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Seven

‘Stacey, go bring me your coat,’ Mama said a few days later as we gathered around the fire after supper. ‘I’ve got time to take up the sleeves now.

‘Uh-oh!’ exclaimed Christopher-John, then immediately opened his reader as Mama looked down at him.

Little Man cupped his hand and whispered to me, ‘Boy, now he’s gonna get it i’

‘Uh … th-that’s all right, Mama, stuttered Stacey. ‘The ccoat’s all right like it is.’

Mama opened her sewing box. ‘It’s not all right. Now go get it for me.’

Stacey stood up and started slowly toward his room. Little Man, Christopher-John, and I watched him closely, wondering what he was going to do. He· actually went into the room, but was gone only a moment before he reappeared and nervously clutched the back of his chair. ‘I ain’t got the coat, Mama,’ he said.

‘Not got the coat!’ cried Big Ma. Uncle Hammer looked up sharply from his paper, but remained silent.

‘Stacey,’ Mama said initably, ‘bring me that coat, boy,

‘But, Mama, I really ain’t got it ! I gave it to T.J.

T.J.!’ Mama exclaimed.

Yes, ma’am, Mama,’ Stacey answered, then went on hurriedly as Mama’s eyes glittered with· rising anger. ‘The coat was too big for me and … and T.J. said it made me look like … like a preacher … and he said since it fit him just right, he’d … he’d take it off my hands till I grow into it, then that away all the guys would stop laughing at me and calling me preacher.’ He paused, waiting for someone to speak: but the only sound was a heavy breathing and the crackle of burning hickory. Then, seeming more afraid of the silence than putting his neck further into the noose, he added, ‘But I didn’t give it to him for good, Mama just lent it to him till I get big enough for it and then …Stacey’s voice faded into an inaudible whisper as Mama slowly put the sewing box on the table behind her. I thought she was headed for the wide leather strap hanging in the kitchen, but she did not rise. In quiet anger she glared at Stacey and admonished, ‘In this house we do not give away what loved ones give to us. Now go bring me that coat.’

Backing away from her anger, Stacey turned to leave, but Uncle Hammer stopped him. ‘No,’ he said, ‘leave the coat where it is.’

Mama turned bewildered toward Uncle Hammer. ‘Hammer, what’re you saying! That’s the best coat Stacey’s ever had and probably ever will have as long as he lives in this house. David and I can’t afford a coat like that’.

Uncle Hammer leaned back in his chair, his eyes cold on Stacey. ‘Seems to me if Stacey’s not smart enough to hold on to a good coat, he don’t deserve it. As far as I’m concerned, T.J. can just keep that coat permanently. At least he knows a good thing when he sees it.’

‘Hammer,’ Big Ma said, ‘let the boy go get the coat. That T.J. probably done told him all sorts ‘Well, ain’t Stacey got a brain ! What the devil should he care what T.J. thinks or T.J. says ! Who is this T.J. anyway ! Does he put clothes on Stacey’s back or food in front of him!’ Uncle Hammer stood and walked over to Stacey as Little Man, Christopher-John, and I followed him fearfully with our eyes. ‘I suppose if T.J. told you it was summer- time out there and you should run buck naked down the road because everybody else was doing it, you’d do that too, huh !’

‘N-no sir,’ Stacey replied, looking at the floor.

‘Now you hear me good on this - look at me when I talk to you, boy !’ Immediately Stacey raised his head and looked at Uncle Hammer. ‘If you ain’t got the brains of a flea to see that this T,J. fellow made a fool of you, then you’ll never get anywhere in this world. It’s tough out there, boy, and as long as there are people, there’s gonna be somebody trying to take what you got and trying to drag you down. It’s up to you whether you let them or not. Now it seems to me you wanted that coat when I gave it to you, ain’t that right!’

Stacey managed a shaky ‘Yessir.

‘And anybody with any sense would know it’s a good thing, ain’t that right!’

This time Stacey could only nod.Then if you want something and it’s a good thing and you got it in the right way, you better hang on to it and don’t let nobody talk you out of it. You care what a lot of useless people say ‘bout you you’ll never get anywhere, ‘cause there’s a lotta folks don’t want you to make it. You understand what I’m telling you!’

‘Y-yessir, Uncle Hammer.’ Stacey stammered. Uncle Hammer turned then and went back to his paper without having laid a hand on Stacey, but Stacey shook visibly from the encounter.

Christopher-John, Little Man, and I exchanged apprehensive glances. I don’t know what they were thinking. but I for one was deciding right then and there not to do anything to rub Uncle Hammer the wrong way; I had no intention of ever facing a tongue-lashing like that. Papa’s bottom-warming whippings were quite enough for me, thank you, The last days of school before Christmas seemed interminable. Each night I fell asleep with the hope that the morning would bring Papa, and each morning when he wasn’t there I trudged to school consoling myself that he would be home when I returned. But the days passed, prickly cold and windy, and he did not come.

