Roll of thunder
hear my cry
Over the water
bye and bye
Ole man comin'
down the line
Whip in hand t
o beat me down
But I oin't gonna
let him Turn me'round
The night whispered of distant thunder. It was muggy, hot, a miserable night for sleeping. Twice I had awakened hoping that
it was time to be up, but each time the night had been total blackness with no hint of a graying dawn. On the front porch Mr.
Morrison sat singing soft and low into the long night, chanting to the approaching thunder, He had been there since the house
had darkened after church, watching and waiting as he had done every night since Papa had been injured. No one had ever
explained why he watched and waited, but I knew. It had to do with the Wallaces.
Mr. Morrison's song faded and I guessed he was on his way to the rear of the house. He would stay there for a while, walking
on cat's feet through the quiet yard, then eventually return to the front porch again. Unable to sleep, I resigned myself to await
his return by counting states. Miss Crocker had had a big thing about states, and I sometimes found that if I pretended that she
was naming them off I could fall asleep. I decided to count the states geo- graphically rather than alphabetically; that was
more of a challenge. I had gotten as far west as the Dakotas when my silent recitation was disturbed by a tapping on the
porch. I lay very still. Mr. Morrison never made sounds like that.
There it was again.
Cautiously, I climbed from the bed, careful not to awaken Big Ma. who was still snoring soundly, and crept to the door. I
pressed my ear against the door and listened, then slipped the latch furiously and darted outside, ‘Boy, what you doing here!' I
'Hey, Cassie, wouldja keep it down!' whispered T.J., invisible in the darkness. Then he tapped lightly on the boys' door again,
calling softly, 'Hey, Stacey, come on and wake up, will ya ? Let me in.'
The door swung open and T.J. slipped inside. I pulled my own door closed and followed him. 'I-I'm in trouble, Stacey, he
said. 'I mean I'm r-really in trouble.'
'That ain't nothing new.' I remarked. 'What you coming here for!' whispered Stacey icily, 'Go get R.W. and Melvin to get you
out of it.'
In the darkness there was a low sob and T.J., hardly sounding like T,J., mumbled. ‘They the ones got me in it. Where's the
bed? I gotta sit down.'
In the darkness he groped for the bed, his feet dragging as if he could hardly lift them. ‘I ain't no bed! 'I exclaimed as his
hands fell on me.
There was a deep sigh. Stacey clicked on the flashlight and T.J. found the bed, sitting down slowly and holding his stomach
as if he were hurt.
'What's the matter!' Stacey asked. his voice wary.
'R.W. and Melvin,' whispered T.J. 'they hurt me bad.' He looked up, expecting sympathy. But our faces, grim behind the light
Stacey held, showed no compassion. T.J.'s eyes dimmed, then, undoing the buttons to his shirt, he pulled the shirt open and
stared down at his stomach.
I grimaced and shook my head at the sight. ‘Lord, T.J. !' Stacey exclaimed in a whisper. ‘What happened!'
T.J. did not answer at first, staring in horror at the deep blue-black swelling of his stomach and chest. ‘I think something's
busted.' he gasped finally. ‘I hurt something awful.
'Why'd they do it !' asked Stacey.
T.J. looked up into the bright light. ‘Help me, Stacey. Help me get home... I can't make it by myself.'
Tell me how come they did this to you.
''Cause...'cause I said I was gonna tell what happened.'
Stacey and I looked at each other, then together leaned closer to T.J. 'Tell what !' we asked.
T.J. gulped and leaned over, his head between his legs. 'I ... I'm sick, Stacey. I gotta get home 'fore my daddy wake up... He
say I stay 'way from that house one more night. he gonna put me out, and he mean it, too. He put me out, I got no place to go.
You gotta help me.'
'Tell us what happened.'
T.J. began to cry. 'But they said they'd do worse than this if I ever told !'
'Well, I ain't about to go nowhere unless I know what happened,' said Stacey with finality.
T.J. searched Stacey's face in the rim of ghostly light cast by the flashlight. Then he told his story.
After he and the Simmses left Great Faith, they went directly into Strawberry to get the pearl-handled pistol, but when they
arrived the mercantile was already closed. The Simmses said that there was no sense in coming back for the pistol; they
would simply go in and take it. T.J. was frightened at the thought, but the Simmses assured him that there was no danger. If
they were caught, they would simply say that they needed the pistol that night but intended to pay for it on Monday.
In the storage room at the back of the store was a small open window through which a child or a person as thin as T.J. would
wriggle. After waiting almost an hour after the lights had gone out in the Barnetts' living quarters on the second floor, T.J.
slipped through the window and opened the door, and the Simmses entered, their faces masked with stockings and their hands
gloved. T.J., now afraid that they had something else in mind, wanted to leave without the pistol, but R.W. had insisted that
he have it. R.W. broke the lock of the gun case with an axe and gave T.J. the much- longed-for gun.
Then R.W, and Melvin went over to a wall cabinet and tried to break off the brass lock. After several unsuccessful minutes,
R.W. swung the axe sharply against the lock and it gave. But as Melvin reached for the metal box inside, Mr. Barnett
appeared on the stairs, a flashlight in his hand, his wife behind him.
