Part 23: Ten Years Later

Eddie handed his mother the letters he’d picked up at Peter’s Store.  Nadine stepped onto the little porch surrounded by bright flowers and took her seat on a woven rag rug that served to cover the rough chair.  She smiled, appreciating the tranquil sanctuary she’d been able to create here.  After ten years in the little rented house, the plantings had established themselves and flourished.  Never since leaving her father’s house had she had that much time to make a home in one place.   

Her mind flashed back to the day they moved here. 

Nadine occupied her familiar spot peering out the little kitchen window which afforded her an easterly view of The Monterey Road.  She watched the passersby, whenever there were any.  On a couple of occasions she’d even seen an automobile chugging along.  As she watched today, her hands always busy, the road was clear but out of the corner of her eye she saw movement on the path leading to the house.  She leaned close to the window and nearly gasped when she realized Bill was striding rather quickly toward the house.  He walked with purpose as he rarely did when walking toward his family.  She quickly tried to count how many days he’d been gone –they were so few that she hadn’t yet begun to keep track.

In a moment the kitchen door crashed open; Nadine jumped despite expecting him.  She tried to look deep into his eyes to read whether he was angry, but saw no emotion at all within them. 

“Where’s that boy?” he demanded. 

She was sure it was Lou he wanted after all, the last words Bill heard in this room were those Lou hurled toward him.

“Lou and Harry are out in the barn, I think.”

“Mary!” he yelled.  “Mary get down to the barn and bring them boys up here.”

Mary had been in Nadine’s front bedroom with little Eddie.  She scurried through the kitchen without even looking at her father.  She took no time to ask why or to greet the man. 

Nadine quietly excused herself to go ensure Eddie had been left in a safe position.  She was sorely tempted to just stay in her bedroom for she did not look forward to the encounter between her husband and their son.  But she realized she must be there, if only to take advantage of any opportunity to keep the peace among her family.

Mary completed her errand quickly and by the time Nadine left a dry and napping Eddie carefully placed in the center of her bed, Lou, Mary and Harry were entering the kitchen.

Lou walked a pace ahead of his siblings, his face set with fierce determination.  His mouth opened to speak, or shout, the moment he crossed the threshold.  However, Bill did not give him a chance.

“Are them horses shod?” he asked anyone who could answer.  “Get one of ‘em saddled.  I ain’t a’walkin’ when I leave here this time.”

Harry nodded his head.  This was a chore he could easily do.

Bill continued, expecting his family to eagerly hear and attend to his every demand.  “Got some fella from down in the Sequatchie Valley gonna’ buy this place.  We’re a’goin’ to the court house tomorrow mornin’ so yu’ns will have to get cleared out right quick.”

Crimson red crept up Lou’s neck and his eyes held a wild look.  He clenched his fists so tightly they turned white.  Nadine stepped forward to prevent Lou and Bill exchanging blows.  She wasn’t sure who would win such a match and she had no intention of finding out.

Bill too saw the anger rising but seemed unconcerned.  He turned to continue speaking to Mary and Harry.

Lou cut him off short, “How dare you march in here after we’ve worked the whole summer to get this place ready for winter.”

“By-jingo, I dare ‘cause it’s my own place.”

“You own it.”  Lou’s words hissed through teeth clamped too tightly for language.  “Well, you don’t OWN me or anybody else in this room.  We’ll never again be dependent on anything you OWN.”

Turning to the rest of the family and taking charge as he never had before Lou directed them, “Get packin’.  I’ll go find us a place to live that he can’t touch.  This is the last time I work day and night to make a place fit to live in only to have it sold or traded right out from under me.”

With that, Lou was gone.  Nadine feared she would never see her son again, however, she did as he’d asked and began packing.  Quietly, she asked Harry to bring the wagon up to the house. 

Harry asked, “How we gonna’ pull it if Father’s takin’ one of the horses?”

“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that.  Well, wait till Lou gets back, he’ll know what to do.”

When Lou returned it was nearly dark.  Nadine saw him riding on a very slow-moving mule which he put into the barn.  He walked into the house and surveyed the kitchen from the doorway. 

“He left right after you.”

Lou went to the little wash stand by his sister’s bed and bathed his face and arms as he talked to his mother.  “I’ve rented the little house of Frank Miller’s just down the road.  He’s goin’ up north to look for work; said he was leavin’ by the end of the week but he’ll let you and the baby sleep in the front room till they get packed up.  Borrowed his old mule too.  Wish I could buy it but there’s just no way.  We’ll return it to his pa when we get our house plunder moved.”

