3. Right Supremacy

By Calico

AUGUST 1862

SUNDAY

“…Hold it steady, Jed! Steady!” The coil of filched…Sorry! The coil of ‘borrowed’ rope slithered inside the den. Grunting, as knots were pulled tight.

“…It’s – it’s kinda heavy, Han!” Small arms trembled. A stubborn little chin set firm with effort.

“…Hold on!” ordered Hannibal.

“…Here,” putting down a ‘borrowed’ hammer, George Myers scampered over. “Lemme help!”

“…Thanks!” gasped a relieved Jed.

“…S’orright!”

“…Done it!” exclaimed a jubilant Hannibal. A dark tousle of hair emerged from the half completed den. “Tommy! Ike! Aren’t you done with that other wall yet? Hurry up!”

“Hey!” protested Tommy Bauer, conscious of his position as ‘oldest’, ‘biggest’ and – in his opinion – natural group leader. “…Who died an’ made you King? Quit bossin’!”

“…I’m not BOSSIN’,” explained Hannibal, patiently, “…I’m ORGANISIN’! It’s called…” he took a breath, “… division o’ labour.”

“Seems to me…” grumbled eleven-year old Ike Williams, “…us four do mosta the labour, you do mosta the yakkin’! Ow!” He sucked a thumb hit by a second ‘borrowed’ hammer.

“You need to watch what you’re doin’ there, Ike,” Hannibal advised him, kindly. “George,” a frown, “…weren’t you workin’ on the door?”

Cheerfully enough, George went back to his allotted task. Jed began to coil the remaining rope tidily. Hannibal contemplated the well-organised…No! Make that SUPERBLY organised busyness, with a satisfied smile.

Footsteps. Rustling of bushes above the carefully chosen den site. Three feminine – or at any rate, female – figures appeared on the rise, looking down on the boys.

“Whatchya doin’, Ike?” demanded Rachel Williams, of her twin brother.

“Nuthin’!” he declared.

“Don’t look like nothin’,” pointed out Esther Curry. “…Might not look like MUCH…” Hannibal bridled. “…But – it’s gotta be SOMETHIN’!”

“It’s a secret,” declared Tommy Bauer. “No girls allowed!”

“An’ …it’s not finished yet!” added Hannibal, to dispel further criticism of his crew’s construction skills. Esther sniffed.
The third, smaller, female figure hung back. Soft blue eyes glanced, shyly, from under honey-coloured lashes, at the blond boy coiling rope. Bright blue eyes glanced back. Sun-kissed boyish cheeks showed a hint of pink.

“Hello, Jed,” Hannah Williams murmured.

“’Lo, Hannah,” blushed back Jed. Then, proudly, “…We’re buildin’ a den!”

“SHEESH! JED!”
“It’s supposed to be a SECRET den!”
“Which bit o’ SECRET den d’you have a problem with?”
“JED!!”

Jed gathered he had – erred. He wriggled in contrition.

“It looks real good, Jed,” approved Hannah, softly.

“No it don’t!” dismissed her big sister, bluntly. “…That wall ain’t straight! An’ – it’s gonna be kinda damp!”

“What you need…” declared Esther, scrambling down the incline, “…is a raised floor! AND…” her hands went to her hips, “…you need a – whatdya call it… a buckless…?”

“…Buttress?” supplied Hannibal.

“Yeah – one o’ them – against this wall.” A pair of gingham sleeves was rolled up, displaying sturdy freckled arms. “…Me an’ Rachel’ll help. Won’t we?”

“Sure!” A second set of legs, grubby pinafore flapping, slithered down to join the building team. “…I call the hammer!”

“I said…NO GIRLS!” repeated Tommy.

“No girls!” agreed Ike. “…’SPECIALLY sisters!” He glowered at his twin. “…’Specially YOU!”

A recent spate of what future generations might refer to as ‘sibling rivalry’ had struck the Williams household. Mister Williams had never heard of ‘sibling rivalry’. He called it those dang twins fighting over nothing, like two cats in a sack. Punishments were meted out to both parties with a firm statement that ‘he didn’t care WHO started it!’. Brother and sister alike smarted under a sense of injustice and a conviction that it was all HIS/HER fault!

“Girls…” the scorn Ike loaded into that monosyllable was impressive, “…Girls can’t build!”

“Can too!”

“Can’t!”

“Can too!”

“…Rachel an’ I can build good as you!” joined in Esther. She wobbled a supporting corner pole. “Better’n that! That needs sinking another foot, that does!” Another wobble.

Hannibal, once more, bridled at this denigration of his efforts. “Leave it!” He stroked the pole, protectively. “…It’s not FINISHED yet! And…” he was not having Esther butting in and taking over, “…it’s a BOYS’ den. We don’t need girls fussin’ round!

“…Anyhow…” this was George, trying to be peaceable, “…buildin’ is kinda heavy work. An’ – an’ dirty! Why don’t you – make curtains or some’n? Bring ‘em along when we’re finished.”

“Yeah,” nodded Hannibal. He was not unreasonable, huh? “…I MIGHT let you do that!”

“Pfffttt!” Esther drew herself up to her full height. “…Sew your own dang curtains! We wanna do proper stuff! With tools an’…” her eyes moved, covetously, to another ‘borrowed’ implement, “…An’ the SAW! An’ – an’ I don’t see why YOU have to let ME do anythin’, Hannibal Heyes!” A grubby finger poked him in the chest. “Who are you to be dishin’ out orders?”

Hannibal also drew himself up to his full height. Annoyingly, this was an inch shorter than Esther. “I’m in charge…” He caught Tommy Bauer’s outraged eye. “…I mean…” he rephrased, smoothly, “…I’m organisin’ – and if you WERE gonna help – which you’re NOT ‘cos it’s NO GIRLS – but, if you WERE – you’d hafta do as you were told!”

Another, “Pfffttt!” from Esther.

“…Girls oughta take orders from men!” Hannibal persisted, “…It’s…” a deep breath, “…the nat’ral order an’ right suprem’cy!”

“…T’isn’t!”

“…T’is so!”

“…Sez who?”

“…It’s – it’s the law! Ask anyone! Women are bound to obey an’ serve!”

“…Pfffttt! Sez you!”

Hannibal took a strategic step back from the swelling redhead. “…Anyhow, this den is a masc’line sanc’try! So – butt out!”

Tommy Bauer frowned at some of Hannibal’s smart-mouth words. However, he agreed with the gist. “No girls!” he summarised. “…Butt out!”

“Yeah – butt out!” chimed in Ike. “…And…” a scowl at his twin, “…no snitchin’ about the saw!”

“…I don’t wanna help with YOUR stupid den, anyhow!” huffed Rachel. “…Me an’ Esther…” her eye strayed to her young sister, “…an’ Hannah…” she included, “…we’re gonna build our OWN den! It’ll be ‘No Boys’ allowed!”

“…And – it’ll be better’n than YOUR’N!” agreed Esther.

“Pfffttt!” dismissed Tommy Bauer. “…I’d like to see you try!”

“Good!” shot back Rachel. “’Cos that’s just what you’re gonna see!”

Two noses were hoisted in the air. Two affronted backs turned. Two indignant girls stalked off.

The third, seemingly un-offended, twisted a soft curl round her finger and smiled at the smallest crewmember.

Jed wriggled. “…Sorry,” offered this youngest representative of the lords of creation, “…you can’t stay – ‘cos it’s no girls. Otherwise…” he gave a, definitely regretful, shrug.

“…S’orright,” came the properly submissive reply, “…I don’t like getting all dirty.”

“Bye, Hannah.”

“Bye, Jed.”

Hannah, with a final glance thrown over her shoulder, scampered after her sister.

Jed met his best friend’s suspicious eye. Another wriggle. He tried for – what was it – oh, yeah – ‘non’shlance’. “…What’s next, Han?”

“…Don’t ask HIM! HE ain’t in charge!” declared Tommy. A beat. Hannibal gave Tommy a bland smile. Tommy looked around at various half constructed segments. He pondered. “…Well…” he decided, “…you’re the one reckons he’s so smart! What’s next, Hannibal?”

Hannibal pursed his lips. “…George and Jed, start digging to sink this corner pole another foot. Tommy and Ike find some big flat stones to support a raised floor.”

“…What‘re you gonna do?” asked Ike, suspiciously.

“…I’m gonna think how you can best fashion a buttress for this wall…”

—oooOOOooo—

“Louisa? Where are you?” Alex strode through the kitchen and opened the door to the parlour.

“Alex!” Louisa’s smile looked – nervous. Or was it relieved? She gestured at the two guests. “Look who’s here!”

“I am looking,” he responded. “Hello, Charlotte, Jefferson. This is a surprise.”

“A nice one I hope!” ventured Charlotte. Her smile, too, was nervous. A muscle ticked at the corner of one eye.

Alex’s gaze softened. His sister-in-law was very like Louisa. The same eagerness to please. The same lifted upper lip, giving a touching air of vulnerability. Seeing her now, it was difficult to believe there was only a year between the sisters. Charlotte looked thin, faded, anxious. Her eyes had lost their sparkle. Whatever Alex thought of his brother-in-law he had no quarrel with Charlotte.

“It’s always a pleasure to see you,” Alex said. For her sake, he put no emphasis on ‘you’ as singular. “And,” he leant over to offer a tanned finger to a tiny grasp, “This must be…?”

“Horatio! After his Grandpapa,” supplied Charlotte, a shadow of her former prettiness returning, as she smiled at the baby in her arms.

“He was born the very day after our Amy, Alex! Fancy!” marvelled Louisa.

“Guess we know what we were both doin’ the end of last October, huh, Heyes? Huh? Huh?” Jefferson’s tone was joshing but, underneath, Alex heard the attempt at ingratiation. Since he found the remark in questionable taste for mixed company, he decided not to hear.

“And, how IS my little princess?”

“Asleep! Knock on wood!” smiled Louisa. Alex smiled back and tapped the china hutch, obediently.

“She’s beautiful, Alex, beautiful!” cooed Charlotte.

Although, in reality, Amy was scarlet, wrinkled and spittle strewn as most new babies, her father entirely shared this strange delusion she was gorgeous. He beamed, proudly and tried not to look too sappy. He failed.

“And Samuel and David!” admired Charlotte. “…How they’ve grown! What fine boys! Samuel…” a glance was exchanged with her sister, “Is SO bright! What a chatterbox!”

Alex’s beam widened. Samuel WAS bright! So was David, of course. Just quieter. ALL his sons were wonderful.

Jefferson gave his wife an approving look. He had told her to ‘get on the right side of Heyes!’.

In fact, Charlotte was proving so satisfactory to her spouse – (‘For once!’ Jefferson thought) – because she had, momentarily, forgotten her instructions. The praise of her nephews and nieces was sincere. Mushy – maybe. But, sincere.

“They’re getting on SO well with Frederick!” went on Charlotte. To her husband, “Isn’t it lucky for him to have such nice cousins, so close in age, dear?”

“…The three of them are busy building mud pies in the yard,” smiled Louisa, fondly. “It’s a good job it’s a warm day – because I plan to hold ‘em all under the pump before supper!”

“Are you staying for supper?” asked Alex.

“Are we invited?” Jefferson again adopted a joshing tone. “…It’s pretty clear you have Louisa here, WELL under control, Heyes! She told us she’d hafta ask you first! That’s what I like to see! A woman who knows her place! Hope you took notes, Lotty!”

