I would like to dedicate this story to another friend of mine, Kathy Palm http://findingfaeries.wordpress.com/ because she truly embodies the spirit of the holidays and she deserves a little love for all the good will she spreads : )
If you haven't had a chance to hit up my wip website on Weebly here's the link. I'd love to have you stop by and tell me what you think of what I've done so far. http://siamarion.weebly.com/
So, here goes, hope you like it and feel free to leave a comment!
“Well then, sit down.”
“I’m having me a whiskey, night like this.”
The two strangers circled each other in the yellow light of a hurricane lamp and a small fire, the store’s antique electricity having failed when the rain began falling.
“Well, sit down.”
Through the thin curtains, the afternoon is grey and wet and the walls of the quaint storefront seemed to shutter under the brewing force of a fast approaching winter storm.
“I know-- Well, take your muddy shoes off, tracking mud. What’d you say your name was?”
“Could I… I just wanted to…”
The older man eyed his guest. He judged the dark suit and the narrow striped tie the man wore with a solemn nod that wobbled the loose skin around his neck. With his tongue, he probed a tooth, and then softly clicked it at the shine on the man’s patent leather dress shoes. He understood the briefcase, still buffed and glossy, what it meant and why the other man carried it across his body like a military sash. There was resignation in the breath he huffed at the folder of documents held in a smooth, tight grip. Solemnly, his wrinkled face a picture of regret, the old man took a pair of wire-rimmed glasses out of the pocket of his apron and unknotted the strings from around his waist. He shucked it, in one movement, over his wooly head, folded it into a tight square and layed it flat on a stack of crates left just inside the back door.
“Well, I reckon you come down from Topeka to hand me my walking papers, ain’t ya? Well, ain’t ya? I’m gonna poke this fire while you think about it…Cat got your tongue? Sure is blow’n.”
“I…Mr…could I sit down? Newsome, is my…HmHm…Mr. Studebaker, I would…Could you..?”
“Take that chair. This here’s mine. I like to sit down in my own chair. Just always have.”
The younger man drew himself up. He thought it would be easier than it’s turning out to be. After all, the client was old. He was poor. He looked around to gauge the condition of the little storefront and its hodgepodge of miscellaneous items. The dusty, crowded little space made him feel smugly certain of himself. Yes, he had nothing to fear here. He was in charge of this meeting and he would make sure the results were just as he liked.
He looked out the window, through the thin curtains that had obviously hung on the tarnished rods for years, at the jagged post and metal box standing rigid as the day they were first planted in the ground next to a huge oak tree fifteen feet around. “Will you tell me about the tree? And the mailbox? Why not just move it? Or sell us your land and we’ll move it! With a strip of stores and a sign right out front, you’ll get more customers! You’ll have more business. Don’t you want more business, Mr. Studebaker?” He’d tried to inject enthusiasm into his voice, infuse an edge of good cheer, but, of course he was lying. Once the land was theirs, once they got their hands on it, that is, they’d rip this crumbling place down and bulldoze it into a pile of toothpicks! Larry Newsome figured if the old man couldn’t see that for himself, he wasn’t too bright and why bother with telling him.
Larry Newsome had been looking around at the dated and shabby furnishings as he spoke, but when his gaze came back to that of his host, the stubborn look on the weathered face across from him had the young man ending his question on a note that sounded whiny even to his own ears. It robbed him of the sense of dignity four years at the community college had instilled in him. He was embarrassed by this show of meager backbone, embarrassed too, by the light in the old man’s eyes that said he saw the weakness and pitied him for it. He drew a strong breath through his nostrils, adjusted his plump behind and straightened his back in the chair he perched on. Maybe it was time to show the old man just who in this room was the weak one.
