4. Lofty Sentiments

22 May 1855

By Calico

 

 

Hannibal trotted behind his mother as she unpegged dry laundry from the line. She handed him a pillowcase to fold and put in the basket, while she folded the first of the big sheets.

 

“I’se helpin’?” he checked, “I’se bein’ a big help? While far’fer’s ‘way?”

 

“You certainly are, Hannibal,” smiled his mother. “More than a big help! Enormous! Here’s a few more for Madam Margaret.”

 

She handed him some pegs to put into the peg bag. He liked doing that. His mother had stitched a mouth in red wool around the opening and fastened two buttons above it for eyes. She had stitched eyebrows in black wool. The eyebrows were crooked. When Hannibal’s father teased her, his mother had drawn herself up and told him, “Alex, have you ‘no art to read the mind’s construction in the face?’ Crooked! I’ll have you know Margaret’s left eyebrow has a supercilious lift!”

 

“Margaret?” his father had asked.

 

“I planned to call her Peggy,” explained his mother, “…But, she has so evidently summed US up with utter disdain – the diminutive seems presumptuous! It will have to be – Margaret.”

 

Hannibal folded his nightshirts while his mother unpegged her petticoats.

 

“I’se – ‘normous help!” he said, savouring the new word. “…Bein’ man of douse!”

 

“My rock and my stay,” confirmed his mother.

 

Hannibal smiled. A small part of him had worried helping with the laundry was a little…well, a little sissy. The kind of thing Zach might call sissy, anyhow.

 

“I’se man of douse – till far’fer’s back!” he repeated. “Like – like HE said!” The smile faded from his face. “Mother?”

 

“Yes, Hannibal?”

 

“When’s he comin’ back?”

 

His mother squatted down to face him.

 

“Real soon, Darling,” she smiled. “Real soon!”

 

“T’morrow?”

 

“I’m not sure,” his mother said. “Maybe. Maybe he’ll be gone a while longer yet.”

 

“It’s – it’s norful long time!” He missed his father.

 

“Yes,” sighed his mother, “…it does seem so.” She kissed Hannibal’s cheek and gave him another smile. “Won’t he be pleased when he hears what an enormous help you’ve been – as the man of the house?”

 

Hannibal nodded, rather doubtfully. He supposed that was true. But, he would still rather his father just came home. Something else occurred to him.

 

“You knows you said that – that when I’se four – you’se movin’ my bed inder loft…” he began.

 

“Oh, Hannibal – not this again,” sighed his mother.

 

“If I’se bein’ real good – bein’ the man,” argued Hannibal, “…I should – I should be ‘llowed up now!”

 

“I worry about you falling,” said his mother. “I’ve told you, Hannibal. We’ll move you up when you’re four. Probably.”

 

“But…I’se big nuff NOW!” pointed out Hannibal. It was so obvious to him; he did not see why his mother did not realise. His father always said his mother was real smart. So – why did she fail to grasp this simple point? “I’se big as Es’der! An’ – an’ she’s ‘llowed sleep in their loft! You KNOWS she is!”

 

“Esther has a big sister and two big brothers, to keep an eye on her,” said his mother. “They make sure she doesn’t run around close to the hatch.” She looked at him, trying to be stern, “Hannibal! We’ve had this discussion twice today! I AM not having it again. Be a good boy – don’t keep pestering.”

 

“NOT pest’rin!” exclaimed an offended Hannibal. He was NOT pestering. He was simply – explaining. Nicely. “I don’ NEED keepin’ eyes! I would’n run roun’ d’atch!”

 

His mother pushed back her hair and picked up the basket of dry laundry. Hannibal picked up Madam Margaret. He thought his mother looked tired.

 

“We’ll see what your father says,” she sighed.

 

Hannibal, while pleased he had achieved a waver from ‘no’, was not entirely satisfied with this response. His mother might tell his father to say ‘no’. Once his father gave a definite ‘no’, that would pretty much be that. Besides… he returned to his first concern.

 

“But …but he’s not ‘ere! When’s he comin’ back?”

 

“Real soon,” said his mother, setting off back to the house. Before he could ask anything else, she went on. “Do you think your father has been right inside the fort? Do you think he’s seen the big cannons?”

 

Hannibal thought about that. He and his mother had had several most satisfactory conversations about the hundreds and hundreds of soldiers at the Fort. About their rifles. Hannibal did rifle drill with a broom handle. About their bugles. Hannibal practised the calls with a rolled up newspaper. About their drums. Hannibal treated his mother to performances on an upside down bucket with a wooden spoon.

 

“Mother…” he began, brow creasing in thought, “…what’s we’s got that we’s can make a cannon outta?” An idea struck him. “We’s could use…” He stopped. He could hear something. Hannibal had ears like a lynx. He knew – because his father said! He turned. A figure – still very far away – was running toward them. It waved. It was…Hannibal held up his arm to shield his eyes from the late afternoon sun. It was…Yes! It WAS!

 

“Look! Look!” he shouted, tugging his mother’s skirt.