“How did you manage?  What will we use to pay rent?”

Lou slumped into a straight-back chair, “Went to see Jimmy first.  He’ll help us when we need it.  I know Jerry will too, ‘cept I didn’t get to see him ‘cause he’s gone with a load of logs.  Can you b’lieve he’s drivin’ a truck that’s big enough to pull them logs up out of the Baldwin Gulf?”

Nadine shook her head, stopping for a moment to wonder at her son’s accomplishments after such a short time working in the log-woods.  Then she let out a breath she felt she’d been holding all afternoon.  She realized that while Bill had constantly moved the family from one place to another, she’d never been without a home of some sort.  This had been a scary afternoon for her.

Nadine inhaled deeply of the honeysuckle that wrapped itself around one end of her porch and drew her mind back to the present.  No need to dwell on what’s happened ten years ago.

She looked at the letters in her hand and seeing the postmarks, she took a moment to pray.  Two letters from her boys.  Harry, stationed stateside in Maine and Lou who was somewhere overseas – the Army as so secretive about those things.  There was a moment’s joy everytime she saw the AP/FPO address identifying one of them.  Three boys overseas, it seemed like such a sacrifice.  At least they’d left the youngest of the three within the relative safety of American borders.  Still she stopped to praise God every time because that meant that at least a few weeks ago her boy was well enough to write.  The feel of the third envelope told her it was the government check paying her the allotment Lou and Harry had each setup to send home.  Jerry was also serving overseas but felt his money should be sent to his wife, Vera and Nadine certainly agreed.

Lou’s letter opened with questions about her and Eddie’s welfare.  Lou always wanted to ensure that the allotment had been received and that it was sufficient for them.  All three of the boys seemed to take comfort knowing that their service was not only helping to keep America free, but it also helped to feed and house their mother. 

Eddie skipped the steps and hopped onto the porch, dragging a ladder back chair close to his mother.

Nadine smiled at her baby.  She was so proud of him, and she knew his brothers and sisters were too.  “You are just in time.  I’ve barely started reading these.  Will you read them to me?  I just love to hear you read aloud.”

Handing off the letters, Nadine again closed her eyes.  She allowed Eddie’s strong, young voice to penetrate her mind.  She imagined she could see Europe as Lou described it.  Somehow she had always thought it would be drabber, less exciting than Lou found it.  Yet he described beautiful flowers, green fields and homes finer than any she’d ever imagined.  Eddie read on, “I’m hoping we’ll be home before long.  We’re always thinking it can’t last much longer.”  Any explanation of Lou’s thoughts was caught by the censor’s blade.

 

Part 22 Bill’s Thoughts

Bill ambled slowly out the front path that led to the roadway.  He stood for a moment looking first to the East then Westward.  Usually when he began one of his trips he’d sat and mulled over the direction he wanted to take, people he might want to see but above all he left knowing his purpose for the journey.  Today, however, he’d planned to rest, allowing Nadine to care for him as her nurturing nature caused her to care for everyone in her house.  Lou had abruptly changed the plan.

Bill was an expert at maintaining a bluff and he never dreamed one of his sons would ever call that bluff.  When Lou stood up to him and accused him of neglecting his family, something in the boy’s eyes told Bill it was time to walk away from this particular game. 

As he walked, he thought.  In fact, his head was spinning as it rarely did. 

When the urge to move on called him away from his home or his work, no one ever asked him to stay.  Well, no one except Nadine, and she never begged.  In fact as he thought over the past twenty years of his life, he wondered if he was ever really wanted anywhere.  He couldn’t help but think of Ann, she had always wanted him with her.

Ann, you took everything when you died.

Bill shook his head – he couldn’t start talking to himself much less his dead wife.  Yet somehow he couldn’t stop his mind as it rolled through memories and imagined what might have been had Ann survived the birth of their first son.  Oh he couldn’t blame Jimmy, he never had blamed him.  Ann was sick with the consumption before she had him, probably even before she conceived him.  Looking back on it, Bill could see that she didn’t have as much energy as before.  She seemed to barely get over one cold before she took another one, and they always seemed to settle in her chest leaving her coughing for weeks.  Ann dismissed it, saying that her family all had weak lungs and colds just ran that way with them.  Bill was young and so in love with his wife that he would have believed a green sky was perfectly normal if she said it and gave him that tender, sweet smile.

