It was the beginning of fall 1838 and the evenings were growing longer and more bitter. The wind's haunting moans signaled the coming winter as it echoed through the thick Tennessee pines. A chill ran down Marion's spine at their eerie sounds. They seemed to whisper a foreboding warning to her. Something seemed to be lurking in this unnatural wind. She shivered.
The DuVal cabin, nestled within this woodsy valley in Giles County, was usually protected from the harsher winds sweeping noisily over the high grounds. But this evening they rushed into the valley, invading Marion's very core with fear. Yet she brushed it aside as she glanced over the room and smiled warmly at the peacefulness around her.
A soft glow of lamplight shone from the cabin windows as twilight wrapped itself around the world. Marion's cooking and the warming fire in the huge fireplace had the house cozy, warm and smelling of delicious browned biscuits and fried deer steak.
Marion DuVal was a small Italian woman with dark hair and eyes that were so brown they looked black. She was somewhat plain and lacked physical beauty but she was what Daniel called a charming and strong woman. Her manner and willfulness captivated this six foot, bronzed skinned, native of Spain. They had met when they were only seven years old on the ship that was bringing them and their families to America. Daniel had liked her immediately.
They'd settled in the same area, grew up together as best friends and married when they were just fifteen years old. They had four children by the time they'd finally settled here in Giles County Tennessee. Daniel and Marion both fell in love with this bit of ground. It truly was their sanctuary among the wilds. The small cabin was situated in a large open clearing in these dense woodlands. A marching row of evenly spaced fence posts, like stiff wooden soldiers, paraded and disappeared into the thickets at the edge of the towering pines.
The DuVals had lived here four years now and had settled into their daily routines. Marion fussed over dinner with her dark hair twisted into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. A few unruly strands had broken lose and hung over a somberly-set face which revealed very little expression. Despite the severe look of authority this gave her, or her no nonsense attitude as she went about her work, Marion's stern exterior belied a loving and compassionate nature.
Eight year old John sat at his usual place at the end of the rough, hand-hewn table where he liked to read. He was fairly glued to his book as he absentmindedly twisted on a lock of his black, curly hair. These thick curls were a trademark of all the DuVal children.
Unlike the rest of the household he didn't seem to be concerned, even with the lighting of the lamp, that although it was past supper time, his poppa and older brother, Daniel Jr., weren't home from hunting yet. Marion knew Daniel didn't usually stay out past dark because black bears roamed around at night and were almost impossible to see. She walked over to the window and looked out as the bone chilling fear gripped at her again. "What's keeping them?" she muttered. By the lamp light streaming out the window she noticed a huge opossum combing through the autumn leaves, searching for a morsel to eat. He paused and stared back at her with his sharp, beady eyes shining in the dull light and then lumbered away. "I don't know why they had to go off hunting when we've got opossum meat right here in our own yard" she huffed. "Why they spare such as that, I'll never know. Opossums are pesky buggers at best, and that fat beady-eyed rascal would make a meal all by himself. Eleven year old Agnes giggled as she worked on her sampler. "I've noticed that fat one myself. He's the granddaddy of them all. I saw him in the musky-dine arbor gulping those things down like a boar hog. I ran him off but he was back by the time I got to the house. I could just picture him on a platter all surrounded with sweet potatoes. There's just something about opossum fat that makes sweet potatoes taste even better." Cora, who'd not yet turned two, sat in her highchair playing with her spool ring and laughing at her five year old brother, Nathan, as he made funny faces at her.
Marion, with her apron protecting her calico dress and hiding her expectant belly, returned to the stove and anxiously stirred the gravy in the cast iron skillet.
She shoved a lock of hair off her face as she took up the gravy and poured it into a bowl. Supper had been delayed long enough. "Well, Agnes, go ahead and set the table, looks like we'll have to eat tonight without those two. Supper won't wait any longer."
"Yes, ma'am." The young girl went about doing as she was told. Agnes was most always perfectly good and obedient. She tried hard to keep order and peace in the house. She was driven by the thought that everything must be pleasant and calm, especially when her Momma was pregnant.
"Move, John." Agnes nudged him as he sat there hardly noticing her. "John, I said move!" She shut the book he was reading.
"I can't see to read if I move," he protested, flipping the book open again and continuing to read.
"John, stop your fussing and move." Marion turned from the stove. "Agnes has to set the table. It's supper time."
"But Poppa and D.J. aren't home yet. Can't it wait?"
"No, it's coming up on bed time anyway. They can eat when they get in."
