Books: The Sky Took Him
An Alafair Tucker Mystery
Poisoned Pen Press
Publication date: January 10, 2009
Hardback: ISBN-10: 1-59058-571-2; ISBN-13: 978-1-59058-571-9
It’s a sad duty that brings Alafair Tucker to Enid, Oklahoma, in the fall of 1915. Her sister Ruth Ann’s husband, Lester, is not long for this world, and the family is gathering to send him to his reward. Alafair had planned to make the trip on her own with her youngest daughter Grace. So she is surprised and gratified when her eldest daughter Martha volunteers to come along and care for Grace, freeing Alafair to comfort the soon-to-be-bereaved.
But her niece’s irresponsible husband, Kenneth, has disappeared at a most inconvenient time. When it comes to light that Kenneth has been involved in some shady dealing with Buck Collins, the most ruthless businessman in town.Everyone is convinced that Collins has done him in. In fact, no other possibility is considered, not by the family or by the local lawmen. But Alafair suspects that things are not so simple.
Over the next few days, Alafair and Martha come face-to-face with blackmail, intimidation, murder, and family secrets that stretch back over twenty years. And in the process, they discover things about each other that will change their relationship forever.
Finalist for the 2010 WILLA Award for Fiction from Women Writing the West
Read an Excerpt of THE SKY TOOK HIM
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 1915
The train out of Muskogee was very nearly empty. Alafair Tucker settled into a seat and lifted her youngest daughter, Grace, onto her lap. Her eldest, Martha, unburdened herself of the luggage by cramming it into the overhead racks. She sat down opposite her mother and sighed, relieved to be off her feet at last.
“I have to go potty,” Grace informed them grandly. Both Alafair and Martha burst into laughter.
Martha stood up and extended her arms. “I’ll take her, Ma.”
“No, you just sit there, hon. You’ve been toting the luggage ever since we left Boynton. Your arms must be about pulled off”
“I don’t mind. I need to stretch. Grace probably doesn’t have to go, anyway. She just likes to inspect the toilets in every new place she finds herself.”
The three-year-old was affronted by the suggestion. “I do too have to potty!”
Martha nodded. “I know, sugar. And you’ll have to go again when we change trains in the City.”
“Y’all can go, but be sure and don’t touch anything in there, Martha. Why, you don’t know who all’s been in there doing heaven knows what. And be sure and put plenty of paper on the seat.” By this time, Alafair was admonishing the girls’ retreating backs. “And wash your hands!”
Martha gave her a lazy wave of acknowledgment without turning. Alafair leaned back and gazed out the window as the train slowly moved out of the Muskogee station. It began to pick up speed as it left town and began the long, straight haul toward Oklahoma City.
After the girls disappeared, Alafair took an envelope out of her bag. She eyed her name written in a spidery hand on the front for a moment before she withdrew the creased and often read letter and began to peruse it for the dozenth time.
Sept. 5, 1915
I hope this letter finds you well. I am writing to you because trouble has befallen us, Dearest Sister. As you know, my beloved Husband Lester has been suffering with a greevus illness for a long time now, and Doctor Lamerton has informed us just lately that poor Lester is not long for this world. I take comfort that long ago Lester accepted Jesus as his Savier and when his time comes he will be gathered to the bosom of the Lord.
Our sad vigil has been made worse because our son-in-law, Olivia’s husband Kenneth, has undertaken to go on a trip to the No Man’s Land in order to meet with an important client. I have come to rely so on Kenneth since Lester has been ailing, and his absence is distressing in this time of trouble. Mr. Beams and Olivia have done their best to keep the warehouse and shipping business running smoothly, and me and my serving girl Lu have been caring for my beloved grandson while she does so, as well as seeing to my poor husband’s needs. I am plum wore out, and I am missing the help and comfort of Kenneth’s manly presence.
I am distrait, Sister, as you can well imagine. I wish that Kenneth had not had to take hisself off on the eve of Lester’s death. Lester has no family but ours, and he loves Kenneth like the son we never had. It will be mighty sad if he goes to meet Jesus before Kenneth returns. I have asked our Mother and Father to come from Lone Ellum to be with us, but they cannot come here for a while yet. I have also wrote to our Brother George and Sister Elizabeth, and I write to you, as well, Alafair, asking that you join us here in Enid for a spell, if you can. I expect you need not stray long from home. Lester is so weak that by the time you get this letter, he may already have gone to the gates of Heaven.
Please come, Dear Alafair, so Lester may see your welcome face one last time. I know this is a busy time on the farm, so if you cannot come, please join us in prayers for Lester’s eternal rest.