 

“Don’t do that, Hannibal,” she frowned, as a pillowcase fell from the basket.

 

“LOOK!” Now it was a holler. “‘S’HIM!” His mother turned. She too squinted against the sun. Then, she gave a little yelp of joy, dropped the basket of laundry, hitched up her skirt and sprinted away. Hannibal ran as hard as he could behind her. When he caught up, she was wrapped in his father’s arms. They were kissing. “Far’fer!” called Hannibal. “Far’fer!” He tried to wriggle in between. “Far’fer!”

 

His father let his mother go and swept Hannibal off his feet, swinging him round and then hugging him close.

 

“I’se been ‘normous help!” said Hannibal, proudly. “I’se been man of douse!”

 

“Good boy!” admired his father. He settled Hannibal on one hip, so he had an arm free to hug Hannibal’s mother again.

 

Hannibal tightened his hold round his father’s neck. He smiled back at the face dimpling at him.

 

“Now you’s back, you can be man of douse, again,” he offered, generously. “If you likes.”

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

“…Bed now,” said his mother.

 

“Jus’ …jus’ ‘novver narf hour!” pleaded Hannibal. He was in his nightshirt already and snuggled in his father’s lap. He had been hearing all about the soldiers at the Fort. No – even better! His father had made up stories about the soldiers and the drums and the cannon. His father said the reality was rather mundane. He was sure Hannibal would prefer a fictional version.

 

“No,” said his father, “…You’ve had your extra half hour – and a bit extra.” He kissed the top of Hannibal’s head. “You heard your mother. Bed now.” He smiled over at Hannibal’s mother. “Unless, my First One, Light of my Life – you were talking to me?”

 

 

“I’m talking to both of you!” grinned back his mother, rubbing his father’s leg with her stockinged foot, “…You Alex, tuck Hannibal up while I wash the supper things. Then – bed for you too! No arguing!”

 

“Yes, ma-am,” smiled his father. “You see, Hannibal – I’m not allowed to talk back. So, nor are you. Off you go, son.” He set Hannibal down.

 

“If – if I was ‘llowed sleep inder loft,” said Hannibal, re-raising a subject on which his father had been exhaustively briefed during supper, “…I WOULD’N argue! I’d never argue ‘gain! I’d wanna go to bed!”

 

“We’ve told you, your mother would worry – we’d both worry – about you having an accident…”

 

“I would’n! I’d be careful! Look!” Hannibal scampered over to a chair and, with exaggerated caution, climbed first onto it, then onto the table. He raised himself on tiptoe. “See! Not fallin’!” He climbed down with the same conspicuous steadiness.

 

“I don’t doubt your ability to climb the ladder if I fix it permanently in place, son,” said his father. “It’s whether you’ll forget and take a tumble through the hatch when you’re running around, or in the dark, that’s the problem. Anyhow…” he stood up, “…we are not discussing it any more tonight. Your mother and I will think.”

 

“But…” began Hannibal.

 

“No!” said his father, firmly. “Be told!” He pulled aside the curtain screening off the corner where Hannibal’s bed stood. Hannibal sighed. It was so – so babyish sleeping downstairs! At the Curry place only Jed still slept downstairs. But Jed was not even two yet! Jed WAS still, practically, a baby. Hannibal was nearly, nearly four. Still. His father had said he would think. That was not the same as ‘no’. He climbed in between the sheets. His father tucked him in and pulled up the quilt. From beyond the curtain he could hear the door opening and then – a gushing sound. His mother was out in the yard, pumping water to wash up.

 

“Now,” asked his father, ” – what story are you having tonight?” Whether his mother or father put him to bed, Hannibal got a story.

 

“…Er…” Hannibal considered this important question.

 

“Do you want another one about soldiers?” offered his father. “Or …one about Hannibal’s elephants?” His father did not mean HIS elephants. He meant General Hannibal’s elephants. The ones that went over the Alps. Three of General Hannibal’s elephants were etched on his headboard. His mother drew them and then his father etched them. Hannibal – that is him, Hannibal Heyes – knew more about the adventures those elephants encountered crossing the mountains than nearly anyone else in the whole world. His father told him even the history books did not recount fully the minute details the Heyes family knew!

 

“…Er …Both!” he decided. “Sol’jers – an’ el’phants!”

 

“Not a problem,” smiled his father, “…since they were mighty war elephants and lived their life on the march with troops of soldiers.” A pause. “Settle down and close your eyes, son.” Hannibal sighed, but did as he was told. His father insisted on eyes closed before bedtime stories began. It was annoying, because it meant Hannibal nearly always fell asleep before the story was quite finished!

 

“One day General Hannibal’s favourite elephant…” began his father.

 

Hannibal opened his eyes.

 

“Sawus! That’s Sawus!” he informed his storyteller, just in case this had slipped his mind. “That one!” he clarified, twisting round and pointing, authoritatively, at the central elephant on the headboard.

 

His father smiled, but “Eyes closed, Hannibal,” he repeated.

 

Hannibal squeezed them shut. Then, he wriggled over to bury his nose in the pillow. It was so soft, stuffed with goose down from geese his father had shot and his mother plucked. And the pillowslip was fresh from the line so it smelt all – all of sunshine.

