Later that afternoon, Tally found me in the backyard. It was the first time I'd seen her walk around the farm, though as the days passed, the Spruills showed more interest in exploring the area.
She was carrying a small bag. She was barefoot but had changed into the same tight dress she'd been wearing the first time I'd seen her.
"Will you do me a favor, Luke?" she asked ever so sweetly. My cheeks turned red. I had no idea what favor she wanted, but there was no doubt she'd get it from me.
"What?" I asked, trying to be difficult.
"Your grandma told my mom that there's a creek close by where we can bathe. Do you know where it is?"
"Yeah. Siler's Creek. 'Bout a half a mile that way," I said, pointing to the north.
"Are there any snakes?"
I laughed like snakes shouldn't bother anyone. "Maybe just a little water snake or two. No cottonmouths."
"And the water's clear, not muddy?"
"Should be clear. It hasn't rained since Sunday."
She looked around to make sure no one was listening, then she said, "Will you go with me?"
My heart stopped, and my mouth was suddenly dry. "Why?" I managed to ask.
She grinned again and rolled her eyes away.
"I don't know," she cooed. "To make sure nobody sees me."
She could've said, "Because I don't know where the creek is," or "To make sure there are no snakes." Or something, anything that had nothing to do with seeing her bathe.
But she didn't.
"Are you scared?" I asked.
"Maybe a little."
We took the field road until the house and barn were out of sight, then turned onto a narrow path we used for spring planting. Once we were alone, she began to talk. I had no idea what to say, and I was relieved that she knew how to handle the situation.
"A Painted House"
"I'm real sorry 'bout Hank," she said. "He's always causin' trouble."
"Did you see the fight?" I asked.
"The one in town."
"No. Was it awful?"
"Yeah, pretty bad. He beat those boys so bad. He beat 'em long after the fight was over."
She stopped, then I stopped, too. She walked close to me, both of us breathing heavily. "Tell me the truth, Luke. Did he pick up that stick first?"
Looking at her beautiful brown eyes, I almost said, "Yes." But in a flash something caught me. I thought I'd better play it safe. He was, after all, her brother, and in the midst of one of the many Spruill fights, she might tell him everything I said. Blood's thicker than water, Ricky always said. I didn't want Hank coming after me.
"It happened real fast," I said, and started walking off. She caught up immediately and said nothing for a few minutes.
"Do you think they'll arrest him?" she asked.
"I don't know."
"What does your grandpa think?"
"Hell if I know." I thought I might impress her by using some of Ricky's words.
"Luke, your language!" she said, quite unimpressed.
"Sorry." We walked on. "Has he ever killed anybody before?" I asked.
"Not that I know of," she said.
"He went up North once," she continued as we approached the creek. "And there was some trouble. But we never knew what happened."
I was certain there was trouble wherever Hank went.
Siler's Creek ran along the northern boundary of our farm, where it snaked its way into the St. Francis, at a point you could almost see from the bridge. Heavy trees lined both sides, so in the summer it was usually a cool place to swim and bathe. It would dry up, though, and quickly, and more often than not, there wasn't much water.
I led her down the bank to a gravel bar, where the water was deepest. "This is the best spot," I said.
"How deep is it?" she asked, looking around.
The water was clear. " 'Bout here," I said, touching a spot not far below my chin.
"There's nobody around here, right?" She seemed a bit nervous.
"No. Everybody's back at the farm."
"You go back up by the trail and look out for me, okay?"
"Okay," I said, without moving.
"Go on, Luke," she said, placing her bag on the bank.
"Okay," I said, and started away.
"And, Luke, no peeking, okay?"
I felt as if I'd just been caught. I waved her off as if the thought hadn't crossed my mind. "Of course not," I said.
I crawled up the bank and found a spot a few feet above the ground, on the limb of an elm. Perched there, I could almost see the top of our barn.
"Luke!" she called.
"Is everything clear?"
I heard water splash but kept my eyes to the south. After a minute or two, I slowly turned around and looked down the creek. I couldn't see her, and I was somewhat relieved. The gravel bar was just around a slight bend, and the trees and limbs were thick.
