The Sky Took Him: An Alafair Tucker Mystery #4

The Sky Took Him: An Alafair Tucker Mystery #4

It’s a sad duty that brings Alafair Tucker to Enid, Oklahoma, in the fall of 1915. Her sister Ruth Anna’s husband, Lester, is not long for this world, and the ...

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Donis Casey

Donis Casey is the author of nine Alafair Tucker Mysteries: The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, Hornswoggled, The Drop Edge ...


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Monday, September 13, 1915

The train out of Muskogee was very nearly empty. Alafair Tucker settled into a seat and lifted her youngest daughter, Grace, onto her lap. Her eldest, Martha, unburdened herself of the luggage by cramming it into the overhead racks. She sat down opposite her mother and sighed, relieved to be off her feet at last.

“I have to go potty,” Grace informed them grandly. Both Alafair and Martha burst into laughter.

Martha stood up and extended her arms. “I’ll take her, Ma.” “No, you just sit there, hon. You’ve been toting the luggage ever since we left Boynton. Your arms must be about pulled off.”

“I don’t mind. I need to stretch. Grace probably doesn’t have to go, anyway. She just likes to inspect the toilets in every new place she finds herself.”

The three-year-old was affronted by the suggestion. “I do too have to potty!”

Martha nodded. “I know, sugar. And you’ll have to go again when we change trains in the City.”

“Y’all can go, but be sure and don’t touch anything in there, Martha. Why, you don’t know who all’s been in there doing heaven knows what. And be sure and put plenty of paper on the seat.” By this time, Alafair was admonishing the girls’ retreating backs. “And wash your hands!”

Martha gave her a lazy wave of acknowledgment without turning. Alafair leaned back and gazed out the window as the train slowly moved out of the Muskogee station. It began to pick up speed as it left town and began the long, straight haul toward Oklahoma City.

After the girls disappeared, Alafair took an envelope out of her bag. She eyed her name written in a spidery hand on the front for a moment before she withdrew the creased and often read letter and began to peruse it for the dozenth time.

 

Dearest Alafair,                               Sept. 5, 1915

I hope this letter finds you well. I am writing to you because trouble has befallen us, Dearest Sister. As you know, my beloved Husband Lester has been suffering with a greevus illness for a long time now, and Doctor Lamerton has informed us just lately that poor Lester is not long for this world. I take comfort that long ago Lester accepted Jesus as his Savier and when his time comes he will be gathered to the bosom of the Lord.

Our sad vigil has been made worse because our son-in-law, Olivia’s husband Kenneth, has undertaken to go on a trip to the No Man’s Land in order to meet with an important client. I have come to rely so on Kenneth since Lester has been ailing, and his absence is distressing in this time of trouble. Mr. Beams and Olivia have done their best to keep the warehouse and shipping business running smoothly, and me and my serving girl Lu have been caring for my beloved grandson while she does so, as well as seeing to my poor husband’s needs. I am plum wore out, and I am missing the help and comfort of Kenneth’s manly presence.

I am distrait, Sister, as you can well imagine. I wish that Kenneth had not had to take hisself off on the eve of Lester’s death. Lester has no family but ours, and he loves Kenneth like the son we never had. It will be mighty sad if he goes to meet Jesus before Kenneth returns. I have asked our Mother and Father to come from Lone Ellum to be with us, but they cannot come here for a while yet. I have also wrote to our Brother George and Sister Elizabeth, and I write to you, as well, Alafair, asking that you join us here in Enid for a spell, if you can. I expect you need not stray long from home. Lester is so weak that by the time you get this letter, he may already have gone to the gates of Heaven.

Please come, Dear Alafair, so Lester may see your welcome face one last time. I know this is a busy time on the farm, so if you cannot come, please join us in prayers for Lester’s eternal rest.

Your Loving Sister Ruth Ann Yeager

 Alafair replaced the letter into its envelope and slipped it into her purse before she resumed staring out the window. She didn’t look forward to the inevitably depressing visit with her sister, though it never occurred to her to demur. She knew from her own bitter experience that during a crisis, nothing could shore up a person like having her family around her.

Ruth Ann had been right about one thing, though. It was a bad time to leave the farm. Harvest was still going on, and school had started not long before, which robbed Alafair’s husband Shaw of a large part of his workforce. Two of Alafair and Shaw’s ten children were married with homes of their own, two had paying jobs in town, and one had just recently begun college. But of the seven who still lived at home, all but Grace were old enough to have their own responsibilities.

