The ride home was long and silent. None of us felt like talking, not even T.J. Big Ma had informed him shortly after leaving
Strawberry that she did not want to hear another word out of him before we reached home. He sulked for a while with a few
audible grumbles which no one paid any attention to, but finally he fell asleep and did not awaken until we had driven up the
Granger road and stopped in front of the Avery house.
By the time Jack pulled into our own yard, the night was a thick blackness and smelled strongly of a coming rain. Big Ma
climbed wearily down from the wagon and went into the house without a word, I stayed with Stacey to help him put the
wagon inside the barn and unhitch and feed Jack. While I held the flashlight on the barn doors, Stacey slowly slid aside the
plank of wood that held the doors fastened. 'Cassie,' he said, in a quiet, thoughtful voice, 'don't go blaming Big Ma for what
she done.'
'Why not!' I asked angrily. 'She made me apologize to that ole ugly Lillian Jean 'bout something wasn't even my fault. She
took them ole Simmses' side without even hearing mine.'
'Well, maybe she couldn't help it, Cassie. Maybe she had to do it.'
'Had to do it!' I practically screamed, ‘She didn't have to do nothin' ! She's grown just like that Mr. Simms and she should've
stood up for me. I wouldn't've done her that way.
Stacey put the plank on the ground and leaned against the barn. 'There's things you don't understand. Cassie -'
'And I s'pose you do, huh! Ever since you went down into Louisiana to get Papa last summer you think you know so doggone
much ! Well, I betcha I know one thing. If that had been Papa, he wouldn't've made me apologize! He would've listened to
Stacey sighed and swung open the barn doors.'Well. Papa ... that's different. Bur Big Ma ain't Papa and you can't expect ...'
His voice trailed off as he peered into the barn. Suddenly he cried. 'Cassie, give me that flashlight!' Then, before I could
object. he tore the flashlight from my hand and shone it into the barn.
'What's Mr. Granger's car doing in our barn !' I exclaimed as the silver Packard was unveiled by the light. Without answering
me, Stacey swiftly turned and ran toward the house. I followed closely behind. Throwing open the door to Mama's room, we
stood dumbfounded in the doorway. Instead of Mr. Granger, a tall, handsome man, nattily dressed in a gray pin-striped suit
and vest, stood by the fire with his arm around Big Ma. For a moment we swayed with excitement, then as if by signal we
both cried, 'Uncle Hammer!' and dashed into his arms.
Uncle Hammer was two years older than Papa and, un- married, he came every winter to spend the Christmas sea- son with
us. Like Papa, he had dark, red-brown skin, a square-jawed face, and high cheekbones; yet there was a great difference
between them somehow. His eyes, which showed a great warmth as he hugged and kissed us now, often had a cold, distant
glaze, and there was an aloofness in him which the boys and I could never quite bridge,
When he let us go, Stacey and I both grew consciously shy, and we backed away. I sat down beside Christopher- John and
Little Man, who were silently gazing up at Uncle Hammer, but Stacey stammered, 'Wh-what's Mr. Granger's car doing in our
barn !'
"That's your Uncle Hammer's car,' Mama said. 'Did you unhitch Jack!'
'Uncle Hammer's !' Stacey exclaimed, exchanging shocked glances with me. ‘No kidding!'
Big Ma stammered, ‘Hammer, you - you went and got a car like Harlan Granger's!'
Uncle Hammer smiled a strange, wry smile. ‘Well, not exactly like it, Mama. Mine's a few months newer. Last year when I
come down here, I was right impressed with that big ole Packard of Mr. Harlan Filmore Granger's and I thought I'd like to
own one myself. It seems that me and Harlan Granger just got the same taste.' He winked slyly at Stacey. 'Don't it, Stacey !'
Stacey grinned.
'You like, maybe we'll all go riding in it one day. If it's all right with your mama.
'Oh, boy!' cried Little Man.
'You mean it, Uncle Hammer!' I asked. ‘Mama, can we!'
'We'll see,' Mama said. ‘But in any case, not tonight. Stacey, go take care of Jack and draw up a bucket of water for the
kitchen. We've done the other chores.'
