4. Courtin’ Trouble

By Calico

NOVEMBER 1862

Friday

“Nate,” said Hannibal, “…We’re gonna be late.”

He cast a puzzled look at Jed. Why was Nate taking so long to comb his hair?

“You go on,” said Nate, without turning, “I’ll catch up.” He dipped the comb in a bowl of water and dragged it firmly through his curls, trying to make a straight parting. The damp corn-coloured waves sprang back to their original position.

Hannibal frowned. Nate and Zach, like the other older boys, had started back at school only after all the work of the harvest was finished. This was the first time Hannibal had stayed over on a week night since.

“He’s been like this for weeks,” murmured Jed, as Nate tried to persuade one particularly recalcitrant curl to stay down.

“That mirror’s gonna crack if you stare in it much longer!” said Zach.

“Zach!” warned Mrs. Curry.

Beth opened the door and ushered the younger children out, clutching their lunch pails.

Hannibal took one last look at Nate. Was he coming? No – he appeared to be staring at his wrists.

“Ma,” Nate said, “…any chance you could lengthen the sleeves? I look kinda …”

“Gangly!” supplied Esther, helpfully, as she scampered out to catch up with Beth.

“Like your knuckles are about to start draggin’ through the dirt!” contributed Zach.

“Zach!” snapped Mrs. Curry, “If you’re not gone in the next three seconds, I’ll…”

Zach took the gentle hint – and disappeared, a grin splitting his face.

“You look fine, Nate,” his mother said, firmly, “…Go to school!” Watching his shoulders droop a little as he stared at his reflection, she shook her head affectionately. “You look better than fine, son. I’ll try and find time to let your sleeves down at the weekend. You’re just growing too fast for me to keep up.”

“Sure, son…” grinned his father, “…and it’s wasting your time, you are! Women have to be wooed with words. It’s the gift of the blarney you need – not…”

“Nathanial!” The tone was low, but Nathanial Curry obediently fell silent at his wife’s voice.

Hannibal and Jed soon overtook Beth and the others.
“What IS wrong with Nate?” asked Hannibal.

“He’s completely smitten with that silly Rebecca Sayers,” explained Esther. “You musta noticed!”

“Esther!” protested Beth. She gave a little smile, “I think it’s romantic.”

“Pfffttt!” dismissed Esther, succinctly.

“It is!” insisted Beth. “I reckon he’s going to ask her to the Thanksgiving dance, after the show!”

Esther mimed swallowing two fingers and gagging.

“What do you mean – ‘ask her’,” said Hannibal, “Everybody goes anyway!”

“Ask her if he can be – y’know – her escort,” smiled Beth, dreamily. “I think she’ll say ‘yes’. I’ve seen her looking at him, too! Stop it, Esther!”

Esther’s fake retching had become so loud – and, an appreciative Hannibal had to admit, realistic – it could no longer be ignored by her older sister.

“Makes you heave, huh?” Esther asked Hannibal.

Hannibal cast a glance at Jed, who looked – embarrassed. Jed found Nate an almost wholly satisfactory older brother. Hannibal suspected Jed wanted to hold Nate innocent of ‘soppiness’ until proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. Hannibal shrugged.

“Race you to the corner!” he challenged. Never one to turn down a chance to put the boys in their place, Esther forgot her elder brother’s amorous ambitions, hoisted her skirts into her belt – and took to her heels.

—oooOOOooo—

“It’s a real officer’s buckle…” swanked Tommy Bauer, “AND, that dent is where it stopped a bullet, right on Bloody Hill.” Voice swelling with pride, he added, “My brother Walt sent it – for my birthday!”

Hannibal gazed covetously at the shining brass eagle. Though Tommy had boasted about it before, this was the first time Hannibal had been shown the precious object. Hannibal tried to keep his face expressionless, but suspected he was not fooling the older boy. He would like to own that eagle that had been present at the battle of Wilson’s Creek. He pictured it, safe amongst the treasures in his secure box – hidden in the loft. His mind began to work.

“D’you wanna wager it on a game of…”

“No!” interrupted Tommy. Hannibal had won more than one prize from him at games of chance and he had no intention of being drawn in again. Tommy would not say Hannibal cheated – but, he was dang lucky. And, you had to make dang sure you checked all the rules before you started.

Hannibal suppressed his sigh of disappointment. He gave what he liked to call his ‘nonchalant shrug’ and pretended to dismiss the matter.

They returned to watching Jed Curry bat. Hannibal clapped a lusty hit.
“Reckon that’s a home run,” he grinned, watching his friend sprint – face set with determination – past second base. He gave a sideways look at Tommy. “Miss Field’ll be deciding on final parts for the Thanksgiving show, after recess,” he said casually.

“Uh huh?” Tommy was not enthused.

“I put Samuel on the ‘younger siblings’ list,” continued Hannibal, conversationally. “He’s real keen.” A beat. “Wonder what she’ll have the little ones doing this year, huh?”

Tommy shrugged.
“Won’t be wheat or sorghum. I heard her tell Mr. Mueller she was avoidin’ ALL conten – some’n…”

“Contentious issues?” offered Hannibal.

Tommy considered sneering ‘Teacher’s Pet’, then decided against it. Last time he called Hannibal that – the younger boy had explained – publicly and audibly, that some people had what was called a ‘vocabulary’ and asked, with exaggerated civility, if Tommy had ever considered the benefits of acquiring one. Tommy remembered the giggling this had caused amongst the girls. Whupping Hannibal was still an option – but not an easy one. He might be near two years younger, but he was – sneaky.

“Uh huh,” he grunted. “An’ – she’d learnt her lesson that wheat versus sorghum was one o’ them – conscious ishers.” A beat. “I bet she has ‘em being – blackberries. Some’n like that. Some kinda – berry, anyhow,” he offered.

Hannibal shot another quick look at the owner of that desirable, bullet-scarred, brass eagle. He drew in his breath.
“Nah!” he shook his head, slowly. “Bet she doesn’t!”

“Betya – she does!”

“Bet she doesn’t.”

“Bet she does!”

“What are you betting?” challenged Hannibal, circling in to spring his trap.

“I’ll bet you …” Tommy blinked and stopped. He shut his mouth firmly. “I ain’t bettin’ nothin’!” he decided.

Hannibal managed another nonchalant shrug.
“Well hit, Jed!” he called, to convince Tommy of the casual innocence of the conversation. His eyes wandered to where a garrulous gaggle of older girls were strolling. “I bet Rebecca Sayers gets cast as ‘Catherine Carver’,” he tried.

“Pfffttt!” dismissed Tommy, “I certainly ain’t takin’ that one!” His thirteen-year old eyes rested on the figure of the just turned fifteen girl, with the silky dark curls. He lingered on the new curves Rebecca seemed to have acquired over the summer. Tommy shifted on the fence. He crossed his legs. “Odds on favourite!” His voice let him down by one of those sudden wavers from pitch to pitch.

Hannibal looked Rebecca Sayers up and down and shrugged. He failed to see what there was to get excited over. She was only a girl.

“Ned’s escortin’ her at the Thanksgivin’ Dance,” confided Tommy. He brooded for a moment on his older brother’s intention. Torn between what he still considered to be the correct boyish contempt and his actual maturing envy, he added, unconvincingly, “Sappy, ain’t it?”

The conversation of the morning came back to Hannibal. He cast his eyes over to where Nate Curry was chopping wood for the school stove. Sure enough, Nate’s blue eyes flicked over to Rebecca Sayers and an extra flush mounted on his cheeks. Rebecca seemed conscious of being looked at – she was laughing prettily at something Bella Godfrey was saying, but Hannibal saw the dark eyes give a quick sidelong glance toward the woodpile. The curling lashes fluttered.

“I thought she was going with…” Hannibal stopped. “I’m sure you’re right, Tommy!” he said, with a little smirk, which clearly indicated the opposite.

Tommy Bauer bridled.
“He IS,” he insisted. A qualm shook him, “Well,” he temporised, “…I don’t know as he’s asked her yet. But he’s gonna.”

“Sure,” soothed Hannibal. He timed the beat, then, “I’m not doubting he’ll ASK her!”

He let his eyes go over to where the tall figure of Ned Bauer was NOT helpfully chopping wood, getting sweaty, but WAS striding confidently up to the group of girls and – to judge from the admiring giggles, saying something amusing. Despite this, Hannibal allowed himself another smirk.

“Are you sayin’ – she’ll turn him down?” challenged Tommy. He might claim a brother’s privilege of calling Ned ‘sappy’. That did not give a young smart-mouth like Hannibal a right to suggest Ned could not be successfully – ‘sappy’.

“No!” protested Hannibal. Again he timed the beat. “I’m not SAYING that.” The inference was not lost, even on Tommy Bauer.

“She’ll say ‘yes’,” asserted Tommy. “Ned’s real popular.”

Hannibal sniggered and quickly turned it into a cough.
“Sorry,” he apologised, “…Frog in my throat.”

“She will!” repeated Tommy.

Hannibal gave him a smile.
“Sure.” The tone could best be described as – kindly.

“She will!”

“Do you hear me arguing?”

“Bet she goes with Ned!”

Silence. Hannibal’s dark eyes were full of sympathy for Ned’s coming disappointment.

“Bet she does!”

A mild, quizzical smile.

“Bet you anythin’ you like!” insisted Tommy. “Anythin’!”

Hannibal’s smile became genuine. Got him!

—oooOOOooo—

Clattering down the school steps, Hannibal muttered a quick “With you in a moment,” to Jed and trotted over for a quiet word with Beth.

He had wagered his penknife – a Christmas present from his father – against the brass buckle. Hannibal never liked to lose. Never. But, in particular, Hannibal did NOT want to lose that knife. He had coveted his father’s knife for years, even yielding to the temptation to ‘borrow’ it on occasions. His pleasure at being given one just as good – once he was judged old enough – had been very real. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. He had the odds on his side, surely. A ‘tip’ from someone in the know.

Hannibal had faith in Beth’s judgement on these matters. She might not measure up to Esther when it came to climbing trees or throwing a decent punch – but, Beth understood ‘girl’s stuff’. If Beth said Rebecca Sayers was ‘looking’ at Nate, that was good enough for Hannibal. Though, after a full afternoon contemplating losing his knife, he wanted a little reassurance.

“Beth, Beth,” he summoned her, in an undertone. “You know you said Nate was asking to escort Rebecca Sayers at the dance?”

Beth drew back a shade.
“I said – I thought he would,” she corrected, mildly. A qualm shook her. “Why?” Her brows drew together, “…You and Jed and Esther aren’t going to try and spoil things are you?”

“Certainly not!” protested an offended Hannibal. “Quite the contrary! I was just wondering if – if he’d mentioned anything? Y’know – whether she’s said ‘yes’ or not?”

“He hasn’t asked yet,” said Beth, regretfully. The genuine disappointment on Hannibal’s face perhaps persuaded her he was not wishing to – ‘spoil things’. “In fact,” Beth leaned in close, “…I think he’s going to offer to walk her home from school – and work up to it. I overheard him in the barn, practising saying…’Rebecca, may I carry your books?’”

Hannibal blinked. Sheesh! How much practising could THAT take? It was hardly Shakespeare!

