Morning Hunt, v.2

MORNING HUNT

 

The gentle yet persistent pressure of the large hand on my shoulder didn’t stop until I mumbled something to indicate that I was awake.

“Time to get up,” a voice whispered.

I stuck my nose out from under the heavy quilt and mumbled, “Yessir,” into the dark, cold air.

The sound of my father’s receding steps indicated that he was already headed to the kitchen. Neither his light tread, even in his hunting boots, nor his whisper had awakened Pop who continued to snore softly from the large bed on the other side of the room.

I pried an eye open and lifted the thin curtain over the window beside my bed in the corner and peered outside. Frost-covered pastures stretched away to the dark, impenetrable wall of the distant, shrouded woods, all bathed in the cool, pale blue light of a nearly full moon. It looked cold outside because it was.

Reluctant to leave the warm embrace of his covers but excited about the day, I tossed aside my quilts and scurried across the cold hardwood floor of the unheated room to the warmth of the bathroom where Daddy had left the gas heater on. I quickly brushed my teeth and splashed cold water on my face.

Back in the bedroom, I plopped down at the foot of the bed. My clothes for the morning were draped across the chair at the foot of the bed. Scooting out of my pajama bottoms, I pulled on a pair of worn khakis and a pair of socks, and then another, then stuffed my feet into my hunting boots and laced them up.

Shrugging out of his pajama top, I pulled an insulated undershirt over my head, paused for a moment to consider, then slipped back into my pajama tops for added warmth before putting on a flannel shirt. With my wool jacket, cap, and gloves in hand, I slipped out of the bedroom and gently closed the door on my still-sleeping grandfather.

Five steps took me through the dining room and into the delicious warmth and rich aromas of my grandmother’s kitchen. Daddy stood at the sink, a cup of coffee in one hand, a thin slice of apple pie in the other. As the youngest of eight children, he still relied on his mother’s indulgence when it came to his sweet tooth.

She was at the stove tending to a cast iron skillet of scrambled eggs and sizzling sausage. The coffee pot sat warming on an eye on the back of the stove.

“Good morning, Dear,” she said with a smile and used the back of her free hand to push back a stray strand of her white hair.

“Good morning, Cat,” I replied – I had called her Cat since before I could remember – and hugged her slender frame and kissed her like I did every morning. And every evening. And at every arrival and departure.

“Have a seat,” she added. “Breakfast is nearly ready.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” I said.

But first, I rubbed his eyes with my knuckles and crossed the small room. “Good morning, Daddy,” I said and wrapped one arm around his waist and hugged.

“Hey there, Boy,” my father said and setting his cup aside, pulled me close with his free arm and kissed me on top of my head.

I looked up into his smiling face and grinned back.

Draping my coat over an empty chair, I sat down at my usual place at the breakfast table. Cat had already poured me a tall glass of cold sweetmilk. In the center of the table, a plateful of yeast rolls sat cooling under a clean dishcloth, surrounded by a saucer of pale yellow, hand-churned butter and jars of peach, pear, and fig preserves.

Daddy took over at the stove while Cat went to the pantry. He brought the coffee pot and a plateful of eggs and sausage to the table and sat down. “Ready for some hunting?” he asked.

“Yes, Sir,” I said and tried to stifle a yawn.

“I can tell.” he chuckled and ruffled my short hair.

Cat returned and Daddy and I rose. He held her chair, and when she was seated, we joined her. Daddy offered thanks, and after ‘Amen’, all three of us began helping our plates. Amid the soft clatter of utensils and plates, Cat and Daddy talked softly as the house slept around them, Pop in the back bedroom, my mother and younger sister in the front.

I listened idly and stuffed myself on my favorite breakfast. When the last crumb was tucked away, my father leaned back and said, “That was delicious, Momma. I certainly enjoyed it.”

“I did, too,” I chimed in.

“I’m so glad you did,” Cat replied with a smile.

I took an extra sausage patty and tucked it into a yeast roll, then wrapped it all up in one of my grandmother’s cotton napkins and stuffed it into his pants pocket.

Daddy and I got up and took our dishes to the sink.

“Leave them. I’ll wash up. You two get along,” Cat said.

Daddy pulled on his canvas hunting jacket and picking up one of his father’s old felt hats, kissed his mother good-bye. I kissed her too, then pulled on my wool jacket. It had been my father’s when he was young as had the red leather cap with the fold-down earflaps lined with rabbit fur that I seated firmly on my head. I loved that cap.

With a final good-bye, we slipped out onto the screened back porch. Our guns, a Browning Auto-5 12-gauge shotgun for Daddy and a J.C. Higgins Model 36 .22 rifle for me, were propped against Cat’s heavy, old buffet. There was a set of drawers on top where she stored seeds for her garden, and in front of the drawers were two boxes of ammunition, one of Number 2 shot for duck hunting and another holding .22 long rifle cartridges.

Daddy seated Pop’s old hat on his head and dropped a handful of shotguns shells into the pocket of his hunting jacket. I put the entire box of 50 cartridges in my pocket. Ever alert, Scrappy must have heard our footsteps because he crawled from under the porch and extending his front paws, raised his hind end high, and stretched. With wagging of tail, he waited for us at the bottom of the steps, dancing in anticipation. Scrappy was a not particularly attractive dog. In fact, he was a mongrel with a thick body and short legs, mostly white with a few black and brown splotches. But what he lacked in breeding and aesthetic appeal, he made up for in loyalty and eagerness.

Daddy and I buttoned up our coats against the cold and hefted our guns, checked that we were both indeed unloaded and that the Safeties were on. With guns pointed toward the ground, we descended the steps. I stopped at the bottom and kneeled down to pet Scrappy who thanked me with a cold, wet tongue to the cheek, then nuzzled the pocket that held my sausage and yeast roll.

“Not for you, Boy,” I said and stood up.

We crossed the yard with Scrappy bouncing around underfoot. Past the plum tree, Daddy handed me the shotgun to hold while he crouched and slipped between two strands of the barb wire fence that surrounded the pasture. When he was clear, I passed him the shotgun and the rifle over to him and followed. Scrappy ran under the bottom strand.

The sun was just peeking through the bare limbs of the treetops in the far southeast end of the pasture, turning the frost-covered brown stubble of the pasture into a sparkling blanket. We paused here, and Daddy loaded two shells into the shotgun’s magazine, pulled back the bolt to chamber the first shell, then added a third into the magazine. He then rechecked the shotgun’s Safety.

I pulled out the spring-loaded rod from the .22’s tubular magazine and, one by one, dropped in 15 cartridges, then replaced the rod and pulled back on the bolt to load the first round. Just like my father I rechecked that the Safety was on. Daddy was a rigorous teacher when it came to most things, firearm safety in particular.

The sun broke free of the distant trees, and its low rays turned the brown, frost-covered pasture into a benign lake of shimmering gold. Daddy tucked his shotgun into the crook of his right arm. I paused and breathed deeply of the cold air. The scent of woodsmoke from fireplaces and kitchens on the place tickled my nose.

Folding down my cap’s rabbit fur flaps over my cold ears and tucked the rifle into the crook of my left arm, then jammed both of my now-gloved hands into my pockets. Although, I was naturally right-handed, my eyesight was so poor in my right eye, that I had turned myself into a left-handed shot.

The dry, winter-brittle, and frosty stubble crunched under our boots as we walked across the pasture towards the old, old forest of oak trees that ran along the east side of the place. I had no idea how deep these woods went. I had never walked all the way out the other side.

As we crossed the pasture, Daddy and I hardly spoke and when we did it was in hushed tones as if in reverence of the dawning day. Scrappy trotted ahead on stiff, jaunty legs, nose to the ground, running down every intriguing scent. Occasionally, he paused, turned, and waited impatiently for us to catch up.

Eventually, we came to the edge of the wood, the immense trunks towered above us, dark and solemn. Bare, brittle limbs rattled and cracked in the wind-driven, bitterly cold air. I shivered as the breeze cut through all of my clothes. Even Scrappy paused before entering, perhaps like Daddy and me, not from fear or even unease, but out of respect for something ancient and wild, primeval and seductive.

I pulled off my left glove, freeing my shooting hand, and with rifle at the ready and heightened senses, all three of us stepped into the still dark, still shadowy world of the woods. The ground was covered with a carpet of brown, fallen leaves and mast, thousands upon thousands of acorns, food for deer, squirrel and turkey.

Daddy and I spaced themselves about 15 feet apart and moved as quietly as possible through the sparse undergrowth. Amid the soft rustle of leaf and the occasional crunch of acorn underfoot, we cocked their ears for squirrel chatter and swept their eyes through the branches above for movement. Despite the cold, I had already flipped up the flaps on his cap in order to hear better. Scrappy ran down every new scent he discovered whether squirrel or rabbit or ground-nesting bird.

I wondered if these woods were old enough to have been here when the first white men came to clear them for farming. The trees had to be old. I knew that many of them were nearly 100 feet tall and twelve to 15 feet around at the base. I had read in my science book that white oaks could live to be over 300 years old. Had the Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians hunted these same woods where we now hunted? I was sure they must have.

Cat had always kept chickens, and one day as a small boy, I had run inside with a particularly fine, large chicken feather. She had given me a strip of fabric to tie around my head, and I had thrust that feather into my headband. Then taking up the bow and arrow that she had been instrumental in getting me for my birthday that June, I had practiced slipping, silently and undetected, about the farmyard and tractor sheds and tree-lined bayou.

Now I was hunting the big woods for real, not pretend, and with Daddy, among trees so evenly spaced that we could have been planted. But then again, every one of these old trees had a lot of roots and needed a lot of room to grow. I had walked the edge of these woods in the summer too when it was an emerald world of perpetual shade, shade so complete that there was practically no undergrowth. Maybe they had to grow that way.

As we moved deeper, the rising sun cast golden rays through the thick trunks creating long, dense shadows.  Waking birds, finches and sparrows began their morning songs. We came to a small sun-filled clearing, a nearly perfect circle of brown grass, dominated by the scarred, shattered carcass of one of the old trees. Struck and split open by lightning, it had collapsed, falling to the ground in disarray. Slender saplings grew up through the broken branches, creating a small thicket. It reminded me of weeds growing up through the bleached, skeletal ribs of a dead dog I had once come upon in these very woods.

“Quiet,” Daddy whispered. “There might be a rabbit in there.”

I halted, expectant. From the corner of my eye he saw Daddy slowly bring up his shotgun. I stared intently at the thicket and held my breath as he eased the shotgun up to his shoulder.

Ever impulsive, Scrappy bounded into the clearing, paused momentarily sniffing the cold morning air, and plunged into the thicket. The cottontail that Daddy suspected might be in the thicket erupted out of the other side, a long, low, sleek gray missile zig-zagging across the clearing, its white scut held high, Scrappy in furious but futile pursuit. The two charged into the woods, the rabbit desperately seeking cover.

Daddy exploded in laughter, and I did too. We could hear the diminishing rustle of the chase. Daddy paused to enjoy the warm sunlight. I dropped my rifle back into the crook of my arm and warmed my cold fingers with my breath.

Daddy said, “One winter, I was still in high school, A.J. and I were out rabbit hunting. It was cold like today, maybe even colder, and we came up on a place just like this.”

A.J. had grown up in the place, and I had known him all my life. It was funny to think of Daddy and A.J. being not much older than me and hunting together. A.J. like Daddy was grown and married. And had children. I often played with his son Willy who was my age.

Daddy continued. “Well, there was a rabbit hiding in that thicket that day too. A.J. crept right up to the thicket and when he saw that rabbit – he had a single-shot shotgun – he leaned in with that gun, couldn’t’ve been more than two or three feet from that rabbit, and pulled the trigger.”

Daddy began to laugh so hard, that tears were starting at the corner of his eyes.

“And missed him,” Daddy finally choked out, still laughing.

I was grinning and laughing so hard, not just at the story but at how tickled Daddy was at the memory, that my jaw ached.

Daddy wiped his eyes. “Before that rabbit could even flinch, A.J. flipped that single-shot around and whacked him on the head with the stock.”

Daddy started laughing all over again. “Only rabbit we saw that day. It was so cold I couldn’t even feel my fingers or toes by the time we got back to the house. But we got a rabbit.”

We were still laughing when Scrappy reappeared at the edge of the clearing, tongue lolling out, defeated.

“Got away, didn’t he?” Daddy called out.

In response, Scrappy sat down panting and waited for us.

Daddy and I crossed the clearing and Scrappy fell in beside us. There was a log, the remnant of a downed tree, at the edge of the clearing. I started to step over it.

“What did I teach you?” Daddy said sharply.

I looked back, abashed. “Always step on a log, not over it, in case a snake is coiled on the other side.”

“That’s right.”

“But there won’t be any rattlers out. It’s too cold,” I offered in defense of my lapse.

Daddy squinted that way that only he could. “Make it a habit and you’ll do it all the time. Without thinking. You won’t have to ask yourself if the snakes are out or not.”

“Yessir,” I said.

I stepped on, then over the log, and we re-entered the woods.

“Now, let’s find a good, fat squirrel for your grandfather,” Daddy said.

The air was still cold, but here and there a squirrel poked its nose from its nest, drawn by hunger and the warming sun. Spaced out again, Daddy and I continued to sweep the limbs above. We walked aimlessly among the thick, gray trunks beneath the lattice of bare limbs with no discernable pattern, deeper and deeper into the woods. I savored the nip of the cold air and the relative quiet of the morning.

Eventually we were rewarded by the chatter of a squirrel calling or maybe admonishing another squirrel. I followed the sound and finally spotted the squirrel. It must have been 30 feet up in the tree, plump and gray, acorn in its paws, gnawing away and chattering. Daddy saw it too and nodded. Slowly and quietly, I raised the rifle to my left shoulder. I gripped the stock with my left hand and reached forward with my trigger finger and gently clicked off the Safety. Just as I did, the squirrel paused, maybe he heard the metallic click, then scampered along the limb and resettled, partially obscured by a branch.

“Still see him?” Daddy whispered.

“Yessir,” I replied. “I can see his shoulder right above that branch.”

“Don’t shoot unless you’re sure,” Daddy said.

I centered the blade of the front sight into notch on the rear sight and aimed so that the squirrel’s shoulder was right on top of the front blade. “I got ’im,” I answered and squeezed the trigger the way Daddy had taught me.

There was a sharp crack. The recoil of the rifle ejected the spent cartridge and the bolt cycled back forward loading a fresh cartridge. Through it all, I held my aim just as Daddy had taught me in case another shot was needed. It was not. The squirrel tumbled to the earth, landing with a soft thud.

Scrappy bounded towards the fallen squirrel. I lowered my rifle, clicked the Safety back on, and started to run, fearful that Scrappy, more companion than retriever, might make off with the squirrel. Before Daddy could say a word, I remembered his injunction about running with a loaded rifle. With my rifle at my side, I strode across the carpet of leaves and mast as quickly as possible. When I got there, Scrappy was merely sniffing about and nudging the inert body with his wet, black nose.

I lifted the squirrel by the tail. It was heavier than I had expected, long and plump. My shot had broken the squirrel’s backbone right at the shoulder.

Daddy walked up beaming. “That may be the finest squirrel I’ve ever seen taken around here,” he said. “And that was some good shot! Why, no more’n you could see of that squirrel, I doubt I could have made that shot.”

My chest swelled with pride. Daddy never praised lightly. Even so, I knew in my heart that Daddy could have easily made that shot. I handed the squirrel to Daddy so he could heft it.

“Nice and plump. Pop will be pleased,” he said. “Want me to carry him?”

“Yessir,” I said.

There was very little blood, but Daddy’s hunting jacket had a lined game pouch into which he dropped the squirrel. “We got what we came for. Let’s meander on back.”

Daddy and I walked closer together now and talked softly as we walked, while Scrappy ranged off in first one direction and then another. Despite our apparently aimless drifting, we soon arrived back at the clearing. The meadow was bathed in warm sunlight, and selecting a convenient limb on the downed tree, we sat.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out his sausage and roll wrapped in Cat’s napkin. Walking in the cold morning air had made me hungry. I unwrapped my snack and was about to offer Daddy part of it, when he fished his own out of his pocket.

“I’ve been sticking a piece of ham or sausage in one of your grandmother’s rolls before heading out for the day for a long as I can remember,” Daddy said and took a big bite.

“Um-uh,” Daddy said. “That’s good.”

I dug into mine and agreed. We munched slowly, and Daddy told stories of other hunts, other days, and other dogs, especially stories of duck hunts over on the River, the Mississippi River. His stories were always vivid, so rich in in detail that I felt like I had been there with him.

Redbirds and blue jays joined the finches and sparrows that darted across our little clearing. A raucous murder of crows flew in, scattering the other birds, and alit to peck among the scrub. One particularly large crow settled into a tree along the edge of the clearing and began to chastise us with insistent cawing.

“Bet that rascal and his kind have been in your grandmother’s garden and fruit trees,” Daddy said.

Daddy took his last bite and wiped his hands on the napkin which he stuffed back in his pocket. “You’ve never fired a shotgun, have you?” Daddy asked, even though he knew the answer.

“Nosir,” I said. I had seen Daddy shoot and had pleaded, but Daddy had always said ‘Not yet.’

“Stand up,” Daddy said.

I leapt up in anticipation and Daddy handed me the long, heavy shotgun.

“Now look down the barrel at that crow.”

I set the shotgun to my shoulder and looked down the length of the barrel at the little bead on the end. “There’s no rear sight,” I said.

“Just look down that rib,” Daddy said, then added, “Put your left leg back a little and lean forward just a little bit.”

I did as Daddy instructed. The gun was heavy and hard to hold up for very long. Daddy must have noticed.

“Perfect,” Daddy said. “Now stand easy.”

I lowered the heavy barrel.

“That shotgun’s going to kick when you pull the trigger. Make sure it’s snugged up tight against your shoulder,” he said. “It’ll push you back and the barrel will come up but hold steady and the barrel will come back down.”

I nodded. “Yessir.”

“And another thing. You’re shooting lefty, so that empty shell is going to be ejected right across in front of your eyes. Don’t let that bother you. It won’t hit you.”

“Yessir.”

“Now aim and fire,” Daddy said.

I lifted the shotgun and tucked it tight against my left shoulder. With my forefinger I flicked off the Safety. Placing my left cheek against the cool wood of the stock and sighting down the rib, I placed the bead squarely on the squawking crow. I squeezed the trigger.

The sound was deafening. The heavy gun slammed my shoulder back and the barrel rode up just like Daddy said it would. But my stance was good, and I was braced as Daddy had told me. As I rocked back forward, the barrel came back down and all I saw where the crow had been was a cascade of tattered black feathers fluttering to the ground. The crow was completely gone.

“Wow,” I said under my breath. I was both in awe of the destructive power of the shotgun and in some way that I couldn’t describe, abashed. A living creature, even one as rapacious and irritating as a crow could be, simply no longer existed. The squirrel was one thing: that was for Pop who loved squirrel stew. This was another. Still, I had fired a shotgun and hit what I had aimed at.

“How’d it feel?” Daddy asked.

“Like getting punched in the shoulder,” I replied and clicked the Safety back on.

“You’ll get used to it. But that was a tight, heavy load for duck, not birdshot. Still, it shows you how devastating a shotgun can be. That’s a good thing to remember.”

I looked over at the limb where the now-obliterated crow had been and gulped. But I was still a boy, and any thought of remorse fled from my mind as I hefted the 12-gauge. “When can we go dove hunting?” I asked, assuming that was the next logical step.

“When you learn how to shoot birds on the wing. You have to learn to aim so that your shot and the flying bird arrive at the same place at the same time. Hand me the shotgun.”

Daddy stood and took the gun from me. “Now run pick up that shell.”

Daddy checked that the Safety was on and took his shooting stance. With his free hand, he pointed to a spot well off to his left. “Now stand over there,” he said. “And when I say ‘Pull’, throw that shell as high and as far as you can.”

“Yessir,” I said and went to the spot and cocked my arm.

“Pull,” Daddy shouted.

I hurled the shotgun shell as hard as he could. It arced through the air, a small tumbling, red cylinder against the pale blue sky. Daddy traced its path with the barrel of the shotgun and pulled the trigger. Another explosion and the shotgun shell went spinning off in a different direction.

“Like that,” Daddy said and set the Safety as he lowered the gun.

“Wow,” I said for the second time that morning. “How did you learn to do that?”

“Your grandfather taught he. He must have told me a thousand times, ‘You don’t so much aim a shotgun, as you point it.’ And it takes practice. Lots of practice.”

“Is that why you don’t need sights like on a rifle, because you point it?” I asked.

“Exactly.” Daddy nodded.

“But how do you figure out where to point the shotgun?”

Daddy thought for moment and finally said. “You know when we’re out in the backyard running pass routes and throwing the football?”

“Yessir.”

“How do you know where to throw the ball when I’m running a down and out route?”

“I just do,” I said. “I just kinda know how to throw it so you can catch it.”

“Do you think about it?”

“Nosir, not really. I just know.”

“But you didn’t at first, did you?”

I thought for a second. “Nosir. I threw the ball behind you all the time.”

“That’s right. But with practice you learned how to figure out how fast I was running and in what direction and how hard you had the throw the football so that the ball and I got to the same place at the same time.”

I nodded to myself. It all made sense.

“And now, you don’t even have to really think about it, do you?” Daddy asked.

“Nosir,” I replied, then added, “Can I try it?”

“Sure,” Daddy said. “I think it’s time.” He handed him the shotgun.

On my fourth try I hit the empty shotgun shell that Daddy had sent sailing through the air. Just like when I was learning to throw passes, I had been behind on the first three times.  Daddy threw one more and when I hit that one too, Daddy said, “Let’s stop while you’re ahead. Besides, it’s about time to head back to the house.”

