A warm Sunday in late summer found me tolerably mended, standing by my window at daybreak. My room appeared different in the glimmer. Everyday items glowed with mystical hues from the first tinge of dawn. My oak bed looked huge, its four posts casting enormous shadows. A canopy top held draw curtains, partially opened, tempting me to return. The mattress was so high from the floor, I had to use a stool to climb in. There was a trundle bed stored underneath, allowing extra room for an overnight guest, though four children could’ve hibernated an entire winter on the main bed frame in relative comfort.

My father adored space. That fact was reflected throughout our house; he had designed and supervised every solid inch of its construction. Our ceilings stood extraordinarily high, making all of the rooms in Sheridan House large and airy. T.H. told newcomers to The Hill that he would give them his house if they could find a knot in it, knowing full well it was built with Heart Pine lumber.

I padded across the wooden floor to admire the carved front of my chifforobe. The ornate armoire had arrived from France for my seventh birthday. Its beauty was awe-inspiring; made of polished mahogany, it had a narrow chest of drawers on one side, and a space for hanging clothes on the other. Each end held a separate door that opened out, with a mirror attached to the back.

I pulled out my coveralls, slipped them on, then quickly scooped my chamber pot from beneath the bed. I set it on the ground outside my window and climbed out, headed for the woods to empty the pot while pondering the virtues of piety and persuasion. Stopping on the well-worn footpath at the wooded edge of The Hill’s east side, I gazed back at my home; the whitewashed structure gleamed in the sun. A one story colonial design, the house boasted several wings, marked by chimneys that spread out beyond a central location. Its front emphasized a wide verandah supported by square pillars.

Sheridan House overlooked the L&N railroad, separated from it by a long, grassy slope. The sight was both endearing and enduring, a century of family memories. On that particular day, resort activities had commenced in a full-blown flurry. Sunlight had barely sprung but already there was bustling commotion. Hired hands and resort guests awaited breakfast; additional preparation of food was needed for the coming day visitors. Tending the grounds and animals also required careful consideration.

The Hill’s Supreme Commander was Cora Sheridan, my mother. She struck the image of a woman given to uncommon energy and business capacity, even though she moved with a halting gait. Mama was afflicted with milk legs, a painful, chronic skin infection that set in after Azberry was born. She treated her pain with Saymen’s Salve; the remedial effects were short-lived, but I never once heard her complain. For her, it was bad manners to publicly lament about anything, much less personal suffering.

My mother was a black haired, green-eyed Irish beauty with fair skin and delicate features. One of Charleston, South Carolina’s genteel creatures, she’d tamed my giant of a daddy with feminine charms that bewildered my young girl’s heart. She brought a rustic elegance into our home that soothed the eye and spirit of all who entered. Decorating with finery came naturally to her; she had a flair for combining such diverse particulars as imported velvet and home-grown, hand-polished leather. Etiquette and good form flowed in Mama’s veins like a birthright, her connection to a more refined past.

Mama hated the local vernacular and was always correcting Azberry and me. “There’s something called proper grammar,” she’d sigh, exasperated. “I swear, if my friends up north ever come to visit, they’ll think you were raised in a barn the minute you open your mouth.”

At Sheridan House, Mama was a rainbow trout swimming upstream against a bunch of boneheaded pikes. Her frustration at our inability to understand the value of cultured decorum would sometimes invite tension. However, with earthy, rough and tumble humor, Daddy could always find a way to make her laugh, and she’d relax. It was a paradox I never understood. As different as my parents were, their mutual devotion to one another was obvious, even to total strangers.

Since she’d attended a fancy girls’ school while growing up in South Carolina, it was Mama who patiently guided me through our immense and amply stocked library. She emphasized a variety of subjects: music, history, literature, science and art. She also tried to teach me the basics of feminine skills, focusing on the spinning wheel and the handiworks of crochet and embroidery, to no avail.

To Mama’s obvious disappointment, my complete lack of aptitude in the culinary arts was established early. It was downright dangerous for me to have anything to do with an egg pudding or sweet potato pie. Food seemed to explode, without provocation, under my watch. Still, Mama clung unflinchingly to the belief that my true nature, some unforeseen latent gift, would find its way to public notice. My mother was an incurable romantic.

