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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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INTO THE DELTA – Chapters 9 & 10: April, 1920-Minnie


The spring breeze wafted the rich smell of new growth in through the kitchen door and open windows. Minnie breathed deeply, aware again of lush aroma of the Delta, as she stared out the window. A pale sun was climbing towards noon in a flat, cloudless sky. Her milkcows, fawn-colored Jerseys and pied Guernseys, grazed on the new grass at the far southern end of the pasture. Soon they would turn and graze back northward.

Sadie and Willye Pauline were in school at Sumner. Maurice would not start school until the fall, and until then, Minnie let her play except for a few daily chores. Her dark-haired daughter and Philadelphia, A.J. and Flossie’s youngest, played in the backyard, chasing each other around the large cast iron wash pot. They squealed as they ran, their bare heels kicking up their dusty skirts.

She slid her large cast iron skillet onto the heat, pushed a stray strand of hair from her forehead with the back of her hand, and took up her cornbread batter. The steady sound of her mother-in-law’s churning brought her back from the pasture and yard and into the kitchen.

“Mother,” she said over her shoulder without looking up.

Becky Catledge was not really her mother, but Minnie called her that, or sometimes Momma, because that is what Henry called her. It still feels strange to call someone that, she thought. Her own mother had died two months after her birth. She had never known her. She and her older sister Lennie had been raised by their father and his widowed mother, Grandmaw Bailey.

She secretly wondered if there was some missing, some empty place in her that a mother would have filled. Not that she had ever doubted her grandmother’s and father’s love for her. Still, neither she or Lennie would ever know what their mother looked like, other than from pictures, have no idea of the sound of her voice, the feel of her caress. She longed for those things, once she had been old enough to understand what she had never had, longed for them with an ache deeper than physical longing.

So many of her life’s dreams had been fulfilled: a good husband whose love she never doubted, five fine children and another on its way, a comfortable home, and security. Her life was rich, and she knew it. Maybe it was because this was one desire that could never be realized.

She looked up from the cornbread batter she was stirring and turned.

“Mother, how are Father and Lennie and the children doing?” she asked.

Her mother-in-law’s rhythmic churning never slowed, but a pensive look came over her face. So like Henry, she thought, even his features favored hers, the smooth slab of her checks, the set of her jaw. And like Henry, she often looked stern, although she really was not. Sometimes, not as often now, but sometimes, she wondered how her mother-in-law felt about her. She and Henry had married in April and Grady had been born prematurely in November. There had been talk as people had counted the months, but in hushed tones only. Still.

“They are all doing well,” the older woman smiled. “Saw them all at church Sunday last. I think its good for your father having them there. The children are growing right up. Brice is twelve now and a real help to John. Jewell, Lucille, and May, let me think, they must be 14, ten, and five. They are thriving.”

From down the road, she heard Flossie calling, “Philly. Philly, come on home, Chile.” Almost immediately, Maurice ran up the steps, across the porch, and into the kitchen.

“Is it time to se t the table, Mother?” her daughter asked.

“Yes, Dear,” she replied. “The plates and utensils are on the table.”

The little girl started toward the dining room.

“Winnie Maurice,” she said. “What did you forget.

Maurice spun on her hell and ran to the sink. She pumped water on her hands and lathered them up and rinsed them, then dried them, barely, before dashing to the dining room.

Her mother-in-law paused in her churning, pushed a random strand of gray hair out of her eyes with the back of her hand, and laughed.

Minnie laughed too, her daughter’s dark hair, smile, and exuberance did that to her often. She realized that the older woman was looking at her.

“It is still uncanny how much you and Lennie look alike, both so beautiful.”

She blushed and cracked the door to the oven to see to the creamed corn baking there, then checked on the simmering pots of black-eyed peas and turnip greens. The cast iron skillet was hot enough, so she dropped a dollop of lard in. Over the sizzle, she heard the rhythmic churning resume.

“But I must say, she looks older now. Losing Swint was hard. It aged her. And poor Baby May. She never even knew her father.”

She had forgotten about that.

“But then you never knew your mother either, did you?” her mother-in-law added.

“No, ma’am, I didn’t,” she answered. “But then Momma never really knew her father.”

“Oh?” the older woman said and gave her a questioning look that was somehow laced with sympathy.

“He never made it home from the surrender in Virginia. Grandmaw Nancy got a letter from his Morrison kin in North Carolina. He caught the pneumonia and stopped off with them to recuperate but died there,” she said. “At least he had been with kin.”