She stared absently at the brown country passing by. A long, dry summer was coming to an end, and everything looked tired and thirsty, drooping in the dusty heat. Still, there was a smell on the wind, a heaviness in the atmosphere which told Alafair that a change was on the way. Her half-Cherokee mother-in-law was predicting a very cold winter. The squirrels were storing nuts in August and the bark on the trees was particularly thick this year. Grandma Sally was seldom wrong about these things, and Alafair had already begun putting by extra fuel.

The train made a long turn to the northwest, and Martha’s hat slid languidly from one end of the seat she had vacated to the other. Alafair retrieved the hat and placed it in her lap. She was glad that Martha had volunteered to join her on this trip. Not only was Martha an excellent traveling companion and good company, but having her along as a babysitter had made it possible to bring Grace. Though she was sure that her older children were perfectly capable of caring for the child for the few days that Alafair would be away, Grace was not quite three, and had never been apart from her mother for any length of time.

As happy as she was to have Martha along, Alafair was surprised that she would consent to take two weeks off from her job as secretary to Mr. Bushyhead, manager of the First National Bank of Boynton. She was even more surprised that Mr. Bushyhead would let Martha go for so long. In the three years that Martha had worked at the bank, she had made herself indispensable. That fact did not surprise Alafair in the least. Martha was the most naturally efficient person she had ever known.

Grace pounded down the aisle with Martha close on her heels, and threw herself across her mother’s lap, full of news.

“It’s beautiful, Mama. Martha put paper all around the seat.” She was frantically pulling imaginary paper off a roll, hand over hand, and padding an imaginary circle with it. Alafair was amused. Martha must have lined the seat six inches deep with paper, if Grace’s pantomime bore any relation to reality. “And then after I pottied, Martha lifted me up so’s I could pull this long chain! It made this big ‘whushhhh’ and water come down and a hole opened up and we could see the ground. There was tracks going by like ‘shupshupshup.’ I couldn’t hardly see them they was so fast!” She illustrated by flicking her eyes back and forth, then she hugged Alafair’s knees. “I wasn’t scared.”

“She reckoned that she might fall in and never be seen again,” Martha interjected, “but we finally came to the conclusion that she’s too big to fit through the hole.”

“Did you wash your hands?”

Grace nodded emphatically. “Yes a hundred times. We turned a iron handle and water came out of the faucet, but we didn’t have to pump at all.”

Alafair looked up at Martha, who had resumed her seat opposite. “You didn’t use the soap that was in there, did you?”

Martha shot her an ironic look, then reached into her bag and pulled out a little wooden box, which Alafair knew contained a bar of her own homemade soft yellow soap. “You’ve ruined me, Ma, I hope you know. I’m unable to use a bar of soap unless I personally know who made it.”

If Martha was teasing her, Alafair missed it. “You can’t be too careful.”

By this time, Grace had pasted her nose to the window and was engrossed in watching the country rush by at the blazing speed of fifty miles an hour. Alafair handed Martha her hat and sat back as comfortably as she could in the horsehair-padded wooden seat. She wished she had a pillow for her back. It was going to be a long trip to Oklahoma City.

She eyed Martha thoughtfully. “I’m glad you decided to come with me on this trip. I’m not much looking forward to it.”

“I hope Grandma and Grandpa make it while we’re there. I haven’t seen them for a good long while.”

When she was little, Martha had been particularly close to Grandpa Gunn. But for the past few years, Martha hadn’t seen eye to eye with her opinionated and extremely self-assured grandfather on a number of things, and when she was in his company she tended to bite her tongue a lot. Alafair let the comment go. “I doubt if they’ll make it to Enid before we have to leave. Maybe after things are settled with your aunt Ruth Ann, Grandma and Grandpa can come down our way for a spell. I wouldn’t think Mr. Bushyhead much likes you being gone for such a long while. I had about decided that bank can’t run without you.”

Martha puffed a laugh. “It can’t, hardly. Mr. Bushyhead and Uncle Jack may know all there is to know about loans and investments and the like, but neither one of them could find his way out of tow sack with a compass. Well, they’ll appreciate me even more when I get back.”

“Still, I’m surprised you’d want to be away so long, the way you enjoy that work.”

