Category Archives: Life


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

“Time to get up,” Father whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I did, too,” the Boy chimed in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right.”

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

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

“Yessir,” the Boy said.

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

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

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

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

“Still see him?” Father whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yessir,” he said.

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

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

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

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

“Um-uh,” Father said. “That’s good.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Stand up,” Father said.

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

“Now aim down the barrel at that crow.”

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

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

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

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

The Boy lowered the heavy barrel.

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

The Boy nodded. “Yessir.”

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


“Now aim and fire,” Father said.

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

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

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

“How’d it feel?” Father asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pull,” Father shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.” Father nodded.

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

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


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

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

“Do you think about it?”

“Nosir, not really. I just know.”

“But you didn’t at first, did you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Boy held his trophy up high.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I guess I did,” I replied.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The old man laughed again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did it all go?” he asked.

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

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

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

“Sho, I was, Chile. What you expect?”

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

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

“What did you do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Father’s a good shot too,” he said.

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

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

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

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

“I’ve never seen a panther,” he said.

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

“Maybe Father will take me there someday.”

“You ask him nice, he might.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, Uncle Ned,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Aw,” he said. “I want to hear more.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yassuh, sho will,” Uncle Ned said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


1925 Ford Model TT One-ton Truck

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Morning,” Morris Bailey said.

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

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

“Where y’all coming from?” he asked.

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

“Been traveling long?”

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

The old man shook his head slowly back and forth.

“Sorry you lost your place,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another truck approached from the south.

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

“Yessir. Ya’ll too.”

He eased the truck into gear.

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

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

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

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

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

He recognized Mr. King, walked up and spoke.

“Morning, Mr. King,” he said.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They turned and strode off the bridge.

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

“I know, Son, and you were fortunate, or blessed, that Calhoun hadn’t already drowned or had his head caved in under there. He survived. And what you did made Malvern look bad in front of the trusties and the convicts. Makes his job harder.”

There was a part of him that twisted in his gut when he felt that someone was upset or angry at him.

“Guess he hates me for that,” he said.

“Probably. Some men are like that. Wish you hadn’t done it?”

“Nosir, I reckon not. Still …”

“Still, nothing,” Mr. King said. “You saved a man’s life. What’s more important? That brute’s opinion of you or that convict’s, that man’s, life?”

“That man’s life, of course.”

“I agree, and I think I know which action God smiles on. Still you might want to avoid Boss Malvern from here on out.”

He smiled. “That ought to be easy. I don’t expect to have much to do with Parchman.”

“Let’s hope not,” Mr. King smiled and shook his hand. “I best be getting back. No help to be had here. We’ll pray and fight the rising water on our on.”

“Good luck, Sir,” he replied, and a thought struck him. “I passed a family this morning from down Nitta Yuma. Got flooded out and are looking for work. I suggested they head to Friendship and check with Father. You might want to look them over. Might be they’re worth putting on.”

“I’ll just do that,” Mr. King said. He climbed into his car, cranked it, and made a three-point turn in the highway. The older man waved as he chugged back north. “Safe travels,” he called.

He waved back, then climbed into his truck. He cranked it and sat there as it idled. It still bothered him. He got along with just about everybody. He like to get along with everybody. But he knew he had made an enemy today, and he hated the feeling even though he knew he had done the right thing.

He gazed unseeing as the men gathered up their ropes and hand axes and piled them into the wagon on the far side of the bridge. Motion caught his eye and on the far side of the bridge as rider and horse lunged up onto the road for the field. It was Roebuck on his mare with Calhoun, wet and bedraggled, perched behind the cantle clinging to Roebuck’s back.

Awakened from his reverie, he realized the bridge was clear of men and gear. Easing the truck into gear, he rolled across the bridge. As he passed the convicts celebrating Calhoun’s survival, he studiously avoided Boss Malvern’s gaze, but one of the trusties, Lander, pointed him out, and all the convicts and trusties together cheered as he passed.

Amid the cheering, he could hear Boss Malvern’s harsh voice cursing them all, him too, probably.

He smiled to himself, flung him left arm out the window in salute, and chugged on southward.


Convicts & tracking dogs, Parchman Farm


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INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 14 – April, 1927: 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



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 between the Tallahatchie and Yazoo Rivers, 1927


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, 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




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 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.


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 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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Minnie hummed to herself as pulled her personal items from her valise. She paused for a moment. Had it really only been this morning that they had left Concord? It had been a long day, but Greenwood and the Delta were so different that she felt they had traveled for weeks rather than one day to get here.

She smiled to herself. Grady had surprised her today when he asked if she would miss all the family they were leaving behind. It was something she might have expected from Morris Bailey, always the more sensitive of the two, not from the normally taciturn Grady, fourteen years old now and beginning to look more and more like a man. Actually, he looked just like Henry. In her innermost heart, she thought of Grady as Henry’s son and Morris Bailey as hers.

She had even expected Grady to accompany Henry in the second wagon while Morris Bailey drove her and the girls, but Henry had decided otherwise. Now she was glad he had, otherwise she would have missed that glimpse into her first-born’s heart.

She placed her last few items on the bureau and looked about at the finely furnished room.

“Henry, are you sure we can afford to stay here?” she asked as she admired the rich colors of the heavy damask drapes.

She rarely asked these sorts of questions. She handled their household expenses, and Henry handled everything else. When he said they could afford to buy the car, she had trusted him. When he had decided he wanted to purchase the Ferguson place at Friendship, she had trusted him. They had been married 15 years now. They had five children. He had worked hard for all of them. They both had.

The crops had been good. Henry’s father had practically turned over management of his farm to Henry and his brother George, the other brothers having pursued other interests. And Henry had done especially well as a representative of Stark Brothers Nursery.

