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Authors: Ernest J. Gaines

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BOOK: A Gathering of Old Men
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“No, sir.”

“Then what you think’ll happen if I took you in and they convicted you? You think you’re too old to die in the chair?”

“No, sir.”

“Well?”

The old man licked his swollen bottom lip and looked down at the ground again. I thought Mapes had finally got to
him. Everybody on the porch and in the yard was watching and waiting.

“I don’t have all day, Uncle Billy,” Mapes said.

The old man started shaking his head as he looked up at Mapes again.

“I kilt him,” he said.

“Why?” Mapes asked him.

“Sir?”

“Why did you kill Beau?”

“What they did my boy,” the old man said, staring blankly at Mapes, his head bobbing again. His swollen bottom lip trembled nervously. “The way they beat him. They beat him till they beat him crazy, and we had to send him to Jackson. He don’t even know me and his mama no more. We take him candy, we take him cake, he eat it like a hog eating corn. Don’t offer none to them other crazy people. Don’t offer none to nobody—me, his mama, or them other crazy people. Just put his head in the cake and eat it like a hog eating corn. His mama slice him a little piece and hand it to him, he let it fall on the table, and eat it like a hog eating corn. That’s no way to be. It hurt his mama every time she sees that.”

“Who beat your boy, Uncle Billy?” Mapes asked the old man.

“Fix and them, what the people say.”

“But you don’t know for sure?”

“I can just take what the people say. I wasn’t there.”

“When did all this happen, Uncle Billy?”

“Years back, when he come home from that war.”

“What war?”

“That war with Hitler and them Japs.”

“You’ve been holding a grudge against Fix all that time, Uncle Billy?”

“I don’t hold no grudge. My Bible tells me not to hold no grudge.”

“Your Bible also tells you thou shalt not kill.”

“Yes, sir. It does.”

“Well?”

“Sometimes you just has to go against your Bible, Sheriff,” Uncle Billy told Mapes. His bald head didn’t stop bobbing.

“You didn’t,” Mapes said. “I don’t think you even know who shot Beau. You’re just a pawn. Somebody they’re playing with. You weren’t even down here, and they didn’t even tell you who did it, or how it happened—now, did they?”

“No, sir. They didn’t need to tell me. I did it.”

Mapes looked around the yard, then back at the old man again.

“Aim at one of the bean poles in that garden, Uncle Billy,” Mapes said.

“What one?” the old man asked.

“What one you can see,” Mapes told him.

“I sees a bunch of them,” the old man said, his bald head steadily bobbing.

“Aim,” Mapes commanded, with exasperation.

Uncle Billy set the gun against his shoulder and aimed at the nearest pole about ten feet away. For a moment, he didn’t even know which eye to shut. When he finally figured that out, the gun was shaking so much you would have thought it was one of those divining rods that had just discovered water.

“You can bring it down,” Mapes said. The old man lowered the gun. He was sweating he was so tired. “It would have taken Beau longer than that to stop that tractor, get his gun, and come into this yard,” Mapes said. “You’re still saying you killed him.”

“I didn’t sight till he crossed that ditch,” Uncle Billy said.

“The one who shot Beau, his hands didn’t tremble, Uncle Billy,” Mapes said. “He was cool about it, cool and calm. Knew exactly what he was doing. Shot at the right moment, the right distance. A hunter shot Beau, Uncle Billy. Somebody
used to guns. Not you. You never hunted a thing in your life but a good seat in a Baptist church. In winter, near the heater—in summer, near the window. Get out of my sight, Uncle Billy. Go stand somewhere else.”

“Yes, sir,” the old man said. “But I did it.”

“I told you to move,” Mapes said.

“Yes, sir, I’m moving,” he said, backing away, his head bobbing all the time. “But I did it.”

“Now, what would I look like taking something like that to Bayonne?” Mapes was talking to himself again. “They’d laugh me out of the parish, if they don’t lock me in the loony ward and throw away the key first.” He turned his head slowly and looked at Mathu squatting against the wall. “Mathu, come down here,” he said.

Joseph Seaberry
aka
Rufe

When Mapes
called Mathu, Candy moved between Mapes and the steps. The rest of us came in a little bit closer, too. Mapes looked around at the people closing in on him, but he wasn’t worried, and he looked back at Mathu. Mathu had stood up with his gun, and he was headed toward the steps.

“Stay where you’re at,” Candy said.

“I’ll come to the man,” Mathu said.

“Just one second,” Candy said. “I mean it.” She looked at him till he stopped; then she turned back to Mapes. “Mind, Mapes,” she said. “Mind your hands, now. He’s not Reverend Jameson. He’s not Uncle Billy or Gable. Mind your hands, now.”

