When Miz Lockwood dropped her keys into Buckley’s open palm, he saw how he could steal from her. She hired him late that afternoon, saying, “I need you to drive my truck up to LaFollette to pick up a load of marble tiles.”
And he got tickled thinking how he’d get the best of her. She was a rich lady, and she lorded it over him without even knowing that she did. And he had this brainstorm about how to get something from her without asking. He could hear his Momma saying, “You can’t never tell when a break is going to come your way, so you always got to be ready.” As of January, 1957, she was dead now these forty years, but he abided by her words. “Time works in an eternal circle instead of running straight from the past to the here and now.” So he was careful to watch how things came back around again, if you knew what to watch for. And he was watching how he could get something over on Miz Lockwood. All this was running through his head as he planned to steal copper wire and welding tools from the cabin on the Lockwood property out in Dutch Valley.
When Miz Lockwood gave him the keys, she was staring at him and he thought, Uh oh, she’s picked up on something. He returned her stare, taking in those intense brown eyes, her dark hair, the inquisitive expression on her face. She said, “You drive careful, you hear? They’ll be waiting on you at Curt Alley’s office. I’ve already paid for the tiles, so you won’t have to fiddle with finances. Can you be back here by 7:30? I need to feed supper to my crew before we unload. My boys work better on a full stomach.”
Wanting to lower her expectations for how long he’d be gone, he said, “Might take longer than 7:30.” Driving away, he started calculating how to pull it off. He decided to head down Tennessee Highway 61 toward Clinton, but then would double back on Sulphur Springs Road. He had worked for Miz Lockwood three weeks earlier with Ed Powell. That’s when he found copper wire stored in the ramshackle cabin over in Dutch Valley. He’d looked through the window of the lean-to shed where they kept the old tractor, and that’s when he saw the copper and the welding equipment.
He would run get that wire and the welding gear, carry them to Spessard’s store, where Dave Woods would keep it all quiet until they could sell it in Rockwood or Knoxville. Dave and him had done this kind of thing several times before, no problem there. Then he’d drive up to LaFollette and come back with her tiles. When she found out about the theft, he could lay the blame on the Gilliam boys out in Frost Bottom. Those Gilliams were all mischief and plunder.
She was always tied up with her six kids, three teenage boys and two younger girls, then a boy just three years old. As he was working things out, he pulled the pint bottle of Old Crow out of his jacket and took a swig, letting that golden burn slide down. He turned onto the dirt road, which was slick from rain, laughing quietly about what her face would look like when she found out the wire and welding gear were missing. He’d give anything to be there when she saw it was gone.
When he got up to the cabin, he shut off the ignition and sat, listening to the engine as it cooled off, thinking it all through again. He might split a hundred dollars with Wood for the wire, maybe seventy for the welding equipment. A quarter of it would go to Woods, and the rest—well, that would buy a shitload of Old Crow. Which made him thirsty again, so he took out the bottle and drained her dry, tossing it empty into the woods.
He checked at the shed, and the gear was right there. He lifted the tarp away and pulled on the near handle of the welder to see how much it weighed. “God Amighty!” he said. “Heavy as lead pipe.” He worked five minutes to heft it into the truck, and he liked to bust a gut doing it. He’d need to move it all without getting a hernia, so he quit. That’s when he recollected the old tractor. He could let the tractor do the work.
The lean-to shed was laid out on a little slope, but the tractor was sitting nose out under the tin roof. The key was stowed away in the battery box, and he knew Miz Lockwood had her boys disconnect the battery every time they put the tractor to bed. That was a cinch to reconnect. He found the gas can, which, by the heft of it, was about a quarter full. He poured the gas into the tank, found the key, got up on the driver seat, and turned the key as he shifted into forward. Nothing happened.“Shit!” he muttered. “Need to connect that battery.”
He shifted into reverse and got down and inched around back of the tractor to get at the battery, sliding behind one of the big tires, which stood nearly chest high, contorting himself to reach the cables. He got the negative pole connected and wasn’t sure it was on right. The bourbon was giving him a woozie feeling. He hadn’t eaten since…when? Yesterday?
From the rear of the tractor, he reached across the driver seat to the ignition. Something told him how he was stretched out wasn’t right just about the same time he turned the key in the ignition. The engine caught right away, and the tractor lurched backward suddenly, slamming him hard into the post at the rear wall of the lean-to. The tractor was grinding away on him. When he had hopped down to check the battery he hadn’t pushed it into neutral, and now, damn! His ribs hurt already, and he was having trouble getting a full breath. Then he slipped down a little, and the big rear wheel was turning directly against his hip and right leg. Grinding, grinding.
