Struggling to survive in an ancient mountain landscape that alternately thwarts their efforts and infuses them with joy and vitality, the strong-limbed and strong-willed people of the Blue Ridge Mountains undergo the transition from ploughshares to bulldozers from the Indian skirmishes of the post-Revoluationary War era to the trailer parks of the present day. In these eleven first-person narratives, Morgan visits the themes that matter to all people in all places: birth and death, love and loss, joy and sorrow, the necessity for remembrance and the inevitability of forgetting.
This is a moving tribute to that which is universal and eternal the majestic immutability of the earth and the heroic human struggle to live, love, and create new life.
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Son, it was the most money I'd ever had, one ten-dollar gold piece and twenty-three silver dollars. The gold piece I put in my dinner bucket so it wouldn't get worn away by the heavy silver. The dollars clinked and weighed in my pocket like a pistol. I soon wished they was a pistol.
"What you men have done here this year will not be forgotten," Senator Pineset said before he cut the ribbon across the bridge. "The coming generations will see your work and honor you. You have opened the mountains to the world, and the world to the mountains."
And he shook hands with every one of us. I still had my dirty work clothes on, but I had washed my face and hands in the river before the ceremony. The senator was as fine a looking man as you're ever likely to see. He wore a striped silk cravat and he had the kind of slightly red face that makes you think of spirit and health.
The senator and all the other dignitaries and fine ladies got in their carriages and crossed the bridge and started up the turnpike. There was to be a banquet in Flat Rock that evening to celebrate the road and the bridge. I shook hands with the foreman, Delosier, and started up the road myself for home.
Everything seemed so quiet after the ceremony. The warm fall woods was just going on about their business, with no interest in human pomp and projects. I carried my dinner bucket and my light mason's hammer, and I thought it was time to get home and do a little squirrel hunting. I hadn't spent a weekday at home since work started on the bridge in March. Suddenly two big, rough-looking boys jumped out from behind a rock above the road and run down into the turnpike in front of me.
"Scared you?" one said, and laughed like he had told a joke.
"We'll just help you carry things up the mountain," the other said. "You got anything heavy?" He looked at my pocket bulging with the silver dollars. I had my buckeye in there too, but it didn't make any sound.
"Yeah, we'll help out," the first one said, and laughed again.
Now I had built chimneys ever since I was a boy. Back yonder people would fix up a little cabin on their own, and make a fireplace of rock, then the chimney they just built of plastered mud and sticks. Nobody had the time or skill for masonry. Way back yonder after the Indians was first gone and people moved into these hollers a wag at a time coming to grab the cheap land, they'd live in any little old shack or hole in the ground with a roof over it. The first Jones that come here they said lived in a hollow tree for a year. And I knowed other families that hid theirselves in caves and leantos below cliffs. You just did the best you could.
My grandpa fit the British at King's Mountain and at Cowpens, and then he come up here and threw together a little cabin right on the pasture hill over there. You can see the cellarhole there still. And where we lived when I was a boy the chimney would catch fire on a cold night, or if pieces of mud fell off the sticks, and we'd have to get up on the roof and pour water down. You talk about cold and wet, with the house full of smoke. That was what give Grandpa pneumonia.
That was when I promised myself to build a chimney. Nobody on the creek knew rockwork then, except to lay a rough kind of fireplace. Only masons in the county was the Germans in town, the Doxtaters and Bumgarners, the Corns, and they worked on mansions in Flat Rock, and the home of the judge, and the courthouse and such. I would have gone to learn from them but I was too scared of foreigners to go off on my own. People here was raised so far back in the woods we was afraid to go out to work. So I had to learn myself. I'd seen chimneys in Greenville when Pa and me carried to market there, and I'd marveled at the old college building north of Greenville. "Rockwork's for rich folks," Pa said, but I didn't let that stop me.
After the tops was cut and the fodder pulled one year I set myself to the job. First thing that was needed was the rocks, but they was harder to get at than it might seem at first. They was rocks in the fields and pastures. Did you just pry them up with a pole and sled them to the house? And the creek was full of rocks, but they was rounded by the water and had to be cut flat. That was the hardest work I'd ever done, believe me, getting rocks out of the creek. It was already getting cold, and I'd have to go out there in the water, find the right size, and tote them up the bank. I had to pry some loose from the mud, and scrape away the moss and slick.
