Excerpt from:




THE ACCIDENT

 

As long as he kept busy, he didn’t have time to think about things like the accident.  But Elmer Bigelow’s death –- three days ago -– had hit Gerald hard.

Even though we never spoke of it, it helped to know that Elmer was around to share the guilt, he thought.

They’d shared the guilt four ways in the beginning but then first one, than another, of his friends had passed on and now, with Elmer gone, he was the only one left in Greenwood -- or in the world –- who knew their secret.

          Forty-five years is a long time for something like that to weigh on a man’s heart, he thought.

          On days like this, with nothing to do but think, the day of the accident came back in vivid detail.

 

          He and Bill Forrest, Charles Crowder and Elmer Bigelow had bribed old Tom Forgan, the town drunk, to drive over into Oklahoma and buy them a case of beer and a fifth of bourbon.  Two days later –- the day before they were to graduate from high school -- they skipped school and headed out of town in Bill’s car drinking, yelling and generally whooping it up.

          Just a bunch of senior boys out for a good time.

          They drove to Brighton, picked up a couple of girls and spent the afternoon cruising around town.  Just before dark, they dropped the girls off at Second and Main, by then so drunk they didn’t know whether they were having fun or not.

          “What’ll we do now?” Bill asked.

          “We could head back to Greenwood and drag Main!” suggested Elmer.

          “Great idea!” Bill said, making a U-turn in the middle of the block, and heading out of town.

          “I’m tired; who wants to drive?” he said when they reached the city limits.

          “I will!” Elmer said.

          “You’re too drunk,” Bill said.

          “I ain’t no drunker than you are!”

          “The hell you’re not!”

          “I’ll drive –- ” Gerald started to say when Elmer stood up and reached across the back of the seat and grabbed the steering wheel.

          “Hey!  Leggo –- sit down dummy!” Bill yelled.

          The car careened wildly and veered off the road.  Just before it hit the ditch, they felt a sharp thud.

          “What’d we hit –- a God-damned tree?” Charles asked as Bill fought to get the car under control.

          “God Almighty!” Gerald screamed.  “It’s a man!  We hit a man!”

          “Let’s get the hell outa here!” Bill said.

          Jerking the car out of the shallow ditch and back on the road, he tromped down on the accelerator.

          “We can’t leave him layin’ there in the road!”  Charles shouted.  “That’s hit and run!”

          “Come on Bill!” Gerald said.  “The man needs a doctor; we hit him hard!”

          “Oh shit!” Bill said, and pulling into a side road, he turned around and headed back toward Brighton.

          Grotesque in the glare of the headlights, the motionless figure of a large man lay sprawled in the left-hand lane.  A khaki duffel bag and a square black case, apparently flung to one side by the impact, lay nearby.

          Now sober, they fidgeted anxiously as Charles knelt beside the man and felt for a pulse.

          “He’s dead,” he said, straightening up.

          “Are you sure?” Gerald asked.

          “See for yourself.”

          “Oh my God!” Elmer wailed falling to his knees and shaking the body.  “Wake up!  Please wake up!”

          Jerking him to his feet, Bill slapped him.

          “Calm down!” he yelled.

          “We’re in deep trouble now,” Gerald said.

          Elmer continued whimpering and muttering unintelligibly.

          “What shall we do?” Charles asked.

          “We’d better get him off the road before someone comes along,” Gerald said, looking nervously back toward Brighton.

          “Nobody saw us hit him; we could just hightail it outa here and forget it happened,” Bill said.

          “We can’t just leave him here!” Elmer whimpered.

          “Elmer’s right,” Gerald said.

          “OK,” Bill decided.  “Let’s put him in the trunk ‘til we decide what to do.”

          It took all four to lift him and by the time they got the body into the trunk, headlights were approaching from the north.

          “Let’s get the hell outa here!” Bill said.

          He slammed the trunk lid and they scrambled into the car.

          “Wait!  We forgot his bags!” Gerald shouted.

          Leaping out, he grabbed the bags; by the time the car passed, they were underway.

          As the taillights faded into the distance, Bill slammed on the brakes, made a U-turn and headed back toward Greenwood.  When they met no more cars, he slowed down.

          Elmer was the first to speak.

          “What are we gonna do?” he asked, frantic.

          “Damned if I know,” Bill said.  “But we’ve got a God-damned corpse in the trunk so we’d better think of something quick!”

          “We could be sent to prison over this!” Charles said.

          “It was a God-damned accident!”

          “But we were drunk,” Gerald said.

          “Besides, how would we justify putting the body in the trunk and leaving the scene of the accident?”

          “Oh God!” Bill said, slapping his forehead.

          “What the hell was the son-of-a-bitch doing out on the road anyway?” Elmer groaned.

          “There’s only one thing to do,” Bill said.  “Get rid of the body and keep quiet about it.”

          “What!”

          “Quiet down Elmer,” Charles said.  “Try to help us figure out what to do.”

          “That would make us criminals for sure,” Gerald said.

          “If we all keep our mouths shut, who’s gonna find out about it?” Bill said.  “Hell, he was just a damned bum; wouldn’t nobody but a bum be out on the road that time a night!”