“Of course you’re invited,” responded Alex, civilly, ignoring the rest. A beat. “Are you staying with your parents, Charlotte? If not – you’d be very welcome here.”

“Oh no, no! Thank you, Alex. We’re stayin’ with Mama a couple of nights. Until… We just thought we’d come see you because Jefferson wanted…”

Jefferson gave a warning cough. Charlotte shut up. A beat.

“Will you be in Larson Creek for the barn-raising, next Saturday?” asked Alex, breaking the brief silence.

“Barn-raisin’?” Jefferson’s eyebrows rose. “…Surprised folk have the inclination – let alone the money or materials – what with the war an’ all!”

“It’s more of a barn RE-raising,” acknowledged Alex. “The Myers’ place…”

“I heard about poor Mister Myers…” put in Charlotte. “…All these raids! Dreadful!”

A shadow crossed Alex’s face, as the death of his neighbour was ascribed to ‘raids’.

“…We did what we could back in the spring,” he went on, “…but, as you say, Tanner, materials are pretty expensive right now. So, it was a patch up job. Now the early crops are sold, we can fix Mrs. Myers up properly. Nathanial and Eli Williams and…well… the rest of us were going to do it without any fuss, but – Mrs. Myers said ‘No.’ She wants teams and food and dancing afterwards – just like before the war. She says her husband loved barn raisings – which is true enough. It’s what he would want.”

“She says…” put in Louisa, “…if’n we stop doin’ the stuff that made Larson Creek what it once was …it means THEY win!”

“…We’ll still be here!” declared Jefferson. “So, if you can use me – I’d like to help!”

Alex swallowed his surprise – not to say disbelief – at this. “That’s – very kind.”

“You’re family Heyes! Who wouldn’t do what they could – for family?” A hand, with a slight tremor, gripped Alex’s shoulder.

Alex quashed his instinct to remove it. Involuntarily, he flicked a glance at Charlotte. She kept her eyes firmly on her baby, but two spots of dull red appeared on her cheeks.

“…Heyes,” The grip tightened, “…why don’t we leave the ladies to finish supper? There’s some’n I wanna discuss …”

—oooOOOooo—

“Hello,” smiled Nathanial, looking up from the bucket he was filling. “…Sure an’ the kettle’s just boiled. Have you time for a cup o’ tay before you head home, Hannibal? George?”

Hannibal squinted at the sun and made a rough calculation. “I reckon so,” he decided.

“…Er, no thanks, Mister Curry,” said George. “…Ma starts to worry if’n I’m late.” He gave a wriggle. Did that make him sound like a Mama’s boy? “…’She knows REALLY I’m big enough to look after myself, just…y’know…”

Nathanial DID know. He also knew Mrs. Myers tried not to let her younger son see how much she fretted now. He had been robbed of his father. She did not want maternal anxiety to steal his few free hours of enjoyment with friends, too. Nathanial ruffled the sandy hair, approvingly. “…Give your Ma my regards, George.”

“Bye, George,” chirped Jed. “…See you tomorrow at the …”

Hannibal coughed, warningly. Sheesh!

“…at the time we said!” finished Jed, with dignity. He KNEW it was a secret den! Han didn’t need to be so – so …

“Uh huh,” nodded George, “…Leastways – soon as Will can spare me.” He scampered away.

“I thought you two were helping Hannibal’s Pa the next couple of days?” said Nathanial.

“We are, Pa!” nodded Jed. “Mister Heyes sets a – a fair an’ …er…” Blue eyes blinked at Hannibal for assistance.

“A fair an’ equi’bal task for our size an’ years,” supplied Hannibal.

“…An’ Mister Heyes says, when it’s done – we’re ‘scused boots for the rest of the day! It’s a real big patch o’ field tomorrow! Mister Heyes reckons it’ll take till ‘bout half past three – but we reckon if we work real extra, extra, EXTRA hard we’ll get through earlier!”

Nathanial pursed his lips. Fair enough. He pointed at the remaining bucket. “…Will you be fillin’ that an’ bringing it in Jed?”

“Sure, Pa.”

“…And,” Nathanial surveyed their full grubbiness. “… will you try and be leavin’ some of the dirt out here?”

A few minutes later, cleaner – certainly damper – the boys entered the big Curry kitchen.

A pair of grey-green eyes looked up. They narrowed.

Pa…Ma…” began Esther, already home and setting the supper table, “…it’s NOT true that girls can’t do stuff good as boys, is it? Hannibal…” a scowl was thrown, “…says girls can’t do stuff!”

“Well…” Hannibal opened his mouth to protest he was being misquoted.

“Tell him!” demanded Esther. “…Tell him that’s hogwash! Tell him…girls can do stuff just as good as boys!”

“…What kind of – stuff?” asked Nathanial, testing the ground.

“Him an’ Tommy Bauer an’ the rest are buildin’ a secret den…”

“ESTHER!” protested Hannibal. What was it with the Curry clan and the failure to grasp the concept of ‘secret’ den?

“…AND they wouldn’t let me an’ Rachel help!”

“Pfffttt!” from Zach . “…They’re right! Girls don’t build stuff!”

“…Didn’t ask YOU!” pointed out Esther.

“They DON’T!” repeated Zach. “…Stands to reason! You’re not gonna be swingin’ a hammer Saturday – are you?”

Esther swelled. This was already a bone of contention in the Curry and Williams’s households. It WASN’T fair!

“That’s right,” said Hannibal. “…WE’LL all be helping Mister Curry an’ my Pa – an’ the others BUILDIN’…You an’ Beth an’ Ruth will be helpin’ your Ma an’ the other ladies bakin’ an’ – makin’ lemonade – an’ stuff! You see…” he gave a smile of sweet reason at Mrs. Curry, “…I NEVER said girls couldn’t do stuff. They’re just good at diff’rent things…”

“…You said – women hafta take orders from men!” declared Esther, having none of this retreat into a ‘separate spheres’ argument. Hannibal glanced round. Five pairs of female Curry eyes on him. He wriggled. “He said – it’s right an’ nat’ral…” Esther informed the room.

“Sheesh, Hannibal,” grinned Nathanial. “If you were lookin’ for trouble – why not dig a skunk outta his den?” Esther and Hannibal both faced him. A beat. Clearly, both youngsters expected more. “Over to you, Lizzie me darlin’,” abdicated Nathanial.

“…Sometimes…” said Elizabeth, with emphasis, “…Women take orders from men, because – wives promise to obey their husbands. But, unless Esther marries Hannibal…”

Two horrified explosive sounds of repudiation. Elizabeth suppressed a smile.

“… SHE doesn’t have to take HIS orders…As for men building and women cooking…Well, we wouldn’t last long without either. But, building is heavy work and, men are stronger…”

“…Hannibal an’ Jed aren’t stronger’n me an’ Rachel…They still get to be on barn raisin’ teams!” interrupted Esther. “So – it’s not JUST strength. AND Pa an’ Mister Heyes say it’s better to use your brains than your muscles! When you built this place – you used – winches – an’ lev’rage – to make it easier – didn’t you, Pa?”

Nathanial nodded, proud of his clever, stubborn, daughter. “…Half an hour of thinkin’ an’ figurin’ can make things a sight easier on the back,” he acknowledged.

“…I know THAT!” put in Hannibal.

“…An’ girls are just as good at thinkin’ an’ fig’rin’,” declared Esther. “I’m smart as you Hannibal Heyes!”

“Pfffttt!” he responded. Esther was pretty smart, sure …for a girl. But, she wasn’t THAT smart!

“…Am too!”

“…Are NOT!”

“…AM TOO!” Esther shifted her ground. “…An’ – I’m TWICE as smart as Tommy Bauer – an’ he was there – buildin’ the den!”

Hannibal let that pass. He had no argument with Esther being at LEAST twice as smart as Tommy Bauer. He would have picked a higher multiplier.

“…An’ – you can’t say Ike is smarter’n Rachel!”

Hannibal shrugged. In a ‘smartness’ contest between the twins – Hannibal would not risk anything of great value one way or another.

“…So, if’n we’re smart enough – and it’s NOT muscle power – why wouldn’t you let us help?” demanded Esther.

The honest answer might have been – “Because you’re too dang bossy and, unlike Tommy Bauer, you’re not easily fooled into letting me have my own way.”

The answer Hannibal actually gave was. “Because it’s no girls! Anyhow…” Hannibal too, shifted his ground, “…I thought you an’ Rachel were buildin’ your OWN den. An’…” a tolerant, smile, “…it was goin’ to be much better’n ours!”

“We are an’ – it is!”

Hannibal gave a – mildly disbelieving – laugh.

“We’ve already picked a site. Started sinking cornerstones!”

Hannibal stopped laughing. That sounded – convincing.

“It’s goin’ to make your’n look like a – a pigsty! You’ll see!”.

“It won’t be a PATCH on ours – once ours is finished!” declared Hannibal, firmly.

“Wanna bet?” smirked Esther

Hannibal considered. He was safe enough. There were five on his crew. Esther only had Rachel, huh? Hannah hardly counted!

“…Name it!”

—oooOOOooo—

“…So y’see, Lotty an’ I won’t be goin’ back to the Fort…We’ll be settlin’ here for a while…”

Alex’s heart sank, hearing his brother-in-law would cease to be only an occasional annoyance.

“…Y’know I decided to move outta the dry goods business…”

Lost it through incompetence and gambling debts, translated Alex.

“…An’ concentrate on the haulage side…”

You hung onto a wagon or two and scraped a living making deliveries…

“…I can do that just as well from Larson Creek, as from the Fort…”

After losing your furniture piece by piece, you’ve finally sold your house. AND, since your wife’s parents are pretty prosperous you’ll come sponge off them…

“…But the thing is …”

Here it comes…

“…I need to re-secure full ownership of my haulage equipment…”

You stupid dang fool! You’ve lost your last wagon!

“…Josef is kinda – fully extended financially just now…”

Mueller will put delivery work your way and feed and cloth your children, but he’s too smart to lend you money. Even if HE isn’t…his wife sure is!

“…So I thought – why not offer Heyes the chance to share in an up an’ comin’ business opportunity…since he’s family…?”

You think I’m dumb enough to lend you money… Alex opened his mouth to say ‘No’.

“Papa! Pa!” Two blond haired, muddy figures scampered up. One stopped short, overcome by bashfulness. Behind them, a smaller, dark-haired tot tumbled and stolidly righted himself before continuing at a steadier trot.

“Papa!” Samuel raised his arms. “UP!” He was swung around. Squeals of delight. “…’GEN!” A repeat performance. “…’GEN!” A third. “More! ‘GEN!”

“No!” said Alex, setting Samuel on his feet. “…No more.” He squatted down; “…Hello!” he smiled at Frederick. “Do you remember me? Uncle Alex.”

A blond head nodded. Frederick, a few months younger than his lively cousin, looked startlingly like Samuel – without the ‘jumping-bean’ quality. Frederick took a shy step back. Then, a little hand reached out. “…Tock!” Pointing at Alex’s vest pocket. “Tick Tock!”

“…That’s right!” smiled Alex, producing his pocket watch. “…You listened to my tick tock!”

Frederick DID remember! Uncle Alex was – nice! He raised his arms. “…Up? Peas?” Swinging. A turn for David.

