Read The Shining Badge Online

Authors: Gilbert Morris

The Shining Badge (2 page)

“Dad is happier than I’ve seen him in years. He never really was himself after Mother died, but you’ve come to fill a place in his heart.” She hugged the older woman and whispered, “I’m so happy for both of you!”

****

“ . . . and now let’s see what’s going on down in Pine Ridge.”

Lewis sat in his chair staring at the wall across from him, listening as Lum and Abner carried on their usual hijinks. He had grown fond of the radio program, for the two rural characters had captivated America almost as much as Amos and Andy had.

Lewis was only half listening, however. He was still shaken
over the accident suffered by Missouri Ann. He got up nervously now and walked around the room, conscious of a touch of pride, for it was a beautiful room indeed. He remembered how abysmal it had been the first time he had walked into it on arriving from New York. A group of squatters had settled in and had even allowed pigs and chickens inside, but the Winslows had worked tirelessly to clean the house. Now he admired, as always, the beautiful job of wallpapering that he and Hannah had done.

He stopped for a moment, his eyes fixed on the framed medal that occupied a space over the fireplace. It was the Congressional Medal of Honor he had won in the Spanish-American War. He thought for a moment of the violent action of that day and how he and his brother Aaron had fought as fiercely as men can fight. It all seemed long ago now, but the medal was there to remind him, and it gave him a feeling of pride. He never spoke of his war exploits to anyone, but they were vividly embossed in his memory.

He moved over and studied the picture of Deborah, his first wife. The picture was taken when she was only a girl, but he had always liked it. She had grown up in this old house before moving to New York City, where he had met her, and he felt, as always, a tug of sadness. But the awful, searing agony of loss had faded now, and he thought of her often as being happy and joyous in heaven. He moved to the other pictures on the wall, one of a wedding picture of Hannah and her husband, Clint, and once again he felt a surge of gratitude. Hannah had been a recluse for many years, never leaving the house. She had been molested as a young woman and had been unable to recover. But Clint Longstreet had appeared from nowhere, it seemed, and had won Hannah’s love, and now the two were happily married.

The next picture was of his daughter Jennifer, the prettiest of all the girls, he had to admit. She smiled out at him through the photograph, and he shook his head, wondering at how far she had come. Jenny had been a spoiled socialite in New
York, and he could never have dreamed that she would have survived a move to the hills of rural Georgia, but she had.

The picture next to hers was of Katherine, who was called Kat. It was a relatively new picture, and although it was in black and white, his mind filled in the missing colors, the same gray-green eyes and tawny hair as Josh, his older son. Kat was a tomboy who loved hunting and fishing and anything out-of-doors, but there was a hint of real beauty in her expression. She looked a great deal like his first wife, Deborah, as well as Josh. Then, for a long moment, Lewis studied the portrait of Joshua, his son, whose poor choices in life had almost destroyed him. He had been a hard drinker and had served a month in the penitentiary, but now he had found success working as an archeologist in Egypt. He was so far away, and yet at times Lewis felt that he was here with them.

He came then to the picture of himself and Missouri Ann as they stood in the church, Missouri wearing a lovely white wedding dress and he himself wearing a beautifully tailored gray suit. He could not get over the marvel of finding a woman to stand beside him and give him comfort at his ancient age (as he thought of himself). He had long ago given up on such thoughts, but Missouri Ann had brought a new joy in his life that equaled, at least, that which he had known when he had married his first wife. She certainly was nothing like Deborah had been, for Missouri was rural Georgian to the bone, and her language revealed her country upbringing. Having become a member of the Winslow family, Missouri Ann was now embarrassed by her speech and was taking lessons from the whole family on how to speak properly—to become “genteel,” as she called it.

Lewis reached out and touched the photograph and then whispered, “Thank you, Lord, for my family. You’ve been good to all of us.”

“What in the world are you doing, Dad?”

Jenny had entered the room and saw her father standing
there staring at his wedding picture. “Are you admiring yourself?” she teased.

“Oh no,” Lewis said hurriedly, “I’m just a little upset. You see, Missouri Ann—”

“Oh, I know. She’s fine, Dad.” Jenny came over and reached up and brushed a lock of Lewis’s hair back. “She’s fine. Just a few scratches.”