He took in as good a breath as he could manage and tried to heft himself back away from the big wheel, which was turning slowly, but steadily, as if the infernal thing had a mind to run him over. It might just pulverize him as he stood pushing against it with both hands.
No good. He felt something pop in his right shoulder, and he felt the beginning of a dull throbbing pain there. All the while, the big wheel was turning, turning, turning, and his belt was getting hung up a little on the tire treads, pulling his pants down a little bit on every rotation. He could see an angry red scrape on the pale skin of his hip, and that wasn’t where it hurt the most. Down lower on his leg where the tire was grinding away hurt like the dickens. Not to mention something gone wrong in his back. Bleeding, he thought.
He gave a mighty push against the big wheel to no avail. His heart was beating rapidly, and he couldn’t seem to get his breath. The smell of rotting leaves and loamy soil inside the shed blended together as he wriggled first this way, then that way, struggling to get out from under that big wheel. He yelled loud as he could, “Hey! Anybody! I need help!”
But nobody was around to hear, and the only sound was that damned old beat-up tractor’s engine running like a top, chugging along like it was taking him to the county fair. But it was taking him someplace different, banging, bucking against him, whipsawing now and then like it wanted to get out from under the lean-to. He tried again and again to free himself, yelling until he was hoarse and out of breath, his head swimming. The pain in his hip, his whole midsection, and his right leg was spreading somehow. Not to mention his back, which was feeling worse. He didn’t know how it could, but that old tractor was pushing him into blackness.
His sleep was fitful. When he woke for good, it was near dawn. The tractor was quiet and still. Must have run out of gas. His head ached, and he was worried about his leg, which he could not move or even tell if it was there. His shoulder was some better, but he didn’t test it. His pants and underwear were soaked through with blood, and his midsection was very cold and tender to the touch, especially on his ribs. It had started raining, and he could hear dripping all around. The pattering on the tin roof, syncopated and almost melodious. He was chilled to the bone, but knew he was lucky because there was no frost showing on the leaves and grass. Just the same, his teeth chattered noisily.
In the dappling sunlight coming through the branches a few little brown wrens flew down in front of the shed, foraging for seeds on the bare ground. He studied them, wishing with all his might that he could acquire wings.
There. What was that? He thought he heard a low rumbling. An engine somewhere. Coming closer. He didn’t dare count on anything, but he held his breath as much as he could, and it sounded like an approaching automobile engine.
Minutes later the engine in the distance was perhaps only one hundred yards away, and he heard it idle while the driver got out to open the gate. The engine picked up for a few seconds as the car passed through the gate. Idle again while the driver closed the gate. Then it chugged closer, approaching the cabin. Easing up right in the clearing. Stopping where he couldn’t see it, but could hear a car door slam shut.
Buckley hollered, “Hey! Anybody there? Hello, hello!”
Then the sound of footsteps approaching the lean-to. Ed Powell’s face peered around the tractor at him. His dark hair showing under the bill of his baseball cap. His beard, a stubble. A perplexed look on his face.
“Long story,” Buckley said.
Coming closer, Ed said, “Where’s it got you?”
“My right leg,” Buckley said. “And here.” He looked down to see a large bruise across his stomach, lavender and yellow around the edges, as if he had caught a cannon ball in the gut.
“How long you been like this?” Ed asked, raking leaves away from the big wheel.
“Since yesterday evening.”
Ed raised his eyebrows and said, “Miz Lockwood’s a few minutes behind me. She’s been worried about you. She’s got some of her kids with her.”
Buckley licked his lips. He hadn’t counted on her.
Ed said, “She wants to haul some firewood I’ve cut back to her house. Plus she’s taking one of her girls to a birthday party. She ast me where you were. ‘He didn’t bring my truck back last night. Do you know where he went?’ I said, ‘I didn’t.’”
Buckley heard the Lockwood station wagon come up as Ed walked away. Buckley heard him talking to Miz Lockwood. Ed’s voice, quiet and polite while Miz Lockwood’s was stronger, easier to make out. I druther she just speak with Ed, he thought, not wanting to be under her thumb again.
“All right,” she said. “Mr. Powell, will you take Pete in your truck to start loading up firewood? Girls, you wait in the car. I need to go talk to Mr. Buckley. I want to see how things stand.”
“Yes,m,” Ed said.
“Pete, do what Mr. Powell says. Janie, Reba, we’ll be going soon as I find out a few things.” There was some short-lived whining from young female voices, but she handled it straight away. “The longer you fuss, the longer it’ll take to get to Bonnie’s party. Is that what you want?”
