Though we lived four miles from Cuthand proper down in the low country, Mr. Ernest Palmer lived even farther back than we did. He’d walked the six miles from his house into Cuthand that day and made it four miles back to our house before stopping to ask about spending the night instead of trying to finish the walk on home in the sleet and snow that was just starting. Daddy bunked in with John that night. Annie and I moved into the front room bed with Mama while Mr. Palmer slept in the bed Annie and I always shared. That pleased me since I loved sleeping between Mama and Annie, listening to stories. With the fire, the front room was cozy longer. Our bedroom was further from the dying fire, so once we got in bed, if we moved from our warm spot under the heavy pile of quilts, we’d feel shock of icy sheets. I tried hard to avoid moving.
That night after everyone was in bed, I begged Mama to tell me her story of going on the produce route to Marion with Grandpa Perkins again as I snuggled between her and Annie. Her voice and the crackling of the coals in the banked fire were the last things I heard as I drifted off.
“When I was little, Papa ran general store in Volney. He carried everything: yard goods, harness, wash tubs, patent medicines. If he didn’t have what folks needed, he’d get it for them in a few days. It was the finest store for miles around. Folks also brought their produce there to trade. What he couldn’t sell right there, he’d take to the State Mental Hospital in Marion. Now Marion was about twenty-five miles over the mountain. It was a long trip. You know I was between two brothers, Ed and Clarence. We all wanted to go with Papa every time, but there was only room for one, so we took turns, one after the other. It always broke my heart to see one of the boys riding off on the tailgate of that packed wagon for a wonderful three days with Papa since going with him was the most fun I ever had.
We all helped Papa load the wagon high the night before, so he could be ready to leave before good daylight. Every inch was packed full. In the early morning, I rode off on the tailgate, waving at my sad brothers, staying there till my sitting down place got tired, then hopped off and ran behind the wagon for a while. The horse pulled the heavy wagon slowly, so there was always time to wade in a little brook on the side of the road or stop to look at a rabbit. I’d catch up and sit on the wagon seat to talk to Papa for a while from time to time. He was always busy in the store and didn’t have a lot to say, anyway, so we probably talked more on those trips than any other time. I think he was glad of the company on the long ride.
We’d stop long enough for the horse to rest and pull a dinner of boiled eggs, pickles, tomatoes, cold biscuits, and fried chicken or dry salt meat from a bucket at noon, drinking cold water from a jar. That food eaten on the trail was so good. Soon we’d be on our way again, working our way on the long road over the mountain to Marion. When we could barely see to make camp, Papa pulled over into a familiar shady grove near a bend in the creek to make camp. He fed Ol’Blackie and tied him out to graze. Setting the brakes securely on the wagon, he rolled out old quilts under the wagon and made us a bed. We talked around the fire, had pork and beans straight from the can,leftovers from dinner, maybe opened a can of peaches, and had a fine supper while Papa drank campfire coffee. That was some of the best food I ever had. Soon we were rolled up in those quilts, going to sleep to the sound of crickets and frogs.
We were up before the sun, packed up and headed on in to Marion, for Papa to conduct his trading at the State Hospital. He pulled his wagon up to the back where someone opened to gate to a high fence to let us in. I couldn’t go inside. He cautioned me, “Now you’ll be fine if you stay right here. Don’t get off this wagon or talk to anybody. I have to be gone for a little while. Remember, don’t get off this wagon!”
Though I was in an enclosed area, inside a locked fence where I had been here many times, I was still a little scared,remembering all the horrible stories we kids told each other about the “crazies” locked up in the State Hospital. I also knew Papa would never have put me in danger. As I sat waiting, I saw a man from an upstairs window waving and calling to me. “Hey, little girl! Want a biscuit? Come git this ‘ere biscuit!” Sure enough, he held a big fluffy biscuit in his hand. He kept calling to me to “come’n git it.” You can bet I never told Papa, or I’d never have gotten to got back!
We unloaded our produce at the hospital, made rounds at Marion to do our own trading, and headed home late that afternoon, taking the rest of our day. We slept on the road again that night, getting home late the next day to my jealous brothers. The homecoming was a little sad, knowing that for the next two weeks, I’d be the one left at home.”
I awoke the next morning, not sure if I’d even stayed awake for the end of the story I loved so much. Mr. Palmer left for home, fortified by breakfast and coffee. Though it was cold and icy, he expected to make the two miles without any trouble. To our great shock, we learned much later that day that Mr. Palmer never made it home. He was found dead, collapsed on the side of the road in the ice and snow. Though it was thought at the time he froze to death, it seems far more likely that he died of another cause, his body freezing afterwards. Till this day I have a horror of snow and icy weather, fearful I’ll freeze to death.