Chapter 21

Autumn lasted less than twenty-four hours. By noon the next day the heat was back, the cotton was dry, the ground was hard, and all those pleasant thoughts about cool days and blowing leaves were forgotten. We had returned to the edge of the river for the second picking. A third one might materialize later in the fall, a "Christmas picking," as it was known, in which the last remnants of cotton were gathered. By then the hill people and the Mexicans would be long gone.

I stayed close to Tally for most of the day and worked hard to keep up with her. She had become aloof for some reason, and I was desperate to learn why. The Spruills were a tense bunch, no more singing or laughing in the fields, very few words spoken among them. Hank came to work mid-morning and began picking at a leisurely pace. The rest of the Spruills seemed to avoid him.

"A Painted House"

Late in the afternoon I dragged myself back to the trailer-for the final time, I hoped. It was an hour before quitting time, and I was looking for my mother. Instead I saw Hank with Bo and Dale at the opposite end of the trailer, waiting in the shade for either Pappy or my father to weigh their cotton. I ducked low in the stalks so they wouldn't see me and waited for friendlier voices.

Hank was talking loudly, as usual. "I'm tired of pickin' cotton," he said. "Damned tired of it! So I been thinkin' about a new job, and I done figured a new way to make money. Lots of it. I'm gonna follow that carnival around, go from town to town, sorta hide in the shadows while ol' Samson and his woman rake in the cash. I'll wait till the money piles up; I'll watch him fling them little sodbusters outta the ring, and then late at night, when he's good and tired, I'll jump up outta nowhere, lay down fifty bucks, whip his ass again, and walk away with all his money. If I do it once a week, that's two thousand dollars a month, twenty-four thousand bucks a year. All cash. Hell, I'll get rich."

There was mischief in his voice, and Bo and Dale were laughing by the time he finished. Even I had to admit it was funny.

"What if Samson gets tired of it?" Bo asked.

"Are you kiddin'? He's the world's greatest wrestler, straight from Egypt. Samson fears no man. Hell, I might take his woman, too. She looked pretty good, didn't she?"

"You'll have to let him win every now and then," Bo said. "Otherwise he won't fight you."

"I like the part about takin' his woman," Dale said. "I really liked her legs."

"Rest of her wasn't bad," Hank said. "Wait-I got it! I'll run 'im off and become the new Samson! I'll grow my hair down to my ass, dye it black, get me some little leopard-skin shorts, talk real funny, and these ignorant rednecks 'round here'll think I'm from Egypt, too. Delilah won't be able to keep her hands off me."

They laughed hard and long, and their amusement was contagious. I chuckled to myself at the notion of Hank strutting around the ring in tight shorts, trying to convince people he was from Egypt. But he was too stupid to be a showman. He would hurt people and scare away his challengers.

Pappy arrived at the trailer and started weighing the cotton. My mother drifted in, too, and whispered to me that she was ready to go to the house. So was I. We made the long walk together, in silence, both happy that the day was almost over.

The house painting had resumed. We noticed it from the garden, and upon closer inspection saw where our painter-Trot, we still presumed-had worked his way up to the fifth board from the bottom and had applied the first coat to an area about the size of a small window. My mother touched it gently; the paint stuck to her finger.

"It's fresh," she said, glancing toward the front yard, where, as usual, there was no sign of Trot.

"You still think it's him?" I asked.

"Yes, I do."

"Where does he get the paint?"

"Tally buys it for him, out of her pickin' money."

"Who told you?"

"I asked Mrs. Foley at the hardware store. She said a crippled boy from the hills and his sister bought two quarts of white enamel house paint and a small brush. She thought it was strange-hill people buyin' house paint."

"How much will two quarts paint?"

"Not very much."

"You gonna tell Pappy?"

"I am."

We made a quick pass through the garden, gathering just the essentials-tomatoes, cucumbers, and two red peppers that caught her eye. The rest of the picking crew would be in from the fields in a short while, and I was anxious for the fireworks to start once Pappy learned that his house was getting painted.

In a few minutes, there were whispers and brief conversations outside. I was forced to slice cucumbers in the kitchen, a tactic to keep me away from the controversy. Gran listened to the news on the radio while my mother cooked. At some point, my father and Pappy walked to the east side of the house and inspected Trot's work in progress.

Then they came to the kitchen, where we sat and blessed the food and began eating without a word about anything but the weather. If Pappy was angry about the house painting, he certainly didn't show it. Maybe he was just too tired.

The next day my mother kept me behind and puttered around the house for as long as she could. She did the breakfast dishes and some laundry, and together we watched the front yard. Gran left and headed for the cotton, but my mother and I stayed back, doing chores and keeping busy.

Trot was not to be seen. He'd vanished from the front yard. Hank stumbled from a tent around eight and knocked over cans and jugs until he found the leftover biscuits. He ate until there was nothing left, then he belched and looked at our house as if he might raid it for food. Eventually he lumbered past the silo on his way to the cotton trailer.

