An Act of Self-Defense
A new barn makes bad neighbors and leads to violence in this work by a familiar ATLANTIC author. The story will be included in FISHES, BIRDS AND SONS OF MEN, a collection to be published by Atlantic-Little, Brown in the fall.
A Story by JESSE HILL FORD
You will have a friend sometimes, and then time will come when you will know that you never really liked the guy, and that’s how it was with Blake when we came down to the argument about the barn — my barn I was building on my place. Blake wasn’t for the location. He was a fine one to try to give me advice about my own business, such that I didn’t look up, though I could see him coming a good distance down the way over the dead sedge of the mown hayficld.
Though I had first seen him when he crossed the road and stepped into my ground coming into the field where I was working on the barn, me all alone and him still two hundred yards away carrying the gun, I didn’t look up. I thought it rash of him to set foot on my land carrying a gun. Beside him was another man, shorter than Blake and wearing a hat instead of a cap.
I kept glancing their way out of the corner of my eye, and I kept hammering, driving nails until Blake was close enough so I could see his glasses. Then I looked up.
“What you hunting?” I said.
“Hawk,” I thought he said.
“Stealing your chickens?”
Blake looked strange. I went toward him still holding the hammer. He opened the bolt and unloaded his gun. It was his .22 rifle, a beat-up old single shot like you see at first Tuesday trade auctions. Blake always went to the auctions. Him and me used to go to auctions together. I got close enough to him to smell his bib overalls, the sourmilk smell that says a man will never be nothing else only what he is, something a little oily and unpleasant. There was also the burnt smell of tobacco on the both of them. Blake’s cousin was showing broken front teeth — smiling. He wore gray pants and a cloth jacket. His work shirt was open at the collar. He looked to be a cleaner man than Blake.
“Don’t you know you ain’t supposed to be a-doing this today?” Blake was saying. He meant working on Sunday.
“Well, you’re hunting,” I said.
“That old hog’s out,” Blake said. “I got to find her.”
“Hog — ? I thought you said hawk,” I said.
“Hog.” He sounded hoarse.
Beside him Blake’s cousin was still grinning.
“She’s been rooting around over here,” I said. “By the sign of it. But I’ve not seen her today.”
She was a big old sow with two rows of teats swinging when she walked. She had given several fine litters of pigs. Now Blake was hunting her with a gun, so he said.
“I might shoot her if I find her,” he said.
He had his excuse to be on my land with the gun. There I stood with nothing but the hammer. They were both looking about to make sure I was alone, and right then I decided to go for him with the hammer if he moved to reload the rifle. After I had laid him out I could take care of his cousin. The cousin didn’t look like much trouble, and his only reason to be here in the first place was to witness it, that Blake killed me in self-defense. That accounted for the little man’s nervous, guilty grin. He looked to be about fifty and the sort you could make do anything in the world if you happened to be his kinsman. He was the kind you could say to him: Look, I’m going to step over yonder where Humphreys is a-nailing on his barn. If he’s all by hisself, I’ll shoot him down, and you’ll stand as my witness to just how it happened, that Humphreys come at me with a knife.
It would suit a man like Blake’s cousin just fine, simple as he surely was, a man sure to fall into any kind of trap or danger that way just so long as the one he did it for was kin to him. Kin — that made it holy in his eyes — even on Sunday.
“Alone all by yourself?” the cousin asked.
“I didn’t get your name?” I said right back, smoothly as I could.
“Byrum — ”
“Oh, sure. Didn’t recognize you, Mr. Byrum.”
Pretending not to notice, I watched Blake’s hand from the corner of my eye, waiting for him to reach back into his overalls for the cartridge, thinking that might be the very time to brain him, thinking: Let him reach for the shell, and then, by God, do it. Because it was coming to me that with the breech open, Blake might be quicker than I knew, even though I knew him well. Here was the gun he had always shot rabbits with, so of course he had to be quick with it, and me there standing alone against two of them, miles from nowhere and them both confronting me, one for a witness and the other holding a rifle in his hands. Blake’s error was ever to unload in the first place. Of course, that was intended to put me off guard, but it hadn’t worked.
“Old sow ought to be here someplace,” Blake said, turning his head and pretending to squint at the thickets — honeysuckle rows and terraces grown up in sassafras, brown-carpeted where the leaves had fallen a month ago and the terraces deadlooking, the saplings bare and gray, and all about and beyond us the light-tan stretch of mown-hay stubble.
Beneath the stubble, vetch vines had already put out, but the green vetch was too young yet and too small to see, but I knew it was secretly sprouted and growing under the stubble, small vines a-curl like ferns. The day was warm for November, and here was I hoping to roof the barn before Christmas. I was working any day I could, never mind Sundays. Blake well knew it.
