Something bad was bound to happen. It was just that kind of hot, humid, Oklahoma July day, with a gritty wind that blew everything awry. Fifteen-year-old George Washington Tucker, known as Gee Dub, hunkered on the grassy, overgrown banks of Cane Creek, grimly hanging on to his fishing pole, trying to ignore the sweltering heat and the clouds of gnats, mosquitoes, and various other disgusting critters who were trying to fly up his nose and into his eyes and drink the salt off of his sweat-slick skin. The hot wind was maddening, the way it blew first out of the north, then out of the southwest, then died and dropped his damp, black curls into his eyes. At least when it picked up again, it blew the gnats away for a few seconds. And it wasn’t even quite noon, that was the sad thing.
Normally Gee Dub loved fishing, since he was a contemplative boy. He loved thinking about what his mother was going to do with the little perch or crappie, or occasional catfish, that he would catch. Oh, how good they would taste, rolled in cornmeal and fried quickly in bacon grease until the tender white flesh was encased in a golden crust. Having to eat the fish slowly, so slowly, and chew so carefully to avoid swallowing one of the hundreds of tiny bones only enhanced the dining experience.
But today, the joy of fishing was ruined not just by the worrisome weather, but by Gee Dub’s eleven-year-old brother, Charlie, and Charlie’s ever-present canine companion, Charlie-dog.
Charlie-boy had insisted on going swimming. Gee Dub had sent him and his dog as far downstream as he could and still keep an eye on them, but it was no good. All his splashing and jumping and hollering had spooked the fish, and there would be no fried fish for dinner. Gee Dub was bereft.
He could hear Charlie yelling at him, “Look at me, Gee, look at me!” But Gee Dub didn’t look. He didn’t want to encourage the boy. Charlie was climbing up into a young cottonwood, crawling out onto a wayward branch that hung over the creek, and dropping himself off into the middle of the water with a whoop. He must have done it ten times, with the dog running up and down, barking the whole time, and Gee Dub had just about had enough. The weather was getting hotter, the fishing was bad, and Charlie was driving him right ’round the bend. He pulled in his line.
Suddenly there was a crack of noise as loud as a rifle shot, and a splash, and Gee Dub leaped where he sat. He looked downstream, wide eyed. Charlie was nowhere to be seen. The yellow shepherd was leaping and barking frantically on the bank. Gee Dub jumped to his feet and scanned the creek bank anxiously. No skinny, naked little boy. Just a fairly large cottonwood branch floating away from him in the middle of the water. Gee Dub’s heart fell into his stomach, and he started running toward the broken tree, hollering for Charlie.
He was already barefoot, so he didn’t have to worry about taking off his shoes when he dove headlong into the murky water near the last place he had seen his brother. The water wasn’t very deep, but it was impossible to see anything, so he groped along the slimy bottom with his hands, until he couldn’t stay under anymore and exploded to the surface with a gasp. He flung his dark hair out of his eyes with a toss of his head and scanned the bank again. No boy, but the dog had joined him in the water and was dog paddling around in a circle close to a tangle of cottonwood roots. Gee Dub struck out toward the dog.
“Charlie!” he yelled.
Out from under the cottonwood roots, next to the bank, a boy’s voice responded, “Here, Gee Dub.”
Gee Dub’s arm paused in mid-stroke, and he grew faint with relief right there in the water. Just as he reached the undercut bank, Charlie’s blond head popped up from under the root tangle, practically in Gee Dub’s face. Gee Dub was so glad that the child was alive that, for a second, he forgot to be angry and reached out to hug him. When his hands touched Charlie’s bare shoulders, he shook him instead.
“What in the turkey feet do you think you’re doing…” “Gee Dub,” Charlie gasped, “there’s somebody dead down there.”
“You’re lucky it ain’t you, you punkin-head,” Gee Dub spat, too angry to listen. He climbed onto the bank and tried to heave the boy up after him, but Charlie resisted.
“No, no,” Charlie sputtered, as he crawled out of the water on his own. “Listen to me. I’m telling you there’s a drowneded woman stuck up there under them branches. I was on the tree and the limb broke and I fell down there and I felt her long hair and her face!”
Gee Dub hesitated. By this time Charlie was out of the creek and dancing with excitement on the grass. Gee Dub, sitting on the ground with his feet still in the water, wiped his hair out of his face. “You’re just imagining things.”
“I ain’t, I ain’t, I ain’t,” Charlie exclaimed hysterically. “Go down and see! I swear it’s true. Go down and see for yourself, Gee.”
Charlie’s manic certainty gave Gee Dub pause, and he grabbed the boy’s arm to settle him down. “All right,” he soothed. “I’ll dive under there just to hush you up, even though it’s probably just a old dead goat and I’ll get the pox or something and it’ll be all your fault.”
“Gee Dub!” Charlie wailed.
