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Henderson County, East Texas, 1885
All afternoon Joey Shipman had been killing his stepmother with the hoe, chopping her to pieces an inch at a time. His small hands were raw from his angry grip on the wooden handle. A water blister was rising on his right palm. Sweat from beneath the band of his floppy felt hat burned his blue eyes and fueled the banked coals of his resentment.
Two rows away in the shin-high corn, an aging black man paused in his own labor to wipe his brow and dry a sweaty hand against stained old trousers that bore new patches on top of old. He studied Joey with a bemused gaze. "Young'un, you goin' to blunt that hoe plumb down to the handle. You could chop them weeds without bein' half so fiercesome."
"I wouldn't enjoy it half as much."
"Don't look like enjoyment to me." Reuben shook his head. "It's Miz Dulcie, ain't it? She sharp to you again at dinnertime?"
From as far back down his twelve years as Joey could remember, Old Reuben had been able to see through him like he was store-window glass. "All I done was tell her I thought Pa was looking' worse. She taken it to mean she wasn't carin' for him proper, and she flew all over me. She's held a grudge against me ever since Pa brought her here to iive."
Reuben tamped tobacco into the bowl of a foul old black pipe and lighted it. Joey had often wondered how it kept from poisoning him, but Reuben seemed to take pleasure in it. Life didn't afford him many material pleasures.
"She is a grudgin' woman, right enough. She takes hold of a grudge and nurses and coddles and feeds it like it was a baby." That was as near criticism as Reuben was likely to get. It was his custom to tread lightly on dangerous ground. "Just the same, she's your pa's wife. He'd want you to show her proper respect."
"If it wasn't for Pa, I might just light out…"leave this place and nary once look back."
The old man shook his head. "Boy, you'd be like a cottontail rabbit amongst a pack of wolves. The world out yonder'd eat you alive."
"I can run pretty fast."
"So can a rabbit. But theys mighty few wolves ever starve to death."
A peacock began a shrill cry of alarm, as it always did when someone approached on the town road. A movement caught Joey's eye. "Buggy yonder. Doctor again, I expect."
Reuben made no comment, but Joey caught a grave look in his eyes before the old man covered it up. Reuben's edge-sitting station as a hired man, and a black one at that, had made him skilled at concealing what was on his mind. He turned away from Joey and went back to his hoeing.
Joey said, "Pa did look awful bad at dinnertime. You don't reckon he's fixin' to die?"
"The Lord's got everybody's future wrote down in the book of reckonin', but ain't nobody can read it except Him."
By rights, Pa could as well already be dead, bad as the accident had been. He had been coming home from Athens by himself with a load of staple goods in the wagon when, the best anybody could tell, something had spooked the team. They had run away, flipping the wagon over on top of Pa at a fence-corner bend in the road. Doctor had said his ribs were busted bad, and one had evidently punched a hole in his lung. Now, on top of his injuries, Pa had pneumonia so bad he could barely breathe.
Joey watched the buggy pull to a stop in front of the white frame house Pa had built for Mama before Joey was born. Fear clutched at his throat. "Doctor says pneumonia's the old folks' friend. Takes their pain away and puts them at rest. But Pa ain't old, not by a long ways."
"It ain't for us to question the Lord's will." Reuben pointed with the stem of his pipe. "You'd best get back to your job. Miz Dulcie steps out onto the porch and sees you not working', she's apt to serve you a cold supper."
Joey felt a stirring of rebellion. "Ain't hungry noway." However, he put the hoe back into motion. "Looks like somebody came with the doctor. I believe it's Dulcie's cousin, Mr. Meacham."
Reuben squinted, trying to see. He had lamented often that his eyesight was no longer what it used to be. But his eyes betrayed disapproval.
Joey said, "I don't know what you got against Mr. Meacham. He's always smiling', always got somethin' funny to say."
He had sensed that Pa didn't care much for Blair Meacham either. Pa had never been much for stories and idle gossip and such. Easy laughter was not in his makeup. But Dulcie's cousin had always been friendly to Joey, telling him jokes and riddles, even bringing him stick candy from town occasionally. Not many folks were that thoughtful,
Joey worked his way to the end of the row and hearing an angry snort, glanced across the fence. A dark, tight-hided bull ran up to the wire, stopping inches short of the barbs. It pawed dirt and bellowed a challenge at him, its bulging brown eyes belligerent.
