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Chapter Five
Down in the thicket, hidden from the house and road by the four-foot wall of brown broom-sedge, Jeeter's conscience began to bother him. His hunger had been abated temporarily, and his overalls pockets were filled with turnips, but the slowly formed realization that he had stolen his son-in-law's food sickened his body and soul. He had stolen food before, food and everything else he had had opportunity to take, but each time, as now, he regretted what he had done until he could convince himself that he bad not done anything so terribly wrong. Sometimes he could do this in a few minutes, at other times it was days, and even weeks, before he was satisfied that God had forgiven him and would not punish him too much. The sound of Dude's voice behind him in the woods was like the voice of God calling him to punishment. Dude had been crashing through the thicket and beating the underbrush with a blackjack stick for the past half hour trying to find Jeeter before all the turnips had been eaten. There was a hollow silence in the woods around Jeeter between Dude's yells, and Jeeter felt humble and penitent. He carefully wiped the blade of the knife with which he had pared the turnips and thrust it into his pocket. Then he jumped up and ran out of the thicket and into the broom-sedge. He could see the roof of the house and the tops of the chinaberry trees, but he had no way of knowing whether Lov had gone home. Dude saw him the moment he came out of the underbrush and started through the sedge. "Hey! Where you running off to now?" Dude shouted at him, running across the field to cut Jeeter off from the house. Jeeter stopped and waited for Dude to reach him. He took out half a dozen of the smallest turnips and laid them in Dude's outstretched hands. "What made you run off and try to eat them all for, and not give me none?" Dude demanded. "You ain't the only one what likes turnips. I ain't had no more to eat This week than you has. You're as mean as an old snake at times. Why didn't you want me to have none?" "The good Lord is against theft," Jeeter said. "He don't make no provision for the future for them that steals. They has got to look out for themselves in the after-life. Now I got to get right with God and confess my sins. I done an evil deed this day, God don't like for His people to do that. He won't take no notice of sinners. And theft is the worse deed a human can do, near about." "Hell," Dude said, "you talk like that near about every time you steal something, but you don't never stick to it afterwards. You're just trying to keep from giving me some more turnips. You can't fool me." "That's a sinful thing to say about a man who's tried all his life to stand right with God. God's on my side, and He don't like to hear people talking about me in that manner. You ought not to talk like that, Dude. Ain't you got no sense at all?" "Give me some more," Dude said. "Ain't no use for you to try to keep them all by talking like that. That ain't going to get you, nowhere. That don't mean nothing to me. I know better than to get fooled this time." "You've already had five, ain't you?" Jeeter said, counting the ones he had left in his pockets. "You don't need no more." Dude thrust his hand into the nearest pocket and jerked out as many as he could hold in his hand. Jeeter hit at him with his elbows, but Dude did not mind that. Jeeter was too weak to hurt him. "That's all you're going to have," Jeeter said. "I'm taking what's left and give to Ada and Ellie May. I expect they be almost as hungry as I was. They'll be waiting now to get some. Has Lov gone yet?" "He went back to the chute long ago," Dude said. They started walking through the broom-sedge towards the house. Lang before they reached the road they could see Ada and Ellie May waiting in the yard for them. The grandmother was crouching in the doorway, afraid to come out any farther. "I reckon the women folks is pretty hungry, too," Dude said. "Ellie May's belly was growling all last night. It woke me up this morning, starting all over again." Ellie May and Ada sat down on the steps when Dude and Jeeter came into view. They waited patiently while Dude and Jeeter broke through the broom-sedge, and as they came nearer, Ada went up on another step. The grandmother crouched in the doorway, clinging to the frame with both hands. None of them was more hungry than she was. There was another woman on the porch, too. She sat swaying backward and forward in the rocking-chair, and singing a hymn at the top of her voice. Each time she reached the highest note she could go, she held it until her breath gave out and then she started all over again. Jeeter jumped over the drain ditch and came across the yard with Dude at his heels. As soon as he saw the woman in the rocking-chair his face brightened, and he almost stumbled in his haste to reach her. "The good Lord be praised!" he shouted, seeing Bessie Rice sitting on the porch. "I knowed God would send His angel to take away my sins. Sister Bessie, the Lord knows what I needed, all right. He wants me to give up my sinful ways, don't He?" Ada and Ellie May jerked at Jeeter's overalls pockets, extracting the remaining turnips in a desperate hurry. Jeeter tossed three of the smallest ones on the porch in the direction of the door. The grandmother fell on her knees and clutched them hungrily against her stomach, while she munched the vegetable with her toothless gums. "The Lord told me to come to the Lester house," the woman preacher said. "I was at home sweeping out the kitchen when He came to me and said, 'Sister Bessie, Jeeter Lester is doing something evil. You go to his place and pray for him right now before it's too late, and try to make him give up his evil goings-on.' I looked right back at the Lord, and said, 'Lord, Jeeter Lester is a powerful sinful man, but I'll pray for him until