فصل 05

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فصل 05

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Chapter five

The Home Guard

Inman walked through days of cooling weather, blue skies, and empty roads. He avoided towns and met few people, and the few he met were mainly slaves. The nights were warm and lit by big moons, and day after day passed with nothing much happening. As he walked, Inman often thought of Ada, and of one evening in particular, that Christmas four years ago when she had fallen into his lap.

It seemed like another life, another world. He remembered her weight on his legs, her softness, and the sweet smell of her hair. She had leaned back and rested her head on his shoulder. Then she had sat up and he had put his hands on her shoulders. He had wanted to put his arms around her and hold her tight, but she had stood up and pulled at her skirt, and smoothed her hair.

“Well,” she had said. “Well.”

Inman had leaned forward, and taken her hand and put his lips to her wrist. Ada had slowly taken her hand away and then stood looking down at it.

“That was unexpected,” she said. Then she had walked away.

He was thinking of her once more when, one day in the early afternoon, he saw a figure in the distance behind him, walking fast. Inman waited until he came to a bend in the road, then he went into the woods and hid behind a tree trunk.

Soon, the walker came around the bend. He had no hair, and wore a long gray coat and carried a knapsack. As the man came nearer, it became plain that he had been badly beaten. When the man raised his blue eyes from the ground, Inman realized that it was the preacher.

Inman stepped into the road and said, “Hello.”

The preacher stopped and stared. “Good God,” he said.

“What happened to you?” said Inman.

“When they found me and read your note, a number of men gave me a beating. They threw my clothes in the river and shaved my head. I was told to get out of town or they would hang me.”

“I can imagine,” Inman said. “What happened to the girl?”

“Oh, Laura Foster. She couldn’t remember anything. When they discover she’s going to have a child, people will talk about her for a time. In two or three years she’ll marry an old man who wants a pretty woman.”

Inman started walking along the road and the preacher, whose name was Veasey, started walking with him.

“Since you appear to be going west, I’ll just walk with you, if you don’t mind,” he said.

“But I do mind,” Inman said, thinking it was better to go alone than with a fool for a friend. But Veasey continued to walk beside him, talking all the time. He seemed desperate to tell Inman the story of his life and share all the mistakes he had made. He was not a success as a preacher-that was clear even to Veasey.

“I’m going to Texas to start a new life,” Veasey said. “They say it’s a land of freedom. I’ll claim some land and keep cattle.”

“And how will you buy your first cow?” Inman asked.

“With this.” Veasey pulled a gun from under his coat. “I stole it a day or two ago.”

He sounded as pleased as a boy who had stolen a cake from a neighbor’s kitchen.

Inman and Veasey had not traveled far when they came to a tree that had been cut down. Beside it lay a long saw.

“Look,” Veasey said. “Someone would pay a lot of money for that.”

He went to pick it up and Inman said, “The woodcutters have just gone to get their dinners. They’ll be back soon.”

“I don’t know about that. I just found a saw by the road. I’ll sell it to the first man we meet,” Veasey replied.

“For a preacher, you seem very happy to take other people’s property,” Inman said.

They walked on and after a time saw a man standing below the road, looking at a large black bull that lay dead in the shallow water of a stream. The man saw them passing and shouted to them for help. Inman climbed down, and Veasey put the saw by the roadside and followed.

They stood beside the man and looked at the bull, which had flies all around it. The man was in late middle age, with a big chest, dark eyes, and a little round mouth.

“How do you aim to get it out?” Veasey asked.

The man pointed to a rope that lay beside him. Inman looked at him and Veasey, then at the bull.

“We could try to pull it,” he said. “But it’s a big animal. We’d do better to think of another way.”

The man ignored him and tied the rope onto the bull’s neck and they all took hold of the rope and pulled. The body did not move. After some more useless pulling, without saying anything, Inman put down the rope and went back up to the road. He picked up the saw and returned to the bull, putting the saw to its neck.

“Somebody take the other end of this thing,” he said.

Soon they had cut the animal up into sections, which they pulled out of the stream and left on the ground. The water was red with the animal’s blood.

“I wouldn’t drink that water for a few days,” Inman said.

“Come and eat supper with us,” the man said. “You can sleep in the barn.”

“Only if you’ll take that saw,” Inman replied.

“I expect good money for it,” Veasey said quickly.

“Take it for nothing,” said Inman.

The man picked up the saw and the three men walked down the road, which followed the stream. They had not walked far when the man stopped and went to a big tree with a hole in its trunk. He put his arm into the hole and pulled out a bottle.

“I’ve a number of these hidden around for the right moment,” he said.

They sat against the trunk of the tree and passed the bottle around. The man said his name was Junior, and he started telling stories about his youth and the number of women he had had. He said that all his troubles had begun when he had taken a wife, because three years after the wedding she had had a black baby. She had refused to name the father, and Junior had tried to separate from her, but the judge had not allowed it. She had later brought her two sisters to live with him and they had had children while unmarried.