Beth’s conscience smote her.
“You won’t – tell?” she pleaded. “I mean – Esther or Zach? They’ll tease him. And, it’s not really fair. I shouldn’t have said.”

Hannibal shook his head and gave Beth a reassuring smile. Suddenly, a beam wreathed Beth’s face.
“He’s going over!” she whispered. “DON’T look! I mean – don’t make it obvious you’re looking.” They both turned slightly aside and contemplated something fascinating on the ground, watching the drama with sidelong glances from under lowered lashes.

Rebecca co-operatively moved a little away from her friends. She cast a fleeting but, to Hannibal’s untutored eye, – encouraging smile at Nate. Hannibal rejoiced. His knife was safe and the buckle was good as his! Nate was definitely walking in Rebecca’s direction. Nate was pink. No, he was – rose. Make that – carnation. No – cherry. Crimson. Nate stopped walking about four yards from Rebecca. He did NOT stop flushing. If Hannibal had been French – he might have compared Nate’s current colour to a fine Chateauneuf du Pape. As it was, he simply wondered if they could all save on firewood by warming themselves on that flaming face.

Rebecca – moving up a notch in Hannibal’s estimation – did the most sensible thing she could if playing by ‘girl’s rules’. She dropped her handkerchief and gave an ‘Oh!’ of vexation. Feminine dark eyes appealed to Nate. The wind obligingly blew the linen square a little towards its blushing target.

Nate did not move. Well, he did. Just not – forward. He shuffled his feet and allowed his mouth to fall open. His Adam’s apple bobbed.

Ned Bauer strode over, touched his hat and picked up the handkerchief. He did NOT change colour. He did NOT gulp. He appeared to be speaking in coherent sentences. Hannibal could not hear the conversation but, after a second or two, Rebecca handed over her books. An arm was offered and accepted. As they passed Nate, Rebecca’s chin rose and there was a hint of curls being tossed. Hannibal could not find it in his heart to blame the girl. He felt an urge to toss something a dang sight heavier than curls at Nate!

Hannibal took a deep breath and squared his shoulders.
The bet was placed – too late to change horses! Nate’s love life clearly needed some serious planning if Hannibal Heyes was to keep his winning streak unbroken!

Still – plenty of time! The terms of the wager gave him until the fiddles struck up for the first dance. He had insisted any ‘escorting’ agreed on in advance by Rebecca Sayers did not count. He might not claim to be an expert on girls, but Hannibal was sure he had heard – they had the privilege of changing their minds!

—oooOOOooo—

We might need some kinda – tryst,” frowned Hannibal, pumping water into the bucket held by Jed.

“Huh?”

Jed looked up. His initial qualms over gambling on something so – well, wet – had been quieted by three key points driven home by Hannibal.
Firstly, as a matter of principle, Hannibal should always win any wager against Tommy Bauer.
Secondly, they were NOT being mean to Nate. On the contrary, they were going to HELP. How could that be wrong?
Thirdly, sure, it might be wet. But if Nate and Ned Bauer competed in something like a – a greased pig contest, would they not cheer for Nate? Hannibal had instructed Jed to think of Rebecca Sayers as a kind of greased pig.

“It’s a secret meeting,” explained Hannibal, “Lovers have ‘em – in books.”

“What for?”

Hannibal shrugged, “I dunno. I skip those bits. I reckon it’s mostly yakkin’.”

“Nate meets her every day anyhow,” pointed out Jed. He swapped the full bucket for an empty one. “When one o’ the Danny Boone stories has a girl in it, Danny tends to rescue her from dire peril!” he offered. “Sometimes from a fate worse’n death!” He thought for a minute. “Dire peril tends to be – drownin’ in a river, or – or being roped to a railway track; so – I reckon the worse stuff is when she’s about to go over a waterfall – or is tethered to a tree with cougars prowlin’, huh?”

“It’d have to be drownin’,” mused Hannibal. “There’s not a railway track for miles!”

Jed was not sure drowning Rebecca Sayers would really help. Besides, he suspected it breached the spirit, if not the letter of the ‘no hitting girls’ rule with which he had been brought up.

A small figure scampered towards the friends – stopping briefly to pick up its dropped hat.
“Han’bul!” it gasped, “Han’bul! You wen’ wivvout me! I was … I was…” it panted for breath.

“We’re only fetchin’ water for your Ma, Samuel,” said Jed. “We’re comin’ back!”

“Was inder ouddows!” finished Samuel, pointing.

“Uh huh?” said Jed.

“I go myselve now!” boasted Samuel.

“Uh huh?”

“David don’t!” Samuel clarified, “He goes – but Mama goes wivim. She hasta wipe his…” he giggled, “…his…” giggling. Hannibal rolled his eyes.

“Well – he’s not a big boy like you,” said Jed, tolerantly.

“I wipes myselve!” explained Samuel, just to ensure Jed remained fully briefed. A beat. “Canaver go pumpin’, Han’bul?”

“You can help,” offered Hannibal. The pump was too heavy for his half-brother. “Come stand in front – help work the handle. We’ll fill the pitcher, huh?”

Samuel beamed. Jed swapped the semi-filled bucket for a tall pitcher.

“Now Samuel,” said Hannibal, squatting down the way his father did when speaking to the three-and-two-thirds year old, “…since you’re such a big boy now – d’you think you can carry this to your mother without spilling any huh? Then – run back an’ we’ll fill it again?” Samuel nodded eagerly. “Good boy!”

“He’s bound to spill most of it,” sniffed Jed, as the small solemn figure made its way very slowly to the house, tongue protruding in concentration, as water splashed left and right.

“So? As long as it takes him a while, huh?” replied his friend. He returned to the previous conversation. “We need to think what do girls – like.” A beat. “C’mon Jed!”

“How the Sam Hill do I know?”

“You’ve got sisters! They’re girls!” pointed out Hannibal, “…Only thing MY sister likes so far is squawkin’ an’ passin’ wind!”

Jed had to admit to having sisters. He thought.
“Esther likes building dams in the creek,” he offered.

Hannibal shook his head, impatiently.
“Nah! She don’t count. What do…” he put the word in audible capital letters, “…GIRLS like?”

“Yakkin’ about dresses. Giggling. Falling out, not speakin’ and makin’ up again. Hoggin’ the best seats near the stove when it’s cold.” Hannibal nodded encouragingly. Jed was on a roll! “Cooin’ over babies. Whisperin’. Wonderin’ who likes who.” A beat. “Er…mushy stuff!”

Hannibal picked up a bucket in each hand, still deep in thought. Possibly Nate could offer Rebecca a seat by the stove one recess and admire her dress? Though – he shook his head – that involved Nate having to speak. Maybe he could arrange for Nate to carry Amy – in a place where Rebecca might feel inclined to coo?

“We need more detail on – mushy stuff,” he sighed. “I’ll ask Pa – about lovers’ trysts. He probably reads the whole book – doesn’t skip the mushy bits.”

“Why not ask your stepmother?” suggested Jed, “She’s sometimes m…” he hesitated. “Well she used to be – not mushy exactly – but – y’know?”

Hannibal shrugged, reluctantly. Jed had a point. His stepmother did not usually compare to his father as a source of useful information. However, on the subject of what GIRLS liked in the – mushy – department, she might have something to contribute.
The scurrying figure of Samuel reappeared clutching a now empty pitcher.

“You ask HER about what’d make a GIRL wanna go to a dance with a fella,” ordered Hannibal. Jed opened his mouth to protest. Hannibal forestalled him, “It’ll be less obvious from you!” he pronounced. “I’ll slip in a – a nonchalant question to my Pa.”

Samuel arrived, panting.
“Han’bul!”

“But,” warned Hannibal, “…don’t go starting till I give you ‘the nod’. I’ll wait for – for an openin’…”

“Han’bul! Mama says…”

“I don’t want you – jumpin’ in!” said Hannibal, sternly.

Samuel tugged at his sleeve.
“Han’bul! Mama says…”

“Don’t do that, huh, Samuel? You’re makin’ me spill. There’s a good boy.” To Jed, “I wanna keep it – nonchalant!”

“Han’bul! HAN’BUL!!”

“Uh huh?”

“Mama says – ‘Hurry Yup!’”

“We’re coming now. Why not go open the door for us, huh?”

“Han’bul, what’s – NonShlan?”

“I am!” grinned Hannibal. “It’s something you are – when you have finesse!”

Rolling his eyes, Jed picked up his own buckets and made for the house.

—oooOOOooo—

“I’m playin’ the Captain of the Mayflower…” began Hannibal.

“I’m Mis’ry!” put in Samuel loudly.

“I get all the pilgrims loaded up in Plymouth…”

“Uh huh?” grunted Hannibal’s father. “Thank you, darling,” he added, as his wife passed him the dish of cabbage.

“I’m Mis’ry!”

“An’ – I decided to add a few lines…”

“I’m Mis’ry!”

David decided cabbage was the perfect medium for construction and began tower building.

“’Cause I wanted to have some peril – to show a perilous journey…”

“Don’t play with your food, David,” put in his mother. David shook his head solemnly. He was NOT playing.

“I’m a sailor!” chipped in Jed, who was having supper at the Heyes’ place. “Thank you, ma-am,” he added, politely, as he was served.

“I’m Mis’ry, Papa!”

Jed gave Louisa a big smile, “I love these!” An extra knoedel was added to his plate. Seeing the outraged look on her stepson’s face – an extra knoedel was added to Hannibal’s plate too. “I’m in the Crow’s Nest!” Jed said happily. The two friends exchanged a glance.

“Nate’s offered to make a proper Crow’s Nest, this year. But, we wondered if YOU might like to give him a hand, Pa?” said Hannibal, in a voice suggesting a high treat.

“Uh huh?” Alex gave a rueful grin. He laid down his fork and began to tempt David, who enjoyed his food delivered by a spoon that first imitated the swooping path of an eagle – with sound effects.

“Pa!!! Papa!!!” implored Samuel.

“We didn’t PROMISE Miss Field,” Hannibal reassured him, “…Just told her you’d PROBABLY help.”

“Hannibal,” objected his stepmother, “…your father’s got more important things to think about, right now, than makin’ props for a school play! I’da thought …” she sniffed, “…even Miss Field mighta realised…”

“Louisa,” interrupted Alex, mildly, “I daresay I can give Nate a hand AND think at the same time, huh?” He gave his wife a meaningful glance and a tiny shake of the head.

Louisa pressed her lips together and forced a smile.
“Sure.”

“We’d help, ma-am!” put in Jed.

Her smile became genuine.
“Sure,” she repeated, more warmly. “…After all – we don’t want folk sayin’ ‘Didya see that sorry excuse for a Crow’s Nest Jed Curry sat in!’ do we? ‘Specially about a Crow’s Nest on Captain Hannibal’s ship!”

Her husband smiled back. She removed David’s spoon from his grasp and put it firmly back in the two-year old’s own podgy fist.
“You’re old enough to feed yourself!” she said, “…Let Papa eat his supper!”

“No!” protested David. “Lika BIRD!” He swooped the spoon himself. It was NOT the same. He returned, happily enough, to tower construction.

“Papa, PA! I’m Mis’ry!” Samuel slid down from his chair and tugged on his father’s sleeve. His own spoon clattered, wetly, to the floor.

