“Tell me, Jonah: What good is a nurse that faints at the sight of blood?” Obadiah, a frontier-weary doctor, whined as he inhaled his fifth glass of whiskey.
“Oh, bless her heart,” Jonah chuckled, placing his two feet on the table before them.
“It’s not funny. Just the other day, I asked her to wrap a bandage for me and she just gave the thing a lick and a promise. Ended up doin’ the goddamn thing myself.”
Jonah let his eyes wander about the room as Obadiah continued to complain. The two of them were at Obadiah’s favorite place on God’s green earth: the Red Parlor. Texas’ finest. If it wasn’t frowned upon, Obadiah would probably sleep there.
Jonah smiled as a piano sprang to life. From the never-ending game of poker happening in the corner to the obscenely loud drinking game unfolding at the bar, it was a lively place.
Unless you were Obadiah, of course, whose idea of fun happened to include reaching the bottom of a glass.
“What am I supposed do with her?” Obadiah’s voice snapped Jonah out of his brief reflection.
“The nurse, Jonah. The nurse. Whaddaya think I’ve been yammering about this entire time?”
“Oh. That. Uh … why don’t cha let her go if she’s that much of a yella belly?” He took another drag of his cigarette.
“Where am I supposed to find someone in these parts? Don’t nobody want to do what I do. See what I see,” Obadiah whined.
“Now you’re just talking crazy.”
“Maybe. I mean, it’s different out here. Out West. And you’re as East as they get,” Jonah grinned.
“What do you know? You’re just a stupid shopkeeper.”
“I know that this shopkeeper is making money … probably even more than you.”
“You shut your big bazoo, Jonah!” Obadiah slammed his hands on the table and stood up. About a table away, at the bar, Ezra, the bartender, looked up from the glass cup he was cleaning.
“Oh, good. He’s off on another bender,” Ezra exhaled as Caleb, the saloon owner, passed him by. “Should I kick him out?”
“He makes us enough money. Let him stick around for a while. If he gets rowdy, I may consider it,” Caleb replied.
Ezra went back to cleaning his glass.
“You’re causing a ruckus, Obadiah. You need to calm down.” Jonah put out his cigarette.
“I’m calm. I’m calm.” Obadiah slinked back into his chair.
“Let’s hope so.” Jonah got up. “Excuse me.”
Jonah made his way toward the bar. When he got there, Ezra glared at him.
“I’m not giving your friend another drink. He’s had enough.”
“I ain’t here for that. I’m just here for a nice, tall glass of water.” Jonah grinned. “That’s all.” Ezra eyed him warily, but obliged.
The doors to the saloon suddenly squeaked open. A fairly tall patron emerged from behind them. Such height alone was enough to attract attention, but being shrouded in mostly black—a black hat, a black coat, some black boots, and a red bandana—certainly helped in that regard too. The poker game came to a momentary stop as the group cast the towering patron a passing glance. A couple of patrons looked up from their drinks out of morbid curiosity and cast the stranger a brief glance. Having passed out on his table, Obadiah was oblivious to the stranger’s entry.
The stranger began to approach the bar. Jonah grabbed the glass of water, tipped his hat toward Ezra, and started to walk away. He nearly smacked into the stranger. A few droplets of water splashed onto the stranger’s black coat, who in turn did not hesitate to brush them off.
“Ah geez,” Jonah snapped. “Watch where you’re going, goddammit!”
The stranger moved around him.
“Goddamn carpetbagger,” Jonah said as he sat in front of Obadiah and slammed the glass on the table. “Get up, you lousy drunk.”
“I’m up, I’m up!” Obadiah sprang up in his seat.
“Good. Drink this.” He slid the water across the table.
Over Jonah’s shoulder, the stranger finally took a seat at the bar.
“Better?” Jonah asked.
“Yeah.” Obadiah held the glass against his forehead. “I reckon I should be eating crow right now.”
“It’s all right. I’m used to you being … you.” Jonah shrugged. “Besides, we got bigger things to worry about.”
“Huh? What are you going on about now?”
Ezra approached the stranger, saying, with a smile, “What can I do ya for?” The stranger held up two gloved fingers in reply, causing the bartender to raise an eyebrow.
“So, I’m assuming ya wanna shot of … scotch?”
The stranger remained motionless.
“What about bourbon, then?”