“Mr. Bushyhead understood when I told him about Uncle Lester dying and Kenneth up and taking off and all.”

“I know, honey. It’s just that you’ve been acting like there’s something on your mind lately. Is there something troubling you?”

Martha’s gaze shifted away from the window to her mother’s face. She smiled. “I figured you’d be asking me that before long. You can smell a troubled mind like a hunting dog smells a trail.”

“Just with you kids. Is it Streeter McCoy?”

Martha’s cheeks reddened. She was silent for a long minute while she considered her reply. Why, oh why, oh why was she surprised that Alafair had asked her that question? There was no keeping secrets from her mother. Aside from the fact that Alafair could apparently read her children’s minds, she had a spy network that any government in the world would envy, the prime recruits of which included Martha’s nine blabbermouth brothers and sisters. “What makes you think that?”

“Your Uncle Jack told Aunt Josie that Streeter McCoy has been coming around to the bank an awful lot for a man with no particular business to discuss. Said he shows up around noontime, checks his account, which ain’t changed since the day before, and, ‘oh, by the way, Miss Martha, if you’re not doing anything for luncheon, I’m on my way to Williams’ Drug Store for a bite, and I sure would admire some company.’”

Martha laughed, but she didn’t look very happy. “Uncle Jack has too busy an imagination, Ma. There’s nothing to be said about Streeter Donald McCoy, believe me.”

The flush that colored her cheeks belied her words. But Alafair’s mothersense would have detected the disturbance in the ether around her daughter even if Martha had been the coolest liar on the face of the earth. She opened her mouth to probe further.

When it came to her mother, however, Martha had some extra- sensory abilities of her own. She executed a preemptive maneuver. “Kenneth picked a bad time to go on a business trip, didn’t he?” Alafair swallowed her question. She was aware of what had just happened, but it wasn’t necessary to pursue this now. She was perfectly confident that a better opportunity would arise later. “Oh, I don’t know. I know your aunt and uncle think a bunch of Kenneth, but that young’un never did have a lick of sense, to my way of thinking. I don’t know what sort of ‘busi- ness trip’ he went on, but I’ll bet you that he just couldn’t stand being around all that sorrow and sickness one more minute and decided to take a little vacation from it. I swear, Olivia has the patience of a saint to have put up with his inconsiderate behavior these past couple of years.”

“Well, he’s affectionate to her, and a good daddy to that child. But he does take her good nature for granted, that’s straight, and just between you and me, Ma, she’s not as happy about his behavior as she lets on, if I’m reading her letters right. He’s spoiled, is my opinion. Thinks the sun and stars revolve around him. Uncle Lester and Aunt Ruth Ann have never done anything to disabuse him of the notion, either. To hear them tell it, the sun shines right out of his posterior.”

Alafair didn’t know the word “posterior,” but she got the picture. “Martha!” She tried to look shocked, but laughed instead, a victim of her love for a good phrase.

“Posterior,” Grace repeated, without removing her nose from the window.

“Now see what you’ve done?” Alafair chided, trying hard to keep the laughter out of her voice.

# # #

Martha had brought along a book to amuse herself, but Alafair spent most of the trip gazing out the window while at the same time trying to keep an eye on an excited and energetic three-year-old. At the moment, Grace was bouncing up and down the aisles, stopping occasionally to engage some willing adult in animated conversation about herself and her first train ride.

A well-dressed elderly gentleman lifted the child onto his knee, the better to hear her story. He scanned the other passengers until he caught sight of Alafair’s weather eye on the girl. They exchanged a smile and a nod before Alafair leaned her elbow on the arm of the seat, absently watching for any sign that  Grace was beginning to bother the old man and his enchanted wife, who had taken the child’s hand and leaned in close.

“You sure look to be enjoying that book,” she observed to Martha, without taking her eyes off of Grace. “What is it?”

Martha didn’t look up. “Pudd’nhead Wilson. It’s by Mark Twain.

I like just about anything of his I can get my hands on.” Alafair chuckled. “I like the title.”

“His work is always a mix of funny and serious. This one is about a trial. It’s real interesting. You should read it when I get done.”

“Now, when would I ever get time to read a book, sugar?”

Martha finally lifted her eyes from the page and scrutinized her mother. “Oh, Ma, you wouldn’t read a book even if you had the time, and you ought to. You know, you’ll probably be sitting with Uncle Lester a bunch while we’re there. Olivia wrote that he likes to be read to—maybe he’d enjoy this. You can read it to him.”

