Saturday, February 15, 2014
A moment of your time please. I would like to re-introduce a wonderful Southern online magazine. It publishes quarterly (approximately) and is filled with wonderful Southern stories. David does a wonderful job of pulling it together - the graphics and typesetting are gorgeous!
Set a spell and check out this wonderful site. I always keep the link on the sidebar, but you can go HERE now to read the most current SouthernReader.
Meanwhile, I'd like to share this story that David Ray Skinner wrote himself. You can read the original HERE.
by David Ray Skinner
Winndrow leisurely dabbed his paper napkin at the small pool of Pabst that had collected on the oily surface of the checkerboard tablecloth. At the first strains of the violin, he shot an annoyed glance over at the jukebox in the corner of the dimly-lit bar. “If that’s country music, then I’m a flying pig,” he said.
Joycellen, the bar’s owner, paused by his table on her way back to the kitchen, tucking the empty tray under her arm. “Give us a break, Winn,” she drawled, brushing a red strand of hair out of her eyes, “What’s so bad about that song? I like it. In fact, it’s my nickel that’s bringing your fit on. Whataya got to complain about, anyway? It’s a beautiful day and you got good health and good company to share it with.”
Winndrow jabbed out his unfiltered Camel in the table’s glass ashtray and ran his other hand over his blonde crewcut. “Dog it, Joycellen,” he said wearily, “It’s 97 in the shade, everbody in this place is either drunk or asleep, I got the early warning signs of a powerful headache, and it ain’t Hank Williams on the box, it ain’t Kitty Wells, and it ain’t country.”
She glanced down at his glass as she continued on her kitchen route. “Trouble with you,” she said, “is the mug is always half empty.”
Outside, as the late afternoon sun baked the highway out of Dover into a hard goo, a brand-new white 1962 Ford convertible pulled off the road and into the gravel parking lot of the bar, the tiny stones popping under the hot tires. Once the man and woman had exited the car, they stood beneath the half-painted, half-neon “Joycellen’s” sign over the entrance and looked around nervously, surveying the strange environment they were about to step into. He pulled open the heavy door, and they stood inside for a few moments to let their eyes adjust to the dark room. The cigarette smoke hung in thick clouds lit by beer signs over the billiard tables as the window air conditioners hummed loudly in a cacophonous drone.
The man was middle-aged, maybe in his late 40’s with a slight moustache and salt-and-pepper hair that was on its way to receding. He wore a smart, summer sportcoat over his short-sleeved white oxford shirt and sensible, if expensive, brown slacks., topped off by a fashionable businessman’s hat, which he had removed upon entering the bar. The woman was young and attractive with black hair and clear, blue eyes. She wore a comfortable yellow summer dress and canvas shoes. The two of them may as well have dropped in from another solar system.
Winndrow didn’t notice them at first. He was slumped over the table peering through the half-filled mug and letting the cool sweat from the glass drip onto his sunburned forehead and roll down his face. He was in the complicated process of trying to decide whether he should go back to his trailer and get his boat and head down to the lake for some early evening fishing, or just order another beer or two.
“Excuse me...” the man said, still standing just inside the doorway as if a hasty retreat may be required, “is there a gentleman by the name of Winndrow Pinkham here? We were told back in town that we might find him at this location.”
“No gentleman—just Winn,” Joycellen yelled from the kitchen before anything had registered with Winndrow.
“I’m Pinkham,” said Winndrow finally, as he shot a bemused “very funny” look in the direction of the kitchen.
The strangers stepped carefully across the room to the corner table where Winndrow sat, and they stood before him waiting for an invitation to be seated. After a few seconds, the man realized that the invitation would not be coming, so he began his apparently well-rehearsed speech. “Mr. Pinkham, my name is Spriggs, Dr. Manuel Spriggs. I am a history professor and, in fact, head of the history department at the University of New Jersey. And this is my assistant, Miss Smithers.”
The young woman smiled nervously, but Winndrow sat there with a blank expression, which Spriggs took as a cue to continue. “No doubt you are familiar with the great American Civil War battle that was fought in and around the vicinity of the very area where we now are conversing. And though your own Southern army fought bravely and valiantly, nonetheless, it would be the Union army who would take the day under the leadership of U.S. Grant, a general who was not very well-known until that particular victory.”
“Actually, our boys messed up big, the way I heard it,” Winndrow calmly responded, “but that’s about all I know about it.”
