Dassas Cormier returns to Marshall's Bayou, his hometown in southwest Louisiana, in the spring of 1924 to find that his old friend, Red Doucet, has been murdered. Dass's short career in law enforcement makes him the most likely person to solve the mystery surrounding Red's death. Grace, the only woman Dass has ever loved, is also back in Marshall's Bayou, and she wants Dass to look for her missing husband. He reluctantly agrees, and is surprised when his search leads to another murder. Are the two murders somehow linked? More importantly, how is Grace involved?
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The Dassas Cormier Mystery Series
Marshall’s Bayou, Louisiana
September 26, 1924
I never thought I’d look forward to returning to Marshall’s Bayou. Nothing ever happened there. Even when the rest of the world was listening to jazz and racing around in motorcars, I knew I’d find everything at home just as it had been the day I left.
Leaning over the side of the boat, watching the black water slip by, that thought was somehow comforting. I was twenty-four with the bitter taste of duty fresh in my mouth—swearing I’d never return—when I left the marsh right at the end of the war. Burying two brothers has a way of making things bitter. Especially when I was the one who wanted to go, and I was the one left behind.
Yet, five years later I returned home not as Dassas Cormier, conquering hero, saver of damsels, civilization and decency. No. I returned as Dassas, failed cowboy, failed roughneck and, most recently, failed lawman. I rode the mail boat with my tail between my legs.
If there had been some way to return in the middle of the night I would have. But there wasn’t. Determined not to look like a thief slinking in, I climbed up and balanced on the side of the boat as it approached the waiting group, then I hopped onto the ancient dock and tied the rope to the cleat as if I didn’t have a care in the world. I even tipped my hat and flashed my best smile at Widow Clawson and her daughter, Celia.
I must admit, Celia had changed for the better. The last time I’d seen her, she had been a towheaded kid dragging a tattered doll by the hair. Now she was a blossoming young lady with curves a little too full to be stylish. She batted her eyelashes in response to my attention.
“Dassas Cormier, you dirty dog! Get your ass over here and let me look at you.” The dock shook under Harley Herbert’s weight as he marched toward me. Realizing he’d spoken a bit too loudly, he reddened and muttered an apology to the ladies for his language before grabbing my shoulder and hauling me into Theriot’s.
Theriot’s dance hall was dark and dusty, as if abandoned; but Buddy Theriot leaned on the bar, a rag draped over his substantial shoulder, and Isaac Broussard sat on a stool, smiling as usual. If not for a few gray hairs on the two of them, I would have sworn I had stepped back into an afternoon in 1918. The huge mirror behind the bar with the reclining woman etched into the center was still intact. It had always been considered a capital offense to break that mirror, no matter how serious the fight.
“My word, I can’t believe it. The travelin’ boy is back,” Buddy said. “You too good to drink with us now?”
“Of course, he ain’t,” Harley answered. “Whiskey’s on me.”
“Whiskey?” I asked, glancing around. Theriot’s wasn’t as well-hidden as most speakeasies.
“Sure,” Harley said. “Who’s going to stop us? There ain’t no law around here no more.”
“What happened to Red?” I asked.
“Dead,” Buddy said, shaking his head slowly. “Shot and left to die out in the marsh.”
My stomach clenched at the news. “When?”
“About two weeks ago.”
“Who did it?”
“An escaped convict from Texas.”
“They caught him?”
“No, but he robbed the bank in Orange four days before Red was killed.” Buddy sighed. “Now we can’t find a soul who’s willing to wear the badge.”
The thought of Red’s death hit me hard. I had fond memories of the burly redhead who’d been the only law in Marshall’s Bayou since before I was born. He’d helped me out of a scrape or two and even taken me under his wing when I was a kid.
“I don’t suppose you’d be interested?” Buddy eyed me strangely.
“Bien sûr,” Isaac said. “You have the experience.”
I shrugged. “I’ll think about it.”
My three drinking partners exchanged meaningful glances as Buddy filled a shot glass and placed it in front of me.
Now, I had no intention of ever wearing a badge in Marshall’s Bayou. Or anywhere else, for that matter. But I was a firm believer in keeping all options open as long as possible. That was the only reason I didn’t turn the offer down flat.
I raised my glass and downed the contents. Whatever it was they called whiskey was liquid fire in my throat. I cringed, trying not to gasp.
“What did you make this out of,” I croaked, “sugar cane?”
Harley slapped my back, nearly sending me to the floor. “Hell, no! We keep the sugar cane gin for important guests. I call this the cow piss special. Nice color, no?”