They was a kind of a quarry over on the hill where the Indians must have got their flint and quartz for arrowheads. The whole slope was covered with fragments of milkquartz and I hauled in some of those to put in the fireplace where the crystals could shine in the light.
I asked Old Man Davis over at the line what could be used for mortar and he said a bucket of lime mixed with sand and water would do the trick. And even branch clay would serve, though it never set itself hard except where heated by a fire.
Took me most of the fall, way up into hog-killing time, to get my stuff assembled. I just had a hammer and one cold chisel to dress the rock. Nobody ever taught me how to cut stone, or how to measure and lay out. I just learned myself as I made mistakes and went along.
Son, I remember looking at that pile of rocks I'd carried into the yard and wondering how I'd ever put them together in a firebox and chimney. My little brother Joe had already started to play with the rocks and scatter them around. Leaves from the poplars had drifted on my heap and already it looked half-buried. I waited until Ma and Pa and the other younguns had gone over to Fletcher to Cousin Charlie's. In those times people would visit each other for a week at a time once the crops was in. I stayed home to look after the stock. One morning at daylight I lit in and tore the old mud chimney down. I knocked most of it down with an ax, it was so shackly, and then I knocked the firebox apart with a sledgehammer.
Well, there it was, the cabin with a hole in the side and winter just a few short weeks away. That was when I liked to have lost my nerve. The yard was a mess of sooty mud and sticks, and my heaps of rocks. I thought of just heading west and never coming back, of taking the horse and going. I stood there froze, you might say, with fear.
But then I seen in my pile a rock that was perfect for a cornerstone, and another that would fit against it in a line with just a little chipping. So I shoveled out and leveled the foundation and mixed up a bucket of mortar. I put the cornerstone in place, and slapped on some wet clay, then fitted the next rock to it. It was like solving a puzzle, finding rocks that would join together with just a little mud, maybe a little chipping here and there to smooth a point or corner. But best of all was the way you could rough out a line, running a string or a rule along the edge to see how it would line up, so when you backed away you saw the wall was straight in spite of gaps and bulges. I worked so hard selecting and tossing rocks for my pile, mixing more clay and water, setting stone against stone, that I never stopped for dinner. By dark I had the hole covered with the fireplace, so the coons couldn't get inside. I liked the way I made the firebox slope in toward the chimney to a place where I could put a damper. And I set between the rocks the hook Ma's pot would hang from.
It wasn't until I was milking the cow by lanternlight I seen how rough my hands had wore. The skin at the ends of my fingers and in my palms was fuzzy from handling the rock. The cow liked to kicked me, they rasped her tits so bad.
But by the time Ma and Pa had come home from Cousin Charlie's I had made them a chimney. I made my scaffold out of hickory poles and hoisted every rock up the ladder myself and set it into place. It was not the kind of chimney I'd a built later, but you can see the work over there at the old place still, kind of ragged and taking too much mortar, but still in plumb and holding together after more than sixty years. I knowed you had to go above the roof to make a chimney draw, and I got it up to maybe six inches above the comb. Later I learned any good chimney goes six feet above the ridgepole. It's the height of a chimney makes it draw, makes the flow of smoke go strong up the chimney into the cooler air. The higher she goes the harder she pulls.
People started asking me to build chimneys, and I made enough so I started using fieldstone, and breaking the rocks to get flat edges that would fit so you don't hardly have to use any mortar. They just stay together where they're laid. And people asked me to steen their wells and wall in springs and cellars. It was hard and heavy work, taking rocks out of the ground and placing them back in order, finding the new and just arrangements so they would stay. I had all the work I could do in good weather, after laying-by time.
Then I heard about the bridge old Senator Pineset was building down in South Carolina. Clara we was married by then read about it in the Greenville paper which come once a week. The senator was building a turnpike from Charleston to the mountains, to open up the Dark Corner of the state for commerce he said. But everybody knowed it was for him and his Low Country kind to bring their carriages to the cool mountains for the summer. They found out what a fine place this was and they started buying up the land around Flat Rock. But there wasn't hardly a road up Saluda Mountain and through the Gap except the little wagon trace down through Gap Creek. That's the way we hauled our hams and apples down to Greenville and Augusta in the fall. That same newspaper said the state of North Carolina was building a turnpike all the way from Tennessee to the line at Saluda Gap.