Since no one told me to help Stacey, I forgot all about Jack and settled back to listen to Uncle Hammer. Christopher-John and
Little Man, who Big Ma had feared would be moping because they had not been allowed to go to town, seemed not at all
concerned that Stacey and I had gone. They were awestruck by Uncle Hammer, and compared to his arrival a day in
Strawberry was a minor matter.
For a while Uncle Hammer talked only to Mama and Big Ma, laughing from deep down inside himself like Papa, but then to
my surprise he turned from them and addressed me. 'I understand you had your first trip to Strawberry today, Cassie,' he said.
‘What did you think !'
Big Ma stiffened, but I was pleased to have this opportunity to air my side of the Strawberry affair. ‘I didn't like it,' I said.
'Them ole Simmses -
'Mary, I feel a bit hungry,' Big Ma interrupted abruptly. 'Supper still warm !'
'Yes, ma'am,' said Mama standing. 'I'll set it on the table for you.
As Mama stood up, I started again. 'Them ole Simmses - 'Let Cassie get it, Mary.' said Big Ma nervously. ‘You must be tired.
I looked strangely at Big Ma, then up at Mama.
'Oh, I don't mind,' said Mama, heading for the kitchen. 'Go ahead, Cassie, and tell your uncle about Strawberry.
'That ole Lillian Jean Simms made me so mad I could just spit. I admit that I bumped into her, but that was 'cause I was
thinking 'bout that ole Mr. Barnett waiting on every- body else in his ole Store 'fore he waited on us - 'Jim Lee Barnett!' asked
Uncle Hammer, turning to- ward Big Ma. That ole devil still living!' Big Ma nodded mutely, and I went on. ‘But I told him he
shouldn't've been 'round there waiting on everybody else 'fore he got to us -
'Cassie!' Big Ma exclaimed, hearing this bit of news for the first time.
Uncle Hammer laughed. ‘You told him that i'
'Yessir,' I said softly, wondering why he was laughing.
'Oh, that's great ! Then what happened!'
'Stacey made me leave and Mr. Barnett told me I couldn't come back no more and then I bumped into that confounded Lillian
Jean and she tried to make me get off the sidewalk and then her daddy come along and he -
Big Ma's eyes grew large and she whispered hoarsely, 'Cassie, I don't think -
- and he twisted my arm and knocked me off the side- walk!' I exclaimed, unwilling to muffle what Mr. Simms had done. I
glanced triumphantly at Big Ma, but she wasn't looking at me. Her eyes, frightened and nervous, were on Uncle Hammer. I
turned and looked at him too.
His dark eyes had narrowed to thin, angry slits. He said; 'He knocked you off the sidewalk, Cassie! A grown man knocked
you off the sidewalk?'
This Lillian Jean Simms, her daddy wouldn't be Charlie Simms. would it !'
Uncle Hammer grasped my shoulders. 'What else he do to you !'
'N-nothin'.' I said, frightened by his eyes. "Cepting he wanted me to apologize to Lillian Jean 'cause I wouldn't get in the road
when she told me to.'
'And you did?'
'Big Ma said I had to.'
Uncle Hammer released me and sat very still. No one said a word. Then he stood slowly, his eyes icing into that cold distant
way they could, and he started toward the door, limping slightly on his left leg. Christopher-John. Little Man, and I stared
after him wonderingly, but Big Ma jumped up from her chair, knocking it over in her haste, and dashed after him. She
grabbed his arm. ‘Let it be, son!' she cried. 'That child ain't hurt !'
'Not hurt! You look into her eyes and tell me she ain't hurt !'
Mama came back from the kitchen with Stacey behind her. ‘What is it!' she asked, looking from Big Ma to Uncle Hammer.
'Charlie Simms knocked Cassie off the sidewalk in Straw- berry and the child just told Hammer,' said Big Ma in one breath,
still holding on to Uncle Hammer's arm.
'Oh, Lord,' Mama groaned. ‘Stacey, get Mr. Morrison. Quick, now!' As Stacey sped from the room, Mama's eyes darted to the
shotgun over the bed, and she edged between it and Uncle Hammer. Uncle Hammer was watching her and he said quietly,
‘Don’t worry. I ain't gotta use David's gun... I got my own.'
