Early February brought sunny days. The cold weather was not yet behind them for the year, but with the melting snows a stirring of green wisps showed on the sunny banks facing the creek as here and there a crocus lifted its face to the warmth.
“Time to turn the sod to make ready for planting,” Bigjim said to his son as they forked hay down from the haystack in the bottom land across the creek from the Houston home. “Think you can handle the hillside plow this year?”
Littlejim beamed and threw a great forkful of hay on top of Old Jerse, the cow. The brown and white head slowly and methodically shook off the hay and kept on chewing.
“Yes, sir. I think I can,” the boy answered. If his papa thought he could handle the big two-horse hillside plow for turning the sod on the garden plot, high up the steep side of the hill, then he surely must believe his son ready to take on a man’s duties.
“If you can handle the plowing, I’ll take time from the woods to do the harrowing. Maybe I can get Banjer to lay off the rows. Borrow some horses from Bob, mayhap we can get the crops in by Good Friday,” said Bigjim.
“I’ll do my best, Papa,” said Littlejim proudly. He wondered why the crops had to be in by Good Friday. Last year Good Friday was early in March. This year it would be late April, but all the people on the Creek who planted by the signs believed their crops must be planted no later than Good Friday. Papa’s voice interrupted his thoughts.
“Well, it ain’t as if you’re much of a man,” said his father, jumping down from the haystack and striding across the brown stubble of the meadow. Littlejim jumped down and ran to catch up with his father’s long legs. He fell into step. His father only walked faster. Littlejim stumbled trying to keep up with the tall man. The sun was sinking and the sky grew darker.
“What did you say, Papa?” asked Littlejim.
“I said it ain’t as if you’re much of a man,” Bigjim stopped and glared down at his son, his mouth a straight line beneath the mustache. Littlejim shrank and turned away. “Acting like a sickly calf at the butchering last week and all. But you’re about the best to be had on this farm right now. So I guess you’ll have to do.”
The man turned abruptly and walked away.
“Go on to the house,” he called over his shoulder.
Littlejim walked slowly toward the kitchen door. He could see Mama’s head through the window silhouetted against the lamplight. He began to run toward the light.
A horse was tied to the apple tree in the front yard. Cousin Tarp stepped down from the stirrups. He carried a bag slung over his shoulder. Nell and her friend Emma came running around from the side yard. She ran up to hug Cousin Tarp. He picked up both girls and carried them toward the house.
“Howdy, Littlejim,” he said. “You’re in a mighty big hurry. I thought Bigjim might like some tobaccer seedlings.” He set the girls on the ground and they ran up the front steps into the house. Cousin Tarp thrust the bag toward Littlejim.
“I’m sure he’d be pleased,” said the boy. “Mama will want to see you. Come on in.”
The door opened and Mama stood waiting with her arms outstretched.
“Tarp, you are a sight for sore eyes,” she said. “Do come in.”
“Howdy, Gertrude,” said Tarp. “I stopped by with some tobaccer seedlings for Bigjim. He still in the woods?”
“No, he was tending the stock with Jimmy. Where is your papa?” She turned to her son.
“Last I seen of him he was going toward the Bad Branch,” said Tarp. “Headed that way when I rode up. Don’t worry him. I’ll just leave these seedlings with you,” said Tarp.
“Won’t you sit a spell and have a cup of coffee?” asked Mama. “I just took a dried-apple pie out of the oven.”
“Neva’ll have supper on time as I get home. But, Lordy, Gertrude, you could tempt a man away from his supper with your apple pie. It is sure to be the best in the county.”
“Tarp Burleson! Words like that will get you two slices of pie,” said Mama, blushing. “And I’ve never seen you turn down pie since I was only a bit of a girl.”
Littlejim thought Tarp was mighty lucky to get to have his pie before supper. Mama would never allow any of the family to do that. He knew that Tarp was Mama’s favorite of the cousins from Bigjim’s family. They had been friends since they were children and walked to school together.
“Bigjim orta be mighty proud. Prettiest wife—well, maybe Neva’s as pretty—and the best cook for sure on the Creek Road. Lordy. Lordy.” The scrawny man took off his hat, placed it carefully on the hook by the door and washed his hands.
Mama poured the coffee and sliced a generous piece of pie for her guest. Tarp pulled his chair close to the table and began to eat as if he rarely saw food. Mama smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
“If I didn’t know Geneva,” said Mama, laughing, “I’d say you hadn’t tasted food in at least a week. Always you look like the seven years’ famine in Egypt. It is a thin man you are.”
“The Lord put good food on earth for man to eat and enjoy,” said Tarp between bites of Mama’s flaky piecrust. He took a great swallow of coffee and cleaned the last crumb from his plate.
Littlejim watched, but his mind was on something else.
“Could you show me how to make a tobacco bed, Cousin Tarp?” he asked at last.
“Mighty glad to show you, son,” said Tarp. “You going to make a farmer? I hear tell you orta be a scholar.”
“He will be scholar,” said Mama. “But he may want to be a farmer, too. What do you have in mind?”
“I thought I could start Papa’s tobacco bed for him. And we would not tell him until his tobacco was grown,” said Littlejim.
“Why would you do that?” asked Mama, looking at him intently.
“Well, Papa enjoys a chaw, and last year he didn’t have time to tend the tobacco, so it didn’t make. I thought to surprise him this year.”
Mama folded her arms across the front of her embroidered apron and smiled at Littlejim.
“And that is what we will do, my little love,” she said, kissing her son’s hair where it fell over his forehead.