The summer that Jubal Beldon was killed was the same summer that we had the big storm in Boynton, Oklahoma. It was because of the storm that we found out that Jubal got himself murdered, even though he’d have probably met a bad end anyway.
There never was a more unpleasant fellow.
He drank and used bad language and relished making trouble for folks, but he was the only one of the Beldon boys who ever earned an honest nickel, as far as I knew. He was unpleasant to his neighbors and mean when he could get away with it, so nobody that I ever heard of liked him much. But he was tender with animals and I gave him credit for that. The calves out at his farm were sleek and fat and well cared for, and for years he had owned an old three-legged dog he had rescued from a scrap heap when it was a pup. It was just people that he couldn’t get along with. Trenton Calder is my name, and that June of 1916 I was deputy to Scott Tucker, the town sheriff. I’d been working for Scott for about five years when my ma sold the house and moved to Missouri, so I took up residence in the American Hotel, across the street from the jail, right above Boynton Mercantile. Conveniently, both those establishments were owned by Scott Tucker himself, and him and his wife, Hattie, let me live there for nothing. He told me it was part of the wages for being his assistant, and I believed it, whether it was true or not.
Scott had four sons of his own, so one more dragtail youngster didn’t bother him none. It was him taught me to shoot a handgun, along with his younger boys, Butch and Spike. My own daddy had showed me the use of a shotgun, but he died before he got around to teaching me the fine art of subduing a knife-wielding drunk by shooting him in the kneecaps.
I liked being a deputy.
Scott was one of the Muskogee County Tuckers. There must have been a thousand Tuckers living around eastern Oklahoma. You couldn’t hardly turn around without bumping into one. For a long time, my best friend was a cousin of Scott’s by the name of Bill McBride. But Bill got killed back in ’14, and after that, I kind of took up with Gee Dub Tucker, who was the son of another one of Scott’s cousins. Ol’ Gee Dub was three years younger than me and he never did have much to say, but what he did say was either right to the point or blamed funny. We used to go hunting together a lot. He was the best shot with any kind of firearm that I ever did see, right to this day.
Gee Dub had eight sisters and one brother. Some of them were older than me, married with their own homes. But most were younger and I had a devil of a time keeping them straight. Mostly I didn’t even try.
Boys were slim on the ground over to that farm. There was Gee Dub’s only brother Charlie, who was a mischievous kid, but likable as all get-out, and a mouthy little cousin named Chase Kemp who lived with them. Then there were the little girls, a passel of skipping, giggling little creatures who flitted around like butterflies, or dragonflies, or gnats. Gee Dub loved to tease and play with them, but I never had much to do with children, especially girls, so generally I just wanted to get on with it and never paid them too much mind.
I never even noticed when the girl just younger than Gee Dub moved into town to study music.
Alafair Tucker’s guiding philosophy was that there is always room in the house and in the heart for one more child. So adding another child to her brood of ten had hardly made a dent in her life when in the spring of 1916 she took her six-year-old nephew Chase Kemp to raise for a spell.
There were a lot of changes going on with Alafair’s family that year, anyway, what with one child after another going off to take up his or her own life with hardly a backward glance or a how-do-you-do to the poor bereft parents, so Alafair rather liked having an unexpected ragamuffin to take in hand. Her eldest son Gee Dub was away at college in Stillwater so she tucked Chase right in to his empty cot in the corner of the parlor, next to her fifteen-year-old, Charlie.
Once upon a time, the two beds and two trundles in the Tucker children’s bedroom were populated by eight young girls ranging from teens to infants. Now with three girls married and two living part-time in town, each of those still at home could easily have had a bed of her own. But it’s hard to sleep alone when you’re not accustomed to it. The trundles hardly ever came out from under the beds these days.
Chase was the only child of Alafair’s youngest sister Elizabeth Kemp. Elizabeth had left home for a spell in order to go to law school in Tucson, and had begged Alafair to foster Chase until she could graduate and join her husband’s law firm back in their hometown of Tempe, Arizona.
Alafair and her husband, Shaw, had looked at each other in perfect understanding after they finished reading Elizabeth’s telegram. Of course they’d take him. He was family.
Chase had been under-parented and was in need of some civilizing, but he wasn’t a bad child or a stupid one, either. When confronted with ten cousins who all knew how to handle themselves, he assessed the situation pretty quickly and fell into line without a fight. Within a week, anyone who didn’t know better would think that Chase Kemp had grown up Tucker, same as all the others.
