Bill was sitting on the old L shaped back porch of the house. He was thinking about the deal he had struck with Russ the year before; he reckoned that Russ had been more than thoughtful in the way he had handled things. The agreement was that Bill could farm fifteen acres that Russ Hoffman owned, mainly the land down in the hollow adjacent to the old house where Bill and his parents were living; at the end of the season when whatever Bill had grown was sold Russ would receive half of the money. Bill was pretty well satisfied with this arrangement but the most important part of it was that Bill and his mom and dad were able to live rent free in the old house. The “old house” was what Russ and his family called the old two- story structure; Russ’ daddy had built it and when all of Russ’ siblings had grown up and got married the farm and the house had been passed to Russ, the youngest child. Russ had told Bill how everything had been handled; following the prevailing custom an attorney had drawn up a quit claim deed and all of Russ’ brothers and sisters had signed it. Of course, although it was not in writing, the accepted understanding in the Hoffman family was that the matriarch would live with Russ and his family and be taken care of by him. Russ and his wife Sarah had lived in the “old house” until they had built a house across the road. Since then Russ had rented it out but when Bill had approached Russ with the sharecropper idea the two had gotten together on it.
Bill was thinking about how things had gone while he sat on the old straight- backed chair on the porch. The back of the house faced due east and the sun was just beginning to rise as he sat and sipped on the cup of coffee in his hand. Bill was in one of his pondering moods; it seemed that these moods were becoming more and more frequent lately. Looking at the nascent sun he started thinking about how far away it was and things he had learned in school, like what would happen if the sun burned out and such, and how the world would be in cold and darkness and probably cease to exist. When Bill thought about things like this it made him feel extremely small; there was a word for that which he tried his best to remember. It was a word that his schoolteacher up at Kettle Shoals School had taught him and he smiled real big and snapped his fingers when he remembered what it was—–INFINITESIMAL. His teacher in the little one room school house was a young man by the name of Frank Hight; he was from over across the South Fork River, an area referred to as Stanley Creek. Bill had always been an avid reader and loved learning words and their definitions and when Mr. Hight had used “infinitesimal” in a sentence in class he had gone to look it up in the school dictionary instead of asking the teacher what it meant. Then he had raised his hand to be recognized and had announced to the class that he knew what the word “infinitesimal” meant and that he also knew how to spell it or else he would not have been able to look it up. This comment brought some laughter from the other students and a big smile from Mr. Hight. The kids were used to Bill doing these types of things; he was smart and also a little bit of a showoff. Mr. Hight had always encouraged the boy and pretty much considered him his star pupil, so it had troubled the teacher when Bill had come to school and announced that he would not be back in the fall because his daddy needed him to work on the farm. Bill remembered how Mr. Hight had driven out to their farm in his old jalopy to talk to Bill’s daddy.
“It would be a terrible shame to pull a boy as smart as Bill is out of school; I implore you to reconsider,” Mr. Hight had said. After explaining what the word “implore” meant Bill’s daddy had said “sorry Mr. Hight, but the boy is needed here to help us out” and that was the end of the conversation and Bill’s formal education.
The sun was getting up pretty good as Bill noticed a large ant hill at the edge of the yard. Ants were scurrying about carrying things down the hole; he watched as one of the enterprising critters carried a piece of a leaf up over the red granules and down into the entrance. Bill wondered how long it would take for ants to perish if the sun burned out and then wondered how long it would take people to die out. It made him feel real bad when he thought about things like that and the thoughts were always an opening to more worrisome ideas. Like what would happen to his parents if something happened to him. Both of them were in very poor health and taking care of them had just recently become pretty much a full- time job; in fact, Russ had noticed their decline and had graciously told Bill not to worry about the sharecropping agreement that year and just raise enough to take care of himself and his parents.
Bill picked up the old 12 gauge shotgun that he kept leaned up against the clapboard siding and sighted onto one of the Rhode Island Red roosters that were scratching around in the yard, wondering what would be left of him if he pulled the trigger; then he wondered what would be left of his head if he held it up under his chin and did the same thing. It always seemed to happen the same way; one thought led to another and before you knew it things were looking pretty dark. Sometimes when he was this way he would think about boys he went to school with; he would think about how they had turned out. Most of them were still in the area and some had done quite well; he always felt bad when he thought about them. But the silver lining in the cloud was if he could think of one of the prosperous ones who had died. Bill thought about his cousin Jay Rhyne and how he had done well and had a milling and oil business in Dallas until he had keeled over dead while he was grinding corn. Bill smiled with the realization that things were not wonderful but he was sure better off than ol’ Jay. He had already fed his parents breakfast and since it was about time for Russ’ oldest kid Lois to go to the barn to milk he picked up the 12 gauge, crawled between the barbed wire, and headed to the barn.
