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Chapter Six
"You clear forgot to say a little prayer for Dude," Jeeter said suddenly. "You left Dude out all around, Bessie. Dude, he's as big a sinner as the rest of us Lester's." Bessie jumped up and ran out into the yard. She clutched Dude by the arm and dragged him to the porch by her chair. She kneeled down in front of it, and tried to pull Dude down beside her. "I don't want to do that," Dude said angrily. "I don't want no praying for me. I ain't done nothing. Pa did all the stealing of Lov's turnips. He took them and ran off to the thicket." Bessie took his hands in hers and stroked his arms for several minutes without speaking. Then she stood up beside him and locked her arms around his waist. She squeezed him so hard it made the blood rush to his head. "I got to pray for you, Dude. The Lord told me all you Lester's was sinful. He didn't leave you out no more than He did Ellie May." Dude looked into her face. She pleaded convincingly enough to make him want to be prayed for, but he could not stop looking down into her nostrils. "What you laughing at, Dude?" she said. "Nothing," he snickered, twisting his head until he could see almost behind himself. "There ain't nothing about prayer to laugh at, Dude," she said. "All of us has got to have it some time or another." He felt ill at ease standing so close to her. The way she stroked his arms and shoulders with her hands made him nervous, and he could not stand still. "Quit that jumping up and down, Dude," Jeeter said. "What ails you?" Bessie drew her arms tighter around his waist, and smiled at him. "You kneel down beside me and let me pray for you. You'll do that, won't you, Dude?" He put his arms around her neck and began rubbing her as she was rubbing him. "Hell," he said, snickering again, "I don't give a damn if I do." "I knowed you would want me to pray for you, Dude," she said. "It will help you get shed of your sins, like Jeeter did." They knelt down on the porch floor beside the chair. Dude continued to rub her shoulders, and Bessie kept her arms around him. Jeeter was sitting on the floor behind them, leaning against the wall of the house and waiting to hear the prayer for Dude. "Dear God, I'm asking You to save Brother Dude from the devil and make a place for him in heaven. That's all, Amen." Bessie stopped praying, but neither she nor Dude made an effort to stand up. "Praise the Lord," Jeeter said, "but that was a dum short prayer for a sinner like Dude." "Dude don't need no more praying for. He's just a boy, and he's not sinful like us grown-ups is. He ain't sinful like you is, Jeeter." "Well, maybe you is right," Jeeter said, "but Dude, he cusses all the time at me and his Ma. He ain't got no respect for none of us. Maybe that's as it should be, but I sort of recollect the Bible saying a son shouldn't cuss his Ma and Pa like he does other people. Nobody never told me no different, but somehow it don't seem right for him to do that. I've seen him pestering Ellie May with a stick, too, and I know that ain't right. That's sinful, and it ought to be prayed about." "Dude won't do that again," Bessie said, stroking Dude's hair. "He's a fine boy, Dude is. He would make a handsome preacher, too. He's mighty like my former husband in his younger days. I sort of feel there ain't much difference between them now." Ada twisted around to see why Dude was staying on the porch. He and Bessie were still kneeling down beside the chair, with their arms around each other. "Dude's sixteen years old now," Jeeter said. "That makes him two years younger than Ellie May. Well, pretty soon he'll be getting a wife, I reckon. All my other male children married early in life, just like the gals done. When Dude gets married, I won't have none of my children left with me, except Ellie May. And I don't reckon she'll ever find a man to marry her. It's all on account of that mouth she's got. I been thinking I'd take her up to Augusta and get a doctor to sew her lip. She'd marry quick enough then, because she's got a powerful way with her, woman-like. Ain't nothing wrong with her, except that slit in her lip. If it wasn't for that, she'd been married as quick as Pearl was. Men here around Fuller all want to marry gals about eleven or twelve years old, like Pearl was. Ada, there, was just turning twelve when I married her." "The Lord intended all of us should be mated," Bessie said. "He made us that way. That's what my former husband used to say. I'd tell him that a man needs a woman, and he'd say a woman needs a man. My former husband was just like the Lord in that respect. They both believed in the same thing when it came to mating." "I reckon the Lord did intend for all of us to get mated," Jeeter said, "but He didn't take into account a woman with a slit in her mouth like Ellie May's got. I don't believe He done the right thing by her when He opened up her lip like that. That's the only contrary thing I ever said about the Lord, but it's the truth. What use is a slit like that for? You can't spit through it, and you can't whistle through it, now can you? It was just meanness on His part when He done that. That's what it was--dum meanness." "You shouldn't talk about the Lord like that. He knows what He done it for. He knows everything. He wouldn't have done it if He didn't