The Safe: Part Eight

The guilt set in as soon as I returned home and got into bed. Who else had I to turn to but myself? To exact a kind of justice for Mama. Sheriff Anderson was of no use. Would he only come to our aid if Mama was dead? That eventuality was beginning to loom larger everyday. I had discovered something from old Alfie Tressler prior to the robbery. Trenchard’s first wife had fallen down the stairs while pregnant. Rumour circulated in Chattanooga, where he had lived before. Trenchard, in a fit of anger and drunkenness, had pushed her. His wealth and status had succeeded in acquitting him when the finger of suspicion had travelled in his direction. How long before the same happened to Mama? With the money we could get out. The trouble was I had had to commit a crime to exact that justice.

The house was quiet, and I knew Trenchard had gone to bed. I lay awake, my heart beating erratically when I considered the night’s events. I hoped that Billy was wrong in his assumption that Alfie might have  set us up for his own ends. I’d stuffed my share of the cash into a drawer. All two and a half thousand dollars of it. Mama had a sister in Huntsville. Maybe we could go there, out of his clutches, and Mama could have her op.

When the strident raps on the outer door issued, a crazy sense of lightheadedness  washed over me. I couldn’t sleep, so I was up, listening at my door. I heard Trenchard curse and warn Mama to stay there. “Who in God’s name is it at this time of the night? Disturbing decent folks peace.”

Cracking  the door ajar, I watched him fasten the belt of his robe.

The anxiety increased when I heard Mort Anderson’s voice, followed by Trenchard inviting him into the hallway. From there I had a clear view.

“What is it, Mort?” Trenchard demanded. “Has something happened at the bank?”

‘”I think there might have been a robbery, Ike.”

“What do you mean, ‘think’? Well, has there been a robbery or not? I’m in no damned mood for guessing games at this time of night.”

“I was doing my rounds and I saw a light in your office. The door was unlocked. I found old Alfie Tressler bound and gagged.”

“What?” Trenchard spluttered. He held his chest as if he were about to collapse. “What… what did Alfie say?”

“He wasn’t saying much. First off, he reckoned that his eyes ain’t what they was. He couldn’t see what they was doing, or what was stolen.  Only that they was masked. He didn’t even know how many of ’em they’re were. The poor old boy is practically blind.”

“Only when it suits him.” Trenchard bunched a fist. “It must have been my safe.” He spoke as if to himself.

‘Good old Alfie, I knew you wouldn’t let us down,’ I thought with a smile.

It was a smile that was short-lived however, when Anderson said, “I do have a witness though.”

A witness? But I had seen no one.

“Yeah. Seems they saw a coupla guys run across the street from the bank and get into Billy Parker’s pick-up.”

Momentarily Trenchard said nothing, but I saw his leaned-out frame visibly stiffen. Both fists clench against his robe.

“Did you hear what I said, Ike? You okay?”

“Yes I heard.”

“Look, I’ll go and talk to Parker. I ain’t saying it was Billy. Someone might have stolen his vehicle. Though he ain’t reported it missing.”

“And he won’t either.”  Trenchard’s face was now  an angry mass of vengeance.

“You want to get dressed and come to your office, Ike? Ike?”

“Later. I have something to deal with first. You go ahead. I’ll join you.”

“I can wait. I got the car outside. What you gonna do?”

“I said wait outside,” Trenchard hissed. “Remember who elected you, Sheriff. You answer to me.”

“Look, Ike, I ain’t called that in…” Anderson had removed his hat. Now he twirled it in his hand nervously.

So Trenchard was responsible for pulling Mort Anderson’s strings too, but I was in far too much trouble to even dwell on that fact.

“What’s goin’ on, Luke?” Johnny appeared from his room, rubbing at his eyes.

“Get back into your room, and stay there,” I hissed at him. The last thing I needed was for him to witness whatever might occur. I repeated the order at his hesitation and he dived back into his room.

He wasn’t the only one. I closed the door, and hoped to make it back to bed. I had undressed and was wearing my pyjamas. For a man of Ike Trenchard’s years, he bounded up the stairs pretty agilely and burst into my room before I could prevent him.

“What is it, Ike?” I pretended nonchalance, but the cold grey eyes that bore into mine were filled with an hatred I had never occasioned to ever witness on a human being. If that’s what he was.

“Don’t play the innocent with me, boy. I know it was you and that Parker kid that broke into my office. Masking your faces like a coupla hoodlums. The old man musta told you about the safe. How much did you take?”

“I… I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I protested, when pushing me back onto the bed, he towered above me. ” I…I don’t know nothin’ about no safe.”

His robe slipped open, revealing his sinuous frame. His breathing issued raspy and dry. A bony hand shot out and his fingers wrapped around my neck, I knew in that terrible moment of realisation, that he intended to kill me. “I always knew you was a bad ‘un. Beyond hope now.”

I was aware that his free hand had also  grabbed the guitar that rested against my night cabinet.

” Wh-what you gonna do with that?” I thought, please, not that

“How much money did you take from my safe?”

“I…told you I didn’t…”

“Wrong answer, boy.” He released the stranglehold on my windpipe. My throat was sore, and I was gasping for breath  when raising the guitar above his head, I knew what he was going to do.

“Okay, okay, it… it was me,” I gasped.

“What you doing to my son?” Mama burst into the room. My brother, white and scared, trembled  behind her.  “Leave him alone. If he says he didn’t steal any money…”

She attempted to wrest the guitar she knew I loved so much from his grasp when Trenchard, flinging out an arm, hurled her so belligerently against a sideboard, that both Johnny and I screamed her name. Relief shot through me when she roused herself, and my brother helped her to rise.

It all came out then. Why I had stolen the money.

Mama stared, half collapsing against Johnny, with disbelief.

“This is the man who foreclosed on our farm, Mama. On other folks farms so he could steal their money.”

“Oh you’d say anything wouldn’t you, boy? Because I’m gonna see you sent down for ten.” His thin lips twisted ugly around the words. “What will your precious Mama and that snivelling brother do if you ain’t around? I can do it too. I practically own this town.”

“You’re a bad man, Isaac Trenchard.” Mama stood there, her hair dishevelled and greying before her time. “My son doesn’t have a criminal bone in his body. It’s what you’ve driven him to. There was no one else who would help me, because they were all so scared of you. All the folk around town.”

