The title of this short story refers to two fencing terms: a "riposte" is a quick thrust after a short parry, and "tertio" means to hold back in the third position. In this story, Bayard does not want Granny to parry with Grumby, and he even considers the possibility of physically holding her back.
Enough time has elapsed since the last story to allow Granny, Ringo, and Bayard to establish their "mule borrowing" activities as a highly successful operation. Granny simply uses some embossed, engraved Yankee stationery, finds a camp that has a sufficient number of mules in it for her purposes, and then rides into the camp; there, she is given the requisitioned number of mules, which she later sells back to the Yankees (keeping only what is needed for local farming). Using the money she receives, she divides it up into shares and distributes it to various needy people in the county. In this story, then, she emerges as the central character and Bayard remains essentially in the background; in the next stories, however, Bayard will resume his initial importance as the principal character in the novel.
The opening line of the story introduces us to Ab Snopes, one of Faulkner's most interesting creations. Ab is the founder of a large family which will ultimately wheedle and connive its way into every aspect of life in Yoknapatawpha County. And it is Ab Snopes who will unconsciously contribute to Granny's death because of his greed; yet it should be noted that even though Ab is basically a cowardly man, he is never as treacherous as Grumby, the unprincipled leader of a gang of renegades.
At the beginning of the story, Granny is disappointed with the amount of money that Ab received for the last bunch of mules he sold in Memphis. Money is critical; as we saw in the last story, the countryside lies in almost complete desolation, and the poor people and the blacks are in need of all the help that they can get. Even Ab Snopes alludes to this fact when he acknowledges that it would ultimately be easier for Granny to bargain for more money for the horses and mules; perhaps she could go herself and deal more shrewdly than Ab is able to. Granny, however, is beginning to be wary of the great risk that she is taking in selling and reselling the mules so that Ab can, in turn, sell them once again. For that reason, this story opens on an ominous note, emphasizing the danger and the desperation of the survivors of the war who must try and eke out a living on the land with no crops, no equipment, no mules, no money, and very little hope. Even Bayard notices the toll that the long, difficult war is having on his grandmother: "She didn't look any thinner or any older. She didn't look sick either. She just looked like somebody that has quit sleeping at night." In contrast to Drusilla in the last story, who intentionally quit sleeping because there was too much excitement and too much to do, Granny, meanwhile, has begun to take the burden of feeding and caring for the people of the land upon her old, thin shoulders.
At the present moment, we learn that Granny has requisitioned and sold back to the Yankees about one hundred and five mules for a total of $6,725.62. They also have more than forty mules corralled in a pen that Bayard and Ringo built in a hidden niche. But everyone knows that Granny doesn't have that much money on her, and everyone likewise knows that she has shared all of the money with the poor people of the county.
After Ringo returns from his scouting trip to see where the Yankee troops are stationed, they plan their next operation, and while they are planning it, it is almost as if Bayard were no more than the objective narrator, observing the events but not participating in them. Part of this is due to the fact that since the Yankees are fighting to free the blacks, they would never suspect a young black (Ringo) of helping the southern whites, whereas if Bayard were caught, he would now, at fifteen, most likely be made a prisoner. After all, many fifteen-year-olds were fighting on the front lines of the war.
Ringo reports that a Yankee named Colonel Newberry has just arrived with nineteen head of mules, but Granny has unexplainable qualms about signing an order for these mules, especially since this particular regiment is now in the same county. But Ringo talks her out of her objections, and, still using the original requisition forms that they got in Alabama from Colonel Dick, they create one more letter of requisition, signing General Smith's name to the letter, stamped with an official letterhead: UNITED STATES FORCES. DEPARTMENT OF TENNESSEE.
The procedure they use is always the same. Granny drives up to an officer's tent (this time, it is Colonel Newberry's) with the order, and they manage to arrive at exactly the right time — that is, around dark, near supper time, when the men are tired and hungry. She hands the requisition to the officer in charge, and, in a few minutes, he instructs his soldiers to give the woman (whatever fictitious name Granny chooses to use at that time; this time it is Mrs. Plurella Harris) the requisitioned mules. This time, however, Granny's scheme is not successful. Ringo does manage to get the mules and give them to Ab Snopes, and Granny and Bayard do slowly ride off in the wagon, but it is not long before they are suddenly surrounded by a group of Yankees who demand to know the whereabouts of the mules; they boast they have been on the lookout for Granny for over a month. At that moment, Ringo yells from a distance and distracts the Yankees, and Granny and Bayard get out of the wagon and hide. Next morning, Ringo finds them and they all head home in a "borrowed" buggy and two horses that he has obtained somewhere during the night. This is the end of their mule-selling operation, but at least they obtained, according to Ringo, "two hundred and forty-eight head while the business lasted." Granny, however, corrects him, reminding him that they lost their team of two mules when they were cornered by the Yankees.
