DOCK’S SHOES ON THE rocks up the hill and his heavy breathing had shut out all sound so that it seemed a long while she had heard nothing, and Amos lay too still, not clawing at the blanket as when they had started. They reached the ridge top where the road ran through scrub pine in sand, and while the mule’s shoes were soft on the thick needles she bent her head low over the long bundle across the saddle horn, listening. Almost at once she straightened, and kicked the already sweat-soaked mule hard in the flanks until he broke into an awkward gallop. “I know you’re tired, but it ain’t much furder,” she said in a low tight voice.
She rode on in silence, her big body hunched protectingly over the bundle. Now and then she glanced worriedly up at the sky, graying into the thick twilight of a rainy afternoon in October; but mostly her eyes, large, like the rest of her, and the deep, unshining gray of the rain-wet pine trunks, were fixed straight ahead of the mule’s ears, as if by much looking she might help the weary animal pull the road past her with her eyes.
They reached the highway, stretching empty between the pines, silent, no sign of cars or people, as if it were not a road at all, but some lost island of asphalt coming from no place, going nowhere. The mule stopped, his ears flicking slowly back and forth as he considered the road. She kicked him again, explaining, “It’s a road fer automobiles; we’ll have to ride it to stop a car, then you can git back home.”
The mule tried to turn away from the strange black stuff, flung his head about, danced stiff-leggedly back into the familiar sanctuary of soft ground and pine trees. “No,” the woman said, gripping his thin flanks with her long thighs, “no, you’ve got to git out in th middle so’s we can stop a car a goen toward th doctor’s. You’ve got to.” She kicked him again, turned him about. He tried one weary, halfhearted bucking jump; but the woman only settled herself in the saddle, gripped with her thighs, her drawn-up knees, her heels. Her voice was half pleading, half scolding: “Now, Dock, you know you cain’t buck me off, not even if you was fresh—an you ain’t. So git on.”
The great raw-boned mule argued with his ears, shook the bridle rein, side-stepped against a pine tree, but accepted soon the fact that the woman was master still, even on a strange road. He galloped again, down the middle of the asphalt that followed a high and narrow ridge and seemed at times like a road in the sky, the nothingness of fog-filled valleys far below on either side.
A car passed. Dock trembled at the sound, and side-stepped toward the edge, but the woman spoke gently and held him still. “It won’t hurt you none. It’s a car like th coal truck; we ain’t a stoppen it. It’s a goen th wrong way.”
The mule, in spite of all the woman’s urging, was slow in getting through his fright from the passing of the car. He fought continually to stay on the edge of the road, which was beginning to curve sharply and down so that little of it could be seen in either direction. The woman’s head was bent again, listening above the bundle, when the mule plunged wildly toward the pines. She jerked hard on the bridle, so swiftly, so fiercely, that he whirled about, reared, came down, then took a hard, stiff-legged jump that landed him for an instant crosswise in the road.
The roar of a car’s coming grew louder. Terrified by the strange sound, the unfamiliar road, and the strangeness of the woman’s ways, the mule fought back toward the pines. The woman gripped with her legs, pulled with her hand, so that they seemed to do some wild but well rehearsed dance, round and round in the road, the mule rearing, flinging his head about, fighting to get it down so that he could buck.
She eased her hold an instant, jerked hard with all her strength. He reared but stayed in the road. Yellow fog lights, pale in the gray mists, washed over them, shone on the red sandy clay on one of the woman’s shoes, a man’s shoe with cleats holding leather thongs, pressed hard against the mule’s lifted body as if it pointed to a place in the bridle mended with a piece of rawhide. It seemed a long time she sat so, the mule on his hind legs, the car lights washing over her, the child unshaken in the crook of her left arm while she talked to the mule in the same low urgent voice she had used to get him onto the highway: “Don’t be afeared, Dock. They’ll stop. We’ll make em stop. They dasn’t take these downhill curves too fast. They’ll have to stop. We’ll all go over th bluff together.”
There was a loud, insistent honking; brakes squealed and rubber squeaked while the fingers of light swept away from the woman and out into the fog above the valley. Then, as the car skidded, the lights crossed the woman again, went into the pines on the other side of the road, swept back, as the car, now only a few feet behind her but on the other side of the road, came out of its skid. The woman’s voice was low, pressed down by some terrible urgency as she begged under the screaming of the horn, “Crosswise, crosswise; it’ll git by us on t’other side.”
She jerked, kicked the mule, until he, already crazed with fright, jumped almost directly in front of the car, forcing it to swerve again, this time so sharply that it went completely off the road. It plowed partway into a thicket of little pines, then stopped on the narrow sandy shoulder above the bluff edge. The woman looked once at the car, then away and past the trembling mule’s ears; and though she looked down it was like searching the sky on a cloudy day. There was only fog, thickened in splotches, greenish above a pasture field, brownish over the corn far down in the valley below the treetops by the bluff edge.
“You done good, real good,” she whispered to the mule. Then all in one swift motion she swung one long leg over the mule’s back, looped the bridle over the saddle horn, turned the dazed mule southward, slapping him on the shoulder. “Git,” she said. She did not look after him as he leaped away, broken ribbons of foam flying down his chin, and blood oozing from a cut on his left hind leg where the car had grazed him.