Ann, you always wanted me at home with you.  I remember driving hogs to Kentucky and you practically begging me to stay.  I wonder now if you knew you were dying and you didn’t want to be alone.  But you weren’t alone my dear – in the end I sat and held your hand until you drew your last breath.  It seems like that was my last breath of life too ‘cause there’s been no joy in anything since then.

As though Ann, or some spirit, spoke in his ear Bill questioned, Why couldn’t you find any happiness with Nadine?   She took you and your two children when she was young and beautiful.  She surely had many beaus to choose from.

Bill stopped and looked back toward the long, dilapidated house where he’d left his wife and four of their children.  He was too far away to see the house; he could just make out the tops of the trees that surrounded it.  He stood there watching, as though he might see Nadine, as though she would still be that beautiful young woman. 

Then his mind turned to Mercy.  She was so different from Nadine.  Mercy was so small, when her father handed her to Bill, he’d thought she was only a child. 

Well, she was practically a child.  Just sixteen I think.

Bill had never really regretted accepting Mercy from her father.  After all, he’d made the bet fair and square.  And Mercy had worked hard to serve Bill as her husband, but somehow Bill always knew that it was to honor her father and not him.  Still there had never been any real joy in their marriage, nothing like he’d shared with Ann.

Again, the voice in his head challenged him, How could that marriage have anything that your marriage to Ann had – Mercy didn’t even know you when she married you, much less did she love you.  Does she love you now?

Bill pondered that question for a moment and remembered the look in her eyes as he said goodbye to her just a few weeks ago.  Then he realized, far from loving him, she didn’t even respect him.  Why is that? He pondered. 

He reasoned with himself that he made good money.  In fact, every venture he’d undertaken in the past few years had been profitable with some being extremely profitably.  He tapped his pocket, reassured by the roll of bills he felt there.  His fingers registered the fine weave of his pants and as he looked down at them he noted the gleam of soft leather boots that had been polished just yesterday by a boy at the general store. 

Simultaneously, his mind flashed visions of both Nadine in her faded cotton dress and Mercy in a shift made of worn homespun cloth.  He shrugged his shoulders, wondering what these women had to do with how well he was dressed.  Surely they realized how much he had paid for the clothes.  Well of course they know, haven’t you cautioned them time and again to use care when they are washing them?  You’ve told them these clothes can’t be treated like the other rags they scrub out.

Bill walked and walked, his thoughts driving him onward heedless of the direction.  The sun slipped toward the western horizon but he did not notice.  The day faded to dusk, his eye adjusted and he kept walking. 

Bill talked himself out of worrying about Lou’s unspoken threats.  In fact, he began to ask himself why he hadn’t ridden one of the horses.  He dismissed the questions of whether his families missed him or wanted him around.  In fact, he began to wonder if this would be a good time to sell the farm. 

Even before he saw the decimated herd of swine, he’d realized that this farm was not bringing the joy he thought he’d find.  It was nothing like the farms he tended in his youth when he’d been overfilled with joy.  No, it would be best to try to sell it and turn a profit.  The boys had the fields looking good and with the addition of the barn Jerry had built he could command a much better price that what he paid.

When he finally came to his decision, the hour had grown quite late and the road very dark.  He stopped to figure out where he was but he was surrounded by dense woodland.  He couldn’t remember when he’d last past a farm and looking behind he could see no sign of a lamp in a window.  Trying to think back on what he’d seen earlier in the day, he realized that he was headed toward Monterey and this must be the big woods.  How long had he been in this woodland?  He wouldn’t come out of it before he reached the edge of town.  Now he must decide whether to keep tripping along the road or make himself as comfortable as possible at base of a tree for the night. 

He looked around, the evening was warm, muggy even.  He’d certainly spent nights out in worse conditions.  No, he had a plan now and he would continue on his way into Monterey.  He would make it there before the drinking house closed and he might even be able to do some business before the morning. 

Part 21 Someone’s Got to do It

Nadine happened to be looking out her kitchen window as Bill stepped from the barn.  She didn’t know that he had come home and her heart swelled at the sight of him.  However, his deep scowl immediately warned her he was displeased with something and fear chased away her moment of joy.  She pondered, Oh my, what have we done wrong now?