Duty completed, I returned to my room and stretched out atop my bed, absorbed with thoughts of my family, particularly how I might handle my father’s lack of religious zeal. I dreaded telling T.H. about my newfound commitment, the promise I made to God, vowed on the day I met my death adder in the form of a copperhead.

Though I’d gone to Old Bethlehem Methodist with Mamau Maude a few times, Daddy discouraged it. “The only church that needs belonging to is the Big Church!” he’d bellow in that baritone voice of his. (My knees shook when Daddy bellowed.) He had an abiding belief in God, but he also held stubborn convictions about belonging to any organized religion, convinced that preachers prevented folks from thinking for themselves.

Daddy was a complicated man in other ways, too. Though he could be a braggart, T.H. was also beguiling, with flamboyant style and charm. Even those that disagreed with his radical views liked him, in spite of themselves. As a part-time U.S. Marshall, I must admit T.H. looked dashing in his fancy clothes. The man had charisma! He stood a good height, wore black suede, wide-brimmed hats, and often holstered a gun high on his hip. He was an expert at putting on the dog, impressing people.

Also, because Village Springs had no real dentist, Daddy had long ago discovered another hidden talent—he was good at pulling teeth. He provided that free service to whoever requested it, and sometimes to those who didn’t.

I didn’t fear my father, but I knew him to be a formidable opponent. Butterflies danced in my stomach as I considered the challenge; my mind was an overflowing chalice, brimming with contradictory beliefs and opinions. Ivy-covered theological ideals crept and twined inside my know-nothing, budding intellect.

There were three Houses of Worship within close proximity to The Hill: Old Bethlehem Methodist, Mount Hebron Baptist, and the Holiness Church of the Brethren. How was a soul to know which one God really lived in, or at least visited occasionally? Each denomination claimed to hold the key to salvation, exclusively. It was a dogmatic dilemma, but I quickly settled on a course of action: I’d join all three. Proper amounts of time would have to be spent among the trinity of doctrines, to cover my aces.

I foresaw one major problem, however; official baptism at Brother Watkins’ Pentecostal Church, now located in the old schoolhouse, would be impossible. That special service included snake handling. I prayed that God would understand the ironic contradiction.

Eventually, I came up with a workable plan for presenting my righteous aspirations to T.H. With renewed resolve, I raced off in search of my grandmother. I found her at the well, drawing water. “May I go to church with you this morning, Mamau?”

“Child, you know you’re always welcome to come worship with me.” A pause, and then, “What does your daddy say?”

“I’m headed in now to talk to him,” I answered. With that piece of news, my granny’s forehead wrinkled like a bull’s back. Through my young eyes, she appeared to be as tall as her son. I marveled at the muscles in her legs, strong yet feminine. Golden hairpins held her long, silver hair on her handsome head in a coiled braid.

With a few historic exceptions, I’d never heard anything other than words of loving kindness escape my grandmother’s lips. I wondered why folks would sometimes say to me, “Are you sure you’re Maude Sheridan’s grandchild?”

Mamau was my ally, but doubtless would remain a silent one. I knew she wouldn’t interfere in the parental decisions of her son, even though I was certain she had strong opinions about religion—and me. When it came to T.H., I was on my own, unless I made sure that Mama was within earshot.

I found my father in the dining hall, dipping into “mountain oysters,” otherwise known as fried hog testicles. As with most things T.H. undertook, he watched the cycling orb of the moon until the time was right to harvest such a manly feast. Then, he and his helpers would alter (that is, castrate) the latest litter of newly weaned pigs. Whereupon, they’d have themselves a big mess of tender vittles. Southern folklore imparted the belief that this delicacy, in the truest sense of the word, would enhance virility. Man’s best friend is not the dog.

I stood in the doorway and judged Daddy’s frame of mind on that warm summer morning. He was obviously enjoying the special dish he seemed so partial to. The time was right for what needed saying. Azberry and Uncle Finas were there, along with several guests who’d already meandered down from their lakeside cabins.