Spriggs was a bit put off by the seated man’s casual observation, but after pausing a second or two to collect himself, he cleared his throat and continued: “Noted. As I was saying, it was a bitter struggle that matched two great armies, and it was only by the whimsical nature of fickle chance and perhaps a touch of bad weather that led to the untimely defeat of your brave boys.”
“Whatever,” said Winndrow finishing his beer. The newness of the situation was beginning to wear off, and though he was curious, he was quickly moving into a stage of impatience. “Can I help you with something, partner? I mean, what’s that got to do with the price of eggs, or more pertinent, me. I mean, here I am. You found me. Now what can I do you for?”
“Yes, hmm,” said Spriggs. “You appear to be a well-informed chap. Are you familiar with a section of the Fort Donelson battlefield known as Pinkham Ridge?”
“Indeed. Pinkham Ridge was a high slope of land overlooking the northernmost part of the battlefield, a few hundred yards west of the river. It has never been considered a vital part of what took place that day—it’s not even really a part of what now is the national battlefield—but my research indicates that it was essential to the outcome of that particular battle.”
“Well, whoop-de-doo, Doc. So?” Winndrow was becoming a little agitated. Why exactly has this queer duck been sent down to this little dive in the middle of nowhere to deliver a history lesson to someone who couldn’t care less, he wondered.
“I see,” Spriggs said, nervously. “It’s my understanding that that piece of land at that time, and for that matter, presently, is in the possession of the Pinkham family for which it was named.” He paused for effect. “And that’s why we’re here speaking with you this afternoon. Would it be possible for you to join us tonight for a bit of dinner? We will be taking our lodging at the Dover Inn, and we have some charts and maps we’d like to share with you. If you could be of help to us, we could certainly make it worth your while.”
Winndrow was listening to Spriggs, but his gaze was upon the fair Miss Smithers. “You said the magic word,” he said finally, “and it beats the daylights out of drowning worms.”
“Hmmm.” said Spriggs nodding as if he had a clue as to what Winndrow was talking about.
They all shook hands and said their goodbyes and leaving Winndrow in the bar, Spriggs and Miss Smithers re-emerged into the sultry parking lot. As they pulled the convertible back onto the highway to head back to town, Miss Smithers was at the wheel, and Spriggs was frantically trying to crank down the passenger’s side window to let out some of the pent-up heat that the car had collected during their brief encounter in the bar. He was irritated to discover, however, that the Tennessee late-summer air rushing in to fill the void was equally as hot.
“Blast it! Miss Smithers, I know that the airport in Nashville was beyond provincial, but weren’t there any cool, dark sedans at any of the car rental agencies? What in the blazes possessed you to select a white convertible in the South in the summertime?” he demanded loudly. “It attracts heat like some infernal vacuum!”
“Actually...” Miss Smithers began, but stopped herself from correcting her professor and current employer. Rather, she changed the subject to inquire about a detail that was beginning to nag at her. “Professor, I noticed that back in the bar you failed to mention anything about Bobby Beau.”
“Robert Beauregard Rutherford is of no concern to our friend Mr. Pinkham,” Spriggs replied.
“But I thought that—that was the entire reason for this trip,” she said with a puzzled look.
“My dear Miss Smithers,” Spriggs said, with more than a little condescension in his voice, “do you know who I am? Do you realize what it is that I do?”
“I am a tomb raider. In some circles I am, in fact, known as one of the greatest living American tomb raiders. There are stories told about me with hushed reverence, and some are even true, at least partially, as if that matters. At any rate, do not worry yourself about Pinkham. He is not on our team. He is not on our level. He is not in our circle of expertise. He is a map. He is a reference point. He is a guide. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Although Miss Smithers admittedly did not know the professor very well, she was shocked to hear this sort of talk from someone that, up until that exact moment, she had held in high esteem. She hid her surprise, however, and clenched the steering wheel with both hands and stared straight ahead at the winding road leading into the business district of the small town of Dover.
The professor continued, his voice softening, “Miss Smithers, Miriam—may I call you Miriam? I realize that you are new to graduate school, but I have sensed a tremendous amount of potential in you. I expect a lot from you. You are not like the column upon column of wooden-headed droids that I am forced to deal with on a daily basis. You are special, dear. That is why I wanted you to come along on this little trip.”