For a long moment no one moved or said a word as Mr. Barnett shone the light directly on T.J., then on R.W. and Melvin,
their faces darkened by the stockings. But when Mr. Barnett saw the cabinet lock busted, he flew into frenzied action,
hopping madly down the stairs and trying to grab the metal box from Melvin. They struggled. with Mr. Barnett getting the
better of Melvin, until R.W, whopped Mr. Barnett solidly on the head from behind with the flat of the axe, and Mr. Barnett
slumped into a heap upon the floor as if dead.
When Mrs. Barnett saw her husband fall, she dashed across the room and flailed into R.W., crying 'You niggers done killed
Jim Lee!You done killed him!' R.W., trying to escape her grasp, slapped at her and she fell back, hitting her head against one
of the stoves, and did not move.
Once they were outside T.J. wanted to come straight home, but the Simmses said they had business to take care of and told
him to wait in the back of the truck. When T.J. objected and said that he was going to tell everybody it was R.W. and Melvin
who had hurt the Barnetts unless they took him home, the two of them lit into him, beating him with savage blows until he
could not stand, then flung him into the back of the truck and went down the street to the pool hall. T.J. lay there for what he
thought must have been an hour before crawling from the truck and starring home. About a mile outside of town, he got a ride
with a farmer headed for Smellings Creek by way of Soldiers Road. Not wanting to walk past the Simmses' place for fear
R.W. and Melvin had taken the Jackson Road home, he did not get out at the Jefferson Davis School Road intersection, but
instead crossed Soldiers Bridge with the farmer and got out at the intersection beyond the bridge and walked around, coming
from the west to our house.
T.J., was ... was them Barnetts dead!' asked Stacey when T.J. grew quiet.
TJ. shook his head. ‘I dunno. They sure looked dead. Stacey, anybody find out, you know what they'd do to me!' He stood up,
his face grimacing with pain.'Stacey, help me get home,' he pleaded.'I'm afraid to go there by myself... R.W. and Melvin
might be waitin'...
'You sure you ain't lying, T.J.!' I asked suspiciously.
'I swear everything I told y'all is the truth. I ... I admit I lied 'bout tellin' on your mama, but I ain't lyin' now, I ain't !'
Stacey thought a moment.'Why don't you stay here to- night! Papa'll tell your daddy what happened and he won't put -
'No!' cried T.J., his eyes big with terror.'Can't tell no- body ! I gotta go i' He headed for thedoor. holding his side. But before
he could reach it, his legs gave way and Stacey caught him and guided him back to the bed.
I studied T.J. closely under the light, sure that he was pulling another fast one. But then he coughed and blood spurted from
his mouth; his eyes glazed, his face paled, and I knew that this time T.J. was not faking.
'You're bad hurt,' Stacey said. 'Let me get Big Ma - she'll know what to do.'
T.J. shook his head weakly. ‘My mama ... I'll just tell her them white boys beat me for no reason and she'll believe it ... she'll
take care of me. But you go wakin' your grand- mama and your daddy'll be in it. Stacey, please! You my only friend ... ain't
never really had no true friend but you. ..
'Stacey!' I whispered, afraid of what he might do. As far back as I could remember, Stacey had felt a responsibility for T.J. I
had never really understood why. Perhaps he felt that even a- person as despicable as T.J. needed someone he could call
'friend,' or perhaps he sensed T.J.'s vulnerability better than T.J. did himself. ‘Stacey, you ain't going, are you!'
Stacey wet his lips, thinking. Then he looked at me. ‘You go on back to bed, Cassie. I'll be all right.'
'Yeah, I know you gonna be all right 'cause I'm gonna tell Papa !' I cried, turning to dash for the other room. But Stacey
reached into the darkness and caught me. ‘look, Cassie, it won't take me but twenty-five or thirty minutes to run down there
and back. Really, it's all right.'
'You as big a fool as he is then,' I accused frantically. 'You don't owe him nothin', 'specially after what he done to Mama.'
Stacey released me. 'He's hurt bad, Cassie. I gotta get him home.' He turned away from me and grabbed his pants.
I stared after him; then I said, 'Well, you ain't going without me.' If Stacey was going to be a fool and go running out into the
night to take an even bigger fool home, the least I could do was make sure he got back in one piece.
'Cassie, you can't go -
'Go where?' piped Little Man, sitting up. ChristopherJohn sat up too. yawning sleepily. ‘Is it morning! What y'all doing up!' Little Man questioned. He blinked into the light and
rubbed his eyes. T.J., that you! What you doing here ! Where y'all going!'
'Nowhere. I'm just gonna walk T.J. home,' Stacey said. 'Now go on back to sleep.
Little Man jumped out of bed and pulled his clothes from the hanger where he had neatly hung them. ‘I’m going too.' he
'Not me.' said Christopher-John, lying back down again. While Stacey attempted to put Little Man back to bed, ! checked the
porch to make sure that Mr. Morrison wasn't around, then slipped back to my own room to change. When I emerged again,
the boys were on the porch and Christopher-john, his pants over his arm, was murmuring a strong protest against this middle
of-the-night stroll. Stacey attempted to persuade both him and Little Man back inside, but Little Man would not budge and
Christopher- John, as much as he protested, would not be left behind, Finally Stacey gave up and with T.J. leaning heavily
against him hurried across the lawn. The rest of us followed.
Once on the road, we became part of the night. Quiet, frightened, and wishing just to dump T.J. on his front porch and get
back to the safety of our own beds, we hastened along the invisible road, brightened only by the round of the flashlight.
