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Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Colonel's Tale - first chapter

This is the third in the Dassas Cormier Mystery Series.

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Marshall's Bayou, Louisiana
November 18, 1924

Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday as a boy, filled with sweet potato pie, juicy baked turkey and the love of a close knit family. My brothers and I always played ball before dinner, and burned leaves if the winds were calm. I knew the holiday wouldn't be the same without my parents and two oldest brothers, but I was looking forward to it all the same—my first Thanksgiving in Marshall's Bayou in many years.

I should have known Coralee would find a way to twist it into a bad dream.

As the youngest of five, and the only girl, my little sister demanded attention whenever she was around. The world revolved around her, and everyone else had to make do with his lowly station in life. Now, don't misunderstand—I love my sister. But I tend to feel a deeper brotherly warmth for her when she's safely tucked away in North Dakota with her husband, Manny Johnson.

That year, however, she'd decided to grace us with her presence.

"I see it!" My fourteen-year-old nephew Frank stood on his toes and pointed at the puff of smoke rising above the marsh grass. His five-year-old sister Chloe tugged on my pants leg and demanded to be lifted, and I obliged her.

We stood together on the covered dock in front of the only two businesses in Marshall's Bayou—Theriot's Dancehall and Brandon's Mercantile. Both places badly needed paint and general maintenance, but no one really minded their appearance. When guests arrived by mailboat, folks gathered as if waiting at Grand Central in New York City, and the raised platform provided a view for miles from which you could see every house in the southwest Louisiana marsh and glistening white sand beaches downstream.

"Are you sure this looks all right?" Becky smoothed the front of her best Sunday dress and frowned at me. Her pecan-brown hair, tied with a velvet ribbon, hung down her back in perfect ringlets, and, despite the frown, excitement brightened her dark eyes.

"You look beautiful, as always." I grinned at my sister-in-law's concern. "And I don't know why we had to get dressed up. It's only Coralee."

"And Colonel Jedidiah Gilmore," she said. "He's an important man, Dass. We're privileged to have him staying with us."

I sighed and looked at my niece.

"You hear that? We're privileged." I pinched her chin, and she giggled then rested her slender arm on my shoulder as she turned to watch the approaching mailboat.

My brother Alcide walked out of Brandon's carrying his youngest child, Fred, on one arm; the toddler's striking red hair contrasted sharply with his father's dark waves. The dock shook as Alcide strolled across the ancient wooden planks.

"Any sign yet?" He stopped beside Becky and wrapped his free arm around her waist.

"Yes," she said, pointing, "it's starting around the last bend."

He grinned at her. "You're beautiful."

"See?" I said. "I told you."

Alcide frowned at me over his wife's head. "Told her what?"

"That she's beautiful," I said.

"What are you doing talking to my wife like that?"

"Trying to steal her away from you."


"You want to make something of it?"

"Not really. You haven't got a prayer."

Becky looked up at me. "Can't you two be serious for five minutes?"

I shrugged. "If that's what you want. You know I only live to please you."

She rolled her eyes then straightened her dress again, took a deep breath and huffed it out. I couldn't believe she was truly nervous.

Our little welcome party watched the old flat-bottom boat slow, turn and ease up to the pilings. Frank ran out to catch the line from Captain Teller and wrapped it expertly around the largest cleat.

"I-I don't see anyone." Becky stepped forward.

The deck of the boat was completely empty, save for the captain and a bag of mail.

"Figures," I muttered.

Captain Teller waved. "Dassas Cormier?"

"Yes, sir." I lowered Chloe to her father's side and walked to the edge of the dock.

"I've got a message for you," he said. He stretched up and handed me an envelope with my name printed on the front.

I opened the letter and read it.

Dearest Dassas,
We've had a tragic accident and are delayed in Lake Charles. Please don't worry. The doctors hope for a full recovery, and we plan to board the train again as soon as possible. The cruel winds of fate blow when they're least expected.
Your loving sister,

"Oh, good Lord," I muttered.

"What? What is it?"

I handed the letter to Becky.

"Oh, my," she said. "This is horrible. What on earth could have happened?" She looked at her husband. "Please, Al, you must go to Lake Charles."

He cringed.

"Your sister needs you," she said. "Poor Cora. She's hurt and stranded."

Alcide looked at me and raised one eyebrow. "Yes, dear."

Now, I guess I could have stepped back and let Alcide hop the boat. He was, after all, the oldest in the family, although I'm not sure that counts after everyone reaches adulthood. And I did have a job. As the chief of police for Marshall's Bayou, I was expected to be available to protect the townspeople and preserve the peace.

