The house, when they found it, was exactly as Ossie had described it. The wood siding was drooping with age, paint peeling like the dying skin of a leper. The roof was so bowed, it held water, and the acres of field around it were a wild crop of ragweed and alfalfa. At first glance, it was hard to imagine the house was anything but abandoned.
Jack slapped a hand across Howie's chest as the eager man started forward. "Flowers," he warned.
Howie, not so smart as he was impulsive and violent, cocked his head not understanding. The mountainous man beside him pointed at the two delicate and meticulously kept flower beds on either side of the dangerously sagging stairs. "Flowers mean people," he explained to the youth. Narrowing his eyes, he scrutinized the house again. "Or person, at least."
Howie fidgeted with his unkempt blond hair, tugging on it lightly as he did when Nervosa set in. Anxiety manifested in red scaly skin, like small explosions of flesh on his arms, chest and legs. It was a wonder to Jack that the kettle of pressure that was Howie Gray had not yet exploded completely. Oh, he went off in small bursts, sometimes big ones that ended with dead folk if he was left to boil too long. But Howie had not yet completely exploded. Jack was torn between wanting to be safely far away, and indulging his curiosity with a front row seat to that finale. Today, however, would not be that day.
Slowly Jack moved forward along the lightly graveled dirt road. Miles back, further outside town the road had seemed more traveled. Deeper grooves from trucks and cars pitted it. Here, however, in this tiny dot on the Ohio map, even in the modern age of 1933, the road was barely kept devoid of weeds.
"We goin' in, Ev'rest?" Howie hissed, like a schoolboy plotting to invade the girl's restroom at school. His large partner did not answer, as often he didn't, and Howie was left to follow along or be left behind.
Leary of the front steps, Jack led his partner around the back of the decomposing farmhouse. He paused to admire the delicate, threadbare, silky garments hanging from a modest wash line. Only enough to clothe one woman, and a small one at that-- and, he noted, only for one day. No basket offered promise of more panties or slips. Howie's lascivious exhale, like an audible grin, drew Jack's lips into a stern frown before he took footing on the back stair and entered the house.
Keeping his broad shoulders in the doorway, Jack kept Howie upon the outside stair. Screaming women always excited the youth and then bad things happened. There was no scream.
"Is she in there?" Howie begged with eagerness.
She was indeed.
No more than a mere girl, the wind-dried clothing had told her size true. Not an inch above five feet, large grey eyes set in a softly freckled face, and a cap of rowdy platinum gold hair, the resident of Ossie's house blinked up in silence. In one hand was a near cracker thin slice of wilting bread, lightly smeared with a veil of oleo. In the other a carefully held butter knife bearing a dollop of oily peanut butter held ready to layer upon the drooping sandwich-half. Without request or order, the waifish girl very carefully set the knife down and withdrew her hand. Just as surgically, she placed the dressed bread upon the table.
Jack tilted his head, observing her precise movements with a twitch of one eye. He looked away only as a wolfhound-mastiff mutt, near as big as the girl and as old and weary as the house, stirred under the table. A great tangled mop of grey fur and dirt hobbled forward as his senses finally alerted him to the intruders. Dropping his haunches into a sit directly in front of the girl and looking through milky eyes at Jack, the mutt erupted with two vicious barks, yawned, licked his chops and looked away.
After a moment, the dog whined and sniffed toward the table. Not being reprimanded, he snatched the stray piece of bread and oleo in his teeth and retreated under the table with it.
"That's Toby," the girl announced with a voice like never before used linen. "He won't bite."
"Ossie isn't here?" Jack inquired, his own voice sounding like shifting stone deep inside a coal mine. She wasn't blinking. It was the only indication of her fear that he could see.
"Where's Ossie?" Howie poked at Jack from the stairs, unable to see anything but the dog as he lapped at the last bits of bread crumbs.
"Pa died two winters back. Pneumonia."