Your Loving Sister
Ruth Ann Yeager
Alafair replaced the letter into its envelope and slipped it into her purse before she resumed staring out the window. She didn’t look forward to the inevitably depressing visit with her sister, though it never occurred to her to demur. She knew from her own bitter experience that during a crisis, nothing could shore up a person like having her family around her.
Ruth Ann had been right about one thing, though. It was a bad time to leave the farm. Harvest was still going on, and school had started not long before, which robbed Alafair’s husband Shaw of a large part of his workforce. Two of Alafair and Shaw’s ten children were married with homes of their own, two had paying jobs in town, and one had just recently begun college. But of the seven who still lived at home, all but Grace were old enough to have their own responsibilities.
She stared absently at the brown country passing by. A long, dry summer was coming to an end, and everything looked tired and thirsty, drooping in the dusty heat. Still, there was a smell on the wind, a heaviness in the atmosphere which told Alafair that a change was on the way. Her half-Cherokee mother-in-law was predicting a very cold winter. The squirrels were storing nuts in August and the bark on the trees was particularly thick this year. Grandma Sally was seldom wrong about these things, and Alafair had already begun putting by extra fuel.
The train made a long turn to the northwest, and Martha’s hat slid languidly from one end of the seat she had vacated to the other. Alafair retrieved the hat and placed it in her lap. She was glad that Martha had volunteered to join her on this trip. Not only was Martha an excellent traveling companion and good company, but having her along as a baby-sitter had made it possible to bring Grace. Though she was sure that her older children were perfectly capable of caring for the child for the few days that Alafair would be away, Grace was not quite three, and had never been apart from her mother for any length of time.
As happy as she was to have Martha along, Alafair was surprised that she would consent to take two weeks off from her job as secretary to Mr. Bushyhead, manager of the First National Bank of Boynton. She was even more surprised that Mr. Bushyhead would let Martha go for so long. In the three years that Martha had worked at the bank, she had made herself indispensable. That fact did not surprise Alafair in the least. Martha was the most naturally efficient person she had ever known.
Grace pounded down the aisle with Martha close on her heels, and threw herself across her mother’s lap, full of news.
“It’s beautiful, Mama. Martha put paper all around the seat.” She was frantically pulling imaginary paper off a roll, hand over hand, and padding an imaginary circle with it. Alafair was amused. Martha must have lined the seat six inches deep with paper, if Grace’s pantomime bore any relation to reality. “And then after I pottied, Martha lifted me up so’s I could pull this long chain! It made this big ‘whushhhh’ and water come down and a hole opened up and we could see the ground. There was tracks going by like â€˜shupshupshupâ€™. I couldnâ€™t hardly see them they was so fast!” She illustrated by flicking her eyes back and forth, then she hugged Alafair’s knees. “I wasn’t scared.”
“She reckoned that she might fall in and never be seen again,” Martha interjected, “but we finally came to the conclusion that she’s too big to fit through the hole.”
“Did you wash your hands”
Grace nodded emphatically. “Yes a hundred times. We turned a iron handle and water came out of the faucet, but we didn’t have to pump at all.”
Alafair looked up at Martha, who had resumed her seat opposite. “You didn’t use the soap that was in there, did you”
Martha shot her an ironic look, then reached into her bag and pulled out a little wooden box, which Alafair knew contained a bar of her own homemade soft yellow soap. “You’ve ruined me, Ma, I hope you know. I’m unable to use a bar of soap unless I personally know who made it.”
If Martha was teasing her, Alafair missed it. “You can’t be too careful.”
By this time, Grace had pasted her nose to the window and was engrossed in watching the country rush by at the blazing speed of fifty miles an hour. Alafair handed Martha her hat and sat back as comfortably as she could in the horsehair-padded wooden seat. She wished she had a pillow for her back. It was going to be a long trip to Oklahoma City.
She eyed Martha thoughtfully. “I’m glad you decided to come with me on this trip. I’m not much looking forward to it.”
“I hope Grandma and Grandpa make it while we’re there. I haven’t seen them for a good long while”
When she was little, Martha had been particularly close to Grandpa Gunn. But for the past few years, Martha hadn’t seen eye to eye with her opinionated and extremely self-assured grandfather on a number of things, and when she was in his company she tended to bite her tongue a lot. Alafair let the comment go.
“I doubt if they’ll make it to Enid before we have to leave. Maybe after things are settled with your aunt Ruth Ann, Grandma and Grandpa can come down our way for a spell. I wouldn’t think Mr. Bushyhead much likes you being gone for such a long while. I had about decided that bank can’t run without you.”
Martha puffed a laugh. “It can’t, hardly. Mr. Bushyhead and Uncle Jack may know all there is to know about loans and investments and the like, but neither one of them could find his way out of tow sack with a compass. Well, they’ll appreciate me even more when I get back”
“Still, I’m surprised you’d want to be away so long, the way you enjoy that work.”
