Uncle Jolly

I

THE pawpaws got ripe while Uncle Jolly laid out a two-week spell in the county jail for roughing Les Honeycutt at a box supper on Simms Fork. Father rode over to Hardin on a borrowed mare to see him, taking the word Grandma had sent us. I went along, riding behind Father, carrying three pawpaws in a poke. They were fat ones, black and rotten-ripe, smelling sweeter than a bubby tree. We reached the head of Little Carr Creek when the sun-ball stood overhead, and it made us hungry to smell the poke, mellow in the heat.

‘How many paws you got there?’ Father asked. I said, ‘Three,’ and Father said he reckoned we ought to eat one apiece, saving the greenest for Uncle Jolly. ‘The greenest will be the keepingest.,’ he said.

I pulled out the smallest, and the tender skin came half off in my hand, the sticky juice oozing out of the yellow flesh. Father popped it in his mouth, blowing the big seeds over the mare’s bony head.

‘Hain’t you eating one?’ Father asked.

‘ I’d be nigh ashamed to take Uncle Jolly just one paw,’ I said. ‘One just calls for another. If’n I got started, it would take a bushel to dull the edge on my tongue. Anyhow, I like ’em better when they’ve had a touch o’ frost.’

‘ Hain’t no use taking that sorry Jolly a grain o’ nothing,’ Father said. ‘I Agger he gets along pearter on jail cooking than anything else. He’s et a-plenty. Two years he got in the state pen for dinnymiting Pate Horn’s mill dam, and after he’d been shet up nine months they give him a parole. Now he’s fit and cracked two o’ Les Honeycutt’s rib bones, and them Honeycutts might make a sight o’ trouble. Hit’s not beyond thinking they’ll fotch him back to Frankfort.’

‘Uncle Jolly fit him square,’ I said. ‘I heard Les cut the saddle off his nag. No man a-living would a took that.’

Father drew the reins tight in his hands and we set off faster down the crusty road. ‘Jolly was sparking Les’s sweetheart,’ Father said, his words louder and a little angry. ‘ I don’t lay a blame on Les. They’s a lot o’ things bigger’n eyes and ears you never seed or heard tell of.’

We went on, not speaking until the wheel-deepened road crawled over the ridge into the head of Troublesome Creek. We stopped where the waters drained out of a bog, spring-clear and cold. Father got off the mare and let her drink, and I slid to the ground. The mare drank her fill and Father tied her to the muscled limb of a hornbeam while we scooped up water in our hats.

‘You can set in the saddle a spell,’ Father said, when we were ready to go. He swung me up, pulling himself behind, and we went down the trace of waters into the valley. The mare swung her head nervously, crowding against the ditch growth. Father kept reaching for the reins, jerking her back into the road.

‘Hit’s a pity you can’t hold her out o’ the blackberry vines,’ Father said. ‘If this keeps up, I won’t have a stitch o’ britches against we reach Hardin. These-here briars are raveling them out, string at a time.’

II

At the creek’s fork we turned into Hardin, hitching the mare to a locust post before the courthouse. Uncle Jolly saw us coming and shouted out to us, his face tight between the window bars. Logg Turner opened the jailhouse door. We went into a stone-damp hall, Logg fumbling through his long keys for the one to Uncle Jolly’s cell.

‘I could nigh open it with my eyeteeth afore you picked the key,’ Uncle Jolly said, twisting his mouth like Logg’s.

We went into the cell, the door catching itself back on rusty hinges. Uncle Jolly grabbed me by the arms, swinging me around twice, scraping my heels on the walls. ‘Big enough in here to swing a fox by its tail,’ he said. He dropped me atop a quilt-ball on his cot and shook Father’s hand until the knuckles cracked.

‘Hain’t no use breaking a feller’s arm off,’ Father said.

Logg rattled his keys and grinned at us. Jolly winked at him, making a sly pass at the keys and tipping them with his fingers. Logg jerked the iron ring back, quickly though not uneasily, knowing Uncle Jolly’s ways.

‘Fotch some chairs for us to set on,’ Uncle Jolly said. ‘Hain’t you got no manners?’

Logg showed his stumpy teeth. ‘ Fotch ’em yourself,’ he said. ‘They’s a bench setting just outside the cell.’ He went up the hall, leaving the door open, and Uncle Jolly dragged the whittled seat in.

‘Logg’s mighty feisty for election time to be so nigh,’ Uncle Jolly said.

‘Hit’s a tall risk not locking that door,’ Father said.