The paper said they was building this stone bridge across the North Fork of the Saluda River. It was to be fifty feet high and more than a hundred feet long,"the greatest work of masonry and engineering in upper Carolina" the paper said. And I knowed I had to work on that bridge. It was the first turnpike into the mountains and I had to go help out. The paper said they was importing masons from Philadelphia and even a master mason from England. I knowed I had to go and learn what I could.
Senator Pineset had his own ideas about the turnpike and the bridge, but we knowed there'd be thousands of cattle and hogs and sheep drove out of the mountains and across from Tennessee as well as the rich folks driving in their coaches. That highway would put us in touch with every place in the country you might want to go to.
I felt some dread, going off like that not knowing if they would hire me or not. I had no way of proving I was a mason. What would that fancy Englishman think of my laying skill? And even if the took me on it was a nine mile walk each way to the bridge site. I knowed the place all right, where the North Fork goes thorough a narrow valley too steep to get a wagon down and across.
They's something about the things a man really wants to do that scares him. He's got to go on nerve a lot of the time. And nobody else is looking or cares when you make your choices. That's the way it has to be. But it was a kind of fate, too and even Clara didn't try to stop me. She complained, as a woman will, that I'd be gone from sunup to sundown and no telling how long it would take to finish the bridge through the summer and into the fall. And she wouldn't have no help around the place except the kids. "They may not do any more hiring," she said. But I knowed better. I knowed masons and stonecutters of any kind was hard to come by in the up country, and there would be thousands of rocks to cut for such a bridge. And when I set off she give me a buckeye to put in my pocket for luck. She'd didn't normally hold to such things, but I guess she was worried as I was.
Sometimes you get a vision of what's ahead for you. And even if it's what you most want to do, you see all the work it is. It's like foreseeing an endless journey of climbing over logs and crossing creeks, looking for footholds in mud and swampland. And every little step and detail is real and has to be worked out. But it's what you are going to do, what you have been given to do. It will be your life to get through it.
That's the way I seen this work. Every one of that thousand rocks, some weighing a ton I guessed, had to be dressed, had to be measured and cut out of the mountainside, and then joined to one another. And every rock would take hundreds, maybe thousands, of hammer and chisellicks, each lick leading to another, swing by swing, chip by chip, every rock different and yet cut to fit with the rest. Every rock has its own flavor, so to speak, its own grain and hardness. No two rocks are exactly alike, but they have to be put together, supporting each other, locked into place. It was like I was behind a mountain of hammer blows, of chips and dust, and the only way out was through them. It was my life's work to get through them. And when I got through them my life would be over. It's like everybody has to earn their own death. We all want to reach the peacefulness and rest of death, but we have to work our way through a million little jobs to get there, and everybody has to do it in their own way.
The Englishman was Barnes, and he wore a top hat and silk tie, though he had a kind of apron on. "Have you been a mason long?" he said.
"Since I was a boy," I said.
"Have you ever made an arch?"
"Yes sir, over a fireplace," I said.
"Ours will be a little bigger," he said and looked me up and down.
"Let me see your hands," he said. He glanced at the calluses the trowel had made and sent me to the clerk, who he called "the clark."
I was signed on as a mason's helper, which hurt my pride some, I'll admit. All morning I thought of heading back up the trail for home, and letting the fine Englishman and crew build whatever bridge they wanted.
And if I thought about leaving when the clerk signed me on as an assistant, I thought about it twice when Barnes sent me away from the bridge site up the road to the quarry. It was about a mile where they had picked a granite face on the side of the mountain to blast away. One crew was drilling holes for the black powder, and another was put to dressing the rock that had already been blasted loose.
I had brought my light mason's hammer and trowel, but I was give a heavy hammer and some big cold chisels and told to cut a regular block, eighteen inches thick, two feet wide, and three feet long. The whole area was powdered with rock dust from the blasting and chipping.
