This morning, I awoke, pulled on my jeans and overstretched tee shirt, prepared to take Scooter, my anxious schnauzer, for a walk. With the December morning chill, I opened my hall closet door expecting to see a red jacket with a white stocking cap tucked up the sleeve.
Something wasn’t right. I knew it. I felt it. I saw it. The hand of fear gripped my stomach.
In the corner opposite my jacket, a skeleton cocked his head and leaned against the wall with bones chalky white, fully calcified by age. Not believing my eyes, I blinked in horror and forced myself to take a second look. Skeletons weren’t a fantasy to wake up to, nor did I wish to admit I had completely lost my sanity. The calcified bones, shaped in human form, were plain as the new day. Scared spitless, I slammed the door and propped a chair under the door knob. Whatever that thing was, it was not getting out!
For awhile, I avoided passing by the closet. I knew the cliché that every person has a skeleton in his closet, but I never thought anyone sane believed literally the possibility of an actual specter. In spite of the absurdity of it all, I found myself obsessed. Who was it and how did it get in there?
Scooter sat outside the closed door on his haunches, ears perked up, nose twitching. I didn’t know whether he was curious as to what was in the closet or expecting his walk to resume at any moment. After a bit of dog speculation, he gave up and lay with his nose toward the door.
I laughed. How silly. Of course, someone had played a joke and planted a Halloween skeleton to scare me. But the bones looked too real to come from a store. Then I thought someone had arranged with my son-in-law doctor for a cadaver. That idea kept me satisfied the rest of the morning until I admitted to myself that he lived three hundred miles away. Besides, he was the serious type, not one to indulge his in-laws with out-of-season pranks.
I finally settled on the more rational idea I had seen something which was not there—a mirage or a freakish end of a dream when I wasn’t quite awake. I walked past the door once to prove myself logical and in control, and then, passed back again on my way to the kitchen with a handful of day-old dried coffee cups. Barely perceptible, a slight rattle, or maybe a stifled cough, emanated from behind the closed door. Scooter jumped, howled, and pawed the door furiously.
My muscles reacted involuntarily. I jerked the door open.
“Hello Cousin,” he said.
Stunned, I knew I had indeed lost my mind—first seeing and now hearing things.
“What took you so long, Old Woman?” the persistent voice crisp and demanding. “Don’t you remember me?”
I grabbed the knob, but before slamming the door, flesh appeared over the worm pocked bones, followed by long black untrimmed hair, a broad furled forehead, cheekbones landscaped like a turtle shell, dark deeply set eyes that arrested time, a strange chiseled Roman nose slanted slightly off center, and a narrow, pointed jaw. He evolved before me like someone drawing on a sketch pad. Soon broad, muscular shoulders led to a compelling, trim athletic body layered by long johns, soiled breeches, a fringed deer-skin hunting shirt, thick stockings, and scuffed hand-tooled boots with rusted metal buckles. A musket hung from his shoulder and a horn of gun powder protruded from his belt.
“Thought I’d raised so much hell nobody would forget me. I’m Ute.” The voice was pretentious, not too different from a rooster crowing in a harem of hens. Speechless, I stared. With the sound of a voice, Scooter jumped on me, wagging his tail, still hopeful, I suppose, that someone would take him for a walk or give him a bone feast. Eying the bones, his tail wagged faster. “Don’t even think it, these bones aren’t for you.” Absently, I reached down and rubbed his neck.
The skeleton repeated his presence. “Quit ignoring me. Didn’t you hear me?” His angry voice escalated. “Ute Perkins. ”
Registering the reality before me, my mind blurred, eyes refused to focus, and icy legs melted like snow in April. The only Ute Perkins I knew about was a horse thief eight generations ago living in Maryland. Was this him? Hard to believe it possible although at that time, if I had to guess, we’d have been first cousins.
Well aware of the authenticity of Chalkey’s Chronicles and Ute Perkins’ long record of assault and thievery—and seeing his musket—I was not ready to take chances and reached for the door to isolate him from me. I looked him square in the eyes and firmed my voice, “You’re a horse thief. I don’t associate with outlaws.”
“You would if you lived when I did.”
As far as I knew from recorded Maryland history, Ute Perkins was rotten to the core with no mitigating circumstances that would have kept him from his just deserves at the gallows. I couldn’t resist shaming him that he had come from an illustrious family and was the blackest of all black sheep.
