The story below was written by fellow Southerner and Georgian, Jeanne Matthews. Jeanne is the author of the excellent Dinah Pelerin mystery series. I wanted to share this with my fellow readers. It’s too good to keep to myself.
RAISING THE DEAD
Old Man Duke lived about a mile from my grandmother’s farm in rural North Georgia. When I was a kid, I thought he must have tramped out of the womb toting a rifle and wearing a slouch hat and overalls. I thought he had existed as I knew him – old, one-eyed, and crusty – since the dawn of time. He didn’t have family in the county and his accent was hard and clipped, nothing like our drawl. Most folks assumed he hailed from some place far off – Tennessee, maybe, or one of the Carolinas. But come to find out, he wasn’t a Southerner at all. He’d been born into a large North Dakota clan as crooked as a barrel of fish hooks. His daddy robbed dry goods stores for a living and his older brother and cousins stole government shipments of food and blankets intended for the Lakota Sioux and sold them back to the dry goods stores his daddy robbed.
When Duke was about fourteen, he got caught rustling cattle and in that day and age, the concept of “juvenile justice” hadn’t yet caught on. After a hasty trial, he was sentenced to be hanged and locked up in the Dickey County Jail with less than a week left to reflect on the consequences of his life of crime. But before the appointed day arrived, his mama slipped the sheriff a few dollars she’d appropriated from the family’s other business operations and one night he accidentally left the key too close to Duke’s cell. Duke escaped and worked his way south and east across the country doing odd jobs and, maybe a few illegal jobs, until he got to Georgia. He panned for gold in Dahlonega for a few months and eventually drifted east and settled outside the town of Toccoa, where he built a state-of-the-art still and started making moonshine which he sold in Mason jars. He must have been about twenty-five at the time and, apart from tending his still, he never worked another day in his life.
My grandmother lost her husband when her children were still young and the boys in particular looked up to their neighbor, Mr. Duke, as a sort of stand-in father. Whenever a rattlesnake crawled under the house or a fox got into the chicken house or the mule tore down the barbwire fence, Duke would show up to take care of the situation. My Uncle Emry loved to go fox hunting with Duke. Not the kind of hunting where the dogs rip the poor fox apart. Duke never killed a fox. The fox provided the entertainment, an excuse to stay out in the woods all night telling stories and listening to the dogs bay. If the dogs picked up the scent of a gray fox, it would be a short night. A gray fox won’t stray too far from its den. It leads the dogs in a wide circle and then goes home. But a red fox would run ‘til the dogs were exhausted and the young ‘uns couldn’t keep their eyes open.
No women or girls were allowed on those hunts. If they had been, I’d be a better writer today. At least, I’d have a lot more stories to write. I often think about a story my Uncle Emry told me about one hunt that went sadly wrong. He was just learning to shoot and, in between the tracking and the storytelling, he took an occasional practice shot into the upper branches of the trees to annoy the squirrels. He was getting sleepy toward the end of the hunt when he heard twigs snapping in the distance. He loosed off a round into the darkness, aiming high to avoid hitting one of the dogs. To his complete surprise, the shot spooked the fox and it darted out of the brush right in front of him. Impulsively, he fired. The fox dropped dead and Old Man Duke dropped down on a log, crestfallen. “Lord God, son, you done killed that good runnin’ fox.”
In a sense, I think I know just how he felt. When I’m writing a story and one of my characters breaks bad and murders another character, a good-running character whose turns and twists I’ve been tracking for hundreds of hours and hundreds of pages, I feel that same pang of loss and regret. Small wonder that authors get nostalgic for their dead and write prequels.