|Publisher:||Artemesia Publishing, LLC NC|
|Product dimensions:||5.51(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
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The fluid light from a dozen torches cast moving shadows against the trees and the barn, reflecting off the single glass window of a weathered house. A shirtless black man knelt in the dirt, cowering at the edge of what had been his freshly planted tobacco field. Howling, pleading with the angry,maskedRiders as they drove their horses across every row, crushing the tender plants to pulp, he begged them not to hurt his family. The man’s cries could be heard over the pounding of the hooves, the snorting horses and the gleeful shouting of theRiders. In the house behind him, looking through the window, his terrified wife tried to keep their children quiet. Her husband’s cries ripped at her heart.
A singleRiderrode up to the house, his torch held under the edge of the roof, and yelled at the kneeling farmer, “You tell your friends that this is what’ll happen to hillbillies who don’t think the same way we do!If you don’t, we’ll be back and we’ll burn your damned house to the ground with your family inside.”
The farmer’s feeble, strangled cries were lost in the thunder of the horses as they stormed out of the yard,and the deathly shadows of the torches fled into the dark like ghosts.
Thesun was still below the horizon and the night’s shadows lingered as Wes Wilson moved along the eastern tree line of his empty tobacco field. The muted aroma of new honeysuckle scented the morning breeze,and dew from the grass next to the field soaked his worn-out work boots and the cuffs of his overalls. His hound, Rufus, trailed along, stopping occasionally to sniff the air. Hearing a noise, Wes quickly looked back across the empty field toward the house,and his boot caught the edge of a rock, sending him down hard on his knees.
Wes clawed around in the grass and found the apple-sized stone. Clutching it in his hand, he lurched up and threw it wildly into the woods.
“Damned rocks!” he bellowed, forcing a flock of birds out of the trees.
Swearing under his breath, Wes leaned over and slapped the damp earth off his faded overalls. Wes was tall, his muscles hard and his skin dark from yearsofworking on the land. He looked around and yelled for the dog. Then hestepped carefully over the mounded rows of earth, heading for the house. Even though his knees hurt and his mind wrestled with worries about tobacco prices and the monopoly, he still needed to eat something and get the boys out into the field.I can’t worry about sellin’ tobacco if it ain’t planted first, he thought, limping toward the cluster of buildings he’d built himself.
From the kitchen, his wife, Zora, watched him cross the yard. Even in the dim light she could see the stress lines on his face as he scraped the mud off his boots and stepped up onto the porch.
“What was all that shoutin’ about?” she asked, stepping through the open kitchen door.
“Nothin’ much,” he grumbled. “I fell down because I wasn’t watchin’ where I was goin’.” He took the cup of coffee she handed him and looked back toward the field.
“You decide what you’re gonna do?”
“No, I ain’t yet,” he growled, still upset about falling down.“But I’ll tell you this:nobody’s gonna tell me what to do with my crop or my farm or my familynobody.” He paused for a moment, failing in his attempt to calm down. “I built this place for all of us,and no damned Planters’ Association or cheatin’ Tobacco Trust buyer is gonna get away with takin’ it from me.”
Wincing a little at his words, Zora put her hand on his shoulder. “Well, you can think about all that later. Come on inside and have some breakfast. I got biscuits and bacon and more coffee. Then you can get out to the fields. The boys should be ready when you are.” She walked ahead of him into the kitchen and tied an apron around her small waist. Zora was a strong woman, capable of doing much of the work around the farm, but she was also wiseshe knew when to speak up and when to keep her mouth shut.
* * *
The tallest building on Wes’s forty-acre farm wasn’t the two-story, three-bedroom house he’d built fifty yards from the road. Nor was it the lofted barnthatsheltered the mule, cow and farm tools. The structure that dominated the skyline was, like every other farm in the region, his tobacco-drying barn. Nearly three stories tall, the slat-sided building stood on the north side of the tobacco field. At present, it was empty, awaiting the dark green leaves that would hang from its rafters over the slow-burning oak chips after the coming fall’s harvest.
