Hell Bent for Leather
“If that boy don’t smarten up quick he be hell bent for leather,” Thomas muttered. His wife, Jadeen, smiled and looked at him. “Now, Thomas, he’s still young. Give him a chance. Rusty may turn out to be as smart as you some day,” she laughed and looked over the top of her eyeglasses at their grandson, then continued rocking as she crocheted.
“Well, us mountain folk know right from wrong. Being raised in nature teaches ya that. He ain’t mountain folk. I told Gareth not to move down to the big city. Now look what he’s got! A kid that don’t know life the way it should be. That boy is all scooped up into new-fangled ideas and doesn’t even know how to chop wood or feed the chickens or anything of worth! Just look at our other grandkids. Little Susie there knows more than Rusty about how to beware of wild critters, how to feed the farm animals and she’s only five!”
They were sitting on the porch of the cabin his father had built long before Thomas was born. His Pa expected a large family, which is what he got, so the cabin was quite large. When Thomas and Jadeen got married they moved into the cabin and also had a large family. Now, it being Thomas’ birthday celebration, all six of their children and their kids were quite comfy staying in the old cabin for a few days, with plenty of room for all. “Gareth,” he yelled and stood up, walked over to the railing and pointed, “Watch your boy there. Them dogs after a rattler and Rusty needs to get away from there right quick or he be hell bent for leather!”
“I got it, Granpa!” eleven year old Jared whipped out his sling shot, picked up a good sized rock and fired it at the rattler. “Popped its head clean off, Granpa!” Nine year old Rusty was stunned. “Holy cow! How did you learn to do that, Jared?” Thomas manuevered his tall lanky frame back into his old chair, grasped the front of the arms with both hands and rocked back and forth with a smug look on his face as the two boys ran over to look at the dead rattler the dogs were sniffing. “What does hell bent for leather mean, Jared?” Jared laughed, “Aw! That’s jist Granpa’s way of saying he will use a leather strap on your backside iffin you don’t smarten up. But, don’t worry, he never straps us, just likes to say it.”
“Now see what I mean?” Thomas nodded his head several times looking smug. “That there’s the difference atween a mountain boy and city folk. Yep!” he was quite proud of Jared, having raised the boy himself. Jared’s dad had gone off to the war and was killed in action. The only thing that saved Thomas from a complete breakdown of losing his first-born son was the baby Jared. Thomas had named the boy after his lost son. “Yep, I taught that boy right. Rusty might be dead now t’wernt for Jared.”
Julie Ann, Jared’s mom, came out on the porch. “Supper’s ready, Ma.” She clanged the pipe on the triangle and yelled out, “You kids get out back and wash up for supper! And don’t go slammin’ that back porch screen door with each of ya! Hold it open till ya all inside!.” She turned towards Gareth and gave him a big smile.
“Pa,” Gareth spoke softly as he watched Julie Ann go back inside. “I gotta talk with ya after supper. Private like.” Thomas tapped out his corn cob pipe in a can and squinted at Gareth. “You got troubles, boy?” Gareth shrugged his shoulders. Sometimes when he looked at his Pa he felt like he was looking in a mirror. Except for the beard Pa had, one could tell they were father and son.Folks always said he was the spittin’ image of his Pa. “Ya, I guess you could say I got troubles.” Thomas stood up and put his arm around his son’s shoulders. “After supper then.”
It was a hot, sultry evening. As the women had all the kids out back in tubs, Thomas and Gareth sat on the front porch. They were both quiet, rocking slowly, each waiting for the other to speak. Thomas packed his pipe and lit it, then offered one to Gareth. They sat there smoking, lost in thoughts, till Thomas finally broke the silence. “Well … it ain’t gonna come to me in a letter. What’s your trouble, Gareth?”
Gareth pondered how to bring it up and then just blurted it out. “Pa, I need to ask a huge favor of you. Can you take on Rusty? Let him live here with you till I can get things at home straightened out? You see, Meredith left us. Said she is not happy and tired of her life. I don’t rightly know what she wants, but it sure ain’t Rusty and me. Poor Rusty been puttin’ up a good front, going to school every day, taking care of himself while I work, starts supper for us. But, the kid is lonesome and I see how happy he is when we come up here to visit. Meredith filed divorce papers and as soon as all that is cleared up then I aim to move back up here and build a new life for my boy and me. Can you do that for me, Pa? I think it would help Rusty a lot to grow up with Jared and having you and Ma around every day.”
Thomas had listened carefully and did not hesitate to give Gareth an answer. “Son, no matter how old you get I am your Daddy and will step up for you when you have problems. Of course Rusty can stay here with us. I noticed the boy needs love and attention. He also needs to learn the way of mountain folk and Jared can do that for him. What Jared don’t know he comes to me for answers, and Rusty can, too. Ain’t gonna be a problem having Rusty here. Lord knows we have enough room in the cabin and in our hearts,” he tapped out his pipe and refilled it. “Sure, you leave Rusty here with us so you can get things straightened out. When yer ready, you can live here with us, too.” He lit his pipe and took a few puffs to get it going, then watched the smoke curl up.
“I done seen how you and Julie Ann have a hankerin’ for each other and I know she’d take on Rusty like her own. She loves you, Gare. It’s written all over her face when she looks at you.”
“Pa! I can’t think about that now or I’ll go crazy. I love my brother Jared, you know that, Pa. He was my hero, my closest friend and I still miss him I don’t want anyone to think I do wrong by him to love his wife.”
“Well, now. yer fergettin’ that mountain folk have more open hearts and minds than a lot of folks. Love of family is the most important thing in life to us and ain’t no one going to think yer wrong to be your brother’s keeper.”
That seemed to settle things for the two men, and as Gareth realized he had forgotten just how easy Pa could settle things, he relaxed and knew all was well.
Rusty was a little fearful at first when Gareth and Granpa told him of their plans. “You will come back to me, Pa, right?” He was embarrassed by the tears that flowed and tried to wipe his face dry with the backs of his hands. When his Ma left him it was a terrible time and now he wondered if Pa was leaving him. Thomas spoke up when Gareth hugged Rusty. “Now, Rusty, the first thing you gotta learn about us Callahan men is that when they give you their word you can count on it as sure as night turns to day. Yer Pa just needs a few weeks to get things settled then he will come home to us.” Thomas stood by Rusty on the porch a few days later as they waved so long to Gareth.
When the car was out of sight, Rusty turned and hugged his Granpa, sobbing his heart out. Thomas took his hand and pulled Rusty over to the rocker, sat down and held the boy on his lap. Rusty had not hit that growth spurt yet and because Thomas was so tall, it was easy to curl up in Granpa’s lap. Thomas had expected this, so told everyone to stay away for him and Rusty to be alone. As he rocked Rusty, Thomas said, “Ain’t no reason why a man or boy cannot cry when they feel scared and lonesome. You cry, boy, you cry it all out and then things will be fine.” For the first time he could remember, Rusty fell asleep in the arms of love.
Three weeks later Gareth returned. The little boy he hugged when he said “So long for now, son.” had changed into a happy, well adjusted kid. When they hugged, Gareth could swear Rusty had grown a few more inches. “Good Lord, Pa! Whatcha been feedin’ my boy?”
“Possum stew will help a boy grow. Especially when he catched it hisself with a sling shot. He ain’t hell bent for leather no more, he’s mountain folk!”
See Great Smoky Mountains Folk for more about the Callahans.
© 2016 Phyllis Doyle Burns