Suddenly Mama lunged to the side door, blocking it with her slender body. 'Hammer, now you listen to me -
But Uncle Hammer gently but firmly pushed her to one side and, brushing Big Ma from his arm, opened the door and
bounded down the steps into the light rain.
Little Man, Christopher-John, and I dashed to the door as Big Ma and Mama ran after him. ‘Get back inside,' Mama called
over her shoulder, but she was too busy trying to grab Uncle Hammer to see to it that we obeyed, and we did not move.
‘Hammer, Cassie's all right,' she cried. ‘Don’t go making unnecessary trouble !'
'Unnecessary trouble! You think my brother died and I got my leg half blown off in their German war to have some red-neck
knock Cassie around anytime it suits him! If I'd've knocked his girl down, you know what'd've happened to me! Yeah, you
know all right. Right now I'd be hanging from that oak over yonder. Let go of me, Mary.
Mama and Big Ma could not keep him from reaching the car. But just as the Packard roared to life, a huge figure loomed
from the darkness and jumped into the other side, and the car zoomed angrily down the drive into the black- ness of the
Mississippi night.
'Where'd he gel' I asked as Mama slowly climbed the steps. Her face under the glow of the lamp was tired, drained. 'He went
up to the Simmses', didn't he! Didn't he, Mama?'
'He's not going anywhere,' Mama said, stepping aside and waiting until both Big Ma and Stacey were inside; then she locked
the door.
'Mr. Morrison'll bring him back,' said Christopher-John confidently, although he looked somewhat bewildered by all that had
'If he don't,' said Little Man ominously, 'I betcha Uncle Hammer'll teach that ole Mr. Simms a thing or two. 'Round here
hitting on Cassie,'
'I hope he knocks his block off,' I said.
Mama's gaze blazed down upon us. 'I think little mouths that have so much to say must be very tired.'
'No, ma'am, Mama, we ain't -
'Go to bed.'
'Mama, it ain't but -' Mama's face hardened, and I knew that it would not be in my best interest to argue further; I turned and
did as I was told. Christopher-John and Little Man did the same. When I got to my door, I asked, 'Ain't Stacey coming!'
Mama glanced down at Stacey sitting by the fire. ‘I don't recall his mouth working so hard, do you !'
'No'm,' I muttered and went into my room. After a few minutes Mama came in. Without a word of reprimand, she picked up
my clothes from where I had tossed them at the foot of the bed, and absently draping them over the back of a chair, she said,
‘Stacey tells me you blame Big Ma for what happened today. Is that right?'
I thought over her question and answered, 'Not for all of it. Just for making me apologize to that ole dumb Lillian Jean
Simms. She oughtn't've done that, Mama. Papa wouldn't've -'
'I don't want to hear what Papa wouldn't have done!' Mama snapped. 'Or what Mr. Morrison wouldn't have done or Uncle
Hammer ! You were with Big Ma and she did what she had to do and believe me, young lady, she didn't like doing it one bit
more than you did.'
'Well,' I muttered, 'maybe so, but..?’
'There's no maybe to it.'
'Yes'm,' I said softly, deciding that it was better to study the patchwork pattern on the quilt until the anger left Mama's eyes
and I could talk to her again. After a moment she sat beside me on the bed and raised my chin with the tip of her forefinger.
‘Big Ma didn't want you to be hurt,' she said. That was the only thing on her mind ... making sure Mr. Simms didn't hurt you.'
'Yes'm,' I murmured, then flared, ‘But, Mama, that Lillian Jean ain't got the brains of a flea! How come I gotta go 'round
calling her "Miz" like she grown or something!'
Mama's voice grew hard. ‘Because that's the way of things, Cassie.'
The way of what things?' I asked warily.
'Baby, you had to grow up a little today. I wish... well, no matter what I wish. It happened and you have to accept the fact that
in the world outside this house, things are not always as we would have them to be.'
'But, Mama, it ain't fair. I didn't do nothin' to that con- founded Lillian Jean. How come Mr. Simms went and pushed me like
he did?'