John snatched up his book and reluctantly put it away.
"Temper, John!" Agnes scolded.
"Oh, be quiet. I've put it away, aren't you satisfied?"
"Settle down, John." Marion placed the bowl of gravy on the table.
"Yes, ma'am...I'm sorry." John wanted badly to go to school but he knew his folks couldn't afford it. Marion had taught him and her other children to read, but John, a born scholar, was the only one who was enraptured by the written word. In this wondrous world of words he was the hero. Often he had been Daniel Boone out hunting bears or Paul Revere on his midnight ride yelling, "To arms, to arms, the British are coming!" or he was Captain John Smith being captured by the Indians and saved by the beautiful princess, Pocahontas.
Agnes fixed Cora's plate as Nathan fussed at her about his unbuttered biscuit. "I'll butter it for you in just a minute, Nathan. I'm fixing Cora May's plate right now." She patiently explained.
"Why am I always last? I don't even want it now!" He threw his biscuit at her. Nathan was the attention-getter of the family, cursed with an all or nothing attitude. Either he got what he wanted when he wanted it or else he wanted none of it. Agnes was kept busy trying to keep him from tormenting Marion.
"Come on, Nathan. Be good now. I've got your butter right here." Agnes retrieved the biscuit, buttered it, and laid it back on his plate.
"I'm not going to eat it!" He defiantly folded his arms over his chest.
"Stop begging him, Aggie. You're just spoiling the boy. If he doesn't want to eat it he doesn't have to. He can sit there pouting and watch us enjoy ours." Marion took her seat. "Now let's say the blessing." They all bowed their heads.
Nathan pouted through Marion's simple grace and as they commenced eating. "Nobody cares about me," he huffed as he snatched up his biscuit and rammed it in his mouth. "Why didn't I get any gravy?" His words came out muffled through his over-stuffed mouth.
"I didn't know you wanted any." Agnes dipped some onto his plate.
"Nobody ever asks me nothing, 'cause y'all don't care about me."
"You know we all love you." Marion humored him. "You're just acting up because your poppa isn't home, aren't you?"
"I don't like eating without Poppa and D.J. here." He whined through his nose.
"They'll be in soon. Would you like to wait and eat when they get here?"
"No, I'm hungry, I'll try to eat now."
John rolled his eyes and mumbled, "yeah, it's Agnes who spoils him."
"What was that, John?" Marion cut her eyes at him.
Loud footsteps on the porch boards announced that someone was outside, and in a gust of cold wind, Daniel and D.J entered the warm, fire-lit cabin. Marion jumped up. "Oh Daniel, where on earth have you two been? I've been worried sick, you never stay out this late! What happened?"
"We got caught up in a ruckus and it got dark before I knew it, but everything came out fine." Daniel hung his coat and hat. "Wish we had carried a lamp or something to see by. I swear I felt a bear breathing on my neck a few times." He shuddered.
"Oh, I could have taken care of any ol' black bear with this." D.J. patted his rifle before hanging it on its peg.
"Sure, I could have shot him too, but only if I could clearly see the booger!" Daniel chuckled. "We don't just shoot randomly at figments now, do we?"
"Naw, sir. I guess we don't." D.J. turned and walked to the wash basin.
"Y'all must be starved. I'm glad you're both safe and that y'all made it in while supper's still hot." Marion served them up a plate each. "What was it that kept you two out till these late hours?"
"Nothing but some slave everyone was looking for and they asked me and D.J. to help. They said they'd pay us to help them." Daniel sat at the head of the table. "They thought the slave had run away. It turned out that he'd gone down to the stream and fell asleep on the bank," he shook his head. "I tell you the truth, sometimes I wouldn't mind being a slave myself. There he was just sleeping away with his fishing pole and a bag of half eaten grub beside him."
"Daniel, you can't mean that." Marion frowned at him as she set his plate down. "The very idea that you'd even think such a thing!"
"Well Marion, wouldn't you like to have a doctor when you have the baby? All the Eastland's slave women do."
"Not at the price of my freedom, Mr. DuVal."
"What 'freedom' are the slaves giving up, if I may ask, Mrs. DuVal? The freedom to scrounge for food? The freedom to live in shacks, sod dwellings, or a cave dug out in the side of a hill? I ask you this, when is the last time any of us found enough 'freedom' to go fall asleep down by the stream?" He waved his fork in the air as he talked. A hint of his old Spanish accent flavored his thick southern drawl.
