Sharman Burson Ramsey
Biddie woke suddenly in the chill of the November morning. Something was wrong. Her feet were cold. The sheets on Walter's side of the bed were unrumpled, and her feet were cold. Her heart lurched. That could only mean one thing... he had not come home last night. Which meant he had been drinking. And when he crank...
Biddie climbed quickly from the bed and dressed. She hurried to the kitchen and turned up the gas heat so that the kitchen would be warming while she did the chores before she roused he girls to get dressed for Sunday School.
It was four o-clock in the morning, but it would take her that long to feed and milk the cows and slop the hogs and feed the chickens. If Walter would only...but he wouldn't and it was un-Christian of her to feel the resentment she felt on Sunday morning. So she swallowed the bitter bile that rose in her throat, and threw on the threadbare work coat from the nail behind the door.
The cow nuzzled Biddie, her sweet warm breath calming her as she sat on the stool and began the rhythmic pulling on Boss's teats. She listened to the steady stream in the tin bucket as her mind drifted to the happiness she would see in her oldest daughter's eyes when she awoke and saw the dress Biddie had finished last night after they had gone to bed. The rhythm slowed and Biddie's head nodded resting on Boss's soft side. Boss mooed.
Biddie jerked awake. "All right, now, Boss. Good, girl." She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand and Boss turned back to the sweet hay in the manger. Boss had been a gift from Walter's father, a welcome gift, to Biddie, another cause of resentment for Walter.
"The old skinflint," Walter complained. "He could give me the money instead of trying to keep control over how I live my life. And you're just stupid enough to be grateful for a big dumb animal you've got to get up before dawn to feed and milk." Then he stalked away to be gone for a couple of days.
Biddie's tears of relief were thanks enough for her father-in-law. She used the milk to make cheese and buttermilk and welcomed customers from town who brought their own jugs for the fresh milk Boss provided. Sometimes Boss's milk and cheese with the light fluffy biscuits that Biddie made, were all the girls had to eat. The money Biddie saved in the sugar bowl had a habit of disappearing on Saturday night, so she held some back and hid it in crockery tucked away in the wall of the well.
Walter's father had brought some slop the night before for Biddie's pig, peanut vines from the fields and leftovers from his own table. Biddie wondered how he knew Walter would not be home. Her father-in-law never appeared when Walter was there, and he never came empty-handed.
Biddie lifted her skirts as she stepped through the mud left from the drenching rain the night before. As she reached the pen where Priss, her fine prize pig, was kept she fell to her knees in the slime beside the rail fence, saving herself only by grabbing hold of the rails. Her coat caught on a protruding nail and she heard it rip Biddie clucked to herself and forced herself to focus on the her girl's surprise when she gave her the gift later this morning. A smile brightened her chapped face.
"Ain't no bigger than a biddy" her father had said when he first laid eyes on her. She hadn't grown much more than a little biddy even as a woman so toting the heavy pails of slop out to Priss was a challenge. But she wanted to get the chores done so she could get the little ones on to church as soon as possible. There'd be heat there.
"Mornin', Priss," Biddie said, as she hoisted the pail above the board and poured the slop into the pen. "You're looking fine this mornin'. I reckon this is yore kind of weather, ain't it?" Priss grunted in reply and wallowed deeper in the muck before staggering to her feet to inspect the slop.
Biddie slipped and stumbled her way back to the house, looking over her shoulder in the breaking dawn, half expecting Walter to appear from the shadows.
Walter had been so handsome when she met him at the church social in his uniform, home from France and the Big War. He'd always been a scoundrel, but everyone said being a soldier would give him the discipline his father hadn't seemed to have been able to, though not for want of trying. He convinced her to elope with him in the romantic light of a June moon with the scent of wisteria in the air. No one who knew Biddie could ever accuse her of being impulsive, but the emotions she felt when she looked at him clouded her rationality--and Biddie made the only impulsive decision she had ever made. And got three beautiful little girls out of it, she reminded herself, as she rubbed her cracked and bleeding, hard worked hands.
