Just Doll

Just Doll
Janice Daugharty

October 2012 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-212-5

Book One of the Staten Bay trilogy

Our PriceUS$14.95
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She is only seventeen when she marries into a world of privilege, mystery, heartache and passion...

Doll Baxter is barely grown when she weds wealthy older landowner Daniel Staten in order to save her family’s impoverished farm in post-Civil War Georgia. Over the decades that follow, Doll and Daniel struggle to resolve the tensions between them. Both are strong-willed; both are rooted to the fertile southern soil. The twists and turns of their lives together influence the fates of many around them, both black and white.

"It seemed that people were just passing through only long enough for you to get to loving them, then gone as if they never were, or were somebody you had dreamed up for the sole purpose of bringing suffering. Love was dangerous suddenly; a child or husband might be with you one day and gone the next and leave you gnawing on the corner of your pillow to keep from crying out questions in the middle of the night. Then morning, there was always morning.”

Janice Daugharty’s 1997 novel, EARL IN THE YELLOW SHIRT (HarperCollins), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She is the author of seven acclaimed novels and two short story collections. She serves as writer-in-residence at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, in Tifton, Georgia.

Visit the author at www.janicedaugharty.com


"The writing in Just Doll is nothing short of poetic. The word choice and sentence structure is absolutely beautiful. This is not an adventure, romance, thriller, or mystery. It's historical fiction at it's best." -- Carrie Valdes, Netgalley

"The author has done a commendable job in demonstrating the hardships faced by southern people after the Civil War. . . It is a peek into a time in history where there was true suffering and hardships faced. . . A stunning narrative and compelling characters make this a fascinating read." -- Mirella Patzer, Historical Novel Review

"The novel carries an undertone of strength… Dry hot summers, a slowly fading culture and sharply frayed emotions practically roll off each flip of a page." -- Susan O'Bryan, Town & Gown Magazine


"Doll is not your usual simpering southern belle!" -- Diane Scholl, GoodReads

"Daugharty does a fine job of demonstrating how ordinary men and women are affected, in unpredictable ways, by race, poverty and geography and by the enduring legacy of important historical moments.” -- People Magazine


Chapter 1

Doll was picking squash next row over from her older sister Sheba, who was scrapping through the sprawl of vines for pickling cucumbers. Both went still at the same time, listening to horse hooves clopping down the road toward the long, low house.

In the flatwoods of Southeast Georgia, Doll Baxter was raised knowing that when she heard somebody coming, they would likely be coming to see the Baxters. Otherwise, they would have taken one of the other few connecting roads leading to the houses of the Baxters’ few neighbors, who were likewise walled in by pines. Land so flat and swampy it turned to crawfish dirt when it rained and sand bogs when it didn’t rain, and the roads alternated between mud gullies and swollen sand. But scattered as they were, the neighbors seemed within hollering distance; when somebody had a house fire, got sick, or died, they would pop up out of the woods like squatters on your property. Sunday meetings at Bony Bluff, Doll could see them all in one bunch and count no more than seventy-five head, including children by the dozen belonging to a single household.

Doll often thought of the eastern section of Echols County and her spot in it as the wheel that makes a clock’s hands move and the hands themselves pointing north at twelve o’clock to Homerville, east at three to Fargo and the Okefenokee Swamp, west at nine to Statenville, and south at six to Jasper, across the Georgia/Florida line. Commonplace were the spotty was-towns in between that thrived when the sawmills moved in and withered when they moved out, except for those living on as lumberyards. Time had a lot to do with the distance from Doll’s place to any place, all within a day-ride radius of twenty miles by buggy or wagon, and all born of roving sawmills for sawing lumber and railroads for transporting farm produce, timber, turpentine and cotton to the riverport in Savannah or to the seaport in Jacksonville, both a day away by rail, then on to the rest of the world, which hadn’t yet figured into Doll’s perception of time and space.

Sheba stood with her white apron bundling cucumbers. Her eyes were fixed on the left front corner of the picket fence where horse and rider would show any minute around the blind of pines. She was wearing her faded yellow dress and a hickory-stripe bonnet belonging to her mother. Her eyes were wide set, her breasts wide set, broad face red from bending.

Doll watched, too, but kept picking the smooth yellow crookneck squash. She broke one off at the throat and had to crop the neck separate, dropped both into the oak stave bucket.

The sun at eleven o’clock was beating down on the square garden, on the shingle roofs of the house to the right of the garden and the barn behind the house, and sliding back the shadows of tall loblolly pines from the white sand road. Smoke gusted from the brick chimney of the wood stove—a reminder that it was hotter in the kitchen than outside. Smells of burning oak, baked earth and steeping greenery. A wonder—so much green—given the fact that they’d had no rain for weeks, had been watering the garden straight from the well.

The cattle grazing the woods across the road raised their heads, then registering the source of the new sound nosed into the fountains of wiregrass again.

Doll lifted her heavy hair from her neck. It was black as fur of otter, glistened as if it were wet, and rippled down her back in loose spun curls. When it grew past her waist, she got her mother or Sheba to trim it, and she used the excuse that it was too dense to bunch on back of her head, because at seventeen she’d already learned that boys were drawn to her hair like hummingbirds to red.

The horse was now clipping at a smart eager trot. Closer but not close enough yet.

Doll stooped to pick another squash from the prickly bush. Still Sheba stood watching.

From the kitchen at the rear of the house, their mother, Mrs. Baxter, clanked a spoon on a pot rim. Across the woods, the turpentine men dumping gum from their dip buckets into the barrels rapped them as if in answer. The rumor of a timber train at the turpentine camp called Tarver was followed by a series of clear brass whistles and bells. Locusts droned, crickets sang in the grass, and bees harmonized in the pear tree at the far end of the garden rows. All backdrop to the rhythmic trotting of the horse.

A breeze hassled the corn leaves at Doll’s back but she could feel no breeze. Her blue eyes teared from staring at the bright sand road, then spangled when she looked down at the green bushes.

Guineas, a dozen strong, cried out and scooted like shadows across the yard.

"Daniel Staten,” said Sheba. "Oh my God, Doll, it’s Daniel Staten.” She let fly the apron full of cucumbers and began hopscotching through the cucumber vines toward the back yard. Her yellow skirt filling with air as she hiked it above her knees, old brown shoes picking up and putting down. The bonnet sailed from her head to the swept dirt yard. Ducking under the well sweep, she crashed through a gathering of butterflies nursing on the soured mud from the watershelf runoff, and climbed up on the back porch. She stood and began washing her face and arms in the water bucket, not even having bothered with dipping some into the wash pan.

"Doll,” she shushed, "don’t mention we got a bear in the barn, swear to God you won’t.” Then quick as the sun when it went down behind the treeline each day her yellow dress vanished from the shadow-capped porch.

Doll could tell when she passed the kitchen, going up the hall. "What in the world?” asked Mrs. Baxter.

"Daniel Staten.” Sheba’s flat voice sounded throughout the house. "Help me dress.”

"For goodness sake, Bathsheba!” said Mrs. Baxter. "He’s not God. Besides, he’s too old for you. Not to mention too experienced. We may be poor but we are still ladies.”

"Go! Go talk to him on the front porch while I get dressed.” Her voice raveled out. "Honest to goodness, if he finds out about the bear, my chances are ruined.”

"I wish those beekeepers would come on and cart that thing off to the Okefenokee or kill him, one.”

"No, not kill him. Hush, Mama.”

"Well, he’s gone be right back in our honey if they don’t. And after us going to all the trouble of trapping him.”

Big shush. "Mama, Daniel will hear you.”

"Who ever heard of a girl making a pet out of a bear?” Mrs. Baxter clicked her tongue on the roof of her mouth.

They’d been at this same row for days. As for Daniel Staten, none of them really knew him, only who he was, some bigshot plantation owner from down around Statenville, west at least twenty miles, who had for reasons of the heart suddenly become important in their lives. Sheba had taken a shine to him at Sunday meeting a while back and had laid claim solely on the grounds that she couldn’t live without him.

Nothing new about that. Sheba was forever falling in love, and her mother and sister both had given up trying to prevent her falling and saved their energy for her rescue. Mrs. Baxter never said, Do like Doll and ignore the boys and they’ll be swarming all around you. She never said that because it encouraged comparison—and didn’t they get enough of that from neighbors and strangers? Besides, she feared what worked for her pretty younger daughter wouldn’t work for her plain older daughter. So far Mrs. Baxter felt she had succeeded in teaching the girls that pretty is as pretty does, and the proof was in how close they were despite the difference in their personalities and looks. What really evened things up, though, was Sheba’s whopping sense of humor. Except where boys were concerned and Mrs. Baxter, blessed with a funny bone or two herself, made it known that in her opinion boys will be boys and for the most part their brains are located in their unmentionables.

Doll watched the sleek black stallion and the tall bearded man, fair as the horse was dark, both proud with their heads high. He had on a white shirt, black pants, hat and boots. His hair was gold brown, his beard gold brown, green eyes set deep in a prominent brow. He rode up to the paling gate with an iron bell hanging from the notched and rotting hinge post. As he started to dismount, swinging his long right leg over the pommel of the saddle, the horse stepped sideways and Daniel had to leap to the ground. He landed on both feet, just short of a squat and backing, then caught on his left leg and spun round like a dancer.

"I’ll break you from that if I have to break your damned neck,” he said, speaking low and for the stallion’s ears only. Which meant he hadn’t spotted Doll yet. He switched him across his face with the reins and reset his hat. The horse neighed, reared, then stood shuddering away its mantle of mayflies.

Daniel tied the reins to the brace of the picket fence, right side of the gate, and stepped inside. The yard bell overhead rang, dull as a cowbell. He stilled it with one hand, took off his hat and smoothed his hair.

From the garden, Doll could hear the bear rattling his cage in the barn. Then his "unh unh unh” substitute growl. Sheba claimed he grunted like a gator; Doll thought he sounded more like a hog. But get downwind of his sharp wild scent .. Doll laughed to herself and picked another squash, dropped it in the bucket. She would give that old fence about two minutes to stay standing and that horse smelling bear.

"Morning, Mr. Staten,” said Mrs. Baxter, stepping from the hall to the porch.

"Mrs. Baxter,” he said. "How are you this morning?”

"Fine, and you?”

"Been over to Four-mile Still with a load of gum. Thought I’d check on you ladies out here in the flatwoods before I head home.”

The horse yanked on the reins; the entire section of fence to the right of the gate rattled and shook. Daniel scolded the stallion.

"Sheba’ll be out in a minute. Come on in and have a glass of tea.”

"I’ll just wait out here, ma’am.” He didn’t say that he had to mind the stallion, but the horse was swinging his fine head and prancing in place.

"Well, have a seat, won’t you? I’ve got to see to my corn before it scorches.”

He sat in the swing on the south end of the porch, his back to Doll, who was gathering Sheba’s cucumbers in her arms.

Inside, Sheba sounded like she was slinging a coil of haywire. A door clapped shut. Dull thumps—her old shoes slung, one here, one there. Bare feet padding room to room, then the light, quick clicking of her Sunday shoes.

"Just June and hot already,” said Mrs. Baxter, done stirring her corn and out on the porch again. "And dry, my gracious!”

"They say it’s the same all over. Cattlemen from Texas to the Dakotas are selling out.”

The bear in the barn growled feebly; the stallion whinnied. He jerked the reins; the fence rattled, shook and quivered like wind-blown broomsage from picket to picket, gate to corner posts.

Daniel stood, scolded him, and sat again. "I’m sorry, ma’am. I don’t know what’s got into him.”

Mrs. Baxter laughed weakly. "No need to apologize, Mr. Staten. Animals will be animals, we all know that.”

Doll almost laughed out loud. Poor Mama! First she accidentally announces that Sheba is in love with him by saying she’ll be out in a minute, and now Daniel Staten probably thinks they have a mare in heat in the barn out back and has to be cautious mentioning the antics of the stallion, now rearing, snorting and walling his eyes. "Two minutes up,” Doll whispered. "Look out fence!”