Miss Smithers did not like the path that the conversation had begun to take. Fortunately for her, something or someone distracted Spriggs, and he returned to his level of high irritation. “Look at these people!” he said motioning to a group of elderly men on the sidewalk just off the square. The men were all wearing overalls and blue or checked cotton shirts, and while some were whittling, the majority was watching the outcome of an intense checker game. “Look at what they’re wearing! Look at what they’re doing! They’re hacking away at pieces of wood with their pocketknives! Look at the dining fares of their eating establishments...catfish, catfish, catfish! Who eats catfish?! Well I guess they do,” he said, answering his own question.
“Sir, do you really think that there is a millionaire buried somewhere up on Pinkham Ridge,” said Miss Smithers, trying to return the conversation to a more coherent level.
“Facts, Miss Smithers, Miriam. That’s what we deal with,” Spriggs said deliberately. “I don’t know if we’ll find our Major Rutherford on Pinkham Ridge. But here are the facts: Robert Beauregard Rutherford was a millionaire many times over. He bought his rank at a time when the Confederacy was starting to hurt for gold, and gold was what he offered. He was given his commission in Jackson, Mississippi in late ’61, and he never went anywhere without his wealth. And that included the battlefield. Even in civilian life, he regularly traveled with hundreds of thousands of dollars of gold. Now, he did have his trusted people to transport it for him, but his fortune was never far from his side.”
“But, Pinkham Ridge...?” Miss Smithers asked. She was pulling into the parking lot of the Dover Inn, and she put the car into park and turned up the air conditioner.
“Ah, yes, Pinkham Ridge. One of the things those poor Southern clods were good at was mucking up their own rosters. Robert Beauregard Rutherford, millionaire, major, heir to a Mississippi cotton dynasty, it was all for naught. He never returned from the fields of war. And he took his fortune, or, at least a piece of it with him.”
“But didn’t anyone miss him? Didn’t they look for him?” asked Miss Smithers, incredulously.
“They certainly missed his fortune!” Spriggs said, chuckling to himself at his unintentional double entendre. “After all, there were hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, and believe me, a hundred thousand dollars was more like millions a hundred years ago, especially in the war-wrecked South. So, of course there were some poor souls who searched for him, but only a few. Rutherford had no partners, he had no siblings, his parents were long dead, and he never married. And, as I said, they had a poorly-made roster to boot.” Spriggs laughed, “The poor schmucks who did look for him were turning over stones somewhere down in Georgia!”
“So I guess you’re saying that this isn’t exactly common knowledge...” said Miss Smithers, grimacing from the weight of the circumstances.
Spriggs laughed again and reached over to pat her head. “My dear Miss Smithers, what sort of a tomb raider would I be if that were common knowledge?!”
Winndrow had returned to his trailer where he threw on a fresh, buttoned-down sportshirt along with a couple of slaps of Old Spice for good measure. He strolled into Dover Inn Restaurant with his signature Camel tucked behind his right ear as he casually scanned the dining room for a glimpse of the two strangers he had encountered that afternoon. They were not hard to spot. It was as if they sat at a spotlighted table; they were the bright and elevated point in the dark gray room, and the rest of the diners were leaning in close to each other, speaking in hushed tones and motioning at the two with their eyes and quick nods of their heads.
Spriggs had ordered tea for both of them—iced in a glass for her, hot in a cup for him. He sighed with resignation when the waitress brought two glasses of the sweet, iced tea, but before he could protest, he noticed that Winndrow was crossing the dining room heading for their table.
Spriggs stood up and extended his right hand when Winndrow approached the table. “Ah, Mr. Pinkham,” he said, “Thank you for joining us! I trust you had an agreeable rest of the afternoon!”
“Pabst,” he said to the waitress without looking away from Spriggs. “Evening, Miss Smithers. Okay, Doc, let’s cut to the chase. What do y’all need, how much you gonna pay to, as you say, make it worth my while, and, not that I care one way or the other, is it legal?”
“Mr. Pinkham!” said Spriggs with an expression of mock horror. “Of course, it’s legal! Who do think we are, anyway?”
“Well, I reckon I don’t know who you are, and I ‘spose that’s the point, ain’t it?” Winndrow shot Miss Smithers a quick grin just to see where she stood in the conversation.