Our beamed dining hall, with its gigantic oak table, reminded me of the one King Arthur and his knights must have used. My favorite picture hung on the wall behind my father, a painting that also evoked medieval times. It brilliantly captured an old monk sitting at a table, gray headed, wrinkles in his face; he looked like he’d been battered by life. On the monk’s table lay a bowl of soup, a piece of bread, the Holy Bible, and a pair of glasses, nothing else. He was saying grace, and that was also the title of the picture. Grace. The painted scene suited my virtuous intent and bolstered my determination to walk into the lion’s den.

Glancing across the table, I spied Essie’s artwork: fried chicken, pork chops, grits, gravy, assorted homemade jams and jellies, scrambled eggs, pots upon pots of steaming coffee, and of course, the private parts of several unfortunate shoats. Mama passed by with a fresh tray of biscuits and said, “So there you are, Sadie Lou Sheridan. It’s about time you joined us. A girl your age needs a good breakfast!”

I sat down, stuck my thumb in a biscuit, and poured the hole full of syrup. Mama threw me a disapproving glance, so I added eggs and chops to my menu. My style of eating hasn’t changed; I attack my food with ravenous zeal, mouth chocked full. That day was no different and Mama took notice. The sound of “Sadie Lou!” once again burned my ears.

Azberry snickered at the use of my despised given name, something Mama tended to call upon when irritated, either at me or life in general. While wondering what had riled her that morning, I almost lost my courage to speak to T.H. Defiant, I stuck my tongue out at my five-year-old brother, and my moment of spinelessness passed. I slid into an empty chair, next to Daddy’s, and nodded a greeting to everybody present. Then, I set to work. “Good mornin’, Daddy.”

“Hello Puglet, you look mighty pretty today.” It was a good start considering what I was facing.

“Sleep well, Daddy?”

“Dead to the world. And you, Daughter?”

“Actually, I was awake a good part of the night’s hours studyin’ on something. I was lookin’ up in the sky yesterday when I saw a buzzard sail past; he was all by himself. I remember you tellin’ me that folks should watch a lone buzzard ’til he flaps his wings.” I now had T.H.’s attention. He was a true believer in that folktale, having what you might call a “bird-brained fetish” about such skyward happenings.

“That’s right, my girl. If you see a buzzard flyin’ by himself, it’s important he flaps his wings, at least once, before movin’ on. It’s a real bad sign if he doesn’t. Bad luck even; it can bring dire consequences to the watcher.”

I’d grown up as a keen observer of those solitary soarers, searching as they made their way over meadows and mountains. I’d learned they could glide on unflapping wings for hours before becoming foreboding black specks in the distance. This had become an accepted occurrence of nature to my young eyes, but I knew that to T.H., each one carried a message of doom. If he was right, I’d already been damned, many times over, by a bunch of flying turkeys.

“My buzzard didn’t flap, Daddy.” I glanced sideways to see a dark frown pass over my father’s face. I didn’t like causing T.H. grief. He’d anguished enough during my recent reptile-induced illness. Still, I saw no other way of becoming a good, churchgoing, promise keeper.

“Like an omen, could that spiteful vulture be tellin’ me I should do something I’ve put off? Could it be . . .” I spoke the last three words very slowly as I waited for T.H. to catch up with my conniving young mind.

“A warnin’! Yes, for sure that’s what it was!” Relief washed over him.

“That’s what I thought, Daddy! I’ll bet that buzzard was tellin’ me to repent, and stand good for what I say.”

Then, I dramatically recounted what had happened between me, the Almighty, and the death adder, flatly stating it was time for me to embrace religion. When I was finished, T.H. sat in his chair, as still as death. His manner was so strange; it was like a trance came over him.

I began to squirm in my seat, thinking he must be madder than I’d ever witnessed before. I took some comfort from the fact that Mama poured herself a cup of coffee, and sat down nearby; Mamau Maude came in right behind her. Resort guests who knew T.H. were headed out the dining hall, toward greener pastures.

