Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Noon approached. The summer sun glared on the sandy Georgia road as patches of red clay fought their way to the surface. Loblolly pines hovered without motion. A thin woman plodded up a slight incline holding the hand of a small boy. Following close behind, an older boy and a young female of similar size pushed their wasted bodies between the deep ruts. None wore shoes.

The woman’s name was Mary. She wore a colorless, threadbare cotton dress that fell to her calves and possessed a long, dark-complexioned face emphasizing her Native American heritage. She could claim a pure Creek birthright or pass as a half-breed if it suited her purposes. Having never known her father, she was not certain herself.

The smallest child was John. He wore long wool pants with the cuffs turned up. Cord suspenders preventing them from falling. His shirtless, nut brown back derived from his mother’s heritage and the blistering sun.

John’s older brother, Jim, trailed close behind. Fair of skin, his ruddy countenance bore a perpetual frown, reflecting his displeasure with his lot in life. Appearing to be less than nine, he was eleven. He already had years in the fields and was his family’s most consistent and industrious worker. He wore ragged pants held up by a cord around his waist as well. His shirt had only one sleeve.

Cynthia’s face was perfectly symmetrical. She wore the only hat in the group to protect her fair skin from blisters. She had already passed puberty of sorts, but due to the lack of sustaining food and the enduring hard labor, her body maintained the profile of a boy. Her large, blue eyes peered at the world with unemotional indifference.

*****

Leaving her with a brood of children and little means to feed and shelter them, Mary’s elderly husband, Joel, died of natural causes. One must own land or have access to the use of soil in order to grow food during this interlude following the Civil War. Following the passing of Joel during the War Between the States, carpetbaggers achieved what Sherman’s foraging soldiers could not. They presented her with papers and ordered her to take her children and leave. As a result of losing their home, Jim lost his smile and Cynthia her hope.

*****

John spoke, “Mama.”

Mary ignored him, knowing what he was going to say.

“Mama. I’s hongry.”

Mary continued to walk.

John looked up into her eyes. He was the baby and at least for the present, his mother’s favorite. “Mama. I can’t walk no more.”

Mary never broke stride. “You hush your mouth, boy. We is all hongry, but we got to find work. You hush your mouth. If you can’t walk, we’ll tote you.”

John continued to pick up one foot and then the other.

As the desperate band trudged up a rise, a dog run house came into view set just off the road. It showed few signs of care, and backed up to cotton fields choked with weeds.

A large man named Fred sat on the porch with his feet resting on the banister. His gut strained against the leather strap he used to hold up his filthy trousers. He wore a tan-colored, unbuttoned shirt. When the approaching family arrived within shouting distance, he hollered, “You trash jest git on down the road. I ain’t got no time for the likes of you.”

Just as he knew they would, they strolled off the road and onto his property. He snarled, “Didn’t I tell you to git on out of here. Go on now.”

Mary led her family up to the house. She, momentarily, met his gaze then looked down. “My young-uns need a sip of cool well water. We looking for work, and I see that you got some cotton what needs choppin.”

“Them young-uns of your’n can’t chop no cotton. They too skinny. Couldn’t work fifteen minutes.”

Jim blurted out, “I can work. I can work all day.”

The big man raised a crock jug of corn whisky and took a generous swallow. He put his feet down and reviewed his options. “I’ll tell you what. You all work until sundown, and you can drink all the well water you want.”

Seeing that the negotiations were underway, Mary said, “Nawser. My chillin ain’t et for two days. We can’t rightly work that long without some cold corn bread and maybe a bowl of butterbeans. Then we could work.”

“Well I guess you would. Why don’t you ask for some chitlins to go with your pone and butter beans?” He scratched his un-kept beard and then his crotch. He spoke to Mary. “You got a husband, or you jest a whore?”

“I’m a widderwoman,” she countered.

Fred rose from his chair. “You young-uns go on down to the barn and find some hoes. I just might put you to work.”

Mary spoke, “My young-uns ain’t et since day before yestiddy. Could they have a few bites of corn pone and a sip of water?”