Her chest suddenly felt constricted, clenched like a fist. She was dimly aware of the clatter of plates and utensils from the dining room, knew she should put the cornbread in the oven and send Maurice out to ring the dinner bell, give Henry and the boys time to get in from the fields and wash up. But she paused, suspended, her mind far away.

“Grandmaw Nancy was left with seven children to care for. I … I looked it up once in the family Bible. My mother was three-years-old when her father had left and five when he died, hundreds of miles from home.”

She stared out of the window through limbs just beginning to get their leaves, tried to look all the way to North Carolina, wanted to see what it was like where her grandfather was buried. Was it hilly like back home or flat like here in the Delta? Did someone care for his grave like she and Lennie had cared for their mother’s back home, she still thought of it as home, in the little cemetery at Concord Baptist Church?

She turned her face away and blinked back tears, thought, What has my family done to deserve that? Three generations in a row, children with no memory of at least one of their parents.

The dasher slid though her mother-in-law’s calloused hand and settled with a soft thump to the bottom of the churn, but Minnie didn’t hear it. Did not even realize that her mother-in-law had risen and was standing beside her until the wooden spoon was taken from her hand and the sizzling skillet removed from the heat and her mother-in-law took both of her hands in her own. She had known Rebecca Catledge all her life, had married the fifth of the woman’s eight sons fifteen years ago, but in some ways thought that she had never really know her. Until now.

Minnie looked into the dark, almost black eyes, saw the sorrow there, the sorrow that the other woman had borne, realized her family had no corner on loss. Swint, this woman’s son own son, Henry’s brother, was dead, another voice stilled, another smile and touch available only in memory.

“It must have been hard,” she whispered, hesitantly, “burying a son.”

“It was … harder than you can imagine.”

“I would not wish it on anyone,” she said and releasing her mother-in-law’s hands, embraced her. The older woman hugged her back, clutched her as if seeking rescue, then leaned back and looked at her with a soft gaze.

“I imagine it was hard on Henry too. He and Swint were particularly close, like you and Lennie, less than two years apart.”

“It was, Momma,” she said. “He said very little, but I knew. A wife knows.”

Momma smiled and held her close again.

“They do, don’t they?” she said, then added, “When do you expect that child?”

Minnie leaned back and looked down at her belly. She was starting to show. She smiled and realized the tightness in her chest had eased, replaced by what? Comfort maybe? Peace? She was not sure what to call it, but she was thankful.

“Late June or early July,” she said.

“I’ll bet Henry would like another boy after three girls in a row.”

“I’m sure he would,” she laughed. It felt good to laugh. “But I fear he may be disappointed. For some reason I feel like it will be another girl.”


JULY, 1920

And it was. Another girl. Born on July the 4th. They named her Lucille.

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

April, 1920


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

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


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

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

“Mighty fine,” he nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Delta cotton field ready to plant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He took another sip of his coffee.

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

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

“Heard you had a good crop.”

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

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

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

Henry’s gaze shifted to him and focused.

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

Lige smiled to himself and nodded.

“Good plan,” he added.

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INTO THE DELTA-Chapter 6: Morris Bailey



Father tilted his hat back on his head and stared with disgust at the cracked felloe on the wagon wheel.

“I had hoped we could make it to Glendora today, but it looks like Minter City will be the best we can do,” he said. “Might hold up, but best change it.”

All day long they had followed the road north, long, straight stretches with only the occasional curve. Fallow fields, gray with the stubble of last year’s cotton, stretched away on each side, alternating with fields of green, winter wheat or thick patches of brown, leafless forests. At places they passed wide, sluggish, tree-lined bayous, cypress sentinels scattered about in the unmoving waters.

It was all so different from smaller fields and forests scattered on the rolling hills back home, with water in streams that actually moved. It seemed unreal that one could travel such a short distance, one day by car, and be in another world. He realized that Father was speaking to him.

“Get out the block and the wagon jack, Son. I’ll get the extra wheel.”

“Yessir,” he replied.

Despite the cool afternoon air, he was quickly covered in sweat. Soon they were rolling north again. His wet clothes clung to his body, and he shivered each time even the lightest breeze came up. He looked to his left. The long rays of the sinking sun no longer offered any warmth. They reached Minter City just before the sun finally sank the horizon. At last, he thought.

They dropped off the teams at the livery stable. Father paid for to have both teams tended to and purchased a new wheel getting partial credit on the busted one from the blacksmith next door. That completed they hurried up the only real street in town, and even it was unpaved, to the small hotel where they took a single room. They left their bags at the desk and went directly to the dining room. There were two other customers at separate tables. Salesmen, he imagined.

He and his father took a table close to the stove. The room could have been a little warmer, but it was better near the stove. A waiter in a reasonably clean apron approached as they dropped their hats in the two other empty places.

