Better Than Dead—23

by Colin Deerwood

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I felt like a house had fallen on me. A dead house by the stink. And by the taste, like I had a mouth full of rotten eggs. It took a few tries to crack open an eye. I slammed it shut immediately. The light was too bright and heavy, and the weight of it hurt my head which seemed larger than I remembered it. I didn’t remember being a pretzel either but my arms and legs told me otherwise. My groan sounded faraway but maybe that was because of the ringing in my ears. I put my hands over my face and tried the eyes again, and encountered the same blast of white light and the space it occupied. I managed to get myself upright and sitting once I untangled my legs from under me and slowly pieced together what I was seeing.

I was in the cabin on Little Lake. Uncle Ned’s Indian was parked in the middle of the floor, the bright light streaming in through the one window casting unflattering rays on the rest of the tumbledown cobwebbed furnishings. I felt like I had broken my back on what could have been a bed of nails but was actually a crude cot that was much harder. The reason I hadn’t felt anything until I opened my eyes was on the floor next to the bed, a half pint of Uncle Ned’s high-octane joy juice.

The stink got my attention again and made me gag. I bolted to my feet and yanked open the door only to be blinded by the intense brightness of an otherwise welcoming morning. I stumbled up to the pump platform, shading my eyes while little birds made annoying high pitched squeaks like they were either happy to see me or happy to torture me, and tried my luck.

I almost broke my arm trying to bring the pump handle down. It was frozen. I tried again as if the first time hadn’t hurt enough. This time I wrenched my back. I sat down on the pump platform and looked out over the dark blue scintillating waters of Little Lake. It was like an apparition, a story book picture, and of the times I’d visited as a kid, I don’t think I ever saw it that way.

What made it worse was that she was a beaut, blond hair cascading down to her shoulders and a figure like a young sapling, a shapely young sapling.

The sun had been up for a while judging from the slant of rays through the trees, but there was an after the rain freshness to the air. In the distance swimmers frolicked on a float set out from the shore near a collection of green and white summer cabins. A green canoe creased the waves paddled by two women with a third in a large sunhat lounging between them, dragging a hand in the water. Maybe I wasn’t the only one with a hangover. And the sounds of joyful shrieks and laughter of bathers on the docks of the resort around the bow of the lake reached me like a long ago memory of my own delight at being here.

I grabbed a tin pot from the clutter among the washtubs and picked my way carefully down the overgrown path to the dilapidated dock at water’s edge. I’d watched granny do it before. Sometimes the pump needed priming.

I bent over the lapping waters and reached down, got a handful of water and threw it on my face. The shock of the cold wet helped a little. I cleared more of the tadpole scum from the surface and dipped in the pot, filling it to the top and straightened up to get my bearings. That’s when I saw her.

I’d caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. About fifty yards down the shore a sleek silhouette emerged and pulled itself effortlessly up to the top of the large boulder. She shook her hair out of a bathing cap, water dripping off of her in sheets and extended both arms out from her body, arching her back, resembling a little T.

And T always stands for trouble as far as I’m concerned. Just what I’d come up to the country to avoid. What made it worse was that she was a beaut, blond hair cascading down to her shoulders and a figure like a young sapling, a shapely young sapling.

I may have been hungover and groggy but my better instincts kicked in. I held my breath until she turned and walked up the cut in the bank and disappeared behind a stand of birch trees. My luck with women hadn’t been all that great of late. Now not only did I have the thought of Becky gnawing at me and pointing an accusing finger of guilt, but I had a water nymph tormenting me with the prospect of moonlight swims. My goose was cook. I could almost taste the sauce.

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I didn’t have a man named Friday, but I went about fixing up the place like a man on a desert island anyway.

The pump wasn’t broke, just dry from lack of use. It took a couple pots of water poured down the gullet but I got it to squeak, working the handle slowly down and up and down until I heard the slurp of the uptake and a spurt of rusty water sloshed out into the trough. A couple more hearty pumps and it gushed out clear and cold onto my upturned face and mouth and splashing across my chest. It was a tasty quenching drink with a mineral tang that I remembered fondly, and it revived me.

