The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  The idea of drinking any kind of liquor in this heat made Mr. Thompson dizzy. The idea of anybody feeling good on a day like this, for instance, made him tired. He felt he was really suffering from the heat. The fat man looked as if he had grown to the stump; he slumped there in his damp, dark clothes too big for him, his belly slack in his pants, his wide black felt hat pushed off his narrow forehead red with prickly heat. A bottle of good cold beer, now, would be a help, thought Mr. Thompson, remembering the four bottles sitting deep in the pool at the springhouse, and his dry tongue squirmed in his mouth. He wasn’t going to offer this man anything, though, not even a drop of water. He wasn’t even going to chew any more tobacco with him. He shot out his quid suddenly, and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, and studied the head near him attentively. The man was no good, and he was there for no good, but what was he up to? Mr. Thompson made up his mind he’d give him a little more time to get his business, whatever it was, with Mr. Helton over, and then if he didn’t get off the place he’d kick him off.

  Mr. Hatch, as if he suspected Mr. Thompson’s thoughts, turned his eyes, wicked and pig-like, on Mr. Thompson. “Fact is,” he said, as if he had made up his mind about something, “I might need your help in the little matter I’ve got on hand, but it won’t cost you any trouble. Now, this Mr. Helton here, like I tell you, he’s a dangerous escaped loonatic, you might say. Now fact is, in the last twelve years or so I musta rounded up twenty-odd escaped loonatics, besides a couple of escaped convicts that I just run into by accident, like. I don’t make a business of it, but if there’s a reward, and there usually is a reward, of course, I get it. It amounts to a tidy little sum in the long run, but that ain’t the main question. Fact is, I’m for law and order, I don’t like to see lawbreakers and loonatics at large. It ain’t the place for them. Now I reckon you’re bound to agree with me on that, aren’t you?”

  Mr. Thompson said, “Well, circumstances alters cases, as the feller says. Now, what I know of Mr. Helton, he ain’t dangerous, as I told you.” Something serious was going to happen, Mr. Thompson could see that. He stopped thinking about it. He’d just let this fellow shoot off his head and then see what could be done about it. Without thinking he got out his knife and plug and started to cut a chew, then remembered himself and put them back in his pocket.

  “The law,” said Mr. Hatch, “is solidly behind me. Now this Mr. Helton, he’s been one of my toughest cases. He’s kept my record from being practically one hundred per cent. I knew him before he went loony, and I know the fam’ly, so I undertook to help out rounding him up. Well, sir, he was gone slick as a whistle, for all we knew the man was as good as dead long while ago. Now we never might have caught up with him, but do you know what he did? Well, sir, about two weeks ago his old mother gets a letter from him, and in that letter, what do you reckon she found? Well, it was a check on that little bank in town for eight hundred and fifty dollars, just like that; the letter wasn’t nothing much, just said he was sending her a few little savings, she might need something, but there it was, name, postmark, date, everything. The old woman practically lost her mind with joy. She’s gettin’ childish, and it looked like she kinda forgot that her only living son killed his brother and went loony. Mr. Helton said he was getting along all right, and for her not to tell nobody. Well, natchally, she couldn’t keep it to herself, with that check to cash and everything. So that’s how I come to know.” His feelings got the better of him. “You coulda knocked me down with a feather.” He shook hands with himself and rocked, wagging his head, going “Heh, heh,” in his throat. Mr. Thompson felt the corners of his mouth turning down. Why, the dirty low-down hound, sneaking around spying into other people’s business like that. Collecting blood money, that’s what it was! Let him talk!

  “Yea, well, that musta been a surprise all right,” he said, trying to hold his voice even. “I’d say a surprise.”

  “Well, siree,” said Mr. Hatch, “the more I got to thinking about it, the more I just come to the conclusion that I’d better look into the matter a little, and so I talked to the old woman. She’s pretty decrepid, now, half blind and all, but she was all for taking the first train out and going to see her son. I put it up to her square—how she was too feeble for the trip, and all. So, just as a favor to her, I told her for my expenses I’d come down and see Mr. Helton and bring her back all the news about him. She gave me a new shirt she made herself by hand, and a big Swedish kind of cake to bring to him, but I musta mislaid them along the road somewhere. It don’t reely matter, though, he prob’ly ain’t in any state of mind to appreciate ’em.”