the devil goes clear back to hell.' That's what I told Him, and here I is. I come to pray for you and yours, Jeeter Lester. Maybe it ain't too late yet to get on the good side of the Lord. It's people like you who ought to be good, instead of letting the devil make you do all sorts of sinful things." "I knowed the good Lord wouldn't let me slip and fall in the devil's hands!" Jeeter shouted, dancing around Bessie's chair. "I knowed it! I knowed it! I always been on God's side, even when things was the blackest, and I knowed He'd jerk me out of hell before it was too late. I ain't no sinner by nature, Sister Bessie. It's just the old devil who's always hounding me to do a little something bad. But I ain't going to do it. I want to go to heaven when I die." "Ain't you going to give me a turnip, Jeeter?" she said. "I ain't had so much to eat lately. Times is hard for the good and bad alike, though I sometimes think that's not just exactly right. The good ought never to be hard put to it, like the sinful ought to be all the time." "Sure, Bessie," Jeeter said, giving her several turnips. He selected the largest ones he could find. "I know how you like to eat, about as bad as the rest of us. I wish I had something to give you to take home. When I had plenty, I used to give Brother Rice a whole armful of chickens and sweet potatoes at a time. Now I ain't got nothing but a handful of measly little turnips, but I ain't ashamed of them. The Lord growed them. His doings is good enough for me. Ain't they for you?" Sister Bessie smiled happily at Jeeter and his family. She was always happy when she could pray for a sinner and save him from the devil, because she had been a sinner herself before Brother Rice chased the devil out of her and married her. Her husband was dead now, though, and she was carrying on his work in the sand hills. He had left her eight hundred dollars in insurance money when he died the summer before, and she was saving it to carry on his work when the time came that it was needed most. She had the money in a bank in Augusta. Some of the people in the sand hills said the kind of religion Sister Bessie talked about was far from being God's idea of what consecrated people should say and do. Every time she heard it, Bessie always said that the other people did not know any more about God's religion than the male preachers who talked about it knew. Most of them belonged to no sect at all, while the rest were Hard-shell Baptists. Bessie hated Hardshell Baptists with the same intensity with which she hated the devil. There was no church building to house Bessie's congregations, nor was there an organized band of communicants to support her. She went from house to house in the sand hills, mostly along the crest of the ridge where the old tobacco road was, and prayed for people who needed prayer and wanted it. She was past thirty-five, almost forty, and she was much better-looking than most women in the sand hills, except for her nose. Bessie's nose had failed to develop properly. There was no bone in it, and there was no top to it. The nostrils were exposed, and Dude had once said that when he looked at her nose it was like looking down the end of a double-barrel shotgun. Bessie was sensitive about the appearance of it, and she tried to keep people from staring at her and commenting on what they saw. Ada had already told Bessie about the turnips Jeeter took from Lov. Bessie had come prepared to pray for Jeeter for his sins in general, but she was glad she had a specific sin to pray for him to God about. Prayer always did a man more good, she said, if there was something he was ashamed of. First of all though, she finished eating all the turnips Jeeter would let her have. "I wish Lov was here so I could ask his forgiveness," Jeeter said. "I reckon I'll have to go down to his house the first thing in the morning and tell him how powerful sorry I am. I hope he ain't so mad about it that he'll try to beat me with a stick. He's got a whopping big temper when he gets good and mad about something." "Let's have a little prayer," Bessie said, swallowing the last of the turnip. "The good Lord be praised," Jeeter said. "I'm sure glad you came when you did, Sister Bessie, because I'm needing prayer about as bad as I ever did. I was a sinful man to-day. The Lord don't take up with humans who commits theft. I don't know what made me so bad. I reckon the old devil just came along and got the upper hand on me." Every one got down on his knees, except Ellie May and Dude. They sat on the steps eating and watching. "You know," Bessie said, "some people make an objection to kneeling down and having prayer out of doors. They don't like to have me pray for them on the front porch or in the yard. They say, 'Sister Bessie, can't we go in the house out of sight and pray there just as good?' And do you know what I tell them? I say, 'Brothers and Sisters, I ain't ashamed to pray out here in the open. I want folks passing along the road to know I'm on God's side. I ain't ashamed to let folks see me pray. It's the old devil that's always whispering about going in the house out of sight.' That's the way I stick up for the Lord. I kneel right down and pray in the big road just as loud as I do in a schoolhouse or at a camp-meeting. I ain't ashamed to pray in the front yard or on the porch. It's the old devil who's always telling folks to go in the house out of sight." "The good Lord be praised," Jeeter said. "Let's get ready to pray," she said. Ada and Jeeter bowed their heads and closed their eyes. Mother Lester knelt in the doorway, but she did not close her eyes. She stared straight ahead of her, out over the field of brown broom-sedge. "Dear God, here I is again to offer a little prayer for sinful people. Jeeter Lester and his family want me to pray for them again. The last time helped them a whole lot, and if it wasn't for Jeeter getting in the clutch