8. Picking up a Signal.

By Calico

EARLY MAY – 1859
(Hannibal is seven and a half)

ALEX

“Dah dit…” tiny pause, “Dah di dit…?” Hannibal looks at me, expectantly.

“Er…” I hesitate. “Mai…?” Hannibal’s head is already shaking, “Massa…?”

“No!” Seven-year old disapproval washes over me. “Listen! Dah dah; di dah; di dah dit…” on it goes.

I do my best, concentrate hard this time. “Maryland,” I smile.

“Good!” Hannibal gives me a look of, modified, approval. “Your turn!”

I find delivering a message easier than receiving. The articles we have both poured over, recently, suggest this is always the case for beginners.

“Di dit; di dah di dit…”

“Illinois!” Hannibal interrupts me, confidently, after only two letters. Sheesh! Clearly, I am going to be trounced! “My turn,” he smugs. “Dah dit; dit…”

Since the New Year, Hannibal has taken an interest in anything either of us can find on the progress of the Telegraph Road. It started off with a fairly innocent remark from me, on how much easier the journey to the Fort would be once the road along the west of the Missouri passed us. Hannibal, who likes anything to do with maps, pricked up his ears and we spent a cheerful evening sketching out the planned route, as it crossed the River at Wyanadotte, passed Larson Creek – admittedly passed us at a distance of a fair few miles – and worked its way north, through to Saint Joseph.

“Of course,” I explained, “the road’s not really being built to make travel easier. That’s what you might call a bonus. It’s to give the engineers and workers access while they construct the telegraph line. The first one here in Kansas Territory. I remember, when they sent the first telegram, over in New Jersey, I must have been – oh, fourteen? My friends and I set ourselves to learn this new code…”

That was it. Hannibal was thoroughly intrigued. He mastered Morse code and passed on his enthusiasm, not only to Jed, but to several other youngsters. [I rather shamefacedly, since I easily guessed the source, listened during a school-board meeting to Caroline explaining her new rule. There was to be no more tapping during class! None! Period. Or even, as I could not help murmuring – Di dah; di dah; di dah!]

I guess, aside from Hannibal’s natural curiosity, it was something, well – masculine – he and I could discuss to give him a break from the swelling baby talk. Five weeks ago, the baby talk stopped swelling. It broke into an all-consuming tidal wave as Samuel arrived.

I did my level best to ration the time I spent marvelling over tiny fingers and tickling even tinier toes. Tried to give my older son some undivided attention. However, parents among you will know, a newborn baby sets the household agenda. Hannibal, used to ‘centre stage’, has to put up with a brief period of ‘supporting role’. When it is just the four of us, it is – usually – fine. Hannibal, so long as he is NOT – repeat NOT – expected to join in any sappiness, quite cheerfully helps Louisa out. A judicious amount of admiring appreciation of his efficiency with practical tasks is all that is needed. However, we have not been ‘just the four of us’ without interruption. Mrs. Mueller is spending a good deal of time at our place. Now, give the woman her due, she is competence personified. Once I watched her swiftly change a writhing, bawling Samuel, without letting any diaper contents escape AND, apparently without even having to look down or use both hands, I resolved to ‘put up and shut up’; at least, for a month or so. Listening to my mother-in-law ‘talk the talk’ may have its downside, but, no one could accuse her of failing to ‘walk the walk’. A huge burden of work and ‘first baby’ anxiety was lifted off Louisa.

But.
Well quite. But.
Suffice it to say, I am looking forward to a night away.

“Di dah dit; dit!” finishes Hannibal.

Oh for Pete’s sake! I heard N, E, W, then let my ‘undivided attention’ wander. Still, I suppose it is better than a repeated refrain of ‘are we nearly there yet?’

“Er… New Jersey?” I hazard.

“No! Tchah! PA!”

“New…”

“You’re NOT havin’ a second try!” I am scathed. “That’s just guessin’! It was New York! You shoulda listened! My go again. Concentrate this time! Dah di dit…”

HANNIBAL

“Wrong!” I triumph. “It was New Hampshire!”

“We’ve HAD New Hampshire,” he protests.

“I know! There weren’t nothin’ in the rules sayin’ you couldn’t have the same state TWICE. Nothin’! You shoulda listened!” I fold my arms and stare at him. There WAS nothing in the rules. It is NOT cheating! If folk do not check the rules – that is their fault, huh?

My father opens his mouth to protest, shuts it again and shrugs. “Has anyone ever told you, son – you’re sneaky?” he grins.

“Yup,” I grin back, “They told me where I get it from, too! That’s ten five to me! My go again! Dah dah dah…”

“Hannibal,” he interrupts, “I think we’ll leave it at best of ten. You win!”

“I won by a MILE!” A beat. “Want another go, say, animals this time?” I offer. Then, kindly, because you are not supposed to gloat too much when you win, “You were getting better, Pa. Honest!”

