Peggy Poe Stern, Mountain Author: Ever so common, ever so uncommon

Excerpt from #01, Heaven-high & Hell-deep

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Excerpt from #01, Heaven-high & Hell-deep
Excerpt from #16, Blind Faith
Excerpt from #17, Served Cold
Excerpt from #18, Better Off Dead
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First three chapters of Heaven-high and Hell-deep

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 Chapter 1

 

             I squatted in the garden picking half-runner beans. Twenty-two quarts, a full run, was boiling nicely in the copper canner over the open fire. Dad had laid up three walls of rock making a canning pit the right size to place the canner on top of metal bars. Dad taught me how to build a hot fire and keep wood fed in it for three hours for each canning. That way the heat could be kept out of the house. Dad said that was the way his own Momma had done it.

            I had eighteen quarts of broke beans sitting on the porch and needed four more quarts for the second run. The August sun was shining down hot, making me feel grumpy and overworked. I grumbled to myself that Momma and Susie could have helped some, but Momma claimed to be having one of her spells.

            Susie was tending to Momma and watching Joey in the cool shade inside the house while I’m stuck in the sun toiling over a hot fire.

            Susie was older and bigger than me but that doesn’t make any never mind when it came to work. I got more than my share. Susie had it easy. Momma claimed Susie took back after her and was sickly. I never saw anything sickly about Susie. I saw spoiled and petted but not sickly. I saw long slender hands and long fingers with filed nails, hair blonde as Momma’s and creamy white skin without a hint of the sun’s hated tan. Momma said tan face and hands were a sign of poor white trash. If that was true, there weren’t many women in our mountain hollow that weren’t poor white trash, me included.

            Joey was my sweet little brother, the much-adored male child in the family. Joey was spoilt worse than Susie. He was only three years old and as fat as a pat of butter with pink cheeks and chubby legs that could run like a blue streak.

             I saw his little face, all crunched up and red the day he was born. “He’s ugly,” Susie had said. But to me, he was the most beautiful thing I had ever laid my eyes on. To this day, Dad reminded me he was not a baby doll for me to cuddle.

            I stood, picked up my hamper of beans, rested it on my hip and started out the row when I heard Joey cry. It brought a cold knot to my chest. Then I heard Susie scream.

            “No! Joey! Laine, help!”

            I dropped my hamper and took off at a run. I jumped rows of beans and knocked over a stake of tomatoes then jumped the garden fence. I felt my skirt catch on wire and rip, but I didn’t slow down. I rounded the corner of the house and pure terror put extra speed in my legs. Joey was rolling on the ground in front of the bee gums. Bees covered his body as thick as maggots working rancid meat. I could see bees covering Joey’s little head and others swarming around his body.

There seemed to be miles between Joey and me as his cries tore at my soul. My heart was near bursting knowing what was happening to Joey.

I leaped the creek and clawed up the bank on my hands and knees. I grabbed his writhing body up off the ground and tumbled backward toward the creek. I half jumped and half fell into the shallow water.

His chubby hands were trying to rake the bees off his head and face. I pushed Joey in the water face and all. I grabbed handfuls of sand and dirt and scrubbed at the bees still clinging to him. Honeybees lit on my arms and doubled up their bodies as they stung. I felt them stinging my back and tangling in my hair but I paid them no mind.

Suddenly, Dad grabbed the back of my dress and lifted me out of the water with one hand while grabbing Joey with the other.

            “Get to the house and outta them clothes. They’re full of bees!”

            Susie stood on the porch screaming. Momma leaned against the door with one hand on her heart and the other over her mouth. They were frozen to the spot as they watched.

            They parted to let us inside, watching as Dad laid Joey on the floor and ripped off his clothes, mashing any bees he came to.

            “Hush, hush,” Dad’s voice tried to soothe Joey. “I’ve got you now. They won’t hurt you no more.”

            I stripped out of my clothes as I hurried into the adjoining bedroom, trying to mash the bees in my hair with the material of my dress. My entire body was burning from stings, but I tried to pay the pain no mind. I pulled my only other dress on and rushed back to Dad and Joey. Fear was exploding in my chest. I had seen hundreds of bees covering my brother and knew what that many bees could do.

            Dad had Joey’s body stripped naked and laid out on the linoleum rolling him from side to side looking for bees. His plump little body looked like fire-coals had burned him.

            “He’ll need doctorin bad,” Dad said, as I kneeled on the floor.

            Joey’s face was starting to swell something awful. His cries turned into sobs as Dad gently raked at some of the dirt I had rubbed in Joey’s blonde hair.

            I heard Momma collapse on the couch and whimper louder than Joey. She sounded like an animal wild with fear and keening out of control. Momma was as white as clabbered milk. Her keening took on a higher pitch. I looked at Susie, wide-eyed and breathless, slumped on the floor beside Momma. Tears ran down Susie’s cheeks. All either of them had to do was look at Joey’s swelling head to know he was bad off.

            “I’ll have to go fetch the doctor.” There was desperation in Dad’s softly spoken words. “I’ll ride the mule to make it faster.”

            “Take Joey with you,” Susie sobbed.

            Dad looked at Joey and shook his head slow.

            “The ride would hurt him more’n it would help.” He turned toward me. “Laine, go piss in a pan. Dip rags in it and lay them on the stings. Ammonia helps draw out the pain of stings some.”

            Dad stood as I gathered Joey in my arms. “I’ll send Granny Mable to help,” he said.

            Dad’s body was jerking as he went out the front door. A honeybee, hunched up and stinging, was on the back of his neck, but he didn’t seem to feel it.

            “Bring me the pot,” I told Susie as I carried Joey to Momma’s bedroom and laid him down on her bed.

            His head was almost twice its normal size, and his face no longer looked human. Skin had swollen over his eye sockets until only the tips of his eyelashes could be seen. His lips had turned inside out and his mouth was open as he struggled to breathe. Joey’s fingers had swollen to the size of pickling cucumbers.

            Susie came to me, clutching the chamber pot to her chest. She stared at Joey.

            “It weren’t my fault,” she moaned. “ I didn’t know he had snuck outta the house till I heard him cry.”

            “Nobody’s blamin you.” I grabbed the pot from her hands and set it down on the floor. I jerked up my dress and squatted over the pot, and listened to the trickle of piss.

            “You’re actually gonna put that on him?”

            “Dad said it would help him, and I’ll do anything to ease the pain he’s sufferin.”

            Susie put her hands to her eyes and ran back to Momma. I looked through the bedroom door at them huddled together on the sofa. They could cling to each other and do what they could to help ease their sorrow. I didn’t have time to give them any comfort. I was going to save Joey.

            “Please God,” I prayed. “Help me ease his pain. Help me keep him alive!”

