Leora's Father

I

THE charred stumps still smouldered, and the air was full of smoke and a black, burning smell. Fire killed the seedlings and kept the saplings back, but it made the grass come sooner; thin new spears would come up to make early pasture for the cattle, scrawny from winter feeding on the sour marshes. It was better to burn the pasture and fatten a few cattle each year than wait for seedlings to grow into saplings and saplings into trees big enough to cut for lumber.

The fire had stopped down close to the hammock, where the path was wet; had n’t licked into the damp, heavy undergrowth beneath the cypress and swamp oak where palmettos grew big because they had plenty of water, because fire did n’t set them back. It was a place where partridges hid when the covey broke; where a yearling could bog down in the spring of the year and never be got out; and a place where a man could lose himself in the black of night or even in the daylight if he had n’t been born to the way of it. Clay Williams rode back through the black dust of the pasture to the county road, and the pony’s unshod hoofs made a soft shuffling in the sand. The fire was out, stopped by the hammock on the south, by the road on the west. Might as well go on home.

On the way he stopped at Lou Jared’s. He hitched his horse to the gatepost and walked round to the back of the house. He rattled the screen door and Mrs. Jared opened it. Lou was n’t home; he’d gone off with the wagon to get a load of lightwood; he’d be home directly. Would n’t Mr. Williams rest? There was fresh coffee stewing on the stove. Clay took off his hat and went into the kitchen. The room was hot and close; flies buzzed against the windowpanes and hung over a plate of biscuits covered with cheesecloth. Clay had no use for Mrs. Jared, a sharp-nosed, dirty-tongued woman, but the coffee she brought him was strong and bitter and good. He tilted sugar into it and stirred it with a fork. Mrs. Jared brought him some sweet pink cookies.

‘They’re store cakes, and they’re sure good,’ she said.

‘Yes’m. That’s right.’

Mrs. Jared poured some coffee for herself and sat close by the stove.

‘How’s your folks, Mr. Williams?’

‘Well, thank you, ma’am. We all been well this winter. Even Ma.’

‘She’s mighty pert to be so old.’

’Yes, ma’am, she is.’

Clay rolled a cigarette and looked out to see if Lou was coming. There was nobody in the yard. Just some hens scratching under the chinaberry tree.

Mrs. Jared dipped a piece of cooky into her coffee.

‘Your girl’s getting near growed.’

‘Leora? Yes’m, she’s big.’

‘She’ll be taking off with a man soon, I reckon.‘

‘Not Leora,’ Clay smiled. ‘She ain’t that big yet.’

‘A girl’s folks is the last to know — I mind when I first walked out. A girl don’t tell all she knows.’

‘I reckon I’d know.’

‘You’re mighty certain, Mr. Williams. I heard different down to the store.’

‘What’s that you heard?’ Clay’s question was quick and hard.

‘I heard how Leora been courting with some fella.’

‘With who?’

‘Didn’t nobody rightly know. Seems like he must of been a stranger. Leastways nobody from around here.’

Clay drew in a deep breath of smoke and let it out slowly. He stood up and put on his hat.

‘I reckon I’ll be going along, Mrs. Jared. Obliged to you for the coffee.’

‘Now don’t get to fretting about Leora, Mr. Williams. They’re all the same, girls. Pray God it won’t no harm come, but from what I heard — they was mighty loving.’

II

Clay kicked the hound lying in his path, and he jerked so hard on the rope reins that the pony looked around at him. He rode as hard as the pony would go down the county road, past the schoolhouse at the forks, along to the bridge over Johns Bayou. Instinctively he pulled in on the reins and went slowly over the loose boards, but once on the other side he pounded his heels into the pony’s sides and drove her fast through the woods to the store. He hated to spare the time to stop, but he had some grits and lard to get, and some tobacco.

The store was thick with smoke and talk, and a pitch-penny game was going on between the counters. Clay was short with his talk and his order, but he had to wait while Joe went out to the warehouse for the lard. The counter supply had run out, but there was plenty out back. Clay signed his slip, put the lard and grits into a gunny sack, and tied it behind his saddle. It was getting dusk. The pony wanted to get on home to her supper.