The stranger nodded.
“All righty then. Be with ya in a second,” Ezra said as he walked away.
“Haven’t you heard?” Jonah continued.
“Heard what? Out with it, Jonah. You’re giving me an awful headache.”
“The Payson Gang was in town not too long ago. I thought you knew, having to treat all their dead and all.”
The stranger sat up straighter.
“For the last time,” Obadiah raised his voice, “I can’t treat nobody if they’re already—”
Within seconds, the stranger leaped from the bar stool and slammed Jonah’s face into the table. A shocked Obadiah fell into a large patron behind him, who grabbed him by his shoulders and punched him in the face. Still drunk and irate, Obadiah promptly proceeded to head-butt the angry patron, and the saloon erupted into chaos.
Tables were flipped. Bar stools were thrown. Glass cups and bottles ended up in pieces on the ground or embedded in the head of a patron. Ezra had abandoned preparing the stranger’s shot of bourbon and ducked behind the bar for cover.
Meanwhile, Jonah found himself trapped under the stranger’s arm. He squirmed under it while another patron approached the stranger with a bar stool in his hands, ready to strike. The stranger spun around just in time and pointed a revolver in his face.
“I suggest you walk away.” The stranger yanked the bandana down, revealing the face of a dark-skinned black woman. Having heard the clicking of a gun, Ezra peeked over the bar. What he saw immediately caused his eyes to widen.
“It’s … it’s—” he started.
“—Bloody Mae,” Obadiah gasped from where he was on the ground.
Mae turned her attention back to Jonah, pressing her gun against his right temple.
“Tell me what you know about the Payson Gang.”
The year was 1866. My daddy had been hell-bent on joining the throng of folks that were pickin’ up the whole of their lives and hauling them out West. I reckon that part of that zeal was due to a recent change—a “welcome” change is what my daddy had called it—to the good ol’ US of A’s Homestead Act.
For the very first time in the history of forever, us freedmen and women were suddenly able to own a piece of our own land. That’s rich, considerin’ that we had just got done with bein’ owned ourselves.
But that didn’t stop my daddy from being over the moon about it. My mama and me didn’t share his zeal, though, especially ’cause we wasn’t keen on traveling so far. Sure, life back in the South wasn’t great, but as my mama always said, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.
“Daddy, it’s hot,” I whined. I looked up at the sun and shielded my eyes from it. It was hotter than a goat’s ass in a pepper patch. I placed my hand on my head to make sure I wasn’t roasting.
“Ay! Ya yammerin’ ain’t helpin’ nobody,” my mama said. “Come to think of it, you’re makin’ it hotter.”
“Oh, come now, you two. We’re ain’t but 10 miles out,” my daddy said.
“I don’t know, Elijah. Looks like lil’ Ruby-Mae’s gotta point,” my uncle Hezekiah said.
We were travelin’ with two other families on horseback—one black, one white—and apparently, we had been “lucky” enough to have the 10th Calvary escortin’ us there. My daddy had naturally jumped at the opportunity, seein’ as he and my uncle Hezekiah had fought together during the war and that my uncle Hezekiah himself was leadin’ the calvary.
“She’s just tired,” my daddy replied.
“We can take a rest. I think we’ve earned it,” said my uncle Hezekiah.
“Nah. We’re too close.” He turned to my mama, leaning over to plant a kiss on her cheek. I scrunched up my little face at the sickly sweet display. My daddy made a face at me in reply. “Eliza, give my baby girl some water. That oughta cool her down.”
My mama nodded and reached for the canteen at the side of our horse. She held it out to me.
“You better finish everything I pour for you, OK?” She poked my cheeks.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. I damn near inhaled all the water.
“So, you never told me how the fam was doin’, Zeke.” My daddy kept talkin’. “How’ve they been?”
“Oh, you mean Hattie and lil’ ol’ Mary Louise? They’s fine.”
“‘They’s fine’? Really?” My daddy was disbelieving. “Mary Louise don’t miss you? Hattie don’t mind you bein’ out here?”
“They’s fine, all right? I mean, they’ve got each other. That oughta be enough, right?” my uncle Hezekiah spat.
“That ain’t the point though.”
My daddy and my uncle Hezekiah went back and forth. I fixed my gaze on them as I sucked the canteen dry.
