Chapter 1: Jay
YOU can see the trees dead from last year's drought all through the close green woods of the hills. You can see the crusty limbs of blackjack oaks lifted up like arms in prayer above them dark green leaves. Them trees are dead and will rot to the roots and blow over in the first big wind but all around them new life is growing and the spring is turning into summer and the moss is on the limestone rocks on the hillsides like fur on a squirrel. It's fresh and green again and the drought is a year away and nature forgets, I reckon, like men and women forget. If there was only some way to make men remember the world would be a better place to live in. But they forget and nature forgets and each year they hope fer something better and they try to live on hope. It's deep-rooted in them like it is in nature and like a seedling all they want is a drop of water fer themselves and a ray of sunlight.
Jay Strickland drove along a narrow road in the shallow valley. It was still moist from recent rainfall and the loam was a dark red, following like a stream the contour of the countryside, winding among boulders and tree stumps into the wild silent heart of the hill district. Partly hidden from the road by a field of green corn was a farmhouse, a three-roomed building with weathered clapboard walls and a stone chimney, with roof shingles silvery as moonlight. Behind the house slabs of limestone were spaced like steps down a lumpy hillside to the cornfield, where there was a low fence of smooth gray-and-green stones. The fence encircled the field and ran close beside the road, and Jay's eyes turned to it.
I always git that feeling of peace and remembering when I see that old fence. Some of them mossy stones I wedged in place with my own hands and you could tell my age by some of them, the little ones that was the biggest I could carry then and I couldn't even lift 'em to the top of the fence, and then the hefty ones I was so proud of when I toted 'em down from the hill. Many's the time I shot fox-squirrels off that fence with my twenty-two and year after year I hoed suckers out of that cornfield. This is home, all right. This is the land I was born on and born to and it's a fine feeling each time I come back to it.
Jay turned his five-year-old car into a lane leading to the farmhouse. He sounded the horn, and when he entered an open space before the house he saw his father sitting in the smooth hollow worn in the topmost stone of the steps. Jay waved his hand and got out of the car.
"Jay, is that you?"
"Sure enough, Dad . . . . Say, you're lookin' fine."
"Come up to the house, boy, come up to the house. I'm glad to see you." Crosby Strickland wore a faded hunting-cap and his face was thin and brown beneath it. His nose was long and high-bridged, and his cheeks were sagging and leathery, with deep hollows.
Dad is gitting old, all right, or he wouldn't have to put a hand on the porch pillar to pull himself up. It's good to grip his hand again and see them gray eyes of his, but his fingers is stiff as pieces of wood and his hand on my shoulder is a dead weight.
"You don't come out as often as you ought to, Jay."
"I'm kept pretty busy, Dad."
"I know you are. But it seems I only see you when we got trouble, Jay .... But you're a help to us then, and Christ knows there's plenty trouble now."
Jay nodded, and looked with a frown at the hard red ground beside the greenish stone steps.
"Set down, Jay, anyhow. How would you like a swaller of corn?"
Jay looked up, into the branches of the post-oak tree beside the house and grinned. "I sure would, Dad."
"Set down, son, while I fetch the jug."
I wonder did Dad make that keg fast yonder in the top of the tree or did Belle do it. He always did swear that whisky aged better in a keg swaying in a tree-top than any other way and God knows he's right because everybody says that old Crosby Strickland makes the best corn whisky in the valley, the best in Oklahoma, maybe. Many's the time I've hoisted a keg up yonder and tied it in a crotch.
Crosby Strickland brought an earthenware jug out on the porch and sat down beside Jay on the stone step. Jay crooked his thumb through the handle of the jug and let its weight lie along his forearm as he drank some of the whisky.
"It's a good batch, ain't it?" Crosby said with an anxious lift in his voice.
" It's as smooth as ever, Dad. The best there is."
"Belle gives me a hand with it, Jay, now that you and Pat are gone."
There was a moment of silence and the two men looked at each other.
"The thing I don't like, Jay, is that these hills are gittin' busy as a main drag. They got this here plan to dam up the valley to make a lake and the talk is they want to buy up all the land in the valley."
"I know about that lake, Dad. It will give work to about five hunderd men."
"I don't want to have to leave this farm, boy. But the trouble is with all them Gov'ment men in and out somebody's liable to stumble onto the still."
"I wouldn't worry about that, Dad. Nobody gives a damn these days."
"No, but it's aggravatin'. Anyhow, nowadays people can drive over to Arkansas and buy their whisky legal. I don't sell corn like we used to, Jay, back in the old days when I had you and I had Pat, too, and I don't git nothin' fer it." He took a tobacco can from his hip pocket and as he shook tobacco into the crusty bowl of his corncob pipe his hand trembled.
"I wish both you boys had stayed here in the hills," the old man said slowly, staring at the cornfield. He took off the hunting-cap, and his long gray hair fell across his forehead, where the skin was blue-white and drawn tight over his skull.
Jay cleared his throat. "Dad, have you heard from Pat?"
"Belle went out to look fer him this morning, Jay." Crosby struck a match to light his pipe, taking his time, sucking the flame down into the bowl. "She thinks she knows where he's at."
