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Authors: Ernest J. Gaines

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BOOK: A Gathering of Old Men
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We squatted under a pecan tree just outside the graveyard fence. You had pecans on the ground all around you, and if you looked up you could see them hanging loose in the shells. The next good wind or rain was go’n bring them all down. It was a good year for pecans.

We hadn’t been there more than ten, maybe fifteen minutes when Jacob stood up and went inside the graveyard. I looked back over my shoulder, and I seen him pulling up weeds from Tessie’s grave. Tessie was his sister. She was one of them great big pretty mulatto gals who messed around with the white man and the black man. The white men wanted her all for themself, and they told her to stay away from the niggers. But she didn’t listen, and they killed her. Ran her through the quarters out into that St. Charles River—Mardi Gras Day, 1947.

But listen to this now. Her own people at the old Mulatto Place wouldn’t even take her body home. They was against her living here in the first place round the darker people. I’m not dark myself, I’m light as them, but I’m not French, not quality. Them, they’re quality, them; but they wouldn’t even take her body home. Buried her with the kind she had lived with. Maybe that’s why Jacob was here today, to make up for what he had done his sister over thirty years ago. After pulling up the weeds, he knelt down at the head of the grave and made the sign of the cross. Next thing you knowed, every last one of us was in there visiting our people’s graves.

You had to walk in grass knee-high to reach some of the graves. The people usually cleaned up the graveyard if they had to bury somebody, or for La Toussaint. But nobody had been buried there in a good while, and La Toussaint wasn’t for another month, so you had grass, weeds everywhere. Pecans and acorns—you could feel them under your feet, you could hear them crack when you stepped on them.

We went to our different little family plots. But we wasn’t too sure about all the graves. If they had been put there the
last twenty, twenty-five years, yes, then we could tell for sure. But, say, if they had been put there forty, fifty years ago, it was no way we could tell if we was looking at the right grave for the right person. Most of the graves after a while had just shifted and mixed with all the others.

Dirty Red was a little bit farther away from the rest of us, more over into the corner. We had never mixed too well with his people. We thought they was too trifling, never doing anything for themself. Dirty Red was the last one. Maybe that’s why he was here today, to do something for all the others. But maybe that’s why we was all there, to do something for the others.

After I had knelt down and prayed over my own family plot, I wandered over to where Dirty Red was standing all by himself. He was eating a pecan and looking down at the weeds that covered the graves. Dirty Red hadn’t knelt down or pulled one weed from one grave. Some of the graves was all sunked in.

“My brother Gabe there,” Dirty Red said. I didn’t know for sure what spot he was looking at, because soon as he said it he cracked another pecan with his teeth. Not cracking couple of them together in his hand, but cracking them one at a time with his teeth. “My mon, Jude; my pa, François, right there,” he said. I still didn’t know for sure where he was looking. “Uncle Ned right in there—somewhere,” he said.

The whole place was all sunked in, and you had weeds everywhere, so I couldn’t tell for sure where Dirty Red was looking. I never looked at his eyes to see if they shifted from one spot to another. But, knowing Dirty Red, I figured they probably didn’t. That woulda been too much like work. Even to bat his eyes was too much work for Dirty Red.

“You got plenty of us in here,” I said, looking around the graveyard. I could see Mat, Chimley, Yank—all of them standing near their people’s graves. “This where you want them to bring you?” I asked Dirty Red.

“Might as well, if it’s still here,” he said.

“They getting rid of these old graveyards more and more,” I said. “These white folks coming up today don’t have no respect for the dead.”

Dirty Red cracked another pecan with his teeth.

“Graveyard pecan always taste good,” he said. “You tried any of them?”

“I’ll gather me up a few before we leave,” I said.

I looked out on the empty field on the other side of the fence. The cane rows came up to twenty or thirty feet of the graveyard. Beau had cut and hauled the cane away, and I could see all the way back to the swamps. Them long old lonely cane rows took me back back, I can tell you that.

“Him and Charlie had a chance to get some of it done,” I said to Dirty Red.

“He sure won’t be getting no more done,” Dirty Red said.

“What you think of all this, Dirty Red?” I asked him.

“Well, I look at it this way,” he said. “How many more years I got here on this old earth?”

