When the rain came, no one in Mossville, Georgia, could have ever imagined the Ohoopee River would spill over its banks and become the reason for so much tribulation. Everyone assumed a brand-new Army Corp of Engineers earthen dam would hold back the river for the next hundred years. But they were wrong. The dam built to breathe life into an impoverished Johnson County and defy a wetter, more unpredictable climate on this day would breathe only death.
When Thomas Jefferson Moss, the honorary mayor of Mossville, blinked his eyelids open that morning, he knew something had gone amiss overnight. An epileptic rain never let up and pounded his rusty tin roof with relentless drummer-like precision, as if Georgia, itself, had fallen into a never-ending seizure. “What time is it?” he barked above the roar of a downpour, still half-asleep and feisty-cranky. Remnant thunderstorms from the fourth hurricane to hit Georgia had subdued the natural window light he relied upon to guess the time of day. An ancient windup clock sitting atop a nearby fireplace mantle quit working twenty years earlier, back in 2024, and without electricity or any other means to tell time, predicting the hour had become a morning rite dependent upon gut instinct and a Chihuahua named Herchel.
Sometime during their twelve-year relationship, it had been etched in stone tablets that Herchel’s breakfast would be served promptly at 6:00 A.M. At least, this was Herchel’s understanding. Feeding time had become as sacred to the dog as Thomas’ belief in those other stone tablets, the Ten Commandments. More importantly, Thomas’ gut told him the correct time to be at least 6:01 A.M. because Herchel had not yet nagged him for food. “What’s wrong, boy?” Thomas asked, bewildered.
Herchel yelped twice, ran toward a rear window, leaped on a table, and rattled a windowpane with its paws. Two yelps always meant trouble brooded somewhere. Without forethought, Thomas followed the dog’s lead, fumbling his way across the semi-lit room, and pressed his cupped hands against the glass for a better view. From under a gray morning sky, he could make out what upset his dog. Less than ten feet away, the Ohoopee coursed below their cabin, threatening to sweep it downstream. The river swirled with scattered debris, broken trees, and an overpowering stench of dead livestock.
Shocked by the spectacle, Thomas pivoted to glance upstream to where a slapdash dirt road heaved onto a crude concrete low-water bridge. The crossing had been built with Thomas’ two hands forty-five years earlier and with money saved from homegrown rice sales. In his younger days, in the 1990s, the bridge provided his crop truck access to the paved state highway and a farmers’ market in Whitesville, the nearest town two short miles downstream. Some folks called Thomas’ bridge an eighth wonder. How exactly a poor black man could accomplish such a feat, all by his lonesome and without state funding, lay beyond the simple comprehension of his backwoods neighbors. Nevertheless, the state of Georgia and Johnson County refused to approve Thomas’ achievement and denied him an after-the-fact permit for building a “vehicular bridge through public domain,” with “public domain” defined as the navigable waters of the Ohoopee. Unswayed, Thomas refused to destroy his creation.
Through the years, Thomas and his bridge survived old age as only best friends can. Still, by daybreak on the day of the hurricane, Mother Mature appeared more determined than ever to wash away the old man’s eighth wonder and flush this friendship all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, now ten feet higher than when he was a child. Recently, the bridge had managed to withstand thousands of bipedal crossings from upright creatures in the guise of undocumented Mexican workers camped on Thomas’ land. Now, watching the Ohoopee threatening his house below his bedroom window, Thomas sensed the bridge would soon become impassable. He, Herchel, and the small community of those close-knit Mexicans who comprised Mossville would become entrapped with no way out. And he remembered those old folk tales his grandfather retold about Creek Indians claiming the river was cunning and vengeful. Certainly, he couldn’t allow the river to seek vengeance on this day with so many lives at stake.
Weighing his options, it became clear what needed to be done for everyone to survive. Thomas threw on an old poncho-style slicker and bolted from his house with Herchel in a backpack slung over his shoulder. Rain pelted him with every sloshy high-step stumble toward the bridge. The riverbank on the far side towered forty feet higher than his roof’s tallest pitch and appeared the safest destination. However, first, he needed to head in the opposite direction to warn the eighty-two souls populating Mossville. Secretly constructed with funds financed by the massive Persue Poultry processing plant next door, like Thomas’ bridge, few outsiders knew about Mossville’s existence.
