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The Final Six-Pack
Nominations for the Oklahoma Reads Oklahoma Book for 2007


Read an excerpt from

The Old Buzzard Had It Coming
Courtesy of Poisoned Pen Press


Chapter One
 
It was just after dinner on that January day in 1912, and very cold with a threat of snow, when Harley Day began the journey to his eternal reward.

He made it to the outhouse, though he didn’t remember if he actually managed to do his business inside or not. He did remember that there was a good sized stash of moonshine in the barn, and he navigated that fifty or so yards with only a couple of stops to rest and regroup. He got somewhat turned around in the barn, and after he had retrieved a jar, he realized that he had gone out the back and was headed for the woods instead of the house.

This fact in itself put him in a bad mood, for he couldn’t quite get his feet headed back in the right direction. But as he drew near the trees, he could hear voices murmuring. Having to think about this quite put him out.

When he drew near enough to recognize the voice of his nineteen-year-old son, John Lee, Harley’s irritation turned to anger. Something about that boy made Harley mad, especially since the boy had become so contrary. John Lee was supposed to be slopping the hogs now, and it occurred to Harley that he hadn’t seen the boy in the barn. Indignant, he staggered toward the voices, then stopped, swaying in his tracks, when he realized who John Lee was talking to.

It was that Tucker girl.

It seemed like there were hundreds of Tuckers in Muskogee county, and Okmulgee county; and they were married to everybody and held every third office and owned every other business in the area. Harley hated the Tuckers, with their highfaluting ways, and he hated the fact that John Lee was talking with Phoebe Tucker, whose father’s large property nearly wrapped around Harley’s ratty little quarter-section farm.

Harley’s anger turned to rage. He could see them through the trees, sitting with their heads together on a little hillock, so engrossed in their conversation that a mule could have sat on them and they wouldn’t have known it. Harley dropped his jar and lunged at the pair, feeling murderous.

The young people saw him at the last minute and scrambled apart, he with a yelp and she with a shriek of terror. Harley took a swipe at John Lee with his right hand and missed, but he managed to grab Phoebe’s arm with his left.

Phoebe was a small girl, but her alarm gave her strength, and she almost twisted away. Harley managed to hold on and jerked her toward him, and she stumbled and fell to her knees. Harley was aware that John Lee was yelling at him. John Lee often yelled at him, lately. But there was something new in the tone of John Lee’s voice that penetrated the fog of Harley’s thinking.

John Lee sounded angry; Not afraid, like he usually did, or desperate, but angry. A righteous anger, like the preacher at a revival. For a second, Harley’s curiosity got the better of his fury and he looked at his son.

John Lee’s eyes, big and black and usually as mild as a deer’s, were snapping. “You let her go, Daddy,” he ordered.

The fury was back as suddenly as it had abated. “Boy, you should have listened to me when I told you never to see this gal again,” Harley yelled.

“Let her go,” John Lee repeated. His voice had dropped a register, and was as taut as a barbed wire fence.

“Don’t you be talking to me like that,” Harley warned. “I’ll skin you alive. You get on back up to the house. I’m going teach this little piece of baggage to stay at home...” Harley had planned to say a lot more, but he didn’t get the chance. John Lee punched him in the jaw.

For an instant, the wonder of this inexplicable event knocked every thought out of Harley’s head. For nineteen years Harley had been abusing John Lee at his pleasure, and never before had the boy retaliated. At most, he would try to escape, or sometimes, he’d run off and not be seen for the entire day. For the last year or two, he had been objecting when Harley hit the boy’s mother, though sensibly she always told John Lee to mind his own business when he tried to intervene. In fact, there had been an incident with the boy recently, Harley remembered. Was it this morning. But this was the first time he had actually struck his own father.

Harley’s befuddlement only lasted for an instant, and then the fury returned, doubly intensified byJohn Lee’s unforgivable outrage.

