Chapter 29

Stick's old, loud patrol car came rolling into the front yard, with our stolen truck right behind it. Stick got out, full of importance because he'd solved the most urgent part of the crime. Black Oak's other deputy was driving the truck, which, as far as we could tell, had not changed at all. The Spruills ran over, anxious for some word about Tally.

"Found it at the bus station in Jonesboro," Stick announced as the small crowd gathered around him. "Just like I figured."

"Where was the key?" asked Pappy.

"Under the seat. And the tank's full of gas. Don't know if it was full when they left here, but it's full now."

"It was half empty," Pappy said, astonished. We were all surprised, not only to see the truck again but to see it unchanged in any way. We'd spent the day worrying about a future with no truck, with no means of transportation. We'd be in the same boat as the Latchers, forced to bum rides to town from anybody passing by. I couldn't imagine such a plight, and I was now more determined than ever to someday live in a city where folks had cars.

"I guess they just borrowed it," Mr. Spruill said, almost to himself.

"That's the way I see it," Stick said. "You still want to press charges?" he asked Pappy.

He and my father exchanged frowns. "I guess not," Pappy said.

"Did anybody see them?" Mrs. Spruill asked quietly.

"Yes ma'am. They bought two tickets for Chicago, then hung around the bus station for five hours. The clerk knew somethin' was up, but figured it wasn't his business. Runnin' off with a Mexican ain't the smartest thing in the world, but it ain't no crime. The clerk said he watched them through the night, and they tried to ignore each other as if nothin' was happenin'. They wouldn't sit together. But when the bus loaded they got on together."

"What time did the bus leave?" Mr. Spruill asked.

"Six this mornin'." Stick removed a folded envelope from his pocket and handed it to Mr. Spruill. "Found this on the front seat. I think it's a note from Tally to y'all. I ain't read it."

Mr. Spruill handed it to Mrs. Spruill, who quickly opened it and removed a sheet of paper. She started reading, and she began wiping her eyes. Everybody watched her, waiting without a sound. Even Trot, who was hiding behind Bo and Dale, leaned forward and watched the letter being read.

"Ain't none o' my business, ma'am," Stick said, "but if there's any useful information, then maybe I need to know."

Mrs. Spruill kept reading, and when she finished, she looked at the ground and said, "She says she ain't comin' home. She says she and Cowboy are gonna get married and live up North, where they can find good jobs and such." The tears and sniffles had suddenly vanished. Mrs. Spruill was now more angry than anything else. Her daughter hadn't been kidnapped; she'd run off with a Mexican, and she was going to marry him.

"They gonna stay in Chicago?" Stick asked.

"Don't say. Just says up North."

The Spruills began drifting away, backpedaling in retreat. My father thanked Stick and the other deputy for bringing our truck home.

"You're gettin' more rain than most folks," Stick said as he opened the door to his patrol car.

"It's wet all over," Pappy shot back.

"River's risin' to the north," Stick said, as if he were an expert. "More rain's on the way."

"Thanks, Stick," Pappy said.

Stick and the other deputy got into the patrol car, Stick settling himself behind the wheel. Just as he was about to close the door he jumped out and said, "Say, Eli, I called the sheriff up at Eureka Springs. He ain't seen the big one, Hank. The boy shoulda been home by now, don't you think?"

"I reckon. He left a week ago."

"Wonder where he is?"

"Ain't none of my concern," Pappy said.

"I ain't through with him, you know. When I find him, I'm gonna put his big ass in the jail in Jonesboro, and we're gonna have us a trial."

"You do that, Stick," Pappy said, then turned around. "You do that."

Stick's bald tires slipped and spun in the mud, but he finally got to the road. My mother and Gran returned to the kitchen to start cooking.

Pappy got his tools and spread them on the tailgate of the truck. He opened the hood and began a thorough inspection of the engine I sat on the fender, handing him wrenches, watching every move.

"Why would a nice girl like Tally want to marry a Mexican?" I asked.

Pappy was tightening a fan belt. There was little doubt that Cowboy hadn't bothered to stop, open the hood, and meddle with the engine while he was fleeing with Tally, but Pappy nonetheless was compelled to adjust and fix and tinker as if the vehicle had been sabotaged. "Women," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"Women do stupid things."

I waited for clarification, but his answer was complete.

"I don't understand," I finally said.

"Neither do I. Neither will you. You're not supposed to understand women."

