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Too Worn Out to Cry
Ezra Banks sprang from a line of men pretty good at hunting and fishing and gambling and drinking. But at farming they piddled. Tenants. Ezra, third son in a brood of seven, knew early he didn't want to sharecrop. His father farmed ten or twelve hardscrabble acres near Spring Creek in Madison County, North Carolina. The land belonged to Bingham Wright, brother to Jonathan Wright next county over, in Cataloochee. Ezra's father, a bit too old to serve in the Confederate Army, had shown up just after the war started and leased Wright's poorest section. Some pasture was so steep a fellow needed two breeds of cattle, one with short right legs to stand in one direction and pick the thistle-ridden grass, the other with short left legs to pick going the opposite way. On level ground they could lean against each other to sleep.
In 1864 Ezra looked older than fourteen, lanky, a bit of beard already and a badly bent nose. His father had broken it three years before when they moved to the Wright place. The old man was trying to fix a fence gate. He banged his thumb with the claw hammer and splintered its handle when he flung it at the barn in a rage. He ran to the back porch and yanked a piece from the middle of his wife's stove-wood stack and started to whittle a new handle. As he smoothed it with his rusty hawksbill, the stack dissolved around the missing stick and fell off the porch. He yelled, "Get out here, woman, and pick up yer goddamn firewood before it rains on it."
Ezra, a boy given to moodiness, had been enlisted to help but had only dragged three tulipwood laps to the stile. He stood ten feet from his father, hands in his pockets, watching him like a cat. The old man held a crosspiece in one hand and a hammer in the other and realized he needed three arms to attach it to the gate. He glared at his son. "You think you're winder decoration? Hold this damn thing for me. Right there." Ezra hastened to the other end of the board. His father struck his last tenpenny nail sidelong, pinging it off the hammer end and scattering a couple of speckled banty hens at the barn entrance. He fumbled in his overalls for another nail. "Don't jist stand there like a sumbitching wooden Indian, boy, fetch me some nails."
When Ezra said, "Go get them yourself," the old man backhanded the claw hammer with no hesitation. Had Ezra not been quick he would have been dead. The jagged, rusty claw missed his nose but the hammer head's top hit home, spinning him into the dirt. "That'll learn ye to sass me, boy. Now get yer worthless ass up and fetch me them whorehopping nails fore I light into you again."
Ezra got up slowly, running the back of his hand as close to his nose as pain allowed, making up his mind to leave.
On a cold November Saturday just after his fourteenth birthday, Ezra saddled the horse, a gaunt, swaybacked strawberry roan, as his father's drunken snores shook the back of the house. He tied his stuff-a piece of a shovel, a clasp knife, a wooden spoon, two shirts and a pair of overalls-in a bedroll back of the ratty saddle. His mother trudged to the barn to give him a pone of corn bread and a leather pouch his old man had hidden behind a hearthstone. He felt coins inside. "Son, will I ever see you again?"
He faced a woman too worn out to cry. He hugged his mother awkwardly, put on his hat, and said nothing. It would be bad for her when the old bastard finally woke to find neither horse nor saddle. Heading down the mountain he stopped and looked back. No help for it but to forge on.
The journey spurred his imagination. He rode through the valley and determined one day to own a farm like Bingham Wright's. Acre upon acre of bottomland sprouted corn and oats and anything else a man cared to plant. The valley floor narrowed and the road snaked up the mountain toward Trust, a settlement that seemed glued to the mountainside like an outsized doll village.
His mother's cousin Fred Owenby kept the general store, and sometimes when things got bad at home Ezra and his brothers and sisters had stayed with him. Owenby had taught him many things, including how to graft one variety of apple to another. He told Ezra to hold his head up, that he needed neither to emulate nor to cower before his father. Owenby made everything a contest, whether hunting supper or picking apples. Ezra didn't stop as he rode by the store but thought one day he would even beat Owenby at growing apples.
By dinnertime, as he rested the horse at Doggett Gap, he looked at the Little Sandy Valley. It spoke of field crops but the southeast face of Doggett Mountain looked ideal for orchards. Hard to clear, by God, he thought, but once a man gets shed of tulip trees and laurel hells, keeping an orchard's easier than growing tobacco. Besides, the steeper the land, the cheaper the price.
By evening he had forded the French Broad west of Asheville, at that point a lazy river of not a quarter mile's breadth, determined to join the Confederates. He was no patriot nor did he know anybody rich enough to own other men and women, but adventure appealed to him. He rode carefully, hiding from men riding together, for as the war wound down, the Home Guard had taken to shooting outliers instead of rounding them up for bounty, and he had heard of the Guard killing civilians.
Asheville was a city of about eleven hundred souls. He rode up the western hill from the river to Public Square and asked where to leave his horse for the night. A man with one eye pointed him to the liveries. He rode the block west to Water Street, which descended quickly to a series of squat wooden buildings smelling of hay and horse manure. The sign dangling by one chain told of cheapest so he left the horse there. The greasy proprietor gave him a wooden token with which to reclaim the animal. Ezra shoved it into his right boot and walked back to the Square. He felt easier when the token worked under his instep.
Ezra had never seen so many people in one place before, even at the county fair he once sneaked off to. People promenaded the plank Saturday-night sidewalks on Main and Patton. Nine or ten saloons bursting with cheap whiskey and loud music, and several hotels, some more refined than others, opened to the street. Through one doorway Ezra saw a slick-haired man in a monkey suit, playing what Ezra knew to be a fiddle, but a body could never square-dance to such music. He walked up and down, to and fro, eyeing people, feeling the token in his boot, wondering what it cost to enter such places. By midnight he found a watering hole on Eagle Street, where he purchased some foul fluid the barkeeper called whiskey, and the favors of a plain young woman. He was rough with her at first but after she slapped him he learned quickly.