“…You see,” Jefferson tried to bring Alex back to ‘business opportunities’, “…the thing is, Heyes…”

“Papa!” protested Samuel. “Me! ME!!” Jigging in frustration, arms aloft. “ME.E.E!”

His cousin also stretched up hopeful arms. “…Unclax…!”

“…opportunities ripe for the takin’ – just needs the man to spot ‘em …”

“ME.E.E.E.!!! Pa! Papa!”

An idea struck Frederick. Pa was smiling SO hard he must be in one of his good moods, huh? Maybe, the supply of ‘swinging’ could be doubled?

“Pa?” Frederick asked, tentatively.

“…my assets are kinda – tied up – you understand cash flow problems, huh?…I just need me a little stake…”

“Pa?” A muddy hand tugged at Jefferson. “…Pa?”

“I’m TALKIN’ Frederick!” Jefferson glanced down; saw muddy fingers gripping his trouser leg. “…You stupid little…! This is my good suit! LOOK at it! You…!!”

Frederick let go. He looked from the dirty material to Pa’s scowling face. A lip wobbled. He reached out a smeared palm to brush off the mud.

“…DON’T!!” A smack was delivered. Blue eyes filled with tears. “…STUPID little…”

Alex swallowed a protest. He tried, but could not claim NEVER to have dealt a hasty smack to an annoying small son.

Glowering, Jefferson brushed his leg. He made it worse. Frederick sniffed. The muddy back of a small hand dragged across a little nose, leaving dirt streaks. . “STOP than dang snivelling, or I’ll give you some’n to snivel ABOUT!” The bottom lip stopped wobbling and fell open, ready for the first howl. Two small Heyes’ lips trembled in sympathy. Jefferson’s hand rose once more…

“HEY!” Alex exclaimed, halting the threatened slap. Alex bit back the rest. He squatted down and turned Frederick to face him. “…Let’s get you three over to the pump and cleaned up, huh? Me too! So none of us leave any more paw prints.”

“…Don’ have PAWS!” Samuel’s lip ceased trembling. That was SILLY. “Silly Papa!”

“…And once that mud dries,” Alex went on, “…your Pa’ll brush it off real easy. You’ll see! Just like grooming horses’ legs, huh? Easier when they’re dry.”

“…Not PAWS!” insisted Samuel.

“…Aren’t these paws?” Alex held the two muddy objects in front of the sobbing three-year-old’s face. “…Samuel says they’re not paws! Look like paws to me? What do you think Frederick?” Frederick paused in mid bawl. Gave a hiccough. Shook his head. Gathered himself for another wail…

“NOT paws?” Alex scratched his head in pretended confusion. “I know – they must be HOOVES, huh? You been leaving hoof prints?”

Frowning, Frederick again shook his head. How was he supposed to concentrate on howling if Uncle Alex kept asking dumb questions? Tchah!

“…Dey SANDS!” he explained.

“…Dese ‘ANDS!” confirmed Samuel, “…’ANDS!” A small brow furrowed under a white blond fringe. “…Hhhhhhhhands!” he corrected himself, gurglingly.

—oooOOOooo—

Hannibal gave an impatient sigh. He needed to talk to his father – about urgent IMPORTANT stuff. Instead, he had to be polite while his Aunt Charlotte – not that she was REALLY his aunt – fussed over him! That set his stepmother off – FUSSING – too!
How much he had grown!
How he looked more like his father every day! “He’s goin’ to be SO handsome!”
How smart he was! “…goes through books like a knife through butter!”
How much help he was with the little ones. “…Samuel copies him ALL the time! It’s SO cute!”
Hannibal rubbed the spot where ‘Aunt’ Charlotte had kissed him. He guessed she meant well. Some women just couldn’t help being – well – a bit sappy!

“…An’ NOVER fing…my bro’fer Han’bul can…” Samuel filled his mouth with mashed potatoes, before continuing – more indistinctly, “…do beshtesh inder…”

Samuel had told his cousin a good deal about ‘Hannibal’ during the mud pie session. Now Frederick gazed admiringly at the wondrous reality and nodded, impressed, as Samuel gave a few more key facts.

Hannibal wriggled. Sheesh, Samuel! Still, he could not suppress a grin as Samuel informed Frederick, not only did Hannibal know EV’RYTHIN’…he could do p’oper, p’oper MAGIC!”

“…I’ll show you a card trick before you go, if you like?” he offered.

Blue eyes opened wide. A shy nod.

Meanwhile, Jefferson considered his position. Heyes had turned down the offered ‘business opportunity’ flat. Something in the dark eyes told Jefferson ‘no’ meant ‘no’. A bubble of resentment simmered. His brother-in-law always had been stuck up. Fancy talk and fancy manners. Sheesh! He was only a farmer when all was said and done! All the same… Jefferson glanced around the comfortable kitchen; thought of the lovingly polished parlour, of Louisa’s proudly displayed ‘best’ china. Nothing real fancy – but – solid. Yes solid. Heyes was worth keeping on the right side of. Jefferson watched Heyes put down his own fork to help young David. Heyes sure HAD a soft side. Maybe if Charlotte did the asking? Woman, baby in arms – Heyes might fall for that. If he didn’t… Jefferson’s gaze lingered on his sister-in-law. Louisa now – she would be a pushover! Maybe …?

“…You know, Mama always used to have us sew extra shirts? To sell ready made – to bachelors, like?” Charlotte was deep in conversation.

“…Uh huh?” nodded Louisa.

“…Well. She KNOWS she could sell more’n she does. So I’m gonna help…”

“…Will you have time – with the baby?”

“…Oh sure! I’d started takin’ in sewin’ back at the Fort…It all helps! …I got lots done in the ev’nings while Jefferson was at the…while Jefferson was out.”

“LOTTY!” Charlotte flinched. Silence.

Jefferson made an effort, wiped off the scowl. “…This is real nice, Louisa, you sure have the knack at cooking.” Jefferson glanced at Heyes. What the Sam Hill was wrong with that? Jefferson’s eyes moved to his own wife, wearing that infuriating, cringing look. Ah! “…I guess – knowing the way to a man’s heart – runs in the family, huh, Lotty? Darling?” He was rewarded with a wavering smile. But… Sheesh! Annoyance swept over him. Did she have to look so – so…

“…Charlotte says you’re moving into the house Papa used to rent to Mister Fraser,” remarked Louisa.

Charlotte flashed an anxious look at her husband. Was that okay? She knew she talked too much. No – it was okay. He was still smiling. “Mmm …I hope maybe Tuesday…I just need to clean up a little first…”

“…Setting up in a new place sure is an expensive time, huh, Heyes?” said Jefferson.

“Uh huh,” agreed Alex, non-committally.

“…Furniture…curtains…soon adds up.” A pause.

“Pa,” Hannibal began, “…you know – buttresses?”

“…To say nothin’ of – labour…” went on Jefferson, in unison.

“…If you wanted a real – simple – buttress…”

“…’specially with so many men away…”

“…Would you…?”

“HASN’T anyone ever told you…Hannibal Heyes,” snapped Jefferson, “…children oughta be seen and not heard?”

“No,” said Hannibal, “…Leastways – only Mrs. Mueller.”

“Unca Jeff’son! Unca Jeff’son!” Samuel waved a hand high in the air as a polite way of indicating he had a contribution to make.

“…Let Mister Tanner finish, Hannibal,” said Alex, mildly.

“Unca Jeff’son!” a second arm helped the first stretch higher – fingers at full extension.

Hannibal opened his mouth to protest HE was the one being interrupted. His father’s eyebrows rose. Hannibal shut his mouth. Sheesh! Dang ‘guest rules’. “…Sorry, Mister Tanner,” he muttered, “…After you.”

“…Well, Heyes…there’s a lot to do on the place, an’…” Jefferson tried the ingratiating smile once more.

Samuel bounced in his seat, “UNCA JEFF’SON!”

“WHAT?”

“Han’bul sez it! Sometimes!” eager nodding.

“Says WHAT?”

“I’se ordah be SEEN – notturd!”

Alex laughed. “Hoist with your own petard there, son,” he informed Hannibal. “It doesn’t work for you any better than for Mrs. Mueller, huh?”

“Pa…you know – buttresses…”

“Hannibal, that might be answered better when we can sit down after supper with a pencil and paper, huh?” Alex tempted David with another forkful, “…You were saying there’s a lot to be done at the old Fraser place, Tanner?”

“Sure is…An’ – if you CAN get hold of labour – it’s pretty pricey…”

“We were lucky,” put in Louisa, “…Alex is SO clever. He built this whole place himself!” Wifely admiration washed over Alex. His hand was squeezed.

He returned the squeeze, fondly. “…Thank you, Gorgeous. BUT …I seem to remember the odd helping hand, huh?” He turned, “I’d be happy to give you a few days, Tanner. The place is pretty sound. It won’t take long for the two of us to make you and Charlotte real snug before winter.”

“Oh, Alex!” glowed Charlotte. “Thank you!”

“…Yeah, thanks Heyes,” managed Jefferson. He wanted cash – not offers of ‘help in kind’. AND, he did not plan to waste time working on the place his parents-in-law were providing. Not when what he REALLY needed was just a little stake… The poker players in a small place like Larson Creek were bound to be pretty dumb, huh? All he needed was to win enough to get back into a richer game over at the Fort. Then – he’d be fine! He had a new system… Couldn’t fail!

—oooOOOooo—

MONDAY

“Hannibal! Jed!” Mrs. Curry waved. “…I’ve good news for you boys! Good morning, Alex!”

Alex halted his wagon outside Mister Ward’s place, a broken plough blade in the back. He and his young helpers, allowed to ‘come for the ride’ smiled at the two women shading their eyes against the sun.

“Good morning, Elizabeth, Caroline,” he said climbing down. “…G’Morning, Ward. What’s the good news for this pair?”

“Well,” started Elizabeth, “…I needed a few things from the mercantile, so – while I was …”

“…Didya ask ‘em, Ma?” chirped Jed. “…Didya?”

“…She did!” smiled Mister Ward.

“…You’ll do it, huh, Mister Ward?” interrupted Hannibal.

“…I reckon so.”

Hannibal beamed. He liked Mister Ward! He was real sensible! He knew all about – y’know – getting stuff to work.

“…And – so will I!” put in Caroline Field. “May the best team win!”

Hannibal reckoned that was okay too. Esther had a point – it was only fair to have a woman judge. And Miss Field was real smart. It was just – he was not QUITE so sure what she would be looking for.

“…I seem to be the only one in the dark,” said Alex. “What’s happening?”

“…It’s a bet, Mister Heyes …” chirped Jed. He caught his mother’s frown. “…I mean a – a challenge! Who can build the best den, by Friday afternoon. Mister Ward and Miss Field – they’re gonna be judges!”

“Ah!” Alex smiled. Yesterday evening’s grilling on buttresses became clear. As did the odd feeling that one or two tools, though all on their correct hooks, seemed somehow – cleaner and shinier than before.

“Mister Ward is gonna judge – soundness of construction an’ craftsmanship…” put in Hannibal.

“We couldn’t ask you or Pa,” clarified Jed, “…’Cos you’d be buy …er…”

“Biased,” supplied Hannibal. “…T’wards MY team,” he added, in case Alex was in doubt. “Miss Field,” he went on, “…will be judging Archy…er…other stuff!”

“…Architectural merit and aesthetics,” clarifed Miss Field. “…And both myself and my fellow honoured judge will consider how comfortable the place is as an overnight shelter.”