Bill looked from side to side, seeing nothing.  The rage boiled within him as he mentally calculated how much money Lou had stolen from him.  Surely it was theft.  He left a sound and growing herd of hogs and came home to a depleted herd.  For the briefest moment his mind reasoned perhaps some disease had stricken them, killing off the missing animals.  Bill immediately dismissed that thought.  He was sure Lou had stolen from him and he would immediately confront him.  He would not have a thief under his roof.

Bill looked across the field and watched as Lou and Harry diligently worked the single horse up and down the field, rich black soil turning up behind the plow.  He decided to let them finish the day’s plowing – might as well get the day’s work out of Lou before he set him on the road.  Bill turned toward the house hoping Nadine would have the coffeepot hot and waiting for him.

He took his seat at the head of the table and that is where Lou and Harry found him when hunger and thirst finally drove them from their plowing. 

Lou was teaching Harry as they walked through the open doorway.  “The horse needs to rest even more than we do.  Remember, she’s pulling that plow through unbroken sod.  So even if you feel like you could work a little longer, you have to take care of your stock.”

Nadine took the moment to make a spiritual application.  All winter she’d jumped at every opportunity to speak the name of Jesus in her home and to her children.  “That’s good teaching Lou.  It’s biblical you know, Proverbs tells us that a righteous man cares for his animals.”

As Lou respectfully listened to his mother, he realized Bill was at the table.  Despite his esteem for his mother, he couldn’t bite back the snide comment as he looked directly at his father, “Does it say the same about people?”

Nadine dropped her head momentarily, realizing she had opened the door for her son’s bitterness to spill out. 

Bill ignored Lou’s comment, he had his own agenda.  “Did you’ns finish plowin’ that field?”

Harry answered, eager to share the lesson Lou had just been teaching him.  “No Sir, Jewel was a’needin’ a rest.  See, she’s been pullin’ that heavy plow.  And the good book tells us to take care of our animals.”

Again, Bill ignored his younger son.  “Lou I seen the hogs, counted ‘em you know.  I know you’ve been sellin’ ‘em off through the winter.  I’ll expect you to be handin’ that profit over to me now.”

Lou’s eyes popped open wide, “Profit?  Don’t you guess we ate that profit?”  He fairly spit the word ‘profit’ every time he spoke it.

Bill responded with a mouthful of curses, causing Nadine to bury her head in her hands. 

Lou glanced at his mother, at once heartbroken to see her crying and infuriated at the man who would cause it without flinching.  He lit into his father as none of his brothers had ever dared before.  “I guess somebody’s got to keep this family from plumb starving to death.  Don’t you realize that Jimmy’s been doin’ just that for years?  He tramped through the woods trying to kill whatever game he could find.  And do you suppose that every chicken he found caught in the fence got there on its own?  No, he knew we had nothing to eat and he brought something home.  Even with everything he could do, we’ve had little enough.  Barefoot in the dead of winter, Mother washin’ every night ‘cause we had but one pair of overalls.  And you dare speak of profit?  I just wish you could tell me why it is that you can walk away from your family for months at a time and leave them with no money and no means of feeding and clothing themselves?  How can you do that to Mother?”

Lou took a deep breath, realizing he’d barely breathed during the whole tirade. 

Bill waited out his sons fit of words, nearly enjoying the spunk this one showed.  He had always been disappointed with his boys, do-less bunch that they were.  Never had the gumption to say ‘boo’ to a goose.  And the lot of them living under his roof and letting him take care of them until they were way past grown.  Why, Bill left home when he was barely fourteen years old and Jimmy hadn’t bothered to go until he was past twenty.  Now this one had found some nerve.  Maybe he would leave home on his own, for Bill was certainly planning to put him out for the crime of stealing his hogs.

He could see that Lou’s fountain of wrath had run dry and he ceased the moment, “If you are quite finished… I don’t see how the four of you could have eaten four hogs.  There is money here and I mean to find it.”

As Bill stood as though he would search the house, Lou moved toe-to-toe with his father.  Bill Lewis stood only five foot six, but his girth tended to make one think he was bigger.  And the bully and bluster personality kept most men from troubling him.  Today Lou was undeterred. 

He did not yell as his father was inclined to do.  He spoke in such a low, controlled voice that he fairly mesmerized every ear in the room.  “There is but little money in this house and yes, whatever is here came from the sale of those hogs.  But you will not touch it.  Mother has a bit of coffee and a few pounds of flour and meal, some sugar and salt.  That’s what’s left of your profit.  There’s a side of meat left that will put meat on the table for two or three meals.  After that, your children will either do without meat or I’ll find something in the woods to kill.  Even if you were sharing the table with us, I have rarely known you to hunt for the food you would eat.  But you won’t be sharing that table.  We don’t need you and we do not want you here.”

