Chapter 1, A Penny a Pound
BLACK THUNDERHEADS spewed white lightning and a rumbling tirade across the field where Angus Whitaker kept watch over his cotton field, his hired pickers, and the weather. The cotton was a bumper crop this year, and his pickers were eager to make some money, but his fields had barely dried enough to start the harvest, and already another deluge was on its way. The brawny sharecropper glared at the sky in impotent fury.
“It ain’t fair, you bitch.” He sucked at the cud of mule tobacco in his left cheek and spat in frustration. The spittle landed on a fire ant mound, and the ants burst from their underground burrow in wild disorder. “Drown, you bastard pissants, you.” Angus stepped away from the raging insects and stole another glance at the roiling sky. He could rage all he wanted, it made no difference to the weather.
The next bolt crackled through the air, but the thunder sounded a bit farther away. Harvest season in the Delta was always a chancy business. A man couldn’t win against Mississippi weather—the best he could do was survive. A dollop of warm rain pelted him on the nose. Angus reckoned this skirmish a draw and turned his attention back to his crew.
They were a motley assortment, mostly settlement folk and offspring of local families, typical of farming communities in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Not much raising, little education, and of no specific breeding. Still, he reckoned he’d got the best of the lot, and no matter the color of their skin. Angus judged his pickers by the weight of their tar sacks.
Whitaker’s eldest son moved steadily among them. Clifford Lee was far from his best picker, but Angus believed having his boy in the crew spurred the paid workers to a better picking average. Besides, it was past time to put more responsibility for the farm on younger shoulders.
Today, Angus suspected Cliff had more than farming on his mind. His seventeenth birthday had passed, and being large and overdeveloped for his age, wild rushes of emotion gripped him in such a state of confusion he seemed blind to the fact rain was imminent. Right now, the boy seemed blind to everything but Joreen Anderson’s lush, swinging hips, about twenty feet ahead of him.
Angus hid a grudging smile. He’ll change, damn it, I know he will.
His gaze moved on to the Anderson sisters. Both girls plucked the soft white bolls and stuffed them expertly into the long, tar-bottomed sacks strapped across their shoulders. Both were good steady workers, but Kathy, who’d turned fourteen last month, still wanted to attend the settlement school. Joreen, at a ripe sixteen, just plain didn’t want to learn.
He felt a reluctant sympathy for the older girl. Picking cotton gained her nothing but scratched and sunburned hands. The money he paid her bought food for the younger kids at home. With thirteen children to help feed, Joreen wouldn’t see a penny of it. Why the hell, Angus wondered, did PeeTee Anderson make all them kids if he couldn’t feed and take care of them?
But in the end, it wasn’t his business. PeeTee had a wandering eye, a restless pecker, and likely had bastards scattered halfway across Sunflower County.
A sudden, sharp wind rippled over his crop, and a fine mist began to fall. Angus, his shoulders hunched, walked quickly to the cotton shed at the side of the field. Once there, he raised his arms and shouted for the pickers to come forward and weigh up.
Krane Edwards and his wife, Tincy, reached him first. Angus hooked their tar sacks to the hanging scales and carefully moved the scale pea forward. Ninety-nine pounds. Knocking off four pounds for the tar sacks left a net balance of ninety-five. Whittaker paid a penny a pound.
Angus pulled the worn tobacco sack containing his seed money from his hip pocket. “Seeing as how you had to quit early, I’d say that’s pretty good picking, Krane.”
“Me and Tincy, we’ll do better tomorrow.” Krane glanced nervously at the roiling sky. “We’ll get an early start tomorrow if the cotton ain’t too wet. We got to get it while we can.”
He counted out the money, and then counted it again into Krane’s hand. The Anderson girls came next. He weighed their sacks and handed the coins to Joreen as Kathy looked on. Angus was forty-seven, but he could not help but notice the full breasts swelling above the neckline of Joreen’s blouse.
“See you girls tomorrow, eh?”
“If it don’t rain too much, Mr. Angus.” Joreen’s pink, sensuous lips broke into an impish grin.
His gaze dropped to Joreen’s hips as the two barefoot girls sauntered down the turn row toward the Anderson house.
Damn if that don’t look like two hog shoats in a tater sack. Angus tucked the seed money into his pocket and tried to ignore the throbbing in his groin. Perhaps all his vigor was not yet gone, and what had lain dormant for weeks might yet rise, yearning for the heat of passion. But the sensation slowly faded. Angus shivered and looked away.
