Read The Shining Badge Online

Authors: Gilbert Morris

The Shining Badge (4 page)

“Who was it?”

“Dolly didn’t know. I’ll tell you what, though. You probably didn’t do this in the big city, but here in the country when a new family moves in, it’s considered fittin’ to take somethin’ to eat as sort of a welcomin’ into the neighborhood. You know, I was thinkin’ we could bake another one of these squash pies. We’ve got plenty of squash left. I’m too big and awkward to go, but maybe you could do it.”

“I can do that,” Jenny said. “I’m going to take the truck and go to town to get some feed for the cows. I’ll stop on the way and meet them. I hope they’re nice people.”

“They probably are. We’ll believe so, anyhow, until they prove different.”

****

The next day, after helping Hannah with the housework all morning, Jenny went outside and drew rainwater from the barrel. The water from the well was rather hard, so Clint had taught them the trick of collecting rain through a series of gutters into a barrel. He had warned them that you had to use it up or it would breed mosquitoes.

Jenny washed her hair with rainwater and allowed it to dry in the sun, using a series of clean, soft towels. Finally she brushed it until it shone with brilliant red tints in the sunlight, and she thought about how kids had teased her when she was a girl.

Redheaded peckerwood sittin’ on a fence,

Tryin’ to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.

Another old memory brushed across her mind. She remembered how she had fallen madly in love with Harold Horton at the age of eleven. He had won her heart by telling her he loved red hair, and although Harold himself was fairly homely, he was her first real attachment. A smile touched her broad lips as she remembered how she had fallen out of love with him when she discovered that he was six months younger than she was.

“I wonder where Harold is now,” she murmured. She went inside and took a leisurely bath. Afterward, she put on fresh underwear and the green dress that matched her eyes. Then she went downstairs. “I’m going to town now, Dad,” she said, finding Lewis in the kitchen talking with Missouri Ann. The two were drinking tea as they usually did several times during the day.

“Don’t forget the pie,” Missouri Ann said.

“What pie is that?” Lewis inquired.

“Jenny’s taking a squash pie over to the new folks that moved into the Townsend place.”

“What’s their name?”

“I don’t know,” Jenny said.

“Dolly didn’t know either. She just said the bank had rented it out to some folks.”

“I’ll find out all about them.” Jenny smiled. She went over and kissed her father on the cheek, then gave Missouri Ann a hug. “You be careful with that Winslow, now. I’m expecting a spectacular brother.”

“Maybe it’ll be a girl,” Lewis suggested.

“No, it’ll be a boy,” Missouri Ann said firmly.

Lewis laughed aloud. “I wish I was as certain about any
one
thing as you are about
everything.
Did the Lord tell you it’d be a boy?”

“Don’t be foolish! I can tell from the way he rides. High and in the middle.”

“Well, we’ll know pretty soon, won’t we?” Jenny left the house and started up the old Studebaker. It had many thousands of miles on it, and she was always amazed when it started. Clint, however, was a first-class mechanic, and through his tinkering, somehow the ancient truck always responded.

It was a beautiful May afternoon, and Jenny felt a sense of exuberance. She had never paid all that much attention to the out-of-doors. Growing up in the city she had been more interested in ballrooms and department stores. But since moving to Georgia, she had become aware of the world she inhabited in a way that startled her. She had found a particular pleasure in seeing the first emerald spears of grass pierce the colorless earth and form a gentle green carpet. The branches of the trees, which had been barren and naked, had suddenly turned pale gold and then the tiny tender buds had developed into the most delicate leaves imaginable. She had smelled the freshness of the earth in a way she never had in the city, and the colors here seemed to be almost violent after the gray city streets she was accustomed to.

As the ancient truck rumbled along the rutted roads, she passed farmers out plowing their fields, some with tractors but still plenty with mules and horses. She had known few of her neighbors in New York City, but now being baptized into the life of the community, she could call out the names of many of those she passed. The road grew broader and more firmly packed and finally turned into a paved surface. She followed it into town and pulled up in front of the Huntington General Store.