The sun was creeping higher in the sky. Bright pink sunrise. The rain yesterday washed the sky of all its clouds. Ought to be a pretty day, she thought smiling at the thought of the surprise she had for Margaret, her oldest and the one she worried about the most. Little eight year old girls ought to smile more. But she knew Margaret worried the most...about her.
She had to hurry to get the girls dressed. Biddie opened the door of the bedroom and stood in the dark room with only the gas light of the hall shedding its light on the sleeping children. The wind blew between the cracks in the wood frame house and made the gas light flicker with eerie shadows. She shivered and pulled the shawl she had grabbed when she removed the coat tighter around her narrow shoulders. She looked at her three little girls lying under layers of quilts that she had made from her wedding dress and their plenty worn baby clothes cuddled like spoons to keep warm. Three little blond cherubs who had to be hustled from their beds before their father returned home.
"Get up,children. Hurry, quickly so you won't freeze between here and the kitchen. Margaret, help Susan with her buttons. Sally don't forget your teeth this morning!" Biddie's matter-of-fact voice masked her excitement and Margaret did not disappoint her. The girl squealed with delight at the bright red corduroy dress lying across the bed at her feet. The red dress was just like the blue one which Clara Fitzgerald had worn last Sunday and Margaret had described down to the feathered embroidery to her mother; although she had never dreamed of owning one so pretty.
Biddie had hidden some of the money in the tool shed which she had gotten from picking up pecans last fall; a place Walter would not likely to stumble upon. She'd known she would buy it when she ran her red rough hands across the soft nap of the red corduroy and remembered the wistfulness in Margaret's eyes. Margaret's shining eyes made lying to Walter worthwhile. She'd pray about that this morning.
Biddie quickly kneaded the biscuit dough in the wooden dough bowl and rolled out the biscuits. Biscuits and syrup would be breakfast. The chicken eggs had to pay the general store.
The children came in with scrubbed faces.
Margaret preened. "Am I as pretty as Clara Fitzgerald, Mama?"
"Prettier, sweet. You look beautiful."
Margaret turned the milk bucket over and stepped up to peer at herself in the glass in the back door.
"Eat quickly now. We're going to have to leave soon to get to church. I want to practice the hymns on the piano before services." The church paid Biddie when she played. And they understood when she couldn't.
The girls cleared the table while Biddie changed clothes. She watched them proudly. Sally couldn't even reach the sink, but she scurried around helping as best she could, while Margaret washed and Susan dried.
They layered their on their sweaters and coats and then set out to walk to church. Biddie kept looking for Walter. She tried not to be obvious, but Margaret sensed her anxiety and held her mother's hand. The look on that child's face was too old and wise for a seven year old. Biddie's eyes filled and then she shrugged with acceptance. He had given her those girls. And for that she could love him.
And now it was Sunday, the day that got her through the week. The little church appeared on the hill and they all hurried toward the warmth and welcome they would experience within. Grandpa would be there. He always came early. Sometimes it was the only time he could see them.
"There's my baby girl," exclaimed Grandpa as he lifted Sally in his arms and held her close in front of the gas heater to warm her. They all breathed heavily with their exertion, having hurried as fast as they could to make it to church before they froze. Sally hugged his neck. He pulled sticks of peppermint from his pockets and gave them to the girls. They all stood close to the old man.
"Margaret, my lands, is that a new dress? Don't you look pretty?"
Margaret blushed and preened at his attention. "Mama made it. It was a surprise."
Biddie, you amaze me," he said with admiration. "She looks like Eunice in that dress. I just wish Eunice could have lived to see these beautiful girls and the wonderful job you've done with our grandchildren." It was Biddie's turn to blush. Then she headed off to practice the hymns she would play for church.
Biddie had just settled herself on the piano stool when the rush of cold air assailed them as the door flew open. A large man with a thunderstorm face filled the doorway. "Brung my girls up here to see Pa, huh? Just can't do what I tell you, kin you, woman?"