          “I don’t like it,” Elmer mumbled.

          “I suppose you’ve got a better idea!” Bill said.

          “It won’t be easy hiding a body in this country,” Charles said.

          “So what do you suggest we do?”

          “I don’t know,” Charles admitted.

          “The way I see it,” Bill said a moment later, “it’s either bury him or go to jail.”

          “We don’t have anything to dig a hole with,” Gerald said.

          They met a car and, a few miles further on, they met another.

          “That looked like the sheriff’s car!” Elmer squealed.

          “Gerald felt as panicky as Elmer sounded.  What if they were stopped?

          “Where could we bury him?” Charles asked, his eyes on the rear-view mirror.  “It’d have to be some place where we could be sure he’d never be found.”

          “How about somewhere over along the creek?” Elmer asked, calmer now.  “The ground won’t be hard to dig and –- ”

          “A heavy rain might wash it out,” Gerald said.  “Besides, how are we gonna dig a hole without a shovel?”

          “If we could get hold of a shovel, we could bury him down at the sand pit,” Charles said.

          “Not good,” Bill countered.  “They still excavate around there; like you said, we gotta make sure he’s never found.”

          “I know a place,” Gerald said after a long interval of silence.

          They turned toward him expectantly.

          “It’s not far from here, nobody’s ever likely to find him -- and we won’t even have to dig a hole.”

          “For God’s sake, where?” Bill asked.

          “Keep going; I’ll show you where to turn off.

          “Slow down,” he said a few minutes later.  “It’s just ahead.  There –- take that road to the right.”

          They turned onto a rough, seldom-used dirt road that led to an abandoned farmstead owned by an agricultural conglomerate whose interest was only in the land.

          Weeds and brush grew profusely and the ground was littered with rotting boards from the decaying buildings.

          “There’s an old hand-dug well on the back side; we can dump him in that,” Gerald said.  “Circle to the right –- there –- that’s it just ahead.

          Bill stopped the car and they sat for a moment staring at the crumbling cement wall illuminated in the headlights.

“Let’s go,” Bill said, getting out of the car.  He shined his flashlight down into the well.  They could barely see the bottom.

          “Are you sure we wanta do this?” Charles asked.

          “We got no choice,” Bill replied, unlocking the trunk.

          Together, they half-drug, half-carried the body to the well and heaved it over; it struck bottom with a resounding thud.

 


CHARLIE


 

Charlie couldn’t sleep. She paced restlessly, from her bedroom to her small kitchenette and back again, then paused and stared vacantly at the clock on her desk. It was past two a.m.

Despite Carlo’s assurance otherwise, she felt responsible for what he was going through.

If only I had never met Tony Genelli, she thought. I wish it had been him I shot at the airport instead of those two men.

A thought crept into her mind. She stopped pacing and stood at the window looking out at the darkened street.

She had killed for Carlo before. It was a wild idea, and it would be dangerous, but she could do it again.

Considering all the harm he was causing, and the fact that, because of him, Carlo’s life was at stake, Tony Genelli’s life was worth less than the animals she’d killed when she was hunting with her dad. In fact, she reasoned, those animals never harmed anyone.

Tony Genelli did.

Now was not the best time to skip classes; but she would figure out a way to catch up on her studies later. That was the least of her worries. This was too important to postpone.

For two days she thought and planned. She would leave after Carlo and Moira’s telephone call on Sunday. That would give her a week. She must be extremely cautious. Carlo must never know.

She shopped for an inexpensive travel bag, a brown wig, a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, a brown skirt and sweater and flat shoes. In the bag, she packed her makeup and toilet articles, a low-cut red silk gown, matching sandals, white shoulder length gloves and her floor-length black cape. She’d have to figure out a way to purchase a gun when she reached The States.

She told her professors that she planned to spend a few days—possibly a week—touring Europe. She could not completely avoid leaving a track, but she would take every precaution possible and hope nothing happened to instigate an investigation. To make her travels more difficult to trace, she decided not to fly out of Paris. She checked flight schedules from several European cities and decided that, rather than go through the hassle of the channel to get to London, she would fly out of Brussels.

To avoid using credit cards she withdrew cash for the trip from her checking account. She’d leave her driver’s license with the car and rely on public transportation. She’d need her passport, of course. That couldn’t be avoided. To further cover up her movements, she would book a flight to New York and make arrangements from there. Even with these precautions, it was risky; but a risk she had to take.

Sunday afternoon, she dressed in her newly acquired non-descript clothing, checked to make sure she had everything she needed, put her bags in the car and paced restlessly as she waited for Carlo and Moira to call.

She was so nervous that she started when, at half past six, the phone rang echoing shrilly through the apartment.

“Thank God,” she said when she heard Carlo’s voice. “I was afraid something had happened.”

“No problem, babe,” Carlo said. “The lines have been busy. How are you anyhow?”

“I’m fine,” she replied cheerfully, hoping he wouldn’t detect the nervousness in her voice. “Are you and Moira OK?”

“We’re OK, honey,” Moira said from the extension in the bedroom. “What’s wrong? You sound a little nervous.”

“Oh, I just got a little upset when your call came in so late,” Charlie laughed. “You know me—worry wart that I am. So tell me, how are—” She hesitated. “Things?”