I agreed. That 12-gauge packed a wallop. We gathered up and pocketed our empty shells, then turned towards home. Scrappy, who had found other things to do during shotgun practice, rejoined us as we re-entered the woods. The sun was nearly directly overhead now and shone down through the skein of bare branches overhead, creating pools of brown and gold on the forest floor. Now that we were no longer hunting, I picked up the occasional stick and threw it for Scrappy to chase.

We cleared the woods and stepped out into the pasture. It was warmer, not exactly warm, but warmer in the direct sunlight; all the frost had been burned off. Half a mile away stood my grandparents’ white, clapboarded house among the trees and outbuildings, the smokehouse and hen house. Smoke, thin wispy pillars of gray, rose into the still air from their chimney and the chimney of every other house on the place.

Scrappy headed to the slough that meandered through the upper pasture for a drink of water. Cat’s milk cows, mostly fawn-colored Jerseys with a couple of black and white Holsteins, heads down, nibbling at the sparse growth, drifted across the pasture from the distant barn.  Daddy and I continued across the brown stubble of the pasture, talking now about the college football season. We might even be able to pick up a game on the television this afternoon.

We reached the fence, unloaded their weapons, climbed through one at a time, and crossed the yard where Cat’s chickens, rusty Rhode Island Reds and speckled Plymouth Rocks, clucked and cooed and pecked about in the bright sunlight. We stopped at the back steps to clean the squirrel. Pop must have seen them coming because he came out onto the porch shrugging into his coat.

“Let’s see what you got there,” he said.

I held his trophy up high.

“Whooeee,” Pop said. “That looks like a good one. Got your knife on you?”

“Yessir,” I answered and fished out his pocketknife.

“Good for you. A gentleman always carries a pocketknife,” he said.

Pop clomped down the steps, leaned over my shoulder, and with the forefinger of his large, weathered hand traced the first cut down the squirrel’s snow-white belly. He pulled out his Dr. Grabow pipe and a pouch of Carter Hall tobacco. Soon his head was wreathed with a halo of blue pipesmoke. I drank in the rich aroma and skinned and gutted the squirrel at his careful instruction.

I kept the tail for himself. Everything else, hide, head, and entrails I took out back followed by a cavalcade of curious chickens in their rolling, stiff-legged waddle. I tossed it all over the back fence into the pasture. Scrappy nosed around but found nothing interesting. Crows soon gathered to peck and fight over the pile.

Returning, I put the cleaned and skinned squirrel in the pan Cat had provided and started up the steps.

“Hope you’re looking forward to squirrel stew as much as I am,” Pop said.

I turned and wrinkled up his nose and mouth in disgust.

Pop threw his head back and roared with laughter. Daddy too.

“Good. More for me,” Pop said, still laughing.

On the porch, Daddy and I propped their guns in the corner for cleaning later and emptied our pockets of ammunition. The three of us shrugged out of their coats and entered the warmth of Cat’s kitchen. I was the last to enter. I paused and stared off a last time across the pasture at the dark wall of the distant woods, then closed the door against winter’s cold, this day’s hunt over.

 

***

 

I would hunt those woods many times in the coming years, in all weathers, sometimes with my father, sometimes alone, always alert for moments of wonder and attentive of any danger, but never with a sense of fear, not fear of my surroundings nor fear of getting lost in the big woods. I had been taught well.

In coming years, I would hunt other woods with other people, and as Daddy had said, with practice I became a good wingshot. That accomplished, Daddy took me dove hunting as promised. But that is a story for another time.

Sometimes, I simply walked the woods, not hunting at all. And as the years went by, I hunted less and less and walked more and more. I became a Scoutmaster and avid backpacker. I hiked in the Appalachian Mountains and the Rockies too, the Sierra Nevadas and the Tetons, the Grand Canyon and southern Patagonia. I shared the things Daddy and Grandfather taught me with others.

My father’s birthday and deathday both come around every fall, within three weeks of each other. So, it is inevitable that as the sun begins its slow march into the southern sky and the days begin to shorten and the shadows lengthen, my mind turns more and more often to him. When the leaves change color and the air turns sharp, I pull out William Faulkner’s The Bear and read that finest of all coming-of-age/hunting stories for the umpteenth time, and once again I can see and feel and smell the big woods that I had once trod with Daddy and Pop.

Age has slowed my step but not my ardor the wild places. I still get out there and traipse around, and I still share the lessons that were handed down to me. Early one brisk morning this fall, I stood on a mountain ridge in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Standing beside me was one of my grandsons, just a few years older than I was on my first squirrel hunt with my father. It struck me as it sometimes does at unexpected moments that I am grandfather now.

In the low rays of morning light, we stared out across fog-filled valleys. The surface of the fog was placid, smooth and featureless. Distant peaks rose from the fog like blue islands in calm, gray sea. It was one of those scenes of such transcendent beauty that your breath catches in your throat. I have experienced this many times, in a High Sierras meadow bathed in alpenglow or deep in the Grand Canyon with its walls bathed in the crimson of a setting sun or the intense turquoise blue of a Patagonian lake.

As so often happens at these times, I found myself thinking of my father and grandfather and all they taught me all those years ago. I found myself wishing they could be here seeing what I was seeing. And often, like that morning, I found myself speaking to them as if they, and not this young man, were standing at my side.

“Did you say something, Pop?” Jake asked.

“I guess I did,” I admitted. I looked at the smooth, eager face beside me, then back across the magnificent vista stretching before us as if looking back across time to another frosty morning and whispered, “I just said, ‘Thank you.’”

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MORNING HUNT

The Boy awoke to the gentle yet persistent pressure of a large hand on his shoulder.

“Time to get up,” Father whispered.

The Boy stuck his nose out from under the heavy quilt. “Yessir,” he mumbled into the dark, cold air.

The sound of Father’s receding steps indicated that he was already headed to the kitchen. Neither Father’s light tread, even in his hunting boots, nor his whisper had awakened Grandfather who continued to snore softly from the large bed on the other side of the room.

The Boy pried an eye open and lifted the thin curtain over the window beside his bed in the corner to peer outside. Frost-covered pastures stretched away to the dark, impenetrable wall of the distant, shrouded woods, all bathed in the cool, pale blue light of a nearly full moon. It looked cold outside because it was.

Reluctant to leave the warm embrace of his covers but excited about the day, he tossed aside his quilts and scurried across the cold hardwood floor of the unheated room to the warmth of the bathroom where Father had left the gas heater on. He quickly brushed his teeth and splashed cold water on his face.

Back in the bedroom, the Boy plopped down at the foot of the bed. His clothes for the morning were draped across the chair at the foot of the bed. Scooting out of his pajama bottoms, he pulled on a pair of worn khakis and two pair of socks, then stuffed his feet into his hunting boots and laced them up.

Shrugging out of his pajama top, he pulled an insulated shirt over his head, paused for a moment to consider, then slipped back into his pajama tops for added warmth before putting on a flannel shirt. With his wool jacket, cap, and gloves in hand, the Boy slipped out of the bedroom and gently closed the door on his still-sleeping grandfather.

Five steps took him through the dining room and into the delicious warmth and rich aromas of Grandmother’s kitchen. Father stood at the sink, a cup of coffee in one hand, a thin slice of apple pie in the other. As the youngest of eight children, Father still relied on his mother’s indulgence when it came to his sweet tooth.

Grandmother was at the stove tending to a cast iron skillet of scrambled eggs and sizzling sausage. The coffee pot sat warming on an eye on the back of the stove.

“Good morning, Dear,” she said with a smile and used the back of her free hand to push back a stray strand of her white hair.

“Good morning, Grandmother,” he replied and hugged her slender frame and kissed her like he did every morning. And every evening. And at every arrival and departure.

“Have a seat,” she added. “Breakfast is nearly ready.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said.

But first, the Boy rubbed his eyes with his knuckles and crossed the small room. “Good morning, Father,” he said and wrapped one arm around Father’s waist and hugged.

“Hey there, Boy,” Father said and setting his cup aside, pulled the Boy close with his free arm and kissed him on top of my head.

The Boy looked up into Father’s smiling face and grinned back.

The Boy draped his coat over an empty chair and sat down at the breakfast table at his usual place. Grandmother had already poured him a tall glass of cold sweetmilk. In the center of the table, a plateful of yeast rolls sat cooling under a clean dishcloth, surrounded by a saucer of pale yellow, hand-churned butter and jars of peach, pear, and fig preserves.

Father took over at the stove while Grandmother went to the pantry. Father brought the coffee pot and a plateful of eggs and sausage to the table and sat down. “Ready for some hunting?” he asked.

“Yes, Sir,” the Boy said and tried to stifle a yawn.

“I can tell.” Father chuckled and ruffled the Boy’s short hair.

Grandmother returned and Father and the Boy rose. Father held her chair, and when she was seated, they joined her. Father offered thanks, and after ‘Amen’, all three began helping their plates. Amid the soft clatter of utensils and plates, Grandmother and Father talked softly as the house slept around them, Grandfather in the back bedroom, Mother and Younger Sister in the front.

The Boy listened idly and stuffed himself on his favorite breakfast. When the last crumb was tucked away, Father leaned back and said, “That was delicious, Mother. I certainly enjoyed it.”

“I did, too,” the Boy chimed in.

“I’m so glad you did,” Grandmother replied with a smile.

The Boy took a sausage patty and tucked it into a yeast roll, then wrapped it all up in one of Grandmother’s cotton napkins and stuffed it into his pants pocket.

Father and the Boy rose and took their dishes to the sink.

“Leave them. I’ll wash up. You two get going,” Grandmother said.

Father pulled on his canvas hunting jacket, and picking up one of Grandfather’s old felt hats, kissed Grandmother good-bye. The Boy kissed her too, then pulled on his wool jacket. It had been Father’s when he was young as had the red leather cap with the fold-down earflaps lined with rabbit fur that he seated firmly on his head. The Boy treasured that cap.

With a final good-bye, Father and the Boy slipped out onto the screened back porch. Their guns, a Browning Auto-5 12-gauge shotgun for Father and a J.C. Higgins Model 36 .22 rifle for the Boy, were propped against Grandmother’s heavy, old buffet. There was a set of drawers on top where Grandmother stored seeds for her garden, and in front of the drawers were two boxes of ammunition, one of Number 2 shot for duck hunting and another holding .22 long rifle cartridges.

Father seated Grandfather’s hat on his head and dropped a handful of shotguns shells into the pocket of his hunting jacket. The Boy put the entire box of cartridges in his pocket. The ever-alert Dog must have heard their footsteps because he crawled from under the porch and extending his front paws, raised his hind end high, and stretched. With wagging of tail, he waited for them at the bottom of the steps, dancing in anticipation. Dog was a not particularly attractive dog. In fact, he was a mongrel with a thick body and short legs, mostly white with a few black and brown splotches. But what Dog lacked in breeding and aesthetic appeal, he made up for in loyalty and eagerness.

Father and the Boy buttoned up their coats against the cold and hefted their guns, checked that they were both indeed unloaded and that the Safeties were on. With guns pointed toward the ground, they descended the steps. The Boy stopped at the bottom to kneel down and pet Dog who thanked him with a cold, wet tongue to the cheek, then nuzzled the Boy’s pocket that held the sausage and yeast roll.

“Not for you,” the Boy said and stood up.

They crossed the yard with Dog bouncing around underfoot. Past the plum tree, Father handed the shotgun to the Boy to hold while he crouched and slipped between two strands of the barb wire fence that surrounded the pasture. When Father was clear, the Boy passed him the shotgun and the rifle and followed. Dog ran under the bottom strand.

The sun was just peeking through the bare limbs of the treetops in the far southeast end of the pasture, turning the frost-covered brown stubble of the pasture into a sparkling blanket. They paused here, and Father loaded two shells into the shotgun’s magazine, pulled back the bolt to chamber the first shell, then added a third into the magazine. He then rechecked the shotgun’s Safety.

The Boy removed the spring-loaded rod from the .22’s tubular magazine and, one by one, dropped in 15 cartridges, then replaced the rod and pulled back on the bolt to load the first round. Just like Father he rechecked that the Safety was on. Father was a rigorous teacher when it came to most things, firearm safety in particular.

The sun broke free of the distant trees, and its low rays turned the pasture into a benign lake of shimmering gold. Father tucked his shotgun into the crook of his right arm. The Boy paused and breathed deeply of the cold air. The scent of woodsmoke from fireplaces and kitchens on the place tickled his nose.

He folded down his cap’s rabbit fur flaps over his cold ears and tucked the rifle into the crook of his left arm, then jammed both of his now-gloved hands into his pockets. Although, he was naturally right-handed, his eyesight was so poor in his right eye, that he had turned himself into a left-handed shot.

The frosty stubble, dry, winter-brittle, and frost covered, crunched under their boots as they walked across the pasture towards the old, old forest of oak trees that ran along the east side of the place. The Boy had no idea how deep these woods went. He had never walked all the way out the other side.

As they crossed the pasture, Father and the Boy spoke rarely and then in hushed tones as if in reverence of the dawning day. Dog trotted ahead on stiff, jaunty legs, nose to the ground, running down every intriguing scent. Occasionally, Dog paused, turned, and waited as if impatient.

Eventually, they came to the edge of the wood, the immense trunks towered above, dark and solemn. Bare, brittle limbs rattled and cracked in the wind-driven, bitterly cold air. The Boy shivered as the breeze cut through his clothes. Even Dog paused before entering, perhaps like Father and the Boy, not from fear or even unease, but out of respect for something ancient and wild, primeval and seductive.

The Boy pulled off his left glove, freeing his shooting hand, and with rifle at the ready and heightened senses, all three stepped into the still dark, still shadowy world of the woods. The ground was covered with a carpet of brown, fallen leaves and mast, thousands upon thousands of acorns, food for deer, squirrel and turkey.

Father and the Boy spaced themselves about 15 feet apart and moved as quietly as possible through the sparse undergrowth. Amid the soft rustle of leaf and the occasional crunch of acorn underfoot, they cocked their ears for squirrel chatter and swept their eyes through the branches above for movement. Despite the cold, the Boy had already flipped up the flaps on his cap in order to hear better. Dog ran down every new scent he discovered whether squirrel or rabbit or ground-nesting bird.

The Boy wondered if these woods were old enough to have been here when the first white men came to clear them for farming. The trees had to be old. He knew that many of them were nearly 100 feet tall and twelve to 15 around at the base. He had read in his science book that white oaks could live to be over 300 years old. Had the Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians hunted these same woods where he and Father now hunted? He was sure they must have.

Grandmother had always kept chickens, and one day as a small boy, he had run inside with a particularly fine, large chicken feather. Grandmother had given him a strip of fabric to tie around his head, and he had thrust that feather into his headband. Then taking up the bow and arrow that she had been instrumental in him getting for his birthday that June, he had practiced slipping, silently and undetected, about the farmyard and tractor sheds and tree-lined bayou.

Now he hunted the big woods for real, not pretend, and with Father, among trees so evenly spaced that they could have been planted. But then again, every one of these old trees had a lot of roots and needed a lot of room to grow. He walked these woods in the summer too when it was an emerald world of perpetual shade, shade so complete that there was practically no undergrowth. Maybe they just grew this way.

As they moved deeper, the rising sun cast golden rays through the thick trunks creating long, dense shadows.  Waking birds, finches and sparrows began their morning songs. They came to a small sun-filled clearing, a nearly perfect circle of brown grass, dominated by the scarred, shattered carcass of one of the old trees. Struck by lightning, it had collapsed, falling to the ground in disarray. Slender saplings grew up through the broken branches, creating a small thicket. It reminded the Boy of weeds growing up through the bleached, skeletal ribs of a dead dog he had once come upon in these very woods.

“Quiet,” Father whispered. “There might be a rabbit in there.”

The Boy halted, expectant. From the corner of his eye he saw Father slowly bring the shotgun to his shoulder. The Boy stared intently at the thicket and held his breath as he eased the rifle up to his shoulder.

Ever impulsive, Dog bounded into the clearing, paused momentarily sniffing the cold morning air, and plunged into the thicket. The cottontail that Father suspected might be in the thicket erupted out of the other side, a long, low, sleek gray missile zig-zagging across the clearing, its white scut held high, Dog in furious but futile pursuit. The two charged back into the woods, the rabbit desperately seeking cover.

Father exploded in laughter, and the Boy did too. They could hear the diminishing rustle of the chase. Father paused in the warm sunlight. The Boy, his rifle back in the crook of his arm, blew his warm breath on his cold fingers.

Father said, “One winter, I was still in high school, one of the farmhands and I were out rabbit hunting. It was cold like today, maybe even colder, and we came up on a place just like this.”

Father continued. “Well, there was a rabbit hiding in that thicket too. That old boy crept right up to that thicket and when he saw that rabbit – he had a single-shot shotgun – he leaned in with that gun, couldn’t’ve been more that two or three feet from that rabbit, and pulled the trigger.”

Father was laughing so hard, that tears were starting at the corner of his eyes.

“And missed him,” Father finally choked out, still laughing.

The Boy was grinning and laughing so hard, not just at the story but at how tickled Father was at the memory, that his jaw ached.

Father wiped his eyes. “Before that rabbit could even flinch, he flipped that single-shot around and whacked that rabbit in the head with the stock.”

Father started laughing all over again. “Only rabbit we saw that day. It was so cold I couldn’t even feel my fingers or toes by the time we got back to the house. But we got a rabbit.”

They were still laughing when Dog reappeared at the edge of the clearing, tongue lolling out, defeated.

“Got away, didn’t he?” Father called out.

In response, Dog sat down panting and waited for them.

Father and the Boy crossed the clearing and Dog fell in beside the Boy. There was a log, the remnant of a downed tree, at the edge of the clearing. The Boy started to step over it.

“What did I tell you?” Father said sharply.

The Boy looked back, abashed. “Always step on a log not over it in case a snake is coiled on the other side.”

“That’s right.”

“But there won’t be any rattlers out. It’s too cold,” the Boy offered in defense of his lapse.

Father squinted that way that only he could. “Make it a habit and you’ll do it all the time. Without thinking. You won’t have to ask yourself if the snakes are out or not.”

“Yessir,” the Boy said.

He and Father stepped on, then over the log and re-entered the woods.

“Now, let’s find a good, fat squirrel for your Grandfather,” Father said.

The air was still cold, but here and there a squirrel poked its nose from its nest, drawn by hunger and the warming sun. Spaced out again, Father and the Boy continued to sweep the limbs above. They walked aimlessly among the thick, gray trunks beneath the lattice of bare limbs with no discernable pattern, deeper and deeper into the woods. The Boy savored the nip of the cold air and the relative quiet of the morning.

Eventually they were rewarded by the chatter of a squirrel calling or maybe admonishing another squirrel. The Boy followed the sound and finally spotted the squirrel. It must have been 30 feet up in the tree, plump and gray, acorn in its paws, gnawing away and chattering. Father saw it too and nodded. Slowly and quietly, the Boy raised the rifle to his left shoulder. As the gripped the stock with his left hand, he reached forward with his trigger finger and gently clicked off the Safety. Just as he did, the squirrel paused, then scampered along the limb and resettled, partially obscured by a branch.

“Still see him?” Father whispered.

“Yessir,” the Boy replied. “I can see his shoulder right above that branch.”

“Don’t shoot unless you’re sure,” Father said.

The Boy centered the blade of the front sight into notch on the rear sight and aimed so that the squirrel’s shoulder was right on top of the front blade. “I got ’im,” the Boy answered and squeezed the trigger the way Father had taught him.

There was a sharp crack. The recoil of the rifle ejected the spent cartridge and the bolt cycled back forward loading a fresh cartridge. Through it all, the Boy held his aim just as Father had taught him in case another shot was needed. It was not. The squirrel tumbled to the earth, landing with a soft thud.

Dog bounded towards the fallen squirrel. The Boy lowered his rifle, clicked the Safety back on, and started to run after Dog, fearful that Dog, more companion than retriever, might make off with the squirrel. Before Father could say a word, the Boy remembered Father’s injunction about running with a loaded rifle. With his rifle at his side, the Boy strode across the carpet of leaves and mast as quickly as possible. When the Boy got there, Dog was merely sniffing about and nudging the inert body with his wet, black nose.

The Boy lifted the squirrel by the tail. It was heavier than he expected, long and plump. His shot had broken the squirrel’s backbone right at the shoulder.

Father walked up beaming. “That may be the finest squirrel I’ve ever seen taken around here,” he said. “And that was some good shot! Why, no more’n you could see of that squirrel, I doubt I could have made that shot.”

The Boy’s chest swelled with pride for Father never praised lightly, even though he knew in his heart that Father could have easily made that shot. He handed the squirrel to Father, who hefted it.

“Nice and plump. Grandfather will be pleased,” he said. “Want me to carry him?”

“Yessir,” he said.

There was very little blood, but Father’s hunting jacket had a lined game pouch into which Father dropped the squirrel. “We got what we came for. Let’s meander on back.”

Father and the Boy walked closer together now and talked softly as they walked, while Dog ranged off in first one direction and then another. Despite their apparently aimless drifting, they soon arrived back at the clearing. The meadow was bathed in warm sunlight, and selecting a convenient limb on the downed tree, they sat.

The Boy reached into his pocket and pulled out his sausage and roll wrapped in Grandmother’s napkin. Walking in the cold morning air had made him hungry. He was unwrapping his snack and about to offer Father part of it, when Father fished his own out of his pocket.

“I’ve been sticking a piece of ham or sausage in one of your Grandmother’s rolls before heading out for the day for a long as I can remember,” Father said and took a big bite.

“Um-uh,” Father said. “That’s good.”

The Boy dug into his and agreed. They munched slowly, and Father told stories of other hunts, other days, and other dogs, but especially stories of duck hunts over on the River, the Mississippi River. The Boy loved to hear Father’s stories.

Redbirds and blue jays joined the finches and sparrows that darted across the meadow. A raucous murder of crows flew in, scattering the other birds, and lit to peck among the scrub. One particularly large crow settled into a tree along the edge of the clearing and began to chastise Father and the Boy with insistent cawing.

