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Chapter Four
Jeeter carefully laid the pump aside and crept stealthily to the corner of the house. He propped his feet and leaned against the rotten weatherboards to wait. From where he stood, he could see everything. When Jeeter looked straight ahead, Ellie May and Lov were in full view; and if he had wanted to see Ada he could have turned his head slightly and seen her standing on the porch. There was nothing for him to do now but wait. Lov was moving farther and farther away from the sack. Ada once more rolled the snuff stick to the other corner of her mouth. She had been watching Lov and Ellie May ever since they began getting together, and the closer they crawled to each other, the more calm she became. She was waiting, too, to ask Lov to make Pearl come to see her soon. Pearl had not been there since the day she was married. Pearl was so much like Ada, in both appearance and behavior, that no one could have mistaken them f or other than mother and daughter. When Pearl married Lov, Ada had told her she ought to run away from him before she began bearing children, and go to Augusta and live at the mills. Pearl, however, did not have the courage to run away alone. She was afraid. She did not know what would happen to her in the cotton mills, and she was too young to understand the things she heard about life there. Even though she was between twelve and thirteen years old, she was still afraid of the dark, and she often cried through most of the night as she lay trembling on her pallet on the floor. Lov was in the room, and the doors were closed, but the creep of darkness seemed to bring an unbearable feeling of strangulation. She had never told anyone how much she feared the dark nights, and no one had known why she cried so much. Lov thought it was something to do with her mind. Dude did not have very much sense. and neither did one or two of the other children, and it was natural for him to think that Pearl was afflicted in the same way. The truth was, Pearl had far more sense than any of the Lester's; and that, like her hair and eyes, had been inherited from her father. The man who was her father had passed through the country one day, and had never been seen since. He had told Ada that he came from Carolina and was on his way to Texas, and that was all she knew about him. Lately, however, Pearl was beginning to lose some of her fear. After eight months in the house with Lov she had gradually grown braver, and she had even ventured to think that some day she could run away to Augusta. She did not want to live on the sand ridge. The sight of the muddy Savannah swamps on one side and the dusky black structure of the coal chute on the other was not as beautiful as the things she had once seen in Augusta. She had been to Augusta once with Jeeter and Ada, and had seen with her own eyes girls who were laughing and carefree. She did not know whether they worked in the cotton mills, but it made little difference to her. Down there on the tobacco road no one ever laughed. Down there girls had to chop cotton in the summer, pick it in the fall, and cut firewood in winter. Jeeter pushed himself erect from the corner of the house, and began moving slowly across the yard. He lifted one foot, held it in the air several seconds, and put it on the ground in front of him. He had crept up on rabbits like that many times in the woods and thickets. The would be sitting in a hollow log, or in a hole in a gully. and Jeeter would creep upon them so noiselessly that they never knew how he caught them. Now he was creeping up on Lov. Half way across the yard Jeeter suddenly broke into terrific plunge that landed him upon the sack of turnips almost as quickly as the bat of an eye. He could have waited a few minutes longer, and reached it with the same ease with which he caught rabbits; but there was no time to lose now, and he was far more anxious to get the turnips than he had ever been to catch a rabbit. He hugged the sack desperately in both arms, squeezing it so tight that watery turnip juice squirted through the loosely woven burlap in all directions. The juice squirted into his eyes, almost blinding him; but it was as pleasant to Jeeter as summer rain-water, and far more welcome. Ada took one step forward, balancing herself against one of the porch uprights; Dude jumped to his feet, holding to the chinaberry tree behind him. Lov turned around just in time to see Jeeter grab the sack and hug it in his arms. Ellie May tried to hold Lov where he was, but he succeeded in twisting out of her arms and dived for Jeeter and the turnips. Ellie May turned over just in time to clutch wildly at his foot, and he fell sprawling from mid-air to the hard ground. Each of the Lester's, without a word having been spoken, was prepared for concerted action without delay. Dude dashed across the yard towards his father; Ada ran down the porch steps, and the old grandmother was only a few feet behind her. All of them gathered around Jeeter and the sack, waiting. Ellie May still clung to Lov's foot, pulling him back each time he succeeded in wiggling his body a few inches closer to Jeeter. The tips of Lov's fingers never got closer than three feet to the sack. "I didn't tell you no lie about Ellie May, did I?" Dude said. "Didn't I tell you right, Pa?" "Hush up, you Dude," Ada scowled. "Can't you see your Pa ain't got no time to talk about nothing?" Jeeter thrust his chin over the top of the sack and looked straight at Lov. Lov's eyes were bulging and blood-shot. He thought of the seven and a half miles he had walked that morning, all the way to the other side of Fuller and back again, and what he saw now made him sick. Ellie May was doing her best to pull Lov back where he had been. He