“Yeah, you’re such a goddamned big shot in this town ain’t you, Trenchard?” I taunted. The stinging blow he cracked across my face was expected. Though I held a hand to my cheek, I continued to hold my ground. “Such a big man that you kicked a little dog, then shot him in the head for good measure.”

“You bastard! You bastard!” Johnny was crying, about to charge into Trenchard until Mama restrained him. He buried his head in her nightie, her arms coming around him.

“That damned critter was always whinin’.”

“And my sister? She had the courage to stand up to you and you killed her baby.”

” Wh-what’s that gotta do with me?” Guilty colour flowered Trenchard’s face but he continued to maintain that it wasn’t his fault.

“Lorrie lost her baby?” Mama echoed in a trembling voice.

“Yes, Mama, the night he pushed her out of the chair. Billy told me.”

I really believed Mama was about to pass out, for she teetered, and almost fell against the door. Then recovering her composure, dragging Johnny with her, she  exited the room.

“Now it’s just you and me, boy,” Trenchard sneered. “You can tell me why you’ve been doing these wicked things.”

” For Mama. Because I figured I needed some kind of… of justice for what you’ve done to her.” I allowed my words to falter, when Mama appeared again. Gripped in both hands was the double barrelled shotgun Trenchard kept in their bedroom. Before he managed to turn around, Mama fired. Trenchard was catapulted back against the wall with a surprised expression on his face when he dropped onto the bed, blood flowering up through his robe a river of crimson.

“What’s going on? I thought I heard a shot.” Sheriff Anderson burst into the room. In the aftermath of the shotgun’s reverberation, a terrible, infinite silence reigned. My pyjamas were splashed with Trenchard’s blood. Johnny was crying quietly. Only Mama was strangely calm when she held her hands outstretched to Anderson for him to cuff her.

The Safe: Part Seven

Convinced Alfie wouldn’t set us up, I found the old man lunching at the diner. I offered to buy him a coffee and we talked. Conspiratorial conversation revealed that Alfie usually cleaned out Trenchard’s office in the evening, after banking hours. By then Trenchard would be home. I knew that of course. That particular night he chose to arrive home later than usual. From my bedroom window, I caught him rubbing lipstick from his mouth on a handkerchief before he entered the house. No one spoke much that evening. Mama had taken to her room, so I took her meal into her. Even that small consideration on my part encountered another angry tirade from Trenchard, forcing Mama to abandon her sanctuary.

“What were you thinking letting those boys do the cooking? They could have burnt the house down. Cooking was women’s work,” he admonished. He dragged Mama out physically and had her cook for him. The meal Johnny and I had prepared was committed to the bin untouched.

We refused to respond to his invariable moans about having to endure pigswill every night. I longed to suggest why didn’t he eat at the diner like he normally did. Guess both the anticipation admixed with fear for what Billy and I were about to do had driven me to silence.

It was too late to back out now, as Billy rolled the pick-up to a halt outside our house. Mama wanted to know where we were going, I lied we were going to see Lorrie in hospital, without of course referring to the fact she had lost her baby.

Billy parked the pick-up a few hundred yards from the bank. I was scared, I had to admit, mainly because I was carrying Pa’s Colt .45. Though I’d kept my promise that the clip would be empty. Billy produced a Smith and Wesson .38.  Checking the weapon I saw four slugs up the spout. I might have known.

“I said empty, Billy,” I hissed.

“Fuck that. And I told you, if the old man is pulling a doublecross, then we got some back-up,” he said, covering the lower portion of his face with a bandanna.

My stomach was so full of knots I could barely breathe. Maybe I shouldn’t have involved Billy. Now he was acting like Jesse James. He reminded me about masking my own face when we alighted from the pick-up. I did so, reluctantly. We’d donned Stetsons to cover our hair; Billy’s suggestion. Now I was really beginning to feel like one of those Old West outlaws.

Alfie was expecting us. I mean, he hadn’t said as much anymore than I had. After all, who goes round sprouting stuff about pulling a hold-up. The bank was closed, but I remembered the side entrance. Billy and I slipped in there. Billy held the .38 upraised, and he levelled the gun on the old man.  Alfie was there right enough, squinting his rheumy eyes up immediately he saw us.

I closed the door with a boot heel, drawing the Colt.

We had obviously taken him by surprise. Because he elevated his hands at Billy’s order to do so.

“This is a hold-up, Alfie,” I said, without raising my voice. Billy even threatened to shoot him. I wondered if he would carry out his threat if old Alfie decided not to comply. I raised the .45. Alfie blanched and begged us not to shoot him.

“Just open that safe, old man, and maybe I might decide not to kill you.” Billy was obviously enjoying this. From my own earlier trepidation, maybe I was too. After the way he’d treated us, getting back at Trenchard was enough. This was for Lorrie and her baby. For Blue. And for our Mama.

“Quit stalling. We don’t have much time,” I told him.

The old rheumy eyes attempted to penetrate our masks. “Sure, sure,” he agreed.

Momentarily I wondered if the old man had lied to me. There was no safe and no money here after all or that he believed I wouldn’t have the guts to pull a robbery, but I was angry and desperate.

The room was spacious and fancy. A large green baize covered desk  was the focal point of ostentation. Opposite the desk was a painting I recognised as a Monet. So Trenchard appreciated fine art.  It took but a moment for old Alfie, despite his shaking, to slip aside the painting and reveal the small, blue safe.

It was obvious that Billy was on tenterhooks, because he kept moving agitatedly from one foot to the other. I stiffened when he curled a gloved finger around the .38’s trigger.

The money was there alright. More than I had ever seen in my life. Billy whistled behind his mask when he saw it. Our eyes locked and held. Each with but a single thought. How easy it would be to grab the lot. We was owed after all. But we didn’t. Just enough to help Mama and Lorrie. About five thousand in all. Even if Billy did shake his head at what he considered my foolishness.

So that old Alfie shouldn’t take the blame that he might be in on it, I opted to tie him up. Not too tightly of course. Much against my better judgement, Billy suggested gagging him.

So we stuffed our pockets, and got the hell out of there, and into Billy’s pick-up.

The Safe: Part Six

“If you wasn’t holding that spade, Luke Franklyn, I’d fucking challenge you to a fight.” Billy Parker said, alighting from his pick-up and moving across the yard.

