When I think about that day, Mama, here’s what sticks in my mind. I remember waking up on my back in the middle of the field. All I could see was the sky through the leaves of the oak tree, and grass all around me. At first, I didn’t know where I was, or what had happened to me. But I had a thought. I don’t remember what it was. It was gone just about the minute I woke up.
Yet it was a mighty important thought, and if I could just call it to memory, I’d know who did this awful thing. All I know about this thought is that it had something to do with the Fourth of July.
# # #
It had been a hard couple of years for Calvin Ross, what with his wife dying, his girls growing up before his eyes, and his sister coming to live with them. The town of Boynton was growing so fast that his dairy business could hardly keep up with the demand, and the work was brutal. Calvin was glad of that, though, since it kept his mind off of what the future held for himself and his three pretty daughters. Since their mother died, Calvin was generally chary of any fellow who came around his daughters. But when Laura, his eldest, had told him that she was in love with the McBride boy, he had been pleased.
For red-haired, dark-eyed Bill McBride was not just a respectful and promising young man who had asked for Laura’s hand in the proper fashion, he was the youngest son of that worthy gentleman, Peter McBride, patriarch of one of the more influential clans in Muskogee County, Oklahoma. Bill’s substantial family loved Laura, as well, and it did Calvin’s heart good to see his daughter happy again after the long, sad year that followed her mother’s death.
Therefore, Calvin was not worried when Bill showed up at his farm that hot, windy August evening in 1914, on a fine-looking little roan mare, and asked if Laura could come out for a ride. Bill was accompanied by his twenty-one-year-old niece, Mary Tucker, and Mary’s fifteen-year-old sister Ruth, since it would never do for the betrothed couple to ride out alone. Both of the Tucker girls were on their own horses. The plump and good- natured Mary seemed amused at acting the chaperone for her young uncle, who was only three years her elder. Ruth, looking fresh-faced, her wild auburn curls tucked up under a big straw hat, was as champing-at-the-bit to be off as her steed.
Calvin was glad to give his permission for Laura to go. Her chores were done and Iva, Calvin’s widowed sister and housekeeper, wouldn’t be making supper for at least an hour. Laura would be well chaperoned and well protected, and she was a good rider. The usual riding paths around the area were well used and safe. There was no reason for Calvin Ross to feel the slightest trepidation when his daughter rode off into the evening with her beloved and his nieces. She turned in the saddle as they rode away and waved a cheery good-bye to her father.
# # #
Ruth and Mary Tucker rode ahead of the affianced pair most of the way, though Ruth often headed her blaze-faced gelding off into the woods or trotted up the road and back if it struck her fancy. Mary was content to trot along ten yards or so in front of the couple and think her own happy thoughts, her full calico skirt hitched up over her stockinged knees, her younger brother Gee Dub’s outgrown boots on her feet and his beat-up cowboy hat on her head, admiring the dusky evening and contemplating supper. Time to oneself was rare for the second of ten children. Bill and Laura contentedly rode along behind, knee to knee, and made their plans for the future, only vaguely aware of what the Tucker girls were up to, until Ruth slowed her pace enough to drop back alongside her uncle.
Bill and Laura fell silent and looked over at the girl, curious. “I see a lot of bees, Uncle Bill,” Ruth observed.
“It’s getting evening, Ruthie. They’re heading home.”
“I know it. I see a lot of bees heading home to that particular big old oak up ahead to the right.”
Laura sat up straight in the saddle. “Ruth has sharp eyes, Bill! I see them, too, swarming yonder. I expect there’s a hive in that tree.”
Mary cantered back toward them just in time to hear Laura’s comment. The prospect of an adventure elicited her ready grin. “Want to rob a beehive, Uncle Bill?”
Bill laughed. “Well, let’s see what’s what, first. Maybe there’s a hive worth bothering with up there, and maybe there ain’t.”
The four young people rode up to the big oak, which was situated just off the side of the road in an open area. The dense shade of the old tree discouraged growth under its canopy, so there was plenty of room for all of them to mill around on horseback under- neath and peer up into the branches, looking for a beehive.