“Your mother was a Sherrill, your grandfather—the famous Conestoga Fur Trader—opened up the Pennsylvania and Virginia frontiers, and your Uncle Adam was the first white man to cross the Catawba River in North Carolina.”
“Why you bringing up those Sherrills? I’m a Perkins.”
“Your Ma was a Sherrill.”
“So what? She wasn’t exactly a gilded lily of the fields, you know.”
“You’re dodging the issue. You know as well as I our kin were respected Indian fighters , militia captains, doctors, preachers, and notable politicians; even one the wife of the first Governor of the State of Tennessee. You can’t have forgotten what happened at Kings Mountain when our Patriot kin mopped up the British.”
“Now you’re preaching. Can’t stand holier-than-thou hypocrites, especially if their last name is Sherrill.”
Ute had pushed my hot buttons. I was getting nowhere, but I still had a full head of righteous steam to lay on him. “Your brother was a Perkins. Gentleman John with his ten thousand acres, was once the largest land owner in North Carolina and world famous for his Perkins’ Red Apples and all those thoroughbred racehorses.”
“Lay off, Cousin. Relatives don’t mean shit. Lay off.”
Looking at the scoundrel with as much disgust as I could muster, I felt a collision of wills coming on. I wouldn’t give his brazen attitude any satisfaction. I lobbed a volley right in his face. “How could you disgrace yourself to sink so low as to become a common horse thief?”
Ute didn’t drop his head in shame nor show any recognition of guilt or remorse. He belligerently jutted his jaw forward in sharp contrast to the sunken eyes and emaciated cheeks I’d seen before. A wild and feverish fire flamed in his eyes.
“All fine and good, Cousin, but you’re talking after the fact, not while I was living. Since you’ve conveniently forgot the other Sherrill and Perkins scoundrels, I guess now is as good a time as any to tell you how it was.” Clearly, well practiced in his defense, he was bent on manifesting his circumstances in the best possible light.
His throat obviously dry and not used to talking, he coughed and rubbed his nose as if it might drip. He reached and stroked his throat. His contorted face made my stomach weak. He painted himself the very picture of imminent suffering.
Alarmed he might collapse, I forgot I was talking to a skeleton. “Are you all right?”
He shook his head and gagged to vomit, but not even spittle was present. His voice scratched like chalk on a board. “Can’t you see? I’m bone dry and starved. Posse wouldn’t give me anything to eat or drink before stringing me up.” He spoke as if the event happened yesterday. “If not too much to ask, would you have vittles and ale? I’ve been dreaming of back strap venison in gravy and a barrel of ale.”
“Sorry, no venison. Times have changed. A hot dog and long neck will have to do.”
Ute eyes bulged with horror. “Don’t want nothing with dog meat in it—that’s disgusting. Any fool knows no one cooks necks.”
Obviously a dark matter indeed for him to consider, his face reddened. “Is that all you have?” He scratched his inner thigh, and leaned forward. I thought had he eaten breakfast, he would vomit again.
“Too complicated to explain.” I said simply, “Hot dogs are cow’s meat in a gut, and a Lone Star long neck is beer in a bottle.”
“Beer? The same as ale?” He grinned like a child, happy, his dry tongue licking flaked lips. “Now that’s more to my liking.”
Even speaking a few words agonized him. He clinched his throat and gasped with a spasm so deep I feared his brittle bones would break. I hurried to the fridge, popped the cap with my thumb, and set a Lone Star in front of him. After his first hurried gulp, he tipped the bottle and emptied it without stopping. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and demanded, “Bring me another.”
After his third, his discomfort eased, and he began to talk.
“First off, you have to understand, Cousin, I was born a thief, never knew anything different.” He wanted me to think he was a chip off the block as his father had been, and his father before him. I knew of his grandfather. William Sherewell smuggled sotweed in England and reived cattle and horses along the Scottish borders, but in no way could Ute claim he’d been thrust from his Ma’s womb a thief.