Fred kicked his chair and glared at the family. Then he disappeared into the gloom of the house. Soon he returned with half a pan of corn bread and handed it to Mary. “Now you get them young-uns filled up with pone and water and git ‘em out in the field.”

Mary broke off a piece of bread and handed it to John. He carefully took it with a shaking hand and bit off a small portion into his dry mouth. She then proceeded to divide the remainder of the bread between Jim and Cynthia. Jim’s eyes widened. “Mama, you ain’t got none.”

“Don’t you never mind. I’ll get some,” Mary said.

The children went around to the side of the house and drew a bucket of water from the well. When they had slacked their thirst, they devoured the bread. Mary drank deeply and then looked back at Fred.

Fred pressed his argument. “Y’all go on down and start choppin that cotton. Then you send that girl back up here. I got a whole pot of Crowder peas with some ham hock you can eat when you get done workin.”

Mary gazed into his eyes and said, “Nawsir. Cynthy ain’t part of no bargain.”

Fred stomped around. “I’s got to have me a woman. You want them vittels, you got to put out.”

Mary looked at the sweating male in front of her, and then she gazed back at her suffering brood. “How do I know you won’t just run us off after we do the work.”

“Well I guess you jest have to take my word on it,” drawled Fred.

“Yesser. Well, you let my chillin eat now, and we will do the work.” She hesitated for a moment then continued, “I’ll see that you get a woman.”

“Well Goddamn,” Fred snarled. He fidgeted for a minute then motioned the children back to the house. “I’ll bring them peas and some spoons out here. They is a bite of cornbread left. You might as well get your strength up too; cause you going to need it.”

After Fred found the food in his grimy kitchen and brought it outside, Mary and the children ate as much as they could, not knowing when they would eat again. When finished, Mary spoke to the children, “Y’all go on down to the barn. Git them hoes and start choppin that cotton. I’ll be on down terrectly.”

Jim started toward the barn, and then he turned back. “Mama, John can’t hoe no cotton.”

John barked, “I can to hoe. I can hoe as good as you can. Mama, when are you comin?”

“In a minute, boy. You just go on and do the best you can. Maybe you can rest in the barn til I get there.”

The children had made their way toward the barn. Fred looked at Mary and smiled, showing the black stumps of his teeth. He gestured for her to follow and trudged up the steps to the house. Mary rubbed her full stomach and moved toward the steps, shoulders slumping. Then she stopped. After a moment’s hesitation, she moved briskly around the house and called out to her children. Waving them back, she led them to the road.

Fred, half dressed, charged out of his house. “Where the hell do you think you going?”

Mary and her children continued walking down the road at a brisk pace.

“You git back here and chop that cotton. We made a bargain,” Fred screamed.

Mary said in moderate voice, “I spect I lied.”

Cynthia’s eyes lit up for an instant.

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Disputed Ground

Earl Stubbs

A drop of sweat dripped from my nose, as I allowed the big gelding to pick his way over the rough terrain. My name is Babb, and I am a Texas Ranger. This is rattlesnake country and Skip, my sorrel companion of five years, can see them before I can. It is also Comanche territory, and that’s the reason I am here in this God-forsaken patch north of Bitter Creek.

A bunch of young, Comanche braves got their britches in a twist and burned out a couple of homesteaders. They killed and scalped the grown settlers and took the young back to their women. I spect the dead ones are the lucky ones. Captain Purdy sent me up here to see what I could find out.

Skip has good ears. Without warning, he wheeled and faced in the opposite direction. I picked out the shapes of three riders nestled in the gorge. Even their ponies remained motionless. It didn’t take a genius to figure out they were Comanche.

They weren’t here to barter, and besides, they didn’t have anything I wanted. I looked around for cover and saw nothing. The ground was flat and the nearest mesquite trees were a mile away. I patted Skip on the neck and, slowly, eased out of the saddle, pulling my Winchester as I dropped to the ground. I could see they had concluded their discussions since one moved to the East, and another moved to the West. They intended to come at me from three sides. These things happen in a hurry.