“What church did you say you were thinkin’ of attendin’?” he finally asked in a voice I recognized as being too controlled. We were more alike than either one of us knew. Seeing as I was, like the Bible says, “fruit of the father’s loins,” I’m sure T.H. knew he’d been had.

“All of ’em,” I boldly replied, marveling at my own pluckiness. That’s when the bellowing started; T.H. thundered like a Brahma bull. I thought the earth had begun to shake, but it was only my skinny bones trembling uncontrollably in my chair, next to the fiery passion of Irish Gaelic.

“Dammit lassie, a mouth might open and shut like a prayer book, but that doesn’t mean it is one!” While Daddy continued flinging his Joe Blizzard fit, Mama and Mamau Maude sat quietly in their chairs, waiting until the heat died down to a smoldering ember. Finally, my father said, as if wondering out loud, “I swear, I don’t know what’s gotten into you girl. I ought to forbid you from takin’ in such foolish notions.”

T.H. was up against it with the trio of wily women he found himself facing that day. “Pug’s old enough to know her own mind about such a sacred thing,” Mama said softly.

“There was an age, not long past, when a man was master of his own house,” he grumbled.

Then Mamau Maude spoke, her voice sweet and kind. As I listened to her words, my spirit felt cradled, gently rocked by the peaceful tide of hope. “Tyne, this is about acknowledgin’ a greater Master. God has put his mark on the child, and He commands her to follow her heart. Your daughter comes to you not for your blessin’, but for your acceptance and your love.”

From the next room a pendulum clock chimed seven times. Mamau’s brief discourse had sounded like poetry, the only time I ever heard her admonish my father. She did it with such sympathetic style, there was nothing for him to do but gradually smile and say, to no one in particular, “If it doesn’t rain today, it’ll miss a mighty good chance.” Daddy’s words trembled with emotion as he ran his big, callused fingers through my tousled hair. His touch reassured me. I felt safe, affirmed.

* * *

After breakfast, there was still plenty of time before church, so I headed down the well-worn trail that led to my thinking place. Strolling along, savoring sweet summer smells, I munched on wild huckleberries and honeysuckle. I stopped and stared at some blooming High Buck, fascinated by the phallic-shaped, hairy flower that hung down low, about six inches. It looked alive—I reached out to touch it and shivered.

I walked the line of stones set across Hog’s Creek, then traversed a wide meadow of budding mayapples on the far side. After moving away the brush I’d so often laid across the opening to Horseshoe Cave, I entered the chamber and searched rock ledges by feel until I found the strategically placed matches. I lit several candles before opening the cigar case that contained my smuggled treasure. I reclined comfortably on a pallet, designed with scraps of cloth I’d pilfered from Mama’s sewing room, and lit myself a homemade cig made from rabbit tobacco.

Attempts to manufacture my own cigarettes had begun two years earlier. Experience and determination guided me in the perfection of this craft. Trial and error proved corn silks, grapevines, and coffee grounds to be the choicest packing materials. Hours spent watching my elders had aided me in the pursuit of authoritative rolling techniques. I was now a master. As I inhaled long and deep, I thought about the important role Horseshoe Cave now played in my life. Three months earlier, Egypt, Fawn, and I had discovered the place together.

That first time inside its dark domain was a terrifying experience. The cave’s mouth was small; a full-sized man couldn’t have entered. At the time of our original discovery, I peered into the darkness for a minute or two, then ducked inside, alone. For my prepubescent form, it was one short dive, combined with a level roll, and I was in—underground and blind as a bat.

I thought the opening would provide more sunlight than it actually did. For several moments, I was paralyzed with fear, consumed by the tangible, enveloping blackness. Though the air was cool, I began to sweat. All kinds of pictures took shape in my mind: huge, hibernating bears, spiders the size of my fist, and gigantic snakes with keen-edged fangs.

An inadvertent moan escaped my lips; its echo sounded like someone answering back. A few moments of silence followed, then I heard the whispers. They weren’t the murmurs of living beings. The rustling noise sounded more like the sighs of ghosts. I panicked, screamed, then crawled in the direction I’d fallen, clawing stone walls until Fawn and Egypt pulled me out.

