8. Pachyderms and Portents

September 1855
The week before Hannibal’s fourth birthday
By Calico

 

 

I should prepare dinner. I really should. Instead, I sketch Hannibal’s birthday elephant. Every year he gets a new elephant for the headboard of his bed. I sketch it; Alex traces the design then sears it in with hot skewers. This year Alex will have an extra chore, as the headboard needs to be detached and lowered from the loft where Hannibal now sleeps. I did not plan it this way. Honestly, I did not. I asked Alex to decorate the headboard when we moved Hannibal from the crib – and – when the second birthday came around, I could not resist!

 

This will be the fourth addition to the herd. I take extra pains because, thanks to the hoppers, we will not be able to afford a present. What Hannibal has wanted ever since his father returned from the Fort, is a troop of toy soldiers. Buying any is out of the question. Alex made a start. But, he can spare so little time from planting and harvesting that it is hardly a ‘troop’. We are going to describe the half dozen sturdy little chaps as – ‘skirmishers’. Hannibal will like that. Producing a respectable two dozen recruits will have to wait until Christmas. There will be plenty of long dark evenings for Alex to whittle, while I read aloud. Or, if I am feeling virtuous – attack the endless pile of male socks waiting to be darned.

 

The above is not – quite – true. I WAS sketching Hannibal’s birthday elephant half an hour ago. It is done. Now, I work on a second present. Hannibal is beginning to read. Not JUST remember what has been read to him, so he can give the impression of reading. It is becoming a mixture of both. I am writing a short story – in clear block capitals – with pictures. It tells how Hannibal of Carthage, at the age of four, received his first ever elephant. The elephant is also young, but grows up to be the mighty and magnificent chief war-elephant – Sarus. It is not based on history. It is not at all a – likely – story. Hannibal, I mean, MY Hannibal – will love it! The dimpled young general-to-be I have drawn looks just like him.

 

‘Hannibal awoke. Today was a very special day. His birthday. He was four years old. He got out of bed and ran to draw back the curtain.

From his window he saw the busy harbour. Boats bobbed on the water.

 

“If only I could have a boat for my birthday,” thought Hannibal.

From his window he saw his father’s troops drilling. The morning sun glinted off their swords.

“If only I could have a sword for my birthday,” thought Hannibal.

 

At breakfast, Hannibal’s father, the mighty General Hamilcar, said,

“Hannibal, I have a very special birthday present for you.”

 

“Is it a boat?” asked Hannibal. He would love to bob on the water in his own boat.

 

“No,” said his father, “…It is better than a boat.”

 

“Is it a sword?” asked Hannibal. He would love his own sword, to glint in the morning sun.

 

“No,” said his father, “…It is better than a sword.”

 

Hannibal wondered, what could be better than a boat? What could be better than a sword?

 

“For your birthday,” said Hannibal’s father, “…I am giving you an elephant. An elephant of your very own.”‘

“Mother!” I sweep the sheets of paper I am working on into a drawer. “Mother!” Hannibal clatters into the kitchen. “…We’s back!”

 

“So I hear!” I laugh.

 

“Father’s unhitchin’ the wagon!” Hannibal pants. “There wasn’t no mail! We reckon – Gran’mother’s letter is still onis journey! Cross the peri’lus expan’sis!”

 

I smile to hear him so obviously quoting Alex. It is a shame my mother’s letter has not arrived. I had hoped a ‘Happy Birthday Hannibal’ message would be here in advance. Mail only arrives in Larson Creek once a week – if that. She will not have forgotten. But it will arrive after the great day.

 

“An’ Mister Mueller, he says – y’know Mister Brydon? You knows he’s goin’ West? Like you did. ‘Cept he’s settin’ out from here. Not headin’ for here. He’s goin’ to Awgen…BUT – Mister Mueller says he’s been pulled out an’ fallen through.”

 

“Er…” Not for the first time, Hannibal has lost me with his recounting of Larson’s Creek news.

 

Alex walks in at this point, hangs his hat on the hook. Hannibal turns to him.