In addition to my Colt .44 pistol, I had a sawed-off scattergun in a buckskin sheath fastened to my saddle. I drew it out, stuck it under my belt, and tapped Skip on the front leg with the barrel of my rifle. I tugged down on the reins. He dropped to his knees, and then he fell on his side showing no sign of alarm. This was not our first gunfight.

Since no bullets came in my direction, I guessed that either these boys didn’t have guns, or they had used up all of their ammunition. Either way, they had plenty of arrows and the means to deliver them.

Each rider poised about a hundred yards away. They moved sideways in my direction. All of a sudden, they disappeared. Each brave hung onto his mount on the side away from me and used his pony as a shield. That told me that I would need to do something I sorely hated to do, and that was to shoot horses.

When a rider galloped to about fifty yards away, I cut down his mount. The pony screamed. I would worry about the rider later. I swung on another attacker just as his arrow slammed into my chest. Not a good thing, I thought. All I could do was to keep fighting as long as I held out. If the arrow touched my heart, I was dead. It wouldn’t take long for me to find out. If it were a lung shot, it would take a little longer.

Another arrow plunged into the hard surface of the saddle. I fired both barrels of the scattergun and saw another horse go down. The rider stayed down. That left one.

Having practiced the art of war since the age of about twelve, these braves were quick and very good. I felt an arrow flash by my face. That was from the first rider. He was getting near. The other rider was all over me. He rode straight for Skip, and his pony hurtled over striking me with his shoulder. Pure reflex allowed me to block his war club with my empty scattergun. It flew from my hands, and I hit the sandy ground. As I rolled to get up, I pushed the arrow still deeper into my chest. A gurgled scream escaped my lips.

By the time the brave wheeled his horse and started back for the kill, I leaped to my knees, drew my .44 and gut-shot him. He flew from the saddle. I had just enough time to snap off another round at the fast-charging final member of the party. It caught him in the chest and knocked him down. That left two wounded, but determined, Comanche warriors bent on taking my scalp.

By this time, Skip had enough. He rose and galloped away from the noise. One dazed Comanche held his stomach and searched for a weapon to use against his mortal enemy. I couldn’t allow him to succeed, so I shot him in the face. I had just enough time to wheel and take out the final attacker with a snap shot. He fell, looked up in bewilderment, and then collapsed.

I glanced around for any other rambunctious attackers but saw nothing. Looking down at the arrow protruding from my chest, I surmised that it had gone all the way through; leaving only about three inches of dirty buzzard feathers on the front side. Even if I gained enough strength to cut it off, I couldn’t very well pull it out of my back without help. Besides, my energy level was slipping fast.

I whistled for Skip, but even though he trotted toward me, he decided not to come any closer. He never liked the smell of blood.

Oh hell!  I am not in any shape to run after a skittish horse, but I don’t really have much of a choice.

I struggled to my feet and began staggering toward Skip. Gaining some control of his own anxieties, he moved in my direction. If I can get that ball of twine out of my saddlebag, I can make a loop for the arrowhead then tie it to the saddle horn. I can walk away and pull out the arrow. Then, if I am lucky, I can bleed to death.

The best laid plans of rabbits and rangers sometimes go awry. I was about halfway to Skip when I heard the first war whoop. I turned toward the sound and saw a large band of Comanche coming my way. I didn’t figure to fight my way out of this one, considering my arrow, my physical state, and my nearly empty weapons. Nope! This might be a good day to die if there is such a thing.

The party of Indians stopped moving in my direction. Why? I wondered. Then, I heard what must be a cruel joke played by God. It sounded like a bugle. By George, it is a bugle. The cavalry is coming.

***

I sat on the ground and watched the element from the United States Army gallop the last mile. What appeared to constitute two thirds of the unit broke off and rode in pursuit of the departing war party.

As the remaining soldiers approached me, the commanding officer held up his hand and yelled, “Company halt.” The twin lines of mounted soldiers ceased their forward movement as one.

