Pete Peterson: Fiction: January 2021

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Sunday mornings at our house it’s grits, red eye gravy, country ham, eggs over easy and buttermilk biscuits. (Please don’t tell my doctor.) I’ve walked 3 miles to a one room schoolhouse taught by an 18-year old girl with one year of business school and lots of pluck. I’ve followed fox hounds and coon hounds on starry nights and stood in awe of a new day dawning. I’ve dug post holes, cut persimmon sprouts and split cottonwood for $3 a day, been baptized more than once and paid big money at Saturday night pie suppers to share pecan pie with the prettiest gal there. I married one of those sweet-smelling, soft-talking, velvet-gloved beauties. We didn’t stay hitched long – perhaps my love for bourbon was the culprit – but what’s life without a lost love or two. Today, I’m frequently asked, “What part of the South are you from?” My answer? “I’m still from there. I just can’t get my preacher and parole officer to agree that I can go back.”

Fist Fights, Peanut Butter and My Mule, Jude

Daddy barges though the kitchen door like a burglar outrunning a shotgun blast. He looks like death eating a cracker, his right eye swollen, lips bruised black, dried blood on his shirt. He’s been gone four days, leaving me with three fox hounds, no dog food, and an empty pantry.

He throws a tow sack of groceries on the table. “It were a rough one, Frankie. Fix us some grub, then we’ll go chase us a fox.”

“In day light? We’re night hunters.” 

“Don’t hector, Boy. Just do.”

Daddy’s usually not cross with me. Is he okay? 

I take a can of Spam from his sack, slice off five chunks and fry it in oleo, slather on peanut butter that he likes, and hand him the plate. He chews, then says, “The mule’s a noble beast,” like he read these words on the peanut jar.  

I look to the mule pen. He rode Jim when he left. 

“Ain’t there. Sold him.”  

What? How can we sell firewood with no mules to pull our wagon?

“For how much?” 

No answer. 

Daddy jumps up, grabs a rope and heads for the dog pen. Stub and Little Bit will follow Dinah. On the ridge, the hounds range wide, noses to the ground. When they smell a fox, they’ll bark – mouth we call it. No jumping stone walls on horseback to see a pack of dogs tear a fox to pieces for us. We hunt for the music of the hounds, not to kill.

Dinah’s liberty bell squall says she’s on a trail. Little Bit’s turkey caulk and Stub’s hoarse chop join in. Usually, Daddy and me bust through buckbrush and blackberry vines, wade creeks and climb hills to be near our hounds as they run. Today, Daddy squats like a baseball catcher under a walnut tree, his head cocked to hear the dogs. 

“The mule’s a noble beast,” he says again. A crow caws. A meadow lark trills. 

“Me and Trace Galloway was havin’ a beer at the Blue Moon. This blow-hard fella comes in, blackguardin’ everthing. Calls us stupid red necks. Trace is on the puny side and no fighter, so he slips outside. Fella calls me a chicken shit. Pisses me off. We take it outside, so we won’t bloody up the Moon. Fella hits like a fallin’ tree.”  

That’s why Daddy’s face looks like sausage. 

“Whups me good ‘til I lay a right to his throat. He falls. Smacks his head agin a root, I reckon. He don’t move. ‘Cept his right leg kicks. Twicet.” 

Daddy looks to the heavens like he expects a lightning bolt. “After mebbe ten minutes Harley Stevenson comes up for a look. ‘Ya killed him, Mick.’ 

Harley runs to the post office to call the law. Hour or so later, Deputy Branch swaggers up and tosses me in the slammer. Second degree murder.”

Daddy shakes his head to clear the memory. “Next mornin’ sheriff says he talked to them who seen the whole shebang. Says I acted in self-defense. Gotta stay in the Gray-Bar Hotel ‘til the judge says I can go.”

Drinking and fist fights are no strangers to Daddy. That he killed someone is gobsnockering.   “This mornin’ judge turns me loose. Says if I look cross-eyed at ‘nother human bein’ its thirty days. Bread and water. Says pay the sheriff ten bucks fer disturbin’ the peace. Five for court costs.” 

Daddy rubs his wrists “Sheriff gives me ’til spring to pay up. Says if’n I don’t, it’s the hoosegow.” He looks to the sky again. “Jail ain’t good, Boy. Hard bed. Bad food.” He shakes his head to rid the bad dream. “Sherriff says I’m to stay outta the Blue Moon forever.” 

Daddy stands and kicks a clump of broom grass. “Didn’t mean the feller no harm. Shouldn’t a called me a coward.” 

He pulls his coat close. “Went for Jim. He were gone. Folks said the school marm taken him. Go to her place.”

