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by Nancy Means Wright
Description: Single mother-farmer Ruth Willmarth discovers her neighbor, Lucien, and his part-Indian wife Belle, bloody, beaten, and robbed of their life savings. When Belle dies, Ruth faces barn burnings and the disappearance of her son--as she and would-be lover Colm Hanna, who serves as Realtor, town mortician, and part-time cop, track the killer's muddy trail to put an end to this mad season. Mystery by Nancy Means Wright; originally published by St. Martin's Press
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1996
eBookwise Release Date: October 2009
4 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [282 KB]
Reading time: 183-257 min.
It wasn't usual, Lucien thought, this knocking in the middle of the night, and when it came, it meant an emergency of some kind. There was the trucker had run out of gas at two in the morning and come pounding on his door. The high school kids, drunk and run the car into the broad side of the barn. And he and Belle up most of the night trying to calm the cows.
The problem was they'd built the damned road too close to the house, and tricky the way the shoulder sloped down into the limestone ditch. How many he'd hauled out of that ditch he couldn't count. Big rain, and the mud slid off the road, taking the cars with it. Just yesterday a woman with red fingernails, car too big for the road, wanting more than help--wanting to buy his land, turn it into a hundred houses. Mother of God! "I'm not selling," he told Belle. "My grandpapa he didn't break his back on this land for nothing. I don't part with one goddamn foot of it, I'm telling you."
"They offered ten thousand dollars an acre over to Benoit's," Belle said, "and they took it."
But he said, "I got over half that right here, don't I?" and patted his inside pocket.
And Belle saying, "Only fools carry cash. The world's not the same's it was."
But he knew who were the fools. His own papa, for one, God rest his soul. He trusted it all to that bank, and come the crash what'd he have but a caved-in barn and ninety-five acres of clay?
No, he'd keep his where it was safe. If they took the money, they'd take him. And who'd want him? Tough as an old mule he was, sure. Veins like rope, Belle said, skin like bull leather. She threatened to take the polish to it instead of soap. Hard weather and hard work, that's what it was. Up at four milking, planting, haying--jobs never ended. Now middle of the night hauling some poor fool, probably, out of the ditch. Mary and Joseph!
The knock came again, a man's voice, his name. "Lucien? Open the door, Lucien!"
Hey, door's unlocked, they didn't have to wait on him. He never locked it, though Belle starting to complain. But hell, if he didn't go, Belle would, and moan about the cold. Woodstove's not enough, she wants oil heat.
Here she was already awake, gray-black braid across her breast frizzing out under the elastic, but the breasts still firm. Only the one child, that's why. And that one a girl, with a ten-thumbed asshole of a husband. Who was to carry on?
"They're calling you," Belle said, like he couldn't hear. She heaved her thick body up on an elbow. "It's someone we know. Maybe next door. They been having trouble with that girl. She goes with the wrong kind, Ruth says so, stays out late."
"Lucien? Answer the door. I need help, Lucien!"
The voice unfamiliar. But it don't mean nothing. More folks in town knew him than he knew them. They knew him because he ran for selectman that time, shook hands a lot. It was that Ruth Willmarth next door put him up to it. School budget up and getting so only flatlanders could afford to live here. So he stuck out his neck and lost to a flatlander by fifteen votes.
"Will you go or I go?" Belle said, "so's we can get back to sleep." He saw how wrinkly and puffed the skin was in the crease of her elbow, and her just sixty-three. It used to be soft when he married her. She was the prettiest thing he ever seen, down from a border town. Quebec roots like him, but a quarter Abenaki Indian in her. You saw it in the snap of the black eyes, way she walked, quiet, feet splayed a little. Then the farm took it out on her, slaving all day.
"I'll go," he said. He planted his feet on the splintery floor, then winced. It was only after a long sleep he felt the pain. Some days he thought he'd never walk again.
"Lucien? Come down," the voice said. "We run out of gas, Lucien." The kitchen door slammed.
The old dog, Raoul, barking--took a hurricane to get him to bark, he was that old. The men, for there was more than one sounded like, already inside.
Was it Halloween? Why were they here? Not gas they wanted. Stockings over their heads and faces, blue jeans, boots. It was the boots on the big one that startled him, the sharp smell of new leather, the hard pointed toes, some fancy silverwork. It was how fear smelled. He hadn't smelled it so bad for years, not since the war. The Fascist boots, kicking him.