But now Clay was n’t in a hurry. He drew back on the reins and kept the pony down to an uneasy walk. When he came through the gate he was slow to fasten it, slow to take off the saddle and bridle and walk up to the house with the gunny sack.

Supper was about ready. There was meat stew on the stove and the plates were set on the table. Clay washed his face and hands in a basin by the kitchen door. He went in and sat down at the head of the table. His mother, old Mrs. Williams, was there, and his wife, Beedy, and Leora. Beedy dished up the stew and handed out biscuits hot from the oven. There was molasses to go on the biscuits, and strong coffee from the pot. None of the Williamses took long to eat, and Clay was the first to finish. He tilted back his chair and rolled a cigarette. The women cleared the dishes off the table and washed them in a pan of water warm from the stove. Clay watched the girl, Leora, as she moved back and forth across the room, putting away plates and cups and spoons and forks. She looked all right. She did n’t look any ways different. He’d notice sure if she looked different.

Then he remembered something he’d heard his father say once: ‘The first sign ain’t in their shape, but in the way they stand.’ It made him uneasy to remember that, and he watched Leora.

When the dishes were finished and the table wiped clean, the two older women sat in their rockers close to the stove. Leora had gone out with a bucket of slops for the hogs. Clay went to the door and stood watching. He saw her come around the corner of the smokehouse carrying the empty pail. She stopped by the water tap and rinsed out the pail, tipped it against the tap, and left it to dry. She straightened up with an effort and stood still, her hands against her breasts, her head drawn back. She turned and saw her father looking at her. He did n’t say anything; not then, nor later when she came into the kitchen. Pretty soon he went into the next room, took off his shoes and trousers, and went to bed. He was dog-tired.

Next morning Leora was gone. Nobody heard her go, not even old Mrs. Williams, who slept with her. But she was gone. She took what clothes she had and a little cash she’d saved from garden truck. She had a right to take it; it was hers. She did n’t leave a note, and nobody knew where she’d gone. Clay Williams knew why she’d gone, but he did n’t tell. He did n’t speak about it at all, except that he told his wife to tell folks Leora had gone up to Vestry to visit. And he knew there was no use to look for her. She had a reason to go.

III

The old steers and the cows were easy. They milled around some and bumped up against each other, but it was n’t much of a job to drive them into the pen and through the shoot down into the dipping vat. Some of them went in slowly and held their heads high, and came out the far end without clambering and slipping. Some of them kind of moaned when they hit the dip and splashed through in a hurry. But it wns the yearlings and the bulls that bellowed, and went in out of sight, and hurt themselves climbing up the end. It was a shame to have to scare a good bull half to death and like as not have him break his leg on the concrete or get hung up trying to jump the pen fence.

Let the government try to raise cattle once and see whether it would dip them for ticks. Ticks were bad, maybe, but a live bull with ticks was worth a dozen dead bulls without. No way to get around the dipping, though, unless you wanted to lose your cattle. The government men were right here watching. Came around regular twice a year, spring and fall. The only thing a man could do was to hide his cattle out, and then like as not they’d know about it. The old bull, the Brahman, did the hiding himself. All through the summer he was grazing in the woods as plain as could be, but when you went to get him in for dipping you might as well look for a still in the big swamp as to look for him. He’d been dipped once and he knew.

Clay had the Seymour boys, Barry and Vance, to help him. The government men were no help. They brought the stuff to put in the vat and then they sat and watched you sweat. A hell of a thing, to pay taxes so those fellows could watch you sweat. And kill your cattle, too.

Clay and the boys knocked off for lunch when half the cattle were run through, and Clay went down to the spring below to drink and to wash the cow smell off his hands. It was cool down there in the shade, and he sat up against a tree to eat his biscuits and pork. He got to thinking.

