The Old Man
The Old Man slowed the truck to a crawl as he neared the edge of the bluff. It was a fine place, he thought, as the truck’s engine stopped and the Old Man opened the door in one motion, allowing the early winds of a summer thunderstorm to hit him full in the face. From the bluff, he could see twenty miles to the east; a dotting of lights twinkled from small Tennessee River communities, farm houses and slow moving cars. The Old Man came to this high place often on summer nights, usually on his way home from the frog ponds on the plateau above his farm house. From this bluff he could see the lights of a dozen farms below, farms which provided the livelihoods of personal friends who loved this land as the Old Man did. Even from this high and distant vantage point, he felt a closeness to these people. As he turned back to the west, he saw the darker form of the storm moving loser. Lightning flashed forty miles in that direction, and the black dog that had been sitting patiently in the truck suddenly barked at the flash in the sky.
“Just lightning,” said the Old Man as he patted the head of the Lab, but the dog barked again, and quickly licked the Old Man’s right ear.
The Old Man looked three hundred yards below to the darkened form of his farmhouse and the large barn out back where so many of his grandchildren had build hay forts and spent countless laughing nights. He could make out the large lighted kitchen window and suddenly the vision of Sarah working at the sink became clear, clear as yesterday. How many nights had the Old Man seen her working at that lighted window as he returned to the house from the barn. He remembered stopping and watching from the darkness outside. He remembered loving her . . . . .
There was a flicker in the window; an interruption of the light; a blinking of the window’s eye. The Old Man’s heart skipped a beat, then lurched into a rapid rhythm. He strained to see the flicker again, like searching deer’s ear in a honeysuckle patch. It came again, slower this time, and the Old Man knew. It wasn’t Sarah in the window light. Sarah had been gone a long time. It wasn’t Sarah in the window.
The Old Man stepped from the truck and reached behind the seat. The little carbine slid out easily and the Old Man checked the magazine, reinserted it, and chambered the first of thirty rounds. There was a familiar “clink.” Sam Kenton patted the black dog gently on the head, quietly shut the truck door, and disappeared into the darkness, as he made his way silently down the trail that led to his house.
Pike Nichols found a banana in the kitchen of the farmhouse, quickly peeled and ate it, and threw the yellow remains to the floor. He opened a cabinet, and while looking for a drink of whiskey, knocked glasses to the stove top where they shattered against the electric eyes. Opening the refrigerator, he found a gallon of sweet milk and took a long drink from its container. He belched and wiped his mouth with the back of his arm. He then returned to the den where the Old Man’s guns had been tied together with a small rope. Pike Nichols slung two bundles of the tethered guns over his right shoulder and started for the opening where the front door used to be, before the sledge hammer had ripped it from its hinges. A portion of his massive belly showed between the top of his jeans and the too small black T-shirt.
As he stepped from the porch at the corner of the house, the carbine barrel was suddenly pressing forcefully under his left jaw, just under his ear. Pike Nichols froze, blinking wildly in apprehension.
“What do you see?” whispered the Old Man.
The fat man couldn’t speak.
“I said, what do you see?” repeated Sam Kenton as he forced the steel barrel harder against the neck in front of him.
“I don’t see nothin!” blurted the thief.
“What do you hear?” continued the Old Man. His voice was calm.
“I don’t hear nothin.”
“That’s right,” said the Old Man. “I reckon that means that there ain’t nobody around, except you and me, and if I pull this trigger. . . .
“Don’t” . . . pleaded the fat man. “. . . please don’t.”
“Let’s get one thing real straight, Mister. I don’t figure you and me got one single thing in common, you being a common, low-down, stinkin’ bag of filth and all . . . except death. We’re both gonna die at one time or another. We both understand dyin’, now don’t we?”
The thief blinked wildly, and his head was now grotesquely angled away from the gun barrel that followed his neck wherever it moved.
The Old Man continued. “You do exactly as I say. Exactly as I tell you, or so help me Mister, I’m gonna shoot you graveyard dead without a hint of regret. Do you understand?”
“Turn around and head back in the house.”
The Old Man followed the thief into the house where the full light allowed each man to really see the other. The Old Man felt a twinge of nausea at the sight of destruction in his house. He went to the empty gun cabinet and retrieved a pair of handcuffs that had been saved from his game warden days. The Old Man threw the handcuffs at the feet of the intruder.
“Lay my guns gently on the sofa and put the handcuffs on.”
Pike lowered the guns to the sofa. The Old Man watched from ten feet away.
“Now listen old man, why don’t you just lower that little gun and we’ll talk this thing out. I don’t want you hurt or nothin’ with this excitement, why you might suffer a heart attack or something.”
There was silence for a moment. “Put’em on,” said the Old Man.
The fat man started toward the Old Man. “No way, old man. You ain’t sending me to jail. I don’t think you’ve got the guts to pull that trigger, and even if you do, you think that little carbine is gonna stop me ‘fore I break your scrawny neck! I ain’t puttin’ them cuffs on cause you’re bluff . . .”