Mama's eyes looked deeply into mine, locked into them, and she said in a tight, clear voice, ‘Because he thinks Lillian Jean is
better than you are, Cassie, and when you -
'That ole scrawny, chicken-legged, snaggle-toothed, cross -
'Cassie.' Mama did not raise her voice, but the quiet force of my name silenced me. ‘Now,' she said, folding my hand in hers,
‘I didn't say that Lillian Jean is better than you. I said Mr. Simms only thinks she is. In fact, he thinks she's better than Stacey
or Little Man or Christopher-John -
'Just 'cause she's his daughter!' I asked, beginning to think Mr. Simms was a bit touched in the head.
'No, baby, because she's white.'
Mama's hold tightened on mine, but I exclaimed, 'Ah, shoot ! White ain't nothin' !'
Mama's grip did not lessen. 'It is something, Cassie. White is something just like black is something. Everybody born on this
earth is something and nobody, no matter what color, is better than anybody else.'
Then how come Mr. Simms don't know that?'
'Because he's one of those people who has to believe that white people are better than black people to make himself feel big.' I
stared questioningly at Mama, not really under- standing. Mama squeezed my hand and explained further. 'You see, Cassie,
many years ago when our people were first brought from Africa in chains to work as slaves in this country -
'Like Big Ma's papa and mama !'
Mama nodded. 'Yes, baby, like Papa Luke and Mama Rachel, except they were born right here in Mississippi. But their
grandparents were born in Africa, and when they came there were some white people who thought that it was wrong for any
people to be slaves; so the people who needed slaves to work in their fields and the people who were making money bringing
slaves from Africa preached that black people weren't really people like white people were, so slavery was all right.
'They also said that slavery was good for us because it taught us to be good Christians - like the white people.' She sighed
deeply, her voice fading into a distant whisper. 'But they didn't teach us Christianity to save our souls, but to teach us
obedience. They were afraid of slave revolts and they wanted us to learn the Bible's teaching about slaves being loyal to their
masters. But even teaching us Christianity didn't make us stop wanting to be free, and many slaves ran away -
'Papa Luke ran away, I reminded her, thinking of the story of how Great-Grandpa had run away three times. He had been
caught and punished for his disobedience, but his owners had not tried to break him, for he had had a knowledge of herbs and
cures. He had tended both the slaves and the animals of the plantation, and it was from him that Big Ma had learned
Mama nodded again. That's right, honey. He was hiding in a cave when freedom came, so I understand.' She was silent a
moment, then went on. ‘Well, after a while. slavery became so profitable to people who had slaves and even to those who
didn't that most folks decided to believe that black people really weren't people like everybody else. And when the Civil War
was fought and Mama Rachel and Papa Luke and all the other slaves were freed, people continued to think that way. Even the
Northerners who fought the war didn't really see us equal to white people. So now, even though seventy years have passed
since slavery, most white people still think of us as they did then - that we're not as good as they are - and people like Mr.
Simms hold on to that belief harder than some other folks because they have little else to hold on to. For him to believe that
he is better than we are makes him think that he's important, simply because he's white.'
Mama relaxed her grip. I knew that she was waiting for me to speak. There was a sinking feeling in my stomach and I felt as
if the world had turned itself upside down with me in it. Then I thought of Lillian Jean and a surging anger gurgled upward
and I retaliated, ‘Well, they ain't!' But I leaned closer to Mama, anxiously hoping that she would agree with me.
'Of course they aren't,' Mama said. ‘White people may demand our respect, but what we give them is not respect but fear.
What we give to our own people is far more important because it's given freely. Now you may have to call Lillian Jean
"Miss" because the white people say so, but you'll also call our own young ladies at church "Miss" be- cause you really do
respect them.
'Baby, we have no choice of what color we're born or who our parents are or whether we're rich or poor. What we do have is
some choice over what we make of our lives once we're here.' Mama cupped my face in her hands. ‘And I pray to God you'll
make the best of yours.' She hugged me warmly then and motioned me under the covers.
As she turned the lamp down low, I asked, ‘Mama. Uncle Hammer. If Mr. Morrison can't stop him, what'll happen!' 'Mr.
Morrison will bring him back.'
'But just what if he can't and Uncle Hammer gets to Mr. Simms!'