Two days later, our courage bolstered, we returned to the cave armed with tallow candles and matches. This time, we entered together and immediately saw there were no animals, large or small, lingering about. This in itself was odd, as though the cave had been waiting for someone, for us, to discover it. I was taken aback when Fawn and Egypt were unable to hear the manifest, eerie whispers. To my ears they were easily perceived, distinct from anything I’d ever heard before. But the sorrowful, haunting racket seemed meant for me alone.

To their credit, my two friends never questioned my sincerity about hearing the creepy sounds. Fawn had a chilling theory. “Badgerwoman says that caves like this were buryin’ grounds for the Creek and Choctaw. Their spirits might warn us to keep our distance. Maybe, that’s what Pug hears. I don’t think we should ever go too far back into the crannies of this place.”

Scared speechless, Egypt and I nodded; we had no argument with such astute, disquieting counsel. Nor were we about to pick a fight with spooks, especially phantoms staking a claim. As long as there was the tiniest light, the whispers lessened. Gradually, with the passing of time, they stopped altogether. Or more correctly, I no longer heard them.

We always met in the main chamber, just inside the den’s opening. Egypt gave the cave its name because of a perfect earthen horseshoe, a natural formation she discovered over the cave’s mouth. The interior was extremely wide; the cave’s ceiling was high, like that of an unadorned cathedral.

Our girlish, high-pitched voices loudly resounded around the spacious walls. Strewn along the smooth dirt floor were fragments of lead, shells, and Indian-looking trinkets. Horseshoe Cave offered perfect shelter; some unseen crevice in the rear of the cavern caused the air to blow inward in summer and outward in winter, allowing fresh air to circulate.

During the weeks that followed our discovery, Horseshoe became the perfect hideout. It was an intrigue we kept to ourselves, offering covert amusement and sought-after freedom from adult scrutiny. Whenever there were paying customers on The Hill, Egypt, Fawn, and I knew the cave’s existence allowed our multi-hued group to steal away. To frolic together with impunity, away from frowns of disapproval. My parents let us work this out on our own; foolish, impossible rules are best taught that way.

Then, things got complicated. One day, while playing Chinese checkers within the safety of Horseshoe, we heard rustling near the entrance. I peeked my head out in time to see Fanny trying to hide herself behind a nearby tree. We’d avoided each other since the day, months earlier, she’d acted like a horse’s ass in Marsh’s Grocery.

With the speed of a bear cub, I rushed out of the cave and bounded toward my traitorous friend; Egypt and Fawn weren’t far behind. Together, we cornered Fanny, then tackled her. “What are you doin’ here?” I demanded, feeling madder than a pitbull.

Fanny stared at the ground and confessed, “I followed you. I’m dyin’ to know what you’re doin’. Why you’re always sneakin’ off in the same direction.”

“You had no right to do that,” I hissed. “This is our special place. Nobody knows about it but us!”

“Until now,” added Egypt, annoyed.

“I wanna play, be friends again,” Fanny pleaded. She looked up into Egypt’s eyes, then Fawn’s, then mine. “With all of you.”

“Is that so?” I said, making no attempt to hide my sarcasm. I looked at Egypt; she shook her head no.

“Fanny is a weeny,” came our simple chant, delivered with the sharp, cruel edge of children.

Fanny was so angry that she began to cry, but she tried one more peace offering. “What can I do to show how sorry I am for . . . you know . . .” Looking at Egypt, she continued her awkward apology. “What happened in the store, it was stupid. Sometimes, I can’t stop my own big mouth. I admit I was a showoff, but I take it all back. I never meant what I said; you know I didn’t, don’t you Egypt?”

Egypt was clearly moved by Fanny’s words and seemed close to forgiveness when I stepped in. “It ain’t that easy, and you know it. Are you always gonna act like an idiot whenever your brother’s around? Maybe once a Holt, always a Holt, is that how it is?”