‘I ain’t going nowheres,’ Uncle Jolly said. ‘Next rusty I cut, it’s the pen two years for shore.’

‘Your ma sent me to say what you’ve spoke,’ Father said. ‘ She never reckoned you’d have sense to know.’

‘This is my pigeon roost,’ Uncle Jolly said. ‘I nest right natural in jail, and it’s a fact. I get lonesome sometimes, though, nigh enough to start figgering a way out. Reckon I can’t trust myself to stay locked up long. Nobody here but me now. The sheriff turned everybody out to pull corn. They won’t be finishing their spells till after gethering.’

‘You just got nine days more,’ Father said. ‘Looks to me you could nail yourself down till then, but I would n’t trust you spitting distance. Two breaks you made out o’ this jail times past.’

‘If I had me somebody to talk to,’ Uncle Jolly said, ‘I’d fare well.’

‘Logg ought to be a heap o’ company.’

‘Ruther hear a bullfrog croaking.’

‘Nine days hain’t long — one Sunday and eight weekdays,’

‘I’m liable to scratch out afore then.’

‘That’s fool talk. They’ll salt you down in Frankfort for shore.’

‘Would n’t pitch a straw for the differ.’

Pawpaw scent lay heavy in the room, pushing down the mullein-rank jail smells. Uncle Jolly looked at the poke in my hand. ‘If I was a possum,’ he said, ‘I would n’t know better what you got.’

I drew out the pawpaws, holding them toward him. ‘A good frosting would make them a sight better,’ I said.

‘Take just one,’ Father said to Uncle Jolly. ‘He ain’t et since we left home.’

Uncle Jolly picked the least, though I held the fat one closest. He pitched it up to the ceiling and let it fall down into his open mouth. The seeds popped out, shot across the room and between the bars into the yard, touching nothing. ‘You could n’t do that if your life and neck was strung on it,’ he said. I tried with my seeds, blowing them hard, but they fell to the floor. Uncle Jolly kicked them under the bed and went out into the hall, calling to Logg, ‘Have you got any o’ them biled shucks left?’

We spooned up the beans Logg brought, coated with grease, and as good eating as anything on this earth. They were good to bite into, tender and juicy. I could have eaten more, but I did not speak of it, thinking Logg had scraped the pot.

‘I ain’t got nothing agin jail victuals,’ Uncle Jolly said. ‘They come regular as clock-tick, three times a day.’

‘If your belly’s content, hain’t no cause to snake out afore your time is up,’ Father said. ‘Your ma sent on word for you to stay.’

‘If I had me somebody to talk to, hit would n’t be so bran-fired eternal,’ Uncle Jolly said. ‘All I do is set and set, and then set some more.’

The mare whinnied in the yard. Father got up and looked out, getting uneasy and ready to go. ‘Sun-ball’s drapping fast,’ he said. ‘Four hours’ ride twixt here and home. Ought to be a-going.’

‘Set yourself down,’ Uncle Jolly said. ‘I ain’t got my talk out.’

Father walked across the room. He looked at me and cocked his head. ‘Reckon you could stay here nine days?’ he asked.

‘This ain’t no place for a chap,’ Uncle Jolly said.

‘He’d be a sight o’ company,’ Father said. ‘I figger you’d hang around yourself if he was here.’

‘Hit’s agin the law for a chap to stay shet up in jail,’ Uncle Jolly said, ‘but Logg gets right free when he’s needing votes. He could put a cot and chair in the hall, and that would n’t be in jail nor out.’

‘Getting late,’ Father complained. ‘I’ll talk to Logg, and mosey along. I figger Logg ’ll let me have my way. My vote is good as the next un.’

Logg said I could stay. I wanted to, though I knew first, frost would come any morning now, and I would miss my fill of pawpaws. They were best after a killing frost, mushy and sweet, falling apart almost at a touch.

When Father was ready to go, I went out into the yard to see him off. He rode away, the mare walking swiftly toward the forks with her great bones sticking out hard and sharp. Uncle Jolly leaned against the window bars and called down, ‘First time I ever seed a feller straddling a quilting frame.’

III

With election time near, the county seat was filled with people, their mounts chocking stiff heels in the courthouse yard. Before daylight, horses came sloshing through the creek, setting hoofs carefully into dark waters, feeling out the quicksands.

‘Candidates thicker’n groundhogs in a roast-ear patch,’ Logg told us. ‘Got where a feller can’t go down the road peaceable.’