“I saw several bees going off up into this area.” Laura pointed to a large branch that joined the trunk fairly high up on the tree. “I don’t think we’re going to see anything for sure from down here. Somebody’s going to have to climb up there.”
“Reckon that’s me.” Bill sidled his horse up next to the trunk and reached up to grasp a limb with both hands. He released his booted feet from the stirrups and nimbly pulled himself up into the foliage. In the effort, his hat was scraped off his head by an errant branch, and Ruth stepped down out of her saddle to retrieve it. Mary reached over her horse’s neck and took his mare’s reins.
Laura lost sight of him for a minute, but could follow his progress by the rustling as he climbed higher into the leaves. Finally, shecaught sight of a flash of red hair halfway out a major limb.
“There’s a hive up here, all right,” Bill called. “A big one, too!
Do you think your daddy would like some honey, Laura?”
“Hey, we want some honey, too,” Ruth protested.
“Don’t worry, Ruthie-girl,” Bill’s voice soothed. “This looks like it’s got enough honey for everybody. You think you can make me a smudge and get it up here?”
“You think you can rob that hive without burning the tree down?” Mary countered.
Bill’s head popped into view as he pushed branches aside with his hand. “Why, I’m wounded by your lack of faith in my abilities, Mary. I’ve smoked out many a beehive in my time and never started a conflagration once.”
Mary was already on the ground with Ruth, hunting for materials of the proper length, texture, and moisture content to make a smoky smudge for calming the bees before stealing their honey. “This tall grass here isn’t green enough…” Mary called out, but before she could finish her thought, a loud crack and a zing cut her off. The horses started.
There was an instant’s silence before Laura said, “What was that?” But all knew very well that it was rifle fire.
“That was close!” Mary exclaimed. “Where did it come from?”
No one had time to speculate before a second shot rang out and hit high up in the oak tree.
Bill yelped in surprise, and Laura called his name, alarmed, while trying to calm her skittish horse. Bill dropped to the ground, tried to stand, but stumbled and went to his knees.
“That coyote is shooting at us.” He sounded calm and deliberate. “Y’all girls get on your horses and ride like the devil. Laura, you too.”
“You’re hit!” Laura wailed, and started to dismount. “Laura!” Bill’s tone was severe enough to startle her. “Do as I say. I ain’t hit bad, just grazed the calf…”
The third shot hit Laura’s horse in the withers. He bucked and reared, and Laura, unprepared, went flying and hit the ground hard. A fourth shot pinged into the ground close to Bill’s feet.
“Ride, you girls, ride!” Bill yelled. “Get help!”
Ruth was in the saddle and racing back up the road as Bill’s last word hung in the air. Mary ran toward her uncle, but he waved her off. “No, Mary, get to Laura. Get her out of here. I’m okay, I can stand.”
Mary paused and took in the situation in a flash. Bill was hit in the leg and struggling to get up. Laura was down in the grass, conscious or not, Mary couldn’t tell, and her horse was skipping and bucking across the meadow with a gunshot wound in its withers. Mary looked off toward the woods, from where she thought the shots had come.
“Can you get to your horse, Bill?” Mary called, as she moved toward Laura.
She never heard the answer. She heard a crack and a hot pain exploded over her left ear, and everything went dark.
# # #
Mary’s mother, Alafair Tucker, stepped out onto the back porch from her kitchen, fanning herself with a dishtowel. The August evening was sweltering, and Alafair had suddenly found herself so uncomfortable in the hot kitchen that she had had to come outside to try and catch a breeze. The sun was just westering, and the family would be clamoring for supper before long.
Her two-year-old, Grace, had followed her into the yard, and was making a beeline for the path to the barn. The children’s house pet, an elderly yellow shepherd named Charlie-dog, was close on her heels. Alafair puffed, distracted by the child’s break for freedom. Ever since one of the barn cats had had kittens, it was nearly impossible to keep Grace away from them.
“Grace…” she called, but just as the child stepped out of the gate, the big red rooster, master of the family flock, rose up from nowhere, a miniature demon out of the ground, squawking, spurs at the ready and wings ablur, and jumped at Grace. The dog yipped and beat a hasty retreat.
