The magical multigenerational saga of an unforgettable Texas family
At the turn of the twentieth century, Isaac Overstreet goes looking for a bride and finds Elizabeth “Bessie” Treadway standing in the middle of the Sabine River. Leaving her sisters without explanation, carrying her three pet cranes, Bessie slips into Isaac’s boat and returns with him to Camp Ruby—a tiny backwoods East Texas community too humble to be called a real town.
In Isaac’s broken-down shack, they start a family together. First come the twin daughters, the Ruby-Jewels, followed by Zeda Earl, always sour and dissatisfied with the life she has been born into.
For all of Zeda Earl’s ennui, there is magic on the shores of the Sabine, where angels fish and the seriously deranged sometimes bring about miracles. For the Overstreets and their eccentric friends and neighbors, every day in Camp Ruby holds new wonder—until the simple ways they have come to rely on are threatened by a dangerous unwanted interloper called progress.
Edward Swift, the acclaimed author of Splendora and Principia Martindale, brings us a fable for our time—a wondrous tale of family and community, rich in color and imagination and suffused with everyday magic.
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A Place with Promise
By Edward Swift
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Edward Swift
All rights reserved.
When Isaac overstreet turned forty, Camp Ruby was a sawmill community of no more than thirty unpainted houses. The "camp," as everyone called it, was located along a high, sandy ridge that sloped into the Texas side of the Sabine River. The Louisiana side wasn't much different. In both states the land was laced with waterways: winding creeks, muddy rivers and slow-moving bayous named after the people who lived along them. There were eight months of heat, twelve months of heavy humidity and a lifetime of mold. The air of Camp Ruby was permeated year around with the damp smell of rotting wood and the blistering scent of fresh sawdust. Sand found its way into every household. There was no way to keep it out.
The houses in Camp Ruby were a cluster of thrown-together dwellings and some of them were on the brink of sliding into the river. Isaac's house was one of them. But most of the others were spaced far away from the sloping riverbank and, due to the lack of level ground, were so close together that side doors opened onto backyards and backyards faced front porches, windows stared into doors and doors opened onto porches that did not belong to them.
Isaac's house was the smallest. He had one room with three windows, a tin roof and no porch to sit on. The house was balanced on hickory blocks, two feet off the ground, and chickens, Rhode Island Reds, were penned underneath it. There were no back windows, and no front steps, other than a rock placed on the ground in front of the only entrance. Inside there was almost no furniture: an ironstead bed, a straightbacked chair and a woodburning stove.
The house was off to itself, separated from the others by the spreading mimosa trees and a three-legged water tower constructed of heartwood and covered with vines. The water tower was no longer in use. The tank had rotted away and so had its windmill. The entire structure was considered unsafe, but no one would take the time to tear it down. "One day nature will take its course," Isaac said. "I just hope nobody's standing under it when it falls."
The water tower and the mimosas formed a barrier around Isaac's house, and he was glad of it. He hated people crowding in around him and discouraged company by keeping his door closed and his windows half covered with cardboard.
He was a lean man with heavy eyelids, a square jaw and a serious streak running all the way through him. His lips were thin, he rarely showed his teeth when he smiled and his stare was straightforward, steady and intense.
Six days a week he fished on the Sabine, selling his catch to anyone who came along, but what he wanted to do was work at the sawmill. Once Lester Jenkins, the foreman, had hired him part-time, but Isaac had lasted only a few days. He didn't do a bit of work, just walked around as if he didn't have a worry in the world. But he did. On dry ground he worried constantly, but on the river the water lulled him into forgetting his troubles.
He was known as an easygoing man who drank too much and believed he had to share his whisky with the river or the fish wouldn't bite. He was a good fisherman. Some people said he was the best on the Sabine, but, since moving to Camp Ruby, he had never done anything else successfully. Hard labor just wasn't part of his everyday life, and no one expected him to change. The least amount of extraneous movement seemed to sap him of all his strength, and therefore, he spent most of his time resting. When he did stir about he took slow, almost feeble steps, gave the impression that he was continually lost in his thoughts and, during the week, it was nearly impossible to persuade him to utter more than a few words a day.
Only on Sunday afternoons would he come out of himself long enough to talk a blue streak. He would sit on the steps of LeRoy Redd's commissary or inside around the fire, and tell the loggers about all the Saturday night women he had met and loved. To hear him tell it, he was quite a lady's man.
But the loggers knew better. They knew, although they did not let on, that Isaac spent his Saturday nights alone, drinking in his fishing boat while floating aimlessly downriver or while hidden in the shadows of a pier. He knew his way around the backwoods. He knew the locations of the stills, and the public houses, but he rarely went to those places. He didn't feel comfortable there.
On a Sunday night before his fortieth birthday, he told the loggers that he had a sweetheart in every river town between Camp Ruby and the Gulf of Mexico. He wanted everybody to know that he could turn his boat loose, and it would travel all by itself from one beautiful woman to the next.