“…Ours is gonna be real comf’table!” declared Hannibal. “…I’m gonna…”

“Ah ah!” reproved Elizabeth. “NONE of THAT! You know the rules. The judges do NOT know in advance which team built which den! Any infringement – you’ll be disqualified.”

“Sheesh,” blinked Alex. “…Someone’s made this watertight!”

Elizabeth and Caroline let their gaze linger on Hannibal.
“With SOME competitors…” said Elizabeth, “…You have to close any loopholes BEFORE battle commences!”

Hannibal, eyes wide with innocence, favoured both judges with a charming smile. Belatedly, he swept off his hat to Miss Field and nudged Jed to do the same. It couldn’t hurt, huh?

“…Who’s on which team?” asked Alex.

“…MeanHananTommyBaueranGeorgeMyersanIkeWilliams…” Jed took a breath, “…are on OUR team!”

“Esther and Rachel Williams…” began Hannibal.

“…An’ – Hannah,” reminded Jed. Hannibal’s eyes rolled. A blond head hung.

“… are headin’ up the other team.”

“…’Cos OUR team,” put in Jed, artlessly, “…is…NO GIRLS ALLOWED!”

Hannibal shot his candid team-mate an annoyed look, then, redoubled the charming smile at the female judge.

“…’Cos – Han an’ the others reckon girls oughta stick to sewin’ an’ stuff they’re good at! ‘Cos of the nat’ral order – an’ ‘cos of bein’ sub’servants to men an’…OW!!” Scowling and a touch confused, Jed rubbed his anklebone.

Alex saw a tightening at the corner of Elizabeth’s mouth and a wry grin on the school ma-am’s face. “…Ah!” he said, inadequately.

“Children will repeat what they hear at home,” remarked Miss Field.

“I was only tellin’ Esther,” began Hannibal, putting the record straight, “…about men’s awful rule an’ right suprem’cy…how women are bound to serve, love an’ obey!”

“…Full marks on the quotation, son,” acknowledged Alex, “…but, just because it’s in a play doesn’t make it – well – true!”

“…It IS true, though, huh?” challenged Hannibal. “I mean – YOU ‘spects to be obeyed? Not just by me an’ the boys, by their mother too! You say things like…” An imitation of his father’s ‘no arguing’ look. Deep voice. “…’That’s my last word on the subject’ and ’That’s final, Louisa! I have spoken!’”

Alex flushed. Sheesh! Did he really sound that pompous?

…I don’t think I do that very often, Hannibal!”

“…Well, you don’t have to, do you? She always does as she’s told!” The colour on Alex’s cheeks deepened. “…I mean you asks nicely …But, if you DO say something, you ‘spects to be obeyed, huh?”

A beat. Elizabeth and Caroline were enjoying this.

“Er…” Alex hesitated. He hesitated some more.

“…The word you’re looking for is ‘Yes’, Alex,” offered Caroline, helpfully.

“Well…” Alex decided to admit it, “…Yes. But…”

“…And – women have to obey men they’re NOT married to as well!” went on Hannibal. “…Miss Field can tell US what to do in school, but – she hasta do what YOU say ‘cos YOU’RE on the school board…”

“Not just me, Hannibal,” demurred Alex, as Caroline again raised a quizzical eyebrow. “…And, I’m sure Miss Field would agree, it’s more of a – a consensus…”

“…AND…” Hannibal persisted, “…women aren’t ALLOWED on the school board, huh?”

“Some reforms have been suggested…” began Alex.

“They keep getting defeated though!” triumphed Hannibal, “…’Cos – women can’t vote! Can they?”

“No,” said Caroline, bluntly.

“…So, I wasn’t makin’ it up!” Hannibal challenged his father. “…that stuff ‘bout men’s right suprem’cy IS true, huh?”

Alex surveyed the amused, steady stare from two of his oldest, closest friends.

“Er…” he began, eloquently. A beat. “Er…” Alex turned resolutely to Mister Ward. “…I’ve got a broken plough blade here, Ward…”

—oooOOOooo—

“…Gentlemen DEFER to ladies! Decent husbands CHERISH their wives! …Do you hear me?”

“Yessir,” sighed Hannibal. Sheesh! He had only been SAYING! He didn’t see why he and Jed had to listen to this lecture all the way home!

“You don’t hear me boss Louisa, do you? You don’t hear Jed’s Pa order his Ma around?”

“No, sir.”

“It’s kinda the other way round, Mister Heyes,” piped up Jed. Since Mister Heyes continued to frown at Hannibal, Jed gathered he was not required in this conversation. He piped down.

“…Haven’t you heard of chivalry?”

“No, sir. I mean – yessir.”

“…Well! What does it mean?”

“No hitting girls – ever. Even if’n they throw the first punch. No callin’ ‘em names. Givin’ up your chair. Carryin’ stuff for ‘em. That kinda stuff.”

“…When you’re stronger than someone else – and I don’t just mean physically – you must NEVER take unfair advantage! It’s – it’s mean! It’s BECAUSE men CAN bully women so easily – they must NEVER do it! Do you see?”

“Yessir.” Hannibal wriggled, “…I don’t reckon me bullyin’ Esther’d be THAT easy, sir! I’m not sayin’ I COULDN’T flatten her. I COULD… just – it wouldn’t be easy!”

“…Hannibal!”

“…An’ we’re NOT takin’ advantage! It’s a FAIR contest! Mister an’ Mrs. Curry decided the RULES!”

“Hannibal! You’re missing the point!”

“…Are you sayin’ we hafta let ‘em win, Mister Heyes?” checked Jed, “… ‘Cos of – shiv’ry?”

“No, Jed,” replied Alex, more mildly, “…Letting girls win – just because they’re girls – that’d be rather – patronising.”

“…Huh?”

“…Pretending to be nice – because you assume you’re better than they are…”

“…An’ that’s NOT shiv’ry…’cos…?” Jed wrinkled his brow.

“Well…” said Alex. A quagmire of semantics loomed before him. Actually – and metaphorically – Alex gave full attention to urgently adjusting the reins.

“…We’re NOT lettin’ the girls win!” declared Hannibal, with a glower at Jed. “…No WAY am I losin’!”

“That’s what Esther says,” remarked Jed.

“So long as we stick to the rules and – y’know – ‘play nice’…” said Hannibal, “…that’s okay, huh, Pa?”

“That’s fine,” agreed Alex.

“An’…” grinned Jed, happily, “…may the best man win!”

Alex cast a sharp look at the smiling blue eyes. Absolving Jed of irony, he let that pass.

“…Oh, Hannibal,” said Alex.

“Yessir?” said Hannibal. Sheesh! He had thought the lecture was over.

“You know I wouldn’t be pleased if you borrowed something – like, say, my tools – without asking, don’t you?”

The two boys exchanged a glance. There was a definite hint of ‘told you so’ mingled in the sympathetic quality of Jed’s side of the glance. Two sets of small shoulders drooped.

“Guess so,” mumbled Hannibal.

“What was that?”

“Yessir.”

“However – since all my tools are exactly where I left them – and clean as a whistle, the most rational hypothesis is – they never moved, huh?”

“Er…” Hannibal knew his father was – tricky. He decided not to answer that one.

“I guess you two will head back to your den later?”

“…Once we’ve finished our equi’bal tasks, Mister Heyes,” confirmed Jed.

“IF you ASKED to borrow some tools,” said Alex, “I think the answer would be ‘yes’.” Hannibal’s hair was ruffled. “…Can’t have you patronising the ladies by not doing the absolute best you can, huh, son?”

Hannibal beamed at his father. Good!

Then, “Look, Pa!” A figure had appeared as the road curved.

“Hello, Charlotte,” Alex’s eyes went along the track. “…You must have come from our place? Did you need me for anything?”

“…No, no!” Charlotte replied, hastily. “I popped round to visit with Louisa. Just to say ‘Hello’ – y’know. Brigit offered to look after the baby and Frederick. It’s such a lovely day… I thought…” she trailed off.

“…Can I give you a lift home?” offered Alex.

“ …No, no! You must wanna get back!”

“I’m not behind. It’s no trouble …”

“…No, no!” Charlotte realised her refusal was a touch over emphatic. She shut up, flushed. Then, “…To be honest Alex, I’ll enjoy the walk. It’s not long since Frederick stopped followin’ me everywhere. No offence, but – half an hour of my own comp’ny – it’s kinda a treat.”

As he watched Charlotte walk away, Alex mused. She may be genuine enough in her preference to walk rather than ride. But…? Quite! But.

—oooOOOooo—

“…So if’n the girls win,” summarised Tommy Bauer.

“Which – they won’t,” stressed Hannibal.

“…they get to be on a proper barn raisin’ team?”

“Uh huh. Mister Curry will let ‘em on his team. But – they won’t win.”

“…An’ … we hafta present ‘em with some – winner’s flag?”

“Uh huh,” confirmed Hannibal. “… An’ ‘cos I’m team leader…”

“You’re what?”

“…’cos I’m team spokesman…” repeated Hannibal, enunciating more clearly for Tommy’s apparent hearing difficulty. “…I have to make a speech – standing up on a stump – in front of everyone – ‘bout how they’re the better team an’ won fair an’ square.”

Tommy pondered. He had no problem with Hannibal being team spokesman if that’s what it involved.

“…AND…” Ike took up the clarification process, “…if’n the girls win…”

“Which – they won’t,” Hannibal repeated. It was a key point. It needed driving home.

“…We hafta take part in the next quiltin’ bee?”

“Uh huh,” Horrified expressions. “…But – they won’t win.”

“BUT, if’n WE win,” back to Tommy, “…We don’t win nuthin’ ‘cept this flag!”

“And…” Hannibal swelled his voice, “…the GLO.O.R.R.R.Y!”

Tommy pursed his lips. It did sound better said like that. All the same…

“…An’ – you reckon this is a good deal?”

“…Well, “ said Ike, fairly, “…We get to hear Rachel admit we’re better’n her! I’d like that!” he confided.

Jed wondered if Hannibal had forgotten.
“Han, don’t forget, if’n we win – we get to…”

“WHEN we win,” corrected Hannibal. He had NOT forgotten. He was saving the best for last. “…we get some’n else too.” He stopped. Waited.

“…Go on,” urged George Myers.
“…Go on, then?” gave in Tommy.

“…When Mister Fowler makes the pitch, Mister Curry’s gonna get him to let us light the kiln … and scrape it out…and keep the fire goin’ …an’…y’know … do stuff with it!” Hannibal said, impressively. “…If we do ‘sactly what we’re told on the day,” he temporised.

Once again Tommy pursed his lips. Ike joined him. Usually the older men kept all that – that FUN stuff to themselves! Boys hanging around the kiln or hot pitch barrel were shooed away as if – as if they were nothing but children!
“…That ain’t a bad deal, Hannibal,” Tommy admitted. “If’n we win,” he added.

“’COURSE we’ll WIN!” braced Hannibal. “…Now, George, Ike, start getting some roof struts in place. Jed, get a mix ready to start chinking. Tommy…” A much fingered sheet of paper was removed from Hannibal’s pocket. “…I’ve got me a diagram of how best to fashion us a buttress…”

—oooOOOooo—

“…Louisa,” said Alex, after Hannibal had gone up to bed, “…did Charlotte have – anything particular – to say, this morning?”

Louisa looked up from her darning.

