Authors: Deeanne Gist
Tags: #Fiction, #Christian, #Historical, #Romance, #General, #ebook, #book
There was no room in his life for distractions. Essie had offered an excuse, and he knew he should accept it and put as much distance between them as he could.
She lowered her chin and began to pick at the wood on the railing. Her hair bunched along the back of the jacket’s collar. Reaching up, he scooped the golden mane into his hand and pulled it free from its confinement. The silky strands glided through his fingers and fell against her back.
She spun around, her skirts catching against the railing and twisting round her legs. She lifted her hands to her hair, causing the jacket to fall off, then swiftly fished out some pins from a skirt pocket and placed them in her mouth. She finger-combed her hair, banded it together, and twirled it against her head with quick, efficient movements.
While her hands were full and occupied, he drew the pins from her mouth. She stilled and lifted her gaze to his.
He handed her a pin. She took it from him, careful to keep her fingers from brushing his, and tucked it into her hair. He doled the pins out one at a time until she reached for the last one. He squeezed it, keeping her from taking it.
They stood suspended, linked not by touch, but by opposite ends of the pin. What would she do if he tugged on his end? Would she let go or would she come to him?
Releasing the pin, he stepped away, retrieved his jacket from the floor of the porch and held it open. “Ready?”
Patting her hair, she presented her back to him. He hooked the jacket on her shoulders and offered her his arm.
After a slight hesitation, she slipped a hand out from the folds of his jacket.
On the street, he adjusted his stride to hers. The fabric of her skirt swished when she walked and brushed against his leg. Neither of them uttered a word the entire way home.
At Bilberry Street they took a right and she gently removed her hand from his arm. He opened the gate leading to her house. There were no lights coming from the windows. Hadn’t her father wondered where she was? Did she come home late so often that he didn’t even bother to wait up for her?
The giant pecan trees on either side of the walkway shadowed the porch, making it almost impossible to see. Taking her elbow, he guided her up the steps, then reached for the door.
She placed a restraining hand on his arm. “Thank you for seeing me home, Tony.”
He straightened. “You’re welcome.”
Darkness surrounded them. He could make out her silhouette, but little else.
Shrugging his jacket from her shoulders, she handed it to him. “Thank you.”
He nodded and slung it over his arm, but made no move to leave. A lonely bird some distance off called out, but received no answer.
“Well,” she said.
“Well,” he repeated, backing up a step. “I guess I’d better be going.”
“Yes.” But she made no move to go inside. “When do you think the Bakers will be able to come to Corsicana?”
“Who? Oh! The Baker brothers. Yes, well, I’m not sure. It depends on whether or not they’re still in Beaumont. I could shoot my friend a telegram first thing in the morning, but it would mean I’d be a little late for work.”
“I’ll tell Mr. Moss.”
“Then I’ll take care of it and let you know when I hear from them.” He backed up another step.
“Be careful. I think the stairs are right behind you.”
He glanced over his shoulder. “Right. Yes. Thank you. Don’t suppose it would be good if I fell down the stairs after everything else that’s happened tonight.”
She made no response. He wished he could see her expression, then thought better of it. After another second’s hesitation, he tugged the brim of his hat, then strode down the steps, across the yard, out the gate and back toward town.
ROLLING PEGASUS out of the shed, Essie walked her bike to the street, pointed it toward town and smoothly mounted. The cloudless day offered no breeze or relief from the sun’s intense rays, but Essie took little notice of it, her mind fully occupied with thoughts of Mr. Bryant.
Something had changed, though she couldn’t pinpoint what exactly. When he’d gathered her hair into his hands, she’d briefly remembered another man doing the same thing. And much as she’d enjoyed those moments, there was a wealth of hurt in the memories, too.
Turning onto Fourth Street, she waved at the men working a series of Sullivan Oil rigs. Work on the derricks ceased. The men doffed their hats, waved back and waited for her to pass before resuming their duties.
When she’d first met Tony, he had bristled with resentment. When had his feelings changed, she wondered. After she re-hired him? After the football match? Brianna’s tragedy? Whenever it happened, there was no question the animosity had slowly melted away like bubbles in a washtub. What troubled Essie was what the change meant.
Approaching Collin Street her heart began to hammer. In another minute or two, she’d be passing the rig Tony worked on. Releasing one handlebar, she touched her hair and hat, assuring herself all was in place. She smoothed her collar, pinched her cheeks, then ran a hand across her stomach.
Turning the corner, she immediately spotted his rig several hundred yards ahead. Should she look for him? Pretend she didn’t notice him? Wave? Smile? Do nothing?
Before she could decide, she was upon them. Again the men stopped and she raised a hand to wave. Her tire hit a rut in the road, throwing her off-balance. She grasped the handlebars with both hands as if they were the horns of a bull wrenching its head from side to side.