"She would if anybody would. I reckon Pat will head back this way, all right."
"Sure he will. There's no better place to hide out than these here hills. Once he fits off into the blackjack they can hunt from now to doomsday and never find him."
"Has Belle got any notion where to look?"
"Well, they was always going off into the hills together, to places they knowed about, and maybe there was a sort of agreement. Belle was positive certain she would find him."
"Pat will have to leave this part of the country," Jay said. "He can't hide in them hills fer the rest of his life. Damn it, I wish he'd listened to me."
"He's a reckless boy, a foolhardy one. That devil was always in him, even when he was a boy. You helped to keep it down, Jay, because Pat admires you and he always tried to be like you. If you'd of stayed home you might of stopped him. You're steady, Jay, and I don't quarrel none with your idears, but you'd be better off here and I wish to Christ you'd never left."
"I don't know," Jay said. "I doubt if I could of done anything with Pat. It was bound to happen, the way things was. There ain't no work fer Pat and he felt he had to git his hands on some money. I reckon he done it fer Belle and Billy as much as anything."
"I reckon he did."
"There just ain't no chance fer people like us, Dad, that's the whole thing. Poor people don't never have a chance, not from the day they're born, unless they stick together fer their own good. But Pat always wanted to act by himself."
"I'm not saying you're wrong," Crosby said in a slow, careful voice. "I now things have been bad fer us and I can see why you couldn't stand fer it, neither of you. It made you want to go out and fight to make things better and it made Pat want to go out and kick the world in the pants. I wish to Christ I could of stopped him."
"It was bound to happen, Dad."
"I reckon so, but Pat ain't really bad, Jay."
"Of course he ain't."
Crosby gave his head a shake and looked at Jay strangely down his long nose, with a tense, nearsighted expression. "You can see the difference in your faces, Jay. You both got that thin mouth, but yours is stiff and Pat's has got that droop at the corner, that damn-you look. You put that together with his red hair and that hellion laugh and you got Pat."
"If it wasn't fer that red hair of Pat's he might of got away," Jay said. "It was his red hair they recognized. I guess there ain't a doubt it was Pat done it."
"Oh, sure, he done it." Crosby sighed and picked up the jug.
"If they catch him it's ninety-nine years in the Pen, Dad. That's the penalty fer armed robbery down in Texas."
"Ninety-nine years," Crosby said slowly, putting down the jug. He had not taken a drink.
"We've got to git Pat out of this part of the country, all right," Jay said.
"Sure enough we do."
"Belle rode off early this morning and she aint come back. Maybe she found Pat." Crosby shook his head and spat tobacco juice that clung like a brown spider to a stalk of broomweed beside the porch. "The whole state is on the watch fer him. There was a couple of Laws passed through here asking questions, and that Lamar Baker was out this way and he asked about Pat, too, but friendly."
"I don't know how friendly," Jay said. "Because Lamar Baker come right out of the valley here don't mean he's our friend. He's always lookin' fer his chance and I wouldn't put nothin' past him."
"Him and Pat always been friends, Jay."
"Maybe so. But let me tell you something, Dad. Lamar is runnin' fer county attorney, and it ain't but three weeks to primary day. He went to a union member over by Boggs and he give him twenty dollars to deliver that Boggs ballot box on primary day. I seen Lamar and I told him that was where he made one big mistake and it would sure as hell defeat him fer county attorney. I told him we was organized over to Boggs and we made up our minds in a body and our votes wasn't fer sale and when that box is opened on primary day there won't be no union votes fer him. I told him he was goin' down Salt Crick and he was pretty sore."
Crosby smiled and nodded. "Anyhow, he asked me a lot of questions, it seemed like, but I didn't tell him nothing."
Jay put one hand on his father's shoulder. "Pat is sure lucky to have you and Belle to come back to, Dad. You've been a good father to both of us." Jay's fingers tightened on the thin muscle and bone of Crosby's shoulder. "Don't you try to put any of the blame fer Pat on yourself, Dad. We both of us know you're a grand old man."
"I'm glad you said that, son. I done my best, Christ knows." Crosby turned his face to Jay, his eyes squinted. "I'm an old man now. I'm about played out, Jay, and you're a comfort to me. You make up fer Pat, and I don't mean to say I ain't proud of Pat. He's a fine boy and I'm proud of his spirit even if it took him on the road he took. By Jesus, I like a man with fight in him, and you and Pat both got plenty of that, but by Jesus Christ, I ought to be able to do something fer the boy now he's in trouble. That's what a father's fer."
Crosby bent his head, and Jay was silent, waiting for his father to look up. When he did he turned his face to Jay and his lips drew back in a smile, showing his spaced yellow teeth. He said slowly, "What the hell, Jay, let's down some of that corn."
"Here's the jug, Dad."
The old man took the jug in both hands, and the crooked smile still turned up the corners of his lips. "Why, Christ," he said, "that one little corn patch yonder has made enough good whisky to fill a lake in this here valley." He laughed and lifted up the jug.
