Scott and Swain strained their huge muscles as they pulled the wagon up the last steep incline through the trees to the top of Grassy Ridge Bald. Suddenly the trees were behind them, and a flat meadow lay in front of them. Littlejim could see the green waves of the longbladed grass called bald grass because it grew only in the treeless meadows on the tops of the high mountains. He thought it looked like an ocean.
The cool air felt fresh against his skin. The wind blew constantly up from the west and across the mountaintop. Littlejim loved to jump and run in the wind. Its buoyancy lifted him higher than he could run and jump anyplace else. He wondered if he took a big runny-go, maybe he could leap high enough to touch the sky.
Bigjim tied the horses to a rhododendron some folks called red laurel. It was now bursting into full bloom so deeply red it was almost purple. The family unloaded the wagon. Around the edge of the grounds, residents from Henson Creek on the east side of the mountain and from Cane Creek on the west side of the mountain, as well as people from all the communities nearby, gathered in their Sunday-go-to-meeting best. They stood around in groups, sharing the news of the year since they had seen one another last.
At the highest point in the meadow, tables had been made of boards set on saw horses. Those tables held the best that the gardens and kitchens of the Blue Ridge Mountains had to offer.
Littlejim’s mouth watered at the thought as he helped Mama and Nell spread the bounty they had brought in the wagon. Near the end of the tables, fires had been started to warm the vegetables which were to be served hot, like green beans and potatoes and “ros’ nears,” and to make the coffee demanded at any social gathering.
On the south side of the meadow, standing so the sun was not in their eyes, were the massed choirs from all the churches in the surrounding countryside. The singing master “do-sol-me-doed” and the singing began. Then Preacher Hall began his sermon. It was shorter than the sermons at church on Sunday, but Littlejim’s back grew tired and his stomach began to remind him that breakfast had been many hours ago.
His thoughts wandered to where Bigjim sat with the men gathered in a corner of the meadow by themselves. There they felt free, when moved, to shout “Amen” in accordance with the preacher’s words. He wondered if his papa would be mad enough to whip him for reading his essay. He was glad that Cousin Tarp had come up the hill at the right moment that morning. Papa had been mighty upset about the tobacco bed hidden in the woods.
The preacher finished his sermon and the choir master motioned for everyone to stand.
“It is time for me to join the men in singing,” said Littlejim to Nell. He turned and walked over to the group of men. Uncle Bob shook hands with Littlejim and made a place between himself and Tarp for the boy. Mr. Osk slapped him on the back and shook his hand, too. Ivor, Carl Hicks, and Andy McGuire stood in a line with some of the younger boys in front of the men.
The women sang, “When the roll . . .”
The men echoed, “When the roll . . .” Littlejim could feel his voice deepen to join the men.
“. . . is called up yonder . . .” sang the women.
“. . . is called up yonder . . .” echoed the men.
Then everyone sang together, “When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there . . .”
“I’ll be there,” echoed the men.
When the singing was finished, Preacher Hall invited a visiting preacher from Cane Creek to return thanks. “Almighty God,” the voice began.
Littlejim’s stomach was grumbling loudly by the time the prayer was finished. Finally it was time to eat. Nell came skipping across the meadow hand-in-hand with her friend Emma. Annie Burleson was trying hard to keep up with the older girls. They circled up with three little girls from the Cane Creek community to play “Jenny Jenkins” while the adults lined up to eat.
First, the preacher and all the men heaped their plates high. Then the women served plates to all the older folks who sat on a pew from the Missionary Church. Then the children could fill their plates, too. Last of all, the women who had cooked the food through the long week just past could eat their fill as they tended the babies and caught up on the news from the past year.
Slowly the men and boys slipped away to begin their games and competitions. The visiting preacher would tender another sermon in one corner of the Bald field, but only the old folks would stay to listen.
Littlejim helped Mama pack away the empty dishes. Mama’s food was always the most popular at any dinner on the ground. Most of her bowls were empty. Only crumbs remained of the wild-strawberry cake. He hadn’t even had a bite of it, so he scraped the crumbs from the plate and poured them into his mouth. When he had loaded the baskets, pots, and pans into the wagon, he grabbed the horseshoes and headed for the horseshoepitching contest.
Bigjim, wiry and thin but strong from his days in the woods, was wrestling Moose Winters from Cane Creek. Littlejim stopped to watch with Andy McGuire. The boys yelled for Bigjim as the tall man pinned the heavier one to the ground and was announced the winner.
“Your pa sure is strong,” said Andy. “My pa would not . . .” He stopped and turned away from his friend. Littlejim remembered the cold day Andy’s father had fallen into the saw at the sawmill.
Littlejim slapped his friend on the arm. “Come on. Let’s go enter the horseshoe throwing.” But inside he wondered how Andy felt since he had no papa. “I guess a papa who doesn’t like you is better than no papa at all,” he thought.
He walked past Bigjim. “I’m proud of you, Papa,” said the boy.
“Just remember that,” his father answered, buttoning up his shirt. Then Bigjim turned away and walked toward the wagon.
The horseshoe-pitching competition for the boys Littlejim’s age was to begin. Andy went first. His aim was good. Then several other boys took their turns.
Littlejim’s first pitch was true, but he stepped up to pitch his second shoe just when everyone turned away to look across the meadow. Littlejim lost his aim, and the pitch fell shy.
Coming up the steep hill into the grassy bald was the Vances’ fine automobile pulled by Uncle Bob’s team. Uncle Bob rode astride Shilo’s back.
“Get a horse,” shouted one of the Cane Creek men. Everyone laughed.
Mr. and Mrs. Vance waved proudly to the crowd that gathered around their automobile. Littlejim thought it was still a wonder, even if Uncle Bob’s team did have to help it up the hill.
“The horseshoe pitching contest is over,” announced Mr. Osk. “Andy McGuire is the winner.” Littlejim was happy for his friend but felt his own disappointment keenly at losing because his father usually won at horseshoes.
Mr. Vance helped his wife down from the automobile, then walked toward Littlejim. “Are you ready to give your speech, Jimmy?”
“Yes, sir,” the boy answered. His hands began to sweat and his hair fell into his eyes.
“The Star hasn’t come yet this week, but if you had won, we would have had a letter from them before now. I’m sorry you didn’t win the first prize from the Star, but we are still proud of you, Jimmy,” said Mr. Vance.
Littlejim’s eyes stung as he faced the sun. Now Papa would really be mad at him for writing the essay and for making a plumb fool of himself by reading it. Now he would never see his words printed in the Star. Papa would never understand why he had written the essay.
He wanted to run away, but Mr. Vance said, “Well, my boy, it is time to read your essay.”
Littlejim swallowed hard and walked toward the rock that served as a speaker’s platform. He looked at the sky. A dark cloud had covered the sun.