Authors: Politis, Yael
Book 1 of the Olivia Series
Book 1 of the Olivia Series
Copyright 2013 Yael Politis
All Rights Reserved
Cover photo by Yulia Kazansky
Cover design by Tatiana Vila
This book may not be reproduced, copied, or distributed for commercial purposes.December, 2013Chapter One
Five Rocks, Pennsylvania
January 21, 1841
In the 19thcentury a wagon couldn’t cross Pennsylvania without circumventing the worst of the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians. Despite the breathtaking beauty of the lush green mountains, travelers gave a prayer of thanks when they finally made it past the Allegheny Front. There the plateau fell to the lowlands, into what some folks still called Westsylvania. Flat ground had never looked so good.
Some of those wagons later took a wrong turn and clomped across a charming covered bridge.Thank the good Lord Almighty, those drivers thought.Nice bridge like that, there must be a town ahead. And there was – Five Rocks. It offered one of everything they needed – Livery, Feed & Grain, General Store, Saloon, Doctor, and Lawyer – along with a choice of three churches. But none of these accidental visitors (for no stranger came to Five Rocks by design) stayed for more than a night. On their way out they clucked their tongues and wondered what on earth had possessed those folks to build their homes on what seemed to be the only ugly patch of ground in all of Pennsylvania. The few trees were gnarled and bent over, and not even weeds thrived in the hard-scrabble gray dirt.
Olivia Killion’s father, Old Man Seborn Killion, was the owner of Killion’s General in Five Rocks. She and her two older brothers, Avis and Tobey, lived with him in one of the eight “rich folks’ houses” on Maple Street. Olivia had attended the one-room schoolhouse until she was past fifteen, when her father’s illness put him in bed for good. She knew it was her place to stay home and care for Old Seborn.
Since then, for two long years, every morning had been the same – heat up water and fight past his flailing arms to bathe some part of him, while he hollered that she was trying to give him pneumonia. He was more cooperative while she fed him his breakfast. Afterwards she sat staring out the window while she listened to him complain. In the afternoons Olivia read to him and did her best to put off pouring the shots of whiskey he demanded. When he began drifting in and out of sleep she passed the time reading or trying to dredge up memories of her mother. In Olivia’s imagination Nola June floated up and down the staircase, always draped in a flowing garment of warm colors, her head topped with a mist of blonde curls. It was her mother’s face Olivia couldn’t remember.
Olivia had come to see her life as a never-to-end procession of such days, until a cold morning in late January 1841. Carrying a pitcher of hot water and a clean towel, Olivia nudged her father’s door open with her hip, wondering how bad he was going to be. Some water sloshed onto the floorboards, and she prepared herself for one of his looks. His tiny yellow eyes had a way of glaring that was worse than yelling.
She knew he was gone without looking at him. The room was silent and smelled of the waste he had evacuated. She set the pitcher and towel on the bureau and turned toward the bed. He lay with his arms at his sides, under the blanket, as if he had tucked himself in. His head was thrown back, his mouth hanging open and revealing tobacco-stained teeth. At least his eyes were closed.
She dried her hands on her apron and stared at him, shamed by the first thought that rushed to mind – no more baths. And no more washing out the green and brown lumps he spat into china teacups. Or helping him onto the chamber pot. She searched her heart for grief, but was unable to think of a single reason to wish him back alive. Not for his sake, and not for hers. Not that she hated him. There wasn’t anything about him to hate; but neither had there been much to love, even before he got sick. And he had taken such a dreadful long time dying. Olivia yanked the window open and went to the top of the stairs to call her brother Tobey.
Tobey stopped at the foot of the bed and stood rocking back and forth on his heels as he said, “Well, we’re orphans now. That’s what we are.” Then he went down to tell the housekeeper, Mrs. Hardaway.
“Why on earth do you got that window open?” he asked when he returned. “It’s snowing out there.”
“You’re supposed to leave a window open when someone dies. For at least two hours, so their spirit can go free. That’s what Mammo Killion said when Uncle Scruggs got killed.”
“Well, I don’t think it’s necessary to give double pneumonia to the spirits of the living,” he said and slid the window shut.
Mrs. Hardaway waddled into the room and put a hand on Olivia’s shoulder. “There, there. Thank the good Lord for taking him peacefully in his sleep. Tobey, you go get Doc Gaylin. And stop by the store to tell your brother. He’d better bring a load of eats back with him. You’re going to have a mess of folks coming in to pay their respects.” Olivia glanced at Mrs. Hardaway in surprise, having forgotten that death was a social event.
“I’d better get him cleaned up,” Olivia said, bracing herself.
Mrs. Hardaway squeezed her shoulder again. “Let me do that,” she said quietly. “You go wait in your room. I’ll call you if I need help turning him. Soon as the news gets around some ladies from the church are bound to be in to help.”
Olivia put her arms around the housekeeper and nearly cried with gratitude, which she knew was mistaken for grief. She had been dreading this final task. Not the stench of the filth; she could stomach that. But she had never seen Old Seborn naked. She’d always handed him the cloth so he could wash himself “down there,” under the covers.
“There, there.” The housekeeper patted her back. “You been such a good daughter all this long time. Don’t you worry no more. The church ladies will come get him ready for laying out. I’ll just make him presentable. Why don’t you go cover the mirrors?”
By the time Mrs. Hardaway finished cleaning Seborn up and removing the soiled sheets Tobey had returned. He and Olivia pulled chairs to the bedside and waited for the doctor and their brother Avis. Olivia slipped her hand into Tobey’s.
“You feeling alright?” he asked.
“Better than I should. How about you?”
“Mostly glad it’s over, I guess.”
“Me too. And ashamed of feeling that way.” Olivia stared at the floor.
“Can’t help what you feel.”
She squeezed his hand and put her other palm over it. “I guess you’re the only person in the whole wide world that I really care about. I wish it weren’t true, but I guess it is. Since Uncle Scruggs died anyway.”
“Thing you like best about me is I’m not Avis,” Tobey said.
Olivia turned her gaze back to their father. “He looks real old, doesn’t he? More like a grandfather than a father. Doesn’t seem right. I felt so much worse when that horse kicked Uncle Scruggs in the head.”
“Can’t help what you feel,” Tobey repeated.
The stone chimney ran through their father’s room, so it was the warmest in the house, but they could still see their breath. Olivia couldn’t blame her father for never wanting her to wash him, but now that all the busybodies were going to be parading around him, whispering and shaking their heads, she wished he didn’t look so neglected. Olivia thought about giving him a quick shave, but the impulse didn’t manage to evolve into action. She felt as if a heavy mantle of exhaustion had settled over her. The next four days, until they lowered her father into his grave, passed in a blur.
After the funeral Mr. Carmichael, the town’s attorney, came to the house to read the will. There were no surprises; the store and house both went to the oldest son, Avis. Olivia sat and listened, slowly beginning to comprehend her new situation.
The next morning she rose early and slipped out the front door, hoping to be unseen. A thick layer of ice covered the porch steps and she clutched the wooden handrail. Clumsy in her thick-soled boots and heavy black coat, she plodded up Maple Street through the deep snow. She was relieved to see that no one was stirring; the January cold seemed to be keeping the nosy neighbor ladies under their quilts. She hoped that none of them were spyingfrom behind their parlor curtains, tsk-tsking about Old Man Killion’s daughter. “What is that girl up to now, traipsing around all by herself, not a day since they put her father in the ground? Never did know how to behave, that one.”
Olivia had heard the good women in the pews behind her all through her father’s funeral service, a flock of pecking hens in winter poke bonnets. They lowered their voices, but not enough; she heard their opinions of what that Killion girl ought to do. Or not do. Just what was wrong with her and how it ought to be fixed. “But what can you expect, what with that mother of hers. Never was right in the head.”
Olivia turned left onto Main Street, toward the row of weathered clapboard shops and offices. The smooth white crust of snow was not perfect – a few lonely trails of footprints had disturbed it – but it managed to make the dingy little town picturesque. Five Rocks had not benefited from the talents of a town planner; structures went up wherever any of its 768 residents chose to put them, and the slipshod façade of Main Street was one of the unfortunate results.
As she trudged along Olivia silently scolded Old Seborn.So what if Avis is the oldest son? What about Tobey and me? There’s no law says a man can’t leave anything to his younger son and daughter. Did Avis spend the last two years taking care of you? I’d like to see him try giving you a bath, the way you batted your arms around, like I was trying to kill you. I’m the one with the bruises. Parents are supposed to take care of their children. All their children. Don’t expect me to feel guilty for looking out for myself. If I don’t, who will? Not you, that’s for sure.
She stopped for a moment and listened to the silence, the only sounds her labored breathing and the muffled clop of horse’s hooves. She felt herself growing clammy inside the thick coat, more from anxiety than the exertion of the walk. She’d never had a conversation with Mr. Carmichael and felt suddenly shy. What was she going to say to the lawyer? Why had she come so early? He probably wasn’t even in his office yet.But when she looked up she saw curls of smoke rising above the tin roof. She hoped he was alone, no busybody in there to go blabbing about her coming to see him. She stared at the trails of footprints – two leading toward the office and one away from it – and hoped they had been made byMr. Carmichael and a client arriving and the client leaving.
She paused before stepping up onto the wooden sidewalk, afraid of tripping. The drifts were so high she couldn’t tell where the boardwalk dropped off, so she lifted her coat and skirt and kicked at the snow until she could see the edge. In the process she managed to get a boot full of snow, which quickly melted and soaked her already frozen foot.
A pang of self-pity stabbed through her and she thought,why do I have to do this alone? Why am I always alone?
For a moment she imagined the forlorn figure she must present – draped in black, stark against the glare of the snow, with the rust-colored splash of Tobey’s wide-brimmed felt hat on her head. She remembered the heavy oil paintings that hung in the public library over in Hillsong and could imagine a similar one of her, its neatly lettered caption reading “Orphan in Snow.” She clenched her jaw tight and stepped onto the walk, determined that no one was going to go around feeling sorry for her. If she couldn’t get that land, she’d just have to get a job. Seventeen was old enough. She ran her favorite refrain through her mind –There’s no reason why things have to remain the way they are.
She unwound her scarf and removed the floppy felt hat, feeling defensive about her choice of headgear.Well so what, she thought.A man’s hat might be inappropriate for a young lady, but who wants to traipse around in a woolen bonnet when it might snow? You can’t go five paces before it gets all stinky and itchy, like wearing a dead possum on your head. And a poke bonnet? Bosh. Horses don’t like having blinders on them. Why should women?Some men used those stupid bonnets as an excuse for saying women ought not to be allowed outside alone, lest they get run down in the road. Almost as bad as the way the Chinese purposely crippled those poor women Miss Evans had taught them about, hobbling around on their bound feet.
She tried to clear her mind and compose her thoughts. She wanted the lawyer’s advice, not disapproval or pity. She folded her scarf, removed a glove to run her fingers through her dark hair, and rapped on the door. Inside a chair scraped and the door was opened by a young man of Olivia’s age, wearing threadbare overalls and a bulky blue sweater. He smelled of tobacco and a body badly in need of washing.
“Billy Adams. Hullo. What are you doing here?” Olivia knocked the snow from her boots and wiped them on the rag rug before entering.
She cast curious eyes around Mr. Carmichael’s simply furnished office, having expected it to be grander. Chairs sat behind and in front of a large wooden desk. In the corner stood a bookcase and an iron stove, with two more chairs in front of it.
“Hullo, Olivia,” Billy said, backing up a few steps. “I come here to use Mr. Carmichael’s books.” He turned and nodded at the thick volume that lay open on the desk. “I’m going to be an attorney, just like Mr. Carmichael. I been clerking for him, and he lets me use his books in exchange.”
“Don’t you need schooling for that?” She tugged at the fingers of her other glove as she moved closer to the warmth of the stove.
“Not if you can pass the examination on your own.” Billy reached for the straight back chair that stood in front of the desk and pulled it out for Olivia. “And Mr. Carmichael’s gonna help me get ready for it. He oughta be back pretty quick. Went to get some paper signed. Guess it was too confidential for me to take.”
Olivia kept her coat on and sat down, while Billy reclaimed his seat behind the desk. She stared as he ran stubby fingers through his greasy blonde curls. He had never joined in with the other children when they made fun of her mother so she bore him no ill will, but, even so, resentment rose in her.
I was always the best pupil in class, she thought,and this blockhead, who didn’t even learn his letters until he was ten, is the one who can become a lawyer. It isn’t right. It just isn’t right. I can yap my jaw as good as Billy Adams.
Feet stomped on the sidewalk and the door opened, letting in a fresh gust of cold air. Mr. Carmichael entered, enfolded in a wide black coat and carrying a cracked leather case.
“A good morning to you, Miss Killion,” he said, one eyebrow raised. His voice always took Olivia by surprise. It was deep and warm and didn’t seem to go with his sharp features and awkward gait. Neither did his kind eyes, which now held Olivia in their steady gaze. “How may I be of service to you?”
He was tall and so thin and pale that Olivia thought she could just about see through him. Whenever he walked past the schoolyard, elbows and knees protruding in all directions, the children shrieked, “Ichabod Crane, Ichabod Crane,” and fled in mock terror.
He set his case down, hung his coat on a hook, and removed his top hat, revealing the dull black curls that framed his receding hairline and long white face.
There was something comforting about his presence and Olivia no longer felt shy. She glanced at Billy, who closed the book and stood up. He wordlessly pulled on his coat and disappeared out the door.
“I wanted to ask you something about my father’s will,” Olivia said.
“Certainly.” Mr. Carmichael seated himself behind the desk, moved the book Billy had been reading aside, and unlocked a drawer. He removed a sheaf of papers from it and looked up, waiting for Olivia to continue.
“But first, I wanted to ask, is it true you have to keep anything I tell you secret?”
He put his palms together and brought his fingertips to the end of his long nose. After a moment he lowered his hands flat on the desk. “Yes, that’s right. Seborn was my client and you have inherited his right to confidentiality.”
“I wanted to ask you about the land,” Olivia said.
“All right.” He leafed through the papers. “Yes, here it is.” He began reading. “Forty acres of farmland in Culpepper County, Kentucky – the deed to which is attached to this document – which were left to me by my dear departed wife, Nola June Sessions Killion, are to be inherited by my firstborn grandson. If there is no grandson –”
“No, not that,” she said. “I meant the other land – the farm out in Michigan that Uncle Scruggs left him.” She leaned forward, watching him turn the pages.
Mr. Carmichael moved his finger down the text and then read in a steady drone. “My wife’s brother, Lorenzo Scruggs, left me eighty useless acres in the swamp known as Michigan, near a Godforsaken place by the name of Fae’s Landing. This worthless piece of wilderness shall be inherited by whichever of my offspring is fool enough to claim it and try to put in a crop. If neither of them does so within two years of my demise, the land is to be sold and the proceeds divided between my two sons.” The lawyer stopped reading and looked up at Olivia.
“That’s what I thought,” she said, raising her forefinger. “When it talks about who can claim that land it says ‘my offspring,’ not ‘my sons.’”
“Well, I’m sprung off him just as much as Avis or Tobey.”
“Am I to understand that you wish to make a claim on this land?”
“Yes. I do. The way I see it – when he says ‘offspring’ and ‘neither of them,’ he’s talking about me and Tobey. I mean, he knew perfectly well that Avis was going to get the house and the store, so he decided to give Tobey and me a chance at that piece of land.”
Mr. Carmichael read the paragraph again, then put his hands back in their praying position and thought before replying. “Well, not a soul would agree with you on the face of it,” he pronounced. “Anyone reading this would assume that the entire paragraph refers to your brothers. I have little doubt that you also believe that to have been your father’s intention. However, the ambiguity of the text could make for an interesting court case. You are correct. One could argue that his specific reference to ‘my sons’ in regard to the proceeds from a sale could be taken to suggest that he wasnotreferring to those same sons when he said ‘my offspring.’ Hence, the different terminology. Of course, if it ever came before a judge the opposing counsel would say it was obvious that the entire paragraph refers to your brothers, and I’ve no doubt the judge would rule in his favor.”
“But I could make a claim?”
“Anyone can make a claim to anything. Winning the case is another matter. Do you think your brothers would challenge such a claim?”
Olivia tilted her head and stared at the wall behind him while she considered his question. “No. I mean, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t. Neither of them cares two cents about having that land and once I got going farming it I could pay them back the money they’d have gotten if they’d sold it. But them wanting the land for themselves is not the problem. The problem is, they’d never in a million years agree to me going out there to claim it. That’s the reason I wanted to know if you have to keep this conversation a secret.”
The lawyer’s jaw dropped. “You can’t be thinking of going to a wild place like Michigan on your own!”
“No.” She shook her head. “I know I could never work eighty acres by myself. I’d have to get a partner or a hired man. I figure I can get a room in the town, in that Fae’s Landing place, and my partner can live on the farm. The will doesn’t say I have to live there; all it says is that I have to try to put in a crop.Try. I don’t even have to actually grow anything.”
“How old are you, Miss Killion?”
“Near on eighteen.”
He puckered his lips and leaned back. “Well, there are no legal obstacles to you holding property in your own name, as long as you are not married. And if neither of your brothers contests your claim, you certainly could inherit that land. But a young woman like you can’t just go off without a husband.”
“Well, I don’t have one of those, do I? I’ll just have to figure out something else.” She thanked the lawyer and rose.
He came around the desk and reached the door in time to open it for her. Turning to face her, he stared into her eyes. She saw sadness in his, but when he spoke his voice was dry and matter-of-fact. “I’m very sorry about your father and your situation. But that’s just the way the world is.”Chapter Two
A blur of lacy snowflakes greeted Olivia when she left Mr. Carmichael’s office. She put her head back and opened her mouth to capture some of them, like she used to do when she was a little girl. Snow on her face was one thing she loved about winter; another was the crisp air, free of the hot weather stench of horse manure and outhouses. She heard the faint tinkle of bells and saw a woman come out of Killion’s General with a basket on her arm.Good, she thought.Avis has opened the store and won’t be in the kitchen to ask me where I’ve been.
Before turning homeward Olivia paused at the corner to look up and down Main Street, at the town she was so anxious to leave. She was mostly oblivious to its shortcomings, having almost nothing to compare it with. Every year on the Saturday before Easter their father used to rent a buggy and take them for a drive to Hillsong – the only other town Olivia had ever visited. Two things always made Hillsong seem like paradise to Olivia. The first was a library – two whole rooms lined with books up to the ceiling. Olivia loved to climb the tall ladders and browse through the volumes. If only she could breathe in all that knowledge. All those stories.
Her father always left her there for a few hours, while he and his sons tended to “men’s business.” Olivia would still be high up on one of the rolling ladders when her brothers came bursting in to get her. They could never resist pushing the ladder back and forth between them, Olivia laughing and shrieking, until the librarian chased them out.
The second marvel of Hillsong was an ice cream parlor that stayed open as long as the ice was holding. They had fancy chairs with hearts carved into the backs and served dishes of vanilla ice cream topped with wild berries and whipped cream. They even gave each customer a thin slice of bread to wipe their hands with.
By contrast, Five Rocks had the Reading Room, where people tossed the books and periodicals they had no use for. It was in a rickety shed in back of the post office, which itself was nothing but an old store room behind the Brewster house. As for ice cream, a few times each spring Mrs. Monroe over at the boarding house froze up a batch. The children lined up outside her back door, each clutching three pennies and their own dish and spoon. Olivia had no friends to come whistle for her, so she was usually last in line, but Mrs. Monroe always made sure there was a scoop left for her.
When Olivia arrived home from Mr. Carmichael’s office she found Mrs. Hardaway working the pump handle over the kitchen sink. The housekeeper was a big, even-tempered woman, wide and solid, with a plain square face. A few strands of graying brown hair had escaped the bun at the crown of her head.
“Oh, there you are, dear,” she said as she turned. “Tobey said he thought you’d gone out for a walk. Awful cold out there. You’d better sit yourself down and get something hot in you.” She nodded toward the kettle humming on the iron stove.
“No thank you, maybe later.”
Olivia removed her boots and soggy socks and put on the colorful house slippers Mrs. Hardaway had knitted from leftover bits of yarn. Then she went up to her room, where she closed and latched the door. She pulled a heavy flannel robe on over her dress and tried to blow some warmth into her cupped hands. Then she removed a battered knife from the top drawer of her bureau, got down on her hands and knees, and opened the tiny door that led into the small attic under the eaves.
She crawled in, batting cobwebs from her hair and face and blowing them out of her mouth. Feeling in the dark, she shoved a canvas satchel aside, used the knife to pry up two loose floorboards, and retrieved a red velvet bag. She backed out and sat on her heels, beating small flurries of dust from the bag. Then she took it to her bed and poured out a stream of gold coins. Three years ago, before a horse kicked him in the head and killed him, her Uncle Scruggs had shown Olivia where he kept the red sack hidden, tacked to the bottom of his overstuffed chair.
“That money will always be there waiting on you, Olivia,” he’d told her more than once. “When my time arrives, I want you to come get it, before the buzzards swoop down and clear this place out. Please. You always been my favorite – nearest thing to a child of my own. No one else knows about it and there ain’t no reason for you to tell no one. I been saving it for you, and it ain’t nobody’s business but yours.”
Since Uncle Scruggs’ death Olivia had kept the coins hidden under the floorboards. She hadn’t spent a penny and checked every few months to make sure they were still there. Then one evening Tobey had knocked on the door while the money was spread on the bed, and she’d let him in and told him where she’d gotten it.
Now she wondered if that had been unkind. Uncle Scruggs had given this money to her, and their father had left all his property to Avis; only Tobey had received nothing. She frowned, thinking,I should give half of this to Tobey. That’s only fair.
She sorted and counted her inheritance. They were all there: thirty $10 Eagles, thirty $5 Half-Eagles, and sixty $2.50 Quarter Eagles. Six hundred dollars in all. She’d use it to pay for tools and seed and a hired man. She frowned again, thinking that she shouldn’t give Tobey his share just yet. She’d invest it in the farm, and a few years from now she’d have a much larger sum to share with him. Shivering with cold, she scooped the coins back into the velvet bag and returned it to its hiding place.
Maybe I can get Tobey to come to Michigan with me, she thought.Why should he have to work for Avis? Truth is, as soon as Avis marries old boss face Lady Mabel, Tobey will feel like he’s working for her. What kind of life is that? He needs something of his own. We’ll start with Uncle Scruggs’ land, and use the money we make to buy more and more land.
It seemed a perfect plan until she tried to imagine her brother – with his thin white arms, thick glasses, and constantly running nose – felling trees, plowing furrows, and harvesting fields of wheat. Even more than he lacked the physical strength, she knew he lacked the ambition.
She remembered the conversation they’d had the day before, after Mr. Carmichael finished reading the will. Olivia had dragged Tobey up to her bedroom to complain about being left dependent on Avis.
“You could teach school,” Tobey suggested. “Teach some white kids to read and write for a change.”
A long time ago, when Olivia was just a little girl, she’d taught her only friend – who happened to be colored – to read and write. She couldn’t believe the way peoplestilltalked about it, as if she’d done something wrong. Olivia bristled at Tobey’s remark, but held her tongue, not wanting to change the subject.
“That way you’d have your own money, if that’s what’s so important to you,” Tobey continued.
“You know teachers don’t get paid hardly anything.” She wiggled her backside to get more comfortable, jostling the mattress and making her layers of petticoats rustle. “You think I want to be like Miss Evans? She gets passed around like a bag of week-old fish, has to go live with a different family every month. Some of them make her help with the housework after school and still act like they’re doing her a big favor.”
Tobey sighed and patted her thigh. “People do all kinds of things, little sister. What’s it matter anyway, Livvie? It’s only until you get married.” Olivia saw her brother wishing he could suck those words back the moment they were out of his mouth.
She’d never had any gentlemen callers. Not a one. No one ever said it out loud, but Olivia could see them all thinking it – she was going to be difficult to marry off. She might not be a great beauty – her face was too thin for that – but she was pretty enough, slight of build, with dark wavy hair, smooth skin, and bright blue eyes. Way prettier than most of the married women in town. But she seemed to lack some essential quality that caused a man to come courting.
Tobey changed the subject. “You know Avis will let you work in the store, if you want.”
“Puh.” Olivia expelled a quick burst of air and shook her head. “Now that father’s gone, Mabel Mears is going to drag Avis to the altar quicker than two licks. And then she’ll be all over everything, like tar. Just you wait and see. I’d as soon go to Massachusetts and slave in one of those textile mills as be bossed by her. And how come you’re so calm about it? Why don’t you care?”
“Don’t see how me caring is going to make a whit of difference. Father left the store to Avis; it’s only natural for his wife to have a hand in running it. No point getting all fired up about it.”
Olivia rose from the bed and stood facing him, her fists on her hips and a scowl on her face. “Well, that’s just fine. Next thing I know, you’re going to be telling me to simmer down.”
Tobey smiled sadly and shook his head. That was what their father had always said whenever one of them displayed a definite sign of life – “Now simmer down. Just you simmer down there.”
“No, I’m not going to tell you to simmer down. But it is true that you’re a young lady now and can’t be going down by the river to throw rocks and holler like a banshee every time something isn’t to your liking. You got to start trying harder to fit in. Mabel’s got that nail hit right on the head. And you got to learn to take things like they come. You like to think you can change everything if you want to bad enough, but you can’t.”
“I know I can’t change everything. I’m not stupid. I know one person can’t change hardly anything at all.” She paced to the window and back. “But you can try to fix some things in your own life. How do you think the world gets to be the way it is? If everybody lay down and lapped up whatever flowed down the road, our grandparents would never have come over here. There wouldn’t even be any United States of America to come to. We’d all be back in Ireland, bowing down to the Queen of England, or doing whatever they did before some fool got all fired up. We’d be living in caves or mud houses, is what we’d be doing.”
Olivia sighed and started down the stairs.No,she thought,Tobey is not going to come to Michigan with me. Doesn’t have it in him. What’s the word? Gumption. He doesn’t have the gumption. So who? Who can I get to come? No one is who. I’ll have to go by myself, to that Fae’s Landing place. Find someone to hire when I get there.
But the prospect of traveling alone made her queasy. Even more frightening than taking a stage to Erie and a steamboat to Detroit was the problem of how she would get from Detroit to Fae’s Landing. Buy a wagon in Detroit and drive through the woods all alone, no idea where she was going? She wouldn’t know how to go about buying a wagon, let alone how to replace a wheel or fix a broken axle. She tried scolding herself.Shame on you, how do you think you’re going to run your own farm, if you’re too lily-livered to even get there?It didn’t help. She’d ridden horses and gone hunting, but always with her Uncle Scruggs. She’d never driven anything, not even a little one-horse buggy, and had no idea how to handle one of those big farm wagons.
She went to the kitchen, poured herself a cup of the bitter black coffee Mrs. Hardaway kept on the stove, and sat at the table, chin resting on the heel of her hand. She felt despair creeping over her, which Mrs. Hardaway mistook for sorrow.
“There, there.” The housekeeper set down her bowl of biscuit dough and washed her hands so she could pat Olivia’s head. “It’s so hard losing our loved ones. Takes it a while to sink in.” She launched into a long tale of the death of her own parents.
Olivia half-listened, nodding her head at appropriate intervals, as she sipped the burnt coffee. Then she shook herself and asked Mrs. Hardaway if she needed any help. The housekeeper went to the window and pulled back the red and white checkered curtain.
“Well, I would, but I hate to ask you to go back out in this. It’s coming right down again.”
“I don’t mind snow,” Olivia said, rising. “A walk would feel good. What do you need? Something from the store?” She reached for her coat.
Mrs. Hardaway shook her head. “I got a pile of pot handles need mending. Been putting it off, but now that darn oven door has got loose again, about ready to fall right off. I got to be able to keep food warm, what with all the folks coming to call. You think you could go scare up Mourning Free? I believe I seen him working over to Ferguson’s Livery this week.”
Mourning Free. Olivia felt like giving Mrs. Hardaway a hug.
Why didn’t I think of him?Olivia felt like shouting out loud. She turned away from the housekeeper, thinking,Mourning would be perfect. The way he’s worked everywhere in town, he knows how to do everything – fix a wagon wheel, raise a barn, put on a roof, clear a field, shoe a horse. Even knows how to cook – sometimes makes breakfast, dinner, and supper for the boarders at Mrs. Monroe’s. Won’t expect to be paid as much as a white man either.And, most important of all, if ever there was a soul in need of a new start in life, it’s Mr. Mourning Free.
Olivia told Mrs. Hardaway that she would be glad to go fetch Mourning Free. “But I think I’ll wait until after dinner,” she said and returned her coat to the rack.
She would be glad for an excuse to flee the house after the noon meal – when more flocks of women could be expected to climb the Killion’s front porch, each carrying a covered dish or pie as the price of admission. No one wanted to miss what might be their last chance to snoop around Old Man Killion’s house. Yesterday Olivia had caught one of the church ladies in his study, going through the drawers of the desk. What made women so nosy about the inside of other people’s houses? Olivia could see nothing interesting about theirs. It was a regular wood frame, clapboard house. It may have been larger than most others in town, but there was nothing fancy about it. She did, however, understand why they were so curious about her father. Since she was a child Olivia had known that – according to the busybodies – her father “had hardly buried that crazy wife of his before he started carrying on with that Place woman.”
But avoiding those women with their stew pans was not the only reason Olivia chose to wait. She didn’t want to be in the middle of explaining her proposition to Mourning Free and have to go home to eat. It might take a while to convince him that going to Michigan was the best chance he’d ever have to make something of himself. She could imagine the way he’d look at her when she first told him her plan – like a horse must have kicked her in the head. But eventually she would make him realize what a great opportunity this was, even more so for him than for her.
She moved about the kitchen, setting the table and slicing bread, her face set in a frown as she composed the arguments she would present to him. She acknowledged her brothers’ arrival home with no more than a nod of her head and listened to nothing of what they said during the meal. When she rose to clear away the plates, a smile finally crossed her face. There was one argument for which Mourning would have no response: “What do you have to lose?”
Olivia had heard all the stories about Mourning Free’s parents. Willis and Rosie Jackson had been runaway slaves who stumbled into all-white Five Rocks late one night, more than half frozen and starved. One of the local abolitionists found them and wrapped them in blankets. He left them stoking a fire in the stove of the Great Friends Meeting House while he ran from street to street, knocking on the doors of his co-religionists. Within an hour they had convened a meeting, eager to offer shelter to the Jacksons. They were, however, worried by the fact that Five Rocks had no “Bottoms” or “Nigger Town” for them to blend into; it had no negro residents at all. Even so, Mr. and Mrs. Brewster, founders of the local seven-member Anti-Slavery Society, offered the fugitives the use of the shed behind their house, the same structure that would later become Five Rocks’ modest Reading Room.
No one had a better suggestion. The men spent the next few hours clearing out the shed and moving in the furnishings that other Quakers donated. By morning the dazed Jacksons had a home, of sorts. Mrs. Brewster brought their meals on trays, always with a pudding or special treat for Rosie, who was most obviously in the family way. Each time Mrs. Brewster left she paused in the doorway and warned them to stay out of sight. “There might be some a them slave-hunters chasing after you and you two stick out around here like a couple a purple elephants.”
The first thing the Jacksons did was change their family name to Free. The anti-slavery people tried to talk them into choosing something else, saying it was far too obvious, but Willis and Rosie were set on being called Free. Sadly, they enjoyed only a few months of liberty before Willis succumbed to the influenza. Then a few weeks later Rosie died giving birth to Mourning.
The orphaned black baby was taken in by Alice and Goody Carter, who lived a two-hour walk away, in “The Bottoms” of the town of South Valley. They already had four children but hadn’t the heart to turn away the fondling in Mrs. Brewster’s arms.
Goody spent most days in Five Rocks, doing odd jobs for whoever needed him. When Mourning was six he began working alongside his foster father. The boy had a natural aptitude for fixing things and did whatever was asked of him without complaint. He was soon well-known to all of Five Rocks’ merchants, who often quarreled over who was most in need of Mourning’s services that week.
Not long after Mourning’s ninth birthday Goody made up his mind to go west and try farming. Mourning refused to go with them, insisting that he could stay in Five Rocks and take care of himself. He would go right on doing what he had been for years, working at Killion’s General and the other businesses in town. He could sleep in the loft of Ferguson’s Livery or the storeroom of the Feed & Grain. He often did that anyway, to save the long walk home and back.
But Goody was having none of it. “You gonna have folks saying we ain’t treated you right.”
The day the Carters finished loading up their wagon, Mourning sneaked into Killion’s General and hid behind the bolts of fabric in the storeroom. Seven-year-old Olivia watched as Goody Carter picked him up and dragged him out to the wagon. Mourning fought hard, kicking wildly and yelling, “I ain’t gonna go, I ain’t gonna. You can’t make me. I ain’t yours. I ain’t none a your business.” The white customers stepped aside in dismay, the women’s bonnets bobbing, but no one felt inclined to interfere.
A few days later Olivia walked down to the bank of the Saugauta River. It was a warm day in May, the sky a startling blue, the fields dotted with yellow and purple wildflowers. She spread a red and white checkered tablecloth over a patch of clover and knelt on one corner of it. A gentle breeze played with the cloth, so she anchored two other corners with her rag doll and picnic basket. She was humming “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” to her doll when she heard someone slosh out of the river. She looked up, amazed to see Mourning Free climbing up the bank, his scrawny chest bare and his trousers dripping. He was carrying his shoes in one hand and a brown shirt and blue cloth bag in the other.
“Hullo, Mourning,” Olivia said, eyes wide.
“Hullo to you, Livia.” He walked over and tossed his belongings to the ground.
“Did you fall into the river?”
“Nah. Been gettin’ cleaned up. Heard someone come and thought I’m a have to hide down there. Then I hear it just be you, talkin’ to your stupid doll.”
“Do you want to have a tea party with us?” She reached for her doll and pulled it back to her lap, making room for him to join her on the tablecloth.
“You got any food ain’t make-believe?”
She opened the picnic basket and arranged chunks of cheese, a few slices of bread, and two apples on a white linen napkin. Mourning sank to his knees, making large wet circles on the cloth, grabbed some cheese and bread, and filled his mouth.
“Ain’t et nothing for two days,” he mumbled, cheeks bulging.
“Who were you hiding from?”
“Everybody.” He swallowed and reached for more bread and cheese, but hesitated, glancing at his hostess.
“It’s okay,” Olivia said and leaned away from the food. “You can have it all. I thought they took you away.”
He bit into a chunk of cheese and sat back on his heels. “That right. But I run away from ’em. Been walkin’ for three days.”
This announcement left Olivia frowning. She watched him eat for a few moments before asking, “But who’s going to take care of you?”
“Me.” He jerked his thumb at his bare chest. “I can take as good care a myself as them Carters ever done.”
“Why, were they mean to you?”
He tilted his head back and grinned. “That what Goody think folks gonna say.” Then he looked straight at Olivia, his expression serious. “No, Goody always give me a good tanning when I got it comin’, but they ain’t never treated me bad. But they got four kids without me. That be crowd ’nuff in one cabin.”
Olivia studied the horizon, still frowning in bewilderment. “How did you find your way home?”
“Followed the river back. Minute I seen it, I know that be my chance to run.”
She hugged her doll and stared at this amazing boy, somewhat frightened of him. “You can have the apples too.” She pushed the plate toward him.
They sat staring at the sunlight on the river while they listened to the distant buzz of honeybees and breathed in the sweet smell of clover. Mourning chomped on the apples, leaving nothing but the stem and seeds.
“Why were you hiding?” Olivia asked.
“I don’t think they be lookin’ for me.” He tossed the tiny remains of the last apple away and lay back in the warm sun, hands behind his head. “They be just as glad I gone. But I gonna stay out a sight a few more days, just in case.” He lifted his head to look at Olivia. “Once they be gone west for good, ain’t nothin’ no one can do with me.”
