Lester Burdett sat on his sagging front porch staring out at a barren patch of yard and a red-dirt road beyond. He was confident that sooner or later the hound dog he was waiting for would show up to spread his scent on the leafless chinaberry tree at the edge of his property. A full moon lit up the landscape like near daylight. He lifted a half-empty gallon jug of moonshine and took a long pull. His gut reacted with a warm rush and his head with a welcome dullness. The Springfield rifle passed down from his daddy was ready on his lap. “I’m gonna kill that sumbitch tonight if ever I was,” he said to no one but himself, then took another swig before setting the jug back down on the splintery floor.
A little later, Old Mister Jackson’s Bluetick coonhound Baldy came trotting along the road making a beeline for Lester’s chinaberry tree. But before Baldy got close enough to lift his leg, Lester spotted him, lifted the rifle to his shoulder, aimed, pulled the trigger. A puff of dirt erupted well behind the hound and the crack of the shot echoed in the humid air.
Baldy had barely broke into a fast run before Lester got off another round, missing the dog and disappearing into the night.
“Damn that dog! I’ll get that sumbitch yet,” Lester said to himself as he reached for the jug.
Elsie Whyte sat rocking in her rickety rocker as close to the kerosene heater as she thought was safe. A faded patchwork quilt covered her lap and a worn bible was enfolded in her raw, chapped hands. The last chorus of the closing number on the Grand Ole Opry was fighting a storm of static on an ancient radio sitting on an upended wooden crate next to her. Suddenly, the rude shack’s door flew open and her husband Roy Bob stumbled in, his rancid body stench preceded by the fog of his whisky-saturated breath.
“What the hell you doin’ using up the kerosene?” he bellowed. “I told you to stay in bed when it turns cold. You ain’t got the sense of a damn grasshopper. Don’t you never pay no attention to nothing I say?” He lurched closer and slapped her hard across her face, knocking her sideways off the chair. He glanced at her lying face-down on the smooth-worn pine-board floor, then spun around and went back through the open door.
“I gotta pee,” he said, his words slurred and strung out by the drink. He stood at the edge of the porch and with difficulty unbuttoned his trousers. But before he could satisfy his urge, a .30-06 slug entered his right eye and exploded out the back of his skull. He collapsed into the tall weeds that had overtaken the sunflowers Elsie had planted the previous spring. Half-unconscious on the floor inside, Elsie didn’t hear the shot.
Midmorning the next day she found Lester’s body, stiff, cold, and nearly concealed by a jumble of dense green.
It was three days later when Lester Burdett caught up with Elsie on the rutted road as she walked up the hill that gave rise to the flat fields where their shacks were located, separated one from the other by no more than a hundred yards or so.
Elsie hadn’t lingered at the cemetery after Roy Bob’s coffin was lowered into the grave since his relatives didn’t have much use for her and didn’t invite her to the visitation at Roy Bob’s cousin Dora Jean’s house. In private, his kinfolk claimed that Elsie wasn’t up to their level: didn’t even attend the Baptist church. But she didn’t care what they thought, since half of them couldn’t even read, let alone admit that Roy Bob had been a sadistic bully and drank more than his share of moonshine for as long as could be remembered. She never would have married him if it had been up to her. When she was fourteen, her father forced her on Roy Bob in trade for a team of mules, and her life had been pure hell from that time on. But although she was free of that monster, she had no way to survive without the income he brought in from farm labor and occasional thievery. She saw the horror of the county poorhouse as her only option and was in a dark mood.
“Right nice day,” he offered.
“Is it? Could be better. Some warmer too . . . but it is nice to have the sun.”
“How you gettin’ on?” he asked.
‘I ain’t sad about Roy Bob, if that’s what you’re wantin’ to know.”
“I’m surely sorry about what happened,” he said.
“I hear tell Judge Popper ain’t gonna charge you for nothing. Is that right?”
“An accident. He said that’s what it was. Won’t be no charge.”
After a moment, Elsie said, “Well . . . it didn’t do me no harm, cepting I’ll be going to the county poorhouse. But that surely can’t be no worse than livin’ with Roy Bob was.”
“Can’t you get something by selling your shack and land?” Lester asked.
“It ain’t mine. Roy Bob left it to Dora Jean. She said I gotta be out next week. He was a mean one if ever there was. Like all them Whytes is. Always have been, always will be. Meanness is in their blood.”
They walked on in silence. The sweet songs of red-winged blackbirds were the only sounds interrupting the morning stillness.
Finally, Lester spoke again. “How ‘bout you come live with me. I always did have a hankering for you. I got a little money coming in from my veteran’s pension. And my melon patch earns some. I ain’t gonna drink no more, either. After what happened with Roy Bob. . . .” He paused, then added, “I’d be good to you.”
She stopped and turned to him. “You want me to marry you?” she asked, unable to hide her surprise.
“It’d be better than a cot in the county house,” he replied.
“Well, I’ll be,” she said. After walking on a ways, she glanced back at him and said, “I ain’t gonna be your slave-woman, if that’s what you’re after.”
“I don’t expect no such thing. I been on my own long enough to know how to take of myself. That ain’t what I want.”
“Well then. What is it you want?” she asked.
“Just you, that’s all. Just you.”
Elsie looked away and smiled, the first in many years, then said, “I’d like to have some chickens, and grow some sunflowers. And a new radio. And you gotta quit shooting at Mister Jackson’s coonhound.”
“That sounds awful like a bribe,” he said, a grin taking shape on his stubbled face.
“Well, I suppose it is. But then, there ain’t hardly nuthin’ good that’s free. Least of all, not me.”