Horse Thief



JIM FITZHUGH was dead. And my Father wanted to know could he borrow my text. The little short text my Mother gave me to say in Sunday school because I wasn’t old enough yet to say the long golden texts.

Jim Fitzhugh was busy stealing a horse in the night when he died. He was in a hurry with his stealing. The neighbor men were galloping hard after him. He didn’t have time to ride around by the ford to cross the creek. He had to swim. The bank was dark and steep on the other side. His horse slipped. It fell over backwards on top of him. The neighbor men following after found Jim Fitzhugh dead. He’d not had time even to raise his hand to make the sign of the cross.

The next day when my Father came in from the field at noon my Mother was waiting for him on the path outside the lean-to door. She had something to tell him. But he had something to tell her first.

Word had come across the fields — from that farm to this farm to this farm — that a horse thief couldn’t be buried in the Holy Catholic ground of the Holy Cross cemetery. And the men talking over their fences were saying, Jim Fitzhugh couldn’t come inside the gate of the Prairie Flower graveyard either. Neighbors all had rights to graves in the neighborhood burying ground — no matter where they went to church on Sunday, no matter if they didn’t go at all. The ground belonged to their dead bones. But my Father told, men were swearing over their fences that horse-stealing Jim wasn’t going to be let lie alongside their kin!

My Father finished with his telling. And then my Mother told him that the Widow Fitzhugh was sitting there in our kitchen waiting to see him.

Missus Fitzhugh rocked in our company rocking chair. She had on a black calico dress and a black calico sunbonnet. And she wore her white visiting apron. It was dazzle-white like snow in the sun. But her face inside her black sunbonnet was blurry, like a little patch of melting snow on a gray day. Her voice back inside her bonnet, it was blurry, too, as she told my Father she wanted Jim’s grave in a graveyard. Wanted Jim found among honest people when the Resurrection sounded.

She was set on it. And she asked my Father to go and dig her man a grave in the Prairie Flower burying ground. She said it could be dug off to itself down in the swale at the lower end. In a fence corner, say. The marsh grass would hide it. Neighbors wouldn’t mind much — anyway, not long. She said Jim would have to be laid away by noon tomorrow. By noon. He couldn’t be let lie above the ground any longer. And she asked, would he please speak a word in favor of her Jim?

My Mother tried to comfort Missus Fitzhugh with woman talk, and she invited her to sit up to the table and eat dinner with us. But the widow wouldn’t stay. She wanted to get back to her man alone and dead on their bed in the cabin. And she drove away in her wagon. She sat on her ridingboard neat. She looped up her black driving lines so they wouldn’t rub against her white visiting apron. She had to drive slow so her blind horses wouldn’t stumble.

My Father ate his dinner and his piece of pie. He crossed his knife and fork on his plate. But he didn’t get up from the table. He sat and worried.

My Father was a man who could think of a kind word to say at a sinner’s grave — when the Circuit Rider could think only of the words of Judgment. The sorrowing kin, longing to hear their dead well spoken of at the burying, would send for my Father from far. He’d leave his plow in the furrow. He’d put on his Sunday clothes. And he’d ride, ride clear down into the river county to speak on the side of the dead. Folks listening would feel their hearts soften. And they’d call to mind good words they could say, too, now.

But my Father wanted to know of my Mother, what could a man say in favor of Jim? And he worried about that grave. My Father was a man from Canada. He didn’t feel free to go in to a Missouri burying ground and dig a grave for a horse thief against the neighbors’ wishes. But he was sorry for the widow. He wanted to mind her.


MY Mother thought he’d better ride over and talk to Mister Redford about it. He did. Mister Redford was a man from New York City. He didn’t much think a horse thief had ought, to be buried inside the neighborhood burying ground — even if he was a neighbor. But it might do to dig a grave for him just outside the fence, for the sake of the widow.