She hurried the few steps along the bluff edge to the car as if afraid it would be off again; but her hand was reaching for the front door handle before the door opened slowly, cautiously, and a soldier, his head almost to her chin, got out. He stared up at her and did not answer when she begged all in a breath: “I’ve got tu have a lift. My little boy he’s …”
The soldier was no longer looking at her. His eyes, blue, and with the unremembering look of a very old man’s eyes, were fixed on the poplar tops rising above the bluff edge. He looked past them down into the valley, then slowly taking his glance away he reached for the handle of the back door, but dropped his hand when he saw that the window in the door was opening.
The woman turned to the down-dropping window and watched impatiently while first a hard and shiny soldier’s cap rose above it, then a man’s face, straight and neat and hard-appearing as the cap, but flushed now with surprise and anger. The mouth was hardly showing before it spoke, quickly, but with a flat, careful pronunciation of the words. “You realize you’ve run me off the road. If you can’t manage a horse, don’t ride one on the highway. Don’t you know there’s a war and this road carries …”
The woman had listened intently, watching the man’s lips, her brows drawn somewhat together like one listening to a language only partly understood. “I know they’s a war,” she said, reaching for the door handle. “That’s why th doctor closest home is gone. It was a mule,” she went on. “I managed him. I had to make you stop. I’ve got to git my little boy to a doctor—quick.” She had one foot inside the door, the child held now in her two hands as she prepared to lay him on the seat.
The man, plainly irritated because he had neglected to hold the door shut, continued to sit by it, his legs outspread, barring her way. His hand moved slowly, as if he wanted her to see it touch the pistol in a polished holster by his side, let the pistol speak to her more than his toneless, unruffled words when he said, “You must use other means of getting your child to the doctor.” He reached swiftly, jerked the door so that she, bent as she was, and with the heavy bundle in her two hands, staggered. Her head flopped downward to his knees, but she righted herself and kept one foot in the door.
“If my business were not so urgent,” he said, not taking his hand from the door, “I would have you arrested for sabotage. I travel from”—he hesitated—“an important place on urgent business.” The voice still was not a man’s voice, but the shiny cap, the bright leather, the pistol. It sharpened a little when he said, turning from her to the driver, “Get back into the car and drive on.” He looked once at the bundle where one small sun-burned but blue-nailed hand waved aimlessly out of the blanket folds. Then, letting the door swing wide, he jerked it swiftly so that it struck hard against the woman’s back, bent again as she searched for his eyes.
She straightened, put the hand under the blanket, but continued to stand between door and car. “I’m sorry you’re th army; frum Oak Ridge, I reckon, but I’d a stopped you enyhow.” Her voice was quiet as the voice below the cap. “You can shoot me now er give me an this youngen a lift to th closest doctor.” And even in the man’s work shoes, the long and shapeless coat, green-tinged with age, open, giving glimpses of a blue apron faded in strange squares as if it might have at one time been something else—a man’s denim trousers or overall jumper—she held herself proudly, saying: “You want my name; I’m Gertie Nevels from Ballew, Kentucky. Now, let me lay my little boy down. You cain’t go …”
The officer had flung the door suddenly outward again. Still she did not fall when he banged it back against her, though in her attempts to keep from falling forward into the car and onto the child she dropped to her knees, her feet sliding through the gravel to the bluff edge. The officer gripped the pistol butt, and his voice shrilled a little as he said to the young soldier who had stood stiff and silent, staring at the woman: “Get in and drive on. She’ll have to drop off then.”
The other took his eyes from the blanket, still now. He saluted, said, “Yes, sir,” but continued to stand, his body pressed against the car, his glance going again to the treetops below his feet.
“Back up on the road and drive on,” the other repeated, his face reddening, his eyes determinedly fixed straight in front of him.
“Yes, sir?” the other said again, unmoving. There was in his questioning acceptance of the command some slight note of pleasure. He looked up at the tall woman as if he would share it with her. Their glances crossed, but the trouble, the urgency of her need would let nothing else come into her eyes.
She looked again at the other. “You want him to go over th bluff?” And her voice was weary to breaking, like an overwrought mother speaking to a stubborn child.
The older man for the first time looked past the woman and realized that what he had taken for a continuation of the brush and scrub pine was the tops of tall-growing trees below a bluff. He looked quickly away and began a rapid edging along the seat to the opposite door. It was only when he was out of the car and a few feet from the bluff edge that he was able to speak with the voice of polished leather and pistol handle, and command the other to back out.
The woman, as soon as the officer moved, had laid the child on the seat, then stood a moment by the door, watching the driver, shaking her head slowly, frowning as he raced the motor until the car shivered and the smoking rear wheels dug great holes in the sandy shoulder. “That’ll do no good,” she said, then more loudly, her voice lifted above the roaring motor, “Have you got a ax?”
He shook his head, smiling a little, then his eyes were blank, prim like his mouth when the other told him to turn off the motor. The woman picked up a large sand-rock, dropped it behind one of the deeply sunken rear wheels. “Have you got a jack?” she asked the officer. “You could heist it up with a jack, git rocks under them wheels, an back up on th road.”
