Sunlight shone through the window early on Sunday morning, and Dillon was confused. His great-uncle had never let him sleep in so late. He rose to dress in well-worn overalls and boots he knew would be replaced in a couple of months when Christmas rolled around. They were the usual type of gift he’d come to expect being raised by his only relative since he was five-years-old. “Ain’t no use throwin’ good money away on unnecessaries,” his uncle would say.
There were no dirty dishes in the sink as he passed through the kitchen to do his chores. He’d lived with his uncle for seventeen years, and it didn’t register as unusual. His uncle had always said, “Chores first. Animals can’t go fixin’ their own, now can they?”
Dillon noticed the new Ford truck—as his uncle called it—was still in the driveway. The thought made him chuckle. It was old and rusty but a newer year than the one his uncle had used when he needed to get Dillon medical help.
After a storm had gone through their rural Nebraska farm when the boy was only eight there were so many repairs to be done. Dillon gathered his tools to fix a section of the tin roof that had come loose and made his way to the back of the house. It had been a toss-up if he or the apple tree he used as a ladder fared better after he fell as he stepped from the tree to the roof and lost his balance. Part of a dead limb punctured his upper arm, and, with a hefty final thump, he hit the ground. The last thing he remembered was being hauled by the back of his overalls like a suitcase and dumped unceremoniously in the bed of the old rusty truck. His uncle never complained when he cared for him through the weeks that followed and never once mentioned the incident.
Dillon returned to the house after his chores. There was no sign of his uncle. He went down the hallway to his uncle’s door and found it was still closed. He tapped on it. There was no sound. “Edgar? Are you in there?” He tapped again with no result. Then he opened the door slowly. It only took a moment to realize the man had slipped away in his sleep sometime during the night. He was cold to the touch when he checked him to be sure.
Edgar Allan Hargrove had gone to his final rest, which the great-uncle richly deserved. He’d lived through the great depression of the nineteen-twenties. He worked six days a week and a half-day on Sunday to allow time for a relaxed dinner. The old man made sure the boy had what he needed and that included his education, but Dillon never knew for sure how his uncle felt about him.
Dillon didn’t know why, but he straightened the covers as he pulled them up to his uncle’s chin. The top of the sheet and blanket were neatly folded back as to not cover his face. He sighed as he felt his own heart sink and gently closed the door.
He poured a cup of coffee and called for the only ambulance in the county to take his uncle’s body, and then called the funeral home. A call came in from Sheriff Hammons, who heard the call for the ambulance and said he’d be out there shortly.
Hammons was who Edgar had called years before about some hooligans that shot Dillon’s pigeons and subsequently put holes in the barn roof. Hammons said nothing could be done since no one saw it. Thoroughly disgusted with the officer, his uncle’s only response was, “Can’t teach the boy right from wrong, when you go writin’ everythin’ off so quick.” Later that same night he grumbled about how the officer had been a worthless individual.
The next call was to his uncle’s attorney. A man with a gregarious façade but truly a peevish individual that Dillon witnessed in action first-hand several years ago.
“Henniker here, how may I help you?”
Dillon told him who he was and why he called. The man’s tonal response was contemptuous at best since his Sunday had been interrupted. He answered the few questions Dillon had asked.
“Your uncle’s farm is paid off. He has the deed. Edgar never trusted banks so there are no accounts either. He paid for everything with cash. The man never trusted or loved anyone in his life. Anything else?”
“Not right now, thank—” Henniker hadn’t even waited for Dillon’s complete good-bye.
He knew other people thought his uncle was odd since he never married and never wanted company. They thought all he ever did was work. Some of them had even made comments as to whether he ever loved anyone except himself if that.
After the ambulance left, Dillon went to the closet and took out his uncle’s well-worn brown suit—the only one he owned—to take to the funeral home on Monday. When the rest of the outfit had been gathered, he sat the items on the dresser under the photo of the farm that had failed to lie flat in the frame due to moisture. He’d never been close enough before to notice an old mark on the photo until now. He had only thought about his uncle’s words regarding the safe behind it. “I keep my valued things in there, but it’s too gross to get into it.”
Dillon knew from the attorney there were no bank accounts, which made him inspect the mark on the photo more, and then he went outside to investigate. He retrieved the shovel from the barn and located the spot indicated on the photo and started to dig. Several minutes later the hole revealed an old wooden box that contained a glass jar wrapped in a rag. He took the jar inside to the kitchen table. The jar contained the property deed and multiple banded rolls of old bills. Dillon noticed none of them had issue dates past the time he had come to live with his uncle. He heard a car pull in the drive, so he put the contents back in the jar and placed it in the cupboard.
The sheriff’s car stopped as Dillon stepped out of the house. It was five hours after the call—shortly in Hammons’ book—that he finally arrived. “Sorry to hear ‘bout Edgar boy, but he’s better off. Ambulance been and gone, I take it.”
“Sure has.” The platitude Dillon responded to was hollow. Hammons could not have cared less.
Dillon watched him shift his gun belt after he had emerged from the car. Hammons moved gravel with his boot as he stood there speechless for the better part of two minutes. As Dillon watched the officer in front of him, he thought his uncle’s assessment hadn’t been too far off.
“Well,” Hammons said finally. “If you won’t be needin’ me then, I bes’ be gettin’ back. Got the grandkids comin’ to Sunday dinner.”
“I’ll be fine, thanks—but not thanks, he thought—you take care.” Then Dillon went back into the house.
Late in the afternoon, Dillon finally gathered himself enough to do the evening chores. When he came back inside, he cleaned up in the bathroom just beyond their bedrooms. As he passed back by his uncle’s room, he looked at the wall safe. His uncle always said his important things were in there, but it didn’t make sense now that he’d found the money and the deed to the property in the jar. Had he ever been told what the combination was? What did Edgar say to Dillon when he saw his uncle at the safe? “It’s just too gross to get into it,” were his words, and he’d said them several times over the years. Dillon never knew for sure what he meant by it. He was half-way down the hall when another thought struck. Could it be that simple? He went back to the safe and rotated the dial to the two for the too in his uncle’s statement and heard it click. A gross is one-hundred forty-four. He turned the dial around and stopped at the one to hear the second click, then the forty-four, and it clicked for the final time. The handle on the safe turned, and the door opened.
There were only two valued items in the safe, and he carried them to the table for a Sunday dinner that did not nourish his stomach, only his heart. It was the piece of wood that had gone through his arm as a kid and an old photo of him about the time he first came to live with his uncle. On the back of the photo in his uncle’s handwriting was the faded inscription, my boy Dillon.
Patricia Coughlin is a widely traveled researcher and reviewer of fascinating places and people. She has traveled throughout the United States and several countries. Her zest as a verbal storyteller throughout her life has finally brought her to the written form of her craft.