It wasn’t as if the flow of trade to the old mill suddenly dried up one day, or even as if every farmer in the county agreed to meet secretly in Deep Woods on a pale, moonlit night and solemnly slip their folded pieces of paper into the yawning slot of a ballot box, each voting their unanimous stamp of approval to once and forever and for all time cease doing business with Old Maw.
No, it wasn’t like that at all.
Not that quick or that painless.
Not that kind.
Instead, the steady stream of wagons stopping to let Old Maw’s hired hand grind their grain dwindled by one here, two there. The decline, hardly noticeable at first, was like an innocent scratch that breaks the skin on your arm. Trifling and insignificant, it goes unnoticed for days. Suddenly, a stab of pain sends out warning signals, and you realize it has bloomed, with time and neglect, into a festering insult. Angry with infection and furious with inflammation, the enemies inside the wound inflame your limb with fiery streaks of septic madness that inch toward your heart daily – as horrendous and unstoppable as Sherman’s sea of blue through Georgia.
The family made do with less.
Besides, Hal didn’t mind. Not really. He was well acquainted with lean times. They were all he had ever known. And since he was just a boy, he thought it best to leave the worrisome things for the adults to ponder.
Oblivious to the edge in Old Maw’s voice, Halyard ignored his mother’s frequent spells of silent, moody brooding. It was simply Old Maw’s way of dealing with things.
She had a habit of chewing on a problem, kneading it back and forth in her mind, allowing the strong fingers of her common sense to work it, twist it, and view it from every angle. And even though he was young, Hal understood that she was not above setting it aside, if the puzzle seemed unsolvable, and turn her attention to whatever task lay at hand.
Life had taught Old Maw that Fate, God’s will, or the serendipity of chance and circumstance might work things out for you – one way or another. Sometimes, all you had to do was wait. And sometimes, Old Maw discovered, you might be kissed with honey favor.
Experience had also shown her that there would be times when no matter where you turned, what you did, how carefully you planned and saved, or how cautiously you stepped – you split the cow pile anyway.
At the moment, Halyard ignored the gnawing feeling in his belly and focused his attention upon his latest treasure. The June bug, glittering metallic green and yellow, proved to be a magnificent specimen. The string tied to its leg didn’t seem to hamper its flight at all, and Halyard and his beetle made dizzying circles around the yard.
“Hal,” Selma said as she walked up, sucking a blade of sweet grass between her teeth, “les’ go hook a few.”
Selma was eighteen months and eight days older then Halyard. She stood almost three inches taller in her hand-me-down overalls, ragged hems clipping her calves. Her thick, unruly mane threatened to break the bonds of cloth stripping that bound her hair loosely at the nape of her neck.
Halyard stopped his whirling long enough to smile at her. He was still at the age where sensible boys did not associate with girls; nevertheless, he found he always broke his rule for Sel. He gladly followed her whenever invited. Her company was as good as any of the boys.
She was the best fisherman he knew. He’d never seen a tree she couldn’t scale, and she was always up for any dare, no matter how outlandish. Best of all, she could send a tin can somersaulting violently from any fence rail with only a smoothed creek stone and her slingshot.
“Sho’, Sel,” Hal said, dropping the string, heading for the shed where the cane poles were stored.
“Lem’me jes’ set ya friend free, Hal,” Selma called to him.
She pulled a rusty twin blade from her overalls and cut the string from the insect’s leg. It lay on its back, dog-paddling against the air. She flipped the bug over on its belly, and it spread its wings and took flight.
“Whut da ya want fer bait, Sel?
Wanna see ef we kin find a wasper’s nest with eggs ‘at ain’t hatched?” Halyard asked.
“Naw. Crawlers ‘er good enough,” Selma answered.
He picked through the assortment of cane poles leaning near the doorway of the shed. At last satisfied with his choice, he told Sel that he was ready.
The two set off for Deep Woods.
* * * * *
Deep Woods was a magical place filled with hundreds of acres of old hardwood trees and dense growth. Here, great branches interlocked and shaded everything beneath a canopy of dark, shadowy coolness. A swift-flowing stream sliced through the foliage. Water danced and percolated, swirling in trapped eddies between gargantuan rocks with mounded backs that broke the surface like over-sized terrapins asleep in midstream.
Beyond the rocks, the water slowed, and a long, narrow strip of sand ran parallel alongside the leaf-covered embankment. Two trails of small footprints zigzagged behind the children, damper and darker than the surrounding sand. Individual grains, like light brown sugar, cleaved to their insteps, sprinkling their toes with a golden, ginger crust.
Selma found a spot that looked promising. She squatted on her haunches and peeled away the layers of decaying leaves with a stick. From the rich loam, she lifted fat, writhing serpentine bodies and deftly plopped them into the empty pail that Halyard held for her. Atop the wiggling knot of worms, she packed some damp loam and wet leaves. Finished with this task, the two children departed Deep Woods.
Cutting across Sutter’s pasture, they tracked diagonally over Marsh’s bottom land. Rich black soil, like a soft carpet, sank beneath their bare feet. Fed by occasional flood deposits from the river that cut across the acreage, the prime farming land spread out before them like a patchwork quilt.
They were one with the sounds of the forest, walking amidst a choir of chirping insects and the deep sawing bellows of slick, wet frogs. The shrill high notes of songbirds bounced from branch to branch above their heads.
A slight breeze blew the wet smells of the flatland into their nostrils, damp decay as old as the Earth itself. They spied a doe and her two fawns peering at them from the edge of the tract. One spindly-legged youngster dropped its head to nibble at a spear of fresh, new grass. Mother watched solemnly, then on her signal, all jumped in unison and turned and disappeared into the overgrowth of limbs and leaves. The two children stood and watched the swift retreat.
Skirting the cornfields, they passed row after row of ragged stalks strewn among the weeds. Their jagged ends poked up from the earth, tangled and ragged, standing askew like sun-dried stubble on the face of a weathered plow hand. They soon came upon their favorite fishing hole, formed years ago by damming a tributary of the Deep Woods mainstream.
It was a good mile and a half from the mill.
And well beyond the range of Old Maw’s loudest holler.
Hal grabbed a worm and raced to bait up. He broke the water first while Selma methodically studied the weeds along the water’s edge. She eyed the overhanging brush and bramble and carefully laced the length of the slimy wiggler over the barb of the hook.
With the skill of an angler’s precision, she nestled the bait near a swaying emerald green blade. Within seconds, the handmade cork jiggled nervously, creating expanding liquid circles around the bobber.
“’Az’ it,” Selma breathed softly, “take ya a liddle ole’ nibble. Whet yo’ appetite a bit, ya big ole’ thang.”
Suddenly the cork sank, and she yanked the pole, bowing its tip severely. A streak of silver broke the surface and sparkled above the waterline. Crystal droplets were flung from the fish’s arching body, falling back to the surface as dazzling diamond glints in the sunlight.
“Ya mine now!” Selma cried triumphantly and pulled the fish onto the shore.
She laced its gill through a string, proudly lifting her trophy toward Halyard.
“Sholy, ya ain’t loss ya touch, Sel,” Hal beamed. “’At’s a mighty nice ‘un. Mighty nice.”
Hal was as happy as if he’d caught the fish himself. He smiled at Selma and thought of it still struggling on the end of her stringer. If he was lucky, he’d be able to match hers with others. If not, it didn’t matter. Selma was the best at hooking the big ones, and nobody could out-fish her. Old Maw would be happy, too.
There would be meat on their plates tonight.
Selma was not her blood, but the child spent so much time at Old Maw’s table, she might just as well have been. Old Maw loved the girl as her own, thinking of her as the daughter she would never have. While it was true that Belle Hawes had born many children, her talent had lain, not in birthing daughters, but in giving her husband, Bachelor, a house full of healthy sons.
* * * * *
Bachelor Hawes was a driven man. Determined that the fruits of his labor line his, and not another’s pocket, young Bachelor had taken a small inheritance and purchased some land. Unlike the great cotton and rice landowners of the Deep South, Hawes measured his property by scores of acres, not thousands. And like his neighbors in the Shenandoah Valley, his slaves had not numbered in the hundreds but were counted on the fingers of one hand.
Most were not as fortunate as young Hawes had been.
The majority of Bachelor’s neighbors were tied to their few acres, fated to try and eek out a living from the rocky, exhausted land, just as their fathers before them had. They were uneducated and not inclined to venture from the ground where they had been raised all their lives. Acreage was handed down among the generations. They were born, and they died pretty much within the small ring of dust that bore their footprints, destined to eat by the sweat of their brow and that of any offspring that lived to maturity.
When looking to purchase land, Bachelor chose wisely. There was a large pond and many streams on the acreage he bought, and Bachelor, with the help of his slave, Daddy Sam, enlarged the dam and deepened the pond. He and Daddy Sam built a grist mill, and when completed, Bachelor took the profits of several harvests and built a small frame house, sheds, and a barn. It had taken him several years to complete, but once finished, Bachelor harnessed the mule to his wagon.
“I mean to find me a wife, Daddy,” Bachelor said. “’Is place ain’t nevah gonna be no home til’ I git me a woman ‘n start rearin’ me up a brood a young sprouts.”
It was early spring, and the time for planting was just a few weeks away. Daddy Sam protested. Bachelor could not tell the hulking slave just how long he planned to be away.
Sam was sure that the place would fall to ruin under his lone hand. The old man knew that the work that needed to be completed was stacked high like cord wood. Bachelor was taking the mule that Sam needed to clear acreage for the new fields.
It was more than a body should have to bear.
And here Bachelor was taking off, leaving him to tend things. Sam tried to explain to his master that winter would be a better time to find a mate, but the black man’s words of reason had gone unheeded.
Sam knew about the hot coal that burned in a man’s loins sometimes, but sense and reason deemed that planting season should be tended to first. A body needed to eat. Batchelor was young and had many years ahead to see to putting out a mess of chaps. But the master ignored Sam’s protests.
“I’ll see ya when I see ya, Daddy,” Bachelor had said, riding off the next morning.
Sam was mortified but sullenly set to work about the farm.
Barely two weeks passed when Daddy Sam heard the familiar clank and rattle of the wagon.
“Well, suh,” Daddy Sam muttered under his breath, “be dawg-gone ef he ain’t up ‘n dun whut he sez he wuz a’gonna. ‘At is one feller don’t turn ‘is face from the fyar once’t hit blazes up hot az de flames ‘a Hades. Naw, suh. He shorely ain’t one to back down from his word. Naw, suh, him ain’t.”
Seated beside the tall, dark-haired man was a female, small and childlike, in a plain bonnet that threatened to swallow her tiny head. She wore a faded, washed-out cotton dress and brogans that looked several sizes too large for her.
As he approached the wagon, Daddy Sam saw that she was young. Very young.
“Bless mah soul. Dun gone ‘n got hi’self ah tenda’ twig to bend ‘n twist to his likin’,” Daddy Sam chuckled. “He sho’ haz!”
He helped the mite of a woman-child down from the wagon.
“Oh, Batch’lah,” she whispered, “it ain’t real. It jes’ cain’t be real.”
“Coss’ is reel, Missy,” Daddy Sam interjected. “Ez reel ez enny itch whut gotsa’ be itch‘ud.”
“Sam! Unload the wagon. Tend to the mule. ‘Is heah is Miss Belle. Belle Hawes. She is my newly betrothed. ‘N yer new mistress,” Bachelor said proudly. “We wanna welcome her to her new home.”
