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Authors: Deeanne Gist

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BOOK: Deep in the Heart of Trouble
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Uncle Melvin chuckled. “Now, Essie, don’t be so hard on him. It’s been a month of Sundays since that boy’s had himself a homecooked meal.”

“I thought that
boy
had dinner with you and Aunt Verdie last week?”

“Well, that’s not quite the same, is it, Deputy?”

Howard turned up his smile. “I do enjoy Mrs. Dunn’s cookin’, sir, but having a meal put together by Miss Spreckelmeyer surely does sound right nice.”

She poured a cup of milk into the soup. “Perhaps another time.”

Replacing his hat on his head, he nodded. “I’ll be countin’ on it, ma’am.”

Uncle Melvin opened the door. Deputy Howard passed through it, his footfalls heavy as he made his way off the porch.

When the door remained open, she looked back over her shoulder.

Uncle Melvin stood puzzled, his hand on the knob. “What is it about him that rubs you so raw?”

“How much time do you have?”

He chuckled. “Oh, I know you told him to leave you be, and if he doesn’t, you just tell me and I’ll talk to him. But, girl, he really has taken a shine to you.”

“I’m not interested.”

“You’re nearly thirty-four, Essie. He’s a good man, and if you don’t take him, you might not ever—”

She slammed the lid on the pot. “I’m not interested.”

He held up his hands. “All right. All right.”

Sighing, she wiped a spot of milk off the stove with her apron. “How was Papa?”

“Struggling. Tonight’s supper won’t be easy.” He gave her a sad smile, retrieved his hat and quietly closed the door behind him.

Essie slumped against the stove. When it came to his deputy, Uncle Melvin wore blinders. She couldn’t understand how such a shrewd judge of character could be as deluded as Melvin was to Mr. Howard’s true nature. She’d begged Papa to intervene, but he always demurred.

“If you’ve heard rumors about the man, then you can be sure Melvin has, too. If he chooses not to credit them, then we ought to respect that. No amount of arguing will change his mind.”

“So you won’t say anything?”

“Essie,”
he’d said.
“Is it the stories about the deputy that bother you, or is it the fact that he’s intrigued by you?”

She moved to the washbowl, dipped a rag into it, then wrung out the water. Perhaps her father was right. If the townsfolk told tales about Deputy Howard, goodness knows they told more about Essie herself. Perhaps the rumors about Howard were as false as the ones about her.

But why couldn’t the deputy pursue some other woman? As Uncle Melvin had reminded her, she was well into her thirties and had another birthday fast approaching. She might not have a man, but she didn’t want one, nor did she need one.

Her work in the bicycle club brought great satisfaction, and she enjoyed helping Papa with Sullivan Oil. Her neighbors and friends had known her all her life and loved her. She attended a thriving church. She had a wonderful God.

No, she didn’t need a man to make her whole. She was whole already. Picking up the egg bowl, she wiped it clean, then placed it on the shelf.

Her only wish was for a close female friend. She knew plenty of women and most all of them cared for her and would help her if she were in need. But she didn’t have a confidante.

Now that her mother was gone, she found herself longing for another woman who could give her an opinion on which hat would best suit her new outfit. Or someone she could play a duet with on the piano. Someone to go bike riding with. Someone to share a cup of coffee with.

For a while, Essie thought perhaps Shirley would fill that role. But her helper at the club was almost fifteen years younger than she, a new bride and a bit too whimsical to suit Essie’s taste. They were friends, but the intimate rapport she longed for had yet to materialize.

She gave the soup a stir and tried to recall ever having a girl chum. But even as a child, her friends were always boys. And she got along with them famously.

Didn’t matter the age, the occupation, or even how long she’d known them. If they were male, she had something in common with them.

Boys loved the outdoors. They didn’t play catty games with each other. They spoke their minds. They were everything she’d ever wanted in a friend. Even now, in spite of the many women who had embraced the Velocipede Club, she was closest to Mr. Sharpley, the young man she was training for the Corsicana Oil & Gas Bicycle Invitational.