“Bet that rascal has been in your Grandmother’s garden and fruit trees,” Father said.

Father took his last bite and wiped his hands on Grandmother’s napkin which he stuffed back in his pocket. “You’ve never fired a shotgun, have you?” Father asked, even though he knew the answer.

“Nosir,” the Boy said. He had seen Father shoot and had pleaded, but Father had always said ‘Not yet.’

“Stand up,” Father said.

The Boy leapt up in anticipation and Father handed him the long, heavy shotgun.

“Now aim down the barrel at that crow.”

The Boy looked down the length of the barrel at the little bead on the end. “There’s no rear sight,” he said.

“Just look down that rib,” Father said, then added, “Put your left leg back a little and lean forward just a little bit.”

The Boy did as instructed, but the gun was heavy. Father must have noticed.

“Perfect,” Father said. “Now stand easy.”

The Boy lowered the heavy barrel.

“That shotgun’s going to kick when you pull the trigger. Make sure it’s snugged up tight against your shoulder,” Father said. “It’ll push you back and the barrel will rise but hold steady and the barrel will come back down.”

The Boy nodded. “Yessir.”

“And another thing. You’re shooting lefty, so that empty shell is going to be ejected right across in front of your eyes. Don’t let that bother you. It won’t hit you.”

“Yessir.”

“Now aim and fire,” Father said.

The Boy lifted the shotgun and tucked it tight against his left shoulder. With his forefinger he flicked off the Safety. He placed his left cheek against the cool wood of the stock and sighted down the rib, placing the bead squarely on the squawking crow. He squeezed the trigger.

The sound was deafening. The heavy gun slammed his shoulder back and the barrel rode up just like Father said it would. But his stance was good, and he was braced as Father had taught him. As he rocked back forward and the barrel came back down, all he saw was a cascade of tattered black feathers fluttering to the ground. The crow was completely gone.

“Wow,” he said under his breath. He was both in awe of the destructive power of the shotgun and in some way that he couldn’t describe, abashed. A living creature, even one as rapacious and irritating as a crow could be, simply no longer existed. The squirrel was one thing: that was for Grandfather who loved squirrel stew. This was another. Still, he had fired a shotgun and hit what he had aimed at.

“How’d it feel?” Father asked.

“Like getting punched in the shoulder,” he replied and clicked the Safety back on.

“You’ll get used to it. But that was a tight, heavy load for duck, not birdshot. Still, it shows you how devastating a shotgun can be. That’s a good thing to remember.”

The Boy looked over at the limb where the now-obliterated crow had been and gulped. But he was still a boy, and that thought fled from his mind as he hefted the 12-gauge. “When can we go dove hunting?” he asked, assuming that was the next logical step.

“When you learn how to shoot birds on the wing. You have to learn to aim so that your shot and the flying bird arrive at the same place at the same time. Hand me the shotgun.”

Father stood and took the gun. “Now run pick up that shell.”

Father checked that the Safety was on and took his shooting stance. With his free hand, he pointed to a spot well off to his left. “Now stand over there,” he said. “And when I say ‘Pull’, throw that shell as high and as far as you can.”

“Yessir,” the Boy said and went to the spot and cocked his arm.

“Pull,” Father shouted.

The Boy hurled the shotgun shell as hard as he could. It arced through the air, a small tumbling, red cylinder against the pale blue sky. Father traced its path with the barrel of the shotgun and pulled the trigger. Another explosion and the shotgun shell went spinning off in a different direction.

“Like that,” Father said and set the Safety as he lowered the gun.

“Wow,” the Boy said for the second time that morning. “How did you learn to do that?”

“Your Grandfather taught he. He must have told me a thousand times, ‘You don’t aim a shotgun, you point it.’ And practice. Lots of practice.”

“Is that why you don’t need sights like on a rifle, because you point it?” the Boy asked.

“Exactly.” Father nodded.

“But how do you figure out where to point the shotgun?”

Father thought for moment and finally said. “You know when we’re out in the backyard running pass routes and throwing the football?”

“Yessir.”

“How do you know where to throw the ball when I’m running a down and out route?”

“I just do,” the Boy said. “I just know how to throw it where you’ll be.”

“Do you think about it?”

“Nosir, not really. I just know.”

“But you didn’t at first, did you?”

The Boy thought for a second. “Nosir. I threw behind you all the time.”

“That’s right. But with practice you learned how to throw the football so that the ball and I got to the same place at the same time.”

The Boy was excited now. It all made sense to him. “Can I try?” he asked.

“Sure,” Father said and handed him the shotgun.

On his fourth try the Boy hit the empty shotgun shell that Father sent sailing through the air. Just like when he was learning to throw passes, he had been behind on the first three times.  Father threw one more and when he hit that one too, Father said, “Let’s stop while you’re ahead. Besides, it’s about time to head back to the house.”

They gathered up and pocketed their empty shells, then turned towards home. Dog, who had found other things to do during shotgun practice, rejoined them as they re-entered the woods. The sun was nearly directly overhead now and shone down through the skein of bare branches overhead, creating pools of brown and gold on the forest floor. Now that they were no longer hunting, the Boy picked up the occasional stick and threw it for Dog to chase.

They cleared the woods and stepped out into the pasture. It was warmer, not exactly warm, but warmer in the direct sunlight; all the frost had been burned off. Half a mile away stood Grandfather’s and Grandmother’s white, clapboarded house among the trees and outbuildings, the smokehouse and hen house. Smoke, thin wispy pillars of gray, rose into the still air from their chimney and the chimney of every other house on the place.

Dog headed to the slough that meandered though the upper pasture for a drink of water. Father and the Boy continued across the brown stubble of the pasture, talking now about the college football season. They might even be able to pick up a game on the television this afternoon.

They reached the fence, unloaded their weapons, climbed through one at a time, and crossed the yard where Grandmother’s chickens, rusty Rhode Island Reds and speckled Plymouth Rocks, clucked and cooed and pecked about in the bright sunlight. They stopped at the back steps to clean the squirrel. Grandfather must have seen them coming because he came out onto the porch shrugging into his coat.

“Let’s see what you got there,” Grandfather said.

The Boy held his trophy up high.

“Whooeee,” Grandfather said. “That looks like a good one. Got your knife on you?”

“Yessir,” the Boy answered and fished out his pocketknife.

“Good for you. A gentleman always carries a pocketknife,” Grandfather said.

Grandfather came down the steps, leaned over the Boy’s shoulder, and with his forefinger traced the first cut down the squirrel’s snow-white belly. Grandfather pulled out his Dr. Grabow pipe and pouch of Carter Hall. Soon Grandfather’s head was crowned with a blue halo of pipesmoke. The Boy drank in the rich aroma and skinned and gutted the squirrel at Grandfather’s careful instruction.

The Boy kept the tail for himself. Everything else, hide, head, and entrails he took out back followed by a cavalcade of curious chickens. He tossed it all over the back fence into the pasture. Dog nosed around but found nothing interesting. Crows soon gathered.

Returning, the Boy put the cleaned and skinned squirrel in the pan Grandmother had provided and started up the steps.

“Hope you’re looking forward to squirrel stew as much as I am,” Grandfather said.

The Boy turned and wrinkled up his nose and mouth in disgust.

Grandfather threw his head back and roared with laughter. Father too.

“Good. More for me,” Grandfather said, still laughing.

On the porch, Father and the Boy propped their guns in the corner for cleaning later and emptied their pockets of ammunition. The three of them shrugged out of their coats and entered the warmth of Grandmother’s kitchen. The Boy was the last to enter. He paused and stared off a last time across the pasture at the dark wall of the distant woods, then closed the door against winter’s cold, this day’s hunt over.

***

 

I would hunt those woods many times in the coming years, sometimes with Father, sometimes alone, always wary and alert, yet comfortable in the wild, never with any sense of fear of my surroundings or of getting lost in the big woods. I had been taught well.

In coming years, I would hunt other woods with other people, and as Father had promised, with practice I became a good wingshot. That accomplished, Father took me dove hunting as promised. But that is a story for another time.

Sometimes, I simply walked the woods, not hunting at all. And as the years went by, I hunted less and less and walked more and more. I became a Scoutmaster and avid backpacker. I hiked in the Appalachian Mountains and the Rockies too, the Sierra Nevadas and the Tetons, the Grand Canyon and southern Patagonia. I shared the things Father and Grandfather taught me with others.

Father’s birthday and deathday both come around every fall, within three weeks of each other. So, it is inevitable that as the sun begins its slow march into the southern sky and the days begin to shorten and the shadows lengthen, my mind turns more and more often to Father. When the leaves change color and the air turns sharp, I pull out William Faulkner’s The Bear and read that finest of all coming-of-age/hunting stories for the umpteenth time, and once again I can see and feel and smell the big woods that I had once trod with Father and Grandfather.

Age has slowed my step but not my ardor the wild places. I still get out there, and I still share the lessons that were handed down to me. Early one brisk morning this fall, I stood on a mountain ridge in the southern Appalachians with a Boy beside me, and it struck me as it sometimes does: I am Grandfather now.

In the low rays of morning light, the Boy and I stared out across fog-filled valleys. The surface of the fog was placid, smooth and featureless. Distant peaks rose from the fog like blue islands in calm, gray sea. It was one of those scenes of such transcendent beauty that your breath catches in your throat. I have experienced this many times, in a High Sierras meadow bathed in alpenglow or deep in the Grand Canyon with its walls bathed in the crimson of a setting sun or the intense turquoise blue of a Patagonian lake.

As so often happens at these times, I found myself thinking of Father and Grandfather and all they taught me. I found myself wishing they could be here seeing what I am seeing. And often, like that morning, I found myself speaking to them as if they, and not the Boy, were standing at my side.

“Did you say something, Grandfather?” the Boy at my shoulder asked.

“Yeah, I guess I did,” I replied.

He looked up at me and asked, “What’d you say?”

I looked at the smooth, eager face of the Boy beside me, then back across the magnificent vista stretching before us as if looking back across time to another frosty morning and whispered, “I said, ‘Thank you.’”

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Filed under Autumn, Autumn, Life, Memory, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized, William Faulkner

ESCAPADES IN SOUTHERN UTAH – Part 2

FRIDAY, JUNE 14, 2019 – NEAR SC3, SALT CREEK TRAIL

Friday morning dawned clear with the promise of another hot one. Verg and I had coffee, tortillas, and bacon. John again ate very little and then again began throwing up. Not good.

We watered up at the spring. We were on the trail by 8:00 AM as we needed to go 7-8 miles today. Camping was not permitted between CS3 and the spur trail to Angel Arch. North of the spur trail, we could camp anywhere we liked. I set the GPS on my Suunto Ambit watch to track out route and pace to see how we were doing. Not long into the day’s hike, we found the sign for CS3 which was even further north than we expected or the map showed.

We next passed the Upper Jump, a small set of falls and the last running water we would see although we didn’t know that at the time. We stopped after an hour; we had made a little over two miles. We would be alright if we could keep up that pace. Unfortunately, we could not.

As usual, Vergil was moving well. I was doing fine, but as usual was walking slower than Vergil. That has always been the case. John continued to set out at a brisk pace but quickly ran out of steam and needed to rest. That was not surprising as he was taking in very few calories and probably burning close to 400 calories an hour. The strain was evident on his face, but there was no going back. There was no vehicle at the Cathedral Butte trailhead and no cellphone service. The only way out was through.

Walk, rest in the shade, drink water, and repeat pretty much constituted the pattern for the rest of that day. Breaks became more frequent. By now, John was consuming reserves to keep going, and we were really beginning to worry. How long could he keep that up? I also worried that I might be pushing too hard by suggesting we get moving sooner than he was ready. Nevertheless, john kept hoisting his pack and walking with no complaint.

We reached the spur trail to Angel Arch at 5:00 PM and were now in the area of unrestricted camping. There was a nice site right by the trail junction. It must have been nicer at one time, but the three massive cottonwoods that overhung the smooth, flat area had each been heavily burned. We pushed on as we needed water. A quarter mile on we found it, a long, shallow, slightly silty pool.

No SteriPen now. We all had to filter all our water. We considered pushing on to shorten the next days’ walk, but a good campsite and known water supply won out over the unknown. With enough water for dinner and breakfast, we returned to the campsite by the trail spur. No one had any interest in the mile-and-a-half round trip to Angel Arch. We were all beat.

Wearing long pants had saved my socks from the cheatgrass seeds, but as I unzipped my long pants, I realized that my pants’ legs were full of them. Some had even worked their way through my pants and pierced my skin. They were clustered on the outside of my lower right leg. I plucked out all I could reach, and John tended to those I couldn’t get to. Eventually he had to resort to the tweezers from his Swiss Army knife to get some of them.

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Vergil at campsite near Angel Arch

 

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John at campsite near Angel Arch

 

That accomplished, we lazed about before pulling out something for dinner. We were so dehydrated that I for one had to wash each bite down with a swallow of water. John still could not keep anything down.

As Vergil and I ate, we bemoaned the fact that our pack weight was not dropping much because we were not consuming as much food as expected, at least by me. If we could get through tomorrow, we could certainly make that last 3 ½ miles the next day, but we needed to lighten John’s load. I suggested that we leave his BearVault with as much food as it would hold, especially the heavier items. When we got out, we would tell the rangers what we had done and why, then deal with any consequences. We all agreed and turned in early.

The sky was clear, and Vergil and I decided not to pitch the fly and just sleep under mesh again. That worked well until a shower came up in the night. We rolled out and scurried around in the dark attaching the tarp and pulling our gear into the vestibules. We told John to stay where he was and grabbed his gear for him, stashing it under his vestibule.

 

SATURDAY, JUNE 15, 2019 – DAY 3, NEAR ANGEL ARCH, SALT CREEK TRAIL

We rose early again. For a second night I had not slept well. I was increasingly worried about John, as Vergil was, and had a growing sense that this trip might not end well. It had plagued my mind and gnawed at my gut all night. If John couldn’t walk, how would we get him out? Obviously, one of us could stay with him while the other went for help. But still, how could anyone get to him other than walking or with a helicopter?

I have been blessed in my 50-plus years in the backcountry. Both with my friends like Vergil and Stu and as a Scout leader, I have spent those years backpacking, rock climbing, caving, and whitewater rafting, logging thousands of trail miles and untold nights in the backcountry, and in all that time, only twice has a serious medical situation arisen regarding one of our party. Once when I took a fall while rock climbing, the second involved my buddy Ralph.

It was 2009, and our friend Myles had dropped Ralph, Vergil, and me off at the Lava Point trailhead in Zion National Park. Ralph had not been feeling well the day before, with periodic spells of nausea, but seemed better and felt well enough to proceed. That night he began throwing up. By the next morning he was dry heaving and coughing up bright red blood. This in itself was bad enough but was compounded by the fact that our car was in a parking lot at Zion’s South Entrance, 16 miles of trail and 10 miles of shuttle bus away.

Fortunately, even though we were at a remote, seldom used trailhead, we found a wildlife biologist who had a truck stashed nearby. He graciously drove us to a small hospital in Hurricane, pulling over several times for Ralph to heave. At this point, Ralph started losing consciousness from time to time. Vergil is a medical doctor, and this was one of the many times that I was glad we had his knowledge and expertise.

In Hurricane, they took Ralph’s vitals and started an IV for fluids, then sent him by ambulance to the Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George. Our new friend even drove Verg and me to Zion to pick up our rental car.

By the time the two of us had made it to St. George, Ralph had been admitted and doctors had scoped Ralph’s upper gastrointestinal system. They discovered that his esophagus had multiple lacerations, probably from taking lots of heavy-duty pain meds for years. After a couple of days of treatment in the hospital, he was released.

The events of that trip and the fact that it was such a near thing, have haunted me ever since. What would have happened if we had been further into the backcountry? Or if there had been no transportation from the trailhead? The outcome could have been very different, possibly fatal.

With those memories flooding back and my ability to obsess over all sorts of things, like the availability of water, I had done a lot of tossing and turning.

Well, we had to walk as long as we could. We would defer any other decision until when and if John could go no further. Vergil and I shared another cold breakfast. I think Vergil ate at least ten slices of bacon wrapped in a tortilla. We were on the trail by 8:00 AM.

We stopped at the first pool to water up for the day. As usual, Vergil as usual was going strong and I was strolling along. John was moving better with a lighter load but soon began needing more frequent and longer stops. I was amazed that he could keep going at all. He had to be digging deep into his will and into his reserves.

The canyon continued to narrow as it twisted and turned. Sandy stretches alternated with hard-packed trail. Pools of water were frequent, as were shady spots under the cottonwoods.

We knew we were getting close to Peekaboo Springs when we decided to take and an early afternoon break under the shade a several cottonwood trees. Vergil decided to push on to Peekaboo Springs, drop his pack, and come back. We had hopes that there might be some campers in a 4-wheeler at Peekaboo, in which case, we would bum a ride to the trailhead and get out early. I would stay with John, and we would continue to move on when he was ready.

We watched Vergil disappear down the trail as we rested. John dozed and I relaxed. We were about to saddle up and start walking, when Vergil returned carrying water only. We were very close, closer than we had thought. Vergil shared the disappointing news that there was no one camping at Peekaboo, in fact, no evidence that anyone had been there in a while.

Over my protest, Vergil grabbed my pack, so I took John’s pack leaving him to carry just some water. Soon the canyon began to open up again and we began winding our way through scattered scrub pine amid large formations of red and ochre rock.

Soon the soaring rock wall and notch at Peekeboo Springs loomed above us. We climbed the tiered stone slabs up to the gap. The walls on both sides of the gap were rich with pictographs. On the north side, a dusty trail led down into a large, circular basin surrounded by high rock walls pierced by a single opening on the far side where the road from Cave Springs entered. There was a series of campsites scattered along a sandy road that wound through the basin. From our elevated perch, we selected the campsite that looked the shadiest.

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The Peekaboo

 

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Pictographs at Peekaboo

 

After taking pictures, we descended the leisurely switchbacks, dropped our packs on the picnic table in our selected site, and pulled out our camp chairs. It was naptime. 

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Exhausted Backpackers at Peekaboo

John had purchased and was carrying a Personal Locator Beacon, and earlier he had lamented not purchasing the Rescue Insurance option. After a short nap, we sat there bemoaning the fact that there were no 4-wheelers to give us a ride, when John remembered that he could pair his cellphone to the PLB and send text messages. He tested it out by texting his wife Meg. In a few minutes, he had her reply. It was successful.

Hope began to flicker.

“I have Mike Ballard’s cellphone number,” I said.

Everyone’s eyes lit up.

John texted Mike and asked if he could pick us up at Peekaboo.

It took a while but soon we had a reply: Sure. When?

John: As soon as you can get here.

Mike: I have a sunset tour. I can be there by 11.

We all three let out a contented sigh of relief.

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Moonrise Over Peekaboo

 

With no camp to set up, we loafed about as time crept by. Vergil and I had a bite to eat. I was really enjoying Mountain House’s Freeze Dried Granola with Milk & Blueberries. I added a little extra water for hydration and nourishment both at the same time.

We talked. We napped. We relaxed in our camp chairs. We stretched out on the picnic table. Mostly we willed time to pass more quickly, but it continued to crawl.

The moon rose and the sun sank. Eventually it was full dark under a star-spattered sky. And finally, it was 11:00 PM. We strained our ears listening for the roar of Lt. Dan’s engine and strained our eyes watching the far canyon wall for the splash of headlights. Nothing.

At 11:30, still nothing. We began listing all of the reasons Mike could be running late: tour ran long, the road was rougher than expected, car trouble.

At midnight, we put down the footprints for our tents and our sleeping pads and bags, still hoping Mike would soon arrive. Finally, we all three climbed into our bags and drifted off to sleep under the stars. A couple of hours later, we awoke, not to Mike’s arrival but to a cloudy sky and spitting rain. Disheartened and now disgusted, we pulled out our tents, set them up, and tried to get back to sleep. We needed it. It looked like we would be walking as soon as the sun came up.

 

SUNDAY, JUNE 16, 2019 – DAY 5, PEEKABOO & OUT

I awoke shortly before sunrise to an otherwise empty tent. Vergil was nowhere in sight. Knowing him, I figured he had gone back through the Peekaboo notch to get water. I climbed out of the tent as he walked up with full water bags. We began boiling water for coffee and had a cold breakfast, letting John sleep as long as possible.

Soon John too rolled out.

“Think you can make three-and-a-half?” we asked.

“Have to,” John sighed.

He looked haggard, but the end was in sight.

John pulled out his PLB and cellphone and paired them up. He had a text from Mike. Maybe there had been a change in plans. Maybe he was coming out this morning. At least that’s what we hoped. John scrolled anxiously through the text.

Afraid not. Mike had indeed come out last night, but what neither he nor we knew was that the Park Service had closed and gated the 4-wheel drive road out to Peekaboo Springs. He had walked in on foot but eventually gave up and turned back. He had come close but with no cell service, he could not get in touch with us.

Well, we had another walk ahead of us, but a short one. John was moving slowly, so Vergil offered to boogie out as hard as he could and bring the car down as close as possible. We had seen the turnoff to Peekaboo Springs on our way to the Cave Springs parking lot, and we knew that the gate was further down the road than we could see.

John and I would follow as we had yesterday. I was soon packed up and ready to walk. John was moving slowly, obviously near the ragged edge. When he was ready, we moved out. John started at his usual brisk pace. I followed at my usual stroll, expecting to catch up with him at his first rest stop.

The morning was cloudless and warm. It would be another hot one. The canyon began to open up again, and it soon became apparent why the road had been closed. It was deeply rutted, in some cases one rut two to three feet deeper than the other. Nearly every rut was filled with pooled rainwater awash with tadpoles and mosquito larvae.

The valley was wide, but in some places the undergrowth came right up to the edge of the road and was nearly impenetrable. In many cases the only option was wading through the pools. In other spots it was more open with the undergrowth was well back of the road and a footpath that skirted the ruts and ditches.

