Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Bargain





                                                                 

I figured him for a preacher man, ‘long of that dark suit and the Bible tucked under his left arm. He come walking down our road, where from, I couldn’t say. Nothing up that way but fields and woods and the old graveyard. I reckon he could of been visiting kin that’s buried up there – folks do come from away and make the climb, just to brush the gravestones clean or say a prayer for one that’s gone. But it seemed right queer didn’t none of us see him pass by on his way up the road nor even hear a dog bark. Course, we was at church the most of the morning but Inez had stayed home, saying she felt puny. And puny-feeling or not, Inez pays mind to what goes by on the road.


I’d been taking my Sunday ease, setting on the bank beside the house where the dirt road runs through our land. That new black and tan hound I’d just traded for, the one the girls had named Drum, was out there too, laying next to me. After last night’s hunt, I reckon the warm sun felt good to both of us. Ol’ Drum was stretched out on his side, sleeping deep, but twitching his legs like he thought he was still a-hunting. Down in his throat he made little yipping sounds and I wondered what it was he was chasing through his dreams.
           Leaning back against the old tree stump we use for busting stove wood, I sucked down big breaths of that dry fall air, so crisp and clean it put me in mind of biting into a good apple. Back in the house I could hear the rattle of knives and forks in the dishpan and Inez and Odessa singing close harmony on “Anchored in Love Divine” – them two get on right good when they’re singing. I could hear a sight of them old carpenter bees buzzing round the house eaves and I could feel my eyelids getting heavier by the minute.


I knowed that Mama’d be taking her rest – the only time in the week she’ll let them hands be still and consent to set and rock without picking up her mending. Time was, we took our Sunday rest together; time was . . . and my eyes begun to close and my mind to drift away to those far off Sunday afternoons. . .
“Howdy, there,”
         The words was spoke ‘most in my ear and I jerked awake. The stranger had slipped right up on me, catching me gape-mouthed and nodding, his fancy shoes stepping soft in the dust of the road. I blinked up at him, bumfuzzled with sleep and memory and Sunday dinner.

            He stood there in his dark old-fashioned suit, rocking back and forth on them fancy shoes, still shiny ‘neath the dust from the road. The sun hit on his little round glasses, dazzling my eyes. Hit kindly put me in an ill temper, the way he’d come up on me unawares and the way he was looking down at me. Makes a man uneasy for a feller to have the advantage of him that way.

           I got to my feet, taking my time and not yet giving him back a howdy of my own. It riled me some to see Drum laying there, still a-sleeping and chasing dreams while this stranger had crept up on us like that, making us both look the fool. So I reached out my foot in its Sunday brogan and caught that dog a good un, right on his hindquarter. 


Ol’ Drum yelped and jumped up, whirling around to see what had got after him and his eyes lit upon the stranger. His back hair raised up and he lifted his lip in the beginning of a snarl.
That aggravated me even more. “Think you’re a watchdog, do you, you worthless pup? Look at you, all stiff-legged and agitatin’ when it’s too late. Lay down, you hear me? Lay down!”
             The stranger didn’t appear overly worried as to whether Drum might offer to bite but hunkered down right before him and held out his open hand for the dog to smell of.  Ol’ Drum sniffed at the long white fingers and his fur settled back smooth. Then he lay down with his head on his paws, not taking his eyes from the stranger.


“Hunter’s the name,” said the stranger, straightening up and putting out his hand.to me. “Nim Hunter -- hunter by nature and Hunter by name – my folks put the name of Nimrod on me and don’t the Book tell us that Nimrod was a mighty hunter before the Lord?”


I took the outstretched hand – soft and white like it hadn’t never done no hard work and with fingernails longer than I’d ever seen on a man. “P. V. Henderson,” I said. “Pleased to meet you.” 
             I looked up the road, the way he’d come from, waiting for him to make mention of what his business was out our way, but he just rocked back on his heels again and looked down at Drum.

         “This the hound I heard last night, baying up one holler and down another?”


He didn’t wait for me to answer, but went on. “He’s got a pretty voice on him. The sound woke me and I just lay there thinking as how I’d like to have me a dog like that again. Yessir, I used to be a fool for hunting dogs. Sweetest music there is, a good hound with that deep bay like a church bell. I tell you what, friend, after hearing this dog of yourn, I believe I’d like to buy him off of you.”