The officer looked around and accessed the scene. Three braves and two horses lay on the parched earth. He brought his gaze back to me and holstered his revolver. “I see your badge Ranger. Peers to me like you bit off more than you could chew.”

I spit out a wad of mucous filled blood. “It was not my choice, Lieutenant, but the Comanch didn’t ask for my opinion. It’s just as well, though. This gang worked some settlers over pretty good before they killed them.”

“Corporal Duggins. Take a look at that arrow and see what you can do with it. “

“Yessir Lieutenant,” the soldier said as he dismounted and secured his wound kit. He kneeled by Ranger Babb and tugged slightly at both ends of the arrow. Babb gritted his teeth but made no sound.

“Lieutenant. This is a lung shot. I can saw off the front end of the arrow and pull it out. We don’t want those feathers touching the wound since they belonged to a buzzard and are nasty. We need a fire to heat the cauterizing iron and a little whisky to pour in each end of the wound.”

The officer studied for a moment. “Will Ranger Babb make it, Corporal?”

“Yesser, well he has already lost a lot of blood on the outside and inside both. I can stop the outside bleeding, but the inside will have to clot on its own. It won’t matter if it cankers, but it will be a tough trip back to Fort Richardson.” Your guess is as good as mine.”

“Let’s take a shot, men. Williams, you take four soldiers over to that stand of trees and bring back some firewood. Shouldn’t be mor’n two mile. Duggins, you best get started. If that war party is a big one and decide to take us on, the Ranger here might become low priority.”

Duggins secured a small handsaw from his gear and laid it down on a clean bandage. He handed me a bottle of whisky and told me to take a drink or two. I complied, and the cheap rotgut burned a rut in my gullet. Then he placed a round piece of wood between my teeth and instructed me to bite down hard. He put on a glove on his left hand and grasped the feathers between his fingers. When he began sawing on the bois’ dArc shaft, I thought I was going to soil my trousers.

Finally, Duggins lifted the short end away. Then he poured a small amount of whisky on the wound and arrow stump. I bit down hard on the wood, but could not suppress a loud moan. No one appeared to notice.

“We will have to wait for the iron to heat up before I pull it out. I need to stop the blood as quick as I can. It won’t be long since the boys are already headed this way. How you doin’.”

“I feel fit as a fiddle, except for wanting to die and get it over with. Regardless, I do appreciate you making an effort,” I muttered.

“Don’t thank me yet, Ranger. You ain’t out of the woods by a long shot.”

The Omega

by

Earl Stubbs

Enjoying the peaceful interlude between slumber and wakefulness, I drifted from the warmth of sleep back and forth to the edge of reality. Having exhausted the moment, I opened my consciousness to determine whether the back of my beloved Lhasa Apso, Mulan, was jammed against my own. It was not. A two hundred pound man must be careful of a ten-pound canine. I forced open my eyes. A blurred glance showed me that Nancy had exited the bed as well. She went to sleep before I did and rose earlier for that reason.

Swinging my feet to the floor, I stepped into my Birkenstock sandals. Then, as was my pattern, I stumbled the short distance to my side of the dressing area. I squirted toothpaste directly from the tube to my mouth and brushed. After applying deodorant, I opened the medicine cabinet and sorted out my morning’s meds, which was no easy task. Subsequent to choking down the handful of pills and capsules, my search for wearing attire commenced. The only rule was that the clothing had to be either brown based or blue. Since it was summer, I chose shorts and a suitable cotton pullover. Having completed my morning ritual, I responded to a growling stomach and strolled to the kitchen.

Neither Mulan nor Nancy was in sight. Indifferent to social schedules, mine and everyone else’s, I made no effort to reason out the location of my family members. After all, I am not a morning person, and if I became overly curious, I could call Nancy on the cell phone. For all I knew, Mulan could still be under the bed fast asleep.

Coffee was in the warmer, so I knew Nancy had left early. Peeking between the blinds, I observed a bright day with an unusual blue cast. The leaves of the two large oak trees in front lay still.

