Streams of sunlight thrust through the dusty morning air as Gayla and Daniel bumped along the road in his truck, headed toward the Palmer homestead. Gayla had her arms crossed under her breasts, pressing them up ever so slightly, and her eyes were glazed over as she stared ahead through the dirty windshield with the madness of a lion in captivity. Daniel drove, tried concentrating on the task at hand instead of his objections; he dare not question her.
Gayla had been up all night. At least, that’s what he suspected. They’d talked—more like debated—the previous evening in the kitchen for about Mr. Palmer’s demands until Greta could no longer stand it. She ushered Daniel out of the kitchen and into the washroom, ordering him to clean up for dinner, and, when he’d returned, all the women were sitting at the dining table, dinnerware set, lemonade poured, and a glorious bean soup steaming up into the ceiling. As Daniel had seated himself he noticed Gayla at the head of the table, trapped in a fuming silence, as her sister and nanny chattered away about girlish nonsense as if nothing were amiss.
He knew something had been settled.
It wasn’t until Gayla was pounding on his door just before sunrise that he had any idea he had been a part of the scheme.
“You’re driving me.” Daniel was still rubbing the sleep from his eyes and trying to hide behind the door, embarrassed to show himself, pantless and in his long tattered nightshirt. She, however, was fully dressed, wearing a particularly low-cut rust-colored summer dress which offset the golden hue of her tanned skin. Daniel flushed. He didn’t think she’d noticed.
“Wha—what’s going on?”
Her eyes widened. Somehow, he assumed, he was supposed to have known what this was about already. “Wake up!” she snapped. “Get dressed. You’re driving me. I don’t know how to operate an automobile.” She spun around and marched down the hallway, the heels of her riding boots clapping on the wooden floorboards.
“Where am I driving you to?” Daniel leaned further out his door to watch her as she stormed away down the hall.
“To the Palmers’, you idiot. Where else would I need to go at this hour?”
The Palmer homestead was now in sight. The road they were on split in two at the end—the left fork guided visitors toward Hubert Riley’s; the right, to the Palmers’—and prior to the split they passed, on Gayla’s side, Mr. Palmer’s hundred acre grove of citrus trees, their waxy, dark green leaves shimmering in the light breeze of the early day. Wooden ladders lay in the dirt between the rows in preparation for harvest. Daniel had helped to place them out yesterday.
On Daniel’s side of the road the field was dead, untouched for years. What looked like the remains of a once gainfully employed scarecrow was heaped up into a pile of old, dirty denim and what looked to be a white pillowcase torn open with strands of dirty straw sticking out. That was Masterson land. The crows had had their revenge.
The unused field shared a border with Riley’s land. Even from a distance, Gayla could see it was overgrown, as well, though it didn’t appear nearly as decimated as the Masterson side. Brush and weeds were claiming the land back from the farmer, so long had it been since it was plowed. She supposed Riley was growing too old to care about plowing this far from his cabin.
By the time they reached the fork the sun had fully risen and completed its unearthing. Already Daniel could feel its heat collecting in the air; his arm, hanging out the open driver’s side window, tingled with the sunburn that seemed to be his constant companion. He heard, way off in the distance behind them, the faint crow of Greta’s king rooster, Eisel.
He turned the vehicle right around a tight corner and onto the long, washboard drive about a quarter mile long. Daniel, already imagining his passenger’s fleshy bosom bouncing to the tempo of the road, forced himself to focus on the task at hand. He looked up as they passed the bigger of the Palmers’ two barns. A dark dot perched itself on the roof. It crowed.
The battle had begun.
A plume of grey, sooty smoke foiled out from behind the Chevrolet as it rolled to a stop outside the main house. The building was average-sized and nothing much to brag about. Mrs. Palmer, quiet and modest as she generally was, had one vanity: her prize-winning roses. They were displayed in several hedgerows deep out in front of the home. Their colors gleamed florescent in the fresh light—blood reds and canary yellows and fiery oranges—dotting the dark green foliage like explosions caught in time. One could not approach the residence without gawking at them. Mrs. Palmer was known, also, to purposely delay answering the doorbell, forcing her guests to stand outside in the presence of her prized posies, as they waited for the lady of the house to answer their call.
Once past the hedges and parked, Daniel let the truck idle for a moment, waiting for Gayla to move first. She didn’t. She just kept staring out front, as she had when they were driving.
Daniel broke the silence. “We can still turn around, you know,” he said, tapping the steering wheel with the tips of his fingers. He grabbed the cap off his head and used it to wipe his brow, then replaced it snugly on his crown. “I don’t know what you’re planning on saying but I get the feeling he won’t like it.”