He's himself again, old hard-bit Crosby Strickland. He's a fine old man arid I'm proud to have him fer my father and it's mean to see the way things are and to know how he feels about it. He thinks he missed being the kind of a father he ought to been and God knows he done his best to discipline Pat. But he never could be real strict with him or with me, even when he knowed he'd ought to, and he used to call on me fer advice even when I was just a shaver. And every time Pat got into a mess it give him a laugh because it was only bad boy trouble then. I remember he'd say Why, the little pip-squeak got away with it whenever he caught Pat up to something, like when he found him with that can of tobacco he stole from the store, caught him rolling his first cigarette. God damn it, jay, what are we going to do with him? he used to say, and he'd like to die laughing. And there was the time at the barn dance when we was up in the hayloft with them other kids and Pat had his underlip stuck out and he was feeling his red hair and he wanted to go home and he'd be damned if he'd stay. They was dancing to "Old Dan Tucker" and when the music stopped the men stepped outside where the jugs was and when they come back the fiddler cussed and stomped his boot-heels on the floor and the whole party had to turn out to look fer the fiddle. But they couldn't never find it and it busted up the party and we was halfway home when it come to Dad what had happened. I remember he slapped his leg so hard that his horse jumped half out of its skin and the old mare us two was riding double on shied into the ditch. Damn you, Pat, the old man yelled, what did you do with that fiddle? And Pat yelled back I chucked it down the well and he dug his heels in the old mare's fat sides. I remember Dad was roaring and yelling like a locomotive at a crossing while we galloped on down the road, but he didn't try to overtake us. And when he come up to the house Pat had already took off into the woods with a blanket. All Dad said the next morning was You're a spiteful little bastard, Pat. Someday you'll git your rear end in a sling .... And that's just what has happened, but I guess Dad still thinks of Pat the same way, only a kid, restless and reckless, and even now, after he robbed a bank, he thinks the same. But still you can see the sadness in his face and I guess he feels he's to blame. The smile wrinkles he used to have at the corners of his eyes are crow's feet now, and his skin is like horsehide and sags from his chin. He's an old man and he's lonely and just because he tries not to catch my eye it's plainer to see that he ain't happy in his mind. I hate to go off and leave him but I got to do it.
Jay got to his feet, and Crosby raised his eyes anxiously. "You ain't leavin', Jay?"
"I've got to, Dad. There's an Indian down the road I want to see."
"He calls himself Joseph Paul. You know him"
"Sure, I know that Creek. I got a walnut stick he carved fer me. Bought it fer two bits." Crosby stood up beside Jay. "What do you want of him, Jay, more of this union business?"
"You won't git no Indians in the union."
"If I don't it won't be fer want of trying."
"Them fullbloods will stick together among theirselves, but they won't sign up with no tenant farmers' union, Jay. They stay to theirselves."
"I know that. I know them Indians, Jay. So long as one of 'em has got a stalk of corn it belongs to the whole caboodle. You got to admire that part of it."
It ain't no use to talk that over with him and it ain't never no use to argue with Dad.
"As soon as Belle comes home, Dad, I want you to let me know," Jay said. "Send Belle into town in the truck to fetch me."
"All right, Jay."
"And if she finds him, Dad, we got to git hold of some money somehow. We got to git Pat safe out of this part of the country.”
"Don't I know that, Jay!"
Crosby followed Jay to the car, standing by while Jay started the engine, saying: "It was fine to see you again, son. Don't make it so long' between visits."
"I'll git out again as soon as I can, and the minute you hear from Pat you let me know," Jay said. As he drove away he glanced at the mirror above the windshield and saw his father reflected small and stiff.
I want to git away fast and put trees between me and the house like I could leave behind me the sadness there and not have it follow me along the road. But that I couldn't never do. I sure do hope Belle finds Pat and when she does and I see him I'm going to talk to that boy and I'm going to tell him fer Dad's sake and fer Belle and Billy he's got to behave. He's in deep now, just too damned deep.
Jay drove very fast the two miles along the valley road to Joseph Paul's house, a one-roomed shack on the slope of a hill beside a rocky field that the Indian had left off farming in disgust several seasons ago. Jay stopped his car at the side of the road and started up the hill.
Yonder's that fullblood setting in the shade whittling on a walnut stick. He's got that white pith helmet he always wears setting back on his head and his brown forehead is wet with sweat you can see rolling down the creases of his fat face. It's funny how a man as poor as him can be so fat. You can see it in rolls on that hairless chest with his shirt open like it is.
"Hello, Joseph Paul," Jay said.
"Long time no see you, Jay." The fat Indian got to his feet and held out his hand. His face was solemn; the clasp of his fingers was strong. Jay sat down on a sun-bleached chopping log with hardly any bark left on the smooth hardwood.
"Make plenty stick, two-tree chair," Joseph Paul said with a spread of his hand toward the walnut whittlings. "Sell him in town."
"Dad said you made him a walking stick."
"Ay-uh." The Indian deposited himself with care on a rickety wild-cherry chair with a plaited hickory bark seat. He sat quite still with his palms on his knees, looking at Jay.