"Surely you don't want all the blocks the same size?" I said to Delosier, the foreman from Charleston.
"The cornerstones and arch stones will be cut on the site," he said. "In the meantime we need more than five hundred regular blocks, for the body of the bridge." He showed me an architect's plan where every single block was already drawed in, separate and numbered.
"You're cutting block one aught three," he said.
Some of the men had put handkerchiefs over their noses to keep out the rock dust. They looked like a gang of outlaws hammering at the rocks, but there was nothing to protect their eyes. I squatted down to the rough block Delosier had assigned me. After the first few licks I felt even more like going home. It would take all day to cut the piece to the size Barnes required. I wasn't used to working on rocks that size and shape.
After a few more licks I saw where the smell in the quarry come from. I thought it was just burned black powder, but it was also the sparks from where the granite was hit by the chisels. Every time the steel eat into the granite it smoked and stunk a little. With a dozen people chipping, the whole place filled up with dust and smell.
But I kept at it. I had no choice but to keep working because I would never have another chance like that. And even then I knew that if you don't feel like working in the morning, it will get better if you just keep at it. You start out feeling awful but if you work up a sweat the job will begin taking over itself. You just follow the work, stick to the job, and the work will take care of you. I put my handkerchief over my nose and started hammering along the line I'd measured and scratched on the side of the block. I was already behind if I was going to finish that block in one day.
"You want a drink, boss?" The slave held a dipper from the bucket of water he'd just carried from the spring on the mountainside.
I pushed down the handkerchief and wiped the dust from my lips. The cold water surprised me. I had been concentrating so hard on work I'd forgotten I was thirsty. And I wasn't used to being waited on by no slave, nor called boss neither.
When we stopped for dinner everybody washed their hands in the creek and we set in the shade and opened our lard buckets. Clara had packed me some shoulder meat and biscuits. My arm was a little sore from the steady hammering. My block was cut on only one side. Delosier inspected my work and spat without commenting. I had made a clean face, but I'd have to speed up to finish that evening.
The slave that carried water had a harmonica in his pocket which he began playing. There was a slave boy named Charlie that carried tools and messages between the quarry and bridge. "Hey Charlie," somebody was always calling, "Hey Charlie, get this bit sharpened."
Charlie started dancing to the harmonica music right there in the clearing. He started to move the toes on one foot, and then the foot itself. You could see the music traveling up his leg, up to his waist, and then out one shoulder and around till he had his hand dancing. You never saw such a sight as when he started dancing all over. The harmonica played faster, and the boy started dancing around in circles and the first thing you know he was doing somersaults all over the clearing.
Then the harmonica player moved back in the shade and slowed down and the boy slowed down too. He danced backwards getting slower, like he was winding down, slower and slower, until he stopped and the music went down one arm and through his body and down a leg until only the foot was moving, then the toes. And he stood still all over when the music stopped.
Now the funny thing was Delosier had been watching and enjoying the dancing as much as any of us. But as soon as the music stopped he said, "That's enough of that. You're wasting energy on my time. You boys can play and dance on your own time."
I didn't see no call for what he said, since it was dinner hour. But we all put our dinner buckets down to go to work, and the boy, sweating something awful from the dancing, run to sharpen more chisels. I hunkered down over my block.
"Never mind what our names are," the older boy said.
"No, I won't mind," I said.
"We'll just walk along with you a little ways, to keep you out of trouble."
I tried to remember if I'd seen them anywhere before. Chestnut Springs even then had a lot of rough people, liquor people and all. Names like Howard or Morgan kept coming to mind, but I couldn't place them. Our folks had come from South Carolina and I knowed a lot of people from Landrum and Tigerville, but I couldn't place them.
"You just got paid down at the bridge," the older boy said.
"I worked on the bridge," I said. I could have said I walked this road every morning and evening for nearly five months, and I'd never seen them.
"You wouldn't fool us," the younger one said. "We watched all them big shots from up on the mountain. And we seen all of you'uns standing around before they cut the ribbon."
"You should have come down and had some punch, and some sweetbread," I said. "One of the carriages from Greenville brought a basket of sweetbread and a keg of punch, along with a big bottle of champagne for the dignitaries."
