1. Paid In Kind

By Calico

26 June 1863

“Bluecher!” I hear Samuel squeal. He’s run to the door ‘cos he’s heard a wagon in the distance; David trots behind. You can just – just – see the lane from the Heyes’ barn. “I can see Bluecher!” Bluecher is the Mueller’s horse. “Gran’pa’s comin’! Han’bul! Jed! It’s Gran’pa!”

“Again?” grunts Han, seemingly not too excited at the news. However, to satisfy his little brother, he props his pitchfork against the wall and gives in to the small hand tugging him and to the order to ‘Come see!’

From the stall I’m cleaning, I see Han’s shoulders droop and hear him mutter, “Oh – sheesh!”

Why? Han and I both think Mister Mueller is – y’know – okay as grown ups go.

“No!” Samuel corrects himself, as the sound of wheels and hooves comes closer. “NOT Gran’pa! Gran’ma!”

“G’an’ma!” confirms David, pointing.

Oh sheesh! That’s why Han’s looking glum. We exchange a glance – but, we don’t say nothing ‘cos…Well, I don’t say nothing ‘cos MY Ma’s told me often enough – if I haven’t got nothing nice to say – I shouldn’t say nothing at all. And – I haven’t. I mean – I haven’t got NOTHING nice to say about Mrs. Mueller!

Han stays quiet ‘cos Mister Heyes has told him – all serious – that it’s kinda mean to say stuff about Samuel and David’s Grandma when they can hear. He’s told us both not to say stuff about her AT ALL…but, that’s too hard. We see what he means about not saying stuff in front of the boys, though.

“You an’ David run inside, Samuel,” says Han, “Warn …I mean…tell your mother her Ma’s coming…say ‘Hello’…pet Bluecher. Me an’ Jed’ll finish up your chores here…”

Samuel and David don’t really have ‘chores’ in the barn – they’re with us to keep them outta Mrs. Heyes’ way, while she gets on with laundry – but they like to think they’re helping.

“…If anyone asks – say we’ll be in soon as we’re done…”

Samuel nods happily and grabs David’s hand. Two pairs of small, sturdy boots scamper across the yard. “…And,” continues Han, once the boys are outta earshot, “…I reckon we’ll be done here ‘bout five minutes after SHE’s gone, huh?”

I grin. “You don’t reckon …” my grin fades, “…she’ll stay to supper, do you Han?”

I’m staying over. Mrs. Heyes said it was fine. She ALWAYS says it’s fine.

“Nah!” Han dismisses. He frowns. Less certainly, “Nah.” His fingers cross on his pitchfork. Then, he adds, “Not much we can do now anyhow. We can hardly walk in an’ say – ‘Is your Ma stayin’, ma-am? ‘Cos – if she is – we’ve changed our minds. Jed’s goin’ home and takin’ me with him. Or failing that, we’ll eat swill in the sty with the pigs.’”

Surely she WON’T stay? Mrs. Heyes never SAID her Ma was coming. And, Mrs. Heyes WOULD’VE said, ‘cos, whenever Mrs. Mueller IS expected – Han says his Stepma gets all flustered and starts cleaning and tidying and putting out the best china and buttoning Samuel and David into fresh shirts and asking Han to PLEASE be nice and suggesting he washes his hands and puts on a necktie and – y’know – fussing. She don’t do that if it’s just her Pa coming. He visits more – ‘cos he takes the wagon to the Fort to pick up stock – so, he pops in sometimes, as he passes. He’s okay though. He just drinks his coffee, eats a slice of whatever’s going, tells Mrs. Heyes any news from town, plays with the boys for ten minutes or so, says something sappy about Amy – asks after my folks if I’m there – asks Han how he’s getting on at school, or what he’s reading – then off he goes.

Han and me move back, outta sight, as we hear the wagon turn into the yard. Sounds of childish ‘hellos’. Mrs. Heyes’ voice. Yup, she sounds flustered. The sound of Mrs. Mueller’s voice. Footsteps…Quiet. More quiet. We exchange a glance – and, a nod. We move forward, get on with our chores – slowly, so they’ll last.

Not more than a minute or two has passed when we hear running. Samuel appears.
“Gran’ma sez…” He’s panting for breath. “…she sez…IF’N you’re here…an’ she ASKED, so Mama SAID – so she KNOWS you are…you’re to stop…” he shuts his eyes to remember the wording, “…school kink an’ make yourself useful for once in ya life. AN’, she sez – it’s not for her to…” the little face screws up, tighter “…critty size …how them Curries…” he opens his eyes, gives me a beam, “…she means YOUR folks, Jed…” he explains, in case I’ve missed the point, “…it’s not for her to even pascome meant on how THEY bring up THEIR children… but when SHE brung up HER boys THEY was taught manners! They came said ‘Gudaff’noon’ to vis’ters. Spesh’ly ladies! She sez – she guesses that’s too much to ask of the Rye-Rish! AN’, she sez…Papa should take a firmand…but, she’s given up on that…’cos he allus thinks he knows best! …AN’, she sez – she’s seddit before an’ she’ll say it ‘gen – Mamma sandled you…” a beam at his big brother, “…She means you – YOU – Han’bul, not Jed – AN’ Papa – ALL wrong from the start! She shoulda putta foot down – HARD! AN’, she sez – she wantsa word with Papa – so WHERE issy? AN’, she sez – Mama don’ iron shirts right! The sleeve sis to the LEFT! AN, she sez – How many times does she hafta say some’n before Mama lissens?”

A satisfied intake of breath. A cheery smile. I reckon Samuel is real pleased he remembered all that! I guess I don’t blame him; he remembers stuff good as Han! Samuel carries on, “An’, Mama said, I was to come tell ya!”

“She said – come tell us ALL that, huh?” grunts Han, flashing a look at me. “Are you sure? What did your mother – NOT your Grandma – actually say, Samuel?”

The little forehead puckers. Samuel almost mimics his Ma’s tone – I don’t mean rude – I just mean so you can tell he’s repeating, “She says, ‘Please – if’n you don’t mind – please would you unhitch Bluecher and let him have a drink and give him some feed?’ An’, she sez to say, ‘Thank you, Han’bul.’”

Our shoulders slump. ‘Unhitch the horse’ doesn’t mean SHE’S definitely staying for supper. But, I reckon we both know – the odds just shortened.

—oooOOOooo—

A COUPLE OF HOURS LATER.
(A COUPLE OF HOURS DURING WHICH LOUISA HEYES HAS ALREADY RECEIVED A LOT OF MATERNAL ADVICE.)

“…I don’t know I approve of you not staying supper until Alex gets home, Louisa…”

“I like to stick to a regular routine for the boys, Mama. An’…”

“The least a man can expect is his wife to have meals waitin’ after his days work! Though, it’s real thoughtless of Alex to be so late…I wouldn’t put up with that!”

“He’s not exactly late, Mama. Thanks, Jed…” Mrs. Heyes is thanking me ‘cos I’m settling Amy into the raised chair. Mrs. Heyes looks real hot. Bits of her hair flop forward. She tries to blow them outta her eyes, ‘cos her hands are full.

Han has just finished setting out the plates – the best china. Samuel is following him with knives and forks. Han glances at his stepma. Like me, he can see how flustered she looks. He strides over, takes the dish she’s carrying to the table. I just hear Han say, real quiet and kinda gruff, “Sit down, ma-am. Me an’ Jed’ll fetch the rest.”

At the same time, Mrs. Mueller is saying, “Don’t be so foolish, Louisa! Not late! Pfffttt! You just said – you keep a regular suppertime! You KNOW I want to talk to …”

“I told you, Mama, like as not, Alex wouldn’t be back in time. He said not to wait. He an’ Nathanial – an’ Jed’s brothers – are helpin’ over at the Myers’ place…”

“DON’T interrupt me, Louisa!” I came over to talk to Alex – tell him I will NOT stand for any…” She looks at me and Han and the boys, stops. “He should BE here, and …”

“He didn’t know, Mama. We weren’t expectin’…”

“I hope I don’t have to wait for an invitation to my own daughter’s home!”

“No, of course not, Mama. I only mean that if Alex had known you wanted to…”

“What’s he doin’ over at the Myers’ anyhow? He should put his own family fir…”

“He’s helpin’!” chips in Samuel, brightly. “Papa’s helpin’! An’ Misder Curry’s helpin’! ‘Cos o’ the war! ‘Cos Will Myers – he’s gone…”

“Hush, liebchen,” says Mrs. Mueller. “Your Papa should be workin’ in his own fields! Maximising his surplus while prices are strong! Makin’ money to spend on YOU!”

“He DOES!” A pair of feet are presented for her inspection. “Look, Gran’ma! New boots! Han’bul too! New boots! Look! We’se BOTH growin’! Papa sez I’ll be big as Han’bul one day!” He beams at his big brother.

Mrs. Mueller gives Han a real sour look. He returns it.

“Hmph!” she sniffs.

“David…” Samuel is reaching out to the pitcher. “…David’s growin’ too! But, he didn’ have new boots, ‘cos…’cos…he had my OLD boots! They was goodas new! ‘Cos …’cos I’d grown outta ‘em ‘fore they was even worn down! Papa sez I’se growin’ lika beanstalk. Papa sez…”

“Hannibal Heyes!” snaps Mrs. Mueller. “Haven’t you eyes in your head? Can’t you see your little brother can’t reach the milk pitcher? Make yourself useful, boy!”

Han HAD been making room for a dish of carrots he’d fetched from the stove. I’m following with the potatoes. Sheesh, I think! It’s not as if Han’s just sitting there – like SHE is! I reckon Han thinks the same. He scowls, opens his mouth to answer her back. Then, I think…I’m not sure, but I THINK …Mrs. Heyes catches his eye, from where she’s mushing up a some bread in a bowl for Amy. Her face looks … I don’t know the word. What’s the word when someone looks all kinda ‘please, please, please’? Anyhow, Han shuts his mouth and pours milk for Samuel – then David. He gets two smiles, one beaming, one kinda slow and shy – both coming from under little white moustaches – and, Han smiles back.

Mrs. Heyes says grace. We start supper.

The pork shoulda been cooked with less sage. The potatoes are not fried crisp enough. There’s too much butter on the carrots. The bread’s sliced diagonally – it should be straight. The milk’s not skimmed enough – which is just a waste of good cream. It is ridiculous to serve tea at suppertime. And, the darn on the tablecloth shows.

