The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
“But Mr. Hatch, as I told you,” Mr. Thompson had said, “made a pass at Mr. Helton with his bowie knife. That’s why I took a hand.”
“All the better,” said Mr. Burleigh. “That stranger hadn’t any right coming to your house on such an errand. Why, hell,” said Mr. Burleigh, “that wasn’t even manslaughter you committed. So now you just hold your horses and keep your shirt on. And don’t say one word without I tell you.”
Wasn’t even manslaughter. Mr. Thompson had to cover Mr. Hatch with a piece of wagon canvas and ride to town to tell the sheriff. It had been hard on Ellie. When they got back, the sheriff and the coroner and two deputies, they found her sitting beside the road, on a low bridge over a gulley, about half a mile from the place. He had taken her up behind his saddle and got her back to the house. He had already told the sheriff that his wife had witnessed the whole business, and now he had time, getting her to her room and in bed, to tell her what to say if they asked anything. He had left out the part about Mr. Helton being crazy all along, but it came out at the trial. By Mr. Burleigh’s advice Mr. Thompson had pretended to be perfectly ignorant; Mr. Hatch hadn’t said a word about that. Mr. Thompson pretended to believe that Mr. Hatch had just come looking for Mr. Helton to settle old scores, and the two members of Mr. Hatch’s family who had come down to try to get Mr. Thompson convicted didn’t get anywhere at all. It hadn’t been much of a trial, Mr. Burleigh saw to that. He had charged a reasonable fee, and Mr. Thompson had paid him and felt grateful, but after it was over Mr. Burleigh didn’t seem pleased to see him when he got to dropping into the office to talk it over, telling him things that had slipped his mind at first: trying to explain what an ornery low hound Mr. Hatch had been, anyhow. Mr. Burleigh seemed to have lost his interest; he looked sour and upset when he saw Mr. Thompson at the door. Mr. Thompson kept saying to himself that he’d got off, all right, just as Mr. Burleigh had predicted, but, but—and it was right there that Mr. Thompson’s mind stuck, squirming like an angleworm on a fishhook: he had killed Mr. Hatch, and he was a murderer. That was the truth about himself that Mr. Thompson couldn’t grasp, even when he said the word to himself. Why, he had not even once thought of killing anybody, much less Mr. Hatch, and if Mr. Helton hadn’t come out so unexpectedly, hearing the row, why, then—but then, Mr. Helton had come on the run that way to help him. What he couldn’t understand was what happened next. He had seen Mr. Hatch go after Mr. Helton with the knife, he had seen the point, blade up, go into Mr. Helton’s stomach and slice up like you slice a hog, but when they finally caught Mr. Helton there wasn’t a knife scratch on him. Mr. Thompson knew he had the ax in his own hands and felt himself lifting it, but he couldn’t remember hitting Mr. Hatch. He couldn’t remember it. He couldn’t. He remembered only that he had been determined to stop Mr. Hatch from cutting Mr. Helton. If he was given a chance he could explain the whole matter. At the trial they hadn’t let him talk. They just asked questions and he answered yes or no, and they never did get to the core of the matter. Since the trial, now, every day for a week he had washed and shaved and put on his best clothes and had taken Ellie with him to tell every neighbor he had that he never killed Mr. Hatch on purpose, and what good did it do? Nobody believed him. Even when he turned to Ellie and said, “You was there, you saw it, didn’t you?” and Ellie spoke up, saying, “Yes, that’s the truth. Mr. Thompson was trying to save Mr. Helton’s life,” and he added, “If you don’t believe me, you can believe my wife. She won’t lie,” Mr. Thompson saw something in all their faces that disheartened him, made him feel empty and tired out. They didn’t believe he was not a murderer.
