The Britches Thief

Jesse Hill Ford is a Tennessean in whom the ATLANTIC takes special pride. We published his first short stories, his first novel, MOUNTAINS OF GILEAD,and his first major work, THE LIBERATION OF LORD BYRON JONES,a novel of the South today which was the midsummer selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club.


I WAS resting in Sheriff’s office in back of the store when Mr. Leon Hipp, our official police force in Pinoak, Tennessee, came in all excited. Before Sheriff, my little brother, could get his feet off the desk, Mr. Leon had commenced throwing things down on it.

“Socks!” Mr. Leon yelled, waving his little short arms. “Shirts, shoes, ties!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. When everything was thrown down on Sheriff’s desk, Mr. Leon sagged into a chair like he was melted. A look of pure satisfaction edged into his tired face. His mouth dropped open. He looked like a feist dog satisfied that he’s killed the last house cat in existence. “I’ve broke the case, Sheriff,” he said after a minute, when he could catch his breath.

Sheriff leaned forward. He poked at the things on his desk. “It’s some of the stolen merchandise, all right,” Sheriff said in his deep, slow voice. Sheriff’s real name is Bill Tom French, but since he was just a little chap he’s acted and looked so much like a sheriff we all nicknamed him that — Sheriff.

Then one thing led to another. Dad gave him a pistol. Sheriff sent off and got himself a siren for his red Buick. Mama got him a whirling red cartop light from Sears one Christmas. For his fourteenth birthday I got him a silver badge from a pawnshop in Memphis. Things like that. When he was sixteen he started stopping out-of-state cars. If they turned out to be genteel people, he’d tip his big white hat and talk to them a minute and then wave them on with a warning. But if they looked at him cross-eyed and acted rude, he’d conduct a search of their automobile and make them open their suitcases — to give them a proper sense of humility.

For a while Dad and I considered building him a jail next to the cotton gin, but several of our close friends on the highway patrol talked us out of it. They said a jail would be more trouble than it was worth. So we compromised by giving him office space in back of the store, where he could hold court and give orders to Mr. Hipp when he felt like it.

Sheriff picked up one of the stolen shoes Mr. Hipp had brought in. Mr. Hipp himself is clubfooted, and we have to order his shoes special-made to fit him. Other than clerking in the store and working around the gin during cotton season, what we mainly keep Mr. Hipp for is to direct traffic in front of our church, the Pinoak Methodist Church, every Sunday morning. We give him five dollars for that, which is the same sum we pay the organist. He has a blue uniform and a police hat that he wears on Sundays. Weekdays he wears the hat along with his regular khaki work clothes.

Sheriff looked at the shoe. It didn’t appear to me to have been worn. “Any sign of the moleskin britches?" Sheriff asked.

“Naw,” said Mr. Hipp, “not a sign of the britches. What you see here is just what was on Buddy’s bed. I couldn’t name you what all else was in the house. There was a new iron and a transistor radio. I don’t know what all. I merely hopped across the porch and walked right in on his little wife. She says, ‘Who?’ Just that way: 'Who?“ I says, ‘Me, that’s who!' and before she could collect her wits, I marched straight into where all this was laying on his bed. picked it up, and started out again.”

Sheriff reached behind him for his big white hat and put it on without even standing up. It’s the sort of efficiency the boy developed in the Army. Nothing Dad nor I nor Mama could do kept him from being drafted. Once he was gone, nothing we could do would make them put him in the military police, which was what Sheriff wanted. Instead, the Army discovered that he had taken typing in high school, so they made him a company clerk. That’s what he came out as, a PFC company clerk. To look at him it’s hard to believe he’s thirty-six now. His face is so smooth and unworried I can’t believe he’s a grown man. When the hat covers his blond crew-cut hair, he looks even younger.

He stood up. “Well, come on,” he said after a pause. “Let’s go get him.” Then he looked at me. “By the way,” he said, “where is he?”

“He’s supposed to be shoveling Kentucky lump,” I said. “They’re supposed to be sacking coal down by the rail siding.”