This is all according to Mrs. Mueller. Supper tastes just fine to me. And, I guess she has real sharp eyes ‘cos I never even noticed the darn – and I’ve eaten off this cloth often enough. Mind you, apparently I talk with my mouth full and hold my knife all wrong – so, what would I know, huh? Could be worse, I could be Han. I never knew any one person could do as much wrong at the supper table as him. ‘Specially when he hardly speaks and keeps his eyes fixed on his plate. This kinda surprises me. I mean, I know me and Han are not supposed to backtalk Mrs. Mueller – and, I know she snitches on us to our Pa’s when we do – but, the way she’s needling and needling at Han, I thought he’d have said something by now. Over and over, she peers out the window – complains about Mister Heyes not being home – then she scowls at Han and finds something else to pick fault with. When he says nothing, she scowls harder and…

I blink. Is Mrs. Mueller scowling ‘COS Han is NOT giving her any backtalk –just murmuring ‘Yes’m’ ‘No’m’? Is…?

Nah! That don’t make sense. Does it?
Nah.

Besides, her attention is not on Han just now. She’s turned round. She’s looking over at the stove. Mrs. Heyes has hung a row of clean diapers on a rail to one side. There’s a basket of ironing – mainly the boys’ and Han’s stuff – and three or four of Mister Heyes shirts hanging on a peg under the shelf.

“That’s a bad habit, Louisa. A man doesn’t like to see his house full of laundry after a hard days work. A wife’s duty is to provide a man a comforting place to come home to. It’s not too much to ask – all it takes is a little effort.”

Mrs. Heyes says, “I guess your visit had me runnin’ a little late this after…”

“You know my opinion of lazy slatterns who are always making excuses, Louisa!” her Ma interrupts and Mrs. Heyes goes bright red, she puts down her fork and starts to stand up.

Han shoots a real cold look at Mrs. Mueller. He stands up first. “I’ll take my Pa’s shirts up to your room, ma-am,” he says to his Stepma. “Jed – wouldya move the ironing into the parlour?” He turns to Mrs. Mueller, “I doubt my father’d ever object to the sight of his own daughter’s diapers dryin’, ma-am – but, since it’s a sunny evenin’ I’ll carry the rail out onto the porch so they don’t annoy you.”

Now, Mrs. Mueller flushes. She looks angry. But, Han, already gathering the shirts, doesn’t so much as glance at her and…Well, it’s not as if he said anything rude – is it?

We get pie. The pastry was ‘not left to stand long enough’. The apples are ‘not sliced thin enough’. Mrs. Mueller tuts when Mrs. Heyes offers me, Han and the boys a second piece. I still take one though. If this pie IS made wrong – I reckon I like it that way!

Samuel, who’s pretty dang bright for four, is picking up the…the… I don’t know the right word. Han would. But, I guess you know what I mean, huh? Anyhow, Samuel chirps up that the pie is ‘yummy with fickapples!’ and rubs his stomach, as he beams at his Ma. He’s trying to cheer her up. David gives his slow smile at her and rubs his stomach too.

For about half a second I think Mrs. Mueller is gonna be cross with the boys as well. But, she looks at Samuel and – she actually ruffles his hair. “You’re the spitting image of your Uncle Thomas at the same age,” she tells him. “And – your Uncle Thomas looks more like MY Papa every day. The photograph he sent – of him in his uniform…” She stops. She looks – just for a moment – like…
It reminds me of something. What? Then, I remember. Last week, Nate was looking at the newspaper and said something about how many soldiers joined up BEFORE they were seventeen, let alone eighteen – eighteen is the age Ma and Pa say he hasta be before they’ll even TALK about it. Ma looked at Nate and all the colour went outta her face and she looked…I guess ‘scared’ is nearly the right word …but not quite. Anyway, whatever the word – just for a moment – Mrs. Mueller looks it. “You’re the dead spit,” she tells Samuel again.

“I’se got Mama’s col’rin…” Samuel informs his Grandma, “…bud, bud…I’se a Heyes alride! ‘Cos…’cos…I’se ‘quistive…an’ an’…quo…quo…” He looks to Han for help.

“Loquacious to a fault,” supplies Han. It must be something his Pa’s said a few times – ‘cos I see Mrs. Heyes give a little smile.

“Jus’ like Han’bul!” agrees Samuel, as if being ‘like Han’bul’ is the proudest boast he can think of. “David LOOKS like Papa an’ Han’bul – dead spit! Bud…bud…he’s quiet! Bud…bud…that’s not ‘cos he’s got nuthin’ to say – issit David? Papa sez it’s ‘cos he – he waysis words! Don’t he?”

David’s solemn brown eyes look up from his pie. “Lika nowl!” he nods.

“That’s right, David,” says Han. “You’re like the wise old owl, huh?”

“Hmph!” Another sniff from Mrs. Mueller. She turns to her daughter, “Well, I guess there’s ONE thing to be said for you an’ Charlotte. Neither of you wasted any time givin’ your husbands fine, healthy sons. I don’t suppose Alex can complain much about the third being only a girl.”

Han’s eyes come up. Mrs. Heyes’ turns from Amy to her mother and looks kinda –confused. She opens her mouth and I wonder if she’s gonna point out that Mister Heyes has NEVER complained about Amy being a girl. Far as I can tell – Mister Heyes is – y’know – sappy about Amy. But, Mrs. Heyes don’t get to say nothing ‘cos Mrs. Mueller is still talking.

“I’ve told you often enough how disappointed I was when YOU were born after Charlotte – let alone Brigit.”

“Yes, Mama,” says Mrs. Heyes, quietly. “You told us all. Real often.”

“Still,” goes on Mrs. Mueller, “…Thomas and Kurt came along eventually, so – I guess, I mustn’t complain.” She looks at Mrs. Heyes. “A wife’s first duty is to give her husband sons. No one can say you’ve fallen short in THAT area, Louisa!”

Well, I think, I’m glad Mrs. Mueller thinks Mrs. Heyes has done SOMETHING right. That’s the first nice thing she’s said to her. I see Han frown though. Was it not nice? I guess… I dunno. Sometimes when grown ups talk to each other – ‘specially women – you can’t be sure.

Supper’s over. Han and I fetch water to wash up. Mrs. Heyes sends the boys out to give the scraps from the day to the pigs. We start to gather plates. Mrs. Mueller stands at the window staring at the place where you can just see the lane. Mister Heyes is still not home. From the way she’s scowling – he’s not even coming yet.

“I can’t waste any more time waiting, Louisa!” she snaps. “You’d better make sure you tell Alex all I said!” Mrs. Heyes looks down, bites her lip. “I MEAN it, Louisa!”

“I’ll tell him, Mama, but…but…”

“But WHAT?!”

“It won’t change his mind. You know that. An’ – an’- I guess I…I…”

“Charlotte’s made her bed, she’s got to lie in it! I will NOT have the shame of a daughter of mine separating from…”

“All Alex said was – if she ever needs us, she an’ the boys are welcome …” Mrs. Heyes stops, flashes a look over to the table. “…Please, hush, Mama. You promised. Not in front of…Please! Besides, like you say – a wife hasta stick by her husband. Even if I didn’t agree with Alex – I’d still hafta…”

“A wife should exert INFLUENCE, Louisa!” interrupts Mrs. Mueller.

Influence? That must be what she calls it when she bosses Mr. Mueller around. I always thought that was nagging.

“…Mind you…” Mrs. Mueller – who looks real mad Mrs. Heyes answered back even a little bit – goes on, “…I guess we can’t be surprised Alex doesn’t even come home – let alone listen to his wife! Why SHOULD he come home to a badly cooked supper in a messy house.” She’s reaching for her shawl now. “…He probably prefers Myra Myers’ place! Or – or – maybe he’s found some better company – elsewhere! No wonder! You’ve only yourself to blame when he strays, Louisa! Look at you! Letting your hair hang down like a Kilkenny cat and finishing up scraps from the pie as if you’d already lost the extra fifteen pounds you put on with Amy – when I’m sure Alex can see clear enough you’re still carryin’ ‘em AND the extra ten you put on with …”

“Leave her alone, you mean, bullyin’ B___! And, if you don’t like the way she keeps our house – geddout! And STAY out! It’s just as well for you my father isn’t home! You know D___ well, if he was – he’d NEVER let you talk to her like that!”

I nearly jump outta my skin. Sheesh! I don’t think I’ve seen Hannibal look so mad. And – after all that keeping his mouth shut while she picked on HIM! As for the language! If Ma ever heard I’d said anything HALF as bad – I doubt I’d sit down before next month! I reckon Mister Heyes will have something to say when he hears too! I see Samuel and David stepping up on the porch – both wide-eyed at hearing their big brother yell like that!

Mrs. Mueller looks… It don’t make sense but I reckon she’s pleased Han lost his temper. Her eyes sparkle. “Are you goin’ to stand there and let him talk to me like that, Louisa? Order him to apologise!”

Mrs. Heyes does NOT order Han to apologise. She stares at him. Her eyes are all…y’know… ‘please, please, please’. Han stares back. He still looks raging mad. He’s breathing fast – his fists clench and unclench. Her lip is wobbling hard. She’s fishing in her sleeve for a handkerchief. Her hand is shaking. No – no – she’s ALL shaking. Han shuts his eyes for a second. Then he turns. He moves – I think trying to put himself between his Stepma and the door, where the boys stand open-mouthed. To Mrs. Mueller, he says, “I apologise, ma-am!”

“Your father’s going to hear about THIS, Hannibal Heyes,” she promises. “Jedediah Curry – make yourself useful – get my horse hitched.”

—oooOOOooo—

I take the boys with me to hitch up the wagon and, after Mrs. Mueller’s gone, give them ‘a chore’ in the yard. I think – I’ll just go see if their Ma’s okay, or – at any rate not blubbing – before they go in.

She’s not blubbing, though – when she does turn round – her eyes look red. She’s in her chair clutching a mug real tight. Her hands still look shaky. Han’s putting the last of the dishes away.

Mrs. Heyes does not see me at first. I guess I’m being quiet while I check, ‘cos if she’s crying – she won’t want me to see, huh?

“Maybe…” says Mrs. Heyes, “…maybe the place IS a mess.” She glances over at the mirror. “I guess I’M sure a mess.”

“Sit quiet and stop talkin’ so dumb. Drink your tea while it’s hot,” replies Han. Then, all gruff, “I put extra sugar in it.”

Written down, the start of that comes over real rude. But, it didn’t sound rude. It sounded… I dunno. Just then, Hannibal sounded not like a boy near my age, talkin’ to his Stepma…He sounded like one grown-up talkin’ to another.

