I whistled as I skipped toward the washroom. Essie called out behind me, “A whistlin’ girl and a crowin’ hen always come to some bad end!” When I whistled louder, I heard her boisterous laugh echo down the hall.

Daddy built our unique bathing room with Mama in mind. It had a window in the roof where sunlight filtered through in a giant beam of heavenly heat. The other windows were high up, offering the bather a private refuge. The floor and walls were constructed with blood-red bricks. A wood stove rested in the corner. Soft white towels and matching rugs invited touch. Earlier, water had been added to the oval-shaped aluminum tub positioned in the center; morning’s light had warmed it.

I washed with diligence, wanting God to find me squeaky clean. I even remembered my neck and ears. The soap was formed with hog’s grease combined with homemade lye leached from hickory wood ashes. The lye from our ash hopper was ten times better than the store-bought stuff. Mama had poured lemon juice into the mixture; sometimes she’d add mint leaves or rose petals before the homemade soap was poured into molds. It left a body smelling like fresh morning dew.

After slipping on my dressing gown, I hurried to my room. Fawn had climbed through the window and was sitting on my bed. Her solemn expression relayed the fact that Badgerwoman wouldn’t permit her to accompany me to church. “Can you come to Horseshoe early tonight?” Fawn whispered, making sure no one overheard the name of our secret meeting place. She was trying to act cheerful, but a single tear rolled slowly and sadly down her face.

“Sure,” I answered, “I’ll see ya at the cave as soon as afternoon services are over.” Fawn smiled faintly, nodded, then climbed soundlessly out the window.

With relish, I put on my favorite outfit, a cotton dress with tiny lavender and gray checks; a purple taffeta ribbon was attached at the waist. I wore matching shoes which Essie had polished with a greasy biscuit. Mamau Maude braided my long red hair down my back. Atop my head, I placed a gray velvet hat with a narrow brim. All modesty aside, I looked good enough for burying.

My grandmother appeared distinguished and refined in the dress and matching coat she’d made from scraps of fancy Italian drapery. The ivory brocade complemented the color of her hair. She wore no jewelry. As the first lady of simple elegance, she didn’t need to.

Daddy’s voice boomed as he shouted orders and joked with hired hands. Mamau Maude and I walked outside to discover that he had harnessed two of our Kentucky thoroughbreds to the surrey we used on special occasions; it had a green top, decorated with fringe that bounced happily during travel.

Lester Goff, a man Daddy tolerated because he was a cripple and couldn’t get work elsewhere, hollered, “Come and see the mess those niggers left over yonder, T.H. There are peanut shells everywhere. It’ll take ’til Doomsday to clean ’em up. Why can’t they act like civilized folks?”

“Now Lester,” T.H. replied, his voice stern, “you know I don’t care for such talk. Peanut shells are harmless enough. Go help Jack move that lumber. Then see what you can do about cleanin’ the stables.”

I rolled my eyes at Lester’s comment, then climbed in the surrey alongside Mamau Maude while Daddy held the horses. He walked purposefully around the restless animals and handed the buggy whip to his mother. At first, I thought Daddy wasn’t going to look at me. But as our horses trotted away, he turned and gave me a wink, his eyes glistening. Relieved, I smiled back.

Hansel and Gretel unified their step, putting on airs of arrogant superiority; Mamau Maude and I laughed at the uppity horses. The rhythmic sounds of their trip-trot gait calmed and lulled us. Mamau didn’t like driving the team, but I did. She let me have the whip for most of the way; I felt free, alive and powerful while guiding them forward. We rounded a bend and saw Old Bethlehem Methodist in the distance; our horses picked up speed as we got closer to our destination.

Built in a grove of trees located atop a rounded, grassy knoll, the church was shaded by richly-boughed, oak branches that draped themselves over the roof. On that summer’s day, there were bird calls in the air and butterflies flitting about. As the buggy pulled to a stop, I noted who’d arrived, and who wore a new dress or hat.

Violet and Ruby Seay were playing out front, and were surprised to see me. Their mother let them sit in a pew with me and Mamau Maude. The three of us were excited to see each other, and we eagerly whispered among ourselves for as long as possible. When we thought nobody was looking, we crossed our wrists with seven fingers extended outward. It was the Seven Sisters’ secret signal of recognition. Our covert cleverness made us giggle hysterically. A fixed stare from Mamau Maude told us to settle down in a hurry.

