Using the tip of his index finger, eleven-year-old Junior Ransom traces the edge of the hammer and the smooth handle of the pistol as it rests snuggly in its worn, leather holster hanging on the bedpost of his sleeping father’s bed.
Kerzzan, Junior’s mixed-breed, long-haired dog, sits at attention beside him, watching his every move.
The morning sun, streaming through the screen-less, open window, frames his Pa’s head in a square of yellow. If not for the many flaws in his Pa’s character, the light might cause one to think of the glow of a halo. But no one would ever suggest that Roscoe Ransom is an angelic being.
Junior listens to the growl of his Pa’s rhythmic snoring. Even at his young age, Junior has learned to distinguish between the kind of snoring that comes from exhaustion and the kind that is the result of being drunk. With his Pa, it’s most often the latter.
Slipping his hand around the pistol handle, Junior gets a firm grip on it and begins inching it out of the holster. Just as the trigger guard is about to clear the holster, his Pa snorts, coughs, and rolls onto his side. Instantly, Junior drops the pistol back into the holster as if it had just come out of the hot forge that produced it.
His Pa’s bloodshot eyes stare at him from behind the strands of his pompadour haircut that have fallen onto his face. He smacks his lips and attempts to wet his lips.
“Morning, Pa,” Junior says.
Roscoe blinks slowly until recognition registers on his face. “Hey, Junior.” As he sits up, the gold star pinned to his rumpled shirt catches the rays of the sun and shines it in Junior’s eyes.
Squinting against the reflection, Junior asks, “Don’t you need to get up and go to work?”
Roscoe runs his hands through his thick, black hair and shakes his head.
As Junior watches him rub the three-day beard stubble on his cheek, he’s reminded of the sound of sandpaper on a wood plank. Even though he’s not certain what the hand through the hair and the head shaking means, Junior has been told his Pa does this in an effort to clear the cobwebs. If that’s true, then it means the spiders in his Pa’s head do most of their work at night, because it’s always in the morning that he shakes his head like this. However, Junior suspects that it’s alcohol that plays a role in filling his Pa’s head with dust-covered cobwebs.
From outside the window comes the sound of their mule braying.
Lighting a cigarette, Roscoe looks over his shoulder towards the sound. “Sounds like Pat’s ready to go to the field.”
His father’s deep voice has always reminded Junior of the sound of rumbling thunder – sometimes frightening, but sometimes soothing. When singing at church, the few times they’ve gone together, it made the wooden pew vibrate and tickled Junior’s buttocks.
“Yes sir,” Junior says. “I was just getting ready to go hook him up to the plow and get started, but I thought maybe I should wake you first. You want some coffee?”
Roscoe coughs a couple of times before saying, “Yeah, that’d be great.”
Junior’s bare feet scruff against the unfinished, gray wood floor as he exits his Pa’s bedroom and heads down the hallway to the kitchen, while the click-click of Kerzzan’s toenails on the floor let him know his dog is close behind him.
In the kitchen he walks over to the wood-burning cook stove and, using a dishtowel to protect his hand from the hot handle, lifts the coffee pot off the eye and pours his Pa a cup. When he turns around to head back to the bedroom, his Pa limps into the kitchen.
Taking the cup of coffee from his son, Roscoe lifts it to his face and takes a sip.
Junior watches the steam touch his father’s face and then scatter away as he blows gently to cool it.
After two more sips, Roscoe lets out a satisfied “Ahh,” then sips again and looks at Junior. “You make a good pot of coffee.”
Junior grins. These occasional words of praise from his Pa are what he lives for. “You helped teach me how,” he says.
Roscoe pulls a whiskey bottle out of his hip pocket and pours some into his coffee.
“Maybe you could go without that for today,” Junior says tentatively. “I know you say it helps your headache, but – ”
“When I want your opinion on it, I’ll ask you for it!” Roscoe snaps and, at the same time, slaps Junior’s face. “I don’t need yours or anyone else’s permission to do anything.”
While the sting of his father’s hand hurts, it’s the tone of voice his father uses that strikes him in the pit of his stomach. Junior lowers his head and twists his foot on the floor. In an effort to deflect some of the hurt, he points at the headline on a newspaper lying on the floor, and asks, “What does ‘Great Depression’ mean?”
Roscoe looks at the paper, then at Junior. “Mostly it means there’s more poor people like us than there used to be. We’re just luckier than some because we’ve got land to grow food on. People who live in big cities don’t have nothing. They have to stand in line just to get a bowl of soup and a piece of bread. Some of them have even jumped out of the windows of tall buildings to kill themselves.”
Junior is shocked. “Kill themselves?”
“Yep. They’re too chicken to face the world and to try and work at rebuilding their life. I’ve got no respect for people like that, and you shouldn’t either. Always remember, if you want something out of life, you have to work for it – and work hard! And even then there’s no guarantee that life won’t kick you in the teeth and take it all from you again.”