 

“I told her Gran’mother’s letter is trav’lin’ the expan’sis!” He carries on in full flow. “An’ – I’se tellin’ mother what Mister Mueller told you! Mister Brydon – who’s goin’ to Awgen has fallen through some’n. An’ you knows the Awgen trail he’d goin’ on? Well – I says to Mister Mueller – he MIGHT get mass’kerd by injuns. ‘Cause – that’s what Zach said. But, Father says he prob’ly won’t! He MIGHT though, huh? He MIGHT! An’ Mrs. Godfrey says it’ll be a blessin’! ‘Cause of the Devil Sprew – an’ how it turns men inter beasts!”

 

“I think I should clarify,” smiles Alex, kissing me and looking, hopefully, at the empty stove, “…it is the sale of the saloon falling through that Mrs. Godfrey regards as a blessing. NOT Brydon being massacred by Indians.”

 

“Has we got any Devil Sprew?” asks Hannibal, with an optimistic look.

 

“So, this buyer he’d found, has definitely pulled out?” I say, putting the kettle on.

 

“According to Mueller, yes,” Alex answers me.

 

“I said that!” protests Hannibal; clearly offended I have failed to listen properly. “I told yer! Has we got any Devil Sprew…?”

 

“Mueller says…” Alex is interrupted by a firm tug on his shirtsleeve. “…says it’s back up for sale…” Another tug. “Yes, Hannibal?”

 

“Has we GOT any?”

 

“Huh? Any what, son?”

 

“Devil Sprew! Has WE got any?” persists Hannibal.

 

“Er – yes. There’s the best part of a bottle of whiskey in the cupboard.” Alex grins. “At least – there was a week ago when Mr. Curry and I finished getting the last of the early corn in and had a drink or two to celebrate. Unless your mother finished it off, it’s still there!”

 

“Can I…?”

 

“Nope!” says Alex.

 

“Aww – why?”

 

“Because – because it’s for grown-ups,” Alex puts his hand, gently, over Hannibal’s mouth. “My next line is – ‘because I say so!’ – which we both know is not a good argument. Nevertheless, you cannot have any.” He releases the mouth and ruffles Hannibal’s hair. “Take my word for it son, you wouldn’t like it.”

 

“Would it WORK, though?” asks Hannibal, eagerly. “If’n I did drink it? Does it work when you drinks it?”

 

“How do you mean – work?”

 

“Does it do what Mrs. Godfrey said? Does you turn inter a beast? Does you?”

 

“Er…” Alex throws me a teasing look. “Ask your mother.”

 

“Pfffttt!” I contribute, as I set butter and cheese on the table and start to slice bread, “I should be so lucky!”

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

“Alex,” I whisper, “are you asleep?” Nothing. I sigh. He only finished planting wheat a few days ago. I should not wake him. As I climb into bed, I bounce the mattress more than is really necessary. “Are you asleep?” I turn up the lamp and peer at him. I pull back the sheet and press the pillow away from his face, bending close. “Are you asleep?” A grunt. The face burrows further into the pillow. Who am I fooling? I give him a good shake. “Alex! Are you asleep?”

 

Another grunt. He does not open his eyes.

 

“Yup. Fast asleep.”

 

“I’m thinking.”

 

“Uh huh?”

 

“This birthday story I’m writing for Hannibal…” I wait for a response. Heavy breathing. “Alex! ALEX!”

 

“Uh?”

 

“Sit up, so I know you’re awake.”

 

“I’m not awake.”

 

I poke him.

 

“Sheesh, Sarah!” He gives another deep sigh and sits up.

 

I swivel round to face Alex, hugging my knees to my chest. I prop my toes against him.

 

“I’m thinking…”

 

“I know,” he says. “Your lips move. Always a give-away.”

 

“I think elephants should speak in rhyme.” Alex stares at me.

 

“‘Though wrinkled brow makes me look stern

I am a playful pachyderm.