The little girls quaked and huddled closer to their grandfather.
"I knew I'd find you up here. Sanctimonious bitch. If these folks knew how you disobeyed your husband, they'd kick you out of this place on your pious ass."
"What is it, Walter?" Biddie asked, trying to still the quaver in her voice.j
"Whar's that money you got from picking pecans? I've looked high and low and it ain't nowhar to be found." The once so handsome, now still good looking and a very big man with the foul breath and even fouler clothing, smelling like booze, and smoke, and fancy woman's perfume, advanced on the little sparrow of a woman sitting on the piano stool.
His eyes lit on Margaret. "New dress, Margaret?" he said looming over the little girl. "Didn't I jest pay good money on a dress a couple months ago?" Margaret shrunk away from him drawing closer to her grandfather. Biddie cringed inside herself, knowing what that instinctive movement would do to Walter. Build the anger, the resentment, that he would take out on the girls and her.
Biddie thought of the brown croker sack looking dress he'd offhandedly grabbed up at the general store and bestowed on the little girl like Santa Claus. And she remembered how Margaret tried to hide the tears thinking of how the children would ridicule her when she wore it to school. Biddie watched the light dim in Margaret's eyes and in that moment she hated him. God help her; she hated him. She looked him square in the eye with hatred and defiance. And he raised his arm to strike her.
His father thrust the litltle girls aside and appeared at his side grabbing his arm. "Don't hit that woman," he said quietly.
"Who's gonna stop me? She's my wife. Don't the Scriptures say "Wives obey your husbands?" Ain't you the one always spouting Scripture?"
"Leave Biddie alone."
"Waal, mebbe I will, mebbe I won't." Walter looked slyly at his father. "Come on, woman. We're going home."
Biddie looked helplessly at her father-in-law and rose from the piano. "Come on, girls." Dejectedly they all pulled on the coats they had laid across the back pew and turned to follow the man who had their mother firmly by the arm, pulling her out the door and down the hill.
Biddie stumbled, half dragged down the hill with the vizier grip Walter had on her arm. Her arm would surely have another bruise. The mud splattered up on the taffeta dress she had worn for years and tried so hard to keep from getting water spotted. Faster he walked, farther and farther ahead of the girls. Biddie tried to glance around. He jerked her hard. "Move along," he said in an agate voice.
She'd only had time to catcha glimpse of Margaret and Susan pulling Sally along between them. She saw Sally stumble and then felt Walter's jerk and heard his voice.
She looked up at him as she tripped along at his side. She'd never seen him so furious. He was flushed beet red and his jaw was clenched so tightly she could see his teeth grind. Icy fingered fear assailed her. Her stomach knotted and her heart pounded. He pulled her along so rapidly now her feet barely struck the ground. Home now, he lifted her up the steps by the arm he had never released.
He flung open the front door and pushed her in. She stumbled on the throw rug in the hall but caught herself against the wall. Walter advanced.
Biddie sidled down the wall to the kitchen door and then fled from him. She pulled open the back door and ran down the steps and across the yard. She had to get away.
Walter followed. He stood at the top of the stairs and watched her scurry away with a look so chilling Bidie began to sob.
"Walter, please. For the love of God, Walter."
"Ain't no good to run from me, Biddie. Ain't no way you kin git away, and you know it."
"Walter, our little girls..."
"Shut up. You got more money you bin holding out on me?"
Biddie backed up against the pig pen and straddled the rails. If she could get across the pen, she could run across the field to Doss Carter's house and maybe give Walter time to cool down. Walter strode across the yard. Biddie jumped into the pen and Priss squealed. Biddie's dress caught on the same nail that had ripped her coat that morning. Her heart pounded as she pulled trying to get loose. Walter laughed and grabbed hold of her skirt.
"Ain't no gittin' away, woman. Ain't I told ya?" He reeled in the length of skir like anglin' for a fish. And then he lifted her over the fence and carried her like a groom does a bride back into the house, back toward their bedroom.