“Mr. Bushyhead understood when I told him about Uncle Lester dying and Kenneth up and taking off and all.”
“I know, honey. It’s just that you’ve been acting like there’s something on your mind lately. Is there something troubling you?”
Martha’s gaze shifted away from the window to her mother’s face. She smiled. “I figured you’d be asking me that before long. You can smell a troubled mind like a hunting dog smells a trail”
“Just with you kids. Is it Streeter McCoy”
Martha’s cheeks reddened. She was silent for a long minute while she considered her reply. Why, oh why, oh why was she surprised that Alafair has asked her that question? There was no keeping secrets from her mother. Aside from the fact that Alafair could apparently read her children’s minds, she had a spy network that any government in the world would envy, the prime recruits of which included Martha’s nine blabbermouth brothers and sisters. “What makes you think that?”
“Your Uncle Jack told Aunt Josie that Streeter McCoy has been coming around to the bank an awful lot for a man with no particular business to discuss. Said he shows up around noontime, checks his account, which ain’t changed since the day before, and, ‘oh, by the way, Miss Martha, if you’re not doing anything for luncheon, I’m on my way to Williams’ Drug Store for a bite, and I sure would admire some company’.”
Martha laughed, but she didnâ’ look very happy. “Uncle Jack has too busy an imagination, Ma. There’s nothing to be said about Streeter Donald McCoy, believe me.” The flush that colored her cheeks belied her words. But Alafair’s mothersense would have detected the disturbance in the ether around her daughter even if Martha had been the coolest liar on the face of the earth. She opened her mouth to probe further.
When it came to her mother, however, Martha had some extrasensory abilities of her own. She executed a preemptive maneuver. “Kenneth picked a bad time to go on a business trip, didn’t he?”
Alafair swallowed her question. She was aware of what had just happened, but it wasn’t necessary to pursue this now. She was perfectly confident that a better opportunity would arise later. “Oh, I don’t know. I know your aunt and uncle think a bunch of Kenneth, but that young’un never did have a lick of sense, to my way of thinking. I don’t know what sort of ‘business trip’ he went on, but I’ll bet you that he just couldn’t stand being around all that sorrow and sickness one more minute and decided to take a little vacation from it. I swear, Olivia has the patience of a saint to have put up with his inconsiderate behavior these past couple of years.”
“Well, he’s affectionate to her, and a good daddy to that child. But he does take her good nature for granted, that’s straight, and just between you and me, Ma, she’s not as happy about his behavior as she lets on, if I’m reading her letters right. He’s spoiled, is my opinion. Thinks the sun and stars revolve around him. Uncle Lester and Aunt Ruth Ann have never done anything to disabuse him of the notion, either. To hear them tell it, the sun shines right out of his posterior.”
Alafair didn’t know the word “posterior”, but she got the picture. “Martha” She tried to look shocked, but laughed instead, a victim of her love for a good phrase.
“Posterior,” Grace repeated, without removing her nose from the window.
“Now see what you’ve done” Alafair chided, trying hard to keep the laughter out of her voice.
Martha had brought along a book to amuse herself, but Alafair spent most of the trip gazing out the window while at the same time trying to keep an eye on an excited and energetic three-year-old. At the moment, Grace was bouncing up and down the aisles, stopping occasionally to engage some willing adult in animated conversation about herself and her first train ride.
A well-dressed elderly gentleman lifted the child onto his knee, the better to hear her story. He scanned the other passengers until he caught sight of Alafair’s weather eye on the girl. They exchanged a smile and a nod before Alafair leaned her elbow on the arm of the seat, absently watching for any sign that Grace was beginning to bother the old man and his enchanted wife, who had taken the child’s hand and leaned in close.
“You sure look to be enjoying that book,” she observed to Martha, without taking her eyes off of Grace. “What is it”
Martha didn’t look up. “Pudd’nhead Wilson. It’s by Mark Twain. I like just about anything of his I can get my hands on”
Alafair chuckled. “I like the title.”
“His work is always a mix of funny and serious. This one is about a trial. It’s real interesting. You should read it when I get done”
“Now, when would I ever get time to read a book, sugar?”
Martha finally lifted her eyes from the page and scrutinized her mother. “Oh, Ma, you wouldn’t read a book even if you had the time, and you ought to. You know, you’ll probably be sitting with Uncle Lester a bunch while we’re there. Olivia wrote that he likes to be read to. Maybe he’d enjoy this. You can read it to him.”