“Yes, suh,” Daddy replied. “’Coss, suh.”
That night, the child-bride lay cold beneath the heavy covers. This truly was a dream, she thought, a glorious, wonderful dream – a good thing that happened to others, not to a poor, plain country girl named Belle.
She thought of the man that she had bound herself to in holy matrimony. Their courtship had been a whirlwind of activity. The memory of Bachelor as he drove his wagon right up to their front door was still vivid in her young mind.
He had appeared from out of the blue one day, stopping to call out a greeting to one of her brothers who had been working in the yard. The boy immediately stopped chopping wood and ran inside the house. The ragged piece of flour sacking that stood for a curtain fluttered and was pulled to one side.
Nesta stepped out in her worn sacking dress and apron. Her greasy hair was pulled back into a small, graying bun at the nape of her neck. She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. A frown spread across the lower half of her face.
“State yer biz’ness, ‘n don’ ya be lollygaggin’,” she said, “Ain’t got naw time ta waste jack-a-jawin’ the whole live-long day.”
“I was lookin’ fer Sparksez, ma’am,” he said. “Folks told me ‘ey lived ‘bouts in ‘ese parts.”
“Whut ya be nosin’ ‘round fer Sparksez fer?” Nesta asked, avoiding a direct answer to his question. “Ya ain’t the law now, ‘er ye? Mos’ folks ‘round heah don’ want no mess a troubles wit’ no law man hangin’ by ‘air door step.”
“Me?” the stranger replied. “Aw, naw. Ma’am, ef ya’ll ‘er Sparksez, why I‘d be kin to ya.
From my mama’s side.
The Simkins’ branch.
Ef ya’ll ‘er Sparksez, then I’d be mos’ pleased to intra’duce myself as Cleatus ‘n Lottie Hawes’ boy.
My name is Batch’lah, ma’am. Batch’lah Hawes.”
“Hawes, ya sez.
Lottie Mae Simkins Hawes’ boy?
Why land sakes, chile, I do see Lottie in yer eyes. ‘N heah ya be in my yard, standin’ ‘air.
In the flesh ‘n bone! Will wondahs nevah cease?
Why, ‘course. Ya mus’ belongst to Lottie Mae. Ya her spittin’ image. You her boy true, ain’t ya? Why I cain’t belief my eyes.Ya Lottie’s boy, sho’ as the world, ain’t ya young fellah?”
“Yes um. I am, ma’am,” Bachelor said.
”Merse-a-ful stars above! I cain’t ‘member when’s the last time I seed any ‘em on ‘at side ‘a mah fam’ly, ‘n glory be, ef I ain’t starin’ right now wit’ both my two eye balls ‘et Lottie’s baby boy! Naw, suh! I just don’t believe my good fortune ‘n luck!
‘N I declare to my soul ef I ain’t heared hide ner hair from Lottie Mae in a coon’s age.
But look et ya! Jes’ look et ya! Batch’lah, ye sez. Mighty fine name. Mighty fine.
Why, ya done gone ‘n growed up to make a good lookin’, strappin’ young man. Done yo’ mama proud, ain’t ya?” Nesta asked.
“Thank ya, ma’am. Why, I like to think so. ‘N ef I ain’t mistakin’, why y’ud be Cousin Nesta, I ‘spect,” Bachelor said.
“’At’s fer shorely the gospel truth, son. Ya ain’t mistakin’ one bit ‘bout ‘at. “Et’s me, alright. Nesta Euphronia Simkins, ‘til I hitched up wit’ Pap Sparksez.
My, my. Jes’ a cotton-pickin’ minute whilst I git one a ‘em boys to go fetch Pap.”
Nesta looked behind her.
“Jim-‘enry,” Nesta said to one of the boys standing shyly behind her skirt tails, “Go fetch yer Pap. Tell ‘im Lottie Mae’s boy is heah in the verra body, flesh, ‘n soul.
Quick now! Make it snappy! Move leke ya got lightnin’ in ya veins! Jim-‘enry! Go! Go! Go! Ya heah me? Don’t stand all still like black rot on a hick’ry stump! You tha furst comp’ny we had in ages, Batch’lah! Do whut I told ya, Jim-‘enry!! Fetch yer pap! Why, I knowed he’ull be bustin’ to set eyes on ya. I knowed Pap will. Jim-‘enry! Git a move on, heah!”
Jim Henry finally got his feet in gear. The little boy was so awed by the thought of having company, he was dumbstruck. He could not believe his luck, but his mother had not swatted his behind for being so slow to obey. He figured that she was perhaps awestruck, as well.
Nesta turned to the stranger.
“Oh, my good Lawd above! Cain’t believe yo’ comin’ heah aftah all ‘ese years! Right from outta’ naw’wheres! Not a breath ner word from Lottie Mae aftah such a spell. Seems like ya drapped from hea’ben to earth. A sign. A sign’s whut it tis. Tis ‘at, alright. Shorely tis. What a glorious day fer such a blessing!”
Suddenly, Nesta’s face blanched white.
“Oh, my Good Lawd, Almighty! Why, Lottie ain’t dead now, is she? Pray, tell me Lottie ain’t done gone ‘n let go of her spirit to the Lawd, now! Tell me it shorely ain’t so, son! She is dead, ain’t she? ‘At’s why ya come all of a sudden like ‘is, ain’t it?” Nesta exclaimed.
Bachelor suddlenly paled because of the fear that spread across the older lady’s face.
“Why, naw. Naw, ma’am. Far be it. Don’ ya be fretting none, ma’am, I ain’t naw grim bearer ‘a bad news. Not a’tall. Naw, ma’am. Mama is fine. She is fine.
Pa passed, though, going on the bettah part a’ six to eight year, but Mama, she is still kickin’ like a fine colt. She got my sister ‘n her brood to go ‘n live wit’ her aftah Pa passed. Didn’t like ramblin’ ‘round in ‘at house all by her lonesome, ya knowed. Always was a kinda nervous streak in Mama, so’s she insisted Cal ‘n Sutie Rae move in.
‘Ey’s all gettin’ on fine. Yes, suh. Doin’ real good last I heared tell.
Naw, I beg yer pardon, Cousin Nesta. I shorely didn’t mean to drap mortal fright at yer door, naw ma’am, I shorely didn’t mean to. Ain’t bringing no words a’ sorrow wit’ me, today.
Why, I ‘uz jes’ passin’ through, ‘n I thought it would be unneighborly ‘a me ef I didn’ drap by ‘n say ‘howdy’ to ya’ll ‘n see how ya farin’. ‘Specially since I was so close by. Felt like it was only right ‘n propah. Me bein’ kin to ya’ll ‘n all.
Ef mem’ry serves me right, Ma always was a’sayin’ how she felt mightily clos’t to ya growin’ up. I can’t recall the times she told us kids that she felt like a sister to ya.
I jes’ thought it’ud be good to pay ya’ll my respects, ma’am.
‘Sides I could use me a liddle advice, right ‘bout now. Thought I’d chaw the fat, man-to-man so to speak, wit’ yer husband, Cousin Nesta. ‘Bout sump’in mighty special ‘n awful impo’tant,” Bachelor said. “I mean to git me some advice from Pap, ef he sees fit to give it.”
“Jim-‘enry’s gone ta fetch ‘em, I reckin. I feel right strong they’ull both be heah direc’kly. But whilst ya waitin’ fer ‘em, why don’t ya jes’ set a’spell. Res’ ya bones heah on the porch stoop whilst’ it’s in the shade, ‘n when Pap comes up, why ya’ll kin set ta yer talk, ‘n ya kin go ’bout statin’ ya biz’ness ‘twixt the both ‘a ya like gen’mens.
I got me a wagonload a’ chores to tend to, but it wuz awf’ly nice seein’ ya, Batch’lah. Awf’ly nice. Now, jes’ make yerse’f to home ‘n settle in ovah yonder on ‘at porch stoop. Pap ‘ull be heah in a gnat’s breath, ‘n you two kin git to jawin’ ‘bout whut is on yer mind. Ya need enny’thin’, give me a holler. I’m jes’ a stone’s throw away.”
Nesta went indoors.
From deep inside the house, her voice bellowed, “Bellevane! Cora Bellevane! Don’ ya be a’hidin’ ‘n cow-towin’ ‘hind no bed like ya ain’t got good sense ner raisin’, ya heah. We got us some comp’ny! We shorely do. Now, git some iron in yer spine ‘n draw up some good, cold water from the north side ‘a the well fer ‘em.
Ya heah me, gal? Give our kinfolk a dipperful ‘cause I know his throat is mighty parched ‘n dry. Mighty dry. He ‘ull be needin’ some cool water sorely, I ‘spect. Now, snap to it, Bellevane, fer I git my hick’ry switch ‘n put a right smart quick step in ya brogans.”
Pap Sparks came up, sweat-soaked and sour-smelling. He and his eldest son, Minah, were in the middle of cleaning out the stalls in the barn. The two men stood by the porch and talked for a moment. Bachelor introduced himself and asked if Pap would be willing to counsel him.
The old man made it clear that unless Bachelor had very pressing matters to discuss, he’d just as soon get back to his work. Pap hated mucking stalls more than anything else, and always put it off as long as possible. As a result, he was manure rich, and it took him and Minah many hours of back-breaking shoveling and hauling to finish the task.
The young man took no offense. In fact, he offered to help Pap and Minah, so that once the job was through, they would have their minds free and clear to discuss Bachelor’s business. Pap accepted the offer and thanked the visitor for his help.
“’Air always be ‘xtra tools layin’ ‘round ‘bout ‘is place, son. I am sorely mech ‘bliged fer yer kind offer to he’p. I’m shore ‘at Minah thanks ya, too.
Lawd knows, we got us more ‘n our share to clear outta’ ‘at barn. ‘At’s fer gospel true.
Thank ye’ mighty kindly fer yer willin’ spirit, son.
Now, les’ us git at it ‘cause ‘at sun is sinkin’ faster ‘n a faintin’ woman wid Saint Vidus Dance! Le’s git a move on. No sense standin’ ‘round heah lettin’ shadows lengthen ‘round us. Gawd Hisse’f knows ‘et many hands make light work, son. Yes, suh, many hands make light work! Meet me down at the barn after ya wet yer whistle a mite!”
Bachelor took the dipper that Belle offered and drank deeply.
“Much a’bliged, Miss,” he said, wiping the glistening droplets from his chin with his shirt sleeve.
He followed Pap down to the bottom of the hollow where the old barn stood.
That afternoon, with stalls mucked and minds clear, Pap and Bachelor came up to the house to talk. Both men washed off at the pump. Refreshed and smelling somewhat better, Bachelor told Pap his reason for coming.
“I am lookin’ fer to take me a bride,” he stated simply. “Got myse’f some land, my good health, ‘n a goodly, bright future ‘head a me. I’m lookin’ fer a he’pmate to share my worldly belongings wit’. It’s high past time I got me a fam’ly started, suh. I need a wife.”
Pap still had four daughters living under his roof.
Suddenly, he seemed very eager to become reacquainted with this side of Nesta’s family. He took the stranger to the big oak tree in the side yard that shaded Nesta’s shelling bench. There amid the remnants of scattered, dried bean hulls, the two sat chatting for a very long time.