So they took spades and rode away. They went to see the man who owned the pasture field alongside the graveyard. He was a Missouri man. He felt sorry for the widow, too. Besides he was right ready to take the two dollars my Father and Mister Redford offered him for a corner on his side of the fence. A deep corner it was, and it pushed over into the burying ground like a person’s elbow.

A man came riding along the road on horseback, He stopped a while to watch my Father and Mister Redford digging Jim’s grave so close up against the Prairie Flower fence. But he didn’t so much as call out, Howdy.

The Missouri man wished now that the twodollar hole was being dug in some other man’s field. He said, tomorrow when the men brought Jim in the wagon, the handy way would be to turn in at the Prairie Flower gate and drive over to the jog in the fence. They could easy then slide the coffin across the top rail down into the grave. But don’t do it, he said. Driving Jim’s horse-stealing bones over ground where the early settlers were sleeping would be a disrespect for the dead that kinfolks wouldn’t let pass.

He said, better make a gap in the fence along the road, tomorrow when they brought the body, and drive into the pasture. More trouble that way — they’d have to tote the coffin across a ditch. But do it!

My Father and Mister Redford said they would. They had respect for the early settlers a-sleeping. They had respect for the babies, too, tucked in under the long grass at the feet of the grown-up graves.

The Missouri man still worried. He was afeared, he said, Jim’s ornery bones wouldn’t be let rot in peace that close to the burying ground fence.

The men finished digging Jim’s two-dollar grave, wide and deep. And they rode off down Goose Creek to Missus Fitzhugh’s cabin in under the water oaks, to tell her it was dug.

The Widow Fitzhugh had already been to the sawmill and got herself boards and made her man’s coffin. She couldn’t sew. She couldn’t hold a needle. Her fingers were all jumbled together in her palms like dead sticks. But she could anyway twist a hammer up into her fist and hammer. Wide and deep she’d made her man’s coffin so’s to have room to put her feather bed in for him.

My Father didn’t think Missus Fitzhugh should be let give up her feathers. Her cabin was damp and moldy in under the water oaks. And her joints were bad. The widow would have just a shuck tick between her bones and the bed slats this winter.

But. when my Father said, No! to Missus Fitzhugh dragging her feather tick off her bed, she screeched at him. And she went right on ahead and made her man’s bed up warm and deep. Jim always wanted his sleeping soft and warm. She spread her Star of Bethlehem quilt for him to lie under.

My Father and Mister Redford helped her lay Jim out. All but his boots. The widow put his boots and his bridle and saddle underneath her bedstead to give to Tom and Jerry when they came home. The men laid the lid on the coffin for her. But the widow twisted the hammer up into her fist and drove the nails in herself.

And Missus Fitzhugh took her black alpaca dress out of the box where she kept it folded in blue paper. The fine black alpaca dress she was saving to be laid away in. And she cut it up to tack over the outside of the coffin —for to pretty it up for Jim. My Father held the goods smooth and tight and turned the raw edges in for her. Her crooked fingers couldn’t take hold of the cloth. But she did her own tacking.

While my Father was busy helping Missus Fitzhugh, Mister Redford went out to the pole-barn and curried down the widow’s two blind nags. (Jim’s horses were never worth stealing.) He cleaned the cockleburs out of their tails. And he swept out the wagon bed, put fresh straw in the bottom — easy riding for Jim tomorrow noon.

It took time to do for the widow, and the sun went down on the prairie. The daylight leaked right out of the cabin, there in under the water oaks. My Father said that black alpaca coffin looked to be a monstrous black beetle lying dead on the floor.

Missus Fitzhugh lit a candle. She stood it at the head of the coffin. She set herself down beside, in her hickory chair. Her black calico sunbonnet hung above her lap limp, like it was hanging on a peg. Her black calico dress hung down on her limp, like it was hanging on a peg, too. She didn’t move there inside her calico. Just her hands moved on her black lap, like white shadows, telling her beads.

