“Almost all,” she thought wistfully, studying the small family
portrait in her lap. There they all
were, nine years ago. Pa and Ma,
looking younger, and she and her two brothers in their pre-teens.
Yes, they were all hard men except for her brother, Chester.
Where was he now?
Julie smoothed the quilt on her small bed and let her eyes rove for
the thousandth time over the walls of her tiny bedroom.
A few pictures that she herself had painted hung uneasily on the round
logs. In the corner a homemade pine
dresser held all her earthly possessions. On
its top sat a small mirror, handed down for three generations.
It was fogged the color of charcoal around the edges, but her pretty face
still reflected back from its center when she fixed her hair each morning.
Her eyes wandered back to Chester’s features.
They seemed so delicate and fine compared to Pa’s craggy face and
brother Bruno’s square jaw. At the
age of 15 Chester had been caught asleep and nude in a hayloft with another boy
from the hollow. It was an
abomination to the code that the men of those parts lived by.
Men had actually been killed for being “queer,” and indeed the other
youth had disappeared without a trace. Chester
had been spared from death, possibly because of Ma’s intervention.
But if that were the case, his mother couldn’t manage to buy him
anything more than that. Pa had
disowned Chester and banished him from the mountains forever.
And so Chester had packed his few things and disappeared seven years ago.
Julie missed him sorely at first.
After his departure, brother Bruno became even more determined to hold
her at arm’s length. At puberty he
even began taking a hard line toward Ma. At
first Julie had waited for her mother to slap him down.
But Ma had changed too, and slowly began deferring to him almost as much
as she did to Pa.
The blot on Julie’s family was no secret by the time Rafe began
courting her. But, perhaps because
he found her to be so pretty, Rafe had been undeterred in his pursuit of her.
Every Saturday night he had shown up on the cabin’s front stoop, a
squirrel rifle cradled in one strong arm and his dog Shep at his side.
He had acknowledged Chester only once, when Julie had shown him the
“So that’s Pretty Boy,” he had muttered.
“He got off easy. Men have
been killed fer less in these here hills.”
Julie had pondered Rafe’s words in the months that followed.
What other acts were killing offenses?
Adultery was certainly one, as was rape.
And time had shown that both lives were forfeit when a white woman
willingly lay with a black man. Much
of it seems backward and harsh now, but it was the code that these people lived
by, and Julie did not think less of Rafe for his remark.
Nonetheless, along with her mother she held the memory of Chester in a
tender corner of her heart.
Julie (and just as importantly) Pa accepted Rafe’s proposal, and
so in due course the two were wed. Rafe
owned his own farm, inherited from his father who died of the flu.
Indeed Rafe’s own family was not without its shame.
When his mother died only weeks after influenza had claimed his father,
it was widely believed that she had taken poison.
But, given the meager medical facilities in those parts, an autopsy was
not even considered and Doc Johnson had listed “Grief” on her death
Rafe’s home was of frame construction and considerably larger
than the cabin Julie had grown up in. The
house was in sad disarray the day he carried Julie across the threshold.
But two weeks after their wedding day the place had been transformed into
a cozy home. Shep, who had actually
slept in bed with Rafe, had been relegated to a corner of the living room on
their wedding night. The dog had
taken the change graciously, seeming to sense that three in bed would be a
Julie settled happily into married life.
Rafe was a big, lovable cuss who worked hard.
In less than a year the money in their secret cache, under a floorboard
in the barn, had grown by nearly $300. The
future seemed bright.
Eight months after her marriage Julie missed her period.
When she mentioned it to her Ma, the old woman had hugged her and told
her what it meant. Should she tell
Rafe? Of course!
But Julie decided to visit Doc Johnson first.
The old country sawbones confirmed Ma’s diagnosis.
And so she had gently told Rafe that they’d need to redecorate
one of the two spare bedrooms into a nursery.
She sprang the surprise on him while they sat eating dinner that night.
Rafe had appeared stunned. It
seemed that he could scarcely believe he’d had anything to do with it!
After dinner he kissed and hugged her, more carefully than usual, and
told her he had to tell the boys. Julie
knew what that meant ... a hard drinking night in the saloon out in back of
Jorgensen Mercantile. But that was
agreeable with her. Rafe’s bouts
with a jug were few and far between, and she sang happy songs while she did the
supper dishes and afterward studied mail order sewing patterns for infant
clothes. Late that night, after she
had gone to bed, she heard Rafe’s pickup rattle into the yard.