"Sure, we struggle, but we also have freedom to come and go as we please. If we did fall asleep down by the stream we wouldn't be hunted down like a culprit or an escaped prisoner! We have rights, rights that I enjoy and think all people should have! Wasn't that the whole idea behind this new country? Wasn't that why we all came here? Honestly, Daniel, you make it sound like a privilege to be owned and controlled," she huffed. "How much did they pay you anyway? How much was it worth to them for you to risk yours and D.J.'s lives coming home in the dark over such nonsense?"
"Not a lot." He slapped some coins onto the table. "Stingy old man Eastland ain't going to give a dime that he don't have to."
Marion knew that Daniel was still mad about the day he'd gone to ask Mr. Eastland for a job because he had heard that their last overseer had been fired. Word for word he'd told her what had happened when he'd walked up to the large plantation house, a negro woman had come out to meet him at the steps.
"What's your business here?" She snorted as she stared down at him.
"I came to ask Mr. Eastland about being his overseer. I hear he needs one."
"Master William done got another overseer. He don't need you, he don't need nobody now. So you can get on out of here," she snapped.
"Well I didn't know he already had somebody. I was just looking into it."
"You trash don't need to be lookin' into nothin' around here! So just take your business someplace else." She squinted her eyes and looked at him sharply, "The less I see of your kind the better. I know you people come around to look and see what you can steal. I'm warning you, you take anything from here, our dogs will hunt you down and rip you to pieces!"
Mr. Eastland came out. "What's the trouble out here, Hannah Mae? What's all the ruckus about?"
"This poor trash come up here saying he wants to be your overseer," the woman answered. "I told him you already got one and for him to go back where he come from but he won't leave. Um no, he's making all kinds of fuss! I know what he wants, he's seeing what all he can get!"
Mr. Eastland looked down at Daniel. "Go on away now and stop causing trouble around here." He shooed Daniel with his hand. "Like Hannah said, we have nothing for you. Go on now, scat!" Mr. Eastland cut his gaze sharply at Daniel, "And don't you even think about trying to steal anything from my place. I'm tired of trash like you coming around and taking what you want."
"I'm no thief!" Daniel's dark eyes were full of rage. "You have nothing I want except an honest day's pay for an honest day's work! I had no idea you already had an overseer, I was just asking, that's all. There's no cause for such a fuss and to look down your nose at me! I'm a man just like you are, and just as good too!"
"Humph, indeed!" Mr. Eastland twisted around on his black leather boot and loudly clomped back into the house.
"Get on outta here, you trash! Ain't you heard what Master William done said? You ain't no good, I sees it in your face. I know your kind!" She shook her broom at him. "Go on now! Get!"
Daniel turned and left that day without saying another word. Yet Marion knew that in his heart of hearts, he'd wanted to snatch that broom and beat them both within an inch of their pompous lives! "Thank God I'm not their overseer! I'd beat them all into next week! Me 'trash' when they act like pure heathen gods? As poor as I am, I know how to treat folks!" He'd ranted as he walked away. "Pompous bunch of Godless filth they are!"
Daniel was a very proud man and a strict enforcer of the family's moral standards. He put his family a cut above just plain old people or poor trash and to be talked to in such a way was almost more than he could bear. To turn and meekly walk away from such humiliation took everything he had in him and made him very bitter. This bitterness had begun to show in sour outbursts that Marion didn't like.
"I understand why you're angry, Daniel, but slavery isn't good for anyone but the plantation owners, you know that."
"Deep down I know you're right. It's not our fault and it's not the slaves' fault. Slavery's a blight on America. One that most American's don't like. It's just frustrating to me, that's all. It needs to be done away with so folks like us can earn a living too."
"Well, when I grow up I'm going to end slavery." John piped up.
"What are you gonna do, bookworm?" D.J. sneered. "You can't fight the slave owners when you're scared to even use a gun."
"Guns can't settle everything, you know? Sometimes it takes brains." John shot back.
"Everyone settle down now and let's finish our supper in peace. Slavery won't be ended tonight." Daniel scolded.
After breakfast the next morning, John sat at the end of the table reading, as usual, when Daniel walked by and thumped the back of his book. "Do you think you could part with that long enough to do your chores?"
"Yes, Poppa." John closed the book and laid it back on the shelf. He went down to the stream to gather the fish from the net. As he went he pretended he was Captain John Smith scouting out the new world for the first time. He watched all around him for Indians hiding in the bush and maybe he would even get a glimpse of the beautiful Indian Princess, Pocahontas.