“But you don’t have a mommy or a daddy,” Olivia said in a small voice, feeling cruel the moment she said it.
“Don’t need ’em. I can sleep in the loft over at the livery. Or in Smithy’s back room. In someone’s barn. Wherever I be workin’.”
“Oh.” Olivia imagined having to sleep in a pile of hay and started to get up, anxious to be home and safely away from Mourning.
“Tonight I’m a sleep in that old barn, ’cross from Mrs. Place’s. You could bring me some food over to there, you felt like.”
“You already ate all the food.”
“Can’t you get no more?”
“I don’t know,” she said, tilting her head toward a shrugged shoulder, afraid of getting in trouble. “What kind of food?”
“Kind you eat.”
She stared at him, her bottom lip sucking the top one. “I don’t know.” She began putting things in her basket. When she reached for the tablecloth, he stood up too.
“Bread be good, you ain’t got nothin’ else.”
She packed her things as quickly as she could.
“Blanket be good, too. Get cold at night.”
“You can have this.” She held out the tablecloth, which she had been folding. It was hers, for her picnic basket, and Mrs. Hardaway would never notice it was gone.
He took the cloth and fingered it. “Thanks. But a blanket still be good.”
“Okay,” Olivia said, remembering an old gray blanket in the linen closet she didn’t think anyone would miss. “But you’ve got to promise to teach me to skip stones on the river the way you do.”
He nodded and grinned, then turned to frown at her. “And you ain’t gonna tell nobody ’bout me bein’ here?”
“No. I won’t tell. Cross my heart.” She made a large X over her chest with her right hand. “I have to go home now.” She picked up the basket.
“See you later,” he said.
She started walking away, then stopped and turned around. “Mourning?”
“How come you didn’t hide from me?”
He stared at her for a few moments. “Don’t know. Just dint think I had to.”
She hadn’t planned on going back. She couldn’t take things from home without asking permission; that would be stealing. But back in her room she couldn’t stop thinking about how cold it had been last night. Finally she got the gray blanket, threw it out her window, and ran downstairs and outside to hide it in the bushes at the back of the house. She felt terribly guilty until she remembered the time she had heard the grown-ups talking. They said the slave-catchers called the abolitionists thieves because they helped slaves get away. But Mrs. Brewster said that wasn’t stealing at all, that was a very good deed; they were helping poor black souls who were escaping from vile evil-doers. So somehow Olivia mixed it up in her mind and exonerated herself. Mourning was, after all, poor, black, and running away. So taking things to help him wouldn’t really be stealing.
Once she began her spree of crime, she was surprised by how easy it was. She simply waited until Mrs. Hardaway was hanging laundry out back and filled her basket with apples, bread, and small amounts of smoked fish and venison. When she thought of Mourning all alone in the dark she added some candles and matches. Then she stood by the front door, waiting to hear Mrs. Hardaway come back in. When the back door banged Olivia fled with her picnic basket, ran behind the house to retrieve the blanket, and set off to find Mourning.
Since it was still light she didn’t think he would have gone to the barn yet, so she returned to the river. The breeze had picked up and a ribbon of gold shimmered across the water. She gave a loud whistle and then began singing “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary,” in case Mourning might be afraid to come out and see who was whistling.
He emerged from behind a stand of bushes. She handed him the blanket and held up one of the wooden flaps of the basket to show him the food. Then she pulled out her slate, which she had added at the last minute.
“What that for?” He nodded at it.
“Well, I got to thinking, about how you’ve never gone to school,” Olivia said. “You know, a person can’t do much in life without knowing how to read.” She quoted Miss Evans. “So I’d better teach you your letters. One every day. We’ll start with ‘L’ because it’s a real easy one. In return you’ve got to teach me how to skip stones like you promised. Five whole skips.”
Mourning survived on Olivia’s pilfered offerings for four days. Then he finally showed himself on Main Street. In a town like Five Rocks, in which nothing ever happened, his reappearance was cause for much excited discussion. Everyone expressed shock and concern for what would become of the poor boy, but Olivia could see that most of them were overjoyed to have him back. Every day since Mourning had been taken away, Reverend Dixby had come into Killion’s General complaining that he couldn’t find anyone to sweep and scrub the floor of the Congregational Church.
Now the good Reverend lost no time in calling a town meeting to be held in his un-swept and un-scrubbed church. The Mourning Free situation must be discussed. Olivia and Mourning hid outside, beneath one of the open windows at the back. Reverend Dixby started it off by speaking at length about their Christian duty to pitch in together to ease the situation of this poor orphan. He thought the best solution would be for the whole town to take care of him. Mourning was right; he could go back to working like before. Whoever he was working for would give him his dinner that day.
Mrs. Brewster was the first to respond. “That’s ridiculous. Saying everyone will take care of him is the same as saying no one will. I don’t know how people who call themselves Christians could even consider such a thing. He isn’t even ten years old.”
“All right then.” A male voice called out from the back of the church. “How ’bout you adopt him? Tuck that Nigra boy between your clean white sheets every night?” This evoked a wave of snickering.
Reverend Dixby raised his voice. “Gentlemen, please, we are trying to have a serious discussion, in a Christian spirit.”
“That boy’s been taking care of himself long as I remember,” another man said. “Tell you one thing – he’d survive on his own better than you would, Dixby.” Several men hooted and women hushed them. “Besides,” the man continued when the laughter had died down, “the negro race is used to that kind of thing.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Mrs. Brewster asked.
“Look at all them slave children get sold away from their parents and get along just fine. And them tribes over in the jungles of Africa don’t know which children belong to which parents any more than them monkeys do.”
“What can you possibly think you understand about the suffering of slave children torn from the arms of their mothers?” Mrs. Brewster retorted. “And I’ve no doubt the hitching post knows more about Africa than you do. You couldn’t find it on the map for a dollar.” This drew even louder laughter.
“So what doyouthink we ought to do with the little darky?” a different voice called out.
“There are plenty of good negro families over in South Valley,” Mrs. Brewster said. “I’m sure we could find one willing to take him in.”
“What makes you think he won’t run again, just like he done from Goody Carter’s good negro family?” A voice Olivia recognized as that of Mr. Bellinir, the owner of the Feed & Grain, spoke. “If he’s wantin’ to stay here so bad, why not let him? I can pay him wages for a few days a week. Give him his dinner on the days he works for me.”
“I can do the same,” Mr. Sorenson, who owned the brewery and saloon, piped up.
This led to a chorus of indignant male voices: “Just hold your horses, who says you get him? . . . I got more work for him than you do . . . No, you don’t and I been paying him more than anyone else . . . You don’t got no loft he can sleep in . . .”
Olivia stood on her tiptoes and peeked in the window, just in time to see Mrs. Brewster grab old Mr. Vance’s cane and pound the floor with it, commanding silence. “Shame on you all! Fighting over who gets first right to exploit the poor child. Give him his dinner, indeed. So is he to go without breakfast and supper? And on Sundays and days when he has no work, he simply will not eat at all?”
Mrs. Monroe spoke up. “If he wanted to learn to help me with the cooking for my boarders, I could give him a plate out in the kitchen whenever he’s not working anywhere else.”
“And where’s he supposed to sleep?” Mrs. Brewster pressed.
“I could let him stay in that storage shed out back,” Reverend Dixby said. “Won’t even charge him anything. He can stay there in exchange for a few simple chores each week.”
Olivia and Mourning turned to look over their shoulders at the windowless shed. It hadn’t been used for years, had no stove, and looked ready to blow over in the first good wind.
“That won’t be necessary,” Mr. Carmichael said. “The boy is welcome to sleep in my office.”
“That wouldn’t be right,” Reverend Dixby retorted. “How could he afford to pay rent?”
“Who said anything about charging him rent?”
“Then what do you want of him?”
“As long as he cuts his own firewood, he is welcome to the warmth of my stove. I’ll ask nothing of him in exchange.”
“And what if he gets sick?” Mrs. Brewster pressed. “Who’s going to care for him?”
“Isn’t that what you Christian ladies are good at?” The rowdy voice from the back broke in again.
“If he’s set on staying, why not give him a chance?” Mr. Carmichael spoke and no one dared interrupt him. “Those good negro families in ‘The Bottoms’ aren’t going anywhere. I understand your concerns, Mrs. Brewster, and they are real ones. I’d like to believe that if the boy fell ill, we would all find it in our hearts to help care for him. If he requires the services of Doc Gaylin, I will commit myself to bearing the cost of those services.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” Doc Gaylin said. “There will be no charge.”
Reverend Dixby soon brought the discussion to an end. He affirmed their collective responsibility for the boy and sent them home smiling. Allowing Mourning Free to stay in Five Rocks and earn pennies doing the menial jobs they didn’t want to do for themselves was the Christian thing to do.
That night Olivia lay awake, staring at the ceiling and thinking how awful it was for a child to have no parents to stick up for him.
After that meeting Olivia went looking for Mourning every afternoon and pulled him aside for his lesson. If they had time and it was sunny, they went down by the river. Otherwise school was held in the storeroom of Killion’s General, using the pickle barrel for a desk. One day Mrs. Monroe peeked through the open door while Mourning was studying what Olivia had written on her slate. Then they heard her lodge a loud complaint with Olivia’s father.
“I heard that girl of yours was teaching him to read.”
“What of it?” Seborn growled.
“Well it’s nothing to me, but folks are saying it ain’t seemly. She ought not to keep so much company with a nigger.”
“They are children,” Seborn said. “He’s only a boy. A boy with enough troubles of his own, I might add, without all you good women piling more on.”
Olivia listened with her head cocked. It was the kindest thing she had ever heard her father say.
Mrs. Monroe ignored the insult and persisted. “Well, I fail to see what need a colored boy has of book learning.”
“Way I see it, make life easier all around,” Seborn replied. “If he could read, whoever he’s working for could leave him a note, tell him what he’s wanted to do.”
“Well, all I know is that back East women who open schools for darky children go to jail. It said so right in the newspaper,” Mrs. Monroe said, before the tinkle of the bells on the door announced her departure.
“That Mrs. Monroe don’t know nothin’,” Mourning said. “Colored man need to know how to read more than any white man.”
“That doesn’t make sense.” Olivia frowned at him.
“It surely do. What if I tell you ’bout some slaves what escaped off a plantation all the way down in Virginia. For weeks they’s goin’ north.”
Olivia never pointed out his grammatical errors. When Billy Adams or any of the other boys at school said things like “don’t know nothin’’ or “ain’t got” Olivia rolled her eyes and repeated the correct phrase in a show of great superiority. But Mourning’s voice flowed into his pattern of speech with such warm resonance, it sounded as if the words were meant to be put together just that way. Olivia was more tempted to imitate him than correct him, but knew how ridiculous she would sound.
“They ain’t got nothin’ but their feet,” Mourning continued. “And they be walkin’ all night and hidin’ in the woods when the sun be shinin’. Don’t got nothin’ to eat but bark and berries. Just about starve straight to death. Can’t hardly stand up. Can’t hardly see where they goin’. But they keep on, walkin’ all night. Walkin’ and walkin’. And walkin’ some more.” He stopped to dip a cup of water from the barrel and drink it.
“So what happened to them?”
“Finally they be here in Pennsylvania, in the snow. Walk all the way from Virginia. And then what you think happen to them? Them slaves be losin’ their direction and turnin’ ’round the wrong way. They be spendin’ the next few days walkin’ smack back toward that slave state what they come from. Smack toward the slave-catcher what’s chasin’ after ’em. You know why? Cause of they can’t read no map and can’t read no road sign. So that show you.” He stabbed a finger at the air in front of Olivia’s face. “Person got to know where they be in this world. Specially a person what can get sold if he be in the wrong place.”
“So what happened?” Olivia asked. “Did the slave-catchers get them?”
“No. Luck from the Lord, they pass by a field where a colored man be workin’. He set them back on the right way. They find their way to Five Rocks in time for her to birth her baby.”
Olivia stared at him for a long moment, hand cupped over her mouth, slowly absorbing the realization that the slaves in Mourning’s story were his parents.
“Well, you don’t have to worry, Mourning Free,” she said at last. “You already read way better than most of the blockhead white kids around here.”
Ten years had passed since then and Olivia seldom saw Mourning any more. They were agreeable to one another whenever he worked at Killion’s General, but he spent most of his time at the Feed & Grain, Ferguson’s Livery, or Smithy’s – all places Olivia seldom had cause to visit. When the weather was mild he was often gone for months at a time, working outside of town on someone’s farm. By now he was nearly a stranger to her.
Olivia put on her coat and boots, picked a wrinkled cellar apple from the bowl on the table and put it in her pocket, wrapped a scarf around her ears and mouth, and opened the back door. She felt like laughing when an image formed in her mind – her trying to drag a kicking and screaming Mourning Free into a wagon headed for Michigan.Chapter Four
Olivia was glad to see it had stopped snowing. She loved the steel blue haze of the afternoon light in this kind of weather. The sun had begun to drop in the sky and the town wore a veil of mystery, the houses casting gray shadows and the church steeples stark against the muted sky.
For a moment she grew melancholy. With her father gone she was an orphan too, just like Mourning Free. She didn’t have anyone to stick up for her either. But she shook herself silently.Oh, woe is you. So get going and start sticking up for yourself. That’s the way the world is.She found herself taking more comfort in Mr. Carmichael’s plain hard statement of fact than in all the damp condolences that had been heaped upon her by sobbing women.
She raised her chin and forced a blank expression on her face before starting up Main Street in search of Big Bad, the broken-down workhorse no longer worth his feed that Mourning had bought a few years ago. When he moved from place to place he packed all his worldly possessions into two small leather bags and threw them over the back of Big Bad’s saddle.
Olivia spotted the horse tethered in front of the Feed & Grain. “Hullo there, old boy,” she said, offering him the apple and stroking his neck while he chomped. “Poor old thing. If that back of yours gets any more swayed, your belly’s going to start scraping the ground.” The horse turned its brown eyes on her and moved its head up and down, as if agreeing. “Guess your daddy must be in there.” She patted his warm neck good-bye.
When I have my own farm, she thought,I’m going to get a nice old horse like Big Bad. Well, not that old, but calm and friendly like him. I’ll ride him everywhere – into town, over to visit the neighbors – and not sidesaddle either. Anyone has a problem with that, it’s just too bad. But they’ll be glad to see me coming, because I’m going to learn how to bake pies and cakes and always take one along when I go to visit. And I’ll have a big golden dog who’ll go everywhere with me, running along beside the horse, snapping at butterflies. That’s how it will be in the beginning anyway, before I have a family. Then I’ll have too many children to fit in a buggy; I’ll have to get a big farm wagon and put extra seats in the back. When the dog gets tired of running, he’ll bark and jump up there with them.
She entered the Feed & Grain and found it empty of customers. Mr. Bellinir was bent over the counter, writing in a ledger. Olivia greeted him and asked if he knew where she could find Mourning Free.
“Out back.” He jerked his thumb.
Mourning was working alone in the cavernous storeroom. His back was to the wide doorway, so he didn’t see her standing there and she watched him for a few minutes.
This man could be my salvation, she thought.Now all I have to do is make him realize that I could be his.
He plucked a sack of feed from the heap in the center of the room and heaved it onto the top of a neat pile, making it taller than he was. He paused to shake his arms, then counted the sacks in the stack and turned to write on a piece of paper that lay on a wobbly wooden table.
Olivia waited for him to finish before saying, “Hullo Mourning.”
He glanced over his shoulder and said, “Day to you, Livia,” in an off-handed way. Then he stiffened and turned to face her, looking at his toes while he mumbled, “I sorry . . . ’bout your father.”
She nodded. “Thank you for saying so. Mrs. Hardaway asked me to come get you. She needs you to mend some pot handles and the door of the oven.”
“Early tomorrow okay?”
“Sure,” she said. She moved closer to him, stopping three feet away, and lowered her voice. “But I . . . I wanted to talk to you about something else. In private.”
He stared at her and said nothing.
“It’s about a business dealing.”
His face broke into a grin. “Who you be doin’ business with, that old rag doll or your teddy bear?”
“I mean it,” Olivia said. “I’m serious. It’s a chance for both of us to change our whole lives.”
His expression went blank again.
“But it’s sort of secret. I need to talk to you about it in private.”
“You must be in a confusion. Ain’t nowhere near April Fools’ Day.” He turned away and picked up another sack of feed.
“All right, if that’s the way you want to be. I’m not fooling around, but suit yourself. Pay me no mind. If you don’t want to have your own farm, your own land, I can’t force you to.” She turned to leave.
She was at the door when he asked, “What land?”
She spun around, her face lit up. “I knew you’d do it!” She managed to keep her voice low, though she felt like shouting.
“I ain’t said I’m a do nothin’,” he said as she approached.
“Oh you will, once I explain. But that might take a while and . . .” She paused and nodded toward the front room of the store and Mr. Bellinir. “He knows I’m back here with you, so I shouldn’t stay too long.” She frowned. “I thought maybe we could meet down by the river, but it’s so cold. How about in the Congregational Church? Reverend Dixby doesn’t keep it locked, does he?”
“Nah.” Mourning shook his head. “But you don’t wanna be talkin’ ’bout nothing secret in there. Reverend Dixby got a nose what way too big. He see you goin’ in there after me, take him ’bout three and a half minutes to call a town meeting on us. But I got a place we can talk. Nice and warm, too. I got the key to Mr. Carmichael’s office and he gone over to Strickley. Ain’t gonna come back till late at night. I’m a go there first, through the back door, and get the stove lit up. Then you come knock on the front door and wait a bit ’fore you let yourself in. Anyone see you, they gonna think him or Billy Adams be in there and hollered out for you to come in.”
“How long should I wait before I come?”
“Don’t matter. Few minutes.”
“Is it all right for you to leave work now?”
“No mind to him when I be doin’ this, long as it get done. I’m a tell him I gotta fix your stove. Poor old Mrs. Hardaway can’t cook nothin’ – door keep fallin’ on her foot.”
Olivia nodded and turned to leave. From the middle of the store she called over her shoulder, “I’ll tell Mrs. Hardaway you’ll be right there,” and then said goodbye to Mr. Bellinir. He barely nodded, his attention focused on his ledger, though Olivia suspected he paid more mind to what went on around him than he let on.
She paused outside Killion’s General, glimpsed Mourning coming out onto the sidewalk, and slipped into her brother’s store to wait. This was the most excitement she’d had in years. She nodded to Avis and milled around the shelves, helping herself to some of the peppermint candies he kept in a glass bowl on the counter. When she went back outside wisps of smoke were curling from Mr. Carmichael’s stovepipe. Olivia did as Mourning had told her to and found him sitting on one of the two chairs next to the stove. She settled opposite him.
“Okay,” he said. “What land you got to give away?”
“You remember my Uncle Scruggs, don’t you?”
“Lorenzo? What used to be the Post Master?”
“Yeah, I ain’t never gonna forget him. I been standin’ right behind him the day that horse took into his head. I seen it all.”
“Well, maybe you don’t know that before he came back here, he was a farmer. He and his wife Lydia Ann had a place – eighty-acres. Right on the bank of a river with good fresh water. He dug a cellar, built a cabin over it, put up a barn, even set a springhouse over the river. It’s a beautiful place. He never would have left except Lydia Ann died of the fever and he lost his heart for it. So he came back to town, but the farm still belonged to him. When he died it went to my father and now it will go to me or one of my brothers – whichever one of us wants to claim it and put in a crop. Neither Avis nor Tobey is interested. I am. All I need is someone to help me.” She paused. “That’s why I need you to be my partner. To do the farming.”
He tipped his chair back, balancing on the hind legs. “I see how that gonna get you a farm. All I see it gettin’ me be an aching back.”
“I haven’t finished yet –”
“Sides, farming take more than land and one skinny nigger you think be dumb enough to work it for you. You gotta have money. Gotta buy seed. Gotta eat for a whole year –”
“I have six hundred dollars of my own money. In gold coin. You won’t have to pay for anything. Once a crop is in, I’ll inherit the land. That’s all we have to do. But you could keep working it. I don’t know how long it takes to make money farming. You can figure that out better than I can. But whatever we lose, it’s my money. Whatever profit we make is yours. You keep it all, until you have enough to buy your own eighty acres. Maybe even your own quarter section. But you don’t have to work my farm that long if you don’t want to. The deal is, you go there with me, make the cabin livable, clear a few acres, and put in one crop. Then you can quit any time you want and I’ll pay –”
Olivia abruptly stopped talking and listened as heavy footfalls clomped on the wooden sidewalk. What would they do if someone knocked on the door? Everyone knew that Mourning was allowed to stay in Mr. Carmichael’s office, but should she hide under the desk? The footsteps continued on without stopping, but she swallowed hard, facing what she knew was the biggest problem in her plan – the two of them being alone together. If she were to go off with a white man who wasn’t her kin, even if he was old and decrepit, tongues would never stop flapping. And a young colored one?
Well, that’s just another reason why it’s going to be a secret, she reminded herself.
But she knew the problem was real. She and Mourning would have to travel together, spend days, weeks, and months alone together on Uncle Scruggs’ farm. She stared at Mourning for a moment, wondering how well they would manage that. She still thought of him as her friend, though for years they’d barely spoken. Now he was all grown up and she didn’t know much about the young man sitting across from her.
I know the most important thing, she thought. I trust him.He is a good man. Never did a speck of harm to anyone. When he promises to do something, he does it. We’ll just have to manage, figure the rest out as we go along.
She plunged on. “I’ll pay you –”
“Pay me what? How much?” He sat his chair back down on all four legs.
“Well, I guess I don’t know. I guess I haven’t really thought it all out. But we’ll come to an arrangement that we both think is fair. And put it in writing.”
He leaned forward, elbows on knees, watching her intently. “Suppose I stay on, but we ain’t making no money?” he asked.
“Well, that will depend on you, won’t it?”
“Me and a barrel of luck. God give you whatever kind a weather he feel like, not what kind you be needin’. And I got no say over prices or what kind a insects gonna come eat everything up.”
“I realize that.” She nodded. “All I know is, plenty of people make a go of farming and most of them start out with a lot less than we will. And I’ll be the one taking all the risk. What do you have to lose? Worst that can happen, you wasted some time. Would you rather spend another year chasing around here, fifty people telling you what to do? I’m asking you, what do you have to lose?”
He sat perfectly still, leaning forward and studying his feet. Then he straightened up and slapped both thighs. “All right. You got a partner. Where this land be? Walking distance from town?”
“No. Not exactly.” She avoided his eyes as she removed a piece of paper from her pocket and unfolded the map she had drawn. “It’s out in Michigan. Right there.” She held it out to him, pointing at a small dot not far from Detroit.
He took the paper from her and studied it, his mouth puckered as if he were holding a dead snake between his upper lip and nose. “Michigan? This Garden of Eden be in Michigan?” He thrust the paper back at her, stood up, and closed the damper of the stove. “You for sure off in the head. Michigan. I look crazy to you?”
“What’s wrong with Michigan? It’s not so far away. There are steamships right from Erie that go all the way to Detroit.”
“You know I can’t be travelin’ with no white girl.” He glared at her.
“Say the world. What your brothers gonna say when you tell ’em ’bout this great plan you got?”
“I’m not going to tell them. We’re going to keep it a secret. I’ll leave them a note, so they won’t be worried, but they won’t read it until after I’m gone.”
“You tryin’ to get me killed? How long you think it gonna take them to come find you?”
“I’m not that big of a dolt. I have no intention of telling them where I really went.” She rose and stepped toward him. “The note will say I went out east to look for a teaching job. I’ll promise to write and let them know where I am as soon as I get settled. When I’m ready to claim the land, I’ll come back and tell them the truth.”
“Oh, so that okay then. They ain’t gonna string me up till next year.” He waved a hand, as if dismissing her in disgust.
“Nobody’s going to string anyone up,” she said. “They won’t know you had anything to do with it. I’ll say I got a hired man to work the land for me. That won’t even be lying, really. You’ll be sort of like a hired man. And we won’t leave town together. You can tell folks you’ve heard of some distant relatives and are going to look for them. Leave a few days before I do. No one’s going to think we went off together. Why would they? Especially if we’re careful about not being seen with each other between now and when we leave.”
He shook his head. “You got any brains? What ’bout folks out there in Michigan? How you think they gonna like this colored boy showin’ up with a white girl?”
“They don’t have to like it. There’s nothing they can do about it. They don’t have to know we’re partners or anything. You’re my hired man. What’s wrong with that? I don’t plan to live there on the farm with you. I’ll get a room in town and buy a horse to ride out to the farm every day. There won’t be anything for them to talk –”
“Never mind, Livia.” He waved his hand at her again, sounding weary. “Stop wastin’ all that air. I can’t go to no Michigan, not with you and not with nobody. I gotta stay here in Five Rocks.”
“Why? What’s so wonderful about Five Rocks?”
“I got Mr. Carmichael here.”
She looked at him blankly. “All right, so it’s very nice of him to let you sleep in his office –”
“It ain’t that.” He moved his chair a bit closer to hers. “You know my parents been slaves?”
She nodded her head.
“So that mean, by the law, I be a slave too.”
“That can’t be so. You were born here. There’s no slavery here.”
“Don’t matter. By the law, I belong to the man what owned my parents. Slave-chasers ’llowed to come into free states, take back property.”
“But that was so long ago. If there was ever anyone chasing after your mother and father they’re probably dead by now. And even if they’re not, they have no idea you exist. Don’t know your name or where you live. How could anyone come looking for you?”
“You don’t understand. It don’t matter none to them slave-catchers. They come lookin’ for a nigger they can’t find, they just as glad to take one they can find. Truth is, it ain’t no mind to them if I be free by the law or not. If I got nobody to stand up for me, anyone what want to can tie me up and throw me in his wagon. I do him just fine. One nigger as good as another. Out in Michigan, ain’t nobody gonna stand up for me.”
“And here Mr. Carmichael will.”
Mourning nodded. “First night I go to sleep in his office after that town meeting he come in, say he think he gonna keep me company till I fall asleep. When I wake up the next day he still sittin’ there in that chair. He give me a piece of paper say I been born to free parents, say I be a Free Man of Color. Got a stamp and his mark on it. He tell me that any time I need, he gonna stand up with me in front of a judge, swear it be so. And folks here ain’t gonna call Mr. Carmichael no liar, even if they know he ain’t talkin’ the truth. So I don’t got something to lose. I got everything to lose.”
“Don’t you think I’d stand up for you? I can lie as good as him. Probably better.”
At least Mourning didn’t say what she knew he must be thinking: “Ain’t nobody gonna pay no mind to no girl.” What he did say was, “Maybe so, but you ain’t got no ’fficial stamp.” Then he rose and opened the door for her to leave.Chapter Five
Olivia trudged home, back to wondering if there wasn’t some way she could persuade Tobey to come with her and share the land.Sure, I can convince him to do that. All he has to do is change everything about him, she thought and sighed, resigned to the fact that she would have to hire someone else.But who?
It had been relatively easy to imagine entering into such a venture with Mourning Free, whom she had known all her life. She trusted him. Regarded him as a person of high character, in his own prickly, stubborn way. And she couldn’t imagine the two of them having man-woman problems. Olivia had seen how men could behave, as if they wanted to wrap some woman up in a big spider web. But Mourning had never looked at her in that sticky way. Even when they were children, he’d never twisted her arm, pushed her into the river, or done any of the things little boys do to get a little girl’s attention. And she’d never wanted him to. True, he had grown into a tall, hard body, his skin smooth and shiny. His white teeth flashed in a lovely way when he smiled.But that’s pretty much never, ornery as he is, she thought.
She made the unconscious assumption that the color of Mourning’s skin was a brick wall between them; neither of them would dare take a hammer to it. Where was she going to find anyone else with whom she would feel that safe?
She sighed and forced herself to reconsider. Maybe Five Rocks wasn’t so horrible. After all, every town must have its share of nosy, annoying women. And Avis wasn’t really such a bad sort. Truth be told, he usually said and did the right thing. Olivia couldn’t deny that he was a good and decent man. Most folks in town would probably say Avis was the only one of those three Killion children that was worth a lick. Perhaps she could work in the store, but take a room in another town, get a horse like Big Bad, and ride to work. If she lived far enough away, not every single person she met on the street would know all the stories about her mother and father. Maybe now that she was grown, she could find some place to be just plain Olivia.
As she climbed the back steps she heard Mabel Mears’ voice in the kitchen, bossing Avis and Tobey. Avis’s beloved must be fixing supper again. Olivia closed her eyes and pressed her forehead against the icy doorframe, exhausted.
She tried to console herself. At least the food would be delicious. Olivia hadn’t realized how bad a cook Mrs. Hardaway was until the formidable Mabel invaded their kitchen. With no basis for comparison, Olivia had assumed that beef was by nature dry and leathery and that there was nothing to be done with a chicken but toss it into a pot of boiling water and serve it pale and pimply, scattered clumps of pinfeathers still clinging to it. The first meal Mabel prepared for them had been an eye-opening spread of flaky biscuits, pot roast you could cut with a fork, glazed carrots, and fluffy mashed potatoes. Now Olivia smelled Mabel’s fried chicken. She always got a perfect scorch on it, crispy outside and ready to fall off the bone.
“Avis, dear, come get the big platter down.” Mabel’s voice carried easily through wood and glass. “Tobey, you slice up the bread. Not that knife, use this one. I had it sharpened last week. Then you can ladle out the gravy. Better wrap this towel around you, save your coat. Where on earth can that Olivia have gotten to?”
Olivia increased the pressure of her forehead against the cold wood. Shivering, her head aching, she remained outside on the steps, listening to Mabel issue more commands and then demanding, “Doesn’t that sister of yours know what time you have your supper? I hope everything isn’t going to get all dried out because some people choose to be inconsiderate.”
No. I can’t do it, Olivia thought.Anything would be better than living and working with Mabel Mears. I’ll get a job in a textile mill. Go west to a logging camp and do laundry. Become a mail order bride.Finally, Olivia could stand the cold no longer and pulled the back door open.
“Well, there you are,” Mabel said. “Oh my, you’d better leave those boots out on the porch, before they leave a puddle. You boys sit down, everything’s ready.”
Olivia did her best to ignore her, but Mabel took the chair next to her. After Avis mumbled the Grace that Mabel had taught him and the food had been passed, Mabel leaned back and reached for a journal that lay open on the pie safe behind her.
“I know it’s not good manners to read at the table,” Mabel said, “but I’ve been wanting you to hear this, Olivia, and I don’t know when else I’ll get the chance, seeing as you spend so little time at home. And when you are here, you’ve got yourself locked in your room. Anyway, it’s the most interesting article, here in my ‘Godey’s Lady’s Book.’” She looked pointedly at Olivia before beginning to read. “A sensible woman is always aware of her inferiority. She performs those tasks that she can, but never forgets her dependence on the stronger sex and is always grateful for the support of a man. She knows that she is the weaker vessel, and it is as such that man honors her. Her weakness is not a blemish, but what endears her to man.”
Olivia refrained from rolling her eyes as she wondered if the will of big, strong Avis had ever once prevailed over that of “endearingly weak” Mabel. Olivia knew where this was going – a tedious lecture about how a young lady had to behave in order to attract gentlemen callers.
Olivia hid her annoyance and changed the subject, keeping her voice calm and neutral. “I was reading something in there myself the other day. Your ‘Godey’s Lady’s Book’ says it’s perfectly acceptable for a woman to travel on her own, without a chaperone.”
“Well, I suppose that depends on where she’s going, doesn’t it?” Mabel said and licked a glob of gravy off her finger before setting the journal back down on the pie safe.
“Why would it depend on that?” Avis asked. “If she needs a chaperone, she needs a chaperone. And if she doesn’t, she doesn’t.”
“Well, dear, isn’t it obvious that there’s a difference between an overnight journey and, say, a stagecoach ride to another town?”
“Not obvious to me. If it’s all right for her to take a stage to another town, I don’t see why she can’t check herself into a hotel room in that other town and then go on with another stage ride the next day.”
“There is all the difference in the world. If family puts her on the stage and she’s met by her hosts at the other end of the line, that’s a whole different thing. She’s never actually alone.”
“Except when she’s on the stage,” Avis said and motioned for Olivia to pass the bread basket.
Mabel’s impatience all but fumed out of her ears. “The driver is bound to protect her as long as she’s in his coach, now isn’t he? So she’s not really alone.”
“Well, suppose the stage makes a stop?” Avis wasn’t actually grinning, but Olivia could see how much he enjoyed getting under Mabel’s skin. They could bicker for hours over nothing, as if they’d already been married for about two hundred and fifty years.
Avis turned toward Mabel. “Does she have to arrange for someone to meet her and stand guard while she gets off for a drink of water?”
“Honestly, Avis Killion, I don’t know why you always have to be so contrary. Obviously, the driver is responsible for her safety during the entire journey, including the stops.”
“I haven’t seen many stage drivers I’d entrust with the safety of a woman I cared much about.” Avis wiped up gravy with a piece of bread.
Olivia closed her eyes, imagining night after endless night of this.
“Can you pass me those mashed potatoes?” Tobey broke in. “Your gravy is as good as ever, Mabel. You’ll have us all busting out of our britches. Anything interesting in the Pittsburgh paper?” he asked Avis.
“They caught that gang was robbing all the banks, so I guess it wasn’t anyone we know.” Avis seemed to be waiting for a laugh, but no one obliged.
“I’d like to please be excused.” Olivia wiped her mouth and put her napkin next to her plate.
“Why you haven’t hardly eaten a thing,” Mabel protested.
“I’m full. It was delicious, Mabel, but I’m tired.”
“Some people might think a young lady could spend some time with her family.” Mabel frowned.
“Leave her be, Mabel,” Avis said softly and Olivia pushed her chair back.
Mabel’s hushed voice followed Olivia to the stairs. “Honestly, you don’t have to make it sound as if I hound the poor girl. You know as well as I do that she lacks the guiding hand of an older woman. And you know I care for her just like I was her big sister.”
Olivia went up and flopped onto her bed, pulling the quilt over her. She shivered, wishing she had stopped to take some hot stones from the shelf under the stove. She plumped the pillow and her hand touched the guidebook she had found among Uncle Scruggs’ things. It was the kind they printed up for folks planning to make the journey out west, over the Mississippi and across the plains. Olivia had gotten it out of the attic and all but memorized it, reasoning that if she prepared herself for everything it talked about, she would certainly be able to manage the much simpler journey to Michigan. The guidebook explained what was needed to set up a farm, how to survive in the outdoors, how to make medicine from various plants, and how to preserve different kinds of foods. It even listed the quantities of flour, sugar, coffee, beans, cooking oil, whale oil, soda, baking powder, and salt that a family needed to survive for the first year. She sat up and started thumbing through it again, but shoved it back under the pillow at the sound of a soft tap on the door.
“You feeling okay?” Tobey asked as he peeked in.
“No worse than usual. You feel like going for a walk?”
“A walk? It’s starting to get dark and it’s freezing out there.”
“I thought we might go down to the cemetery,” she said. “Lay some green branches on father’s grave.” She knew it was unfair to use that excuse to drag him out of the house, but felt desperate to get away. The constant drone of Mabel’s voice downstairs made her feel like a prisoner in her room.
Tobey sucked in a deep breath and pursed his lips. “Okay, I guess, but just there and back.”
When they came down and reached for their coats Mabel raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were so tired,” she said.
Olivia trumped her with, “We’re going to visit Father’s grave,” thinking that ought to shut her up.