“Take your child out of the car and get on,” he said, his voice no longer smooth. “We may be stuck here until I can get a tow truck. You’ll be arrested.”
She glanced at him briefly, smoothed back her straight dark brown hair with a bended arm, then drawing the bottom of her apron into one hand to form a kind of sack, she began gathering rocks with the other hand, going in a quick squatting run, never straightening in her haste, never looking up.
The young soldier had by now got out of the car and stood by it, his back and shoulders very straight, his hands dropped by his sides so that a band of colored ribbon was bright on his dull uniform. The woman glanced curiously at it as she dumped a load of rocks by a wheel. The officer looked at him, and his voice was shrill, akin to an angry woman’s. “Hatcher, you’re not on the parade ground.”
“Yes, sir,” the other said, drawing himself up still more rigidly.
“Get out the jack,” the officer said, after frowning a moment at the woman as if loath to repeat her suggestion.
“Yes, hurry, please,” the woman begged, not pausing in her rock gathering, but looking toward the child on the back seat. It had struggled until the blanket had fallen away from its head, showing dark hair above a face that through the window shone yellowish white, contorted with some terrible effort to cry or vomit or speak. Like the woman as she ran squatting through the mud, the struggling child seemed animal-like and unhuman compared to the two neatly dressed men.
The woman hurried up again with another apronful of rocks, dumped them, then went at her darting, stooping run along the bluff edge searching for more. The young soldier in the awkward, fumbling way of a man, neither liking nor knowing his business, got out the jack and set it in the sandy mud under the rear bumper. “That’s no good,” the woman said, coming up with more rocks; and with one hand still holding the apron she picked up the jack, put a flat rock where it had been, reset it, gave it a quick, critical glance. “That’ll hold now,” she said. She dumped her rocks by the wheel, but continued to squat, studying now the pines caught under the front of the car.
The officer stood at the edge of the asphalt, silent. Sometimes he looked up and down the road, and often he glanced at his wristwatch, but mostly his frowning glance was fixed on the car. He watched the woman now. Her hands had been busied with rocks and apron when she bent by the wheel; now one hand was still holding her emptied apron as she straightened, but in the other was a long knife, bright, thin, sharply pointed. The man, watching, took a quick step backward while his hand went again to the pistol butt. The woman, without looking at either man, knelt by the front of the car and, reaching far under with the knife, slashed rapidly at the entangled pine saplings while with the other hand she jerked them free and flung them behind her.
Finished with the pines, she went quickly along the bluff edge by the car, her glance searching through the window toward the child, still now, with the hand of one down-hanging arm brushing the floor. She watched only an instant and did not bend to listen, for clearly in the silence came the child’s short choking gasps. She hurried on around the back of the car, and bent above the soldier, only now getting the jack into working position. “Hurry,” she begged in the same tight, urgent voice she had used on the mule. “Please, cain’t you hurry—he’s a choken so,” and in her haste to get a wheel on solid rock she began clawing at the muddy earth with her hands, pushing rocks under the tire as it slowly lifted.
In a moment the officer called, “That’s enough; try backing out now.”
Some of the woman’s need for haste seemed to have entered the solider. He straightened, glanced quickly toward the child, struggling with its head dangling over the edge of the seat, its eyes rolled back but unseeing. He turned quickly and hurried into the driver’s seat without taking time to salue or say, “Yes, sir.” The woman ran to the back wheel that had dug such a rut in the mud, and watched anxiously while the driver started the motor, raced it as he backed an inch or so. The car stopped, the motor roaring, the wheels spinning, smoking, flinging mud, rocks, and pine brush into the woman’s face bent close above them in her frantic efforts with hands and feet to keep the brush and rocks under the wheel.
“Try rocking out,” the officer said. “Pull up, then shift, quick, into reverse.”
The soldier was silent, looking at the emptiness in front of him. With the bent young pines cut away, the bumper seemed to hang above the valley. He moved at last, a few inches forward, but slowly, while the woman pushed rocks behind the rear wheels, jumping from first one to the other as she tried to force the rocks into the earth with her heavy shoes. The car stopped. The driver shifted again into reverse. The woman stood waiting between the side of the car and the bluff, her long arms a little lifted, the big jointed fingers of her great hands wide spread, her eyes on the back fender, her shoulders hunched like those of an animal gathering itself for a spring.
The motor roared again, the back wheels bit an inch or so into the rocks and mud, then spun. The woman plunged, flinging her two hard palms against the fender. Her body arched with the push like a too tightly strung bow; her eyes bulged; the muscles of her neck and face writhed under the thin brown skin; her big shoes dug holes in the mud in their efforts to keep still against the power of the pushing hands. The car hung, trembling, shivering, and one of the woman’s feet began to slide toward the bluff edge.
Then her body seemed slowly to lengthen, for the car had moved. The woman’s hands stayed with the fender until it pulled away from them. She fell sideways by the bluff edge so that the front wheel scraped her hip and the bumper touched strands of the dark hair tumbled from the thick knob worn high on her head. She stayed a moment in the mud, her knees doubled under her, her hands dropped flat on the earth, her drooping head between her arms, her whole body heaving with great gasping breaths.