Yet lately she found she’d rather stitch a sampler than climb a tree. Or read a book of poetry instead of hunt snakes. Oh, she still enjoyed the outdoors, but having a man for a chum simply wasn’t practical at this juncture of her life. Besides, she couldn’t whisper secrets and press flowers or discuss facial creams with a man. There were some things only a woman could understand.

Picking up a teakettle, she put some water on to boil. It didn’t do to dwell on such thoughts. God knew her heart’s desire for a friend. She would wait on Him, and He would bring it to pass. It was only a matter of time.

chapter FIVE

ESSIE DISHED veal soup into two bowls, then called her father to the table. She hoped Uncle Melvin’s visit had brought Papa some comfort. He stepped into the kitchen, his eyes puffy.

She set down their ice tea glasses and walked into his arms. He wrapped them clear around her shoulders, squeezing her so tightly she couldn’t breathe.

“I don’t think I can eat in here tonight, Squirt. Would you mind if we ate on the porch instead?”

She patted his back. “Of course not, Papa. We’re having soup, so it’ll be no trouble to move outside.”

He released her and pinched a napkin against his tea glass in one hand, then tucked his spoon and bowl in the other.

From the porch, they could look across the flat, coastal plain of East Texas where the town of Corsicana resided. Black silhouettes of derricks too numerous to count stretched to the sky, the smell of oil riding on the breeze. Dusk coated the blue above them, frosting it with deep navy clouds. Magenta fired the clouds out on the far horizon and glazed those closer to them.

Crickets chattered, toads bleated, whippoorwills sang out their names over and over. The creaking of Papa’s rocker joined in, his napkin riding the slope of his stomach, his bowl resting in his lap, untouched.

A large, broad man, he held a commanding presence and had earned the respect of most everyone in town, garnering their votes election after election. Essie hated to see him in such a dolorous state.

“I heard you fired the new toolie last night,” he said finally.

She hesitated a moment before finishing her bite. “Yes.”

“Grandpa was none too happy when he found out. According to him, Bryant was the soul of courtesy—fearless, punctual, and hardworking.”

She scooped up slices of potato and onion.

“You gonna tell me about it or not?” he asked.

She dabbed her lips. “You gonna eat or not?”

He placed a spoonful of soup in his mouth.

“Mr. Bryant barged into the club after everyone had left and started ordering me around,” she said.

“Ordering you around? How so?”

“He demanded we convert all our rigs to rotaries, or else.”

“Or else what?”

“Or else we’d become obsolete.”

“He said that?”

“More or less.” She waved her spoon at his bowl.

He took another bite. “I talked at length about the rotary drills with Mr. Bryant before I sent him out to see you. I’d been reading about them and was actually toying with the idea of updating.”

She set her empty bowl on the small round table between them. “Well, heavens. You’ve not said a word. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I was going to, but I’ve been … distracted.” His gaze roved over the sky. There was only the barest hint of magenta left.

Her heart squeezed and she laid a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry, Papa. I know this month has been hard on you.”

His beard quivered.

“The rotary drills are terribly expensive,” she said, “but if you’d like for me to write up an assessment, I can.”

“Please,” he whispered, rubbing his eyes with his thumb and finger.

She placed her napkin on the table, gathered her skirts and knelt before him. His hand now rested against his entire face.

She removed the bowl from his lap and placed it on the table. “I’ll write up a report first thing tomorrow.”

He nodded. “Would you re-hire Bryant also, please?”

She bit her lower lip. “I’d rather not.”

Papa lowered his hand and looked at her, his expression turning protective. “Was he fast with you?”

“No, no. Just … officious.”

“I imagine he’s not very used to discussing business with a woman.”

“What’s he doing discussing business with either one of us? He’s a toolie, for heaven’s sake. And a novice at that.”

“Don’t kid yourself, Essie,” he said. “He knows the oil business. Somehow he secured a higher-up position for himself in Morgan Oil without ever having to get his hands dirty. He’s a pencil pusher, not a rope choker. Doesn’t mean he’s ignorant.”

“I don’t like him.”

“I don’t think he much likes you, either.”

“I stopped caring a long time ago what men think of me,” she said. “Anyway, he’s probably already left town.”