She and Tobey trudged through the snow toward the eastern side of town, where Main Street curled around on itself, forming a cul-de-sac that everyone called “The Circle.” Jettie Place was the only one who lived down there. Her small red barn sat close to the road. The front half of it had been converted into her bakery shop; the large ovens and workroom occupied the back. Mrs. Place’s house stood to the left of and slightly behind the barn, on the curve of “The Circle.” She didn’t have any neighbors and that seemed to suit both her and the town just fine. The sign over her bakery said “Jettie’s Place,” but none of the townswomen called it that. That would have sounded too friendly. Mrs. Place’s bread and pies were too good for them to be able to boycott her establishment, but they sniffed their noses whenever they mentioned “that woman’s bakery.”
Now, as they passed Mrs. Place’s house, Olivia watched out of the corner of her eye, trying to take in every detail of the house and bakery without turning her head. She had often gone into the shop to buy bread and cookies when she was a little girl and Mrs. Place had always been kind to her. She used to tuck extra treats into the bag and call Olivia “you sweet child.”
Olivia couldn’t remember how old she had been when she first heard one of the busybodies say it outright – call Jettie Place “Old Man Killion’s whore.” But she had been old enough to have a vague idea what that meant. Her father and Mrs. Place must get in a bed together and do whatever the horrible thing is that husbands and wives do. Olivia had gone into “Jettie’s Place” a few times after that and stood staring up at “the whore” – a tired-looking woman with bright yellow hair and rouged cheeks and a laugh that was too quick and too loud. It was difficult for Olivia to imagine Mrs. Place and her father sipping a cup of tea together. Removing their clothing? Impossible.
Not that Olivia minded the idea of her father having a connection with another woman. Her mother had died a long time ago, so there was no reason to mind on her account. Olivia simply failed to understand. Why on earth would anyone want to be in the same room with her father when he didn’t have his clothes on? Olivia had seen his drooping potbelly and spindly legs. He hadn’t exactly been a sparkling personality either. He spent all day in the store, took short breaks for his meals, and then did the accounts or read for a few hours before retiring. Saturday nights he played whist with friends. At least so he told his children. That must have been when he did his fornicating with the woman who called herself “Mrs.” although Olivia had never seen any evidence of a Mr. Place, dead or alive. She wondered if her brothers had heard the same whispers about their “carrying on.” They must have, but Olivia had never spoken to them about it. Not even Tobey. Not until the day before her father died.
Now, as they neared the cemetery, Olivia slipped her arm through Tobey’s. “I’m already forgetting him,” she said. “I’ve been trying to remember what his laugh sounded like, but I can’t.”
“We didn’t hear it all that much,” Tobey said. “Except for when he’d say that one thing he used to repeat all the time, until one day Mrs. Brewster got after him.”
“Don’t you remember? Whenever Avis or me started acting smart, he’d elbow us in the ribs and say, ‘Well, I guess you’re a pretty fart smeller, aren’t you?’ Then he’d laugh.”
Olivia forced a smile and they walked on in silence.
“Have you seenhersince that day?” Olivia nodded ever so slightly back toward “Jettie’s Place.”
Olivia shook her head. She didn’t know if her father had loved her mother and she had no idea what he might have felt for Mrs. Jettie Place. She did know that the rumors about him carrying on with “his whore” were true. He’d left them no doubt of that. The day before he died Seborn had ordered Tobey to bring Mrs. Place to him.Chapter Six
The last morning of his life Old Seborn had been wheezing and rheumy-eyed. After bathing him, Olivia asked, “Are you needful of anything else, Father?”
He retched, spit an enormous gob of brown phlegm into a blue and white porcelain teacup, and nodded toward the bottle of rye whiskey on the dresser. Olivia poured a shot into a clean cup and watched him take a sip and cough.
“Yes, I am most needful – of having Mrs. Jettie Place brought to me. Tell Tobey to go fetch her.”
Olivia expressed no objection. Once she recovered from the shock of this request, she was more curious than anything else. Excited. At last something to relieve the numbing boredom. The past two years had been one long, dull blur of caring for her father, going to the store, and walking along the river bank alone.
Tobey was unpacking stock in the back of the store when Olivia touched his arm. “Our father wants you to fetch a visitor for him.”
“And who would that be?”
He blinked and froze for a moment, then continued unloading the crate. “Would that be right now?”
“Well, then I guess I’d best go fetch Mrs. Place.” He stood up straight and removed his apron. Olivia need no longer wonder if Tobey had heard about their father and Mrs. Place; the sharp edge of resentment in his voice left no question.
“Am I hearing you correctly?” Avis’s head bobbed in the doorway. “Are you intending to bring that woman into our mother’s home?”
“Father asked for her,” Olivia said, not about to let Avis spoil the show.
Tobey put on his coat, while Avis continued to protest. Mabel Mears also appeared, hands on her hips, poised to oversee the commotion. She placed a soothing hand on Avis’s arm and told him there was no choice but to obey. You could not deny a dying man his last wishes.
“Take her in the back door,” Mabel said, now grasping Tobey’s arm, issuing her instructions through clenched teeth. “Carry a box with you, so if anyone does see you, they’ll think she’s making some kind of delivery.” Mabel marched back out to the front counter. Resigned, Avis trailed after her.
“The way she swishes those crinolines, it’s a wonder she doesn’t set herself on fire,” Olivia muttered.
“Would have expected her to howl louder than Avis,” Tobey said as he patted his pockets, looking for his gloves.
“She’s no dummy,” Olivia said. “You think she’s going to get herself on the wrong side of our father now, while he can still change his will?”
He pulled his hat and gloves on and went out the back door. Poor Tobey. He had a hard time making small talk with the customers. Olivia tried, and failed, to imagine the conversation in which her brother and Mrs. Place might engage. When Olivia got home and opened the back door she could already hear Seborn’s bell clanging and went straight upstairs.
“So, has he gone for her?”
“Yes, Father.” She turned to leave the room.
“No. You stay here. I’ll be needing a witness.” He nodded at the rocker that stood next to the bed. “You can read to me till she gets here.”
Olivia obediently sat down and picked up “Gulliver’s Travels.” She read until they heard the front door open and Tobey’s voice at the bottom of the stairs. “Up there, second door on the right.” Unfamiliar steps tapped hesitantly up the stairs, followed by a tentative knock on the open door.
“Come in, come in,” Seborn rasped.
Though Mrs. Place wore a thick red woolen coat, she shivered as she stood in the doorway, looking as if she expected to be arrested, if not shot. Olivia set the book on the bed and rose to face her.
Mrs. Place visibly steeled herself before she spoke. “Good afternoon to you, Mr. Killion. It’s good to see you looking so well. Afternoon to you, Miss Killion.” Mrs. Place nodded toward Olivia’s chair, but avoided looking directly at her. “Did you want to place some kind of special order from the bakery?”
“No need for play-acting,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Do you suppose the world is full of fools? I didn’t raise any, I can tell you.”
Olivia took a few awkward steps toward Mrs. Place and stuck out her hand. “It’s a pleasure to see you again, Mrs. Place,” Olivia said, astounding both Jettie Place and herself. That kind of social grace wasn’t in Olivia’s nature. She always felt like the most awkward person in any group, not the one who helped put anyone else at ease. Mrs. Place paled, but took Olivia’s hand and smiled.
“Set yourself down here.” Seborn nodded at the rocker Olivia had vacated and Mrs. Place did as told. Olivia edged around to the other side of the bed, to a vantage point from which she could observe both their faces. His showed no emotion, as if he were performing a task to be checked off a list. Jettie Place looked both nervous and resentful.
“Look here, we both know I won’t be getting out of this bed.”
“Please don’t talk like that.” Mrs. Place put her hand on his, uneasily tracking Olivia out of the corner of her eye. Olivia thought she had never seen a worse liar.
“I’m only saying what’s true. And here’s something else that’s true – you may have cultivated expectations over the years, but there’s not going to be any mention of you in my will.” He paused and coughed. “So I want to do right by you now, while I’m still breathing. And I’m not saying that Avis might accuse you of tricking me out of that money, but there’s no harm in having Olivia here as a witness.”
“I’m sure you don’t owe me anything, sir.” Mrs. Place took her hand off his and averted her face.
“You’ve been good to me. Kept me a man. Until now.” He looked at the pitifully small mound his frail body made under the covers and shook his head. “And you’re a woman, aren’t you? Woman always thinks a man owes her the world and a half.”
Mrs. Place’s face collapsed, as if all the flesh were melting off.
He waved his hand toward Olivia with a dismissive motion. “Don’t worry about her. It’s time she knows the things go on between men and women,” he said. “She’ll take a husband soon enough.”
Olivia turned her back to them and stared out the window, but her gaze returned to her father when he broke the thick silence that had engulfed the room.
“This is for you,” he said, wheezing as he leaned over to remove a thick white envelope from the drawer of the nightstand and hold it out to Mrs. Place. “Cash money. No waiting for the blasted lawyer. I had to have Avis get it from the bank for me and you can bet he’s going to want to know where it disappeared to.” He stopped to cough again. “That’s why Olivia is here, so no one will be able to say I didn’t give it to you of my own free will, or that you put an evil spell on my poor senile mind. You can trust her. She’s got her share of faults in her character, but it’s her bad luck that lying ain’t one of them.”
Mrs. Place stood up and arranged her skirts. “Well, thank you Seborn. I can assure you, I’m most grateful to you.” She slipped the envelope into a deep pocket and chattered about the cake she was going to go right home and bake for him.
He cut her off with a wave of his hand and closed his eyes. “You’d best go now. Good-bye, Jettie.”
She paused for a moment before she moved to his side and bent down to plant a kiss on his cheek. “I’ll be seeing you, Seborn. You get yourself all better. You hear me?”
Eyes still closed, he made another impatient gesture with his hand.
“Let me show you out, Mrs. Place,” Olivia said after a moment’s silence. Mrs. Place followed her out to the hall where they heard voices downstairs – Tobey, Avis, and Mabel arriving home for their noonday meal.
“Perhaps you’d like to step into my room, take a moment to collect yourself before you go down there,” Olivia said. Mrs. Place had been looking down the stairs as if they descended straight into hell.
“Yes, I would. You’re awfully kind,” she said, suspicion creeping into her voice.
“Come in.” Olivia opened the door. “Why don’t you sit over there on the window seat? I could fetch you a pitcher of water, if you’d like to freshen up.”
“No. That won’t be necessary.” Mrs. Place walked quickly to the window and seated herself, suddenly the picture of composure.
“He never talked much about you.” She looked Olivia over with a cool eye. “Always griped about Avis the conniver and Tobias the spineless weakling, but I can’t remember any complaints about you. I’d see you in the shop, of course. You were always such a sweet little thing.”
Olivia suddenly realized that her father’s mistress was as curious about her and her brothers as Olivia was about her.
Mrs. Place removed the envelope from her pocket and turned it over. “Wondering how much is in here? I suppose you think it’s rightly yours.” She sighed and gave Olivia a tired smile. “Don’t worry. It can’t be much. He always was tightfisted. Never even gave me a present. Not once, all these years. He cost me money, if you want to know the truth. There he was, Old Man Killion, my rich fancy man, with the big house on Maple Street, but all he ever did was come over and grant me the privilege of serving him a meal. At my expense, of course. I did have to borrow from him a few times, but he always let me pay him back.”
“So why did you … why were you … his friend?” Olivia sank to the bed, shocked by the audacity of her question, but too curious to keep her mouth shut.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Mrs. Place leaned back. “I suppose because no one else was there – and he was. Let me feel like maybe someone thought about me once in a while.” She suddenly stood up and moved toward the door.
Olivia was reluctant to let her go. “Did he ever talk to you about my mother?”
“Nola June, the saint?” Mrs. Place stopped and turned to face Olivia. “Just all the time. She was so frail, so pure, so righteous.” Then, after a pause, she put a hand on Olivia’s shoulder and added softly, “He truly cared for her. Loved her with all his heart.”
Olivia knew she was supposed to be angry with Mrs. Place. Despise her. But she felt nothing like that. She was too busy being amazed by this woman who broke all the rules. “You’re awfully strong,” Olivia blurted out.
“Now that’s something you don’t never want to be saying about a woman, not if you like her even one little bit.” Mrs. Place shook her head and smiled sadly at Olivia. “People will forgive just about anything in a man, except being too weak, and the one thing they absolutely cannot forgive in a woman is being too strong.”
She nodded good-bye to Olivia and stepped into the hall. The voices had drifted to the kitchen at the back of the house and Mrs. Place quietly slipped down the front stairs and let herself out.
When Olivia and Tobey arrived at the cemetery they followed the path to their parents’ resting place. Seborn’s headstone wasn’t ready yet; a piece of plywood with lettering in black paint marked his grave. Nola June’s was of intricately carved marble.
July 6, 1794
January 26, 1841
Nola June Sessions Killion
September 26, 1800
February 3, 1829
“I was almost six when she died,” Olivia said. “Seems like I ought to be able to remember more about her.”
She stared at the graves and felt nothing, thinking something must be wrong with her. Nearby were two more headstones. One belonged to her little brother, Jason Lee. He had died of the fever when he was two and Olivia was four. She had no recollection of him at all. The other grave was that of her Uncle Scruggs.
“It’s so sad that Uncle Scruggs is buried all alone here, while his Lydia Ann lies out there in Michigan. They ought to be together,” she said.
Tobey said nothing. He clapped his arms around himself and Olivia knew it was his way of saying he was ready to turn around and go home.
“Remember how Uncle Scruggs always liked to show us the deed to his land, brag about how it was signed by President John Quincy Adams’ own hand?”
Tobey nodded with obvious disinterest. “Where were you planning on getting green branches to lay on the graves?” he asked.
Olivia ignored the question. “He was so proud of that wooden floor he put in their cabin, all hand-planed lumber, so smooth you could run your fingers over it and never know there was a trap door to the cellar.”
“Can we get going?”
“And he built a stone fireplace and chimney –”
“Olivia, can we talk about this at home?”
“I like remembering the way he –”
“I know, I know. It was a magical paradise, wild strawberries as big as your fist, corn higher than a house, trees taller than the birds fly, and trout that leapt out of the river into his frying pan. The forest was so green it hurt his eyes to look at it. Oh, I forgot, Lydia Ann had to go out every morning and bang on a cooking pot to chase the deer away from her laundry tub. Just enough curious bears, sly wolves, and cunning-but-noble Indians to keep life interesting. Can we please go home now?”
“Wouldn’t you like to go see that land some time?”
“Why would I want to do that? Everyone knows there’s no good farmland out there in Michigan. And all he built was a little one-room cabin. Chopped down trees and piled the logs up on each other, bark and all. And it’s been out there rotting for twenty years.”
“There’s probably nothing left standing.”
Olivia turned to face her brother. He was wearing the thick winter coat that made him look like a little boy, his arms sticking out to the sides. He removed his foggy spectacles to wipe them on his sleeve, but fumbled and dropped them in the snow. She bit her bottom lip as he bent to retrieve them.
“You’re going to spend your life working in that store, aren’t you?” she asked with a sigh.
Sweet Tobey. He would never fail to disappoint. She looked up at the stars coming out, feeling small and alone under the endless sky.
“Okay, let’s go.” She slipped her arm through her brother’s and they walked in silence for a while.
“Are you coming to work in the store tomorrow?” he asked.
“No, I don’t think so. Mourning Free is coming over to fix some things for Mrs. Hardaway and I want to be there. I have to show him exactly what needs to be done.”Chapter Seven
The next morning Olivia sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee, while Mourning banged on the oven door. She silently admired the way he worked, his movements quick and sure. The only thing he might not be good at was shooting a gun, but Uncle Scruggs had made sure Olivia knew how to do that. She had only taken aim at empty milk tins, but unfailingly blasted them from fifty paces. Sometimes even a hundred. She had also gone hunting with her uncle. Though she had never actually shot at an animal, she had helped follow a blood trail and so felt sure she’d be able to put meat on the table. And did it really matter if she couldn’t? Mourning must know how to fish and she could keep chickens in the yard.
Mrs. Hardaway had gone out the back door with her shopping basket, leaving Olivia and Mourning alone in the house. Olivia said to Mourning’s back, “You know there are over a hundred negroes out there in Detroit, Michigan. I can show you where it says so, right in a book. And there’s a town called Backwoods, not so far from Fae’s Landing, with a whole lot too.” The last statement was a stretch of the truth. The book did mention the existence of a negro community in Backwoods, but didn’t say of how many.
Mourning ignored her and grunted, clanging his tools.
“You should have heard Uncle Scruggs talk about that how beautiful it is out there. And Fae’s Landing is only about forty miles from Detroit, where they have markets and railroads and boats on the river. So it would be easy to sell whatever you grow.” She paused and waited for him to respond, but he continued banging on the oven door.
She took a breath and continued. “You know, people who want to get ahead in life have to move with the times. And the ones who get farthest ahead are the ones who stay a step ahead of the rest. Now’s the time to go. With that Erie Canal open ten steamboats are docking in Detroit every day, full of people looking to buy land. Pretty soon there won’t be any left. It says right here,” she said, pointing at the almanac on the table in front of her, “that in 1830 there were only about 30,000 people in all of Michigan. How many do you think they counted last year?” She paused before answering her own question. “Over 213,000.” She repeated the number, emphasizing each syllable.
He stood up and turned to face her. “I told you why I can’t go.”
“Why would some old slave-catcher come poking around my uncle’s farm? They don’t even have slavery in Michigan. Outlawed it four years ago.”
“Maybe they ain’t got slavery, but they got plenty a runaway slaves. Probably even more than Pennsylvania. That underground railroad go right through Michigan on the way to Canada. So they be plenty a slave-catchers chasin’ after ’em.” He set the hammer down, rose from squatting in front of the stove, and took a seat across the table from her.
She got up to pour him a cup of coffee and set it in front of him. “Well, if the underground railroad goes through Michigan, that means there are plenty of white people out there willing to stand up for a black man. You’ll have Mr. Carmichael’s paper, you’ll have me, and you’ll have all those abolitionists. Before we leave you can ask Mr. Carmichael to make another copy of that paper. I’ll hold on to one of them for you, just in case you ever lose yours. Once we’re there we can find a local judge or attorney, someone like Mr. Carmichael and give him a copy for safe-keeping. Michigan isn’t some wild territory. It’s been a state for four years. They’ve got laws there, same as here. “
She did not, however, tell him everything she knew about those laws. After Uncle Scruggs returned to Five Rocks he had continued to receive the Detroit Gazette by post. Olivia had found a bundle of yellowing issues, each four pages long, the first three in English, the last in French. From them she learned that Michigan had the same laws against negroes that they seemed to have everywhere. Whites and negroes were forbidden to marry. Public schools were not required to accept negro children and if they chose to do so were allowed to provide separate facilities. In Michigan, however, they had another terrible law that she had never heard of before. She learned of it from an article that had appeared on the front page of an issue published in 1828:
“A much-needed amendment to the law for the regulation of negroes has finally been passed. As we have already informed our readers the original law passed in 1827 requires all negroes to carry a valid, court-attested Certificate of Freedom and to register with the clerk of the County Court and file a $500 bond guaranteeing good behavior. The new amendment enables sheriffs and constables to evict non-complying negroes.”
A letter to the editor in the next issue complained that:
“Not hardly a one of these dark bipeds has obeyed the law. This unfortunate species not equal to ourselves roams our towns and cities unsupervised while the men we pay to uphold the law choose to ignore their disregard for our legal system. For this sorry state of affairs we can thank the niggery abolitionists who are deviants and favor the social integration of these inferior creatures.”
Her conscience shouted at her to show that article to Mourning, but she couldn’t bring herself to destroy whatever chance there may be of him coming with her. Anyway, didn’t the horrible man who wrote that nasty letter complain about nobody obeying the stupid law? And the sheriffs not caring that they didn’t? And Fae’s Landing probably didn’t even have a sheriff. Anyway, maybe the negroes didn’t have to give them $500. Maybe filing a bond meant that a person signed some paper promising to pay $500 if they went and robbed someone or did some other bad thing. Mourning would never do anything like that.
Mourning said nothing and Olivia leaned forward and pressed on. “Please, Mourning, you’ve got to think it over again. Mr. Carmichael isn’t going to be around forever. You’ve got to make a life for yourself. I know you could run a farm better than anyone. You’d know how to buy a wagon and a team of oxen, wouldn’t you?”
He stooped his shoulders and slowed his speech to a drawl, the imitation of a groveling slave he had begun doing when they were children, any time she got bossy and annoyed him. “Far’s I ’member, Miz Olivia, you be wantin’ to buy something, you be handin’ over yo’ money and then you be takin’ that thing home.”
“Oh stop being ornery, you and your ‘Miz Olivia.’ You know what I mean. Would you know how to pick out a good pair and what you should pay for them?”
“You listen to me, Mourning Free. You can be as cantankerous as you want, but you know you can trust me. And I don’t mind telling you, I haven’t been able to think of anyone else that I would want to do this with. You’ve got to think about it. You’ll never have another chance like this. It’s true that you’ll be the one doing most of the hard work, but I’ll help with whatever I can. You can boss me. I surely know you’d like that.”
He grinned. “Boss you? That sound like the hardest part a your plan.”
“Seriously, Mourning, I’ll do the cooking and the laundry. Milk the cow when we get one. Raise some chickens. Just like a regular farmer’s wife. Like I said, you can use whatever money we make to buy your own land, until you’ve got forty acres of your own. After that, if you want, I’ll pay you a fair wage to keep on working mine. Or at least to oversee whoever I hire.”
“Black man overseein’ a white one. That indeed be a pretty picture. You got me bossin’ white folks ever which way,” Mourning said, but his easy grin turned to a look of fierce concentration and he sat silently studying the grain of the wooden table.
Olivia waited a few minutes before speaking again. This time her tone of voice assumed it was decided. “If all sorts of things do go wrong and we don’t make any money … well, you work out what would be a fair wage for each month you worked and I’ll pay it to you. There won’t be any way you can lose.” She paused to let this idea sink in before continuing. “There’s all sorts of land out there, Mourning. Once you get your own place going, you can keep buying more and more. They practically give it away. You’ll have your own quarter section in no time.” This was another stretcher. In fact she hadn’t the slightest idea what the current price of land in Michigan was, nor how much of it there was for sale. But all those steamboats full of eager immigrants must mean something.
Finally he spoke. “I always knowed you was strange, but that some crazy idea, even for you. You best stay here in your daddy’s house and read your books.” But his tone of voice had changed and Olivia thought she had him.
“It’s not a crazy idea, Mourning. Who do you think goes to places like that, anyway? People like us. People with nothing, looking for a chance to get something. It’s not my daddy’s house any more. It belongs to Avis now and I need something of my own. Look at the people around here who’ve got money – they’re the ones whose family came when there was nothing and made something out of it. Just like all the people going to Michigan now.”
“You ain’t done a day’s hard work in your life. You got no idea what you talkin’ about. You tryin’ to tell me you gonna chop firewood and haul water? Sew your own clothes? Churn butter?”
“I can do those things, Mourning. I know I can. I’m young and healthy. I know it’ll be hard, but when a person wants something badly enough, they can do anything. I’ll get used to whatever I have to. And we aren’t going out into the wilderness. There’s a town nearby, with stores. We’ll be able to buy most of those things.”
“What about your brothers? They gonna be comin’ after me with all the rope they can find.”
“No one strings up negroes in Pennsylvania. Or in Michigan. You’ve been reading too many abolitionist newspapers,” she said in exasperation. “You know, for someone who’s never set foot in a slave state and has been treated pretty decently by every white person he’s ever known, you spend an awful lot of time worrying about getting lynched or sold down the river. Besides, I already told you, I’m not going to tell them where I’m going. And you don’t have to tell anyone either.”
He scowled at her and took a sip of the coffee. “I could sell Big Bad,” he said, his voice low, barely audible.
“You don’t have to do that. I told you, I’ve got money.” She stopped. “Oh, well, I guess you would have to sell him, since we can’t take him on the steamboat. But you’d keep that money. Our arrangement would be that I supply all the money and the land we start out with; you supply the strong back.”
“What if you run out a money?”
“We’ll think about that when it happens.”
He scowled again.
“Look,” she said, “I suppose if we did go broke you could always get work at one of the logging camps. They operate mostly during the winter, when there’s enough snow on the ground to make skid ways, so it’s perfect for a farmer.”
“Well, I’d go with you, of course. I could get a job as a cook or washing the loggers’ clothes. Then, come springtime, we’d go back to farming. And why start out worrying about every tiny thing that could go wrong? What’s the worst thing that can happen to us? We fail. And you know the only thing that’s worse than failing? Being afraid to try. Stop rolling your eyes. Clichés get to be clichés by being true.”
They heard Mrs. Hardaway’s heavy step on the back porch and both grew silent. He rose, set his coffee cup on the counter, and began gathering up the pots she had set out for him.
“Day to you, Mrs. Hardaway,” he said as she came in. “I get these back later this afternoon,” he said.
“That will be just fine. Thank you for coming so quick,” she replied and set her basket on the table.
After the noonday meal, Olivia went behind the post office to the Reading Room and spent an hour working through the dusty stacks, picking out every book and journal she could find that had anything good to say about Michigan. Then she went looking for Mourning again and waited until no one else was around before shovingMorse’s Geographyunder his nose.
He again rolled his eyes and acted as if he were humoring her. “What now, someone find diamonds on your uncle’s place? Or maybe Moses been sighted wanderin’ there? Or maybe them Michigan farmers started growin’ gold ’stead a corn.”
“No, no gold or diamonds. But they do have trails that are wide enough for a wagon and they go to all these cities: Chicago, Port Huron, Saginaw, and Grand Rapids.” She pointed to each one on the map and Mourning’s eyes followed her finger. She left the book and clomped out.
The next morning she found him again and pulled a copy of theJournal of the American Westfrom under her coat. “There’s a whole article in here about Michigan – about how it isn’t true what people used to say about it being a big swamp. That was all a big fat lie told by Mr. fancy pants millionaire John Jacob Astor and his fur company because all they wanted in Michigan was lots of bears and foxes, not settlers. So they made up a report about Michigan being no good for farming.”
“And now who say different?”
“There’s a government report that says so – from twenty years ago. They sent a bunch of men called the Cass Expedition to go canoeing all over Michigan. Those men came back swearing that all the farmers had to do was clear away the trees and they’d have fine farmland.”
Olivia kept up her campaign, but it wasn’t reading material she was counting on to win him over. The bossy, annoying women of Five Rocks would do that for her.
A body can live with anything, as long as they believe they have no other choice, she thought.But once he’s convinced he does have one, he won’t be able to stand those busybodies for one more minute.
One day in February Mourning finally asked, “Just where it be, this land we gonna farm? Show me on the map.”
Olivia felt as if he had kicked her in the stomach. She wasn’t prepared for it. She was so busy convincing him, she forgot to convince herself. But there it was, him saying it out loud, agreeing to go with her. For a moment she stared at him, stunned. Then she had to restrain herself from throwing her arms around him. In the end, all she did was point at the map and say, “Well, now that that’s finally settled, we can get down to planning. From now on we have to be extra careful not to be seen together.”
Olivia went through her father’s desk and found the deed to the land and a copy of both wills – Uncle Scruggs’ and Seborn’s. She took them upstairs and slipped them into a thick envelope that she hid under her mattress. Then she began pouring over her guidebooks again, underlining important points and making neatly printed lists. When she next met with Mourning she caught him studying her when he thought she wasn’t looking.He must be wondering if I’ll really go through with it,she thought.Same as I’m wondering about him.
They would buy most of what they needed in Detroit and so planned to carry as little as possible – only their clothing, a few personal belongings, and Mourning’s heavy case of tools, which he called his Most Precious Belongings. As far as Olivia could see, it was pretty much his only belonging. Olivia would also bring the double-barreled shotgun Uncle Scruggs had given to her and she planned to relieve Tobey of the flintlock Hawken rifle and flintlock pistol that had been birthday presents to him from their father. Tobey never touched them. They had been under the eaves collecting dust for as long as Olivia could remember.
Olivia and Mourning both wrote down everything they thought they needed to buy when they got to Detroit and compared lists. The necessities – lanterns, whale oil, matches, soap, rope, washtub, bedding, pots, pans, water barrel – seemed endless. There was always something else.
“You forgot feed for the oxen,” she reminded Mourning one evening.
“Ain’t forgot,” he said. “We don’t gotta be buyin’ no team. We can hire us a wagon in Detroit to take us to your uncle’s place. Farmers don’t buy no team when they just startin’ out. Ain’t none a them can afford to. They pull their own stumps and push their own plows.”
“Well, wecanafford to,” Olivia said. “Do you have any idea how many stumps are going to need pulling? And if you think you’re going to call me out and hitch me to the plow, you can think again. You save on buying oxen and we’re likely to miss a season. That’s poor man’s thinking,” she quoted her father. “Save a penny and lose making a dollar.”
“Cost a lot a money to feed ’em.”
“I know that. But we can offer to rent them out to other farmers for a few days a week to help pay for their keep and soon enough we’ll be growing whatever they eat.”
“Bet they ain’t no corn-crackers out there what got any cash money to be rentin’ oxen.”
“Then we’ll barter. For butter and eggs or whatever they do have – or for work. It will be worth it in the long run. My father always said: you have to spend money to make money.”
“You say so. It your money.”
She relentlessly planned and ticked off items, but lay awake most nights, terrified. What if the boat sinks? Catches on fire? The engine explodes and kills us? Could slave-catchers really drag Mourning down south? What about Indians? Robbers? The only way she got any sleep was by reminding herself that they weren’t really going to go – Mourning was sure to back out at the last minute.Chapter Eight
For Olivia the hardest part of preparing for life in the Michigan woods was trying to decide how much of what type of clothing to take. The guidebooks warned that there would be nothing else to wear until the women had begun shearing sheep, spinning wool, weaving yarn, and sewing clothes. Olivia had no intention of performing any of those chores. Fae’s Landing must have a dressmaker and a general store that sold fabric. She decided to pack six dresses – two for Sunday best, two for work in the summer, and two for winter. On second thought, perhaps she’d better take three winter work dresses. There was no telling how long it would take clothes to dry in winter, in front of a fireplace in a small cabin. Or out in the barn where they would turn to ice.
Olivia was glad Mabel Mears had nagged Avis into putting in a small stock of the new factory-made dresses. She waited to do her shopping until Monday afternoon, when she knew Mabel would be at her knitting circle. She had no desire to hear Mabel’s opinion of a girl wearing bright colors when she should still be in mourning.
She loved the first summer dress she pulled off the rack. It was soft cotton – a simple print of wispy blue flowers on ivory, with a narrow white collar and sleeves that cuffed below the elbow. The dark blue apron – front and back panels that tied together at the sides – had deep pockets.
Avis was busy behind the counter up front and paid her no mind. Finally, she took a deep breath and strode over to him. “I’d like to take this dress home,” she said, draping it over the counter. “And look for a few others.”
“Mmmm…” He hardly glanced at it.
“Well, aren’t you going to say anything?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Well, is that all right with you? Do you want me to pay for it?”
“Pay for it? No, I don’t want you topayfor it. But I will praise the Lord that maybe you’re finally going to try to look like a young lady. You been wearing that brown sack so long, looks near ready to fall off. Take all the dresses you want. By all means.” He seemed embarrassed and turned to flee into the storeroom.
Why do I always expect the worst of him?she wondered.And then when he surprises me by being nice, I think he’s doing it for the wrong reasons.But she couldn’t help suspecting that he considered it an excellent investment – spruce Olivia up a bit, maybe some poor man would take her off her brother’s hands.
She picked out three more dresses – two of which she knew would have to be taken in – but it was the one of a deep royal blue that she couldn’t wait to try on. She hurried home, stepped into it, and stood in front of the hinged oval mirror in her room, beginning to understand why women fretted so much over their clothes. She looked like a whole different person, all grown up. Elegant. She still wore her dark hair like a young girl, cut blunt and shoved behind her ears, but now she swept it up with both hands and could imagine herself a real lady, all done up, with ringlets and ribbons in her hair.
Under the eaves she had found two large rectangular wicker baskets with lids that lifted on hinges. One of them had been half-filled with her mother’s clothes and Olivia wondered who’d packed them away after she died. Their father? Mrs. Hardaway? Good thing Mabel hadn’t been around back then; she’d have hung them in the store. Olivia cleaned the baskets and practiced packing: two velvet winter bonnets; two pairs of mitts; four cotton day caps; a corset; four chemises; a pile of stockings, garters, and extra white collars and cuffs. Then she started with the petticoats she so hated – three flannel, three muslin, three calico, and only one crinoline. She still had to fit in her dresses, an umbrella, a parasol, a heavy winter coat, and whatever she was going to wear on her feet.
Her guidebooks advised going barefoot as much as possible during the summer, in order to save shoe leather for cold weather. They also said one should save on scuffing by always, winter or summer, removing shoes when riding in a wagon. She had no intention of doing that either.
Mourning happened to be in Killion’s General the day she confiscated three pairs of work shoes. They were all the same, with cloth uppers, squared patent leather tips at the toes and heel sections, and laces at the inner ankle. That week, when they met near Uncle Scruggs’ grave to compare lists, Mourning asked why he had seen her carting off a barrel full of shoes.
“I’ll need them.”
“Ain’t nobody need no three pair a shoes.”
“If you want to risk having to run through the woods barefoot, that’s your affair, but I want to be sure to have enough sturdy work shoes. I’m only taking one pair for Sunday.”
“You mean them three ain’t all?”
“I can’t very well attend church in work boots.”
“I bet all them farmers wives out there do. If they even got a church.”
“It’s just one little pair of Roman sandals.”
“They’re real pretty.” She purposely annoyed him. “Black kid, cut low, with ribbons that lace right here across the instep and tie around the ankle. I got some clogs, too, with wooden soles and canvas straps, to wear over them, protect them from the snow or mud.”
“Now I know why you be needin’ a team of oxen.”
“Believe me, I wish I could go off with just a few shirts and trousers like you,” she said wistfully and this was the truth. “I didn’t make the rules about what women have to wear. But a person is better off decently dressed than not. Especially when that person is going someplace new. We’ll have to depend on other folks now and then and it’s best they don’t start out with a bad impression.”
Olivia owned few items of sentimental value. One of them was her mother’s hairbrush. It was wooden, with an intricate pattern of scrolls carved into its back. Every evening when she brushed her hair, she wondered what Nola June would have thought about her daughter running off. Was she up there in heaven horrified? Or cheering her on? Olivia couldn’t help but wonder if her mother’s state of “not quite right in the head” hadn’t been simple boredom.
One evening in mid-March Olivia knocked on Tobey’s door. He was lying on his bed, thumbing through a catalog of dry goods. He sat up and swung his legs over the edge and she perched next to him, holding out the wooden brush.
“Do you remember this?”
“Am I supposed to?”
“It was our mother’s. She gave it to me one Christmas. Told me Gram Sessions gave it to her, when she was my age.”
She ran the brush through her hair and then held it in her lap.
“Can’t say I do recall it.” Tobey blinked at her.
“What do you remember about her?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what do you remember about her?”
He thought for what seemed like an awfully long time.
“She used to knit a lot.”
“She did?” That took Olivia by surprise. She couldn’t understand how anyone had the patience to fool around with all those balls of yarn. All that knitting and purling and you had to take it on faith that anyone would want to wear what turned out. But it especially surprised her to hear that about Nola June. She couldn’t imagine her mother sitting in one place long enough to finish a row. In Olivia’s imagination Nola June never stopped moving.
“Oh yeah, she did. Hats and mufflers.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe she made a sweater now and then.”
“No, I mean, what else do you remember about her, besides knitting?”
“Well, let’s see. I remember her planting a lot of stuff out back. It’s all overgrown now, but when she was alive she kept it all trimmed and nice. Used to keep a real colorful flower garden. And she liked lemonade. I remember that. She was always pounding lemons on the kitchen table and mixing up big pitchers of it, so sweet even a kid could hardly drink it. She planted mint leaves out by the pump, so she’d always have some to add to the lemonade.”