Biddie pounded on his chest, but he pulled her so close he nearly smothered her to keep her quiet. "Ain't no use yellin', woman Who's gonna hear? Ain't nobody here but that cow and pig."
Her legs nearly gave way beneath her when he set her on her feet in the hall outside their room. Then Margaret's face appeared at the screen door behind Walter. Leave child, Biddie pleaded with her eyes. "It was my money to spend," she said to distract him. Thank God he'd forgotten about the children.
She was afraid to acknowledge the child's presence, afraid Walter would turn and in his irrational anger turn on the little girl. Run, child. Biddie watched the spark ignite in his eyes and steeled herself. The fist fell and Biddie's head bounced against the wall and then back to receive another blow.
After that, nothing was clear, just pain and her unheeded pleas for his mercy.
It was the voice of her husband's father which finally pierced the fog. Her body ached and her vision clouded when she tried to open her eyes.
"Walter," the old man called. "Git out here." Biddie heard the bed springs squeak in their bedroom. She imagined him hitching up his pants. The plank floor creaked as he stepped from their room into the hall, his steps magnified in the cold, clear air, to stand over her cowering there on the floor. In disgust, he kicked her where she lay in the middle of the hall. She couldn't stifle the whmper as the pain shot through her body.
Then...slow steps to the door where he stood and looked out. The door groaned when he opened it and went onto the porch.
"What'cha want, old man? Meddlin' again where you ain't got no business? Still trying to run my life? Can't take me down to no enlistment office to send me off, kin ya? That girl down in the Bottons warn't no cause to do such to your own flesh and blood," Biddie heard him say.
"You're no good, son. You're flesh and blood, and I done the best by you I know'd how, but, you're no good."
Biddie forced herself to turn over. She crawled, inching her way to the front door holding onto her painfully bruised, if not broken ribs. Peering through the swollen slits of her eyes looking beyond her husband on the porch to the rutted dirt yard. There her father-in-law stood erectly in his shiny black Sunday suit, cradling a shotgun in his arms. His blue eyes were sd.
"I"m more of a man than you'll ever be," Walter mocked him. "Got the medals to prove it. Made you proud enough for me to get medals for killing Germans when you hauled me down to the signup office to be shot at an ocean away." His bitterness and hatred curdled his words.
The old man spoke softly, "You broke yore pore mother's heart and kilt her. She couldn't believe the heartless way you treated that girl...and that wasn't the first time, we found out."
"When you came home from the War, I hoped you'd changed. You'd gotten respect from other men. You had a chance to make your life count, son. And, you got lucky when a fine woman like Biddie would marry you. But, you don't treat her no better'n you did that girl in the Bottoms..
Walter leant against the porch rail and pulled out a chaw of tobacco. "You done preachin'? Then get off my land!" he said contemptuously.
"Hit ain't yore land cause. You live here cause I let you. But you ain't hit a lick of work on it lately, so's I kin see. That woman's all that's keeping food in your belly and she's bout wore out."
Biddie pressed her hand to her forehead as the world began to spin. The movement caught the old man's eye and he looked at her. He shook his head in despair as a paroxism of coughing wracked his body and left him gasping.
Then, he looked at Walter with resignation. The old man breathed deeply before he could speak. "I brung you into this world...an' I reckon...I'm gonna have to...take you out of it, son."
Walter laughed. "You ain't gone do nothing, but a lot of talking, old man. Onliest balls in this family's hanging here on me!" Then he spat toward his father's feet.
Biddie felt the old man cringe at the vulgarity. She envisioned the ice in Walter's eyes.
They stood facing one another. The old man with the fragile hold on life stood erect and unrufled before his menacing son. Walter snickered at the humor of the old man's threat. He advanced down the stairs with his hands balled into fists, eyes narrowed with no flicker of the amusement his laughter suggested.
"What's the Good Book got to say about this old man? Ain't no way in hell you could shoot a man. Now me, it come right easy. And in the War they give you a medal for it!"
