Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Partners

Part 2


Bill Fleet


We lived about five miles east of Macon, a town of about five hundred. It lay on the main line of the Yazoo Delta Railroad. Everyone called it the Yellow Dog. Daddy drove to Macon most Saturdays to get the mail and buy supplies. I went with him sometimes. JT never left the farm except to go to the Colored school.

JT and I didn’t need town. There were lots of things to do every day. We finished our chores by dinnertime most days. If the fields were clean of weeds and picking had not started yet, our afternoons were mostly free for fun.

JT and I didn’t need town. We had everything we needed right here at home. We had my new shotgun, our johnboat, and our fishing poles.


“What to do today Mr. Will?” JT asked.

“ Maybe go crawdad fishing? Then go bass fishing tomorrow?”

“OK, Mr. Will.”

We strolled into the store on our farm where my great uncle ruled.

“Uncle Floyd, we need some side meat.”

“What you need side meat for, Will? Betty cooking greens today?”

“Naw. We need crawdad bait. Goin’ bass fishing tomorrow. Bass love crawdads better’n anything. You know that.”

We left with two slivers of salt-cured bacon and some string. Uncle Floyd remembered how it was to be a boy, though his gray hair and his absent right leg betrayed his age.

We ambled along the track toward the bayou, kicking dust with our bare toes, throwing dirt clods at trees, and swatting weeds with sticks we had picked up along the way. We were headed toward the big dead poplar tree. Its roots were on the muddy bank and its trunk lay half exposed above the surface of the green stagnant water. That was our crawdad place.

We walked out onto the trunk, certain that we could never fall. But even if we did, we knew the splash would send any moccasin scurrying away. Besides, we hadn’t seen an alligator in this part of the bayou the whole summer.

We tied our baits onto our strings and dropped them into the water. Within minutes, rainbow rings of liquid fat appeared on the surface of the murky water. Crawdads had begun to chew our bait.

I jerked my catch out of the water. It fell back in. JT said, “You jerked too hard, Mr. Will. You scared him off the bait. You got to ease him up, just ease him up.” He lifted his crawdad out of the water gently. Slowly, slowly he raised it toward our bucket. Just before it got there, the crawdad fell back into the bayou. I doubled over with laughter. “You didn’t do no better slow than I did fast. What you know about crawdad fishing anyway?” I gave him a little shove. JT pushed back, I pushed again and we hit the water almost together.

Green muddy water poured off us as we sloshed up the bank. I laughed and said, “I bet there ain’t a damned moccasin in ten miles of here now!”

We began to fish again even though we smelled of dead fish and rotting weeds. JT worked slow; I worked fast. Neither fast nor slow won. We landed less than half our catch either way. Even so, after two hours we had enough crawdads for the next day.

On the way home I cautioned JT, “Keep plenty of water in that bucket. We need all that bait for bass tomorrow. And watch where you step. Betty would give me the Devil if I drug you in all snake bit.”

“Don’t you worry about me. I’m having fish for supper tomorrow.”

“I’m having mine for dinner. Save me some from supper. Fried bass is mighty good.”

Betty met us in our kitchen, just inside the back door. “Lawd, Lawd, don’t y’all stink! I ain’t smelled nothing this bad in all my life! Mr. Will, take them overalls off outside an’ git under the pump. JT, you git on home. I’ll take care o’ you later. You better smell better when I git there.”

The next day we got up early, did our chores and headed to the little lake about two miles away. That was where we kept our homemade johnboat. We flipped it over, put our bucket of crawdads and our cane poles in, pushed it into the water and paddled off to where we knew the bass were hiding.

Crawdads were deadly bait. By noon our string was loaded with one and two-pounders—enough for us and for JT’s family too. Betty fried up a big mess for us for dinner. I slipped off to JT’s house at suppertime. Fried fish made a heap better supper at his house than leftover cornbread and buttermilk did at mine.

Summer wore on. We did our chores, hoed a little cotton, carried water to the hands in the fields and pulled weeds in the garden.

Dove hunting time came in late August, just before cotton-picking time. I told JT, “Tomorrow is dove time. We’ll go after dinner.”

We sat on buckets in the hot afternoon sun beside a cutover field of milo cane. There was plenty of spilled seed on the ground.

JT said, “Milo makes a good dove place. Chickens like it. Doves ought to like it too.”

A bunch of doves came down. I shot. They shied away before I could reload. Nothing fell.
Another flock came in. Two shots. No birds.

“What happened Mr. Will? How come you missed?”

“Just did. Doves ain’t easy to hit. You want to shoot some?”

“Naw. I don’t know nothing ‘bout guns. You kill ‘em; I pick ‘em up.”

I shot more than two boxes of birdshot in my little single-shot 20-gauge shotgun that afternoon. Flying doves were just too hard to hit. Finally, I just shot them on the ground. Real hunters don’t shoot doves on the ground. Who wanted to be a real hunter anyway? I just wanted doves.

I shot; JT retrieved. We trudged home with a bloody sack half full of doves.

“You make a pretty good bird dog, JT.”

“You make a pretty good bird hunter, Mr. Will. You gonna give me some of them doves?”

“’Course I am. We’re partners, ain’t we?” I asked Betty, “How come you and JT don’t eat in our kitchen?”

“Colored and White don’t eat together.”

“Not even in the same house? You cook it and serve it and wash up. It don’t make sense—you doin’ all that and not eating inside.”

“It don’t need to make sense. It’s just the way it is. Whites and Coloreds don’t mix. And don’t you go stirring up things neither. Everybody knows their place and they keep it.”

I asked Mamma, “Could I eat on the porch with JT today? He helped me kill all them doves yesterday.”

“Don’t be silly. Whites don’t sit down with Coloreds.”

“But we’re partners.”

“Not that kind of partners. You eat in the dining room and he eats on the porch, and that’s that. No more silly talk.”

Why I ate in our dining room and JT ate on our back porch made no sense at all. We were born on the same day. Betty nursed us both. We play together. We hunt and fish together. Why can’t we eat together? Mamma and Betty said we couldn’t. I guess they know.

That's just the way it was in Mississippi in 1926.

***

Bill Fleet grew up in rural Mississippi. He earned BA and MD degrees from Vanderbilt University. He was a faculty member in the Vanderbilt Department of Pediatrics for nine years before entering private practice in the Nashville area. He began creative writing shortly after retiring in 1998 and published his first book in 2000.

© Bill Fleet

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012