She lifted her head, shook it as if to clear some dimness from her eyes, smoothed back her hair, then got slowly to her feet. Still gasping and staggering a little, she hurried to the car, stopped again but ready to start with its wheels on the hard-packed gravel by the road.
She jerked the door open and started in, but with the awkwardness of one unused to cars she bumped her head against the doorframe. She was just getting her wide shoulders through, her eyes on the child’s face, when the officer, much smaller and more accustomed to cars than she, opened the door on his side, stepped partway in, and tried to pick up the child. It seemed heavier than he had thought, and instead of lifting it he jerked it quickly, a hand on either shoulder, across the seat and through the door, keeping it always at arm’s length as if it had been some vile and dirty animal.
The woman snatched at the child but caught only the blanket. She tried to jump into the car, but her long loose coattail got under her feet and she squatted an instant, unable to rise, trapped by the coattail. Her long, mud-streaked hair had fallen over her face, and through it her eyes were big, unbelieving, as the man said, straightening from pulling the child into the road a few feet from the car, “You’ve helped undo a little of the damage you’ve done, but”—he drew a sharp quick breath—“I’ve no time for giving rides. I’m a part of the army, traveling on important business. If you must go with me, you’ll leave your child in the road. He isn’t so sick,” he went on, putting his foot through the door, even though the woman, still crouching, struggled through the other door. “He seemed quite active, kicking around,” and then to the driver, quietly now, with no trace of shrillness, “Go on.”
The woman gave the driver a swift measuring glance, saw his stiff shoulders, his face turned straight ahead as if he were a part of the car to be stopped or started at the will of the other. The car moved slowly; the officer was in now, one hand on the back of the front seat, the other closing the door. She gave an awkward squatting lunge across the car, her hands flung palm outward as when she had flung herself against the fender. One hand caught the small man’s wrist above his pistol, the other caught his shoulder, high up, close to the neck, pushing, grasping more than striking, for she was still entangled in her coat.
He half sat, half fell in the road, one foot across the child. She did not look at him, but reached from the doorway of the car for the child, and her voice came, a low breathless crying: “Cain’t you see my youngen’s choken tu death? I’ve got to git him to a doctor.”
One of the child’s hands moved aimlessly, weakly knocking the blanket from its face. She gave a gasping cry, her voice shrilling, breaking, as if all the tightness and calmness that had carried her through the ride on the mule and the stopping and the starting of the car were worn away.
“Amos, Amos. It’s Mommie. Amos, honey, Amos?” She was whispering now, a questioning whisper, while the child’s head dangled over her arm. His unseeing eyes were rolled far back; the whites bulged out of his dark, purplish face, while mucus and saliva dribbled from his blue-lipped swollen mouth. She ran her finger down his throat, bringing up yellow-tinged mucus and ill-smelling vomit. He gave a short whispering breath that seemed to go no deeper than his choked-up throat. She blew in his mouth, shook him, turned him over, repeating the questioning whisper, “Amos, oh Amos?”
The driver, who had leaped from his seat when she pushed the other through the car, was still, staring at the child, his hands under the older man’s elbows, though the latter was already up and straightening his cap. For the first time he really looked at the child. “Shake him by the heels—slap him on the back,” the young soldier said.
“Yes, take him by the heels,” the other repeated. “Whatever is choking him might come loose.” And now he seemed more man than soldier, at once troubled and repelled by the sick child.
The woman was looking about her, shaking the child cradled in her arms with quick jerky motions. “It’s a disease,” she said. “They’s no shaken it out.” She saw what she had apparently been hunting. A few feet up the road was a smooth wide shelf of sandstone, like a little porch hung above the valley. She ran there, laid the child on the stone, begging of the men, “Help me; help me,” meanwhile unbuttoning the little boy’s blue cotton jumper and under it his shirt, straightening him on the stone as one would straighten the dead. “Bring me a rock,” she said over her shoulder, “flat like fer a piller.”
The young soldier gaped at her, looked around him, and at last picked up a squarish piece of sandrock. She slipped it high up under the child’s shoulders so that the swollen neck arched upward, stretched with the weight of the head, which had fallen backward.
“Help me,” she repeated to the young soldier. “You’ll have to hold his head, tight.” She looked up at the other, who had stopped a few feet away, and now stared at her, wondering, but no longer afraid. “You hold his hands and keep his feet down.” She looked down at the blue swollen face, smoothed back the dark brown hair from a forehead high and full like her own. “He cain’t fight it much—I think—I guess he’s past feelen anything,” and there was a hopelessness in her voice that made the officer give her a sharp appraising glance as if he were thinking she could be crazy.
“Wouldn’t it be better,” he said, “to go quickly to the nearest doctor? He’s not—he still has a pulse, hasn’t he?”
She considered, nodding her head a little like one who understood such things. “I kept a tryen to feel it back there—I couldn’t on th mule—but his heart right now—it’s not good.” She looked at him, and said in a low voice: “I’ve seen youngens die. He ain’t hardly breathen,” then looked down again at the child. “Hold his hands an keep his feet down; they’s no use a talken a gitten to th doctor; th war got th closest; th next is better’n fifteen miles down th road—an mebbe out a his office.”