I zig-zagged the hot dog with mustard like an Oscar Mayer ad and put it in front of him. He paused at the sight and turned it to examine all sides. He put his nose down to sniff, and poked it with his forefinger. When it didn’t jump at him, he hesitantly took a bite, his mouth puckering like eating a sour pickle. The scowl on his face told me he’d rather have tasted a skinned skunk. “Don’t know what animal this is,” he pointed to what he must have thought was a turd excreting yellow bile, “but it don’t seem to have felt well.” He gingerly put it back on the plate, evidently preferring to talk.
“Guess my memory goes back to one morning when I was five and hungry as I am now.” He counted the years on thinly covered bony fingers separated by protruding scarred knuckles. “Must have been 1734 while we were living in the backwoods of St. Mark’s Parish.”
I raised my brow, a question of geography forming in my mind.
“That was Maryland,” he patronized my ignorance.
“Thought so.” He had me on that one. I mumbled, “Forgot parishes were in Maryland.”
“Ain’t the only thing you’ve forgotten. You want to know my story or not?”
“I was dirty and hungry—hadn’t eaten since day before. Equally filthy, us six clamored for breakfast trying to shove past sister Elizabeth, the oldest and in charge, who was filling an ale bottle half full, the last of the milk from the morning’s pail. Banging us away with her hips, she pushed the hog-gut nipple into Johnny’s mouth with one hand and waved her other arm for us to stay back. Johnny’s the one you called Gentleman John.
“To start with, there weren’t any biscuits left when I reached the table.”
I nodded. More than merely telling me his story, he had transported himself back to Virginia to the kitchen table with his brothers and sisters.
“This particular morning, I could no longer stand the ache in my stomach. I jumped from the chair, kicked Elizabeth hard, butted my head against her with all my might, grabbed her arm and yanked the bottle.”
“Uttie, let go of me,” Elizabeth shouted, lifting the milk high out of reach. “This is for Johnny. Shame on you. He’s a baby.”
“I screamed a tantrum and pounded harder with my fists until she dropped the bottle. I scooped it up and ran outside to the porch before she caught me.”
“You stole milk from a baby? Your own brother?” I was aghast.
“That’s how I got breakfast—taking what I could and gobbling it down before my older brother did the same to me.
“After she laid on her whipping, I remember her in tears complaining to Elisha, who at thirteen was responsible for the barn and fields, ‘What can I do? Ain’t milk and biscuits for all of us. Ma was supposed to bring flour and potatoes. She ain’t home yet.’
“Done all we can. Down to one cow and she’s about dry, and chickens ain’t layin,” Elisha responded. “And you know when Ma comes, she’ll be sick and forgotten us.
“I knew about sore throats, coughs, and fevers. I had plenty of them, but didn’t know what caused Ma’s sickness. Whatever it was, it was bad. She went directly to bed every time she came home. I was seven before I learned from Elisha that Ma’s sickness was of her own making from the tavern. I knew then she didn’t love us.
“Elizabeth was our extra Ma. She put out in the morning biscuits, eggs, and milk, if we had any, to feed us for an entire day. If you didn’t get to the table first you went without. She took us to the creek once a month to take our clothes off and wash up, sewed the rips in our overalls the best she could, and tried to keep the cabin swept. I barely knew Pa. He, like Ma, was usually gone. Elisha said he was out roaming Spotsylvania looking for horses and land. Before Ma got big with Johnny, we hadn’t seen Pa for more than two years, so this time if I was to know the truth, he was most likely in jail.”
As appalled as I was, Ute was wrong to use his Ma and Pa for his own excuse. “But that was them . . . doesn’t account a whit for you. Even more so, you should have learned from your Pa and Ma and known better.”
“Seems to me, Cousin, you’re throwing stones and not listening.” He poked at the cold hot dog. “I’m starving. Ain’t you got vittles better than sick dog meat?”
Scooter whined at the insult, tucked his tail between his legs, and jumped to the safety of his favorite chair. He was finished socializing.
“How many times do I have to tell you it’s cow’s meat? Don’t know how you figure it’s my obligation to feed you. Seems like you’re doing more complaining than appreciating. Your brothers and sisters didn’t end up thieves. Don’t want to hear more excuses.”
“Oh, don’tcha now,” his eyes took on a glimmer, one of an unwillingness to let stand she thought him a loser.
But I saw what I saw. A thief. No way could I get beyond the judgment I’d already formed.