The thunder was creeping closer now, rolling angrily over the forest depths and bringing the lightning with it, as we emerged
from the path into the deserted Avery yard. 'W-wait till I get inside, will ya!' requested T.J.
'Ain't nobody here,' I said sourly. ‘What you need us to wait for!'
'Go on T.J.,' said Stacey. ‘We’ll wait.
Th-thanks, y'all,' T.J. said, then he limped to the side of the house and slipped awkwardly into his room through an open
'Come on, let's get out of here.' said Stacey. herding us back to the path. But as we neared the forest, Little Man turned. 'Hey,
y'all, look over yonder! What's that!'
Beyond the Avery house bright lights appeared far away on the road near the Granger mansion. For a breathless second they
lingered there, then plunged suddenly downward toward the Averys'. The first set of lights was followed by a second, then a
third, until there were half a dozen sets of headlights beaming over the trail.
'Wh-what's happening!' cried Christopher-John.
For what seemed an interminable wait, we stood watching those lights drawing nearer and nearer before Stacey clicked off
the flashlight and ordered us into the forest. Silently, we slipped into the brush and fell hat to the ground. Two pickups and
four cars rattled into the yard, their lights focused like spotlights on the Avery front porch. Noisy, angry men leaped from the
cars and surrounded the house.
Kaleb Wallace and his brother Thurston, his left arm hanging akimbo at his side, pounded the front door with their rifle butts.
'Y'all come on outa there!' called Kaleb. 'We want that thieving, murdering nigger of y'all's.'
'St-Stacey,' I stammered, feeling the same nauseous fear I had felt when the night men had passed and when Papa had come
home shot and broken, 'wh-what they gonna do!'
'I - I dunno,' Stacey whispered as two more men joined the Wallaces at the door.
'Why, ain't ... ain't that R.W, and Melvin!' I exclaimed. 'What the devil they doing -
Stacey quickly muffled me with the palm of his hand as Melvin thrust himself against the door in an attempt to bleak it open
and R.W. smashed a window with his gun. At the side of the house, several men were climbing through the same window
T.J. had entered only a few minutes be- fore. Soon, the front door was flung open from the inside and Mr. and Mrs. Avery
were dragged savagely by their feet from the house. The Avery girls were thrown through the open windows. The older girls,
attempting to gather the younger children to them, were slapped back and spat upon. Then quiet, gentle Claude was hauled
out, knocked to the ground and kicked.
'C-Claude !' whimpered Christopher-John. trying to rise. But Stacey hushed him and held him down.
'W-we gotta get help,' Stacey rasped, but none of us could move. I watched the world from outside myself.
Then T.J. emerged, dragged from the house on his knees. His face was bloody and when he tried to speak he cried with pain,
mumbling his words as if his jaw was broken. Mr. Avery tried to rise to get to him, but was knocked back.
'Look what we got here!' one of the men said, holding up a gun. 'That pearl-handled pistol from Jim Lee's store.'
'Oh, Lord,' Stacey groaned. 'Why didn't he get rid of that thing!'
T.J. mumbled something we could not hear and Kaleb Wallace thundered, 'Stop lyin', boy,'cause you in a whole lot of trouble.
You was in there - Miz Barnett, when she come to and got help, said three black boys robbed their store and knocked out her
and her husband. And R.W. and Melvin Simms seen you and them two other boys running from behind that store when they
come in to town to shoot some pool -
'But it was R.W. and Melvin -' I started before Stacey clasped his hand over my mouth again.
Now who was them other two and where's that money y'all took!' Whatever T.J.'s reply, it obviously was not what Kaleb
Wallace wanted to hear, for he pulled his leg back and kicked T.J.'s swollen stomach with such force that T.J. emitted a cry of
awful pain and fell prone upon the ground.
'Lord Jesus! Lord Jesus!' cried Mrs. Avery, wrenching herself free from the men who held her and rushing toward her son.
‘Don’t let 'em hurt my baby no more! Kill me, Lord, but not my child !' But before she could reach T.J., she was caught by
the arm and flung so ferociously against the house that she fell, dazed, and Mr. Avery, struggling to reach her, was helpless to
save either her or T.J.
Christopher-John was sobbing distinctly now. 'Cassie, Stacey whispered, 'you take Little Man and Christopher- John and y'all
The headlights of two more cars appeared in the distance and Stacey immediately hushed. One of the cars halted on the
Granger Road, its lights beaming aimlessly into the blackness of the cotton fields, but the lead car came crazy and fast along
the rutted trail toward the Avery house, and before it had rolled to a complete stop Mr. Jamison leaped out. But once out of
the car, he stood very still surveying the scene: then he stared at each of the men as if preparing to charge them in the
courtroom and said softly, 'Y'all decide to hold court out here tonight !'
There was an embarrassed silence. Then Kaleb Wallace spoke up. ‘Now look here, Mr. Jamison, don't you come messin' in
this thing.
'You do,' warned Thurston hotly, ‘we just likely to take care of ourselves a nigger lover too tonight.'
An electric tenseness filled the air, but Mr. Jamison's placid face was unchanged by the threat. ‘Jim Lee Barnett and his wife
are still alive. Y'all let the sheriff and me take the boy. Let the law decide whether or not he's guilty.'
'Where's I-lank!' someone asked. ‘I don't see no law. That's him up at Harlan Granger's,' Mr. Jamison said with a wave of his
hand over his shoulder, ‘He’ll be down in a minute. Now leave the boy be.'