That was all he had to say. He stopped right there. Just like Dirty Red not to finish something. That woulda taken too much of his strength, and him and his people believed in saving as much strength as they could.

“With that little time left, you thought you ought to do something worthwhile with your life?” I asked, trying to coax him on.

“Something like that,” he said. He ate another pecan.

“Your people will be proud of you, Dirty Red.”

“I reckon lot of them in here go’n be proud after this day is over,” he said. “Might have some of us joining them, too.”

“You think it might come to that?”

“That’s up to Fix,” he said. He looked at me and grinned. Then he looked past me and nodded. “Here come Clatoo and them.”

They came down the road, where the old railroad tracks
used to be. Clatoo was in front, with his gun in one hand and a shoe box under his left arm. Bing and Ding Lejeune from the Two Indian Bayou was a step behind him. Both had on khakis and both had on straw hats, and you had to get right on them to tell who was who, and if you didn’t know Ding had the scar ’cross the left side of his face, you still couldn’t tell which one you was talking to. Clabber Hornsby, the albino from Jarreau, came behind Bing and Ding Lejeune, walking by himself. Clabber’s head and face from this distance was all one color—white white. What he had a gun for, only God knows. He couldn’t stop blinking long enough to sight, let alone kill somebody. Behind Clabber came Jean Pierre Ricord and Gable Rauand. Now, that was somebody, Gable, I never woulda expected to see. He very seldomed ever left home. To church, maybe, but that was about all. Behind him and Jean Pierre came Cedrick Tucker and Sidney Brooks. Cedrick’s brother Silas was the last black sharecropper on the place. He was buried here. Walking next to Cedrick was Sidney Brooks—we all called him Coot. Old Coot was in his World War I uniform. Even had on the cap, and the belt ’cross his shoulder. He carried his gun ’cross the other shoulder in a soldier’s manner. We left the graveyard to meet them. We met under the pecan tree, and couple of the fellows squatted down against the wire fence.

“Everybody shot?” Clatoo asked soon as he walked up.

“Billy shot at a rabbit on his foot and missed him,” Dirty Red said. Dirty Red was squatting by the fence.

Couple of the fellows laughed at Dirty Red.

“That rabbit was moving, Dirty Red,” Billy told him. “But you ain’t, and don’t forget it.”

The men laughed again. Not loud. Quiet. Thoughtful. More from nervousness than anything else.

“Save your fighting for later,” Clatoo told Billy Washington.

“Them ain’t shot, shoot,” he said. “She told us to bring empty shells.”

“What we suppose to do with them empties, throw them at Fix?” I asked Clatoo.

“You can ask her that when you get there,” Clatoo said. “Them ain’t shot yet, shoot up in them trees. Let them down there hear you.”

Five or six of us raised our guns and shot. A few pecans, a few acorns, some moss and leaves fell down on the sunked-in graves under the trees.

“Anybody got anything to say ’Fore we get started?” Clatoo asked. “Anybody feel like turning around? It can get a little hot out there today. Anybody?”

Nobody said they wanted to turn around.

“All right,” Clatoo said. “Let’s get moving. Heads up and backs straight. We going in like soldiers, not like tramps. All right?”

He started out first, gun in one hand, shoe box under his arm. Mat and Jacob followed, then the rest of us. Jean Pierre, Billy Washington, and Chimley was doing all they could to walk with their heads up and backs straight.

Cyril Robillard
aka
Clatoo

Candy met us
at the gate, where the gate used to be; you didn’t have a fence or a gate there now. She stood on one side the ditch, we was on the other side. She was a little, spare woman, not too tall; always wearing pants and shirts, never dresses. She thanked us for coming. You could tell by her face how happy she was to see us. Thanking this one, thanking that one, thanking the other one. She knowed most of us by name, because we all lived in the same parish and she had traveled all over the parish all her life. After everybody had spoke to her, she looked back at me. She knowed about me and my gardening, and she figured I had brought the people there in my truck. Now she started telling me what had happened. I listened good, but I could see from the start she was lying. For one thing, I knowed what Mathu meant to that family, and specially to her. Besides that, she was trying too hard to make me believe her. Like most of these white folks you’ll find round here, when they trying to convince you they’ll look you dead in the eye, daring you to think otherwise from what they want you to think. Adding to all that, she told it too fast, too pat—she had practiced it too much.