"Doing any work these days, Joseph Paul?" Jay asked.
"Make stick and chair. Work damn plenty."
"Sure." Jay smiled and watched the Indian take off his pith helmet and fan his face.
That look of his tells a lot. It tells how the fullbloods wanted to hold their lands in common and how the white man broke them down and how when the land was finally allotted they got the rockiest and the wildest hillside land where they couldn't grow a stalk of corn. And it tells me how to go about it.
"You don't farm fer nobody else, do you?" Jay asked.
Joseph Paul shook his head.
"I wondered if you did. Lots of Indians do."
"Some do, Jay."
Jay lit a cigarette and heard the Indian saying: "See Lamar Baker two day ago."
Jay took the cigarette out of his mouth with a slow deliberate motion and blew smoke against the end of it to scatter the ashes.
"Him ask about Pat," Joseph Paul said. "Pretty busy fella, Lamar. Him talk damn plenty. Him want Indian vote."
"What did you tell him?"
"Don't know not'ing. Don't say not'ing."
"That's just as well," Jay said. "I guess you know they claim Pat robbed a bank down in Texas and maybe Lamar wants to find him and git the credit. I don't know. He's running fer office. Maybe he wants to know because he's a friend of Pat's. I wouldn't know which it was."
The Indian's faint smile showed broken yellow teeth. The lobes of his ears joined his brown cheeks in a point toward his square jaw and when he smiled his ears moved. His black eyes looked steadily at Jay.
"Joseph Paul, I guess you know I'm working fer the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union?" The Indian nodded and Jay watched his face as he talked. "I'm starting a drive now. Fer one thing I want to git the spinach workers organized solid before the next crop is made. We ain't going to have people cutting spinach in the fields fer four cents a basket no more, Joseph. We'll strike the whole industry if we have to and we'll git ten, twelve and maybe fifteen cents." Jay waited for the Indian's nod and kept watching his face. "Joseph, I've got to have your help."
You can't never tell what he's thinking. You can only speak your piece and wait fer his answer. But he listens to me.
"We need the Indians in the union and the Indians need the union, Joseph. Some of you Creeks pick spinach and a few farm tenant land. Our program in the end is to git land of their own fer all them people. It's time the farmers here in Oklahoma had a square deal, and I don't need to tell you, Joseph, that the Indians never had a square deal. You Civilized Tribes Indians are the forgotten men in this part of the country. You was drove away from your homes in the old South by soldiers with guns who hunted you out of the hills like animals and put you in chains like animals. You was marched into the wilderness, into the swamps, and you died like flies coming to the Indian Territory, to the land they promised you fer as long as the grass grows and the water flows. But they didn't keep that promise very long. You fullbloods wanted to hold your lands in common because the wise men of your tribes knowed that if it was allotted individually the white man would beat you out of it. But it was allotted and look what you got—rocky upland farms that will hardly grow a stalk of corn. Like that field of yours yonder, Joseph Paul."
"My pappy follow Chito Harjo," Joseph Paul said.
"Chito Harjo—Crazy Snake. Him Creek chief and him say fer Indian keep land all toget'er, all one, all fer tribe, and white man attack Indians in camp fer powwow. Crazy Snake catched, put in chains. Hair cut off. Him die."
"I know about Crazy Snake," Jay said. "He knowed what he was talking about. He knowed that allotment was just a way to cheat the Indian and we know now that he was right. Your father had a hunderd and sixty acres of land allotted to him, didn't he, Joseph?"
The Indian nodded, and spread his hands.
"And you got forty acres left," Jay said. "You maybe wouldn't have that, if it wasn't your homestead and is tax exempt and can't be mortgaged. The other hunderd and twenty acres was took away from you years ago and Crazy Snake knowed that would happen. He knowed the fullblood would be fair game fer cheating and exploitation. And now to make a living most of you got to farm another man's land and plow his fields and harvest his crops and you're no better off than slaves, no better off than the slaves your tribe used to own in the old South. Did you ever stop and think of that? I tell you, Joseph Paul, the Indians can't go on retreating. There's no place to retreat to. You've got to turn around and make a fight and you've got to do it together and you've got to do it with other people in the same fix. What you-all need is organization, our organization. You can help us and we can help you." Jay paused, then lowered his voice. "You go around a lot, Joseph. You see plenty of Indians of all tribes and you could help us out. How about it? Will you do it? Will you join up?"
"Sure,"' Joseph Paul said, and Jay grinned and took out his handkerchief to wipe his face.
"Pretty good speech," the Indian said, with a faint smile. "But no call to make it, Jay. Sure me help."
"I thought you would, Joseph," Jay said. "I hoped you would. Now this is what you can do. You can sound out the Indians you know and git those who think our way to talk to their friends. We want to git the idea moving, we want to start them talking union, and then we'll follow it up. This is my pIan, and I'd like to know what you think about it." Jay stopped to light another cigarette, watching the Indian through the smoke. "I thought we'd have a stomp-dance off in the hills some place, a stomp-dance and barbecue, and we'll git as many Indians together as we can, and you'll talk to them and maybe I'll make a speech. What do you think?"