We waited, peeking through the front windows. Still no sign of Trot. We finally gave up and walked to the fields. When my mother returned three hours later to prepare lunch, there was a small area of fresh paint on some boards under the window of my room. Trot was painting slowly toward the rear of the house, his work limited by his reach and by his desire for privacy. At the current rate of progress, he'd finish about half the east side before it was time for the Spruills to pack up and head for the hills.

"A Painted House"

After three days of peace and hard work, it was time for more conflict. Miguel met Pappy at the tractor after breakfast, and they walked in the direction of the barn, where some of the other Mexicans were waiting. In the semidarkness of the dawn I tagged along, just close enough to hear but not get noticed. Luis was sitting on a stump, his head low as if he were sick. Pappy examined him closely. He had suffered some type of injury.

The story, as Miguel explained it in rapid, broken English, was that during the night someone had thrown clods of dirt at the barn. The first one landed against the side of the hayloft just after the Mexicans had bedded down. It sounded like a gunshot-planks rattled, and the whole barn seemed to shake. A few minutes passed, and then another one landed. Then another. About ten minutes went by, and they thought perhaps it was over, but yet another one hit, this one on the tin roof just above their heads. They were angry and scared, and sleep became impossible. Through the cracks in the wall, they watched the cotton field behind the barn. Their tormentor was out there somewhere, deep in the cotton, invisible in the blackness of the night, hiding like a coward.

Luis had slowly opened the loft door for a better look, and when he did a missile landed squarely in his face. It was a rock from the road in front of our house. Whoever threw it had saved it for such an occasion, a direct shot at one of the Mexicans. Dirt clods were fine for making noise, but the rock was used to maim.

Luis's nose was cut, broken, and swollen to twice its normal size. Pappy yelled for my father to fetch Gran.

Miguel continued the story. Once they tended to Luis and got him somewhat comfortable, the shelling resumed. Every ten minutes or so, just as they were settling down again, another volley would crash in from the darkness. They watched carefully through the cracks but saw no movements in the field. It was just too dark to see anything. Finally their assailant grew tired of his fun and games and stopped the assault. For most of them, sleep had been fitful.

Gran arrived and took over. Pappy stomped away, cursing under his breath. I was torn between the two dramas: Did I want to watch Gran doctor on Luis, or did I want to listen as Pappy blew off steam?

I followed Pappy back to the tractor, where he growled at my father in words I could not understand. Then he charged the flatbed trailer where the Spruills were waiting, still half-asleep.

"Where's Hank?" he snarled at Mr. Spruill.

"Sleepin', I reckon."

"Is he gonna work today?" Pappy's words were sharp.

"Go ask him," Mr. Spruill said, getting to his feet to address Pappy face-to-face.

Pappy took a step closer. "The Mexicans couldn't sleep last night 'cause somebody's throwin' dirt clods against the barn. Any idea who it was?"

My father, with a much cooler head, stepped between the two.

"Nope. You accusin' somebody?" Mr. Spruill asked.

"I don't know," Pappy said. "Ever'body else's workin' hard, sleepin' hard, dead tired at night. Ever'body but Hank. Seems to me, he's the only one with plenty of time on his hands. And it's the sorta stupid thing Hank would do."

I didn't like this open conflict with the Spruills. They were as tired of Hank as we were, but they were still his family. And they were hill people, too-make them mad and they'd simply leave. Pappy was on the verge of saying too much.

"I'll speak to him," Mr. Spruill said, somewhat softer, as if he knew Hank was the likely culprit. His chin dropped an inch or two, and he looked at Mrs. Spruill. The family was in turmoil because of Hank, and they were not ready to defend him.

"Let's get to work," my father said. They were anxious for the confrontation to end. I glanced at Tally, but she was looking away, lost in her thoughts, ignoring me and everybody else. Pappy climbed onto the tractor, and we left to pick cotton.

Luis lay on the back porch all morning with an ice pack on his face. Gran buzzed around and tried repeatedly to force her remedies upon him, but Luis held firm. By noon he'd had enough of this American style of doctoring and was anxious to return to the fields, broken nose or not.

Hank's cotton production had fallen from about four hundred pounds a day to less than two hundred. Pappy was livid about this. As the days dragged on, the situation festered, and there were more whispers among the adults. Pappy had never owned $250 free and clear.

"How much did he pick today?" he asked my father over supper. We had just finished the blessing and were passing around the food.

"Hundred and ninety pounds."

My mother closed her eyes in frustration. Supper was supposed to be a pleasant time for families to visit and reflect. She hated controversy during our meals. Idle gossip-chitchat about the goings-on of people we knew or perhaps didn't know-was okay, but she didn't like conflict. Food was not properly digested unless your body was relaxed.

"A Painted House"

"I've a good mind to drive to town tomorrow, find Stick Powers, and tell him I'm finished with the boy," Pappy said, waving a fork at the air.