The situation boiled over with pent-up feelings. “Who are you to be callin’ me names, Pug Sheridan? You think you’re Miss Perfect. It’s time you came off that mountain you’re standin’ on.”

“You’re the one on her high horse, Fanny Holt. Or maybe, you’re just full of horse shit.” That’s when a full-blown cat fight erupted. Fanny attacked with all her might, knocking me to the ground. Entangled, we rolled in the mud, pulling each others’ hair out in clumps.

Fawn and Egypt finally managed to drag us apart, but not before we were both bruised and bleeding from deep scratch wounds. I knew how a mad dog must feel; I wanted to bite somebody. Fanny looked rabid too. The pair of us was pushed down into the cool shade of separate trees.

It was Fawn who patiently negotiated a civilized solution, an arm wrestling match. If I won, Fanny would leave and never come back, telling nobody about Horseshoe Cave. We’d let her join our group should she beat me.

“Also, if I win, I get to be the boss!” Fanny yelled her challenge across the narrow space between us.

I nodded, cocksure I’d win.

“By God, let’s do it. All or nothin’ . . . right now,” Fanny spat.

She and I lay upon our stomachs on a nearby grassy knoll, clasped hands, then dug our elbows into the soft earth. We stared angrily into each others eyes as Egypt gave the signal to begin. Our bodies jerked in tandem. God, Fanny’s strong, I thought.

“Dung eater,” Fanny growled.

“Buffalo butt,” I snarled.

Minutes passed. We both groaned with the effort our demanding contest exacted. I feared it was a stalemate; we seemed equally matched. But I found the strength for one final shove. That’s when I heard it. A stomach-turning pop. Fanny’s wrist snapped liked a mop handle and she cried out in agony. Stunned, I let go of Fanny’s hand. It involuntarily flopped forward like wet cloth, her forearm bent where it should’ve been straight. “Please stop. I give up, Pug,” my opponent sobbed.

I felt like a criminal. “Lord . . . Fanny, I’m so sorry. I should’ve known when to quit.” As I put my arms around her, she began to shake.

“Oh sweet Jesus! It hurts; it aches real bad!” Fanny’s high-pitched wail was unnerving. I felt helpless, unsure of what to do next.

Like an expert, Fawn calmly examined the break. “I know how to fix your arm, Fanny,” came the soothing, assuring words. “I saw Badgerwoman help somebody with a sore arm like yours. It’s gonna hurt for a second, but I know it’ll work.”

Breathing hard, the injured girl studied Fawn for a long time. “All right.” Fanny’s voice betrayed her fear. “Fix it, if you know how.”

“First, we need to walk over there,” Fawn answered, pointing to a large, nearby log. She lowered Fanny down, next to the old timber, then told her patient to close her eyes. Without warning, Fawn slammed Fanny’s arm against the hard wood. Fanny screamed like there was no tomorrow, but her arm was straight again.

Egypt disassembled my knapsack and produced a wide, sturdy board. Fawn carefully lay the swollen limb on the wooden splint, and I secured it with my sock. Then, we focused on keeping Fanny comfortable until she felt like walking home.

Exhausted, our little band made our way back to the cave, helping Fanny negotiate the opening so she wouldn’t injure herself further. Once inside, Fanny rested upon my pallet, whimpering like a sick puppy when I clumsily covered her with an old blanket.

Nobody said anything for a long time. Words seemed inappropriate. Finally, all four of us spoke at once, asking the same question, “Now what?” It broke the tension and paved the way for laughter.

“You broke my damn arm, Pug!” Fanny cried out, her smile coy, not angry. She slapped me on the backside with her good hand.

“I know, you win,” I joked.

“What is this? Some kinda warped rule y’all have to play here? All those with broken bones are allowed in?” Fanny’s question was part serious, part tease.

In answer, Fawn handed Fanny an Indian-styled rawhide rattle. The image of a bear was drawn with black paint on one side, the outline of a sparrow on the other. “We call it our talkin’ stick. You deserve to hold it now,” Fawn murmured.