“Maybe I ought. I’m such a bad out-loud reader that my voice would put him right to sleep.” Her comment was offhand and absent, since she was still intent on keeping an eye on Grace’s antics. Martha shook her head and returned to her book.

# # #

Alafair became aware that the train was slowing long before she could see any settlement. The look of the country had changed drastically once they had pulled out of Oklahoma City, from rolling wooded hills to the endless grassy expanse of the Great Plains. As they neared Enid, the wild sea of grass had been long replaced with vast wheat fields, newly plowed and planted at this time of year. Alafair awoke the drowsing three-year-old on her lap and began to pull on the child’s shoes.

As soon as the train pulled to a stop, Martha stood and reached for their luggage on the overhead rack. The bustle in the car increased as the other passengers did likewise, adjusted their hats and coats, and began to move in a desultory line toward the exits.

Alafair sat for a moment to let the car clear a bit before she made her move, though Grace was pulling on her hand in a rush to get on with this adventure. “Look out here, shug.” She lifted the little girl bodily and plunked her down before the window. “Did you ever see so many folks all at one time? And look yonder! There’s your cousin Olivia waiting for us. Look, Martha. She looks good. She came to fetch us herself, and she don’t look broke up. I’m guessing her dad is still alive and that Kenneth has showed up. That’s a nice bonnet she has on.”

She continued prattling on in order to distract the girls for a couple of minutes, but she wasn’t really paying much attention to her own words. She was always awed in spite of herself whenever she came to Enid. Enid was one of the Oklahoma Territory towns that had literally sprung up overnight after the Cherokee Strip land run. On September 15, 1893, the prairie was devoid of habitation. On September 16, Enid was a fully formed town of five thousand souls. Now, as the town readied itself to celebrate the twenty-second anniversary of its found- ing, it boasted a population of nearly twenty thousand people and was the fourth-biggest city in the state, after Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Muskogee. Alafair could barely imagine such a number, and since the Founders’ Day Jubilee was in a couple of days, the population would be swelling with visitors from all around Garfield County, and in fact, the entire Cherokee Strip. The noise and perpetual motion of the busy town literally made her dizzy.

The car had emptied enough to allow easy movement, and the three of them picked their way through the humanity and onto the platform where a thin, dark blond, bespectacled young woman in a mauve suit with a matching hat was jumping up and down and waving to get their attention. “Aunt Alafair, Martha!”

Martha set one of the suitcases down on the platform and waved back. “Here we are, Olivia.”

Olivia squeezed her way between a prosperously hefty couple and threw her arms around her aunt. “My, oh my, but y’all are a sight for sore eyes. Grace, I declare, look how big you are! What a pretty bow you have in your hair!”

Grace gave her a grin full of little white pearl teeth and patted the big floppy bow that Alafair had tied onto a hank of her thick, black, bowl-cut hair.

Olivia laughed. “Why last time I saw you, you were just a little baby.”

“I’m two,” Grace informed her. “On my birthday, I’ll be three and we’ll have cake.”

“Four weeks to go,” Alafair said. “Well, Olivia, we sure do appreciate you going to all this trouble to come fetch us off the train.”

“It’s no trouble at all, Aunt Alafair.” She pushed her glasses up her long nose before she led them off the platform and through the station. “In fact, I have to admit I’m relieved to get out of there for a little bit. I want to help Mama as much as I can, but it’s all so sad that Daddy’s sick.” Her voice caught but she took herself in hand and continued briskly. “It’s a relief that y’all have come, especially with Kenneth away.”

“Oh, I’m glad to hear Lester is holding on. I feared we’d be too late.”

“Daddy’s been doing a little better for the last week, a little stronger. Seems he doesn’t tire quite so easy. But the doctor says it’s just a temporary rally. He doesn’t expect Daddy to last more than another few days at the most.”

“But Kenneth hasn’t turned up?” Martha asked.

“No, but he told us he’d be back in time for the Founders’ Day doings, so I expect him directly. He must be really busy, though. He usually wires or telephones me once or twice when he’s gone over a week, and I haven’t heard from him.”

“Are you worried?”