That kind of thing…” Alex’s arms fold, as he continues to stare. “I know that’s not a real good rhyme. But, you get the idea? It’ll make it easier for Hannibal to memorise the story – help him read for himself. And…” I come to the point, “I need you to help with couplets.”

 

Alex closes his eyes in half-pretended disbelief.

 

“You woke me up – so I could compose dialogue for verse speaking elephants?” That about sums it up, so I nod. “Oh well,” he gives a reluctant smile, “So long as it wasn’t for anything that could wait till morning.” He turns the pillow vertically, to prop himself up more comfortably. “What’s the plot? Last I heard, Hannibal had just been introduced to the young Sarus and the pair of them were heading for the shore. Presumably…” he grins, “Sarus is going to be a ‘playful pachyderm’ in the sea?”

 

“Yes,” I confirm. “Obviously, there has to be squirting. Maybe –

 

‘Little master, you’ll be sunk,

‘Neath gushing water from my trunk.’

 

What do you think?”

 

“I think – let me sleep. You’re too smart to need MY help.”

 

“Then they see a sinister stranger – who is going to be the villain.” I frown. “I need some way they recognise him later – when he’s in disguise.” A pause. Alex has clearly not spotted his cue. “Any ideas?” I prompt, letting one foot nudge him.

 

“Er…” He scratches his head. “Could it… Er…” An idea strikes him. “I heard a story where someone was recognised by the distinctive way he laced his sandals. Any use?”

 

“Perfect!” I admire. I lean forward and kiss the tip of his nose. “I KNEW I kept you around for something!” I wriggle my toes happily. “Young Sarus can remember noticing the sandals at the harbour.”

 

“There’s something I’ve not told you yet,

We pachyderms – we don’t forget,” contributes Alex.

 

A pause. “Don’t I get a kiss for that?”

 

“Uh huh,” I give him another quick peck.

 

“Are they going to peer over a wall at any point?” asks Alex.

 

“Could do,” I temporise. “Why?”

 

“I’m thinking – the elephant stands on his hind legs, Hannibal stands on his head…

 

‘Though each of us is rather small,

Together we are eight feet tall.’

 

Huh? Now, for that I deserve…”

 

He takes my face in his hands and kisses me. NOT a quick peck.

 

“And, when Hannibal is riding on Sarus’ back,” I suggest, “Sarus can say…

 

Little master, fast I trot,

So you can foil this villain’s plot.'”

 

Alex nods.

 

“Very good. I think YOU deserve…” I get kissed again. I wrap my arms round his neck and snuggle up.

 

“Hear everyone in Carthage say,

Hannibal has saved the day!” I offer.

 

I let my hand slide under his nightshirt, run a finger down his spine. “What do I get for that one?”

 

“That one…” says Alex, “Definitely deserves…”

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

Sunday 16th September 1855

 

As we mingle with neighbours after church, everyone enjoying the September sunshine, Mrs. Mueller approaches us.

 

“Mrs. Heyes, I hope you still plan to attend the Sewing Circle tomorrow?”

 

“Absolutely!” I enthuse. Sewing may not be my favourite activity. But, since I have to do it anyway, I would rather do it in company. Besides, social occasions in Larson Creek are too few for any to be scorned.

 

“Tomorrow’s my birthday!” Hannibal informs Mrs. Mueller. “I’se four!”

 

“Guess we’ll hafta make a special fuss of you then, huh?” smiles Charlotte Mueller. “Louisa an’ Brigit an’ me – we’re bakin’ gingerbread. Shall we make you an ‘aitch’? Or maybe – a four?”

 

“Say ‘thank you’,” I prompt, sotto voce.

 

“Thank you,” Hannibal parrots. Then, “TWO ‘aitches’,” he adds, firmly. “One for Hannibal, one for Heyes AND – a four.”

 

“That’s sounds a touch greedy, son,” says Alex. “Unless of course…” he smiles at the three Mueller girls, “You plan on bringing one of these ‘aitches’ home for me?”

