Category Archives: America

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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Filed under America, Backpacking, Canyon, Canyonlands, Hiking, Uncategorized, Utah

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 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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INTO THE DELTA-Chapter 11: August, 1922-Henry

AUGUST, 1922

 

HENRY

Henry rested his hands on the pommel and sat easily in the saddle. The mare stretched her neck and nibbled at the grass in this shady spot at the edge of the field. The day was hot and muggy, the air dense and heavy. He stared out across the field, orderly rows of laid-by cotton, tall, much taller than it grew back in Choctaw County, foliage so thick that weeds couldn’t get enough sun to grow.

A single tree stood sentinel in the middle of the field, a refuge of shade for both man and beast in the vast sun-drenched expanse. It was a Delta custom that Henry had come to appreciate, the fields here being immense compared to those back in Choctaw County. The rattle of trace chains, faint and distant, fell on his ears. Far across the field, two farmhands, their wagon and mule team dancing in the heat waves radiating off the dark green leaves, eased along a turnrow. He had lived here for over a year now and was still amazed at how far sound traveled across the flat land.

“Hee yupp,” he called. A second or so later the barely distinct sound of his own echoed voice drifted back across the fields from the distant wall of dense woods. The two hands looked up and reined in their team. I was A.J. and Roosevelt, out checking the cotton houses scattered across Friendship, cleaning them out, cutting back weeds, knocking down wasp and dirt dauber nests, replacing broken boards and missing sheets of roofing tin. The picked cotton stored in them needed to be kept dry until they could get it to the gin in Sumner.

He waved, clearly not beckoning, but only in greeting. Both men waved back, clucked up their team, and continued their plodding mules’ pace toward the next cotton house. Other hands in other fields were performing the same essential chore. He would check on them this afternoon. It was a lot of acreage to cover on horseback.

Cottonhouse

Delta cotton house

He looked again at the thick verdure before him. High cotton, indeed. The dense growth reached as high as the mare’s withers, 15 hands, five feet. The blossoms had fallen from the cotton plants, the bolls were heavy and bulging, the ones near the bottom beginning to split open, hints of the vast harvest to come. He smiled with contentment. Nothing to do now but wait. Picking would start soon enough, and the cotton houses would be ready.

Behind him to the west low, dark clouds approached, remorseless and inevitable, like a marching army. He sensed it would rain soon, maybe within the next hour or less. A little rain would be fine but not too much.

The mare cocked her ears around even before he heard the clopping of an approaching horse. He lay the reins to the side of her arched neck to pull her head around, and she nickered to her stablemate, Dixie, pulling Father’s buggy.

“Afternoon, Father,” he said.

“Henry,” his father replied with a nod.

His father pulled up the buggy beside him. He was beginning to look a little frail, something in the set of his shoulders, but then, he must be, what, 74 by now. Still had to get out and check on the crops though. At least he had given up riding horseback for the buggy.

“Looks like another fine crop, Son.”

Cotton_Field

Cotton field at Friendship, first blooms

Father was shielding his eyes and craning his neck to peer out across the fields alive with heat shimmer and dragon flies skimming over the dark green surface.

“This will make, what, three good crops in a row?”

Henry tilted back his hat and wiped sweat from his brow.

“Yessir, it will. If the weather holds and we can get it all out and to the gin. And then get a good price. Plenty still could go wrong.”

“You’re a wonder, Son,” the older man chortled. “You are a good farmer and you know it, one of the best I have ever known, and not just raising a crop. You’re managing a place, what? Ten times larger than anything you had managed before. That’s good work.”

Henry felt a strange mixture of pride and embarrassment. He was thirty-eight years old, married, the father of seven now that Dick had been born, another son after four daughters. He had been farming on his own for nearly twenty years, and still his father’s praise affected him in ways he could not quite articulate.

“This move to the Delta was a risk, a mighty big risk, but you’ve made it pay,” his father added. “This farmland is so rich. Your brother George down in Onward is doing well, but not nearly so well as you are, Son.”

“We’ve been blessed, Father, particularly that crop in ’19. Not only was it good but cotton prices, over 35 cents a pound!”

His father nodded. “Yes, but they fell the next year. Always happens.”

The mare shifted her footing under him and he shifted his seat. He gripped the cantle with his right hand and twisted his upper body one way and then the other, easing the stiffness in his lower back. Settling back in his seat, he pulled his fixings from his shirt pocket.

“They did, but they’re coming back. Besides I put every spare penny back. Just in case,” he said. Henry snapped the match with his thumbnail and lit the cigarette that he had been absent-mindedly rolling.

Father chuckled, leaned, and spat a stream of tobacco juice into the dusty turnrow. Then he pulled a handkerchief from this pants pocket and wiped his mustaches.

“I’m sure you did,” he said. “I’m sure you did. You did buy that Ford truck though.”

“Yessir, I did,” he nodded.

“But here you sit on horseback.”

“The truck is good for hauling supplies from town or around the place, but I still like the way land looks from horseback. Maybe it’s just habit, I don’t know, but the land looks flatter driving over it, but if you ride it, or walk it, you see the texture, subtle though it is.”

He blew a plume of smoke that hung suspended before a freshening breeze carried it a way. The wall of cloud, and no doubt rain, was getting closer.

“The sloughs and bayous are obvious enough,” he continued, “but there are other low spots and contours. Just like back in Choctaw County, you plow with the lay of the land. That’s how you taught me.”

Henry finished his smoke, broke up the last few shreds of tobacco and paper and let them fall to the ground. “Let’s head down toward Blue Lake and see how Grady and Morris Bailey are doing. I gave them 30 acres down there to work together.”

“Let’s,” Father said and clucked up his horse. “Suppose you’re glad to have another son to raise and teach to farm.”

“Yessir, I’ll admit I am.”

Henry knew he was grinning like a possum eating muscadines in the moonlight. Didn’t care.

“Yes, I am,” he continued. “I think Grady may take to farming, but it’s hard to say with Morris Bailey. He seems, he seems to have different interests.”

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Son.”

He leaned forward in the saddle to better see his father under the roof of the buggy. Father’s face bobbed into and out of sight as the mare clopped along.

Father stroked his white beard with his free hand and grinned up at him. “Everybody can’t be a farmer, else who’d make and sell buggies.”

“Reckon not,” he said, straightening up.

Father reined up the buggy and Henry pulled up his mare.

“How old is Morris Bailey now,” Father asked.

Henry thought for a moment. “He was born in ’07. He’s fifteen.”

“Did you know you would be a farmer when you were his age?” Father asked.

He paused again and finally said, “Honestly, I don’t suppose I ever really thought about it. It just happened.”

“True. You became a farmer. Just like I was. George, too, but what about Bob or Burton or Aubrey? They may have farmed a little, but they all went on to other things, barbering, selling, and such. Why’d you stick with farming?”