“My stars, Martha, I haven’t had time to be worried what with trying to help Mr. Beams at the warehouse and take care of little Ron and Mama, too. I’m sure he’s fine. Now, come on, you all, give me one of those bags and let’s get to the house. Mama can’t wait to see you.”

Olivia led them through the station and down the steps to a sharp new 1915 model Oldsmobile roadster and began to pile their suitcases onto the back floorboard. There was still plenty of room for Alafair and Grace to settle themselves in the backseat. Olivia hoisted herself into the driver’s seat, and Martha jumped in beside her after giving the starter a crank. Olivia stepped on the clutch and pushed the gear shift and they roared off, Grace squealing with glee and Alafair clutching her daughter and her hat in alarm.

“When are Grandma and Grandpa coming, Olivia?” Alafair was yelling over the noise of the wind and the engine.

“Not for a while, yet,” Olivia yelled back. “Grandpa is leading a revival at Lone Elm this week, and next week at Mulberry. He’s asked Elder Knox to preach for him at Mulberry, but the elder can’t get there until after the revival’s been going a day or two. Grandma and Grandpa probably won’t make it here for ten days or two weeks.”

Alafair grimaced and sat back in the seat. She had forgotten that this was the time of year for her father’s quarterly revivals at some of the Franklin County Freewill Baptist Churches. She hoped her parents made it before Lester passed, or before she had to go home.

# # #

It was only a matter of blocks from the train station to Ruth Ann’s house, but Olivia took them on an abbreviated tour of the town, since it had been so long since they had visited. From the station, she drove down Maine to Grand, where the office and warehouse of the Yeager Transfer and Storage Company were housed in an enormous three-story red brick building, which took up most of the block between Maine and Cherokee. She didn’t stop, but shouted a running narration at them as they rattled over the brick streets and bumped over trolley tracks.

“We own four trucks, now, Aunt Alafair, and I expect we’ll need to order another before the year is out. The building looks about the same as when y’all last saw it, from the front, but Daddy bought most of the block behind and almost doubled the warehouse space. That’s where he put the refrigeration unit.

You wouldn’t believe the machinery in there. I’ll have to show you how it works, if we get a chance.” She was enlightening her passengers at the top of her lungs, and Alafair began to wonder how long she’d be able to go on before her voice gave out.

“Anyway, now we can store perishables before shipping. We do a land office business in frozen chickens. Daddy added a big old cold storage unit right between the warehouse and the freezer, where people can rent chests and lockers just about any size, from a drawer to a walk-in. Why, with one of them,  a family of two can buy a whole side of beef or a whole hog, have it butchered and wrapped, and have enough meat to last them the entire year. Then they can store it here and get to it whenever they want. It’s really economical for city folks not to have to buy their meat fresh from the butcher shop every day or risk it spoiling on them.” Olivia shifted and they sped off down the street with a jerk.

She ferried them west down Randolph, through the large town square and past the county courthouse and the Federal Building. A team of shirt-sleeved men were constructing a wooden platform near the street, from where dignitaries would preside over the upcoming Founders’ Day celebration. They turned north on Washington, then up to Elm, where Olivia’s parents’ enormous white house sat right on the corner. The house was relatively new. Lester had had it built in ’05, twelve years after he had made the Cherokee Strip run in ’93. On the day of the run, he had staked his claim on a platted space right in the middle of an empty prairie, and on the next day he owned a lot near the center of town, by the railroad tracks. A week later, he had begun building a warehouse, and by the turn of the century, Lester was, if not rich as Balthazar, then at least more than comfortable. So, he had built a more than comfortable house for his wife and one beloved daughter. In fact, in Alafair’s opinion, the three-story Victorian with the wraparound porch and five bedrooms was awfully big for what were now only two people. Alafair was in the midst of raising ten children in her perfectly adequate two-bedroom farmhouse, after all.

But, Ruth Ann had insisted that they needed all that space to entertain Lester’s business and political associates, and Alafair had to admit that her sister did run what amounted to a high-quality bed-and-breakfast inn, what with all of Lester’s social connections and Kenneth’s big plans. Not to mention the continual parade of their Gunn relations who loved to take lengthy advantage of Ruth Ann’s hospitality.

Ruth Ann herself was standing on the sidewalk, holding her infant grandson, little Ron, cradled in the crook of one arm. She had begun waving a white handkerchief at them the minute they rounded the corner onto Washington. Alafair broke into a smile when she caught sight of her sister.