"You will stay for dinner, won’t you?” Mrs. Baxter asked. "The girls would just love hearing all about President Cleveland’s wedding at the White House.”

"I’d like that, ma’am, but I’ve still got a good long ride ahead of me.” He said something about turpentine that Doll couldn’t make out clear. Only that slow, thoughtful, commanding monotone. She heard mention of the Savannah Cotton Exchange, which was responsible for setting market prices all over the world. He said he was sorry to hear about Mr. Baxter dying and to let him know if he could do anything.

On the front porch too now, Sheba spoke out in a breathy put-on voice.

The horse stepped side to side and back, gave one last mighty snatch on the reins, and the right fence panel collapsed intact to the ground. The stallion reared, bringing with him a two-by-four and about a dozen snapped pickets and the hinge post with the bell dangling chest-high and wobbling side to side. He made a forward lunge toward the porch where Daniel stood waving both arms and shouting as if to head him the other way, which happened to be south and around the house. Bib of pickets harvesting pink frilly blooms of crepe myrtle and boughs of sweet shrub, and all to the tumbled donging of the tarnished iron bell, like the climax of a one-act circus.

Meaning to keep him out of the garden, Doll dropped the cucumbers for the second time and flapped the tail of her white homespun dress at the horse, now passing in a whorl of dust between the back porch and the well, headed mistakenly for the barn just over the picket fence in the back yard. She lit in behind him with her dress tail caught up at the waist.

"Doll!” Mrs. Baxter yelled out the kitchen window, keeping safe inside while following the progress of the horse’s destruction of her yard.

Doll slowed as the horse slowed, then skidded to a halt, heaving and snorting with nostrils flared. The dust cloud overtook him at the northwest corner of the back yard and settled on the honeysuckle vines over the fence. The wall-eyed stallion appeared anchored by the flower-laced palings, the two by four and the post with the dead bell that had somehow wound up apeak. In his wake were splinters, green leaves and deep gouges in the swept dirt like after a storm.

The bear in the barn was pawing wood, trying to tear out.

Daniel crept around the red brick chimney, north side of the house, arms out to keep the spooked horse from bolting past. "Hoo now,” he crooned to the horse, but his eyes were on Doll easing closer to the stallion. She placed her left hand on his slick right rear flank and began stroking, switching hands as she reached the saddle, stroking all the way up to his neck, then down his muscular sculpted jaw and caught the reins in both hands.

"Mind he doesn’t step on you,” Daniel said low, moving closer. "Stand back.”

"Doll Baxter!” Her mother was shouting from the back porch now. "Get away from that animal, hear me?”

Doll unwrapped the reins from the brace and began stroking the stallion’s forehead. He smelled salty, of leather, but young-horse sweet. "Here,” she said to Daniel and handed him the reins. She had never stood so close to him, except when she had brushed past him in the doorway of the tax collector’s office at the Statenville courthouse a few weeks before, and several times after that when she spoke to him like any Christian would at Bony Bluff Church. She had thought it odd, his being at Bony Bluff, since he lived so far away. He scared her more than the horse did.

"Thank you.” He snatched the horse from the corner. "Hoo now.”

Her mother yelled from the back porch, "Doll, you get away from that horse this minute!”

"Good thing you didn’t hitch him to a porch post,” Doll said to Daniel.

"Doll!” her mother scolded again.

"Mrs. Baxter, I sure hate it. Here I’ve got your hogs all riled up too.” He nodded toward the brittle old barn, alive with the bear’s snuffling and snorting. "I’ll send one of my men over to put up a new fence soon as I get home. Meantime I’ll just patch up the old one.”

Doll figured he was either dumb or his nose was stopped up if he couldn’t smell bear.

Sheba, wearing her two-piece black dress with pink floral stripes, her church dress, stood next to her mother on the back porch. One young and anxious, the other old and anxious, but feature-wise almost identical. Trying for curls, Sheba had twisted damp wisps of her fine brown hair each side of her face.

"That old fence was barely standing anyway,” she said.

Daniel laughed, lifting chin, eyes and voice. "Wouldn’t be much to me if I was to leave you ladies where the cows and hogs could get in your garden, now would it?”

Sheba winked at Doll. "Doll, go help Mr. Staten prop up the fence so he can come eat.”

Doll would have as soon not helped, but for her sister she headed out to the cellar-dim toolshed to the left of the barn and took down from a shelf on the back wall a claw hammer and the fruit jar of rusty nails they had salvaged from rotted-down outbuildings or just found here and there on the homeplace.

She would have liked nothing more than to stay there, soaking up the dank coolness of the earthen floor. Her face felt hot and had to be red, just like when she’d faced Daniel Staten, a nosy, bothersome stranger then, at the courthouse in Statenville. Her mission that morning had been to gently persuade—cajole, charm or whatever the circumstances called for—the Yankee tax collector to give her and her family more time to catch up their back taxes before the county took over the Baxter place, five hundred acres more-or-less of row crop and timber land; they would auction the dirt she loved—and had slaved to keep in the family like a mule—before the courthouse door. She promised the tax collector, a soft, pale, loose-limbed man with his hair wiped across his bare crown, that she would have the money by the end of the summer. She had a white family coming to chip boxes and dip gum and following the peak of the gum-running season she should have enough money from turpentine sales. Pretty please with sugar on it.

He had explained with his pink tongue pushing between posts of top, side teeth that he would do what he could but the matter wasn’t altogether up to him. She had leaned forward, hands flat on his desk, Pretty please with sugar on it. She was dressed in a wine waist and skirt, her mother’s wine drawstring bag hanging from her wrist, and her sister’s tattered petticoats geared up at the waist to keep them from falling down. She could see her own black shiny hair falling forward on each side her face, an offering of hair.

"You know,” she said, standing straight and fixing him with her blue-blue eyes, "I was just saying to my sister Sheba just the other day how I was surprised you’d stayed a bachelor all these years. Said you must get lonesome, being from up-north and all, and living way down here away from your kinfolks.”

"Well, I do sometimes. It’s a long way from Boston and...”

"Then you just come on out to see us anytime. Mama’ll fry a chicken for you and I’ll show you around the old place.”

"I might do that. I just might.” He reared back as if to escape her. His lips were pale and flat but stretched across the bottom half of his face as he began to speak again and his eyes lit up. "What about your sister, Sheba, I think it is? How’s she doing?”

"Oh, Sheba!” So, it was Sheba he was interested in and who could tell? Sheba might like him too; she’d liked worse. She might like him and marry him and solve all their problems, temporarily at least. "Well, Sheba is doing just fine. Mama’s always saying what a good hand she is with children. She’s definitely the marrying kind.”

"Marrying?” He sat forward, arranging papers on his desk. "I figured to court for awhile.”

"Court, my goodness gracious, Sheba would just love to have you come courting.” Maybe this was true. "I guess you heard we’re having a big shindig at Hamilton Fletcher’s in a few weeks.”

"I did hear that. Heard the governor is coming all the way from Atlanta. Is that right?”

"Yes, sir. All the way from Atlanta. And we’ll be expecting you, too. I’ll make certain that Sheba saves every dance for you. Okay?”

His slit eyes roved around Doll. She turned and saw Daniel Staten leaning in the doorway with his arms crossed, amused and not trying to hide it.

"Good morning, gentlemen,” she said and headed for the door. Staten tipped his hat, smiling. Brushing past him in the doorway, she had felt light and hot and furious. Of course she was embarrassed having somebody—some man—witness her flirting, then practically promising her sister’s hand in marriage to this dimwit tax collector. She stopped to listen to the two men talking inside the office now, pulling in her skirt and tucking her shadow close along the dark wall. Vague light, cigar smoke, and men’s voices spilled from the other open doors along the hallway.

"You old dog, you,” Staten said to the tax collector.


"Wasn’t that one of the Baxter girls?”

"The one they call Doll, yes.”

She covered her face with her hands.

"That gal’s after you,” Staten said and followed it up with a mocking laugh.

"After me to give her some leeway on her taxes. Their father left them land-poor and the girl has taken it on herself to hold onto the old homeplace. A fine family, so they say. Girls come from fine stock, despite their father’s drinking.”

"She’s sweet on you though, I can tell.”

"No, no. You’ve got it all wrong. Besides, she’s too hot-blooded for me. Too many men after her. She’d keep you in trouble and you never would have any peace. They say there isn’t a man in the county can get within two feet of her and every single one of them dying to. Her sister will make the better wife.”

"That so?”

"I guess you heard about Doll Baxter beating that fellow up a while back.”

"Yeah, seems like I did hear something about that.”

"They say he was trying to have things to do with her.”

Now she was mad, hearing them talk about her, and had to fight back the urge to go in there and tell it her way. Then Staten told it.

"Way I heard it, he was rustling some of her cows. I don’t blame her.”

"Anyway, she sailed in on him like a man. Little woman like that, it’s hard to believe.”

Doll left the shed with the jar of nails, cutting around the south side of the house. Through the open windows she could hear Sheba and her mother talking in the kitchen and smell the smoke of the wood stove and the corn, which after all had scorched. At the front of the house was a broach of space made up of yard and road in the absence of the fence Daniel was now piecing together from the wrecked pickets.

For punishment, and for practical purposes, he had roped the stallion to a black pine across the road. Low, so that the flat of his head butted up to the tarry base of the stout trunk. The stallion still stamped and walled his eyes, left rear hoof cocked in case the bear approached from behind. All around, cows grazed toward the spent shadows of the road.

"He keeps that up, I’ll sell him first chance I get.” On his knees, in the open sun glancing off sand like glass, Daniel hammered a fractured picket to the brace.

"How much?” Doll stood before him, holding the fruit jar of rusted and bent nails. She didn’t want to get too close.

He sat back on the heels of his black boots, wiping sweat from his eyes with his shirtsleeve. "What?”

"How much do you want for the stallion?”

"Not for you, I hope.”

"Whyever not?”

"You’re a girl—a mite on the little side at that. That’s whyever not.”

Smells of steeped tea, frying ham and bear rode the heated breeze down the hall.

"By the way,” he said, "how much longer will it be before you’re out of school?”

"For good or for the summer?”

He laughed. "For good, I guess. You did go to school, didn’t you?”

"Not that it’s any of your business, but I did. Tenth grade, far as I could go at Hickman’s, other side of Four-mile Still. Then a teacher boarding with us learned... taught... me Latin.” She cleared her throat, set the jar on the dirt and stood the panel of pickets against the posts for him to nail. "I’m hungry—nail or hand me that hammer.”

He walked on his knees to the post on his left and had to reach through the pickets to get a nail from the jar. The nail was bent and he had to get another one. Held it, point to wood, and hammered. The rapping echoed out over the woods.

"You can let go now,” he said, shaking the panel. His hair and beard had threads of gold like the looped chain of his pocket watch.

She no longer feared being near him; he didn’t matter.

The cows were grazing closer, seemingly oblivious to the sudden open space of road running to yard, but drawn to it like children to water. A scrub cow with scur horns crept across the road. Doll ran toward her, clapping her hands. "Get on back away from here!” The cow stopped, swinging her head, then turned and scuttled off into the woods.

Doll went back to the fence, crossing her arms. She had been dying for a reason to put the nail jar down, to cover her breasts. Her nipples had to be showing through the sweat-damp bodice of her worn white dress. Besides, she didn’t like the direction things were going, could feel herself heating up from more than just the sun, though not at all like she had at the courthouse. In about a minute she would sic Sheba’s bear on his stallion for him making light of her. Well, that’s what she felt like doing.

The stallion stamped, tugged at the rope, stood still. The scaly brown tree shook all the way up to its green bushy top; pine cones, mast and short needles rained down.

"See what I mean,” Daniel said and tipped back his hat with the hammer handle. "He’s about half-wild.”

"I’ll go on in now, Mr. Staten. I’m too little to be fetching nails and working fences.” Out of habit, she started toward the panned place where the gate had been, now a queer abyss created by the stallion.