"The girls get prettier the closer you get to salt water," he said. "And I can testify to the fact that they get wilder too. It's mighty hard work trying to please them all in one night."
"Maybe you better take me with you next time," said Sam Bostic, a distant cousin, nicknamed Bunyon because of his feet.
"Can't take you," Isaac answered. "Don't want to be stirring up trouble with your wife. You can't do all I do and still be married. Besides," he added hesitantly, "I might not be stepping out anytime soon. A man needs to rest his bones ever once in a while."
The next Saturday night Isaac stayed home, but no one realized it until Sunday morning at dawn when he started tearing down an abandoned house. The noise of his hammer brought everyone out of their beds.
"Come see Isaac Overstreet working up a sweat," Lester Jenkins told his wife, Martha Lane, who was stepping out of bed and into her skirt. "I believe something might be the matter."
Isaac had already ripped down one wall of the house. Now he was pulling nails and straightening them on a brick.
"This has to mean something," said Lottie Faircloth, the only schoolteacher in the camp.
"Yes, it does mean something, but what?" asked Mary Twitchell. Mary sawed logs for a living and up until then she thought she knew everything.
Before long everyone was watching Isaac.
"It's work just watching somebody work," said Izzie Burrow. Izzie graded lumber at the sawmill and collected deposit bottles on the side. By midmorning he felt lightheaded, breathless and his joints ached.
Pretty soon everyone was tired except Lottie Faircloth. She went around saying that it was such a peculiar Sunday, so peculiar that it didn't seem like Sunday at all and that something was bound to happen. Izella Wiggins, fifty-five and four times a grandmother, thought it felt almost like a holiday until the river became suddenly calm and not a current could be seen crisscrossing the surface. The water level dropped noticeably, too. She swore it did, but no one believed her.
LeRoy Redd, not a small man by any means (he was just under three hundred pounds), seemed to be the one most affected by Isaac's doings. Redd was suddenly seized with loss of appetite—the first time he could ever remember that happening. He put down his sausage sandwich and jar of heavy cream and moved his cash register out to the front porch so he could ring up sales and watch Isaac work at the same time. Redd never closed his store, not even for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's day, but suddenly he found himself considering it. Watching Isaac work had made him sleepy. All he wanted to do was lie down somewhere, just anywhere would do.
Toward noon, some of the men who worked at the mill offered to give Isaac a hand.
"I'm not one bit tired," he said, without stopping to look up. "This is something I've got to do all by myself or it won't turn out right."
Puzzled by his answer, the loggers left him to his work. Mary Twitchell, however, wasn't one to give up so easily. "Just what in the hell do you think you're doing, Isaac?" She put her face right up in his.
Isaac backed off and didn't answer her right away. Mary stood there twisting a hairnet safety-pinned to her dress. It was her way of soothing her nerves.
Realizing that she wasn't going to leave without an answer, Isaac spoke up. "I'm aiming to add a few rooms on to my house."
"You don't know the first thing about carpentry," said Mary, her fingers rapidly working the hairnet.
Isaac replied, "That's all right, isn't it?" and went back to work.
He was well aware that he didn't know anything about carpentry, but that didn't stop him. As he tore down the house, he painstakingly studied the way it was constructed. After every nail had been removed, he carried the lumber, a board or two at a time, to the other side of the camp and stacked it near his house. Next he sat down under a mimosa and drew floor plans on the back of an envelope. That night he got up several times to study his "blueprint," and the next morning at dawn he was ready to lay the foundation.
For fourteen days and most of fourteen nights he labored, while his neighbors looked on. When he slept they slept. When he worked they watched him until they were exhausted almost beyond endurance. The loggers were so distracted by Isaac's sudden change of pace that they made one mistake after another. Boards were sawed too long, or too short, or too wide or too narrow, and finally Lester Jenkins decided it was best to shut down the mill until things got better. Redd had a similar problem. He lost track of what he was doing and sliced all his lunch meat at once. He got mixed up on his prices (something that never happened) and complained that his cash register was always out of balance because he had lost the ability to count.
"If Isaac don't stop this foolishness soon, nobody's going to get any rest," said Izzie Burrow. He hadn't picked up a deposit bottle in over a week.
But Isaac was too caught up in what he was doing to stop. On the river side of his house he had already added a sleeping porch with five windows, all of them crooked, and a floor that was level only in places. On the water tower side he had added a kitchen, a dining room and a small storage space with a window. Then he built a porch that started in the front and ended at his new back door.
Finally, he walked around the camp gathering up all the used tin, shingles, and scraps of tar paper he could find. He spent a day flattening out cans and oil drums, and then he went to work fitting it all together. When he had finished, he said, "That makes as good a roof as any." Then for the first time, he sat down on his porch.
While he was sitting there his neighbors decided to inspect his new house. They also placed bets on how long they thought it would hold together. Isaac, they agreed, might be the best fisherman on the river, but a carpenter he was not. "I think I could bring this house down with one shot," said Boyce Faircloth, Lottie's husband. He was proud of his muscles and thick mustache as well as of his collection of guns.
