Pastorale – James M. Cain (1938)


It looks like Burbie is about to be hung for thinking himself “so damn smart.”  And this was the year before Gone With the Wind, when damn meant something.

When Burbie was 16, he ran away with a travelling show.  Ten years later, he returned with all his fingers so thought he knew it all.

Lida was just like him.  She made her living “selling dry goods to the men” and fortunately was not a prostitute.  She married an older fella about a year before Burbie returned.  He starts meeting her in the cornfield to play hide the cob after her husband goes to bed each night.  Eventually they decide they will have to kill him.

Burbie enlists another ex-con, Hutch, to help him do the deed.  He tells Hutch there is a literal pot of money just awaitin’ to be stolen.  While Lida is at the store, they go to the house and kill the old man.


Hutch gets angry when he discovers the pot of money contains only $23 in pennies, nickels, and dimes, and a couple of those are Canadian.  Burbie claims he thought there was $1,000 in the pot.  He magnanimously volunteers to let Hutch have the whole thing even though neither of them knows that word.  When some visitors drive up, they replace the empty pot and take the old man’s body with them as they sneak out the back way.  They pick up some tools and drive out to the woods.  Finally, one of the stories I post about gets it right:

So Burbie dug the grave.  He dug for two hours, until he got so tired he couldn’t hardly stand.  But he ain’t hardly made no hole at all.

The excuse here is that the ground is frozen.  But for most dudes, that’s probably about right pace at any time of year.  They throw the body into the shallow grave.  When the head is still sticking out, Hutch beats it down with a shovel.  LOL.

On the way back, Burbie admits that he has been plowing Lida’s crop circle, Hutch turns the truck around.  He forces Burbie to cut off the old guy’s head so they can take it to Lida.  He plans to put the head in a box with a ribbon and surprise Lida when she opens it.


Burbie is not thrilled at this idea.  The first chance he gets, he tosses the severed head out of the truck.  The bad luck continues as it lands on the frozen ice of a river.  The crack of the ice — the old guy must have had one of them Ted Kennedy 50-pounders — alerts Hutch.  He tries to kill Burbie, but he literally runs home, and hides beneath the covers of his bed.

The next day, a gruesome sight is found at the river.  There is still a human head sitting out on the ice, Hutch’s horse [1] is”damn near froze to death” and Hutch himself is at the bottom of the river “stiff as a board.”  I guess he had the $23 of change in his pockets.  The head ties Hutch to the murder, but Burbie gets away with it.

Some time later, however, he feels compelled to tell his life story to a group of people, including the constable.  He was so proud of all the women, all the liquor, Lida, and Hitch alone being nailed for the murder that he just couldn’t hold it in.

A short, fun romp.

Other Stuff:

  • [1] OK, they were in a horse-drawn carriage.  But truck was so much easier to type.
  • First published in the March 1938 issue of The American Mercury.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.