was trying to get away so he could protect his turnips and keep the Lester's out of the sack. The very thing he had at first been so careful to guard against when he stopped at the house had happened so quickly he did not know what to think about it. That, however, had been before Ellie Mae began sliding her bare bottom over the sandy yard towards him. He realized now what a fool he had been--to lose his head, and his turnips, too. The three Negroes were straining their necks to see everything. They had watched Ellie May and Lov with growing enthusiasm until Jeeter suddenly descended upon the sack, and now they were trying to guess what would happen next in the yard. Ada and the old grandmother found two large and heavy sticks, and tried to pry Lov over on his back so Ellie May could reach him again. Lov was doing everything in his power to protect his sack, because he knew full well that if Jeeter once got twenty steps ahead of him, he would never be able to catch him before all the turnips were eaten. Jeeter was old, but he could run like a rabbit when he had to. "Don't be scared of Ellie May, Lov," Ada said. "Ellie May ain't going to hurt you. She's all excited, but she ain't the rough kind at all. She won't hurt you." Ada prodded him with the stick and made him stop wiggling away from Ellie May. She jabbed him in the ribs as hard as she could, biting her lower lip between her teeth. "Them niggers look like they is going to come in the yard and help Lov out," Dude said. "If they come in here, I'll bust them with a rock. They ain't got no business helping Lov." "They ain't thinking of coming in here," Ada said. "Niggers has got more sense than trying to interfere with white folks' business. They don't dare come." The colored men did not come any closer. They would have liked to help Lov, because they were friends of his, but they were more interested in waiting to see what Ellie May was going to do than they were in saving the turnips. Ellie May was sweating like a plow-hand. Lov had got sand all over him, and she was trying to wipe it off with a corner of her gingham mother-Hubbard, and to get to him again. Lov made a final and desperate plunge for the sack, and although he succeeded in getting nearly a foot closer to it, Ada hit him on the head with a blackjack stick so hard he slumped helpless on the ground with a weak groan. Ellie Mae was upon him in a single plunge; her excited, feline agility frightening him almost out of his mind. His breath had first been knocked from him by the force of Ellie May's weight falling on his unprotected stomach, and her knees digging into him with the pain of a mule's kick kept him from being able to breathe without sharp pains in his lungs. He was defenseless in her hold. While Ellie May held him, his arms pinned to the ground, Ada stood over him with her heavy blackjack pole, prepared to strike him on the head if he again tried to get up or to turn over on his stomach. The old grandmother waited on the other side with her stick high and menacing above her head. She muttered under her breath all the time, but no one paid any attention to what she was trying to say "Has these turnips got them damn-blasted green-gutted worms in them, Lov?" Jeeter said. "By God and by Jesus, if they're wormy, I don't know what I'm going to do about it. I been so sick of eating wormy turnips, I declare I almost lost my religion. It's a shame for God to let them damn-blasted green-gutter worms bore into turnips. Us poor people always gets the worse end of all deals, it looks like to me. Maybe He don't intend for humans to eat turnips at all; maybe He wants them raised for the hogs, but He don't put nothing else down here on the land in their stead. Won't nothing but turnips grow in winter-time." Ellie May and Lov had rolled over and over a dozen or more times, like tumble-bugs; when they finally stopped, Lov was on top. Ada had followed them across the yard, and the grandmother too, and they stood ready to club Lov with the blackjack poles if he showed the first sign of trying to get up before Ellie May was ready to release him. While the others were in the far corner of the yard, Jeeter suddenly jumped to his feet, hugging the sack of turnips tight to his stomach, and ran out across the tobacco road towards the woods beyond the old cotton field. He did not pause to look back over his shoulder until he was nearly half a mile away. In another moment he had disappeared into the woods. The Negroes were laughing so hard they could not stand up straight. They were not laughing at Lov, it was the action of the Lester's that appeared so funny to them. Ada's serious face and Ellie May's frantic determination furnished a scene none of them could look at without laughing. They waited until every one had quieted down, and then they went slowly down the road towards Fuller talking about what they had seen in the Lester yard. Ada and the grandmother presently went back to the porch and sat down on the steps to watch Ellie May and Lov. There was no longer any danger of him getting away. He did not even try to get up now. "How many scoops-full does that No. 17 freight engine empty at the chute every morning, Lov?" Dude said. "Looks like to me them freight engines takes on nearly twice as much coal as the passenger ones do. Them firemen on the freights is always chunking big hunks of coal at the nigger cabins along the track. I reckon that's why they have to take on more coal than the passengers do. The passenger trains go faster, and the nigger firemen don't have a chance to chuck out coal at the nigger cabins. I've seen near about a whole scoop-full of coal chunked out of the freights at one time. The railroad don't know nothing about it, do they? If they did, they'd make the firemen stop