough to play with that little yella gal right in the Quinton’s front yard? Shee-yit!”

Chantry just looked at him. Chris Quinton. Who else would have told everybody about what happened? And Chris had a new red truck...

"What is going on out here?” Mama asked from the front door, and Rainey let go of Chantry’s hair and turned around to look at her.

"I caught him tryin’ to sneak out of the house,” Rainey said. "Or maybe back in.”

Mama looked past Rainey and Chantry to the burning cross in Dempsey’s front yard. Her lips tightened. She looked back at Rainey. "If I find out you had anything at all to do with this, Rainey Lassiter,” she said quietly, "I will ensure that you are arrested.”

Rainey grinned. "You think anybody in this town would arrest me for it, even if I had planted that cross?”

"Perhaps not, but the Federal authorities might be very interested in finding the culprit.”

One thing about Mama, she didn’t bluff. If she said she was going to do something, she did it, and Rainey knew that just as well as Chantry did. His grin disappeared, and he didn’t say a word when Mama told Chantry to go down and help Dempsey put out the fire.

Dempsey had it almost out by the time Chantry got there. It wasn’t a big cross, just two six foot one-by-two strips of dry pine doused with gasoline. The cross-piece had been nailed on and come loose, and Chantry kicked the thing down so that it lay flat on the ground. Tufts of dry grass burned, but Dempsey used a garden hose to wet everything down.

For a moment neither one of them said anything. Then Chantry looked up to see Tansy standing on the front porch in her pajamas. She had her arms crossed over her chest like she was cold, but it was a hot night even without the fire. There was a look on her face like she’d had when her mama died. Desolation, disbelief.

"Go on back inside, baby,” Dempsey said gently, and after another look at the still smoldering cross making charred marks in the grass, she turned around without a word and went back inside.

"Chris Quinton did this,” Chantry said quietly, and Dempsey shrugged.

"It don’t matter who did it.”

"It matters to me.”

Dempsey looked at him with a faint smile. "There was a time not so long ago when men would have come with a rope and I’d be hanging from a tree limb. No one would’ve done much about that, either.”

Chantry looked at him for a minute. Dempsey had a weary look in his eyes, like a man who’s seen things he didn’t want to, and never wanted to see again. It made him think about the whispers he’d heard at times, men disappearing if they’d crossed old man Quinton or any other white man. Chantry had always figured they’d just run away. Maybe they hadn’t. Maybe some of those men had disappeared forever.

Then he remembered something else he’d heard. "Is that what happened to your daddy?” he asked.

Dempsey turned around and went to cut off the water still spraying from the hose. It was easy to see him in the moonlight, his sleeveless white tee shirt and his boxers sticking out in the soft gloom next to the house. Old boards creaked when he went up onto the porch, and Chantry saw the flare of a match as he lit up the old pipe he kept out there next to his bent willow rocker chair.

It was true. Even without Dempsey saying anything, he knew it. He went up on the steps and sat down. Familiar night sounds settled around them. Crickets, bullfrogs, hoot owls. A dog barked, sounding pretty far off, and another closer answered it. The rich smell of tobacco smoke drifted on the night breeze, mixing with raw earth and the acrid reminder of ignorance and hate.

"It was a lot different back then than it is now,” Dempsey said. "Lawmen looked the other way.”

"They still do.”

"Not like back then. Not nothing like back when I was a boy.” The willow rocker creaked a little with a shift of his weight. "Things were a lot different then. This ain’t the first cross I’ve seen burned. This was just kids. It’s a lot different when it’s grown men.”

"We studied the civil rights movement that went on in the fifties and sixties,” Chantry said after a moment. "This is the eighties. I thought all that was done with.”

Dempsey’s chair creaked a little louder. "Some things don’t never get done with, and that’s a fact. Not as long as there are people willin’ to hate for no good reason. Not as long as there are men with things to hide. Those men are the most dangerous, Chantry, because they’re scared. Don’t ever underestimate a man with something to hide.”

"You mean old man Quinton, don’t you. What’s he got to hide?”

Dempsey didn’t answer. And somehow, that was answer enough. Chantry got a sick feeling deep in the pit of his stomach. He thought about rumors of missing men and burning crosses and hanging bodies, and knew Bert Quinton had to be a part of it all.

"I don’t want him to get away with it,” Chantry said fiercely.

"Boy, there’s lots of laws, but the only one I’m sure nobody can ever escape is the law of retribution. Things have a way of coming back on people. Sometimes, just like they did it to others. Let God take the vengeance, Chantry. He’s much better at it and He never fails.”

Chantry wasn’t so sure he believed that, but obviously Dempsey did, so he just nodded. It seemed to him that God always took too much time to make folks pay for the wrong they did. Maybe he’d give God a little help one of these days.


 


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