”It would be a shame for you to lose your home after all these years, Mr. Studebaker,” There, he thought, that was better, more spunk there. No one would argue with that tone! “But, Smith Construction is a mighty big company. We’re in three states now, you know, and when they want something as badly as they want this property, well…”
His voice trailed off. Really, it died when the old man finished adding another log and turned on his heel where he squatted in front of the fire. The yellow cast of the new blaze lit up the old, wrinkled skin and buried his eyes and cheeks in shadowy hollows. His thin body was outlined, like a stick figure-- or a skeleton--black against the red and gold flames. The night sounds heralding the approaching storm hushed, the rain ceased its drumming on the old tin roof, and the paper-dry sound of leaves rustling, (or was it mouse feet scratching across dry planks?) filled the silence left behind.Larry Newsome, late of Topeka, Kansas, current site administrator for Smith &Sons Construction, frequent boaster at family gatherings of his newly acquired position of extreme importance, jumped when the fresh log caught and the sparks flared. He shrank back against the old horsehair cushion, his stomach clenching where it sat resting on the girth of his lap. For in that moment, that instant of suspended time—the old shopkeeper had appeared by the fire’s glow to be more skeleton than flesh and blood man.
When the wind picked back up, rattled the knob on the flimsy front door, and rapped brisk knuckles on the window panes, as if asking in its most friendly fashion to be let in on a grisly mission, Larry Newsome jumped another half foot out of his comfortable seat.
It took him a moment and then another to get his breath back. When he did and then turned back to the fire, he found the skeletal vision replaced with a pair of worn boots that had been tugged off and left to dry on the hearth. He blinked his eyes in the rapid way people with too much water in them do and found that Old Studebaker had moved to his patchwork chair now and was settling his bones down with a sigh.
Larry Newsome watched all this, knowing he was seeing an old shopkeeper of indeterminate age (but too damned old in Larry Newsome’s eyes!), a country bumpkin of a man, but nothing more. Certainly he was not seeing a skeleton or scarecrow or vision of rattling- bones… Larry Newsome clenched his pink hands into tight fists and berated his faulty eyesight. It was a stormy night, that was it, and the novelty of a room lit by nothing more than candle wattage had betrayed his imagination. It had been a lonesome drive out to this godforsaken, electricity deprived, no mod-cons, backwater scrub and, obviously, he had gotten more worked up than he realized when he drove through the wind and rain. The roads were a rutted mess. The town, well, just say it was, in his opinion, better suited to natives and people of small conversation. He was an important man with an important job. Never mind he’d only been given the job because he had been college roommates with the boss’s nephew and had seen him through his algebra forms. Still, he had a job to do and now he would do it, night be damned!
“The mailbox, will you move it? Or, well, I do have a letter from the authorities, if I must.” He liked that he could say that, authorities. He savored the flavor of the word as he patted the thin side of his newly purchased briefcase, making sure not to smudge the shiny brass plate he’d had installed in the lower right corner.
He felt a certain tightness in his chest and a catch in his breathing that he attributed to swelling pride at the good job of work he was doing. Any twinges of doubt he experienced, any fear that his plans would be thwarted by the old man across from him and that he would suffer the consequences, he stuffed below his conscious and left them there to entertain themselves.
Just then, a heavy gust of wind swept down the chimney. It stirred the embers with a demon’s finger that caused the flames to leap out of the grate and alight on the very fabric of Larry Newsome’s beautifully creased, professionally hemmed pant leg. Before he could do more than drop his jaw, Old Studebaker had irons in hand and was wrestling the lickers, slapping out the sparks and moving the heavy screen into position to corral the greedy blaze.
“Can’t be moved. Tried to tell you.”
Larry Newsome gaped and shivered in his seat, out of breath and trembling.
“No good you coming all the way out here for. Tried to tell you folks that over the telephone. Can’t be moved. Never can—never will.”
Larry Newsome gaped some more and wiped his forehead with a clean, white square, still rattled by the close call with a painful death, so the old man took pity on his bemused guest and set to tell a tale. But first, being as he was a good host, he got up and poured himself another finger or two and one for his quaking listener. Then, he checked the fire and glanced to the upper stories where the winds were shaking the cold from their hands and testing the snap of their jaw against the slope of the tin roof.