As the sun rose higher so did the temperature. The pools might have been silty, but I still soaked my keffiyeh in them and wrapped it around my head and neck. The gnats were out but not too bad. The keffiyeh seemed to keep them off my face. But soon the air began to fill with the relentless buzzing of horseflies. I had started the day in shorts again, and the horseflies found my bare legs to delectable to resist and assaulted them with an insistent, blood-sucking vengeance. I tried to ignore their voracious bites but eventually resigned, stopped, and zipped my pants legs back on.

I had kept tabs on John as we walked, catching glimpses of him just ahead of me at turns in the trail. With my pants legs back on, I started out again, but John was nowhere in sight. Oh well, I was sure I would catch him soon.

Where the road wasn’t rutted, there were long, wide swathes of deep sand. It was like walking through the soft sand on a beach, only with boots and a backpack. The dry sand caked up on my wet boots. The only shade was the occasional cottonwood.

When there was evidence that the foot trail diverged from the road, I followed it, all the while keeping an eye out for John, picking out his tracks in the sand and mud, and checking under every cottonwood in case he was taking a break.

Either he was moving really well today, or I was slower than usual because he was still nowhere in sight. I was convinced that I was on my usual pace with a backpack, about two miles an hour, and hoping I hadn’t somehow passed him. I was becoming a little concerned.

Proceeding further down-canyon, the trail consisted more and more of the soft sand. The morning was turning into a seemingly interminable, strength-sapping sand slog. My wet boots were caked with sand which I periodically paused to knock it off. Who needs the extra weight? But after a few minutes, they were caked up again. I was feeling the heat of the day and knew I was getting close when I decided to stop under a convenient cottonwood right by the road. I dropped my pack in the shade for a water and snack break.

I hadn’t been there two minutes when I heard the sound of an approaching engine, and there ploughing down the road was a white Park Service jeep. The driver, a young man with a scant beard and long, dark braided hair, pulled up right beside and rolled down his window.

“Are you John?” he asked.

“No, I’m Greg,” I replied. “You didn’t see John on the way in?”

“No, we didn’t.”

Oh, crap, I thought as I climbed to my feet. Had I somehow passed him on the trail? Was he back there resting under a cottonwood expecting me to show up?

I walked up to the window, and Adam introduced himself.

“Your friend Rick came to the ranger station and said y’all needed help,” he said.

“I’m doing OK,” I replied. “Just taking my time this morning, trying to make sure that John doesn’t get behind me.”

A young female ranger named Mallory, petite an efficient, climbed out of the passenger side and walked around. “Do you think he’s back down the trail?” she asked.

“I hope not,” I replied. “The last couple of days, he’s had to stop and rest every 45 minutes or hour, but I haven’t seen him since I stopped to zip on my pants legs. And I’ve been going slow and checking both sides of the road and all the shady spots.”

The was another ranger out patrolling the road between Cave Springs and the ranger station. Adam radioed him, but he hadn’t seen John either.

The three of us began calling John’s name. Adam and Mallory were discussing going in further when their radio crackled to life. “I found him,” a scratchy voice announced. “He was at the Cave Springs parking lot.”

John had made good time and apparently, he had cleared the road to Peekaboo and turned right toward where we had left the car at the Cave Springs parking lot. Adam and Mallory coming from the other direction must have just missed him.

I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. John was safe and in good hands.

“Want a ride back to the ranger station?” Mallory asked.

Of course, I did. I tossed my pack in the back of the jeep. Mallory asked me if I was carrying a knife. I pulled my little Victorinox Classic out of my pocket.

“Do you mind storing it in the back? Procedure, you know.”

“Not at all,” I said. “And I’ll put this one with it.” I unclipped my Victorinox Pioneer Alox from my beltloop and laid both in the back beside my backpack.

Soon we were turned around and headed for the ranger station. Five minutes later, we were there.

John and Vergil were sitting in the shade in front of the stone and stucco building drinking water. The ranger who had brought John in was with them.

Man, it was good to see them.

Mallory asked John if he needed transport to a hospital which he declined. Then she asked him if she could check his vitals, to which he agreed.

Vergil pulled me aside. “I wanted to come back and look for y’all, but the rangers wouldn’t let me leave after I told them about our situation.

I nodded. “Makes sense, I guess. They’d rather be looking for two than three.”

“Yeah,” Vergil replied. “And there’s the other thing. I locked the keys in the car.”

After all that we had been through, I couldn’t help but laugh.

“I opened the back and laid them down to get something out and closed them up in there. I’ve already called AAA,” Vergil added.

I looked at my old friend, my friend with whom I had camped and hiked with for over 50 years, my friend who had walked his fanny off and made extra trips to get water, and who, to paraphrase the old Western song, never uttered a discouraging word. He had a completely unnecessary sheepish expression on his face.

“It’s no big deal. Honestly, that doesn’t bother me one bit right now.” I smiled.

The two of us sat in the shade and watched the very efficient Mallory check John out. Every tourist walking up to the Visitor Center paused and stared, no doubt wondering what was going on.

Mallory went through her procedures all the while explaining to Adam on what she was doing and why. She took John’s temperature, blood pressure, oxygen level, respiration, and seemingly half a dozen other tests, recording everything in duplicate so John would have a copy in case he wanted to seek medical attention later.

The head ranger Mark brought the three of us some Gatorade. It felt great going down. At some point one of us must have said something about when AAA would show up.

Mark looked at us. “Lock your keys in your car?” he asked.

“Yep.”

“That’s one of my specialties,” Mark said. “Let me get my carjacking tools.”

Vergil trotted to the pay phone to cancel the AAA call while Mark and I headed to the car. He was indeed good. In a few minutes, he was in.

Mallory had finished with John by this point, and Vergil and I had the car loaded. I figured that surely the park service charged for these kinds of search and rescue operations and said so to Mark.

“No,” he replied. “These are your tax dollars at work. We’re glad to do it and glad everything turned out all right.”

With profuse thanks to all, we piled into the car, Vergil driving, John stretched out in the back, and me riding shotgun. Our first stop was Needles Outpost for more Gatorade. Vergil thought some ice cream might be good for John and that he might be able to hold it down. He was right.

In all the hubbub I completely forgot to mention John’s bear cannister that we had dropped two days earlier.

John slept most of the way back to Moab. We hadn’t had lunch, so we swung by the local Burger King. Vergil and I downed some burgers and fries. John dozed in the car while Verg and I ate. We brought him a milkshake which he managed to get down.

Our next stop was the Expedition Lodge. We checked in and fortunately got a ground floor room. Vergil backed the Kia right up to the door, and we dumped our gear. John crashed on the bed. He needed it. I ran a hot tub of water, stripped, and hopped in. While I was in the tub, the ever-fastidious Vergil, as is his want, grabbed up all our dirty clothes and headed for the motel laundromat. By the time he returned, I had washed and then showered. I turned the bathroom over to him and started some repacking.

John continued to sleep.

When Vergil was finished with his ablutions, we decided to head across the street to the convenience store for snacks and something to drink, including more ice cream for John. Upon return, Verg moved our washed clothes into the dryer, and then we simply vegged until our clothes were dry.

Soon we had a large pile of clean, dry clothes on the bed. Vergil and I folded everything, then began to consider dinner plans. We rousted John up long enough for him to tell us that he wasn’t ready to eat yet. He just wanted to rest. Vergil and I decided to hit the Moab Brewery again.

While waiting to be seated, we talked over the trip. It had been physically challenging and the insects had been worrisome, but the terrain and the articfacts we had seen had been fantastic. Water had even been plentiful. The only real issue had been John’s ongoing nausea, something we hoped that he could get worked out with the help of specialists when he got home.

Our pager vibrated and we headed into the clatter and chatter of the bustling eatery. After a burger for lunch, I opted for the fish and chips with an ice-cold ale. We discovered to our surprise that in a state with a heavily Mormon population that drank neither coffee, tea, nor spirits, the Moab Brewery included a micro distillery that sold liquor on Sunday, of all things. We purchased a half-liter of vodka, and on the way back to the motel, picked up some orange juice and more ice cream for John.

Upon our return, John ate a little and went back to sleep. Vergil and I mixed our drinks, put our feet up, and toasted making it through one more adventure. Soon we slipped between clean sheets in beds that we didn’t have to get down on our knees and crawl into. Sleep came easily and effortlessly.

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At the Trailhead
The only picture of the three of us – pre-departure, still fresh

 

MONDAY, JUNE 17 – LEAVING MOAB

John looked appreciably better Monday morning. Plenty of sleep and some food had worked wonders. In his condition, the carbohydrate-rich breakfast was a good thing. We headed back to Gearheads, and I returned my unused, unopened sleeping pad. We picked up a few other goodies while we were there, then rolled out of Moab on our way to the Arches National Park Visitor Center. We had all three visited the park before but wanted to check out the gift shop for souvenirs. I especially still wanted something for my grandsons.

We soon joined the two long lines of vehicles snaking towards the gate under the baking desert sun. Occasionally we would change lanes to give the people in the lane we had been in a chance to go a little faster.

Eventually we made it in, made a few purchases, and departed. The incoming lanes now reached almost out to the highway. We turned north on Highway 191 headed to Salt Lake City.

Again, John stretched out as much as possible in the back seat while Vergil drove and I navigated. While John snoozed, Verg and I listened to music and talked about the kind of stuff really old friends talk about: family, kids, other trips, books, you name it.

Around lunchtime we began looking for place to eat. We were nearing Price, UT, and since we had cell and data service now, I began checking online. Among the usual fast-food options was Sherald’s Drive-In, an honest to goodness drive-in with curb service. This was too good to pass up, so we took the Price exit and soon located Sherald’s in all its pastel and neon glory.

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Sherald’s, Main Street, Price, UT

 

In addition to the usual burgers and fries, they had something like 40 flavors of milkshakes from Almond Joy to vanilla, coconut cream to peanut butter. The service was great, and the burgers were outstanding. John even ate a little, and I managed to dump my fry sauce in my lap, making a huge mess.

After washing up as best I could, we headed back to the highway, and late that afternoon, we rolled into Salt Lake City and checked into the Best Western Motel near the airport.

I had made plans for us to have dinner with one of my Eagle Scouts from my Troop 6 days in Atlanta. Alex had joined the troop in 1990, but I already knew his parents from Sunday School and church. He was an outstanding Scout and leader. Both he and his younger brother Matt had earned their Eagle rank.

In August of 1998, Sherrie and I relocated to Greensboro, NC, for my work. One month later, Alex and another Troop 6 Scout, Daniel, enrolled in Guilford College located only four miles from our house. We hiked and climbed some through their college years. Sherrie and I got together with both boys’ parents when they came up to visit. We attended recitals and graduation.

But I had not seen Root since his graduation in 2002. I forgot to mention that Alex’s initials are AW, and I began calling him A&W when he joined the troop. That soon morphed into Root Beer for obvious reasons. Then when I learned how tenaciously he approached everything he did, his nickname got shortened to Root, like that root that hangs on no matter how hard you try to get it out. It just fit.

Now Root was married with one daughter and another child on the way. He had parlayed his studies in music composition and theory and ethnomusicology and his love of fine craftmanship into a career as a luthier specializing in custom-made violins. I had had lunch with his father Bob and a few other Troop 6 Scouts and leaders on a trip down to Atlanta back in the spring. I was really looking forward to catching up with Root.

The three of us cleaned up and headed to The Bayou, a spacious, wood-paneled spot specializing in Cajun and creole fare. It was early and the crowd was light. Soon a tall, thin, balding young man with a full beard and a big grin strolled in. I would have known him anywhere. We laughed, embraced, and slapped each other on the back. Our waitress thought we were father and son who hadn’t seen each other in a while.

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Root & the author

 

It was a fine old reunion catching up on family and old friends, how life was treating us, pulling up and sharing pictures, telling old stories. The food and drink were good too. Vergil’s younger daughter is an accomplished violinist, so he and Root had plenty to discuss.

Finally, inevitably, the hour grew late and we had to part. It is hard to describe the way an old Scoutmaster feels about his Scouts, even after they are grown and married with children of their own. In my nearly 40 years of Scouting, there have been so many, hundreds at least, each of whom has a special place in my heart and memories.

But I suppose like any teacher, coach, or youth leader, there are some that stand out more than others, ones with whom you created a closer relationship. Root was one of those. What he had made of his life; the man, husband, and father he had become, these things filled me with an unimaginably deep sense of fulfillment and thanksgiving for the opportunity I had had to spend so many years surrounded by fine young men and other adult leaders.

We parted on the sidewalk with one last embrace. Root hopped on his bike to pedal home to Denny and the baby. Vergil, John, and I headed back to the Great Western. Tomorrow was getaway day for John and me.

 

TUESDAY, JUNE 18, 2019 – SALT LAKE CITY & DEPARTURE

When we woke up Tuesday morning, John looked and felt much better. We showered, breakfasted, and checked out.

John was considering an inflatable fishing boat and wanted to check out a local manufacturer, Flycraft. Since his flight out wasn’t until 3:43 PM, followed by mine at 5:04, we had plenty of time. Vergil was staying over for a couple of days.

We visited the office/factory of Flycraft, heard the sales pitch, and came away impressed. John was convinced that Flycraft was just the ticket for flyfishing but decided to wait a while before ordering.

We tooled around Salt Lake, ran some errands, had lunch, and eventually returned the rental car and took the shuttle to the airport. There we checked our bags and sat down at Starbuck’s to chill out and bounce around ideas for next year’s trip. Glacier National Park kept coming up.

Soon, with fond farewells all around John left to catch his plane. Vergil and I sat there just talking, about everything and nothing. Finally, it was time for me to head out. Vergil and I embraced, and I headed up the escalator and my plane.

The flight home was four mostly bumpy hours long as the flight crew attempted to avoid weather over the Rockies and the Midwest. We touched down in Charlotte a little before 11:00 PM. I deboarded and headed to the carousel to grab my bags, then walked out in to the moist, thick North Carolina air so different from southern Utah. In a few minutes, my Uber rolled up  and I hopped in.

Traffic was light and 20 minutes later we were driving down our dark street. As expected, Sherrie had left a welcoming light burning. I climbed out, thanked my driver and grabbed my gear. I dropped my duffel bag on the screen porch, unlocked the backdoor, and called out, “Honey. I’m home.” I heard Sherrie’s faint reply from the den. I walked into the den and was greeted by her smiling face, a hug, and a kiss. It was 11:55 PM, June 18, five minutes before my 66th birthday.

 

FRIDAY, JUNE 28, 2019 – MANCHESTER-BY-THE-SEA, MA

After my return from Utah, I had a scant few days to clean up gear and pack to leave for New England. Sherrie and I were driving up to Massachusetts to keep our teen-aged granddaughters while their parents were in England. Among other things, they were attending opening day at Wimbledon.

I had waked up Friday morning around 3:30, and as I had often done over the last week or so, always at an inconvenient or inopportune time, I thought about how I needed to call the ranger station about John’s bear cannister. By the time I had risen for the day, that thought had fled again amid all the other things to be done.

Finally, things settled down. The girls were off with friends, Sherrie was reading, and I was working on my latest novel, which was nearing completion. My cellphone rang. I didn’t recognize the number and was about to let it go to voicemail when I noticed that it was from Moab, UT. I hit Accept and heard the voice of Ranger Mallory.

She was trying to find out who had left a BearVault full of food near Angel Arch. Some backpackers had reported it, and another ranger had hiked in and retrieved it.

I admitted that it was ours and that we had left it there to lighten John’s load. I apologized for forgetting to tell them about it that day amid the swirl of activity as well as my continuing forgetfulness. She said she understood, but there was a $130 fee for retrieving the cannister. I said she should send it to me; it was my decision and my forgetfulness. I would gladly pay it.

Mallory then asked if she should ship the cannister to John. I offered to call John and see what he wanted to do. Five minutes later, I had John on the line. He was well-recovered now but had little interest in recovering his BearVault.

“Donate it to the park service,” he suggested.

“Sounds good,” I replied.

I called and left a message for Mallory who soon called back.

“John wants to donate his BearVault to the park service,” I said.

“Great,” said Mallory. “And I talked to Mark. He decided to waive the retrieval fee.”

“That’s great too,” I said. “Thanks a lot. And thank all of you for the great job you did.”

“Your welcome,” Mallory replied. “Come back and see us soon.” She sounded like she actually meant it.

“I’m sure we will,” I replied. And I actually did mean it. There are too many trails out there that we haven’t walked yet.

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Filed under Backpacking, Canyon, Canyonlands, Hiking, Salt Creek, Uncategorized, Utah

ESCAPADES IN SOUTHERN UTAH, Part 1

ESCAPADES IN SOUTHERN UTAH

Part 1

 

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 12, 2019 – ON THE SALT CREEK TRAIL, CANYONLANDS NP, UT

In all honesty, the rangers had warned us that the unusually high rainfall that spring had resulted in a corresponding increase in the insect population in the Utah desert. As we sat there at the end of our first day on the Salt Creek Trail, swatting at gnats and wondering when the mosquitoes would show up, we wondered why they hadn’t also mentioned the flourishing plant life, undergrowth so high and thick that it obscured the already faint trail and turned what should have been an easy four mile hike into a seven mile ordeal.

But I get ahead of myself. This little adventure had actually begun three days earlier. In Salt Lake City.

 

MONDAY, JUNE 10, 2019 – SALT LAKE CITY

My flight from Charlotte to Salt Lake City was uneventful and on time. I deboarded and called John on my cellphone. He had arrived the day before from his home in Coeur d’Alene the day before.  By 10:30, I had collected the duffel bag with my gear and was waiting curbside for John.

Vergil and I had met John two years earlier on the Timberline Trail around Mount Hood and had hit it off. He joined Vergil and Stuart on a trip to Utah the following year, a trip I was unable to make because of an unexpected death in the family. This year, because of challenges settling on an agenda, backcountry permit availability, and other scheduling challenges, Stuart would not be joining us. This year it would be Vergil, John, and me.

John picked me up and we headed to the service plaza to shoot the breeze and wait for Vergil’s 11:07 arrival from Gulfport via Dallas-Fort Worth.

An hour later my phone rang, it was Vergil. John and I headed back to the airport, and as soon as we got there, I hopped out and headed for baggage claim. It had been a year since I had seen my oldest friend. We embraced and waited patiently as the carousel went around and around, disgorging surprisingly few bags. And then it stopped. None of the bags were Vergil’s. We joined the line at the service desk and learned that a number of bags had not made the transfer at DFW but would be on the next flight due to arrive at 3:00.

Frustrated but resigned – there’s always at least one glitch per trip – we hopped into the car with John and headed out to lunch. Enroute, my phone rang.

“It’s Hike Moab, our shuttle company,” I said. “Must be calling to confirm our pickup on Wednesday.”

Well, it was indeed our Hike Moab, but they were calling, not to confirm, but to inform me that their high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle was in the shop and would not be out until Thursday.

“Will that work?” they asked.

Now, Canyonlands requires backcountry permits, specifying which campsite you will be in on which night. We had to get to the Cathedral Butte trailhead on Wednesday, not Thursday.

“Afraid not,” I replied with a sick felling growing in the pit of my stomach. Scheduling a last-minute shuttle would be tough.

With profuse apologies, the guy at Hike Moab initiated a refund of our advance.

I hung up and looked at my friends: no gear for Vergil and now no shuttle service. What next?

The guys had eaten at the Red Iguana the year before, so we headed there for lunch. As John drove, I Googled shuttle services and began calling each one I found, Coyote Shuttle, Canyonlands Shuttle, Raven Shuttle, all of them. While waiting for our table at the Red Iguana, an appropriately garish establishment specializing in Mexican fare, I paced up and down the sidewalk in the dry, oven-like heat, continuing to dial number after number.

One of the communication challenges in southeastern Utah is cellphone reception. In Canyonlands National Park, it is nonexistent, likewise in most of the backcountry and along many stretches of highway. Around cities and towns, it is better, but most of the shuttle drivers are usually in areas with no service, hence call-backs are when you can get them. I left messages when I got no answer or hung up disappointed when informed that they were booked up.

Finally, there was nothing to do but wait and hope someone returned one of my calls with some good news. At the Red Iguana, we worked on our way through our cervezas, burritos, and chili rellenos, praying that the phone would ring. I had very little appetite. Must have been that sinking feeling in my gut, because no one was calling back.

We settled our bill and decided to hit the grocery store for tortillas, pre-cooked bacon, cheese, coffee, and such. We would pick up fuel and some freeze-dried meals later in Moab. While headed to Smith’s, my phone finally rang. It was a young woman from Raven Shuttles. They were unable to help us, but she recommended Big Iron Tours, a relatively new shuttle/tour company that might be able to shuttle us. With the number she gave me, I made the call and left a message with Micah, detailing when and where we needed shuttling.

Before we reached Smith’s, my phone rang again. It was Mike Ballard, owner of Big Iron tours and yes, he could shuttle us. Yeah! I told him we needed to be picked at the Cave Spring Trailhead at 9:00 AM on Wednesday and dropped off at the Cathedral Butte Trailhead.

“No problem,” Mike replied.

We were all three elated. What we did not realize was that Mike was driving at the time and unable to make notes. This would not work to our advantage.

On to Smith’s we went with lighter hearts and a bounce in our steps. Soon we were mired in our usual discussion about how much food, Vergil opting for less, John neutral, and me pushing for more. I have run out of food on the trail in the past and do not care to ever do that again.

Food purchases complete, we returned to that airport, dropped Vergil off and John and I began circling. Eventually, about 3:30 we got Vergil’s call. He had his luggage. We swung through and picked him up. By now the back of our Kia Sportage was crammed with daypacks, luggage, and groceries, but we were content. Two major hurdles had been cleared, and we headed out of town south on I-15, then on to highway 6 to Highway 191 which is contiguous with I-70 for a short stretch.

Four hours later we reached Moab in the southeast corner of Utah and started looking fo the Expedition Lodge. I had booked it especially because it had rooms with three queen-size beds, and two of them were bunkbeds. How can you pass something like that up?

