Authors: Caryl Mcadoo
ECKY SKIPPED NEXT TO THE
wagon again, and an uneasy tightness lifted that Sue hadn't noticed before. The dog trotted beside her daughter. “Hey, Mama, look. Blue Dog is my new friend.” She petted the animal's shoulder, and he barked and ran a bit ahead. “Mister Henry says my time is up, and he wants Levi to come back there.”
“But how are we going to do this?” Sue turned to her nephew. “Think you could jump down and help her up?”
“Here I come!” Excitement filled the little girl's voice.
Sue turned in time to see her daughter step onto one spoke, catch hold of another, then ride the wheel up to the sideboard, where she jumped off and teetered a moment before Sue grabbed her arm. “Rebecca Ruth Baylor! Don't you ever let me see you do that again! Do you hear me? You could have been killed. What were you thinking?”
The little girl threw both arms around her. “I'm fine, Mama.” She leaned back. “It wasn't hard to do, and I didn't get hurt at all. It was fun!”
“It was dangerous! And you scared me half to death!”
Becky rolled her eyes. “Sorry, I never meant to scare you.”
She put her hand on Sue's cheek and patted softly. “Sorry, I really am. Will you forgive me?”
She hugged her child tight. “Of course I will.”
Levi shook his head. “Bitty Beck, you're going to have to do better than that.” He jumped down. “Since your man wants me, guess I'll go back and relieve Henry.”
Sue shook her head. “LeviâMister Henry, and please don't be snitty.”
He rolled his eyes at her, too.
She couldn't get any respect out of these two. “Thank you, Nephew.”
In no time, her hired hand appeared alongside her wagon. “We should be coming up on the Aikin place directly. It'll be on a little hill on the right.” Blue Dog showed up wagging his tail by Henry's side. He reached down and scruffed the mutt's neck.
“Oh, I didn't realize it would be so soon. I thought you said noonish. Are you certain we can't go on a little longer before we stop? What have we come, four or five miles?”
“The Aikins' place will be five. If you want to kill a mule our first day out, we could press on.” He smiled, but she didn't appreciate his poor attempt at humor. “They're nice folks. You'll enjoy Martha.”
She glared down at him. That man! She'd never known anyone who could get her so riled up so quickly. Maybe asking him along was nothing but a big mistake after all. He evidently could not remember who the boss was, because he kept demanding things and making decisions like he had all the authority. “You overstate a bit, don't you?”
“Listen, you've got good animals, ma'am, but how long has it been since they pulled two tons all day? And in such heat. If I was a betting man, I'd bet never.”
She hadn't thought of that. Humph. He acted like it killed him to explain anything, like she should instantly accept everything he dreamed up as if it was the greatest idea she'd ever heard. He could've just said something.
“I know you want to beat the devil around the stump, Mis'ess Baylor, but sooner or later, we've got to stop and rest these animals. The Aikins' would be a good place in my estimation, if you're of a like mind.”
In one respect, she hated his logic and how right he always seemed. In another, she definitely did not want to hurt one of her mules. All four had been with her these past ten years; she couldn't stand the thought of causing any harm to come to any of them. So in that respect, she had to appreciate his wisdom. Even if she didn't want to or like it.
She faced front, purposely dismissing him. “I'll be watching for the Aikins'.”
Henry took the point and quickly distanced himself out in front of the wagons. She studied his walk. He certainly was all sure of himself. His words rolled over her again regarding the mules and how they'd probably never pulled such a load all day. She hadn't even thought of such a thing. He would definitely win his bet. So why did she feel so much animosity when he was only helping? She sighed; probably because of him always acting like he controlled the world.
Before the sun rose to its highest mark in the bright blue, cloudless sky, the home he'd told her about came into view. A small pond sat off to the left of the house. He pointed toward it. “Take the mules to water. I'll let the family know we're here.” He trotted ahead, then hollered over his shoulder, “I'll be back to help unhitch the teams. Ask Levi to get started.”
Sir, yes, sir, she thought, then stood. “I hadn't planned on
unhitching them.” Her volume dwindled as she sat back down. He'd either run out of earshot or purposely ignored her. Here the trip had barely begun, and he persisted in making every decision, like it was his job to tell her how things were going to be and issue orders as though someone had crowned him king.