“Nope. No more. I fold.” He reaches over to ruffle my hair.

“Okay,” I sigh. Then, a qualm strikes me, “Pa…?”

“Uh huh?”

“You didn’t…” I am ALMOST sure he did not. Almost. “Didn’t let me win?”

“Nope – you won fair and square.” He smiles down at me, “Word of honour!”

He did use to let me win sometimes, when I was little. And, last winter, when he taught me chess – I guessed he was doing it again. Just – sometimes. He tried to ‘quiv’cate – but, would not tell me an out and out lie. I made him promise NEVER to do it again. I half regretted it afterwards, because, I lost every time for ages. Still do lose nearly every chess game. BUT, when I do win one! Sheesh! It feels SO good!

Then, I see it!

“Look, Pa!” I stand up, remember I am not allowed to stand up in the wagon, sit down again. I crane my neck to keep sight of it, as we drive down a dip. “That’s it, huh? The telegraph wire?”

“Uh huh,” he says. He looks real pleased too. Though, he has seen them before – back East.

Down the next dip and we turn onto the new road. I tilt my head back to watch the wire overhead.

“So, now we just follow this all the way to the Fort?”

“Uh huh. That is we follow the road. We may lose the wire at times.”

“But…”

“They build the road to set up the wire. But, sometimes the wire might go over a piece of rough ground the road bends round,” he explains. “They’ll sink a pole before and a pole after. Do you see?”

I nod. “‘Cos, the wire, THAT can go ANYWHERE, huh?”

“Well…” he sounds doubtful.

“You SAID!” I remind him. “You said it’d put a girdle round the earth! You said!”

He grins, as I quote him.

“Uh huh,” he admits.

“An’ – an’ – they’ve already put a telegraph cable under the Atlantic! All the way to Hingland!”

“It didn’t work long,” he says. “Still…” smiling, “I reckon it WILL work. It’s just a matter of time.”

I am still staring at the wire. “Pa, can you tell? If’n a message is goin’ through? Can you tell?”

“Nope. Leastways – I don’t think so.”

“But, suppose – suppose you climbed the pole an’…?”

“Hannibal!” He has turned on his stern voice. “You are NEVER to climb a telegraph pole. Do you hear me?”

“I only said, suppose…”

“Never mind only! Did you hear me?”

I sigh. They look real easy to climb.

“Yes, sir,” I mumble.

“Apart from the risk of falling, and me having to scoop up the mess…” he says, “I’m pretty sure tampering with telegraph equipment is some kind of felony…”

This brings my eyes down from the wire. “Y’mean, I could land in jail?” I breathe.

“For Pete’s sake, Hannibal! There’s no need to sound so keen!”

That is not fair. I am not keen. I am just interested. There is nothing wrong with sounding interested.

My father gives me a stern look, to go with the stern voice. “If I hear of you messing on a telegraph pole you won’t get away with jail. You’ll have so many extra chores you won’t have TIME for jail! You’ll be an old man before you’re through! Understand?”

I let out another sigh. “Yes, sir.” A beat. “Just suppose though,” I say, “a nyperthetick fella climbed a nyperthetick pole…”

“Hypothetical,” he corrects. He rolls his eyes. Why? I am only asking! “Go on.”

“Could he – this fella – hear the tappin’? If’n he put his ear real close? Could he?” I take a deep breath, “Hyperthetic like?”

“I don’t reckon you’d HEAR,” he says. “I guess – but it IS only guessing – I guess you might FEEL a vibration running through.” He sees I look confused. “A quivering, like a pulse,” he explains. He holds out his hand and twitches it – as if tapping real fast. “Like that.”

Vibration, huh? I commit the word to memory. Squinting back up at the wire, can I see any – vibrating? No! Then, I remember.

“‘Course – it’s not vibratin’ NOW!” I tell him. “It’ll vibrate tomorrow – when they send the first message through, won’t it?”

He gives me a smile, but he looks worried.

“You do realise tomorrow isn’t going to be…?” He stops, starts again. “The thing is Hannibal, the first message coming through to the Fort IS exciting – but, it might not LOOK very exciting. You won’t see much. There’ll probably be a few civic dignitaries up on a platform…”

“Huh?”

“Important people. Someone from Western Union, definitely. A local politician maybe? Local businessmen? Maybe a senior officer from the Fort itself… They’ll make a few speeches…The first message will be read out…It’ll be pretty short, just a ‘Welcome’…More speeches… The folk up on the platform will do a lot of hand shaking… Us ordinary folk gathered round in the street will do a bit of clapping…” My father looks down at me, “That’ll be about it.” He smiles, “It’ll be nice to say we were there – sure – I just don’t want you all disappointed, son.”

Disappointed! Disappointed! I blink up at him. I am already not disappointed! What the Sam Hill is he talking about?