Nadine gasped.  She had said nothing, in fact she had not moved since the exchange began.  Now, she must step in, must find a way to smooth this over.  She could not have Lou speaking so disrespectfully to his father.  Oh Lord, if I’ve failed to teach him the ten commandments, how can he ever learn the bigger, deeper lessons you have for him?

Bill had been a gambler for years now.  And, he’d taken many a hefty pot from men both weak and strong.  If he’d learned anything he’d learned when to walk away and right now he judged he must walk away from Lou. 

Without another word, he picked up the hat and duster he’d thrown over a chair.  Placing the hat on his head he looked for a moment at his wife and then stepped out the open doorway into the noonday sun.  The family stood motionless; in a moment, Bill’s tuneless whistle could be heard slowly fading away.

Part 20 Lou Speaks Out

If you're new to the site or haven't visited in a while, I've been posting a serial-story for the past 20 weeks.  You can go to the beginning by clicking here.

 

It was a hard winter.  Everyone agreed; everyone talked about it.  It snowed and snowed and snowed and when it wasn’t snowing, the temperatures refused to warm many degrees above freezing.  By January, everyone on the mountain longed for springtime. 

As Nadine wrapped a woolen scarf around her shoulders, she wondered if the house really was colder without as many bodies living in it, or was that just her imagination. 

The log kitchen had long since given up much if its chinking and despite the children’s constant efforts to stuff newspaper or rags into the cracks, the wind found a way to blow in and wage war with the big iron stove.  Mostly the stove was winning – at least no one was showing signs of frostbite.  Nadine smiled at the extreme thought.  This wasn’t the worst house the family had ever wintered in and they’d always survived.

Nadine was increasingly convinced that survival was by God’s grace alone.  She looked at little Mary patiently sitting as close to the stove as she dared and holding the baby.  Nadine remembered winters with her other babies, lying on a pallet by the stove.  But she was sure the constant draft would be the death of baby Eddie and she didn’t want to chance it.  She was determined this child would grow up in the center of God’s word and will.  She had great plans for him and wouldn’t let him freeze before she had the chance to see those plans fulfilled.

Lord, that’s wrong too.  Please forgive me.  He is yours and I know that it’s your plan that matters in his life.  But I commit to you that I will do my part to have him in church and to protect him from the life that has filled his brothers with hate.

Church - the very thought brought a thin smile.  She hadn’t been able to make the trip to Campground in over a month and she doubted anyone else had either.  Everyone seemed thankful to make it to the barn to milk and care for their stock.

She patted the letter from Winnie that she still carried in the deep pocket of her apron.  It reassured her that Roberta truly was working for a good family that cared for her and that Winnie had safely made the trip to Jamestown and settled into a shared room above the store where she worked.  It was good there were other girls staying there, Naomi was really too young to be completely on her own.   As she did every time anything reminded her of the girls, Nadine said a quick prayer for God to lead them to godly husbands. 

Bill scoffed at her mourning the girls’ departure.  He’d said, “You act like they’ve gone to meet their maker.  They ain’t, they’ve only gone to Jamestown. And by-Jingo, they’ve left us with all the work to do.  Should be here clearin’ the fields and I’ve a half a mind to go get them soon’s the weather’s good ‘nough to be in the fields.”

Nadine ignored his threats.  He didn’t even seem to know where they’d gone.  After all, only Winnie was in Jamestown; Roberta was in Grimsley.  There was no need arguing with him though, and Nadine did try to avoid arguing with her husband.

While Bill seemed not to miss his children, he leaned ever harder on those who remained under his roof.  Lou in particular was suffering as his father demanded more and more from him and instead of treating the sixteen year old like a man, he persisted in demeaning Lou every chance he had. 

Although he’d never say it directly to her, Nadine knew of Lou’s growing unrest.  She heard the bits of talk between Lou and Harry; and Mary occasionally shared more than her brother meant for her to.  He knew if he left home now he would have to go work with his brothers or hire on at someone’s farm.  Neither of those options was particularly appealing to him.  And he also felt responsible for the care of his mother, as well as young Harry for he knew if he left all of his father’s abuse would fall on the younger son.  Just the thought of it caused Nadine to unconsciously begin wringing her hands. 