            “He’s dyin,” I heard Momma moan. “My boy’s dyin. Oh God! I can’t live and bear it. Why couldn’t it have been anybody but my little Joey? My baby boy! My precious baby boy!”

            I ripped up the skirt of my discarded, torn dress and dipped it in the pot, squeezed it lightly, then placed the strips on Joey until I had his entire head, face and body covered. I tried to wrap his hands, but he flung them as though he were still fighting the bees. I lifted the chamber pot onto the edge of the bed and stuck his little hands into what was left of the piss.

            I heard Momma get up off the couch and drag her stumbling feet to the bedroom. She came up behind me and looked down on Joey.

            “You’ve wrapped him in rags!” she sniffed.

            Dad said to. I’m trying to draw some of the pain out.”

            “Onions. Lightly cooked onions are good at drawin out poisons,” she whispered through trembling lips.

            Then go cook some! Why didn’t you jump off the porch and help him? I wanted to say. Instead I said, “Sit with him until I cut up onions and cook them.”

            “I can’t bear to look on my baby.” Tears ran down her cheeks. “I’m nigh onto passin out now.”

            She turned and rushed back to the couch. I heard the broken words of Susie as she tried to soothe Momma. I wanted to yell at them to cut up the onions and bring me Dad’s chewing tobacco. Any fool knew tobacco was good for stings. I also knew all the crying and squalling in the world would not help Joey. I propped pillows on each side of Joey’s twisting body to keep him from rolling off the bed and ran to the kitchen. I sliced onions, skin and all, into a frying pan then carried the pan out to my canning fire. I put several more pieces of wood in the fire and held the pan over the heat until the onions cooked clear. I took the pan back to the bedroom.

            His face was starting to get a tinge of blue and there was a rattling sound as he tried to breathe. Joey’s feet and hands hardly moved. I put the pan on the floor and turned Joey into different positions trying to make him breathe easier. Nothing helped.

            “Susie!” I yelled. “Come here! Help me raise him up.”

            Momma’s cries became louder as Susie left her. We lifted Joey into a sitting position, but he continued his struggle for breath through grotesque lips. His tongue, twice its normal size, stuck out of his mouth.

            “Bring me a spoon,” I told Susie. “He’s choking on his tongue.”

            She brought the spoon. I tried to press his tongue down as Susie held onto Joey, but it did no good. His breathing was labored and shallow, turning his skin bluer by the minute.

            “Do something, Laine,” Susie demanded.

            “Lay him flat.”

            We laid him flat on his back and I climbed on the bed beside him.  I put my mouth over his and tried to force my breath in his mouth.  I pinched his nose closed and tried again. It seemed to help a little so I continued to force my breath into his mouth.

            I don’t know how long I tried to breathe for Joey. It could have been only a few minutes or it could have been an hour before I felt a hand on my back.

            “Stop, child,” a gentle voice said. “You can’t do no more now.”

            I raised my head and looked at the face of Granny Mable. She lived alone in a small house down the road next to the mill. She served as mid-wife and passed out whatever medicine she could to people in need.  Dad had sent her.

            “Help Joey! He can’t breathe,” I said as I grabbed the hand that touched my back.

            “I know child. Come now. Come on into the front room. There’s no more abody can do.”

            “No!” I screamed at her and flung away her hand I had been gripping. “I’ll breathe for him.” I pressed my mouth on Joey’s again and tried to breathe harder into him. I wouldn’t give up! I wouldn’t let him die! He was my brother!

            “It’s no use child. He’s done passed over. Your breathin won’t help him. Nothing can help now. It’s done too late.”

            I heard her words but I had no intention of listening to them. I was strong and I was determined, and I would not let Joey die!

            “Laine, stop this. Your pa’ll be back soon with Doc Robinson.”

            I wouldn’t stop.

            Granny Mable sighed, knelt down beside the bed and began to pray.

I tried to breathe for Joey until I was beyond exhaustion. Finally, I collapsed on the bed, drew Joey to my breast and cried. I heard Granny Mable get up and go into the front room, leaving me alone with Joey.

            Once Dad and the doctor arrived, I left Joey with them and went outside. I took the cans of beans out of the canner and sat them on the grass. I put more split firewood on the fire, and filled my eighteen cans of beans with water and screwed on the lids. My canning would be four quarts shy of a full run.

            The doctor walked out of the house to where I was.

            “Elaine?” Doc Robinson called my name.

            He was old and white and wrinkled. He had such a sad smile on his face. I felt sorry for him as he came closer to me and reached out his hand to cup my chin. He lifted my face and observed me closely.

            “You got a lot of stings,” he told me gently.

            “I’m all right.” I turned away from his hand.

He nodded but did not seem to believe my words as he looked at the canning of beans. “You’re helping your Momma finish the canning?”

            “I do the cannin, Momma don’t.”

            He took a deep breath of air and looked along the little creek where the garden was.

            “Where were you when Joey got in the bees?”

            I told him, and wished he would go away and leave me alone. He didn’t get here in time to save Joey, and I didn’t want him hanging around now after it was too late.

            “Who was watching the boy?”

            “Susie, I reckon. Momma was having another of her spells and couldn’t help with the beans or Joey.”

            “How come you got to the boy before any of the others? Where was your father?”

            I gave him a look I hoped told him what I was thinking. I didn’t like him referring to my baby brother as ‘the boy’. It was time for him to leave. I wanted to be alone with my hurting, but I answered him anyway.

            “I’m quicker,” I told him. “Dad was patchin the wagon at the barn.”  Anger was beginning to burn in me hot as the fire under my canner.

            “How old are you?” he persisted.

            “Fourteen.” I looked at his wrinkled face. “How old are you?”

            “Older than I thought I would ever get.”

            “Joey won’t get that old,” I told him and gritted my teeth together.

            One gray eyebrow lifted and the sad smile faded until his face sagged. “I couldn’t have saved Joey if I had been here when he got stung. A full-grown man couldn’t survive the number of stings he got. To be honest with you, Elaine, I’m concerned about the stings you got. You’re a small boned girl and you’re not carrying much weight on your body.”

            “I didn’t get enough to hurt me none. You can’t help me no more’n you can help Joey.”

            He looked at my face for several moments, then he looked at the beans sitting on the grass and the ones I had just put on to cook. He looked at the fire I had filled with logs to burn long and split wood to burn hot.

            “I gave your mother and sister something to calm them down a bit. I had in mind you might need something, too.”

            I looked him in the eyes, hard. “I don’t reckon you’ve got a thing in that black bag of yourn that would help me.”

            He studied my face again then said, “Somebody has to do the canning.” Turned and walked away leaving me standing near enough the fire to feel the heat burning on the back of my legs.

            Susie came out the kitchen door and moved slowly across the porch. She stopped and clutched the porch post.

            “Laine, bring Momma in some cold spring water.”