As Thomas peered through the downpour, he could make out distant homes battling the rain but losing the war. He glared at the Ohoopee again, watched it rise and fall, heaving higher and higher in exaggerated swells, and correctly assumed a catastrophic failure had occurred upstream. He had seen enough downpours in his sixty-eight years to know the difference between a slow-rising Ohoopee and this abomination. Rain, by itself, had never caused the river to convulse in gasps. And wisely, he understood that everyone in Mossville would soon become vulnerable to impending doom.
He followed a mud-pocked road winding to the compound. He knew the Martinez family in the first house and how the little girl he befriended, six-year-old Consuelo, had become fluent in English and could translate his words. Rain assaulted him in waves as he pounded the door. When the door finally flung open, he leaped inside and shook water off his poncho with Herchel still slung over his back.
“Sorry to barge in on y’all,” he yelled, “but you need to get outta here and get out fast. This, here, rain is bringin’ a flood the likes of which old TJ has never seen before. I’m guessin’ we gots no more than ten minutes. Sabe?” He reflected on what few expressions in Spanish he knew and added, “Muy Peligroso. Vamos,” and waved them to follow him, pointing to the submerged bridge.
Candido Martinez scratched his head, unsure of Thomas’ English and odd-sounding Spanish and wondering why the old man would encourage his family to brave severe weather and flee the sanctuary of his stout portable house. Regardless of this hesitancy, after Consuelo translated and yanked on her father’s hand, Candido knew his children’s safety to be of tantamount importance. He and his wife Maria would stay behind and warn other families. Ten minutes might not be enough to gather everyone in the community, and Candido instructed his daughter to go to the bridge with Mr. Moss and wait for them. He and Maria would round up whomever they could and meet up as soon as possible. Maria handed Consuelo her two-month-old baby brother, Jaime, wrapped in a blanket and dashed away with her husband, each running from house to house and knocking on doors.
Meanwhile, Thomas seized the girl’s hand and sloshed along the same muddy road meandering to the bridge with the girl cradling her baby brother. When they reached a landing where upper footings disappeared into the river, they waited. Thomas rechecked the river’s depth and determined the floodwater had risen at least another foot, higher than little Consuelo stood tall. Could the girl and her brother survive the crossing? he wondered.
During his contemplation, a low rumble drew his attention, and a rush of foul air cascaded from beyond the distant river bend, down the valley, and onward past them. Trees bowed from the blast, and Consuelo’s long black hair fanned the air. As Thomas pivoted to discover the source of the wind, a buzzsaw wall of water tumbled past the upstream bend and crashed into a cliff. The water abruptly turned and charged downstream. Its belly churned with rocks and trees and littered with corpses of animals, consuming everything in its path, gnawing and spewing destruction. Held back two years by a feeble earthen dam, the river raced furiously on a revenge quest to kill.
“Baby girl, we gotta get across right now. This old devil river is comin’ for us. You understand?”
“Yes,” Consuelo replied meekly.
Thomas waded in water up to his hips to where Consuelo could easily climb on his shoulders, and together, they began pushing to reach the other side. He held little Jaime in his arms and buckled from the weight of both children and Herchel. Halfway across, the river’s current suddenly reversed and fell lower. An overpowering upstream riptide tugged on his legs, pulling them into the belly of the beast. Still, he outsmarted the river’s current by turning sideways and scooting in spurts with his shoulder facing the approaching wave. If not for the girl and her baby brother, Thomas would have resigned his sixty-eight years to the Ohoopee and let it carry him and Herchel away. In Thomas’ mind’s eye, there had always been worse ways to die than surrendering one’s life to the Ohoopee. That night, his primary motivation for surviving was to keep the children alive to see another day.