Harley let go of Phoebe’s arm and grabbed something off the ground. It may have been a stubby tree branch, or a clod, or a rock, Harley wasn’t sure. He swung, aiming as well as he could through the red haze that glazed his view, and connected. There was an odd crunching sound and John Lee was flung face down into the leaf litter and lay still.

Phoebe screamed, but did not run away as any sensible girl would have. She tried to reach John Lee’s prone form, but Harley seized her by the shoulders, and she turned toward him. He was vaguely aware that she was making a high-pitched sound, part fear and part outrage. She was fighting him. She attempted to jerk out of his grasp. Harley wasn’t steady enough to keep his feet, and they went down together. Harley fell on the girl like a sack of potatoes, and her breath whooshed out past his ear.

Harley thought that Phoebe was struggling and crying under him. He thought that he saw John Lee sit up, then brace himself unsteadily with his hand on the ground. The boy said something that Harley didn’t understand. He turned his head enough to look at his son, who was coming at him. John Lee reached into the bib pocket of his overalls.

Chapter Two
 
Alafair Tucker was standing on the porch, clutching a dishtowel, watching the two young people come up the tree-lined drive toward the house, and she shaded her eyes with her free hand in order to see them better against the pale gray afternoon sky. They were walking slowly, perfectly decorous, at least a yard apart, but Alafair was not fooled. Phoebe’s face may have been serene as an angel’s, but it was also beet red. The white house sat on a gentle rise facing the long drive that ran the quarter-mile from the road to the barn and stables, so it was easy for Alafair to observe the couple for a considerable time before they reached her.

Alafair had not seen John Lee Day much since he had gotten so well grown, but there was no mistaking who he was. He still had the same stunning, big-eyed face that he had had when he was a ten-year-old, and used to hang around the farm with all the other kids in the vicinity. He looked like a man, now, Alafair thought with a pang. A young man, to be sure, downey-cheeked still, but those cheeks were surely more gaunt than when she had last seen him. He looked to be a little less than middle height, but that still made him taller than Alafair’s little Phoebe.

“Well, look what Phoebe has drug in,” said the girl in the porch swing to Alafair’s left. “It’s John Lee Day as I live and breathe.”

“Don’t you have something to do, Alice?” Alafair asked, without taking her eyes off the advancing couple.

“Sure I do, Mama,” Alice answered in that light, sassy way of hers. “But this here is much more interesting.”

Alafair had long ago learned to school her pleasant features to look all business, but her mouth often betrayed her with unbidden smiles, as it did now as she looked over at Alice. Alice and Phoebe were twins, both seventeen and beautiful, but so unlike that it was hard to believe that they were even sisters. Alice was tall and incorrigible, blond as wheat and blue-eyed as the sky. Phoebe was like the little bird she was named for, small and neat, with an abundance of waving dark russet hair and fine, deep-set hazel eyes that could be either green or gold depending on the light and her mood. She was brave, Phoebe was, and could stand up for herself when she had to, and with Alice for a twin, she often had to. But left to her own devices, Phoebe was by far the sweetest of all of Alafair’s children, and a real dreamer. “I can’t remember the last time I saw John Lee,” Alafair observed to Alice. “He used to be around a lot to play with you kids when he was a youngster.”

Alice shrugged. “Ever since he’s gotten old enough to walk behind a plow his daddy’s kept him as a slave, I think. You know how we’ve got to walk by their place on the way to town? Seems like he was always there by the road, at the gate in front of their farm, watching us go by when we went to school.”

“Didn’t he go with you?”

“He left school when he was about thirteen, if I remember right. He still shows up at that gate, though. Especially when Phoebe walks by. I think he’s sweet on her.”

Alafair looked back out at the advancing pair and rubbed her arms, wishing that she had thought to throw on a shawl before she stepped outside. Her breath clouded the air as she sighed. “Now, why haven’t I heard about this?” she wondered aloud.

“Why, you know how Phoebe is, Ma.”

“I know you’d never let her hear the end of it if she got her a beau.”

“True enough,” Alice said with a laugh. “And you know what? Now that I think on it, Phoebe sure has taken a liking to strolling up and down the road lately.”