“This here I’m about to tell you happened. Maybe not just the way I’m saying it did, but it did, nonetheless and so it’s true and you need to listen. You can’t move that mailbox out there. Not you, not your rich company. Not by deed or by debt. ‘Cause it can’t be moved, hasn’t been moved in a hundred years. Since it was first put in the ground, it hasn’t been able to be moved.”
Larry choked on his whisky and then croaked out, “Dynamite?”
“But, that’s not possible. Why? Why not?”
The old man lolled his head and the firelight caught and tangled in the frayed ends of his coarse hair and making him look like a raggedy man come back to life. “Well, it’s on account of Big John, Little John.” He paused and thought and then said, ”A hundred years ago, when this was just a territory and nobody lived here but that they didn’t want to live back East, this piece of earth was tended by a man called himself Big John. His son was named after him, only he was called Little John.
“Now I say tended by ‘cause no one really owns anything that they don’t give it back when their time on this earth is done. Some people can keep to a place, though, like’s happened here, if what they done on it or had done to them has been so much of a thing that they can’t let go and the earth can’t seem to let’em go, nuther.
“Big John was a man called John by most people. He’d come from back East in the land rush to get away from things and to avoid what was brewing, hoping to put together a farm and maybe show some people what-for about himself. But, you know, it was dry out here, more dry than he was used to farming in, and there were natives that weren’t pleased to have the company of white men so close up and personal. Notwithstanding all that, he also didn’t take too much to farming, what with all the need for hauling and planting and birthing and chopping, so he felt a bit put out because of it, and that might explain some of his mood, but not all.
“Big John was a small man, not just in spirit but in stature as well. He only stood about as tall as the low end of a stick and his feet were small and so were his hands, but he made up for it by having the devil’s heart and a pistol that he always carried, loaded, at his side. And he always said he would blow off the man’s head who tried to get one by him.
“One day, his wife gave birth to a son and the boy grew up to be slow-headed, but as big as a mountain, and so was his spirit. Some folks said that John called his son Little John after him, in the hopes that it would encourage them to be familiar with him as Big John. But it was just as many spoke that he did it because he feared the boy’s might and was tempering against it.
“Anyway, none of that mattered to Little John. He loved his daddy, and that was that until the day he died, and maybe even after.”
Night had fallen while the old man talked. His visitor, disturbed from his listening and his whiskey haze by his host kicking at the fire screen, noticed the darkness draping the windows thick, like a blanket (Or did he mean a hangman’s hood?), and he felt a twinge of relief and then shame when his old companion stood up to one-hand his bent back and poke the smoldering embers into a brighter glow.
The winter storm had put on hobnail boots and was whistling and howling in a serpentine path around the corners of the wood frame and slapping branches in a steady rat-a-tat-tat on the eaves and the downspouts. In reply, the old man lifted another log onto the fire from the neat stack in the corner to add more heat in the little room. When all was to his liking again and warming up nicely, he tossed his guest a knitted throw for his lap and clutching hands, then settled himself down once more.
“I don’t see what any of this has to do with the mailbox,” Larry grumbled, meaning to sound tough, but mostly sounding surly.
“You will,” said the old man, filling his pipe. “Drink up and then we’ll have some more.
“The mail service in eighteen sixty-three Oklahoma Territory was delivered by brave horses and foolish men. Lots of trouble to be found in those days, both sides of the law.” The old man looked out from under his thick brows at his pale visitor. He brushed his knobby, calloused hand down the smooth wood arm of his worn chair, nodding and pulling on his pipe when he saw that his point was taken.
“Seems they invented the postage stamp sometime in the ‘50’s and folks wanted to use’em, folks being folks. That meant more letters and a city delivery service run by the government, but they couldn’t do any of that without a mailbox to deliver ’em to.”
