Read Prayers for Sale Online

Authors: Sandra Dallas

Tags: #Mountain, #Older Women, #Depressions, #Colorado, #West, #Travel, #Fiction, #United States, #Suspense, #Historical, #Female Friendship, #1929, #Cultural Heritage, #Contemporary Women

Prayers for Sale (5 page)

BOOK: Prayers for Sale
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One morning, Ila Mae came in from cutting Christmas greens and found the home guard in her yard. The men had dragged Billy out of the house without his shoes on and tied him up in a wagon. He was bruised and had one eye nearly swollen shut from fighting with the guards. Abram Fletcher was there. “So you married a feather-legged man, Ila Mae,” he said.

“That’s a black lie! If there’s any cowards about, it’s you, Abram Fletcher. You tied up Billy because you’re afraid he’ll fist you. How come you haven’t joined up? Are you too lazy or just too scared?”

Abram didn’t like that, but with the other men around, some of the older ones once friends of Ila Mae’s father, Abram didn’t dare strike her. Instead, he punched Billy, saying, “Your wife would make a better soldier than you.” Billy kicked at Abram, who dodged and laughed.

Ila Mae knew that if she said more, Billy’d get the worst
of it, maybe get beat up a ways down the road. So she bit her tongue and said, “I’ll get Billy’s shoes.” There was frost on the ground, and she didn’t want Billy’s feet to freeze.

Ila Mae went into the house and came back with the shoes, but just as she reached the wagon, Abram, who was seated on the bench, larruped up the horses. The wagon lurched, knocking Billy onto his side. The men started up after Abram. Ila Mae threw the shoes at Billy, but only one of them landed in the wagon. She picked up the other from the ground and ran after that wagon as long as she could, but she never caught up to it, and the farther it went, the farther behind she got. Finally, Ila Mae just stopped and waved and called, “I love you, Billy.”

“I’ll be back. I promise. I’ll come home,” he yelled, as the wagon went around a bend in the Buttermilk Road. She didn’t see Billy after that. She would have followed him all the way into town then, but she couldn’t leave Sarah alone in the cabin. So Ila Mae picked up the shoe and went back to the house and fed Sarah, then walked into White Pigeon with the baby, but she was too late. Billy’d already been taken off to the Tennessee volunteers—him wearing one shoe. Ila Mae never saw him again, never knew where he went. He wrote her—one letter anyway. There might have been more, but one was all she received. Billy wrote that if he ever got the chance, he’d come home, and Abram Fletcher and anybody else who tried to make him go back had better watch out.

Two or three months later, folks in the neighborhood spotted a soldier hiding out in the woods. They knew he was a Confederate because he was dressed in gray. Talk was that
the soldier was Billy, but Ila Mae knew he wasn’t, because by the time Billy was in the army, there weren’t any uniforms left. Besides, the man had on two shoes. But most important, if he were Billy, he’d have come to see his family right off.

Whoever he was, he didn’t come to the farm. Instead, while Ila Mae was sitting at her quilt frame one afternoon, Abram and some of his fellows rode up. They’d been drinking. She could tell that right off, and she was scared, because they were all young. None of the old men who might have calmed them down were with them.

“Where’s your man?” one of the guards called out to Ila Mae.

“He’s in the army, least he ought to be,” she replied. “That’s where you took him, isn’t it?”

“We heard he’s run off and is somewheres out in the woods, hiding like the yellow scum he is,” Abram Fletcher said, leering at her.

“What makes you think that’s Billy?” Ila Mae asked.

“Because Billy’s not good for much ’cept taking to ground.” The men laughed at that, and one took out a jug and handed it about.

“Billy’s too much of a man to run!” Ila Mae told them.

“Well, ain’t we men, too, and white at that? Not yellow like Billy,” Abram said, and the others laughed again.

“You can look all around. He’s not here,” Ila Mae told them. She continued quilting, taking the worst stitches she’d ever made in her life but keeping on sewing because she didn’t want the guards to think she was afraid of them.

One of the home guards dismounted, and he went into the house. Ila Mae heard things falling onto the floor. In a
minute, the man came out with the skillet of cornbread she’d left on the hearth to bake. He’d wrapped the hot pan in the Seven Sisters quilt she’d made just after she was married. “I thought Billy’d be hiding under the bed, but he ain’t there. Found his dinner, though,” the man said, passing around the skillet so that the others could scoop out the cornbread with their hands. Then he flung the skillet into the woods. Abram took the quilt from the guard and tucked it in front of his saddle.

