“Do you recollect Josh Harmon? Died up near Wheeling back in eighty-two.”
“Can’t say as I do.”
“’Course you do. A young feller ‘bout forty or so. Had them two mean boys and that good-lookin’ wife. Redhead.”
“Do you recollect him or not?”
“Seems like I ‘member his wife. She weren’t no redhead, though. Long brown hair.
“You ain’t listenin’.
“You ain’t told me nothin’ to listen at yet.”
“I’m tryin’ to tell you about Josh Harmon, drove a truck for old man Lucas.”
“You ain’t tryin’ none too hard.”
“I said you ain’t tryin’ none too hard to tell me about Josh Harmon.”
“Well go ahead then.”
“I was fixin’ to, but you won’t listen. Besides, if you don’t recollect him, ain’t no use for me to tell it.”
“Ain’t no need to yell at me, Pete. Go ahead and tell me the story. You reckon you’ll be done by dark? I ain’t sittin’ out here on the porch in the dark.”
“If’n it takes too long to tell it, I’ll go in and get the jug. I reckon you’ll sit out here in the dark if’n you got the jug.”
Pete smiled through his gray beard and waved a fly away from his face. He leaned his chair back on two legs and rested his head against the front wall of the three-room house. “Josh Harmon came in late one Friday night and parked old man Lucas’ dump truck in the front yard. Well, it weren’t a yard exactly. No grass. More like a mudflat in front of his house. A few weeds here and yon, but mud and weeds really don’t qualify as a…”
“Good grief, Pete. Just tell the dern story.” Lester Broggins dug into the front pocket of his overalls and came out with the makings for a cigarette. “It’s like livin’ with a jabber-jawed old woman.”
Pete ignored the comment. If Lester was going to roll a smoke, he had settled in to hear the tale. Except it was not a tale. As awful as it was, it was the truth. Hadn’t he heard it direct from Josh’s nephew?
“Josh was dead tired. He’d been working at the dam project since daybreak, loadin’, haulin’, dumpin’.”
“What damn project? And watch your mouth, Pete. What would Emmy have said if’n she heard such cussin’ right here on her front porch?”
“No, you idiot. I’m talking about the dam on Iron River.”
“Anyhow, Josh noticed right off there weren’t no lights on in the house. He figured his boys was still out gettin’ into their nightly mischief. He had no notion that they was layin’ in the bushes waitin’ on him to come home and go to bed. They was fixin’ to use the truck, you see, to go to town. They knew this scrawny girl what worked at the tobacco barn on Back Street, and they was gonna get up with her. Tom, that’s the older boy, he’d talked to her the week before, don’t you see, and...”
“The scrawny girl. She got anything to do with the story?”
“Well, not really.”
“I didn’t think so.”
“Well, alright then. Josh went in the house and turned on the lights. But instead of goin’ straight to bed, he opened a can of beans and lit a fire in the stove. Well, the boys saw all that through the window ‘cause Josh didn’t have no curtains. They fretted about the delay and figured if they waited for Josh to go to bed, the scrawny girl wouldn’t be where they was s’posed to meet up with her. So yeah, I reckon the scrawny girl figures in the story. Anyhow, Tom argued a little bit with his brother about what to do. Gary, that’s the younger one, he didn’t want to get caught stealin’ the truck, so he was stayin’ in the bushes ‘til it was safe. Tom reminded him ‘bout the scrawny girl waitin’ on them, and how they was gonna have a high time drinkin’ beer in the truck and maybe smoochin’ on her a little bit. That done it for Gary. He said he’d drive, but Tom thumped him up ‘side the head to get that notion about drivin’ out of his brain. Gary weren’t but fourteen, but Tom, he was seventeen.”
“So they stole the truck. Is that about it?”
“No, that ain’t about it. Them boys knew the keys were in the truck. Josh never took ‘em out. All they had to do was get the doors open real quiet like, crank the engine and take off. By the time Josh knew what was happenin’, it would be too late. Least ways that’s how they had it figured. Didn’t work out like that, though. They managed to get inside the truck all right but they had some trouble gettin’ it started. The motor was gruntin’ like it was flooded. Well, Josh heard it. He never thought about his own boys takin’ the truck. He figured somebody was tryin’ to steal it.”
Pete let his chair down to rest on all four legs. He leaned forward and stared off into the twilight.
“You see somethin’ out by the garden?” Lester asked.
Pete ran a hand through his beard.
“Pete, I’m talkin’ to you. What do you see? That groundhog back in the corn?”
“Naw. I was just rememberin’ what happened.”
“What did happen? You can’t just stop in the middle like that.”
Pete’s tone was lower now, as if he’d rather not be talking. “Josh heard the motor tryin’ to turn over. He came out the front door with a shotgun. Two barrels loaded with buckshot. He had been inside, you know, with the lights on and I reckon his eyes hadn’t adjusted to the darkness yet. He fired both barrels. Killed Gary outright. Took the top of his head off. Tom opened the driver’s door and stepped out. ‘Pa,’ he said. ‘You done kilt us.’ And he fell over in the mud.”
“You mean he shot his own young’uns? Killed ‘em?”
“Tom didn’t die. A lung got punctured and a piece of the windshield blinded him in one eye. But he didn’t die.”
“Lordy, that’s awful.”
“It gets worse. Tom laid in his bed nigh on to six weeks. Out of his head most of the time. Talked crazy. One night Josh heard him groanin’ so he went to check on him. Tom was sittin’ up in his bed talkin’ to somebody.”
“Who? Who was he talkin’ to?”