 

“Go wan,” he gave permission.

 

“Sarus was indeed the most noble, the most splendid and the most favoured of the General’s elephants,” confirmed his father. “One day Sarus was breakfasting on three dozen large loaves and assorted leaves, when he noticed a group of men he had never seen before marching into the camp. They did not march well. Not near as well as proud Sarus marched. They did not hold up their heads well. Not near as well as haughty Sarus held aloft his handsome head. Their swords did not gleam brightly in the morning sun. Not like Sarus’ magnificent ivory tusks. He polished them every morning – never sparing the oil – and they shimmered and shone like mirrored marble.

 

‘Hmm!’ thought Sarus, chewing on a Cyprus branch, ‘New recruits! Sergeant Mago will soon lick them into shape!’ He felt something – squishy – in his mouth. ‘Dang tree frogs!’ he thought.”

 

Hannibal giggled.

 

“He swall’erd fwog!” He did not, however, open his eyes or raise his head from the pillow. He was just too – too comfy.

 

“Sarus did NOT swallow the frog,” it was his mother’s voice. She must have joined his father by the bed. “Under his gruff, grey old hide – Sarus had a kind heart. He stuck out his tongue, as far as he could. He squinted down. A tiny green frog sat on the end. Its bulging eyes blinked back up at him. Delicately, with the tips of his mighty trunk, Sarus picked up the frog and placed him, very gently, onto a leaf.

 

‘I’th thimply thmothered in elephant’th thpit!’ spluttered the frog. Because, you see…”

 

Hannibal felt a hand softly stroke his hair. He was not sure if it was his mother’s or his father’s. He wriggled further into the softness and gave a little happy sigh. It was so good to know they were both there.

 

“…all tree frogs talk with a lisp. It’s common knowledge. As I said, Sarus had a kind heart…” his mother’s voice was growing quieter, “…so, after checking no one was watching, Sarus lifted up his mighty trunk and blew, oh so gently, on the tree frog, to dry him off.”

 

Hannibal felt someone blow softly on his cheek. That must be his father, because his mother’s voice did not stop.

 

“Like that!” she whispered and Hannibal could hear she was smiling. “Then, Sarus turned his attention back to the new recruits. ‘Hmmmm’ thought the regiment’s most respected elephant, ‘I wonder if Sergeant Mago needs a little help drilling them?’…”

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

Hannibal woke. It was not quite dark. Was it morning? Almost dawn? The cockerel crowed out in the yard. Yes, morning. Hannibal slipped out of bed rubbing his eyes and peeped through the curtain. No one was there. The front door stood a little open. He could hear a murmur of voices. He padded over. Maybe…he yawned and rubbed his eyes again…maybe they were ‘thinking’ about whether he would be allowed to sleep in the loft like a big boy.

 

Hannibal did not go out. He stopped and listened.

 

“How soon do you have to leave?” asked his mother. Her voice became muffled, “I miss you!”

 

There was a pause.

 

Then, “Soon as Nathanial and I plant the early corn and the sorghum, we’ll go back,” answered his father’s voice.

 

Another pause. Hannibal padded closer to the door. He could see his parents. They had their backs to him. They were not properly ‘up and dressed’. His father had only pulled on his pants. The suspenders hung loose down his legs. His mother was still in her nightdress with a woollen shawl round her shoulders. She leaned back on his father’s chest, his arms wrapped tightly round her from behind. They were watching the sun come up and talking.

 

“You’re worried aren’t you, Alex?” His mother’s voice was very low.

 

“No! No! I’m sure we’ll find work this time. Sure!” Hannibal did not think his father sounded very sure. “We’ll get the debt cleared – then, we’ll be home for good.” Another pause. Much more quietly, his father said, “I don’t like being in debt, Sarah, but unless we pack up and leave – I need seed.”

 

“You talked about leaving, Alex.”

 

“I’m ALL talk! You know that, huh?” A pause. Very softly, “Do you want to move on?”

 

Hannibal blinked. Leave? No! He did not want to leave! Esther and Nate and – and all of them – were all here!

 

He saw his mother’s arm twist up and back so she could stroke the back of his father’s neck.

 

“…’I’ll follow thee, my lord, throughout the world’. But – no. I don’t want to move.”

 

His father kissed the top of his mother’s head.

 

“I don’t want to leave, either. However hard last winter was, however hard the one coming – this is home. Besides…” Another kiss was dropped. “…Nathanial and Elizabeth can’t leave and…” Hannibal saw his father snuggle his mother closer. “…they and the children feel like family. Better than family, because unlike the folks I left back East, they realise how utterly wonderful YOU are! ”

 

“Flatterer!” laughed his mother. “Don’t stop! You’ve two missing weeks of sweet talk to make up for!”

 

Hannibal scampered out of the door.

 

“We’s not goin’ nowhere?” he checked.

 

His father looked down, surprised. He smiled.