He sat and simply stared across the flat surface of green, flat like the ocean he imagined but had yet to see. Maybe just flat like a lake. Finally, he spoke. “Now that I think about it, the first time you gave me a few acres to make my own crop, must’ve been ’98. Just five acres. There was something about seeing that first crop, my first crop, sprout and grow and bloom.”

The mare shifted under him. She sometimes got restless, but she was a sensitive horse too. Maybe she sensed he was struggling to express himself.

“I had seen it all my life, crops come in, but it was different when it was my own. I felt … proud. It was hard work but satisfying, the planting, the chopping, the picking. When we ginned that cotton and I made my first money. Well, I guess that’s when I knew.”

He turned to look at his father. “And, Father, here, this land. It’s so fertile. So rich. And there is something about cotton. It’s not like wheat, corn, or grain that you can just about plant and forget, at least in the Delta. Cotton takes tending, fertilizing, chopping, and weeding and enough rain, but not too much, and lots and lots of sunshine and trying not to worry about things you can’t control.”

The words tumbled out in such a torrent that he almost felt embarrassed even if it was in front of his father. He took a deep breath.

“Maybe that’s it, Father, all that effort, day in and day out, that makes it so special, makes the reward so great, makes it taste so sweet.”

“Why, Henry, I believe you’ve developed a poetical streak,” Father said, and he did blush this time.

“That’s not a bad thing, Son, to feel strongly and dare express it. I have felt the same way. I feel that way about my roses even now. But not everyone feels that.”

“Yessir, I know. And Morris Bailey may not feel that way.”

“Morris Bailey’s a fine-looking boy with a good head on his shoulders. And he gets along with everyone. But you’re right, he may not be a farmer. It may not happen for him. Will you be disappointed?”

“I don’t think so, long as he does well.”

“By the way, I haven’t told you how much it meant to me, naming the baby after me. Richard Newton Catledge.” Father said the last slowly, then added. “Sounds mighty fine.”

“Hoped you would,” he replied and added, “Shall we head on down towards Blue Lake?”

“Let’s,” Father said and slapped his reins on his horse’s rump. “Giddup.”

They moved along easily down the turnrow side by side. Small birds, sparrows and finches mostly, the occasional red-winged blackbird, darted in and out of the verge on their right. He felt, then looked over his shoulder and saw the approaching line of clouds, thick, dark, and moving fast now, angled streaks of rain clearly visible between the cloud and horizon. He turned in the saddle and calculated. It would be on them quickly and probably move on through quickly too. Still.

He turned back around as the first fat drops plopped into the dust in the turnrow around them, kicking up dust but being absorbed so quickly as to leave no trace of moisture. That would change when the storm really hit. He looked down at his father.

“I think I’ll ride on. I’d as soon as not get wet,” he said.

“I’ll be along,” Father replied from under the buggy’s canvas roof.

Henry lifted both heels to the mare’s flanks, just a nudge, and she was off, all restless energy gone, converted directly into her love to run.

From a distance, Henry could see the Grady urging his team pulling the wagon toward the shed built onto the side of the cotton house. This part of the place was so far from the Lot that he had built extra sheds to protect equipment they might want to leave out in the fields. Two cotton wagons were already stored there.

Grady had seen them coming and pulled the wagon up under the outside edge leaving them the dryer place between his wagon and the two cotton wagons. He rode directly under the tin-roofed shed and into the cleared space just as the rain hit hard. Father was right behind him. It was crowded under the shed, but they were all four out of the weather, their animals too.

“Hello, Father, Grandfather,” Grady said from the buckboard seat, all business and responsibility.

“Hello, Daddy, Grandpaw,” Morris Bailey chimed in over the drumming of rain on the roof.

The wagonbed was filled with supplies, sheets of corrugated tin, lumber, a keg of nails, and the toolbox, that had been hastily piled in the bed of the wagon. The boy was sprawled comfortably among the gear, his wavy hair tousled and  a large grin splitting his face. Henry couldn’t help but smile back.

An occasional gust of wind drove spatters of rain under the roof and onto the four of them. The breeze was cooling, but the air was still hot and even muggier now. And it would be worse once the rain moved through and the sun came back out to bake the rain puddles right back into the air. At least some of it might soak in.

He reached over his shoulder and lifted his clammy shirt from his back and listened to Morris Bailey, always quick to start a conversation, chatting away with his father and thought, Father is right, that boy may never be a farmer, but I wager, he’ll be good at something.

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INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 8, April, 1920-Lige

April, 1920

LIGE

“What do you think, Grandpaw?” Grady asked.

Lige had to admit that it looked good. The land they had driven through was obviously rich. Every building on the farm that they had passed was in good repair. Vast expanses of open fields were dotted with farmhands, both colored and white, handling plows behind teams of mules. They looked tiny, antlike in the flat distance so different from the hill country in Choctaw County.

Catledge

Becky & Lige (far right) with four of their eight sons & one daughter-in-law, Choctaw County, Mississippi

They bounced up to the house that would be their new home, right across the small, slow slough from the house Henry had built for his growing family. The warm, afternoon sun filtered down through the branches of oak trees just beginning to drop their tassels revealing the promise of thick foliage to provide shade come the heat of summer.

“Mighty fine,” he nodded.

He turned to look into the backseat. “What do you think, Becky?”

“It certainly is flat,” his wife, almost as old as he, replied. “But I like it. Looks like a good house.”

He stroked the long, white whiskers on his chin. He would be 72 this year and he was feeling his age. Or maybe it was just the long trip on the rough road, but he felt stiff.

As they pulled to a stop in front of Henry and Minnie’s house, Minnie came out of the front door and waved. She didn’t look very pregnant yet, but he knew she was from her letters. She is carrying the first Catledge that would be born in the Delta, he mused.

As they climbed from the car, the girls spilled out on the porch behind their mother: Sadie, Willye, and Maurice. They must be what? Ten, eight, and five, he thought. They were growing so fast. Grady and Morris Bailey too.

He and Becky brushed themselves off and climbed the stairs to the porch. There were warm embraces and kisses all around. Sadie was all grins and hugs, Willye, too. Maurice’s shyness amused him.

“Maurice,” Minnie admonished, “Have you forgotten your grandparents already? And your manners?”

His granddaughter’s wary embrace warmed when he fished a stick of peppermint from his pocket and held it out to her. She cast her dark eyes up at Minnie who nodded. She took it eagerly and popped it into her mouth, uttering a barely audible ‘Thank you’ around the red-and-white-striped stick.

He produced two more sticks, one for Sadie and Willye each and received a ‘Thank you’ and warm hug again from each.

“Mother, may I ring the bell for Father?” Sadie asked, then turned and smiled up at him. “He wanted to know the moment you arrived.”

