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Chapter Seven
Jeeter did not go down to the coal chute to see Lov. Neither did he go to the house to speak to Pearl. There were always well-developed plans in Jeeter's mind for the things he intended doing; but somehow he never got around to doing them. One day led to the next, and it was much more easy to say he would wait until tomorrow. When that day arrived, he invariably postponed action until a more convenient time. Things had been going along in that easy way for almost a lifetime now; nevertheless, he was again getting ready to burn off the fields and plow the land. He wanted to raise a crop of cotton. Having an operation performed on Ellie May's lip was one of those things that Jeeter had been waiting for fifteen years to do. Several times each year he had said he was going to take her to a doctor in Augusta; when he did make an effort to take her there, he usually never got any farther than the store at the crossroads, where something was certain to come up that caused him to change his plans. In the course of all those years he had actually reached Augusta two or three times with the sole intention of having the operation performed; but it had always resulted in something coming to his mind at the last minute that he thought he needed more than Ellie May needed an operation. Once it was plow-lines that he could not do without another day, even though he had no mule to use them on; another time it was snuff he had to have, and so he had stopped at the store and spent what little money he had, and they returned home with nothing accomplished. Ellie May did not protest. She could not have been made to believe that her harelip could be sewn together in such a way that only the faintest suggestion of a scar would remain. She had become so accustomed to the gaping narrow opening in her mouth that she could not believe that it was possible for her ever to look any different from the way she always had. On those very few occasions when Jeeter had made preparations to go to the hospital, and when he had talked to Ellie May about going there, she would stand behind the corner of the house, or behind one of the many chinaberry trees scattered around the house, and grin. The Lester's had spoken so frequently about her harelip that she had come to believe that Jeeter's proposal to have it operated upon was merely another way of making fun of her appearance. She remained hidden behind the house or a chinaberry tree until the subject of conversation was changed, and only came out where she could be seen when she was certain nothing more would be said about her. "It ain't no sin to look like that, Ellie May," Jeeter had told her. "You came into the world that way from God, and that's the way He intended for you to look. Sometimes I think maybe it would be a sin to change it, because that would be doing over something He made." "Well, all I got to say," Ada had stated, "is that it's a shame He didn't make Dude with the slit instead of Ellie May. A gal ain't got no business looking like that. Women ain't good for nothing but to marry and work for men, and when one of them has that kind of thing on her, there ain't no man I ever heard of who's going to use her. If it was Dude who had the slit, it wouldn't make no difference at all. Men ain't noticed as much in the face as women is, noway." Once when Ellie May went to the schoolhouse several years before, to enter the first grade, she returned home before noon and never went back again. The teacher told her she was too old to attend school with little children, but the real reason for sending her home was because the other boys and girls laughed at her harelip so much they could not study their lessons. So Ellie May came back home and never went again. Dude had never attended school, either; Jeeter said he was needed at home to help him do the work. But if Jeeter was indifferent towards Ellie May's need for an operation, there was one thing in his life he tried to do with all the strength in his mind and body. The one thing was the farming of the land. There had been scarcely a moment in his life during the past six or seven years when he was not thinking about it, and trying to discover some way by which he could raise cotton. When Captain John had moved to Augusta seven years before, it seemed to be the end of all farming as far as Jeeter was concerned, but he would not give up the struggle to break the land each spring and plant cotton. Jeeter could never think of the loss of his land and goods as anything but a man-made calamity. He sometimes said it was partly his own fault, but he believed steadfastly that his position had been brought about by other people. He did not blame Captain John to the same extent that he blamed others, however. Captain John had always treated him fairly, and had done more for him than any other man. When Jeeter had overbought at the stores in Fuller, Captain John let him continue, and he never put a limit to the credit allowed. But the end soon came. There was no longer any profit in raising cotton under the Captain's antiquated system, and he abandoned the farm and moved to Augusta. Rather than attempt to show his tenants how to conform to the newer and more economical methods of modern agriculture, which he thought would have been an impossible task from the start, he sold the stock and implements and moved away. An intelligent employment of his land, stocks, and implements would have enabled Jeeter, and scores of others who had become dependent upon Captain John, to raise crops for food, and crops to be sold at a profit. Cooperative and corporate farming would have saved them all. Jeeter was now reduced to painful poverty. His means of livelihood had been taken away, and he was slowly starving. The entire section of land around him had originally been owned by Jeeter's grandfather. Seventy-five years before, it had been the