Read an Excerpt
By Harriette Simpson Arnow
Michigan State University PressCopyright © 1997 Marcella Arnow and Thomas Arnow
All rights reserved.
Nunnely Ballew rolled his quid of tobacco from one thin cheek to the other and read slowly, following each word with a knotty brown finger, the printing on the can of dog food in his hand. Finished with the reading, he lifted grave, deep-socketed brown eyes. "Recken it's got a heap a salt in it?"
The grocery clerk shook his head. "It's not salted much, I guess; maybe not at all. How about some oranges? They'd be good for your family."
A quick faint smile like a ray of light brightened the sober eyes. "You ought to see my youngens. Four a liven and there ain't never been a doctor in th house." His eyes were wistful again, studying the dog food. "I reckon this here ud be mighty fine fer a old hound when his teeth ain't so good."
"It's very highly advertised. You might try a can: ten cents."
"The sign says three fer a quarter."
"Oh, yes, if you're sure you want a quarter's worth," and the clerk's eyes wandered again to the bundle Nunn had left on the counter. He saw overalls and dress goods and small shoes, children's clothing bought against the fall. And he sniffed again with a wrinkling of his nose, and this time was certain that what he smelled was whisky on Nunn's breath; it was hard to tell through the screen of tobacco, but moonshine it would be; there was no legal liquor in the county.
"I reckon three fer a quarter would be $1 a dozen an $2 would be two dozen."
"Y-e-s. You sure you want two dozen cans? Why don't you try one can and then get more?"
"I need it right away. It'll soon be fine fox-hunten weather, an anyhow I mightn't git in town agin fore spring."
"I see. Anything else you need? There's a sale on dried beans."
Nunn shook his head. "Milly most generally raises enough to run us."
"If you buy two twenty-five-pound bags of sugar instead of the three ten-pound sacks you've already bought, you'll save fifteen cents on the fifty pounds."
Nunn rubbed one hollow cheek and considered the bags of sugar stacked by the lard and flour he had bought, then figured the money in a hip pocket of his clean starched overalls. "I hate to trouble you," he said after a moment, "but I guess I'd better just take two bags a sugar stead a th three like I aimed. I first aimed to buy a dollar's worth a this dog feed, but seen as how I'm gitten two dollars' worth I ain't got enough left fer all this sugar."
The clerk totaled the purchases on a paper bag. "Eleven-thirty," he said, and silently took the $12 Nunn handed him. He did not go immediately to the cash register but waited while Nunn studied the candy counter.
"Throw in a quarter's worth a that all mixed up—don't fergit a stick a peppermint er so fer th baby, an plenty a them yaller an white things, an a heap a th red. An then I want some chewen tobacco—that with them blue shiny stars I think's th kind."
"That's a little sweetish."
"Milly, she likes it that away—make it about a quarter's worth." He reached in his hip pocket again, brought out a nickel. "Now if I'm figgeren right with this nickel, I've still got a quarter left—make it three more cans a th dog feed."
"Sometimes," the clerk said as he went for the other cans, "on a large order like this we make it thirteen cans to the dollar—that would make twenty-nine in all."
"Now you are obligen," Nunn said, and smiled straight into the clerk's eyes, and when he smiled like that his eyes, which seemed an even, pure brown in repose, were brightened by the same red lights that shone at times in his brown, closely cropped hair. "I ain't never tried bough ten dog feed before, but Lister Tucker—he's got a pretty good hound name a Sourvine—he likes it mighty well."
The clerk smiled back and for some reason his glance happened on the meat counter, deserted for the time by the lunching butcher.
"Reckon that hound would like a present of some nice fresh beef bones?"
Nunn's eyes glowed and widened. "Zing, he'd love you like a brother," he said, then went on more soberly, as if confessing a sin, "I've been aimen fer a long time to buy him some good beef bones—but you know how it is with a family an all."
"I know," the clerk said, and as he wrapped and tied the bones, the choicest he could find, he felt a friendly curiosity toward the man.
Yes, he came from the far end of the country; he had a place at the mouth of Little Smokey Creek on the Big South Fork of the Cumberland. Yes, he farmed some—not as much as he'd like. His old place, it had come down from his great-great-grandfather, had gone pretty much to brush and gullies, but there was still some good land left; besides more than a hundred acres of hillsides in cut-over timber there was a fair-sized piece, maybe sixty acres, of rolling almost level land set below the hills in a high creek valley—and a strip of river bottom too.
Oh, no, he hadn't been so lucky as to heir it; he'd lived there as a boy, but he'd gone away and worked in the coal mines and saved his money and bought it. No, he didn't like to work in the mines, but the pay was good. Yes, farming was all right; there wasn't hardly any fence on the old place now, so mostly he kept sheep. Yes, sheep were handy things to have; he had forty-four ewes and ewe lambs, and most of the year they could range in the government forest; that was mostly what there was around his place, timber land owned by the Federal government. Yes, late lambs sold pretty good this year. He'd had thirteen late ones to sell; that was why he was in town. Jaw Buster Anderson had brought the lambs in on his logging truck.