Ruth Ann was barely a year younger than Alafair, and they had grown up practically in each other’s pockets. In truth, Alafair hadn’t realized her name wasn’t “Alafairandruthann” until she was almost big enough to start school. As close as they had been when they were children, they had little in common, now, and saw each other seldom. Alafair felt bad about it. She’d always had the feeling that Ruth Ann had not been happy to grow up in her older sister’s shadow, and had spent her life trying to be as dif- ferent from Alafair as she could. She belonged to every woman’s club and charitable organization in town. In fact, she ran most of them. Her husband was an important man, after all.

She looked well, Alafair thought, as the roadster pulled up the unpaved drive at the side of the house. Ruth Ann had always been just a slip of a woman, small, like their mother, delicate and neat, always decked out in the latest fashion. Today she was dressed all in beige, from the silk blouse with the frilly jabot cascading down the front to the beige stockings and pumps that matched her ankle-length linen skirt to a tee. The afternoon sun highlighted the reddish undertones in her chestnut hair.

When they first dismounted the roadster, the women had to stand a while and ooh and aah over four-month-old Ron, whom Alafair had never seen, and then exclaim for a bit longer over how big Grace had gotten. Then, while the younger women unloaded the luggage from the back of the roadster, Ruth Ann and Alafair, Grace and little Ron in arms, walked up the paved sidewalk past dozens of gloriously blooming rosebushes, then across the large covered porch to enter the house through the lead-glass-paned front door. To the left of the spacious entryway, a wide staircase wound its way past a stained glass window up to the second floor. To the right, the house opened up into a huge parlor with French doors in the south and in the east walls, both of which opened onto the shady, potted plant laden porch. Pocket doors on the parlor’s north side led to the formal dining room, with its long, oval mahogany dining table and a grand bay window that overlooked the garden.

As Olivia was taking their hats in the foyer, a plump animal the color of soot trotted down the stairs to inspect the newcomers.

“Kitty!” Grace cried, and the creature did an immediate about-face and disappeared back up the stairs.

“Whoa!” Alafair exclaimed. “I declare, Ruth Ann. I thought that was a dog, he’s so big! What happened to his face?”

“Why, nothing.” Ruth Ann was slightly affronted at the aspersion on her cat’s beauty. “That’s Ike. I bought him from my neighbor, who breeds them. He’s a Persian cat, Alafair. All Persian cats have pug noses like that.”

“You paid money for a cat?” Alafair asked, so surprised that for a moment she forgot not to be rude. Fortunately, Ruth Ann didn’t hear her, because at the same time, Grace said, “Where’s the kitty?”

“He’s particular about meeting folks, honey,” Ruth Ann told her. “He’ll introduce himself in his own good time.”

Ruth Ann led them into the parlor, and Grace immediately wriggled down and began flitting around the room, curious about her new environment. She knew better than to touch anything, at least with her mother watching her, gimlet eyed, but she took good note of prospective playthings for later. Then she stopped in front of Alafair and spread her arms wide to take in the whole room. “It’s beautiful, Mama.”

“It sure is, sugar.” Alafair looked up at Ruth Ann. “‘Beautiful’ is her favorite word, these days.”

“Well, then, Miss Grace, I surely am glad you approve of the décor.” Ruth Ann sat down and arranged the wiggly Ron on her lap. “I declare, girls, y’all must be parched. I’ve got some tea to going and a big pitcher of lemonade. What’s your pleasure?”

“Lemonade sounds good.”

Olivia strode through the room and toward the kitchen while withdrawing her hatpin. “I’ll do the honors, Mama. You stay there and get to visiting with Aunt Alafair.”

“I’ll help you,” Martha interjected. “Come on, Grace. You can carry the napkins.”

After the girls disappeared through the dining room, Alafair sat down on the red velvet settee. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Ike the cat peering at them from the entryway, assessing the situation. “Olivia says that Lester is doing better and that Kenneth is still out of town.”

Ruth Ann shifted the baby to a sitting position and tried to put on a cheerful expression, but her pinched little smile looked more like a heroic effort not to cry. “Yes, Lester has had a rally, praise the Lord. He seems to have a lot more energy than he did when I wrote you a while back. His color is a little better, too. I was real hopeful when he got to feeling so much better, but the doctor told me it probably was but a temporary thing. Said he’s seen this before in folks who are about to pass. Anyway, it’s a mercy. Lester sure felt bad before, and now I feel like we’ve got him back for a little while, anyway.