With a giggle she listened to him lurch about the front yard, hollering
to Shep that he loved Julie and Julie loved him, and Shep all the while barking
and biting at his pants legs.
Little Nancy arrived on schedule, and there was never a prouder
daddy than Rafe. The baby was
christened in the hollow’s clapboard church, and Julie’s own sewing efforts
were augmented by those of her mother and several other woman friends.
Time slipped by. Shep
made little Nancy his own special business.
From the day Julie and Rafe brought the baby home, Shep would lie down in
front of the nursery door whenever Julie put the baby down for the night.
Now getting on in years, he would rise only to allow Julie to pass.
On the occasions that Rafe wanted to peek in on the baby while she slept,
Shep would only give him a suspicious stare and Rafe would be obliged to step
over the old pooch. Once when Ma and
Pa had come over for dinner Pa had reached to open the nursery door before they
left for the night. His intentions
were innocent enough ... to peek in on his granddaughter before they departed.
But Shep had leapt to his feet and growled menacingly through bared
“Here now, what’s the matter with you?” Rafe had scolded,
moving to swat the old dog.
“Leave him be!” Pa had admonished, holding Rafe back with a
raised arm. “He’s doin’ his
duty as he sees it. He’s a good
And so the years came and went.
Nancy’s fifth birthday was celebrated and Julie began telling her of
all the fun she was going to have in school.
All of the mountain people strode a straight and narrow path in
those days. The hard life they led
was no doubt partly responsible. It
left little time to even think about straying from the path, not to mention
actually doing anything unseemly. And
then there was the code they lived by. Justice
could be swift and informal in those parts, often meted out personally by the
injured party, with the approval of others.
And so it was at first unbelievable to Rafe the day a neighbor
drove down the dusty road into the farm, and sought Rafe out in the cornfield.
“Hey, Miller!” Rafe shouted, leaning on his hoe.
Miller’s grave face indicated that this was not a happy visit.
“Rafe,” Miller began uneasily, “I ain’t a bit happy to tell
yuh this ... not one goddammed bit happy.”
“What is it, man?” Rafe asked anxiously.
He fished a large bandanna from his overalls and mopped the sweat from
his brow. Miller kicked the dirt
around with the toe of a well-worn work shoe.
“Rafe,” he said softly, avoiding Rafe’s eyes.
“Us fellas talked it over and ever’body decided yuh had to know.”
“Know what?” Rafe answered, letting the hoe drop to the ground
and laying his hand on Miller’s shoulder.
Miller moved away a few steps, as if wary of Rafe’s touch.
At length he spoke again, casting worried sideways glances at Rafe.
“Do yuh know about the stranger what moved into that abandoned
shack in town?”
“I heard,” Rafe answered, wondering how that could cause such
“Well, Rafe,” Miller continued, “it seems that ... we.., that
is ... two o’ the boys seen Julie huggin’ him.”
Rafe felt the blood drain from his head.
At first he was speechless.
“I don’t believe you,” he said through clenched teeth.
Miller nodded sympathetically.
“What two boys?” Rafe demanded.
“Simms and Elliot,” Miller mumbled.
Simms and Elliot! Rafe
would bet his life on the honesty of those two!
“When?” he now asked in a dead tone.
“More ‘n once, Rafe,” Miller answered.
“It looks like they’s ... gittin’ together every Wednesday
“And where?” Rafe asked, his voice now taking on a dangerous
“At that thar shack he’s squattin’ in.
Well, I’ll be goin’ now,” Miller answered nervously, turning and
hurrying back toward his old truck.
Rafe’s head was swimming. Wednesday
afternoon! This was Wednesday
morning! It couldn’t be!
Yet ... Julie had seemed occasionally furtive of late.
Rafe racked his brain. What
was he to do? The code was clear.
But how could she go to bed with him every night, if she was
giving herself to another man? How
could she throw away everything they had? And
little Nancy ... how could she do this to her own child?
Did she think Rafe would let her take Nancy away?
Or did she just think that she’d ... they’d ... her and this stranger
would go on undiscovered, and nothing would change?
Was this the first time? Was
he the first one? And then a truly
terrible thought coursed through Rafe’s mind.
Was little Nancy even his?
Rafe continued chopping weeds savagely.
Fourteen rows later the lunch bell tolled back at the farmhouse.
For a moment he considered running away, up into the hills.