—oooOOOooo—

The Next Morning – Saturday 27th June

Mister Heyes musta worked on real late, ‘cos come our bedtime – he’s still not back. Next morning, before breakfast, Han is milking and ‘supervising’ David and Samuel feeding the chickens and gathering eggs. I’m setting the breakfast table. Mister Heyes appears at the bottom of the stairs. He looks dead beat. Dark circles under his eyes. Face all crumpled. Not shaved. He looks in a real bad mood. You don’t often see Mister Heyes in a REAL bad mood. Mind you, Pa’s been kinda short-tempered, too, the last couple of weeks. Ma said Pa and Mister Heyes are real busy and have a lot on their minds – so try not to pester them.

I know they wanna harvest Mrs. Myers’ wheat and get back to their own farms quick as they can, ‘cos I heard Pa say, ‘Sure and I guess while he’s away is after being the best time, but I still don’t like being away from…thinking payback…’ and Mister Heyes said ‘I feel the same. But, we can’t just leave Myra to cope. I can’t anyhow. Not after all she did for Sarah back when…’ and Pa said ‘Sure and hasn’t she been a real friend to us, too, over the years.’ Then he sighed and said ‘If we dig in – Saturday could see the end of it. I haven’t heard nothin’ ‘bout him coming back that soon.’ And, I thought, if they’re talking about Will Myers – which they musta been, ‘cos who else could it be? – Will only joined a few months back so it’ll be FOREVER until he comes home. It’s always forever till soldiers get leave. So I didn’t really see why Pa and Mister Heyes were even thinking Will might get back in time to help with the wheat. And, I sure don’t see why they’re talking about payback. I’m pretty sure they won’t ask Will or his Ma for any.

Anyhow, Mister Heyes stomps down and says, “I’m late. Louisa, I wanted to get back over to the Myers’ well before seven. Why didn’t you wake me?”

“You didn’t say, Alex – and, you were SO tired, I thought I’d let you lie…”

“I DID sa…” he starts to argue, then pauses. Still cross – but I reckon trying not to be – he asks, “…Didn’t I?”

“Before you said anythin’ much – before you so much as tasted your supper – you were asleep over the table. I put a cushion under you an’ covered you up – you musta come up to bed in the small hours.

“Hmph,” he grunts.

“Sit down – I’ll hurry breakfast.”

“I haven’t TIME for breakfast!”

“You gotta …” Mrs. Heyes starts. Then, she changes her mind as she sees Mister Heyes is sawing off a hunk of bread and a thick slice of ham to eat as he goes.

A pause. Much more quietly – though still grumpy, he says, “…Sorry, Gorgeous. I’ll try and come home in a better mood, huh?” Then he strides out.

She sighs, but gives a shrug. “Jed,” she asks, “…could you fetch more water, please?”

I stop on the porch, stoop down to tie my bootlace. Out in the yard, Mister Heyes is calling.

“Hannibal! Get in the barn. I want to talk to you.”

Han looks up; sees from the look on his Pa’s face he’s in trouble. “Why? What’ve…?”

“I DIDN’T say I wanted to stand here and have you argue back to me in the yard! I said – get in the barn! Now! Samuel, David, take those eggs in to Mama…Good boys. Go IN, Samuel, don’t make me tell you twice.”

Han scowls for a second, then strides over to the barn. I hesitate – then pick up the bucket and head for the pump. There’s only one thing Han can be in trouble for. But, Mister Heyes can’t know about that yet. Can he? Unless…unless Mrs. Mueller was SO keen to snitch she went over the Myers’ place. Surely, it was too late to go that far? Or, I guess she coulda watched the lane from the Myers’ place like a hawk so she could run and catch Mister Heyes before he turned off. She’d hafta do that from her upstairs back window though. Is she really so…?

I do not start pumping ‘cos, if I do the sound of the water will mean I cannot – by straining my ears – just hear:
“It’s a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, son. Did you call Mrs. Mueller a…?” And, Mister Heyes says – y’know – the ‘B’ word, straight out.

“SHE was sayin’…”

“Yes or No, Hannibal.”

I cannot hear Han’s answer, but I know what it is ‘cos Mister Heyes snaps, “Yes, WHAT?” And, I know he means Han is to say ‘Yes sir.’

The bucket still in my hand, I move closer. I don’t know quite what I’m thinking. Except, SHE won’t have told Han’s Pa that it wasn’t the picking on HIM, that made him … If Mister Heyes knew…

I cannot hear everything:
“…DON’T want to hear excuses! …do NOT allow name-calling. …NOT a word I want MY son using about ANY woman …Sick and tired … playing Mrs. Mueller up… childish…worse – utterly selfish… know the person who ends up getting hurt is Louisa…after ALL she’s done for you… time you grew UP…” I am closer. “…Sick and TIRED of it …utterly PIG sick that when I was BONE tired last night I had to waste half an hour I could have spent in bed having to listen, AGAIN, to…!” A pause. Han’s seen me. He’s already flushed – but goes even redder and scowls hard. Mister Heyes turns, puts his hands on his hips and frowns. “…If you’re fetching water, Jed, go fetch it! And, if you’re not back in the house five seconds after that bucket is full, I reckon I’ll have to explain the difference between natural and morbid curiosity! Understand?”

I go red as fire ‘cos Mister Heyes – and probably Han – think I’m just eavesdropping. That’s not true. Not ALL true anyhow. I do as I’m told, though. Fill the bucket and go in. I’m still thinking – IF Han said (IF his Pa would listen)…IF Mister Heyes knew…Han would still be in trouble for name-calling and language, but…Mister Heyes WOULD see Han had done real well keeping his mouth shut while Mrs. Mueller picked on him…It was only when she made his Stepma cry…

Han would NOT want me to tell his Stepma he’s getting into trouble about last night – but – I will. She’ll go tell his Pa, ‘cos – he won’t just send her back into the house before she can say a word. Mrs. Heyes is not in the kitchen though.

“Where’s your Ma?” I ask Samuel. He points at the parlour. I step towards the door – which is not shut tight, but ‘pulled to’.

“She’s feedin’ N’amy,” he says.

Oh. Er…
Mrs. Heyes will not exactly mind if I go in…Still…
Ladies do sometimes hafta feed babies in front of visitors and other folk. But, once I got – y’know – not a little kid anymore, Pa told me gentlemen visitors try and step out on the porch, or pick up a newspaper, or just look somewhere else – without making a big deal of it.
Er…
I’ll wait.

—oooOOOooo—

“Oh!” says Mrs. Heyes, when I tell her her Ma has already – I don’t say ‘snitched’ – and Hannibal’s getting in trouble. “Oh!”

She bites her lip. She’s dithering. You can almost see her thinking…’will it make Mister Heyes cross if I go interfere?’ ‘will it make Hannibal cross?’ ‘is it – fussing?’ ‘I should…’ ‘Shouldn’t I…?’

She stops dithering and hurries out to the porch. Han is already striding across the yard, scowling hard. .

“Pa’s gone,” he says.

“But…”

“He didn’t take the wagon – he rode over – ‘cos he’s late.” Flashing a look at me, he adds, “…I can’t come help at your place. I hafta go work in the store. Sorry.”

You see, first I was gonna help Han do all his own and his Pa’s chores over here, THEN – I’m supposed to be doing all Nate and Zach’s chores over our place, so they’re freed up to go the Myers’ – and, Han was gonna help ME.

“Oh, Hannibal…” says Mrs. Heyes and she squeezes his shoulder. He shrugs her hand away.

“S’orright,” he grunts. But, it clearly isn’t ‘alright’. He won’t meet either of our eyes. Is he scowling so hard ‘cos he’s trying not to cry? Nah! We’ve both been too big to cry for years and years. Mostly.

Just like Mister Heyes did, Han cuts a hunk of bread and a slice of ham. “If I’m not back – don’t wait supper. I gotta stay till SHE says.” He goes. His stepma starts to say stuff about ‘at least havin’ breakfast first – or, lettin’ her pack a lunch pail‘, but, he still goes.

I run after him. “Han…” I say, “…He didn’t whip you, did he?”

“Shuddup. None of your dang business.”

Han scowls even harder. That doesn’t hafta mean ‘yes’ though. He probably didn’t. It’s probably just something Mister Heyes SAID making Han wanna…
I look away.
I shouldn’t have asked.

“I gotta go home, Han – but, if it’s okay with Ma – I’ll try come help you finish whatever she makes you do.”

“Suit yourself.” Then, still gruff and still not looking at me, “…Thanks, Jed.” He rubs his nose hard and manages a tiny smile. “…Watch out the mean witch don’t hit you with her broomstick when you enter ‘the lair’, huh?”

—oooOOOooo—

It’s the middle of the afternoon before I get away to join Han. I take his advice. I mean about entering ‘the lair’. No way will Mrs. Mueller let me go help him – so I watch the place and slip round the back when I see HER busy yakking to Mrs. Bauer out front. I find a stick long enough to reach the high window of the storeroom. Tap out ‘It’s Jed’ in Morse code. Leastways – I think I do. I don’t remember it so good as Han. Still, even if I tapped ‘Bit Sad’ – it works. The window opens, I scramble onto the water butt and Han leans out to pull me inside.

Han’s wet and filthy from cleaning. He…Well, he stinks. He musta been scraping out fish barrels or something. I tell Han he reeks so bad the mice’ll be throwing themselves in fronta the storeroom cats begging to be put outta their misery – ‘cept the cats won’t be dumb enough to stay inside with the stench!

“Guess that makes you WAY dumber than them, huh?” he grins.

Han’s back to normal. I mean – happy. No, no I don’t mean ‘happy’. I mean – full of himself. Full of some idea and itching to have someone to tell.

“Come see what I found,” he smugs. He lights an oil lamp, leads me down into the cellar. I shiver. It’s freezing even in midsummer. “She had me scrubbin’ down here, this mornin’. And…” Han moves aside a stack of crates, takes something from his pocket, bends to the lock on a sturdy door hidden behind them at the back. “…And…” He catches his bottom lip between his teeth as he concentrates.

“Han!” I protest. Han watched Mister Ward open a box for his Pa – the key had gone missing – a few months back. He talked about lock-picks for ages. I kinda guessed he mighta – y’know – tried it. But… Well, you shouldn’t open other people’s boxes and stuff – should you?

Han glances over as the door opens. His eyes are all wide and pretend innocent. He’s grinning from ear to ear. “She SAID scrub out the cellar. THIS is in the cellar! I hadta open it – to do as I was told, huh? Stands to reason!”

