Authors: Ernest J. Gaines
“I didn’t see neither one of y’all,” Bing Lejeune said. Him and his brother Ding was standing on the other side of the walk from Chimley. “I been here talking to Mathu all morning long, and I didn’t—”
“I didn’t even see you,” Ding said.
“But you see this, don’t you?” Bing said, raising his fist playfully.
“You see this one?” Ding said, raising his fist. “Don’t make me mad now. You know me when I get mad.”
“Sure, sure,” Bing said. “But you can’t hit the broad side of a barn with a cannon. Everybody on the bayou know that.”
The rest of the people said pretty much the same. One claimed he did it, then another one; one, then another one. Clabber, Jean Pierre, Billy, Rooster, Coot—one after the other. Dirty Red, squatting on the walk, took the cigarette from his mouth and blowed off the ashes. No, he didn’t do it right away. He waited for it to fall off. When it didn’t, he blowed it off. He frowned at the ashes before he did it. Then he looked up.
“You boys ain’t go’n take this from me now, is you?” he asked the rest of us.
“Look like you go’n have to get in line to shoot Beau, Dirty Red,” Cherry Bello told him.
Dirty Red looked at his cigarette and tapped it lightly before he put it back in his mouth.
“Maybe me and Old Hanna might have to do some more shooting, ’liminate some of the competition,” he said. “What you say about that, old gal?” he said to his shotgun. “Ready to ’liminate some of the competition?”
While all this was going on, I could see Jameson getting madder and madder. Jameson was a short, jet-black, bald-headed little fellow with a white mustache and beard. That bald head was shining in that hot sun like a looking glass.
“Y’all will sing a different tune before this day is over with,” he said. “Just mark my word.”
“I’ve already told you to go on home, Reverend Jameson,” Candy said, from the other side of the steps. “I’ve been telling you for the last hour—you don’t want to be here, go on home. I don’t want to have to tell you anymore.”
“This is my place, Candy,” Jameson said. “I ain’t got no home if they burn this place down.” He turned to the rest of us, beads of sweat just popping out of his head and running down his face. “Can’t y’all understand what I’m trying to say to y’all?” he asked us.
Nobody answered him. He looked from one to another, from one to another, but nobody answered him. Most of the people wouldn’t even look back at him. He came closer to the garry.
“Mathu, for God’s sake, go turn yourself in,” he pleaded with Mathu. “Please, Mathu.”
Mathu looked over Jameson’s head toward the trees in that far pasture. He didn’t answer.
Jameson came round the end of the garry where I was sitting.
He was crying now. He was pressing his lips tight, but I could see the tears running down his face.
“Clatoo,” he said. “You got sense. Talk to him. Tell him what can happen.”
I didn’t answer him. I didn’t want to look at him. I looked at the tractor out there in the road. The motor still running.
“Clatoo, please,” Jameson said. “Please.”
“I come here to stand, not to talk,” I said, not looking at him.
But he kept on looking at me. Just standing there crying, his mouth pressed tight, looking at me.
“That’s what y’all come here for?” he asked. “To die? Y’all think that’ll make up for all the hurt? That’s what y’all think?”
I didn’t answer him. I didn’t look at him. I could see him from the corner of my eyes crying, his mouth pressed tight again.
Now he looked at Candy.
“You satisfied now?” he asked her. “You satisfied now? You think you doing him any good if you soak this land with blood?”
She didn’t answer him, either. He kept on looking at her. I could see it out the corner of my eyes. But she wasn’t paying him any more ’tention than anybody else did. He turned back on the rest of the people.
“Go home, old fools,” he said. “Old fools, go home.”
But nobody paid him any mind.
For the next few seconds, everything was quiet, ’cept for that tractor out there in the road. Somewhere in the swamps a owl called, but after that—nothing. Then a pecan dropped from that tree in the back yard, fell on the tin roof, and tumbled to the ground. We all looked at it there a second; then Snookum went to pick it up. Dirty Red, squatting on the walk, gave the little boy a handful of pecans from his pocket.
The boy went back to the steps and gave some of the pecans to the other two children. They started eating.
“Well, Candy?” I said, looking at her by the steps.