He removed the air filter and gazed with suspicion at the carburetor. For a moment it looked as if he'd found evidence of tampering, but then he turned a screw and seemed content.

"You think they'll ever find her?" I asked.

"They ain't lookin'. We got the truck back, so there's no crime, no police tryin' to find 'em. I doubt if the Spruills'll go look for 'em. Why bother? If they got lucky and found 'em, what're they gonna do?"

"Can't they make her come home?"

"No. Once she gets married, then she's an adult. You can't make a married woman do a damned thing."

He cranked the engine and listened to it idle. It sounded the same to me, but Pappy thought he heard a new rattle. "Let's take it for spin," he said. Wasting gasoline was a sin in Pappy's book, but he seemed anxious to burn a little of the free stuff Tally and Cowboy had left behind.

We got in and backed onto the road. I was sitting where Tally had been, just hours earlier, when they'd sneaked away during the storm. I thought of nothing but her, and I was as bewildered as ever.

The road was too wet and muddy to allow Pappy to reach his perfect speed of thirty-seven miles an hour, but he still thought he could tell that something was wrong with the engine. We stopped at the bridge and looked at the river. The gravel bars and sandbars were gone; there was nothing but water between the banks-water and debris from upriver. It rushed by, faster than I had ever seen it. Pappy's stick, his flood gauge, was long gone, washed away by the swirling currents. We didn't need it to tell us that the St. Francis was about to flood.

Pappy seemed mesmerized by the water and its noise. I couldn't tell if he wanted to curse or cry. Neither would've helped, of course, and I think that Pappy, for perhaps the first time, realized he was about to lose another crop.

Whatever was wrong with the engine had fixed itself by the time we returned home. Pappy announced over supper that the truck was as good as ever, whereupon we launched into a long and creative discussion about Tally and Cowboy and where they might be and what they might be doing. My father had heard that there were a lot of Mexicans up in Chicago, and he guessed that Cowboy and his new bride would simply blend into that vast city and never be seen again.

I was so worried about Tally that I could barely force down my food.

Late the next morning, with the sun trying its best to peek through the clouds, we returned to the fields to pick cotton. We were tired of sitting around the house watching the skies. Even I wanted to go to the fields.

The Mexicans were especially anxious to work. They were, after all, two thousand miles from home and not getting paid.

But the cotton was too wet and the ground was too soft. Mud caked on my boots, and it stuck to my picking sack, so that after an hour I felt as if I were dragging a tree trunk. We quit after two hours and left for the house, a sad and dispirited group.

The Spruills had had enough. It came as no surprise to see them breaking camp. They did so slowly, as if they were only reluctantly admitting defeat. Mr. Spruill told Pappy that there was no use in their staying if they couldn't work. They were tired of the rains and we couldn't blame them. They'd been camping out for six weeks in our front yard. Their old tents and tarps were sagging under the weight of all the rain. The mattresses they slept on were half-exposed to the weather and splattered with mud. I would've left a long time before.

We sat on the porch and watched them gather their junk and pack it all haphazardly into the truck and trailer. There would be more room now with Hank and Tally gone.

I was suddenly frightened by their leaving. They would be home soon, and Hank wouldn't be there. They would wait, then search, then start asking questions. I wasn't sure if and how this might one day affect me, but I was scared just the same.

My mother forced me into the garden, where we gathered enough food for twenty people. We washed the corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, and greens in the kitchen sink, then she carefully arranged it all in a cardboard box. Gran put together a dozen eggs, two pounds of country ham, a pound of butter, and two quart jars of strawberry preserves. The Spruills would not leave without food for the trip.

By mid-afternoon they had finished packing. Their truck and trailer were hopelessly overloaded-boxes and burlap sacks clung to the sides, loosely secured by baling wire and destined to fall off. When it was apparent they were about to leave, we walked as a family down the front steps and across the yard to say our farewells. Mr. and Mrs. Spruill met us and accepted our food. They apologized for leaving before the cotton was picked, but we all knew there was a good chance the crops were finished anyway. They tried to smile and be gracious, but their pain was obvious. Watching them, I couldn't help but think that they would always regret the day they decided to work on our farm. If they had picked another one, Tally wouldn't have met Cowboy. And Hank might still be alive, though given his lust for violence he was probably doomed to an early death. "He who lives by the sword dies by the sword," Gran was fond of quoting.