 

“No! We’re staying right here in Larson Creek, Hannibal. A few pesky hoppers won’t drive us out, huh? BUT – we are going over to the Curry place for breakfast, because Mr. Curry and I will be planting all day. So hurry up and get dressed.” He squeezed Hannibal’s mother. “If either you or Elizabeth can join us – while the other minds the children – it’d be a big help?”

 

“Sure!” smiled his mother. “You’ll probably get me first. Elizabeth’s feeling sick of a morning.”

 

“Oh – is she…?”

 

Hannibal’s mother nodded and gave a sigh. She sounded not sad exactly, more…Hannibal was not sure. Maybe his father understood, because he kissed her hair again and made a soothing sound. His mother turned her cheek so she could rub it against his shoulder. “Didn’t Nathanial tell you?”

 

“You know he never does! He relies on you ladies to tell me anything that important!”

 

“Wha’s ‘portant?” Hannibal tugged at his father’s pants. “Wha’s ‘portant?” Then, “Has you done finkin’? Has you? Is dat wha’s ‘portant?”

 

“Thinking about what, son?”

 

Hannibal looked outraged.

 

“‘Bout me bein’ ‘llowed sleep inder LOFT!” Sheesh! What else was that important? “You SAID! You said you’d FINK!”

 

“I haven’t finished yet, Hannibal…”

 

“You know he’s slow!” teased his mother. “He can’t think too fast! It hurts!”

 

“I was going to think last night – but your mother distracted me. Then, I was going to think this morning and…” His father shook his head. “…what do you know? She distracted me again! Women, huh? OW!” He grinned. “Did you see that? Swift elbow to my ribs! How can I think if I’m constantly manhandled?”

 

“Shouldn’t that be – womanhandled?” corrected his mother, smiling.

 

Hannibal tugged at him again to stop this – this silliness.

 

“Fink NOW!”

 

“Nope. Time to get dressed now. I can’t do both. Only women manage two things at once!” His father led his mother back into the house.

 

Hannibal followed.

 

“Will you’se fink today?” Tug. Tug. “Will you’se?”

 

“Only about planting.” His father looked down. “I’ll have a look and a think when we get home tonight, Hannibal IF…and I mean ONLY if you don’t pester me about it!”

 

Hannibal’s father disappeared into the bedroom to get dressed. His mother poured water into a bowl, soaped a flannel and began to wash Hannibal’s face and hands.

 

“Hannibal,” she said, softly, “…try not to pester your father, Darling. He’s got a lot on his mind. There’s my good boy!” She kissed him, then wiped the soap off the end of her nose.

 

“Course not!” protested Hannibal. He NEVER pestered. He just asked. Nicely.

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

“…Then – the revelley sounds…” Hannibal held a clenched fist to his mouth and began to toot. “Der der der de..er der…”

 

“Wha’s – revelley?” asked Esther, setting her scarlet troops into a classic ‘thin red line’.

 

“It’s – the mornin’ call!” explained Hannibal, consequentially. “It means – geddup!”

 

Nate and Zach were out, helping their father and Hannibal’s father with the planting. At breakfast Nate had said, if they were very, very, very, very careful, Esther and Hannibal could play with his soldiers. With a little prompting from his mother, Zach had offered his soldiers too. He had not told them to be careful. Zach had simply told the youngsters he knew every scratch on his troop. If he found a new scratch – he would tan their hides.

 

Over at the big kitchen table both mothers sat sharing a pot of tea. Hannibal’s mother had returned from the fields about an hour ago to help with supper preparation. Now, the men were expected any minute. A second pot of tea sat waiting under a cosy. Beth had finished setting the table and was nursing her doll watching the battle. Jed happily sucked on a battered dragoon.

 

“…Oooh,” said Hannibal’s mother, as she took her first sip of scalding tea, “‘The cup that cheers but does not inebriate’…I needed that!” She rubbed the small of her back. “I feel like an old woman!”

 

“That’s a shame,” smiled Mrs. Curry, “…because we only have trout in the house! Again!”

 

Hannibal’s mother grinned at her.

 

“There’s one good thing about this constant round of ‘loaves and fishes’. As well as being decidedly biblical – even I can’t do much to spoil it!” She caught Mrs. Curry lifting an eyebrow. “Be fair, Elizabeth! My loaves are perfectly edible! Alex even says he’s come to prefer the – dense – texture.” She took another long draught of tea. “Nathanial says they’ll have the early corn planted on both farms by Monday. Tuesday at the latest. Then they’ll start on the sorghum. It should give a harvest late in the summer and time enough to plant an Autumn crop.”

 

“Good,” said Mrs. Curry. She sighed and stirred her tea. “Except …the quicker the planting gets done, the sooner they’ll leave.”

 

Hannibal’s mother reached over and gave her hand a squeeze.

 

“And… the sooner they leave, the sooner they’ll return!” She tried to smile. Mrs. Curry tried to smile back.

 

There was a sound of shouting boys’ voices and then a clattering outside the door. Nate and Zach rushed into the kitchen.

 

“We finished the whole south field, Mrs. Heyes!” exclaimed Nate. “You know we thought we might hafta finish it off tomorrow? We won’t! ‘S’all done!”

