Sunday, June 15, 2008

Deep In The Heart Of Trouble - Chapter 1

Deep In The Heart Of Trouble

(Bethany House June 1, 2008)

Chapter One

Beaumont, Texas
One Week Later

The years hadn’t been good to Norris Tubbs. His back curved like a bow. Long white hairs grew from his ears in a tangled mess. His nose had increased in width and depth. And his eyes were glassy—but earnestly focused.

“Your father told me I could have Anna,” he said.

“Have Anna?” Tony Morgan asked, taking a sip of coffee.

“Yes. As my wife.”

Tony sucked in his breath, taking the coffee down the wrong pipe, choking himself and burning his throat.

Tubbs thumped him on the back. “Everything was settled.”

“Everything?” he asked, eyes watering.

“Except for informing Anna, of course.”

“Of course.” Still regaining his composure, Tony scanned the group of mourners filling his family’s parlor and caught sight of his sister accepting condolences from the governor of Texas.

Though she wore black from head to foot, the cut and style of her gown was anything but harsh, particularly on her. A modest hat sat upon piles of dark hair, and the form-fitting bodice accentuated her feminine assets.

Tony sighed. With her nineteenth birthday just a week or so away, he wasn’t surprised his father had been considering offers for her hand. But, Norris Tubbs?

Tubbs followed Tony’s line of vision. “I assume you will honor your father’s wishes?”

Pulling his attention back to the part owner of the H&TC Railroad, Tony tried to rein in his exasperation. Once his father’s will was read, he expected to be placed at the helm of Morgan Oil while his older brother ran the more profitable Morgan interests. Therefore, it wouldn’t do to alienate Tubbs.

“Dad never said a thing to me about this.”

“No? Well, I’m sure he intended to, but he just didn’t figure on dropping dead last week.”

Tony smoothed the edges of his moustache. “No, I imagine he didn’t. Nevertheless, Anna will be in mourning for a year, so there’s no need to rush into anything.”

“Now, Tony, it’s almost the twentieth century. Folks aren’t nearly as particular as they used to be about that kind of thing.”

“Maybe some folks aren’t,” he said. “But I am.”

Tubbs stiffened. “Well, perhaps it’s Darius I should be speaking to about this anyway. He’s the oldest, after all.”

Tony set his cup on the tray of a passing servant and reminded himself there was more than one railroad coming through Beaumont.

“You can speak to Darius all you want to, Norris,” he said, “but you’re forgetting that he is only her half brother. I’m her full brother, and I can assure you that her hand will not be awarded to anyone without my express permission.”

The Morgans’ longtime friend and family lawyer, Nathaniel Walker, murmured a few words of condolence to Mother, then ushered her inside his office. Tony led Anna by the arm, leaving Darius to bring up the rear. His half brother crossed to the far side of the room and installed himself in a wing chair. Tony, along with his mother and sister, made do with a small, uncomfortable black-and-white cowhide settee. Horns from about six steers acted as a cushion for their backs.

Walker fished his watch from a vest pocket, confirmed the hour, then pulled a sheaf of pages from a drawer in his grand mahogany desk. The silence, while he fixed a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles to his nose, was awkward and charged.

“I will now read the Last Will and Testament of Blake Huntley Morgan,” he announced.

He began in a strong, even voice, but the farther he went, the slower he read. After a while, the words began to recede into the background, supplanted by the thumping in Tony’s head.

“There must be some mistake,” he finally blurted out, interrupting Walker.

The lawyer looked up. “I’m sorry, Tony. There’s no mistake.”

“But what you’ve read makes no sense. It sounds as if Dad only married Mother to have someone to take care of Darius. Like Anna and I don’t even matter. Or Mother either.”

“Yes,” Walker said softly.

Mother whimpered. Anna placed a black handkerchief to her mouth.

The smell of leather, musty books, and tobacco pressed against Tony’s lungs. He caught his nails against the grain of the settee’s coarse hair. Darius shifted in his chair but showed no visible reaction to the news.

“I don’t understand,” Mother whispered.