“You too uppity to learn the truth?” he challenged. “Since you got me started, I think I’ll tell you anyhow.” Intoxicated with the sound of his own words, the braggart continued. “Don’t rightly see what you can do with me since you know I’m here. Already froze my ass in purgatory, pitched below by the devil’s fork, and burned in hell. No lie in that. Devil says I’m your skeleton and he put me in your closet.”
“But I was looking for my jacket, not you.”
“True, but now, old woman, you’re responsible for me. I’m doomed to be a permanent resident in your closet and won’t have peace until you let me out. I see that ain’t happening unless you change your attitude and hear what I have to say.”
“Ain’t for you to tell me what I want to hear and what I don’t,” I shot back. “No way am I responsible for anything that has to do with you. Besides I haven’t decided if I’d dare tell anyone about any skeleton in my closet. Particularly you. You aren’t exactly acceptable conversation for me and my friends.”
“Don’t pick on me. Your nose is so high in the clouds no closet skeleton would be acceptable. I’m only telling my story. After all, you asked why I became a thief.”
My ears ached. Plainly this skeleton could argue all night. I heaved a sigh. “If you must, go on.”
“Pa started me wrong.”
There he went again, blaming others. “You mean, like father, like son. That cliché is older than the hills and stupid.”
“Think what you must, but when I neared ten, I started hearing rumors from Elizabeth and Elisha talking, especially about Pa . First the sheriff caught him with John Baldwin’s horse in Ann Arundell County. Then he stole a gray horse from the widow MacNemarra of Annapolis and the judge sentenced him to pillory for one hour, and to the whipping post for twenty five lashes. Grandma Belcher went to court with him pleading that since he swore himself innocent, he didn’t think he’d need proper counsel.”
“Sounds like jail time to me,” I interrupted.
“Not at first. With Grandma Belcher being of good name, the judge cancelled the pillory but arrested Pa for the Baldwin horse. He landed in jail. After that he had more accusations thrown against him than Elizabeth and Elisha could keep track of: indictments for trespassing, assault and battery on both men and women, more horse thieving. Pages and pages of servant complaints. You name it. He was guilty. The sheriff rode so frequently onto our place looking for him that Elisha carped we might as well had a stall in our barn with his horse’s name on it.
“When Pa wasn’t in jail and it suited him to come home, he prided himself an upstanding citizen. Served on juries, awarded numerous bounties for wolf heads, bought and sold land, and recorded several deeds in his own name. Also, counting back the months we were born, we pretty well figured the occasions when he was home.”
As Ute recounted his Pa’s vicissitudes, I found his story partly despicable, partly disgusting, and partly ridiculous. Although not entirely agreeable, I began to gather interest, like reading a wild-west book, and having wasted the time to read past page eighty nine, forcing myself to finish it.
With his aversion to hot dogs, I began to think about defrosting and frying Ute and Scooter a hamburger. But my pity didn’t go so far as to let him out. He’d have to eat in the closet.
I whistled, and Scooter followed me to the kitchen willing to substitute meat in his bowl for a walk. I called back to Ute, “What about your Ma? How’d she get hooked up with a loser like your Pa?”
With only me and Scooter in the house and the TV off, I heard his answer plain enough.
“At fifteen Ma met Elisha Perkins and ran away. Uncle Adam went looking for her, but found them already married by a minister in St. Mark’s Parish. This was before Pa roamed the countryside. Elizabeth, Elisha Jr., and Margaret were born one, two, and three as quick as three foxes jumping a fence during a hunt. Elizabeth says the first time she remembers seeing the law was when a constable rode to our cabin when she was four. Pa had failed to register his marriage to Ma nor any births. He didn’t have money for the fine and skedaddled. After that, he made sure he was never home when the law came.
“With Pa gone so much, Ma was lonely and drank Pa’s whiskey during the day and cried herself to sleep at night. On rare occasions when he was home, they both got drunk and argued until one would accuse the other of fornication naming almost every man and woman, married or not, in the Parish as bed partners. When Ma shrieked, ‘adulterer,’ Pa hit her across the mouth. “So you want my ass, I’ll give you one to remember.” Then twisting her arm, he hauled her off to bed.
“Us children in the loft listened to the racket below afraid one would kill the other. When Pa threw her into bed, the noise got worse. They’d moan, shake the bed, shout obscenities, and then when the moans stopped, call each other Darling and Sweetheart. In the morning, when Pa put his arm around Ma, she’d ask, “How is my bull today?” He’d answer, “How is my cow, this fine morning?” And then they would laugh and kiss—all in front of us.”
