Read an Excerpt
Slick as quicksilver the boy stepped aside when the mule flung her rump in his direction.
Only problem was, he had forgotten about the root that arched out of the ground in a great bow nearly half as tall as he stood without his Sunday-meeting and school-room boots on. The end of it cruelly snagged his ankle, sure as one of his possum snares.
Spitting out the rich, black loam as fine as flour in this bottomland, Titus Bass pulled his face out of the fresh, warm earth he had been chewing up with a spade, blinking his gritty eyes. And glared over his shoulder at the mule.
Damn, if it didn’t look as if she was smiling at him again. That muzzle of hers pulled back over those big front teeth the way she did at times just like this. Almost as if she was laughing at him when here he had just been thinking he was the one so damned smart.
“Why, you …,” the boy began as he dragged himself up to his knees, then to his bare feet in that moist earth chewed by the mule’s hooves and his work with iron pike and spade.
On impulse he lunged for the fallen spade, swung it behind his shoulder in both hands.
“Put it down, Titus.”
Trembling, the boy froze. Always had at the sound of that man’s voice.
“Said: put it down.”
The youth turned his head slightly, finding his father emerging from the trees at the far edge of the new meadow they were clearing. Titus weighed things, then bitterly flung the spade at that patch of ground between him and his father. The man stopped, stared down at it a moment, then bent to pick it up.
“You’d go and hit that mule with this,” Thaddeus Bass said as he strode up, stopped, and jammed the spade’s bit down into the turned soil, “I’d have call to larrup you good, son.” He leaned back with both strong, muscular hands wrapped around the spade handle like knots on oiled ropes. “Thought I’d teached you better’n that.”
“Better’n what?” the boy replied testily, but was sorry it came out with that much vinegar to it.
Thaddeus sighed. “Better’n to go be mean to your animals.”
Titus stood there, caught without a thing to say, watching his father purse his lips and walk right on past to the old mule. Thaddeus Bass patted the big, powerful rump, stroked a hand down the spine, raising a small, stir of lather near the harness, then scratched along the mare’s neck as he cooed to the animal. She stood patiently in harness, hooked by leather and wood of singletree, the quiet murmur of her jangling chains—the whole of it lashed round a tree stump young Titus Bass had been wrenching out of a piece of ground that seemed too reluctant to leave go its purchase on the stubborn stump.
Titus flushed with indignation. “She was about to kick me, Pap.”
Without looking back at his son, Bass said, “How you know that?”
“She was hitchin’ her rump around to kick me,” Titus retorted. “Know she was.”
“How hard you working her?”
Dusting himself off, he replied in exasperation, “How hard I’m working her? You was the one sent me out here with her to finish the last of these goddamned stumps.”
“Thaddeus whirled on his son, yellow fire in his tired eyes. “Thought I told you I didn’t wanna hear no such language come outta your mouth.”
He watched his father turn back to the mule’s harness, emboldened by the man’s back, braver now that he did not have to look into those eyes so deeply ringed with the liver-colored flesh of fatigue. “Why? I ain’t never figured that out, Pap. I hear it come from your mouth. Out’n Uncle Cy’s mouth too. I ain’t no kid no more. Lookit me. I be nearly tall as you—near filled out as you too. Why you tell me I can’t spit out a few bad words like you?”
“You ain’t a man, Titus.”
He felt the burn of embarrassment at his neck. “But I ain’t no boy neither!”
“No, you rightly ain’t. But for the life of me, I don’t know what you are, Titus.” Bass laid his arms over the back of the tall mule and glared at his son. “You ain’t a man yet, that’s for sure. A man takes good care of the animals what take care of him. But you, Titus? I don’t know what you are.”
“I ain’t a man yet?” Titus felt himself seething, fought to control his temper. “If’n I ain’t a man yet—how come you send me out to do a man’s job then!”
“Onliest way I know to make you into a man, son.”
He watched his father turn and survey the stump partly pulled free from the ground, some of its dark roots already splayed into the late-afternoon air like long, dark arthritic fingers caked with mud and clods of rich, black earth.
