January 4, 2016

Fiction By Jack Daniel Miles: "Jasper County"

Jack Daniel Miles currently resides in Gainesville, Florida, with his wife and daughter.  Jack is a writer, multi-instrumentalist, and volunteer educator.  Some of Jack's most recent work is forthcoming in the spring 2016 issue of Down in the Dirt magazine.  You can also check out him and his sporadically updated blog at jackdanielmiles.com.

“No deep and strong feeling, such as we may come across here and there in the world, is unmixed with compassion.  The more we love, the more the object of our love seems to us to be a victim.”
—Borris Pasternak

Jasper County

    Jane Chapman was the youngest of three children; she had two older brothers, Christian, and Benjamin.  Jane’s mother, Anna, died while giving birth to her, and Jane’s father, Robert, was devastated.  This was the time of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.  Times were challenging in many areas of the country, but Jane and her family managed to live a relatively plentiful, if not fairly reclusive, existence on their farm in the Midwestern U.S.
    Overall, the Chapman farm was not vast, but they had a fair sized chicken coop, some cows, pigs, and the like.  The family also maintained an ample garden; they grew asparagus, Carolina cucumbers for pickling, potatoes, and a variety of other produce to sell and consume.    
    Jane’s brothers rarely left the family farm, except when they needed to fetch a few supplies and could not wait on Mr. Camdon to make his regular delivery from town.  
    Mr. Chapman never left the farm, and he rarely helped with the chores.  Instead, Mr. Chapman elected to spend most of his time sitting on the front porch silently smoking his pipe, or on a recurrent basis, laid up in the house all day after a night of too much shine and ruminating on Anna.  
    When these instances occurred, Jane could usually be found sleeping up in the hayloft in the barn.  Understandably, young Jane wished to avoid the ire of her father, which her brothers did little to waylay.  Not that they did not want to, but over the years Mr. Chapman had devolved into a bit of a ferine creature; he was not easily handled once he was set—either physically or emotionally.  
    Jane, come what may, still had love in her heart for her father, though, and did what she needed to in order to take care of him.  Sadly, her love was only equaled, and more often than not surpassed, by her fear of him, especially when he was overcome.
    Foolishly, Robert Chapman had grown to blame Jane for Anna’s death.  Over Jane’s sixteen years, her father’s wound had festered and burrowed horribly deep into his soul.  He never quite viewed Jane in the way that most fathers view their young daughters, but instead he increasingly beheld her as one of the primary sources of his inner turmoil, anger, and sadness.  
    After the birth of their second child, Benjamin, Anna was not supposed to be able to have any more children—there had been complications—so Anna’s pregnancy with Jane had been quite a surprise.  The occurrence was celebrated as a blessing.  
    As Jane grew older, her father's despondency increased in proportion to his drinking, and the drinking had increased a great deal year over year.  If it had not been for her brothers taking up the lion’s share of the work on the farm, and hiring on a couple of hands who had migrated from North Dakota, Jane was sure that her father would have eventually let the farm go to seed, and drowned in shine while it happened.
    Jane was expected to perform the duties of a wife and a daughter on the farm.  This meant that Jane was, on a daily basis: cooking, cleaning, tending the garden, collecting eggs from the coop, and sometimes even mucking out the stalls.  Jane’s duties also included going into town to make deliveries and sell eggs and produce.  This was her favorite activity, especially when she got to visit Mr. Camdon’s store.  
    Everyone in town knew Jane’s story, and about her father, but most of the time folks just kept their mouths shut concerning the whole affair.  One exception to this disregard was Mr. Camdon’s son, Joseph Camdon Jr.—all and sundry just called him Junior.  
    Junior worried a great deal about Jane, and he had in mind that he was going to marry Jane and take her far away from that farm.  Mr. Camdon had gotten wind of this, he warned Junior, “Now, boy, you best stay away from Jane and anything to do with that Chapman family.  I don’t need no trouble from Bobby or his boys.  You hear me, son?”  Then he finished the lecture with an open-handed blow across Junior’s face.  In truth, Mr. Camdon was more worried that he would lose his only son and cheapest source of labor.
    Junior was a year older than Jane, wanted to make his own way, and had no desire to take up the running of his father’s store.  Over the course of six or seven visits after the spring harvest that year, Junior not only declared his love for Jane but also began trying to convince her to run away with him.  Jane, who liked Junior a great deal, dismissed the suggestion, still feeling a strong obligation, almost a debt, to her father and brothers.  
    After a time, Jane took less joy in her visits into town and even began avoiding the Camdon’s store, when she could.  In a vain effort to avoid detection, Jane would wear her bonnet and keep her head down when passing nearby.  Then, during one particular visit into town, one in which Jane kept her head a little lower and her bonnet pulled a little further forward in order to hide a still healing bruise, Junior, in his diligence, spotted her and hurriedly went out to speak with her.  
    Jane was embarrassed and tried to look away when Junior spoke, but he would not allow it.  It was in that embarrassment and distress that Jane began to yield, "Darn it, Junior, if we get caught this bruise under my eye won’t be nothin’ compared to what else he’ll do to me, or you!”