“Now, Charlene,” Carlo said. “I told you, I don’t want you worrying. You hear me? As a matter of fact, it’s been relatively quiet this past week. We’ve had a good breathing spell.”

“So how are classes?” Moira asked, changing the subject.

They talked until after eight.

“We love you,” Carlo said before they hung up.

“I love you too,” Charlie said.

Replacing the receiver, she sat staring at the phone, picturing Moira slowly descending the stairs to the den. Carlo would pour a drink, then they would talk about their conversation as they sipped their scotch. She brushed the tears from her eyes. God! If only she were there.

The clock on the dashboard read eight thirty five when she—finally—got away. She reached Brussels a little after one. Just before she got to the airport, she stopped under a street light and removed the brown scarf.  Once the wig was in place, she peered into the mirror under the visor.  Her disguise was complete.

Parking her car in the airport parking lot, she left the keys with the attendant. Luck was with her; a seat was available on the eight-thirty a.m. flight to New York. She purchased a ticket, took a cab to a nearby hotel and checked in, leaving a call at the desk for seven.

During the flight to New York, Charlie considered her plans. All had gone smoothly so far. How to obtain a gun was the only remaining problem. In rural areas such as Maysville, where hunting was a popular sport, it would be easy. But in crime-ridden cities such as New York or Miami she would have to provide identification and that she could not do.

Perhaps I won’t have to buy one! she thought then. Tony, being who he is, will have a gun. If he isn’t wearing one, he will surely have one nearby; it shouldn’t be hard to distract him—

Besides, if she used Tony’s gun, it couldn’t be traced to her.

Then she thought of something else—what if Tony wasn’t in Miami? He had to be. If he wasn’t, she decided, she would wait until he returned.

Or, if I have to, I’ll hunt him down.

She pictured herself in Tony’s apartment. Where would he keep his gun when he was at home? She faced the fact that she might have to lure him into bed. She recoiled at the thought. But if she had to, she decided, she could do that.

The girl with brown hair, dressed in a non-descript brown skirt and sweater, and wearing horn-rimmed glasses, who purchased a ticket from New York to Miami under the name of Barbara Gordon bore no resemblance to the flame-haired Paris model known as Charlie.



CARIBBEAN SUNRISE

CHAPTER X

The tollgate was dark when they drove through. When they reached the stop sign, Lorenzo looked at his watch before pulling out onto the highway.

“In one hour Senorita, you will be back at your hotel‑” he was saying when, suddenly, the rear door on the passenger side was jerked open and a man jumped into the back seat.

“Start driving Senor!” he ordered.

Muy pronto!” he shouted, pointing a pistol to Lorenzo’s head.

Lorenzo pulled out onto the highway; the car picked up speed.

It had happened so fast, Megan was stunned. She started to turn in the seat and felt the hard metal of the gun against her ear.

“Look straight ahead Senorita,” the man said. “Do not do anything foolish and you will not be harmed.”

Where had she heard that voice before?

“Vamanos! Faster!” he ordered, pointing the gun back to Lorenzo’s head.

The car lurched from one side of the road to the other as Lorenzo tried to avoid the deep ruts in the rough highway. The speedometer inched toward seventy. Out of the corner of her eye, Megan could see the gun at Lorenzo’s ear wavering with the motion of the car. In the dim light from the dashboard, his face looked white and drawn, his eyes scared as he fought to keep the car under control.

“I am sorry Senorita ‑” he said.

“Be quiet!” ordered the man in the back seat. “Just drive!”

Suddenly, the headlights of another car appeared through the rear window.

“Drive faster!” shouted their passenger as the car trailing them pulled in close behind, dogging the rear bumper. “Get rid of that car or you are a dead mon!”

Oh God no! It can’t be! thought Megan remembering Kevin’s laugh earlier in the evening when Antonio had remarked that he was a very lucky “mon.”

Lorenzo pressed down on the accelerator. It was impossible to avoid the deep ruts at the speed they were traveling. Trying to keep from being tossed about, Megan braced herself against the armrest and the dashboard. She could see Antonio’s muscular arms gripping the back of the driver’s seat, his right hand holding the gun.

As the pursuing car continued to ride their rear bumper, several incidents passed through Megan’s mind, small things she’d thought unimportant at the time; paper bags passing from hand to hand at the bar, large peso notes which required no change, waking in the night and seeing three men huddled near the bar, the sound of someone hurrying through the bushes.

Suddenly, it all made sense.

What had happened in the past hour to change Antonio from the smiling, good-natured man she had joked with at the bar into this maniacal, gun-waving stranger?

Shall I tell him that I know who he is? she wondered. Or would his knowing place my life more in jeopardy?

Through the rear-view mirror on her door, she could now see three sets of headlights. Two more cars had joined in the chase. At the speed they were traveling, it was a wonder that Lorenzo still managed to hold the car to the badly potted road.

Suddenly, the lights glaring on the windshield grew dimmer. The first car had fallen back and the other two had followed suit. She felt, rather than saw, Antonio turn to look out the rear window. At the same time, Lorenzo’s foot softened against the accelerator.