Miz Lockwood came up to the lean-to. “Hello, Mr. Buckley,” she said, but she wasn’t looking at him. She was peering at the tractor, walking around behind the shed, coming back in front so he could see her. Finally, she made eye contact, asking, “How’re you doing? Are you hurt?”
“Not so much hurt as caught,” he said, determined to conceal his suffering.
She said, “I’m sorry you got into trouble.” But he didn’t like the way she was studying him. She would have a bone to pick with him beyond this tractor business. Directly, she’d be asking why he was out on the Dutch Valley property. He hadn’t worked out the best answer to that yet. For all he knew, she was reading his mind.
“Ed might have something back at his house that would work to pull the tractor out of the shed. He’ll show me. But, if he doesn’t have anything, then I’ll get some help. Maybe drive over to Woodcutter’s Crossing, see if the guys at the sawmill got anything that’ll help.”
He felt better hearing that, but on a different level he was wary. He saw how she was zeroed in on his eyes, timing out when to change topics and ask about the welding gear. “I also need to get Janie to a birthday party,” she said. “Let me think a minute.” She scratched her chin. “If Pete and the girls stay here, I can go for help. Ed can do for you while I’m gone.” She went out of the shed and spoke to the girls a minute, but then came back, and he braced himself for her questions.
She called out to the children. “Reba, Janie, stay and help Mr. Powell when he gets through hauling firewood. Mind him, and stay out of trouble. I’ll be back directly. You can also sit with Mr. Buckley here. We’re going to get him loose pretty soon. In fact, Janie, bring those cookies over here. Mr. Buckley might want one.” She turned and smiled kindly at him. “Bear with me, Buckley. We’re going to get you out, come hell or high water.” Then she was gone. He was relieved she hadn’t talked about the welding gear.
Buckley thought about Momma again, and he had mixed feelings remembering her. She could tell him how to get things without working for them, and then she could preach to him. She used to preach about sin, which will take you farther than you want to go. “Sin will keep you longer than you want to stay and cost you more than you want to pay.” He had to admit that’s how it looked right here. Momma had always surprised him when she talked about the Bible, about doing good deeds for the poor. The way it had always seemed to him, he was his own poor self, and he needed all the good deeds done for himself. At any rate he was damn glad she wasn’t around to hear him take God’s name in vain, especially if he did it in front of the children—and he was pretty sure he’d done that a few times. And she’d be terribly disappointed to see the mess he’d got into. Seemed like everything she’d always said applied to him, but not the way she intended. She wouldn’t be proud of him for stealing from as good a woman as Miz Lockwood. He knew that, and it was the worst part of his predicament.
He drifted a while, thinking about Momma, wondering how he could please her if she was here. The next thing he knew Ed was back and had brought a cedar branch and was pushing it down under the tractor. Ed also brought a large, flat rock, pushing it under the main body of the tractor to use for leverage.
“I’m going to heave it,” Ed said, “and when I do, slide thisaway fast as you can. I don’t know how long I can hold it.” The Lockwood boy, Pete, was standing there, too, watching, and he was good size and might be able to add muscle to pushing the tractor, if it came to that.
Buckley watched Ed jump on his end of the branch, exerting lifting pressure on the underbelly of the tractor, which groaned metallic, but didn’t budge. Ed leapt again, and this time the branch creaked in protest, with the same result. That big wheel still had Buckley under tread as Ed fell off his end of the branch and said, “No good.”
“No shit,” Buckley said. His ribs were sore, and he felt like it was more ribs than before.
Ed was gathering himself for another try when they heard a rumble of thunder over the ridge.
“Move it down this way a smidgen,” Buckley said, patting the loamy soil close to his leg. Then the trees swayed way over as a gust pushed through.
Suddenly, the leaves were spattered with large raindrops, and Pete hurried inside the shed. The branches and boughs were straining against the trunks. Leaves blew across the front of the lean-to. Then the rain came in sheets sideways through the trees, loud against the tin overhead, water runneling under the back of the shed. Abruptly, the tractor slid on the slick, uneven ground and lurched down across Buckley, mashing against him, squeezing tight.
Ed got up on his knees. “Tell me what to do. I’ll do it.”
“I don’t know,” Buckley wheezed.
Ed scrambled over close to him and reached under him, pulling on his trousers, which had the effect of mashing him in the opposite direction from which he’d been abused thus far. He felt Ed, grasping and straining to keep him up. Finally, Ed fell backwards, and Buckley saw the tractor slide back a bit, resting on his leg again, only lower, which he thought hardly possible. But he did know one thing for sure now: he couldn’t exactly feel either one of his legs. He didn’t think his legs were broken, but he was sure they weren’t working right.