"Hey”—he laughed—”I didn’t go to hurt your feelings.” He bowed his head, spacing two pickets on another panel. "How about bringing me that piece on the other side of the walk there.”

She crossed the brick walk and picked up the brittle splintered picket in the trampled petunia border, carried it to him. Shadowed on the dirt, she looked as if she were about to slam him upside the head. She dropped it next to his crooked leg.

He looked up at her, green eyes so focused they seemed to spring from their sockets. "Actually, I came here hoping to have a word with you,” he said.

"With me? What about?”

"I hadn’t planned it exactly like this.” Sitting on his heels again, long legs folded, he wiped his face on his sleeve again. "I have a feeling you don’t like me.”

"I don’t.”

He hammered a nail, talking. "Well, that’s too bad because I intend to marry you.”

"Marry! You’re crazy.” She laughed out. "I don’t even know you.”

"What do you want to know? I can tell you everything you need to know here on the spot.”

"For one thing—why me?” She was speaking too loud, too shrill, had to lower her voice. "Ask Sheba—Sheba’s the one so anxious to get married.”

"I’m afraid she’s already spoken for.”

"She is not.”

"What about that Yankee tax collector?” He laughed.

"No, it’s you she’s set her cap for, and if she knew I was even talking to him about her, she’d have a fit.”

"Well, he’s about to take you up on the offer. He aims to marry Sheba.”

"You’re picking at me now. He’s so shy, he’ll never even show up here, much less mention what I said. And I do hope you’ll be gentleman enough to do the same.”

"Your little secret’s safe with me. But if I was you I’d be more careful who I bargained with and for what. Your own sister!”

"I do what I have to.”

"Regardless, I want to marry you,” he said. "I want you to be my wife.”

"You mean like that horse is your horse, right?” She nodded toward the horse, broke and at rest now but with one hoof set to strike.

"That’s not what I mean.” Daniel stood, left foot forward and hands on his hips. "I’m new at this. I’ve never asked anybody to marry me before.”

In the kitchen, either her mother or Sheba was setting the table—tinkling silverware, clattering dishes.

"Let me get the straight of this,” she fairly hissed. "You thought you could just stop off on your way home from Four-mile Still and pick up a wife to take back with you.” She eyed the curious cows inching toward the road, the stunned man before her. "I’m sorry, Daniel... Mr. Staten... but that’s the most puffed-up thing I’ve ever heard.”

His face blazed around his shaped beard. He held his right hand palm down and out before him and waved it to aid his explanation. "I’ve always been one, once I make up my mind to do something, to just go on through with it. Land, cows or women.”

"How humble of you.”

"I don’t have to be humble. Maybe you don’t know this, but I could have any girl from here to Fargo and back to Statenville.”

"Word is you already have, and I imagine you will again.”

Sheba wasn’t the only girl eager to marry the rich bachelor, and even the women here lately were whispering behind their hands. Doll felt giddy but guilty thinking that out of all of them she could have Daniel Staten. Not that she would do anything about it, but she did wonder why, out of all the others, he had picked her. Maybe for the same reason she felt giddy—like him, she was rumored to be a prize.

A week later, he showed upagain, but this time at the party for the governor of Georgia at the huge old many-gabled house belonging to Hamilton Fletcher, about a mile across the woods from the Baxter place.

The once-prosperous gentleman farmer, Fletcher, was now broke in all but spirit and alone since the death of his wife. Well, actually, he wasn’t so alone; his sister Grace Burkholt, who had married a well-off jeweler, and her son and daughter from Homerville, ten miles west through the woods, made sure that Hamilton was seen to and often. Hardly a weekend passed without either Adam or Brice staying with their uncle, to keep him company and visit with their flatwoods friends. Besides, Uncle Hamilton was fun; blessed with humor and not cursed with the ordinary contrariness of the aging. He was always holding fish fries or square dances, at the close of which those invited sometimes found that they’d been lured over for a working. He called the workings corn huskings, peanut shellings, pea pickings, stump burnings, as opposed to husking corn, shelling peanuts, picking peas, and burning stumps.

Doll was talking with Adam and Brice, her dearest friends, when she saw Daniel Staten step through the front door and stop, eyeing the shabby but decorated parlor where the main party was going on. He had on a black vested suit and black hat and his thumbs were hooked in his pants pockets, exposing the looped gold chain of his pocket watch. He wandered over to the hall tree on his right and hung his hat, then on through the crowd in the middle of the room to the long table full of food, lit candles, and a silver bowl of cherry punch spiked with 100-proof gen-u-ine shine.

"Who is that?” Brice asked.

"Daniel Staten.” Doll turned her back to him. Facing Brice and Adam, she fanned the candle smoke and perfume of magnolia and roses. She could feel a blush rising from her chest to her face, easy to blame on the heat. But all week she’d been blushing at the mention of his name, often and loud from the lips of her sister, who had stayed home from the party in case Daniel should drop by, and her blushing then could only be blamed on guilt. Sheba was starving herself, even refusing her favorite fried okra, after torture of cutting the spiked pods from the nettlesome stalks, so that she could fit into her mother’s wedding gown.

When the okra came in it was generally the hottest part of summer, but Doll and Sheba had to wear their daddy’s oldest thinnest long-sleeved shirts and trousers to keep from being flayed by the broad star-shaped leaves and thorny stems. The okra plants often grew as tall as young trees—the taller the thornier it seemed—and the girls even wore work gloves to part the leaves and get to the pods, but one thing they didn’t wear was their corset bodices, because they’d found it was cooler without them. Last week, Doll had looked up from cutting and seen Sheba, next row over, in a thin white shirt with twin spots of blood where her nipples had been lashed by the leaves.

Such were the sad sisterly thoughts Doll was trying to maintain while she stood and smiled and swished the silky skirt of the yellow-sprigged dress with a giant yellow bow on the bustle. Dress on loan from Brice, like all the other accumulated props in the room, and on the entire property, in fact, on loan from various neighbors and the Burkholts of Homerville to confuse the visiting governor who was prospecting for areas of rural poverty for his annual report. Word was, he was planning to recommend to the state legislature that a cotton mill be located in this "utmost impoverished area of the rural southeast.” Like that was some honor!

All week the church-bound community, and even those like Hamilton who didn’t go to church, had worked to make ready the old falling-down house for the big party. Everybody coming together with hammers, nails, saws, and buckets of whitewash to slather on the brittle outer walls of what was still considered the biggest, finest house in the flatwoods. Yesterday Grace Burkholt had brought a full wagonload of precious vases, tissue-wrapped china and silver, had nearly cleaned out her new two-story house in Homerville. And all for a party that the suspicious, prideful flatwoodsers hadn’t wanted in the first place, except to escape being labeled poor dirt farmers in need of state handouts. Now all their hard work could go for naught if Daniel let on that that was exactly how he saw them (poor, proud dirt farmers).

"So that’s Daniel Staten,” said Brice, following him through the crowd with her blond-lashed eyes. "He’s every bit as good-looking as they say. Isn’t he, Doll?”

Doll turned and looked again, turned back. "I’ve met him before. He was at Bony Bluff Sunday before last, the day you missed.” Usually she told Brice everything, but Daniel’s marriage proposal had to remain secret to insure that Sheba didn’t get hurt. Doll felt dishonest for not mentioning his visit to the Baxter house though.

"Don’t go getting any notions, Brice.” Adam latched his square hands behind his back and swayed. "The way I hear it he’s one of the biggest rounders in these parts.”

Adam was always bossing his younger sister, but she never listened. Seemed not to hear him now, but instead some muse in her head. "I wonder if it’s true that Statenville was named after him.”

The other girls at the party had spotted Daniel Staten and were making eyes at him and sashaying his way.

The band, set up before the rubble-brick fireplace stuffed with flowers and woods ferns, struck up a lively tune and the crowd started clapping, chief among them the governor with his paunch strutted and his white cat-whisker beard stained red with cherry punch. Hamilton Fletcher, big-man handsome with a head full of hair white as his shirt, took the governor’s almost-drained glass and parted the crowd around the punch bowl and filled it again. The governor’s wife, a tall and gauche but elegant woman with towering black hair, stood next to him, turning a fine crystal ruby-tinted glass in both hands while talking to Grace Burkholt, obviously the only other woman in the room with a little money and class, so a safe place to stop and seem to chat, except for that Mrs. Baxter, who kept butting in and wouldn’t quit laughing. She looked geared up in a girdle under her best dress.

She looked tipsy and hot. Everybody looked tipsy and hot, because it was hot. But only Mrs. Baxter wore a dangling wad of hair on back of her neck. One of her "rats” as she called the matted hanks of hair kept on her bedroom dresser for special occasions to be rolled and pinned up, ear to ear, filler for her own pale thinning hair.

"No, I think that was Staten’s dead brother, the senator, they named the town after,” Adam said. He was the only man there dressed in his own tuxedo, and at least a couple of other men in the room were squeezed into tuxedos tailored to fit the compact young lawyer from Homerville. Adam had no beard, like most of the other men, and his red face was made more heart-shaped by the widow’s peak of his coarse black hair. His hairline had started rising shortly after he came home from Atlanta last year with his law degree, both of which made him seem older than a mere twenty-four.

"I just hope he doesn’t tell the governor that we’re as down-and-out as he thought before he came here,” Doll said.

"I don’t think the governor’s in any shape to think at all after so much punch.” Brice had what was called red hair but was really more coral, almost the color of her dress.

"Speaking of the governor, here he comes,” Adam said and changed the subject for his benefit. "I hear the Malloy and Fender boys are going to wrestle after Sunday meeting tomorrow.”

Doll kept fanning, didn’t look, but braced herself by stiffening. She had already been one round with the governor, up close, all hands, and hot in a gray wool suit. Sort of like wrestling.

"There you are,” the governor said to Doll, stepping between her and Brice, rocking on his heels with a glass of punch in his right hand. His left hand slipped around Doll’s waist and settled on the small of her back. "Doll Baxter, isn’t it?”

"Yes sir,” Doll said and fanned him, laughing.

He roared. "You’re the one whose family’s in cattle, right?”

"Yes, sir.”

Suddenly, Daniel Staten appeared between Brice and the governor. "Governor,” he said and stuck out his hand. "I heard you were coming to Echols County. Welcome to the flatwoods.”

"Why, Staten, you old son-of-a-gun.” The governor had to let go of Doll to take his drink in his left hand and shake with his right. "It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

"A while,” Daniel said. He nodded to Doll. "Doll.” His full but trimmed beard dipped to his starched white collar.

"Mr. Staten. Meet my friends Brice and her brother Adam Burkholt, from Homerville. Adam’s a lawyer there.” The last part she added for Daniel’s benefit—show him he wasn’t the only man around with influence. If he concluded that Adam was her boyfriend, that was okay, too, though not her fault.

Daniel spoke to Brice, shook with Adam.

The governor guffawed as if somebody had told a joke and again sneaked his left arm around Doll. "So you know this fine-looking gal here, Staten?”

"Quite a while in fact, Governor. Did cattle business with her daddy for years before he died.”

"Oh, he died! I’m sorry.” The governor drank. "I had to pull a little rank with the boys here tonight”—big guffaw—”they were thick as flies around Miss Baxter here. Course, who could blame them? Lovely lady like this.”

Behind them, something slammed the rickety floor. Women squealed. The governor’s wife had toppled like one of the rotted columns on the porch and the women were gathering around her.

"She’s a little on the frail side,” said the governor, turning to look and turning back. "Not used to good whiskey.” He sampled his. "Staten, may I have a word with you? On the front gallery if you don’t mind.”

He wheeled, walking carefully, one foot ahead of the other, along the edge of the crowd toward the open door. Daniel shrugged, followed.

"Do you think he’ll tell?” Brice whispered.

"I wouldn’t put it past him.” Doll fanned her glistening face.

"Oh, no!” Adam said, gazing over her head at the crowd. "They’ve got the governor’s wife on her feet and aimed toward that cane chair with the broken bottom.”