The Expedition Lodge was right on Main Street and had a decidedly, chrome and Formica, multi-colored brick, stacked-stone hearth late 1950’s feel to it, with a pool, waterslide, and an awesome sign out front. We loved it. We checked in and quickly hauled our gear to our second-floor room, dumped it, then headed out for dinner.

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Expedition Lodge

Moab is known for its backpacking, hiking, off-road four-wheeling, and cycling, both road and mountain. Main Street, Highway 191, is one continuous stretch of motels, restaurants, fast food places, outfitters, and shops: cycle shops, outdoor gear shops, souvenir shops. We tooled down Main Street looking for the Moab Brewery. The guys had eaten there last year and really enjoyed it. Sounded good to me. It was time for a good cheeseburger and microbrew.

The Moab Brewery was as advertised: lively and bustling. The service was fast and friendly, the food was good, and the beer was ice-cold. On the way back to the Expedition Lodge, we spotted Gearheads, our stop tomorrow for stove fuel and trail food.

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Sorting Gear

Back in our room after dinner, we did a little gear repacking, unloading backpacks and stuffing sleeping bags and pads in them, repackaging groceries, and such. We settled in early. It was Monday night and would be our last night in a bed until Sunday. Vergil took the top bunk, and I took the lower. John plugged in his CPAP, and we all crashed.

 

TUESDAY, JUNE 11, 2019 – MOAB, UT

We rolled out of bed Tuesday morning and went downstairs for our complimentary breakfast, which was surprisingly heavy on carbohydrate options and light on protein. Breakfast completed, we headed to Gearheads, one of the premier camping stores I have ever seen, walls covered in gear from floor to ceiling, aisle after narrow aisle crammed with anything you might need in the backcountry.

We picked up the iso-butane fuel cannisters for our stoves and the rest of the freeze-dried meals we would need. John and I had brought our BearVaults, 2.2 pounds of polycarbonate that the National Park Service requires for storing food in the backcountry. Vergil, not having one, bought one. I picked up a Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad because I suspected mine had a small leak. We were sleeping on the ground that night at Needles Outpost. If my pad deflated, I had a backup. If not, I would return the new pad.

Purchases made, we headed back to the Expedition Lodge, loaded our gear and checked out. We needed to head out to the park to pick up our backcountry permit, but first we did a little souvenir shopping. I found a lapis lazuli pendant for Sherrie and some barrettes and headbands for my granddaughters but couldn’t find a thing for my grandsons.

After a fast food lunch, we headed south on Highway 191 for the hour-and-a-half drive to the Needles District Visitor Center in Canyonlands which included the Ranger Station and Backcountry Office. Actually, it turned out to be a two-hour drive because they were repaving Highway 191 close to the Highway 211 turnoff to the park.

We passed Needles Outpost, our home for tonight, on the way into the park. We entered the park using our Senior Passes and drove to the Visitor Center, a low stucco and stone building. There were a handful of cars and RV’s in the parking lot and a good number of people inside checking out gift shop, the relief map of the park, and the various exhibits.

We made our way through the Visitor Center to the Backcountry Office which was deserted except for a friendly ranger standing behind a counter with sheets of clear Lucite covering maps of the park. The shelves behind him were stacked with food cannisters that the Park Service provides the unequipped for a small deposit.

He printed out our permit, made sure we had BearVaults, warned us of the swarms of gnats and mosquitoes to expect, and informed us that right after turning off the pavement onto the unpaved road to Cathedral Butte, we would have to cross a stream running 2-3 feet deep from snow melt and the attendant runoff. He even had recent pictures. Well, that was Mike Ballard’s problem. We assumed that he knew the conditions and was prepared. We were wrong on the first count but right on the second.

We headed back to Needles Outpost, checked in, and selected Site 19 for its rock walls to the east, a couple of cottonwoods for shade, a picnic table, and a great view to the west where the sun would be setting. Life was looking good.

It had been a least 25 years since I had been to Needles Outpost, and a change in ownership had brought a reduction in services. The first thing we learned was that they no longer served meals. So, after some more gear sorting and repacking, we set of in search of dinner. We thought we would try Monticello, about an hour’s drive away, not counting repaving delays. On the way out we stopped at Newspaper Rock, a near-vertical 200 square foot rock covered with hundreds of ancient Indian petroglyphs, for a few pictures.

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Newspaper Rock

 

There weren’t many options in Monticello, so we went on to Blanding which had even less. Heading back to Monticello, we decided to try the Granary Bar & Grill. In keeping with the name, the Granary was built of repurposed grain silos. We opened the door to a blast of near arctic air, a welcoming bar, and a décor a la Cracker Barrel replete with cable spools for tables. After selecting a table and ordering drinks, we returned to the car for long-sleeved shirts.

Our margaritas on the rocks were served in frosty Mason jars. The drinks were strong, and the rims were salty. Perfect. For some reason, we all settled on a large salad, maybe because green veggies are rare on the trail. After a second round of margaritas, Vergil and I ordered the apple crisp for dessert. Overflowing with apples, crisp, and vanilla ice cream, they proved to be more than either of us could eat.

It was still daylight when we got back to Needles Outpost. A last shower before heading into the backcountry seemed like a good idea, but the showers required a token, available at the office which was now unfortunately closed. Bummer. We returned to our site and watched a glorious sunset.

Our plans to sleep under the stars were thwarted by the rampant insect life. We quickly pulled out our tents. John pitched his spiffy little Tarptent Rainbow 1, which used a single fiberglass pole. Very cool. Very light. Vergil and I shared his MSR Hubba Hubba but decided to leave the fly off for ventilation. We all climbed in early

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Sunset at Needles Outpost

 

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 12, 2019 – DAY 1, SHUTTLE & JUMP OFF, SALT CREEK TRAIL

Hit the trail day. I am always a little antsy, excited and sometimes a bit anxious, on trail day. No particular reason, I’ve walked hundreds, if not thousands of trails, but there is always some degree of the unknown no matter how many trail guides you read. That’s one of the best things about backpacking: What unexpected thing will the trail provide this time, and will we be able to handle it?

We got up at 6:30, dressed for the trail, and finalized our packing before grabbing a quick bite and heading to the park. We watered up at the Visitors’ Center and were at the Cave Spring Trailhead well before our agreed upon rendezvous time of 9:00 AM. We parked and chilled. We looked up at the sound of every car engine, but it was invariably a group of dayhikers. At 9:15, no Mike. At 9:30, still no Mike. At 10:00, we left a note for Mike and headed back to the Ranger Station, cursing the lack of cellphone service.

Ten minutes later, we walked into the Visitor’s Center, and I asked the ranger on duty if she had seen a shuttle looking for us?

“Yeah,” she said. “A guy in a big black jeep with Lt. Dan on the side has been through here twice looking for three backpackers.”

“That’s’ us,” I said, glad that Mike had shown up but disappointed that we had missed him. What the heck would we do now?

We went back outside and sat in the shade where we decided that Vergil and I would wait at the Visitor Center while John took the car and headed out to Squaw Flats looking for Mike. Verg went to the head and I sat in the shade and prayed that Mike would make one last pass by the Visitor Center, when lo and behold, he did, in the largest, blackest Jeep I’ve ever seen, replete with powerlifts and 39” wheels. I sprang up and flagged him down.

“Where the heck have you guys been?” an intense, bearded, sunglassed, and not particularly happy face asked. “I’ve been all over Squaw Flats looking for you.”

“We were at the Cave Spring Trailhead like we said,” I replied.

“Dadgumit,” Mike said. “I got the wrong info from Micah.”

That’s when I remembered that Mike had been driving when we had spoken on Monday. By this time, Verg had joined us.

“Where’s the other guy?” Mike asked.

“Cruising around Squaw Flats in our rental, looking for you,” I replied. “Let’s see if we can find him.”

“Sure. Hope in,” Mike said. “I got another shuttle later today.”

In a few minutes, we spotted John and flagged him down. We followed him to the Cave Spring trailhead and transferred our backpacks into Mike’s jeep. Soon we were back on Highway 211 and past Newspaper Rock, headed out of the park. By this time, it was nearly 11:00.

“I’ve never been to Cathedral Butte before,” Mike noted.

I was sitting in the front passenger seat and shooting the breeze with him. “You know how to get there, right?” I asked. “And about the creek crossing.”

“Got directions here.” He held up a couple of printed pages, navigation systems being dependent on having the map downloaded. “And yeah, this baby’ll handle the creek.” His pride was evident.

At the intersection with Highway 191, we turned right and headed south through the repaving area. Along the way we learned about Mike’s service to our country. He was a Marine and had served three tours in Iraq, breaking both ankles and his back tumbling from a Humvee with a full load of gear and a 17-pound SAW machine gun. He had flown helicopters for a while, then returned home to Moab and started his tour/shuttle service. He was gregarious and sociable. We liked him immediately.

Soon we were nearing Monticello and convinced we had missed our turnoff. We stopped for gas which Vergil paid for as it was obvious that Mike had lost his next client looking for us. Then we went by the Bureau of Land Management Field Office to find out where we had gotten off course. Apparently, it had been very near the beginning.  Just a few miles from the Visitors’ Center, before even reaching Newspaper Rock, we should have turned off on Beef Basin Road. We needed to backtrack 40 miles. It was nearly 1:00 now.

Back up 191 and through the repaving work we went, then took a left onto 211. Past Newspaper Rock we spotted Beef Basin Road and took a left. In a quarter mile we reached the creek, forty feet of churning brown water at least two feet deep. Mike’s eyes lit up.

“This’ll be fun,” he said, then eased down into the water.

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Creek Crossing

 

He dropped the Jeep into 4-wheel drive and chugged slowly across, feeling his way in and out of the deepest channel. Clear the other side, he stopped.

“Let’s do that again,” he said. “And take pictures. You guys don’t mind being on Facebook, do you?”

We said no. Mike handed his DSLR to John who got out and stood on the bank. Mike put the Jeep in reverse and backed across the stream. Then he set up his GoPro to take video from the cab. This time, knowing what to expect, he powered right through the water.

John rejoined us, and we started the last 17 and most challenging miles of our shuttle. The unpaved road was steep and rutted, uneven and corrugated. At one point, Mike stopped and let air out the tires to smooth out the ride. We hadn’t had lunch, but Mike had bought some spicy beef sticks at the filling station which he shared around.

It was slow going switchbacking up the dirt road higher and higher, but we finally reached the trailhead around 3:00. It would mean a late start, but we only had four miles to do. The three of us reached into our wallets and tipped Mike for the ride and the good company. He noted that many of his clients never uttered a word and how much he enjoyed having people to talk to.

Finally, we stood at the trailhead at over 7,000 feet, looking down into the wide, relatively lush valley for which we were headed. But first, we had to get down there, and the first mile of the trail was a steep, thousand-foot drop, a real knee-buster, especially since we were carrying a gallon of water each, eight pounds. I snapped a picture of Verg and John, and we started down

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John sans trekking poles & Vergil at the Salt Creek Trailhead

 

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From the Rim
The small distant, flat, green patch on the left is the valley floor.

 

That was when John discovered that he had left his trekking poles in the car. I’ll tell you the truth, I was glad I had mine because that first mile included more than its fair share of long steps down and awkward foot placements. We went slowly and carefully, descending on the twisty, rocky trail through stunted, wind-twisted pines. As we neared the bottom, the we began crossing the occasional stretch of rock shelves, the trail marked by cairns. These were welcome relief from the steep descent. After an hour, we reached the wide canyon floor.

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The Descent

 

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Looking Back

 

Tiered rock walls of red and ocher well off to our left east and west bracketed a sea of brown and green grasses. The path of Salt Creek was clearly marked by a lush strip of massive cottonwoods off to our left, their leaves fluttering like so many green and white hankies.

At the two-mile mark we crossed into the national park. It was about then that we learned about the other effect the heavy snowfall in the winter and rains in the spring had had on the desert. The vegetation, mostly sage and cheatgrass, was thick and high. We looked out over a vast expanse of grass 3-4 feet high, waving gently in the faint desert breeze. There was nothing to indicate where the trail was except the hint of a faint footpath visible only when right on top of it. We continued plodding along, with the thick growth grasping at our feet and legs, hindering every step.

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The canyon floor. Where’s the trail?

 

At places the trail veered near the creek. Here on softer, reed-choked ground, the trail would be a groove 6-8 inches deep and about eight inches wide, beaten down by the tread of countless backpackers. You had to place one foot in front of the other like you were taking a Highway Patrol sobriety test, only sober, tired, laden with a backpack, and with undergrowth tugging at you. Eventually, at nearly three miles in, we completely lost the trail.

The ground here by the stream was mucky. We backtracked looking for where the trail must have veered off. Nothing. We began cutting back and forth perpendicular to the trail and running down numerous false avenues. Finally, after a short discussion in which our frayed nerves began to show, we struck back down to where we had lost the trail in the first place.

This time, we found our mistake. A series of deadfalls near Salt Creek had obscured the trail which we eventually picked up on the far side. The sun was getting low, and we picked up our pace. Soon the trail dropped out onto a series of rock ledges. We followed the cairns and soon heard the blessed sound of running water. By now it was nearly 8:00 PM.

We crossed a spring that tumbled over a wide series of small ledges and into a swift running channel before disappearing into a cottonwood thicket. We dropped our packs on a convenient ledge and began purifying water. Vergil and I used SteriPens, which kill bacteria with ultraviolet light, and John used his Sawyer gravity feed filter system.

Replenished, we saddled up and kept walking, passing Kirk’s Cabin, dim in the fading light, it was a lovely old log cabin built in 1890 and still standing. A short distance after that we saw the sign for SC1, our home for our first night on the trail. We turned right and found our campsite tucked back in a protected cove.

We quickly pitched our tents,, then pulled out our camp chairs and chilled. I looked at my socks. They were covered with little stickers, many of which I could feel through my socks.

They were from the cheatgrass. John was familiar with the invasive stuff. Vergil had recently heard about it on NPR but never seen it. I had never even heard of it.

“Yeah,” John said. “We have it in Idaho too. Have to be sure to get pull them out of our dogs’ ears or they get infected.”

Vergil had worn long pants, so his socks weren’t in bad shape. John had worn shorts but had remembered his low gaiters which saved his socks. I had worn shorts too but had left my OR Sparkplug gaiters in the car. Big mistake. I began plucking and eventually pulled off my socks to finish the task.

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Camp at SC1

 

I pulled out my stove to start boiling water for dinner. John wasn’t feeling too well and had no interest in eating. I was mildly concerned but not too much. Until he threw up. We were all more thirsty than hungry anyway. I sweat so profusely that staying hydrated is always a challenge for me. I can easily out-sweat a performance or wool T-shirt even in the desert. Vergil and I managed to get down a beef stroganoff dinner, but I had to wash down each mouthful with a swallow of water.

With the setting sun and cooler air, we welcomed first wave of the gnats and then mosquitoes. Vergil and I grew up in Mississippi, and Vergil still lives there. We thought we knew mosquitoes, but we were unprepared the swarms that descended on us. We all put on our mosquito headnets, and I even borrowed some of John’s Cutters. That wasn’t enough, so we piled into our tents as quickly as possible letting in as few mosquitoes as we could. With a finite number inside the mesh of the tent, we proceeded to eliminate them all, one by one.

It had been a long day. We were tired and needed a good rest, and once we were recumbent, we drifted off to sleep, in John’s case with his portable, rechargeable C-PAP.

 

THURSDAY, JUNE 13, 2019 – DAY 2, SALT CREEK TRAIL

Even though Thursday would be a short day, only four miles, we were up by 6:30. We had coffee and freeze-dried biscuits and gravy which was surprisingly good. John managed to eat a little. After a leisurely morning, we headed back to the spring to water up for the day.

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The First Spring

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Watering Up

 

We backtracked to Kirk’s Cabin and dropped our packs, taking only water filters, bottles, and bags to the spring. We filtered up enough so that again each of us had at least a gallon of water. Back at the cabin, we took pictures of the structure. It was built of hand-hewn cottonwoods, enormous timbers at least 12” X 12”. They were fitted and joined with pegs driven through drilled holes. Built in 1890, all it need was a new roof and some chinking in the open joints to be livable again. Very impressive.

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Kirk’s Cabin

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Verg in front of the fireplace

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Shadows

 

John had a solar panel which he used to recharge batteries for his C-PAP. He adjusted it across the back of his pack, and at 10:15 we were on the trail.

One of the many things that drew us to Salt Creek was the presence of pictographs, petroglyphs, stacked-stone granaries, and pottery shards left by ancient peoples. The Salt Creek basin is wide and reasonably flat with a more dependable water supply than most of the surrounding area. Archeologists estimate that the area was inhabited from around 200 BC up until 1500 AD.

None of these sites are marked on a map. Accounts by previous hikers are helpful, but one must keep a sharp eye out along the canyon walls for artifacts as well as natural arches. We strolled along, veering off-trail to investigate whatever caught our eye. Yesterday had been hot, and today was hotter.

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Distant Arch

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Granary

We took a break under a copse of scrubby, fragrant pines and later found a nice shady spot for lunch. A formation of four massive rocks had tipped over into each other creating two intersecting passages. Light filtered down creating a luminous cross on the sandy floor, and the air was refreshingly cool. We sat in this cool spot and looked out over the baking canyon floor. Unfortunately, John continued to throw up.

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Cruciform Rocks

 

As we continued in a northerly down the canyon, it began to slowly narrow and take increasingly sharp twists and turns. The trail would follow the canyon wall, then veer around in a long, seeping curve where a rock formation jutted out into the canyon. At one point, rather than swing around the jutting rocks, our path led us on a steep climb up a crevasse with logs jammed into the bottom for better footing. This soon turned into a rock-filled scramble up through a notch in the rock wall. The descent on the other side was down a series of rock slabs.

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The Notch

 

We reached another spring around 4:00 PM. The westering sun created a glittering, golden cascade as the waters tumbled over the ochre rock ledges before plunging into a deep, still pool ten feet below us. Green algae gathered in the eddies and covered the pool.

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The Second Spring

 

We washed our faces and heads, then drank our fill of cool, filtered water. A few years back, Vergil purchased green and back keffiyehs for himself, Stuart, and me. The fabric is a cotton and wool blend, and the large scarves are widely used in the Middle East as head and neck wraps. Vergil and I have worn ours in the desert on every subsequent trip. I soaked mine in the water as Mike had said the Marines did in Iraq, then wrapped it around my head and neck for instant, evaporative air conditioning.

Near this spring was maybe the most fascinating archeological site that we saw: large granaries, multi-colored red, white, and pale blue pictographs, and black and white pottery shards. We wandered about taking pictures until it was time to locate our campsite.

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Another Granary

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Closer View

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Pictographs

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Pottery Shards

Unfortunately, we missed both Big Ruins on the west side of the canyon and the All-American Man petroglyph on the east side. We were especially bummed because the All-American Man is very large with vivid red, white, and blues dyes. No one was ready to go back and look for it though.

Our U.S. Geological Survey map indicated that our campsite CS3 was just north of the spring. He headed that way but found no campsite. Both John and I checked our GPS’s; we were well north of where the campsite was marked on the map. We walked a little further up the trail and still no campsite. We backtracked to see if the sign was down and we had missed the turnoff. No, we hadn’t. We headed back north further than we had gone the first time. Still, no CS3 even though both GPS’s showed we were even further north of the marked location.

Finally, we headed back towards the spring and found a smooth, sandy spot up against a large rock formation and camped there. Vergil and I again pitched his tent without the fly as it didn’t look like rain. As we reclined in our camp chairs to prepare dinner, I took a look at my lower legs and socks. My legs were scratched from the brush, and my socks were so covered with cheatgrass seeds that they looked more like a pair of hedgehogs than a pair of socks.

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Cheatgrass Seeds

 

I started plucking but soon gave up. I hated the thought of tossing a pair of Darn Tough socks but decided that’s what I would have to do. I also decided to wear long pants the next days.

Vergil and I ate dinner, but again John ate very little. He was still nauseous and taking some anti-nausea meds that he brought as well as some Pepto-Bismol I had with me. Neither seemed to be helping much.

As it had the evening before, high, thin clouds spread across the darkening sky. I had brought my Sony α6000 Mirrorless camera, telephoto lens, and small tripod. John had brought his too. We were particularly excited because Jupiter would be in opposition and very close to the Earth and being deep into the desert with no artificial light, we hoped to get some good nighttime photos. It was not to be.

A spattering of rain blew up in the night, but the rock formation provided enough protection that we didn’t bother to add the fly.

Next Week – Part 2

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INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 18 – Henry & Minnie

Thanksgiving Day, 1927

HENRY

Henry looked down the long table. Minnie sat at the other end and beamed, as well she should. Her auburn hair was a glowing halo. Arrayed between the two of them were the blessings of their life together. All eight of their children, even Sadie who had made it home from Greenville, and his parents sat between them: Grady, Morris Bailey, Sadie, Willye, and Father down one side, Maurice, Lucille, Dick, Jim, and Mother down the other.

Their children continued to amaze him. Eight fine children from Grady at 22 years of age all the way down to Little Jim who had just turned two. Four boys and four girls. The older ones tall, lean, alert, and intelligent, the younger ones bright and precocious. All of the girls had their mother’s wavy hair, although Maurice’s and Lucille’s was dark like his, Sadie’s and Willye’s lighter like their mother’s. Morris Bailey’s hair was wavy too, but Grady and Dick had his straight dark hair. Jim’s was straight too and would probably darken as he grew up. Interesting, he thought, how each child reflected different features of Minnie and himself. And not simply looks but personalities.

The late afternoon rays of the sun, pale and white, slanted in through the windows. The golden flicker of candles and kerosene lamps bathed everything in a warm, shimmering light that burnished the autumnal colors of the laden table: the glistening chestnut browns of baked chicken and duck, the grayish-brown butter beans and black-eyed peas, the deep greens of the snap beans and sweet pickles, the creamy golds of squash and creamed corn and one his special favorites, pickled peaches rich with cloves floating in the brine, the tarnished gold of cornbread and dressing, the russet hues of sweet potatoes. The buffet was covered with peach and blackberry cobblers; pecan, mincemeat, and apple pies; and Minnie’s special nutbread.

