Through February, we’re sharing stories from our novel, A Spent Bullet. Today’s chapter is probably my favorite. It’s based on a true story and an example of the wonderful Southern rural hospitality that I love so dearly.
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Although A Spent Bullet is fiction, many of its stories are built on true tales told to me. The following story about the boy Ben Reed finding a 55 gallon drum full of cooked hams was told to me by my Sugartown cousin, Harold Iles, Sr.
You cannot make up a story that’s better than the truth!
Coals of Fire
“Baby, wake up. I got a job for you.” Ben awoke to his mother standing over him. He heard the pounding rain on their tin roof. “Rain’s been steady all night.” She caressed his hair. “I need you to go with Peg back to where the food was buried.
The Corporal said they left two barrels of hog slop.”
An hour later he and Peg returned soaking wet, with the two barrels on a slip pulled by Dolly. Both barrels brimmed over with food waste. As they pulled up beside the barn, the pigs smelled the food and went to squealing and fighting each other.
“There are lots of sayings about hogs and eating. Like ‘I waited on you like one hog waits on another’.” Ben shoveled the slop over the fence into the trough. “How about ‘as hungry as a hog’?”
Peg pulled her scarf over her nose. “Whew, you stirred up that smell and it’s rank! I’m going to the house.”
Ben Reed is patterned after my beloved uncle, Clint Iles.
Ben didn’t mind one bit. Normally, he’d be at school stuck at a desk, wrestling with his multiplication facts. Shoveling hog slop—even in a downpour—beat that any day. About a foot deep into the second barrel, the shovel struck something.
It was a pasteboard lid. He pried his fi ngernails under the edge and lifted it away.
“My Lord, lookee there.” No one heard him but the chomping pigs and they ignored him. He ran to the house. “Momma, you gotta see this for yourself.” When she hesitated, he grabbed her arm and led her to the barn. “Look in that barrel.”
She waved away the slop and pig odor. “That’d gag a grown maggot.” She stood over the lip of the barrel. “It’s full of baked hams.”
“Do you think they’re still good?” Ben said.
She picked one up and sniffed it. “Smells fine to me. They’re baked and should be eatable.”
“Why’d they throw good meat away?”
“Probably the soldiers got sent out before they could serve the hams. They’ll be gone for a week.”
“What are we gonna do?”
She glanced off down the hollow. “We’re going to make a whole lot of folks happy.”
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She shooed him toward the house. “Go get the wheelbarrow and line it with
some fresh feed sacks. I’ll fetch the girls and we’ll start drawing water to clean them
For the next hour on the porch, they washed, cleaned, and excitedly developed
their distribution plan. “I also want to send some of the sugar and coffee,” Momma said.
Elizabeth drew a map of their neighbors, dividing it into four parts. Peg carefully
laid the clean hams on a sheet as Momma said, “There’s fourteen hams.”
“How many are we going to keep?” Ben said.
“One? We found them. We ought to keep more than one.”
She lifted his chin. “We didn’t find them—that soldier told us about them.” She
patted his head. “Besides, if we keep two, someone won’t get one, and a second one’d
ruin before we finished the fi rst.”
Elizabeth circled the names of four neighbors and handed it to Ben. “You’ll enjoy
handing out hams even more than eating them.”
Ben licked his lips. “I’m not sure I’d enjoy anything more than eating fresh ham.”
Momma filled his tote sack with four hams, small bags of sugar, and a tin of coffee.
She inspected his list. “Now head out to Aunt Emma’s, the Spurlocks, the Ortegos,
and swing back by the Tates.”
He set the sack down. “I don’t want to go by the Tates. Those boys are always
mean to me.”
“Well, I bet they won’t be after tonight.” She popped him playfully on the behind.
“Now get a move on.”
The hams were heavy and only became heavier as he walked the half-mile to Aunt Emma’s. The rain soaked him and soon he was shivering. It was nearly dark and the barking dogs and chattering guineas brought the old woman to the door.
“Who goes out there?”
Hiding behind a live oak, he lowered his voice. “It’s Sainty Claus.” Getting no response, he said, “Ho Ho Ho.”
She closed and latched the door. “Who is it?”
Ben set down his sack, cupped his hands and gave his best quail whistle, followed by, “My name’s ‘Bob White’ and I’ve got somethin’ for you.”
She opened out the door. “Ben Reed, you’re gonna get shot coming up to a widow woman’s house this late.” He hefted this sack onto the porch, putting his hand under it and shaking it. Aunt Emma drew back, nearly dropping her lantern. “It’s not a snake or nothin’ live, is it?”
He lifted the ham out, holding it aloft with both hands. She set her lantern down and knelt. “My goodness. It is Christmas.” Her eyes glistened in the lamplight.
“Where’d you get that?”
“It’s a gift—a gift from our uncle.”
“Your uncle. Which one?”
She glanced up. “Is this from the soldiers?”
“There’s more.” He pulled out the sugar and the coffee. The old woman clasped the ham to her breast like a newborn. “Son, tell your momma how much I appreciate this.”
“Aunt Emmer, I’ve got to be going on my other rounds.”
Before he could make his getaway, she pulled him close, leaving an overpowering whiff of sweet snuff, stale coffee, and ham grease on him. “I don’t want you to never forget this night, and what your momma did. It truly is more blessed to give than to receive.”