Lois was finishing up her breakfast; she had already eaten two eggs and country ham and was starting in on “coffee soup.” Coffee soup was an item that Granny insisted that all the kids eat about every morning; it consisted of pouring hot coffee in a tall glass, then filling it up about 2/3 full with milk, adding sugar and then crumbling up day old biscuits into it. Sarah, Lois’ mother, was not a big fan of the concoction but did not object; having her mother- in- law live with her and Russ and the family had taught her one thing ——–you needed to pick your battles, and coffee soup just wasn’t that big of a deal. Lois finished up the sweet mixture and headed out the kitchen door but stopped when her mother called out to her “take this Vaseline and rub some on ol’ Muley’s teats; this cold weather has got them purty chapped.” Lois took the glass jar of Vaseline and went onto the back porch to get the 2 ½ gallon stainless steel milk bucket. The stainless-steel milk bucket was kind of fancy for a small time farm but so was the big stainless steel container that they used to haul water up the road to the 2 acre garden at planting time. Russ had come to have the two items because for a period of time he had sold milk to Creamline Milk Company over in Hardin. The Creamline truck would come and pick up the milk but they had some strict rules—-only a stainless steel bucket could be used when milking, when it was the day for the milk to be picked up it had to be on the side of the road in a big stainless steel can, and the can had to be sitting in a tub of ice. But all of the stainless steel in the world didn’t stop the milk truck from turning over and losing everything one summer day and that was the end of Russ’ get rich quick scheme. He sold off the three extra milk cows he had bought and decided to rest a while until the next entrepreneurial idea would come along; the chicken business seemed to be beckoning.
Lois was thirteen and the only child so the milking chore was her morning job; Russ would already be gone to his job hacking lumber at Seth Lumber in Lincolnton in the morning but he would do the milking in the afternoon. Lois was starting to mature early and Sarah had got her a new brassiere the last weekend; Lois was quite ill at ease about her endowment and tended to try to hide her situation. She walked across the yard and down the hill to the barn and gave Muley some hay and got the three- legged stool out of the feed room and sat down. Muley munched on the hay while Lois applied the Vaseline to Muley’s teats and rubbed it in good. Lois had not noticed Bill approaching the barn; he was holding his old shotgun and walking quietly into the drive through open area of the barn where the cow was milked. She had started milking when Bill stepped inside the open door of the stall which was diagonally behind Lois; the location gave him a good vantage point from which to stare at the young girl. Bill too had noticed Lois’ growth spurt and he leaned the shotgun up against the wall and messed with the front of his Red Camel overalls. Bill was trying his best to be discrete but got carried away and wound up emitting a moan; Lois turned quickly, shrieked, and ran toward the house, leaving the stainless- steel bucket under Muley’s udder.
“Guess there will be trouble,” Bill muttered to himself as he walked back to the old house.
Lois was very scared as she told her mother about what she had seen; her description of Bill’s actions were a bit vague but Sarah was able to assess the situation enough to figure out what had happened. After Sarah got her daughter quietened down she went down to the barn; a half milked cow was not a good situation and she figgered that if she looked around real good to make sure that Bill was not around that she would be okay. In the confusion of the moment Lois had not seen Bill’s shotgun; if she had and told her mother Sarah would probably have not been so brave. Sarah went down to the barn and finished the milking, but on the way back she looked over toward the old house and saw Bill Friday watching her; he was leaning up against a fencepost and holding a shotgun and grinning at her. She hurried to the house and waited for Russ to get home. When he arrived she called him back into their bedroom and told him the story. Russ stood there in his overalls and tee shirt shaking his head.
“That Bill has always been sort of quare but I ain’t never heard tell of him doin’ anything like this. I reckon I better walk down there and talk to him,” Russ said, and went in the closet and pulled out his shotgun and put a shell in it. Russ strode out of the house and set off for the old house, leaving two worried women watching him as he crossed the road.