I roll my eyes. Sheesh! Sometimes Han could argue black’s white! Behind the door, it just looks like more ordinary stores to me. Barrels of sugar. Barrels of good coffee. Boxes of …I hafta admit feeling kinda tempted when I see – candy. Wrapped up in oilskin are bales and bales of cotton.

“Don’t you see?” said Han. No. What? I look again. Cotton, sugar…Oh! I kinda get what he’s driving at. “This is all the stuff she’s put the prices sky high on! She keeps sayin’ regular stocks ran out back in early ’62 – she’s havin’ to pay the extra mark-up on goods that are imported via…”

I don’t quite follow all Han says. It’s not just that he remembers what SHE’S said –he’s tying in things Miss Field’s explained in school and stuff his Pa – AND him – have read in the newspaper. I get the gist though. Mrs. Mueller is cheating…Well, ‘cheating’ is not the right word. Han calls it…’prof’teerin’’ It sounds more like…bending the rules rather than actually breaking them. That’s probably why, at one point, Han can’t help saying ‘You hafta hand it to her. She may be mean – but, she sure is smart when it comes to turnin’ a dollar.’

He takes me to another set of boxes. Firecrackers.

“Hey!” I protest. “The last two years she said she hadta pay through the nose to get hold o’ even half a dozen boxes o’ pre-war firecrackers – ‘cos of no gunpowder goin’ spare to make new ‘uns! And, THIS year, Ma says we’ll hafta go without on the fourth, ‘cos money’s short and they’re costin’…while that blowhard Tommy Bauer’s swanks ‘cos his folks can afford…” I fume, silently. Well, maybe not all THAT silently. “And, all the time – there’s boxes an’ boxes down …” I tail off. Han has that kinda – patient – look. I guess I just caught up on what ‘prof’teerin’’ means.

He does a quick count. “I reckon Mrs. Mueller’s gamblin’ on the war lastin’ at least another two years – maybe three.” He turns to me, grins. “Howdya feel ‘bout usin’ a few of these for a little…payback?”

“Isn’t that – stealin’?” I hesitate. I hope I don’t sound too… But, isn’t it?

“More like – liberatin’,” says Han. “…These oughta be liberated! To be shared by the – the community on the fourth. It’s our patriotic duty! Like liberatin’ the tea in Boston! An’…”

He tells me some of what he has in mind. A grin spreads over my face.
It’d never work. But… Han HAS been thinkin’!
We’d both get punished. But… At least it’d be for something ‘worth it’!

I look at him. “You’re gonna try it – even if I say no, aren’t you?”

He shrugs, then nods. “BUT – it’d be SO much better with two!” he urges. I get another of his wide-eyed looks. “…C’mon Jed! I turn twelve soon. Might be my last chance to do somethin’ just plain – incorrigible – before I hafta settle down to bein’ all grown up!”

His face is real serious and solemn. Then I see the tiniest twitch at the corner of his mouth. That last bit was a joke.

“You know you want to,” he tempts.

He’s right. I DO want to.

“…And, she HAS got it comin’!”

I think about how Mrs. Mueller kept Han scrubbing a cold cellar all morning. Mean old… It’s not that though. Not really.
Not for me. And, I reckon not for him.

I think about Mrs. Heyes – all shaky and trying so, SO hard not to burst into tears in front of the boys. Mrs. Heyes might be a bit – sappy – to let her Ma’s nagging get to her like that. But…Well! Some folk being real easy to bully, don’t make bullying them any more right, does it?

So, yeah!
I reckon Mrs. Mueller does have it coming.

We ‘liberate’ the contents of two boxes of firecrackers. Han leaves what he calls a ‘promissory note’ in the top empty box. It says the firecrackers are ‘requisitioned’ as part of the war effort – something to do with ‘civilian morale’ – and a fair market price will be paid upon ‘cessation of hostilities’. Pa and Mister Heyes got ‘promissory notes’ when part of their crop was requisitioned last year. So, I guess it’s not exactly stealing. I don’t reckon Han is leaving the note to keep this honest though. I reckon it’s ‘cos he likes to imagine the look on her face when she finds it.
He don’t sign it.
I mean – he DOES – but, he don’t sign it ‘Hannibal Heyes’.
He signs it ‘for and on behalf of Abraham Lincoln’.

When this is done, Han relocks the cupboard, we restack the crates in front and go back up to the storeroom. I scramble out through the window. Han used to be able to get out that way, but last time he tried – nah! He lowers the firecrackers down – to be hidden where we can pick them up later. Then, he hauls me back in. Sheesh! It’s getting kinda a tight squeeze for me too!

We get on with the next task SHE’S set for Han. It’s real dull. Decanting big crates of …Nah. It’s too dull to write about. I unpack the crates, fold and tear paper, cut string. Han makes up small packages. We get a rhythm going and, of course, he works on ‘the plan’. Even the dullest jobs aren’t so bad with two, huh? Once, SHE comes in – but Han’s put a tin where the door from the store will knock it over – so we hear in plenty of time for me to go hide among the barrels.

She gives a sniff at his progress, runs a finger along one of the shelves he musta been told to clean. Han just watches. Her eyes snap. I reckon she’s angry because her finger came away clean as a whistle and the job making up 25 cent packages is nearly done – and done real neatly.

“Not so keen to shoot your mouth off now, are you?” she asks. “Got nothin’ to say?”

Han cups a hand to his ear, purses his lips as if he’s concentrating hard. “I don’t HEAR me saying anything, ma-am.”

Her hand twitches. She must wanna smack Han real bad – ‘cos she clutches a fold of her skirt so tight I see veins stand out.

—oooOOOooo—

We finish and SHE tells Han he can go. He meets me out back and we walk home, making a diversion to hide the ‘liberated’ firecrackers in an old hollow trunk we’ve used before.

“Han,” I ask, “…y’know Mrs. Mueller – why do you reckon she never slaps you?”

She’s never laid a finger on him. At any rate, never after once or twice when Mister Heyes first married Han’s stepma.

Quite a few grown-ups, certainly Mrs. Mueller, if a boy annoys ‘em enough – simply clip him round the head. And, most boys know better’n to expect any sympathy from their folks. Last time Pa caught Zach whining Mister Bauer had clipped him, all Pa said was:
“Sure and let’s hope it knocks a little of the cheek outta you…”
And, not two months ago, Mister Heyes overheard Han complaining ‘cos Mrs. Williams had given the two of us both a good smack. All HE said was:
“I’ve told you, son, it’s all down to the scientific principles of cause and effect. Think about what you and Jed were doing just before you got smacked – that’ll be the cause. If you don’t like the effect – stop doing whatever causes it. Simple.”

But, SOMETHING is stopping Mrs. Mueller raising a hand to Han.

“Dunno. Leastways…” Han shrugs, “…it can only be that Pa’s told her SHE’S not to touch me. SHE can’t give me long chores without his say so neither. You can tell. BUT, he’s never said a word to me. I wish…I dunno…I guess if SHE could get it outta her system with a good smack, I might spend less time in that dang storeroom, huh?”

I shrug too. I don’t quite see why Mister Heyes thinks it’s okay for Mrs. Williams – she’s Hannah’s Ma, she’s pretty nice mostly, we WERE kinda asking for it that day – to slap Han, but not Mrs. Mueller.
Except… Well…
I dunno.

As we come near to Han’s place Samuel races outta the yard.

“…Han’bul! Han’bul! Papa was hitchin’ up the wagon to come fetch you! He said…When he come home, he took the clock off’n the shelf – an’ he said…he knows he said ‘as long as she wanted – but this s’is dic’lus!’”

Samuel has reached us now, his eyes open wide as he confides, “…He didn’t say that to ME…THAT was to Mama…but I y’eard! An’ then he said – ‘Dic’lus!’ again. ‘DIC’LUS!”

A sunny grin. I reckon Samuel likes this new word – which means we’ll hear a lot of stuff called ‘ridiculous’ over the next few weeks.

“… An’ then Papa said – ‘I’m gonna hitch up the wagon – go get him.’ An’ Mama said – ‘I know you’re cross Alex, but please don’t say too much. It’s my fault. I shouldn’ta leddit get to me.’ An’ he said…”

Samuel, in full flow, notices our eyes are no longer on him. Without stopping his blow by blow account, he turns and beams at his Pa who is striding outta the yard.

“…He – Papa – said ‘T’isn’t YOU goddup like a bear with a saw red an’ wouldn’t let the poor lad getso muchas sa wordin!’ An’ THEN Mama said some’n’ I couldn’t hear. An’ Papa said, ‘Well – I’d stilla sent him over to do a mornin’ of chores to say ‘sorry’ for cussin’ an’ name-callin’ – but, it’s not that so much! I was kinda ruff fonim – lost my temper…’ An’ Mama said – ‘Well, sheesh, Alex – you’re ‘bout dead on yer feed this last week!’”

Han, who started scowling down at his own boots soon as he saw his Pa, glances up. Mister Heyes gives a little smile. “I guess it’s not fair to accept any excuses for losing my own temper if I don’t let other folk make a speech in mitigation for losing theirs, huh, Hannibal?”

Han shrugs. His scowl lightens though. Han doesn’t mind so much being in what he calls ‘ordinary trouble’ with his Pa. He minds…I dunno how to say it. I reckon you know what I mean though?

“…THEN,” Samuel goes on, firmly, in a ‘don’t interrupt’ voice, “…Papa put on his s’at to come out …AN’ I said, I oughda come too…An’ Papa said – Where the Sam Hill had I been hidin’ an’ what had I been told ‘bout listenin’ in? An’ Mama said – it was gettin’ too near bedtime an’ I hadta stay home…An’ I said I oughda be ‘llowed stay up later ‘cos…’cos…I ain’t tired! An’…an’ if’n David’s only three an’ I’m FOUR, I oughta be ‘llowed up later! Stands to reason. An’ Papa said – ‘IF an’ only IF there was an ‘med’ate …er… cessin’ of…er…”

“…An immediate cessation of whinin’…” supplies Han. Mister Heyes smiles at him again. Han nearly smiles back – but not quite.

“…Uh huh. If’n I didn’t whine ‘bout not goin’ along – I could help hitch up the wagon. Bud…bud…I was up on the board …an’ I said … ‘I can see Han’bul’s hat!’ An’ you looked Papa – and you couldn’t see nuthin’… then you could – an’ you said I’d got eyes lika hawk… An’ I run out … an’ I told Han’bul… you was hitchin’…”

“I think that’s pretty much a full circle, son,” decides Mister Heyes and he lifts the small hat to ruffle the blond hair. “Be a good boy now – run back into the house, tell Mama, Hannibal’s home. Ask her to put the kettle on and warm up his supper…He looks like he’s had a real hard day.”