“Aww. Look at that precious little Negro, Jeremiah. Oh, bless her heart. I could just eat her up.” The white woman cooed to her aloof husband while staring dead at me. It didn’t take much more than that for my mama to look up at her real funny like and for the other black family with us to stare at her like she had just fell off her wagon. My daddy and my uncle Hezekiah stopped bickerin’ and just gawked at the white woman.
“’Scuse me?” my mama said as my daddy pulled on the collar of his shirt.
“Oh, dear. How rude of me. I was just admiring that black ball of cuteness. May I?” the white woman said as she reached out to touch my hair.
My mama was not having it. She slapped the woman’s hand and held me closer to her side. The white woman retreated back to her husband, who then angrily stared at my mama and looked like he was fixin’ to protest. My mama cut him off before he could start.
“Now, you done lost your damned mind,” she snapped. “We ain’t in no stable. You can’t be touching up on my child like she’s yours.”
“Eliza, it’s all right. They didn’t mean nothin’ by it.” My daddy tried to calm her down. She ignored him.
“I can’t believe this shit. It ain’t been but about four years and ya’ll are still treating us like property. If you lay your greasy finger on my child, I swear before God I’mma make you eat it.”
“I’ll be damned if you lay a finger on my wife,” the white woman’s husband said.
“And who in Sam Hill is gonna stop me?” My mama raised her voice.
“All right, all right.” My uncle Hezekiah circled around and put himself between my mom and the white family. “That’s enough. We done come too far to let the heat get to us.”
“It’s not the heat; I’ll tell you that.” My mama rolled my eyes. My daddy looked at her then, and she let out a sigh. “How much longer before we get there, Elijah?”
I closed my eyes and buried myself in my mama’s side. I was all dragged out and the weather was certainly startin’ to get the better of me. So much so that I started to hear the sound of galloping in the distance.
“I reckon we still got about 8 miles to go.”
“You gon’ get us killed,” my mama replied. “It’s hot!”
“I told ya,” I yawned, tryin’ to stay awake. But it didn’t seem like it was of any use and I was pretty sure that the gallopin’ had gotten louder. Maybe I was the one who was off her rocker.
“I don’t want no lip from you, Ms. Ruby-Mae.” My mama looked at me. “I’ve already had enough with these white people tryin’ to touch on us, I don’t need anything else to go wrong. In fact, what I need is—”
Shots rang out.
By the time my mama and daddy had turned around to see what had happened, the white woman had already fallen off her horse, with a bullet hole goin’ straight through her pretty little head. I turned just in time to see some blood splatter across her husband’s face and my uncle Hezekiah’s face. My mama put her hands over her mouth.
“Abilene!” her husband cried as he reached for her. Two other calvary members held him back and prevented him from throwing himself after her.
“Yeehaw! Get ’em, boys!” someone yelled out. We turned and caught wind of a large group of white folk followin’ us on horseback, guns in hand. They didn’t look too happy to see us.
“Aw, shit.” My uncle Hezekiah commanded his horse to move faster.
“Zeke, what the hell is going on?” my daddy asked. “Who the hell are they?”
“Them is ex-rebels, Elijah. And not just any rebels, either. Them is the Payson Gang,” he said frantically. My daddy looked at him like he was crazy. “Surround the rest,” my uncle Hezekiah yelled at the rest of his squadron.
“Daddy, what’s happenin’?” I asked. “Why are they chasin’ us?”
“I need you to take Ruby and go,” my daddy said, paying me no mind as he placed a hand on my mama’s shoulder.
“You must be out yo’ goddamned mind if you think that I’m leavin’ without you,” she replied.
“Eliza, please. I ain’t got much in this world besides you and lil’ Ruby-Mae. I need you to leave without me.” My daddy took a crumpled piece of paper and handed it to my mama. “I swear I’ll catch up with you later. Go.”
My daddy placed both of his hands on her face and then he kissed her. He then used one of his hands to smooth out the tiny braids on top of my head. He always did that when he was being real serious.
After that, with tears in her eyes, my mama held on tight to that crumpled piece of paper and yanked down on the reins of her horse. My daddy grabbed the shotgun strapped to the side of his horse and started to steer his horse in the opposite direction.