Alafair started as Grace shrieked and made an about-face back toward the house, narrowly escaping a flogging. Alafair lengthened her stride and scooped the child up into her arms and banged the back gate shut in the rooster’s face. She hadn’t seen him among the other chickens scratching in the dirt close to the yard.
Grace let out a wail, but Alafair could tell she was startled rather than injured, and she patted the toddler’s leg. “It’s all right,” she soothed. “That old rooster didn’t hurt you. He was just trying to protect his family.”
Grace sniffled, her eyes round as dollars, but she was comforted by her mother’s assurance that she wasn’t hurt. “Bad rooster,” she pronounced.
Or at least that was what her mother understood, given that she was as yet unable to articulate the letter “r.”
“Yes, that woostoo is bad.” Alafair glanced down at the dog, who was cowering at her feet. “You’re a fine protector.” Her voice was heavy with irony, and the dog slunk off to nurse his shame in solitude. She wondered absently why the usually placid old rooster had suddenly taken to flogging anyone who crossed his path, but the thought didn’t engage her for long. She adjusted Grace on her hip and let her gaze wander into the distance.
She had no reason to think so, but Alafair knew something was wrong. She had been stirring the soup pot when she felt it, the disturbance in the rightness of things. She was anxious now, for no good reason, she knew. Even so, she began to tick off her family members in her mind, placing the whereabouts of each child, and her children’s father. She knew exactly where each was supposed to be, and what he or she was supposed to be doing. She didn’t worry about Mary and Ruth any more than the others. They were with their Uncle Bill, who knew how to take care of anything that might arise.
She was just turning to go back into the kitchen when she heard a sound on the wind that caused her to pause. It sounded like a woman moaning. She blinked and listened for a minute, not sure of what she was hearing. It was the wind sighing through the elms around the house, but it was something else, as well. A woman crying, she was sure. Her heart leaped. She turned to go back into the house to send her youngest son, Charlie-boy, to fetch his father, when she heard the horse galloping up the drive from the road.
# # #
My head was aching something powerful, and though I didn’t have any idea about what had happened to me, I knew I was hurt. I wondered if maybe my horse had thrown me on my head. It came to me that I had been out riding with somebody. I was getting little pictures in my mind that didn’t line up. I saw Ruth tearing out at a gallop like Beelzebub himself was after her. That’s what came to me, Mama, that the Devil was loose. Laura was there. I got a flash of her dun gelding rearing up and her going a-flying. I remembered Bill, then, up in the tree. Something about craving honey. Robbing a beehive.
# # #
Mary swam up from unconsciousness with an effort. The first thing she was clearly aware of was the loud whir of cicadas, and at first she was comforted by the familiar sound. The burning feeling over her ear sharpened her senses, and she raised her hand to her head and opened her eyes at the same time. She found herself lying on her back in a cradle of grass, staring at the darkening sky through a fan of oak leaves. Her honey blond hair had mostly escaped from its long braid, and her head was spinning, and ached like blazes. The fingers that had touched the sore spot on her temple were bloody. She peered at them, perplexed, unable to remember for a moment where she was or what had happened. She raised her head just enough to peer over the grass. Bill’s filly and Laura’s gelding were grazing quietly under the oak tree. Mary could see a trickle of blood running down the gelding’s withers. He was favoring that rear leg, but from what Mary could tell, the horse was only creased. Everything else in the small meadow was quiet. Neither Laura nor Bill was anywhere to be seen.
Mary stretched up on her knees, then slowly got to her feet. The late summer grass rustled in the desultory breeze. The cicadas were deafening, which made her head ache more than it already did. She took a tentative step, then another. The mare lifted her head to look at the young woman, then resumed grazing.
Mary didn’t walk very far before she saw the red hair in the grass, under the oak tree on the opposite side of the trunk. She forgot caution and her pounding head and ran to the prone form under the branches. She fell to her knees beside her uncle and put her hand on his back. He was lying with his face turned toward the tree and both arms flung out over his head, very close to where she had seen him last. It was late in the evening, now, and the light was fading fast, but Mary could see well enough to know that he was dead. The dark, matted, sticky place in his coppery hair showed plain enough that the bullet had caught him in the back of the head and laid him out instantly.