As soon as they reached the far bank, TJ dumped Herchel out of the backpack. Together, they climbed the hill and turned to witness carnage sweep by less than ten feet below. Consuelo covered her ears to the deafening sound of a runaway freight train. Jaime bawled hysterically. Fearing the worst, Thomas gazed across the river and watched his cabin uproot, pivot, and get carted downstream. Off in the distance, he spied Candido and Maria, leading eighty of Mossville’s citizens in a long, awkward procession toward the river. Hand in hand, they plodded ever so slowly through mud and rain, snaking their way along the road to the bridge. Unaware of an approaching tidal wave, they never saw the wall of water crash upon them. The surge devoured all eighty souls and swept them out to the river and downstream into the primary current in less than five seconds. Witnessing this carnage, Consuelo screamed out, and Thomas covered her eyes.
Herchel witnessed these sights, too, and for some unexplainable reason, leaped in the turbulent water to chase after anyone who might have survived the buzz saw. Perhaps the dog believed it could retrieve face-down, lifeless humans as they bobbed behind Thomas’ cabin. In any case, the dog disappeared into the murky water the moment it dove in.
Watching his world unravel, Thomas immediately recognized that the girl and her baby brother had no one to look after them and no place to go. He blamed himself for the deaths of so many good people. All had been lost, and like the girl, he, too, began to weep. “I shoulda built my bridge better. Higher and stronger,” he rambled to Consuelo, “but don’t you worry none. TJ will take care of you and your brother from now on,” he eked between sobs. “Lucky for us, this flood, it didn’t reach the old barn over yonder,” he added, nudging his nose at the car shed built on the high ground near the highway. “That’ll be our new home.”
He paused to weigh his options. If the authorities discovered how he sheltered illegal migrants on his land, he would face imprisonment. “No one needs to know that your people ever lived down in Mossville, do they?” he pressed.
“No,” she answered.
“Then all of this, what happened today, will remain our secret. Ok?”
He studied her eyes and her dazed face. “Listen to me, Consuelo. Old TJ may be ancient, but he still gots a few more years on this green earth. You and your brother can count on me to see you through ‘em. I’ll always be here for you. I promise.”
Two years earlier. It was a warm afternoon in late August when Herchel first recognized a noise the dog had not heard since Thomas sold the ’98 flatbed truck eight years earlier. But unlike the flatbed, no out-of-rhythm sputtering, backfire explosions, or black exhaust clouds snaking from an oily tailpipe were seen or heard. Instead, the only noise heard by Herchel originated from a low rumble of a finely tuned vehicle, a rarity in Johnson County. Immediately, it began barking to protect eighty-five acres of gumbo bottomland like all small dogs do when confronted with larger-than-life demons. If the dog spoke words a human could understand, it would say, “Get off this property, or I’ll rip you in two.” All of this, Herchel violently expressed with teeth lashing in a Mexican matador standoff, despite his nonintimidating, six-inch Chihuahua stature.
Roused and ready to make war, Thomas walked to his bridge, following his dog’s swaggered lead. He looked up at the eastern crest of the far bank and spotted a man staring down at him, waving and smiling as blissfully as a teenager on a first date. “Are you Mr. Moss?” he hollered.
Thomas wanted to shout one of his famous four-letter words at the stranger and tell him to get the hell off his land, but something about this nice-looking black gentleman enticed him not to be crude and to be on his best behavior. Oddly, Herchel had quit barking and also seemed mesmerized by this handsome two-legged creature sporting a smart-looking three-piece suit with a sky-blue tie and wearing the latest style of Foster Grant sunglasses. If Johnson County gave an award to its coolest cool cat ever, this man beamed worthy of the honor, even from a two-hundred-foot distance. Besides, he was driving an antique, classic Cadillac El Dorado convertible, bright gold with a white top, similar to the one Thomas admired when he strolled past the poultry plant on those weekly walking sojourns to Piggly Wiggly. It was the gold that caught Thomas’ eye.
Thus, Thomas crossed his bridge and climbed the hill with Herchel by his side to find out why someone would blatantly ignore his sign and violate his property’s sanctity. The only grace-saving act that could remedy this confounding situation would be if the stranger let him sit in the car. Better yet, he might forgive the transgression altogether if he were permitted to drive it a short distance down the road.
As Thomas drew nearer, the young man spoke again from a few feet away, “Say, you are Mr. Thomas Jefferson Moss. Right?”