“Oh,” the officer said, and hesitantly drew closer and stooped above the child, but made no move to touch him.
“Hold him,” the woman repeated, “his hands,” her voice low again and tight, but with a shiver through it as if she were very cold. Her face looked cold, bluish like the child’s, with all the color drained away, leaving the tanned, weather-beaten skin of her high cheekbones and jutting nose and chin like a brown freckled mask painted on a cold and frightened face with wide, frightened eyes. She looked again at the child, struggling feebly now with a sharp hoarse breath, all her eyes and her thoughts for him so that she seemed alone by the sloping sandrock with the mists below her in the valley and the little fog-darkened pines a wall between her and the road. She touched his forehead, whispering, “Amos, I cain’t let th war git you too.” Then her eyes were on his neck bowed up above the rock pillow, and they stayed there as she repeated, “Hold him tight now.”
The older man, with the air of one humoring a forlorn and helpless creature, took the child’s hands in one of his and put the other about its ankles. The young soldier, gripping the child’s head, drew a sharp, surprised breath, but the other, staring down at patched overall knees, saw nothing until when he looked up there was the long bright knife drawing swiftly away from the swollen neck, leaving behind it a thin line that for an instant seemed no cut at all, hardly a mark, until the blood seeped out, thickening the line, distorting it.
The woman did not look away from the reddening line, but was still like a stone woman, not breathing, her face frozen, the lips bloodless, gripped together, the large drops of sweat on her forehead unmoving, hanging as she squatted head bent above the child. The officer cried: “You can’t do that! You’re—you’re killing. You can’t do that!”
He might have been wind stirring fog in the valley for all she heard. The fingers of her left hand moved quickly over the cut skin, feeling, pulling the skin apart, holding it, thumb on one side, finger on the other, shaping a red bowed mouth grinning up from the child’s neck. “Please,” the man was begging, his voice choked as if from nausea.
The knife moved again, and in the silence there came a little hissing. A red filmed bubble streaked with pus grew on the red dripping wound, rose higher, burst; the child struggled, gave a hoarse, inhuman whistling cry. The woman wiped the knife blade on her shoe top with one hand while with the other she lifted the child’s neck higher, and then swiftly, using only the one hand, closed the knife, dropped it into her pocket, and drew out a clean folded handkerchief.
She gently but quickly wiped the blood and pus from the gaping hole, whispering to the child as it struggled, giving its little hoarse, inhuman cries. “Save yer breath, honey; thet little ole cut ain’t nothen fer a big boy like you nigh four years old.” She spoke in a low jerky voice like one who has run a long way or lifted a heavy weight and has no breath to speak. She laid down the handkerchief, hunted with her free hand an instant in her back hair, brought out a hairpin, wiped it on the handkerchief, inserted the bent end in the cut, and then slowly, watching the hole carefully, drew her hand from under the child’s neck, all the while holding the hole open with the hairpin.
The young soldier, who had never loosened his grip on the child’s head, drew a long shivering breath and looked with admiration at the woman, searching for her eyes; but finding them still on the child, he looked toward the officer, and at once gave an angry, whispering, “Jee-sus.”
The woman looked around and saw the officer who had collapsed all in a heap, his head on Amos’s feet, one hand still clutching the child’s hands. “He’s chicken-hearted,” she said, turning back to the child, saying over her shoulder, “You’d better stretch him out. Loosen his collar—he’s too tight in his clothes enyhow. Go on, I can manage.”
The young soldier got up, smiling a secret, pleased sort of smile, and the woman, glancing quickly away from the child, gave him an uneasy glance. “Don’t you be a letten him roll off the bluff edge.”
“No?” the other said, smiling down at Amos, breathing hoarsely and quickly, but breathing, his face less darkly blue. The soldier looked past the officer crumpled on the stone down to the wide valley, then up and across to the rows of hills breaking at times through shreds and banks of the low-hanging fog, at other places hidden so that the low hills, seen through the fog, seemed vast and mysterious, like mountains rising into the clouds. He waved his hand toward the hills. “I’ll bet hunting there is good.”
The woman nodded without looking up. “Mighty good—now. They ain’t hardly left us a man able to carry a gun er listen to a hound dog.”
“Where is—” the soldier began, then stopped, for the officer’s head was slowly lifting, and at once it was as if the other had never looked at the hills or spoken to her. He straightened his shoulders, pulled down his coat, watched an instant longer. As the head continued to lift, he stepped closer, and after a moment’s hesitation, and with a swift glance at Gertie, put his hands under the other’s arms, standing in front of him so that the officer was between him and the bluff.
The woman gave the two a quick, worried glance. “It’s high there; watch out.”
“I’m quite all right,” the officer said, shaking the other’s hands away. He lifted a greenish, watery-eyed face that seemed no soldier’s face at all, only an old man’s face. “How’s the little one?” he asked, getting slowly to his feet.
“Breathen,” the woman said.
