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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 12, 2001. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Oklahoma, 1932: Trouble seems to be rolling up like the dust on the dry yellow horizon beyond Henry Ann’s farm. Her father is dead and her two rebellious half-siblings are now her responsibility. Then Tom Dolan, a new neighbor, comes into her life bringing both a ray of hope and burdens of his own. Before they can fully love each other, tragedy strikes. Tom is suspected of murder…and a staunch Henry Ann must stand by his side. Yet despite the dark times ahead, Henry Ann and Tom know they have found a treasure-a bright and shining future worth fighting for.
"All this drudgery will kill me if once in a while I cannot hope for something for somebody. If I cannot see a bird fly and wave my hand to it."
THE SONG OF THE LARK, 1915
THE SONG OF THE LARK, 1915
WITH HENRY ANN
You open your eyes at the sound of her voice,
See her sweet face at the dawn.
Greet the new morn and rejoice, yes, rejoice
For you are so lucky, my son.
You are so lucky, my little man,
Staying with Henry Ann
You close your eyes at the day's end now
When she sings you a lullaby,
You feel her dear kiss upon your brow
As off to dreamland you fly.
You are so blessed, my little man
'Biding with Henry Ann.
I miss you, my lad, back at our farm.
Your mother grows stranger each day.
Henry, I know, will guard you from harm.
For your sake, I keep you away.
Yes, you are safer, my little man,
Living with Henry Ann.
I know it is wrong that I envy you
The joy and the comfort you've found.
I want to be happy and carefree too,
From my miserable marriage unbound.
I want to be with you, my little man,
Loving with Henry Ann.
During the following week Henry Ann not only had to cope with the grief of losing her father but had to adjust to all the responsibility of the farm and living with Isabel. Aunt Dozie stayed for three days after the burial. If not for Isabel, she would have stayed longer. Henry Ann spoke to her old friend about it.
"Aunt Dozie, you're going because of Isabel, aren't you?"
"I be like a sore toe in a tight shoe to the gal. It make thin's better if I go for a while."
"I'm so sorry. I worry about you. What are you doing for money?"
"I gettin' by. I does a little a this, little a that. I got chickens, I got a garden, I got a roof over my head. It more than some folks got."
"I'll always have room here for you. I hope you know that."
"I knows it, chile."
"Johnny will take you home when you're ready to go."
Many times Henry Ann wished that she'd never gone to Oklahoma City. She'd missed out on being with her daddy during his last days, and she had brought home a peck of trouble.
At daybreak several mornings after Aunt Dozie went home, Henry Ann awakened Isabel and insisted that she put on an old hat and come to the cotton field with her and Johnny. The girl had whined that it wasn't fair for her to do "nigger" work. She sulked through breakfast and all the way to the field.
Henry Ann was patient with her and showed her how to hoe the weeds from around the cotton plants. After watching her for a few minutes, Henry Ann started weeding down her own row. After a short while she looked back to see that Isabel had chopped out everything in the row; weeds, cotton plants and all. Twenty feet of cotton plants had been deliberately wiped out.
"There just ain't no pleasin' you, is there?" She leaned on the hoe handle and glared at Henry Ann.
"Don't you know a weed from a cotton plant?"
"No. I don't know a weed from a cotton plant," she echoed.
"Then you can learn."
"I ain't no field hand."
"Isabel, I'm getting sick and tired of your attitude. Why do you insist on being so unpleasant?"
"I hate this place. I understand why Mama left it."
"You haven't even tried to like it."
"And I ain't going to either. I'm goin' to the house."
"No, you're not. Sit down there in the shade where I can keep an eye on you. Johnny's finished a half row already."
"He knows 'bout diggin' in the dirt. He's a breed, ain't he?"
"What do you mean by that?"
"His daddy was a dirty old Indian. Mama said so."
"I don't want to hear you say that again. You've got a mouth on you like the Perrys. And I'm beginning to believe that you're just as rotten as they are."