“Who else could it be, boy?” Thomas replied dryly. “TJ is who TJ is. And who the hell are you, and why the hell are you on TJ’s property? Can’t you read the sign? Are you ignorant?”
“Sir. Sir, if you’ll let me finish. My name is Percival Blevins. I work for Persue Poultry Incorporated. I know you are upset and have many questions,” he said, pausing while Thomas mumbled obscenities under his breath and kicked the dirt. With a lull in their exchange of words, Herchel suddenly jumped paws-up and stretched on the man’s pant leg, begging to be scratched behind the ears. Percival bent down, obliging Herchel, and gazed up at Thomas. “You know what? Mr. Moss, sir. Everybody likes to be scratched behind the ears these days. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Sure enough. But what’s it gots to do with you bein’ here and the price of tea in China?”
“Well, sir, my employer would sure enjoy meeting you. He asked me to invite you for a personal one-on-one visit. He has a proposition for you to consider. Something you might find rewarding. A bit of ear scratching, if you will.”
“Uh-huh. A proposition for old TJ, you say? Awfully hard to believe. And just when does he want to meet with yours truly?”
“How about right now? You and me and your sweet little dog, why, we’ll take his El Dorado here, put down the top, and visit him in style. How does that sound?” the man asked, smiling a tad disingenuously.
Thomas one-eyed the man, suspicious as all get out, and eyed the beautiful car. “Tell you what, Percival. You let old TJ drive your boss’s car to the plant and back and he might take you up on the offer. But as far as the dog goin’ along with us? No way. Herchel stays behind. No dogs allowed in fine cars. That’s TJ’s rule.”
Percival let loose a bona fide chuckle, reached inside a pant pocket, and tossed Thomas the keys. “She’s all yours,” he said. “Just don’t kill us.”
When they pulled into the plant’s front gate entrance, a security guard recognized the gold Cadillac, greeted them with a two-finger salute, and waved them through. Once inside, the company grounds spread out with far more buildings and roads than were visible from the highway, and Thomas remarked as much. “How many people work here?” he asked, astonished by the amount of activity and the size of the plant.
“Not as many as we’d like. Five hundred on a good day,” Percival replied. “It’s tough to find people these days. No one seems to want to work anymore.”
Eventually, they wound their way to a three-story building where Thomas carefully pulled into a parking space with a white and gold sign boldly proclaiming CEO – Richard Persue, obviously the parking spot for the big boss. Percival patted Thomas on the back and told him he did an excellent job driving when nothing could have been further from the truth. On the flip side, Percival realized he would soon have to endure a return trip with the old man behind the wheel and cringed at the thought.
They took an elevator to the third floor. When the doors parted, an expansive white office lit by a dozen chandeliers, wall-to-wall oriental rugs, and rows of modern art paintings greeted them, beckoning them to enter, glistening as brightly as heaven’s beacon. A floor-to-ceiling picture window faced the plant, and for the first time, Thomas witnessed gray vapor contrails ebbing lazily from never-ending chimney stacks. Outside, the air appeared eerily calm, but storm clouds on the horizon seemed to forewarn of danger in paradise. Thomas’ mouth fell open in awe, viewing this celestial spectacle, the enormity of the operation, and the opulence of a world he had never before experienced.
Richard Persue enthusiastically greeted Thomas and shook his hand with exaggerated zeal. His face beamed as honest and forthright as anyone, and not at all arrogant or overbearing. Richard wore a small Celtic cross on a gold chain around his neck, visible through an open collar shirt with three top buttons ignored. Still, the big boss appeared pleasant, laid back, and quite cheerful. Thomas rarely interfaced with white people, yet Richard seemed to be one of those rare types who did not view him as a poor black man but, instead, a fellow human being, and he appreciated that sort of attitude from a big-shot corporate type. It put him more at ease.
“Mr. TJ Moss, I understand you drove my old car here this afternoon,” Richard teased, beaming a never-ending infectious grin.
“Yes, sir. You sure gots yourself one fine automobile. TJ sure likes your gold Cadillac.”
Richard laughed aloud, as did Percival.