“Uh huh,” nods Samuel, adding cheerfully, “…He stinks too, huh?” Before he runs back in, he asks, “Jed…?”

“Yup?”

“Y’know – Sarah. Y’know when she was four…”

“Uh huh?”

“What time did she hafta go to bed…? ‘Cos – ‘cos now she hasta go same time as Roof– an’ Roof’s SEVEN! She don’t hafta go when somebody who’s only THREE goes, huh?”

I see Mister Heyes roll his eyes. I grin, “We ALL hafta go at the same time, Samuel. Even Nate. Even Pa! We hafta go to bed whenever Ma says. Just like you, huh?”

Samuel gives a resigned shrug and runs off.

“Good answer!” admires Mister Heyes. “I may steal it sometime.” A pause. “I reckon I was pretty snappy with you this morning, Jed. I’m sorry.”

“S’orright,” I grunt.

“Are you coming in?” he asks.

“No thank you, Mister Heyes.” I squint at the sun. “…I reckon I’m already gonna be in trouble for bein’ late.”

“Well, Jed – I’m sure your folks will be good parents, listen to what made you late – and not say a lot of things they don’t really mean and you sure don’t deserve. And even if they do – they’ll be sorry afterwards, huh?”

“Er…yeah,” I say, kinda confused. “…See you tomorrow, Han.”

“See you, Jed.”

As I run off, I hear:
“You can get a word in now, if you like son.”

“Bit late NOW! I’ve done a whole day – over twelve straight hours – of punishment chores NOW!”

“Ah well. Hard work never killed anyone.”

“That’s not what you said when you were re-digging the Myers well an’ that storm made the wall give way! You said if you hadta spend one more day hefting dirt, it’d kill you – AND – you’d be glad – ‘cos as least that’d mean you didn’t hafta pick up a shovel ever again! It’d be some other poor sap had to dig the hole to bury you in! AND you said…”

When I get to the rise, I look back over my shoulder. Han and his Pa haven’t gone back into the house yet. They’re leaning on the fence, watching the sun get low. I reckon they’re still yakking. Mister Heyes has his hand on Han’s shoulder. I don’t mean hugging – nothing sappy like that. Just – y’know – back to normal.

—oooOOOooo—

The Following Afternoon – Sunday 28th June

“What did she SAY – when you asked to borrow the clock?”

“I didn’t ask,” says Han. “…I got Samuel to draw something real nice – I suggested he drew his mother. But we got a picture of those two dang cats YOU wasted OUR Christmas money on! Anyhow, I said he should put it right in the middle of the shelf so Pa sees it when he gets in – propped it in front of the clock. She won’t move it – ‘cos it’ll only set him off complainin’ – an’ I swapped the clock for some old tin. Even if SHE notices – I’ll have the clock back, safe and sound, before Pa’s home … Hurry up with that piece of wood, Jed!”

“What did your last servant die of?” I grumble.

“He didn’t die. He got fired for bein’ too slow fetchin’ a plank when I’d told him to hurry up! Do I hafta do EV’RYTHIN?”

“Ev’rythin’! Seems to me I’M the one doin’ all the fetchin’, carryin’ an’ heftin’! ALL you’re doin’ is sittin’ nice an’ relaxed – danglin’ string!”

“I’M doin’ the measurin’ an’ I’M doin’ the figurin’!” Han protests. He pulls another piece of string off a roll and stretches it along a tape measure he musta borrowed from his stepma’s sewing basket. “…’Course…” he frowns at the kitchen clock, sitting ‘real safe’ on Han’s jacket where neither of us can knock it by accident, “…a watch would be better for the figurin’.”

“Why didn’t you sneak your Pa’s watch then? Woulda been easier than sneakin’ that great thing!”

“…’Cos…” sighs Han, using the patient voice, “…I’ve been forbidden to borrow Pa’s watch – or to take any of his stuff without askin’! He’s never – specif’cally – forbidden me takin’ the kitchen clock out for an airin’. An’, a kitchen clock is kinda – household goods. It don’t – specif’cally – belong ‘clue’sively to my Pa, huh? As for that word ‘sneakin’’. I mighta been…” he searches, “…discrete…” he decides, “…not wantin’ to – to worry the boys’ mother by rousin’ a lotta feminine curiousity …but to call it ‘sneakin’’…” Han gives me a sad shake of the head.

Sheesh!

“…Now what we have here, Jed, is three lengths of string. Or, once combined with the tallow I’m gonna melt – once YOU hurry up and build a fire – three lengths of slow burn FUSE! Ten inches, twenty inches an’…”

“Seems to me,” I interrupt, “…We’re gonna be in so much trouble anyhow – a bit more trouble over a watch isn’t gonna…”

“JED! I’ve told you. We are gonna have a perfect alibi! That’s what the string – I mean, slow burn fuse – is for! You gotta have a little faith! Now – I am gonna light these ten, twenty and thirty inches of slow burn fuse and note down the time taken to…”

“I get the point of the – the al’bye…” I say. “We’ll be well away from where the firecrackers go off. All innocent an’ with lotsa witnesses.”

“For a visibly distant, independently ‘companied and complete ten to fifteen minutes,” nods Han.

“… But…” I frown. “Mrs. Mueller’s not dumb. She’ll guess it’s us. Sheesh – even if it WASN’T us – she’d guess it WAS us! We could be in the next State – it’d STILL be us!”

“She won’t be able to PROVE it!”

“She won’t hafta PROVE it! She’ll tell my Ma an’ your Pa – they’ll ask us – an’…” I tail off. I am getting the ‘patient’ look. “I’m not sayin’ it’s not worth it,” I stress. “Just – thinkin’ some length of tallow an’ string is not gonna stop my Ma knowin’…”

“She’ll hafta ask ‘SACTLY the right question,” soothes Hannibal. “That is – so long as you leave ALL the talkin’ to me.”

Yeah right!
I can really see THAT working with Mister Heyes, let alone MY Ma.
NOT!!
Han’s pretty dang smart when it comes to what he calls ‘quiv’catin’’. Just, not as smart as he thinks he is! He may have had years of practice. But, THEY’VE had the same number of years practice spotting it, huh?
Still, like I say – it’ll be worth it.
If it works. Which is a pretty big ‘if’!

Hannibal brings his slate outta the bag he brought along.

“Now, assumin’ she don’t get distracted bitin’ the heads off small fluffy animals or held up at her witches’ sabbat criticizin’ some other hag’s cauldron cleanin’ technique, Mrs. Mueller – from now on to be known as ‘The Mark’ – will be judgin’ this year’s fourth of July pie and cake bakin’ competitions …”

SHE’S judging ‘cos SHE’S won the pie bake for three years running. The judging is done what they call ‘blind’, so it’s not ‘cos the judges wanted to keep her sweet.

“…This will place ‘The Mark’ on the presentation platform at two ‘o’ clock for a period of ‘bout ten minutes…” The slate pencil squeaks as Han’s diagram is sketched. “…The primary firecrackers will be placed here…” Squeak. “…Here…” Squeak. “…Here…” Squawk. “…We need access to the both platform and the display table BEFORE the fourth…”

I don’t get to taste her cooking. Han does sometimes. When we were – y’know – still just kids, he used to say ‘don’t see how she wins – her stuff tastes like dung’. But, now, he says, ‘If it wasn’t for the hostess – supper at the Muellers’ud be heaven on a plate. ‘Course – that’s one real big ‘if’.’ So, I guess SHE cooks better’n than Mrs. Heyes – which is pretty dang good!

“…Jedediah Curry – from now on to be known as ‘The Tactical Team’, or ‘T’…” Squeak. “… will approach Mrs. Frances Godfrey, of the ladies’ committee, with an offer of help AND the ‘big blue-eyed look’ …”

“Hey!” I protest, feeling my cheeks growing hot.

“…Hannibal Heyes – from now on to be known as ‘The Strategic Supremo’ or ‘S’…” Squeeeaaak! I frown. The ‘S’ is bigger. And fancier script. “…will approach Miss Caroline Field – events organizer – and, by his cunnin’ verbal dext’ery, get HER to request HIS help settin’ up the presentation platform…thus divertin’ suspicion…”

“Han! What the Sam Hill have you been readin’?”

“…Timing trials for the trigger devices will be held …” He checks the clock. “…at five thirty PM Sunday 28th June. IF ‘T’ ever gets that dang fire lit! A mechan’cal run through will be held …” Han looks up. A more normal tone. “Your Ma won’t mind if I come over Wednesday, huh? We’ll never get away without Samuel findin’ us if you come to me.”

“I’ll check – but it won’t be a problem,” I say, beginning to build a fire.

“…A mechan’cal run through will be held Wednesday 1st July …”

—oooOOOooo—

The Mechanical Run Through. Wednesday 1st July

“…Sheesh Han, it musta been fifteen minutes by now…”

“Nah.”

“…Feels like hours!”

“Nah.”

“…Don’t you wanna go check your fuse?”

“Nah. Shush, Jed. I’m tryin’ to count.”

Well, I wanna check the fuse! It’s been AGES!
(No way was I sneaking out OUR kitchen clock! I’ve never been ‘specifically forbidden from airing household goods’ either – but, I can’t see me having the cheek to make that sound half-way reasonable the way Han seems to!)

I trot over, take another look at the tallowed string – which is kinda like a real long, real skinny dip light. Still lit. Working its way towards the thin, thin line of gunpowder we have taken from some of the firecrackers.

“What you hafta realise,” says Han, who’s laying on his belly, eyes fixed on the rough planks we have rigged up and on the fake ‘bunting’. “…Is that with fuses, the skill’s in the length settin’. But the excitement …” He grins at me. “…The excitement’s in the waitin’. But YOUR wait is about to come to an end. Ten, nine, eight…”

I go join him. Will it…?

“…three, two, one…”

Nothing. Han frowns. Then: “…Minus one, minus two, minus…”

What HAS he been reading?

Fizz. We sit up. The thin line is sparking. Fizz. Crack! Crack! We only used a couple for ‘audience attention grabbing sound effects’. Didn’t wanna waste them on a run through.

The threads hidden among the ‘bunting’ singe through. Our test cloth unrolls. Not quite even. Not quite straight. But, still – it unrolls.

Crack! Crack! A second later, threads holding down two taut ferules give way. Two clods of earth – just for testing – fly through the air. Han looks jubilant. He said this bit might NOT work. He said if it did it would be…’Icing on the cake!’