“BACK to your seat at once!” ordered his mother. “You do NOT get down without leave!”

Samuel’s lip wobbled.
“Papa!!” he appealed.

A squalling from the bedroom indicated that the youngest member of the family desired to be allocated her fair share of attention. A certain insistent quality to the squall indicated she desired this – immediately.

“You heard your mother, back in your chair, Samuel,” said his father.

“But, Pa…I’m…”

“Don’t make me tell you twice, son!”

Samuel’s lip wobbled again, as he sat back down and hung his head. His mother gave a satisfied nod and whisked into the bedroom to fetch his crying sister, Amy.

“Good boy,” smiled Alex, ruffling Samuel’s hair. He turned his chair a touch to face the three-year old, “…Now, tell me about this misery.”

“Missouri!” explained Hannibal, “Miss Field has the little ones being the river this year.” He pulled round his own chair and, unasked, took over swooping stew delivery to David.

His stepmother shook her head at her younger son, as she walked back in with a quieting baby in her arms. However, at least David was now eating his dinner.
“Thanks, Hannibal,” she sighed.

“Samuel’s being a WHOLE river!” marvelled his father, “…The Missouri! That sounds a very important part!”

“Sarah’s Mis’ry too!” explained Samuel. “An’ Ben, an’ – an’ – others!”

“Uh huh? And – what do you have to do?”

Samuel demonstrated the zig-zag arm movements of a mighty river. Alex hastily moved his mug aside.
“An’ – we hafta gush!”

“Gush?” repeated a wide-eyed listener.

“Uh huh! Swoosh – gush – swoosh!” articulated Samuel.

“That sounds so – so rivery!” admired his father. He shook his head, hard. “Louisa – did my hair get wet in all that gushing, huh?”

“Don’ be silly! Silly Papa!” giggled a delighted Samuel.

“What else happens apart from…” again Alex pretended to shake water out of his hair, “…gushing?”

“I – I gets luck dofer! Derplains!”

“Er…” a silent cry for help was sent.

“Some pioneers look over the mighty Missouri, Mr. Heyes,” explained Jed, “…An’ say “Behold – the fertile plains beyond!”

“Uh huh?”

“Not me, though!” Jed gave an inordinately satisfied smile. “I’m a sailor!”

“Does Jed have to gush and swoosh, Samuel?” asked Alex.

Samuel thought for a minute, cast a quick checking look at Jed, then shook his head.

“What does he have to do?” encouraged his father.

Smiling – despite a mouth full of knoedel – Jed gave Samuel a hint.

Samuel’s hand went up to his forehead. He mimed scanning the table.
“Lando! Lando!”

David broke his silence to mimic his elder brother.
“Lando!” he smiled, also scanning, “Lando!”

“That’s right, David!” said Hannibal, tolerantly, popping in another portion of stew before taking a mouthful of his own dinner.

“Jed shouts ‘Land Ho’ huh?” smiled Alex. “Key part that, Jed!”

“Han’bul gets morta say!” said Samuel, proudly. “Lots! An’ – an’…” he obscured his speech with a cheekful of meat, “…he’s flula idrears. MisFiel – sheshed!” He beamed at his wonderful, clever, older brother, displaying not only touching fraternal affection, but a quantity of semi-masticated pork.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” reproved his mother. She smiled at her eldest son, “Though – I’m sure you’re right, liebchen – Hannibal’s full of ideas!”

“Do you think he’ll share them, huh, Samuel, huh David?” asked their father. “Shall we ask him?”

“Uh huh,” Samuel gave permission, burying his face in his mug and emerging with a milky mustache.

“Do you want to hear, David?” encouraged Alex.

David stared thoughtfully at his eldest brother. His deep brown eyes blinked a few times. His face split with a grin.
“Hug Han’bul!” he offered, flinging his arms wide and reaching sticky hands forwards.

“Sheesh, David!” protested Hannibal, with an embarrassed glance at Jed. “A simple ‘yes’ will do, huh?” With a shrug, meant to indicate to his friend that ‘little brothers are sure annoying – but, hey, what can you do?’ – he ruffled the dark hair.

“Go on, Hannibal,” smiled his father, “…I think you have the floor. Make the most of it!”

“Well, y’know Miss Field doesn’t mind – improvements?” began Hannibal.

“Uh huh?”

“That journey from England took a long time, huh?”

“Uh huh.”

“An’ – an’ something could happen DURING it?”

“Guess so,” said Alex, more tentatively.

“Maybe Captain Christopher Jones had ANOTHER reason for wantin’ to be at sea – another motivation – d’you see? As well as deliverin’ pilgrims.”

“What – alternative motivation?” asked Alex, still more tentatively.

“Trackin’ down the great white whale that ate his leg!” pronounced Hannibal, impressively. His father blinked. “You see,” Hannibal began to get into his stride, “…he has an obsession. He broods and broods over that whale… and takes the ship into the frozen North to hunt for him. The pilgrims…” Hannibal held up his hands miming pleading, “…they beseech him. ‘Captain Jones – please, take us to the New World’ But the Captain…” Hannibal folded his arms and glowered darkly, from under a lowered brow, “…he’s too busy pacin’ the deck on his IVORY leg, broodin’ and gloomin’ to listen. He’s broodin’ away like a – like a …”

“Like a hen?” suggested Jed. “A broody hen?”

“No!” snapped Hannibal, disgruntled. “Nothing like a hen! Sheesh!”

“Like a monomaniac lusting so for vengeance it darkens his very soul?” tried his father.

“Yes…like a … like Pa said!” agreed Hannibal, mollified by this evidence that SOMEONE understood. “Anyway…he’s leaning over the rail starin’ at the swirling ocean deeps… broodin’… the dark waters swirl…”

“Swoosh! Gush!” contributed Samuel, swirling his arms.

“Uh huh,” allowed Hannibal. “Swirlin’ and swooshing…”

“Swoosh!! Swoosh!!”

Alex rescued the milk jug from imminent upset.

“Never!! …He tells the pilgrims…Never will you set foot on the shores of New England until I have killed this great white whale…”

“Gush!! GUSH!! SWIRL!!”

“Hannibal,” interrupted his father, “…Does Miss Field know about this – improvement?”

“I thought she’d like a surprise,” smiled Hannibal, generously.

“Surprise her – next chance you get, Hannibal,” Alex advised, “… in case it has to be saved for another day. Not – Thanksgiving.” He smiled at his eldest son, “It might need a show to itself, huh? Be a shame to spoil it by editing it to fit the few minutes before ‘Land Ho!’”

“Land Ho!” chimed in Samuel, scanning hard.

Hannibal considered this.
“She could edit out all that guff John Carver says about a ‘land of opportunity’…an’ – all his speeches at the first Thanksgiving dinner!”

“Who’s playing John Carver?” asked his father, possibly to avoid being drawn into a debate over which elements were ‘optional’ in a Thanksgiving show.

“It should be Nate, by rights,” said his stepmother. “Or maybe – Kurt,” she added loyally. The role of the Pilgrims’ leader usually went to a responsible older boy. She handed Amy to her father and began to clear.

“It’s Ned Bauer,” said Hannibal, gloomily. Since the casting of ‘Catherine Carver’ had gone to the odds on favourite, this brought his most pressing planning issue back to the forefront of his mind. “Kurt’s playin’ Squanto.” He brooded – NOT like a hen – on the better use HE could make of the time wasted on this character.

“Nate’s not actin’, ma-am,” chipped in Jed, giving Louisa a hand with the plates.

“What?” she protested. If Hannibal’s stepmother had a particular fondness for Jed, she had a scarcely smaller soft spot for kind-natured Nate.

“Pudding!” yelped Samuel. Why was his mother pausing at this crucial point? “Mama, pudding!” He caught his father’s eye. “Please,” he added, subsiding.

Jed shook his head.
“Nate’s not left out. He’s Stage Manager and Gen’ral Fac…”

“Factotum?” supplied Alex.

“Uh huh,” confirmed Jed. “It’s JUST as important as performin’. Maybe more. She said.”

Louisa tutted.
“Can’t imagine what Caroline’s thinking!” she muttered, passing around bowls.

“Whazfer pudding?” queried Samuel. He slipped down and took an exploratory step.

“Samuel!” warned his father. He followed this with, “Good boy!” as Samuel’s bottom reconnected with his chair.

Alex removed his collar from Amy’s tugging grip and substituted a finger for her to gnaw on.
“Caroline’s probably thinking of the Innkeeper incident,” he said, mildly.

Hannibal sighed as he remembered the Christmas Nate had been allocated the role of ‘Innkeeper’. Only one line, ‘No Room’ and – could he get it out? No. Not a sound. Just flushed red and stepped politely aside for Mary and Joseph to pass. Poor Mary did her best – ‘Sheesh – It looks kinda full in here Mr. Innkeeper – you sure you’ve enough room? Me an’ Joseph here – we could manage in a stable y’know? If’n you’d NO ROOM!’
And – when Nate finally found his voice, what did he say? ’You can have MY room, ma-am. My pleasure.’ It spoke volumes for his good manners, but…
Hannibal’s shoulders drooped as he fingered his precious knife, snug in his pocket. He HAD known Nate was shy of speaking in front of an audience. But, for Pete’s sake – Rebecca Sayers was NOT an audience. She was only one girl!

“Besides…” went on his father, again shaking his head slightly at his wife and glancing at Jed, “Miss Field’s right! Helping back stage IS important. It needs someone really responsible making sure everything’s ready and in place. Nate will be perfect.”

Louisa also glanced at Jed, as she brought a plum griestorte to the table.
“Guess that’s true enough, Alex,” she replied, “LEAVE IT, Samuel! Hannibal, would you fetch the cream, please?”

“Me first!” implored Samuel, eyes beseeching his mother.

“Me!” pleaded David. Pudding did not require swooping. Pudding took the direct route. A hand reached out.

“Leave it, David!” shouted Samuel. “Tell yim! Tell yim!” He reached out his own hand towards a tempting plum. A light maternal smack on his fingers, brought forth a howl at the unfairness of life. “DAVID’S doin’ it! Tell DAVID!”

“And…” went on their mother, shifting the griestorte out of reach and serving her husband first as befitted the master of the house, then Jed – a guest, then Hannibal as the eldest, “…Ned Bauer will sure make a good job of …IF you don’t stop whinin’ there’ll BE no cake! Sheesh! Anyone would think I starve you! … a good job of the main speech. He sure isn’t shy!” She licked a splash of cream off her finger. “He’s growin’ more like Walt every day…”

“Ping!” said her husband.

“Huh? What was that?”

“My imagination snapped hearing Walt Bauer described as ‘not shy’,” grinned Alex.

“I meant – Ned’s growing more like him in looks!” protested his wife. “An’ Walt got real good lookin’ once he filled out a bit.” She savoured her own portion of griestorte, “He looked real handsome in his uniform, when he came home February.”

“Uh huh?” grunted Alex. Three young boys were completely absorbed with cake. Hannibal alone listened – not welcoming this feminine opinion on the attractiveness of the Bauer males.

Louisa spooned out a little more cream, “Ned’s broadened out a lot over the summer.” She looked thoughtful as she poured more tea into Alex’s mug. “I always did like chestnut wavy hair on a man,” she mused.

