Short Stories

"Pissing Contest"

Lynwood Preston leaned to his left in the barber's chair, to return the silver flask to the right rear pocket of his black polyester sans-a-belt slacks. He was finishing up his point on why there wasn’t no way in hell he was voting for Arthur Tatum in the upcoming election for sheriff. Wasn’t no way in hell, lodge brother or not. It was Sunday after dinner, after morning church, but before evening church. The usual suspects were milling around B.F. Wood’s barber shop. Well, the building belonged to Lynwood, but Mr. Wood was the barber, which is why he was sitting in the old chair, and Lynwood was sitting in the nice one Mr. Wood had installed last year, close to the door, not that Mr. Wood was sore about it. No sir. It appeared that Mr. Preston had finished his pontification on the subject and was opening the floor for rebuttal. He scanned around the room. Mr. Irving McKinney, who had the store next door was looking out the window past Lynwood. Mr. Floyd Thomas, the town’s biggest (only) construction contractor nodded in agreement, his son in law Theodore Post (Married to Floyd’s middle girl, Charlotte) , was noncommittal. Lynwood didn’t care much about Theodore’s opinion. Lynwood’s opinion was that the man was kind of snobby, not to mention a carpetbagger, being from Delaware, or some such place. He also didn’t care for the way the man had corrected him when he called him Teddy, for christsakes it was good enough for a President . No matter, Lynwood didn’t want to upset the little shit. It seem’s that Teddy was in the market for a tractor and Lynwood had a New Holland tractor for sale, on account of some financial difficulties of the man who rented one of his warehouses. This was to store his mail order marital aids, or some such sordid business his wife threw dirty tupperware parties for. The wife who now stood at the top of a cheerleader pyramid of bored trophy wives that sold these 3 times marked up rubber peckers and furry hand cuffs to other bored trophy wives, whose husbands humored them with the indulgence, at least once on their every other Friday night after going to the Sizzler session, though they’d never admit it to their hunting buddies. Lynwood congratulated himself, in his mind, on being the all seeing eye that sees these things play out, that knows the secret thoughts of folks around him. It’s not that he was psychic or any such nonsense, it was just he was smart. It was probably why he was the most successful business man in their little town. All these thoughts he had in the split second it took him to scan his eyes around the room from slack-jawed face to slack-jawed face, there in the little barber shop. Most folks just didn’t understand that his success had little to do with money, or properties he inherited from his late father, who even Lynwood would admit was a lying, cheating, swindling son of a bitch.
Seeing an opening, Mr. Thomas brought up the fact that his son in law, Theodore had in his possession and for sale, a pistol, an old army .45 ACP just like the one Lynwood claimed to have lost at deer camp last year (Floyd, as well as everyone who had heard the story, assumed Lynwood had dropped it trying to wiggle his drunk, fat ass in to the deer stand he would fall asleep in 15 minutes later, but thought better of mentioning it.) Floyd was hoping the introduction of the pistol would reignite the conversation of Theodore purchasing the New Holland tractor Lynwood had offered up last week,  when Theodore had mentioned he was in the market for one. Lynwood shot him a price of $6500, high to be sure, and Theodore had immediately turned him down, and then refused to engage in further conversation, even when prompted with the age old retort of “well what would you give for it?”. Between that, and his insistence on correcting Mr. Preston every time he called him Teddy, even though it was clear to everyone by now that he only did it to get a rise out of Theodore, the situation was getting a bit uncomfortable for Mr. Thomas. There were several county construction contracts coming up, and even though Lynwood didn’t hold any official position with the county, he did carry considerable weight that could influence the awarding of said contracts. His son in law just didn’t understand the delicate dance that was played in doing business down here. How could he, being from Massachusetts, or Pennsylvania or some such place.
Theodore produced the pistol, wrapped in an oiled cloth, from inside of a battered green ammo can and handed it to Lynwood. “What are you asking for it?” Lynwood said while looking down the bore from eject port, having ejected the magazine and locked the slide back. Lynwood was as confident of his knowledge of firearms as he was every subject he considered. “I will take $400 for it Mr. Preston”. Lynwood quickly hit the lever to rack the slide home, shoved the empty magazine in and handed the pistol back to Theodore by the barrel. “No thank you sir.” He could have left it at that, but the fact that Theodore didn’t even give him an opening to dicker really stuck in his craw. “The pistol that was stolen from me was a Colt, and I give $125 for it and it was a sho’ nuff Colt, yours is a Singer, a damn woman’s swing machine, I’ll give you $100 for it.” Theodore looked stunned, but said nothing. He wrapped the pistol back in the cloth, placed it back in the can and walked out to wait in his Father in Law’s truck.
It was a quiet ride back to the Thomas’ house. While Floyd could appreciate Theodore’s position, hell he even  admired his pride, this could be a problem. Business had been falling off across the industry. Clay brothers over in Peterville had gone under last year and two more jack-leg outfits had popped up to fill the void. These outfits hired illegals, and usually didn’t bother with permits. Times being what they were, folks were cutting corners. They just didn’t invest money they didn’t think they could make back in this economy. Better to hold on to it if you got it. Government contracts and big churches were about the only thing keeping legitimate construction companies in business. Lynwood Preston didn’t have final say in any of these things, he carried considerable influence, and was known to be a petty, spiteful man when he felt he had been slighted. He held secrets and was owed favors by those who did have say over these matters. Floyd could just bankroll the purchase of the tractor and subsidize the difference of the pistol, but Theodore was a proud man, and Charlotte would be furious at any perceived interference in their self-reliance. A delicate situation indeed. Dinner conversation was flat, with little being said, other than the required mention of the weather and the mechanics of passing the salt and pepper or the potato salad. Mrs. Thomas and Charlotte both noticed the chill but said nothing. To go plates were made, and goodbyes were said. Charlotte and Theodore made the short ride to their place just down the hill in silence.
Theodore lay in bed with a troubled mind. He had met Charlotte when he was teaching agricultural economics at Mississippi State after a stint in the Peace Corp, just out of The University of Vermont College of Agriculture. Charlotte was a grad assistant in the English department. She came to a holiday faculty mixer with an adjunct professor who got drunk, goosed the wife of a department head, got his bell rung, and was drug half conscious on to the porch to sleep it off. Theodore offered her a ride home, that led to a 4 hour Waffle House conversation, that led to a date, that led to a ring, and moving back to her home town to try his hand at the organic farming methods he was certain would bring profitability back to family farms. It was culture shock for the boy from Vermont. Everybody was nice enough, but he always felt like he was missing something unsaid in the glances and uncomfortable pauses in conversation. He loved her folks, and they loved him. Organic farming was going to be a hard sell. He was hoping to lead by example on the couple of acres Mr. Thomas had given them. He sensed their was some tension in his dealings with Lynwood Preston. There seemed to be some unwritten rules of interaction that he just wan’t picking up on. He didn’t want to be rude, but he didn’t want to be taken advantage of either. He certainly didn’t want to embarrass Charlotte or her family.
Up the hill Floyd was struggling too. He really liked Theodore, but be damned if that boy didn’t seem dense some times. He just didn’t seem to understand the steps of the dance. The things unsaid seemed to escape him. Lynwood Preston was an asshole, but he was a necessary evil to doing business around here. You didn’t need to like him, but you sure as hell didn’t need him out to get you either. Did Theodore even know there was a rift there? Hopefully this could be smoothed out without any hurt feelings. He loved his strong willed daughter, and if she loved Theodore, so did he. 
Monday morning Floyd was in the office by 8. Around 10 he got a call from Lynwood.
“Hey Floyd, tomorrow afternoon me and some of the boys from the barber shop are going to do a little skeet shooting at my place, if you can slip away, you and Teddy, uh, Theodore, ought to come out, Irv said he has a batch of corn ready that’ll put your dick in the dirt. Say about 3 or so."
Floyd hesitated a pregnant second, wondering if it was a trap, but what could he do? 
“Sure Lynwood, that’d be just fine, looking forward to it"
As he hung up the phone, he hoped Theodore could handle a shotgun.
Floyd stopped by Theodore and Charlotte’s place on his way home. He found Theodore sitting on the porch with his computer. He pulled up a chair, and after a little beating around the bush he got to it.
“Lynwood Preston invited us to shoot a little skeet with him and some of the boys tomorrow afternoon at his place. You interested?"
Theodore was more intrigued than interested. He wasn’t clear on the social ramifications of the invitation, and Mr. Thomas wasn’t easy to read on the subject.
“Sure, that sounds fine Floyd. I shot some trap with my Grandfather when I was in high school, that will be fun"
Floyd breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe the boy could handle a shotgun. Maybe this wasn’t a total loss. He looked over at Theodore. He so badly wanted to explain the sensitivity of the situation, but how? It was a kind of a crucible, a balancing act of not showing weakness or giving offense. Some men were masters of this skill, and reaped the rewards, but the bulk were divided between the rude and the weak. The goal was the delicate balance between. Floyd let it go. 
“Come up to the house around 2 tomorrow, ok?"
“Sure thing”, Theodore barely looked up from his computer. Floyd walked back to his truck. Charlotte drove up a few minutes after he left. Theodore helped her get the groceries in the house. He told her about the get together at Lynwood’s tomorrow.
“I don’t think Mr. Preston likes me."
“Why do you think that?"
“I don’t know, something about how he talks to me, tries to call me Teddy. He acts like I’m somehow, I don’t know, less of a man or something."
“Lynwood Preston is a philanderer, a bully and an asshole, just like his Daddy before him. He’s rude, and cruel, and you don’t need him to like you. I guess Daddy needs to stay on his good side, but you don’t have to kiss his ass. Be yourself, if he doesn’t like it, tough shit."
Theodore smiled at his wife, and in a syrupy faux southern accent scolded her, “I do declare that is some ugly talk coming from such a pretty mouth."
She gave him a grin and snapped a dishrag at him, “What are you going to do about it?"