ALEX

I express my nagging qualms that Hannibal may find the reality of watching a few middle-aged men congratulate each other on having their growing – but still pretty small – town linked to a telegraph service an anti-climax. Sure, I timed the visit to give him – well both of us – the extra treat. But…

Hannibal looks at me as if I am utterly mad.

I grin and ruffle his hair. Of course HE is right and I am wrong. The Fort – we still say ‘The Fort’ out of habit, even though it is now a town – is NOT a small place to Hannibal, who has never been out of Larson Creek. To him it is a magical metropolis! Collecting the last of the lumber for the new house is not a chore. It is an adventure! A chance to see the sawmill I told him all about, as a (doomed) ploy to distract him from ‘sleeping in the loft’ all those years ago. And – it warms my heart to think it – he is delighted just to have me all to himself.

I heard him boasting to Jed and Esther how ‘Pa’ needed ‘help’ on this ‘vital provisioning’ trip. As he explained, seriously, “It’ll be just us two men…”

I had better make the most of it! Presumably, there will come a time soon enough when the thought of forty-eight solid hours with me, elicits not ‘ticking off the days’ excitement, but groans of reluctance!

“Of course,” Hannibal is saying, “it’d be even better if we didn’t hafta stay with Charlotte Mueller! I mean just ‘cos she’s…”

“Hannibal,” I interrupt him, firmly, “it is VERY kind of Charlotte and her husband to ask us to stay. AND, she’s been very helpful buying things Louisa wants for the new house!”

My gratitude for this service is real. I saw the instructions before they were mailed!

‘Red. Sort of cherry red. NOT too dark’ – ‘Something fresh looking in muslin. Look at last summer’s copy of Godey’s Ladies Magazine, page 17, the one on the left. Something a bit like that. But without the leaves.’ – ‘Remember that set Mrs. Godfrey had? Like that – but not so old-fashioned.’

I imagine myself, clutching this feminine list, struggling to do my best, and thank my lucky stars for Charlotte’s sisterly offer.

“Yeah, but…” he wriggles, “You an’ Mr. Curry used to sleep in the wagon, huh? When you stayed over at the Fort? If she hadn’t asked us WE could sleep in the wagon!”

Hannibal clearly considers he is being robbed of a high treat.

“To be honest son, for me, the novelty of sleeping in a wagon wore off years ago. I’ll settle for a feather bed in a guest room any day of the week.” I lift up his hat to give his hair another ruffle. “AND, if you’re so fond of roughing it – why so much checking on how much space this ‘proper room of my own’ will have in the new house, huh?”

HANNIBAL

I suppose it is not TOO bad having to stay with Charlotte Mueller. I mean – Mrs. Tanner. I have only seen her a couple of times since she married and left Larson Creek. That was YEARS and YEARS and YEARS ago. Before I started school even! I remember she giggles a lot and is – you know – sappy! Like a lot of girls, huh? But, not mean nor nothing. Not like her mother! Sheesh! If she was going to be like MRS. Mueller I reckon my father would rather sleep in a sewer, let alone a wagon! Not that he ever SAYS anything about Mrs. Mueller. But I can tell. I am naturally observant!

I go back to watching the wire overhead. Craning round, I cannot even see the spot where we turned onto the road. We must have been going for ages now, huh?

“Pa…?”

“Uh huh?”

“Are we nearly there yet?”

—oooOOOooo—

Later the same day
ALEX

The afternoon is most satisfactory. Hannibal and I check out the new Telegraph office. As I predicted, a small temporary platform is set up for tomorrow’s events. We choose a good viewing spot. (I swallow any remaining qualms over ‘not much to view’. We Heyes will use our imaginations and picture the wire ‘humming’, huh?) My son sees a gratifying number of soldiers, a few officers. With genuine swords! We walk out of town and round the Fort itself, to glimpse the cannon mouths.

Later, enthralled, Hannibal watches the saw mill at work. As my order is loaded in the wagon, the pair of us get chatting to the operator and – under strict supervision – he is allowed ‘a go’! Alright, alright! I admit it! I may be ‘grown up’ but… I am not THAT ‘grown up’! I am allowed ‘a go’ too!

Charlotte proves hospitality personified. She takes innocent pleasure in showing off her fine home. And why not? I like to show off myself, so, it is only fair to let other folk have a turn. I do my duty on the admiring front, although it is pretty clear the vases of flowers, dainty soaps and ribbon tied curtains in the guest room are wasted on Hannibal. The cake is not wasted though – his favourite! A hint from Louisa’s letter, no doubt. Nor the lemonade. Nor, kindest of all and I guess another hint from Louisa, the selection of books put out next to our beds. I suspect they belonged to old Mr. Tanner. I know he was a reader. I remember one or two long conversations with him, in the first few years after Sarah and I moved West. He died a couple of years back, passing the business to his son Jefferson.

