Have I told you that I am taking a writing class at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center? This week’s assignment was to take a bit character, someone ancillary to the plot, and write the story from his perspective. In order for this to work, I felt I needed to choose a story that everyone would know. I love O. Henry, so I chose Ransom of Red Chief. Tell me what you think.
Abe slowly drew his hand down his luxurious gray beard in a manner that he imagined made him look ponderously thoughtful. It was an affectation that annoyed the hell out of his wife Martha. “Mother, you ‘bout done in there? C’mon out here and sit a spell. I got news from town.” With her back to him, she rolled her eyes; she was dog-tired and he could be long-winded. She had been putting up beans and standing over a boiling canner for hours had left her limp as a wet noodle. His voice grew louder as he tried to entice her out of the kitchen. His eyes twinkled with glee. He threw out his line with the gem of a lure, “’s’bout that old skin-flint Dorset over in Summit.” After 47 years of living with her, he knew the right bait to use, and just how to set the hook. “His son’s gone missin’--been lost or stolen.”
Martha, unable to withstand a juicy bit of gossip appeared at the screen door wiping her hands on her apron; she let the door slap behind her as she came out on the porch. The duet of tree frogs and crickets pulsed in the hot spring evening. A tiny breeze cooled the beads of sweat on her brow. She eased her old bones into the front porch rocker. “Abe, you know I can’t abide that man. He’s awful pious passin’ the plate on Sunday, but on Monday he’ll take the farm away faster’n greased lightenin’.” She shook her head, huffing through her nose. Folding her hands in her lap, she pushed against the wooden floorboards with her black lace-up shoes setting the chair in motion. But unused to sitting with idle hands, she got back up to fetch a mess of beans to shell for the next day’s canning. Sitting back down, she gently tipped back and forth in the gloaming; her hands going through the familiar motion of splitting the pod with her thumbnail and pushing the beans into a bowl. “Well, do tell then,” she said. “What’s happen'd t'at little hellion?” Now that he had her attention, he reached into the front pocket of his bib overalls for his pipe and tobacco pouch. He zipped open the creased brown leather and began to stuff the bowl of his pipe, packing it tight with his index finger. Scraping a match against the underside of the rocking chair he puffed out the sweet-smelling smoke.
“Well,” he started, “ After I finish’t plowin’ and turned out Sal, I went t' town to pick up some chick'n feed.” Martha nodded. “Yep,” she said “I know. And you fergot to get the scratch.” “Yep, you’re right. Well, I’ll send Linc down to get it tamorra.” Abe pushed on, “Whilst I was at the feed store, I fell to talkin’ with ol’ Sam Sanders. He done tole me that the Dorset boy is missin' - lost or stolen”.
He looked over at Martha to gauge her interest but could not see her face in the gathering dusk. In the pause, Martha mused half to herself, “Lost or stolen, my eye. I betcha he ran off. No doubt that little hooligan wuz throwin’ stones at that poor little cat of Miss Carlisle’s. He knows how much she sets store by it. She probly marched herself t'over there to complain. That boy would get a whoppin’, if he was a son of mine. Old man Dorset is too high ‘n mighty to do it and the mother, poor thang, is too young and frail to handle such a rowdy.” Abe nodded to himself. What she said was true, but how she knew what was going on in Summit, 3 miles away, when she only went to town on Sundays never ceased to amaze him. “Yep, apples don’t fall far from the tree,” he pronounced. They rocked, their chairs creaking in unison.
Abe puffed on his pipe, then continued. “Sam and I went acrost to the post office to see what Bill’d heard. The usuals was there. We wuz all sittin' around chewin' the fat when that young fella came in. Him that rented our buggy. He tipped his hat and asked what the fuss wuz about. I tole him that the leadin' citizen over in Summit, Elder Dorset’s, son had come up missin'. I mentioned it t’him special like, so he’d know to keep an eye out. “What’d he say?” Martha’s disembodied voice queried from next to him. “Nuthin’. He just bought some of that God-awful t’bacca that Bill pretends is so highfalutin’, ast the price of black-eyed peas, posted a letter and left.” “He sent a letter? That’s mighty peculiar.” Who’s it dressed to?” Abe shook his head, “Didn’t see it and Bill twouldn’t say. He did say in a loud voice that the messenger from Summit would pick it up in ‘bout an hour.” “Huh,” Martha grunted. “I still say it’s peculiar. It’s not like that young fella knows anyone here ‘bouts.”
They rocked in silence for a few minutes both lost in thought. “Ya think the boy’s run off?” Abe considered the question. “Mebbe, he is a bit of a pester-pot.” Martha snorted. “Pester-pot. Abraham, you do have a way with words. That child is a terrible, mean-spirited, spiteful hooligan, I don’t care if he is ten. I can’t image what he’ll be like when he grows up.” Abe harrumphed in agreement. “He’s a bad’un, alright." Abe puffed and Martha shelled beans, their quiet sounds blending with the night noises around them. “Town’s folk upset?” Martha prompted, looking for more of the story. “Nah, not from what I seed. Folks seemed glad for the peace and quiet, him being gone an’all. Mark my words; he’ll be back, right as rain. If he’s bin stolen, those bodies that’s done it are in for a licken.” Martha got up, the beans shelled, “Papa, you're probly right, as always. I’m goin’ to bed. You comin’?” “After bit, Mother, after bit.” Abe rocked on, stroking his bead and thinking about how he had been a hellion too, in his youth; having run off more than once. He was sure the Dorset boy was out playing at being an Indian somewhere close by. He’d be back, by hook or by crook.