The Man in the Ditch
He was as handsome a man as Alafair Tucker had ever seen. His unblemished skin was the color of caramel, his thick hair black as a raven’s wing, carefully pomaded and combed straight back from his face. His wide eyes were black as well, eyelashes as long and thick as a girl’s. His lips were parted just enough for Alafair to see the tips of his teeth. Having seen him for the first time just the day before, she knew the dazzling effect those strong, white teeth and full lips had on his smile. He was a charmer all right.
It was so sad that he was dead.
Alafair Tucker looked down at the body in the ditch and thought that there is no end of troubles and life is but a vale of tears. The end of this poor man’s life was one more disaster on top of an entire season of disasters—murder and illness, rumors of war, invasion and rapine, and rain and floods worthy of the Bible. She had been glad to see the back of 1915, but thus far 1916 was not shaping up to be any better.
The dead man’s earthly remains were half submerged in one of the ubiquitous irrigation ditches that crisscrossed the town of Tempe, Arizona, in a relentless, and Alafair suspected, ultimately futile endeavor to keep the desert at bay.
Perhaps he had drowned. How ironic that would be.
The irrigation canals probably made sense in a place where it seldom rained. But Alafair’s thought when she had first seen the crisscross of open, water-filled ditches running through the neighborhoods rife with playing children was that here was a tragedy waiting to happen. Not a year passed without news of at least one child drowning in some convenient body of water. The occasional adult as well. She could imagine the last moments of the dead man’s life. Stumbling down an unfamiliar street in the dark. Did he trip on a stone or walk straight into the canal in the blackness of the night? Was he knocked out or simply too stunned by the fall to lift his head out of the water? The only problem with that proposition was that he was face-up in a ditch that contained not more than six inches of water. He looked thoughtful, staring at nothing, as though he had been pondering his mortality as he died. He was dressed in a black charro outfit; short jacket, flared trousers studded with silver conchos down the outer seam of each leg, and a gaudy red scarf tied in a bow around his neck. The black sombrero with the elaborate white embroidery around the brim which he had been wearing the night before was nowhere to be seen. Had he fallen into the ditch, perhaps too drunk to save himself? He hadn’t been drunk when last she saw him playing with the band late yesterday evening, singing Mexican love songs, his black eyes flashing with self-confidence as he winked at the ladies. Alafair did not know if Mexicans were any more prone to drunkenness than others, but the ones she had met since she had been here seemed like sensible people and not any more given to overindulgence than anyone else.
Had she seen him leave the party? Who had he been talking to? Shaw might know better than she, since she had spent much of the evening in the house with the women and he had been out in the back yard with the men.
Alafair had met so many people at the get-together that she could not keep everyone straight in her mind. What was the name of the man who had said such awful things about Mexicans, how they all ought to be run off back south of the border?
She bent over and put her hand on the side of the dead man’s neck, though she already knew that he was dead. No pulse. His skin was cold, but then it was a chilly morning. It was hard to tell how long he had been there. She touched his hand. Stiff. It has been a while.
She straightened, wrapped her coat around herself more tightly and heaved a sigh. She had not wanted to come to this godforsaken town to begin with, this weird, rainless, cloudless, place surrounded by skeletal humps of mountains, filled with hard prickly vegetation and so far from home.
It was only fifteen yards from the ditch to the front door of the house, yet no one inside had heard anything during the night. Alafair walked back up the bare dirt path through the honeysuckle arbor over the gate and opened the screen door far enough to stick her head inside.
“Elizabeth,” she said, “would you come here a minute? Don’t disturb the children.”
# # #
Alafair, her husband Shaw, and Elizabeth stood shoulder to shoulder. Or as close as they could come considering that Alafair was six inches shorter than her youngest sister and close to a foot less lofty than Shaw. They watched in silence as the constable looked over the body in the ditch. Several of the neighbors had become aware of the situation, and those who had not already made their way over were beginning to gather in groups in their front yards. Alafair could see her ten-year-old daughter Blanche watching the action from behind the screen door of the house along with her six-year-old nephew Chase Kemp. The children were under strict orders to stay inside but neither looked very happy about it. Especially Chase. Alafair could see that Blanche had a death grip on the boy’s collar.
The dead man was small and young, but fully grown. Still, the fact that his life was a bit further along than a child’s did not make it less of a tragedy that it had ended before it should have. The constable looked up at Elizabeth. “You know him, Miz Kemp?”
Elizabeth caught her bottom lip between her teeth. “Everybody in the neighborhood knows him, Mr. Nettles. This is Bernie Arruda. He does odd jobs and handiwork for half the families on this street. Him and his brothers Tony and Jorge played music for us at the open house here last night. Bernie and his brothers have a nice little Mexican mariachi combo and for a dollar and eats they will play all night if you want them to.”
“Y’all had an open house last night?”
“Yes, sir. My sister and her husband here and their girl just got in from Oklahoma a few days ago for a visit. We had us an open house and a pot luck for them to meet the neighbors yesterday evening.”
Nettles’ gaze shifted and slid across Alafair to Shaw. “Yes, I read in the Daily News about your adventure getting here, Mr. Tucker. Quite a trip.”
Shaw Tucker was a tall man with a thick mustache and black hair which was currently in need of a comb. He scrubbed the back of his head with his palm, which made his hair stick up in the back even more than it already did. “Quite a trip it was, Constable. Looks like we are not done with excitement, either.”
The corner of Nettles’ eyelids crinkled. “Looks like not.”