The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

F. Brett Cox: Up Above the Dead Line (fiction)


One of our favorite stories ever published on the Dead Mule, from around 1998 or earlier — archives found on the WayBack Machine. A blast from the past, still working on rebuilding our archives.

Up Above the Dead Line

It had happened for the last time.  That was all there was to it.  Ned Grainger had told his brother Joshua time and time again not to let his hogs feed on Ned’s land and not to let his sons take water from Ned’s well, but Joshua hadn’t listened.  He had never listened when they were boys, and he wasn’t listening now.  He kept on letting his hogs roam over onto Ned’s land and mix with Ned’s hogs and eat Ned’s feed and drink from Ned’s trough.  And those worthless sons of his let it go on while they came over like hogs themselves and drank from Ned’s well.  So it had happened for the last time.  That was all there was to it.

Ned told his own boys, Caleb and Little Ned, not to let it happen again. They were standing in front of their house when he told them.  It was getting on toward noon and the summer sun beat down heavy on their heads as he spoke.  The half-rotted boards of their two-room cabin sucked in the heat and shined dully in the hard light.

Ned was a huge man.  He always wore coveralls, with no shirt when it was hot like it was now.  His nose was flattened against his face from the fight with Josh that had caused all the trouble to start with.  The sheer bulk of him seemed to block out the sun as he told his boys that he was sick and tired of their uncle’s hogs and boys on his land, and he meant for it to stop.  He told them that he hadn’t worked like a dog all his days to give food to Joshua’s sickly hogs and water to his no-‘count boys.  He told them that if they saw any of their uncle’s hogs on his property to chase them back across, and if they could catch one and kill it for themselves, fine.  And if they saw either of their worthless cousins, chase them back across, too.  Beat them with a stick if they had to.  Do whatever they wanted, just get them off his land.

Caleb nodded, understanding.  He was the oldest, the one Ned had the most hope for.  Ned had never been able to do much more than scrawl his own name and puzzle out store signs, but Caleb had learned to read and write like he was born to it.  He was twenty and had been the first one in Ned’s family to finish the sixth grade.  He had wanted to go live in Kingston and continue his schooling, but Ned needed him on the farm, and Caleb understood that, too.  He was a good boy and had never been a problem to his father.  True, there had been that business with the Purvey girl a few years back, but she had had the good sense to jump in the river before things had gotten out of hand, and nothing had ever come of it.  The Purveys were trash, anyway.  Nothing but trouble.

Little Ned nodded and seemed to understand, which was all Ned could hope for.  He had come into the world two years after Caleb and taken his mother out of it in the process.  Betsy had lain on a straw mat in the corner of the house and labored for fourteen hours, screaming right up to just before the end.  Then she had suddenly gotten a blank expression on her face, closed her eyes, and died.  And Little Ned slid out of her with the cord wrapped around his neck.  The midwife had told Ned that that was liable to make the boy slow later on, but Ned hadn’t believed her and had spent the first several years of Little Ned’s life trying to beat some sense into him.  Finally he saw it was no use, and from then on he took Little Ned for what the boy was.  Caleb was good with him and managed to keep him in line even though Caleb had his mother’s short, slight build while Little Ned had inherited all of his father’s size and then some.

When their father finished with them, Caleb and Little Ned walked down to the watering trough to make sure their cousins weren’t there.  Little Ned followed his older brother quietly, watching the sunlight play off the smaller boy’s blond hair.  The four acres of tobacco that kept them alive shimmered in the June heat as they walked by, green at the top and slowly beginning to yellow near the bottom of the stalk.  It was going to be a good crop this year, and after they endured the backbreaking weeks of hand-cropping the tobacco a few leaves at a time, they could look forward to a comfortable winter.  Their dog, which they had never bothered to name, caught up with them and trotted alongside as they walked.   Caleb threw sticks for it to fetch, and each time it brought a stick back Little Ned got down on all fours and circled the dog, growling, pretending to try to steal the stick.  His normally blank face came alive as he played, his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth, eyes flashing, untrimmed rat-brown hair flopping in his face.  Caleb laughed and shoved at his brother with his bare feet. The sun was directly overhead now and pounded down through the trees, making the brothers sweat.