Mary was so dumbfounded that it took her a few minutes to realize that the whimpering, sobbing noises she was hearing were coming from her. She sat back on her heels and looked around. The sun was down and the light was nearly gone. The heavy August air had stilled and the dry grass and leaves had quieted. The only sounds were the relentless cicadas and the intermittent movement of the horses. She stood up and dried her eyes on her skirt tail before she began a methodical examination of the meadow. She fully expected to find Laura lying dead in the tall grass, but she did not. She could tell by the way the grass and undergrowth was crushed and broken that there had been a lot of activity in the clearing since the four of them had ridden up to rob a beehive. There was a wide trail going off into the woods to the west that had not been there when Ruth had ridden off.
Mary considered following the path of disturbed grass into the woods to look for Laura, but hesitated when she heard the scuffle of some small animal off to her right. She stood still for several minutes, listening to the night critters come alive. She turned around and caught sight of Bill, just a dark shape on the ground now, and choked back a fresh spate of tears.
She couldn’t leave him, now, not with the scavengers coming out and him lying there all dead and stretched out under the oak. She settled herself on the ground next to her uncle’s body, to keep him safe until help came.
# # #
Mary sat by herself in the dark for what seemed to her a long time before she heard a horse galloping up the road toward the clearing. The moon had not yet risen, so she could not tell whether the man who guided his horse off the road toward her was coming to help her or not. She hunkered down in the tall grass a yard or two from Bill’s cold form, unwilling to reveal herself, until the rider halted in the middle of the clearing and called, “Laura!”
Mary stood up. “Mr. Ross. Over here.”
“Laura?” Calvin Ross repeated. Mary could just see his head turn toward the sound of her voice.
“It’s Mary Tucker, Mr. Ross, just under the oak tree, here.
Can you see me?”
Calvin swung down out of the saddle and took a few steps toward her. “Mary?” he ventured. “Where is Laura? Where are Laura and Bill? Your sister came riding up to the house like old Nick hisself was after her and said somebody was shooting at you here at the big oak. I come as fast as I could. Where is Laura? Are y’all all right?”
Mary started to cry again. “Laura’s gone, Mr. Ross. I don’t know where Laura is, but Uncle Bill is shot dead.”
Calvin stiffened. “Shot.”
“Ruth rode to get help but I must have got grazed. By the time I came to, Uncle Bill was dead and Laura was gone. I think whoever did it took her, Mr. Ross. There’s a trail through the grass there that leads off into the woods. I think she must have fought him.”
Calvin said nothing. He asked her no questions, offered no speculation or comfort. He mounted his horse, pulled his shotgun from its holster on his saddle, and headed off into the woods, leaving the weeping young woman standing alone in the dark.
Chances may have been slim that Calvin would find Laura by plunging into the dark woods by himself, but Mary was not surprised that he did it. There was nothing he could do to help
Bill, now, and every minute that passed, the trail to his daughter grew colder. Mary settled back down on the ground, waiting for Ruth to come with the sheriff.
# # #
Calvin’s hoofbeats faded into silence, and the crickets joined the chorus of cicadas as the night deepened. Mary wished she had some light, and she felt some anxiety that a big cat might catch the smell of blood, but she wasn’t particularly afraid to sit there on the ground in the dark next to a dead body. Even if the spirits of the dead wandered the earth, like her half-Cherokee grandmother believed, Uncle Bill would never hurt her. He had been her favor- ite uncle, after all. He was by far the youngest of her aunts and uncles, only a couple of years older than Mary herself. He had always been patient with all his many young nieces and nephews, and the best fun to be around. She had often played duets with him, he on the mandolin, she on the fiddle. She reached out and put her hand on his back. She could feel through his shirt that he was cold, and lifeless as a stone. Once, she remembered, he had held still for a quarter of an hour while she and her sisters had counted his freckles…
A man’s voice saying her name caused Mary to start and jump to her feet. The sudden movement caused her aching head to spin and her vision to blur, and she reeled, clutching at the trunk of the oak tree to keep from falling. Someone grasped her arm, and she shrieked and tried to jerk away.