that. They throw out more coal along the tracks than engines burn, near about, I bet. That's why niggers don't have to cut wood all the time. They all burn railroad coal in their cabins." Lov was too breathless to say anything. "Why don't you burn coal in your house, instead of wood, Lov? Nobody would know about it. I ain't going to tell on you, if you want to do that. It's a lot easier than cutting wood every day." Mother Lester, the old grandmother, sitting beside her bag of dead twigs, began groaning again and rubbing her sides with her fists. Presently she got up, lifted the bag over her shoulder, and went into the house towards the kitchen. She made a fire in the cook stove and sat down beside it to wait until the twigs burned out. She was certain Jeeter would not bring any of the turnips back to her to eat. He would stay in the thicket and eat every one of them himself. While she waited for the fire to die down, she looked into the snuff jar on the shelf, but it was still empty. There had been no snuff in it for nearly a week, and Ada would not tell her where the full jar was bidden. The only time she ever had any snuff was when she accidentally found the jar hidden away somewhere, and took some before anybody could stop her. Jeeter had knocked her down several times about doing that, and he had said he would kill her if he ever caught her stealing snuff again. There were times when she would have been willing to die, if she could only have for once all the snuff she wanted. "Why don't the firemen blow the whistles more than they do, Lov?" Dude said. "They hardly blow the whistles at all. If I was a fireman I'd pull the whistle cord near about all the time. They make a noise about as pretty as an automobile horn does." Dude sat on the pine stump until Lov got up and staggered across the yard towards the tobacco road. Lov looked all around in every direction, hoping he might see Jeeter hiding somewhere close. He was sure that Jeeter had gone to the pine woods beyond the old cotton field though, and he knew it would be a waste of time trying to find him and catch him. It was too late to stop him now. Ellie May lay where she was; stretched out flat on the ground, on her back. Perspiration had matted her hair against her forehead and neck, and her pink gingham dress was twisted under her shoulders and head in such a way that it made a pillow for her to lie on. Her mouth looked as if it had been torn; her flaming red upper gum looked like a bleeding, painful wound under her left nostril. Her divided lip quivered, and her body trembled. "You ought to give me them overalls when you're done with them," Dude said. "I ain't had a new pair of overalls since I can remember. Pa says he's going to buy me an4 him both some one of these days when he sells a lot of wood, but I ain't putting none too much trust in what he says. He ain't going to sell no wood, not more than a load at a time, noway. He tells more lies than any man I ever heard of. I reckon he'd rather lie about it than haul wood to Augusta. He's that lazy he won't get up off the ground sometimes when he stumbles. I've seen him stay there near about an hour before he got up. He's the laziest son of a bitch I ever seen." Lov went to the middle of the road and stood there uncertainly, his legs wide apart to keep his balance, and his body swaying backward and forward like a drunken man's. He began brushing the sand off of his clothes, and shaking it out of his hair. Sand was in his pockets and shoes, and even his ears were full of it. "When is you going to buy yourself an automobile, Lov?" Dude asked. "You make a heap of a lot of money at the chute--you ought to buy yourself a great big car, like the ones the rich people in Augusta has got. I'll show you how to run it. I know all about automobiles. Pa's old Ford ain't much to look at now, but when it was in good running order I used to run the wheels off of it sometimes, near about. You ought to get one that has got a great big horn on it. Whistles and horns make a pretty sound, don't they, Lov? When is you going to get you an automobile?" Lov stood in the middle of the road for the next ten or fifteen minutes, looking out over the top of the sagging brown broom-sedge towards the thicket where Jeeter was. After he had waited until he did not know what else to do, he staggered up the road in the direction of his house and the coal chute. Pearl would be at the house when he reached it, but as soon as he walked inside she would run out the back door and stay until he left. Even if she did not leave the room when he entered the house, she would not look at him nor have anything to say. He could look at her long yellow hair hanging down her back, but that was all. She would not allow him to come close enough to look into her eyes; if he tried to do that, she would certainly run off into the broom-sedge. Ada and Dude watched him until he was out of sight beyond the rise in the ridge, and then they turned their backs and looked at Ellie May in the yard. Dude went to the pine stump and sat down to watch the red wood-ants crawl over the stomach and breasts of his sister. The muscles of her legs and back twitched nervously for a while, and then slowly the jerking stopped altogether, and she lay still. Her mouth was partly open, and her upper lip looked as if it had been torn wider apart than it naturally was. The perspiration had dried on her forehead and cheeks, and smudges of dirt were streaked over her pale white skin. For nearly an hour she slept deeply in the warm February sun, and when she awoke, her right arm was lying across her mouth where Dude had placed it when he left the yard to get some of the turnips before his father had eaten them all.
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