Ray Jones stood, nodding at Millard. He was eleven and a half, a whole year older than me, but didn't mind being my best friend. Really, he was about the only one left in town to be friends with. Still, if there'd been a whole truckload of kids in Red River, I would've picked Ray over all of them any old day.
He'd been staying with us since his old dugout had gotten flattened by a month of dusters. Meemaw'd always told me to see how all things worked together for the good of those who loved God. I supposed if there was any good from all the dust, having Ray around was it.
"Now, swing back before you give it a toss." Millard showed him what he meant, then threw the old rusted horseshoe toward the stake in the ground. It clanked, hitting the goal and circling round it before thumping on the dirt. "Just like that. Nothin' to it."
Ray stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth and wrinkled up his forehead, eyes trained on that old stake.
I shimmied myself up on the back porch, watching him and Millard play. Ray's father never would've taken the time to teach him how to play a game like that. Mr. Jones had been too busy pouring whiskey down his throat and wandering all over creation doing who knew what. He'd say he was looking for work, but we all knew better than that. When he was at home, he'd spend his time whupping Ray and Mrs. Jones for something or other. But he couldn't hurt them anymore. He was dead, Mr. Jones was, and by his own doing. I wondered if Ray was haunted by seeing his father hanging like he had.
I hoped not.
The good thing that came out of Mr. Jones killing himself was that it left room for Daddy and Millard to show Ray all the man things he ought to learn. Still, I didn't think it took all the sting out of it.
It sure was an awful thing, losing your pa, no matter how nasty he'd been.
Their game done, Ray slumped his shoulders. He'd never liked losing much. But the way Millard made sure to shake his hand and smile, I knew Ray wouldn't be too sore about it.
"You're learnin'," Millard said, rubbing Ray's head so the tan hair stuck to the sweat on his forehead. "Pretty soon you'll be better than me, I bet."
"My, my," Daddy said, stepping out the back door. He hopped off the porch and made his way to Millard. "What've we got here?"
"Thought it's as good a day as any for horseshoes," Millard answered, taking off his hat and wiping at his head with a bandana. "How about you try and beat me at a game."
"I'd like nothing better." Daddy rubbed his hands together. "It's been a couple years."
"Don't worry." Millard nodded his head at him. "I'll go easy on ya."
Daddy stooped and picked up one of the shoes off the ground, giving it a toss. He missed the stake by a good foot.
"Well, I might have to give you a lesson, too," Millard said, laughing.
Ray came toward me, his hands shoved in his overall pockets and his bare feet shuffling through the dust.
"Wanna go for a walk?" he asked.
I shrugged, not wanting to say that Mama didn't want me wandering around. She'd kept a close eye on me ever since Eddie DuPre had taken me and kept me hidden away in a cellar. With all the nightmares I'd had since then, I didn't mind being watched so close.
"Come on," Ray said.
"I don't know." I crossed my arms.
"You think your ma'll say no?" he asked.
I shrugged again.
"Can't hurt to ask, can it?"
I shook my head.
"You too scared?" Ray asked, but not in a mean way. And not in a way that tried to make me feel small. "You don't gotta be scared no more, Pearl."