have a good purpose in mind. He knows what He makes men and women for. He made Ellie May's face like that with a good reason in mind. He had the best reason in the world for doing it." "What reason?" "Maybe I ought not to say it, Jeeter." "It ain't no secret between you and the Lord, is it, Sister Bessie?" "No, ain't no secrets between us. But I know." "You know what?" "Why He made her lip slit open." "Ain't you going to tell me?" "Brother Jeeter, He done that to her lip to save her pure body from the wicked men." "What men? I'm the only man around here." "It's you, Brother Jeeter." "I ain't wicked. I'm sinful at rare times, but I never been wicked." "It's all the same to God. It don't make no difference to Him which it is." "What did I do? I don't see how stealing a few measly turnips and sweet potatoes once in a while has anything to do with Ellie May's face." "Brother Jeeter, the Lord done that to her lip to save her pure body from being ruined by you. He knowed she would be safe in this house when He made her like that. He knowed that you was once a powerful sinner, and that you might be again if--" "That's the truth," Jeeter said. "I used to be a powerful sinful man in my time. I reckon I was at one time the most powerful sinful man in the whole country. Now, you take them Peabody children over across the field. I reckon clear near about all of them is half mine, one way or another. And then I used to--" "You wait till I finish accusing you, Jeeter, before you start lying out of it." "I ain't lying out of it, Bessie. I just now told you how powerful sinful I once was. There was a man and his wife moved here from--" "As I was saying, you didn't keep none of it hid from the Lord--" "But Henry Peabody didn't know nothing about it though--" "--He knowed that you might take it into your head to ruin Ellie May. The Lord knows everything, and He's got his reasons. He knowed you was such a powerful sinful man long years ago that you wouldn't have obeyed Him if He told you to take your eyes out, if your eyes offended Him?' "Looking at her slit with my eyes won't offend nobody. He don't care about my eyes. What would He want to take them out for?" "Just like I was saying. If the Lord had told you to cut your eyes out because they offended Him, you wouldn't have done it. That showed-you was a powerful sinner. Or if He had told you to cut off your hand, or your ears, for the same reason, you wouldn't have obeyed Him. And He knowed if He told you to stop fooling with Ellie May, you wouldn't have cut off the root of evil like He said do. That's the reason He sent Ellie May into the world with a slit in her lip. He figured she would be safe from a sinner like you, because you wouldn't like the looks of her." "The Lord be praised," Jeeter said. "You sure have opened my eyes to the way of God. I never knowed before about that, I declare. If I had knowed it, I sure would have cut myself off when I was fooling around over there at Peabody's. Then if I had done that, Ellie May wouldn't look like she does now, would she, Bessie?" "It's just like I said. The Lord knows more about us humans' ways than we do." "I've been a powerful sinful man in my time. I reckon. I never knowed I ought to cut myself off before. Maybe it's not too late now. I sure don't want to let the devil get hold of me." Bessie turned to Dude again, smiling at him and holding her arms tighter around his neck. Dude did not know what to do next. He liked to touch her, and feel her, and he wanted her to hug him some more, as she had done. He liked to feel her arms tight around him, and have her rub him. Yet he could not believe that Bessie was hugging him for any real reason. She had stopped praying fifteen minutes before, but she still made no motion to release him and make him get up. "Say, Sister Bessie," Jeeter said, leaning forward and squinting his eyes under his heavy black brows, "what in hell is you and Dude doing there? You and him has been squatting there, hugging and rubbing of the other, for near about half an hour." Dude hoped she would not make him get up, because he liked to feel her pull him tight to her breast and squeeze him in her arms. Bessie tried to stand up, but Dude would not let her. She sat down again beside him on the floor, running her fingers through his hair. "Durn if I ever saw a woman preacher take on like that before," Jeeter said, shaking his head. "Looks to me like you ain't going to do no more praying to-day. You and Dude is hugging and rubbing of the other, ain't you? By God and by Jesus, if it ain't so!" Bessie got up and sat down in the chair. She tried to make Dude go away, but he stood in front of her, waiting for her to touch him. "The Lord was speaking to me," she said. "He was. telling me I ought to marry a new husband. I can't get around much by myself, and if I was to get married to a man, maybe I could do more preaching and praying. The Lord would turn him into a preacher too, and both of us could travel around spreading the gospel!" "He didn't tell you to marry Dude, did He? Dude ain't no preacher. He ain't got sense enough to be one. He wouldn't know what to preach about when the time came to get up and say something." "Dude would make a fine preacher," she interrupted. "Dude would be just about as good at preaching and praying as my former husband was, maybe