His comment sent everyone into a fit of hysteria—they were a few shots ahead of me. It felt good to laugh with old friends.
I tried not to think about Red Doucet.
We talked about Isaac’s family and Buddy’s business. The group showed me the trapdoor behind the bar that would be used to dump the stash if the law ever appeared. I wasn’t sure the trapdoor actually worked, but it was good in theory.
Several drinks later, my courage sufficiently boosted, I decided to start on the final leg of my journey. I was sent off with a round of cheers.
It was hard for me to remember the marsh with any fondness when I was away from it. I’d think about the long, hot nights with mosquitoes buzzing in my ears and the miserable, sticky days of cutting hay. Sweat glued the hay to my neck and arms, and every movement worked the dried stalks a little farther into my skin. It was wretched work.
So why, then, was it all so beautiful? Maybe it was the alcohol, I didn’t know. Whatever it was, I felt like I was seeing the marsh for the first time.
The trail from the dock followed the bayou then turned east for a quarter-mile. A flock of red-winged blackbirds led the way, clinging to the taller blades of marsh grass while waiting for me to catch up. Heavy clouds had rolled in from the Gulf, sending waves of shade along the trail to cool the air; and the long, low call of a gator broke through the insect noise. The short grass was greener than emeralds, and the thick, salty air filled my lungs. By the time I stepped into the yard, I was smiling.
I stopped, dropped my bag to the ground and studied the house. What was different? The pecan and fig trees were a little bigger, and the paint was fresh, but there was something else. It took a few moments to realize it was the roses that made the picture perfect. Mama’s roses, so long forgotten, bloomed again along the side of the house. It had to be Becky’s touch.
“Daddy! Someone’s here!” The voice belonged to my nephew, Frank. He had been a child when I left. I was stunned to find him a young man already.
I grabbed my bag and continued toward the house.
“Well, I’ll be. Dass!” Becky hurried down the steps and threw her arms around my neck. She was the same slender woman I remembered—motherhood certainly hadn’t ruined her figure or dampened her spirit. I’d always envied my brother.
“I can’t believe Al didn’t tell me you were coming.” She held my arms and looked up at me.
“It’s not his fault,” I said. “He didn’t know.”
“Then why on earth didn’t you write us? We’d have been at the dock to meet you.”
“I didn’t know I was coming myself until I started out. If you don’t have room¼”
“Don’t be a goose,” Becky said. “We always have room for you and you know it.” She nodded to the young man who stood on the top step with his hands in his pockets. “Frank, come down here. You remember your Uncle Dassas.”
Frank shook my hand and tried not to stare. He had his mother’s black eyes, a head full of the Cormier brown curls and a firm handshake.
“It’s good to see you, Frank,” I said. “I won’t mention how much you’ve grown since I saw you last.”
“Yes, sir.” Turning, he took my bag.
“And this,” Becky said, pulling a smaller child out from behind Frank, “is your niece, Chloe. Say hello, Chloe.”
“Hi.” The child was a third the size of her brother, and a perfect replica of her mother. She had been born shortly after I’d left.
“Hi there, Chloe.” I touched her rosy cheek, and she smiled at me. Her smile warmed my heart.
“Any more?” I asked.
Becky grinned and grabbed my hand to lead me inside. “Only one.” In the front room, she lifted a toddler from the floor and handed him to me. “This is Fred.”
The boy had hair as orange as any I’d ever seen. He grinned as he tried to pinch off my nose.
“Well, now, that’s a sight and a half.”
I turned to find Alcide standing in the doorway, fists on his hips. When I tried to shake his hand, my brother grabbed my shoulders and hugged me, careful not to flatten his son between us.
“It’s sure good to see you,” Alcide said. “Why in tarnation haven’t you written?”
I felt bad enough for my lack of correspondence; there was no excuse.
“Oh, what difference does it make now?” Becky asked. “I’ll put the coffee on. You two sit at the table.”
Alcide was the brother closest to me in age, and the only one left alive. He’d made it back from overseas without visible injuries, but there were scars, nonetheless. He moved slower than he had before the war, and there was a sadness in his eyes. He led the way to the dining room.
As soon as we were alone, Alcide leaned forward with his elbows on the table. “Dass, are you in some kind of trouble?”
When I frowned, he said, “It doesn’t matter if you are. I just want you to know you can always stay here.”
I shook my head. “Thanks, Al, but I’m not in trouble. At least, not the kind you’re talking about.”
“It’s nothing,” I said. “Really. Just some things I have to sort out.”
He nodded. “I’m here if you need me.”
Becky’s coffee was even better than I remembered. We sat and talked well into the night.