Apparently, Antonio didn’t notice.

“You must be in a lot of trouble man,” Lorenzo said, trying to sound calm.

“Shut up and keep driving!” Antonio hissed.

He must be desperate, Megan thought. After the remark he made about a native harming an American tourist, he wouldn’t place my life in jeopardy unless he faces even more serious charges if he’s caught.

Perhaps he’d best not know that I know who he is, she decided.

Suddenly aware that Lorenzo had slackened their speed, Antonio began swearing in Spanish.

“What the hell you tryin’ to do mon?” he shouted, leaning forward and thrusting the gun against Lorenzo’s temple. “You tryin’ to get me caught?”

“No man!” Lorenzo said, slamming the accelerator to the floor. “They were slowing down and I thought ‑”

“You’re not here to think, mi amigo ‑ you just get this car down that road as fast as you can!” Antonio gritted through clenched teeth.

His attention divided between Lorenzo and the trailing cars, Antonio had been paying little attention to Megan but at this rate of speed, she could think of nothing she could do. Out of the corner of her eye, she could now see his profile clearly.

If only I’d wake up and find that this was only a horrible nightmare! she thought.

The pursuing cars had dropped some distance back but three sets of headlights were still visible through the rear-view mirror. Do the police know that I’m in the car? she wondered. What will happen to us if they give up the chase?

On the other hand, what would Antonio do if they were caught? Would he actually shoot?

Suddenly, Lorenzo jerked the steering wheel to the left to avoid a gaping three-foot rut in the right traffic lane and the car swerved out of control. Megan’s body slammed against the door, then she felt a rough jolt as the car left the road, plowed into a bank then rolled to the left. She heard a scream and what sounded like a wheel spinning in the air. There was the sound of screeching tires then shouts. She tried to open her eyes.

As if from a great distance, she heard a familiar voice shout: “Oh my God!” Then someone was lifting her, holding her, crooning in her ear “Querida! Querida! Oh God ‑ Querida!” And she remembered no more.



CUL DE SAC

Patricia King


Patricia's visit with her New York publisher over the holidays had been productive. Not only was he pleased with her progress on the travel book, he also approved the proposal for a book set in a retirement village.

“An interesting idea,” he said. “I’m curious to see how you handle it. Researchers are predicting a rapid increase in the number of people over age sixty in the next few years so we’ll be seeing more interest in matters concerning the aging.”

Patricia turned to her calendar. She should complete the first draft of the book in two or three months. There would be no need to remain after her lease expired in May.

She removed the manuscript from her attaché and slowly leafed through it, examining each character.

It’s amazing how complex simple, down-to-earth people can be, she thought.

She turned to the character based on Marcia but returned the manuscript to her attaché a moment later. She would have to give this one more time.

From the orange crate she withdrew the folder containing odds and ends of information about the man who developed Paradise Village. He fascinated her. Should I include his story in the book? she wondered. It would add intrigue, but would it benefit the story she wanted to tell?

She decided to have a cup of tea while she mulled it over. When she reached the kitchen, however, she changed her mind and decided to go for a walk. Susan and Granville Marsh should be having tea about now and they always seemed pleased to see her.

“You’ve lived in Paradise Village a long time,” Patricia said, sipping Susan’s special blend of tea. “What can you tell me about Robert Carson?”

Susan laughed.

“We don’t talk about Robert Carson here in the village, dear,” she said in a stage whisper. “Wherever did you hear of him?”

“His name came up a few times and I was curious, that’s all.”

“It all happened before we came here,” Susan said. “I don’t know why everyone is so secretive about it and I don’t know the entire story, but rumor has it that, had it not been for Robert Carson, there would be no Paradise Village. Granville can tell you more about him than I can—here he is now, ready for his tea.”

“Hello, Patricia,” Granville said, emerging from his den. “Glad you could join us.”

“Patricia was asking about Robert Carson dear,” Susan said, adding a squeeze of lemon to his tea. “I told her you knew more about him than I do.”

“Ah yes, Robert Carson,” Granville said, taking the cup Susan passed him. “Quite a man, from what I’ve heard. Well, let’s see—”  He took a sip of tea and continued. “As you’ve probably heard, Gerald Greene, a Memphis business man, owned the property. He and his family used it for a summer retreat. The story—as explained to me—is that Carson, who was from the west coast, convinced Greene he could make a pile of money if he turned it into a retirement resort.

“Greene was skeptical at first. However, the picture Carson painted of a luxurious retirement community, and the millions that could be made, was convincing. He agreed to Carson’s proposition; he would supply the land and Carson would develop—and promote—Paradise Village.”

“Why aren’t we supposed to talk about him?” Patricia asked.

“Rumors are that once the project got well underway—and proved to be as successful and profitable as Carson had predicted—Greene’s attorneys found a technicality in the contract agreement and he fired Carson,” Granville said.

“It seems that Carson, being a rather loud-mouthed, pompous individual, rubbed a lot of the ‘natives’ the wrong way,” Susan said. “They called him a ‘blow hard’

“Why?” Patricia asked.

“Because he made a lot of promises—promises they thought were impossible.”

“What kind of promises?”