Added to the misery of the waiting and the cold was Lillian Jean, who managed to flounce past me with a superior smirk twice that week. I had already decided that she had had two flounces too many, but since I hadn’t yet decided how to handle the matter, I postponed doing anything until after I had had a chance to talk with Papa about the whole Strawberry business. I knew perfectly well that he would not tear out of the house after Mr. Simms as Uncle Hammer had done, for he always took time to think through any move he made, but he would certainly advise me on how to handle Lillian Jean.

Then too there was T.J., who, although not really my problem, was so obnoxiously flaunting Stacey’s wool coat during these cold days that I had just about decided to deflate him at the same time I took care of Lillian Jean. Ever since the night Mr.

Avery had brought him to the house to return the coat and he had been told by Uncle Hammer and a faltering Stacey that the coat was his, T.J. had been more un- bearable than usual. He now praised the coat from the wide tips of its lapels to the very edges of its deep hem. No one had ever had a finer coat; no one had ever looked better in such a coat; no one could ever hope to have such a coat again.

Stacey was restrained from plugging T.J.’s mouth by Uncle Hammer’s principle that a man did not blame others for his own stupidity; he learned from his mistake and be- came stronger for it. I, however, was not so restrained and as far as I was concerned, if T.J. kept up with this coat business, he could just hit the dirt at the same time as ‘Miss’ Lillian Jean.

The day before Christmas I awoke to the soft murmuring of quiet voices gathered in the midnight blackness of morning. BigMa was not beside me, and without a moment’s doubt I knew why she was gone. Jumping from the bed, my feet barely hitting the deerskin rug, I rushed into Mama’s room.

‘Oh, Papa !’ I cried. ‘I knew it was you !’

‘Ah, there’s my Cassie girl!’ Papa laughed, standing to catch me as I leapt into his arms.

By the dawn, the house smelled of Sunday: chicken frying, bacon sizzling, and smoke sausages baking. By evening, it reeked of Christmas. In the kitchen sweet-potato pies, egg-custard pies, and rich butter pound cakes cooled; a gigantic coon which Mr. Morrison, Uncle Hammer, and Stacey had secured in a night’s hunt baked in a sea of onions, garlic, and fat orangeyellow yams; and a choice sugar-cured ham brought from the smokehouse awaited its turn in the oven. In the heart of the house, where we had gathered after sup per, freshly cut branches of long-needled pines lay over the fireplace mantle adorned by winding vines of winter holly and bright red Christmas berries. And in the fireplace itself, in a black pan set on a high wire rack, peanuts roasted over the hickory fire as the waning light of day swiftly deepened into a fine velvet night speckled with white forerunners of a coming snow, and the warm sound of husky voices and rising laughter mingled in tales of sorrow and happiness of days past but not forgotten.

‘… Them watermelons of old man Ellis’ seemed like they just naturally tasted better than anybody else’s,’ said Papa, ‘and ole Hammer and me, we used to sneak up there when- ever it’d get so hot you couldn’t hardly move and take a couple of them melons on down to the pond and let them get real chilled. Then, talking ‘bout eating! We did some kind of good eating.

‘Papa, you was stealing!’ asked an astonished Little Man. Although he usually strongly disapproved of being held, he was now reclining comfortably in Papa’s lap.

‘Well …’ Papa said, ‘not exactly. What we’d do was ex- change one of the melons from our patch for his. Course it was still wrong for us to do it, but at the time it seemed all right -

‘Problem was, though,’ laughed Uncle Hammer, ‘old man Ellis grew them ole fat green round watermelons and ours was long and striped -

‘And Mr. Ellis was always right particular ‘bout his melons,’ interjected Papa. ‘He took the longest time to figure out what we was up to, but, Lord, Lord, when he did-

  • You should’ve seen us run,’ Uncle Hammer said, standing. He shot one hand against and past the other. ‘Ma - an ! We wasgone! And that ole man was right behind us with a hickory stick hitting us up side the head ‘Ow - weee! That ole man could run!’ cried Papa. ‘I didn’t know nobody’s legs could move that fast.’

Big Ma chuckled. ‘And as I recalls, your Papa ‘bout wore y’all out when Mr. Ellis told him what y’all’d been up to. Course, you know all them Ellises was natural-born runners. Y’all remember Mr. Ellis’ brother, Tom Lee? Well, one time he…

Through the evening Papa and Uncle Hammer and Big Ma and Mr. Morrison and Mama lent us their memories, acting out their tales with stage worthy skills, imitating the characters in voice, manner, and action so well that the listeners held their sides with laughter. It was a good warm time. But as the night deepened and the peanuts in the pan grew shallow, the voices grew hushed, and Mr. Morrison said :

‘… They come down like ghosts that Christmas of seventy-six. Them was hard times like now and my family was living in a shantytown right outside Shreveport. Reconstruction was just ‘bout over then, and them Northern soldiers was tired of being in the South and they didn’t hardly care ‘bout no black folks in shantytown. And them Southern whites, they was tired of the Northern soldiers and free Negroes, and they was trying to turn things back ‘round to how they used to be. And the colored folks … well, we was just tired. Warn’t hardly no work, and during them years I s’pose it was jus’ ‘bout as hard being free as it was being a slave…

