A Domestic Skirmish

Mississippi, 1834


            Sarah and I, we was only eight when we saw a dog fight for the first time.  Just behind our house, where our pop would round up some twenty dogs over the course of each and every month, hed put up a new wall for each fight and watch the devils go at it for an hour or so, or at least till the last dog was standing, all tard out but victorious none the less, and one man would be screaming for joy at his big win while hed watch the cash (which had piled up from all the bets at the beginning of the fight) fall into his hands.  A lot of men theyd just come to our house to watch, but they aint pay no bets.  These men warnt no bother for pop, cause theyd still pay to watch, and he made plenty of money doing so.


            Our mama died when we was real young, and for the longest time, we aint knowed what happened to her.  I dont think wed of ever found out if it warnt for Ms. Mary.  Lovely lady that she was, she came to be a great step-mom for Sarah; least I think so.  She was a learned lady, Ms. Mary, and she was young and pretty too, with beautiful, long brown hair, and blue eyes that sparkled when she taught us.  She was the only teacher in our school who was a lady, and all the boysd be starinat her in class, and she kept everybody talkinat lunch time (though not usually bout her lessons).  Course she knowed all about pops business with the dog fights and such.  Everybody in town knowed pop was a businessman, and he aint never let nobody get in his way.  Hed be gone as long as weeks at a time, and he aint never talk bout where he was a-goin, but hed always come back with at least ten pups of all shapes and sizes.  Sarah and I came to be accustomed to beinalone in the big house and actinolder than we was, and methinks we growed up a little too fast livinthat way, but Ms. Mary she pitied Sarah and I, and she left us a delicious hot meal on our doorstep many nights when pop warnt home, and methinks her wonderful apple pie helped us stay young and lively.  She was a lovely lady, Ms. Mary.


            Anyways, as I said, Ms. Mary she came to be a motherly figure for little Sarah.  I often seen them in class together long after the school day was over, and they was always a-talkinand talkin, real close together, and I would set outside the door and keep down low and sneaky so I could listen, cause Ms. Mary she learn lessons to Sarah after class that she never would during the school day.  Shed tell Sarah that the young girl had to be strong, but she couldnt show it.  Lord knows how one could do that!  Sometimes I would grow a little jealous I warnt ever invited to their secret meetings.  But one time, she and Sarah they caught me a-eavesdropping.  Luckily, they warnt mad, but they just laughed and told me to come inside.  So I done as they asked, and thats when she broke the news to us both.  We was each ten then, and so I spose she thought it a proper time to learn us of our mamas death.


            The story warnt much; she probably knowed us kids couldnt handle the details.  She told us that our pops came home drunk as a monkey one night when we was real little, and he got ran into Ma, and they got in a little argument bout his drinking habits, and then it escalated (I aint know what that word meant at the time, but now I knows, cause Is much smarter now), and Ma she got to talkin’ ‘bout how cruel pop was with his poor dogs hed been a-forcinto fight to the death, and he aint wanna hear no more after that.  He done murdered her, and thats all Ms. Mary told us.  Perhaps I aint never gonna know how he did it, but I spose thats fine, cause now when I think bout it I really dont wanna know.


            Ms. Mary took me aside after that, and she told me that I neednt have any special lessons with her cause I was a boy and I warnt gonna have no problems beinmyself.  But then she begged me to start my own business when I was older, and to not take over pops dog fighting monopoly and such, cause money warnt everything and dogs lives mattered more.  I assured Ms. Mary that I warnt interested in seeing any more dogs fight if I could help it, and that made her real happy, and she smiled and thanked me and gave me a nice big kiss on the cheek, and told me I was a good boy and that Id grow up to be a much better man than my father ever was.  Boy did my face light up bright red like the 4th of July after that!  All the boys, theydve loved to have been kissed by Ms. Mary, and theydve probably gone runninaround tellinevery person they saw bout the whole thing.


            Now one time, a little pitbull, methinks he went by the name of Jody, he done bit the tail off another poor pup, and when he done so he twirled the damned thing round and round in his jaws like a tornado, and he was all triumphant and such, and dark, fresh blood was a-flyinevery which way; and Sarah she didnt like that too much, and so she got to cryin’ and cryinlike I never seen nobody cry before, and I swear she bawled nuff to fill up the crik that run behind our house.  The other men there that was watchinthe fight started to stare at the poor girl, and soon as pop saw her he took her away.  I never knowed what he told her, but after that night she aint never cry at a dog fight again.  When I asked her about it (and I did many a time), she just shook her head and said cryinwas bad for business, and that she had to be strong like me.  Pops always told me I was a strong boy, and that made me feel good, specially when he learned me to chop wood and carry the logs around to make a new pit for the dogs.