Filling a bowl with cereal, unsalted peanuts, and strawberries. I fetched the milk. I poured some in the bottom of my favorite mug and some in the bowl of bran flakes. Leaving the coffee undisturbed, I sat at the table and took a welcomed mouthful of my breakfast mixture. The taste was flat, but as a creature of habit, I continued to crunch.

The sports section lay in its usual place, so I scanned the front page for tidbits of trivia. The paper shocked me. It was not the Dallas Morning News at all, but the Dallas Times Herald, a paper that had not existed for decades. The story on the front page was about the game between SMU and Notre Dame in which the diminutive Johnny Champion made life miserable for the Heisman Award winning giant, Leon Hart.  My favorite sports writer of all time, Blackie Sherrod, wrote the article. I decided this must be a promotional gimmick.

The cereal only lasted a column or two. Having consumed my breakfast fare, I poured coffee. I believe that coffee should be hot. If one can drink it, it is not hot enough. One must blow and sip to imbibe coffee correctly. Never trusting the coffee warmer, I zapped the mug thirty seconds in the microwave to bring the temperature up to standard. Then I returned to the paper and finished it just in time to take the last sip. Perfect!

After putting the breakfast dishes in the washer, I went out on the patio to commune with my birds. I have two large birdhouses on fifteen-foot poles in my backyard. Sparrows, starlings, and squirrels share them. Yes, squirrels. Several generations of neighborhood bushy tails gnawed out holes in the birdhouses and used the rooms as homes while rearing their young. Since I like most animals on face value, except for opossums, the birds and squirrels get no grief from me. I do not feed them, nor do I bother them. On this particular morning, no animals were in evidence.

As I scanned Nancy’s garden, I noticed that the blossoms from all of the numerous flowering plants, including two magnolia trees, lay on the ground. Even the rose bushes sat bare. Perhaps Nancy saw her adored plants in such a state and journeyed to the garden center to inquire about the problem.

For the sake of privacy, a tall cedar fence surrounds our back yard. No one can see in, but neither can we see out. To get a better view of the neighborhood, I decided to try the front yard. I walked through the house and out the front door only to find the entire neighborhood deathly still. I could not even hear the usual traffic noise from Jupiter Road, a busy thoroughfare a couple of blocks away. Moving across the yard to a better vantage point, I saw that the normally busy six-lane street lay deserted.

Having no explanation and little interest, I started back toward the front door only to notice that the customary light blue sky had turned cerulean. Even as I watched, the heavens brightened, then discolored. I became increasingly alert when I determined that the bright morning sun was not in the East at all, but shone from the North. The dark shade beneath the heavily foliaged trees gradually diminished then vanished altogether. Logic told me that I should be terrified, but I was not. Mind-altering events unfolded in front of me, yet my emotions accepted those perversions of the physical world with little angst.

The bizarre landscape pulsed. Summer colors brightened and then faded. Neighborhood homes grew faint and then disappeared altogether. The rising sun was back in the East. The sky was orange but not intrusive. A colorful mist obscured the remaining landscape as a melodious refrain from my childhood intruded on my thoughts. We shall gather at the river, the beautiful, beautiful river….

A form slowly emerged from the vapor. It was a diminutive woman with a captivating smile dominating her countenance. She was a young adult, dressed in what appeared to be a deerskin dress. She approached without anxiety and took my hand. Wrapping  her arms around me, she gave me a loving hug, looked intensely into my eyes, and began to speak. At first, her words were guttural and impossible to follow, but soon they evolved into perfectly understandable patterns of speech.

“I am Opa. I am your guardian, but we are all here.”

Somehow, I knew that a powerful bond connected Opa and me, but I knew not what. “How do I know you, Opa?”

“We are those who came before. From the alpha to the omega, you know us all. You are the omega. You are the last.”