Well, it puzzled me some to know what to say. On the one hand, it didn’t set right somehow, this feller just walking down the road and wanting to buy my dog. On the other, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of an offer he might make. I cleared my throat and spat, using the time to consider. I was about to ask where it was he’d stayed last night that he had heard the sound of the dogs but it went right out of my head when he pulled a gold piece from his pocket and held it up to catch the sunlight.
“Twenty dollar gold piece,” says he. “But I’ll trade it for that dog there -- same one you just kicked and called a worthless pup.”
Well, buddy, I’ll not deny I was tempted. Sore tempted. I’d turned in what few gold coins I had back in ’33 when the government said we must but I fairly ached to hold that double eagle, to feel the soft warm weight of it in my pocket, to rub it betwixt my fingers and thumb. Ever since I was a man, I’d carried a gold piece in my pocket for luck but I’d turned my double eagle in with the rest, wanting to stay on the right side of the law. After that, I couldn’t stop myself reaching for it, over and over. Finally I took to carrying a buckeye in that pocket but it weren’t the same.
                 Still and all, something in that stranger’s looks and way of speaking put my back up. It ain’t right, just to try and buy a man’s dog offen him without even asking was that dog for sale.


The stranger flicked the gold piece with his thumb and sent it spinning into the sunlit air, curving in a slow, glittering path towards me. The light caught the coin, making it look like a whole waterfall of little suns coming right at me and before I knew what I was about, I held out my open hand.
             The coin settled there like a bird in its nest, warm and heavy and bright as if it had been new-minted. I felt my fingers wanting to close on it and carry it to my pocket. A yearning was growing in me and it was all I could do to keep my hand steady and my fingers straight.


 The stranger watched me, reading the hunger in my eyes. “Feels right fine, don’t it? We got us a bargain? You can find you another dog easy enough. I reckon I could buy several with that double eagle, was I to keep on down the road. But I’ve taken a notion to have this one for I like the sound of his voice. And I need to get on home.”
            Then he leaned over and took ahold of Drum’s collar. I’d made it only the evening before – fresh-tanned leather with a stout brass buckle and my name, P.V. Henderson, burnt into the leather with the edge of the poker. Seeing that stranger grab hold of the collar and cover up my name with them long, pale fingers purely aggravated me and I spoke right up.


“Now, just you hold on a minute,” I said, feeling the gold piece burning my open hand. “I ain’t agreed to nothing and there ain’t no bargain.” I stretched out my hand to him. “Go on, now, take back that double eagle. You ever stop to think maybe this dog ain’t for sale?”


The stranger cut his eyes at me and then over to the house where Odessa had come out to set on the porch with her little guitar. She looked just like a rose in her pretty pink Sunday dress. A slow smile spread acrost the stranger’s face. “Everything’s for sale, friend,” he said quiet-like. “We just ain’t reached the bargain yet.”


Something in the way he looked at my little girl like to froze the blood in my body. I didn’t say nothing just turned my hand over and let the bright coin slide off my hand to fall in the dust of the road.
The stranger didn’t reach for it, just stood there watching Odessa pick that guitar. And when she begun to sing “I’ll Fly Away,” in that sweet high voice of hers, the smile on his face broadened till I could see clear to his back teeth.


I took a piece of twine from out my overhauls pocket and put it through ol’ Drum’s collar. It was in my mind to get him out of the stranger’s sight and I didn’t trust that fool dog to follow me.


“I got things to do,” says I. “You best pick up your double eagle and get on home, like you said you needed to.”


“Evenin’, P.V.,” says he, nodding his head. “Be sure to give my regards to your pretty daughter.”


Oncet again, his words sent a chill over me. Yonder on the porch, Odessa had set her guitar down and was looking hard at the stranger and smiling. I didn’t give him a good evening nor nare word more, just hollered to Odessa to go inside and see didn’t her mama need her. Then I hauled ‘ol Drum round the house and put him on the chain at his dog box.


By the time I come back to the roadside, the stranger had gone and his gold piece with him. Good riddance, I thought and aimed a long stream of baccer juice at the spot where the stranger had stood.


***


“Who was that pretty feller you was talking to?” Odessa set the cornbread and buttermilk on the supper table in front of me. “I told Inez he looked like a preacher.”


Mama mashed up her cornbread in a bowl and covered it with buttermilk. “Hit would be nice,” she said, “to have someone new to bring the Word. Brother Quarles is bad to give the same message, over and over.”


Inez was scowling, likely jealous that she hadn’t seen the stranger, and then she come out with something hateful about folks with time to set on the porch whilst other is slaving in the kitchen.
             Odessa, who always was as sweet-natured as they come, tapped Inez on her wrist and said in that wheedling way she has, “Now, Sissy, tell the truth and shame the devil. After we done up the dishes, you know you went and lay down – you said you had a sick headache.”