“Pa,” said Hannibal, “…Do YOU think Ned Bauer’s good-lookin’?”

“Never given it much thought,” said Alex.

“Would you say – he’s better looking than – Nate?” persisted Hannibal.

“Definitely haven’t given that much thought.”

“Oh!” protested Louisa. “Nate’s growin’ up real handsome too. He’s got the bluest eyes!”

“There you go, Hannibal,” smiled Alex, “You’re asking the wrong person. Louisa clearly studies these things.”

Jed looked up from his now scraped clean plate. Was he about to get – ‘the nod’?

“More cake, Jed?” offered Louisa.

“Thank you, ma-am,” he accepted.

“Mama!! Me too! Me too!” yearned Samuel. David stretched out a sticky hand.

“What do you say?” checked Louisa.

“Please.”

“Peas.”

Cake was cut.

“Thank who.”

“Fankoo.”

“Hannibal?” she offered. He shook his head. “Don’t you like it?”

Hannibal brought his attention back to the here and now.
“It’s fine,” he sighed. Seeing his stepmother look hurt, he added, “It’s real nice’m. I’m just – full.”

Alex cleared his throat.
“Er…I realise I don’t have chestnut waves, blue eyes, nor a uniform – but…do I get offered a second slice?” Louisa blinked, but then saw the teasing look.

“Tall, dark an’ handsome is still my favourite,” she blushed, serving him.

“Who’s this tall, dark, handsome fella then?”

“Alex!” she giggled.

“Do I know him?”

“Alex!”

Hannibal suppressed an urge to roll his eyes. However, he HAD wanted mushy. He gave Jed ‘the nod’. Jed did not see ‘the nod’. He gave Jed ‘the kick’. Jed kicked him back. It dawned on Jed that ‘the kick’ was actually ‘the nod’.

“Er… ma-am,” he began. Louisa gave him a friendly smile. “Er…what – what…?” Jed faltered. “What d’you call this cake?”

This time, Hannibal did NOT suppress the urge to roll his eyes. As Louisa explained griestorte to Jed and began to clear bowls, he decided to show Jed the way.

As – nonchalantly – as he could, under cover of the sound of clinking crockery, his brothers being given leave to get down and play and a settled Amy being returned to her crib, he asked, “Pa?”

“Uh huh?”

“Y’know – trysts?” His father looked – not exactly blank – but waiting for more. “Y’know when you’re makin’ a tryst – a secret nasinknation…” he clarified, “…with your lover, – what do you usually say?”

The crockery stopped clinking. His stepmother looked – not blank, anyhow. Hannibal had the undivided attention of everyone over the age of four. This was NOT a sterling demonstration of nonchalance.

“Hannibal,” protested his father, “I don’t have a …”

“Alex?” wavered Louisa. “Who…?”

“Nobody! Hannibal, why on earth …?”

“It’s not that bold-faced …” Louisa subsided at a stern frown from her husband.

“I don’t mean YOU exactly!” explained Hannibal, “I mean …anybody. I mean…hyper – hyper…”

“Hypothetically?”

“Uh huh.”

“What brought this up?” asked Alex.

“Nothin’! Just – just makin’ conversation,” hedged Hannibal. A beat. “Tell me about – trysts – in books. Or – how you made ‘em when you were young…?”

“Don’t know if I can remember that far back, son.”

“Try, Mr. Heyes,” chipped in Jed.

“Are we ALL clear this is both hypothetical AND several hundred years ago?” checked Alex. His wife gave an apologetic nod. A mischievous look appeared in Alex’s eyes, “Hypothetically – I’d write…”

“Write?” interrupted Hannibal.

“Trysts are ALWAYS arranged by letter, Hannibal,” explained Alex, deadpan. Hannibal absorbed this. “I’d write…’Meet me in the long barn at sunset’…”

“Sunset?” checked Jed.

“Sunset, midnight or dawn,” temporised Alex.

The choice of acceptable times was noted.

“Does it have to be a barn?” asked Hannibal.

“Nope,” said Alex, “…but you need to be clear on a venue. ‘Meet me on the bank where the wild thyme grows’ sounds romantic, but it can leave you sitting around half a mile apart wondering just how many dang varieties of the herb grow thereabouts.”

Hannibal nodded. Sound practical advice!
“Don’t you need …to say – mushy stuff?”

“Sweet talk?” checked Alex, “…’You walk in beauty like the night’…’My love is like a red, red rose’ …’Alas our bodies, why should we forbear?’… that kind of thing?“ Hannibal nodded, committing the phases to memory. “Never hurts,” mused Alex. He threw a teasing look at Louisa, “…Of course, as far as I recollect – I didn’t make many assignations. Women just…formed an orderly queue.”

“Alex!” objected Louisa.

“…I had a job keeping the names straight!”

“Alex!”

“…being – pure girl bait, back then…”

“ALEX!”

“…It was – bees round the honey-pot…”

“ALEX!!”

“Yes, my little queen of the hive?”

“Stop it!” frowned Louisa, “…Stop teasing the boys!”

“It’s not the boys I’m teasing,” he grinned. He stood up and drained the last of his tea, “I’m off to the barn. I’ve an assignation … with a pitchfork.”

“I’ll come help, Pa,” offered Hannibal.

“Don’t you and Jed have plans?” asked a surprised Alex.

“We’ll do stuff tomorrow,” said Hannibal. “Jed’ll give YOU a hand with the washing up’m. Won’t you Jed?” he prompted. He gave Jed ‘the nod’ – firmly.

“Er…sure, ma-am,” said Jed. He had no problem helping wash up. He was a good deal more doubtful about spotting – an opening.

“I’ll help inder barn too, Han’bul,” chirped Samuel, putting down his toy soldiers and trotting over.

“No!” snapped Hannibal. Seeing a pouting lip wobble, he squatted down and ruffled the fair hair. “No,” he repeated, “…me an’ Jed want to play soldiers with you later an’ we need you to get them set up ready. D’you think you could line ‘em all up before I get back from helping Pa, huh?”

Samuel wavered.

“I’ll give you a hand?” offered Jed.

Samuel settled. Jed might not QUITE measure up to his own – nonshlan – brother. But, Jed PLUS soldiers was a pretty good offer.

—oooOOOooo—

“Pa?” started Hannibal.

“Uh huh?”

Hannibal opened his mouth, shut it and sighed.
“Nothin’,”

Any revelation he had wagered his precious knife – and stood in dire jeopardy of losing it – would receive scant sympathy. Explaining he intended to – help – Nate, would result in an order not to interfere in other people’s business.

Father and son continued to clean out stalls. A beat. Hannibal sighed again.

Alex looked at his eldest son. It was not unknown for Hannibal to volunteer for extra chores. But, he usually volunteered for things more appealing than stall cleaning – and NOT when Jed was on hand for more enjoyable activity.
“Did you – want to talk to me about something, Hannibal?” he prompted.

“It was just…” searching for the right question. “…Nothin’.”

“Sure?”

Hannibal decided as the ‘right’ question seemed elusive, he would settle for ‘close enough’.
“It was just …I wondered if you’d tell me some stuff about…” he evaded his father’s eyes, for the soppiness to come, “…y’know – girls?”

“Girls?” repeated a surprised Alex, “Which – girls?”

“Just – y’know – GIRLS!” Hannibal tried to clarify, “…How they get together with …boys?”

The question was, unfortunately, not quite ‘close enough’ for Hannibal’s current requirements. Alex stopped cleaning. He blinked. Without having given the matter much consideration he had thought he had a year or so in hand before this came up. However – he braced himself – it was not a fatherly duty to be shirked.

“Er…come sit down, son,” he said, heading for a couple of hay bales. Hannibal sat hoping for practical advice on the relative merits of flowers versus candy…nice things to say about dresses…handy tips on phrasing notes. The sappy stuff.

“When a man and woman love each other very much…” began Alex…

—oooOOOooo—

“…An’ – there’s Valentines. One year at school I got FOUR! ‘Course – I’d a pretty good idea who three of ‘em were from. But y‘know – I’ve never worked out who sent the fourth! It had the sweetest verse!”

“Uh huh?” nodded Jed, earnestly, while simultaneously pushing a couple of wooden infantrymen into Samuel’s line of fire. “An’ – an’ can you remember how it went, ma-am?”

“Oh, sure!” smiled Louisa, over the socks she was darning.

“Bang! That one’s dead, Jed! Bang!”

Jed metaphorically patted himself on the back, while obediently knocking over his condemned man. Getting Mrs. Heyes talking about this stuff was a piece of cake! He would have plenty to report back to Hannibal.

“It started … ‘Roses are red’ …”

—oooOOOooo—

“… it fertilises the egg in the woman’s womb. This grows …” Alex soldiered on, manfully.

—oooOOOooo—

“…’Please may I have the pleasure of this dance’ – an’ offers his arm to lead you out to the floor. Of course – if’n you mean how’s he supposed to ask – ‘Can I be your ESCORT to the dance’ – that’s a bit different…He hasta work up to that!”

“Go on, ma-am,” urged Jed. “Howdya work up to it?”

Louisa beamed at the blond haired youngster playing with her darling sons. What a nice boy Jed was! She plunged happily back into reminisces of her schooldays.

“I remember Laura once found a bunch of violets left on …”

—oooOOOooo—

“…most important thing is not to be selfish. Women take longer to – to reach an…”

Hannibal supposed he had worked out SOME of the earlier stuff from keeping his eyes and ears open and – well, from animals. But … Sheesh!

“…it’s like a little – well like a little bud, about an inch or so in front of …”

Hannibal who had previously kept his eyes firmly on the floor – shut them.

Sheesh!!

And, since Nate floundered on – ‘may I carry your books’ – it was not even any USE!

—oooOOOooo—

“…carryin’ my books home…then, later – I found a little note tucked in my reader!” smiled Louisa.

“Uh huh?” nodded Jed, “An…an’ did it work, ma-am? Did you go with him to the dance?”

—oooOOOooo—

“…Anything you’re not clear on, son?” checked Alex. “Anything you want to ask?”

Hannibal considered. Any question about the best way to sneak candy to a girl without all her friends seeing, seemed an anti- … he gulped … climax. He shook his head.

“I’ll get back then,” said Alex, striding away with the satisfaction of a job well done.

Hannibal watched his father depart. He stared again at the floor.

Sheesh!!

—oooOOOooo—

Happy reminiscing, Jed’s strange fascination with her past admirers had not struck Louisa. It struck her now.

“Jed,” she asked, “…why are you askin’ all this stuff?”

“I just wanted to know what – y’know – what might make a girl like a …”

“Are YOU plannin’ on askin’ someone to the Thanksgivin’ Dance?” beamed Louisa.

Jed’s mouth dropped open. Samuel’s eyes came up from troop placement.

“That’s so CUTE!” exulted Louisa.

Jed shook his head, frantically.

“Is it – Hannah Williams?” guessed Louisa.

“No!” yelped Jed, turning scarlet.

“Oh, Jed! – Wouldya like me to bake a few heart-shaped cookies for you to…?”

“NO!” Jed realised that sounded – rude. “I mean, no thank you, ma-am. I’m not askin’ her…!”