Theodore headed over to his father-in-law’s house the next afternoon. They took shotguns from the cabinet. Floyd pulled a beautiful over under 12 gauge Benelli, with a pheasant hunting scene engraved on it. He handed Theodore an older side by side double barrel Stevens that had belonged to his father. Once again Floyd wanted to explain the delicate dance, and once again, he said nothing. Down the two lane black top and up the half mile gravel drive to the Preston McMansion neither man said anything. 
The barber shop crew stood around a tall table made of two by fours with a 4 inch thick cypress top. The shotguns were broke open an laid side by side like a sale table at a gun show, metal blued and gleaming, wood polished to a deep shine. As advertised there were two mason jars of crystal clear bootleg liquor, although none of these self proclaimed gentlemen would call it something so tawdry. The men nodded to Floyd and Theodore and went back to watching Lynwood Preston, head to toe in brown duck canvas overalls and jacket, move through the shooting stations yelling “PULL!” to Irv’s youngest boy Charlie, whom everybody agreed in hushed tones was “a little touched”. When he missed the last one he admonished the boy that he had pulled late, and naturally it had caught Lynwood off guard, or he certainly would have hit it. 
Lynwood put on a big grin as he approached the table. “Floyd, Mr. Post, glad you could make it!" He extended a hand to Floyd and after an uncomfortable pause, Theodore. The rest of the guys fidgeted a bit. “Mr. Wood, I believe its your turn.”, and the old barber picked up his shotgun and headed for the first station, glad to be away from the strangeness that came over the table when Floyd and Theodore showed up. Lynwood addressed the table.
“Mr. Post came down here to get us all organic farming. Organic, I guess that means all natural cow shit fertilizer and if you get bugs you just ask ‘em real nice to leave"
Some of the fellows made uncomfortable chuckles, the others looked at the ground. Theodore thought about what his wife said, and his father-in laws position. He proceeded catiously.
“It’s true Mr. Preston, I do believe that organic farming methods could be employed here with some success, I have studied the subject pretty extensively, and I’m hoping to test some of my hypothesis on the family land."
“Test my hy-poth-o-sees” Lynwood stretched the word out.
“My my, Mr. Post you sure you want to……"
“It’s Dr."
“Excuse me, you a Dentist, or maybe a fucking proctologist?” Lynwood’s tone had gone from patronizing to downright hostile.
“I have a PhD in Agricultural sciences, Mr. Preston, and that entitles me to the title of Dr., although I don’t feel the need to toss my WEIGHT around in FRIENDLY conversation."
Everyone was silent. Mr. Thomas was in a near panic, but Theodore and Lynwood had locked gazes and were oblivious to the other men, and to Irv’s boy Charlie who had wandered up to see what was going on.
Lynwood regained some of his composure and took on a low, growling tone.
“Don’t think I missed the weight joke, son. What’s got me confused is what a fellow wants to farm like he’s in the stone age needs with a tractor, I mean hell if you’re gonna do that you might as well work mules, or you afraid you might have to put leather to ‘em. Don’t imagine that would do with your libruul upbringing in Rhode Island or wherever the hell it is you are from. How you gonna handle them weeds boy? You gonna hoe that turn row? I give you one season with them soft hand of yours"
“Mr. Preston, I am from Vermont and I have farmed all my life. I notice you don’t seem to have much growing on your place, so I take some exception to your comments. Furthermore, in regards to organic farming, i would like to point out that Amish and Mennonite farmers consistently have the highest crop yields per dollar spent, and they don’t have chemical runoffs spoiling their waters either. How many of the ponds and lakes around here are no longer fit to fish in?"
The other men saw that Theodore clearly had a point but didn’t dare acknowledge it. All eyes turned to Lynwood for his response. The fire and steel in his gaze softened into a petulant grin. Then he did the last thing anyone expected, he reached for his zipper. He unzipped his overalls, fished his pecker out, and began to piss. Everybody stood in shocked silence, as a firehose stream issued from his fly. He wasn’t holding it and it went where it felt like, in a great and seemingly never ending stream. All eyes moved to Theodore for a response, and in an even more shocking turn of events, he followed suit. Now everyone stood in shocked silence while two yellow rivers flowed from the combatants, each one defiantly grinning, eyes locked into each other. The rivulets mingled on the ground and still everyone was silent in their disbelief. The moment seemed to go on forever. Finally, Lynwood Preston erupted into a great belly laugh, gave it a shake and put it away. After a few seconds Theodore did the same. 
“Gawwd damn son, gaaawwd damn, didn’t see that coming!"
Everyone stood in shocked silence, Theodore never unlocked his gaze form Lynwood.
“Tell you, what, you still want that tractor you can have it for $4800 and that pistol, wadda you say"
Theodore extended his hand “You have a deal Mr. Preston."
“Hell son, call me Lynwood, you’re gonna do just fine around here. Irv, how about some of that corn to seal the deal?"
Irv handed the mason jar to Lynwood who took a swig and handed it to Theodore, who did the same. Everybody breathed a sigh of relief, and they started back to shooting. Talk turned to weather, the upcoming Sheriff’s election, and bow season just around the corner. Floyd Thomas couldn’t help but beam with pride every time he looked at his son-in-law. The story would be repeated for years, but never in mixed company.

Dangerous Moonshine

"I've been drinking dangerous moonshine since 6am", were the first words out of Red's mouth, as he slid into Carl's truck. The unprompted admission was Carl's first indication of what kind of day it was going to be. They were both stage hands, though Red was mostly retired at 68. Like most people in a "feast or famine" industry, odd jobs filled in the gaps. They were on their way to install a lift chair in a stairwell in the home of JR Pickett, one time concert promoter, sometimes AV contractor, most of the time crook, and all of the time son of a bitch. Carl didn't much like it, and had told Red as much, but Red insisted, and a hundred bucks was a hundred bucks. Carl was about 50, stoutly built and quiet. He could be considered handsome, in a working class way, with thick forearms and curly salt and pepper hair, worn a little shaggy. Red was tall, thin, had a shock of coarse white hair in a ponytail, and a gold tooth made more prominent by the fact that it was the only one in his mouth. Red was a constant talker, and unrepentant flirt. He would walk right up to a girl young enough to be his granddaughter and pull a cheap souvenir coin he had picked up in Greece from his pocket, featuring a bust of Helen of Troy. He would ask the girl to turn in profile, show her the coin, and say "Did anyone ever tell you, you look just like Helen of Troy in profile? Absolutely stunning. Now I see why that face launched a thousand ships”, take her hand, bow and kiss it, then leave with a flourish. It never failed to make them blush and smile. Red told stories that made the younger hands think the old man was full of shit, until he shimmied up the truss, barefoot with a crescent wrench, faster than a spider monkey, and worked circles around them. 
Carl was in no mood for it today. This time last year he was in a position to turn this job down. Red was his usual, chipper self, making comments about every woman they passed. Carl had heard enough.
"Say Red, what would happen if I was to stop, let you get out of the truck and do your Helen of Troy routine on the next girl you see? Let's say she doesn't pepper spray your geriatric ass on the spot, let's say she says "oh my god you are the man I've been waiting for, take me now." What are you going to do then Romeo?"
Red looked hurt for a moment then launched into a retort.
"I still got something left in the tank, son. Besides, you know that little girl at the VA that hands out the medicine? She slips one of those blue pills in my ration every so often, so I'm sure I could rise to the occasion."
"Ok, that's enough Red. I am truly sorry I asked." 
They were quiet for a minute, Carl felt a little bad about bursting the old man's bubble, and then Red piped up.
"In all seriousness Carl, you're probably right. I just love to see them smile. I love the way they smell. I love to hear them talk. It's like the sun coming up over the mountains, it just makes my heart happy. I get lonesome sometimes, wish I had settled down. Hell even an old nag would be someone to laugh at my jokes. At least less of a wet blanket than my present company"
This was one thing that confounded people about Red, you never knew if he was dead serious, pulling your leg, or some combination of the two. Carl decided if they weren't going to be quiet (and Red wasn't), he would at least change the subject. 
"So that fat fuck JR needs a come-along to haul his bovine ass up the stairs these days?" Carl asked. Red snorted a laugh. JR Pickett was a guy everybody just loved to hate. He had money, but was always crying poor. He did everything as cheap as possible. He took an almost perverse joy in shorting guys, but his low bidding on jobs meant he had most of the work in town, so everybody bitched, and dealt with it. 
"I believe Diane insisted" Red replied. Diane was J.R.'s fourth wife. A likable, well put together lady, with an easy smile that made you know something was going on behind the silent exterior. It was clear she was a knockout in her day, and even at 60, didn't look half bad. It was often wondered aloud how she ever ended up with a repugnant character like JR. 
When they got to J.R.’s, they parked Carl's old Chevy truck in the back. Diane greeted them at the kitchen door with a smile.
"Hi boys, come on in. Just so you know, he's in awful humor today"
She looked directly at Carl as she spoke, locking eye contact. It made Carl uncomfortable and he looked away, looking up just in time to see her flash a little grin at Red. When she turned away  Carl gave Red a quizzical look and Red gave a little shrug.  They proceeded into the den where the staircase began. J.R. was in his recliner, watching a 24 hour news channel, hurling insults at the television.  As expected the lift chair was cheap, with badly translated instructions. Carl got to work. He already knew that outside of maybe holding something up while he drilled it, Red wasn't going to be much help. 
After about two hours, the rail was bolted to the wall. Diane brought out some chicken salad sandwiches and iced tea for the boys. When she sat a plate on the tv tray next to JR, he didn't acknowledge her. When she walked back into the kitchen JR set into complaining.
"Can you believe this woman? On my ass about the diet, exercise, this shit, that shit, Now with the drinking? She threw out every drop in the house. Goddamn bottle of Pappy Van Winkle I've been saving for six years. Why? I couldn't take her lip anymore and gave her a rap across the mouth. One, with an open hand. What the hell else was I supposed to do? She blames the liquor, and not her damn nagging, so it's out with one of the last pleasures I have in this world."
The talk made Carl uncomfortable. He was here to do a job, make $100 and leave. Red, on the other hand, seemed to delight in it. He plopped down on the sofa next to JR's recliner and put his feet on the man’s glass covered coffee table. 
"That's a damn shame JR, a damn shame. Why right in my lunch pail out there I have a Ball Mason Jar containing, what I believe to be, the best moonshine I have ever had the pleasure of imbibing"
Carl rolled his eyes at Red's theatrics. JR was a little agitated, and the more Red blathered on about women, their place, and what right they had to tell a man what to do, the more frantic JR seemed to get. He hadn't had a drink in two weeks, as he was basically homebound these days, and Diane wouldn't bring him more. Carl found Red's behavior odd, given the "I love women" speech Red had laid on him in the truck. This wouldn't be the first time Red had contradicted himself, but this kind of mean talk was unexpected. Red suggested that they send Diane on an errand and crack that jar he had in his lunch cooler. JR called Diane into the room, peeled a few twenties off the roll in his pocket, and told her he had a taste for butter pecan ice cream. He asked her in a syrupy sweet voice to run to the corner store and get some for them and their guests. 
Diane gave JR a peck on the cheek, said "Yes dear", took the money and left. As soon as her little BMW convertible had cleared the drive JR exclaimed, "What the hell are you waiting for you dried up old ball sack, where's that hooch?"
Red went to the truck and got his little cooler. It contained a jar of sweet iced tea and a jar of clear liquid. There was also a stack of red plastic cups. Red sat two of them on the table, half filled them with the iced tea and then poured the liquor on top. He returned the jars to the cooler. Carl, fuming now, continued working.
“Go easy JR, it's powerful stuff"
Before he could get the word's out JR had killed the cup, and shook it at him. "Don't bother with the tea he grumbled". Red filled JR's cup about a third full with nothing but  white lightning. JR knocked back the cup and it took his breath away. Wheezing and coughing he sat back in his chair, with a barely audible "goddamn". When they heard Diane at the kitchen door, Red quickly put the cups back in the cooler, and slid it under the coffee table with his foot.  Diane stuck her head in the door and asked if everyone wanted ice cream. Carl declined, Red said "certainly" and JR didn't answer. Diane served up two bowls, and took a seat on the opposite end of the couch from Red. Carl was putting the finishing touches on attaching the seat to the rail. Carl plugged the motor into an outlet, hit the controller, and watched the empty seat zip up the stairs. Everyone turned to look upon hearing the sound.
"It's about damn time" Red said. Carl couldn't even look at him right now, he was so pissed. Red made a big show of shaking the seat and pulling on the rail. He even pulled a crescent wrench from his pocket and checked a few of the bolts. 
"Honey, you look tired." Diane said looking at JR. It was true, he looked paler than normal, and had hardly touched his ice cream. "Maybe you want to ride your new chair upstairs for a nap?" JR nodded his head, and Diane got up to help him, with Red close behind. They got him into the chair, but couldn't quite fasten the safety belt around his considerable girth. This time Carl sat on the sofa. Diane asked JR if he was ready, but he hardly responded. She handed him the controller, but he couldn't grip it so she used the one on the side of the machine. The machine whirred and struggled to drag JR up the stairs. When it got to the top there was a click and then all 350lbs of JR came tumbling down the stairs. Carl jumped from the sofa in a panic, Diane and Red just stood at the landing of the stairs looking at JR still on the floor.
"Oh shit, Oh shit" Carl was starting to hyperventilate, "Oh shit, I killed J.R."
JR was bleeding out on the hardwood floor like he had been stabbed.
"No you didn't". Red replied, holding Diane's hand now. 
"When I told you I had been drinking dangerous moonshine, I wasn't kidding Carl. That shit is 160 proof at least. Put a horse out, or at least a broke down old bull. I pulled the release pin on the seat almost out, he hit the top then know."
"Doesn't hurt that I  held his blood pressure pills, and doubled his blood thinners for the last week. He should have never raised his hand to me. Wasn't the first time either, as he'd have you believe. I ran into Red picking up JR's medicine at the VA, and we talked for hours. I can't remember the last time somebody just listened to me. I lost track of time. When I got home that night JR hemmed me up in the kitchen and worked me over good. Oh the next morning he was all apologies, but I wasn't buying it again. I made him promise to stop drinking, but I knew it was a matter of time before he killed me." Diane added.
"Why are you telling me this?" Carl asked.
Diane tossed a banded stack of $100 bills on Carl's lap. 
"Just to be sure you understand. Just to be sure we are on the same page. Why don't you boys head on out. I need to call the ambulance."
Red was gathering up his cooler and pulling Carl to his feet.
"Red honey, call me later?"
Carl shook his head in disbelief.
"Anything left in that jar?"
Red kneeled next to the body, fishing the fat wallet from the back pocket. 
"Are you robbing the dead now?"
"Just making sure the cheap son of a bitch is really dead."

