SFReader 2007 Story Contest
Second Place Winner
How do I say this? I was raised by the crazy half of the family. So as I grew up, I realized the map of the world I’d been given was folded just a little bit sideways. The really cool thing about kids, though, is that they can grow up in the weirdest situations and think everything is perfectly normal. It’s when they get older that they notice, ‘Hey, wait a minute! Those Brady kids need some money? Why don’t they just steal something? Deal some drugs, kite a couple of checks? C’mon, man, isn’t that what everybody does?’ That’s an extreme example, but you get the idea. Take it a step further and you have the inspiration for ‘How Pappy Got His Five Acres Back and Calvin Stayed on the Farm.
The boy cursed the sun, the soil, and whatever the hell else it was that made cotton grow. He wiped the sweat out of his eyes and put his hat back on so his brains wouldn’t scramble in the heat. He decided, then and there, the farm was a living death.
The War Between the States was over, so he’d probably never get the chance to use that as an excuse to get away. His oldest brother had. Robert Earl Anson had ridden out a dirt farmer and come back a war hero. Of course, that was before they found out he was a horse thief, and murderer of women and children.
Calvin wasn’t sure if he’d go so far as to horse thieving to get off the farm. As far as murdering women and children? Well, that would probably be too much work. The only women and kids he’d ever seen had been family, and they was just too tough to die. He’d seen his Aunt Trudy take three blows to the head with a shovel one time, and she hardly looked up. A man would have to be just plain mean—or crazy maybe—to murder somebody.
Calvin figured picking cotton might eventually drive him to it.
That’s probably what happened to his brother.
Just last night, Robert Earl had ridden back in with three bullet holes in his chest and one big one in his back. Somehow, he’d managed to crawl off his horse and into the storm cellar during the night. He still had his Confederate Cavalry trousers on when they found him. There’d been a wanted poster with his picture on it in his saddlebags. It was a good likeness. The paper said General Quantrill’s army had been declared war criminals. “Quantrill’s Guerilla Raider’s.”
“You boys get the hell outta here, and get back to work,” Pappy had told them. “I’ll tend to Robert Earl, just like I done for your Mamaw. Just like I do for everybody.” Pappy kept cussing under his breath.
The rest of the family went back to work. The women in the house. The men in the fields.
Running from the pasture to the crops Calvin caught up with his only other brother. “Albert, you think Robert’s gonna be okay? I mean, it looked like he had a hole clean through him.”
“He’ll be fit to fiddle Dixie soon as ol’ Pap tends to him,” Albert said. “Remember Mamaw? She looked all grayer and pastier than you do now.” Calvin’s brother punched him on the arm, the way brothers do, and ran off before Calvin could punch him back. Pappy had just given him five acres of land in the north pasture to marry on, and Albert was eager to farm it.
Calvin smiled and remembered last fall. He had been sure Mamaw wasn’t going to make it. That was when Pappy told him for the first time, “Nobody that’s family’s going to die, if I can help it.” Mamaw suffered some. Pappy said it was always harder for women. They had to go through some changes come Mamaw’s age. Next day she was walking around the kitchen, loading wood into the stove. Good thing for them Pappy was there.
Pap Anson had learned doctoring from every race of man between here and Mexico—Black, White, and Red. If a man’s bones were in one piece, Pappy could fix him up. Calvin’s cousin told him once that Mamaw and Pappy had at least two hundred years between the two of them, and Calvin knew it for a fact. Pappy could remember back before Missouri was even settled. Ol’ Pap had been studying medicine all his life. Thanks to him, nobody on the farm ever ailed more than a day or two.
Calvin stopped smiling when he went back to work, trying to hoe an endless row of cotton.
High cotton in dead dirt.
He had never been able to figure it out. The soil that wasn’t brown and dry was gray and dead. Dust so thick he wondered if it added extra weight at market time. The Anson family had been planting and yanking cotton out of the same field every year of his life. Thirteen years. Even he knew you were supposed to transplant sorghum, or something, every couple years just to keep the dirt alive. But somehow Pappy always got it to work. Old man could probably grow orchids at the North Pole.
Calvin swung his hoe down as hard as he could and hit a chunk of dirt he would’ve been lucky to crack with a pickaxe. That’s when he decided he couldn’t stay on the farm.