The net was loaded with fish. John picked eight of the biggest and best then let the rest go free. After cleaning his catch, he took them in to be cooked for the noon meal.
"Oh, these are nice fat ones, John. None of us will go without plenty today!" Marion smiled in approval.
"He and D.J. are down checking the traps. You can go help them if you will."
John hurried along the way. Daniel and D.J. had already emptied three of the traps. There were two rabbits and a raccoon.
"Hey, Poppa. Momma said I should help you empty the traps."
"Well, I'd rather you take these up to the house since you don't know where I placed the traps. I don't want you stumbling upon one that hasn't gone off yet." Daniel threw him a gunny sack. John cringed as he picked up the dead animals and stuffed them inside. Daniel laughed. "Son, you are going to have to get over your squeamish ways. This is all a part of life. If they don't die, we do. A man has to do what must be done. You've got to toughen up, son."
"I know, Poppa, but do I have to like it?"
"No, I guess not." Daniel admitted. "Just so long as you do what you have to do." He smiled. "You're a good son. You know, it's time you learned to shoot a gun, I'm going to take you hunting with me soon."
"How soon?" John frowned. "Will I have to shoot animals?"
"Don't worry...it won't be today, just take those on home and be sure you tie the sack high on the porch."
Daniel Jr. walked up carrying two more rabbits and threw them on the ground in front of John. "Take these while you're at it." The lifeless animals hit the ground with a hollow thud; a shiver shot up John's spine as he picked them up with trembling hands.
Later Poppa would skin the animals, tan and stack their hides. He would sell the furs in town along with eggs, potatoes and corn. They would put the money up until winter shopping time.
They would also get permission to glean and pick the leftovers in the plantation cotton fields before they were plowed under. Going through the humiliation of having to, in a sense, beg tormented Poppa's proud nature. But Momma's forcefulness won out. "There's no need to have it plowed under when it can help us and the owners don't mind!" She would say. So off they'd go to glean in the fields. Momma would comb out the seeds and cord up yarn for thread. Leftovers were used to stuff the feather mattresses or as batting for quilts.
As the days passed, fall cleaning time came around. The pillows were opened and the feathers put out in the sun to air and fluff up. Sometimes there would be a tightly coiled wad which had to be taken apart. Marion told the children these were crowns. Feather crowns, she'd say, were caused by someone having a beautiful dream about Heaven or by someone's head pressing the pillow as they lay dying. Since no one had died they figured the feather crowns must have been caused by Heavenly dreams. John wondered if he'd had a heavenly dream and had just forgotten about it because sometimes he didn't remember what he had dreamed.
While everything was airing and sunning, the inside of the cabin had to be washed down. Floors, walls, beds and tables were scrubbed. The stove was blacked and windows cleaned. There wasn't a spot that wasn't thoroughly gone over before winter started. "There won't be a bedbug on the place now. I doubt there will be one within a mile of here with all this ferocious scrubbing." Daniel chuckled in his throaty manner.
This was John's favorite time of the year. The heat of summer had passed and the field labor was over. The trees had turned colors and from far away looked like flowering bouquets. The falling leaves drifted on the breeze and coated the valley with a thick colorful carpet that crunched under his steps as he gathered the wild apples and hauled them to the back porch.
John watched Daniel and D.J. as they skinned and cleaned the deer D.J. had shot that morning. Daniel cut and placed some of the deer meat in syrup cans, then nailed them to the porch rafters. "There, that'll keep the wild beasts from getting to it."
John really didn't care if the wild beasts did get to it. He'd had his fill of deer steak over his brief eight years and he was sick and tired of it. He'd never had a piece of beef in his entire life and chicken was for special occasions like the Fourth of July or Easter. Sometimes there would be a turkey if they were lucky.
Daniel had made a box over the rocks in the stream bed to hold things like butter and milk. It was like a spring house only it was a box. Before winter set in they'd pick the garden to sell in town and stock up for winter months. Potatoes were banked, apples dried, grapes and nuts gathered and wood cut and stacked. The fall garden was planted full of rutabagas, sweet potatoes, turnips, mustard, onion, cabbage and collards. Little care went into this garden. It fairly grew on its own, free of the weeds and bugs that the summer garden had to endure. By the time the cold set in, most everything was done, except for the occasional deer or other meat which could be hunted all year. Now they could settle in for winter knowing the hardest part was behind them. The day's work was done by early evening and supper was on the stove. It usually consisted of dear steak, biscuits and gravy or potatoes.