“You’ve done a thing many doctors would be afraid to do without an operating room or anything,” he said, all his need for haste somehow dropped away. The other had handed him his cap, but he stood holding it, looking at the woman as if there were something he would like to say but could not.
The woman dabbed at the blood and mucus and pus bubbling through the hole. “If that stuff runs down his windpipe an into his lungs, it’ll be bad,” she said, as if talking to herself more than to the men. “You can give a sheep pneumonie if when you’re a drenchen it water gits down into its lungs.”
She looked about her: at the little pine trees, at the tops of the black gum and poplar rising by the bluff, then away across the road as if searching for something. “Once I saved a cow that was choked—an in her windpipe I put a piece a cane.”
“What is it?” he asked, careful not to look at the child. “It doesn’t seem like plain choking.”
“It’s—” She rubbed her bent arm up her forehead, back across her stringing hair. “I disremember what they call it now; used to be they said membranous croup. I thought it was jist plain croup, bad hard croup like he’s had afore, till Aunt Sue Annie come. She told me word come in th mail last night Mealie Sexton’s baby was dead. We thought it had th croup when she come a visiten my mother when she come in frum Cincinnati—her baby an him, they was together.” She looked toward the young soldier, who stood in respectful silence a few feet behind the other. “Could you hold this open and watch him; I’ll have to git somethin to put in it. It’ll take jist a minnit. They’s a little poplar right acrost th road.”
He glanced as if for permission at the officer, but the other had turned away, looking greenish and sick again; and after a moment’s hesitation the young one came with a fresh clean handkerchief of his own and took the hairpin and the woman’s place by the child. She hurried across the road to a little poplar, and with one swift stroke cut a bough about the thickness of her middle finger, cut again; the bough with its yellow leaves unflecked with red or brown dropped away. Then, working as she walked back across the road, she stripped the gray bark from the short length of limb, glancing between each knife stroke at the child. She had crossed the road, when she stopped, knife lifted, to look at a red card lettered in black, tacked to a fair-sized pine tree. Most of the print was small, but large enough for men in passing cars to read were the words: MEN, WOMEN, WILLOW RUN, UNCLE SAM, LIVING QUARTERS. Her knife lifted, came down in one long thrust against the card. It fell and she walked on, the knife working now with swift, twisting cuts, forming a hole in one end of the wood.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” the older man said, nodding toward the card at the foot of the pine. “They need workers badly—as much as soldiers almost.”
She nodded, glancing again toward the child. “But in our settlement they ain’t nobody else they can git,” she said.
“Is your husband in the armed forces?” he asked.
She shook her head. “His examinen date is still about three weeks off.”
“Does he work in a factory?”
“He hauls coal in his own truck—when he can git gas—an th miners can git dynamite an caps an stuff to work in th coal.”
“The big mines are more efficient,” he said. “They need materials worse.”
“Th only miners they left us is two cripples an one real old.”
“But a good miner back here in these little mines—I’ve seen them by the road—would be a waste of man power, working without machinery,” he said.
She studied the cut in the child’s neck, listened, frowning, to his short whistling breaths. She nodded to the man’s words at last, but grudgingly, as if she had heard the words many times but could not or would not understand, and her face was expressionless, watching now the knife in the soft wood, now glancing at the child.
“It’s like the farmers,” the officer went on, his voice slightly apologetic as he glanced toward the child, struggling again so that the soldier must lay down the handkerchief and hold his hands while the strain of holding the hairpin steady in the windpipe was bringing sweat to his forehead. “They can’t exempt every little one-horse farmer who has little to sell. A man has to produce a lot of what the country needs.”
She did not nod, but her lips tightened so that, as when she had cut the child’s neck, her mouth was a pale straight slit below the long straight upper lip and the jutting nose. “They warn’t a farmer in all our settlement big enough,” she said, and her voice was low and sullen.
“Have you any relatives in the armed forces?” he asked, his voice somehow critical.
“Jist cousins an in-laws an sich—now.”
“Since yesterday mornen—I had a brother till then.”
“Oh.” His voice had changed, filled with a kind of proper sadness. “Let us hope he is only missing and that—”
“Jesse—that’s my man’s brother—he’s th one that’s missen. Fer my brother th telegram said, ‘Kilt in action.’” The knife was still, and she sat a moment staring out across the hills, repeating slowly, tonelessly, “Kilt in action.” Then, still in the toneless talking-to-herself voice: “These same leaves was green when they took him—an he’d planted his corn. Some of it he saw come up.”
“He was a farmer?” the man asked.
The knife moved in the wood again as she said, “One a them little ones.” The knife fought the wood with sharp swift jabs, forming a hole the length of the short piece of poplar. The man, watching stiffly, uncomfortably, trying not to look at the child or the woman’s face, said, “You are very skillful with a knife.”
“I’ve allus whittled.”
She looked down at the hand that held the poplar wood, the back brown and wrinkled, fingernails black and ragged, then at the palm, smooth with the look of yellowed leather. It was as if the hand were a page engraved with names while, she looking now at the poplar wood, repeated: “Hoe handles, saw handles, ax handles, corn-knife handles, broom handles, plow handles, grubben-hoe handles, churn-dasher handles, hammer handles, all kinds a handles—it takes a heap a handles. Sometimes I make em fer th neighbors.”
