It was just after dinner on that January day in 1912, and very cold with a threat of snow, when Harley Day began the journey to his eternal reward.
He made it to the outhouse, though he didn’t remember if he actually managed to do his business inside or not. He did remember that there was a good sized stash of moonshine in the barn, and he navigated that fifty or so yards with only a couple of stops to rest and regroup. He got somewhat turned around in the barn, and after he had retrieved a jar, he realized that he had gone out the back and was headed for the woods instead of the house.
This fact in itself put him in a bad mood, for he couldn’t quite get his feet headed back in the right direction. But as he drew near the trees, he could hear voices murmuring. Having to think about this quite put him out.
When he drew near enough to recognize the voice of his nineteen-year-old son, John Lee, Harley’s irritation turned to anger. Something about that boy made Harley mad, especially since the boy had become so contrary. John Lee was supposed to be slopping the hogs now, and it occurred to Harley that he hadn’t seen the boy in the barn. Indignant, he staggered toward the voices, then stopped, swaying in his tracks, when he realized who John Lee was talking to. It was that Tucker girl.
It seemed like there were hundreds of Tuckers in Muskogee County, and Okmulgee County, and they were married to every- body and held every third office and owned every other business in the area. Harley hated the Tuckers, with their highfaluting ways, and he hated the fact that John Lee was talking with Phoebe Tucker, whose father’s large property nearly wrapped around Harley’s ratty little eighty-acre farm.
Harley’s anger turned to rage. He could see them through the trees, sitting with their heads together on a little hillock, so engrossed in their conversation that a mule could have sat on them and they wouldn’t have known it. Harley dropped his jar and lunged at the pair, feeling murderous.
The young people saw him at the last minute and scrambled apart, he with a yelp and she with a shriek of terror. Harley took a swipe at John Lee with his right hand and missed, but he managed to grab Phoebe’s arm with his left.
Phoebe was a small girl, but her alarm gave her strength, and she almost twisted away. Harley managed to hold on and jerked her toward him, and she stumbled and fell to her knees. Harley was aware that John Lee was yelling at him. John Lee often yelled at him, lately. But there was something new in the tone of John Lee’s voice that penetrated the fog of Harley’s thinking.
John Lee sounded angry. Not afraid, like he usually did, or desperate, but angry. A righteous anger, like the preacher at a revival. For a second, Harley’s curiosity got the better of his fury and he looked at his son.
John Lee’s eyes, big and black and usually as mild as a deer’s, were snapping. “You let her go, Daddy,” he ordered.
The fury was back as suddenly as it had abated. “Boy, you should have listened to me when I told you never to see this gal again,” Harley yelled.
“Let her go,” John Lee repeated. His voice had dropped a register, and was as taut as a barbed wire fence.
“Don’t you be talking to me like that,” Harley warned. “I’ll skin you alive. You get on back up to the house. I’m going teach this little piece of baggage to stay at home….” Harley had planned to say a lot more, but he didn’t get the chance. John Lee punched him in the jaw.
For an instant, the wonder of this inexplicable event knocked every thought out of Harley’s head. For nineteen years Harley had been abusing John Lee at his pleasure, and never before had the boy retaliated. At most, he would try to escape, or sometimes he’d run off and not be seen for the entire day. For the last year or two, he had been objecting when Harley hit the boy’s mother, though sensibly she always told John Lee to mind his own business when he tried to intervene. In fact, there had been an incident with the boy recently, Harley remembered. Was it this morning? But this was the first time he had actually struck his own father.
Harley’s befuddlement only lasted for an instant, and then the fury returned, doubly intensified by John Lee’s unforgivable outrage.
Harley let go of Phoebe’s arm and grabbed something off the ground. It may have been a stubby tree branch, or a clod, or a rock, Harley wasn’t sure. He swung, aiming as well as he could through the red haze that glazed his view, and connected. There was an odd crunching sound and John Lee was flung face down into the leaf litter and lay still.
Phoebe screamed, but did not run away as any sensible girl would have. She tried to reach John Lee’s prone form, but Harley seized her by the shoulders, and she turned toward him. He was vaguely aware that she was making a high-pitched sound, part fear and part outrage. She was fighting him. She attempted to jerk out of his grasp. Harley wasn’t steady enough to keep his feet, and they went down together. Harley fell on the girl like a sack of potatoes, and her breath whooshed out past his ear.
Harley thought that Phoebe was struggling and crying under him. He thought that he saw John Lee sit up, then brace himself unsteadily with his hand on the ground. The boy said something that Harley didn’t understand. He turned his head enough to look at his son, who was coming at him. John Lee reached into the bib pocket of his overalls.