I felt guilty about all the evil thoughts I'd held against them. And I felt like a thief because I knew the truth about Hank, and they didn't.

I said good-bye to Bo and Dale, neither of whom had much to say. Trot was hiding behind the trailer. As the farewells were winding down, he shuffled toward me and mumbled something I did not understand. Then he stuck out his hand and offered me his paintbrush. I had no choice but to take it.

The exchange was witnessed by the adults, and for a moment nothing was said.

"Over here," Trot grunted, and he pointed to their truck. Bo took the cue and reached for something just inside the tailgate. He pulled forward a gallon of white enamel, a clean unopened bucket with a bright Pittsburgh Paint logo across the front. He set it on the ground in front of me, then produced another one.

"It's for you," Trot said.

I looked at the two gallons of paint, then I looked at Pappy and Gran. Though the house painting had not been discussed in days, we had known for some time that Trot would never finish the project. Now he was passing the job to me. I glanced at my mother and saw a curious smile on her lips.

"Tally bought it," Dale said.

I tapped the brush on my leg and finally managed to say, "Thanks." Trot gave me a goofy grin, which made the rest of them smile. Once again they headed toward their truck, but this time they managed to get in. Trot was in the trailer, alone now. Tally had been with him when we first saw them. He looked sad and deserted.

Their truck started with great reluctance. The clutch whined and scraped, and when it finally released, the entire assemblage lurched forward. The Spruills were off, pots and pans rattling, boxes shaking from side to side, Bo and Dale bouncing on a mattress, and Trot curled into a corner of the trailer, bringing up the rear. We waved until they were out of sight.

There'd been no talk of next year. The Spruills were not coming back. We knew we'd never see them again.

What little grass was left in the front yard had been flattened, and when I surveyed the damage I was instantly glad they were gone. I kicked the ashes where they'd built their fires on home plate and once again marveled at how insensitive they'd been. There were ruts from their truck and holes from their tent poles. Next year I'd put up a fence to keep hill people off my baseball field.

My immediate project, however, was to finish what Trot had begun. I hauled the paint to the front porch, one gallon at a time, and was surprised by the weight. I was expecting Pappy to say something, but the situation drew no comment from him. My mother, however, gave some orders to my father, who quickly erected a scaffold on the east side of the house. It was a two-by-six oak plank, eight feet long, braced by a sawhorse on one end and an empty diesel drum on the other. It tilted slightly toward the drum, but not enough to unbalance the painter. My father opened the first gallon, stirred it with a stick, and helped me onto the scaffold. There were some brief instructions, but since he knew so little about house painting I was let loose to learn on my own. I figured if Trot could do it, so could I.

My mother watched me carefully and offered such wisdom as "Don't let it drip" and "Take your time." On the east side of the house, Trot had painted the first six boards from the bottom, from the front of the house to the rear, and with my scaffold I was able to reach another three feet above his work. I wasn't sure how I would paint up to the roof, but I decided I would worry about it later.

The old boards soaked up the first layer of paint. The second one went on smooth and white. After a few minutes I was fascinated by my work because the results were immediate.

"How am I doin'?" I asked without looking down.

"It's beautiful, Luke," my mother said. "Just work slow, and take your time. And don't fall."

"I'm not gonna fall." Why did she always warn me against dangers that were so obvious?

My father moved the scaffold twice that afternoon, and by supper-time I had used an entire gallon of paint. I washed my hands with lye soap, but the paint was stuck to my fingernails. I didn't care. I was proud of my new craft. I was doing something no Chandler had ever done.

The house painting was not mentioned over supper. Weightier matters were at hand. Our hill people had packed up and left, and they had done so with a large amount of the cotton still unpicked. There had been no rumors of other workers leaving because of wet fields. Pappy didn't want folks to know we were yielding anything to the rains. The weather was about to change, he insisted. We'd never had so many storms this late in the year.

At dusk we moved to the front porch, which was now even quieter. The Cardinals were a distant memory, and we rarely listened to anything else after supper. Pappy didn't want to waste electricity so I sat on the steps and looked out at our front yard, still and empty. For six weeks it had been covered with all manner of shelter and storage. Now there was nothing.

A few leaves dropped and scattered across the yard. The night was cool and clear, and this prompted my father to predict that tomorrow would be a fine opportunity to pick cotton for twelve hours. All I wanted to do was paint.

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