‘That night they come - I can remember just as good - it was told, so cold we had to huddle all ‘gainst each other just trying to keep warm, and two boys -‘bout eighteen or nineteen, I reckon - come knocking on my daddy’s door. They was scairt, clean out of their heads with fright. They’d just come back from Shreveport. Some white woman done accused them of molestin’

her and they didn’t know nowhere to run so they come up to my daddy’s ‘cause he had a good head and he was big, bigger than me. He was strong too. So strong he could break a man’s leg easy as if he was snapping a twig - I seen him do it that night. And the white folks was scairt of him. But my daddy didn’t hardly have time to finish hearing them boys’ story when them devilish night men swept down -

‘Night men!’ I echoed in a shrill, dry whisper. Stacey sitting beside me on the floor stiffened: Christopher-John nudged me knowingly: Little Man leaned forward on Papa’s lap.

‘David …’ Mama started, but Papa enfolded her slender hand in his and said quietly, ‘These are things they need to hear, baby.

It’s their history.Mama sat back, her hand still in Papa’s, her eyes wary. But Mr. Morrison seemed not to notice.’… swept down like locusts.’ he continued in a faraway voice. ‘Burst in on us with their Rebel sabers, hacking and killing, burning us out. Didn’t care who they kilt. We warn’t nothing to them. No better than dogs. Kilt babies and old women. Didn’t matter.

He gazed into the fire. 2’My sisters got kilt in they fire, but my Mama got me out…’ His voice faded and he touched the scars on his neck. ‘She tried to get back into the house to save the girls, but she couldn’t. Them night men was all over her and she threw me - just threw me like I was a ball - hard as she could, trying to get me away from them. Then she fought. Fought like a wild thing right ‘side my daddy. They was both of them from breeded stock and they was strong like bulls ‘Breeded stock !’ I said.’What’s that !’

‘Cassie, don’t interrupt Mr. Morrison,’ said Mama, but Mr. Morrison turned from the fire and explained. ‘Well, Cassie, during slavery there was some farms that mated folks like animals to produce more slaves. Breeding slaves brought a lot of money for them slave owners, ‘specially after the government said they couldn’t bring no more slaves from Africa, and they produced all kinds of slaves to sell on the block. And folks with enough money, white men and even free black men could buy ‘zactly what they wanted. My folks was bred for strength like they folks and they grand- folks ‘fore ‘em. Didn’t matter none what they thought ‘bout the idea. Didn’t nobody care.

‘But my mama and daddy they loved each other and they loved us children, and that Christmas they fought them demons out of hell like avenging angels of the Lord.’ He turned back toward the fire and grew very quiet; then he raised his head and looked at us. ‘They died that night. Them night men kilt ‘em, Some folks tell me I can’t remember what happened that Christmas - I warn’t hardly six years old - but I remembers all right. I makes myself remember.

He grew silent again and no one spoke. Big Ma poked absently at the red-eyed logs with the poker, but no one else stirred.

Finally Mr. Morrison stood, wished us a good night, and left.

Uncle Hammer stood also. ‘Guess I’ll turn in too. It’s near one o’clock.’

‘Wait awhile, Hammer,’ said Big Ma. ‘Now you and David both home, I gotta talk to y’all - ‘bout the land…

Visions of night riders and fire mixed in a caldron of fear awakened me long before dawn. Automatically, I rolled to- ward the comforting presence of Big Ma, but she was not beside me.

A soft light still crept under the door from Mama and Papa’s room and I immediately hurried toward it. As I opened the doorand stepped into the shadowy room, lit now only by the flickering yellow of the low fire, Big Ma was saying,’… y’all start messin’ with these folks down in here, no telling what’ll happen.’

‘Is it better to just sit back and complain about how they do us!’ Mama snapped, her voice rising. ‘Everybody from Smellings Creek t4 Strawberry knows it was them but what do we do about it! We line their pockets with our few pennies and send our children up to their store to learn things they’ve got no business learning. The older children are drinking regularly there now, even though they don’t have any money to pay, and the Wallaces are simply adding the liquor charges to the family bill … just more money for them as they ruin our young people. As I see it the least we can do is stop shopping there. It may not be real justice, but it’ll hurt them and we’ll have done something. Mr. Turner and the Averys and the Laniers and over two dozen other families, and perhaps even more, say they’ll think about not shopping there if they can get credit somewhere else. We owe it to the Berrys -

‘Frankly.’ interrupted Uncle Hammer, ‘I’d rather burn them out myself.

‘Hammer, you go to burning and we’ll have nothing,’ Mama retorted. ‘Ain’t gonna have nothing noway.’ replied Uncle Hammer. ‘You think by shopping up at Vicksburg you gonna drive them Wallaces out, then you got no idea of how things work down here. You forgetting Harlan Granger backs that store!’