When his hand moved, drifting toward his pocket, I eased a step in toward him with the hammer held loose at my side, held ready to knock his brains out, and his hand dropped.
“Don’t seem to see her noplace,” he said. “Might look around for her.”
“I’ll go along with you,” I said. Because it wouldn’t do for Blake to get six paces off, for he would load then, and I’d stand helpless but to take the shot. I was figuring my chances if that happened. They came to zero. Quick as a wink Blake would lay one between my eyes at that distance, glasses, squint, and all, and he had his witness by him. Just give him five or six paces, and Blake would have it made.
“Why, it’s no need of that,” said Byrum, his cousin. “She might likely be laid out asleep in any one of them row thickets yonder. No need of another man to quit what he’s doing on our account.”
“I don’t mind,” I said. “I was looking for an excuse to quit. This hammer’s done got heavy on me. I’d a thousand times rather go help a man look for his old hog,”
WHAT little advantage I had by reason of size and quickness was lost sure if they got off any distance from me. I knew Blake had to be kicking himself for ever unloading that single-shot rifle, but that was Blake. In anything he did he had to be close in and sure. Lonnie Blake was never a man given to take chances. He well knew if it should take two shots at my carcass, then his excuse to the grand jury was ruined. Two shots, and he might get two years for manslaughter.
“This here’s the barn I was telling you about,” Blake was saying.
“Nice barn,” said his cousin uncertainly.
The little moment of danger went on by, and I could see Blake had figured I wouldn’t crawl him with the hammer. Not with Blake’s own witness here, not if I didn’t have to do it; and besides, Blake couldn’t be sure I was on to him. By the look of him he was still counting on it a little that I didn’t really and truly suspect what he was up to, because he stepped on ahead of me where I could follow and watch his free hand. I followed while he and Byrum looked over the half-built barn, walking around the inside walls I had framed with rough cypress. I could hit Lonnie just under the edge of his cap where his head joined the neck, and he would go down dead before he hit the ground. He would drop like a calf, and it would be all over, and I could lay it on his cousin. I could swing around and give Byrum the same load of business and step over to my truck and go for the sheriff—but that wouldn’t look good. I had to figure that the rifie would fall under Blake or beside him, and with the gun unloaded, it wouldn’t look good for me. I might even have to fire it — maybe shoot and nick myself. The more I thought, the more it seemed the wrong and chancy thing to do, yet I couldn’t help looking at Blake’s neck, at that place just above his shirt collar. Meanwhile, they studied every joist and stud, with me close enough to breathe on them both, hugging along behind them almost tight as paper on the wall.
“We’d best go along and leave you to your work,” the cousin said.
“I’m in no hurry,” I said.
“That old sow’s run loose all over the country.
I said if I found her I might shoot her.”
“I don’t mind her running loose over here on me,” I said. “Not so long as I don’t have fences as yet. She don’t hurt anything.”
“I just don’t like her ranging and tearing up on other folks,” said Blake. “This damn old gun’s got so it won’t hardly shoot half the time no more.”
“Hand it here and let’s see it,” I said.
“We’ll just step yonder way and take a look for her,” Blake said, making no move to hand me the gun. He pretended I hadn’t asked him for it.
“I might want to buy that old gun,” I said.
“This—? It ain’t worth a nickel, but I wouldn’t take nothing for it. No, I wouldn’t set a price on it.”
“But you just said it wouldn’t hardly shoot.”
“We might ought to go, Lon. Might ought to let Humphreys get on with his work.” the cousin said nervously.
Blake paid him no mind. “Well,” he said, “but when it’s all the gun a man’s got. I guess be has to keep and make do with it.”
“I might swap you this little old pistol I carry here in my hind pants pocket. For that old gun,”
“What?” said Blake. “When did you start to tote a pistol? I never knew you to carry a pistol.”
“It’s just a little thing to fit the palm of your hand.”I said.
“Lemme see it,” he said.
“I never take it out, Lon. Like my daddy said. He said never take one out unless you intend to use it. I never take it out in fear it might go off in an accidental way and kill or hurt somebody. Because a little old automatic that way is not something everybody is accustomed to handle.”
“Automatic? You really got a pistol?” said Blake’s cousin.
“Lately I never go without it if I’m alone this way. Because a man never knows what he might meet with — out by himself,” I said.
I knew they didn’t quite believe me, but again, they couldn’t quite be sure I was lying. It had to be now, if Blake was bound and determined to try me. I felt it, like a strange wind touching my back between the shoulder blades, I felt it.