Spriggs waved off the waitress and withdrew a folded map from his briefcase, which he proceeded to unfold and spread out on the table. “Here’s a map of the battlefield. We’re right here, by the way.” He pointed to a small, penciled dot below the word, “Dover.”
He let his finger come to rest at a spot above the town, flush with the Cumberland River on the map. “This is Pinkham Ridge,” he said.
“Right where I thought it was,” said Winndrow, reaching for the beer on the retreating waitress’ tray.
“Am I correct in assuming that this land is still in your family’s possession?” Spriggs asked.
“I’m all that’s left of the famous Pinkhams,” said Winndrow.
“Fine. Then, let’s get down to brass tacks. As I mentioned when we spoke this afternoon, I believe that your piece of land figured in heavily to the outcome of the battle that made this town famous. But, it is a little-known fact. That’s why I’m here. To put your little piece of land in the history books and to set the record straight.”
Winndrow seemed nonplussed. “I’m listening,” he said, “but I still ain’t heard no cash register dinging.”
“Oh, yes, of course. We’re proposing to pay you one hundred dollars so we can conduct our research and investigation on your land.”
Miss Smithers began to fidget in her chair. “What is this ‘we’ business?” she thought.
Winndrow squinted as he let that piece of information about the money digest. A hundred dollars was more than he could make in a week working at the Highway 79 Gulf station. Still, something didn’t seem quite right. “What does your so-called research and investigation involve?” he asked finally.
“Well,” said Spriggs, trying hard to hide his agitation, “it just means we spend a couple of days going over your land with a metal detector and comparing landmarks with my charts and maps.”
“Maybe I’m being stupid,” said Winndrow, “but why would you need a metal detector?”
“Excellent question!” said Spriggs, his finger on his mustache. He shot a glance over at Miss Smithers who seemed as anxious as Winndrow for an answer. “As you are probably aware, not every Confederate regiment surrendered to Grant at Donelson. Forrest, in fact, took his men and escaped over the swollen Lick Creek rather than surrender. And there was one particular Confederate officer who gave the Union forces some valuable information that he had stored in a metal ammunition case in exchange for getting his men out alive and without being captured. It’s our belief that the information was critical to the outcome of the battle, and that particular exchange occurred in the vicinity of your Pinkham Ridge. The metal case was never recovered, and it’s my belief that it’s still buried somewhere up there. More importantly, I believe that the evidence inside that case, will...ahem, make our case.”
To Winndrow, something didn’t seem quite right...Spriggs’ theory didn’t seem to fit what he had always heard about the behavior and honor of Fort Donelson’s officers, although admittedly, his involvement with the battlefield had been limited to loaning his boat to one of the park rangers and helping him fish a few cannonballs out of the river below his trailer. But, he thought, a hundred dollars is a hundred dollars.
“Okay, Doc, you got yourself a deal,” he said finally, “but I want the money, cash, up front.”
“Splendid!” said Spriggs, although inside he was bristling at the notion of paying this ruffian up front. “We’ll begin bright and early tomorrow. Now that we’ve got all of that out of the way, what’s good on this establishment’s menu? We’re famished!”
“Try the catfish,” said Winndrow.
Spriggs made eye contact with Miss Smithers. “Yes, of course,” he said.
The following morning was a Saturday, and it looked to be a carbon copy of the scorching day before. Spriggs had suffered through a restless night (blast these cornhusk mattresses!) and was a bit annoyed at seeing Miss Smithers’ chipper mood when they met for breakfast in the restaurant. “Coffee,” he said to the waitress, holding up two fingers.
“What exactly do you want me to do today, Dr. Spriggs?” asked Miss Smithers.
“Simple, dear. Your job is to distract our young Mr. Pinkham while I explore his property with the metal detector.”
“Can I ask you another question, Professor? If Pinkham Ridge doesn’t really figure into any of the history books, why do you think Bobby Beau Rutherford is buried there? I mean, what or who led you to believe that?”
“Ah, excellent question, my girl,” Spriggs replied as he produced from his briefcase a worn and dusty leatherbound book with the initials “HDA.”
“Introducing the personal diary of one Private H.D. Amberton. One of my former assistants stumbled onto it at an estate sale in Indiana,” said Spriggs merrily. “She paid a few dollars for it, and dullard that she was, turned the treasure over to me for a few dollars more, plus an ‘A’ or two in her American History class. This Amberton chap was apparently one of Rutherford’s junior officers who served at his side. But what’s interesting about this diary is, not only does it tell about Rutherford’s death, it also tells about burying his body along with his wealth, estimated at $250,000. And, there’s a map, albeit a rough one, that shows where he’s buried.”