He’s speaking of Miss Dixie Ann Foy. She buys my mushrooms in spring and blackberries in summer. 

Daddy tries to laugh. “That blame womin said I were worthless as a two-inch piece of string leavin’ a mule with no food nor water. Tole her I were in jail. ‘More reason you shouldn’t own a noble beast like a mule. You can’t take care of yourself, much less ‘nother livin’ soul.’” 

Daddy’s is white, his eyes aglitter. “Said, ‘I’m buying that mule right now.’ Counted out twenty-seven smackeroos.”

Daddy leans against the tree. “Got a terrible headache, boy. Brassy taste in my mouth.” He coughs and spits. 

“Jim’s a fifty-buck mule, but I owed the sheriff and judge, so I shook. Bought grub. Walked home. Still got four singles.” He adds, “A mule’s the offspring of a male donkey, a Jack, an’ a mare.” 

He’s really saying this conversation is over. Like when Viola Warfield, my class mate, died. Her Old Man said he could never put her in the ground, so me and Daddy dug her grave next to that big oak on the hill over lookin’ Layer Creek, and I asked Daddy about momma. 

“A sickly woman. Died when you were what, four?” That’s all he ever said ‘bout Momma from that day to this. 

But he did talk of mules. “They ain’t stubborn like folks say. They just won’t do stupid stuff, like try to pull a load that’s too heavy, or cross a bridge that ain’t safe. Take a mule somewhere new an’ they’ll ‘member that forever.” 

All is quiet as an empty house at midnight, then Dinah gives mouth. “Ain’t she a good ‘un?” 

Daddy slaps his knee with his cap, looks to the heavens, spins around and flops face first into the weeds. 

“Why’d ya do that,” I yell. No answer. 

Did he die? 

I roll him over. Face and blue eyes gray. Spit bubbles. Wet with sweat, his skin cold as a toad’s belly. 

The nearest doctor’s in Volney, I think. That’s eighteen – twenty miles away. A long pull even for Jude. Yellowbird is maybe ten miles, over bad roads. That’s my best bet. Who has a car in Yellowbird? Will four bucks buy enough gas to get Daddy to a hospital?   

* * *

Jude pulls the wooden wagon I use to carry fire wood to the house along the ridge line, Daddy tied to the cellar door, the door roped to the wagon. When we go downhill, I hang on to slow us. Uphill, I push. 

The trail forks. Jude turns north. 

“Yellowbird, Girl,” I say, pulling the reins south. She stops and turns her brown eyes on me. Then I remember Daddy said a mule never forgets where they been, “Okay, old gal. Have it your way.” 

The road is rocky. Sleet bends grass and weeds. I lose my hold on the wagon. It picks up speed. Jude lopes ahead, then shies right. The wagon plows through weeds and slams into a clay bank. Mud and ropes fly. Daddy soars maybe ten feet, then crashes into a tangle of buckbrush. 

Is he hurt? 

I run up. Daddy flails his arms. I wipe sleet from his face and lean him against a sycamore tree. He seems shook up is all.

The wagon has a broken slat but no other damage. Two feet more and Daddy would’ve landed in a deep gulley. If Jude hadn’t shied like she did, Daddy would be dead, or at least bad hurt

I rub Jude’s nose. “Good, Girl.”

Using an oak limb pry bar and rock fulcrum, I get Daddy back onto the wagon. From a cedar, I cut limbs and cover Daddy with boughs, tying some to Jude’s collar to protect her from the sleet. I hear Dinah’s liberty bell ring from two ridges over. She’ll stay on that fox ‘til he holes up. I hope he isn’t a road runner.

* * *

Dinah has been my special buddy since the spring day Daddy brought her and Stub home. I was maybe four. Two black, white, and lemon puppies tumble and scramble in the grass, all ears and feet. Dinah’s black eyes smile, her pink tongue greets me. 

Fox hound puppies won’t play fetch or roll over for treats. They’re hunters. At 4 months, Daddy has to tie them up, or they’ll join the older dogs in the race, and this could ruin their muscles. 

When Momma died, my oldest sister, Carolina came home. She cried a lot, while Virginia, my other sister, cooked and cleaned when she wasn‘t yelling at me. Two years ago, Virginia and Daddy had a fight. She moved to Volney.  

Dinah seemed to know something was wrong. She’d follow me everywhere, wait in the grass when I went to the privy, rub against my legs when I ate tomatoes in the garden, chase grasshoppers with me in the weed lot, then curl up next to me to sleep in the sun.

The worse thing a  fox hound can do Daddy says, is run rabbits. “Ruins ‘em for fox.” One day Dinah and I were in the garden. A rabbit jumped up. Dinah was after him in a flash. The cotton tail hopped through the fence. Dinah slammed into the woven wire. It knocked her to the ground. She came up to me, expecting a “good girl.” 