Nesta sent Belle to fetch the men to supper. As she approached, Belle saw them rise from their seat. The two men made quite a contrast. Pap, squat and gray, stood solemnly beside the tall, dark-haired stranger. Both men shook hands warmly. Belle could not be sure, but it looked like a coin passed from the stranger’s hand to Pap’s.
Pap carefully polished whatever it was and tamped it deeply into his pocket. The two were smiling as they entered the house.
Supper was like none the family had ever eaten before. The food on their plates was the same as always: greens swimming in pork lard, corn pone, and buttermilk to wash it all down.
What made the meal unique was the animated conversation carried on at the head of the table. Pap was in a talkative mood. He remembered stories from his youth, grunting, laughing, and almost choking upon the old memories as he related them to all sitting about the table.
The stranger, for his part, seemed willing to let Pap talk.
Occasionally, he grinned and muttered “uh-huh.” The young man was pleasant enough, polite and well-mannered, but very reserved and quiet. His mind seemed to be on other matters.
Belle ate her dinner without a word.
Pap, with his boisterous talk and laughter, seemed more the stranger at this table.
Whut is our comp’ny a’wantin’? Belle wondered.
She stole sly, side glances at the man across the table. His eyes moved from one sister to the next, and Belle got the odd feeling that the girls were being judged, much like livestock at a county fair.
The next day, Pap went out to prepare the fields. The stranger lagged behind to acquaint himself with the family. Her older sisters blushed and prissed, and generally made a nuisance of themselves in front of the stranger. Belle went about her business as if the newcomer wasn’t even there.
Whatever dealings he had here, Belle reasoned, it surely concerned Pap and Ma and her older sisters. She was not about to go meddling and poking her nose into affairs that weren’t her concern. It was none of her business, and there were plenty of other things around the farm that needed her attention.
Belle set her mind to her tasks. The long day was filled with many chores, and Belle had her share to finish. The young man spied Belle carrying two milk pails.
“Wanna hand?” he asked.
“Wit’ whut?” Belle asked. “Totin’ two empty buckets? ‘At seems like a fair waste ‘a muscle, I reckon. Naw, thank ye. I’m doin’ jes’ fine, suh.”
“Naw, not wid ‘at,” the stranger answered. “Ennybody kin carry a empty bucket. I mean wid milkin’.”
Milking was a job Belle liked to do alone. The old cow was skittish enough now that her teat was inflamed and red with infection.
“Much a’bliged,” Belle said, “but I kin pretty much fend fer myse’f. Thank ya, all the same. ‘At old cow don’ take too kindly to strangers, ‘n her teat is mighty feverish. Been givin’ her a gawd-almighty fit lately. She’s jes’ as libel as not to try ‘n kick the livin’ daylights outta’ hands she ain’t used ta. ‘N she don’t know yer smell a’tall.
I gotta be mighty gentle with her ‘cause it is plum sore. She’s eben tried ta kick the stuffin’ outta’ me more ‘n once’t lately, ‘n she knowed me.”
Belle continued her trek toward the barn. The stranger fell in behind her.
“Like I say, thank ye, but I kin handle the milkin’. The othahs, though, ‘ey might warm to yer wantin’ to he’p.”
He had not taken the hint, continuing to follow her to the pasture fence to call the cow.
She racked her mind for something to say.
“How long ya stayin’?”
“Oh, few days, I reckon,” he answered.
“Ya outta’ be spendin’ yer time wit’ Floss, ya know,” Belle said. “She bein’ the oldest, ‘n she’s jes’ bustin’ her dress seams ta git friendly. I kin tell. I ain’t nevah seen Floss smile so. She looks like a dern, ole possum.
Now, I don’t mean ‘at unkind. I mean, she’s jes’ been smilin’ a lot lately, like ‘em dern, ole possums do.”
The stranger seemed taken aback for a moment.
“Floss is fair nice,” he said. “Fact tis, ya’ll been mighty kind. Cain’t say ‘at I been slighted by none ‘a ya’ll. Been made to feel mos’ welcome by ev’r soul at yer house.”
They stood in silence for a moment.
“It is ‘cause ‘a ‘at cast eye ‘a hern, ain’t it?” she asked.
“‘Em eyes ‘a hern. Got a cast ta ‘em, ya know, the way Floss has ‘a lookin’ right by you when she be a’lookin’ right at ya. Lot’sa folksez ‘er put off by ‘at.
But my mama, Nesta, says it is whut come ‘a ev’thin’ aftah Pap had his way wit’ her. Mama was feelin’ a awful might poorly ‘n she didn’t want Pap to take her none at the time, but Pap insisted, you know, on his manly rights.
Whutev’r ‘at means.
But ennyways, Pap had his way wit’ Mama, when Mama was poorly like I sez, ‘n Floss was whut come ‘a it all.
So’s I reckon, since Mama was feelin’ mighty poorly, Floss was strickin’ wit’ ‘em eyes ‘a hern.
Ef ya was to ask’t me, why I would say ole’ Floss is one purty lucky gal ‘cause she was birthed wit’ bird’s sight,” Belle explained.
“Bird’s sight?” Bachelor asked.
“Yeah, ya’ knowed how a bird’s eyes is made kinda’ right on the side ‘a his head. Not clos’t t’gether, like our’n. Lets ‘em see both ways at once’t, stead a jes’ straight on. ‘At’s Flossie’s eyes, ya ask’t me.
Yes, suh, Floss is sholy one lucky gal ‘cause she got ‘em kinda eyes,” Belle said. “Don’ see ‘at in no gal, ever’ day. Naw, suh. My way a’ thinkin’, why ‘at makes ole Floss sum kinda sump’um, ya ask’t me.”
“I see,” the stranger said.
That night at supper, Pap talked about a circuit preacher who was holding a brush arbor meeting nearby. The meetings ran for several days and were always held at the same time each year before planting season got underway.
Perfect time for Bachelor to get acquainted with folks around these parts, Pap reasoned.
Give them all something to do, too. Good man, that preacher, so Pap had been told. And it was decided. They would all get ready and go.
Pap had never attended a camp meeting in his life, but the next evening after chores were done seemed as good a time as any to start. Pap hitched the old mule to the harness, and the family climbed into the wagon.
“Gid’y up,” Bachelor said, and the wagon jerked off with a start, rolling down the rutted path that led to the dirt road.
Bachelor held the reins, and Pap kept him company on the wooden plank that served as a seat, giving the occasional direction as the wagon bounced along. Night was about to fall when they arrived at the meeting site.
Belle felt a damp chill in the air. Her eyes sparkled with excitement. Her nerves were taut. This was such a fine adventure. It was wonderful to be traipsing about on such an evening.
She soaked in the scene. Amazed, she had never seen so many folks in her life. It seemed as if the whole county had converged to this one place. The paths leading from the woods to the clearing were choked with travelers. Small clots of pedestrians moved on bare feet. Men rode horses, burdened with a child in front and bundles of possessions tied behind. There were wagons and carts galore. Some were drawn by sleek horses. Some had worn out nags or scrawny mules pulling them. Belle even saw an ox or two mingling in the menagerie.
The woods teamed with life, as people crawled about like insects, jostling for space near the meeting site. Even the air around her sparked with fever and activity. As they drove past, her family searched for a sturdy tree to tether the mule.
Belle spied a stream running through the woods. Many folks had set up camp beside it. A variety of makeshift lodgings had been erected. Small pines had been cut and tied at their tops – teepee-style. Blankets were wrapped around them.
Rugged frame lean-to structures were topped with branches. Canvas tents were pitched here and there. Campfires blazed in front of the shelters as families ate their evening meals, and supper dishes and utensils were hastily washed. Children frolicked noisily. Dogs barked wildly, tempting fate by running haphazardly between the legs of tethered horses and mules.
Lanterns were hung from trees, and pine torches lit the meeting place.
There was an oblong clearing in the woods with a roughly made platform placed at one end. A number of low log benches filled the space behind the speaker’s area. Around the platform and the perimeter of the clearing, stakes and poles had been driven deeply into the ground at a space of about twelve feet between each one.
On top of the stakes were wire baskets and hoops filled with chunks of light wood. Belle saw the orange glow from the torches encircle the clearing. People huddled in small groups, with the menfolk quietly talking along the edges of the clearing.
“Be seated, evah one ‘n all,” a voice called from the dark woods outside the circle of fire. “Ya’ll jes’ take a seat, now.”
The women filed toward the benches. A few at the front were left vacant.
“Les’ git up close, up to ‘em benches in front ‘air,” Pap said. “T’ain’t naw’body seems to wanna set ‘air. ‘Moan ya’ll. Git us one real nice look-see, at’a ways.”
“Naw, suh,” Bachelor whispered. “Cain’t do ‘at, Mistah Sparks. Naw’body sets in the repentin’ benches, suh, les’ ‘ey want ‘ey souls prayed fer at the end when the preacher calls fer mourners in need ‘a repentin’ to come up ‘n be saved.”
“Oh,” said Pap. “Well, bes’ leave ‘em be, ‘en.”
“Ya’ll ladies follow t’other women folk. Take ya’ll a seat wit’ ‘em. Mistah Sparks ‘n me ‘ull be on the t’othah side wit’ the men folk,” Bachelor instructed.
Belle sat down, her eyes wide with wonder. She stared at the crude stage and the preacher’s podium in the center. A small knot of men stood beside the rough-planked stage. Somewhere behind her, an infant fretted.
A woman rose and walked to the front. Standing before the audience, she began to sing. The crowd fell silent. The quavering notes of a clear soprano rang through the woods like a songbird.
The singer finished and took a seat among the other women. The crowd waited in hushed anticipation.
A mysterious, tinkling sound emanated from the blackness behind the preacher’s stand. Rhythmic rattling beat to a crescendo. A bent, little creature popped out of the woods and stood in the shadow behind the preacher’s stand. For the first time, Belle saw a tambourine.
From out of the darkness and into the halo of light stepped a man clad in solid black. He was exceptionally tall and rail thin, with gangling arms that fell almost to his knees. His face was long and gaunt, and his beaked nose poked out from beneath a hat brim so large that his eyes were lost in shadow.
The sermon began.
His voice was musical and strong and easily carried across the clearing. Slowly and gently, the craggy face talked of love and mercy.
Then came Sin.
“I tell ya, breth’a’ren-ah, I journey ‘cross’t mountains-ah, hills-ah, swamp land-ah, ‘n the sandy plains ‘a the East,” his voice intoned. “I shake the verra dust from my boots-ah, from evah step I made in my pilgrimage throughout ‘is heathen wild’ahness-ah. All along my way, I find-ah men who ‘ud rather-ah try to pull up ‘ey own souls by ‘ey own bootstraps-ah than whisper a fervent prayer fer he’p to the Lawd Aw’mighty-ah.
I spent many sleepless nights-ah ponderin’ why-ah ‘is ‘ud be so, chill’un.”
He stopped, allowing time for his words to sink in.
“I believe it is ‘cause ‘a pride, chill’un.
Wicked, damnable pride-ah!
The same pride-ah ‘at brung Lucifer, Son ‘a the Mawn’in ‘n mos’ beautiful angel, down-ah.
Chill’un, lis’sen heah, ‘at same pride is seeded inside the hearts ‘a us all.
WICKED HEARTS A’FULL ‘A PRIDE!
Lis’sen to me, chill’un.
Look ‘round ya’, breth’ren.