He was silent, his glance fixed on her hands. “Handles,” he said at last. “There wouldn’t be much fun in handles.”
Her face for an instant softened, and as she looked up something that might have been hatred was gone from her eyes. “I’ve never had much time fer whittlen foolishness. Oh, a few dolls. Cassie—that’s my least girl—she’s crazy over th dolls I whittle, but when I git all settled I’m aimen to work up a piece a wild cherry wood I’ve got. It’s big enough fer th head an shoulders uv a fair-sized man if”—her voice was low again, wandering as if she talked to herself—“if I can ever hit on th right face.” She glanced at the soldier struggling to keep the child’s hands from clawing at his neck. “Hold out a little minute longer. I’ve about got this hole through.”
The older man stood so that if he looked straight in front of him he could see the woman but not the child. “What kind of face?” he asked.
She shook the shavings out of the rapidly deepening hole, began on the other end. “I don’t know. I’ve thought on Christ—but somehow his face ain’t never clear er somethen. Maybe some other—old Amos, I liked, or Ecclesiastes or Judas.”
“Judas?” And he gave her a sharp, suspicious-seeming glance.
She looked again at the child, then nodded, her eyes on the knife blade as she talked. “Not Judas with his mouth all drooly, his hand held out fer th silver, but Judas given th thirty pieces away. I figger,” she went on after blowing the shavings out of the hole, “they’s many a one does meanness fer money—like Judas.” Her eyes were on the poplar as she spoke, “But they’s not many like him gives th money away an feels sorry onct they’ve got it.”
She looked toward the child and met the eyes of the young soldier—there was a head nod in his eyes—but he was silent, for the other was saying, “You seem to be quite a student of the Bible.”
She shook her head. “Th Bible’s about th only thing I’ve ever read—when I was a growen up my mother was sick a heap an my father hurt his leg in th log woods. I had to help him, an never got much schoolen but what he give me.”
“And he had you study the Bible.”
“He had me git things by heart th way they used to do in th old days—poetry an th Constitution an a heap a th Bible.” She rose, and still whittling walked toward the child. She stood above him, working swiftly until the hole in the tiny wooden pipe was to her liking, and then with the same gentle skill with which she had whittled she put the tube into the child’s neck. She then wrapped him swiftly in the blanket, and with no glance at either man walked quickly to the car.
The officer pushed himself into a corner as far from the woman and child as possible. He sat stiffly, trying not to show his distaste for the big woman cluttering his speckless car, just as he tried not to look at the child or show that the inhuman gurgling cries it gave or the whispering bubbles of its breath nauseated him like the sight of the wooden tube beaded at times with pus and bloody mucus.
The woman sensed this and sat, trying to make herself as small as possible, her muddy feet unmoving by the door, her great shoulders hunched over the child, and slightly sideways. The driver stared straight ahead at the road. The woman mostly watched the wooden pipe. The officer looked first at one side of the road, then the other, unable to keep his glance from the child.
The road left the high pine ridges and followed the twisting course of a creek down into the valley of the Cumberland. Above them on the shoulder of the ridge lay a steep little clearing; stumpy first-year new ground it looked to be, not half tended. Even in the rainy twilight Gertie could see the leafless sprouts encircling the white oak stumps and the smallness of the fodder shocks—a woman’s fodder shocks. Held up against the hillside on long front legs like stilts was a little plank house with a tar-paper roof. Chickens were going to roost in a crooked dogwood tree near the door, and a white-headed child came around the house, stumbling under the sticks of stove wood hugged in its arms, while on the high porch steps two other children, one too small to walk, played with a spotted hound.
Though it lay on the woman’s side of the road, both glanced at it—the first house after miles of Cumberland National Forest. Then both saw the service flag with one star—blue—in the one front window by the door.
“What crops do they raise in this country?” the officer asked, as if he didn’t much care but wanted to make some sound above the child’s breathing.
“A little uv everthing.”
“But what is their main crop?” he insisted.
“Youngens,” she said, holding the child’s hands that were continually wandering toward the hole in his neck. “Youngens fer th wars an them factories.”
He turned his head sharply away, as if he wished to hear no more, but almost at once his unwilling glance was flicking the child’s face where the blueness was thinning, and the eyes, less bulging now, showed their dark coloring through the half open lids. “Your child needs a hospital,” he said, looking past her through the window. “You’d better go with us until we reach one.”
“Th closest that ud take him with a disease like this is mebbe Lexington—an that’s nigh a hunnert miles away.” She wiped a trickle of yellowish saliva from one corner of his mouth. “He needs some drugs, like they give fer this, right now—he oughtn’t to wait.”
“He needs oxygen,” the man said. They were silent again, and once more the sounds of the child’s battle for breath filled the quiet car. “Do you farm?” the officer asked in the same aimless, desperate, sound-making voice.
“I guess every family back in these hills has a little patch of land and keeps a cow or so and a few sheep.”
The woman turned and looked at him, her quiet gray eyes questioning. She gave a slow headshake. “Not everybody has got a little piece a land.”
