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Authors: Ernest J. Gaines

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BOOK: A Gathering of Old Men
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“And who’s going to handle Fix, Candy?” I asked her. “Before you even get to court? Fix?”

“I shot him,” she said. “You must believe that.”

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” she said.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. I looked past her at Mathu squatting against that wall with that gun cradled in his arms. He was smoking a cigarette now. He knew I was looking at him, but he was looking past me at the tractor out there in the road. The rest of the people watched quietly from the porch and the steps.

“I won’t let them touch my people,” she said. “I did it.”

I looked back at her. She knew that I had been looking at him.

“That’s how it’s going to be,” she said. She knew that I knew better, though.

“Candy?” I said.

“Now, I want you to do something for me,” she said quickly.

“The best thing I can do for you is make you tell me the truth, Candy,” I said.

“I told you the truth,” she said. But she knew that I knew better. “Now, you can do one of two things,” she said. “Help me or leave.”

“Leave?” I said. I didn’t have to look at Beau again. I didn’t have to look at Mathu. She knew I wouldn’t leave, couldn’t leave. “Leave?” I said.

“Help me, then,” she said.

“Help you how, Candy?”

“I need more guns,” she said.

“What?”

“Get me more twelve-gauge shotguns,” she said. “Get me more people here.”

“More people?” I asked her. “More people for what, Candy?”

“You see what they’re doing?” she said, nodding toward the porch.

I had already seen them, so I didn’t have to look again. “I see old men with shotguns, I see that,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “And I need more. Mapes come here, he’ll beat up two till they talk, then he’ll take one. I need more people here.”

“Candy, are you crazy?” I said. “Are you crazy? Do you know what you’re saying?”

“I know what I’m saying, I know what I’m doing,” she said. “Get me some more people here quick.”

“Get who?” I said.

“Who?” she said. She looked at me the way you look at somebody playing dumb. But I was not playing dumb; I didn’t know who she was talking about. “Who?” she said again. “There’s not a black family in this parish Fix and his crowd hasn’t hurt sometime or other. You’re older than I am, you know that better than I do. Get any of them, get all of them. Now is their chance to stand.”

“And be killed? Is that what you want? Blood all over this place?”

“Look around you, Miss Merle,” she said, waving her hand toward the porch. I didn’t have to look around to know how quietly they sat, watching and listening. “Aren’t they ready to die?” she asked. “Look at Mathu. Do you know who Mathu is, Miss Merle? Miss Merle, I ask, do you know who Mathu is?”

“I know who Mathu is, Candy,” I told her. “I knew Mathu long before you were ever born.”

And I looked at her long enough to let her know that I knew it was he who had done it, and not she. She turned away quickly.

“Look at Rufe,” she said, trying to throw my mind off Mathu. “Look at Johnny Paul.”

“Candy?” I said.

“We don’t have much time,” she said. “We have to notify Mapes sooner or later. I want an hour jump on him at least. I
want Lou here before he gets here. I want more people here with twelve-gauge shotguns, and number five shells. Empty number five shells. Empty. Now, you don’t have much time. Talk to Janey.”

“Talk to Janey about what, Candy?”

“In case you have forgotten what Fix has done to these people around here, maybe she can remind you. I will not let Mapes or Fix harm my people.”

“Candy?” I said. I reached out to take her arm, but she moved back out of my reach. “Candy?” I said.

“No, I won’t let them harm my people,” she said. “I will protect my people. My daddy and all them before him did, and I—”

“Candy?” I said.

“I’ll stand alone,” she said. “Before I let them harm my people, I’ll stand alone.”

“Candy, please. Please, Candy,” I said.

“I did it,” she said.

“Nobody in this parish will ever believe that.”

“I don’t care what people in this parish believe,” she said. “What do I care about what people in this parish believe? I’ll stand alone.”

I turned from her and looked at Mathu squatting there, black as pitch, with that double-barrel shotgun cradled in his arms. How many times had I stood in that yard talking to him while he squatted there, and she sitting across from him at the end of the porch? How many times had I driven by, not stopping, but waving at him while he squatted there, and she sitting on the steps or at the end of the porch talking to him? How many times had I sat on the porch at Marshall House talking to him while he sat on the steps, holding his hat between his knees, and she sitting on the banister closer to him than she was to me, her aunt, or her uncle? How many times? How many times? How many times?

I turned back to her. But before I could open my mouth, she was already saying it again. “I did it.”