Walt's First Buck

Vernon was getting agitated. He was on his second cup of coffee, and his second splash from the quart of JW Dant, from the cabinet over the stove. It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and the Shepherd men were at “The Mansion”, a three room farmhouse that served as hunting camp on the family property near Alamo, TN. They were here this week every year, a few weekends, and another couple of days around Christmas. Vernon, his son Roger, various friends, and for the first time this year, Roger’s boy Walt. Roger looked at his father with concern, and maybe a little bit of amusement. Vernon didn’t bother going out to the deer stand anymore, so Roger wasn’t concerned about the bourbon, but it couldn’t be doing the old man’s heart any good. Vernon just came up here to get away from his wife’s lace doilies and church meetings. When he was working, he was gone in rail yards and barrooms, and was never home enough to feel suffocated by his wife Gertrude’s insistence on maintaining the sanctity of her domestic kingdom. In retirement he found it stifling. This was his time to live however he wanted to, and drink when he damn well felt like it.


“He got out! That son of a bitch got out.” Vernon kept repeating. 

“Who Daddy?”, Roger asked, “Who got out?”. 

“Goddamn Paul Rainey, who else? Paul goddamn Rainey”

“Calm down, Daddy, you’re scaring Walt.”


Vernon was retired from the railroad, and in his 37 years there had held a variety of positions, from railroad cop to yard manager. He was a fountain of stories, and all though Roger just tuned him out these days, Walt was absolutely fascinated with his Papaw’s tales. Along with his pension, Vernon  took home a collection of mementos and stories of rail tramps and robbers. Old signs, railroad spikes, cheap framed photographs were scattered about “The Mansion”. These were the overflow relics that Roger’s mother, had threatened to throw away if Vernon couldn’t find a place for them. Walt was particularly fascinated with the bits of hobo art displayed in makeshift shadow boxes. Each trinket was a like a trademark, a piece of the man who made it. Vernon had a story about the man behind every drawing, hobo nickel, or crude figurine. 


Walt couldn’t recall hearing about any Paul Rainey. He started to ask, but a look from Roger made him think better of it. He went back to his breakfast of day old biscuits and burnt bacon. Roger looked at his 76 year old father and wished he hadn’t brought the Friday edition of the Commercial Appeal with him this weekend. The old man was still full of piss and vinegar, and believed himself to be every bit as capable as the young soldier who stormed the beach at Normandy so many years ago. A heart attack ten years past, and the various ailments 76 years of life leaves a man with did nothing to disposess Vernon of this belief. Roger saw it from another perspective. He noticed his father was increasingly confused. At night he carried on heated conversations in his sleep, but had no recollections of them when asked the next day. 


“Finish up Walt, we need to be in the stand before the sun comes up”


Roger got their rifles form the cases under one of the beds. Roger carried a 30-06 Remington bolt action that Vernon had bought him when he turned 17. Walt would carry the lever action 30-30 that Roger had carried up until he got the Remington. Vernon’s bolt action A3-03 stayed under the bed. At this point a deer could walk up the porch and Vernon, having no interest in cleaning a deer, would offer it a snort.


“Me and Walt are headed over to the little creek stand. I saw a rub over there yesterday afternoon and I think we might have some luck. Go easy on the JW, and maybe get some rest today. Okay Daddy?”


The property had been in Vernon’s family since right after the civil war. The farm house was actually one a sharecropper family had lived in. The slightly larger house that Vernon was born in, had burned in the early ‘60s. Roger and Walt put on their orange vests and headed towards the little creek stand, about half a mile away. It was in the gray part of the dawn after that little period that feels like the darkest part of the night, right before the sun starts to come up. Roger was somewhat annoyed at the late start, and a little concerned about his father’s agitation. Although, he came to relax, he found himself anxious. Walt’s short attention span was also testing his patience. While Vernon was a swaggering railroad man who came to drink and tell tales as much as for the hunt (these days more), Roger took after his mother’s people, who tended to be more intellectual and practical. The way Roger saw it, he was there to hunt and spend time with his son, who he was finding it harder and harder to connect with. Walt was a kid who loved his comics and video games, wasn’t particularly interested in school, although he did well enough. Walt was emotional, tending towards the dramatic. Roger wasn’t sure how he would take to the solitude and sometimes boredom of hunting, but it was an opportunity for them to spend time together and he had been looking forward to it. 




They got to the stand just as the sun started to break over the horizon. As it’s name suggested the little creek stand overlooked a small stream just under a ridge. Roger had taken a doe here last year and a 4 point buck some years before. The woods got thick about 30 yards from the stand and the little clearing provided a perfect shooting lane for what he hoped would be Walt’s first deer. The stand was about 15 feet off the ground and was a cozy fit for the two hunters. 


It was hard for Walt to stay awake. It wasn’t because he didn’t want to be here. He had grown up wanting to join the men at the mansion. When he turned 12 that summer, his father had pulled the old 30-30 from the closet at Papaw’s and showed him how to work the lever action. He had shot it once a few summers ago when he was staying with Meemaw and Papaw under Vernon’s loose supervision, but it kicked like a mule and he had stuck with the little bolt action .22 Savage since then. This time it was different. Roger introduced him to the rifle systematically, teaching him how to shoot it from a bench rest, seated with an elbow on his knee, and standing. He learned how to pull his elbow close to his body with his grip on the forearm of the rifle, to exhale and gently squeeze the trigger in one even motion as he let his breath out. Father and son enrolled in the mandatory hunter’s safety course on Tuesday and Thursday nights at the community center, and when fall came around Walt was ready to get a Junior Sportsman’s license. Walt was happy to be out with his father and grandfather, but he hadn’t thought about how boring the reality of waiting silently in a deer stand for something to wander out of the woods would be. In the silence of the early morning, every bird fluttering in the brush, and every squirrel jumping from tree to tree sounded like deer crashing through the woods. 