‘Mary, child, Hammer’s right,’ Big Ma said. ‘I’m doing what I told y’all ‘bout this land ‘cause I don’t want some legal thing to come up after I’m gone that let that Harlan Granger get this place. But we go backing folks’ credit with our land, we’d lose it sure; and we do that, I couldn’t face Paul Edward -

‘I didn’t say we should back it,’ Mama said, ‘but we’re just about the only family with any collateral at all.’

Papa looked up from the fire. That may be, honey, but we put up this land to back this thing and it’ll be just like giving it away. Times like they are, it ain’t likely that any of these people can pay the bills they make - as much as they might mean to - and if they can’t pay, where would we be! We’ve got no cash money to pay other folks’ debts.’ He shook his head. ‘No …

we’ll have to find another way… Go to Vicks- burg maybe and see what we can arrange -‘ His eyes fell upon me in the shadows and he leaned forward. ‘Cassie! What is it, sugar?’

‘Nothin’, Papa,’ I mumbled. ‘I just woke up, that’s all. Mama started to rise but Papa motioned her down and got up himself.

Escorting me back to bed, he said gently, ‘Got no cause for bad dreams, Cassie girl. Not tonight anyway.’Papa,’ I said, snuggling under the warm quilts as he tucked them around me, ‘we gonna lose our land!’

Papa reached out and softly touched my face in the darkness. ‘If you remember nothing else in your whole life, Cassie girl, remember this: We ain’t never gonna lose this land. You believe that !’

‘Yessir, Papa.

‘Then go to sleep. Christmas is coming.

‘Books !’ cried Little Man on Christmas morning.

For Stacey there was The Count of Monte Cristo; for me. The Three Musketeers: and for Christopher-John and Little Man, two different volumes of Aesop’s Fables. On the inside cover of each book in Mama’s fine hand was written the name of the owner. Mine read: ‘This book is the property of Miss Cassie Deborah Logan. Christmas, Ig~3.’

‘Man sold me them books told me these two was written by a black man,’ Papa said, opening my book and pointing to a picture of a man in a long, fancy coat and a wigful of curly hair that fell to his shoulders. ‘Name of Alexander Dumas, a French fellow. His daddy was a mulatto and his grand mama was a slave down on one of them islands - Martinique, it says here. Man said to me, they right hard reading for children, but I told him he didn’t know my babies. They can’t read ‘em now, I said, they’ll grow into ‘em.’

In addition to the books there was a sockful of once-a- year store-bought licorice, oranges, and bananas for each of us and from Uncle Hammer a dress and a sweater for me, and a sweater and a pair of pants each for Christopher-John and Little man. But nothing compared to the books. Little Man, who treasured clothes above all else, carefully laid his new pants and sweater aside and dashed for a clean sheet of brown paper to make a cover for his book, and through- out the day as he lay upon the deerskin rug looking at the bright, shining pictures of faraway places, turning each page as if it were gold, he would suddenly squint down at his hands, glance at the page he had just turned, then dash into the kitchen to wash again - just to make sure.

After the church services, the Averys returned home with us for Christmas dinner. All eight of the Avery children, including the four pre-schoolers, crowded into the kitchen with the boys and me, smelling the delicious aromas and awaiting the call to eat. But only the eldest girls, who were helping Mama, Big Ma, and Mrs. Avery prepare the finishing touches to the meal, were allowed to remain. The rest of us were continuously being shooed out by Big Ma. Finally, the announcement we wereall waiting for was made and we were allowed to begin the Christmas feast.

The meal lasted for over two hours through firsts, seconds, and thirds, talk and laughter, and finally dessert. When we were finished the boys and I, with Claude and T.J., went outside, but the half-inch layer of snow made everything sloppy, so we went back in and joined the adults by the fire. Shortly afterward, there was a timid knock on the front door. Stacey opened the door and found Jeremy Simms standing there looking frozen and very frightened as he peered into the bright room. Everyone turned to stare at him. Stacey glanced around at Papa, then back at Jeremy, ‘You - you wanna come in!’ he asked awkwardly.

Jeremy nodded and stepped hesitantly inside. As Stacey motioned him toward the fire, Uncle Hammer’s eyes narrowed, and he said to Papa, ‘He looks like a Simms.’

‘I believe he is,’ agreed Papa.

Then what the devil -

‘Let me handle it.’ Papa said.

Jeremy, who had heard, flushed a deep red and quickly handed Mama a small burlap bag.’I - I brung them for y’all.’ Mama took the bag. As she opened it, I peeped over her shoulder: the bag was full of nuts.

‘Nuts!’ I questioned. ‘Nuts ! Why we got more nuts now than we know what -

‘Cassie!’ Mama scowled. ‘What have I told you about that mouth of yours!’ Then she turned to Jeremy. ‘This is very thoughtful of you, Jeremy, and we appreciate them. Thank you.’

Jeremy nodded slightly as if he did not know how to accept her thanks, and stiffly handed a slender, paper- wrapped object to Stacey. ‘Made this for ya,’ he said.