"I take that as a compliment. Pete's goin' to take me to see them. He said they'd just love me 'cause I look like my mama."
"You're not going anywhere with Pete Perry. And that's that."
Isabel sank down on the grass with a smirk on her face.
"I'm thinkin' that pretty soon you ain't goin' to be so smart and know-it-all."
Henry Ann started down the row, her hoe expertly cutting the weeds from around the foot-high cotton plants. She had never met anyone like her half sister, and she didn't know how to handle her. She pondered about asking Johnny for help. Even though he had taken over the outdoor work, he was still uncommunicative, and most of the time limited his answers to yes and no.
Ahead Johnny had finished his row and was headed back toward her on the next one. When he got even with her, Henry Ann, on a sudden impulse, stopped him.
"Johnny, wait a minute."
Johnny wiped his wet forehead with the tail of his shirt. Then he took off his old felt hat, slapped it against his thigh, and slammed it back down on his head before he turned his expressionless face and dark eyes to her.
"What am I to do about Isabel?" Henry Ann wiped the sweat from her own face with a handkerchief she took from her dress pocket. "She refuses to help out, and she's so mouthy that I'm afraid that one day I'm going to lose my patience and slap her."
Johnny's dark eyes came alive, and the corners of his mouth lifted in a grin that lasted for only the space of a heartbeat.
"It worked with me."
"Oh, Johnny. I felt so bad about that. I've never struck another person in my life."
"I had it comin'."
"Please help me with Isabel. She's going to really be in trouble if she hangs around with Pete Perry."
"She slipped out and met him last night."
"Oh, no! Oh, Lord! I was so tired I slept like a rock. I'll talk to the sheriff and tell him that Isabel is underage."
"Won't do no good. She's like her. Let her go."
Henry Ann was shocked into silence for several minutes while she leaned on the hoe handle. In the four years Johnny had been with them he had never mentioned his mother, not even one time.
"Isabel keeps hinting that something is going to happen. Just now she said that soon I'd not be so know-it-all. I want you to know, Johnny, that when I came of age, Daddy deeded the farm to me. I think you can guess why he did it. He was afraid that if something happened to him, Mama would come and take it."
"Help me with the farm, Johnny. Even if it is in my name, I'll share it with you."
"I ain't no kin of Ed's. I've known that since I was knee-high. She told me lots of times that my pa was a blanket-ass."
"I don't like that word. It's obvious that my daddy wasn't yours, but you should be proud of your heritage. Never be ashamed of it."
He looked off toward the lower woods and didn't answer.
"You're my brother, Johnny. Whether we like it or not, she was our mother. And Isabel's. I'd like to help Isabel, but I don't think she'll let me."
"Let her go," he said again. "She won't do nothin' but drag you down." He began hoeing again and never looked back.
* * *
During the following week, Isabel grumbled continually about having to go to the field. She usually took a blanket and slept in the shade. Henry Ann offered her a book to read. She refused. One morning Johnny handed her a hoe and told her to have the weeds at the end of four rows chopped out by the time he returned or he would slap her silly. The threat worked.
Johnny worked from dawn to dusk, taking time out only to do the chores and to move the cattle to the lower pasture. Henry Ann wished that he had behaved this way when her daddy was alive. He had always wanted a son.
Rain was needed badly. The ground was as hard as a rock in some places and powdery dry in others. If rain didn't come soon, the cotton plants would be stunted, if they lived at all.
One evening, bone-weary after ten hours in the field, they walked back to the house to find a man standing beside the well drinking out of a tin cup.
"Who's that?" Isabel had pulled up the hem of her skirt to pull out the cockleburs that had stuck to it.
"I don't know, but put your dress down."
"Ma'am, I hope you don't mind that I helped myself to a drink of water."
"Of course we don't mind."