Joey took that as a personal insult. This bull had been trying to get at him for five or six years. He walked past the turnrow, picked up a rock, and hurled it, striking the bull just above one eye. The animal slung its head, another angry bellow rising from deep in its throat.
Reuben shouted, "You'd best not agitate that old bull. One of these days he'll come right through the fence at you. Ain't nothing' on this earth meaner than a bad Jersey bull."
"He ain't got any horns, hardly."
"But he could get you down and tromp on you and bust your bones with that head of his. I don't know what it is makes a cow brute hate young'uns so."
It was true that the bull seemed to vent its hostility most strongly against youngsters. Being smaller, they probably appeared weaker, Joey guessed. The animal would threaten men but turn away if they stood their ground. Pa or Reuben had only to raise a hand and the bull would back off, its bluster gone. But it had put Joey up and over a fence several times. Joey knew that in his case it was not a bluff, that the bull would kill him if it could. It also pawed dirt and threatened darkly whenever it saw Dulcie. He supposed it classified women and children as natural prey.
Somebody ventured out onto the front porch and waved an arm. It. Wasn't Dulcie or the doctor, so it had to be Blair Meacham, who seemed to be shouting. Joey said, "We better go see what he's hollerin' about."
The grave look returned to Reuben's black-button eyes. "You run on. These oid knees can't move as fast as yours, but I'll be comin' along behind you."
Mindful of Pa's ruling about taking proper care of tools, Joey held onto the hoe instead of dropping it in the dirt. He carried it down to the barn and set it just inside the door before he trotted the last fifty yards to the house.
The doctor had stepped out onto the porch with Meacham. His voice was like a minister's at benediction. "Your daddy's asking for you, boy. If you've got anything you want to tell him, you'd best be doin' it."
Blair Meacham placed a gentle hand on top of Joey's head. He offered no joke this time, nor was he smiling. "Don't look like there's much time."
Joey's throat felt as if he had swallowed a knife with its blade open. He walked into the house, struggling not to cry He was too big for that, he thought. But his resolve came near falling apart as he entered the bedroom and looked through the iron bars of the bedstead. His father lay thin and drawn, his face flushed with the fever that was taking him. His breathing sounded like a rasp filing a horse's hoof.
Dulcie Shipman stood beside the upper end of the bed, arms folded. In Joey's mind she was already getting pretty old, somewhere in her mid-to-late thirties. He had heard men refer to her as handsome, but he supposed they hadn't seen the severe side of her face like he had. Compared to his memories of his own mother, she was skinny and thin-lipped, and he had never heard her sing to herself.
No tears showed in her gray eyes. Instead Joey saw a pinched look he had always interpreted as resentment. He assumed he was a constant reminder that Pa had loved another woman before her and that she was jealous of the attention Pa paid to him. But Pa had always had a great capacity for love. He could give it generously to Joey without taking anything away from Dulcie. Why couldn't she see that?
"Pa… " Joey said.
Pa seemed to have trouble seeing. "Joey? You there, Joey? Come here to me."
Joey moved closer, on the opposite side of the bed from Dulcie. His father had always had large, strong farmer hands. It seemed a supreme effort for him to extend one of them to Joey. Time was when Pa could have crushed Joey's hand like an eggshell. Now waning strength barely allowed him to close his fingers around the boy's. The hand was hot with fever.
Joey was puzzled. He didn't see any reason for Pa to be apologizing. It wasn't his fault the fool mules had stampeded, that he lay here helpless, his life ebbing away. It was Joey who should be sorry. Pa had offered him a chance to ride with him to town that day, but Joey had wanted to go down to the creek and try to catch a catfish. Maybe if he had been along he could have done something. At least he would have been there when Pa got hurt. As it was, Pa had lain out on the road for hours before Reuben got worried and went looking for him.
Pa tried to speak but broke into coughing. When he recouped enough, his strained voice bespoke pain. "You're a good boy. I want you to grow up…and be a good man."
Reuben appeared in the doorway, breathing heavily from the hurrying. Pa beckoned weakly. The old man glanced apprehensively at Dulcie, then moved around to Joey's side of the bed, dragging his feet a little.