When the governor came back in to refill his glass and check on his wife, Doll made her way through the crowd and out the door where Daniel was standing alone on the north end of the porch, drinking from a pewter flask. "Well, well, well, if it’s not the Southern belle.”

Two girls Doll knew from church stepped to the doorway and stopped, watching them. Then turned back inside. Men and boys were grouped and talking in the yard. Spotty fires burned along the lane of bushwhacked weeds leading up to the dilapidated but shored-up farmhouse. Horses whinnied and stamped in the dark. The air was ripe with citronella and oak smoke. Dressed-up children chased in and out and tumbled over the groaning white spindle banisters. Their hands came away white as new gloves.

Or the moon-white blossoms of the twin magnolias hiding the front of the house. They looked stuck among the large waxy leaves, fake, and they smelled fake, too sweet and too loud and about to turn brown and drop from the too-straight branches.

"I guess you told the governor we’re a bunch of fakes,” Doll said.

"No, ma’am, I didn’t.” Daniel capped the flask and eased it into his coat pocket. "Actually, he had me mixed up with my brother, like everybody else does. He’s so addled he didn’t even remember that Jimmy had died.” He leaned into a porch post; it creaked and he pulled his hand away. "You know, last time I passed Hamilton’s house, I could of swore it wasn’t painted.”

Doll looked at the watered-white porch wall lit by citronella candles in the row of door-sized windows. Moths and beetles swirled around the flames.

"I bet you folks have been holding your breath it didn’t come up a rain. Then again, if it don’t rain, y’all run a danger of setting the woods afire, don’t you?” He laughed. "What did Hamilton do when he picked the governor up in Fargo? Hand him a drink the minute he got off the train?”

"Well, how would you like to be written up in every newspaper in Georgia as a pauper?”

"You’d rather starve, right?”

"We’re not hungry in the least, not a one of us.”

"If I was y’all I’d be more worried about killing the Georgia governor and his wife with that rot-gut whiskey in there. Talk about making the news!” He made a pained face.

"It’s not rotgut whiskey. And besides, he asked for it, coming out here to use us for political purposes. We’ve got our pride.”

"You’re right about that. But still and all he’s got it in his head to put up a cotton mill out here. ‘Break that cycle of rural poverty,’ as he says.” Daniel swung his head.

"What, and give ten, fifteen people jobs? Bring in all the riffraff. We don’t want a cotton mill; we’re doing fine the way we are.”

"Yeah, a cotton mill might draw moonshiners and liars, who knows what kind of riffraff. Might even draw hypocrites to your church.”

A magnolia blossom dropped to the dirt and lay glowing like a cluster of lightning bugs.

"You’re making fun of us, taking me for a fool.” Doll spun around to go back inside. "That put-on cracker talk of yours and the governor’s is more fake than we are.”

He grabbed her arm. "Hey, I was kidding, I’m on your side. It’s just so funny, this whole thing, you’ve got to admit it. Come on, sit in the swing with me for a minute, will you?”

Inside, the fiddler was fiddling wild. Somebody whooped, sounded like Hamilton. Or the governor. A woman laughed shrilly.

Daniel tested the braided swing ropes, then sat, holding it still for Doll to sit and situate the swishy ruffled skirt of her dress. Through the window on her left they could see into the north bedroom. The governor’s wife was laid out like a corpse on a bed placed parallel to the porch wall. One long pale foot was stuck dangerously close to the lit candle on the sill nearest Doll’s end of the swing.

Doll caught her breath. "You don’t really think she’ll die from drinking that shine, do you?”

"Nah, she’s just a little on the frail side, like the governor said. Not used to drinking whiskey.” Daniel was leaning over Doll as if to get a better look at the woman’s feet through the window, breathing in the scent of her hair. "Is the lawyer the reason you won’t marry me? You’re planning to marry him?”

Another bed on the other side of the room was full of sleeping babies.

Doll sat back, forcing him over to his side of the swing, but he placed his left arm across the back behind her head.

She waited for that heated feeling, like at the courthouse, and didn’t have to wait long. "I’ve already told you, I’m not marrying anybody.”

"Doll, I hate to put it like this, under these circumstances. But if you stay out here, now your daddy’s dead and gone, you’re likely to starve.”

"For your information, we’ve got land and cows.”

"Correction: cattle.”

"Cows. Eight or ten.”

"How long? How long can you hold on without letting the land go? And the cows.”

"Till the end.”

"Listen, Doll, I admit it—I went about this business all wrong the first time.” He leaned closer, so close she could smell his whiskey breath. "Let’s start over; I under-estimated you. For starters, I know your folks haven’t paid the taxes on their place in better than four years.”

"I know how you know and I don’t appreciate it in the least.”

The toes through the window wiggled; the flame of the candle flickered.

Daniel kept the swing moving by pushing from heel to toe, his boots tapping in time to the fiddles and banjos sawing out another tune inside. "It’s my business to know that.”

"So you can take advantage of people down on their luck?”

"Sometimes, I won’t lie. But right now, I’m just offering to pay your taxes up to date and ever after. Pay off your mortgage.”

"We don’t have a mortgage.”

"Yes, you do. I checked. Sorry.”

"My daddy would have told us.”

The fiddler inside wrapped up with a fierce quick swipe of his bow across the strings and everybody clapped and Doll had to wait to hear Daniel’s response.

"Listen, Doll, I’ll take care of Mrs. Baxter and Sheba as long as they live. You’ll have a good life with me, and don’t tell me that doesn’t matter to you, because I know it does.” He lifted her ruffled skirt tail with his boot. "You’re too fine to be wearing borrowed dresses.”

"How do you know it’s borrowed?”

"I’m guessing.”

"I don’t even like you; in fact, I think I hate you. And speaking of hate—Sheba would hate me forever. I guess you should know she stayed home because this... this business with the governor goes against her principles. That’s the kind of fine Christian person she is. Besides, she’s crazy about you.” Thinking of all that prickly okra Sheba had cut and wouldn’t eat, Doll felt the urge to rub the tops of her hands.

"What if the Yankee tax collector shows up and she’s not here.”

"He won’t. Don’t start that again. It’s you she’s in love with.”

"I’ve never encouraged her. I hardly know her. She’ll get over it, and you don’t even have to like me especially.”

The toes in the window wiggled. The woman snored, developing a percolating pattern.

"I hope you don’t think I’d marry somebody I didn’t love. I hope you don’t think I’d do something like that to my sister, close as we are. Anyway, I like my good times; get married and the good times are over.”

"Don’t play your games with me, Doll.”

"What games?” She whipped open her fan, fanned him and laughed, then quit laughing. "So, I’m not marrying you or anybody else. I’m not leaving my home, my mother, my friends. You’d lose interest in me if you married me anyway. I know how men lose interest in women once they’re married to them. I’ve seen it all my life.”

"That’s ridiculous, and women like you have to get married.”

"What does that mean?”

"It means you’re not the old-maid type. You’ve got that extra-hot skin. I felt it when I took your arm a while ago and I can feel it like sunshine coming off of you right now.”

"I think you’ve gone just a little too far, Mr. Staten.” She started to rise.

He caught her right arm, squeezing, testing. "I haven’t insulted you and you know it; I’ve paid you a compliment and if you’re honest you’ll admit it.”

She stared into his eyes. A hollow formed on her brow above her left eye. "I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about.”

"Good,” he said. "But you do know what I’m talking about when I say I’ll take over the mortgage and the taxes on your place.” He held up one long jointed finger. "Plus... take care of your family for the rest of their days.”

"So, that’s it, that’s your offer?”

"That’s my offer. On top of that, I’ll get you a fancy way to go and you can come see your mother anytime you like. I’ll give you your freedom.”

"My freedom is not yours to give, Mr. Staten.” The toes in the window wiggled. Doll stood and blew out the candle. "But if that was the case, Mr. Staten, then I could give you your freedom, too.”



Chapter 2

Doll’s plan to save her homeplace had seemed simple enough, and profitable, before she had learned about the mortgage. Before she had hired on the family, four grown boys and their rascally father, to work the Baxter’s turpentine timber. But so far, mid-summer, height of the turpentine season, the men had managed to dip only a few barrels and half the time she either couldn’t locate them in the woods or she would ride up on them taking a break from the heat under some shade tree.

She had to admit it was too hot to work. Her riding breeches were wet in the saddle and scalding her buttocks. Staring up at the noon sun flaring white in the blue sky, she could see no sign of relief. Black buzzards with fringed and faded wingtips circled overhead, dipping, rising and gliding. She tried to recall when they had last had rain and couldn’t remember. Only that it was too long and according to the weather-wise old men of the community it would be a good while longer.

Even the locusts in the oak thicket up ahead sounded hoarse and weary, more a monotonous unnerving drone than a familiar summery brattle. She rode on through the still flocked shadows of the oak grove, toward a pool of inky water corralled by the beavers from the main channel of Toms Creek—Big Arm of Toms Creek, this spot was called. On the south curve between banks of palmettos, gallberry bushes and willows, they had built a dam of twigs and branches, creating a musical spillway. The level overflow turned to a honey-tinted tunnel, sheer and lilting and tumbling into the main flow of the creek and out of sight around the curve over small white pebbles and sand.

Doll dismounted and let the mare drink while she kneeled and wet her neckerchief and mopped her face and neck.

"Hot enough for you?”

She looked behind and saw Daniel Staten on the black stallion in the spotty sun and shade of the oaks, the stallion and Daniel’s light pant legs accented by the sunlight, his face in shadow.

"You’re always where you’re not supposed to be,” she said, trying to hide that he had frightened and excited her. "For a little bit, I’d think you’re following me.”

"I am. Sort of.” He rode forward a couple of feet and stopped and now she could see his face—coppery skin, coppery beard and that smirky grin. "Run up on your gum crew nooning beyond that cypress flat yonder, lil ole cathead of a bay.” He pointed east. "Wanted to know if I’d seen their boss lady. I say, What does she look like? She’s real pretty, one of them says, but ain’t a sweet bone in her body. I say, Oh, that would be the woman I’m going to marry. Doll Baxter.”

She stood, facing him square. "You didn’t say that.”

"Not exactly,” he said, shifting in his squeaking saddle and leaning, resting his right forearm on the saddle horn and flip-flopping the reins while he talked. "Had a little business with Hamilton Fletcher.”

"He said you’ve been trying to buy him out. Well, you can forget it; he won’t sell. He’s been out here, his family has, since back before the war.”

Daniel reached behind him, taking his time, and unlatched one pocket of his saddlebag and took out a folded white paper and waved it at her. "And he’ll stay out here long as either one of us is alive. Right there in that old whitewashed house and just as cuss-fired ornery and handsome as ever, chasing the ladies. Only difference is, he won’t have to bother with taxes and timber and such. Same deal I made you.”

"I’m not interested, and Mr. Hamilton has never chased the ladies.”

"All men chase the ladies.”

She started toward her horse now grazing in fountains of wiregrass along the north rim of the oak shade. "Why don’t you go on and leave me alone?”

"I don’t think so, not yet.” He swung down from the saddle, fluid and easy and all of one motion, looking suddenly serious and charmed beyond point of reasoning. "Don’t move, Doll.”

"I most certainly will. I don’t know what you’re up to but...”

Like a cat he sprang at her, slamming his body into hers, sending both of them flying, crashing into the creek. The lick had knocked out her breath before the water rose over her head, suffocating her. She came up thrashing and sputtering, fanning her arms. Then she stood, about waist deep, facing him and waiting for him to stand too so she could get a good swing at him. But when the water quit snapping in her eardrums and she could hear clear what was going on around her, she heard behind her on the bank the dry singing of rattles, almost a smell, and looked to see about a foot away from where she had been standing a coiled canebrake rattler, head and tail scudded and bright hide glinting in the sun.

The stallion began rearing and snorting, eyes walling, then hopping front to back hooves like a wild horse in the act of being broke. Doll’s mare merely lifted her head, frozen and watching the fool dance, then went back to grazing again.