The Old Man fired three times at the feet of the man who was talking. The report of the little gun was deafening inside the house, and the thief’s knees slammed against the floor as he grabbed for the handcuffs and enclosed them around his wrists.
“Tighter!” yelled the Old Man, and the clicks came quickly from the cuffs as they were tightened. The fan man’s hands trembled violently.
The Old Man picked up the phone and dialed the Sheriff.
“Yessir . . this is Sam Kenton . . . just fine, Harvey . . . how ‘bout you . . . listen, wonder if you could send a car out here to my place. I’ve caught a man tryin’ to steal all my guns . . . yea . . No, I haven’t shot him yet . . hold on a second.. . .”
The Old Man lowered the phone.
“Sheriff wants to know your name.”
The thief was still kneeling on the floor.
“Says his name is Pike Nichols,” continued the Old Man into the phone. “Go ahead and kill him, you say . . Well, I’ll study on it. . . Thanks Sheriff . . Bye.”
The Old Man sat in his reading chair with the carbine resting in his lap.
“Why me?” questioned the Old Man.
“I don’t know. Didn’t figure you’d catch me. Everybody knows how much you hunt and stuff and figured you had a bunch of guns.”
“How long have you been watching my house?”
“Two days. Parked my van over in them woods and watched from there.”
“And you’d just sell stolen guns for money, is that right?”
“How much you reckon you could sell that old-timey gun for over there?”
“That one?’ The thief pointed with handcuffed wrists to the oil stained flintlock rifle, handmade by Henry Jacobs. “Oh, not much. Can’t sell them kind for much, being so old an’ all. People like to hang ‘em over their fireplaces. Thirty or forty dollars, I guess.”
The Old Man sighed, and his hands, for the first time, began to shake.
“That rifle . . was hand made a little over a year ago by a friend of mine. It took him nine months . . to”
And the Old Man’s voice broke.
“Nine months . . with his bare hands he worked the wood . . I saw blisters on his hands . . and he gave me the rifle. He gave it to me.”
“. . . And that old Stevens .22. it was my brother’s before he died. . . And the old rabbit-eared double-barrel was my father’s. They were both good hunters . . the little Ithaca double I have used on quail for thirty years now. . .”
The Old Man wiped his forehead.
“And you just walk in and take them away, like they were ripe berries for the picking. This house, when Sarah was alive, was kept real neat. She loved this old house . . . and the children would run through these rooms and out in the yard a laughin’ and carryin; on . . . And when the boys got older we’d get the guns you’ve got tied in that bundle . . . And we’d go huntin’ quail or rabbits . . .”
The Old Man stopped. He looked at the man on the floor who was staring straight ahead.
“Do you know about any of these things I’m talkin’ about?”
The fat man looked at him. “I don’t know nothin’ ‘cept you’re ramblin on like a crazy man. Makes no sense to me.”
The Old Man’s hand went to the heavy glass ash tray at the end table by his chair, and in one motion it was sailing like a fast ball toward the intruder. It hit him square in the chest and knocked him sprawling backwards into the wall. The Old Man was on him before he recovered. He grabbed a head full of hair in his left hand and raised the fallen man from the floor.
“I’m talkin’ about rape! Do you understand rape? . . The raping of a house and its memories!”
Pike Nichols was breathing hard and trying not to look into the face of this enraged old man.
“Look at me!” shouted the Old Man as he forced the thief’s eyes into his own.
Blue lights from the Sheriff’s car reflected off the walls in the den. The Old Man could hear the car’s radio through the hole where his front door used to be. He continued in a whisper.
“Never . . . Never . . . Let these old eyes fall on your face again . . Never?”
He released the man’s hair and turned as Harvey entered the door.
“You all right, Sam?”
“I’m fine, Sheriff . . considering.”
Two deputies entered the room and drug Pike Nichols to his feet, before escorting him outside.
“I’ll need you to come to town later on and swear out the warrants, Sam.”
“Sure thing,” said the Old Man as he walked to the porch. Thunder crashed for the first time.
“Gonna come a good one, I believe, Sam.”
The Old Man looked up at the lightning flash to the west. He could smell the water in the air.
“We need a good rain, Harvey. Sometimes a good rain just makes everything seem so much cleaner. You ever notice that?”
Harvey patted the Old Man on the shoulder.
“You all right, Sam?”
They looked at each other through the alternating flashes of blue.
“For the first time in many years Harvey, I’m not sure if I handled it right. I almost played it different.”
Harvey lighted a Marlboro. “It doesn’t matter how you handle it, Sam. Neither way helps the feeling of being violated. And you have been violated here tonight. Only time helps. I know, . . .’cause I’ve played it both ways. You take care Sam.”
The two cars left as the rain began. The Old Man sat on the porch steps for a long time. Finally, he picked up the carbine, and started out up the trail to the bluff, where his dog was curled up asleep in the old truck’s front seat. He reckoned he might just sleep up there tonight. Tomorrow, after the rain, he’d start out fresh.