The rain let up some, yet still cascading through the leaves overhead when Ed scrambled around next to Buckley. “You want me to git you some kind of cushion?”
Pete spoke up. “I can get a couple pillows off one of the beds in the house. I know where Momma keeps the key to the front door.”
Buckley just looked back at him for a moment. Then he shook his head, muttering, “Anything to eat?” His mouth felt awful. He wanted to taste something. Anything.
The younger Lockwood girl said, “You can have a sugar cookie.” She wasn’t much over four feet tall with short blonde hair and large, bright blue eyes. Buckley hadn’t noticed her standing on the other side of the tractor. Then he saw the older girl a little behind her, taller, with dark hair, wearing glasses. In their white blouses and denim shorts, both girls had anxious smiles as they crept forward to get out of the rain.
“Let me see what you got,” Buckley said, and the younger girl stepped forward, holding out a plate of cookies. He took two, murmured, “Thank you kindly,” and found they were crisp and sweet, and he put them whole one at a time into his mouth.
The girls were curious, but shy. At least, the older one was. The younger girl would look to her sister to see if it was all right to be talking with the injured man.
“Girls,” Pete said. “Come on in closer. You’re getting wet.”
They did as told, and Buckley tried to act normal. He was going to power through his situation. He said, “How old are you, girls? What’s your names?”
The older girl said, “I’m ten. My name’s Reba. And this is my sister, Janie. She’s five.”
“I’ll be six next month,” Janie said. “I’m going to have a big party, too.”
Buckley was pleased to have something in his stomach, and they sat a while listening to the cold rain, which gradually stopped. Buckley closed his eyes and dropped his hand onto his leg, just about played out. Ed went back out, and Buckley listened to a car door slam. Then a minute later another car door slammed. Then Ed was back with a hopeful look on his face and a coil of rope in his hand. “They wadn’t much but firewood in my truck,” he said, “but I did have this rope behind the seat.”
“It don’t look substantial to me,” Buckley said, but he figured it was something, so he said, “Can you rig it up to drag this goddam tractor off me?” He glanced at Pete and his sisters because of his blaspheming, but the young ones didn’t react to it, except to glance at one another.
“I can try,” Ed said. “Pete, if I need it, can you help me push?” Pete jumped up to be ready, and Ed set about backing the Lockwood truck to the front of the lean-to, up pretty close to the nose of the tractor. He looped the line around the tractor’s front left wheel, cinching it down tight. Then he squatted down to sight how it might get attached to a fixed point.
“I’d druther it was more level. Pete, will you stand right there,” Ed said, indicating close to Buckley’s head. “And let me know when I get close?”
Ed went back out of sight. Then the truck started up, and it first eased back toward him. Then forward ever so slowly until the rope tensed straight. The engine growled as the truck tires started grabbing onto the rocks in the mud. Buckley felt something let go in his middle as the pressure released just a bit, but then he heard a sharp sound, and the tractor was still right where it was.
Ed shut down the engine and came back to squat by him.
“Rope broke,” Pete said.
Janie went to pick up one end of the rope, and Reba said, “Janie, come back here!”
“It’s all right,” Ed said. “Just hand it here.”
Janie was tickled to be involved. Reba grabbed her by the hand and pulled her close.
Buckley said, “Let me think on it a while. Then we’ll try again.”
“I don’t see how—.” Pete said.
Buckley raised his voice, “Just let me think!”
Ed walked away a while. When he came back, he squatted down by Buckley and said, “You’ll figger something out. Or Miz Lockwood will.”
Ed looked to Pete. Then to the little girls who had sat down on a log that ran along the shed wall. The girls whispered to themselves a few times. He’d caught a glimpse of Janie sneaking a cookie off the plate while Reba was retying one of her shoes. Janie wasn’t through chewing when Reba looked up and said, “Momma told us to save these for Bonnie’s party.” The plate had only three cookies left. “Jane Margaret Lockwood, where’d all those cookies go?”
Janie said, “Momma said to give some to Mr. Buckley. He must have—he—.”
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Reba scolded. “He had two. You must have eaten most of them yourself. Mr. Powell didn’t have any. Pete and I didn’t have any.”
Janie clouded up right away, her face twisted into a guilty mask.
Reba put a hand on her sister’s shoulder, her voice softer now. “It’s all right, Janie. Momma would tell us, ‘When you make a mistake, find some way to make up for it.’ Remember? She always says, ‘Look for ways to get forgiveness.’ And I believe you need some.”