I have met my brother-in-law once or twice since marrying Louisa. A few times before, too. I guess he made deliveries to the Muellers’ mercantile more often than strictly necessary, when courting Charlotte. But, I do not recall ever getting beyond the ‘usual civilities’.

He too, though, is welcoming. Friendly. Chatty. Offering congratulations on Samuel. Asking indulgent questions of Hannibal. When he suggests a ‘quick drink’ while Charlotte finishes supper, I guess I am – surprised. I look over at Hannibal. He is contentedly curled up with an impressively illustrated copy of Lambs’ Tales. Quite at home. Charlotte’s attentions are apparently accepted as rightfully due to an ‘honoured guest’. Her ‘fussing’ does not rub him up the wrong way, as Louisa’s efforts sometimes do. In fact, if Hannibal was a cat he would purr!

“You wouldn’t miss me for half an hour or so, son?” I venture.

“Huh?” The dark eyes do not even come up from the colour plate he is devouring. “Pa!” The tone is accusatory. “You know the ghost of Hamlet’s father? YOU never told me he wore armour! I always kinda pictured – y’know – an ORD’RY ghost. Say’s here he’s gotta a sword an’ a helmet an’ – an’ ev’rythin’! Tchah!”

I interpret this literary criticism of my feeble retelling of the bard as; no Hannibal will not miss me.

Tempted, I cast a questioning glance at Charlotte. She looks at her husband, not me.

“Supper will only be about an hour, Jefferson,” she says, tentatively. “You won’t be late?”

“A QUICK drink,” he smiles. “Would we be late? When we both know you’ve somethin’ special planned for supper? Never!”

Her answering smile looks – is it nervous? But then, Louisa gets herself into a housewifely, hostess flurry sometimes. Maybe Tanner thinks the thing best is to get out from under her feet? Alright, alright! That last bit is me justifying the fact that ‘a quick drink’ somewhere fancier than Larson Creek has to offer, does sound tempting.

“Not longer than an hour, then? Please, Jefferson! I want things to be real ni…”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake…!” he starts to snap. He recalls he has ‘company’, stops. He smiles, “I already said – a QUICK drink.” He drops a kiss on her cheek.

As we stride down the street, Tanner says, “I’m glad, Heyes, you’re not SO stuffed with…” he throws me a joshing look, mimicks a female voice, “‘Steady, solid, dependable’ virtues, that you can’t enjoy the taste of somethin’ stronger than tea.”

“‘Steady’ virtues?” I query. “What ‘steady’ virtues?”

“Dunno. I just know, last time I was in Larson Creek, our beloved mother-in-law was singin’ your praises. Tellin’ me what a fine, industrious, hard-workin’ fella you were. AND, a model husband! Of course,” he grins, “her REAL point was how I failed to measure up! How I should take a leaf out of your book!”

“Sheesh!” I exclaim, incredulous. “Are you sure you weren’t dreaming? For the last month, the burden of Mrs. Mueller’s song has been my shortfalls. And, believe me, she’s STILL only halfway down her list!” I shake my head. “Only yesterday I was hearing how I ought to take a leaf out of YOUR book!” I raise a ‘mother-in-law’ admonitory finger. “‘Alex! Alex! Look at the way Jefferson is expanding his business! That’s the way to prosper!'”

We exchange a glance, laugh. I guess, strictly speaking, we should not make fun of our wives’ mother. Aside from being a dreadful cliché, it is not gentlemanly. But… Well!

—oooOOOooo—

“Hello brown-eyes! Haven’t seen you before.”

“If I’d known the service came with a smile that pretty, I’d have broken into a run just to be here sooner,” I dimple.

The shapely redhead, who brought over our drinks, giggles. “Are you gonna ask me to join you?” she says. A spare glass is on the tray.

“Ask you?” I tease. “Ask you? My companions and I will NOT just ask! No! We’ll beg, entreat and implore you to grace us with your company. You’ll be a rose amongst the thorns, huh?”

More giggles. She sits down next to me, lets me pour her a whiskey. I am peeped at, from under lowered – and darkened – lashes. “It ain’t Rose, though,” she informs me. A flutter. “It’s Lily!”

“Your deal, Heyes,” prompts Anders, one of my brother-in-law’s ‘business acquaintances’.

I shuffle the cards. Hold out the pack. “Are you going to blow on them, Lily,” I smile, “to bring me good luck?” Giggling. She scoots her chair still closer, as she leans over, touches my hand and blows.

—oooOOOooo—

“You won, Alex!”

“Uh huh!” I grin, scooping up the – not very exciting – pot. I tuck a couple of notes into Lily’s hand. “Lily, delicate flower in our midst, would you be so good as to fetch another round for these gentlemen? And one for yourself? Keep the change.” She nods, begins to leave. I touch her arm to stop her. “Hurry back,” I smile, “I need you to blow on my next hand, so the luck doesn’t turn, huh?” Giggling. A pert look is thrown over a powdered shoulder, as she bounces away.