            I spose pops cared about Sarah, anyhow.  One time he told her to draw out a diagram for the pit, and she done a wonderful job and drew a perfect little square ring, and he congratulated her.  She was mighty proud and happy after that.  But soon as she tried to be like me and help carry the logs, he smacked her and gave her a long talking to, and I aint make out much of it but this: Girls aint sposed to build things, theys just sposed to watch.


            The first time pop gave me an ax, he motioned me to follow him out back, and by and by we come upon the beautiful group of Mexican petunias that grow in our yard by the crik, and they was bright violet and mighty pretty.  I always loved those petunias.  At first I wondered why pop needed me to bring the ax, then he says we would be cutting down a mighty oak, but first we had to get rid of the petunias.  That made me quite sad, but he said them Mexican petunias was invasive and brought the other trees down.  So he took the ax and went at em, and by and by he started pulling em out by their roots, and then we got to choppinmy first oak.  Pop said wed build a mighty big wall for the dogs with that trunk; it was wider than me!  That ax was heavy, and I got to beinreal tard out cause hed make me work all day, but I got used to it; Id be out choppinwood and buildinbigger and bigger pits every weekend.  The neighborsd stop by every once in a while, and when they seen me out back a-hackinaway there grew a look of pity in their faces, cause they knowed all the expectations put on me was too much.  But they never said anything, cause pop was a man of power with all his money and such, and he warnt to be challenged.


            Ms. Mary was a great poet, and shed always give Sarah poems to read, probably because she couldnt let no one else know she was writing them.  Thats how Sarah got so smart, I spose.  It was truly wonderful, though, cause Sarah shed read the poems and then bring them home for me to read, and it sure did take me a long time to understand em, but by and by I got to knowing what Ms. Mary was talking about in each one.  And boy did she have a lot to say!


            One day, near the end of the school year, Sarah told Ms. Mary that she should publish her poems so as to let all the townspeople read ‘em.  But Ms. Mary she said ain’t no women’s poetry would be respected in our little town in Mississippi, and even worse, she could get hung for it.  But then Sarah come up with a wonderful idea; what if Ms. Mary could put her poems up all around the town and sign ‘em off with a different name?  Why, Ms. Mary she thought a moment, and then she said she loved the idea and called Sarah a genius, and she got right to doin’ so.  She’d go out late at night, I s’pose, and post em in each and every bar and post office and on the back of people’s carriages and even around our school.  The poems was wonderful, and they was all different and interesting.  Some of ‘em were about nature, and others was about romance.  But some of ‘em were challenges to society; she wrote about the unfairness that women faced, and in one poem she wrote about the problems with slavery!  But her most famous poem she wrote in the hot Mississippi July, and it was about no other than pop:                                          


                                                It is nothing short of amazing to see

                                                A group of loyal companions, so ebullient and friendly,

                                                Transmute to beasts

                                                as a result of the actions of one man                                      

                                                The god-awful business-man!

                                                He who sees no harm

                                                In a little fun with a fight to the death

                                                I would not be taken aback

                                                if one day his money

                                                turned on he who so gracefully stole

                                                for one mans treasure map

                                                is most certainly not worthy

                                                to act as a map for his very life


            It got the whole town talkinday and night, all about who K was or why he hated the dog fights so much.  Pop he tried to ignore it at first, actinas if nothinever happened, but by and by he got angered with everyone staring at him.  And one day he vowed hed find out who this K was and punish him.  Needless to say, pop kept a-goinwith his business, and the money kept pilinin.  I think his trips to the bank helped to take his mind off all the K business.  Well, those and a whole lot of nights at the bar, for sure.