Six months since Leora had gone, and no word from her. She’d have had the baby by now. Had it and maybe buried it. The first baby died as often as not. Like his and Beedy’s did, and like his second girl’s, Marshie’s, did. And sometimes the mother died. By God, if Leora was dead he’d find that man and kill him. Wring his neck or shoot him full of holes. Lynching was as good for some whites as it was for Negroes.

He remembered the time they lynched the three Negroes who burned the warehouse. A good time ago that was, but he could see them yet. His brother, Jody, was deputy then, and Jody had taken the three boys to his house and claimed he was going to turn them over to the sheriff in Pascagoula. He tried to do it all right, but Clay and the others would n’t let him. Before daylight they rode out on the county road as far as the Bayou and waited for Jody. It was black as a nigger’s neck and the men talked to each other in whispers, except for young Bill Nelson, who tried to joke and laugh in the stillness, and when a strange animal cry came from the woods he said out loud, ‘Reckon it’s a wampus cat!’ and two or three of the boys laughed. Soon after, they heard the sound of Jody’s team coming down the road. They let him get clean up to the bridge before they stopped him. He had a rifle on the seat by him, but he did n’t use it because Clay had him covered. Clay kept his gun on him, and one fellow held the horses, and the others dragged the three handcuffed Negroes out of the back seat of the surrey. They knew all right what was coming to them, and they fell down on the road in the darkness so the men had to pick them up and carry them to the bridge. Nobody made any noise about it, except that Jody asked Clay to stop the hanging. He told him the law said the boys had a right to trial, but he did n’t argue much because he knew it was n’t any use.

One of the black boys yelled when they put the rope on him, but then he was still and the others were too scared to yell. It was over pretty soon — the three of them jerking down off the bridge girder, stretching the ropes down taut. Clay got into the surrey with Jody to drive home. When he looked back he could see the three bodies hanging there against the brightening sky.

Jody was still deputy. He was up there to-day in the Pascagoula swamp looking for moonshiners. Maybe he would n’t find any, but he knew the way in there, and he knew the way out. Sometimes, they said, government men went in and did n’t come out. A man with a still is kind of particular who finds him. But Jody knew enough not to mess with a man who just made a little ‘shinny’ to sell to his friends.

IV

Clay went back up to the pens and called Barry and Vance from their rest in the wagon shade. The government men were already standing against the fence, and one of them was marking things down in a book. He spoke to Clay.

‘You-all didn’t get many calves this year.’

‘That’s right,’ said Clay. ‘A heap of them died. Their mothers was sick of the dip, I guess.’

The man laughed.

‘The dip never made a cow so sick she’d lose her calf. It’s the fever ticks done it.’

The man’s voice was easy and friendly, and Clay could talk to him.

‘How come you-all don’t run us men through a trough?’ he asked. ‘We got ticks, too.’

‘Not fever ticks. It ain’t plain wood ticks does it. It’s fever ticks,’ the government man explained. ‘They get infected by something and they carry a fever to cattle and sheep, and it gets going all over the country — killing stock and making disease.’

‘You been reading books, I reckon.’

‘Yes, and I got word right direct from Washington. They’d ought to know.’

‘Maybe they know about fever ticks and then maybe they don’t. They don’t know nothing about bulls and calves.’

‘Well,’ said the government man, ’it’s the law and we got it to do.’

The Seymours and Clay got all the cattle run through in a couple of hours more — the yearlings and bulls, and the cows and steers and what calves they’d bothered to chase up out of the palmettos. They turned the frightened, bawling animals out of the pens and watched them go off into the woods. The job was done till next spring, and then there’d be a new bunch to drive up and run through. The government men wrote some more in the books and went away in their Ford. Clay left the Seymours by the gate and rode home by himself. It got dark early these fall evenings.

When he came into the yard, Jody was sitting on the back steps waiting. He got up and came to the shed while Clay took the saddle off the pony.

‘There’s something come up to-day, Clay. I got it to tell you.’

The two men leaned their shoulders against the shed door.

