Phil Anderson wiped the thin layer of sweat from his face with a white handkerchief and looked again out the window from inside the dark of the store. His father-in-law, whom he always called Mr. Wilkie, sat beside him in a cane-bottom chair. Phil had only one lamp burning in the back, and, while the front windows usually let in a good deal of light, the day was now overcast. At first he had not lighted more lamps simply because he didn’t want the store any hotter than it already was, but now, even though it had grown darker, Dock was out there, striding up and down the street with his face turned toward the store and fixed in a hot stare, and Phil hadn’t thought any more about how dim it had grown inside. He mostly kept his gaze trained on Dock, as did Mr. Wilkie, who he knew had good reason for concern.
Phil thought that Dock, because of the way he paced back and forth in the dusty patch of road, looked something like a soldier who was perhaps being punished for an infraction—made to continue his marching until he dropped hot and almost dead in the June heat. He supposed it was also the pistol in the small holster on Dock’s belt that gave him his sense of Dock as soldier, but seeing the pistol there was, of course, not unusual.
Upon closer look, though, it seemed to him that maybe Dock didn’t really move like a soldier after all. His stride was a little too erratic. There was no measured, military snap in his step. He was pacing more like an angry child who is almost at the point of being told to go and cut his own switch, and no parent would put up with the language coming out of his mouth.
Mr. Wilkie leaned back in his chair and slowly took out his pipe, packed it with tobacco, and lit it after striking a match against the bottom of his shoe. “Are the cattle farmers having trouble with Bangs disease like they were last year?” he asked.
“No. Not right now,” Phil said without turning away from the window.
“That’s good. It can be tough on a small farmer.”
While he spoke and kept watch, Phil somehow continued to eat his lunch of crackers, cheese, and bologna, washing it down with swallows of water from the jar at his feet.
“Reckon what cotton might bring this fall?” Mr. Wilkie asked.
“Still, it looks like a lot of people have planted. They haven’t lost faith.”
The louder and more violent Dock’s language became, the softer Mr. Wilkie spoke. His voice was so quiet, so controlled, that if Phil had not known better, it would have seemed to him as if their discussion of local agriculture were taking place in church on the back pew during the middle of a sermon, Dock’s voice merely that of the preacher’s, outraged and full of hell’s fire. But at the end of Dock’s tirade, he knew that there would be no final prayer, no gift of redemption offered.
Mr. Wilkie had stepped off the Birmingham train and onto the platform at three o’clock sharp the day before. Phil had taken his hand in a firm and hardy shake and looked him squarely in the eye, and the well-dressed gentleman had responded in like manner, as always. After Phil had retrieved the one bag, Mr. Wilkie asked after family members, especially Phil’s father, Rafe. Even though there was some age difference between them—Phil’s father being older— the two men were close. They shared a passion for horses. Rafe had served in the cavalry during the War, and Mr. Wilkie, in his younger days, had worked at breaking horses in Arkansas and Texas.
Phil listened to the gravel crunch under their feet as they walked. “We have a new preacher at church,” he said, just remembering. “He’s a fine one, and we hope you’ll come to Sunday service with us.”
“Yes, I’d like that,” Mr. Wilkie said. “That sounds fine.”
Phil inquired then how things were in the shoe business.
When they reached the end of the depot road where it ran into the main street through town, Phil asked if he would like to come up and stay at the store for a while or go on to the house.
“I have a little business to tend to,” Mr. Wilkie said.
He had known early on, when his father-in-law began making so many trips down, that it was probably a woman, and a much younger one at that, since Mr. Wilkie had been quiet about it. He was glad for the gentleman. After all, Mr. Wilkie had been a widower for many years, and if a somewhat older man could find companionship, what could be wrong with it? Besides, he’d thought at the time, Mr. Wilkie was seeing his daughter more often on these trips down. But later, when he heard the rumor that Dock might not be the father of the twins his wife had recently lost in childbirth—he could only shake his head. It was just a rumor, but he understood how things were between Dock and his wife, that Dock did not always treat her right. He knew that sometimes she could not leave the house and allow herself to be seen in public. And he knew what a gentle man his father-in-law was.
Mr. Wilkie was late for supper that night.
“What’s keeping Papa?” Louise said at the table. “And didn’t I tell you he’d be late?” She looked at Phil in aggravation.
“Yes, and you were right.”
They heard his footsteps then. Phil made ready to rise, and his father pushed back his own chair and wiped his mouth and neatly clipped white goatee with his napkin.