“I am the last of what? What happened to my world?” I asked. I still felt no anxiety. Glancing over Opa’s shoulder, I noticed others emerging from the mist. I recognized the warm eyes of a young woman who walked with a limp and could have only been my mother. They continued to come and gather by the hundreds, dressed in the attire of their time or not at all. I knew them all, yet none of them. I felt varying degrees of emotions as my eyes settled on individuals. Some clustered apart from the rest, and when I watched them, I sensed something akin to hatred. They did not all love me.

As they appeared, their shapes began to change. Stooped beings, covered with hair, then fur, joined the throng. They diminished in size and their tails lengthened. A waterline formed and small living things crawled out, others surfaced briefly, and then, finally, a bright spot glowed from the depths. I instantly knew that it was the original organic molecule, serendipitously formed, that had evolved into the human race. It was the ancestor. It was the beginning, and I was the end. The alpha and the omega. It was then and only then, that I realized that I no longer lived.

What next?

The panorama of my ancestors continued to cavort in and out of the water. No semblance of earth or sky remained, only the misty world surrounding me. Then the voices, thoughts, and urges of my new world began to seep into my consciousness, leaving no room for the old ones…my own. After taking a final glance at my hands, I found them missing. Our energy, the essence of me and mine, gradually blended into a new clarity. We felt an omnipresence join the absolute glory of our cumulative being. Never had we felt such paradise. Time, life, existence became extraneous, but for some reason I couldn’t fathom, I knew when Mulan got there.


The Shooting

Earl Stubbs

nonfiction

Heavy moisture saturated the bitter north wind that sullen afternoon in December. It was 1940, and this was my first year in public school. I left the rural school building, crossed federal highway 67, and made my way past the Old Union Baptist Church.  Mama had long since ceased meeting me at the highway crossing. After all, I was six, and it interfered with one of her naps.  I hurried down the dirt road as the wind bit through my thin trousers. It didn’t take long to get there, since only a short distance seperated our small white house from the church.

As I approached, I noticed a strange car in the drive. John L., my foster-sister’s wayward husband, laughed and talked to the occupants of the car.  Then his wife, Ellie, came charging out of the house, waving Johnny’s old .38 pistol.  As usual, she cursed a blue streak.  She pointed the gun toward the car and pulled the trigger several times.  Dull, thumping sounds insued.

The driver the car backed it toward the dirt road and then, with wheels spinning, hurtled toward the highway intersection.  I managed to move out of the way as the car roared past. I could hear people yelling.

Ellie, her fit of anger depleted, dropped the gun, fell to the ground, and sobbed. Johnny picked up the weapon and stared at it.  Then, he tossed it back on the ground, got in his car, and charged off leaving a trail of exhaust.  Ellie struggled to her feet and began calling for her mama.

I didn’t know what to do.  I couldn’t go back to school, and I couldn’t face the insanity inside the house.  I needed some time to process this new situation.  There had been lots of shouting and threats before, but never been any shooting, and it was scary.

Due to the thick clouds, and general gloom, the road past our house was exceptionally dark that day, but for some reason, the tunnel of elms didn’t look so bad.  That road had always frightened me.  Never able to explore past the rise before, I made my choice, fastened my aviator cap under my chin, and dropped the glasses over my eyes.  I walked past the house and tossed my book satchel into the yard.  Then, I hurried into the quickening breath of the north wind.

Much to my surprise, the road past the rise was pretty much the same as the rest.  I felt no yearning to return home, so I kept on moving.  As dusk approached, the darkness increased along with the cold.  My light coat was not getting it done, so when I came upon a creek with a large culvert, I decided to get out of the wind. I sat down and did my best to ward off the freezing air.  I became drowsy and soon slipped off to sleep.

The sounds woke me.  Hounds bayed and people shouted. Then, I discovered that I was freezing cold.  My teeth chattered.  Soon, something wet touched my face in the form of the long tongue of a hound dog.  Within a minute, strong hands lifted me from the culvert and wrapped me in blankets.  I don’t recall much about the trip back home, but I do remember feeling the warmth of the feather bed overcome the discomfort of the cold.

We never saw John L. again, which was better for everyone, especially John L.