“For one thing, he said that he was going to build five lakes—plus a golf course, an airport and a hospital,” Granville said.

“But all that is here—and much more,” Patricia exclaimed.

“Yes, and it’s ironic that many still think of him as a swindler who tried to ‘sell them a bill of goods’,” Granville said, then added, “When challenged, however, they grudgingly admit that, had it not been for Carson, there probably wouldn’t have been a Paradise Village.”

“What happened to Carson?”

“He obtained financial backing from a group of business men from up north and started a couple of other developments—right here in this area.”

“You mean Greystone Park and Rolling Hills?” Patricia asked.

Granville nodded.

“They weren’t as successful as Paradise Village—which was well on its way by then. Greene had better connections plus the financial assets to pull it off. Carson had great ideas but he was operating on a shoestring, so to speak.”

“Carson wasn’t as good a business man as Greene was,” Susan said. “His expertise was promotion. According to rumors, Greene wasn’t the only one to take advantage of the poor man—and to make a fortune from his ideas. They say that when Carson died, he was basically a pauper.”

Deep in thought, Patricia walked slowly home. The Carson story intrigued her, but should she pursue it? She would like to know more about the man that many pretended never existed; but would his story detract from the message she was trying to convey? Should she just file the information away and use it another time—perhaps as gist for another book?

I’ll have to think about it, she decided.

“Hi Patricia!” Audrey called out, bringing her out of her reverie.

“Hello girls,” Patricia replied, crossing to the freshly tilled garden to watch as Audrey busily raked up twigs and leaves while Donna collected them into trash bags.

Bordered by asparagus, rhubarb and beds of flowers, the large garden plot yielded enough vegetables yearly to feed the entire neighborhood, with enough left over to can and freeze for the winter months.

“Looks like you’re about ready to start planting,” Patricia said, adding, “I’ve often wished I had a green thumb.”

“It’s hard work,” Audrey said, “but we enjoy it.”

“I can hardly wait to start planting,” Donna said. “We’ve already ordered the seeds.”

Audrey and Donna are utterly charming, Patricia thought as she continued on her way. It had been difficult to draw them out at first but they were now fast friends. She enjoyed their company. Like the Marsh’s, they were better informed and more conversant than the average Paradise Village resident.

I wonder if anyone else in the village suspects the truth about them, she wondered, again, as she entered the information she had learned about Carson to the open file she had left on her desk.



JAMES AND JACK


CAMPING OUT


As twilight slowly faded into dark, and the stars began to glitter overhead, they stretched out and watched the fire die down, listening to the sounds of the night—the cicadas and the night birds, and the rippling of a nearby stream.

“Boy, this is the life,” James said.

“It certainly is,” Jack said dreamily.

“Hey, Jack, I’m still curious,” James said after a while. “You had a good thing going at the ranch; why did you decide to come along?”

Jack thought for a moment. The question was unexpected.

“Well, since you’re basically a greenhorn when it comes to travel, and I’ve been doing it all my life, I figured you could probably use a little help along the way,” he said teasingly.

James raised up on his elbows and gave him a stare.

“You’ve got to be kidding!”

Jack laughed.

“I just thought it would be a fun thing to do.”

“Yeah, but you’d said you were tired of moving around—you were all set to settle down at the Circle T.”

Jack smiled to himself in the dark.

“You know, I’ve sort of wondered about that myself,” he said. “The only thing I can figure out is that it just didn’t seem right for you to be taking off without me.”

He paused.

“I guess I’ve just got to thinking of you as family,” he admitted.

For a few minutes, quiet reigned.

“Thank you,” James said then in a low voice.

As it grew late, only the night noises of the forest and the distant sound of an occasional car, speeding by on the highway, broke the silence, The campground, located about a quarter of a mile from the road, was deserted except for themselves.

“Anyway,” Jack said. “I’m still young. There’ll be plenty of time to settle down later and, like you said, this is good experience. Working at the Circle T, and now camping out like this! No telling what we’ll decide to do next!”

“That’s for damned sure,” James laughed.

“I wonder if there are any bears around here.” Jack mused a few minutes later.

“We’re in bear country,” James said. “Stands to reason there would be. Doubt if they’d be bold enough to come into camp. I don’t know though—you hear all kinds of stories.”

“I wonder if the manual says anything about bears, and what to do if one shows up,” Jack said.

“It’s a little late to check the manual now,” James said. “We’ll just have to hope they keep their distance—for tonight anyway; we don’t even have anything to protect ourselves if one does show up!”

“Except two pairs of long legs!” Jack said.

“We’ll just have to hope they’re fast enough!”

James’s remark so amused them that they burst out laughing hilariously.




FRAGILE HOPES, TRANSIENT DREAMS

 

MISERIES OF THE HEART 


Silas Deaton sat at the end of the long kitchen table with the blue flowered, plastic tablecloth and cleaned and oiled his thirty-aught-six.

His wife, Betty, twenty years his junior, was at the sink humming cheerfully while she washed the breakfast dishes, unaware that Silas had been awake when she sneaked out just before midnight and was still awake when she returned a few minutes before the clock struck four.

Since he always went to bed early and slept soundly, she never worried when she slipped out to meet Randy Moore. If he happened to wake up, she could always tell him she had gone to see about a commotion in the brooder house.