Blake was easing his hand in toward his pocket as though hardly knowing what it was he did. He stood nearly facing me. I swapped hands with the hammer and booked my free thumb in the edge of my rear pants pocket. Blake’s hand paused, but right then he must have decided something because he reached all the way in his pocket and came out with a rifle shell. I went straight in on him lefthanded, swinging the hammer, and missed his head. He had ducked. Anyway, I caught him a glancing blow on the shoulder, hardly enough to hurt him, and he danced back a few steps, trying to load. I followed close. I swapped hands with the hammer. That was enough. He got loaded, but I still thought I had him. A good one leveled straight at his temple, and sure enough it caught him, but not before he had pulled the trigger on me. I saw him go down all at once in a reeling heap like a sack of loose cob corn. I turned then, looking for his cousin, and saw him — running. Byrum looked to be nearly forty yards gone, and he was still traveling. I caught hold to a wall stud with my left hand and dropped the hammer. I knew I was shot bad. I felt something starting to drain and hurt inside me. I thought. I’m killed. Maybe I’m killed.
“Hey!"’ I yelled. “Come back here!”
It was no use. Byrum hit the gravel road, still running. He reached the property line, tripped on the honeysuckles, fell flat, and scrambled up and crashed on and disappeared. I was so close to where Blake was fallen that I stepped on the rifle, ft lay half under him. Blake was barely breathing. Something said in me like a voice over and over: So this is how you kill a man. My stomach started feeling heavy, like something was burned and torn up and bleeding inside me there. I was starting to tremble and sweat. The water ran off me like raindrops. My teeth chattered, and if I didn’t get help, I was going to die. I could probably make it to the truck if I went right on and didn’t pass out — I could probably drive on in to the hospital, but it would mean leaving Blake lie where he was.
I decided to take him with me. I knew it might look better for me to leave him lying right where he fell and not move anything, but he was breathing. He wasn’t dead.
“You can’t leave him lay there to die,” I told myself out loud. Then again, Byrum might slip back anytime now with Blake’s brother or somebody, and they might kill me before I could get gone.
THOUGHTS ran through my head like a storm thundering sixty miles an hour.
I knelt and tried, but I couldn’t pick him up, so I got up and dragged him. His glasses drooped down and slid across his sagging face. They finally fell clean away. Blake seemed like he weighed a ton. I got halfway to the truck with him trailing his blood on chips and sawdust. I was that far and ready to faint before it came to me to go get in the truck and drive up as close to him as I could and load him that way. My head had started hurting.
I walked bent over holding the place where I was shot. I got in the pickup. It started right quick, but when I reached to shift gears something seemed like it tore me inside. It was like I was shot the second time. It seemed like I wouldn’t be able to drive.
I waited. The pain seemed to slide away and flutter outside me like butterflies ready to come back and light in me again any instant. I cased off the clutch and drove across the field to where Blake was still bleeding in the dead grass. I thought, Blake will die sure if he loses more blood. I said it aloud. Talking to myself that way seemed to give me strength, like I was two people here and in trouble instead of only one by himself. “He will die sure if he loses any more blood.”
Talking all the while, I got down out of the cab. “If you hadn’t of lied to him about having a pistol maybe this wouldn’t have happened.” I answered myself. “Yes, but he might have killed you.”
I tore his shirt. I split his sleeve and tore it away and wrapped the cloth around Blake’s head for a bandage. Blood soaked right through. Blood came through like a stain of oil, but it seemed better to bandage him. I made my second try to lift him then, but it was no bet. I nearly passed out trying. My stomach had gotten like a weight, a lump of warm lead that kept trying to drag me to the ground. The pain came back, rasping across me like the edge of an old file, like a quick blur coming up and rising like smoke. It was hovering again, back of my eyes this time.
Finally I got hold of his arm. I set my teeth, clenched them hard against my own pain, and dragged him. Once I had him started, I hauled him clean up into the cab behind me. He started to slide. He slid off onto the floorboards. I couldn’t help it. I let myself out the passenger door on the right. Before I could slam it shut I had to stuff Blake’s arm back inside. When I got the door shut, I went down on all fours like an animal and crawled around the truck. Blood coated the running board on the driver’s side. I hauled myself up. I got in the truck and pushed Blake over and out of my way as best I could. Everything was slick, now everything I touched seemed slippery with blood. I started driving. Again and again I clenched my teeth and wondered why this had to be me, and I thought, if I can just live, if I can just live. By then I believed I was going to die, but I kept telling myself: “Live!” The pain got to be a nausea. If I threw up I knew it would be blood I’d vomit, and I thought: “God, don’t let me die.”