Throughout this first section, the emphasis is upon the clever machinations involved in deceiving the enemy. In terms of the total novel, we must remember that Granny's house — that is, the Sartoris mansion-has been destroyed by the Yankees, and the land and the countryside have been left desolate. It is because of these factors that she feels absolutely justified in taking the mules. After all, historically, the Yankees were a well-provided army, and Granny is watching out for her own folks — both white and black — who are starving in the now desolate countryside. It is not that she is, by nature, a deceptive woman. Quite the contrary; there is something innately good, something that we admire in a woman who sees women and children and old people (white and black) dying of hunger and starvation and takes it upon herself to do something about it. Granny's code of behavior does not involve abstract principles: she sees living people in desperate need of the very basics of life, and she means to do something about it. The war is not nearly as important as is the fact that hungry human beings are dying.
In the second section of the story, Granny goes to church and offers up a prayer that — better than anything else in the novel — characterizes her and her philosophy of life. But remember that in terms of the story, Granny doesn't exactly "pray" to God: As Ringo said in "Raid," Granny will decide "what she want and then she kneel down about ten seconds and tell God what she aim to do, and then she git up and do it."
Here, in this prayer, there is a sense of Granny's telling God what she aims to do, and there is also the suggestion that she is having a kind of "running argument" with Him. After all, according to the southern point of view, it is God who "saw fit to make it [the Civil War] a lost cause." As a result, when the war ceases to be Granny's "holy cause" and becomes a lost cause, Granny herself has to take action.
Alone in the empty church, with only Bayard, Ringo, and Joby, Granny says, "I have sinned. I have stolen, and I have borne false witness against my neighbor, though that neighbor was an enemy of my country." And lest God forget, she reminds Him very firmly that she "did not sin for gain or for greed. . . . I did not sin for revenge. I defy You or anyone to say I did. I sinned first for justice." Later, she admits to having sinned for "the sake of food and clothes for Your creatures." She then informs God that if she kept back some of the things she gained, then she is "the best judge of that." Her prayer thus carries a dual tone of deep devotion and admirable defiance. She will not let God blame anyone except herself for what has happened. If there is to be punishment, then that punishment is to fall on her thin but strong shoulders. Unknowingly, this retribution will come shortly in the form of Grumby, an unprincipled and degenerate renegade.
In general terms, section three of the story begins sometime later. Apparently Ab Snopes has informed the enemy of the whereabouts of the penned-up mules, and a company of Yankee soldiers arrives to recapture them. The Yankee officer in charge tries to make a bargain with Granny and make her tell him exactly how many mules she requisitioned and how many of those she sold back to the Yankees and then requisitioned again. Granny tells him firmly that she doesn't know how many. At first, he doesn't believe her; then he begins to realize that the operation has been so totally successful that she really doesn't know how many mules they have trafficked in. The officer then explains that if she writes out any more requisitions, then he (a poor man with a family) will have to pay for the Yankee loss, and he asks her, specifically, to promise not to use his name. Granny assures him that he need not worry. After the officer has left, Ringo informs Granny that it was Ab Snopes who informed the Yankees about the mules; he says that Ab Snopes is so greedy that he can't rest until some more money is made off of all of the mules.
Section four deals with one of the major climaxes in the novel, and note that it is told somewhat in retrospect, with Bayard saying, "We tried to keep her from doing it — we both tried." That is, after Ringo told Granny about Ab Snopes, Bayard tries to keep her from doing anything about Ab's betrayal; he doesn't want her involved anymore. But Bayard still doesn't believe, even after Granny is killed, that Ab intended for her to be killed by Grumby.
Despite all of Bayard's protests, however, Granny insists on seeing the renegade desperado named Grumby, who has been living on the fears of deserted women and children, taking what few provisions there are left in the countryside. Moreover, Granny feels that because Grumby is a southerner, he would never — under any circumstance — harm an old woman, and a lady at that. But the times are changing; the war is getting worse every day, and Granny and the boys have just found out that Drusilla, who has been missing for a year, has been riding with John Sartoris' troops as though she were a man herself. This fact in itself brings the reality of the war's metamorphosis into terms which the boys can understand.