This morning was even more difficult. He was a bit preoccupied wondering what had Papaw so shook up. He asked his father about it on the walk, but was shushed. This just piqued his curiosity. He had heard Vernon’s stories from the war, and 37 years of the railroad, but could not recall specifically hearing about Paul Rainey. It was possible he had just forgotten if he had only been in one story. Men like Henry Slate, who had been Vernon’s friend and boss in the railroad police, and big Jim Styles from the Jackson yard who could, allegedly, pick up a railroad tie and toss it on to a flat car by himself, were the constant characters in Vernon’s stories. There where others too, hoboes and hustlers like Coal Car John and Feet McGee (he wore a size 14 boot) that populated Papaw’s world. Roger had told him that the stories “improved” over the years, but Walt wasn’t sure what that meant. Walt idolized his freewheeling Papaw. 


A little before 9 that morning, Walt was asking about Paul Rainey for the third time, when they heard a racket from the other side of the ridge. This was definitely not a squirrel. As they watched a little spike buck and two doe emerged on top of the ridge. Roger nudged the boy with his elbow and Walt raised the rifle to his shoulder. He put his eye to the scope and his crosshairs on the little buck. His heart was beating like it would come out of his chest. He could feel it in his eardrums, and see it at the edges of his vision. He took in short breaths and had a hard time holding the rifle still.  He heard his father say “take the shot” through gritted teeth. The picture in the scope would not stay still and Walt gave the trigger a hurried jerk. He missed, as he tried to cycle the lever he got a round stuck. It didn’t matter now, the spooked deer were long gone. Walt could feel Roger’s disappointment. He didn’t have to say a word. Roger took the rifle from Walt, unjammed the round and handed it back to him. They sat in silence, Walt fighting back tears. Around 10:45, Roger decided it was time to head back. He could tell Walt was upset and disappointed. He knew then that he should have said something to reassure the boy that he wasn’t upset, but it just hadn’t occurred to him and now the moment had passed. Where Vernon was full of words, quick to anger and quick to forgive, Roger struggled with finding words to say. His stoney silence was often mistaken for coldness or aloofness, but the fact was Roger just had a hard time knowing what to say where emotions were involved. This was a big part of why he and Walt’s Mom had divorced.

Walt walked with his head hung low. He could feel his father’s disappointment. As they walked back, Roger looked for the words to tell Walt. He decided now was as good a time as ever to tell him what had Vernon so upset. 


“I guess your Papaw never told you about Paul Rainey and Coal Car John. I suspect it’s a difficult thing for him to talk about”


Walt had heard all about the hobo Coal Car John, so named for the color of his skin, and not a preference for coal cars. Vernon had often related the tale of how John saved his life one frigid February day. They had been investigating a derailment in Mississippi, a little ways out of Memphis. Vernon was a young railroad policeman who had been brought down to assist the inspectors in painstakingly walking every foot of track in the area, looking for signs of sabotage. Vernon had slipped and fell into the icy waters of the Cold Water river. The inspectors searched for days and never found him, until he emerged from the woods 3 days later. A lone hobo known as Coal Car John had been watching from the woods, out of site of the railroad bulls, and had seen Vernon slip. The young railroad cop had lost consciousness almost immediately. John pulled him out, got him out of his wet clothes and treated his hypothermia with coffee and rotgut whiskey. As Vernon emerged from his delirium, the two men got to know each other. They had both served in the second world war. John had been a cook in the navy and Vernon an infantryman. While Vernon had come home, married Gertrude and went to work for the railroad, John’s homecoming had not been near as nice. His family sharecropped a piece of land around Byhalia, MS. His sister had taken off to New Orleans not long after he left. He sent letters and money back home to his aging parents, but since they could not read, he only got a reply when Mrs. Clark, the widow that owned the farm replied. Unbeknownst to John, Mr. Clark had gambled on a business venture by over leveraging his farm. When he passed unexpectedly, the widow Clark had to do everything she could to stay afloat. When her only son died in the war, she lost her will to go on. The bank took the land and John’s people were driven from their home. John had taken to hopping freight cars from town to town, hoping to find them, but after a few years he gave up, and mostly stayed around North Mississippi. Vernon had tried to get John to come stay with him in Memphis, and maybe get a job with the railroad, but John wasn’t interested in charity or going back to the society that had left him like this. He took on odd jobs when he needed to, worked the cotton gin during the busy season, and rode the rail when it pleased him to move around. John always returned to his home base for the winters. Word got around what had happened, there was an unwritten rule among the railroad bulls out of Memphis that a certain black hobo was not to hassled, and extended every courtesy. Although John was secretive about his comings and goings, he often shared a thermos of coffee with Vernon and a few of the other railroad men he had befriended. His moniker was a J in a circle drawn with a piece of coal, and it warmed Vernon’s heart whenever he saw it scrawled on a box car door. To pass the time, John carved crude little figures from wood and later from spikes and bits of metal found around the railroad lines. His specialty came to be angels he carved from piece of soft lead ingot he found somewhere. Many hobos did this, and would gift them to friendly strangers, or exchange them for food and other necessities.


As they walked, Roger told a story that Walt had never heard. Vernon had been a policeman for the railroad for ten years after he met John. He wouldn’t see him for months at a time, but when they did it was like they had never been apart. John would hang around for a few days and then be off again. By now Vernon had become an agent in charge with the Union Pacific railroad police. The inspectors got a call about a reefer (refrigerated car) that had been broken into. On inspection, a body had been found inside. It was John, he had been brutally beaten before being placed in the reefer alive, and freezing to death. Vernon was beside himself with rage and grief. The FBI took little interest in the murder of an itinerant homeless person with no family, and the case quickly went cold. Vernon was obsessed. He was drinking hard and was rarely home anymore. This was not long after Roger was born. Vernon questioned every hobo and rail tramp he could find. Slowly, word got around that the railroad bull name Vernon Shepherd was a friend of Coal Car John’s and a good man. People started telling what they knew.


There was a man who had started being seen in the woods where John lived most of the year. He didn’t live there, and was neither a hobo or hunter. He was known as a cruel man. He was suspected of dousing a small hobo camp with gasoline and burning the few belongings of its inhabitants. John was a loner, he would visit the camps, but preferred to make camp on his own, always in secret and never at the same place for long. Word got around that the woods were no longer safe, and the men who rode the rails avoided them. John, a creature of habit, remained where he was comfortable. 


With little more than his gut instinct telling him this was the man he was looking for, Vernon started spending every moment he could, and some he couldn’t, hunting his prey. Sure enough, he started seeing a man enter the woods with a backpack and a side arm. He had dark hair, and wore the clothes of a man who labored for a living. He was every bit of 6’ 3” with broad shoulders and thick forearms. The man had a hard and shallow look in his eyes. He wasn’t carrying a rifle, so he wasn't there to hunt. He would emerge again with the backpack empty. Vernon logged when he saw him and looked for patterns. The man would appear on Mondays and sometimes Thursdays around 8 AM. Vernon would track him a little further into the woods each time and then retreat to a blind he had set up, so as not too spook him. After weeks of observation he tracked the man to the remains of a hobo camp that had been burned. He watched as the man took two cloth wrapped bundles from the backpack and placed them in the hollow of a tree. Once he was unburdened of his load, he seemed to let his guard down. Vernon, with his hand on his sidearm stepped out on to the trail and said “I’d like to have a word if you don’t mind”. The man took off into the woods with Vernon behind him . The man obviously knew the terrain. He jumped into a sinkhole, and began firing at Vernon from the cover that it offered. Vernon hit the deck, and as he had done on the beach in France so many years ago, and crawled on his belly to a position of cover to regroup. When he got to a spot where the woods were too thick for his opponent to see, he made a wide arc to come around on the right flank. He inched his way towards the little ravine behind the man’s back. He was less than 10 feet away when the train came by. By now nearly an hour had passed, and in the racket of the train the man stood up, intending to slip out under the cover of the sound. Vernon took the same opportunity to make his move. He holstered his rail issued .38 colt and pulled a weighted sap from his back pocket. When the man started to walk towards the tracks Vernon leapt at him like a tiger. They went down in a heap, and in the struggle Vernon managed to roll the man on to his stomach and mount him like a horse, he brought the sap down hard on the back of the man’s head, knocking him unconscious, and cuffed his hands behind his back.


Vernon drug the man back to his truck. He took the unconscious giant to a long abandoned switchman’s shack. When he came, to he was sitting in a wooden chair, his hands still cuffed behind his back, and his feet secured to the legs with  rope. There was a pad of maps and charts in the shack, maybe 30 inches wide. Vernon rolled them tightly and wrapped duct tape from at the ends and the middle of the roll to fashion a bat of sorts. He poked the man with the bat as he regained consciousness. 


“I’m going to make this simple. What is your name and what are you doing in these woods?”


Vernon’s request was met with an insolent look and silence. He drew back and swung the bat at the man’s midsection, knocking the breath from him. He repeated the question, got the same answer and hit the man again. 


“How about a different question, do you know a hobo named Coal Car John?”


The man in the chair smiled, and looked Vernon straight in the eye and said “You mean the hobo ni….” and before he could get the word past his rotten teeth, Vernon brought the bat down against his rib cage, switched to the other side then beat the man until the chair fell over. He threw down the bat and caught his breath, while the man struggled on the ground, still secured to the chair. Vernon set him upright, and stared in to his cold, reptilian eyes. There was a trickle of blood coming from his nose and trailing down his thin lips, but he seemed unbothered by it. 


“I have a real good idea of what happened here, so if you value your life, you better start filling in the details. Who are you, what are you doing here, and what happened to John?”