Walker cleared his throat. “Leah, you will be allowed to reside in the mansion and awarded a generous stipend for the duration of your life. Anna may also remain at home until she weds, at which time she will receive a respectable dowry.”

“What about Tony?”

“I was just getting to that.” Peering through his spectacles, he looked down at the papers on his desk and took a deep breath. “‘I bequest to my son, Anthony Bryant Morgan...nothing. No portion of my estate, real, personal, or mixed is bequeathed to him.’”

Nothing? Tony thought. Nothing?

Mother squeezed his hand. Bit by bit, her grip tightened until he was sure her wedding band would leave an imprint on his fingers.

“‘Anthony will be endowed with the most valuable gift of all: an education. I charge him to take his knowledge and go higher and farther than even I have.’”

The windows were barely cracked, leaving the room stuffy and hot. A droplet of sweat trickled down Tony’s back.

“‘I hereby declare that after Anthony has reached his majority, my wife is not to share her bequest with him or she will forfeit all monies and inheritance provided herewith.’”

After he reached his majority? At twenty-eight, he was well past that.

As Walker read on, Tony tried to comprehend how his father could have intentionally left him penniless. Unless his brother died, that is, in which case Tony would be the subsequent beneficiary. But the likelihood of that happening anytime soon was extremely improbable. Darius was thirty-one and in excellent health.

Tony glanced at his mother, noting a fine sheen of moisture around her graying hairline. Both she and Anna had worn black serge suits. Mother was prone to fainting, and given the situation and the extreme heat, he was surprised she’d not succumbed already.

Walker finished, turned over the last page of the will and looked at Tony. “Are you all right, son?”

Tight-chested, he kept his voice calm and level. “When? When did he change it?”

Walker straightened the stack he’d made in front of him on the desk. “He didn’t change it. It has been like this for years.”

Tony nodded. “How many years?”

“Since you children were born.” He hesitated. “Well, no, that’s not quite true. He did revise it that time Darius had the fever as a boy. He wasn’t sure Darius would survive and wanted provisions in place.”

Since they were born? His father had disinherited him from the moment of birth? Only making provisions for him in the case of Darius’s premature death?

Bile rose in the back of Tony’s throat as he thought of the countless times he’d tried to earn his dad’s approval. How pathetic.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Nathaniel?” Mother asked, choking.

“It was not my place.”

“Our families have known each other for three generations.”

He removed his glasses, then slowly folded them. “I took an oath, Leah. Would you have me break it?”

“Couldn’t you have convinced him to offer Tony some kind of settlement, to give him a start?”

Walker rubbed his nose where his glasses had been, then directed his answer to Tony. “I’m sorry. Blake said he started with nothing. He wants you to do the same. I will say, however, that as the years passed, he had every faith you would rise to the occasion and then some.”

The tick in Tony’s jaw began to pulse. “I see.”

Darius, who had observed the proceedings in cold silence, finally rose. “Is there anything else, Mr. Walker?”

“No, I believe that is all.”

Tony watched his half brother cross the room. Apart from Darius’s lack of facial hair, the two brothers looked alike. The same olive skin, the same brown eyes, the same tall, lean, and hard physiques.

But they could not have been more different in temperament. Darius had no time for other men’s ethical codes. From the start, he’d been out to please himself. Leaving the Morgan Oil enterprise in his hands was as good as feeding it to the wolves.

But his father had loved his first family and merely tolerated his second. No matter how hard Tony had tried to measure up, obviously nothing had ever changed that.

Beads of sweat glistened above Darius’s mouth. “Thank you for your time, Walker. I’ll be in touch. Would you give us a moment?”

Walker nodded, gathered his papers and stepped out of the office.

Darius moved behind the desk. “Anna,” he said, leaning back in the cavernous calf-skin chair, “clearly there was no love lost between you and Dad. So you should have no objection to cutting the grieving process short. Moping about in unrelieved black will do nothing to advance your chances for matrimony.”

Mother paled even more. “You mean to marry her off before the mourning period has been observed?”

“I most certainly do. You, Tony,” he said, shifting his focus, “will be gone by morning.”