Larry Newsome shivered under the thick blanket as the old man’s voice rumbled across the way and the wind buffeted the board-and-batten. Outside, snow was piling up to reach the brass knobs and frost had glazed the windows. He lifted his whiskey, admired the light gleaming through its amber hue as he swirled the contents of his glass, then downed it in a single throat-burning gulp. He brushed a lazy thumb across his lips, letting his companion’s rumble soothe him, and felt warmth slowly spread through his belly as the clouds of smoke curled up the chimney, taking on the shapes of grazing horses, autumn fields and tree limbs crowded with crows.
The mantle clock struck the hour in a deep-throated voice and a strange light appeared, parting the chamber’s gloom, wavering, never settling. It spread across the rug first, and then the pot and the little Queen Anne, where sat the tray and the glasses and the evening’s intended leisure, along with the day’s unopened mail.
Down the deserted lane, the ruts already filled with winter, the bare trees stabbed their black branches, furred with hoarfrost, into brown stalks of ragged grass. While, all the while, the frigid air snapped, razor sharp, at the creak of harness leather and the cracking sound of a whip held by an impatient hand.
Pull on it harder then. Larry Newsome’s brow puckered, Pull, I say! Was it the voice of the wind, rattling the window frame?
Sap, popped in drying logs, flames with a voice that crackles, Yes, Sir, I’m sorry… sobbing from the attic, moans down the chimney lamenting, you told me…
The cellar door winced on antique hinges and groaned itself open an inch or two. Larry Newsome curled his fingers around the second glass of whiskey he found, waiting, at his elbow…
“What I told you was to pull harder, can’t get the damn pole straight in this weather without you pull on it.”
“I’m trying, Daddy, but the mud’s froze and my hands is froze, too.”
Big John isn’t listening. He’s busy, pounding his whip into the quivering flesh of his skinny horse, mumbling under his breath about the government and the system. When his hand gets tired, he stops and wipes his grimy forehead. “Take a hatchet to that saplin’ and yank out the scrub. This tree’s comin’ up if it’s the last thing I do.”
“But, Daddy…” Big John levels a look in his son’s direction that deepens the scowl marks carved either side of his pinched lips and causes the boy to stutter his words. “I mean…Big John, I don’t feel so good about it. I don’t think we should dig up this tree. Can’t we just…maybe –nail- the box up?”
“Did you get a letter from the government telling you they ain’t delivering your mail what you don’t put up a mailbox?” Big John’s face reddens like a beet. “Well? I ain’t going without that money. Your ma’s folk owe me that money. It’s mine, I got it come’n and I’m getting it.” Crack goes the whip and Little John flinches against the sting. “Every six months for seventeen years I been getting my money! Since that day I married her and took their wayward daughter off their snotty hands. Well, it’s been six months! Ain’t no government, no war, gonna stop me from gettin’ what’s due me! Now, get that damned tree out of the ground so’s I can plant this here post in its stead!” Crack, and Little John wipes fresh blood from his pale cheek.
As Little John hefts the heavy ax across his shoulder and sets the blade to bark, the late afternoon light greys to pewter, the winds pick up and dry leaves chatter and gambol their way down the lane ahead. Hailstones like fists punch new ruts in the old lane—within minutes, the little farm’s slick with freezing rain.
Big John had never been the type of farmer that would do a chore if it could just as easy be left undone. He’d cleared the way onto his land when he first took up the property, and to his way of thinking, that oughta be a deed done. Except’n, that left the scrub brush and vines to grow as they may and so they did, but, with a sharp ax in the hands of a big man, it doesn’t take long for the scrub that’s grown up to go down. One, clean blow and the wind howls. “I married her, didn’t I? Like I said I would. Brought her out here so’s to save their precious family name, didn’t I?” Big John sneers, his rough hands yanking at the horse’s halter. In his rage, the thoughtless man drags his terrified animal closer to the swinging ax blade.