He picked up the maple stick he prodded the cows with. "You shouldn't be here," he said. He only meant to threaten them. One of them turning back already, the taller thinner one, calling back the other, he heard a muffled voice. But the big one, like a bull in heat, coming at him. Then there was Belle. He turned to warn her off.
"Get back," he said.
Something exploded in the side of his head. He wheeled about, was struck in the belly. The dog barked and went still. "Go, Belle," he groaned, doubled with pain, but she was bent over him, screaming. And then a thump like the sound of an overripe apple hitting the ground and Belle pitching across his foot, the big one standing over her.
He swung at the head with his stick, his fists. He was flung against the old Kelvinator, heard it squeal, knocked into the iron sink. He couldn't feel the pain now, just a numbness, the outrage. There was a tug-of-war for the stick, and he lost. Then it came: the stockinged head arched back, the boot lifted. It was the hurricane again, but now he was the porch, knocked off his props and flung in the air, crashing down on the other side of the house, the boards shrieking as they wrenched apart, fell in one on top of the other....
* * * *
There was something about this morning that made Ruth Willmarth uneasy--she didn't know what. Usually she enjoyed a morning like this, mist on the mountains, hugging the ground like shredded paper. "Shredded paper," she liked that. She'd had a poem in the high school lit magazine once. How did it go? "The sun is a golden poppy--da-da da-da..." Was it almost twenty-four years ago? Her mind was foggy. Like all those years had never been, and there'd been nothing, ever, but this farm, and three children, and a grandchild already. And the husband who'd left for New York one morning after milking and hadn't come back.
She was so stunned she just kept running the farm. Took over the milking on top of the syruping, the records, dairy meetings, vet checks. It was unending, but she'd always liked a routine. What else could she do? Where else would she live?
She put the uneasiness down to worries about family: her son Vic, her daughter Emily coming in late last night--that city boyfriend! It was work that relieved the stress. She swept in the mangers, shoved back the bits of hay, grain, corn the cows had dropped in their stampede to eat. Another week or two and they'd be out in the field, in only for milking, which made it easier. Black-and-white Holsteins, thirty head. Used to be fifty but when Pete left she had to sell some. Kept the hired man, Tim, though. She couldn't do it alone!
Here was Tim now, coming up from the sugar house, the foster boy tagging behind. "Fields still too wet to plow," Tim said. "Maybe next week. So Willy and me gonna plant trees. Your husband ordered 'em last spring."
Scotch pine, for Christmas trees--Pete's plan for making use of a rocky area. He was always jumping on new money-making schemes: pigs, turkeys, soybeans. He'd abandon them when they got to be a hassle.
"If you think there's time. Not a thousand again?"
He grinned, nodded. He had on that cowboy hat he got out West one year, it looked ridiculous on him. He was still the hippie he'd been back in the sixties. But he gave a hard day's work, did half the milking, most of the syruping. "I thought Vic might help. We can get 'em in in a week and still finish up the sugaring."
"He'd rather do that," she agreed, "than help in the barn."
Lately her son Vic had refused barn chores altogether, wouldn't even feed his pet calf, didn't want the smell on him. Kids teasing him, that was why. "Farmer boy," they said, the city kids moving up here with their city ways.
Actually, she liked the idea of Vic working with Tim. Vic had taken Pete's leaving hard. She knew he needed him, especially with this trouble in the school. Though Pete wouldn't have done much about it. "Had to fight my own battles as a kid," was the cliché on his latest postcard.
"Can you hold the fort till noon?" she asked Tim. "I have errands in town."
"Consider it done. Hey, Willy? We'll hold the fort till the lady gets back?"
"Who's a lady?" she said, and smiling, held out her palms, red and mottled from barn chores and tough as winter gloves.
Tough lady, sure, but why this feeling deep in her bowels that something was going to happen, was already happening, to her family maybe? She ran, ran back to the house and took the porch steps in two jumps.
And inside found the fire had gone out in the woodstove.
* * * *
The sunlight swiped at Lucien's face like a knife blade. Instinctively he threw up his hands. But then the light softened with the passing clouds, and he let them fall back across his chest. The window above him was crooked, a shiny diagonal. He squinted, and it sharpened into a blade of color.