After supper, the three men went and sat in the living room. They spoke of the War and of horses. The talk was mostly between the two older men. “My youngest son seems to do all right for himself,” Rafe had said. “Some fine horses, a fine business, and a fine wife. Not necessarily in that order, of course.” The men laughed, but Mr. Wilkie seemed distracted.
At the evening’s end, when they stood out on the long porch, Rafe took Mr. Wilkie by the arm. “You’ll come to church with us on Sunday, won’t you? We’ve got a find preacher. Only been here a few weeks. You must hear him.”
“I’ve already told him, Daddy. He says he’ll come.”
“Good, good,” the father said. The old man started down the steps, then turned back for a moment. “Too bad Dock couldn’t have been here tonight,” he said. “He’s got that wife to look after, though. She’s still down in the bed.”
Mr. Wilkie was silent. Phil watched his father turn and descend the steps and walk out into the humid night.
Dock was closer now to the store. He walked just past the high wooden porch, quiet for the moment.
Phil swallowed another bite of bologna and hoop cheese. He’d drunk the last of his water, but his mouth was still filled with a greasy taste. It was in his throat, too.
“What time your train leave tomorrow?” he said.
Phil heard Dock cough hard and spit on the ground. “I’m sure Louise will put out quite a spread for dinner before you leave.” He laughed slightly, as if to say, “There’s nothing wrong here.”
Then Dock’s voice came again, louder, even more violent.
“You say the shoe business has been good lately?”
“Not as good as it could be, but then it never is.” Mr. Wilkie took his pipe in his hand and blew out a thin stream of sweet and fragrant smoke that smelled like dried apples.
“No sir.” Phil shook his head, got up, and walked back into the dark part of the store where he poured more water for himself from a jug behind the counter. He swallowed it in several mouthfuls, but the warm water couldn’t quite cut through the greasy taste that enveloped his throat. This is senseless, he thought. Why doesn’t Dock just get it over with?
Phil looked out front as two young black boys in a wagon filled with sacks of feed rolled past. He recognized one of them as Jeremiah, who often came in the store. They moved slowly at first, but after seeing and hearing Dock, they quickened their team. The only other person Phil could see stood in the doorway of a store across the street. It was a white man. He couldn’t tell who.
Things hadn’t been like this when his father had come into the store back in the fall and told them what Carl Teclaw had done— how Teclaw had met him in the road, slightly drunk, the both of them on horseback, and how Teclaw had cussed him, called him a tired old man, and told him to get out of his damn way.
“I may be too old to take care of you, Carl,” he had said, “but I’ll send one of my boys around. You can count on that.”
Dock had been furious. “The son of a bitch,” he said. “I’m going to kill him.”
Phil stepped slowly in front of the door. “No. If he’s got to be killed, I’ll do it. You’re not going to walk in and commit murder, that wouldn’t be right.”
“Phil is right,” the old man said, and with that, the matter was settled, as it always was when their father spoke.
Phil then picked up his . 38 caliber pistol, the lemon-squeezer he called it because of the way the safety device was built into the handle, and he and Dock walked together across the street and into Teclaw’s store.
“Carl, you’ve got a pistol here,” Phil said. It was more a declaration than a question.
Phil had then taken his white handkerchief from his pocket and let it fall open. “I’ll hold one end at arms length with my right hand. Carl, you hold the other end,” he said, describing the way his father had told him duels used to be fought. “Dock will count three and we’ll each drop our ends, draw our pistols, and fire.”
Teclaw looked down at his feet. “I’ve got a wife and children. I can’t go outside with you.”
“I’ve got a wife at home myself, and a baby boy. Now come on. This has got to be done.”
“If I got down on my knees and apologized to your father, would that be enough?”
“All right, Carl,” he’d said. “That will satisfy me.” He’d hoped then that Dock wouldn’t come back later and kill the man on his way home. Their father had taught them better than that, but Dock might do anything.
He knew the shotgun was there behind the counter, not far from where he stood now with the water jug. It was always there, the .12 gauge double-barrel, up on the wall, well-oiled, loaded with buckshot. His father had given it to him a few years before, at Christmas of ‘06, if he remembered right. It had kept coming into his mind when he’d been up front with his father-in-law. He did not even have to turn around and look for it in the dim light. He knew exactly where it was, all he had to do was take one step backward and reach. His hand would find it.
He looked up front at Mr. Wilkie. The man was leaning toward the window, and he touched the panes with his fingertips and gently tapped the glass. It was as if he were offering himself as a target, saying, “Go ahead, shoot me through this window.” Phil wanted to tell him that he ought to step back. To dare Dock was about as foolish a thing as a man could ever do.