The man in the chair gave Vernon a hard stare as he breathed hard, but never said a word. Then Vernon did something that caught him off guard. He took his handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the blood form the man’s nose. 


“I apologize, I got a little overcome by my emotions. I see you are a hard man, and this tactic is a waste of my time. Would you agree?


The man gave no indication, but his eyes seemed to show a little fear. Vernon leaned against the broke down little desk and hooked his fingers into his belt. The man tied to the chair watched but tried to give nothing away. 


“Were you in the war? I don’t mean Korea, I mean the big one. No? I was, and I tell you I saw some shit I still have nightmares about. I heard some even crazier shit. You know who the meanest sons of bitches in the whole damn war were? Wasn’t the Krauts and it wasn’t the Japs, no it was the goddamn Russians. What brings it to mind is, they found John in a reefer car. The Russians are built for the cold, and they knew how to use it. See, a man won’t bleed out as fast in the cold, so you can keep him alive and miserable long enough to tell you anything”


With that Vernon reached into his holster and pulled out his service revolver. He opened the cylinder and let all the shells fall into his hand. He placed one back in the cylinder, put the rest in his shirt pocket, spun the cylinder and closed it. The man in the chair flinched as Vernon bound toward him and shoved the gun into his crotch. He backed the hammer.


“I know you’re a tough guy, ain’t afraid to die, but you want to live with your bits blown off? It’s Russian roulette, with a Russian twist. There’s going to be a reefer car come along here anytime now. So if I manage to blow one of your balls off and still don’t know what I want to know, I’m going to put your ass in it so you don’t go and die on me, and when you wake up we’re going to play again.”


The man’s eyes were wide with fear. Vernon said “Name?” No answer. He pulled the trigger to a loud click and backed the hammer again. The man in the chair had seen enough.


“OK, damn it , OK, my name is Paul Rainey, I load the bank cars, I’ve been filching bars of silver. I replace them with lead for the count, and sneak them out in my lunch box. I’ve been hiding them in the woods and that ni..”


With the offending word Vernon drove his left fist into Paul’s temple.


“One more time?”


“Your friend was robbing me. I just wanted to know what he did with them, but he wouldn’t tell me. Sumbitch deserved to die, and I enjoyed every minute of it”


Vernon felt anger coursing through his veins, and pounding in his temples. He drew the pistol back and swung it in a wide arc, knocking out what was left of the man’s front teeth. It was about that time that a man in a white shirt with a star, and a pistol on his belt came through the door.


“Vernon, what in the hell is going on here?”


It was a Carl Harper, a deputy with the Marshall county sheriff’s office, that Vernon knew from some investigations down this way. Vernon slid the pistol back into the holster on his belt. Paul was making such a racket that the two men stepped outside to talk.


“Vernon, what the hell? I was down at the four corners having a cold drink and one of them railroad tramps come running in saying there was a feller had another feller tied to a chair trying to kill him.”


Vernon looked the law man in the eye. “That is the sorry bastard that killed Coal Car John.”


A look of sadness came over Carl. “My boy got lost playing in these woods,  old John seen him home. He was a goodun', maybe a little simple, definitely peculiar, but a goodun’. I’m sorry Vernon, but I’m gonna have to have your pea shooter ‘fore you make this any worse.”


By nightfall the place was crawling with police, sheriff’s deputies, railroad agents and the FBI. Paul said he was coerced into a confession of John’s murder, but couldn’t get off on stealing the silver bars. Since the theft occurred during interstate commerce, the feds took the case. Paul got twenty years in Brushy Mountain for the theft, but was never charged with the murder. John had been cremated by the state and with the confession inadmissible, the prosecutor didn’t have much to go on. When the trial was over and the bailiffs were taking him away, Paul pulled away to give a hard look at Vernon who was getting up to leave.


“Enjoy your time when I’m in the pen rail pig. We’re gonna play another game when I get out.”


After it was over Vernon was quietly relieved of duty in a backroom deal that allowed him to keep his years, for his pension. He worked for a year at one of the railroad’s biggest shipping customers. He returned when a logistics position opened, and stayed with them until he retired a few years ago. He never again wore a sidearm in an official capacity, and that was just fine with him.



Vernon cleaned up around the cabin. He listened to a Jerry Clower cassette on the little boombox. He tried to think of anything but Paul Rainey getting out, and the uncomfortable emotions it had brought up. He had gone off the rails with John’s death, and his subsequent obsession with bringing his killer to justice. It had almost cost him his marriage, and did cost him a relationship with his young son, one that would take years to build later. It had also made him face up to the fact that he had come damn near killing a man tied to a chair. Then he thought about Paul’s last words to him. He wasn’t scared for himself, but what about Gertie, or Roger or god forbid Walt. When he ran out of things in the cabin to fuss over he started cleaning his guns, The A3-03 Springfield, the .38 Colt police positive he had carried for the railroad and the little .22 Derringer he kept in his pocket. There was also the double barreled 12 gauge that hung on the wall, and a pistol grip pump gun he kept in the truck just because. 


Walt and Roger came back in and told the tale of missing the buck. Vernon razzed the boy a bit and let it go. Roger took some hamburger patties out of the cooler and fired up the Coleman stove. The cast iron skillet that this morning’s bacon was cooked on still had a good bit of the grease left in it. When it got hot he tossed in the patties and peppered them. Vernon and Walt played checkers at the card table. Everybody was in good spirits. After they ate Roger laid down for a nap. Walt listened to more of Vernon’s stories that he had heard before, and didn’t let on that he knew anything more about Paul Rainey or even Coal Car John, but he looked at his Papaw through different eyes. The stories just a little more vivid, like he had gotten a glimpse of the man he used to be. That afternoon they did a little scouting around, with Vernon telling tales of mischief carried out by him and Uncle Elmer in various parts of the farm. Elmer was his older brother who had passed a few years before. Around four, Walt and Roger went back to the little creek stand to watch the crossing until the sun went down. They didn’t see anything and headed back to the mansion by flashlight. 


That night ,while they were eating hot ham sandwiches, Vernon looked at Walt and said “Did I ever tell you about Coal Car John? They drank cokes from the cooler, Vernon and Roger had a little bourbon in theirs. They stayed up later than they intended to. Vernon told the tale of falling in the river, various adventures of John’s and running into him around rail yards. He told him how, as a young railroad cop, John was his conduit into the hobo community. He showed him some of the carved figures John had given him as gifts, some made of wood others of soap stone or lead. Without going into the details he told Walt that John had been killed by Paul Rainey, and thats why his release was so upsetting. He seemed to feel better having unburdened himself of the story.


The next morning it rained. Vernon and Roger drank coffee from the percolator on the Coleman stove, and didn’t bother waking up Walt. They decided to go into town to get some more groceries, and have lunch at the little road side diner. While they were there, Vernon called his Neighbor Bill Starnes, a retired Memphis police officer, and let him know about Paul getting out. Bill told him he would have the guys at the station roll a car by every so often just in case. They drank peanut butter milk shakes and ate diner burgers. There were other hunters that had been rained out and everybody was making the most of it. Walt fed quarters to the old pinball machine, and Roger returned calls on his work cell. Vernon was still confused by cell phones and wondered why anyone would want to be tied to one. Luckily the one Roger had for work didn’t get coverage at the mansion, so it wasn’t a distraction. Vernon wasn’t exactly sure what Roger did for a living, but it had something to do with computers and must be pretty important if they needed him enough to stick him with a phone. They headed back to the mansion around three. It had stopped raining and Roger wanted to walk a bit. Walt was settled in with a graphic novel and Vernon fell asleep in his rocking chair. 


Roger liked the quiet of the woods. He liked the smell right after it rained. He liked spending time with his Dad and his son. He liked the fact that work couldn’t reach him. He was hoping that Walt would bag a deer this trip. It seemed like Walt was on the fence about all of this. Walt lived with his Mother since the divorce two years ago. There was nothing acrimonious about it, in fact, that was the problem, neither of them felt much of anything anymore. She kept the house, Walt lived there, and Roger got an apartment near the office. They still went to Walt’s things together, and the occasional birthday dinner or party, though Roger avoided social functions when he could. He liked hunting because it was a mostly solitary activity and hoped he could pass this love on to Walt. 


He walked towards the big creek to see if there were any signs of deer movement there. He found tracks and fresh droppings at the edge of the property next to the neighboring farmer’s corn field. He walked along the side of the field, to the remains of a storage shed. It was on a little hill that overlooked the mansion. He noticed a chair sitting next to the pile of timbers, that had not been there on his walk Saturday. He wondered if someone had been hunting there. When he got close the first thing he noticed was trash, cigarette butts, a chip bag and a Mountain Dew can. Even more strange was the fact that the chair was facing the mansion and not the corn field. Had he been listening to Vernon too much? Was he getting as crazy as the old man? He doubted half of Vernon’s tales, and he certainly didn’t think a broke down old convict was coming around to avenge a twenty year old beef. He imagined wherever Paul Rainey was he had forgotten all about Vernon Shepherd and was just glad to be free. 


He didn’t mention any of this to Vernon. The old man seemed to be in good spirits, and Roger didn’t see any point in getting him riled up again. Paul Rainey, had to be near as old as Vernon, and couldn’t seriously be in the condition, or of the inclination to do anything to put himself back in prison. Besides they had steaks to grill on the porch, and potatoes to bake in the pot bellied stove. They were going to pop one of the four Westerns they had on VHS into the VCR and have a good night.



They did have a good night. They watched “El Dorado” while Roger grilled steaks on the porch and listened through the window. He didn’t need to see it, he could recite it from memory. They ate their dinner, Roger and Vernon taking increasingly generous nips from the bottle of JW Dant. They even let Walt have a nip and howled with laughter at the sour face he made. Vernon was in good spirits, and told tales from the war and his days with the railroad, even a few Roger didn’t recall ever hearing. They talked about Coal Car John, and the man who killed him. Somehow just getting it out made it sit a little less heavy. Walt drifted off to sleep, and then Vernon followed. Roger covered them where they lay, and stepped out onto the porch to smoke a cigar he had been saving for no particular occasion. The night was cold, clear and crisp. Roger looked up and marveled how a clear night sky in the country never got old. 