Yes, he fox-hunted considerable, his old Zing was about the best hound in the country. N-o-o, fox hunting wasn't so much fun. Oh, some might hunt for fun, and a sweet-mouthed hound was a pretty thing to hear, but lots of times he got sick and tired of the business. Why, he hunted to catch a fox, a big red fox; he'd hunted him a long while but he was pretty certain he'd get him this fall; and when he spoke of his hunting and the fox he would catch, the easy talkative turn of a man who had had a few drinks left him, and the clerk did not doubt again that he was cold sober.
Did the clerk mind if he stood in the door and looked for Jaw Buster? Jaw Buster could get his truck to within two miles of his house when the weather was dry.
The late summer twilight lay like a thin blue dust at the bottom of the creek valleys before Nunn had stored most of his load at Jaw Buster's house and started home with the bones, a can of dog food, candy, tobacco, and dry goods loaded in a grass sack over his shoulder.
He hurried, almost running down the steep rocky path that twisted through spruce-pine trees and ivy bush over the ridge side. When he came to the foot-log over Little Smokey Creek, he stopped and shifted the weight of the sack and listened, and smiled his faint slow smile when from somewhere on the bench of rolling land on the other side, children's voices in some kind of singing game drifted down to him.
Out of the creek hollow the sunlight lay low and red across a brushy weed-grown pasture where a bony, long-legged cow, spotted and streaked in shades of red and brown, bawled and moved slowly up the path toward the answering bawl from a calf. Nunn followed the path through clumps of golden-flowered breast-high stickweed and by giant ironweeds that trailed their nodding purple heads across his hatbrim. He passed through a grove of slender yellowing poplar trees that made a screen about a little roof-sagging ramshackle building, in the days of his grandfather a grist mill powered by the spring branch that still flowed past its door.
The old mill, a barn now, fronted on a rutted wagon road made of limestone blocks, hewn and fitted solidly and evenly into the earth. The cow crossed the road and stopped to drink from a moss-grown hollowed-out log set under a trickle of spring water. Nunn stopped too, and stooping with the sack on his shoulder, drank long and heavily from the upper end of the log. He broke a sprig of peppermint from the masses growing there, crushed it, sniffed it, spat out his tobacco, put in the peppermint, and drank again. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he looked up and across an old wire fence patched with boards and twists of brush to the rusty tin roof of his house rising above the feathery foliage of a grove of black locust bushes. It was a big old gray house, built in the days of cheap labor and cheaper lumber, with seven great barnlike rooms, two wide stone chimneys, and double porches front and back. But the porch floors were mostly rotted now, and the late sun streamed through the broken-out windows of the empty upstairs rooms.
He laid down his load, for the heavy wooden gate on its one twisted hinge needed his two hands for the opening. The gate creaked and clattered, falling a little sideways, and at the sound a hound dog from somewhere behind the house began a deep joyful baying bark, and children set up a treble screaming, "Pop's got back. Pop's got back."
The big black and tan hound reached him first, a great gaunt ugly beast with a ribby chest and knotted legs and a sad scarred face framed by long hanging tattered ears. He came frisking like a pup, licking Nunn's wrists and his hands, sniffing his shoes, then leaping away and running madly around him. "Aye, Zing, you're not so old," Nunn said, then had eyes for nothing but the children as they came running down the gullied, littered yard: Suse, the brown-eyed oldest, with Deb, the least one, on her hip; Lee Roy, all blue-green eyes and freckles and bones in his outgrown overalls; and Lucy, the least girl, a little yellow-headed six-year-old, not much bigger than a baby.
They all flung themselves upon him, hugging his knees, his arms, swinging onto his elbows, Zing running between their legs to lick his shoes and his hands again. "Zing caught another possum, Pop. He come walken in with it right at daylight after you left an laid it in th kitchen door. Did you git us any shoes? Did you sell th lambs fer a heap a money? Rosie rooted out a her pen. Mom finished cutten th corn in th little swag. We found some hicker nuts. Did you git some dog food fer Zing like you aimed? Did you bring any candy? Did you git Mom's sugar? Lucy stubbed her toe an it bleeded"; and Suse, rummaging in his jumper pocket, cried, "Did you git a paper, Pop?"
He did not try to respond to their chatter but hugged them all, then asked with something like disappointment, "Where's your mom?"
A woman's voice, light and breathless and touched with the same gaiety that filled the children's, called from above the house, "Law, honey, I never thought about you gitten back fore dark. They's a old hen—that old dominecker, th one th hawk pulled her tail feathers out—she hid her nest out an has hatched eleven diddles right here, nearly September; frost'll git 'em fer true fore they feather out, an I've been tryen to git em an put her in a coop, but they're all as wild as quail. Did you honestly git some canned stuff fer Zing like you aimed?"
"Hell, no. I sold Zing to a man in town," Nunn said and winked at the children.
"He's a lyen, Mom," Lee Roy called, squatting on his heels over the grass sack. "He's got somethen here in a can. I'll bet it's that dog feed."