Stacey looked at Papa to see if he should take it. For a long moment Papa studied Jeremy, then he nodded. ‘It - it ain’t much,’

stammered Jeremy as Stacey tore off the wrapping. ‘M-made it myself.’ Stacey slid his fingers down the smooth, sanded back of the wooden flute. ‘Go ‘head and try it,’ said a pleased Jeremy. ‘It blows real nice.’

Again Stacey looked at Papa, but this time Papa gave him no indication what he should do. ‘Thanks, Jeremy, it’s real nice,’ he said finally. Then, flute in hand, he stood uncomfortably by the door waiting for Jeremy to leave.When Jeremy did not move, Papa asked, ‘You Charlie Simms’s boy!’

Jeremy nodded. Y-yessir.

‘Your daddy know you here!’

Jeremy bit his lower lip, and looked at his feet. ‘N-no sir, I reckon not.’

‘Then I expect you’d better be getting on home, son, ‘fore he come looking for you.’

‘Yessir,’ said Jeremy, backing away.

As he reached the door, I cried after him, ‘Merry Christmas, Jeremy!’

Jeremy looked back and smiled shyly.

‘Merry Christmas to y’all too.’

T.J. made no comment on Jeremy’s visit until both Papa and Uncle Hammer had left the room. He was afraid of Papa and downright terrified of Uncle Hammer, so he never had much to say when either was around, but now that they had gone outside with Mr. Avery, he said, ‘You ain’t gonna keep that thing, are you!’

Stacey looked malevolently at r.J. and I knew that he was thinking of the coat. ‘Yeah. I’m gonna keep it. Why ?’

T.J. shrugged. ‘Nothin’. ‘Ceptin’ i sure wouldn’t want no whistle some ole white boy been blowin’ on.

I watched Stacey closely to see if he was going to allow himself to be goaded to T.J.; he was not. ‘Ah, stuff it, T.J., he ordered.

‘Ah. man, don’t get me wrong.’ said T.J. quickly. ‘You wanna keep the ole thing, it’s up to you. But for me, some- body give me something, I want it to be something fine - like that pretty little pearl-handled pistol…

When the Averys had left. Stacey asked, ‘Papa, how come Jeremy give me this flute! I mean, I didn’t give him nothin’.’‘Maybe you did give him something,’ said Papa, lighting his pipe.

‘No sir, Papa. I ain’t never given him nothin’ !’

’Not even your friendship!’

‘Well … not really. I mean … he’s a crazy kid and he likes to walk to school with us, but ‘You like him !’

Stacey frowned, thinking. ‘I told him I didn’t want him walking with us, but he keeps on anyway and the white kids laugh at him ‘cause he do. But he don’t seem to let it bother him none… I s’pose I like him all right. Is that wrong?’

‘No.’ Papa said carefully. ‘That ain’t wrong.

Actually, he’s much easier to get along with than T.J., Stacey went on. ‘And I s’pose if I let him, he could be a better friend than T.J.

Papa took the pipe from his mouth, rubbed his moustache and spoke quietly. ‘Far as I’m concerned, friendship between black and white don’t mean that much ‘cause it usually ain’t on a equal basis. Right now you and Jeremy might get along fine, but in a few years he’ll think of himself as a man but you’ll probably still be a boy to him. And if he feels that way, he’ll turn on you in a minute.’

‘But Papa, I don’t think Jeremy’d be that way.

‘Papa’s eyes narrowed and his resemblance to Uncle Hammer increased. ‘We Logans don’t have much to do with white folks.

You know why! ‘Cause white folks mean trouble. You see blacks hanging ‘round with whites, they’re headed for trouble.

Maybe one day whites and blacks can be real friends, but right now the country ain’t built that way. Now you could be right’bout Jeremy making a much finer friend than T.J. ever will be. The trouble is, down here in Mississippi, it costs too much to find out… So I think you’d better not try.

Stacey looked full into Papa’s face and read his meaning.

On my way to bed, I stopped by the boys’ room to retrieve an orange Christopher-John had swiped from my stocking andspied Stacey fingering the flute. As I stood in the doorway, he lingered over it, then, carefully rewrapping it, placed it in his box of treasured things. I never saw the flute again.

The day after Christmas Papa summoned Stacey, Christopher-John, Little Man, and me into the barn. We had hoped against hope that Mama would not tell him about our trip to the Wallace store or, if she did, that he would forget what he had promised. We should have known better. Mama always told Papa everything, and Papa never forgot anything.

After we had received our punishment, we emerged sore and teary-eyed and watched Papa, Uncle Hammer, and Mr.

Morrison climb into the Packard and speed away. Mama said they were going to Vicksburg, ‘Why Vicksburg, Mama !’ asked Stacey.

They’ve got some business to attend to, she said shortly. ‘Come on now, get busy. We’ve got chores to do.

In the late afternoon, shortly after the men had returned, Mr. Jamison arrived. He brought with him a fruit cake sent by Mrs.

