Too Late

It was a slow afternoon at my pawn shop, and I was just about ready to pack it in for the day when the telephone rang.
“Do you buy old rifles?” an old woman voice whispered.
“What?” I think I understood what she said, but the question was so bizarre coming from such a sweet small voice that I doubted my senses.
After a long silence, she repeated, “Do you buy old rifles? I am very ill, and I don’t want to die with those guns still in the house. Can you come today?”
“What do you want for them?”
“You pay me whatever you want. I just want them out of the house.”
“I want to pay you a proper price, ma’am. How old are they?”
“I don’t know. Granddaddy used them in the Civil War.”
Dollar signs popped into my head. “How many did your grandfather have?”
“Oh, I don’t know. He had four or five himself, but as time went by and neighbors were hard up, he’d buy their guns so the attic is filled with them now.”
“Will you take a check?”
“I will take anything. I just want them out.”
Smiling to myself, figures kept multiplying in my brain. “If you can give me directions to your house I’ll be right out there, Mrs. …?”
“Hallie May Hope. Miss Hallie May Hope.”
After I wrote down the directions, I hopped into my pickup and headed south on the state highway and went east on Old Missionary Road and made a left on Hope Road. She said the house would be at the end of it. Hope Road started out as gravel but narrowed to a narrow grass-covered path as trees and brush crowded in. Soon I could hardly see the sky for the thick oak canopy dripping with Spanish moss. Thunder rumbled ahead of me and tiny droplets spotted the windshield. For a moment I feared I copied the directions down wrong, until I came to a low brick wall with a wrought iron gate in the middle. Beyond it I saw a two-story natural stone house with a wide verandah and old hunting dogs sleeping on the steps. As soon as I stepped through the creaking gate, the dogs raised their heads and let out a couple of yelps before returning to sleep.
Out of the front door came three men, probably in their late thirties and thick around the waist, swung up their rifles and aimed right at me. I stopped immediately and tried to smile.
“This is my land, mister,” the one in the middle announced in the thickest Southern drawl I had ever heard. “What do you want?”
“The old lady said she had some guns she wanted to sell.”
“That’s a lie,” he retorted. “My old lady died of the fever last year.”
“I’m sorry, I mean the elderly lady, maybe your aunt.”
“We ain’t got no aunt,” one of the other men said.
“You sound like a damn Yankee,” the third one snarled. “We don’t abide by no damned Yankees around here.”
“I’m from Texas.” I became frantic. I had never been called a called a Yankee before. “Lived here for the last twenty years.”
“You don’t sound like no Texan I ever heard,” the second man replied.
“Whose regiment was you in?” The man in the middle stepped forward.
I shook my head. “I was never in the Army.”
“What are you? Some kind of yellow bellied coward?” The third man cocked his rifle.
“Yes, sir, I believe I am.” I looked around to see if a faster way to exit other than through the old gate. All around me was thick underbrush. One tree to the right held a rickety treehouse, and I swore I saw a little face peeking from the door. The sky darkened quickly and a crack of lightning caused me to jump. “Sounds like I ought to get on home before I get wet.”
“You better git out of here and never come back.” The man in the middle lowered his rifle and looked at the fellows on either side of him and nodded curtly.
They did the same and followed him into the house. Right before I reached the gate I heard a little girl’s voice ring out.
“Mister! Mister! Wait! Don’t go through the gate just yet!”
She ran to me from the direction of the treehouse. Rain drops the size of jelly beans fell and exploded on my back. I stooped down when she stopped in front of me.
“Mister, I’m Hallie May Hope. I called you. I want you to take the guns.”
I shook my head. “Those men don’t agree.”
“That’s my daddy and two uncles. You’ve got to take the guns before it’s too late.”
“Too late for what?” I asked.
“Too late for me.”
I was about to assure her that she was just a little girl and she had all the time in the world, when her father stepped out on the verandah.
“Hallie May! You stop talking to that damned Yankee and come here!”
“Please, mister, you gotta take the guns.”
Tears streaked her cheeks but they were washed away by the heavy rain coming down. I ran through the gate and jumped in my truck. As I looked back at the house little Hallie May was nowhere to be seen. Two days later I was back in my pawn shop and reading the morning paper. On the front page was a picture of an elderly woman. The headline read, “Long-time resident dies at age 98.”
I doubted my senses as I read the story about Hallie May Hope who had been matriarch of the eccentric Hope family who rarely left their plantation estate except to buy provisions. She was survived by three great-nephews who still reside at the home. Private burial would be held in the family plot on the property. I waited a week before daring to visit the estate again. Perhaps now the family would be willing to sell. Rifles that old would bring a good price which I figured the nephews would need.
Hope Road looked the same as it had when I drove there last week, except when I reached the stone wall, ivy vines suffocated the bricks and the wrought-iron gate swung at an angle. Walking slowly to the front door, I noticed most of the front windows were boarded up and vines crept up the columns. Around the side of the house walked the nephews, big bearded men carrying the old Civil War rifles.
“This is my land, mister,” the man in the middle said. “What do you want?”
These weren’t the same men who accosted me last week. Their clothes were newer but their beards were streaked with gray. They had the same gritty determination in their eyes, though.
“I wanted to make you an offer on your guns.”
One of the nephews cocked his rifle. “Nobody’s going to take our guns.”
“I didn’t say anything about taking them. I’d pay you a good price for them.”
“You sound like a damned Yankee,” the third growled, taking aim at my head.
“It’s just that your aunt called me right before she died. She seemed to have her heart set on selling the guns.
“Aunt Hallie May was tetched in the head,” the man in the middle declared.
“Is that why she never married?” Why the hell I decided to turn brave all of a sudden was a surprise to me.
“Grandpa said she had suitors, but they were all damned Yankees who wanted to take our guns,” the one on the left explained in a voice that showed he didn’t like the question.
“All you damned Yankees want our guns, but you ain’t going to get them,” the third nephew said with a sneer.
“Sorry to have bothered you.” I began to back up. Looking to the side I saw the tree that at one time held Hallie May’s treehouse. All the lumber had rotten away and the insidious vines filled the void. “Yep, it’s too late.”

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