Pete Peterson : Fiction : Oct 2020

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 or anything with alcohol in it – may be the culprit for that divorce – 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.”

Daddy, Noble Beasts and Fox Hounds

Daddy barges though the kitchen door, his right eye swollen, his lips bruised black, dried blood on his nose and shirt. He’s been gone 4 days, leaving me with 3 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 let’s chase us a fox.”

“In daylight? We’re night hunters.” 

“Don’t hector, Boy. Just do.”

Daddy usually isn’t cross with me. Is he okay? I fry Spam, slather on peanut butter. Daddy gobbles it down and licks his fingers. “The mule’s a noble beast.” Like he grabbed those words from the air.  

My eyes search the mule pen. 

“He ain’t there. Sold him.”  

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

“For how much?” No answer. He almost runs to get a rope on Dinah. Stub and Little Bit will follow her. On the ridge, the hounds make circles, nose to the ground. When they scent a fox, they’ll give mouth as we call it. No jumping stone walls on horseback to see a pack of dogs tear a fox to pieces. We’re hunt for the music of the hounds, not to kill a fox.

Dinah’s liberty bell squall says she struck trail. Little Bit’s turkey caulk and Stub’s hoarse chop join in. Usually, we bust through buck brush and blackberry vines, wade creeks and climb hills to be with our hounds. Today, we listen under a walnut tree, Daddy squatting like a baseball catcher. 

“The mule’s a noble beast,” he says, again. 

Maybe five minutes later, “Me and Trace Galloway was havin’ a beer at the Blue Moon. This blow-hard town fella comes in, blackguardin’ everthing. Calls us stupid red necks. Trace is puny, so he slips out. Townie says we’re chicken shits. Pisses me off. Me an’ him take it outside. Fella hits like a fallin’ tree.”  

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

“Whups on me bad ‘til I lay one to his chin. He goes down. Smacks his head agin a root, I reckon. Don’t move ‘cept his right leg. Kicks. Oncet.” 

Daddy looks to the heavens like he expects a lightning bolt. “After mebbe five minutes, Harley Stevenson looks at the gentleman. ‘Ya killed him, Mick.’ Harley runs to the post office to call the law. Deputy Branch struts up and tosses me in the slammer. Second degree murder.”

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

That Daddy had a fight is not news, that he killed a man gobsnockers me.   

“Judge says I can go, but if I look cross-eyed at ‘nother human bein’ its thirty days of bread and water. Says pay ten bucks fer disturbin’ the peace and five for court costs.” 

Daddy rubs his wrists “Sheriff gives me ’til spring plantin’ to pay up. If’n I don’t, it’s the hoosegow. Jail’s bad, Boy. Hard bed. Awful food.”

He shakes his head like the bad dream is back. “Says to stay outta the Blue Moon forever.” 

Daddy stands and kicks a clump of broom grass. “Meant the fella no harm. Showed him I ain’t a lily-livered coward.” 

He pulls his coat closer. “Went for my mule. Weren’t there. Folks said the school marm taken him. Go to her place.”

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

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

Daddy’s face is white, eyes aglitter. “’I’m buying him 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-dollar mule, but I needed money, so we shook. Paid the sheriff. Bought grub. Come home. Still got four singles.” For no reason he adds, “A mule’s the offspring of a male donkey an’ a female horse.” He’s really saying dead man talk is over. 

Like when I asked about momma. “She were always sickly. Died when you were what, four?” That’s all. 

Now, he says, “Mules ain’t stubborn like folks think. They just won’t do stupid stuff, like pull a load that’s too heavy, or cross a bridge that ain’t safe. Take ‘em to a new place they’ll ‘member how they got there forever.” 

It goes quiet as a cemetery at midnight, then Dinah rings her bell. “Ain’t she a good ‘un?” Daddy slaps his knee with his cap, looks to the heavens, takes four short steps, and flops face first in the weeds. 

“Why’d ya do that,” I yell.  

No answer. Did he die? 

I roll him over. His blue eyes are gray. Spit bubbles cover his mouth. He’s wet with sweat, breathes fast. 

The nearest doctor’s in Volney, 18 or 20 miles away. A long pull even for Jude. Yellowbird is maybe ten miles over bad roads. My best bet. Who has a car in Yellowbird? Will four bucks buy enough gas to get us to a hospital?   

* * *

Jude pulls my Radio Flyer wagon I use to bring chips and kindling from the wood lot to the house. Daddy’s tied to the cellar door; the door roped to the wagon. When we go downhill, I hang on to slow us. Uphill, I push. 

At the fork, Jude turns north. “Yellowbird, Girl.” I pull the reins south. She stays north. 

“Okay, old gal. I hope you’re right.”

The road’s hilly. I trip and sprawl. The wagon goes faster. Jude lopes, shying right. The wagon bounces and jounces. Mud and ropes fly. Daddy slams into a clay bank.