“…She was tellin’ me what Mama had to say ‘bout …” Larson Creek gossip followed. Then, “…Charlotte was sayin’ Jefferson was gonna order the lumber …she was sayin’ they needed to give Mister Fowler the money …”

“…Louisa,” interrupted Alex, “…I won’t lend Tanner money. I’m sorry to be so blunt – but – there it is! I told him that last night. AND I told him – if he pestered you behind my back – I’d have something to say about it!” Alex frowned. “…That…Tchah! Sending his wife to do his dirty work!”

Louisa flushed, dropped her head.

Alex moved over. “…Sorry, Gorgeous,” he apologised, taking the hand holding a small shirt and dropping a kiss on it. “…I didn’t mean to rant. But – you’ll have to tell Charlotte the answer’s ‘No’! That’s final.”

Silence. Louisa did not look up.

Then, a very quiet little voice, “…If she hasta – Charlotte’ll pay it back outta the money she earns sewin’…I know she will. She said.”

“She won’t,” Alex gently raised Louisa’s chin, so she had to meet his eyes, “…I’m not saying she’s lying – I’m just saying she’s fooling herself. IF your mother pays her in cash rather than goods – which I doubt, because your mother is pretty smart – there’s NO way Jefferson will let Charlotte keep a penny. And, it won’t get spent on lumber.“

Louisa flashed him a guilty look.

“…Louisa,” Alex’s voice was very gentle, “…have you ALREADY lent Charlotte money?”

Her cheeks burned, she nodded.

“…Not much. Just the money for my new winter dress. I thought that’d be okay – ‘cos it’s mine …” Louisa stopped. “…Well, I know it ain’t – isn’t mine really…it’s yours…Sorry. You’re not cross are you? I won’t do it again. Don’t be cross, Alex…”

“Of course I’m not cross. Not with you, anyhow. Nor Charlotte – poor girl! The only person I’m cross with is myself, I should have warned you last night. And…” he kissed her hand again, “…as far as I’m concerned, Gorgeous, everything we have is OURS, okay? But, we both work too hard for it to be thrown away on some poker table…” Alex took a breath, “…If you want to do something for your sister, give her – baby clothes or – or something for herself. I’ll talk to your father – between us, I’m sure we can buy any lumber they need direct. No more cash! Ever! Alright?”

A nod.

“Do I get a smile?” he asked.

He got a smile. Still a touch – wavery.

“…Do I get – a kiss?” he teased.

The smile stopped wavering – brightened. He got a kiss. Alex took the darning from Louisa’s hands and laid it aside. He picked her up and then settled back down with her in his lap. Another kiss and …another…pressing her close…

“…Oh,” A flushed Louisa pulled back. “…It’s a bit soon, Alex…”

“What…?” he joshed, glancing at the clock. “…You don’t want to sit in my lap before ten? Is that it?”

“…No,” she gave a half regretful wriggle, “…I think it’s a bit soon for…” she blushed, “…y’know…”

“…’Y’know’?” teasing her. “…’Y’know’? With a new baby and Samuel and David convinced we need them to knock on the bedroom door and inform us every time they wake up, have a dream, don’t have a dream, drink water, spill water …pass water … “ Alex furrowed his brow, “…I don’t think I DO know anymore. I’ve forgotten! But …” he kissed the tip of Louisa’s nose, “…Whenever you’re ready, Gorgeous – I look forward to being reminded.”

“Alex!” giggling.

“…When the time comes for my refresher training…”

“Alex!”

“…You will…” he hesitated.

“…I will – what?”

“…You will be gentle with me, won’t you?”

“ALEX!”

—oooOOOooo—

TUESDAY

“…Geddown, Jed! Stay low!”

While obeying his instructions, Jed managed an – uncomfortably low – wriggle. Not that he didn’t enjoy stalking. He did! He enjoyed it fine! Just…

Oh! Go, go, go!

Momentarily, Jed forgot his qualms. He gave full attention to sprinting to the next patch of thick long grass and dropping once more, unseen by his quarry, to the ground. The quarry headed towards a patch of scrubland to the left. The wily stalkers exchanged a glance. The quarry was making for the bank of a small creek curving around the edge of the Myers’ land. Slithering low, the stalkers made the safety of the scrub cover. Wary of giving themselves away by cracking an unseen twig they edged forward – inch by inch. Very tentatively a small, grubby, hand pulled down the branch of a bramble-strewn bush. Two pairs of eyes, one bright blue, one deep brown, raised themselves just far enough from the ground to peer over the incline. The eyes exchanged a glance. The mouths belonging to the respective pairs of eyes exchanged a grin of triumph. They had done it! They had tracked down the lair!

Below them, beside the creek, their quarry had rejoined the flock. High-pitched calls, peculiar to the species rang out. The brightly coloured plumage made a charming sight as the flock fluttered in the late afternoon sunshine. The specimen they had so successfully stalked was about to enter the water. It…

Blushing, Jed turned away as Hannah Williams hitched up her skirts to remove her boots and stockings, preparatory to wading into the creek. His qualms returned. This sneaking after her seemed – well – kinda sneaky!

Mind you, Han HAD offered an alternative.

“If’n you don’t wanna follow her, Jed – go up an’ y’know – get her talkin’. Once she’s gigglin’ – slip in a few leadin’ questions…non’shlan like!”

“Yeah!” Ike Williams had nodded. Then, bringing the blood rushing into the younger boy’s cheeks, “…She likes you, Jed. Go on!”

Offered the choice of ‘stalking or talking’, Jed had smeared his face with dirt streaks and dropped to his belly in the dust without further argument.

“They’ve not picked a bad spot,” murmured Han, pursing his lips in grudging approval. He watched the activity in silence for a minute. “…The den – well – I don’t suppose it looks TOO bad. Kinda hard to tell from here.” Another minute of silent observation. “Rachel an’ Esther seem to be doin’ mosta the hard work.” The opposing team had grown beyond its original three members. “…I can’t see your Beth or Carrie Williams bein’ much help. I mean they’re…well…” Han gave a little glance at Jed. He did not want to say anything against Jed’s sister. In any case, Beth was okay. In fact, she was real nice. It was just…

“…they’re PROPER girls…” Jed supplied. Han nodded, pleased Jed understood him so perfectly. “Like…” a faint flush, a respectful tone, “…like Hannah!” Jed finished.

Hannibal rolled his eyes.

—oooOOOooo—

“Hello Alex!” smiled Louisa, looking up from the table where a writhing Amy expressed her low opinion of the diaper changing procedure with a pair of sturdy lungs.

“Papa! Pa!” A small blond figure abandoned the socks he was supposed to be sorting and scampered up. “Papa!” Hair was ruffled. Alex walked over and ruffled the seated David’s hair too. He was rewarded with a quick dimple, before David bent, once more, to serious – if not always accurate – sock matching.

“What GOOD boys!” praised Alex. “…Helping Mama! Doing such a GOOD job!”

Samuel nodded, happily, he sat back down and pulled socks towards him. “…Sam’ul show David how!”

“Wonderful,” admired Papa. “…Er, usually only two in a pair, David!”

“NO!” scathed Samuel. “…Sam’ul’s got David on col’ers! I’SE doin’ num’ers!”

Louisa caught Alex’s eye, shook her head. The boys were quiet and cheerful. They could sort socks into assorted rainbow dozens if they liked. She glanced at the clock.

“Oh, I’m not through,” confirmed Alex. “…We’ve finished the early corn, so… “ He switched to silent mouthing in case Samuel demanded to join his elder brother, “…Hannibal and Jed…” volume back on, “…are off plotting…Hello! Hello! Are you my princess? Are you beautiful? Are you? Yes! Yes you are! You’re beautiful! Come to Papa! Come to Papa! There! Is Papa’s little princess going to give him a smile? Is she?” Amy, not unnaturally when faced with all this mush, assumed an expression of disgust and blew a spit bubble. Alex returned his conversation, if not his besotted gaze, to Louisa. “…I’m going to start ploughing the south strip ready for the wheat. I just thought you might take pity and offer me a cup of tea. AND…” A tiny figure was hoisted above his head. It gurgled appreciatively. THAT was more like it! “…I needed to see YOU, Princess! Are you beautiful? Are you?” Well. You can fill in the rest. It was on the repetitive side!

Louisa rinsed effluent, recently expelled by the most beautiful princess in the world, off her hands and put the kettle on.

“Alex,” she said, her tone serious. Alex returned the majority of his attention to his wife. “…Charlotte called again this morning. Jefferson had to use the money for – something else that came up. She was wondering if …” Louisa met her husband’s eyes. “…I told her you’d said ‘no’.” A checking glance at her two absorbed boys. In a much lower voice, “…Oh Alex! I felt so awful! She’d asked me – y’see – the other day – NOT to say anythin’ to you. An’ I’d said I couldn’t promise – but – I wouldn’t say nothin’ if you didn’t ask!” She bit her lip. “I know I shouldn’t have said even that, but…I feel so bad for her! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean …”

“Hey!” Alex tucked Amy safely in the crook of one arm, freeing the other to hug Louisa’s shoulders. A kiss was dropped on her hair. “Did she try to…persuade you?”

“No! Not at all! She was so – SO embarrassed. We both were. I reckon part of her is kinda glad she won’t hafta come ask us ever again!”

—oooOOOooo—

“Right men,” briefed the commanding officer, “…we’ve successfully located the opp’sition op’rations. That was good work!” Jed beamed, happily. “But…it’s not enough!” Jed, fulfilling the role of ‘loyal lieutenant’ switched to serious head shaking. “We need a closer look. Now…I wanna do this WITHOUT Esther an’ Rachel knowin’. So, I’m pickin’ a time tomorrow mornin’ when Rachel, Carrie, Hannah an’ Ike are all together an’ when Beth an’ Esther have their eye on both me an’ Jed ‘cos I’m stoppin’ at his place…AND…” Hannibal grinned, “…WE know where THEY are!” Tommy an’ George! You men will carry out the…” another breath, “…’reckay’…at first light. That’s BEFORE breakfast! Understand?” Jed joined Hannibal in stern frowning. “…I need – details! How does it look close up? But remember…” An admonitory finger…No! Make that TWO admonitory fingers. “…Don’t touch nothin’! ‘Cos – we don’t want ‘em knowin’ – we know!” The team captain drew himself up to his full height. “Everyone understand? Anyone not understand?”

A beat. Confirmatory murmurs.

“In that case,” summed up the satisfied commander, “…back to work!”

—oooOOOooo—

“…Hello, Jefferson.” A wavering smile greeted Jefferson, as he walked into the old Fraser place. “…What do you think? Lookin’ better, huh? I worked real hard!”

Charlotte kept talking. Jefferson felt irritation wash over him. Why did she hafta sound so…

“…Frederick has been helpin’! Good as gold! He was SO tired – he fell asleep before I could tuck him in! Horatio is asleep too – touch wood! Where d’you think we should put …?”

“Did you go to your sister’s?”

“Yes, Jefferson.” Scared blue eyes.

“AND…?” she was SO infuriating. She KNEW he hated that cringing look! He pulled off his boots.

Charlotte began to talk faster. Nervous giggles in between the words.
“…Louisa was tellin’ me ‘bout some competition Hannibal has ‘gainst Esther Curry! Girls against boys! Fancy! Who can build the best den! There’s gonna be a presentation to the winners at the barn raisin’. Proper judges an’ – an’ rules an’ ev’rythin’! Just fancy! Elizabeth Curry was tellin’ Louisa the BOYS’ den is just past the edge of the Curry land – headin’ west. Y’know – not far from where the track forks toward Endeavour…”

Jefferson threw his boots, with full force, over towards the wall. A shrill baby’s cry started up at the ‘bang’.

