Mama’s basket sat on the front porch filled to the brim with fried chicken, potato salad, and fried apple pies. A wild-strawberry cake hid under a dishpan. Alongside the basket was one black iron pot of green beans and ham with new potatoes fresh from the garden and another filled with sweet yellow kernels of the summer’s first “ros’ nears.” A smaller basket of ripe tomatoes and cucumbers for slicing sat nearby, and a frosty brown crock held lemonade, sweetened with honey.
Everything was ready for the July Fourth celebration in the meadow on top of the mountain called the Grassy Ridge Bald. July Fourth was the one celebration Bigjim firmly believed in. Most years he won the men’s wrestling contest, the horseshoe pitching, and the footrace. The rest of the year he didn’t believe in celebrating, but come July Fourth, Bigjim was, as he said, raring to go.
“Littlejim,” said Nell, struggling to load the basket into the wagon. “Help me with the big basket. Mama says not to let the potato salad turn over.” But Littlejim was practicing his throwing arm for the horseshoe-pitching contest.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” her brother called. “As soon as I finish.”
“Mama says to come right now,” said Nell. “She wants to get there in time for the preaching and the speeches.” Nell left the basket to come over to whisper in her brother’s ear. “Are you going to read your essay? Does Papa know?”
“Yes, I’m going to read my essay, but Papa doesn’t know anything about it.”
“Do you think he’ll be mad?” asked Nell.
“Mr. Osk thinks he will be proud of me,” said Littlejim.
“Did you win?” she asked.
“I don’t know if I won or not. I have looked every week in Papa’s Star. My essay hasn’t been printed, but I haven’t seen another.”
“I hope you do,” she added. “I don’t want you to get a whipping tonight.”
Littlejim was frightened that Bigjim would disapprove of his reading the essay, but he wanted to appear brave and manly for his little sister. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Mr. Osk says everything will be all right. Help me with these horseshoes.”
Nell helped him gather the horseshoes, carefully selected for balance from Bigjim’s tack room in the barn. Littlejim tied them with a short rope and dropped them into the corner of the box wagon. Scott and Swain stamped their feet, eager to be on their way.
“What do you want to load first?” Littlejim asked his sister.
“Here it is,” Nell answered. “By the wagon.”
The sun was getting hot as Mama came through the front door with the fanlight over it and came down the steps. She was dressed in her Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, a flowered dress of lawn with a fresh white collar and cuffs. Her skirt was covered with a starched white apron. She carried Baby May, who chewed on a sugarbabe made of a square of clean cloth tied tightly around a lump of brown sugar.
“May, don’t drop that on your dress,” said Nell, as she searched her pockets for a clean handkerchief to wipe her sister’s chin. “Give her to me, Mama. I’ll take care of her.”
Bigjim came around the side of the house from the field in back. He had dressed up for the occasion. He wore his best brown pants held up with new suspenders and stuffed into his high logging boots. His starched white collar held his chin high in the air, so his brown beard jutted out in front of him.
“Where his beard leads him, Papa will follow,” sang Nell under her breath, using the melody of the hymn, “Where He leads me, I will follow.”
But Littlejim heard. “Better not let Papa hear you funning him!” whispered her brother. Nell knew better than to let Papa hear her making a funny song from the hymn he liked to sing when he went to church on a rare Sunday.
But Bigjim had stopped at the edge of the porch. Littlejim looked up into eyes that flashed like lightning. His heart almost stopped from fear. The tall man reached out to grab Littlejim’s arm.
“I’ve just been out to the garden. What do you mean, growing tobaccer behind my back? I found your secret place, boy, and now I know you’re a-smoking and achewing behind my back!” Bigjim spat the words at his son.
“But, Papa . . .” Mama moved quickly to stand between father and son. She raised her arms as if to ward off blows. Bigjim took a step back but continued to hold Littlejim’s arm.
“I don’t want to hear none of your lip, you no-account boy! What else you been doing behind my back?” A voice interrupted him.
“Jim, he was growing that tobaccer for you. I gave him the plants. Now let that boy go!” Cousin Tarp walked up the hill and into the yard. He walked slowly over to Littlejim and removed Bigjim’s hand from the boy’s arm. Mama stepped back.
“Jim, you never did learn to think before you spoke, or acted, for that matter,” said Tarp. “This boy’s planning for you to have your chaw come winter. I don’t think that’s cause for striking him, now, do you?”
Bigjim did not respond. He turned and disappeared into the woodshed. The lump in Littlejim’s throat stayed until Mama quickly said, “The singing’s begun already. Load this food. Be on our way, we’d best be.”
Finally, the wagon was loaded. Littlejim lifted Nell to sit on the back beside the food baskets. Then he swung himself up beside her. His legs, long for their twelve years, dangled beside Nell’s short ones. His dusty bare feet almost touched the green grass of the front yard. Nell’s bare toes were still clean from her Saturday bath.
Littlejim turned his head away to stare at the roof of the springhouse down the hill so his little sister could not see the tears in his eyes. Nell moved closer to her brother. She patted his arm.
“I’m sorry Papa is so mean to you, Littlejim,” she whispered.
“Seems like I can’t do anything to suit him. What’s the use in trying?” he whispered, working hard to squeeze the words past the lump in his throat.
“Well, I love you, and Mama loves you, and Cousin Tarp and Uncle Bob. Mr. Osk likes you best of all because you are so smart. We all love you. Please don’t be sad,” said his sister. “It’s July Fourth and that’s a happy day.” She smiled and handed her brother a clean handkerchief from her apron pocket.
Littlejim blew his nose and continued to stare at the springhouse roof. “Much obliged,” he said.
Mama, Baby May, and Cousin Tarp sat on the seat at the front of the wagon. As Cousin Tarp giddiupped the horses, Bigjim walked back into the yard. Cousin Tarp handed the reins to him and moved in silence to the back of the wagon to sit between Littlejim and Nell. He threw an arm around Littlejim and one around Nell. He gave their shoulders a squeeze. Scott and Swain stepped off in unison. Littlejim grabbed the side of the wagon with one hand as the wagon moved forward.
“We’re off to the all-day singing and dinner on the ground!” shouted Cousin Tarp.
The horses made their way up the mountain. As the steep climb began, they passed the Freewill Church. As they rounded the bend of the road, Littlejim could see the cemetery. Although the flowers had begun to fade, the graves were still a blaze of color. The gray tombstones stood guard over baskets and earthenware jugs of flowers specially grown in family gardens for Decoration Day— homecoming for all the kith and kin of the church. Some of the oblong graves were entirely covered with flowers arranged in a design on the grass. He could see some of the crepe paper flowers that he, Mama, and Nell had made and placed on the graves of near kin on Decoration Day.
Littlejim liked the family gathering of Decoration Day, but it was a solemn occasion with much visiting on the part of the grownups. He liked the July Fourth celebration better. On Decoration Day, he and all the others his age had to sit quietly through sermons and hymn singing, but at July Fourth, there were games and competitions. He could hardly wait to get to the top of the Grassy Ridge Bald where the celebration would be held.
As the horses climbed the steep road, Littlejim checked the back pocket of his pants to be sure the tablet pages where he had written his essay were safely tucked away there. As he touched the papers, he began to feel better.
“Surely Papa will like my speech and when he hears it, then he will be proud of me,” he thought. But with Papa, you never knew.