Joseph Paul took a pipe from the forepocket of his overalls. The bowl was a .50 caliber cartridge shell, soldered to a metal stem. He shook a small amount of tobacco into it from a sack and tamped it with his little finger. He lit the tobacco and took a quick, delicate puff, then turned to Jay with a placid, Oriental look. He said quietly: "Indian like stomp-dance."
"Spread the idea around some," Jay said. "How about a Saturday night, a couple of weeks from now?"
"Big stomp-dance come pretty soon. Soon as moon big Indian have stomp-dance over by Boggs. Plenty eats. Dance all night. You go t'ere, Jay?"
"That's Cherokee, ain't it?"
"Cherokee. All day big powwow, Jay, play Indian ball. See plenty Indian t'ere."
"Yes, I reckon it's worth a try, Joseph, but them Indians are lined up in politics. I don't believe we'll git no place. The point is I want to start things moving quick as I can. I've got a drive under way among the nigros and there'll be a barbecue over to Tanzey on Saturday. Why don't you come over?"
"There'll be plenty of roast pig. Bring along a few friends, Joseph, the ones who are interested."
"Our slogan is land fer the landless," Jay said. "Some day we aim to abolish farm tenancy altogether, and right away we're putting in co-operative stores where a man can git his money's worth. And fer them that has land we're going to help put through Farm Security loans that will give you five years' tax exemption and forty years to pay off. And if we can keep a progressive government in this country we'll have them debts wrote off the books. And listen here, Joseph Paul, the Tenant Farmers' Union is the Indian's friend and we want every Indian in the district to bring his grievances to us and we'll take 'em up and we'll git action on 'em. You can depend on that. We're all together in this. We've all got to work together, Indians, nigros and whites. That's what we've got to make people see, Joseph. We've got to break down prejudice and work together and everybody's got to help."
He don't put out much but you can depend on this Indian. He shakes your hand the way a man ought to do it.
"I've got to head back to town now, and I'll see you Saturday at Tanzey," Jay said. "Right?"
Their hands still were clasped and Jay stood looking at the bleak wall of the house and the strip of gunny sack nailed across a broken windowpane. "If you hear anything about Pat, Joseph Paul—if you do, let me know."
"Sure do, Jay."
Jay went down the hill to his car, and before he got in turned and waved to the Indian, who was standing at the head of the path. Joseph Paul moved the white sunhelmet in a slow arc, and Jay got in the car. He turned it around and drove back out of the valley, following a road that ran along the northern ridge, dense with second-growth yellow pine and blackjack oak. Among the trees it was impossible to tell the contour of the valley; and even from the wild ridge top trees almost screened all vision.
I hate to think of the valley filled with water, of water covering up them trees where I've hunted squirrels and treed coons all my life. I know them woods like some people know a city's streets. The Government's done some fine work and I reckon this here lake will help the country, but I don't like to see that valley dammed up. Everybody's got their heads full of soil erosion and resettlement and God knows it's got to come, but the way they go about it shows it's the people with money they think of first and the farmers and the workers last. They build a dam in the valley first of all to make a lake where people can go swimming and enjoy themselves, people from town and not the farmers living here now. And they'll have lodges around the lake and guys from Mehuskah will bring their blonde women out here fer the week end. It will be just a God-damned whorehouse on the side of the lake, and the farmers will be moved off somewhere else to farms maybe a little better. But still, the Government will build 'em new houses and give 'em bottom land on easy-purchase terms. They'll be better off. Some good will come of it, all right, and it's progress and they'll reclaim some eroded land with the irrigation, but it will be a grab bag fer the Mehuskah politicians and fer people like Lamar Baker. He's already got his finger in it and I reckon he'll git plenty. He knows how to do it and that's all he's after, grabbing money and gitting ahead, grabbing somebody else's money and gitting ahead of somebody else. You'd never think he come out of the valley, and God knows he don't never come back to it except to canvass votes or hunt possums.
The road climbed higher on the slope of the ridge, and down below Jay saw the site where the dam would be built. There was a clear view of it from a clearing at a fork in the road where stood a schoolhouse of ocher native stone, known as the Sour Tom School. One fork of the road led down below to a covered bridge across a creek; the other turned southwest toward Aldine. Jay stopped the car at the side of the road by the schoolhouse.
I ought to drive on about my business, but there's something about that little woman . . . I just want to stop and talk to her fer a minute, and by God I'm goin' to do it. I got plenty of time.
Jay got out of the car and walked across the bare clearing to the schoolhouse. The door was open and he looked in.
Hot damn, with that sun on her hair, with that white soft skin, with that laughing look about her, and she's teaching in an Indian school. If I could just be sure about her. If I could know what she really thinks and what she's after, and she must be after something. That's the hitch, she's after something and what it is I ain't got.
