Authors: Caryl Mcadoo
“And I told your man if you agreed, I'd gladly take a bolt of good cloth for these gals of mine to make some purty new dresses. If you was of a mind to be obliged for the shopping, that is. I figure you'd be a good un to pick something out they'd really like. Purty hard for Mama to get away, and I ain't much good at it.” He laughed and took a place in the grass just off the pallet and smiled at his wife. “That suit you, Martha mine?”
She grinned and looked like she might blush. After handing
him the plate she'd piled high with pork ribs, corn on the cob, purple hull peas, carrots, and corn bread, she stroked his cheek. “You're too good to me, my darlin' dear.”
They were so cute, even after being together all those years. Sue wondered: had Andy livedÂ .Â .Â .Â ? No. That train of thought served no good purpose. Pointless dreaming about how things might have been. She hurried back to the present.
“It would be my pleasure if that will cover the cost of everything, Mister Aikin. Maybe I should pick out two?” She turned to her new friend. “What color do you cotton to, Martha?”
“Well, I've always been a mite partial to blue, and it draws out my girls' sky blue eyes.”
“I'm fond of purples, most all shades,” Lizbeth offered. “You like purple, Henry?”
He shrugged. “Well enough.”
Another one of the girls frowned. “Well, red's my favorite.”
And the one who'd taken up with Becky, she looked to be about five or six, swatted at her sister. “Yellow's best.” She faced Sue, nodding. “Get yellow, bright, shiny, happy yellow.” She giggled.
Sue joined her, laughing. “Sounds to me like a rainbow fabric would work to please everyone.” She smiled at Martha. “Perhaps a delicate floral print?”
“Whatever you find would be perfect, I'm sure.”
She turned to the man of the house. “All right then, you have yourself a deal. Thank you, sir, I'll gladly shop for you, but I'm afraid I could never repay you for all your hospitality and the good company of your family. Especially since it looks like we're about to eat you out of house and home.” She looked back to Martha. “It's been a true pleasure.”
“Oh, dear, the pleasure's all mine. You're such a blessing.”
“Blessings all around, I'd say.” Aikin patted Henry's shoulder and bowed his head. “Lord, thank You for the grub. Help it keep us strong and healthy to do Your will. Amen.”
Henry finally lighted and took his hat off, sitting with his back against a tree, and just as Sue figured, the young woman settled next to him where their knees almost touched. Sue tried not to notice but she kept losing Martha's conversation for paying too much attention to the girl and the man's reaction to her flirtatious goings-on. Once Lizbeth burst out laughing at something he must have said and slapped his bicep.
It seemed she just had to keep touching him. Sue glanced at Martha, who appeared oblivious to her daughter's shameful behavior. Lizbeth got up once to get Henry more ribs, and when she sat back down, she put herself even closer. Sue couldn't believe it and willed herself to look away. Why should it bother her?
Only a few minutes passed before Henry's laughing drew her attention back. He leaned into the young girl leaning into him. He caught Sue looking at him, and held her eye too long before she was able to glance away. He cleared his throat, and, in her peripheral vision, she saw him sit back fully against the tree again.
A short time later, not a morsel remained, but it didn't matter because Sue couldn't take one more bite even if she wanted. While she had insisted on including their tucker, Martha proved equally insistent on throwing their own part into the midday feast. The hilarious yarns spun and sweet fellowship offered lifted her spirits more than she could ever have imagined.
Even Lizbeth's outrageous flirting failed to spoil the day, although Sue thought Henry certainly might have egged her on a little less. But maybe he liked her. That might be the biggest
reason he wanted to spend so much time there. Maybe he considered her a prospect for marryin'âeven if he was almost old enough to be her father. What difference could it possibly make to her?
Sue shook her head and brought herself back to the day. Any attraction Henry Buckmeyer had to the young woman shouldn't bother her in the least, but for some reason, it made her feel a bit old and tired all of a sudden. Comfortable, though; she was quite comfortable, even in her britches.
She rose. “I hate to bring this wonderful time to an end, I do, and I truly look forward to when we can visit again, but we're burning daylight, and we really should be getting back on the trace.”
Martha jumped up, came over, and hugged her tight. “Absolutely. I don't want you to lift a finger with these dishes either. Just do whatever you need to get back on the road.”
“No, no. I didn't meanâ I'll help.”
“Won't hear it.” Martha looked at Henry, who stood. “Now you fellows get those mules hitched up so y'all can get back on your way.”
“Come on, Henry, ain't no reason to argue with her.” William handed his empty plate to Lizbeth.
She held her hand out for Henry's, too. “It was so good to see you, Henry. Hope you'll come back through once Mis'ess Baylor's cotton is delivered.”
Levi and the two oldest Aikin boys jumped up as well and headed for the barn.
Henry tipped his hat to Lizbeth before putting it back on. “Can't never get enough of good people and good food.” He held Lizbeth's eye. “I'll be back, but some handsome young man will probably have you wed in no time.” He grinned at
Sue, then Martha. “You and William have a fine family, ma'am. Thank you for all your hospitality.” He turned and went after the boys.
The girl started to follow, but her mama spoke up. “Lizbeth, gather up these dishes now and get 'em to the kitchen while I say my good-bye to my neighbor and new friend.”
The woman then turned to Sue. “Want you to know I'll be remembering you in prayer every day until you come again.”
“Why, thank you, Martha. Can't ever have too many prayers going up. And I'll surely be back, as I have some fabric to deliver.” She winked at the six-year-old.
It pleased her that no one objected to leaving, and that in no time the men and boys had hitched the mules and her cotton was back on the trail. The midday rest seemed to have revived the mules; it looked like they pulled the load with less strain. Perhaps that the terrain steadily fell toward the Sulphur bottoms helped. Whatever the reason, the pace elated Sue.
