The story opens with one-armed Jeff Griffin carrying home a tiny coffin for the recently dead baby of Cap'n Bulah, the love of his life (and distant cousin). Bulah is the widow of Sam Eller (the baby's father). Bulah still runs his boat, as she is determined to pay off his debts. When her baby dies, she is inconsolable.
On his way to show her the coffin, Jeff picks up Nate who tells him about a baby left at the plantation store. The widow Mrs. Brand is caring for the baby, and Jeff picks her up and takes her to his house where Bulah is still rocking her dead child. When he sets the boy on the floor, he cries for his mother and Bulah shakes herself out of her stupor, allowing her own baby to be buried. Jeff and Bulah begin to care for the child in February. In October his mother, a traveling cotton picker, returns and demands her child back.
The widow Brand saves the day when Headlights (real name Sabrina Mathews) tries to force the sheriff to tear the boy--now called Jeffy--from his foster parents. She demands board, cost of clothing, and cost of housing for the last eight months at a total of $27 to be paid in six months or Jeff and Bulah retain custody forever. Mr. Francis draws up a contract--thus, the "Mortgage on Jeffy." Headlights demands the right to pay the debt early.
She returns when Jeffy has come down with a fever and they fear he'll develop pneumonia. He's always been puny, which was one of the reasons they refused to let her take him, as he would die without care he needs--care his mother can't give him on the road as part of a cotton-picking team. Jeff sees her in a stupor in the swamp and takes her home with him. Headlights realizes that she can't care for the child properly and makes Jeff and Bulah agree to marry and they can keep him. She develops pneumonia and dies. Before she does, she pulls a leather pouch from her neck and says it is for Jeffy.
Inside is the $27 and a copy of the mortgage.
Notes: I'm intrigued by the name "Headlights" here. It seems really odd. Also, I am not sure that this is as clearly sentimental or classist as McMichael seems to think. Headlights, just as with Dosier and Chaney before, has deep emotional feelings and ties to her son, even as she leaves him at 17 months at the store. Carrying a child that small from job to job couldn't be easy, and likely the child would have died.
The whole mortgage situation is also weird. Obviously, Jeffy is not a slave or treated as property by Bulah and Jeff, but the idea of owning other people is definitely at play here. There's some weird "owning you to take care of you" stuff going on here (as in, you're being treated as property for your own good).
About this project:
I've been saying since 2004 that I was going to write a critical biography of Octave Thanet (Alice French). This blog is the start of that work and will include notes, links to research, and other OT related tidbits.