After listening to her, I looked at Mathu squatting against the wall with the gun in his arms. He wasn’t looking at us, he was looking over us toward the trees on the other side of the road. He acted like he didn’t care if we was even there. Mathu was one of them blue-black Singaleese niggers. Always bragged about not having no white man’s blood in his veins. He looked down on all the rest of us who had some, and the more you had, the more he looked down on you. I was brown-skinned—my grandpa white, my grandma Indian and black, and both my parents black; so he didn’t look down on me quite as much as he did some others, like Jacob, or Cherry, or the Lejeune brothers. With Clabber and Rooster, he just shook his head. Rooster was yellow, with nappy black hair; Clabber was milk white, with nappy white hair. Mathu just shook his head when he saw either one of them.

We moved in the yard and made a circle round Beau laying there in the grass. His mouth and eyes still opened, his face caked with dust, his brown hair full of grass seeds. The shotgun pellets had hit him on the left side of his chest, tearing off that part of his shirt. Flies covered the dried blood.

After looking at him, I went over and shook hands with Rufe Seaberry, Johnny Paul, and Rooster Jackson standing by the garden fence. We didn’t have much to say, just a nod, but in that nod I could see how proud they was to be there.

Glo Hebert, Hazel Robinson, and Rooster’s big wife, Beulah Jackson, was all sitting on the steps. Glo had her three little grandchildren next to her side. I went to shake hands but I had to pass by Reverend Jameson first. He was the preacher in the quarters, and he was the only man there who didn’t have a gun, and the only person there who looked like he hated the sight of us. When I shook Glo’s hand, she helt on to mine awhile. I knowed why she did it—two reasons. One, she was worried about what might happen if Fix came there. But, two, she was proud of us all being there now.

I shook hands with Hazel and Beulah, and I spoke to Corrine, sitting in the rocking chair on the garry. Sitting there straight and lifeless as a scarecrow. She didn’t speak or nod, just gazed out there in the yard, at nobody, at nothing. I went to the end of the garry and spoke to Mathu.

“You all right?” I asked him.

“I’m all right,” he said, not looking at me.

I went around the house and hid the shoe box behind the second block under the house. When I came back, I raised up two fingers to Mat Brown, and he nodded back. I sat at the end of the garry and looked at Mathu. The rest of the men had moved to different parts of the yard. Some was standing over by the garden talking; some was standing next to the end of the garry. Dirty Red and a couple more squatted on the walk. Candy had come back in the yard, and she was standing next to the steps where Glo sat with her grandchildren. And standing away from everybody else, all to himself, was that preacher Jameson. He looked from one of us to another, from one to another. He wanted to say something, but he didn’t know where to start.

“Well?” I said to Mathu.

“She called y’all, I didn’t.” He didn’t look at me; he was looking toward the tractor out there in the road. The motor was still running, but he wasn’t paying it any ’tention. He was looking over the tractor, over the trailers of cane, toward the trees in that far pasture. “When the man get here, I’ll turn myself in,” he said.

“You mean I’m go’n turn myself in, don’t you?” Johnny Paul said, from over by the garden. Johnny Paul had the shotgun tucked under his arm, the barrel flat against his leg. “You ain’t taking no credit for what I did.”

“You go’n have to come after me,” Rufe said. He was standing next to Johnny Paul by the garden.

“Y’all better fit me in there somewhere,” Mat said, across the yard from them.

“How could you shoot him? You don’t even stay here,” Johnny Paul said.

“Chicken hawk,” Mat said. He looked up at the sky. The sky was clear blue, not a cloud anywhere. But still a little too warm for October. “Can’t keep that bugger from eating my chickens for nothing in the world. Told Chimley this morning I was go’n take my shotgun and go looking for that rascal. Followed him all the way from Medlow to Marshall. Never could get a clean shot at that bugger.” He was still looking up at the sky, like he thought the chicken hawk might fly over his head.

“He sure told me that,” Chimley said. He looked up at the sky, too. He even stepped back and looked up into that pecan tree behind Mathu’s house. “That’s how I happened to get my gun and went out looking for that old chicken hawk, too.”

BOOK: A Gathering of Old Men
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