“Maybe I ought. I’m such a bad out-loud reader that my voice would put him right to sleep.” Her comment was off-hand and absent, since she was still intent on keeping an eye on Grace’s antics. Martha shook her head and returned to her book.
Alafair became aware that the train was slowing long before she could see any settlement. The look of the country had changed drastically once they had pulled out of Oklahoma City, from rolling wooded hills to the endless grassy expanse of the Great Plains. As they neared Enid, the wild sea of grass had been long replaced with vast wheat fields, newly plowed and planted at this time of year. Alafair awoke the drowsing three-year-old on her lap and began to pull on the child’s shoes.
As soon as the train pulled to a stop, Martha stood and reached for their luggage on the overhead rack. The bustle in the car increased as the other passengers did likewise, adjusted their hats and coats, and began to move in a desultory line toward the exits.
Alafair sat for a moment to let the car clear a bit before she made her move, though Grace was pulling on her hand in a rush to get on with this adventure. “Look out here, shug” She lifted the little girl bodily and plunked her down before the window. â€œDid you ever see so many folks all at one time? And look yonder! There’s your cousin Olivia waiting for us. Look, Martha. She looks good. She came to fetch us herself, and she don’t look broke up. I’m guessing her dad is still alive and that Kenneth has showed up. That’s a nice bonnet she has on”
She continued prattling on in order to distract the girls for a couple of minutes, but she wasn’t really paying much attention to her own words. She was always awed in spite of herself whenever she came to Enid. Enid was one of the Oklahoma Territory towns that had literally sprung up overnight after the Cherokee Strip land run. On September 15, 1893, the prairie was devoid of habitation. On September 16, Enid was a fully formed town of five thousand souls. Now, as the town readied itself to celebrate the twenty-second anniversary of its founding, it boasted a population of nearly twenty thousand people and was the fourth-biggest city in the state, after Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Muskogee. Alafair could barely imagine such a number, and since the Founders’ Day Jubilee was in a couple of days, the population would be swelling with visitors from all around Garfield County, and in fact, the entire Cherokee Strip. The noise and perpetual motion of the busy town literally made her dizzy.
The car had emptied enough to allow easy movement, and the three of them picked their way through the humanity and onto the platform where a thin, dark blond, bespectacled, young woman in a mauve suit with a matching hat was jumping up and down and waving to get their attention. “Aunt Alafair, Martha!”
Martha set one of the suitcases down on the platform and waved back. “Here we are, Olivia”
Olivia squeezed her way between a prosperously hefty couple and threw her arms around her aunt. “My, oh my, but y’all are a sight for sore eyes. Grace, I declare, look how big you are! What a pretty bow you have in your hair!”
Grace gave her a grin full of little white pearl teeth and patted the big floppy bow that Alafair had tied onto a hank of her thick, black, bowl-cut hair.
Olivia laughed. “Why last time I saw you, you were just a little baby”
“I’m two” Grace informed her. “On my birthday, I’ll be three and we’ll have cake”
“Four weeks to go,” Alafair said. “Well, Olivia, we sure do appreciate you going to all this trouble to come fetch us off the train”
“It’s no trouble at all, Aunt Alafair” She pushed her glasses up her long nose before she led them off the platform and through the station. “In fact, I have to admit I’m relieved to get out of there for a little bit. I want to help Mama as much as I can, but it’s all so sad that Daddy’s sick.” Her voice caught but she took herself in hand and continued briskly. “It’s a relief that y’all have come, especially with Kenneth away.”
“Oh, I’m glad to hear Lester is holding on. I feared we’d be too late”
“Daddy’s been doing a little better for the last week, a little stronger. Seems he doesn’t tire quite so easy. But the doctor says it’s just a temporary rally. He doesn’t expect Daddy to last more than another few days at the most.”
“But Kenneth hasn’t turned up” Martha asked.
“No, but he told us he’d be back in time for the Founders’ Day doings, so I expect him directly. He must be really busy, though. He usually wires or telephones me once or twice when he’s gone over a week, and I haven’t heard from him”
“Are you worried”
“My stars, Martha, I haven’t had time to be worried what with trying to help Mr. Beams at the warehouse and take care of little Ron and Mama, too. I’m sure he’s fine. Now, come on, you all, give me one of those bags and let’s get to the house. Mama can’t wait to see you.”
Olivia led them through the station and down the steps to a sharp new 1915 model Oldsmobile roadster and began to pile their suitcases onto the back floorboard. There was still plenty of room for Alafair and Grace to settle themselves in the back seat. Olivia hoisted herself into the driver’s seat, and Martha jumped in beside her after giving the starter a crank. Olivia stepped on the clutch and pushed the gear shift and they roared off, Grace squealing with glee and Alafair clutching her daughter and her hat in alarm.