When Christmas Day arrived, it was beautiful as the mountain was blanketed with fresh white snow and the wind calmed for the day.  Jerry came home for the delicious meal Nadine and Mary prepared.  Winnie had written that she would be spending the day with Roberta.  Even as Nadine asked the family to bow their heads to pray, she saw Bill eyeing the snow-covered road as though he were calculating how treacherous it would be to make one of his trips.  There was no use in asking him to pray for his family for his heart wasn’t even with them. 

She looked to Jerry, thankful to have him home if only for a day.  However, something in his red-rimmed eyes and sallow complexion told her he was not fit to bring the family before the Lord.  In the end, she led the prayer herself and silently added a plea that her sons would come to walk closely to God.

By New Year’s Bill had left with some excuse no one could even remember.  He didn’t return at dark and only Nadine paced with worry.  After two day’s absence, Lou came looking for Nadine after breakfast. 

“There’s no reason to keep watching that road.  You know it may be months before we see him again.”

She smiled at him.  He had grown up so much over the last two years and now he would serve as her head of household until Bill returned.  “I know, but it scares me just a little when your father is traveling in the winter.”

Ignoring any concern for his father, Lou wanted to explain that he’d been thinking how the family might survive the remaining winter months.  “We still have a good herd of hogs.  He only sold the fattest ones, no doubt thinking to hold some for the late winter months when folks will pay more for fresh meat.  But we can be selling those right away.  That would provide some cash money.  And Mary and Harry will help me butcher one for the family to eat.”

“Oh Lou, I don’t know that your father would want you to…”

She had no chance to finish her thought, no chance to urge him to respect his father.  Lou practically spit the words out, “As he would say, ‘by-Jingo’ I’ll not have fat hogs in the barn and a hollow belly.  We’ll eat before we line his pockets.”

Nadine winced at the slamming door.  She knew he meant her no disrespect; Lou was always respectful of his mother. 

Lou cared well for his family, ensuring there was food on their table and managing to have a little cash money for those things they simply had to buy.  He even got shoes for Mary and Harry, saying that they wouldn’t be able to help with the work if they were laid up with frostbite. 

At the first hint of spring, Lou had little Harry in front of the team while he wrestled the plow along furrows too long left fallow.  In fact, that’s how Bill found them when he ambled across the field as though he’d spoken with them just this morning. 

“Harry if you can’t lead that nag in a straight line just turn her lose.  A wild horse would plow a straighter row than you two.” 

Harry looked back at his brother; the criticism from his father stung the little boy but his greater concern was the crimson color creeping up Lou’s neck.  Harry looked back to his father expecting him to direct them how to better turn the ground into a managed cropland. 

Bill took the last steps through the rough weeds.  He’d been faced with a choice of walking through freshly plowed ground or unplowed, weedy turf.  Neither choice presented an easy walk.  Now, he was slightly out of breath despite the slow pace he set.  He turned his questions to Lou.  “What made you think it was time to plow?  Signs ain’t right and I don’t guess we’ll raise a thing here.  You ought to be splitting fence rails instead of wasting your time out here.”

Lou was gripping the plow handle so tightly that his knuckles were turning white.  “Well Sir, I had to hitch the horse to plow the garden anyway.”

“Garden!  If you let that woman – or any woman – plan your days, you’ll never profit.”

Lou tried to take a deep breath and swallow his words but they threatened to gag him.  He opened his mouth and years of pent-up emotion fairly gushed out.  He began with a stream of foul language that made Harry look quickly around lest Mother should hear.  “You know what?  You make me sick always blathering about profit.  Sure you turn a profit, then you let your family fairly starve to death.  You leave in the dead of winter and never wonder whether we’ve survived or not.  Mother wants the garden plowed so she can maybe raise enough food to feed her kids.”

Lou only paused to take a breath but Bill took the opportunity to respond.  “You look fit enough after the winter.”

Lou’s eyes widened and seemed to bulge from his face, “No thanks to you.  Mother and Mary sat beside the stove the livelong winter for fear of laying the baby down in a house that's got more drafts than a big fireplace.  I don’t know where you’ve been but you might as well have stayed there.  We were doing just fine in Cliff Springs without you.  Now we’ve made it through the winter without you and me and Harry will get a crop in and get this family through the summer without you.”

Bill spit his chew of tobacco on the ground and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand he slowly turned toward the barn.  “Gonna’ take a look at my hogs.  Bet you’ve let them fall off considerable in the cold weather.”