“Don’t be shy!” encouraged Louisa, “…She likes you! I’ve seen her smilin’ at …”

The door opened, admitting Alex.

“Alex!” cried his wife, “…Jed’s got his first girl! Guess who he’s askin’ to the dance?”

“No-one!” protested Jed.

“Hannah Williams?” speculated Alex.

“Oh!” said a slightly disappointed Louisa, “…You knew!”

“I ain’t!”

“I didn’t KNOW,” replied Alex. “Just an educated guess.” He grinned, “I may only be a man – but I’m not blind!” He smiled, affectionately, at the blushing Jed.

“Jed likes – likes Hannah!” deduced Samuel, loudly.

“I don’t!”

Hannibal, still looking distinctly distracted, walked in.

“Guess who Jed wants to ask to the dance, Hannibal?” chirped Louisa.

“WHAT?” Hannibal threw a reproachful look at his friend. “…Not that wringing wet Hannah Williams?”

“No!”

“T’IS Han’bul!” chipped in Samuel, “…Jed likeser – Mama said!”

“You carried her books that day,” Hannibal accused.

“I didn’t! She dropped ‘em! I just – just went over to help pick ‘em up!” Something in his friend’s earlier words sank in. Jed frowned. He blushed, “Anyway, Han – she ain’t wringin’ wet!”

Hannibal rolled his eyes. SHEESH!

—oooOOOooo—

Saturday

“There’s not much we can do today,” explained Hannibal, “…Just lay a foundation.”

“Uh huh?” prompted Jed.

“…We need to make Rebecca Sayers realise what a catch Nate is!”

“Huh?” Jed decided this had come out a touch – disloyal. “I mean – how?”

“By lettin’ her know he’s…” Hannibal searched – then borrowed a phrase or two from the past evening’s supper conversation, “…pure girl-bait! An’ has women flockin’ like…like bees round a honey-pot!” Jed blinked – hard. “It’ll make her – keen. D’you see?” persisted Hannibal.

Jed took a deep breath.
“You’re gonna walk up to Rebecca Sayers an’ tell her Nate’s…” he could not bring himself to say it.

“No!” dismissed Hannibal, scornfully. A beat. “I’m gonna use a little – finesse. I’m gonna get someone else to do it!”

“Won’t it mean tellin’ lies?” demurred Jed. Sure – sometimes a boy could not help a few white lies, but…

“Nah!” dismissed Hannibal again. “Just a little…” he used another of his favourite words, “…equivocation.” He grinned, “Think of one of the things I said GIRLS liked. Whisperin’ an’ wonderin’ – who likes who!”

“That was me, Han!” protested Jed.

Hannibal shrugged aside this detail.
“Gonna give ‘em something to whisper about!” he triumphed.

—oooOOOooo—

Jed, watching his friend – give the GIRLS something to whisper about – had to admit Han was not exactly lying. Not exactly.

The friends had come into town with an errand or two to run for Mrs. Heyes. Han chose his targets well. Carrie and Grace – both around Beth’s age – were definitely GIRLS of the whispering and wondering type. They were examining rolls of ribbon in the mercantile and discussing the relative merits of each colour. Hannibal pulled Jed over – ostensibly to look at the rack holding a selection of six-cent, sixteen-page story papers. He did not address the GIRLS, having too much – finesse. Instead, he struck up a conversation with the confused Jed.

“I feel kinda sorry for her – if it’s true,” said Hannibal, in a low tone, so as not to be overheard by Brigit Mueller wrapping her sister’s order over at the counter.

“Who?” said Jed, lost.

“Of course – it must be embarrassing for Nate. IF it is true. If she is – y’know – chasin’ after him. I mean even if he doesn’t wanna ask someone to the dance – Nate’s not the type to wanna hurt a girl’s feelings. Is he?”

“Er – no,” said Jed. That was alright. He knew the answer to that one.

Carrie and Grace were by now silent. Definitely – listening.

“I mean to – to just throw your arms round someone like that…an’ planting a kiss…” Hannibal shook his head sadly. “Still – bees round a honey-pot, huh?” A beat. “Poor girl.” He returned to studying the titles of the story papers.

“Who?” asked Grace, unable to resist the temptation to walk over.

“Who – what?” replied Hannibal with an innocent look.

“Who’s been – been throwin’ herself at Nate Curry?” she hissed.

“Oh!” Hannibal looked guilty. “Nobody. I really shouldn’t have said anythin’ … it might not even be true!” He gave a little shake of his head, “Probably isn’t.”

Jed marvelled. How could saying something was NOT true – so convince these two girls of the exact opposite?

“Who is it, Jed?” urged Carrie, trying the effect of a persuasive smile.

“Er…”

She tried the effect of offering persuasive candy.

“Jed doesn’t think he should say anything!” put in Hannibal quickly. Jed had to hand it to his friend that was not even equivocal. That was the whole truth. “One doesn’t…” a phrase swam to the top of his memory, “…one doesn’t bandy a lady’s name.”

“We wouldn’t say a word! Would we Grace?”

“Not one word!” agreed her friend.

Jed looked at the two eager feminine faces. He thought they had just uttered the first real thumping lies of the conversation.

“We…eell,” hesitated Hannibal. They leaned forward. “No!” he decided. “I’m saying nothing. If Bella…” he clapped a hand over his mouth.

“BELLA GODFREY?” hissed Carrie.

“No! Really – it’s probably just silly gossip!” urged Hannibal, “You know how these stories get started! All outta nothin’!”

Jed blinked. He did now!

Hannibal looked pleadingly at the GIRLS. “PLEASE don’t say anything!”

—oooOOOooo—

Sunday

Exiting church Hannibal did not fail to notice a certain – whispering – amongst the GIRLS. Carrie and Grace had evidently not heeded his request not to say – anything.

Currently the GIRL in question was showing a pocket-book to a couple of her admiring friends. Hannibal moved a little closer.

“…my grandmother sent it from back East…”

“Sheesh! It’s real pretty Rebecca!”

“Look at those tiny flowers tooled in the leather.”

No, the – whispering – did not seem to have reached Rebecca Sayers, but that did not concern Hannibal. It was only a matter of time.

“Han!” shouted Jed, running over. The two friends moved aside.

“Did you get it for me?” asked Hannibal.

“Uh huh.” Jed after a stealthy glance round at the completely uninterested family and friends, handed over a couple of sheets of paper covered in Nate’s sprawling handwriting.

A dark-eyed would-be master forger of ‘love letters’ pocketed them.

“Will you be over later?” Jed asked.

“Uh huh,” nodded Han. “Pa’ll probably come too. He’s going to get Nate started on that Crow’s Nest.”

“D’you want me to say anythin’ to Nate, about…?”

“NO!” forbade Hannibal. “Unless…” he frowned, “…you think of anything that might make him feel, y’know – confident.”

They gazed over at Nate who was explaining to his youngest sister and Samuel that ‘Swooshing and Gushing zig-zags’ were not a competitive contact sport, whilst looking yearningly at Rebecca Sayers from a distance of at least ten yards. Rebecca glanced over from under her lashes. Nate demonstrated a swift journey through a variety of shades of red. He looked away.

“Forget it,” sighed Hannibal.

He made his way back to his stepmother, after checking his father was chatting to Mr. Godfrey and not likely to pick up on anything – equivocal. Louisa listened to her stepson’s request, smilingly. Hannibal rarely asked a direct favour of her.

“Y’know you offered to make heart shaped cookies – for Jed?” he began.

“Has he changed his mind?” she asked eagerly. “…Are they for Hannah?”

Hannibal gave a meaningful smile.
“I don’t think he’d like me to tell you that, ma-am,” he said, once again demonstrating how a completely truthful statement can be turned to excellent use.

—oooOOOooo—

“What didya write, Han?” asked Jed, as he wrapped – most – of the heart-shaped cookies in a package to be tied with pink ribbon.

“I started off with one of the sweet talk lines – an’ saying some’n nice about her eyes,” said Hannibal. “…But I didn’t say eyes…I used mushy language, y’know. Then – I said some’n pretty about one of her dresses… ‘cause we know GIRLS like that kinda stuff.”

“That new outfit she had for her birthday – and’ wore to the pic-nic – with the silly little jacket?” checked Jed. “…All the GIRLS fussed over that.”

“Uh huh,” confirmed Hannibal. “…Then I said how I – well Nate – lies awake thinking of her an’ how it makes his heart feel.”

“Sheesh!” expostulated Jed, disgusted.

“I know,” grimaced Hannibal, “…but no point doin’ it an’ NOT making it sappy, huh?” Jed shrugged, he supposed Han was right. “Then – I hoped her heart felt the same,” went on Hannibal, suppressing a shudder, “…but still using mushy language. Then I said I yearned for her hand – y’know – at the dance.”

“It’s got blots, Han!” protested Jed, scanning the letter – which he had to admit did look like Nate’s writing.

“’Course it’s got blots!” replied Hannibal. “I sprinkled water on in… so I could put I was spurtin’ tears as I wrote!”

“Huh? I thought women liked men NOT to cry!” said a confused Jed.

“They like driving a strong man to tears,” explained Hannibal. “…So I reckon they like us cryin’ – but only if they’ve caused it.”

Jed shook his head in disbelief over the eternal mystery that is woman.

—oooOOOooo—

Monday

Hannibal and Jed watched Rebecca Sayers, surreptitiously, from behind a water butt. She had found the package in her lunch pail – but waited for a chance to slip away from the schoolyard at recess to examine it.

Glancing around, Rebecca eagerly opened the note tucked under the pink ribbon. Was it from …? Yes! It WAS from Nate! He had plucked up courage at last! Flushing prettily, she began to read her first – proper – love letter.

“Beloved Rebecca,
You walk in beauty like the night…”

Oh! How lovely!

“Your orbs are entrancing – whenever you walk past I cannot help staring at them.”

Huh? Orbs! That meant – round things – did it not? Surely he could not mean her… Rebecca blushed. A frown creased her pretty brow.

“You look beautiful in anything – but I guess, best of all in your birthday suit!”

What?!

“I think about you…” a blot “ …in bed, all the time. Whenever I think of you it makes my…” another blot – was that a ‘p’? Maybe. “…makes my part swell with longing. I wish you’d feel this swelling for me! Your hand …” a blot “…would make me so happy. You will notice…” another blot “… blots on this letter. I yearn for you so much – hot drops spurt forth uncontrollably onto the paper as I write.
Your fervent admirer,
Nate.”

Oh! OH!

Rebecca crumpled up the letter in her fist and – crimson-faced – strode into the Church Hall.

“Is she…?” asked Jed, as they followed her.

Hannibal nodded, looking stealthily through the side window. She was headed straight for Nate – who was freshening up an Indian Village backdrop for Saturday’s show.

“Wouldya say …she’s flushed with delight, Han?” queried Jed, doubtfully.

“Er…” hesitated Hannibal, “No!”

SMACK!

“You … You!!!”

SMACK!

“I HATE you! You…you BEAST!”

A crumpled up letter hit an astounded Nate in the middle of his chest as an enraged brunette spun on her heel and flounced, nose in the air, back to the schoolhouse.