Alafair shot Alice a stern look. “You just go inside, now, and help your sisters with supper, or find something else useful to do. It’s too cold to be sitting around doing nothing, anyway.”

Alice looked as though she might say something else annoying, but apparently thought better of it and stood up. “Want me to make the cornbread tonight?”

“Ask Martha. She’s in charge of supper this evening. Now hurry up. Your daddy and the boys will be in directly.”

The screen creaked and the door clumped closed behind her when Alice went inside. Alafair walked down the porch steps to meet Phoebe and John Lee as they came in the gate.

A white fence defined the front yard where in summer Alafair grew herbs in small plots along the stone walk, and sometimes flowers, when she had the inclination. Native elms dotted the yard, and a large hackberry tree shaded the side of the house. A square stone well graced one corner of the yard, though it was covered and seldom used, now that a pump had been installed next to the back door. There was no back yard, only a fire break of twenty feet or so between the back of the house and a patch of woods which served as playground, dog run, pig buffet, and home to a small flock of wild turkeys.

Alafair acknowledged Phoebe with a smile before she looked beyond the girl toward John Lee, who had stood aside to let Phoebe pass. He snatched the wool cap from his head when Alafair looked at him, releasing an untidy shag of black hair that fell across his forehead.

Alafair leaned against the support beam and placed the fist clutching the dishtowel on her hip. “John Lee Day,” she greeted. “I haven’t seen you since before there was dirt. What brings you around?

John Lee drew himself up and looked her in the eye, shy but straightforward and pressed his cap against the breast of his threadbare coat. Alafair caught her breath when the boy looked up at her. She hadn’t realized what a looker he had become. For just an instant, she was bemused. The fist on her hip dropped to her side, and the dishtowel unfurled like a flag.

“Good evening, Miz Tucker,” John Lee was saying, when Alafair came to. “I met Phoebe on the road yonder, and figured I’d walk her home and say hello to y’all, being as I ain’t been by here in so long.”

Phoebe came up to Alafair’s side, quiet as a shadow. She slipped her hand into her mother’s, but kept her gaze on John Lee.

Alafair said, “You’ve grown up since I saw you last, son.”

“I don’t get away from the farm, much,” John Lee admitted.

“How is your mother?”

He hesitated. “Well enough, ma’am,” he conceded. The words “given her husband” were unspoken but understood.

“And all them young’uns?”

“Growing right along, ma’am.”

“What happened to your eye?” Alafair asked, in the same polite tone of inquiry; though more gently.

John Lee’s hand flew to the gash next to his right eye before he could stop himself. It was a rather ugly gash of about three inches, not very old, since it was just beginning to swell and redden. It had been carefully cleaned, but still oozed a little. John Lee sighed a barely perceptible sigh and smiled a rueful smile. “Reckon I run into a door, Miz Tucker,” he said.

Alafair nodded. She didn’t look at Phoebe, but the girl’s hand tightened around hers. Harley Day’s reputation was well known in Muskogee county. It had long been rumored that he struck Mrs. Day, and Alafair expected that John Lee was plenty old enough to object. Her heart tightened. He probably ran into a lot of doors.

“Why don’t you come in and let me doctor that?” Alafair offered. “It don’t look too bad. Shouldn’t take but a minute.”

John Lee shook his head. “Thank you, ma’am. I expect my ma can put something on it.”

“We’re just about to sit down and eat a bite of supper. You’re more than welcome to stay if you’ve a mind,” Alafair urged.

The invitation seemed to alarm the boy. “No, no, thank you, Miz Tucker. Ma’s expecting me. I got to get back or she’ll be wondering what happened to me.” He looked at Phoebe, and a transformation again came over his face that gave Alafair pause. “I just seen Phoebe strolling down the road past our gate and I wanted to keep her company for a bit, if you don’t mind. Its just a nice evening for a stroll.”