My Father, waiting for Mister Redford to come in from the barn, watched the gray evening mist crawling up out of the creek bed. It came hunching in under the water oaks up to the cabin. But the candlelight stood it back from the open door. The men were glad to get away on their horses from the night vapors along the creek, so rank with chills and fever. Twilight still, warm and clear out on the open prairie.

When my Father got home, he sat down in the kitchen a while to tell what had happened. And my Mother cried on the corner of her apron, where us women belong to cry, because Missus Fitzhugh cut up her fine alpaca dress — and it such a comfort to her. She never put it on to go to town, but she aired it a lot in the sun so it wouldn’t smell musty. Wanted it fresh and new-looking when she come to wear it in the blessed ground of the Holy Cross cemetery.


RIGHT after breakfast next morning my Father hitched Old Abe and Miss Fanny up to the wagon. Wise horses, they always knew what was fittcn to do. He put a rope in the wagon to lower Jim’s coffin into the grave with, and a couple of shovels to fill in the dirt with. He wondered to my Mother if folks had let Jim’s grave be, or had they filled it up in the night. He said it would have been more sensible if he and Mister Redford had picked a fence corner for Jim somewheres off down the creek.

My Father put on his black Sunday clothes. Tight, they bulged when he moved. They showed plain how wide and thick he was. His white shirt bosom it showed plain how thick and curly his beard was, how clean and red in the sun.

My Father looked ready to speak a good word at the grave. But he said he didn’t feel ready — for what could a man speak in favor of Jim! So he wanted to know, could he borrow my text to say at the open grave. The only words in the wide world, he said, that could comfort the widow.

My Mother wanted to go along to the funeral. She said it would be a shame if there was no woman to stand by the widow’s side when the coffin was lowered. But my Father said that fence corner was no place for us women to gather round — if bad feeling was astir. He hoped, though, nothing’d hinder Mister Redford from going with him. My Father said ho could heave the coffin up onto his back and carry it across the ditch himself. But a dead man has a right to be lifted level so his hands will stay crossed neat on his breast. My Father drove off to get Mister Redford to help.

It was still early in the morning when the men pulled up under the water oaks. But the Widow Fitzhugh had her team hitched, waiting. The poor blind horses cringed against each other. They feared that smell seeping out of the black coffin, spreading all under the water oaks.

Old Abe and Miss Fanny feared that smell, too. Quick, my Father and Mister Redford loaded the black alpaca coffin up onto the fresh straw in the widow’s wagon. It reared up high above the sides — they couldn’t lay the riding-board across the wagon bed. So Mister Redford set the hickory chair up beside the coffin for the widow to sit on while she drove.

Missus Fitzhugh had washed and ironed her black calico dress and her black calico sunbonnet. Had starched them stiff for the funeral. And she wore beautiful lace mitts on her twisted hands to honor her Jim. The beautiful silk mitts she’d been saving to wear with her alpaca dress in the consecrated ground of the Holy Cross cemetery.

The widow sat on her chair straight, her skirt spread out wide like a big black open fan. She drove her blind horses slow so they wouldn’t stumble. The two mourners followed in their wagon. The smell of death traveled along on the air. And the funeral procession passed from in under the water oaks, out onto the open prairie. It came to the Prairie Flower burying ground.

There were men standing in front of the Prairie Flower gate. There were men standing at the side of the road in front of the pasture fence. They didn’t lean back easy against the gate. They didn’t rest themselves against the fence, like men just waiting to see something. They stood hard on their feet like men waiting to do something. And they said no low-down horse thief was going to be buried right across the fence from their kin! Not anyway a horse thief so ornery he’d steal horses off neighbors that had loaned him oats when his feed give out in the winter — and their own bins low.

My Father sat still on his wagon seat. Mister Redford sat still alongside of him. The widow waited in her chair beside the black coffin. My Father could feel plain how the men felt. But he could feel plain how the widow felt, too. The men waiting shifted uneasy on their feet. They drew away from that sweet fume of death. It clogged their throats.