Then Odessa turned her eyes on me – eyes like her mama’s, blue as chicory flowers -- and commenced to quiz me – was the man a preacher, where was he from and where did he live and was he coming back? And what was the name of that pretty man?
All three women was watching close as I filled my bowl with applesauce. They just kept staring, like cats watching a mouse hole and at last I laid my spoon down.
“He didn’t act like no preacher,” I told them. “And all I know is he come down the road from the graveyard. I ain’t got no idea where he lives but I hope Mr. Nimrod Hunter ain’t coming back.”


***


It was deep in the night when I was wakened by the sound of a dog on the chase. I lay there under the quilts, thinking as how the baying sounded a lot like ol’ Drum. And the longer I lay there, the more I begun to believe that it was Drum and that either he had slipped his collar or that the stranger man had come back and stole my dog.
I got up quiet like – the moon was near full, its light spilling in the window. The bed springs creaked as Mama turned over but she just didn’t say nothing and directly she was snoring again.
Outside the moonlight lit up the yard, turning the logs of the pigpen and the roof of Drum’s dog box a sheeny silver, like a new dime. The silver lay on the links of Drum’s chain too and it was pulled out to its full length to under a big old balsam where Bone, my last dog, had dug him a kind of nest. In the dark I couldn’t see for sure but I thought I made out the shape of a dog curled up back in there. It was right airish out and I only had on a pair of drawers so I turned to head back to my warm bed.
As I set foot on the back steps, the baying up on the mountain commenced again, sounding so much like Drum that I knew I’d not sleep a lick till I made certain sure that Drum was on his chain. So, cussing myself for all kinds of a fool, I went back, picked up the dog chain, and give a sharp tug.
And it rattled over the hard-packed dirt to me, snapping back like a whip. At the end, the shackle I used to hold to the dog collar was just a-dangling free. There weren’t no collar nor no dog neither.
All the long night, I lay awake, harking to the full throated sound of a hound on the mountain, chasing the trail of some critter through the moony night.


***


Come morning and I had a closer look at the chain. I couldn’t say for sure if maybe I hadn’t closed the shackle tight or if someone, that someone being Mr. Nim Hunter, had loosed it. Inez was busy at her sewing machine and Mama and Odessa was doing the milking. Oncet I had fed the stock, I couldn’t rest till I had gone up the road to see could I find my dog. Howsomever he had come to be loose, after a night running the mountain, it could be he was curled up asleep somewhere yonder.
I studied the road as I went but there had come a little shower just before first light and there weren’t no tracks to speak of. At the least there should have been the footprints of the stranger coming down and finally, at a spot where a big elm leaned over the road, I did make out his trace.  
But only going down – and then near the edge of the road I thought I might have seen paw prints. I whistled and called, like I’d been doing all along, but it weren’t no good.
The road ends atop a hogback ridge at the old graveyard. There was still a wire fence around it but in several places, the postes had rotted and the fence was laying on the ground. Ever since the Worleys donated that piece of land down near the church, the old graveyard ain’t used. On Decoration Day there’s those of us makes the climb with swing blades and scythes to keep the woods from taking back the ridge top and sometimes the preacher comes and we have a word of prayer but for all that, it’s an awful sad and lonesome place. My mama’s mama, who died before I was born, lays up here but my other kin are down in the churchyard. 
I called again for Drum and listened hard, thinking maybe to hear him stirring about in the fallen leaves but there was no sound save the sigh of the wind through the pines and the hammering of one of them great old woodpeckers. So I begun to walk the line, following the fence, and thinking that, long as I’s up here, I might as well see could I prop up the fallen places.
At the far side of the graveyard, where the oldest headstones are, I called again. A squirrel barked from a tree and in the distance I heard the clank of a cowbell. But no Drum. I begun to wonder if the worthless pup might have spent the night carousing through the woods and then taken off for his old home over t’other side of the Walnut Mountain.
I pulled the last section of hog wire out of the long brown grass and straightened the fallen post, putting it back in its hole with a few rocks to fix it there. Needing one more rock to finish the job, I begun to search around.
Afore long, I spotted a nice chunk of orange-colored rock next to a mossy old headstone setting off to itself. As I made my way toward it, I seen something winking at me from the top of the headstone – a piece of mica or pretty rock, I thought – some folks leaves tokens like that when they visit their kin.
But as I got closer I saw that it weren’t no shiny rock but a twenty dollar gold piece twinkling in that green moss. And there was Drum’s collar, curled up at the footstone of that old grave.


***


There’s folks would say it’s wrong to take from a grave. And that had been my first thought, that maybe the stranger had left the coin as a token for whoever it was that lay there. But as I looked from the coin to the empty dog collar and back again, it seemed to me that if Nim Hunter had took my dog, I might as well have his money. The double eagle was in my hand and in my pocket before I could pause for another thought. I took back the collar too.