Ute didn’t pause over the vulgarity of what they’d said, but I had never heard such talk. These were relatives I wouldn’t own up to under any circumstances. They could stay in someone else’s closet!
As if he’d been thinking and not spoken aloud, Ute ignored my disgust and gazed upward gathering his thoughts before continuing.
“Within days, Pa was gone again. Each time he came home, the same thing happened. I’d had my fill and could no longer live in the house with them. When I absolutely had to come home, I fixed a place in the barn to hide my whiskey jug, smoke my tobacco, and sleep.”
“And how old were you?”
“Maybe twelve.” Ute twisted his fingers, his voice muted expecting me to understand without understanding. Suddenly burying his thoughts, with me mortified and him stressed out, a silence ensued, his face white as powdered snow.
Obviously, thoughts of his family stirred his mind. I saw sadness form in his eyes. Maybe I’d beleaguered him enough. I began to look at him like a wounded boy. “Ain’t saying you can go outside, but you can sit at the kitchen table with Scooter while I fix hamburgers. Do you like onion, tomatoes, and lettuce on your bread or just meat?”
“Lettuce is weeds for goats. Didn’t have tomatoes, if you mean those red things. Don’t understand at all what you call vittles. Since you don’t have venison, I’d like pole beans cooked in bacon and sweet potatoes smothered with maple syrup. If you have fresh churned butter, corn on the cob would be nice. I swear you meant to poison me with that hot dog, and now this thing-a-ma-jig hamburger?”
“I think a guest, even if a horse thief, ought to eat what I prepare. I’m fixin a hamburger and that’s it.”
“Don’t get huffy. Get me another ale.”
“You’ve had the last of my six-pack. Don’t have any more in the fridge that’s cold.”
“I’ll drink it warm.”
“Warm beer?” I made a face.
With Scooter tripping under my feet like he does for his walk, I opened the outside door and fetched another six pack from the garage. I slammed it down in front of him. “Drink it anyway you want. It’s your poison.”
“How was I to get cold ale in the backwoods?” he smarted as if I was an idiot. “Always drank it warm.” He took his time with a bottle and was embarrassed he couldn’t flip off the crinkled cap. I easily popped it for him and brought a tall mug from the cabinet pointing for him to pour. When foam reached the top, he started talking again. “Suppose you want to know more about Ma.”
“More excuses?” I challenged.
“If you’re going to be nasty, I’ll eat your hamburger, but don’t tell me it’s good as venison.”
The chump! He acted like he was doing me a favor. “Might consider that if you tried, you’d find it quite pleasant to eat.” My temper showed. I wanted to churn his hamburger down the garbage disposal.
Nothing bothered him. Being free of the cramped closet, he stretched his legs, straightened his back, and flexed his shoulders. He called, failing pitifully to fake good manners, “Didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
He shifted his body and turned his chair to face me, his voice slurring, his eyes moving from side to side watching me closely. After a minute, he peered upward again as if a fly speckled the ceiling, and ran his hands across his temples. It was though his next thoughts lurked just outside of his memory or what was coming next was something he’d rather not talk about. His tone became acerbic and his long-harbored bitterness surfaced.
“I guess when Pa couldn’t stand coming home any more to a drunk, he kept away longer. Ma, in retaliation, took to staying at the tavern. Rumors of her carousing got serious. Somehow—I wasn’t the one who tattled on her—Pa heard about a Christopher Holmes and got the idea he and Ma were living together at his place in Orange County.
“Pa cornered us and under threat of a whipping, we confessed Ma was gone as much as he was. When his spies saw the bastard Holmes and Ma leaving the tavern together arm in arm late one night, Pa became convinced she was bringing shame upon him. He brought suit for adultery and the case went to the Grand Jury. Uncle Adam came to help defend Ma but the Grand Jury did find that a Christoper Homes doth live in adultery with wife of Elisha Perkins in St. Mark’s Parish.