better. The Lord and me could show him how to do. It ain't hard at all after you catch on to it." "I wish I was in my younger days. If I was, I could maybe do it myself with you. I could do it, yet, only Ada, there, has got so she don't want me fooling with the women-folks no more. I know I could do as fine preaching and praying as the next one. It ain't that what's holding me back--it's Ada, there. She's got a queer notion that I might take to fooling with the women-folks. Well, I ain't saying I wouldn't if I had half a chance, neither." "It would require a younger man for me to be satisfied," Bessie said. "Dude there is just suitable for preaching and living with me. Ain't you, Dude?" "You want me to go home with you now?" he said. "I got to pray over it first, Dude," she said. "When I come back by here the next time, I'll let you know. You'll have to wait until I can ask the Lord if you'll do. He's sometimes particular about his male preachers, especially if they is going to marry women preachers." Bessie ran down the steps and over the hard white sand of the yard. When she reached the tobacco road, she turned around and looked at the Lester's on the front porch several minutes. Presently, without waiting to walk, she began running through the deep white sand towards her house two miles away on the bluff above the Savannah. Bessie's home, a tenant house of three rooms, and a corn-crib, sat on the edge of the bluff. That was where the country dropped down into the swampy Savannah River Valley. The house, covered with unpainted weatherboards, sat precariously on three piles of thin stones. The fourth pile had fallen down ten or twelve years before, making one end of the house sag to the ground. "Well," Jeeter said. "Sister Bessie is up to something all right. It looks to me like she's got her head set on marrying Dude, there. I never seen such hugging and rubbing of the other as them two was doing. Something is going to come of it. Something is bound to happen." Dude snickered and stood behind a chinaberry tree so nobody could see him. Ellie May watched him from behind the pine stump, smiling because she had heard what Bessie had said. Jeeter sat looking out over the old field of brown broom-sedge, and wondering if he could borrow a mule somewhere and raise a crop that year. The time for spring plowing had already arrived, and it made him restless. He did not like to sit idly on the porch and let the spring pass, without burning and plowing. He had decided that he could at least burn over the fields, even if he did not yet know how he could get a mule and seed-cotton and guano. He would have gone out then and set the broomsedge on fire; but he felt comfortable where he was, and the burning of the fields could wait until the next day. There was plenty of time left yet. It would not take him long to put in a crop when once he got started. Now that he was alone he began to worry all over again about the way he had treated Lov. He wanted to do something to make amends. If he went down to the chute the next morning and told Lov how sorry he was and that he promised never to steal anything from him again, he hoped that Lov would forgive him and not try to hit him with chunks of coal. And while he was about it, he could stop by Lov's house and speak to Pearl. He would tell her that she had to stop sleeping on a pallet on the floor, and be more considerate of Lov's wants. It was bad enough, he knew, to have to put up with a woman all day long, and then when night came to be left alone, was even worse. "Ain't you going to haul no more wood to Augusta?" Ada demanded. "I ain't had no new snuff since I don't know when. And all the meal is gone, and the meat, too. Ain't nothing in the house to eat." "I'm aiming to take a load over there to-morrow or the next day," Jeeter said. "Don't hurry me, woman. It takes a heap of time to get ready to make a trip over there. I got my own interests to consider. You keep out of it." "You're just lazy, that's what's wrong with you. If you wasn't lazy you could haul a load every day, and I'd have me some snuff when I wanted it most." "I got to be thinking about farming the land," Jeeter said. "I ain't no durn woodchopper. I'm a farmer. Them woodchoppers hauling wood to Augusta ain't got no farthing to take up their time, like I has. Why, I expect I'm going to grow near about fifty bales of cotton this year, if I can borrow the mules and get some seed-cotton and guano on credit in Fuller. By God and by Jesus, I'm a farmer. I ain't no durn woodchopper." "That's the way you talk every year about this time, but you don't never get started. It's been seven or eight years since you turned a furrow. I been listening to you talk about taking up farming again so long I don't believe nothing you say now. It's a big old whopping lie. All you men is like that. There's a hundred more just like you all around here, too. None of you is going to do nothing, except talk. The rest of them go around begging, but you're so lazy you won't even do that." "Now, Ada," Jeeter said, "I'm going to start in the morning. Soon as I get all the fields burned off, I'll go borrow me some mules. Me and Dude can grow a bale to the acre, if I can get me some seed-cotton and guano." "Humph!" Ada said, leaving the porch.

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