Having no idea why he said it, I was far too preoccupied with burying Blue. I made Johnny stay with Mama. So it was left to me. I was in the process of filling in the small grave, tears ever present, when Billy arrived. He wore an angry expression, and he hadn’t bothered to shave. He stalked across the yard, wanting to know what I was burying.

“If it’s Ike Trenchard, I ain’t  seen nothing.”

I wish,’ I thought. “No it’s Blue.”

“Blue! Your dog! You’re kidding me! What did he die off?”

“Ike Trenchard’s boot kicking him across the barn and a gunshot wound to the head.”

“I’m sorry, Luke.” Billy wore a pained expression, and he muttered something about adding that to Trenchard’s long list of misdemeanours.

“Why did you want to fight me, Billy? ‘Cos you gotta know I ain’t got no fight left in me anymore.”

“Because you let that bastard hurt Lorrie.” A fist bunched, he rasped into my face.

“I wanted to do something, believe me, but I knew he’d take it out on Mama. I’m sorry, Billy.” I’d finished shovelling the earth, placed a small wooden marker, and wished Blue a, “farewell buddy.”

“Yeah, so am I.” Billy turned his back, kicking up the dirt angrily with his boot. You could visibly see the aggression straining at his temples. I knew him well enough to know he was the kind to do something about it. Old Alfie Tressler’s words came back to me. I’d thought about that safe of course. Figured the money was owed us. But we could go to jail. Only when Billy said, “Lorrie lost the baby,” did I realise I scarcely cared  anymore. Trenchard had gone too far. When I asked Billy if it was because of what Trenchard had done, and if he’d told Mama yet, Billy nodded. He said that it was, that he couldn’t bring himself to confess about the baby to Mama the way she was.

Billy was right of course. After all that had happened, now Lorrie losing her baby, I knew this would destroy Mama. But right now, with the anger bursting out of Billy, I was compelled to do something about it. When I dragged him into the barn and closed the door.

“What is it? You got a real odd look on your face,” he said.

“What I got to tell you about stays between us, Billy, understand? That means we don’t tell our families, and that includes Lorrie.”

“They’re ain’t no secrets between me and her.”

“Well this is one secret that has to be between us.” I practically pushed him down on the stool. Billy Parker wasn’t the kind of guy you could push around easily. I must have appeared wild and angry, because the frown deepened on his face. He said he thought I was going loco. Maybe I had when I told him to hush up and listen while I related what old Alfie had told me about the safe in Trenchard’s office. The safe where he kept more than thirty thousand bucks.

“I always knew that old bastard had a lotta dough.” Billy’s mouth clenched in company with the fist he bunched against his jeans leg. I figured he was halfway there, because the clenching ceased, and a light appeared in his eyes where before there had only been darkness. “You suggesting what I think you are, old buddy?”

I nodded.” Just take what we need that’s all. The money for Mama’s op, and maybe a little more for housekeeping and stuff. I figured its owed us.”

“Hey, man, listen to yourself,” Billy tossed his dark hair with derision. “Thirty thou in a safe, and you’re planning to take what? A measly one and a half?”

“No more, Billy.” I was so intent on making him understand that I had unconsciously grabbed the collars of his jacket. “I ain’t no thief. It’s just that I’m desperate, and I don’t want Mama to die while that old man keeps all that dough in his safe. I’m sorry.” I apologised, releasing him.

“Sure I understand,” he said, straightening his collars where I had grabbed hold of him. “So what’s your plan? And how do you know old Alfie can be trusted? That he ain’t setting you up.”

“Alfie wouldn’t do that. He needs the money for an eye operation. Poor old guy’s goin’ blind. Everybody know’s that.”

“You have a plan?” Billy arched a brow.

Did I have a plan? I’d thought of nothing else but getting just enough money that was owed us. By his own admission, Alfie knew the safe’s combination. I hadn’t really considered a plan, though.

“I fuckin’ knew it.” Billy slapped a hand against his knee. “So you think we’ll just walk into that office where old Alfie’ll be waiting to open the safe, hand us the dough? There you go, boys, how much do you want?”

Guess I didn’t really have a plan, but what Billy outlined seemed the most reasonable.

“We’ll have to mask our faces ‘course.” Billy was already caught up in this. “You got a gun?”

” A gun?” I felt the colour ebb from my cheeks at what he intimated. “We don’t need guns. Somebody could get hurt.”

“Just a precaution, that’s all in case the law start sniffing round. Like I said, how far can you trust old Tressler? He’s one of Trenchard’s employees ain’t he? You said yourself the old boy wants money. What’s stopping him handing it over, then telling Trenchard who done the robbery so that he can get the reward. So brings me back to what I asked. You got a gun?”

“No.” My hesitation was painful, and I might have known Billy would pick up on it. “Yes I guess I have. My Pa’s Colt .45. But I’ll make sure it’s empty.  What about you?”

“I got an old Smith and Wesson lying about the place somewhere.”

“Well you keep it empty, okay.”

“Sure, you’re  the mastermind.” Billy’s tone fairly bristled with sarcasm. The expression on his face warned me that he might have other ideas.

The Safe: Part Five

I know I should have gone home to Mama and Johnny, but I decided to hang around instead. See what Trenchard was up to.

I discovered him enjoying breakfast with a woman. Clients he called them, but none were averse to his charm and generosity, as Mama had been in the early days of their courtship. He sat facing the woman in a place called The Little Bakery. She was young and pretty, and Trenchard sickened me when he kissed her hand. Perhaps, however, while he was otherwise engaged I might try and ask for a bank loan. So I had few assets, but I was desperate enough to attempt anything, short of murder.

I had not got much further than the steps of The Municipal, when I encountered old Alfie Tressler. Alfie was one of the bank’s oldest employees at over seventy. He reminded me of the Old West tellers with his eye shade, his arm bands on his shirt sleeves and black pinstripe vest.

His legs were very bowed, and he blinked owl-like from behind his wire spectacles.

“Well, if it isn’t young Luke. You looking for your Pa?”

“My Pa is dead, Alfie.” I hadn’t meant to sound quite so offhand. Alfie was such a likeable fellow and reminded me of my old grandpa. But as far as I was concerned I had only ever had one father.