Cheap, worn linoleum spanned the entire floor of the one room house. They had seen the weathered outhouse on their way in, and the unfinished remains of a bedroom addition. Within, there was but the one room, both kitchen and seating area. Other than the unstable kitchen table with one wobbly chair, it sported no more than a legless sofa, a frail wooden rocker, and a radio under the windowsill.
The only division from one room to the next was the decrepit wood stove that sat hunkered down on fat legs, half in the kitchen, half in the living room. There were two potted Violets on top. Jack admired their large, colorful blooms. It took dedication and a gentle hand to grow a beautiful African Violet.
Jack stepped forward and let Howie past, but kept the younger man's path blocked to the girl. Howie darted in like a bull released from a pen and bolted past both of them into the grim living room.
Raising a hand to scratch at his stubble, Jack arched a brow, an unconscious gesture when his thoughts took him. Howie saw it. Howie grew anxious. He scrubbed at the swollen patches of Psoriasis on his arm, dusting the floor with dead skin. "Ossie died? Well what now, Ev'rest? Now what? Where is it?"
"It's here. Sit down."
"I bet she knows. He told her!"
"I SAID, SIT DOWN."
Jack didn't like to raise his voice. He was a powerful man. People were afraid of him. For a brief time in his youth, he relished that power. Not now. Now, like Toby, he barked when he had to but was far more content to sit by and let life swirl on around him, so long as there were treats to be had under the kitchen table. That's what Jack had come for; his treat.
As he stood pondering, the girl poured two glasses of sun-warmed tea. Stepping unabashedly close to him she held it up. "I'm sorry I have no ice. It's too expensive."
"That's just fine. Thank you." He accepted the glass and watched as she far more timidly walked across the small house and extended the second glass to Howie. The younger man, old enough to be her father if he'd fathered her at fifteen- not an unlikely scenario- leered at her from the sofa. Even blind old Toby could have seen the nature of his thoughts.
"Take the drink and say thank you, Howie," Jack instructed, like a father scolding a rowdy boy at Sunday brunch.
Howie's long fingers unnecessarily snaked over the girl's wrist before wrapping about the cup and pulling it away. Jack could see the girl's body tremble even at such a distance, as the threadbare and faded dress shimmied where it gathered into ripples and folds just under the outermost curve of her hips, tiny as they were. Higher at the nape of her neck, he could see her platinum curls bouncing without joy.
"Thank you, sweetness," Howie smirked.
Feeling free to retreat, the girl walked with a remarkable calm back into the kitchen. Her hands braced on the table as she looked down at the plate of sandwiches. Jack had noted there was at least a dozen.
"You expecting someone?"
Curling one ear toward her shoulder, the girl's lips pouted out and she shook her head slightly. Jack could see a sadness creep over her face, her eyes glossing just enough that he noticed. "No," she replied. "I take lunch to the schoolhouse up the road...Mrs. Vitoria lets me borrow the books and teaches me piano."
The man nodded, "a pleasant arrangement."
"They expecting you soon, then?" Jack noted the clock read quarter to noon.
Tucking her chin down she nodded.
Jack nodded as well. Reaching out he placed two of the sandwiches on a plate then smiled, "will you have lunch with me before you go then?" Her nod was accompanied by a tremulous breath. "Bring yourself some tea....and Toby too."
"Ev'rest—what the fuck you doin'?" Howie sat forward with a sneer.
"Language, boy!" Jack barked at him. "She and I are going to have a lovely lunch on the porch with Toby...and you can look for that package Ossie was supposed to have for us."
"Package....right..." Howie nodded. "Then can I have lunch with her--"
"No. You. Can. Not." Jack glowered at him. "There's sandwiches on the table."
Leading the slip of a girl past Howie and out onto the porch, he paused to hold the door for her as she turned back and clucked her tongue. "C'mon Toby....outside, boy."
The aged canine scrambled to his feet with a surprising amount of energy, his thick nails scratching and clacking on the chipped and peeling linoleum. Gearing himself up to a trot, the shaggy monstrosity passed them out to the porch to claim the warmest spot at the top of the stairs.
