By Tom Franklin
Published by HarperCollins
November 2007 PB; 0061142778; 272 pages
It was the eve of the eve of his death by murder and there was harmonica music on the air when E. O. Smonk rode the disputed mule over the railroad tracks and up the hill to the hotel where his trial would be. It was October the first of that year. It had been dry and dusty for six weeks and five days. The crops were dead. It was Saturday. Ten after three o'clock in the afternoon according to the shadows of the bottles on the bottle tree.
Amid the row of long nickering horsefaces at the rail Smonk slid off the mule into the sand and spat away his cigar stub and stood glaring among the animal shoulders at his full height of five and a quarter foot. He told a filthy blond boy holding a balloon to watch the mule, which had an English saddle on its back and an embroidered blanket from Bruges Belgium underneath. In a sheath stitched to the saddle stood the polished butt of the Winchester rifle with which, not half an hour earlier, Smonk had dispatched four of an Irishman's goats in their pen because the only thing he abhorred more than an Irish was an Irish goat. By way of brand the mule had a fresh .22 bullet hole through its left ear, same as Smonk's cows and pigs and hound dog did, even his cat.
That mule gits away, he told the boy, I'll brand ye balloon.
He struck a match with his thumbnail and lit another cigar. He noted there were no men on the porches, downstair or up, and slid the rifle from its sock and snicked the safety off. He backhanded dust from a mare's flank to get her the hell out of his way (they say he wouldn't walk behind a horse) and clumped up the steps into the balcony's shade and limped across the hotel porch, the planks groaning under his boots. The boy watched him: his immense dwarf shape, shoulders of a grizzly bear, that bushel basket of a head low and cocked, as if he was trying to determine the sex of something. His hands were wide as shovels and his fingers so long he could palm a man's skull but his lower half was smaller, thin horseshoe legs and little feet in their brand-new calf opera boots the color of chocolate, loose denim britches tucked in the tops. He wore a clean pressed white shirt and ruffled collar, suspenders, a black string tie with a pair of dice on the end and a tan duck coat. He was uncovered as usual—hats made his head sweat—and he wore the blue-lensed eyeglasses prescribed for sufferers of syphilis, which accounted him in its numbers. On a lanyard around his neck hung a whiskey gourd stoppered with a syrup cork.
Along with the Winchester he carried an ivory-handled walking cane with a sword concealed in the shaft and a derringer in the handle. He had four or five revolvers in various places within his clothing and cartridges clicking in his coat pockets and a knife in his boot. There were several bullet scars in his right shoulder and one in each forearm and another in his left foot. There were a dozen buckshot pocks peppered over the hairy knoll of his back and the trail of a knife scored across his belly. His left eye was gone a few years now, replaced by a white glass ball two sizes small. He had a goiter under his beard. He had gout, he had the clap, blood-sugar, neuralgia and ague. Malaria. The silk handkerchief balled in his pants pocket was blooded from the advanced consumption the doctor had just informed him he had.
You'll die from it, the doctor had said.
When? asked Smonk.
One of these days.
At the hotel door, he paused to collect his wind and glanced down behind him. Except for the boy slouching against a post with his balloon, an aired-up sheep stomach, there were no children to be seen, a more childless place you'd never find. Throughout town the whorish old biddies were pulling in shutters and closing doors, others hurrying across the street shadowed beneath their parasols, but every one of them peeping back over their shoulders to catch a gander at Smonk.
He pretended to tip a hat.
Then he noticed them—the two slickers standing across the road beside a buckboard wagon covered in a tarp. They were setting up the tripod legs of their camera and wore dandy-looking suits and shiny derbies.
Smonk, who could read lips, saw one say, There he is.
Inside the hotel the bailiff, who'd been blowing the harmonica, put it away and straightened his posture when he saw who it was coming and cleared his throat and announced it was no guns allowed in a courtroom.
This ain't a courtroom, Smonk said.
It is today by God, said the bailiff.
Smonk glanced out behind him as if he might leave, the hell with the farce of justice once and for all. But instead he handed the rifle over, barrels first, and as he laid one heavy revolver and then another on the whiskey keg the bailiff had for a desk, he looked down at the gaunt barefaced Scot in his overalls and bicycle cap pulled low, sitting on a wooden crate, the sideboard behind him jumbled with firearms deposited by those already inside.
Smonk studied the bailiff. I seen ye before.
Maybe ye did, the man said. Maybe I used to work as ye agent till ye sacked me from service and my wife run off after ye and cast me in such doldrums me and my boy Willie come up losing ever thing we had—land, house, barn, corn crib, still, crick. Ever blessed thing. Open up ye coat and show me inside there.
Smonk did. You lucky I didn't kill ye.
The bailiff pointed the rifle. That 'n too.
The one-eye licked his long red tongue over his lips and put his cigar in his teeth and unworked from his waistband a forty-one caliber Colt Navy pistol and laid it on the wood between them.Copyright © 2006 Tom Franklin
Reprinted with permission.
It's 1911 and the townsfolk of Old Texas, Alabama, have had enough. Every Saturday night for a year, E. O. Smonk has been destroying property, killing livestock, seducing women, cheating and beating men, all from behind the twin barrels of his Winchester 45-70 caliber over-and-under rifle. Syphilitic, consumptive, gouty, and goitered—an expert with explosives and knives—Smonk hates horses, goats, and the Irish, and it's high time he was stopped. But capturing old Smonk won't be easy—and putting him on trial could have shocking and disastrous consequences, considering the terrible secret the citizens of Old Texas are hiding.(back to top)
Tom Franklin was born (1963) and raised in Dickinson, Alabama a small town in southwest Clarke County. He began writing by creating his own comic books and writing stories inspired by the Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian books. His family moved to Mobile after he graduated from high school. He earned his B.A. in English from University of South Alabama in Mobile. While attending college, he worked nights at various places. He was employed as a heavy equipment operator at a sandblasting grit factory, a construction inspector in a chemical plant, a clerk at a hospital morgue, and he also worked at hazardous waste clean-up sites. After graduating from the University of South Alabama, Franklin earned his MFA in fiction at the University of Arkansas in 1998. He taught briefly at the University of South Alabama.
He has been published in The Black Warrior Review, The Southern Review, and The Oxford American, among others. His stories have been included in Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, New Stories from The South, 1999 and Stories from the Blue Moon Café.
Franklin has held the Philip Roth Residency in Creative Writing at Bucknell University and has been Writer-in-Residence at Knox College, the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at University of Mississippi, and the Tennessee Williams Fellow at University of the South. Franklin has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a residency at the MacDowell Colony. Currently, he is Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. Franklin is married to the poet Beth Ann Fennelly and lives with his family in Oxford, Miss.