            I watched her turn and walk awkwardly back into the house. The doctor’s medicine was working on her.

            When I carried Momma her glass of water, she was asleep on one end of the sofa and Susie was asleep on the other end. Dad was sitting on the bed beside Joey’s dead body. His head hung down and his hands were over his face. His shoulders trembled. I knew he was crying without making one single sound. I drank the water.

            The neighbors came to help with the death of Joey. Some folks didn’t even know us but  heard about the awful way Joey died. When old people die, it seems a matter of course, but when a three-year-old boy is stung to death by honeybees, it’s worth gathering together and talking about. Nobody in their right mind would want to miss seeing what that poor baby looked like after that many honeybees stung him to death.

            A lot of the women came walking on foot, others by wagon load, to help out. Several of them took the task of scrubbing the entire house clean. They washed floors, and walls, and ceilings. They had the windows shining and the lace curtains washed, starched, stretched on a nail rack, dried and rehung. The Warm Morning cook stove had been rubbed until the enamel glowed, and the front room heating stove had been polished with stove black. There wasn’t a towel or sheet in the house that escaped being washed and put back in its proper place. Even the bedclothes had been washed and aired.

            The men built a small coffin and dug a small grave. They brought jugs of moonshine and hid them in the hayloft for Dad. “A bit of numbin,” they said. Dad helped build the coffin and dig the grave. Then he stood in silence and watched the bee gums. I figured he might bust them up but he never did, just watched them.

            After the cleaning was done, the women had the men bring the coffin in the front room. They washed Joey from head to foot and combed his blonde curls about his face until he was prettier than any girl even though the swelling hadn’t gone away completely. Somebody brought an almost new suit of clothes and put it on Joey, then laid him in the coffin on a blue blanket.

            Once fixing Joey was done, the women began bringing in food. They had everything from deer meat to foods I had never seen before. There was food filling the entire kitchen.  I kept thinking how much Joey would have liked to eat all those sweet pies and cakes. He sure did love pies, but he would never eat another bite. The very thought made me head for the back door, but Momma’s trembling voice stopped me.

            “Laine honey, come on in here a minute,” she moaned in a weak voice.

            I got plumb shaky when Momma called me honey. It wasn’t natural coming from Momma. I took unwilling steps from the kitchen to where Momma sat on the sagging couch beside the preacher.  She dabbed at her eyes with the damp handkerchief she had twisted into a hard knot in her hand. She sniffed a time or two, shook the handkerchief out, and then blew her nose into the handkerchief.

            “Laine, honey, fix the preacher some fresh coffee and cut him a big piece of that cherry pie. No need for him to go hungry while we make the…the… arrangements.”

            New tears flowed from Momma’s eyes. She dabbed and sniffed.

            “Won’t you have a bite with me, Mrs. Elder?” the preacher asked as he reached out his hand and patted Momma on her shoulder in a comforting gesture.

            “No,” Momma moaned feebly. “I’ve not been able to put a bite of food in my mouth since…since…”

            “It’s all right,” the preacher soothed. “We understand.”

            “You can bring Susie some, Laine.” Momma gave her eyes a final dab and made a visible effort to control her tears. “She’s suffering so bad.”

            Susie was sitting hunched up in a chair trying not to look at Joey’s coffin or the preacher. She mostly stared at her hands and shifted her feet back and forth. Momma insisted earlier that Susie stay beside her while she and the preacher made Joey’s final arrangements.  All I wanted to do was slip out of the house and get away.

            I left the front room and put a fresh pot of coffee on the stove to perk. I stuck stove wood in the firebox to perk the coffee fast. Good coffee needs to perk slow.

            When I carried the two saucers of pie into the front room, Momma was bent over Joey. Her fingers touched his little face in a slow, longing manner.

            “Oh Lord! I can’t see him put in the ground tomorrow. I have to keep him with me a while longer. Oh, dear God! Such a dark hole! I just can’t live and bear it!”

            “It’s best to let him go,” the preacher said as he put his arm around her shoulder. “His spirit has left this world and gone to the next one. Let his body go too. He’s settin on the right-hand side of God right now. He’s shoutin with joy and singin with the angels. He’s playin in streets gold.”

            “No! Not tomorrow. Not tomorrow,” Momma cried.

            The preacher tugged on Momma in an effort to get her back to the couch. I saw her body go rigid. Momma had no intention of being moved away from the little coffin where her precious baby boy lay. The preacher had no intention of letting her stay beside her baby.

            I walked over to them and held out the saucer of pie toward the preacher.

            “Here,” I said. “Take this and I’ll get your coffee.”

            He looked at me and took the saucer of pie. I went to Susie and handed her the other saucer. The preacher left Momma crying at the coffin and went to sit on the couch to eat his pie. I took him coffee. He sat the saucer of half-eaten pie in his lap, took the coffee, and grabbed my hand. His voice took on a sorrowful, cajoling tone.

            “You know you have to help your Momma get through this. You’ve got to make her see that God’s will’s been done. He had a reason for takin that baby. God always knows what’s best.”

            I looked into his eyes and felt my lips draw back from my teeth. “If God let them bees kill Joey, I’ll never bend a knee to Him.”

            I saw unbelieving shock on the preacher’s face as I turned and walked out of the room and out the kitchen door.

            God having a reason for bees killing a baby. Joey playing in streets of gold. My hind end!

            I did the things that had to be done. Then I climbed the high hill and sat on the knob under a hickory tree and watched the moon rise in the sky. By this time tomorrow, my sweet little brother would be six feet underground, unless  Momma had her way.

            I could see our house down in the valley. People had started coming for Joey’s wake. I knew Momma would want me to help out, but I just couldn’t make myself do it. I thought of serving food and washing dishes while folks talked, prayed and cried. No, I couldn’t do it, not right yet.

            I curled up on the ground and listened to the calls of katydids and whippoorwills as night came on. The night air smelled sweet as the gentle wind blew over my body.

            When I opened my eyes, it was morning. The sky was beginning to light up and birds were starting to sing. I stood up and stretched myself free of stiffness. I brushed the leaves off my clothes and headed down the hill toward home.

            Women were cooking breakfast while the men were doing up the work. There wasn’t much left for me to do, so I wasted no time getting back outside. I went into the wood shed, sat down on a pile of wood and just sat there until I got hungry enough to go inside and hunt some food.

            The women were moving about in a hushed way, their faces tired and drawn from the night’s vigil of respecting the dead.

            One woman lifted her apron and dabbed at her eyes as she looked around the kitchen door into the bedroom where Momma was still sleeping.

            “Poor Mert. I’m glad she took some of the medicine the doctor left her.”

            “I can understand her grief. It would rip my heart out to see dirt shoveled over my baby.”