“I saw him at the Slap Out playing checkers with young Harley just before I came home for supper.”

She took his hands into hers. “Why is he so important to you, Papa?”

“Why’s he so repugnant to you? It’s not as if you’ve never had to tangle with a fella who didn’t like the idea of taking orders from a female.”

Full dark had descended and she could no longer distinguish his features. “He said I was too big for my britches.”

Papa chuckled. “And so you are.”

She started to pull away, but he squeezed her hands. “Now, Squirt, you know there’s a bit of truth to that. And what does it matter one way or the other? Bottom line is, you’re his boss. He’ll come around.”

If he’d asked on any other day, she’d have put up more resistance.

But she simply didn’t have the heart to argue with him tonight. “Will you hire him back, Papa, so I don’t have to?”

Standing, he brought her to her feet, as well. “I’d rather you do it. I’d like to be alone for a while, if it’s all right with you.”

She frowned. “You mean, you want me to go find him right now? This minute? And leave you alone in the house?”

“Yes, please.”

“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”

“He’s leaving at first light.”

“But what if he’s left the Slap Out already? I wouldn’t have a clue as to where he might go. He could be anywhere.”

“You’ll find him.” The words came out a croak. And she realized Papa truly did need to be alone with his memories without worrying she might overhear him grieving.

“Very well,” she sighed. “You sure you’ll be all right?”

He pulled her into another hug but gave her no assurances.

Tony could not believe he was being trounced in checkers by a ten-year-old. They’d been playing for best out of five, but when Tony went down early by two games, he’d convinced Harley to play the best out of seven. It was three to one. Harley.

The child’s shiny black hair had been parted on the side but would not stay slicked down. The barrel that the checkerboard rested on came up to his chest.

He jumped two of Tony’s pieces before landing on his king row, then leaned against his cane chair. “Crown, please,” he said with a smirk.

The door to the Slap Out—where Corsicanans came if they were slap outta something—was propped open by a basket of oranges, giving Tony a view of the darkening sky. The smell of stale coffee, tobacco, and vinegar wrestled for dominance over the mercantile. Mr. Crook, the slim and fastidious man who owned the store, began to prepare for closing.

“How’d you learn to play checkers so well?” Tony asked.

“Miss Essie taught me.”

“Miss Essie?” Tony asked, his finger poised on the checker he was fixing to move. “Miss Essie Spreckelmeyer?”

“Yep.”

The boy’s grin irritated Tony. Because of that pompous, shorttempered woman, he’d be heading over to Powell’s oil patch in the morning looking for another job. “You play checkers with her?”

Harley shook his head. “Not if I can help it. I cain’t hardly ever beat her.”

Tony slid his piece into a position to jump one of Harley’s blacks.

The boy leaned forward and studied the board. “Me and her go way back.”

Way back? The boy was only ten. “You’re friends, then?”

“Thicker ’n calf splatter.”

“She fired me yesterday.” Tony couldn’t keep the edge from his voice.

Harley snorted. “What’d ya do? Kick a dog or somethin’?”

“No. I told her she needed to update her father’s rigs.”

The boy looked up from the board. “Told her or askt her?”

“Told her.”

The shopkeeper, sweeping between two tables, began to chuckle.

Harley shook his head. “She don’t like to be told what to do. But she’s a square shooter and once you’re her friend, she’d back you ’til Sittin’ Bull stood up.”

“That a fact?”

“Sure is.” Harley moved his piece out of harm’s way.

The unmistakable sound of a lady’s bootheels approached the open door, then stopped. Tony looked up. Speak of the devil.

“Good evening, Hamilton,” Miss Spreckelmeyer said to the shopkeeper. “I was afraid you might be closed already.”

Crook set his broom aside. “No. Katherine has ladies from the Benevolent Society upstairs fawning over the twins. I thought I’d hide out here for a while longer.”

Tony couldn’t help staring, though she paid him no mind. She could pretend all she wanted that she hadn’t noticed him there, but he knew better.

She wore a simple skirt and white shirtwaist with a relatively plain straw hat. Her entire countenance had mellowed the moment she’d seen Crook, and mention of the babies had provoked a tender expression.