“I know, I know what you mean.” Sympathy rode his voice. “So what are you doing at the bank?”

“I don’t really know. Maybe I figured I could try for a loan, but I guess they wouldn’t give me one. So where you headed?”

“Just to the store. You wanta walk with me? I could use the company.”

“I guess so.”

The town was becoming busy, though the hour was still early. Although I knew Alfie was a bank employee, as we walked, the old man and I, I decided to lay bare my soul and relate everything that had occurred. I half expected him to sing Trenchard’s praises, tell me that it was all my imagination, but he didn’t. When I mentioned that Mama needed almost a thousand dollars for her treatment, Alfie shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry about your poor Ma, that I am. But he won’t give it, no more’n he’ll give me the cash for my operation.”

“You need an op, Alfie?” I echoed surprised. “What for?”

He pointed to his eyes. I saw how rheumy they were, and filled with water. “It’s the cataracts, Son. They say I’ll be blind in a year or two. Then what’ll Mister Trenchard do? Won’t even give me a pension. No sir. Not a goddamn pension. Course, he got money, and plenty of it.” The old man grew excited, and with surprising strength and agility he dragged me down a back alley.

“I know that, Alfie. Guess he keeps it all in the bank.”

“No, no he don’t, Son. He has a private office, see, where he…” he cleared his throat, “likes to entertain his clients. All roses in vases and sweet smelling cushions and the like. I should know ‘cos I havta keep it nice. On the wall there’s one of ’em fancy paintings. Behind this ‘ere painting he keeps his safe. His safe mind you, ain’t nothing to do with the bank. I reckon there’s over thirty thousand dollars in there, and… and it’s only me and Trenchard that knows the combination.” His cracked old voice had dropped to a whisper.

“Sure, Alfie. Then he must do well at the bank to have that much money.”

“No, that’s from after the War. What with that and the Depression, Trenchard was one of ’em who made sure the farmers got poorer, and the bankers got richer. I mean, he got all the dough from the farms he foreclosed on, including your Pa’s.” Alfie shook his head. “You ain’t getting my meaning are ya?”

“I’m sorry, guess I’m too choked up with anger right now.”

“Ain’t that the best time?”

“Best time for what?” I ran a hand through my hair absently.

“For a-robbin’ that safe.”

The Safe: Part Four

Although disorientated from sleep, I imagined that I’d heard a shot, which emanated from somewhere outside. But I couldn’t be certain. The sound made me jump. I’d drifted off soon after.

Sleep hadn’t come until the early hours. Mulling over the evening’s events, calling Billy to take Lorrie into hospital to get her checked out. Though she’d insisted she was okay, just a little bruised.

There was no apology from Trenchard. Not that we expected one. He’d exited the house without another word soon after.

I was still awake when he returned. The walls are thin, and their room was adjacent to mine. I lay there, hands over my ears, in the foetus position. My heart was beating fast because I knew he was drunk from the way he shouted at her. I heard the sharply delivered slaps and Mama crying, begging him to stop. I knew I should have gone in, intervened. I wanted to. But every time any of us did, it would be Mama on the receiving end. If her and Pa had disciplined us properly when we were younger, we wouldn’t be the rebels we are now, he said. Though I guess you’d hardly call us rebels.

The early morning sunshine streamed in as I realised that I’d overslept and was late for work. Mama usually called us. Not today it seemed. In fact, the house was unnaturally quiet. Maybe Mama was sleeping in, and Johnny had gone to school.

The usual morning routine; Mama would be up fixing breakfast. Johnny would be tucking into his cereal. Hot coffee on the stove. He would have already gone to work. Trenchard never shared breakfast with us. I knew he preferred  to eat in town.

When Mama failed to show, and I’d called into work to inform Joe I’d be late, I sought her out. At first she failed to answer. My heart plummeting with fear, I entertained the crazy notion that Mama and Johnny might be dead. The shot I’d heard. Or maybe he was dead. Well, I guess I could dream.

Mama turned when I spoke her name. Her face was a mass of bruises. Both eyes, encircled by purple, were already beginning to swell. I didn’t need to ask, But I did. She made an attempt to explain it was because she’d refused him. He was drunk and angry. Mama collapsed back onto the bed, while I promised to fetch Doc Graveley. Then, as if her strength was swiftly restored, she clutched my arm in earnest. “Please don’t do that, Luke. Bruises will heal. He… he’ll only find out.”

“I…I think you should leave him. We’ll find a place somewhere. Billy and Lorrie’s apartment ain’t much, but they’re happy.”

“Leave him? That’s not possible,” she said. Her voice was husky and she was barely able to speak with her swollen mouth. “He will only come after me. Besides, we have no money. You know that. Where would we go? is John up for school? I… I can’t face him like this. He might be almost sixteen, but he’s still a sensitive boy.”

“I haven’t seen him. I’d thought he’d already gone.” I promised to look for my brother, then take a ride into town to see Sheriff Anderson. This had to stop now before things became worse. I knew they would sooner or later.

I called the school just in case, only to be told that John Franklyn hadn’t put in an appearance. So where was he? I tried calling, but to no avail. My kid brother was nowhere to be found. Had Johnny had enough and decided to run away on his own? He probably wouldn’t have considered what he’d use for money.

Then I found him. Johnny was cuddled up to Blue in the barn, his arm wrapped about the dog. When I managed to prise my brother off him, I discovered that Blue was dead. Dried blood had seeped from one ear, and I knew he’d been shot in the head. The single shot I hadn’t imagined.

Johnny was inconsolable, and wanted to come into town with me, until I said Mama needed him now. I told him that I’d bury Blue when I returned.

With sinking heart I drove off in the old Buick, uncertain what I really intended to do. Killing Trenchard was uppermost of course. When Pa died, his effects were returned. Amongst them his Army issue Colt .45. There was even a couple of spare clips. The times I’d fantasised about going up against Trenchard and shooting him. Sure, that was okay in theory. But our circumstances would eventually lead his assassin to me. Where would Mama and Johnny be if I were jailed, or worse?

Luckily I managed to find Sheriff Anderson in his office. His deputy ushered me through and closed the door. Mort Anderson was well past middle age. He was grossly overweight, and stretched out his regulation shirt and pants to bursting. His balding scalp was lowered over some papers on his desk. He was swift to raise his head at my approach, and he motioned me into a seat.