I stand a’fore ya, in ‘es carnal wasteland heah tonight-ah, ‘is overgrowed jungle ‘a sin ‘at is ripe ‘n plum rottin’ wit’ the disgraceful fruits ‘a pride-ah‘n wickedness.
I spy into ya eyes, ‘n I seed souls-ah.
I seed emptiness, pain, heartache, ‘n loneliness.
I seed sorrow ‘n shame-ah!
‘Ef I could jes’ look inside ye, whut else would ‘air be?
Why, nuthin’ but tombs-ah.
Nuthin’ but graves full’a souls ‘n the gloomy pits ‘a hell filled wit’ the mortal stench ‘n decay ‘a dead men’s bones-ah.
Each one ‘a us is filled tonight-ah to overflowin’ wit’ the wages ‘a sin-ah.
Wit’ ruin’t livin’.
Each ‘a ya is runnin’ ovah wit’ the pride ‘a Life in ya desperately wicked hearts ‘at are bustin’ wide open ‘et the seams-ah wit’ all the lust ‘a the flesh ‘at the Devil has to tempt ya wid-ah.
Young limbs ‘at ‘er swift to steal ‘n kill-ah.
Hoary-haired, aged men ‘n women ‘at ‘er full ‘n brimmin’ to ovahflowin’ wi’ thoughts ‘a hate ‘n wickedness-ah.
Each mouth, belying honesty fer his neighbor, but inside each scalp-ah hidden from the view ‘a others, wi’ thoughts ‘n words ‘at comes from the forked tongues ‘a snakes-ah.
Minds tonight ‘er full ‘a wishful thinkin’ ‘n imaginations ‘at ‘er nuthin’ but the poison ‘a asps.
Tongues ‘er itchin’ eager to be spreadin’ slanderous lies-ah ‘n untruths agin’ his brother-ah.
Willful minds tonight-ah ‘er intent on reapin’ the gall ‘a yer bittah, covetous hearts-ah.
I tell ya, evah one undah the sound ‘a my voice-ah, the Good Book sez ‘at all our righteousness is but filth ‘n rags a’fore the Holy, Almighty Gawd-ah.
We got nuthin’ to be proud ‘bout tonight-ah!
We ‘er full ‘a sin! We need he’p from Gawd, tonight-ah! We need savin’ by the blood a’ Jesus! Savin by the precious blood-ah.”
A scream ripped through the crowd. Belle turned to see three adults fall to the hard-packed ground. One appeared to be having a fit, though no one came to his aid.
”Preach to us the Word! Preach, Preacher!
We ‘uv need ‘a it.
Ha’f mercy, Lawd on us, yer wayward chill’uns!”
“Let His blood cleanse ya’, Sinner!” the preacher intoned. “Vilest wretch ‘n worm ‘a Mother Earth-ah.
Take Him, chill’un, take the Blessed Savior into yer hearts, tonight-ah.
Don’ turn yer backs on Jesus-ah! All undah the sound-ah. Hear his voice-ah. Say yes to Jesus-ah! Say yes-ah. Say yes-ah!
Receive the Son ‘a Gawd tonight, ‘er suffah fer all eternity the penalties of a Devil’s Hell-ah!
Answer the call ‘a Jesus! He knocks ‘et the door ‘a yer heart, tonight. Don’ turn Him away, Sinners. Don’t turn away-ah!
Don’ say naw to the One ‘at loves ya! To the Savior-ah!
Can ya’ feel ‘em, Sinner?
Can ya feel the evah’lastin’ flames-ah searin’ ‘n burnin’ ya all ovah, consumin’ ya fer’evah ‘n evah wit’out end-ah in that awful place-ah. The Devil’s hell-ah?
Scaldin’ ya ‘n blackin’ ya hide fer all time immortal-ah!
Come to the Savior, tonight-ah!
Heed his call fer salvation, ‘is verra minute, whist the warm breath ‘a Life is still in ya bosom-ah!
Git thee behind me, Lucifer! G’wine back whar ya com’st from, Satan! Fallen angel from the highest heights ‘a Glory!
Git thee behind me, Devil, ‘at I may have leave to preach-ah to ‘ese lost lambs gathered ‘round tonight-ah!
Unstop ‘air ears, Jesus-ah!
Peel away the scales ‘a sin ‘n death from blinded eyes O’ Lawd, tonight! Tonight-ah!
He’s knockin’ at yer soul’s door, chill’un!
Can ya feel His lovin’ tug on yer heart, tonight-ah?
Hear yer humble servant’s pleas fer yer souls. Lissen to my earnest wish ‘n prayers tonight-ah, Lawd in Glory, I pray!
Bear heavy ‘mongst evah heart heah tonight-ah.
Weigh down on ‘em wit’ yer Holy, Perfect Spirit, Lawd, ‘at ‘ey might see th’air unworthiness.
‘At ‘ey might fall ‘at the foot ‘a Thy cross-ah, beggin’ fer yer sweet fergiveness through the Holy work ‘a yer Son, Jesus Christ!
Let ‘em heed Yer call fer salvation, tonight-ah. Let ‘em see the need to ask Jesus into ‘air hearts-ah ‘n be saved by His precious blood! Let ‘em say ‘yes’ to Jesus!
A’fore life leaves ‘air bodies-ah!
A’fore evah hope ‘a savin’ is lost forevah in Death’s cold, unrelentin’ grasp-ah!
Redeem tonight sech as ya seez fit, sweet Jesus!
Amen, Lawd. And amen!”
His words echoed through the woods. The scarecrow’s voice pitched in volume and suddenly trembled with rage. Indignation spewed upon the dull-eyed faces that sat hunched upon their low perches in the clearing.
The man dramatically flung his coat off and threw it upon the ground. His spindly granddaddy long legs sawed up and down, and the heads of his audience swiveled back and forth to follow his every movement. He stomped the dirt with coarse, heavy boots, and dust clouds formed in his wake, damning those under the sound of his thunderous voice to eternal ruin if they did not avail themselves of his remedy.
The tambourine worked itself into a fevered pitch.
To those present, it felt as if this preacher himself was bringing down the penalties of eternal doom to everyone under the sound of his voice.
Doom, doom, eternal doom and damnation – that was but a heartbeat and a tambourine rattle away.
The preacher held them under his spell.
Everyone present felt as if a single, ethereal breath was all that separated their gossamer souls from Eternity. Many swore that they could feel the cold, skeletal finger of Death scratching their shoulder, even as he sucked the breath from their mortal lungs.
And the metallic rattle of the hell-fire tambourine thundered behind them in the background.
The bent little man in the preacher’s shadow worked the instrument into a riotous frenzy. Belle sat with eyes bugged and mouth wide-open as the preacher walked deeper into the crowd.
More women and men fell onto the ground.
Tears flowed unbridled.
Above the moans and pleas for mercy, the preacher intoned, “Come home-ah ye lost lambs! Come home! Back to the fold ‘a the ninety ‘n nine! Back to the arms of a lovin’ Jesus!
O mother! O father! O sons! O daughters! Come to Him, tonight-ah. Come to the Blessed Savior, tonight-ah!
Leave yer pride a’hind ya!
Care not whut thy neighbor sittin’ next to ya may think-ah.
Come tonight to ‘ese repentin’ benches ‘n pray fer yer weary, lost soul-ah! Oh, chile! Feel the Master’s tug at yer heartstrings. Jesus is callin’ ya!
Say yes to the Savior, tonight-ah!
Come to Jesus!
Come to Jesus!”
A tide of people moved to the front toward the repenting benches, one after another they came, sobbing, flinging themselves onto the rough wood, wailing, moaning, and screaming for mercy. The display was like nothing she’d ever seen, and as the preacher continued, Belle felt the encircling flames of the campfires close in upon her, licking at her heels with a burning intensity and sense of dread and hopelessness.
She felt the flames of the Devil’s hell all around, ready to consume her in an instant. Her chest tightened, and her breath came in short, clipped spasms full of fear.
“Yes, Jesus. Come into my heart, Jesus!” Belle whispered.
And then, for Belle, a wonderful thing happened.
The metallic jingle of the tambourine changed its beat and timbre, miraculously transforming into sounds of angel wings fluttering to earth to rescue her from the gaping maw of fiery destruction.
Sweat glistened and dripped from the preacher’s face. His eyes glowed from beneath the hat brim like white-hot coals. He stomped the ground and cursed the demons, as if scores were hovering above the flock, waiting to snatch away one of the lambs from inside his protective halo of light.
The altar call was sounded again, and Belle ran to the front.
She threw herself down upon the bench and began calling out to God. As her tears subsided, she glanced about.
Beside her was Bachelor.
She looked into his face.
He had been as disturbed as she and had ventured to the front to receive whatever comfort or assurance the man in black was offering. The preacher’s large square hands were laid upon each head in turn that had come to the front for prayer.
Words were said.
After another short prayer, the crowd at the front took their seats. The offering plate was passed, and the meeting adjourned. The preacher walked among the people, shaking hands, and murmuring solemn words.
As they climbed into the wagon for the ride back home, Bachelor told Pap to take the reins. He climbed into the back of the wagon and sat beside Belle. Not a single word passed between them on the ride back, but Bachelor slipped his hand beneath the quilt that blanketed Belle’s legs. She felt a tingle as his fingertips touched hers.
Before the week was out, the two were wed. Bachelor wanted a real ceremony, so Belle did not jump over the broomstick as her mother and father had. Bachelor insisted that a few sentences from a real preacher be said.
A man of God with God’s blessing.
This would be all it took to make Belle’s marriage official.
* * * * *
The scarecrow arrived at the house dressed in the same black suit Belle had seen at the prayer meeting just days before. The material was thin in places and shiny with wear. His cuffs were frayed, and his shirt was patched and mended.
The mule that bore him was as scraggly as its master, sway-backed and snaggletoothed, and from the looks of it, it was easy for Belle to imagine the beast was the scarecrow’s blood relation. A folded piece of burlap made a poor man’s saddle. Behind the scarecrow sat the bent little man. His crooked legs looked even shorter next to the long, dangling legs of the preacher who rode in front.
The preacher reached behind, and the little man grabbed a shoulder. The Reverend bent at the waist, and the small man scrambled down the vine-like arm with apelike dexterity.
Belle watched to see if the rag of burlap would not come twisting down the side of the mule, depositing both riders to the ground, but the saddle stayed put on the bony back of the animal. The preacher’s long legs wrapped around its belly in a vise-like grip, keeping him perched squarely upon his mount.
The scarecrow dismounted and shook hands with Pap and Bachelor.
“Beanwaddler,” he said as if that explained everything, “Rev’ren’ Josephus Eleazier Beanwaddler.”
“Pleased to’ knowed ya by yer Chris’in name, suh,” Pap said.
“’Is heah is Isaac,” the scarecrow said, pronouncing the name ‘Ee-sack.’
They all stared at the bent little man.
“Isaac is my travelin’ companion. Keeps me comp’ny ‘long my dark ‘n dreary pilgrimage through ‘is spiritually dry ‘n desert land ‘a heathens ‘n Philistines.”
“Field-steens?” Pap replied. “Why, Preacher, ef I recollect rightly, ain’t naw Field-steens naw’wheres near ‘ese parts. Least ain’t none so far as I ever heared tell ‘a.”
Pap stood in thought for an instant.