“What I ought to do is get away from here,” I told her. “That’s what I should’ve done years ago. But I don’t have any sense. I never had any sense. Have I?”

“You and Lou are all that I have to turn to,” she said.

“Sure,” I said. “Two of a kind. Both fools. We both should’ve gone other directions years ago. But no, no.”

“Go talk to Janey,” she said.

“I didn’t say anything about going along—”

“Make her give you some names,” she said. She had not heard one word that I had said. “Lot of names,” she said. “Twelve-gauge shotguns and number five shells. Empty number five shells. When Mapes gets here, I’m going to need a lot of empty number five shells.”

“Sure,” I said. “Because that’s the size he used on Beau.”

That quieted her for a second, but only a second. Then she was right back again.

“Put Janey out on the west gallery to look out for Lou. When Lou passes by the house, call Mapes. Don’t call Mapes till Lou passes by. I want Lou here first. If you ever loved this family, if you ever loved me. Please.”

“I hope I didn’t,” I said, looking at her. “I hope I had never heard of any of you.”

I looked across the toes of those cowboy boots at Mathu squatting there with that shotgun. He had lit another cigarette. He wasn’t even looking toward us anymore. He was looking down the quarters. Toward what? There was nothing to see from here but the tall blood weeds that grew on the ditch bank and beside the road. I turned away without saying another word.

It took me two or three minutes to get back to Marshall House. I started blowing the horn before I came into the yard, and by the time I stopped the car Janey was already out there. Jack was still asleep in the swing.

“Get that apple pie off the back seat and follow me,” I told her. “Where’s Bea?”

“The wes’ garry,” Janey said.

“Jack?” I said, going up the steps. “Jack?”

“He can’t hear you,” Janey said.

I went over to the swing and shook him. “Jack? Jack?”

“It’s no use,” Janey said.

“Jack?” I called, shaking him again. He didn’t even grunt. “Oh, the hell with him. He never wanted any part of it anyhow.”

Janey and I went inside. While she took the pie to the kitchen, I went out to the west gallery looking for Bea. I found her sitting in her rocking chair by the door, gazing across the flower garden toward the trees in the outer pasture. Beyond the trees was the road that led you down into the quarters. At the mouth of the road was the main highway, heading toward Bayonne, and just on the other side of the highway was the St. Charles River. A light breeze had just risen up from the river, and I caught a faint odor from the sweet-olive bush which stood in the far right corner of the garden.

“Bea, I have to talk to you,” I said.

“That’s you, Merle?” she said, looking over her shoulder at me. “Good. Now I can have my pea picker. It’s almost one o’clock. Where’s Janey? Oh, Janey?” she called.

“Bea,” I said, standing in front of her. “We don’t have time for pea pickers, Bea.”

“Nonsense,” she said. “When didn’t you have time for a pea picker? Where is Janey?”

“Bea,” I said. “Don’t you know what’s happened?”

“I don’t care what’s happened,” she said. She looked back toward the screen door. “Janey?” she called.

“Yes, Ma’am?” Janey said, coming outside.

“You know what time it is?” Bea asked, looking up at her.

Janey looked at me. She didn’t know what to do.

“Bea,” I said. “A man is dead. A man is dead in the quarters, Bea. Beau Boutan is dead.”

“Well?” she said. “What can I do about it? People die all the time. I’m going to die, you’re going to die. Janey, you know what time it is?”

“Don’t move, Janey,” I said. “I need you out here, Bea,” I said. “Did you hear me? A man is dead. Beau Boutan was shot down in the quarters. And Candy is down there claiming she did it. Do you understand what I’m trying to say to you?”

“That gal got spunk,” Bea said. “Always said she had spunk. That’s why she won’t get married, all that spunk. Janey, go in there and get those pea pickers.”

“Don’t you move, Janey,” I said.

“What did you say?” Bea asked, looking up at me. Her little overpowdered white face was as wrinkled as a prune. Her blue-dyed hair was so thin you could see her gray skull. Only her grayish-blue eyes were still alive and youthful, but now angry. “What did you say?” she asked me again. “You told her ‘don’t’? This is not Seven Oaks, Miss, this is Marshall. At Marshall I say ‘don’t’ and I say ‘do.’ ” She looked at Janey just as hard as she had looked at me. “What are you waiting on?” she asked her.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Janey said, and went back inside.