Sunday morning he prowled the mud streets, peering into shopfronts. He smelled coal smoke, bacon frying, horse manure. From the end of North Main clear to the end of South Main he watched folks emerge from hotels, some hungover and slow, others dressed for church. He turned back up the hill toward the Square, and saw people heading for the courthouse, a three-story brick building on a small rise east of the Square. Ezra in farm clothes and denim overcoat trailed decently dressed people carrying books and speaking quietly. He followed them up the steps into the central of three arched doorways and into a high-ceilinged room. A black-suited old man, smelling of shaving soap and cedar, greeted him icily. Ezra sat on the back bench.
It was clearly a courtroom but in front of the bench a hand-lettered sign proclaimed, "Welcome to the Asheville Baptist Church William Boland Standing To God Be the Glory." He wondered what kind of church didn't have its own building. A bearded man in a dark broadcloth suit smiled thinly at the assembly. Ezra figured him for Boland. Behind the preacher four fat women wearing faded lapel jewelry and two ancient men in yellowed shirts frowned in splint-bottomed chairs, hymnbooks in laps. They made a bare choir, ruined by war. A pasty- faced woman began to beat a poor rhythm on a piano off to the right. Ezra didn't recognize the tune, but he wasn't much of a churchgoer and she wasn't much of a musician.
When the piano lady finished, maybe thirty-five souls faced the preacher and watched the choir watch them. The men were few and old save one, a youth with an outsized head and a vacant stare. They made no effort to seat men on one side and women on the other, in the Baptist way. It would have looked lopsided, like a vineyard trimmed by an idiot.
Boland stood and opened a large Bible. He welcomed the flock, sipped from a glass, and began to read in a mournful tone: " 'And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This I will do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater: and there I will bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years: take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall these things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.'
"The Gospel of Luke, chapter twelve, verses sixteen through twenty- two. Praise God for his holy Word." Why in the world, Ezra wondered, does this bunch on the front side of winter have any truck with some fellow and his barns? They stood for a hymn. Ezra kept his seat, squirming to get comfortable. He felt the beginning of a headache stomp like troops marching to the doleful tune the congregation droned.
Boland began his sermon by declaring that the rich man stood for the Yankee government. Soon God would turn the tide and require the souls of the Federals. He warmed to his topic, wandering into Paul's letters, quoting texts in First Peter and Ephesians about servants obeying masters. Ezra didn't know about slaves and masters, but believed all he needed to obey was the army, if he could figure out where to join. The rising headache, not helped by the sermon, provoked him to leave. A crude poster in the lobby showed a soldier pointing to a recruiting office, closed until tomorrow morning.
Dinner was a cup of hot water and chicory the counterman called coffee, and a plate of beans with chewy fatback. Ezra recovered the token from his boot, retrieved his horse, and rode east to the top of the mountain, where a battery of light artillery defended the town. Leaves were down, so he had no trouble seeing the western encampment on Battery Hill. A cold wind whipsawed the mountain, and clouds gathered like cotton wool around Mount Pisgah some fifteen miles southwest.
Back in town he spent money on a dingy room, and the next morning walked to the courthouse and enlisted. The recruiter saw an able- bodied man with a horse he said was his, so did not examine him closely as to age. Ezra rode thirty-odd miles north to Mars Hill, where he spent a week at military drill with a wooden weapon. They gave him a dingy gray uniform and a forage cap with a ripped crown but Ezra wore it proudly. Then they gave him a rust-pocked Fayetteville rifle and hurried him back to Asheville to wait. They policed the courthouse square of a day and at night slipped from camp to follow what few slatternly women wanted to be chased. When orders arrived two months later, he and twenty-five other men deployed west, in the early spring, into Haywood County.
He got his first look at Cataloochee when his company marched to Mount Sterling. Laid out before him were Big Cataloochee and Little Cataloochee, bisected by Noland Mountain. High mountains covered in balsam and spruce encircled lush valleys that held tiny patches of farmland. Huge chestnuts promised abundant wildlife and clear creeks. It would make good orchard land. He determined one day to return.
They were sent to block George Kirk's raiders, rumored to be heading in from Tennessee. Colonel Kirk was a hero or a turncoat, depending on who told it. He had enlisted in the Confederate Army, then turned Federal when the prevailing side became evident. He attracted vicious men as easily as Jesus made disciples. Ezra heard campfire stories about Kirk and thought he wouldn't mind riding with him. Men like that knew how to profit from war.
Ezra's company did not stop Kirk nor slow him down appreciably, but Ezra wasn't captured and even managed to kill a Bluecoat, a boy his own age who wandered into the woods to relieve himself, britches down behind a scarlet oak. Ezra didn't hesitate to put a rifle ball between his eyes. Ezra's legs thrilled same as if he'd killed a turkey.
That was the first of April. Lee surrendered on the ninth, but word traveled slowly to North Carolina. On the twenty-sixth, Johnston surrendered to Sherman at Durham but no one in Haywood County knew it. Brown's Yankees burned the Asheville armory the same day and Ezra's company fired some of the last shots of the war at them as they came into Haywood on May 6. Then it was over.
Ezra rode thirty miles east to Asheville to muster out. He had killed a person and seen some danger. Now he wanted money. The livery he'd used before, sign still dangling, hired him, then fired him for drinking and fighting and laying out of work. He held a series of odd jobs, but after several saloon fights he figured sober country living would keep him out of trouble.
From Asheville he forded the French Broad at Long Shoals and wandered south. He signed on with an orchard keeper near Edneyville who would brook no liquor. First wages were bed, board, and training. He learned quickly, built on what Owenby had taught him, and soon all the work fell to him while the keeper laid about and slept. A year later the old man died of a stroke and Ezra became the keeper.