Gayla blinked, swept out of her trance, and turned to look at him. Her eyes widened for a second and her full, rosy lips spread as she took in a quick breath, startled as if she’d forgotten he was there. Then her mouth closed into a gentle pout and her eyes narrowed to tiny slits. The two of them sat like that for a few seconds, just staring at one another, Daniel fearful and Gayla speechless, before she finally spoke up. “I don’t give a dirty cockroach’s ass if he likes it or not,” she said, and thrust her hand to the knob on the door to let herself out.
“I’m coming with you!” Daniel quickly shut off the vehicle and jumped out to follow her. By the time he’d reached her she’d already rung the bell, a small brass replica of the American Liberty Bell which hung outside to the left of the bare oak door. They stood outside on the narrow wrap-around porch long enough to hear the rooster crow twice more. Through the wide gap in the bottom of the door Daniel could hear someone—no, two someones—shuffling back and forth: a young man’s muffled phrases which he wouldn’t want to repeat in public, and, at the same time, the nervous squealings and hushings of a woman who, from what Daniel could tell, was trying to calm her companion. As he leaned his ear into the door anxious footsteps came closer. Gayla stood stagnant; she was obviously unaffected by the commotion she’d stirred in the house and casually replaced a strand of hair which had wiggled loose from a carefully placed hairpin. In a white-framed window to the right of the door Daniel spotted a woman’s eye and cheekbone as she delicately peeled back an inch or so of the lace curtain hanging inside. Her eyes met his. Daniel recognized the face and stepped back, attempting casualty, but the heel of his boot caught in a rut between floorboards and he nearly landed on his backside in the dirt just on the other side of the two moderately-sized porch steps. Gayla glanced at him quickly, shook her head almost imperceptibly at him, and then returned to face the door. As it opened, a red-faced and somewhat glowing Mrs. Palmer emerged.
Mrs. Andrea Parsons-Palmer was a tall, fair woman. One could tell from looking at her that she had been, at one time in her youth, a shocking example of the female gender. Now, she was permanently frazzled and much too thin; the healthy voluptuousness Cherie had inherited had evaporated from her mother’s frame. Mrs. Palmer’s dark hair, cut dreadfully short and always unkempt, was wet and dripping, as if she’d just emerged from a tub. There had been an obvious rushed attempt at combing it into place, but the effort fell far short of effective.
The two women’s eyes lingered on one another, Gayla inspecting Mrs. Palmer from head to toe with a slightly raised eyebrow, and Mrs. Palmer, in turn, steadily glowering at Gayla, cheeks flushed with a slight sheen and jaw clenched.
Neither of them seemed to notice that Daniel was there.
“Miss Masterson, how unexpected of you to visit,” Mrs. Palmer emerged from the house, closing the door closely and carefully behind her. Her hand did not leave the dirty brass knob.
“Miss? Since when have we been so formal, Andrea?”
Mrs. Palmer’s lips pursed. “I see.” She shrugged. With her free hand she swept away a droplet of water that was running down the line of her jaw. As she wiped it on her dress skirt she looked back up at Gayla, a coldness in her eye. “Well, Cherie isn’t here…”
“Don’t insult me, Andrea. Cherie’s absence is no mystery to me, what with having Amrid gone, too. In fact, the news is quite obvious to the entire town, don’t you know? Word gets moving pretty fast around here, what with nothing for the menfolk to do in the fields other than take care of their own kind of gossip while they’re working.” Gayla paused then tilted her head to the side. She grinned crookedly. “Or don’t you know that? You may want to let your guest in on that little secret, in case he gets any ideas about misbehaving while your husband is away.”
Mrs. Palmer’s free hand sporadically clutched a mass of the blue cotton of her long skirt. She inhaled deeply and released the fabric, leaving behind traces of wrinkles. Her hand still tightly wound around the knob, he opened the door behind her just a crack. No sounds came from within the house, but the light fragrance of lavender bath salts and the lingering moisture of hot water blatantly wafted out into the open air. The smells, foreign to the scents of soil and sweat and barn and horse which so commonly inhabited farmlands, were easy to detect.
Daniel swallowed to wet his throat. He wished he had waited in the truck.
“Was there a reason for your visit, Gayla?” The welcoming quality of Mrs. Palmer’s voice had vanished. Obviously, Daniel noted, the formalities were over.
“I came with the intention of speaking with your husband but, if my assumptions are correct, he’s nowhere in the vicinity.” Gayla, after a quick and less-than-respectful nod, spun around on her heel and bounced down the steps to the waiting vehicle. Daniel, clutching his hat to his head, lurched after her. “If you wouldn’t mind passing the message along that I stopped by,” Gayla called, “I would be most appreciative.”
Galya opened the door for herself and maneuvered into the seat. She didn’t have long to wait before Daniel had the engine up again and the truck plodding down the washboard road. Gayla didn’t glace back, but Daniel did: Mrs. Palmer was still on the porch, looking after them, and, just as they turned a slight bend in the drive to curve around a huge wood pile and out of sight, he spotted the shadow of a man emerge from the house and lean in to whisper something into Mrs. Palmer’s ear.