"We got our own bottle," the older boy said.
"Can't we help you carry something," the younger brother said. He lifted a side of his vest and I seen the pistol in his belt.
"I'm doing fine," I said.
"Ain't you got something just a little too heavy for you to carry," the older one said. I noticed he had a knife about eighteen inches long stuck in his belt.
If only another carriage would come along, or if we'd meet a wagon coming back from mill, I could ask for a ride. I prayed that somebody I knowed would be walking down the mountain. But they was nothing ahead but the road through the holler, built while we was building the bridge, winding up toward Saluda Gap.
"What you got in there, Boss?" the older brother said, and prodded my pocket with the pistol.
"You got something a-ringing a regular tune," the younger one said.
"You wouldn't lie to us?" the other one said.
I stepped back, and just then I seen the rock in the younger one's hand.
After the first day I was almost too tired to walk back up the mountain. And the next day I was nearly too sore to lift a hammer. But I made myself keep going, and after a while I worked the soreness out. It took about a week for me to learn to cut a block a day, getting surer and ever closer to the measurements. It took ten men to slide one of those blocks up on an ox cart to carry to the bridge site. Delosier showed us how to do things with rollers and skids and pulleys you never would have dreamed of. I had never handled big stuff like that before. It looks like there ain't nothing a man can't do if he just takes time to study it out.
I got a little bit of a cough from breathing the rock dust, but after seven or eight weeks we had most of the blocks cut and moved down to the bridge itself. They had put up a frame of poles and timbers to build the arches on, and I looked close to see exactly how Barnes and Delosier done it. If a giant could pick up all the rocks of an arch and drop them into place at once you wouldn't need a frame underneath. But with regular men moving in a rock at a time, there was no other way. Delosier built a big A-frame with pulleys to hoist the stones into place. It was something to watch.
They had a spot right down by the river where we did the final dressing of blocks before they was lifted into place above. Once the arches was built we could roll everything out onto the bridge as we went, but the arches had to be put in place first. It was convenient, and cooler by the water. We wet the drills and rocks to keep down the dust.
"Everything will be fine unless there's a flash," I said to Delosier.
"What do you mean a flash?"
"A flash flood," I said. "On ground this steep it can come up a flash tide pretty quick."
"It's not the season for flash floods," Mr. Barnes, who had overheard me, said.
"A flash can come anytime," I said. "All you need is a cloudburst on the slope above."
"You mountain folk are so superstitious," Mr. Barnes said. "All you ever do is worry about lightning, panthers, snakes, floods, winds, and landslides."
I knowed they was truth in what he said, but it was like he was saying that I, as an assistant mason, didn't have a right to an opinion either. But I let it go and went back to work.
But along in July it come up the awfullest lightning storm you ever seen. You know how it can thunder in South Carolina, there at the foot of the mountain, after a hot day. It was like the air was full of black powder going off. We got under the trees, until we saw a big poplar on the ridge above turn to fire and explode. Splinters several feet long got flung all over the woods. We got under the first arch then, knowing the rock wouldn't draw the lightning.
"When the Lord talks, he talks big," said Furman, another mason's assistant.
The slaves got in under the cover of the arch, saying nothing. Lightning struck up on the ridge again, and it was like the air had jolted you.
"The Lord must have a lot on his mind," the harmonica player said.
"Maybe telling us how sick he is of us," another slave said.
The storm passed over for a minute and then come back, the way a big storm will. Lightning was dropping all around on the ridges above. It was so close you could hear the snap, like whips cracking, before they was any thunder. Snapboom, snap-boom. The air smelled like scorched trees and burned air.
"This old earth getting a whippin'," the harmonica player said.
After about twenty minutes the worst of it passed, and we could hear the thunder booming and rattling on the further mountains. While it was still raining a little we got out and stood in the drizzle and the drip from the trees.
"What is that roar?" Delosier said.
"Just wind on the mountain, boss."
"No, it's coming closer."
It did sound like wind on a mountainside of trees, and my first thought was we was having a little twister. They don't come often to the mountains, but they have been known to bore down out of the sky and twist up trees.