Having told his stories, Junior led the two men to his house, which was only a short distance away. It was large and in such terrible condition that it stood at an angle to the ground. They walked into the main room, and Junior immediately went to a cupboard and took out a bottle and three cups. The floor, like the rest of the house, was at an angle, and when Inman sat down, he had to stop the chair from sliding over to the wall.

They drank for a time, and Inman became a little drunk. Soon, Veasey fell asleep where he sat. Then a young woman came wandering around the corner of the house and sat between Inman and Junior. She was fair-haired and round, and wore a cotton dress so thin and pale you could almost see her skin beneath it. Her hair was uncombed, and her dress was pulled up over her knees so that Inman could see the upper half of her legs.

Junior said to Inman, “Get this cow to feed you.”

He rose and walked away. Inman followed the woman, who was called Lila, to the back of the house. There was a barn and a henhouse, and in the middle of the yard there was a big fire. Two more pale females appeared, obviously the sisters of Lila. They were followed by two dark-haired boys and a thin, pretty girl of eight or ten. They all gathered about the fire and Lila said, “Supper done?”

Nobody said anything, and one of the sisters picked up a pot and took a deep drink. She passed it along, and when it got to Inman he drank from it, and it was like nothing he had drunk before. The pot went around a number of times.

The sisters took some loaves from the fire and gave them to the children, who tore up the bread and put large pieces into their mouths before disappearing into the house. Then Lila came and stood next to Inman. She put a hand on his shoulder and said, “You’re a big man.”

Inman could not think what to reply. Then one of the other sisters came over and said, “Come eat.” Inman carried his knapsack to the porch, and Lila reached out and put it down. As she turned to walk into the house, Inman took the knapsack and pushed it deep into a space between some wood piled high on the porch. He followed the women into the main room and saw that Veasey was still asleep. A lamp was smoking on the table, throwing shadows across the walls and floor. Lila sat Inman at the table, and one of the sisters brought a plate of meat in. Inman could not say what creature it came from. All three girls gathered around the table to watch him eat. Then Lila came over to him and rubbed her stomach against his shoulder.

“You’re a fine-looking thing,” she said.

Inman’s arms and legs felt strangely heavy and he was unable to think clearly. The young woman took his left hand and put it up under her skirt.

“Get out,” she said to the sisters, and they left.

She climbed onto the table and sat so that her legs were over him. Then she pulled the top of her dress down and leaned forward. At that moment the door opened and Junior appeared, holding a lamp in one hand and a gun in the other.

“What the hell’s going on?” he said.

Inman sat back in his chair and watched as Junior pointed the gun at him. “This would be a terrible place to die,” he thought, but he felt unable to move. Junior looked over to where Veasey slept. “Go wake him up,” he said to Lila, and she went to Veasey and bent over him. He woke with her chest in his face, and smiled. Until he saw the gun.

“Now you get the other ones,” Junior said to Lila. He walked over to her and hit her hard across the face. “Get up,” he said to Inman.

Pointing a gun at the two men, Junior made them walk out onto the porch. Inman moved slowly and with an effort. Up at the road he could see faint movements in the dark. As they came nearer, he saw a band of Home Guards and, behind them, another group of men who were chained to each other.

“You’re not the first one I’ve trapped here,” Junior told Inman. “I get five dollars for every deserter I catch.”

They tied Inman and Veasey to the string of prisoners and pushed them all against the wall of the house. None of the tied men said a word, but moved to the wall like half-dead creatures. They leaned back and immediately fell into open-mouthed sleep. But Inman and Veasey stayed awake, from time to time pulling uselessly at their ropes.

The Guards built up the fire in the yard until it stood as high as the walls of the house. After a time, one of them brought out a fiddle and started playing, while the other Guards drank from various pots. Then they danced around the fire and sometimes they could be seen pressing themselves against Lila or one of her sisters. When the men finally stopped dancing, Lila pushed herself against Inman. She looked him in the eye and said, “Bye bye.” Then the Guards pointed their guns at the chained men and marched them off down the road toward the east.

For several days, Inman walked tied by the wrists at the end of a long rope with fifteen other men. Veasey was tied directly in front of Inman, and he walked with his head down, unable to believe his bad luck. Some of the chained men were old, others only boys, all of them accused of being deserters or of being on the side of the Federals. Inman understood that they were either being taken to prison or being returned to the fighting. As they walked, some men shouted that they were innocent, and others cried and begged to be freed.

The prisoners walked for several days, hardly speaking to each other at all. For food they were given nothing, and for drink they simply bent over a stream and used their hands to hold the water. The old men grew especially tired, and when they could no longer walk, even when pushed by a gun, they were given a mixture of milk and corn. Some days the Guards made the prisoners walk all day and they slept at night. Some days they slept and rose at sunset and started walking and continued all night. It did not make much difference, because the woods were so thick that the sun never seemed to shine through them. Inman felt weak and faint. Hungry as well. The wound in his neck hurt, and he thought it might break open and start bleeding.