I squirmed on the hard, homemade pew; it was held together with large, square nails that bore into my rump. My sweaty thighs stuck stubbornly to the pine slab. As I tried my best to sit still, the combined, pungent aroma of wood, cut flowers, mildew, cologne, and sweat distracted me. God’s Perfume, I thought to myself.

I jumped when Reverend Horton Tidbow’s resounding greeting demanded my attention. “Let us rise and sing Sacred Harp number 231, in recognition of God’s Promise, liftin’ our voices in praise and thanksgivin’ to The Unclouded Day.

Mamau knew the words of the hymn by heart; Ruby, Violet and I shared a song book. Even though my singing voice sounded like a mule in labor, I had a hankering to “rise and sing” full-out, ignoring all sideway glances in my direction:

Oh they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,

Oh they tell me of a home far away.

Oh they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,

Oh they tell me of an unclouded day.

After hymns, the sermon began. I remember brief passages spoken by Reverend Tidbow that day. He had some first-rate lines too, worked the crowd real good. “We may talk of presence of mind, but there’s a rarer quality we should all strive to have. That is presence of heart.” He preached with a no-frills approach, plain and loud.

I don’t remember much more because I fell in love during the twenty-five minutes he spoke. Most folks don’t believe young girls can feel true love, but they’re wrong. Though a sudden thunderstorm rattled our chapel walls, I took no notice. A storm-free paradise had settled within my own, fast-beating heart.

Alton Strawbridge, and his brother Arious, had come into God’s House late. The pews were packed with parishioners, so they reluctantly sat in one of the Amen corners. The side benches were so named because of the older folks who regularly sat there, calling out “Amen!” anytime they approved of the preacher’s message.

The two brothers attended boarding school up North. They rarely came home, and I hadn’t laid eyes on either of them in years. Arious was sixteen, Alton fifteen. Their mother succumbed to childbed fever a few weeks after Alton was born. Judge Thurmond Strawbridge, their father, had recently died a peaceful death in his sleep. The severity of Judge Strawbridge’s sentences, and his reputation along the circuit as a “hanging judge,” worsened after the death of his wife. Similarly, as a parent, he’d shown little patience with his boys; they were better off being raised by schoolmasters.

Alton and Arious were alone now, without living relatives except for the Judge’s sister, Caroline Strawbridge; they had returned home to help their old maid aunt sort things out. Caroline’s expression appeared sad even when she smiled. Her nephews also carried themselves with a melancholic bearing. It wasn’t grief alone; the family bloodline conveyed a dominant gloomy gene. I, for one, thought it added character and intelligence to Alton’s perfect face.

Alton was tall with deep-set, light blue eyes; his skin was darkly tanned like his brother’s. Patrician would describe his nose and other features. The color of his lips reminded me of running roses in early bloom. Sleeping feelings were aroused inside me, hinting at the essence of something previously unknown. Some might call it lust. At age ten, I didn’t know what to call it, but in one short hour it was decided; I’d save myself for Alton Strawbridge, until Doomsday if I had to. I made a wish on an eyelash and blew it away.

Sometime during my lovelorn daydream, I heard the pastor ask if there was anyone present wanting to join the membership. All churches in Village Springs had a similar diametric rule: You couldn’t get baptized unless you joined the church, and if you joined, you were automatically baptized. The next thing I remember is standing in front of the entire congregation, with Preacher Tidbow on one side of me, and Mamau Maude on the other.

My grandmother removed my hat. The Reverend reached into a wooden bucket and scooped out an impressive amount of water, holding it easily in the reservoir of his large, curved palms. With practiced deliberation, he let the cool liquid cascade down upon my head. “As this water flows, may it remain a symbol of God’s Purity and Mercy. I baptize you, Sadie Lou Sheridan, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

I waited for the preacher to say, “Go forth my child and sin no more!” But he didn’t. Instead, he continued to silently pray while his hand remained firmly planted atop my head. I tried not to wriggle when the baptismal water dripped down the back of my dress and seeped into my undergarments. Pastor Tidbow prayed for a distressingly long time. I figured he thought me a challenging specimen for theological solutions; my soul obviously needed extra attention. When, at last, the preacher reached down and shook my hand, I risked a glance in Alton’s direction; his smile met mine and my face turned ten shades of scarlet.

