Uncle Charlie Tales

................stories about upland game birds, bird dogs, and shotguns but mostly about the man who loves all three

Paying Back The IOU

Earl and Ethel Tatum owned the local hardware and dry goods store down home. It had been in Earl's family for over ninety years and he had inherited it after his father's death.

Earl had literally been raised behind the counter and in the aisles of that dark cluttered store. Uncle Charlie said that machine oil ran in Earl's veins instead of blood. In fact if ever a man loved his work, Earl Tatum was that man. Hardware was his life and that store in particular was his passion.

Now Ethel was a different story. Growing up she had been the dark-haired, green-eyed cause of many a schoolyard fight. According to the local gossip, Uncle Charlie and Earl had been the main combatants in more than a dozen of those midday school brawls. Ethel had married Earl during the war. Everybody said that Earl was the only man who didn't sign up from the whole county. Of course that was a lie, but it made a good story about how Ethel married him because he was the only eligible bachelor around.

Over the years the Tatums remained childless, Earl becoming more involved in hardware and Ethel more involved in keeping Earl straight.

Their biggest battle came over painting the store. Earl wanted to keep it just like it had always been, dark and dusty, and cramped and cluttered.

But Ethel had put her foot down.

And so the paint went on and the clutter and the darkness began to disappear. After a spell, you could almost say that Earl Tatum's hardware and dry goods store had moved into the twentieth century.

You'd think that most women Ethel's age would grow bitter over not having any little Tatums to carry on the family name and the family business, but not Ethel. The older she and Earl got to be, the more lighthearted and joyful Ethel became. If you really want to know the truth, her personality was Earl's greatest asset.

Earl was a friendly sort of person in his own way but he had a stubborn streak that no logic, begging or pleading could overcome when it came to two subjects.

Those two subjects were Uncle Charlie and credit sales.

Earl never could convince himself that Ethel would have married him if Uncle Charlie hadn't been in France. And so he remained jealous and suspicious of Uncle Charlie.

The other focus of his stubbornness was over selling on credit. Earl had one opinion when it came to credit. “Tatum's Hardware has survived for ninety years without it and we'll close our doors before we'll ever sell on credit”, he boasted.

No exceptions. None.

And of course, Ethel didn't agree. So she slyly on the side and out of sight of Earl, kept an IOU file in an old cigar box in the women's unmentionables section, a place where Earl would never dare look.

It had to happen. It was bound to happen. And it finally did. The feed store down the street quit selling guns and ammo. No big calamity but just another tradition disappearing as the old town crept into the 1960's. Earl got the big idea that he'd buy out the stock from the feed store and start carrying guns and ammo himself. So he cleared a corner of the store and transferred the gun racks from the feed store to Tatum’s Hardware & Dry Goods Store. He’d been selling fishing tackle for years so it was a logical move and could prove to be profitable if he played his cards right.

What Earl failed to factor into his new equation for success was Uncle Charlie.

Uncle Charlie during the past thirty-five years had almost driven Joe Weaver crazy over at the feed store with his incessant demands that Joe supply him with all the latest information on any new gun or new ammunition being manufactured in America. Now it was true that Uncle Charlie spent a lot of money on sporting goods but as Joe intentionally overlooked to tell Earl, “He ain't hardly worth the trouble.”

And so Uncle Charlie now began to pick on poor Earl.

“Earl, where's that latest Browning Catalog?”
“Earl, Where's your Remington Catalog?”
“Earl, When in tarnation are you gonna get some #9's in so I can stock up for the season?”

“Earl, you're gonna go broke if you don't stock some quality shotguns.”

Well, Earl was just about sick of Uncle Charlie after a month of being in the guns and ammo business. So he devised a plan.

Only the cheap shotguns, the single shots, the pumps and the automatics and the .22 rifles would be out on display. He'd keep the quality guns, the side by sides and the over and unders in a special hideaway in the store.

Here was his plan. After hours, he would make a special merchandise table with a removable top. Under the top would be a felt lined compartment where about 15 shotguns could lie alongside each other. Earl would put the good guns he had in stock under the table top and then stack men’s bib overalls on top of the table. Then whenever a good customer hinted he was interested in something of significant quality, Earl would escort him back to the dry goods department, get the customer to grab one side of the table and then move the top to one side just enough to slip out the guns.

Well, the plan worked. Earl told Uncle Charlie that it was just too risky to carry fine doubles in stock and that if he wanted to see one he'd just have to buy it special order, cash in advance. Meanwhile Earl began to comb the countryside and bought up quite a supply of older Parkers, L.C. Smiths, A.H. Fox and Ithaca shotguns. In fact he had to modify three tables before he finally decided to slow down. And of course Uncle Charlie was completely kept in the dark about all of this.