"Don't you worry, Ev'rest-- I'll find it!" Howie's snarky tone echoed from within.
Jack lingered in the door to give a final commanding glare at Howie, then let the flimsy aluminum door smack shut. The girl, he was surprised to see, had seated herself on the stairs beside Toby, scratching his ears and stroking his hide. He had almost expected her to be running for the road.
"Why's he call you that?" the girl asked suddenly. "Ev'rest is not your name."
The man took pause. The girl was smart, smarter than he'd thought any kid of Ossie's would be. Then, it seemed she was maybe just smart in the wrong things; the things Ossie was smart in. Jack squinted out at the road then maneuvered onto the creaking stairs beside her. She didn't shrink away.
"My name is Jack Dempsey."
"Like the boxer?"
He smiled in spite of himself as he set the plate of sandwiches at their feet. "Yes. Like him. 'Fact, me and Ossie used to box some in pri-- well...."
"Prison. I know. Ma told me. 'That Osmond Weaver weren't never no good!' She said that a lot." The girl ducked her head and studied her bare toe as she dug at a loose nail. "Ma died summer b'fore Pa come home. I waited for him, though."
"You're a good girl."
Jack looked at her sideways. The sun highlighted her freckles and made the tips of her gold lashes look like tiny stars.
"Tulliola Grace Weaver. You ain't asked my name yet. It's Tully." One pale gray eye peered at him as the other squinted from the sunlight.
Smart in all the wrong things.
Jack managed a smile, "it's a fine name." His throat felt heavy; a weight like boulders sitting right where he swallowed.
Quietly, Toby whined then stretched his maw wide before smacking his gums and repositioning his head onto his paws. The girl- Tully- turned toward Toby and lovingly stroked the top of his head. Anyone could see the dog was passed his time, barely able to lift his brows to peer blindly at the sweet child he guarded; his purpose.
Long dormant things, poetic things, stirred in Jack as he watched her. A gossamer mesh of sun-spun gold illuminated upon the back of her neck, just beneath the little V shaped tail of hair beneath her cap of curls. A younger man would kiss her there, ignite fires that such a vernal miss would not yet- should not yet- know what to do with. Just a single kiss, his strong hand pressed lightly to the small curve of her waist where he could feel the texture of her violet, flowered calico dress as it shifted slightly over the treasured silk of her slip. All that while he could smell the faintest scent of lavender and rose oil soap on her skin.
Ashamed, he dropped his eyes to the plate of sandwiches. Lifting one, he handed it to her. Without question, she took it and bit in savoring it more than any girl had ever savored a peanut butter and oleo sandwich. Jack tried a bite, knowing his would be somewhat more bitter.
The sound of dresser drawers dropping to the floor echoed from within the house, but Tully never flinched, never turned. Jack admired how this tiny girl showed no fear whilst adults twice her age had pissed their pants before him, sobbing and stammering.
"We couldn't ever get the fire to burn right," she said suddenly.
Jack inclined his head, confused by this sudden announcement.
"Pa and me...I lit a fire once and the smoke just filled the house. Pa got real upset and said we couldn't light no more fires....the flue was busted, he said." Tully took another slow bite of her sandwich, finding flavor beyond the over salted peanut butter and the greasy oleo.
"You must have been real cold come winter..." Jack murmured, the weight of his throat increasing.
"No. Pa gave me all the blankets." Tully looked down at Toby, stroking his fur. "And I slept next to Toby."
"He's a good dog," Jack agreed.
"The big, old ones always are," Tully's eyes fixed on the passing clouds above, as she clutched her sandwich remains aloft in one hand. "He's too tired to play now. Just likes to be cozy."
Jack lowered his sandwich and stared at the sagging steps. He could see Tully carefully nibbling at her sandwich.
"Where will you go when you leave? You and Howie?"
The man scratched at his scruffy chin, grayer now than he liked to admit. "Howie will go his own way, I suppose."
The stare of her large gray eyes was palpable. Small hairs, so tiny they could barely be seen, stood tall all along his skin. The girl would not be denied her full answer. It seemed only fair to give her something for what he would take.