An offering was taken, the doxology sung, and when it was over, everybody gathered out front. Grown women talked among themselves while their men hitched horses. Ruby and Violet whispered in my ear, assuring they’d be at the club meeting that night, but I barely heard them; my attention was elsewhere. Alton and Reverend Tidbow were having an animated discussion on the church steps, eagerness pouring forth from Alton’s side of the conversation. Eavesdropping proved impossible; the churchyard echoed with what sounded like a multitude of chatty voices.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Mamau Maude walk toward Arious and his Aunt Caroline. I studied Arious for a few moments; he was actually the more handsome of the two brothers. Even so, my gaze fixed on Alton.

“Pug Sheridan, what’s the matter with you? You haven’t listened to a word we’ve said!” It was Ruby. She grabbed my hand and added, “Come with me. I have something to show you.” We ran back into the church, and Ruby took a small package from her mama’s hand. “Look what Grandpa sent us all the way from Boston!” There, in a little tin box, were sticks of red and white peppermint candy.

Violet chirped, “There are seven pieces left, enough for each girl to have one at the Seven Sisters’ meetin’!” Violet caught herself; her excited voice had been too loud. She quickly brought her hand to her mouth, then carefully looked around, chagrined. No one had heard her. The three of us breathed a sigh of relief.

“You’ve gotta be more careful!” I admonished. “What if somebody had been standin’ nearby?”

“I’m sorry, Pug,” came Violet’s embarrassed apology. “Sometimes, I just get so wound up! I look forward to our meetin’s more than words can say. I promise it won’t happen again.” Her mother’s voice echoed in the distance, calling Violet and her sister by name, ending the tense moment; they raced toward the sound, headed home.

During the return ride to The Hill, I plied my grandmother with questions while a soft rain pelted the surrey. “Mamau, do you know what ‘Amen’ means?”

“It means ‘may it be so,’ ” she smiled. Mamau went on to say how good she thought the sermon had been, and how proud she was of me.

I loved her dearly, like a second mother. Mamau Maude always made time for me and I felt older in her presence. I then asked if I could go with her to deliver a baby, the next time she was summoned as a midwife.

“I’m sorry child, but you haven’t had a baby yet. There’s a legend from the old country that cautions against you seein’ childbearin’ too soon. If a childless female watches another woman in labor, she might have that woman’s pain, as well as her own, when her first lyin’-in time comes. Best not risk it.”

Best not, I thought, still wondering if I’d ever learn the secrets of female mysteries. I pressed for more information. “Where in blazes do all those babies come from? I’ve noticed that most are born in the middle of the night. Does that mean something I should know?”

My grandmother acted embarrassed, an unusual occurrence, and summarily answered, “Babies can be born anytime. I’ve delivered as many at noon as I have at midnight. But, nighttime does play an important role; husbands and wives tickle each other in the dark, then the baby starts to grow in the woman’s stomach.”

“Well that does it!” I loudly declared, incredulous. “Nobody is ever gonna tickle me again!” I waited for my grandmother to spill the real beans, a truth I suspected yet hadn’t confirmed. But she stayed silent and so did I. We were almost home before Mamau Maude mentioned that she’d invited the Strawbridge family to Sunday dinner. I was speechless for a moment or two before I heard myself say, “Amen!”

* * *

“Alton, did you know that we call our little Pug the Poetess of the Hill?” Bragging doesn’t suit most people, but it heightened T.H.’s gaysome spirit as he lavished unwanted fatherly praises in my direction. Our family’s private dining room found Daddy at one end of the table, Reverend Tidbow at the other. Uncle Finas, Azberry, and the Strawbridge brothers sat across from Mama, Mamau Maude, Caroline Strawbridge and me.

“Young one, you look pale. Are you ill? You haven’t eaten a thing.” It was Mama and she reached over to feel my forehead.

With exaggerated annoyance, I leaned away before her hand met its mark. “I’m not a baby, Mama!”

“Don’t you go sassin’ your mother, lass.” Daddy’s tone, as well as his gaze, was stern and rigid.

It was the longest meal I’d ever known. My parents were making it impossible for me to appear the seasoned and sophisticated femme fatale. I wished they could see the new fangled me, the ripened core, flowered and blossomed since breakfast.

Azberry sat hunched in his chair, sopping up gravy, grinning like a possum. If the preacher who’d just baptized me hadn’t been there, I might have strangled the little scrunch.