“Can you remember her voice?”
He thought for a moment. “Not really. She was soft-spoken. I do know that. Never heard her raise her voice. And Father always spoke real gentle-like when he was talking to her.”
“I remember her brushing my hair with this brush. She’d sit me between her knees and brush and brush. That’s the only touch of hers I remember. The only thing at all. Except for her humming. In my mind she always seems to be humming. I’ve got her watch too,” Olivia said.
“Yeah, I do remember that. The gold one you can open up and put a picture in. Has a little gold pencil on the same chain.”
Olivia nodded. “Gram Sessions gave her that too. Do you think our father ever gave her any nice presents?”
“I don’t know, but I wouldn’t imagine it too likely. Wasn’t his way.”
She rested her head on Tobey’s shoulder and felt like crying. “I just hate it that I don’t remember her at all. I wish I had one clear memory. Just one. One thing that I knew was me truly remembering my mother and not a story I heard, or something I dreamed up.”
Tobey patted her knee and she rose to leave. Back in her room she searched for Nola June’s watch in the top drawer of her bureau and her fingers brushed something hard under a neat stack of handkerchiefs. Her mother’s combs. She’d forgotten about them. They were not for combing one’s hair, but the kind women use for decoration, a narrow row of seven or eight teeth, six inches long. One was of tortoise shell, the other two of bone. Bright red, green, and yellow stones sparkled at their crowns.
Suddenly Olivia’s mind opened to an image of Nola June, the way she had worn her hair every day, pinned up with simple hairpins, sometimes with a length of ribbon or flowers twined through it. Then she saw her mother descending the stairs on Christmas Eve, something shiny draped over her shoulders and two bone combs extruding from an intricate pile of hair. A princess. She wasnota crazy lady. People only said those horrible things because they were so jealous of how elegant she was, the way she moved in an aura of light. Nola June would have hated Mabel Mears.
Olivia sighed and set the watch and combs on the bed next to the brush. She didn’t want to take them with her, for fear of losing them out in the wilderness, but neither did she want to leave them behind. She frowned for a moment, then returned one of the combs to the drawer and rolled the others up, together with the watch and hairbrush, in a flannel petticoat and tucked it into one of the baskets.
Later, when everyone was asleep, she lit a candle and slipped downstairs to take her Bible from the bookshelf, moving the other books farther apart, to hide the empty space. The writing on the inside cover, noting all the marriages, births, and deaths in the family, was in Nola June’s delicate hand. Olivia had added the deaths of her mother, Uncle Scruggs, and now her father. She took the Bible upstairs, wrapped it in a petticoat, and tucked it into the basket next to the money bag she had sewn. It was a cloth belt, from which four long pockets hung, that she planned to tie around her waist, under her skirt and petticoats. She would keep ten dollars emergency money in her stockings and the rest of the heavy gold coins in those pockets.
On the first of April she went to meet Mourning Free under the old covered bridge and handed him two five dollar coins.
“Safest thing would be to keep one in each boot,” she said. “So no matter what, you’ve always got some money. And you’d best collect any wages owing to you. I’d say we’re ready to go.”
Two weeks later, in the middle of May 1841, Mourning drove a wagon up Maple Street to collect Olivia’s wicker baskets. She’d waited until her brothers left for the store and Mrs. Hardaway was back in the kitchen humming. Then she’d dragged them down the front stairs, one at a time. They were heavy and made a loud thump on each step, but Mrs. Hardaway’s hearing was bad. Despite misgivings, Olivia did as Mourning had told her – set the baskets on the other side of the front hedge, hidden from the house but in plain sight of the nosy neighbors across the street. Olivia thought she should try to conceal them in the bushes. Mourning snorted his disapproval of that idea.
“You Killions got neighbor ladies what see what kind a spiders you got on your porch. Best way to get them ladies interested in something is try and hide it. They ain’t gonna think nothin’ of me picking up some junk in front of your house. All the folks in this town think they doin’ me a giganteous favor, lettin’ me haul away the things they got no use for. Anyways,” he said, “soon enough all them ladies gonna know – Olivia Killion gone and run off. But they ain’t gonna think it was with me, just ’cause I pick up your things. You only done what any of them would. Who else you gonna get to carry for you?”
The next morning Olivia woke early, her mind blank. She felt exhausted, but was no longer tormented by anxiety. Things were either going to go as planned or they weren’t and there was not another thing she could do about it. She didn’t feel excited or scared, only impatient for the time to pass, to be on that stage and on her way out of Five Rocks. She had convinced herself not to worry about being seen. So what if someone saw her? What were they going to do? All Olivia had to do was act natural and make up some relatives she was going to visit. Anyway, Avis and Tobey would know soon enough that she was gone.
When the clock struck five, Olivia got out of bed and crept down to use the outhouse before encumbering herself in the traveling clothes she had set out on the hardback chair. She splashed water on her hands and face before putting on her new Sunday dress of soft dark gray and the black velvet bolero jacket that went over it. To save room in the baskets she had reluctantly encased herself in a corset and stepped into six petticoats. She stood in front of the mirror admiring how grown-up she looked and tucked her hair into a white day cap.
Then she reached under her cumbersome skirts to tie her homemade money belt around her waist, thinking that if men had to flounce around wearing these stupid petticoats, not much would get done in this world. The belt was heavy, but the solid weight of the gold coins was more of a comfort than a burden. Last, she pulled the Hawken rifle from under her bed. It was too long to fit in the baskets, even on the diagonal. She slung it over her shoulder and then arranged her long black cloak around it.
She made the bed, smoothed the pink and white quilted cover, and looked around the room. All the surfaces were clear, except for the pitcher, basin, and hand towel on the dresser. She removed the note she had written from the dresser drawer and placed it on the bed. Then she reconsidered and tucked it under the pillow, not wanting to risk anyone finding it before she was safely on her way.
She picked up her tapestry bag, pulled the bedroom door shut, and tiptoed down the stairs and out the front door. It was still early and she went for one last walk down by the river, where faint rays of sun glinted gold off the placid water. The air was still chilly, but had lost its sting. She felt calm and slightly puzzled by the ease with which she was walking away from her life. She felt no sadness, regret, or sense of impending loss. Nothing but eager for a new beginning. Apparently Mabel Mears was scarier than the Indians, bears, and wolves in Fae’s Landing.
Olivia skipped a few stones over the surface of the river and turned to walk back toward the post office. A stage passed through Five Rocks twice a week. Anyone who wanted to go to Erie stood on the wooden sidewalk near the Brewster house at six-thirty in the morning, though it was likely to be closer to seven before the coach finally arrived.
Mourning was not traveling with her. Mr. Bellinir from the Feed & Grain drove to the port once a month to pick up supplies and Mourning had arranged to ride with him, together with his and Olivia’s belongings.
The stage soon pulled up. Olivia paid the driver, bundled herself into the backwards-facing seat opposite a young couple, and exchanged brief hulloes with them before carefully arranging the rifle, laying her head against the side of the coach, and pretending to be sleepy. As they clop-clopped out of town and over the covered bridge Olivia’s peace of mind abandoned her. At last on her way, she grew damp with sweat. What if Mourning didn’t show up? What if she couldn’t find her way to the steamboat office? What if she was robbed?
She finally managed to doze off and by the end of the six-hour journey had regained her resolve. What was the worst that could happen? She would spend a few nights in a public house, waiting for Mourning. If he didn’t come, she would just have to take the stage back home and think of a new idea.It was a discouraging thought, but no cause for panic. She alighted in Erie and stood on the sidewalk, blinking and beating the dust from her clothes. How did one transport oneself from one place to another in a huge city?
“No one meeting you, Miss?” the driver asked.
She shrugged and shook her head, embarrassed to be all by herself, an object of pity.
“Stage office is right across the street.” He bobbed his nose in that direction. “They got a hotel, not too expensive, two streets over that way. Or you can hire a wagon back there, behind the livery,” he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. He finished removing the harness from the team of horses and led them off before she managed to open her mouth to thank him and ask how to get to the steamship company.
“Excuse me.” She stopped the next man she encountered on the street. He was rough looking, but removed his worn hat and hugged it to his chest while she asked for directions.
“It ain’t far, Miss. Two streets down and one over. Can’t miss it. You going to Detroit, there’s a boat leaving in a few hours – theWindsong.”
She thanked him, smiling. Better to spend another night on the boat than in a public house. She’d heard that in one of those places you were half certain to get robbed the minute you fell asleep.
The tinkle of the bell when she opened the door to the steamship office startled her; it sounded just like the one in Killion’s General. A man in a black cap stood behind a counter selling tickets. On the wall behind him hung an enormous black slate. There it was in white chalk – theS.S. Windsong –departing for Detroit. What a lovely name for a boat.She went back outside to pace the wooden sidewalk and crane her neck for sight of Mourning Free. Her thoughts wandered to home, knowing that by now someone must have found the note she had left, saying she had gone to look for a better paying teaching job than she would find near Five Rocks.
Poor Tobey may have guessed the truth, she thought.If so, part of him feels like he ought to come after me, but another part is arguing that he has no right to interfere in my life.
For once it was a relief to know that when there was any doubt about what he should do rattling around in Tobey’s mind, you could pretty much count on him not to do anything at all. A lifetime passed before Mourning came strolling cheerily up the street, hands in his pockets and whistling.
“And a good morning to you, Miss Olivia.” He grinned and took off his wide-brimmed felt hat. He was wearing his church-going clothes, but they were thick with dust. He had obviously tried to polish his shoes with lard mixed with soot from the cook stove caps. They were a terrible mess, with dirt, leaves, and even an acorn clinging to them.
“Where are our bags?” she asked, thinking he was no good at pretending. She could tell he was just as scared as she was.
“Someone bringin’ ’em real soon.” He looked behind him just as a wagon driven by a young black man turned the corner. “See, right there.”
They waited for the driver to pull up beside them and Olivia saw that her wicker baskets and Mourning’s toolbox, leather case, and carpetbag were safe in the bed of the wagon. She asked the driver if he could wait for them to get tickets and then take them down to the port. He nodded agreeably and put his feet up.
“There’s a boat leaving in about two hours,” she told Mourning. “I’d better go pay our way.”
Mourning followed her inside and they studied the sign over the ticket window that listed prices. First class to Detroit was $18. Steerage was $7.
“What should we get? What do you think steerage is?” she asked in a whisper.
“Don’t know.” Mourning shrugged, giving her an “I thought you so smart and know all them things” look. “I forgot to aks, last time I took a boat to Detroit,” he said.
“Steerage is deck passage,” a white man standing behind them said to Olivia. “It means you spend the entire trip on the deck. Will you and your boy be traveling on theWindsong?”
“Yes, I guess so,” she said.
“That’s her, down there by the pier.” He nodded out the window.
The boat looked enormous, with three towering black chimneys and a forest of wooden masts. It had an upstairs and a downstairs and she could see people standing on both levels. The paddle wheels looked taller than any building she’d ever seen. Stevedores were busy loading luggage, crates, and even animals onto it. A large black stallion shook its head and refused to walk the plank down into the hold until a dockworker drew a big red bandanna out of his pocket and tied it over the horse’s eyes. Olivia gazed at the scene, wondering how she had managed not to notice any of it before, while she was waiting for Mourning.
I have to pay better attention, she thought.This is the beginning of my new life. My real life. I have to stop worrying about nonsense and remember everything.
“She’s a good vessel. A lake boat.” The man showed off his knowledge. “Can’t go through the locks of the Canal with that paddle, so she runs from Buffalo to Detroit. You get yourself a cabin, but your boy will be fine on the deck. This time of year it’s not so cold.”
“How long does it take to get to Detroit?” she asked, though she thought she knew the answer.
“Good two, two and a half days. Longer if they have to repair machinery or stop more than once to take on coal. They usually let you off in Cleveland for a few hours. You’ll take your meals in the dining room, of course, but you best buy your boy some sandwiches before you go aboard. There’s always someone selling sandwiches and coffee to the deck passengers, but they charge more than you’ll pay here and the coffee’s more peas than beans.”
“Thank you.” Olivia tried to turn away, but the man was determined to be friendly and held out a hand as he said his name.
“Mabel Mears,” she responded and offered a weak handshake. “Nice making your acquaintance.” She nodded to the stranger before turning to her “boy.”
“Come outside,” she said, in what even she could hear was a bossy, annoying tone of voice.
“Yes, Miz Mabel, right away.” Mourning gave her a look that could wither weeds and shuffled out to the sidewalk.
“So should I get cabins for both of us?” she asked, her voice just above a whisper.
Part of the business agreement they had reached was that he would eventually repay her for his passage, so that decision was up to him.
“They ’llow coloreds to stay in cabins?” he asked uncertainly, no longer sullen.
“I don’t know. I can ask. All they can do is say no. If they do allow it, do you want to spend the money?”
“I don’t seeyouin no hurry to be freezin’ your backside on the deck of that boat,” he said. “It gotta be cold at night, middle of all that water.”
“Well, Mourning, aren’t you used to things like that?” she said and he glared at her as though she were all the white folks in the world. “Well, aren’t you?” she said helplessly. “Don’t you go giving me that look. It’s not my fault you grew up sleeping in lofts and store rooms. Anyway, I didn’t say I thought youshouldtake deck passage. I asked you if youwantedto. It’s your eleven dollars.”
“Right now look to me it beourdollars. I thought we spose to be partners. You the one said she gonna help plow fields and go wash loggers’ clothes, she has to. You be spendin’ money on bein’ a lady, we ain’t gonna make it ’round to next summer.”
Her jaw fell open when she understood what he was implying – not that he should take a cabin like her, but thatsheshould take deck passage like him. She turned her gaze on the boat. It was a warm afternoon and she tried to convince herself that it might be pleasant, lounging in the sun on the deck, with a nice cool breeze off the lake. But she’d had her own room all her life, never slept on the same side of a wall as family or friend, let alone in public, surrounded by strangers, on a hard wooden deck.
“I don’t know, Mourning. Maybe we’d both better get cabins. Out on that deck someone could steal all our money while we’re sleeping. We wouldn’t get any rest at all, having to watch our things. We’d get to Detroit so tired, we’d be in no shape to buy our supplies and make the trip to Fae’s Landing that same day. We’d end up wasting even more money on hotel rooms in Detroit.”
“Way you got that money tied to you, ain’t no one gonna be stealin’ nothing, ’less you dead first. Anyway, we can take turns sleepin’. You think you gonna have a nice soft bed waitin’ on you in that log cabin? You gonna sleep on good hard Michigan ground. You best be gettin’ used to it. You wanna keep to your plan, you gotta get used to bein’ poor folks. For a time anyway.”
She stared out at the late afternoon sun on the lake and took a deep breath. He had a point. And spending two days on the deck of a steamboat could be her first adventure. Sitting all alone in a cabin would be boring. She’d never thought of it that way, but Mourning was right. By embarking on this journey she had volunteered to live like poor folks. She’d better get used to doing without, making do. But what clinched her decision to sleep on the deck was her desire to wipe the smirk from Mourning’s face.
I’ll show him. I’m not as spoiled as he tries to make me out to be. Anyway, I’ll feel safer with Mourning nearby than I would alone in a cabin.
“All right. We’ll both take steerage. I can sleep on a deck every bit as well as you.”
She went in to book their passage and then handed her tapestry bag to Mourning, together with his ticket. “You get our cases on board,” she said. “I’ll go buy food for the trip. The ticket agent said the boat will be stopping in Cleveland, so I’ll buy enough for just the first day.”
“Wait.” He went to the wagon and opened his bag. Take these.” He handed her two buckskin pouches. “Ask the folks in the store to fill them.”
“Of course, I was just about to ask for them,” she lied, angry with herself for having forgotten about water.
“How we gonna find each other on that boat?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” It seemed to have doubled in size during the course of their conversation. “You pick what you think is a good place – with any kind of privacy or protection from the wind – and wait for me to find you.”
She walked a few blocks to a general store and bought bread, butter, a small pot of jam, a few slices of cheese, some salt beef, four hard-boiled eggs, four apples, and two pears. She saw a pump handle out back and received permission to fill the skins from it. It made a heavy load and she trudged down to the wharf. She took tiny steps over the gangplank to the lower deck, handed her ticket to a man in a black jacket and cap, and stepped aboard theWindsong.
Shoulders aching, she set her burdens down and looked around. There were all manner of people on the boat. Many looked prosperous – men in suits and top hats and women in flowered prints and bonnets – but more were poor folk in suspenders and ragged homespun. She frowned, not seeing any black faces. Flocks of seagulls cawed overhead and one of them perched on the rail next to her. She had never seen one before and stared into its cold black eyes, thinking it reminded her of a snake. Then she breathed in the fishy smell of the lake and turned to look at Erie, strung out along the shore.Just look at that city, she thought.And the lake. You can’t even see the other side!
She retrieved her bundles and worked her way through crowds of people. It didn’t take long to spot Mourning, standing near the back of the boat, in what she had to agree looked like a cozy spot. The upper deck provided a roof and the support beams formed a corner in which he had piled their belongings, defining a small space that was sheltered on two sides from the wind and the spray off the lake. There was only one problem.
“Here you are.” She set everything down and smiled uneasily in the direction of the other passengers. Mourning removed his hat and grinned at her while she slid the long rifle under one of the baskets.
She leaned over and whispered in his ear. “Everyone back here is colored.” Ten or twelve negroes were busy arranging their belongings in that part of the boat. A few tossed curious glances her way, but most were paying her no mind.
He made a great show of looking surprised. “My goodness, Miz Olivia, you right. My, my, my.”
“I don’t know if I can stay here,” she whispered. “I mean … maybe … I might not be allowed.”
He rubbed his chin. “Well, if you was to aks real nice … apologize for not knowin’ your rightful place –”
“You know what I mean. Maybe the white …” She gave up, stood straight-backed, and turned toward him wearing the nastiest look she could muster. Then she leaned over again. “You know, Mourning Free, your natural self is ornery enough. There’s no need for all this extra effort. I didn’t make the world the way it is and I didn’t make your skin black. I’m just trying to get along, same as you. I suppose I’d rather have been born a man, just like you’d rather have been born white –”
“Ain’t never said I rather be white.” He shook his head. “Ain’t never said that.”
“Just stop being so … so … the way you’re being. We’re going to have enough problems not of our own making. It isn’t any easier for me traveling with you than it is for you traveling with me.”
He pursed his lips, looking contrite. “Guess you right ’bout that. This be the only part of the boat they ’llow coloreds, probably cause it be so noisy, right over the engine. But that make it the warmest place, too,” he said cheerfully. “Maybe you got to stay in the white part.”
She looked around, terrified at the idea of sleeping on the deck all alone. “Well, is there some kind of line, between the white part and the colored part? So I could be on the white side of it and you on the colored?”
“Dunno. Man just told me to come back here.”
“Well, we’ve got to stay together so we can take turns watching our things. But there’s no need to call attention to ourselves. I’ll go walk around the white part until it gets dark and then put my hood up before I come back here. You keep a space for me.”
“But first, let’s go over there by the rail and have something to eat. They didn’t say you can’t walk there, did they? I’m near on starving to death. Here’s what I bought.” She handed the bags of food over for his inspection.
“All that for one day?” He made a show of collapsing under the weight of the bags. “Good thing you dint buy for a week. Sink this ship down to the bottom of the lake.”
They stood on either side of a tall wooden crate that stood by the rail and used it for a table. Olivia tore chunks of bread from a loaf, slapped slices of cheese onto them, and they ate hungrily. Then she looked up and saw two white women approaching them; one of them nudged her friend and nodded at Mourning. Olivia kept her chin high, stared straight at her, and gave her a sweet smile; she was surprised at how quickly the woman looked away.
Now there’s a lesson for my new life, she thought.Being bold may not always help, but it never seems to hurt.
Soon there was a lot of noise and hustle. Steam was up, the engine chugged, sailors hauled in ropes, and the boat pulled away from the pier with a series of great whooshes. They leaned over the railing and broke into wide smiles.
“Here we go, partner.” She held her hand out to him.
He hesitated for a long moment before clasping it in his and repeating, “Partner.”
Olivia’s stare lingered on their clasped hands for a moment; Mourning’s was so dark, hers so pale. She must have touched him before, but she couldn’t remember when. His skin felt so much warmer than hers and she couldn’t stop staring at the physical difference that separated them.
She’d grown up around Quakers and abolitionists and occasionally slipped into the Quakers’ Meeting House on Sunday mornings. It was a stark, empty room with wooden benches arranged in a square, facing one another. Whoever wished to speak stood up and did so. Most of what they said made sense to her, especially when they talked about the “colored situation.” Even – or perhaps especially – as a child she had understood how appalling it was for one human being to be able to buy and sell another. For her it was pure instinct and not based on a religious belief that all human beings were God’s children. Olivia had yet to make up her mind on that score – whether there was such a thing as God. Her father had said all religions were a tub of eyewash. All that Christian mumbo-jumbo was nothing but a trick, so people wouldn’t mind dying.
With Mourning for a friend, she knew how ridiculous it was to believe that skin color had anything to do with intelligence or integrity. She thought more highly of Mourning Free than she did of anyone else in town, with the possible exception of Mr. Carmichael. So when people talked about negroes being simple-minded, lazy, and child-like, she silently rolled her eyes. But there was one thing she couldn’t argue with – colored people sure did look different. She suddenly noticed Mourning watching the way she was staring at their hands and pulled hers away.
“It ain’t gonna rub off,” he said with a sneer.
“I wasn’t worried it would and you can please stop looking at me like that.”
“You think you different from other white folks, but you ain’t. You all the same. Think the world belong just to you.”
She turned to look him in the face. “I don’t think I’m better than you and I don’t think I’ve ever acted like I do.” She had begun speaking angrily, but her voice grew softer. “You’ve got to admit, though, we sure do look different.” She put her hand back on the rail next to his, their forearms touching. “Just look at that.”
His face relented into a grin.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” she ventured, cringing in anticipation of an angry response. “I can understand why the first white men who set foot in Africa thought those natives must be something way different from them.”
“It ain’t but skin.”
“Well, I know that. But just imagine a person who’d never seen black skin or hair like yours before. It sure would seem strange. What if we get off this boat in Michigan and everyone we see is covered with a coat of fur, like a dog, or bark, like a tree? You’ve got to admit, that would take some getting used to. And I bet those first white folks looked just as strange to the Africans that sawthem. Maybe those natives would have treated the whites just as badly, if they’d been the ones holding the guns.”
Mourning stared out at the shoreline, his face relaxed and expressionless.
“But there’s one thing I won’t argue with.” She lightly nudged his elbow with hers and he glanced over at her. “White folks have sure had enough time to get used to the way colored people look. You’d think by now they’d have stopped saying all the stupid things they do.”
They stood together, silently watching Erie grow smaller. The sun was still warm, but the breeze off the lake was cool on their faces. The boat didn’t go far out, so the wild green shoreline remained in sight. They were still standing at the rail when the sun set over the water ahead of them. They stood on their tiptoes and stuck their heads out to admire its last blaze of color. Then they both slid down to sit on the deck, backs against the side of the ship.
“You look like a flower growin’ out a one of them lily pads,” Mourning said, nodding at the way Olivia’s skirts billowed around her torso.
“A wilted one. And starving again. Can you reach the food?” she asked
Mourning took out his knife to slice the crusty bread and stopped making fun of her for having bought two whole loaves. They were both famished. He drank from one of the skins of water and passed it to her. Olivia was conscious of waiting until she thought none of the white passengers milling around the deck were looking before she lifted it to her lips to drink.
No reason to antagonize people, she thought, still harboring a fear of being ordered into the white section.
Apart from that worry she felt relaxed and at peace, sitting next to Mourning and sharing a meal. Part of her regretted that the trip would take only two days. It was a luxury to be nowhere, no one around who knew her, with nothing to do but stretch her muscles and listen to the sounds of the lake and the steady chug of the engine beneath them.
Then she saw the two snooty white women marching toward her, this time with a man in tow. He freed his arms from their grasp, removed his hat, and bent down to speak to Olivia.
“Is this nigger bothering you, Miss?” he asked.
“No, everything is just fine,” she replied with a smile. “He’s just serving me my evening meal, but I appreciate your concern.”
“Are you sure?” He glanced nervously at the women on either side of him.
They went away, the women looking back over their shoulders and muttering something about white trash. Mourning said nothing; he stared at the toe of his shoe, his face a slab of stone.
“I suppose you think I should have said something more to them,” she said.
He maintained his silence.
“People like that are a waste of breath. What would an argument accomplish, besides making a scene? I’m trying my best not to draw attention to us. I don’t want one of those guys in the black caps coming to tell me that this section is for coloreds and I have to go over there.” She nodded in the direction in which the two women and their male companion had disappeared. “I’d be too scared without you.”
He turned toward her and shrugged, but she interpreted it as a friendly shrug.
“I’m not a fighter, Mourning. I’ve never wanted to change the world. All I want is to make my own little piece of it as nice as I can. We’ll both have a lot more trouble doing that if all the white folks we meet get it into their heads that we’re way too friendly for their liking. We’re going to need good relations with our neighbors and if telling them you’re my hired man – and me bossing you like you are – will keep them from getting all rankled, well so what? It’s none of their business anyway. And once you’ve gotten to know the colored folks in that Backwoods place and you’ve got your own land –”
“I know.” He interrupted her. “I ain’t gonna make no argument with you ’bout none a that. Just seem like they need to be a whole lot a people makin’ a whole lot a scenes ’fore anything gonna change.”
“I’m sure you’re right about that.” She pressed her aching back against the side of the boat. “But there’s more than one way to prove a point. I could go off and march around with those suffragist ladies, shouting and carrying on about how women don’t need men taking care of them. Or I can just go ahead and do a good job of taking care of myself. You having your own land and being a better farmer than all the white folks will say a lot more about how smart and hard-working negroes are than a bunch of yelling would.”
Once the sun had disappeared, the air turned cold. Before they settled in for the night Olivia took a leisurely walk around the deck, then pulled the hood of her cloak up and tried to stay in shadows as she made her way back to the colored section. She and Mourning put on their winter coats, hats, and gloves, and balled up some of their other clothing to pillow their heads. Then they stretched out head-to-toe, keeping a proper distance, with the water pouches, bag of food, and Mourning’s tool case and bag between them.
They could hear other passengers being sick over the rail, but the gentle motion of the boat seemed to agree with both of them. Neither of them felt like talking and Olivia enjoyed silently watching the stars light up the strip of sky that was visible between the rail and the roof. She began eavesdropping on one of the colored couples behind them.
“I don’t know how I let you bring us on this perilous, perilous journey,” the woman, who was dreadfully seasick, was saying. “I’m a die right here on this cursed boat and that be for the best. Might as well meet my maker here, with my children gathered round me, escape the dangers and tribulations of that wilderness you dragging us to.”
Olivia smiled, thinking,she doesn’t mean a word of it. You can hear it in her voice. It’s just their way. Olivia turned her head a bit; one look at the couple confirmed that opinion. The woman’s head rested on her husband’s chest. He was smiling over the top of it as he held her close, stroking her hair and softly repeating that everything was going to be all right.
It’s a sort of playacting, Olivia decided.She gets to say out loud all the things she’s afraid of and the more she complains, the more he gets to show how patient he is and how much he loves her.
Finally the man spoke. “You know I’m gonna build you a great big house in the woods,” he said. “Under the tallest chestnut tree you ever seen. You ain’t never gonna do for no one else again. They gonna be a pump right inside the house and you gonna hang them curtains you been saving.”
Olivia turned to peek at them again, feeling terribly alone. She couldn’t help being jealous of that woman.Maybe it isn’t so awful to have a man who wants to take care of you, she thought,even if he does think that gives him the right to boss you now and then. I wouldn’t mind having someone hold me like that, make me feel safe. Not if he was a kind and gentle man like that one.She wondered if Avis ever spoke that way with Mabel. She couldn’t imagine it, but Mrs. Hardaway always said, “No one on the outside ever knows nothing about what goes on between a man and a woman.”
Olivia drifted off to sleep, imagining strong arms around her and a soft voice murmuring in her ear. She was startled awake by a colored boy leaning over her, reaching for their bag of food.
“What do you think you’re doing?” She batted her arms and he disappeared into the shadows.
Mourning sat up and she told him what had happened. They groped around in the dark, taking count of their belongings. Nothing seemed to be missing. Mourning found some twine in his toolbox and tied each piece of their luggage to one of their limbs. Olivia sat hugging her knees, looking miserable.
“You don’t gotta be afeared,” Mourning said. “It was only a kid.”
“I’m not scared,” she said. “I just … I think maybe I hit him. I mean, I woke up and there he was –”
“So you feelin’ bad?” He shook his head in disbelief. “You wanna feel sorry ’bout something, feel sorry you dint hit him harder. Little thief.”
“But he was just a little boy trying to take some food. What if he’s all alone on this boat and hungry?”
“So he coulda aksed. If he aksed, you woulda gave him some food, right?”
“Well, of course.”
“So what he gotta go stealin’ for?”
After they were settled back down she lowered her voice to a whisper and asked if he had heard the couple behind them talking.
“Uh-huh,” he said.
“He’s so nice – the way he talked to his wife. I can’t imagine my father ever talking to my mother like that.”
“Old Seborn loved your mamma plenty, don’t be worryin’ ’bout that. I never seen no man cry like him, day he found her.”
“What do you mean, ‘found her?’ Found her where?” she asked, suddenly shivering with cold.
The air between them seemed to have grown thick.
“Found her where?”
“We gotta get some sleep,” he said and turned over.
Olivia would have shaken his shoulder, demanding he tell her, but knew it wouldn’t do any good. When Mourning decided to be stubborn, he was good and stubborn.
Never mind, Mourning Free, she thought.I’m going to have all the time in the world to find out what you meant. I’ll pry it out of you with a crowbar if I have to.
The ship’s dressing bell roused Olivia at 4:30 the next morning. She shivered with the damp, untangled herself from the twine and tried to stretch the stiffness from her limbs without disturbing Mourning. He was still asleep, his hat covering his face. She couldn’t imagine how she must look and was glad that her mirror was buried in one of the baskets. She ran her fingers through her hair, but didn’t bother with her day cap. It was still dark and, anyway, none of these people were ever going to see her again.
When they were planning the trip Mourning had presented her with a homemade leather purse on a belt and said, “You gotta be able to get at some money without havin’ to lift up all them skirts and whatever else you got under there.” Now she squeezed the soft skin, feeling the coins and assuring herself that no one had robbed her during the night. Then she stood and lifted her arms over her head for a real stretch.
Further up the deck a straggly young man was selling tin cups of coffee out of a battered pot. Olivia smiled, pleased for Mourning to be proven so clever about keeping a small amount of money accessible. He stirred and Olivia turned her back to him, trying to grant him some privacy. She heard him sit up and waited for him to speak before turning around to wish him a good morning.
“I’m going to get a cup of coffee,” she said. “Are you ready for one?”
“Guess so.” He leaned forward and began untying himself from the baggage.
Olivia soon returned with the coffee and perched on his tool case. They sat in comfortable silence, sipping the hot bitter liquid.
She knew it was a mistake to ask again so soon, but couldn’t help herself. “What did you mean last night?” she asked. “What you said about my father finding my mother?”
“Don’t know what you talkin’ ’bout.” He shook his head and gazed out at the lake.
Why was he lying? “You said something about the way he cried when he found her.”
“I been real tired last night. Don’t know what I said. Listen, if you be needin’ the privy, go straight ahead. But I gotta go soon.”
“That’s all right,” she said, blushing. “You go first.”
She finished her coffee and tried to smooth her wrinkled clothing and re-comb her hair with her fingers. Then she sat thinking. He must have been referring to the day Seborn found Nola June dead in her bed. Olivia frowned as she calculated. Her mother had died in February 1829 when Olivia was not yet six. Mourning was no more than three years older than her. What on earth would Mourning Free have been doing in the upstairs of their house when he was eight or nine years old? Maybe he’d been bringing in firewood and ran upstairs when he heard a commotion? She shook her head. He would never do that. He wouldn’t step up onto the porch of a house belonging to white folks, without being told to do so.
Mourning returned and it was her turn to use the privy. There was one for men and one for women. Five-holers, so there was no privacy. When she returned they stood by the rail and poured water from a pouch over one another’s hands.
Then they took turns strolling about the deck. The sky was clear and she knew the air would warm up, once the sun made its appearance. The man in the black cap and jacket who had taken Olivia’s ticket when she boarded tipped his cap to her.
“Morning to you, Miss. See you’ve gotten your sea legs just fine,” he said.
“It’s lovely out here on the water,” she smiled, knowing it was ridiculous to feel as proud as she did for not being seasick.
“Not always. You’re having grand luck with the weather. Last trip I thought sure we was going under. Had to pull into a cove on an island right afore Cleveland. Three days we sat there shivering, hiding from that storm . . .” He went into great detail about the height of the waves and the child who was almost washed overboard, using his hands to illustrate the way the bow of the boat had bobbed forward, as if it were about to dive for the bottom.
When Olivia managed to extricate herself and resumed her stroll, she set her mind on taking in every detail of the enormous steamboat. It was quite a sight. An area of the lower deck had been roped off to serve as a pigpen and a few skinny dogs stood around it yapping. She wondered what made those pigs worth transporting all the way to Michigan. Were there no pigs to be had in Detroit? They were making their usual pig stink, so she didn’t stay to wonder for long.
Everyone on the boat seemed to have something to say to anyone willing to listen, each one more expert than the next about Michigan, farming, boats, and the weather. Many of the passengers were ruddy-faced, blonde-haired people whose language made them sound like they were constantly clearing their throat.
Olivia paused to watch two majestic bay horses in their roped off stalls, wishing she had an apple in her pocket. They were beautiful animals, but jittery. Neither of them seemed to have their sea legs. She stroked both of their necks and then, feeling hungry, wandered back to where Mourning was waiting. He had already laid out another grand meal. She went to buy a second cup of coffee for each of them, sat down, and put her face up to the early morning sun, content.
She had expected to come off this boat with exciting tales for her grandchildren – storms, broken-down engines, exploding boilers, fires, or at least a threatening sandbar. But so far it seemed that their trip would be relentlessly uneventful. Later that afternoon the boat docked in Cleveland. They had only an hour to go ashore and buy more food.
Mourning became friendly with the other colored passengers and spent most of the trip exchanging information with them. Though some intended to continue farther west, most were headed for small towns in Michigan. Olivia heard someone mention a nice black community in Backwoods and nodded to Mourning as if to say, “Didn’t I tell you so?”
She avoided engaging the white passengers in conversation. Mostly she sat on Mourning’s tool case, with a volume of Elizabeth Barrett Browning for company. While they were sharing their evening meal, she once again tried to get Mourning to tell her what he knew about her mother, but he looked so uncomfortable that she let it go.
Once we’re settled I’ll just have to find a bee tree, she thought.Make a big batch of Mammo Killion’s honey wine. That stuff gets anyone talking.
On the third morning the passengers began stirring before dawn. Olivia heard someone say they’d be reaching the mouth of the Detroit River in a few hours. By the time Olivia and Mourning had stretched their aching limbs and finished their breakfast, the lake ahead of them had begun to narrow and passengers crowded the rails. Olivia and Mourning managed to squeeze among them – on what she by now knew to call the port side of the boat – and marvel at the shoreline. It was dense with orange and red flowered shrubs of a kind Olivia had never seen.
“That be Canada over to starboard,” the colored man standing next to them said.
Olivia stood on her tiptoes and looked behind her, saying, “A whole foreign country, right there! You could throw a stone at it.”