As she got out and went inside, she had an unpleasant memory of Max Conroy and his persecution of Noah Valentine. She had an instinctive dislike of Max Conroy, irrational except for the fact that she had seen fear in the eyes of many as he passed. The black people especially grew tight
and fell silent when the tall deputy walked by. Jenny was not overly wise in the ways of the world, but she knew that when people were afraid, there was usually a cause. She picked up the thread Hannah had requested and a sack of candy for Kat, then waited until Bud McKeeley, the hired man at the store, loaded the feed into the back of the truck. She gave him a smile, and he flushed and mumbled, “Weren’t nothin’, Miss Jenny.”

Jenny knew he had a crush on her and did not want to encourage it. She was used to such things but somehow had grown more sensitive to them during recent months.
Perhaps losing everything wasn’t all that bad,
she thought as the truck rumbled back toward the west.
I would never have paid any attention to an adolescent boy with a crush on me, not back in New York, but now a young boy in love somehow seems poignant to me. I wonder why that is.

Without knowing it, Jenny had become more sensitive to the world around her, not only the natural world of trees and grass and birds but of people too. In all truth, she had been a selfish young woman given over to pleasures purchased by her father’s money. She had been, she realized now, a tremendous snob. She had even disliked Clint when he had first arrived to work for her father. But losing everything had changed Jenny’s entire way of thinking. She had developed a sensitive spirit and a genuine compassion for the plights of others.

Finally she came to herself with a start and turned off the road that led to the old Townsend place. She pulled up in front of the house and studied it before she got out. It was an old house, once painted white but now faded. It looked a great deal as their own place had before they had started renovating it. The house was two stories tall with three gables, and a porch ran along the front of it. Some of the windows had been broken and the panes replaced with old newspapers and what appeared to be cardboard. Behind the house was a barn with faded red paint, and between the house and the barn stood an outhouse. A movement caught her eye, and
she saw a line stretched between an enormous walnut tree and the end of the house. Clothes were stirring as the warm afternoon breezes rippled them gently.

For a moment Jenny hesitated, feeling out of place. She had not grown up in this sort of world where you called on neighbors, but this was her home now, and she was determined to become a part of it. Walking up the steps, she saw that the door was open and she could see down the hallway that went the length of the house. The screen door was patched and blocked her vision, but she knocked loudly and then waited. From far away she heard the sound of a radio and thought,
There must be somebody home.
She knocked louder, but still there was no answer. For a moment she stood there, balancing the pie in her left hand, and then walked back down the steps. She started for the truck, then thought that perhaps someone might be in the kitchen, as was often true in her own home. Going around the house, she saw an orange-striped cat staring at her arrogantly.

“Hello, kitty,” she said, but he merely kept his half-lidded eyes fixed on her. When she reached the rear of the house, she found a pair of steps leading up to a screened-in back porch. The screen was punctured in several places and badly needed repair. Standing on the steps, she looked in and could partially see into the kitchen. She could hear the radio clearly now. It was playing a song that had become very popular the past year, called, “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries.” It was a rather ironic song, she thought, considering how many in the country were without a paycheck and had little or no food. By leaning forward, she could see a man sitting at the table, his head close to the radio. She called, “Hello,” but he did not move.

Ordinarily Jenny would not have thought of doing such a thing, but she wanted to carry out her mission. Stepping inside on the porch, she walked toward the door that led to the kitchen and said, “Excuse me, but—” She had no chance to say anything else, for the man moved so quickly she could
not take it in. One instant he was sitting at the table, and the next he flew to his feet so fast he was a mere blur—and she saw with a cold shock that he had a gun in his hand. She stood absolutely still, not knowing what to do. He was not a large man, no more than five-ten she judged, and wore a pair of khaki jeans and a white dress shirt, open at the collar. His hair was a tawny, golden brown, and he had the most penetrating blue eyes she had ever seen.

“Who are you?” he asked roughly. “What are you doing here?” He put the gun back down on the table, and Jenny gasped with relief.

“My name is Jenny Winslow.”

“Why didn’t you knock?”

“I did knock!” Jenny said indignantly. “I knocked at the front door, but you couldn’t hear, I suppose, because of the radio, so I came around to the back.”