He wanted to see the world, live a life of adventure, before he wound up having to go through his changes. Hell, the only time he’d ever been off the farm was to go hunting. It wasn’t that he minded all the old folks there, it was just that he and his brothers and Pappy were the only ones that even bothered to talk. Calvin wanted to see magical cities—buildings, and circuses, and fairs, and shows. Robert Earl had told him about a saloon one time. Calvin wanted to try drinking and gambling at least once before he got too old. And once, just once, he wanted to see a naked woman.
He was still picturing naked women in his head when the August sun faded from the inside of his eyelids. He opened his eyes and noticed Albert over in the north pasture, talking to a stranger on the back of a Paint Horse. The stranger wasn’t dressed the way the people from town did—at least not the ones Calvin had seen. This man was wearing all black on the hottest day of the year, and it wasn’t even Sunday.
The man leaned over the saddle horn, looking down on Albert with a little grin on his face like they were just talking. This in itself made Calvin curious. People never visited the Anson farm. Pappy didn’t take to strangers.
Calvin wiped his forehead again and put his hat back on. The shade cleared his eyes just in time for him to see the stranger grab his brother by the collar with one hand, and pull a sawed-off shotgun out of the scabbard with the other. The man lifted Albert up in the air with one hand, pointed the gun at his head, and then dropped him back on his feet again.
The visitor and the gun, both at once, were too much for Calvin to handle. He stood there frozen, trying to catch his breath so he could yell for help.
That’s when the man in black lowered the shotgun, and Calvin saw Albert’s head explode.
Calvin heard himself hollering before he was even aware he was the one doing it. The shotgun’s echo didn’t reach him until after he’d started screaming; that’s how far away he was. But even at that distance, when the man’s eyes met his, he felt a chill.
A man would have to be mean, or crazy…
With his voice still ringing, Calvin started to run, but his feet were glued to the ground, like in a bad dream where your legs don’t work right. Calvin saw himself hit the dirt between the rows of cotton and started crawling as fast as he could toward the house. But the cotton was poor cover, and what he first thought was his pulse racing in his ears turned out to be the hoof beats of the stranger on the Paint.
If he stood up and ran the crazy man would shoot him in the back. If he started screaming for help it would just get more family killed. All he could hear was the hooves tromping on the dirt. The sound was deafening. Hot, damp, scared, and shaking, he curled up into a ball around one of the cotton stalks and closed his eyes.
The horse stomped on one of his fingers. He jumped up and yelled in time to see a hoof just miss his head when the horse stopped. The man in the black jacket was laughing.
“Boy! Get the hell up,” the stranger said, cocking the sawed-off and pressing the barrel against Calvin’s forehead.
Calvin wiped the tear from his jaw like he was wiping off sweat. He’d stopped crying when the horse stomped him. It took his fear away. The man in black made him angry. Not just about his brother’s death, but his own eventual outcome. Not only did he very much mind the idea of dying, but he had also been hoping that he wouldn’t be forced to see it coming. He had never seen death before.
Even if Calvin were lucky enough to live through this, he’d probably get his ass kicked for not getting a full day’s work done. The fear of his grandfather replaced his fear of the crazy man. He spat on the ground, and stared right back at him.
“Do you know who I am, Boy?” the stranger said. Calvin just kept staring. “Yeah, well neither did your friend over there. So I showed him. He didn’t seem to want to learn too fast, though. What about you, Boy? You a quick learner? Or you as dumb as you look all curled ’round that cotton like a boll weevil?” The man slapped the saddle horn, smiling at his own joke. He looked down, demeaning Calvin, like the kid was too stupid to get it.
“I ain’t dumb!” Calvin yelled at the man. He grabbed the gun barrel and pushed it out of his face. The stranger swung the barrel back down on his head, and Calvin suffered the sting. He felt his scalp go numb then split with a swelling throb. His eyes went black, and he dropped to his knees.
“Yeah, you are, grub. You’re as dumb as a stump if I say you are. And I say you are.” He pulled Calvin upright with the barrel of the gun pressed between his eyes. “You got that, boy?”
Calvin just nodded, waiting for the pain in his head to subside. He tried to stand up still but couldn’t help stumbling around.
“You ever hear of Killer Jim Curtis, boy?” Before Calvin could figure out whether or not to nod, the man had answered his own question. “Probably not. You know why, boy?” He pulled the gun back so Calvin had to look down both barrels. “‘Cause most of the people that have heard of me end up like your friend over there. You understand me, boy?”
“Now I’m not going to take the time with you that I would wipin’ my ass, you dumb Southern bastard, on account of I already left you a message over in that field. You understand?”