    “Look, Jane,” Junior said, “I was too young to really know your momma, but I know lots of folks who did, an’ any time mention of your daddy comes up they just shake their heads and talk about what a sweet, kind, an’ God fearin’ woman your momma was.  If that’s all true, do you think she would’ve been happy that she gave her life just so you could be treated worse than a slave out on that ol’ farm?  Tonight, Jane, this is our chance, I been settin’ it up an’ just waitin’ to see you again.  I’m gonna swipe the Model AA from my pop’s store and park it on the road in front of your farm, then I can sneak up the meadow to your front lawn and meet you outside your house and take you down to the truck.  After that, we can drive it down south a few hours to the river, hire a ferry, an’ cross over to Louisville.”
    “What about your father’s truck?”
    “I’ll make sure I leave a note on the front counter at the store so he knows where to find it, but by the time he sees it, we’ll be long gone and on our way to get married and start a new life, Jane,” Junior said convincingly.  “I’ve got plenty of money I been savin’ up for this!”  
    Junior made a good argument, and everything seemed well enough planned out to Jane.  With the still tender bruise under Jane’s eye, and with what Junior had said about her mother, Jane finally acquiesced.  Yet, just as with so many events since Jane’s birth, not all would go according to plan.  
    That night, after Jane believed that everyone was asleep, she packed a small rucksack with some clothes and a few dollars that she had been hoarding.  Jane quietly exited the house and crept to the edge of the porch stairs; she stopped and stood for a moment.  Jane looked out, for what she believed would be one last time, over the moonlit lawn and the meadow just beyond.  
    Unexpectedly, Jane heard a noise from the far side of the porch in the shadows, and grasped that she was not alone.  "Where you think you're goin', girl," Christian said in a light whisper, as he sat hidden from the moonlight on the porch swing.
    Jane was in shock and did not know what to say, “I, umm, I just wanted to get some air.”
    “You always take your rucksack when you go outside to get some air?”  Christian question halfheartedly, still trying to maintain a whisper.  “Look, I know what you’re doin’, I was in town today, we was runnin’ outta balm for the cows and I had to fetch some.  I saw you with Camdon’s boy, and it don’t take no genius to see what was goin’ on.”
    “Christian, please.”
    “Look girl, just calm down, I ain’t here to stop ya, although I probably should, just gonna mean more work for the rest of us, but I am here ‘case anyone else tries to stop ya, you know what I’m sayin’?  This ain’t the life ma woulda wanted for you,” echoing the words that Junior had used earlier in the day.  “I’m sorry I didn’t help a long time ago, but, well, let’s just say I was awful apprehensive.  You know, ‘cause of pop and all.”   
    “Daddy’ll tear you up if he finds out you knew about this.”
    “Don’t you worry ‘bout that, Jane, I’m currently fit to handle pop,” Christian whispered with more confidence than he felt.  It was around that time that Junior had made his way up the front lawn and had heard the tail end of Jane and Christian’s conversation.  “Now, y’all get outta here ‘fore pop hears us out here whispern’ like old women gossipin’ over afternoon tea.  He ain’t much of a heavy sleeper, even when he’s on a drunk.”  
    Of course, as the saying goes: Speak of the wolf and the wolf is at the door.
    “What in the hell’s goin’ on out here, sound like a buncha mice havin’ church!”  Mr. Chapman said, his words a touch slurred, flinging open the door and stumbling halfway out onto the porch.  
    “Nothin’ pop, go back to bed,” Christian said boldly.
    “Da hell you think you talkin’ to, boy,” Mr. Chapman responded to Christian, simultaneously taking in the scene before him of his daughter carrying a rucksack and Junior standing at the bottom of the stairs.  “Get the hell inside the house right now girl, I got some words to have with Junior there, and then I’ma deal with Christian.”
    “No, pop,” Christian quickly countered, rising from the porch swing.  “Now, Jane you go down there to Junior and y’all go on and get,” Christian continued in a surprisingly calm voice.  Mr. Chapman reached out and tried in vain to grab Jane by the shoulder as she was rushing down the porch stairs to Junior.  With her back still to her father and brother, Jane heard the cocking of a shotgun, and then her brother’s voice again, a bit shakier this time, “Pop, I’m warnin’ ya.”  
    Christian then addressed Jane and Junior, “Now y’all run, and don’t stop.”  
    Jane did not even glance back before snatching Junior’s hand and taking off toward the road.  “Come on!”  Jane yelled.  
    Christian, withdrawing from the shadows, leveled the gun and slowly began to approach his father.  Mr. Chapman, now at the edge of the stairs, seemed fixated on the image of his daughter making her way from the house with Junior.  Christian continued to advance, but in his inexperience he drew too near, and in an instant his father had turned and lunged for the gun, a struggle began.  
    As Jane and Junior were running hand in hand, less than fifty or so yards from the house, Jane heard the 12 gauge go off once, and then twice.  On the second shot, she was violently pulled backward as if suddenly anchored to the ground.  
    As Jane gained her senses and rolled over, she saw Junior lying chest down in the grass, head to the side, his eyes glazed, and his jaw slack.  She looked up to the porch and saw the giant silhouette of her father alone in the moonlight with the shotgun.  Jane then saw a great flash, heard the 520 tear through the night one last time, and saw her father’s figure crumble and spill down the porch stairs.
    Jane, a scream caught in her throat, in a delirium, tried to run back to the house, making it just over halfway before collapsing.  At that moment, Benjamin was fearfully creeping outside to see what the hellish ruckus was about.  Eyes wide, he looked out upon Jane, and they stared in silence as Benjamin tried to fathom the calamity before him.  Jane soon broke the connection and turned away from the farmhouse.  For what seemed like an eternity, Jane stood in the moonlight and gazed absently out beyond the endless meadow to where she imagined the truck was sitting, waiting to take its passengers to their new life.  

~Jack Daniel Miles   

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