"I'm big and old like Toby. Too tired to play now..." It was all he could offer.
"I found it, Jack!!" Howie's voice hollered triumphantly from inside the house. "Fucker put it in the stove pipe!!"
A scramble of boots to the door, then Howie beamed a grin down at them through the tattered screen. "Wedged it in good....I can't get it out."
Jack nodded then looked at Tully, "you go on and finish your lunch."
Reaching down, he deposited his barely touched meal onto the plate. She watched him, as the colossal man rose. Compared to Howie his clothes were no cleaner, his shoes no less worn. Yet he looked like a fine man. Shirt tucked in, hair parted as best he could manage with only the tiniest amount of jelly and he looked mostly shaved. Jack had been such a brute of a boy, the only way to keep folks from being afraid of him was to dress well, speak well, be ever gentle.
The screen door crashed loudly as Jack let it close behind him. Through the dingy curtained windows, he could still see Tully stroking Toby's fur and nibbling at her lunch. Strange this girl that didn't run.
The tin worked free of the metal pipe, black soot coating it as well as Jack's hand. Howie danced about him, clenching and unclenching his hands with giddiness. Jack heard his voice but had learned long ago how to not listen. The tin's lid popped off with a cough of ancient air, like an unearthed tomb. Jack couldn't imagine there was much left inside; no more than dust. Ossie wouldn't have kept it all and left his daughter to live this way. Not Tully.
"Thirty-seven fuckin' thousand dollars, Ev'rest!!!" Howie squealed in his ear, smacking the man on the shoulder.
"What'd I say about language?" Jack growled quietly as he snatched a doily from under the violets to wipe clean his hands before touching the crisp bills inside.
"Is it all there? He kept all of it??" Howie screeched.
Jack swatted him back with one hand, the junior little more than a gnat. Flipping through Jack shrugged. "He barely touched it. Only a few hundred missing if any."
"I want mine."
Jack lifted his dark eyes. "I'm sure you do."
The man lifted one thick bundle from the tin. One of three. Howie's face soured quickly. The tin rattled as Jack thrust it against the man's chest. "You take that, and I don't ever want to see you again. Understood? Never. Not death or salvation."
Wordless at the uneven cut in his favor, Howie's jaw hung wide as he stammered, "death or salvatio--...right...."
Howie started forward, but Jack slapped a hand on his chest to halt him. 'Voices...' he mouthed as he pointed toward the porch.
"I'm sorry Carol. Please tell Mrs. Vitoria I'm terribly sorry. It was a mistake."
Jack pursed his lips and pointed at the back door. "Go..." he mouthed and gestured for the man to be quiet. Howie nodded and crept out the back door. Idiot that he was, he let it slam.
"--Who you got here?"
Jack tightened his jaw and crammed the small stack of money into his shirt as Tully gracefully replied, "just an old friend of pa's."
Pushing through the door onto the porch, Jack smiled, "How do, Miss..?"
Tully grinned to see he hadn't left.
"Hoffer. Carol Hoffer. I assist Mrs. Vitoria at the school house." The woman was older than Tully, but still young by Jack's estimations. She was dressed in clothes newer than Tully's, and far more dowdy. At her side was a bicycle that had seen better days.
She directed her gaze toward Tully then back to Jack, a man she seemed to find intimidating in size alone. "Tully hadn't come with the children's lunches and Mrs. Vitoria worried that she'd taken ill. We don't often see her, otherwise." Looking the man over with a somewhat defensive posture, Carol inquired. "And you are?"
"This is Jack Dempsey."
Jack's focus had remained on Carol as she spoke. That a strange man was in Tully's house would give any woman pause. This he understood. Even with Tully's polite and pleasant introduction the woman seemed wary of him. With a gentle smile, he gestured at the house.
"I come to visit with Ossie. He told me I could come stay, work his land if I wanted. No one had sent word that he'd passed." Jack looked down at Tully. The girl could have easily, at any point alerted Carol to his true intentions. In Tully's eyes, and Carol's, he could see that she had not.