But he was, in the final analysis, a proud man.
Anger and resolve pushed the panic out of him.
He would get to the bottom of this and ... he would do the right thing.
Rafe entered the farmhouse’s kitchen.
Julie smiled at him and he forced himself to smile back at her.
“Smells good!” he greeted, trying mightily to act normal.
He peered into the pot. Beef
stew ... it was one of his favorites. But
there was so much of it!
He took a seat at the table and forced himself to eat, trying to
praise the food as he always did.
“So, what’s on the burner for this afternoon?” he asked
casually, after finishing the bowl of stew.
“Oh, I thought I’d drive into town to the Mercantile,” Julie
answered, rising and turning away to the sink, hiding her face from him.
She was clearly jumpy all of a sudden.
So ... it was true! Rafe
stifled the sob that threatened to erupt in his chest.
“Sounds good,” he mumbled, rising and walking toward the door.
“Ring the bell for supper. I’ve
got a lot of corn to weed.”
Rafe walked out the door. Julie
looked over her shoulder as his back disappeared behind the closing door.
No kiss! He was beginning to
sense that she was keeping something from him.
She resolved to tell him everything that night at supper.
Rafe tramped out into the corn and, after he’d gone a hundred
yards or so, doubled back toward the farmhouse, bending low to stay out of
sight. At the edge of the field he
lay down on his belly and stared intently at the house.
Shep came padding out to him from the barn.
For a brief moment Rafe’s thoughts turned to the dog.
“He’s gittin’ really old now,” he mused.
As the old dog approached with a quizzical look, Rafe hissed,
“Git outa here!
Go on now, git back.”
Shep stopped and lowered his tail.
Clearly puzzled, he turned and shuffled back toward the barn.
Minutes later Julie came out and got into her car.
“Not too close ... mustn’t see yuh,” Rafe said to himself as
he crossed the yard and opened his pickup’s door.
Before Rafe could stop him, Shep leapt up into the seat.
“All right, you kin come,” Rafe said grudgingly.
“But you’re stayin’ put in this truck, hear?”
Rafe opened the glove compartment and took out the Colt 45 that
he’d spirited away in his duffel bag the day he mustered out of the army.
He took out the clip and inspected the snub-nosed bullets.
There were, he knew, eight of them.
“Only takes two,” he muttered, slapping the clip back into the
Rafe steered the pickup down the long drive and turned into the
county road. Julie’s car was
nowhere in sight. He would keep it
that way. He knew how she’d
approach the shack where her lover waited for her.
He’d pull up out of sight, on the next street, and sneak through a yard
over to where the shack sat. He knew
he should go slow and give them time to get into bed.
But in spite of this, he pressed the accelerator to the floorboard.
When he arrived at his destination he dropped the pistol into the
big side pocket of his overalls.
“You stay!” he commanded his old dog, and warily strode through
a yard. The shack and the street it
sat on came into view. Julie’s car
was nowhere in sight. Would the
lovers be meeting somewhere else today? Was
he ... was that scum ... inside? Should
Rafe go in and finish the filthy piece of shit off now, and take Julie out when
she came through the door? He
thought better of that and lay down in the grass, peeking around the corner of
the house whose yard he had just crept through.
With eyes of total despair he watched as Julie’s car pulled up in
front of the shack. He had hoped
this was all a mistake. He loved her
so. Rafe felt his resolve begin to
Glancing each way, and obviously not wanting to be seen, Julie got
out of her car and strode purposely to the shack door.
What was that she carried? It
looked like a food bucket. Son of a
bitch, she was even feeding the bastard! That
explained the extra stew!
Julie knocked on the door and the stranger stepped out.
He smiled at the bucket of stew and hugged her.
She kissed him on the cheek. She
kissed him! Cold rage swept through
Rafe’s body. His resolve returned
with a vengeance. He pulled the 45
“Wait ... wait,” he told himself.
“Catch them in the act.”
Seconds and then minutes ticked by.
In spite of itself, Rafe’s mind began going back over the life they had
shared. Such happy times.
He thought she had loved him, as he loved her.
“Even now you love her, you miserable son of a bitch,” he
thought, as tears burned his eyes. He
had seen what a 45 could do to a human body.
Could he do that now, to her?
A nudge against his leg roused him from his reverie.
Shep stood looking at him. The
old dog’s eyes were as suspicious as they had been back in the days when he
lay at guard in front of the nursery door.