She turned to look at me.
“What now?” I said.
“Did everybody shoot?” she asked.
“We shot. We kept the empty shells.”
“All number fives?”
“Number fives,” I said.
“You know why, don’t you, Clatoo?”
I nodded my head. She looked at me awhile; then she glanced at Mathu and faced the road again. You’d do anything in the world for him, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you? I thought to myself.
Jameson had been watching her, too, and now he saw another chance to break in.
“And what’s that suppose to do, fool Mapes?” he asked her. When she didn’t answer him, he turned to me. “Y’all think Mapes that crazy? The man on his back right here in Mathu’s yard, the tractor out there still running, right in front of Mathu’s house. Some of y’all live far as Silo, the old Mulatto Place, Bayonne—ten, twelve miles from here. Don’t y’all know Mapes go’n know half of y’all couldn’t be nowhere near this place when this happened? Y’all all gone plumb crazy?”
“Reverend Jameson, just shut up,” Beulah said. “Just shut up. Nobody listening to you; so just shut up. Go on back home, like Candy said. Nobody listening to you today.”
“Maybe I ought to shoot him,” Rooster said. “You think I ought to shoot him, Dirty Red?”
“No, let him slide,” Dirty Red said. “He might change ’Fore the shooting start.”
Couple of the men laughed at Rooster and Dirty Red.
It was quiet for a while; then we saw the dust. We couldn’t see the car, just the dust coming down the quarters high over
the weeds. We all thought it was Mapes, till the car pulled up and stopped. Through the naked bean poles in Mathu’s garden, through the weeds and bushes on the ditch bank, I could make out that little blue sports car that Candy’s boyfriend owned. She went out in the road to meet him. The rest of us settled back again.
I was trying to figure out was who in Marshall Quarters could—not would—kill Beau Boutan. There were nothing but old people there. The young ones had all gone away, leaving only the old and a few children. So who could do it? Not Charlie. Too many times I had seen Beau speak to him as you would speak to a dog, and he would not raise his head, let alone his voice. Then who? Janey was too hysterical to make any sense over the telephone when I called the house. All she could say was hurry up and get there because Candy needed me.
Candy needed me?
I had been knowing Candy for three years, and during all that time I had never known her to need anybody.
I drove the thirty-five miles from Baton Rouge to Marshall in exactly thirty minutes. Why I didn’t have every highway patrolman in the state of Louisiana on my tail was just a miracle. When I came up even with Marshall House, I saw the Major’s and Miss Merle’s cars in the yard. Candy’s big LTD was not on the lawn in front of the door, so I figured
she was still in the quarters where Janey had said she was.
The length of the quarters was little less than half a mile, beginning with the highway and going back into the fields. The bushes and weeds grew so tall on either side of the road that the road seemed no wider than a king-size bed sheet. Somewhere down there I could make out a tractor and a car. As I came deeper into the quarters, I noticed that there were no people around. The doors and windows of the few old houses were open, but no one sat out on the porches, and no one stood in the yard or worked the gardens. The place looked as if everyone had suddenly picked up and gone. Knowing the past reputation of Beau’s family, I figured that was the smartest thing to do.
I had barely stopped the car when I saw Candy coming out into the road. She seemed calm, not nearly as excited as I thought she should be. Surely not nearly as worried as I was.
“I’m glad you got here,” she said.
“What happened?” I asked after getting out of the car.
“Over there,” she said, nodding back over her shoulder.
I looked in that direction, but I couldn’t see a thing for the weeds and bushes along the ditch bank.
“What happened, Candy?” I asked her again.
“I killed him,” she said, looking me straight in the eye.
She turned to go back into the yard, but I grabbed her arm.
“What did you say?”
“I killed Beau,” she said, and pulled her arm free.
I stood there a moment. I could feel my heart pounding, pounding; no, not only could I feel it pounding, I could hear it trying to jump out of my chest. I shook my head. No, I hadn’t heard what I thought I had heard, and I went after her. But I had only gone to the front of her car when I suddenly stopped again. Like I had run into a brick wall. It was a wall, all right, but a wall twenty, thirty feet away from me. Not a wall of brick, stone, or wood, but a wall of old black men with shotguns. I don’t know how many there were—fifteen,
eighteen of them; standing, squatting, sitting—scattered all over the place. And waiting. Waiting. But not for me. That was obvious. Some of them acted as though I was not even there.