“So why didn’t Amberton come back after the war and claim the treasure?” asked Miss Smithers.
“He was killed in battle, and the diary was shipped home to his widow who kept it under lock and key. Upon her death, it was passed down again and again to children and grandchildren who didn’t have the slightest interest in the stuffy old Civil War. Apparently, none of them bothered to pick the lock on the cover to read what was inside.”
“One other question, Dr. Spriggs...will your metal detector pick up the remains?”
The professor sighed, “My dear sweet Miriam. Major Rutherford’s sternum wouldn’t necessarily set off the detector, but his gold certainly would.”
“Yes, but isn’t Mr. Pinkham expecting you to find some sort of metal ammunition case? If you do find what’s left of Bobby Beau’s remains, won’t he be suspicious if he sees you digging up human bones?”
“Bingo, my dear,” said the professor. “Again, that’s where you come in. Your job, again, is to distract our Mr. Pinkham. And just so he won’t be disappointed, I did pack a convenient metal ammo case among my luggage, along with some bogus maps of Pinkham Ridge which have all sorts of mumbo jumbo jotted down on them, designed to confuse even the most knowledgeable, which of course, does not include our Mr. Pinkham. As we speak, the mysterious case is waiting for us only a few yards from here, secure in the trunk of the lovely convertible that you so graciously procured for us just yesterday at the Nashville Airport. That is what Pinkham will see me unearth, not the remains of Major Rutherford, nor his alleged fortune.”
“This is beginning to sound more like Treasure Island than the War Between the States,” Miss Smithers said as she sipped her coffee. “I mean, Professor, isn’t this the same as graverobbing? And isn’t that a little bit against the law?”
“How very droll, Miss Smithers. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it. You leave the legalities to me. Great American tomb raider, remember?”
Winndrow was relaxing in the big swing on the screened-in porch enjoying his morning’s fourth cup of coffee and third cigarette when he heard the convertible struggling up the dirt driveway to the trailer. After exchanging the necessary pleasantries, Spriggs handed him an envelope engraved with his university’s logo. When Winndrow opened it, he was pleased to discover a crisp, new hundred dollar bill, something he had rarely seen, if ever. After a few minutes of small talk, Winndrow noticed that Spriggs was growing impatient, so he pointed to a hill in the distance that was framed by a clump of tall oak trees. “That’s probably where you want to start,” he said.
Spriggs said a quick goodbye, and after sliding behind the wheel, cautiously nosed the car through the front pasture gate, through the kudzu, and on up toward the distant clump of trees.
“Watch out for the alligators!” Winndrow yelled at the car, though it was unclear if Spriggs heard the advice.
“It would have been much easier to have just took my truck,” Winndrow said to himself as much as to Miss Smithers, who had settled down on the porch in one of the kitchen chairs. “We’re probably gonna have to drive up there directly anyway and haul that fancy car out of whatever gully that fool ends up in.”
He joined her in one of the other chairs on the porch, and together they watched as the convertible disappeared into an orange cloud of dust just beyond the front pasture. “Cup a coffee?” he asked, finally.
“How you take it?”
“Cream and sugar. And Mr. Pinkham, I wasn’t aware that there was an alligator problem in Tennessee.”
“Some say it’s just a crock,” Winndrow said without smiling, “and I’m just Winn. Mr. Pinkham was my daddy. And he and his daddy and his daddy’s daddy are all resting up there on that yonder hill under those big oak trees. Resting for now, I should say. I don’t know how much longer they’ll rest once your nutty friend starts waving that crazy metal detector around.”
“I see,” said Miss Smithers, smiling.
“Really, I hope he don’t get a wild hair and venture off past that hill with all the trees,” said Winndrow.
“Yeah, I know—alligators.”
“No, serious,” he said. “That’s where my property ends—at least now—and where the park property begins. The government down here takes a dim view of anyone who might want to remove pieces of its property, or mess with it for that matter. But smart man that he is, I’m sure the professor knows all that. Plus, he has all those fine maps to keep him straight.”
After an hour or so, the morning sun began heating up the porch, so the two of them went inside the trailer to cool off. “How about a picnic?” asked Winndrow. “I could throw some sandwiches together.”
