Friday, January 15, 2010

Stealers


Stealers

By

Frank A. Gladden

Floyd Coleman, the community leader and Mitford’s general store owner was troubled. Someone had been stealing his watermelons. The thief's bursts them open eat the heart, and leaves the rest in the field to rot. Not only that, but also some scoundrel snuck into his cornfield and stole his roasting-ears. He had planned to earn a heap of money selling his homegrown produce in Coleman’s General Store, a cluttered little building with a whitewashed front that leans to one side. Inside, Mr. Coleman sells everything from salty mackerels packed in brine, to wine, and sometimes a little white lighting. There is a gas pump out front where the truckers buy their gas and tall weeds out back where men folks pass around the bottle, and sometime, other stuff goes on back there too.

Floyd walked around for days with a long sour face, rubbing the top of his baldhead, with one hand, and the thumb of his other hand stuck under the strap of his overalls. When patting himself on top of the head one day, he came up with what he thought was a sure-fire plan. He decided to tie Rex, his old possum dog, in the middle of the watermelon patch. Even if Rex couldn’t get to the thief, his barking would scare him away. The next morning when Floyd went to check on his dog, he found the rope wrapped around the stake and Rex choked to death.

“Darn,” he mumbled, “My best possum dog.”

For days, he walked back and forth, up and down the worn greasy hardwood floor, wiping his thick glasses with the tail of his dirty apron, with his old worn brogues squeaking as he pondering his problem. “Eli,” he said aloud.

He decided to ask Sheriff Eli Lumpkin to ride past and keep an eye on his watermelon patch and his cornfield. Eli, a tall man with a long beaked nose, a twitching left eye, and big hands, always smells like stale sweat. He walks around guffawing and slapping people on the back. He is always messing around up at the store anyway, so Mr. Coleman promised to slip him a few dollars for checking on his property.

**

Sheriff Lumpkin’s tall frame looked like a falling scarecrow, running down across the field. His big brown scarred-up boots crunched the dried broom straw.

“Come back here, you little varmints,” he hollered, chasing Willie B., June Bug, and Jimmie Lee, down across the field and into the thickets. Jimmie Lee, a long tall twelve-year-old boy looked back and hollered, “Come on y’all, hurry up.” Then he saw Sheriff Lumpkin leaning over with his hands on his knees, sucking hard to catch his breath. Sweat ran from his beet-red face, down his forehead and nose and dripped into the weeds. He rose up, shook his fist in the air and hollered, “I’m gonna catch you little varmints’ yet.”

Willie B., June Bug, and Jimmie Lee, hid in the tall weeds fanning gnats while nursing the scratches on their legs and picking briers out of their bare feet.

“I told you we should’ve waited ‘till dark,” Willie B. whined.

“He didn’t see our faces, anyhow, he don’t even know us,” Jimmie Lee said.

“What’ll happen if he catches us? You reckon he will put us on the chain-gang?” June Bug asked.

“I don’t reckon he will put us on the chain-gang for stealing watermelons,” Jimmie Lee said.

June Bug is a scrawny, knock-kneed, ten-year-old boy with buckteeth and tangled brown hair. His real name is Junior Stonewall Lamar. People calls him June Bug because he likes to go to the cornfield and catch big green June beetles, tie a string around one of their legs, and watch them fly while he holds onto the string.

Willie B. is the youngest of the bunch. He is scared of my-neigh every thing. June Bug and Jimmy Lee always threaten to put a snake in his britches’ if he tells anybody that they sneak off and smoke cigarettes in the woods.

Later that night, after Sheriff Lumpkin resumed patrolling up and down the highway, the thieves decided to raid the watermelon patch again. They sat in the middle of the field eating watermelon with the juice dripping through their dirty fingers, swatting mosquitoes and watching lighting bugs flashing in the weeds.

***

Sheriff Lumpkin runs up and down the road in his old 1979 Ford patrol car, with the red light twirling and the siren blaring. He always ends up at the store, and finds one reason or another to hang around whenever seventeen year-old Rebecca is working. Rebecca is a pretty, little thing, with corn silk hair, and a complexion as smooth as an eel’s belly. Old men, often drop their train of thought or anything else they are holding onto whenever she walks past in her tight jeans.

“Owee, Rebecca is a ripe peach, ready for plucking,” they always leaned their heads together, whispering, nodding, and grinning at each other. “Did you say plucking?” someone would ask, and then they would burst out into wet lip blowing laughter.

One day Sheriff Lumpkin, as he often did, offered to give Rebecca a ride home. The watermelon thieves were down at the fishing-hole, buck naked, feeling around under the logs, mud-banks, and rocks trying to catch catfish with their bare hands. Suddenly they heard a roaring sound coming down across the pasture. They looked up and saw a ball of dust heading toward the swimming-lake. Suddenly the car swerved to the right and started toward the fishing-hole. They scrambled back through the cattails, grabbed their clothes, and hid in the thickets. Rebecca and Sheriff Lumpkin tarried in the car for a while. Rebecca, giggling, jumped out and ran naked down to the fishing-hole, and jumped into the water. Sheriff Lumpkin, yelling and slapping his naked backside followed close behind. They splashed around in the water for a while, and then dog paddled over and climbed into Mr. Coleman’s old yellow flat-bottom fishing boat, and disappeared. Soon the boat started bouncing around like a fishing bobber.

