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SO INEVITABLE were its comings and goings that the Ford Ranchero seemed to steer itself off Highway 72 and onto the red clay roads of the Rutland place. As soon as it stopped, Charles Junior jumped out to play on the split-rail fencing that edged the pasture. Charles propped the morning paper against the steering wheel and read the article on the upcoming governor's race, not because he was interested, but because he was loath to go inside to what his foreman had said he would find. The paper predicted Wallace the winner. He glanced up at Charles Junior, then lazed over to an article about Ike playing golf at Augusta. He had a notion that right here and now he might be able to take himself out of time- let the sun, beating down against the top of the cab, pressure-cook his little cubicle and ease him into a gentle, lasting sleep. Instead, he skimmed the movie section, folded the paper and placed it on the seat beside him, got out of the truck, and went inside.
Clyde, his foreman, stood off in a corner, watching. Charles raised the lid on the stainless-steel vat that was the receptacle for milk taken from the dairy cows. The heavy aroma of wild onions wafted up out of the vat. He let the metal top bang back down into place. "Four damn days' worth of milking gone to waste-the second time this month." A few of the dairy cows had broken through a fence and grazed on a field with wild onions.
"Ain't nothing to do but pitch it," Clyde said. "This rate, you ain't never gonna get Will that new house." Rather than sympathy, Charles thought he detected a note of satisfaction in Clyde's voice.
He left the barn and walked down the road to Will's. Mary had said something about new clothes for the girls. The boys didn't matter-blue jeans and a T-shirt-but the older girls, Tab and Tina, were coming to an age when that sort of thing did matter. Will's new house would have to wait.
Out on the sagging front porch, which was a good part of his living space, the old man was sitting in a straight-back cane-bottomed chair. Charles could hear the sounds of a hymn drifting through the old screen door, which had long ago lost its usefulness-poked with holes and bowed out at its bottom from the banging of grandchildren, the scratching of dogs. Will's daughter, inside fixing the noon meal, was stuck on the same verse: "Oooh-sometimes it causes me to wonder ... to wonderrrr." It began to blend with the other sounds of the day: a tractor motor in the distance, chickens out in the yard fighting over the last bits of corn, the house dog chased by the yard rooster. Charles took a seat on the wooden swing that hung at the end of the porch. He got out a cigarette and struck a match on the back of the oak ribs.
"You got plenty of firewood? I'll have Tot come up here and cut you some if you need it."
"Nawsir, got plenty of wood." They had known each other since Charles was a boy.
Will had worked for his father, had gone to fetch the doctor the day Charles was born. "Did he get by here with your check yesterday?"
"Yessir, sho did."
Charles looked out to the rectangle of concrete, way past curing, that was to be the foundation for the new house.
Will whittled. His knife disappeared into a calloused hand, churning away at a piece of white oak that would eventually reappear as a whistle for the grandchildren.
"Some bad news with the milk just now. The cows ..."
His voice trailed off because it didn't matter why. "We'll have to hold up on starting the walls." He threw what was left of his cigarette out in the yard, watching the chickens come up to inspect the smoldering butt before they backed off in search of real sustenance.
He left and went back to the farm store to check on Charles Junior and to tell Clyde, "Be back. I'm going to check the springhouse," and he was-in a way.
The natural spring sat in a draw, down in deep woods near the river. Tall birch trees and oaks towered over the old springhouse. Nurtured for over a hundred years by the spring, the trees were giants now. They must have already been big when his great-grandfather first came here and carved his name-Jonathan McDavid Rutland, 1820.
"The Cherokees weren't good and gone before he was here, claiming the land for us," his father had told him. There were all manner of things cut into the trees: initials of young lovers, Indian symbols, or what he thought were Indian symbols. Maybe the slaves had carved messages in the trees when they had come down to fetch water up to the main house, which was over a mile away. The main house had always had its own water, but this spring was supposed to have the best-tasting water in the county.
Carved into the tree nearest the spring was what appeared to be a Confederate battle flag and, carved beside it, "Franklin Blues." Perhaps young boys had come for a drink in the sweltering midsummer heat, shedding their wool uniforms, squatting down, ducking their heads into the cool water, filling canteens for the long march. He liked to think of them sitting there, momentarily refreshed before they took to the hot, dusty roads again-great numbers of them to be killed.
When he was a boy, he had carved "Charles Lane Westmoreland Rutland." He had been named in the English fashion-bestowing multiple middle names- partly because his father wanted to show ties to his British heritage, and as a practical matter because there were so many relatives to be placated and there would be only one firstborn son.
There had been a sister, Eugenia, born before him and received pleasantly enough. She was healthy, would be a wonderful companion to her mother and perhaps marry well, but she had not been afforded extra names. It would have been pretentious. When she was young, she had been immediately precocious, talking early, reading by the time she was five. Her father had been very proud, but she was not a boy, would not be there to ensure his step off into eternity.
Charles stooped down by the springhouse and listened for the hum of the motor that pumped water back over the hill to the south field's watering troughs. He splashed his face and took a drink. It might be the best drinking water in the county, but nobody seemed to care about that anymore. Too many other choices now-tea and Coca-Cola and Kool-Aid. People didn't appreciate good water anymore.
From here, he always walked up the hill to the family graveyard, sat down on one of the raised markers, and pulled out a cigarette. It was pleasant, always a breeze and a good view of the river. This routine-going to the spring, looking at the river from the graves-always made him feel better; or if not better, then more secure in what he was doing-in what he was meant to do.
Excerpted from The Summer We Got Saved by Pat Cunningham Devoto Copyright © 2005 by Patricia Cunningham Devoto. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted July 8, 2006