             I went home and told them either Drum had run off or that stranger had stole him and told them all to keep an eye out for either of them. Inez and Mama nodded but Odessa said she just knowed that a man as pretty as that stranger couldn’t be no dog thief. That girl is a fool for a good-looking man.
***
That evening I walked over to Cantrelleses place and asked them to let me know did they see my dog and when I fell asleep that night I was satisfied that I'd done all I could. It still rankled though and it was some time afore I could fall asleep. When I did, my dreams was uneasy and full of hounds baying and gold pieces spinning and sun glinting off little round spectacles. I was way deep down when Mama jabbed me with her elbow and whispered, "Listen there, P.V.-- don't that sound awful like ol' Drum?"


***


I set out in the moonlight, following the sound of the baying and hoping to find Drum afore he denned up somewhere. It always seemed that he was just ahead of me and I kept climbing, thinking every minute to lay hands on him. But he was always just beyond my grasp.
 At first light the baying stopped. I was red-eyed and weary but once again I was at the graveyard and like the day before, I walked all around, calling for Drum.

When he didn’t come, I gave it up. But I wanted to know whose grave it was Nim Hunter had left a twenty dollar gold piece on and I made my way to the mossy headstone that loomed over the sunken-in plot where I’d found Drum’s collar.
            Squatting down, I tried to make out the words but the moss was too thick so I pulled out my Barlow knife and begun to scrape away the thick green covering. I commenced at the bottom and there was the outline of some animal -- might have been a running deer, might have been a dog.
        The dates showed next -- so worn that they was hard to see. I ran my fingers over them till I could feel their shape – 1837 and 1872.

            “Long gone, whoever you are,” I said aloud as I worked to uncover the place where the name should be. “I reckon I have more use for a double eagle then you do these days.”

            As the last sheet of moss fell away, I saw that the name was carved deep and big and there weren’t no mistaking how it read: NIMROD HUNTER.

            I jumped right up, catching my foot where the ground sunk in and throwing out my left hand to get ahold of the gravestone to steady myself.


            And there beneath my palm, I could feel the smooth warmth of a second gold coin.
Now, a man is bad to tell himself what he wants to hear and in that moment I told myself that this was likely the grave of Nim Hunter’s great great granddaddy and that this second coin had been there yesterday and I just hadn’t seen it for the moss. I almost believed myself too.
            Be that as it may, that second coin found its way to my other pocket and I left the graveyard feeling the two coins tapping ‘gainst my legs as I went. And I was sure that, in the bargaining for ol’ Drum, I’d got the best of Nim Hunter.


***


Somehow I weren’t hungry when suppertime came, but I sat there with Mama and my girls, supping at a glass of buttermilk and listening to Odessa tell about who all she’d seen at the general store and what the news was in the county. It seemed the cotton mill was closing and John Avery was talking of pulling up stakes and heading off to Texas. Me and Mamma shook our heads at this, knowing that John was just trying to get away from that young schoolteacher he’s been sparking. Odessa went on to say that Violet had invited her to come for a visit and Inez poked her lower lip out and slammed out to the kitchen to start washing dishes. We didn’t none of us pay no mind – that’s just Inez’s way.
            “…and old Miz Griffiths come in to buy lamp oil and we was talking of this and that and I mentioned about that stranger man and asked did she know any Hunters in these parts. She thought a minute and then said there’d been a family of that name lived up our road many a year ago. She said that her granny had used to talk of them, saying they’d been strange folk who kept to themselves and when the only son, who had broke his mama’s heart with his rambling ways, had died, they’d all moved away.”


Out in the kitchen, Inez was banging pots and pans about till it sounded like a war but Odessa poured herself another glass of milk and went on telling how Miz Griffths’s granny had gone to the Hunter boy’s funeral and had always talked about what a handsome corpse young Nimrod had made. 
“And she said that the family thought so much of him that they had laid him to rest with gold coins on his eyes. Did you ever hear of such?”
         All at once them two gold coins in my pockets felt as cold as the grave and I made up my mind to take them up the road the very next day and put them back where I found them. I still couldn’t make out the whys and wherefores of the matter but I was sure of one thing and that was that those double eagles weren’t like to bring me nothing but bad luck.


***


I slept awful bad that night, between the moon shining in on my face and the gold coins weighing on my mind. In my dreams I still heard ol Drum and mixed in with the baying of the hound, I seemed to hear Odessa picking her little guitar and singing a high sweet lonesome song.
 It wasn’t till sunup when I wakened, wore out with riding the night mare through my sleep. The good smells of biscuits and bacon and brewing coffee were filling the house and I could hear the womenfolk moving about in the kitchen.
         I pulled on my shirt and overhauls and, feeling some shamefaced for having overslept myself, slipped into the kitchen and set down to the table.