“I’ll tell you it scared me, Jenny. Made my knees weak.”

“It didn’t make you very weak. Ma told me that you reached down and picked her up like she weighed nothing.” Jenny’s eyes danced as she spoke, for she loved to tease her father. She did not know what an attractive picture she made for him at that moment. Her laughing eyes were a brilliant green, and her hair was not auburn but a bright red. “Come on and sit down,” she said, “I’ll get you some tea.”

“No, I don’t want any.” Lewis walked across the room and sat down, and as soon as Jenny sat down beside him, he said, “It scared me witless. Mostly about the baby.”

Jenny reached over and took her father’s hand and held it and patted it. “The baby’s all right.” She laughed. “You didn’t waste any time. Married just over a year and you’re almost a father again.”

“I don’t know how I got into this,” Lewis said ruefully. “Sometimes I think it’s all a dream.”

“God did it. That’s what your dear wife says.”

“She never had any doubt, did she?” Lewis grimaced. “I never will forget when I woke up in her house delirious with a broken leg, and almost the first thing she said was, ‘God sent you to be my husband.’ ”

“Well, she was right about that, and she’s right about the baby too. She always said that you and she would have children.”

“I’ve forgotten everything I ever knew about babies. What will I do, Jenny?”

“You’ll do just what you did when Josh was born. You’ll learn how to change diapers.”

“Great Caesar! At my age!”

Missouri entered at that moment and was not even limping. “I’m all bandaged up and as good as new.”

“Well, sit down here and try to tell Dad that, Ma.” Jenny smiled. “He’s always been a worrywart.”

Jenny rose and Missouri took her seat. “You look like you’ve been into something sour, husband,” she said. “Come on, now. Let’s have a smile.”

Lewis tried to frown, but his face broke. “Woman, you are unusual! That’s the kindest thing I can say.”

Jenny found pleasure in watching the couple but now said, “I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone. Kat and I are going to town.”

“I just got back from town. That old truck is on its last leg.”

“No, it’s not. Clint’s going to keep it running,” Jenny said cheerfully.

“Well, put some water in the radiator before you go.”

“All right.” Jenny left the room, and as soon as she did, Lewis slipped his arms around Missouri Ann and held her. “I’m quite an armful, especially now,” she whispered.

Lewis stroked her hair and kissed her on the cheek. “I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you, sweetheart,” he whispered.

Missouri Ann could not answer, for her throat seemed to close and tears burned her eyes. She had yearned for affection and love for so long! Her first husband had been quiet and distant, and she had never known what it was to be appreciated. Joining the Winslow family had brought new life to her, and now she put her head on Lewis’s shoulder and just thanked God as her beloved husband held her tightly.

He started to say something else when a loud voice broke into their private moment. “The old Townsend place, it’s haunted!” Startled, both Lewis and Missouri Ann turned to see Kat barreling into the room. Her gray eyes were wide open, and her overalls were tattered and filthy from the straps down to the frayed cuffs. Her tawny hair was uncombed, but
this was seldom a matter of concern for Kat Winslow. At fourteen she was just beginning to develop a girlish figure, but this was hidden beneath the shapeless overalls. “Dallas says he’s seen lights there at night.”

“Oh, don’t be foolish!” Lewis said. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

“Yes, there is too!” Kat argued.

As Lewis had often remarked, she would argue with a tree. All Winslows displayed a characteristic stubbornness, but with Kat it was absolutely unrestrained.

“No,” Lewis said, “the lights Dallas saw must have a logical explanation.”

Kat began to argue that there were indeed such things as haunts and ghosts, but Jenny appeared in the door, saying, “If you’re going with me, Kat, you’d better get cleaned up. You’ve got ten minutes.”

“I’ll get my swimsuit too. We can go swimming on the way back!” Kat whirled and raced for the door but paused long enough to nod firmly. “Dallas says they were spooky lights bobbing up and down. And Dallas don’t lie.”

“Doesn’t lie,” Jenny corrected, and the two girls disappeared up the stairs.

Lewis sighed. “I’m not sure I like the ideas that boy is putting into her head,” he said, referring to Dallas Sharp, one of the neighbor boys and Kat’s good friend. “And every day she spends with him, the worse her speech gets too!”