Then one night they stopped and the prisoners were left tied, without food or water. The men piled up like dogs to sleep on the ground. They were woken up in the early hours of the morning by the Guards shining lamps in their faces, and were told to stand.

The leader of the Guards said, “We had a talk and decided that you animals are just wasting our time.”

Then the Guards raised their guns. A boy, not much over twelve, fell to his knees and started crying. An old man, gray-headed, said, “You can’t mean to kill us here.”

One of the Guards put down his gun and looked at the leader and said, “I didn’t join the Home Guard to kill grandpas and little boys.”

The leader said to him, “Either you shoot them or you join them.”

Inman looked off into the dark woods. “This is where I will die,” he thought.

The firing started. Men and boys began falling all around. Veasey stepped forward and started shouting. He said, “It is not too late to stop this crime.” Then he was shot a number of times. The bullet that hit Inman had already passed through Veasey’s shoulder and as a result did not strike very hard. It hit Inman in the side of his head and came out behind his ear. He fell immediately but stayed partly conscious, unable to move or close his eyes. He watched as people died all around him and fell chained together.

When the firing was done, the Guards seemed unclear what to do next. Finally, one of the men said, “We’d better get them under ground.” They did the job badly, just digging out a shallow hole and throwing the men in and covering them with dirt. When they had finished, they climbed onto their horses and rode away.

Inman had fallen with his face on his arm and he was able to breathe because the earth around him was so thin and loose. He lay half conscious for hours, with the smell of the dirt pulling him down. Dying there seemed easier than not. But before the dawn of day, wild pigs came from the woods, attracted by the smell, and they started digging up the earth. Inman found that he was staring into the face of one of these creatures.

“Get away,” Inman said.

The animal moved back and looked at him, surprised. Inman sat up, his face covered in blood. He found the two holes in his head and felt them with his fingers. Then he started pulling at the rope with his hands, and Veasey appeared from the ground like a big fish, with his eyes open. Looking at him, Inman could not feel great sadness, but he did not feel glad either. By now, Inman guessed that he had seen thousands of men die. He feared his heart had been so touched by fire that he would never feel like an ordinary man again.

He looked around until he found a sharp stone and sat until sunrise rubbing his wrists against it. When he finally freed himself, he rolled Veasey over, face down. That was all he could do for him.

Inman set off walking west. All that morning he felt that his head would fall into a great number of pieces at his feet. By noon he came to a place where three roads met, and was unable to decide which one to take. He decided to sit by the side of the road and wait for a sign to show him which way he should go. After a time, he saw a yellow slave coming down the road driving a pair of bulls, one red and one white. They pulled a cart carrying a great number of green apples.

“God!” said the man, who was thin and strong. “What happened to you?”

He reached into the cart and threw a couple of apples to Inman, who ate them like a hungry dog. Then he looked up and said his thanks.

“Get on this cart and come with me,” the yellow man said.

Inman climbed up and sat with his back against the side of the cart. When the yellow man came near the farm where he was owned, he made Inman lie down and covered him with apples. Then he took the cart into a barn and hid Inman under the roof.

Inman rested there for some days, spending the time sleeping and being fed by the slaves on fried corn and pieces of meat.

When his legs felt strong again, he prepared to set off on his journey once more. His clothes had been boiled clean and the slaves had given him an old black hat. There was a half-moon in the sky, and Inman stood at the door to say goodbye to the yellow man.

“You listen,” the man said. “There are Federals everywhere around here. Which direction are you going?”


The yellow man gave Inman good directions, advising him to go into the mountains in order to avoid the Feds. He gave him cornmeal and meat, and drew a detailed map for him.

Inman put his hands in his pockets for money to give the man. He wanted to be generous but found his pockets empty and remembered that his money was in the knapsack hidden in Junior’s woodpile.

“I’d like to pay you but I’ve no money,” Inman said.

“I don’t think I’d take it anyway,” the man said.

Several nights later, Inman stood in front of Junior’s house. He went to the back porch and found his knapsack in the pile of wood. He took his pistol out of the knapsack and the weight of it felt good in his hands.

Light was coming from the door of the barn, and Inman went to the door, opened it slightly and looked inside. Junior stood rubbing salt on some meat. Inman opened the door fully and Junior raised his face and looked up at him. Inman stepped to Junior and struck him across the face with his pistol and then hit him until he lay flat on his back, blood pouring from his nose and the cuts on his head.

Inman bent down and stared at Junior’s face. The creature that lay on the ground was a horrible thing, but Inman feared that all men shared the same nature. He turned and went outside.

All that night he walked north. The yellow man was right, and horsemen passed again and again in the dark, but Inman could hear them coming in time to step into the bushes. When morning came there was fog, so he was able to light a fire in the woods and boil some meat and cornmeal. He stayed in the woods all day, sleeping and worrying when he heard the sound of horses, his mood as black as night.

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