“He’s Mathu,” Mapes said. “But I represent the law. And I did find a dead man in his yard. That gives me the right to question even Mathu.”

“You just mind your hands,” Candy warned him. “One drop of his blood—” She stopped. She didn’t have to say the rest.

“I think he know what you mean, Candy,” Clatoo said, from the end of the garry.

“Yes, I think he does,” Candy said, still looking at Mapes.

Then she reached out her hand to help Mathu down the steps. Two of the four steps was missen, had been missen twenty, twenty-five years, and Mathu had come down them steps every day of his life without anybody helping him. But since Candy reached out her hand, he took it just to please her.

When he reached the ground, he bowed to thank her; then he turned to Mapes. He was up in his eighties, head white as it could be, but you didn’t see no trembling in his face, in his hands. He faced Mapes straight and tall, holding his gun close to his side.

“How you feeling, Mathu?” Mapes asked.

Mapes was a lot of things. He was big, mean, brutal. But Mapes respected a man. Mathu was a man, and Mapes respected Mathu. But he didn’t think much of the rest of us, and he didn’t respect us.

“I’m all right, Sheriff,” Mathu said. “And yourself?”

“I’m tired,” Mapes said. “I had thought I’d get a little fishing in today.”

“They biting good, what I hear,” Mathu said. His head up, he was looking straight at Mapes. He wasn’t quite as tall as Mapes. Built like a picket—no, more like a post. A old post in the ground—narrow but still strong, and not leaning, and not trembling, either.

Mapes looked at him. Mapes liked Mathu. They had hunted together. Wildcats, alligators, deers. They had fished together. And Mapes had had a few drinks with Mathu at Mathu’s house. He liked Mathu. Even when Mathu got into trouble and he had to arrest Mathu, he knowed it wasn’t Mathu’s doing. But he knowed Mathu had never backed down from anybody, either. Maybe that’s why he liked him. To him Mathu was a real man. The rest of us wasn’t.

“Tell them to go home, Mathu,” Mapes said.

“That’s up to them, Sheriff.”

“They’ll do it if you tell them to do it,” Mapes said. “Tell them to go home before there’s trouble.”

“Mathu, you don’t have to answer any questions,” Candy said. She hadn’t left his side since he stepped to the ground. “He can take you to jail if he wants to, but he can’t force you to talk. Not until Clinton gets there.”

“I don’t mind talking,” Mathu said.

“Tell them to tell me who did it, Mathu,” Mapes said. He looked at Mathu, never at Candy. He was still being respectful toward Mathu.

“I did it, Sheriff,” Mathu said.

Mapes nodded. “I know you did it,” he said. “You’re the only one around here man enough. But I have to hear it from one of them. One of them must say he was called here after it happened.”

“I can’t make nobody say what they don’t want to say,” Mathu said.

“Do you want to see any of these people hurt, Mathu?”

“No, Sheriff.”

“You know that can happen now, don’t you?” Mapes asked him. Mapes was reminding him of Fix, but not using Fix’s name. His eyes was saying Fix, not his mouth.

“A man got to do what he think is right, Sheriff,” Mathu said. “That’s what part him from a boy.”

“It’s not a matter of right and wrong, Mathu,” Mapes said. “It’s a matter of a lot of people getting hurt. And you know you don’t want that.”

“No, I don’t. But it’s up to them.”

“It’s up to you, Mathu,” Mapes said. “Only you. And I ask you, man to man, tell them to go home.”

Mathu started looking round. I don’t know what he was going to say, but he didn’t get a chance to say it, anyhow.

“It ain’t go’n work this time, Sheriff,” Clatoo said, from the end of the garry.

Mapes turned his head quick. “Who said that?” he asked. He heard where the voice came from, and he knowed it was Clatoo’s voice, but he didn’t think Clatoo would own up to it. “I said who said that?” he asked.

“I did, Sheriff,” Clatoo said.

Mapes pretended he couldn’t find Clatoo in the crowd. Clatoo was the only person sitting on that end of the garry, and still Mapes pretended he couldn’t find him. Then when he did, he stared at Clatoo long and hard. He thought if he stared at him long enough, Clatoo was bound to look down. But Clatoo didn’t look down. He sat there with that shotgun over his legs, looking straight back at Mapes.

“What’s the matter with you, Clatoo?” Mapes said. “You’re the last person I thought would be looking for trouble.”

“That’s been my trouble,” Clatoo said.