There was one cousin to whom Chase took a particular shine, and that was Alafair’s second-oldest daughter, the newlywed Mary. Alafair didn’t know why the twenty-three-year-old and the six-year-old had formed such an immediate bond, but she wasn’t inclined to question God’s plan. Mary was a naturally maternal young woman and Chase was in need of mothering. As soon as Mary and her new husband Kurt Lukenbach returned from their wedding trip in May and moved into the big new house Kurt had built on his nearby farm, Chase would rise at dawn and run across the fields to Mary’s house for breakfast. Most days he went to Mary’s after school, as well, and spent the afternoon tagging along behind the laconic Kurt as he secured his animals for the evening. Eventually Chase began to sleep over on the weekends, and then, after school was out for the summer, he spent more time at the Lukenbach farm than at his aunt and uncle’s place. Alafair would have thought that Kurt and Mary would be annoyed at having a chattering six-year-old intrude on the honeymoon weeks of their new marriage, but when she broached the subject to her daughter, Mary assured her that they both loved having the boy around.
So Alafair let it be. She expected Chase enjoyed the extra attention, anyway.
When her older daughters had married, Alafair had feared that she would lose the closeness she had always had with each of them. But the opposite had proven to be the case. Phoebe and John Lee Day lived less than half a mile away, on the farm that Shaw had built for them when they married. The day she moved into her bright new house, Phoebe began carving a path through the fields from her front door to her mother’s.
Even before granddaughter Zeltha was born, Phoebe came to visit her mother three or four mornings a week, sometimes to bring her laundry or sewing to do alongside Alafair, but usually just to visit for a little while. She never stayed long. After all, she had her own place to run now, and a husband and child to take care of.
Phoebe’s second child was due in a few weeks so when she trudged up the path that June morning, carrying a small covered pail, she was leaning on the arm of her husband John Lee. They found their girl Zeltha sitting on a box on the front porch, along with her three-year-old aunt Grace, paying rapt attention to their play-school teacher, Alafair’s next-to-youngest, Sophronia, age ten. Grace and Sophronia leaped up and rushed to meet them, but Zeltha stayed where she was, sitting on her box with a puppy in her lap, a barn cat draped across her feet, and the old yellow house dog, Charlie Dog, at her side. She beamed at her parents. Phoebe could see her mother and sister Blanche working in the garden. In midsummer there was no end of things to plant, cut, mulch, weed, and harvest, or bugs and mites to pick, spray, or drown in a jar of kerosene. They were so busy at their tasks that neither had noticed Phoebe and John Lee arrive, so Phoebe and John Lee went to them, three little girls skipping ahead and Charlie Dog plodding behind.
It was Blanche who saw them first. She waved and smiled from under the brim of her shady straw hat, her cheeks pink from exer- tion and glowing with vitality. Phoebe smiled back, marveling at her sister’s newfound ruddy health following a winter of illness. Alafair was bending over a row of beans with her back to the gate, but turned to see who Blanche was waving at. “How’re you doing, darlin’?” she called when she spotted Phoebe.
“Good, Mama. Come to fetch Zeltha home. John Lee was set to do it by himself, but I told him I could use the walk.”
Alafair straightened and removed her makeshift gloves, one-time socks with holes punched out for her thumbs. She whacked them against her skirt and bits of dirt went flying as she walked over to the fence. “The more you move around the easier it will be when your time comes.”
Phoebe nodded. If anybody knew the ins and outs of childbirth it was Alafair.
Zeltha threw her arms around her father’s overall-clad knees and he picked her up, while Sophronia and Grace clambered around the fence without any excuse but high spirits.
“Fronie, go get that basket of beans I just picked, and you and Grace take them up to the house and wash and pick them over. I’ll be up in a minute to help you string them.”
The look on Sophronia’s face said that she regretted her ill-timed appearance, but she grabbed Grace’s hand and came through the gate. Rather than complain, she contented herself with making faces at Blanche, who appeared entirely too happy to see her younger sister sentenced to kitchen duty.
Alafair was unconcerned with her offspring’s opinions of their assignments. “Why don’t y’all stay for dinner?” she asked Phoebe. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with all these green beans. Cook up a big mess with fatback, I reckon.”
Phoebe and John Lee exchanged an amused glance. Alafair was transparently tempting Phoebe with one of her favorite dishes. Considering the fact that she could hardly reach her own stove anymore, Phoebe was more than willing to be tempted. She held up the pail. “Well, we were hoping to be invited. I brought over a bucketful of new onions to cream, and there’s half a dozen green tomatoes on top, too.”