As the family sat around the roaring fire Daniel read Poor Richard's Almanac. Marion and Agnes worked on clothes for the new baby that was expected around the first of the year.
John was reading the adventures of John Smith, yet again, by the fire light. Daniel Jr. cleaned his rifle, his pride and joy, while Nathan watched every move he made in brotherly admiration. Cora slept peaceably in her trundle bed.
Suddenly there was a loud commotion on the back porch. Daniel threw down the almanac and jumped from his chair. "What in the world is going on out there?" He rushed toward the window. "Oh, sweet Lord above!" He shouted as he looked out.
"What's wrong?" Marion ran to Daniel.
"It's a blasted bear! He's getting the apples!"
John and the other children crowded at the window to see the bear as Daniel Jr. went to load his freshly cleaned gun. John watched as the huge black creature dumped another basket of apples onto the porch floor and began to devour their juicy sweetness. His grunts and the chomping of the apples sounded loud even in the cabin.
"What in the world is going on here?" Marion looked at Daniel. "Shouldn't the bears be hibernating now?"
"They're supposed to be, but this one obviously isn't."
Daniel Jr. rushed toward the back door with his loaded gun in hand.
"You're not going to shoot him, are you?" John shouted.
"That's good meat we're looking at out there, so yeah, I am. One less bear to worry about anyway. They'll rip you apart in a minute and not think a thing about it."
"Don't shoot it! It was just hungry. It hasn't done anything terribly wrong!" D.J. ignored John's plea as he pushed past him.
"Get out of the way and stop being such a tit baby!"
"Children, get away from the window." Marion herded them back to their places.
"Don't do it!" John shouted at his brother who kept stomping eagerly towards the cabin door. "He's not hurting anything!" John ran to block the door.
Marion pulled John back as Daniel Jr. pointed his rifle through the door and fired a shot into the bear.
John cried, "You shouldn't have done it! You shouldn't have! We have plenty of meat and food. It didn't hurt us to share with a hungry animal!"
"We need all we can get. That hide will bring a pretty penny too. You're acting like a baby--grow up!"
"You did good, son." Daniel patted Daniel Jr. on his shoulder. "And as for you, young man," Daniel glared at John, "you are going to have to learn the difference between reality and your dream worlds. The reality is we can use that bear to make life better for us. It's shameful the way you acted tonight!"
"Yeah, little tit baby!" Nathan stuck his tongue out at John.
"No need for you to chime in, Nathan! I can tend to him." Daniel turned back to John. "Do you understand what I'm saying to you?" John sniffled as he looked away from Daniel in contempt. "You look at me when I'm talking to you, boy! I believe it's been a while since you felt my strap on your backside, have you forgotten what it feels like? Do you need your memory refreshed?"
John meekly looked at his father. "No, sir, I don't."
"Then a change of attitude had better be displayed fairly quickly."
"Yes, sir, I'm sorry."
"That's better. But I'm going to give you a lesson about the real world and how to be a man. I've let you slide too long. You are going to learn how to hunt and how to use a gun."
"Daniel, he's not ready! You can't force him!"
"Marion, he's soft. You've coddled him far too long."
"He's just a boy." Marion blurted out. "But a boy has to grow up." She quickly corrected herself.
"Now all you young'uns get off to bed." Daniel ordered. "D.J. and I have to take care of the animal. Lord knows John isn't going to be of any help to us!"
John, upon hearing these cutting words from Daniel, bolted off to bed. He lay there listening to Nathan eagerly volunteering to lend a hand.
"Do I have to go to bed, Poppa? I'll help you!" Nathan begged.
"No, you're not big enough. It's your bedtime. Run along now."
"Son, I said get to bed! I don't want to have to say it again! What's wrong with you boys tonight? Can't you hear?"
"Yes, sir." Nathan dropped his head in disappointment and slouched off to the boys' room where John lay sniffling. "Why are you crying? You're stupid. If I was big like you I could hunt. It's not fair! I want to hunt and they won't let me!"
"Shut up! You're too little to even know what's going on."
"I know what's goin' on. You're a tit baby like D.J. says!"
"Just because I don't want to murder living things?"
"Because you want us to go hungry so you won't have to hunt and you don't want us to hunt either! You're stupid!" Nathan jabbed his elbow into John's ribs. "Move over and sniffle on your side of the bed, tit baby!"
"Don't you touch me again!" John pushed at Nathan as he flounced over in bed. While he lay there he felt Nathan's finger on his shoulder,
"Touch, touch," Nathan whispered.
John shrugged it off and went to sleep.