Books: The Return of the Raven Mocker
The Return of the Raven Mocker
An Alafair Tucker Mystery #9
Available Jan 3, 2017
Hard copy, $26.95, Paperback, 15.95
World War I is raging in Europe, but as the deadly influenza pandemic of 1918 sweeps like a wildfire through Boynton, Oklahoma, Alafair Tucker is fighting her own war. Her daughter, Alice, and son-in-law, Walter Kelley, have both come down with the flu, and Alafair has moved into town to care for them after quarantining her young children at their sister’s farm. Boynton as a whole isolates itself like an old English plague village, discouraging anyone from coming into town and the residents from traveling outside. A new doctor applies science to treating the stricken, but Alafair applies all she knows about hygiene, nutrition, and old and trusted country remedies. Unable to aid her sons and son-in-law fighting overseas, this is danger she can combat.
One autumn afternoon, screams coming from next door alert Alafair that Alice’s neighbor, Nola Thomason, and her son Lewis have suddenly and unexpectedly succumbed. Yet there is something about the way the pair died that causes Alafair to suspect their deaths were due to poison rather than to influenza. The epidemic is so overwhelming that it is many days before the only doctor left in town can confirm Alafair’s suspicions; neither Nola nor Lewis died of the flu. The only witness to their deaths, twelve-year-old Dorothy Thomason, a special friend of Alafair’s daughter, Sophronia, is so traumatized that she is rendered mute. Were Nola and her son murdered, and if so, why?
The usual motives for murder are greed, or jealousy, or hatred. Or it could be, as Alafair fears, that the Raven Mocker, the most dreaded of the Cherokee wizards or witches, the evil spirit who takes to the air in a fiery shape to rob the old, the sick, and dying of their lives, is hunting victims and bringing misery to the innocent?
Read the first Chapter, here.
The Return of the Raven Mocker
Wesley M. Cotton, prosecuting attorney for the District Court of Muskogee County, Oklahoma, looked up from the deposition on his desk to study the couple seated before him. Mr. and Mrs. Shaw Tucker, currently residing on a farm located outside of Boynton, in the western part of the county.
They were a middle-aged pair, middle forties, he thought. Cotton knew from the deposition that they were farmers, but he would have known that without being told. They were both well-dressed, but weathered and brown as nuts from a life lived outdoors. Mr. Tucker was a tall man, maybe six feet, with straight black hair, a floppy mustache, deep, hazel eyes and bold cheekbones that bespoke Indian ancestry.
The wife, who was called Alafair, according to the statement, was middle-sized at best. She was clad in a plum-colored suit with a full skirt, and a trim white cotton blouse. Her plum silk hat with a dark purple ribbon and wreath of small flowers around the crown was set squarely on top of wavy dark hair that was slipping out of an untidy bun at the back of her head.
“Thank you for taking time to travel all the way back here to Muskogee to answer some questions about the changes in your statement, Mrs. Tucker.”
It was Shaw who responded. “Yes, sir, we’re glad to do it. Mr. Hughes told us that you are the one who will decide whether to bind Mr. Thomason over for trial.”
“That’s right.” Cotton looked at Alafair, who looked right back. “Mrs. Tucker, according to Deputy Hughes, you now believe that the wrong person has been arrested in connection with the murder that took place in Boynton on October 12, 1918. However, you are the party who originally provided the evidence which led to Mr. Thomason’s arrest in the first place. When you were interviewed by Deputy Sheriff Hughes in Boynton on October 16, you were entirely convinced that Mr. Thomason was guilty.”
Alafair nodded, but Shaw responded for her. “That is true. But my wife has come into possession of some new information that you should hear.”
Shaw Tucker was doing the talking, but Cotton had no illusions that the reason was because Alafair Tucker was shy or demure. Ever since she had set foot in his office, Cotton was aware that she had been evaluating his every move, judging his every word. He resisted an urge to straighten his tie and adjust his waist coat. Instead he folded his hands on his desktop and leaned forward. “If that is the case, I would appreciate it if you would relate this new information to me in your own words, Mrs.Tucker.”
Her sharp, dark eyes gave him a final once-over. Cotton decided that he had passed inspection when she relaxed back into her chair and said, “Mr. Cotton, what I told Mr. Hughes is the truth, and I know it looks real bad for Mr. Thomason. But at the time, I wasn’t aware of everything that led up to that day. You have the wrong man, Mr. Cotton, and I aim to tell you how I found out.”