            “Lord! How she’ll live and stand it is more’n I know. It’s more’n a mother was meant to bear up under. It was a blessin the doctor left medicine to make her sleep.”

            “She’ll have to put her trust in God, knowin it’s meant to be,” another woman said.

            “God’s will, not mine, be done.”

            “That baby has to be buried today. Things rot quick in the hot part of August.”

            “Hush. It’d make her worse thinkin of her baby rotting.”

            “It’ll happen. They’ll have to keep her doped up till after the funeral.”

            “Dear Lord in heaven! Let’s pray she’ll come to herself and let that baby be buried without a fuss.”

            Several women wiped their eyes with apron tails.

            I stuck my head through the door and saw Susie sleeping on the couch. I grabbed two biscuits and two slices of fried ham off the table, and I took out the door. I’d hide out till they were all gone if I could.


 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

            After Joey’s funeral, things went downhill. Momma took to her bed with determination while Susie carried her plates of food and begged her to get up. Momma ate but refused to get out of bed. She lay there dabbing at her eyes with a hanky. When I came around, she looked at me with strange eyes. Eyes that glared and accused.

            Women from church came to visit her almost every day and brought her teas and tempting things to eat. They cosseted her like she was a child in need of comfort.

            The preacher stopped by often to talk to her.

            “God had his reason for takin that baby. You know he’s gone to a better place than here on this earth. He’ll never suffer again. There’s no bees in heaven.” I heard the preacher telling Momma as I peeped into the front room.

            “Oh Lord!” Momma moaned and clutched both hands in her hair. “I aim to die and go be with him!”

            “Now sister Mert. There’s no need takin on like this. You’ve got to believe in God’s wisdom.” I heard him say as I carried in stove wood to build a fire and start supper. I laid the firewood on the stove and went back out the door.

            The preacher could yak on about the wisdom of God, but I had no intention of listening. The preacher said God had a reason to take Joey. Bullshit! Joey died because Susie let him get in the bee gums.

            Preachers opened their mouths and let whatever flow out that sounded good at the time. He didn’t know where Joey had gone. Heaven? Hell? Just what did the preacher know that God kept secret from other folks?

            I crossed the dirt road to the barn. I could hide there until the preacher left.

            Dad was sitting in the corncrib with a bent, dirty, peck bucket between his knees. His big hands held an ear of corn and his thumbs shelled grains into the bucket. I’d never seen Dad doing that before.

            “I come to feed the chickens,” I told Dad.

            “Thought I’d shell you up some corn to last a day or two,” Dad said.

            Dad’s face looked a little red. I figured he’d been into that numbin medicine the men had hid in the loft. I didn’t blame him none. I might crawl up there in the loft and try a swallow of that stuff myself if I didn’t have so much work to get done. I suspected I’d fall down after a mouthful of liquor and break a leg. I’d seen it stagger Dad before.

            “Guess I’ll have to take milk and eggs to the store to sell soon,” Dad said.

            I heard the dread in his voice. He hadn’t been off the place since Joey died. I knew he dreaded facing people. Reckon Dad never did take much towards words and sympathy. He once told me that sympathy was something that came out of folk’s mouths to make them feel better when they were actually thinking, ‘Thank God it happened to them instead of me.’

            “I’m gettin several dozen eggs a day, and Eula likes em to be fresh. I can take em in,” I offered, but I didn’t want to.

            I would have to hitch the mule to the wagon. That confounded mule was the meanest beast alive. He tried to bite me whenever he got close unless I had a stick in my hand. I broke the hoe handle over his nose for biting me once. I still had tooth marks on my shoulder, a lighter shade than my skin.

            “I’ll go tomorrow mornin.”  Dad watched his own thumb move on the corncob. “You can go with me.”

            “Well.”

            I went to feed the chickens. There wasn’t one time every three months I went with Dad to the store. I didn’t think I wanted to go this time, but I would.

            I crawled out of bed the next morning at four-thirty instead of five o’clock. I had to get the work done up early if I was going in with Dad. It took me two hours to milk six cows and get the milk strained and in the springhouse.

            The store bought nearly all the butter, buttermilk, and sweet milk, and took all the eggs the hens laid. The store bought hams, but mostly folks about bought our live pigs. I never got any money from things sold. Momma put it all toward living. She always wanted me to add another milk cow, more chickens, or extra sow to raise pigs from.

            Dad didn’t have time to help much with livestock. He hired out to work at the sawmill. He would go back soon.

            I might have managed more stock in the summer time. When school was in, I had a hard time getting everything done before leaving for school. I loved going to school and didn’t want to miss. My teacher told me a little learning could go a long ways.

            Dad told me once to ignore Mamma’s wants and complaints as much as I could. He said Momma had ways and wants just a little different than some folks.

            I stopped on the back porch before I got my milk buckets off the pegs and looked around. The morning air was soft with a bit of cold. It wouldn’t be long till frost.

            The maple trees were showing a little color.

            Joey would have liked to see the pretty colored leaves instead of rotting in the ground.

            Bitterness burned in me at Susie letting him get killed.

            I gave my buckets a swing and stepped off the porch into the crisp blackness of morning.

            The cows were lying together on the sheltered side of the barn chewing their cud. They glanced toward me as though I was nothing but a bird or rat.

            The cows were all good milkers. I had two Holstein, two Guernseys and two Jerseys. One of the Jerseys was my pet. I had raised her on a bottle because her momma got milk fever and died.

            Dad butchered her momma. I canned her. Dad said, “Waste not want not.”

            Dad said if I could keep the calf alive, I could have her as my own. I named her Pet. She had her first calf in the spring. She was mine, but it didn’t do me any good. Momma still got the money for the calf, milk and butter. Somehow it just didn’t seem right in my mind.

            I went where Pet lay and kicked her with my bare toe. She slowly rose up, hind feet first, and started toward the barn. I stood in the spot where her body heat was left in the ground.

            I stood there, warming my toes, watching the dawn break. Slowly, light squeezed out of the darkness and painted my world with pastel colors. Trees showed light green along the broken down fence line. The drooping barn turned silver. The sky became light blue with feathery clouds hanging low.

            My heart ached with the beauty.

            It also ached with anger as I stood there watching daylight take away the darkness. Momma and Susie ought to be out here helping me instead of lying in the warm bed asleep. They expected me to do all the work then cook for them. Well, this morning I wouldn’t do it. I’d give Dad a biscuit with jelly on it. They could starve for all I cared.

            I watched Pet go over to the Holstein cow, lay her chin across her back and mount her. The Holstein sidestepped from under her and tried to mount Pet. Bullshit!  Just what I needed today, a bullin cow wanting to be bred.

            I hung my buckets on nails in the barn hall and carried the mule some corn before I started milking. He would be through eating when Dad came to hitch him to the wagon.

            I was stripping my last cow when Dad came into the barn.