I couldn’t fail to imagine the uneasy expression that flickered across his face when he saw me, as if he guessed why I was there. Sweat stains already permeated the underarms of his shirt, even at that time of the morning.

“So what can I do for you, young Luke?” He injected a friendliness into his voice, though it seemed to fall flat and meaningless.

It all came pouring out then. Everything that had happened to us, including Trenchard withholding money we knew he had for Mama’s cancer treatment. His striking my pregnant sister and finally about Mama’s injuries, and poor Blue left for dead in the barn.

“So what do you want me to do, Son?” His tone was so nonchalant, as if he hadn’t really been listening at all. My gaze lifted to the belt draped over the rack above his head, the gun butt within easy reach. The way I felt right now, so inflamed by anger, it would have been effortless on my part just to grab that pistol. But Mama’s bruised face and Johnny’s tear streaked one when he found Blue, rose to the fore and prevented me. Sure I had murder on my mind. But what else was there left?

“I want you to arrest Isaac Trenchard. He almost killed Mama and shot our dog. My sister could have lost her baby.”

“But your Mama ain’t dead is she? And your sister hasn’t lost her baby has she?”

“No,” I admitted grudgingly. “But next time he could kill someone. If he’s jailed, then we can prevent it.”

Anderson moved from behind his desk with all the speed of a tortoise. When he spoke again, he was as nonchalant as before. “Look you gotta know, Son, I don’t interfere in a domestic. You could try County. Maybe they’ll be more helpful. Johnson City or maybe Knoxville.”

But I was already at the door and conscious of his relieved expression. “I figured you were the local law around here. Guess County won’t be more helpful.”

“‘Fraid not, Son. Not in a Domestic,” he added, as if it were no longer his concern.

The Safe: Part Three


Mama’s hands were clasped together as if in prayer. Whether she were saying Grace or praying to get through the night without suffering another beating, I had no idea. My kid brother was eager to get on with his meal. Cornbread, a little steak and beans. At my appearance, Johnny posed the question of Blue’s whereabouts. Sick at heart, I was unable to look at him, not knowing if the dog were dead or alive. I still pictured the way he’d lain so still after his small body had connected with Trenchard’s boot.

“If you mean that stupid critter, boy, he’s out in the barn where he’s meant to be,” Trenchard told him. “And not at the dinner table.”

“But he always eats with us,” my brother protested. He was halfway out of his chair, when Mama lay a restraining hand on his.

“Please, John, don’t antagonise your father,” she said. Her head was bowed, and she barely glanced at me. “I’m sure Blue is fine.” Her lowered gaze was retained on her food and she failed to glance at her husband.

“So what culinary repast have you fixed tonight, Hannah?” The sarcasm in his words slammed through me, further conducive to nurturing the inherent loathing for this man. But Mama, as if she could read my thoughts, had a warning look on her face. Her face was pale, her eyes washed out as if she hadn’t slept in awhile. I knew we, I mean I, had to do something. But what? Trenchard had stripped to his shirtsleeves, revealing the arm bands displayed to his elbows.

“It’s just a little steak, Isaac. That’s all I could afford,” Mama dared. Still her eyes remained downcast when this man stamped to his feet, almost unsettling his chair. “Just a little steak, Isaac!” he derided, slamming a bunched fist down so violently that the plates shook, as if there was an earthquake, when he mocked her voice so simperingly.

“It’s fine, Mama,” I said. ” What your’s like, Johnny?”

Johnny’s eyes rounded beneath his curly forelock. He sported the look of wishing the floor would open at being included in the conversation.

“It’s fine.” He shrugged. “I want to know if Blue is okay. He ain’t come whining at the door like he usually does.”

“Stop talking about that damned  mutt!” Trenchard rasped. “And if you leave this table, boy, I’ll strap you to it until you’ve learned some manners. John Franklyn got a damned lot to answer for, Hannah. Not discipling those boys. I caught Luke with that trollop from town, what’s her name? Rebecca.”

“She’s not a trollop. I…I like her, that’s all.” I wondered if he’d pick up on my hesitation. Because I really wanted to say I love her, but not in front of him, and risk his derision that I might love a girl.

It was on the tip of my tongue to mention that which was uppermost in our mind. The money for Mama to have a much needed op. The crunch of a vehicle skidding to a halt outside managed to shelve it temporarily. Our sister Lorrie jumped out of Billy Parker’s pick-up, as if she weren’t expecting a child. I saw Mama’s eyes light up. Trenchard visibly stiffened, when she breezed into the room.

I heard him mutter something about her being another trollop getting herself ‘in that way’ out of wedlock. Billy and me had been friends through school. He’d started dating my sister and they’d moved into together. The place was a grubby apartment close to town. But I couldn’t fail to envy her. A fine house was nothing if you weren’t happy. Judging by the beaming inflection of  smiles on my sister’s face, she was happy enough. While the small bump of Billy Parker’s child was already beginning to show.

“We are having our evening meal and don’t wish to be interrupted.” Trenchard sat, returning to his seat, his tone imperious.

“Hullo, boys, and Mama,” Lorrie greeted, as if he hadn’t spoken. Throwing an arm around Mama, she kissed her cheek.

“Why don’t you eat with us? I’m sure there’s plenty to go around,” Mama said. As if she entertained a small burst of bravado in her daughter’s presence. Lorraine was strong. Maybe stronger than any of us. At least enough to escape.

Trenchard surprised us however, at being rendered speechless for once. Though his face perfected an adequate impression of a thundercloud.

“That’s okay, only if you’ve got enough to go round.”

“You can have mine, Sis,” Johnny passed his half eaten meal across the table. “I can’t eat until I know Blue’s alright.”

Lorrie looked at me for explanation, but I felt much too guilty. I toyed with my food as my brother had done, because I kept seeing the little dog being kicked across the straw, in my mind’s eye.

“For Heavens sake, I’m sure the dog is fine,” Trenchard wore a guilty expression when Lorrie flared him one of her withering glances.

Taking her place next to me at the table, Lorrie said, “You know the reason why I’m here, Mama.”

“Because that Parker boy has thrown you out,” Trenchard retorted.