Thomas slid back into a luxurious leather chair with his legs dangling and, in a first, sat quietly, shaking his head in wonderment. This place, this resplendent office, was the most luxurious room he had ever seen, with its fine window views, artwork, and hand-carved desk resembling something a king would reign upon more than a poultry company executive.
“Well, gentlemen, now that we gots all these formalities outta the way, let’s get on with business. Why did y’all want to bring me here? What you boys gots for me?”
Richard exhaled a long, overdue breath and leaned back in his chair. He stared at the ceiling before answering the old man. “Mr. Moss. TJ. Percival and I and this company need your help. We need it badly. Let me digress…. You know who the President of our country is, right?”
“Yes, sir. It is Jason Carter. He’s a Georgia boy and a good man. Peanut farmer like his grandpa Jimmy, they say.”
“Yes. Carter is, indeed, a peanut farmer. But he is also a President who has turned his back on the American farmer and farm-related businesses like this one. And he is hurting our ability to hire good people. The fact is, TJ, we can’t find people to work here because of Carter and his policies. You see, we pay good wages to our workers at Persue Poultry. Federal minimum wage when a person starts their employment. We offer free health benefits, too. Better yet, we pay time-and-a-half for work over forty hours.
“And I believe Persue Poultry Farms is a caring, compassionate employer. Our people are like family to us. Family. The problem is our President has lowered the welfare eligibility threshold, and it is now easier for folks to qualify for free government health care, collect food stamps, and cash weekly government checks than to work with their hands for a living. I understand you worked hard for many years growing rice to scrape by on your flat bottomland. You understand the importance of hard work. You know what it’s like to bust your chops to survive.”
“Yes, sir. You is correct.”
“Mr. Moss,” Percival interjected, sliding into the chair next to Thomas, “if we raise our workers’ wages any higher, we lose our competitive edge. With poultry prices rising and inflation as it is, we’re caught in a squeeze. A bad squeeze. But here is what we can realistically do and where you fit in.” Percival took a deep breath, exhaled, and shifted his weight from one crossed leg to the other. “You see, I have a good friend from Yale who runs border enforcement in Texas. He has seized hundreds of Mexicans illegally crossing our border. They return the captured ones to Mexico, but those darned persistent Mexicans keep recrossing. It seems what the Mexicans want is to find work and send money back home, but President Carter has reduced the number of green card permits. So, those Mexicans can’t legally come into our country and work because the green card quotas have been reduced.”
“What Percival is saying, TJ, is that all kinds of people from Mexico would love to work here and make a fair wage, but Carter won’t let them in. And Persue Poultry desperately needs them. We can’t find enough people locally to work at a fair wage, and if we don’t find help soon, we may have to shutter this plant. Lay local people off. As you can see, we’re in a real bind.”
“That’s right. Exactly right,” Percival added. He uncrossed his legs and leaned forward on the edge of his chair, inches from Thomas. He exhaled again, his eyes shifting awkwardly from Thomas to the floor. “The thing is, my friend from Yale is willing to secretly put those folks on a private charter bus and send them directly to us, nonstop. Roughly eighty adults. And we can give them a job the day they arrive. We’ll even pay the Federal minimum wage. We’ll offer these Mexicans the same starting benefits as locals, but it all has to be on the hush-hush. We’ll need to keep outsiders from finding out, or we could get into trouble with the Feds.”
Richard stood, moved around his desk, and sat on its corner, less than a foot from Thomas. “Here’s the deal, TJ. We know Johnson County is getting ready to foreclose on your property because you owe eight years’ worth of past due property taxes on land that no longer carries an agricultural exemption. What we’d like to do is pay those taxes on your behalf and get you up to snuff in exchange for putting a few portable single-wide houses on your property. We’d move eighty Mexican nationals on your land and house them in those portables. We’ll even rent those plots of land the portables sit on—”
“Twenty small lots totaling less than two acres,” Percival threw out.
“And we’ll put the proceeds in a blind interest-bearing savings account in perpetuity for you. You’ll never have to worry again about not having money for that darned tax collector. Shoot, we’ll arrange for a school bus to pick up any come-along kids out by the highway and run phone lines and electric utilities to the property to light things up. I understand utilities are luxuries you can’t afford.”