            “You’re milkin early,” he said in his gentle voice.

            “Yeah, figured we ought to start early. Pet’s bullin. I’ll take her over the hill when we get back.”

            Dad went to the stall and looked in at the mule.

            “I been thinkin it hain’t right for you to be leadin cows to the bull. Don’t hardly seem a fittin thing for a girl to do.”

            It was a good thing my milk bucket was sitting on the ground between my knees, if I had been standing up with it in my hand, I’d probably have dropped it right there in the dirt. I had been taking the cows to the bull for the past three years. What had come over Dad?

            It wasn’t a hard thing for me to do. I tied a rope around the cow’s neck and took off. Sometimes I dragged the cow and sometimes the cow dragged me. The older cows seemed to know where I was taking them and hurried. Cows only stood for the bull a few hours. I had to be fast or I would have to wait until they bulled again. I figured some things needed to be gotten done and over with in a hurry.

            Pete Jones had a fine Jersey bull in a field next to ours. If I took down two rails on the fence, the bull would jump the other two. I didn’t figure we owed anything for the service if the bull jumped into Dad’s field to breed our cows.

            Most of the time I had a little trouble getting the bull back over the fence, but I managed.

            Since Dad never asked me how I got the cows bred, why was he bringing it up now? Had to be Joey dying and the preacher coming by.

            Religion stuff.

            I wouldn’t pay Dad any mind. I finished stripping my cow dry and stood up with my bucket.

            “I’ll get this strained then feed the hogs. I think that old black sow is fixin to drop pigs. She’s all pooched out, and her teats are hangin down.”

            “You didn’t let the boar with her did you?”  Dad got the harness for the mule off the wall. “Don’t like em to have pigs this late in the fall of the year.”

            “Remember that old boar busted the fence down and got with em?”

            “Better fix her a place then.”

            I saw dad look up toward the loft and knew what he was thinking about. That liquor was calling him even before he had a bite of breakfast in his belly. I went out of the barn knowing Dad would be up in the loft as soon as the door closed.

            The sun was well up in the sky by the time we got to the store. Dad had swallowed too much liquor and the mule knew it. Dad was not in good control. He let that darned mule act up all the way. I wanted to get off the wagon and take a stick to the mule and Dad both, but I didn’t say a word. If it had been in the middle of the day, the butter would have melted but mornings were cool enough. So, I stayed quiet and we finally got there.

            The store was a large building. It was built square with a front porch and half a dozen steps from the ground to the porch. The store had been painted white a long time past. The steps and porch had never been painted.

            Mrs. Eula’s husband died a few years back from a bad heart and left her with the store and two sons. The last time I came to the store with Dad, I saw her younger boy looking me over. His body made me think of a bowl of dough before it had been rolled out to make biscuits. I didn’t look back.

            Mrs. Eula was beside herself when she saw us. She bustled about like a guinea hen in her excitement and let her loose, false teeth snap up and down as she talked. Reckon she had folks wanting milk, butter, and eggs right bad if she was this excited to see us. I knew Mrs. Eula didn’t want to miss a chance to make a copper.

            “God bless you,” she said to Dad. “I hope your sorrow’s easin some. If there’s ‘ary thing I can do to help, let me know.”

            I thought about saying she could add another copper or two to what she paid us, but I didn’t. I stood beside Dad and watched him down his head and look at his worn boots like he just didn’t know how to handle sympathy.

            “Thank ye, Ma’am,” he mumbled.

            It was then I noticed a man standing in the shadows at the back of the store. He was watching Dad and me real close. My eyes met his and I looked away, but not before I had a good look at him. He was a fine looking man, but old enough to have a wife and a house full of younguns.

            He wore a new hat pulled low over brown hair. His face was tanned like all mountain men, and his eyes were a grass green. I’d never seen eyes that color. I looked back at him for a closer look. This time he grinned and touched the brim of his hat with one finger. I nodded my head but did not grin back.

            He was a big raw-boned man that appeared strong enough to carry our mule by himself. He was right good looking. Then I changed my opinion to mighty good-looking. I turned my back on him and watched Mrs. Eula count out money into Dad’s hand. Momma must not have given him orders to buy stuff for he didn’t get a thing.

            “Be sure to come back the end of the week,” Mrs. Eula was saying. “Folks missed your fresh produce.”

            And you missed the money. I thought but didn’t say anything. Dad nodded his head and mumbled, then turned around and walked out of the store.

            Dad was a tall man with a slender build that walked hunched over. I noticed his shoulders seemed to stoop more than normal, and his head was hanging lower. I wanted to put my arm around him.

            “Ouch!” I said to myself. I stubbed my toe on one of the porch planks and felt a splinter stick in. I sat down right there in front of the door to pick it out.

            “Who’s that?” The deep voice of the man asked Mrs. Eula.

            “That’s Wesley Elder and his least girl, Elaine. You’ve heard about him I’m sure. It was his boy that got stung to death by honeybees some days back.”

            “Yeah, I do recall hearing that. How old is she?”

            “The girl? Around fifteen I guess. He’s lucky he’s got her. Never was a harder workin girl. If the rest of the family worked like her, they’d be the richest folks in a hundred miles. I tell you, it’ll be a lucky young man what marries her.”

            “They live far from here?”

            “Not far unless you’re draggin a broken down wagon with a mule too old to stand up. They sell pigs and cured hams and about anything else the old man and girl can grow. The girl mainly does the work. The old man ball hoots timber at the sawmill.”

            I eased off the porch and got in the wagon with Dad. I’d never heard anybody speak about me before, and I didn’t know what to make of it. I had always thought I did a lot of work around the house, but I never figured anyone else thought that too. For the first time ever I looked at our wagon and tried to see it like other people might.

            I saw the wagon was worn and split with age. Parts of the planks had worn away with use and been replaced with odd sized pieces of wood nailed on crooked. The wheels wobbled and bounced about enough to churn butter. A body could hear the creaks and groans of the wagon a long time before we arrived.

            “Dad, is our mule old?”

            “Pretty old.”

            “How old?”

            “Don’t rightly know. Got him when your Maw and I were first married. Mules live to get old and mean,” Dad said gently as he looked at the hind end of the mule.

            “He’s mean cause he’s old?”

            “Old and smart,” Dad said as he pushed his cap back on his head. The liquor was wearing off and he looked the worse for it. “Mule steps in a hole once, he’ll never do it twice. He remembers that hole. Horse will step in it over and over again. Just won’t learn.”

            We rode on in silence beneath the warm sun for a while. Dad never said a word and the mule was behaving.

            We passed two houses. I looked them over carefully.

            One belonged to Abraham Miller. It set way back from the road on a rise overlooking a portion of his farm. It was such a pretty, comfortable looking place I couldn’t help but stare at it as we drove by.

            I wondered what it would be like to live there?