Nate unfolded the letter and read…his jaw dropped. He turned one of his many varieties of scarlet. Suddenly – suspicion flooded his face. His eyes went to the window. A dark and a blond head ducked below the sill – but not quick enough to escape hearing a yell of rage and the swift approaching tread of retribution.

—oooOOOooo—

Tuesday

Rebecca watched Nate working away – with a helper or two – on the ‘bank of the mighty Missouri’ at the back of the hall. Miss Field busy running through the correct moves required of the pioneers and humble oxen – had led them to practice their entrance from outside – so she, ‘Catherine Carver’, and the other pilgrims were quietly waiting – supposedly studying their parts.

She had received a – not entirely voluntary – apology from Hannibal and Jed. While she had been mad at Nate yesterday, today – she felt differently. Firstly, she accepted Nate had been as embarrassed as she by that appalling missive. Secondly, while the two young boys might be thoroughly annoying – she now understood the phrasing, though unfortunate had not been deliberately rude. Thirdly, something Jed said about ‘only tryin’ to help’, before Hannibal nudged him to be quiet, had given her something to muse over during the previous evening.

They could only be trying to help – Nate. That meant – he DID like her. She cast another glance at the tall blond haired figure now trying to help his sister Ruth get her shaggy hump – Ruth was a ‘noble buffalo’ – to stay on. She had been so mean to Nate yesterday. Perhaps – perhaps she should apologise? A certain hopeful look came over her face. If she apologised – just right – it might give him the extra nudge he needed to offer to escort her at the dance?

Rebecca smoothed down her curls and sidled over.
“Nate,” she began. Flushing, he climbed down from the platform to listen. “Nate,” she gave an endearing smile, “I just wanted to say – about yesterday…”

Suddenly, a whispered girlish conversation in the far corner of the hall exploded with an “OH!” of outrage. Bella Godfrey bounced across the room, a picture of fury and interrupted Rebecca.

“Nate Curry!” fumed Bella, “…What on earth have you been sayin’ about me?” Nate looked – confused. Not surprising – Nate was confused. “How DARE you say I’ve been chasin’ after you?”

SMACK!

“An’ tell people I’ve been kissin’ you?”

SMACK!

“Honey pot!! Pffftttt!! I wouldn’t partner you at the dance if’n you begged me!”

With a feeling of déjà vu, an astounded Nate watched an enraged brunette spin on her heel and flounce, nose in the air, out of the Church Hall.

Rebecca’s lip wobbled. HAD Nate kissed Bella Godfrey? She met Nate’s starting blue eyes.
“I just wanted to say…” she exclaimed, loud enough for everyone – including a stunned Hannibal Heyes – to hear, “…I wouldn’t partner you at the dance neither, Nate Curry. Not if’n you begged me AND were the last boy in town!” She threw up her chin and stalked over to where Ned Bauer was practising dramatic arm gestures and the words ‘I am the leader of these brave seekers of freedom…’

Less than a minute later, Hannibal scowled over at a gloating Tommy Bauer as the entire cast was treated to a ringing, “Oh, Ned! I’d love YOU to escort me! Thank you!”

—oooOOOooo—

“D’you remember what I said about – heroes rescuin’ girls from peril?” asked Hannibal, as they walked home after school.

“Han!” expostulated the originator of the stolen input.

“Miss Field’s asked for the little one’s being the ‘Missouri’ to be brought in for rehearsal tomorrow afternoon. I reckon we could arrange a little peril after that…”

“You ain’t gonna drown Rebecca?” checked Jed.

“Course not!” scoffed Hannibal. He added, reasonably, “If she drown – how’d I win my bet, huh?” He frowned, “We’ll need some sackin’, some lengths of rope an’ – an’ some bait…” He mused on ‘bait’. A sparkle came into the dark brown eyes. “D’you remember what I…” he cast a look at his friend, “…what YOU said about – girls likin’ to coo over babies?”

“Uh huh.”

“It’d work for – for older children too, huh? As long as they were cute enough?”

Jed shrugged.

Hannibal’s eyes lingered on the small figure of Samuel in the distance making mud pies with David. He might be annoying at times but GIRLS – of all ages – sure found him cute!

—oooOOOooo—

Wednesday

“Whoosh – Gush – Swoosh,” exulted Samuel. “I was good, huh, Han’bul? MisFiel – sheshed – I was good!”

“Excellent!” confirmed his older brother. Hannibal squatted down, “Samuel,” he said, “…you’re a real good actor, huh?”

“Uh huh!”

“D’you think you could – act – somethin’ for me? If I told you what to do? I bet you could!”

“Uh huh!” eager nodding. Of course he could. Hannibal bought a toy horse out of his pocket. “That’s mine, Han’bul!”

“I know. Listen, Samuel – would you mind if I put this – just over the other side of the creek? It’d only be for a while. Then we’d fetch it back! That’d be OK – a big boy like you wouldn’t mind – huh?”

The sparkling blue eyes looked a little doubtful, but, “Uh huh.” If Han’bul thought ‘big boys’ should not mind…

Hannibal trotted across the stepping-stones, used by the school children and younger townsfolk as a short cut – they were safe enough – with the toy and came back empty handed.

“Now, Samuel … this is what I want you to do…”

—oooOOOooo—

Rebecca, chatting with her friends, felt a tug at her sleeve. She looked down into a pair of sparkling – utterly appealing – blue eyes, peeping from under an almost white blond fringe.

“Hello,” she smiled, amidst a general feminine murmur of – ‘Ahhh!’

“My norse!” appealed Samuel, pointing. “My wooden norse! Someone – someone putim cross the creek!”

“Who?” asked Rebecca, squatting down.

Samuel shook his head. He had been instructed not to say. Not to tell lies – just not to say.

“I’m not loud – cross myselve!” he explained. This was perfectly true.

“Where’s Hannibal?” she asked.

“Notear!” Again – perfectly true. Samuel – though not yet four, had what Hannibal considered two great advantages over Nate Curry. He was not phased by feminine charms – and, he could repeat simple lines in front of an audience.

“Willya fedge id? Please?” blinked Samuel, in a voice that would have wrung pity from Herod. He smiled and, as instructed, added, “Pweddy lady!”

“Ahhhhh!!!” cooed the GIRLS.

“’Course I will – you little cherub!” smiled Rebecca, taking the small hand and allowing herself to be led around the corner and down to the water.

She could see the little wooden horse clearly enough and cheerfully made her way across the stones set in the shallowest part of the creek. She lifted the horse and, from the opposite bank, beamed at the – ‘bait’. The ‘bait’ clapped his hands and gave her an angelic smile. Deciding to add to his lines he called, “Thank who! Pweddy lady! Thank who!”

In his hideaway Hannibal crossed his fingers and hoped Jed was doing his part. Counting to twenty – then pulling Nate around the corner to show him ‘something’.

Rebecca reached the centre stepping-stone.

“Oh!!”

Two stones nearest the bank were…This was impossible. The stones were shifting downstream and lodging in the mud. Rebecca blinked. Surely – surely the current could not have done that. She turned. She would go back – and trudge round to the foot-bridge. It was annoying but…

“OH!!”

Two of the stones behind her were – gone! Well, not gone… but moving jerkily into the deep water to her left. She was stranded on a few stones in the middle.

Rebecca looked at the water. It was not – deep. But it was – cold. And – she was a GIRL (capital letters) in her fastidiousness – murky. The creek bed oozed with mud. It was probably smelly and crawling with – ‘Things’.

Rebecca did exactly what Hannibal hoped. She called, “Help! Help!” just like a heroine in a story paper. He was less pleased with her searching scowl examining the bank, in the direction towards which the stones had so mysteriously moved. He flattened himself to new depths of – ‘laying low’.

“Help!”

Nate Curry, striding around the corner, broke into a run.
“What the Sam Hill?”

Hannibal had to admit when words were not required Nate COULD play the part of hero perfectly. He squelched into the water with neither a moment’s hesitation, nor a flinch at the temperature. He held out his arms for Rebecca – just like an illustration titled ‘The Rescue’.

“Did you arrange this?!” fumed Rebecca, raising a threatening hand, armed with both a wooden toy and her precious new pocket-book.

“My Norse!” squealed Samuel, from the bank, “… DON’T!!”

“Huh?” said Nate.

Rebecca, having little choice – placed her arms around Nate’s neck and allowed herself to be swept up in a strong grasp. Although still cross, she decided she was not – entirely – unhappy in this position. If he HAD arranged this – she MIGHT forgive him. If he said the right things.

“You won’t drop me – will you, Nate?” she prompted, hugging him in pretended feminine nervousness and giving an encouraging flutter.

“Nope!” said Nate, not so tongue-tied on a practical question. “But, don’t keep movin’. It’s real slippery – an’ it’s always harder to keep your footin’ once you’re heftin’ a weight.”

Hefting a… Rebecca – swelled. And – not with the passion suggested by her first ever love-letter. Hefting a WEIGHT! Huh!!

“Put me down, Nate Curry!” she fumed. “I don’t need help from YOU!”

Even Nate, now halfway back, was not quite naïve enough to take her at her word while still in the water. Small fists drummed on his back. He slipped.

“OH!” yelped Rebecca. But, though he went onto one knee – Nate managed to keep her clear of the water. He struggled back to his feet.

Then came two concurrent ‘Ohs!’ of distress. One from Samuel waiting on the bank,
“My NORSE!!”

One from Rebecca.
“Oh! My Pocket-Book! Oh!” In the slip, her hand had released it’s grip. Both objects were in the flowing water.

Nate set her upright on the bank and strode back in, heading downstream. The wooden horse was bobbing on the surface. The stepping-stones were set in the widest – but shallowest part of the creek. By the time Nate caught up with the horse and tucked it safely into his pocket, he was in over his knees. The pocket-book – being leather – had sunk once water-logged. It was nowhere to be seen.

Nate plunged his arms and shoulders into the creek. His movements became awkward – Hannibal realised he was searching the mud and stones under the murky water. He held his nose and went under…nothing, nothing … a gasping Nate coming up. More searching. Nate moving slowly back towards where the pocket-book had been dropped. The performance was repeated over and over. Nate’s shirt and hands getting muddier and muddier – his appearance more bedraggled as he searched. Finally, shoulders drooping, he strode out of the water. His pants were ripped at one knee – the knee was bleeding. Rebecca involuntarily drew back a step. She had been right about the mud. It was – smelly.

“I’m real sorry, Rebecca,” Nate said, handing a wooden horse back to a delighted Samuel, “…I reckon it’s gone.”

“This is ALL your fault, Nate Curry! You arranged this!” Even in her anger Rebecca saw the look of complete disbelief and denial sweep across Nate’s muddy face. She drew a shaking breath. “An’ – an’ now I’ve lost my pocket-book an’ I LOVED that! An’ – an’…” Rebecca at some level knew she was being unfair to Nate. But, on the next charge he was definitely guilty. “…I’m NOT a weight!” She paused – not without hope – to see if he had anything to say in his defence. A beat. A blush. Nate evidently did NOT have anything to say. “Ohhh!!!” fumed Rebecca. “I HATE you!” She stormed off.

“Thank who, pweddy lady,” Samuel trilled, politely after the flouncing figure as it disappeared round the corner. “For fedgin’ my norse.”

Nate stared at innocent looking Jed. The innocent look did not deceive him. He was unsure of details but, of one thing he was sure.

