Volume 29, Number 1


Melvin Litton

Faris leads Jack through the pasture gate along the railroad right-of-way, then remounts and rides west. A broad swath of ground lays either side of the tracks good for hunting and trapping with plenty of cover from plum thickets and clusters of sunflowers, iron weeds and thistles, all dry and brittle in the wind. Occasionally a thistle breaks free and bounds to the north fence, the wind so strong that rabbits couch unwary of the hunter, providing an easy target from his high vantage. Jack, accustomed to rifle shots, merely pricks an ear and holds steady and Faris soon has three rabbits bagged in a gunny sack. Done shooting he packs his .22 in a homemade scabbard twined to the saddle.

That evening after skinning the rabbits, after brushing Jack and doing the milking and other chores, Faris shares a quiet supper with his parents. Ada has pan-fried two of the rabbits, served with mashed potatoes, gravy and biscuits, the third is left to steep on the stove. Nothing much is said beyond the essential, Brigham often quiets on Sunday eve as if storing up to bluster at work come Monday morning.

Once the dishes are cleared away Faris chances bringing his history book to the table to read by the only decent lamp in the house. There’s a work lantern on the porch for use outside at night, otherwise the rooms remain dark to every corner. Brigham and Ada both frown on books, have no use for any but the Bible. Still they say nothing and let him read. Ada washes the dishes while Brigham sits in his rocker, tending the stove and occasionally dropping his hand to pet the old yellow cat curled on a rag rug. By and by Brigham checks his pocket watch; he’s heard pages turn every few minutes for the past half hour. He sits up in wonder how anyone can read so long.

“What words you read there, boy? What say they?”

“It’s Abe Lincoln’s words, Dad. From his First Annual Message, December 3rd, 1861. He says here towards the end something you might like…”

“Does he, now…,” Brigham leans forth in deeper wonder, even he knows of Lincoln, all but a holy man to most eyes. “What’s it he say?”

“He says, ‘It is assumed that whoever is a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.…’ But Lincoln says such is groundless and false, ‘for there is no such thing as a free man fixed for life in the condition of hired labor.…’ Then further on he says this, ‘Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.…’ You see, I think he’s talking about us.”

“Why, could be he is…,” Brigham nods, suddenly awakened as if Lincoln has spoken directly to him. “Without labor there’d be no railroad, no timber for the ties, no coal to burn or haul. And it takes labor to build a wall or bring in a harvest, it does. But with wages scare ’n low as they is, a man can’t build capital by labor alone. No, he can build up callouses ‘n break his back, but he can’t build no capital. It takes a prospect to make money. Always takes a prospect, remember that.”

“Colley has a prospect for me.”

“Oh? What might that be?”

“He says … next summer he could tutor me ’n help me get in a college.”

“College? What? You hear that, woman?” he scoffs. “If Colley Rose thinks you can do college his hair is curled plum to the clouds. College is for the rich, Faris, now even the rich is poor. ‘They that was full hire themselves out for bread.…’ That’s from the Good Book, ain’t that so, Ada?” he asserts in glance to her.

“That it is, the book of Samuel. ‘Talk no more so proudly,’” she quotes, softly noting her son’s dejection. “‘The bow of the mighty is broken.…’”

“The God’s truth. Why, there’s college men as work on the VCCC projects north, has been lie-yers ‘n such. There’s college men as work with me on the courthouse. Here I am goin’ on sixty ‘n can outwork any two of them. No boy, college is a fool notion ya get readin’ books. Save yer eyes for shootin’ that rifle or sightin’ a prospect. A man who can grip hard labor in his two hands don’t need books or college to pull hisself up. ‘The Lord raises the poor out of the dirt ’n sets ’em among princes…’ It’s all in the Bible, one book worth readin’. Henry Ford weren’t no college man, nor were the Wright boys what first flew. A man knows how to work, all he needs is a prospect.…”

Faris closes his book, knows there’ll be no more reading tonight. Even Ada lays her dishtowel aside. A fine speech ye be makin’ Brigham, let’s see how you finish.…

“My first dead man I seen was my Pa shot face down by the tracks. I’s twelve years old, ’n I did whimper like a pup. But only a brief spell then I stiffened. Eldest of five sons I’s from that day the breadwinner. Saw all doors closed to me, even the light ’a day. Took my Pa’s place down in the mines, in those coal-black caves where the negro ’n white man is colored the same. Not but a little brass lamp with a tiny carbide flame to light the way. No, no prospects, none. The company store took ever’ penny I earned, still I kept us in bread ’n beans. Then one day, three years on, my Ma sent word by my foreman that I’s to come home quick. ‘Urgent word,’ he said, ‘do as you will.’ My shift not half done I came as called by her, certain a beloved brother was dead or dyin’. No more did I reach our door than I hear the mine explode ‘n black smoke rolled up out ’a there. My Ma had the gift of sight, had she not…?” Again he looks to Ada and she gives a solemn nod. “What she’d seen in her mind’s eye then happened. Forty men died that day in the explosion. No, there lay no prospect for me, not in the mines.