Stop whitterin’ you stupid b—-! You know d— well what I wanna know! Did you get the money? For – for the lumber?”

The fair head hung. The lower lip trembled.

“No! I’m sorry. Alex has forbidden her to …”

“I TOLD you! I TOLD you NOT to let her tell him! Are you DEAF as well as stupid? I TOLD you! ”

—oooOOOooo—

WEDNESDAY

“…Hello Fred‘rick,” said Hannibal, climbing down from the wagon.

A blond head looked up from poking dust down knotholes in the porch of the old Fraser place. A beam.

’Lo Han’bah! ‘Lo Unclax!”

“…Is your Mother inside?” asked Alex, untying ropes securing a small load of planks.

Nodding. “…C’eanin’! Ver’ ver’ ver’ lade – Sp’ing c’eanin’!”

“…You take Louisa’s package in, Hannibal. I’ll just unload this. Won’t be a moment.”

Frederick scrambled to his feet to follow his big ‘sort of step-cousin’.

“…Aunt Charlotte?” Hannibal called, knocking and pushing open the door. “…Your sister wondered if’n you’d like these curtains? And – there’s a pie too, ‘cos she said you might be too busy to…Sheesh! What happened to you, ma-am?”

Charlotte, hair tied up in a scarf to protect it from dust, turned hastily away as Hannibal walked in. Not before he saw her face.

“It’s – it’s nothing,” Charlotte said. “I…I walked into a door! Isn’t that just the silliest thing you ever heard?”

“Sheesh!” repeated Hannibal. Then, with a certain admiration, “…Zach had him a black eye back in the spring, but – it weren’t a patch on that, ma-am!” A beat. “Pa’s just unloadin’ the stuff for the roof repairs.”

“…Your Pa‘s here!” It was almost a yelp.

Hannibal, wise now in the ways of the fair sex, understood. With proper chivalry he soothed, “He won’t care you look a real mess with your hair tied up like that and covered in dirt, ma-am. He knows you’re cleanin’ the place.

A tap on the door. Alex walked in. “Good afte…” he stopped.

Hannibal followed his father’s eyes. “Aunt Charlotte walked into a door,” he explained, informatively.

“Yes!” nodded Charlotte. “It was the stupidest thing, Alex! I was cleanin’ the cupboard – with the doors open – an’ ‘thwack’! Can you believe it, I…?” She tailed off. Her face flushed scarlet. “…It’s nothin’, Alex. Just a bruise.”

“Is Jefferson not here?” asked Alex, evenly.

“…He had business in town.” A beat. Charlotte did not look up. “I walked into a door,” she repeated.

Silence.

Making his tone lighter, Alex broke it. “I’ve stacked the material for the roof, covered it with a tarp – though – I doubt we’ll get rain. I’ll get that job done Sunday, if that suits you, Charlotte?”

A quiet, “Thank you. What do we owe Mister Fowler?”

“Nothing,” said Alex.

“…It can’t be nothin’…” Charlotte met his eyes, flushed. “…Oh! Oh, Alex! You mustn’t …really…I’ll pay you back! I…”

“Hey,” Alex’s turn to flush. “…Don’t be silly! All those times you’ve saved my life – helping me pick out something pretty for Louisa? I reckon I still owe you – not the other way round, huh?” He smiled, “…Now, could I ask a favour?”

“Sure.”

“…I’ve an errand back in town. Could you put up with Hannibal for half an hour?”

“…Alex, please don’t…”

Hannibal blinked. Surely having him visit for half an hour wasn’t THAT bad?

“… I’ll pick him up real soon,” said Alex. He smiled at Charlotte, “…Don’t fret.”

Charlotte was still biting her lip with worry as Alex strode out.

‘Sheesh’ thought Hannibal. Talk about showing good manners to ‘guests’! He felt a tug at his sleeve.

“What?”

“Do madic t’ick?” suggested Frederick.

“Well,” smiled Hannibal, pleased his performance the other evening had gone down so well, “…I’ll need a pack of cards.”

Frederick trotted to where his father’s ‘good’ jacket hung, felt in the pocket and returned with the required equipment. Hannibal pursed his lips, as he impressed the younger boy with a dextrous shuffle. Maybe Mister Tanner was not so … well, y’know… after all? By the look of things he did the odd card trick too.

—oooOOOooo—

“…Just chalk it up …”

“Nope.” The barkeep’s tone was even. “Cash.”

“…I see you chalkin’ up other folks drinks!” protested Jefferson.

“No one gets a tab until Mister McKenna says. Till then – it’s cash.”

“…No problem, I’ll get these,” offered Eli Williams.

Eli Williams usually had ‘just one quick beer’ before heading home with the weekly provisions. Occasionally two. Hey, it was a dusty drive, huh? Williams was surprised when pressed by Jefferson Tanner to join Daniel Webster and himself for a drink. He had no fondness for Daniel Webster. As Williams told his Hester, a man needs a beer to get the dust out of his throat and, a mouthful of whiskey when there was something to celebrate never did anyone any harm. Drinking away money needed to put food on your children’s plates, was quite another matter! However, he knew no ill of Tanner. He hardly knew Tanner at all. He knew he was married to the eldest Mueller girl. Josef Mueller was a good man. And, he was Heyes’ brother-in-law. Heyes now, Heyes was a real good neighbour. Subconsciously, Williams granted Tanner ‘virtue by association’.
“Sorry about that,” Tanner was saying.

“Not a problem…Here’s health…”

“…I was tellin’ Webster here, I just have a few delays in consol’datin’ my assets. Cash flow problems…y’know…?”

Eli Williams was not sure he did know. He knew the problems of not having ENOUGH cash – sure. But – cash flow? Tanner talked on. If he could just get a – he called it a ‘bridging loan’. Internally Eli Williams shrugged. He was not certain how a ‘bridging loan’ differed from an ordinary loan.

“The fella who does most of the lendin’ round here…” put in Daniel Webster, draining his glass, “…is Charles McKenna. He owns this place.”

“…I’ve heard the name,” said Tanner. A questioning glance was thrown at the barkeep.

A shrug from Tom Hargrove.
“…Mister McKenna is away right now – but I guess he’ll be around by the weekend if you want to see him.”

Eli Williams shot a wary look at Tom. When all was said and done, he did work for the man. Williams owed it to any family of Heyes to pass on a warning. It was only neighbourly. Tanner was new – he didn’t know about…

Williams pulled Tanner a little way from the bar and spoke low. “A word of advice. Don’t borrow from McKenna. Not if you’ve any – ANY alternative…” A qualm shook him. “…I ain’t sayin’ nuthin’ against the man, you understand! Just – his terms are …” Williams wriggled. He hoped he was not a coward. But, when a man had a wife and children to think of… “The thing is, Tanner,” he began again, “…If’n you do need ‘just a little stake’ …Sheesh!” It seemed so obvious. “…Go to Mueller. Or, Alex Heyes! Neither of ‘em would want you goin’ to McKenna without consultin’ ‘em first!”

“Pfffttt!” scoffed Jefferson. “You can’t get a CENT out of Mueller lessen that @**@ing b—- gives permission!”

Williams blinked. Webster let out a snort of laughter.

The saloon door swung open.

Speak of the devil,” a relieved William’s remarked. “…If’n you don’t believe me, Heyes here will tell you the same. Don’t get yourself in debt with McKenna.”

Jefferson had not turned at the sound of a new arrival. He turned now. The tall figure of his brother-in-law stood silhouetted against the light from the dusty window. There was something different in the dark eyes, something – dangerous.

“I’d like a word, Tanner,” said Alex. “…In private.” A beat. “ Outside.”

“…A word ‘bout what?” Jefferson growled. He took a gulp at his drink.

“Something I saw over at the old Fraser place.”

“What has that whinin’…?” Jefferson stopped. He tried for a belligerent tone. “…What the Sam Hill gives you the right to interfere in my private business, Heyes?”

“Step outside, I’ll explain it to you,” replied Alex. Silence. “…I’m askin’ you to step outside. Are you coming?”

Jefferson felt his face grow hot. Heyes was making him look yellow! He shot a resentful look at those dark eyes. No way was he going outside … No WAY! Heyes would flatten him!

“No! I got nothin’ to say to you!”

“In that case, I’ll say what I have to say here. Charlotte has ‘walked into a door’. In my opinion ‘doors’ that hit women need dealing with. If this ‘door’ ever – EVER – hurts her again, I will come round to your place and take this ‘door’ off its hinges. I will bust every single panel on this ‘door’ and make it wish it had never been hung. Am I making myself clear?”

Jefferson reached for his drink. His hand trembled.

“Am I making myself clear?” repeated Alex. A beat. “I’m waiting. Am I making myself clear?”

“Yeah…” a grudging mumble.

“Out loud, please.” Alex took a step towards his brother-in-law.

“Yes!” bleated Jefferson, hastily. “Yes!”

“Sure?” Another step. “You don’t need me to explain further?”

“No! No! I got it!”

—oooOOOooo—

“The carpentry ain’t…” Tommy Bauer, reporting back to his Intelligence Officer, gave a grudging shrug. “…Well, it ain’t too bad. Their place is a mite smaller. And…they’ve done the roof all wrong!”

“You mean – it’ll leak?” queried Hannibal, tone full of hope. The enemies’ den must have made swift progress since he and Jed saw it from a distance early yesterday afternoon. The roof was up! “…Their roof isn’t – sound?”

The two officers who had carried out the dawn ‘reckay’ exchanged a glance.

“I dunno as it’ll LEAK,” demurred George Myers. “…Like Tommy said, their carpentry is – pretty good…”

“You ain’t saying it’s better’n ours!” protested Ike Williams.

“No! Not – better,” conceded Tommy, hesitatingly. “Just…” another reluctant shrug, “…it ain’t so bad as I was kinda hopin’…”

“…I reckon – it’s pretty even on…” George took a breath before enunciating, “…soundness of construction an’ craftsmanship.”

“But…the roof,” pressed Hannibal. “…They have a problem with the roof?”

“Yeah, it’s the wrong shape,” Tommy informed him. “…Once its finished – an’ it AIN’T finished yet – it’s gonna look a bit like a – a wigwam!”

Internally Hannibal ran through the full list of project criteria. Nope. Nothing about shape. ‘Fit for purpose’ – sure! But, he had a sneaky feeling wigwams WERE – well, wigwam shaped – for a purpose. ‘Architectural merit’. Well, Miss Field might LIKE pointy roofs.

“They still have lots to do!” soothed George.

“So do we,” chirped Jed, looking up from the digging he was getting on with.

“But…” Tommy gave Hannibal a satisfied smile. He and George did have some better news to report. “…THAT lot have MORE to do – AND, they’re wastin’ a lotta time doin’ – sappy stuff!”

Instead of being pleased, an arrested expression froze the Intelligence Officer’s face.
“What kind of – sappy stuff?”

“Their place has …” a snigger, “…frilly curtains waitin’ to go up at the windows. We found ‘em. AND…they’ve been weavin’ baskets an’ fillin’ ‘em with soil. Plantin’ wildflowers! Pfffttt!”

Hannibal did not join in Tommy’s laughter.