"Yore own little girl came to git me in church. That new dress that give her such a pleasure...was dirty and tore. She could scarce breathe...to tell me what she wanted, she was so tuckered out from runnin'. Ye could'a heard a pin drop in that church...everthin' got so quiet. preacher stopped preachin...and everybody there heard her beg me...to come and keep you from ...killin' her ma." He paused for breath and looked at Biddie. "I kin see from the looks...of Biddie lying there, I...almost come...too late."
The old man glanced at the Book on the dash board of the truck lying right where he'd put it when he got in the car and pulled the shells from beneath the seat. For a moment he waivered in his conviction. Then, in the rearview mirror, he glimpsed Margaret push her sisters, who'd finally made it home, into the barn and close the barn door. Biddie saw them also and prayed they'd stay put. "I ain't got long," he said, as much to himself as to Walter. "When I'm gone...what's to become of them. You ain't got no care in you...but what Walter wants...and God help them what gits in the way."
Walter advanced. The old man cocked the gun and braced it. Both were oblivious to the crowd Biddie saw gathering on the edge of the yard, the men of the church who had followed the old man and his granddaughter racing in that old truck down the slippery road.
"Gimme the gun, old man." Biddie held her breath. His father, frail now with old age and ill health, was no match for Walter's strength. One slap of Walter's fist would send the frail man reeling and might break his neck.
"Walter, no!" she cried, afraid for her father-in-law, so good and gentle.
One step more and he'd...
"God forgive me,' she heard the old man whisper. Then he pulled the trigger.
Biddie couldn't believe her eyes. She screamed in horror as Walter recoiled on to the steps and lay in a widening pool of blood.
"Son of a Bitch," he said in surprise.
Biddie crawled to him as quickly as she could and cradled his head. He looked up at his father who stood above them with tears flowing. The two men's eyes locked in the last second of Walter's life.
"Daddy," Walter whispered. And for a moment, Biddie saw the little boy his father had always loved, the man she had always sensed he could be. Then his staring eyes went blank.
The old man wailed. He hurled the gun at the pecan tree and split the stock in two.
Walter looked so cold there, Biddie grieved. So alone and cold. Slowly, painfully, she pulled off the coat she still wore and laid it over him. It was pitifully short and his feet stuck out. He hated cold feet, she thought. She lifted his hand and stroked it gently--the hand that had brought her so much pain, and yet, had also shown her moments of exquisite tenderness. She brought his fingers to her lips and kissed them. All the love she had wanted to give him now filled her heart--with pain and regret.
The men who had followed the old man down the hill slowly filled the front yard.
"Self-defense, I'd say," one of the men said, seeking to comfort the old man.
"You had to do it, Jace."
"Got to shoot a mad dog..." they heard somebody say.
"Twarn't no other way." They all nodded.
Biddie watched him climb weakly back into the truck as if it had taken every ounce of his energy to pull that trigger. He lay his head on his hands holding tight to the steering wheel.
Biddie was dazed. This couldn't have happened. She looked out at the blurred faces of men familiar throughout her life. They parted as the Sheriff pressed forward. He looked at Walter, the bruised and nearly broken Biddie, and the old man as if he'd expected this. It suddenly struck her that Walter's father could go to jail! No, God, no! He'd never survive it.
Sheriff called out to the crowd, "Somebody go get the undertaker."
"You takin' Jace in, Sheriff?" one of the men asked.
Biddie's quivered as she whispered pleadingly, "Please...he only meant to protect us. Please...look how he's suffering!" She indicated the frail man slumped in the truck.
"Have to, Biddie. DA will prosecute, bail'l most likely be set real low. Hell, not a jury in the county would convict him."
The sheriff went over to the old man and laid a compassionate hand on his shoulder.
Biddie held Walter in her arms and cried. Salty tears stung her swollen, blood-red eyes and the cuts on her face.
"Maybe that'll mean something in Heaven, Jace," the Sheriff said looking at Biddie. "He was loved by a good woman."