Calvin nodded again, wishing the crazy man would stop asking questions and get to the point.
“Yesterday, I trailed a man name of Robert Earl Anson to over this side of the river,” the stranger said. “He was too dumb to know I’d shot him full of holes, but I trailed him right here to this farm.
“So here’s the deal, boy. I’ll be returning first thing tomorrow morning. Only nobody’s going to know exactly where I’m hiding.” He spoke softly, not gently. “But if Mr. Robert Earl Anson—or his body—ain’t here, on this very spot, by noon tomorrow, I’m going to shoot you and whoever else lives on this turdpile deader ‘n hell. You got that?”
Calvin nodded, as much to clear his head as to just get rid of the crazy man. The barrel slapped the side of Calvin’s head, and Killer Jim was riding away. Calvin fell on one knee, and held his skull together with his hands.
Pappy was gonna be angry.
Close to a half-hour later, Pappy was.
“Gawddam! That son of a bitch! He blew his head off!” Pappy said, spreading his hands in the air. They had pulled what was left of Albert’s body onto the back porch and were standing over him. Pappy clenched and unclenched his fists. “We’s gonna have to have a closed coffin funeral. Damnit! You know how long it’s been since we had a funeral in this family? Been since your Maw died, Cal.” Pap was crying and gritting his teeth. Every bone in his body was taut, shaking.
Calvin had never seen Pappy give up on healing anybody. Never. This was bad.
“I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do,” Pappy’s voice cracked. “You just can’t treat a wound like that. We’s gonna have to bury him.”
Mamaw moaned from behind Pappy, and Aunt Trudy moaned in the kitchen. Cousins, brothers and mothers, sisters and children and friends all joined. A keening moan, a low wail emanating from the land itself.
Pappy looked at Mamaw with a tear in his eye, and then looked over at Albert’s body. “Calvin, I’m gonna need you to build him a coffin tonight. You can use the wood stored by the barn. Least that way he’ll get a real pine box. First though, I want you to come with me. I want you to tell me everything happened. Then I’m gonna show you something.”
The only time Calvin had ever even seen a visitor before was back when the war started. Somebody from town had seen some Yankees working in one of the fields, and the local militia had ridden out to see which side Pap was on. Even back then, Pappy didn’t want to talk to strangers. He sent Mamaw out to scare the hell out of ’em. ‘
Pappy had finally calmed the militiamen down and told ’em, “Anybody tries to take any Anson property, they’re gonna end up just like those Yankees—working the fields.”‘
Nobody from town ever visited after that.’
So Calvin told Pappy all about Killer Jim Curtis on the way to the barn. Pappy listened, chewed tobacco, and spit nails. When Calvin had finished, Pappy looked meaner than a red hog. Then he smiled.
“Killin’ Jim Curtis, it is now, isn’t it?” Pappy said, slipping back into his old brogue. “Man’s got to be stupid to go around calling himself a killer. I think we got us some teachin’ to do.
“Calvin,” Pappy went on. “I owe you an apology. There are some things I think you need to know. About life. About family.
“See, I been around a long time… a long time. And I plan to be around even longer. I always thought Robert Earl was going to be my successor here on the farm, and I figured you and Albert could pursue farming, or whatever else appealed to you. Problem was, I taught Robert Earl a little too much, too early. He was too smart for his own good. Then another war started, and he ran off. I’m guessin’ he used some of what I taught him. Well, you see how he wound up.
“Then I started watching you boys’ temperament. No offense son, but you got some of Robert Earl in you.”
“None taken, sir.”
“Well, fact is, I always kind of figured you was going to run off just like Robert Earl. Not to say you’re exactly the same, Cal. Robert Earl, he was just wild. But you, sometimes I can’t figure out what’s going on in that head of yours at all. And that’s my fault, for not spendin’ enough time with you. Hell, Calvin, with everybody else in the family the way they is, I just kind of stopped talking unless it had to do with work. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right, Pappy. I appreciate it,” Calvin said. “Now let me get to working on that pine box for Albert.”
“No, no, now listen to me.” Pappy said. “I kept a lot of things about the family—and the world—from you, because I always thought you was going to run off. I knew you’d do well, make me proud. I just figured when you got out in the world, you’d figure it out for yourself. And you’d be okay. Fact is, I should’ve been teaching you all along. Now what I got to teach you may take some time. But we’ll take the time, soon as we get rid of Killin’ Jim Whatshismname.
“What I want you to know right now though, is that everything I done, I done because I love you.