But I have to admit—after two months in the tiny coastal community, I was ready for a little excitement, even if I hadn't realized it until that moment. So far, I'd only been called on to help track down lost cattle, intercede in family squabbles and head up a group that patched a collapsed barn roof. Not exactly the kind of excitement I'd experienced in New Orleans as a patrolman. Plus, I suspected that Cora had addressed the letter to me for a reason.

"No," I said, "you stay here with your family. I'll go."

Alcide grinned. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure." I slugged him in the shoulder as I walked by. "But you owe me." I glanced back at my nephew. "Frank, come help me pack."

"Yes, sir." The boy ran across the dock and made it down the dozen stairs in three steps.

"Don't let the boat leave without me," I said to Alcide.

"Don't you worry."

I followed Frank at a trot along the path that led north and east through the saw grass and brush until we reached my house. Inside, huffing to catch my breath, I pulled a bag from the closet, opened it on the bed, dragged clothes from the dresser and stuffed them in.

"Get my dark suit out of the hall closet," I said.

Frank retrieved the suit and laid it on the bed. I neatly folded the sleeves and rolled the entire thing up as one piece.

"See that bread on the kitchen counter?"

He hurried into the next room. "Yes, sir."

"Take it to your mama after I leave. And carry that scrap bowl out for the cats, will you?"

"Yes, sir."

I pulled out my shaving kit and looked around for the shaving brush. Turned out it had fallen from the stand and rolled halfway across the room and under the bed, and I had to crawl after it.

"Frank, go put a bridle on Midnight. We'll ride him back to the dock."

The boy's boots thumped across the floor as he ran from the house.

I was packed and ready to go in less than ten minutes. I tucked my shirt in around the money belt, put on my coat and hat and grabbed my bag.

Frank waited astride Midnight, just outside the door. I handed him my bag, grabbed a handful of mane and swung up behind him.

"Okay, let's go."

I looked back at the house as Frank urged the gelding to a trot. It was a comfortable house raised on brick pilings, with three bedrooms, a dining room and kitchen, and a small sitting room that the sun warmed on winter mornings and Gulf breezes cooled on summer evenings. It was freshly whitewashed and newly re-roofed, yet haunted by memories of the woman I loved.

When Grace Trahan abandoned me and Marshall's Bayou, she'd left her family home to be used to house the chief of police. I guess she knew I'd eventually take the job. I was grateful for a place to live, but spent many evenings wishing I shared the house with her.

When I first returned to Marshall's Bayou, I found Grace—the girl I'd loved since grade school—married to a man who was missing. She'd asked me to look for her wayward husband, which I did reluctantly. I won't bore you with the details of that search, especially since I've told the story before, but I was fortunate enough to get a chance to tell

Grace how I felt about her. I still hoped someday she'd discover that she loved me, too. I wondered where she was at that moment. Was she eating in a fancy New York restaurant? Or maybe strolling through Central Park? Or was she lounging by a window with a book in her lap, looking out at the city and wondering about me?
Probably not the latter.

An oilrig rose starkly in the front yard. Sun Oil had tapped a small reservoir and regularly pumped out a couple dozen barrels of crude. The haul distance prevented the well from being very profitable, but I imagine the royalties, and the meager rent I paid, kept Grace in new dresses.

We made it back to the dock before Captain Teller was ready to leave. I hopped down and looked up at my nephew.

"Take care of him for me," I said as I patted Midnight's shoulder.

The boy nodded.

My family was still on the dock. I kissed Chloe and Fred and accepted a hug and kiss from Becky.

"Thank you," she said.

"It's the least I can do for such important guests."

She frowned and slapped my arm. I laughed then shook hands with my brother. He pulled me to him for a quick hug.

"Be careful," he said. "It seems like every time you leave on this boat you come back with bruises."

"Don't worry. I'll come back in one piece this time."


I tossed my bag onto the deck of the old boat and followed it aboard. Opting for a shady seat, I settled onto the bench under the canvas tarp in the back and waved to my family. Alcide untied the line. The engine chugged as we pulled away from the dock and made a wide circle in the muddy brown water.

Alcide, Becky and the children sank into the golden marsh grass as we swept around the first bend and headed north on the bayou. Once the houses were no longer visible, Marshall's Bayou became nothing more than clumps of trees marking homesites, like stakes in a newly planted garden. Marsh birds rose on each side of the waterway, stirred from their fishing endeavors by our appearance, and alligators splashed into the water then stared after us.

I leaned back, tilted my hat over my eyes and stretched out to take a nap. It would be the middle of the night when we reached Orange, Texas, where I'd board the train headed east. Since the train didn't leave until sometime after eight in the morning, I'd have to spend the night in the station. The boat was more comfortable, and a lot less busy.

The steady beat of the old engine, drowning out marsh noises, should have lulled me to sleep. Instead, it tossed me into a sunny afternoon in September of 1918 when another, very different message had arrived with the mail...

