A Tough Nut to Kill

Chapter One

I was already steeped in the heavenly smell of baking pecan pies and pecan drop cookies when I hurried down, worried, from my apartment over the Nut House, the store our family owned, to find my meemaw, Amelia Hastings, known to everybody in Riverville, Texas, as Miss Amelia, behind the counter, embroiled in her weekly tussle with Ethelred Tomroy.

“I came for one of those ‘special’ pecan pies of yours, Amelia,” Miss Tomroy, a woman of strong opinions and harsher judgments, was saying as she leaned back on her low-heeled oxfords and eyed my grandmother. “From what I been hearing, you haven’t been giving me the right pie. Why, I’m told you make special pies, for special people. If I’m not special—oldest family in Riverville, old as Texas dirt, then who is ‘special’ I’d like to know?” She stopped for one of her infrequent breaths. “So I want one of those very ‘special’ pies of yours, Amelia Hastings. Not one of your regular pies. You know I can make a regular pie as good or better than anybody in this whole town. Don’t deny it. Everybody knows my pecan pies are superior to any pie this place can turn out. And don’t give me any guff about those judges at the county fair. Biased they are and always have been. It’s just that I don’t have time on my hands, like you.”

Ethelred took a breath and gave me a smug smile, nodding so that steely gray hair of hers snaked out of its rolled bun. “Ya know, Lindy Blanchard, I got better things to do than spend all my days baking like your grandmother here. Rolling out a crust, making up her sauce . . .that’s her job, right? Though why you Blanchards let your grandmother keep on working the way she does . . . “ She turned back to Miss Amelia and clucked. “You gotta be . . . what is it now, Amelia? You about seventy-five?”

I knew my meemaw wouldn’t back down in front of the town harridan. That’s not what strong Texas women did, and Miss Amelia had been through enough in her life and seen enough and knew enough about people in general, to stand her ground, give back as good as she got, and do it all with that lady-like smile Southern women step out of the womb wearing.

“Why, bless your heart, Ethelred,” Miss Amelia leaned back on the heels of her sneakers and dipped her neatly brushed head of short, no-nonsense gray hair. I watched as she crossed her arms over her apron and hung on tight to her dignity. “Just bless yer heart for all yer concern, but I think I’m still younger than you, unless time stopped and nobody told me ‘bout it. You seventy-seven now?”

I had something important to ask her, something bothering me since I’d walked into my apartment a little while before and noticed things on my desk moved and my computer keyboard pulled out, as if somebody had been using it. My swivel chair was turned backward. Maybe I wasn’t the neatest dresser in town—jeans and tee-shirts being up there at the height of my couture, dirty blond hair caught back in a ponytail held with a red rubber band—but, since college, because of my training in biophysics, I kept things around me like an orderly ship captain might: notes and records and grafts and files and pots and numbered plant stakes. I never left my computer at an angle, nor my chair pulled out. And, besides that, I felt something different in the air up there. There’s a kind of disturbance, like the air goes to sleep while I’m gone and should stay that way until I come back. The air in my apartment wasn’t like that this afternoon. Somebody had been there and I wanted to ask Meemaw if she’d seen anyone near the stairs. With the tour buses stopping and filling the store from time to time, it wouldn’t be hard for a person to sneak up the enclosed stairway to my apartment. And then the lock—well that door and lock was about as old as the building—over a hundred years.

I tried to keep a smile on my face while the two women got deeper into their years old wrangling. I was only back in town from my office at Rancho en el Colorado, the family pecan ranch, to pick up a magazine article I’d forgotten that morning, something about a new kind of nut tree that resisted drought and could be disease free.

That’s my job, my profession. I’m a plant biologist with degrees from Texas A&M. I’d always figured I’d been given so much by the beautiful old pecan trees on the family spread that it was time to give back; maybe help all the ranchers in Riverville, our old friends, since we were in this hard business together. After I got my master’s degree, Emma, my mother, built me a gorgeous greenhouse out beyond the barns. With the help of Martin Sanchez, our ranch foreman, I set up a fenced test grove for my saplings. Five years now. Lots of new plants. New strains. Lots of grafting. I was almost there. A few trees in my test grove could do with very little water and I had a graft on a Graking cultivar that was showing great resistance to Scab. But not both. Not a disease free and a drought-tolerant tree all together. Until now. A new group of trees in the test grove. All I had to do was wait out the next year to see if they were as good as I thought, see if I finally had the answer that would solve the ranchers heartbreaking problems of years with no crops, years when the bank called in notes, years when we said good-bye to decent, hard-working ranchers we knew like family. And especially this year, a drought already hitting the out-budding trees, and at a crucial time for the pecans if they were to be heavy with nuts by late fall.