“Naw Preacher, I ain’t never heared tell ‘a none myse’f, but ef ya asked ‘round, ya might run up on a few further back in the hills. Who knows? Ain’t dat right, liddle feller?”
Pap was still eyeing the small man standing by the preacher’s side.
“Isaac is mute,” the preacher said. “His vocal strings was teeched by the finger ‘a Gawd. Been ‘at way since he was borned. Ain’t nevah said nairy a single, solitaire word in all his life.”
“Do say,” Pap replied. “Looks kinda’ like ‘at ain’t all what ‘az teeched.”
“Yes,” Preacher Bean said. “Isaac has many a thorn in the flesh – the word came out ‘flush’ – but like ev’ry good soldier, he marches forward wee nairy a murmur ner complaint.”
“Don’ rightly see how he could’da. I mean, be complainin’ none, him bein’ shed clean ‘a his hollerin’ sounds ‘n all,” Pap commented wisely.
The preacher seemed at a loss for words.
“Shall we lay our chawin’ ‘a the fat aside ‘n git right down to the gristle?” Pap asked.
“Yes, cert’nly,” the preacher said. “’Why ‘at is a mos’ ex’lent thought, I do believe.”
“How mech to hitch my liddle Belle to young Mistah Batch’lah Hawes, heah?”
Before the preacher could answer, Pap continued, “I aim to gift ya with a jug a’ my fines’ corn lick’er ‘n two a’ my best settin’ hens. Now, my wife ain’t gonna cotton too kindly to gittin’ shed a two ‘a ’er bes’ layin’ hens, but seein’ as how it ain’t eben the Lawd’s Day ‘er naw’where near it, ‘n whut with ya makin’ a spe’shul trip ‘n all, why I think ‘et is mighty gen’russ on my part to throw a liddle ext’a in the pot, so’s to speak.”
Pap looked over his shoulder.
“Bellevane!” he yelled. “Cora Bellevane! Git yer scrawny hide out heah ‘is minute. ‘Ease fine men ain’t got all day to waste whilst ya dawdle! Ya heah me, youngin! I ain’t standin’ heah bellerin’ jes’ to heah myse’f make noise! Git out ch’eer, now!”
The door squeaked open, and Nesta, not Belle, came out onto the porch.
Her eyes bore into Pap with such fire that even Bachelor, who had stood by Pap’s side, seemed to shrink.
“It jes’ ain’t seemly, Pap,” she said, “It jes’ ain’t right fer ya to go pawnin’ off the younges’ a’fore the t’others.
Whut ‘ull folks sez when ‘ey catch wind ‘a whut ya’ done?
Givin’ away the unweaned pup whil’st the dawg lot is plum full to runnin’ ovah wit’ fine bitches in heat?
‘N in case ya ain’t noticed, Pap, Belle ain’t eben come in heat, yet. Land sakes, Pap. Lis’sen to reason. ‘Is ain’t naw’where near bein’ right, ya heah me?”
“The man’s done made his choice, Ness. We done shook hands. Deal’s sealed. I done gone ‘n gib ‘em my word, ya heah. My word!
Now, I don’t wan’ to heah nairy peep from ya. Don’ make me go into the house ‘n brung her out myse’f. Brung out the chile ‘is minute. Brung ‘er out, ‘n les’ git ‘em hitched proper. Brung the chile!” Pap yelled.
“Chile is ‘xactly what she be,” Mama muttered under her breath. “Ain’t nuthin’ but a babe! I declare to my soul! What is folks gonna think ‘a us!”
She took a step closer to the door.
Belle,” Mama called, and the door screeched open once again. “Come on out! ‘Ey be wantin’ ya.”
Belle looked lost.
Her knobby knees were scabbed and scraped; her willowy body dissolved inside its sacking dress. A single spring weed flower drooped, wilting sadly over one ear. Her dull brown hair was greasy and severely parted down the middle. Two twirling braids rested like glazed donuts on both sides of her head.
Behind her trailed the three older sisters: Flossie, Hester, and Sudilene.
All looked as if they’d scrubbed their faces too much. Their eyes were red-rimmed and swollen, and their feverish noses flamed from pink to scarlet. Their cheeks were raw with color. A few snuffles were stifled or blown into a dress hem.
Belle took her place alongside Bachelor. His strong hand rested possessively upon her narrow shoulder.
“Names,” the preacher said, as Pap muttered into his ear.
He opened a worn, leather-bound book.
“Cora Bellevane Sparks, do ya take Batch’lah Gardett Hawes to be yer lawful wedded spouse? Do ya pledge to give honor, to obey, ‘n to cleave to ‘em onliest, vowin’ ‘is day befo’ the eyes ‘a the Lawd Aw’mighty Gawd ‘n man, to mind ‘im as is yer lawful, wifely duty?
‘N as his legal propah’ty, do you ‘is day, pledge to do all he sez wit’ a willin’ ‘n a cheerful heart, so he’p ya Gawd?”
“Yes, suh. I shorely do,” said the tiny voice.
“’N Batch’lah Gardett Hawes.
Do ya take Cora Bellevane Sparks, fer yo’ lawfully betrothed ‘n wedded wife, through the bitter nair the sweet? ‘N do you pledge ‘is day ‘fore Gawd ‘n ‘ese witnesses, to guide her as a he’pless lamb, to shepherd her, ‘n to keep her from deception’s snare ‘at she might not fall ‘mongst Satan’s cunning wiles, ‘n plungin’ ya both headlong into sin ‘n damnation as Eve did Adam ‘a ole?”
“Yes, suh,” Bachelor said.
“‘N do ya solemnly swear ‘is day to take care ‘a her as ef she wuz yer finest shootin’ iron ‘er yer mos’ prized heifer, ‘n forsakin’ all oth’a carnal ‘n womanly flesh, cleave onliest to her bosom as unto yer own skin, so he’p ya Gawd?”
“I mos’ shorely do, Preacher,” Bachelor said.
“Sech vows as ‘ese made t’day have been promised ‘n pledged a‘fore Gawd, the Holy One, the Lawd Jehovah. I tell ya no lie when I sez ‘at Gawd has put His Holy stamp on ‘ese two souls. Let not ‘is oath be trampled asundah undah foot, ‘er boot sole, ner nairy a lady’s slipper.”
The scarecrow stared down intently upon the tiny girl that stood before him.
“Cora Bellevane Hawes give honor to Batch’lah Hawes, ya husband.
Batch’lah, ‘is woman no longer belongs to ‘er pap nair ‘er maw. Nevermore! She is from ‘is day forth ‘n fer’ever mo’ yourn, ‘n yourn alone. She leaves her kin to bind to ya, body ‘n soul, ‘n onliest unto ya does ‘is gal belong, so long as ya both shall draw the breath ‘a life b’twixt ya. She’s yourn now, son, ‘n as sech, is yer sole property to use as ya might see fittin’, ‘n as ya see right.”
He looked down at the couple.
“Ya kin claim ‘er now, son. She is all yourn. So, go ahead ‘n show all ‘ese fine folks standin’ heah ‘at ya do lawfully take ‘er as your wife. Go ahead ‘n plant a nice, big kiss on her, son. Whut ya waitin’ fer, huh? A sign from Heb’n?”
The color rose in Bachelor’s cheeks, and he hastily placed a quick peck upon Belle’s forehead.
“Well, well,” Pap said, “looks like ya’ll done gone ‘n made it t’all legal, now don’ it? Hitched by a real, live man ‘a the cloth. How ‘bout ‘at?
Now ‘at is a right smart bettah ‘n jumpin’ ovah the broom stick like me ‘n ya Mama, ain’t it?
Got us a man ‘o Gawd! A livin’ preacher man, who done said flowery words ‘n made it all lawful. Looks like we done done all we kin. Shorely does. Yep. Come folks, I do believe ‘is calls fer a liddle celebratin’.”
He bent to pick up the jug that sat near the preacher’s boot.
“Beg pardon ‘air, Sparks,” the preacher said, “but unless I am sorely mistaken, ‘at jug is mine, my own personal prop’ity fer my own pers’nal celebratin’.
My jug, ‘n as sech, not fer passin’ round to be chug-a-lugged ‘n moistenin’ evah whistle ‘at stands heah presently ‘mongst us.”
“’Coss it ‘tis,” Pap said. “’Coss it ‘tis. Beg pardon, suh. Honest mistake. Ness! Ness, go inta’ the house ‘n fetch us ‘at ‘air cake ya’ baked, yes’tiddy. We gonna have us a liddle weddin’ party!”
They stood in the yard eating country-sized squares of cake. Crumbs tumbled off their chins and into the dipper of well water that was passed from mouth to mouth.
“Pap,” one of the smaller boys yelled, “tell Sam’ul ta stop spittin’ in ‘a dippah.”
“Ya chaps behave ‘fore I plow the livin’ daylights outta’ ya tater patches. Sam’ul! Not ‘nary a drop from ‘at dippah bettah teech yer lips. I am gonna be givin’ ya my worstest evil eye, ya heah me. I’m a’watchin’ ya!
Belle! Git ya stuff. It ‘uz high time ya was settin’ off. Any mo’ dawdlin’ from ya, ‘n Ma ‘ull be havin’ to fix vittles fer the Reveren’ ‘n ‘is liddle friend. ‘N fer you ‘n yer groom, too.
Ya his, Belle. Batch’lah’s wife. Not mine to care fah no mo’. Ain’t fittin’ fer me to be takin’ food from the mouths a’ mine to give ya, Belle. Ya marrie’t to Mistah Hawes, so from now on, it is his duty to see ya fed good.”
Belle climbed into the wagon with her new spouse. A chorus of tambourine rattles from the little man trailed behind the newlyweds for a short time as they rolled toward Belle’s new home.
During the long drive, Bachelor was attentive to her, but Belle was filled with dread. They traveled far into the night, moonlight lighting their way. At last, Bachelor said the mule had to be rested. He parked the wagon among a grove of trees by a stream.
“Slept undah the wagon ‘em nights I ‘uz travellin’ to yer place,” he told Belle. “But don’ ya fret none. Got me some pine knots stored in the front ‘a the buckboard, ‘n I kin start us a small fire right quick. Quilt’s done got damp with dew, though. We kin set by the fire ‘n season it out some, I guess.
Ef ya need to tend to ya biz’ness, go on down by the crick. Cain’t heah ya none ovah the runnin’ water. ‘N ya have my word, won’ be sneakin’ ‘round fer naw peaks neithah.
Ya ‘ull have ya pri’vicy.”
For a few hours, she huddled with Bachelor beneath the quilt he had wrapped about their shoulders. They sat wordless, staring into the fire, and at the first light of day, Bachelor said it was time to resume their journey. They ate cold cornbread wrapped in a towel and washed it down with water from the creek.
The wagon creaked over ruts and stones, but finally, it brought the couple to the farm.
Belle was home at last.
Everything was strange and new.
She spent the day getting acquainted with the house and putting away the few clothes she had brought with her. There was an overwhelming amount of chores to be tended to, but she set about them with a determined mind. She cooked for herself and the two men. Daddy Sam usually took whatever was leftover and made his meal, but tonight, he dined on an unusually hearty share. Most of Belle’s food had been left on her plate, and Daddy Sam gladly accepted her leftovers. Belle tried to eat but found her supper stuck in her throat as she nervously anticipated what lay ahead.