         Inez put my mug of coffee before me, slopping some onto the table the way she always does. Her face was sourer than usual.


“Looks like it’s all on me and Mama today . . . here you are sleeping late and Miss Odessa went and lit out for who-knows where before I was even awake. She put on her good dress too, the pink one I ironed yesterday, and she took her guitar. I reckon she’s taken a mind to go visit Violet. Some people-”
              I didn’t wait to hear no more but headed out the door and up the road, those gold pieces weighing heavier and heavier in my pockets. I clumb that road so fast I couldn’t hardly get my breath. And all I could think as I clumb was that I had to give them double eagles back to Nim Hunter.


***


From the gate of the grave yard I can see Odessa’s guitar leaning against Nim Hunter’s gravestone, just a-shining in the morning sun. And her pink dress is spread like a coverlet over his sunken grave. 
Seeing this purely knocks what is left of my breath out of me and I feel all swimmie headed and like to fall down. I have to bend over with my hands on my knees and wait for the pounding in my chest and the roaring in my ears to stop. A little breeze rattles the last leaves, sending them a-slant across the graveyard, spinning and glittering in the sun. And the sight of them chills me through and through while the gold coins in my pockets weigh heavy and burn against my legs.
              I can’t hardly go but I must. My boots seem to stick to the ground like as though I was wading through deep mud toward the grave. Same as when I was following ol’ Drum’s baying t’other night, the grave stays just out of reach. At last though, I make my way to where the dress and the guitar are waiting for me. I pull the two gold coins from my pockets and slam them down atop the new-scraped headstone.


Nim Hunter!” I holler. “There ain’t no bargain! Give me back my girl, Hunter! Give me back my girl!”
            The words come back at me from the mountains all around… my girl . . . my girl,” and the guitar strings vibrate and hum.


I turn in a slow circle, hoping to see something moving in the woods, all the while knowing that I won’t. The golden leaves are fluttering thick around me now and the mocking echoes and the hum of the guitar strings fill my ears.
 Snatching up the pink dress, I catch the scent of lye soap and of the flowery perfume Odessa wears of a Sunday. I bury my face in the crisp cloth and breathe in my daughter’s life before I fling the dress aside.


 Then I fall to my knees, and begin to dig.
                 









15 comments:

jennyfreckles said...

What a gripping story! I'm sitting up in bed with a cup of tea - and that's gone cold, so enthralled was I in this tale. You're an extraordinary story weaver, Vicki. Thanks for a great start to my day.

KarenB said...

That made me get up and check on my dog and walk around and reorient to the here and now. That is some awesome story-telling you've got going on.

NCmountainwoman said...

Great story, Vicki. Held my interest with every word.

alex said...

That was FANTASTIC.

Barbara Rogers said...

So glad to hear the last of it...or maybe it wasn't. The poor people in Tryon missed out on it since you had a cold. I'm reading a very interesting old book with lots of vernacular speech from the old times...The Trees by Conrad Richter. Apparently he wrote 3 books, and this is the only one available at Buncombe County digital library. It received a rather poor review, but I'm enjoying it immensely...where the "Northwest" woods were just being settled, and the Ohio River is mentioned as well as going west to Illinois. It takes place sometime after 1776 because they are celebrating the 4th of July. Have you read it?

Vicki Lane said...

I haven't. Sounds interesting. I's funny to remember that Illinois was once the frontier,

Thérèse said...

I'll be back...

Bernie said...

Like Jenny, my coffee has gone cold on my night table as I read your story. You really pulled me in, I felt I was there in the kitchen, bed and on dusty roads. Wonderful story, I want more! ❤️❤️

Misty Barnes said...

amazing story!

Misty Barnes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SmitoniusAndSonata said...

Thankyou ! That's wonderful !!

Anvilcloud said...

This was quite a fine yarn.

Gayle Pearson said...

WOW! I wanted this to be the opening chapter. More please!

Judith Knight said...

OMG - Vicki, Just saw your story and I have goosebumps on this bright sunny day. All this makes me yearn for more of you stories!!! Is this a portion of a new novel [hint, hint] or an incredible stand alone story. Thank you so much for distracting me from the usual political drivel I read--will have something mystical to ponder all day long. So glad you are back to writing and doing well! luv, judy

Vicki Lane said...

This is a short story. And that's all there is. I'm working on a collection of short stories -- all from my neck of the woods, some present day, some past.