And just then it hit me they was a flash tide coming down the valley. "It's the creek," I hollered, but no one seemed to notice.
"It's the river," I hollered again. "Let's get the tools." Must have been a dozen hammers and chisels, several T-squares and rulers, levels and trowels under the bridge. And there was an extra set of block and tackle. Only Charlie and the harmonica player seemed to hear me. They run down and got five or six of the sledgehammers, and I got one end of the big block and tackle and started to drag it up the bank.
Then everybody all at once saw the water coming. It was gold colored from the red clay and frothy as lather. The river was just swollen a little bit, as was normal after a hard rain when nearby runoff spilled into the stream. But somewhere higher up a valley had been drenched all at once, with the cloud's insides dropping into a narrow branch holler. It was not like a wall of water exactly. It was more like a stampede of furry paws rolling over each other and slanted down to a frothy front that swerved and found its way through trees and bends. Besides the foam you could see sticks and leaves and all kinds of trash tossed up and tumbled around.
Everybody pulled back from the banks at once and I had to wrap the big block and tackle around a tree. Then I run back up the hill with the rest.
That big cowcatcher of water come through the narrow valley tearing saplings loose and bending trees over till they pulled out by the roots. There was a wind with it too, a cold breeze swept down with the tide. I thought at first the bridge was going to go, the frames we had put up for the arches. But I guess there was enough weight on them now to hold them down. The bridge was far enough along to stay intact.
"The Lord have mercy," the harmonica player kept saying.
"Oh blast, oh blast it all," Mr. Barnes said, and took off his hat as he watched the charge of water swirl through his frames and pilings and suck through the arches.
"Oh blast it all," he said.
"Everybody safe?" Delosier called.
We looked around and everybody seemed to be there, wet from the rain and white-faced with shock. The body of a mule shot by in the current, and then a chicken coop. A cart that had been used at the quarry come down. And a big black snake passed, spinning around as it tried to swim.
"The Lord almighty."
The water rose to the groin of the biggest arch, and slapped at the stones a while, then began to recede. Once the high mark was reached, the flood begun to drop quick, pulling back from the banks, drawing most of the debris with it, letting go of roots and stumps. As fast as it had come the flash shrunk back to the river bed, leaving sticks and trash in the tops of bushes and the banks scoured. You could tell how high the water went because the ground there was bare as a plucked chicken. Roots and rocks was exposed in the dripping slope.
Many tools had been washed away, and some of the blocks we was cutting had been carried down by the tide. Several logs and saplings had been lodged against the pillars of the bridge.
"Why look at that," Charlie said, and pointed to what looked like a seedbox. "Boss, I don't want to look at that," he said to Delosier. It was not a seedbox, but a pine casket, half rotted away. Everybody crowded to the box, but there was nothing in it except some rotten rags and bones.
"Don't that beat all," Delosier said.
Mr. Barnes directed four men to carry the box up the hill and bury it above the road.
"Shouldn't we find out who it was and return it to the family?" Delosier said.
"And how do you propose to do that, sir?" Mr. Barnes said. "This could have come from anywhere upstream, and we have work to do."
As soon as they had started up the hill Mr. Barnes turned his glare on me. "Jones," he said, "You could have warned us."
"I told you it might flood," I said.
"Jones, you might have warned us effectively," he said. "From what you said I understood there was only the remotest chance of a flood, and that after days of rain."
"A flash can come up quick," I said.
"So I notice," he said. "You folk never know how to say what you mean."
The other time I saw Mr. Barnes lose his temper at me was when I put on the hoist a block that had been overchipped. The rock was already cracked a little and when I tried to smooth it up, a chunk two inches wide come off. But in a big block that didn't seem to matter. We could turn it inside and no one would know. I didn't see Mr. Barnes come up behind me as I was fixing the ropes.
"You know perfectly well that won't do," he said. He tapped the rock with his cane.
"We can turn that side in," I said.
"Jones," he said, "I'm disappointed in you. Hidingshoddy work. Very disappointed."
I was taken by surprise. Nobody had talked to me like that since I was a little boy. It was not what he said but the tone of his voice that was so shocking and humiliating. I had heard him scold others but it was different when he turned his scorn on me.