  Mr. Thompson sat up and turning round on the log looked at Mr. Hatch and asked as quietly as be could, “And now what are you aiming to do? That’s the question.”

  Mr. Hatch slouched up to his feet and shook himself. “Well, I come all prepared for a little scuffle,” he said. “I got the handcuffs,” he said, “but I don’t want no violence if I can help it. I didn’t want to say nothing around the countryside, making an uproar. I figured the two of us could overpower him.” He reached into his big inside pocket and pulled them out. Handcuffs, for God’s sake, thought Mr. Thompson. Coming round on a peaceable afternoon worrying a man, and making trouble, and fishing handcuffs out of his pocket on a decent family homestead, as if it was all in the day’s work.

  Mr. Thompson, his head buzzing, got up too. “Well,” he said, roundly, “I want to tell you I think you’ve got a mighty sorry job on hand, you sure must be hard up for something to do, and now I want to give you a good piece of advice. You just drop the idea that you’re going to come here and make trouble for Mr. Helton, and the quicker you drive that hired rig away from my front gate the better I’ll be satisfied.”

  Mr. Hatch put one handcuff in his outside pocket, the other dangling down. He pulled his hat down over his eyes, and reminded Mr. Thompson of a sheriff, somehow. He didn’t seem in the least nervous, and didn’t take up Mr. Thompson’s words. He said, “Now listen just a minute, it ain’t reasonable to suppose that a man like yourself is going to stand in the way of getting an escaped loonatic back to the asylum where he belongs. Now I know it’s enough to throw you off, coming sudden like this, but fact is I counted on your being a respectable man and helping me out to see that justice is done. Now a course, if you won’t help, I’ll have to look around for help somewheres else. It won’t look very good to your neighbors that you was harbring an escaped loonatic who killed his own brother, and then you refused to give him up. It will look mighty funny.”

  Mr. Thompson knew almost before he heard the words that it would look funny. It would put him in a mighty awkward position. He said, “But I’ve been trying to tell you all along that the man ain’t loony now. He’s been perfectly harmless for nine years. He’s—he’s—”

  Mr. Thompson couldn’t think how to describe how it was with Mr. Helton. “Why, he’s been like one of the family,” he said, “the best standby a man ever had.” Mr. Thompson tried to see his way out. It was a fact Mr. Helton might go loony again any minute, and now this fellow talking around the country would put Mr. Thompson in a fix. It was a terrible position. He couldn’t think of any way out. “You’re crazy,” Mr. Thompson roared suddenly, “you’re the crazy one around here, you’re crazier than he ever was! You get off this place or I’ll handcuff you and turn you over to the law. You’re trespassing,” shouted Mr. Thompson. “Get out of here before I knock you down!”

  He took a step towards the fat man, who backed off, shrinking, “Try it, try it, go ahead!” and then something happened that Mr. Thompson tried hard afterwards to piece together in his mind, and in fact it never did come straight. He saw the fat man with his long bowie knife in his hand, he saw Mr. Helton come round the corner on the run, his long jaw dropped, his arms swinging, his eyes wild. Mr. Helton came in between them, fists doubled up, then stopped short, glaring at the fat man, his big frame seemed to collapse, he trembled like a shied horse; and then the fat man drove at him, knife in one
hand, handcuffs in the other. Mr. Thompson saw it coming, he saw the blade going into Mr. Helton’s stomach, he knew he had the ax out of the log in his own hands, felt his arms go up over his head and bring the ax down on Mr. Hatch’s head as if he were stunning a beef.

  Mrs. Thompson had been listening uneasily for some time to the voices going on, one of them strange to her, but she was too tired at first to get up and come out to see what was going on. The confused shouting that rose so suddenly brought her up to her feet and out across the front porch without her slippers, hair half-braided. Shading her eyes, she saw first Mr. Helton, running all stooped over through the orchard, running like a man with dogs after him; and Mr. Thompson supporting himself on the ax handle was leaning over shaking by the shoulder a man Mrs. Thompson had never seen, who lay doubled up with the top of his head smashed and the blood running away in a greasy-looking puddle. Mr. Thompson without taking his hand from the man’s shoulder, said in a thick voice, “He killed Mr. Helton, he killed him, I saw him do it. I had to knock him out,” he called loudly, “but he won’t come to.”