Sheriff went through the office door first. Mr. Hipp went next, and I followed. I don’t mind being last man through the door, but Sheriff is sensitive about it ever since he went out West and worked in a couple of cowboy movies. In both movies Sheriff was always last man through the door. Out there the last man is the lowest paid. The star always comes through the door first. Sheriff never quite got over the way they treated him in Hollywood. How he got in movies in the first place is another story going back to one of our cousins whose stepfather’s brother died of a heat stroke when they were making Beau Geste out in Arizona.

Sheriff found Dad over back of the meat counter and told him.

“So it was Buddy Potter,” Dad said.

“It was Buddy for a fact,” said Mr. Hipp. “It was Buddy broke in and done the burglary.”

“What about the moleskin britches?” Dad said. The britches were on everybody’s mind because they had been a special order direct from the factory in New Jersey for Miss Jennie Dale Rosebuck’s grandfather’s birthday. Miss Jennie Dale had raised Hail Columbia with everybody in the store when the britches were stolen.

“Mr. Hipp didn’t find the britches, Dad,” I said, “but Buddy must know where they are.”

“I always knew Buddy Potter was a thief,” said Dad. “I could tell by the shape of his hands. Now you have proof.”

“Oh, good lord, yes, scads and scads of proof,” said Mr. Hipp.

“Well, hurry on and do whatever it is you intend to do about it,” Dad said. “This load of hams has got to be weighed and tagged. There’s two shipments of hardware waiting to be unpacked. The mail has yet to be sorted and put up this morning. There’s a carload of lumber . . .”

Sheriff took out a big black fifty-cent cigar. He slipped away the cellophane wrapper and stuck the cigar in his mouth, calm as you please, while Dad told everything that had to be done about Pinoak — the store, the feed mill, the gin, the tomato cannery, the potato house, and the tractor agency — which is the main trouble about owning a town no matter what its size. Somebody has to run it, even down to catching thieves.

Sheriff got a kitchen match out of his pocket. He scratched it on a nail keg and lit his cigar. “Anything else?” he said, when Dad finally hushed.

“Just the britches,” Dad said. “For heaven sakes get those damned britches back if it’s anyway possible to do it.”

“We’ll do our best,” Sheriff said. Then he turned around. “Let’s go get him,” he said.

WE WENT out and got in Sheriff’s car. Mr. Hipp sat between me and Sheriff. The hands had been shoveling coal all the morning, and sure enough, there working in their midst was Buddy. One thing you could not fault him for, and that was working. Even if he was a thief and a small fellow, Buddy was strong and didn’t mind work.

Some few of them looked up when we got out of the car, especially the Negroes. They always figure that no matter what they’re doing at the moment, there is bound to be something easier elsewhere. The Negroes looked up ready to volunteer for whatever it was we wanted, but not Buddy. He had his poor white man’s pride to keep him shoveling on with hardly a pause. Sheriff walked straight over to him without a word and jerked away the coal scoop and threw it down. At the same time he grabbed Buddy’s arm and brought him to the car.

“What’s wrong?" Buddy said.

Sheriff opened the back door. He pushed Buddy into the back seat. We got in the front seat. Mr. Hipp was trembling with excitement. I smelled sweat and coal dust.

“You better tell me what’s wrong,” Buddy said.

Sheriff slipped the Buick into gear and drove back to the store all in a swoop. Before Buddy could say another word, Sheriff had jerked open the back door and was dragging our prisoner into the store. It was all Mr. Hipp could do to keep up.

When we had Buddy safe in Sheriff’s office, Mr. Hipp and I set our chairs back out of the way against the wall just in case Sheriff and Buddy were to get into it with one another. Sheriff took his stand by the door in case Buddy took a notion to run. Standing where he was, Sheriff could kick Buddy down and sit on him should he make for the door.

“All right, what about that stuff on my desk, Buddy Potter?” Sheriff said.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Buddy said.