I was excited about my new cultivars but I couldn’t talk about them to any of the ranchers. No use raising hopes. Still—Meemaw knew and was rooting for me. Mama knew.

Standing there, waiting for Ethelred to stop her sputtering about how Miss Amelia knew darned well she was nothing even close to seventy-seven, was trying my patience but if I got testy with Ethelred I’d hear about it later, in a detailed dressing down from Miss Amelia, how a Texas woman acts and doesn’t act and how we don’t want people to think we’re Northerners—“Do we, Lindy?”

Eventually Ethelred wound down. She heaved a long-suffering sigh and I jumped right in. “Meemaw, could I have a minute . . .?”

I motioned back toward the kitchen, where we could talk.

“Not now, Lindy,” Ethelred’s wind-down had been only a temporary condition. She waved a dismissive hand at me, making my blood temperature shoot up about ten degrees and my tongue swell up with words I’d like to spit at her. “I’m a busy person and I got business here before she goes trotting off.”

“Maybe Bethany . . .?” I looked around for my younger sister. She was supposed to be helping Meemaw in the store but was probably off on some errand of her own, something to do with her position as head of all events held at our new pavilion, a beautiful white tent-like structure Emma’d had erected beneath some of our oldest trees. Bethany’s head was so filled with white doves and black ties and pyramids of cupcakes, she could wander off and not remember Miss Amelia was depending on her when the store got busy and people snaked in a line back through the tables of nuts and pecan candies and cookies and gift boxes done up in shiny green paper and tied with green and gold ribbons, all with the family crest: three pecans nested in three green leaves above three wavy lines representing the Colorado River, printed prettily on the labels or tags.

Miss Amelia shook her head. “Sent her home. Nervous as a cat in a room full of rockers, with that big wedding she’s got coming up. Had to call about those doves. Somebody in here this morning told her doves make a mess and she started worrying about dove poop on that cake she’s got ordered made to look like a big radio studio, ‘cause the guy’s some newscaster from Dallas, is what she said.”

Miss Amelia smiled a sly smile at me. There was something deep down in my grandmother that took great glee in the ridiculous parts of life. Like worrying about dove poop on the overdone cake at an overdone wedding.

She turned to Miss Tomroy, standing with her arms folded and one foot tapping. “So, now what’ll it be, Ethelred?”

“I’ll just take one of those ‘special’ pies of yours, and be on my way.”

“No such thing, Ethelred.” Miss Amelia bit at her lower lip and bent to fuss with a row of crooked pecan bars on the crowded counter.

“Meemaw,” I interrupted, keeping my face straight. I knew she was lying about having no ‘special’ pies and feeling uncomfortable with the lie, especially in front of me. Still, I couldn’t help teasing my upright, strait-laced, sin-fearing grandmother, who’d help raise me and Bethany and my older brother, Justin. And stood by us in our darkest hour, when my daddy, Jake, was killed out in the groves, pinned under the tractor that’d turned over on him.

“You must have an apple pie hidden back in that kitchen. How about a couple of banana creams? Those must be ‘special,’” I said.

“Don’t you have work to do out there in that greenhouse of yours, Lindy?” She frowned heavily at me.

“If you’re not going to tell the truth,” Miss Tomroy sniffed. “Then just give me one of them regular pies. But I’m not forgetting.”

Miss Amelia went back into the kitchen for the pie while I bagged up a box of Pecan Smackers and a package of Miss Amelia’s BITE-U-BACK hot and spicy pecan snack mix that Miss Tomroy plunked down on the counter as she leaned in close, put a finger to her lips, and whispered, “Heard your uncle Amos was back in town . . .”

The words froze me where I stood. Not long enough, I hoped, for Miss Tomroy to notice and gloat.

“Working out to the Conway’s ranch, is what I hear. Guess he knew none of you folks would take him in. All that trouble after your father’s funeral. Poor Amos.” She shook her head sadly. “Always one thing or the other with that boy. Long as he’s been on this earth. Trouble, trouble, trouble.”

I kept my head carefully bent toward the cash register, ringing up her purchases. Getting no response out of me, Miss Tomroy went back to grazing up and down the aisles. At a counter filled with tote bags I watched her hesitate above a plate of samples: chocolate-covered pecans. Her crooked fingers delicately probed the candies, pushing one, then another, aside until she found the largest.