“Hannibal!” he bellowed in the direction of ‘the cover’. “I know you’re there! Geddout here!” A beat. “Don’t make me come find you!” he threatened. The ‘cover’ moved.

—oooOOOooo—

Thursday

During the rehearsal scheduled for the final hour of the school day, Hannibal stared, morosely, at the fine performance being given by Ned Bauer. He and Jed had, after finishing their own chores, had spent the previous evening digging out and carrying away – he shuddered – debris, from under the Curry outhouse. This unappealing – though regular and unarguably necessary – task, had been on Nate’s schedule. Nate’s suggestion that if the boys did not fancy volunteering, he could see if his Pa and Mr. Heyes had any alternative ideas – had been persuasive.

Hannibal sighed, as Ned Bauer’s proposals for yet more eloquent lines were eagerly accepted by Miss Field. His own interest in the coming performance was being sapped by the events of the week. So far, he had not managed to summon enthusiasm to add more than the odd bellow of ‘Splice the mainbrace!’ and ‘Avast ye lubbers – batten down the hatches – there’s a storm a brewin’!’

‘John Carver’ cast an admiring look at the ‘spouse’ by his side.

“Miss Field,” he said, “…when I call Rebecca ‘my worthy helpmeet and partner in this venture’ – D’you think we should hold hands?”

Miss Field looked pleased. She did like students to put forward ideas.
“What do you think, Rebecca?” she asked.

Rebecca cast a look towards where a tall, blond ‘Stage Manager’ had stopped hammering and was looking – was it jealous? – at this suggestion. The ‘Stage Manager’ caught her eye and blushed. However, he did not – say anything. He NEVER said anything! Tchah!

“I think that’s a real good idea, ma-am,” enthused ‘Catherine Carver’. She flicked another glance towards the back of the hall where carpentry was ongoing. “And – I think I should gaze admiringly at my husband – while he looks out at the New World! And – after I say ‘My gentle counsel will be added to your fortitude and resolve. We will establish a model of domestic virtue in this new land.’ – I think I should add something like…’How can you fail to establish just laws, Ned… I mean…John? YOU always know the right thing to say. YOU talk real – real nice. That’s what I like in a man. What’s the use of a man who never says nothing? Huh? A woman likes to be paid compliments, sometimes! An’ – an’ appreciated!” Rebecca returned to normal conversational level – rather than stage voice. “Whaddya think, Miss Field?”

“Er…” hesitated Caroline. She never liked to squash a pupil’s ideas completely. “…You can certainly have a line which acknowledges the value of persuasive eloquence in establishing political consensus, Rebecca. Good point! We’ll draft something out.”

The hammering became – distinctly annoyed.

Hannibal sighed again, as ‘John and Catherine Carver’ acted out affectionate marital harmony on the deck of his ship.

“Your hair looks real nice in the sunlight reflectin’ back off the swellin’ ocean, John!” ad libbed ‘the helpmeet’. “…I do like chestnut hair on a man! Blond curls can look so – so SISSY!”

Hammer! Hammer! HAMMER!!

Hannibal decided sighing was not going to keep his knife safe.
“Miss Field,” he asked, of the school-teacher having a word with her – immediately contrite – stage-manager to see if he could ‘keep it down a touch’, “…may I be excused, just for a moment.”

“Sure, Hannibal,” nodded a busy Caroline, now briefing Rebecca on sticking to the spirit of the plot – not that she did not appreciate the line about the swelling ocean to help the audience suspend disbelief. “Be quick, though. I want to rehearse – disembarkation.”

Hannibal – the forger – ran over to the schoolhouse and found Rebecca Sayer’s copy-book. This was not stealing, he reassured himself, just borrowing. Besides, desperate times called for desperate measures. He tried to rally his optimism. Without claiming to understand GIRLS – he had an inkling that Rebecca’s meanness to Nate all day was actually – by some strange mushy logic – a good sign. If he could just get her and Nate alone together – it MIGHT still work out.

He frowned. Ned Bauer was now sticking to Rebecca like sappy glue. Tommy Bauer had gloated, eye significantly on the pocket where Hannibal kept his knife, that Ned planned to ‘call round to go through lines’ at her house tonight. Hannibal would need to ensure Ned Bauer did not make similar plans for Friday night. Because – that night – Rebecca needed to be free for another appointment.

Friday night Rebecca would have – a tryst.

—oooOOOooo—

“She’ll never fall for it twice, Han,” said Jed, watching his friend laboriously copying Nate’s script.

Hannibal shrugged.
“Got to try,” he pointed out. “I’m NOT gonna just – fold!” He dipped his pen in the ink. “Besides – I’m not making this one sappy. I’m making it sound like something Nate might actually say. So – she might.”

“What does it say?” asked Jed.

“Dear Rebecca,
I know nothing’s gone right all week and you are real mad. But, please – give me one more chance. Meet me behind the stables at the end of your street at sunset – and let me explain. Nate,” read Hannibal, folding the finished document.

Jed pursed his lips. It did not sound anything like the last letter. And – it did sound more like Nate. She might fall for it. She was a GIRL after all.

“Even if she falls for it, Han, Nate won’t,” he demurred.

“He might. I’ve kept the one to him short an’ simple too,” said Hannibal. “Besides – he’ll WANT it to be true.” He shrugged, “Even if he does guess, Jed – he’ll turn up. Because – he’ll have to find out if she’s there!”

“He’ll be real mad!” pointed out Jed. “He’ll…”

“I DON’T care!” dismissed Hannibal, demonstrating the admirable philosophy that ‘sufficient for the day, are the troubles thereof’. I’m NOT – repeat NOT – losin’ to Tommy Bauer!” A beat. Rather shame-facedly he added, “An’ Nate’s not losing to that blowhard Ned Bauer, neither! I’m not giving up till the moment the dance officially starts!”

Jed nodded. He did not think their chances of success high – but, it sure beat giving up!

“What about the note from Rebecca to Ned?” he asked. “Is that one short an’ simple?”

“Nah!” grinned Hannibal. “It’s real mushy! He’s so swell-headed he’ll LAP it up! He’ll be a couple miles off in the other direction while she’s – trystin’!”

—oooOOOooo—-

Friday

Finishing off his evening chores, Jed kept looking, hopefully, over at the road into town. It was not the first time Nate had been late home this week. He took his ‘General Factotum’ role conscientiously and may have stayed behind to work on backdrops with Miss Field. But, Jed needed Nate to come home, unstrap his schoolbooks – prompted if need be – and find a mysterious note in Rebecca Sayers’ handwriting. Jed cast a glance at the sun – and tried to relax. There was time yet.

—oooOOOooo—

“Supper!” called his Ma.

Jed cast one last – fruitless – glance in the direction of the road.
“Nate’s late!” he remarked, slipping into his chair. “Should I go – go look for him?”

“He’s having supper at Mr. Ward’s place,” said his Ma. “In fact – he’s stopping over. He’ll be home for breakfast.”

Jed’s eyes widened.
“What?” he exclaimed. “I mean – why?”

“He asked Mr. Ward if he could use some of his tools – and Mr. Ward said ‘sure’ – but it might be easier in his workshop. So – Nate’s working on something over there.”

“What’s he makin’ now?” asked Zach. “We’ve already got more props for this dang show than…”

“It’s not something for the show!” said his Ma, “…Fetch the bread, please, Zach.”

“What IS he doin’ then?” expostulated a frustrated Jed, his mind racing.

“Never you mind!” Mrs. Curry gave her youngest son a warning look. “Don’t you think you’ve interfered in your brother’s business enough this week?”

Jed flushed red. He knew Nate had not ‘told’. His Ma was simply letting him know that – in the mysterious way mothers have – she KNEW.

He thought, furiously. Might – might Nate unstrap his books anyhow? At Mr. Ward’s place? Might it all be alright? He looked over to where the schoolbooks and slates sat. His mouth dropped open.
“Who brought Nate’s books home?” he yelped, all hope dying.

“I did,” said Beth, mildly. “Why?”

“He – he might need ‘em!” attempted Jed. “I could – run back…”

He looked at the disbelieving expressions on his parents’ faces and subsided. His eyes returned, as if drawn by a magnet, to the strapped books containing – the note. Then, something about the peg above struck him.

“Where’s Nate’s new huntin’ pouch?” he asked.

A faint flush mounted to Mrs. Curry’s cheek. She had assured her eldest son of discretion, when he had asked permission to stay over at Mr. Ward’s and confided why.
“Jedediah Curry!” she admonished, “…What did I just tell you about minding your own business?”

Jed made last one effort.
“Ma,” he tried, “…after supper, may I run over to see Han?”

“No,” came the mild enough answer. “You’ve got a big day tomorrow, what with the show and staying up late for the supper and dance afterwards. I want you all tucked up nice and early tonight.” She gave a stern look at an expostulating Esther. “THAT goes for ‘brave pioneers’ as well as ‘sturdy sailors’. NO arguing!”

“Sure – and it won’t be feeling the same,” sighed Jed’s Pa. “Not with so many of the young men away. An’ all the trouble…”

“Nathanial,” Mrs. Curry’s mild warning was taken.

Mr. Curry gave the listening children his wide good-humoured smile.
“Sure – and isn’t a fine show like you’ll put on going to be just the thing to raise our spirits?” he beamed. “Will you be showing me the mighty river one more time, Sarah?”

“Swoosh – Gush – Swoosh!” zig-zagged his youngest daughter, cheerily.

“Sheesh! If I close my eyes – can’t I feel the water lappin’ at my boots?”

“SWOOSH!”

“Moo! Moo!” contributed the ‘noble buffalo’ seated next to the ‘mighty Missouri’.

—oooOOOooo—-

Watching the sun set, Jed tried to be philosophical. Oh well! Rebecca had been mad at Nate anyhow. How much madder could she get? What was the worst that could happen?

An ominous rumble struck his ears. A flash of lightening split the sky. The heavens opened.

“Sheesh!” exclaimed his Pa, shuttering the window, as slashing water beat against the walls and hammered on the roof. “Don’t I feel sorry for any poor soul caught out in THAT?!”

—oooOOOooo—

Saturday

Fixing the screens to serve as ‘wings’, Nate Curry felt a firm hand on his shoulder pull him round.

“Where do you think you were you last night Nate Curry?” demanded a flushed and fuming Rebecca Sayers. “I waited ages – AGES – behind the stable. In all that rain! An’ you – you pig! You never even showed up! I ruined my Sunday-best stockings going over my ankles in a mud puddle! An’ my best hair ribbon looks like chewed string!” Rebecca realised she was giving away more than she intended. She went even redder. “NOT that I dressed up for you! So don’t you even think it, Nate Curry! I – I just happened to be wearin’ my best stuff. An’ – an’ I didn’t go because I wanted to see you. I wouldn’t cross the street to see YOU! You beast! I just wanted to – to give you a piece of my mind! So don’t go thinking if you had…” her lip wobbled. She set it determinedly. “If you HAD bothered to turn up – you’d have won me round. You WOULDN’T! So don’t think it! I – I HATE you Nate Curry!”

Confused as he was, one astounding – no, wonderful – fact stood out to Nate.

“You – YOU came out to meet ME?” he stammered.