Jamison and a bag of lemon drops for each of the boys and me. Mama allowed us to say our thanks, then sent us outside. We played for a while in the patches of snow that remained, but when that grew tiresome, I popped into the house to see what was happening; Mama ordered me to pop back out again .

‘What they doing!’ asked Little Man.

‘Looking at a whole bunch of papers,’ I said. ‘And Uncle Hammer was signing something.

‘What kind of papers !’ asked Stacey.

I shrugged. ‘I dunno. But Mr. Jamison was saying something’bout selling the land.’

‘Selling the land!’ questioned Stacey.’You sure!’

I nodded.’He said: “Y’all sign them papers and Miz Caroline got no more legal right to this land. Can’t sell it, can’t sign on it.

It’ll be in y’all’s name and it’ll take both of y’all to do anything with it.” ‘

‘Both of who?’I shrugged again. ‘Papa and Uncle Hammer, I guess.’ After a while it grew chilly and we went inside. Mr. Jamison, sitting next to Big Ma, was putting some papers into his briefcase. ‘I hope you feel better now that that’s Bone, Miz Caroline,’ he said, his voice a soft mixture of Southern aristocracy and Northern schooling.

‘Hammer and David, they been takin’ care of things a long time now,’ Big Ma said. ‘Them and Mary works hard to pay the taxes and mortgage on this here place and I been wantin’ to make sure while I’m still breathin’ that they gets title to this place under the law without no trouble. I ain’t wantin’ a whole lot of problems after I’m gone ‘bout who gots rights to this land.’ She paused a moment, then added, ‘That happens sometimes, you know.

Mr. Jamison nodded. He was a long, thin man in his mid- fifties with a perfect laywer face, so placid that it was difficult to guess what thoughts lay behind it.

-The boys and I sat down silently at the study table, and the silence allowed us to stay. I figured that Mr. Jamison would be leaving now. His business was evidently finished and despite the fact that the family thought well of him, he was not considered a friend in the usual sense, and there seemed no reason for him to stay longer. But now Mr. Jamison put his briefcase back on the floor, indicating that he was not leaving, and looked first at Big Ma and Mama, then across at Papa and Uncle Hammer.

‘There’s talk that some of the people around here are looking to shop in Vicksburg,’ he said.

Big Ma looked around at Papa and Uncle Hammer, but neither of them acknowledged her glance; their eyes were pinned on Mr. Jamison.

There’s talk too why folks are looking to shop there.’ He paused, met Papa’s eyes, then Uncle Hammer’s, and went on. ‘As you know, my family has roots in Vicksburg - we’ve a number of friends there still. I got a call from one of them this morning.

Said you were looking to find credit for about thirty families.’

Papa and Uncle Hammer neither affirmed nor denied this. ‘You know as well as I do that credit doesn’t come easy these days.’ continued Mr. Jamison. ‘You expect to get any, you’ll need something to back it.’

‘I reckon we know that,’ said Uncle Hammer.

Mr. Jamison glanced at Uncle Hammer and nodded. ‘I reckoned you did. But as far as I can see, the only thing any of you got to back that credit with is this land … and I’d hate to see you put it up.’‘Why’s that!’ asked Uncle Hammer, wary of his interest.

‘Because you’d lose it.’

The fire popped and the room grew silent. Then Papa said, ‘What you getting at!’ ‘I’ll back the credit.’

Again, silence. Mr. Jamison allowed Papa and Uncle Hammer several moments to search for a motive behind his mask like face. ‘I’m a Southerner, born and bred, but that doesn’t mean I approve of all that goes on here, and there are a lot of other white people who feel the same.’

‘If you and so many others feel that way.’ said Uncle Hammer with a wry sneer, ‘then how come them Wallaces ain’t in jail i’

‘Hammer-‘ Big Ma started.

‘Because,’ answered Mr. Jamison candidly, ‘there aren’t enough of those same white people who would admit how they feel, or even if they did, would hang a white man for killing a black one. It’s as simple as that.’

Uncle Hammer smiled slightly and shook his head, but his eyes showed a grudging respect for Mr. Jamison.

‘Backing the loan will be strictly a business matter. In the fall when the crops are in, those people who’ve bought the goods in Vicksburg will have to pay for them. If they don’t, then I’ll have to. Of course, as a businessman. I’m hoping that I won’t have to put out a penny - my own cash box isn’t exactly overflowing - so there’ll have to be a credit limit. Still, it would lend me a great deal of satisfaction to know that I was a part of all this.’ He looked around, ‘What do you think!’

‘You know it ain’t hardly likely,’ Papa said, ‘that after accounts are figured, there’ll be any money to pay any debts at all, except those up at that Wallace store.’

Mr. Jamison nodded knowingly. ‘But the offer still stands.’ Papa inhaled deeply. ‘Well, then, I’d say it’s up to those people who’d be buying on your signature. They want to do it, then we got no say in it. We always pay cash.