Bill was back sitting on the porch; he was resting up ‘cause he always felt a little tired afterwards. He started thinking about the “Larson Savoney” meetings they had down on the banks of the South Fork River. There was going to be one that night and he had already laid out his robe and hat. He expected to be named chapter president that evening and he was very excited about the prospect. He decided he maybe should practice the Larson Savoney sign so he could have it down perfect when he was inducted in. Bill walked out into the bare dirt chicken scratched yard and placed his left arm across his waist and took his right hand and raised it up to his forehead, bending his arm at the elbow. This kind of made him look like he was staring into the sun and was shading his eyes. Then he wiggled the fingers of his right hand, all the while displaying a demented goofy look on his face. This is what Russ beheld as he cautiously walked into the back yard; Bill was looking east down toward the old Cheese Apple tree in the hollow so he cleared his throat to let Bill know he was around.
“Whattaya doin’ there Bill,” Russ said, holding the shotgun with the barrel pointed toward the ground. Bill jerked around and looked very embarrassed and he replaced his arms at his side.
“Oh hey Russ; you goin’ to shoot some crows?” Bill said, not even trying to hide the look of panic on his face.
“Don’t know, might,” Russ said and broke the shotgun down so that Bill could see that it was loaded. Bill took note of what Russ had done and as Bill walked over toward the porch Russ took note of Bill’s shotgun leaning against the siding.
“Looks like maybe you had an idea of shootin’ something too,” Russ said, motioning toward Bill’s shotgun. Bill grinned his Larson Savoney grin. “You goin’ to a meeting tonight?” Russ asked, watching Bill closely. Russ and all of the neighbors had heard Bill spout off about the meetings for years but they just chalked it up to Bill’s “quareness.” Russ had suspected that Bill might be getting a little stranger, and the gun toting and the episode his wife had just imparted to him added fuel to the fire.
“Hear you were out in the barn this morning,” Russ said, watching Bill’s face for a reaction.
“No sir Russ, I ain’t got no business out there,” he replied, trying his best to look innocent but failing miserably.
“Well we want to keep it that way don’t we?” Russ said, and as he looked real hard at Bill he closed his shotgun quickly so that it made a pretty big noise. Russ kept his eye on Bill’s shotgun but Bill did not move any closer to it; it was a good four feet away from him. Russ turned away and started to leave, watching Bill out of the corner of his eye.
“Hope ya get you some crows,” Bill called out as Russ walked up the hill and across the road to his house.
Bill checked on his parents; he made sure his daddy’s oxygen tank was doing okay and told his mother that if she needed anything to holler for him. Bill’s parents did not really require that much attention other than feeding them and checking on his daddy’s tank; however, he had expanded on the needy theme whenever he was around Russ. Russ’ tender heart had prompted him to suspend the sharecropper agreement for that year.
“You gonna go to your meeting tonight?” Bill’s mother called out to him. He was back on the porch so he came inside to talk to her.
“Yep, gonna be installed as the new high potentate,” he crowed, and gloried in the admiring look his parents gave him. Little did they know that the whole Larson Savoney situation was totally in Bill’s mind and existed nowhere else. For over a year he had donned his “ceremonial” outfit and gone out for a couple of hours after dark. But all he did was walk around in the pasture, practicing the Larson Savoney sign and holding up a discarded television antenna. The antenna was unfolded so that it looked sort of like a cross; he paraded up and down in the pasture, keeping an eye out to make sure that none of the Hoffmans were out in their yard, until he got tired and went back in the house. He did exactly that this night, staying out a little longer than usual and telling his parents that the induction ceremony ran a little long, what with the new potentate having to name his council and everything. The old man and woman were not dullards but they had always hung on every word of their only child and were very accepting of everything he told them. Bill went upstairs to his bedroom and opened the magazine to the back where the advertisements were and he had dog-eared a particular page. The ad at the bottom left of the page was the one that he was interested in; it was for a Stoeger 3000 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun. It was proclaimed as “the ultimate weapon for self- defense” and went on to describe that the gun would “shoot five shells as fast as you can pull the trigger; it holds one in the breach and you insert four shells in the bottom.” At the bottom it mentioned that 00 buckshot was the prescribed type of shell and had all of the information about how to order the gun and ammo through the mail. Bill had been saving what little money that came in and had enough to go into Dallas and purchase a money order at the post office. He figgered that he would have it in three weeks and it was be adequate for what he needed to do.
“That old gun I got just won’t cut the mustard anymore,” he said out loud and grinned a possum grin, exposing large yellow teeth. “I’ll go to the post office tomorrow morning.”