It came over him that it wasn't the window that was wrong but himself. "Mother of God," he groaned. "What happened?"
When he tried to move, the joints screamed, like he was rusted out. He turned his neck to look for Belle. It was like twisting the top of an old bottle.
God, she was still there, crumpled like a piece of paper, braid across her eyes. He crawled to her, rumbled for her pulse, felt nothing, panicked, grasped her shoulders. "Belle, Belle!" Threw himself on her chest, his cheek against hers.
Then felt the barest breath. Or was it from the half-open door--they never closed that behind, fire out in the woodstove. And the dog, old Raoul, lying at a queer angle, front paws not matched up with the rear. Afraid to explore further, not wanting to in case the breath he felt was from outdoors; wanting, needing to hope, he dragged his body toward the phone. His arms hauled the belly behind like a hay rake. It bumped along with painful scrapes and grinds, a sharpness in an elbow where an elbow wasn't touching. The smell of leather boots still in the room, the smell of blood--his blood, Belle's. He cranked his head about; a red ring haloed her head where the blood sank into the floor. He was glad now he didn't get the linoleum in the kitchen though she wanted it, the living room was enough. Then she went and covered that with a rag rug. You never knew about women.
The phone wire was cut, they done that too. Outraged, he dragged himself to the door, hoisted his body over the sill. The porch needed sanding, painting, the old boards drove splinters into his hands, his knees, bare toes. He saw with surprise he was in his nightshirt and the sun up already--he was always dressed by sunup. And then he was down the steps, rolling, he couldn't walk: he'd get in a crouch and fall over, like the boot got him again--where? His cheek was bloody and full of holes, like he was Jesus nailed to the cross. Close his eyes and that was all he knew: the boot in the face, the smell of fear. And vomit up in his throat now.
He vomited into the mud, again and again, then just dry heaves. He wanted to let go right now, right here, collapse in the mud. He could die this minute, it'd be easy.
But there was Belle.
He hauled himself to the road. Someone would find him, pull him out of the mud like he done the others. Get to a phone. He lay down along the sloping shoulder of the road. He could only hope they wouldn't come around the bend too fast, mostly they did, town wouldn't put up a sign. He couldn't keep a lookout, he was that bad. He let his head drop in the mud. His body like trash you'd throw out a window.
When the car came, finally, he couldn't lift his head to see who.
* * * *
It wasn't till she got Lucien to the hospital that Ruth thought of Belle. If Belle had been all right she'd have phoned, wouldn't she? "Where's Belle?" she asked as they loaded Lucien onto a stretcher. But his eyes were scrunched up in his head like he didn't want to know the answer, was driven deep into his bones. She almost hadn't stopped, was headed into the Larocque drive to get Lucien to help when she realized it was Lucien himself hurt. The ambulance was out when she phoned from home, so she and Tim got him in the car. Now if it was Pete, well, Pete had a way of never hurrying, even in emergency: He "had to think," he'd say. "I hope we never have a fire," she'd told him. "We'd be ashes before you decided to call the firemen."
But she wasn't thinking straight herself, was she? Halfway out to her car and she still hadn't called the police. Though it could have been some other kind of accident, farm accident. How many nights she'd lain awake worrying about fingers in the machinery, tractors overturning. It was in God's hands, her fundamentalist sister-in-law would say when the kids got pumping too high on the tire swing. And Pete would laugh, too, say God was the only way, though there was nothing spiritual about Pete.
So afterward she raced back to the Larocques'. Belle would be frantic, wondering where he was. She could phone the police from there. He must have been struck by a car, a hit and run. She balled her fists--irresponsible inhumans!
Was it true he kept money in his pockets? She'd heard that but couldn't imagine it. Lucien was different, but not dumb. Anyway, Belle wouldn't stand for it, Belle had smarts. Not classroom smarts, she never went past ninth grade, maybe tenth, but she could have, that was what counted.
Up on the porch Ruth saw where Lucien had come from, the blood stains on the old boards, the door cracking on its hinges where someone had banged it. It wasn't a car that struck him, then, but something else. She entered slowly, afraid of what she'd see.
And she saw.