He also said, ‘Pun intended!’. Huh?

“It worked!” I crow. “It worked! You did it Han! Guess you ARE smart as you think you are, huh?”

If that makes Han even more swell-headed than usual – I can’t help it! He deserves to have a swell-head!

He DOES look real smug.
“WE did it, Jed,” he grins. Which is TRUE. But, still, him remembering to say it is…y’know.

Then, Han says, “…So much for the run through. Now for the hard stuff…”

—oooOOOooo—

Saturday 4th July 1863

“…Congratulations, Mister Heyes,” I say. “You won by a mile!”

Mister Heyes looks pleased, grins, but also gives a shrug. “I guess the fact more than half the usual competitors have joined up helped, huh, Jed?”

“Helped! Sure and wasn’t that the ONLY thing giving a man so stricken in years as yourself the ghost of a chance, Alex?” joshes my Pa, patting him on the shoulder.

“Papa won!” crows Samuel. “He won!”

Samuel has not seen his Pa win the fourth of July rifle contest before. I remember Mister Heyes winning though, a while back.

“I don’t reckon it IS just other folk bein’ away, Mister Heyes,” I say. “I reckon you shot better’n last year.”

“He’s been practicing,” confirms Hannibal. “Practicing real hard.”

I see Mister Heyes and my Pa exchange a glance. For a moment, they both look real serious. Or maybe I’m imagining that, ‘cos all Mister Heyes says is, “Just keeping my eye in, Hannibal.” Other neighbours come to congratulate him, but I follow his and Pa’s eyes. They seem to be looking at a couple of men who are NOT congratulating Mister Heyes. I don’t know them. Well, I know one is a Mister Black – or it mighta been Blake – ‘cos HE entered the contest. Him and the other fella – who I think I’ve seen outside the saloon sometimes – are watching Mister Heyes with a kinda – sour – expression. I guess – whatsisname – don’t like losing.

“…Gran’pa! Fred’rick! Gran’pa!” shouts Samuel, running to meet the Muellers. “Papa won! He won! Was you watchin’? Did you see?”

“I sure was,” grins Kurt Mueller. Kurt entered. He didn’t make it past round one. But, that’s fair enough, Nate entered and he was knocked out real early too. They wouldn’t let me or Han compete. You hafta be sixteen. Not that Han woulda come anywhere! But I mighta! Well maybe. Nate says it’s not so easy with a lotta folk watching. But still – maybe.

“You did fine, Kurt,” says Mister Heyes. “So did Nate. Both did real well for a first competition.”

Kurt gives another grin and a shrug. He can still be a real pain in the butt sometimes, but he’s not near so bad as he used to be. Maybe he’s growing outta it. When Zach’s being a pain, Pa says to make a few allowances ‘cos twelve to sixteen is a difficult time.

“Han’bul! Papa! Jed!” Samuel has his Grandpa by the hand now and is pulling him over. “Gran’pa says he WAS watchin’ – bud – bud – he yad Fred’rick…”

“…He yad ME…” chimes in Samuel’s little cousin Frederick Tanner. I don’t see his folks anywhere. I guess his grandparents have him for the day.

“…He yad Fred’rick up on yis shoulders – an’ – an’ – Fred’rick pushed dis sat over ris eyes…”

“…Didn’ do yit on purpose!”

“…He didn’ do yit on purpose! It was an – an mishtake! A ‘DIC’LUS mishtake! An’ – an’…”

Meanwhile…
(That’s what they put in the six-cent story papers when they wanna tell you what’s happening at the same time.)

Brigit Mueller’s cooing over Amy – ‘cos Mrs. Heyes has made her a brand new dress. And ‘cos Amy’s a baby and Brigit and Mrs. Heyes are both the kinda women who coo over babies. They’re also telling each other how nice they both look. Dunno why. They’re saying stuff about each others bonnets, so maybe the – the flowers and other bits’n’pieces they have sewn on is different.

Another ‘meanwhile’…
Mister Heyes is sorta half-listening to Samuel and Frederick, when Mrs. Mueller says she wants ‘a word’. Well, that’s a lie for a start! SHE walks away with Han’s Pa – and SHE don’t want A word. SHE don’t want A DOZEN words! She wants to talk his ear off!

Samuel, after telling us once more how ‘Dic’lus’ it is that Grandpa missed the winning shot decides Han and I are fully briefed. He drags Frederick and his Grandpa over to let his Ma and his Aunt Brigit hear all about it. Little David, who’d been holding his Ma’s hand and quietly listening to the ladies chat, lifts up his arms.
“Wide! Peas!” I hear. His Grandpa lifts him up onto his shoulders. The floppy hat is once again pushed over Mister Mueller’s eyes as David settles.

“We’d better go help with the finishing touches,” I say.

Most of the setting up was done last night. Miss Field and Mrs. Godfrey were both telling each other they did wonder if folk would wanna celebrate the fourth – what with the war and all. But, Miss Field said it’s good for people to have some distraction from all the worry – and attendance wasn’t compulsory, so they’d just lay on the usual things without making a big deal of it. And Mrs. Godfrey sniffed and said what with the fourth falling on a Saturday this year there’d be bound to be even more drinking, rowdiness and lewd debauchery come nightfall than usual. So, since THAT part of the fourth celebrations would go ahead whatever – more’s the pity – it’d be a sad state of affairs if respectable folk didn’t get to enjoy the day.

I asked her what ‘lewd debauchery’ was, but she just told me to get on with hanging bunting. I asked Miss Field what ‘lewd debauchery’ was – and she said it was an example of a redundant adjective. So, it’s some dull grammar thing.

Han, still working on ‘deflecting suspicion’ – not that there WAS any, since we both like helping out with this kinda stuff anyhow – was busy telling Miss Field it was always best to get as much as possible done in advance…and she said, ‘I know. That’s what I just said, Hannibal.’ Then Han told her, ‘Once everything is in place, you can relax and enjoy the day. And, if anything does go wrong – you’ve time to work on a backup.’ And, Miss Field said, ‘Is there an echo in here?’ Then Han told her, ‘If it ‘twere done, when ‘tis done, ‘twere well it were done quickly…’ and ‘Procastination is the thief of time’. And, Miss Field didn’t say nothing. She just rolled her eyes, handed over the bunting and left us to it.

Anyhow, there are a few finishing touches to do on ‘the plan’. We need to check the pies are set out right. So, I suggest we go get on with it.

“Uh huh,” grunts Han. He’s watching his Pa having his ear bent by Mrs. Mueller. We can’t hear what she’s saying, but she’s getting really annoyed. Han’s Pa has his hands on his hips and is not saying much. He’s NOT getting annoyed – though his lips look kinda pressed together. “It riles her ‘cos she can’t just boss him around the way she likes to,” mutters Han. “I mean he DOES let her boss him – it’s a real pain – but she kinda knows it’s only about stuff he don’t think is important.”

“Why don’t he just …y’know?” I ask.

“What?”

“Tell her to butt out now and forever? He could, couldn’t he?” It’s pretty much what Han USED to say his Pa should do. And, both Mister Heyes and my Pa always say you should stand up to bullies.

Han is quiet for a moment. He shrugs. “Dunno. I guess – I guess it’s not that simple, huh?” Han is not looking at his Pa any more, nor at me. I follow his eyes to where his Stepma is sitting chatting ten to the dozen with her sister Brigit. She looks real cheerful. Amy is on her Aunt’s lap. A podgy hand reaches up to show Brigit a daisy she’s picked. Behind them, Samuel and his little cousin Frederick are rolling on the grass and giggling until they squeal. Kurt Mueller is kinda mock-wrestling them. He lets them win’ and pin him to the ground. He’s laughing too.
“Gotchya Uncle Kurt! Gotchya!” crows Samuel. “Pin yim, Fred’rick! Pin yim!”

Mister Mueller still has David on his shoulders. He looks up. I think he asks if David wants to join in ‘cos David nods and is lifted down. Before he trots over to his brother he…it’s sappy, but he puts his arms round his Granpa’s neck, gives him a kiss. Mister Mueller looks all…Aww.

Han looks at me, gives another shrug.
Yeah, making Mrs. Mueller butt out forever is NOT so simple, even for a grown up. You could do it – but you couldn’t do it to JUST her.
It’s…I dunno.

Mister Heyes has walked away from Mrs. Mueller. I’m pretty sure he did it real civil, but she don’t look pleased. He and my Pa join Mister Mueller. Doctor Wallace and Reverend Thomas come over too. They’re all walking this way.

“…If Lee gets so far as Harrisburg …” **
“…Which he WILL! Latest I heard Hill and Longstreet have already followed Ewell across the Potomac…and Ewell’s occupied …”
“…Where’dya hear that?”
“…Telegrams over at the Fort.”
“…I heard the same thing – but, I also heard Hooker’s army’s had caught up …”
“…Pfftt!! I heard Hooker’ll soon be another one relieved of command for dragging his feet…”
“…Sure and it’s easy to criticize from a war office, huh?”
“…No, but what I heard at the Fort was…this’ll be a turning point…”
“…News from the Fort ALWAYS says that! Turning which way, huh? Forward, back – or just round an’ round in circles?”
“…Some fella was sayin’ HE’D heard fighting had already started!”
“…’Enter Rumour – painted full of tongues!’ huh?”
“…If he breaks through…”
“…Whether he does or doesn’t – it’s bad news in the short term.”
“…Huh?”
“…Sure and y’know what he means! If things go well for them – they get all liquored up, exhilarated and that’ll be meaning …?”
“…Border raids – celebratin’!”
“…And if things go bad for Ewell an’ the rest at – where’d you say?”
“…Gettysburg.”
“…They get all riled up and mad. Bitter. And that means…?”
“…Border raids – payback!”

The Doc and the Reverend are both – y’know – okay. But, Han and I don’t wanna be all polite while they ask about school and whether we’re reciting later. (Han is! Getting him UP on a stage is never a problem. Getting him DOWN again! THAT’S when Miss Field sometimes needs a lasso.) So, we scoot off before they get too close; go see to the finishing touches.

—oooOOOooo—

Han nudges me, gives a little frown and shakes his head. I know why. He’s telling me to stop looking up at the dang clock every half minute.

Mrs. Mueller is over on the platform swanking along the row of raised pork pies. I can’t hear what she’s saying. I’d be willing to bet she’s finding plenty to criticise though. Reverend Thomas and the Doc are up there too. Unlike her, they smile as they taste and make notes.