How it Was That Alafair Tucker’s Youngest Started School
People die all kinds of ways. Some die in war, some die of sickness, and some people die because of the hatred of others. But on the fine soft Sunday morning of September 1, 1918, Alafair Tucker was not thinking of all the ways that people die. She was thinking that when Monday came, her youngest child, Grace, was going to start the first grade.
On that day, the congregation of the first Christian Church of Boynton, Oklahoma, prayed for a speedy end to the Great War in Europe. The new preacher, Mr. Huster, didn’t ask that the enemy be annihilated and crushed into dust, as did many of his flock in their private prayers, but that the better angels of human nature would prevail and peace and good will be restored between nations.
Alafair Tucker prayed for an end to hostilities as hard as anyone. But she didn’t hold out much hope that reason would prevail any time soon. She hadn’t seen any evidence of reason in her fellow man for some time now.
Five years earlier, when the war in Europe had begun, Alafair had expressed her compassion for the poor people who were living in the midst of the fighting. Otherwise she had had no opinion on the reasons for the war or even on its outcome. After all, the conflict was taking place five thousand miles away from Muskogee County, Oklahoma. How could it touch her family?
She should have known better. When it came to a scrap, no government run by men could leave well enough alone. The United States had now been involved in the conflict for more than a year, and many of her loved ones were in harm’s way.
Alafair and Shaw Tucker were the parents of ten children living and the grandparents of four. Alafair had spent her life raising up her children and now most of them were off on their own pursuits. In fact some were likely to get themselves widowed or killed or maimed and there was not one thing in the world she could do about it but try and be prepared to pick up the pieces of a shattered life.
Her two sons and three of her sons-in-law had been called to the service of their country. Her oldest boy, Gee Dub, was somewhere in France now. He had been called up right after his twenty-first birthday and sent to Camp Funston, in Kansas. Since he had some college education, had been in the National Guard, and could shoot the eyelashes off of a gnat, he had been tapped for officer training within the first two weeks. Afterwards he had spent a few months training inductees in riflery, which, he wrote his parents, was a pretty frightening proposition considering he had to show most of the recruits which end of the rifle the bullet came out of.
Alafair’s younger boy, Charlie, shouldn’t have gone to war at all. After Gee Dub was called up, Charlie stowed away on a troop train leaving out of Boynton in October of ’17, so eager to do his bit that he never gave a thought to the fact that he was breaking his mother’s heart. But since he was only sixteen years old at the time, he had been turned away from nearly every recruiting office in the eastern part of the state.
So he hitched a ride to Oklahoma City, where he still had no luck. The Marines told him he had flat feet, which he didn’t. The Navy doctor told him his chest sounded weak. Which it didn’t. Charlie figured that they were making excuses not to take him because he still had fuzz on his cheeks. But the Army recruiter surveyed the young man’s considerable height and his well-nourished frame and decided that since he had a quota he had to fill, the armed services could find a use for Charlie Tucker.
Shaw spent several weeks hunting in vain for his prodigal child, until Charlie finally wrote his folks from boot camp at Camp Pike in Little Rock, Arkansas. Shaw immediately got on the train and headed out, meaning to have Charlie mustered out for being underage. His solemn intent was to fetch the boy home by the ear and turn him over to his mother. But after an exchange with Charlie that was half argument and half abject begging, and a long heart-to-heart with Charlie’s commander, Shaw had returned home alone. Alafair pressed him to go back, or she would go herself. But Shaw convinced her that it was useless. The boy would just run away again. Besides, when Charlie had finally gotten to training camp, the sergeant had taken one look at his youthful mug and assigned him to the motor pool.
Charlie spent three months learning to drive trucks and motorcycles and repair engines, and that suited him fine. While Charlie was in Arkansas learning the vagaries of the internal combustion engine, he had turned seventeen and the draft age had been lowered to eighteen. He wrote to his mother that as time went on he would just naturally become legal. He was in England now, carrying messages, repairing trucks, and scheming ways to get to France before the war was over.
As the summer of 1918 progressed and her sons-in-law went, one by one, to do their duty, Alafair had had her moment of weeping for each one in turn. Then she wiped her eyes, squared her shoulders, and went about her business.
