8. The Promise

The Promise

by Joann Baker

Late Evening, 19 December 1857

“Han’bul?” The small boy called sleepily. He wasn’t sure what had awoken him, but he could hear talking downstairs. “Han’bul?” he called again, this time he stretched out his arm and patted his bed several times. He expected to find the sleeping form of his friend who’d been tucked in next to him for the past few nights. Finding nothing but the mattress and blankets, the four and a half year old sat up in bed and began crying out in alarm. “Ma! Pa! Han’bul’s gone!”

“Jed, shush,” came a warning from below, followed by movement on the stairs and the face of his older brother, Nate, appearing around the bedroom door. “You’ll wake the girls,” he said sharply.

“But Han’bul’s gone,” Jed said again, this time it came out more like a whimper.

Ten year old Nate sighed and sat down on the bed next to his younger brother. “Hannibal is fine, he went to see his ma.”

“In the middle of the night?” Jed asked wide eyed, now almost completely awake.

“Yeah, she was askin’ for him,” the older boy answered, his eyes not meeting his brother’s.

“Oh, did she have a bad dream?”

Nate smiled in spite of himself and reached over to tousle the little boy’s blond curls. “Yeah, I suppose she did.”

“Where’s ma and pa?” Jed asked, looking around fearfully as he became aware that no one else seemed to be up or heeding his calls.

“They’re still over at the Heyes’ too,” Nate answered twitching aside the curtain to glance into the dark.

Jed frowned for a moment. “When are they comin’ back home? Ma’s been there forever.”

“Ma’s only been there for a couple of days, and Pa’s just goin’ over once in a while. I’m in charge so go back to sleep.” The words came out harsher than he meant, and little Jed’s eyes began to tear up. “Everything will be fine, just go back to sleep,” Nate added more gently. “If you wake the baby up ma’ll tan your hide for sure.”

Jed blinked and looked across the landing to the room where his sisters Beth, Esther and baby Ruth slept. Ruth, though just past two, was still referred to as ‘the baby’ by the other children. She had only recently been moved from their parents’ bedroom downstairs to join the older girls, as another baby brother or sister would soon be joining the Curry clan and taking his or her spot in the crib next to their parents’ bed.

Jed bit his lower lip and nodded. “I won’t wake her up,” he said solemnly.

Nate relaxed a little and smiled. “I know,” he said with a nod.

“Where’s Zach?” Jed asked looking at the two empty beds. With his eyes now adjusted to the darkness, he could see that Hannibal was not the only one missing.

“He’s downstairs,” Nate answered.

“I wanna go down too,” Jed pleaded.

“No, you’re too little, only us big-” then seeing the desperate look on the small boy’s face, Nate stopped short. With a resigned shrug of his shoulders, he held out his hand to his younger brother. “I guess everything is a little different tonight, okay come on, might as well be all of us guys downstairs.”

As he followed Jed downstairs, the older boy paused to listen for any signs that his sisters were awake. There were none. Relieved, he continued down. With six children, it didn’t take much to wake one. Their parents had little tolerance for antics in the night, and the Curry children had learned early not to make a fuss.

When the two boys entered the kitchen they were met with an exasperated look from Zach. “Watcha bring him down for?” The nine year old asked. “Now we hafta watch him.”

“He’ll be good, won’t you, Jed?” The ten year old asked.

Jed’s head bobbed up and down in an exaggerated nod.

“He woke up and got scared,” Nate explained.

“Wasn’t scared!” the little boy said loudly and was met by hushes from both of his brothers.

“Well I wasn’t,” he added, adamantly.

“‘Course not, you’re a tough guy, aren’t ya Jed?” Zach said with a conspiratorial look at their older brother.

“Yep,” Jed answered quickly.

Nate frowned and shook his head.

“When are ma and pa comin’ back?” Jed asked again after the older boys sat down at the family table.

“I don’t know,” Nate said slowly.

“After Hannibal says goodbye to his ma I ‘spose,” Zach answered absently.

“Whada you mean? Where’s she goin’?” Jed asked, confused.

“Nowhere,” Nate told him, with a sharp glare at Zach. “We don’t know that,” he added harshly.

“Pa wouldn’t have taken Hannibal over otherwise,” Zach said with a shrug. “Besides, I heard ma and pa talkin’ about it.”

“Bout what?” Jed asked again.

“Nothing,” Nate answered quickly. She’s always gotten better before, she will this time too, you’ll see.”

Zach gave his older brother a sceptical look. “You think everything always turns out right, well it don’t.”

“Talk like that don’t help none,” Nate replied, looking back at Jed, who was watching his older brothers curiously.

Zach merely shrugged. “Don’t seem to be nuthin’ that will help. Ma’s been cookin’ dinner over there and nursing Mrs. Heyes, but she’s still dyin’.