“I hear in Detroit they got a ferry, take you over to Windsor,” the colored man said. Then he laced his fingers together over the small mound of his belly, looking pleased with himself. “Now let me aks you folks a question. About geogurphy. If a person be going straight south from Detroit, what be the first foreign country he gonna run into?”
“Mexico?” Olivia ventured.
“Nope,” said the man. “You wanna guess?” He turned to Mourning.
“Argentina? Ain’t that a country down there?”
“Indeed, but that ain’t the one he gonna come to. No sir. You go south from Detroit, first foreign country you gonna run into is Canada. Fella showed me on a map.” He slapped Mourning on the back and moved away to ask another passenger the same question.
Olivia turned back to the rail and nudged Mourning, saying, “Just look at that,” as she nodded at the cluster of islands ahead. “I can’t believe how pretty it is here.”
The islands were all densely vegetated and they could see a tangle of wild grape vines around the fruit trees. So Uncle Scruggs hadn’t been fooling about his paradise. She looked behind her again and saw that there were more islands near the Canadian bank, which also had four windmills strung along it, their white sails tautly swollen.
“Oh, aren’t they just the most beautiful things?” she said and then turned back to the American side. “Oh look, there’s one over there too.”
“Captain fixin’ to turn to the right,” Mourning said. “Gonna go ’round that big island up there.” She looked ahead and saw the lush island he was nodding at, the east bank of which was a shallow shoal littered with boulders. Mourning continued, “It called Grosse Ile. That mean Big Island in French. Shipping channel go between it and Canada.”
“How do you know that?”
“Been talkin’ with a fella what lives here. He say everything growin’ on that Big Island be wild. Ain’t no farmer planted none of it. But look at it, all in straight rows, just like God laid out an orchard. When we get ’bout past it, you gonna see a couple a real small islands. One a them be called Mammy Judy, after an Indian squaw what used to go there to fish. Past it be another one called Fighting Island, ’ccount a the Indians used to make their camp on it, fight the British ships goin’ by.”
Mourning was obviously proud of knowing so many things about Michigan that Olivia didn’t. Olivia smiled back at him, wishing she could squeeze his hand.
“Thank you for coming with me, Mourning,” she said softly. “I’m really glad you did. I know we can do this together.”
He kept his smile on and nodded. He said nothing, but she thought his eyes shone with a far stronger light of hope and anticipation than even she felt.
The black woman who had been so seasick stood at the rail next to Olivia. Her husband was close behind her, his arms around her, and Olivia again felt a pang of loneliness as she wondered,What is it about that woman that makes him feel like that? By watching her can I learn how to make someone love me?
When they neared the northern tip of Fighting Island the ship slowed to veer around a sharp bend to the right and Olivia’s mouth fell open. She counted five small steam-driven boats, all festooned with colorful banners. She could read the writing on the one that was coming towards them –Excursions to Hog Island, Picnic Lunch Included. Farther up the river were schooners of different sizes, sails taut in the wind, flying under brightly colored flags and coats of arms. Rafts, barges, and fishing boats bobbed among them, as did dug-out canoes, with and without sails.
“You’d think they’d all be crashing into one another,” she said in a whisper. “Isn’t it beautiful? So romantic. Especially those sailboats. It looks like they’re having a party, dancing around each other on the water.”
“Water by the port been just as crowded in Erie. Cleveland too,” Mourning said, sounding a bit puzzled. “Had plenty a sails too. You ain’t said nothing ’bout them being so beautiful.”
“I guess I wasn’t paying much attention. Or here the river makes it so much more … I don’t know.” She stopped and stared, unable to say out loud what she was feeling – that this was the place she was meant to be. She felt ridiculous even thinking it.
When she glanced up at Mourning his smile had grown wider. Again she wished she could touch him, just in a friendly manner. This was a moment she wanted to share.
“Maybe you like it so much cause this gonna beourcity,” he said. “We gonna come here a lot.”
“Yes, that’s right. It’s not far from here to the farm.”
“See that marsh over there.” Mourning pointed to the shoreline. “That really a river. River Rouge. We gonna be comin’ on Detroit now, lickety-split.”
They passed a grimy cluster of grist mills, saw mills, tanneries, and small factories, but when Olivia looked past those, the city in the distance was beautiful. A pair of spires towered through the tree tops and a tin cupola glinted in the sun. When they drew near the railroad yard Olivia’s jaw dropped again.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” she whispered. “Just look at it.”
Wharves well over 100 feet long jutted into the water and armies of stevedores were unloading the cargo ships at the docks into an endless row of warehouses. Between the warehouses Olivia glimpsed several sets of tracks and beyond them was a city of tall silos, mile-high stacks of crates, piles of lumber, and vats of oil.
“I never imagined anything like this,” she said. “This is so … so much.”
She blinked as a lilting voice called out. “Bonjour! Bienvenue!” Olivia looked down and saw an enormous canoe, crammed with ten or twelve pairs of oarsmen. None of their colorful shirts matched, but their headwear was identical – bright red caps with long pointed tops that folded over and ended in a tassel, like a sleeping cap or the hat of an elf in a children’s book of fairy tales. Every inch of space between them was piled high with huge bundles of furs.
“They must be some a them French voyageurs I heard about,” Mourning said. “Take the trappers out and bring their furs back. This Michigan got rivers what take you just about anywhere.”
As the canoe passed within a few yards of the ship, the man standing in the bow grinned up at Olivia, tore his hat off, clutched it to his heart, and called out, “Quelle jolie fille . . . une vraie beaute. J’ai le coeur qui flanche ma belle.”
Olivia blushed, not knowing enough French to understand what he was saying, but enough to think it was something sappy. As they whooshed past, the man turned and sang, “Il y a lontemps que je t’aime, jamais je ne t’oublierai . . .”
The other men in the canoe laughed and loudly joined in the song. A few lowered their paddles and turned back toward the steamboat, smiling, waving, and calling welcomes until they were out of sight.
“Guess you been right ’bout romantic,” Mourning teased. “That fella like you pretty good.”
“My troubles are over. Love has found me.”
Soon the busy port came into sight and the man in the black cap walked past, announcing that they were ready to dock. Olivia wasn’t happy to have arrived. The cold hard deck had become familiar and she was terrified of plunging into those crowds of people down on the docks. All those statistics she’d read to Mourning, attesting to Detroit’s burgeoning population, had been only numbers on a page; she’d still expected to arrive at a frontier town – hovels of sticks and wattle, a cluster of log cabins, maybe a few homes built of fieldstone – not this enormous city strung along the shore.
Neither did Mourning seem anxious to disembark. They remained at the rail while the boat emptied around them. The wharves were a madhouse, the road behind them clogged with large wagons and dozens of funny one-horse buggies, most of them with only two wheels. These makeshift vehicles had a place for only the driver to sit; one or two passengers perched on a small ramp behind him, clutching the back of the seat.
“Well,” Olivia said at last, “I guess if we’re going to buy a wagon … Mourning, look at that! There’s an Indian down there.” She pointed at a man with long black hair adorned with feathers.
“They won’t do you no harm, Miss.” The man in the black cap spoke from behind her. “They been living here forever. Started with the French letting ’em put up their village outside the old fort. Heard one of ’em bought one of the old French ribbon farms.”
Olivia chatted with him for a short while and then turned to Mourning. “Should I stay here and watch our things while you go look for a wagon? Or do you want me to come with you?”
He looked down at the crowds on the wharf. “Can’t see what help you gonna be to me.”
The deck around them was empty. Mourning had made a stack of his tool box and her wicker baskets and Olivia squatted behind it to reach under her skirts for money. She stealthily pressed the coins into Mourning’s palm, afraid of anyone seeing a flash of gold before he slipped them into his pockets.
“How much you give me?” he whispered.
“A hundred and fifty dollars.”
They had agreed that he would try to get a team for $80, but go as high as $100, and try to get a wagon for $30, but go as high as $45. He slung one of the water pouches over his shoulder and turned to leave.
“Don’t you want to eat something before you go?”
“Ain’t hungry,” he said and plopped his wide-brimmed felt hat onto his head.
“At least take some fruit.”
She bent down for two apples and two pears, which he shoved into his pockets. Then she watched him tromp down the gangplank, praying he wouldn’t be abducted or robbed the moment his feet hit the road. He didn’t look back and was soon swallowed up in the general chaos. Olivia leaned against the rail, prepared for a long wait and trying not to fret about the disasters that might befall Mourning. The man in the black jacket came near again and she asked him some questions about the city.
“Tell ya, Miss, I ain’t all that familiar with the business establishments. Know my way to the United States Hotel and the tavern right near it and that’s about all I got need of. But I can tell you where the main streets are at. The one you see right there, running along the river, that’s Atwater. Next street up is Jefferson Avenue. They probably got them kind of stores you’re looking for on them.”
“It looks like a real city,” she said, disappointed to find Detroit so civilized. She had never seen so many brick buildings and even spotted a red and white striped barber’s pole.
“Oh yeah, Michigan got settled real quick, once they opened up that Erie Canal. Half of New York and New England came pouring out here. Not to mention all them folks what don’t even speak English. Couldn’t put enough boats in the water. I hear they even got a new university some ways west of here. And farther past that they’re building a state prison. Now there’s a sure sign that civilization has arrived.”
Mourning wasn’t gone nearly as long as she’d expected. She was looking idly over the rail and there he was, halfway up the gangplank, waving his hat and hollering.
“Come on down here,” he called.
“Okay, I’m coming. Just a minute.”
Feeling disoriented and afraid, she hurriedly checked that the fastenings were clamped tight on her baskets and Mourning’s tool case. The man in the black jacket was standing near the gangplank and she asked him to keep an eye on their things.
“Come on, come on.” Mourning proudly led her ashore. A wagon and a team of oxen, one black and one an orange-brown color, stood near the gangplank. “Meet Dixby and Dougan.”
Olivia smiled. Mourning had named the animals after Five Rocks’ Congregational and Episcopalian ministers, whom he’d always said were the most miserly of the people he worked for.
“Which one is this?” She patted the black one on his warm broad nose and received a friendly nod of his head.
“That be Dixby.”
“Well, hullo Dixby,” she said. As she walked around to survey the wagon, she let her hand run over Dougan’s orange flank, so he wouldn’t feel neglected. “How’d you get them so fast?”
“I go in the first grain store I pass and right there be this desperate fellow, downright beggin’ the owner to take ’em off his hands. Both the wagon and the team. But that storeowner, he don’t want ’em. Say he just bought a team and wagon off someone else goin’ back east.”
“Maybe there’s something wrong with them,” she said as she walked around again.
“No, they ain’t no nothing wrong. I checked ’em over. Them animals healthy and the wagon be in fine shape. Brakes even got skid shoes,” he said. The irritation in his voice made her feel bad for not having shown more appreciation.
She gave him a smile, pranced around the wagon, and climbed up onto it. “Oh Mourning, it’s wonderful. Just look at this nice red cushion on the seat. It’s perfect. Where’d all that stuff come from?” In the wagon bed behind her were sacks of feed and seed, some iron tools, a large washtub, and some pots and pans.
“The feed and washtub come with the wagon. Rest I bought with part a the money what was left.”
“You had that much left over? What did you pay for the wagon?”
“Ninety dollars. Not for the wagon. For the wagonandthe team.”
“Only ninety dollars! Mourning, you’re a genius! You see! A lucky beginning like this is a sure sign that everything’s going to be all right!” Then she lowered her voice and asked, “Did you have any problems?”
“That white man took them gold coins out a my colored hand just fine.”
“See! Didn’t I tell you Michigan is a grand place?”
She silently thanked God for Mourning, imagining how awful it would have been to arrive here alone. How on earth would she have found some stranger to hire? Even if she did, anyone but Mourning could have walked off with her money and disappeared. Or claimed to have paid much more for the wagon and pocketed the difference.
“Well, let’s get going.” Olivia’s energy returned and she hurried back up the gangplank to help Mourning haul their things down. On their last trip back to the wagon she stopped to thank the man in the black jacket and impulsively planted a kiss on his cheek. “I’m going to have my own farm,” she informed him, beaming proudly.
“Better you than me,” he called after her with a grin.
“I already been in a few stores,” Mourning said, after they finished loading their cases onto the wagon. “I seen a big difference in prices, so we gotta go ’round a few times. I been in four different stores ’fore I bought that stuff.” He nodded at the back of the wagon.
So that was how they spent a long and tedious day. Atwater was the only street that had been paved with stone, so they were glad for the red cushion on the seat. A few streets were strewn with a haphazard covering of thin rounds of cedar, but when Olivia commented to one of the storekeepers on how pretty they were, he spat into a barrel and said. “Them dang things ain’t no use at all. Make it bumpier when it’s dry and first good rain, they up and float away.”
Between checking their purchases against their lists, keeping track of the different prices as they went from store to store, and fretting about the trip ahead of them and how on earth they were going to find one tiny little cabin in all those woods out there, the day passed in a blur. They had a few arguments, as when Olivia emerged from a store and called Mourning in to carry two mattresses out to the wagon. He looked at her as if she’d gone loony.
“Mattresses! We don’t got to be buyin’ no mattresses. We get some canvas, sew it over double, fill it with hay.”
“Really? Exactly where do you think you’re going to get hay out there?” She could tell from the look on his face that he hadn’t thought of that. They both found it hard to fully comprehend – they were headed for a new home where one had to assume there wasnothing. None of the things a person normally takes for granted.
“So we use grass or weeds. Leaves maybe.”
“Look, I know you think I’m a spoiled child, but we won’t be able to work very hard if we can’t get a good night’s sleep. I don’t think two store-bought mattresses are such a great extravagance.”
“Your money.” He shrugged and followed her in to get them. He made no comment when she added two comforters to their purchases. She chose faded used ones and tried to hold her head at an angle that dared him to object, though she didn’t see how he could. What would he suggest, that they bury themselves in leaves to keep warm? Or cuddle up between Dixby and Dougan?
When she came out of another store carrying a new broom with neatly trimmed bristles, he shook his head. “You know how long it take me to make you a splint broom? ’Bout five minutes. Know how much it cost? ’Bout nothing.” Olivia raised her index finger to her pursed lips and tossed the broom into the back of the wagon.
When they were done shopping they sat on the wagon seat, gnawing on bread and jerky and no longer irritable. Olivia watched the people who passed them in the street. To her disappointment none of them looked like gunslingers or bank robbers. Apart from a pair of rough-looking, fur-bearing trappers, they looked far too much like the law-abiding, church-going folks of Five Rocks. They encountered no more Indians that day, though she was pleased to see a number of black faces.
“We best get going,” Mourning said, wiping his hands on his pants. “Fella in the store said we gotta turn onto that big wide street where we seen that building with the silver dome and go till we come to a square what got some grass on it. That where we gotta turn left onto the Chicago Road. He dint remember if it got a sign on it or not and if it got one, it might not say Chicago. It might say the new name – Michigan Avenue. You got your map from your uncle’s will?”
“Yes.” Olivia leaned over the back of the seat to lift the lid of one of her wicker baskets and remove her precious envelope. “Yes, here it is, the Chicago Road, right here.” She held it out to Mourning with her finger on it. “So we’re all right? You know the way?”
He nodded. “We be all right. Don’t matter none if we get lost no how. ’Mount a shopping you done, we could survive in the woods for a year or two. Feed a lot a the forest critters too.”
“Are you ever going to stop griping about me buying that loaf of sugar? I’ll be glad to fix your coffee bitter if you want.”
Their bickering was good-natured. Everything was going well. There was only one thing left to do. Follow Uncle Scruggs’ map.
Before they turned onto the Chicago Road, Olivia put her hand on Mourning’s forearm. “Look at that, Mourning.” She pointed at a three-story building of yellow brick. “Detroit Female Seminary,” she read the sign. “That whole big building, just for girls. Maybe after we get rich I can go to school here.”
“That ain’t all they got in Detroit.” He grinned. “This morning I been in the Black Second Baptist church. Whole congregation of coloreds, part freed slaves, part people what was born free. They got a school in there too. Haw Dixby, Haw Dougan,” he commanded the team and turned onto the Chicago road. “You been right ’bout this city, Livia. They got colored dock workers and servants and all, like you gonna expect, but they also got a colored barber and I seen white customers sittin’ in his chairs. They got coloreds what owns all kinds a stores and white folks goin’ in and buyin’ from ’em, like that ain’t no thing. Even got a colored saloon where white folks go to gamble.”
Olivia smiled. “So I guess you’re going to feel comfortable here.”
“That ain’t all. They got a colored doctor what treats white people and a colored man what bought hisself a steamship. Hadda hire hisself a white captain, cause they don’t wanna give him a license, but it still be his boat.”
Olivia kept a smile on her face, though she knew there were plenty of white people in Detroit – even abolitionists – who didn’t like having negroes around. While waiting for Mourning to come out of one of the stores, she had picked up someone’s discarded newspaper. An article on the front page called free colored people the “unwanted debris of an unfortunate and undesirable institution.” It said even Thomas Jefferson had advocated shipping all the coloreds away, to Haiti or Liberia. Jefferson had suggested that the American government sell the land that had been taken from the Indians to pay for transporting “the whole annual issue” of black children to some far off place. The “old stock” should be allowed to die off in the ordinary course of nature. But at least, if Mourning’s impressions were correct, white people in Detroit were not inclined to harm coloreds.
Ahead of them Olivia could see where the buildings ended and the woods began and suddenly felt reluctant to leave the city limits. “Maybe we should go back to one of those hotels and wait until morning to start out,” she said. “It’ll be dark soon.”
“Best to travel at night,” Mourning said. “Cooler it be, better it be for the oxen.”
“Well, let’s stay anyway,” she said. “How much can hotel rooms cost? Tomorrow morning we could even take one of those ferries over to Windsor, see what Canada’s like.”
“Nah. We best be gettin’ where we goin’. We don’t wanna leave this load in the wagon more than we gotta. We be comin’ back to Detroit soon enough. Once we settled in, know how we gonna keep ourselves alive, we can go spend a day over in Canada. Go downsouthto Canada.” He smiled.
“All right.” She looked away from him. “I don’t know why I’m being such a big baby. Scared of getting lost in the dark.”
“Good to be scared,” he said. “Make you careful. But we got lanterns and we got oil and we got guns and a wild lady here what knows how to shoot ’em. Remember the question you been aksing me all the time – What’s the worst that can happen? Worst that can happen, we drive around in circles for a few days.”
“When are you going to teach me to drive?”
“Not today. Gotta teach myself first. Empty wagon be hard enough. Heavy load like this, when we gotta go down hills, them brakes – even with the skids on – ain’t nothing against all that weight pushin’ on ’em.”
“Oh.” She turned to look at the load in the back, imagining them going down a steep hill and the wagon crashing over poor Dixby and Dougan, flattening them into orange and black smudges on the trail. “I thought it was only hard going up hills,” she said. “I never thought about going down them.”
“Stop worrying.” He looked over at Olivia. “Thanks to you bein’ such a spoiled little girl, we got better beds right here with us than what they gonna give you in any hotel. We got everything. A whole life in a wagon. No clouds in the sky neither.”
When they were outside the city limits he stopped to fill a lantern with whale oil and hung it on the hook of the wagon post, ready to light. Now she became acutely aware of how alone they were together. Apart from the rustlings of small animals, the only sound was the soft clop of hooves on hard-packed dirt. They saw no one on the side of the road and no other wagons passed them. Neither of them spoke for a long while.
As long as rays of daylight still slanted through the branches, Olivia could admire the beech, maple, basswood, oak, and hickory trees. Uncle Scruggs was right about that too. The woods towered to the sky and theywereso green it hurt to look at them. The ground was thick with ferns, berries, and wild grapevines. But since the sun had set, all she saw out there was dark and darker dark. When Mourning stopped again to light the lantern Olivia felt even more isolated, the two of them trapped in a tiny circle of light.
Mourning cleared his throat and made an effort to fill the silence. “They say the land ’round here be real good,” he said. “Black and rich. It be mostly clay bottom, so you gotta ditch it to drain the water off. They say you gotta look for a sandy spot, if you be wantin’ to build, cause that clay ain’t much to be livin’ over in wet weather.”
Olivia could think of nothing to say. Her whole body ached and all she wanted was to sleep.
“That what the man in the feed store say.” He rambled on, sounding as ill-at-ease to be alone together as she felt. “Land be rich as a barnyard, level as a floor, and no stones to clear away. The more you farm it, the more the clay be gettin’ worked up into the soil and the better wheat it raise. So I guess my main job gonna be cutting trees. Corn ain’t gonna ear in the shade.”
“How can you see where we’re going?” She peered nervously ahead of them.
“I ain’t tryin’ to get at look at them monsters over there, hidin’ behind all them trees,” he teased. “All I gotta worry about is where these animals gonna put their foot down next. I got plenty a light for that. You gotta stop worryin’ five steps ahead, Livia. All we gotta do is stay on this road till we get to the turn to this Fae’s Landing place. I figure that take us four, five hours. That where we gonna set us down to sleep. Come morning, there be light to see the trail and they ain’t gonna be no more bogeymen out there. We gonna find our way all right.”
“Sleep on the trail? We can’t just lie down on the ground.”
“Say who? Course we can.”
“What if there are snakes?”
“They don’t bother us, we don’t bother them. You wanna be ’fraid in the dark, they plenty a things scarier than a poor old snake. ’Sides, what you think you gonna sleep on tomorrow night at your uncle’s place? Ain’t gonna be no one waitin’ to turn down no bed for you.”
She sighed in concession. Of course he was right. She turned in her seat to check that the loaded Hawken rifle and her possibles bag were still there, right behind her. They rode in silence for a while longer and then, bored, Olivia asked if she couldn’t drive for a while.
“What for? I ain’t tired.”
“I’ve got to learn sometime, so it might as well be now. In all the known world, there can’t be a flatter road than this one. It doesn’t look to me like there’s a hill in the whole entire state of Michigan.”
“This wagon be almost brand new. I gotta break it in.”
“That’s a tub of eyewash, Mourning Free.”
“What you know ’bout wagons? You ever work at the livery? Spoke a wheel? Set an axle?”
“You just don’t want me to drive, do you? Ever. You think this isyourwagon.”
“Someone come round that bend on a wild horse, you ain’t gonna know what to do.”
“Oh, sorry, I forgot about all the wild horses we’ve been passing every five minutes.”
Olivia let the argument dissipate into the dark, not having been all that eager to drive. In low places they bounced over logs that someone had placed across the road. In some spots the logs lay lengthwise and Olivia worried the wagon wheels would get stuck between them, but Dixby and Dougan kept plodding right along.
They had been riding in silence for a long while when she reluctantly said, “Mourning, you’ve got to stop for me.” She had been holding it in for longer than seemed possible.
He said a gentle “Whoa” and sat ramrod, looking straight ahead. She wasn’t about to venture into those dark woods to lift her skirt and so walked about fifty paces back down the road, past the last bend they had rounded. She had foreseen this necessity and was wearing no drawers. All she had to do was plant her feet wide apart and lift her skirts above her knees. The stream of urine hitting the ground made the loudest noise she had ever heard and her cheeks grew hot with embarrassment.You’d better get used to this too, she scolded.
When she retraced her steps around the bend Mourning was having a conversation with Dixby and Dougan, while they took turns drinking from a bucket. Olivia climbed back onto the wagon and Mourning joined her. After he settled himself he handed her the reins.
“These animals been trained real good. All you gotta do is talk to them,” he said.
They drove on in silence and nearly missed the wooden sign in the dark. Mourning shouted “Whoa” and climbed down to read it by the lantern light. An arrow was carved into it, beside the words “Fae’s Landing 3 Miles.”
“Oh that’s grand, we’re almost there,” Olivia said.
“We best stop here, lay them mattresses down in that clearing. We never gonna find old Lorenzo’s cabin in the dark.” He took hold of the team’s harness and led them off the road.
“But it’s only three miles.”
“To the town, not your farm. To your farm we gotta follow a trail, not a road. And ’ccordin’ to your map we gotta cross some water. I ain’t doin’ that in the dark.”
He unyoked and hobbled the oxen and gave them feed and more water. Olivia untied the ropes Mourning had wound over their belongings and began moving things around in the bed of the wagon.
“What you doin’?” Mourning asked.
“Making it so I can lay my mattress up here, on top of all this stuff,” she said. “I can’t sleep down there on the ground. It’s too dark. Too many things creeping around. Don’t worry, I’ll put it back like it was.”
“Pioneer lady.” He shook his head, but at least he was smiling indulgently, not smirking.
He disappeared between the trees and came back carrying an armload of dry kindling. “This …” He raised it a bit higher, “gonna be your job from now on,” he said amiably and tossed it to the ground. Olivia used their new hoe to clear a patch of dirt in the middle of the road, arranged the kindling, and struck one of their precious matches.
Mourning watched her and said, “Once we settled, we ain’t gonna use up our lucifers like that. I show you how to find some good punk wood and use a flint.”
She nodded and stood up. “I’ll go look for some thicker branches,” she said, but hesitated at the tree line.
Mourning strode over to her and touched her elbow. “You go pick some a that lemon grass I seen growing back there by the sign, make us some tea. I get the wood. Them bogeymen in there be ascared of colored boys. Can’t see us in the dark. Gonna think I be a ghost.” He made a low wooooing sound as he went into the woods.
Olivia smiled after him and retrieved their bag of food from the wagon. By the time Mourning returned with the wood she had broken some green branches from a tree and peeled enough bark away to make a clean fork to toast bread on.
“Cheese, jerky, or jam?” she asked.
“That blackberry jam sit good with me.”
“Would you care for some sugar in your tea, Sir?” she asked. “We happen to have a fresh loaf, and I’d be happy to nip some off for you.”
The food and tea tasted delicious and she was pleased to find herself comfortable with Mourning, no need to talk all the time. He had lowered himself to the ground and rested his back against one of the wagon wheels. Olivia perched on an overturned bucket. She kept her eyes on the ground as she ate, feeling him study her face in the firelight. She didn’t mind, but would have loved to know what he was thinking. She hoped it was something like: “This white girl ain’t so bad to be with.” She stood, brushed the crumbs from her hands, and announced that she was ready to go to sleep. She climbed into the back of the wagon and stretched out on her lopsided mattress.
“I hear Michigan snakes win all the wagon climbin’ contests.” Mourning made slithering motions with his hands.
“They weave their way through them spokes, slither right up the side. Lookin’ for something soft to curl up on.”
“Be quiet, Mourning. Are you going to put the fire out?”
“Nah,” he said as he tossed his mattress to the ground next to the wagon. “Ain’t no wind and you been smart, puttin’ it smack in the middle of the road so we ain’t gonna start no forest fire.”
She lay in the dark and cursed herself for not having gone to answer nature’s call before climbing up there. She dreaded the thought of putting her feet over the side of the wagon to get down in the dark. When Olivia was a little girl Avis had tormented her with tales of the scaly old man who lived under her bed and, every night when the lantern was extinguished, slithered out from between the floorboards. “You watch out when you get in bed, Olivia,” Avis would say. “He’ll grab you by the ankle, pull you under there with him.” Even now that she was grown-up, she had to resist the impulse to take a running leap to her bed.
She peeked over the side of the wagon and saw Mourning sprawled on his mattress, already dead to the world. She leaned farther out and squinted at him, feeling like a thief for stealing his privacy, but unable to resist the opportunity to study his face, shiny in the moonlight. He looked so peaceful.
“Hullo neighbors,” a man’s voice called out.
Startled and heart thumping, Olivia almost fell over the side of the wagon as she scrambled for the Hawken. Clutching it, she peered into the dark.
“Hullo,” the voice said again.
She could see the outline of a man, standing in the middle of the road, about twenty paces away. He had both hands raised shoulder-high, one of them holding a rifle by its butt, with the barrel pointing at the ground.
“Hullo,” Olivia answered. She glanced at Mourning, expecting him to spark back to life, but he emitted a soft snore.
“My name’s Jeremy Kincaid. I live not far from here. I’m going to come a little closer,” he said.
He took a few steps and she could see that he was tall and thin and wore baggy gray pants. A few more steps showed him to be unshaven and scruffy, with a floppy hat shoved back on the crown of his head.
He halted and she said, “I’m Olivia. Olivia Killion. Pleasure to meet you. If you live near here, I guess we’re going to be neighbors.”
“Oh? Where are you headed?” Jeremy asked.
“A farm west of Fae’s Landing. It used to belong to my uncle, but it’s been abandoned for quite a few years.”
“The Scruggs place?”
“Yes.” She brightened. “Did you know my Uncle Lorenzo?”
“No, he’s from way before my time, but I know the cabin. Trappers and hunters use it to grab a kip. Leave it right manky, sorry to tell you. It’s about seven-eight miles from my place. So it does look like we will be neighbors.”
The cloud that had been veiling the moon drifted away and silvery light washed over Jeremy Kincaid’s features. Though somewhat pale and not particularly striking, it was a pleasant enough face, nicely proportioned. He had what Olivia thought of as a snooty-type nose, long and flaring at the end into a soft wide V, the nostrils forming a pair of butterfly wings. Bits of what she thought could only be plant matter clung to his hat and shoulders, as if he had been rolling in the undergrowth. Olivia smiled and set her rifle down, resisting the impulse to smooth her hair.
“Does your husband plan to farm?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m not married. But I’ve got a hired man who’s going to farm my land for me.”
She pulled on her work shoes, slid over the mattress to the ladder on the side of the wagon, and climbed down. “That’s him right there.” She nodded at Mourning’s sleeping figure.
“Mourning,” she said, bending down toward him. He emitted a grumpy noise and rolled over, away from her voice. She lightly nudged his foot with hers. “Mourning, don’t you want to get up and meet our new neighbor?”
“Do you think it will be easier to rouse him if you tell him it’s morning?” Jeremy asked as he rested his rifle against the wagon and removed the water skin and possibles bag he wore strapped to his back.
It took her a moment to understand the question. “Oh, no, that’s his name. Mourning.”
“And does he have siblings named Afternoon and Night?”
“It’s m-o-u – like grieving. It’s a long story.” She nudged Mourning’s foot again.
“Perhaps we’d best leave him to his kip,” Jeremy said.
“Oh, I’m sure he’d be sorry not to make your acquaintance.”
“What?” Mourning stirred and blinked himself awake.
“I apologize for disturbing you, but I wanted you to meet our new neighbor,” Olivia said.
Mourning got to his feet and shook himself.
“Mourning Free this is Jeremy … Kincaid was it?”
Jeremy nodded and offered his hand to Mourning. Olivia was happy to note that he did so more naturally than most white men took the hand of a colored.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Kincaid.”
“Pleasure is mine. It will be good to have someone living in the old Scruggs place.”
“Jeremy lives close by,” Olivia said. “He can tell us how to get there.”
“That be a help.” Mourning stretched and lit the lantern. “I’m a get the fire stirred up. Heat us a pot a coffee.”
“Sounds good to me,” Jeremy said as he walked past the wagon to inspect the hobbled oxen. “Looks like a good strong team you’ve got.”
“Indeed,” Mourning said. He turned over a bucket and nodded at it. “You can set yourself on that.”
Jeremy stooped to pick up a long stick, then sat on the bucket and scratched lines in the dirt. Olivia watched him, feeling blessed by their good luck: the uneventful trip on the steamer, the ease with which Mourning had found the wagon and team, and now this new friend miraculously appearing to help them find their way. Their meeting in the woods was providential. A sign. This was right. This was what she was supposed to do. People were allowed to change their fate; they were even rewarded for doing so. Jeremy felt like a gift.
“You’re here,” Jeremy pronounced, tapping the stick on the ground. Olivia and Mourning stepped to either side of him to study the little map he had drawn. “Turn the way the sign points and go about two-three miles until you come to a river. Fae’s Landing is on the other side of it. You need to go into town for anything?”
“Nah,” Mourning replied. “Miz Killion here know how to shop like nobody else. Thanks to her, we got ever thing anyone ever thought a wantin’ right there in that wagon. Farming don’t work out, she can open herself a general store. Directions the only thing we need, and if you be givin’ us them, we can go straight to Miz Killion’s land.”
Olivia’s eyes darted to Mourning on the second “Miz Killion,” but she detected no rancor in his voice. He was doing as they had agreed – playing the part of hired man.
Jeremy gave them detailed directions for reaching the cabin. “That’s the easiest way to get there with a wagon,” he said, “even though it means crossing water twice.”
Olivia took a few steps to where she could study Jeremy’s features in the firelight, but couldn’t guess how old he was. She did notice the glints of orange-red in his hair and how straight and white his teeth were.
“You be a trapper?” Mourning asked. The fire had come back to life and Mourning found the coffee pot and filled it with water.
“No, never have liked digging in the dirt.” Jeremy rose and motioned with his hand. “Never mind the coffee. I should leave you to your night’s sleep.” He put his hat back on and reached for his water skin. “I’ll stop by in a few days time, see how you’re settling in. You have other neighbors a few miles southeast of you – Filmore and Iola Stubblefield. Good, church-going folk. Farmers. I’m sure they’ll be glad to help you out in whatever way they can.”
“Any colored folk ’round here?” Mourning asked.
Jeremy shook his head. “Quite a few in Detroit. More across the river in Windsor. But there aren’t any colored families in Fae’s Landing. Aren’t all that many white ones. It’s not much of a town.” He slipped the straps of the water pouch and possibles bag over his shoulders and picked up his rifle.
“Why is it called Fae’s Landing?” Olivia asked, knowing it was a stupid thing to ask in the middle of the night, but reluctant to let him go.
Jeremy set the butt of his rifle on the ground and leaned on it. “It’s named for a little baby called Fae. Her mamma birthed her right there on the raft they use to ferry folks ’cross the river. Then a few months later Baby Fae died of the pox and the town they were building – where that raft is tied up – got named after her.” He picked up his rifle. “You have a good night. Mind yourself.”
“We’ll be glad to have you come visit,” Olivia said.
“I’ll do that.”
“We’ll be looking to rent out the oxen, if you’re interested.”
“Got no use for them, but I appreciate the offer.” He took a few more steps, turned to wave a hand, and disappeared into the dark.
Mourning waited a moment before letting out a loud snort. “All you hadda do was aks, Livia, I’da tied him to the wagon wheel for you,” he said.
She felt her face turn red. “I suppose I’m not allowed to be friendly. Or try to find out anything about this place we’re going to.”
“You want I should call him back so you can aks what the Sunday sermon been about last week? You forgot to ask him that.”
“You can be a trying person, Mourning Free. A most trying person. Anyway, you were the one who started asking questions,” she said as she scrambled back onto her mattress. “Good night.”
“That gotta be Fae’s Landing over there on the other side,” Mourning said the next day when the road brought them to a narrow, swiftly flowing river. “And that be poor little Fae’s raft.” He pointed at the rack of decaying wooden slats that bobbed in the water.
A mill stood on the opposite bank, but there was no buzz of saws or smell of freshly cut lumber. Olivia stood up and craned her neck, looking for someone to call out to. “The whole place looks deserted,” she said, sitting back down.
“Maybe they all late risers. Or maybe they havin’ a town meeting or somethin’.”
“Hmm.” She kept straining to look behind her as Mourning drove on.
The road followed the river and soon narrowed into a grassy trail that was just wide enough to accommodate the wagon. They couldn’t always see the water through the trees, but they could hear it. Not far downriver the woods thinned and they glimpsed an equally silent gristmill.
“You’d think there’d be somebody about,” she said, ducking a branch.
“That fellow said it ain’t much of a town.”
Soon they were facing the river and a large clearing, with open space and gently sloping banks on both sides of the water. Here the river was twice as wide, but looked shallow enough to cross.
“This must be the place he was talking about,” Olivia said. “I think I see a trail over there.” She squinted into the sun, scrutinizing the buffalo grass waving on the other side.
“We best get out of the wagon,” Mourning said. “It be easy enough for the team goin’ down, but gettin’ up that other side … We maybe gotta take some things out and carry ’em over. But first we give it a try.”