Is he hurt? He flails and moans but seems okay.  

I wipe sleet from Daddy’ face. The wagon’s dented, but the wheels turn. It stopped inches from a deep gulley. If Jude hadn’t shied, Daddy would be at the bottom of a ditch, maybe dead

I rub Jude’s nose. “Good, Girl.”

An oak limb pry bar and rock fulcrum gets Daddy back onto the wagon. I cut cedar limbs and tie them over Daddy and tuck some under Jude’s collar to protect her from the sleet. Dinah chases her fox alone. She’ll stay on Ol’ Red ‘til he holes up. I hope he doesn’t take to the road trying to lose her

Me and Dinah have been buddies since Daddy brought her and Stub home. I was a toddler. Two black and white puppies, tumble and scramble around my short legs with long ears and feet too big. Dinah’s black eyes and pink tongue smile at me. 

Fox hound puppies are different than most pups – they won’t fetch or play ‘hide and seek’ or beg for treats. They’re hunters. At 4 months, Daddy ties them in the doghouse, so they won’t join the older dogs in the race, that would ruin their muscles. 

Momma died long about then. My oldest sister, Carolina, was married and gone before I was born came home for the funeral. Virginia, eight years older than me, did our washing and ironing until she lit out for the shoe factory in Volney 2 years ago. 

Me and Dinah gather eggs in the chicken house, she waits in the grass when I go to the privy, nips at my heels when I eat tomatoes off the vine in the garden, and chases grasshoppers with me, before we curl up in the sun and sleep. A fox hound’s worse habit Daddy says, is to run rabbits. “Ruins ‘em for fox.” 

One day me and Dinah are in the garden, a rabbit jumps up. Dinah makes a beeline for him. The cotton tail hops through the fence. Dinah slams into the woven wire, hard knocking her to the ground. She comes running, expecting a “good girl.” 

I hold her muzzle. “No. Bad dog. No.” 

Her eyes go darker, she hangs her head.

The next day, Stub prances along when we go to the wood lot. A rabbit jumps up, gray blur on green grass. Stub gives chase. Dinah leaps on him, growling, her sharp teeth buried in his neck. Stub gets the message; that’s the last rabbit he ever chased. Daddy brags, “My dogs don’t lie. If they give mouth you know it’s a fox.” 

Now, Dinah’s liberty bell sounds east of the paved road where shoe factory workers speed home from Volney, and log trucks groan up steep hills. Several times tonight I’ve seen car head lights sweep the trees tops. That’s good.

When we’re on black top, I’ll flag down a car and ask the driver to take Daddy to the hospital. Dinah gives three long squalls, signaling that Mister Fox has holed up. I smile. She’ll go home now, unless she catches my scent. If she does come in, she’ll circle me to make sure I’m okay, then follow along. 

If that happens, in Yellowbird I’ll find a hunter to feed her ‘til Daddy’s back in the woods. I hope she home across the fields staying off slick roads. She’d be hard to see in falling sleet. Jude’s dainty hooves slice through tree branches and thick mud. Light from Yellowbird houses gleam in the distance. Another mile or so to the pavement. 

I hear a screech. Was that an owl? Then a crash like a tree branch falling and mumbled voices. The black top makes it easier for Jude to pull. At a rise she stops. I shake the reins and cluck. Her soft eyes search my face, but she doesn’t move.

Then, I hear the moan. 

On heavy legs I run toward a white clump, knowing it’s Dinah. Her blood is black with smoke rising from it.

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 past spring she bought a whole bucket of mushrooms for two bucks.

She comes to the door. “I’m Franklin Delano Walker. You bought my Daddy’s mule yesterday. Jim’s harness mate, Jude is outside. They’ve been a team for years.”

Hands on her hips, she says, “Can’t afford another mule. Your Daddy got a fair price for Jim.” 

“I’ll swap you Jude for a ride to the hospital for Daddy. My dog needs a vet, too.”

“Hospital? Your Daddy?” 

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

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

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

She sees Dinah and calls, “Ralph. Can you come here?”

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

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

He cradles Dinah. “Heard she was quite a fox hound. Get hit by a truck?”

I’ll cry if I answer, so I just nod. My heart hurts.  

“I’ll bury her next to Ol’ Gabe. My coon hound. Hell of a hound.” I’ve heard Gabe treed more than a hundred coons most seasons.  

Jim brays. Jude answers and pulls the wagon to the fence. They stand head-to-head. Two neighbor men carry Daddy to the garage. Miss Foy runs me a bath and borrows dry jeans and shirt from the Hinchcliffe twins. They’re my age, only taller. When I’m dressed, I bolt down potato salad and baloney sandwiches. 

“Who do you know in Volney?” 

“Sis.” 

“Know her address?”

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

I go to the barn to see Jude “Thanks, Girl. You got us here.” Then it’s a long ride over dark slick roads to a hospital for Daddy.