One glance told Henry Ann that the man was a transient, a hobo. He had a week's growth of light-colored whiskers on his sunken cheeks, and the pack that lay on the ground beside his feet probably held the sum of his belongings. He had removed a checkered cap when he spoke to her. Fair hair was plastered to his head with sweat.
Johnny drew a cylinder of water from the well and dumped it into the water bucket on the bench and into the washpan sitting beside it. Henry Ann removed her wide-brimmed straw hat, pushed up the sleeves of her father's old shirt that she wore over her sleeveless dress, and splashed water on her face with cupped hands. With her face dripping, she slicked her hair back with her wet palms. The skin on her face and neck had turned golden from the sun.
"I'd like to speak to your husband, ma'am, about doing a few days' work for some grub."
"She ain't got a husband," Isabel said with a snort. "And as prissy as she is, she'll probably never get one."
"Shut up!" Johnny hissed, and jerked her arm.
Henry Ann ignored her. "We've made it a rule not to hire from the road. I'll give you a meal and you can be on your way."
"I'd appreciate the meal, but I'll work for it."
"Johnny?" Henry Ann left the decision to her brother.
"He can fill the tanks while I mix the slop for the hogs."
"All right. I'll milk, then make supper. Feed the chickens, Isabel."
"Ma'am, I'm a right good hand at milkin'—"
Henry Ann looked into serious blue eyes. He was somewhere around thirty, she imagined. He spoke like an educated man. What bad luck, she wondered, had brought him to this stage in his life.
"Very well. But be sure to wash. I'll set the milk pail on the porch."
Henry Ann moved the soap dish over near the washpan, motioned to Johnny, and headed for the house. When they were a short distance away, she whispered, "Keep an eye on him."
"What'er ya whisperin' for?" Isabel asked loudly.
"Weren't you told to do chicken chores?" Johnny turned on his heel and left them.
Isabel stuck out her tongue. "Feed the chickens, water the chickens, gather the eggs," she chanted. "What's got into him? He acts as if he owns the place . . . already."
Henry Ann hung her shirt and hat on the peg beside the door and lit the two-burner kerosene cookstove they used during hot weather. She peeled potatoes and sliced them into a heavy iron skillet. After adding lard and a chopped onion, she placed the pan over the flame. She set the table for three, then added a fourth plate.
No need for the man to eat his plate of food on the porch as long as Johnny was here.
"That damned old hen pecked me again." Isabel came in and plunked down the egg basket. "Someday I'm goin' to wring her neck."
Henry Ann took the basket from the countertop where she was working at the cabinet and set it on the floor.
"I showed you how to get the eggs without disturbing the hen."
"Are you goin' to let that bum eat with us?" Isabel eyed the four plates on the table.
"Do you have any objections?" Henry Ann unscrewed the zinc lid from the fruit jar and forked spiced peaches into a bowl.
"I'll swear! You ain't got no pride a'tall. First you let that old nigger woman eat with us and now a bum."
"You can take your plate to the porch if you like."
"Thanks. Thanks a lot." Isabel peered into the mirror above the washstand. "Look at my face," she wailed. "I'm gettin' all freckled."
Henry Ann went out onto the porch to meet Johnny and the bum when they came from the barn with the milk.
"Set it here on the porch." She covered the full bucket of milk with a clean cloth. "After supper I'll run it with the morning milk through the separator."
"I'll be glad to do that for you, Miss—" The man snatched off his cap.
"Henry. You know how to run the separator?"
"Yes, ma'am. Necessity has turned me into a jack-of-all-trades. I've packed ten years of education into two." He smiled, showing exceptionally even white teeth. For all his ragged appearance, he oozed confidence. "Name is Grant Gifford, ma'am."
"Come in—both of you. Supper is ready."
Johnny stepped up on the porch. The man hesitated.
"I appreciate being asked in, Miss Henry. It's been a while since I put my feet under a table."