The storm’s full-force hits while Little John is raising his ax to swing at a little oak. Before he can complete his stroke, a mighty gale buffets the sapling, cracking it down the middle with a terrible sound, like a child’s mournful wail.
There’s only one tree left now, standing between Big John and his goal, and Big John eyes it with malice. He has a taste in his mouth of copper and his head full of spite, with the tree that stands in his way, and with what lies beneath it-- buried now, all these years, and only remembered by him every six months when the check arrives.
Heavy gusts are shaking and snapping the branches of the tree about, heaving the limbs of the neighboring trees. It sends ’em swaying in all directions so’s Little John can’t get close enough to the trunk for all they’re whipping like Gorgon’s snakes at his face and hands. Finally, at his father’s shout of fury, he puts down his ax, wipes the moisture from his eyes with the corner of his work shirt and grabs at the branches with an unsteady hand.
“They owe me that money!” Big John’s trembling, gripping the harness so hard the poor horse feels his rage through the leather and shutters in fright. “I kept you, didn’t I? Well, didn’t I?” His clawing fingers rake through the horse’s mane, searching for purchase as he readies to mount.
“She died. And that’s what happened and no use making a fuss she died. Them folks back East got what they paid for, didn’t they? Weren’t my fault anyway! How’s I suppose to know she’d take to sickness? Woman coughs, it ain’t a man’s job to stand over her and natter. A man has to work, that’s what he does!” Now he’s shouting to be heard over the roar of the storm.
The hail turns to snow with a swirl like a swarm of bees, stinging the bare flesh of man and beast alike. Little John picks up the ax and takes aim once more. The tree takes the blow with a groan--he turns away, giving his broad back to the scene and letting the cold winds slap red on his cheeks, making his nose—and his eyes-- run.
“It’s more your fault than mine, anyway. You should’a stayed with her ‘stead of runnin’ off like ya did to get me. If she was asking for me, it was only so’s she could nag at me ‘bout somethin’!” Big John turns to land his accusation, like a fist, on the boy hunched into himself behind him. “You owe me for all I done for you!” --only to find his stand on the earth has dissolved under his feet.
The wind has a name on its lips this night, and it calls it with a vengeful moan. Justice doesn’t always come swift, but it comes—and tonight it’s come for Big John.
At the same moment Big John finds his feet going in two directions, the rending blow shakes a cloud of blackbirds from their roost in the falling tree, sending them cawing into the swirling storm. The terrorized horse, its bloody sides heaving in fear, its eyes rolling to show the whites, rears up to pound at the air and knocks the little man off his already unsteady feet.
The little sapling, its trunk split in two, has dropped its leafy head on the frozen ground. What’s left behind is a jagged pike, its splinters jutting upward. Big John flails his arms, searching for purchase as the snow churns around him. He calls for help from the boy he has been haranguing, but the limbs of the neighboring trees arc downward while the gale kicks up again, and they’re separated by the will of the storm.
Big John’s cries are blown away before his son can hear them, drowned out by caws that sound too much like the cry of a woman in pain. And, then-- it’s too late.
Big John’s boots scramble on the hard pack, but the soil is turned from the pried up roots and wet from the frost and snow. He lands on the limb facedown, a belly-flop that buries wood fragments deep in his organs. For a while he twitches, his limbs shaking, the life draining from him in a crimson puddle that spreads beneath him and stains the snow, running in rivulets into the hole left gaping by the shattered oak. But, by the time the winds die back, and the arching limbs relent enough to alone a path for his son to follow to his side, all that’s stopped and he’s still as stone.
Larry Newsome jerked. “What?’
Old Studebaker gestured to his guest’s runny nose and teary eyes. “You’re leaking.”
It was a hard fact for Larry Newsome to accept, but it was true. He was crying like a baby. He daubed at himself with his crumpled hanky, fighting for some attempt at dignity that he knew failed. “What happened to them?”
His host shuffled his socks across the rag rug at his feet.