If John Sartoris can ride about the country protecting women and children, then Granny cannot envision another southerner, such as Grumby and his fifty or sixty men, being anything less than honorable to his fellow southerners. Yet whereas Colonel Sartoris is fighting the Yankees wherever he can find them, Grumby never enters an area until he is sure that all of the Yankees have gone; then he ravages the countryside. Some time ago, Grumby was captured, but he managed to produce some type of document which was purportedly signed by a General Forrest, appointing him a commissioned raider against the rebels. The men who captured him, however, were old men, and they did not have the strength or wits to hold him. Now he rides through the night, creating terror among the already frightened and hungry whites and blacks.
Ab Snopes, somehow, has discovered — "how Ab Snopes knew it he didn't say" — that Granny could get at least two thousand dollars if she would sign one more order — this time for some thoroughbred horses, and Ab promises Granny that she can get two thousand dollars out of Grumby. Granny, who has taken care of almost everyone else in the country, suddenly realizes that very soon her son-in-law (Colonel Sartoris) will be coming home to a ruined plantation, and she decides to try to get him some fifteen hundred dollars in cash (Ab Snopes, of course, will want to keep one of the mares as his commission, leaving only fifteen hundred dollars from the two thousand dollars which Ab thinks will be profit).
Bayard begs Granny to seek advice from Uncle Buck McCaslin, or anyone else; he knows, even at his young age, that a person can make a bargain with a brave man, but Grumby is a coward and, worse than that, a frightened coward; these two facts make him the most dangerous type of man possible for Granny to deal with. But Granny doesn't listen to Bayard, so Ab takes her to Grumby's hiding place on the Tallahatchie River, the border of Yoknapatawpha County. Granny, furthermore, will not allow Bayard and Ringo to go with her to Grumby's camp because they both look like grown men now, and they might be hurt. But she is confident that Grumby and his men will not hurt her since she is an old woman and, in addition, an elderly southern lady. Bayard threatens to hold her back because he is stronger than she is, but, after all these years of obeying Granny, he can't suddenly physically restrain her; his deep love and respect for her will not allow it. Granny firmly maintains: "I am taking no risk; I am a woman. Even Yankees do not harm old women." Of course, Granny's mistake is that she assumes that Grumby is a decent person. While it is true that even Yankees don't hurt old women, Grumby is a different breed of person, one who has no respect for the North or for the South or for women or for children — of any race.
When Ringo sees Grumby and his band of men leave, he and Bayard run to the old compress (a building used for baling cotton). There, in the faint light of the afternoon, they see Granny's small dead body. Earlier she had looked "little alive, but now she looked like she had collapsed, like she had been made out of a lot of little thin dry light sticks . . . and all the little sticks had collapsed in a quiet heap on the floor, and somebody had spread a clean and faded calico dress over them." With the horrible, appalling death of Granny, Bayard is faced with his most momentous task — avenging her death against a known renegade murderer, one who would bushwhack and kill Bayard without the slightest compunction.
Granny dies, then, in the service of other people. Her final act is one that would have given her son-in-law, Colonel Sartoris, and her other relatives some money to start all over again after the fighting was over. Faulkner, or Bayard, never mentions the idea, but they both seem to tacitly accept the fact that the great "lost cause" is now in its final stages, and that it is only a matter of a very short time before the South's fall and subsequent restoration (the Reconstruction) begins. Looking back, it is significant to note that during most of Miss Rosa's — or Granny's — actions, she was very severe with herself. Of course, however, she was severe with others too. When she comically insisted on having the boys' mouths washed out with soap in the first story because they uttered a curse word, she was equally severe later when she judged herself and her own actions. But these are hard times, and Granny has had to adhere to her principles more firmly than she has ever done before. Never before has she been forced to consider her basic principles, and never before has she been forced to act on them, but now her principles require that she deal with the war — torn realities of her land with acts of kindness and love for other human beings-whether they happen to be the lost black mother in "Raid," or whether they happen to be the country folks in this particular story who need mules in order to cultivate their meager plots of ground. In short, Granny's philosophy and her religion concern themselves with the performance of good deeds. No intellectual schema is needed for what she feels must be done in these times.