Monday, May 15, 2006

Kin to the Saboteur - Ch. 10

“Henry, I’ll be glad to help you and your missus take your eggs into the store,” Adam volunteered as he got down from the Colbert’s wagon on that bright, cloudless Saturday morning.

Yesterday’s sporadic showers had given way to a steady downpour last night. As a result, Adam was careful not to step in any puddles or thick mud spots as he walked towards the back of the Colberts’ wagon to be of assistance.

Adam was willing to be of as much help as possible to the couple who’d opened their home up to him for the duration of the harvest. From Henry, he’d learned that the only way to have a friend is to be one. Yet up until he came here, Adam hadn’t wanted to be anyone’s friend, just their associate since no emotional involvement had to occur that way. But things were different now.

Things were so different now that Adam was actually going to church with the Colberts every Sunday that the weather allowed. Henry’s wife, Evie, had a lot to do with that since her most important rule in the house was that everyone who slept there had to attend church with her. As a result of attending worship services on a regular basis, the voice of Adam’s conscience was growing louder and louder, slowly but surely every day.

After this stop at the general store, Adam was going to unhitch his horse from the wagon and mosey on up to Plum Creek (later to be renamed Lexington) in order to mail the usual bi-weekly letter to his father. The latest article he’d written for the Tribune would be mailed from the post office in Miskito since he didn’t mind Pastor Maguire - who was also the town’s postmaster and postman, knowing about that particular piece of correspondence.

“Thank you much, Adam. I believe we will take that help,” Henry replied as he made his way around to the back of the wagon, too. His wife and eldest son were already back there. They’d been sitting in between several crates of fresh eggs, keeping them steady on the rocky ride from their house to the Ackerman General Store - which conveniently used the barter system as well as transacted with money.

Like her other two children that had been left at a neighbor’s house, Evie Colbert hadn’t wanted to leave the eggs unattended. They got good money from their side business of raising chickens and selling eggs and she didn’t want to jeopardize their maximum profit. Besides, Evie had wanted to give her husband a good chance to fellowship with his newest friend up front.

“You’re just a sweetheart for helping us, Adam,” Evie said as her husband courteously helped her down from the wagon. “And if you don’t mind me asking, why ain’t you married yet?” Now on her feet, Evie straightened out the front pleats in her brown and white checkered dress. She believed in looking her best on Sundays and before going to talk business.

“I don’t want to be married. Some men are meant to be bachelors. I’m one of them.” Adam took the first crate down from the wagon and sat it on the ground beside the stairs to the general store, out of the main walking area.

“You think so, huh?” Evie inquired with a twinkle in her beautiful nut-brown eyes. “Well, I think you just ain’t found the right woman yet. But you just might find her in Miskito,” she added with finality. Then without another word to either man, Evie turned to walk up the stairs and left all the toting to the menfolk.

Adam turned to Henry with a smile of amusement on his face. “Not one to mince words, is she?”

Henry nodded. His smile was just as wide. “The missus don’t believe in chewing the fat. Just likes to get to the meat of things, if you know what I mean,” Henry replied, handing off a crate to his son.

“I bet that’s why you love her, too.” Adam lifted another crate from the back of the wagon and prepared to stack it near the stairs with the rest. Once they were all stacked, the three males would take them inside of the store. No doubt Evie was already talking up on the transaction right now and would have the whole lot sold before they even finished being unloaded.

“Sho’ nuff.” Henry chuckled.

Just then, two adolescent boys in cut-off shorts and dingy sleeveless shirts came running out of the store with candy in one hand and sling shots in the other. Adam swerved to avoid colliding with them.

“Whoa there, boys. Watch your step,” Henry admonished, fearful that they would trip and fall. He didn’t want the lads hurt no more than he wanted his supply destroyed.

One of the boys, the sandy-haired lad, turned around and faced Henry with stormy blue eyes. “We ain’t no boys! My papa says the word boy is for yo kind.”

Henry and his son bristled at the way in which the lad had taken such an innocent word and changed it to mean something bad. Although life out west was far better for the Negro after the Civil War than any other part of the country, prejudice and racism always seemed to follow them via narrow-minded non-black settlers.

Many Exodusters like the Colberts had experienced the same things. They’d all had to learn how to deal with this additional psychological burden while adjusting to their new lives. Even still, it was a wonder that there hadn’t been more ‘Turnarounds’ and ‘Go-backs’ than there were.