'For my money, I say let's do it now.' a voice cried. 'Ain't no need to waste good time and money tryin' no thievin' nigger!'
A crescendo of ugly hate rose from the men as the second car approached. They grew momentarily quiet as the sheriff
stepped out. The sheriff looked uneasily at the crowd as if he would rather not be here at all, then at Mr. Jamison.
'Where's Harian !' asked Mr. Jamison.
The sheriff turned from Mr. Jamison to the crowd with- out answering him. Then he spoke to the men : 'Mr. Granger sent
word by me that he ain't gonna stand for no hanging on his place. He say y'all touch one hair on that boy's head while he on
this land, he's gonna hold every man here responsible.'
The men took the news in grim silence. Then Kaleb Wallace cried : 'Then why don't we go somewhere else! I say what we
oughta do is take him on down the road and take care of that big black giant of a nigger at the same time?'
'And why not that boy he working for too !' yelled Thurston.
'Stacey !' I gasped.
'Hush !'
A welling affirmation rose from the men. 'I got me three new ropes !' exclaimed Kaleb.
'New! How come you wanna waste a new rope on a nigger!' asked Melvin Simms.
'Big as that one nigger is, an old one might break!'
There was chilling laughter and the men moved toward their cars, dragging T.J. with them.
'No!' cried Mr. Jamison, rushing to shield T.J. with his own body.
'Cassie,' Stacey whispered hoarsely, 'Cassie, you gotta get Papa now. Tell him what happened. I don't think Mr. Jamison can
hold them -
'You come too.’
'No. I'll wait here.'
'I ain't going without you!' I declared, afraid that he would do something stupid like trying to rescue T.J. alone.
'Look, Cassie, go on, will ya please! Papa'll know what to do. Somebody's gotta stay here case they take T.J. off into the
woods somewhere. I'll be all right.'
'Please. Cassie ! Trust me, will ya!'
I hesitated. 'Y-you promise you won't go down there by yourself!'
'Yeah, I promise. Just get Papa and Mr. Morrison 'fore they - 'fore they hurt them some more.' He placed the unlit flashlight in
my hand and pushed me up. Clutching Little Man's hand, I told him to grab Christopher-John's, and together the three of us
picked our way along the black path, afraid to turn on the flashlight for fear of its light being seen.
Thunder crashed against the corners of the world and lightning split the sky as we reached the road, but we did not stop. We
dared not. We had to reach Papa.
When we neared the house, the dull glow of a kerosene lamp was shining faintly from the boys' room.'Y-you s'pose they
already know !' Christopher-John asked breathlessly as we ran up the lawn. 'Dunno 'bout that,' 1 said,'but they know we ain't
where we s'pose to be.'
We ran noisily up onto the porch and flung open the unlatched door. Mama and Big Ma, standing with Mr. Morrison near the
foot of the bed, turned as we entered and Big Ma cried, 'Lord, there they is !'
'Where have you been!' Mama demanded, her face strangely stricken. ‘What do you mean running around out there this time
of night !'
Before we could answer either question, Papa appeared in the doorway, dressed, his wide leather strap in hand.
'Papa -' I began.
'Where's Stacey?'
'He-he down to T.J.'s. Papa -
'That boy's gotten mighty grown,' Papa said, clearly angry. 'I'm gonna teach all of y'all 'bout traipsing off in the middle of the
night ... and especially Stacey. He should know better. If Mr. Morrison hadn't seen this door open, I suppose you would've
thought you was getting away with something - like T.J. Well, y'all gonna learn right here and now there ain't gonna be no
T.J.s in this house -
'But, Papa, they h-hurt Claude! 'Christopher-John cried, tears streaming down his cheeks for his injured friend.
'And T.J., too,' echoed Little Man, trembling.
'What!' Papa asked, his eyes narrowing. 'What y'all talking 'bout!'
'Papa, they hurt'em real bad and...and,.' I could not finish. Papa came to me and took my face in his hands. 'What is it, Cassie
girl ! Tell me.
Everything. I poured out everything. About T.J.'s breaking into the mercantile with the Simmses, about his coming in the
night fleeing the Simmses, about the coming of the men and what they had done to the Averys. About Mr. Jamison and the
threat of the men to come to the house to get him and Mr. Morrison.
'And Stacey's still down there!' Papa asked when I had finished.
'Yessir. But he hid in the forest. They don't know he's there.'
Papa spun around suddenly. 'Cotta get him out of there, he said, moving quicker than I had thought possible with his bad leg.
Mama followed him into their room, and the boys and I followed her. From over the bed Papa pulled his shotgun.
'David, not with the shotgun. You can't stop them like that.'
'Got no other way,' he said, stuffing a box of shells into his shirt pocket.
'You fire on them and they'll hang you for sure. They'd like nothing better.
'If I don't, they'll hang T.J. This thing's been coming a long time, baby, and T.J. just happened to be the one foolish enough to
trigger it. But, fool or not, I can't just sit by and let them kill the boy. And if they find Stacey -
'I know, David, I know. But there's got to be another way. Some way they won't kill you too !' 'Seems like they might be
planning to do that anyway, Papa said, turning from her. 'They come here, no telling what'll happen, and I'll use every bullet I
got 'fore I let them hurt anybody in this house.'
Mama grabbed his arm. 'Get Harlan Granger to stop it. If he says so, they'll go on home.'