“Ma went crazy and testified she’d never married Pa and couldn’t possibly be guilty of adultery if they weren’t married. Furious, she issued a counter suit of assault and battery. The Constable brought Pa into court accused of being a barbarian and using his wife Margery. At Uncle Adam’s insistence, she asked for separate alimony. Pa countered, and the Grand Jury agreed if she wasn’t married to him, as she claimed she wasn’t, he couldn’t be legally forced to pay alimony. The judge dismissed Ma’s case.
“Pa got the assault and battery case against him continued indefinitely. The Judge extended his case against Christopher Holmes as an adulterer. Ma came home but didn’t have sense enough to stay sober. She went back to live with Christopher Holmes but soon ran off to Spotsylvania going door to door wailing she still loved Pa, and demanding to know where he was.”
“Didn’t that cause more trouble?” Strange, in spite of what his Ma had done, I felt his Pa was as guilty as she and the court had railroaded her. Although I wasn’t yet ready to take up her cause, I was fixated and wanted to hear the rest of the story.
“Well, I can tell you the good citizens of Spotsylvania saw Ma a fallen woman and complained she was a common disturber of the peace and insisted she be brought before the Court.”
“A fallen woman? Her husband was a thief, for goodness sakes! An abuser.” I took exception to the gossips’ name calling and gave Ute a sharp look.
“Don’t look at me like that. It wasn’t me who called her that. Even a fellow like me cares something about his ma even if there weren’t much to admire.”
“And your Pa? I suppose you found much to admire about him?” I countered, a confrontation on his bias of men’s supremacy over women imminent on the tip of my tongue.
“Ain’t dumb enough to argue that with you. I was telling you at this point there were two cases—one for adultery and one for disturbing the peace. I can quote exactly what happened when the Grand Jury announced the verdict on the adultery issue.”
“Christopher Holmes, defendant to answer, committing fornication with Margery Sherrill Perkins, case dismissed.”
I groaned. After all it took two to fornicate. Without complaining to Ute about the obvious injustice which he preferred not to see, I went to the stove and angrily flipped the hamburgers. He paid no notice to my disgust, and continued talking.
“After lunch, the Grand Jury met again, finding Ma guilty of being a common disturber of the peace. The judge sentenced her to jail for one year and a day. Ma collapsed and the bailiff hastened to fan her face with his hat to rouse her.
Uncle Adam and Grandpa Sherrill were furious. With Pa free from paying alimony and Christopher Holmes free of adultery, they watched Ma, sobbing for the fate of us children, led away to jail in chains.”
“You mean only your Ma got punished?” I found myself livid—both men off Scot free. The final straw of iniquity. “Not fair, not fair at all.”
Ute shrugged and retorted, “Grandpa and Uncle Adam were on Ma’s side and sat in court. She didn’t deserve to expect more.”
“Maybe so. But it sounds like they did very little.”
“You’re wrong. Stood by her and didn’t give up. It was Uncle Adam who convinced the sheriff to set Ma free three months later when he learned she was pregnant and I was soon to have a half-brother.”
“Seems to me you’re plenty loose talking about your Pa and Ma, but that doesn’t excuse you. Give me some credit. You may be clever, but not that clever. You chose to be a horse thief and you know it.”
“Suppose I did. Don’t give you no call to judge me. I want out of here as bad as you want rid of me. Trapped in your closet isn’t my choice. After what I’ve told you, anyone intelligent would know exactly why I am a thief.”
My voice turned syrupy sweet. “Well, do humor me if I’m too dumb to believe your lies.”
“Hell, they ain’t lies. If you go back to Augusta County records book, and Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, there’s plenty to prove my story.”
He smirked, jabbed his puffed up chest, and boasted, “You’re looking at the head of the notorious Perkins gang they write about. Known all over Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. The fool sheriffs thought we were four gangs, since like Pa, I used whatever name came to mind—John Bland, John Anderson and James Anderson. Actually, the gang was only me, Jesse Jackson, David Frame, John Botkin, and George Steele. We stole saddles, horses, and once in a while a slave or two. We scared the bejaysus out of everyone.”
I recognized if I let Ute start on his own story tonight, nothing would stop him. “Enough,” I interrupted. “No more. I’m shutting the door, and you’re staying in the closet. No argument.”
Exhausted, I intended to go to bed early, but decided to take a minute or two and check my computer to see what was available on the search engines. What I found took the next three hours to decipher.