“As for Kenneth, well, that poor fellow is just working himself to a frazzle, running hither and yon trying to take care of clients. Why, in the last couple of months, he’s been to Woodward, Guthrie, Wichita, and all points in between. He’s probably on his way home from Guymon or Buffalo right about now. I expect he’ll be home by tomorrow or Wednesday, though.”

“Yes, Olivia said he planned to be home by the time the Founders’ Day Jubilee starts on Wednesday.”

“I hope he makes it home soon. We really miss him.” “Does seem to be a bad time to go on a business trip,” Alafair ventured.

“Well, he told Olivia that her dad would be happier to know that he was doing everything he could to make sure the company is doing as well as possible.”

“He could have sent someone…”

The pug-faced cat had strolled into the parlor and was now sitting at Alafair’s feet, staring casually off into the distance, his tail twitching on the floor.

“Lester asked him to take care of it personal. Besides, that boy doesn’t trust anybody to do it as well as he can. And Lester sure appreciates his efforts. He’s real concerned that Olivia and us are taken care of proper. Anyway, you’d better catch me up on your bunch. Martha looks good. She looks more like you every time I see her. Is she still working?”

“Yes, she loves her job. And she’s really saving money for her future.”

Ike leaped up into Alafair’s lap and practically knocked the breath out of her. She laughed as he settled himself on her knees. “Oof! This cat must weigh twenty pounds! Are you sure this is a cat and not a horse?”

“Why, look at that! He likes you, Alafair. He generally takes a long while to warm up.”

“I’m flattered.”

“How’s Gee Dub liking A&M?” Ruth Ann returned to the subject.

“He just started the term at the first of the month, but the way he writes, he likes it fine. He’s like any young fellow away from home for the first time. It’s all a big adventure for him. Me and Shaw sure miss his shining face, though. I was kind of hoping we might be able to catch up with him on this trip, but he’s so busy with his studies—and whatever else he’s into that he’s not telling his ma—that I don’t expect it’ll happen. Yesterday was his birthday, you know. He’s nineteen years old.”

“You don’t say! That just don’t seem right.” “That’s for certain.”

“How about Phoebe and her husband, and that baby girl  of theirs?”

“Oh, they’re fine. Just working like ants. John Lee is putting a bedroom on their little house. It’s a big dusty mess, and Phoebe and the baby spend a lot of time over to our place. Baby Zeltha is cuter than a speckled pup, and real sweet-natured. Grace thinks the baby is her own personal real live doll. She’s not walking yet, though, and she’s just turned one. Phoebe frets about that some, but I told her they walk and talk when they get around to it.”

“How about Alice? Any new grandchildren on that hori- zon?”

“Not yet. Tell you the truth, I don’t think Alice is in any hurry for a family. She’s too busy keeping Walter happy. They go to more socials and gatherings and parties than anybody has a right to. Throw their own, too. Makes me tired just to hear about it. She wouldn’t say it to me, but I hear from Phoebe that if Alice doesn’t come up with things for Walter to do, he’s liable to go off on his own for a night on the town. I have a feeling she’s worried about her figure, too, if she goes to having babies. Of course, it’ll happen sooner or later, and they’ll wonder why they didn’t just go ahead and do it right away.”

Ruth Ann snorted a laugh. “You’d better not mention to Daddy that Alice is holding back from a family.”

Alafair laughed, too. “I’m not witless, Ruth Ann. Mary plans to marry in a few months, after her second year of teaching is done, and to hear her tell it, her and Kurt will be having as many kids as they can as fast as they can. That should make Daddy happy.”

“She’s still planning on marrying that German fellow?” Ruth Ann’s tone gave Alafair pause, and she raised an eyebrow.

“Yes. Does that worry you?”

“Well, with all the awful things the Huns are doing over in Europe right now, I half expected she’d reconsider.”

“That has nothing to do with Kurt…”

Ruth Ann plowed ahead as though Alafair hadn’t spoken. “And after all those innocent people died on the Lusitania last spring! Why, they didn’t have no call to go sinking a passenger ship, and especially one with Americans on it. And Mr.Wilson making such an effort to stay out of it! You’d think the Germans would be grateful to the president, but they keep shooting at one ship after another. Why just today I was reading in the paper that they tried to torpedo a ship called the Arabia or the Orbia or some such…”

“I can promise you that Kurt didn’t sink any ships.” Alafair raised her voice to be heard over her sister’s rant. “It’d be mighty hard for him to do that from Oklahoma, wouldn’t it?”