            A man by the name of TerryI aint never seen him at a fight beforehe thought it smart to come to a fight one night that July.  I found out he was from across the state border, and hed just seen his pup go missinthe week before.  He was taken by K.s poem of course, and thatd learned him of where all the missinpups were goin.  Course we aint know all that bout him at first.  But once the fight started, sure enough Terry seen his missindog in the pit and made it a big deal.  Terry started asking pop questions about the places he got his dogs from, and said he wanted his dog back, but that didnt last long.  Everyone was mad he caused a disturbance in the fight, and he was kicked out before he could say much more.  They laughed mighty hard after that, except for Sarah, who followed him outside, and the dogs they kept a-goinat it and soon enough everyone was back to watchinand cheerin.  But pop he got mighty pale and he aint watch much of the fight after hed gone.


            He stopped hostingfights for a while after that night.  One day, he told us he had to go into hiding and that we might not see him for a couple-a days.  But days stretched to weeks, and we aint see much of pop.  A lot of folks started showinup on our doorstep, and askinto see pop, and when wed tell em he warnt home, theyd get angry and demand to know where he went off to.  When we told em we aint know, they got mighty red and angered.  Sarah got to beinquite scared of those kinds of folks and worried that theyd hurt us, so she told Ms. Mary, and of course the saint come to live with us and help us.  I was worried that pop would come home one day and find her in our house, but she didnt seemed to think about that too much.


            Anyways, Ms. Mary helped us out quite a bit.  Besides cooking for us (though we was already used to her bringing dinner most nights), she helped us deal with the folks that come to our house.  They was always mad about pop, and she told em that we aint know where he went but that she believed stealing those dogs for fights was wrong and that shed send them a letter if she ever found out where pop was a-livin.  They was always mighty thankful after that and kind too.  Ms. Mary had that effect on people; she could cheer anyone up no matter how mad they was.  Sarah and I got to beinreal close with Ms. Mary in those weeks with pop gone, and she started to learn us how to write poetry.  I warnt too good at it, but Sarah she had a natural talent.  She and Ms. Mary had loads of fun and theyd spend all day that summer writing out by the crik. 


            One time I went out with them, and while they was writing I got to explorinthe crik a little.  Since I was 13, I figured it was time to start going out into the wild like a real man.  But I aint walked 4 paces before I come across a little furry body in the distance, right on the opposite bank of the crik.  I hopped across some stones and made it to the other side, and quickly I saw it was the body of a poor pup, sporting a coat of fur that was once bright blonde but was now all matted with dried red blood.  The sad little creature!  So thats what pop mustve done with all the dead warriors; hed put em right in the crik to flow right in to the Mississippi.  This poor little pup mustve been misplaced and stuck.  I didnt want to pick him up; his eyes were still open with the same ferociousness they mustve had when he breathed his last breath.  I called Ms. Mary over, and she gasped with great horror when she saw the poor creature. 


            She said we ought to give him a proper burial.  So we picked him up with a shovel (aint none of us wanted to touch him) and put him in the ground in a little hole we dug near the crik, and Ms. Mary read a poem she said was dedicated to all the dogs whod lost their lives, and right as she was a-finishinand Sarah was about to pour the first handful of dirt back on top, the back door opened and we all turned to see pop, and soon as he saw Ms. Mary with us kids his face turned mighty stern and red like a devil!  He walked down to us with the stride of an angered king, and just like Henry VIII he told Ms. Mary shed lose her head if she failed to do some explainin.  Well, unlike anyone else who mightve shrunk and quivered from such a statement delivered by such a man as pop, Ms. Mary stayed calm and collected.


            “Im caring for your children,she said.  A child simply cannot live without proper guidance, and your extended absences have rendered these two young ones lonely and miserable.


            As one could expect, pop was struck by this challenge.  Pop observed the scene, and then he started to walk around, shaking his head and such.  He seemed to think things over a minute, and when he turned to face us, he was a different person.  He spoke in a way I never seen before.  Instead of getting all mad and screaming, he got mighty soft and kind and spoke in a quiet voice like a teacher:


            “Why, miss, you see here, I think what we have is a little bit of a misunderstanding.”  Miss Mary stood still and looked confused, and Sarah did too.  I couldnt believe this new version of pop; I was still so surprised that he aint hit Ms. Mary yet, but I was thankinGod that was so.


            Then he said, A lot of people been sayinawful things bout me, miss.  I dont want to send the wrong message—”


            He looked up real quick, so as to see if Ms. Mary was lookinand probably to make his speech a little more powerful, I spose.  Sure enough, Ms. Marys eyes were stuck on pop, and so he went on, even more softly, almost like he felt bad for the lady.  Surely he was tryinto seduce her!