“That stuff on my desk. What you stole when you broke in the store the other night,” said Sheriff.

“Last Friday evening,” said Mr. Hipp, so excited now he could hardly talk. His mouth was open again. His bright little eyes moved back and forth as he looked from Buddy to Sheriff and back again.

“I didn’t do it. I didn’t steal nothing,” Buddy said.

“Those very things were on your bed. That’s where Mr. Hipp found them, Buddy!” Sheriff said.

“Stay out of my house!” Buddy said.

“Own up, Buddy,” said Mr. Hipp softly.

“You went in my house,” Buddy said. “You never had no right to break in my house!”

“Confess,” Sheriff said. “We know what you took, Buddy Potter!”

Buddy looked like he might make a run for it after all. Sheriff looked like he half hoped Buddy would. Then it dawned on Mr. Leon what Buddy was wearing. He saw what Sheriff and I hadn’t noticed before.

“The britches!” Mr. Leon Hipp said. “Buddy’s wearing the moleskin britches!”

Buddy’s hands had been in his pockets. Now they came out clenched into fists. The moleskin britches, light gray when they were new, were stained almost black with coal dust. Buddy had tied them at the waist with a piece of rope for a belt. He looked down at the britches. He wiped his fists on them and stood staring at the floor.

“I’ll tell you what, Buddy,” Sheriff said. “You better be glad this is Tennessee instead of Mississippi. If this was Mississippi, Brother and me and Dad and Mr. Hipp would each take us a tomato stick, and we’d beat you till our arms were tired. Then we’d let you go — if this was Mississippi — wouldn’t we?”

“That’s the truth, Buddy,” I said. “Sheriff’s not lying.”

“Tomato sticks,” said Mr. Hipp, more excited than ever.

Buddy swayed on his feet.

“Tomato sticks,” Sheriff said.

“Own up!" said Mr. Hipp in his quivering old man’s voice.

“I done it,” Buddy said.

We sighed with relief. Now he wouldn’t run. Sheriff wouldn’t have to fight him. Buddy was whipped.

“So,” Sheriff was saying. “You admit you did it?”

“Yes,” Buddy said.

“Yes, sir would sound a lot better when you’re speaking to the law, Buddy,” Mr. Hipp said. “And seeing how you’ve plumb tore up and mint them special britches.”

“Yes, sir,” Buddy said. “That’s what I meant to say.”

Sheriff seemed to get an inspiration. He struck a match and lit the cigar again. He looked through the smoke at Buddy. “How long you been married, Buddy?” Sheriff said.

“Not very long. What will you do to me?”

“He hasn’t been married two months,” said Mr. Hipp, catching on right away. “Not two months!”

“What will you do with me?” Buddy said.

“Take you to Sligo. Put you in jail over there,” Sheriff said. He grinned.

“We won’t hardly get you out of town good before she’ll be a-you-knowing,” said Mr. Hipp. “Tonight you’ll be in jail, Buddy, and your little woman will be a-you-knowing with Tom, Dick, and Harry’s grandmaw!" said Mr. Hipp. He waved his arms.

Tears cut through the coal dust on Buddy’s lean cheeks. “You can’t have the heart to do me this way,” Buddy said. “You just can’t . . .”

“That’s true, Mr. Leon,” Sheriff said slowly. “I sure hate it. Buddy won’t any more than be locked up good until that little gal of his will commence to you-know and hooraw around on him. There he’ll be, locked up over in Sligo, and nothing can he do but think about what she’s bound to be doing in his absence — day and night!”

Mr. Hipp looked at me and winked, tilting his head toward Buddy. The little prisoner had gone down slowly to his knees. “You just can’t — can’t do me that way,” he said. He was crying.

“No, sir. We won’t get him out of town good . . .”Sheriff began.

“That’s enough,” I said. “Even if he did steal the britches.”

“Then let’s get going!” said Mr. Hipp.

He and Sheriff put their hands on Buddy and hustled him out to the car. I went to the meat counter and started weighing hams.