"Hoo now,” Daniel said to the horse as he waded out of the water with both hands up and his eyes down at the snake. "Keep a close watch on that fellow there, will you, Doll? Don’t let him get away.” His pants and shirt were plastered to his slim body and dripping. He stepped wide to the left of the snake and eased up on the frantic stallion and caught his bit shank close to his mouth and led him toward the oak grove, sweet-talking like he would to a woman.

Doll couldn’t take her eyes off the snake. She sank to her knees, chin deep, tasting the cool sweet water and smelling the tart willows, eye-level with the snake only a yard or so away on the bank. Rattling like castanets in time to the gurgling of the waterspill over the beaver dam of the creek.

Moments later, Daniel appeared from the oak grove without the stallion. He was holding forth a long stout branch, creeping up on the snake. Standing over it he brought the limb up and slammed down on the teetering pitted head, sending it writhing and wriggling, belly up and over, almost braiding. Then he lifted the snake, a good five feet long, on the end of the limb and pitched it out into a cluster of fan palmettos north of the creek bank. Rattles still sounding, but fading out to a phantom chatter.

Brushing bark from his hands, he started back to the point of the creek where she still knelt, water bobbing under her chin, eyes level with his black boots now.

"You okay out there?” he called.

"Okay,” she said, but didn’t move.

"I think I’ll go on back to Staten Bay then.” He laughed. "This place is too rich for my blood.”

"Thanks,” she said, savoring the cool water and the peace now. The snake had ceased rattling and the drone of locusts filled in. She couldn’t come out until Daniel left or he would see her breasts through her wet blue shirt.

"Here,” he said, stepping closer and holding out one hand, "let me help you out before I go.”

"No, thanks.”

"Will you marry me now?”


"Will you kiss me for saving your life?”


He turned around, walking toward the oak grove. "You will, boss lady,” he called back. "You will and you’ll be begging for more.” Again he vanished into the oaks, leaving behind an afterimage of his sure solid striding.

He was stuck in her head. She felt her knees would buckle if she tried to stand; it was a delicious, raw feeling that surely must be a sin. "Oh, Baa!” Doll said, sighing her sister’s nickname. "Baa, I’m drowning.”

They had been ten and twelve, the two sisters, racing toward the creek, Doll ahead dropping her skirt to the ground, running out of it and on in only her bloomers and white blouse, and Sheba behind, laughing, scolding. Doll stripped off her shirt, laughing, both of them laughing, and jumped holding to her feet into the pool of black water. Sheba eased along the bank with her skirts lifted, yelling, "Doll Baxter, you’re gonna drown if you don’t mind out. Hear me?” Doll was hiding behind a fallen pine log, peeping over. Watching her sister drop the skirt and shirt belonging to Doll that she had gathered up along the way, then tip timidly out into the water. "Doll, where are you? Doll?” Suddenly she stepped into a washout and dropped neck-deep with her skirts burbling air and billowing up to the surface like ruffled mushrooms. She shouted, "Oh my God, Doll, I think I’m drowning!” and began slapping at the water and stepping toward the nearest bank which dropped off deeper than the place where she was standing before. Doll watched her go under, then bob up, strangling, and began swimming, hand over hand and straight for her. She knew Sheba would drown her if she tried to rescue her by swimming up to her and grabbing hold. So she sloshed out and up the bank and grabbed her own overskirt and laid it out over the churning water in front of Sheba. She caught it and Doll reeled her in like a giant fish.

The next day was hotter still when Doll rode the woods checking behind the turpentine crew. She rode all morning, looking for them and listening for the sound of their dip irons rapping on their tar buckets, though generally what she would hear if she heard anything at all was their hollering at one another or the old man threatening to whip one of them—doubly troubling in echo. She’d hired on a sorry lot, to be sure. Men who worked cheap, she had learned, turned out cheap work.

A lordgod woodpecker, laying-hen-size, cackled out over the woods, then another. She found fresh signs of where the crew had worked a stand of timber on high ground next to a cypress slew; the slew had gone to crusts of mud from the drought and not one crust had been broken. Any woodsrider knows the signs: a sorry crew will work the trees on higher ground and avoid the mud and moccasins of the slews. Wagon and mule tracks had disturbed the dead pinestraw of the high ground, but the men were long gone.

Even telling herself that maybe the men had moved on to another drift of timber, she knew better. They were gone for good, this time. But they had taken her mule and wagon, plus the tools she had loaned them. Even the empty barrels and what dab of gum they had dipped. Not owning tools themselves should have been a clear sign they were shiftless and lazy. She’d thought that the man having a family meant he’d be dependable, less apt to cause trouble in the flatwoods than a single man would.

She rode on out of the woods to the beaming sand road and headed south a mile or so toward the shack where they’d been batching since they came to work for her. Her scalp steamed under her hair she was so furious.

When she got to the shack, wading the mare through the high grass and weeds of the shallow yard to the sloped wood porch, she found the front door standing open. From where she sat, looking in, she could see a shirt here, a sock there, and centerwise of the front room a charred circle on the floor, meaning they’d almost set the house afire. The heat of the sun, now overhead, made the burned spot seem more ominous—a miracle they hadn’t set the dry woods on fire—and strengthened the odor of rancid lard and piss.

She heard what sounded like the neighing of a mule coming from the back yard, and rode on around the house, through the thick grass, dog fennels and briars. Guiding the mare over the scattered clay bricks from the collapsed chimney on the north end of the house, she spied her gum wagon loaded with barrels still hitched to the mule, shifting hoof to hoof in full sun in the heat of the day. Left to thirst or starve to death. She unhitched the mule from the wagon and led him over to the crumbling brick well, drew a bucket of water and set it before him to drink. While he drank, she went over to the rotting corncrib east of the gum wagon, opened the door and picked among the leavings of snaggled corncobs, some with black-hearted kernels, and bundled it out to the mule.

Doll was small but she was strong, and she had dipped gum before. She’d helped her daddy. Or was it the other way around? Now she would need help.

Sheba was ready to quitbefore her first bucket was full of gum. Actually, she kept lugging it half-full to one of the empty pine-stave barrels on back of the wagon and dumping it.

"You girls don’t strain yourselves now.” Mrs. Baxter was scooping gum from the bowels of a pine like soup from a tureen, with the same tender concentration. "My daddy, bless his soul, used to say you could tell if a box was cut right by rolling a fifty-cent piece across the bottom of it.”

A "box” was a sloped pocket routed out of the fatty heart of the pine trunk, hip-high to a man, for the purpose of collecting the resin or gum seeping and running down from the skinned and streaked patch above it. The whisker-like vee streaks resembled the face of a cat, so came to be called catfaces, a craft born of need, but like the boxes themselves symbolized the turpentine man’s industriousness or slack.

Doll’s daddy had pulled the very streaks over her head and she had to admit they were as crooked as she’d ever seen.

Sheba set her bucket next to the barrel, took off her straw hat and fanned with it. "Doll, I say we ride over to Mr. Hamilton’s and talk to him about who we can hire to dip.”

Doll was dipping boxes a few yards from the wagon. "I’ve already done that, Baa. He’s the one sent me to the Dempsys. Just think taxes and dip, Baa.” She didn’t want to tell them that the men she’d hired, the Dempsys, had stolen the Baxters’ tools and she’d had to borrow from another neighbor.

"They seemed like such nice boys,” Mrs. Baxter said, holding up her dip iron by the handle for emphasis. "Of course, their daddy didn’t look like there was much to him, which just goes to show—a man without a wife...”

"I’ll bet she didn’t die like they said,” said Sheba. "I bet she left the whole bunch.”

"Smart woman,” said Doll.

"Oh my.” Sheba sighed. "Aren’t you tired,Doll?”

"We just got here two hours ago.”

"Well, it feels like ten hours to me.”

"Take a break if you want to.” Doll lugged over a brimming bucket of gum, set it on the wagon next to a barrel. Then she stepped onto the wagon and dumped it into the barrel. The gum oozed like honey over the barrel bottom. Usually the mule would haul up the wagon on command to accommodate the workers, but Doll, feeling sorry for the mule, had staked him out in the shade after the wagon was situated in the drift of pines they would be working—a kind of triptych of women and timber. On high ground.

"And let you do all the work?” said Sheba. "Of course not.” She set out with her round pine-stave bucket swinging.

Mrs. Baxter, stomping wiregrass to keep from tripping on the long stringy blades, getting set to dip from another tree, said, "I’d give a pretty to happen up on that pine that runs green gum, wouldn’t y’all?”

"Oh yeah.” Sheba set her bucket down, peering around. "I remember that. Don’t you, Doll?”

Sheba never could talk while she worked. Doll kept dipping, as example. "I remember.”

"Green as a gourd,” said Mrs. Baxter. "Never seen anything like it.”

"Did you actually see it, Mama?”

Mrs. Baxter stopping dipping, thinking. "No. No, I didn’t, come to think of it. Your daddy just told me about it.” She laid her iron carefully across the rim of her dip bucket. "Strange how something like that you picture in your mind for so long, afterwhile you believe you really saw it.”

"Well,” said Doll, "we might just find it if we keep dipping.”

"Yes,” said Sheba, feebly picking up her bucket and walking toward another tree. "Poor Doll’s doing all the work.”

Thirty minutes later Sheba was sitting against a tree near the wagon, bracing her back. Hat on her lap. She looked like a fat hen setting eggs in the nests of wiregrass. Miserable, duty-bound, wishing to be somewhere else.

Doll would have liked to think that the other two women were lazy or weak but she figured they were smarter than she was, that they would last longer, because of pacing themselves. No time for pacing.

"Keep an eye out where you step, girls—snakes are crawling.”

Doll kept dipping, even knowing they were about as far away from getting a load of gum to take to the nearest fire still, Four-mile Still, as they were from catching up the back taxes. Not to mention the mortgage. If not for her sister sitting there under that tree, she would have been tempted to take Daniel Staten up on his offer. Thoughts of him yesterday made her insides nettle. Or was it her blood boiling from the heat? The sticky pale gum had turned dark on her hands, like permanent dirt, and she could barely free her fingers from the sappy wooden handle of the dip iron. Thinking about it made her torment herself with crazy incessant longing to tap her fingers, to scratch her nose where a bead of sweat clung to the tip. Gnats sipped from the bead. Each swing up of the iron to the box cut into the tree, she felt her right elbow wrench; her right shoulder socket felt enlarged by the pain of lifting the bucket. Add to all that the fact that her misery had caused her to forget to look down at the ground for snakes.

"Try not to ruin your hands now, girls,” said Mrs. Baxter. She lugged her bucket to the wagon, left arm out for balance, set it on the ground and leaned on the wagon facing Sheba under the tree and Doll dipping gum a few trees east of them.

Doll could tell they were intent on practicing gracious living regardless—porch talk after noon—to the shrill of katydids and drone of locusts and the clicking of crickets in the russet pine straw.

Mrs. Baxter led off. "Aunt Tee used to swear by vinegar. She would dab it all over the tops of her hands to get rid of the liver pieds.”

"And couldn’t she make the best crabapple jelly!” Sheba replied.

"Bless her heart, she suffered though. That old heart dropsy from sleeping in the moonlight.”

"If that was the way of it, Doll would be dead, Mama.”

"Doll never sleeps in the moonlight. Do you, Doll?”

"Sometimes I do, Mama. I really don’t believe that about heart dropsy.”

"Well, it’s true and it runs in the family.”

"Then it stands to reason,” Doll said, stepping to the next tree with her bucket, "that sleeping in moonlight has nothing to do with it.”

"I am so hot,” said Sheba.

"All this heat,” said Mrs. Baxter in a drawn-out longing tone, "it’s bound to rain by and by.” She stared west, in the direction of the gulf, known locally as Peter’s Mudhole.

"I wish it’d come up a shower.” Sheba peered up through green pine needles at the sullen white sky. "Course, then we’d have to worry about lightning.”

"And us out here in the woods at the mercy of the world!” Mrs. Baxter crossed her arms over her massive bosom. "I do wish the Dempseys had spared our weather shelters.”