It had been a hard year, beyond a doubt the hardest of their lives. Not only the high water but the unseasonable cold, the days and days of overcast skies that had shattered hopes of a good cotton crop. But they had been lucky, no, blessed, to come through it as well as they had. Thousands of less fortunate farmers and their families in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri, even Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas, had been completely flooded out. The waters hadn’t begun to recede until August, and as expected, the cotton crop had been poor.

He had never worried about his family going hungry, but there were other families on the place, farmhands who needed to be paid, and the last thing he wanted to do was have to let any of them go. But the big thing, the thing that hung over everything, was his yearly note. And thank the Lord, he had that set aside now and probably enough to begin planting next year without having to borrow money. That alone was a burden lifted. Today they would devote completely to being thankful.

He caught Minnie’s eye and smiled. She smiled back, a smile of pure, unadulterated contentment.

“Let’s bow our heads,” he said with a nod.

Each head bowed as hand reached and clutched for hand until all were joined. He thanked God for all they had and prayed for those who had less, prayed for family far away, asked God for protection and strength in the days to come and prayed that all that they did might be done in His name and to His glory.

A soft chorus of “Amens” followed his own and with a final squeeze, hands were dropped, and a happy chatter of voices erupted. Spoon clattered against bowl as plates were filled and dishes were passed. The first cool weather had arrived, and a blast of north wind rattled the windows, but inside it was warm, an embracing warmth redolent with the aroma of all the cooking that Minnie and his mother and the girls had done.

Between bites Sadie shared her experiences in Greenville as the waters rose and the levees were breached and thousands struggled day and night to keep the waters at bay and thousands who were flooded out flocked to any high ground they could find. All of the student nurses at King’s Daughters’ had rendered aid. As proud as he was of his daughter, he was even more thankful that she was back home for a few days and safe.

Morris Bailey followed with his escapades looking for George and his family, all of whom were gathered at the King place, even those working on the Mitchener place.

He leaned back in his chair and simply looked and listened. He felt like he was observing the entire tableau from some point outside of his own body. There was a sudden thickness in his throat and his eyes felt damp. How did the fifth son of a hill country farmer end up sitting at the head of this table, on this huge place so wonderfully named Friendship? What did I do to deserve something so wonderful, so precious? Nothing, nothing at all, he decided. No more than he deserved Jesus Christ’s promise of salvation. Oh, he and his family had supplied the hard work, but God in his infinite wisdom had provided the blessing.

The clatter of a utensil on the hardwood floor – Little Jim had dropped his spoon – broke into his reverie, and for this he was thankful too. It reminded him that it wasn’t just the big things. It was his two-year-old son waving his fat little arms and laughing at his lost spoon and his beautiful wife filling the little hand with her own spoon. He smiled again and picked up his fork.

 

Henry set his coffee cup and saucer on his desk and settled into his chair. He had eaten too much but had enjoyed every bite. Father, Grady, and Morris Bailey followed him, each with their own cups which they set on the edge of his desk before taking their seats.

The faint sound of female voices and clatter of crockery filtered in from the kitchen.

He slid his tin of Carter Hall across the desk and Father filled his pipe and passed the tin back.

“Have enough to eat?” he asked.

“Too stuffed to jump,” Father replied as he stuck a wooden match and bathed the bowl of tobacco in flame. Blue smoke curled around Father’s head.

“Becky’s a fine cook, and Minnie too,” his father added. “That was a feast beyond measure.”

“The girls too,” Morris Bailey said, not even looking up as he rolled his cigarette. “I saw Lucille making the pickled peaches.”

Scamp, he thought, he knows my weakness for those things.

“No two ways about it,” Father replied. “We are blessed. Especially the way this year has gone.”

Father looked at him across the desk. “That was a good idea planting more corn and hay than usual.”

“Sure was,” Grady agreed. “Corn prices were up, too.”

“And cotton prices, too. Way up, for those who could make a crop,” Morris Bailey chimed in.

They had planted their cotton late, everyone had, and were still picking. He lit his own pipe now that it was filled.

“There’s no doubt that the corn saved us,” he said. We’ll get decent cotton, but I’m glad we had an ace in the hole.”

He reached into the bottom right desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey that his brother Burton had given him the last time he had dropped by. God only knew where Burton got bonded whiskey during Prohibition. He had never asked.

He lifted the bottle of amber liquid. It was almost full. Minnie had a china cup with a broken handle that fit inside of her ring-shaped nutbread. As usual, she had half-filled the cup and sealed everything in a tin until the whiskey had all evaporated.

He pulled the cork and splashed a bit into each of their four cups of coffee.

All four men lifted their cups.

“Here’s to making it through another season,” he offered. “God Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, next year will be better.”

“Here. Here,” the others responded.

“Particularly if the creek don’t rise,” Father added.

He replaced the bottle in the drawer and looked up at the sound of children’s voices. Dick flashed by the window with Lucille in pursuit, squealing. No telling what that rascal had done now.

He stared into the fading light. Lights flickered from the few houses he could see, and he knew that even in the ones he couldn’t see, that the hands on the place, his place, white and colored, had plenty to eat. And plenty to be thankful for: they had weathered a challenging year too, and it had taken all of them pulling together.

Any hand on the place was welcome to use a mule, plow, and free seed from the Commissary to put in a garden. All of them did, and many kept a chicken or two. Nevertheless, Minnie’s own flocks were robust, and at her suggestion, each family were given a hen or duck to bake for Thanksgiving. So like her, and that too, gave him a sense of satisfaction. He valued the hands on the place. They worked harder than anyone, and now that he had the responsible, hard-working hands he needed, he wanted to keep them.

He turned back and looked around the room. Grady was 22 years old now, Morris Bailey 20. He idly wondered, for the umpteenth time, when he might lose one or both of them to marriage or some life other than farming. Friendship Plantation was large enough to support them all and their families should they be so blessed. Nevertheless …

Morris Bailey interrupted his wool-gathering. “Can you believe it. We’re down here fighting rising water, and up in New York they just opened a tunnel UNDER the Hudson River.”

Father leaned back and let pipe smoke drift from his mouth. “I read in the paper the other day that they figure over 27,000 square miles were under water and over 700,000 folks flooded out. No telling how many folks dead. They say at least 500, but I’ll wager it’s a whole lot more. Bodies that’ll never be found.”

The room was silent for a moment. Father shook his head slowly. “Funny thing is,” he continued, “how the world keeps on turning and other folks in other places keep on going about their lives, sometimes doing amazing things, while other folks are struggling. Always been that way, I reckon.”

“Like flying across the Atlantic Ocean solo like Lindbergh did?” Grady asked. He couldn’t help but notice the dreamy look in his son’s eyes.

“Exactly like that,” Father replied. “Why, I remember the first airplane I ever saw. Other than in pictures. Bet you and your father do too. Was 1912. Some feller landed at the Choctaw County Fair in the flimsiest looking contraption I ever saw. Sold rides. Not that I would have gone up in one of those things for love or money.”

“I would have,” Grady blurted out.

Everyone stared at the tall, serious young man.

“Maybe someday,” Grady added, then realized that all eyes were on him.

Morris Bailey opened his mouth to speak, but Grady, slightly abashed, spoke first. “But the most important thing is getting a good crop of cotton in next year.”

Everyone agreed, and he peered at his first-born wondering what he might say next.

Grady paused and continued. “It’s a hard crop, cotton. Maybe the hardest. Not like corn or hay that you mostly just plant and let grow. So many things have to go right for nearly half a year to get a good crop. So many warm, sunny days, enough but not too much rain, dry weather for picking. There’s simply so much that can go wrong. I know it makes good money for us, the best, but more than that, there is something satisfying about raising cotton. Maybe it’s the tending, the coaxing, the tilling and turning, the chopping, and finally the picking.”

“I didn’t know you could be so philosophical, Big Brother,” Morris Bailey teased.

Grady shot his brother a sharp glance.

He looked at Grady and said, “I know just what you mean, Son. You might not be able to eat cotton, but there is something deeply satisfying about bringing that crop in , about looking out over those fields when they are a blanket of white so bright in the sun that it hurts your eyes. Maybe it’s all the extra effort that makes it mean more.”

He raised his cup again. “To cotton, King Cotton. And to Friendship Plantation and the Catledges.”

And to my son the farmer, he added silently.

 

MINNIE

She was unpinning and brushing out her hair when Henry entered their bedroom.

“Tired?” he asked from the doorway.

She looked at his reflection in her mirror. “Yes, but thankful. The girls are so helpful, your mother too, of course. And Essie Mae.”

He crossed the room and placed one of his large hands on each of her shoulders. She leaned her head against his right hand and looked up at his reflection from the corner of her eyes.

“Well, it was certainly delicious. I enjoyed every bite. Thank you,” Henry said and kissed the top of her head.

She scooted to one side and he sat beside her on her seat. They looked into each other’s eyes in the mirror.

“I am headed to the bank in Sumner tomorrow. I’ll be depositing the money we will need for this year’s payment to the Fergusons,” he said softly.

“Thank goodness,” she sighed. “More to be thankful for.”

She resumed brushing out her hair, and he leaned close, inhaling deeply and sighing.

“I smell like baking,” she said. “And perspiration.”

“You smell like you, your skin and the soap you wash with. It is just you.”

She leaned away and looked into his dark, dark eyes. He read the question in her own eyes.

“Yes, it was a near run thing this season, but we are alright. Will be for another year, another crop.”

She leaned back against him, and he wrapped both arms around her, pulling her even closer.

“That’s all I wanted to know. All I need to know. I love you,” she whispered.

“I love you too,” he said and kissed her. “Of all I have for which to be thankful, I am thankful most of all for you.”

She didn’t realize she had dropped her hairbrush as wrapped both arms around him and buried her face in his shoulder.

“Oh, Henry,” she whispered. “Me too.”

Thanksgiving Day, 1927

HENRY

Henry looked down the long table. Minnie sat at the other end and beamed, as well she should. Her auburn hair was a glowing halo. Arrayed between the two of them were the blessings of their life together. All eight of their children, even Sadie who had made it home from Greenville, and his parents sat between them: Grady, Morris Bailey, Sadie, Willye, and Father down one side, Maurice, Lucille, Dick, Jim, and Mother down the other.

Their children continued to amaze him. Eight fine children from Grady at 22 years of age all the way down to Little Jim who had just turned two. Four boys and four girls. The older ones tall, lean, alert, and intelligent, the younger ones bright and precocious. All of the girls had their mother’s wavy hair, although Maurice’s and Lucille’s was dark like his, Sadie’s and Willye’s lighter like their mother’s. Morris Bailey’s hair was wavy too, but Grady and Dick had his straight dark hair. Jim’s was straight too and would probably darken as he grew up. Interesting, he thought, how each child reflected different features of Minnie and himself. And not simply looks but personalities.

The late afternoon rays of the sun, pale and white, slanted in through the windows. The golden flicker of candles and kerosene lamps bathed everything in a warm, shimmering light that burnished the autumnal colors of the laden table: the glistening chestnut browns of baked chicken and duck, the grayish-brown butter beans and black-eyed peas, the deep greens of the snap beans and sweet pickles, the creamy golds of squash and creamed corn and one his special favorites, pickled peaches rich with cloves floating in the brine, the tarnished gold of cornbread and dressing, the russet hues of sweet potatoes. The buffet was covered with peach and blackberry cobblers; pecan, mincemeat, and apple pies; and Minnie’s special nutbread.

It had been a hard year, beyond a doubt the hardest of their lives. Not only the high water but the unseasonable cold, the days and days of overcast skies that had shattered hopes of a good cotton crop. But they had been lucky, no, blessed, to come through it as well as they had. Thousands of less fortunate farmers and their families in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri, even Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas, had been completely flooded out. The waters hadn’t begun to recede until August, and as expected, the cotton crop had been poor.

He had never worried about his family going hungry, but there were other families on the place, farmhands who needed to be paid, and the last thing he wanted to do was have to let any of them go. But the big thing, the thing that hung over everything, was his yearly note. And thank the Lord, he had that set aside now and probably enough to begin planting next year without having to borrow money. That alone was a burden lifted. Today they would devote completely to being thankful.

He caught Minnie’s eye and smiled. She smiled back, a smile of pure, unadulterated contentment.

“Let’s bow our heads,” he said with a nod.

Each head bowed as hand reached and clutched for hand until all were joined. He thanked God for all they had and prayed for those who had less, prayed for family far away, asked God for protection and strength in the days to come and prayed that all that they did might be done in His name and to His glory.

A soft chorus of “Amens” followed his own and with a final squeeze, hands were dropped, and a happy chatter of voices erupted. Spoon clattered against bowl as plates were filled and dishes were passed. The first cool weather had arrived, and a blast of north wind rattled the windows, but inside it was warm, an embracing warmth redolent with the aroma of all the cooking that Minnie and his mother and the girls had done.

Between bites Sadie shared her experiences in Greenville as the waters rose and the levees were breached and thousands struggled day and night to keep the waters at bay and thousands who were flooded out flocked to any high ground they could find. All of the student nurses at King’s Daughters’ had rendered aid. As proud as he was of his daughter, he was even more thankful that she was back home for a few days and safe.

Morris Bailey followed with his escapades looking for George and his family, all of whom were gathered at the King place, even those working on the Mitchener place.

He leaned back in his chair and simply looked and listened. He felt like he was observing the entire tableau from some point outside of his own body. There was a sudden thickness in his throat and his eyes felt damp. How did the fifth son of a hill country farmer end up sitting at the head of this table, on this huge place so wonderfully named Friendship? What did I do to deserve something so wonderful, so precious? Nothing, nothing at all, he decided. No more than he deserved Jesus Christ’s promise of salvation. Oh, he and his family had supplied the hard work, but God in his infinite wisdom had provided the blessing.

The clatter of a utensil on the hardwood floor – Little Jim had dropped his spoon – broke into his reverie, and for this he was thankful too. It reminded him that it wasn’t just the big things. It was his two-year-old son waving his fat little arms and laughing at his lost spoon and his beautiful wife filling the little hand with her own spoon. He smiled again and picked up his fork.

 

Henry set his coffee cup and saucer on his desk and settled into his chair. He had eaten too much but had enjoyed every bite. Father, Grady, and Morris Bailey followed him, each with their own cups which they set on the edge of his desk before taking their seats.

The faint sound of female voices and clatter of crockery filtered in from the kitchen.

He slid his tin of Carter Hall across the desk and Father filled his pipe and passed the tin back.

“Have enough to eat?” he asked.

“Too stuffed to jump,” Father replied as he stuck a wooden match and bathed the bowl of tobacco in flame. Blue smoke curled around Father’s head.

“Becky’s a fine cook, and Minnie too,” his father added. “That was a feast beyond measure.”

“The girls too,” Morris Bailey said, not even looking up as he rolled his cigarette. “I saw Lucille making the pickled peaches.”

Scamp, he thought, he knows my weakness for those things.

“No two ways about it,” Father replied. “We are blessed. Especially the way this year has gone.”

Father looked at him across the desk. “That was a good idea planting more corn and hay than usual.”

“Sure was,” Grady agreed. “Corn prices were up, too.”

“And cotton prices, too. Way up, for those who could make a crop,” Morris Bailey chimed in.

They had planted their cotton late, everyone had, and were still picking. He lit his own pipe now that it was filled.

“There’s no doubt that the corn saved us,” he said. We’ll get decent cotton, but I’m glad we had an ace in the hole.”

He reached into the bottom right desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey that his brother Burton had given him the last time he had dropped by. God only knew where Burton got bonded whiskey during Prohibition. He had never asked.

He lifted the bottle of amber liquid. It was almost full. Minnie had a china cup with a broken handle that fit inside of her ring-shaped nutbread. As usual, she had half-filled the cup and sealed everything in a tin until the whiskey had all evaporated.

He pulled the cork and splashed a bit into each of their four cups of coffee.

All four men lifted their cups.

“Here’s to making it through another season,” he offered. “God Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, next year will be better.”

“Here. Here,” the others responded.

“Particularly if the creek don’t rise,” Father added.

He replaced the bottle in the drawer and looked up at the sound of children’s voices. Dick flashed by the window with Lucille in pursuit, squealing. No telling what that rascal had done now.

He stared into the fading light. Lights flickered from the few houses he could see, and he knew that even in the ones he couldn’t see, that the hands on the place, his place, white and colored, had plenty to eat. And plenty to be thankful for: they had weathered a challenging year too, and it had taken all of them pulling together.

Any hand on the place was welcome to use a mule, plow, and free seed from the Commissary to put in a garden. All of them did, and many kept a chicken or two. Nevertheless, Minnie’s own flocks were robust, and at her suggestion, each family were given a hen or duck to bake for Thanksgiving. So like her, and that too, gave him a sense of satisfaction. He valued the hands on the place. They worked harder than anyone, and now that he had the responsible, hard-working hands he needed, he wanted to keep them.

He turned back and looked around the room. Grady was 22 years old now, Morris Bailey 20. He idly wondered, for the umpteenth time, when he might lose one or both of them to marriage or some life other than farming. Friendship Plantation was large enough to support them all and their families should they be so blessed. Nevertheless …

Morris Bailey interrupted his wool-gathering. “Can you believe it. We’re down here fighting rising water, and up in New York they just opened a tunnel UNDER the Hudson River.”

Father leaned back and let pipe smoke drift from his mouth. “I read in the paper the other day that they figure over 27,000 square miles were under water and over 700,000 folks flooded out. No telling how many folks dead. They say at least 500, but I’ll wager it’s a whole lot more. Bodies that’ll never be found.”

The room was silent for a moment. Father shook his head slowly. “Funny thing is,” he continued, “how the world keeps on turning and other folks in other places keep on going about their lives, sometimes doing amazing things, while other folks are struggling. Always been that way, I reckon.”

“Like flying across the Atlantic Ocean solo like Lindbergh did?” Grady asked. He couldn’t help but notice the dreamy look in his son’s eyes.

“Exactly like that,” Father replied. “Why, I remember the first airplane I ever saw. Other than in pictures. Bet you and your father do too. Was 1912. Some feller landed at the Choctaw County Fair in the flimsiest looking contraption I ever saw. Sold rides. Not that I would have gone up in one of those things for love or money.”

“I would have,” Grady blurted out.

Everyone stared at the tall, serious young man.

“Maybe someday,” Grady added, then realized that all eyes were on him.

Morris Bailey opened his mouth to speak, but Grady, slightly abashed, spoke first. “But the most important thing is getting a good crop of cotton in next year.”

Everyone agreed, and he peered at his first-born wondering what he might say next.

Grady paused and continued. “It’s a hard crop, cotton. Maybe the hardest. Not like corn or hay that you mostly just plant and let grow. So many things have to go right for nearly half a year to get a good crop. So many warm, sunny days, enough but not too much rain, dry weather for picking. There’s simply so much that can go wrong. I know it makes good money for us, the best, but more than that, there is something satisfying about raising cotton. Maybe it’s the tending, the coaxing, the tilling and turning, the chopping, and finally the picking.”

“I didn’t know you could be so philosophical, Big Brother,” Morris Bailey teased.

Grady shot his brother a sharp glance.

He looked at Grady and said, “I know just what you mean, Son. You might not be able to eat cotton, but there is something deeply satisfying about bringing that crop in , about looking out over those fields when they are a blanket of white so bright in the sun that it hurts your eyes. Maybe it’s all the extra effort that makes it mean more.”

He raised his cup again. “To cotton, King Cotton. And to Friendship Plantation and the Catledges.”

And to my son the farmer, he added silently.

 

MINNIE

She was unpinning and brushing out her hair when Henry entered their bedroom.

“Tired?” he asked from the doorway.

She looked at his reflection in her mirror. “Yes, but thankful. The girls are so helpful, your mother too, of course. And Essie Mae.”

He crossed the room and placed one of his large hands on each of her shoulders. She leaned her head against his right hand and looked up at his reflection from the corner of her eyes.

“Well, it was certainly delicious. I enjoyed every bite. Thank you,” Henry said and kissed the top of her head.

She scooted to one side and he sat beside her on her seat. They looked into each other’s eyes in the mirror.

“I am headed to the bank in Sumner tomorrow. I’ll be depositing the money we will need for this year’s payment to the Fergusons,” he said softly.

“Thank goodness,” she sighed. “More to be thankful for.”

She resumed brushing out her hair, and he leaned close, inhaling deeply and sighing.

“I smell like baking,” she said. “And perspiration.”

“You smell like you, your skin and the soap you wash with. It is just you.”

She leaned away and looked into his dark, dark eyes. He read the question in her own eyes.

“Yes, it was a near run thing this season, but we are alright. Will be for another year, another crop.”

She leaned back against him, and he wrapped both arms around her, pulling her even closer.

“That’s all I wanted to know. All I need to know. I love you,” she whispered.

“I love you too,” he said and kissed her. “Of all I have for which to be thankful, I am thankful most of all for you.”

She didn’t realize she had dropped her hairbrush as wrapped both arms around him and buried her face in his shoulder.

“Oh, Henry,” she whispered. “Me too.”

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Filed under America, Autumn, Autumn, Cotton farming, Delta, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Thanksgiving

INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 19, April, 1927: Dick

DICK

He squatted by the slough and dropped his leaf boat into the muddy water. It bobbed along down toward the road. He jumped up to run after it.

“Mistah Dick, don’t you go down to that road,” Uncle Ned called. “You stay in the yard like yo momma say.”

Uncle Ned sat on the ground in the shade by the slough, making a leaf boat for Little Jim. He might be the oldest person he knew, maybe even older than Granpaw. His dark skin was kind of ashy, and the hair on his head and chin was white, like just bloomed cotton. Little Jim was watching Uncle Ned work, holding onto the shoulder strap of the old man’s clean overalls to steady himself.

