The Colonel

March 25, 2010

The first moments of true darkness fell over Henryville, a little town in southern Indiana, right on the Kentucky border.  The day was long and the weary sun had already eased into the horizon.  As the final dim rays of yellow transformed into crisp blue moonlight, a screen door gently thudded against its frame.  It was intentionally quiet, normally the spring-loaded latch would thunder shut, announcing the comings and goings of every visitor.

Supper was over.  The smell of cooked cornbread still cascaded down the outside of the small brick chimney.  The owner of the footsteps moved from the back porch onto the dirt patch of a backyard, then paused and sniffed the air.  Harland Sanders loved the smell of suppertime in his house, although he wasn’t particularly impressed with his cooking efforts on tonight’s meal.  An old bull had finally keeled over two days ago so it had been beefsteak noon and night.  This bull was an old, tough, rusty guts if there ever was one.  The meat seemed like it had been carved off of the horn and Harland’s jaw still hurt from the amount of chewing and from the knock that his stepfather gave him afterwards for preparing such a lousy meal.

Steak wasn’t his specialty and it showed tonight by the welt on his face.  Typically the family’s dinners were centered around chicken, due to the somewhat large supply.  Harland’s stepfather was an unsuccessful chicken farmer.  Since the farm didn’t bring in enough money to support a family, his mother had to work in town at the tailor’s shop.  She worked long hours there and her hands ached terribly at night, so Harland had to prepare the meals when everyone came in for supper.  He wasn’t much of a cook but he could work wonders with chicken. He could chop it up and throw it in a Pot Pie, barbecue it, or fry it up and serve it with some mashed potatoes and a little half ear of corn.

His mother and stepfather always fell asleep shortly after dinner.  There wasn’t much else to do in the dark back in 1901.  Edison had invented the incandescent bulb a while back, but no one in Henryville had any access to electricity, nor did they want it.  Harland’s house had some kerosene lamps but his stepfather was too cheap to use them.  “When am I supposed to read?” Harland asked his malevolent landlord.

“Dat kerosene cos’ a dime per gallon you lil’ snot-nosed Hobbadehoy,” yelled his mother’s husband with breath dripping of corn whisky.  “You think dose chickens out der just so you can spend up all m’money?  Each one of dose birds is mo’ precious to me than you’ll ever be.  Now git’ before I give ya a bunch of five in yer bone box!”

The stepfather used to count every one of his chickens before he’d turn in for the day, just to make sure that every cent of his investment was accounted for.  110 hens and 34 roosters was the number today.  They all had been herded into the large coup for the night.

Harland’s real father, David, had been an heir to a vast tobacco plantation before he died of consumption. Harland vaguely remembered some distant memories of his father taking him to sit on the front porch of his grandfather’s house a little further south down past the Kentucky border.  His grandfather was some sort of important official in the Civil War, a sergeant or colonel perhaps.  Harland didn’t remember the details, but the vision of the sweeping fields of leafy crops rustling in the wind as his grandfather and friends, some of the most powerful men in the Bluegrass state, sat about in their white waistcoats and trousers, sipping mint juleps, was still crisp in his mind.  The kerosene lamps were always lit at his grandfather’s house.  He remembered that soft light painfully now, in the darkening Indiana night.  He wished desperately he could be more like his grandfather, an elegant military man all dressed in white.

Harland stalked over to his stepfather’s chicken coup.  He took one last look around and ducked inside.  He hated the chickens.  They were disgusting things.  A chicken was good only when it was dead and frying in a pan.  Each dead chicken meant one less that his stepfather could sell.  One more failure.  Harland understood that prosperity for the chicken farm would mean prosperity for his family, but his stepfather was not the kind of person who would share that wealth.  Therefore, Harland took an immense pleasure every time misfortune hit the semi-literate farmer.

The chickens had quieted down for the night.  A few soft clucks lifted from small wooden hutches.  Harland gathered bunches of dry hay and placed them in the center of the coup.  He took out a match and looked at it for a moment.  He imagined himself in the Civil War, a colonel of some artillery brigade, with cannon’s aimed at the evil forces of his stepfather.  “Fire when ready gentlemen!”  He lit the match.

He ducked back out of the coup, locked the door behind him, and made his way to the back porch.  The chickens muffled panic-squawking was barely audible.  But light now emanated from the smoldering structure, casting shadows that pirouetted onto the brick of the chimney.

Harland “Colonel” Sanders stopped and lifted his nose to sniff the smoky air again, this time pungent with burnt chicken flesh.  If it meant reclaiming some of the glory of his family’s once proud name, and disgracing that of his stepfather, he would kill every chicken in world.

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