            “Im a nice man, really, I am, miss.  But I just dont understand why you think you need to come on to my property, look after my kids, and bury my dogs.


            His words struck my ears with a powerful blow, cause they was just so unexpected and queer cominfrom that mouth.  And I could tell Ms. Maryd had it with that, and I squirmed and cried inside cause I knowed she had best keep her mouth shut, but she was determined to send a message of her own.


            “Now you listen to me, Mr. Businessman.  These dogs are most certainly not your dogs, and Id bet quite a few of your visitors of these past weeks would gladly reaffirm such a statement.”  Well Ill be damned, the lady done it!  It was over now.  I aint know how much longer I could hold it all in.  I had to do somethinsoon, else pop might lose his temper that was already so fragile.


            Pop started to walk over, slowly but all the more powerful.  He got real close to Ms. Mary and whispered into her ear, so quiet I could barely hear:


            “Do you mean to tell me, miss, that youve invaded my home and decided you could stay for weeks?




            “And youve been looking after my children all this time?


            “Yes, they never had a mother to perform the task.


            Pop smacked her hard across the face, and Sarah and I both felt it, and Sarah she started to cry right away, and even I felt a little tear on my face.


            “Quiet!pop yelled, his face bright red, and Sarah couldnt stop so she run away down to the crik, and I couldnt figure out what I was a-gonna do.  Pop grabbed Ms. Mary and begun to talk real soft and devilish again.


            “Yous the first person Ive met from this here town that dont like dog fights.  I never thought that such a lovely poet could be a lady.


            Ms. Mary quivered when he said that.  He knowed the secret!


            “Dont you worry, miss, I aint a-gonna kill you.  Not yet, at least.  First Is got to make sure the whole town knows what happens when a poor soul challenges me and disrupts my business.


            And then he took Ms. Mary inside, and I spose he locked her somewhere, and so I went down to talk to Sarah, and she was a-cryinand cryin


            “Dont cry, Sarah, yous a-gonna make this here crick overflow!”  She stopped and looked up at me, and right away she says, We gotta kill pop.”  As one might guess, I was mighty surprised at such a statement from this innocent child.  I knowed we couldnt do such a thing, so I tried to learn Sarah about some morals that Ms. Mary mightve forgotten to learn her.


            “Sarah, we cant do that,I said.  Wed be sorry we done it, and the whole townd shame us.

            “I dont care about the town, I want to save Ms. Mary!


            “Sarah, Ms. Mary aint related to us.  We cant kill pop to keep her alive.


            “Ill think of something,she said while she stood up.  Then she stormed off, and I begun to get a little scared at what would happen.  The little girl couldnt kill pop!  And course when she tried to do so shed probably end up gettinkilled herself.


            Well, later that night pop tried to be a good dad and make us some dinner for once, but Sarah said she didnt want his food, and so he sent her away without anything to eat.  After I was done, I found her and she told me that she found Ms. Mary; the lady was locked in the basement.  Sarah said we had to bust her out, and I figured I could help her do that, but the time warnt quite right yet.


            A few weeks later, pop went out again; I spose he was a-gonna go in to the bar.  So Sarah and I took our chance, and we went down to the basement.  She was locked in there, and we aint know how to get the door open, so I went to get the ax from out back, and it took me a mighty long time and plenty of strength to do it but I finally busted the door open.  Boy did she look sick!  She was palern a ghost, and it made me quite upset to look at her.  She was strapped to the wall, her arms stretched out at her sides, and she was all tard out, and I figured pop warnt feeding her much.  She was mighty happy to see us, though, but then she came to and asked what we was a-doin.  When we done told her we was gonna bust her loose, she said, Why, such an idea is highly unintelligent.  Now, you two leave this minute!


            When we kept a-goin, she got more nervous and desperate. Your well-being is not to be risked for me!  Please, children, you must try to please your father.


            But we aint stop, and by and by she didnt seem to care no more.  I spose she realized that our efforts would work, cause I was handlinthat ax like a man and her ropes were a-cominundone mighty easy.  We got her undone, and she fell down into our arms.  We helped her up the stairs, and got her some good food and water.  Then she thanked us and told us she felt rejuvenated, and so we were proud and happy.  But then she said shed have to flee, or else shed be killed and wed be punished bad.  She told us wed be smart to come with her, too, and Sarah and I was fine with that idea.