Some ladies watch the judges. I guess they know which is THEIR baking even though there are no names on it, only numbers. Most folk don’t pay much attention yet, they’re just waiting to clap the results. They mill around, chatting, or saying polite things about the other competition entries round the hall. No patchwork or pin-tucked blouses from the sewing circle this year – it’s all socks and warm shirts and mufflers; stuff for the troops. Us kids hadta do pretty much the same as usual. I see Mrs. Wyatt and Ma look at my copy of the piece on Paul Revere’s ride. It won’t win. It’s supposed to be in the best copy-book writing, what Miss Field sometimes calls ‘cursive’, but it went crooked. Ma looks pleased anyhow. I did try.

Han and I stay well back – ‘visibly distant’. The person ‘independently ‘companying’ us is Miss Field. We’ve been real close, talking to her, not outta her sight for…
It MUST be fifteen minutes by now! MUST be!
The judging started just when it was supposed to; bang on noon.
We did IT at five minutes to.
It’s gotta be fifteen minutes. HASTA be! It’s AGES since I checked the time. It’s not gonna work! I can’t help it; my eyes slide over to the clock.
It’s nearly, nearly ten minutes past. Just like last time I looked. And the time before.

Han has his back to the clock and never even turns round. How does he do it? I guess it’ll either work or it won’t. We can’t do nothing more – so there’s no point looking at the clock again.
I WON’T look.
I look.
It STILL says nearly, nearly ten minutes past. No – no it don’t! It’s …It’s…
It’s time.
Nothing.
It’s not gonna work.

“Jedediah! Did you not hear me? Jedediah…”

Huh? I tear my eyes away from the platform and pay attention to Miss Field.

CRACK! BANG!
“Eeeeeek!” “What the…?” “WHA…?” “@**@!”
CRACK! WHOOSH! BANG!
Squeals! Yelps! Cuss-words from men forgetting themselves!

Han spins round, a grin splitting his face. EVERYONE spins to face the platform. The firecrackers strapped underneath echo and boom. They sound MUCH better’n than outside. It’s deafening.

Mrs. Mueller jumps outta her skin! And she yells…
Well, I can’t tell you what she yells ‘cos I’d hafta wash my mouth out!
But it’s GREAT! RIGHT in front of Reverend Thomas!
The pie she’s holding tips off the plate…
Wow!
This is better’n we hoped.
She has pork pie jelly splattered all over her front!

IF the next part goes to plan the gunpowder line running from under the platform to the table should …

CRACK! WHOOSH! BANG! CRACK! BANG!

The couple of dozen firecrackers hung loosely behind the tablecloth go off. They do exactly what they’re supposed to – come loose and pop all over the platform.
Mrs. Mueller is…
Tears run down my face as I clutch my stomach … It hurts… I can hardly breath…
She’s DANCING up there, firecrackers exploding around her skirts.
So are Reverend Thomas and the Doc – ‘cept, of course, they don’t have skirts. THEY’RE starting to laugh.

It’s all way too noisy to hear the threads crack as they singe through, but the sheet fastened up behind the platform – hidden by all that bunting we pinned yesterday – DOES unfurl. Kinda.
Half of it comes down …half gets stuck.
Oh! THAT wasn’t supposed to happen – some of the streamers catch fire!
It’s okay, though. Doc Wallace pulls them down – stamps on them.
Half frowning, half laughing, he gives the sheet a shake too – which is great
because it straightens!

Gasps – and laughter – as folk read:
“Firecrackers supplied at pre-war prices by ‘Bargain Bertha’.
Apply the ‘secret’ back cellar – Mueller Stores ”

And see the drawing of Mrs. Mueller underneath. She’s trying to close a cash-box stuffed with dollar bills, winking out to the audience and has a speech bubble:
“You ‘Cottoned’ on where I keep the good stuff, surely ‘Sugar’?”

SHE turns to read same time as everyone else – still jumping about as the last of the firecrackers fizzle out. Her mouth drops open. She goes …is it puce? That purple colour.

Then, we get what Han said would be the ‘icing’ – if it worked; which it does. They always taste the savoury stuff first – so the fruit pies are standing to one side. We left a small gap – much narrower than a plate – between the trestles. You can’t tell so long as the stuff on the top holds the tablecloth smooth. Underneath we rigged a kinda catapult – though Han, who, in case you hadn’t noticed, likes to show off, called it a ‘ballista’. It’s pulled back real taut; the threads holding it should singe through right after the sheet releases, letting the ball fastened to the end of it twack through the gap. One of the finishing touches this morning was to make sure one pie was over the opening. Han warned me the pie would probably only tip onto the table despite our practices flinging earth clods. But…

Wow! I reckon that’s what Han meant when he talked about a perfect arc…

Of course, even though the pie’s airborne, the odds of it getting anywhere near HER are…

Again – Wow!
Both Han and I stop laughing for a moment.
It’s just TOO good.
I reckon we both wanna remember THAT splat and THAT look on her face – the bit of her face not covered in berry juice anyhow – forever.

—oooOOOooo—

“…Fourth of July pranks are traditional,” says Doc Wallace, wiping off the splatter of berry juice and fruit that got him. “…I guess I don’t mind giving folk a good laugh watching me dance around.”

“…I’m pretty sure most of the laughing was at ME,” smiles Reverend Thomas, who I don’t think realises he still has a bit of singed bunting hanging from one ear. “YOU were pretty light on your feet, ma-am! It was ME sounding like a buffalo stampede up there! And, like the good book says – there’s ‘a time to laugh’.”

“Laugh!!” fumes Mrs. Mueller. “LAUGH!! I’ll give him ‘laugh’!” and she starts towards Han.

“…You HEARD Miss Field! We were ALL the way over the other side of the Hall the WHOLE time! Ever since the judging started! Pa saw us too! And you did – didn’t you Mrs. Curry? Did any of you see us with firecrackers? Huh? No! No one saw us with firecrackers!”

I do exactly what Han told me to. Keep quiet and look ‘aggrieved’. Which is what you look – ‘pparently – if’n folk say you did something when you didn’t.

“…You little …I’m gonna…”

“NO, you’re not,” says Mister Heyes, not angry exactly but real firm. Mrs. Mueller meets his eyes, drops her hand.

“…You’d better punish him for this, Alex! I’m warning you!”

Mister Heyes looks at Han. Han stares back all wide-eyed and, I guess, ‘aggrieved’. My Ma turns to me, she’s about to ask – straight out – if I had anything to do with this. But, Mister Heyes touches her hand and catches her eye. She stops. Instead, HE asks Han, “…Mrs. Mueller’s telling me I have to punish you. What do you want to say to that, son?”

I blink, ‘cos that’s an odd way to put it. It’s – well – it’s exactly the kinda question that’ll let Han spout one of the answers he’s been practising. When Mister Heyes really wants to pin Han down he always asks something real simple and follows it up with, “It’s a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ question, son.”

“…If Jed an’ me HAD done this – I reckon we’d owe Mrs. Mueller a whole twelve hour shift of chores – scrubbin’ an’ packin’ ALL day without getting so much as a sandwich or cup of tea the whole time…We’d certainly owe her that. A whole day of chores an’ missin’ meals would be ‘bout a fair swap for a prank like this, huh? IF it was me an’ Jed…”

Mister Heyes and my Ma exchange a glance. Of course Ma knows about last Saturday ‘cos I hadta explain why I was so late.

“…IF?! It WAS you – you little…”

“…BUT…” goes on Han, talking over her spluttering, “…I don’t see how it COULD have been us. I mean – where would we have got hold o’ firecrackers? You told everyone there were only half a dozen boxes to be had – and you sold ‘em all, huh, ma-am? None went to the Curry place. As for us, just a handful each for David and Samuel – and I reckon you still have them safe for later, Pa?”

Mister Heyes taps his pocket and nods.
“…So, WHERE could Jed an’ I have got the dozens an’ dozens an’ dozens o’ firecrackers that just went off? Huh?”

“It’s a good question alright,” says Mister Heyes. His face is straight, but his eyes are twinkling.

Mrs. Mueller splutters some more…without any words coming out.

“I mean – surely THAT…” Hannibal is pointing at the sheet with the drawing on. “… is only a silly fourth of July joke, huh? I mean, who’d believe you REALLY had a secret cellar full o’ scarce goods just waiting for the prices to rise further? Folk’d hafta have real suspicious minds to believe THAT…” still pointing, “… huh?”

Mrs. Mueller goes puce (if puce IS the colour I think it is) once more. Mister Heyes and my Ma both read the sheet again, then look at her. Ma doesn’t actually curl her lip – but, I reckon part of her wants to.

“Hannibal, Jed,” she says, quietly, “…take that down, please.”

“Bertha,” says Mister Mueller, “…why not let me take you home to get cleaned up?”

—oooOOOooo—

“Hannibal,” says Mister Heyes, as we all walk over to the wagons to fetch our picnics, “…you know what a ‘precedent’ is, huh?”

“Uh huh,” nods Han, “…I reckon so.”

“I don’t want you to think my – my lack of inquisitiveness about the mystery person who planned that prank we just saw, is setting a precedent. If anything similar happened in the future, I’m pretty sure I’d be consumed by curiosity to discover the culprit. Do you understand?”

Mister Heyes hands go to his hips, waiting for an answer. Han sighs. “Uh huh,” he nods.

“There isn’t going to be any more – excitement, is there?” asks my Ma.

Han gives her a wide-eyed ‘innocent’ look.
“How could Jed or I possibly know, ma-am? Only the – the myst’ry person could know that!”

“I’m wagering the mystery person thought, somehow, they were owed ‘one free go’ – and now they’ve had it, they realise if anything else happens it’s bound to lead to a lot of trouble,” says Han’s Pa. “Give me your opinion, Hannibal. Do you think – I’m right?”

“Just an opinion,” Han grins, “…but I’d say that’s a pretty safe wager!”

Samuel’s been trotting at his big brother’s heels, his head swivelling from Han to his Pa and back as he listens.
“Han’bul!” he says, tugging at Han’s sleeve. “Wasn’t REALLY no misty person did the firec’ackers an’- an’ frew the pie? Nod REALLY? That’s jus’ dic’lus! Wassit you? Wassit?”

Han looks down. “Samuel!” he exclaims, with the ‘aggrieved’ look, then he pauses. When he carries on, his voice is all kinda mock-stern. “Samuel, for even ASKIN’ such a question, you deserve…you deserve…” Samuel is waiting, beginning to look worried. The little bottom lip starts to pout in case Han’s really cross. “You deserve…a dang good ticklin’! Help me, Jed!”