John Bland (alias Uttie Perkins) committed to Philadelphia Gaol on suspicion of stealing two horses and a Negro boy named Peter, age about 10, from one Gistin, living at Poff Pon, South Carolina. I knew it hadn’t bothered him that he’d confessed he was actually Ute Perkins since he’d of been more proud of his escape from Nicholas Scull, the Sheriff of Philadelphia County.
As James Anderson, he was charged by William Robertson and indicted for an incident that started as a trespass but ended when he poisoned Robertson’s fowl and hogs with ratsbane. Had something nefarious to do with his wife (whom I didn’t yet know about) owing debts.
The records listed numerous times he’d been bound over to keep the peace. From Wikipedia, binding over meant he’d been involved in some kind of violence and the courts were threatening him with jail if he broke bond. The charges included incidents with Roy Russell, Jess Watterson, Thomas Miller, John Erwin, John Burnsides and a host of others. I quit listing them after one particularly nasty one for stealing property from Thomas Pleasants.
To my surprise in 1747, he married Elizabeth Skeleron, widow of William Skeleron of Augusta County, Virginia. Although wed by Reverend John Hindman, who held his services in a court house, they hadn’t bothered to get a license. Later in 1756 when caught stealing, she denied the marriage although calling herself “Elizabeth Perkins.” I thought, déjà vu—same illogical denial his Ma used to avert guilt.
At this point I was stymied as to what was next. Had to know more about Elizabeth Skeleron and brewed a cup of coffee as a companion to my digging, now stretching long into the night.
On a number of occasions, both of them were bound over for peace in one scrape or another. I immediately thought them an eighteenth century Bonnie and Clyde.
I swear I didn’t fall asleep at the keyboard, but the next thing I knew, Elizabeth married James Anderson the same year she married Ute. I tut-tutted. That must have been the scalding scandal of the day.
Putting two and two together, I guessed they needed a new name and were both thieves traveling incognito so sheriffs wouldn’t recognize their new name “Anderson” in order for them to dodge the “Perkins” warrants held against them. Hmmm. More confusion. Four different gangs and two different marriages. Three states. All of a sudden, I wasn’t absolutely sure who I had in my closet.
By two o’clock in the morning, and many more warrants and stolen horses later, my head ached. I felt I knew enough to boil Ute in his own kettle of fish. I fell asleep nagged with the odd feeling that nowhere did I find reference he’d been sentenced to the gallows and hung.
It didn’t seem morning yet, but Ute thumped and banged in the closet loud enough to wake the whole neighborhood. The dog across the street barked. It was if Ute spent the night thinking up more excuses. I could see why the saints buried in the cemetery in Augusta County might have complained and kicked him out.
Squinting my eyes to the clock, I wanted to thump and bang him. It was five o’clock and even Scooter was still asleep in his crate. Reluctantly, I got out of bed and opened the closet door to tell him to shut up and let me sleep in peace.
There he was squatted behind stored TV trays, my umbrella sprung open. My white stocking hat was on his head, and he’d tied a yellow silk scarf around his neck. A pile of coat hangers lay tangled on the floor.
“What’s this mess? Now I know why you were so noisy.”
“Don’t just stand there.” He struggled with the umbrella. “Help me get this damn thing closed. Thought I could trust you, but when were you planning to hang me with those?” He pointed to the hangers on the floor.
“Serves you right. Should have left my things alone. Pity you can’t stay away from trouble.”
“Not so, Cousin. My troubles were Uncle Adam’s fault. If he’d taken me with him when he rescued my brothers and sisters while Ma was in jail, I would have turned out different.”
I could see no one had changed the broken record on his phonograph since I’d shut him up last night. He was still blaming everyone else. “Don’t know how you figure you were your Uncle’s fault—you were thieving way before your Ma went to jail.”
“Yeh, but he didn’t help me when I went to him.”
“You went to him? When?”
“I had a traitor in my gang and didn’t know it. Supposedly, John Harrison got caught stealing chickens and let the sheriff talk him into a plot against me. John stole a horse and saddle from me and turned them into the Sheriff saying I stole them from Joseph Powell. The Sheriff took the horse and saddle as evidence and swore out a warrant for me. Terrible timing because me and the rest of the gang were running from John’s pa, who was after the reward offered for my capture because one of my gang was accused of killing two persons. Not chickens at all—it was all cooked up. I saw right away what John and his pa were up to. They didn’t care a lick that I hadn’t condoned any killing.”