“But what if we get into the war?”

“We won’t. Mr. Wilson promised to keep us out of it, and the president of the United States would never lie, would he? Kurt’s an American citizen now, anyway, and a real good boy. He told me he didn’t want to have anything to do with Germany any more.”

Ruth Ann didn’t seem to want to be swayed by Alafair’s reason. “But if the Germans are really doing those things in Belgium that we’re hearing about, what does that say about them? Aren’t you worried about the young fellow’s character?”

Alafair felt herself growing exasperated. Talk of the war always upset her, and she certainly didn’t want to hear her own sister cast unfounded aspersions on her future son-in-law. “I don’t want to hear that kind of talk, Ruth Ann. Just being German or French or American, for that matter, don’t make you one way or another.”

“But…”

“Besides,” Alafair cut in, “I believe you told me years ago that Yeager is a German name. You’re not thinking that Lester’s blood is tainted, are you?” The comment made her feel a little perverse, but that didn’t prevent her from saying it.

Ruth Ann bit her lip. Apparently she had forgotten that fact. “All right, I’m sorry. You’re right. You know how feelings are running high since them ships were sunk, and I expect I’m a bit on edge these days, anyway. I hope you won’t hold my unruly tongue against me.”

“I’m used to it, Sister. I wouldn’t recognize you if you didn’t just say the first thing that popped into your head. You just wait ’til you meet Kurt, though. You won’t have any bother about him being in the family after that. I hope y’all will be able to come to the wedding.”

“When is it, again?”

“Late May, right after school is out.” She shifted the cat in hopes of restoring circulation to her lower limbs.

Ruth Ann looked down at her hands. “I’d like to come, but of course who knows what will be happening with us by that time? We’ll be there if we can. I sure hope Mary will be happy.”

“If anybody is built for happiness, it’s Mary.”

“I know it. And the rest of them? How’s that namesake niece of mine?”

“They’re all back to school. I think this will be Ruth’s last year. Over the summer, she did some special study with Miz Davis, the high school teacher, and it looks like she’ll be graduating early. I’m so proud of her, I could bust. So far, every one of them has finished school. Our kids sure have better opportunities than we did, Ruth Ann, and they’re smart enough to grab hold of them.”

“Well, we couldn’t have gone past eighth grade even if we’d wanted to, Alafair, unless we had moved to Fayetteville.”

Alafair nodded, thinking that they had been too busy helping out on the farm, anyway. “Shaw was sure sorry he couldn’t come, but the cotton and the head feed has to be got in, and then Mr. McBride’s fall apples will be ready to pick. Besides, the county cooperative has offered to take as many trained mules as he can supply, to sell over in Europe, so he’s spending every spare minute getting yearlings broke to harness and saddle. Charlie, Blanche, and Sophronia rush home from school and head out to the field to help however they can, and Ruth is running the house while Martha and me are gone and Mary’s working.”

“I sure am glad you and Martha could make it. Our sister Elizabeth and brother George will be here when they can break away, but I doubt if they’ll be here before…”

Alafair put her hand on Ruth Ann’s knee. She didn’t need to comment. Instead she asked, “I noticed you didn’t mention Robin in your letter. Weren’t you able to get hold of him?”

Ruth Ann shrugged. “Didn’t know where to write.”

Alafair was not surprised. Their prodigal younger brother seldom stayed in one place long enough to receive responses to his sporadic letters to his relatives.

The fat cat slipped out of her lap and hit the floor with a muted thud. He disappeared from the room just as Grace clattered into the parlor with five lacy white cotton napkins clutched in her hands. Olivia followed close behind with a doily-covered wooden tray of molasses cookies, as did Martha, with her own tray full of tall, frosted glasses of iced lemonade. The food service was temporarily delayed by the fact that Grace had to carefully arrange napkins over the laps of her mother and aunt. The two young women stood by patiently, though, and once she was properly swathed, Alafair eagerly helped herself to a cool glass and a chewy cookie.

After their elders were served, Martha and Olivia sat down, allowed Grace to have a care for their skirts, and helped themselves.

Mystery Delivered Monthly

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