Finding the plantation house was a blessing from heaven. As the family wearily and silently hauled their wagon down the rutted road, they first saw its roof, a flat line of slate over the kudzu-covered trees, and quickened their plodding steps. When the full house came into view, it was all they could do to keep Little Bee from shouting out loud.
The colonnaded veranda was peeling, and the wooden steps down to what had once been a tended lawn were warped and crumbling, but the walls and the roof still held true. Kudzu covered the windows on the first floor, but hadn’t extended to the second or third. Pa motioned Ma to stay with the wagon, and Jacob to pull both of the rifles from the wagon and join him. Unbidden, Robbie followed them, holding his bow at the ready as a rearward. Ma set Eliza, Janice, Little Beatrice and herself each on one side of the wagon to keep watch and raise the alarm if anything moved that wasn’t a tree limb in the sluggish breeze.
Pa and Jacob advanced at the ready through the doorless entrance from the warped veranda. They kept their rifles aimed where their eyes tracked, and felt the floorboards cautiously as they stepped. There was furniture in the rooms, some still covered with age-spotted drop cloths, most naked and molested by vermin over the years, but the floor showed no sign of any human tread.
The stairs moaned in protest as they ascended to the second floor, but held solid even when Pa tested each with his whole weight on one foot. The second floor was less disturbed by flora and fauna than the first, and it too showed no sign of occupancy in decades at least. Pa motioned to Jacob and Robbie to check the third floor while he himself examined each of the rooms on the second. He found bed frames with no mattresses, old straight-backed and rocking chairs which held together by sheer Southern obstinacy, and fragments of silvered mirrors in frames warped and flaked by humidity, but no sign that anyone other than themselves was there, or had been, or would be.
Pa, Jacob and Robbie rejoined the womenfolk outside, and Pa gave Ma a long, slow hug. He spoke for the first time that day and said, “Let’s move our things in.”
While Robbie and Little Bee stood guard on opposite corners of the veranda, the rest hauled their possessions out of the wagon to the second floor. Then, while the womenfolk set to cleaning and arranging some rooms as their living space, Pa and Jacob gathered all of the chairs and slat furniture from all three stories. In a leanto out back Pa found a jar full of rusty nails to supplement his own meager supply, and he and Jacob nailed the wooden furniture into a mass of crosshatched timber and doweling. They threaded a rope through it, pounded a few nails into the ceiling above the second floor landing, and improvised a pulley from a caster off one of the old bed frames. When they were done, they had a light but effective barrier that they could lower into the stairwell, filling and blocking it to anything larger than a cat…