It was to be their first night as husband and wife. Bachelor had told her that they would wait to properly seal their new marriage under the roof that he had built for her with his own hands. After clearing the table, she looked to her husband for some kind of clue.
Did he stay up late?
Did he go right to bed after supper?
She had no idea. She turned to question him, but he was already at the door.
“Suh?” Belle asked.
“Ya git on with yer chores, Belle. Me ‘n Daddy Sam gotta tend to things outside. Bed down the livestock ‘n such.”
That was all the instructions she was going to receive, for he closed the door and was gone.
“Might as well git myse’f ready fer what’sa comin’,” Belle muttered to herself after she’d cleaned up the supper dishes.
She wandered into their bedroom and looked again with awe. There was a frame bed, not the pallet she was used to. The mattress looked fully stuffed with new sweet-smelling straw, and a patchwork quilt covered it. A fire danced in the rock fireplace. There was a small table by the bed, and she placed her candle upon it. Unlike the dirt floor of her father’s cabin, wide boards of knotty pine gleamed in the glow of the firelight.
I musta wed the richest man on earth, she thought to herself, shivering slightly at her unworthiness.
She pulled off her dress and stood in her sacking slip. She jumped at strange man’s voice that broke her reverie.
“Go on, Belle, hop inta bed. Naw sense standin’ ‘air still as a stone freezin’. Why, ya libelest to catch yer death like ‘at,” Bachelor said.
That voice was no stranger’s, she reminded herself. It was her new husband. As she climbed into bed, he banked the fire and then blew out the candle.
She was thrown into darkness. She felt his weight on the straw mattress as he tossed the covers back and climbed in beside her. She had an idea what would come next. She had grown up on a farm, after all, and knew about coupling. Mama had told her a little, too. She knew that he would come inside her with his maleness, and she was cold with fear.
Her breath came in shallow puffs.
No matter what, she told herself, she must submit. She belonged to Bachelor, now. She was his wife and his property. The marriage vows had made it so.
She felt his gigantic body nestle in beside her. His bear-like hands cupped her shoulders and pinned her down. His mouth was all over her, kissing her face, licking her budding breasts.
She looked out, wide-eyed with panic into the darkness for help. Involuntarily, a shrill cry escaped her as his crushing weight bore down upon her. She felt his hardening organ brush against her stomach. His hand left her shoulder and parted her legs.
She twisted and moaned in protest, but his body pinned her down harder. Her back arched against him as white-hot pain seared through her like a fire sparked by lightning across parched fields. He was engorged, and he ripped his way inside her tiny pelvis. She bit her lip and tasted blood. She would not scream again, no matter what, he would not hear her cry out again.
He entered her repeatedly, like a starving man unable to sate his hunger.
“I gotta have hands, Belle. Many hands fer workin’.”
Belle remembered little about the nights of those first few months. She moved slowly, with painstaking care, completing her chores like a very aged, sick woman whose joints were stiff and swollen with arthritis.
He came to her almost nightly that first year, so deep was his desire to sire a family, and with time, her body matured. Eventually, her belly became full and heavy.
In the twilight hours before morning, Bachelor sent Daddy Sam for the midwife. She had been in labor for many hours, but Belle heard the knock. The door opened, and firelight danced upon a round, flat face wreathed in a wild bush of coarse, gray hair. The stale odor of toil and fatback floated across the room.
Thick, cracked fingers, like roughened sausages, swept the strands of sweat-soaked hair from Belle’s face. They scratched across her tiny forehead, failing in their efforts to soothe or relieve her great distress.
A wave of pain gripped her back and ripped across her abdomen. She screamed, throwing her head into the pillow.
Gawd, I’m dyin’, she thought, clawing the sheet.
The dark shadow of layered skirts and aprons loomed over. Belle, lifting her thin, white legs, knees bent into the air.
“Ya got’sta push, Missy. Ya heah? When de pain come. Push dis life out’sa ya. Let hit come on out twixt yo legs, Missy. Heah? He’p me, Missy! He’p me gits dis’ chile ou’ cha belly!”
In the dim light, the midwife spied a glossy circle of wet, shining scalp.
“Ah d’clare to gracious, ah seed hit! Praise da Lawd, chile!
Hit sa comin’!
Heah now, push with all dat’s en ya! Work dat seed out! When da pain come, push, Missy, lik’t ya ain’t nevah done a’fo’!”
The nauseating wave of pain swept over her again. She gathered her strength, pushing and screaming simultaneously.
In minutes, it was over.
“Gut Lawd en heben,” the midwife whispered.
They both just stood there.
Bachelor and the woman.
She struggled to rise up on one elbow.
She saw her husband’s back, his slick black hair just brushing his collar. His head was bowed.
Beside him, stood the midwife.
The frizzled mass of gray wool was perched atop a wide, round body. Belle saw apron strings tied in a slanted bow, binding her expansive hips in a waterfall of material. Skirts and aprons gathered and cascaded to the floor. One loop was twice as large as the other as if the apron had been hastily thrown on without thought.
“Batch’lah, whut is it?” she croaked hoarsely.
Bachelor turned to face her. His eyes were hollow and blank. His face was ashen. His mouth was a taut line.
He held the tiny bundle between his large, work-hardened hands, and without a word, he walked toward the doorway.
“Batch’lah!” Belle screamed. “Don’ ya dare walk outta’ ‘is room, ya’ heah me? Don’t turn yer back ‘n leave me! Batch’lah! Batch’lah! Bring me my babe! Batch’lah!”
The silent figure continued through the door.
“Damn ya! Damn ya! I wanna see my babe! Batch’lah! Baaaaatch’lah! Dear Gawd, lem’me die! Jes’ lem’me die! Batch’lah! Come back heah!”
She struggled to rise, but dark, strong hands held her to the bed.
“Whut ya doin’ Missy? Don’ ya rile ya’sef so. Don’ ya go frettin’ to tawk naw nonsense. Calm ya’se’f, heah. Yo’ gos’ta res’. Dat’s jes’ whut ya gos’ta do now, Miss. Ya heah ole’ Mam. Ya got’sta stop thrashin’ so. Res’ now, Missy. Jes’ res’ like ole’ Mam say . . . ”
She felt coarse fingers stroking her hair.
The sing-song voice droned on in the dim light of dawn.
“De be plenny time fa’ ya, Missy. Plenny time fa’ mo’.”
Whut in Gawd’s earth is she tryin’ to tell me? ’Belle wondered feverishly.
She looked into the woman’s eyes and begged for answers.
“He be ded, Missy. Dat po’ liddle bebe be ded. Bo’wn wit’ de cord wrapped plum roun’ his liddle, biddy neck, all blue ‘n pur-pull, Missy. De breath o’ life dun be sqez’zed plum outta’ ‘em, po’ liddle t’ang.”
A low moan escaped Belle.
“But don’ fret ya’sef, Missy. Naw, naw. Ya be young, ’n ya kin try a’gin. Da’ze plenny time fer ya ‘n ya’ Mistah. Ya got lots’a livin’. Ya young ‘n strong ‘n de ness time, ya see. Ya heah ole’ Mam?
Nex’ time, ebber’thin’ gonna be awright. Gawd bless ya po’ liddle soul. I jes’ knowed ‘at nex’ time, ya gonna haf ya’sef a big, fat howlin’ bebe. Ya see, Missy, I jes’ knowed ‘at nex’ time id’ beed awright.”
The midwife told her it had been a man-child. And Belle had only the old woman’s word, for Bachelor buried the child that same night, before Belle ever laid eyes on it. Perhaps, if she had been allowed to see its face, she reasoned, she might have had some sense of closure. As it was, she couldn’t make herself believe that her firstborn baby boy was really gone.
She visited the grave every day for one month. Bachelor slept in the spare room, but after the month passed, he came to her and told her that the season of mourning was over. He had been patient, but it was time to get on with life.
He crawled in bed beside her. She spread her legs obligingly, but as he worked himself up, she put her mind into another place. Her body floated to the small mound of dirt and rock in the yard out back. There, she imagined she nestled down beside her tiny bundle, deep inside the earth, and placed the small faceless head between her breasts.
Thaddeus was born a year later, followed eventually, by many more.
And all, as the Good Book says, created in the image of their father.
The time for talking and pleas for compromise had ceased.
With the shots at Fort Sumter, all hope of a negotiated settlement over the issues of slavery and states’ rights evaporated like the morning’s dew after a blistering summer’s sunrise. Northerners opposed Southerners in a bloody test to determine the destiny of the nation. The battle had been raging for months when Bachelor announced he was leaving home to join the Cause. It was high time to take his stand with the Rebels, he explained to the tiny woman standing rigidly before him. He could no longer stomach being on the sidelines while others fought valiantly in his stead.
“A man’s life is a paltry sacrifice, but in the end, it is ‘bout all he has to offer, Belle. I don’t ‘spect ya to unnerstand, bein’ jes’ a woman. But I’m talkin’ ‘bout duty ‘n honor. Things cain’t nawbody put ‘air fists ‘round, but things I hold holy ‘n deep inside.”
Duty? Honor? Life — a paltry sacrifice? Belle’s head was spinning.
He had never wanted this war, he told her, and, like many others, he had sensed from the beginning that it would be a long, hard struggle. Perhaps, it was lost from the start, he told her, but when Virginia voted to secede, his lot had been cast with the South.
“As a man, it’s sump’in I jes’ gotta do.
Stayin’ home brands me as the lowest ‘a cowards, Belle. I wouldn’t be fittin’ to walk the earth ef I stayed home in safety, lettin’ others do whut I ought’to be doin’ mah’sef.
How kin I show my face amongst all our neighbors who have sent ‘air sons ‘n husbands to fight, whilst I stay on my land, safe ‘n doin’ nuthin’ to help?
How kin I hold my head up ‘n look my boys in the eye like I wanna– man to man?
I’d not be naw good fer nuthin’ to my boys, Belle.
I would not be sump’in I would even call a man. Least ways, not the kinda man I wanna be to ‘em sons a mine.
My boys ‘ud knowed right off ‘air daddy was jes’ a liver-lilly coward ‘at failed to do his hon’rable duty ‘n fight like a brave man oughta fight when the scrappin’ done commenced.
I’d be a shame to myse’f ‘n my youngins. I cain’t let my sons down like ‘at. I’d rather be dead ‘n not go off ‘n fight.
So, I gotta go ‘cause it’s jes’ the right thing to do.”
Belle stood silently as the whole world shifted beneath her feet.
“It took me a spell to get ever’thin’ set right these past few weeks, but Thad ‘n Jed ‘er strappin’ boys now, ‘n with yo’ he’p, both ‘em ‘er mo’ ‘an able to seein’ to things on the place whilst’ I’m gone. But I wan’ ya to know one thing, Belle. I promise, as the Almighty Gawd in he’ben is my witness, I aim to come back to ya. Ya have my solemn oath on ‘at.
Ef ‘air is enny way undah the stars above, I am gonna come back to ya ‘n ‘em boys a’mine. We kin pick up Life where we leavin’ off. Mark my words. We ’ull pick up jes’ like a’fore when I come back to ya.”
He talked in this way about war and the reasons he would leave for many nights. The house was filled with the muffled sounds of sleeping children. Over and over again, he took her.
Then in the morning, he was gone.
“I am gonna be comin’ back, Belle. Ya gonna see,” he called back to her as he neared one of the apple trees in the bottom orchard. “Jes’ as sure as Laz’rus come back from the dead! Take care ‘a my boys, Belle! Take care ‘a my sons, ya heah!”