"Maybe it's best you stay on, fix up Tully's house for her. Only so much work girl her age can do on her own." Carol seemed to relax at Jack's casual demeanor. "Local boys...most have to work to help feed their families. Tully...well she has no one."
Jack looked down at the girl. Her gaze was fixed toward the ground. Her back was not rigid with fear, instead only slightly rounded in grief. She was alone here. Tully had access to all that money, could have gone anywhere, yet she'd stayed.
Half-turning, the man named Everest looked at the sorrowful house above them, then down at the moping dog. Finally, his eyes shifted to the quiet, but wise, Tully Weaver.
"Aye," Jack stated with a muted assertiveness. "I'll likely stay. Make sure the house is proper. Make sure Tully's taken care of right."
Tully lifted her eyes and squinted at him. Her gaze was seeking out falsehoods in him, ulterior motives that would give her cause to speak out against him. Jack met her gaze evenly, honestly.
Decisions were made, judgments passed and Tully turned back to Carol with a smile. "The sandwiches are ready. You mind taking them today? Mr. Dempsey's only just arrived. I shouldn't be impolite."
"Of course, dear. It is only proper." Carol offered Jack a polite smile. He could see that her wariness was relaxing. He was not sure why her acceptance was comforting to him.
"I think you'll make a fine home for Tully," Carol interrupted his thoughts. "Not right for a young woman to be all alone in a place like this. Never can tell what sorts might come by. All nature of hooligans running the streets these days."
"Never can tell." Jack nodded in commiseration. She had spoken more truly than she knew. A home. Safety. Carol's only mistake was in thinking that he would be bringing those to Tully.
The door creaked then slammed on its own as Tully emerged with a linen covered plate. "I finished up a few, should be extra for them new boys."
"Thank you, Tully," Carol smiled and balanced the plate on her bicycle basket. "Will you be bringing Mr. Dempsey to the Sunday Social?" The woman looked over at Jack. He could see a welcoming in her eyes that he could not recall having ever seen in someone's gaze, not one directed at him, at least. "I'm sure everyone would like to welcome you. Not a big town, but full of fine people."
Jack looked down at Tully for...approval? Grey eyes smiled up at him. White-gold curls bounced ever so slightly as she nodded an encouragement.
"I..." Jack hesitated. Was this what he wanted? Was it what Tully truly wanted? The invitation was genuine, and by far the most intimidating thing he'd faced. His gaze turned back to Toby, a weary hound content in the sun. Tully's eyes were still on him.
"You did not find what you came for already. Did you, Mr. Dempsey?" Tully studied him.
Too wise for her age.
With a polite nod, Jack conceded. "Yes. I will attend. Thank you, Miss Hoffer."
"Excellent. I will inform Mrs. Vitoria of our newest resident." Carol beamed a smile at them both, then peddled away with a wave.
Hugging her knees, Tully looked up at Jack and examined his demeanor as he lowered to sit beside her again. They sat in silence for a long time. Jack's thoughts sifted through the day's events like the pieces of a torn photograph. He tried to assemble them, to make sense of them.
When he did turn his gaze on the young woman beside him, Jack's dark eyes surveyed her with no less perplexity. The strange little, wise child, both wary and bold. To accept-- to invite a stranger, one she knows has a criminal past-- it was peculiar.
Tully lifted her sandwich again and nibbled at it, seemingly awaiting him to speak. When Jack also took up his sandwich, tasting a meal that seemed far less bitter than he recalled, Tully pointed at her tiny garden.
"Do you see that flower there...the tall one? I did not plant that one." Tully inclined her head and turned her eyes on some skittish squirrels. "Squirrel buried the bulb there. It just grew. It doesn't belong, but I think it's my favorite."
Yes, far too wise.
"Why's that?" he mumbled after swallowing a large bite. He knew better than to talk with his mouth full.
Tully shrugged and considered it a moment. "Because it was unexpected, I s'pose."