LATE MARCH 1859
Hannibal Heyes scowled. “Shaddup!” he hissed, under his breath.
“Shaddup!” A tousled dark head buried itself under a pillow.
In a doomed effort to block out the screeching, his hands pressed the pillow, firmly, over his ears.
Pause. More pause. Tentative relaxing of the pressing hands.
“For Pete’s sake!”
A very grumpy seven-and-a-half year old threw back the quilt and swung his legs out of bed.
A small pair of bare feet negotiated the ladder.
“Hush, shush, shush, shush, shush.”
“Hush, shush, shush, shush, shush.”
The completely ineffectual shushing – which had not been audible from the loft – was courtesy of Hannibal’s father. A night-shirted Alex Heyes paced back and forth, back and forth and occasionally, to vary the pain, round and round. In his arms, a bundle of screeching fury expressed its utter dissatisfaction with … Well, whatever was upsetting it, that bundle sure sounded ticked off!
“Hush, shush, shush, shush, shush.” More desperately, “Please shush.”
As Alex looked up to see Hannibal coming down, two pairs of chocolate brown eyes, the elder wearing decorative dark circles, met.
“Pa, can’t you stop that noise? It’s keepin’ me awake!”
“Hush, shush, shush, shush, shush. Stop the noise, so we can get some sleep? Hmmm – wish I’d thought of that, son.”
Hey! There was no need for sarcasm!
“If it’s gonna be like this, I wish I’d stayed at the Curry place!”
Alex did not miss the watchfulness in his elder son’s eyes. Hannibal had been sent to stay over at the neighbour’s while the new arrival…
“Bwahhhhhhhh!” (Yup. That new arrival, the one providing the screeching.)
….Had made his appearance. Now, Hannibal liked staying over at Jed’s place fine, but Alex was not quite exhausted enough to fall into the trap of giving Hannibal grounds for feeling he was not wanted now the baby had finally come.
“You can’t go visit again yet, son. We only just got you back!”
“I’m going to need your help around here.”
“Yeah, but LISTEN to it!”
“Some of us hafta go to school, y’know.”
Alex considered pointing out that others of us have to go put in a long day in the fields, but contented himself with remarking that tomorrow was Saturday.
“‘S’not the point. It’s – It’s the,” deep breath, “…Prince Apple of the thing!”
“How am I s’posed to pay ‘tention and study – like you say I gotta – when I hafta listen to that all night? Huh?”
“What the Sam Hill is wrong with it?”
“Samuel’s a him, not an it, Hannibal.”
“Bwahhhhhhhh!” agreed the bundle.
“BWAAAAHHHHHHH!” Possibly a protest at the cessation of jigging.
“Hush, shush, shush, shush, shush,” soothed Alex, jigging gently.
“BWAAAAHHHHHHH!” Ah. Possibly NOT a protest at the cessation of jigging. Who knows?
“What’s the matter with it…?” Grudging rephrasing. “I mean, with him?”
“All babies cry, Hannibal. Your little brother’s …”
“HALF-brother!” interrupted Hannibal.
Again, twin dark eyes met. Hannibal stared back for a moment, bottom lip projecting stubbornly. Then, at his father’s straight look, he dropped his gaze. A wriggle and a mumble which might have been a ‘sorry’ for the raised tone.
“Your half-brother,” repeated Alex, mildly enough, “…Is only doing what all babies do.”
A rueful smile dimpled a set of cheeks that had not found time to shave for a day or two. “I reckon it’s the half related to you making all the noise, son. So far as the sound goes, he’s the dead spit.”
“I NEVER sounded like that!”
“You were louder. I used to think you must have lungs made of leather.”
“BWAAAAHHHHHHH!” Hey, that could not be a competitive rise in volume, could it? Nah.
“I used to spend so long walking up and down with you; I reckon I wore a groove in the floor.” Alex tucked one arm more firmly round Samuel to free a hand to reach and ruffle the dark thatch over the cross little face. “Still I reckon you were worth a few sleepless nights, huh?”
Hannibal, pleased despite himself, shied his head away. No need to get mushy, huh?
“Since you’re up, Hannibal, put the kettle on.”
“I’ll look silly in it! Geddit? Geddit?” A grin split Hannibal’s face as he trotted over to the stove. He’d come up with that over at the Curry place and had been itching for a chance to use it again. Unfortunately, his father seemed, for some reason, to be slower than usual. He accorded the line a smile, but it segued into a huge yawn.
“Thanks, son. Hush, shush, shush, shush. C’mon, Samuel… Try to stop, huh? For Dada?” The bundle was raised. A kiss was dropped on a scarlet brow contorted with rage.
Hannibal winced at this new display of sappiness. To his credit, Samuel appeared to agree.
Alex hutched a calico clad shoulder to wipe milky flecks of projectile spittle from his cheek.