“Would you read us one of your poems after dinner?” Alton was offering me a face-saving diversion in the conversation.

I was able to say, “If you like,” before my throat closed up tighter than a tick. I watched with fascination as a ray of sunlight danced in the air above Alton’s head, creating a halo effect around his dark brown hair.

Reverend Tidbow’s deep voice was like a low rumble. He looked Daddy straight in the eye and said, “Young Alton tells me he’s aimin’ to be a preacher, gonna study theology when he goes back to school.” Countless debates had raged across our table between the Methodist minister and T.H, invigorating them both. For Pastor Tidbow, Daddy was a thrashing flounder, a prize fish. Like Jesus, he saw himself as a devoted fisherman, the angler who’d reel T.H. in. The problem was, where Horton saw genuine bait dangling on his hook, T.H. saw artificial flies.

Mama was determined there would be no “fly-fishing” that day. She meaningfully touched Daddy’s arm and promptly changed the subject, asking Arious what he planned to study after returning to Maryland.

“I’m preparin’ to be a doctor, Ma’am,” he proudly answered.

“So you’ll minister to festered hides while Alton sees to their depraved souls!” The words popped out of my mouth before I could call them back. A painful silence filled my ears until Uncle Finas burst out laughing, a kind of howling that immediately infected the entire room. After that, we passed the afternoon in a better, profoundly relaxed mood. Everybody talked and joked more; even the gray cloud over doleful Aunt Caroline lifted for a while.

Azberry dropped his fork, and the Sheridan men, true to form, looked to see from what direction visitors would be arriving; the errant “sign” couldn’t be ignored. Uncle Finas mentioned he’d seen a snake coiled in a tree while walking across the pasture. “A clear signal,” Daddy agreed, “that for sure means more rain than we’ve already had.”

I faked a sneeze to see if my menfolk would suggest that sneezing at the table meant you’d soon hear of a death, but they took no notice. Mesmerizing everyone, the Strawbridge boys were telling juicy stories about boarding school life. As the blackish-red pokeberry wine flowed, the tales got funnier. The brothers cheerfully told us about their eccentric headmaster, a man who’d had his tombstone carved ahead of time to read: SENSIBLE PEOPLE CHANGE THEIR MINDS, FOOLS NEVER DO. Arious swore to us that the monolith sat, waiting for sentry duty, in a corner of the man’s office. “Important for such a thing to be done right,” added Alton, mimicking Mr. Riddles.

The brothers elicited more belly laughs by insisting that their headmaster’s stated professional intent was to eradicate all “murderers of the English language,” either by education or by hanging. This compulsion evidently brought forth proper grammar and diction at the Zabiel Boylston School for Boys, with unprecedented success.

I joined in the laughter, but as the Strawbridge siblings expounded on their educational adventures, I grew uncomfort¬able. For me, their good-natured humor served as a bittersweet reminder of my own shortcomings. It was the first time I felt embarrassed by my lack of formal schooling. I stared down at the table, overwhelmed by a sense of intellectual inferiority. Alton could never be interested in a girl as flat-headed as me, came the devastating thought. I pushed away my serving of rhubarb pie, no longer hungry. “Nothin’ ever happens in Village Springs. Arious, maybe you’ll be made a doctor in time to save me a slow death, Hum-Drum Fever,” I stammered, fighting back tears.

Mama sensed my changing mood and sweetly murmured, “Maybe we’d better have that poetry readin’ before we discover our ‘Poetess of the Hill’ buried under Boredom’s Mountain.”

I nodded and, with a heavy heart, trudged to my room to decide upon a dissertation. I settled on the latest work recorded in my diary, then ambled to the living room. When reading aloud, I always tried to muster the same passion and fascination I’d felt while writing the words. So, with artistic flair, I stood in our sizable salon, before my captive audience, and said, “Moon Mill, by Pug Sheridan.”

Azberry started to applaud and Mama whispered, “Not yet, son.”

I took a deep breath, then read my poem: “A green fountain sparkles while echoes of owls roll around in the air. Above night’s enchanted forest, the moon circles and weaves her web of time.” Then everyone applauded and Uncle Finas whistled. The resulting encouragement and compliments lifted my dark humor and prevailing bashfulness. I curtsied, then walked across the room to sit between the Strawbridge brothers.

