Vol. VIII, No. 3, 1995


The Omaha Sanhedrin and The Sphinx

by R.B. Mullinix



I followed Dad all day setting a string of traps for fox and mink. I don't guess he had said fifteen words all day, yet I had learned a book full. Somehow, in the woods we didn't need talk. He had pointed at the tracks of coon, fox, bobcat, coyote, mink-----even civet cat. He had even showed me the differences between spoors of boar and sow coon, dog and vixen fox and coyote, and bobcat and a house cat gone wild. I don't know how he did it. Maybe he breathed different. Maybe he narrowed his eyes or hunched his shoulders or set his feet down different. I don't know. I don't know how I got it, but I did.

In the middle of the afternoon a windrow of black clouds rolled out of the north and a spate of sleet rattled the white oak leaves still hanging on the trees. Dad nodded toward Winding Stair, not the shortest, but the quickest way to get back on top of the ridges and home. By the time we got to the house, a steady drizzle had set in and had begun to freeze on anything up off the ground. As soon as Dad got to the house, he started carrying full cans of cream to the pickup. When he said "Go with me," I knew he just wanted me with him. He always did, even if he never said so, but he never did anything just to please himself. He meant to get gone. He meant to get back before we got our nickers froze off. He meant to save time. He meant for me to go into Burlison's and get whatever Mom had ordered from the store while he went on to Cricket Depot to ship the cream and pick up empty cans.

I always liked going to Burlison's, not only because nearly every time I went there I got a candy bar and a bottle of pop, but because I thought the Omaha Sanhedrin that's what Dad called it--was more fun than a pet coon. The Sanhedrin was mostly Roy Leatherman, but it was also Ott Loard, even though he never said a word. They sat on the feed dock at Burlison's in the summers and around the stove inside in winter and disputed with each other and everyone else that came into the store that Roy could get to argue back. I'm not sure why I enjoyed listening to them, because a good deal of what they had to say was about as useful as wind blowing through a thunder mug. Maybe it was just talk itself I liked, even if it didn't get anything done.

Roy Leatherman said disputing was ancient and honorable. He said the children of Israel and the clans and the Indians all settled things by calling all the elders together to dispute their differences and the whole tribe came along and listened, and that's how they all learned to do it. He said that's how congresses and courts got started and that before lawyers had rooms full of law books to read the elders just remembered things in their heads. Recalling how much trouble I'd had when Miz Holman told me to remember all of "Miles Standish," I might have disputed what Roy said, except every time he said anything he backed it up just like preachers do with something like "Matthew twenty-six fifty-nine," or "Acts twenty-five twelve," or "First Samuel eighteen three."

I figured Roy must have been an elder, because before he quit farming, when he'd come down to Omaha from up in the edge of Missouri to buy feed, he always sat in Burlison's store two or three hours and disputed with anybody that come in, or on the feed dock in warm weather. After the joints on his hands got as big as hickernuts and he couldn't hold a plow handle any more, he must have become chief elder, because he was almost always them, arguing, or trying to horn in on or referee somebody else's argument.

[3]

When I went into Burlison's, of course Roy was there, stretched out in an old chair leaned back onto two legs in front of the oil-barrel stove. His feet almost in the ashpan and his head nearly on the counter, he blocked the narrow lane from the feed store in the back, through plow handles and milk buckets and stacks of corn meal and lard stands, to the loading dock out front. When Jesse came through with feed, Roy always folded his body up like a carpenter's rule and slammed the chair up on four legs to get out of the way, ever since Jesse Burlison had knocked him out of the aisle with a dolly full of mill run. Roy's hands were laced across his belly, and he looked asleep, all except his eyes, and they's sharp as a turkey's.

Ott Loard was there too, back in a corner behind the stove sitting on a stack of fifty-pound sacks of flour, leaning his chin on that four-foot cut of a two-inch hickory sapling he carried for a walking stick. For two days no one had come into the store that Roy could get into an argument, and he'd even tried to pick one with Ott. Roy'd might as well have tried to argue with a millstone.