‘I was up in the swamp to-day,’ Jody said, ‘and I found me a still. A big still, too. Two fellas run it, and they had them a camp and a great big old still way up on the west branch. There was two men. One of them give up first thing and come with us peaceable. The other fella tried to get away, and I shot him. Killed him dead.’

Clay scratched his back against the door and Jody went on with his story.

‘He was nobody I ever see before. A big man with a kind of baby face. The other one said his name was Olly Powders. He come from Texas, he said, and he’d been around here a year or more. We buried him right there by the busted still.’

’Just as well to,’ said Clay. ‘Was there much shinny?’

‘A heap of it. We searched the cabin and found nigh onto a hundred gallons.’

’Was it good stuff?’

‘ I did n’t taste none of it,’ said Jody. ‘But I found something else in the cabin. Something I got to give you.’

Jody pulled an envelope out of his shirt pocket and handed it over to Clay. Then he got up and went over to the gate where his horse was hitched. He did n’t look back before he rode off.

Clay read the name on the envelope: ‘Olly Powders.’ Then he turned it over and read: ‘From Leora Williams, 511 River Street, Mobile.’ He held the letter between his hands. So that was it. So that was the man. Dead now. And a good thing he was. Clay pulled the letter half out of the envelope and then pushed it back. The man was dead and Leora did n’t know it, and he had her letter in his hand. It was dark to read. But he took the letter out and held a match to read the words by.

DEAR OLLY. He is a fine baby, the nurse says, and he takes after you. I made out fine when he come, the nurse says. I aim to take him to a place I heard of. Mrs. Lorrigan’s in Pascagoula. Then I am going home. Yours truly, LEORA.

Clay folded the letter and put it back in the envelope.

He carried a bucket of water to the kitchen and set it down by the door before he went in where the women were. He went to the stove and shoved the letter down into the quick-burning fire. Then he crossed back over to the basin and tried to wash the sweat and the smell of disinfectant from his face and arms and hands. It was a sick, sharp smell — enough to rile a man’s stomach.

V

Old Mrs. Williams had the fire going under the kettle before daylight, so she could get the clothes through boiling before Clay got around, because it was his day to kill the two mast-fatted hogs he had penned up, and he needed the iron kettle to scald off the hides. It took all the family to slaughter and skin and clean and cut and salt. Clay did the killing and cleaning. Old Mrs. Williams tended the hide and rendered the lard. Beedy was a good hand to make headcheese and to preserve away knuckles and feet. Leora could start the salting of the hams and sides and backs (the spare ribs and a cut from the quarter would be eaten fresh now) to make ready for smoking. Live oak wood burning on the clay floor of the smokehouse was a good smell, and the meat would be sweet and good for a year to come.

Vance Seymour was over to help this morning. He just eased in soon after breakfast, not to be paid or even because he’d been asked to come. Clay reasoned that there was some cause for his coming. The Seymours did n’t go out of their way to work. But Vance was pitching into it this morning, and talking and laughing while he worked. Clay could n’t figure it out.

Leora had a big table made out of pine boards on trestles close by the shed, and she was trimming and salting the chunks the men carried her. She was fast and good with her hands, and she did n’t waste time talking. She had n’t talked much since she came home. Seemed like she was quieter in all ways. Once when she first came back, a month ago, Clay had seen her cry. She was working with him in the garden, pulling potatoes. He could see the tears on her cheeks. But she never said anything, and nobody asked her questions. When she first walked in the house that day she came home, Beedy, because she was so tickled to see her, asked how she’d made out. And Leora said, fine, she’d been in Mobile. She’d worked for a spell in a fish-pack factory, she said, but then she quit and got her a job sewing. She’d made out all right. Old Mrs. Williams reckoned she was glad to be home. Yes, ma’am, she was, said Leora. And then there was no more questioning, and no more talk of where Leora’d been.