“Yah! Yah!” my mama cried as our horse jerked forward. I wrapped my arms around her waist so that I wouldn’t go flyin’ off. I turned to get a good look at my daddy when I noticed one of the angry white folks pointin’ their gun at my mama and me. Before I could say anything, my daddy shot him clear off his horse. I looked over at my daddy, and he smiled at me before galloping away.
Until now, I had been swallowin’ back some salty tears, making sure to not call attention to me and my mama. My mama even sounded like she was chokin’ back sobs. I was tryin’ not to turn around, since my daddy wouldn’t want me to, but I found the feelin’ hard to resist.
I saw my uncle Hezekiah and my daddy fighting against the angry white folk in the distance. I smiled at the show they were putting on. And I was content … until my daddy decided to turn around too. I could see him looking at my mama and me, wanting to go with us too.
But it hadn’t occurred to me that the angry white folk didn’t care what he did or didn’t want to do.
They just wanted to kill him.
And that’s what they did.
Shot him through the chest, right off his horse.
I saw the whole thing. I tried to speak up, say something—anything—when I saw one of the white men sneak up behind my daddy. But my voice had caught in my throat and I watched my daddy’s blood paint the air.
The white man that done it looked back in the direction that my daddy had been lookin’ in and saw me watchin’. He smiled a crooked, yellow smile at me then, teeth missin’ and everythin’.
I told myself that I was gonna remember that ugly face. That blond hair. Them triflin’ blue eyes.
And one day, I was gonna hunt him down.
I never told my mama what I saw. For a while, she lived in ignorance, hopeful that my daddy was gonna show up any day now on the land that had been carved out for us.
A week had passed by since we had last seen’t him. In that week, my mama and I had managed to build a rickety ol’ sod house, and we had started to plant on the land. That shit was hellish and my mama’s horse sure didn’t make it easier.
“Come on, Rita. We’re almost there,” I yelled at my mama’s horse as I pushed on the steel plow that was strapped to her backside. Like me, Rita wasn’t keen on sweating in the searing sun. But she and I didn’t have much of a choice, seeing as we were broke and hungry.
“What are you waitin’ on? Why ain’t you two moving? This field ain’t gonna plow itself, you know!” my mama yelled from the doorway of our house, fanning herself and launching into a coughing fit.
“It’s not me, mama. It’s Rita!” I yelled back. “She ain’t tryna move. I think she’s hot!”
“We’re all hot. What makes the horse special?” my mama complained. I fought the urge to roll my eyes at her reply and went back to plowing. I shook the plow when I felt like Rita was moving too slow.
“Come on, Rita. Please move your ass,” I begged her. She let out a feeble little neigh before she finally moved a hoof. While she was doing that, I looked up and over at my mama for some sort of approval.
Instead, I saw two black men in dark blue uniforms approaching her. At first, it looked like one of them might be my uncle Hezekiah, but when my mama didn’t seem to recognize either of them, I forgot about that.
“Rita, stop.” I let go of the handles of the steel plow and turned my attention to my mama and the two men. I took a few steps closer. But as I did so, it became clearer and clearer that I didn’t wanna know what they were saying.
I had seen’t what had happened. I didn’t need to hear it again.
One of the black men took off his hat as they spoke to my mama. She looked at the both of them and then shook her head vigorously, yet another coughing fit accompanyin’ that motion. The other black man put his hand on her shoulder and then motioned to the two horses that they had rode in on. One of the horses had a large something strapped to it, covered by a dirtied white blanket. My mama stared at it for the longest time ... till she simply fainted.
We buried him that night. Well, cremated was more like it. My mama had wanted more of a proper burial, but we didn’t have the money for it, and it wouldn’t have been in keeping with my daddy’s wishes neither.
“The Negro has damn near spent the last 200 and somethin’ years eating gravel in these ‘United States.’ Why the hell would I wanna do that when I’m dead and gone? When I’m free from all the bullshit? No, burn my ass and let my ashes slide,” he had said.
I watched my daddy burn until there was nothing left.
Weeks passed. And then months. If my mama missed my daddy as much as I did, she never said it. I don’t think that it needed to be said. Oftentimes I heard her during the night. I would hear her weepin’ when she thought I was sleepin’. I would always want to say somethin’, but I never knew what. And so I slept.