“Don’t want no utilities. Don’t need ‘em. But TJ gots no objections to poor people getting those things. Seems the right thing to do.”
“And it is,” Percival stated. “We’re giving desperate people new life. New hope. A second start is a good thing, Mr. Moss. A good Christian thing. A win-win for Jesus.”
“That’s right. It’s what Jesus would want,” Richard added. “And now, because the new dam is complete, your land will never again flood or get washed away. We’ll build a quiet little community hidden in a valley next to the Ohoopee that no one knows about. Only the three of us and no one else. Why, you can even name it Mossville after yourself and become the mayor. How’s that sound?” he asked, pausing to frame his fingers, imagining a grand marquee with bright lights. “Mayor Thomas Jefferson Moss.”
The two men paused with nothing more to say, sat pleased with their sales pitch, and held their collective breaths, awaiting an answer. Given Thomas’ simple nature, they had no idea how the old man would react or if he would ever approve of such a far-flung scheme. If he went along, Thomas would be complicit in illegal activity, that is, if he truly comprehended the implications of his actions.
Thomas studied the floor and rubbed his chin, painfully rehashing everything he heard. In his mind, the ability to wash away tax debt was like the Ohoopee washing away old-growth bottomland with fresh river silt. It would leave him cleansed and renewed to take on the future. His Grandpappy always said money was the root of all evil, yet he did not see anything evil with helping poor people out, especially those who wanted to work and improve their station in life. Work was a good thing. Hard work transcended skin color and ethnicity and manmade borders. And it was, as Perceval described, a win-win Jesus would approve of. Lastly, it was a way to rescue his Grandpappy’s hard-earned land. Certainly, his grandfather’s ghost would want him to keep the land in the family name and not forfeit it to the state of Georgia. Certainly, Thomas Jefferson Moss deserved one small victory in what little time remained of his life.
Slowly, Thomas stood and spoke his mind, wearing a grin the two corporate executives would never forget. “Mayor, huh?” he mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck. “TJ likes the sound of that. Old TJ thinks we gots a deal but with one more condition.”
“Name it,” Richard said.
“Percival and Dick, in addition to all those things you boys mentioned, TJ wants that fine Cadillac. Dick’s Golden Cadillac. In fact, TJ wants to drive it home today. Shoot, I’ll even build a barn shed to house it. Throw in the Gold Cadillac, and our business is complete.” He spat on his palm and held out his hand.
Percival smiled a wry grin, spit in his hand, and shook Thomas’s.
Richard laughed a belly shaker, admiring the old man’s audacity. “Damn, TJ, I sure like the way you think,” he said. He patted the old man on the shoulder, spat in his hand, and sealed the deal with a firm handshake.
By 9:00 A.M., the floodwater had retreated from most of Thomas’ property but still sloshed a foot deep where his cabin once stood. Where double-wide portables had clustered, nothing remained except three-foot-high concrete piers providing foundations for the homes. Thomas figured the buildings were swimming with the dead somewhere twenty miles southeast. One portable had been lifted high by the hydraulic action of the tsunami-like wave. It now sat perfectly intact, appearing more as a giant treehouse sprawling atop a lonely live oak tree, less than fifty feet from where it once anchored.
From out on the highway, Thomas heard sirens and the low din of utility trucks as they sped by to fix the damage caused by the hurricane. Ironically, none of the emergency vehicles were headed to Mossville. Only three adults knew anything about the clandestine community of Mexican illegals. Even six-year-old Consuelo understood the curse that came with Thomas’ land—you can’t repair what never existed. Truly, from an official standpoint, the dead had never lived in Mossville, and the bus that brought them to Georgia two years before never left Texas.
One bright spot to this situation was how, two years earlier, Thomas possessed the foresight to build a barn large enough to house his new Cadillac El Dorado and, wisely, on top of the hill and not next to his cabin in the valley. He presumed the vehicle would need help ascending and descending the steep grade out of the river valley and chose high ground next to a power pole a contractor used to run spans of power lines from the highway and down to the valley. One of the handier Mexicans bootlegged a drop wire to the shed, and for the first time in his life, the old man had lectricity service. When someone offered him a free-but-used refrigerator, he plugged the contraption in next to his car and used it to freeze meals and store perishables, a luxury not available at the cabin. Most meals came from his church’s food pantry donations, the Bethel Baptist Church of Whitesville, and a “Meals on Wheels” organization. Occasionally, he would indulge himself and purchase Colt Malt Liquor from Piggly Wiggly and cold cuts preserved for months on end. At least one six-pack was stashed in the refrigerator, and given everything that had taken place, he could easily consume all six cans in one sitting to dull his heartache.