Yet before either Henry or his son could speak, a red-faced Adam was already coming to their defense. “You are indeed boys, boys,” Adam said, putting extra emphasis on the word. He put the crate in his hands down and stood akimbo style, towering over and glaring at the now frightened two lads.

“Tell your papa that according to Noah Webster and his competitor Joseph Emerson Worcester, a boy is a male child or youth. Mr. Colbert is neither and should be respected as the upstanding man that he is. Do I make myself clear, boys?” Adam continued.

“Yes, sir,” the two lads echoed, thoroughly reprimanded by the glowering freckle-faced man.

“All right then. Now apologize to Mr. Colbert and be on your way,” Adam demanded, his face slowly returning to its normal hue.

“Sorry, Mr. Colbert,” the two lads said. Then eager to get away from the angry red-haired man, the two boys took off running in the opposite direction.

Then while Henry thanked Adam for his intervention, neither man noticed that their little altercation with the wayward Miskito lads had been witnessed by someone from inside the store. A very angry someone.

~~<<>>~~

Halona, who happened to be at the general store this morning, making sure that the orphanage had their regular weekly provisions, had seen the whole thing. While Evie had been at the counter talking business with Elnora, Halona had been perusing the list Mrs. Cable submitted. After approving the list, she’d been on her way home when she heard the two rude little boys outside. The same two little boys that she’d just given free candy to.

They better enjoy it, because they will never get another piece of free candy from this store, Halona mused. Then she turned around to go whisper that notion to Napoleon, the co-manager of the store. She would not reward prejudice, even if it came in small packages.

Then as Halona motioned for Napoleon to come closer for a brief and very discreet consultation, she thought about Adam’s reaction to the rude lads. He’d looked as if he was personally offended by the things that were said. She’d never seen a white man act like that before and she pondered over it. Halona continued to ponder over it for some time.

~~<<>>~~

Adam sat on the Colbert’s wide front porch much later that steamy evening, talking to his new friend. He’d done his business up in Plum Creek and come directly back after giving his horse a chance to get his wind, a few oats, and enough water to quench his thirst. Cimarron hadn’t been the only one that needed his thirst quenched on that hot day. Adam had repeatedly used his flask all the way back to Miskito today.

Unfortunately, it was still hot even though the sun had set. Now it was actually hotter in the house than it was outside, making it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. As a result, Henry paused from their conversation long enough to hang a wet sheet in the open doorway of the house. The sheet was down in a tub of water so that the moisture could keep coming up and hopefully cool the house down faster.

Henry’s two sons were already in their long nightshirts and had made themselves a tent on a grassy area in the yard. His daughter was in the house with Evie, possibly lying on a pallet on the front room floor. Henry would later join his wife and daughter in the house. As for Adam…he was scheduled to make a tent outside near the boys.

Adam never thought sleeping under the stars would be fun. But having already done it for two nights this week, he found it to be very relaxing. In fact, he was surprisingly starting to prefer the simple life over big city life. The only thing he truly missed was indoor plumbing.

“So Mrs. Bridges used to be Miss Halona’s caregiver, but now she’s her cook?” Adam asked as Henry came back on the porch and returned to his rocking chair. Adam sat on the top stair, scribbling on a piece of parchment since drawing always helped to relax him.

“Something like that,” Henry replied, getting comfortable on the quilted cushion his wife had sown for his sitting pleasure. “But to say it rightly, Marilu was really just supposed to be the cook and general help around the Ackerman house. The care giving part came after Mrs. Ackerman died. In a way, Mr. Ackerman and Marilu kinda helped each other take care of one another’s kids. He always had a kind word and a moment of his time for Elnora and Marilu did the same for his child.”

Adam was even more impressed with Halona’s father now. He would have loved for anybody’s father, black or otherwise, to act kindly towards him as a child. And the fact that Gordon Ackerman had built such sturdy and attractive tenant houses for struggling families to live in made him that much more impressive. It was fortunate that the Colberts kept the house so well-maintained, inside and out.

“Both Miss Halona and Elnora were the best dressed kids in school.” Henry chuckled. “But you could hardly tell it with Miss Halona. She was always messing up her dresses by roughhousing with the boys.” Henry had met the Ackermans when he was a teenager. He’d always been tickled pink by the escapades of Gordon’s unique little girl.