However, Silas had been suspicious for several weeks. Last night, when she spent almost thirty minutes in the bathroom getting ready for bed, he’d decided to stay awake to see if his suspicions were true.

He had waited at the window until she reached the road then went outside in time to see her get into Moore’s Chevy, parked out of sight of the house with the lights off. From the shelter of the windbreak, he’d watched as the car rolled silently down the incline. The motor caught at the bottom of the hill and the Chevy climbed smoothly over the next rise and out of sight.

Then Silas went back to his bedroom and sat in the dark by the window, thinking.

He and Betty had been married now for twenty-five years. She was a bright young girl of twenty when they were married, he a dapper widower of forty—not wealthy, but “well-fixed” and the “catch” of the community.

Everyone told her how lucky she was to be marrying Silas Deaton. Apparently, she had agreed—until recently—until she felt she needed a younger man.

If she had to do it, he thought, he wished to hell she’d picked someone besides Moore. The man was no damned good. He owed everyone in the county and drank too much for Silas’s liking.

As he sat slumped in the chair by the window, time dragging by, the mantle clock struck one—then two—then three.

Coyotes began howling over in the north pasture and he made a mental note to go hunting for them come daylight. Game was in short supply and they’d likely play havoc with the young livestock if the weather turned bad.

Along toward four, clouds covered the moon and, just before she returned, the wind came up and flung icy rain in noisy clumps against the window. It howled plaintively around the corner of the house echoing the miseries in his heart.

When he heard the sound of a distant motor, he climbed back into bed and turned his face to the wall.

“Planning on going hunting?” she asked now. Cheerfully.

“Yeah,” he said shortly. “There’s some varmints I need to kill.

“Coyotes were stirring up a fuss over in the north pasture around three o’clock this morning,” he continued. “Figured I’d go over and see if I could bag a couple of them—too—before they harm the livestock.”

He saw her tense as she realized the impact of what he had said. The room was deathly still and she winced at the sudden sharp snap as he slammed the bolt forward, inserting a shell into the chamber, and pointed the gun.

She turned slowly. As he sighted down the barrel, he could see her blanched white face and the stark fear in her eyes.

He raised the gun just a slight bit, aimed carefully and fired. Then he left the warm, moist kitchen where the teakettle steamed on the stove and the odors of breakfast still lingered in the air.

As the door closed behind him, a penetrating north wind whipped around the corner of the house. Thick clouds boiled overhead and sheets of ice-laced rain streamed across the prairie, piercing through his woolen coat, stinging his face as he bent into the wind and headed for the shed.

It was only three-quarters of a mile across the field to the draw, a good walk on most days, but he was in no mood to fight the wind, so he got into the pickup and backed it out of the shed. He drove to the state road and turned east, circling around through what was left of Cedarwood, once a prosperous community, now only a ghost town.

As he drove down the main street, he spied the skeleton of a cat hanging from the window of the deserted schoolhouse and a sickening, numb feeling overwhelmed him. The red brick building had been modern when it was built in nineteen-forty-five. Long and low with wide halls, large classrooms and a spacious gymnasium, it had echoed with the sounds of children until it had been consolidated with the Gates school, ten miles to the south, three years ago.

The school, a reminder of the way he felt—abandoned, no longer needed—depressed him.

Like a massive gray monument, the fog-enshrouded grain elevator loomed ghost-like at the edge of town. As he crossed the tracks, the red signal light gleamed dimly and the wandering lights of an approaching freight train, as yet invisible, reflected off the dense, overhanging clouds.

As it crossed the railroad bridge, a mile up the track, the mournful sound of the muted whistle echoed against the bleak, lowering skies.

He turned north again and parked the pickup on the side of the road. Head bent into the turbulent wind, he trudged across rows of frozen corn stubble toward the draw where he figured the coyotes would be hiding.

When he reached the row of trees that rimmed the draw, he walked quietly on the down-wind side lest his odor alert them to his presence—if they were there. He had walked only a hundred yards when three large coyotes broke from the ravine and ran, headed west by northwest. Jerking the rifle into position, he fired two shots, felling one, then another. Then he crossed the ditch to where they lay, made sure they were dead, and headed back to the pickup.

Opening the gap in the barbed wire fence, he drove to the edge of the draw and left the motor running while he dragged the coyotes, one after the other, across the ravine and hefted them into the bed of the pickup. They must have weighed close to forty-five pounds each but, at sixty-five, Silas was still man enough to lift much heavier loads.

“Damn it!” he said to himself as he bolted the end-gate closed. “I don’t yet need another man to do my homework for me!”

He drove away from the town, around the section line road, in case the third coyote was lurking on the far side of the field. As he approached from downwind, he saw it leap from the ditch, cross the road and lope north across a recently harvested patch of corn. He floor-boarded the accelerator until he was even with the coyote then slammed on the brakes, leaped from the pickup, aimed and fired. The coyote rolled end over end, coming to rest in a twisted heap between rows of corn stubble.

Dragging it to the road, he threw it on top of the others thinking that a cup of hot coffee would taste mighty good. He’d had enough killing for one day.