Even Ellie never said anything to comfort him. He hoped she would say finally, “I remember now, Mr. Thompson, I really did come round the corner in time to see everything. It’s not a lie, Mr. Thompson. Don’t you worry.” But as they drove together in silence, with the days still hot and dry, shortening for fall, day after day, the buggy jolting in the ruts, she said nothing; they grew to dread the sight of another house, and the people in it: all houses looked alike now, and the people—old neighbors or new—had the same expression when Mr. Thompson told them why he had come and began his story. Their eyes looked as if someone had pinched the eyeball at the back; they shriveled and the light went out of them. Some of them sat with fixed tight smiles trying to be friendly. “Yes, Mr. Thompson, we know how you must feel. It must be terrible for you, Mrs. Thompson. Yes, you know, I’ve about come to the point where I believe in such a thing as killing in self-defense. Why, certainly, we believe you, Mr. Thompson, why shouldn’t we believe you? Didn’t you have a perfectly fair and aboveboard trial? Well, now, natchally, Mr. Thompson, we think you done right.”
Mr. Thompson was satisfied they didn’t think so. Sometimes the air around him was so thick with their blame he fought and pushed with his fists, and the sweat broke out all over him, he shouted his story in a dust-choked voice, he would fairly bellow at last: “My wife, here, you know her, she was there, she saw and heard it all, if you don’t believe me, ask her, she won’t lie!” and Mrs. Thompson, with her hands knotted together, aching, her chin trembling, would never fail to say: “Yes, that’s right, that’s the truth—”
The last straw had been laid on today, Mr. Thompson decided. Tom Allbright, an old beau of Ellie’s, why, he had squired Ellie around a whole summer, had come out to meet them when they drove up, and standing there bareheaded had stopped them from getting out. He had looked past them with an embarrassed frown on his face, telling them his wife’s sister was there with a raft of young ones, and the house was pretty full and everything upset, or he’d ask them to come in. “We’ve been thinking of trying to get up to your place one of these days,” said Mr. Allbright, moving away trying to look busy, “we’ve been mighty occupied up here of late.” So they had to say, “Well, we just happened to be driving this way,” and go on. “The Allbrights,” said Mrs. Thompson, “always was fair-weather friends.” “They look out for number one, that’s a fact,” said Mr. Thompson. But it was cold comfort to them both.
Finally Mrs. Thompson had given up. “Let’s go home,” she said. “Old Jim’s tired and thirsty, and we’ve gone far enough.”
Mr. Thompson said, “Well, while we’re out this way, we might as well stop at the McClellans’.” They drove in, and asked a little cotton-haired boy if his mamma and papa were at home. Mr. Thompson wanted to see them. The little boy stood gazing with his mouth open, then galloped into the house shouting, “Mommer, Popper, come out hyah. That man that kilt Mr. Hatch has come ter see yer!”
The man came out in his sock feet, with one gallus up, the other broken and dangling, and said, “Light down, Mr. Thompson, and come in. The ole woman’s washing, but she’ll git here.” Mrs. Thompson, feeling her way, stepped down and sat in a broken rocking-chair on the porch that sagged under her feet. The woman of the house, barefooted, in a calico wrapper, sat on the edge of the porch, her fat sallow face full of curiosity. Mr. Thompson began, “Well, as I reckon you happen to know, I’ve had some strange troubles lately, and, as the feller says, it’s not the kind of trouble that happens to a man every day in the year, and there’s some things I don’t want no misunderstanding about in the neighbors’ minds, so—” He halted and stumbled forward, and the two listening faces took on a mean look, a greedy, despising look, a look that said plain as day, “My, you must be a purty sorry feller to come round worrying about what we think, we know you wouldn’t be here if you had anybody else to turn to—my, I wouldn’t lower myself that much, myself.” Mr. Thompson was ashamed of himself, he was suddenly in a rage, he’d like to knock their dirty skunk heads together, the low-down white trash—but he held himself down and went on to the end. “My wife will tell you,” he said, and this was the hardest place, because Ellie always without moving a muscle seemed to stiffen as if somebody had threatened to hit her; “ask my wife, she won’t lie.”