But Isaac paid no mind to his neighbors' comments. He liked his house, even though it was unpainted and unleveled, and the seams showed, and the windows slanted and nails stuck out on all sides. He realized that some of the boards didn't meet, or they overlapped where they weren't supposed to, but these flaws didn't bother him because he had done his best and believed the house would bring him everything he wanted.
That afternoon, while his neighbors were trying to rest, Isaac gathered up all his possessions, including a woodburning stove, a straightbacked chair and an ironstead bed with the mattress he had been born on. He threw it all into the river. He threw his tin plates into the river, too, along with his coffeepot and cups and all his shoes, socks and underclothes. Then he went to the store and bought a new wardrobe: khaki pants with creases already in them, white shirts, a pair of lace-ups and a bow tie, the first one he had ever owned.
After he was all dressed up, he decided to have a trim. LeRoy Redd wiped off his hands and jacked up the barber's chair. While cutting Isaac's hair, he occasionally made trips to the cash register to ring up sales. When his customer was relaxed, he started his interrogation.
"What do you need more rooms for, Isaac?"
"Mind saying who?"
Isaac paused. "I'm expecting me a wife."
His answer gave Redd the shakes. He felt his heart speed up and his fingers lose control of the scissors. He stopped cutting. "You found her, have you?" he asked.
"Not yet, I haven't, but I will now that I've set things in motion. It don't pay to go out looking sometimes. You got to set things up so what you want will come to you. That's the best way I know to put it."
The idea had come to him on the river. He had been fishing all day, and his catch had been good. Toward evening when the water was still, he pulled in his line and allowed his boat to drift. His mind drifted also, and when he was far away in his thoughts something told him that the only way to attract a wife was to make his house into a showplace. Then a woman would surely come along and settle down with him.
But, after he finished his house, nothing happened. His neighbors returned to their daily routines and so did he. Then, after weeks of anticipation, he was fishing from his rowboat on the Louisiana side of the Sabine when he looked up and saw Elizabeth Treadway for the first time. The river was sandy at that point. She was standing in the shallow water on the opposite shore, whistling a single note which she seemed to be able to sustain forever. The skirt of her white dress disappeared into the water, and her auburn hair fell to her shoulders and caught the sun. It was evening. Three white cranes she had hatched from stolen eggs stood beside her as still as could be. The river had gone from lavender to purple to match the sky, and the surface of the water was as smooth as a piece of cellophane stretched over a bowl.
For a few minutes Isaac watched her picking flowers from an overhanging limb. He couldn't believe his eyes. He looked away and looked back again, and she was still there.
He watched the night creeping around her, and when it was almost dark, the cranes wobbled like old men up the steep bank. But Elizabeth Treadway, staring toward the opposite shore, hardly moved at all. Isaac wondered if she was really looking at him. Surely not, he told himself. Yet he couldn't take his eyes off her, and when it was too dark to see, he remained in the same place for a long time and wondered if she was still there. Every so often he would catch a glimpse of her shining through the night and would hear her one note skimming the surface of the river. Finally, he convinced himself it was only the wind and his imagination. He drifted home in the dark.
The next morning he was on the river again and so was she. Standing in the same place under the overhanging limb, the three water birds at her side, she appeared to be transfixed. "Was she there all night?" Isaac wondered.
As he passed by, she didn't make a sound and didn't move except to turn her head to follow him. He watched her until he could see her only in his mind, and for the rest of the day he wondered who she was, where she had come from and if she would be there when he returned. Toward midafternoon, he began to doubt that he had actually seen her. He decided that he had not. His mind had been playing tricks on him again. Everyone had predicted he would become a crazy bachelor, and, in spite of his new house, he was convinced that it was happening. With a troubled heart, he started home.
Near Sabinetown, Elizabeth Treadway was waiting for him. Her feet were in the water. Her skirt was slightly damp. And her three pet cranes were watching from the high bank. When she saw the boat she whistled for it. The vibrato in her one sustained note was like a ringing in Isaac's ears, and for the longest time he refused to look toward the shore. When he did, she lifted a hand in a motion that could have been a wave. She meant it to be a wave, but she was unaccustomed to being that familiar with strangers, and what was meant to be one thing ended up being another. She ran her fingers through her hair, not realizing she was being seductive.
Isaac didn't pass her by. He turned his boat in her direction, and when she saw him coming, she stopped whistling, dropped her arms to her side and began wading along the shore. The cranes, flapping their clipped wings, came running down the steep banks and followed her through the shallow water. Suddenly they stopped at the same time and stared at the boat coming their way as if in stern judgment of what was about to happen.
Excerpted from A Place with Promise by Edward Swift. Copyright © 1987 Edward Swift. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part One: Camp Ruby,
Part Two: The Ruby-Jewels,
Part Three: Ain't Nothing At All,
Part Four: Just Like It, Only Better,
Part Five: Kiss Them Good-bye,
Part Six: A Place with Promise,
Epilogue: Let It Be Known,
About the Author,