 

“No need to shout!” said his mother. “Go wash your hands!” Then, as the boys turned, “…Nate, Zach…” They looked round. “Well done! I know you’ve worked real hard all day.” She rose from the table and set fat to heat in the big pan ready to fry the waiting gutted and scaled fish.

 

Mr. Curry walked in followed by Hannibal’s father. Esther scrambled to her feet and launched herself at his legs.

 

“Pa! Pa!” she called, wrapping her arms round him.

 

“It’s the elves again!” said Mr. Curry. “The elves have caught me!” This sent Esther into delighted giggles.

 

Jed trotted over to join in.

 

“Ay shelve!” he declared, grabbing the edge of Mr. Curry’s pants.

 

“Look! Look!” shouted Hannibal, to his father. “I’se winnin’!”

 

“Ain’t!” argued Esther, not so occupied with elfin leg hugging she could let this pass.

 

“Mr. Heyes!” Beth slipped her hand into that of Hannibal’s father. “Shall I pour you a mug of tea?”

 

“You’re in favour, Alex!” joshed Mr. Curry. “What about me, Beth?”

 

“You too, Pa,” said Beth. She gave a pretend frown, like her mother sometimes did. “Go wash your hands first!” she mimicked.

 

“Yes, ma-am,” smiled Hannibal’s father. He poured the water Nate and Zach had used into the dirty bucket and filled the bowl with fresh.

 

“Sure, Beth!” said Mr. Curry. “It’s a good thing you take pity on your old Da! I see Mrs. Heyes taking her ease – and never thinking to pour a dry man a cup of tay!”

 

“Look! Look! I’se got ‘em in – in a pincer movement! Look!”

 

“Pfffttt!” retorted Hannibal’s mother, wrapping her hands firmly round her own mug. “Think yourself lucky we even made a second pot! Elizabeth and I have been agreeing how peaceful it’s been over the past couple of weeks!” Her eyes went to Hannibal’s father. They crinkled up the way they did when she teased him. “No socks dropped just anywhere on the floor. No rolling anyone over to stop the snoring. Lots of room to stretch out in bed.”

 

Hannibal’s father dried his hands and, after admiring Hannibal’s troops and ruffling the dark hair, settled at the table.

 

“I can’t retaliate,” he replied. “Because, much as I love him, as a night time companion Nathanial is definitely lacking.” Hannibal’s mother would not let Beth lift the full heavy pot. She poured Hannibal’s father a mug of tea. Beth added the milk and got a big ‘thank you’ smile. “Mind you,” mused Hannibal’s father, taking a first sip, “…there were a few advantages. No icy feet plonked on me without warning. No waking me up to ask if I’m asleep. And…when I share a blanket with Nathanial, my half isn’t filched after five minutes.”

 

“Es’der don’ stand a chance! I’se cweepin’ up bofe sides! Look!”

 

“Pfffttt!” dismissed Esther, scornfully.

 

“Sheesh!” exclaimed Mr. Curry, from his place at the head of the table, “…It’s a brave man you are Alex! You wouldn’t find me daring to even suggest I should get half shares of the blankets with me darlin’ Lizzie.”

 

His wife smiled back at him as she turned the sizzling trout. But all she said was, “Children, come to the table. We do NOT need the soldiers, Esther. Nate, settle Jed into his chair – thank you. Hannibal – come along!”

 

Hannibal’s mother grinned at his father.

 

“Brave! I’d call it – foolhardy! We both know, I’ve only to snap my fingers to have you humbly kiss every arctic toe on my tiny frozen feet!” She got up to give Mrs. Curry a hand dishing out supper.

 

“True enough!” accepted Hannibal’s father, passing around thick slices of bread and butter. “I know my place.”

 

“Zach! Wait!” said Mrs. Curry. Zach sighed and put down his bread. He stared, hungrily, at the steaming fish on his plate.

 

Mrs. Curry took her place at the foot of the table. Hannibal’s mother sat back down between Hannibal and Jed. She ruffled Jed’s blond curls and put his spoon ready in his podgy fist.

 

“Mister Curry…” started Hannibal.

 

“Hush for a moment, Hannibal,” said Mrs. Curry. “Nathanial, will you say grace, please?”

 

“For what we…” began Mr. Curry.

 

“You knows the sol’jers…” Hannibal tried again.

 

“Shush, Hannibal,” said his mother. “Let Mister Curry finish.”

 

Hannibal silently mouthed the words of the grace at Mr. Curry to encourage him to speed the pace.

 

“Our Men!” he finished, decisively, as Mr. Curry reached ‘thankful’. “Mister Curry, you knows the sol’jers?” He pointed over at the battle formation. “Did you make ‘em?”

 

“Pa made some of ‘em,” said Zach, through a mouthful of buttery fish. “Your Pa made the rest! ‘Fore you came along.”

 

Hannibal beamed at this information. Even better!

 

“Thank you, Zach,” sighed Hannibal’s father. “I think you’ve solved my problem of what to do with any free evenings between now and September 17th.”