"Reuben…you help Dulcie look out for Joey."
"I'll do that, Mr. John. I sure will do that."
Pa's eyes closed. His rough breathing trailed away, then stopped. The doctor laid the flat of his hand across Pa's chest. "He's gone."
Dulcie blinked, looking a moment at the man who had been her husband, then across the bed at Joey. She spoke bitterly, "I'm his wife. You'd think the last words out of his mouth could've been for me."
Blair Meacham said, "Don't take it to heart. He probably meant to say more but time ran out on him."
"Another woman's son, and he expected me to raise the boy like he was my own."
The doctor said, "He's left you this good farm to do it with. Many a widow has been left with far less."
Joey could no longer hold back the tears. He leaned over his father and let them all go. He felt hands on his shoulders and knew by the feel of them that they were Reuben's. They should have been Dulcie's, perhaps, but she had left the room with Mr. Meacham's arm around her shoulder.
In a little while Dulcie called from the kitchen. "Reuben!"
The old man gave Joey's arm a squeeze and left the room. Joey took a lingering look at his father's face, then followed.
In the kitchen, Dulcie stared through the window toward the bam. She seemed to be trying not to look at anyone. "Doctor said he'll notify the preacher to come out in the morning'. You'd best get started diggin' the grave, Reuben. You know where."
"Next to Miz Molly?"
Joey's mother was buried along with three of her babies in a small family plot up on a gentle hill that overlooked the field. Joey had been the only child to survive beyond the first days.
Dulcie did not answer the question directly. "Take Joey with you. He needs to be out of this house, not in here where his daddy just died."
Reuben nodded solemn assent. "Sunshine and fresh air will help ease his grieving'."
Dulcie turned her back. "Tell Mr. Meacham I want him to come in here."
Meacham was on the narrow front porch, watching the doctor leave. Joey sensed that Reuben was disturbed over Meacham's staying behind. Dulcie would need kinfolks around her now, and she did not recognize Joey as kin; he was painfully aware of that. But that was all right; he didn't see her that way, either.
Reuben said with a curtness unusual for him, "Miz Dulcie wants you."
Meacham seemed to overlook the attitude. His voice carried some comfort. "Too bad about your daddy, boy."
Joey did not know what to say. He grunted acknowledgment and followed Reuben to the barn. Reuben fetched out a pick and shovel and started up the gentle slope toward the tiny cemetery. "Doctor'll tell the neighbors on his way to town. There'll be some of them over here later to help with layin' out your daddy."
"Now that he's gone, am I goin' to have to live with Dulcie?"
"Young'uns got to live with somebody."
"I don't think I'll want to live in that house. I'd rather come out and stay with you."
Reuben lived in a twelve-by-twelve box-and-strip shack beside the barn and windmill. Most of the time he cooked his own meals on a small cast-iron stove and toted his water by the bucketful from a cistern filled by runoff rain funneled down from the roof of the larger house. The water always seemed to carry a flavor of cypress shingles, but it was better than the mineral-laden stuff brought up by the windmill.
Reuben said, "Ain't room in that shack for a mouse-catchin' cat, much less a half-grown boy. Besides, ain't much telling' how long I may still be here."
Ever since she had come to the farm, Dulcie had been agi-ating Pa to fire Reuben and hire somebody white, like her cousin Blair Meacham. "I don't like livin' this close to a nigger man, not even an old one, " she had complained. But Pa had held firm. Back in slave times, Reuben had belonged to Joey's mother's folks, and Mama had promised that he had a home here for the rest of his days. A promise from Mama had been like gospel to Pa.
Now mat Pa was gone, though, and Dulcie was in charge, old promises might wind up buried in this cemetery like the folks who had made them. Joey suspected that thought was tracking through Reuben's mind.
"You promised Pa you'd look after me. How you goin' to do that without you keep livin' here?"
"We'll have to trust in the Lord."
Joey had often thought Reuben would have been a good preacher if he had turned his mind to it and if he had been able to read. Growing up a slave, he had been denied any book learning. What he knew of the Word he had absorbed from listening to other people and to the inner voices of his own gentle soul. He kept a copy of the Bible on a wooden box beside his cot. He often studied the pictures, and he claimed he could sometimes feel the power of the book warming his rough old hands.