They climbed down and removed their shoes and stockings. Olivia tossed hers into the back of the wagon, but Mourning shook his head and told her to put her stockings in her pocket and tie her shoelaces to something. She was glad that while Mourning was still asleep she had changed out of her heavy traveling clothes and petticoats, into a plain green work dress with a green and white striped apron over it. She hitched up her skirts and stepped in.
“Uncle Scruggs wasn’t kidding about this water being ice cold.”
Mourning waded in a few steps, leading the oxen by the yoke and making no attempt to keep his pant legs dry. The team willingly followed him and he shouted to Olivia, “You grab the wagon and hold on. River can fool you. Watch out for holes.”
She obeyed. The swift current sparkled over slippery stones and she would have fallen on her backside had she not been holding on tight.
“We gotta wait up,” Mourning said, raising a hand. “They thirsty.”
The oxen were straining to lower their heads and Mourning freed them, allowing them to drink. Then he put them back in harness and gave Dixby a friendly slap on the rear as he yelled, “Hyahhhhh!” Olivia’s arm jerked forward and she struggled to keep up with the wagon as the team charged into the water, which was soon almost waist-deep. The smooth bottom turned to squishy mud studded with sharp rocks that scraped and stubbed her feet.
“Whoa, whoa, now.” When they’d made it up the other bank Mourning pulled the team short and stroked their heads. “You boys done one fine job. Guess you earned your breakfast.”
Olivia had heard a splash and – once she regained her balance – turned to look behind them. The washtub had escaped Mourning’s web of ropes and fallen off the wagon. Luckily the current had lodged it between some large rocks slightly downriver and Olivia slogged back into the water to retrieve it before it was carried it off. Without the wagon to hold on to, she took tiny steps and held her arms out for balance. The tub had a wooden handle at either end and as she reached out to grab one of them, she lost her balance. She didn’t fall, however. Mourning had plunged in behind her and was there to steady her. As they waded back to shore she was overcome with gratitude for this small kindness.
She was also disturbed by her reaction.I’m so pathetic, she thought.Other people must do things like that for each other all the time, without giving it a thought. That’s what it’s like to have a friend. Not silly schoolgirls giggling and being nasty to the girls they don’t let into their snotty little group, or housewives gossiping about other women. Those aren’t friends. A friend looks out for you. Holds out a hand, without being asked. Poor Mourning picked a great person to be friends with. I always feel sorry for myself because I never had a friend, but I’ve never been one either. I don’t think I know how.
Mourning tossed the tub back onto the wagon and, after tending to Dougan and Dixby, they sat on flat white stones with their feet in the river, wiggling their toes. Everything about the day was beautiful – the warm sun, the rush of the cool water, the breeze in the treetops. Olivia shook her wet skirt in the sun and watched the sun glint off the water.
“Listen to all the birds! I love Michigan already.”
Mourning had his eyes closed, face tilted toward the sun. “I got nothing to complain about,” he murmured.
After a while Olivia stood and went behind the wagon to put her stockings back on.
“Here’s the trail, right here.” She pointed to wisps of waist-high buffalo grass that didn’t conceal the deep ruts in the ground beneath them. “Just like Uncle Scruggs and Mr. Kincaid said.”
She expected Mourning to be eager to be on their way, but he remained motionless, eyes closed. She sat back down next to him.
After a while he said softly. “I don’t remember ever havin’ no moment like this one before,” he said. “Not ever. Feelin’ like the master of myself. Doin’ what I think needs doin’ when I feel like doin’ it.”
Olivia briefly put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed lightly. Then she turned her own face up to the sun and waited quietly. She was in no hurry to plunge back into those woods. Her arms ached from batting insects and branches away from her face. Soon Mourning pulled himself to a sitting position.
“We best be on our way,” he said.
They followed the trail through the woods until they came to a shallow stream. Two deer stood in the water, drinking, but snorted and shot off between the trees, flags up. Mourning drove the wagon straight across, no getting off this time. The trail then followed the water downstream, to the point where it fed back into the river, right before a sharp bend.
“Like the man said, there it be.” Mourning shielded his eyes to look up the gentle slope on their right.
“Oh,” was all Olivia could say, sweet contentment abandoning her.
She had tried to heed Tobey’s dire predictions and not expect too much, but nothing in her experience had prepared her for anything as squat, ugly, and depressing as her Uncle Scruggs’ cabin. This was Lydia Ann’s cozy little homestead? Uncle Scruggs’ Garden of Eden? She’d seen drawings of slaves’ quarters that looked more inviting than this. She dismally surveyed the scene. The cabin perched atop a low hill. A path of crosswise logs led up to it, but everything was overgrown with prickly, waist-high weeds.
Olivia looked back toward the water. Around the bend, where the river grew deeper, four spindly logs rested over it. That must be all that remained of Uncle Scruggs’ famous springhouse. Fields fanned out behind the left side of the cabin. Seven or eight acres had obviously once been cleared, but were now overgrown with thick brush and dotted with new growth trees and old stumps. Around the back and on the other side, the woods encroached. There weren’t more than twenty paces to the tree line.
Olivia reluctantly let her eyes go back to the cabin, which was exactly as Tobey had warned her it would be. Uncle Scruggs had cut down logs, notched them, stacked them on top of one another, and filled the wide gaps between them with a clay-like substance, most of which had crumbled away. The walls at either end rose in a triangular shape and a heavy log rested between them, but that center beam was all that remained of the roof. There was an opening in the front wall, slightly off-center to the right, but someone had apparently walked off with the door; nothing but rusty hinges remained. Not only were there no lace curtains at the windows, there were no window openings at all.
“There’s no roof,” Olivia noted dully.
“That ain’t no problem. Roof be easy. Lucky for us that center beam still up there. You got a good center beam, all you gotta do is rest your roof poles on it, tie ’em good and tight, and cover ’em with bark shingles. Bet I can cut them poles and get ’em up ’fore dark tonight. You can help me with piecin’ the bark. That gonna take some time cause it gotta dry first, but I bet we gonna have a roof over us ’fore the next rain.”
The oxen snorted and pulled them closer. Another roofless log structure, which she assumed was the barn, stood to the right of and slightly behind the cabin. The rickety and well-weathered outhouse in back of it was the only structure built of planed lumber.
Olivia looked sideways at Mourning, expecting him to be furious with her for talking him into coming to this dreadful place, but she saw only enthusiasm on his face. He jumped down and all but bounced through the weeds. She remained in the wagon, not yet prepared to claim the dingy little hovel as her new home. Mourning ducked down to go through the doorway, and she heard him stomping around inside.
“For sure he put a whole lot a work into the floor,” he said when his head reappeared in the doorway. “So smooth you could dance on it. Ain’t you comin’ in to see? Right fine cellar too. Can’t hardly see the trapdoor. Need a new ladder and there’s something making a stink down there, but that ain’t nothin’ to fix. Got a real stone fireplace and chimney, real fine workmanship. And there be a great big old table. What you waitin’ for, Livia?”
“I had no idea it would be this bad,” she apologized as she wearily climbed down and followed him inside. “He always talked about the cozy little cabin he built and how much his wife loved it.”
“It ain’t bad,” Mourning said. “Ain’t bad at all. What you been spectin’, anyway? Your uncle been a smart man. Invested his time in the things what matter. Lot easier to put up new walls than dig a cellar you don’t got. Easier to fix the roof than the floor. This place be just fine. We gonna get a roof on first thing, ’fore it start rainin’ down on us.”
He paced around, grinning. Olivia felt like sobbing, but did her best to hide it.
“I seen plenty of black ash back there by the trail,” he said. “Even seen some lyin’ on the ground, dry enough I can peel the bark off today. We stitch that bark together, it keep the wet off us fine. Won’t take too long, do up both the house and the barn. While I be choppin’, you can fix the chinking, keep all them Michigan snakes out.” He puckered his mouth in his ghost face and wiggled his fingers. “I show you how to find the right kind a clay and mix it up. Then I show you how to stitch the bark. We got canvas we can hang over the door for now, but we gotta go to that saw mill in town and order us a real door. It won’t be no good, it don’t fit ’zactly right, and I ain’t got tools for that. But the lintel and jambs be fine.” He pounded a fist against one of the jambs.
She dumbly followed him back out to the yard and behind the cabin. From there she could see that most of the back wall of the barn was missing.
“What now?” Mourning asked.
“The barn . . . that whole wall is gone.”
“Don’t matter none. Make it easy for me to extend it out, fix up a threshing floor. All I gotta do is find trees to cut what got a good crotch to lay poles over. Won’t even need a real roof. Buckwheat straw over them poles do good ’nuff. Keep the sun off.”
He turned to look up at the treetops. “I guess the wind be comin’ from that way.” He pointed back toward the river. “So we put the woodpile back here. That be your number two job – gather kindling and split firewood. For now just go in the woods and pick up whatever you find on the ground. I gonna finish with the roof ’fore I start cuttin’ trees to burn. But then I gonna fix you up a nice chopping block, learn you how to split wood. Gotta put a roof over that wood pile too, keep it dry. They a long, cold winter comin’ and we gonna need lots a wood, so you gotta start lickety-split, do some every day.”
He strode to the wagon, hoisted the barrel down, and rolled it next to the door. “That be your numberonejob.” He pointed at it. “Keep that full a clean water. You do that and the wood, help me work the team when I gotta pull stumps, and keep my belly full, we do just fine.”
She shuddered at the prospect of all the physical labor he was describing and his mention of food added to her distress. How was she supposed to prepare a meal? But his optimism was contagious and she began to see the possibilities.All beginnings are hard, she reminded herself.
One thing for sure, she had made herself totally dependent on Mourning. Not just to inherit the land. To survive. She wouldn’t last a day out here on her own. Wouldn’t make it back to Detroit, if anything on the wagon broke. She didn’t even know how to hitch up the team. She began making a mental list of all the things she needed to learn in order not to feel totally helpless.
Apparently Mourning was not expecting any breakfast. While she stood there biting her bottom lip, he unyoked the team and led them into the barn where he put out buckets of feed. Then he took a long drink of water from one of the skins and said, “Team be needing water.” He nodded at the river and then at the barn. “They be a trough in there you can fill, don’t gotta let them drink out of our buckets any more.”
He rummaged in the back of the wagon and then loped off, ax and saw over his shoulder. Watching him walk away, Olivia felt like crying, but shook it off. Good Lord, Killion, what a big baby you are. If Aunt Lydia Ann could do this, so can you.
What should she do first? Mourning would need the wagon to haul logs, so she should unload it. But he would also be hungry, so she should get a fire going and hang a pot of rice and beans over it. Maybe mix up dough to rise for a loaf of bread. But she’d need water to do that. And for the animals. One must always take care of the animals first. She grumbled out loud – “Can’t cook until I’ve got wood and water and can’t get water until I cut a path to the river through this blasted mess of weeds.”
She took a bucket in each hand and headed toward the river, cursing the thorny weeds that tore at her skirts and scratched her ankles. She knelt on a flat rock to splash cold water over her face before filling the buckets. When she stood to pick them up, she emitted a loud “Oh.” How could water be so heavy? Then she slipped on the wet clay around the rock, slightly twisting her ankle, but quickly regained her footing.
“All right Killion, let’s be optimistic,” she spoke aloud. “What would merry old Mourning say? ‘Look how lucky that was, you breaking your leg there. Now you know where to get clay for chinking the logs.’”
Partway up the gentle hill she set her burden down to rest for a moment and stared at her hands. They were already red with a maze of tiny scratches. She took a deep breath and continued, making it to the barn without spilling a drop. She brushed the dust and debris out of the dry trough and poured both buckets in. “There you go, boys.” She patted the tops of their heads and they nodded agreeably.
Shoulders aching, she made a second trip, this time setting the buckets by the door. She picked up one of them to pour the water into the barrel, but paused. The inside of the barrel was filthy. Dried leaves and cobwebs clung to its sides. What if there were mouse droppings in there? She sighed and knew she would have to use some of the precious “uphill” water to clean it. She lifted a bucket into the barrel, tipped it, and ran it around the inside walls to rinse them. Then she tied a clean rag around the handle of the broom and swished it around before turning the barrel on its side and rolling it over to where the weeds were the thickest, so that she could tip it upside down without the rim touching the dirt. Satisfied that they would survive drinking from it, she rolled it back to its place by the door, found the dipper in the wagon, and proudly hung it over the edge.
Then she reached for the second bucket of water, but frowned at the leaves and other unidentified debris floating on its surface. No, this wouldn’t do. She should strain the water through a clean rag, but didn’t have one large enough to cover the mouth of the barrel. She looked around, frustrated and impatient.
“Blast it, you start to do one thing, but you can’t do it until you’ve done some other danged thing, and then you can’t doit…”
Finally she went to the wagon, rummaged for the clothes she had changed out of that morning, and freed one of the petticoats from the bundle. “At last you’re finally good for something,” she said to the annoying undergarment as she spread it over the top of the barrel and tied a rope around it, to hold it in place while she poured the water through it.
When she loosened the rope to peek proudly at the clean water, her smile faded. The bottom of the barrel barely looked wet. Filling it to a level they would be able to reach with the dipper was going to require more trips to the river than she could bear to contemplate.
“One thing at a time,” she said “One at a time. Don’t think aboutallthe things you have to do. Just about the next one.”
The crack of the axe rang out and Olivia smiled. Mourning was not far away. Everything would be all right. She paused to listen to the steady blows and when they stopped she imagined him taking off his hat and wiping his brow on the sleeve of his shirt. If he still had his shirt on.
She carried two more buckets of water and then stood gazing at the river, trying to shake the dull ache from her arms and imagining how it would feel to stand naked in its rushing water. Boys in Five Rocks were always talking about swimming in their birthday suits. Why didn’t girls get to do any of the fun things?
She sighed and made two more trips up and down the hill with the buckets and then looked around the filthy cabin. She should wipe down the surfaces, but there was no point cleaning the floor until after the roof was on. In the far corner, behind the table, was a large wooden box that she hadn’t noticed before. She dragged the table away from it and happily realized it was a bed. It stood waist high and had no ladder, but she managed to boost herself onto it. She wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor! Further inspection revealed that there was no footboard, creating a large storage space under the bed. How clever Uncle Scruggs had been. Her wicker baskets would fit nicely down there.
Aunt Lydia Ann’s kitchen consisted of a wide shelf mounted to the left of the door. Mourning was right; this place wasn’t so bad. She turned to admire the stone chimney and fireplace. The iron crane creaked loudly as she swung it over the hearth. Then she frowned; that chimney hadn’t been cleaned for sixteen years. If she lit a fire she was likely to burn the whole place down. At home, every few months, Tobey put on his “sweep clothes,” stepped into their chimney, climbed up a ladder, brushed away the soot, and spread a fresh layer of clay. How was she supposed to do that in a new dress?
She fetched the broom and stuck its long handle up the chimney, banging it against the sides. No bird nests fell down – only some dry leaves and black dust. She crossed her arms and scowled again. Then she went to the wagon, found a burlap bag, and held it up. If she cut holes for her head and arms it would come to her knees. Now all she needed was a knife. Good luck finding that. She climbed into the wagon and began unloading, setting things that were to go into the barn on one side and things to go in the cabin on the other. Finally she came across the kitchen utensils.
She went inside, removed her apron and dress, and slipped the burlap bag over her muslin chemise. Then she took the shovel down to the river, scooped up a blade of the black clay, and carried it back to the hearth. Standing on a wooden crate, she methodically spread clay over the inside of the chimney, making several trips back to the river for more of the black mud. When she was finished she had to use some of the precious uphill water to get her hands clean enough to touch anything. Then she found a clean chemise and towel and ran barefoot through the weeds to the river. She could still hear the ring of Mourning’s axe and so dared to pull the burlap off and slip into the cold water in her flimsy undergarment. She lay back, willing the current to wash the grime from her hair.
After a few minutes she thought,if the boys can do it why can’t I, and pulled the soiled chemise over her head, tossing it onto the bank. The water felt wonderful on her naked body, but she found herself unable to relax and enjoy it. What if Jeremy Kincaid came to call? When she realized that she no longer heard Mourning’s axe, she scrambled out of the water and struggled into the clean chemise. Holding the towel around her, she fled back to the cabin.
Dressed again, she swept out the hearth and cabin and went into the woods to gather kindling. She laid and lit a fire, then went to the wagon for rice and beans. Where on earth were the pots and sacks of food supplies? If she wanted to find anything, she’d have to finish unloading the entire mess.
“One thing at a time,” she said with a sigh, “one thing at a time.” It was so hot. How could the heat be this bad in the middle of May? She grabbed up a pot, filled it with water, put it on the crane to heat, and returned to the wagon for the sacks of food. Mourning was right, why had she bought so much stuff?
She found the rice and beans, but the sacks were too heavy for her to budge. She held the corners of her apron in one hand and scooped rice into it with the other. She managed to descend from the wagon without spilling, shook the rice into the pot, and added more water to cover it. She grimaced at the paucity of the meal. But there was no time to soak and cook beans. Anyway they still had bread, cheese, and jam left from Detroit. At least the rice would be hot.
She had resumed unloading the wagon when Mourning appeared on the trail, his long legs gliding through the weeds. He had tied the sleeves of his shirt around his waist and his bare chest glistened in the sunlight. She raised her hand in greeting, but he paid her no mind, heading straight for the water barrel.
“There’s drinking water in the skins and in that bucket by the barrel,” she called out.
He removed the wooden stopper from one of the skins and held it up to let a stream of water pour over his head. She had to bite back a desperate protest: “There’s a whole river full of downhill water right there. Why are you pouring out all my uphill water?” But she said nothing. When she approached him, he shook his head and grinned.
“What?” she asked uneasily.
He said nothing, but started laughing.
“What’s so blasted funny? You can stop thinking I haven’t been doing anything all day. It may not look like I got much done, but I had to clean and clay the chimney –”
“Look like you been clayin’ somethin’ all right and usin’ your face and hair to do it. You best not be findin’ your mirror today.” He reached out and extracted a strand of slimy plant matter from her hair.
She wiped her hands over her cheeks and they came away black. “Oh Lord. How I must look.”
“Little color in your face do you good.” He was still shaking his head and grinning when he turned to stick his head into the cabin. “See you got a fire lit. I carry them sacks of food inside for you.”
Olivia added a few spoonfuls of salt to the rice before going to the river to clean up. She was squatting on her heels, splashing water on herself, when she looked up and saw a graceful white swan drifting toward her. The lovely creature seemed to be fascinated by Olivia and turned its head as it floated past. Olivia stared until it was out of sight. What a beautiful sign. Another good omen.
She rose and filled the buckets she had brought. When she started back up the hill she saw Mourning, still shirtless, making smooth strokes with the scythe, clearing the weeds in the front yard. She stopped and stared. Those Italian sculptors would have loved his body. Slim, but every muscle and tendon defined. For a moment she tried to imagine him white.
Then she sighed and set her mind back on all the tasks she had yet to perform that day. She strained the water into the barrel and went inside to check on the rice, slice bread, and put the cheese and jam on a plate. When she looked out the door, Mourning was lying on a sheet of canvas he had spread in the little clearing he had made, hands behind his head and still shirtless. She walked over to him with the plate of cold food.
“The rice will be done in a while,” she said, setting the plate next to him on the canvas.
“Look at you,” Mourning said, shielding his eyes with one hand as he grinned up at her. “Ain’t here but a few hours and already got a meal cookin’.”
“Some meal. It’s just plain rice,” she said, but took a great deal of pleasure in his praise. She was smiling when she turned to check the bubbling pot again.
“That sun feel good,” he said, rising up on his elbows when she returned with a plate of rice for each of them. “After we done eatin’ we gotta finish emptyin’ the wagon, so I can go get the trees what I cut. I found some logs too. Faces nice and smooth, like they been cut with a two-man saw. Big ’nuff around to make nice chairs.”
He held the edge of the plate to his mouth and used his knife to scrape the rice in. “Mmm,” he said. “You gonna win first prize in the rice-cooking contest.”
“I’m sorry I was so . . . you know . . . when we arrived,” she said. “But I’m feeling better now. I’ll get used to things here. I can see that it’s not so bad.”
“Ain’t bad at all. It be real good, Livia. Look how wide and deep that river be. It ain’t gonna dry up in the summer. You got your cabin up on a nice slope, so you ain’t gonna get flooded and not too much snow gonna pile up on you. But it ain’t so steep you think you gonna die walkin’ up it. Them things more important than havin’ to put a roof on or not havin’ no window. Come winter you gonna be glad you ain’t got one, lettin’ in all that cold.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
In truth, she hadn’t given any thought to winter. Now that she did, her spirits drooped. With a roof on it, that cabin was going to be dark and stuffy, even on days when the weather was fair enough to leave the door open. The roof poles would be barely two feet above her head in the middle of the room; near the front and back walls she wouldn’t even be able to stand. She’d bang her head trying to sit up in that bed. She couldn’t imagine being cooped up in there for months, snow piled against the door, no sunlight, only candles and lanterns burning up the little bit of air. But she forced her voice to remain cheerful.
She went back inside to refill their plates and set the coffee pot on the edge of the fire to boil. After they’d had a cup, they finished unloading the wagon together.
“There’s a bed in there, built like a platform,” she said. “Could you help me slide my wicker baskets under it?”
“And set my mattress on top of it?”
He raised his hand in salute, easily slid the mattress onto her bed, and then said, “Once I be done with the roof, it be easy for me to build you a frame over that bed. You can spread sheets over it and around the sides, like curtains. Goody’s wife done like that so she don’t gotta worry about the dust what come blowing through the roof getting’ on her bed.”
Olivia smiled and nodded. He finished moving her things and then hauled the tools, seed, and grain into the barn and spread a sheet of canvas over them. His own mattress he tossed outside, leaning it against the front wall of the cabin.
“Didn’t you call her ‘Mamma’?” Olivia asked.
“Before. You said something about Goody’s wife. But she raised you from a baby. Didn’t you call her ‘Mamma’?”
“Nah. I call her Alice. Like I call Goody, ‘Goody.’ But if I’d a said ‘Alice’ you warn’t gonna know who I’s talking about.” He harnessed Dixby and Dougan to the wagon and headed back toward the woods. “These animals gonna need more water,” he called over his shoulder.
“Okay, I’ll get more.”
When he had disappeared she allowed herself the luxury of stretching out on the sheet of canvas for a few minutes. Pressing her back against the hard ground helped to relieve the ache, and the sun felt wonderful. Soothing. When she heard the steady blows of the axe begin again she felt guilty and forced herself up.
She hauled eight more buckets of water, using four to fill the trough. That should do them for today. Now what? More food. She arranged the dishes and utensils on the kitchen shelf and poured some beans in a pot to soak. Then she kneaded water, flour, salt, and some of her yeast culture into dough for a loaf of bread and left it to rise with a plate turned over it, in lieu of a clean cloth.
Next she picked up the scythe and cut more weeds, clearing an area for a fire pit and a path to the river. How had Mourning made this look so easy? Then she got the shovel and dug the pit. She knew she should gather large rocks to set around it, but was too exhausted and there was too much else left to do. That would have to wait for another day. For now she had to gather more firewood, before it was dark. There was no shortage of dry wood on the ground and soon the pit was filled with kindling, with a tepee of thicker branches rising over it. She’d also heaped piles of kindling and branches behind the cabin, enough to last for a few days. She’d have to get Mourning to build something like a spit over the fire pit, so she could cook outside.
She lifted her arms over her head and stretched. Lord, wasn’t that enough for the first day? But she couldn’t lay down to rest while Mourning was out there swinging his axe. She hauled more water and then gathered their dirty traveling clothes and her chemise into the washtub and carried it down to the river. She was on her way back up the hill for laundry soap and a bucket to use to fill the tub when the woods grew silent. Hallelujah. Please God, let him have declared the work day over.
She had never done laundry and stared at the tub for a few minutes. She knew boiling water was supposed to be involved, but not today. For today “cleaner than they were before” was going to have to do.
Suddenly faint-headed, she knelt on one of the flat rocks and bent over to stick her head in the river. Then she sat back on her heels and asked herself how she was feeling. Was she glad they had come? Homesick? Optimistic? Excited? Scared? She wasn’t aware of any strong emotion. Only two things occupied her mind: how much she wanted to lie down and what she wouldn’t give for a plate of Mabel’s fried chicken.
She sighed and began dipping the hard bar of laundry soap into the river and scrubbing it against a white rock. The suds that finally appeared burned her scratches and broken blisters and brought tears to her eyes. She held each garment in the river, letting the current flow through it, before scrubbing it with the soap and plunging it into the tub. Then she left everything to soak and trudged back up the hill to pick out two trees to tie a clothesline between.
A few minutes later Mourning drove up the hill. Long, thin, naked-looking tree trunks rested across the back of the wagon, sticking out on both sides. She had finished tying her line, but hadn’t the strength to nod or smile in his direction, let alone raise a hand to wave.
“You gonna help me unload, Miz Pioneer Lady?” Mourning asked. “I get the trees, you get the bark. Spread it out to dry over there on that grass. Get all them books a yours, anything heavy enough to flatten ’em out.”
He climbed down, removed his hat, and studied the sky. “They be clouds startin’ to stir up over there, but I don’t think we gonna get rain tonight.”
He pulled one of the thin tree trunks from the wagon, strode over to lean it against the cabin, and then stood watching Olivia gather up some of the pieces of bark. Shaking his head, he went to the barn and came back carrying another floppy felt hat, which he plopped on Olivia’s head.
“You can’t work in the sun without no hat. Make yourself sick. And black as a nigger.”
They worked in silence, until he emitted a loud “Arggh” as he hoisted down one of five fat stumps, each about two feet long, with flat tops and bottoms. “These be our chairs.” He patted it. “But make sure you watch out for splinters.” He grinned and wiggled his behind.
He turned the log on its side and rolled it into the cabin, then did the same with the second one. The next two he placed outside, on opposite sides of the fire pit. He chopped at the earth with his hatchet and worked the “chairs” into the ground until they no longer wobbled.
Then he rolled the last and largest of the logs off the back of the wagon and let it thud to the ground. “This be your chopping block,” he said, as he rolled it to the far side of the cabin. He stood it on end and hacked the blade of the axe into it. “I give you your first lesson tomorrow.”
“I can’t wait.”
After they finished unloading, Olivia stepped into the cabin to feed the fire and then dragged herself down to the river to scrub, rinse, and wring out the laundry. Mourning – who had been studying the roof while pacing back and forth, counting and muttering about run and rise – saw her struggling with the tub of wet clothes and hurried down to take one of the handles and help her carry it up to the clothesline.
“You know you spose to use hot water,” he said.
“Yes, I know. I know. But I can’t –”
“All right. All right. I just be saying. No need to get riled.”
Both of them were grimy, sweaty, and exhausted. Mourning sat on one of the stumps, watching Olivia hang the clothes on the line. When she finished, she sat on the stump opposite him.
“Do you want me to make coffee?” she asked.
“You best sit a bit. Catch your breath.” He closed his eyes again. Then he opened them and gave her a warm smile. “You know, Livia, you been right. I gotta say. This be a good place. We gonna be all right here, like you said.”
“I hope so.”
“Farmers always got problems. Rains too much. Don’t rain enough. Too much sun or not enough. One bad storm can wipe you out. Bugs and birds eat you out. Market go down. Seed go up. Always be things that can go wrong. But this here be real good land. Plenty a wood and water. Lot more of it clear than I ’spected.”
“I’m glad you don’t feel like strangling me.”
“Nah. I real glad I come with you. We be ready to put in some corn by the last of the month. Then wheat and some hay. We gotta clear them fields up and there be plenty of sweat in it, but like you said, we got us a good start. A real good start. You can get some vegetables in pretty quick. Fine place for your plot right over there.” He nodded toward the right side of the cabin. “Almost flat and plenty a sun. We start keeping the team there at night. Let them lay pies on that soil for a few days and then you turn it over. Plant you some cabbage and peas and onions and turnips and carrots. We be eatin’ fine by the end a summer. Just look at you – all set up your first day out, cookin’ over your own fireplace, hangin’ clothes on your own line, like you been doin’ it all your life.”
Vegetable garden. She wanted to groan. She hadn’t thought of that. What she said was, “You don’t have to sound so surprised. I told you I could.”
“Long as you know you spose to boil the laundry,” he teased and she smiled.
Every inch of her body ached to the bone and her hands were covered with brown streaks of blood. Perhaps worst of all was the way she smelled. She hadn’t known it was possible for a girl to smell that bad.
“Ain’t so many white women what ain’t dirt poor gonna do what you done today. You all right, Livia.”
She felt her face flush and realized she was more comfortable with him acting ornery. She was used to that.
“Well, I never had any doubt thatyou’dbe all right.” She got up. “I’m going to put the bread in. I’ve been heating the lid like you said.”
“Oooh.” He grinned. “Your first loaf of kettle bread. Now that be a hard test to pass.”
While they were shopping in Detroit, Mourning had reminded her that they wouldn’t have a stove and bought a funny shaped pot with a concave lid, over a foot long and about half as high.
Olivia went into the cabin, where the lid to the bake kettle was heating in the edge of the fire. She punched the bread dough down and did as Mourning had told her to: put it in the kettle, set the kettle in some coals on the hearth, put the concave lid on, and filled the lid with coals. Then she went back outside.
“Mourning,” she said, her eyes on the ground, “I’d be real appreciative if you could find someplace else to be, while I clean myself up in the river. I want to have a real bath, with soap.”
He thought for a moment. “Okay. I stay in with the team. But first come in there with me.” He strode into the barn.
She followed him, wondering,Now what? He wants to show me how to muck it out in case I get bored?
He began running his hands over the logs in the corner that faced the cabin and the river.
“Just want you to check. See that they ain’t no holes in the chinking. No way I can see out,” he said. “Check for yourself.”
“For heavens sake, I believe you,” she said, flushing to the roots of her hair, horrified by the image of him peeking through a hole at her, a possibility that never would have occurred to her.
“No, you gotta see. We both gonna be bathin’ in that river till it turn cold and you gotta be comfortable doin’ it. You ain’t gonna be, you don’t check for yourself.”
Olivia obeyed while he rummaged through his toolbox.
“Okay, I checked.”
He held up a harmonica, slapped it against his palm, and blew into it. “I’m a sit right here with my back in this corner and play. Long as you can hear me playin’, you know where I at, and you gonna feel comfortable. I can’t move nowhere without you hearin’ it. So go get all shiny.” He grinned and made a shooing motion with his hand. “And you sure need it, Miz Pioneer Lady. Grizzly bears down south in Canada been trackin’ your scent all day.”
She made a face and he began playing a halting version of “Amazing Grace.” She hurried into the cabin for her soap, a clean work dress, and a towel. The strains of Mourning’s music followed her down to the river, where she sat on the white rock and prepared to get naked for the second time that day. She grinned, remembering how modest she had always been. Even when undressing alone in her own room, with the door on the latch, she used to have her nightdress bunched up around her neck, ready to pull down, before she slipped her chemise off.One day out here, she thought,and I can hardly keep my clothes on.
When she was as clean as one can get in river water and had finished dressing, she shouted to Mourning, “You can come out.”
He approached as she was hanging her towel on the line. “Your turn now?” she asked.
“Yeah, my turn.” He held out his hand for the soap. “’Less you wanna watch, I give you a holler when I be done.” He grinned and Olivia burned red again.
He is a good man, she thought, but this time she didn’t mean good of character. He was indeed that, but now she meant good to be with. For the first time the question “Why couldn’t he be white?” worked its way consciously into her mind.
Olivia went to check on the bread. The crust looked nice and brown, but when she turned it out of the kettle and tried to slice it, the middle was all dough. There was nothing but a plate of crusts for their supper. Now she would have to prepare something else. The beans wouldn’t do for today; they hadn’t been soaking nearly long enough to cook them. She only kept herself from crying by repeating,Just one more thing today. Just one more.
She fed the fire, shoveled a pile of bright embers onto the hearth, and set the long-handled frying pan in them. Then she quickly mixed up flour, water, and salt for flapjacks, adding two thinly sliced apples to the batter. When Mourning returned from cleaning up, she greeted him with a plate of thick flapjacks, surrounded by pieces of bread crust smeared with blackberry jam.
“Sorry about the bread,” she said. “I failed the test.”
“Take a while to get the hang of it,” he said as he took his plate. “And tonight I gonna eat anything you give me. My stomach been hollerin’ for me to put somethin’ in it.”
They went out to the stump chairs and sat in the dusk, eating hungrily. Olivia balanced her plate on her knees and cut ladylike pieces. Mourning found a good use for his fork – he stabbed it into the center of a flapjack and held it up so he could chomp around the edge. Olivia was tempted to do the same, but remembered reading in Godey’s Lady’s Book that it was the responsibility of the gentler sex to bring civilization to the frontier. She continued her struggle for proper table manners, but her only reward was a jam stain on her clean dress. When they were nearly finished she once again broached the subject of her mother.
“Mourning, we’re going to be here together for a long time and I’m not going to stop asking, so you might as well tell me and get it over with. What you did you mean about my father finding my mother?”
He concentrated on his food, as if he hadn’t heard her. After he swallowed his last bite, he set the plate down, raised his eyes to meet her gaze, and shook his head.
“I shudna said nothin’. I thought you knew. That you hadda know.”
“About how your mamma died.”
“How did she die?”
“What they tell you?”
She shook her head. “You tell me what happened. Everything you know. Everything.”
“All right.” He took another deep breath and said it quickly. “Your daddy come home and found her in the storeroom by your kitchen, only it ain’t been no storeroom then. Used to be the pantry.”
“Found her what? Lying there sick? Did she fall down and hurt herself?”
He stared steadily into Olivia’s eyes and said, “She been hangin’ by her neck. She throwed a rope over the beam and stood on a footstool to put it ’round her neck. Then she stepped aside. That stool been still standin’ there next to her. Your daddy come home and found her like that. He stayed real still, just staring. Seem like a long time ’fore he took her down.”
Olivia stared at the ground. She was sure no one had ever said these words to her, but even so, they didn’t feel new. Had she heard whispers and folded them away, forced herself to forget them?
“How do you know this?” she finally asked.
“I been with him. Been workin’ at the store and he aksed me to carry a sack a flour home for him. I come in the back door behind him. I knowed something wrong. Don’t know how, cause he ain’t said no word, ain’t made no noise at all. But I gone to see what wrong and seen him standin’ there starin’ at her.”
“I was almost six when she died,” Olivia said softly. “So you would have been eight or nine?”
“So maybe you didn’t understand. You could have been confused, not really understood what happened.”
“No.” He shook his head. “I ain’t been in no confusion. I know what I seen. I seen him step up on that stool and hold her, so he could slip the noose off. He aksed me to help him carry her to the parlor and lay her down. Then he been on his knees on the floor, touchin’ her face and cryin’. Cryin’ and shoutin’. ‘Why? Why? Why you wanna leave us so bad?’ Every few minutes he stop cryin’ and start hollerin’. ‘How could you do this? How dare you? Coulda been Olivia what found you. What kind a mother are you?’ Then he started cursin’ God. Never gone to church no more after that day.” He paused.
Olivia said nothing and he continued.
“I remember thinkin’, the way that stool still standin’ there . . . she done it real calm like. Made up her mind about what she gonna do and then got up on that stool and done it.”
He stopped again. After another long silence Olivia said, “You mean she could have changed her mind. All she had to do was put her foot back on the stool. She hadn’t kicked it away.”
He nodded and looked away.
She spoke softly, more to herself than him. “You’d think anyone, being choked, desperate for air . . . even then she didn’t change her mind. So she hated her life that much.”
Mourning spoke again. “I think that what hurt your daddy the most.”