During the summers, on sweltering evenings, Thomas would climb the hill from the valley to his car barn and sleep on a cot sandwiched between the El Dorado and the refrigerator where air brewed cooler and less stagnant. As he turned away from the river, he eyed where the car barn stood; the structure had somehow survived the rain and remained unscathed by the storm as if by a miracle. A light had been accidentally left on and shone as brightly as a homing beacon. Seeing the light, Thomas knew he and the children had a home, albeit a cramped house, and food for the next few days and, almost as importantly, much-needed transportation.
Thomas coaxed Consuelo to stand and move with him from their perch on the ridge overlooking the river to his lifeboat shed. Nothing could be gained by idly watching the Ohoopee course downstream. Besides, the victorious river would continue to gloat from its spoils on this day and rob them of any remaining sanity. Deftly, Consuelo gathered her baby brother in her arms, and they moved sluggishly to the car shed with Thomas holding her hand and neither uttering a word. He swung open a set of double doors, backed out the El Dorado, and rearranged the barn’s interior, setting up a makeshift dining table from an old oil barrel, 4-foot by 4-foot plywood, and fold-up lawn chairs. He threw together a crude breakfast from pre-packed eggs, and bacon turned moldy green. Regardless, Consuelo refused to eat, having lost her appetite, and began sobbing again. And now, little Jaime was also crying, no doubt from hunger, and Thomas could offer nothing suitable to eat for a two-month-old. He guessed his church had not convened this Sunday morning, and its food pantry would be closed and would not reopen until Monday. Where to find food for a two-month-old concerned him. If not the food pantry, where? He also assumed the Reverend Abernathy Crabtree would be sitting out the storm at the parish house next door to the pantry. Maybe the preacher could make an exception and open its doors.
“Baby girl,” he said. “We gots to go to town and find food. OK?”
Consuelo said nothing in return. She merely nodded in the affirmative, sobbing as her runny nose cascaded over a lip onto her soiled T-shirt. Again, Thomas led her by the hand and instructed her to sit in the back seat of the El Dorado, holding her baby brother, and they took off in the direction of Whitesville.
The ride to the parish house only took a few minutes. Still, it became painfully apparent that the devastation caused by the storm had closed almost everything ordinarily open on Sunday mornings—gas stations, quick marts, the local Walmart, and churches. Persue Poultry’s gates were locked and closed, and the parking lot was void of trucks and cars; the guard shack had been abandoned as well. Brimming bar ditches and broken tree branches painted the highway into town, where house upon house dripped wet and soaked as much as overripe sponges. By the time they reached Reverend Crabtree’s house, the rain had let up, and the sun threatened to break through a high cloud ceiling and begin wringing out all things inundated.
In a small town like Whitesville, everyone knew everyone else and, as the saying goes, “got all up in their business.” As it turned out, Hattie Crabtree, Thomas’ ex-lover, was Abernathy’s mother. Hence, because of town gossip, it was no surprise how church parishioners deciphered the romantic dalliances, motivating Thomas to attend Bethel Baptist from out of nowhere. Before their liaisons, Thomas never set foot in the church, but once the couple became an item, he would appear on a first row pew shoulder to shoulder with Hattie, singing and praying joyfully with his lover by his side. Even after the couple quit seeing each other, Abernathy could count on Thomas to show up for Christmas and Easter services. After all, the three-mile walk from Thomas’ cabin to church took time; however, since the arrival of the fancy Cadillac, Thomas seemed to attend on a more regular basis, freely doling cash donations into the collection plate and praising Jesus with more zeal than ever. In short order, Thomas became a devoted believer in the message of the Bible and memorized Old Testament scriptures. This impressed Abernathy how someone like Thomas could have the mental capacity to learn so many new ideas so quickly.