Well, she was not going to unhitch the mules. He would grain them, and they could drink, but she intended to get back on the trail in short time. She turned the team, and Dex threw his head; probably smelled the water. She was parched herself. A man came onto the porch, and Henry waved.
“Becky, we're going to stop here for a while. Would you please get Mama a drink out of the barrel?”
“Yes, ma'am.” The girl stood and jumped off the wagon before Sue could grab her.
“Rebecca! I didn't say get off before we stopped. I told you we were going to stop. You scare me plum to death, girl. Think about things before you just go off and do them.”
Becky ran alongside. “Oh, Mama, it wasn't nothing.”
“I didn't hurt myself.” Blue Dog left Henry's side and raced back to the girl. She kneeled, and he ran into her arms. “He likes me. See, Mama?”
“I see, I see. Hope you don't get any fleas.” She had often contemplated a dog for the children, but never could justify feeding one. She wished now she had bought that nickel pup at the last camp meeting. Her darling girl had so few pleasures, and she sure had cottoned up to Henry's mongrel.
Sue pulled the team to a stop short of the pool and climbed down. Levi stopped Mil and the brown mule next to her wagon. The animals stomped and snorted. He went straight to pulling their harnesses off.
“Stop! Stop that, Levi. What are you doing?”
“Mister Buckmeyer.” He accentuated the
obviously for her benefit. “Said we'd be resting the animals and told me to unhitch 'em.”
“Well, you just wait one minute.” She headed off toward the house with nary a sip of water.
Before she reached the rough-hewn dwelling, a young woman came out and stood to the right of the owner. She almost touched Henry and seemed unable to take her eyes off him. Humph. If she was the woman of the house, Aikin had certainly robbed the cradle. Five stair-stepped children rushed out, running past their pa and hollering like a wild herd of little scallywags.
A woman with graying hair appeared as Sue neared the porch. A chubby baby straddled her hip. The mother nodded, giving Sue's trousers a once-over. “Good day, Mis'ess Buckmeyer, and welcome.”
“Oh!” She shook her head. “No, ma'am. He's not myâ We aren'tâ I'm sorry, where are my manners?” She extended her hand and tried to laugh, but knew it sounded forced. “I'm Susannah Baylor, Mis'ess Aikin. I have a place a little west and south of here out on the prairie. Not too far actually. So pleased to meet you, ma'am.”
The woman laughed heartily. “Well, we sure hadn't heard our Henry got married, but I knew it'd take a beauty like you to catch him.” She winked. “If he ever gets caught, that is. Sorry for the misunderstandin', dear. Come on in now, Mis'ess Baylor, and get out of this sun. Imagine you're in need of a cool drink.” She faced Henry. “You been getting along all right? Eatin' enough?”
“Yes, ma'am, doing fine. I do miss Mother's cookin' though.”
The woman nodded and headed inside, holding the door open behind her. “You'll have to excuse the mess, Mis'ess Baylor. I've been tryin' to get a new quilt done, teaching the girls, you know. They're all helping.”
Sue stepped forward to follow her. “Oh, don't fret one bit about that. I understand. That drink sounds heavenly, Mis'ess Aikin, and please, my friends call me Sue.”
“Well, mine call me Martha.” She turned to the moonstruck girl. “Lizbeth, pull up a bucket of fresh water for our guests, please.”
“Yes, Ma.” The young woman's staring was downright embarrassing. The object of her foolishness flashed a dazzling smile every now and again. He was handsome in a rugged sort of way, Sue guessed. Why hadn't she noticed before? Well, he shouldn't encourage the girl like that. But then, maybe, that's exactly what this stop was all about. After all, he obviously knew the family well. Lizbeth squeezed by her pa and blatantly brushed Henry on her way to the well.
For no reason, Sue's breath caught in her throat, and her face suddenly burned.
“Now come on in and rest a spell. It's been ages since I had another woman to visit with.” Martha turned and ducked back into the shadows of the house.
Sue glanced over at Henry. Why hadn't she noticed how blue his eyes were before? She followed the older woman inside, leaving her hired man to be tempted by the wiles of that shameless girl. Made her uncomfortable for some reason, but it would have been rude not to accept the invitation inside.