She watched him track over the hill. He had looked back only once, waved toward the house, and was gone.
“He ‘ull be back,” she whispered. “He ‘ull be back. He has gotta come back. He simply hasta!”
Days passed. Belle waited patiently, but Bachelor did not return.
Within a few weeks, Thad and Jed, restless and eager to join the fray, began to talk of joining their father. Both boys made their intentions clear one evening after supper. They planned to run off and join a local regiment, they told her, and nothing she would say or do could change their minds.
Belle refused to remain silent this time.
Bachelor was her husband, and his word was law. If he made up his mind to abandon his family, Belle could not object. As his wife, she had no more say in any decision he set his mind to than one of the cows or pigs on the farm had. She was his property, plain and simple, not his equal.
But Thad and Jed, Belle reasoned, were different.
They were hers – her flesh, her sons, and they belonged to her just as much as they belonged to her husband. Perhaps, Belle reasoned, these children were, in some ways, more hers than Bachelor’s.
She, not Bachelor, had born them, nursed them, cried, worried, and prayed over them through all of their years of life. Bachelor had put food upon their table, but it had been Belle who had given them their first drops of milk from her breast.
It had been Belle who had stayed up with them through bouts of dysentery, croup, and a multitude of childhood ailments and disasters. It was Belle who had wiped their soiled behinds and brushed their tears away.
They sprang from Bachelor’s seed, but most of her life had gone into raising them.
As their mother, she felt she had every right to stand her ground and forbid them from leaving the farm. This war was a bunch of nonsense, and she reasoned she had no great Cause to take up. Life went on pretty much as always since the fighting began. The sun came up over the eastern meadow every morning as it had since she’d moved here many years ago. The seasons came. The fields matured. The cows dropped their calves.
What did all this talk of slavery and state’s rights have to do with her family?
And look at what had happened since the war started. She was horrified to think about it.
Bachelor had deserted his family, abandoned his station as her husband and as her children’s father. Neighbors for miles around were mourning the loss of fathers, husbands, and sons.
All for what?
You couldn’t put a serving of honor on a child’s plate and spoon it into his mouth and fill his stomach. How small their father’s protests had seemed to her. Now, here were the boys, her own flesh and blood sons, sounding so much like him, she thought, even stealing his arguments and making them their own.
“So whut ef we die, Maw? We gotta stand up! A man ‘at don’ step up ‘n do his duty is a low-down, scum-eatin’ rascal. We aim to be counted amongs’ the men, Maw, not the scoundrels. We gotta kill us some Yanks, ‘n do it quick! ‘Fore the frickus is ovah, ‘n we miss out on it!”
“Men!” Belle spat at their shoes. “Ya’ll ain’t nuthin’ but tadpoles! Neithah one ‘a ya is nowhere near’st to bein’ full-growed. Lis’sen to ya hawg wash. Ya ready to die, ‘n ya ain’t eben started livin’. Ready to die! Ready to die! You two ain’ got no notion ‘bout bein’ ready ta die! I knowed ‘bout death firsthand! I knowed! ‘N I knowed you two ain’ no wheres near ‘bout ready to die! I nevah heared tell ‘a such foolishness in all my borned days!”
She tried to slow the many thoughts that were running rampant in her brain.
“Gotta do yer duty, ya say! All ‘is talk ‘bout duty ‘n honor! Why, ‘em is jes’ flowery words like petals ‘at parfume the air, boys. Purty to look at, but good fer nuthin’!
I ain’t nevah heared tell ‘a such foolish prattle.
Whut makes men hon’rable?
I kin tell ya!
Growed men ought to do ‘air duty ‘n stay clos’t to home. Tend to their biz’ness and tend to whut needs tendin’ to ‘round the homeplace,” Belle argued.
“’At’s a man’s duty!” she said.
She scoffed, letting her voice get louder with each point of her argument.
“‘N heah ya two is full’a all ‘is big talk! Talk don’ do nuthin’ but fill a sow’s bladder with hot air.
I’m sick to death ‘a talk!
I tell ya, ya two boys is like a sprout ‘a weed ain’t hardly broke through the soil to see the sun a’ shinin’.
Ya’ll mooning ovah a great notion ‘at war is sump’in to make men out’cha. Ya itchin’ to be gittin’ into the middle of a fray ‘fore the frickus is done gone ‘n ovah with ‘n done passed ya by. Ya got ya heads filled with all ‘ese notions ‘at war is sump’in’ glorious. Sump’in’ ‘at’s gonna make heroes out’cha both. Ya’ll think war is nuthin’ worse ‘an a boil on yer butts.
But lis’sen to yer Ole’ Maw.
I seen a might few years pass me by, ‘n it ‘as learn’t me a thing ‘er two!
War ain’t honey ‘n muh‘lasses. It ain’t some great white light full’a honor. War is sump’in’ to be greatly a’feared of, like a death disease ain’t naw cure fer.
War is wrapped up like a party box in pride. Men too proud to find the middle ground, gotta go off shootin’ to make ‘air point stead ‘a bein’ sensible ‘n actin’ like growed men ought to act.
War is ‘bout killin’ good men ‘n maimin’ ‘em so’s ‘ey ain’t good fer nuthin’ naw mo’.
Lawd Gawd. Ya both been moonin’ since ya paw left.
Ain’t naw good come from pinin’ ovah nuthin’ like ‘at. Ya’ll ain’t got naw idea whut ya’ll in fer. I heared the old ones talk when I was liddle. Folks was fightin’ to keep whut was ‘airn from ‘em Injuns. Times was mighty hard back ‘en. Harder ‘an whut ya’ll seed on ‘is farm. Ya ain’t got naw idea ‘bout how bad real bad kin be! ‘N such talk ‘a fightin’ ‘n killin’ like it was play! War ain’ goin’ off with ya poles ‘n fishin’ fer Yanks!
You two talk like war was no mo’ ‘an shootin’ a rabbit ‘er killin’ a snake! Lis’sen to me. Killin’ a squir’l ‘er a coon ain’t nuthin’ like killin’ a man. ‘Em critters we kill, we ‘et. Ey’ meat on our plates.
But killin’ men! Ya don’ want naw part ‘a ‘at. I promise ya. ’At kinda killin’ will haint ya the rest ‘a ya days!”
She looked around, as if trying to pull words out of the air that would help her children understand what she was trying to explain to them.
“War! War! War! Whut ‘n tarnation do enny ‘a us knowed ‘bout war?” she continued. “Nuthin’, I sez. Nuthin! But I knowed one thing clear. Ya place is with us on the farm!
‘Ey done been doin’ wit’out ya fer all ‘is time jes’ fine. Done been fightin’ jes’ fine with n’air one ‘a ya two boys, too.Trust Ole’ Maw. ‘Is war ain’t naw concern ‘a ourn,” she told them. “We got us naw cause to be fightin’, ya heah me, naw reason to go off killin’ nawbody.
We ain’t got naw slaves, naw mo’. The onliest one I evah knowed yer Paw to own was Daddy Sam, ‘n he be long dead ‘n moldered in the ground.
Why, t’were nevah naw need fer t’others aftah Daddy Sam passed on. Ya’ boys come ‘long, one after nu’thern, jes’ like green peas put side by side in a pea pod.
Ya took up ole Daddy Sam’s yoke, jes’ like yer Paw always wanted.
‘At was whut yer Paw needed yer to be borned fer, ya know, to he’p out right heah on the farm. ’N though we ain’t done nuthin to deserve none ‘a it, why Gawd Hisse’f done blessed us wondahful fine, ya ask’t me.
‘Bove ‘n beyond whut we could’da evah hoped fer.
We got us ‘is home, ‘em fields yonder, ‘is mill. ‘N most ‘a all, we got each other. We got hearth ‘n fam’ly. Ain’t ‘at more’na plenty, Thad? Jed?
Whut in blue blazes ya gotta go off fightin’ ‘n gittin’ yerse’f kil’t fer?
T’ain’t gonna mount to nuthin’. We ain’t got naw Injuns tryin’ to take whut’s our’n. Whut’s our’n is our’n, bought ‘n paid fer with years a toil ‘n sweat.
I’m a’tellin’ ya, whut ‘az ruffled evah’body’s feathahs ain’t ruffled our’n. ‘Is squawk ‘bout Causes ain’t nuthin’ but hawg-wash,” Belle argued. “Dis be a gen’men’s war, not a scrap fer dirt farmers like us. I ain’t got naw book learnin’, but I heared yer Paw ‘n ‘em othah fellahs talkin’.
Seems to me ‘is be a brawl ‘twixt planters ‘n rich folk ‘n Yanks. The kinda folks ‘at would look down ‘air noses ‘n wouldn’ piss on us ef’n we was crispin’ up in Hell’s flames.
Mos’ the rest‘a our neighbors ‘er like us. Got a handful ‘a acres ‘at ‘ey tryin to scratch ‘a living from. We ain’t white trash, mine ya. We honest, hard-laborin’ folks from good stock.
Ya got a lot to be proud fer, but we ‘er closer to ‘em folks at the bottom a’ the ant hill ‘n we ‘ull evah be to ‘em high falutin’ ones on fine plan’ashuns whut got mo’ acres ‘n a man got numbers in his head to count. Dem fine folkses lives at the top ‘a the ant hill.
We jes’ simple folk, boys, lucky to own our land. Got streams runnin’ fast enough fer millin’ ‘n a few good fields fer crops. Mah boys ain’t dandies.
Ye ain’t nevah been suckled on honey ‘n grape wine from gold gourds. We got dirt undah our nails ‘n manure worked into our skin. We got us naw cause to shed blood fer a scrap ‘at we got naw biz’ness tryin’ to stick our noses into in the furst place. All we need is to be left alone to live out our days heah in ‘is valley in peace.”
She looked into their determined faces. It felt like she was pleading to the walls.
“I forbid ya to leave, Thad! Jed! Ya gotta stay heah with me! Ya’ll belong heah on ‘is patch a land ‘et gives ya life!
Look ‘et ‘ese othah babes. Ya brudders. ‘Em liddle fellahs needs yer strong hand to help ‘em,” she argued. “Lawd knows, I done my best, but I cain’t handle ‘is place all by my lonesome. I need ya boys heah, close to’ home, where ya wuz borned to he’p me run ‘is place.
Lis’sen to Ole Maw. Stay ‘n do the hard thing. The right thing. Stay ‘n tend to things ‘at mattahs. Right heah on the farm. Heah with yer brudders ‘n Ole’ Maw!
Yer Paw might not nevah come back. I knowed he promised us all he would, but I can’t put naw stock in words ‘n promises. I need hands fer the work ‘at’s heah to be done.
Clear ‘at back acreage yer paw pined fer to be cleared.
‘At water wheel on the mill needs mendin’. Yo Daddy said so many times. It ‘uz been ovah five year, ‘n the snow, ice, ‘n wet done ‘bout rotted it plum out.
We gonna need food fer the winter. A dry roof overhead. ‘At mill is whut he’ps us git by.
‘Em little boys, whut ‘er yer brudders, needs strong hands to guide ‘em. Men’s hands.
‘Ey libelst to growed up stubborn as mules ‘n wild as bucks ef ya leave.
‘At’s whut a man wuz borned to do. A man is borned to take care ‘a his own.