“Yes, Dear, you may. One ring only,” Minnie replied.

The young girl dashed around the house to the bell tower in the backyard, her dress aswirl, her candy clenched tightly in her fist lest she lose it.

“Come in, come in,” Minnie said. “There’s coffee on the stove.”

He took Becky’s arm and they mounted the steps. As they crossed the deep porch, he turned at the sound of the truck to see Morris Bailey pulling up to the other house with their belongings. A single peal of the bell rolled across the flat fields and echoed ever so faintly off the dense wall of the distant forest like an answer from far away.

Minnie stood in the door. “The boys will start unloading. Come in and rest for a moment, then you can tell them where you want everything.”

“Go on in, Dear. I’ll be there in a minute,” he said and released her arm. He turned at the edge of the porch and looked across the far fields. He breathed deeply. Even the air was different here. You could feel it as well as smell it. It was rich, moist, fecund. He had seen many springs, many renewals, witnessed the eruption of new life time and time again, but this place was different.

“I swear,” he said under his breathe. “I never thought I’d see the like.”

Single_Tree

Delta cotton field ready to plant

He turned and entered the house. He liked it immediately. He walked down the central gallery flanked by the parlor and dining room, office and bedroom. A flight of stairs led to the children’s rooms upstairs. The kitchen was in the back and radiated warmth from the large stove.

Minnie and Becky were seated at the kitchen table with steaming cups before them and the coffee pot on a trivet in the middle of the table, a table just large enough to seat the family. He took a seat before an empty cup which Minnie immediately filled from the pot.

“Thank you, Dear,” he said and added a bit of cream and ladled sugar into his coffee and stirred. Blowing across the raised cup, he took a sip and felt warmth seep into his body. It felt good in the kitchen. The hot, sweet, creamy coffee, the gentle patter of conversation, and the heat from the stove proved too much, and his chin dropped to his chest.

He was roused from his reverie by a familiar tread on the back porch and the thumping of Henry stomping his boots off. The kitchen door swung open, cool air blew in, and there stood his son, face ruddy from the cold and wind, a smile on his face. Another, older man stood behind him, William Ferguson.

“Hello, Mother,” Henry said and took Becky’s hands to help her to her feet, then embraced and kissed her.

He placed his hands and the table to lever himself up. No sooner was he standing than Henry wrapped his arms around him and gave him a kiss too.

“Father,” Henry said, “It is so good to have y’all here.”

Henry turned to his guest. “Mother, Father, you remember William Ferguson,” he said.

William nodded and shook each of their hands. “Mrs. Catledge, Mrs. Catledge, it is so good to see you again. And under more pleasant circumstances. Welcome to Friendship.”

Of course, Lige thought, the last time we saw him was at his father’s funeral. What? Three years ago now? He looks so much like my old friend.

“Let me get you a cup of coffee, Mr. Ferguson,” Minnie offered.

“No thank you, Minnie. I can’t stay. Besides,” Ferguson smiled, “I’m sure it’s been a long trip and y’all have a lot of catching up to do. I’ll be back later for a proper visit. I’ll bring Cora, too.”

Ferguson opened the kitchen door to leave and in burst Morris Bailey.

“Excuse me, Mr. Ferguson,” the boy said. “Grandmaw, Grandpaw, we got everything unloaded but don’t know where to put it all.”

“I’ll be right there, Child,” Becky said and went to get her wrap.

He settled back into his chair. Henry filled a cup and joined him. Minnie went on with preparations for supper. The familiar smell of baking cornbread filled the room. His granddaughters bounced in and out of the kitchen, helping with chores, laughing as they went.

“Well, Father, what do you think?” Henry asked.

He took another sip of his coffee.

“It looks like quite a place, Son. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of it.”

“Of course, plenty of time for that. It was late December before we got all the cotton out of the fields. As you no doubt saw, we’re plowing now, running middle-busters, getting ready to plant. We’ll ride over it tomorrow.”

“Heard you had a good crop.”

Henry sat and simply stirred his coffee. His son’s gaze was faraway, like he was looking right through the walls and seeing the fields beyond them.

“Yessir, we did. Very good. And cotton prices were sky-high. I’ve never seen the like.”

It won’t last, he thought but did not say. Henry knew that. Needed no reminding from him.

Henry’s gaze shifted to him and focused.

“Wont last, though,” Henry said. “Good time to put all we can away.”

Lige smiled to himself and nodded.

“Good plan,” he added.

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INTO THE DELTA-Chapter 7: Minnie

Minnie

Their car bumped over the last bit of dusty road, and their new home came into view. A thin column of smoke rose from the back of the house then disappeared into the bare branches of the oak tree in the back yard.

“There it is, Mother, just beyond the trees,” Grady said.

The house was larger than the one they had left, the one that Henry had built for them in 1905, the year they married, but only just. It would do. She knew Henry already had plans to build them a larger house. As they rounded the curve, she could see the site he surely had chosen. Just across the slough from the existing house there was an ideal spot with large oaks for shade in the summer.

The house Henry built in 1905

The half-empty wagons stood alongside the front porch and the front door stood wide open. Furniture was arrayed across the porch. Ragged blankets that had been used in packing were piled in one corner. Henry and Morris Bailey must have heard the car for they immediately stepped through the front door and wazed.

“We’re home. We’re home,” the three girls bounced up and down on the backseat.

“Settle down, girls,” she admonished. Even as she admitted she was glad they had finally arrived.

Grady braked to a stop in front of the house, and Henry ran down and opened her door.

“Welcome home, Mother,” he embraced her and lifter her down. It reminded her just how strong he was. Then kissed her and she remembered how gentle he could be.

“We had hoped to be through with the unloading before you arrived but had a little trouble with a wagon wheel. Got here later than we had hoped. Still it is clean and habitable.”

The girls spilled out behind her and ran babbling up the steps and right by a bemused Morris Bailey and into the house.

“I am sure it will be fine,” she smiled up at her husband.

Morris Bailey trotted down the steps and gave her a hug and a kiss.

“How do you like it, Mother?” he asked.

“I think it is wonderful,” she replied even though she knew it would be crowded.

Grady came around the car and Henry took their son’s right hand.

“Good job, Son,” he said before wrapping his left arm around him and pulling the boy close.

Grady swelled with pride and seemed to stand a little taller. He even smiled slightly. That young man will never admit how much his father’s praise means to him, she thought.

“Come on, Grady,” Morris Bailey implored. “Let me show you our room.”

“Go on,” Henry said. “We can get back to unloading in a few minutes. I want to show your mother something.”

They walked together to the slough and crossed on the obviously new footbridge over the small stream of murky water, water that barely moved. They stopped in the widest open spot among the oak trees. Like just about everywhere else it was flat. Henry swung his arm wide.

“Will this do for a new home?” he asked.