The brilliant blue eyes took her in, and Jenny thought he had one of the most masculine faces she had ever seen. His face was wedge-shaped and not deeply tanned, which made her suspect he was not a native. His mouth was wide and drawn up into a tight line, and, although he had laid down the gun, Jenny felt some fear of him. After all, they were alone in the house, as far as she knew. “My family asked me to come by and welcome you to the neighborhood,” she said frostily.

A deep sigh went through the man who stood opposite her, and he seemed to relax. “I’m not used to visitors. You startled me a bit.”

“Do you always pull a gun on people that startle you?”

For a moment the man did not answer, and when he did, he did not speak of the gun. “My name’s Varek,” he said. “Clay Varek. It’s a pretty good idea, Miss Winslow, not to go into houses uninvited.”

“It’s a pretty good idea not to point a gun at people who come to welcome you into the community either!”

A small smile tugged at the corners of Clay Varek’s lips.
“I expect you’re right,” he said. “Sorry about that. I’d been cleaning my gun, and I wasn’t expecting company, like I said.”

Jenny had rarely felt so ill at ease. “I shouldn’t have come in,” she admitted grudgingly, “but anyway here’s the pie.”

Varek stepped closer and saw alarm flicker in the young woman’s eyes. He said quietly, “Thanks a lot. I’m not much of a cook.” Taking the pie, he lifted the cover and turned his head. “What kind is it?”

“It’s squash pie.”

“That’ll be a switch. I never heard of squash pie. Thank you.”

Jenny nodded curtly. “You’re very welcome,” she said. She turned and, without another word, left the house. She was relieved to be out of there. Clay Varek’s actions had frightened her more than she wanted to admit. She was not accustomed to guns except for the rifle Clint kept at the house for hunting, and she still remembered the flash of blue fire from Clay’s eyes when he had suddenly whirled around to point his gun at her. As she walked toward the truck, she felt angry with herself for what had happened. “I should never have gone into the house,” she muttered. “You can believe I won’t be coming back, Mr. Clay Varek!”

She got into the truck, started the engine, and engaged the gears, but when the truck began to roll, she heard a thump, thump, thump from the rear tires.

“Oh no. A flat!” Shutting the engine off, she got out and walked to the back where, sure enough, the right tire was absolutely flat. She stood there helplessly, not knowing what to do.

For a moment she considered how long it would take her to walk back. She knew she was at least three miles from her own house, and she dreaded the walk.

“A little trouble?”

Jenny turned and saw that Varek had come out of the house so quietly she had not heard him.

“I’ve got a flat.”

“So I see. Well, why don’t you go sit on the porch. I’ll fix it for you.”

“That . . . that would be very nice of you.”

Jenny showed Varek where the tire tubes were, and he found the spare and looked at it critically. It was thin with almost no tread. “You can almost see through it, but maybe it’ll get you home.”

At that moment a faint cry came from the house, and Varek turned to look in that direction. “I’ll be right back,” he said.

Jenny watched as he moved quickly toward the house. It sounded like a child crying, but she had seen no sign of a woman, and she wondered where the man’s wife was.

She had waited only a few seconds when Varek came back outside. He was holding a little girl in his arms, and she was clinging to him with both arms around his neck. “This is Jamie. Jamie, this is Miss Winslow.”

“Hello, Jamie,” Jenny said, smiling at the girl. She had blond hair and light blue eyes and her face was dirty. Her hair needed washing too, Jenny noted, and she wore only a pair of dingy white panties.

“She’s a little bit shy with strangers, but she’ll get used to you.”

Jenny thought of the sack of candy she had bought in the store, and she said, “I’ve got something you might like.” She moved to the front of the truck, opened the door, and picked out the sack.

“Can she have candy, Mr. Varek?”

“She loves it.”

“Look, Jamie, would you like some of this?”

The child stared at Jenny with round eyes and then smiled. “Candy,” she said and nodded.

“Yes. Why don’t you and I sit over here, and we’ll watch your daddy fix the truck.”

“Candy!”

Jenny reached out and took the child, who came to her at once. She moved over to a bench by the picket fence and sat
down on it, holding the child in her lap. She unwrapped one of the pieces of candy and gave it to Jamie, who popped it right into her mouth.

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