 

“We could make a coupla spares, Mister Heyes,” giggles Brigit.

 

Mrs. Godfrey and Mrs. Wallace walk over to the Muellers.

 

“Mrs. Mueller,” begins Mrs. Wallace, “Is there anything in particular you want bringing tomorrow?”

 

“Mister Mueller,” pipes up Hannibal.

 

“Hush, Darling,” I whisper, “People are talking.”

 

“Mister Mueller!” tries Hannibal, again, in a loud ‘stage whisper’. “Mister Mueller – you knows tonight…?”

 

“Anything you care to bring will be most…” Mrs. Mueller starts, politely.

 

“I’se not sleepin’ in my bed…”

 

“Hannibal Heyes!” snaps Mrs. Mueller, “Has you mother never told you, children should be seen and not heard?”

 

“No,” Hannibal declares, truthfully. “My father’s gotta take my bed apart tonight…”

 

“Hannibal, Darling,” I say, squatting down to face him. “I HAVE told you it’s not nice to interrupt grown-ups, haven’t I?”

 

“They interrupt ME!” he argues.

 

“Let Mrs. Mueller finish, then it’ll be your turn,” I straighten up. “You were saying, Mrs. Mueller.”

 

Her expression shows clearly enough, she considers me too soft.

 

“Anything you care to bring will be …”

 

“Bring pie!” blurts nine-year-old Thomas Mueller, tugging at his stiff Sunday collar.

 

Eight-year-old Kurt Mueller casts a disparaging look at his sisters. “An’ don’t let these three eat it all!”

 

“Boys!” snaps their mother. She turns her attention back to we ladies. “Anything you care to bring will be most welcome.”

 

Hannibal judges Mrs. Mueller has now finished.

 

“My bed’s bein’ taken apart tonight – for the el’phant etchin’. You knows!” Mr. Mueller looks confused at this, as well he might. But, he is a good-natured man and nods kindly at Hannibal. “I’m sleepin’ on a bedroll on the floor!” Hannibal informs him, swelling with importance. He will actually still be on his mattress. But, Hannibal honestly considers this the equivalent of a bedroll.

 

Doctor Wallace and Mr. Godfrey, hands in pockets, deep in masculine conversation, stroll over to join their wives.

 

“Doctor Wallace!” calls Hannibal. Doctor Wallace looks up and smiles. I believe he has a soft spot for my son. “I’se campin’ on a bedroll tonight. Jus’ like a sol’jer! Jus’ like being in camp, crossin’ the Alps!”

 

Doctor Wallace ruffles the dark hair.

 

“Heyes…” Mr. Godfrey gives Alex an exaggerated wink. “You won’t be letting him sleep all night? Don’t soldiers have to stand sentry duty?”

 

The expression Hannibal wears when he has remembered something of vital importance, sweeps across his face.

 

“Mister Godfrey…” he starts, unaffected inquisitiveness lighting the brown eyes, “What kinda beast does you turn inter?” Mr. Godfrey blinks. “Mrs. Godfrey was sayin’…” goes on Hannibal, smiling at the prim and distinctly disapproving Fanny Godfrey, “‘Bout men drinkin’ Devil Sprew an’…”

 

“That’s enough, Hannibal,” Alex says, quickly.

 

“I asked if Father turned inter a beast…” I see Alex’s cheeks flush as, much to my – wholly reprehensible – amusement, Hannibal finishes before, obediently, falling silent. “And mother said – she’s not often THAT lucky!”

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

Monday 17th September 1855

 

“…Ooooh!” breathes young Mary Williams, staring into the teacup in her hand. “I think I see a bell! That must mean a weddin’, Charlotte!”

 

Giggling. The sewing circle in Mrs. Mueller’s parlour is in its final hour. It has been much livelier, though perhaps less productive, since we were joined by the two younger Mueller girls and their classmates, upon the end of the school day.

 

“Do you reckon that’s a bell, Mrs. Curry?” asks fifteen-year-old Laura Wyatt.