When Thomas knocked on the parish door with Consuelo and Jaime in his arms, Reverend Crabtree seemed bowled over by anyone brave enough to pop up on the front stoop before the National Weather Service had declared the storm officially over. Like most everyone else in town, he had not planned to open his door until noon or later, but here it was 10:30 A.M., and the door knocker knocked, and the Lord can call upon a man of the cloth on a moment’s notice with a meek rap on a door. Naturally, Reverend Crabtree invited Thomas and the children inside and quickly ascertained a calamity had befallen the trio. “Where’d you find this little girl and baby boy?” he asked.
Thomas explained the entire situation—why they were there at his doorsteps, the history of Mossville's existence, and his arrangement with Persue Poultry. He told of the flood and the devastation and how eighty Mexican nationals, old and young alike, had been washed away and, he presumed, drowned. Consuelo and Jaime, he stated, were the only survivors. “… and as you can plainly see, I needs some help. Food would be a good place to start.”
Abernathy listened patiently to the story Thomas unfolded without displaying any emotion whatsoever, which surprised Thomas. The man nodded his head with a well-rehearsed air of concern, hinted he grasped the gravity of the situation, and expressed impassioned verbal responses with Uh-huhs, Don’t-says, and Ain’t-that-somethings, but in the end, nothing appeared to light a fire in the man’s heart. His reactions seemed callous and fake. Reading these signs, Thomas frustratingly asked, “Well, what we gonna do about it?”
Abernathy capitulated to the question with a dull leer and puffed cheeks while preparing a comeback to the we in Thomas’ question. Thomas had seen the same look right before one of the man’s fire and brimstone sermons. “Listen up, TJ, and listen carefully,” the preacher finally uttered. “Here it goes—When you allowed those Mexican people to move onto your land. When you hid them like thieves from the eyes of the righteous, you sinned. You broke the Seventh Commandment because you lied and stole for your own gain. You may have thought you were helping ‘em out and solving a worldly problem for that devil Richard Persue and his infernal chicken plant, but what you were really doing was breaking the law, sacred American law, and that, in itself, runs counter to God’s grace. Do y’all actually believe those people ever paid taxes to help the rest of us out? Hell no. Do you believe they did any good by stealing high-paying jobs from under the noses of our poor people in Johnson County? From true-blue Americans? Hell no. Richard Persue hired them because it cost him less money. And much like Judas, you took thirty talents of gold from the man in the guise of your shiny gold Cadillac. You profited from the misery they perpetrated on the rest of us. You betrayed your brothers and sisters. So, it seems to me the Ohoopee was serving our Lord’s bidding as much as when the Almighty used vengeance to strike down every firstborn child in the land of Egypt. In the same manner, He struck down those job-stealing Mexican illegals. No sir. This church will not help y’all correct a sin you and Persue Poultry created. As for these two surviving children, they need to be submitted back to the bosom of the Ohoopee to satisfy God’s retribution. They must be offered up as a sacrifice for what y’all did.” And to add insult to these injurious words, Reverend Abernathy Crabtree spewed one last unchecked sentiment. “Don’t expect no help from me or the congregation of the righteous. I’ll keep my mouth shut, but that’s all you can expect from me. You’re on your own.”
Halfway through the preacher’s spiel, Thomas covered Consuelo’s ears as earnestly as he had covered her eyes earlier in the morning. Nothing positive came from the preacher’s hateful words, and any hope of finding peace at Bethel Baptist Church would elude Thomas and the children. If any good did come from visiting Reverend Crabtree, it was a heads-up warning of how county authorities would be of little assistance and, most likely, more adversarial than helpful. Nevertheless, Thomas could not walk away without saying something to a man he no longer recognized or respected. If Thomas sensed shame or felt hellbound, nothing could have been further from the truth. Gently, he hoisted Consuelo on one arm and baby Jaime on the other and turned to leave. “Your mama would sure be ashamed of you right now,” he said over a shoulder. “And so am I.”
Once back inside the El Dorado, Consuelo spoke for the first time all morning. “Where do we go now, TJ?”
“Home,” he said. “Your home. We are family from now on.”