Father looked up.

“What’s your special tonight?” he asked.

“Beefsteak, snap beans, hominy, and cornbread,” the small man answered.

“We’ll have two then,” Father said. “And coffee, too, please.”

“Yessir, coming right up.”

Father placed a half dollar on the checkered tablecloth. He had not even seen Father reach into his pocket.

The waiter eyed the coin and Father said softly, “It has been a long, cold day. A little something to fortify the coffee would be appreciated. If that is possible.

The waiter brandished a rag as if to wipe their table and the coin disappeared.

“I’ll see what I can do for ya,” the waiter answered.

He wanted to ask Father what that was all about, but in the presence of this unspoken communication it seemed best not to.

The waiter returned with their coffee. Morris Bailey wrapped both hands around his cup and relished the warmth. His hands still shook a little from the cold. He lifted the cup and began to sip the rich, hot coffee. Father looked at him over the rim of his own cup.

“Unbutton your coat, Son. Let the warmth in,” Father said.

“Yessir,” he said and fumbled with the buttons.

“Better?” Father asked.

“Yessir. Much better,” he said and picked up his cup for another sip.

“Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll make Friendship tomorrow,” Father said.


“You’ve done a good job these last two days, Son, a man’s job.”

He flushed. Father was not particularly free with praise. When you received it, you could be sure you had earned it.

“Thank you, Father.”

He set down his cup.

“Father?” he asked. “Grady says there is a school in Webb that goes all the way to the twelfth grade.”

“Uh, huh,” Father said between swallows.

“Will we be able to go there?”

He had been wanting to ask that question for a long time.

Father set down his cup and looked at him like he wondered why he had even asked that question.

“I expect you to go there,” Father said. “And I expect you to do well. There are many good reasons for this move. Good land and an opportunity to own our own place. Good transportation for our crop. Good towns with schools. Education is a good thing. I want each one of you to have more than your mother and I had.”

Father sounded so serious, but like his mind was far away at the same time. Mother sometimes talked this way, but Father never had, not with him. He had been excited when Father had chosen him to make this trip, and now he was even more glad. He could tell these things meant a lot to Father, a lot like when he and Grady would lie in bed at night and talk about the things they wanted to do when they were grown. He realized that he wanted to be a part of Father’s dream.

“I won’t let you down, Father,” was all he could say.

Father smiled, but before he could say anything, the waiter returned with their plates. As he left, Morris Bailey noticed a small bottle of clear, colorless liquid between the sugar bowl and salt and pepper shakers. He was sure it had not been there before. Father reached for it, pulled the cork, and poured a generous amount into his own coffee.

Father was about to replace the cork, when he paused and splashed a tiny bit into Morris Bailey’s cup. Then Father slipped the bottle into his coat pocket.

“For the cold,” Father said.

Morris Bailey took a small sip, coughed at the sudden fire in his throat, then sipped again. He knew Father took a nip of whiskey from time to time. Mother mixed it with hot sweet tea and gave them a spoonful for a cough or a headcold. She even put up her nutbread every Christmas in a cake tin along with a cup of whiskey. When all the whiskey had evaporated, it was time to cut the cake. He loved that cake, loved the heady aroma, but he had never tasted the whiskey like this before. He had never dared.

How could something that smelled so sweet burn so going down? And how had Father known how to get some here in Minter City? Back home everybody knew who made and sold corn liquor. Most folks didn’t talk about it, just kind of ignored it and kept a little on hand. Except for folks like Father’s brother Burton who was regularly having fellowship from the Concord Baptist Church withdrawn from him, usually for dancing or playing cards, but occasionally for drunkenness.

Father smiled from across the table.

“Best not tell your mother,” he said.

“Nosir,” he said.

He felt like he had entered another world. They bowed their heads and Father offered thanks for their food and safe travel. Hungrily, they picked up their knives and forks and dug into their supper.

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Dudley Walker

We are saying goodbye to a fine man and great friend today. Anyone who knew Dudley Walker knew how openhanded he was. His hands were large and rough with thick fingers, hands well-suited for a job of work, but those hands were so often open, open in greeting or in lending a hand or in offering a thoughtful gift. In the 40 years he and Dean lived next door to my parents, I never returned from a visit without something from his garden, greens or tomatoes, squash or okra. He made the bluebird house in our backyard during his birdhouse building phase and tried to give us a doghouse during his doghouse building phase even though we didn’t have a dog.