 

Elizabeth, with a tolerant smile, looks at the tealeaves in Charlotte Mueller’s cup.

 

“Maybe,” she shrugs. “Or – maybe a horseshoe?”

 

“A horseshoe?” queries Brigit Mueller. “Ain’t that – good luck?”

 

“Brigit…” interrupts Hannibal, who has left his ‘skirmishing party’ to sit on the floor among the cluster of girls drinking tea, “I needs to check laces! See if you laces your boots diag’ly! See if you’se a villain!”

 

All we elder ladies have had our laces thoroughly checked for signs of villainy at least twice. Each of the guests has also been treated to at least one personal reading – or perhaps recital – of ‘Hannibal and Sarus Save the Day’.

 

Brigit, co-operatively sticks out her boots for Hannibal to solemnly inspect. He does this with a great air of importance.

 

“I believe a horseshoe can mean a wedding too,” I say. “As well as good luck.”

 

“Really?” asks Charlotte. Her blue eyes sparkle.

 

“You should not encourage the girls in this foolishness, Mrs. Heyes,” reproves Mrs. Mueller. However, the success of her refreshments, the many compliments paid to her spotless parlour and the pleasure of seeing her best china and her dozen apostle spoons in use, has put Mrs. Mueller in such a good mood, that the tone is indulgent.

 

“Louisa…” orders Hannibal, shuffling along, “Your turn! Stick your feet out!

 

‘This villain has disguised his face,

But not the way he ties his lace!'”

 

“Ain’t you just the cutest thing?” coos Louisa, passing him a cookie.

 

Hannibal scowls. He does not appreciate being described as cute. He prefers something more – impressive. However, he deigns to accept the cookie, even remembering, after catching my eye to say, “Thank you.” My heart swells with pride when I see he is, unprompted, about to break it to share with Beth, Esther and Jed.

 

“Oh! I reckon we can spare three more,” smiles Louisa, passing them down. Something about the look Hannibal exchanges with Esther makes me smile. I suspect Hannibal calculated the odds she would do that pretty accurately.

 

“I reckon Charlotte WANTS the tealeaves to mean a weddin’!” teases Laura.

 

“Laura!” warns Mrs. Wyatt, in an undertone. I cast a glance at her tired face. She has reason enough to think marriage is not a subject for jokes.

 

“I reckon we all know who to, as well!” giggles Louisa Mueller, her feet still extended for inspection.

 

Hannibal purses his lips, as well as he can while masticating a mouthful of cookie, in earnest study of her boots. He picks up a spare knitting needle and scratches his head, making an exaggerated curve with his arm. Of course! Sarus scratches his head with handy sticks when being a ‘pondering pachyderm’.

 

“Louisa! Shush!” protests her elder sister.

 

“Reckon you’d better get on sewin’ that quilt for your bottom drawer!” persists Louisa. More giggling. Charlotte flushes.

 

“You’re not a villain!” declares Hannibal. “Laura, your turn!” Another set of feminine footwear is presented.

 

“Read mine, Mary,” urges Louisa, swallowing a final mouthful of tea.

 

“Swirl your cup then! Three times. Concentrate!” orders Mary. She takes the cup. “Ooooh! I see a – a tall dark stranger!”

 

Mrs. Godfrey looks disapproving at the frivolity. This tealeaf reading halted her repeated tuts and head-shakings, over the rumour that Mr. Brydon has received a new offer for the saloon. Or, as she insists on referring to it – the den of vice. But, surely the very lack of originality in these girlish predictions argues their harmless nature?

 

“A tall dark stranger?” Louisa turns pink with delight. Then she catches Elizabeth and me, smiling. “Don’t be silly, Mary,” she says, flushing still more.

 

Hannibal looks up from Laura’s boots.

 

“A dark stranger?” he repeats. “Lemme see!” He stares at the random pattern, common to tealeaves. “Is it – is it a sin’ster stranger? Sarus an’ – an’ the OTHER Han’bul; they saw a sin’ster stranger. All dressed in black! A bit like Abanazer!” He realises he has confused his audience. “‘New lamps for old! New lamps for old!'” he clarifies. Seeing several faces still blank, he sighs. “Aladdin! Ev’ryone knows that!”