Ethel of course, saw through all this subterfuge. She realized that in their old age Uncle Charlie and Earl were still fighting over her. This bothered her because she really did love Earl and she liked Uncle Charlie. He had been a special friend for years. And anyway she was peeved at Earl because this new scheme of his had messed up her IOU hiding place. Now she had to carry the IOU's on her person and for that special task she had sewn a pocket on the inside of her apron which she wore every day behind the counter.

Well, it finally happened. Uncle Charlie got wind of what Earl was up to. Graham Tatum who lived over in Cordele made the mistake of mentioning in Uncle Charlie’s presence how his cousin Earl was buying up all the good shotguns in South Georgia. So Uncle Charlie started doing some super sleuthing. He literally hid out in the drugstore behind a newspaper for a week. Watching and waiting, every time he saw an out of town car pull up in front of the hardware store he’d write down the tag number. If the driver came out of the store with a long package he’d put a check beside the number.

Then it was just a simple thing to call Ruby over at the courthouse and have her discreetly run a check to see who the car belonged to. Uncle Charlie didn’t have to call but two of those drivers to put two and two together. Yes, it was true. Earl Tatum had bought some of the best quail guns this neck of the woods had ever seen.

He had even bought Dr. Parker's little 20 gauge Winchester, a gun Uncle Charlie had his eyes on for years. After some more investigation he discovered much to his chagrin that Dr. Parker's nephew had sold it to Earl for $500.00. When he found out that piece of information, Uncle Charlie swore he'd get even with Earl.

He bided his time. Like a stalking panther he crept up on poor old Earl, one step at a time. Keeping up the complaining that Earl ought to be shot for carrying such trash in his guns and ammo corner, he was slipping up on old Earl and crouching for the big pounce.

Finally attack day arrived. While Earl was in Atlanta attending the Greater Southeastern Hardware Show, Uncle Charlie made his move. By this time he had the whole picture. He'd even talked to the carpenter who had modified the tables for Earl.

Ethel was alone that morning when Uncle Charlie walked into the store.

"Good Morning, Ethel,” Uncle Charlie said with a school boy grin as he leaned on the counter, “I've come to buy Dr. Parker's shotgun. I know Earl bought it from the Doc's nephew last month and I know it's in this store with about thirty-five other guns that I'd like to look at this morning."

"Charlie, you and Earl ought to be ashamed of yourselves the way you carry on with each other. Well, I've never approved of this harebrained scheme anyway. Come on and I'll show you where they are".

For the next two hours. Uncle Charlie “oohed” and “aahed” his way through the best inventory of quail guns in Georgia. Finally he was through looking, and the little .20 gauge Winchester with the fancy stock was resting on a pile of bib overalls. He hadn’t found anything he liked any better than the gun he had coveted for years.

"Come here, Ethel, help me put these tops back where they belong..."

And while they were lifting and straining to get the tops back in place, Ethel caught her apron on a corner of one of the tables and tore that new IOU hiding place right out of her apron. All the IOU's she had been hiding fluttered to the floor. Uncle Charlie sensing that this was something important moved to help her pick them up.

"Ethel, what in the world are these?" And then to his utter amazement and to Ethel's embarrassment it finally dawned on Uncle Charlie.

"Why, they're IOU's! Ethel, I swear. You are an amazing woman! You've been selling on credit for years right under Earl's nose."

“Your secret’s safe with me. I’ll take it to my grave, I swear it. But Ethel I want to buy this shotgun this morning, right now before Earl gets back from Atlanta.”

“Charles, I don’t know the price. Earl haggles with each and every customer. Sometimes they reach an agreement and sometimes they don’t.”

“Ethel how much money do all those IOU’s in your pocket represent?”

“Charles, I couldn’t tell you that. That’s private information. And besides, it’s a secret. Earl would go through the roof if he found out.”

“How much, Ethel?”

“Well all right,” Ethel sighed, “I try to keep it under $500 at all times. I just can’t help selling necessities to folks that need them even if they don’t have the money.”

“Ok, Ethel, here’s the deal. I’ll give you five hundred for the gun and five hundred for the IOU’s and we’ll call it even.”

Uncle Charlie counted out the thousand dollars in hundred dollar bills into Ethel’s hand.

“What will I ever tell Earl, Charles?”

“Tell him you sold Dr. Parker’s shotgun to me for what he paid for it and that I said if he doesn’t like it, I’ll meet him out back of the hardware store any day before quail season at high noon and we’ll settle it man to man.”

And with that Uncle Charlie grinned and winked at her and threw that little .20 gauge over his shoulder and walked out the front door.

Ethel fingered the bills in one pocket and the IOU’s in the other and said to herself, “Not on your life, Charles. I’ll just tell Earl you gave me twice what he gave for the gun and all of us will be happy.”

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