“The other thing you need to know, son, is that in most families people die all the time. Not like Albert did today. But people do die.” Pappy’s eye gleamed, and he looked up at the sky as if for guidance. “‘Cept us, son. Us, well, we’re blessed…”
About a year-and-a-half-ago, Cousin John-John had come to visit. John-John said that when Pappy come back from being a prisoner in the Creek War, his head hadn’t been exactly right. Said Pappy had gone too far with some of his doctoring. Said he’d been learning too much from Injuns and Niggers, and it made him crazy.’
Cousin John-John said Pappy had sealed himself in on the farm and was living a life “contrary to God.” Calvin had had a mule once that Albert had called “contrary.” Calvin thought John-John meant Pappy was just being stubborn. Hell, if Pap wasn’t stubborn, nothing on the farm would have gotten done.
The only other people besides his brothers and Pappy that Calvin had ever met were Cousin John-John and the family back home—the cousins, brothers and mothers, sisters, children and friends.
Cousin John-John left the same day he had arrived and never came back.
Pappy had stayed up all night doctoring Robert Earl, drawing funny shapes and letters on the floor and walls of the barn. Green and yellow lights flew out of the fire while they drank the “black drink” that Pap had shared with Tecumseh. Locked up in the barn, doctoring Robert Earl, Pappy began to show Calvin a world he had never dreamed existed. Pappy wanted Calvin to be a doctor.
They stayed up all night, treating Robert Earl and doing the dance. They finished at about two in the morning.
“We’ll have to wait till daylight to see if it worked,” Pappy said. “But between you and me, son, I think he’ll get along. You got strong medicine for such a young man.”
It was the first time Pap had ever called him a man.
“You mind if I stay up and work on Albert’s coffin?” Calvin asked. “I don’t think I could sleep anyway.”
“You have at it, son. And make sure to wake me up by daylight. We’re gonna have some fun.”
At dawn Pappy came out with coffee and cornbread for breakfast. Calvin showed him the pine box that he’d made for Albert’s coffin. It wasn’t until years later that Calvin realized the reason Pap had choked on his coffee was because he was trying not to laugh.
“You never seen a coffin before, have you Calvin?” Pap said, wiping the coffee off his chin.
“No sir, but you said we had to make him a pine box. I figured this one would fit him just fine.”
Pappy paused and looked at it. He bit his lip and smiled. Having never seen a coffin, Calvin had made a pine box that was simply that—a pine box. Which was fine, but Albert had been almost six-feet tall, and Calvin had measured the box out at a little less than five—just big enough to hold Albert’s body, without his head.
“And a fine coffin it is, Calvin.” Pappy said. “Just fine. C’mon, let’s get Robert Earl ready.”
They started Albert’s funeral at about half-past eleven. Everybody in the family had their best clothes on except Pappy. He was dressed in a tartan-green kilt, but with buckskin breeches beneath it, like the natives wore. He had on bracelets and boots with the wolf fur still on them, and a Scottish tam, decorated with feathers, sat military style on his head. Hanging loose on his chest was a fearsome looking mask made of some strange wood Calvin had never seen before.
Pappy stood tall holding a ceremonial staff with some of the odd shapes that he’d drawn in the barn carved on it. Calvin held a lantern from some place he’d never heard of. It reminded him of a teapot, and hung on ropes like a puppet. He was supposed to let it wave back and forth and lead the procession.
Aunt Trudy had dug the grave. Ever since that incident with the shovel, she hadn’t trusted nobody else.
Pappy had almost finished with the Christian part of the ceremony when Calvin spotted the black figure coming over the hill in the distance.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” and Pappy started to dance.
Calvin ignored the oncoming figure and lit the fire. The rest of the family stepped back, wary of the blossoming flames. Calvin began to circle the gathering, waving his lamp, shrouding them in smoke and scent.
The black figure in the distance became Killer Jim Curtis. He was galloping, full speed, firing his shotgun in the air and hollering. “Boy! I come for Robert Earl! Where is he? Don’t make me angr-”
A hundred feet away, the Paint stopped, reared, and turned to the side. Jim stopped yelling, but you could hear him cussing the horse. He struggled to control the reins and the gun at the same time. When he got the shotgun back in the scabbard the horse calmed down some. But when he shook the reins again it just turned back and forth. It wouldn’t come any closer.
Jim stepped down on the edge of the cotton field. The horse continued to back away, skittish. The killer pulled his revolver and headed toward the ceremony. “If you’re burying Robert Earl, don’t bother. I got business with him. Dead or alive,” and Killer Jim smiled that same demeaning smile.