“He was talkin’ to Gary. But Gary weren’t there. But Tom was lookin’ at him, just as if he was sittin’ right there on the bed with him. He was talkin’ to him ‘bout the scrawny girl and the truck and Josh. Tom said how they ought to go ahead and kill their daddy so they could take the truck to town anytime they wanted to go.”
“He was talkin’ crazy.” Lester began to roll another smoke.
“Josh thought so to, until Tom says, ‘Okay. I’ll see you later.’ It was just about then that Josh got a whiff of somethin’ dead. It passed by where Josh was standin’ and he smelled the rotten stink on a little breeze, like someone had just walked by him. Tom laid back on the bed and closed his eyes, never once even looked at Josh.
“Two weeks passed and Tom was gettin’ his strength back. He was on his feet most of the time now, takin’ short walks outside. Josh saw him one mornin’ standin’ in front of the truck with his head cocked over to one side, starin’ out of his one good eye at the busted windshield. ‘Naw,’ Tom said as if speakin’ to somebody in the cab, ‘I’ll drive.’”
“He was likely still out of his head,” Lester said.
“Maybe, but he was sane enough when he weren’t talkin’ to Gary. He was doin’ some of the chores around the house, and he had several normal conversations with his daddy. Josh didn’t think he was rattled, not a’tall. Josh started to worry, thinkin’ maybe Gary really was out of his grave. Fact is, he got a shovel and went to look.”
“He meant to dig up his dead son?”
“Yep. It was in the mornin’ ‘bout ten o’clock. Sun was out bright but the day was cool, what with the seasons changin’. Anyhow, he started right into diggin’ and the diggin’ was easy ‘cause the dirt weren’t yet settled. He got down to the maple boards of the coffin before noon.”
“I ain’t never heard of such a thing. Diggin’ up your own kin.”
“Well, Josh done it. Or almost. Once he saw the coffin, he lost his nerve. Didn’t want to see his boy all rotten, I reckon. So he went on back to the house, leavin’ the grave open. He needed time to think about it, don’t you see. He needed a taste from the jug to clear his brain. Anyhow, he swallowed more’n a taste. He had eight or ten tastes. Went to sleep in the kitchen chair with his head plunked down on the table. When he woke up, it was near dark, ‘bout like it is now. Josh lit a lantern and went back up the hill. He meant to fill in the hole again and not go messin’ around the grave no more.”
Lester nodded as he pulled the tie string of his tobacco bag with his teeth. “Good choice, I reckon.”
“Didn’t work out like that, though. He put the lantern on the ground beside him and scooped up the first shovel full of dirt. Tossed it in, but he didn’t hear it hit the top of the box. He lowered the lantern a little ways into the grave for a look-see.” Pete paused for effect.
Lester waited, his lit match in his hand, his unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth.
Pete continued. “Weren’t nothin’ in the hole but dirt. No coffin, no corpse. Just nothin’.
“Tarnation,” said Lester.
“Josh couldn’t figure what the hell had happened while he was passed out in the kitchen. Somebody must have come along and stole off with Gary, the box and all. Least ways that’s what he figured. But how they got the box out and toted it off was a mystery. Weren’t no tracks in the dirt ‘ceptin his own. He went back to the house with his brain all fuddled from the whiskey and from what he’d seen. And who do you reckon was waitin’ on him in the front yard? Old man Lucas done come after his truck. He’d brought another feller with him to drive it back to town.”
“So,” said Lester, “if Lucas took his truck back, Tom and his dead brother wouldn’t be able to steal it. They wouldn’t have no reason to kill Josh. Ain’t that right?”
“Nope. Lucas was fumin’ about the busted windshield and the buckshot in the grill. He was mad ‘cause Josh hadn’t been into work. He wanted to know what had happened, but he was so mad he didn’t stick around to get an answer. He said he’d have to hire a tow truck to come and get the dump truck, and it being so big and all, it was gonna cost plenty to have it towed, and that money was comin’ out of Josh’s pay. He was still yellin’ when he left.”
“Josh went to bed. Went to sleep. Woke up before daylight, cravin’ another drink. The kitchen is perched ‘tween the two bedrooms, like ours. When he got in the kitchen, he looked over at Tom who ought to have been in the bed.”
“He weren’t there?”
“Well, I’m gettin’ to that. Josh couldn’t see too good in the dark even with the moonlight pourin’ in from Tom’s window. So he went closer. He seen Gary’s coffin laid up on the mattress. ‘What the hell?’ Josh says. He gets even closer. Now he’s looking right down on the lid. It’s still got dirt on it from the grave.
“Pete, I don’t much like sittin’ out here in the dark ‘specially with you talkin’ like that. I reckon I’ll go in and get the jug.”
“Don’t you wanna know if’’n he opened the coffin or not?”
“Naw, I don’t reckon I do.”
“He did open it. He had to fetch a claw hammer to get the nails out of the lid. When he threw it off, what do you reckon he seen?” Pete didn’t wait for Lester to answer. “It was Tom. Tom was laid out in the box dead as last year’s rye grass. His good eye was starin’ up at Josh and his other eye, the one what weren’t nothing but a socket, it was full of maggots and they had done spilled out on his face.”
“I’m going inside.”
“Well, it was all too much for Josh. He took off runnin’ into the woods. He come out on Dry Fork Road about four miles from town. It was gettin’ on toward dawn. Sheriff Lawson picked him up but couldn’t get no sense out of him. He figured he ought to get him to the clinic. The doctor there had him taken on up to the hospital at Wheeling. He died in the night still screamin’ ‘bout having kilt his own boys.”
“Did the sheriff go to the house?”
“He sure ‘nuff started to. He was going through town on his way there when he met the dump truck. He said the glass was busted out, and the two Harmon boys was in it, Tom driving. Some scrawny girl was sittin’ between them.”