None of the buildings on Wes’s land had ever been painted.Wes had never had enough extra money to spend on paintfeeding his family and paying the mortgage took most every dollar he earned in a year. Once, ten years ago, he’d managed to whitewash the house, but the sun and rain had long since turned its color to a mottled gray.
The fields and drying barn represented the economic lifeblood of the farm, but the house was its heart. There was no parlor like in the grand homes up in thecountyseat at Mayfield, no indoor plumbing and barely enough room for beds for each of the six children. But the kitchen was large enough for a wood-burning stove and a table capable of seating the entire family. Of all the places to gather on the farm, the kitchen was the only one that seemed always to pulse with the energy of the poor, hardworking family.
Crossing the yard from the chicken coop to the house, Zora felt the first warming rays of the sun as they peeked through the trees and chased the chill from her neck. She could tell that the day was going to be a hot one,andshesmiled. Stepping up onto the covered porch, she glanced over her shoulder and caught a glimpse of Wes’s blue shirt as he disappeared around the corner of the barn on his way to the fields,and she wondered if this would be one of the good days.
She pushed open the door to the kitchen with her one free hand and bumped into her sixteen-year-old,middle son.
“Lord, Anthie, you nearly made me drop the eggs!”
“I gotta hurry, Ma,” he mumbled.“I was just tryin’ to catch up with Pa. He said we were gonna finish puttin’ in the shoots today,and if I didn’t want to get whupped I’d better get out to the field.”
“Are you hungry? Did you have somethin’ to eat?”
“Not yet, but I grabbed a few of the biscuits from last night. I’ll be fine, but I gotta go now.”
“Connie and John Stanley left before your pa,” she yelled at his back, “so you’d better get movin’.”
Pulling the strap of his baggy overalls over one shoulder and cradling some biscuits in his hand, he nudged the door open with his foot and rushed out onto the porch. Smiling at her son’s clumsy efforts to carry his breakfast and hurry at the same time, Zora watched him race across the yard toward the barn. As she turned and put the handful of eggs on the table she thought,Thehens must be as tired as I am; there should be more eggs than this.She stared at them for a moment, listening to the sounds of the old farmhouse as it began to warm up from the rising sun and thewoodstove.If Wes is already threatenin’ a whuppin’, then today is likely to be one of his bad days. With a deep sigh, she turned from the table and from her thoughts and headed to the back of the house.
“You girls get up now!” she yelled up the stairwell.“We’ve got lots of work to do today!”
* * *
At midday, Zora sent eight-year-old Irene out to the field with food for Wes and the boys. Zora had spent the morning washing clothes out at the pump while her oldest daughter, Mary Lula, watched the baby, Ruth. In her twenty-five years of marriage to Wes, Zora had washed his clothes so many times that this chore and the countless others gave her plenty of time to thinkabout her husband, her children and the future.
With the afternoon to herself, Zora started hanging her wash on the lines Wes had put between the barn and the coop. Clothes got dirty on a farm,and if you didn’t keep them clean, they’d wear out far too soon. Using wooden pins, she started hanging one garment after another and began to think about Wes. She loved her husband and she knew that he loved her and the children. Wes worked hard for the familyplanting and harvesting the crops, fixing what was broken and teaching the boys how to be men. But her mind kept coming back to what worried her most.
Wes drank liquor,and sometimes when he came in after working all day she could tell by his slumped shoulders and cold, hard facethat he was tired and troubled. On nights like that, she knew that after supper he’d sit on the old wooden bench out on the porch and start in on the jug. One time she’d asked him to stop drinking and he’d gotten very angry. Even though that had been many years ago, she was still afraid of him when he was drunk. So she’d learned to keep her thoughts to herself.