John Lee shifted Zeltha on his hip and gestured for the pail. “Give that to me, honey. I’ll take the girls on up to the house before I go find Dad.”
“Him and the boys are out in the cotton patch,” Alafair called to his back as he led the parade of girls up the path toward the farmhouse.
The women followed more slowly, Alafair with her arm over Phoebe’s shoulders and Phoebe with an arm around her mother’s waist. “You reckon Mary and Kurt will come by?” Phoebe asked. “I doubt they will tonight. Chase has been over there since dawn, and Mary likes to cook for her boys. They’ll likely be over
this evening. We can make ice cream.”
“Oh, that sounds good! I declare I need to learn not to be having my babies in the summer. It was such a nice spring after that awful wet winter, but these past few days have been entirely too hot for my liking. Windy, too. I don’t like that unsettled feeling.” “We were lucky to have such a calm spring, sugar. This is Oklahoma, after all. We have to have our wind and dirt. Can’t get away with nice weather for too long.”
“I expect not. So how’s Ruthie like teaching piano lessons?” “Oh, she loves it. And Miz Beckie loves having her there. No wonder, that poor thing rattling around by herself in that big old house. She’s fixed up one of the spare bedrooms just for Ruth, and Ruth spends the night there about half the time now. She told me the house is a bit creaky and dark for her taste, but she stays over because she’s so fond of Miz Beckie and hates to think of her lonely.”
“She still plans to go off to Muskogee to study music next term, doesn’t she?”
Alafair laughed. “Oh, yes. I figure that when Ruth leaves, Miz Beckie will just have to get herself a dog.”
They reached the back porch and Phoebe paused to catch her breath before tackling the steps. “You think Ruth will be here for dinner? I’d surely like to see her.”
Alafair shrugged. “I don’t know, honey. When she left for town this morning, she didn’t mention her plans for today. When it comes to you young’uns, I don’t know anything anymore.”
Here is how it happened that I fell in love with Ruth Tucker.
One of the big regrets of my life has always been that I have no musical talent at all. I can’t carry a tune in a gunny sack, and when I go to sing in church, folks get the awfullest looks of pain on their faces. Never did learn to play an instrument, either, needless to say. But I love music. I love to listen to any beautiful sound, whether it be a lady with a fine singing voice or a chorus of birds on a pretty spring morning. It was that very love of music that set my life on a new course, just a few months before the United States entered the Great War. I was twenty-two years old.
Every morning on my rounds I passed by the Masonic Hall over on Elm Street. On that particular June morning it was hot and sultry, and the windows were open just enough to let in the fresh air. Now, at this time of day there wasn’t generally anybody in the hall except for old Boot Murillo, the caretaker. So I was surprised when I heard piano music coming from the auditorium, and I stopped dead in the road to have a listen. I never did expect any mischief. The hall was always open and anybody could go in there for meetings, or to play checkers, or the like. No, it wasn’t the fact that someone was inside that stopped me in my tracks. It was the beautiful music wafting out of that window like a breeze from heaven. I knew the tune, and could have sung along if I’d had a voice to do it with.
Flow gently, sweet Afton, beside thy green braes Flow gently, sweet Afton, I’ll sing to thee praise My Mary is sleeping beside thy green stream Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.
For the longest time I couldn’t move, waiting for that song to end. It crossed my mind that I was going to be late back to the jailhouse, which I never was, and Scott might wonder where I’d got to. But I couldn’t have left while that music was playing if I’d wanted.
When the last note faded away, my body just sighed of its own accord, and my heart felt so happy that I was determined to find out who had given me such pleasure on a hot morning and tell him so. I walked around to the front door and went right in to the auditorium, where I saw a slim young woman sitting at the old upright piano over in the far corner by the stage. Her back was to me and she was paging through some sheet music, unaware that I had come in.
I couldn’t see her face so it took me a minute to figure out who she was, though I could tell right away that she was one of Gee Dub Tucker’s sisters. Every one of the eight girls in that family had her own look–some of them tall, some short, some red, or dark, or blond, but there were three who had a bunch of wild reddish curls, and this was one of them. The older one of the three was married and living on a farm outside of town, and the youngest was still a little girl, so I realized pretty quick that this was the middle one, Ruth.
I didn’t want to startle her so I cleared my throat, and she turned around on the piano stool.
I was already walking toward her across the wide, wooden floor of the auditorium when she turned to face me. When she smiled, my foot just hung there in the air in mid-step for a second. She looked happy to see me. “Trent Calder! Good morning.