We’d already used the stick many times, as part of a game we’d invented. The girl to whom the stick was passed asked the others a riddle, or told a joke or bawdy rhyme. Sometimes, she simply shared a story or bit of gossip. A girl never wanted to pass her turn if she could help it; the goal was to think of a waggish, entertaining ditty to say, each and every time the stick came one’s way.

I knew what Fawn was up to; she was trying to take Fanny’s mind off the pain. I could see that Fanny also understood this and was grateful. Visibly moved, Fanny asked, “What’s no better than a bug in the dirt?”

“A person without real friends,” replied Egypt. “But that’s nobody here.” The moment felt timeless.

Overwhelmed with guilt for what had happened, I remained quiet as I added more wood to the dying flames of our small fire. The four of us listened to the popping and crackling echoes as they bounced around dirt walls.

Fanny, now one of us, returned the talking stick to Fawn. In a low, mischievous tone, Fawn asked, “What is that which is enough for one, sometimes too much for two, and nothin’ at all for three?” Silence. “A secret,” she whispered before passing the stick to me.

Like a bolt of lightning, it hit me. “Maybe we can prove that riddle wrong,” I said, raspy-voiced. “By startin’ a secret club. With real initiations and the like. Usin’ Horseshoe as our base, nobody will ever know what we’re doin’ here. Nobody but us.” I thought the idea would make up for Fanny’s arm, as well as months of bad blood and hurt feelings, but palpable resistance was in the air.

“Who’d want to join?” Egypt asked, nonplused. “Most white girls make fun of us when we’re together. The colored ones are more scared than ever of doin’ something bad, causin’ trouble by makin’ the wrong person mad. You and me can’t even be on the same side of Sheridan Lake on public days.”

“Egypt’s right, but so is Pug,” Fawn chimed in. “Why can’t we have our own kind of fun? The grown-ups around here don’t understand. We do.

Fanny nervously protested. “I still want to play with y’all, if you’ll let me,” she said. “But joinin’ a formal club, Daddy’d kill me if he ever found out.” She looked at Fawn and Egypt. “Don’t misunderstand. I like you and all . . . It’s nothin’ personal . . . It’s just that you don’t know my father.”

I feared that the day was ending up the way it started. “Nobody should be forced to join,” I cajoled. “But that shouldn’t stop us from havin’ our own hideout, with rules that we decide on.”

“Seven.” Fawn sounded excited. “Seven girls in our club would be a lucky count. Badgerwoman uses that number for all her totems.”

I gently laid my hand on Fanny’s shoulder and coaxed, “Your daddy’s a preacher. He’s not about to hurt anybody. It’s your decision, of course. But you can’t let your family run your whole life, Fanny. You’re already part of the secret now. Part of Horseshoe. There’s no turnin’ back. Not for any of us.”

Fanny bit her lip as she thought out loud. “I guess I did follow y’all here today.” She winced as she cradled her broken arm, then smiled. “And I fought to stay and be the boss. I’m good at sneakin’ out of the house after dark.” Another long pause and then, “I’m in if you’ll have me.”

Our idea was a novel one—based on friendship, not skin color—born at the height of childhood innocence. We invited three more of my white friends to join and they accepted, though such an alliance was a big risk. As children, they were in danger of receiving a terrible whipping from their parents.

But unlike most youngsters, Violet and Ruby Seay, along with Newt Yetter, had families that ignored them most of the time. Those particular three girls had few friends and were known as troublemakers, nuisances of the neighborhood; they were used to getting in and out of mischief, a talent I knew would come in handy.

We called ourselves “The Secret Society of the Seven Sisters.” Our sense of adventure allowed us to throw caution to the wind, even though the stale breeze of prejudicial threat was gathering strength throughout the South. Still, with our childish naiveté, none of us could’ve foreseen the emotional chaos our friendship would bring as it rubbed certain people the wrong way, people whose tolerance level was already inflamed.

* * *

As a half-baked, rough-and-tumble tomboy, however, I believed good times were there for the taking. On the morning I’d butted heads with T.H., I stashed stolen, leftover corn cakes in Horseshoe Cave, along with a change of clothes. I hurriedly snuffed out my smoke and raced home to get ready for church.

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