The dog wandered away again as they approached the trough, where they heard human laughter mixed with the grunting and rooting of the hogs.  They arrived to the sight of half a dozen of Joshua’s hogs drinking from Ned’s trough while one of Joshua’s boys threw rocks at their hogs in the pen. The hogs would stand frozen in the pen until the boys’ cousin Matt would fling a rock inside.  Then they would explode into motion as if they were all one animal, stampeding thunderously inside the pen while Matt stood outside and laughed and his father’s hogs drank from Ned’s trough.

When Matt looked up and saw Caleb and Little Ned coming toward him, he threw his last rock at them and ran.  Joshua’s hogs scattered and disappeared.  Ned’s hogs kept on stampeding in the pen, frightened now by the sudden burst of movement outside.  Caleb and Little Ned ran after Matt, whooping and hollering.  They weren’t fifty feet from the trough when Matt, who was fat and clumsy and seldom moved faster than a shuffle, tripped on a rock and fell.  Caleb was on him at once, punching him and rolling him around in the dirt, cursing and telling him that they were going to teach him to stay off their land.

Little Ned got to them a minute later, holding a thick piece of wood in his hand.  He had remembered what his father had said to do and had broken a dead limb off a tree near the well.  He ran up to his brother and cousin and swung the stick blindly, laughing.   When Caleb felt the first sting of wood on his shoulder, he rolled away from Matt, jumped to his feet, and whirled around.  Little Ned was kicking Matt, kicking him hard, and hitting him again and again with the stick. Matt was howling and rolling around in the dirt like a hog.  The dust the fight had kicked up hung like smoke around the two of them, and Caleb couldn’t even see his brother’s face.  The stick came down and down and Matt rolled and howled, and then suddenly the howling stopped and he was perfectly still.

Caleb ran up to them, pushed Little Ned away, and knelt over Matt. There was blood and dirt smeared darkly all over him, and one side of his head was caved in like a rotten cantaloupe.  His mouth hung open and his eyes were rolled back.  Little Ned was still laughing.

Caleb slapped his brother across the face until he stopped laughing and then dragged him back to the house, where he told their father that Little Ned had killed his cousin Matt.  Ned looked without expression at his youngest son, who regarded him solemnly, aware that something important was happening.  Caleb was yelling, tears running down his face, demanding to know what his father was going to do.  He told his father that he, Ned, was the one who told Little Ned to beat them with a stick, that he should have known Little Ned would take him at his word, that it was all his fault and what was he going to do about it?  What was he going to do?

Ned looked at his sons and didn’t say anything for a while.  The afternoon sun hit him full in the face, brutally outlining the eighty years’ worth of lines and crevices that had managed to appear in half that time.  He told Caleb to shut up and show him where the body was.

So the boys showed him Matt stretched out in the dirt, and Ned told them to pick up the body and carry it back to the house and put it on the wagon. They did, and Ned hitched up the mule and the three of them rode out to Joshua’s place, where they laid the body out in front of the house. Joshua’s wife, a pale, thin woman who looked as if she had seen entirely too much, cried and hugged her dead son and would not let go.  Joshua said nothing.  The boys hung back in the edge of the yard, not knowing what to do.

Joshua sent his youngest son to fetch the sheriff, who came and heard everybody’s story and arrested Ned and Caleb and Little Ned for the murder of Matthias Grainger.  He hauled them into town and put them in jail to await trial.  Ned tried to talk the sheriff into letting Caleb out once a day to tend the mule and the other livestock, but the sheriff refused. Instead, he ordered one of Joshua’s sons to see after the place.

They were tried quickly, within the month.  The courtroom was crowded.  It had been two years since the last time a white man was accused of killing another white man, and the people of Kingston, South Carolina were hungry for entertainment.  The three Graingers told their stories, all of which were true.  The prosecutor had some trouble with Little Ned, who was not used to talking to anyone besides Ned and Caleb, but he finally got the youngest Grainger to admit that, yes, he had hit his cousin with a stick and kicked him until he had stopped moving.  Then he sat down and spent half the rest of the trail staring at the portrait of President Cleveland that hung over the jury box and the other half staring at the black people sitting in the balcony.  He had never seen a painting before, and he hadn’t seen that many black people.  The Graingers’ farm was up above the Dead Line, beyond which blacks were not permitted to live or work, as they were not permitted to sit on the ground level in the courtroom.

The jury did not take long to reach a verdict.  The foreman, a prim little man in pince-nez glasses and a string tie who normally would have nothing to do with the likes of the Graingers, stood and read the verdict.  Ned and Caleb were found innocent of all charges.  Little Ned was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang two weeks hence.

