Authors: Gilbert Morris
Tags: #FIC042030, #FIC042000, #FIC026000
Â© 1994 by Gilbert Morris
Published by Revell
a division of Baker Publishing Group
P.O. Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287
Previously published in 1994 under the title
A Time to Be Born
Ebook edition created 2012
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any meansâfor example, electronic, photocopy, recordingâwithout the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
To my wife, Johnnie
Fifty-four years togetherâ
and I've enjoyed every second of it!
wen Stuart never forgot the day his sister Lylah left the farm to go to Bible school in Fort Smith. The dateâSeptember 4, 1897âstuck like a burr in his mind, and he often wondered why he could remember that date, but could never remember the dates of wars or treaties or when famous people were born. Dimly he understood that Lylah's departure was a landmark occasion in the Stuart family history, for she was the first of the young ones to leave the remote recesses of the Ozarks for the world outside.
But though he always remembered the brilliance of the fall afternoon and the flaming colors of the hills that surrounded their farm that year, it was the memory of how he had found his sisterâher bags packed to go to Bible school, out behind the barn smoking a cigaretteâthat had stayed with him.
Owen had gotten up early, unable to sleep, and had crept out of the loft where he slept with his four brothersâAmos, Logan, Pete, and Gavin. The rustle of his corn shucks mattress seemed deafening in the stillness, but he made his way to the door and crawled down the ladder into the main room, then left the house.
He loved the early cobwebby hours of the morning and was always the first to rise. A sharp pinching cold lay over the valley, the foretaste of winter, but he loved the air, thin and raw and bracing, containing the rich rank odors of the earth and the forest. For an hour he walked the trails that led away from the house, looking up from time to time to the thin glitter of the stars. The earth, still and motionless, seemed to be a dead ball rolling through dead space, but Owen was acutely aware of the movements around himâthe patter of tiny feet, the rustle of brush as large animals passed through, the flutter of wings.
Finally at four, a first skim-milk color diluted the coffee-black shadows, and he made his way back to the farm. And it was then, as he left the trees that banked the log cabin in the rear, that he caught the smell of smoke.
At once he stopped, alert and careful as any animal, before he moved, catlike, to the barn. It was only a small affair, poorly built of rough-hewn pine beams and sheathed with slabs picked up from the mill. Even as Owen circled it, he noted that it was listing more than ever against the five thick saplings he had placed against the north side to brace it up. Without realizing it, he was stirred with a faint sense of dissatisfaction.
Looks like we could have a barn that could stand up by itself.
A vague thought of his father came to him, and he shrugged slightly, thinking,
I guess as long as Pa can find a party to fiddle at, this ol' barn's gonna have to take care of itself.
The acrid odor of smoke led him to the rear of the structure, and as soon as he turned the corner, he saw the indistinct outline of a figure, low to the ground, and then: “Hello, Owenâ¦come and have a draw.”
A smile tugged at his lips, and he moved forward until he could make out the features of his older sister. She was hunkered down on her heels, back braced against the wall, and he chose that same position before answering.
“Guess you're up early to do your prayin' before you leave for Bible school.”
Lylah Stuart was closer to this brother than to anyone else in the family. She grinned, recognizing the gentle jibe in his statement, then handed him the cigarette. “Sure. Have a draw, Owen.”
Owen took the cigarette, studied it for a moment, then took a long pull on it before handing it back. “Better than rabbit tobaccoâ¦or dried corn silk,” he remarked. “Where'd you get a real cigarette, Lylah?”
“From Bob Brileyâ¦at the dance last week.”
“Bob never gives anything away,” Owen said, his voice clear in the cold air. “I can guess what he wanted in return.”
A glint of humor lit Lylah's eyes and her lips turned up in a smile. “That's right. You know Bob pretty well.”
She drew on the cigarette again, and as she expelled the smoke, Owen studied her. She was the handsomest member of the family, one of those truly beautiful girls who spring up among the hill people of Arkansas from time to time, almost as noticeable as an albino deer. Lylah had a wealth of auburn hair, a short English nose (as did all the Stuarts), full lips, a rich complexion, and a pair of violet eyesâdeep, wide-set, and striking. She had come to womanhood early, and even the coarse homemade brown dress could not disguise the full roundness of her figure.
“Well, do you think Bob got what he wanted?”