The remaining pickers were paid as fast as Angus could manipulate his scale, his arithmetic, and his seed money. Cliff came last, but Angus didn’t bother to weigh his son’s sack. It always helped to have a little overage in the bale.
A distant movement caught his eye, and Angus stared down the turn row. He could just make out the thin form of his second son, Towanna, hurrying home from school. The boy’s lean body hunched over his school books, and he slipped and almost fell.
Angus frowned. Towanna’s books belonged to the county, and Angus was liable if they were damaged. Anything owed would come out of his seed money. Towanna had turned a scrawny fifteen in June. It was past time to pull him out of Miss Rosa’s one-room schoolhouse and set him to work the fields next to Cliff. The boy had almost finished eighth grade. That ought to be enough.
Looking closely at his figuring, Angus calculated he had enough for a full bale that could be ginned, come morning. The sale would provide the cash to hire another bale picked and still set some aside for his land fund. He tucked his seed money away and headed for the house. Behind him, Cliff tossed his sack into the cotton shed. The rain fell harder, and whips of lightning licked the distant trees. Knowing his boy, Angus yelled for Cliff to close and latch the shed door.
With his last burst of energy, Angus leaped onto the front porch of the faded, white tenant’s house that served as the Whitaker family home. He took a moment to catch his breath then stooped to untie his shoes, forcing them off, toe to heel, flexing his bare feet against the smooth, worn boards.
“That you Angus?” called his wife, Klara, from inside the house.
“Yep. We made the first bale.” Some of the tension eased out of him with that statement. “Hate to see it rain, though.”
Slipping through the screened door, Klara settled herself into the porch’s cane-bottom chair. Angus sat on the edge of the porch, swinging his bare feet through the streams of warm water pouring off the weathered tin roof.
“Towanna get home before it started pouring?”
“Yes, he’s in the kitchen doing his homework.” Klara’s pride in Towanna was evident in her voice.
“He’d be a damn sight better off if he cared more about learning to farm,” Angus told her. “That much book learning ain’t never gonna do him no good. He can read and cipher well enough.” Hell, the boy can read and cipher better’n me.
He could feel Klara’s frown against the back of his head. She believed him unjust in his attitude about Towanna’s hunger for an education, proud her boy wanted to read and write and figure more than simple math. Miss Rosa had even mentioned college, and a scholarship, as a possibility.
Angus knew better. Scholarships only went to those that didn’t need ‘em. A sharecropper’s boy from the Delta stood no chance, no matter how deserving.
Staring at the rain puddles under his feet, Angus considered the prospects of his two sons. Towanna was slender and “delicate,” unfit for heavy fieldwork. Cliff was far more inclined to be manly. Angus still hoped both his boys had inherited his drive to work hard and get ahead, to be more than poor rental farmers, but sometimes he feared his ambitions for them would never be realized.
There was nothing to do now but farm. What with little learning and being tied down to a family—hell, I’m doing damn good to be alive.
Eighteen years he and Klara had been married. They started out with big ideas, how they would earn their stake, become landowners. They moved their dreams and hopes into this house, but the years rolled by, and their dreams faded like the whitewash on the weather-beaten slat siding.
Tucker, who owned and leased over 900 acres of prime cotton land in Sunflower Country, had given them their choice of tenant houses. The one Klara settled on boasted three rooms, a kitchen with a woodburning stove and hand pump, a small bedroom off the side of the kitchen, and a generous front room that could also serve as a bedroom as the family grew.
The house sat about forty feet back from the turn row on a generous half-acre. It included a good well, an outhouse near the back door, and a barn large enough to house their two mules, a milk cow, some chickens, and the work wagon.
Tucker made no objection when Angus had added a shed behind the house with a rooftop tank for wash water, or the cotton shed next to the field across the turn row. Tucker paid for the wood, while he supplied the labor. Angus had no qualms about improving another man’s property. Someday they would own this house and the two hundred acres that came with it.
Their second year, Klara had added the garden. Cliff had been born that same year, and Towanna two years later. But Klara never seemed to regain her health after the second baby. Repeated miscarriages sapped her strength, and Angus struggled to keep everything going by himself.
Klara seemed to have recovered some these last two years, but at forty-seven, Angus mostly came home from the fields too exhausted to “piddle.” Lately, he’d taken to sleeping on a pallet on the floor to avoid the restless demands of his wife. Now he wondered–did age have anything to do with his lack of vigor?
“Cliff needs to hurry,” Klara murmured. “He’s just poking along.”