Papa shook his head. ‘Them cars had to come right past his house to get to the Averys', and if he intended to stop them, he'd
stop them without me telling him so.
'Then,' said Mama, ‘force him to stop it.'
'How!' asked Papa dryly. 'Hold a gun to his head!' He left her then, going back into the boys' room. ‘You coming, Mr.
Mr. Morrison nodded and followed Papa onto the porch, a rifle in his hand. Like a cat Mama sprang after them and grabbed
Papa again. ‘David, don't...don't use the gun.' Papa stared out as a bolt of lightning splintered the night into a dazzling
brilliance. The wind was blowing softly, gently toward the east. ‘Perhaps ...' he started, then was quiet.
Papa touched Mama's face tenderly with the tips of his fingers and said, ‘I’ll do what I have to do, Mary ... and so will you.'
Then he turned from her, and with Mr. Morrison disappeared into the night.
Mama pushed us back into her room, where Big Ma fell upon her knees and prayed a powerful prayer. Afterward both Mama
and Big Ma changed their clothes, then we sat, very quiet, as the heat crept sticky and wet through our clothing and the
thunder banged menacingly overhead. Mama, her knuckles tight against her skin as she gripped the arms of her chair. looked
down upon Christopher-John, Little Man, and me, our eyes wide awake with fear, ‘I don't suppose it would do any good to
put you to bed.' she said quietly. We looked up at her. She did not mean to have an answer; we gave none, and nothing else
was said as the night minutes crept past and the waiting pressed as heavily upon us as the heat.
Then Mama stiffened. She sniffed the air and got up.
'What is it, child !' Big Ma asked.
'You smell smoke!' Mama said, going to the front door and opening it. Little Man. Christopher-John. and I followed, peeping
around her in the doorway. From deep in the field where the land sloped upward toward the Granger forest, a fire billowed,
carried eastward by the wind,
'Mama. the cotton !' I cried. ‘It’s on fire !'
'Oh, good Lord !' Big Ma exclaimed, hurrying to join us. 'That lightning done that !'
'If it reaches those trees, it'll burn everything from here to Strawberry,' Mama said. She turned quickly and ran across the
room to the side door. ‘Stay here.' she ordered, opening the door and fleeing across the yard to the barn. 'Mama, you'd better
get some water!' she yelled over her shoulder.
Big Ma hurried into the kitchen with Christopher-John, Little Man. and me at her heels, ‘What we gonna do, Big Ma!' I
Big Ma stepped onto the back porch and brought in the washtub and began filling it with water, ‘We gotta fight that fire and
try and stop it 'fore it reach them trees. Stand back now out the way so y'all don't get wet.'
In a few minutes Mama returned, her arms loaded with sacks of burlap. She quickly threw the sacks into the water and ran
back out again. When she returned, she carried two shovels and several more sacks.
'Mama, what you gonna do with all that!' asked Little Man.
'It's for fighting the fire.' she replied hastily.
'Oh.' said Little Man, grabbing for one o~ the shovels as I started to take the other.
'No,' Mama said. ‘You’re going to stay here.'
Big Ma straightened from where she was bent dunking the sacks into the water. ‘Mary, child, you don't think it'd be better to
take them with us !'
Mama studied us closely and bit her lower lip. She was silent for several moments, then she shook her head. ‘Can’t anyone
get to the house from the Grangers' without our seeing them. I'd rather they stay here than risk them near the fire.'
Then she charged each of us, a strange glint in her eyes. 'Cassie, Christopher-John, Clayton Chester, hear me good. I don't
want you near that fire. You set one foot from this house and I'm going to skin you alive ...do you hear me now!'
We nodded solemnly. ‘Yes ma'am. Mama.
'And stay inside. That lightning's dangerous.'
'B-but. Mama,' cried Christopher-John. 'y'all going out there in that lightning i'
'It can't be helped, baby.' she said. ‘The fire's got to be stopped.
Then she and Big Ma laid the shovels across the top of the tub and each took a handle of it. As they stepped out the back
door. Mama looked back at us. her eyes uncertain, as if she did not want to leave us .'Y'all be sure to mind now. ordered Big
Ma gruffly, and the two of them carrying the heavy tub crossed the yard toward the garden. From the garden they would cut
through the south pasture and up to where the cotton blazed. We watched until they were swallowed by the blackness that lay
between the house and the fire, then dashed back to the front porch where the view was clearer. There we gazed transfixed as
the flames gobbled the cotton and crept dangerously near the forest edge.
Th-that fire, Cassie.' said Christopher-John. 'it gonna burn us up!'
'No ...it's going the other way. Toward the forest.'
Then it's gonna burn up the trees.' said Christopher-John sadly.
Little Man tugged at my arm. ‘Papa and Stacey and Mr. Morrison, Cassie! They in them trees!' Then iron-willed Little Man
began to cry. And Christopher-John too. And the three of us huddled together, all alone,
'Hey, y'ail all right!'
I gazed out into the night, seeing nothing but the gray smoke and the red rim of the fire in the east, ‘Who’s that!'
'It's me, I said Jeremy Simms, running up the lawn.
'Jeremy, what you doing out this time of night?' I questioned, taken aback to see him.
'It ain't night no more, Cassie. It's near dawn.'
'But what you doing here!' repeated Little Man with a sniffle.
'I was sleepin' up in my tree like I always do -
'On a night like this!' I exclaimed. ‘Boy, you are crazy !'