Alafair couldn’t help but laugh at that. It had been drizzling a freezing rain off and on all day. The wind was still, but if it were twenty-five degrees, she would have been surprised. The layered clouds warned of snow before morning. “I don’t mind if y’all take a little stroll,” she told him, “though you might have picked a better evening for it. I do wish you would take some supper with us.”

John Lee tore his gaze from Phoebe and looked at Phoebe’s mother. “Thank you, ma’am, but I got to get home. Maybe some other time.” He looked back at Phoebe again, and that strange transformation again came over his face. “Good night, Phoebe,” he said, backing out of the gate.

“Good night, John Lee,” Phoebe replied in a voice like honey.

Alafair and Phoebe stood together in silence, hand in hand, and watched for a long time as he went back down the drive, until he turned out onto the road toward his own farm.

“So, you’ve started taking regular strolls on down by the Day place,” Alafair finally observed. “Must be half a mile. That’s quite an amble in this cold.”

Phoebe did not normally have a high color, but the cold and her emotions had already reddened her face, so her mother’s question caused her to flush alarmingly. “I get cabin fever staying in the house all the time, what with this weather, Ma. Sometimes I like to have a little walk. John Lee has spotted me a couple of times and come up to his gate to talk to me. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?”

“No, surely not,” Alafair said. “I think you should invite him to supper, though. Let me and your daddy meet him. Especially if you’re going to be doing any more ‘strolling’ in the future.”

“He’s a nice boy, Mama,” Phoebe assured her.

“I’m sure he is, Phoebe. Especially if you like him. Now let’s get inside before I freeze to death. I swear it’ll snow before the night is out.

They turned and walked toward the deep porch that ran along the entire front of the long white house. Alafair paused and took Phoebe’s arm before they went inside. “Honey, I know you’ll use your sense now,” she warned. “But I want you to be careful about going over there to the Day place. That father of John Lee’s isn’t the best of men. And I’d really like for your daddy to look this boy over before you get too fond of him.”

Alafair feared that if Phoebe got any redder, the top of her head would blow off like an overheated thermometer. For an instant, Phoebe’s mouth worked, but no words came out. “You’re right about that old man Day, Ma,” Phoebe finally managed, her voice rapid and low. “He’s just an evil man. He strikes Miz Day sometimes, and John Lee, too. You could see that. And he drinks something awful, Ma. He makes his own corn liquor and sells it to the low types around. I think we ought to tell the sheriff about him. But John Lee ain’t like that, Mama. He’s so good. He feels real responsible for his mother and them kids, and he’s so gentle and kind, even to animals. He’s never been anything but a perfect gentleman, believe me, Ma. And he wants to improve himself, too, and learn...”

Alafair patted Phoebe’s arm. “Calm down, now,” she soothed. “I never said we were going to forbid you to see him. You just ask him over first chance you get.”

Phoebe said, “yes, ma’am,” but she looked troubled, and Alafair thought that Phoebe was afraid that John Lee’s father would be the real impediment to their relationship. It hurt Alafair to admit to herself that this was probably the case.

~ ~ ~

It was a relief to finally get into the dark warmth of the house. They walked together into the large parlor, which was brightened by tall windows that covered two walls. Two doors in the back of the room led to the bedrooms, and to the left was the entrance to the enormous kitchen. The parlor was furnished with a settee and two horsehair-stuffed armchairs, plus several slat-backed chairs, a rocker and a few side tables. A fine old upright piano graced one corner, and two narrow iron cots were discreetly tucked head to head into another. A large quilt frame was appended to the ceiling by a rope and pully at each corner, to keep it out of the way when not in use. The pot-belly stove in the center of the parlor was fired up enough to take the chill out of the air, but the real heat came from the giant wood-burning cook stove in the kitchen, where all six of Alafair’s other daughters were in a frenzy of meal preparation.

Dark haired Martha, twenty and the eldest, was the general of this evening’s repast, and directing her troop with a skill that was beginning to approach Alafair’s own. Almost-nineteen-year-old Mary, the best if sloppiest cook in the house, was spooning fried potatoes into a ceramic dish. Alice was in charge of dessert, since she had a particular talent for pies, and tonight’s offerings were already cooling on wire racks on the cabinet. The youngest girls, Ruth, Blanche, and Sophronia, ages twelve, seven and six respectively, were setting the table with much rattling and clanking of dishes.