“Sounds great,” said Miss Smithers. She was beginning to feel more comfortable.
The trailer’s kitchen was, in reality, a mere extension of the living room, so while she sat on the sofa, Winndrow began opening cabinets and retrieving items from the tiny refrigerator. On the kitchen side of the sofa was an end-table adorned with an old baseball trophy and a lamp made out of driftwood. The trophy consisted of a tarnished gold batter on top of an unpolished wooden base. In the center of the base was a silver plate with the simple inscription: “Winndrow Pinkham, Dover All-Stars.” Part of the bat had broken off, and it gave the effect that the small golden batter was powerfully swinging a billy club.
“Where did the name ‘Winndrow’ come from? Is it a family name?” she asked.
“Well, sorta,” he said. “Both of my parents were orphans—both of their daddies got killed in the First World War. Names were Winston Byrd and Woodrow Pinkham. They were best friends, in life and in death, I guess you could say. Probably seemed natural that their children would get along good enough to stay married. When I came along they couldn’t decide which one to name me after, so they split it, and added an extra ‘n’ somewhere along the way. Spelling wasn’t that important, anyway. It was the thought that counts. What about you? Miriam—you got a little Moses in your family?”
She looked up from the trophy quizzically. “I’m not following you. I must have missed something.”
“Oh yeah. You missed a childhood of Baptist Sunday School, apparently,” Winndrow said, grinning.
A few minutes later, he finished with the preparation of the picnic lunch. He had made baloney sandwiches and had, to his delight, found some sardines and crackers in the cabinet. He took a couple of RCs out of the fridge and after opening them using the handle of the refrigerator, transferred their contents into a large thermos. Winndrow pointed at the red and chrome transistor radio that he had switched on when they first came in from the porch.
“That’s the country station in Clarksville,” he said. “At night we can pick up WSM. That means on Friday and Saturday nights, we have a front row seat at the Opry.
Winndrow paused for effect. “I missed the Opry last night,” he said. “I was entertaining guests from up north. They came down here because they heard about our catfish.”
“What else is there to see around here?” she asked sweetly as she loaded the food and the thermos into a basket. She had begun to suspect that he was making fun of her, though she wasn’t quite sure.
“What kind of attractions?”
“Oh, you know. The kind of things we Southerners are famous for. I’ll show you.”
They emerged from the coolness of the trailer to the harsh reality of the white-hot summer afternoon. She watched from the porch as he backed his truck up to his boat and hitched it up. As they rattled down the driveway, they caught a glimpse of Spriggs on the hill beyond the clump of trees. Something glistened in his hands.
A few minutes later, they were pushing the boat into the river and jumping into it as it drifted out into the current. Winndrow awakened the old blue Evinrude with a quick pull of the rope, and they were off like a shot. She sat in the front of the boat, facing him with the basket in her lap. She smiled quickly as the warm breeze off the water played with her dark hair, twirling it around her face in flashes of black and blue. Winndrow smiled back and wiped the spray from the river out of his eyes.
They rode the waves for awhile, and then Winndrow whipped the boat around a large island in the middle of the river. At the far end of the island, hidden from the Dover side of the river, was an inlet which turned into a creek. The creek, in turn, split the island into two large, but unequal halves as it wound like a snake through the center. Winndrow deftly steered the boat around the first series of bends in the creek to where the island rose up on both sides, creating the illusion of isolation. It was easy to forget that the pleasant little creek was in the middle of an island in the middle of a river.
Winndrow beached the boat, and they stepped onto the shore. With the basket in hand, they climbed the hill and sat down beneath a fat and lush shade tree.
“I used to come here as a boy,” Winndrow said as they bit into their sandwiches.
“So you’ve always had a boat?” she asked, reaching for the thermos.
Winndrow smiled. “No. This is the eastern end of Pinkham Ridge.”
She stopped chewing and looked hard at him to see if he was joking, but instinctively, she knew he wasn’t.
“They damned the river a few years ago,” he said. “I used to walk to this creek and camp out right about here. Now I don’t know who owns it. The government, I guess.”
“Maybe that’s all of us,” she said.
“Yeah, maybe,” Winndrow replied wistfully. “But, as I said, the government don’t like you messing with their stuff...whether or not you used to own it. Makes no matter.”