“I went straight that day to the railroad. Walked five miles ‘n hired on as a water boy. Fifteen years old ‘n it was less money, but in a year I’s the top spike driver on the track crew. It tripled my pay in the mines ‘n our family had meat on the table. In another year I stepped up to the train itself, feedin’ coal to the firebox. That’s when I met Gideon Conroy, the best man I ever know’d. He taught me to engineer, soon had me readin’ the gauges, when to pull the throttle, when to brake, when to blow the whistle. By nineteen, when I wed yer Ma, I’s assistant engineer. And had prospects of makin’ chief engineer ‘fore age twenty-five. But one black night it all ended. February the 14th of ’03, runnin’ down a high curve off the Cumberland Plateau, haulin’ too much coal to hold our speed, we derailed. By grace of God I’s throw’d clear, but Gideon got pinned in a twist of steel by the fire hole. I seen him try to pull free, but he was gripped as by Lucifer’s claw. The flames spread up so fast they swallowed even his screams. Till by dawn there was not a crisp of him in the smoke ‘n ruin. Gideon was next a father to me ‘n he did not deserve that hellfire. But I dared not ask the Lord why. Again, I did whimper…whimpered like a kicked pup through that day and some that followed. To engineer had been my joy, but held no prospect thereafter.…”

Brigham stares through the isinglass to the stove fire and the memory, watching it play from flame to ash, then breaks his gaze and turns to Faris.

“So … we moved west, yer Ma ’n I ’n little Hannah, our newborn. In prospect of land we come to Kansas. But what land had been free had already been taken. All sewed up by prior takers. The price was too dear to buy, even worse in the war years. Without money you can own no land no mind how hard you work.

“’Course the war, the Great War, made prospects for some, quite a few made big money, them as already had it. Bet it made a millionaire for each thousand boys dead. As you say you heard Henry Wales tell, war reaps men like a harvest. But listen, from the day the Great War ended, from this very day in 1918 for six months on a million folks died of the influenza right here in these United States. Young men ’n women healthy one day struck dead the next. It weren’t so bad hereabouts, but yer Ma ’n I both lost kin back in Kentucky ’n Tennessee. No, there’s not only War on his red horse, there’s famine ’n plague. And there’s always the Pale Rider.

“Men die ever’ day workin’ mines, cuttin’ timber, blastin’ tunnels. The Moffet Tunnel I worked chewed up 28 men. I seen six die in one day with my own eyes. We’d but set off a blast ’n I thought it were an echo. But a second blast come a hundred yards on, a misfire that caught men before they cleared. We heard screams ’n shouts and afore we run there they pulled several free. But the rest, those six we dug out had done kicked their last in the dust ‘n rubble. Their eyes stared off to wherever their souls went. An awful thing to witness, a poor man alive one minute then starin’ dead. But no, I did not whimper no more.

“The last time I did whimper was the day you was born ’n I laid yer brother Joel in the ground, a little blond boy child what barely filled my two palms.…” He holds out his hands and says, “And there I did knell down ’n whimper like a pup. Like with my Pa ’n Gideon, each time I felt myself empty out to nothin’ and I did whimper like a pup.…”

As he whimpers now, staring to his empty hands with the stove fire reflecting beyond and still sees the baby boy wrapped neatly in a kitchen towel as if awaiting the Stork to fly him home to heaven. But no, it was black wings of shoveled earth that bore him underground. Ada lays a hand to his shoulder, and he reaches back and covers hers. Faris who has rarely witnessed a tender moment pass between his parents turns away and retreats up the stairs. Only Ada speaks, and only to herself.

Where be yer prospects, Brigham, when ye have so little faith ‘n less charity? With you it is all hope … prospect ‘n hope. But then betimes I do love thee still. When you do not boast but speak true. Tonight, Brigham, ye speak true.…