For no reason that anybody could ascertain, the Dempseys had kicked or knocked over the many scrap-wood lean-tos scattered about the woods for shelter from sudden violent weather. Though Doll never believed for a minute that the single slanted tacked together four-by-fours really offered much protection, their having destroyed them made her fume. Next time she would hire on a single man. If he rambled, so be it.

"Did Cousin Catherine ever re-marry after her first husband died?” asked Sheba.

"Not as I know of, sugar. She just moved on back home and took care of Aunt Tee till she died.”

"I’ll be glad when I get married,” said Sheba. "I’d marry the man in the moon if he asked me. Long as he didn’t have turpentine timber.”

"I could use a man around the house myself.”

"Mama!” Sheba laughed and flapped her hat at her.

"No,” she said, wiping sweat from her red face with the tail of her old faded gray dress, "I won’t marry again; I don’t trust men anymore.” She stood straight, staring off at the neat pinewoods, tree upon tree forming a brown fortress. "Your daddy plain wore me out with his drinking and rambling. But you girls should know he wasn’t always like that; he was industrious and true-blue as they come when we first got married. Many a good boy lost heart after the war, I can tell you.”

Before she spoke, Doll had considered telling them, then and there, about the mortgage. Get to work! But she could imagine their shocked faces, or worse, her mother making light of the situation—we will manage. She never lost heart, couldn’t afford to—this woman was the one who uplifted and held the family together—and Doll would do no different. She would do what she had to for her mother now. She would take hold.

"Let’s knock off,” she said and walked off toward the wagon, leaving her bucket and dip iron next to the last tree she would ever dip.

The following Sunday, at Bony Bluff meeting house, a thirty-minute buggy ride across the woods from the Baxter place, Doll was sitting between her mother and Sheba when she saw Daniel Staten stroll in during morning preaching and sit directly across the aisle on the men’s side. Same white shirt, black string tie, coat, vest and pants he’d worn to the governor’s party, as if he’d decided what to wear courting with the same unwavering mindset used to decide which girl he would court.

Doll could tell Sheba saw him too by the way she stiffened and sat straight and smoothed the gathers of her black and pink dress, though her eyes stayed on the weak-eyed young preacher in the pulpit. He was new, and nobody had gotten attached to him yet, which meant that if he didn’t put some fire in those sermons, he’d be looking for another church soon. When the congregation stood to sing the last hymn, "When We All Get Together,” Sheba’s fake-cultured voice rose above the country whang of the other voices. And then her wide-set brown eyes began darting at Daniel Staten, who was standing without singing, not even humbling himself by mouthing the words.

Sheba had pitched a fit when she found out that she’d missed him at the dance, and she was now turning up the volume, intent on making him sit up and take notice.

If not for the fact that Doll had not set out to get him to ask her to marry him, she would have felt guilty for betraying her sister instead of just guilty for not telling her he’d proposed so she could start eating again. How long could she last without eating? She didn’t look famished, or even slimmer, only hollow-eyed. Doll felt guilty too for not discussing his "offer” with her mother. If she had, if she had left the matter up to her mother, Mrs. Baxter would have forced her to choose between the pride and virtue of the Baxter household and the homeplace of that very household. No, Doll would have to make this decision on her own—make it and then live with it the best way she could. She knew what her answer would be because there was only one answer.

Fifth Sundays, and on Sundays before and after spring revival, Bony Bluff Church would wrap up the morning service with dinner-on-the-ground. More people than at regular services, coming from far and wide, and all of them bringing food. Except for the bachelors. Like Daniel Staten. Still, he didn’t stand out, Doll decided, coming to Bony Bluff on Fifth Sunday. She wondered how early he had to get up that morning to make it to Sunday meeting at Bony Bluff on time. Had he come just to see her? She knew he had. She felt the skin on her forearms and it did feel hot.

After serving their plates from the tables set up outside and loaded with food, Doll and Adam Burkholt sat under one of the old longleaf pines surrounding the lofty frame meeting house, called Bony Bluff. A mellow breeze hummed in the pine tops and scattered their spurred shadows. Legs folded and plates of food on their laps, they watched Sheba in line behind Daniel leaving one of the food tables between the building and the cemetery. Mrs. Baxter, in a happy straw hat with a red rose center of the brim, and Aunt Millie, her sister-in-law, were fanning flies from the food with trimmed palmetto fans, laughing and talking with everybody passing by and dipping from the bowls to their plates, forking pink slices of smoked ham and brown crusty fried chicken. Aunt Millie and Uncle Lester had come on Friday from the Wrights Chapel area, thirty miles west, across the Alapaha River, to help Mrs. Baxter and the girls shore up the old barn and dredge sand from the well. Being smallest and youngest, Doll was the one who was lowered down into the well to dip buckets of sand for the others to haul up.

Not that Doll had minded the icy water or the sand—Sheba said she looked like a mealed fish—but she did mind looking a mess. Today she felt fixed-up: She was wearing an ankle length green skirt cinched at the waist with a wide brown belt borrowed from Brice, her own white blouse with puffy sleeves, green plaid bow at the neck borrowed from Brice, who had begged her to wear her straw hat with the matching band. No, she would not cover her hair.

Holding plates of food out before them, Daniel and Sheba made their way through the crowd, appeared to be heading straight for Adam and Doll. Daniel stopped, eyes locking on Doll. Adam was telling her about a landline case his law firm in Homerville was working on. She bit into the juicy white meat of a wishbone, nodded at Daniel.

Adam quit talking. "Let me know if I’m boring you.”

Doll laughed, dropped her chicken to her plate. Watched Adam watching Daniel followed by Sheba after they had passed from her view to the pine shade behind her.

Adam picked up his wedge of cornbread and broke it in half, placed the crusty end on her plate. "Friends?” he asked.

"Friends,” she said, smiling and flipping a lock of black hair from her face. "Forever,” she added and bit into the bread.

He stared at he, smiling back, then beyond her. "Don’t tell me Mr. Staten Bay is courting Sheba?”

"I thought it was Statenville that was named for him.”

Adam drank from his glass of tea. "Right. Staten Bay’s his plantation.” He set his glass down on the mat of dead pine straw and nodded west toward the on-going pinewoods. "South of Statenville, near the Florida line. What he doesn’t own already from the Suwannee to the Alapaha, he’s looking to own—that’s what they say.” Again his eyes strayed beyond her, over her head. "I guess you heard about him buying out Uncle Hamilton.”

"I heard.” She wouldn’t say how she’d heard.

"Looks like he’s trying to scoot his landlines eastward, buying up the flatwoods.”

She looked down at her plate. Waiting.

"So, is he courting Sheba?” Adam asked.

"No. Me.”

He set his plate down by his glass. "But you’re not marrying, are you?” Sudden katydids shrieked tree to tree, woodside of the iron cemetery fence. "That’s what you always say.”

"Is that why you never asked me?”

"And what if I asked you now?”

"I’d say friends don’t marry friends.” She tossed the wishbone over her right shoulder for the raccoons to eat that night, and for luck.

"But it’s okay to marry a stranger—like Staten there?” He butted the hot breeze with his dark head.

She started to tell him about the secret mortgage and the not-so-secret back taxes, about Daniel’s offer to take over both and take care of her and Mrs. Baxter and Sheba forever. But she didn’t want Adam to think she’d been bought, for one thing; and for another she didn’t want him to think that for the right price he could have bought her, and that by not buying her, by not coming up with however much money it would take, he was out of the bidding, relenting to the next highest bidder. But finally, when all was said and done, that’s exactly what she would want Adam and everybody else to think, rather than guess that at only seventeen she was already going back on her vow never to marry. That every time she saw Daniel Staten she felt flushed all over and more than a little curious about what it would be like to be loved by this rogue-hearted stranger, who even at a distance behind her excited such sinful thoughts. "Yes,” she said, "it’s okay to marry a stranger.”

A young lad in patched gray knee britches, one of Adam’s Sunday school students, was sneaking up behind him. He tapped Adam on the head. Adam whirled, still seated on the pine straw, and grabbed the boy around the legs and wrestled him to the ground. Both laughing, wrangling, till Adam let go and the boy loped off, grinning back.

Smoothing his ruffled black hair, Adam turned to Doll. "Tough as a litard knot,” he said. "Boys like that are the hope of the New South. Reminds me of that Confederate soldier Cousin Henry Grady made reference to in New York City back before Christmas. Said he was headed home after the war, he and a couple of other soldiers; they’d stopped along the road to parch some corn, and the soldier said, ‘You can leave the South if you want to, but I’m going home to Sandersville. I’m gonna kiss my wife and raise a crop, and if the Yankees fool with me anymore I’ll whip them again.’ Sherman was right there in the audience, and Cousin Grady acknowledged him, said he guessed the old Union general was okay but he had a bad habit of burning.” Adam laughed.

"Is it true they have electric lights in New York?” Doll asked.

"In the city, yeah. But that wasn’t the point; the point was rebuilding what the war destroyed.”

"I’m sorry, Adam. I just get tired of hearing about some old war before I was born.”

"Barely before you were born. Anyway, it’s over and we’re on the way up, and I doubt we’ll be throwing another party for the governor anytime soon.” Adam laughed. "Sick as his wife was the next morning, she insisted they catch the early train. The governor told Uncle Hamilton it looked to him like we were holding our own.”

"What did that mean?”

"I guess it meant we can make a living without his cotton mill. Who knows? Maybe he got afraid we might sabotage it.” His eyes roved over Doll’s head, to where Daniel and Sheba were standing. "So, does Sheba know yet?”

Talk of the governor had squashed Doll’s notion of squaring with Adam. "Nobody knows yet. Not even me for sure.”

Adam leaned back against the pine trunk, one knee up and the other leg crooked under. "I believe you will... marry. I believe it’ll be some swaggering joker like Staten there.”

She leaned forward, shook his slim booted foot and laughed.

"Yeah,” he said and didn’t laugh. "And he’ll make you miserable and you’ll come crying to good old dependable Adam.”

"I won’t... I mean I probably won’t marry. I’m too much a mama-girl for one thing.” Even saying it she knew she was lying, on the church grounds at that.

"Don’t say you won’t. I hope you will. If I can’t marry you, I’ll take you for my mistress. I’ll take you any dang way I can get you.”

"Adam,” Doll squealed and laughed out, "Mama would kill you if she heard you say that.” She searched the grounds for her mother, located her and Aunt Millie and a couple of other older women passing through the spiked-iron gate of the cemetery where the sun shone harsh among the leaning shadows of headstones.

"Just remember, a man like that gets bored real easy, even with a beautiful woman like you.”

She started to speak; he placed his hand on her arm. "Don’t look now, but I think Staten’s just broke the news to Sheba that he prefers her pretty sister.”

Doll turned quick, regardless of Adam’s warning. Sheba was standing with her arms crossed, staring down at the ground while listening to Daniel. Her face was red; she looked poutythick and misplaced.

"You think he’s telling her about you or just telling her to get lost?” Adam asked.

"To get lost.” Doll continued to look at them. "Oh, Baa,” she said, guilt-ridden even knowing that she hadn’t stolen her big sister’s beau—Doll would never have done something like that—and sad because Sheba didn’t have the insight to know that Daniel Staten never was interested in her, or the pride to hide her private feelings.

Strangely, on the way home in the buggy with Mrs. Baxter guiding the snuff-brown gelding along the open sunny roads and around shady curves of vine-bound blackgums and scrub oaks, Sheba said nothing about what Daniel had said, but the fact that she didn’t even mention his name for the first time in weeks said it all.

Doll felt like crying, but reasoned that even should she refuse to marry Daniel, he wouldn’t marry Sheba in her sister’s place. Then there was their good strong mother to think of—more important than saving the homeplace, more important than sparing Sheba’s feelings. No more scrimping. No more dipping gum.

Still, Sheba’s unhappiness stanched Doll’s own happiness.

At home, Sheba changed out of her Sunday dress and put on her old yellow gardening dress, the hickory-stripe bonnet and a white apron and headed out the back with her oak stave bucket swinging from the bail.