Accustomed as he was to his sister's directness, Owen felt uncomfortable with the question. Although he was only fourteen, he had been aware for a long time that his sister drew men as nectar draws bees. But he refused to show his embarrassment. “Naw, I reckon not, Sis.”
Lylah reached over and ruffled the boy's thatch of chestnut hair. “Glad you still have some confidence in your rowdy sister.”
They sat there, comfortable with the silence that lay between them. As the sky grew brighter, they smoked and watched the world come to light. Finally a door slammed, and Owen rose to his feet in a single smooth motion. He had passed from babyhood, suffering little of the awkward stage that most boys struggle throughâone day a baby, Lylah thought as she watched him, and the next a lath-shaped young man who was one of the most physical people she'd ever seen.
“Who is it?” she whispered, preparing to crush out the cigarette.
Lylah relaxed and, leaning back against the wall, waited as Owen hailed softly, “Heyâ¦Amos, over here.”
Amos Stuart, the oldest of the children at eighteen, looked up, saw Owen, and came at once to his brother's side. “Come on,” Owen said, a grin on his lips. “Sister's holding services.”
“I'll bet she is,” Amos remarked, and followed Owen to where Lylah sat. “If Ma catches you smoking,” he said, settling down against the rough siding of the barn, “she'll burn your backside.”
“She won't catch me.” Lylah offered the cigarette, adding, “This is the last time I'll ever hide behind the barn to smoke.”
Amos drew the smoke into his lungs, handed the cigarette back, then remarked, “You'll have to hide someplace. I don't reckon they allow smoking at Bible school.”
“That's their problem.” Lylah shrugged.
“You'll get sent home,” Amos argued. He was the logical member of the three, thinking things out carefully, whereas Owen and Lylah both leapt and then thought. He was no more than five ten and weighed less than 135 pounds. Lean as a hound, pared down by hard work, he was stronger than he looked. He had the same oval face, blond hair, and dark blue eyes of his mother.
“I'm never coming back here,” Lylah announced flatly. “Except for a visit.” She reached over and grabbed her brothers' hair, pulling them close in a gesture of affection. “I'm going to miss you two,” she said, and despite the roughness of her caress, both Owen and Amos sensed a faint thread of apprehension in her voice.
They were very close, these threeâcloser to each other than they were to anyone else in their small world. Amos was close to his mother, but not in the same way that he was tied to these two who sat beside him in the growing light of dawn. Being more introspective than either of the others, he had thought much of what it meantâLylah's departure. Moved by the plaintive note in her voice, he asked, “Lylah, why are you doing itâgoing away to Bible school? You don't have any more religion than a coonhound.”
Amos's comment caused a quick flare-up of the temper that lay near the surface. “I guess I've got as much religion as you have, Amos Stuart!” she snapped.
“Well, that's nothing to brag about.” Amos shrugged. “I never put up my sign for a preacher, and that's about all they put out at Bethany Bible Institute.”
Owen shook his head, for he had been dreading Lylah's departure since hearing of it. “You'll go crazy, sister,” he urged. “I know Ma gets on your nerves, all the time making us go to churchâ¦but you know what Don Satterfield says about that school.” He pulled his lips together in what he considered a good imitation of the young man, his voice high-pitched with a twang: “Why, we get up and pray before dawn
â¦and sometimes we pray
And there ain't no worldly stuff allowedâ¦like smokin' and drinkin' and play-actin'.”
Both Amos and Lylah giggled over the rendition. Satterfield, a lanky young man who had grown up in their valley, had fallen hopelessly in love with Lylah in the first grade, and she had used him shamelessly ever since. He had been at Bethany Institute for a year, studying for the ministry, and it had been at his fervent urging that Marian Stuart had persuaded her husband to send Lylah away to the school.
But though Lylah laughed at Owen's mild mockery of Satterfield, she grew serious. Grinding the cigarette into the dirt with her heel, she rose and looked around at the farm. Both boys got up, watching as she let her eyes rest on the hills that stretched to the north and on the cotton fields with their skeleton-stalks, lifting grotesque arms as if in prayer to some dark god. Finally, walking slowly to the edge of the rickety barn, she stared at the house.