“What else do girls write in those little books?” Arious teased.

“Shh! Secrets of the heart!” Alton answered.

“Now, you boys leave the child alone. She shows promise for one so young,” Aunt Caroline chided.

Alton took my hand in his and said, “Your mama tells me that you’re goin’ to the Bible service at Mt. Hebron this afternoon. May I escort you there, Miss Sheridan?”

Speechless—a rare occurrence for me—I nodded with a sheepish grin.

* * *

Vigil Holt was a Baptist minister and ventriloquist. When he preached about Hell’s horrible particulars, it sounded like wrathful demons from Satan’s fiery Underworld were coming through the walls of Mt. Hebron Church. “Someday, unbelievers will be able to open the gates of Hell and see for themselves, but by then, it’ll be too late!” Preacher Holt’s voice steamrolled over the squirming congregation.

“Imagine for a moment, the possibility of drillin’ a hole nine miles deep into the crust of the earth, then hearin’ millions of tortured screams, agonized cries comin’ from the sufferin’ souls condemned to the pit of eternal damnation! Doomed for all time!” From below the floor, we heard a human voice wail in pain; the horrific sound was enough to curdle the blood.

“Salvation must come before that hole is dug! Don’t wait until the evil powers of Hell are raised up, let loose to roam. Declare yourselves the sinners that you are. Redeem your souls from that ragin’ inferno!” By the time Preacher Holt ended his sermon, all the young children were screaming. Their distress was made worse by the sobs and weeping of their parents, well-meaning folks who dealt with their own fear by loudly begging the heavens for forgiveness. The collection plate was passed among the blithering throng; tear-stained money filled the basket.

Soon after, I found myself standing on the bank of a nearby stream that ran behind the church cemetery. Those of us to be baptized, me for the second time that day, had on robes made of unbleached cotton. Reverend Holt waded into the water, explaining that only those who allowed themselves to be completely submerged would have their sins washed away. He delivered a long harangue about other denominations that did not immerse their members; then the baptizing began.

One by one, we waded to where Vigil Holt stood. I watched those that went before me. Their faces had a queer, strained expression; the younger ones looked bewildered as they rose out of the water. When my turn came, Preacher Holt gripped my shoulders unreasonably tight, as though he thought I might spook and run. “In the name of Jesus, child, I baptize you.” The pronouncement seemed to come from the sky, like the voice of God. As I leaned back, the minister pushed me underwater for several, long seconds. I remained strangely unafraid while being baptized—head, ears, and all—in the icy cold water of Billy Branch.

Dripping wet, I scrambled up the slope to find Alton. Instead, I was found by Grady Holt. He had fancied me since kindergarten, and was always trying to impress yours truly by saying outrageously shocking things. Since Alton was nowhere in sight, I felt flustered, not knowing what to do next. Grady saw his moment and pounced. Thinking himself clever, he asked, “Do you know that if you cut a nigger baby’s fingernails too soon, it’ll die before it’s six months old?”

Grady sounded determined to addle me, but I just stood there, wringing out the hem of my baptismal shift, trying to maintain my dignity. “I suppose you’ve tried it, Grady Holt!” My teeth chattered as I spoke, more from feeling self-conscious than cold. I guessed that Grady could see through the thin material of the water-soaked garment clinging to my skin. He seemed to be enjoying the view. I modestly wrapped my arms around myself.

“If they haven’t been baptized before they die, do you think those little dead babies spend eternity bein’ licked by the flames of Hell?” He followed the question with a high-pitched shriek, similar to the ones we’d heard during his father’s sermon. His mischievous laughter pursued me as I ran away.

A loud clap of thunder was followed by a sudden cloudburst; the large drops showered me as I made my way back to the church. The rain felt warm and clean on my skin, a refreshing downpour delivered by the Rainmaker Himself, the ultimate Baptism.

Once I’d changed into dry clothes, I found Alton sitting in a back pew, soaking wet. He’d been on a mission, picking flowers in nearby pastures, when the thundershower began. With a hint of coyness, Alton handed me a bouquet of pink honeysuckle and wood violets. “Today has been a big day for you, Miss Sheridan. Two baptisms on a single Sunday sure is something.”