Land ‘n home, wife ‘n chil’lun. Blood. Family.
‘Ems the holy things, boys. ‘Ems whut makes yer duty, ‘n em’s the things whut rightly brings ya honor. ‘At’s whut gives ya pride to be able to look othahs straight in the eye ‘n stand tall ‘n high,” Belle said.
But her arguments fell upon deaf ears.
Their minds were made up. Both were determined to enlist and leave her bosom – Thad, her eldest living son, and Jed, who had just turned sixteen.
Belle watched them until they disappeared over the crest of the far hill.
She felt empty.
She knew in her soul that she would never understand why each had felt compelled to leave. She could only stand in bitter silence, watching as their familiar silhouettes grew smaller and smaller, until finally, they disappeared over the last far hill.
A slight brush against her calf caused her to look down. Well, she wasn’t totally alone, she thought. She had this one and two others. She brushed Hal’s soft hair with her fingertips.
Her other hand rested upon her abdomen.
And she had what Bachelor had left inside of her – his gift from their last nights together.
* * * * *
Thad and Jed had been in good spirits the morning they left the farm. Both boys were briefly saddened and more then a little guilty over leaving their mother and the little ones, but after putting a few miles behind them, the memory of Belle’s hard, dark eyes faded, and the two were soon feeling as if they were off on a great adventure.
Neither had ever been more than a few miles from home, and the prospect of traveling across the valley to hook up with a southern regiment filled them with excitement. They were brimming with lofty ambitions of proving themselves good soldiers and honorable men.
“Ya’ think we’ull be in the thick right off?” Jed asked his older brother.
“Don’t rightly knowed fer shore. Seems a purty good chance, I guess. Jesse Budd seen a bit a fightin’.”
“Yeah. I heared his paw talkin’ las’ week,” Thad explained. “Course, Jesse ‘uz one ‘a the furst to go. Done made sergeant, so his paw sez.”
Jed giggled with glee, “Me’be Jesse ‘ull be orderin’ us ‘round, whut ya think? You gonna take orders from a Budd, brother? From Brother Budd, bud? Heh, ya gonna do it?”
Thad punched him lightly on the arm.
“Ya awf’ly full ‘a ya’se’f, ain’t ya,” Thad said.
“Naw, jes’ messin’ ‘round,” Jed replied. “Hey, whut ya ‘spose Maw ‘ud say ef we come up one day with a mess full ‘a stripes on our arms, Thad?”
“’At’ud be a wonder now, wudn’ it?”
They walked until sunset, having put several miles between themselves and home. They stopped at a farmhouse and asked if they could bed down in the barn straw.
“Ya goin’ off to fight, I ‘spect,” the old farmer said, opening the door to the barn.
“Yes, suh,” Thad answered.
“Well, aftah ya stow ya gear, come on inside the house. The missus ‘ull fix ya up wit’ some vittles.
Runnin’ off to join ‘at frickus? Cain’ sez I blames ya none. Ain’t got mech, me ‘n the missus.
Nevah did. Be honored to share whut we got wit’ ya, though.
Lived heah all my life. Jes’ scrubbin’ out enough to keep from starvin’. Nevah cottoned to holdin’ slaves, neithah. Nevah held ‘at as right. I’ull tell ya ‘is boys, when all ‘is ruckus started, I ‘uz holdin’ ‘at war weren’t fer us. Not dis scrap.
I’da jes’ soon be left ‘lone, like we allus ‘a been ‘round heah. Leaf ‘em rich men haf’ ‘air fight! Weren’ naw nevah’mine to me ner mine.
But the sek’und ‘em damn Yanks set foot ‘n Dixie, ‘em Feds crawlin’ ‘bout on sa’crit, Suthun soil ‘at has been ourn fer gen’rashuns, well, by golly ‘is time to stand up.
Yes, suh. Time to take back whut’s ourn.
Wud’da gone off myse’f, but I done got too long in the tooth. Hell, I’m oldah ‘n dirt. Way too ole to be enny good fer fightin’. Got no stayin’ pow’r no mo’. Jes’ ain’t naw ‘count fer nuthin’.”
He stood stooped in the doorway, framed in the fading glow of day.
“Wash up. I’ll go tell maw to throw a ‘xtra bone in ‘a stew pot! ‘Et ain’t fancy, boys, but ya sholy be welcomed to share whut’s ourn. Ya more‘n welcome to pur’take, boys. More’n welcome.”
The boys ate heartily.
They traveled for three more days before joining up with a regiment.
Two days after that, while drilling with the other men in their company, Thad and Jed were learning how to use a carbine. The weapon exploded in Thad’s hands, killing both boys almost instantly.
Hours later, the company was suddenly called to arms. The bodies of the two boys had hardly been buried when the enemy surprised the camp. The skirmish quickly escalated into a heated battle. Some of the Rebels stumbled out of their tents with one boot on and suspenders trailing behind them in the wind. Some tore off to fight with no shirt. The camp was turned into a scene of chaotic mayhem.
Lacking guns, some grabbed clubs and sticks. Those lucky few who had a gun nearby, grabbed the weapon, and commenced firing at point blank range.
Faces were blown off.
Swords were drawn, and bowie knives unsheathed, spearing flesh and renting bone in fierce hand-to-hand combat. The ground was soon littered with debris and bodies. Above the din of grapeshot and the ringing clash of swords, oaths were screamed, curses yelled, and the casualties of war began piling up in heaps.
Still the men fought on, both sides refusing to give ground. The final shot was a gut shot that blew through the abdomen of the last standing Confederate in the company. As the smoke cleared, the soft cooing of a mourning dove was heard in the sudden silence that blanketed the woods.
The Yankees left the dead where they had fallen – Confederate and Union.
Their leader was intent on resuming their twenty-mile march. He had his orders.
Weeks passed, and no word reached Belle concerning her husband or her sons. The summer heat was blistering. She stepped onto the porch, hoping to catch a stray breeze. She shaded her eyes, letting them adjust to the blinding glare.
A lone stranger stood in the yard.
“Name’s Riley ma’am. Porcher Riley. Got a last name fer a furst, ‘n a furst’un fer a last ‘un.
Mos’ folks jes’ call me Riley. I need honest work, ma’am,” the thin figure in dirty, tattered rags stated. “Call yer man, ‘er tell me whut field he is in, so’s I kin go ‘n have myse’f a talk wit’ ‘em.”
“My man ain’t heah,” Belle said gruffly, “’n I ain’t got naw jobs fer ya. At least nuthin’ I kin pay ya cash wages fer.”
“I ain’t askin’ fer naw money, ma’am. I kin work fer food ‘n a dry spot to lay my bones down ‘n sleep nights. The barn ‘ull do.”
She sized him up.
He was thin and wiry, almost skeletal, with shaggy, dark hair parted severely in the middle and a dark, matted, untrimmed beard. His face and hands were raw; his homemade dingy shirt was soaked with sweat. He was rank with odors that reached her even up on the porch.
Deserter, most likely.
Whut should I do? she wondered. Whut would my husband do ef he was standin’ heah in my stead?
“You could use new shingles. I kin make ‘em,” he began. “Coupla’ yer fences ‘er in purty bad shape, too. I kin plow, haul, er tote from sun up ‘til down.
Done millin’ work in my time, too.
I knowed I’m a sight fer sore eyes, but jes’ try me, Lady, fer a few days. I ain’t aimin’ to take advantage ‘a ya ‘ner yourn.
Ef by week’s end, ya got complaints, jes’ send me a’packin’. I ‘ull go. Naw trouble. Ya got my word.”
“’Air’s a war on,” Belle said. “Why ain’t ya off like all the rest? Off fightin’?”
“Got my reasons, ma’am. ‘N I ain’t naw coward ner deserter, neither, ef ‘at’s whut’s rubbin’ yer craw. I jes’ am passin’ through. Need honest work ‘n a morsel or two to he’p keep me a’livin’.”
Whut should I do?
Evah dad-blame word he sez is gospel truth.
The place is fallin’ down ‘round my ankles, ‘n I’m up to my knees in things ‘at needs fixin’.
I cain’t mend ‘em.
The good Lawd knows I done tried my level best, but I could sholy use a man’s know-how fer some things.
Ain’t like he is famil’r, though. He is a strange man in ‘ese parts, she argued with herself.
Not from ‘round heah, I ‘spect. Dropped from the sky ‘bove, fer all I knowed.
“Awright,” she said flatly. “Till week’s end. I make naw promises beyon’ ‘at time.”
He stayed, toiling beside her, and the amount of work he did for her grossly outweighed the food she gave him in return. But he never mentioned this, nor once complained. He repaired the roof, mended the fences, and dug a new well when the old one went dry. On his suggestion, she allowed him to enlarge the garden area near the house. He fenced it in and planted it for her, and she couldn’t help noticing the pride in his face when he brought her the first of its offerings.
They feasted on corn, beans, and tomatoes in greater amounts than she had ever known. He helped her put up the excess abundance on Sundays. She’d thought this reproachful, a sin to work so on the Lord’s Day. But he quietly assured her that the Almighty, who looks down from the sky upon all mankind, would see her heart and surely understand her predicament.
Sundays, during harvest time, he was free from the mill to help her in the kitchen. In the beginning, it had been impossible for her to imagine letting a man, any man, much less this stranger, into her kitchen. But there he was, as big as Life, and with her three young sons in tow, as well. The boys were quite appalled at the idea of being made to do woman’s work, but Riley insisted that all hands be present.
“Work is work,” he told them, “not to be halved ‘twixt mine ner yer ma’s chores. Yer ma ‘n me aim to try to keep yer bellies full ‘es winter.Ya eat, ya work. Jes’ as simple as ‘at.”
His message was met by silence and sulking faces.
“Now, yer ma, heah, she hired me to work. Didn’t spell out naw spe’shul kind ‘a work neither. ‘Es heah is work, boys. Me ‘n yer maw need us a hand with all we gotta do. So, let’s us all git at it. Les’ see ef we cain’t drag ‘es heah mountain down to a teeny, weenie, liddle, ole pissant hill.”
The word ‘pissant’ brought a smile to the little faces.
Eagerly, they pitched in.
Suddenly, Riley had turned women’s chores into a challenge.
Throughout the harvest season, she toiled alone in the kitchen, from Monday to Saturday, but on Sundays, her army of helpers could be counted upon to assist. Riley worked the mill and the fields for six days during harvest season, but the seventh day found him doling out jobs between himself and the boys.
One stoked the stove while another helped wash jars. One washed, peeled, and par-boiled raw vegetables or fruit, while another packed them into jars. Even little Hal was called upon to tote a stick of firewood or two.
As each week passed, her larder expanded, and a colorful assortment of vegetables, fruits, jams, jellies, relishes, and meats lined her shelves.
“Whut a wonder, Riley!” she exclaimed as she stood back and surveyed their handiwork. “I knowed a liddle ‘bout the pride Cain musta’ felt when he brung his harvest ‘fore the Lawd. I’ll sholy pray fer fergiv’ness t’night, Riley. But right now, my heart is jes’ ‘bout to bust wide open. I’m so full ‘a pride in spite’a myse’f!”
That night he smiled, for he felt her joy.
He pulled the coarse blanket around his shoulders and lay down upon the pine floor of the shed. His muscles relaxed, and the snores of his slumber joined the songs of the night.
I hope you enjoyed this part.
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