“What?” Mapes said. Mapes was looking at him the way white folks do round here, looking at him hard.

“I ain’t had no trouble with the law,” Clatoo said.

“Meaning?” Mapes said.

“I’m old,” Clatoo said.

“Meaning?” Mapes said.

“About time I had li’l trouble with the law before I died,” Clatoo said.

“You really want to go to jail, don’t you?” Mapes said.

“I figured I was on my way there when I shot him,” Clatoo said.

“Amen,” Beulah said, from the steps.

Mapes looked at Clatoo the way white folks know how to look at a nigger when they think he’s being smart.

“Isn’t it a little bit late for you to be getting militant around here?” Mapes asked Clatoo.

“I always been militant,” Clatoo said. “My intrance gone sour, keeping my militance down.”

“Sure now,” Mapes said, looking at him hard.

“Sure now is right,” Clatoo said. “No use talking to Mathu. He didn’t do nothing. I did it.”

“Sure now,” Mapes said.

“Now, there y’all go again, there y’all go again,” Dirty Red said. Dirty Red was squatting by the walk with that little short, wet cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. If it was not the same one he had a minute ago, it looked just like it. You never seen Dirty Red lighting a new cigarette. When you seen it, it was already half gone—wet, dirty-looking, and half gone. He probably had a bunch of them in his pocket like that—dirty and half gone. “I don’t see how come y’all won’t let a man get—”

“Shut up,” Mapes said. “You and nobody in your family ever done a thing in this world but worked hard to avoid work.”

“Till today,” Dirty Red said. He looked up at Mapes, with his head cocked a little to the side to keep the smoke out his eyes. “Today, I—”

“You trying to cut in on me when I’m talking to you?” Mapes asked him.

“Look like he’s doing more than just trying,” Johnny Paul said, from the other side of Mapes.

Mapes turned quick. Just his head. He was too fat to turn his body fast. “You, too, Johnny Paul?” he said.

Johnny Paul nodded his head. “Me too.”

Mapes was still looking around at Johnny Paul when Jacob Aguillard spoke up.

“No, Dirty Red, Johnny Paul. Uh-uh, Clatoo. It was me,” he said. “I remember what that crowd did to my sister.”

“I see,” Mapes said, looking at Jacob now.

“You see what?” Johnny Paul said.

Mapes was still looking at Jacob when Ding Lejeune spoke up. Ding and his brother Bing stood close together between the walk and the garden.

“I kilt him,” Ding said, thumping his chest. “Me, me—not them, not my brother. Me. What they did to my sister’s little girl—Michelle Gigi.”

“I see,” Mapes said, looking at Ding and Bing at the same time. “I see.”

Johnny Paul grunted out loud. “No, you don’t see.”

He wasn’t looking at Mapes, he was looking toward the tractor and the trailers of cane out there in the road. But I could tell he wasn’t seeing any of that. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking until I saw his eyes shifting up the quarters where his mama and papa used to stay. But the old house wasn’t there now. It had gone like all the others had gone. Now weeds covered the place where the house used to be. “Y’all look,” he said. “Look now. Y’all see anything? What y’all see?”

“I see nothing but weeds, Johnny Paul,” Mapes said. “If that’s what you’re trying to say.”

“Yes, sir,” Johnny Paul said. He didn’t look at Mapes; he was still looking up the quarters. “Yes, sir, I figured that’s all you would see. But what do the rest don’t see? What y’all don’t see, Rufe?” he asked me. He didn’t look at me, still looking up the quarters. “What y’all don’t see, Clatoo? What y’all don’t see, Glo? What y’all don’t see, Corrine, Rooster, Beulah? What y’all don’t see, all the rest of y’all?”

“I don’t have time for people telling me what they can’t or don’t see, Johnny Paul,” Mapes said. “I want—”

Johnny Paul turned on him. He was tall as Mapes, but thin, thin. He was the color of Brown Mule chewing tobacco. His eyes gray, gray like Mapes’s eyes, but not hard like Mapes’s eyes. He looked dead at Mapes.

“You ain’t got nothing but time, Sheriff.”

“What?” Mapes said.

“I did it,” Johnny Paul said.

“I see,” Mapes said. “Either I stand here and let you talk about things you don’t see, and the things the others don’t see, or I take you in? I see.”

“Yes, sir,” Johnny Paul said. “But you still don’t see. Yes, sir, what you see is the weeds, but you don’t see what we don’t see.”

“Do you see it, Johnny Paul?” Mapes asked him.

“No, I don’t see it,” Johnny Paul said. “That’s why I kilt him.”

BOOK: A Gathering of Old Men
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