Mr. Dud’s open hands were an extension of his open heart. He was not the kind of neighbor to wait for you to ask for help or even the kind to ask if you needed help. Rather he was the kind of neighbor who saw a limb down on your fence and just went over and started cleaning it up. Or who might just come over and mow your yard because you were spending a lot of time at the hospital with a sick family member


My father and Mr. Dud loved each other. There is no other or better way to put it. They were both farm boys who weren’t afraid of hard work and loved to talk and laugh. No sooner had Father retired from the phone company than he was out with Mr. Dud mowing fairways at the city golf course. They spent untold hours together on each other’s porches talking and laughing or standing at the fence between their two yards chatting about the weather. They shared the fruits of each other’s gardens, the hopes and dreams and successes and challenges of their own lives and the lives of their children. Even after Father slipped into Alzheimer’s and remembered less and less, Mr. Dud would listen patiently.


I lived far away during my parents last few years as age and illness slowly took their toll. Increasing distances and responsibilities of work and my own growing family made trips to Tupelo less frequent but knowing that Mr. Dud was right next door gave me a comfort, a peace of mind for which I can never repay him.


And now he is gone leaving his wife Dean, four grown children, a passel of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and friends too numerous to mention. Yes, he is gone, but we are so much the better for having known him. If ever a man laid up treasures for himself in heaven, it was Mr. Dud. But he laid up treasures here on earth too, treasures of love and gratitude and care and concern and laughter for which he never asked for nor expected recompense or repayment. He simply gave and gave freely whenever he saw need, and in doing so taught all who knew how to give. And that may have been his finest, final gift.

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INTO THE DELTA – Chapter 5: Sadie

I recently heard from a cousin, once-removed, whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting. She was enjoying reading stories about her grandfather, my uncle, and asked if I had considered adding illustrations. I admitted that I had not, but coincidentally or providentially (take your pick), my father-in-law asked the same question the very same week. I mentioned the idea to my wife, and she agreed it would be a good idea. So, with that groundswell of support, I will begin adding illustrations. Most of them will come from my private collection; most of them will be contemporaneous. I hope they add to your enjoyment. And now to Chapter 5: Sadie.


Sadie watched Grady carefully place his coffee cup back in the saucer and sigh with contentment. Her four-year-old sister Maurice fidgeted at her side and Sadie knew why. Her sister’s sweet tooth rivalled that of their older brother who slid his cup and saucer back indicating he was finished.

Sadie knew the bottom would be coated with a slurry of coffee and undissolved sugar. Mother was forever chastising Grady for using so much sugar. Sadie picked up the saucer and cup and, with her mother’s nod of approval, set them in front of Maurice who immediately plunged a forefinger into the cup.

“Use your spoon, Dear,” Mother admonished.


The Hotel Irving

It was just the five of them again. She and Grady had been up early to see Father and Morris Bailey off with the wagons. Morris Bailey was only three years older than her, but he looked so grown up sitting up there on the wagon. He had grinned down at her.

“See you tomorrow, Curlyhead. Don’t forget to mind Mother. And Grady.”

She had looked about for something to throw at him for that last part but ended up just laughing.

Then he and Father had clucked up their teams and rattled off down the brick street in the pre-dawn dark.

She looked over at Willye who was staring out of the window at the people and automobiles and the occasional wagon passing up and down the street. Her half-eaten breakfast was growing cold.

“Willye Pauline,” Mother said. “Finish your breakfast. We cannot go shopping until you do.”

Willye was only seven, but she already liked dressing up a lot more than Sadie did. Sadie would have worn pants if her mother would have let her. She envied the freedom her brothers had.

Grady rose from the table.

“I believe I’ll take the Ford down to a garage and make sure all is ready for tomorrow,” he said.

Sadie turned anxiously to her mother.

“Mother, may I go with Grady?” she pleaded.

Grady gave her a baleful stare.

“You know you have outgrown your Sunday dress,” Mother replied. “And this is the perfect time and place to replace it.”

Her shoulders sagged, then she perked back up.

“Couldn’t you shop for Willye and Maurice first and me later when Grady looks for his new suit?”

She was about to give up when Mother relented.

“Ask Grady if he minds,” Mother said.

She turned expectantly to her older brother who rolled his eyes, then said, “Only if you promise to mind me and not be a nuisance.”

Well, that the first part rankled, but she would pay that price, to some degree.

“I do, in both cases,” she agreed.

She dabbed at her mouth with her napkin, then placed it back on the table.

“Mother, may I be excused,” she asked.

Mother smiled and said, “Of course you may, Dear.”

She followed Grady out of the dining room, pulling on her coat and tugging her hat down over her head. They crossed the lobby, and stepped onto the sidewalk. It was all she could do to keep up with his long strides.

“Grady,” she implored. “Slow down.”