When he neared the house, he lifted his foot from the accelerator and drove slowly into the driveway. He stopped the truck and sat staring at the kitchen door for several minutes dreading to go inside. He considered himself a peaceful man and the prospect of what lay before him was not to his liking.

He could take the coyotes to the barn and skin them out first but that would only be postponing the inevitable.

He sighed and got out of the pickup and headed for the house.

Once inside the entryway, he leaned against the doorjamb and peered into the kitchen.

She was sitting at the table with both hands cupped around a coffee mug staring, as if transfixed, at the hole in the wall above the sink.

Well, he thought, crossing to the stove and pouring himself a cup of coffee, we might as well get it over with.

She’d leave, of course. But better that than for her to be screwing around behind his back. He might be old, but he had his pride. He was surprised she wasn’t gone already.

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking,” she said, her eyes shifting to where he stood.

“I figured you might,” he said dryly.

“A woman doesn’t always know when she’s well off.” She hesitated. “Whatever got into me, it isn’t worth losing you. If you’ll let me, I’d like to try to make it up to you.”

Silas felt the hard crust of ice that had formed around his heart during the night begin to break up and slowly melt away.

He nodded and took a sip of coffee. Then his eyes moved to the hole above the sink.

“Well,” he said. “Guess I’d best fetch the tool box from the shop and patch up that wall.”



17½ BIG STEPS

FELIPE (A PESCADOR)

 

The little fishing boats set out to sea in the half-light of dawn, casting dark shadows on the waters of the bay.  When the sun is high overhead they return, laden with fish.  As season follows season and the years flow onward like the tides, the young fishermen grow old and the old fishermen pass into the world of the forgotten.

Felipe Sandoval eased his boat onto the rocky beach, leaped out and secured it to the dock.  Though weary, his spirits lifted as they usually did when he returned to shore, his boat well-laden with fish.

Most of the boats had already docked when Felipe reached the shore.  Working rapidly, he unloaded his boat and spread the fish neatly on a table.  If they were not sold before the crowd dispersed, he would be walking the streets during the heat of the day peddling what was left.  The later they sold, the less he would receive for them.  No one wanted stale fish.

He eyed the crowd gathered on the beach.

Although some housewives sent maids, many trusted only themselves to choose the best from the fresh morning catch for the baked fish, tacos or soup they would serve for dinner.  Restaurateurs, too, vied for the finest fish from which they would prepare tempting dishes for their evening menus.  Merchants bought large quantities to dress and sell to those who rose too late to buy off the boats.

On this day, business was good.  After the shoppers’ inspection, Felipe carefully wrapped their selection in a sheet of newspaper.

Once the crowd dispersed, he put aside the two remaining small fish to cook for his supper then counted his pesos.  He frowned.  Despite the fine catch, he had netted barely enough to pay for repairs on his boat, buy a little food and take Gabriela to the cinema.

He sighed.

The life of a fisherman is not an easy one, he thought as he headed toward his humble abode.

Felipe wanted to get married.  But how could he support a wife when his business yielded hardly enough for him to live on?

It was no easier now that he owned his own boat than when he worked for Carlos Sanchez who owned a fleet of fishing vessels.

He had worked hard for Carlos.  And he had saved his money to buy a boat of his own.  Working for himself, he thought, would yield greater profits and he and Gabriela could marry.  But it hadn’t gone as planned.

The boat he purchased from Carlos was old.  He had patched and painted it and tuned up the motor; however, the engine needed an overhaul badly—an overhaul for which he never seemed to find funds.  Each morning, he willed the small craft into action, coaxing it out to sea, then back to shore.  He spent as much time working on it as he did fishing and though his hopes had been high when he purchased the boat, he soon discovered that the expense of keeping it in service ate up most of his profits.

It had run smoothly this morning, but he never knew what to expect from day to day.

To make matters worse, Gabriela was becoming more insistent that they marry.

“I am receiving other proposals, you know,” she said.  “If you refuse to set a date, I will be forced to marry someone else.”

Although she had been saying that for two years, Felipe knew she loved him as much as he loved her.  He doubted she would carry out her threat.

But what if she did?  He could not expect a red-blooded young Mexican woman like Gabriela to wait forever.

As he neared home, Gabriela came to meet him.  She looked so beautiful in her bright blue skirt and shawl he wished with all his heart he could marry her this very day.

“I could take a job in the kitchen of one of the big, new tourista hotels,” she had said only yesterday.

But Filipe, a proud man, said no.

“But many wives take jobs these days,” she argued.

In spite of her coaxing, Felipe refused to become the husband of a woman who worked in someone else’s kitchen—even if it were a fine hotel.

He wondered why he was so stubborn; other men allowed their wives to work and, with two incomes, lived very well.

“If you don’t stop being so stubborn, Felipe Sandoval, you are going to die an old bachelor!” Gabriela had screamed.

As his ability to support a wife showed no signs of improving, Felipe lay awake far into night thinking, trying to come up with an answer.  It had become a great weight on his shoulders.