“AND…” took up, George, “…y’know those…not beds ‘sactly … y’know those things sailors sleep in?”

“Hammocks,” supplied the well-read Hannibal, in a wary voice.

“…That’s the ones! We reckon they’re makin’ one o’ them.”

“…Kinda…knittin’ it! Well – loopin’, anyhow,” nodded Tommy. He gave another snigger, “Girls, huh?”

Jed watched his best friend’s face. He knew that look. Hannibal was working something out.
“THAT’S what Beth an’ Carrie were doin’ with those grape vines! And your sister Hannah…” an accusing look was thrown at Ike, “…she wasn’t just takin’ sticks into the water to play! She was soakin’ ‘em. Bet they was willow! For baskets! Sheesh! Those sneaky, sneaky…” a burst of reluctant honesty, “…CLEVER little…” he remembered ‘chivalry’. The intelligence officer tailed off. He looked from confused face to confused face. “…Don’t you see? Esther an’ Rachel who like doin’ BOYS’ stuff – are takin’ care of the buildin’. AND they’ve got the …” Hannibal used Jed’s useful phrase, “…PROPER girls on stuff we’re not doin’ at all! Knittin’ hammocks. Weavin’ baskets to hang flowers up in! Sewin’ curtains!”

“…But…” Ike’s face creased in confusion. “…Those things are all – GIRLY! It ain’t nothin’ to do with buildin’ a den!”

“It’s got somethin’ to do with WINNIN’!” exclaimed Hannibal. “…We keep concentratin’ on soundness of construction an’ craftsmanship!”

“Yeah?” Tommy still did not see what Hannibal was driving at.

“…What d’you think – Aesthetics – are?” challenged Hannibal.

Tommy scowled. He had no idea. Since he recognised the term as one of the things Miss Field was judging, he now realised – maybe he should have asked.

“…It’s … makin’ stuff look good …” Hannibal spelt it out, “…It IS the GIRLY stuff! AND…both judges are gonna think how comfortable the place is as an overnight shelter! I…” he corrected himself, “…I mean WE ‘terpreted that as watertight and windproof. But, we haven’t even brought in a blanket! Other things bein’ equal – wouldn’t you rather sleep in a hammock than on our floor?”

The other boys exchanged glances. Yup!

Hannibal brooded. Esther and Rachel could use … proper GIRLS! He only had boys! It would be unfair to describe them as ‘one trick ponies’, but…Another thought struck him. His eyes narrowed.

“It wouldn’t surprise me…” he said, darkly, “…if they didn’t have coffee bubblin’ an’ fresh baked cookies to give the judges a – a welcoming ‘romer‘!”

“Sheesh!” whistled George. That did sound …

“It – it’s not FAIR!” declared Hannibal, summing it up. “…They’ve got – GIRLS!”

“What are we gonna do?” asked Tommy, with whom the penny had now fully dropped.

“Yeah,” chimed in Ike. “Rachel’s gonna gloat like a – like a…” Nothing sprang to mind.

“Hey fellas! We’re NOT foldin’!” rallied Hannibal.

“What ARE we gonna do?” repeated Tommy. “…I mean WE can’t do this ‘Sthetick stuff! We can’t sew – or weave – or …”

“Tommy Bauer!” interrupted Hannibal, “…Hannibal Heyes don’t know the MEANING of the word – CAN’T!”

—oooOOOooo—

THURSDAY

Hannibal cast an approving eye at Jed, as the younger boy scrambled up to scrub the upper shelves. If Hannibal said so himself, the pair were doing a sterling job. Their offer to exchange labour for – of all things – six yards of gingham and a couple of yards of matching ribbon had not seemed wholly unexpected to Mister Mueller. He confided that only yesterday, Carrie Williams and Jed’s sister Beth turned a crate of loose tea into a gross of smaller, saleable, packages, in return for a pail full of nails and the hire of two shovels.

“Great minds think alike, huh?” Mister Mueller had smiled.

Hannibal had bridled. He was prepared to admit Esther was not to be underestimated! And, okay, the girls might have thought of provisions available from the mercantile FIRST. All the same… There was only one truly GREAT mind at work in this competition!

The brass bell over the mercantile entrance tinkled. Hannibal and Jed gave a polite ‘Good Afternoon’ to Mister Tanner. Instead of leaving once he handed over Aunt Charlotte’s sewing, he hung around chatting, in a low voice to Mister Wyatt. Hannibal sighed. Both men leant on counter space Hannibal could have used for the perfect – internal deep breath – catergorysfickation of the dry goods being restacked.

Another tinkle. Two more customers.

Mister Tanner waited until Mister Mueller took their orders, then, “Wyatt an’ I were ‘bout to walk over for a beer and a little card game. Friendly like. Either of you two gentlemen interested? Acker? Buellton?”

Attention caught, Hannibal remembered something he wanted to ask.

“…Maybe,” responded Mister Buellton. “…Yeah, why not?”

“…Mister Tanner,” chirped up Hannibal, “…You’re real good with cards, huh?”

Jefferson scowled. Hannibal was too like his interfering Pa! However, that particular question seemed innocent enough. “…I guess I’m a pretty fair poker player,” he answered.

“…I wasn’t thinkin’ of poker,” said Hannibal. “I meant more kinda – card tricks.”

“Huh?”

“Y’know, ‘pick a card – any card’.” Mister Tanner still looked blank. “…I know you DO card tricks…“ went on Hannibal, “…‘cos – why else have you marked up a deck? Are you real good?”

The mercantile had gone very quiet. Mister Mueller and the three townsmen all had their eyes on Mister Tanner. Mister Tanner gave a hollow laugh. “…I reckon you’ve too much imagination, son…”

“…It was in your jacket!” Hannibal protested. “…That jacket,” he pointed. What was the problem? It was only for tricks!

“Are you carryin’ a deck?” asked Mister Buellton, bluntly. Mister Tanner hesitated. As if – Hannibal considered – as if he was thinking about saying ‘No’. Mister Buellton reached out, patted the pocket Hannibal had pointed to. With a frown, Mister Buellton held out his hand. Mister Tanner looked sort of – scared – as he handed over the deck.

“…Looks clean to me,” Buellton grunted.

“Nah!” dismissed Hannibal. “…It’s done real well,” he told Mister Tanner, admiringly, “… which is why I guessed you must be pretty good at…” He glanced up at Mister Buellton’s doubting expression. “I’ll show you.” Taking the deck, Hannibal glanced at the back of each card and named it before laying it face upwards on the counter, “Three o’ hearts. Seven o’ hearts. Queen o’ Clubs. Four o’ …”

“The boy’s right,” blurted Mister Tanner. “…It’s for doin’ card tricks for my son.” He looked around at the quiet men. He gave another laugh, though Hannibal did not think he sounded very cheerful. “…You don’t think I’d USE ‘em – in a game?”

“Not any more,” remarked Mister Acker.

—oooOOOooo—

“Ow!” Jed sucked a globule of blood from his finger. “…HAN! This dang plant is out to GET me!” He kicked at the barrel into which was transplanted a wild rose. Wild! Judging by the thorns – it was livid!

Han, cross–legged on the ground, glanced up from his sewing. “Just keep – trainin’! I want a graceful arch – over the entrance!” A frown. “DON’T bleed on the whitewash! George spent ages on that!”

Tommy Bauer, panting slightly, crested the rise, then scrambled down to the site of operations. “…Ma says Miss Field really likes oatmeal cookies. Ma won’t bake ‘em – ‘cos – that’d be cheatin’. But, she’ll write out the recipe real foolproof an’ I can use the kitchen an hour before the judgin’ – so Miss Field gets the…” deep breath, “…freshly baked romer!”

Ike looked up from the borrowed bedroll he was carefully arranging ‘just so’. “That sounds real good, Tommy,” he approved. A frown, “…Hannibal, do you think I should place one of Jed’s roses on the pillow? “

“With a bow tied round it!” suggested George. “…That’ll look real pretty!”

Hannibal beamed. THIS was what he liked! A truly – masculine – competitive spirit!

—oooOOOooo—

Jefferson fingered the few coins left in his pocket, as he emerged from the saloon. The money Charlotte had borrowed from her sister was all gone and – to no purpose! He didn’t even have enough left to get properly drunk!

So long as Charlotte was tied to him, the Muellers would feed, clothe and house him. Pretend to employ him on deliveries and pay him mainly ‘in kind’. But…no chance of a decent stake! Well, not from them. In a day or two he’d be able to try this McKenna fella!

It was all Heyes’ fault!

Jefferson brooded on the wrongs Heyes had done him. Made him look bad in front of his wife and in-laws! Made him look – a flush – yellow, in the saloon yesterday!

What right had Heyes to interfere between man and wife? Charlotte was his property to do with as he liked, right? Too right! He might not talk fancy as Heyes – but he knew that much!

Now, as if the father wasn’t bad enough, thanks to that interfering smart mouthed Heyes brat – he had not been able to use his foolproof system! It was NOT fair! It would not have been cheating! Not really! He only meant to use it in small games here – for stake money. Not in proper games out at the Fort! Sheesh! You couldn’t risk some card sharp spotting it there! But, word had spread. Jefferson was pretty sure he would never again be able to use a deck he brought to the table himself in Larson Creek. Even if it was clean as a whistle! So! No stake! AND – thanks to his pompous a**h*l* of a brother-in-law, no chance of a few more dollars from Louisa’s purse.

Jefferson kicked viciously at the ground. He knew he would not dare stand up to Alex Heyes. That little brat though…! That dang Hannibal!

Hannibal? Jefferson remembered Charlotte’s whittering yesterday. An idea sparked. Jefferson glanced up at the bright moon. A pleasant night for a walk. Maybe he could get him a little payback?

Jefferson veered off the route to the old Fraser place. He headed west, towards the Curry land. He shook his head to clear some of the whiskey fumes. The place where the track forks toward Endeavour…He thought he could remember …

—oooOOOooo—

FRIDAY

Hannibal and Jed, sprinted to meet the others at some unearthly ‘before chores, before breakfast’ hour. George Myers, with ‘pillow hair’ and shirt buttoned all wrong, caught up with them on the track. Hannibal had stressed they could sleep Sunday! AFTER they had listened – with chivalrous restraint – to Esther’s loser’s speech, huh?

The running figures of Tommy and Ike approached from the direction of the Williams’ land. Then, as the boys reached the incline…they saw…
They stopped. A silence.

“Oh! Oh…Han!” Jed gulped.

“Sheesh!” breathed George.

Hannibal stared at the wrecked site. And, at the two girls standing among the debris, looking back up at him.

Rachel put down the ripped and muddied curtain she was holding. She took a step forward, over one of the torn down slats from the roof.
“Ike,” she met her twin’s eyes, “…All this … it wasn’t me an’ Esther! It was like this when we arrived!”

Esther looked at Hannibal. A tangle of un-brushed red hair nodded. “We were just…”

Tommy, red faced with anger, darted towards the incline. “You little…You sneaky little…”

His arm was caught. “Hey!” Ike pulled his friend round to face him. “My sister just said – she didn’t do it!” A warning look, “Okay?”

“An’” Jed swelled himself up and glared at the bigger boy too, “…my sister said she didn’t do nothin’ neither! An’…” small fists clenched, “…she isn’t sneaky! Well…” Jed temporised, ever truthful, “…she isn’t THIS kinda sneaky!”