He couldn’t escape her grasp or words. “Pearline and Levon Reed done given you a good name with good deeds like this.” Finally, she loosened her grip. “It’s your job not to mess it up.”
“Yes Ma’am.” Lifting his sack, which was now one-quarter lighter, he hopped off the porch. “I’m on my way to the Spurlock place.”
“God bless you, child.”
He looked back at her. She embraced the ham in one arm and held the lantern with the other as tears coursed down her face. “God bless you.”
“He already has.” Ben had to agree—this giving away stuff felt pretty good. Maybe not as delicious as a slice of baked ham, but tasty in a different way.
The next two visits were just as fun as Aunt Emma’s. The families were delighted with the ham, sugar, and coffee. By the time Ben left these homesteads, he’d been hugged, squeezed, and nearly kissed to death. However, a cold chill of dread came
However, a cold chill of dread came
over him as he neared the Tate home. He didn’t expect a warm welcome from the dogs nor the humans. The three older Tate boys loved tormenting younger kids, especially Ben. He normally didn’t go remotely near to their place. As he passed a stump hole, he thought how convenient it’d be to toss the last ham in and kick dirt on it. Some varmint would eventually eat the evidence, and he could hurry home.
He recalled the infectious joy on his momma’s face and continued on to the Tate home. The first chore would be getting past the dogs, which had a deservedly mean reputation for biting strangers and neighbors alike. He reached in the bag, pulling loose a strip of hide from the ham, before breaking off a stout sweet gum limb. He’d use the carrot-and-stick approach. Maybe one would work.
The dogs began cutting up as he neared the gate. He hollered “Hallo” and they stopped.
The barking was replaced by low growls moving toward him. Tossing the meat strip in their direction, he sprinted for the safety of the porch.
He heard a muffl ed voice from in the house. “What’s going on out there?”
“It’s your neighbor, Ben Reed. I’ve got a gift for you.”
“Ben. Levon Reed’s boy. Your boys know me.” Ben whispered, “They ought to
know me as many times as they’ve whupped me upside the head.”
“Come up on the porch and show me what you’ve got.” Ben had never met Mr.
Ben had never met Mr. Tate, but knew it must be his voice. The door cracked open, and a bare-chested bear of a man stood looking down on Ben. Behind Mr. Tate, he made out the shadowy silhouettes of several children.
He flashed the lantern in Ben’s face. “Boy, what you got in that tote sack?” As Ben reached into his sack, Mr. Tate put his hand out. “Stop.” He never took his eyes off Ben, speaking over his shoulder. “Frog, you and Cooter come in here. Do y’all know this little pip squeak?”
“Know him well, Daddy.” It was Cooter, the oldest of the Tate bullies.
The man nodded at Ben, who reached into the sack—and with the flair of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat—held up the ham. “My momma sent this over for you.”
Mr. Tate stepped back and squared his shoulders. “You tell your mother we don’t need no charity.”
“It ain’t charity. You done paid for it.”
“It’s government ham. Army waste.” Ben handed him the ham. Mr. Tate took it and sniffed it as if it might be poisoned with strychnine.
“It’s a gift from my family to yours.”
“Because that’s what neighbors do for each other.”
Mr. Tate squinted. “How’d y’all git it?”
“We found it and a bunch more that the Army threw out.”
“What about the others?” Ben didn’t like the look in the man’s face. It reminded him of how a dog looks when another dog has more in its bowl.
“We gave them to our other neighbors. Folks like y’all.”
“You gave them all away?”
“All but one.”
The man’s face softened. “Your momma only kept one and gave us one.”
“Yes Sir.” He pulled out the sugar and coffee. “This is yours, too.”
Mr. Tate opened the coffee tin, sucking in a deep whiff. “We ain’t had coffee since my wife died last year.” His voice broke. “I really appre—”
“Mr. Tate, if you or one of your boys will hold those dogs, I’d best be going.”
“You dogs git under that porch and stay,” Mr. Tate thundered and the dogs whimpered and slunk under the house. Mr. Tate put his huge hairy hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Son, you tell your momma something for me. I ain’t never had anyone give
me something this nice. It means the world to me and my family.”
Ben heard the catch in the man’s voice. “If there’s anything you and your folks need, me and my boys will help.” He nodded his head. “Won’t we, boys?”
The boys, now arrayed in the doorway, echoed, “Yes Sir.”
As Ben trotted away in the rain, he knew he was safe. Safe from the Tate biting dogs as well as the Tate brothers. He knew his days of being tormented were over, and it was due to a fresh ham.
He couldn’t get out of his mind the look on the man’s face as he held the ham. It all reminded Ben of a Bible verse. It was something that Jesus said about heaping coals of fire on your enemies’ head by being kind.
He wasn’t sure where the verse was, but he’d seen it back in the Tate family yard.
He hurried home, light on his feet as he crossed the swamp. He couldn’t wait to
get home and get a thick ham sandwich with a cold glass of milk. His stomach growled.
Hang on, there’s a sandwich waiting on us.
He wasn’t sure which would feel best: a juicy baked ham sandwich, giving away coffee and hams, or heaping coals of fire.
Today he’d done all three. That made it a good day. A really good day.