“No, he hasn’t thrown me out.” Lorrie was on the defensive immediately. She ignored him and turned back to Mama, sitting there as frozen as she’d done in Graveley’s surgery, she wanted to know how it had gone at the doctor’s. “Is everything okay? What did he say?”

Neither of us dared to look at Trenchard. I knew that Mama hadn’t told him.

“It was fine, just fine.” Mama said, flicking her a wan smile.

“What was fine? What are you talking about?” Couldn’t that man speak quietly. Did he have to shout? There was Mama being brave and lying to her children. Johnny didn’t know anything either, and regarded both me and Mama for an explanation.

“No everything wasn’t fine,” I said. Regardless of Trenchard’s scornful expression I was on my feet.

“What do you mean, Luke?” Lorrie’s face was ashen, and a hand ran trembling to her mouth.

I told her what Doc Graveley had said, about Mama having an op. How the cancer was in the early stage, but that she had a good chance of recovery if she were treated at the Westchester Hospital in Nashville soon enough.

“Oh Mama.” Tears sprang to Lorrie’s eyes.

“It means that Mama needs five hundred dollars for the treatment,” I told her. “With the stay in hospital and future treatments and stuff…” I had, unconsciously directed the words at Trenchard.

“So what you looking at me for, boy? You’re not suggesting I stump up money for that are you?” His very speech rang with derision and disgust. “Everyone knows there’s no cure for that disease.”

The cold look in those glacial grey eyes when he regarded Mama, his own wife, was not even of surprise as if he might have known. They were filled with a barely concealed disdain. “I’m sorry, but if you want to throw good money after bad, then you find five hundred dollars for… for this.” A bony hand swept the room indiscriminately, “Beg, borrow, steal, I don’t fucking care. No matter what the doctors say, there’s no cure.” Rising to his feet once more, Trenchard shrugged into his fine linen jacket.

“That’s our Mama,” Lorrie’s eyes blazed in her temper. “I know you’ve got the money to pay for this op. She’s your wife, goddamit.”

“Lorrie, please,” Mama said, her voice shaking, I knew she was close to tears. Yet still so wonderfully proud. She had married this man for better or worse. She never stood up to him. Even when he returned home drunk on occasions and nigh on raped her. Yet still she never brought herself to retaliate, Now when she needed her husband, he was intent on turning his back on her.  Declaring that he was going for a drink. To get away from sick women and useless sons.

“And you…” The yellow smoke digit zeroed in on Lorrie. “I hope that Parker boy got the money to support you when his bastard comes, because there is no home for you here, not with that…” The cold finger pointed at the small lump beginning to show in my sister’s stomach. “Because that  boy will be gone like a shot when its born, you mark my words.”

“Well, Billy aint’ like that,” Lorrie spat, a fiery vixen. That said, she didn’t care a fuck what Trenchard thought. “And you got the money for Mama’s op, and that pittance you give her. Look at this food. I’m sorry, Mama, but you deserve better.” I was growing real scared for my sister and Johnny’s face was whiter than chalk. Mama whispered to her to hush up, but Lorrie no longer cared it seemed. “I know what you’re like with the ladies, Trenchard, cos I seen you, but your own wife…”

This time I refused to look at Mama when Lorrie accused Trenchard of cheating on her, because the impending thundercloud had developed into a raging cataclysm. I guess we all thought he’d have a seizure, I’d never chance to witness his face transfer so purple with anger. Lorrie had dared to stand up to him. Neither of us was prepared for the back of that bony hand flashing from somewhere beneath his coat sleeve, and cracking so viciously against Lorrie’s stomach, that it was  enough to send her reeling. The action was so  violent  that her chair was crashed headlong back against the wall. Lorrie slipping between the two chairs, was unable to raise herself up without my help.

The Safe: Part Two

I didn’t want any supper. My stomach was churning far too much to eat, thinking of Mama and the doctor’s prognosis. That she could die if she didn’t have the op. Then the months of treatment.

But we’d be there for her. That was the easy part. Raising the money, that was the problem. As Trenchard was the local banker, and her husband, she should only have had to ask. Like the Doc said, Trenchard was a highly respected businessman. To all intents and purposes the perfect husband. The perfect father. He’d provided a home for us when we had nothing. The fine house we lived in all belonged to him. A widower, Trenchard had no children. His wife had died young. In  childbirth they’d reckoned.

Maybe she was no longer able to suffer his cruelty.

We had lived on a busted down farm when Trenchard had set his cap at Mama. How he’d suffer her little brats, he said, because he had claimed to love her. Folk believed John Franklyn’s kids and widow had come up in the world, but they didn’t really know Isaac Trenchard.

Counting the meagre bucks I earned each week eking out at Joe Miller’s garage resulted in about fifty dollars. Mama needed five hundred and more for her stay in hospital, and future treatments. Of course I could sell my guitar, but I guess that old guitar and the music was the only escape. The old barn back of the house and that old second hand instrument. Mr Peters at the store confided someone had pawned it, but never collected. I’d offered Mr Peters the few items I’d collected as a kid. The fishing rod Pa had bought me, for which I’d asked his forgiveness – though aware he would understand that it was for Mama – managed to fetch about five bucks. “Why don’t you ask your pa, son?” Mr Peters said.

“My pa is dead,” I retorted. Trenchard was one of the richest men in town, while he kept his family, though outwardly respectable, as poor as church mice.

I’d retreated to the old barn and told my brother Johnny he’d find me there when supper was ready.

Old Blue, the scruffy mongrel who seemed to bark at every shadow, had grown nervous. He was following me and Johnny everywhere. He hunkered down at my feet while I strummed and thought of Hank.

Why did Hank have to die? I’d written a song about him. Depression had weighed heavily when Hank Williams passed. Hank was found breathing his last in the back seat of a Cadillac in West Virginia on January 1st, 1953. With just a few bucks I’d bought all his songs.

I mourned his passing. Mama reckoned that I could break into Nashville, maybe even the Grand Ole Opry. Course that old bastard admonished Mama about encouraging me in my dreaming.

“That’s all it is, dreams,” he’d said. “You’ll never make the Grand Ole Opry or nothing else, boy.” It wasn’t that so much. Only when he derided Hank for being a drunk and a no-account, that’s what hurt. Nobody says that. Not about Hank. Nobody.