As they turned the bend Gayla tapped Daniel on the shoulder. “Slow down,” she said and pointed toward a faded green tractor house just ahead. “Drive up there. I want to take a quick peek around.”
She didn’t answer. Daniel did as ordered.
He eased the brake and slowed the truck to a halt in front of the building’s large sliding door. He waited in the puttering vehicle as Gayla hopped out and made a beeline, hand out, for the open latch. Mr. Palmer, having no fear of theft from anyone who worked for him or from anyone who knew him, didn’t see much use for locks or latches. Gayla had always thought it odd, though. Mr. Palmer routinely carried a large set of keys on a sturdy iron ring looped onto his belt. She remembered quiet afternoons with Cherie which were shattered by the clattering of that ring of heavy keys as Mr. Palmer stumbled into the house with his monstrous boots, either drunk or enraged at one thing or another, ready to take vengeance for a variety of supposed wrongs done to him. But, Gayla wondered, if the keys weren’t for locks on his property, then for what?
Gayla lifted the heavy latch with one hand and, with a slight groan of effort, shoved open the big door just enough to peek her head inside.
The building housed the usual dusty farm equipment: balers, a tractor, giant rolls of twine and wire, ladders. Toward the back, Gayla noticed the absence of Mr. Palmer’s beloved A-Model, which meant he had driven off to Sacramento for the day to do business. It was the only place he went with it. Mr. Palmer would not be returning until sundown. Gayla knew, because Cherie would brag about her “ten-hour freedom” on mornings like this.
But the absence of the car didn’t leave the space vacant.
In the Model-A’s place sat a smaller and older Model-T. Though not in terrible shape, the car’s customary black paint was beginning to rust and peel and there were noticeable tears and cracks in the dry leather seating, all quiet evidence that the car had been housed in less elaborate shelter than the old tractor barn for most of its existence. Gayla nudged the sliding door over a little more, letting in a bit more light. She grinned. On the windshield she saw the identifier she was looking for: a crack in the glass, from the lower-driver’s side to the top-center, glittered in the meager lighting. Gayla stepped inside, maneuvered around some equipment, and leaned into the vehicle to retrieve something from under the seat. She stuffed the treasure in the pocket of her skirt and emerged from the barn. She closed the door behind her, replaced the latch, and climbed into the truck idling outside.
“What was that all about?”
Gayla smiled at him. It was the first show of friendliness she’d given him all morning. “Making sure I was right.”
Gayla nodded. Daniel, satisfied for the time being, pulled away from the building and puttered the truck the rest of the way down the driveway to the main road leading back toward the Masterson house. As they were halfway there he could no longer contain his curiosity. “Do you intend to come back later, when Mr. Palmer gets home?”
“No,” she said, again replacing the forever-unruly strand of hair. “I didn’t really want to talk to that old man.”
“Then why did we go?”
“To see Andrea.”
A pause. They bounced over a couple of small ditches dug into a low point in the road by the wet season’s rain runoff. Today, things felt bone dry.
“I didn’t know you and Mrs. Palmer were on a first name basis.”
Gayla shrugged. “We weren’t before, but hell if I care now. I don’t respect her. I have no friendships to lose by letting her know how I feel.”
“So…” Daniel, confused, took a deep breath. He punched the gas to get over a steep hill. The tires slipped a little on the dry gravel but soon found a rut where they could get some footing. “Do you want to go back later to speak with her?”
“No. I didn’t want to talk to her. I just wanted to see her, that’s all.”
“I see.” But he didn’t. Daniel swerved to the right to avoid a mass of crows feasting on what was left of the rattlesnake that had been basking in the sun earlier that morning. Daniel had intentionally driven over it. He hated snakes.
Gayla looked out the window, the dead field now on her side. She sighed. “I should talk to Greta about replanting this lot,” she said absentmindedly. Her elbow was resting on the door and she had her hand partially covering her mouth as she spoke. Greta’s posture was not as stiff as it had been on their departure trip. Daniel ignored her mental wanderings.
“So? What were you right about?”
Gayla grinned and sat up straighter. She wiggled her hand into pocket. “Andrea’s visitor.”
Daniel’s brow furrowed. It was getting hotter. He grabbed his cap, wiped his face with it, and tossed it between them on the bench seat. “You know who that man was? I didn’t get a good look.”
“Of course I know who it was,” Gayla laughed and pulled out a small mass of cloth from her pocket. After a couple of quick glances Daniel saw that it was just a dirty yellow handkerchief with scalloped edges. A woman’s handkerchief. “Andrea’s visitor was Amos Charles Riley, Mr. Hubert Riley’s son.”