The other thing that bothered her was more troublesome. In the last few years, one large tobacco company out of North Carolina had bought out all of its competition. It had started cutting prices, causing the farmers to split into two groupsthose like Wes,who needed to sell at any price,and those hoping that by holding out they could force the company to pay them a fair price. The conflict between the two groups, fueled by the company’s actions, had led to trouble. Wes had told her once how those who’d sold their tobacco to the company in other parts of the state ended up having their plant beds salted or their barns burned. Zora didn’t like trouble of any kind, but she especially didn’t want any trouble like that to touch the family.
Zora heard Irene singing as she came around the barn and realized that it was time to get on with some of the other chores. There was a chicken to butcher and supper to make. These other things would still be there, but she couldn’t worry about them now. There was too much work to do before Wes came back from the field.
* * *
As day turned into evening, Zora sat resting in one of her kitchen chairs, quietly singing a hymn. The barely noticed scents of frying chicken and boiling coffeethatfilled this corner of the house and the chatter of the younger children in the next room only added to her sense of peace. Zora had been raised by her grandparents,and they taught her to think for herself, to cherish family, to stand up for what was right and, above all, to be patient. Zora never knew her parents. She was only two years old when her pa died after being kicked in the head by a horse. A few days after that, Zora’s ma disappeared. Everything Zora knew about being a woman and a mother she’d learned from her grandma.
When she heard Wes and the boys coming into the yard, Zora rose from the chair and stepped over to the stove.
“You boys wash up,or yourma will have my hide!” Wes yelled as he stomped onto the porch. “And don’t forget to scrape the mud off your boots.”
He barely opened the door to the kitchen and stuck his head through the small opening. He saw Zora standing at thewoodstove,stirring a pot of beans. “Hey, woman, you got enough food to feed four hungry men? We’ve worked all day long,and we’re nearly starved to death.”
With a quick sigh of relief, Zora turned to see the broad smile on Wes’s face. Feeling a great rush of tenderness for him, she matched it with one of her own and said in mock anger, “I sure do, but not one of you men is gettin’ a single bite until you’re washed up. Nobody as dirty as you is gonna get fed in my kitchen. So get on out of here,and come back when you’re scrubbed.”
Wes chuckled, stepped back onto the porch and shouted to the boys. “The cook at this place is angry as a mean dog. Last one at the table gets nothin’ but beans!” He ran to the pump and began to roughhouse with his sons. In a very short time they had their hands and faces clean. They went up to the porch, kicked off their muddy boots, lined up youngest to oldest and went into the house to have supper.
After the boys kissed their ma on the cheek, they moved to their spots at the table. The sound of chairs scraping on the floor eventually stopped,and most everyone was finally seated. While Zora held little Ruthie on her lap and watched her family, her heart felt full of love and joy. Mary Lula set the plates and bowls of food on the table and slipped gracefully into her seat. Anthie started to reach for a piece of chicken, but a quick cough from his father stopped him. Realizing his mistake, he pulled his hand back, whispered a quick apology and bowed his head like the others.
“Lord, we ask you to bless our family, keep trouble from our door and give us health and happiness. If these ain’t in your will, then give us the strength to handle what does happen.” Quietly lifting his head,Weslooked around at each of his children and then at Zora. With a shallow sigh, he quietly added, “Amen.”
It always seemed to Zora that it took much longer to prepare a meal than to eat it. In seconds, the serving bowls were empty and the plates were full. Everyone was eating and talking at the same time. Rocking the baby who held a biscuit of her own, Zora listened to the sounds of a happy family.
“We did a good bunch of work today, boys,&dquo; Wes said, looking first at his oldest son, Connie.“But we gotta finish tomorrow. We can’t leave the shoots in the plant bed. We gotta get’em in the ground.” Then he added, “But it seems to me we might have got a lot more done today ifsleepyhead had showed up on time and kept his mind on the job.”
“Aw, Pa, I wasn’t that late,” said Anthie, his mouth full of chicken.“I came out quick as I could.”
“True enough, but your head was in the clouds most of the day.” Smiling at Zora, he turned toward his son and asked, “Are you still thinkin’ about that girl? What’s her name?”