It wasn't muchâjust a dog-trot log cabin, with two big rooms separated by a passageway. The roof was steep enough for a large sleeping loft, and at the back, William Stuart had added a room with a shed roof. There was no grace about the place, nothing to please the eye. Life in the mountains was too hard for refinements. Staying alive was a struggle, leaving no strength for the little touches that lay in Lylah Stuart.
She noted the few feeble pansies, purple and white and maroon, that remained of the small bed her mother had planted. Somehow that seemed to disturb her. She turned to Owen and Amos. “Be sure you dig Ma some flower beds next spring.”
“Sure, Lylah,” Amos said gently. Then he asked again, “Why do you have to go?”
Lylah looked around once more at the shabby outbuildings, at the razorback pig rooting into the earth, and said abruptly, “I'll never slop a hog againâ¦or pick cotton or kill one of those skinny chickens!”
She broke off, but her brothers knew that the vow had risen from deep within, for she loathed farm life with all her soul. She hated the grinding work, the poverty, the lack of any color in the bleakness of their existence. Staring down at her hands, she touched the callouses made by ax and hoe.
Suddenly she looked up, and her voice was strangeâstrong as iron, yet somehow wistful and unsure. “I'd go
to get away from here!”
At that moment, a door slammed, and the three started. Lylah took a deep breath, then said, “Come on. Let's go eat breakfast.”
Amos and Owen followed her as she walked back to the house. She went inside, and Amos stopped at the woodpile. “Guess we better split some of this wood, Owen.” The two of them picked up axes, and with practiced ease began splitting the wood. Good blocks of beech it was, and soon wedge-shaped lengths of the fragrant wood, splinterless as a cloven rock, fell away as they worked.
“I wish she wasn't going, Amos.”
Amos stared at his younger brother, compassion in his dark blue eyes. “Well, she is, and that's the end of it,” he said heavily. “Nowâ¦this ought to be enough.”
The two loaded their arms with wood and entered the large room which served for all the social activities of the family. As Amos dropped the firewood into the box by the stove with a loud rattle, his mother said, “Thank you, boys. Now, go wash up. Breakfast is about done.”
Marian Stuart had been an Edwards before she marriedâa cousin of the famous preacher Jonathan Edwards. Though she herself never mentioned her famous relative, this perhaps accounted for her single-minded devotion to God. Her simple act of thanking Owen and Amos was typical of the touch of grace and gentility that rested in her, setting her off from most women of the mountains. It was more than kindnessâ¦though that was in it, as well. She was, Amos had often thought, in some ways like the rich ladies who had ruled the big plantations before the Civil War. Despite the poverty and hard work that had worn her downâthat and steady childbearingâMarian Edwards Stuart possessed some fragile attribute that all real ladies have. Quality, some have called it, and though it is a rare enough and vague term, everyone who knew Marian Stuart realized that she could have fitted into a much higher sphere of life than the one she had occupied for most of her thirty-seven years.
She moved about the room, from the stove to the table, a tall woman with heavy ash-blond hair tied up in a bun. She had very dark blue eyes set in an oval face, with lines beginning to mark the smoothness of her skin. She was not thought of as a beautiful woman; rather, her features gave the impression of strength, having little of what was commonly called “prettiness.”
“You sit down, Lylah. I guess we can wait on you your last morning at home.” Marian smiled at her eldest daughter, coming over to brush a rebellious curl into place.
“Oh, Ma, I can't eat anything!”
Marian smiled, but ignoring the protest, called out, “Will! Come and eat!” She looked around as her husband came into the room. “We've got some of that sausage you and Lylah like so much.”
William Stuart, a handsome man of forty-five, was one inch over six feet, lean and muscular. His reddish chestnut hair had a slight curl, and it lay neatly on his well-shaped head. It was marked by a white streak running from front to back on the left sideâa memento of the Battle of Five Forks, the last battle of the Civil War. He had been only twelve, but had joined up as a drummer boy when his father had been killed at the Battle of Nashville. He had a short English nose, startling light blue eyes, a mobile mouth, and a rather prominent chin with a deep cleft. This last trait he had passed along to all of his children except Amos.
“Well, now,” he said with a grin, “I guess we got to send somebody off to school to get a first-rate breakfast around here.” He moved over and put his arm around Marian, who flushed slightly and moved away. Quickly he sat down and set his gaze on Lylah. “Well, daughter, last chance to change your mind.”