Night time in the woods is quiet in the winter, nothing like Spring or Summer, when the crickets and cicadas make such a racket. The hunters of the night forrest move in silence, their prey even quieter. Roger heard a twig break somewhere in the woods and it sounded like a rifle shot.

The sound put Roger on alert. He listened for footfalls to follow it but they never came. He walked to the edge of the clearing the mansion sat on and shined his little flashlight into the trees. The light didn’t go far, and he didn’t hear anymore sounds. Roger stubbed out his cigar and decided to call it a night.


The next morning Roger was up at 4:30, feeling no ill effects of his parlay with Mr. Dant the night before. Walt had moved from the chair to his cot at some point in the night, and Roger woke him with a gentle hand on his shoulder. Vernon was still in the chair, he gave a grumble when the light came on and went right back to sleep, Roger decided to let him be. He tossed yesterday’s biscuit and bacon leftovers on the pot belly stove to warm, and poured coffee from the percolator on the Coleman stove into two old mugs. Roger took a nip in his. Coffee was a new thing for Walt, and he wasn’t sure he liked it, but as adult drinks go, it suited him better than bourbon. 


Breakfast in their bellies, they made their way back to the little creek stand in the darkness just before dawn. Walt wasn’t feeling as anxious, or talkative as he was just the day before yesterday. Time with his father and grandfather, tasting the whiskey and walking into the darkness with an old rifle had him feeling more of a man than his years. There was an easy silence between father and son that took the edge off the cold morning. A fox ran across them around 7:30 am and it gave Walt a thrill. 


Close to 9, Walt couldn’t stand it anymore, he had to empty his bladder of the morning’s coffee. He whispered to Roger who was relieved, because he had to go too. They climbed down from the stand and began coming out of the layers of coveralls, flannel and thermals. Walt was starting to zip back up, and Roger was still midstream, when they heard a tremendous racket coming from just over the ridge other side of the creek. Roger looked at Walt, who grabbed his rifle leaned against the tree. Roger just froze as a 6 point buck with two does following him crested the ridge and ran down to the creek. The deer hadn’t sensed the hunters until they were about 20 yards away. The buck turned broadside to them right by the little creek and stood still, considering his next move. Roger tried to speak but there was no need. Walt raised the rifle to his shoulder, released the safety, sighted, and squeezed the trigger in an even motion. The rifle report made their ears ring, as Walt cycled the lever to bring another round into the chamber of the old 30-30. The deer stood for a second and Walt thought he had missed, it walked a few steps with Walt trying to line up another shot and fell, a hole just behind where the front legs meet the body. Roger let out a belly laugh that shook the woods. Sure, he was proud of Walt, and a first deer is a huge milestone, but the story to be told of the two of them with their coveralls around their ankles was just too much to keep the seriousness of the occasion.



Vernon was awakened to the sound of a rifle shot in the distance. It startled him, and he sat upright in the chair and looked around. The dingy clock over the stove showed it was 9am. Vernon couldn’t believe he had slept this long. He felt a little foggy. It had been a long time since he had had such an involved discussion with Mr. Dant, but he had enjoyed his night with the fellows, and if that was the price then so be it. He poured himself a cup of warm coffee from the percolator and splashed a little bourbon in it. He found a cassette of Ray Price and his Cherokee cowboys and put it in the little boombox radio on the counter. Before Ray and the boys could finish “Crazy Arms” he heard a knock at the door. It was a little peculiar, but not unheard of for a neighbor to drop by this early, to catch up or borrow the 4-wheeler to retrieve a deer from the woods. Vernon stood to the side of the door (old police habit) and cracked it enough to look out. There was a skinny, pimply faced boy of about 16, with horn rimmed glasses wearing a black shirt that said “Pixies” on it under a red plaid flannel shirt. Vernon had never seen him before and he certainly wasn’t dressed for hunting.


“Morning son, what can I do for you?”


“I was, uh, trying to find my way back to the road, and I umm wandered over here…”


Vernon told the boy to wait while he got his shoes, and he would show him the way. He went and retrieved his shoes and paused for a minute to shove his old .38 into the waist band of his pants, behind his back and under his flannel shirt but over the thermal. Vernon stepped out onto the porch, he saw a flash out of the corner of his right eye and then the lights went out.



When Roger finally managed to quit laughing, he went over to Walt and put an arm around his shoulder.


“Hell yeah, son! Congratulations on a good clean kill. That was perfect, even with your britches around your ankles”


That resulted in a fresh round of laughter. They got themselves zipped up and headed down the hill. Little creek was bigger than it looks once they got down to it, and Roger nearly did not stick the landing on the other side. He unsheathed the fixed blade knife on his belt, the same Schrade he had field dressed his first deer with and handed it to Walt. Walt shuddered and took the knife from his father. He tentatively made the first cut and found he had to really put some muscle into it. Though the hunt might be romanticized in their tales later, this part was uncomfortable, messy and smelled terrible. After field dressing the buck both men peeled out of their bloody coveralls. The sun was coming up, and it was warm enough for the jeans and flannels with thermals underneath that they were both wearing. It was decided that Roger would go back to the mansion to get the 4 wheeler and Walt would stay with the buck. Before he walked away, Roger removed the sheath for the old Schrade form his belt and handed it to Walt. “It’s yours now”.


The adrenaline was starting to leave Walt. He was satisfied. He had struggled with the thought of taking an animal’s life. He ate meat, but this was different. He did not feel guilty, he felt a sense of gratitude. He felt pride but at the same time, humility. He couldn’t wait to tell the the tale to his Papaw.



When Vernon came to, he was tied to one of the straight backed wooden chairs that sat around the card table in the little kitchen.  As his vision returned, he could make out a figure looming over him. He was gray and scarred, his few remaining teeth were mostly rotten, and he emitted a feral scent. There was no mistaking who it was, and Paul Rainey tauntingly waved the leather sap in front of his face.


“Remember this? First thing I did when I got out of the joint. Took my gate money to the army surplus and picked myself up one just like yours.”


With that he brought it down on Vernon’s upper arm. Not hard enough to break the bone but it did enough damage. Vernon absorbed the blow with little more than a grunt and Paul brought it down on the other arm. Vernon noticed the boy in the corner turning his face away.


“What’s wrong with you boy? You a sissy? You don’t have the stomach for this? I owe this son of a bitch for a beating and twenty fucking years of my goddamn life.”


With that he brought the sap down again against Vernon’s rib cage. There was a sickening crunch but Vernon bit down hard and didn’t give him the satisfaction of a cry. The boy was cowering now and Paul started towards him.


“You watch what the hell you are doing. There are two more of them running around here. You shoot anything comes through that goddamn door or you’re next.”


The boy turned towards the door and held the big revolver in both hands. 


“You see Sgt. Shepherd, I knew I had a son who was no fucking good, but it turns out I got a grandson while I was in the joint. His no good Daddy died, and his miserable slut mother immediately shacked up with some other asshole who couldn’t stand him, so we started exchanging some letters. You wouldn’t believe the things that little bastard can find on one of them gizmos that everybody got their nose in these days.”


Vernon was hardly paying attention, he had managed to get his fingers into his wallet and pull out a little P38 can opener he kept there since the war. No particular reason, it had made the whole tour with him, and he felt like it was a good luck charm. He was working it against the ropes as furiously as he could without arousing Paul’s suspicion. Paul walked over to the TV and picked up the .38 he had taken from Vernon’s waistband. He opened the cylinder, dumped the shells, put one in the cylinder, gave it a spin and snapped it closed.


“I recall you and me played a little game, but I never got my turn. You wouldn’t mind if I took it now would you?”


Roger was whistling a tune to himself when he stepped on to the porch of the mansion. He noticed the door was ajar and got a bad feeling. He saw his Daddy tied to the chair and started running toward him. The next thing he knew he was hit with a force that knocked him backward. He barely heard the report of the big .357 and felt the pressure in his shoulder before he lost consciousness. Paul relieved him of the .45 on his belt, kicked his rifle away and left him on the porch in the doorway.. He turned to congratulate the boy, but he was throwing up in the little sink. 


“This your boy Vernon? I was going to go ahead and kill you, until this fell in my lap. Let’s wait until he comes around, I would like to get to know both of you. Think you can hang on that long?”


Vernon glared with rage. He didn’t even feel his injuries anymore. He was working the little P38 against the ropes for all he was worth. Paul pulled up a chair to face Vernon.


“Grand kids are a wonderful thing ain’t they Vernon? Little Andrew here is mine. His Momma and Daddy never really told him where he come from, but you know kids get curious. This ones a little bookish for my taste, but I reckon I can't complain seeing as thats how he came to find me. Yessir, this here boy had no idea his granddaddy was a famous train robber. He learned to hate the sorry son of a bitch who snuck up on me and tried to kill me, put me in prison all over some nigger bum he thought was his friend.”


Vernon looked at the boy. He didn’t see hatred, he saw fear. Fear and revulsion were written all over the boy’s face. 


Walt had gotten anxious waiting on Roger to come back. He figured the deer wasn’t going anywhere, and started back to the mansion. When he heard a shot ring out he broke into a run. When he got near the edge of the clearing where the cabin stood, he saw something that stopped him cold. His Daddy lying on the porch, blood pouring from his shoulder. Roger was starting to come around, weak from loss of blood and the intense pain in his shoulder. He saw Walt and raised a single finger to his lips. Walt understood and stepped behind a tree at the edge of the clearing. He unslung his 30-30, a round already in the chamber. Through the open door, he saw a man’s back in one of the wooden chairs they would sit in around the little card table. The man stood up and Walt could see his Daddy’s .45 in the waistband of the man’s pants at the small of his back. A revolver was in the man’s right hand. Walt shouldered his weapon and took aim. He was shaking, he jerked the trigger and his shot went high and left into the wall of the cabin. Andrew crouched on the ground. Paul, still facing Vernon, turned to yell at the boy “Cover your man goddamnit”. Vernon saw his opportunity. The shot of adrenaline from the gunshot gave him the burst of strength he needed to tear through what was left of the ropes that bound his hands. His feet still bound to the chair, he raised up and butted his head into Paul. While Paul was reeling backward form the blow Vernon brought the sharp little P38  across his jugular vein and it gushed red blood. One hand to his throat, Paul brought up the .38 and pointed it at Vernon with the other, and managed to pull the trigger twice to the click of empty cylinders, before falling to the floor. Everyone froze as the boy pointed the big revolver at Vernon seated in the chair.