Henry Ann was almost too tired to eat. Isabel picked at her food, complaining that she didn't like raw-fried potatoes and why couldn't they have tomatoes and spaghetti. Johnny ate hungrily, as did Mr. Gifford.
"How come you're a bum?" Isabel asked with her eyes riveted on the stranger. "You'll not amount to anythin' roamin' around beggin' off folks."
"Isabel! Don't ask rude questions." Because she was tired, Henry Ann spoke more sharply than usual.
"I suppose you think you'll amount to somethin'," Johnny mumbled, his eyes on his plate.
Isabel heard. "More'n you, clodhopper!"
"Please," Henry Ann said tiredly.
"It's all right, Miss Henry. I'll answer the young lady. I'm a bum because I want to be. I have no one to look out for but myself. I'm satisfying my wanderlust. I've been from coast to coast and from border to border. I've learned things and seen things that I never would have experienced if I'd stayed in one place. And . . . I've never asked for a handout without offering to work for it first."
"You don't talk like a bum."
"How's a bum supposed to talk?"
"I don't know, but not like you do."
"Where are you going from here, Mr. Gifford?" Henry Ann asked.
"I was hoping to stay around Red Rock for a while."
"Good. He can help hoe weeds outta that cotton patch." Isabel spoke as if the decision were hers.
Grant's eyes met Henry Ann's. "I can do that, ma'am. For meals and a place to sleep."
"We've got a week's work left in that field."
"Not if three of you work."
"Shut up, Isabel." Johnny's patience had finally snapped. "We'd be through by now if you'd done your share."
"You'll have to sleep in the barn or the shed." Henry Ann ignored both her brother and her sister.
"There's snakes out there," Isabel said.
"I'll throw my bedroll in the wagon bed."
The man had the bluest eyes Henry Ann had ever seen and the saddest. She also realized that her daddy would not allow anyone off the road to stay any longer than to work off a meal or two. There was something different about this man. His clothes were ragged, but reasonably clean and of good quality. She could not fault his manners, and he appeared to be a good worker.
Was he a criminal? Was he hiding from the law?
Henry Ann looked at Johnny, hoping to gauge his reaction. He was looking steadily back at her—waiting.
"Well, for goodness sake!" Isabel broke the silence. "There ain't nothin' to ponder about." She turned her eyes on Grant. "You're hired. I own a third a this place and—"
Henry Ann jumped. It was the first time she'd heard Johnny yell. He was on his feet, grabbed Isabel's arm, and yanked her out of the seat. Before she could gather her wits to protest, he had propelled her out the door and onto the back porch. She began to screech.
"Stop it! You . . . stupid . . . blanket-ass! Ain't ya goin' to stick up for what's ours? Ya goin' to just bow and scrape and lick her boots till—" The rest of her words were muffled when Johnny put his hand over her mouth.
Embarrassment caused the blood to rush to Henry Ann's face.
"My . . . half sister's a handful," she said lamely.
"I can see that. The boy's got a good head. I can see that, too." That shadow of sadness was back in his eyes.
"I'm the sole owner here."
"The boy told me that—in the barn, when I asked about staying on a while. He said your father died recently."
"Yes," she said quietly. Then, "I can afford to pay you a small wage."
"I'll work for meals. I've not stayed in any one place more than a week. You may wake up one morning and find me gone."
"A man who works deserves wages," she said. "I'll pay by the week."
* * *
Pale yellowish clouds were building in the west as Henry Ann watched Johnny and Grant, hoes on their shoulders, each with a jar of well water wrapped in a wet burlap bag tucked under his arm, walk away from the farm buildings. A weird half-light shadowed the farm yard. A dust storm was brewing somewhere along the dry, sandy riverbeds.
At the crack of dawn she had fired up the cookstove and made biscuits and pan gravy. The chores were done and the morning milk on the porch when Johnny and the new hired hand came to breakfast.
- On Sale
- Apr 12, 2001
- Page Count
- 480 pages
- Grand Central Publishing