 

“I think, Hannibal,” I smile, “This is more likely to be a tall, dark and handsome stranger. Not a sinister one.”

 

“Mary didn’ SAY han’some,” Hannibal argues. “It could be a sin’ster villain! Huh? Huh?”

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

Later that week – In the Mercantile.

 

Elizabeth and I are exchanging civilities with Mrs. Mueller. Mr. Mueller kindly loads our purchases of salt, sugar and preserving jars, ready for a flurry of preparations for winter. Not that there is much to preserve this year after two springs blighted by hoppers. Nevertheless, Alex hopes to bring home ducks and geese for salting during the annual migration flights over the river. We have the children gathering every berry there is and do our best to make the scarcity part of the challenge. And I – yes me! – who hardly ever shines on the domestic front, have come up with a great success in potting clams.(1)

 

Hannibal and Esther trot out at Mr. Mueller’s heels to ‘help’ load the wagon. Beth is charged with watching Jed and she decides he is to be ‘watched’ over by the reels of bright ribbons. Finding his noisy protests ineffective on his eldest sister, Jed adopts the wise philosophy of making the best of things. Sitting at Beth’s feet, as she covetously examines the ribbons, Jed solemnly feeds sawdust and fluff down a knothole in the floor.

 

Hannibal bursts back into the mercantile.

 

“Mother! Mrs. Curry! Come look! There’s a sin’ster stranger! Maybe – I needs to go check his boots. But – he looks sin’ster! Like the tealeaves said – a tall dark stranger!”

 

Elizabeth looks at me and rolls her eyes.

 

“Not another one,” she smiles. “Who do you think it is this time? Doctor Wallace? Reverend Thomas?”

 

“Be fair!” I defend my son, “…It’s hard work spotting tall dark strangers when Larson Creek gets so few visitors. Poor Reverend Thomas,” I shake my head,”…he can’t be much over five foot five and I’d call his hair, mouse, but he’s still been spotted twice so far, today.”

 

“Little master – this I think,

Both clothes AND heart are black as ink!” chirps Hannibal.

 

He sees we are still at the counter. “Come on!” he urges. “Hurry yup! He might go ‘way!

 

“Be patient, Hannibal,” replies Elizabeth. She manoeuvres round. The baby cannot be more than a few weeks away. ‘Hurrying up’ is no longer an option for Elizabeth.

 

We collect Jed and Beth and emerge onto the boardwalk, blinking a little in the brightness of the late summer afternoon.

 

“There! There!” hisses Hannibal, pointing.

 

Well! Internally I beg Hannibal’s pardon. It IS a dark stranger, dressed in black! Maybe – it is hard to say, as the man leaning on a rail watching the blacksmith shoe a fine grey, has his back to us – maybe, a tall, dark, handsome stranger.

 

“Shall I run – check his laces?” offers Hannibal. “See if they’s diag’lel?”

 

“No, Darling,” I restrain him. “It’s not polite on first acquaintance.”

 

“But – he’s a sin’ster stranger, huh?” pleads Hannibal.

 

Mr. Mueller finishes loading, wipes his hands on his apron and glances down the street.

 

“I reckon that must be the fella who bought the saloon,” he tells us. Elizabeth and I look an enquiry. “I heard the whole thing went thought like that!” Mr. Mueller snaps his fingers. “Cash sale!” He is clearly impressed at the thought of all that ready money changing hands. He tells us the man’s name.

 

“You see,” I tell the jigging Hannibal. We watch the man at the far end of the street take a small flask from his pocket and take a drink. It glints silver in the sunshine. “That’s just our new neighbour, Mister Charles McKenna. Not sinister at all!”

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

Notes: When Sarah refers to ‘clams’ – she means fresh-water mussels. They were commonly called clams. And, in Kansas, often still are.

 

 

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