Authors: Caryl Mcadoo
“Believe in giving credit where it's due.”
She faced him, but this time she smiled.
He loved that show of gladness on her face and wished he could make it happen all day long, but he still had to address the next topic. “We've got the worse of it ahead of us, though, to get out of these bottoms. If you're in agreement, I'd like to camp this side of White Oak Creek.”
Her smile disappeared. “Why not push on? We just crossed a river. A creek shouldn't be any problem. For the life of me, I cannot understand why you're always so intent on slowing our progress.”
“Not at all, ma'am, but I hear tell the double branch of the White Oak is more treacherous then the river. Unless you say otherwise, I'd like to take them on with fresh mules and a full belly.”
“How much farther can we go?”
“Hour, two at most.”
She glanced toward the sun, then looked back and shrugged, obviously perturbed again. “I would like to keep going.”
He nodded, tipped his hat, and then increased his pace. Every time he thought he'd gotten through to her, she went right back to her old way of thinking. He hated that she was so stubborn.
Past his turn to ride, he kept walking. If he'd told the widow thanks but no thanks, he could have had that last batch of seed ready and be on his way to St. Louis, but no. He'd hired on to be a nursemaid. Rebecca climbed into the wagon with Levi. Shortly, the girl's laughter, then her singing, interrupted his sour mood. How could anyone stay grumpy around her?
He continued to walk until the creek came into view, then turned around. Levi stopped his wagon a few feet before the bank sloped into the water. Sue pulled her wagon next to the boy's. He glanced at the sun and then stared at her. “Still want to cross this afternoon?”
She glared for a bit, then looked skyward and shook her head. “It would appear to me that the best idea would be to cross in the morning. The mules will be fresher then, not so spent; and so will we. We'll cross after breakfast.” She climbed down from the wagon.
He nodded. “Probably for the best.” The urge to smile almost overwhelmed him, but he kept a straight face. “I'll see about catching some fish for supper.”
With camp set, Levi seeing to cleaning and frying up three nice-size catfish, and corn bread baking in the Dutch oven, Henry offered his hand to Sue, who kneeled by the fire.
“Care to do some scouting?”
“Scouting? Why? What do you need to scout?”
He shook his head. “Never mind.”
He stormed off toward the creek tired of all the woman's whys. She couldn't seem to accept that he had a good reason for everything he did. No, she insisted on questioning every move he made. Why, why, why.
He stopped short, sat on a fallen tree, and yanked off his right boot and sock. She walked around the trunk and sat down. He glanced over.
She sighed. “Didn't mean to upset you, but I can't for the life of me understand what's wrong with me asking youâ”
“There's a reason for everything I do, and you're always second-guessing me.”
She sat there silent for longer than he liked. “I don't know what to say, Henry.”
“Care to get wet?”
She looked at him, eyes questioning, but didn't ask why.
“Figured we should check out the creek bottom.”
She smiled. “Sure, why not? Doesn't look too deep.” She leaned over and started unlacing her high-top shoes.
He got his other boot and sock off, then waded in. “It's not so deep, but the bottom is said to be tricky.”
She eased her first shoe off, then tugged at the thick, masculine sock. Laying it over her shoe, she looked up. “Andy's. I prefer wearing them when I'm working.” She started on her second foot, wrestling with keeping the trouser leg up out of her way. Seemed a bit of a chore, but she finally sat the shoes together, laying her late husband's socks carefully over them. She rolled up both legs all neat like, then pushed herself up and walked toward him. “Same with his britches; just seem so much more practical for chores than petticoats and skirts.”
He ignored the comment and nodded toward his right. “You want to check that side?”
“Happy to.” She stepped into the water, then hiked her pants legs up even more. “Oh, it's cold.” She grinned, then made an ugly face. “And the mud is so squishy. It's nasty!”
He chuckled but continued walking to the other side of the shallows. On coming back, he checked a little more downstream. He crossed several times, noticing she followed his lead. “What do you think?”
“The mud's a little deep, but the water's shallow. It seems a little rockier over here. I think it's a decent place to cross, don't you?”