A shadowy fear fleeted across her face, but disappeared with the dimming light. ‘I think ... I think you've done enough
growing up for one day, Cassie,' she said without answering my question, ‘Uncle Hammer'll be all right. Now go to sleep.'
Mama had been right about Uncle Hammer. When I awoke the next morning and followed the smell of frying ham and
baking biscuits into the kitchen, there he sat at the table drinking coffee with Mr. Morrison. He was unshaven and looked a bit
bleary-eyed, but he was all right: I wondered if Mr. Simms looked so good. I didn't get a chance to ask, because as soon as I
had said good morning Mama called me into her room, where a tub of hot water was waiting by the fireplace.
'Hurry up,' she said. ‘Uncle Hammer's going to take us to church.'
'In his car!'
Mama's brow furrowed. 'Well, I just don't know. He did say something about hitching up Jack ...
My smile faded, but then I caught the teasing glint in her eyes, and she began to laugh, 'Ah, Mama!' I laughed, and splashed
into the water.
After my bath I went into my room to dress. When I rejoined Mama she was combing her hair, which fanned her head like an
enormous black halo. As I watched, she shaped the long thickness into a large chignon at the nape of her neck and stuck six
sturdy hairpins into it. Then, giving the chignon a pat, she reached for her pale-blue cotton dress sprinkled with tiny yellowand-white flowers and polished white buttons running from top to bottom along its front. She glanced down at me. ‘You
didn't comb your hair.
'No'm, I want you to fix me my grown-up hairdo.' Mama began buttoning the top of her dress with long, flying fingers as I
slowly fastened the lower buttons. I loved to help Mama dress. She always smelled of sunshine and soap. When the last
button had slipped into place, she buckled a dark-blue patent-leather belt around her tiny waist and stood ready except for her
shoes. She looked very pretty.
'Where's your brush?'
'Right here,' I said, picking up the brush from where I had laid it on the chair.
Mama sat down in Papa's rocker and I sat on the deerskin rug in front of her. Mama divided my hair from ear to ear into two
sections and braided the front section to one side and the back section right in the center. Then she wound each braid into a
flat chignon against my head. My hair was too thick and long for me to do it well myself, but Mama could do it perfectly. I
figured I looked my very best that way.
When Mama finished, I ran to the mirror, then turned, facing her with a grin. She grinned back and shook her head at my
'One day, Mama, you gonna fix my hair like yours!'
That'll be a few years yet,' she answered, readjusting the cardboard lining she had placed in her shoes to protect her feet from
the dirt and gravel which could easily seep through the large holes in the soles. She set the shoes on the floor and stepped into
them. Now, with the soles facing downward and Mama's feet in them, no one could tell what the shiny exteriors hid; yet I felt
uncomfortable for Mama and wished that we had enough money for her to have her shoes fixed or, better still, buy new ones.
After breakfast Stacey, Christopher-John, Little Man, and I sat impatiently by the dying morning fire waiting for Mama, Big
Ma, and Uncle Hammer. Uncle Hammer was dressing in the boys' room and Mama was in with Big Ma. I checked to make
sure none of them was about to appear, then leaned toward Stacey and whispered, ‘You think Uncle Hammer whipped Mr.
Simms !'
'No.' said Stacey quietly.
'No !' cried Little Man.
'Y-you don't mean Mr. Simms whipped Uncle Hammer!' stammered an unbelieving Christopher-John.
'Nothin' happened.' said Stacey in explanation as he tugged irritably at his collar. 'Nothin' !' I repeated, disappointed.
'Nothin' .'
'How you know!' asked Little Man suspiciously.
'Mama said so. I asked her straight out this morning.
'Oh,' replied Little Man, resigned.
'But something must've happened,' I said. ‘I mean Uncle Hammer and Mr. Morrison look like they haven't even been to bed.
How come they look like that if nothin' happened!'
'Mama said Mr. Morrison talked all night to Uncle Ham- mer. Talked him tired and wouldn't let him go up to the Simmses'.
'Ah, shoot!' I exclaimed, my dream of revenge against the Simmses vanishing as Stacey talked. I propped my elbows on my
knees, then settled my head in my upraised hands and stared into the glowing embers. A burning knot formed in my throat
and I felt as if my body was not large enough to hold the frustration I felt, nor deep enough to drown the rising anger.