most desirable soil in the entire west-central part of Georgia. His grandfather had cleared the greater part of the plantation for the production of tobacco. The soil at that time was better suited to the cultivation of tobacco than to that of any other crop. It was a sandy loam, and the ridge was high and dry. Hundreds of tumbled-down tobacco barns, chinked with clay, could still be found on what was left of the plantation; some of them were still standing but most of them were rotted and fallen down. The road on which Jeeter lived was the original tobacco road his grandfather had made. It was about fifteen miles long, and extended in a south-easterly direction from the foothills of the Piedmont, where the sand hills started, and ended on the bluffs at the river. The road had been used for the rolling of tobacco casks, large hogsheads in which the leaf had been packed after being cured and seasoned in the clay-chinked barns; thousands of hogsheads had been rolled along the crest of the ridge which connected the chain of sand hills, and they had made a smooth firm road the entire distance of fifteen miles. Sometimes the casks had been pushed by gangs of Negroes to the river steamboats, other times they were pulled by teams of mules; but always the crest of the ridge was followed, 'cause when off it the hogsheads would have rolled downhill into the creeks which ran parallel with the road to the river, and once wet, the leaf would have been ruined and worthless. After seventy-five years the tobacco road still remained, and while in many places it was beginning to show signs of washing away, its depressions and hollows made a permanent contour that would remain as long as the sand hills. There were scores of tobacco roads on the western side of the Savannah Valley, some only a mile or so long, others extending as far back as twenty-five or thirty miles into the foothills of the Piedmont. Any one walking cross-country would more than likely find as many as six or eight in a day's hike. The region, topographically, was like a palm leaf; the Savannah was the stem, large at the bottom and gradually spreading out into veins at the top. On the side of the valley the creeks ran down like the depressions in the palm leaf, while between them lay the ridges of sand hills, like seams, and on the crests of the ridges were the tobacco roads. Jeeter's father had inherited about one-half of the original Lester plantation, and approximately half of that had quickly slipped through his fingers. He could not pay the taxes, to begin with, and much of it had been sold to satisfy the county's claims from year to year. The remainder he farmed the best he could. He raised cotton exclusively, but because of the sandy loam he found it necessary to use more and more fertilizer each year. The loose sandy soil would not hold the guano during the hard summer rains, and it was washed away before the roots of the plants could utilize it. By the time Jeeter was old enough to work in the fields, the land had become such a great item of expense that most of it was allowed to grow up into pines. The soil had become depleted by the constant raising of cotton year after year, and it was impossible to secure a yield of more than a quarter of a bale to the acre. More and more guano was poured into the fields, and faster and faster was it washed away through the loose sandy soil before the cotton plants were able to reach it. When his father died, what was left of the Lester lands and debts was willed to Jeeter. The first thing that happened was the foreclosure of the mortgage. In order to satisfy the creditors, all the timber was cut, and another large portion of the land was sold. Two years later Jeeter found himself so heavily in debt that he did not own a single acre of land, or even a tenant house, after the claims had been settled. The man who purchased the farm at the sheriff's sale was Captain John Harmon. Captain John allowed Jeeter and his family to live in one of the houses, and to work for him on shares. That was ten years before the World War. From that time forward, Jeeter had sunk each year into a poverty more bitter than that of the year before. The culmination had apparently been reached when Captain John sold the mules, and other stock and moved to Augusta. There was then to be no more two-thirds' share of a year's labor coming to Jeeter, and there was never again to be credit for food and snuff and other necessities at the stores in Fuller. With him, Captain John took his credit. Jeeter did not know what to do. Without snuff and food, life seemed not worth living any longer. By that time, most of the children had left home and gone to Augusta and elsewhere. Jeeter did not know where all of them were now. There had been seventeen children born to Ara and him. Five had died, and the twelve living were scattered in all directions. Only Ellie May and Dude were still at home; Pearl was only two miles away, but she never came to the house to see Jeeter and Ada, and they had never been to see her. The children who had died were buried in different parts of the farm. The land had been plowed over since their deaths, and as the graves were unmarked, no one would have known where to look for them if he had wanted to find them. With the exception of Dude and Ellie May, all the children were married. Jeeter thought he knew where Tom was, but he was not certain. He had heard in the stores in Fuller that Tom, who was the oldest boy, was running a cross-tie camp in the next county at a place about twenty miles away. Nobody had the slightest idea where most of the others were, nor if all of them were still living. Lizzie Belle had been the last one to leave home. She had -gone away several years before, saying she was going to work in a cotton mill across the river from Augusta. There were ten or more cotton mills in Horsecreek Valley, but she had not said which one she was going to work