She had not seen Jay and she had not seen his shadow on the pine floor. Fifteen little Indians sat at their desks watching a white rabbit in a cage of chicken-wire at the end of the schoolroom. The small brown faces and round dark eyes all were turned toward the rabbit and it was absolutely silent in the room, with not a furtive whisper, not even the movement of a hand. On the blackboard was written:
She looked up and saw Jay and her smile was sudden and warm and there came with it a faint flush that brightened her face and made her blue eyes sparkle. Her eyes were a light clear blue, intense in contrast to her black eyebrows and hair.
" Jay, hello!" She got up from her desk and came toward him.
"I was just passing by," Jay said. "How are you, Leona?"
She called to a small brown girl: "Emma Paul, you take the crayons out of the top drawer of my desk, and Martin Goback, you give everyone a sheet of paper. You may all make a drawing now." She smiled again at Jay. "Let's go out by the well where it's shady, Jay. I want to talk to you."
She always says that: I want to talk to you. It sounds like it means something but it's her way and I guess she says it to everybody just like that. But she talks mostly about herself and it's plain I don't interest her much, not in the way she does me.
"At least they like to draw pictures," Leona said. "That's one thing I've found out. But they work so tight and small and I can't make them draw free and splashy the way they ought to."
"You still having trouble with them kids?"
"Plenty of it. Jay, I can't even get them to name the rabbit. They just won't respond. I'm teaching them exactly the way they told me to in the demonstration school, but it doesn't do any good. Listen, I bought that rabbit myself, and I built the cage for it, and they like to watch it, but they wont talk about it. They won't even give it a name. Did you see what was written on the blackboard?"
"That's the way we teach, the activity method. You know, make them participate. Before, I had a little horny frog and I wrote on the blackboard: This is a toad; he has horns; he breathes through his skin; he does not make warts. You see, we try to stop all those superstitions, like if you step on a toad it will rain and all that. But these fullblood children just won't help me out. I suppose I'll have to name the rabbit myself. How do you like Hoppy?"
"For a name."
"Oh, sure." They were leaning against the stone wall of the well and Jay watched the light and shade on her face, the blueblack sheen of her hair.
"If you just ask them a question it scares them near to death. They hang their heads and look around at the other kids and they answer in soft little voices that slip out of their mouths like lizards scuttling from under a rock. I'm about ready to give up. I've been teaching school for three years, Jay, and that was all right, but I wish I hadn't transferred to the Indian schools this spring. The pay is better, but heavens!"
"Indians ain't the same as white kids," Jay said.
"You don't need to tell me that. I simply can't make them come to life."
No matter what she says she can make it sound like it's just fer me, even when she's talking about herself. Most little women are like that but this here little woman stands on her own two feet like most of 'em don't.
"Anyhow, Jay, tomorrow is the last day of school."
"Is that right?" Jay said. "What do you aim to do this summer, Leona?"
don't know. Go home to Tulsa, I suppose. I'd like to take a
sort of woman would have too many wants. I couldn't
wish I wasn't making such a botch of this school, but I can't
"You sure ain't," Jay said. "But give them time, Leona. After a while they'll open up. I know Indians. What you'd ought to do is keep two or three of 'em together after school and let 'em play with that rabbit, not just sit and talk about it. And you let 'em draw, if that's what they like. Those kids don't have nothing. They don't have colored sticks and white paper at home. You just let 'em make plent of pictures and you'll git along with them."
"I want to understand them, Jay. I want to know more about the Indians, about how they live and what their homes are like. I ask them questions, but I can't get them to tell me anything."
"Indian homes ain't much," Jay said. "They got nothing. Just a shack and a cook-stove."
"They have their folkways and customs and that's what I want to study. I'd like to be kind of an expert on Indians."
She ain't interested in whether the Indians are starving to death. She wouldn't open her eyes to that and she ain't concerned with their troubles. I guess she feels the same way about white people. She don't know what exploitation and suffering is and she don't care. She's like the rest of 'em in this part of the country, when they want to explain away conditions like that they say: It's poor white trash and if you gave 'em anything better they wouldn't know what to do with it. They been saying that in the South since the Civil War and they salve their conscience that way and I reckon she thinks the same. It's a waste of my time and I know it.
"Jay, did you ever go to a stomp-dance?"
"A stomp-dance? Yes, why?"
"Well, I'd sure like to see one. Lamar Baker told me that there's a big one off in the hills pretty soon and that white people can go to it."
"How come you know Lamar Baker?"
"I met him over in Tulsa a couple of years ago when he was stumping for the Governor, and one day a week or two ago he passed by here and stopped for a drink of water."
"Is that so?"
"He was real surprised to find me here, and he stopped in to see me once or twice in Aldine."
"I just about grew up with Lamar," Jay said. "I've knowed him a long time."
"That's what he said. Jay, I want to go to that stomp-dance. Will you take me?"
"I wish I could, Leona."
"Well, can't you?"
"I'll be too busy."
"You shouldn't let yourself be so busy all the time. You're working too hard. And, Jay, you're never going to get anything out of it."
"I ain't lookin' fer anything."
"I mean you'll never get ahead that way. Jay, I wish you'd be practical about it."
Jay shrugged his shoulders.
"You're a trial, Jay, you sure are. Listen, I've got to go back to my class. Those little fullbloods may be on the warpath in there."