            In my mind I saw soft, feather tick beds with store bought white sheets with somebody hired to bring me breakfast while I lay in bed. My hands were white and soft from lack of work and my face was milk white and pretty.

            Made me think of Susie.

            I turned my eyes from the white house with a feeling of dislike. I didn’t want to lie in bed and be petted. I was strong and I was healthy. A body wasn’t meant to set on their hind end and do nothing all day long.

            Reckon I wasn’t intended to live in a fancy white house. Reckon I’d always be Wesley Elder’s least girl, the one that worked hard.

            The second house I saw made anger boil in my gut. I wanted to stop the wagon, run up to that place and shake the living daylights out of somebody. That house wasn’t near as good as our barn and slightly better than the hog pen.

            Trash was cast all over the dirt packed yard. Chickens were scratching everywhere among piles of rags and rusted tin.

            A young girl, near about ten years old, was sitting on what was supposed to be a porch but was more like warped planks laid next to each other. Her face was dirty and her blonde hair was a patchy mess of tangles. Her head hung down as though like she was crying. An old woman came out of the house and grabbed the girl by the arm. She yanked her to her feet, shaking her by her slender arm, then dragged her into the house.

            “Some folks don’t know no better’n that,” Dad said. “Them’s the Munsons, you know. No proper raisin.”

            I knew of the Munsons all right. Every kid around had heard, “Don’t act like that or folks’ll think you’re a Munson.”

            It wasn’t like we didn’t pass those two houses every time we went to the store. I wanted to put them out of my mind and not think about them again. Instead, I questioned Dad.

            “Dad? What makes the difference in the Millers and the Munsons?”

            Dad was silent for a few minutes as he pushed his cap further back on his head and thought. I watched his lips twitch to the side and the wrinkles come to his forehead which told me he was in deep thought.

            “I’ve wondered that very same question over and over in my head. I reckon there’s more reasons than one. I’ve heard the Munsons were well-off folks back before my great granddaddy’s time.”

            I watched him take a deep breath like he was going to tell me a long tale.

            “They say it came from marryin up with a crazy woman. Heard one of the Munson men married up with a woman what didn’t have the brains of a chicken. They said she was as pretty as a picture. She had milk white skin and yellar hair. Her eyes were as blue as the July sky. From the first time that Munson man sat eyes on her, he had to have her. There weren’t nothing nobody could do about it. He married her. They had a whole bunch of children, every one of them as crazy as their momma. Why, they was so crazy no body with any mind at all would marry one of em. So, they married up with each other. Seems they went downhill from there.”

            He shook his head and gave a long look at the Munson place before we went around the bend out of sight.

            “Folks around here won’t have much to do with em. Nobody wants to marry one. That leaves em breedin with each other like a pack of dogs. ”

            I was surprised at what Dad said. He’d never talked to me about such a thing before.

            “Folks and the church tried to help em out ever since I can remember, but there’s no help. Reckon time will take care of  em one way or another.”

            “Dad, what makes the Millers have what they have?”

            “Lots of hard work and education. I always wanted me an education.”

            I gave Dad a close look. I’d never heard him say a thing like that before.

“Went to school long enough to read and write, then my Daddy died. I was the oldest of eleven kids. Had to help feed and raise the lot.”

A sad look came to his face.

“Didn’t think of a life of my own until they all left home and my momma died.”

For the first time I realized he was a lot older than Momma. I just thought he naturally walked bent over and moved slow, but it wasn’t natural at all. He was an old man. The hair under his cap was gray with age, not white in color.

            “How old were you when you married Momma?”

            “Let’s see now. I reckon I was about forty-two years old, and your Momma was fifteen at the time.”

            Twenty-seven years! Dad was twenty-seven years older than Momma. Maybe that was why Dad was quiet and let Momma boss him around all the time. Dad was just too old to make her mind him.

            “Maybe a Miller should marry a Munson.”

            Dad shook his head. “Don’t hardly work that way. One good man can’t make up for a crazy woman. It’ll still run in the blood. Babies might come out crazy just the same. I’ve heard it takes seven generations of breedin to purify bad blood out of a body.”

            I was silent for a few minutes while I thought over what Dad had just told me. It made me worry what could happen to people. It made me worry about what could happen to me. “Does Momma have any crazy blood in her?”

            Dad lifted his head and chuckled, showing his tobacco stained teeth. His brown eyes danced beneath the brim of his cap. He shook his head, glanced at my face, then back at the mule’s rump.

            “Oh no-o! Your Momma is as smart as smart ever comes. That mind of her’n works day and night. It’s even goin in her sleep, I think. Hain’t nobody in this valley what could out think your Momma.”

            “She won’t work,” I said the words before I could stop myself, but Dad didn’t seem to take offense.

            Instead, he lifted his head and roared with laughter. After his bout of laughter, Dad got himself under control and spoke.

            “She don’t want to.”


 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

            It was dinner time when we got home from the store. I went inside to fix us a bite to eat while Dad unhitched the mule and turned him in the field. I looked in the bedroom to see that Momma was sitting up in bed with Susie combing her hair. Momma loved to have somebody comb her hair, and Susie loved to comb it.

            The sight irritated me. I thought the least they could have done was built a fire in the cook stove so I could get dinner cooked quicker. I built the fire, then peeled the potatoes, and put them on to cook. I mixed up cornbread and put it in the oven. Then I moved the pot of pinto beans to the hot part of the stove so they could warm up. This was dinner along with plenty of milk, butter, jam, molasses, tomatoes and onions.

            After we ate, I took a hemp rope out of the barn and tied it around Pet’s neck. I led her out of the pasture and headed off through the woods. I hoped to be back in about three hours. Depending if Pet behaved herself and the bull was in the woods at the top of the hill.

            During the heat of the day, the cattle would usually head for the hill in the deep shade of the woods to escape the flies. With luck, they would still be there.

            Pet didn’t want to go along peaceably. She tried to pull loose from me and go back to the other cows. I finally had to break a switch off a tree and swarp her on the flanks.

            After we crossed the creek and started up the hill toward the Billy Field, Pet started to sniff the air and bawl as she got wind of the bull. Her big bovine eyes got bigger and she tried to take off in a run. I yanked on her rope sharp and brought her under control, although she bawled and tried to pull me along faster than I could walk.

            I should have seen that fist size rock lying there in plain open sight, but I didn’t. My toe hit the rock so hard it rolled out of the ground and sent pain all the way up my leg.

            Pet knew I was disadvantaged. She lunged forward and took off at a run. I hung onto the rope long enough for her to pull me down in the dirt and drag me a while. She was almost out of sight when I rolled off my belly and sat up. My best and only dress was covered in dirt and green cow manure where Pet had let fly.

            My knees were skinned. Both my hands had rope burns. I stood up and dusted myself off the best I could.