Jeremy looked rather shamefaced, and shrugged. ‘Well, anyway, I was and I smelled smoke. I knew it was comin' from this
away and I was 'fraid it was y'all's place, so I run in and told my pa, and him and me we come on up here over an hour ago.
'You mean you been out there fighting that fire!'
Jeremy nodded. ‘My pa, and R,W. and Melvin too.
'R.W. and Melvin!. Little Man. Christopher-John. and I exclaimed together.
'But they was -' I poked Christopher-John into silence.
'Yeah, they got there 'fore us. And there's a whole lot of men from the town out there too.' He looked puzzled, ‘I wonder what
they all was doin' out here!'
'How bad is it?' I asked, ignoring his wonderings. 'It get much of the cotton !'
Jeremy nodded absently. ‘Funny thing. That fire come up from that lightning and struck one of them wooden fence posts, I
reckon, and sparked that cotton. Must've burned a good quarter of it.. Y'all lucky it ain't headed this way.
'But the trees,' said Christopher-John. 'It gonna get the trees, ain't it!'
Jeremy looked out across the field, shielding his eyes against the brilliance of the fire. 'They tryin' like everything to stop it.
Your papa and Mr. Granger, they got -
'Papa! You seen Papa! He all right!' cried Christopher- John breathlessly.
Jeremy nodded, looking down at him strangely, 'Yeah, he's fine -
'And Stacey, you seen him!' inquired Little Man.
Again, Jeremy nodded. 'Yeah, he out there too.
Little Man, Christopher-John. and I glanced at each other, relieved just a bit, and Jeremy went on, though eyeing us
somewhat suspiciously. ‘Your papa and Mr. Granger, they got them men diggin' a deep trench 'cross that slope and they say
they gonna burn that pasture grass from the trench back to the cotton -
'You think that'll stop it !' I asked.
Jeremy stared blankly at the fire and shook his head. 'Dunno,' he said finally. ‘Sure hope so, though.' There was a violent clap
of thunder, and lightning flooded the field. 'One thing would sure help though is if that ole rain would only come on down.'
All four of us looked up at the sky and waited a minute for the rain to fall. When nothing happened, Jeremy turned and
sighed. ‘I better be gettin' back now. Miz Logan said she left y'all here so I just come to see 'bout ya.' Then he ran down the
slope, waving back at us as he went. When he got to the road, he stopped suddenly and stood very still; then he put out his
hands, hesitated a moment, and spun around wildly as if he were mad.
'It's rainin', y'all!' he cried.'That ole rain a-comin' down !'
Little Man, Christopher-John, and I jumped from the porch and ran barefooted onto the lawn, feeling the rain fine and cool
upon our faces. And we laughed, whooping joyously into the thundering night, forgetting for the moment that we still did not
know what had happened to T.J.
When the dawn came peeping yellow-gray and sooted over the horizon, the fire was out and the thunderstorm had shifted
eastward after an hour of heavy rain. I stood up stiffly, my eyes tearing from the acrid smoke, and looked out across the
cotton to the slope, barely visible in the smoggish dawn. Near the slope where once cotton stalks had stood, their brown bells
popping with tiny puffs of cotton, the land was charred, desolate, black, still steaming from the night.
I wanted to go and take a closer look, but for once Christopher-John would not budge. ‘No!' he repeated over and over. ‘I ain't
going !'
'But what Mama meant was that she didn't want us near the fire, and it's out now.'
Christopher-john set his lips firmly together, folded his plump arms across his chest and was adamant. When I saw that he
would not be persuaded, I gazed again at the field and decided that I could not wait any longer. ‘Okay, you stay here then.
We'll be right back.' Ignoring his protests, Little Man and I ran down to the wet road.
'He really ain't coming,' said Little Man, amazed, looking back over his shoulder.
'I guess not,' ! said, searching for signs of the fire in the cotton. Farther up the road the stalks were singed, and the fine gray
ash of the fire lay thick upon them and the road and the forest trees.
When we reached the burnt-out section of the field, we surveyed the destruction. As far as we could see, the fire line had
extended midway up the slope, but had been stopped at the trench. The old oak was untouched. Moving across the field,
slowly, mechanically, as if sleepwalking, was a flood of men and women dumping shovels of dirt on fire patches which
refused to die. They wore wide handkerchiefs over their faces and many wore hats, making it difficult to identify who was
who, but it was obvious that the ranks of the fire fighters had swelled from the two dozen townsmen to include nearby
farmers. I recognized Mr. Lanier by his floppy blue hat working side by side with Mr. Simms, each oblivious of the other,
and Papa near the slope waving orders to two of the townsmen. Mr. Granger, hammering down smoldering stalks with the flat
of his shovel, was near the south pasture where Mr. Morrison and Mama were swatting the burning ground,
Nearer the fence a stocky man, masked like the others, searched the field in robot fashion for hidden fire under the charred
skeletons of broken stalks, When he reached the fence, he leaned tiredly against it, taking off his handkerchief to wipe the
sweat and soot from his face. He coughed and looked around blankly. His eyes fell on Little Man and me staring up at him.
But Kaleb Wallace seemed not to recognize us, and after a moment he picked up his shovel and started back toward the slope
without a word.
