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.
"…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
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
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.
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.
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’.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
said, sounding weary and careful, "you know how I feel about raising dogs. We
have gone through this before.”
this is a stock dog, not a fightin’ dog. Farmers ‘round here always need good
stock dogs and huntin’ dogs. Catahoulas do both.”
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?”
dollars easy. A’piece. She has six pups, that’s over a thousand bucks back on
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...
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
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.”
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,
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?”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
its own course, honey,” she’d said. "The mother knows how to care for her own
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.
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.
his hand on one of the rags and shook his head. "Maybe not. See? The mama’s
taking care of it.”
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.
bigger than a shadow,” Mama said after a moment. "You know it may not make it through
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tilt your head back so I can button the neck of your shirt up.”
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?”
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.
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
pest, you know that?”
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.”
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.
time to leave for church.”
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
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.”
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.
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
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
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.”
brimstone. Shouts of eternal damnation and Hell awaiting sinners. Reverend Hale
liked to scare moral trespassers into Heaven.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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...”
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
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.
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.
She looked at Mikey in his arms. "Your little brother looks heavy.”
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.
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
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.”
carry you outside and then you can walk.”
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
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
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.
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—”
Chantry couldn’t keep from asking, feeling the anger build up inside until it
made his words come out all thick and raspy.
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
"No, ma’am. Me
and Chantry was just discussing some... after school
activities, Mrs. Lassiter.”
hope those activities include grammar lessons. School begins in six weeks, so I
trust you’re enjoying your vacation, Chris.”
We went to California to visit my mama’s family and I learned to surf.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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.
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?”
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
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.”
"I know. But I
can save this one. Tell me how.”
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.”
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?”
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.”
nodded. "All right. Think Rainey’ll pay for the milk?”
Chantry chewed his bottom lip a minute, then looked up. "Got any extra work I
"Sure. Be at
the end of the street by six in the mornin’. Bring heavy gloves. We got a lot
of diggin’ to do.”
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.”
the pan of food down carefully and looked up at Rainey. He was nodding his head
like he agreed.
three hundred dollars?” Chantry said as if surprised, but he felt all tight
said, "lose that much just tryin’ to keep it alive. Cut losses, I say.”
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
wanna go and do that for?” Beau asked. "You think you’re gonna get the money
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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.
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. Move
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.
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.”
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.
have to... burp him or something?”
"Only if you
intend to put diapers on him. Don’t you know nothin’?”
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.
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?”
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.
you’re gonna go to work with him in the morning.”
gonna go, too?”
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
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.
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.”
stupid. That ain’t what he wants to do.”
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.
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
"Why not? He
didn’t hurt me. He didn’t even touch me. He just... talked to
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
asshole. That’s why.”
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
think it flooded this high up,” Chantry said as Dempsey got out of the truck.
They just want it for looks.”
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.
digging. You are.”
"No? Just why
are you here then? Besides to get Chris Quinton to look at your bare belly.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tansy said, and gave him a disgusted look, "how do you eat so much and stay so
skinny,” he said around the last bite. "I’m lean. Mean. Fit.”
"You just a
skinny white boy.”
flexed his arms, sucked in his stomach and threw out his chest. "I’ve been
working out. Superman ain’t got nothin’ on me.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
"Hey boys, you
come out to see how it’s goin’, or to help dig?”
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?”
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.
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’?”
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.
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.”
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.
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
"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!”
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.”
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
grinned. "You think anybody in this town would arrest me for it, even if I had
planted that cross?”
but the Federal authorities might be very interested in finding the culprit.”
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.
did this,” Chantry said quietly, and Dempsey shrugged.
matter who did it.”
"It matters to
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.”
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.
remembered something else he’d heard. "Is that what happened to your daddy?” he
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
"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.”
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.”
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?”
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.
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.”
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.