“Sheesh, Heyes!” protests Tanner, “Go easy with the sweet talk, huh?” watching Lily’s rear end – “Else next time I fancy @**@in’ that particular tail, the tart’ll expect to hear somethin’ better’n ‘How much?'”

I blink. That lowered the tone! It also told me more than I want to know about my brother-in-law’s attitude to his marriage vows!

Perhaps fortunately, we are interrupted.

“Room for a couple more, Tanner?” asks an older, dandified looking, man.

“Sure,” my brother-in-law pushes back a spare chair with his boot. “I’ve been wantin’ revenge on you, Lewis, so I hope you plan on losin’ this time!”

“Let’s see what the cards have in store?” smiles Lewis.

His companion, dour-faced, simply shuffles the pack with the efficiency of long practice.

“Okay if we up the ante to $10? $20 limit?” he grunts.

“Fine with me,” agrees Tanner. The corners of his mouth tighten, as he watches the cards clicking together.

Again, I blink.

“Too rich for me,” I say, “I’m out.” I enjoy poker, sure, but I like it friendly. And, I may have a perfect right to lose a few spare dollars of my own money; the ethics become rather different if I risk cash ear-marked for Louisa’s summer bonnet, or Hannibal’s new boots.

Another player seems to agree, picks up his money, make his excuses – leaves.

—oooOOOooo—

HANNIBAL

“Aunt Charlotte…?” Aunt Charlotte – she is not REALLY my aunt, she just asked me to call her that – looks round from the window. “If’n I was REAL careful can I borrow this book? Take it home? I could send it back with one of Mister Tanner’s delivery wagons when I’ve read it?”

“Huh?” She looks blank. Then, a quick smile, “Sure, Hannibal! I’m real glad you’re enjoyin’ it!”

She turns, twitches back the curtain, carries on staring out into the street. She is chewing her thumbnail, frowning. I look over at their grandfather clock.

“They’re not late, ma-am,” I say. Nothing. Girls, huh?

I shrug, go back to reading about Valentine being made King of the Outlaws. Why the Sam Hill did they pick him? He looks real sappy in those tights! If I was one of the outlaws I would pick the big fella with the stave!

—oooOOOooo—

ALEX

“Thank you very much for the offer, Lily, but, no thanks, I’m married.”

“That don’t stop a lot o’ men!”

“It stops me,” I say.

Lily shrugs, pouts, then smiles. “That’s kinda sweet,” she approves. In spite of being very far from ‘a nice girl’, Lily is, I think a nice girl.

I glance at my pocket watch. The last time I tried to get my brother-in-law to leave, he protested he had time for one more hand. When he said it, it was just about true.

“Tanner and I need to get back. We’re expected.”

Lily’s eyes go to the poker table. “Good luck,” she remarks. She gives a wry smile, leans over, blows on my hand.

Looking over, I see what she means. I have seen that fixed, hungry expression on gamblers’ faces before. Tanner is losing – not a problem, he can afford to lose a few games of poker. But now, he is chasing his losses. He is not so well off he can support THAT habit.

—oooOOOooo—

“For Pete’s sake, Heyes! What the Sam Hill did you drag me out for! I coulda won my money back! I just know it!”

“Charlotte said supper at seven! It’s twenty past now!”

“If I choose to make MY wife wait, to serve MY supper, in MY house – is it any of YOUR damn business?”

Sheesh! To think two hours ago I was starting to like this man! Mind you, he has drunk a good deal more than I have. Some of this belligerence is the whiskey talking. He stabs a finger in my chest. “Just ‘cause YOU choose to live under the cats-paw! Some men know how to be master in their own homes!”

“I fail to see anything masterful in not having the common courtesy to be on time for a meal, someone has taken the time and trouble to prepare!” I remove his hand, coldly, meet his eyes. He takes a step back, cowed. “As for winning your money back, here’s some advice. If I can spot the tells every time you bluff those two sharps sure can. You’re a lousy player. Give it up!” I take a breath. In a calmer voice, I say, “Seriously, Tanner, you’ve got youth, looks, your health, a lovely wife, baby on the way, thriving business and a fine home. There’s nothing you can win gambling. Nothing! But, there sure is a lot you could lose.”

He shoots me a resentful look, then shrugs and nods, gives a half smile. Maybe my wise words won the smile. Maybe. Or, maybe he shut up for the simple reason he could see he had made me angry and though he has a good dozen years on me I am bigger than he is.

—oooOOOooo—

HANNIBAL

“An’ the FIRST message said, ‘A patient waiter is no loser’…” I finish helping myself to mashed potatoes, reach for the gravy. I stop talking, concentrate hard because even I can see this tablecloth is real fancy and I do not want to spill. Done! No drips! “But, that one it was only sent two miles…” I look up, frown. “You do wanna hear about this, ma-am?”