At sunset they were back sitting on the trailer’s screened-in porch when they saw the convertible’s headlights cutting through the haze of dust. Spriggs didn’t bother to get out of the car. He rolled the window down and yelled up at the porch, “Could you get in, please?”
“I reckon he means you,” Winndrow said to Miss Smithers.
When she got in, this time on the passenger’s side, Spriggs stomped the accelerator and threw clods of driveway dirt all over the trailer’s casual lawn.
“That one’s got a nasty little temper,” Winndrow said out loud to himself as he turned off the porch light and went inside to switch on the Saturday night Opry. While the music played, he went to the trailer’s back bedroom and slowly went through a collection of assorted items on the floor of the bedroom’s tiny closet. When he emerged from the bedroom, he was carrying a good-sized army surplus duffel bag which he had stuffed with some dirt-covered, tattered clothing and an old satchel. He turned off the radio, stepped out of the trailer, and, after throwing the duffel bag up into the seat, climbed behind the wheel of his truck. After starting it, he sat for a moment in the darkness and let the old truck idle in the dirt driveway while he lit a Camel that he pulled from behind his ear. Then he cut the engine, climbed down out of the truck, extracted the bag through the open window, and began walking down the long driveway through the warm summer night. The driveway sloped down the hill and ended at the county road, and once he reached that point, he paused at his rusty mailbox and felt around in the dark for bills and magazines. Finding the box empty, he adjusted the duffel bag over his shoulder and headed south on foot down the county road toward Dover. Through the trees he could see the town square’s flickering lights in the distance. Behind him was the thick blackness of the field leading up to his trailer, which was sharply silhouetted against the bright evening sky.
The old man squinted at the couple standing on the the other side of the padlocked chain-link gate. He glanced quickly up at the south Georgia sun and then at his pocketwatch before returning his gaze on the man and the woman. “It’s gonna be a hot ‘un,” he said, “and we don’t even open for another fifteen minutes. They’re still feeding the gators. I’ll tell you what, though. If you buy your admission tickets now, before people start crowding in, I’ll knock a dollar off ‘em. Then when we open up, you can just sail on through the gate.”
“Can you break a hundred?” Winndrow asked.
“Listen to you,” the old man said. “Not today. Not yet, anyway.”
“Okay, we’ll be back in a little bit...I guess paying retail,” Winndrow said. “Didn’t I see a little place back up the highway a mile or so? Do they sell coffee?”
“Yessir, that would be the 41 Diner. They got good coffee.”
“Well, I guess we’ll just go and get us some,” Winndrow said.
Although they had driven all night, neither one felt the least bit tired. They had ridden with the top down and her hair still smelled like the fresh southern night air. He had parked the convertible beside the brightly-colored sign in the parking lot so they could get some snapshots to send to her friends. As they climbed back into the car she said, “I wonder what they feed those alligators?”
“Yankees and catfish,” Winndrow replied.
“Ha ha,” said Miss Smithers.
At that exact moment, back in Dover, Spriggs was rudely awakened by one of the motel clean-up ladies who was loudly tapping on the door. “Excuse me!” she said, “Housekeeping! Is this your suitcase, sir?”
Spriggs threw on a robe over his pajamas and staggered to the door, unlocking it with some degree of effort.
“Suitcase?” he said as he cracked open the door.
The woman stood back from the door with a suspicious frown. Spriggs followed the woman’s gaze to his feet. There, propped up beside the door was his metal ammunition box. “Thank you ma’am, I’ll take care of it,” he said as he quickly scanned the motel parking lot and pressed a quarter in the woman’s hand.
Spriggs shut the door, pulled the box inside the room and heaved it up onto his bed. Without thinking, he flipped the latches and threw back the lid. On top were the bogus maps and charts that he had prepared earlier in the week, but just under the papers were several dirt-covered remnants of butternut gray clothing that he had never seen before. Once he removed them from the case, he was surprised with the realization that the rags were, in fact, all that remained of a Confederate major’s uniform, held together by rotted threads and small clods of dirt. A tarnished belt buckled with the inscription, “CSA” fell out from within the tattered trousers. Under the uniform lay the grand prize: an equally dirt-covered, ancient satchel stuffed with thousands of wrapped bills of different denominations.
“Confederate!” he hissed. His next thought, however, was interrupted by the heavy pounding on his motel door by the huge fist of the county sheriff.