Junior isn’t certain what his Pa is talking about, except for the two words “work hard,” because he’s been doing that for as long as he can remember. But he suspects his Pa’s message has something to do with what happened to him in the war and with Junior’s mother dying.
Just then, someone knocks on the back door.
“Go see who that is,” Roscoe says.
Junior obeys and finds their neighbor, Willow Muscadine, standing on the other side of the screen door. He takes in her long, straight, black hair, her dark eyes and skin, and her expressionless face. It’s this last feature that makes trying to read her mood as impossible as trying to accurately predict the weather. People say she’s half Cherokee and the descendant of a Chief. Junior has also heard people say that she killed a man and took his scalp afterwards and that she keeps the scalp hid in her house.
“Good morning, Junior,” she says as he opens the door. “You look awfully handsome this morning, like a proud warrior.”
This is why he enjoys being around her – she is nice to him and finds a way to make him feel proud. Grinning, he says, “Good morning, Miss Willow.”
When she steps inside, she touches the side of his face, and says, “Has he hit you again?”
Junior sees the briefest of a spark of anger in her eyes. Like an arrow, her question pins him to the wall. He doesn’t want to lie to her, but he doesn’t want to put his Pa in a bad light, either.
As he tries to sort out the best response, Willow says, “Do not answer me. I know the truth. One of these days he will do that one too many times.”
Junior hopes that she is making a small joke but can’t be certain by looking at her inscrutable face, so her threat hangs in the air like the blade of a guillotine.
“Is he up?” Willow asks.
She turns from him and heads into the house.
Junior has thoughts of running to the barn and getting in the field with Pat because he knows the red mark on the side of his face has betrayed his Pa’s actions, and if Willow raises a raucous with his Pa about it, his Pa might think he told what happened. Then there would sure enough be heck to pay, especially if his Pa is drunk when he dispenses judgement.
But instead of running away, Junior tiptoes to the doorway of the kitchen so he can hear what happens between Willow and his Pa.
“Are you drunk?” Junior hears Willow ask. He’s amazed at how brave she is to ask such a pointed question.
“What business is it of yours?” Roscoe growls.
“What you do means nothing to me,” she retorts.
Junior knows this comment by Willow is a lie, because the one thing she has not been able to hide from him is the way he has seen her look at his Pa. She sometimes looks at him the way his mother used to; the kind of look that says “you matter to me” and “why won’t you love me?”
Even though he was only five years old at the time, Junior felt sorry for his mother because of how hard and unkind his Pa was toward her. He often wondered why she married him to begin with and if maybe he was a different man when they married. If he was, Junior wishes he had known him back then.
“Do you have washing that needs to be done?” Willow asks Roscoe.
“You don’t have to do that,” he replies. “I’ll get it done. I don’t need anyone’s help.”
“You need lots of help from lots of people,” she countered, “but you are too stubborn and unwilling to admit it. We go through this every time. I’ve told you, with all the washing I take in for other people, doing the little bit you and Junior have won’t make that much difference.”
Suddenly, Junior’s ears detect the sound of an approaching car, and he quietly slips out the back door and walks around to the front of the house.
Speeding toward the house with a cloud of dust trailing behind is the patrol car that his Pa and his Pa’s deputy, Hollis Craig, share. Hollis pulls the night shift, while his Pa works the day, or at least is supposed to work days. When the car comes to a stop in front of the house, the dust cloud catches up and envelopes both the car and Junior. He squints as Hollis exits the car.
Junior wishes he looked like Hollis, with his low forehead, thick hair, muscular build, and large forearms. Hollis told him one time that if he milked as many cows as he did when he was growing up that he’d have large forearms, too.
Hollis gives him a grim look, and says, “Is your Pa inside?”
“Is he sober?”
Junior hates that so many people think of his Pa as a drunk. He wishes he had a Pa he could be proud of. “Yes sir. Willow’s in there with him.”
Without another word, Hollis heads straight to the front door, with Junior trailing close behind. Hollis knocks once on the screen door and walks inside, saying, “Hey, Sheriff, it’s me, Hollis.”
Junior slips inside just before the squeaking spring slams the screen door shut. He watches as his Pa comes around the corner and meets Hollis in the living room. He also notices Willow’s black hair, as she lurks just the other side of the corner.
Roscoe says, “You ready for me to take you home so you can get some sleep?”
“Not this morning,” Hollis replies. “We’ve got trouble.”
“Somebody murdered Gideon Turner.”
“Murdered? You sure?”
“No doubt about it. His throat was cut, and,” he hesitates and glances back at Junior, then looks back at Roscoe and adds, “and he was castrated.”
(If you enjoyed this look into the book, be sure to search for it when it releases on Amazon on Oct. 26!)