By Jeffrey Bishop
Tell Time: 10 minutes 30 seconds
Scare Rating: 1/5 Ghosts
Old Bart wouldn’t quit trying to break the rain. So it was that he found himself being released from the county jail for the 10th day in a row. As he shuffled toward the door and another day of freedom, he peered through the dust-coated windows of the county office to examine the dawning morn; it was going to be just as hot and dry as the previous 86 days had been.
Bart gathered his personal effects from Deputy Dan — a straw hat and his rainmaker: a hollowed-out walking stick filled with dried peas that sounded like a gently falling rain when it rattled.
“You know that if you don’t stop disturbing the peace, I can’t stop putting you up in the cooler overnight,” said Sheriff Nutting, who met Bart at the door.
“And you know that if I don’t shake the rainmaker, we’ll never get out of this drought we’re in!” said Bart.
“Well, I sure hope it rains tomorrow, not least of all so that I won’t see you in here anymore.”
“No one more’n I, Sheriff,” was Bart’s earnest reply. “No one more’n I.”
Bart wasn’t looking for trouble, he was looking for rain. He had been ever since day 30 of the drought, when the corn had stopped growing on the stalks and when rivers became creeks and creeks became dry beds.
He’d grabbed his daddy’s straw hat and the pebble stick, tools of the trade that he’d never had to use himself before, but that he’d seen his daddy use during the dust bowl droughts of the 1930s. Bart set to work, singing and dancing and chanting in the town square, trying to bring the rain as many generations before him had.
It was something the townsfolk had appreciated at first — it was quaint and humorous, and while no one thought it would really make a difference, they liked seeing that someone was at least trying to do something about the drought. Bart was retired from insurance sales, and was a well-liked and well-respected member of the community; at least he had been at the beginning of the summer.
By mid-summer, the farmers had given up on their crops, just as the rains had, and therefore had plenty of time to sit on the tailgates of their parked trucks in the shade of the tree-lined square and sip watered-down sweet tea while telling stories to one another and watching Bart. At first they just laughed at him, and a few even joined in the revelry, as did most of the kids from the town. But as the drought wore on, the rhythm of Old Bart’s chants seemed to compound the effect of the heat and the dryness. Soon, it seemed conceivable that Bart could be the cause of the drought, not the cure.
On the hottest day of the year, everyone’s nerves broke down. The electronic sign on the bank showed that it was 110 degrees at 3:48 in the afternoon. Most of the town was in a daze, staring out their windows at the heat blur flowing off the streets around the square while their fans and air conditioners hummed violently to stave off the oppressive hotness that was everywhere. As for Bart, he was in a trance, softly babbling his chant as he softly pranced around in a circle. He held his Rainmaker silent. By this time, everyone knew Bart’s rhythms; this was the calm before the would-be, should-be storm. Soon, he would break out of his introspective dance and erupt into loud calls and yells to heaven, pleading for the downpour to come.
As Bart’s wails opened up to the sky, what came instead was a left-cross to the jaw.
“Shut it, ya crazy old coot!” said Mackie, whose barrel-chested silhouette towered over the frail, fallen gentleman. “You ain’t helpin’ a thing, and you might even be making it worse!” Having sufficiently vented — in action and words — the large farmer walked across the street to turn himself over to the Sheriff. Any antipathy the crowd might have felt for Mackie was lost by the gesture of surrender, along with some degree of agreement with his complaint. And any sympathy they might have felt for Bart was lost when he calmly stood up, and despite the blood on his split lip, collected his rainmaker and resumed chanting.
“He really is crazy!” said Betty Johnson — not about Mackie, but about Bart. “He’s got to be making God mad, taunting him with his singing and dancing like that!”
There were murmurs of agreement around her, and as news of the encounter spread fast through the town, this general opinion went with them, such that when the news reached the mayor, he ordered Bart arrested for disturbing the peace — an order that had been enforced every day for the 10 days since.
So it was on day 11 that Bart returned to the square and returned to his task. Hat on and rainmaker in hand, he had just started into his first dervish when he found himself face-to-face with Mayor Jenkens.
“Bart, it’s time to knock this silliness off!” ordered the mayor sharply. When there was no response, he added, in his typical elder-statesman voice, “You’ve given it your best, and the town’s really grateful to you for that. But it ain’t gonna work!”
Bart didn’t stop dancing, but somehow managed to continue to conversation, incorporating his response into his chant.
“It’ll work,” said Bart. “It worked for my daddy in 1939, and it’ll work for us today. You’ll see — I can feel it in my bones!”
By this time, an audience had gathered around the scene, and Bart, full of good humours, added with a smirk, “You keep doing what you’re doing to help bring the rain, mayor, and I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.”
Many snickered at the remark; although Old Bart had gone way past annoying, they were briefly reminded that there were worse things than public nuisances, and first among them was do-nothing, pompous politicians. Mayor Jenkens’ color rose in response to the crowd’s tittering.
“I’ve done plenty!” blustered the mayor. “why, I, I … ” he stammered, then stopped. He frankly hadn’t done anything, and this stark realization made him all the more hot under his hat.