He felt that since he was five-years-old, he should be able to go down to the road but knew better than to argue.

“Yessir,” he answered and scooped up his little boat and ran back. He had gathered the magnolia and oak leaves with Jim tagging along. Now Uncle Ned was making boats for the two of them. He watched as Uncle Nate poked a hole in the middle of a shiny magnolia leaf with his pocketknife. Then he carefully stuck the stem of an oak leaf into the hole. It looked like a little sail.

He handed the leaf boat to Jim. Jim grinned and said, “Mine.”

“Thas right, Mistah Jim. That one’s yo’s.” Uncle Ned said and laughed. It sounded like one of Mother’s hens cackling.

“Can you make me another, Uncle Ned?” he asked.

“Sholy,” Uncle Nate said and picked up another magnolia leaf.

“Me too,” Jim said. And Uncle Nate laughed again.

Little Jim was not even two-years-old yet, but if he had two boats, Little Jim wanted two boats too.

He watched the old colored man work. His hands and fingers were brown and shiny and lined with creases, except on the insides which were almost pink. He liked the way Uncle Ned smelled, like woodsmoke and fatback and pepper, all mixed together. And he liked Uncle Ned. He could not remember ever not knowing Uncle Ned, could not remember a morning when Uncle Ned had not gotten him, and later Jim, up and dressed for the day. Made him wash his hands and face too.

“Uncle Ned?” he asked, “Have you lived here forever?”

The old man laughed again.

“Nawsuh, Mistah Dick, I come here back in sebenty, eighteen and sebenty, with Mistah Henry Ferg’son. I’s still a young man then.”

Uncle Ned smiled at him. The white part of the old man’s eyes was light yellow, like the color of butter. Then those eyes got a glassy look, like the marbles in Dick’s pocket. Uncle Ned turned a little and stared out toward the road and across the road and the cotton fields over there.

“Wadn’t no cotton fields then. No hay neither. No roads. No houses. Nothing but woods, big ole oak trees it take two, three men to reach around. More of ‘em than you can count. Swamps and sloughs and brakes filled with them ole shaggy cypress trees, snake doctors buzzing over that black water.”

Uncle Ned looked at him with shiny eyes. “Why, you could walk through them woods all day and never once see the sun, everywhere you go squirrels and birds be jabbering and chirping in the trees, like they was passing the word that Man was in the woods.”

Uncle Ned had finished his second boat and sat there with it resting in his dark hands.

Little Jim tugged on the old man’s overalls. “Unca Ned, Unca Ned. Make mine. Make mine.”

“Jim,” he barked. “Uncle Ned was telling a story.”

Little Jim pouted up, but Uncle Ned set Dick’s new boat carefully aside and tousled Jim’s hair and smiled. “I start on yo’s now,” he said, and picked up a magnolia leaf.

“You ever go with yo daddy or one of yo brothers down below Blue Lake, that big ole patch of woods in the crook at the bottom end?” Uncle Ned asked.

“Yessir,” he answered. “Once. With Morris Bailey.”

“That sorter what it was like. Woods over everywhere. And critters. Chile, you never seen the like. There was bear, panther, deer, coon, possum, squirrel, beaver, alligator, snakes, and rabbit. And birds. What you say. More birds than you can ‘magine. Blue jays and redbirds and all kinds of black and brown and yeller and all mixed up colors. And them big ole peckerwoods hammering away. And them doves.”

“Where did it all go?” he asked.

“Lawd, Mistah Dick, hard as it be to ‘magine, we cut all them trees down,” Uncle Ned sighed, and the old man stopped again like he was looking somewhere else. Jim didn’t notice because he was watching a junebug crawl through the grass. A squirrel chattered at them from the oak tree they were sitting under.

“We come here from Alabama with Mistah Henry Ferg’son, seemed like hunderds of us coloreds, more’n I could count anyways, and mules by the hunderds, too, and wagons loaded with axes and handsaws and tents and stoves and food, everything we need to live here where there wadn’t nothing but nothing. It remind me of that Yankee army when they came through an ‘mancipated us back in sixty-fo.”

That surprised him. “You were a slave?” he asked.

“Sho, I was, Chile. What you expect?”

“I don’t know. Can you tell us about it?”

“Sho, but another day. Let’s finish this story first. When we come here, we free and we working fo’ wages. Slave days over,” Uncle Ned grinned.

“What did you do?”

“Well, we cut roads through them woods avoiding them swampy places and them brakes, and we pitched some tents to have a place to stay in. Them skeeters at night, Lawd, what you say! Then we commenced to clearing land, sawing and chopping down trees, oak and gum and who knows what all. Some we used to build houses and other buildings with the logs. Some we cut up for firewood for cooking and whatnot. Some that wadn’t good for nothing else, we saved for campfires. Most nights we went to bed early, but we’d have a fire to keep away skeeters in the summer and to keep warm in the winter.”

“Kinda like when Father and Grady and Morris Bailey go to hunting camp?” he asked.

“Sorta like that,” Uncle Ned grinned. “’Cept at our camp, there be a lot less whiskey and a lot more singing.”

“Like the songs we sing in church?” he asked.

“Kindly like that. Onliest most of ‘em made up and passed along. Not written down in a book like yo’ daddy have. Sometimes I think those songs rise straight up to heav’n like them sparks from the fire rise up to the stars in the sky. It was the best part of the day. Work done, belly full, smoking a pipe, relaxing ‘fore bedtime.”

“Father sings a lot. Grandma sings all the time. I like to hear her sing,” he said.

“She sholy do,” Uncle Ned agreed. He went on. “‘Ventually, Mistah Ferg’son hauled in a sawmill, and we commenced to sawing them logs we had piled up into boards.”

Uncle Ned nodded toward the house where Grandmaw and Grandpaw lived, then said, “We sawed the boards for that house right there. I he’ped build it too.”

The old colored man pulled a stick out of the pocket on the bib of his overalls and began to whittle on it, shaving off long strips of yellow wood. Then he stopped and stared out across the cow pasture and laughed. “And stumps. Good God a’mighty, we pulled stumps. Why, I could wear out two span of mules a day pulling stumps back then.”

Uncle Ned’s big hands rested on his knees. Little Jim was playing with his two boats in the slough. His brother’s feet were in the water, but he didn’t care.

“What did you eat?” he asked. It was close to dinnertime and he was beginning to get hungry.

“Oh, we brought flour and coffee and beans and such with us. Some bacon. The rest we hunted or fished for. Mostly venison, but turkey too. With all them woods being cleared out, game was ever’where. Ole Mistah Ferg’son he a good shot. His son, the Mistah Furg’son you know, he a good shot too. We fished the bayous and brakes too. Got us some fishes to eat.”

“Father’s a good shot too,” he said.

“He sho’ is,” Uncle Ned agreed. The old man brushed the shavings from his knees.

“I wisht you boys coulda seen it then. Hit was wild and scary and purty all at the same time. Them big ole trees. Why, it take three mens together to reach around one tree.”

Uncle Ned had already said that but maybe he didn’t remember.

“Cool and shady under ‘em too. Full of squirrels fussing at us as we work. And at nighttime them panthers be screaming and carrying on,” Uncle Ned said.

“I’ve never seen a panther,” he said.

“Reckon not,” said Uncle Ned. “Not likely to now. Might be one or two in them woods I told you Mistah Furg’son left down below Blue Lake. That be the onliest place ‘round here.”

“Maybe Father will take me there someday.”

“You ask him nice, he might.”

“When did you start planting cotton?” he asked.

Uncle Ned laughed. “Not for a while yet. First we had to drain them swampy places. That’s when we cut those sloughs and ditches to run the water offen into the them little runs or into the bayous. That water move slow but it move. It musta chopped the heads offen a five hunderd rattlesnakes and water moc’ssins down in the swamps. Had to be watchin’ all the time. Couple boys got bit. One of ‘em died. Wadn’t nothing nobody could do”

Uncle Ned shook his head and looked sad. “That was Philander, my brother. I talked him into coming with me and he fell in the water and got snakebit on the neck and died. I felt like it partly my fault.”

He sat down by the old man and put his hand on Uncle Ned’s knee.

“I’m sorry, Uncle Ned,” he said.

“Me, too,” Uncle Ned said and tried to smile.

“But one of them boys lived though. Go bit on the foot. Mitstah Furg’son cut that bite open with his knife, then snatched up a pullet – we was keepin’ some chickens by then, milkcows and hogs too – but he cut that pullet in two with an ax and slapped that raw meat on that bite. It pull that poison right out. Turn that pullet almost green, but saved that boy’s life. He was sick and fevery for a while. That foot swole up and got ugly too, but he lived even if he did limp the rest of his life. I ain’t never seen the like, ‘fore or since.”

“Dick. Jim. Time for dinner.” It was Lucille calling. Hungry as he was, he wanted to hear more.

Lucille called again. “Uncle Ned, Momma says to bring the boys on in for dinner.”

“Yes, Miss Lucille,” Uncle Ned answered. “Let’s go, young mistahs.”

“Aw,” he said. “I want to hear more.”

“I tell you more later. Time to clean up for dinner now.”

He set his boats at the base of the oak tree and started toward the house. He walked as slow as he could. Little Jim cried when Uncle Ned went to get him. He wanted to play in the slough some more. Uncle Ned picked Jim up and tickled him under the chin until the little boy laughed.

“You can take them boats with you, Mistah Jim, but we gots to clean yo’ hands and feet and face too before dinner. Like yo’ Momma say.”

Lucille had already run to the backyard and was ringing the dinner bell to call Father and Grady and Morris Bailey from the fields. they would be here soon. As he and Uncle Ned climbed the steps to the back porch, he smelled warm cornbread and his mouth watered. There would be peas and butterbeans and corn and pickled peaches, mostly put up last year because Mother’s garden was only just coming in. And she had baked a cobbler.

Uncle Ned scrubbed their faces, hands, and feet with cold water, soap, and a rag at the sink on the back porch. As he dried his hands, Father and his older brothers rode up on their horses.

Father climbed down. “Ned, will you take our horses to the stable, loosen their girths and give them a little feed and water?”

“Yassuh, sho will,” Uncle Ned said.

“Thank you, Ned,” Father said and stomped up the stairs.

“Hey there, Boy,” Father said and ran a big hand through his hair.

He grinned up at Father. Father was so big and tall, and strong, but then so were Grady and Morris Bailey who were washing up at the sink. He hoped he would be big and tall and strong just like them some day.

“What have you boys been doing today?” Father asked. He picked up Little Jim and gave his baby brother a kiss.

“We’ve been making boats with Uncle Ned and he’s been telling us stories about the old days when this was all woods with no cotton or hay fields.”

Father squatted down setting Jim on one knee. Father was no taller than he was now. “Well, Uncle Ned would know. Now, how about a hug?”

He hugged Father and kissed him too. Father rose and lifting him too, carried both of them into the house for dinner. Morris Bailey and Grady followed right behind.

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INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 15, April, 1927: Morris Bailey

MORRIS BAILEY

The sun cast feeble light through the overcast as Morris Bailey bounced eastward along Friendship Road. The long, dim shadow of the truck preceded them along the road through the decreasing morning gloom, wavering and bouncing in the ruts in unison with the truck itself. A chorus of birdsong greeted the day from the hedgerows along the dirt road, and the heady aroma of Mother’s fresh-baked biscuits and pungent smell of cured ham rose from the pail on the seat beside him. She had insisted on packing him a lunch that also included several hard-boiled eggs and a bottle of sweetmilk wrapped in moist burlap to keep it cool.

But it was the ham and biscuits that were calling to him now even though he had finished breakfast less an hour ago. Maybe just half of one he decided as he dug into the pail with his right hand and dug one out.

Father had suggested he take Friendship Road back to Sumner rather than cut over to 49 West between Rome and Parchman. Father was afraid he might not get over the Homecypress and Big Bear Bayous. The bridges would be higher and better out on the highway.

He turned north on 49 East. He already knew the east bank of Cassidy Bayou had overflowed. The lowest floor of the school there was flooded. No school for Lucille until the water went down. He was not even sure the bridge there was above water now.

They did not know if 49 East towards Greenwood was passable now. Best to avoid all the high water along the Yazoo. Uncle George and his family would be coming up 49 West with the same thought in mind, or so Father said: stick to the middle road between the Mississippi and the Yazoo.

At Tutwiler where 49 East and West merged back into one highway, he turned left and headed south on 49 West. He had to admit to a sense of excitement he could not quite suppress. It was an adventure, and he was all on his own.

1-Plankside_KeyImage

1925 Ford Model TT One-ton Truck

Father had decided he could best spare the one-ton truck. It was practically new, a 1925 Ford Model TT. Father had gotten the model with the special gearing so it was capable of over 20 miles per hour, although he would not push it that hard. He set the throttle to about 15 miles an hour and relaxed.

It was nearly 50 miles to Indianola, and at 15 miles an hour, he should get there before noon. But that was fine. He had topped off the 10-gallon gasoline tank. True, he would not get much more than about ten, maybe twelve, miles to the gallon, but that would do.

The highway stretched away to the horizon, straight and featureless. The low morning sun burnished the water standing in row after row, long, glistening tongues reaching far into the fields. There was no traffic, so he stopped on the bridge over Homecypress Bayou. Brown, turgid water swirled and eddied, overflowing the banks and spreading into the fields.

It felt like the bridge itself, a lumber roadbed atop cross-braced pilings, was moving and groaning, but he could not be sure for the idling of the truck. Concerned, he hurried across, put the truck in neutral, and set the brake before running back. He stopped in the middle span of wooden bridge, felt the movement up through the bottoms of his feet.

He stared at the dark, surging water trying to comprehend the power when he heard a vehicle approaching from the south. He trotted back and climbed into the idling truck. He eased over to the right side of the road, waiting. He could see now that it was truck loaded with possessions. Uncle George, he wondered, and waited to see.

As the truck neared, he waved them down. It was not his Uncle George. It was an older man in stained overalls. Gray stubble covered his cheeks and chin. Deep lines of exhaustion etched his face, and his eyes looked like he had seen it all.

“Morning,” Morris Bailey said.

The old man raised one hand from the steering wheel and placed a knuckle under the brim of his ragged hat and tipped it back. “Reckon it is,” he said.

Bed frames, bureaus, chairs, and such were piled in mad disarray in the bed of the truck or lashed to the sides and back. The man’s wife leaned forward and attempted a weak smile. Her face was worn and fatigued. Two children, a boy and a girl, craned their necks to see who their father was talking to.

“Where y’all coming from?” he asked.

“Up from just outside Nitta Yuma. Got out just ahead of the high water.”

“Been traveling long?”

“Seems like forever. Over a week. Fits and starts. Nothing but fits and starts. Bridges out. Roads flooded.”

The old man shook his head slowly back and forth.

“Sorry you lost your place,” he said.

“Hell, weren’t mine,” the old man spat. “Leased that place. Lost the crop. Lost ever’thing. ‘Cept what you see. I’m flat broke.”

He considered for a moment, hoped Father would understand. Finally, he said, “My father is Henry Catledge. When you get to Tutwiler, ask the way out to his place at Friendship. Don’t know if he can put you on. If he can’t, he’ll know about anyone who needs help.”

The old man nodded. “Thank you, Boy. That’s kindly of you.”

“It’s little enough,” he said, then asked, “Which way did you come?”

“Come up 61 Highway, tried to get to Leland. Couldn’t. Had to turn back to Hollandale and take 12 Highway over to Belzoni, then come up 49 Highway through Indianola. That meant crossing the Sunflower twicet. Water was up almost all the way on them bridges, but they was still clear.”

The old man stared at him. “God knows, I ain’t never seen so much water in my life,” he finally said.

“Thank you, Sir. That’s good to know.”

“You ain’t headed down there, are you, Son?”

“Yessir, my father’s brother and his family are headed this way from down at Onward. I hope to meet up with them and help them any way I can.”

The old man shook his head. “Son, if they ain’t out yet, they ain’t getting out. Onward got to be all under water by now.”

He pushed the thought out of his mind that he might be on a fool’s errand, that Uncle George might have waited too long.

“Well, I am bound to do what I can,” he said.

“Reckon you are. Reckon you are,” the old man’s voice was resigned.

“Don’t forget to ask the way to Friendship in Tutwiler. Father’s cousin, Oraien Catledge, runs the barber shop there. He can give you directions.”

“We’ll do that, Son, and thank you again.

Another truck approached from the south.

“I guess we best be moving on. You take care of yourself, Boy.”

“Yessir. Ya’ll too.”

He eased the truck into gear.

“God bless you, young man,” the old man’s wife called as he pulled away.

A little over a mile later, he passed through Rome, the small town slowly stirring to life, streets still mostly deserted. A man in an apron sweeping the sidewalk in front of a hardware store looked up and waved. He slowed down and waved back but kept going.

Soon he reached the outer edges of Parchman, the state penitentiary with no fence around it, just thousands of acres of flat, featureless farmland with no place for an escapee to hide. The fields were nearly empty of the usual vast number of convicts, chopping cotton under the watchful gaze of the trusties.

In the hazy distance, he saw a car and a number of men, some afoot, some on horseback, milling about. Must be the bridge over Bear Bayou, he thought. The fields on the upstream side held a lot more water than the downstream side.

He pulled up and parked behind the car. Like the last bridge, it was all wood without any rails. Colored men in grimy prison garb of wide, horizontal blue and white stripes, were unloading ropes and axes from a wagon on the far side of the bridge that he had not seen at first. Their white guards, clad in denim and khaki and wearing revolvers on their hips, directed the work. Other colored inmates, trusty-guards with a distinctive blue stripe down the length of their pants, sat their horses with double-barreled 12-gauge shotguns resting on their thighs and watched the convicts from under broad-brimmed straw hats.

He recognized Mr. King, walked up and spoke.

“Morning, Mr. King,” he said.

Mr. King turned. “Good morning, Morris Bailey,” he replied. “What brings you this way today?”

Mr. King was a short, pleasant man who owned a place on the other side of Webb, deep in a bend of Cassidy Bayou, or the Little Tallahatchie as some called it. His place ran almost all the way down to Sharkey.

“I’m headed south to see if I can help Father’s brother George and his family. They’re coming up from Onward,” he answered.

“I imagine they must be covered with water.” Mr. King shook his head. The man looked heart-broken. “We may be too. Soon. That’s why I’m here. Trying to get some help.”

“Help?”

“Yes. I hoped to hire some convict labor to help me reinforce the levees and sandbag around the house and barns. You’ve seen Cassidy in Sumner, I imagine.”

“Yessir. Over the bank on the east side.”

“Well, its worse down our way, over both banks. Knott Rice and I’ll both lose probably half our crops unless the water runs off soon enough to replant. Which I doubt,” Mr King said.

As they talked, both men walked out onto the bridge, which vibrated with some unseen force. Convicts, their muscles bulging and sweat already covering their dark faces, were using the ropes to lower other convicts over the upstream side of the bridge.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. King. Are you going to be able to get any help?”

“I doubt it. I spoke to one of the guards,” he said and tilted his head toward a large man in khaki with a thick body and a cloud of blue smoke around his head from a hand-rolled cigarette, “and just about every able-bodied convict is over on the River sand-bagging levees. ‘Bout the last thing we need is any more breaks in the levee.”

Trusties nodded and made room for them as they walked to the middle of the bridge. They peered over the side to see an old, flat-bottomed skiff had washed up against the pilings the bridge rested upon. Dark, frothy water filled with broken limbs and such surged and swept over, under, and around the skiff, pinning it in place and backing up water. The pressure must be enormous, like a giant hand pressing the skiff against the bridge, trembling with exertion.

The convicts in their striped uniforms swarmed over the pilings and cross-beams below them clutching the ropes tied around their waists with one hand and hand axes with the other. Those that had reached the skiff were hacking furiously at it with their hand axes. It was already nearly 80 degrees and their bodies were sheathed in sweat. Some had removed their shirts.

There was a cry as one of the convicts lost his footing on the slick pilings and plunged into the water. The unexpected strain yanked the rope through the hands of the convict on the bridge, tearing his palms. Before the man could regain his bloody grip the man in the water was tugged screaming underneath the skiff. Other convicts leaped to the rope, desperately trying to pull their friend from under the surging water. The men below shouting encouragement.

One of the straining men on the rope looked up at the guards.

“Boss! Boss! We cain’t pull ‘im up. He stuck.”

Morris Bailey realized that the rope turned under the skiff and the force of the water were conspiring to hold the man underwater. They would never be able to pull him up. The man would drown.

“Let him go,” he screamed. “Let him go or he’ll drown.”

The only reaction he got were glares and looks of disbelief, incomprehension from the dark faces of the straining convicts. He turned to a guard and pled with him.

“Don’t you see?  The water’s holding him under the skiff.”

“What are you talking about, Boy?” the big guard snarled.

“He’s right,” Mr. King shouted, and he was ignored.

“Pull, you sorry bastards,” the guard shouted.

He spun around in frustration, then grabbed a hand ax that someone had dropped, bringing it down with all his strength on the rope right where it went over the edge of the bridge. It snapped with a twang like a broken fiddle string. The men on the bridge fell back in a heap with howls of anger and outrage. The men under the bridge screamed when they saw the end of the rope disappear under the skiff. Trusties and guards turned on him with disbelief.

The head guard heaved his burly body towards him. The man’s face was florid with rage.

“What the hell you think you’re doing, Boy?” he said, jabbing a thick forefinger into Morris Bailey’s chest. He was so close, the brim of the guard’s hat brushed his own and smoke from the guard’s cigarette stung his eyes, but he stood his ground.

Mr. King interceded immediately. “He was trying to save that man’s life.”

The guard spun on Mr. King and hesitated. Morris Bailey knew why. The guard might not know him from Adam, but Mr. King was a well-known and respected landowner. A guard’s rank might carry weight on Parchman Farm, but out here on this road, in Tallahatchie County, he was nothing compared to a landowner, and the guard knew it. The guard’s mouth hung open, but before he could speak, one of the convicts shouted and pointed.