“You keep up,” he replied even as he slowed his pace, just a little.

“What is our new home like?” she asked. She envied him. He had actually been there once with Father.

“How many times have I told you? It’s flat,” Grady answered.

“Grady! You know what I mean.”

He mashed her hat sideways on her head.

“I think we’ll like it a lot. The house is an adequate house, although Father plans to build a larger one as soon as possible. The land is really good, perfect for cotton. You saw how the fields stretched away as far as you could see when we were coming into Greenwood? Well, that’s what it looks like.”

That certainly was flat, she thought.

Grady went on, “It’s a big place too. Over two thousand acres, more than three square miles.”

“Gosh,” was all she could think to say. “There will be lots of hands then.”

“I imagine so.”

“How far is it to school?”

“A little over four miles to the school in Sumner. Over five miles to the high school in Webb.”

By now they had reached the car, and Grady pulled out the choke before giving the crank two half turns to prime the engine.

“Let me crank it,” Sadie pleaded.

“No, too dangerous,” Grady said.

She gave him her most dejected look.

“But you can help,” he relented as he handed her the key. “Get in, put in the key and turn it to Battery.”

She jumped up on the seat and did as Grady told her.

“I know what to do next,” she said eagerly “Push the lever on the left all the way up.”

“That’s right. That retards the spark.”

She stretched her neck and grinned at him over the hood.

“And pull the right one down a little,” she added.

“Exactly. Three clicks should be enough,” Grady said. “What else?”

She thought for a moment.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “Pull the hand brake all the way back. That’s done.”

“Here we go,” Grady said as he grabbed the left fender with his right hand and taking the crank in his left, gave it a quick turn. The engine coughed into life and the car rocked and vibrated roughly.

Grady walked up to her window.

“Pull down on the throttle. Just a little,” he said as he reached in and pulled down on the spark lever.

The engine smoothed out.

Grady opened the door.

“Slide over,” he said.

“Let me drive. Please.”

“Slide over,” Grady repeated. “Not in town.”

She could tell from his tone of voice that cajoling would not work and she reluctantly slid over. Grady climbed in, then flipped the key to Magneto, depressed the Reverse pedal, and backed their Model T into the street. Engaging Low gear, they chugged down the street.

Sadie leaned her face toward the window. She liked the rush of cold air on her face and pulled off her hat so that the wind blew through her hair. She closed her eyes and shook her head in the whishing wind.

“Let’s drive to California and see the Pacific Ocean,” she said dreamily.

She looked over at Grady who looked back at her but said nothing, only shook his head.

The streets were lined with glass storefronts. People were walking up and down the sidewalk. She tried to imagine where they were going. To one of the upstairs offices? Shopping in one of the many stores? At the corner they pulled into Crump’s Oil Company. The two-storied building was built right out to the street, but part of the ground floor was cut out creating a covered area where the gasoline pumps were located.

Grady pulled under the covered area and up to the pumps. The place smelled of oil and dust. It tickled her nose. There were shiny new cars for sale behind the large glass windows.

A man approached as Grady climbed out of the car. He was short and dirty and looked to be about 30-years-old. Grady towered over him.

“What can I do for ya, young fella?” he asked, wiping his hands on a soiled rag.

“I would like to top off the gasoline. And check the oil and the pressure in the tires, including the spare,” Grady answered.

Grady sounded so grown up, she thought. Well, he was five years older than she was.

“I’ll see right to it. Shouldn’t take too long,” then man said.

Sadie could not help but notice that the man’s words sounded soft and drawn out, almost like he was softly singing. Their waiter both last night at the Elite and the one this morning at the Hotel Irving had sounded like that too. She got out of the car and went to stand beside her older brother.

Grady watched as the man checked all five tires, crawled under the Model T to check the oil, then lifted the front seat to get to the gasoline tank. He dipped and removed a measuring stick, then inserted a hose and began operating the hand pump.

Sadie watched the globe at the top of the pump fill with amber liquid and whispered, “Grady.”


“Does everyone in the Delta talk like he does?”

Grady snorted. “Guess so,” he said. “I imagine we will too soon enough.”

She smiled to herself.

“I hope so,” she sighed. “It sounds so – beautiful.”

Grady looked down at her, laughed, and taking his big right hand tousled her already windblown hair.

“You just won’t do, Sadie Belle.”

The man replaced the hose.

“That’ll be four bits,” he said.

Grady paid him, and they got back into the car.

“May I drive now?” she asked.

Grady did not even answer her this time. He just adjusted the spark and throttle. The man turned the crank for them and off they went.

“Grady, can we cross the river before we go looking for Mother, Willye, and Maurice? I want to see Grand Boulevard.”

