“Rev. Mort is in a ditch,” Vincent had his head stuck in the ice box. He was looking for elderberry jam. That man could never find anything. “He’s in a ditch on the bluff passed out drunk as a skunk on Bandelier moonshine. I’ll guaran-dang-tee-it.”
“Rev. Mort best be dead, paralyzed or in a coma, for his own sake,” Laurel said. She held a stone crock in the bend of her arm. She whipped pancake batter into a terrible froth. Then she slapped it into a frying pan. “If he’s going to miss baptizing Mary Rose it had best be because of some honest disaster. Like galloping pneumonia. Or a tree falling on his head. Or a busted leg from a horse kick. If I find out he’s passed out drunk, well—” Laurel’s lips set in a line solid as ruby-red granite.
Rev. Mort had promised to baptize the neighbor girl Mary Rose Bandelier this very Sunday after church at Hickory Grove Pond. It was all planned out. Laurel would fetch the girl and get her scrubbed up. (That Bandelier bunch wasn’t about to go near soap.) She’d drive her to the church and then the baptism. She’d already fixed a fried chicken dinner for the picnic afterward, with mashed potatoes and gravy, corn on the cob, blackberry cobbler, and homemade ice cream.
Her end of the plan was moving along, smooth as a baby’s bottom. Mary Rose sat at Laurel’s breakfast table dolled up in her Sunday finery and her own children were passingly presentable. The picnic dinner was wrapped in newspaper and packed in boxes and ready to be loaded in the trunk of the washed and shiny 1935 Ford V-8. And now the whole ceremony might get called off due to the disappearance of Rev. Mort.
For three days, nobody had seen hide nor hair of the newly appointed preacher. If he didn’t show up this morning, well—Laurel cracked a series of eggs and let the yokes tumble out while she sorted through the problem. If he didn’t show up this Sunday morning, then there were two other preachers in the vicinity who could be called upon to perform the baptism.
One was the supply preacher provided by the Northwest Bible Church Association: Rev. Jim Pettigrew. He was a scoundrel, great-grandson of a suspected murderer. If Laurel had her way, he wouldn’t be allowed to baptize a pig.
The other was—
“Aw, naw, forget it, Ma. You won’t get Rev. Cotton Price to come out of retirement to do the baptism neither. Not at Hickory Grove Pond, leastways.”
This was the verdict of Laurel’s son, Max Robert. She got a little chill up her spine when he stopped galunking milk to pronounce it. It was exactly what she’d been thinking. Her eldest had an uncanny way of reading her mind.
“Rev. Cotton is filled with holy terror of that damned pond, doncha know?” Max added.
“Hush, boy, watch your mouth and your manners.” Laurel narrowed her eyes at him and gave him a stern look, which had all the effect of a fly lighting on an ox’s ass in a windstorm. Max would soon turn seventeen. He looked like one of those small-time gangsters she’d seen on wanted posters tacked up in the Lock Springs Post Office. He had a shock of blond hair that hung like corn silk over dark-shadowed and deep-set brooding eyes. He was a good boy for the most part. But he had the head of a rebel and the heart of a poet, which could add up to a body of trouble.
“Hickory Grove Pond is cursed,” Max said. “All Cotton’s kin sunk to the bottom. That’s the story everybody tells. Something yanked them under and they never come up again.”
“Shush. You’ll scare Mary Rose with those old ghost stories.” Laurel smiled reassuringly at the child and plopped another pancake on her plate. One side was a touch burnt, but Mary Rose seemed to like them that way. Or maybe the poor starving stick of a thing just liked to eat.
The rest of her children, numbering four, listened to the conversation with drooping lashes. Heavy forks lifted and fell and heads nodded sleepily and oatmeal sputtered in the lip-sucking way of nursing baby critters.
“Nobody knows what happened to Cotton’s kin,” Laurel continued. “There’s a scientific reason behind the disappearances. Flash flood maybe. Twister carried them off. If that doesn’t satisfy, you can always count on some form of human stupidity.”
Laurel took off her apron and sat down at the table. But the boy was right.