Things changed in a hurry. The door and the cowbell nailed to it and the wall the door was nailed to all rattled and quivered at the same time like a truck had hit it. It was Rooster Birkby. Behind him was Marble Keltner.

As he banged the door shut behind him, Rooster was saying,

"Well, why do you think they called Rahab a harlot if she wasn't one? I mean, was Eve a harlot? Was Sarah-eye? Was Rachel? I mean, if they was one, don't you think they'd a called 'em one in the Bible?"

Roy Leatherman's head come up and he came out of his sprawl and sat up on the edge of his chair and his nostrils flared out and went whoof-whoof-whoof like a bluetick picking up a hot trail. He sensed a dispute.

Rooster and Marble were well known, from Lead Hill, Arkansas to Blue Eye, Missouri and beyond. They ran one of the six or eight gas-station, liquor-store, dance-hall roadhouses up on the Missouri side of the state line at Ridgedale. Well, I said they, but they didn't run it together. Rooster'd buy it and run it for six months during cold weather, maybe because it was too cold for Marble to get down on the ground and shoot marbles, but mostly because it was Marble's turn to get religion at one of the half dozen gospel churches clustered on both sides of the state line. Then Marble'd buy the saloon back and run it during warm weather while Rooster had religion. Around May Kohler's store and Curbow's store and post office at Ridgedale, people said they didn't have four seasons of the year, just Rooster and Marble.

[4]

Rooster and Marble had come down to Omaha to meet Buck Ware out in his Buick Roadmaster. Buck was the sheriff of Boone County, the best job in the county, cause the sheriff always bought a big car and a big farm. Every time a roadhouse up on the state line changed hands, and once every month afterwards, new saloonkeepers had to come to Omaha and meet with the sheriff. If they didn't, a little before closing time on Friday and Saturday nights, the sheriff and every deputy he had were lined up in formation on the Arkansas side of the line, waiting. When all those farmers and wood and cedar post cutters and cowboys that had gone up to the state line to get liquored up came back across the line, the sheriff and his deputies peeled out of formation like airplanes starting a bombing run in a newsreel. On special days like The Fourth of July, the Boone County sheriff even deputized cars from Marion and Carroll Counties to be there too, kind of like NATO I guess.

Rooster and Marble both got their names from their professions--Marble from professional sports. He shot marbles, sometimes for high stakes when two or three marble shooters from Oklahoma or Texas or somewhere came in for a big match. Out behind file roadhouse Rooster had built a big shed with bleachers around a little pen in the middle. That's where Marble had his matches, on the dirt floor raked smooth and hard. During his season, Rooster presided over chicken auctions there, and men from all over the country, some carrying little wire cages with big red roosters in them, went there the second and last Friday of every month from October to May. After Rooster had closed and bolted the door inside and the auction started, bidders got so excited raising the ante on each other that sometimes they shouted louder than the Full Evangelical Gospel Church of the Holy Spirit and Prophecy next door. Sometimes they even got in fights and Rooster had to sit on one or two, but he was always so good natured about everything that he never lost a customer.

[5]

After Rooster and Marble'd finished their meeting with Buck Ware, they come into Burlison's. Like always when it was Marble's religious season, he was testifying about turning from his backslidden ways and being reborn to Jesus and getting hot for the fight against evil. If it was his marble season, he suffered a hard place in his heart against his brethren and was quick to point out the ways of sinful and hypocritical men. Like always, they were arguing bible when they came in--as if anyone ever argued about anything else outside an election year.

"All I'm saying," Marble replied, "is that just because she is called a harlot don't mean that Rahab was a--uh--uh--loose woman." Marble's new state of grace had him at a disadvantage. Two weeks ago he'd've said whore, or prostitute, but now he wasn't sure he was allowed to use either of those words, or even to think about the business that the words referred to. Roy Leatherman never had a tether on him.