‘ Bet you argue as many votes as the next un,’ Uncle Jolly said.

‘I don’t worry a man’s years off.’

‘You’d vote your ol’ nag and jinny if they was registered.’

‘I get a vote any way can be got, buy or swap, hogback or straddle-pole, but when they’re drapped in the ballot box, I allus say, “Boys, count ’em square and honest.”’

Two days before Uncle Jolly’s time was up, Logg came hurrying down from the courthouse. He came with his keys jingling on his belt, and we heard him coming afar off.

‘I seen Les Honeycutt talking to Judge Mauldin,’ Logg said. ‘I figger he’s trying to get you sent back to Frankfort. Les’s folks can swing nigh every vote on Jones Fork, and the judge knows it. He can’t be reëlected with the Honeycutts agin him.’

‘I never pushed Les’s ribs in fur enough,’ Uncle Jolly said. ‘I reckon the judge hain’t going to give plumb over. He’ll be needing a few Baldridge votes on Little Carr and Defeated Creek.’

It was dark inside the jail when Judge Mauldin rattled the iron door, though light held outside. Night chill had settled into the wall stones, and there was a hint of frost in the air. He came in, rubbing his fat hands. Logg opened Uncle Jolly’s cell, and I followed, going close behind Logg. Judge Mauldin sat down heavily on the cot, twisting his watch chain around a thick finger. There was a bush-tail squirrel carved from a peach seed hanging on the chain’s end, real as life.

‘Reckon you heard the Honeycutts are trying to hog-tie me into sending you back to Frankfort,’ the judge said.

‘I heard a little sketch,’ Uncle Jolly said, threading his arms through the bars.

‘I can’t spare a vote,’ the judge said.

‘You’ll lose a mess either way,’ Uncle Jolly said. ‘I got no notion o’ going back to the pen anyhow. A log team could n’t drag me there agin. Hit’s like pulling eyeteeth just to stay in this jailhouse.’

Logg brought in a smoky-chimneyed lantern, holding a match to the oily wick.

The judge cracked heavy knuckles against his palms. ‘I’m not a-going to send you back,’ he said. ‘I got it figgered this way. You stay in jail till election time — then it won’t matter who rows up. I just want me one more term. Logg’ll let you out the minute the Honeycutts get voted on Jones Fork.’

‘That’s eight days a-coming,’ Uncle Jolly said. ‘Hit’ll keep me here plumb till hog-killing time. Like setting on a frog-gig staying, and me knowing I could snake out anytime the notion struck.’

‘You’ve gone nowhere yet, as I see,’ Logg said.

Uncle Jolly looked at the ring of keys hung on Logg’s belt. ‘Never took a strong idea,’ he said. ‘I ain’t safe in here long as there’s a key walking around. I can’t trust myself to stay shet up.’

‘If you don’t stay, I’ll be bound to send you back to Frankfort,’ Judge Mauldin said.

The judge stood to go. I went out behind him, Logg following and locking the door, and hooking the ring on his belt. Uncle Jolly thrust his arms through the bars as Logg turned, lifting the ring with a finger, quick as an eye-bat. I glimpsed it all and waited, holding my breath, fearing for Uncle Jolly. The judge and Logg walked up the hall, not looking back nor knowing. When they had gone, Uncle Jolly took one key off, handing the rest to me. ‘Go take the others back,’ he said. ‘This one won’t be missed for a spell.’

I went to bed early, for there was no heat in the cold hallway. In the night I waked, thinking someone had spoken. Uncle Jolly had called, speaking my name into pitch-dark. His words were barely louder than the straw ticking rustling in my ears. I stepped out on the stone floor, feeling my way to the cell. Uncle Jolly was there, though I could n’t see him. He reached through the bars and found my hand, putting the stolen key into it.

‘You go home at the crack o’ day and get a wad o’ dirt betwixt us afore Logg misses it,’ he said. ‘Give it to your grandma and tell her to keep it eight days, then have your poppy fotch it back — eight days and not a minute yon side. Tell her I said hit.’ I felt my way along the wall, crawling back into the warm spot in my bed, and slept until the slosh of horses’ feet in the creek came up the rise.

Logg opened the jailhouse door for me when light broke. The steps were mouldy-white. The season’s first frost lay heavily on the ground. ‘Hit’s a killer,’ Logg said. ‘This-here one ought to make the shoats squeal.’ I set off, walking fast over the frosted road, knowing the pawpaws were fat and winterripe on the Little Carr ridge.