I’d threatened Trenchard, and he chided Mama about Pa not issuing enough discipline. I’d received a whipping for that. A whipping, and the resultant  hate that  nurtured deep within me.

A shadow fell across the doorway. Blue jumped up, heckles raised, a low growl beginning in the back of his throat. “Easy, boy.” I’d grabbed his collar. I guess he figured it was Trenchard, but the shadow scarcely belonged to his tall frame. Besides, a long pony tail bounced jauntily. Becky Rowan appeared in the doorway. My heart skipped a beat. Even Blue settled down at sight of the girl, as if with relief.

“Becky, what are you doing here?” I was pleased to see her of course. She was pretty, with the kind of blonde beauty that reminded me of daisy filled meadows, and running through them with her in bright sunshine. Yes I was pleased right enough, but fearful too in case he should catch her.

“I was just passin’.” With hands behind her back, she moved from one foot to the other sheepishly. “And heard your music.”

“Just passin’ huh?” I smiled. “But you live the other side of town.”

“I wanted to see you, that was all.”

Becky was eighteen, all sweet gingham dresses and the most beautiful blue eyes. Eyes you could drown in, like you was floundering in water. And I wanted her. There was no doubt about that. I knew she wanted me too, when I shifted that old stool up for her. She dropped her weight, composing a hand in her lap, the other around my waist. Old Blue raised his head. Satisfied that things were all right within his own little world. “If you want me to leave, Luke Franklyn, then I’ll go.” She pouted.

I didn’t want her to go. I enjoyed her company. We’d dated a couple of times. I’d tasted her once. It had been good. Now I guess she wanted more. Would have given it too, but I was too  worried about Mama.

“No, I don’t want you to go.” I carried on strumming for awhile. “I’m glad you’re here. I need cheering up.”

“Mama,huh?” The smile faded from blue eyes.

“She got cancer, Becky, and she needs treatment.”

“Oh, Luke, I’m so sorry.” Tears appeared in her eyes. She reached for my hand and grasped it tightly. Becky was in love with me. That was plainly obvious. I think I could love her too. If we ever got wed, I’d treat her real good, the way Pa, my real Pa, had treated Mama. Always kissing her and that. Not the way it was with Trenchard. The way he  would force  himself on Mama. I knew he did, because I heard her crying behind the door after he’d slapped her into submission.

“Thanks. The trouble is we don’t have the money. The operation’s going to cost five hundred bucks. Then there’s the stay in hospital. Doc Graveley said he could get her into the Westchester in Nashville, but that’s gonna cost us more than we can afford,” I said, aware of the frown knitting her brow.

“What do you mean you can’t afford it? Your pa is one of the richest men in town, and your mama’s husband. Surely he…”

This was the first time I had ever had occasion to be angry with Becky. I leaped off the stool, overbalancing it. I watched the stool roll off into the hay. Blue growled, heckles rising. I must have displayed my outrage, because Becky backed away as if I’d physically struck her.

“You’re just like the rest of em’, ain’t you?”

“What… what do you mean? I didn’t mean nothing by it.”

“I’m sure you didn’t, but why is it everybody thinks that Ike Trenchard would give us any money? Mr Peters at the pawnshop. Doc Graveley. Oh sure, you can afford to pay for the treatment, Mrs Trenchard. Your husband is wealthy. He gives Mama no more than fifteen bucks a week to buy food. Then he complains when she cooks the same stuff each night. No, Becky, you know nothing.”

“I was going to say, for an operation to save her life, even Ike Trenchard couldn’t be that heartless.”

When she wrapped an arm about my waist, and smiled in that dreamy loving way, I knew I couldn’t be angry with her for long. Maybe she was right. After all, he had married our Mama. In Sickness and In Health. Becky’s smile made up for everything. The erection demanding release inside my jeans made me realise something else too. When she offered her lips to mine, who was I to refuse? Even Blue’s agitated warning barks were  ignored as he yapped wildly at my heels.

Only when the savage grip was pinned around my shirt collar, and two bony hands wrapped  themselves about my throat, did I  attempt  to twist away. I was young and wiry, but even I was no match for that iron grip. Becky screamed. Anger seared through me when she was belligerently pushed down hard onto the straw. She was left sitting there, too stunned to move momentarily.

“So that’s what you were doing, boy?” Ike Trenchard roared. “Fornicating with that  little trollop.” He pointed a smoke stained finger at the frightened girl. The white bodice of her dress was  dirty and slightly ripped at the shoulder. “If you come anywhere near this place, and him,” the finger moved like a pistol targeting me. “I’ll get Mort Anderson onto you with a restraining order.” Mort Anderson was the local law around these part. He was also a good friend of Trenchard’s.

“You… you can’t do that,” I listened to the stammer in my voice like a fool. I was fucking twenty years old, but I was behaving like a kid. I was tall, but right now Isaac Trenchard was more than six foot. Trenchard was a skinny man. Much older than Mama. His features were narrow and hard. Cold grey eyes intruded beneath a low hanging brow. His clothes were immaculate. Long drape suit jacket, a bow tie fastened to a spotlessly white stiff coloured shirt. Ike Trenchard managed to resemble an Old West cardsharp. It wasn’t difficult to imagine twin pearl handled revolvers tied down on his bony hips.

“I can damn well do as I please. And what you looking at, boy?” Trenchard locked glances so predominantly, as if those glacial grey eyes were capable of ferreting into my very soul.

Unable to do precious little but mumble, “Nothing,” beneath my breath, I stretched a hand toward Becky to help her rise. At least now she could see that I hadn’t lied about Trenchard.

“Leave her, dammit! Just go,” he told her. Becky regarded me, a frown etching her brow. I reckoned she thought I should stand up to this man. I thought so too. I’d tried it once. It was Mama who got the beating for not discipling me.

“I’m sorry.” She was crying. Looking down at her torn clothes, she murmured something about Mama killing her when she saw it.

“Then you’ll tell Mrs Rowan, she has my sympathies.”

Blue hadn’t ceased yapping since Trenchard had put in an appearance. He was now barking raucously at our heels. In his infinite anger, Trenchard brought up a shiny boot, to violently lash out at the dog with the toe, enough to send the animal catapulting across the room. His little body connected with the door, before he slumped into stillness and silence. “Damn mutt. Doesn’t it ever stop barking? To think I have to feed that creature.”

