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.