Then Little Man nudged me, ‘Look over there, Cassie, There go Mama and Big Ma !' I followed his pointing finger. Mama
and Big Ma were headed home across the field,
'Come on.' I said, sprinting back up the road, When we reached the house, we dragged our feet across the wet lawn to clean
them and rejoined Christopher-John on the porch. He looked a bit frightened sitting there ail alone and was obviously glad we
were back, 'Y'all all right !' he asked.
'Course we're all right,' I said, plopping on the porch and trying to catch my breath.
'What'd it look like!'
Before either Little Man or I could answer, Mama and Big Ma emerged from the field with Stacey, the sacks now blackened
remnants in their hands. We ran to them eagerly. 'Stacey, you all right!' I cried. 'What 'bout T.J.!'
'And C-Claude!' stammered Christopher-John. And Little Man asked, ‘Papa and Mr. Morrison, ain't they coming!'
Mama held up her hand wearily. ‘Babies! Babies!' Then she put her arm around Christopher-John, 'Claude's fine, honey.
And,' she said. looking down at Little Man, ‘Papa and Mr. Morrison, they'll be coming soon.
'But T.J., Mama,' I persisted. 'What 'bout T.J. !'
Mama sighed and sat down on the steps, laying the sacks on the ground. The boys and I sat beside her.
'I'm gonna go on in and change, Mary,' Big Ma said, climbing the steps and opening our bedroom door. 'Miz Fannie gonna
need somebody.'
Mama nodded. ‘Tell her I'll be down soon as I get the children to bed and things straightened out here.' Then she turned and
looked down at Little Man, Christopher-John. and me, eager to know what had happened. She smiled slightly, but there was
no happiness in it. 'T.J.'s ail right. The sheriff and Mr. Jamison took him into Strawberry.
'But why, Mama!' asked Little Man. ‘He done something bad !'
'They think he did, baby. They think he did.' 'Then - then they didn't hurt him no more!' I asked.
Stacey looked across at Mama to see if she intended to answer: then, his voice hollow and strained, he said, 'Mr. Granger
stopped them and sent them up to fight the fire.
I sensed that there was more, but before I could ask what, Christopher-john piped, 'And - and Papa and Mr. Morrison, they
didn't have to fight them ole men ! They didn't have to use the guns!'
'Thank the Lord, no.' said Mama. ‘They didn't.'
The fire come up.' said Stacey, ‘and Mr. Morrison come and got me and then them men come down here to fight the fire and
didn't nobody have to fight nobody.
'Mr. Morrison come get you alone!' I asked, puzzled. 'Where was Papa !'
Stacey again looked at Mama and for a moment they both were silent. Then Stacey said. 'Y'all know he couldn't make that
slope with that bad leg of his.
I looked at him suspiciously. I had seen Papa move on that leg. He could have made the slope if he wanted to.
'All right now.' Mama said, rising. 'It’s been a long, tiring night and it's time you all were in bed.
I reached for her arm. 'Mama, how bad is it really! I mean, is there enough cotton left to pay the taxes!'
Mama looked at me oddly. ‘Since when did you start worrying about taxes?' I shrugged, then leaned closer toward her,
wanting an answer, yet afraid to hear it. 'The taxes will get paid, don't you worry,' was all the answer she gave. ‘Now, let's get
to bed.'
'But I wanna wait for Papa and Mr. Morrison !' protested Little Man.
'Me too!' yawned Christopher-John.
'Inside !' !All of us went in but Stacey, and Mama did not make him. But as soon as she had disappeared into the boys' room
to make sure Little Man and Christopher-John got to bed, I returned to the porch and sat beside him. ‘I thought you went to
bed,' he said.
'I wanna know what happened over there.'
'I told you, Mr. Granger -
'I come and got Papa and Mr. Morrison like you asked.' I reminded him. ‘Now I wanna know everything happened after I
Stacey sighed and rubbed his left temple absently, as if his head were hurting. 'Ain't much happened 'cepting Mr. Jamison
tried talking to them men some more, and after a bit they pushed him out of the way and stuffed T.J. into one of their cars.
But Mr. Jamison, he jumped into his car and lit out ahead of them and drove up to Mr. Granger's and swung his car smack
across the road so couldn't nobody get past him. Then he starts laying on his horn.
'You go over there!'
He nodded. 'By the time I got 'cross the field to where I could hear what was going on, Mr. Granger was standing on his
porch and Mr. Jamison was telling him that the sheriff or nobody else was 'bout to stop a hanging on that flimsy message he'd
sent up to the Averys'. But Mr. Granger, he just stood there on his porch looking sleepy and bored, and finally he told the
sheriff, "Hank, you take care of this. That's what folks elected you for."
'Then Kaleb Wallace, he leaps out of his car and tries to grab Mr. Jamison's keys. But Mr. Jamison threw them keys right into
Mrs. Granger's flower bed and couldn't nobody find them, so Melvin and R.W. come up and pushed Mr. Jamison's car off the
road. Then them cars was 'bout to take off again when Mr. Granger comes running off the porch hollering like he's lost his
mind. 'There's smoke coming from my forest yonder the yells. 'Dry as that timber is, a fire catch hold it won't stop burning for
a week. Give that boy to Wade like he wants and get on up there !" And folks started running all over the place for shovels
and things, then all of them cut back down the road to the Averys' and through them woods over to our place.'
'And that's when Mr. Morrison come got you !'
Stacey nodded. ‘He found me when I followed them men back up to the woods.