Another minute passed, and I began to feel useless. No one knew we were here, so no one would be trying to sneak up on her. How often would I have the chance to see a pretty girl bathing? I could recall no specific prohibition from the church or the Scriptures, though I knew it was wrong. But maybe it wasn't terribly sinful.
Because it involved mischief, I thought of Ricky. What would he do in a situation like this?
I climbed down from the elm and sneaked through weeds and brush until I was above the gravel bar, then I slowly crawled through the bushes.
Her dress and underclothes were hung over a branch. Tally was deep in the water, her head covered with white lather as she gently washed her hair. I was sweating, but not breathing. Lying on my stomach in the grass, peering through two big limbs, I was invisible to her. The trees were moving more than I was.
She was humming, just a pretty girl bathing in a creek, enjoying the cool water. She wasn't looking around in fear; she trusted me.
She dipped her head under the water, rinsing out the shampoo, sending the lather away in the slight current. Then she stood and reached for a bar of soap. Her back was to me, and I saw her rear end, all of it. She was wearing nothing, which was exactly what I wore during my weekly baths, and it was what I expected. But confirming it sent a shudder throughout my body. Instinctively, I raised my head, I guess for a closer look, then ducked again when I regained my senses.
If she caught me, she'd tell her father, who'd tell my father, who'd beat me until I couldn't walk. My mother would scold me for a week. Gran wouldn't speak to me, she'd be so hurt. Pappy would give me a tongue-lashing, but only for the benefit of the others. I'd be ruined.
In water up to her waist, she bathed her arms and chest, which I could see from the side. I had never seen a woman's breasts before, and I doubted if any seven-year-old boy in Craighead County had. Maybe some kid had stumbled upon his mother, but I was certain no boy my age had ever had this view.
"A Painted House"
For some reason, I thought of Ricky again, and a wicked idea came from nowhere. Having seen most of her privates, I now wanted to see everything. If I yelled "Snake!" at the top of my voice, she would scream in horror. She would forget the soap and the washcloth and the nudity and all that, and she would scamper for dry land. She would go for her clothes, but for a few glorious seconds I would see it all.
I swallowed hard, tried to clear my throat, but realized how dry my mouth was. With my heart racing away, I hesitated, and in doing so learned a valuable lesson in patience.
To wash her legs, Tally stepped closer to the bank. She rose from the creek until the water covered nothing but her feet. Slowly, with the soap and cloth she bent and stretched and caressed her legs and buttocks and stomach. My heart pounded at the ground.
She rinsed by splashing water over her body. And when she was finished, and still standing in ankle-deep water, wonderfully naked, Tally turned and stared directly at the spot where I happened to be hiding.
I dropped my head and burrowed even deeper into the weeds. I waited for her to yell something, but she did not. This sin was unforgivable, I was now certain.
I inched backward, very slowly, not making a sound, until I was near the edge of the cotton. Then I crawled furiously along the tree line and resumed my position near the trail, as if nothing had happened. I tried to look bored when I heard her coming.
Her hair was wet; she'd changed dresses. "Thanks, Luke," she said.
"Uh, sure," I managed to say.
"I feel so much better."
So do I, I thought.
We walked slowly back toward the house. Nothing was said at first, but when we were halfway home she asked, "You saw me, didn't you, Luke?" Her voice was light and playful, and I didn't want to lie.
"Yes," I said.
"That's okay. I'm not mad."
"No. I guess it's only natural, you know, for boys to look at girls."
It certainly seemed natural. I could think of nothing to say.
She continued, "If you'll go with me to the creek the next time, and be my lookout, then you can do it again."
"Do what again?"
"Okay," I said, a little too quickly.
"But you can't tell anybody."
Over supper, I picked at my food and tried to behave as if nothing had happened. It was difficult eating, though, with my stomach still turning flips. I could see Tally just as clearly as if we were still at the creek.
I'd done a terrible thing. And I couldn't wait to do it again.
"What're you thinkin' 'bout, Luke?" Gran asked.
"Nothin' much," I said, jolted back into reality.
"Come on," Pappy said. "Something's on your mind."
Inspiration hit fast. "That switchblade," I said.
All four adults shook their heads in disapproval.
"Think pleasant thoughts," Gran said.
Don't worry, I thought to myself. Don't worry.
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