Henry held up his right arm to alert his younger son, then pulled his team to a halt on the wide metal bridge. Behind him Morris Bailey called out, “Whoa, mules” and drew up his own team. The boy was doing a fine job, maybe better than he expected. Grady, responsible Grady, Sadie tagging along, had been up and out with Morris Bailey and him well before dawn as they checked on the condition of the teams and the wagons. He knew Minnie and the girls were in good hands with Grady.
Henry pulled out his fixings and rolled a cigarette. He snapped the head of a match with his thumbnail, cupped the warm, yellow flame, and lit his cigarette. He released a plume of blue smoke and simply stared around him. It was cold. Not as cold as yesterday morning, but cold.
The lightening of the sky to the east gave the promise of a clear day, and although the sun had yet to come up, its rays were painting the horizon with a thin, vivid streak of red, so unlike the hilly country they had left behind. He looked forward to the sunshine; its warmth would be welcome.
The Yazoo River seethed below them. In the pale light, it was a wide, murky, brown ribbon stretching to the right and to the left before fading in the pre-dawn gloom. Although they had actually been in the Delta since rolling down that last, long hill west of Carrollton yesterday, the river felt like the true dividing line. It separated the hills from the Delta, the known from the unknown, their old life from their new one.
For nearly 15 years he had farmed leased land, sold and delivered trees for Stark Brothers Nurseries, and saved every penny that he could. Minnie had sold her extra eggs, butter, and milk too, both of them dreaming against the day when they could own their own place, a place large enough for their growing family. That’s what it was. Dreaming against the day.
Then Father’s old friend from the war, Henry Ferguson, who he had been named after, had passed away. Mother and Father had attended the funeral; he had come with them, brought them actually. He could vividly remember the first time he had seen the place at Friendship, acres and acres of cotton and hay thriving in the deep, rich black soil divided by irregular verges of tree and thicket and cut by lazy, meandering bayous. He had been drawn to it immediately and had been surprised to learn that none of the Ferguson heirs wanted to farm the land. They had decided to sell the entire place.
He had returned and met with the Fergusons about buying the place. Despite the difference in their ages, he and William had become friends. Soon they had negotiated the price and agreed to terms. In the bright comfort of McLemore’s law office, the enormity of it had begun to sink in when he had handed over the bank draft for his down payment. One piece of paper that represented all he and Minnie had worked for since they had married.
When he had signed that last of the paperwork and had become a landowner. No more leased land now. He was a landowner or would be when he paid it off. He had ten years, ten crops, ten good crops he prayed, to pay it off. He exhaled another stream of smoke and stared again at the river.
Once they crossed the river, they would be committed, he and his family. He had crossed this bridge, this river, several times in the last few months, usually on horseback, alone, although Grady had come with him once. But each time he had crossed the Yazoo, he had known he would be returning in a few days. This time? Well, he had no idea when he might return to Choctaw County, to practically everyone he knew, his own large family, his parents and his brothers who were still in the area, plus aunts, uncles, and cousins, and of course, Minnie’s father and sister and her family. Sometimes he thought he was kin to everybody in that part of Choctaw county, and through either marriage or blood he just about was: the Woods, the Lees, the Turners, the Porters, the Blackwoods. All kin.
And they were leaving all that behind. His excitement, his anticipation shouldered aside, at least for the time being, his sense of loss. A phrase popped into his mind, unbidden and unexpected: Crossing the Rubicon. He struggled to remember where he had heard that before. Some old saying? Something he had learned in school? It lurked there in the back of his mind, but try as he might, he could not tease it out.
He shrugged. It would come to him. Or not. He had smoked his cigarette to a nub. He broke up the remnants. In the still morning air they fluttered down to surface of the bridge. He raised his right arm and swept it forward., then clucked up his team, slapping their brown rumps with the flat of the reins. He heard Morris Bailey behind him call out, “Giddup, Mules.”
Then, just as unbidden it bubbled up. Of course, Julius Caesar leading his army across the Rubicon River and into Rome and starting a war. The Rubicon had been Caesar’s point of no return as the Roman army was forbidden to cross into the Roman province. Well, we’re not breaking the law or starting a civil wage war like old Julius Caesar, but I guess this is our point of no return, Henry thought.
He smiled to himself. No wonder it had taken so long to remember. He was 35 years old and those lessons had been what? Twenty something years ago? Maybe 25? Way back in his school days, back in Choctaw County.
Both mule teams leaned into their harnesses, and with a lurch, both wagons with all their earthly possessions rattled across the bridge and into the Delta.