" Rooster, it sounds to me," Roy offered, as he picked up the 'scent, "like you're dragging dead fish across the trail. Eve and Sarai has got nothing to do with what kind of woman Rahab is. Why, you might as well ask if the Sahara Desert is a whore, or if a pine tree is, or if President Truman is."

Rooster and Marble both turned to look at Roy, as surprised as if Roy had sworn in church.

Rooster was surprised that Roy had butted into an argument. That was like jumping into a fair fist fight. But what Roy had said made Marble forget about the rules of disputing, 'cause Marble never missed a chance at arguing with a Democrat, and he didn't have many.

"Roy, if you're going to get into this, keep things straight. You know that Harry Truman was never nothing but a arrant old Pendergast strollop.

"Marble's state of grace that he'd just got back again might have hindered him some on fine points in his dispute with Rooster, but the finest points of Christian grace--and Marble's were nowhere near the finest--didn't apply to Democrats in Boone County. And Truman !...well, last November right after the election, Marble won a turkey shoot in the parking lot of The Church of the Reborned with pictures of Truman addressing congress for targets, and his mother won the ladies' shoot shooting at a picture of Margaret Truman singing opera.

The only man in all of Boone County that voted for Harry Truman, Roy wasn't about to overlook Marble's slap at his vote. "Well, he's a dang-sight better man than Dewey, and he don't flop down for big ...."

BLAM!

Ott had whacked the barrel stove with his big hickory stick so hard it almost knocked the stove pipe down. He never talked, but he sure made known he had an opinion, even if no one ever knew for sure what it was.

Roy and Marble glared at each other, their faces grimmer'n a dried apple. Soot Ott had knocked out of the stove pipe came settling down over them, but they never noticed.

"Boys, boys," Rooster said like thirty-weight oil. "Let's keep track of what we're arguin'." Then, looking straight at Roy, he added, "And who's arguin'." The tension kind of went out of Roy and Marble, and they relaxed back onto their seats. Rooster had had a lot of experience calming crowds down during his chicken auctions. Besides, he was bigger than a skinned mule and, Orville Benton said, had carried a fifty-caliber machine gun through France and Germany like it was a twenty-two. "All I was sayin' was that the Bible calls Rahab a harlot, straight out, but it don't call other women harlots, so it stands to reason she was one."

"Yeah," Marble countered, "but they don't say what they mean by harlot. They may have meant that she just didn't have a regular place to hang her hat, didn't belong to a regular family."

Roy turned to Ott and declared, "He's right. Harlot can mean the same thing as vagabond."

Roy had read a lot, mostly stuff of no account for anything except it gave him a lot of odd things to throw into an argument to confuse whoever he was disputing with, and he had to say that stuff about vagabonds or bust. So he had to say it to Ott.

Ott, his chin bedded down on his hands folded across the top of his stick, never paid him any attention.

But Rooster did. Even though he had objected to Roy butting into the argument, he answered Roy's comment before Marble could pick it up and use it. "But that's like saying a hereford ain't a cow if you call her a heifer, or a bitch ain't a gyp if you call her a dog. Harlot means the same thing regardless of whether you call her a vagabond or a gypsy or give her a bath in holy water."

Marble grabbed onto Roy's comment anyway. "No, it ain't," Marble said. "It's like saying if a cow ain't a cow, you ought to call'er a kittledrum or whatever she is even if she's got c-o-w branded on her side in two-foot letters."

Jesse Burlison came rolling his dolly past to get a stack of layer pellets for Hube Pinkley and as he passed said about the only thing in that argument made any real sense. "You reckon it'd made any difference to Caleb and Joshua if Rahab'd been called Eleanor Roosevelt or Gabby Hayes's horse as long as she threw that rope out o' that window?" he said. He could usually say anything he wanted to because he was even bigger than Rooster and it was his store. But this time, being shut out of the feature argument, Roy wasn't about to let anyone else horn in on it.