She turned all about in the cool, afternoon sunshine. There was a decent sized pasture around the back and side of the existing house, plenty of room for her milkcows, and a sturdy barn at the far end. Stables stood right across the road, and she could make out the mule barn and lots in the distance. Everything else was fallow fields, row upon row of mounded black earth and gray stubble, divided  by the occasional strip of dull green hedges and bare trees, the verges that separated field from field. A green field of winter hay shown out starkly in the distance.

“It’s, it’s so different from back home,” she whispered. “One can see so far.”

“Yes, yes, it is,” Henry answered. “And it is large, large enough for our family to grow, and with the blessing, large enough to leave something for our children, maybe even our children’s children.”

“it does not seem real, not yet,” she said.

Henry dug his heel into the ground, reached down, and lifted a handful of moist, black earth.

“This is real. It is rich, deep topsoil, perfect for cotton, and we are going to grow a lot of it.”

He let the soil spill through his fingers, then brushed his hand off on his trousers.

He was excited, excited enough to leave home and move across the state and take on a huge task. She was excited too. She thought but did not say: you build the farm; I will build a home and family.

“Wool gathering,” he asked.

“A little,” she replied.

He pulled her close and whispered, “It’s a gamble, I know, but we’ll make it.”

She looked up at him and said, “I’m sure we will.”

“If you agree, I would like to build our house right here, facing west, like our home back in Choctaw County.”

She smiled and nodded. She had always liked the morning sun spilling in their bedroom window.

He squeezed her tight and added, “You plan it out and I will get it built.”

Arm in arm, they returned across the slough to the house. Henry nodded towards the wagons. Grady was already helping Morris Bailey unload. All three girls darted in and out of the door, squealing with delight.

“Morris Bailey and I got most of the furniture in and set up in place,” Henry said. “Your canning is all stored in the pantry or wellhouse. Just a little more to bring in.”

He smiled down at her.

“Got a warm pot of coffee on, too.”

Her mind was already running to what to do for supper, wondering if Henry had thought of that at all. Surely he had. He and Morris Bailey must have been eating something.

She heard a car horn from the road and turned to see a black sedan bouncing along the dirt road, trailing a slowly settling cloud of dust. We must plant a hedge to keep road dust out of the yard and house, she thought.

“Looks like Mr. Ferguson,” Henry said.

“Oh, I wish I Looked more presentable,” she said and began tucking stray strands of hair behind her ears or under her hat and knocking travel dust from her coat.

“You look fine,” Henry said and squeezed her hand.

The car rolled to a stop, and a man stepped out and waved.

“Welcome to Friendship,” he called.

He was a little shorter than Henry and older, but neat and trim, if dusty. A woman got out from the passenger side and she waved too.

“Minnie,” Henry said. “Let me introduce Mr. William Ferguson and his wife, Cora.”

She held her hand out to Mr. Ferguson who took it gently.

“Delighted to meet you at last,” he smiled. “Welcome to your new home.”

“Thank you so much. It is a pleasure,” she replied.

Mrs. Ferguson grasped both her hands in hers and pulled her close. The faint odor of perfume tickled her nose.

“Welcome to Friendship, Dear,” the older woman whispered. “I do hope you’ll like it here.”

“I’m sure I shall,” she replied. “May I offer you a cup of coffee?”

They turned and Mrs. Ferguson laced her arm through hers and they walked arm in arm towards the house, their husbands following. Cora Ferguson paused as all three girls came spilling out the front door and stopped abruptly on the porch. All three curtsied as they were introduced.

“Let me get this straight,” she said. “This is Sadie, Willye, and Maurice.”

She nodded to each girl respectively, then leaned down and whispered in a conspiratorial manner, “Girls, please look in the back seat of our car and tell me what you find.”

All three girls dashed down the steps and ran to the car.

Sadie got there first, peered into the back window, and spun around.

“Two baskets,” she said.

“Would you bring them in, please?” Mrs. Ferguson asked.

She patted Minnie on the arm and added, “I thought you might appreciate a little help with supper on your first evening in the Delta.”

“You shouldn’t have,” she protested.

“Nonsense. You and your family have been traveling for days. It is little enough.”

Sadie and Willye proceeded them into the house, each carrying a large basket, with Maurice in tow.

Minnie

Their car bumped over the last bit of dusty road, and their new home came into view. A thin column of smoke rose from the back of the house then disappeared into the bare branches of the oak tree in the back yard.

“There it is, Mother, just beyond the trees,” Grady said.

The house was larger than the one they had left, the one that Henry had built for them in 1905, the year they married, but only just. It would do. She knew Henry already had plans to build them a larger house. As they rounded the curve, she could see the site he surely had chosen. Just across the slough from the existing house there was an ideal spot with large oaks for shade in the summer.

The house Henry built in 1905

The half-empty wagons stood alongside the front porch and the front door stood wide open. Furniture was arrayed across the porch. Ragged blankets that had been used in packing were piled in one corner. Henry and Morris Bailey must have heard the car for they immediately stepped through the front door and wazed.

“We’re home. We’re home,” the three girls bounced up and down on the backseat.

“Settle down, girls,” she admonished. Even as she admitted she was glad they had finally arrived.

Grady braked to a stop in front of the house, and Henry ran down and opened her door.

“Welcome home, Mother,” he embraced her and lifter her down. It reminded her just how strong he was. Then kissed her and she remembered how gentle he could be.

“We had hoped to be through with the unloading before you arrived but had a little trouble with a wagon wheel. Got here later than we had hoped. Still it is clean and habitable.”

The girls spilled out behind her and ran babbling up the steps and right by a bemused Morris Bailey and into the house.

“I am sure it will be fine,” she smiled up at her husband.

Morris Bailey trotted down the steps and gave her a hug and a kiss.

“How do you like it, Mother?” he asked.

“I think it is wonderful,” she replied even though she knew it would be crowded.

Grady came around the car and Henry took their son’s right hand.

“Good job, Son,” he said before wrapping his left arm around him and pulling the boy close.

Grady swelled with pride and seemed to stand a little taller. He even smiled slightly. That young man will never admit how much his father’s praise means to him, she thought.

“Come on, Grady,” Morris Bailey implored. “Let me show you our room.”

“Go on,” Henry said. “We can get back to unloading in a few minutes. I want to show your mother something.”

They walked together to the slough and crossed on the obviously new footbridge over the small stream of murky water, water that barely moved. They stopped in the widest open spot among the oak trees. Like just about everywhere else it was flat. Henry swung his arm wide.

“Will this do for a new home?” he asked.

She turned all about in the cool, afternoon sunshine. There was a decent sized pasture around the back and side of the existing house, plenty of room for her milkcows, and a sturdy barn at the far end. Stables stood right across the road, and she could make out the mule barn and lots in the distance. Everything else was fallow fields, row upon row of mounded black earth and gray stubble, divided  by the occasional strip of dull green hedges and bare trees, the verges that separated field from field. A green field of winter hay shown out starkly in the distance.