Relieved at her sister’s attitude, Janie said, “Could we give the rest to Mr. Buckley?” She looked from face to face. “But maybe one to Mr. Powell, too?”
Reba looked to the men, and said, “Yes, that would be best, I think. In fact, I think it would be sinful not to.”
Janie hopped up and took the plate to Ed, who waved a hand. “Mr. Buckley needs them more than me.” Buckley took all three, but not wolfing them down like before, just nibbling. His chest was quivering, his hands trembling. When Janie sat back down Reba said to her, “We need to tell Momma what happened. Do you want to tell her, or let me do it?”
Janie said, “Let me tell it.”
Silence fell over the shed, and Janie placed the empty cookie plate on the log next to her, but it slipped off. Reba said, “Just leave it.”
Janie said, “How much longer til Momma gets back?”
“Shouldn’t be much longer,” Ed said.
“I’m sorry you’re hurt, Mr. Buckley,” Pete said. The boy seemed to have come to grips with things in general, more at ease now. Buckley could sense him warming to conversation. Pete spoke up again. “In Sunday School Miz Rosenbaum told us, ‘We’re punished by our sins, not for them.’ And I…well, I’m trying to figure out…Mr. Buckley, are you being punished? Or is this just bad luck?”
Buckley twisted uncomfortably. “I ain’t giving in, I can tell you that, but it sure does feel like I’m being punished.”
“What for?” Pete said.
Buckley didn’t answer, but started wondering about that, too. But he would keep on fighting it, never giving in.
They heard an auto coming back up the road, and the kids went to greet their mother. When Miz Lockwood got out, Pete started telling her what had been tried and failed. Janie confessed about the cookies, and Reba shared something Buckley couldn’t hear. Miz Lockwood simply said, “I’ll speak to him about it. Leave it to me.”
Then she came over to the shed, making her way up close, smiling as if she had a funny story to tell. She laid a hand on Buckley’s shoulder. “I brought back a gallon of gas. We’ll just make sure the battery’s still holding a charge and the tractor’s shifted into forward…and, if it’s in working order, we’ll drive it back off you.” Her smile widened. “What do you think about that?”
He nodded. “Damn good idea,” he said. “We should have thought of that ourselves.”
Ed stood there, shame-faced. “You’re right. We should have.”
Dropping her grin altogether, she said, “Then, Buckley, we’ll take you to the hospital in Oak Ridge.”
Ed filled the tractor’s tank and, pretty as you please, drove the tractor out of the shed. Miz Lockwood and Pete helped Ed carry Buckley to the station wagon where the little girls awaited him. After the girls piled into the back-back, she told him to lie down in the middle seat. Pete joined Ed in the truck, and they headed out ahead of her.
As she drove toward town, the girls were reaching over the seat, touching Buckley now and then on his shoulder. When he glanced up at their faces, he could tell they just wanted to know if he was all right. If he needed anything. When they went into a curve and the car slid a little bit, they’d hold onto him so he wouldn’t slide off the seat. He watched the back of Miz Lockwood’s head as she drove, knowing sooner or later she’d turn on him. She’d grill him about why he was in Dutch Valley instead of LaFollette. She’d be tracking him down for sure,
Janie peeked over the seat at him, and he thought she sounded like his Momma when she said, “You shouldn’t cuss God, Mr. Buckley. You’ll get punished for that. It’s a sin.”
He thought about that eternal circle, but was too tired and hurting too much to do more than to mull over it briefly. All he could do was sniff back at her indignantly, muttering, “Where am I? Sunday School? I ain’t surrendering, I can tell you that.”
“No,” she said. “You’re not surrendering. You’re going to the doctor.” He made a noise of utter disgust, but the little darling just patted his shoulder. “It’s all right, Mr. Buckley. You can get forgiveness soon. If you repent. If you ask real nice.”
That started him quaking in his boots because, if he got forgiveness at all, it would come from her that was sitting in the driver’s seat. She would sit in judgment of him, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to stop her. She was on high. Him, lower than when trapped by that tractor’s big wheel. If given half a chance, he’d like to get back under it. Back when he had maybe some way to get free from her.
Danny Thomas was born in North Carolina and grew up in Tennessee. He went to college in Alabama and then taught English before attending graduate school at the University of North Carolina, where he earned his Doctorate. After 35 years in Human Resources, Thomas retired in 2006 and started writing. For more about Thomas, check out his website or connect with him on Twitter @DannyThomasAuth.