“Here’s your chance son, drop that piece and run like hell, or stay here and face someone else’s consequences.”


The boy was trembling he closed his eyes for a moment, threw down the pistol and bolted out the cabin door. Walt swung his rifle around until he heard Vernon shout. “Let him go”. He dropped the rifle where he stood and ran to his father. 


“I’m gonna be ok Walt, check on Papaw”


Walt ran to his grandfather, unsheathed the Schrade and cut his legs loose from the chair. The old man was bruised and had blood caked on his nose and mouth but he was still full of fight.


“Take the 4 wheeler to Mr. Butler’s place and get help Walt”


The boy stood in shock for a moment until Vernon placed a hand on his shoulder. “We’re gonna be fine son, go get help and tell Mr. Butler to call the Sheriff.” 


He turned to run and Vernon called to him. “Don’t say nothing about that boy that run out of here.”


Walt didn’t understand, and didn’t really care about anything but getting help for his Daddy. Vernon was blotting his son’s wound. It was a through and through, likely not fatal but extremely painful.”


“Walt killed a deer Daddy, six point buck”


“That’s good, that’s real good son, just take it easy”


Vernon looked at the dead man on the floor. He didn’t look much like the monster that had been standing over him, tied to that chair. He was pathetic, jailhouse swastikas tattooed on his arms and worn out fatigues from the army surplus. It seemed strange that it was finally over. He had held a grudge against this man for all those years. His actions had changed the course of Vernon’s life and robbed him of the friendship of one of the finest men he had ever known, and now it was done. A lowlife in a pool of blood on his cabin floor.


Walt was tearing through the woods. When he got to the road he was nearly run over by a rusted old Ford truck, the boy who had run from the cabin was driving away as fast as the heap would go. He got to the Butler’s just as the man and his son were returning to from their morning of hunting. He told them that there was a fight and that his Daddy was shot. Mr. Butler yelled for his wife to send the Sheriff and an ambulance to the Shepherd place. The man and the boy jumped in their truck while Walt led the way on Vernon’s old 4 wheeler.


When they got to the house Vernon was sitting on the porch with Roger’s head on his leg. Inexplicably they were both laughing. Both men were hurting, but nobody was dying, so they didn’t attempt to move Roger. Mr. Butler, a farmer and a deacon in his little church, had a look of shock on his face. His son also looked like he had seen a ghost. Roger was the first to speak.


“Mr. Butler, my boy Walt shot a real nice 6 point down by little creek. We sure would be obliged if your boy took our 4 wheeler down there and got him”


Mr. Butler gave them a look of disbelief, and nodded to his son. The young man got on the 4 wheeler and took off.


Vernon looked at Mr. Butler “Take it over to Branham’s to butcher, I expect it will be Monday before we can get by there, but he know’s I’m good for it. I was starting to think we’d go hungry if these two couldn’t get it together.”


Three paramedics, and all but one deputy of the Crockett county Sheriff’s department, came and the story was repeated at least a dozen times. No mention was made of the boy who had come with Paul.



Thanksgiving dinner was served in a large recovery room in the hospital in Jackson. Roger and Vernon in beds side by side, with Gertrude making plates from tupperware containers, and fussing over the boys. Walt’s mother came. She didn’t say much,  just oscillated between holding on to Walt and holding Roger’s hand. Walt told the story of shooting the buck with their coveralls around their ankles and everybody laughed. The other story that they weren’t telling the world, was a last souvenir of the ordeal from Coal Car John. The figures he carved from lead weren’t lead at all. Apparently John had been helping himself to a few of the silver bars Paul had been stealing. Did he know what they were when he took them from the tree where he found them? There was no way of knowing now. Sadly, the little treasures he spread in his travels probably led to his untimely death. Walt was only a few days older than when they got to the mansion, but he felt years beyond. Despite the fact that his voice was just starting to change, and he wasn’t even in high school yet, he felt like a man amongst two men he looked up to. Later he would think about the events and shudder in fear, but not today. Vernon must have repeated the story 100 times to every Dr. and nurse in the hospital and at least half of the phone numbers in the worn black address book he kept in his back pocket. Each time it got a little better.

The Last Sin of Solomon Earnest Phelps

It was overcast, with just a nip to the air, the November Tuesday afternoon they laid Solomon Earnest Phelps to rest. He went by Earnest or Ernie, and when people learned his christian name was Solomon, it wasn't a far perversion to silent or Silent Ernie, because he was a man of few words. He lived on the grounds of the Mt. Sinai Baptist Church and Cemetery that he had been the caretaker of since anyone still alive could remember. He had come to the little town of Colbert, Ar after the 2nd World War, when so much was in flux. He took the caretaker's job and moved into the old Parsonage that was empty since the widow James died and left her home in town to the church. He was known as a quiet and kind man, who, by all accounts led an unremarkable life.

The church lot was full of shiny pickup trucks and "hoopties" alike. Everyone came to pay their respects to the man who kept their parents graves clean and always had a pocket full of starlight mints for the kids. Silent Ernie had lots of friends for a man who didn't say much. Although he had come to pay his respects like everyone else in town, Buck Johnson had no use for the man they were laying to rest. Buck owned the areas largest farm equipment dealer that he had grown from a repair shop in his father's barn. He was twenty years Ernie's junior and on the surface the men couldn't be any more different. Buck was an ambitious man with a quick temper and a quicker laugh. He didn't volunteer for the army, but when his number came up he did his service in Vietnam. The army trained him to work on diesels, and when he came home he started taking care of farm equipment for folks in the area. He started buying used equipment that he could refurbish and sell and from there he was able to secure dealership agreements with several large manufacturers. The equipment business had been good to Buck and he had a nice house on

his family's acreage to show for it. He had a pretty wife and two handsome boys. There was a darkness to Buck that he did a good job concealing, but those close to him knew him to have peculiar bouts of melancholy. Nobody in Colbert knew the source of the darkness, or Silent Ernie's connection to it.

Buck got back to Colbert in 1972 after his time in the Army. He moved back into his old room in his father's home and tried to get back to some semblance of normal. He drank at the vfw with the old timers and the other

boys back from Nam, got a job at the service station and started taking in farm equipment to repair on the side out of the family barn. He seemed to be adjusting well to civilian life. He went on dates with a few of the home town girls, but he still carried a torch for Katie Williams. They had gone on a few dates in high school, she was flighty and a little too hippy dippy for the all American farmer's son. When he came up 1a she begged him to enroll in college in Memphis but he wouldn't hear of it. A few month's later he got called up and that was the end of the affair. When he returned home she was married to a riverboat man and had a year old son.

One day not long after he got back, Buck ran into Kate at the grocery. She was sporting a bruise poorly covered with concealer. She lit up when she saw Buck, but an uncomfortable silence was all that passed between them. They would run into each other a few more times and try to make small talk, but it was always awkward and seem to end abruptly. One night Buck was drinking at the VFW and Katie’s husband came in. His name was James Dunbar and he had done his service in the Navy. He was a rough, quiet man, who drank his Falstaff beer and smoked his unfiltered Camels in surly silence. Buck got involved in a conversation with a couple of the old timers and didn’t notice when James left. They held court until last call, and stumbled out to pickups and family sedans in the gravel parking lot.

On the way home Buck noticed Katie’s station wagon parked at the church. His first thought was to mind his own business, but his natural curiosity and the late hour meant that wasn’t an option. He pulled his truck in behind her wagon and stepped out. As he approached he could see her face was swollen and she was silently crying. The baby was on the seat next to her asleep. A few belongings were packed in the back. When she saw Buck she burst into a fresh round of hysterics. She rolled down the window and Buck was at a loss for words. “I’m leaving” she said, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m leaving tonight, before he kills booth of us”. Buck came around to the passenger side and slid in, holding the baby boy to his chest and took her hand. He didn’t say much and she spoke in bursts between sobs. They sat like this for over an hour. Buck convinced her to come to his family’s home at least until morning. He walked back to his pickup to lead the way when he saw headlights coming over the hill. He watched as the old ford flatbed headed toward him then turned off to point behind him. He was getting ready to step out and confront the driver when the truck made a last minute course change and slammed right into

the drivers door of his own truck. Buck slid across the bench seat and spilled out the passenger side door onto the gravel lot. Before he could get to his feet James Dunbar was reigning blows on his raised arms with an axe handle. Buck spun his prone body around to sweep the legs out from under his attacker. They struggled on the ground for a moment until Buck managed to get his attacker in a headlock. James fished a cheap switchblade form his pocket and began blindly slashing. Buck’s ears were ringing and he could taste coppery blood in his mouth. He barely felt the slashes where the knife found purchase. He squeezed harder until the slashing stopped. He released and waited for the man to come to but James Dunbar had drawn his last breath. He raised up in time to see the taillights of the wagon disappearing into the night.

Buck sat down on the ground and put his head in his hands, James' lifeless body on the ground next to him. He hardly noticed when Silent Ernie slipped up beside him. “Leave” he said. Ernie extended a hand and helped him up. “Leave now” he said. Buck didn’t know what to do, so he got in his truck and left. He stayed in bed the next day waiting for the Sheriff to come collect him. His emotions ran from fear to rage to shame and finally settled into a listless depression. He told his parents he had taken a fall down a ravine coon hunting with some of the boys, though he wouldn’t say who. After a few days he showered up and ventured out. He went by the house where Katie and James lived and there was no sign of anyone. He walked in the door and was immediately repulsed by what he saw. Food rotted on the table buzzing with flies. There was sign of struggle, beer cans and ashtrays scattered over the floor. He walked out the back door and vomited on the ground, got in his truck and left. He drove to the church and knocked on Ernie’s door.