“It’s, it’s so different from back home,” she whispered. “One can see so far.”

“Yes, yes, it is,” Henry answered. “And it is large, large enough for our family to grow, and with the blessing, large enough to leave something for our children, maybe even our children’s children.”

“it does not seem real, not yet,” she said.

Henry dug his heel into the ground, reached down, and lifted a handful of moist, black earth.

“This is real. It is rich, deep topsoil, perfect for cotton, and we are going to grow a lot of it.”

He let the soil spill through his fingers, then brushed his hand off on his trousers.

He was excited, excited enough to leave home and move across the state and take on a huge task. She was excited too. She thought but did not say: you build the farm; I will build a home and family.

“Wool gathering,” he asked.

“A little,” she replied.

He pulled her close and whispered, “It’s a gamble, I know, but we’ll make it.”

She looked up at him and said, “I’m sure we will.”

“If you agree, I would like to build our house right here, facing west, like our home back in Choctaw County.”

She smiled and nodded. She had always liked the morning sun spilling in their bedroom window.

He squeezed her tight and added, “You plan it out and I will get it built.”

Arm in arm, they returned across the slough to the house. Henry nodded towards the wagons. Grady was already helping Morris Bailey unload. All three girls darted in and out of the door, squealing with delight.

“Morris Bailey and I got most of the furniture in and set up in place,” Henry said. “Your canning is all stored in the pantry or wellhouse. Just a little more to bring in.”

He smiled down at her.

“Got a warm pot of coffee on, too.”

Her mind was already running to what to do for supper, wondering if Henry had thought of that at all. Surely he had. He and Morris Bailey must have been eating something.

She heard a car horn from the road and turned to see a black sedan bouncing along the dirt road, trailing a slowly settling cloud of dust. We must plant a hedge to keep road dust out of the yard and house, she thought.

“Looks like Mr. Ferguson,” Henry said.

“Oh, I wish I Looked more presentable,” she said and began tucking stray strands of hair behind her ears or under her hat and knocking travel dust from her coat.

“You look fine,” Henry said and squeezed her hand.

The car rolled to a stop, and a man stepped out and waved.

“Welcome to Friendship,” he called.

He was a little shorter than Henry and older, but neat and trim, if dusty. A woman got out from the passenger side and she waved too.

“Minnie,” Henry said. “Let me introduce Mr. William Ferguson and his wife, Cora.”

She held her hand out to Mr. Ferguson who took it gently.

“Delighted to meet you at last,” he smiled. “Welcome to your new home.”

“Thank you so much. It is a pleasure,” she replied.

Mrs. Ferguson grasped both her hands in hers and pulled her close. The faint odor of perfume tickled her nose.

“Welcome to Friendship, Dear,” the older woman whispered. “I do hope you’ll like it here.”

“I’m sure I shall,” she replied. “May I offer you a cup of coffee?”

They turned and Mrs. Ferguson laced her arm through hers and they walked arm in arm towards the house, their husbands following. Cora Ferguson paused as all three girls came spilling out the front door and stopped abruptly on the porch. All three curtsied as they were introduced.

“Let me get this straight,” she said. “This is Sadie, Willye, and Maurice.”

She nodded to each girl respectively, then leaned down and whispered in a conspiratorial manner, “Girls, please look in the back seat of our car and tell me what you find.”

All three girls dashed down the steps and ran to the car.

Sadie got there first, peered into the back window, and spun around.

“Two baskets,” she said.

“Would you bring them in, please?” Mrs. Ferguson asked.

She patted Minnie on the arm and added, “I thought you might appreciate a little help with supper on your first evening in the Delta.”

“You shouldn’t have,” she protested.

“Nonsense. You and your family have been traveling for days. It is little enough.”

Sadie and Willye proceeded them into the house, each carrying a large basket, with Maurice in tow.

Minnie

Their car bumped over the last bit of dusty road, and their new home came into view. A thin column of smoke rose from the back of the house then disappeared into the bare branches of the oak tree in the back yard.

“There it is, Mother, just beyond the trees,” Grady said.

The house was larger than the one they had left, the one that Henry had built for them in 1905, the year they married, but only just. It would do. She knew Henry already had plans to build them a larger house. As they rounded the curve, she could see the site he surely had chosen. Just across the slough from the existing house there was an ideal spot with large oaks for shade in the summer.

The house Henry built in 1905

The half-empty wagons stood alongside the front porch and the front door stood wide open. Furniture was arrayed across the porch. Ragged blankets that had been used in packing were piled in one corner. Henry and Morris Bailey must have heard the car for they immediately stepped through the front door and wazed.

“We’re home. We’re home,” the three girls bounced up and down on the backseat.

“Settle down, girls,” she admonished. Even as she admitted she was glad they had finally arrived.

Grady braked to a stop in front of the house, and Henry ran down and opened her door.

“Welcome home, Mother,” he embraced her and lifter her down. It reminded her just how strong he was. Then kissed her and she remembered how gentle he could be.

“We had hoped to be through with the unloading before you arrived but had a little trouble with a wagon wheel. Got here later than we had hoped. Still it is clean and habitable.”

The girls spilled out behind her and ran babbling up the steps and right by a bemused Morris Bailey and into the house.

“I am sure it will be fine,” she smiled up at her husband.

Morris Bailey trotted down the steps and gave her a hug and a kiss.

“How do you like it, Mother?” he asked.

“I think it is wonderful,” she replied even though she knew it would be crowded.

Grady came around the car and Henry took their son’s right hand.

“Good job, Son,” he said before wrapping his left arm around him and pulling the boy close.

Grady swelled with pride and seemed to stand a little taller. He even smiled slightly. That young man will never admit how much his father’s praise means to him, she thought.

“Come on, Grady,” Morris Bailey implored. “Let me show you our room.”

“Go on,” Henry said. “We can get back to unloading in a few minutes. I want to show your mother something.”

They walked together to the slough and crossed on the obviously new footbridge over the small stream of murky water, water that barely moved. They stopped in the widest open spot among the oak trees. Like just about everywhere else it was flat. Henry swung his arm wide.

“Will this do for a new home?” he asked.

She turned all about in the cool, afternoon sunshine. There was a decent sized pasture around the back and side of the existing house, plenty of room for her milkcows, and a sturdy barn at the far end. Stables stood right across the road, and she could make out the mule barn and lots in the distance. Everything else was fallow fields, row upon row of mounded black earth and gray stubble, divided  by the occasional strip of dull green hedges and bare trees, the verges that separated field from field. A green field of winter hay shown out starkly in the distance.

“It’s, it’s so different from back home,” she whispered. “One can see so far.”