He nodded and resisted the urge to splash her with creek water. How could she do that to him? One minute, she made him so mad, then the next, made him feel like a schoolboy. “We shouldn't have any trouble with this one.”
Heading toward the bank, he climbed out, then waited on her. He extended his hand. She slipped hers into it, and he pulled. He loved the feel of her skin, even if it was her calluses against his. Sue's hands were so much smaller than his mother's.
She climbed onto the bank, stared at him for a moment, and then slowly withdrew her hand. “I best go check on Levi. He might burn the fish if I don't help.”
He nodded and stepped gingerly back to the felled tree. His tender feet found the knee-high grasses scattered with unseen stones and summer's stickery seeds barely navigable. He quickly replaced his boots as Sue didâsitting so close, and yet so far awayâthen went on back, leaving her to finish without having to work so hard at keeping her bare ankles from his view.
He appreciated a modest womanâeven one in britches.
He smiled, thinking of what his mother would say about that. The way Sue had looked at him when she stepped out of the creek encouraged him. He hoped what he'd seen in her eyes was at least a bit of what grew in his heart.
CHIRPING BIRDS WOKE SUE.
Her eyes opened to the gray light of false dawn. She lay there relishing the benefits of a decent night's sleep. She looked over at her little girl snuggled up in her quilt on the furs and thanked God again for the child who gave her a reason to live. So much like her father. As hard as Sue tried to remember, she'd forgotten exactly what he looked like, but Becky kept a part of him alive in her heart.
She smelled her favorite early morning aroma and rolled over.
“Morning.” Henry squatted next to the fire. He held up his tin cup. “Coffee?”
“Yes, sir, thank you.” She crawled from beneath the wagon, stood, and stretched her hands toward the sky. “I feel so much better this morning than yesterday. Rested and more refreshed.”
He handed her a steaming cup. “We all needed a good, long, quiet night.”
“Don't you figure we're at least a day or two ahead of the train now? Bless the Lord.”
“Well, for sure we're bound to be ahead of them. We've had a good start.” He drained his cup and tossed the dregs toward the fire. “I've got biscuits in the Dutch oven. If you've a mind to tend them and maybe fry some salt pork, I'll rouse the boy, and we can get the mules seen to.”
She nodded. “How long have they been cooking?”
He glanced at the eastern sky. “Five minutes or so.”
She busied herself with breakfast and picking up and stowing the pallets, except for Becky's. The little sleepyhead would've slept all the way to eating time had it not been for Blue Dog. He nosed his head under her hand and, when he got no response, put one paw on her chest. It tickled Sue that he wanted her awake. The dog finally licked Becky's face, and she opened her eyes.
Right as the sun burst over the eastern horizon, Henry doused the cook fire with creek water and faced Sue. “If it's fine with you, I'll take the first wagon.”
She realized it was more of an order than a suggestion, but she did prefer how he framed it. “Yes, you go ahead. That will be fine.” She made one more visual sweep of the camp. Everything was stowed, and other than the wet remnants of charred firewood, they weren't leaving anything. “I'll wait until you're across and top the far bank.”
He nodded, then faced Levi. “Ride with me.”
The boy shrugged. He'd seemed a little easier to get along with, but still acted as if he resented the man being there. They both climbed aboard the lead wagon, and Sue said a little prayer. It seemed to take some extra urging to get the first team going. But they soon were in the water just below their knees.
“Ho, Brown Mule. Pull. Get up, Daisy.”
Slow but steady, the mules made progress crossing the first branch, probably twice as wide as the Sulphur if you counted the swampy conditions on both sides of the actual creek. The team moved along doing so well. Sue hurried back to the second wagon and climbed onto the seat for a better view. She wanted to see exactly where and how Henry went. It just wouldn't do for him to make it and her to fail.
She glanced away quickly to check on her daughter. Blue Dog ran alongside her. “Becky, come, get in!”
Watching Henry again, Sue realized she didn't remember seeing her little girl running or sitting or laying in the grass looking up at the clouds without Blue Dog right there beside her. She appreciated the hound taking such an interest, and had to admit that she liked the animalâmore than she would ever have thought possible.