If I was going to live in the cabin I was going to have to get rid of the rotting stench of the dead. My nose told me that the stink was strongest near the stove and the chimney pipe up through the roof. And as I suspected whatever it was, possum or coon, had crawled up in there, got stuck and died. I shucked my soggy clothes and borrowed the greasy coveralls hanging on a hook on the wall near the toolbox. They fit loosely. Ned was a bigger man. Dismantling the stovepipe was nasty work but I got it done and dumped the remains in the heap behind the cabin. By then I realized that I was famished and set about devouring much of the grub the cook had packed for me.

I watched the sunlight play over the expanse of Little Lake from the front porch of the cabin and knew that I had to put Becky’s death aside and concentrating on my plan. It had been a good idea to drop out of sight as quickly as I did. It might look like I’d been knocked off and was feeding the eels at the bottom of the East River. But I couldn’t count on it for certain. I had to get as far away as possible from the cops and the mob as I could and stay there. The threats to my life from the Thieves of Bombay were not something I was too concerned about yet. The news of an upcoming draft, on the other hand, made me nervous.

The bruises on my face were starting to fade but dark enough around the eyes to resemble a black mask like on some pulp magazine character.

The fly in my ointment was my lack of the do-re-mi. My broken C note would eventually play out to its last nickel and I’d end up sawing a violin on a street corner. My best bet to get some traveling cash was the art piece that Ted had left me. If Alice could find a buyer then I’d have enough money to leave all my troubles behind. Now that the diamonds and Rebecca were out of the picture, my plans of expanding my confidential investigation business and going upscale were nothing more than coal dust.

For the time being I had to make like a hermit hiding in a cave, not get friendly with anyone, especially nubile young girls and their shotgun toting fathers, and stay out of sight. But it wasn’t in my nature to skulk around in the shadows—except when I was on a case, of course. I had to keep busy.

I set about taking inventory of the old cabin and figuring out how I could make it livable. The cobwebs met the old broom as did the floor. Granny’s room, the forbidding sanctum, smelled moldy and I figure that it was probably due to a leak in the roof. The water stains along the far wall confirmed my suspicion. Otherwise, it was just a jumble of old furniture and boxes full of musty old clothes. A bedframe held a lumpy feather mattress that the mice had chewed through. A set of drawers had a mottled discolored mirror propped above it. I opened the only other window in the cabin and let in some air and light. A shaded kerosene lamp sat in front of the mirror and when I reached for it I gave a start. The face in the mirror was mine but I almost didn’t recognize it, smudged with soot, hair uncombed and standing straight up. The bruises on my face were starting to fade but dark enough around the eyes to resemble a black mask like on some pulp magazine character.

I took my time rooting around, getting a feel for what was there and might come in handy, accompanied by the pleasant memories of the previous stays of my younger days. I visited the outhouse, the door hanging on one hinge and not offering much privacy. I knocked down an old hornet’s nest above the plank seat and swept away a thicket of spiderwebs and egg sacs. Mice had nibbled most of what was left of an old Sears Roebucks catalogue. The old red lime bucket was still there, the lime as solid as a rock with the large kitchen ladle lodged in it. The memory came to me of Ruthie showing the younger boys how girls pee and how it seemed pretty disgusting and shocking at the time and someone had gone to tattle to one of the adults and how Ruthie got in trouble for it but it was one of the most talked about events that summer.

And that reminded me that there was a root cellar set in the downslope of the cabin’s foundation. The rough wooden double doors were still intact. When I yanked them open, I heard something scuttle away. Critters were living in there, maybe relatives of whatever it was that had died in the stove pipe. There were shelves set against the back and the gleam of glass, a wooden egg box with something growing out of it and a huddle of burlap bags with tiny pale sprouts poking through. The glass on closer inspection were mason jars. Some appeared to be empty and others were dark and mottled, green and white. I pulled a few out to get a better idea of what had been tucked away all this time. Much of it looked like it might have gone bad, some were preserves, loganberry jam I guessed as that was granny’s specialty. And to my surprise, the empty jars were not empty but contained a clear liquid. A twist of the lid and a sniff told me I’d stumbled on Uncle Ned’s emergency supply. As if I needed any more trouble.