Esther’s flashed her white knight a smile. Then, she turned her gaze back to Hannibal. “We were doin’ a dawn ‘reckay’… An’…” she gestured helplessly at the mess. A beat. She searched her friend and rival’s eyes – they were dark with anger. “You do believe me?”

Hannibal scrambled down the incline, took a closer look.

“Oh, Hannibal,” said Esther, “…All that work! I’m sorry.”

He still did not answer. A long silence.

Looks like – you win!” he said. The tone was even, but Esther heard the edge of bitterness, as he surveyed the damage.

“Won’t count!” she said. “…Winnin’ this way…T’ain’t winnin’ at all!”

Hannibal looked into the eyes of the girl he had competed with since the day he was born. Literally! Their fathers reported the din from the squawking contests to be fed first had been deafening!

“Reckon not,” he acknowledged. He saw the anxious question in the green eyes facing him. “…Don’t worry, I KNOW you didn’t do it! You wanna win – same as I do – but, there isn’t no fun if’n you cheat! Don’t count! Findin’ a loophole…” a shrug, “…that’s fair ‘nuff! But – you wouldn’t never do this.”

—oooOOOooo—

Nathanial looked up from the breakfast table. His eyes moved past the newly arrived Alex alone.

“You let Hannibal be excused, then?” he asked.

“He’s promised to work extra, extra hard Monday,” confirmed Alex. He did a quick headcount of Curry males. “You let Jed off too, huh?”

“Just this once,” confirmed Nathanial. He believed strongly, ‘work comes first’ – but Jed rarely begged a favour and his father had no doubt the promise to make up the lost time would be paid in full.

“Who could be so – so petty?” wondered Elizabeth.

“It wasn’t us!” put in Esther, glooming over, rather than eating her oatmeal.

“Honest, Mister Heyes,” confirmed Beth, “It wasn’t any of us girls!”

“Never even crossed my mind,” answered Alex.

An idea struck Esther. She whispered quickly in her elder sister’s ear, got a nod in response.

“Ma,” began Esther, her spark returning, “can me an Beth be ‘scused our chores an’ stuff today, too? To go work on the den? Same as the boys? ‘S’only fair!”

“Esther,” reproved her mother. “The boys team are being allowed an extra morning because of the damage! They know they’ll still lose – they just – well…”

“They won’t admit they’re beat!” finished Nathanial, recalling the stubborn set of Jed’s jaw.

“Asking for extra time to work on YOUR den,” Elizabeth shook her head at her two eldest girls, “…it may be technically ‘fair’ – but…”

“We weren’t goin’ to work on OUR den!” interrupted Esther.

Beside her, Beth’s head shook in repudiation of the idea.

—oooOOOooo—

Hannibal squinted at the sun. “It must be getting on for two,” he remarked.

Esther, sawing the timber Hannibal held steady, briefly squinted up too. “Uh huh,” she agreed. A final rasp from the saw. “Done!” Esther straightened herself and surveyed the boys’ den site. “…Well?” she asked. “…Have we got you – pretty much – back where you were yesterday?”

Hannibal and his crew had accepted the girls’ offer to help out – to try to restore the competition to where it had been before someone…
“…Someone with a grudge?”
“…Who?”
“…Can’t think of no one!”
“…Could it have been …” half excited, half scared looks, “Raiders?”
“…Could it have been…” Jed flushed even as he suggested it, “A bear?”
…before someone had wrecked their site.

“Then,” Esther had explained, flushing, in case she was accused of – gulp – sappiness, “When we whup you – it’ll feel good!”

Hannibal, hat pushed back and hands on his hips, surveyed the scene. Rachel and Tommy were putting finishing touches to the roof. They took cheerful turns at ‘holding steady’ and ‘hammering’. George and Carrie wielded whitewash brushes on the outside walls. Beth held a freshly transplanted rose steady for Jed, as he attached it to a trellis she had fashioned out of willow. Thanks to her girly fussing – the ‘holding’ hands were well wrapped up in rags – not suffering from thorns. A short way off, Hannah sat in a sunny spot. The curtains and bedroll sheets and blankets, all laundered in the creek, were spread around her to dry. Most of the bedding tears were already neatly darned by the – proper – girls. The first gingham curtain was now in Hannah’s hands. Every so often she smiled softly at…Hannibal rolled his eyes. Never mind! They were both working! Ike strode back from one of many repeated trips to dispose of debris and mess – out of sight and out of site.

“Uh huh,” confirmed Hannibal. “In fact…” he admitted, “…I reckon some stuff looks better!” A qualm struck him. “If it IS about two, it’s about time for you to head back to finish your own den.”

The teams had to be off their sites by five. Judging would take place before six.

“Guess so,” agreed Esther.

“You’d better go.” Hannibal tried, but he could not keep the regret out of his voice. The place was beginning to look SO good! “…Have YOU still got a lot to do?”

“Still got to finish the centre support for the roof. I reckon my cone shape is a real good idea …but…” Esther shot a look at the competition. He wasn’t going to gloat was he? No. He was just listening. “You need one person holding the centre pole in place while someone works up top. She hasta be tall – so that’s gotta be Beth or Carrie – an’ even THEY ain’t really tall enough. An’…” Another quick check. No Hannibal was NOT looking smug. Still listening. The novice architect aired her doubts. “…it’s heavier than I bargained for. We’ll cope! Just…”

“So what you need…” interrupted Hannibal, “…is…” His eyes rested on Tommy Bauer. Striding over, he called, “Tommy! Would you mind givin’ the girls a hand over at their site?” Tommy half frowned. He didn’t so much mind helping the girls, as Hannibal bossing. Mind you, Hannibal had not sounded bossy this time. “The thing is…” Hannibal went on, “…they need someone tall and real strong! I wouldn’t be much use. While you…” Hannibal gave an impressed shrug, “…only had to watch you hefting those timbers to see you’re the man for the job.” The frown disappeared.

“Hey,” protested Esther. “We CAN manage! We don’t need…”

“It’s not – patternisin’,” Hannibal reassured her. “Call it – payback.” He looked back up. “Will you do it, Tommy?”

“Sure,” said Tommy. His face fell. “What about my bakin’? I hafta get those cookies in the oven.”

“I could do that, if you like?” offered Beth. “Your Ma won’t mind?”

“See…” Hannibal told Esther. “A fair swap. How’s that?”

“Shall I stay an’ finish these curtains, Esther?” asked young Hannah.

“I could take the whitewash over to the girls,” chipped in George. “I really like paintin’!”

The unit commanders exchanged glances.

“Tell you what,” suggested Hannibal, “…why don’t we both pick the best team for the jobs we have left?”

—oooOOOooo—

SATURDAY – AFTER THE BARN RAISING

Jefferson swaggered up to Heyes, who was chatting amicably with his neighbours. At least, he swaggered half the distance. Heyes, seeing that Curry fella react to someone approaching, turned. Jefferson felt himself shrink under that dark gaze. The swagger dwindled. Still, fortified by whiskey, Jefferson kept going.

“I thought you were on my team, Tanner?” remarked Ike Williams. “You never showed up.”

“I had – business,” said Jefferson. “Here!” Pulling money from his pocket, he peeled off a few bills. “What you lent Charlotte! Feel free to count it. And…” a few more bills were peeled off. Jefferson hesitated. He had meant to throw them in Heyes’ face. Dare he…? Another quick glance at his brother-in-law. No. He daren’t. He laid the bills on the trestle table. “What you paid Fowler for our lumber. I – I don’t need YOUR charity!”

Alex looked at the money still in Jefferson’s hands. “Where did you get that?” he asked, quietly.

“Won it! Playing poker!” This was true. For once, the luck had been on his side. He gave a mirthless laugh. “Don’t believe me, huh? From what I hear – you don’t take kindly to folk questionin’ it if’n YOU say you’ve won money gamblin’!”

Alex exchanged a frowning glance with Nathanial. Who had Jefferson been talking to?

Deciding, not for the first time that day, to quit while still ahead, Jefferson turned on his heel and strode, rapidly, away. That had felt good! And, even after clearing his tab at the saloon, he still had enough to get himself a rich game over at the Fort. Jefferson took a deep, satisfied, breath. That Ike Williams was a fool! Charles McKenna was a real reasonable fella!

—oooOOOooo—

Over by the lemonade barrel sprawled a gaggle of tired – but very cheerful – boys and girls.

Esther, dressed in Zach’s old pants, delightfully grubby, her red plait dusted with sawdust, rolled onto her back and grinned happily up at the clouds. She and Rachel had been on a proper team all day! AND, her Pa and Mister Williams admitted they had all done a real good job. AND, they meant it! ‘Cos it was TRUE!

“I reckon us decidin’ on an hon’rable draw – y’know – not ‘sistin’ the judges call in someone to break the deadlock on points…I reckon…that was …” Esther lost her thread. She finished the sentence with a happy wriggle.

Hannibal, picking contentedly at a splash of pitch dried onto his oldest, tattiest shirt, nodded. “We both …” he quoted, “…excelled at form AN’ function and dem’strated great craftsmanship over a wide range o’…”

“We oughta ALL feel real proud of ourselves!” interrupted Esther. Both team ‘organisers’ concentrated – complacently – on obeying the judges’ instructions.

“…’Course… if’n WE had insisted on a tiebreaker,” said Hannibal, “…the boys den woulda won!”

“Would NOT!”

Hannibal opened his mouth to contradict her. Then, a grin. “When we won though…”

“Pfffttt!”

“…A lot of it woulda been down to your team’s work… so … y’know.”

“…S’orright,” grunted Esther, as the most ladylike response to this gracious thanks.

A fiddle struck up. Something light and pretty, in spotless muslin and a cornflower ribbon, fluttered past. It dragged a flushing and only half-reluctant blond, curly headed lad – also pitch splashed – behind it.

Esther watched her youngest team member skip towards the dancing. Hannah had refused the chance to be on a proper team. She preferred to help Carrie and Grace set up the food. Esther rolled her eyes. Girls, huh?

Hannibal also watched HIS youngest team member. Jed threw him an embarrassed glance, but… Hannibal also rolled his eyes as Jed – chivalrously – allowed himself to be pulled into the dance. Sheesh!

Esther gave another contented wriggle. “Both teams won! We both got a flag! We both got our priv’leges! What’s not to like?” she summed up.

“Uh huh,” conceded Hannibal. “AND…” he mused, “…I still got to hear you stand up on a stump and make a speech, in front of ev’ryone, ‘bout how good MY team was!”

“An’ – I got to hear you!” she grinned back. “…Sheesh! You sure can spout, Hannibal!”

Hannibal beamed, smugly, as he recalled his wonderful – and chivalrous – speech. It had style. It had finesse! It had humour. It had pathos! Sheesh! It even had a section in rhyme! It had been stupendous!

“My speech was the best, huh?”

“Pfffttt! No way! Your Pa said MINE was – pithy and succinct!” protested Esther.

“Pfffttt! That just means short! MINE was miles better!”

“Was not!”

“Was too!”

“Was NOT!”

“Was TOO! ‘Sides…” Hannibal assumed a lofty expression, “…mine had more in it ‘bout the benefits of workin’ together rather than arguin’!”

“Did not! Mine said that! It said – ‘Why waste time arguin’?’”

“Mine said it BEST!”

“Did not”

“Did too!”

“Sez who?”

“Sez ME!”

“Pfffttt! Sez YOU!”

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