He gave her a conspiratorial look.

“Let’s,” he replied.

She scooted to the edge of her seat for a better look.

“Father said it is a swing bridge. Maybe there will a steamship coming through and we will have to wait for it to pass,” she said.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Grady answered. “I expect that bridge has not been swung in years. The railroads ended most of the river traffic.”


Old Yazoo River Bridge

They crossed over to Fulton Street and headed towards the bridge. Grady was right. The only thing on the river was a small boat with two boys. They were fishing and did not even look up as the car rolled across the span. They passed several cars and trucks headed into town.

Suddenly they were on a divided street with a few large homes here and there set well back from the road. Young, slender, bare trees lined the street. Brown, winter grass covered the median that ran down the middle of the road, Grand Boulevard.

As they motored up the street, her head swung back and forth taking it all in. The houses were certainly large and grand, but …

“It’s not as grand as I imagined it,’ she sighed.

“It will be,” Grady said. “Given time. Those trees will grow and spread and it will be all shaded and peaceful looking. Like our yard back home. Or Grandpaw’s. Only with bigger houses and wider lawns.”

She looked up at her brother, surprised. He had a dreamy look she had never seen before. Two young girls in pretty frocks waved to them as they passed. Sadie waved back and suddenly she saw Grand Boulevard as Grady saw it, shaded lawns and families at leisure.


Grand Boulevard

Soon the houses became fewer and further apart. Grady nodded to the left as they crossed a wide street.

“That’s the road Father and Morris Bailey took this morning, the way we’ll take tomorrow,” he noted.

They continued until they reached the Tallahatchie River where they turned around and retraced their route. The two little girls were gone. Colored maids were out sweeping off porches and sidewalks. She pulled her coat more tightly around her, jammed her hat down over her ears, and scooted back across the seat to lean against her big brother.

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INTO THE DELTA – Chapter 4


Henry held up his right arm to alert his younger son, then pulled his team to a halt on the wide metal bridge. Behind him Morris Bailey called out, “Whoa, mules” and drew up his own team. The boy was doing a fine job, maybe better than he expected. Grady, responsible Grady, Sadie tagging along, had been up and out with Morris Bailey and him well before dawn as they checked on the condition of the teams and the wagons. He knew Minnie and the girls were in good hands with Grady.

Henry pulled out his fixings and rolled a cigarette. He snapped the head of a match with his thumbnail, cupped the warm, yellow flame, and lit his cigarette. He released a plume of blue smoke and simply stared around him. It was cold. Not as cold as yesterday morning, but cold.

The lightening of the sky to the east gave the promise of a clear day, and although the sun had yet to come up, its rays were painting the horizon with a thin, vivid streak of red, so unlike the hilly country they had left behind.  He looked forward to the sunshine; its warmth would be welcome.

The Yazoo River seethed below them. In the pale light, it was a wide, murky, brown ribbon stretching to the right and to the left before fading in the pre-dawn gloom. Although they had actually been in the Delta since rolling down that last, long hill west of Carrollton yesterday, the river felt like the true dividing line. It separated the hills from the Delta, the known from the unknown, their old life from their new one.

For nearly 15 years he had farmed leased land, sold and delivered trees for Stark Brothers Nurseries, and saved every penny that he could. Minnie had sold her extra eggs, butter, and milk too, both of them dreaming against the day when they could own their own place, a place large enough for their growing family. That’s what it was. Dreaming against the day.

Then Father’s old friend from the war, Henry Ferguson, who he had been named after, had passed away. Mother and Father had attended the funeral; he had come with them, brought them actually. He could vividly remember the first time he had seen the place at Friendship, acres and acres of cotton and hay thriving in the deep, rich black soil divided by irregular verges of tree and thicket and cut by lazy, meandering bayous. He had been drawn to it immediately and had been surprised to learn that none of the Ferguson heirs wanted to farm the land. They had decided to sell the entire place.

He had returned and met with the Fergusons about buying the place. Despite the difference in their ages, he and William had become friends. Soon they had negotiated the price and agreed to terms. In the bright comfort of McLemore’s law office, the enormity of it had begun to sink in when he had handed over the bank draft for his down payment. One piece of paper that represented all he and Minnie had worked for since they had married.

When he had signed that last of the paperwork and had become a landowner. No more leased land now. He was a landowner or would be when he paid it off. He had ten years, ten crops, ten good crops he prayed, to pay it off. He exhaled another stream of smoke and stared again at the river.