When I felt it was safe to go into the yard, I crossed the ditch over to where Candy was standing. At her feet lay Beau Boutan, his mouth and eyes still open, his face caked with sweat and dirt, his dark brown hair speckled with dry grass seeds. He was about thirty, roughly handsome, maybe a hundred and seventy-five pounds. He wore khaki pants and khaki shirt and cowboy boots. His straw hat, bottom side up, lay in the weeds a few feet over to my left. A shotgun lay in the weeds a couple of steps to my right. I stooped over and picked up a thick, hairy, sweat-and-dirt-caked wrist, held it a moment, and dropped it back down. A half-dozen flies flew away from the coagulated blood on his chest, but came back almost immediately.
I stood up and looked around at the people again. Not one had said a single word or moved an inch. Some were looking at me, most were not. I stared at the one nearest me. He could have been in his seventies, but sometimes it’s hard to estimate their ages. He looked about the average age of all the others with guns. He wore overalls and a denim shirt, an ageless gray felt hat, brogans laced with cowhide, but no socks.
“Um the one,” he said.
Not with anger. Not threatening. If proud, not boasting. Simply, without my asking, “Um the one.”
I looked at another one. He was squatting over by the garden fence smoking a cigarette. With the stock of the gun on the ground and the barrel across his knee, he was looking out at the tractor in the road. He showed so much more interest in that damned tractor than he did me that I almost turned around to look at the damned thing again myself.
He nodded. He must have had great lateral vision, because he knew I was talking to him without ever looking in my direction.
“I kilt him,” he said.
I picked out another one sitting on the bottom step with his head bowed. He was tapping the stock of the gun against a brick in the ground. I wondered if that damned gun was loaded.
“You on the step?”
He didn’t stop tapping the brick for a second. Didn’t even raise his head.
“Yes, sir, I did it.”
I see, I thought; I see. All heroes, huh?
I looked at the preacher standing away from the rest. Pathetic, bald, weary-looking little man. He was the only one there who seemed frightened. He was sweating, probably from arguing with them.
“Can you tell me what’s going on down here, Reverend Jameson?”
“You better ask her, Mr. Lou,” he said, nodding toward Candy. “She done already told me to shut up or go home.”
I turned back to Candy, who was standing only a couple of feet behind me.
“Well what?” she said, looking up at me.
“Didn’t you hear them?”
“I heard them.”
“You still say you did it?”
“I did it.”
“You’re lying, Candy. You know I know you’re lying.”
She got angry now. She told me she didn’t care whether I believed her or not. She told me that Charlie and Beau had gotten into a fight back there in the fields, and Charlie had run up here to Mathu’s house. She was here talking to Mathu.
Charlie had been here only a minute or two when Beau came after him with a shotgun. She told him not to come into the yard, he did, and she took Mathu’s gun and shot him. She said she didn’t care who didn’t believe her, that’s the way it happened.
“And what are they doing here?” I asked her.
“To protect me, I suppose.”
She couldn’t answer that. I looked down at Beau, at the flies gathered on his chest.
“Can’t somebody at least bring something out here to cover him up?” I said.
“Corrine,” Candy called to the woman on the porch. “Go inside and get me a sheet or something.”
Corrine, wearing a gray dress that could have been blue or purple once, got up from the rocker and went inside the house. A moment later she returned carrying a bedspread that could have been green, pink, blue, or purple once, but now it, too, had faded to a dull gray like the dress that she wore. She reached it toward one of the men nearest the porch, and he brought it to me. I watched him as he came toward me, but he avoided my eyes. After passing me the spread, he returned to the porch to take his post.
“You called Mapes?” I asked Candy.
“Miss Merle was down here,” she said. “I told her to call him after you went by.”
“For God’s sake, Candy, before Mapes gets here, tell me the truth. Did Mathu do this?”
“I’ve already told you the truth,” she said. “I did it.”
“Fix is going to demand a nigger’s blood, Candy. You know that, don’t you?”