“Huh?” Again, it is as if it takes a couple of seconds for her to understand what I said. “Er, sure Hannibal! It’s real interestin’! So – this message tomorrow is comin’ a whole two miles! Fancy!”

“No!” Honestly! And grown-ups say WE do not listen! “No, the message tomorrow is coming MUCH further! Miles and miles and miles! It’s this FIRST message that only travelled …” I hear a step. A click. “They’re back!”

We hear the front door close. Mister Tanner, followed by my father, walks into the room.

“For Pete’s sake, Charlotte! You coulda waited!” Mr. Tanner sounds real cross, as he drops into his chair.

My father, who looks kind of annoyed and trying to hide it, starts to apologise to Aunt Charlotte. She scrambles to her feet, talks over him.

“I’m real sorry, Jefferson,” she is blurting, “I guess I thought I better give Hannibal his supper ‘cos – I wasn’t real sure when you’d be back… And…”

Mr. Tanner scowls, as Aunt Charlotte serves him.

“You knew perfectly well when I’d be back! I told you we’d be back for seven!” He reaches for the gravy, slops onto the cloth. “It’s bit much when – For Pete’s sake, LEAVE it woman! It’s only a dang cloth. Stop fussing. It’s a bit much when a man’s wife won’t wait five minutes for him!”

“It wasn’t five minutes! You’re nearly half an hour late!” I correct him.

“That’ll do, Hannibal,” my father says to me, softly.

Mind you, I was surprised when Aunt Charlotte called me to the table. My stepmother always waits for my father, ALWAYS.

“Pa won’t make Mister Tanner real late,” I assured her. “They’ll just have got talkin’, maybe?”

But, she still said, “No. We’d better start.” What did she think? That he would forget to come home, or something?

“Exactly!” says Mister Tanner. “We weren’t even – I said LEAVE IT! Are you DEAF as well as stupid, woman? – weren’t even half an hour late! Sheesh, Charlotte! Where are your manners?” He takes his first mouthful. “Showin’ me up in front o’ a guest!”

“Sorry, Jefferson,” she says, again. “I’m real sorry, Alex. I just…” She blushes, her lip wobbles. “Sorry!”

“I don’t see why YOU’RE apolo…” I begin. Under the table, I feel my father press my foot hard. He catches my eye, shakes his head. I shut up. Silence. She is not going to cry is she?

“This is delicious, Charlotte,” my father says. More silence. The tick of the clock sounds real loud. “You’ve saved my life taking care of Louisa’s list, you do know that, huh?” He gives her a big smile, “I reckon she’ll love the curtain material. And that muslin, you’ve a real eye for colour. Thank you!”

“Not a problem, Alex,” she tries to smile back. “It was a pleasure! I love shoppin’!”

“She’s got that dang straight!” exclaims Mister Tanner. “It’s your favourite occupation, huh? Just a nice change for you to be spendin’ Heyes’ money instead o’ mine!” He sounds more like before he went out. Not so bad-tempered any more. “Any more chicken?” As she serves him, he pats her hand. “Sorry we were late, Darling. Mind you, I reckon Heyes still had another hour’s worth of sweet talk to dish out! He had a little redhead giggling fit to bust her laces. Eating outta his hand, she was…”

I pause, a forkful of chicken halfway to my mouth. I look, questioningly, at my father. He opens his mouth, catches my eye, shuts it again.

“Alex!” exclaims Aunt Charlotte.

Mister Tanner grins. “Anders and I were chattin’ over business next thing we know, Heyes is singin’ the praises of some saloon gal’s smile. Kept callin’ her ‘A fair flower’. Didn’t think we’d ever get him to leave! Did we Heyes?”

Aunt Charlotte, suddenly, looks more cheerful. “Don’t worry, Alex!” she giggles, “I won’t tell any tales!” She nods over at me, “Hush, Jefferson! Little pitchers!”

ALEX

Without telling actual lies, Tanner gives the impression it was ME made us both late. That HE pulled ME, reluctantly, out of the saloon. I open my mouth to defend myself. Then, I see a little of the worry leave Charlotte’s eyes. What am I going to say?

“Your husband can’t carry his drink and he just left enough money to cover my whole lumber order on a poker table? If I hadn’t dragged him away he’d have sat there till the small hours.” No. He knows I will not wipe the smile back off her face by saying that.

At least Tanner’s mood is better. I suspect the solid food soaking up some of the whiskey helps. And seeing me squirm. Still, I would rather he got a little of his own back on me, than continue to snap at poor Charlotte.

I grit my teeth, even manage a smile, as he hangs me out to dry. Poker is not mentioned. Fair enough. It is not a topic I will spontaneously raise at home either.