“I mean…what does any of this have to do with our… business…our…transaction?”
“After Big John’s passin’, the storm just sort of moved along and Little John was left to clean up his daddy’s body and sort through it all. But his heart wasn’t in it.” Old Studebaker pulled lint from the sleeve of his sweater, dusted it from his fingertips. “He only nailed the metal box to the pike and chopped the rest of the tree up, then he sat down to wait for the itinerate preacher to come wandering down the road.“Neighbors said they tried to get him to come in, to bury his daddy and come in off the mound, but Little John waited. Tended his daddy in death, just as he had in life until, one day, the preacher came by and said a sweet prayer. With that done, Little John was free to go on his own.”
Larry Newsome watched as the old man stood and began opening cans and pulling out his pot to set on the lone gas burner in the room.
“So, where did he go? What did he do?” All pretenses at disinterest had been cast aside.
“Can’t believe a fancy man like you is superstitious. You can’t be interested in ghost tales.”
Larry Newsome cleared his throat and pulled his cuffs down over his wrists with a quick jerk. “A man needs to keep an open mind about these matters.”
“Alright then, he didn’t. No, don’t you scoff at me. What I’m sayin’ is true. Little John never left his daddy’s side.
“Once the preacher came by and blessed Big John’s remains, Little John dug up the ground beneath him and set him down in it next to his wife, Little John’s momma, and that’s under the oak that killed Big John. Then, he waited for his own time to come, because he was ready and he’d made a promise to his daddy that he would never let him down again and he intended to keep it as it was a dying promise made on an open grave. He had to wait a long time.” The last was said with an abstracted air that had Larry Newsome leaning closer and Old Studebaker clearing his throat when he realized what he had said. “So, you see why it’ll never be moved and you can’t never build nothing on it.”
The storm that had raged through the night was whispering now. It’d left behind silvery snowflake pictures painted in the condensation on the windows. The dark had been eaten up by a fat full moon that shed diamond glitter over the landscape as it crossed the sky. Larry Newsome hugged his document to his chest and rubbed his fingers over the smooth newness of his briefcase. With a sigh of regret, he allowed that he still did not know why in the world the mailbox could not be moved.
One cloud chased another cloud over the moon’s bright face, hiding it. The night filled with hollow sounds and the whispers became buzzes that swarmed like bees until they filled Larry Newsome’s head and made his fleshy hands sting.
Old Studebaker stood up from where he was bent over, stirring the pot set on the one gas burner until he took on the proportions of a giant. His tatty clothes that hung on him like they’d been set with clothes pins, filled as he straightened. In the wavering glow cast by the settling fire, the hair of his head stood out straight as sticks and his eyes turned to pitch. As Larry Newsome gazed into those tarry orbs, he saw they’d swallowed up the night, leaving nothing but fear.
The winds buffeted the little store once more and swept down the chimney, so that the embers flared and sparked. Then the old man was gone and in his place was a rattlin’-bones. His voice lowered to a deep timber that scared poor Larry Newsome’s hands into shaking with the palsy. “You won’t never disturb my daddy’s grave. You won’t never take down my daddy’s mailbox. Not now, not never. You get out of here now and don’t let me find you back!”
Larry Newsome lost his water as well as his new briefcase when the skeleton man raised his mighty fist over his head and lunged towards him. He jumped to his feet and rushed towards the front door, howling and praying for all he was worth.
He’d almost made it, too, when he felt the first bite of the whip rip open his suit coat and sting like a swarm of bees across his exposed flesh. “Can’t let ya, can’t let ya leave. I tried to tell you not to come, tried to tell you to leave us alone. But you wouldn’t listen, and now ya ain’t left me no choice.”
The winds picked up where they’d left off, swirling snow down the rutted lane and drowning out the howls coming from the little storefront.
And that’s the story of Big John, Little John… and how Larry Newsome, late of Smith & Sons Construction, came to be buried under the old oak tree…