Ernie ushered Buck into his little house and offered him coffee from the percolator on the little stove. They sat in silence until Buck said “What now?”. Ernie said “What now is, you get on with your life, don’t think about her, don’t think about what you did, he is buried and this is buried. There will be a day to pay the debt but it is not today."

The darkness finally started to lift from Buck the following spring. He was afraid to ask too much about Katie and James, but the rumor was that they had just taken off in the night. They were behind on rent, in debt and unhappy so none was surprised. Buck checked newspapers from the surrounding areas for awhile, hoping for a some word, but stopped after a

few months. The days went by. When he wasn’t working at the service station he repaired farm equipment out of his father’s barn. He invested in a combine that needed some work, got it running and sold it, then another. Before long her was renting a building on the edge of town. First it was Ford tractors then a New Holland dealership. He was dating a farmer’s daughter, Elizabeth, and they were soon engaged. Her father invested in the business and it boomed. He rarely thought about that night directly, but it was always lurking around the corner. The relentless nature of raising a family and running a business kept it at bay. The years brought him two fine sons who were his pride and joy. Life was good, but in the quiet hours sometimes he thought about Katie and the baby boy. Every so often he would awake from a nightmare in a cold sweat.

One day he was paid a visit by Ernie. Buck was apprehensive, but smiled and showed him to his modest office. Ernie looked uncomfortable, but had a steely glaze to his eyes that made Buck uncomfortable. “What can I do you for Ernie?” Never one to waste words Ernie got right to the point. “Put me on the payroll” he said. Buck asked if he was needing a job, and Ernie replied: “No, but you will put me on your payroll. I told you the day would come to pay the debt, today is that day. Pay me what you pay one of your mechanics, with annual raises and benefits” Buck stood up from his desk and said “I think its time for you to leave.” Ernie tossed a packet of papers on the desk. “You will find the direct deposit information, social security numbers and anything else your book keeping requires. You owe this debt.” Buck slammed the office door behind him and sat at his desk with his head in his hands.

Sleep did not come easy to Buck that night. He told Elizabeth that he had indigestion and he went downstairs and sat in his den. He poured bourbon is a glass and stared out the window into the fields. He was a happily married man, a successful business man and a pillar of their small community. Ten years had passed since the incident. On good days he could go on like it never happened. Did he really owe a debt? By all counts it would have been self defense, a justifiable homicide. Why didn’t he just call the Sheriff then? Why did he leave himself in the hands of a quiet cemetery caretaker? He had no answers. He wrested with it until dawn. Refusing Ernie meant bringing the whole thing to the surface. He didm;t know where Katie was or if she was even alive so it would come down to his word against Ernie’s. He was sure the caretaker would surely have no trouble producing a body. Even if he won the legal battle it could ruin his

family, his business and his standing in the community. He decided it would be best for everyone involved to give into this blackmailing son of a bitch.

It wasn’t near as hard as he though it would be. He went to his book keeper Carl, a friend from the VFW and brother in the Mason’s lodge, and told him he needed to set up a “ghost” employee with a direct payroll deposit to a Memphis bank. Benefits and beneficiaries were a name he had never heard of. It was just as well because Buck just wanted this behind him. Carl asked what was the nature of this strange circumstance, but when Buck answered that he didn’t want to talk about it Carl honored his friend’s request. This person that Ernie had designated, or made up, would be receiving a starting salary of $30,000 a year and a tidy package of benefits.

Whenever Buck thought about the salary he was paying to a ghost it stuck in his craw, but he hardly had time to think about it. Business boomed in the following years and he expanded to a second location in Marion. His wife attended the little church Ernie tended to, but Buck had never really been a church goer anyway, so it wasn’t hard to avoid it. He would occasionally run into Ernie at the hardware store or around town and he would give him a cold stare. Ernie returned his look with sad resignation.

Now here he sat at the blackmailing son of a bitch’s funeral. People got up and told stories of Ernie’s generosity. How he took care of widow’s yards and delighted the children. Buck was fuming about the hero’s wake this conniving bastard was getting but he played it cool. He went home that night and poured a glass of bourbon. He was comforted with the thought that next week when Carl came by the office he would “terminate” this “ghost” employee. One thing bothered Buck, why had Ernie stayed in the crummy little shack on the edge of the cemetery? Why had he kept the caretaker’s job when he had a salary coming in for nothing? It didn’t matter now, Buck thought, no use dwelling on it. That night he dreamt of a girl with bruises on her face and tears inner eyes. He dreamt of a baby boy with no father and no future. Despite his anger with Ernie he woke up crying and he wasn’t even sure why.

The next morning Buck arose and got ready for work. He arrived at the shop promptly at 8:15 every weekday morning, rain or shine, excepting holidays and the first day of deer season, if it happened to fall on a

workday. His secretary handed him an envelope that she had found on the door that morning with Buck’s name on it. He quickly took it into his office and closed the door. It read:

Mr. Johnson,
If you are reading this I am no longer. I am sure you are considering this the end of your debt from so many years ago. You are nearly correct, but there is one more task that is required of you. Please go to the St. Andrew’s home for boys on Tennessee street in Memphis, TN on any Friday and ask for William James. Tell him you came for the letter and he will know what to do. Once you have completed this task consider your debt paid.
Solomon Earnest Phelps

That Friday Buck told his secretary he had business in Memphis and got in the shiny GMC truck he bought last year and headed towards I40. He got into memphis around 10AM and headed for the home on Tennessee street. It was a fine old Victorian home with a 6 foot chain link fence around it. He stopped at a speaker in front of the gate and told the lady on the other end he was there to see William James. She buzzed him in and he wheeled the big Jimmy into a parking space marked “visitor” and stepped inside. A kindly but serious looking black lady around the age of 60 (he couldn’t tell for sure) told him William, or Bill as he was known as there, would be up in a minute, and to take a seat. Buck was anxious and remained standing. In a few minutes a young man walked in and extended his hand. Buck took it and noted a firm, but not too tight, grip. Bill motioned him back to an empty classroom down the hall.

They sat across a small table from each other in an awkward silence that seemed to last forever. Finally Buck spoke. “I don’t know where to start, but I’m hoping you can help me get to the bottom of a mystery.” Bill said “I’m hoping you can do the same”. Buck introduced himself, told Bill about his service in Vietnam and about his business in Colbert and now in Marion. He didn’t mention Ernie or their secret. He asked Bill to tell him about himself.

“I was made a ward of the state at the age of 2 when my mother passed away. I don’t know much at all about her. I entered the foster system and bounced between homes until I was 4. Some of those were not very nice

experiences. My last set of foster parents were basically a warehouse for children in exchange for the government checks until they just didn’t come home one day. A man named Ernie brought me here and I stayed until I turned 18. He came every couple of weeks to check on me and I begged him to take me home with him, but he said he could not. He brought clothes and toys and books for all of the boys here. I was never adopted, but its fine, because this is my home. As the years went by I saw less and less of Ernie. When I graduated from high school I got a letter from him stating that I had an account at the University of Memphis in addition to the scholarship I had received. I’m studying history and I want to be a teacher. I help out here on Fridays. I got a strange letter a few days ago that included one for you. Here it is."

Buck took the letter and opened it:

Mr. Johnson,
I hope this letter finds you well and me dead. I know you probably think ill of me. You have every right too. I found you in a vulnerable spot, I took advantage of you and I deceived you. Right or wrong, I leave that to God to decide, I had my reasons.
I was raised in the home you are now in. It wasn’t always good, but my needs were met. When Pearl harbor was bombed I joined the army. I participated in the invasion of France. While I was there I committed an act that haunted me for all of my days. I killed a man. That in and of itself is not unusual in war. This particular man snuck into our camp on my watch. Admittedly I was tired from marching on half rations and falling asleep. I thought the Germans were sneaking up on us. It was a French family, just looking for food. The Father was dead before he hit the ground. There is not a day or sleepless night that goes by that I don’t think about what happened to them after they scattered into the woods. It was an accident of circumstance, but I carried that burden through my days. I suspect you have carried a similar burden, not for the man you killed but for the innocent child. Katie died a year after the incident of a barbiturate overdose. I have maintained ties with St. Andrews over the years and helped where I could. William came here at the age of 4 after a few rough foster experiences. I learned what I could and I believe to my soul that is Katie’s boy who stands before you now.
I had no right to do what I did. I took advantage of your success. I took none of the money for myself. I set up the account and benefits for the boy through housemates from my St. Andrew’s days that took up vocations in

moral gray areas. William and all of the boys at St. Andrews benefited from your unwitting generosity. A fourth of the money was put in a trust for William’s education. I hope this in some way eases the burden you have carried these years and possibly softens the sting of my deceit.

I don’t know if I will answer to God for what I have done or if there is a God to answer to. I have seen too much evil to believe, but too many miracles not too. The man that stands before you is his own man, full of strength, goodness and light. Perhaps it was in the seed, but you provided the water, whether you knew it or not. I thought about telling you where to find him, but what would have become of both of your lives? In my feeble mind this was all for the best. Your secret has gone to the grave with me. Consider yourself released form any obligation to William or myself to continue our arrangement.

Solomon Earnest Phelps

Buck sat the letter down on the table before him and felt faint. He had blocked that night from entering his consciousness for so long. He thought about Katie, his dear Elizabeth and his own boys. He looked at Bill before him and wondered how much he knew or should know. Buck, like so many men of his time and place, was not a man of words. What would he say? Where would he start? The young man before him deserved answers, and Buck wasn’t sure he had them. Bill had waited this long so maybe there was no urgency, though it certainly didn’t feel that way. He thought about his own father’s advice stalking deer in the bottoms. “Breathe, one foot in front of the other, you have all day not to spook him.” Where would he even start? Buck looked across the table at Bill and said “Son, have you ever had Payne’s BBQ?" 

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