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A pair of old dungarees chopped off just above the knees made passable swim shorts if I was of a mind to engage in bathing frolic. Mainly I’d just jump in the lake to cool off after I’d swung the axe and made myself a nice pile of fire wood to feed to the stove. The early summer heat was sweltering, thunderstorms booming regularly on the horizon. By the time evening arrived so had the mosquitoes, but it was also the best time for fishing. I braved a few evenings to be able to feast on lake trout. No one had fished off the end of the old dock in a while and they and the insects were biting. Good as it is, fish will only do you for so long and I had a craving for some variety. I knew to stay away from the berry patch after I’d stepped in what a bear had left there. I had to take in supplies and that meant the farm stand down Lake Road or firing up the Indian to go into Big Lake and the Big Lake Market.

I was sitting at the table with a stub of pencil making up a list when I heard a tapping on the door frame and got an eyeful of trouble.

I had figured right, she was the girl I’d seen swimming the morning after I got here, the moonshiner’s daughter.

She stood about five foot four, her blonde hair tied up in pigtails that dangled down to just below the collarbone, a pert little nose and pouty lips, and a playful sparkle to her predatory blue eyes. The rest of her looked like it belonged on a pinup calendar: a pair of overalls, patched at the knees, over a thin undershirt. Barefooted, all that was missing was a piece of straw to chew on and a come hither look. I had to blink. She was a stunner.

While I untied my tongue to find something to say, even “hello” or “come in,” she stepped into the cabin and glanced around like she’d been there before. “You look just like him.” It wasn’t an unpleasant voice, young, in the upper register. Lips set serious, she said, “Except younger.”

When I didn’t respond, she offered, “Ned, old Ned. And a little worse for the wear.” She meant the bruises on my face.

“Maybe, I’m his ghost.” I thought I’d be cute.

She shook her pigtails and threw me a smile that hurt. “No, I saw you use the outhouse and I don’t think ghosts do that.”

“You’ve been spying on me?” I tried to sound grave although I was amused.

“This old cabin been almost abandoned after old Ned died. Maybe once in a while some of the cousins will come up and get drunk and even that don’t seem to happen as much anymore. I used to come round when I was younger, when Ned was up fishing and trading pa fresh caught for shine.”

I had figured right, she was the girl I’d seen swimming the morning after I got here, the moonshiner’s daughter. It was like a bomb with a lit fuse had just stepped into my life. And for obvious reasons, I didn’t want to stand up and shake her hand..

She smiled at my discomfort. “My name’s Marie. I live on the property over yonder. My pa is Abner Wilson though most know him as Crazy Man Wilson on account he’ll shoot at you if you come round uninvited. But as long as I can recall, he ain’t never shot nobody, scared them mostly.” She went on like she’d missed talking to anyone who’d listen. “If you’re one of the cousins, I ain’t ever seen a one of them look as much like the old man as you do. And you got his old Indian setting on the porch. He never lent his cycle to nobody, let alone let them ride it.” She cast a wistful gaze in the direction of the porch. “’Cept maybe for me. He would let me ride it on the old dam road out over by Middle Lake. Ride fast enough and the skeeters won’t get ya, he’d say.” She gave a nervous little laugh, worried that she might have said too much.

“Yeah, I’m one of the cousins.” I remembered the alias I’d given Ruthie, “Stan Gardner. Ruthie’s the one let me borrow the motorcycle. Me and her used to vacation up here when we were kids. Probably about your age. How old are you?”

I could tell by the way she shifted her eyes she was going to lie.

“Seventeen. I’ll be eighteen in another month.” And when I didn’t respond. “Honest.”

“So Marie, is this just a neighborly visit or did you come by to borrow a cup of sugar?”


Next Time: Hiding Out At Little Lake

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