Angus looked across the turn row. He knew his oldest son was well-built, but Cliff’s rain-soaked, faded blue shirt and overalls revealed every muscle. Angus sighed. He couldn’t help but envy Cliff’s strong young body, the taut, flat belly, the muscular arms, and broad shoulders.
“Take your tail ‘round to the back and shuck them wet clothes,” he bellowed. “You’ll catch your death, and we got no time for sickness.”
Clifford paused, then sprinted around to the rear of the house and the shed Angus had built for summer bathing. It contained a bench, a homemade stove, a stack of towels, and a number three washtub. The tank on the roof captured rain to provide wash water. He and Towanna took turns keeping it full when the rain didn’t oblige.
Pulling off his rain-soaked coveralls, Cliff shed his shirt and dried off. Standing in the damp warmth of the room, he took stock of the recent changes to his body. The black hair under his arms and on his chest was expected, for he’d seen his pa naked from the waist up many times. Now a rich, black crop of it grew on his belly and down around his groin. He fondled himself, and his pecker promptly rose to attention.
Cliff grinned, then grabbed a towel, wrapped it around his waist, and dashed for the back door. When he entered the kitchen, he found Towanna seated at the table.
“Hey, Wanna, whatcha doing?”
“Homework for tomorrow’s lessons.”
“You keep your head in them books too much,” Cliff chided, making his way to the small room he and Towanna shared.
Towanna resented Cliff’s scoffing remark, but when he turned to watch him disappear into their room, he couldn’t help but notice the older boy’s swagger. It made him uncomfortable—not with Cliff, but with himself. His thin, pale body was lean and bare as a slug. His only redeeming qualities were an agile mind and a passion for learning everything Miss Rosa, the teacher at the county settlement school, had to offer.
Klara entered the kitchen and went to the stove to check the evening meal.
“Best clear away your books, Towanna. Help me get supper on the table.”
“Alright, Ma.” Towanna stacked his books and set them carefully against the kitchen wall like some fragile, precious treasure. He quickly placed glasses, plates, and utensils on the table. His ma smiled, as always, appreciating his help.
Klara placed bowls of garden-grown vegetables, beans cooked with salted bacon, and a platter of cornbread on the table. Moments later, Angus and Cliff came in and took their seats. Except for the short “Grace” Angus offered, the meal was consumed in silence.
Angus filled his belly and brooded over the oddity that was his youngest son. Towanna was a fine-looking boy, even better looking than Cliff, but he was thin and scrawny and looked about twelve, instead of fifteen. He never sopped his plate as Angus did, and never came to the table bare-chested. Angus glanced at Cliff, who wolfed down his food, clad only in a pair of worn jeans.
Towanna showed little interest in the fields and balked at plowing with the mule team. Angus doubted if the boy even knew which end of a mule to put the bridle on. And Towanna was too damn close to his mother. She keeps coddling him, soon he’ll have to squat to pee.
Still, Angus struggled to be fair. Klara had been sickly these past ten years. Four miscarriages had sapped her strength, and dust and pollen made it harder for her to breathe. Towanna needed to help around the house in those times. Each time Angus brooded on the boy’s peculiarities, he had dismissed them, thinking Towanna would outgrow them as he matured. Except he hadn’t.
Angus finally scraped back his chair and padded barefoot to the front porch. There he sat, letting his feet dangle over the edge. The rain had eased to a drizzle, and dusk blanketed the moist cotton fields. He took out a stingy portion of mule tobacco and tucked it into his mouth.
Cliff left the kitchen through the back door, making his way to the small barn behind the house, where the few farm animals they owned waited patiently for their evening feed. He fed the two mules and the cow and put out cracked corn for the chickens. He filched three eggs from the hen house nests and carried them inside.
“Just three berries today, Ma.” Cliff handed the eggs to Klara. His chores done, he headed for the small room next to the kitchen he shared with Towanna.
Klara put the eggs into the brown wicker basket on the sideboard and sighed. Not enough for fried eggs for breakfast. They’d have to eat grits again, with the last of tonight’s beans. She walked through the front room to the porch, where Angus chewed his tobacco.
Towanna was left to finish up in the kitchen. He washed the plates and pans and dried and put them away. He wiped the table clean and emptied the dirty wash water. At last, he placed his books back on the table, opened his algebra book, and turned to the day’s lesson.
The equations were hard. If only he had someone at home who could help, but no one else in the Whitaker house understood the arcane nature of algebra. That lack had kept him after school for a few precious minutes of Miss Rosa’s tutelage. He barely made it home before the rain fell, hunched over the books that were his lifeline to a profession, or at least a decent job—anything to escape the grueling poverty of a sharecropper’s life.