In fact, over the past several weeks she had seemed happy, as though nothing was troubling her. Shaw thought this was exceedingly odd. If any of her young ones were in danger, or suffering in any way, and there was anything Alafair could do about it, she would move heaven and earth to see that it was done.
Sometimes her efforts turned out well, and sometimes they didn’t, but no matter the outcome, Alafair could never rest content until she was sure that she had done everything that could possibly be done to save her children pain.
Which was why Shaw Tucker was worried about Alafair’s state of mind. Several of the brood were in danger of suffering at the moment, yet Alafair appeared to be untroubled. Cheerful, even.
How could her happy demeanor be real when every sunrise brought the possibility of a telegram from the War Department telling them that one of their daughters was a widow or that one of their boys had lost a limb, or his life, in France?
Shaw tried to let it go. Everyone coped with the unthinkable in their own way. Perhaps he was even a little envious. The rumor was that the war would be over soon, but Shaw couldn’t stop gnawing on the awful possibilities, and he had to admit that dwelling on his fear and dread did not make his life any easier.
At the moment, Alafair’s attention was focused on the fact that Grace was going to start first grade. At not-quite-six, she was still a couple of months shy of the cut-off age for first grade, but Grace had grown up with nine much older siblings who had taken it upon themselves to be her teachers. Especially twelve-year-old Sophronia, child number nine, who had loved to play school with her baby sister since Grace had been old enough to toddle about on her own two feet.
All the family attention had paid off handsomely. At least that’s how Alafair explained the fact that Grace could already read and figure, write, and draw like a much older child.
As the summer wound down, Grace was wild to start school and could talk of nothing else. At first Alafair was worried about starting her too early, even if she was advanced for her age. Shaw had pointed out that if they waited until the next year, after Grace turned six at the end of October, she would be older than most of her classmates and so far ahead of them that it would create even bigger problems for her.
So Alafair had taken Grace to town before school started and asked the primary teacher, Miss Graham, to interview her.
Miss Graham was impressed, though not pleased that Grace was going to have to “unlearn the bad habits” she had picked up from her sisters and brothers. Alafair pointed out that a few of Grace’s older siblings had been taught by Miss Graham, so if Grace had any bad habits when it came to reading and writing, Miss Graham could look to herself.
The upshot was that Grace would start first grade on September second. She already knew many of her prospective classmates, including her own cousin Katie Lancaster. That was the nice thing about living near a small town and being related in one way or another to most of the population.
Alafair was as excited as Grace about her adventure. In August, she made first-day dresses for Grace, Sophronia, and thirteen-year-old Blanche, the only three of her offspring who were still in school, and a fancy striped shirt for her eight-year-old nephew and ward, Chase Kemp. She and the children made a holiday out of a trip into town to buy new shoes and school supplies. On the Sunday before school started, Alafair prayed for a speedy end to the war and an auspicious beginning for Grace’s first foray into the world without her mother.
On the morning of September second, Alafair tied a big white bow into Grace’s black hair and handed her a little tin pail packed with her favorite cold chicken sandwich and a cookie. On Grace’s very first day Alafair drove the youngsters into town in the buggy rather than make them walk.
The older children jumped out as soon as they spotted their friends, waving acknowledgement when Alafair called after them to be sure and keep an eye out for Grace through the day. Alafair had intended to escort her youngest to her classroom, but Grace would have none off it. She was a big girl now and knew where she was supposed to go. She threw her arm around her mother’s neck and gave her a hurried kiss on the cheek. Then she was gone without a backward glance.
Alafair stood in the road beside the buggy and watched the children meet and greet their friends, until the bell rang and the horde of children ran and skipped and walked and dragged themselves to their classrooms. She stood there until the schoolyard was empty and the only sound she could hear was the flapping of the flag at the top of its pole.
Then Alafair burst into tears. Her last chick had fledged and was taking her first flight. Alafair felt ridiculous, standing there in the road, sobbing as though she had lost her last friend. She had already been through this rite of passage more often than most mothers. She always felt a bit low when any of the children started school for the first time. It wasn’t the end of the world. After all, Grace wasn’t even six years old. She’d be living at home for at least another decade. It was all a natural thing, part of God’s plan. We’re born, we grow up, we get married, we raise our families. We die.
Alafair’s attempt to reason with herself caused her to sob even harder.