Mother gasped. “Darius! Don’t be ridiculous. He must have time to make a plan, to prepare.”

Tony took several slow, deep breaths.

Darius looked at his stepmother with neither malice nor cruelty, merely disinterest. “I’m afraid you have nothing to say about the matter. Everything now belongs to me, and no one is welcome unless I say he is welcome.”

Tony jumped up from the sofa. “Mother, Anna, leave us.”

Anna immediately stood, slipping her arm around Mother and helping her vacate the room. Their skirts rustled, muffling his mother’s sobs. But Tony heard them. And his anger swelled.

As soon as the door clicked shut behind the women, he advanced toward the desk. He had not struck Darius in years. Not since childhood.

Tony spread both palms on top of the massive desk and leaned over as far as it would allow. “If you try to marry Anna off before a year has passed, or if anything happens to her or Mother while I’m gone, you will answer to me.”

Surprise brightened Darius’s eyes for a moment, then he relaxed. “Don’t be melodramatic, Tony. I have no ill will toward Leah or Anna. We hardly see each other as it is, what with them in the opposite wing of the house.”

“That will all change when you take over Dad’s rooms. Mother has been in the chamber that connects to his for thirty years. Where are you going to put her?”

Darius pursed his lips. “Well, if it will ease your mind, I’ll allow her to choose whatever room she likes for herself.”

“Very generous of you.” The bite in Tony’s tone belied the charitable words.

“Thank you.”

Tony did not remove his hands or his bulk from the desk.

Darius cocked an eyebrow. “Do you mind?”

With slow deliberation, Tony straightened, turned and strode from the room.

Standing on the porch of the dilapidated gable-front house, Tony knocked again. The wooden door opened a crack, revealing a small blond girl shorter than the doorknob.

“Hi there, Miss Myrtle. Is your papa home?”

She said nothing. Just stood there, looking through the crack with big brown eyes.

“How ’bout your mama? Can you tell your mama Uncle Tony’s here?”

She stuck her thumb in her mouth.

He rubbed his jaw. He usually brought Russ’s kids a licorice stick, but with all that had happened, he’d come empty-handed.

Setting his suitcase down, he squatted so he’d be eye level with her, then crossed his arms over his chest, slapped his thighs and clapped his hands to the rhythm of his words. “Miss Myr-tle...?”

He extended his hands, palms up, in front of her. Smiling around her thumb, Myrtle slipped out the door and tapped her free hand against one of his at each repeating word.

“ . . . Mac, Mac, Mac,” he continued. “All dressed in black, black, black. With silver buttons, buttons, buttons. All down her back, back, back.”

Opening his arms, he waited. She came into them and he kissed her downy hair, the smell of dishwater and milk bringing a smile to his face. The door opened behind her.

“Mercy, Tony. You oughta know you can come right on in without waiting for an engraved invitation. How long has she kept you out here for?”

Tony stood, ruffling Myrtle’s head. “I just got here, Iva. Is Russ home?”

“Sure, sure. Come on in.” Shifting the baby boy on her hip, she widened the door, hollered for her husband, then frowned at his suitcase. “You all right?”

He slipped his hands into his pockets. “I’ve been better, I guess.”

He’d known Iva all his life, though she was closer to Anna’s age than his. Russ had claimed her just as soon as her red braids had been released and twisted up in a bun, and then wasted no time in filling up his house with their little ones.

The apron she had tied around the waist of her linsey-woolsey might have started out white but now held smudges of dirt across its entire breadth. Her strawberry hair stood in disarray, long since coming loose from its pins, but her cheeks were rosy and her eyes bright.

The little one on her hip blinked at him and blew bubbles through his lips. Tony reached out and tickled the boy’s chin, causing him to giggle and swat at Tony’s hand.

“You shaved off your moustache,” Iva said.

He swiped his hand across his mouth, still trying to get used to having a clean-shaven face. “Feels funny.”

“Looks nice, though. You have a right handsome face, Tony.”

He smiled.

“I’m sorry about your pa,” she said.