“You going to tell us where he’s at?” Abram rode his horse over next to Ila Mae, so close that the animal knocked against the quilt frame. Abram reached down with a big knife and slashed the center of Ila Mae’s half-finished quilt. “Martha Merritt sewed a Yankee flag in the middle of her quilt. If she hadn’t lit out, we’d have took care of the traitor. You get what I mean?” he asked.

Ila Mae knew what he meant. “I told you, Billy’s in the army. He hasn’t been back since you took him off to town.”

“We’ll see about that.” Abram climbed off his horse then and grabbed Ila Mae’s arm so hard that she thought he’d pulled it out of its socket. “I always did fancy this girl,” he told the others.

Despite the pain in her arm, Ila Mae made a fist, ready to defend herself. No man but Billy had ever touched her, and she didn’t intend for any other man to try.

“Now, Abram,” one of the men said. “We ain’t here for that.”

“Aw, what are you thinking?” Abram replied. “She’s not so lucky. I just thought we’d tie her up so’s she’ll tell us where Billy’s at.”

“Maybe we ought to beat her with a whip,” the man with the jug suggested. That was whiskey talk and it scared Ila Mae.

Abram took down the rope that had been strung for meat drying, and he tied Ila Mae’s hands together. Then he fastened her hands to the crosspost of the well. After he finished, he leaned down and kissed her hard. Ila Mae spat at him, and he slapped her across the face, then put his fingers through the gold hoops in her ears and ripped them out. “We’ll come back later on and see if you’ve changed your mind,” he said, then whispered, “You be nice now, and I’ll show you a good time.” He mounted his horse and rode off with the others, the earrings in his pocket, Ila Mae’s Seven Sisters quilt still affixed to his saddle.

Although Ila Mae wasn’t able to move, she was grateful that the men were gone. Her ears ached, and her wrists hurt where the rope was tied too tightly. She cried out, hoping a neighbor would hear her; with Billy gone, the old farmers still living in the neighborhood were in the habit of checking in on her. Even if none of the neighbors heard her cries, somebody would come down the Buttermilk Road and set her free. Or one of the guards might sober up and be bemeaned by what the men had done and come back to cut her loose.

At the worst, Abram would return. As the day wore on, Ila Mae’s arms began to swell, and she developed a terrible thirst. She was tied to the well, but she might have been in the middle of a desert for all the good that the water did her.

Still, Ila Mae didn’t lose heart until she became sensible of Sarah, who began to cry. Ila Mae ached for the little girl,
hungry and thirsty, although she knew the baby was safe inside the crib Billy had made for her. Ila Mae pulled with all her might, hoping the rope would come loose, pulled until she scraped the skin off her wrists.

It was on toward evening, when Ila Mae heard Sarah calling, “Ma, Ma,” for Sarah was a bright thing who even at that young age knew her mother was
Ma
. Ila Mae realized the sound was louder than before. She wrenched herself around toward the house and saw then that the little girl was in the doorway. The man who’d gone into the house had upset the baby’s crib, and Sarah crawled through the door and out into the dirt. Ila Mae called to her, “Sarah, come to Mama. Come to Mama, sweet girl.”

Sarah heard her mother’s voice and laughed and crawled toward the well. But something turned her head, and despite Ila Mae’s pleadings, the little girl sat in the dirt and played with sticks. When she grew bored, she looked around and began to crawl again. Ila Mae called her to come, and she did, but with Ila Mae’s hands tied over her head, the mother couldn’t grab the baby. Ila Mae tried to hold the child with her feet, but Sarah pulled away and started down the hill, cooing and talking. The baby must have tumbled then, because after a time, the little thing began to cry. The crying grew fainter and farther away, until Ila Mae could hear it no longer. She called until her voice gave out, but she never again heard her baby’s voice. Ila Mae strained her eyes trying to make out the baby in the moonlight, but she couldn’t see her, either. She pulled at the ropes that bound her until they rubbed almost to the bone, but the restraints held. Finally, she gave up and closed her eyes and prayed—prayed
that someone would come along and free her or that Sarah would crawl back up the hill to safety. Billy was gone and Sarah was all she had now. What if Billy survived the war, only to come home and find that his little girl had perished? Or maybe he wouldn’t come home, and she’d have lost them both. Bitter tears ran down Ila Mae’s face, and with her hands tied, she couldn’t even wipe them away.

Just at dawn, Ila Mae heard something stir behind the house. A man darted across the yard, and Ila Mae called out. It wasn’t much of a sound, because her voice was gone, but the man heard her, and moving from tree to tree, he came close. He was the Confederate, and Ila Mae thought he was there to rob her.

“You got yourself in a pickle,” he said.

If God had heard her prayer and sent this man, then maybe Sarah was all right, Ila Mae thought. But they had to hurry. “Quick. They think you’re my husband, Billy, hiding out. The home guard tied me up because I wouldn’t tell on you, and my baby’s crawled off. I can’t see her. Please help me, mister,” Ila Mae whispered. “Please hurry.”