“Sudie Morris,” he mumbled.
“Well, when we’re workin’,you need to keep your mind on the job and not on Sudie Morris. There’ll be enough time for girls when the fields are planted.”
“How much did you get done today?” Zora interrupted.
“All but the section down near the ditch. We can finish that tomorrow if we get movin’ early enough.” He glanced at Anthie with a smile and added, “If there’s any daylight left after that, me and the boys’ll clean out the mess in the barn. Seems like once we start plantin’ shoots the rest of the place starts to fall apart.”
Seeing that their plates were empty, Zora said, “If you children are finished, go ahead and clear your dishes. There’s no reason for you to sit here squirmin’ like a bunch of night crawlers.”
As if they had been waiting for her invitation, all five of them stood and pushed back their chairs. They each grabbed plates and bowls and carried them to the counter. After the others left the kitchen, Irene moved slowly around the table, pushing each chair up to it. When she got around to Wes, she put her lips close to his ear and whispered, “Pa, when it’s time for bed, will you tuck me in?”
“Sure, honey. You just let me know when you’re ready,and I’ll come up.”
Giggling, she hugged him around the neck and rushed out of the kitchen, her curly brown hair bouncing on her shoulders. Zora shifted Ruth to the other side of her lap, looked up at Wes and said, “What do you think is goin’ on with Anthie and the girl?”
“If she’s the one who lives across the state line, he won’t get to see her as often as he wants to, that’s for sure. But if he wants to see her bad enough,he’ll find a way. I’m not so old I don’t remember how that works,” he said with a grin. “I recall tryin’ to find any way I could to see you at your granddaddy’s,and he wasn’t easy on me either.”
“He sure wasn’t.” She sat quietly for a moment and then added, “But you kept comin’ back and kept tryin’ to convince him you were serious about me.”
“I was, Zora. I still am.” They looked at each other across the length of the table, enveloped in a sweet silence. The sounds from the rest of the house seemed muted. Even the baby was quiet. For a moment, Zora saw Wes as he was twenty-five years earliera young man in loveand wondered if he was seeing her the same way. A crash from the other room interrupted the silence, shocking her a little.
“Here,” she said, handing him the baby.“Take Ruthie in there and see if you can find out what got broken. I’ll clean up the kitchen and then maybe we can figure out how to get this family of ours settled down for the night.”
Holding the baby in one arm, Wes put his other one around Zora and pulled her close to his side. He squeezed her to his chest and kissed the top of her head. He didn’t say anything,nor did he let her go. He just held her tightly. Zora’s heart stirred with a wonderful heat,and her face flushed. She slipped out of his arms and pushed him gently away. Looking up into his eyes through the moistness in her own, she said, “Sometimes you’re still that young man, Wes,and I’m glad, real glad.”
This is one of the good days, she prayed silently as she watched him leave the kitchen. She wiped off the large table and then took a few minutes to wash the dishes and put them up on the shelves. Pouring the remaining coffee into her cup, she opened the door and stepped onto the porch. The happy sounds from the house and the gentle breeze gave her a sense of peace as she looked out into the night. With one free hand she curled a wisp of hair behind her ear and smiled. Wes’s tenderness and strength were both comforting and exciting. She’d loved him forever,and though their love was comfortable, the moments of excitement always seemed to surprise her. She’d wake up every morning hoping for days like this one. But she was always aware that a day could go bad and the sweet and tender moments would seem but memories.
As she turned to go back into the kitchen, a quick flash of light from the woods across the road caught her eye. She stared into the darkness, trying to see it again, but nothing was there.Probably the moon reflecting in a dog’s eye, she thought and walked back into the house.
* * *
Hiding in the tree line fifty yards away, a lone man watched Zora enter the house. He took one more draw on the stub of his cigar, dropped it on the ground and crushed it out with his boot heel. Pulling himself up onto the back of his horse, he turned the beast into the open field behind the trees and headed off into the dark night.