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.