Unless Louisa asks straight out, ‘Did you play poker in a saloon? Did you flirt with any saloon girls?’ my account of the trip will cover mainly educational sight-seeing and her sister’s multiple messages on the subject of babies, ladies fashions and the engagement of some girl they both know, but I have never heard of, called Mary Whittaker.

Charlotte is assuring me she will not tell tales. I glance at my son’s fascinated face. It is not HER telling tales that concerns me.

Is there anything I can do to make Hannibal repeating all this less likely? Er – no. Well, nothing I am prepared to do. Involving a seven-year old in ‘covering up’ is not only more culpable than a little harmless bar room flirtation; it is stupid. I admit, though, I will cross my fingers – I will cross ANY part of my anatomy that WILL cross – and hope Hannibal finds the first telegram SO exciting it drives ‘Pa sweet talked a saloon gal’ right out of his head.

—oooOOOooo—

“An’ you see instead of all that mushy stuff, he SHOULDA written more about the outlaws! He coulda made it more – more like Robin Hood! They coulda made plots an’ stuff! Huh?” Hannibal looks at me, waiting for confirmation that I whole-heartedly agree with his suggested rewrite of ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’.

“It’s a thought,” I allow.

“AND…” Oh! More to come? “They coulda signalled to each other in the forest. Tappin’! In code! They coulda made drums outta hollow logs and signalled in Morse!” The headboard of the truckle bed is tapped.

“Morse code wasn’t invented,” I object. “Lie down, Hannibal. Time to go to sleep.”

He snuggles down, lets me tuck the quilt over him.

“Some other code then.” A thought strikes him. “Injuns send drum signals, huh? That must be a kinda code! So Morse isn’t the only kinda tappin’ code!”

I cannot argue with that.

“Wanna signal?” he offers. “We could do …”

“No,” I say, “I want you to shut your eyes and go to sleep. It’s already an hour past your usual time!”

“An’ who’s fault is that?” he shoots back.

Sheesh! I walked into that one!

“I’ll make you an offer,” I say.

“Uh huh?”

“I’ll send you a signal you do as it says.”

Hannibal thinks about that.

“Let’s hear it.”

I start to tap. He concentrates hard. His mouth moves, silently, as he picks up the letters

Di di dit; Di di di dit; Di di dah; Dah. Pause. Dah di dah dah; Dah dah dah; Di di dah; Di dah dit.

“Hey!” Hannibal scowls at me, suspiciously. “This isn’t gonna be ‘Shut your eyes and go to sleep’ is it?”

“Congratulations, son,” I grin. “You win again!”

“Sneaky,” he mutters, turning over and burrowing his nose into the pillow.

—oooOOOooo—

The following day…
HANNIBAL

“Thank you very much for lettin’ us stay, ma-am, I mean, Aunt Charlotte,” I say. “And thank you for lettin’ me borrow the book.”

We have fetched the rest of our stuff and packed everything in the wagon. We are going home straight after the telegram comes in. Mister Tanner is not here. He went to his warehouse right after breakfast.

My father is still saying ‘thank you’. She is saying ‘it was real nice to see you’. You would think this would only take a minute, huh? But, they kind of say it over and over – just changing the words the way grown-ups do sometimes.

“C’mon, Pa!” I whisper, tugging his sleeve. “We’ll be late!”

“Hush, Hannibal. I’m talking.” That was the stern voice. I hush. To her, “I hope you know, Charlotte…” I look up, he is sounding not just polite any more. Kind of – serious. “If there’s anything Louisa and I can… If you ever need us…You only have to ask.”

I jig from foot to foot. Suppose – suppose the place we picked out with the good view goes! Why is he taking so long? Come on! Come on! I cannot help giving his sleeve another tug. Come on!

“Hannibal!” Only pretending to be stern now. “If you are stamping out ‘Hurry Up’ with your boots – stop it! I’ve got the message.”

—oooOOOooo—

He SAW! I know that IS him! I asked the fella with the camera – because, he is from the newspaper office and will know. So, it is HIM – and I know he SAW! He was watching. Did it work though? Did he follow what I was …? Will he…?

My father lifts me down off his shoulders. I crane to see round the crowd of folk between us and – HIM. Did he…? Will he…?

“Come on, son,” says my father. “Let’s get back to the wagon. Time to go home.”

I see HIM walking over. Is he…? Yes! Yes! He is looking straight at me – smiling!

“No,” I say, standing stock still, so my father’s arm jerks. “Wait!”

ALEX

The arrival of the telegram was pretty much as I predicted. The sun shone, the small crowd was cheerful, a photograph was taken to record the platform dignitaries shaking hands, holding the long strip of paper. So, Hannibal and I had the bonus of a fascinated look at the camera sitting on its tripod. From our spot you could just about – if you used your imagination – see through the office window. Given his high vantage point, perched on my shoulders, Hannibal may believe he saw the actual telegraph equipment move. On the whole, the event has lived up to everything we could reasonably expect – and a bit more!