in. Jeeter had been told that she was still there, and that she was married and had seven children already. He did not know if it was true or not, because neither he nor Ada ever received a letter. There were times when Jeeter became lonesome without all his children around him, and he wished some of them would come back to see him, or write letters. He wondered then, too, if it were possible that they had sent him letters he had not received. There was no rural delivery route on the tobacco road, and he did not have a mail box; but he had said several times that he was some day going to the post-office in Fuller to ask if there was a letter for him from Lizzie Belle or Clara or Tom, or any of the others. He knew he would have to get somebody to read the letters to him if he did hear from them, because neither he nor Ada had ever learned to read. He had been in Fuller hundreds of times since he first thought of asking at the post-office for a letter, but he had not yet got around to making inquiry there. Some day he hoped to be able to get over to Burke County and see Tom. He had been planning a trip over there for several years, but first it was the old automobile that had prevented him from getting started, then it was bad weather and muddy roads that held him back. The trip to see Tom had been planned for two purposes; he wanted to see his son, of course, and to talk to him, but his main object in going was because he believed Tom would give him some money regularly when he found out how poor he was and how badly he and Ada needed snuff and food. From the things Jeeter had heard in the stores in Fuller, he knew Tom could afford to give him a few dollars every week. The people said that Tom owned fifty or sixty mules, and twice that many oxen, and that he received a lot of money for the cross-ties he sold the railroad. Jeeter heard that several times in Fuller, and be knew it must be true. He could not believe that Tom would refuse to help him and Ada when he told his son how poor they were. Now that winter was passing, Jeeter hoped to be able to make the trip some time that summer. The roads would not be muddy then, and the days would be much longer. The passing of winter and the slow growth of early spring had its usual effect on Jeeter. The warm late February days had kindled in him once more the desire to farm the land. Each year at that season he made a new effort to break the ground and to find means of buying seed-cotton and guano on credit from the merchants in Fuller. His attempts had always ended in the refusal of anybody to give him a dime's worth of credit. However, he burned a field here and a field there on the farm each spring, getting the growth of broom-sedge off the land so it would be ready to plow in case some one did lend him a mule and give him a little seed-cotton and guano. Each year for the past six or seven it had been the same. There was an inherited love of the land in Jeeter that all his disastrous experiences with farming had failed to take away. He had lived his whole life there on a small remnant of the Lester plantation, and while he realized it was not his legally, he felt that he would die if he had to move away from it. He would not even consider going elsewhere to live, even though he were offered a chance to work another man's farm on shares. Even to move to Au gusta and work in the cotton mills would be impossible for him. The restless movement of the other tenant farmers to the mills had never had any effect on Jeeter. Working in cotton mills might be all right for some people, he said, but as for him, he would rather die of starvation than leave the land. In seven years his views on the subject had not been altered; and if anything, he was more determined than ever to remain where he was at all costs. When Lizzie Belle left, Ada had said she wanted to move to Augusta, too; but Jeeter would not listen to her argument. There had never been a time when he wanted to leave the land and live in a mill village. "City ways ain't God-given," Jeeter had said, shaking his head. "It wasn't intended for a man with the smell of the land in him to live in a mill in Augusta. Maybe it's all right for some people to do that, but God never meant for me to do it. He put me on the land to start with, and I ain't leaving it. I'd feel just like a chicken with his head cut off living shut up in a mill all the time." "You talk like an old fool," Ada had said angrily. "It's a whole lot better to live in the mills than it is to stay out here on the tobacco road and starve to death. Up there I could get me all the snuff I needed. Down here I ain't never got enough to calm me." "God is aiming to provide for us," he had answered her. "I'm getting ready right now to receive His bounty. I expect it to come most any time now. He won't let us stay here and starve. He'll send us some snuff and rations pretty soon. I been a God-fearing man all my life, and He ain't going to let me suffer no more." "You just sit there and see! This time ten years from now you'll be just like you is now, if you live that long. Even the children has got more sense than you has--didn't they go off and work in the mills as soon as they was big enough? They had better sense than to sit here and wait for you to put food in their empty, mouths and bellies. They knowed you'd never do nothing about it, except talk. If I wasn't so old, I'd go up to the mills right now and make me some money." "The Lord sends me every misery He can think of just to try my soul. He must be aiming to do something powerful big for me, because He sure tests me bard. I reckon He figures if I can put up with my own people I can stand to fight back at the devil." "Humph!" Ada had said. "If He don't hurry up and do something about it, it will be too late. My poor stomach gives me a powerful pain all day long when I ain't got the snuff to calm it."
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