“You won’t turn me in if I do? You got to promise me that.”

“I won’t turn you in. My word’s as honest as gold. They made my husband enlist and he’d run off, too, if he could.”

The soldier studied Ila Mae a moment before making up his mind. Then he cut the rope. He took her raw wrists to rub the circulation back into them, but Ila Mae wouldn’t wait. “I’ve got to find Sarah. She’s my baby, and she’s loose out here. Help me.”

The two took off down the hill, Ila Mae going one way,
the man another, and it wasn’t two or three minutes before she heard him call, “Missus.”

There was such sadness in his voice that Ila Mae knew he’d found Sarah. She tried to rush to him, but her feet were as heavy as if they’d been weighted down with sad irons, and she could hardly move. It seemed as if it took her five minutes to go three hundred yards. When she reached the soldier, he was squatting down next to Sarah, who was lying facedown in the creek. The surface of the water had frozen a crust around her face. When she picked up that tiny body, dressed in the white gown that was now ripped and stained with dirt, Ila Mae saw that Sarah’s face was wet, and she dried it with her hands, then wrapped the baby in her apron and carried her to the house. She could not cry, because her heart was too broken. Her mind was dull, and her stomach seemed as if she had swallowed a lump of clay. A voice inside her kept saying, “Sarah’s dead. Sarah’s dead.” And Ila Mae felt as if she were dead, too.

The soldier wasn’t a Rebel, he told her. He was a Union man who’d been captured and escaped and taken the uniform from a dead Confederate. He was a good man. He built a fire in the hearth and cooked up some bacon for Ila Mae, then heated water so that she could wash Sarah. He told Ila Mae that his little girl was just about Sarah’s age. “I ought to never have left her, and your man ought to be here now,” he said.

Ila Mae wrapped Sarah in a quilt to warm her, just as if she’d been alive. “Have you had her baptized in the Lord?” the man asked. “I’m a preacher and can do it if it would ease you some.” Ila Mae had been waiting until Billy came home
before asking a preacher to bless the baby, so she told the Yankee that she’d appreciate it if he’d say the words over the child. Ila Mae drew fresh water from the well, and the man made a wet cross on the dead child’s forehead and said a Bible verse from memory. The words comforted her a little. Then Ila Mae dressed the baby in a clean gown, and they laid Sarah in a little grave that the Yankee dug in the burial ground out back where Billy’s people rested.

After that, the soldier offered to walk Ila Mae to White Pigeon, but she told him no. She had to stay beside the grave. She couldn’t leave Sarah alone. Besides, if the home guard caught the Yankee, he’d be shot. “Take my husband’s clothes from the trunk. You’ll be safer in them than dressed like a Confederate. Throw your uniform in the fire.” She filled a pillowcase with bread and bacon and a sack of cornmeal. “Go west,” she told the Yankee. “That’s where they’re fighting. You’ll run into the Union Army. If you see a boy with one shoe, don’t shoot him. That’s my husband.”

“I seen plenty of men barefoot but never one with one shoe. I’ll keep a lookout for him.”

“I’ll say a prayer for you.”

“The name’s Simon Smith, missus, but the Lord’s acquainted with me. I’ll keep you and yours in my prayers, too,” he replied, and was off.

Ila Mae never knew if he made it.

She wrote Billy to tell him Sarah was dead, although she didn’t tell him how it had happened. Time enough for that after he returned home, although he never did. After the war ended, a man came looking for her. He and Billy were pards in the army, he said, and they’d promised each other if
one of them got killed, the other would tell the family. The man couldn’t write, so he came all the way to Tennessee to find her. Billy was shot less than a week before the war was over. The man said Billy died easy, saying he’d given his life for a noble cause and wasn’t sorry, but Ila Mae knew that was what they always told the widows. She never found out where he was buried.

In a day or two, after the soldier was well away, Ila Mae forced herself away from the little grave and walked into White Pigeon and told what Abram and his fellows had done. People believed her and wouldn’t speak to him after that. When the fighting was over and the soldiers came home, they ran off Abram, declared he had bemeaned the town and wasn’t ever to show his face there again. Not long after that, a soldier came to Ila Mae’s cabin and set $500 on her table. He said the men had had a talk with Barton Fletcher and told him that if he didn’t want to leave White Pigeon like Abram, he’d have to come up with more than $40 to buy her father’s house and mill. The men said she could have a better life with the money, but that meant nothing to Ila Mae. She believed she’d already lived the happiest days of her life.

BOOK: Prayers for Sale
12.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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