[6]

"You betcha it..." he said, loud enough to be heard across the highway at Jim Nichols's blacksmith shop, but Jesse was already out in the feed room.

"That's exactly what I'm saying about Rahab," Rooster crowed. "She weren't no kittledrum, but she was a harlot, and that's what the Bible calls her, the way it ort to."

"Nope. That just puts us back to where we started," Marble said. "Calling her harlot don't mean she slipped around and took money from men in the dark. Calling her a harlot don't mean no more than it would for me to call a no-heller like you a methodist. People in Jericho just called Rahab a ..."

They went on like that--back and forth, back and forth--till Jesse Burlison had bolted the big doors back in the feed room. Roy kept trying to throw his hat into the ring, but nobody paid him any more attention. Ott had gone to sleep with his chin still rested on his hands on top of his stick. I don't know if Rooster just gave up or if they ran out of time. They kept it up till Roy Leatherman just sat, like he didn't care if they were arguing or not. It was near dark.

When Jesse turned off the light in the feed room, Marble was saying, "It ain't what she's called, but what she..." He stopped in the middle of the sentence and pulled his pocket watch out of his overalls bib and looked at it. Then he kind of grinned at Rooster and said,"Well, I've got to get home and milk in time to get to church tonight or the old woman will be fit to be tied." I couldn't tell if she'd be fit to be tied if he didn't get the milking done or if he didn't get to church. After listening to him argue for a half hour, I thought she ought to be tickled near to death if he didn't get home.

Rooster said, "Yeah, and I've got to get beer iced down and get ready to open."

They went out the door together, just as Dad came in. He nodded his howdies to Ott and Jesse and Roy. Roy just blinked, like there was no use at all trying to talk to a man that, somebody said, just nodded when the preacher asked, "Do you take this woman... ?" Once when Dad went into the store, past the Sanhedrin on the feed dock, Roy Leatherman said, "That man's a sphinx," and Luther Beal asked "What's a spinks?" About all I understood of Roy's answer was that it was a big rock carved into a lion that never says anything, and it wouldn't make any difference if it did, cause it's out in the middle of the desert somewhere where no one could hear it anyway.

We left in a hurry.

Dad peered a little anxiously out at the road through windshield wipers that didn't quite keep the glass clear of ice. He hated driving on ice. He hadn't spoken a word since he got back from Cricket. I didn't expect him to, cause when he drove, he talked even less that usual, although once in a while he would grin to himself. After a couple of miles, he realized I wasn't talking either, which must have surprised him, cause one of his nicknames for me was Gibber. He didn't take his eyes off the road, but he reached over and slapped me on the leg. "Learn anything?" he asked.

"Why does the Bible call Rahab a harlot?" I didn't really want to hear anything more about Rahab, ever. I just wanted to hear him talk. When he did talk, I wasn't ever likely to forget what he said.

He peered sharper than ever at the windshield. "Just to show you the sorriest looking things can be the best," he said, and reached up to rub a hole in the fog on the glass. In a minute, he kind of grinned and said, "Or the prettiest sounding things the worst. Like syphilus."

I sat watching the drizzling rain running down the windows and, out on the weeds and fence wire and trees, turning to solid ice. I could just see shapes of houses we passed, with windows outlined in yellow light. Once in a while we passed the head of a hollow, and I could see down where draws and swags fed into the creek hollow until, in the drizzle and fog and falling darkness, everything disappeared into nothing. Occasionally, a little light glowed through. Down the highway, just past where we turned off onto dirt, I could see Jesus's Lighthouse, that had a big sign on the roof of Jesus holding his arm straight up, with a big torch in his hand. The whole church and sign was lit up by spotlights, and even at night you could see how the sign painter had made Jesus's eye look like it was staring straight at every car that came down the road, and you could see where somebody had shot a hole through the sign with a deer rifle, right above the corner of Jesus's mouth, so it looked like he was grinning.

[7]


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