He realized that, no matter how hard he worked as a fisherman, he would never become a rich man—how could he when he couldn’t even earn a living?  In spite of his hopes at the time, buying the boat had been a mistake; a brave but futile gesture.  His hopes died a little more each day as the boat, tossed by the waves for many years, grew weaker and the engine developed additional problems.

No, he admitted to himself, this is not the way.

He was thankful for a woman who loved him and who wanted to marry him—no matter if he was rich or poor—but he was growing older each day and, one day, he would be an old man with nothing to show for the many years of hard work.

Would he then allow his wife, no longer young and beautiful, to work in someone else’s kitchen to support him?

The next morning, his boat refused to start and the others were well ahead when he finally putt-putted out to sea.  He lowered his nets but Felipe’s thoughts had turned inward.

“I cannot continue to do this,” he told himself, ignoring his nets, his eyes oblivious to the bright new day.  “When I am able to provide for Gabriela, we will marry—if she has not married with another.”

If I must, I will let her go, he thought, brushing a tear from his eye.

How many lives have you taken? He wondered as he stared into the black depths of the sea.  How many souls have you laid to rest?  Would it not be better to surrender to the sea than to live a life of poverty without the woman I love?

When he saw the others heading in, Felipe followed, unmindful that all the boats except his were laden with fish.  Felipe had made a decision and, as the small boat chugged toward the shore his heart, though a little fearful, felt lighter.

He docked, leaped out of the boat and, without bothering to unload his meager catch, went in search of Carlos Sanchez.  He found him over-seeing his men as they unloaded his boats.  Felipe stood to one side, waiting until he was free.

“How much will you give me for my boat?” he asked then.

Carlos was not surprised; he had expected Felipe before now.  Another man, less determined, would have quit long ago.

“Eet is very old,” Carlos stalled.  “Eet is not worth much.”

“It was old when I bought it from you,” Felipe said.  “Now it is painted and patched and the motor runs.  How much?”

“Wella, I don’ know—”

“Forget the money I put into it.  Give me what I paid for it and it is yours,” Felipe said.

Carlos did not reply at once.  I can still re-sell it at a profit, he thought.

“Is it a deal or not?” Felipe said impatiently.

He is very anxious, Carlos thought.  He made a decision.

“I will give you one hundred fifty thousand pesos,” he said.

Felipe had paid him two hundred thousand; Carlos was prepared to go up twenty five thousand more.

But today, Felipe had no time for haggling.

“I’ll take it,” he said and held out his hand.

“I do not have that much money with me,” Carlos objected.

“Then let us go to the bank.”

Carlos smiled, shaking his head in amusement.  Calling to his men that he would return soon, he followed Felipe up the boardwalk.

Twenty minutes later, the transaction was completed.  Felipe turned and walked rapidly toward the heart of the city while Carlos scratched his head.

“Caramba!” he muttered.  “I should have offered him less.”

As he walked, Felipe mentally added the money Carlos gave him for the boat to his meager savings.  He now had two hundred and thirty thousand pesos—approximately one hundred American dollars.

He hoped it was enough.  If not, he would have to figure out a way to get more.

The secretary ushered Felipe into Lorenzo Martinez’s luxuriously furnished private office and quietly closed the door.  Martinez, elated to see a paying customer, rose from his desk and shook his hand.

A fisherman, he thought, appraising Felipe, and mentally calculated how much he might be worth.  Not much, he decided; but a low paying customer was better than no customer at all.

“Sit down, my friend.  What may I do for you?” he asked.

“I wish to go to Los Estados Unidos,” Felipe replied.  “Immediately.”

“I see,” said Lorenzo.

Ah!  He is in a hurry,” he thought.  If he is in trouble, I want no part of him.  I want no problem with la policia.

His relationship with “la policia” was good.  They stopped by now and then—to see that everything was well with his little business; always pocketing a ten thousand peso note as they went out the door.

“Why are you in such a hurry?” he asked Felipe.

“I am not making a decent wage fishing,” Felipe replied.  “I want to get married and I cannot until I have more to offer my woman.”

Lorenzo sighed with relief.

“Ah, I see.”

In his business he heard this story often—though not always stated so bluntly.  It was always the money—money for the wife, the sweetheart, the mother, the children.  Bless the women of Mexico.  Were it not for them, his business would be much less lucrative.

“How much will it cost?” Felipe asked.

“How much do you have?” Lorenzo countered.

“I sold my boat to raise the money.  I have only one hundred fifty thousand pesos,” Felipe lied.  He would need enough for food until he was sure of work.

“One hundred fifty thousand pesos is not much,” Lorenzo mused.  “First, we must get you to the border; there are people who must be paid for that and the man who will take you to the fields must have money for the gas—”

Felipe decided to be firm.

“I am sorry, but that is all I have.  I will find another way.”

He rose as if to go.

“Una momento,” Lorenzo motioned for him to resume his seat.

“I like you, Felipe.  You are a credit to our village.  Perhaps we can work something out.”

He sat thinking then, as though making a decision, he turned back to his client.  A few minutes later, it was agreed that Felipe would join a group of men who were leaving this very night.

“Do not take much with you,” Lorenzo said.  “Only a small package that you can hold on your lap.  It is not only because the truck is crowded, but also because we must sometimes find ingenious ways to avoid detection by the policia.