He opened the door for Lizbeth on her return. She sloshed water from a wooden pail, grinning up at him her whole way through the door. “Thank you, Henry.”
Oh, dear, did she bat her lashes? Did sparkles twinkle in the girl's eyes, or was Sue only seeing things?
Lizbeth poured two cups of water, handing one to her mother and the other to Sue, who gulped it down without a breath. A drop escaped and ran down her chin. She wiped it, closed her eyes, and smiled. “Thank you so much. That's the sweetest water I've drank in a long time.”
Martha adjusted the baby and opened her blouse. As the little one latched on, she threw an apron corner over its head and laughed. “Oh, you's probably extra thirsty like my sweet little Maggie here. I'll get her fed, then we'll see to dinner for all the rest.”
The daughter refilled Sue's cup, then sat the bucket in the washtub. She skedaddled back out without another word. Martha chatted on about the heat, her goats, baby Maggie, and the Methodist circuit rider who came through last month, but Sue found she had trouble concentrating. Standing to fill her cup again, she peeked out the window.
The men had the mules unhitched and jawed beside one of the wagons; the children played kick the can with Blue Dog on Becky's heels, and Lizbeth shadowed Henry like a lovesick puppy.
“He buried Sister Buckmeyer and baptized my Lizbeth all in the same day. If only she could have lived to see her son saved.”
Aha! So she was right. “Sister Buckmeyer? So Henry isn't saved?”
“I'm afeared not.”
“I wasn't sure. I asked, and he sounded a bit angry at God over his mother's suffering, but he never did give me an answer really.”
“His mother sure prayed hard enough, butâ Oh well, there's still time yet, I suppose. I always wonderedâ”
“Excuse me, Martha, I'm sorry for interrupting, but I need to tell Henry something real quick. Be back directly.”
“Oh sure, you go ahead.” She gestured at little Maggie. “Baby girl's asleep. I'll go put her down, and we can start dinner.”
Sue hurried out and trotted toward the wagons. She walked straight up to Henry, blocking the younger woman's access. She spoke in a low tone meant only for him. “Mister Buckmeyer, I thought I made myself clear.”
“Not unhitching those mules.”
“Did you?” He leaned over, almost touching her ear with his lips. “I don't mean any disrespect, ma'am, and I am not trying to usurp your authority, but either these animals rest, or they're goners, and we'll never get your cotton to Jefferson.”
She stood there, blood boiling under the blazing sun. Unfamiliar butterflies fluttered in her stomach. She wiped her forehead on her sleeve and bought herself a few extra seconds to settle the blood and the butterflies. “Is it ever going to be cool again?”
Making a spectacle would only serve to embarrass herâand him as well. The animals were already unhitched, so she caved and nodded. “Fine, we'll stay, but not for long. Please tell me now that you do not plan on spending the night here.”
He smiled. “I'm not planning on spending the night here.” He raised one eyebrow. “But it wouldn't be a bad idea either.”
He held his hands up. “Only joshing. An hour, two at most.”
She didn't smile. “One hour. Were you going to graze them, too?”
He gave her one nod and an aggravated expression. “Figured to after I grain 'em.”
“Fine then. I'll help get dinner ready.” She turned to her nephew. “Would you please fetch the flour sack Aunt Elaine sent along? We don't want to be a burden to the Aikins.”
Sue turned toward the house and hollered without looking back. “Give it to Miss Lizbeth to bring in, Levi.”
The young woman protested. “But, butâ”
Sue kept walking. “We'll get dinner ready, sweetie. Your mama's caring for the baby.”
Many stories and hearty laughs later, Sue settled on the shaded quilt in the yard with her plate in her lap. Becky squatted cross-legged beside her. Blue Dog came onto the pallet and tried to lie by her daughter, but she shooed him off. The eldest Aikin daughter hovered, obviously waiting for Henry to sit so she could position herself as close as possible to him.
The sought-after man sauntered up, laughing with the girl's daddy. “Sue, William here had an extra set of hobbles and a few other things we might need. Told him we'd settle up before we leaveâif that suits you.”