The second hour, when her turn came to walk, she fell back to speak with Henry. “Aren't we moving along at a much better clip? Won't we make Cuthand today at this rate?”
He nodded. “I figure upwards to a mile and a half, maybe two an hour, but I still plan to stop and make camp in the next hour or so. We'll put into Cuthand midmorning tomorrow.”
“What? Why? Why would you think of quitting so early when we're making such good time?”
“We'll have almost eleven miles behind us for the day, and that's a good mark. It'll be best to make camp this side of the trading post.”
She stared up at him, but he never looked down.
Who did he think he was? “Mister Buckmeyer, I'd count it a privilege to know why you think that you're the one making all the decisions around here.” He looked down, but didn't say a word. “Why is it that you act like you're king of the world or something when I'm the one paying your wages?”
He looked hurt and a bit shocked, then his eyebrows furrowed and he shook his head. He appeared to steam, and she had no doubt he held his tongue for what seemed like an hour, though it was most likely only seconds. When he finally spoke, it was forced. “I apologize if I've offended you.”
Without another word, she stopped in her tracks and let his wagon pull ahead. It was like the time when she was six years old and Daddy caught her playing with her mother's face powder. Foolish and stupid and wrong! But Henry wasn't supposed to be making the decisions. She was the boss, so how did he do it?
The cotton belonged to her, and this tripâher tripâwas all about taking her crop to market. She'd hired him to help, not take over. She clearly remembered saying she needed help.
The more she dwelt on his blatant egotism, the more her face burned with anger. Or was it shame? The earlier peace had slipped easily away, replaced by a desire to slap Mister Patrick Henry Buckmeyer right across his arrogant face.
By the time he hollered “Ho” to the mules, she was the one steaming and fit to be tied.
Had she been driving the front wagon, she never would have stopped it until dark. Then Mister High-and-Mighty would have had to keep going and keep up. Why hadn't she thought of that and relieved Levi when the self-appointed czar first said something? Royalty, indeed! Did he think he was in Russia?
And why did she always come up with the good ideas when it was too late to put them into motion? Stopping after barely more than two more hours on the trail! Ridiculous!
“Levi, you get the mules hobbled, I'll start a fire for supper.” Henry began scouting for wood. “Hey, Rebecca, you and Blue Dog can help me gather some kindling.” He noticed her coming around the corner. “If that's fine with your mother.”
And still he gives orders! Well! At least he didn't bark any chores at her. She fumed inside. Men! Why did they automatically think that everything had to be done their way? Did they not think a woman ever had an intelligent thought?
Did he not realize that she had plowed her field, planted the seed, chopped the cotton until her blisters had blisters, then helped to pick it in a timely manner, see to it that it got ginned and baled, then loaded into her wagons? Who did he think had carried it to the Sulphur Fork Trading Post, where she supposedly already had a buyer? She clenched both her fists.
She went to the back of the wagon and laid her forehead against it. Pictures flashed across her mind's eye of the lovely Miss Lizbeth and Henry laughing together. “Oh, stop it, Sue Baylor.” She took deep breaths. “Help me, Lord. Help me.”
She remained there until her heartbeat slowed and her face cooled. Who wanted to start a big argument on their first day? And after such a sweet time at the Aikins'. There was a long trip ahead. Why had she said anything at all?
Men. She was certainly glad she lived by herself and took care of her own business without the constant rule of a man.
She went to the larder and fished out the cornmeal and fatback, grabbed her Dutch oven, then made her way to where Henry nursed the fire. A pot already hung from a limb
held over it by a sturdy forked branch on either side. He looked up.
She pointed to her pot. “What's that?”
“Beans. Shouldn't take too long. Already soaked 'em overnight at the Dawsons'.”
“Well, of course you did.” She busied herself making corn bread, then sat the oven on the coals and scooted a couple of bigger ones onto the lid. “Mister Buckmeyer?”
He looked up from stirring the beans.
“I do not intend to be at odds with you the whole way.” She took a deep breath and shook her head slowly. “Eleven miles a day is unacceptable. We'll never catch our neighbors, my friends, stopping midafternoon for two-hour dinners or making camp hours before sundown.”
He shrugged. “With only five mules, we'll do good to make eight or nine mile tomorrow.”
She studied his face. Why did he have to be so stubborn?
“Second day's likely to be their worst, ma'am.”
“I don't understand why you would say that. The mules did fine today. We should've kept going! We could've easily made Cuthand.”
“You ever been to the Cuthand Trading Post at night?”
“No, but what's that got to do with anything?”
He glanced over to where Becky and Blue Dog played chase the stick, then sighed. “I have. Trust me. You don't want to be anywhere near that place after dark.”
She wanted to protest, make him understand that she had to get her cotton to Jefferson, but her aversion to exposing the children to a den of iniquity stopped her short. One more time, he was right. But why couldn't he just have told her that the first time he said he wanted to stop early?
“Fine, but tomorrow we have to pick up the pace. It's absolutely imperative that I get my cotton to market before the buyers leave.”
He nodded, then glanced again at the little girl and his dog. He loved simple, and Widow Baylor was anything but. What a contrast she was, so beautiful, yet so hardheadedâdownright stubborn to a fault. He looked back and stared into her eyes; she met his gaze.
“I'll get us there. It's just as imperative to me that I get my own goods to market, but, Mis'ess Baylor, not at all costs.”
HE NIGHT SONGS
the crickets and locusts and frogs sang soothed Henry's troubled soul. Been a long, hard day. He yawned and pondered what he had gotten himself into. He liked life on the trail: the crackling embers' warmth, the night breeze in the trees, sleeping under the stars, working days like normal people.