Two days had passed since Bill had ordered his new gun and Russ knew that something had to be done.
The Hoffmans were having a family meeting and Russ’ idea was greeted with approval.
“Lois, I ain’t gonna have you going down to that barn alone anymore and Sarah, I’ll let you milk in the morning with the understanding that Oscar will be standing in the front room watching the old house while you do the milking, and he will be holding his shotgun at the ready,” Russ proclaimed. This statement was immediately accepted. Russ’ decisions were always final; he had a saying that everyone concerned understood: “somebody has got to be in charge.”
“Of course I will do the milking in the afternoon and we will have the same arrangement with Oscar. I already talked to him about it and he said he would be glad to do it. He has the time since he is working the third shift over at the Hardin Mill now,” Russ added. The Hardin cotton mill was only a couple of miles away and the third shift let out at six o’clock, giving Oscar plenty of time to get over to the Hoffmans and get to his post.
The next morning went smoothly; Sarah went to do the milking and Oscar stood watch over the old house, seeing no sign of Bill Friday. But after Russ got home things changed dramatically; Russ had gone into the barn to do the milking when Oscar saw Bill crawl through the barbed wire fence holding his shotgun along his side. That was when Oscar opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch. He watched Bill as he walked slowly toward the old barn and then as he got closer to where Russ was milking Oscar slammed the front door hard so that Bill could hear it. Bill flinched and raised his 12 gauge up and shot in the general direction of the front porch of the Hoffman’s house where Oscar was standing. As soon as he had discharged the old gun he reached into his overalls pocket and pulled out three more shells and loaded and fired them as fast as he could. Oscar just stood there; he knew that he was well out of range and he could see Russ hurrying out of the barn and heading back to the house. Oscar wasn’t worried about Russ either, for he was out of range as well, so he just stood on the front porch and watched Bill, who was scratching in his pocket and cursing loudly.
“Out of damn shells,” he thought to himself as he continued to curse.
“When I get that Stoeger it will be a whole different story,” he mumbled to himself and headed back to the old house. But Bill would not be at home when the much desired weapon would arrive.
The Gaston County Sheriff car was parked behind the Hoffman house; the two deputies had been inside the house for a few minutes and they were going over the scenario.
“Mr. Hoffman, it is our experience that in situations like this it is best to approach the person unannounced and tell them that there are some official papers that need to be signed in Gastonia. We can tell him that it has to do with his parents’ disability check and that we will carry him over to sign the papers and bring him back. Using these guidelines with the mentally disturbed has always worked well; we have never had a problem. Russ and Sarah were listening intently and nodding their heads; the deputies were in plain clothes and they had driven one of the plain sheriff vehicles but had still parked out of sight of the old house just in case Bill would see the permanent tag.
“Even though these people are disturbed we find that they can be very crafty and spotting a permanent plate has happened before, so we try not to take any chances,” one of the deputies had said.
“So once you get him over there the involuntary commitment process will begin?” Russ asked.
“Yes, Mr. Hoffman, and then we will be transporting him to the facility in Morganton for evaluation,” the short fat deputy said. The other one was tall and skinny.
“Ain’t y’all worried ‘bout him and that shotgun?” Russ asked, wondering if he should man the post at the front door with his shotgun.
As if on cue both deputies pulled back their coats and exposed shoulder holsters bearing .45 pistols.
“I have an idea about what you might tell him, if you would like to hear about it. I think it might be better than the paper signing ploy,” Russ said, the hint of a smile playing on his face.
“Tell us about it sir,” the tall one said.
“I’m sure you are not familiar with it, but Bill claims to belong to this secret organization that meets down on the South Fork River. He calls it ‘Larson Savoney’ and of course it exists only in his warped mind. But he is very serious about it and claims that is the head of the local chapter. I think if you introduce yourselves as members of the national organization and tell him that you want to come along so that he can sign official ‘Larson Savoney” documents I believe he would jump at it,” Russ said.
The deputies looked at each other and nodded.
“Then that’s what we will do Mr. Hoffman; but maybe you could tell us something about this ‘secret society’ that will really sell what we are going to tell him,” the fat deputy said.
Russ thought for a minute and then grinned.
“Lookey here,” Russ said, and put his left arm across his waist and his right arm across his forehead and wiggled the fingers on his right hand.
The deputies looked at each other dumbfounded and for a second wondered if they might need to take two away.
Russ laughed when he saw their faces and explained.