She must have had the drinks already mixed and sitting in the refrigerator, because she was back with two of them within a couple of minutes. The drink was made of gin and pink lemonade, garnished with a slice of orange, a cherry, a piece of lime, a sprig of mint, and a paper straw the color of a peppermint stick. I set my drink on the banister, but Bea couldn’t wait to get started on hers. It was her first drink of the day, and she was already running more than a half hour late. Janey and I stood there watching her.

“Now, what did you say Candy did?” she asked. “That gal got spunk. Just like Grandpa Nate.”

“My God,” I said. “My God, Beatrice. Candy just told me she killed somebody. Is that all you got to say, she’s just like her grandpa?”

“My grandpa,” she said. “Her great-great grandpa. Her grandpa grandpa. About time she shot one of them Cajuns, messing up the land with those tractors. Yes, that gal’s got spunk in her.”

I could see that I was wasting my time talking to Beatrice, and I turned to Janey. Janey was standing there looking down at her and biting her lips as if she were about to start crying again.

“Hold up, Janey,” I told her. “I need somebody around here with me. Now you hold up now.”

“I’m strong,” she said.

“You better be strong,” I said. “Now, listen. I want nothing but answers. Nothing but answers. No questions. Answers. Who do you know don’t like Fix?”

“Ma’am?” she said, drawing back and looking at me as though I were out of my mind. You would have thought I had just asked her who did she know who liked the devil.

“I told you no questions, Janey, just answers,” I said. “We don’t have time for both of us to ask questions. I ask the questions, you answer them. Now, who do you know don’t like Fix?”

“I don’t like him,” Bea said. “I’ve never liked him. Why we ever let that kind on this land, I don’t know. The land has not been the same since they brought those tractors here.”

“Beatrice, please shut up,” I said. “Please. Please, Beatrice.” She raised the glass and sucked on the straw again. “Janey, who do you know don’t like Fix?”

“I don’t know nobody do like Fix,” she said.

“Do you think they hate him enough to stand up to Mapes?”

“Ma’am?” she said.

“Janey, I warned you,” I said. “Yes, or no. Will they stand, or won’t they stand up to Mapes with empty shotguns?”

“I don’t know what you talking about, Miss Merle,” she said. She wanted to cry. “Please, Ma’am, I don’t know what you talking about.”

“I’ll tell you what I’m talking about,” I told her. “I’ll tell you once, and I want answers from then on. You got a crazy thirty-year-old white gal down in the quarters claiming she just killed a white man. Now, I know she didn’t—and Mathu did. But she’s going to protect Mathu. She’s going to protect him even if she has to get every other black person in this state involved. She’s already got two old fools down there, Rufe and Johnny Paul, claiming they did it. But that’s not enough for her. She wants more. Ten, fifteen, twenty, a thousand more. She wants them to get twelve-gauge shotguns, number five shells, fire the guns, keep the empty shells, so that when Mapes points his finger at Mathu, they can all say— Who do you know don’t like Fix? Get them on that phone.”

Now she started crying, bawling there like a lunatic. “Oh, Lord, have mercy, Jesus. Don’t make me do nothing like that. Please, Miss Merle. Please, Ma’am, Miss Merle, don’t make me do nothing like that.”

I grabbed her in the collar and slapped her two or three times.

“Don’t you tell me don’t make you do nothing like that,” I told her. “You think I’m having fun? You tell me who don’t like Fix or I start slapping some more. Now, who don’t like Fix?”

She threw her head back, her black, round face quivering there like jelly, and the tears just pouring down her cheeks. I knew I was being unmerciful, taking out my frustration on her, but I didn’t care. If I was going to be in it, then they all
would be in it. And if I had to slap her around to let her know she was going to be in it, then that was just too bad. “Who don’t like Fix?” I asked her again.

“Clatoo, that’s for sure,” Bea said. “Bad blood been there for years.”

I looked down at Bea, but she was already sucking on that straw again.

I tried to remember what Fix had done to Clatoo. I knew most of the history of that river and of that parish the past fifty years. I tried to remember now what Fix and Clatoo had had it about. Then I remembered. It was not Fix, it was that crazy brother of his, Forest Boutan, who had tried to rape one of Clatoo’s sisters. She had defended herself by chopping him half dozen times with a cane knife. She didn’t kill him, but he was well marked for the rest of his days. And she was sent to the pen for the rest of hers, where after so many years she died insane. That happened just before the Second World War.

BOOK: A Gathering of Old Men
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