“You girls done with your lessons?” Alafair asked the young ones, as she hung Phoebe’s coat on the rack next to the back door.

The two little girls shrieked and skipped and both spoke at once, somehow conveying the message that they had no homework tonight. Blanche dropped a serving spoon on the floor and gazed at it in befuddlement before Ruth scooped it up and handed it back to her. “Now you got to go wash it off,” Ruth informed her disdainfully.

“Ma,” Blanche implored, indignant, “I just swept the floor this afternoon.”

“Go wash the spoon, Blanche,” Alafair told her, ignoring the faces that the girls made at each other as Blanche flounced off toward the wash basin with the spoon.

“I see Phoebe has deigned to grace us with her presence,” Mary interjected.

“Phoebe was occupied with her new beau,” Alice explained.

Mary looked up from her spooning, interested. Mary was blond and blue-eyed, like Alice, but not so tall. She wore her light hair in a careless braid as thick as a rope down her back, and had a habit of flicking the tail of it against her cheek when she was contemplating devilment. Now, she fingered the blue-ribboned tail dangerously. “Phoebe has a beau?” she asked. “I thought she had made a vow to die a maiden because there’s no man in the world good enough for her.”

“No, you’re thinking of Martha,” Alice told her gleefully. “Phoebe’s the one who would just dry up and blow away with embarrassment if a boy looked in her direction.”

“Has Phoebe got a beau, Mama?” Sophronia asked. “What’s a beau?”

“You all just mind your business and leave Phoebe alone,” Alafair scolded. “Phoebe, go out to the porch and draw up a pitcher of buttermilk. And be quick about it. I hear Daddy and the boys coming up to the house already.”

Phoebe gave her a grateful sidelong glance and left out the back door with a haste that was just short of unseemly.

“Now, you girls leave Phoebe alone,” Alafair warned, giving Alice an especially stern glower. “She’s just trying to be friendly to that poor Day boy, and I think he could use all the friends he could get.”

“John Lee Day,” Martha said, intrigued.

“Is Phoebe going to marry John Lee Day?” Blanche asked.

“No,” Alafair assured her. “Go get some more big spoons for these dishes here.”

The front door slammed open and Shaw Tucker and his sons and their dog, Charlie-dog, spilled into the parlor, ripping off coats and hats and scarves and piling them haphazardly on the coat tree. The two black, white and tan ‘coon hounds, Buttercup and Crook, who followed Shaw almost everywhere, stayed outside. “We’re home, Ma,” Shaw boomed, like he did every evening of the world. “It’s drizzling rain. We’re froze!” The girls poured into the parlor to greet their father, and Alafair followed behind. She stood in the kitchen door and watched fondly as Shaw indulged in his favorite ritual of kissing his seven beloved daughters hello.

Alafair’s dark brown eyes softened. After twenty-one years of marriage, the sight of Shaw Tucker still made Alafair’s heart warm up. He was on the tall side, close to six feet, and slim as a rail still, hard from the physical work of a large farm upon which he raised horses and mules, a few cows, a few crops. Not one gray hair streaked his head full of dark brown hair, and his amber and green eyes shone with humor and intelligence. A toothy white smile flashed at his girls from beneath his big bush of a mustache. Alafair was always amused at how the girls clung to him like vines when he came in from work in the evening, as though he had been gone for weeks, and how he always gave each of them a showy smooch in order of age.

