Ricky Harpole column

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 16, 2011

Darling gunslinger’s aim nor word need be doubted

I ran into some old acquaintances a couple of weeks ago and we spent an afternoon sitting around a barbecue grill remembering our life and times in Quitman County and some of the now gone characters we grew up with and around.

Among the more colorful were Mr. Ralf Sanders and Sheriff Jack Harrison. Now Ralf was raised there himself but joined the army and served in Korea and later in Laos with the spook dept. That was before we had any regular troops in Southeast Asia (officially at least).

Later, when he mustered out he became a cross county trucker and amused himself and us kids by restoring old cars and antique farm tractors.

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He was partial to big block powerful Dodges and heavy caliber pistols until his dying day, and if he had his britches on he had that big ol’ horse pistol somewhere in ‘em. Well, by the time the 1990s came along his health had begun to fail and he was resigned to using a walker to get around.

Though he still drove, the muscles required to operate a Hurst transmission with a 13’’ competition clutch were not up to the job and he had to switch to a more user friendly vehicle but he never forsook the virtues attendant with a reliable heavy pistol and there wasn’t anything wrong with his hands or his eyesight as you will see.

He lived alone in one of a pair of adjoining houses he’d bought in Darling which was in itself a high crime neighborhood and we all worried about him but he was a fiercely independent old buzzard and set in his ways. (Stubborn as a mule).

Every time I passed through I tried to stop by and check on him and catch up on the local news (oops, I meant gossip) and see if he needed any errands run. Sheriff Jack and Deputy Bill Cole would do the same thing and there were others who did also but we still worried. His home had been burglarized twice while he was gone and we just couldn’t help but have concerns for his safety.

Along about the middle of September in 1991 I was returning from a body snatching trip near Muscle Shoals, Ala. to Helena, Ark. and found myself crossing the tracks west bound in Darling. When I looked over at Ralf’s house it was lit up like a Christmas tree, not with flames but with blue lights. When I got there, Billy was checking and securing the perimeter. This was not looking good. Recognizing me he waved me into the house where Jack was talking to Ralf who was sitting on the edge of a hospital bed he had positioned by a window in his living room.

Ralf’s story was that he was awakened by a noise at his bedside window where he was lying in the bed with the lights out except for one in the hallway. He kept his head and didn’t move except to ease his hand down to his knee where that old model 1911 Colt rested. He said, in a few minutes (seconds? hours?) he saw the form of a head peek around the holly bush about five feet off the ground and quickly duck back. A little while later it happened again. When it happened again Ralf half rolled in the bed and fired one shot through the closed window through the x@#%’s head

“I know I got him cause he made a funny noise and went back and down,” he added. “He’s laying right out there. That’s when I called y’all boys to drag him out of my flower bed.”

 Well, there was evidence that something had happened.

There was a fist-sized hole in the window and a single ejected .45 caliber shell casing on the floor and the whole house smelled like cordite. The pistol was still uncomfortably close to hand and the hammer ominously back on full cock, indicating it had reloaded itself and still ready for fun.

Well, Billy came in and reported that he couldn’t find anything. No corpse. No blood. Nothing. Old Ralf got pretty hot at that. He started getting dressed and reaching for his walker. He still had the pistol close to hand (uncomfortably close, to my way of thinking) so I said, “Ralf, maybe Billy missed something. Let me borrow your Colt and Billy’s Mag Lite and take a look. It’s easy to miss something with the grass in that other yard and not much moon, and you just set here and tell them anything else you remember.”

When I left with that pistol everybody in the room felt a little more relaxed, except Ralf, who was saying, “I shot him in the face; I wasn’t dreaming and I haven’t been drinking, at least not much.”

I have to admit we all had that thought cross our minds, or maybe he hadn’t taken his medicine properly. Still, he was awful clearheaded and didn’t look sleepy, so I actually went and took a look myself even though I knew if Bill Cole couldn’t find a body in a flower bed that nobody had time to bury yet, I wouldn’t find one either.

And I didn’t.

What I did find at first confused me, but when I discovered what it was I almost sat down and cried because I was laughing so hard. After I got my breath back I put the safety back on the pistol and took what was left of the “corpse” in to show everybody and to apologize to Ralf for momentarily doubting his story.

What I found was one of those helium filled Happy Anniversary balloons that had escaped from some happy occasion somewhere and upon its return to earth, lodged itself in Ralf’s holly bush by the string. Every time the wind blew, it would peek in Ralf’s window. That noise, described as a sort of a moan, was the helium escaping, (yep, you guessed it) through a half-inch hole dead center in the face. I rechecked the safety on the pistol and returned it to its owner.

Bill Cole left to finish his shift. Jack and I were headed for the door when Ralf said, “You know, I think I could use a drink now.”

Jack thought a minute and said, “Well, I guess the sun is over the yardarm somewhere. Before I left that morning I tacked that baloon over the mantle between the jackalope and the picture of Ralf and Elvis and called it a night.

Thinkin’ bout the good old days,


P.S. As far as I know Jack and Billy are alive and in good health but Ralf has gone to that Great Shootin’ Gallery in the Sky.