‘You know if you sign that credit,’ said Uncle Hammer, ‘you won’t be the most popular man down in here. You thought about that!’

‘Yes,’ said Mr. Jamison thoughtfully, ‘my wife and I discussed it fully. We realize what could happen… But I’m justwondering if you do. Besides the fact that a number of white folks around here resent this land you’ve got and your independent attitude, there’s Harlan Granger. Now I’ve known Harlan all my life, and he’s not going to like this.

I wanted to ask what Mr. Granger had to do with anything, but common sense told me that I would only earn eviction by asking. But then Mr. Jamison went on and explained without any prodding from me.

‘Ever since we were boys, Harlan’s lived in the past. His grandmother filled him with all kinds of tales about the glory of the South before the war. You know, back then the Grangers had one of the biggest plantations in the state and Spokane County practically belonged to them … and they thought it did too. They were consulted about everything concerning this area and they felt it was up to them to see that things worked smoothly, according to the law - a law basically for whites. Well, Harlan feels the same now as his grandmother did back then. He also feels strongly about this land and he resents the fact that you won’t sell it back to him. You back the credit with it now and he’ll seize this opportunity to take it away from you. You can count on it.’

He paused, and when he spoke again his voice had grown so quiet I had to lean forward to hear his next words. ‘And if you continue to encourage people not to shop at the Wallace store, you could still lose it. Don’t forget that Harlan leases that store land to the Wallaces and gets a hefty percentage of its revenue. Before he let the Wallaces set up storekeeping, he was only getting his sharecropper’s money. Now he gets a nice bit of Montier’s and Harrison’s share- cropper’s money too since both of those plantations are too small to have a store, and he’s not hardly going to stand for your interfering with it.

‘But even more important than all that, you’re pointing a finger right at the Wallaces with this boycott business. You’re not only accusing them of murder, which in this case would be only a minor consideration because the man killed was black, but you’re saying they should be punished for it. That they should be punished just as if they had killed a white man, and punishment of a white man for a wrong done to a black man would denote equality. Now that is what Harlan Granger absolutely will not permit.’

Mr. Jamison was silent, waiting; no one else spoke and he went on again.

‘What John Henry Berry and his brother were accused of - making advances to a white woman - goes against the grain of Harlan Granger and most other white folks in this community more than anything else, you know that. Harlan may not believe in the methods of the Wallaces, but he’ll definitely support them. Believe me on that.’

Mr. Jamison picked up his briefcase, ran his fingers through his graying hair, and met Papa’s eyes. ‘The sad thing is, youknow in the end you can’t beat him or the Wallaces.’

Papa looked down at the boys and me awaiting his reply, then nodded slightly, as if he agreed. ‘Still,’ he said, ‘I want these children to know we tried, and what we can’t do now, maybe one day they will.’

‘I do hope that’s so, David,’ murmured Mr. Jamison going to the door. ‘I truly hope that’s so.’

In the days that followed Mr. Jamison’s visit, Papa, Mama, and Uncle Hammer went to the houses of those families who were considering shopping in Vicksburg. On the fourth day Papa and Uncle Hammer again went to Vicksburg, but this time in the wagon with Mr. Morrison. Their journey took two days and when they returned, the wagon was loaded with store-bought goods.

‘What’s all that!’ I asked Papa as he jumped from the wagon. ‘That for us !’

‘No, Cassie girl. It’s things folks ordered from Vicksburg.

I wanted to ask more questions about the trip, but Papa seemed in a hurry to be off again and my questions went unanswered until the following day, when Mr. Granger arrived. Christopher-John and I were drawing water from the well when the silver Packard glided to a smooth stop in the drive and Mr. Granger stepped out. He stared sour-faced at Uncle Hammer’s Packard in the barn, then opened the gate to the front yard and stepped briskly across the lawn to the house.

Hastily Christopher-John and I tugged on the well rope, pulled up the water tub, and poured the water into the bucket. Each of us gripping a side of the heavy bucket, we hurried to the back porch where we deposited it, then tip- toed silently through the empty kitchen to the door leading to Mama and Papa’s room. Little Man and Stacey, just leaving the room under Mama’s orders, allowed the door to remain slightly cracked, and all four of us huddled against it stepladder fashion.

‘You sure giving folks something to talk ‘bout with that car of yours, Hammer,’ Mr. Granger said in his folksy dialect as he sat down with a grunt across from Papa. In spite of his college education he always spoke this way. ‘What they got you doing up North! Bootlegging whiskey!’ He laughed dryly. indicating that the question was to be taken lightly, but his eyes tight on Uncle Hammer showed that he in- tended to have an answer.

Uncle Hammer, leaning against the fireplace mantel, did not laugh. ‘Don’t need to bootleg,’ he said sullenly. ‘Up there I got me a man’s job and they pay me a man’s wages for it.’Mr. Granger studied Uncle Hammer. Uncle Hammer wore, as he had every day since he had arrived, sharply creased pants, a vest over a snow-white shirt, and shoes that shone like midnight. ‘You right citified, ain’t you! Course you always did think you was too good to work in the fields like other folks.’