Olivia spoke with an edge of bitterness. “Itshouldhave been me. I was usually the first one home.” She lowered her eyes, wondering why she wasn’t crying. Why she didn’t feel anything. Nothing but empty. “Do my brothers know?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I always been thinkin’ so – but maybe that just like I been thinkin’ you gotta know.”
“How could my father keep something like that a secret?”
“I be the only one what seen her up there, ’sides your daddy. After a while he ’member I there, put his hands on my shoulders and say, ‘Boy, you already forgot what you seen here. My wife been a sickly woman, died in her bed.’ I promised him I ain’t gonna tell no one, ’cept for the Doc and it been your father what sent me to get him. He needed someone to help him carry her up to bed. I warn’t strong enough. But Doc Gaylin ain’t gonna tell no one, if your father say not to. Course people, they always whisperin’. The church ladies come, want to get the body ready, but your father say he ain’t believin’ in that, he havin’ a closed casket. But they whisperin’, always aksin’ me, but I ain’t never told no one nothin’.”
Olivia felt too exhausted to go on thinking about it and stood up. “I think I’ll turn in. Thank you for telling me, Mourning. And for not trying to, you know, make it sound not as bad as it was. I appreciate you telling me the truth.”
He nodded. “I remember the way I always been aksin’ folks ’bout my mamma and daddy. Wanna know the truth, even if it be hard.”
She spread a sheet and comforter over her mattress, let down the canvas flap Mourning had nailed to the door, undressed, and pulled a clean white nightdress over her head for the first time since leaving home. She frowned, trying to think of something to use for a pillow, but was too tired to worry about that. Before lying down she sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing her feet together to brush the dirt off and thinking what a great bed it was. Solid wood clear to the floor – no old man to reach out and grab her ankle.Of all things, she scolded herself.Mourning tells you your mother hung herself and all you can think about is Avis’s old man under the bed?
But her mind refused to focus on this new image of her mother. She sank back onto the bed. The mattress felt wonderful, as if she were floating on a cloud, and she put her arms over her head and stretched. She could hear Mourning outside and guessed he must have swept out the wagon and made his bed in it. For a moment she was conscious of the two of them, alone in the woods, in the dark, nothing but that canvas flap between them. But she was too exhausted to give much thought to Mourning’s sinewy muscles.
An enormous white moon hung low in the sky, three bright stars at its side, all in the haze of a pale halo.Wordsworth should be here to write a poem about this sky, she thought. The night air grew chilly and damp and she huddled under her quilted blue comforter as sleep crept over her, heavy, dark, and silent.Chapter Seventeen
“Ain’t you never gonna wake up?” Mourning called through the canvas flap the next morning, stomping his feet and clapping his hands. “I got work to do.”
Olivia sat up and put her feet over the side of the bed. Beads of dew glistened on the comforter and cold clung to the air.
“I thought I gonna give you a wood splittin’ lesson first thing.”
“Hold your horses and stop hollering.” She slipped into her dress and shoes and went outside, running her fingers through her hair and yawning. “It’s early.” She looked up at the gray sky. “And cold.” She went back in for her woolen shawl.
“Good reason to get movin’ ’round,” he called after her.
Her cuts and blisters looked and felt worse and when she came back out she showed him her hands.
“They bad all right. ’Fore you light the fire, get some a that soot from the chimney ’n rub it in the ones what bleedin’. Ain’t nothing else for ’em.” He held his own hands out for inspection. “See mine? Like leather. But you gonna suffer for a few days. Best get some rags to wrap ’round ’em.”
That was apparently all the sympathy she was going to get and she went in to prepare herself for the day. When she returned, Mourning showed her a large harp-shaped tool with a jagged blade.
“This here be your buck saw.” He walked away, motioning with his head for her to follow him to a dead tree lying at the edge of the woods. He braced one foot on it and held the saw, blade down. “You get over there and latch on to the other handle. We gonna take off a nice log. That get the chill off you.”
She took hold of her end of the saw and tried her best to help him, wincing in pain.
“No, not like that. You ain’t spose topushit,” he said. “All you can do to a buck saw ispull. FirstIpull, thenyoupull. That why it got two handles. While I be pullin’, you don’t do nothing but hold it steady.”
After a few more false starts they got a rhythm going. Despite her pain, which the wet rags she had wrapped around her hands only seemed to exacerbate, she helped him saw off three logs.
“That’s enough for now,” she said and stood up straight. “My skin isn’t leather yet.”
“Okay.” He picked up one of the logs and carried it to her chopping block. “Now we go on to splittin’. You can use one of these, if it suit you.” He picked up a sharp-edged triangular wedge of iron and held it out for her inspection. “You gotta find the right place in the grain.” He pressed the sharp edge into the wood and used the butt end of his axe to pound it in. “And then …” he picked up a five-pound hammer, “you give it a good old bang.”
Olivia admired his grace as he raised the hammer over his shoulder and brought it down with a loud ring of metal on metal. The two halves of the log fell to the ground. He put one of the halves on the block and offered the wedge and axe to Olivia. “Now you.”
She managed to pound the wedge into the log and then raised the sledge hammer over her head and brought it down with all her might. She grazed the wedge and sent the log flying.
“You tryin’ to break my foot or cut it off?” Mourning yelped.
On her sixth try the wood split into two uneven pieces.
“Okay, that one way. Now have a go with a splitting maul.” He offered her a tool that looked like a wedge-shaped hammer.
“No, thanks. We’ll leave that for the next lesson.” She shook her hands and winced.
“Well, okay. You done good for a first try,” Mourning said. “Real good.”
“I’m going to mix up griddle cakes and make coffee.”
“You know, ’fore too long one of us gonna have to shoot something or catch something out a that river. Or we gotta go into town and buy some eggs. We gotta eat something what gonna stick to our inners. Your uncle ever take you fishing?”
“Don’t neither of us got time to sit holding a pole, but I show you how to run a trotline. All you gotta do is pull it in every day, see what you find on them hooks.”
“All right. And I’m not a bad shot. Maybe later this afternoon I’ll go find a good blind and sit for a while,” she said over her shoulder as she headed back to the cabin.
Nothing appealed to her more than the idea of resting quietly – and guilt-free – in the woods, while she waited for a deer to wander by. Of course, if she got one, she could guess who was going to be expected to process and preserve the meat. And she had no idea how to do either.
She unwound the rags, shook her head at the bloody mess, and rubbed her hands with chimney soot before wrapping them back up and lighting the fire. All she felt like doing was soaking in a hot tub, but Mourning had been right about one thing. She wasn’t cold any more.
“Come inside, eat at the table,” she called through the doorway and then looked up at the sky. Some “inside” their roofless little cabin offered.
Mourning came in and sat on one of the stump chairs. Ignoring his knife and fork, he spread a griddlecake with jam, rolled it up, and picked it up to eat with his fingers. Then he did the same with another.
“You ready for me to show you how to stitch that bark together for the roof?”
She looked at her breakfast, most of which was still on her plate. “Yes, Massa.”
“You want a roof over your head?” He shrugged and rose. “This weather ain’t gonna hold forever. Miracle we ain’t been soaked yet. It gonna rain sometime soon. I figure we can get most of the cabin roof on ’fore it does. We do the front first. That where the wind be comin’ from. If we both sleep with our backs against the front wall, we shouldn’t be getting’ no rain on us.”
“You’re fooling me,” she said.
He raised his chin. “You ’spect me to sleep out in the rain?”
“Mourning, I can’t sleep inside the same cabin with you.”
“Why not? Your head gonna start where my feet end. We be farther apart in here than we been on that boat.”
“That was different. There were all those people around. And no one knew us. But this is our home. What would people say?”
“What would people say?” he mimicked her, pitching his voice high. “What the hell people?” He stood up and spun around, hands out to both sides, palms up. “Who gonna tell anyone, the raccoons?”
“I’m sure you can figure out some place to sleep besides the cabin.”
“Sure, I can go crawl inside one a them hollow trees.”
“You could sleep under the wagon. Stand it in the corner of the barn closest to where the wind’s coming from. Then hang some canvas over the sides, like a tent, to keep the wet out. That would be drier than the cabin with only half a roof on it.”
His stared at her, his face stone.
“Don’t you be looking at me like that, Mourning Free. You know you’ve slept in worse places.”
His face remained blank.
“Anyway,” she continued, “you’re the one ought to be worried about what folks might do if they found a colored man sleeping in a cabin together with a white girl.” She thought she saw the line of his jaw relent before he turned toward the door.
“Wait, don’t go,” she said, gulping down a hasty bite. “I do want you to show me how to do the bark. Just let me finish eating. You haven’t even had any coffee.”
“Best make it fast. Lot to do today.” His voice sounded normal as he wrapped a rag around the handle of the tin coffee pot and poured himself a cup.
When they went outside, Mourning walked to where the pieces of bark were spread on the buffalo grass.
“This bark gonna be laid ’cross the roof in rows,” he said. “So first you gotta find all the pieces what be the same length. Don’t matter how wide they be, just how long. If they a real funny shape, you can fix ’em like this.” He took out his pocketknife and picked up an uneven piece of bark to demonstrate. He turned it over, scored a straight line along the top edge, and carefully bent it to break off the jagged edge. “Just don’t be thinkin’ like a girl, that they all got to be perfect. They all gonna lap over the other, so don’t matter none if they ain’t nice and straight.”
She nodded and he reached into his pocket for a roll of cloth. Inside it was a thick needle with a wide eye. He handed it to her.
“They’s a roll of string over there on the stump. You cut off a bunch a pieces, ’bout eight inches long, thread one of them through that needle. Then you put two pieces a bark together, with the long edges overlappin’ by ’bout two inches. Nuff so you got where to use that needle to poke holes through both pieces.” He demonstrated, holding two pieces of bark together. “You gonna make two holes near the top corner and tie off the string, then two more near the bottom corner. When you got a row wide as the cabin, I be layin’ it over the roof poles, nail it in place. Then the next one on top of it.”
“That’s the whole roof? That will keep the rain out?”
“You ever see a tree carryin’ an umbrella? May be some water gonna drip in, but it keep us mostly dry.”
Olivia sat down and began working. Her fingertips were soon covered with painful red dots and she rose to rummage through her wicker baskets in search of a thimble.
When she came back out Mourning was harnessing Dougan and Dixby. “You doin’ fine. I’m a go for more trees,” he said.
After he disappeared she poured herself a cup of coffee and sat on one of the stumps. She allowed her thoughts to wander to her mother, but they didn’t remain there long. She found herself more interested in water – how much she had used washing up and how many times she would have to go up and down the hill, today, tomorrow, and every day after that. Anyway, what was there to think about her mother? Nola June had been determined to die and dead she was. She hadn’t given a whit about the people she was leaving behind, so why should Olivia waste energy fretting about her?
She worked on the bark, hauled water, gathered wood, and made a few feeble attempts at splitting logs. Then she put both the beans and a pot of potatoes on to boil. Suddenly aware of how deep her hunger was, she decided that she did indeed need to go hunting today. The woods between the river and stream must be home to a lot of animals. It was too early in the day for many deer to be moving, but she would go pick a good spot and return later. She slung the Hawken and possibles bag over her shoulder, waded across the stream, left the trail, and carefully picked her way through the brush. She lifted her skirt, but it was already covered with brambles. Thorns scratched at her ankles and sharp twigs threatened to poke her eye out. She sighed, wishing she’d taken the high-top work boots she’d seen at Killion’s General. She left broken branches dangling to mark her trail, remembering that she hadn’t even told Mourning where she was going. How stupid of her.
Finally she came upon a small grassy clearing. She licked and raised a finger to check the wind and scrutinized the woods around the edge. There it was – the perfect tree – with an enormous trunk and low-hanging branches, a ready-made blind. She walked over and squatted behind it. Yes, it was a good place. She walked to the opposite edge of the clearing and pulled at the leafy branches of a young tree, breaking a few off and tossing them in a heap. Surely any self-respecting deer would venture two steps out of the woods to browse on those nice tops. Already tasting roast venison, she hurried back home. By the time she got there, Mourning had returned with another load of roof poles.
“Where you been at?” he asked.
“Finding a blind to hunt from. I’m starving. But if I get anything, you’re going to have to gut and skin it. I’ve never done that.”
He nodded, and she watched him wield a curved, double-handled draw knife as he stripped the bark from a thin trunk.
He makes everything look so easy, she thought.And he never whines. Not like me.
“So why ain’t you watchin’ out for a deer ’stead a standin’ here watchin’ me?” he asked.
“It’s too early. They’ll still be bedded down,” she said.
She dished up two plates of potatoes and beans and they sat outside, wolfing the food down. Then she hauled water to replenish the barrel. On every trip down to the river she passed the clothes she had hung on the line yesterday, but was in no hurry to take them down. There was something comforting – homey – about the sound of them flapping in the breeze. Then she sewed together two more strings of bark, while Mourning built a ladder that he stood against the wall of the cabin.
“Maybe I will go settle down, before the deer get up for their dinner,” she said. “And maybe I’ll start looking for a bee tree. I brought some old honey comb.”
“You know how to find one?”
“It’s easy. My Mammo Killion taught me. She had to have her honey wine. You burn a piece of honey comb and pretty soon a bee comes buzzing around. Before you know it, there’s a whole swarm of them. Then you wait for them to leave and watch which direction they go. They circle round and round till they’re high enough and then make a straight line back to their tree. You follow that line as well as you can and then burn some more comb. You keep doing that until eventually the bees start leaving in the opposite direction. Then you just walk back real slow and you’ll find the tree.”
Mourning’s bottom lip covered the top one as he nodded his head in approval. “Then how you gonna get the honey out a that tree, with all them bees buzzing around?”
“That’s no thing.” She grinned. “I’ll call you to chop it down. You know, my clothes are too bright for hunting. You think I can borrow one of your shirts, wear it over my dress?”
Now he grinned. “Like to hear what Lady Grody gonna say about that.”
“It’s not ‘Lady Grody.’ The journal is published by a Mr. Godey.Forladies.” Then she saw from his grin that his mistake had been intentional and grinned back. “Where are your clothes?” she asked.
“Where they gonna be at? Out in the barn where us critters live.”
She glanced at him, but was glad to see only amusement on his face. She went to the barn, picked his gray shirt off a nail, and pulled it on over her dress. Then she went to the cabin for the Hawken and her possibles bag and took a wine-colored leather volume from one of the wicker baskets. It was the last thing she had bought in Detroit – a journal. She hadn’t yet written a word in it, but now she would have time. She intended to keep track of everything. The work they did, what they ate, even their arguments. She checked the stopper on her pot of ink, wrapped it tightly in a rag, and slipped it and the long narrow case that held her quill into the pocket of her apron. She waved good-bye to Mourning, who was up on his ladder mumbling, and called out, “I’ll be on the other side of the stream.”
She easily retraced her trail and settled down with her back against the tree. She measured powder, loaded the Hawken, and practiced taking aim before propping the cocked rifle next to her.
Finally she opened the journal, lifting it to her face and breathing in its wonderful scent. The cover was bumpy leather, just like her Bible, but wine-colored instead of black.This was how Gulliver must have been born, she thought.And Chingachgook. A man had put black ink to white paper and created a world of words.She knew she would never make that kind of magic, but at least she could pass on her memories. At first she wrote as quickly as the quill allowed, trying to get down every clever word Mourning had said, every sound she had heard, every smell and breeze. Then her hand slowed, as she tried to describe her feelings. She tried to write as if no other soul would ever read her words.
She was lost in thought, the end of her quill tickling her nose, when she glanced up and saw them. A doe and two long-legged spotted fawns stood not five yards from her, the doe broadside, presenting a perfect target. Holding her breath, Olivia slowly set her quill in its case, closed the book, and lifted the rifle. She had the doe in her sights and her finger pressed hard on the trigger when one of the fawns perked its head up and turned enormous innocent eyes in her direction. It cocked its head and blinked, and Olivia lowered the gun. Not this one. How could she leave those little fawns alone and helpless in the woods? She watched them lower their heads to eat and then walk slowly away.
An hour later she was sitting with the Hawken between her knees, wondering if Mourning would be angry when she told him why they were having griddle cakes for supper again, when a buck stepped into the clearing. Olivia slowly lifted the rifle to her shoulder and took her shot. The deer disappeared into the woods, but Olivia knew it had been a kill shot and she wouldn’t have to track it far.
She loaded the rifle again, left her journal and possibles bag beneath the tree and strode to where the buck had been standing. The blood trail was easy to follow. Plunging eagerly into the woods, she had to force herself to take the time to mark her trail. She soon came upon the buck, its visible eye looking like glass. Finding it already dead was a great relief; there was no need for her to stick a knife into its throat to put it out of its misery.
She looked behind her; Dougan or Dixby would have no trouble making it most of the way in. Mourning and she would only have to drag the dead weight of the deer a few dozen yards. She paused to listen. Mourning must have heard the shot, but she didn’t hear anyone coming. She stopped to retrieve her journal and possibles bag and briskly headed toward home.
When she reached the bottom of their hill she could see that Mourning had made good progress with the roof. He had nailed the poles in place and the bottom two rows of bark lay neatly across them. But the ladder was empty and there was no sign of him. She called his name and then stopped short. Two figures emerged from around the barn and waved to her. Jeremy Kincaid. That had to be him with Mourning. When she hurried closer she saw that their new neighbor had indeed come to call.Chapter Eighteen
“You’re looking grand, Miss Killion.” Jeremy removed his hat and bobbed his head.
“Good to see you,” she mumbled. Then, in a stronger voice, she announced, “I got a deer.”
Mourning raised both arms over his head and wiggled his backside. “Hallelujah. Hallelujah. I heard that shot and I been prayin’. I ’bout forgot how meat taste.” He glanced up at the sky. “We better get trackin’, ’fore it get too dark to follow a trail.”
“There’s no tracking to do. It was a good shot. Nice-sized buck.” Olivia did her best to sound matter-of-fact and not boastful. “Bring one of the team and I’ll lead you to it. We won’t have to drag it far.”
“Well, let’s go,” Jeremy said. “I’m glad to lend a hand with the gutting and dressing.”
Olivia caught the look of relief that flashed over Mourning’s face.He must be afraid of having to do a lot of things, she thought.Just like me. Only difference is, he’s better at hiding it.
“Take me a minute to fix Dixby up with a single harness,” Mourning called over his shoulder as he started for the barn. “They still coffee in the pot.”
Olivia looked at Jeremy, but he silently declined the offer, holding up his hand, palm out and shaking his head. She went into the cabin to put the journal and possibles bag away, pulled Mourning’s shirt off, and combed her hair. Then she joined Jeremy, staring down at the river.
“This is a pretty location,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed the sound of the river from here, the way you can barely hear the rapids.”
Olivia smiled and listened to the soft rush of the water.
“You seem to be getting nicely settled in,” Jeremy said.
Mr. Kincaid had cleaned himself up to come calling – he was shaven and wore a dark blue shirt of good linen.
“Can’t complain. It’s nice to have a visitor, that’s for sure.” She paused before she nodded at his chest and said, “Shame to get that nice shirt all bloody.”
He shrugged. “So, now do I get to hear the long story of how your friend came by the name of Mourning Free?” Jeremy tilted his head toward the barn.
Olivia smiled. “It isn’t really so long. His parents were slaves in Virginia and ran north. His mother was with child, with him, but she walked all the way to Five Rocks – that’s the town in Pennsylvania that we come from – and the anti-slavery people took them in. His father chose Free as their new family name.”
“Fitting choice, I suppose.”
“Bit too fitting. The abolitionists tried to talk them out of it – said it was a dead giveaway that they were fugitive slaves. But they were set on it. Then Mourning’s father caught the influenza and died. That was just a few weeks before his wife died birthing.”
She paused for a moment.
“The colored midwife they’d brought over from the next town picked up the poor little baby …” Olivia paused and clasped her hands over her heart, looking up at the sky, “held him to her breast and paced about moaning, ‘Oh, this mourning child, this poor, poor mourning child.’ She said it over and over again and it stuck. Everyone started calling him ‘that poor mourning child,’ and Mourning was what got written in the church registry.”
Jeremy grinned. Olivia feared she may have gone too far; her audience could have taken her to be making light of one of the saddest stories she’d ever heard. And what about Mourning – how would he feel about her telling this story for the entertainment of a stranger? She felt her face flush with shame.
“So he was born an orphan,” Jeremy said.
“Who raised him up?”
She wished she could change the subject, but heard herself go on talking. “A colored family took him in for a while, but he always pretty much took care of himself. He worked everywhere in town and whoever he was working for gave him a place to sleep and fed him. He used to help in my father’s store – did everything but wait on customers. My father didn’t think that even Five Rocks, packed with Quakers though it may be, was quite prepared for a negro store clerk discussing corset sizes with white ladies.”
“No, one would assume not. So the two of you grew up together?”
“I couldn’t say that, but I’ve known Mourning all my life. I was the one who taught him how to read and write,” she said.
“Come on,” Mourning called, emerging from the barn with a rope in his hand and Dixby at his side. “Let’s go get supper.”
“Take an axe and your knives,” Jeremy called back and Mourning went to fetch them. “And something to put the heart and liver in,” Jeremy added.
“I’ll get a pan,” Olivia said.
When she came back out of the cabin Jeremy was bare-chested, hanging his pretty blue shirt on the wagon post. Mourning was quite a way ahead and Olivia hurried along beside Jeremy, remembering a novel in which the young women were constantly stumbling, providing the young men with an opportunity to grasp their elbows. But what if she pretended too well and fell flat on her face? Worse, what if Jeremy had no interest in holding onto her elbow?
“By the way,” Jeremy said, “I brought you and Mr. Free a little housewarming gift. I left it on your table. It’s a bag of coffee beans. I buy them at a shop in Detroit that gets them all the way from Brazil. Best coffee you’ll ever taste.”
“Well thank you, Mr. Kincaid. That was most kind of you. We’ll enjoy it. We do like our coffee, though neither of us is very good at making it.” The moment she spoke, a scowl hovered over her face. She didn’t like the way “we” and “us” had sounded – as if she and Mourning were a couple.
“Would you object to calling me Jeremy?”
“No, of course not,” she said.
With that, her manners were all used up. Having seldom spoken to anyone she hadn’t known all her life, she had no idea what she was supposed to say now. Should she tell him to call her Olivia? Everyone in Five Rocks did, but that was because they still thought of her as a child. Perhaps he was supposed to ask her permission. This was one count Mabel Mears had been right on – Olivia could have used an older woman to teach her these things. Then her stubborn streak took over. What did she care what a bunch of fuddy-duddies thought? Civilization on the Michigan frontier would survive her lack of proper etiquette just fine. As long as you were kind to other people, wasn’t that the most civilized thing?
“And Olivia is fine with me,” she said. “Truth be told, you’re the first person who’s ever called me Miss Killion, except for Mourning – and he only does when he thinks I’m acting snooty. And Mourning might faint on the spot if anyone called him Mr. Free.”
They were catching up to Mourning and she wondered if he could hear what they were saying.
“Well, then Mourning it will be. He seems a right good skin. Doing a grand job on the roof.”
“Oh Mourning is the handiest fellow you’ll ever find. He can do anything.” If Mourning could hear them, she hoped lavish praise would help compensate for her having spoken about his private business. Then she changed the subject. “How long have you been out here?”
Jeremy thought for a moment. “Going on eight years. Came out in ’34.”
“How does your family like life in Michigan?”
“I don’t have any family here.”
She waited for him to embellish or ask her a question, but he remained silent.
“So where are you from?” she asked as they caught up with Mourning.
“Maine? Oh my, then you must have seen the Atlantic Ocean!”
“Certainly have and it is a sight. But if there’s one thing not lacking in Michigan, it’s large bodies of water. Lake Huron is just as pretty and doesn’t burn your eyes the way saltwater does. Lake St. Clair is lovely too and they’ve finished putting in a road all the way to Mt. Clemens.”
“If you don’t farm,” she asked, “What do you do? Hunt or trap or something?”
“No, nothing like that. I do spend a lot of time in the woods.”
She again waited for him to embellish, wanting to know “Doing what?” but he did not seem inclined to volunteer information about himself
“We haven’t been into town yet,” she said. “We’ll have to go soon, get some milk, eggs, and butter.”
“Well, I warned you, it isn’t much of a town,” he said.
They caught up with Mourning and Olivia took the lead. It wasn’t long before Olivia said to Mourning, “You’d better leave Dixby here, where it’s easy for him to turn around,” and continued toward the dead buck. In her haste, she let her dress catch on a branch and stopped to extricate herself, examining the tear in the fabric and muttering about stupid women’s dresses.
“So why are you wearing one?” Jeremy asked.
“What else would I wear?”
“I know women who have a seamstress run up trousers for them. At least for when they’re working. Or riding.”
Olivia was barely able to hide her shock and did not respond.
“There it is,” she said, pointing at her buck, but feeling less excited than she had a moment ago. What women?
Olivia left them to their bloody task and spent the walk home pondering what Jeremy had said. Women who wore trousers? Who ever heard of such a thing? The guidebooks made no mention of it. Maybe he’d been fooling with her. And then the truly troubling question kept repeating itself – what women? If he had no family, he couldn’t have been referring to sisters or cousins. And what were those women doing that they needed to wear trousers?
Olivia had begun to see herself as special – resourceful and adventurous. Now that feeling abandoned her. She was nothing but a boring girl who obeyed the rules and whined a lot. She imagined one of those trouser-clad women strolling through the woods with Jeremy and riding bareback with him to Lake Huron, to swim in her birthday suit.
When she reached the cabin she washed her hands and face, lit two lanterns, and searched for her mirror. It was the first time since leaving home that she had bothered to look at her reflection and she was pleasantly surprised. She couldn’t see that the past few days had made her look as worn down as she felt. It was a good thing she’d done as Mourning said and started wearing her straw bonnet when she was out in the sun. She brushed her hair, rubbed some powder over her teeth, and rinsed her mouth. Some of the women in Five Rocks dusted their faces with flour and then wetted red crepe paper and rubbed their cheeks with it to make them rosy. Olivia stared in the mirror and wondered if that might make her look any better. Finally she made a face at herself and stood up. Those women looked ridiculous. Besides, she didn’t have any red crepe paper. Enough wasting time on nonsense. She looked like she looked. If he didn’t like it, too bad.
She decided to celebrate their first real meal – and first dinner guest – by eating inside. Maybe sitting at a properly set table would remind Mourning that some people actually used utensils to move food from plate to mouth and didn’t regard their fork as a giant toothpick. She wished they had some honey wine with which to toast Uncle Scruggs and Aunt Lydia Ann.
A small pouch lay on the table. She opened it and breathed in the heavenly aroma of Jeremy’s coffee beans, before setting them on the counter next to the coffee grinder. She would serve it to them later, outside, together with one of the jars of sweet peaches she had bought in Detroit and kept hidden from Mourning. They could at least clink their tin cups together in honor of Uncle Scruggs.
She decided to get out the only tablecloth she had brought from home. Aunt Lydia Ann had cross-stitched it in a red and green design – probably for this very table – and it seemed fitting to use it tonight. Mourning was sure to later make some sarcastic remark about her putting on airs for Jeremy and the tablecloth would be one more thing to carry down that hill and launder, but she didn’t care. This was a special occasion. She also picked some wildflowers, arranged them in a tall tin mug, and set it in the center of the table. Then she laid and lit a fire in the pit, already imagining the sizzle of fat and smell of roasting meat. A loud snort from the barn startled her and she went to investigate. The biggest, reddest horse she had ever seen stood there, tethered on a long rope.
“Well, hullo.” Olivia stroked its neck. “You must belong to Mr. Kincaid. What’s your name? You wait right here, I’ll go get you a treat.”
She returned with a withered apple cut into quarters. While the horse ate from her hand she spoke to it in a soothing voice. “There, what a good boy you are.”
She had always loved horses. When some men in Five Rocks had banged on the front door to tell Seborn they were going to shoot the horse that had killed her Uncle Scruggs, Olivia had run to Ferguson’s Livery in her nightdress and stood in front of the horse, arms outstretched like a cross.
“What do you want to shoot him for?” she said, in tears. “He didn’t do it on purpose. It wasn’t his fault Uncle Scruggs was bending down behind him. If Mr. Sorenson hadn’t fired his stupid pistol, this poor horse wouldn’t have gotten spooked and kicked.” She had prevailed by sobbing. “Uncle Scruggs would never have wanted you to murder him.”
“Are you making friends with old Dougan over there?” she asked the big red horse. “Well, I see they’ve given you feed and water, so I’d better get back to getting your daddy something to put into his belly.” She took a step back and noticed its perfectly matched white stockings. “Lord, what a beautiful animal you are. See you later.”
She turned to leave, but was guilt-stricken for neglecting poor Dougan. She walked over to stroke his head. “Yes, you’re a good boy too. It’s not your fault you’re not pretty like him, is it? Couldn’t beat him in a race either. But you do your job and I want you to know we appreciate it.” She scratched behind his ears.
Then she set to peeling potatoes and cutting them into thick wedges to fry up with salt and pepper. Once they were on the plate, she’d sprinkle them with vinegar, the way Mabel did. She imagined the three of them sitting outside after their meal. Olivia’s teacher once told her that her cheekbones, and the shadows beneath them, were her most striking feature, so she’d look good in the firelight, wouldn’t she? She turned to pick up the mirror again, but stopped, hating this way of thinking, as if the only thing that mattered about a girl was the way she looked.
Instead she pried the cork out of the jar of peaches and poked a sharp knife into the half-inch layer of paraffin. Why hadn’t she bought any glass bowls? All they had were tin plates and cups. But when she dipped a spoon into the jar and cut off a bite of peach, she knew it wouldn’t matter if she served them on a shovel. Those sweet peaches were delicious and it required some effort on her part not to gobble them all down.
There was still no sign of Mourning and Jeremy, so she decided she might as well use the time for herself. She gathered her journal, pencil, and eraser and walked partway down the hill to sit among the tall weeds. Biting her bottom lip, she stared for a long moment before starting to sketch the cabin. She vaguely remembered watching her mother paint her watercolors, but Olivia had never put her own hand to drawing. She wished she had one of the new, softer erasers Avis had read about, that made it easier to rub out your mistakes. She was still working on the picture when she saw Mourning and Jeremy approaching. Both shirtless, they were walking on either side of Dixby, with the gutted buck slung over his back.
Olivia rose and waved, then hurried inside to tuck her journal under the mattress. Back outside, she set the frying pans – one for the meat and one for the potatoes – at the edge of the fire. She walked down to meet them and took the pan holding the heart and liver from Mourning. Both men had smears of dried blood on their stomach, arms, and chest. On Mourning it was barely discernable. On Jeremy the contrast with his pale skin made him look even whiter, like a bed sheet. With his shirt off, his narrow shoulders and the deep depression where his neck met his breastbone reminded her of a plucked chicken, but she scolded herself for that observation.The way a man looks shouldn’t count for so much either. God gave us our faces and bodies and all we can do is live with them. Pretty people didn’t do anything to deserve looking like that. Why should we think more of them for it?
While she cut up and fried the heart and liver, she studied her hands and arms. What had made white folks so sure their pale, fishy skin was better? Why hadn’t they thought, gosh, look at these lucky people, they have such lovely dark skin? But she knew the answer. People always think whatever they have is just perfect. Whatever they do, the fact that they did it makes it the right thing to do. Once they choose a religion, that makes it God’s holy word.
Mourning and Jeremy were down past the barn, staring up at a tall tree from which a sturdy bough jutted, fifteen to twenty feet off the ground.Yes, Olivia thought,that would be a good place to hang the buck. Far from the cabin and high enough so that not even a bear could get at it. For a moment she imagined a pack of frustrated wolves or coyotes, leaping up at the carcass time after time and then giving up and going to look for easier pickings – like her or Mourning. Theyhadto get doors on the cabin and barn. But there was no point in thinking about that now. Now she was going to have a delicious dinner and enjoy the company of her good friend and the man who – perhaps – had come to call on her.Chapter Nineteen
Olivia walked toward the two men, carrying a plate of fried liver and heart. Too hungry to resist, she popped a few pieces into her mouth on the way. With her fingers. Now she knew for sure she couldn’t be counted on to preserve gentility on the frontier.
Mourning threw a length of rope over the tree branch. Jeremy tied one end around the hind legs of the carcass, while Mourning fastened the other to Dixby’s harness and led him away, hoisting the deer into the air.
“You plan on eating some of this critter tonight?” Jeremy asked.
“Indeed we do.” Mourning nodded.
“Then lower it down a bit and I’ll cut out the back straps. They’re good eating – right tender.”
Olivia came up next to them and held out the plate. The meat disappeared in what seemed seconds. Mourning and Jeremy returned to their bloody job and soon joined her around the fire. They put some of the meat they had cut into one of the frying pans and rigged up a spit for the rest.
Jeremy studied the sky. “Normally I’d say leave the carcass hanging to dry for a few days, but it looks like bad weather coming. You’d best smoke it tonight.” He looked at Mourning’s blank face and continued. “Just finish skinning it, cut the meat into smaller pieces, and hang them over a slow burning fire. You got to watch the wind and keep the meat in the smoke. And the fire not too hot. Four-five hours ought to do it.”
“I thought we spose to pickle it,” Mourning said.
“You could do that.”
While the men went to clean themselves up in the river, Olivia finished frying up the meat and potatoes.
Mourning returned before Jeremy and bent down close to her, whispering. “What he been sayin’ back there – ’bout my skin?”
“Your skin?” Olivia asked, puzzled.
“When we been walkin’ before, two a you behind me, I heard him say something ’bout my skin bein’ good.”
Olivia frowned for a moment and then realized what he was referring to and grinned. “No. What he said was that you ‘seem like a right good skin.’ It’s an expression the Irish use – means a good person. My Mammo Killion used to say that about people.”
“He sure talk funny sometimes,” Mourning said.
Olivia considered this. “He must have Irish grandparents, like me. Doesn’t have an Irish accent, but once in a while one of those sayings creeps in.”
“He sound like a skin what don’t know who he be.”
“Well you know, people pick up the way their own folks talk. Don’t even realize that other people might not understand some of the expressions they use. You know . . .” She hesitated. “I’ve always wanted to ask you about the way you talk.”
“What wrong with the way I be talkin’?”
“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with it. Not at all. It’s just different from the way everyone else in Five Rocks speaks.”
She paused, but Mourning said nothing.
“You’re the only colored person I know, but I’m guessing other colored folks talk like you. Is that right?”
“But you grew up listening to white people all day, so I would think you might talk more like us.”
“You forgettin’ I been livin’ with them Carters.”
“Well, yes, but even then you worked for white folks. Spent most of your day with white folks. And you ran away from the Carters when you were what, nine?”
“I be talkin’ like colored folks cause I be colored folks. Not like Mr. Jeremy Kincaid what can’t decide if he Irish or American. I know what I be.”
She wondered what had aroused this hint of animosity and glanced over her shoulder to make sure Jeremy was still out of earshot. “Did he do something to make you angry?” she asked. “I thought you two were getting along just grand.”
Mourning followed her glance down to where Jeremy was still crouched on the white boulder, splashing his upper body with water. “I ain’t meanin’ to say nothing bad ’bout him. He be a right good skin hisself, helpin’ me with that buck, teachin’ me what I gotta do. Ain’t bad company neither. But I can tell you one thing – that there be a man what got a whole mess a habits from livin’ on his own and likin’ it. He ain’t gonna change one thing in his life to ’ccommodate no one else.” He paused and looked directly into her eyes. “What I sayin’ is – that ain’t no man what gonna marry you.”
Olivia’s jaw dropped. “Marry me! What an idea. Honestly, Mourning.”
Jeremy had started up the hill and Mourning spoke quickly, under his breath. “I know you been thinkin’ on it. I seen the way you be lookin’ at him and I tellin’ you – that man there ain’t gonna be takin’ on no wife.”