Then my Father rose up in his wagon to speak. He said he understood how the men felt about Jim. He knew the month of March had found many a bin empty — no seed left for the springtime sowing — because of the sacks of feed neighbors had given Jim. Neighbors could well be angry when Jim Fitzhugh came in the dark of night and stole away their horses. But he was dead now. And living men couldn’t square accounts with a dead man’s hones. Adding to the widow’s sorrow wouldn’t balance the score against Jim.

The weeds wilted in the heat of noon. The breeze fluttered down into the dust at the men’s feet, it weakened and died. But the men stood up hard and stiff under the hot bare sun.

The widow told, my Father looked so tall standing high in the wagon in his black Sunday clothes. Tall and thick and round as the trunk of a tree. She said his thoughts spread out like branches, making a shade cool and kind for the living and the dead. His words were like the soothing leaves a woman gathers to lay on a sick breast for to draw out pain. Healing words, my Father’s, to draw out anger. To make men forget about their empty bins and stolen horses. While they were forgetting, my Father reached up his voice and he borrowed words from God — sounding words — to make men remember that man is made in the image of his Maker.

My Father told, the evil a man does cannot blot out that likeness, graved deep into the flesh. And when the breath has gone out of a man, sacred is the clay left behind for living hands to care for— his bones make holy ground. My Father called out loud that it wasn’t a horse thief waiting to be buried in the pasture, there outside the Prairie Flower fence. It was the image of God himself.

My Father finished his speaking. Hewaited. The men didn’t answer his words back. They stood straight and still like they were just some pencil marks on a piece of paper. But a sighing rose up out of their breasts like the deep sighing that follows after prayer. And they began stirring about, now, and talking. Soon they were saying for my Father and Mister Redford not to bother to make a gap in the fence along the road. And they opened wide the Prairie Flower gate so the widow could drive across the burying ground to that fresh-dug grave — waiting on the pasture side of the fence.

The Widow Fitzhugh set herself firm in her chair. She wrapped the lines tight around her crooked hands. She drove her blind horses with care, in and out among the mounds where the early settlers were sleeping. She cramped her wagon sharp this way and that. She didn’t graze ary a stone with a wagon wheel — not even a baby’s tiny white marker fallen over and hid in the grass. She straddled her horses wide over the unmarked graves that were sunk under the prairie sod — so level a person sometimes forgot and stepped on them. The men looking on liked her fine respectful driving.

And the man that had sat on his horse and watched Jim’s grave being dug, the man who wouldn’t even say, Howdy, he walked on ahead and took down the rails at the jog in the fence. He didn’t leave even the bottom rail. That horse thief grave could make believe it had been dug among honest graves, its ownself, now. And neighbors who had loaned oats, and then had their horses stole, lifted Jim’s coffin out of the wagon and let it down into the earth with care. They were careful of the widow’s alpaca dress goods, too, not to tear it.

Then the men took off their hats and gathered round the grave. The widow stood close to its dark brink for to mourn — nary a woman to stand beside her. My Father stood himself at the head of the grave to say my text. He told, its hallowed words were sounding through Time and Eternity to comfort the souls of the living, give peace to the souls of the dead. He called to hearken — hear the heart of the Most High beating to earthly sorrow. And he cried it high up into the wide sky — my little text that says, God is Love.

After that my Father made a prayer to God so near. And the neighbors all sang together: —

“Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me.”

The men didn’t like to fill in dirt right on top of the widow’s alpaca dress goods. So they cut long stems of goldenrod and laid them on top of the coffin before they shoveled in the earth. When they built the fence back they didn’t jog it in, they jogged it out — out around that new black mound — for to bring Jim’s horse-stealing bones inside the Prairie Flower burying ground.

The Resurrection trumpet could blow now. Jim would be found among honest people. Right where the Widow Fitzhugh was set on having her man found.