The Heflin general store sold fine calico fabric, peppermint candy, oranges, and Barlow pocket knives. These goods would make a fine Christmas for Zachariah’s family. Dawn was just breaking. Heflin was a three hour mule ride from Macedonia, so Zacharia wanted to get started just after breakfast.
Almost a year to the day earlier, Zachariah had made the same trip to Heflin, where he handed the old man who owned most of the southern half of the country a bundle of bills wrapped in old newsprint. The old man produced a yellowed paper. Zachariah and the old man shook hands and signed the document. He then took the document to the courthouse and paid a small fee. The farm was his, 120 acres, two houses and a large barn. When he returned home, his wife had opened a large Mason jar of peaches she had canned in August and made a cobbler. Zachariah, his wife, his son, and his two daughters prayed thankfully across the plank table, poured cream over the hot fruit and thick crust, and ate by lamp light. They stayed up almost all that night by the crackling logs in the large stone fireplace singing songs and laughing. They didn’t fall asleep till almost dawn.
Zachariah saddled his iron grey mule and counted his Christmas money. The skin on his fingers was too thick to feel the texture of the bills. All of his family had calloused fingertips, even his wife and children. For the first time, the family gleaned the remnant cotton from a winter field that didn’t belong to another man. They had sharecropper hands, but the mud on their brogans was theirs. The Christmas bills in Zachariah’s hand were his. The shotgun house he and his family lived in was his. The giant old sagging house across the creek where his parents, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews lived was his as well.
As Zachariah prepared for his journey, his brothers, Richard and Alford, were just returning from the spring-water still where they made the clear liquor that supplemented their winter income. They spent part of the night making the product by lantern light and part of the night drinking their profits. The boys did three things: they made whiskey; they drank whisky, and they quarreled. Sometimes the arguments were no more than blasphemous curses, oaths, and threats. Sometimes they exchanged awkward blows and then passed out near the copper boiler. They argued, mostly about money, and about liquor. Richard often accused Alford of selling whiskey to his customers for an inflated price and then not splitting the profits evenly. Alford accused Richard of watering down the product. Both accusations were more or less true.
Recently, they had begun to argue about something very different. Richard didn’t like the way Alford looked at his wife when she passed. Alford was unmarried. He was younger than Richard, the same age as the wife.The wife was pretty. Alford was handsome. Richard was not. At night the entire family, even the children, could hear Richard beating the wife. Richard didn’t like the way she looked at Alford either.
Now the drunkard siblings squared off under the leafless water oak in front of the sagging old house. Their father stood between them. The rest of the family watched from the porch.
Zachariah had almost crested the hill going northwest toward Heflin when he heard the shot. He turned the iron grey mule and rode south as fast as a plow mule could run.
The father lay on the ground where Rich had pushed him. The brothers stood some twenty paces apart and fired their single action revolvers. The inside of Alford’s thigh leaked a steady stream. Richard’s chest leaked likewise. Still the two aimed awkwardly and fired. Zachariah rode his mule between the two. A shot stuck the mule in the neck. The mule bucked, reared, threw him in the dewy grass, and ran away. The brothers continued to fire. Zachariah stepped between them, his coat wet from the dew. A bullet struck him just above the right eye. The revolvers were empty. Richard coughed once, fell, and died without further struggle. Alford shuffled backwards toward the porch and stumbled. The father tried to stop the flow, but Alford was already pale. The mule crossed the ridge and died in the lower field of the old man who owned much of the county.
Zachariah lay on his back. His eyes were closed. He breathed slowly and steadily. His father took him in, made a pallet of quilts on the plank floor before the fireplace and laid him on it. His mother bandaged his wound with torn feed-sack bed sheets. The blood soaked through the wrappings, first red and then black. His wife, his son and his two girls came to watch him breathe, to hold his hands, to touch his face, to pray, and to weep. He stopped breathing just before dawn.
The next winter, the wife and children with their calloused fingers gleaned the remnant cotton from the same winter field, but the mud on their brogans wasn’t theirs.
Alan Caldwell lives in Carroll County, Georgia, but is working on moving to his rural property in the mountains of Northeast Alabama. He has been married to his lovely wife, Brandi, for 35 years. He has one son, Caleb, who is a firefighter, a daughter-in-law, Chelsee, who is an emergency room nurse, and a grandson, Asher. Alan has been teaching for 29 years and spends much of his free time outdoors or reading. Alan has been collecting stories, mostly about his family, for over 40 years, but has just begun writing them.