They started back to the schoolhouse, and at the corner of the building she stopped and put one hand on his arm.
"I'm sorry about your brother."
It only just come into her head. All this time she's been thinking of herself and it just come into her head. I'm a God-damned fool to waste my time.
"I reckon Pat's safe in Mexico by now, Leona."
"Do you think so?"
"He's had time to make Mexico, all right. I ain't worried about Pat."
"That's good. I'm glad to know he's all right, Jay."
They walked on to the door and she took his hand. Inside the schoolhouse a little girl giggled.
"Good-by, Jay. Come back soon."
"I sure will, Leona."
Jay walked back to his car. He drove away on the road to Aldine, increasing his speed as the road improved.
Just the warm feel of her hand can make me forget all I was thinkin' and I'm a fool all right. But I guess maybe she likes me a little. Her face is always bright and smiling and she holds onto my hand that way. I guess she would learn. She's from Tulsa. She's a big-town girl. She never had to find out how hard it is fer some people to live and if she did maybe she would think different. I ought to take her with me someday up in the hills and let her see fer herself. That's what I'll do. I'Il let her see kids with gunny sacks to sleep on. I'll let her see four people sleeping in one room, half of them on the floor, with noting to eat but cornbread and molasses and sometimes a chunk of salt pork and cream gravy. That ought to make her see things different and that ought to make her see that I got to go on in the work I'm doing.
It was three miles to Aldine, and fifteen miles beyond it to Mehuskah. On the upland, where the rain water dried more quickly, the narrow road was slick with dust and the oak trees along it, the sassafras trees and the trumpet vines, were powdered with dust already blown loose and dry. At each end of the road that ran through Aldine and formed its principal street was a signpost: ALDINE, POP. 380. On the outskirts of the town the houses stood under shade trees beside cornfields and truck gardens, but on the main street there were no trees. On either side the town presented a blank brick face and there was only a cluster of people at the corner by the domino parlor. One of the two hotels, the cotton gin, and the grist mill had been boarded up for years and the machinery was rusty and silent. Jay drove quickly over the rough street, and again was in a residential section on the road to Mehuskah.
That's where she lives, that white boarding-house set back under them elm trees. It's a lonesome place, I reckon, fer a gal like her. I remember when it was a city to me, when I was a kid and we used to come here to the store in a wagon. In them days we called it Aldine City. I'd never seen so many people together all at once as there was of a Saturday then, crowded four deep along the boardwalk and in and out of the drugstore and the hotel and the general store with the horse collars on the wall and the flypaper and the ax-handles and the hoes and rakes and the clean store-clothes that smelled so new. I remember that first time I was scared to git out of the wagon. Maw was alive then and she stayed in the wagon with me, setting there in her poke bonnet looking straight ahead of her because she didn't want to git out on the boardwalk in her bare feet, even if she had come there special to buy herself a pair of shoes. The man had to bring 'em to her out of the store and she tried 'em on in the wagon. It was a long ways to town and back then by wagon and team, but now we got this black-top road all the way from Aldine to Mehuskah, and Mehuskah is the big town and they call Aldine a "ghost town" with its trade gone to the city and the railroad. It sure ain't Aldine City no more and it's like to fall to pieces now and I remember when the hotel was crowded and I used to go out to the gin and watch the compress work. I guess when I was a kid if I'd of seen a place the size of Mehuskah I'd of turned tail and run. Who'd of thought then of a place with paved streets and an eight-story building and thirty-three thousand people in it, by the Chamber of Commerce figures, anyhow?
Jay had to drive along the main business street of Mehuskah to reach his three-roomed frame house near the M. K. & T. railroad tracks. He drove across the railroad crossing and turned left off the paved street with a bump. He had to steer a careful course among the deep and dust-filled holes in the road. Here, beside the tracks, were two rows of weather-white houses, in front of which in the afternoon sunlight women and children sat in chairs in the tiny yards, or on the balustrades of sagging piazzas. In one yard there was a bed with springs hanging to the bare ground and a shabby patchwork quilt spread over it. Three small boys sat solemnly on the quilt and watched Jay drive by. Jay's house was the last in the row and the yard in front of it was larger. Just beyond a picket fence there was a two-acre cornfield and for the house and field Jay paid twelve dollars a month rent. Because of the rains his corn stood tall and green with silky tassels swinging and he was sure to make a crop. The shabby house, the color of a sweaty dun horse, stood beside the cornfield like a farmhouse, except that it did not have the settled, much-used appearance of a farmhouse. There were no washtubs hanging on the wall, no intimate and revealing indications of the poverty of daily life. Somehow it could be told that the door of this house was never locked; the building had the emptiness, the lack of interest or personality, of a deserted house. Only the partly drawn shades in the windows indicated that it was lived in.
Jay opened the door and stopped with his hand on the knob when he saw a battered straw suitcase in a corner. The handle of it was patched with baling wire and the straw was broken through in several places and streaked with grease and dust.