            “That damned bullin cow! When I catch up with her I’ll whip her every step back to the barn,” I said out loud as I took off in a run after her.

            Pet made better time than I did. I could hear the bull bellowing to her before I got to the fence.   By the time I got there, limping and sweating, the bull had jumped the fence and was riding Pet. I pushed hair out of my eyes with a dirty hand and watched.

            “Go for it, you damned bovine!” I said out loud, still put out at being dragged and scraped by an old heifer that couldn’t wait.

            “Not very pretty language for a young lady,” A voice said behind me.

            I whirled around to face a man sitting on a log. He had the blackest hair, and looked to be in his twenties. I could see every tooth in his mouth he was grinning so big and wide.

            “Who’re you?”

            “My thought exactly where you are concerned,” his grin faded. “Are you hurt badly?”

            He looked me up and down. His gaze lingered on my bare foot then came back to my face. He stood up and I was surprised at how tall he was. He had to be over six foot tall. He moved toward me taking his white handkerchief out of his pocket.

             “You have blood on your face. If you will grant me the liberty, I would like to wipe the blood and dirt away. You appear to have a worse cut than I originally thought. You could need stitches.”

            His voice was smooth and deep and his words sounded educated, but I had no idea where he came from. I’d run these woods all my life and had never seen him.

            “I’m okay,” I said quickly, and put my hand out to stop him coming any closer. He glanced at my hand and I heard his breath catch in his throat. He grasped my hand by the wrist and looked closer at my palm.

            “My God!”

            I jerked my hand loose and hid both hands in my skirt.

            “Rope burn,” I said lightly. “My cow got out of the field and I was trying to lead her back home when she pulled me down,” I lied. It was a better choice to tell this stranger than the truth.

            “I already guessed what happened with the cow. My concern is with you. You look like you were dragged down a gravel road. Couldn’t you let go of the rope?”

            “I didn’t want to let go of the rope. I was tryin to hold her back.”

            “You intentionally held onto that rope while she was dragging you? You would have to be out of your mind.”

            “You don’t understand plain English do you?” I raised my voice in defiance and met his blue-eyed stare.

            He shook his head in slow motion. “I’m afraid you might need medical attention.”

            I didn’t know if he meant for my scrapes or for my holding on to the rope. “Are you tryin to insult me?”

            “No Ma’am,” he said in all sincerity. “Your face is bleeding. Your entire foot is covered in blood, while the palms of your hands are raw meat. Your dress is all but torn from your body with your hair full of limbs and leaves, not to mention cow manure. I assure you your health is my only concern.”

            “All I need is a wash and my cow back.”

            I felt my face redden as I looked at what the cow and bull were doing.

            “Please sit down for just a moment until I am assured you’re not hurt. Then I’ll get my father’s bull back across the fence and help you with your cow,” he said as he held out his white handkerchief toward me.

            Oh my lord, if he was Pete Jones’s son, I had been stealing services from his dad’s bull for three years, and now I was caught.

No. I’d told him the cow had run away from me. He didn’t know what I’d done.

            I reached out and took his handkerchief and absently scrubbed my face. I was surprised at the blood and dirt on the handkerchief. “Why have I never laid eyes on you?” I managed to say.

            “I live away from here, just visiting my folks and these woods.”

            I knew Pete Jones had grown children, but I didn’t know how many.

            “I’m sorry about your bull and all,” I hoped I sounded meek. “I’ll fix your fence. Honest I will.”

            He looked surprised. “I wouldn’t think of you fixing the fence. It’s my father’s job to maintain his fences. Please, will you just sit down for a few minutes? Once you’ve gotten your breath back, I’ll help you home with your wayward cow.”

            I took a few steps to the log he had been sitting on and sank down.

            “Now, that’s better,” he said gently, and took his handkerchief out of my hand and began to wipe my face.

            No one had ever touched me in the gentle way he was doing. His face was close mine, and I could feel his breath on my cheek. One of his fingers lifted my chin and his eyes searched every inch of my face until his eyes met mine then stopped.

            My breath caught.

            “I hope that cut on your cheek doesn’t leave a scar. You’re much too pretty to have scars.”

            A look came over his face that I didn’t like at all. He moistened his lips with his tongue. His fingers caressed the side of my cheek in a way that sent chills over me.

            How dare him, I thought. How dare him touch me.  I tried not to grit my teeth as I spoke.

            “You’ve got about as much bullshit in you as I’ve got cow shit on me!” I knocked his hand away, seeing surprise on his face. I ignored it.

            “What?”

            “You heard me. You’ll not be foolin around with me in these woods. I don’t care if it is your dad’s bull. I’m takin my cow home and you won’t be followin me either. You try and I’ll bash you between the eyes with a rock bigger than I fell over!”

            I jumped up and ran toward Pet and the bull. I grabbed the rope hanging around her neck and gave her a yank. She balked for an instant then began to follow me.

            The bull followed right behind the cow.

            I stopped, grabbed up a rock and hit the bull on the head with it. I saw Pete Jones’ son take a few steps toward me, a puzzled look on his face. The puzzled look vanished and a shit eatin grin appeared.

            He chucked as he picked up a good size limb and got between the bull and me. He expertly forced the bull toward the fence as I went out of sight with my cow.

            I stopped at the creek near the house and washed up as best I could, not wanting anybody seeing me all dirty and bloody. I would have to mend my Sunday dress as best I could tonight after I fixed supper and got all the work done. Tomorrow I would be making me an everyday dress from a feed sack.

            I turned Pet loose and went to the hog pen to fix a place for the sow to farrow. If she was going to have a litter, maybe it would be soon. That way they might live through the winter.

            I washed up on the back porch real good before I started supper. I found an old dress that had once belonged to Susie and put it on while I mended and washed my Sunday dress. It wasn’t nearly in as bad a condition as I feared.

            That night when we were sitting at the table eating, Dad looked at my hands and face. He didn’t say a word to me. It was a silent meal. Momma had decided she didn’t feel well enough to sit up at the table. Susie told Dad that Momma was a knot of nerves all day long. Susie ate in the bedroom with Momma.

            I got up at five o’clock the next morning as usual and was surprised to find a fire burning warm in the stove and coffee perking. I stood there for a minute and smelled the coffee. Too bad the drinking of it could not come close to the wonderful smell of it perking in the early morning air.

            Dad came in the door with an armload of wood. “I’ll be going back to the sawmill.”

            Those were his only words as he dumped the load in the wood box. I put some lard in the skillet to melt and began mixing up a batch of biscuits. A man needed a hearty breakfast to work at saw milling. I packed him his lunch.

            Maybe he was getting over Joey some.  I wondered if he was too old, and Momma too sick with her spells, to have another youngun.