Reuben took off his hat and stood a moment before the gravestone that marked the resting place of Joey's mother. "There was a blessed woman."
Time had faded and blurred Joey's memories of her. More than what she had looked like, he remembered the warm comfort of her arms and the soft music of her voice. He remembered the pain of losing her, a pain that returned to him now in the loss of Pa.
Reuben said, "Her and your pa, they're probably huggin' one another right now in heaven."
Joey's eyes burned. "I wish I was there with them."
"Don't say that. Remember that your mama went through some mighty sad times to bring you into this world." He motioned toward the three small stones that bore the names of the lost babies. "You were a glory to her. She'd want you to live long and happy."
"How can I be happy livin' with Dulcie, without Pa?"
The old man offered no answer. Joey turned away from him, seated himself on the stone fence, and wept quietly while Reuben dug a grave in the soft ground.
When Reuben stopped to rest and smoke his pipe, Joey took up the pick and shovel. The physical exertion helped ease, or at least mask, his pain. The hole was almost as deep as he was tall when he heard Reuben say, "Somebody comin' down the road."
Joey climbed out of the hole and made a halfhearted attempt at dusting himself off. He heard the peacock and saw a wagon. "Looks like Mr. Hayworth and his wife, come to help. Maybe I better go tell Dulcie so she can get the coffee started."
He ran more than he walked, so that he was gasping by the time he reached the house. He leaned against the wall, trying to regain his breath. Through the window he heard Dulcie's voice, and her cousin's. Meacham was saying, "You can't run this farm by yourself, Dulcie. You-was always a town girl. You don't know the first thing about cotton and corn. You don't even know how to milk a cow."
"I don't figure on stayin' out here very long. Soon's the lawyer reads John's will and gets the papers fixed up, I'm sellin' this place. It ought to fetch a pretty price. I'll move to Waco or Dallas or someplace where there's life and people."
"What about the kid?"
"What about him? He's not mine."
"The law'll say you've got to take care of him."
"By the time the law finds out I'm gone, I'll be so far away they won't know where to look for me."
"John'll turn over in his grave."
"I don't see where I owe him anything. He married me just to have a mother for that kid. Made me all kinds of promises to get me out here, but there never was a day he ever stopped grieving' over his first wife. So whatever I can get out of this place, I've got it comin'."
Joey felt as if a mule had kicked all the wind out of him. Dulcie never seemed to lack for excuses to whip him when Pa Wasn't around, but this was worse than any whipping she had ever given him. He put aside his intention of telling her that company was coming. If he went into the house now she was likely to suspect that he had overheard. He ducked down so she would not see him through the window, then retreated. He tried not to cry, but a few sobs escaped him unbidden as he made his way back to the cemetery.
Maybe Reuben would know what he should do.
The old man had made considerable progress. He stood shoulder deep in the hole. Wiping a patched sleeve across his face, he climbed out and relighted his pipe. His eyes narrowed. "By the looks of you, Miz Dulcie must've give you what-for again."
"She didn't see me." Joey found it painful to speak. He gathered up what strength he could muster and blurted, "She's fixin' to run off and leave me."
Reuben almost lost his pipe.
Joey went on, "I heard them talking' her and her cousin. She figures on sellin' the place and takin' the money and goin' off where they can't find her."
Reuben chewed hard on the pipe stem. "First place, boy, he ain't really her cousin."
"She always said he was."
"Sayin' and bein' ain't the same thing. Your pa, he knowed."
"Then why… "
"There's man-and-woman stuff a boy your age wouldn't understand, nor need to know about." Reuben took the pipe from his mouth and pointed the stem at Joey. "Your pa and Miz Duicie, they was both expectin " more from one another than they had any right to. After your mama died, your pa done his best at raisin' you, but it's almighty hard in a house where there ain't no woman. He probably told Miz Dulcie he loved her, and all that, but in tryin' to do right by you he done wrong by her.
"And Miz Dulcie, she never had much in the way of decent fixin's. She was raised dirt poor, scratchin' like a banty hen for whatever little she got. To a woman hungry as her, your pa must've looked mighty well off. So when he offered her his name and a place in his home, she grabbed at the chance. They both wound up holdin' a sack with a hole in it."