            But soon as we reached the front door, we saw pop a-comindown the way with a whole pack of men behind him, and we knowed he was excited to show the whole town how he done caught the mysterious k.  Sarah and Ms. Mary was both scared, I could tell, and Id be lyinto say I warnt too.  Then Sarah got to mutterinunder her breath, and she was so restless, and she kept sayin, Where are theyWhere are they?


            I was wonderinwho on earth she couldve been thinkinabout, and so I asked her if she was expecting guests other than the angry men on their way across the front lawn, and she told Ms. Mary and I that she gave the man Terry a letter to send to his brother, so as to round up the mad townspeople from across the Mississippi border whod had their dogs a-stolen.  Sarah done told them to come this very day to capture pop!


            Well, Ms. Mary and I aint had much time to take in the surprise, cause pop and the townspeople was getting mighty close, so we run out the back door and took the long route to town without lookinback.  Sure enough, once we got there, Terry was leadina pack of angry men towards us, and they all had new dogs with em.


            “Mr. Terry, my mailit worked!Sarah shouted.  Terry looked down and seemed to congratulate the girl, but then he wanted to get down to business.


            “We was just on our way to your old man, miss,he said.  Now that everyones here, wed love to take care of some unfinished business.


            “I could lead you the way, sir, but pop has got the whole town with him, and Im sure they wont go down without a fight!


            But these words didnt stop Terry and the gang.  They marched like a group of soldiers right down to our house, and once we got there pop and the townsmen were a-settinout front, just awaitinour arrival!  I warnt too sure what was gonna happen, so I walked behind Ms. Mary, and she walked behind Terry (who had a smaller group than pop did), and Sarah walked behind me.  By and by we come up to pop, and for a while nobody said nothin, and the silence was so hard on my head and it almost seemed too loud; I got a headache.  Terry soon opened his mouth, and I knew he was about to say somethin, but then Sarah she come out of nowhere and I swear she made my heart skip a beat with the words she said:


            “Pop, youve been a-killinand a-killinfor the longest time now, and I cant stand it no more!  Those doggies deserved to live, and momma did too!


            She delivered those words with the most beautiful tone, sweet but all the more powerful, and a little tear come to her eye when she let out a little sob over the last words, and then she ran right into Ms. Marys arms and cried softly.  Course pop didnt want none of it, and he was mighty upset to be humiliated as such in front of the whole town by his own child, and so he came a-storminover.  Normally I wouldve been prayinfor Sarahs well-being, but I figured if the townsmen were half as touched as I was theydve stepped in to protect her, so I warnt worried at first.  But pop took long strides without stoppin, and nobody was doinnothin, and so I knowed the townsmen warnt on our side like I thought, and that made me disappointed and afraid.


            Pop reached the crowd of Terrys men and started to push everyone to get to Sarah and Ms. Mary; surely that ladys time had come.  But nobody was lettinhim through so easy, and he got mad and pulled out a gun and started shootinand thats when the whole fight let loose.  We was in the back, Ms. Mary and Sarah and I, and so we got to runninreal quick and made quick for the woods, and the whole time we aint turned our heads once.  I dont think Ive ever run that fast in my life, and by the time we reached the woods we ducked behind some trees and looked back.  Just over one of those beautiful Mexican petunias, I could see it all.  The men were caught up in a brawl, most of em on the ground punchinand pistol-whippinand scratchinand bitin, and it was a mighty sight to see.  A few shots were fired, and a lot of blood stained the grass of what we used to call our front lawn, and men were fallinand turninto savages.


            Ms. Mary said we should keep a-gointo get to a safe town, and so we followed.  I took one last look at the house, cause I knowed I probably warnt gonna see it for a long time, and I caught one glimpse of pop.  He looked like he was tryinto regain control, like he was tryinto keep his business goinas hed planned, all smooth as he liked it, but hed lost his grip on the animals, and as he stood up and tried to yell somethinI couldnt make out, he caught a knife through his back, delivered by Terry himself, and I looked away and started to run.


Max Hinkle is a 17-year-old writer from Glenside, Pennsylvania. He is a rising senior at the William Penn Charter School in Pennsylvania and hopes to pursue writing in college. This short story, if one couldn’t already guess, is heavily influenced by Mark Twain’s works.