Jed gave both older boys a wide eyed look, as Nate stood and glared down at Zach. “I said that’s enough,” he warned.

“Whada you mean?” Jed asked nervously.

“Nothing,” Nate repeated again, turning back to the four year old.

“Wanna play some dominoes?” Nate asked suddenly.

Jed’s face lit up. His older brothers rarely let him play with them. “Sure,” he said quickly, the other conversation all but forgotten.

Nate set the oil lamp on the table for light and turned over the hand made wooden box, spilling the dominoes onto the table. The boys counted and divided the small carved blocks and began taking turns matching the dots.

The three boys were still seated at the table when their parents came through the front door later that night. Both adults looked tired and sullen. The older boys looked up quickly with questions in their eyes. Nathanial Curry frowned and shook his head slightly. Elizabeth avoided the boys eyes at first and her sons thought she looked as though she were about to cry.

“What’s wrong ma?” Nate asked cautiously. Looking up, Elizabeth’s eyes widened at the sight of little Jed at the table.

“Nate Curry, I thought I told you to keep your brothers and sisters in bed. If this is what you call-”

“Lizzie, let the boy be, can’t you see they’re alright?” Nathanial said in a soothing voice.

Elizabeth sighed, “I’m sorry Nate, you did fine, now get on up to bed, all of you.”

Nate and Zach remained seated, with their unspoken question still hanging in the air.

“Go on now, we’ll talk in the morning,” their mother said again. Her voice was strained and her face pale.

“Did she die or didn’t she?” Zach asked finally, drawing a stern look from his father and a gasp from his mother. Jed’s eyes widened suddenly as he looked from his brother to his parents.

“Zachariah, that’ll be enough from you!” his father said sharply.

Little Jed glanced furtively from his brothers to his parents. He looked as if he was about to cry as his mother leaned down to scoop him up and settle him on her hip. Although her belly was already protruding with her next child, she could still lift her younger children to comfort them when they needed it.

“Boys, Mrs. Heyes passed on tonight,” she said slowly. Both Nate and Zach lowered their heads.

“Come now, boys,” their father told them, as he ushered them toward the stairs. “Sure an’ you’d best be getting back up to your beds. Your chores will still be waitin’ in the morning.”

Jed continued to cling to his mother, while his father led his brothers back to their beds.

“Wadda you mean, ma? Where’d Han’bul’s ma go?” he asked fearfully.

“She went to heaven,” Elizabeth answered her son simply.

“But only old people go to heaven. And babies,” he added after a moment.

“Sometimes other people go too, and Hannibal’s ma went tonight.”

“But who’ll look after Han’bul?”

“His pa will, and we’ll help too. You can help by being his friend.”

Jed considered that for a moment, then asked, “ma, what’s heaven like?”

Elizabeth sat down in the rocking chair and settled Jed in her lap. The heat from the last embers of fire in the stove still warmed the room, as she settled back and rested for a moment, as Jed laid his head against her shoulder.

“Well, the Bible says that the streets are made of gold and the rivers of crystals and jewels,” she answered slowly.

Jed’s head shot up and he looked at his mother in amazement.

“You mean like treasure?” he asked. “Like in her stories? Like the sultan’s treasure, or…a pirate’s chest?”

“Well, not exactly,” Elizabeth began to explain.

“I bet Han’bul wants to go too. He always likes the stories with the treasure,” Jed said, becoming interested. “Are there pirates and knights and dragons in heaven? I like dragons.”

“Um, well…”

“I like the one about the fire breathing dragon that guards the treasure, and the knight has to rescue the princess from the dragon and get the treasure.”

“Oh,” Elizabeth said slowly, then smiled and sighed. Sarah Heyes certainly could spin a yarn. How she came up with those stories of hers was a mystery to most of the women in Larson Creek. One thing was for sure, the children could listen to her all evening without growing tired of her strange tales. The smile faded from Elizabeth’s face. They would certainly all miss Sarah. She held her youngest son tightly as the tears she had held back all evening began to make an appearance.

“Ma?” Jed asked suddenly, pulling back and looking into his mothers face. “Are you gonna go to heaven too?”

“No honey, I’m going to stay right here and take care of you and your brothers and sisters.”

“Forever?” the little boy asked, hopefully.

Elizabeth smiled through her tears. “Until you are old and married and have lots of children of your own,” she assured him.

“Promise?” he asked again.

“I promise, Jed, I’ll be right here to take care of you until you’re all grown up.” Elizabeth placed a gentle kiss on her son’s forehead.

The small boy relaxed into his mother’s arms. “Good,” he mumbled, as his eyes drooped.

“I promise I’ll be right here,” she told the sleeping boy again, brushing his blond curls from his face and kissing him again softly.

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