“Well, are you comin’ in or not?”

Picking up the suitcase, he crossed the threshold just as his best friend rounded the corner, his large body filling the hall. Russ had one boy wrapped around his leg, the other on his shoulders.

“My turn, Pa! My turn!” the one on his leg yelled.

Russ’s face sobered and he lifted Grady off his shoulders. No sooner had Grady’s feet hit the floor than they pumped as fast as they could to Tony.

“Unk Tony! Unk Tony!”

Tony lifted him up, throwing him high into the air before catching him and lowering him to the ground. Tony briefly remembered jumping into his own dad’s arms once, but his dad hadn’t caught him.

“Let that be a lesson to you, boy,” his father had said. “Never trust anybody. Not even me.”
Tony felt a tug on his trouser.

“Me too! Me too!” Jason had released Russ’s leg and now stood beside Tony with arms up. Tony repeated the ritual with Jason amidst squeals of not exactly fright, but not exactly delight, either.

“Okay, you two,” Russ said. “Go on to the kitchen with your mama.”

Iva shooed the boys toward the back. “Step lively, now, I’ve just sliced up some juicy peaches.”

All but Myrtle ran to the kitchen.

Russ glanced at the suitcase. “It’s true, then?”

“What have you heard?”

“That your daddy left you with nothing but the clothes on your back.”

“That about sums it up.”

Russ ran his fingers through his sandy hair. It had begun thinning at an alarming rate, leaving him with half the amount he’d had just last year. “I can’t believe it. Why?”

Tony shrugged. “Darius has always been the favorite. We’ve known that from as far back as our memories take us.”

And the memories stretched clear back to their one-room school days, when during lunch Tony had miss-kicked a ball outside, nearly knocking a painter off his ladder. The teenaged painter had come after Tony, cursing and whacking him with his paint paddle.

Darius had done nothing more than watch and laugh. Russ, big even then for his age, grabbed the teener and shoved him clear to kingdom come, promising more if the fella didn’t leave Tony alone.

They’d been inseparable ever since. Didn’t matter that Russ’s family lived across the tracks. The two boys were either at Russ’s place or Tony’s or somewhere in between.

“I came to say good-bye,” Tony said.

“Good-bye?” Russ’s eyebrows lifted. “You in a rush or do you have time to sit a spell?”

Tony checked his pocket watch. “I’ve a ticket on the noon train. That leaves me a little less than an hour.”

“Well, come on, then.”

The two men stepped onto the front porch and settled into a couple of rockers, Myrtle right behind them. She crawled up into her daddy’s lap and curled into a ball, sucking vigorously on her thumb.

“What are you going to do?” Russ asked.

“I’m not sure, really.” Pulling out his pocketknife, he flipped it open and began to clean his fingernails. “I bought a ticket up to Corsicana. Thought I’d try to see if I could get hired on as a cabletool worker for Sullivan Oil.”

“A toolie! For Sullivan Spreckelmeyer? You gotta be joshing me. You don’t know the first thing about it. Do you have any idea how the boys treat rookies? They’d eat you alive.”

Tony looked out over the yard. Iva kept it swept, neat, and orderly. No grass, but the azaleas around the house’s foundation would rival any in the pampered gardens around the mansion he’d built for his father.

He sighed thinking about all the work he’d put into supervising the construction of that monstrosity, hoping to earn his father’s approval. Instead, his father made him pay rent just to live within its walls.

“Are you listening to me, Tony? You know nothing about working in the oil field.”

Closing the knife, he returned it to his pocket and set his chair to rocking. “I’ve been doing the bookkeeping for Morgan Oil since its inception. I’ve handled its shipments, inspected deliveries, corrected bills, paid bills, recorded payments. If I can do all that, I figure I can manage working in the fields.”

“It’s nothing like sitting behind that desk of yours. A driller is judged on his ability to fight first and hold his liquor second. What do you think those boys are gonna do when they find out you don’t drink?”