“Yes, yes, it is,” Henry answered. “And it is large, large enough for our family to grow, and with the blessing, large enough to leave something for our children, maybe even our children’s children.”

“it does not seem real, not yet,” she said.

Henry dug his heel into the ground, reached down, and lifted a handful of moist, black earth.

“This is real. It is rich, deep topsoil, perfect for cotton, and we are going to grow a lot of it.”

He let the soil spill through his fingers, then brushed his hand off on his trousers.

He was excited, excited enough to leave home and move across the state and take on a huge task. She was excited too. She thought but did not say: you build the farm; I will build a home and family.

“Wool gathering,” he asked.

“A little,” she replied.

He pulled her close and whispered, “It’s a gamble, I know, but we’ll make it.”

She looked up at him and said, “I’m sure we will.”

“If you agree, I would like to build our house right here, facing west, like our home back in Choctaw County.”

She smiled and nodded. She had always liked the morning sun spilling in their bedroom window.

He squeezed her tight and added, “You plan it out and I will get it built.”

Arm in arm, they returned across the slough to the house. Henry nodded towards the wagons. Grady was already helping Morris Bailey unload. All three girls darted in and out of the door, squealing with delight.

“Morris Bailey and I got most of the furniture in and set up in place,” Henry said. “Your canning is all stored in the pantry or wellhouse. Just a little more to bring in.”

He smiled down at her.

“Got a warm pot of coffee on, too.”

Her mind was already running to what to do for supper, wondering if Henry had thought of that at all. Surely he had. He and Morris Bailey must have been eating something.

She heard a car horn from the road and turned to see a black sedan bouncing along the dirt road, trailing a slowly settling cloud of dust. We must plant a hedge to keep road dust out of the yard and house, she thought.

“Looks like Mr. Ferguson,” Henry said.

“Oh, I wish I Looked more presentable,” she said and began tucking stray strands of hair behind her ears or under her hat and knocking travel dust from her coat.

“You look fine,” Henry said and squeezed her hand.

The car rolled to a stop, and a man stepped out and waved.

“Welcome to Friendship,” he called.

He was a little shorter than Henry and older, but neat and trim, if dusty. A woman got out from the passenger side and she waved too.

“Minnie,” Henry said. “Let me introduce Mr. William Ferguson and his wife, Cora.”

She held her hand out to Mr. Ferguson who took it gently.

“Delighted to meet you at last,” he smiled. “Welcome to your new home.”

“Thank you so much. It is a pleasure,” she replied.

Mrs. Ferguson grasped both her hands in hers and pulled her close. The faint odor of perfume tickled her nose.

“Welcome to Friendship, Dear,” the older woman whispered. “I do hope you’ll like it here.”

“I’m sure I shall,” she replied. “May I offer you a cup of coffee?”

They turned and Mrs. Ferguson laced her arm through hers and they walked arm in arm towards the house, their husbands following. Cora Ferguson paused as all three girls came spilling out the front door and stopped abruptly on the porch. All three curtsied as they were introduced.

“Let me get this straight,” she said. “This is Sadie, Willye, and Maurice.”

She nodded to each girl respectively, then leaned down and whispered in a conspiratorial manner, “Girls, please look in the back seat of our car and tell me what you find.”

All three girls dashed down the steps and ran to the car.

Sadie got there first, peered into the back window, and spun around.

“Two baskets,” she said.

“Would you bring them in, please?” Mrs. Ferguson asked.

She patted Minnie on the arm and added, “I thought you might appreciate a little help with supper on your first evening in the Delta.”

“You shouldn’t have,” she protested.

“Nonsense. You and your family have been traveling for days. It is little enough.”

Sadie and Willye proceeded them into the house, each carrying a large basket, with Maurice in tow.

Minnie

Their car bumped over the last bit of dusty road, and their new home came into view. A thin column of smoke rose from the back of the house then disappeared into the bare branches of the oak tree in the back yard.

“There it is, Mother, just beyond the trees,” Grady said.

The house was larger than the one they had left, the one that Henry had built for them in 1905, the year they married, but only just. It would do. She knew Henry already had plans to build them a larger house. As they rounded the curve, she could see the site he surely had chosen. Just across the slough from the existing house there was an ideal spot with large oaks for shade in the summer.

The house Henry built in 1905

The half-empty wagons stood alongside the front porch and the front door stood wide open. Furniture was arrayed across the porch. Ragged blankets that had been used in packing were piled in one corner. Henry and Morris Bailey must have heard the car for they immediately stepped through the front door and wazed.

“We’re home. We’re home,” the three girls bounced up and down on the backseat.

“Settle down, girls,” she admonished. Even as she admitted she was glad they had finally arrived.

Grady braked to a stop in front of the house, and Henry ran down and opened her door.

“Welcome home, Mother,” he embraced her and lifter her down. It reminded her just how strong he was. Then kissed her and she remembered how gentle he could be.

“We had hoped to be through with the unloading before you arrived but had a little trouble with a wagon wheel. Got here later than we had hoped. Still it is clean and habitable.”

The girls spilled out behind her and ran babbling up the steps and right by a bemused Morris Bailey and into the house.

“I am sure it will be fine,” she smiled up at her husband.

Morris Bailey trotted down the steps and gave her a hug and a kiss.

“How do you like it, Mother?” he asked.

“I think it is wonderful,” she replied even though she knew it would be crowded.

Grady came around the car and Henry took their son’s right hand.

“Good job, Son,” he said before wrapping his left arm around him and pulling the boy close.

Grady swelled with pride and seemed to stand a little taller. He even smiled slightly. That young man will never admit how much his father’s praise means to him, she thought.

“Come on, Grady,” Morris Bailey implored. “Let me show you our room.”

“Go on,” Henry said. “We can get back to unloading in a few minutes. I want to show your mother something.”

They walked together to the slough and crossed on the obviously new footbridge over the small stream of murky water, water that barely moved. They stopped in the widest open spot among the oak trees. Like just about everywhere else it was flat. Henry swung his arm wide.

“Will this do for a new home?” he asked.

She turned all about in the cool, afternoon sunshine. There was a decent sized pasture around the back and side of the existing house, plenty of room for her milkcows, and a sturdy barn at the far end. Stables stood right across the road, and she could make out the mule barn and lots in the distance. Everything else was fallow fields, row upon row of mounded black earth and gray stubble, divided  by the occasional strip of dull green hedges and bare trees, the verges that separated field from field. A green field of winter hay shown out starkly in the distance.

“It’s, it’s so different from back home,” she whispered. “One can see so far.”

“Yes, yes, it is,” Henry answered. “And it is large, large enough for our family to grow, and with the blessing, large enough to leave something for our children, maybe even our children’s children.”

“it does not seem real, not yet,” she said.

Henry dug his heel into the ground, reached down, and lifted a handful of moist, black earth.