Hannibal looked up from spooning tea into the pot. “Why are you the one…? I mean, shouldn’t SHE…?” Hannibal gave an indicative nod towards his father’s room where, presumably, his stepmother was failing to grasp what constituted a proper division between manly toil and women’s work.
“With that racket going on?! Yeah, right! What is she? A bear in hib’natin’ season or some’n?”
A part – an exhausted new parent part – of Alex shared Hannibal’s scepticism. Had his wife’s closed lids been entirely genuine? Even if they had been, was she really, really still asleep? Maybe he should go fetch… After all, women WERE so much better at this kind of… Alex put temptation behind him.
“Louisa’s been up twice already. She needs rest. She’s pretty tired.”
“I need rest! I’m pretty tired. I’M up!”
“You didn’t just give birth, Hannibal.”
“She didn’t JUST give birth. It was ages ago. Well,” no one could say Hannibal was not fair, “…It was nearly two days ago.”
“It’s pretty hard work, son.”
“Oh for Pete’s sake, shaddup, will ya?” This was directed at Samuel who was reaching new and painful levels of vibrato. Since an exhausted Alex, even though full of fresh paternal pride, pretty much concurred with the sentiment, he could not find it in him to reprove Hannibal. “When Sinbad drops her calves, she don’t lay up afterwards sayin’ she’s tired…”
“And compared to that,” a finger pointed at the squalling Samuel, “calves are…” Hannibal’s arms stretched wide, indicating a size comparison to make one’s eyes water.
“Hannibal, let me give you a piece of advice, man to man. A piece of advice you need to remember when you grow up.”
“Unless a man has just passed something the size of his own head, with arms and legs attached, he never – and I mean NEVER – opens his mouth with an opinion about how hard giving birth is or isn’t. Never. Okay?”
“No buts. Never. Trust me.”
A reluctant wriggle from Hannibal. Apparently, whatever his remaining reservations, that particular subject was closed.
Hannibal peered at the spout of the kettle. No steam yet. Possibly reflecting that a watched pot never boils, he let his eyes rest, with a touch of the resentment natural to any displaced sibling, on the crumpled, crimson face of his tiny half-brother.
“D’you reckon he’s hungry?”
“Nope. Louisa fed him….” Alex squinted at the clock. “…Not two hours back.”
“Is it – y’know – the diaper end?”
Alex moved his hand to feel. “Not wet.” He lowered his nose and sniffed hard.
“BERRRRRRR.R.R..R.R.R.WAAAARRRR.R.R.R.HHHHHHH!” protested Samuel, flailing a tiny fist.
“I don’t think he needs changing.”
“Pity,” grinned Hannibal. “‘Cos…”
“DON’T say, if he needs changing, can we please change him for a puppy. It wasn’t funny the first time.”
A pause. Except of course for: “Bwahhhhhhhh!”
“Hush, shush, shush, shush, shush.”
“Y’know what I reckon? I reckon you’re holdin’ him all wrong!”
“I do know how to hold a baby, Hannibal. I did fine with you.”
“No, you didn’t! You just said, I never stopped squawkin’! It’s ‘cos you were doin’ it all wrong! Betcha!” Hannibal moved into instruction mode; always one of his favourites! “You hafta hold ‘em good an’ firm, so they feel secure. And you hafta support their heads…”
“I AM supporting his head!”
“Not the way Mrs. Curry showed Esther to do it.”
“Okay. You think you can do better, let’s swap. You do the shushing, I’ll make the tea!”
“Hey!” protested Hannibal, as the squalling parcel was passed. Holding babies was mushy! It was for – for GIRLS!
“BWAaaa… Hic. Gurgle. Coo.” Snuggle. Settle.
“Hey!” completely different tone. Triumphant grin. “Told ya so! You just hafta hold him right.”
Gentle rocking from Hannibal. A gurgle followed by a coo from Samuel. Then one of those watermelon newborn smiles that can melt a maternal, paternal – and occasionally even the odd fraternal – heart, even if they are attributable more to wind than to familial love.
Alex blinked. Wow. No, make that, WOW!
“You see, I got my arm right under his…”
“Sit down,” urged Alex, hardly daring to breath in case he jinxed it. “…See if you can rock him to sleep.”
Hannibal made himself comfy in his father’s special chair. Alex, hovering, adjusted a cushion to support his elder son. Samuel’s fist curled and uncurled on the edge of his shawl. Tiny eyelids flickered. “I’m only doing this to show ya,” said the miracle worker. “Don’t think I’m gonna get all mushy over…”
“Hannibal, so far as I’m concerned, from now on you have a job for life AND, when it comes to holding technique, what you say goes. There’s no arguing with natural talent.”
Smugness dimpled youthful cheeks. Despite himself, Hannibal smiled down at Samuel. When he was neither squawking nor pooping, just maybe his tiny half-brother was not half bad. After all, HE was only two days old and already recognised natural talent!