The bike pitched to the left, and she only kept upright by kicking out her foot and pushing against the road. But she overcompensated and had to do the same with her other foot before regaining control.
Heat rushed to her face. Were they still watching her? Had Tony seen? She knew the answer without looking.
Mortified, she kept her eyes straight ahead and did not wave to any other rigs or acknowledge them in any way. Experienced wheelers fell off of their machines all the time, she told herself. It was part of the sport. Nothing to be embarrassed about.
Her stomach refused to calm, however, so she cleared her mind of all thoughts and concentrated on reaching the sanctuary of the jailhouse.
At the south end of Jefferson Avenue, she rolled to a stop, jumped off Peg and leaned her against the red bricks of the sheriff’s office.
The handlebars of her bike knocked loose a bit of grout, sprinkling the boardwalk with flakes of gray.
Adjusting her straw hat, she took a moment to compose herself, then tiptoed underneath the oversized five-pointed star hanging above the open door and peeked into a building that was as familiar to her as her own home. She could tolerate the deputy if Uncle Melvin was there to run interference, but she didn’t relish being caught alone with the man.
Nothing stirred inside the vacant room. “Uncle Melvin?”
Two desks filled the space between the door and the empty cells running along the back wall. Moving to the desk closest to the door, she fingered a Wanted poster frayed at the edges, and examined the vacant eyes of Saw Dust Charlie, horse thief, wondering what led a man into a life of crime.
Oil leases, tax records, and licensing documents littered the left side of the scarred wooden desk, rings of black ink stained the other. A hollowed-out groove cradled her uncle’s Easterbrook pen.
Accidentally brushing his papers, she recoiled at the discovery of a postcard with the corpse of a badly beaten man in shredded clothes hanging from a rope while onlookers gawked. She flipped the offending card over, but its image still branded itself in her mind.
She scanned the printed inscription,
A note scribbled in coarse letters slashed the expanse above it.
If this can happen in my town, it can happen in yours. When my deputies interrupted the proceedings, they were imprisoned by the mob. Something’s got to be done.
Covering the note back up, she tried to quell the sickness in her stomach. She’d heard of lynchings in neighboring counties, but nothing like that would ever happen in Corsicana. And the local merchants certainly wouldn’t sell postcards glorifying them.
Her gaze moved to a delicate china figurine tucked beside an unlit kerosene lamp, the sight of it bringing a touch of normalcy and comfort. The six-inch woman was lifting her porcelain face to the sun while hugging a basket of wild flowers to her waist with one hand. The other hand was plastered to her head in an attempt to keep a hold on her wide-brimmed straw bonnet. Her back was arched, her laughing face enchanted.
Essie remembered the first time she’d seen it prominently displayed in the window of the Flour, Feed and Liquor Store. She couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old. The figurine had captured her imagination and she’d saved up her money for weeks. Not for herself, but for one of the most important persons in her young life. She’d never forget Uncle Melvin’s surprise when she proudly presented the little statuette to him on his birthday.
The following morning, she’d all but burst from pride upon entering the jailhouse to see her gift prominently displayed on his desk. And it had been there ever since.
She smiled at the memory, then started as the town stray, Cat, jumped up onto the wooden surface, scattering a stack of oil leases to and fro.
Picking up the tabby, she curled it against her chest and rubbed her nose against its head. “Where is everybody, hmmmm?”
Cat raised her chin, and Essie obligingly scratched it. “What’s the matter? You looking for Uncle Melvin, too?”
The words had hardly left her mouth before she sensed someone else in the room. She glanced behind her.
Deputy Billy John Howard leaned against the open doorframe of the storage room where all weapons and supplies were kept under lock and key. She wondered how long he’d been standing there.
His petite frame never failed to surprise her, especially considering how quick he was with his fists—too quick. In the six months he’d been deputy, those fists had made many enemies and actually killed a man who’d challenged his authority. All in the name of maintaining law and order.
“Have you finally come to your senses, Essie?” he asked. “Come to accept my suit?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“I promise not to disappoint.”
“All the same, no thank you.”
“As you wish,” he said, his eyes hooded.
“What were you doing in there?”
“We got us a leak and had to move all the spare rifles to your uncle’s house. So he’s been pestering me to fix the ceiling.”
Pushing away from the doorframe, he locked the storage room, sauntered to her and reached for her arm. She jumped back, dropping Cat between them. Howling, the animal streaked out the front door.
Deputy Howard’s hand veered to Uncle Melvin’s top drawer—as if that had always been his destination—and dropped the key inside. “A bit jumpy, aren’t we?”
“Where’s Uncle Melvin?”
“Here and there.”
She edged back, keeping the desk between them, but he followed her step for step.
“What brings you here?” he asked.
“I have a message for my uncle.”
Howard hooked one hip on the edge of the sheriff’s desk. “You can leave the message with me. I’ll be sure he gets it.”
She began backing toward the door. “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll just check back later.”