“All right! Mercy! You stay right here and don’t twitch a toe. I mean it, now.” He looked back over his shoulder at the shepherd. “Dog,” he ordered imperiously, “you watch this here boy.”
Gee Dub slipped back into the water, took a deep breath, and ducked under the roof of cottonwood roots. He could see nothing, of course. The water was a grey-green swirl of dappled light and shade, cooler under the branches. The slimy mud squished between his bare toes. It was just the kind of sheltered place in which a big old catfish would love to lurk, or a nest of water moccasins, and Gee Dub shuddered in spite of himself. He swung his arms tentatively through the water a couple of times, hitting a branch or two and the muddy bank. Then his fingers passed through what he at first thought was floating vegetation. Fine floating weeds. He swung his hand back, and his fingers tangled. Hair. He resisted an urge to gasp, just releasing a couple of bubbles. He brought his fingers to his face, close enough to confirm that they were entangled in what looked like long, dark hair. Please, Jesus, let it be some old mule tail, he prayed, even though he knew it wasn’t. Nervously, he let his hand follow the hair through the dark water, until it lighted on a smooth, cool dome. His heart was thumping so hard that it hurt. He felt a forehead, eyebrows, ears, a nose.
Gee Dub backed himself out from under the roots as fast as he could move and flung himself up to the surface. He took a couple of gulps of air to calm himself. “Charlie,” he said evenly, “run home as fast as you can and get Daddy.”
“I was right,” Charlie declared. He was breathless with excitement.
“I think so,” Gee Dub admitted. “Now, run! Run!”
But Charlie was already ten yards across the field, with the dog at his heels.
# # #
An hour later, Gee Dub was standing in the creek up to his chest beside the cottonwood roots, waiting for his father and the sheriff to come to the surface and either confirm or deny his find. On the bank, Gee Dub could see Charlie, wrapped in such a big blanket that he was nothing but a tousled head and dirty splayed feet, watching eagerly. Standing close behind Charlie was their mother, Alafair. Gee Dub couldn’t see her face well, since it was shaded by a blue poke bonnet, but she was stand- ing stiffly with one hand on Charlie’s shoulder and one hand on her hip. The front of her calico apron was bulging with Gee Dub’s latest sibling.
The three watchers stirred when Shaw Tucker surfaced calmly, followed by his cousin, Sheriff Scott Tucker. Shaw wiped his hair back with both hands and used two fingers to flick the water out of his drooping black mustache. He turned toward the bank.
“Charlie, Martha is coming up the path now with a couple of mules. You run to meet her and ride back to the house and bring me a length of rope.”
“Is it a body, Daddy?” Charlie said. “Looks like it.”
Charlie turned to run, but Alafair caught his arm. “Put your britches on first,” she instructed. “I don’t think the neighbor ladies would appreciate seeing the same naked little jay bird that come running up to the house just lately.”
Charlie sputtered, then laughed a little with embarrassment and rushed off into the bushes to retrieve his overalls.
“Ain’t Martha bringing rope?” Gee Dub asked his father. “She is.” Shaw kept his voice low. “But I want him away when we bring up the body.”
“Is it bad?” Gee Dub wondered with dread.
“Don’t know, Gee,” the sheriff told him. “Bad enough.” After Charlie was off and Gee Dub’s oldest sister, twenty-year-old Martha, had arrived riding on the extra mule with the equipment, the two men struggled for several minutes to free the tightly wedged body from its prison of roots. Finally, after hacking away some of the growth with an ax, the men managed to pull the poor soul free and manhandle her sodden form up onto the bank. Alafair, unwilling to expose her coming baby to a shock, turned her back and refused to look.
“Is it bad, like Gee Dub wondered?” she asked Martha, who was standing next to her mother and watching with an expression that was a mixture of interest and repulsion.
“Like Scott said, it’s bad enough, Ma. Her hands… Well, it looks like the fish were beginning to nibble on her fingers a little bit, but her face is all of a piece, still. She’s puffy-faced, real white skin, purple marks on her face. I can’t tell if she’s bruised or if the purpling is from the water. She’s a big woman. Hard to say how old she is. She does have lots of long brown hair all loose around her shoulders. She’s dressed kind of nice, in a blue shirtwaist with a dark pattern on the front, and some kind of big white button.”
“Can you tell who she is?”
There was a moment’s silence while Martha studied the bloated face. Then Alafair felt her straighten. “Why, Ma,” Martha exclaimed, “it’s Miz Kelley!”
In spite of herself, Alafair glanced back over her shoulder. “Miz Kelley? The barber’s wife? Miz Kelley has drowned in Cane Creek?”
Scott and Shaw were bending over the body in a cursory examination, and Scott sat back on his heels when he overheard Alafair’s question. “This woman didn’t drown, Alafair,” he observed. “This dark pattern Martha mentioned is a bloodstain, and the white button is a knife with a carved bone handle, sticking right out of her chest. Looks like she’s been stabbed in the heart.”