“This is real. It is rich, deep topsoil, perfect for cotton, and we are going to grow a lot of it.”

He let the soil spill through his fingers, then brushed his hand off on his trousers.

He was excited, excited enough to leave home and move across the state and take on a huge task. She was excited too. She thought but did not say: you build the farm; I will build a home and family.

“Wool gathering,” he asked.

“A little,” she replied.

He pulled her close and whispered, “It’s a gamble, I know, but we’ll make it.”

She looked up at him and said, “I’m sure we will.”

“If you agree, I would like to build our house right here, facing west, like our home back in Choctaw County.”

She smiled and nodded. She had always liked the morning sun spilling in their bedroom window.

He squeezed her tight and added, “You plan it out and I will get it built.”

Arm in arm, they returned across the slough to the house. Henry nodded towards the wagons. Grady was already helping Morris Bailey unload. All three girls darted in and out of the door, squealing with delight.

“Morris Bailey and I got most of the furniture in and set up in place,” Henry said. “Your canning is all stored in the pantry or wellhouse. Just a little more to bring in.”

He smiled down at her.

“Got a warm pot of coffee on, too.”

Her mind was already running to what to do for supper, wondering if Henry had thought of that at all. Surely he had. He and Morris Bailey must have been eating something.

She heard a car horn from the road and turned to see a black sedan bouncing along the dirt road, trailing a slowly settling cloud of dust. We must plant a hedge to keep road dust out of the yard and house, she thought.

“Looks like Mr. Ferguson,” Henry said.

“Oh, I wish I Looked more presentable,” she said and began tucking stray strands of hair behind her ears or under her hat and knocking travel dust from her coat.

“You look fine,” Henry said and squeezed her hand.

The car rolled to a stop, and a man stepped out and waved.

“Welcome to Friendship,” he called.

He was a little shorter than Henry and older, but neat and trim, if dusty. A woman got out from the passenger side and she waved too.

“Minnie,” Henry said. “Let me introduce Mr. William Ferguson and his wife, Cora.”

She held her hand out to Mr. Ferguson who took it gently.

“Delighted to meet you at last,” he smiled. “Welcome to your new home.”

“Thank you so much. It is a pleasure,” she replied.

Mrs. Ferguson grasped both her hands in hers and pulled her close. The faint odor of perfume tickled her nose.

“Welcome to Friendship, Dear,” the older woman whispered. “I do hope you’ll like it here.”

“I’m sure I shall,” she replied. “May I offer you a cup of coffee?”

They turned and Mrs. Ferguson laced her arm through hers and they walked arm in arm towards the house, their husbands following. Cora Ferguson paused as all three girls came spilling out the front door and stopped abruptly on the porch. All three curtsied as they were introduced.

“Let me get this straight,” she said. “This is Sadie, Willye, and Maurice.”

She nodded to each girl respectively, then leaned down and whispered in a conspiratorial manner, “Girls, please look in the back seat of our car and tell me what you find.”

All three girls dashed down the steps and ran to the car.

Sadie got there first, peered into the back window, and spun around.

“Two baskets,” she said.

“Would you bring them in, please?” Mrs. Ferguson asked.

She patted Minnie on the arm and added, “I thought you might appreciate a little help with supper on your first evening in the Delta.”

“You shouldn’t have,” she protested.

“Nonsense. You and your family have been traveling for days. It is little enough.”

Sadie and Willye proceeded them into the house, each carrying a large basket, with Maurice in tow.

Minnie

Their car bumped over the last bit of dusty road, and their new home came into view. A thin column of smoke rose from the back of the house then disappeared into the bare branches of the oak tree in the back yard.

“There it is, Mother, just beyond the trees,” Grady said.

The house was larger than the one they had left, the one that Henry had built for them in 1905, the year they married, but only just. It would do. She knew Henry already had plans to build them a larger house. As they rounded the curve, she could see the site he surely had chosen. Just across the slough from the existing house there was an ideal spot with large oaks for shade in the summer.

The house Henry built in 1905

The half-empty wagons stood alongside the front porch and the front door stood wide open. Furniture was arrayed across the porch. Ragged blankets that had been used in packing were piled in one corner. Henry and Morris Bailey must have heard the car for they immediately stepped through the front door and wazed.

“We’re home. We’re home,” the three girls bounced up and down on the backseat.

“Settle down, girls,” she admonished. Even as she admitted she was glad they had finally arrived.

Grady braked to a stop in front of the house, and Henry ran down and opened her door.

“Welcome home, Mother,” he embraced her and lifter her down. It reminded her just how strong he was. Then kissed her and she remembered how gentle he could be.

“We had hoped to be through with the unloading before you arrived but had a little trouble with a wagon wheel. Got here later than we had hoped. Still it is clean and habitable.”

The girls spilled out behind her and ran babbling up the steps and right by a bemused Morris Bailey and into the house.

“I am sure it will be fine,” she smiled up at her husband.

Morris Bailey trotted down the steps and gave her a hug and a kiss.

“How do you like it, Mother?” he asked.

“I think it is wonderful,” she replied even though she knew it would be crowded.

Grady came around the car and Henry took their son’s right hand.

“Good job, Son,” he said before wrapping his left arm around him and pulling the boy close.

Grady swelled with pride and seemed to stand a little taller. He even smiled slightly. That young man will never admit how much his father’s praise means to him, she thought.

“Come on, Grady,” Morris Bailey implored. “Let me show you our room.”

“Go on,” Henry said. “We can get back to unloading in a few minutes. I want to show your mother something.”

They walked together to the slough and crossed on the obviously new footbridge over the small stream of murky water, water that barely moved. They stopped in the widest open spot among the oak trees. Like just about everywhere else it was flat. Henry swung his arm wide.

“Will this do for a new home?” he asked.

She turned all about in the cool, afternoon sunshine. There was a decent sized pasture around the back and side of the existing house, plenty of room for her milkcows, and a sturdy barn at the far end. Stables stood right across the road, and she could make out the mule barn and lots in the distance. Everything else was fallow fields, row upon row of mounded black earth and gray stubble, divided  by the occasional strip of dull green hedges and bare trees, the verges that separated field from field. A green field of winter hay shown out starkly in the distance.

“It’s, it’s so different from back home,” she whispered. “One can see so far.”

“Yes, yes, it is,” Henry answered. “And it is large, large enough for our family to grow, and with the blessing, large enough to leave something for our children, maybe even our children’s children.”

“it does not seem real, not yet,” she said.

Henry dug his heel into the ground, reached down, and lifted a handful of moist, black earth.

“This is real. It is rich, deep topsoil, perfect for cotton, and we are going to grow a lot of it.”

He let the soil spill through his fingers, then brushed his hand off on his trousers.

