|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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"Nobody can't wind that old clock."
"Want me to go back along with you in the cart and wind it for you,
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,
"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
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.