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.
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.”
“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.
Convicts & tracking dogs, Parchman Farm