"Jones, if you can't meet our standards you can go back to your chimneys," he said. "Go back to your stick and mud. No one requires your presence here."
"I'm sorry, sir," I said. And immediately I was more humiliated to have apologized. It was as though his manner and his rage had pulled the apology out of me with no decision on my part, as if I had been hypnotized by his glare and his anger and had no choice.
"Well then," he said. "You'll get rid of that block and go back and cut another."
It was after he strode away that the anger and hate began rising in me, pushing aside the surprise and embarrassment. He has no right to talk to me that way, I kept saying to myself. Everybody on the job, including the slaves, heard him tell me off for almost nothing. It was like a public whipping. And not only had I felt helpless to defend myself, I had actually apologized to that limey lord-over-creation. That's why my grandpappy fit the Revolution, to get rid of such strutting peacocks, I said to myself.
"Massa Barnes sho like to have his say," the harmonica player said as we carried the hammer and chisels back to the quarry to cut the new block.
He's going to tell off one man too many, I thought to myself, and end up with a hammer in his brain. All that morning while I was chipping at the new block, measuring and marking, sweating with the excitement of my anger as well as the work, I kept running through my mind plans for revenge. The thing I wanted most was to sink my hammer through his top hat into his skull. I saw the silk collapse and blood spurt as the bones crumbled. I chuckled with pleasure at the image.
And then I saw myself doing it all with my hands, fighting fair.
"A fist in the gut and a knee in the face when they double over," my cousin Nary liked to say. While chipping that extra block I must have kneed Barnes in the face a thousand times and seen the blood gush from his nose. I hammered until my eyes was filled with sweat and my breath was coming short. I hammered like it was Barnes's head I was cutting down to size.
Of course what some fellows would do was just walk away from a job where they talked to you that bad, then come back with their gun and shoot the rawhiding foreman. And I saw myself coming back with my shotgun and filling Barnes's belly with buckshot. It would take him days to die of peritonitis as he swelled up and screamed with the pain.
I worked so hard I was plumb exhausted by dinner time, when I had to walk back down to the bridge to get my dinner bucket. And as I walked I thought I was so mad because I didn't know how to talk back to Barnes. He had took me by surprise and the cat got my tongue. And it was only words. Sticks and stones, I kept saying, sticks and stones. His hardness was what made Barnes such a good builder. I had learned a lot about masonry, and also about how to run a job how you demand that everybody meet the standards. By the time I got to the bridge I was feeling better about the whole thing. I got my dinner bucket from the spring and set down on the bank with Delosier and the other masons. It was midsummer, and the jarflies was loud in the trees all around.
"They do sound like rattlesnakes," somebody said.
"Except a rattlesnake's not up in an oak tree."
"You can't always tell where a sound's coming from in the woods, especially if they's a big rock nearby."
Barnes come out of the little shed he used for an office. The men lived in tents, but he boarded in the Lindsay house down the river. He kept all his plans and instruments in the little office.
"Jones," he said. "We won't need that extra block after all. We've already used the block you chipped on the inside." Then he strolled away toward the spring. It was so hot he had taken his jacket off, and his armpits was wet.
I was instantly mad all over again, that he had made me waste a morning's work on that extra block. I imagined sinking an ax into his spine as he walked away.
"I never knowed him to change his mind before," Furman said.
"He could have changed it before I wasted a morning's work," I said.
"Don't get riled up again," Delosier said. "That's the closest I've ever seen Mr. Barnes come to an apology."
That evening I went back to dressing blocks before they was hoisted into place, and was more careful than ever not to overchip a corner or side. But I didn't like Barnes anymore, and I wished the job was already over.
When I woke up on the turnpike my head hurt like thunder. My pockets was empty. I looked around for my dinner bucket. They had throwed it down the bank, and my ten-dollar gold piece was nowhere in sight. I set back down where I had crawled to and held my head, which throbbed like it was in a vise. After a whole spring and summer's work I had nothing to show. Clara had put the corn in pretty much by herself, with a little help from the kids and from my brother Joe. She was now drying peaches and apples on the rooftop, and on sheets spread out on the bank behind the house. The stock would have less fodder for the winter, and there was no money for shoes or coffee. I'd have to find another job building a chimney or springhouse wall. I had wasted half a year and all I had to show for it was a bloody knot on my head.