I sat very still, listening to the soft sounds of the early morning, my eyes on the field. There was something which I still did
not understand.
Stacey nodded toward the road. ‘Here come Papa and Mr. Morrison.' They were walking with slow, exhausted steps toward
the drive.
The two of us ran down the lawn, but before we reached the road a car approached and stopped directly behind them. Mr.
Jamison was driving. Stacey and I stood curiously on the lawn, far enough away not to be noticed, but close enough to hear.
'David. I thought you should know ...' said Mr. Jamison, 'I just come from Strawberry to see the Averys -
'How bad is it?'
Mr. Jamison stared straight out at the road. 'Jim Lee Barnett ... he died at four o'clock this morning.
Papa hit the roof of the car hard with his clenched fist and turned toward the field, his head bowed.
For a long, long minute, none of the men spoke; then Mr. Morrison said softly, 'The boy, how is he !'
'Dec Crandon says he's got a couple of broken ribs and his jaw's broken. but he'll be all right ... for now. I'm going to his folks
to tell them and take them to town. Just thought I'd tell you first.
Papa said, ‘I’ll go in with them.'
Mr. Jamison pulled off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair, damp against his forehead. Then, squinting, he looked
over his shoulder at the field. 'Folks thinking.' he said slowly, as if he did not want to say what he was about to say, 'folks
thinking that lightning struck that fence of yours and started the fire...' He pulled at his ear. ‘It’s better-, I think, that you stay
clear of this whole thing now, David, and don't give anybody cause to think about you at all, except that you got what was
coming to you by losing a quarter of your cotton...'
There was a cautious silence as he gazed up at Papa and Mr. Morrison, their faces set in grim, tired lines. '... Or some- body
might just get to wondering about that fire...'
'Stacey.' I whispered, ‘what’s he talking 'bout!'
'Hush. Cassie,' Stacey said, his eyes intent on the men.
'But I wanna know -
Stacey looked around at me sharply, his face drawn, his eyes anxious, and without even a murmur from him I suddenly did
know. I knew why Mr. Morrison had come for him alone. Why Mr. Jamison was afraid for Papa to go into town. Papa had
found a way, as Mama had asked, to make Mr. Granger stop the hanging: He had started the fire.
And it came to me that this was one of those known and unknown things, something never to be spoken, not even to each
other. I glanced at Stacey, and he saw in my eyes that I knew, and understood the meaning of what I knew, and he said
simply, 'Mr. Jamison's going now.
Mr. Jamison turned around in the driveway and headed back toward the Averys'. Papa and Mr. Morrison watched him leave,
then Mr. Morrison walked silently up the drive to do the morning chores and Papa, noticing us for the first time, stared down
at us, his eyes bloodshot and unsmiling. 'I thought y'all would've been in bed by now.' he said.
'Papa,' Stacey whispered hoarsely,’ what’s gonna happen to T.J. now !'
Papa looked out at the climbing sun, a round, red shadow behind the smoggish heat. He didn't answer immediately, and it
seemed as if he were debating whether or not he should. Finally. very slowly, he looked down. first at me, then at Stacey. He
said quietly, 'He's in jail right now.
'And - and what then !' asked Stacey.
Papa studied us. 'He could possibly go on the chain gang. . .'
'Papa, could he ... could he die!' asked Stacey, hardly breathing.
'Son -
'Papa, could he?'
Papa put a strong hand on each of us and watched us closely. 'I ain't never lied to y'all, y'all know that.'
He waited, his eyes on us. ‘Well, I ... I wish I could lie to y'all now.'
'No! Oh. Papa, no!' I cried. ‘They wouldn't do that to ole T.J. ! He can talk his way outa just 'bout anything! Be- sides, he ain't
done nothing that bad. It was them Simmses ! Tell them that !'
Stacey, shaking his head, backed away, silent, not wanting to believe, but believing still. His eyes filled with heavy tears, then
he turned and fled down the lawn and across the road into the shelter of the forest.
Papa stared after him, holding me tightly to him. 'Oh, P-Papa, d-does it have to be !'
Papa tilted my chin and gazed softly down at me. ‘All I can say, Cassie girl .,.is that it shouldn't be.' Then, glancing back
toward the forest, he took my hand and led me to the house.
Mama was waiting for us as we climbed the steps, her face wan and strained, Little Man and Christopher-John were already
in bed, and after Mama had felt my forehead and asked if I was all right she sent me to bed too. Big Ma had already gone to
the Averys' and climbed into bed alone. A few minutes later both Mama and Papa came to tuck me in, talking softly in
fragile, gentle words that seemed about to break. Their presence softened the hurt and I did not cry. But after they had left and
I saw Papa through the open window disappear into the forest after Stacey, the tears began to run fast and heavy down my
In the afternoon when I awakened, or tomorrow or the next day, the boys and I would still be free to run the red road, to
wander through the old forest and sprawl lazily on the banks of the pond. Come October, we would trudge to school as
always, barefooted and grumbling, fighting the dust and the mud and the Jefferson Davis school bus. But T.J. never would
I had never liked T.J,, but he had always been there, a part of me, a part of my life, just like the mud and the rain, and I had
thought that he always would be. Yet the mud and the rain and the dust would all pass. I knew and understood that. What had
happened to T.J. in the night I did not understand, but I knew that it would not pass. And cried for those things which had
happened in the night and would not pass.
I cried for T.J. For T.J. and the land.