Dock’s language was getting worse. Bastard. Son of a bitch. These were the words coming out of him now, and if there had ever been a chance that nothing would happen, that Dock would walk away, which wasn’t the case, that time had now passed. Mr. Wilkie could not allow it.
Phil stepped away from the counter and toward the back wall. There was no question. None at all. And as he told himself this and reached back for the shotgun, he heard Dock’s voice for a moment, not the shouts that were pouring through the open door, but Dock saying, “I did it,” his voice trembling, his hands shaking by his sides. And he, Phil, seven years old, had stood behind his older brother feeling the weight of guilt as they both faced their angry father. “I let your horse out of the barn when you told us not to ever go near him,” Henry had said—he was still Henry then, had not yet become Dock. He had not even added that it was an accident. He’d just said, “I did it,” covering for his younger brother.
Phil picked the shotgun up by the stock, being careful not to get fingerprints on the oiled barrel. He broke open the breach. There was no need to. He knew it was loaded, but he checked anyway, for Mr. Wilkie’s sake. He snapped it shut and the metal pieces rang against each other. He knew Mr. Wilkie heard and that the man could not mistake the sound, but he didn’t act as if he’d heard, did not turn his head toward the back of the store, did not flinch.
Phil walked then into the stronger light in the front and stood again beside his father-in-law. He leaned down and propped the shotgun beside the window. “If you need it, use it.” That was all he said. There was no more talk of diseased cattle or of cotton.
He sat down and then watched as Dock suddenly turned, his eyes squinted, his head tilted. Dock reached for and pulled the pistol from his belt. Mr. Wilkie, in one easy upward and unbroken motion had stood and stepped out the door; he raised the shotgun now as if he were throwing down on a rabbit—a cane-cutter out in the river swamp, maybe. The explosion rang through the store and the smell of sulfur, like sickness, followed. His brother’s body was already on the ground. He did not even see it fall. It was just there, sprawled and twisted, Dock’s head a red and torn mess. Dirt crusted to his wounds, to his blood-soaked hair.
Phil went behind the counter, reached for his pistol, then walked out onto the porch. Mr. Wilkie stood over the body. A crowd of people had gathered, black and white, the blacks standing farther back. Phil made certain that the crowd saw him there on the porch, saw the pistol in his hand.
Mr. Wilkie looked around at the crowd. He held the shotgun in his right hand, the barrel angled toward the ground. “Has anybody got anything to say about this?” he said. No one spoke or looked at him. “Good. I’ve got to get back to my business in Birmingham.”
Phil watched as his father-in-law walked away with the shotgun. He didn’t know if Mr. Wilkie would try to leave that night or the next morning, or if he would go and talk with the sheriff. But he was sure of one thing, his father-in-law would face the old man before he left. He would say, “I’m sorry. I had to kill your son.”
He stepped back into the store, found a cloth sack, and took it outside. People were still gathered around the body, and he walked between them and spread the sack over his brother’s face, making sure that it also covered the thick dark pool beside his head. He stood there then, looking down at the body that had grown solid in the middle. When did that happen? he wondered. When did he become so heavy-set? He was no longer aware of the people around him. For a moment he could not think what to do next, and in that instant felt like a boy bewildered by the strange and unfathomable ways of things that a father tries to make him understand.
He began walking toward the old house where he and Henry had grown up. As soon as he made the turn in the road, he would see it. The wide porch, the dog trot. He walked slowly. The sun had come out again and sweat ran down his face. It ran into the corners of his mouth, and he tasted its salt on his tongue. At the turn, he stopped, stepped down into the shallow ditch beside the road, and bent over, holding one hand against his stomach. His throat burned, and he waited on what he’d eaten. Afterward, he took out his white handkerchief and cleaned the corners of his mouth; he stepped then out of the ditch and continued.
The funeral can’t be tomorrow, he thought. There would be regular Sunday service. He and Louise would go, of course, unless he was needed to sit with the body. And besides, tomorrow would be too soon for a funeral. Family had to be notified.
He was almost to the house now, walking slowly, but steadily. He could see his father sitting in a chair just inside the dog trot; then the old man rose. He knew his father had heard the shot, that he might even somehow know what had happened. But he would have to tell him. He would have to say, “I handed him the gun.” He had no fear of what his father would say. The old man would understand. He had done what he knew was right, what his father had taught him.
He approached the steps, his throat still burning.