Mr. Murillo told me it’d be all right if I practiced here for a while. I hope I’m not bothering anyone.”
Now, I’d known Ruth Tucker since she was a child. A sweet little old thing, all leggy and coltish, and I expect that’s the way I thought of her until the instant she turned around on that piano seat.
I still think of that moment to this day, the memory as clear as glass even as other memories of my life fade. The hollow sound of my boots on the wooden floor, the dusty, leaf smell of the air coming in through the window. The bright, russet color of those curls that she had wound into a knot at the nape of her neck.
She had the strangest eyes. They were big and turned up at the corners, with red-gold lashes. But the thing that bowled me over on that day was that they were purple. She was wearing a blouse the color of ripe plums, and her eyes were a perfect match. It came to me that she was talking, and I figured I’d better listen in case she required an intelligent answer.
“How are you, Trent? I haven’t seen you in ages.”
I sat down next to her on the piano bench. “I’m just fine. Shoot, I just can’t figure out why I haven’t seen you around much lately. Where have you been keeping yourself?”
“I can’t figure it out, either. Must be that you haven’t been paying attention, because I see you out and about all the time, strutting up and down the street with your six-gun on your hip, rattling the doors on the shops at sunset to make sure they’re all locked.” Her fingers danced over the keys and she glanced at me with those purple eyes. “Every afternoon, you sit for a spell in a chair in front of the jailhouse after dinner and try to look all official, until some little nipper comes along and you run off after him in a game of tag. Makes it hard to take you seriously as the steel-eyed lawman, you know.”
She was ragging on me, I knew, but all I could think was that she had noticed me. Something jiggled in the back of my brain. “I thought you were off in Muskogee studying music! When did you get back?”
She wasn’t about to let me off the hook. “Why, Trent, I haven’t even gone yet. I just went over to Muskogee last week to enroll at the Music Conservatory. I’ll be starting in the fall. For the past few weeks I’ve been staying at Miz Beckie’s off and on and helping with her piano students during the summer.”
Miz Rebecca MacKenzie lived in a big, gloomy house just north of town, right on the road to Tulsa. Everyone called her Miz Beckie. She had taught piano to every church accompanist in the county, except for the Church of Christ folks, of course, who didn’t hold with such things. She had even taught Ted Banner, who played the piano every Friday and Saturday night at the Elliot and Ober motion picture theatre, and as rumor had it, at the Rusty Horseshoe Roadhouse on the other nights of the week. Miz MacKenzie was a good-looking woman with a neat figure and big blue eyes, always dressed to the nines in the latest fash- ion, even on days that she had no notion of leaving the house. She wore her silvery-gold hair pinned high on her head, like a crown. But even if she looked like a queen, she wasn’t haughty.
No, not a bit of it. Her life’s mission was to donate money for public projects, or to help the poor.
Miz MacKenzie sang like an angel, and taught singing as well as piano. Not to me, of course. We couldn’t afford music lessons, so I never learned anything. Even so, she gave all of us who grew up around there a gift that can’t be valued.
“I’m surprised you remember me at all, much less remember that I’ll be studying music.” Ruth sounded a mite put out when she answered me. “All those times you’ve had supper out at the farm with us—who do you think it was sitting at the end of the table, passing you the mashed potatoes? Just one of the mob of Tucker kids, I guess.”
I didn’t say it, but something had sure happened to her over those few months and it didn’t have to do with learning how to teach kids to play the piano. “Well, smack me with a two-by-four, Ruth. I deserve that tongue-lashing, because I must have been blind not to notice you. I promise to pay real close attention to you from this day on.”
She glanced at me again, and her teasing expression faded. She stopped playing and shrugged. “Never mind. Things happen when they’re supposed to, I expect.”
At least I was smart enough to note the change in her tone. I stood up, my hat in my hand. “I’d better get to work. Sure was nice to see you. Next time I get invited out to your folks’, maybe we can have a long talk and catch up.”
She gave me a quirky smile, and I swear there was a look in her eye that said she knew things about me that I didn’t know myself and she wasn’t inclined to educate me anytime soon. “Maybe we can.”
When I turned to leave, my mind was going like a rabbit with a fox after him. I hadn’t been out to the Tucker place for three or four weeks, and I was already scheming how to get myself invited to supper as fast as I could.
How is it that the world can shift like that in the blink of an eye, and things that had been so ordinary and familiar become something you could never have imagined just the moment before?