“Three if you count the rain,” I grinned. Alton looked perplexed. It was the kind of puzzled stare I’d become accustomed to whenever I expressed myself freely. “I figure at least one of those baptizin’ rites will catch hold,” I continued, “but dogged if I know whether it was the Methodists or the Baptists keepin’ company with the Lord today. I can’t say for sure ’cause I ain’t no judge, and there’s not enough of me for a jury!”

Alton’s belly laugh drew stern stares from old-maids Ledbetter and Washburn, surreptitiously gossiping in the choir platform. “Land sakes Pug, you’re a little squirrel turner, aren’t you?” His voice was a chortle. “A genuine Wunderkind!”

I lowered my eyes demurely as we walked outside, pleased by the accolade. “You’re goin’ back to Maryland tomorrow?”

He nodded.

There was a long moment of silence as I gathered my courage. “Will you write me?” My face flushed as I asked the question.

“Do you promise to send me original works by the Poetess of the Hill?” His question sounded serious.

“I promise,” I shyly answered. Like an English Lord, Alton gently lifted my cold hand and kissed it. I continued to stare at the spot where his lips had touched my skin while he walked to his horse. I was still in a daze as he waved affectionately, then rode away on his rust-colored mare. “Wunderkind . . .” I softly whispered.

Fanny Holt walked up behind me. “Hi, Pug. Talkin’ to yourself again?”

I dodged the question, and asked her what time she’d be coming to Horseshoe. “I’ll sneak out after everybody’s asleep,” she answered. Taking note of my unconvinced expression, she added, “Don’t fret, Queenie, the initiation doesn’t start ’til midnight, anyway.”

“You know as well as I do that Fawn will perform the egg tree rite at twilight, and we all have to be there to cheer her on.” My admonishment sounded more bossy than I’d intended.

“Don’t give it a second thought, Miss S! Fawn was there for me on my special night; I’ll find a way to do the same for her. You can write it in your little red book, and stamp it with your royal seal.” Fanny gave me one of her impertinent grins and we both burst out laughing. Impudent, bold, and saucy, she was one of my own kind, and we both knew it. “Hey, why was Alton Strawbridge givin’ you flowers?”

“I’ll tell you later,” I smiled. “I’d better get goin’ while the skies are clearin’.” I waved to my friend and ran to my little horse, patiently waiting at the hitching post. A few weeks earlier, Daddy had won Blue in a poker game. When I saw him, it was love at first sight. A highland pony, he was a thick, gray saddle animal with a sweet disposition, standing about fourteen hands high. The pony nuzzled me as I patted his mane, and I gave him the expected sugar cube before we headed off.

I guided my horse toward Mt. Hebron’s cemetery, to visit the grave of my Granddaddy Sheridan. The story of his death had been oft recounted in our home. “It’s important that we never forget,” cautioned Mamau Maude, always beginning the grim tale with the same words of warning.

Granddaddy had crossed rebel lines to fight with the Yankees during the Civil War. He survived the bloody battles, rising to the rank of lieutenant while still a young man. Shortly after the surrender at Appomattox, he found himself among Army troops that were sent south to stop a massacre.

It all happened in North Carolina during a regional conflict between the federal government and such self-named, night-riding, vigilantes as the Yellow Jackets, the Redcaps, and the Klan. The locals called it “Ku-Klux fever,” and lots of folks died of the disease. The victims included legislators, sheriffs, and countless black leaders, anyone who supported the new laws. Some were shot, while others were whipped, hanged, or drowned.

Granddaddy wrote to Mamau Maude about such terrible tortures, including the night he found one poor soul who’d had his ears cropped off. “These acts are disgraceful to humanity,” he declared in his final letter; they were the last words he ever wrote. My grandfather was killed, one hot August night, in a shoot-out with the Klan. The words on his tombstone read, “Peace is Mine.”

Whenever I visited his grave, however, I couldn’t help feeling that Granddaddy hadn’t really found “peace.” I sensed something important was left undone when he died, that a torch was passed to the next generation of Sheridans on that fateful day. The thought made me shiver as I sat rigid upon my pony.

To cheer myself while passing through the boneyard, I made up a pretend epitaph for Grady Holt and recited it aloud: “His illness lay not in one part, but over his frame it spread. The fatal disease was in his heart, and water in his head.” As we turned south at Billy Branch, Blue snorted his approval of my wicked verse. I giggled and loudly continued, “This stone was raised by Grady’s Lord, though not his virtues to record. Since it’s well known to all the town that it was raised to keep him down!”

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