More than a checker game

The Model Ts kicked up dust. Horses brayed and tugged at the hitching post. Some came from as far away as the next county. This was an event. Most Saturdays the kids were down at Sweetgum holler, swinging on monkey vines into the cool water of the creek.

The old farmers would start gathering around the general store, drinking soda pop and philosophizing about everything in general. Some of the women would meet at Mille’s Fabric Shop or Parker’s Soda Fountain.

Today was different. All attention was on Chinaberry Lane.

Chairs from the church and funeral home were set in neat rows beneath the huge oak that shaded nearly half an acre. Blankets and quilts were spread behind and to the side of the rows of chairs.

It was two o’clock. The crowds began to gather. The show down was scheduled for three o’clock. Ebenezer showed first. He came walking with his grandson holding his hand and his three grown sons following behind. His black skin seemed even darker as the sun beamed down on his snow-white hair. Some in the crowd pointed while others spoke or waved, for Eb was respected by all who knew him. Beneath the giant tree, Eb shook hands with Mayor Brannon. The mayor wished him well and they made small talk about the weather.

They heard the commotion. He was coming. The crowd buzzed. Frank was king, a giant of a man. Chinaberry country was his kingdom. Every year he turned out the best crops, owned the best horses, and his livestock was prized. He was well respected in the county. Hard work was his solution to every task he undertook. He approached the table.

The mayor stood on one foot, then the other. Eb smiled, “putting on a little around the middle, huh Frank”. The two friends had not seen each other since the match was set last spring. The mayor read the rules. They both sat and the game began. Everyone leaned closer. A stray dog barked near the edge of the crowd. He was quickly quieted.

Checkers were an obsession around Chinaberry County. The way you won or lost judged the character of the individual. Unlike checker games played anywhere else, these games were filled with friendly badgering and tales between each thought out move. Games would last for hours and stories were traded around for weeks afterward.

Eb moved, then Frank. Eb scratched his cotton white hair. “Look like you gonna be easy on me Frank”.

“Not this time.” Frank moved.

“Frank, remember the time you walked four mile outta them timbers after Ben got hit by that tree. You never stopped once to rest. Me and Liza will always be indebted to ya.” Eb double jumped.

Frank jumped and a huge smile spread across his face. “That a true story ’bout you and the devil himself?” Frank teased.

Eb rubbed his chin. “True as ever,” he whispered. Just don’t want ol’ Satan to hear me brag. He got awful mad. He ain’t never been beat at checkers, ‘cept till he met ol’ Eb.” They both laughed.

Eb had Frank cornered. One move, maybe two, and Eb would be the champion. He didn’t take advantage. The crowd ah’d. Frank moved, double jumped with his king, and the game was over. The disappointment was clear on the face of Eb’s grandson. His champion had been defeated. Shaking hands, Frank told Eb he’d see him later on that evening.

Frank knew he had been given the game. He has respected Eb down through the years, but this turn of events found him questioning Eb’s wisdom. Frank was truly puzzled. The rickety front gate squeaked. Frank approached the front porch where Eb was relaxing in his rocking chair. A son sat on the side of the porch, swinging his legs. His grandson stopped playing the in the front yard to greet Frank.

The men made small talk but the conversation eventually got around to the game. Frank questioned, “Why did you let me win Eb? I couldn’t beat you in a hundred years, so why?” Eb responded, “You know this has been going on for the last three years. I wasn’t man enough to set the record straight. Next Saturday, under that old oak tree, we are going to crown a REAL champion.

As he left, Frank spoke over the creaking of the front yard gate. “See you later champ.”