“Miss Mary, Miss Mary,” the man said again. His voice was familiar. He seemed familiar altogether, hovering over her, holding her arm gently. She stopped struggling, suddenly aware that he was trying to help her. She blinked and her vision cleared enough to recognize her would-be rescuer.
“Kurt,” she managed.
Kurt Lukenbach was one of her father’s hired men, a German immigrant and an expert horse trainer and smith. He was an enormously tall young man with clear blue eyes and light brown hair. A scar, white against the tan of his face, ran down his left cheek from the corner of his eye to his jaw, but rather than mar his looks, it was rather rakish. As long as Mary had known him, Kurt had been exceptionally quiet and reticent, but Mary was quite fond of him even so. When Mary’s father Shaw Tucker had hired him more than a year earlier, his English was barely understandable, and she had enjoyed helping him firm up his grip on the language.
“I meet Mr. Ross on the road,” Kurt was saying to her. “I just was walking home from town when I hear that something has happened here in the clearing. Lieber Gott, Miss Mary, you are hurt! Sit down here…” He paused, and Mary felt his body stiffen as she leaned against him for support. He had seen Bill. He didn’t ask her anything. He urged her around to the other side of the tree trunk and sat her down on the ground. Then he pulled a bandanna from his back pocket and pressed it against her wound.
She became aware that she could hear the sounds of several men on horseback riding toward them from the road. She could hear them talking as they grew near, and she could identify the voices of her father’s cousin, Sheriff Scott Tucker, and his deputy Trent Calder. Her vision was too blurry and the dusk too deep for her to identify the first horseman to crash through the brush, but Kurt murmured, “Micah.” Another of Shaw Tucker’s horse trainers, another friend of Mary’s. By ones and twos, half a dozen or so other men followed him in quick succession. Ruth was not with the group, as far as Mary could see, but she was surprised to hear the voice of her grandfather, Bill’s father, Peter McBride.
The sheriff must have stopped by Grandpapa Peter’s farm for reinforcements. Mary recognized two of the men who were carrying torches as Grandpapa’s hired hands. Her heart curdled. Cousin Scott had no idea what he was leading Grandpapa into.
The horsemen rode into the clearing and spread out, calling for Bill, and Laura, and for Mary, but there was such a lump in her throat that Mary couldn’t reply, try as she might. It was Kurt who stood up and called to the sheriff.
Sheriff Scott Tucker drew a breath to call out to the others, but hesitated when he realized what he was seeing by the light of the torch that his deputy was holding. The look that crossed his face caused Mary to sob, and Scott dismounted quickly and knelt down beside her. Kurt deferentially moved away.
Scott felt Mary’s face and head. He pulled the bandanna away from her temple so he could inspect the oozing wound. “Who shot you, Mary?”
Still unable to speak, she shook her head, and Scott enfolded her in an embrace. While she cried, the sheriff reached out one hand and tentatively examined the hideous wound at the back of Bill’s head. He looked up at Trent, who wordlessly remounted his horse and rode across the meadow to inform Peter McBride.
“Mary, honey,” Scott said, “listen to me, now. I sent Ruth on home to get your daddy. Your daddy will be here directly, honey, and then you can go home. Can you stop crying and tell me what happened? Who shot Bill, baby girl? Where is Laura? Do you know who done this?”
With a giant effort of will, Mary swallowed the lump in her throat. She pushed away from Scott and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I don’t know, Cousin Scott. I tried to see who was shooting but a bullet knocked me cold before I could see anything. All I know is that it came from over there. Then when I came around I found Uncle Bill shot. I don’t know where Laura is. Her daddy rode through here a while ago. I don’t know how long. I’ve lost track of time. But he tore off looking for her. Then Kurt showed up and helped me.” To her own surprise, she began to weep yet again. She would have thought that she had shed every tear she possibly could.
Scott hugged her and patted her back soothingly. “All right, sugar, all right. We’ll talk later. Listen, I think I hear your daddy coming right now.”
But all Mary heard was her grandfather, across the meadow, make a sound so full of grief that it sent chills up her spine.