Following Henry's progress, she held one hand on her chest. Once the wagon's wheels pulled out onto the far bank, she remembered to breathe. She faced her daughter, who climbed up beside her in the nick of time to celebrate Henry's crossing. “Yes!” Sue patted her chest repeatedly and sighed. “That seemed easy enough.”
Becky stood on the seat and clapped her hands above her head. “Yay! You did it! Hooray for Mister Henry! Hooray for Levi!”
Sue looked up at her daughter and joined the celebration. “Whoopee!”
Becky's smile spread over her face like bluebonnets on the Texas prairie in April. She beamed. “Mister Henry can do anything.”
“Oh, you think so?”
“Yes, ma'am, he surely can.” Becky sat down and straightened her skirt. “But I remembered not to hurt Levi's feelings and hollered for him, too, at the last.”
“That was certainly nice of you. I'm proud you remembered.”
“Yes, ma'am, but I'm sure Mister Henry didn't need any help from him. Most likely, he did it all by himself. He can”âBecky looked up and nodded like the little priss she wasâ“do anything!”
Sue wanted to argue with her daughter, and tried to think of something he couldn't do, but she couldn't come up with a single thing. Maybe he could do whatever he set his mind to. The first wagon stopped on the ridge of the far bank. She clucked the mules to life. “Hey, now.” She snapped the reins, and the wagon lurched forward. She would have preferred a bit more speed, but the wooden wheels knifed into the water and kept on rolling.
She prayed all the way across and encouraged the team until she pulled onto the opposite bank, climbed it, then stopped a bit past the first wagon.
Henry smiled on her way by. “Well done.”
“Thank you, sir.” She looked to the sky. “And thank You, Lord.”
After a hundred yards or so, she topped the next ridge, and her heart skipped a beat. The wagon with the broken axle sat on the bank of the second branch of White Oak Creek, a ghoulish reminder of her friends and neighbors' failed crossing. It taunted her jubilance and screamed of doom. Her mouth went dry, and all smiles vanished. She stopped the mules and locked the brake.
Henry pulled up next to her. “The old-timer said this was the bad one, deeper water and not a lot of bottom. This is why the train turned back and took the ferry.”
Sue tore her eyes away from the water and looked at him. “Did the old man mention how we might get across?”
“Claims there's a rock path.” He jumped down and extended his hand. “Want to help me find it?”
She took his hand, steadied herself, then stepped down. For a second, he didn't let go. A tingling danced up her arm, but she pulled away, extinguishing the sensation before it reached
her heart. She had no time for entanglements now, and especially not with Henry Buckmeyerâor did she? “Guess we need to get wet again.”
Unlike the first branch of the creek, these beds had holes filled with deep mud. Henry crossed back and forth, as did Sue, time and again. In one spot, she stepped onto a thin layer of rocks. “Over here. Check this out,” she called.
He walked back and forth over the area she'd found, sloshing through the water several times, then across from one bank to the other as many times. “It's the best we've found.”
She hated the thought of trying to cross it, but gave herself no choice. She definitely did not want to go back to Cuthand then all the way to Ringo's Landing. But if she didn't get her cotton to market, all her hard work and cash spent would be for nothing. Without the cotton money, it'd be doubtful she could even survive another year, certainly not with hers and Levi's land intact.
She faced Henry, who wore a grim expression. “What do you think?”
He shrugged and sighed. “It can be done, but there's not much room for error.”
She bowed her head, then nodded. “Let's get to it.”
He waded to the middle of the rocks and studied the tree line. “Seems to me we need to line up on that pine.” He held his hand up and gestured a straight line toward a tall single pine that stood in front of a wall of hardwoods.
She joined him and imagined the line. “Looks good to me.”
He faced her. “Want me to drive both wagons?”
Her first notion was to agree, but the stronger impression, the one born in the stubbornness of her heart, wouldn't have it. From that first horrible year, she'd succeeded on her own,
alone. She did not need this man or any other to do what she could handle.