Like every great tragedy in Barker's life, this one had started out as a way to make easy money, and wound up in much the same fashion, glancing the surface and yet never fully penetrating the crooked man's better conscience.
In the 30s, he'd spent 40 days at the county jail for stealing an entire flock of chickens from a neighboring farm. He was apprehended red-handed only hours later, after foolishly returning for a bag of feed. A later stint as the assistant to a roving band of pickpockets had ended up costing him money, when the three lean men suddenly turned against him in an alley one night near Savannah.
His final attempt at a life of crime, a foray into the traveling sale of medicinal spirits, had landed him first in the drunk tank, when he made salacious advances toward a park bench in broad daylight, and later in front of the judge, when an entire ladies auxiliary guild in Madison went temporarily blind from the noxious liquid he was peddling.
Some years ago, Barker had been reduced to going straight, scratching an honest living out of the impossible patch of Georgia clay left to him by his impossible patch of a Georgian father, god rest his soul, the son of a bitch. And yet some inner aspect of the man, at once reflected and reinforced by the ever-hardening angle of his jaw, inevitably bristled against the strictures of decency and lawfulness, driving him ever onward in pursuit of that which he believed was rightfully his: the dollars in strange men's pockets, the coins in ladies' purses. The thing he resented mostly was his having to ask for it at all.
What he needed this time around was a scheme that would sell itself, do the work for him. Something legal, something clean he could charge people to see. Something people didn't even know they wanted to see, until they found out they might be charged for the privilege of seeing it. Something with an element of showmanship.
Unable to transcend his own brutish nature, Barker was soon working out an idea which essentially amounted to armed robbery, when the plow he was steering suddenly collided with a rock, causing both himself and his weather-beaten donkey to fall in tandem to their knees against the earth.
"Stupid jackass!" he spat, and then laughed, in case it had been clever.
The animal snorted with displeasure through its wide nostrils, and struggled to dislodge itself from the collapsing soil underfoot. In doing so, the donkey struck its hoof three times against the rock.
1 ... 2 ... 3 ...
Barker froze in place, his face suddenly acquiring a far-off blankness, an involuntary slackening around the eyes and mouth that indicated an internal disconnection from the larger world. In these moments, he was like a morphine addict being handed a fresh prescription.
Barker had a plan.
He'd heard the men conversing once in the barbershop on the square, going on and on about a horse on foreign soil who was astonishing the learned and unlearned men of Europe alike with its indisputable powers of mental conjuring and arithmetic. Barker's donkey had to be as smart as any other farm animal, and excelled at stomping, that much was clear.
"Hey donkey!" The donkey looked suspiciously over its shoulder, as Barker laughed at his own genius. "What's one plus one plus one?" He calculated in his head until he arrived at the answer a few moments later, and then chuckled again, assured of his coming success.
The beast of burden stopped abruptly in its tracks, neither looking forward nor back, nor side to side, its ears twitching thoughtfully, as if lost in concentration.
"Go on, get!" Barker shouted, giving the animal a sharp kick in the gut. He was eager to start sorting out the specifics of his latest ploy. The donkey shook his head violently, as if letting go of some sudden, hopeless aspiration. Together, they finished plowing the field, Barker laughing quietly to himself all the while, the donkey plodding constantly forward, already moving, albeit unknowingly, in the direction of his fate.
That night, Barker calculated the figures. The startup costs would be minimal. All he really needed was to do was give the donkey a good once-over with a stiff-bristled brush, and paint a bright red banner with the words: Dr. H.E. Hawthorne, Professor of Mathematics. Barker barely remembered how to count to 10, and signed his checks with a mere approximation of handwriting, but was undeniably possessed of a finely articulated passion for wealth, and the relentless acquisition thereof. In that, he was expert.
Besides, he figured, the donkey would do the rest.
After giving some thought to the relative teachability of a donkey, Barker set to work training the poor beast, day in and day out, until together they had arrived upon a shared vocabulary of subtle gesture, rhythmic stomping, and mutual disdain. In a few short weeks, Barker felt confident that the animal's abilities were more than sufficient for public demonstration, and resolved to follow the smell of money wherever it should lead them.