“Fight me?” Tony hooked his hands behind his head, leaning back as far as the rocker would allow. “Sure am glad you taught me how to fight, Russ. ’Course, I can’t handle a bullwhip the way you can, but I’m plenty good with my fists. So, if that’s what they judge a man on first, maybe I’ll be exempt from the other. Besides, I’m not qualified to be a driller. I’ll have to start on the bottom rung. Nobody’s gonna pay any attention to some lowly rope choker.”

Russ rested his chin against Myrtle’s head. “They will if his last name is Morgan.”

“My last name isn’t Morgan anymore. I’m going by Mother’s maiden name. From here on out, I’m Tony Bryant.” He rubbed the skin below his nose. “Besides, I shaved off my moustache. Nobody will recognize me.”

Russ shook his head. “I saw that, and ridding yourself of that colossal mess must have taken a good ten pounds off of ya. But moustache or no, it’s a small world, the oil business. Everyone is gonna know who you are.”

“I don’t think so. I never went out to Dad’s fields. I spent my time either behind my desk or at the rail station.”

“Which brings us back to my point. You aren’t cut out for this kinda work. We work from can-see to cain’t-see. It’s brutal, dangerous, rough, and dirty. You talk like an educated man, but the boys have a vocabulary all their own.”

Tony smirked. “You think because I spent my youth sweeping out the church and my adulthood adding up numbers that I don’t have the stamina for outdoor labor?”

“I think you think you can.”

“I’m not afraid of hard work, Russ. And it’s not like I can’t tell the difference between a Stillson wrench and a pair of chain tongs. Morgan Oil doesn’t own one single tool that I haven’t inspected and logged in first.”

“But do you know what they’re used for?”

“I’m a fast learner.”

Myrtle began to squirm. Russ set her down, pointed her toward the door and gave her bottom a soft pat. “Go on, Myrtie. Mama’s in the kitchen.”

They watched her toddle to the door, then struggle to open it. Russ got up, opened it for her and let her inside before returning to his seat. “Maybe I better go with you.”

“No, Russ. Thanks, but I need to do this on my own. Besides, you have Iva and the kids. You can’t be leaving them.”

“And just how long do you suppose Darius will keep me on, do you think? Not long, I’d wager.”

Tony popped open his pocket watch and stood. “You’re the best driller in the entire state of Texas. And Darius may be a shoddy businessman, but he’s no fool. He’s gonna need somebody in charge who knows what he’s doing.”

“But don’t you resent it?” Russ asked. “Wouldn’t you like to see Morgan Oil go down in flames and Darius with it?”

Not a question Tony wanted to examine too closely. “What I want is to build a bigger and better oil company than Darius ever dreamed of. To do that, I need to know all there is to know about the business. Starting with how to work a rig.”

“Maybe I oughta give you my hat. It’s splattered with slush from the pits, and no decent driller would be seen without one.”

Tony laughed. “I may be a six-footer, but your hat would still swallow me whole. Besides, what would a toolie be doing wearing a driller’s hat? Wouldn’t be right, somehow.” He stuck out his hand.

Russ grasped it. “Do you suppose you’ll meet Spreckelmeyer’s daughter?”

“What daughter?”

“The bloomer-gal,” Russ said, rolling his eyes. “The one that caused such a ruckus up in New York City and had her name plastered in all the papers.”

“Bloomer-girls,” Tony scoffed. “They are nothing but a roly-poly avalanche of knickerbockers.”

Russ chuckled. “You better not let your new boss hear you say so. I hear he sets quite a store on that gal of his.”

“I figure that unless bloomer girls have suddenly decided to roustabout in those trousers of theirs, then I won’t be running into much of the fair sex—seeing as I’ll be working from dawn to dusk.” He picked up his suitcase.

“Well, you take care of yourself, you hear?” Russ said, slapping him on the shoulder.

“Will do.” He’d made it halfway to the gate when Russ’s deep bass voice came floating to him in a parody of a popular nursery song.

“Sing a song of bloomers out fer a ride,
With four and twenty bad boys runnin’ at her side,
While the maid was coastin’, the boys began to sing,
‘Get on to her shape, you know,’ and that sort of thing.”

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