When she was back, sucking at nut pieces caught in her teeth, she eyed me again. “Heard, too, you’re real busy out there at the ranch since you got back from that college. Put that advanced degree of yers to any good use yet? Somebody told me you was foolin’ with the old time nut trees. That true?”

She eyed me with her head kinked to one side. “Trees good enough for my granddaddy.

I stretched my lips into a smile I was far from feeling. “You sure hear a lot, Miss Tomroy.”

“Keep my ears open.” Ethelred brightened, taking my remark as a compliment. “Heard, too, you got experiments going on out there at the ranch.”

“Experiments?”

She shook her head, impatient with me. “Everything such a big secret with you Blanchards. For heaven’s sakes, don’t you realize Riverville’s not Houston? Word gets around. Men, who work out there for your brother and your mama, talk. Think nobody noticed your new greenhouse? Heard about that secret grove of yours? New species of pecan, is it?”

She narrowed her lips and frowned hard at me. “You doing that cloning out there? Hope you don’t go fooling with the taste of our pecans. Riverville’s been known for our nuts for over a hundred years, you know.”

While I choked on a response, she looked harder at me. “What’d you get those degrees in, you don’t mind my asking?”

“Horticulture and Bioengineering . . .I’m trying to . . .”

“Bio . . . engine . . .eering, huh? Well, heaven’s sakes, don’t go starting some kind of plague—with that bio stuff you’re doing. Last thing we need in Riverville. Personally—though I’m never one to bring others up short—I just don’t cotton to foolin’ with what’s been our bread and butter for over a hundred years now.”

That one took a lot of tongue biting. I ran a few well-chosen words through my head, but was saved by Miss Amelia coming back through the swinging door with the awaited, ordinary, pie.

I turned, intending to make a face at Miss Amelia, showing what I thought of Ethelred Tomroy, but Miss Amelia stood carved in ice with the doors swinging back and forth behind her. She stared off behind me, over my shoulder, toward the front door where someone had just entered, the bell above the door finishing its slight tinkling.

Miss Amelia’s face went dead white. She looked as if she was going to pass out right there in front of me. Her hands shook. I watched, unable to move, as the pie she carried shook right along with her. I watched as the pie tipped forward, hung there at the tips of her fingers, then slid in a graceful arc, falling to the floor with the echoing clank of the pie tin and the splat of nuts and sauce.

The spoiled pecans fanned out over the worn wooden floor as the dark, wonderful sauce spread in a rivulet pooling near Miss Amelia’s feet.

Ethelred, along with me, looked up from the mess on the floor. She snapped her lips shut, too shocked, for once, to speak.

Miss Amelia’s hands flew to her cheeks. Her eyes stayed fixed on whoever was standing at the back of the store.

“MY PIE!” Ethelred protested, indignation soaring. “Well, for heaven’s sakes, what’s got into you, Amelia Hastings? Maybe you’re getting too old for this job, like people are saying around town. Family can’t expect blood outta a turnip, you now . . .”

Miss Tomroy kept talking while I turned to stare hard at the person who had startled my usually unshakeable grandmother.

Outlined by pure Texas heat and sunshine coming through the closing front door, a tall, bulky figure in black cowboy hat, hesitated just inside the room. He stood awkwardly a minute then turned and shut the door behind him with a sudden slam, rattling glass and sending baskets of pecans tumbling from one of the back tables.

I wasn’t sure at first . . .

The man’s face was in shadow. But—the size of him . . . that signature black hat . . . a man in his fifties . . .

My stomach gave a couple of turns.

Amos Blanchard. My uncle. My dead father’s younger brother, back after two years away from Riverville. Two quiet years for the Blanchard family. Not anybody I ever wanted to see again in my whole life. Especially not since the night of my daddy’s funeral.

I watched, my head buzzing, as Amos hesitated then strolled slowly up one of the aisles, his old cowboy boots echoing across the uneven floorboards.

He stopped at the counter in front of the three of us—frozen in a kind of stop-motion tableau—and politely touched the crown of his tall hat, dipping his head.

“Lindy,” my uncle said, acknowledging me. I nodded curtly, not willing to give him an inch more attention than I had to. He’d hurt my mother that night. He’d hurt our whole family. Drunk. Mean. Calling my mother names. I wasn’t willing to give him another chance at us. Southern lady be damned. I’d go for his eyes if he started trouble.