 

Hannibal nodded happily. Then, a worry occurred, based on various adult conversations of the day.

 

“If you’s here,” he checked. His face fell. Not just because of the coveted soldiers. “You’se not goin’ yet?”

 

“No. Not until the planting is finished,” said his father.

 

“An’ – an’ will you’se be gone norful long time again?”

 

Mr. Curry answered him.

 

“Not at all, Hannibal! Not at all! Sure – we just need to earn us a little money and it’s straight back home for us! We’ll be like sparrows to their nest! You’ll hardly find time to miss us! You’ll see!”

 

Hannibal looked over at his mother. Her smile faded and she stared hard at her plate. Hannibal thought his mother would always find time to miss his father. Always.

 

“Suppose you can’t find work?” she asked, quietly.

 

“I’m sure things will be better this time,” said Hannibal’s father. “There won’t be such a rush of men all arriving together. It’ll be more – staggered.”

 

“Sure,” picked up Mr. Curry, “And won’t the wheelwright speak to us being excellent workers?”

 

“That’s true!” agreed Hannibal’s father.

 

“The luck will be with us next time,” declared Mr. Curry. “Don’t I just know it!”

 

“Is that the luck of the Irish, Pa?” asked Nate.

 

“The very same, son,” confirmed his father. “Sure, and it never fails!”

 

“I get it by proxy!” said Hannibal’s father.

 

Both Hannibal’s father and Mr. Curry smiled, brightly, at their wives. Hannibal wondered if they were trying to convince his mother and Mrs. Curry there was nothing to worry about. If they were – he did not think they were succeeding.

 

Mrs. Curry refreshed her mug of tea and squared her shoulders. “Well – if the worse comes to the worse, I suppose we’ll just have to pay extra interest on the loan.”

 

Hannibal’s father and Mr. Curry exchanged a glance. Hannibal thought they looked rather like Nate and Zach did, when they hoped their mother would not ask too many questions. Mrs. Curry looked up from the table and met another bright smile from her husband.

 

“We’ll have to give up some of the harvest to do that…” went on Mrs. Curry. “…But – at least we’ll have had a harvest! That’s the main thing!”

 

“You’re absolutely right, Lizzie, me Darlin’!” nodded her husband, eagerly. “We’ll have a harvest! That’s the main thing! It’s a wise woman you are!”

 

Mrs. Curry opened her mouth.

 

“Guess what we saw up at the Fort?” said Hannibal’s father, very quickly.

 

“Sol’jers! Cannon!” supplied Hannibal.

 

“As well as soldiers,” smiled his father. “There’s a fine new saw-mill! The very latest machinery. Stacks and stacks of milled lumber! Nathanial was thinking, when we get this winter over, he should start on a bigger house!”

 

“He was, was he?” Mrs. Curry raised an eyebrow at her husband.

 

“Alex and I were talking it over,” said Mr. Curry, looking a little sheepish. “If we can afford it by then. When Jed moves up with the boys – it’s goin’ to be an awful squeeze in that loft! We’re going to need…”

 

“Jed’s goin’ be ‘llowed inder loft!” A howl at the injustice of life emanated from Hannibal. “T’isn’ FAIR!!”

 

“Not yet!” said Mr. Curry, throwing an apologetic look at Hannibal’s father, who rolled his eyes and shook his head reproachfully. “Not until the autumn. Probably AFTER you’re four, Hannibal!”

 

“BUT he’ll still be a BABY! Only TWO! T’ain’t FAIR! FAR’FER!!”

 

“Stop shouting, Hannibal!” said his father, firmly. “I do NOT respond to raised voices at the supper table!”

 

“BUT…”

 

“Don’t make me tell you twice, son!”

 

Hannibal felt his lip wobble. He knew he had to do as he was told when he heard that voice. He gulped. He would not cry. That would only make his father think he was still a baby. In what could best be described as a loud whisper – to show willing – he said. “Jed’s younger’n me… he’s a baby!”

 

“Naow!” protested Jed. He was NOT a baby! Mrs. Heyes shut him up with a mouthful of mashed fish.

 

“I sleeps inder loft!” smugged Esther. “Has done for – for ages!”

 

“That’ll do, Esther Curry!” said her mother.

 

“I’ll hafta watch Jed,” said Nate, kindly, to Hannibal. “Watch he never falls. Ma says – if’n anyone has a fall – it’s MY fault. Even if I’m not there! ‘Cause – I’m the oldest and I SHOULDA been there!”

 

“I hafta watch Esther, too!” put in Beth. “An’, I hafta make sure Nate watches us all! ‘Cause – if’n there’s a fall an’ he isn’t there – Ma says that’s MY fault, as oldest girl, for not remindin’ him!”

 

Hannibal frowned. This network of responsibility was confusing. AND, it diverted conversation from the crux of his argument.

 

“I WOULDN’ …” he caught his father’s eye and lowered his voice back to ‘stage whisper’, “I means – I wouldn’ fall!”

 

“I don’t fall!” Esther pointed out. “I climbs real well – look!” She slipped down, under her chair and over to the ladder.