"Hello," Jay said. He went into the living room, a bare dusty room with a calendar the only ornament on the faded wall, with a table and two chairs and a curved-back sofa that was solidly propped on a block sawed from a two-by-four plank. Sitting on the sofa was a thin Negro. He got to his feet and grinned at Jay.
"Is you Jay Strickland?"
"I don't believe I know you," Jay said, and his thin lips drew tightly together. When he was suspicious his eyes narrowed into lines that paralleled his high cheekbones and he looked as brown and unbending as an Indian.
The Negro was still smiling. "I thumbed my way down from Memphis, on th' road. Sid Bowlder sent me this way."
"Oh, sure," Jay said.
"He told me y'all needed somebody to help out down heah."
"That's right, we do. Set down." Jay dropped into a rocking chair and threw his left leg over the arm.
The Negro sank back on the sofa. "My name is Rock Island Jones. I been workin' fo' Sid around Memphis, but befo' I sharecropped down in Arkansas. I'm an Arkansawyer."
Jay took out a tobacco sack and rolled a cigarette. He tossed the sack across to the Negro and took a match from a small china shoe on the table.
"What did you say your name was?"
"Jones — Rock Island Jones. They calls me Rocky."
"Rock Island after the railroad?"
"Yeah, my pappy wo'ked on th' Rock Island."
"I can sure use you, Rocky," Jay said. "Glad you could come down. How is Sid?"
"He doin' fine."
"Uh-huh," Jay said. "You can start in right off if you want to. Saturday evenin' there's a barbecue over to Tanzey, about fifteen miles south." He looked hard at the intent, intelligent face of the Negro. "We got lots of work to do, Rocky. We got to organize them farm workers and fix it so they can earn a living like human beings instead of animals." He paused and shook his head slightly, frowning. "It ain't been easy through here. We got that same old trouble, the whites and the blacks. The idea has got around that the Tenant Farmers' Union is a nigro union and a lot of white men have stayed out of it. A lot of men who want to belong have stayed out because of that."
"You can't have no Jim Crow unions," Rocky said.
"I didn't say Jim Crow."
"You knows what I mean."
"I mean we don't aim to have no Jim Crow union. We got that trouble, though, and that's one thing we got to beat."
"They done told me it was kind of slow down heah," the Negro said. "You'd ought to git the union organized strong befo' it's too much talk of Jim Crow."
"Of course we ought," Jay said impatiently. "But look here, we won't have no terror like there was over to Arkansas. We got to go slow here, but still we ain't going to lay off organizing the nigros because the white farmer has got his eyebrows up. We got to go ahead with that work, just like I'm going ahead now to git the Indians in line. I reckon it will be a sight easier to organize Indians and nigros together than it will white men and nigros. The red man and the black man both got a grudge against the white man."
Rock Island Jones nodded, and Jay turned his head and blew on his cigarette, scattering the ashes.
"We never had no rank-and-file movement here in the state of Oklahoma before," Jay said. "This state has been controlled by political forces since the Civil War and it's different from the old South. It's different from Arkansas. We ain't got so many sharecroppers here. It's renters mostly, and urban workers who go out to cut spinach and pick cotton in the season. We can't git a hold on them people unless we educate 'em to it, and that takes time. We can't start a rank-and-file movement overnight. We got to go slow. It's too easy to put the fear of God into 'em if we run into any trouble, and we don't want to go out and organize no topheavy union without no leadership. We got to build that leadership, too, and the time will come when we got all them hunderd and sixty-five thousand tenants and sharecroppers in this state organized solid. But we got to go slow at first. We got to git the organization rooted."
"Up Memphis way they thinkin' it ought to go faster," the Negro said.
"You'll see fer yourself how we're goin'," Jay said. "Already we got a good membership in the eastern part of the state. We're doing things, Rocky, and you'll see. Now over at Tanzey Saturday something ought to come off. It's a good barbecue and we'll have a crowd and we'll need some good speaking. I'm going to make a talk and I guess I can count on you."
"You sure kin."
Jay smoked his cigarette in silence. The sun had sunk from sight behind the ridge west of town and in the warmer light the harsh outlines of the frame houses and the Katy freight-shed farther along the tracks were softened and the grimy paint appeared more pure in color.
"I got to find me a place to sleep" the Negro said.
Jay took the cigarette out of his mouth. "You can bunk here. I got a folding cot, an old army cot, but it's comfortable."
"That will do jus" fine."
The sun is sinking into them long green waves of trees in the hills and I wonder if somewhere out yonder in the blackjack Belle has found Pat.
Rocky stood up and went for his suitcase. Looking at him, Jay said: "I've got some overalls I can let you have."
Rocky glanced down at his tight-fitting suit.
"You're a farmer now," Jay said.
"Man, I was raised with a hoe." The Negro grinned. "I was choppin' cotton when I was so-high. My first suit of clo'es was a flour sack. Yes, sir."
Jay got up and went into the next room to take down the cot. He stood a moment by the window looking at the glowing western sky. The stub of the cigarette drooped from the corner of his lips and smoke from it rose to his squinted eyes. He stood looking off toward the hills.
If Pat is anywhere out yonder in the blackjack it's damn sure that Belle will find him . . . .
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