“But what I haven’t done is foolishly raise the hopes of our dear citizenry with hype and malarkey!” bolted the mayor.
“Nor have I,” Bart replied confidently. “Because the rains are coming!”
Old Bart’s cool front had met the full hot-headed steam of the town leader. As the argument built up, none noticed that the skies had darkened overhead … until a few fat, cold sprinkles struck people and pavement alike.
Encouraged, Old Bart immediately returned to work; he turned his back on the mayor and fervently resumed dancing and chanting. The townspeople, giddy with the possibility of real rain, laughed joyously. The mayor didn’t seem to notice the rain, but only heard the laughter, which sounded mocking to him — as mocking as the old coot’s continued dancing.
“Sheriff Nutting!” the mayor thundered. “Take him off to jail! Put him in the cooler! He’s disturbing the peace again!”
“But mayor,” protested the sheriff, who was wiping wet raindrops — and perhaps also a tear — from his dusty cheek.
“Haul him off!” bellowed the mayor. “It may rain, and it may not, but it won’t be because Old Bart told it to! Over my dead body!”
“Or over mine,” replied Old Bart. He’d stopped dancing to allow Sheriff Nutting to place the stainless steel shackles onto his wrists again. “You don’t want me to make it rain, mayor? Then I won’t. Leastwise not in this lifetime!”
Bart held his head defiantly high as Sheriff Nutting reluctantly led him back to his familiar cell. Overhead, the heavy, dark clouds spread, dissipated and blew away. The bright sun that returned quickly erased any signs of rain that had momentarily blessed the scorched earth of the meager town.
Bart spent the night in jail again, and in the morning, instead of heading north to the town square, he turned south — the direction of his home. To the puzzlement of Sheriff Nutting, he left behind his hat and his rainmaker. “You keep ’em, Sheriff.” he’d said.
Bart lived out the remainder of his days — which were few — in quiet obscurity. He passed away in October, and almost the entire town — everyone except the mayor — turned out for his funeral. As the coffin was gingerly lowered into the ground, Sheriff Nutting gently placed Bart’s rainmaker into the box beside the man, and laid the straw hat on his chest.
The weather in the region remained dry all winter, and the farmers were as distressed as their fields at the notion of any crops at all for yet another year. Mackie was trying to decide if he’d buy seed or not. As he paced his field, it was clear that things were dire, and seed money would be good money after bad. Frustrated, he kicked a giant clod of dirt, which exploded into a puff of dust under the big man’s toe.
As he drove into town, Mackie approached the cemetery where Bart had been laid to rest. It was close enough to Memorial Day that Mackie thought to stop and pay his respects to the man who had wanted so badly to bring the town much-needed rain. He parked his truck on the dirt road that wound through the small cemetery and climbed the low hill to where Bart rested.
The site looked as though he’d just been buried the day before; no grass had grown at the grave, and the dirt over it was still mounded, as no rains had settled the soil. As he neared the plot, Mackie thought he could hear a faint rattling sound.
“It couldn’t be … ” Mackie stopped in his tracks to listen for the sound. “He was crazy, but I ain’t!”
Rattle, rattle, rattle, came the sound. The unmistakable sound.
The big farmer took one step closer, stopped, then quickly walked away, back toward his truck. He’d heard all that he wanted to hear.
By noon under an already-blistering sun, a small contingent of townsfolk, led by farmer Mackie and Sheriff Nutting, had appeared at the gravesite. The shuffling, rattling sound continued, and could be plainly heard, even over the din of the crowd.
“Get some shovels,” called the sheriff. “We need to dig him up!”
Three men set to work, while a growing crowd looked on and provided some shade; however, the men couldn’t escape the stifling stillness of the air in the deepening hole they made. Thankfully, the dry dirt made the work somewhat easy. As they removed dirt from atop the coffin, the rattling sound grew louder, and within an hour, a shovel struck the lid of the coffin.
The mayor had arrived just as six burly men dragged the coffin out of the ground with heavy ropes. By now, the rattling was loud and persistent, and the crowd’s excitement was to a fevered pitch.
“What in tarnation are you doing?” exclaimed the mayor, pushing through the crowd. “Desecrating the grave is a serious crime!”
Mackie ignored the mayor; apparently so, too, did whatever was inside the coffin, as the rattling continued building in speed and intensity. Mackie placed the edge of his flat-bladed shovel between the lid and the body of the coffin and pressed down hard to split the seal on the box. As the seal broke, a crack of lightning spread across the sky, followed by a deep, rolling thunder. Sheriff Nutting lifted the lid of the box and felt a strong, cool breeze blow through his hair, cooling the sweat that had gathered on his brow.
As the coffin lid opened, the town finally saw what was making the noise. Inside the box lay the dry bones of Old Bart. On his head, the skeleton wore its daddy’s straw hat, and in its clutch was the rainmaker, which rattled rhythmically, to the rhythm of the rattling of the old man’s bones.
The mayor fainted and the crowd cheered as a heavy, cool rain began to fall — and fell for three days straight, bringing an end to the region’s infamous drought.