“I suppose you have.”
She shook her head again with a slowness that might have been weariness. “We’re renten,” she said, “on Old John Ballew’s place; he gits half—we git half.” She hesitated, then added slowly, in a low voice, as if not quite certain of her words. “Now, that is; but—we’re aimen—we’re buyen us a place—all our own.”
“How nice,” he said, still making sound, giving a quick glance at the child. “A place for you and your children to live while your husband is in service.”
“Yes,” she said. A warm look came into her troubled eyes as when she had spoken of the block of wood. “Silas Tipton’s went off to Muncie to work in a factory. He wanted his wife an youngens with him, so he sold his place. It’s a good place—old, a long house—big an built good like they built in th old days. He sold it to Old John Ballew fer to git money to move on. Old John don’t want th place. His boys is all gone.”
He nodded. “So you’ll buy it; farm it while your husband’s gone.”
“Yes,” she said, speaking with more certainty than before, as if her words had made the land her own. “My biggest boy, Reuben, he’s twelve,” and her eyes were warm again. “He likes farm work an he’s a good hand.”
“You like to farm,” he said, not asking, glancing at her wide shoulders and muscle-corded wrists showing beneath the too short coat sleeves.
She nodded. “I’ve allus farmed. My father had a big farm—I hepped him when I was growen up. My brother is—” She stopped, went on again, but the words were a thick mumble. “Way younger than me.”
After a little space of level road, they were going down again, and the rainy autumn dark came swiftly down like a settling bird. There were sharp steep curves where the dripping limestone cliffs above gave back the sound of the car’s horn, and below them lay a narrow black plain pricked with lights. A train blew high above them somewhere in the limestone walls. The child started at the strange sound, and the woman whispered, “Nothen’s goen tu hurt you, honey.”
On the low road in the village by the Cumberland, the lighted windows of homes were squares of brightness behind the shadows of the leafless, dripping trees. Then came sidewalks with store windows bright above them, and the driver went more slowly, looking first this way and that. The woman looked at the windows filled with many different things, and on them all were pasted white or red or blue or yellow sheets of paper that bore pictures of Uncle Sam, of soldiers, of sailors, of airmen, of pretty girl soldiers with neat hair; but all held big black words like the red sign on the pine tree: “GIVE, RED CROSS—JOIN THE WACS—GIVE BLOOD—WORK AT WILLOW RUN.”
The car stopped in a wash of light from a broad window, while high above the road more lights made a brightness on the wet leaf-plastered sidewalks that lay on either side the street. The woman, as if unaccustomed to so much brightness, squinched her eyes and twisted her head about as she drew the blanket more closely about the child.
“Wait,” the officer said. “Hatcher, make certain there is a doctor’s office close by and that he is in.”
The woman watched the soldier go across the street, then glanced at the officer, who was looking out his window as he rolled it down. A door had opened on the street, and through it came a burst of jukebox music. The woman looked toward the sound, a shadow of girlish interest in her troubled eyes, then her glance went swiftly back to the officer’s head, and not taking her eyes from him, she lifted the child on one arm, and with a quick and furtive movement reached into her coat pocket, her hand going down into the lining, searching. The man turned a little, glancing at her in his quick, impatient way, and her hand at once became still, and did not search again until he had turned away.
The hand was still again when the young soldier opened the door, saying, “The doctor’s in his office right across the street.”
The woman hesitated, moving toward the opened door, but looking at the officer, her hand, folded into a fist, coming slowly out of the bottom of her coat. She flushed, opening the fist, showing a worn and limp bill. “I want tu pay you fer th ride,” she said, “but I can’t find th right change.”
The officer looked at the outstretched five-dollar bill, surprise and disgust reddening his face. “I wouldn’t think of charging,” he said, staring at the bill, so worn, so wrinkled, the five was hardly legible.
“But I aimed tu pay,” she said, touching his hand with the money.
He reached quickly for the money like one suddenly changing his mind. “I can change it,” he said, and turning away from her drew out a wallet; but it was only after she was out of the car that he put bills, folded closely together, into her hand, saying. “A dollar’s fair enough, I guess.” And then, “Good luck. Help her across the street, Hatcher.”
“I can manage,” she said, dropping the money into her apron pocket.
The young soldier stooped quickly and picked up a small bright thing fallen from the folds of the child’s blanket. He handed it to her as they walked across the highway. “Keep it for the baby,” he said. “Stars like that are kind of scarce.”
“Oh,” she said, “th man’s star—I didn’t mean to tear it off. You’d better give it back to him; somebody’ull git him fer losen it. I’ve heared they’re mighty hard on soldiers if their clothes don’t look right.”
“Not on the likes of him,” the other said. They had gone a little distance down the sidewalk when the man pointed to a lighted doorway a few steps back from the street. “There’s the doctor’s,” he said.
She glanced timidly toward the door. “I ain’t never been to a doctor before. Clovis, my husband, he’s allus took th youngens th few times it was somethen Sue Annie couldn’t cure.”
His flat, absent-minded eyes opened wide in astonishment. “Lady, you can’t be afraid of nothing. Just walk in.”
© 1954 Harriette Simpson Arnow