It all started with a ring, I ‘spose. My neighbor, Old Mr. Finnegan, had a gold ring that he called a hair-loom and the way he loved that rusty thing you’d-a thunk it was made of the last piece of gold on earth. Well, anyhow, one day that ring turnt up missin’. That ain’t much of a surprise given he always takes the thing off to feed his cattle, you see, he sets it right there ‘a top of his white fence. Well, one day he finished feedin’ the cattle and when he went back to his fence, the ring weren’t there.
Old Finnegan bellyached so hard the whole town had to stop what it was doin’ and look for that ring. Wasn’t long before Mama and me were gettin’ a knock on our door. Sure ‘nough there was Sheriff Montgomery with Old Finnegan by his side.
“We’re searchin’ every home in the area, Ma’am,” Montgomery took his hat off before speaking to Mama. “That’s standard for cases like this one.”
“Come right on in. Y’all wont find a thing here.”
“Like heck,” Old Finnegan said, sudden-like. “That boy o’ yours is always thievin’. Why, just last week he done stole a full sack of my nectarines off my tree. You want to find my ring? Look through his coat.”
“What coat would that be, Mister F?” I asked.
“Don’t you go givin’ me that Mister F malarky. The plaid coat you were wearin’ this mornin’, where is it? Look through its pockets. I’d be willin’ to bet the hair on my head you’ll find my ring there.”
“Nonsense,” Mama said. “Why, you can just see for yourselves.”
She went over to the mudroom and fetched my best flannel coat, then she handed it over to the Sheriff. He stuck a big ‘ol hand in the left pocket and the hand came back up empty.
“See?” Mama said.
Then Montgomery went into the right pocket. He fiddled around in there a bit, then real sudden-like, he stopped cold and looked at me like I was Lucifer ‘imself. When the hand came back up, by gum, there was the crummy ring; shinnin’ and sparkiln’ like it was making fun of me. The whole thing was so strange, I thought somebody was pullin’ my leg. Maybe little Billy from down the street or my pal Tom. Any of ‘em could’ve been pullin' my leg. I Just started laughin’ right there in the sitting room. I just laughed and laughed.
The Sherriff didn’t think it was very funny, anyhow. He said what I had done was a grand larceny. I told him I aint had no notion of how the ring got in that coat, but it didn’t matter no how. The whole matter went to the courts of laws and sure as the skin on my nose they pronounced me guilty. I wasn’t sent to the grown-folks prison, on account of I was fifteen years of age and they call that a “juvenile”. That means you’re still just a youngin’. For that reason, they sent me to Saint Peter’s Reform School, down in Georgia. Mama done cried and cried and cried like I aint seen no one cry before.
I had an ugly time at Saint Peter’s from the jump. The other fellers in the school wouldn’t stop pickin’ on me. I’m tellin’ ya, only the Lord ‘imself knows why. They’d trip me when all I just tryin’ to walk someplace, they’d steal my food in the dinner hall so’s I didn’t eat a bite for three whole days. Three of ‘em even caught me in the middle of the night and beat me ‘till I was black and blue. Finally, I said 'nough was enough. The next time anybody tried to pick on me, I wouldn’t take it. So's when we was havin’ reading time in the library and I caught another feller lookin’ at me the wrong way, I gave a bookshelf a quick shove and it came ‘a tumblin’ down, right on top of ‘im.
Well, that was a mighty dim move. The headmaster said I fractured that feller’s skull in three places. That’s how I ended up in the solitary confinement. That’s where they put ya down-down-down in the basement all by your lonesome and you got no one to talk to and no one to see ‘cept the hand that slips some food underneath the door every now ‘n then. The sun came up and down and up and down. I seen it from a little window up above. After the sixth sun-up I lost count.
It's a right ugly place to be in. There aint nothin’ to pass the time ‘cept look at the critters crawl by. One day, a little snake slithered in through that crack under the door. He became my friend of sorts. I put ‘im in my pillowcase, so he couldn’t go nowhere. Then on a different day, I woke up after a long sleep and, like a gift from the almighty one, the little window was wide open. I still can’t figure how. I reckon someone on the outside opened it and just forgot to close it up again.
I must ‘a stood there starin’ up at the window for hours and hours, but every time I tried to climb up there my legs just wouldn’t budge. I got to thinkin’ ‘bout all the fellers I seen in Saint Peter’s every day. Sure, they aint angels or nothin’, but none of ‘em deserve to be locked up there. Why should I be free? What makes me the special one? Heck, I broke that poor feller’s skull in three places. And Old Finnegan was right, I did thieve his nectarines. I reckoned I belonged in there just for that alone.
So’s I shut the window closed, then I sat back down on the ground to wait for the hand to feed me again. I checked the pillow case to see how my snake was doin’, but it was empty. The little feller broke free, by gum.