‘Naw, that ain’t it.’ said Uncle Hammer. ‘I just ain’t never figured fifty cents a day was worth a child’s time, let alone a man’s wages.’ Uncle Hammer said nothing else; he didn’t need to. Everyone knew that fifty cents was the top price paid to any day laborer, man, woman, or child, hired to work in the Granger fields.

Mr. Granger ran his tongue around his teeth, making his lips protrude in odd half circles, then he turned from Uncle Hammer to Papa. ‘Some folks tell me y’all running a regular traveling store up here. How tell a fellow can get just ‘bout anything he wants from up at Tate’s in Vicksburg if he just lets y’all know,

Papa met Mr. Granger’s eyes, but did not speak,

Mr. Granger shook his head. ‘Seems to me you folks are just stirring up something. Y’all got roots in this community. Even got yourselves that loan Paul Edward made from the First National Bank up in Strawberry for that eastern two hundred acres.

Course now with times like they are. that mortgage could come due anytime .., and if it comes due and y’all ain’t got the money to pay it, y’all could lose this place.’

‘Ain’t gonna lose it.’ said Uncle Hammer flatly.

Mr. Granger glanced up at Uncle Hammer, then back to Papa. He took a cigar from his pocket, then a knife to cut off the tip.

After he had thrown the tip into the fire, he settled back in his chair and lit the cigar while Papa, Mama, Uncle Hammer, and Big Ma waited for him to get on. Then he said : ‘This is a fine community. Got fine folks in it - both white and colored.

Whatever’s bothering you people, y’all just tell me. We’ll get it straightened out without all this big to-do.

Uncle Hammer laughed outright. Mr. Granger looked up sharply, but Uncle Hammer eyed him insolently, a smile still on his lips. Mr. Granger, watching him, cautioned sternly. ‘I don’t like trouble here. This is a quiet and peaceful place… I aim to see it stays that way.’ Turning back to Papa, he continued. ‘Whatever problems we have, we can work them out. I ain’t gonna hide that I think y’all making a big mistake, both for the community and for yourselves, going all the way down to Vicksburg to do your shopping. That don’t seem very neighborly -

‘Neither does burning.’ said Uncle Hammer.Mr. Granger puffed deeply on his cigar and did not look at Uncle Hammer. When he spoke again it was to Big Ma. His voice was harsh, but he made no comment on what Uncle Hammer had said. ‘I don’t think your Paul Edward would’ve condoned something like this and risked losing this place. How come you let your boys go do it !’

Big Ma smoothed the lap of her dress with her hands, They grown and it’s they land. I got no more say in it.’

Mr. Granger’s eyes showed no surprise, but he pursed his lips again and ran his tongue around his teeth. ‘The price of cotton’s mighty low, y’all know that.’ he said finally. ‘Could be that I’ll have to charge my people more of their crops next summer just to make ends meet… I’d hate to do it, ‘cause if I did my people wouldn’t hardly have enough to buy winter stores, let alone be able to pay their debts…

There was a tense, waiting silence before his glance slid to Papa again.

‘Mr. Joe Higgins up at First National told me that he couldn’t hardly honor a loan to folks who go around stirring up a lot of bad feelings in the community -

‘And especially stirring the colored folks out of their place.’ interjected Uncle Hammer calmly.

Mr. Granger paled, but did not turn to Uncle Hammer. ‘Money’s too scarce, he continued as if he had not heard, ‘and folks like that are a poor risk. You ready to lose your land, David, because of this thing!’

Papa was lighting his pipe. He did not look up until the flame had caught in the tobacco and held there. Then he turned to Mr.

Granger. ‘Two hundred acres of this place been Logan land for almost fifty years now, the other two hundred for fifteen.

We’ve been through bad times and good times but we ain’t never lost none of it. Ain’t gonna start now.

Mr. Granger said quietly, ‘It was Granger land before it was Logan.’

‘Slave land,’ said Papa.

Mr. Granger nodded. ‘Wouldn’t have lost this section if it hadn’t been stolen by your Yankee carpetbaggers after the war. But y’all keep on playing Santa Claus and I’m gonna get it back - real easy. I want you to know that I plan to do whatever I need to, to keep peace down in here.’

Papa took the pipe from his mouth and stared into the fire. When he faced Mr. Granger again his voice was very quiet, verydistinct, very sure. ‘You being white, you can just ‘bout plan on anything you want, But I tell you this one thing: You plan on getting this land, you’re planning on the wrong thing,

Mama’s hand crossed almost unseen to Papa’s arm.

Mr. Granger looked up slyly, ‘There’s lots of ways of stop ping you, David.’

Papa impaled Mr. Granger with an icy stare. Then you’d better make them good,’ he said.

Mr. Granger stood to go, a smile creeping smugly over his lips as if he knew a secret but refused to tell. He glanced at Uncle Hammer, then turned and left, leaving the silence behind him,

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