'It ain't fair.' Christopher-John sympathized, patting me lightly with his pudgy hand.
'She' aint,' agreed Little Man.
'Cassie.' Stacey said softly. At first I didn't look at him, thinking he would go ahead and say what he had to say. But when he
didn't, I turned toward him. He leaned forward secretively and automatically Christopher-John and Little Man did the same.
'Y'all better be glad nothin' happened,' he said in a whisper. ''Cause I heard Big Ma tell Mama last night that if Mr. Morrison
didn't stop Uncle Hammer, Uncle Hammer might get killed.'
'Killed !' we echoed as the fire sputtered and died. 'Who'd do that!' I cried. ‘Not one of them puny Simmses!'
Stacey started to speak, but then Mama and Big Ma entered, and he cautioned us into silence.
When Uncle Hammer joined us, freshly shaven and in another suit, the boys and I put on our coats and headed for the door;
Uncle Hammer stopped us. ‘Stacey, that the only coat you got, son !' he asked.
Stacey looked down at his faded cotton jacket. Everyone else did too. The jacket was too small for him, that was obvious, and
compared to Little Man's and Christopher-John's and mine, it was admittedly in sadder shape. Yet we were all surprised that
Uncle Hammer would ask about it, for he knew as well as anyone that Mama had to buy our clothes in shifts, which meant
that we each had to wait our turn for new clothes. Stacey looked up at Mama, then back at Uncle Hammer. 'Y-yessir,' he
Uncle Hammer stared at him, then waving his hand ordered. 'Take it off.' Before Stacey could question why, Uncle Hammer
disappeared into the boys' room.
Again Stacey looked at Mama. ‘You’d better do like he says.' she said.
Uncle Hammer returned with a long box, store wrapped in shiny red Christmas paper and a fancy green ribbon. He handed
the package to Stacey. ‘It was supposed to be your Christmas present, but I think I'd better give it to you now. It's cold out
Gingerly, Stacey took the box and opened it.
'A coat !' cried Little Man joyously, clapping his hands.
'Wool.' Mama said reverently. ‘Go ahead, Stacey. Try it on.
Stacey eagerly slipped on the coat; it was much too big for him, but Mama said that she could take up the sleeves and that he
would grow into it in another year. Stacey beamed down at the coat, then up at Uncle Hammer. A year ago he would have
shot into Uncle Hammer's arms and hugged his thanks, but now at the manly age of twelve he held out his hand, and Uncle
Hammer shook it.
'Come on, we'd better go.' said Mama. The morning was gray as we stepped outside, but the rain had stopped. We followed
the path of bedded rocks that led to the barn, careful not to slip into the mud, and got into the Packard. shining clean and
bright from the washing Uncle Hammer and Mr. Morrison had given it after break- fast. Inside the Packard, the world was a
wine-colored luxury. The boys and I, in the back, ran our hands over the rich felt seats, tenderly fingered the fancy door
handles and window knobs, and peered down amazed at the pillow and carpet peeping out on either side of the rubber mats.
Mr. Morrison, who was not a churchgoing man, waved good-bye from the barn and we sped away.
As we drove onto the school grounds and parked, the people milling in front of the church turned, staring at the Packard.
Then Uncle Hammer stepped from the car and someone cried, 'Well, I'll be doggone! It's our Hammer! Hammer Logan !' And
in a body, the crowd engulfed us.
T.J. ran up with Moe Turner and Little Willie Wiggins to admire the car. 'It's Uncle Hammer's,' said Stacey proudly. But
before the boys could sufficiently admire the car, Mama and Big Ma shooed us toward the church for the service. it was then
that T.J. noticed Stacey's new coat.
'Uncle Hammer gave it to him,' I said. 'Ain't it something?'
T.J. ran his long fingers over the lapels, and shrugged. 'It's all right, I guess, if you like that sort of thing."
'All right!' I cried, indignant at his casual reaction to the coat. 'Boy, that's the finest coat you ever did lay eyes on and you
know it!'
T.J. sighed. 'Like I said, it's all right ... if you like lookin' like a fat preacher.' Then he and Little Willie and Moe laughed, and
went on ahead.