He was excited, excited enough to leave home and move across the state and take on a huge task. She was excited too. She thought but did not say: you build the farm; I will build a home and family.

“Wool gathering,” he asked.

“A little,” she replied.

He pulled her close and whispered, “It’s a gamble, I know, but we’ll make it.”

She looked up at him and said, “I’m sure we will.”

“If you agree, I would like to build our house right here, facing west, like our home back in Choctaw County.”

She smiled and nodded. She had always liked the morning sun spilling in their bedroom window.

He squeezed her tight and added, “You plan it out and I will get it built.”

Arm in arm, they returned across the slough to the house. Henry nodded towards the wagons. Grady was already helping Morris Bailey unload. All three girls darted in and out of the door, squealing with delight.

“Morris Bailey and I got most of the furniture in and set up in place,” Henry said. “Your canning is all stored in the pantry or wellhouse. Just a little more to bring in.”

He smiled down at her.

“Got a warm pot of coffee on, too.”

Her mind was already running to what to do for supper, wondering if Henry had thought of that at all. Surely he had. He and Morris Bailey must have been eating something.

She heard a car horn from the road and turned to see a black sedan bouncing along the dirt road, trailing a slowly settling cloud of dust. We must plant a hedge to keep road dust out of the yard and house, she thought.

“Looks like Mr. Ferguson,” Henry said.

“Oh, I wish I Looked more presentable,” she said and began tucking stray strands of hair behind her ears or under her hat and knocking travel dust from her coat.

“You look fine,” Henry said and squeezed her hand.

The car rolled to a stop, and a man stepped out and waved.

“Welcome to Friendship,” he called.

He was a little shorter than Henry and older, but neat and trim, if dusty. A woman got out from the passenger side and she waved too.

“Minnie,” Henry said. “Let me introduce Mr. William Ferguson and his wife, Cora.”

She held her hand out to Mr. Ferguson who took it gently.

“Delighted to meet you at last,” he smiled. “Welcome to your new home.”

“Thank you so much. It is a pleasure,” she replied.

Mrs. Ferguson grasped both her hands in hers and pulled her close. The faint odor of perfume tickled her nose.

“Welcome to Friendship, Dear,” the older woman whispered. “I do hope you’ll like it here.”

“I’m sure I shall,” she replied. “May I offer you a cup of coffee?”

They turned and Mrs. Ferguson laced her arm through hers and they walked arm in arm towards the house, their husbands following. Cora Ferguson paused as all three girls came spilling out the front door and stopped abruptly on the porch. All three curtsied as they were introduced.

“Let me get this straight,” she said. “This is Sadie, Willye, and Maurice.”

She nodded to each girl respectively, then leaned down and whispered in a conspiratorial manner, “Girls, please look in the back seat of our car and tell me what you find.”

All three girls dashed down the steps and ran to the car.

Sadie got there first, peered into the back window, and spun around.

“Two baskets,” she said.

“Would you bring them in, please?” Mrs. Ferguson asked.

She patted Minnie on the arm and added, “I thought you might appreciate a little help with supper on your first evening in the Delta.”

“You shouldn’t have,” she protested.

“Nonsense. You and your family have been traveling for days. It is little enough.”

Sadie and Willye proceeded them into the house, each carrying a large basket, with Maurice in tow.

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Filed under America, Delta, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta

An Open Letter To Americans

I have carefully and intentionally kept silent during the entire divisive 2016 election cycle, but the post-election vitriol, the hurt and sense of loss, the sense of frustration and vindication, and the prospect of an even further divided country compels me to speak.

I received the franchise in 1972 and have voted in every primary, runoff, and general election since then. I have not always voted my party affiliation, and even that has changed more than once over the years. I have probably voted for as many losers as winners. There have been candidates I did not vote for who, once in office, delightfully surprised me, and there has been the opposite, candidates I supported who greatly disappointed me. I have on more than one occasion felt that I was voting for the lesser of two evils.

But no matter who was elected, that person was my president, my president because I am an American. Furthermore, I believe in and participated freely in the democratic process that put that person in the White House whether I voted for that person or not.

My polling place is Providence Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. The church has been there since 1765. The current sanctuary dates from 1850. One of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers is buried there. He is but one of my many ancestors in that graveyard who fought in the American Revolution and practically every American conflict since.

Every time I go there to vote I look at that graveyard and I am humbled, humbled by the patriots’ sacrifice and blood shed in revolution, civil war, world wars, and countless actions around the world to create, shape, and defend this country. Every time I have taken a seat in the balcony of that sanctuary, which used to be the slaves’ gallery, or wandered over to the slaves’ cemetery just beyond the old stone wall, I am humbled by patriots’ sacrifice and blood shed in struggles against injustice and inequality that have wracked our republic. And through all of these vicissitudes, our republic has endured.

Make America great again? America is continually being made great, not just by one person in the White House, but by Americans, Americans of all stripes, not just Latino-Americans or black Americans or white Americans or Asian-Americans, not just LBGTQ-Americans or straight Americans, not just by deplorable Americans or elite Americans, but by Americans. It takes each and every one of us to keep making America great.

The framers of the Constitution of the United States of America were not a particularly harmonious lot. They may have all been white men, many of them well off, but they argued and bickered and held widely divergent views. Nevertheless, they had one thing in common: they would let nothing, not personal or ideological differences, not all of the wrangling and finger-pointing, not issues of states’ rights versus federal power nor the rights of the individual nor slavery, nothing, stand in the way of creating our Constitution without which there would be no United States of America, this America to which you and I are heir.

They may have pushed some of those issues forward to be dealt with later, tragically in some cases, but that fierce determination to work together, to compromise, and to create something new, vibrant, and living is our heritage, as much a part of our heritage as the document and republic they created. And we must be zealous of that heritage.

Every four years on the Wednesday after “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November” since 1972, no matter for whom I voted, I have waked up with a prayer for our president-elect, a prayer that our new president would be led to wise decisions and actions for all Americans. Every Wednesday morning, I have waked up with a prayer for my country and the hope that no matter how much I might agree or disagree with my new president, that that person would rise to the challenge of representing not just me but all Americans.

Having voted now in twelve presidential elections, I have some idea how people on both sides feel. I too have waked up on Wednesday hopeful and exhilarated, and I have waked up depressed and fearful. I have even waked up hoping I had done the right thing the day before. But no matter who was elected, our republic has survived. It has survived the results of every election since 1789.The genius of the framers of our Constitution is that they created a government strong enough to survive the actions of any one person.

I still believe that America is a promise, fulfilled for many but not for all. Every American knows that we still have a long way to go. But as sure as the turning of the earth, we will never get there until we decide, as a people, as Americans, that nothing, not difference of race or culture nor fervently held ideological views nor the varieties of self-expression, nothing, will stand in the way of our striving to realize the promise that is America, for all Americans.

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