My uncle Hezekiah came to visit once. In the fourth month. He brought my auntie Hattie and my cousin, Mary Louise, with him. Said he came to check on us, but he stood outside the whole time he was here. I didn’t hold it against him though. He and my daddy were close. Real close. And if I had learned anythin’ from watchin’ my mama, it was that everybody got their own way of grievin’.
“You’ll have to ’scuse my husband. He can be quite the mean ol’ cuss.” My auntie Hattie handed over a bundle of food. She and Mama were talkin’ near the door, probably thinkin’ I couldn’t hear them.
Mary Louise was tuggin’ on Auntie Hattie’s skirt, tryin’ to get her attention. Auntie Hattie shooed her away. She ended up standin’ off to the side, with her thumb in her mouth.
“It’s a’ight. I don’t blame him.” My mama grabbed the bundle into her arms, launchin’ into a coughin’ fit. “Me and Ruby miss him too.”
Aunt Hattie looked at me then. She gave me a lil’ wave and a grin. I got real nervous and stared right down at the dirt, fixin’ the whole of my attention on it. I reached for a nearby stick and started drawin’ in it.
“Is that what he looked like?”
My head snapped up quicker than a jackrabbit on moonshine. I found Mary Louise staring at me all funny like. Her thumb was still in her mouth and I looked at her for a hot minute. Her hair wasn’t braided down like my mama did mine and just kind of sat down on her head in a big, fuzzy, dark brown puff. She wasn’t as dark as me neither. She wasn’t high yella though and she reminded me of the color of redwood.
“Who?” I asked.
“More or less.” I looked down at my drawin’.
“His head shaped funny.”
“Ya head shaped funny.” I looked back at her, squintin’ my eyes real scary like.
“ … Ya right.” She smiled a crooked smile. I couldn’t see most of her teeth because of her thumb, but from what I did see, it looked like she was missin’ a few. She didn’t pay my squintin’ eyes no mind though, ’cause she sat her lil’ ass right down next to me. She finally took her thumb out of her mouth and dragged it through the dirt like I was doin’. We didn’t say nary a thing to each other until my mama started coughin’ again. We both looked up at her. Auntie Hattie put a hand on my mama’s shoulder.
“Eliza, when did that start?” she asked her.
“Oh, don’t worry about that, girl. It’s nothin’,” my mama said.
“Now, you know that’s a damn lie. That cough sounds wet. You need to do somethin’ about that.”
“I said it’s nothin’!” my mama snapped. Auntie Hattie dropped her hand then, lookin’ my mama up and down real funny like.
“Fine. Forget I said anythin’.”
Mary Louise looked back down at the dirt and continued drawin’. I kept lookin’ at my mama.
“Castor oil oughta do it,” Mary Louise whispered.
“What?” I looked over at her.
“I said castor oil oughta fix her right up.” She looked up at me for a bit before lookin’ back at the dirt.
They left that night. I wondered where they had went, but my mama never answered the question straight when I asked it. I decided to leave it alone.
So, it went back to just bein’ me and my mama again. I didn’t mind it. I liked it that way … even if it was hard. Despite the hardships, though, my mama thought it wise to press on. By the time summer had left us, we had already finished plowin’ the land and were already startin’ to reap its benefits.
That’s when our first winter hit us. Then it all went to hell.
All the crops died and me and my mama were forced into that low-down, shoddy sod house of ours. Livin’ in it during the summer had been bearable, but the winter turned out to be another beast entirely. My mama had thought we did a bang-up job building the damned thing, but that turned out to be a lie when the rain and snow came bearin’ down on it. Oftentimes, we’d end up goin’ to sleep on cold, wet dirt.
I did my best to patch it all up while my mama stayed up day and night, tryin’ to figure out what we were gonna do about all our dead crops. My mama had already been fightin’ off a coughing fit during the summer, but it only got worse as the winter came. I tried everything to soothe it. Castor oil. Peppermint. But nothing worked. And it wasn’t long before it took its toll and my mama was reduced to shiverin’ in the corner.
“Ruby-Mae, come here,” my mama called out to me. I walked over to her from where I was standin’ in the doorway. I readjusted her blanket, hopin’ that it would keep her warm. She motioned for me to sit down and she held my hand in hers. I fixed my eyes on them. They had gotten frailer and quite small. Her skin had gotten so ashen it looked like charcoal. “Ruby?”
I was snatched from my thoughts as I looked at my mama’s sunken face. It didn’t look much different from her hands.