“Come on, son,” I say, lifting Hannibal down. “Let’s get back to the wagon. Time to go home.”

I take his hand, begin to stride away. My arm jerks.

“No! Wait!” The face looking up at me is imploring. “Just a minute!”

“I don’t think there’s anything else to see, son,” I say. “It’s all over and we’ve a long journey…” I break off.

One of the suited gentlemen from the platform is standing before us. He holds out a hand.

“Charles M. Stebbins, Western Union,” he says.

“Er … Alex Heyes. How do you do?” I respond, confused. We shake hands.

He bends down. “So you must be…?”

“Hannibal!” chirps Hannibal, a grin splitting his face. “Hannibal Heyes!”

“Well Hannibal…” an answering beam, “I’d say your Morse Code is well up to Western Union standards. Let’s see what we can do about your request!”

—oooOOOooo—

“So you see, what I was doin’, while I was up on your shoulders, was signallin’! Like this!”

Not for the first time – indeed not even for the second, third, or fourth time – Hannibal shows me how he was signalling with short, staccato, flashes of an opening and closing hand, raised high in the air.

“Uh huh?” I nod, with a soft chirrup to the horse.

“I was sending – ‘I know Morse. Let me send a wire.’ – to Mister Stebbins…”

“Uh huh?”

“An’, I kept sending it – over and over – as long as they all kept talkin’ up on the platform…”

“Uh huh?”

“‘Cos I knew once the first message was sent they’d hafta send a reply. AND, I knew the first message ‘ud just be for show. They’d hafta send a couple to test the line proper!”

“Uh huh?”

“An’ – an’ it WORKED!”

He is still jubilant. I do not blame him! I smile down at the glowing, justifiably smug face. Paternal pride wells up in my chest. I ruffle his hair.

“It certainly did,” I praise. “You sent a telegram! I watched you!”

“Uh huh!” he nods. “I sent – PARIS! They use Paris ‘cause….”

I did know, even before he explained it back in the telegraph office. However, I cheerfully let him enlighten me again.

“You see – you measure in dits…”

“Uh huh?” I frown to show I am listening hard.

“A dah – that’s three dits long…”

“Uh huh?”

“An’ you leave a dah – so three dits – between letters…”

“Mmmm?”

“BUT, between WORDS – that’s seven dits!”

“Uh huh?”

“An’ with the gaps an’ all ‘Paris’ has ‘SACTLY fifty ‘dits’…”

“Uh huh?”

“So – you use it for – for ‘stablishing the timin’!”

“Ah! Ah hah!”

“You see it goes…”

Oh, sheesh!

Eventually, he subsides, satisfied I am fully briefed. The silence lasts roughly thirty seconds.

“Pa…?”

“Uh huh?”

“Are we nearly there yet?”

“Nope. We’re not even nearly at the turn. And, we still have quite a way to go AFTER we turn off the road. Remember?”

Silence, for – oh – a good ninety seconds this time.

“Are we nearly at the turn now?”

“Hannibal…” I bite it back. “No. Miles to go yet.”

Roughly sixty seconds.

“Pa…Wanna play signalling?”

Well. It IS better than ‘Are we nearly there?’

“Sure,” I smile. “Trounce me!”

“Animals!” he orders. “My go first! Now… LISTEN this time. No second guesses. Dah di dah dit; Dah dah dah…”

…oooOOOooo…

THE END [Di dah, di dah, di dah!]

Notes:
America’s first telegram was sent by Morse on January 6, 1838, across two miles (3 km) of wire at Speedwell Ironworks near Morristown, New Jersey. The message read “A patient waiter is no loser.”
As early as 1851, the St. Louis & Missouri River Telegraph Company extended lines up the east side of the river to Weston and St. Joseph, giving a telegraph service for (Eastern) Missouri river towns. Missouri was crisscrossed with telegraph lines during the 1850s.

In 1859 Charles M. Stebbins rebuilt the line from St. Louis to Kansas City. His goal was to construct a transcontinental line, but Western Union, with superior financial backing, was able to buy him out. They offered him a position as superintendent for the construction of the line in Kansas Territory, which he accepted.

Construction was commenced in December, 1858, and was completed to Atchison by January, 1859. This line crossed the Kansas river at Wyandotte and continued north through Quindaro and the Delaware Reserve to Ft. Leavenworth. By the end of 1859, the line had been built through Doniphan, Geary City, Palermo, and Wathena to St. Joseph.

It became a link in the first transcontinental telegraph established by Western Union in 1861.

The Paris standard defines the speed – words-per-minute – of Morse transmission. The word Paris is used because it is precisely 50 “dits” based on the text-book timing.

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