            After I had finished the morning chores, I started a fire outside and filled my canner full of water then went to the garden and picked a bushel of tomatoes to can. I had scalded the tomatoes and was peeling their skin off when someone spoke.

            “Morning Miss.”

            I looked up to see the man at Mrs. Eula’s store. His green eyes sparkled at my surprise. I had not heard him come around to the back of the house and was taken almost speechless at seeing him beside me. I didn’t think a snake could have moved as silent.

            “Good morning.”

            I felt my breath quicken in my chest. What was he doing here with Dad gone and all? How was I supposed to talk to a man? What could he want?

            “Hope I’m not disturbing you,” he said politely.

            He looked all about the place as though he was going to buy it. He looked at the garden, the patch of field corn for the livestock, the sorghum cane, and the small stack of hay I’d stomped around the pole. He looked at the canning jars I had washed and set on the back porch, then at the tomatoes I had scalded and the ones still in the hamper. He looked at the back of our unpainted house where two narrow windows showed curtains the neighbors had washed and stretched when Joey died.  Then his eyes came to rest on me.

            “Dad’s not home.”

            I felt like squirming while he looked me over. I was wearing a worn out dress of Susie’s and I hadn’t even bothered to comb my hair. It hung loose and tangled about my head. Tomatoes covered my apron and hands. I looked a mess while this stranger was standing before me looking as though he was dressed for church.

            “It was your dad I came to see,” he said. “Heard he sells hams.”

            “Yeah, but we don’t have any now. It’ll be after hog killin before we do,” I told him as I looked into his green eyes. Something about him made me feel a little jumpy.

            “Would you have any grown hogs for sale by chance?”

            “We don’t sell grown hogs, only pigs in the summer.”

            He squatted down beside me on the grass and looked me in the face. He lifted his hand and touched my cut cheek with firm fingers.

            “Somebody hit you?” he asked me calmly as though me getting hit might be an every day occurrence that warranted little concern on his part.

            “I was leadin the cow when she pulled me down,” I told him and wondered just who did he think would hit me?

            He let his finger rest for a brief second on my chin. I recalled Pete Jones’ son touching my face. The feel of this man’s fingers did not seem as personal as the fingers of Pete Jones’ son.

            “How old are you, by the way?”

            “Fifteen, almost.”

            “Fifteen,” he seemed to be thinking about that word. “A lot of girls get married by that age. Do you have some young man hiding out behind the barn?”

            Color came to my cheeks. His words made me think of Jones and breeding the cow. I ignored the question.

            He frowned. “Don’t your momma can?”

            I shook my head. “Momma’s sickly.”

            “Who built your outdoor canning pit?”

            “Dad. It gets too hot in the kitchen. It’s better outside.”

            “Most things are, Elaine. I can call you Elaine can’t I?”

            “Most folks call me Laine. Eula calls me by my rightful name.”

            “You milk, churn, raise hogs and chickens and do what else I wonder?”

            “I do whatever needs to be done.”

            He reached down as bold as you please and picked up both of my hands. He looked at the backs and then at the palms. His thumb rubbed my calluses then he inspected the rope burns.

            “Rope burn. Where the cow pulled me down,” I told him a little nervously, but I did not move my hands from his.

            He turned my hands over and kissed the back of my left hand. I gasped, but I didn’t take my hand out of his, and he didn’t let go.

            “It’s not often a man finds a girl that looks like you and can work like hell too,” he grinned. “Sweet girl, don’t you be marrying nobody before I get back to buy some hams.” He kissed the palm of my hand, stood up, bowed to me, then left as quietly as he came.

            It was dark when Dad came home from the sawmill. He was leading a young, red bull up the road with a rope made up of several strands of twisted twine. I could not believe my eyes. The last thing in this world we needed was another mouth for me to feed.

            “Did you buy that thing?” I asked none too kindly.

            “Borrowed him from Abraham Miller. I’ll graze him for a couple of months for his services. Abe raised him as a pet. He’s as gentle as gentle ever comes. Abe said he was just like a dog.”

            “Dad, I’ve only got one cow left to breed and we don’t have much grass left.”

            Winter was coming on and I sure didn’t want to feed a bull. It would push me to have enough feed for our stock. Another animal was not what I needed unless he came with a haystack and a shock of corn.

            “We’ll manage. It hain’t fittin for a girl to be goin across the hill,” Dad turned his back on me and let the bull in with the cows.

            I wanted to say it was just as fittin now as it had been for the past three years.

            I watched Dad go into the barn and I expected into the loft. I went to get chop for the hogs. I was getting low on chop, which is ground corn, cob, husk and all. I had to ask Dad to take corn to the mill. Maybe, I had enough corn to do another month. It would be late October before the field corn would be ready to shuck.

            I came around the corner of the barn with the empty slop buckets as Dad came out of the barn. He didn’t seem nearly as tired as he had a short time before. Been in the loft nipping on that jug for certain. I reckon that liquor had the power of fortification.

            “You’re runnin late tonight, hain’t you?” Dad asked.

            “I canned tomatoes.” Mention of the tomatoes made me remember the man at Eula’s store.

            “A man showed up here today.”

            Dad stopped in his tracks and turned toward me. There was a frown between his eyes, and a troubled look came on his face.

            “Know him?” Dad asked.

            “It was that man at Eula’s store. He wanted to buy hams or grown hogs.”

            Dad slowly nodded his head. “Grown hogs, maybe, but any fool would know hams hain’t for sell until after hog killin time.”

            “That’s what I told him, and he said he would be back.”

            Dad’s frown deepened and he looked toward the house where Susie had just lit the lamp in Momma’s bedroom.

            “Did he see Susie?”

            Now what kind of question was that for Dad to ask?

            “He didn’t see nobody but me.”

            Dad’s gaze shot from the house back to me.

            “He saw you at Eula’s store, too. What exactly did he say to you? He’s not from around these parts.”

            I felt uneasiness in Dad. He must think the man was coming by to look at Susie. Susie was the right age to get married, and nobody could deny she was good-looking.

            I remembered the stranger kissing my hand.

            “He said for me not to marry until he came back to buy hams.”

 

This excerpt is from Peggy’s first novel Heaven-high and Hell-deep. Visit your local library www.publiclibraries.com/ for the rest of the story. If her books aren’t in their collection, Peggy would be most appreciative if you would share this site and request that her books be added for their readers’ enjoyment. To purchase books or to get a list of local or online sources contact Peggy at 828-963-5331

 

If you would like to enter a contest for a free book, e-mail Peggy the answer to the question.
 
How did Laine get rope burns on her hands?
 
A) Playing tug of war with her sister.
B) The cow drug her down.
C) Hoisting hay up into the barn.
 
After one hundred correct answers, Peggy will hold a drawing for the winners choice of one of her books. Check contest page for entry numbers and winners list.

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