“Goddammit, I told you to stay in the truck!” he hissed.
The old dog didn’t even blink.
“Well lay down, then,” he commanded.
Again Shep ignored him completely.
“You old son of a bitch, if you follow me in there then I’ll
gun you too,” he threatened, looking back at the shack.
Again his thoughts drifted back in time.
He saw Julie on their wedding day. She
was so beautiful. He’d felt like
the luckiest man in the world. Could
he destroy her now? Was he up to
raising little Nancy as a widower?
“God help me! Should
I kill them?” he sobbed in anguish. Shep
growled ominously. Rafe glanced back
at the old cur. The dog’s eyes
were devoid of mercy.
“What then? Let them
live?” Rafe muttered. Instantly
the old dog’s mouth opened in a grin and his tail began to wag wildly.
Christ Almighty, was it possible that God was talking to him through this
old mutt? It didn’t matter.
With a mighty sigh Rafe knew that he couldn’t destroy what he still
loved with all his heart.
With a feeling of weariness unlike anything he had ever known, Rafe
rose to his feet and walked back to the truck.
“Go on, git up there,” he ordered, holding the door open.
Shep jumped in and Rafe followed. He
put the pistol back into the glove compartment and turned the ignition key.
The pickup’s engine came alive. What
to do now? Everybody knew!
Oh shit, he didn’t mind what they’d all say about him.
They could call him a coward or any other goddammed thing they wanted to.
But there would be no mercy for Julie ... NONE!
Some good ole boy might even do what Rafe didn’t have the guts to do.
Rafe steered the pickup around the block and stopped in front of
the shack. The two of them ... Julie
and her lover ... would have to be told that there was no way they could stay
here. She’d understand.
They’d have to go back to wherever the hell he came from.
And little Nancy? Rafe
knew that she’d want to be with her mother.
Maybe he’d just keep her here with him until Julie got settled.
Rafe glanced at Shep.
“You stay here, you old bastard, or I swear I’ll kill yuh this
time!” he glared. Shep smiled and
thumped his tail against the dash.
Rafe got out and walked up to the shack door.
He raised a hand to knock on it, but thought better of it.
What did it matter what he found inside?
He and Julie were history! With
knotted jaw muscles he pushed the door inward.
Julie and the stranger were seated at the table.
At least they weren’t in bed! The
stranger was unenthusiastically picking at a bowl of beef stew.
He was sallow faced and puny. Rafe
wondered for a fleeting second what Julie saw in him.
cried, rushing toward him and wrapping her arms around his neck.
He recoiled away from her when she tried to kiss him on the cheek.
Julie stepped back and looked him in the face.
A look of comprehension filled her blue eyes.
“Rafe,” she said softly, turning toward the stranger.
“This is my brother, Chester.”
Indescribable emotions washed over Rafe.
This was Chester? But what
As if divining Rafe’s question, Julie continued.
“Chester has AIDS, Rafe. He’s
come home to die here by me and Ma.
Rafe felt himself shrink ten sizes.
The frail man at the table looked up at him with sad eyes.
He rose in pain from the table and moved toward the two of them. He began
to reach out his hand but then pulled it back, as if guessing that Rafe might
not want to touch it. When he spoke,
his voice had that unmistakable quality of a dying man.
Rafe had heard it when his uncle, dying from cancer, had spoken to him
from his deathbed.
“Rafe, I’m pleased to meet you,” the wasted man said.
“Chester!” Rafe smiled awkwardly, extending his own hand.
With a look of relief and gratitude Chester grasped the proffered hand,
striving heroically to return the manly grip.
“I’m glad to meet you too,” Rafe stammered.
“I didn’t recognize you from the photo Julie showed me.”
Immediately Rafe felt mortified at his own stupidity.
But Chester seemed to understand.
“It’s been quite a while since that picture was taken,” he
“Where will you ... stay?” Rafe asked, glancing around the
Chester was silent for a moment, but then answered in a forced,
“Oh, here. This place
has everything I need.”
Rafe looked down at Julie. Her
eyes were shining but she said nothing.
“Chester, pack your things,” Rafe said.
“You’re comin’ home with us.”
Outside Shep barked from the truck’s open window.
Rafe smiled as he remembered words his long-dead Granny had said to him
more than once when he was a boy.
“Mysterious are the ways of the Lord.”
Rafe put his arm around Julie’s waist, and she kissed him on the
“Amen to that,” Rafe thought.