  Mrs. Thompson said in a faint scream, “Why, yonder goes Mr. Helton,” and she pointed. Mr. Thompson pulled himself up and looked where she pointed. Mrs. Thompson sat down slowly against the side of the house and began to slide forward on her face; she felt as if she were drowning, she couldn’t rise to the top somehow, and her only thought was she was glad the boys were not there, they were out, fishing at Halifax, oh, God, she was glad the boys were not there.

  Mr. and Mrs. Thompson drove up to their barn about sunset. Mr. Thompson handed the reins to his wife, got out to open the big door, and Mrs. Thompson guided old Jim in under the roof. The buggy was gray with dust and age, Mrs. Thompson’s face was gray with dust and weariness, and Mr. Thompson’s face, as he stood at the horse’s head and began unhitching, was gray except for the dark blue of his freshly shaven jaws and chin, gray and blue and caved in, but patient, like a dead man’s face.

  Mrs. Thompson stepped down to the hard packed manure of the barn floor, and shook out her light flower-sprigged dress. She wore her smoked glasses, and her wide shady leghorn hat with the wreath of exhausted pink and blue forget-me-nots hid her forehead, fixed in a knot of distress.

  The horse hung his head, raised a huge sigh and flexed his stiffened legs. Mr. Thompson’s words came up muffled and hollow. “Poor ole Jim,” he said, clearing his throat, “he looks pretty sunk in the ribs. I guess he’s had a hard week.” He lifted the harness up in one piece, slid it off and Jim walked out of the shafts halting a little. “Well, this is the last time,” Mr. Thompson said, still talking to Jim. “Now you can get a good rest.”

  Mrs. Thompson closed her eyes behind her smoked glasses. The last time, and high time, and they should never have gone at all. She did not need her glasses any more, now the good darkness was coming down again, but her eyes ran full of tears steadily, though she was not crying, and she felt better with the glasses, safer, hidden away behind them. She took out her handkerchief with her hands shaking as they had been shaking ever since that day, and blew her nose. She said, “I see the boys have lighted the lamps. I hope they’ve started the stove going.”

  She stepped along the rough path holding her thin dress and starched petticoats around her, feeling her way between the sharp small stones, leaving the barn because she could hardly bear to be near Mr. Thompson, advancing slowly towards the house because she dreaded going there. Life was all one dread, the faces of her neighbors, of her boys, of her husband, the face of the whole world, the shape of her own house in the darkness, the very smell of the grass and the trees were horrible to her. There was no place to go, only one thing to do, bear it somehow—but how? She asked herself that question often. How was she going to keep on living now? Why had she lived at all? She wished now she had died one of those times when she had been so sick, instead of living on for this.

  The boys were in the kitchen; Herbert was looking at the funny pictures from last Sunday’s newspapers, the Katzenjammer Kids and Happy Hooligan. His chin was in his hands and his elbows on the table, and he was really reading and looking at the pictures, but his face was unhappy. Arthur was building the fire, adding kindling a stick at a time, watching it catch and blaze. His face was heavier and darker than Herbert’s, but he was a little sullen by nature; Mrs. Thompson thought, he takes things harder, too. Arthur said, “Hello, Momma,” and went on with his work. Herbert swept the papers together and moved over on the bench. They were big boys—fifteen and seventeen, and Arthur as tall as his father. Mrs. Thompson sat down beside Herbert, taking off her hat. She said, “I guess you’re hungry. We were late today. We went the Log Hollow road, it’s rougher than ever.” Her pale mouth drooped with a sad fold on either side.

  “I guess you saw the Mannings, then,” said Herbert.

  “Yes, and the Fergusons, and the Allbrights, and that new family McClellan.”

  “Anybody say anything?” asked Herbert.

  “Nothing much, you know how it’s been all along, some of them keeps saying, yes, they know it was a clear case and a fair trial and they say how glad they are your papa came out so well, and all that, some of ’em do, anyhow, but it looks like they don’t really take sides with him. I’m about wore out,” she said, the tears rolling again from under her dark glasses. “I don’t know what good it does, but your papa can’t seem to rest unless he’s telling how it happened. I don’t know.”

  “I don’t think it does any good, not a speck,” said Arthur, moving away from the stove. “It just keeps the whole question stirred up in people’s minds. Everybody will go round telling what he heard, and the whole thing is going to get worse mixed up than ever. It just makes matters worse. I wish you could get Papa to stop driving round the country talking like that.”