I noted engine smoke from the old boat winding down the bayou, still a quarter-mile or so out, as I climbed the stairs to the dock. Although fall waited just around the corner, summer still had its teeth in the marsh. I raised my hat to wipe my forehead then pulled open the screen door and strolled into Brandon's Mercantile.

Mr. Brandon dusted his knees as he rose from where he'd been stocking a lower shelf.

"Good day to you, young man."

"Mr. Brandon," I said, "do you have any more of that chicken wire?"


"Yes, sir. I've just got one more hole to plug and we'll be set."

"Well," he said, "I may have another roll in the back room."

We both turned as three sharp blasts announced the mail boat's arrival.
I motioned with my head. "I can grab the mailbag, if you don't mind looking for the wire."

Mr. Brandon nodded. "All right."

I wandered outside, squinting against shards of sunlight reflecting off brown water as the boat slid up to the dock. Captain Teller threw a rope to me, and I wrapped it around a cleat.

"Afternoon," I said.

"Good afternoon." The hearty captain, dressed in a blue wool suit from another time and place, tossed the mailbag over his shoulder and lumbered to the edge of the deck.

"Aren't you one of the Cormier boys?"

"Yes, sir." I took the bag from him and placed it on the dock. "Something I can do for you?"

Captain Teller frowned as he searched the inside of his coat.

"Son, I sure hate to be the one to deliver this. It's not my first. I pray God it will be my last, but I don't hold out much hope in times like these." He produced an envelope and held it out to me. "I am sincerely sorry."

My heart clenched, and all the air escaped from my lungs as I stared at the telegram. I saw "Mr. Pierre Cormier" and "United States Army" and couldn't read the rest. Just holding it in my hand burned like a white-hot coal.

Struggling to breathe, I stumbled from the dock, through the marsh and into the yard. My father turned as I approached, his face red from exertion.

"What the devil took you so—"

His dark eyes widened as he stared at me; then his gaze dropped to the envelope. Shaking his head slowly, he backed away.

Realizing I must be the one to do it, I fought trembling hands to read the telegram, and learned that my eldest brother had died on a battlefield in France.

"It's Louie."

My father fell to the ground.

A door shut in his mind that day, locking him away from the rest of us. The man who had always been full of life and gentle strength disappeared. He lived another two months, withering away like a neglected pepper plant then fell asleep one night and didn't wake.

We buried him between Louie and Mama, with the dirt still fresh on Trey's grave, and most of Marshall's Bayou attended the funeral. I stood beside Becky, holding my eight-year-old nephew's scrawny shoulders as he wept. I don't know why I didn't cry—I'd cried when I buried my brothers. Maybe I'd used up all the tears by the time my father died.

Two days later, a cold wind blew in from the west, escorting my sister and her husband from Texas. Cora had been married for nearly a year, just long enough to lose a little of her precocious manner. Or perhaps two weeks of traveling had matured her.

She arrived tired, covered with dust and angry.

"How could you let this happen?" she demanded as we stood beside Papa's grave. "You should have taken care of him."

I turned to stare at her as a crow cawed from somewhere behind me.

"Cora, my dear," Manny said, taking her arm, "you know Dassas couldn't have prevented this."

She jerked her arm from his grip.

"Yes, he could have!" Then she turned on me again, sticking her finger in my face. "You promised to take care of Papa. How could you let him die? You promised!"

"Cora!" Manny grabbed her more firmly with an arm around her waist, turned her toward the buggy and cast an apologetic glance at me over his shoulder.

I'm not sure what I felt at that point. I grieved the loss of my father and brothers, hated being the one left behind and, worst of all, worried that Cora might be right. Maybe I could have done something to help heal my father's broken heart. Had I selfishly neglected him?


I straightened as Becky approached.

"She's wrong, Dass. This isn't your fault."

Embarrassed by my tears, I turned my face away from my sister-in-law and wiped my eyes.

She rested a hand on my arm.

"We still have one more to pray for, to be strong for."

I thought about Alcide, sitting in a hospital in France, reading my letter about Papa. Somehow, I knew he'd be tough, no matter how much the news tore him up. He'd always been the strong one.

I nodded. "You're right.

Turning toward the buggy, I wrapped an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned her head against my chest as we walked.

My sister had always been the apple of my father's eye, but it didn't give her the right to drive a knife in my heart when it was already raw. I decided to pretend to be like Alcide so the knife would bounce off. Someday, I might remind Coralee that she could have stayed home to take care of Papa if she'd really been worried.

Canvas snapping above my head yanked me back into the present, and I glanced at the lake stretching out before me. Repositioning myself on the bench, I dropped my hat back over my eyes. I could still grab a little sleep before we docked.

As I drifted off, I wondered if I would be able to let the past lie when I faced my sister.

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