"Whatever in the world, Sheba!” Mrs. Baxter called through the open kitchen window. "It’s Sunday.”

Doll standing beside her mother placed a hand on her arm to quiet her. The kitchen still smelled warm of chicken and dumplings and gingerbread taken to Sunday meeting.

"What’s going on?” Mrs. Baxter asked Doll.

"She’s going to cut the okra.”

"I can see that.” Then, "Sheba!” out the window.

Stiff, sullen and justified, Sheba started cutting the okra and kept cutting the okra and didn’t look up. Moving along the heat-warped row like she was deaf and set in motion and couldn’t stop till she reached the end of the row or the end of whatever was playing out in her head.

"Leave her be, Mama,” Doll said. "She’s just found out that Daniel Staten’s not interested in her.”

"How do you know?”

"He proposed to me.”

She took off her hat. Her faded brown hair was matted to her head and comical looking. "Well, I hope you set him straight.” She held her hat to her bosom, rose facing out. "My mercy! Poor Sheba.”

In the kitchen Sheba washed the spikes of okra, dried and sliced them in perfect thin rounds, then mealed them and heated up some grease in a black castiron skillet and fried them. A full two-quart blue shoulder bowl of gold-crusted okra, which she sat and ate leisurely at the kitchen table while Doll and Mrs. Baxter rocked on the front porch and thought their own private thoughts but didn’t tell. They often talked at night after Sheba went to sleep to keep from riling her. You never could tell what might rile Sheba, but they knew talk of Daniel proposing to Doll would rile Sheba. It could wait till night.

But not that night.

As the sisters lay in the muggy hot dark, that night, in their side by side double beds, Doll heard Sheba sniffling, sobbing into her pillow.

"I’m sorry, Baa,” she said low.

Her voice turned Doll’s way. "Sorry for what?”

"Not for anything I’ve done, but I know you had your sights set on Daniel Staten.” She figured then that Sheba didn’t know he’d proposed to her.

She started crying again, turned away. Muffled crying.

Doll propped on one elbow. "Listen, Baa, you’ll marry somebody else, and then you’ll laugh about this.”

"I won’t marry.”

Doll laughed. "That’s what I always say, not you.”

"Well, are you going to marry him or not?”

Doll was wrong about her not knowing. Didn’t answer.

"He said you are.”

"He said that? I can’t believe him!” Doll sat up, silhouetted in silver in the dresser mirror at the foot of her bed: a glowing figment of one-part giddy elation and one-part numb despair. "I never said I would, I said I wouldn’t.”

"But you will.” Sheba was no longer crying. "And I’ll hate you till my dying day.”

"I love you, Baa. I’ll always love you. I never set out to betray you with Daniel Staten. I won’t say I’m not flattered to have a handsome man like that wanting to marry me, but I never set out to make him like me.” Doll bunched her pillow under her head and turned facing her sister’s bed. "I would never hurt you if I could help it, you know that.”

"Well, you have.” Sheba started crying all over again—linking sobs.

"Please quit crying, Baa. Please.”

"Not till you swear you won’t marry him.”

"Answer me one thing, Baa, will you?”


"Would you really want to marry him now? I mean, knowing he doesn’t want to marry you?”

"No. But I wouldn’t want my own sister marrying him either, not after the way he’s treated me. Embarrassing me to death in front of my friends.”

"Would it have been kinder of him to marry you to keep from embarrassing you?”

Sheba laughed then, actually laughed out in the dark. Doll laughed too, then quit when her sister’s laughter turned to violent sobbing, scraped from the heart.

Doll’s wedding day broke hot and hazy. By noon, August 2, 1887, she would be Mrs. Daniel Staten, a married woman at seventeen. Leaving the flatwoods on the fringes of the Okefenokee Swamp for the first time, traveling west to Staten Bay, twenty-odd miles that would feel like a thousand miles from home because she would be leaving her mother and Sheba for the first time. With a stranger she didn’t particularly like but liked better than she let on to everybody concerned. She had always said she wouldn’t marry and now she was marrying. Still, she would hold forever in her heart who she truly was—Doll Baxter.

The wedding was set for eleven o’clock on Saturday morning, at Bony Bluff Church, to allow time for the bride and groom to travel to his home before dark.

Mrs. Baxter had altered her once-white satin wedding gown with its stained appliques of roses to fit her tiny daughter. More than a tuck here and there on the bodice; she’d had to completely remake the dress, had pressed the train to flow like water behind the bride. Not a happy day for Mrs. Baxter or Sheba, but necessary to hold on to the old homeplace. Leave it at that.

Finally Doll had confessed to both women about the mortgage, but only after she’d told Daniel she would take him up on his offer.

This time when he had come, in the cool of the evening, after suppertime at the Baxters’, Doll and Sheba were picking peas. A long time hearing him coming, like before, and when Sheba saw him clear the blind of pines and suddenly appear on the stallion in the dusky open stretch of road in front of the house, she simply picked up her bucket of crisscrossed peas and walked down the row to the back of the house. Set the bucket on the porch and went out to the barn to check on her bear.

Mrs. Baxter had gone to take cornbread and pot liquor with fresh field peas, just coming in, to a sickly neighbor lady, so Doll was alone when she took her bucket and headed out of the garden and across the yard. He had stopped at the gate, still sitting on the edgy black stallion with about a zillion yellow flies swarming around them. Doll set her bucket down and leaned on the gate, waiting while he circled the horse in the road to calm him. Lightning bugs twinkled like stars in the woods across the road and the cooling pines smelled tart. Whiffs of bear came only at intervals when the breeze switched from east to west. The white sand of the road seemed to have soaked up the heat and glow of the sun that day.

When at last Daniel had the horse aimed in Doll’s direction, she spoke. "I’d ask you in but Mama’s not here.” She smushed a yellow fly siphoning blood like a vampire under her chin.

"Good evening to you too, Doll.” He took off his hat.

"Good evening, Mr. Staten.”

The horse swung his head and champed at the bit, jangling it. Daniel snatched the reins, circled, came back. "Well?”


"Yes you’ll marry me or yes I can come in.”

"Yes, I’ll marry you and no you can’t come in. Sheba’s out at the barn, all upset over this.”

"It never was a contest, she has to know that.”

"She does. She’s just hurt.”

The yard was growing up in shadows, closing in, and a whippoorwill struck up a steady harking, distant but distinct across the woods. The horse whickered. A rumble of buggy wheels sounded down the road out of the south.

"That’ll be Mama,” Doll said.

"I guess I’d better come in then.”

"No. I’d rather you didn’t. I’ll tell her myself.”

"So, Doll,” he said, "when are we getting married?”

The buggy was getting closer, bucking over ruts and rattling like a peddler’s wagon with pots and pans hung on the sides.

"I’ll talk to Mama and let you know.”

Daniel turned the stallion, trotting north. But when he got to the start of the pines at the north corner of the new fence, he turned again, galloping the horse with glaring eyewhites, and skidded to a stop at the gate. "You won’t be sorry,” he said and swung down, holding to the reins and leaning over the gate, close in her face as if to kiss her, but all at once the horse reared, yanking him back. He laughed, wheeled and placed one boot in the stirrup with the other following, hopping along, then swung up again. "You don’t reckon my horse is smelling bear, do you?” He laughed, sawing back on the reins. "Maybe he’s just trying to warn me about getting married after all this time.”

He didn’t wait for an answer, just trotted up the road in the stallion’s fusing tracks.

Again, Doll felt that giddy elation mixed with numb despair. When he’d leaned over the gate—to kiss her?—she had felt that heat like sunshine coming off of him.

She went up on the porch, down the hall and into the front room on her right, lit the lamp on the table by the door and waited for her mother to unhitch the buggy and send the mare out to graze the sparse but dewy grass beyond the lot. Doll turned as the lamp flared and saw Sheba sitting in the cattycornered chair by the farthest front window over the porch.

Doll knew she had heard. "Sheba, I have to marry him. For us. All of us.”

"Do me a favor and let me just guess.” Sheba’s chin was resting in one hand, elbow propped on the stuffed chair arm, staring out the window where white moths floated through to the furry yellow light. She had on her long white nightgown and her dark hair around her face was damp. She looked pure as Mary, mother of Jesus. Her coarse face shone of soap-washing and youth. Pretty skin on a not-so-pretty girl.

"Please, Baa. Please forgive me.”

"Yoo hoo, I’m home,” Mrs. Baxter called from the back porch and came on up the hall and into the parlor, removing her straw hat.

"Mama,” Doll said, "come sit down.”

"What’s going on?” She plopped into the chair next to the table and lamp and placed her hat on her lap. Her tan-checked skirt and bulk overflowed, covering the worn tapestry.

"I’m marrying Daniel Staten,” Doll said, eyes roving from one woman to the other. Tonight they didn’t look alike. Sheba looked like somebody else, a stranger, or the way she might look dead in her casket.

Mrs. Baxter sat forward. Silent, figuring Sheba.

"I want you both to know why.” And then Doll told them about the mortgage, which seemed not to surprise Mrs. Baxter, and Sheba appeared not to care.

When Doll was done, Sheba got up and walked out and down the hall to the bedroom she shared with her sister, went inside and closed the door softly.

Mrs. Baxter followed her, went into her room and came out and on into the kitchen where she lit the lamp on the square table in the middle of the room. When Doll came through the door, she saw her mother slicing the jellyroll she’d baked that afternoon, then sitting with a fork and saucer, eating. "Poor Sheba,” she said low, forking the cake to her mouth. It was filled with blackberry jam they’d put up the week before.

Doll sat across from her. "What did she say?”

"Nothing, which says more than anything she might have said.”

Doll started to get up.

Mrs. Baxter stopped her. "Let her sleep. This is one of those things only sleep or a good jellyroll will cure.”

After they had got ready for bed and snuffed the lamps in Mrs. Baxter’s bedroom, she said, "I wish you’d have let me handle this.”

Doll was lying beside her under the gauzy white tent of mosquito netting. Always afraid of the dark, she had started slipping into her mother’s room when she was a child, and still, most nights, she would sneak out to sleep with her mother after Sheba fell asleep. This night she hadn’t had to sneak. "And how would you have handled it—what would you have said?” Doll asked.

"I’d have said, ‘Mr. Staten, I’ll have you know my daughter is not livestock to be bargained for. Come courting her proper or don’t come courting at all.”‘

Doll, speaking to the dark, said, "But really it all amounts to about the same thing, doesn’t it? I mean, a woman marries for love or for convenience, but still it boils down to the same thing.”

"I’ve seen people who married for love start hating each other in a couple of months. And I’ve seen people fall in love who married for convenience. Six of one, half-dozen of the other. It’s chancy either way.”

In summer, they always threw open the wood shutters after dressing for bed, swapping off their safety from uncertain human menaces, certain snakes and mosquitoes, for a bit of air. Now the mosquitoes whined and went silent in the folds of net. Through the windows each side of the bed came the call of an owl backed by the seesawing ring of katydids. Kerosene fumes and smoke lay thick on the smothery air, but the rough muslin sheets smelled of sun, felt cool when Doll moved an arm or leg to a fresh spot.

"Well, I feel a whole lot more sensible marrying for convenience,” Doll said.

"Seems like a fine enough man, this Daniel Staten. Quit wiggling. At least I’m not worried about him taking you off to starve. It’s like they say—money’s just a fact of life and not all that important if you have plenty. Still, it’s all a matter of balance.”

Doll propped on one elbow, gazing at the ghost of her mother’s familiar bulk encompassed by the net. "I’m coming home, you know that. I mean, he said he was getting me a fancy way to go and I could come and go as I like.”

"That’s how come I’m not crying the blues over this marriage; I know if things don’t go to suit you, you’ll come home if you have to walk.” She shuffled and shifted onto her side—bed frame groaning—facing the far wall. "Now go to sleep,” she said.

"Mama, I don’t think you’re supposed to say that to me about coming home.” Doll laughed. "I think you’re supposed to say, ‘you made your bed now lie in it.’”

