“Mr. Nate! Mr. Nate!” Frank Waller yelled and beat on the door until Nate opened it, standing in his long underwear with a lantern in his hand.
“What in the world’s wrong with you, son?”
“Nothin’, sir, but my sister, Bessie, is sick as a dog. She’s all fevered and talkin’ outta her head. I think she’s gone crazy but Ma says she’ll be alright. Ma said to ask Miss Laney if she can come stay with Bessie while she helps Doc Kennedy birth a baby.”
Frank’s face turned red at the thought of birthing babies. He hung his head a bit and said, “Papa’s gone coon hunting and there’s nobody to look after Bessie but me and I ain’t much good.”
Nate laughed. “Well, Miss Laney’s asleep, but I’ll…”
“I’ll go, papa.” Lizzy had awaked during Frank’s loud banging and came to see what was going on. “Mama needs her rest. I can take care of Bessie.”
“You sure?” Nate’s eyes squinted as he looked down at Lizzy.
“I’m sure. Bessie and I are good friends.” Lizzy turned to get dressed.
“That girl can be ornery sometimes. She might be somethin’ terrible in a fever.” By the time the words left his mouth, Nate remembered little Frank still waiting outside the door.
“I didn’t mean Bessie is….”
“It’s the truth, Mr. Nate. Bessie can be ornery as all get out. But she’s good to me.” Frank eyes filled with tears which he immediately brushed away.
“I’m sure she’s a good sister, Frank. And she’s a good person when she wants to be, just like the rest of us.”
Lizzy rushed back, hurriedly dressed in a blue cotton frock that set her blonde curls and blue eyes ablaze. Nate mused that she always looked more dressed up than most people, even in the plainest clothes in the middle of the night.
“I’m ready, Frank.” She stood on tiptoe and kissed her daddy on the cheek. “Bye, Papa. I’ll send Frank over to let you know how things are going.”
“You do that. I’ll be praying for Bessie.” Since Nate prayed for Laney when she was buried in grief over the death of her two youngest children, he had decided that praying was worth the time after all. Laney said he had received a gift of faith. He said that whatever it was, he was glad.
Lizzy hurried down the steps after Frank. “Lead on, my knight in shining armor!”
“Your whut?” Frank glanced back at Lizzy.
“Oh, never mind.” Lizzy smiled and stepped up to take Frank’s arm.
She could sense his blush in the pitch dark. “This is how a gentleman escorts a lady.”
Frank glanced about to see if anybody was looking. It being after midnight, there was no need for concern so the little fellow gladly escorted the pretty lady to his house where his mama rushed out to meet them.
Just before Frank and Lizzy reached the dirt road in front of Hannah’s house on back street, a low groan was heard that caused them both to jump and gasp at the same time. It sounded like a ghost on Halloween.
“You young’uns hurry up,” yelled Hannah. “Babies don’t wait for slowpokes.”
“There’s somethin’ in the ditch, Ma,” Frank yelled. He wanted to search but was too scared.
Clinging to Frank’s boney arm, Lizzy crept over to the ditch and peered down, her eyes squinted to see through the darkness. “He’s right, Cousin Hannah. It might be a hurt animal.”
“It ain’t no animal. It’s Uz Brinson. I can smell him from up here.”
“I do believe it is. Run get your mama’s lantern, Frank. We can’t let him stay here all night. There might be water in the ditch.”
“Miss Lizzy, this is one of Uz’s bedrooms. He don’t know nothin’ better ‘cept when he makes it to Miss Emmy’s loft.”
“Well, tonight he will. I’ll put a quilt on the porch.” Lizzy placed a hand on both hips, staring down at what she could see of Uz Brinson.
“How we going to get him out, Miss Lizzy? He ain’t no skinny drunk.”
“Yes, you’re right. Hmmm….”
“What on earth are you two doing?” Hannah didn’t look too happy as she sprinted across the dirt road.
“It’s just old Uz, Ma. He’s in the ditch again.”
“Oh, Lord. What is going to become of that man?”
“I sure don’t know,” said Frank, amazed that a man could fall asleep in a mucky ditch.
“You go on, Cousin Hannah,” said Lizzy. “I’ll send Frank back to get Papa. He’ll get him out of the ditch and up to the porch. I’ll go sit with Bessie.”
“Alright, if you think you can handle it. Thank the Lord, Bertha’s the one giving birth. She’s had plenty of experience.”
Lizzy smiled. It wasn’t like Hannah to speak of the birthing experience.
The door opened to reveal Nate Gresham in his long johns once again. “Frank! What do you want now?”
“Miss Lizzy said to get you to help us get Uz Brinson out of the ditch. I said he lives in the ditch, but she said he might get pneumonia tonight or even the mad itch. I said the mad itch is worse ‘cause I had it one time, but she said pneumonia can kill you.”
Nate struggled to gulp down the laughter that was rising in his throat. “Let me pull my pants on and I’ll be right there. You run on so Lizzy can watch Bessie and you can watch Uz.”
The little fellow plopped his hat on his black hair that hung in his face the same as his papa’s and turned to hop down the stairs. “See you later, Mr. Nate.”
Nate pulled his suspenders on and smiled. Frank didn’t seem too worried about all the traumatic events going on in the middle of the night. Actually, Nate wasn’t either. As Frank noted, Uz lived in ditches and it hadn’t killed him yet. Of course, Bessie’s condition might be a bit more serious. However, it was known all around Beulah that even a low fever made Bessie crazy as a bat as Frank often said. He had much rather watch Bessie than Uz. The old drunk likely wouldn’t move a muscle for a day or two.