As Shaw and his daughters played out their evening ritual, the boys, finally skinned out of their winterwear, made their way over to their mother for their own quieter greeting. There were only two of them, sorely outnumbered in this house of females, but what they lacked in numbers, they made up for in presence. The elder, Gee Dub, was dark-eyed and curly-haired, but otherwise the image of his father, even down to his never-fail good nature. He was amazingly grown-up for a fifteen-year-old boy, and always had been old for his years. He had never given his parents any trouble to speak of, and Alafair could hardly credit her luck with him. Somehow, she just knew deep inside it couldn’t last—no child was such an unmitigated joy. Charlie-boy, on the other hand, had kept his parents on their toes for all of his ten years. His big blue eyes were deceptively innocent. He wasn’t a particularly noisy boy, or naughtier than most, but he was the hardest-headed child to ever draw breath. Once he made up his mind to do something, he did it in the face of punishment, or the wrath of God.

Gee Dub leaned over to give his mother a casual kiss. She was continually amazed at how easy he was about affection, for a boy.

“Daddy’s in rare form, tonight,” he observed.

“Daddy always paints everything large,” Alafair conceded. She grabbed Charlie and squeezed him to her with a noisy smack on the cheek, just to tease him.

“Oh, Ma, quit now,” he managed, squirming, and Alafair laughed. The big yellow shepherd, who was Charlie’s particular friend, nudged at her skirt, and she rubbed his head. “You’ve just got to have some loving, too, don’t you, Charlie-dog?” She straightened. “You fellows are freezing! There’s hot water for you on the stove. Go wash up.”

The boys and the dog ran for the back porch as Shaw headed toward her with his arms full of daughters and Blanche and Sophronia dragging on his knees. “Y’all sit down, now,” he ordered the girls, “while I kiss your mama and wash my hands.”

“You couldn’t wash your hands and then kiss their mama?” Alafair teased.

“First things first,” he told her, giving her an authoritative kiss on the mouth. “Where’s Phoebe?” he asked, when he drew back. “I’m missing a girl.”

“Out on the back porch getting some buttermilk,” Alafair told him. “She had a little adventure today and the girls were teasing her. I’m sure you’ll hear all about it at the table.”

~ ~ ~

When they were all seated properly in their places, including Phoebe, Shaw folded his hands on the table and silence fell. “Charlie, would you say the blessing tonight?”

Heads bowed and Charlie drew himself up. “Lord, bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies. In Jesus’ name, amen,” he intoned.

“Amen,” all said, in chorus, and the clatter of self-service began.

Supper in the evening was a lighter meal than midday’s dinner, and consisted mainly of leftovers from the main meal of the day, along with fresh cornbread and couple of newly-opened home-canned vegetables from Alafair’s store to round out the meal. Wednesdays’ fare, according to custom, was a huge pot of soupy brown beans and fatback, and home fries with onions on the side. The butter, white at this time of year, and its resultant buttermilk, were fresh that morning. The sweetened carrots and cooked tomatoes had been canned in the summer. Shaw and Alafair both like to float raw onion in their beans, so Martha had chopped a bowlful. Each member of the family had his or her opinion on the proper way to eat cornbread in conjunction with beans. Some liked to open a square of cornbread on the bottom of the bowl and spoon beans over it. Some considered cornbread wasted if it was not slathered with butter and eaten along with the beans. Others preferred to crumble their cornbread into their buttermilk. Some preferred a combination.

Shaw was a butter man himself, dolloping it into his beans and onto his carrots and potatoes as well as his cornbread. “Who has something interesting to tell me?” he asked in the midst of his buttering.

“I seen Mr. Leonard cutting across the back field over by the creek again today,” Charlie told him. “He was riding a mule and toting some big old saddlebags.”

“Which Mr. Leonard was that?” Shaw wondered.

Charlie shrugged. “I don’t know. All them Leonards look alike to me.”

“I swear, Shaw,” Alafair interjected. “That path to the creek is getting to be a regular highway for the neighbors. Maybe you ought to post some signs.”

“Oh, it ain’t that big a problem, is it?” Shaw said. “The path only cuts across our property for about twenty yards, and it’s a mighty long way from the house, more than a mile.”

“Phoebe is going to marry John Lee Day,” Blanche piped in, before Shaw could consider the path problem any more.

“Is that so?” he said offhandedly. A man with nubile daughters grew accustomed to unfounded rumors of marriage. “When did you decide this, Phoebe?”