“He ain’t here,” Pappy said.
“He damn well better be.” Jim cocked the revolver. “Or every ignoramus on this farm is dead. And that’s all you halfwits.”
“Watch your language, Gawdammit,” Pappy said. “We’re having a funeral.”
“You’ll be having more before I’m through!” Jim yelled, and fired his six-gun at Pappy’s feet.
Pappy just stood there. Jim cocked the pistol.
“Calvin, give Mamaw the lantern, and go get Robert Earl,” Pappy said.
Calvin handed the lantern to Mamaw. She didn’t even raise her head. Nobody in the family did except for Pap.
“You must be crazy as you look, old man. You expect me to believe Robert Anson’s still alive,” Jim said, “much less able to walk?”
“He’ll be dancing on your grave,” Pap said. “Whatever your name is.”
That must’ve riled Jim, because he fired another shot towards Pappy’s feet. Pappy began to dance.
“Damn, you hillbillies crack me up,” Jim said. “You’re so damn mushbrained, you think I’m stupid as ya’ll are. Guess I’m s’posed to be all impressed with your bible beatin’, or the fact you ain’t run away yet. And then if that don’t work, I’m s’posed to take pity on the pathetic geezer, and his suffering little family, all quiet and humble.
“What you don’t get, old man, is I don’t care. I know Robert Earl is dead. I just want the body to collect my reward. It ain’t like you’re losing anything.”
The hinge on the backdoor creaked long and loud, and Robert Earl stepped out. He was shirtless, but he had his gun belt on.
Pappy almost cracked a smile and Calvin giggled in the window. Calvin was watching through the hole in his brother’s gut—and while normally that would’ve disturbed him—somehow it just made the blank expression on Jim’s face that much funnier.
Jim’s gun started to shake and he rotated slowly toward Pappy. He moved like the bird in Mamaw’s cuckoo clock—like he was driven by gears, waiting for the spring to unwind before he could peep.
Robert Earl cocked his pistol. Killer Jim Curtis stood stone still, his revolver hanging in his hands in front of him. His mouth was open and his eyes stared blank.
Calvin could almost smell Jim’s alcohol sweat over the incense. The killer’s eyes jerked all around him, looking for some kind of way out, but he couldn’t move. He was frozen.
And in that black coat, on the second hottest day of the summer.
“Ah… I-” His voice cracked. “Now I know what you… you… You backwater sodbusters are trying to… You, you set me up. Some Missouri Bootheel, hillbilly trick. I warned you. I’ll kill ev…” Something impossible happened then. Jim’s face got even blanker.
His gun hand dropped and his expression went from blank to completely devoid of hope. His eyes looked up then folded. His lips pursed like he was drinking sour piss. He was about to cry when he looked down at his feet.
And his eyes went all buggy again.
Even if he hadn’t been frozen with fear, he still wouldn’t have been able to run. Two pairs of hands had come out of the earth, holding his feet in place, pulling down on top of his boots.
It was Pappy’s Yankee field hands, trying to pull themselves out of the dirt. Calvin had been wondering where they’d gone to. One of them managed to get his face out, a little cotton boll stuck in his eye.
“You… You people are crazy!” Jim said. “I’ll kill all o’ ya’ll… I’ll… I’ll…” Jim’s voice trailed off to a whimper.
He’d looked up at the family to point his gun and threaten them. But the family stopped bowing and looked back. The shadows fell from their faces. Beneath the brims of bonnets and old straw hats, Jim saw the faces of the family he’d been threatening.
A scream bounced off the mountain—a holler so loud it built one more fence around the Anson place. Calvin never forgot it and it was the last time Killer Jim ever uttered a sound.
At harvest time, Pappy gave Albert’s old land to Calvin. It was more of a gift than an enticement to keep him around. Calvin was learning doctoring now, and he had a gift for it. Strong medicine.
The following summer there was an extra farmhand working the fields. He was dressed all in black, on the hottest day of the year.
B. C. Bell was the writer/ artist/ publisher of the legendary but short-lived mini-comic, Dismental Tales, back in the nineties. A seventh generation Texan, he moved out when everybody else moved in, and adopted Chicago as his hometown. He now lives in Atlanta, and his wife says he can adopt that—if he hangs out fliers in the neighborhood and the original owner doesn’t call in the next two weeks. He has recently finished his first novel and is just beginning to shop for an agent.Share