“Bill calls this the official ‘Larson Savoney” sign; I’ve seen him do it hundreds of times. You do that and you will be in with him,” Russ said, and watched as the deputies practiced the sign a couple of times.
“Well I be, I think this here will be the ticket; a great icebreaker,” the skinny deputy said as he quickly performed another sign. “We will head over there now and will call you when we get him down to the station.”
Russ and Sarah watched as the deputies went out the kitchen door and walked down the hill to the old house. Russ felt good about the deputies but felt even better when he stationed himself at the door of the front room with his shotgun.
Russ and Sarah had watched the old house for a good ten minutes before they saw the deputies and Bill Friday emerge and come up and get in the unmarked car. Russ stifled a chuckle as he saw Bill insist on trading secret signs with the deputies before they got in the car. An hour later they got a call from the Sheriff’s Department; It was one of the deputies who had taken Bill away and he told him that Bill was being transported to Morganton for a mental evaluation. When the deputy asked about what would happen to Bill’s aged parents Russ assured him that he would look after them in their son’s absence.
“Ain’t no tellin’ how long they will keep the old boy,” the deputy said. “It’s just according to what the doctors come up with as far as a diagnosis.”
The Lincolnton Bus Line coach ground to a halt at Cloninger Dairy Road where it dead ended at Highway 321 and Bill Friday exited. He was in the clothes that he had on six weeks before when the “Larson Savoney” representatives had come to the old house. Bill was unsure about just what exactly had happened; sometimes his mind would go blank in times of stress. He was sure that he had been away for six weeks ‘cause they had a big calendar in the day room at the Western Carolina Center for Mental Health where he had been. Another thing he was certain of was that he was thinking more clearly than he could ever remember; the clarity even spilled over into his vision and he noticed that the sky was bluer and the pines greener than he could ever remember them. He had two miles to walk to get to the old house and that gave him some thinking time. Of course there had been plenty of time to think while he had been away but that had been a different kind of thinking, the kind you do when people are always around. Walking down the dusty road gave him the total privacy thinking, the kind where he could always get things in order in his mind. He had figgered out that the two men who had come to the old house were indeed on the up and up ‘cause they had known the sign and everything, but after that, even with the clear thinking he had going on he tended to get confused. He was sure that he had gotten some kind of treatment and that the doctor in charge had called him into his office and had told him that he was being released and that he could go home and had handed him a Lincolnton Bus Line ticket. But what all had gone on up there was still a little bit of a mystery to him; he pondered this as he rubbed the shaved areas above both his ears. Then things cleared up again and he remembered the package that would be waiting on him when he got home and he smiled broadly, the first time he had smiled in six weeks.
It was the latter part of the afternoon when Bill got to the old house; he checked on his parents and found that good ol’ Russ had taken good care of them. Then he saw the long box sitting in the corner of the living room; his parents had not mentioned it and they had made no reference to his six week absence.
“They know better than to get too awful nosey around me,” Bill thought as he tore into the box. And there it was—the Stoeger 3000 semiautomatic 12 gauge shotgun, complete with a box of 00 buckshot shells. A big grin spread across his liver- colored lips, exposing the large yellow teeth; he kept this countenance while he put a shell in the breach and loaded four more into the cavity underneath.
“Five will be just right,” he thought, and walked out onto the L shaped porch and set the new gun up against the siding and headed toward the barn.
Bill Friday waited at the back of the old house until he could see the flames coming out of the side of the side of the barn; he had set small fires at each corner on the bottom floor and for good measure had set a couple up in the hayloft. It was working out perfectly; it was getting dark and no one saw him steal up the driveway and cross the road and wait beside one of the cedar trees that Russ had planted around his driveway. Bill had figgered right; they were all out in the front yard: Russ, Sarah, and little Lois—even Granny had hobbled out of the house with her walking stick and was standing out there with them as they watched the raging fire. Everything went just exactly as he had planned.
“Like shootin’ them ducks at the Spindle County Fair,” Bill thought as he crept up to within ten feet of them and pulled the trigger four times. It happened so fast that the only thing he could see was each one pitching forward, large red stains on their backs. Bill stood still for a moment and watched the burning barn; he loved it when he had things so well planned. Sure enough, no neighbors had arrived yet.
“They’ll show up in a minute,” he said out loud as he saw the blaze make the dark sky as light as day, and when he saw Bogus Clonger’s old truck coming down the road he put the Stoeger under his chin and used the last shell.