I had hoped to scoop Blue into my arms, out of Trenchard’s way, but realised that  I was too late, when Trenchard’s boot kicked Blue so savagely against the barn door, as if the animal was a ball, nothing more. ” You… you’ve killed him.” I accused. Tears dangerously close, I  was determined to find out if the dog was alright.

“Leave him. I hope he is dead. It’s no more than it deserves. Useless critter. Like the fucking lot of you are useless. Now get inside that house, boy. You see they’re all waiting on you. Out here fucking that trollop.”

“I didn’t touch her.”

“Oh but you would’ve done. You had the heat of lust in your eyes, boy. The heat of lust. I was your age once. I had it beat out of me, the way I’m going to beat it outta you,” he threatened.

If Trenchard was ever my age that was doubtful. The sheer fact ‘the heat of lust’ was beaten out of him, served to explain a great deal.

The Safe: Part One

A little while ago I was asked to contribute a short story for a book anthology. Sadly, the book never came about. I thought I’d share it with you here. It’s stretched across several parts, which I’ve decided to serialise overt the concurrent days.

The town was nothing really. Just a flyspeck on the window of humanity.

Population: 950 souls.

It lay somewhere west of the Smoky Mountain region of Tennessee. But it was our town, and I’d grown up here. I’d known nothing else. Hadn’t really wanted to. Not until the woman who kept us all from falling apart was, before my very eyes, falling apart herself.

She sat enveloped in a kind of frozen silence as Samuel Graveley pronounced sentence. Graveley displayed neither gavel or black cap. In the cluttered room, filled with dying rubber plants and a bed covered by a white cotton sheet, with a plastic underlay, he was guilty of sealing her doom nonetheless.

Mama squeezed my hand so tightly that I felt my wrist go numb. I wanted the pain. I needed the anguish to help me come to terms with the words that echoed and bounced back at me like a rubber ball.

“There’s good and bad news, Mrs Trenchard.”

Mama said nothing, but fixed her gaze to a point above Graveley’s head. He’d been our family doctor for as long as I could remember. He’d brought me, Lorraine and Johnny into the world. Now he was going to take Mama out of it.

But there was good news. A tiny speck of hope, on a par to a newly discovered nova from a dying planet.

“So what’s the good news, Doc?” I tried and failed to keep the eagerness from my voice. Since Mama had confided in my sister Lorrie that she’d found a lump in her breast, our whole world had begun to crumble around us. Because Mama was our world, and had been since Pa was killed in the War.

“Luke, please.” She gripped my hand, admonition in her voice. Mama was a proud woman. It wasn’t seemly to display our feelings in front of such a prominent personage. To hell with protocol. I needed to know.

Graveley steepled a bridge. Like, you know, interlacing his fingers. I saw they were stained yellow from cigarette smoke. He smiled, which he did rarely. Graveley sure lived up to his name.

“The good news is you’ve caught it early. Yes, it is cancer, Mrs Trenchard.” He reached for her hand, but she kept it folded in her lap. She looked tired and old. Careworn from working and slaving for him. I couldn’t bring myself to say stepfather. She looked sad too, and I slipped an arm around her, for which I received a grateful smile. “I’m so very sorry I couldn’t offer you a better diagnosis, but I can get you into hospital. The Westchester in Nashville is one of the finest hospitals where you will receive the utmost…”

“The Westchester?” Mama looked horrified. “That costs money! Even a local hospital would be too much.”

“I’m afraid a local hospital doesn’t have the facilities the Westchester does.”

“So how much we talking, Doc?” I asked.

“The impatience of youth,” said Mama.

“No, it’s fine. Your son has a right to know. The operation would cost about five hundred dollars. You’d need to stay in for a few days. Oh..” He considered, toying with his spectacles absently, before returning them. He tapped those yellowed bony fingers against his mouth. Dr Graveley was getting on in years, but it was as if his hands had aged before him. “I would say, the figure is an estimate of course, about a thousand dollars.”

“A thousand dollars!” Mama exclaimed, patting her chest as if she were about to faint. “I don’t have that kind of money. I don’t know why you’re quoting these figures to me.”

“But you have an excellent chance of recovery. The cancer’s still in the early stages, I told you. I only have to contact the Westchester and they’ll fit you in.”

“We’ll get the money somehow, Mama. We can’t lose you.” I felt the tears welling. I was almost twenty, but where my beloved Mama was concerned I was a kid again. I was nine years old when Mama told us Pa had been killed. I couldn’t lose her too. Maybe there was a kind of selfishness in me, because  I couldn’t be left alone with him.

“Mrs Trenchard,” his tone was cajoling, “it’s your life, but you’re not yet fifty. Your family need you, I know. And soon to be a grandmother, I hear, with young Lorrie expecting.”

“And where did you hear that might I ask?” Mama asked indignantly. “That’s our business.”

“Mama, the doctor didn’t mean nothing by it.”

“Indeed not. What I was going to say was your husband is a much respected business man in the town. A local banker. You only have to ask…”

“Ask him?” Mama was on her feet, her face going pale. “I can’t ask him for nothing. And you,” she paused to point at Graveley, her familiar determined self once more, “I don’t want this mentioned not to him, to Isaac, do you understand?”

“But Mrs Trenchard, he is your husband. Surely he has a right to know. He  has  been known to be generous with his loans. As his wife…” The withering look she gave him was enough to stun Graveley to silence.

“He’s right you know. You should talk to Ike,” I said, climbing into the Buick. I’d never been able to bring myself to call him Pa. My father, John Franklyn was dead and buried in Forest Lawns Cemetery.

“You have to ask him for money sometime. You do need that operation.” Mama composed herself beside me. “Maybe we oughtta see him now,” I suggested, inclining toward the large grey building on the corner. The County Municipal Bank. As Doc Graveley said, Ike was a respected businessman. He had money. Everyone knew that. Mrs Trenchard had done well for herself, when Ike had  taken on another man’s children. At least that was the talk around town.

“No!” Her eyes came alive in her worn exterior. “Take me home, Luke. I’ll hear no more of it, do you understand?”

“So you gonna let it get worse and… and spread?” I choked.

“I said take me home, boy.” Her tone was sharper this time. “Your Pa will be home for his supper soon. You know he don’t like to be kept waiting.”