 

“BACK in your seat at once!” commanded Mrs. Curry.

 

Esther paused, one hand on the rungs. The agony of choice played over her face. Was the pleasure of showing off to Hannibal worth it? She took another look at her mother’s expression. Esther made the right decision. She slunk back to her chair and hung her head.

 

“I’se bigger’n you!” she shot at Hannibal. “Big ‘nuff to climb up to bed!”

 

“Esther Curry!” said her mother. “Stop stirring it! One more word out of you…!”

 

“She isn’t – much – bigger!” protested Hannibal. “You said! You said – a nairsbweff!”

 

“Hairsbreadth,” corrected his father. “That’s not the point, Hannibal.”

 

“You said!” Two beseeching brown eyes met their duplicates across the table. “You said – you’d fink! Tonight!”

 

“IF and ONLY if – I wasn’t pestered!” reminded his father.

 

Hannibal opened his mouth. He considered the proviso.

 

“Not pest’rin’!” he murmured, sotto voce, into his mug of milk. He emerged with a snowy moustache. “Jus’ – jus’ sayin’!”

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

Hannibal was being tucked into bed by his mother.

 

“Where’s Far’fer?” he asked.

 

“Out in the barn.”

 

“Is he – finkin’?”

 

“He might be. You are NOT to keep pestering. No!” His mother held up a finger. “Not one more word about lofts, nor beds, nor ladders! Not one!” The admonitory finger was lowered gently to his forehead. It pushed back a lock of his dark hair.

 

“Maybe – maybe he’s makin’ sol’jers?”

 

“Hannibal,” said his mother, softly. “I’m sure your Father will make soldiers for your birthday – if he can. But…he’s going to be very, very busy. It’ll be a very small army.”

 

“No! No – I needs…”

 

“Shush,” said his mother. She kissed him. “I know you are FAR too good a boy to complain. You can train them hard. Then, if they get reinforcements at Christmas – you’ll be able to promote all the ‘Birthday Soldiers’ to be officers and drill sergeants. How strict they’ll be with the new recruits!” Hannibal thought about that. That did have possibilities. “Besides…” smiled his mother, “…a good General relies on strategy, not on force of numbers. Close your eyes and I’ll tell how General Hannibal fooled his enemies into thinking he mustered three times the numbers of soldiers he really had…” She paused. “Eyes closed, Hannibal.”

 

He sighed, but turned over and snuggled down.

 

“General Hannibal sat by the camp fire and worried if there was to be a battle the next day. If there was – he feared, very much, he might lose. Scipio’s troops were encamped a mile away. Torches flared in the night, as the men moved from tent to tent, or as sentries patrolled. The torches were many. Flickering like fireflies. Darting and dancing in the dark! From the number of torches, General Hannibal knew Scipio had many, many more men. What was worse – he suspected Scipio knew it too! If Scipio knew how badly General Hannibal was outnumbered, he would attack tomorrow.

 

‘Oh Sarus,’ sighed General Hannibal, to his most trusted and trusty old friend, his chief of war elephants. ‘If only I could fool Scipio into thinking I had a thousand men, not just three hundred! If I could do that – he would retreat! We would live to fight another day!’

 

Sarus thought hard. With his mighty trunk, he picked up a fallen branch from the ground and scratched the thick, hairy hide on his wise, wrinkly head. Then, because Sarus was the most perspicacious…”

 

“…Huh?”

 

“Wise and clever!” translated his mother. “…The most perspicacious of pachyderms…”

 

Hannibal grinned into his pillow. He knew that one! That one came in the stories a lot!

 

“…he had a good idea. Sarus lit the branch – like a torch – and waved it in the air. General Hannibal watched. What was his forest friend trying to say? Sarus wiggled his enormous ears and pointed at the cattle wandering the hillside. Hannibal looked at the many roaming cattle. He looked at their long, long horns. He looked at the waving torch in Sarus’ mighty trunk. A clever smile wreathed the face of wily Hannibal the Great…

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

Hannibal’s eyes flickered open. He was not exactly awake. Not quite awake enough to lift his head off the pillow. He heard the front door close – soft voices. His father had come in from the barn.

 

“What’s that, Alex?”

 

“Have a guess?”

 

“Er… a cage? Maybe…some kind of trap?”

 

“Almost. I’ve been thinking…about the loft hatch…”

 

Hannibal’s eyes widened. He strained his ears. His father HAD remembered the promise to think! Hannibal slipped, silently, out of bed.

 

“I know he manages fine at the Curry place,” said his mother. She sounded very doubtful. “But, Nate’s there. He sleeps closest to the hatch – and, he’s such a good boy.”

 

Hannibal peeped through the curtain. His mother had her back to him. She was standing very close to his father. She laid a hand on the checked shirtfront and looked up.

 

“He could fall – in the dark.”

 

Hannibal watched his father’s face. If his mother still said ‘no’ – his father would back her up.