* * *
Joey knew it was customary for friends and relatives to take turns sitting up with the body through the night prior to the burial. He tried to sleep but found he could not. He judged that it was after midnight when he arose from bed, slipped into his overalls, and went out into the modest parlor where Pa lay in a pine box a couple of the neighbors had fashioned. The box had been placed across two wooden chairs. A lamp burned dimly, its wick turned down as low as possible without snuffing out the flame.
Overhead, suspended just below the ceiling, was Mama's old quilting frame on which she had sewn bedcovers for her family as well as for neighbors and friends. Dulcie had never used it. She did not favor that kind of meticulous, artistic work.
Blair Meacham slept on a pallet on the wooden floor. Reuben sat in a rocking chair that Pa had always favored.
"You oughtn't to be up, " he whispered. "What you need most right now is sleep."
"I kept thinking' about Pa." Joey studied the still figure in the box. A desperate hope touched him for a moment. "Maybe he's just unconscious. He looks like he could raise up any minute, wide awake."
"No, boy, he's gone to a better life. Ain't nothing' in that box but the empty shell he used to live in." Reuben arose from the rocker and put an arm around Joey. "It's a hard thing and a test of our faith, sayin' goodbye to folks we love. You'll see your pa again someday when your own time comes. Your mama too."
The wooden floor creaked. Looking up through his tears, Joey saw Dulcie standing in the door that led to the bedroom she had shared with Pa. Her voice was severe. "Joey, you've got no business bein' up. You get yourself back in bed."
Joey shrank away from her. "I just had to come and see Pa again, while I still can."
"You can see him in the morning'. Now get to bed."
She turned away. Reuben silently indicated that Joey should obey his stepmother. Joey started to comply but paused again beside his father. Anger welled up in him at the injustice of it all. "We ought to shoot those fool mules!"
Dulcie faced around. "You'd just as well know, Joey. Your daddy left town dead drunk, like he'd been doin' for a long time. Chances are he did some fool thing that made them mules run."
"No!" Joey shouted. "That's a lie!" He ran at her and pummeled her with his fists. "Don't you be telling' lies about my pa."
Reuben grabbed him. Through his own anger Joey could see fury in Dulcie's eyes. She drew back a hand to slap him, but Reuben pulled him away.
"Whoa there, you've got no call to act thataway." He turned to Dulcie. "The boy ain't hisself."
"He's himself, all right. But I ain't putting' up with no more of it."
The commotion had awakened Meacham. He cast a blanket aside and arose. He had been sleeping in his clothes, except for his shoes. "Now, Dulcie, you calm yourself down before you say something' you hadn't ought to. And Reuben, you better take Joey out to your house. I'll sit up with John the rest of the night."
Reuben held firmly to Joey. "Yes sir, Mr. Meacham. Sorry, Miz Dulcie. I'll get the boy calmed down. His thinking' just ain't straight right now."
Joey glanced behind him as they walked toward the shack beside the barn. Through the window, in the dim lamplight, he saw Meacham put his arms around Dulcie.
"It ain't true what she said about Pa."
Reuben opened the door. He fumbled in the darkness until he struck a match and lighted a lamp. The cooped-up smell of sweat and tobacco and grease from Reuben's cooking hit Joey in the face like a wet saddle blanket.
Reuben said, "You lay down on my cot and try to get some sleep. I figured on settin' up the rest of the night anyway."
Joey knew his father had been drinking some lately; the evidence of it had been on his breath, and sometimes he stumbled in his walking. But he wasn't a drunk.
"Why would she tell a big lie like that?"
Reuben took the pipe from his pocket and lighted it, staring toward a picture of Jesus on the wall. "Your pa was carryin' heavy load of grief. He tried to lift it off with whiskey, but whiskey is the devil's snare. Him and Miz Dulcie never had the true feelins of a man and wife, sure not the feelins him and your mama had. He was just looking' for a new mama for you. Miz Dulcie was looking' for a home and an easier row to hoe. They didn't neither one of them find what they was looking' for."
"So now she figures on sellin' the place and runnin' off and leavin' me. What am I goin' to do, Reuben?"
"When the time comes, die Lord always shows us the way."
"He'd better show us pretty quick."
Copyright © 1997 by Elmer Kelton