“You look so much like yo’ daddy. It’s amazin’.” She smiled at me, twirling one of my braids. It was a smile that was short-lived, because she was sobbin’ soon after that. We sat in the silence of our rickety sod house for a long time. “ … I am so sorry,” she said after a while. “I wanted better for us. I wanted so much better.”
I wrapped my tiny arms around her, and she sobbed into my shoulder until she was all but out of tears.
“Oh, Lord. You shouldn’t be seein’ me like this. All old and frail and what not.”
“It’s OK, mama. I don’t mind.” I tried to make her feel better.
“ … I’ve got somethin’ for you.” She wiped at her eyes with the back of her tattered sleeves and lifted her head. She then reached under her blanket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. I recognized it as the same piece of paper my daddy had handed to her so long ago.
“This is all I’ve got left.” She placed the paper into my hands. “I want you to have it, but you gotta promise me that you’re gonna keep it safe, all right?”
I took the paper into my tiny hands and held it tight.
“Yes, ma’am,” I nodded. She put her hand on my head and smoothed out my braids.
“Your uncle Hezekiah don’t live but about 5 miles from here.” She spoke softly. “If anything happens to me, I want you to take that paper, take Rita, and go and find him. He should be able to take care of you.” I nodded again as she placed a kiss on my forehead.
I knocked on the wooden door before me like the devil had just lit a fire under my tiny ass. The snow had went and gotten worse. It was also real cold now, and if I didn’t find some shelter soon, I was sure that I was gonna keel over and die. I briefly looked over at Rita and prayed that she would forgive me for dragging her into the cold.
“And who might you be?” A voice nearly made me jump out of my skin. I looked back to see a tall, black woman staring back at me all curious like, creases showing around her eyes. Her coarse, dark hair was tied back in a tight bun. I squinted my eyes through the stingin’ snow and finally recognized the woman as my auntie Hattie.
“It’s m-m-me. Ruby-Mae,” I stuttered. “My mama said I was supposed to find Uncle Hezekiah here.”
“Ruby?” She squinted at me and crouched down so we were seeing eye-to-eye. “What are you talkin’ about? What happened? Somethin’ had to have happen for you to be comin’ all the way over here.” She rattled off a bunch a questions, some of which I didn’t care for. “Is she still fightin’ that nasty-ass cough? I told her she needed to—”
“She died,” I said. Auntie Hattie stopped ramblin’ and her eyes grew a bit softer.
“ ... I am so sorry.”
“Is Uncle Hezekiah around?” I peeked over her broad shoulders and into her house. My eyes were immediately drawn to the warm fire inside.
“He went into town to get us some food. You can come inside and warm up though. I’ll take your pretty horse here to the stable.” My auntie Hattie took the reins from my hand and walked Rita toward the stables. I wrapped my mother’s shawl around me and walked into the house. When I got inside, I immediately put myself in front of the fire and held my hands out to warm.
I turned to see who was callin’ my name and peeped lil’ Mary Louise on the stairs in her nightgown, with her thumb in her mouth. If my mama hadn’t have just up and died on me, I would’ve laughed at the sight.
She didn’t let me answer. Instead, she ran at me like she was possessed and nearly knocked my tiny ass over when she threw her arms around me.
“What’re you doin’ here? I haven’t seen ya in forever.”
I looked at her real serious like, tryin’ to find the words.
“ … The castor oil didn’t work,” I sighed. She let go of me to get a good look at my face. I didn’t say much else, but that didn’t stop her from makin’ the connection. She sat back down on the floor, starin’ intensely into the fire.
While she was doin’ that, I pulled my knees to my chest and I let my eyes wander around the room. I took in all of the pictures of Uncle Hezekiah, Aunt Hattie, and Mary Louise hanging on the walls, as well as all the dead elks, deers, and bears hanging over the fireplace. My eyes ended up resting on a revolver that was sitting on top of the fireplace and under one of the dead elks. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.
“What’re you lookin’ at?” Mary Louise followed my gaze. “Oh.” She gulped.
“I can teach you how to shoot it.” Auntie Hattie’s sharp voice drew my and Mary Louise’s attention back to the door. She stood there, crossing her arms. “If you want.” Mary looked at me real serious like and shook her head vigorously. I glanced at her and then looked back at Auntie Hattie.