"You seen the big ceremony," Clara would say, "And the rich folks going up to Flat Rock for their banquet. I guess that's your pay. You can tell everybody that."
I was just going to set a while, to catch my breath and stop my head from swimming. They was tracks all around me in the dirt, but I knowed I could never identify them big rough brothers from their tracks, which could have been made by anybody's big brogans.
My head hurt so bad I thought it must be cracked. And I felt thirsty. They was a spring in the bend about a mile ahead. I'd have to stumble up there if I was to have a drink. I was about to gather my strength and try to stand when I heard somebody holler.
The mountainside was steep there, and it was hard to tell where the sound come from. But while I was looking and holding the back of my head this cow come around the bend ahead, this big red cow, and then another, and two more, and three or four others, and still more behind them. Boys with switches run along beside them. They just kept coming down the turnpike like a flash flood of beef, hooking and slobbering.
"Stand aside," one of the boys called. "Hey mister, stand aside."
I stumbled to my feet and backed over the edge of the road and stood in the leaves as they trotted past. They was men behind popping their whips, and the boys with hickories run alongside hollering, "Aye, aye" when one of the animals slowed or started to turn aside.
You never seen so many cattle. They must have passed for twenty minutes, raising the dust and bawling, lifting their tails and spraying the ruts. Finally along come the end of it, a wagon loaded with cooking gear and blankets.
"Where you coming from?" I asked the driver.
"Why friend, we've driv these cattle all the way from Tennessee," the man said.
"Where you going?" I said.
"Wherever they buy cattle," he said. "Augusta, maybe Atlanta."
Then they was gone, and the dust settled in the late summer light coming through the trees.
Son, I stepped into the road and started back up the mountain. But I hadn't took more than ten steps when somebody hollered behind me, "Step aside, sir. Step aside."
I looked back and there was the prettiest carriage you ever seen, with a black driver all in livery carrying his long stiff whip. They was lanterns of polished brass and glass on the corners and shiny black fenders. You never seen people dressed up like them inside, ladies with parasols and dresses so low you could nearly see the nipples on their bosoms, and men in top hats and silk cravats. And behind that carriage was other carriages, and buggies, and a whole bunch of wagons carrying supplies and servants. It was some big party from the Low Country coming up for a picnic in the mountains. I've heard Fremont, the general and governor of California, was in that party. He was just a boy then. I stood back and let them pass, and they ignored me just like I was air.
Then when I did get started up the turnpike finally, stepping around cowpiles and horse apples, my strength coming back a little at a time, I met more drovers coming down the mountain. It was like they had opened a flood gate and flocks of sheep came along, baaing and pushing and jumping over each other, turning the road to dirty wool. And then a drove of hogs came, nosing and grunting, squealing when prodded by boys with sticks. I thought I had seen it all by then, but all of a sudden around the bend come a flock of turkeys, all gobbling and squawking. And behind them a bigger flock of geese come waddling, driven by more boys and followed by an old woman who carried a sack on her back.
"We's come all the way from Kentucky," she said.
Finally I thought I had the road to myself. I knowed I'd have to hurry if I was to get home by milking time. Clara was going to be mad, but they was no point in putting off the bad news.
"Watch out, watch out, sir," somebody called behind me.
It was a man in a buggy pulled by a shiny Morgan that just clipped along. He had a sack on the seat beside him. And I recognized Sam the peddler from Spartanburg. He used to come around with a pack on his back, and we almost always bought cloth and buttons and such from him and asked him to stay for dinner. And now he was driving a fine buggy with a carriage horse.
After he passed it seemed late in the evening. The road was already nearly in shadow. They was a buckeye laying in the tracks, but I couldn't tell if it was mine. It had been stepped on by a cow and I let it go. But I seen something shiny in the dirt ahead. It was my light mason's hammer. Them big rough boys had dropped it there as they run away. They didn't have no use for a mason's hammer, and thought it was too heavy to carry. I picked it up and wiped the grit off the handle and head, then started again for home.
Copyright © 1992 by Robert Morgan