And there he was, right where Frank had left him, flat on his back in the shallow, muddy ditch. Uz’s mouth was opened wide which caused Frank a lot of speculation on what might crawl into the large cavity during the night. Watching the old man might not be a bad idea. But Frank’s curiosity got the best of him and off he ran to the house to tell Lizzy that Nate was on his way and to see what Bessie was doing.
“Frank!” Lizzy looked up as the boy came tiptoeing in. “You’re supposed to be watching Uz,” she whispered.
“He ain’t doin’ nothin’ and he sure ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Frank crept over to the bed and looked at Bessie. She was red as a beet, hot and fevered. Her hands and arms were weaving in the air as if she were trying to catch lightening bugs in June.
Lizzy looked worried. “She’s really sick, Frank, and I don’t know what to do except keep putting cold cloths on her head. Most of the time, she pulls them off.”
“She’ll be alright, Miss Lizzy.” The little brother, however, looked concerned himself.
The inexperienced nurse ran out of the front bedroom and threw the door open. “Hush, Papa! Bessie’s sick…real sick.”
“Where do you want me to put Uz?”
It was then that Lizzy noticed Nate’s muddy load hanging across his shoulder like a dead animal of some sort.
“Don’t put him in the swing. He’d fall out,” said Frank, coming out the door with hat in hand.
“I’ve already spread a couple of quilts on the porch, Pa. Let me help you ease him down.”
“He won’t know it if you drop him,” Frank commented. “Want me to help?”
“You place that pillow under his head when we lay him down. Make sure his head doesn’t hit the planks.” Lizzy’s lithe body wasn’t really helping much but she tried.
“Ma’s gonna be mad,” Frank noted somberly. “You put that ol’ drunk’s muddy head on her embroidered pillow case and, like Pa says, ‘the wrath of God’s gonna fall on us.’”
Lizzy held Uz’s head in her arms, thinking about Frank’s words of wisdom.
“He might be right, princess. Frank, go get something else for a pillow…and hurry. Liquor’s heavy.”
Frank’s gift of avoiding any work that wasn’t necessary kicked in quick. “He don’t need no pillow. Won’t never know he didn’t have one.”
Lizzy looked up at her daddy and nodded. Gently, they both eased Uz’s full weight to the quilt and straightened the body somewhat. Uz let out a loud and terribly uncouth snore which woke him up for a second or two.
“Where…where am I?” His glazed eyes roamed from face to face.
“You’re on my Pa’s front porch and you’re drunk as a skunk,” replied Frank.
“I ain’t drunk. There ain’t been nary drop of liquor in Uz Brinson t’nite.”
“Well, you must have filled up yesterday.” Nate smiled in pity for the old man who instantly dropped back into his drunken stupor.
“Wheeeee!” The eerie noise came from inside the house.
“Oh, no! We forgot Bessie!” Lizzy jumped up to run in the house but stopped short when she saw the mud all over her dress and hands. “You go sit with Bessie, Frank. I’ll be there as soon as I get this mud off me.”
“Alright,” said Frank, “maybe she’ll say something crazy.
“Sounds like she might,” agreed Nate, worry spreading all over his face in the light of the lantern. “Think you’ll need me, Lizzy?”
“No, probably not. I’ll send Frank if I do. Maybe Cousin Hannah will be back soon. Oh, wait, Papa. Hold the lantern for me to walk around the house to the pump. Hannah will not be happy if I track this mud on her clean floors.”
Nate was almost back in bed by the time Lizzy finished washing up and got back to Bessie’s sick room. “She’s talkin’ now,” said Frank. “Saying all kinds of crazy stuff. Trying to catch oysters in the air. Now, ain’t that somethin’? Bessie don’t even like oysters. And I don’t either. I cain’t imagine why anybody’d eat one of those slimy things. Can you, Miss Lizzy?”
“Let’s change the subject, Frank. My stomach is not feeling so good.”
“Don’t you get sick on me, Miss Lizzy. Ma says me and Bessie didn’t get one bit of her nursing ability. Wish I’d a gone coon huntin’ with Pa.”
“Well, I don’t. I need you to help me, Frank. Now, take this pan and get me some fresh water from the pump.”
The little boy with floppy black hair reached out for the pan and gave Lizzy a half smile and a nod.
When Frank was well out of hearing, Lizzy eased down on her knees beside the bed. “Lord,” she whispered, “please do something. Bessie is getting hotter. I reckon you know that, but Mama says we need to tell you what we need because you like for us to talk to you and let you know we believe you can do something. Sometimes, when I think about little Mary Alice and Nathan, I get confused and I’m scared to pray. A lot of folks around here believe that whatever’s going to be is going to be and it can’t be changed, even by prayer. But Mama always reminds me that you came to see me when I was tiny thing and took my fever away. So, Lord, all I know to do is to remind you about that day and ask you to take Bessie’s fever away, too.”
“What’re you doin’?” Frank stood at the door, his mouth scrunched to the side in thought.
“Praying.” Lizzy blushed. Unlike her sometimes rather odd mother, Lizzy wasn’t comfortable with praying aloud in front of others.
“I did, too.” Frank passed the pan of water to Lizzy, his head hung in embarrassment.
The night was getting longer.