Laughing too hard to focus, Adam paused from his drawing. He could just imagine Halona now. Looking like a wild child in fine clothing, no doubt with her long straight black hair tousled all over the place. Possibly a few smudges of dirt on each cheek and her forehead from roughhousing. Then as if anxious to draw what his mind’s eye had just seen, Adam’s skilled hands began to automatically move over the parchment again.

“How is she with the opposite sex now? I haven’t heard a thing about anyone courting her,” Adam inquired, starting to sketch out the face of a little girl with wind blown hair.

“Besides arm wrestling at the Fourth of July picnic, Miss Halona don’t have much to do with men. Too busy she says. My missus seems to think she’s just being picky and rightly so since a lot of wrong fellows would be more attached to Miss Halona’s money than to her.” Henry paused briefly as if he needed a moment to reflect upon the gravity of what he just said.

Then shaking his head as if prompting himself to move on to other things, Henry began to discuss Marilu again. “Anyway, speaking of the picnic, wait ‘til you taste all the preserves Marilu makes every year. From that big orchard the Ackermans got, she cans cherries, plums, apples, currant, and blueberries. And Marilu’s applesauce will make you wanna slap your mama.” Henry chuckled and licked his lips as he rocked back and forth in the same extra rocking chair that had belonged to his now deceased father. The elder Mr. Colbert had died the same year Halona’s father did, yet from natural causes, not foul play.

Adam continued to sketch and laugh. “No wonder Mr. Bridges is a burly fellow. All that good eating.”

“To tell the truth, Jether was thick like that before he ever married Marilu. They only been together for a year, but he ran behind her for two, which was right after he moved to town,” Henry said.

Now ‘that’ I didn’t know, Adam mused. He wondered if Jether was a spy planted by the beef barons since the man had only been in town for three years, the same number of years as the Ackerman calamities. The auburn-haired man wouldn’t put it past his father’s associates to use any willing party to ensnare the Ackerman family. After all, Adam himself was currently on one of the head cattlemen’s payroll.

“What does Mr. Bridges do for Miss Halona again?” Adam asking. He wanted to know more about this relatively recent addition to Halona’s life. His hands continued to move over his parchment.

“Besides helping Marilu with the big garden and the orchard, Jether takes care of the animals on the farm and the repairs around the farmhouse itself. He also keeps Miss Halona’s smokehouse and freezer box stocked up with every part of the cow or hog you could think of. Uses that good old apple wood, too, makes everything in the smokehouse taste extra right. Bacon, salt pork, ham, sausage, roast, all that.” Henry licked his lips again.

Adam couldn’t help but laugh at his friend. It was clear that Henry was a man with a hearty appetite. Unlike Jether, Henry kept his weight down by working for longer periods of time in the fields and by keeping an active lifestyle with his children. Mr. Colbert’s only ailment was those unexpected muscles spasms he got from time to time.

“Maybe I ought to ask Mr. Bridges for his secret to good smoked food,” Adam suggested, determined to ask Jether more than that in an effort to weed out all spies.

“Oh, he’ll tell you right on about everything he does. Never seen a book that open in my life. And like Miss Halona, Jether’s generous to a fault. Shoot, on account of him, all the extra meat he butchers goes to her workers. I heard Jether ask Miss Halona about that myself one day at the general store a couple years past,” Henry replied, being more than forthcoming himself.

As Henry continued to talk, Adam nodded at all the right places even though his mind was taking him elsewhere. His hands had long since stopped drawing. Adam felt guilty sitting here being suspicious of another man when he himself was guilty of spying on Halona. The fact that Henry, Evie, and possibly Jether were such upright people and he was not added to his guilt.

Unable to sit there any longer with that negative feeling clawing at his gut, Adam put his parchment on the porch and stood to his feet. “Does your missus need the furniture section of the Sears and Roebuck catalog? I hear the outhouse calling me.”

“Well, I expect you need to answer that call right away, huh?” Henry chuckled and stood to his feet also. “I’ll go get it directly,” he replied. His heart was still patiently waiting for the day when he would be able to afford a house with indoor plumbing and all the tissue paper he, his family, and their guests could ever want or need.

© 2006 Suprina Frazier

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