“Well, most people around here believe in haunted houses and such things, but I don’t. As for her speech, she’s just tryin’ to fit in down here. She’ll grow out of that and be her own person one of these days.”

“You think she’ll ever throw those filthy overalls away and put on a dress like a normal girl?”

“Of course she will,” Missouri Ann asserted, nodding firmly. “She’ll come out of it before you know it and be a beautiful young lady—just like Jenny and Hannah.”

“And you, sweetheart.” Lewis knew that his new wife was
starved for expressions of love, and he was rewarded for his kindness with a winning smile and a kiss.

****

As Jenny brought the Studebaker to a halt in front of the Huntington General Store, the afternoon sun was already waning. “We’ve got to hurry, Kat. I want to get home before dark.”

“Aw, I wanta go see a movie!”

“We’re not going to see any movie.”

“But they got one of them cartoons on—Mickey Mouse.”


Those
cartoons, Kat! And I’m sorry, but money’s just too tight. We’ll save up and maybe go next time we’re in town.”

The girls stepped out of the truck and entered the general store, where the owner, H. G. Huntington, stocked everything from mule harnesses to oatmeal. Next to bolts of cloth for ladies’ dresses sat barrels of pickles, their sour smell mixing with the fragrance of cinnamon.

“I’ve got to get some spices for Ma,” Jenny said as she sniffed the cinnamon. “She’s been hankering for pumpkin pie.”

“I’m gonna look at the knives,” Kat announced and strode over to peer into the case of knives she always admired when they visited the general store.

Jenny quickly found the spices she needed, then turned and walked back toward the counter. She had been aware of a loud voice, and now she saw a man in the uniform of the county sheriff’s office standing in front of a huge black man. She stopped and watched Mr. Huntington, who stood behind the counter looking helpless. His eyes met Jenny’s for a moment, and then he shook his head ruefully. Aloud he said, “It’s probably my error, Deputy.”

Deputy Max Conroy was six feet tall and lean as a snake. Beneath his wide-brimmed cap with its peaked crown, he stared coldly at the owner and said, “This buck here tried to steal some groceries. That’s what you told me.”

“I . . . I made a mistake. He’s a good boy. He was on his way to pay for it.”

Deputy Conroy shook his head. “You done made charges, Mr. Huntington. I’ll have to take him in.”

“I won’t press the charges,” Huntington said quickly.

Jenny could see Conroy’s cold green eyes, but her gaze turned quickly to the man who stood before him. He was a huge black man, tall as well as broad, and the thought came to her,
You could split Max Conroy in two.
She did not like Deputy Conroy, for he had pressed himself on her several times trying to convince her to go out with him. Now she heard Conroy say, “All right, Noah, get yourself out of here. But I got my eye on you. I’m gonna have you back doin’ time again. They let you out too soon is what I say. Now, get on outta here!”

The black man turned and walked away swiftly. Jenny had heard Missouri Ann talk about Noah Valentine. He had grown up with a widowed mother and a number of younger brothers and sisters. According to Missouri, Noah had gotten in trouble and been sent to the state penitentiary for the crime of selling moonshine. Perhaps because her stepson, Joshua, had been sentenced for the same charge, Missouri felt compassion for Noah. Jenny remembered how Missouri Ann had said,
“Noah got saved while he was in the penitentiary just like Josh, and when he came home he started in workin’ hard, takin’ care of his mother and all those brothers and sisters. He never misses a Sunday at church, and he’s even preached there several times. But people won’t give him a chance around here. Once a man’s been in the pen, that black mark never goes away. But Noah Valentine’s a good man, I don’t care what they say!”

Jenny had turned to watch the big man leave when suddenly she felt her arm seized and turned around quickly to face Deputy Max Conroy. He was smiling at her now, and his grip was somehow intimidating. “That’s mighty sweet perfume you got on there, Jenny.”

Jenny tried to remove her arm, but he held fast. “Let go, Max.”

“My, you’re a regular touch-me-not! Look, I’m not such a bad fella. They’re havin’ a dance over at Cedar Mount tomorrow night. Let’s me and you go show ’em how it’s done.”

“I’d rather not.”

Conroy’s grip tightened. He was a strong man despite being so lean, and the smile on his lips did not reach his eyes. “You New York girls are pretty stuck up, but you’ll find out it’s different down here in Georgia.”

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