Thaddeus straightened. “You wanna be a farmer, Titus—the one lesson you gotta learn is take care of the animals gonna take care of you.”
The words spilled out before he wanted them to. “Like I told you before, Pap: it’s your idea I’m gonna be a farmer.”
“The old man’s eyes narrowed, the lids all but hiding the pupils as he glowered at the youth. “You not gonna be a farmer like your pap, like your grandpap and all the Basses gone before you … just what in blue hell you figure on doing with your life?”
“I … I—”
“You ain’t got it figured out, do you?” Thaddeus interrupted. “And you won’t for some time to come, Titus. What else you think you can do?”
Titus watched his father step back in among the leather, metal, and wood of the harness, tugging at it, straightening, adjusting the wrap of log chain his son had placed around the resistant stump.
“I like hunting, Pap.”
Without raising his head from his work, Bass said, “Man can’t make a living for his family by hunting.”
“How you so damn sure?”
The eyes came up from the singletree and penetrated Titus like a pair of hot pokers that shamed him right where he stood.
“Sounds like you’re getting a real bad mouth these days, son. Time was, I’d taken a strop of that harness leather to your backsides, teach you to watch your tongue better.”
Titus felt his cheeks burn. No, he wouldn’t let his father raise a strap to him ever again. In as low and deep a voice as he could muster, the boy replied, “You’ll never lay leather on me again.”
For the longest moment they stared at one another, studying, measuring the heft of the other. Then his father nodded, his shoulders sagging a bit wearily. “You’re right, Titus. If you ain’t learned right from wrong by now, it ain’t gonna be me what’s teaching it to you. Too late now for me to try to straighten out what needs to be straightened.”
Titus swallowed, blinking back the tears of anger that had begun to sting his eyes as he stood his ground before his father. Suddenly confused that his father had agreed with him. It was the first time in … He couldn’t remember if his father had ever agreed with a single damned thing he had ever said or done.
Thaddeus Bass patted the mule on the rump and stepped closer to his son. “But you heed me and heed me well: if I ever hear of you using such words around your mam, if I ever catch you saying such things under my roof—then we’ll see who’s man enough to provide for his own self. You understand me, son?”
With that dressing down Titus fumed under his damp collar. “I ain’t never cursed under your roof, and I sure as hell ain’t never gonna curse in my mam’s hearing.”
“Just make sure you don’t, son,” his father replied, stepping back of the mule and taking up the harness reins. “It’d break your mother’s heart to hear you use such talk—what with the way that woman’s tried to raise you.”
Turning, Thaddeus Bass laid the leather straps in his son’s hands. “Now, get back to work. Sun’s going down.”
Titus pointed over at the nearby tree where he had stood the old longrifle. “I been at this all day, and I ain’t had a chance to go fetch me no squirrel yet.”
“It’s fine you go playing longhunter when you get your work done, Titus. That stump comes out’n that ground and gets dragged off yonder to the trees afore you come in to sup at sundown.”
His stomach flopped. “If’n I can’t get the stump up afore the sun goes down?”
His father looked at the falling orb, wagged his head, and said, “Then you best be making yourself a bed right here, Titus.”
Anger was like a clump of sticky porcupine quills clogging his throat with bile. Time and again he tried to swallow as he watched his father’s retreat across the field. Thaddeus Bass never turned as he headed purposefully for the far trees. Above the verdant green canopy beyond the diminishing figure rose a thin, fluffy column of smoke from the stone chimney of their cabin. He wondered what his two brothers and sister were doing right then.
Grinding the leather straps in his hands, Titus seethed at the injustice. He knew the rest of them would eat that night and sleep on their grass ticks beneath their coverlets. While he’d be right here in the timber, sleeping with the old mule and the other critters. Mayhaps that wasn’t all so bad—but his belly was sure hollering for fodder.
Maybeso he could slip off with his old rifle and shoot some supper for himself, bring it back to roast over an open fire—then at least his stomach would be full for the night.