Once they crossed the river, they would be committed, he and his family. He had crossed this bridge, this river, several times in the last few months, usually on horseback, alone, although Grady had come with him once. But each time he had crossed the Yazoo, he had known he would be returning in a few days. This time? Well, he had no idea when he might return to Choctaw County, to practically everyone he knew, his own large family, his parents and his brothers who were still in the area, plus aunts, uncles, and cousins, and of course, Minnie’s father and sister and her family. Sometimes he thought he was kin to everybody in that part of Choctaw county, and through either marriage or blood he just about was: the Woods, the Lees, the Turners, the Porters, the Blackwoods. All kin.

And they were leaving all that behind. His excitement, his anticipation shouldered aside, at least for the time being, his sense of loss. A phrase popped into his mind, unbidden and unexpected: Crossing the Rubicon. He struggled to remember where he had heard that before. Some old saying? Something he had learned in school? It lurked there in the back of his mind, but try as he might, he could not tease it out.

He shrugged. It would come to him. Or not. He had smoked his cigarette to a nub. He broke up the remnants. In the still morning air they fluttered down to surface of the bridge. He raised his right arm and swept it forward., then clucked up his team, slapping their brown rumps with the flat of the reins. He heard Morris Bailey behind him call out, “Giddup, Mules.”

Then, just as unbidden it bubbled up. Of course, Julius Caesar leading his army across the Rubicon River and into Rome and starting a war. The Rubicon had been Caesar’s point of no return as the Roman army was forbidden to cross into the Roman province. Well, we’re not breaking the law or starting a civil wage war like old Julius Caesar, but I guess this is our point of no return, Henry thought.

He smiled to himself. No wonder it had taken so long to remember. He was 35 years old and those lessons had been what? Twenty something years ago? Maybe 25? Way back in his school days, back in Choctaw County.

Both mule teams leaned into their harnesses, and with a lurch, both wagons with all their earthly possessions rattled across the bridge and into the Delta.

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For those who may be following this blog, let me clarify a few things. This is not only a novelized account of my grandparents’ move to the Delta, but it is also fictionalized to some degree. In telling the story through the viewpoints of my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and later my father, I have tried to take the personalities of people I knew as adults and imagine them at various stages through their lives, a task both challenging and rewarding.

Many of the stories are ones that I heard hundreds of time growing up. Yes, I was that kid always anxious for another story at some family member’s knee. Through family stories and research, I know where they lived, when, how they got there, and why they moved. Some scenes are completely fabricated. For instance, I do not know how my grandfather arranged to buy the Ferguson place. I do not know the logistical details of their move to Friendship, or whether they rendezvoused in Greenwood. But Greenwood was a major cotton market in those days. It seems possible they likely spent the night there, and that vibrant little Delta city, where incidentally I was born, was a perfect backdrop to introduce this rather large and growing family in the middle of a life changing relocation from the Hill Country to the Delta.

Thank you to all who are reading and for all of your positive comments. Without further ado, here is Chapter 3.


                Morris Bailey settled his hat on his head, looked in the mirror and adjusted it to a more rakish angle over his thick, wavy hair. He turned to his brother who was stretched out on the bed they were sharing. Grady’s socked feet were crossed at the ankles, his right arm was folded and tucked under his head, and his eyes were closed. He looked entirely too comfortable to Morris Bailey.

“Let’s go see the town,” Morris Bailey said.

“I’m too tired,” Grady replied.

“Tired? All you did was laze around with kinfolks for two days, then drive a car one day. I’ve been handling a team of mules for three.”

Grady always seemed to be harnessing his strength for when he might need it next, and Morris Bailey could not help but goad him about it regularly. He was rewarded when Grady opened one eye to glare at him.

“Go away,” Grady said. “All you had to do was sit there and let your team follow Father’s. You probably slept most of the time. I had to pay attention to the road, tend to the car, and take care of Mother and our sisters.”

“Sure,” Morris Baily replied. “I’ll bet Mother took care of the girls, and all you had to do was avoid wagons and stop for gasoline and oil. Besides, you have all day tomorrow to see the town, but Father and I will be leaving with the wagons at first light. I only have tonight.”

Morris Bailey ran his hand into his pocket and fingered the few coins there. “My treat at the first soda fountain we come too,” he said.

Morris Bailey knew his brother well, knew his love of sweets as well as his tendency to hold on to a nickel. His enticement worked.

Grady swung his feet to the floor and began pulling on his boots.

“Go ask Father and Mother if they mind.”

He dashed out of the door before Grady had his first boot laced and tied.

He heard Father’s deep “Yes” in response to his knock.

“It’s Morris Bailey, Father” he said, and his voice came out like a croak. It had been doing that a lot lately, and he found it somewhat embarrassing.

“Come in,” Father answered.