  “Your papa knows best,” said Mrs. Thompson. “You oughtn’t to criticize him. He’s got enough to put up with without that.”

  Arthur said nothing, his jaw stubborn. Mr. Thompson came in, his eyes hollowed out and dead-looking, his thick hands gray white and seamed from washing them clean every day before he started out to see the neighbors to tell them his side of the story. He was wearing his Sunday clothes, a thick pepper-and-salt-colored suit with a black string tie.

  Mrs. Thompson stood up, her head swimming. “Now you-all get out of the kitchen, it’s too hot in here and I need room. I’ll get us a little bite of supper, if you’ll just get out and give me some room.”

  They went as if they were glad to go, the boys outside, Mr. Thompson into his bedroom. She heard him groaning to himself as he took off his shoes, and heard the bed creak as he lay down. Mrs. Thompson opened the icebox and felt the sweet coldness flow out of it; she had never expected to have an icebox, much less did she hope to afford to keep it filled with ice. It still seemed like a miracle, after two or three years. There was the food, cold and clean, all ready to be warmed over. She would never have had that icebox if Mr. Helton hadn’t happened along one day, just by the strangest luck; so saving, and so managing, so good, thought Mrs. Thompson, her heart swelling until she feared she would faint again, standing there with the door open and leaning her head upon it. She simply could not bear to remember Mr. Helton, with his long sad face and silent ways, who had always been so quiet and harmless, who had worked so hard and helped Mr. Thompson so much, running through the hot fields and woods, being hunted like a mad dog, everybody turning out with ropes and guns and sticks to catch and tie him. Oh, God, said Mrs. Thompson in a long dry moan, kneeling before the icebox and fumbling inside for the dishes, even if they did pile mattresses all over the jail floor and against the walls, and five men there to hold him to keep him from hurting himself any more, he was already hurt too badly, he couldn’t have lived anyway. Mr. Barbee, the sheriff, told her about it. He said, well, they didn’t aim to harm him but they had to catch him, he was crazy as a loon; he picked up rocks and tried to brain every man that got near him. He had two harmonicas in his jumper pocket, said the sh
eriff, but they fell out in the scuffle, and Mr. Helton tried to pick ’em up again, and that’s when they finally got him. “They had to be rough, Miz Thompson, he fought like a wildcat.” Yes, thought Mrs. Thompson again with the same bitterness, of course, they had to be rough. They always have to be rough. Mr. Thompson can’t argue with a man and get him off the place peaceably; no, she thought, standing up and shutting the icebox, he has to kill somebody, he has to be a murderer and ruin his boys’ lives and cause Mr. Helton to be killed like a mad dog.

  Her thoughts stopped with a little soundless explosion, cleared and began again. The rest of Mr. Helton’s harmonicas were still in the shack, his tune ran in Mrs. Thompson’s head at certain times of the day. She missed it in the evenings. It seemed so strange she had never known the name of that song, nor what it meant, until after Mr. Helton was gone. Mrs. Thompson, trembling in the knees, took a drink of water at the sink and poured the red beans into the baking dish, and began to roll the pieces of chicken in flour to fry them. There was a time, she said to herself, when I thought I had neighbors and friends, there was a time when we could hold up our heads, there was a time when my husband hadn’t killed a man and I could tell the truth to anybody about anything.

  Mr. Thompson, turning on his bed, figured that he had done all he could, he’d just try to let the matter rest from now on. His lawyer, Mr. Burleigh, had told him right at the beginning, “Now you keep calm and collected. You’ve got a fine case, even if you haven’t got witnesses. Your wife must sit in court, she’ll be a powerful argument with the jury. You just plead not guilty and I’ll do the rest. The trial is going to be a mere formality, you haven’t got a thing to worry about. You’ll be clean out of this before you know it.” And to make talk Mr. Burleigh had got to telling about all the men he knew around the country who for one reason or another had been forced to kill somebody, always in self-defense, and there just wasn’t anything to it at all. He even told about how his own father in the old days had shot and killed a man just for setting foot inside his gate when he told him not to. “Sure, I shot the scoundrel,” said Mr. Burleigh’s father, “in self-defense; I told him I’d shoot him if he set his foot in my yard, and he did, and I did.” There had been bad blood between them for years, Mr. Burleigh said, and his father had waited a long time to catch the other fellow in the wrong, and when he did he certainly made the most of his opportunity.

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