“It’s true, I saw it—”
“Well, now,” said the man, drily, scratching hi
“Evvybody goin’ round shootin’ they heads off,” said the woman. “Now we don’t hold with killin’; the Bible says—”
“Shet yer trap,” said the man, “and keep it shet ’r I’ll shet it fer yer. Now it shore looks like to me—”
“We mustn’t linger,” said Mrs. Thompson, unclasping her hands. “We’ve lingered too long now. It’s getting late, and we’ve far to go.” Mr. Thompson took the hint and followed her. The man and the woman lolled against their rickety porch poles and watched them go.
Now lying on his bed, Mr. Thompson knew the end had come. Now, this minute, lying in the bed where he had slept with Ellie for eighteen years; under this roof where he had laid the shingles when he was waiting to get married; there as he was with his whiskers already sprouting since his shave that morning; with his fingers feeling his bony chin, Mr. Thompson felt he was a dead man. He was dead to his other life, he had got to the end of something without knowing why, and he had to make a fresh start, he did not know how. Something different was going to begin, he didn’t know what. It was in some way not his business. He didn’t feel he was going to have much to do with it. He got up, aching, hollow, and went out to the kitchen where Mrs. Thompson was just taking up the supper.
“Call the boys,” said Mrs. Thompson. They had been down to the barn, and Arthur put out the lantern before hanging it on a nail near the door. Mr. Thompson didn’t like their silence. They had hardly said a word about anything to him since that day. They seemed to avoid him, they ran the place together as if he wasn’t there, and attended to everything without asking him for any advice. “What you boys been up to?” he asked, trying to be hearty. “Finishing your chores?”
“No, sir,” said Arthur, “there ain’t much to do. Just greasing some axles.” Herbert said nothing. Mrs. Thompson bowed her head: “For these and all Thy blessings. . . . Amen,” she whispered weakly, and the Thompsons sat there with their eyes down and their faces sorrowful, as if they were at a funeral.
Every time he shut his eyes, trying to sleep, Mr. Thompson’s mind started up and began to run like a rabbit, it jumped from one thing to another, trying to pick up a trail here or there that would straighten out what had happened that day he killed Mr. Hatch. Try as he might, Mr. Thompson’s mind would not go anywhere that it had not already been, he could not see anything but what he had seen once, and he knew that was not right. If he had not seen straight that first time, then everything about his killing Mr. Hatch was wrong from start to finish, and there was nothing more to be done about it, he might just as well give up. It still seemed to him that he had done, maybe not the right thing, but the only thing he could do, that day, but had he? Did he have to kill Mr. Hatch? He had never seen a man he hated more, the minute he laid eyes on him. He knew in his bones the fellow was there for trouble. What seemed so funny now was this: Why hadn’t he just told Mr. Hatch to get out before he ever even got in?
Mrs. Thompson, her arms crossed on her breast, was lying beside him, perfectly still, but she seemed awake, somehow. “Asleep, Ellie?”
After all, he might have got rid of him peaceably, or maybe he might have had to overpower him and put those handcuffs on him and turn him over to the sheriff for disturbing the peace. The most they could have done was to lock Mr. Hatch up while he cooled off for a few days, or fine him a little something. He would try to think of things he might have said to Mr. Hatch. Why, let’s see, I could just have said, Now look here, Mr. Hatch, I want to talk to you as man to man. But his brain would go empty. What could he have said or done? But if he could have done anything else almost except kill Mr. Hatch, then nothing would have happened to Mr. Helton. Mr. Thompson hardly ever thought of Mr. Helton. His mind just skipped over him and went on. If he stopped to think about Mr. Helton he’d never in God’s world get anywhere. He tried to imagine how it might all have been, this very night even, if Mr. Helton were still safe and sound out in his shack playing his tune about feeling so good in the morning, drinking up all the wine so you’d feel even better; and Mr. Hatch safe in jail somewhere, mad as hops, maybe, but out of harm’s way and ready to listen to reason and to repent of his meanness, the dirty, yellow-livered hound coming around persecuting an innocent man and ruining a whole family that never harmed him! Mr. Thompson felt the veins of his forehead start up, his fists clutched as if they seized an ax handle, the sweat broke out on him, he bounded up from the bed with a yell smothered in his throat, and Ellie started up after him, crying out, “Oh, oh, don’t! Don’t! Don’t!” as if she were having a nightmare. He stood shaking until his bones rattled in him, crying hoarsely, “Light the lamp, light the lamp, Ellie.”