About a minute later, over the squealing and giggling and yelps of, “Stoppid, Han’bul! Stoppid, Jed! You’se ‘DIC’LUS! Stoppid!” – we hear it.

About a minute later, over the squealing and giggling and yelps of, “Stoppid, Han’bul! Stoppid, Jed! You’se ‘DIC’LUS! Stoppid!” – we hear it.

It sounds like more firecrackers going off. Dozens and dozens. AND, the other sound is a bit like all those boots dancing around on the platform. AND, there’s yelling. That’s like last time too. It’s coming from the direction of the Mueller’s store.

We stop rolling on the grass tickling Samuel and stand up.
I shoot a glance at Han. Did he plan a follow up and not tell me? Nah! He wouldn’t! But…it does sound SO like a repeat performance.

I reckon Mister Heyes has the same thought. He looks at Han too. “I’d better not be about to lose my wager, son,” he says. He stands up on the back of the wagon to take a look – you can’t really see the store from here – leastways you can only see a bit of the roof over the back of …

Pa climbs up too. I watch both their faces. Squinting through the dusty heat haze, then…

“Lizzie! Get the children behind the wagons! Now! I said, NOW!”

They’re jumping down. Running to each end. I see their faces tense as they brace themselves to tip the first wagon onto its side.

“Get behind! Zach! Fetch Ruth and Sarah – RUN!”

The second wagon has tipped now. They’ve made a kinda wedge shape. Ma is dragging Mrs. Heyes into the ‘V’ where they’ll be covered on two sides. Pa lifts first Beth, then Esther and kinda drops them over. Mister Heyes scoops up David and passes him to Beth as she gets back to her feet.

Hannibal and I stare down the street at the cloud of dust. Still bang after bang after bang – but – louder. And, too much smoke for firecrackers. And, it’s not boots hammering – those are hoof beats…

“MOVE, Jed!” yells Pa.

I do. Me and Han race behind the upturned wagon, Han lifting Samuel off his feet and carrying him as if he weighed nothing. Mrs. Heyes is sobbing with fright and lying kinda curled around Amy – covering her as much as she can. One hand is clutching David tight to her side. Ma has Sarah and Ruth – she’s trying to lie over both of them. Zach curls himself over them, too and Ma looks half proud, half scared as she wraps an arm round his back to keep the shield over the girls tight. Han takes one look at his Stepma, sees she has no hands free and puts Samuel by Beth – tells him not to move in a voice that sounds just like his Pa when he means ‘no arguing’. He moves to the back of the ‘V’. Mister Heyes – who has his rifle in his hand now and is tossing a second to Nate – sees Han. He’s gonna yell at him to get down, then sees Han is pulling open the first tailboard. It closes off part of the open bit of the ‘V’ …like putting a third line onto a triangle.

“Good!” yells Mister Heyes. “Do the other one! Jed, Esther, help him Jed – then lie low!”

Nate looks scared as he catches the second rifle. He flashes a look at Pa, who has the shotgun.
“Sure’n – only if they’re coming this way, Nate, or you see someone about to get killed,” says Pa. “If it’s just looting and fire-setting – keep your powder dry.”

Then I can’t see anything of the three of them. ‘Cept through the tiny gaps in the base of the wagons – a bit of Pa’s shirt and the edge of Nate’s boots and a shadow which might be Mister Heyes. They must be around the triangle, flat on their bellies.

Shooting. Yelling. Screams. Hoof beats. Crashing sounds. Glass shattering.

Sometimes, when I heard news about border raids, I thought it sounded real exciting. But, this isn’t exciting; not one little bit. I guess I must be a real coward. All I feel is scared stiff. Beth’s trying not to cry – because she doesn’t wanna make little Samuel, who she’s holding close, even more frightened.

I scoot a little nearer without raising my head. “It’ll be fine, Samuel,” I say, trying to smile. “You’ll see! They just wanna steal stuff. All the noise is only them tryin’ to scare us! But, you’re not scared, huh? You’re lookin’ after my sister real good!” A trembling little nod. Beth reaches over, squeezes my hand. I squeeze back.

Hannibal is lying with his arm all the way over David and his Stepma too. I can’t hear what he’s saying to her, but – I reckon it’s the same kinda stuff.

The hoof beats and shots and the hollering get closer…closer…closer.
—oooOOOooo—
—oooOOOooo—

Hannibal and me exchange a glance. He has his arm around his Stepma and a firm hold of one of little David’s hands.

We’re both keeping our heads well down and, even if we weren’t, we still couldn’t see nothing from behind the tipped over wagons. But we can hear. Hear the noise of the border raiders, as they sweep into Larson Creek.

Yells. Shots. Pounding of hoof beats.

You don’t just hear the hooves you can feel them too. My ear’s pressed tight against my arm and my arm is pressed into the dirt. The thudding is making the ground quiver. Han would know a better word for it.

Crashing sounds. Glass shattering. A scream – some woman; she sounds terrified.

Mrs. Heyes looks up as she hears that; she’s trying real hard not to sob. But you can see she’s shaking all over, as she hushes Amy and kisses the top of her head. She’s holding Amy and David too tight. None of the soothing does any good; Amy’s howling fit to raise Cain.

I wish… At any rate, I kinda wish, I was still nearer Amy’s age. Young enough to throw back my head, burst into tears and bawl along with her. Part of me sure wants to. Instead, I’m trying not to show how scared I am and, I reckon, so is Hannibal. Not for the usual sorta reasons you try and act ‘not scared’ – y’know – so other boys can’t poke fun, so you don’t look…
Well, I guess you know well enough why boys try and act tough, huh?
But, it’s none of those reasons right now.
No. We’re both doing our level best to pretend the raid will soon be over and is nothing but a lot of noise supposed to scare us, ‘cos, if we don’t David and Samuel and Ruth and Sarah will be even more frightened than they already are.

The hoof beats and shots and the hollering get closer… Closer… Then…
Are they?
Are they?
Yeah – they’re getting further away.
A minute later it’s all over.

Nothing. Nothing.
I hear a movement from outside the triangle made by the up-ended wagons, where Pa and Mister Heyes and my brother Nate are stretched around us ready to shoot if the raiders come near. Through the sliver of a gap in the base I see the grey, which I know is Pa’s pants, slither forward. Then, his voice: “Sure an’ d’you reckon that’s it, Alex? Or are they wheeling round?”
From the other side, Mister Heyes’ voice: “I can see their dust – still heading due East at a gallop.”
A pause.
“I think that’s it.”

—oooOOOooo—

Now it’s all over it IS kinda exciting.
I don’t mean that to sound…
I guess it’s wrong to think like that.
But, so far as I can see no one is hurt bad.

Womenfolk sooth the little kids – try to get them to stop blubbing – try to get their babies to stop squawking. Others bathe bruises, bind up cuts, or help on the couple of bucket lines starting.

The men folk are beginning to gather in the main street check the damage.
“Sheesh!”
“That came outta nowhere…”
“More water! Keep pumping!”
“You hurt?”
“Just winded. Got knocked to the floor as they went past…”
“Over there! Get that fire beat out!”
“It’s not gonna spread?”
“Nah! We got it. Just keep pumpin’!”
“Anyone hurt?”
“Water here! Soak this tarp!”
“He hurt bad over there, Doc?”
“Horse reared over me, Doc. Got me here…”
“Might be a cracked rib…” lower voice, “Ankle bust too, huh? Can you stand? Lean on me.”
“Don’t look like you’ve a window left, Henry!”
“Sheesh! This’ll take some cleanin’ up!”
“You’re bleedin’.”
“Reckon it’s only a scratch.”
“Coulda been worse, huh?”
“You’re not jokin’! Coulda been a lot worse! What were they doin’? Just gallopin’ through firin’ in the air?”
“I got off a shot or two – didn’t hit no one though!”
“D’you reckon they’ve picked up good news? Liquored up an’ celebratin’?”
“Did you recognise anyone?”
“Nah! All had their faces covered. And they were hardly here more’n five minutes…”
“I know raids can be kinda quick – but that was…”
“Shorter’n any raid I ever heard of!”
“Seemed to start from…”
“Is that smoke from the store?”

Pa, Mister Heyes and some of the other men stride toward the corner. Doctor Wallace is way in front because he was helping Mister Fowler limp over to the boardwalk. Han and I tag along with the rest – though I reckon any minute now our Pas will realise we are following and send us back.

Then, there’s a scream. No, not a scream – a howl. Everyone breaks into a run. We turn the corner. It’s pretty clear the store was looted. There’s barrels and broken crates and bolts of torn flannel and serge strewn everywhere. Smoke’s coming from the windows. Mrs. Mueller, her skirts caught up, is sprinting towards us. No, not towards us. She’s heading for – is that a bundle of cloth? It’s lying in the middle of the street, between her and us. She’s the one making the howling sound. She flings herself onto her knees beside the bundle, howls again. Throws back her head and wails like an animal in pain. Sobs shake her. Her mouth gapes wide open – slanting down – stretched so wide it must hurt. There are spit bubbles all round her lips and – and her nose is running.
I hope none of that sounds funny, ‘cos it isn’t funny. Not one little bit.
Mrs. Mueller drags the top of the bundle outta the sticky pool in the dirt; heaves it into her lap. Her hands go up and she does something I though only came in stories – and in the bible and stuff. She tears… No she rends – that’s the word – she rends her hair.

Watching her, I wish…
I look at Hannibal. From his face, he feels the same.
Guess it’s too late to be sorry about the joke we played on her at the pie-bake now, huh?

Doc Wallace has reached Mrs. Mueller. He squats by the bundle too. ‘Cept it isn’t a bundle, is it? I knew that – really – ‘bout two seconds after I saw it.
I just…
I just didn’t want to know.

“Single shot!” says Doc Wallace, as Pa and Mister Heyes sprint up. “The only bullet to hit anyone in the whole raid – and it gets him straight between the eyes! What are the odds, huh?”

I see them exchange a glance, brows snapping together. They look…I dunno.
It’s sorta the look they might have if they were working something out.
Other stuff too. Angry maybe – but ‘angry’ is not really the right word. ‘Scared’ is not right either. But, there’s a bit of both in there.
Pa is about to say something to Mister Heyes, then – looks at us – looks at the other men beginning to arrive, closes his mouth tight.

While Pa organises a bucket line to put out the fire in the store, Mister Heyes kneels down in the blood -soaked dirt beside the still wailing Mrs. Mueller. Very gently, he tries to ease her fingers from her husband’s head – or, at any rate, what’s left of it.

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