Stacey looked down at the coat with its long sleeves and wide shoulders. His smile faded. ‘He don't know what he's talking
‘bout.' I said. ‘He’s just jealous, that's all.'
'I know it.' snapped Stacey sourly.
As we slid into the pew in front of T.J., T.J. whispered, 'Here comes the preacher.' then leaned forward and said snidely.’
How do you do, Reverend Logan!'
Stacey turned on T.J.. but I poked him hard. 'Mama's looking.' I whispered, and he turned back around.
After church, as T.J. and the others looked longingly at the car, Mama said. 'Stacey, maybe T.J. wants to ride.'
Before Stacey could reply, I spoke up hurriedly. 'No, ma'am, Mama, he got something else he gotta do.' Then under my
breath so that I would not be guilty of a lie, I added, ‘He gotta walk home like he always do.
That'll teach him.' whispered Little Man.
'Yeah.' agreed Christopher-John, but Stacey sulked by the window and said nothing.
The sun was out now and Uncle Hammer suggested that we take a real ride before going home. He drove us the full twentytwo miles up to Strawberry by way of the Jackson Road, one of two roads leading to the town. But Mama and Big Ma
objected so much to going through Strawberry that he turned the big car around and headed back toward home, taking the old
Soldiers Road. Supposedly, Rebel soldiers had once marched up the road and across Soldiers Bridge to keep the town from
falling into the hands of the Yankee Army, but I had my doubts about that. After all, who in his right mind would want to
capture Strawberry ... or defend it either for that matter!
The road was hilly and curving, and as we sped over it scattered road stones hit sharply against the car's underbelly and the
dust swelled up in rolls of billowing clouds behind us. Little Man, Christopher-John, and I shrieked with delight each time the
car climbed a hill and dropped suddenly downward, fluttering our stomachs. Eventually, the road intersected with the
Jefferson Davis School Road. Uncle Hammer stopped the car at the intersection and, leaning his right arm heavily over the
steering wheel, motioned languidly at the Wallace Store. 'Got me a good mind to burn that place out,' he said.
'Hammer, hush that kind of talk!' ordered Big Ma, her eyes growing wide.
'Me and John Henry and David grew up together. And John Henry and me even fought in their war together. What good was
it! A black man's life ain't worth the life of a cowfly down here.'
'I know that, son, but that kinda talk get you hung and you know it.'
Mama touched Uncle Hammer's arm. ‘There might be another way, Hammer... like I told you. Now don't go do something
foolish. Wait for David - talk to him.
Uncle Hammer looked glassy-eyed at the store, then sighed and eased the Packard across the road toward Soldiers Bridge.
We were taking the long way home.
Soldiers Bridge was built before the Civil War. It was spindly and wooden, and each time I had to cross it I held my breath
until I was safely on the other side. Only one vehicle could cross at a time, and whoever was on the bridge first was supposed
to have the right of way, although it didn't always work that way. More than once when I had been in the wagon with Mama
or Big Ma, we had had to back off the bridge when a white family started across after we were already on it.
As the bridge came into view the other side of the river was clearly visible, and it was obvious to everyone that an old ModelT truck, overflowing with redheaded children, had reached the bridge first and was about to cross, but suddenly Uncle
Hammer gassed the Packard and sped onto the creaking structure. The driver of the truck stopped, and for no more than a
second hesitated on the bridge, then without a single honk of protest backed off so that we could pass.
'Hammer!' Big Ma cried. ‘They think you're Mr. Granger.
'Well, now, won't they be surprised when we reach the other side,' said Uncle Hammer.
As we came off the bridge, we could see the Wallaces, all three of them - Dewberry, Thurston, and Kaleb - touch their hats
respectfully, then immediately freeze as they saw who we were. Uncle Hammer, straight-faced and totally calm, touched the
brim of his own hat in polite response and without a backward glance sped away, leaving the Wallaces gaping silently after
Stacey, Christopher-John, Little Man, and I laughed, but Mama's cold glance made us stop. 'You shouldn't have done that,
Hammer," she said quietly.
'The opportunity, dear sister, was too much to resist.' 'But one day we'll have to pay for it. Believe me,' she said, ‘one day
we'll pay.