“Sounds serious. What happened?”
“What do you expect happened? They caught us. Never did have good luck. John Harrison knew where we were hiding. Wasn’t my fault. We were set up.
“As it were, Patrick Finley was out scouting the horses on Peter Scholl’s place when the Sheriff apprehended us. When he got back and found us gone, he figured we were in jail and waited until nighttime to rescue us. While John Bodkin shot up the saloon in front of the jail, Patrick sprung me and George Steele out the back. We scattered so the Sheriff wouldn’t know which escape trails to follow.
“I rode as fast as I could to Uncle Adam’s place. Couldn’t go to Pa’s. He was living with his new lady friend and didn’t want me around.” His boisterous voice turned wimpy, his lower lip quivered, as if he were the last orphan on earth. His muddled words trickled out. “Had nowhere else to go.
“Uncle was none too happy I got him up in the middle of the night and wouldn’t let me inside his house. Said he don’t want someone like me near his children. Auntie Elizabeth got all huffed up and told him to tie me in the smoke house until morning when he could ride to the Sheriff’s to turn me in.
“He shouldn’t have done that. I was kin, as much as my brothers and sisters he’d taken in as family. I never believed I’d ever see justice until I heard shortly the Sheriff and a posse come upon Uncle Adam and accuse him of harboring a horse thief and murderer. They didn’t listen to him when he claimed he intended to turn me in when the sun come up. They found me in the smoke house, and I stayed mum. Wasn’t going to let Uncle Adam off the hook since he showed no intention of helping me.”
As quick as a rat scampering down his hole, Ute’s memory turned euphoric. “It was justice, all right. Pure, glorious justice. Almost ridiculously beautiful, seeing Uncle, a pristine Sherrill, under arrest. He was fined one thousand dollars and Grandpa had to post bond assuring Uncle Adam wouldn’t commit any offense against the peace for a year and a day.
“Course I didn’t stay in jail long . . ..”
“Time out,” I called. “Stop rattling your mouth. I haven’t had coffee yet and Scooter needs his walk or his pipes will burst.”
“Take your time. I need a nap.” He rubbed his eyes. “Got no sleep last night. I’m dead tired.”
When I returned with Scooter, I observed only a skeleton in the closet slumped over as I had first found him. Evidently, sleep reverted him back to a bare-bones skeleton. Although the bones in his chest rattled a faint snore, I wasn’t sure if his new condition was permanent or if he’d wake up and return to the specter I’d been talking to.
Thinking back over our conversations, I thought it funny he first thought of one thing, and then another, and then the third thing returning to the first. I wondered where his mind would be if he awoke. A spectacular escape? Caught again? Hanging? Did his life end on a tree branch or from a scaffold?
As if his battery had run down, the rattle in his chest stopped. I couldn’t avert my eyes from looking at the spent structure of bones before me. Lying there in the arms of nobody, he was so helpless. I caught myself questioning if we’d even talked, if his stories had been nonsense, a fabrication from years of living in some other body, some other time, and rejoicing when he found a patsy to believe the unbelievable.
Befuddled, I wondered whether Ute was a pool of my own imagination that I had fallen into. Perhaps I was fascinated with having a horse thief skeleton in my closet—an apparition no more cogent than the difference between being caught in a windy rain or a rainy wind.
I questioned last night’s lack of proof in the records that Ute died hanging. In telling his story earlier, he left little doubt the posse strung him up. Had he hung until dead or had he escaped? If he somehow got away, what eventually happened?
In my mind, his greatest sin was his hatred for the Sherrills, his Ma most of all. Perhaps as a child when he needed her the most, she’d let him down the hardest, or that the Sherrills were everything he wanted to be, but never was.
I stiffened my upper lip—now was no time to invent excuses for him. With my head logical again, I saw empty beer bottles on the kitchen table and the skillet where I’d fixed the hamburgers. A half-eaten hamburger lay to the side. The truth could be no clearer than that.
It was time to close the book on Ute Perkins. To me, if he never awoke, he would remain a skeleton in my closet, just plain rotten, never to be redeemed.
Was I wrong?
I read the Virginia archives again. I’d missed the last line of the last page. Ute Perkins died in 1814 in Augusta, Virginia, at the age of eighty-five.