“Still, it is so … opulent. It must be expensive,” she added, fingering the heavy fabric.

He looked up at her from the chair in the corner of their room, his long legs stretched out before him. He looked tired, his face ruddy from the long days in the cold with the wagons.

“Mother.” He had called her that since the day Grady had been born. It was what he called his own mother, but with a subtle, indefinable yet distinct difference. She knew that he loved, honored, and respected both her and his mother, but when he called her ‘Mother’ she also heard ‘You are dear and precious to me, the mother of our children, the anchor of our lives.’

“Mother, we can afford it. It is just this night for Morris Bailey and me and two nights for you, Grady and the girls,” he said with a weary smile.

“Still,” she said as she crossed to him and perched on the arm of the chair. He put his arm around her waist and squeezed.

“We had so much to do preparing for this move, and we have plenty of work ahead of us at the new place. It is an indulgence, I know, but we can afford it and I thought we all could use a treat, especially you,” he said. “Was it a hard day?”

“Mostly long, rattling, and cold. But the girls were reasonably well-behaved,” she answered. “You would have been proud of Grady. He took very good care of us. He even took us by Papa’s so that I could tell him and Lennie and her children good-bye.”

Henry hugged her a little closer.

“What’s it been now? Four years? Do you think Lennie will ever remarry?” he asked.

Minnie missed Lennie already. They were as close as sisters could be, often mistaken for twins. Their mother had died shortly after Minnie had been born. Minnie had never known her mother, and she carried that loss deep in a secret place in her heart. She never mentioned to anyone except Lennie, who had only been two when Mother had died and did not remember her either.

Grandma Bailey had moved in with Papa to help raise the girls. She was the only mother the girls had ever known, and she was gone now. Henry’s brother Swint too was gone, married to Lennie and the father of her children.  When he had died in 1914, Lennie had taken Jewel, Brice, Lucy, and little Mae, born just before her father died, and moved back in with Papa.

“Wool gathering?” Henry asked.

She nodded.

“Hard not to,” he said. “We are leaving a lot behind.”

He paused. “But the opportunity to buy the Ferguson Place. That was too good to pass up.”

She stared into his gray eyes set in his wind-chapped face and tried to smile. She knew he was right. Understood his burning desire not just to have his own place, as strong and consuming as that was, but also his desire to provide for her and their growing family. It truly was a wonderful opportunity. She had not even told him she suspected that she was carrying their sixth child. This baby would be born in the Delta, part of the new life they were creating in a new place.

Henry laid his large, calloused hand gently against her cheek.

“I love you, Minnie Bailey Catledge,” he said. His voice soft and laced with the love she knew he had for her.

She leaned down and kissed her husband who in turn put his other arm around her to hold her that much closer. He still smelled of cold and faintly of cigarette smoke.

“I love you, too, Henry Gray Catledge,’ she whispered in his ear.

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Filed under Delta, Life, Loss, Memory, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized

Songs of Death and Life

On the second anniversary of my father’s death


Let us not delude ourselves with platitudes

The end of suffering

Heaven’s aching need for another angel

Burdens lifted from the living

Joyous reunion


No, let us not delude ourselves

Death is a brute, a thief

Who takes from us those we hold most precious


Time and distance may separate us

From the beating heart of a dear one

But that heart still beats

That love is still tangible

In the warmth of flesh

In touch and embrace

Needing only to be reunited

If only briefly

But death rips that away

Stills that beating heart

Chills that once vibrant flesh

Erases the gentle smile

On that familiar face


Death is an ogre

One whose features are not softened

By familiarity or frequency of visit

Remorseless, it intrudes

With shuddering suddenness

Or lingering expectancy


Memory, the cruel consoler

Delivers images of both joy and remorse

Days of burnished beauty

Words that could not be unspoken


The faith core within

Affirming that death is not the end

That ultimately even death will be conquered

Is still assailed, battered by the loss

The carnage of shattered souls


For one last word

One brief smile

One final embrace


Let us not delude ourselves

For us, the living

Dark days will alternate with bright

The vivid image of a loved face dims

Some memories fade

While others remain deeply etched

Roiling through the mind

And heart

Bringing an unexpected, fleeting smile

Or a wistful moment of melancholy


Let us not delude ourselves

There can be no loss lest first there be love


On All Saints Sunday


For each name intoned

A single votive is lit

A single bell is tolled

Resonant, the solemn peal diminishes as

Another name is intoned

Another votive is lit


The long litany of names

Each another life

Severed from this world

In this last year

Leaving its wake

Of love and sorrow

Laughter and regret

Wistful smiles and soft sighs

The entire arcing panoply

Of human feeling


Congregants stand in serried ranks

Solemn array of bowed heads

The soft sheen of tears on cheeks

A quivering lip or shudder

A too firm grip on a pew as

Another name is intoned

Another votive is lit


Fresh grief released or stifled as

Their lost one’s name is uttered

Old anguish renewed as

A loved name or face from last year’s list

Or the year before or the year before that

Rises unbidden but embraced as

Another name is intoned

Another votive is lit



A fellow mourner’s comforting touch or

Firm arm around a shaking shoulder

The questioning face of

An uncomprehending child

Who somehow senses something amiss as

The last name is intoned

The last votive is lit



Then the other litany

The litany of faith and triumph

The surety of the resurrection of the body

And reunion

Why else conquer death or

Resurrect the body or

Preserve all the things

Body and mind and spirit that

Make each of us ourselves

Except we should praise

Each in our own distinct voice

Arrayed about the throne of the Almighty

Heaven and earth reconciled

See the Lord and each one gone before face to face

And rejoice

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Filed under Death, Life, Loss, Poetry, Uncategorized