The First Day
July 1, 1876
Even though it was still dark, the heat of the early July morning covered him like a blanket too heavy to push away. Clad only in a pair of thin cotton drawers, he lay sweating
Beside him, his younger brother Cart snored softly, his feet moving back and forth as if trying to fit themselves into some elusive stirrups. Under an uncurtained window across the narrow room, his other brother Jem slept with one hand across his eyes. He considered the boy might be trying to shut out yesterday’s violence, but then Jem didn’t seem to care much about anything, good or bad, these days.
From the kitchen below came the familiar sounds of his mother getting breakfast. He didn’t know why she was up so early this morning. He and the boys would wait for breakfast. He listened, anticipating every move. There was the kindling going into the iron stove. Now she was setting the enamel coffeepot on the back of it. The sudden metallic thump of the heavy skillet banging clumsily against the edge of the stove made him sit up. Was the man back? But it was quiet. He lay down again, remembering other mornings.
When he was a little boy, mornings had been pleasant. His mother always sang as she got breakfast, her high, thin voice pausing briefly as the back door opened and closed. Then, he knew, his parents shared a quick kiss. In those days, his parents and his brothers and sisters never hesitated to show their affection for each other.
He’d heard people say how his parents’ marriage had been an unlikely match. His father was twice as old as his bride and had a motherless two-year-old daughter. But his mother had moved right in and started raising Virginia like she was her own. Then he, Hannah, Cart, and Jem had come along two years apart. He’d never thought of his father as old even when he fell over dead in the barn eleven years ago. The sight of his father’s body, twisted like Hannah’s rag doll and already turning dark, still haunted him.
They were provided for though. His father had a will leaving everything to his mother, and there were no debts. The court told her, when it convened in Hamilton six months later, that all she had to do was keep the farm going and pay the taxes every year. Hoag and Sam stayed on, even when they knew they were free. The farm was their home, too.
Things went well that first year. They missed their father, and their mother missed him most of all, but life went on pretty much as it had before. He and his brothers did the chores, and sometimes he helped Hoag and Sam plow. Hannah and Virginia tended the garden and worked in the house, and nothing much changed except their father wasn’t there anymore.
Everything was going to be all right, his mother said morning and evening. They were going to be just fine. And for awhile, until the man came back to Hamilton and married his mother, they were.
He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. Cart snored on, and Jem didn’t move. That was good. He wanted some time alone with his mother before they came down and before the little girls woke up. He pulled on his pants and went downstairs in his bare feet, buttoning his shirt on the way.
She didn’t turn around from the stove.
“Mamma,” he said again.
She shook her head. “Don’t talk to me anymore, Tom. I can’t do what you want.”
“We can do it, Mamma. Uncle Jess said he’d help us.”
“This place belonged to your father. I can’t leave it.”
“It doesn’t belong to him anymore!” He brought his clinched fist down hard on the long wooden table. His mother shied away as if he’d hit her instead of the table.
“He meant for you and the boys to have it someday.”
“You think we’ll get it? He’ll see we never get an acre, and you know it. Mamma, we got to go. We got to.”
He closed his eyes as she turned around, but not before he glimpsed the blue-black bruise covering almost the whole right side of her face. She’d been pretty once, and maybe she still would be if she could smile and laugh like before. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard her sing while she worked.
“You and the boys go.”
“And leave you here?”
“Randolph and Ginny are here.”
“What can they do? What’ve they done?”
“You and the boys go on to Jess and Eliza. Maybe you could see to Hannah’s . . .”
“We won’t go without you and the girls.”
She turned the ham in the skillet. “Go call your brothers to eat.”
|Coming November 15|
After breakfast he rode over to his half-sister’s place. She’d married barely six months after the man came. Said she couldn’t live in the same house with him but wouldn’t say why. So she married his mother’s younger brother Randolph, a good steady man who’d taken a worn-out farm and turned it into one of the best places on the White River. They had three little boys now.
Ginny was nursing the baby when he came in. He paused at the door. “Mornin’.”
She smiled. “Sit yourself down, Tom. Coffee’s still hot.”
“Had my fill, thanks.” He sat at the end of the table, lowering his eyes while she shifted little Tom to her other breast.
His eyes drifted around the cheerful room. Randolph had even built a pump inside so his wife wouldn’t have to carry water from the well out back. He was always doing things to make her comfortable. Things like Tom’s father had done for his wife once.
“Haven’t seen the boys in a while,” Ginny said.
“They keep busy. Jem’s not goin’ back to school next year.”
“Well, he’s fifteen.”
“Papa would’ve sent him to school in Fayetteville. Jem’s smart.”
He looked around again, scrunching the brim of his straw hat against his knees. “I want us to go to Texas. Uncle Jess said he’d help us get a start there.”
Ginny sighed. “I heard what happened yesterday.”
“Randolph saw Broome in town.”
Tom made a snorting sound through his nose. “If Broome hadn’t come along, I swear I’d of killed the. . .”
“Don’t talk like that, Tom,” she said sharply. “Don’t.”
He tightened his grip on the hat. “You should see her face.”
“Broome said he left.”
“Rode out like a king on that new stallion he bought with money that’s rightfully ours!”
“How’d it start?”
“He came home liquored up the night before. Mamma was up early to start the wash, and he said she was makin’ too much noise. When I came out of the barn, he was holdin’ her over the wash pot. I was scared to say anything, scared he’d let go and drop her in.”
“What’d you do?”
“Got around behind him and called him a name. When he turned around, Mamma got loose and ran in the house. He started for me, but then he saw I had the pitchfork. I kept on him ‘til I had him against the porch, and that’s when Broome rode up.”
“You wouldn’t have done it.”
“Yes, I would’ve.” He stood up and walked across the room and back, stopping in front of her. “We got to go, Ginny.”
“Randolph’ll give you the money for train fare. He’s said so before.”
“I got a little saved up from when I worked for Broome last year. But he made me give him part of it for room and board. By heaven, Ginny, room and board in my own home!”
“Shhh,” she soothed him. “I’ll talk to Randolph today.”
“Mamma says she won’t leave. Says the land was meant for the boys and me, but you know we’ll never get it. If I’d put him in his grave yesterday, some of his kin would’ve been at the door before breakfast tellin’ us to get out.”
“Maybe I could talk to her.”
“Would you try?”
“When Randolph comes in at noon, I’ll ask him to drive me over there.”
“Just in case he’s back, I’ll tie a cloth to the gate.”
She leaned over and laid the baby in the cradle and buttoned her dress. “All right.” She walked with him to the door, her hand resting on his arm. “You’re the one they all depend on now, Tom. Don’t do anything to make trouble for yourself.”
He bent to kiss the top of her head. “You’re a good woman, Ginny, like they say your mamma was a good woman.”
“Your mamma raised me.”
“She’s good, too. Too good for. . .”
“Go on now.” She gave him a small push.
He untied his horse, then paused with one foot in the stirrup. “Ginny, I been thinkin’ about Hannah lately. Did she ever talk to you? I know she was tore up when he ran Charlie Graby off, but I always figured they’d get back together.”
Ginny turned so her face was hidden in the shadow of the doorway. “It’s done now. You go on.”