****

It was a busy, exciting time around the quiet little settlement of Mitford, as the pulpwood cutters, and mill workers prepared for the Fourth of July celebration. Men pulled weeds, and raked up cow chips in the pasture down near the swimming-lake. They prepared the field for the big baseball game, dug a trench in the ground, and filled it with hardwood logs so they would be ready to roast the calf that Mr. Coleman always provided.

Most of the women were down in the meadow near the creek, picking blackberries, and searching the peach orchard for the plumpest peaches they could find, for the pie-cooking contest.

The boys always hid when blackberries-picking time came. They didn’t like the little blood-sucking chiggers burrowing into their skin. They disliked having their mothers wipe them down with kerosene soaked rags to get rid of the chiggers even more. Jimmie Lee’s grandpa always said, sitting on the front porch rocking, and smoking his corncob pipe. “Boy you better not get too close to anybody with a match 'cause you might catch ‘afire.” He laughed with his eyes squinted, showing his pink gums.

Early on the morning of the Fourth, Floyd Coleman unpacked his American Flag and prepared to run it up the flagpole. He waited for the three surviving VFW members to show up. They stood at attention, and saluted, as did other patriotic members of the community when the flag went up the pole. Everybody clapped and shook hands with each other and belted out a chorus of God Bless America.

Mr. Coleman bought big blocks of ice from the ice plant over in Winnsboro. The men broke them into small pieces with sharp wooden-handle ice picks and placed the ice in ten-gallon tubs to cool the beer and pop down. A convoy of pulpwood trucks transported the tubs of beer, soda pops, watermelons and other items over to the picnic field.

The picnickers’ walked around eating catfish, roasted calf, hot dogs, and other foods. They drank big red pops and rooted for their favorite baseball team. Youngsters bounced up and down in burlap bags during the sack race. Others ran back and forth in and out of the lake. Some of the men folks went to the beer tub too many times and snoozed under the shade trees.

The watermelon thieves didn’t feel like participating in the watermelon-eating contest and decided to sneak around the bend to the fishing-hole to go skinny-dipping and cool-off a bit.

After a while Mr. Coleman noticed that the soda pop was running low and decided that he needed to go back up to the store to pick up a couple of cases.

“I can run up yonder and get it for you, Floyd. Maybe you ought to hang around in case something comes up,” Sheriff Lumpkin offered.

“Yeah, I reckon you can take Becky up yonder wit’ you. She can let you in and out the place. The missus is still at home finishing her pies. She might stop by the store but I’m not sure what time it’ll be. Y’all take the keys and go on,” he said handing the keys to Rebecca.

Sheriff Lumpkin drove up along the tree line and turned left behind the trees, then headed for the fishing-hole. Jimmie Lee and his friends heard the car coming. They ran over and hid in the weeds behind low hanging weeping willows.

Rebecca and Sheriff Lumpkin undressed quickly, ran in the water, sloshed over to the fishing boat, climbed in, and disappeared, as they listened to the picnickers’ voices on the other side of the tree. Jimmie Lee crawled on his belly through the weeds to the stake holding the rope tied to the boat, untied the knot, and waited for the boat to float away. The boat didn’t move at first. It just floated there in the same spot. Then the boat started bouncing up and down, and drifted into the current heading down stream.

A short while later, Sheriff Lumpkin’s head popped up. “Oh shit,” he said when the boat hit the moving current. The boys grabbed their clothes, dressed and ran back around to the picnic area.

Grabbing his shotgun from his truck, Floyd Coleman said,” what the heck’s going on?” He hobbled down to the edge of the water, watching his boat drift down stream. The other picnickers’ gathered around, pointing and mumbling.

Sheriff Lumpkin’s head popped up. “Hold your fire Floyd. Hold your fire. I’m on top of it,” he yelled, paddling and splashing frantically with one hand trying to guide the boat to the other side of the lake.

“What cha’ doing Eli?” Floyd yelled.

“Trying to sneak up on them watermelon snatchers,” he yelled with his arm hanging over the side of the boat splashing water.

The watermelon thieves were laughing so hard tears ran from their eyes as they rolled around in the dust like pigs wallowing in a mud-puddle.

“Sounds like Sheriff Lumpkin have got everything covered,” said Floyd Coleman, rubbing the top of his baldhead, shuffling back up the path to the picnic area.

-End-

__________________________________________________

Frank Gladden grew up near the small town of Winnsboro, South Carolina, where he enjoyed fishing, swimming naked in the creek, going barefoot, building rabbit boxes, and squirrel hunting with his .22 rifle. He spent eight years in the US Air Force. A retired accountant, he currently lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. His short stories or poetry appeared in Black World, Marriage, Reflect Magazine, The Story Teller, Timber Creek Review, The Oak, Mature Living, Fifty Something Magazine, Mississippi Crow, Cherry Blossom Review, New Works Review and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.


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