“Uh huh!” she stormed. “Behind the stables. At sunset. Like your note said!” Again she clenched her lip firmly to stop the wobble. “I waited AGES!”

Nate could not believe it. Lovely, beautiful, enchanting Rebecca Sayers had waited – ages – in the rain – all dressed up – for HIM!

“I didn’t write no…”

Suddenly, they were interrupted by a furious Ned Bauer striding up. A wary Hannibal and Jed, who had seen the rival pass, followed at a cautious distance.

Ned spun Rebecca round.
“Where the Sam Hill were you last night?” he demanded. “I got drenched, waiting!”

“Hey!” protested Nate.

“Butt out, Curry!” snarled Ned. “YOU!” he went on to Rebecca, “You’d better have a dang good excuse for not showing up!”

“Don’t you DARE speak to her like that!” exploded Nate.

“I’ll speak to HER – how I dang well like!” shouted back Ned. “There’s a word for girls who write this kinda stuff …” he thrust a much fingered note at Rebecca, “…to a fella and then don’t follow through! And – it’s not a pretty name!”

“Take that back, right now!” said Nate, a dangerous glitter appearing in the blue eyes.

“You gonna make me?” scoffed Ned.

Nate stripped off his jacket without a moment’s hesitation.
“Sure!” he stated. “Outside – now!”

Ned – to the utter delight of a watching Hannibal and Jed and the evident disgust of Rebecca – took a couple of steps back. He was … He was chicken!

Miss Field, hearing a commotion in the ‘wings’ scurried over and pulled aside the screen. She looked from Ned to Nate and back again.

“Please tell me I’m not seeing what I think I’m seeing!” she said, sternly. “Because – if I get a stage manager with a busted hand and a ‘John Carver’ with a black eye, an hour before the show …” she drew herself up, “…AFTER I have run mad…I will make you both wish you had never been born! Do you understand?” A beat. “Do you understand?”

Nate, while still feeling Ned Bauer deserved a strong right hook, could appreciate Miss Field’s point on the bad timing.
“Yes, ma-am,” he nodded, reluctantly.

Ned Bauer tried not to make his own, “Yes, ma-am” a sigh of relief. He failed.

After one more look at Nate, to convince herself he had been thoroughly recalled to his role as ‘lynchpin’, Caroline Field gave a satisfied nod and departed to distribute a few final feathers to Indian maidens.

Rebecca went back to scanning the note thrust at her by Ned.
“… yearn to nestle safe within your strong manly embrace. Meet me by…” she read. She drew breath. “I did NOT write that!” she exclaimed. “How DARE you think for a moment I’d write THAT!” She crumpled the note up and threw it hard – with admirable accuracy for a GIRL – to bounce off the centre of Ned Bauer’s forehead. “I NEVER want to speak to EITHER of you again!”

Nate stared over to where Hannibal and Jed were trying, unsuccessfully, to melt into the wall.
“You two!” he fumed, taking a pace forward.

“It was – it was – THEM?!” caught on Ned, also taking a pace forward.

Hannibal and Jed decided to remove themselves – at top speed – from the screened off ‘wing’ and mingle in the safety of a crowd.

—oooOOOooo—

Rebecca, now looking charming in her pilgrim’s cap, scowled at Hannibal and Jed as they approached. However, she managed a smile at the little blond cherub trotting at Hannibal’s heels, waving the ‘droplet’ streamers attached to his blue shirt and practicing ‘Swooshing’.

Once she had calmed down, the identity of the real culprits had been fairly obvious. NOT that that excused Ned Bauer for daring to think…Oooh!! It did not excuse Nate either. If he was not so – so …Tchah! Men! If Nate would just say the right thing at the right time – NONE of this would have happened.

“We’re sorry, Rebecca,” said Jed. “You weren’t supposed to get left waitin’. An’ – an’ you certainly weren’t supposed to get all drenched.”

“You see – Nate never…” began Hannibal, keen to explain the unknown variable that had disrupted his plan.

“Oh! Shut up!” snapped Rebecca. An offended Hannibal – shut up.

Beth Curry came over.
“Nate asked me to give you this,” she said, laying down an object on the bench next to Rebecca and walking away.

Rebecca gave a disdainful sniff. However, as she was now waiting in the schoolhouse and Nate was back in the hall this was wasted. She decided to take a look – to enable her to scorn any failed peace offering, fully.

Hannibal gazed at the intricately tooled leather pocket-book now in Rebecca’s hand.
“Sheesh,” he said, simply. “No wonder he stayed over at Mr. Ward’s. I bet those little flowers took all night!”

“That must be Nate’s new hunting pouch! All cut up!” deduced Jed. “What the Sam Hill did he wanna do that for? He used all the money he saved from helpin’ Mr. Ward last winter on that!”

“Shut up!” said Rebecca again, but very softly. She gulped. She ran a finger over the tiny, tiny leaves scattered over the surface. Standing up – she scampered out of the schoolhouse. Hannibal – who had given up thoughts of winning his wager and tried to reconcile himself to the ignominy of a draw – felt surging hope. He followed. So did Jed. As always – never doubting the complete necessity of his presence – Samuel trotted behind.
“Where we goin’, Han’bul?”

Hannibal smiled. Rebecca was heading for the hall. They waited until she mounted the steps – then, ran across the yard down the side of the hall to peep in at the back window – close to ‘the wings’.

“Whatchya lookin’ at Han’bul?” bleated Samuel, trying to jump high enough to see over the sill.

“Nothin’” said Hannibal. But, the satisfied grin belied the word. He and Jed saw something SO unbelievably – sappy – that Hannibal knew for sure he would be the owner of a fine brass eagle before the end of the evening.

“We…” Jed blushed, “…we shouldn’t watch this, Han,” he said, turning away.

“Suits me!” agreed Hannibal. He smiled down at the cherubic little face gazing up at him. “Let’s get you settled with the rest of the mighty Missouri, huh?”

“Swoosh! Gush!” agreed Samuel, happily.

“Then,” said Hannibal Heyes, mentally ticking ‘sort out Nate’s love life’ off his ‘To Do’ list, “…Then it’s time I put some serious plannin’ into my upcoming performance.”

—oooOOOooo—

Epilogue – later that same Saturday

Alex Heyes frowned. Miss Caroline Field DID include some variation in the traditional Thanksgiving show each year. However, the scene unfolding on the docks back in Plymouth seemed an early stage at which to introduce so much fresh dialogue. Did ‘Christopher Jones’ usually make such an issue of checking the Mayflower’s passenger list before allowing pilgrims to embark.

“William Bradford, Mrs. Bradford,” boomed ‘Captain Jones’, “…Welcome abroad. Careful not to trip there, ma-am. Don’t want you drownin’ JUST yet, huh? Miles Standish? Welcome aboard, Cap’n! Watch your step, the sea’s a-heaving and a-gushing.” A dark-eyed – brooding – glance. “The sea’ a cruel, cruel mistress…” A firm hand stopped the pilgrim with chestnut wavy hair. “What would your name be, fella?” demanded the glowering sea-dog.

“You know dang well who I am, you little…” Ned Bauer recalled the presence of the audience. He adopted his stage voice. “I am John Carver, leader of these brave pilgrims seeking freedom in the New…”

“I’ve NO John Carver listed!” pronounced ‘Captain Jones’, running his finger down a realistically water-stained page.

“Look again!” seethed the founding father.

“We’ve a CATHERINE Carver,” offered the Captain. “Catherine Carver?” he called. A beat. “CATHERINE CARVER!”

“Er…” improvised ‘Dorothy Bradford’, “Mistress Carver’s been delayed! She’s…she’s…” inspiration, “…she’s buyin’ sea-biscuits for the journey!” She peered off to the left. “There she is! She approaches!”

Alex lent forward a touch – as a member of the School Board he had a seat in the front row – and followed ‘Dorothy Bradford’s’ gaze. A dark haired girl in a pilgrim’s cap was well back in the ‘wings’ holding hands with Nate Curry and …Alex blinked. The best word, he decided, might be…simpering.

“CATH’RINE!” bellowed the soon to be ill-fated ‘Dorothy Bradford’. “Geddout here! We’re about to set sail!”

“Plenty of room on deck, for YOU Mrs. Carver,” confirmed the ‘Captain’ civilly, as the shapely pilgrim scampered by. “But JOHN Carver…!” he shook his head, solemnly. A thought struck him. “Don’t I remember the name John Carver from somewhere?”

“Listen you little…!”

“Mighta been on a – a wanted poster!”

Alex caught the eye of the play’s director. A certain – poll-axed – quality in her expression confirmed his worst fears. Hannibal had NOT pre-briefed the schoolmistress on all his improvements.

“I’m getting on deck!” fumed ‘John Carver’ lifting the ‘Captain’ bodily aside. ‘Christopher Jones’ gave him a glower.

“It’s a long journey!” he brooded, following his passengers ‘aboard’, “I can wait!”

With a certain foreboding, Alex noticed the ‘Captain’ walked with a pronounced – limp.

—oooOOOooo—

“I intend – with my companions – to charter ‘just and equal laws’,” declared ‘John Carver’, getting into his stride. He threw out his arm in a dramatic gesture, “The New World will offer many challenges – but also manifest opportunities! Together, brave comrades, we will conquer the wilderness! Do you not agree, my worthy helpmeet and partner in this venture?”

A beat.

“Do you not agree – my worthy…”

“No I DON’T agree!” snapped ‘Catherine Carver’.

Josef Mueller lent over to his son-in-law.
“Is Miss Field making some kinda point about – y’know – women an’ marriage?” he asked.

Alex shook his head, doubtfully. Certainly there WERE couples yoked together who got on no better than scowling John Carver and his sniffing, scornful wife. But, from Caroline’s confused look – she had not asked for this – domestic verisimilitude.

“You won’t be no use in the New World, John! You’re all talk! Spouting on an’ on! It don’t impress ME none!”

Josef Mueller blinked. If she HAD scripted this – for an old maid, Caroline Field certainly understood how some wives acted!

“You couldn’t fashion somethin’ real handy – like that Crow’s Nest there!” ‘Catherine Carver’ informed her ‘husband’ and the confused audience. “I think – I think that Crow’s Nest one of the finest pieces o’ work I’ve ever seen!” A smile of bewitching sweetness was bestowed on the watching rows, “Whoever made that Crow’s Nest – he’s the kinda man I like!”

“Did Nate make that?” whispered Nathanial Curry, leaning forward.

“Uh huh,” nodded Alex.

“That’s my boy!” grinned Nathanial – loudly.

“Shush!” hissed his wife. “It’s Jed’s part.”

Alex looked on the bright side. If Jed was mounting to his perch – they were seconds away from ‘Land Ho!’

“Are we close to the New World?” asked ‘John Carver’ – desperately.

“Before I steer this vessel to the New World,” declared the ringing tones of ‘Captain Jones’, “…there’s a task to be fulfilled in the icy swirling seas of the far North!” He – limped – centre stage. “Broodin’ and – and the lust for vengeance have darkened my very soul…”

“Thar she blows!” yelled Jed, from the Crow’s Nest. “’Tis the great white whale!”

Alex made himself comfortable. It was going to be a long night.

—oooOOOooo—

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