When the sentence was passed, Ned stood and asked permission to address the judge.  He told the judge that he was grateful for the mercy shown toward him and his oldest son, and he accepted the judgment passed on his youngest.  But he reminded the judge that he was a farmer, a poor farmer with a crop that had to be brought in. If he didn’t have both his sons to help him with the tobacco, he would be ruined; he couldn’t afford to hire an extra hand.  So he asked the judge to postpone the hanging until after the tobacco was harvested.  After that, the law could have Little Ned.  The judge got a strange look on his face, but he agreed to Ned’s request. Caleb stared at his father as if he had never seen him before.

So the three of them went home and brought in the tobacco crop.  Ned and Caleb and Little Ned bent to either side of and behind the drag their mule pulled through the field, picking the leaves off the stalk by hand.  Caleb stood to the left side of the drag and never once looked at his father and brother, staring instead at the damp, bristly hindquarters of the mule. Little Ned paused frequently and rubbed the tobacco leaves between his fingers as if he had discovered a new toy.

It took six weeks to harvest the entire field, six passes to crop the leaves as they matured from the bottom of the stalk to the top. And between the croppings the tobacco had to be hauled to the barn, strung on the poles and hung in tiers inside the barn, and cured by heat pouring through tin flues from a wood furnace outside the barn.  Then the cured leaf was stacked inside the home since the Graingers didn’t have a pack house.  The three of them were usually forced into the kitchen, but during this harvesting Caleb decided that he and Little Ned would sleep outside.  Caleb lay beside his brother in the dark and pointed out the stars to him, one by one.

During the final stages of the curing process Caleb and his father had to take turns maintaining a twenty-four hour watch on the barn. Once the leaf color had become fixed, the heat inside the barn had to remain constant to avoid spoiling the leaf or burning down the barn.  They watched the thermometer through a small plate-glass window.

While they were curing the final barn of tobacco, the Rabon boys, who had helped Ned and his sons bring in their tobacco ever since the falling out with Joshua, celebrated the end of the harvest by getting drunk.  Jugs of moonshine lay scattered in front of the barn as one of the Rabons twanged on a jew’s-harp and the others danced and hollered and clapped their hands. Little Ned didn’t drink any of the moonshine–he knew his daddy wouldn’t like that–but he joined in the dancing, linking arms with the Rabons and clomping around in skewed circles, throwing his head up and howling at the moon as if they were all going to live forever.  Caleb sat at the far side of the barn, paying no mind to the rest of them, silently watching the thermometer hold steady at 180 degrees as the heat radiated out of the barn wall and through him and into the already sweltering August heat.  His father slept fitfully beside him, tossing and turning, occasionally muttering things that no one could understand.  The mercury in the thermometer burned into Caleb’s eyes and he tried desperately not to think of anything at all.

When the last barn of tobacco had been cured and graded and the whole crop had been hauled to market, Ned went out to the woodshed and built a coffin.  He told Caleb to help him put it on the wagon, but Caleb wouldn’t do it. So he told Little Ned to help him, and little Ned did.  They put the coffin in the back of the wagon, Ned hitched up the mule, and they both got in the wagon and rode into town.  Caleb stayed home.

On the way into Kingston, Ned told his youngest son that he was mighty sorry for all of this, but that he had done a wrong thing by killing Matt and that the law punished people who did wrong things. The law was bigger than they were, he said, and they had to obey it.  Little Ned nodded and seemed to understand.

It was raining by the time they got to the muster field on the outskirts of town, where the local militia drilled and the hangings took place. Umbrellas dotted the large crowd that waited for the execution.  Entire families were there.  Some had brought picnic lunches.

Ned led his son through the crowd and up to the gallows, where he handed him over to the sheriff.  Then he went and stood in the front edge of the crowd.  Joshua was there with his wife.  She was sobbing as hard as she had when they had brought Matt home, but her husband had a content, satisfied look on his face.

Little Ned didn’t say anything when they put the hood over his head or when they put the rope around his neck or when the preacher read from the Bible.  Just before the end, though, when the crowd was completely silent and all anyone could hear was the rain, he cried out from underneath the hood, “Pa?”  Ned clenched his jaw and stared straight at his son as the trap door swung open beneath his feet.

When it was over, Ned took Little Ned’s body and put it in the coffin in the back of the wagon and took it home in the rain and buried it beside his wife.

Caleb wasn’t there.  Ned never saw him again.