He opened the door enough to stick his head in. Mother was sitting on the arm of Father’s chair, and Father had his arm around her waist.

“Excuse me,” he mumbled.

“What do you need, Son?” Father asked.

“May Grady and I go out for a bit? Just to see some of the sights?”

“You know you and I are leaving mighty early in the morning. We have a long day ahead of us.”

“Yessir. We won’t be out late,” he pleaded.

Father looked at him like he wasn’t sure, like he was having a hard time deciding. Father never seemed to make a decision quickly. He shifted from foot to foot. Mother gave him a slight smile.

“Henry,” Mother said softly, like a mild admonishment.

Father’s expression changed. His eyes suddenly had that mischievous gleam they had when Father was teasing him.

He grinned back at Father.

“I expect you to be dressed and ready when I knock on your door in the morning,” Father said.

“Yessir,” Morris Bailey nodded and began to close the door.

“And I don’t want to look back a see you sleeping rather than handling your team tomorrow,” Father added.

“Yessir,” Morris Bailey nearly shouted and quickly closed the door, only to re-open it again just as quickly.

“Thank you,” he added as he closed the door again. He could hear both Mother and Father laughing as he ran back to the room he and Grady shared.


The sidewalks were lined with street lamps that created regular pools of soft, electric light on the sidewalk. The two boys walked from pool to pool, staring through the windows, some brightly lit, some dim. Conversation and the soft clatter of dishes spilled from the open door of a restaurant, laughter and the click of billiard balls from another storefront.

Morris Bailey had never seen so much of everything: churches, law offices, cotton factors, hardware stores, general stores, doctors’ offices, and restaurants. Greenwood was a world removed form Ackerman. He already found it hard to believe that he had thought of Ackerman as a town. He felt particularly fine and grown up, out on the town with his older brother.

He tried not to let Grady know it, but he looked up to his brother. He was quiet, strong, and steady. Grady’s voice had changed too. It must be grand to be fourteen, he thought, and almost grown. Suddenly, Morris Bailey spied a drug store.

“There. Let’s go in there,” he pointed across the street.

The boys waited as a couple of automobiles, a Ford and then a Winton rolled by, then trotted across the street. There were only a few patrons and the boys took seats at the counter. They placed their orders, and Morris Bailey slid a precious dime across the counter to pay for their treats, a Barq’s root beer for himself and a vanilla cream for Grady.

Morris Bailey swiveled his seat around to take it all in, sipping his Barq’s slowly to make it last, while Grady silently worked on his vanilla cream.

“That was mighty good,” Grady said wiping his mouth after draining the last sip. “Especially the price.”

Morris Bailey grinned at his older brother. Grady might be quiet most of the time, but Morris Bailey knew him well enough to appreciate his rare flashes of humor. After all, they had shared a bed ever since he could remember. They rode the bus and went to school together although they were two grades apart. They shared the same chores.

Morris Bailey slid off his stool.

“Let’s walk down to the river,” he suggested.

“Alright,” Grady answered with feigned resignation.

The boys crossed over to Fulton Street and turned north. The steel bridge was only two blocks away. They buttoned their coats and hurried through the increasing cold. Automobile traffic was heavier here, this being the only bridge over the Yazoo River in town. Electric lights on the metal framework cast crazy shadows on the road and reflected off of the steady flowing river, a dark, hissing, moving mass twenty feet below.

“That’s the biggest river I’ve ever seen. Bigger than the Big Black, and I thought that was big,” Morris Bailey said.

“That’s a lot of water,” Grady nodded. “Makes you wonder what the Mississippi must be like.”

“Do you think we’ll get to see it? The Mississippi?” Morris Bailey asked.

Grady turned to face him.

“Sure, I do,” he said. “You know how Father likes to hunt, and I have always heard that along the River is some of the best duck hunting there is.”

“Do you think Father will take us if he goes?” Morris Bailey asked.

His older brother turned and leaned against the rail, then grabbed his hat that the wind tried to snatch away. Settling his hat firmly, Grady stuffed both hands deeper into his pockets and stared up at the night sky.

“Of course, he will. Me anyway. I’m his favorite,” he said.

“Grady!” Morris Bailey exclaimed as he swung at his brother who only shrugged, taking the mock blow on his shoulder.

“You’re too easy,” Grady grinned. “I’m sure he’ll take us both.”

“I hope so.”

Grady shoved him back towards town.

“Let’s head back,” he said. “I’m ready for bed.”

“Me, too. I guess.”

He did not really want to go back. He was too excited, but he knew tomorrow would be a long day as Father had promised, and he had to be up and dressed before Father knocked on the door.


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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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