 

“That’s one of the things I was thinking about,” said his father, gently. “We’re coming up to the longest day. If we move him now – he’ll have a good three months of going to bed when it’s light and getting up when it’s light. It might be the best time.” He stroked his mother’s hair.

 

She shrugged and nuzzled her forehead onto the shirt.

 

“I suppose there is – some – truth there. But, if he wakes up – wanders about?”

 

“That’s what the cage is for! I can pen in the hatch. Three sides fenced off. The side furthest away from his bed – we put a gate on. He wouldn’t be able to wander over it when he’s half-asleep. Nor when he’s just running around. Sure…” His father kissed the top of his mother’s head. “…he could fall if he deliberately climbs where he’s forbidden to climb. But – that’s true now, huh? You can’t watch him all the time. And – you can’t stop small boys picking up a few bumps and bruises.” Another kiss. “What do you think? He’s not going to shut up…and…” His father grinned. “…I don’t really blame him. When I was that age I wouldn’t want young Esther lording it over me!”

 

His mother shrugged and nuzzled again. A sigh. A tiny nod. Hannibal rejoiced!

 

“Besides…” His father’s head came up. Hannibal dropped the curtain, as if it were on fire. Not before he saw a shrewd look in his father’s eyes. “…Hannibal KNOWS he’s not allowed to get out of bed until morning! He’s such a GOOD boy. He’d NEVER wander around!” Hannibal heard his father’s footsteps approach. He jumped onto the bed and scrambled under the sheets, fast as he could. The curtain twitched aside. Had he been in time? “Look at him! Sleeping like a baby!” Hannibal squeezed his eyes tight shut until spots danced behind his eyelids. “Oh – I do apologise!” Hannibal’s father sounded as if he were – laughing. “Sleeping like a – a big boy, old enough for the loft!”

 

A smile wreathed the face of wily Hannibal the Great. But, he was far too – perspicacious – to open his eyes.

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

JUST OVER A WEEK LATER

 

Hannibal woke and stretched in the dim, dawn light let in by small windows at either end of the loft. Outside, the cockerel crowed. Morning! Hannibal sat up and revelled, for a moment, in being a proper big boy – with a bed in the loft. Just like Nate and Zach! NOT like Esther! Better than Esther! Because, he did not need anyone to watch him! It was three nights now since his father dismantled his bed, carried it, a piece at a time into the loft and reassembled it. Hannibal had not played on the new rails around the hatch. To be honest, he was not even tempted. He was fully occupied arranging and rearranging his few treasures exactly where he wanted them in his new – spacious and mighty – domain. Besides, Hannibal climbed out of bed and had a good scratch before padding over to the ladder, he was far too – too perspicacious – to risk being moved back down.

 

Hannibal opened his own, personal, gate. It had a ‘HH’ in the pattern made by the staves. He did not have to tuck up his nightshirt. On the first night, to demonstrate how VERY careful he intended to be not to trip, he had knotted it safely out of the way round his waist. After watching that, his mother shortened it to his knees. Hannibal climbed down the ladder. His bare foot, instead of coming to rest on the boarded floor, hit something – soft. The something soft grunted and moved. Hannibal yelped in surprise and kicked out. The something soft gave a loud ‘OW!’ and sat up, rubbing its ribcage.

 

“What you’se doin’?!” exclaimed Hannibal, stepping over the figure curled around the bottom of the ladder with a pillow and couple of blankets for company.

 

His father cast a rather sheepish look over at the bedroom. The noise had brought Hannibal’s mother to the door, calling, “Hannibal – are you alright?”

 

She saw Hannibal standing by his father, who was now rubbing sleep out of his eyes and getting to his feet, picking up his pillow. She looked rather – guilty.

 

A suspicion crossed Hannibal’s mind. “Has you been dere – ev’ry night?”

 

His father hesitated, then nodded.

 

“I’m supposed to move the pillow and be at the table before you come down, son,” he admitted. “We just wanted to be real sure you were fine. Only for a few nights. I overslept…” he threw another sheepish look at Hannibal’s mother. “Sorry!”

 

Hannibal drew himself up and frowned from one to the other.

 

“That was silly!” he pronounced. He raised one finger the way his mother sometimes did. “I coulda trod on yer!” An edge of worry appeared in his voice. “I coulda hurt ya!” He shook his head disapprovingly. He clicked his tongue, the way his father sometimes did. With that, he strutted over to the water jug, stood on tiptoe to pour it into the bowl and began his morning wash.

 

“I reckon that told us both, Sarah!” smiled his father, behind him.

 

Hannibal’s mother smiled too and went over to hug his father.

 

“I guess so,” she smiled. “Will you have a bruise?”

 

“Nah! Just a footprint.” A pause, more quietly, “It’ll be a memento, while I’m away, Light of my Life.”

 

Hannibal’s father fastened his arms round his wife and watched his ‘big’ son work up a lather over at the bowl. The laughter died out of the deep brown eyes. They became grave. He buried his lips in his wife’s hair, squeezing her tighter.

 

“Besides,” he murmured, so softly neither one could hear, “I don’t mind a few bruises – so long as I keep you two safe.”

 

 

 

 

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