“Oh, Daddy, you know that ain’t true,” she replied, dripping with scorn at her little sister. “I met John Lee on the road and he walked me up to the house and now nobody can talk of nothing else.”

“It’s true, Daddy,” Alice admitted, her eyes bright with mischief. “We’re just starved for entertainment.”

Shaw laughed at that, for his children were masters of creating their own entertainment. “I see that boy out in the fields every once in a while,” he said. “He sure is a worker, and always respectful when we’ve had occasion to speak. Truly, I think he’s the only one who does a lick of work on that scraggly farm of theirs. I swear he’s the only one over there I ever speak to, though.”

“I barely know Miz Day to see her,” Alafair confessed. “It’s shameful not to know your neighbors any better, but it seems like they prefer to keep to themselves and shun company.”

Shaw nodded. “It’s strange,” he agreed. “Do you remember Harley’s old dad?” he asked Alafair. “He was a fine man. He had a share in the brick plant, I believe.”

“I know Jeb Stuart Day,” Charlie piped in. “He’s just my age, and we play sometimes. His daddy don't let him come over here, but I see him at school when he comes.”

“Me and Fronie play with Mattie and Frances,” Blanche contributed. “They’re nice, but they don’t come to school all the time, either.”

“I talk at John Lee some,” Gee Dub told them. “Sometimes our cattle get in together over by the pond, so every once in a while we meet when I go to bring in the stock. He’s nice. He really admires the horses, Daddy. Said he wishes they could afford to raise horses. I used to be friends with that oldest girl, Maggie Ellen, but I haven’t seen her in ages. I heard she got married and is living in Checotah now.”

“They’re poor, ain’t they, Mama?” Ruth asked.

“There’s no shame in being poor,” Alafair told her.

“There’s poor and then there’s poor, Ma,” Alice noted.

“That’s hardly the kids’ fault,” Martha pointed out.

“No, it ain’t,” Shaw agreed, “and I’m pleased that you all have made friends with them sad ragamuffins. But the sadder truth is that Mr. Day is not a man I want you kids consorting with. So it’s all right if they want to come over here and play or visit, as long as they come up to the house and say hello first. But I don’t want you kids going over there onto the Day property.” He looked at Phoebe. “Especially you girls,” he said. “Y’all understand?” There was nothing stern about his tone, but all the children took serious note of what he was saying. There was a straggle of “yes, Daddy”s. Shaw’s eyes crinkled over the cornbread he had raised to his mouth as he looked across the table at Alafair. A wordless parental agreement to discuss this topic later.

“Now, what have the rest of you been up to all day?” he wondered.

~  ~  ~

That night it snowed; fat, wet flakes that fell thick and drifted deep. In her dream, Alafair was running toward town, toward the doctor, as fast as she could go, her dying baby in her arms. Her lungs were bursting, but the faster she ran, the farther away the town became. Alafair awoke with a start, her heart pounding and her cheeks wet with tears. The snow sat deep and heavy wherever it fell, and as dawn approached, Alafair could hear cracks like pistol fire as tree limbs succumbed to the weight of the snow that blanketed them.

From Chapter Three

The snow lay on the ground for three days, deep and white under a gray sky, ribbed with the black of bare tree limbs and half-covered buildings, a black and white world. On Saturday evening, the clouds began to break up and the wind shifted, and the thaw started. By nightfall, the roof edges had clerared and black ruts stood in the roads and footpaths. The thaw continued in earnest all day Sunday, and by Monday morning only patches remained under the trees and in the shady spots, and anomalous drifts on the north sides of buildings.

It was young Frances Day who spotted her father's ear protruding from the melting snow that drifted against the house. She sat for several hours next to the wall in the sun, playing with her corn cob doll and watching fascinated as the rest of the man emerged from the snow. He was lying on his right side with his hands pillowing his head as though he had lain down against the house for a little nap. When he was pretty much uncovered, Frances notified her mother that she had found Daddy. . . .

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