She stood on the road beside her buggy, staring at the empty schoolyard and weeping, for how long she couldn’t tell. She felt like an idiot, and tried to stay out of sight of anyone who passed by. She had finally taken herself in hand and was dabbing her swollen eyes with a handkerchief when she felt a hand on her arm and turned to face a tall, fair-haired young woman holding the hand of a dark-eyed toddler.
“Alice!” She gave her third-oldest daughter a quick hug and opened her arms wide to envelop her granddaughter. “And my darlin’ Linda! Come over here, baby, and let me love on you.”
Linda ran into her embrace and Alice gave her mother a mischievous grin. “We figured we’d walk over to the school this morning and see how you were feeling about…the state of the world and such.”
Alafair stood up with Linda in her arms. “Oh, honey, I was feeling sad until I saw your shining face and my baby girl here. I was just about to drive over to your house before I go to the post office…” She hesitated when Alice turned and beckoned to a woman who had been standing behind her. Alafair hadn’t even noticed her.
“Mama, this is my next-door neighbor, Miz Thomason. Her daughter went back to school today, too. Every Monday afternoon Miz Thomason and I walk down to the armory together to do Red Cross work and let Martha boss us around.” Alafair’s eldest, Martha McCoy, was the organizer and guiding light of the local Red Cross Chapter.
Mrs. Thomason had a pleasant look about her. Her eyes were a translucent light gray color, and the hair that peeked out from under a shady straw bonnet was the pale golden-brown hue of maple wood. She was older than Alice, about the same age as Alafair herself. She was also a substantial woman, thirty pounds heavier and half a head taller than Alafair.
“Alice told me that your youngest is off to school for the first time,” Mrs. Thomason said. “I swear, when my baby first went out into the world without me, I felt lower than a gopher hole.”
Alafair smiled. “I didn’t even realize I was so blue about it until she walked away from me without a care in the world.”
“I do know your pain, though my youngest will be out of grammar school before long.” The woman held out a hand. “Call me Nola. I feel like we already know one another, thanks to Alice, here. My husband is Homer Thomason of the Muskogee Tool and Die Company. Your husband and mine have done business.”
Ah, yes, Alafair was acquainted with Homer Thomason. He had been out to the farm once or twice, and Shaw had indeed bought a few farm implements from him. Alafair had served the men coffee and pie at her kitchen table while they talked about harrows. She did not recollect ever meeting Mrs. Thomason.
She shifted Linda to one arm and took the proffered hand. “I’m Alafair. Pleased to meet you. What grade is your young’un in?”
“Dorothy is starting sixth grade this year. I can hardly believe it.”
“I have a girl in the same class as yours. In fact I believe I’ve heard Sophronia talk about her friend Dorothy.”
“Fronie and Dorothy are friends, Ma,” Alice said. “Last year the girls would walk up to my house or to Miz Thomason’s house over the luncheon break.”
Nola nodded. “Once or twice Sophronia has come home with Dorothy for a snack during recess, too. Dorothy asks me right along if she can bring one playmate or another. She’s my only daughter, and sometimes she gets lonely for a girlfriend. Nothing makes me happier than when Dorothy brings her little friends over. I love watching all the girls play, and listening to their chatter is like listening to birdsong to me. Sophronia is a real polite little gal, and smart, too. She always has some story to tell to make Dorothy laugh.”
Alafair tried not to look too proud at the unsolicited praise. “Yes, Fronie can talk the legs off a chair, don’t I know it. I’m sorry I’ve not met Dorothy. Our farm is way out yonder north and west, so it’s not so easy for the children’s friends to drop in.”
“Do y’all have to get on home right now? If you have a minute to spare, I’d be pleased if y’all would come by my house for a glass of tea and a morsel of gingerbread.”
Alice cheerfully accepted, but Alafair almost demurred out of habit. For the past quarter-century, her philosophy had been that when you have a farm and a home to run and children galore to raise, you don’t have the time to think about a social life. The farm and home still had to be run and and she still had children to be raised. But today there would be no human soul besides herself in her house until Shaw, along with whichever of the farm hands he decided to invite, showed up at her kitchen door for dinner at one o’clock. She had convinced herself that she had been looking forward to the unheard-of freedom to work uninterrupted. But the sudden realization that she could make time for a visit with someone not directly related to her gave her pause.
“Why, I suppose I could spare a few minutes. I aim to go to the post office before I have to get home and fix dinner, but I was going to drop in on Alice first, anyway. I’d admire to sit a spell and make your better acquaintance, Miz Thomason.”