Instead, I took her muzzle in my hands and looked into her black eyes. “No. Bad dog. No.” 

Her face sagged. Her eyes went darker.

The next day, Stub prances along beside us. A rabbit jumps up, gray blur on green grass. Stub races after him. Dinah catches Stub from the rear, growling, sharp teeth buried in his neck. Stub gets the message; that’s the last rabbit he ever chased. Daddy can brag, “My dogs don’t lie. If they give mouth you know it’s a fox.” 

Now with sleet coating grass, weeds, and trees, Jude pulls Daddy’s wagon along a ridge.  Dinah’s liberty bell mouth is east of the paved road where most evenings cars driven by shoe factory workers speed home from Volney and over-loaded logging trucks groan up steep hills. Several times tonight I’ve seen head lights sweep trees tops above us. 

When we’re on black top, I’ll flag down a passing car and see if they’ll take Daddy to the hospital

Dinah gives three long squalls, her signal that Mister Fox has gone to his hole. For the first time since Daddy flopped down earlier, I smile. She’ll go home now unless she catches my scent. If she does come in, she’ll circle me three times as usual to make sure I’m okay, then follow behind me. 

In that case once we’re in Yellowbird, I’ll find a hunter to feed her ‘til Daddy’s back in the woods. I hope she goes home through the woods and stays off roads. It would be hard to see her in the sleet. 

Jude’s dainty hooves slice through tree branches and thick mud as we get close to the paved road. Houses gleam on the hillside. A half mile or so we’ll be on pavement, a short mile to Yellowbird. 

The sleet falls hard here, the wind stronger. In the woods, tree limbs crack, then scream like a car slamming on brakes, and crash to the ground, the wind moaning. 

It’s easier for Jude to pull on the black top. I trot to keep up. We top a rise. To our front lightning plays in the tree tops. A screech owl screams like tires skidding on payment, then a crash. The wind carries away other sounds. There’s only the sound of Jude’s hooves, the smell of rotting weed, the crunch of wagon wheels on pavement and bite of the wind on my cheeks and ears. 

At a dip in the road, Jude stops. I shake the reins, Her soft eyes search my face. She doesn’t move.

Then, I hear the moan. 

I see a white clump in the road and run toward it, knowing before I’m halfway there it’s Dinah. Steam rises from black blood. Her body is limp.

* * *

Miss Foy and her husband, Ralph, a coon hunter, live in the yellow house with oleander bushes next to the grain elevator in Yellowbird. This spring she bought a bucket of mushrooms for two bucks and threw 10 Life Magazines to boot.

She opens the door. “I’m Franklin Delano Walker. You bought my Daddy’s mule yesterday. I brung ya Jim’s harness mate. Him and Jude have been a team for years.”

“The past participle of brought is bring, as in, I brought you flowers yesterday. I bring you flowers today.” 

Her brown eyes meet mine. “I don’t need another mule. I paid your Daddy a fair price for Jim.” 

“I’ll swap you Jude and four bucks to take Daddy to a hospital. And my dog needs a vet.” I pull  four crumpled ones from my pocket. 

“Hospital? Your Daddy?” She waves her hand. ‘Put your money away.” 

At the wagon, Jude stands solid as a soldier. Daddy lays on the cellar door, Dinah on cedar boughs beside him.  

“He flopped down earlier. Ain’t walked or talked since.” 

She touches Daddy’s gray face. “Probably a stroke.”  

She looks at Dinah. “Ralph, can you come here, please?”

Ralph wears blue jeans with wide suspenders and a red and black shirt. He touches Daddy’s shoulder. Dinah’s bones gleam white.  

“No hope for your dog. Not sure about your daddy.”

He cradles Dinah. “Heard she was quite a fox hound. Truck hit her?”

I’ll cry again if I talk, so I nod. 

“I’ll lay her to rest next to my Gabe. Helluva coon hound.” I’ve heard people say Gabe treed a hundred coons most seasons, while other dogs might tree forty. 

Jim brays. Jude answers and pulls the wagon to the fence. They stand head-to-head. Two neighbor men come up, unhook the cart, and carry Daddy to the garage. Miss Foy makes me wash up. I pull on dry jeans and a shirt borrowed from the Hinchcliffe twins. They’re my age, only taller. I bolt down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and go outside. 

Miss Foy says, “Your sister’s in Volney, right? Know her address?” 

“812 Center Street. Apartment 2.” We learned to address envelopes at school last week. 

I go to the barn and rub Jude’s nose. “Thanks, Girl. You are a noble beast,” 

Then it’s a long ride over dark slick roads to a hospital for Daddy.