"That’s the good in getting old: You have more authority, don’t give a hang about the rules. Another thing, you can eat all you want because fat looks as good as skinny on an old woman.” She moaned. "But I do wish I hadn’t eaten that whole jelly roll. I am a weak woman. Go to sleep.”

"One more thing,” Doll said, knowing now that she had worried her mother awake, she would talk her younger daughter to sleep. "What about the mortgage and taxes if I leave Daniel?”

"So, the old place goes. We’ll move in with Lester and Millie, we’ll go begging if we have to. I could use a change ever now and then.”

"I don’t think I could stand to lose this place. I mean, I’ll be gone but I need to know this land stays in our family. That I can come home when I take a notion.”

Mrs. Baxter threw her night voice over her left shoulder. "You want to live a short sad life, start giving in to the notion that there are things you can’t stand.”

The morning of the wedding,Daniel arrived on his black stallion, wearing a dark coat and gray-striped trousers, black bow tie and white shirt, bringing with him the same wagon drawn by the brindle mule-faced gelding that had brought the lumber to mend Mrs. Baxter’s fence. One of Daniel’s hired men, Oscar Bowen, a swarthy, stocky man, in a brown felt hat, was driving the wagon.

Almost everybody in the flatwoods showed up at Bony Bluff for the wedding—all of Sheba’s friends and Doll’s friends and Mrs. Baxter’s friends, plus family. But only Oscar Bowen attended for Daniel Staten. As if, Doll thought, this was business, not pleasure, and not to be made much over. And it was business. She wouldn’t have married him for love—if it was love—because of her sister.

In spite of the heat Doll felt shivery, walking up the aisle with Adam, whose face was red with nerves. Shoe soles scraping on the hardwood floor. Maybe she shouldn’t have asked him to give her away; maybe she should have done like Mrs. Baxter said and asked Hamilton Fletcher, but she’d asked Adam to include him and to announce publicly that all along they’d just been friends and not lovers like everybody thought. This whole wedding suddenly seemed so wrong, what did one more shouldn’t-have matter? A man in the congregation cleared his throat as if to correct her.

At the altar, decorated with woods ferns and white candles in branching wrought-iron candelabras, shaped like trees, Daniel was waiting on the preacher’s right, Sheba and Brice, dressed all in pink, on his left. Doll and Adam were getting closer, passing the standing congregation. Mrs. Baxter on Doll’s right was smiling, turned toward the bride, almost there, almost hung for her crime of agreeing to marry Daniel Staten.

Why was he marrying her anyway? She had her reasons and excuses but what were his really?

Their shoe soles stopped scraping on the floor. Adam and Doll were facing the preacher, whose thin lips were moving way too fast, it seemed to Doll. Getting it said and over with.

"Who gives this bride in marriage?” he asked.

"I do,” Adam said and kissed Doll’s cheek and lingered with his left arm about her waist.

Daniel with his hands clasped behind hesitated as Adam turned and sat next to Mrs. Baxter, then he stepped forward, green eyes pinned on Doll even while repeating his vows. There were comb-marks in his coppery hair. In a minute, in less than a minute, he would be kissing her for the first time. She thought about Adam’s kiss on the cheek, other kisses on her lips, preparing herself for her first time being kissed by Daniel Staten, this tall handsome stranger with the deep-set eyes and shelf brow. She thought about Sheba on her right, slightly behind, watching her and hating her. Then she was yanked away from all thoughts, feeling shock, stabbed by light, as Daniel hugged her to his hard body and covered her mouth with his, parting her teeth with his tongue. She bit it. His eyes flew wide, he let go of her and covered his mouth with one hand. They stood staring at each other until somebody in the congregation laughed, then they marched up the aisle, side by side but not touching.

"You bit me,” he whispered.

"How dare you kiss me like that in public?” They were at the door now, crowd following, laughing.

"You didn’t bite your lawyer.”

"Adam is too much of a gentlemen to do something like that in public.”

"In public?”

At home, with the wedding guests eating, laughing, talking throughout the house, Doll changed clothes in the traveler’s room, north end of the front porch.

Sheba unbuttoned the numerous tiny buttons on back of the wedding gown, then buttoned Doll into the new pink-sprigged white dress Mrs. Baxter had made for her. It had a wide pink satin sash that tied on the side and pink satin bows on caught-up scalloped gathers in back.

Sheba turned to leave the small stifling room. She looked thicker in her pink glossy cotton dress, though frail to the point of sickly. Her pale skin was flushed, red as a stove flue on fire.

The narrow rope bed was full of dress. Children were chasing and squealing around the house.

"Baa,” Doll said, "you know why I had to marry him. Just say you understand.”

Sheba came back and stood before her. "I don’t hate you if that’s what you think.”

Doll hugged her, felt her stiff body give, her arms going up to hug Doll, too. Felt her shaking. "I am sorry, I’m truly sorry,” Doll said. "You have to know that I wouldn’t have married him for love if I’d been in love with him. I wouldn’t have done that to you.”

They both cried, hugging each other and swaying. "I do believe that,” Sheba said.

"Mama makes it sound like some kind of adventure if we lost the place, saying we’d go live with her kin. But you and I both know she doesn’t really feel that way. She’d feel like a beggar. She’d go on laughing like she does, making light of it, but her pride would be hurt.”

Sheba stepped away, wiping tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. "Are you scared?”

"Of Daniel, no. I could do a whole lot worse and I won’t lie. I’m every bit as attracted to him as you and a dozen other girls I could name. But I am a little afraid of why he married me and what comes next, and I’m afraid of going so far away from home.”

Sheba hugged her again. "You can come home and we’ll go visit you.”

"I’m sorry about your bear.”

The beekeepers had come yesterday and taken him to the Swamp.

"He’ll come back; really, I’m not crying about that bear or even Daniel Staten. It’s just that it’s hard being ugly.” She cried harder.

Doll laughed, then cried, held her away to look at her miserable face. "You’re not ugly, Baa, you’re not. Is Mama ugly? You look just like her.”

"Doll, hurry up!” Brice opened the door. Her wide smile drooped when she saw them crying. "Oops!” she said and closed the door.

Sheba laughed. "Go on. Finish dressing. Once you’re out of here I’m gonna look a whole lot better.”

Doll stood before the tilted mirror of the small oak dresser while Sheba tied her sash, then tied back her long black hair with a length of pink ribbon left over from the sash. Done, Sheba stood behind her—a head taller and twice as broad—looking with her in the mirror. "I do wonder sometimes where you came from, whose cabbage patch.”

They both laughed.

"I don’t have to tell you how proud I’ve always been of you. You know I’m the one named you Doll, and you know how come—I had a real-live doll baby, and I still do.”

"Baa, I don’t think I’m pretty; I don’t even think pretty is all that important. But I believe it’s just as hard to be pretty as ugly. I mean, people don’t always like you for the right reasons if you’re pretty. Leaves you forever trying to figure who to trust and how to get people to take you serious.” What Doll had just said was true, but it was true too that she wouldn’t want to be less pretty; she would have no idea how to even up the odds, especially male to female, without her looks.

Beyond the door, Mrs. Baxter called out in her cheeriest, high-pitched voice. "Yoo-hoo! Where’s the bride?” and rapped twice on the door. "Let’s eat, girls.”

"Baa, will you see to it that Brice gets her book back?” Doll said. "It’s Jo’s Boys, on the dresser in our bedroom.”

"After I read it.” Sheba clapped the puffed sleeves of Doll’s dress, then squeezed her shoulders. "This thing with Daniel Staten did open my eyes to one thing.”

"What, Baa?” Doll sat on the edge of the bed and began slipping on her brown hightops.

"Doll, don’t wear those old shoes with that dress.”

"I have to; they’re my something old.” Doll finished tying her right shoe, put it down and picked up her left. "Not really. I don’t care about that. I just need to wear these shoes; I can’t think if my feet hurt.”

"Honey, you’re not going to war,” Sheba said. "Were you really mad as you acted about him kissing you in church like that? And why was he covering his mouth?”

"I bit his tongue.”

Sheba laughed. "His tongue? How... why?”

"I don’t know. I thought maybe you would know—I mean why somebody would stick his tongue in your mouth?”

Sheba’s face was even redder than normal. "I’ve never heard of such.”

"I know about... you know... from the cows and all, but I never figured on some man sticking his tongue in my mouth.”

"Doll, I don’t think you’re supposed to bite anything. I mean, he’s your husband and you just don’t go around biting your husband’s tongue.”

"I figure he did that to show he can rule over me. I’m not taking anything off of him, Baa.”

"Okay, so you are going to war.” Sheba went to the mirror, leaned in and twisted the hank of hair on her right temple. "His tongue? That does it! I think I’ll be an old maid teacher like Miss Muffet who used to stay in this very room.”

Doll laughed. "God, if she’d ever heard us calling her that!”

Sheba laughed. "I’m serious, Doll. If a man likes me, he can come courting. If I like him, he can keep coming. I might marry, I might not.” She spotted Doll watching her in the mirror with those pure blue eyes, doing a quick tally of all the boys her sister had been in and out of love with and starved for since she’d started walking. But for now Sheba was back to her naturally happy self—comfortably out-of-love, free to take off her corset and eat like a preacher.

After a dinner of chicken purlow, cooked by the men and women of the church in the iron wash pot in the back yard, everybody, laughing and talking, followed Daniel and Doll out to the new raw-pine gate.

Dubiously shy, sullen or patient, Oscar was sitting with his elbows on his knees on the front bench of the old wagon pulled up to the left of the gate. The brim of his brown felt hat pulled low against the sun balancing on the peak of the shingle roof and bronzing the flat frowning face with its radiating mouth wrinkles marked by brown tobacco juice. The drab white gelding stood dozing, Oscar-like, in the droning heat with one hind leg cocked. Without batting an eye, he switched his tail at the flies on his swayed back. Mrs. Baxter’s old hump-lidded wood trunk looked strange in back of the wagon. Right side of the gate, a bright-eyed neighbor boy stood holding the reins of the sleek black stallion, liquid fire in the sunshine and perfect foil for the mulish gelding and man.

Doll started through the gate, behind Daniel, then came back to the rectangular shadow cast by the long low house, and going down the line, kissed and hugged Brice, Sheba and Adam. "I’ll be listening out,” he whispered, holding her about the waist and grinning. "Silly!” she said and laughed with a note of near-crying, then started toward the gate again. She looked back at her mother standing on the porch, fanning her rosy smiling face, and waved. Mrs. Baxter waved her away with a pleated fan and stepped down the sun-purged hall. One more minute and Doll would be crying; Brice and Sheba were already crying, huddling close, while the church ladies shushed and shamed them.

Daniel, minus his coat and tie, but wearing his black hat, was waiting on the other side of the wagon to help her up on the bench next to Oscar. Suddenly she felt slapped by the fact that he meant for her to ride like the old trunk in the old wagon, while he strutted alongside on the smart stallion.

"You ride in the wagon,” she said to Daniel, wheeled and took the reins of the stallion from the boy holding them. "I’ll ride your horse.”

Everybody in the yard and on the porch got still and quiet. Somebody laughed, then another. Daniel smiled, tipped his hat to them as if Doll were joking.

"Get in the wagon, Doll.” Daniel chuckled low, stepping off the distance between him and his new bride. "You’ve seen firsthand how crazy this horse can get.”

She looped the reins over the stallion’s sculpted head, hiked her white dress up above her shapely dark knees, stuck her left brown hightop into the stirrup and swung up. The horse stepped back, reared, then settled under her like a shook rug.

"Hoo now,” said Daniel, approaching the stallion with both hands out. "Get down, Doll, before you break your neck.”

"I can handle him,” she said and turned him circling in the road to distract and defuse him. She could feel the power building and surging beneath her, the lit stallion set to blow like dynamite.

"Doll,” Daniel said, easing toward her still. "You’ve seen how he can act up, now get down.”

"Oh that,” she said, pointing the stallion northbound, prancing but on hold. "He ripped up our fence trying to get away from my pet bear in the barn. Mama and Sheba were ashamed to tell you we’d trapped a bear.”




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