Before there was West of Center, there was The Tintype, a short story set twenty years earlier, based on the same characters
County Seat of Shelby County
The Sunday before Alice and her folks quit Center, Texas for good, Edgar had worked himself up to a swivet. He needed something to remember Alice by, but nothing had presented itself. He’d ridden by her house a week earlier, but a billy goat had taken a dislike to his horse and they’d been driven off the property.
She’d fallen asleep two nights before when babysitting his little sisters for the last time, but just as Edgar had been about to snip a lock of her hair, one of the twins had woken up with a nightmare and startled Alice awake. Edgar had jumped so high, he’d been clear across the room by the time her eyes opened.
His brother, Major, jabbed an elbow in his side as he got out of the bed they shared with Carl, who was already dressed and downstairs. “Move, lard brain.” He lay there in bed, ignoring Maj. Think, damnit! Maybe Maj was right about what was going on between his ear pans. Even if he pretended to be sick, there was that damn billy goat. He felt awful.
Kitty, being her bossy four-year-old self, stuck her nose in his business again, leaning into his room from the safety of the doorway. “Edgar! Momma says quit lollygagging!”
He rolled over, away from her, ignoring the urge to yank her bow from her hair off and lay waste to it. “I’m sick. Buzz off, Maggot.” So what if he’d worked himself up to it? He could feel his guts churning. His head was riled up to match.
His mother, Octavia, clucked her way into the room, a frown on her face that disappeared when she laid a hand on his forehead. “Pumpkin, you’ve got a fever!”
And so, as the rest of the poor bastards drove off to church that morning, Edgar found himself with three hours on his hands, free to do as he pleased. It went without saying he wasn’t going to be following his mother’s dictates to stay in bed.
Edgar snuck into the paddock and made off with the fastest horse he dared to ride bareback. Acorn was frisky with nothing but a halter on, but he hadn’t wanted to risk being seen by one of the cowboys. He slowed down by the edge of Alice’s property and tethered Acorn to a tree. The house and grounds were quiet as midnight. They’d penned the billy goat in the corral over by the barn, too. Damned if the old goat wasn’t looking straight at Edgar, bleating its heart out.
Edgar smiled. “No one can hear you, you dumb goat.” He tried the back door. Open. He walked on in, calling out, “Hello?” No answer. The help was still off at church, too, then.
The draperies blocked most of the available light. Large trunks were laid out in the open areas, most of them filled with folderol. Crates took up what little space was left. He squeezed between two trunks and a dark green Victorian high back sofa and walked upstairs.
It wasn’t hard to find Alice’s bedroom, seeing as how she was the only girl in the family. It was pink, floor to ceiling. Clothes spilled over the tops of two trunks. His lip curled on its own. How in hell could he find a keepsake in all this wretched pink? He stuck a hand out to balance as he passed the vanity. Glass vials crashed to the floor. He bent to scoop them up, cutting his fingertips. “Damn!” He stood up again. And then he saw it; a tintype of Alice. Perfect.
He snatched it up and ran. He made it back in time to turn the horse out into the paddock, put the tintype in his cubby hidey-hole and get back in bed.
Not half an hour later, in walked his momma. “How’s my pecan pie?” She kissed his forehead. “Still hot and sweaty, you poor thing.” She smoothed his hair back and glanced down at the sheets. “My stars and garters! What on earth happened here?”
Edgar’s heart sank as he followed her gaze to the blood on the sheets; on his fingers as she pulled his hands out from under the covers. “I cut myself, Momma.”
“While you were home sick in bed?” She touched the oozing tips.
His father, Daniel, walked in. “I checked on the horses and Acorn’s all lathered up. Would you know anything about that, son?”
Octavia held Edgar’s hands out for Daniel to see. Edgar looked from his father to his momma and back again, all the words in the world stuck in his tongue, just as his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. Might as well have been frozen, for all the use it was. His eyes, saucer-wide, admitted his guilt as his tongue never would.
Daniel started removing his belt. “God as my witness, on your deathbed we’ll be dragging you to church! See if you ever stay home again in your life!”
Octavia put a hand on Daniel’s arm. “Remember the age rule, now, Daniel.”
Daniel took a deep breath. “How old is he again?” With eleven children, he’d long forgiven himself for losing track.
Edgar thought of the tintype of Alice, snugged away in his cubby.
It was worth it.