Instead, Mrs. Thompson gave a shrill weak scream, almost the same scream he had heard on that day she came around the house when he was standing there with the ax in his hand. He could not see her in the dark, but she was on the bed, rolling violently. He felt for her in horror, and his groping hands found her arms, up, and her own hands pulling her hair straight out from her head, her neck strained back, and the tight screams strangling her. He shouted out for Arthur, for Herbert. “Your mother!” he bawled, his voice cracking. As he held Mrs. Thompson’s arms, the boys came tumbling in, Arthur with the lamp above his head. By this light Mr. Thompson saw Mrs. Thompson’s eyes, wide open, staring dreadfully at him, the tears pouring. She sat up at sight of the boys, and held out one arm towards them, the hand wagging in a crazy circle, then dropped on her back again, and suddenly went limp. Arthur set the lamp on the table and turned on Mr. Thompson. “She’s scared,” he said, “she’s scared to death.” His face was in a knot of rage, his fists were doubled up, he faced his father as if he meant to strike him. Mr. Thompson’s jaw fell, he was so surprised he stepped back from the bed. Herbert went to the other side. They stood on each side of Mrs. Thompson and watched Mr. Thompson as if he were a dangerous wild beast. “What did you do to her?” shouted Arthur, in a grown man’s voice. “You touch her again and I’ll blow your heart out!” Herbert was pale and his cheek twitched, but he was on Arthur’s side; he would do what he could to help Arthur.
Mr. Thompson had no fight left in him. His knees bent as he stood, his chest collapsed. “Why, Arthur,” he said, his words crumbling and his breath coming short. “She’s fainted again. Get the ammonia.” Arthur did not move. Herbert brought the bottle, and handed it, shrinking, to his father.
Mr. Thompson held it under Mrs. Thompson’s nose. He poured a little in the palm of his hand and rubbed it on her forehead. She gasped and opened her eyes and turned her head away from him. Herbert began a doleful hopeless sniffling. “Mamma,” he kept saying, “Mamma, don’t die.”
“I’m all right,” Mrs. Thompson said. “Now don’t you worry around. Now Herbert, you mustn’t do that. I’m all right.” She closed her eyes. Mr. Thompson began pulling on his best pants; he put on his socks and shoes. The boys sat on each side of the bed, watching Mrs. Thompson’s face. Mr. Thompson put on his shirt and coat. He said, “I reckon I’ll ride over and get the doctor. Don’t look like all this fainting is a good sign. Now you just keep watch until I get back.” They listened, but said nothing. He said, “Don’t you get any notions in your head. I never did your mother any harm in my life, on purpose.” He went out, and, looking back, saw Herbert staring at him from under his brows, like a stranger. “You’ll know how to look after her,” said Mr. Thompson.
Mr. Thompson went through the kitchen. There he lighted the lantern, took a thin pad of scratch paper and a stub pencil from the shelf where the boys kept their schoolbooks. He swung the lantern o
“Before Almighty God, the great judge of all before who I am about to appear, I do hereby solemnly swear that I did not take the life of Mr. Homer T. Hatch on purpose. It was done in defense of Mr. Helton. I did not aim to hit him with the ax but only to keep him off Mr. Helton. He aimed a blow at Mr. Helton who was not looking for it. It was my belief at the time that Mr. Hatch would of taken the life of Mr. Helton if I did not interfere. I have told all this to the judge and the jury and they let me off but nobody believes it. This is the only way I can prove I am not a cold blooded murderer like everybody seems to think. If I had been in Mr. Helton’s place he would of done the same for me. I still think I done the only thing there was to do. My wife—”