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Justice of the Peace Benaja Widdup sat in the doorway of his office smoking his pipe. The Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee rose blue-gray in the afternoon sky. A bird, a speckled hen, walked down the main street, making foolish sounds.
Up the road came the sound of creaking wheels and then, a slow cloud of dust. Then a cart pulled by a bull with Ransie Bilbro and his wife inside. The cart stopped at the Justice's door, and the two climbed out. The Justice of the Peace put his feet back in his shoes, and moved to let them enter.
"We-all," said the woman, in a voice like the wind blowing through pine trees, "wants a divorce." She looked at her husband Ransie to see if he agreed.
"A divorce," repeated Ransie with a mournful shake of his head. "We-all can't get along together no-how. It's lonesome enough to live in the mountains when a man and a woman care for each other. But when she's a-spittin' like a wildcat, a man's got no call to live with her."
The Justice of the Peace opened his book of laws and wiped his eyeglasses.
"The law" he said, "is silent on the subject of divorce as far as this Court is concerned. But if a Justice of the Peace can marry two people, it's clear that he can separate them. This here office will give a decree of divorce and stand on it, unless the Supreme Court says otherwise."
Ransie Bilbro took a small bag from a pocket in his pants. Out of this he shook upon the table a five dollar bill.
"Sold a bearskin and two foxes for that," he said. "It's all the money we've got."
"The regular price of a divorce in this Court," said the Justice, "is five dollars." He put the bill into the pocket of his coat as if money meant little to him. Then, with much effort, he slowly wrote the divorce decree on half a sheet of paper and copied it on the other. Then he read it aloud:
"Know all men that Ransie Bilbro and his wife, Ariela Bilbro, this day personally appeared before me and promised that hereinafter they will neither love, honor, nor obey each other, neither for better nor worse, they being of sound mind and body.
And, they accept this decree of divorce, according to the peace and dignity of the State. Herein fail not, so help you God. Signed, Benaja Widdup, Justice of the Peace in and for the county of Piedmont, State of Tennessee."
The Justice was about to give a copy of the document to Ransie.
"Judge," said Ariela, "don't you give him that there paper yet. It's not all settled, no-how. I got to have my rights first. I got to have my alimony. It's no kind of a way for a man to divorce his wife without her havin' any money. I'm aimin' to go to my brother Ed's up on Hogback Mountain. I'm aimin' to have a pair of shoes and some other things. If Ranse has money enough to get a divorce, let him pay me alimony."
The woman's feet were bare, and the trail to Hogback Mountain was rough.
"Ariela Bilbro," the Justice asked, "how much did you expect to be enough alimony in the case before the Court?"
"I'm expectin'," she answered, "for the shoes and all – say five dollars. That ain't much, but I reckon that'll get me up to brother Ed's."
"The amount," said the Justice, "is not unreasonable. Ransie Bilbro, you are ordered by the Court to pay the amount of five dollars before the decree of divorce is issued."
"I got no more money," breathed Ransie, heavily. "I done paid you all I had."
"Otherwise," said the Justice, looking severely over his glasses, "you are in contempt of Court."
"I reckon if you give me until tomorrow," Ransie pleaded, "I might be able to scrape it up somewhere. I never looked to be payin' no alimony."
"Till tomorrow then," said the Justice, starting to loosen his shoes.
"We might as well go down to Uncle Ziah's place and spend the night," decided Ransie. He climbed into the cart on one side and Ariela climbed in on the other side. The bull slowly pulled them down the road.
After they left, Justice of the Peace Benaja Widdup smoked his pipe and read his weekly newspaper until the moon rose. Then it was time to walk home and eat. He lived in the double log cabin on the side of the mountain. Going home, he crossed a little path darkened by a group of trees.
Suddenly, a man stepped out and pointed a gun at him. The man's hat was pulled down low, and something covered most of his face.
"I want your money," said the man, "without any talk. My finger is a-shaking on this here trigger."
"I've only got f-five dollars," said the Justice.
"Roll it up," the man ordered, "and stick it in the end of this here gun barrel. And then you can be goin' along." The Justice did as he was told.
The next day the cart stopped once more at the door of the Justice of the Peace. Inside, Ransie Bilbro gave his wife a five dollar bill. The Justice looked at it sharply. The bill seemed to curl up as if it had been rolled and stuck into the end of a gun barrel. But the Justice said nothing. He gave each person a decree of divorce. Each stood uneasily silent.
"I reckon you'll be goin' back up to the cabin, along with the cart," said Ariela. "There's bread in the tin box sitting on the shelf. I put the bacon in the pot to keep the hound dogs from gettin' it. Don't forget to wind the clock tonight."
"You are goin' to your brother Ed's?" asked Ransie.
"I was expectin' to get up there before night. I'm not sayin' they'll trouble themselves much to make me welcome, but I got nowhere else to go. It's a long way and I better be goin'. I'll be saying good-bye, Ranse – that is, if you want to."
"I don't know anybody could be such a hound dog not to want to say good-bye," said Ransie. "Unless you're in such a hurry to get away that you don't want me to say it."
Ariela was silent. She carefully folded the five dollar bill and her divorce decree, and placed them inside the front of her dress.
Justice Benaja Widdup watched the money disappear with mournful eyes. His next words showed great sympathy – or something else that was on his mind.
"Be kind of lonesome in the old cabin tonight, Ranse," he said.
"It might be lonesome," Ransie answered. "But when folks get mad and want a divorce, you can't make folks stay."
"There's others wanted a divorce," said Ariela. "Besides, nobody don't want nobody to stay."
"Nobody never said they didn't."
"Nobody never said they did. I reckon I better start going now to brother Ed's."
"Nobody can't wind that old clock."
"Want me to go back along with you in the cart and wind it for you, Ranse?"
Ransie showed no emotion. But he reached out his big hand and took Ariela's thin one.
"I reckon I been mean and low down," said Ransie. "You wind that clock, Ariela."
"My heart's in that cabin with you, Ranse," Ariela said quietly. "I ain't a-gonna get mad no more. Let's be startin', Ranse, so we can git home by sundown."
Justice Widdup stopped them.
"In the name of the State of Tennessee, I order you not to defy its laws. This Court is more than willing to see two loving hearts reunite, but it is the duty of the Court to protect the morals of the State. The Court reminds you that you are no longer man and wife, but are divorced by regular decree. As such you are not permitted to enjoy the benefits of marriage."
Ariela caught Ransie's arm. Did those words mean that she must lose him now when they had just learned the lesson of life?
"However," the Justice said slowly, "this Court is prepared to remove the divorce decree. It stands ready to perform the ceremony of marriage. The cost for performing said ceremony will be in this case five dollars."
Ariela smiled. Her hand went quickly to her dress and pulled out the five dollar bill. She stood hand in hand with Ransie and listened to the reuniting words. Soon after, she and Ransie left for the mountains.
Justice of the Peace Benaja Widdup returned to his doorway, took off his shoes and happily smoked his pipe. Once again he lovingly fingered the five dollar bill stuffed into his coat pocket. Once again the hen walked down the main street, cackling foolishly.
"The Whirligig of Life" was written by O.Henry. It was adapted by Shelley Gollust and produced by Lawan Davis. Your storyteller was Barbara Klein. You can read and listen to other AMERICAN STORIES on our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com.
Note: Whirligig is a word that dates from the fifteenth century. It means a child's toy having a whirling or spinning motion; something that continuously whirls, moves or changes, or a whirling or circling course of events.