“Now Miss Mabel,” Henry said, pulling his rocker closer to the fire, “she was a talker. Miss Mabel could talk the ear off the corn.” He nodded to himself with the memory of it. “Oh, yeah. Miss Mabel liked to talk.”
He settled himself into his story as easily as he settled himself into the rocker. “Poor old Jebediah Green, he never had two nickels to rub together, what with all those kids. How many, Eleanor?” Henry stopped rocking and looked over his shoulder into the kitchen.
“Thirteen, dear.” Eleanor called. She added sugar to the peaches and began stirring.
“Thirteen,” Henry repeated as if he’d just recalled the number. He resumed rocking. “Jebediah’s career as a thief started out small: When his own crop of corn failed, Jebediah sneaked out to McDougle’s field to harvest a dozen ears or so, just enough, mind you, to feed his children.”
“Not that stealin’s ever a good thing,” Eleanor said. She added cinnamon and salt and fresh squeezed lemon.
“McDougle let the matter slide. What were a few ears of corn now and again?”
I nodded. He had to feed his children.
“A few weeks later, Jebediah stole a pound of flour, to make bread for the children.”
“Thievin’ always gets you caught.” Eleanor measured out flour into a steel mixing bowl.
“Who’s telling the story, woman, me or you?”
Eleanor grinned at me. “Perhaps, Henry, you should have left me in the dead of night, the way you’d planned.”
Henry laughed. “Jebediah got the notion in his head that he needed tobacco to fill his pipe. He was tired of smoking corn husks. He sneaked down to Davidson’s barn where the tobacco was curing and brought home a year’s supply.”
“Hung it up in his own barn, that was his first mistake,” Eleanor said.
“Yes.” Henry stroked his beard. “It was in Jebediah’s blood now. And once thieven’s in the blood, it’s hard to wash it out. Jebediah decided he needed some sheep. In the middle of the night, he sneaked into Dorothy Roe’s pasture.”
“Never mess with a woman,” Eleanor said. She sprinkled flour on the countertop and gently kneaded her piecrust.
“Jebediah blackened two sheep with the ashes from his fire. And he lifted them right over the fence.” Henry laughed. “Oh, those sheep, they put up a fuss. Bleatin’ like lost babes. Jebediah saw the lights come on in Dorothy’s house and he started running.”
“Shot him in the ass, Dorothy did.” Eleanor smiled at her crust.
“The sheriff showed up wiping the sleep from his eyes and loaded Jebediah into the patrol car.”
“Had to sit lopsided the entire way.” Eleanor fitted the crust into a pie plate and poured the filling in. She ran her index finger along the inside of the bowl and popped it in her mouth. “Three years in prison, the judge told him.”
Henry nodded. “Or a year living with Miss Mabel.” His eyes sparkled. “Remember now, Miss Mabel could chew on one topic for near the entire day. Jebediah, of course, didn’t know that. That first day, he went up the stairs and rang the bell. Miss Mabel opened the door; told Jebeidah to come in, make yourself at home. And then, after Jebediah was sitting down with a cup of tea in one hand and a scone warming the other, Miss Mabel began to talk.
Henry lifted his voice an octave. “What do you think about that weather, Jebediah?”
“Warming up some.” Jebediah took a bite of his scone.
“I believe it’s a bit colder than it was yesterday.” Miss Mabel stood and walked to the front windows. “Yes, thirty-five today.” She turned around and met Jebediah’s eye triumphantly. “It was thirty-six yesterday. See those clouds over there?” She pointed.
Jebediah looked out the window; nodded.
“They’re bringing a storm, that’s for certain. What kind of clouds are they, do you think?”
Jebediah shrugged. “Storm clouds?”
“Naw, they’re called something. Ceres something?”
“Don’t rightly know, I guess.”
“Serious? Is that it?”
“I really don’t know, Miss Mabel.”
Miss Mabel frowned. She pulled on her lower lip. She studied the clouds some more. “No, I remember. There are three types.” She turned. “What are they?”
Jebediah didn’t quite know what to say.
“You know, I think I have an almanac around here somewhere. Let me just go see…” She left the room.
Jebediah helped himself to another scone, chewing it hungrily, abandoning his manners now that Miss Mabel had gone.
She returned a few moments later, a big book in her hand. “Let’s see now.”
There was a knock at the door. Jebediah stood. “I’ll get it, Miss Mabel. You don’t want to strain yourself.”
“Morning, Jebediah.” The sheriff lifted his hat in greeting.
“Why, good morning, Sheriff.” Miss Mabel rushed to the door. “Do come in.”
“Just checking on my friend here.” The sheriff patted Jebediah’s shoulder. “Making sure he’s all settled in.”
“Sheriff,” Miss Mabel said. “Do you know the name of those clouds out there?”
The sheriff looked out the window. “Them’s snow clouds, Miss Mabel. Cirrostratus.”
Miss Mabel beamed and clapped her hands. “There, now, Jebediah. You see? They do have a name.” She paused and glanced at her book. “You wouldn’t happen to know how to spell that would you, Sheriff?”
The sheriff winked at Jebediah. “I wouldn’t rightly know, Miss Mabel, but I’m sure Jebediah here can help you out.”
After the sheriff left, Miss Mabel and Jebediah returned to the parlor. Jebediah sat on a straight-backed chair, leaving Miss Mabel the loveseat. He took the newspaper from his back pocket and pretended to read it. He was hoping Miss Mabel would fall asleep. But no, Miss Mabel opened the book again and located the page she was looking for. “Here it is,” she declared. And then, she began reading out loud. And darned if Miss Mabel didn’t read that entire book to Jebediah.
The next afternoon, he ran to the sheriff, begged him to put him back in jail; said he’d take the three years. But the sheriff just laughed at him; told him the sentence was firm. Then he winked and told Jebediah to stop at the pharmacy on the way back to Miss Mabel’s. Pick up some wax to stuff his ears with. Miss Mabel wouldn’t notice, the sheriff said. Unless she got up good and close and Jebediah sure as sure wasn’t about to let that happen.
Henry laughed and slapped his knee. “Poor old Jebediah.”
Eleanor came and sat beside me. She patted my knee and smiled at her husband. “Finish the story, Henry.”
Henry nodded. “Jebediah survived the year with Miss Mabel and was a model citizen after that. But he never did take that wax from his ear. Whenever you wanted to talk to him, you had to get real close and shout.”
“Why didn’t he remove it?” I asked.
Henry grinned. “Said the wax kept him from listening to the devil. Claimed it was the devil making him do all that thievin’.
“Miss Mabel died the day after Jebediah left her. They buried her on the north side of the cemetery. And they say,” Henry said, rooting around in his hairy ear, “that if you pass alongside Miss Mabel’s grave, you can hear her still yammering away.” He stopped rocking; met my eye. “And that’s why we always bury our kin along the south side of the cemetery.”
Eleanor smiled at Henry. “I believe that pie is done.” She turned to me. “Won’t you stay for a slice?”
This piece was written for StoryDam’s weekly challenge.