“Boss, Boss Malvern. Look ‘ere. It’s Calhoun.”

Everyone turned to look downstream. He craned to look around the bulk of the Boss Malvern to see a dark head bobbing on the brown water. The men on the bridge were shouting, “Calhoooun! Calhoooun!.”

Calhoun flung a black arm in a tattered sleeve into the air in acknowledgement and began dog-paddling downstream in the smoother flowing water, angling toward the bank as he went.

Boss Malvern turned a sidelong glance at him. “Lucky for you,” he snorted, then turned to one of the mounted trusties. “Roebuck, take one of those ropes and go fish Calhoun out. No sense in letting him just float his way to freedom.”

“Yassuh,” the trusty said. He gathered up a coil of rope, laid his shotgun across the pommel of his saddle, and led his mare across the bridge with a clatter of hooves, then down the roadbank on the far side. Once on the firm ground above the water, he began trotting downstream after the drifting Calhoun.

The convicts capered with excitement of their friend’s survival and shot discreet looks at Morris Bailey. It made him feel uncomfortable. He nodded in acknowledgement as Mr. King clapped him on the shoulder.

“Quick thinking, Son,” the older man grinned. “Not many folks on this bridge happy with you for a moment, though. ‘Specially Boss Malvern.”

“Nosir, I reckon not,” he replied. “But I knew everything they were trying to do to save him wadn’t going to work. That water was just too powerful.”

“Damn your sorry hides. Cut out the tomfoolery and git back to work,” the big guard shouted at the convicts.

Immediately, the men were again flailing away on the skiff with their hand axes. With a splintering crack the skiff suddenly tore apart. The vibration of the bridge ceased as chunks of shattered wood were swept through the pilings and downstream where Calhoun, smaller and further away, still paddled furiously towards the bank ahead of the fresh surge of water. Roebuck had nearly caught up to him.

One of the trusties leaned towards him from his seat on a bay mare. The weal of an old scar extended down one cheek and a trickle of sweat trickled down along the scar, but a smile split the man’s face.

“That was mighty kindly, Suh,” he said. “Mighty smart, too, thinking a that.”

“Damn it, Lander,” Boss Malvern yelled. “Quite chatting with the local gentry and get back to watching over these convicts.”

“Yassuh, Boss,” Lander said and winked at him as he turned the mare and resumed watching over the convicts.

“Let’s head on back to our vehicles,” Mr. King suggested. “I don’t think Boss Malvern cares for your company.”

They turned and strode off the bridge.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” he said weakly.

“I know, Son, and you were fortunate, or blessed, that Calhoun hadn’t already drowned or had his head caved in under there. He survived. And what you did made Malvern look bad in front of the trusties and the convicts. Makes his job harder.”

There was a part of him that twisted in his gut when he felt that someone was upset or angry at him.

“Guess he hates me for that,” he said.

“Probably. Some men are like that. Wish you hadn’t done it?”

“Nosir, I reckon not. Still …”

“Still, nothing,” Mr. King said. “You saved a man’s life. What’s more important? That brute’s opinion of you or that convict’s, that man’s, life?”

“That man’s life, of course.”

“I agree, and I think I know which action God smiles on. Still you might want to avoid Boss Malvern from here on out.”

He smiled. “That ought to be easy. I don’t expect to have much to do with Parchman.”

“Let’s hope not,” Mr. King smiled and shook his hand. “I best be getting back. No help to be had here. We’ll pray and fight the rising water on our on.”

“Good luck, Sir,” he replied, and a thought struck him. “I passed a family this morning from down Nitta Yuma. Got flooded out and are looking for work. I suggested they head to Friendship and check with Father. You might want to look them over. Might be they’re worth putting on.”

“I’ll just do that,” Mr. King said. He climbed into his car, cranked it, and made a three-point turn in the highway. The older man waved as he chugged back north. “Safe travels,” he called.

He waved back, then climbed into his truck. He cranked it and sat there as it idled. It still bothered him. He got along with just about everybody. He like to get along with everybody. But he knew he had made an enemy today, and he hated the feeling even though he knew he had done the right thing.

He gazed unseeing as the men gathered up their ropes and hand axes and piled them into the wagon on the far side of the bridge. Motion caught his eye and on the far side of the bridge as rider and horse lunged up onto the road for the field. It was Roebuck on his mare with Calhoun, wet and bedraggled, perched behind the cantle clinging to Roebuck’s back.

Awakened from his reverie, he realized the bridge was clear of men and gear. Easing the truck into gear, he rolled across the bridge. As he passed the convicts celebrating Calhoun’s survival, he studiously avoided Boss Malvern’s gaze, but one of the trusties, Lander, pointed him out, and all the convicts and trusties together cheered as he passed.

Amid the cheering, he could hear Boss Malvern’s harsh voice cursing them all, him too, probably.

He smiled to himself, flung him left arm out the window in salute, and chugged on southward.

Parchman

Convicts & tracking dogs, Parchman Farm

 

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INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 14 – April, 1927: Minnie

MINNIE

She slipped into the study with the coffee pot hot from the stove in one hand and an extra potholder in the other. Henry was staring out the window, his mind obviously far away. His large hands rested on the edge of the desk on either side of his closed ledger. Weathered hands that sun and wind and work had been unable to rob of a surprising tenderness of touch. And skill. How many times had he delighted one of the children by taking their offered chalk and slate and drawing an amazingly lifelike horse or cow or chicken?

He looked up and gave her a weak smile when she reached over him to refill is nearly empty coffee cup. She placed the extra potholder it on the corner of his desk and set the pot on it, then settled into the extra chair he kept on his side of the desk, the one that Grady or Morris Bailey so often pulled up to the desk to sit at his elbow and go over the books and learn what they needed to know to run a farm. She used the kitchen table to sit with their daughters to teach them how to run a household.

He picked up his cup and swiveled his chair towards her. “Thank you,” he said, then blew across the surface of his coffee and took a tentative sip.

“You look worried,” she said.

“I am,” he said as he took another sip. “I think, I pray, we won’t see too much high water here. It’s one thing to have the sloughs and bayous overflowing and water standing in the fields, but the River …”

Lines creased his face. His cheeks looked hollow. He was 43 years old. Together they had left kin and home behind. They had brought their five children with them and she had borne three more. His parents had joined them. Together they had built a new life here at Friendship, and now it was being threatened.

“I’ve been reading about all that flooding up and down the River. Will it reach us?”

“I don’t think so, Mother, but our crop, if we get one in, will be off this year,” he sighed.

“We’ll get by. We always do,” she said.

“With the Lord’s blessing and the sweat of our brows, we will.” He managed another smile, as weak as the first.

“Yes, with the Lord’s blessing,” she said.

She came and perched on the arm of his chair. He breathed deeply.

“You still smell of flour from this morning’s biscuits. Smells good,” he whispered and wrapped an arm around her to pull her close.

“And you smell like Pinaud,” she said rubbing the back of her fingers across his freshly shaved cheek. She laid her arm across his shoulders and leaned against him. He looked up at her.

“We will get through this too,” he said, this time with assurance, as if he drew strength just from their contact. “I love you so,” he whispered.

She laid the side of her head on the top of his. Noted absent-mindedly that his hair was thinning there and graying. She sighed. Well, hers was graying too. They were no longer young. She had been a few months short of nineteen when they had married, and that had been what? Twenty-two years ago now?

No, they were no longer young, but their love was still deep and passionate, as yet unfaded by years and familiarity. He still treated her with tenderness and a respect that bordered on the courtly at times. She wondered if that from growing up in a household with nothing but brothers and a father who expected them to help their mother and treat her with respect. Whatever the reason, it was good and comforting and dependable. She gave thanks for him every day in her prayers and asked the Lord to watch over him.

She held him even closer. “I love you, too. More than you know,” she said.

They sat holding each other without a word being said. Soft clattering sounds of Iola and the girls came from the kitchen, familiar sounds, comforting sounds. Just outside the window, a wren lit in the nandina and began singing its heart out as if the swollen rivers, broken levees, and rising waters were a world away. It was so peaceful here that it was hard to imagine the horrors that people were facing in the flooding areas.

She felt Henry swallow and he said, “I’m sending Morris Bailey down to see if he can find George and Annie and their children. Help them get up here.”

She leaned back and stared at him. He must have noted the concern on her face.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Morris Bailey will be fine. He won’t take chances. He’s steady. And he gets along with everybody.”

“I know all those things. But by himself?”

“Can’t be helped. I need Grady here. Besides, Morris Bailey’s a man, you know, twenty years old, almost as old as I was when you and I got married.” He tried to put a little lightness in his voice to ease her worry.

“I know you’re right, but I can’t help it. I’ll worry until he gets back.”

“I know you will,” he said. “I will too.”

She knew he would but knew she would worry more. And differently. She already had one child far away where the water was rising and now another was headed that way. He was right. They had grown children who could make sound decisions and care for themselves and even others, but they were still her children. Becky had said more than once that a mother never stops caring for her children. So had Grandma Bailey. Now she was learning just how true that was.

She kissed Henry on the top of his head as she rose. Picking up the coffee pot and pot holder, she turned to head back to the kitchen. Henry reached out and placed hi s large hand lightly on her forearm. He looked up at her with real concern on his face.

“Morris Bailey will be fine,” he said.

She looked into his steady, dark eyes. “I know he will,” she said, knowing that Henry was right. But she prayed for her son anyway.Pop_Cat_Snow

Henry & Minnie playing in the snow, date unknown

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INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 13 – April, 1927: Henry

APRIL, 1927

 

HENRY

He folded and laid The Commercial Appeal on the corner of his desk. It had been delivered by the mail rider yesterday just like every other day except Sunday, but he was just now finishing it. Pale morning light filtered in through the windows, but he still needed the kerosene lamp. He gestured at the paper.

“Says here the levee broke near Greenville.”

“Yessir, that’s what we heard in Greenwood,” Grady answered.

Morris Bailey, sitting beside Grady nodded. He and Grady had gotten in late last night but he still had an unusual look on his face, like he had seen something so stunning, so unbelievable that he could not comprehend it.

“Were y’all able to get all the supplies we needed?”

“Yessir. The trains are still running. We got everything unloaded and stored in the Commissary last night,” Grady replied.

He nodded approval. “How about the tractor parts? Wade have what we needed?”

“Yessir, that too,” Morris Bailey said. “I’ll start on that today. Should have the Farmall running soon.”

He did not respond but stared out the window at the slough between their house and his parents’. Water surged over the footbridge he had built in 1919. He thought he knew everything a cotton farmer could face, knew that high water was not uncommon in the Delta, but nothing had prepared him for water like this. Nobody else for that matter.

The ground was sodden. It seemed like it had rained all winter. He had squeezed in as much planting as he could at the first opportunity. The ground had barely been dry enough. Then on Good Friday, the heavens and opened up and the rain had been heavier than any he had ever seen. Or even heard about.

“Don’t know that we’ll be able to use it much. Fields are just too wet as it is,” he said. He was still staring out the window at the gray sky and watery light.

“News in Greenwood was that with the way the River is pouring through that break at Mound Landing, practically the entire southern half of the Delta. Bolivar, Washington, Sunflower, Humphreys, Issaquena, and Yazoo Counties. Sharkey, are likely to be under water soon,” Grady said.

All three of them turned to look at the large map of Mississippi that hung on the wall of his office. Cities, towns, highways, and railroads were marked on it. And counties in faintly shaded colors. He stared at the counties Grady had ticked off one by one. Nearly half of the entire Delta. He did the math in his head and let out a low whistle.

“Why, if just those counties are covered, that’ll be close to 2 million acres, nearly 3,000 square miles under water.”

“Good God Almighty,” Grady said under his breath.

He nodded. “Yes, He is Almighty. Our efforts to control the River…,” He paused, “seem puny in comparison. The River made the Delta what it is, put all this deep topsoil here for use, and it seems to want to keep doing just that.”

He tried to imagine that much water, but his mind pushed back at the thought. It was simply too much. He turned back to look at his sons. “What were things like in Greenwood?” Henry asked.

“Well,” said Grady. “The riverbanks are piled with sandbags, but the water is coming over in places. I expect the north part of town between the Tallahatchie and the Yazoo may flood, probably part of Downtown too. The water is right up to the bottom of that new bridge, the Keesler.”

Greenwood_27_Flood

Greenwood between the Tallahatchie and Yazoo Rivers, 1927

Keesler_27_Flood

Keesler Bridge, Greenwood, 1927

All three of them had read the newspapers and listened to the radio. They knew it was bad. It had been bad upriver, and it would be bad here, maybe the worst ever. Morris Bailey still had that strange look on his face.

“Father, the Yazoo is actually flowing backwards, upriver. And as bad as it is in the Delta, its worse in Louisiana. Arkansas is hard hit too. What will people do?” his son asked.

So like his mother, Henry thought, worried about the people.

“I don’t know, Son,” he sighed. “Lose their crops for sure and maybe all they own. Might lose their places too. Your Uncle George and his family barely got out in time. Every scrap of cotton they had planted washed away.”

“Think he’ll lose his place?” Grady asked.

“Doubt it. I imagine he’s prepared for one bad crop. We’ll help him if we can.” He tried not to sound as concerned as he was.

“What should we do?” Morris Bailey asked.

“Try to get our crop in. We’re not likely to see that kind of water here. At least I pray not.”

“I suppose with all the lost crops, cotton prices will be up,” Grady noted.

“Suppose so. One man’s loss, as the saying goes.”

He stared out the window again at the overcast sky. There was no threat of imminent rain. It was simply a uniform, featureless gray layer of clouds. He lifted his cup and took a sip of coffee. It was tepid, but he didn’t care.

“Surely do wish this overcast would blow over. A little sunshine would be good. Lift our spirits and maybe start drying up this standing water,” he said.

“Guess we’re lucky being far enough away from Cassidy Bayou,” Grady said. “Water’s up to the bridge in Sumner and folks on the east side are flooded out.”

“All those people. Where will they stay? What will they eat?” Morris Bailey said.

“From what I hear and read, Herbert Hoover seems to be visiting all up and down the river. The government’s working to set up relief stations and such,” he said.

“Why him, I wonder,” Grady said. “He’s in the Cabinet, right?”

“He is,’ Henry answered. “Commerce Secretary. Seems to know what he’s doing though. More than Coolidge, anyway. The big question, is who’s going to pay for it all.”

Grady snorted and stared out the window.

“A letter got through from Sadie while y’all were away. Greenville’s mostly under water, but she’s safe at the hospital. Even the student nurses are helping tend to folks. She said reports were that the River was as much as 60 miles wide down in Louisiana.”

Both of his sons’ eyes went wide.

“Hard to imagine isn’t it? That much water. It rains in Montana and floods in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana,” Grady finally said.

Greenville_27_Flood

Greenville, 1927

“I certainly is,” he replied. “I don’t suppose anybody’s ever had to face anything quite this bad. All that water just has to soak in, run off, or evaporate. Cain’t much more soak in or we’ll be back to swamp, and it’s a long way down to the Gulf of Mexico. It’ll take time.”

“Too much time for a lot of folks,” Grady added.

He nodded, resigned to what he could not change but determined to do what he could, take care of his own and whoever else he could help, get a crop in. Someway. Somehow. Still, part of him wanted to roar in rage at the injustice, rail at God Himself for this disaster, but he knew that was senseless. Besides, he might question God and His plans, but he could never blame God. Not the way his life had been blessed. He shook his head to clear his mind.

“Tell you what, Boys. I want one of you to take the truck and head down towards Onward. You’re bound to run into George and his family. Help then any way you can and bring them here.”

Morris Bailey chimed up first. “I’d like to do that, Father,” he said.

“Very well, Son,” he said not surprised at all. Having something special to do might be just the thing. “Fill up the truck and a couple of cans. Gasoline may be hard to come by. Leave this morning. Tractor repair can wait.”

“Guess we better get to it,” Grady said and swatted his brother on the shoulder as they both rose to leave.

He watched the two of them as they walked down the hallway, settling hats on their heads and talking, the easy give and take of brothers, Morris Bailey asking Grady to help him gas up the truck and Grady agreeing. It had been the same with him and his brothers, particularly Swint, that special comradery you had with flesh and blood, someone you had known your entire life. He winced at that thought of Swint. He had been dead now, what, 13 years? Had it really been that long.

He turned to stare out the window. The sky looked sullen, the rising sun a diffuse smear of light in the overcast, but he saw none of it. Instead his mind wandered over other fields in other days, days long gone, just like Swint was gone. Long gone. And now this new undreamed-of threat to all he and Minnie, and now the children, had built and accomplished. He did not hear Minnie enter the room behind him.

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INTO THE DELTA-Chapter 12: September, 1925-Lucille

SEPTEMBER, 1925

 

LUCILLE

Lucille stared at the tiny, red, wrinkled face of her new brother. She had just turned five back in July and was feeling like a real big sister now that she had two younger brothers, Dick, only two, and now James. She tucked the soft blanket back under his chin and looked up at her mother.

Momma was stretched out on her bed. He long brown hair was loose on her pillow. She looked tired.

“Momma, what shall we call him?” she asked.

“I think with a name like James Ralph, we’ll call him Jim,” Momma said.

“Jim,” She said softly. “I like that.”

Maurice came into the room and leaned over the other side of the bed.

“He looks just like Dick did when he was born,” Maurice said.

Lucille could barely remember when Dick had been born. She had only been two, but now she was five.

“Momma?” she asked. “Can I help you take care of Baby Jim? Like Maurice helped with Dick?”

Mother smiled at her and reached out to touch her cheek. Momma’s fingertips felt warm.

“Of course, you may,” Momma said. “There will be plenty for both of you to help with. Would you like to hold him?

“Oh, yes, Ma’am,” she answered.

“Climb up here beside me,” Mother said.

She kicked off her shoes and climbed up, then leaned back against the headboard and smoothed her dress out across her lap. Mother gently laid the baby in her lap.

“Put your arms around him and don’t let his little head dangle,” Mother said.

She was excited and a little scared at the same time. Excited to hold her baby brother, but afraid she might do something wrong and hurt him. He smelled funny. It tickled her nose, but she liked the way he smelled.

“Do all babies look like this, Momma?” she asked.

Mother laughed. “Pretty much,” she answered.

She stared at Baby Jim. He opened his eyes just barely and she smiled at him. Then his mouth opened wide. He had no teeth, just a wet, red circle. Suddenly he let out a wail and his red face got even redder. Her eyes flew open and she looked at Mother, startled and unsure of what she had done. She had only smiled at him. She was afraid she would cry.

Mother patted her on the arm and smiled.

“it’s alright, Child,” she said. “You didn’t do a thing. He is only hungry. He hasn’t eaten yet.”

She sighed, glad that Mother would take care of things. She always took care of things.

“I’ll take him,” Mother said, and she did. As soon as he started nursing, he quit crying.

There was a heavy crash from the back of the house that startled them all except Baby Jim.

“Maurice, run see what Dick has gotten into, please,” Mother said.

Maurice ran from the room, squeezing by Father as he came in. He leaned over and kissed Mother, then cupped Baby Jim’s head in his big hand. He turned to look at her.

“Are you helping your mother with the new baby?” he asked.

“Yessir,” she answered. “Momma let me hold him. But he cried.”

Father laughed. “Babies do that a lot when they’re little. You did too.”

Father eased himself into the rocker beside the bed and patted his knee. She knew what that meant and crawled into his lap. He had been in the fields all morning and smelled like sweat and tobacco smoke. She liked the smell and laid her head back on his chest as he wrapped his arm around her and held her close.

She tilted her head back to look up at Father and said, “I’m so glad we have a baby that I can help Momma with.”

“I am too,” said Father.

Maurice came back leading Dick by the hand. He clutched a piece of cornbread in his free hand. There were crumbs on his face and on his romper.

“Dick was trying to get to the cornbread Iola had put out for dinner,” Maurice said.

“Looks like he made it, too,” Father smiled. “Dick, are you being a good boy? he asked.

Her little brother started to nod ‘Yes’ but then shook his head ‘No’.

“No, I guess not,” Father said. “Come over hear and let me have a bite of that cornbread.”

It didn’t look like Dick wanted to share, but he obeyed Father. They all did.

Father took a little bite and said, “Mmmm, come on, young ‘un. Let’s go wash up for dinner.”

She hopped off Father’s lap. He kissed Mother again, then took Dick by the hand and led him off to the washbasin on the back porch. They looked funny walking side-by-side.

“Winnie Maurice,” he called, “If Iola has dinner ready, you can ring the bell.”

Maurice ran form the room, calling for Iola. It was just the three of them.

“I think he is just about finished,” Momma said. “Now I am going to show you something that you can help me with, maybe the next time. Now watch closely.”

She climbed back up on the bed. She was excited because it seemed like Momma was sharing a secret just between the two of them.

“Hand me that cloth, Dear.”

She handed Momma a clean, folded cloth from the stack beside the bed, and Momma draped it over her shoulder. Then Momma held Baby Jim up to her shoulder with one arm and stated patting him on the back with her other hand.

“Can you pat Baby Jim like this?” Momma asked.

She scooted closer and began to pat her baby brother’s back, just like Momma had been doing. He didn’t seem to mind at all. She looked up at Momma.

“Keep going,” Momma said. “Maybe just a little bit harder.”

Suddenly Baby Jim burped. It surprised her and made her laugh. She looked at Mother.

“Why did he do that?”

“Babies nurse so fast that they swallow air too. If you don’t burp them, it makes them feel bad and they cry,” Momma said. “The next time I will let you hold him and burp him. That will be a big help. Will you do that?”

“Oh, yes, Ma’am, I will.”

“Good. No run clean up for dinner. I hear Maurice ringing the bell.”

She skipped out of the room so excited to be helping with the baby that she even forgot her shoes.

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