"Zing's a goen to have somethin better'n dog feed tonight," Nunn said, and picked up the sack, one corner of which Zing was already sniffing with eager eyes and a watery mouth.
"Now what you got there?" Milly wanted to know, swooping down for the last flustered chicken and then dropping it with its beeping, yipping brothers into her tucked-up apron.
Nunn drew a bundle from the sack. "Bones, real fresh beef bones. The grocery clerk where I done my traden in town give em to me particular fer Zing."
She came and touched and sniffed the soggy bundle and smiled, "It's beef all right. I recollect th smell," she said, and went on to know if Nunn recollected that spring before Tom was born and Zing wasn't hardly a full-grown pup and Nunn brought home some beef late one evening, way after dark, and the weather was so hot it wouldn't keep till morning and they had set half the night eating beef, and how Zing went half crazy with the smell while it was cooking and they fed him one slice after another and he eat it fit to kill, and look, he recollects now.
Nunn nodded and his eyes slipped over his wife, from her forehead with the little wispy curls that always came when she worked in the field and sweated, down her thin child's body in a ragged faded dress and feed-sack apron to her bare brown feet. He hesitated, his eyes on her feet. Then he lifted the bundle out of reach of Zing's quivering nose. "Thet grocery clerk said these bones—they got a sight of meat on em—was clean an good enough to bile fer soup. Whyn't you cook em first, make you some soup with dumplens, an then give em to Zing?"
"Lord, I've already got a God's plenty fer supper with th possum an all, an the bones would maybe ruin fore mornen, an anyhow they'd be better fer Zing raw. He ain't eat nothen all day—Now, ain't you youngens ashamed, eaten away on that candy an never a bite for Deb. Pore little feller, did you git him any sticks, Nunn?"
Deb, who wouldn't be two till October, turned down the corners of his mouth and began a broken-hearted howling, waving his hands toward Nunn. "Lordy mercy, sugar tit, your ole pop ain't plum fergot his babe.
Milly, hold these bones away frum Zing an let me take my Deb. Yor been a good man, Deb, an helped your mom cut corn?" Deb laughed and clapped his hands on Nunn's cheeks, then grabbed for a stick of pink candy Suse held up to him.
This was the first store-bought candy they had had since spring, when the wool was sold, and Deb's memory did not go back so far, and they all had to watch while he studied the stick and then took his first critical taste. They laughed at his look of pleased surprise, then set up a chorus of, "It's good, Deb. It's good. Suck it hard an you'll see."
A little red calf with a white splotched face came down the yard and set up a bawling for the cow, who bawled in return and licked it through a hole in the fence. Milly looked uneasily at the cow, "Betsey, you'll be a teachen it in a day or two to suck you through th fence like you done th one last year, if'n I let you fool around together. Lee Roy, take this apron full a diddies an put em under a tub; the old hen'ull stay around till we can git time to catch her, an then come back quick with a milk bucket.... Suse, don't be a looken at them shoes an piece goods now; take em into th house. Lucy, go on now, take your shoes on inside, they've got to run you till spring."
Halfway up the yard, Suse whirled back toward her father, "Oh, Pop, ain't th speckled yard goods fer me an the yaller fer Lucy?—Oh, Lordy. Look, Pop, Zing's a tryen to eat this." She snatched the flying length of cloth from Zing only to have him seize a bundle of gray outing flannel that fell from her overflowing arms. "Make him quit, Pop. Zing, you'll tear it up. Make him quit, Pop. It'll all be ruined."
Milly giggled. "I ain't seen Zing so lively in a long time. He's a sayen he wants that outen flannel fer him a shirt," she called, and handed the bones back to Nunn, took an eight-point lard bucket from Lee Roy then opened the gate to let the impatiently waiting calf to the cow.
Nunn strode up the yard. "Now, Suse, go put that piece goods away; put it in th back room, with th doors shut so th little youngens an th chickens won't git to it. Lucy's the least, she ought to have first choice. Lee Roy, rustle around now an git your kindlen wood. You all ought to pull some weeds an pick up some apples fer Rosie. Rosie was hungry; that's why she rooted out a her pen."
Twelve-year-old Suse came skipping through the kitchen, folded lengths of the flowerdy goods floating from her shoulders.
"Now, Suse, put that away before I speckle you; an if your mom ain't got the table set fer supper, you pitch in an help; she's tired cutten all that corn. Lee Roy, go on now, git some kindlen wood; an Lucy, you start packen up th night water; hurry, an then go pick up apples fer Rosie. Lee Roy, leave be that can a dog feed. Now Zing, you ain't a gitten these bones fer a while."
Holding the bones high above Zing's nose and stepping carefully on the sound boards in the porch floor, he hurried into the long barnlike room that served as kitchen and dining room. He laid the bones on the high shelf that held his fox horn, carbide light, pistol, Bible, and other things the children should not have, then asked of Suse, "Where's Maude? Funny, she didn't come up to her colt with Betsey."
Excerpted from Hunter's Horn by Harriette Simpson Arnow. Copyright © 1997 Marcella Arnow and Thomas Arnow. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.