To-day she joked some with Vance, and it came to Clay, as it might have come earlier, that Vance had a mighty good reason to help with the hog killing. He was courting Leora, and a man wants his girl to see him willing and strong and generous. Maybe Vance was all those things, but he was n’t much ’count. None of the Seymours were. There was n’t one had ever come to much. He’d make a good husband for Leora, though. He was handy with a horse and in the woods, and Leora would keep him working. Clay would be willing that they should have a piece of land up back by the branch, and he would like to see Leora settled. He aimed to see her marry and have kids of her own. She had one, of course, and it was her own, more maybe than any other would be. Maybe she wanted that baby with her; maybe that’s what kept her so still — thinking of the baby over in Pascagoula.

Vance slung a whole side of the second hog over his shoulder and carried it to the table. He squatted on his heels and talked to Leora while she traced out the pattern of her cuts with the knife point. Vance was telling her about a cow he had, an old mooly he’d bought cheap from Bill Nelson. She gave good milk all summer, he said, but she was mean as a cow could be.

‘Sunday evening I got so danged mad at her I hauled off and hit her hard as I could in the bag. She ain’t give down a drop since.’

‘You ought n’t to done that, Vance.’

‘No, I reckon not, but she sure had me sore. I hate a mean cow.’

‘She’ll most likely come to give milk again before long. That is, if she ain’t dry.’

‘She’s no call to be dry. She was due to be fresh last month.’

Clay could hear them talking easy like that, and he felt better about Leora. She was a good girl even if she had gone off like she had. It was good to hear her laugh and to watch the quick, clean way she had of cutting the meat, finding the joints with the knife edge and chopping through the gristle with sure licks of the hatchet. He listened to her and Vance, and he heard Vance start to tell her about Jody’s raid on the big still. Clay made as if to stop him, but then he figured she had to hear it somehow. As well for Vance to tell her as another.

’He slipped up on them,’Vance was saying, ‘whilst they was setting the mash. Two of them, there was, working the biggest still you ever see, right in the clearing alongside the cabin. Jody says he and Tom held the guns on them and watched a good time before they hollered at them. Then the little fella stuck up his hands and walked right up to the guns. But the other one dodged down and made to run into the brush.’

‘ And Uncle Jody shot him ? ’

‘Sure did. Bang, like that. Let him have it smack in the back. Killed him like I seen him kill a crazy steer once. He never so much as rolled over, Jody says.’

‘They was strangers?’

‘ Yes. The little one he come from up near Tupelo somewheres. He said the other fella, the dead one, was from Texas — fella by name of Powders. He had no folks to know of, Jody says, so he buried him there, right there by the still where he shot him. Boy, they sure was making them some shinny! A hundred gallons or more, Jody says. He went back up and carried it to the government office. I wish I had me some right now.’

Clay saw Leora’s hands move slowly along the table, her face set white. She was smiling at Vance and nodding, but she had n’t heard a word since he said the name ‘Powders.’ She just smiled some more and picked up the knife to finish off the cut she was working on. Vance got up off his heels and got himself a drink of water before he came back to where Clay was. He was still thinking about those hundred gallons of ‘shinny.’ And Leora went on trimming and salting as if she’d heard nothing at all. Only she did n’t laugh again that day and she went off to bed soon after supper — claimed she was tired from the long time standing over the butcher table.

VI

Clay had time to do some figuring that night, and by morning he knew what he had to do. He told Beedy and she agreed to it. He was alone in the yard while he put the harness on the pony next morning. But after he had backed her into the wagon shafts and buckled the tugs down he looked and saw Leora standing by him. She had a kind of scared look on her face and acted as if she wanted to say something. Clay went to the house and came back out with a folded quilt on his arm. He got in the wagon and put the quilt by him on the seat. Leora watched him.

‘Where you going, Papa?’

‘I’m going to Pascagoula.’ He did n’t look at the girl while he spoke.

‘What for, Papa?’

‘I’m going over there to get that baby, and bring it home here.’ Leora did n’t speak, so he went on talking. ‘Reckon we can fix up some sort of place for it to sleep?’

Leora smiled at her father. ‘I reckon so,’ she said. ‘ It’s a small little thing.’

Clay jerked on the reins and the pony started for the gate. Leora stood there smiling, looking after him.