“They’re so adorable, Hamilton,” she said. “I could gobble them right up.”

Crook pushed his spectacles farther up onto his nose. “Yes, they’re something special, all right.” His expression sobered. “I’ve been thinking about you today. How’s your father?”

The softness about her melted into melancholy. “It’s been a difficult day for us both.”

“I’m sorry,” Crook said. “What brings you to the store at this hour?”

She looked somewhat at a loss, then noticed the basket of oranges holding open the door. “I’d like one of these, please.”

“An orange? You came all the way out here for an orange?”

“Yes, please.” She picked one up and gently squeezed it. “Can you put it on our tab?”

Crook eyed her curiously but didn’t argue.

“Your turn, Mr. Bryant,” Harley said.

Tony turned his attention back to the board, but he could see Miss Spreckelmeyer out of the corner of his eye. She made a show of noticing them for the first time, then approached the barrelhead slowly, her boots tapping the floorboards.

“Good evening, Harley,” she said.

“Hey, Miss Essie. Sorry you’re havin’ a bad time. What’s the matter?”

She gave the boy a sad smile. “My mother died two years ago today.”

Harley’s face collapsed. “I’d forgotten it was today. The judge all right?”

“As good as can be expected, I suppose.”

Tony had learned Mrs. Spreckelmeyer was deceased, but, of course, had no idea this was the anniversary. The anger he felt toward Essie dulled a bit in light of the circumstances.

She turned to him. “Mr. Bryant.”

He stood, snagging Harley by the shirt collar and lifting him to his feet, as well.

“Miss Spreckelmeyer,” he said. “I’m sorry for your loss.” Harley squirmed away from Tony’s grip.

“Thank you,” she said. “And, please, don’t mind me. Go ahead and resume your game.”

He grabbed a chair from beside the potbellied stove and brought it to the barrel, holding it in readiness. Smoothing her skirts beneath her, she sat. He and the boy followed suit.

“Who’s black?” she asked.

“I am,” Harley replied.

“Hmmm.” She and Harley exchanged a smile.

Tony frowned at the board.

“Shouldn’t you be home having supper?” she asked Harley while cutting into the orange’s skin with her thumbnail.

“Ma, Brianna, and a couple of ladies are upstairs fussin’ over Mrs. Crook’s babies. Ma told me to wait here for her.”

“Brianna’s here?” Essie asked, glancing at a curtain that led to a back room. “Brianna Pennington?”

“Yep.”

“I heard you’ve been teaching her how to fish.”

Harley scratched his chest. “Reckon you heard right.”

Essie cocked her head. “How’s she doing?”

“She won’t put worms on her hook. Thinks it’s mean. So I’m gonna take her snake hunting. No killin’ involved in snake hunting.”

Tony glanced at Essie, waiting for her to raise an objection to Harley doing something so foolhardy—particularly with a girl in tow. But she didn’t so much as bat an eye.

“Who’s Brianna?” he asked.

“You know,” Harley said. “She’s one of them Pennington girls.

There’s a whole passel of ’em, aren’t there, Miss Essie?”

“There sure are.” She turned to Tony. “Bri’s the youngest of the cooper’s eight daughters. Her mother died about three years ago.”

Nodding, Tony moved his piece. Essie paused in the peeling of her orange to assess his move and again gave Harley the slightest of smiles.

“We’re playing best of seven,” Harley said. “I’ve already won three out of four.”

Tony stiffened. Essie might have been irascible last night due to her distress over her mother’s anniversary, but that was no call to fire him, nor to gloat over him being beaten by this kid in knee pants.

She split open the orange, and its fresh smell filled their corner of the store.

“Hadn’t seen ya around much lately,” Harley said.

She offered him a sliver of fruit. “I’ve been busy training Mr. Sharpley for the bicycle race.”

She offered Tony a piece, too, but he declined with a wave of the hand.

Harley popped his slice into his mouth. “How come you’re not trainin’ him tonight?”

“I had planned to spend the evening with Papa, but he retired early.”

BOOK: Deep in the Heart of Trouble
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