When we came off the gravel into the hard road the pain eased a little where the pavement got easier and smoother. Whereas I had never noticed the road before, now I felt every bump. The bumps seemed like they were tearing me to pieces. I stepped down hard on the accelerator, and never mind traffic lights or cars, I just busted on through, mashing the horn. I went left up the hospital road and turned in right at the emergency entrance. I pulled up to the door.
I was going to vomit. I cut the engine. I couldn’t think of anything else, so I blew the horn. I kept blowing it. A nurse walked out and then another one behind her.
“I’m shot,” I said. “And he’s out cold.”
They brought a rolling cot for him. They took Blake first. Then they got one on either side of me and helped me inside and around the corner into the emergency room. They had me on one table and Blake on another. I was laid out flat, with the lamp over me, a big gray lamp. It was not lighted. My pain eased, I got very still down inside me, and I knew I was going to live. They brought a steel pan, and I vomited blood. It came up dark and easy, but the pain came back and drew in like a nylon cord noosed around my vitals. I had to moan.
“What happened?” the nurse said.
“He shot me,” I said. My voice drifted like a radio playing in another room. “So I hit him.”
“Another fight,” the nurse said. She sounded disgusted. She was talking to someone else.
“Will he die?” I said.
“I don’t know. I’m not the doctor.”
I vomited again. It was worse the second time.
“They better hurry. This one’s pretty bad,” I heard one of them say.
The gray lamp went on about then, and I closed my eyes. “What’s your name?”
I told her.
“I’m going to give this one oxygen,” someone said, There was a hissing noise. They were giving it to him. I could see the light against my closed lids. I wanted to be still. I didn’t want to move or say anything. I could hear them helping him.
“What was the fight about?” she asked. I didn’t say anything. “What did you fight over?”
“Do you have Blue Cross, Blue Shield or similar insurance?”
“That one’s out, he can’t talk.”
“How about this one?”
“He’s still conscious, I think.” She opened my eyelid to the light. I saw the shadow of her finger.
“You have hospital insurance?”
“Yes,” I said. “In my wallet.”
It was the first I knew they’d taken my pants and my shirt.
“I asked you what the fight was about,” said the other one. “Why did you hit him?”
“Because he shot me,” I said.
“In his wallet. Look in his wallet.”
“I think this one’s gone. Yes — he’s gone. I don’t get a blood pressure.”
“Better wait for Doctor.”
“He’s gone, though.”
I opened my eyes and turned my head. I looked over where Blake was lying. All I could see was a part of his head. The mask covered his face.
“Well, you fixed him,” she said. “He might have shot you. but you fixed him.”
I saw the doctor. He was taking off his coat. Then he came out of his shirt. They held up a smock for him, and he slipped it on. He put a green cloth cap on his head and tied it snugly behind. They held out gloves for him.
“This one is gone?” he said. “Since when?”
“Just a minute ago.”
He listened to Blake’s chest. Then he did the blood pressure thing.
“Adrenalin,” he said.
They brought it. He drew some into a big needle. They had pulled the sheet away from Blake’s chest. I could see the nest of dark hair. The doctor plunged in the needle, straight down. He listened again. Then he straightened up. “Gone,” he said.
“That one’s shot —”
“What with?” He pulled the sheet back.
“Twenty-two,” I said.
“Let’s have some blood,” he said. They had it ready. They put a needle in my arm and started the blood.
“That one shot him, so he hit that other one. That’s what he says,” said a nurse.
“Well, I doubt if he could have shot him if he’d been hit first,” said the doctor. “What did you hit him with?”
“A hammer,” I said. I didn’t want to talk.
“What was the fight all about?” he asked. “We’ve got to run your gut and patch it up. You’ll have to be put to sleep.”
“All right,” I said. “Will I live?”
“You’ll live. I can almost guarantee you’ll live. You’re having more luck than he had.”
“George Lonnie Blake, age thirty-seven, Route Four. Occupation farmer,” the nurse was saying.
“What was the fight over? You don’t mind telling, do you?” the doctor asked. “We need to know before we put you to sleep.”
“Well,” I said. “We were good friends just about all our lives. I bought that field next to him. I said my barn ought to be one place. He said another. Of course it was my right to build my own barn where I believed it ought to be. But he never liked the idea. We had cross words over it.”
“You fell out over the location of your barn?” he said. “And you were friends — you knew each other well?”
“That was the start of it,” I said.
“God help,” said one of the nurses.
The doctor prepared to give me a shot, “Now I want you to count backwards. Start at ten, and count back,” he said.
“Ten, nine, eight, seven . . .” That was all I knew. I woke up on a bed. By then it had all been ruled on as an act of self-defense. No charges were brought against me.