of the devil to-day, there wouldn't be no need for prayer this soon again. But Jeeter let the devil get hold of him, and he went and done a powerful sinful thing. He stole all of Lov's turnips and wouldn't give them back. They'll all et up now, so it's too late to take them to Lov. That's why we want to pray for Jeeter. You ought to make him stop stealing like he does. I never seen a more stealing man in all my days. It looks like he takes to stealing just as naturally as one of us takes a drink of water. But Jeeter wants to quit, though it seems like he goes and does it again almost as soon as we get through praying for him. You ought to make him quit it this time for good and all. Ain't no sense in You letting a man just keep on doing a sinful thing all the time. You ought to put a stop to it and not let him do it no more. You ain't going to let the old devil tell You what to do, is You? That ain't no way for the Lord to do. The Lord ought to tell the devil to get away and stop trying to tempt good folks. "And Sister Ada has got the pleurisy again pretty bad. You ought to do something for her this time, sure enough. The last time didn't help her none too much. She can't do all her household work when she's got the pleurisy so bad. If You'll make her well of it, she'll quit the devil for all time. Won't you, Sister Ada?" "Yes, Lord!" "And old Mother Jeeter has got a misery in her sides. She's in pain all the time with it. She's kneeling down right now, but she is in such pain she can't do it many more times. "You ought to bless Ellie May, too. Ellie May has got that slit in her lip that makes her an awful sight to look at. If you was to make--" "Don't forget to pray for Pearl, Sister Bessie," Jeeter said, "Pearl needs praying for something awful." "What has Pearl done sinful, Brother Jeeter?" "Well, that was what Lov wanted to speak to me about to-day. He says Pearl won't talk to him, and she won't let him touch her. When night comes, she gets down and sleeps on a durn pallet on the floor. Lov has got to sleep in the bed by himself, and can't get her to take no interest in him. That's a pretty bad thing for a wife to do, and God ought to make her quit it. Lov is due some rights. A woman ain't got no business sleeping on a durn pallet on the floor, noway." "Maybe she knows best, Brother Jeeter," Bessie said. "Maybe Pearl is going to have a little baby, and that's her way of telling Brother Lov about it." "No, it ain't that, Sister Bessie. Lov says he ain't never slept with her yet. He says he ain't never touched her yet, neither. That's what's worrying him so durn much. He wants her to sleep in the bed with him and stop getting down on that durn pallet on the floor every night like she does. Pearl needs praying for to make her quit that sleeping down there on the floor." "Brother Jeeter, little girls like Pearl don't know how to live married lives like we grown-up women do. So maybe if I was to talk to her myself instead of getting God to do it, she would change her ways. I expect I know more about what to tell her than He does, because I been a married woman up to the past summer when my former husband died. I expect I know all about it. God wouldn't know what to tell her." "That might help some, but if I was the praying kind myself, I reckon I'd sort of tell God about it and maybe He would do some good. Maybe He's run across gals like that before, though I don't believe there's another durn gal in the whole country who's as contrary-minded about sleeping in the bed as Pearl is." Dude picked up the baseball and began tossing it on the roof of the porch, and catching it when it rolled down into the yard. The ball knocked loose the rotten shingles, and pieces of them showered the yard. Ellie May sat waiting to hear some more prayer when Bessie and Jeeter got through talking about Pearl. "Maybe it wouldn't hurt none if I was to mention it," Bessie said. "That's right," Jeeter said. "You speak to the Lord about it, too. Both of you together ought to get something done about it." "Now, Lord, I've got something special to pray about. I don't ask favors unless they is things I want pretty bad, so this time I'm asking for a favor for Pearl. I want You to make her stop sleeping on a pallet on the floor while Brother Lov has to sleep by himself in the bed. Make Pearl get in the bed, Lord, and make her stay there where she belongs. She ain't got no right to sleep on a pallet on the floor when Lov's got a bed for her. Now, You make her stop acting like she's been, and put her in the bed when night comes. I was a good wife to my former husband, I never slept on no pallet on the floor. Sister Ada here don't do nothing like that. And when I marry another man, I ain't going to do that, neither. I'm going to get in the bed just as big as my new husband does. So You tell Pearl to quit that. We women knows what we ought to do, and Pearl just ain't old enough to know better. You got to tell her to quit doing that. If it was--" "What was that you was saying about getting married, Sister Bessie?" Jeeter asked. "Didn't I hear you say you was going to marry yourself to a new husband? Who is you going to get married to?" "Well, I ain't made up my mind yet. I been looking around some, though. Right now it looks like I can't make up my mind. It's my wish to find a man who's got some goods and possessions, but it looks like ain't nobody got nothing around here no more. All the men folks is poor." "Now, if it wasn't for Ada, there," Jeeter said. "Brother Jeeter, you hush your mouth!" she giggled. "You make me feel so funny when you talk like that! How'd you know I'd take to you? You're pretty old, ain't you?" "I reckon you'd better finish up the prayer," he said. "Ada, there, gets sort of peeved when I talk about marrying another woman." "--Save us from the devil and make a place for us in heaven. Amen."
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