“The Fourth of July celebration is next week,” he said, standing, then hitching up his trousers. “I figured I’d pick you up around ten.”
“My bicycle club sponsors a group ride that morning. And even if it didn’t, I’m afraid I would have to decline. Now, if you’ll excuse me?”
She didn’t have time to so much as turn around before he’d closed the distance between them and grabbed her arm.
“You goin’ with somebody else?”
“No,” she said, trying to pull away. “Now, let me go. You’re hurting me.”
He increased the pressure on her arm ever so slightly before releasing her. “My apologies. I’m just gettin’ a little tired of your excuses.”
“They aren’t excuses, Mr. Howard. They are outright refusals. I am not going to the celebration with you or anyone else. Is that clear?”
His eyes flickered. “Clear as a bell, Miss Spreckelmeyer. I guess if you won’t let me escort you, then I’ll just have to settle fer seein’ you there.”
Tony pushed away a plate piled with chicken bones, then pulled the napkin from his neck. He caught Castle’s eye and laid a nickel on the counter. The proprietor strolled over, wiping his hands on his apron, and snatched the coin up with a nod of thanks.
A boomer two stools down from him pointed a drumstick at the man sitting beside him. “I’m tellin’ ya, pulling all this oil from the ground ain’t gonna do a lick o’ good lessen we have a refinery of our own. Just ain’t right the way we send all our slick up to them Yanks.”
“It’d take a lot o’ cartwheels to do it ourselves,” his partner responded. “Why, we’d need to build a refinery first, along with gatherin’ lines, pipin’, heavy steel, and I don’t know what all.”
The door jingled, signaling the entrance of two young women. The men draped along the counter straightened, tracking the ladies’ progress. Those wandering about the drugstore removed their hats.
Tony didn’t recognize the girls, but he smiled politely, then slipped out the door. Harley had promised to return Tony’s pocketknife to him at the Slap Out in exchange for a game of checkers, and he didn’t want to be late.
The sun had long since set, and oilmen filled the walkways and road, jostling Tony and kicking up dirt. Pulling his handkerchief from his pocket, Tony sneezed and wiped his nose. The dirt never settled in this town, coating him with a film of grime every time he stepped outside.
Like a trout moving upstream, he wove through the press of men and crossed Main Street, then over to Collin Street. A man in overalls and a straw hat strode into the store while another man stepped out of the mercantile, swung up onto his horse and headed in the opposite direction.
Tony climbed the steps and made his way back to where the stove was. Harley leaned against the chair of an old man whittling on a piece of wood, a pile of shavings between his feet. Two other gaffers divided their attention between the game of checkers they played and the man whittling. The carver held up his piece of wood and said something Tony couldn’t quite catch, causing the group to guffaw.
“Howdy, Mr. Tony,” Harley hollered, noticing him. “Come look here at what Pa’s a-whittlin’. ”
The man stopped working and greeted Tony. His nose was as wide as it was long and the texture of tree bark. Bushy gray eyebrows shaded little bitty blue eyes.
“I’m Ludwig Vandervoort. Harley’s pa. That there is Owen and Jenkins.” He looked Tony up and down. “You the feller what left his knife exposed to the elements?”
Tony flushed at the censure in his tone.
“I done told ya, Pa,” Harley said, “we was helping the womenfolk after Bri got bit. And womenfolk is way more important than knives. Ain’t that so, Mr. Tony?”
The three old-timers waited for Tony’s response.
“A knife is an important tool, Harley,” Tony said, “and a man shouldn’t be leaving it behind like that.”
The men nodded.
“But what about the women?” Harley asked.
Tony put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “In my book, the women are definitely more important than a pocketknife.”
Harley gave his father a triumphant look, but the man had propped his elbows on his knees and continued to whittle … with Tony’s knife.
“You keep ’er good and sharp,” Vandervoort said, making no apologies for testing it out. “I’ll give ya that.”
From what Tony could tell, the carving was almost finished.
Vandervoort shaved very small pieces around the figure’s shoulders, then blew on it. “Well, that just about does it.”
Pressing the back of the blade against his trouser leg, Vandervoort snapped the knife closed and handed it to Tony. “Much obliged.”
Tony ran his fingers along the stag handle, then slipped it into his pocket. He wanted to inspect it for damage from the previous night but decided to do that without an audience.
Harley held out his hands and his father placed the figure into them. The boy turned the carving over, a smile splitting across his face.
“Lookit,” he said, handing it to Tony.
The real-life features of the three-inch figure impressed him. A hat hid the eyes of the statue and rested on an oversized nose. Thin lips formed a smile that looked more like a leer.
“Turn it over,” Harley said, delight in his voice.
Tony flipped the figure over, expecting to find its back but instead discovered it was another man. The eyes on this one, though, were visible with eyebrows drawn into an angry V. The lips were curled and the hands formed exaggerated fists.