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HOME > Classical Novels > Tobacco Road > Chapter Nineteen
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Chapter Nineteen
The time for spring plowing was over. Throughout the last two weeks of February the weather had been dry and the ground crumbly; there had been no finer season for plowing and planting in six or seven years. Usually at that time rains came every few days and kept the earth continually wet and soggy; but this year the season had begun in the middle of February with clearing skies, and a gentle breeze had been drying the moisture in the ground ever since the winter rains had stopped. Farmers around Fuller who were undertaking to raise a crop of cotton this year had finished their plowing by the end of the month. With such an early start, there seemed to be no reason why, with plenty of hot weather during the growing season, the land should not yield a bale of cotton to the acre that fall. All farmers would put in as much guano as they could buy, and there was no limit to the number of pounds of cotton an acre would yield if fertilizer could be bought and used with a free hand. A bale to the acre was the goal of every cotton farmer around Fuller, but the Boll weevil and hard summer rains generally cut the crop in half. And on the other hand, if it was a good year for the raising of cotton, the price would probably drop lower than it had before. Not many men felt like working all year for six-or seven-cent cotton in the fall. Jeeter had lived through the season for burning broom-sedge and pine woods, and through the time for spring plowing, without having done either. It was still not too late to begin, but Jeeter did not have a mule, and he did not have the credit to purchase seed-cotton and guano at the stores. Up until this year, he had lived in the hope that something would happen at the last moment and provide a mule and credit, but now it seemed to him that there was no use hoping for anything any more. He still look forward to the following year when he could perhaps raise a crop of cotton, but it was an anticipation not so keen as it once had been. He had felt himself sink lower and lower, his condition fall further and further, year after year, until now his trust in God and the land was at the stage where further disappointment might easily cause him to lose his mind and reason. He still could not understand why he had nothing, and would never have anything, and there was no one who knew and could tell him. It was the unsolved mystery of his life. But, even if he could not raise a crop that year, he could at least make all preparations for one. He could burn over the broom-sedge and the groves of blackjack and the fields of young pine seedlings. He could have the land ready for plowing in case something happened that would let him plant a crop of cotton. He would have the land ready, in case--It was late afternoon on the first of March. He walked across the old cotton field through the waist-high broomsedge towards the blackjack grove at the rear of the house; he kicked at the crumbly earth lying exposed between the tufts of sedge, thinking there was still time in which to arrange for credit at the stores in Fuller. He knew the time for burning and plowing had ended the day before, but there still lingered in the warm March air something of the new season. The smell of freshly turned earth and the odor of pine and sedge-smoke hovered over the land even after burning and plowing was done. He breathed deeply of it, filling his body with the invigorating aroma. "Maybe God will send some way to allow the growing of a crop," he said. "He puts the land here, and the sun and rain--He ought to furnish the seed and the guano, somehow or other." Jeeter firmly believed that something would happen. so he would be able to keep his body and soul alive. He still had hope left. The late afternoon sun was still warm, and the air was balmy. There had been no cold nights for almost a week. People could sit on their front porches in the evening now without feeling the chill night air of February. The breeze was blowing from the east. The white Smoke of the broom-sedge fire coiled upward and was carried away towards the west, away from Jeeter's view of the house and tobacco road. He stood watching it burn slowly away from him, and at the fire eating along the ground under the brown broom-sedge. There were several hundred acres of the land to burn; the fields that had not been cultivated, some of them for ten or fifteen years, were matted with the dry grass. Beyond the fields lay the woods of yellow pine and blackjack. The fire would probably blaze and smoulder three or four days before it would burn itself out and die along the shores of the creek farther away. "If Tom and some of the older boys was here, maybe they could help get some seed-cotton and guano somehow," he said. "I know where I might could borrow a mule, if I had the seed-cotton and guano to plant. But a mule ain't no good without the rest of the things. Wouldn't nothing grow in the new rows except broomsedge and blackjack sprouts." He walked back to the house, to sit on the back steps a while before bed-time and watch the long line of yellow fire in the sedge. It was long after dark before he got up and went into the house. From the rear bedroom window where he stood taking off his heavy shoes, Jeeter watched with fascination the distant fire that melted into a vivid red with the fall of darkness. Some of the fire had gone far over the hills, and all that could be seen of it was the dull orange glow in the sky above it. Other sections of it had circled around the fields like cornered snakes, and burned on both sides of the house. In the centre, where he bad stood that afternoon when he struck the match, there was a deep dark hole in the earth. The ground would remain black until it rained again. He lay awake a long time after Ada was asleep. It was quiet in the house, now that there was no one else there to keep them company. Jeeter tossed and turned, smelling the aroma of pine and broom-sedge smoke in the night air. With it came the strong odor of freshly turned earth somewhere a long way off. He looked straight up at the black ceiling, solemnly swearing to get up the next morning and borrow a mule. He was going to plow a patch to raise some cotton on, if he never did anything else as long as he lived. He went to sleep then, his mind filled with thoughts of the land and its sweet odors, and with a new determination to stir the earth and cultivate plants of cotton. The fire burned lustily through the night. It went-farther and farther towards the west where the young pines grew, and it burned through the groves of blackjack, leaving the scrub-oak trees standing blackened and charred. They would not die, but the young pines would. The dawn was beginning to break in the east, and the wind shifted to the north, blowing a final night breeze before daylight. The fire in the broom-sedge on each side of the house burst into renewed vigor in the path of the wind, and it burned back towards the centre where it had started. When it reached the point where the sedge ended at the rim of blackened ground, it would die out. In the meantime there were the fields on each side of the house to burn. After that, there would remain to be burned only the land far back in the woods and on the hills where the blue smoke and red flames climbed above the tree-tops. Beside the house, the broom-sedge fire leapt higher in the early morning breeze. It came closer and closer to the house, and only a thin strip of sandy yard separated it from the building. If a brisk wind caught the fire at the moment when it was burning hardest, it would whirl the embers of grass against the house, under it, and onto the roof. The moment when the sun came up the wind caught the fire and sent it swirling through the dry grass. Torn by the wind, stems of flaming grass were showered on the house, some dying as they burned out, others leaving a glowing spark imbedded in the dry tinder-like shingles that had covered the house for fifty years or more. There were cracks in the roof where the more rotten shingles had been ripped and blown away by the strong autumnal winds, and in these the embers spread quickly. Jeeter and Ada usually got up with the sun, and it was that time now. Neither of them came to the windows now, however, nor did either of them open the door. They were both asleep. The fiery, red flaming roof was a whirling mass of showering embers in a short time. The dry tinder-like shingles, rotted by the autumn and winter rains and scorched by the searing spring and summer sun for two generations, blazed like coals in a forge. The whole roof was in flames in a few seconds, and after that it was only a matter of minutes until the rafters, dry and dripping with pine pitch, fell down upon the floor of the house and upon the beds. Half an hour after the roof had first caught, the house was in black smoking ashes. Ada and Jeeter had not known what had happened. Several near-by farmers had seen the smoke and flames as they were getting up at sun-rise. Most of them hurried along the tobacco road and across the fields to the Lester place with the intention of helping to save some of the furniture. They had not realized how fast the dry pitch dripped house had burned to the ground............
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