There was no way he would do this, and we knew it. He knew it, too. If Stick somehow managed to get Hank Spruill handcuffed and shoved into the back of his patrol car, which was a showdown I would've loved to witness, the rest of the Spruills would be packed and gone in a matter of minutes. Pappy wasn't about to risk a crop over an idiot like Hank. We'd grit our teeth and just try to survive his presence on our farm. We'd hope and pray he wouldn't kill anyone else and that no one killed him, and in a few short weeks the harvest would be completed, and he'd be gone.

"You're not sure it's him," Gran said. "No one saw him throwin' at the barn."

"Some things you ain't gotta see," Pappy fired back. "We ain't seen Trot with a paintbrush, but we're perfectly happy to believe he's doin' the paintin'. Right?"

My mother, with perfect timing, said, "Luke, who are the Cardinals playin'?" It was her standard line, a not-too-subtle way of letting the others know that she wanted to eat in peace.

"The Cubs," I said.

"How many more games?" she asked.

"Just three."

"How far ahead is Musial?"

"Six points. He's at three-thirty-six. Baumholtz is at three-thirty. He can't catch him."

At this point my father was always expected to come to the aid of his wife and keep the conversation away from heavier matters. He cleared his throat and said, "I bumped into Lou Jeffcoat last Saturday-I forgot to tell you. He said the Methodists have a new pitcher for Sunday's game."

Pappy had cooled off enough to say, "He's lyin'. That's what they say every year."

"Why would they need a new pitcher?" Gran asked with a faint smile, and I thought my mother was going to laugh.

Sunday was the Fall Picnic, a glorious event that engulfed Black Oak. After worship, usually a very long worship, at least for us Baptists, we would meet at the school, where the Methodists would be gathering. Under the shade trees the ladies would set up enough food to feed the entire state, and after a long lunch the men would play a baseball game.

It was no ordinary game, because bragging rights were at stake. The winners ribbed the losers for an entire year. In the dead of winter I had heard men at the Tea Shoppe ride each other about The Game.

The Methodists had won it for the last four years, yet they always started rumors about having a new pitcher.

"Who's pitchin' for us?" my father asked. Pappy coached the Baptist team every year, though after four straight losses, folks were beginning to grumble.

"Ridley, I guess," Pappy said without hesitation. He'd been thinking about the game for a year.

"I can hit Ridley!" I said.

"You got a better idea?" Pappy shot at me.

"Yes sir."

"Well, I can't wait to hear it."

"Pitch Cowboy," I said, and everybody smiled. What a wonderful idea.

But the Mexicans couldn't play in The Game, nor could the hill people. Each roster was made up of certified church members onlyno farm laborers, no relatives from Jonesboro, no ringers of any variety. There were so many rules that if they'd been put down in writing, the rule book would've been thicker than the Bible. The umpires were brought in from Monette and were paid five dollars a game plus all the lunch they could eat. Supposedly, no one knew the umpires, but after last year's loss there were rumors, at least around our church, that they were either Methodists or married to Methodists.

"That would be nice, wouldn't it?" my father said, dreaming of Cowboy mowing down our rivals. One strikeout after another. Curve-balls dropping in from all directions.

With the conversation back in pleasant territory, the women took over. Baseball was pushed aside as they talked about the picnic, the food, what the Methodist women would be wearing, and so on. Supper came to the usual quiet close, and we headed for the porch.

I had decided that I would write Ricky a letter and tell him about Libby Latcher. I was certain that none of the adults would do so; they were too busy burying the secret. But Ricky needed to know what Libby had accused him of. He needed to respond in some way. If he knew what was happening, then maybe he could get himself sent home to deal with the situation. And the sooner the better. The Latchers were staying to themselves, telling no one, as far as we knew, but secrets were hard to keep around Black Oak.

Before Ricky left for Korea, he'd told us the story of a friend of his, a guy from Texas he'd met in boot camp. This guy was only eighteen, but he was already married, and his wife was pregnant. The army sent him to California to shuffle papers for a few months so he wouldn't get shot. It was a hardship case of some variety, and the guy would be back in Texas before his wife gave birth.

Ricky now had a hardship; he just didn't know it. I would be the one to tell him. I excused myself from the porch under the pretense of fatigue and went to Ricky's room, where I kept my Big Chief writing tablet. I took it to the kitchen table-the light was better thereand began writing slowly in large printed letters.

"A Painted House"

I dwelt briefly on baseball, the pennant race, then the carnival and Samson, and I wrote a couple of sentences about the twisters earlier in the week. I had neither the time nor the stomach to talk about Hank, so I got to the meat of the story. I told him that Libby Latcher had had a baby, though I did not confess that I had actually been nearby when the thing arrived.

My mother wandered in from the porch and asked what I was doing. "Writin' Ricky," I said.

"How nice," she said. "You need to go to bed."

"Yes ma'am." I had written a full page and was quite proud of myself. Tomorrow I would write another page. Then maybe another. I was determined that it would be the longest letter Ricky had so far received.

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