Jeremy’s approach saved Olivia from having to respond. She wondered if her face looked as red as it felt and busied herself turning the pieces of meat.
“That felt good,” Jeremy said, still shirtless and dripping.
Too distracted to think to offer him a towel, Olivia mumbled, “I introduced myself to your horse. Beautiful animal. What’s his name?”
“Ernest?” She laughed. “Not what I would have expected.”
She waited a moment for him to say something else. He didn’t. She rose and went inside to grind the coffee beans, wondering what had made Mourning talk like that. Had Jeremy said something about her? Did he dislike her? But he was the one who came calling; if nothing else, he must want to be friends. She sighed and fretted and finally went back out with the coffee pot, setting it near the fire, ready to brew. The three of them sat watching the meat and potatoes fry.
“What are we going to do with all that meat?” Olivia looked back toward the tree where the deer hung. “Maybe we should take some of it into town to sell.”
Mourning looked at her as if she were unbalanced. “Let someone else enjoy the fresh venison what our expert hunter lady got? You gone loony?”
“Well, it’s not going to stay fresh forever. How much do you think we can eat in a week or two?”
“Don’t you worry. I got a Michigan-size appetite. Feel like I could eat the whole thing. Anyway, you gonna pickle it,” Mourning said.
“I don’t know how to do that.”
“Must tell you in them guide books,” Mourning said. “I think all you gotta do is boil up a big pot a water and throw in a mess a sugar and salt and a handful a saltpeter. Once it be good and boilin’ you take it off the fire, skim the foam off, and let it cool ’fore you set your meat swimmin’ in there. You just gotta remember to put a big old rock on top a the meat, hold it down under the water.”
“That’s about right. It is quite simple,” Jeremy agreed.
“And if I don’t do it right, will we know if the meat’s gone off?”
“No worry on that account,” Jeremy said. “If you make ahamesof it, you’ll smell it. So will people in the next county.”
“Well, I guess all I can do is try,” she said. She poked at the meat sizzling in the skillet, declared it done, and pulled both frying pans out of the fire. “I set the table inside,” she said. “Like a real dinner.”
“It’s quite nice out here, I thought,” Jeremy said. “Air’s a little chilly, but we’ve got the fire. Can make all the mess we want.”
“You set yourself down, Livia.” Mourning nodded in agreement. “I go get them plates. Tonight I’s waiting on you, hunter lady.”
Mourning dished the food out and neither he nor Jeremy waited for it to cool. Olivia watched them dig in, eating with their fingers and licking them. Those adventurous women in trousers probably had no use for knives and forks. Olivia hesitantly put her utensils aside and gnawed at the fried venison as enthusiastically as her companions.
After they had eaten more than their fill Olivia carried over a bucket and they poured dippers of water over their hands and splashed their greasy mouths and chins. Tired, Olivia did not offer to hunt up a towel and neither of the men asked for one – they wiped their mouths on their hands and their hands on their trousers. Olivia raised her arm, intending to use her sleeve, but couldn’t. Her dress may be torn and filthy, but she couldn’t bring herself to use it as a rag. She wiped her hand across her mouth a few more times.
She set the coffee pot in the fire and served the peaches, which they happily slurped. When she poured the coffee they obliged and shouted a loud, “Hear, hear,” in honor of Uncle Scruggs, but the conversation quickly turned to a discussion of how much bark the roof would take. Then Mourning raised his chin and pointed it over Olivia’s shoulder.
“You want Dougan and Dixby to spend the night standin’ there?” he asked.
She looked at him blankly.
“Your vegetable garden – you want it next to the cabin there, like I said?”
“Oh. Sure.” She had not given it a moment’s thought. “Do you have a vegetable garden?” she asked Jeremy.
She managed to find other questions to ask Jeremy, but the result was the same – a simple yes or no.
“Well.” Jeremy stood up. “Time I was going. Let you tend to that meat.”
“We appreciate all your help.” Olivia started to get to her feet, but Jeremy waved her down, saying, “Don’t bother yourself. I can find my way to Ernest.”
While Jeremy was in the barn saddling his horse Olivia stared into the fire, willing Mourning to keep his big mouth shut.
“Delicious dinner,” Jeremy said as he mounted. “We’ll be by, Ernest and I.” He raised a hand to his hat and said, “After,” in farewell.
“You’re always welcome,” she called to his back, despising herself for the pleading tone of her voice.
“Guess you ain’t never heard a hard to get,” Mourning muttered as Jeremy disappeared into the dark.
Olivia did not respond.
“That talk about makin’ ahames– that ’nother one a them Irish things?” Mourning asked as he rose.
“I guess so. I never heard that one before, but it must be.” She turned away to clear up the dishes and then scooped up some ashes from the edge of the fire for scouring the frying pans.
“I gotta get to diggin’ a garbage pit,” Mourning said, more to himself than to her. “Now that we lucky ’nuff we got garbage.” He rose and stretched. “You get some water boilin’ while I finish butcherin’ that animal.”
Olivia built up the fire, filled the two biggest pots with water, and wandered about with a lantern searching for rocks large enough to hold the meat under the brine. Neither she nor Mourning was inclined to conversation. When they had finally finished with the meat, Olivia said good night, left her dress in a heap on the floor, pulled her nightdress on, and collapsed onto her bed. She lay looking up at the dark clouds and feeling vaguely angry with Jeremy, though she could find no justification for this emotion. He had behaved like the perfect neighbor – seen that they needed help and stayed to offer his. Had even brought them a gift. So why did she feel so insulted?
He must have a lady friend. So why couldn’t he just say so? Nothing would be easier than tossing her into the conversation. “Me and my girl don’t plan to farm.” “My girl really loves riding Ernest.” Then it would be different. Olivia would know. She wouldn’t be left thinking that she must be so ugly, boring, or stupid that he wouldn’t give her a second look, not even out here, in the middle of nowhere.
Lord in heaven, how many girls were there for him to choose from? If she were the last one on earth, would he still pay her no mind? Why? What did he think was wrong with her? He’d never heard of Crazy Nola June or Old Man Killion whoring with Jettie Place.
The air had turned cold. Shoot, why was she losing sleep over some stupid man with a chest like a chicken? There was hardly anything left of the night and they had so much to do tomorrow. Mourning said theyhadto get the rest of the roof on. She snuggled under the comforter and fell into a restless sleep.
A loud clap of thunder awakened her, just as a light sprinkle turned into a downpour. She was soaked before she got out of bed. She grabbed the wet bedding and tried to wad it up on the narrow kitchen counter, which was under the finished part of the roof, but her quilt fell to the floor. She picked it up and even in the dark could see the muddy streaks. How would she ever get it clean? It wouldn’t even fit into the wash tub.
Where was Mourning? Had he taken the wagon into the barn? The rain let up a little and she peeked out the door, but could see nothing. “Mourning!” she shouted. “I’m an idiot. Come in here if you want.”
She searched for their precious lucifer matches and found them on the counter under an overturned pot, miraculously still dry. There did not seem to be any leaks in Mourning’s roof. She dragged one of the stumps over and sat on it, shivering, her back pressed against the logs of the front wall. When the rain lightened to a drizzle she crouched by the bed to check that her things weren’t standing in a puddle, but the water seemed to be draining toward the door. Had Uncle Scruggs been that clever? Purposely built the floor with just the slightest incline? She checked the lanterns, punk wood, and food stuffs; Mourning had wrapped them all and set them on the counter against the wall, where they would be protected from the rain. Then she found her wooden clogs and ventured outside.
She nearly slid on the wet ground, but caught her balance.Wouldn’t that be wonderful,she thought, to be not only chilled and wet, but covered with mud and with no dry wood for a fire?She took small, careful steps to check on the woodpile. The sheet of canvas was in place and the back wall of the cabin seemed to be offering sufficient protection.
Then she went toward the barn, where she saw that Mourning had followed her suggestion and wedged the wagon into the front corner. She stepped closer and studied his cozy nest – he had prepared a thick bed of twigs, placed his mattress over them, wheeled the wagon in place, and draped sheets of canvas over its sides. Still, he was on the ground and who knew how much more rain would fall. She stood silently for a moment, listening. He must be asleep.
She turned to leave, then stopped and said in a hesitant whisper. “I came to say I’m sorry. If you’re getting wet, please come to the cabin. The part under the roof is dry, except for the floor.”
The edge of the canvas flapped. “I be fine in here. Nice and cozy.”
She moved closer and saw the raft of evenly placed roof poles, as wide as the wagon, that his mattress rested upon. The water would have to stand five or six inches deep for him to get wet.
“You knew it was going to rain, didn’t you?”
“Been sayin’ so.”
“I mean tonight. You knew it was going to rain tonight.”
“Thought it might.”
“You could have told me, warned me to get ready for it,” she said softly.
“Guess I coulda.”
Another downpour began and she turned to scurry back to the cabin, but the canvas flap opened wide and Mourning’s voice commanded. “Come on, get in here, ’fore you be catchin’ it.”
She hesitated, but the sheet of rain presented a convincing argument. She wiggled in, her head to his feet, hugging the cloak that she had pulled on, and struggling to keep it and her muslin nightgown pulled down past her knees. He squeezed to the far side, leaving space between them.
“I’ll just wait here a few minutes, until it lets up again,” she said.
“Ain’t no place for you to lie down in there,” he said. “You think you gonna sleep standin’ up by the wall? Here.” He was using a sheet of canvas for a blanket and shook it out to cover both of them. “Just pretend I be a lump of clay and get some sleep.”
Olivia’s head shook slightly as she imagined the look on Mabel Mears’ face, if she could see them now. Well, what did that cow think she would have done? Olivia stayed put. Mourning snored steadily and her mind was blank as she felt herself dragged down into sleep.Chapter Twenty
A few hours later a full bladder woke Olivia. She’d forgotten where she was and tried to sit up, banging her head against the axle and yelping, but this elicited only a whistling snore from Mourning. Mortified, she carefully rolled onto her elbows and extracted herself from beneath the wagon. It was no longer raining, but the air felt wet, more a mist than a drizzle. The sky was still dark, but she knew she was done sleeping. After she hobbled to the outhouse on her clogs and splashed water over her hands and face, she lit the lantern on the kitchen counter and surveyed her soggy home.
Oh Lord, the mattress. She’d been so busy bundling up her bedding, she hadn’t given a thought to her lovely new mattress. It was soaked. Dispirited, she slumped down onto one of the stump chairs, elbows on her knees. The long day of drudgery had not yet begun and already she was drained of energy. And where was she supposed to sleep tonight? Making do in an emergency as she had last night was one thing; the idea of tucking in with Mourning again was quite impossible.
For a moment she wondered if there might be any rooms to let in that dismal-looking town. That had, after all, been her original plan – before she knew what it felt like to haul water and chop wood all day. Walk an hour, two hours, alone in the twilight? Then back in the morning, worn out before she’d even started her chores? No thank you.
Tears began to run down her cheeks, though she knew there was nothing to cry about. Had the cabin burned down? Indians attacked them? Mourning fallen ill? No, nothing bad had happened. So what’s wrong, little girl, why are you crying? Olivia imagined a kindly gentleman bending down to comfort her. She cringed when she heard her whiny response. It rained last night. Sob, sob, boo-hoo. A short, sharp laugh escaped her, but the tears continued to flow. Her shoulders shook until her body ached even more. Finally she rose and wiped the backs of her hands across her eyes.Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get on with it. Just get on with it.
She managed to salvage some dry wood from the bottom of the pile and got a fire going in the fireplace. Then she dragged one of the wicker baskets from under the bed and was relieved to find that her clothes were only damp. She pulled out a work dress, laid it near the fire, and glared at it. Who said she had to wear that stupid thing?
“You got any coffee cookin’?” Mourning’s voice startled her from the other side of the flap.
“Oh. Good morning.” She pulled the canvas aside. “I’ll get some on now. There’s a fire going in here. Come in.” She reached for the coffee pot.
He did, but then squinted at her and turned away, obviously uncomfortable. She looked down at her chest and was horrified. Even in the dim light she could see the wet patches of her chemise clinging to the hard little knobs of her nipples. She pulled her cloak around her and flushed red.
“I didn’t think. I just got up and my clothes are all wet,” she stammered.
“Any a them peaches left?”
“No. Are your clothes dry?”
“I was thinking, could I maybe borrow a pair of your trousers? Just for today?”
“Sure could. But, my, my, my, Lady Grody gonna have a conniption fit.”
“When Lady Grody comes out here and starts hunting deer, hauling water, and splitting firewood, she can tell me what to wear.”
“I go get you a pair. Shirt to go with ’em too.”
The trousers were wide in the waist by a good five inches and the circles worn into the fabric by Mourning’s knees hung mid-calf on Olivia. She folded the bottoms of the pant legs into thick cuffs and ran a piece of twine through the belt loops. Then she rolled up the sleeves of the flannel shirt. She felt wonderfully unencumbered and her mood changed. Grinning, she did a little dance around the cabin floor and then kicked each leg as high as she could. It was a whole new world of possibilities.I could climb over a fence, she thought.Or up a tree. Ride bareback. She spun around.
“I heard ’bout women on the trail goin’ over them Great Plains wearin’ men’s clothes.” Mourning’s voice came from the other side of the wall.
“I hope you don’t mind me borrowing them,” she said sheepishly, as she stepped outside and did a little pirouette.
He lifted his right hand to his shoulder, slowly rolled it out, and bent at the waist, as if welcoming a queen into a room. “Nah, I don’t mind. Don’t want you ruinin’ all them ’spensive dresses and thinkin’ you gotta buy more,” he said and turned away
They worked all morning in a spitting drizzle. By mid-afternoon the sky was clear and Olivia asked Mourning to help her carry her mattress out to dry.
“Ain’t no chance it gonna be dry for tonight,” Mourning said as they leaned it against the wall of the cabin.
He took up the scythe and cut an enormous pile of buffalo grass laced with weeds. “You get the thorns out a that mess and pile it on your bed. I get you a sheet of canvas to throw over it. Ain’t no mattress, but it be better than bare wood.”
Olivia smiled in thanks and they both went about their chores. When they stopped for a lunch of venison and beans, Mourning looked up and studied the sky.
“Don’t look like they’s more rain comin’,” he said. “Course that don’t mean nothing. One a them men on the boat said Michigan weather be hard to read on ’ccount of the wind blowin’ in crazy directions off all them lakes.” He stopped to swallow and then asked, “How ’bout tomorrow morning we go into that Fae’s Landing, see ’bout gettin’ a door made.”
“Oh yes.” Olivia’s smile was wide.
She hummed as she gathered up the sodden clothing and bedclothes. This time she lit a fire down by the river, boiled water, and gave the laundry a proper soaking. She tied up more lines and rinsed out the sheets first.
Later she walked past the bedclothes, enjoying the sound of them flapping in the wind. The scent of sun on freshly laundered linen brought her to a stop, stone still. That smell. That sound. The warmth of the sun on her skin. She was a little girl – maybe five or six – sitting in the grass under the clothes line, watching her mother slip wooden pegs into the pocket of her stiff white apron before shaking out a white sheet and folding it into the laundry basket. Olivia squeezed her eyes shut and lifted her chin. Her mother’s face. She had to see her mother’s face. Hanging up the wash while her little girl played at her feet. But Olivia could not see beyond her mother’s bare feet and the folds of her long brown skirt.
“I been thinkin’, maybe we both have us a bath tonight.” Mourning’s voice brought her back to the present. “Nice hot water. Take the chill off.”
“That sounds good,” she said. “Are we going to go into town even if it’s raining?”
He frowned at the sky. “Dunno. Guess you can have your say ’bout that. I ain’t gonna sit inside tomorrow, no matter if it be rainin’ or not. Make no difference to me if I be workin’ in the rain or drivin’ in the rain.”
“So we’ll go. Even if it’s raining,” she said and went on with her chores.
Late in the afternoon she called to Mourning that if he wanted a bath, he’d best come get it.
“Sure is dark in here now that you’ve got the roof on,” she said and ignored his sarcastic offer to take it off.
She lifted four buckets of steaming water from the hearth, brought in two of cold, and said, “You go first,” as she set the washtub near the fireplace. Before she left him to his privacy, she set a large pot of water to heat on the crane and their only other tin bucket on the hearth, to get started heating for her own bath.
She sat by the fire pit, watching the stars come out and listening to him splash. When he emerged, fragrant with soap and shiny as tar, she noted that he had put his dirty clothes back on.
“You don’t have to keep wearing the same clothes forever, Mourning. I’ll wash them,” she said as she handed him a cup of coffee.
“Don’t matter none. They just be gettin’ dirty all over again.”
“Do you have enough clothes?” she asked. “I mean, if I keep –”
“You mean with you wearin’ my pants just for today?” He finished the question with a grin.
“Well, they are awfully comfortable. I wouldn’t mind borrowing them every day. Maybe we could get you some new ones in town tomorrow. Or even some that would fit me better.”
“Yeah, we can see ’bout that.”
“We’ve got a special dessert,” she said. “I picked some berries today. I don’t know what kind they are, but I ate some this morning and I haven’t died yet.”
“Sound good to me.”
“Come help me empty that tub so I can get cleaned up.”
At first she sat in the tub hugging her knees, but then sank down, arms and legs dangling over the sides. Her mind blank, she watched the flickering shadows the lantern made on the wall. Coyotes howled in the distance and the strains of Mourning’s harmonica joined in. She wished someone would build a fire under her, so she could lie there forever, but the chill eventually drove her out. She put Mourning’s clothes back on and joined him in the coolness of the early evening. Mourning had lit a fire in the pit and she put together a simple supper of venison, bread, and the berries.
“Maybe we should buy another barrel tomorrow,” she said. “We could set it on the wagon and drive down to the river, so I could fill it up down there, instead of carrying all those buckets.”
Mourning thought for a moment. “Could try, I guess. But the mouth a that barrel gonna be awful high, standin’ up there. You gonna have to climb up on the wagon, pour the water in, and get back down. Same thing when you get up there.”
“But that be good thinking. And a barrel don’t cost much. You could try and see which be easier.” Mourning shrugged.
“So we’re finally going to see the town,” she said as she finished the last of her berries. “Maybe we’ll get to know some people. We could drive over and introduce ourselves to those neighbors too – those Stubblefields Jeremy told us about.”
“Time for that.” He sniffed his nose. “You ain’t gonna be goin’ over there, borrow no cup of flour.”
“They’re farmers. He could give you a lot of helpful advice.”
“Time for that.”
“They might be interested in renting the team. And even if not, it would be nice to have some folks to talk to.”
“Folks ain’t always a big treat. We don’t gotta be goin’ ’round showin’ ourselves off. Here we be – one sweet young white girl and one big scary black man, livin’ on a piece a land what ain’t got but one cabin on it. Anyway, I ain’t never noticed you been such a big talker back in Five Rocks.”
She bristled. “I had friends.”
“Must a been the invisible kind.” He tossed a piece of wood into the fire.
“What would you know about me and any friends I may or may not have had?”
“Nothing, I guess.” His tone had grown gentler
After a long silence broken only by the crackling fire, Olivia asked, “How come you came back to Five Rocks?”
“What you mean?”
“You know – the Carters. Why didn’t you stay with them? Were they mean to you?”
He poked at the fire with a stick and shrugged. “Guess it been plenty crowded in that house. They had a passel of kids of they own.”
“What are you smiling about?” she asked.
“Just rememberin’. Old Goody got so many kids, he hadda build a loft for them to sleep in. Cut out a hole in the floor, right over the stove, so we gonna get some heat up there. They had the most ugliest cat you ever seen and that bag a fur been wanting to sleep up in the loft with us. It finally learned how to climb up the ladder and we thinkin’ it so smart. But then when it wanna get down, it jump through that hole, right straight down onto the hot stove. You never heard such screeching.”
Olivia smiled with him and they sat through another long silence before she asked, “Do you believe in God?”
“Do you ever get mad at Him? I mean, for taking your parents away from you, and for letting there be slavery, and for all the other terrible things in the world?”
“Ain’t never thought on it much.”
“I know what the ministers say,” she said. “That God didn’t make slavery. God only made Man, and Man made slavery.”
“But why did God have to make people capable of doing such awful things?”
“That what you be spendin’ your time worryin’ on?” He rose to feed a log to the fire.
“Not so much any more. When I was little I used to wonder a lot about things like that. You know, why people have to go through all they do, when they’re just going to die in the end anyway. You might as well up and die now – save yourself all the trouble in between.”
“Folks seem to like bein’ alive. Know I do.”
“But don’t you ever wonder why God made the world?”
He shrugged. “Guess I been luckier than you. I spent my life busy wondering if I’m a have a place to sleep tonight. So when you stop worryin’ on all that stuff?”
“One day I heard someone talking. Remember that raggedy old peddler that used to come through Five Rocks? The one with the cart with those big red wheels? One day there were two men out in the street, having a big argument about whose religion was right, the Catholics or the Presbyterians. That peddler came along and shut them both up. He said no one is right. That it’s impossible for a person to be right. He said that if God does exist, there’s one thing for sure about Him – He never meant for human beings to know the answers to those questions. If they did, then they wouldn’t be people. They’d be God. He said it’s just like your eyes can’t see everything, and your ears can’t hear everything, so your brain can’t understand those things. So it’s no use wondering.”
“Bet you give him what for.”
“No. I liked what he said. Thinking about that stuff had been making me crazy. But it still doesn’t seem right to me, all the bad things that go on, and God just sitting up there watching.”
“Damn.” Mourning slapped his neck. “You see that one? Big as a hummingbird. Took a bite right out a me. Shoot.” He slapped himself again. “God sure coulda done without creatin’ these goldarn Pontiacer flies. They gonna get worse, the hotter it get. Then in the summer they say ox flies gonna come out. Folks say they can eat right into the hide of a cow. They like to land on the brisket, right where poor Dixby and Dougan ain’t gonna be able to chase ’em away. We gonna have to start rubbing ’em with turpentine and grease.”
They sat in silence after that, listening to the night sounds, until Olivia felt the darkness like a weight and went to bed.Chapter Twenty-One
The next morning Olivia eagerly threw off the comforter. They were going to do something different! She made a tangle of the clothes in her baskets, searching for the soft green Sunday dress that she kept rolled up in a petticoat. The smooth wooden floor was cool against her feet as she stepped into three petticoats. She was dressed and slipping her feet into her Roman sandals when three loud handclaps sounded outside the canvas flap – Mourning’s way of telling her that he was impatient to begin the day.
Olivia stuck her uncombed head through the doorway. “You’re wearing your work clothes?”
“We ain’t goin’ to no church on a Wednesday.”
She paused, realizing she’d had no idea what day of the week it was. One day blurred into another. “I suppose I’ll look silly in this dress,” she said, running her hands over its skirt. “I didn’t think it was Sunday. I just thought we’ll be meeting folks, and I want, you know, to make a good impression.”
Mourning’s blank face expressed a total lack of interest in her attire and she raised her chin. “Well, I’m going to keep it on. I might as well enjoy looking like a human being for one day.”
“Never know, might run into that Jeremy fellow.” Mourning raised and lowered his eyebrows.
She ignored him. “Maybe there’ll be someplace nice to eat.”
“You gonna spend good money on food? We got all the venison we can eat right here.”
“Well, maybe we can have a glass of nice cool lemonade.”
When she was ready to leave and came into the yard wearing her velvet bonnet, Mourning made a show of dusting off the seat cushion and bowing deeply before he stepped aside for her to climb up onto the wagon.
“Okay, Mourning Free, off we go. Our first trip into the great town of Fae’s Landing. Let’s take that longer way Jeremy told you about, where we don’t have to cross any water.”
“Yes, Miz Olivia,” Mourning replied, but there was no rancor in his voice and they chatted amiably all the way.
He had removed his shoes as soon as he got up on the wagon, like the guide books said, to save the leather. It made her remember him as a child, going barefooted all summer. Her heart tightened in her chest and she wished that she, or someone, could have looked out for him better.
They entered Fae’s Landing on a wide, rutted trail that passed the general store and ran toward the river. “Well I can’t say as I’ve ever seen such a sorry and worn-out looking place,” Olivia murmured. “This Podunk town makes Five Rocks look good.” She bit her upper lip and shook her head.
“It got a store,” Mourning said. “That what we come for.”
“Pier Street.” She read the battered sign out loud.
Mourning followed it down to the edge of the water. The “pier” revealed itself as a few lengths of straggly rope staked to a flat stretch of riverbank where folks tied up their rafts and canoes. From there a narrow, bumpy dirt road cut north toward the “bridge” Jeremy had told them about – six logs, laid side by side over the river.
“Lord, I’m glad we didn’t come up on that thing at night and try to drive over it,” Olivia said. “Wouldn’t much like to have to go under it, either. Look how low it sits. People on rafts must have to lay down flat and pray they don’t get knocked clean into the water.”
Mourning declined to comment. He turned the wagon around and drove slowly up and down the two nameless dirt roads that ran perpendicular to Pier Street. They were lined with sagging, weather-beaten, lopsided homes. The houses were all built of sawed lumber, but every part of them that could peel off, fall off, break, or rot away had. There were torn, dirty signs in the front windows of quite a few of them – Fresh Bread, Fresh Fish, Clean Room to Let, Good Food, Corn Whiskey 30¢.
“They don’t exactly stir up a desire to rush right in, do they?” She sighed. “Not one of them looks to have anything fresh, good, or clean to offer.”
The town looked deserted. The only human being they saw was an unshaven man sitting in a rocker on the front porch of the house that offered whiskey for sale. He touched a finger to the brim of his hat as they drove past and Olivia nodded back.
“We might as well go back down by the river and get our business with the saw mill done,” she said and Mourning silently turned the wagon around again.
A water-powered gristmill sat on the riverbank. The bottom half of it was built of crumbling stone and the top half of weather-beaten wood. Not far from it was a makeshift tannery – a lean-to and some skins hanging on poles. Neither seemed to be working that day. Mourning drove toward the saw mill, which also sat on the water, a little farther south. Its big wheel slap-slapped the river and a small yellow dog came racing around the side of the mill to bark at them.
“I don’t hear any saws,” she said. “Nothing’s buzzing around here but these green monsters.” She batted away a shiny horsefly.
“Ain’t much business goin’ on today,” Mourning agreed. He pulled lightly on the reins and eased himself to the ground. She climbed down and followed him, leaving a wide berth around the yapping dog.
“Don’t you even think about snapping at us.” She shook her finger at the mangy animal.
Mourning pushed the door open and peered into the dim light. “Hullo.”
There was a man inside, lying flat on his back on a worktable, feet dangling over the end. Olivia might have taken him for dead, but at the sound of Mourning’s voice he sat straight up. He squinted for a moment, then blew his nose into his hand and wiped it on his backside as he got off the table.
“Hullo to you.” His white beard was long and stringy and he wore only a floppy gray hat, long-sleeved long johns, and scruffy boots.
“This be a workin’ mill?” Mourning skipped introductions. He often avoided having to decide whether or not to offer his hand to a white man, and Olivia was sure that was one hand he had no interest in shaking.
“Sure is. Right busy one. But ever body’s gone today. Some kind of goings on over in Anthony. Picnic or some such. Left me here to keep an eye out. You come back tomorrow, you’ll see.”
“You work here?”
“Don’t come here for fun.”
“Can I order a door from you?”
Mourning drew a piece of paper out of his pocket. He had made a drawing of the door he wanted for the cabin, showing the measurements. A pencil stub lay on the table and he picked it up and wrote “Dor fer Skrugs Kabin” under the picture.
“Ain’t never seen no nigger what could write.” The man sidled over to peer closely at the paper and Olivia guessed he was probably illiterate himself. There was no hostility in his voice, only amazement, as if Mourning had sprouted a second head. Mourning handed the man the paper and he pressed it to his scrawny chest and patted it several times. He promised to give it to the owner of the mill first thing in the morning.
“You tell him I be back soon to settle on a price.”
“Surely will. I surely will do that.”
“You got a barrel to sell us?” Mourning asked.
“Nah. Might try over at the livery, if they’s anyone there.” The man had lost interest in them and was busy scratching himself.
Mourning turned to leave, but paused in the doorway to ask, “You know anyone might be wantin’ to hire a yoke of oxen?”
“Can’t say I do. But I’ll let folks know you’re offerin’.”
Their next stop was the livery, where they bought a barrel from the fattest man Olivia had ever seen. He was foul smelling and no more friendly than the man at the saw mill, but at least he was fully clothed. Mourning asked him the same question about the oxen and received the same reply.
“Well, I guess that’s it for our big day in town,” Olivia said when they went back outside. “Lucky I dressed for the occasion.”
“You spectin’ a welcome committee gonna invite us to Sunday potluck?” Mourning asked, unperturbed by their lack of social success.
“I certainly did expect to see some normal looking folks. Someone who might bother to ask who we are and where we’ve come from.” She climbed up into the wagon and looked around. “This surely is the right place for the likes of us. No need to make up some story about my poor dead husband for the folks in this town. We could probably live out at the farm for twenty years without anyone taking notice.”
“He say they all gone to a picnic. Next time we come, folks’ll be home.”
“I don’t think I’d feel like knocking on any of those decrepit front doors, even if folkswereat home.”
She thought she was going to cry, but took a few deep breaths and held it in. Mourning drove back the way they had come.
“At least we can stop at the General Store,” Olivia said, though she had lost her enthusiasm. It looked no better than the other buildings – weather-beaten wood and one filthy window. “I think it’s open. I saw something move in there.”
“You go ’head,” Mourning said and stopped the wagon for her to climb down.
A musky smell greeted Olivia when she pushed the door open. A young woman stood behind the counter. She might have once been pretty, before she was marked by the pox. If not for the scars, she would have reminded Olivia of a younger, clean-scrubbed Jettie Place.
“Hullo, I’m new in the area and wanted to get acquainted. Olivia Killion.” She offered a hand. “I’m out at the Scruggs cabin. Lorenzo was my uncle.”
“Norma Gay Meyers.” The woman returned the smile and warmly took Olivia’s hand in hers. “Your uncle left here before I ever got to meet him, but I know the place. Nice that it won’t be standing empty no more. Always glad to see new faces. Mrs. Stubblefield …” Miss Meyers turned to a woman in the back of the store. She had been fingering bolts of cloth, but now took a step forward and made no effort to hide her head to toe scrutiny of Olivia.
“Olivia Killion, please make the acquaintance of Iola Stubblefield,” Norma Gay said brightly, pronouncing the woman’s given name “Eye-o-la.”
The face staring at Olivia was plain looking, the kind of woman whose age is hard to tell. Olivia guessed mid-thirties to early forties and almost sighed her disappointment. She’d been hoping her neighbor would be young and cheerful, with a passel of sweet-looking children trailing behind her.
No matter where she was, Mrs. Stubblefield would immediately be recognized as a farmer’s wife. Thin, colorless, dressed in brown calico, wispy hair pulled back in a bun. She had a pointy chin that she held slightly upwards and deep lines ran along the sides of her face and between her eyebrows. She studied Olivia with pursed lips, but the smile that finally broke across her face seemed genuinely friendly.
“Mrs. Stubblefield and her husband have a place about eight miles southeast of you,” Norma Gay offered.
“Well, praise the Lord, nice to meet you.” Iola Stubblefield pumped Olivia’s arm. “Can’t tell you how good it will be to have neighbors. You need any help settling in, anything at all, all you got to do is holler. My Filmore can grow anything. Strong as an ox and not quite as dumb. And I’m the closest thing there is to a doctor for miles.”
Well, here is living proof that women make lives for themselves out here,Olivia thought. But she gazed at Iola’s leathery face with concern.Is that how I will look in a few years? Will my eyes be as steely and cold as hers?There was something unsettling about those eyes, but Olivia chose to pay attention only to Iola’s smile and the words of welcome that passed her lips.
“Have you trained as a nurse?” Olivia asked.
“Nah, none of that book learning. I had the best training there is – doing. I’ve birthed more babies than anyone calls himself a doctor. My grandma taught me everything a body can know about medicines and you’d be surprised how much more I’ve learned from the savages. They may be godless heathens, but they have their own ways with the plants growing around here.”
“And your husband farms?”
She nodded proudly. “This year he’s putting in five acres of buckwheat, five of corn, and two of potatoes.”
“Do you have a team of oxen?”
“No, not yet. Filmore does all his own pushing and pulling. Like I said, he’s big as an ox himself. And twice as stubborn. Takes on a hired man to help him, come planting and harvest time.”
“Do you think he’d be interested in hiring the use of a team? Ours is good and strong. It wouldn’t have to be for cash. Could be for eggs, milk, and butter or in exchange for work.”
“Well, I think he would. You tell your husband to come over and exchange words with him.”
“There’s just me. I don’t have a husband.” Olivia held her breath as she watched for Mrs. Stubblefield’s reaction.
“Lordie me, what’s a child like you doing out here on her own?”
“My uncle left the land to me. I thought I’d have a go at it. If I don’t, I’ll lose my claim. I’ve got a good hired man to work it for me.”
“I never have heard of such a thing. Not never in my whole life. Why you’re hardly grown. How in heaven’s name did your family let you go off like that?”
“We want to keep the land in the family.” Olivia took a step back, eager to end the conversation. “Well, it’s been a pleasure meeting you, Mrs. Stubblefield,” she said in the warmest voice she could muster, forcing her face into a sweet smile. She returned to Miss Meyers and asked for a dozen eggs, a tin of milk, and a slab of butter. She also selected a simple rag rug from the pile on the counter and asked for a calendar. She paid quickly and prepared to flee, before her new neighbor could ask any more questions.
“Please stop by to visit any time.” Olivia gave her hand to Mrs. Stubblefield again. “It’ll be a lot less lonely knowing we’ve got neighbors, even if you are so far away. You too, Miss Meyers.” Olivia turned back to the store clerk. “I’d appreciate the company. Gets lonely out there.”
“Don’t I know what you mean,” Miss Meyers said. “Gets just as lonely here in town. You take care.”
Olivia left the store and climbed up onto the wagon seat, next to her hired man.
“What you be needin’ a rug for?” Mourning asked as she tossed it into the back.
“To hide the door to the cellar.”
Mourning emitted a loud snort and shook his head. “You been told all the trappers ’round here been usin’ that cabin for years. Ain’t no one for miles don’t know that cellar be there.”
“Just drive,” Olivia said, looking straight ahead.
Mrs. Stubblefield emerged from the store as they drove off. Olivia glanced back in time to catch a glimpse of Iola’s chin hitting the road, when she got a look at Olivia’s hired man.Chapter Twenty-Two
Over the next month they settled into a routine. With Olivia’s help, Mourning got a good start on putting a roof on the barn and spent the rest of his time chopping down new growth trees and uprooting stumps.
As Olivia began to feel more at home, she gave names to areas of their property. “The farm” was the two acres closest to the cabin that Uncle Scruggs had once cleared and that Mourning intended to plant first. In the center of the farm, on a small rise, stood a tall old oak tree, whose low branches jutted in all directions. Olivia called it the climbing tree and asked Mourning not to cut it down. That was where her children were going to build a tree house and hang swings. Behind the cabin were the little woods. The big woods spread out beyond the farm. In those big woods Olivia discovered a large clearing, which she guessed to be eighty rods wide. She assumed a whirlwind had taken all the trees down and so called it her windfall. It was there she went to sit on the fallen logs and write and sketch in her journal.
Not that she had much leisure for that. She spent her days keeping the barrel full of water, laundering their clothes, baking bread, and a stirring a boiling pot over the fire. She also put in her garden, became proficient at splitting the logs Mourning and she cut, and helped Mourning in the field. He showed her how to use the scythe to gather the brush around a pile of stumps that needed burning and left her to light and contain the fire.
She had quickly grown used to wearing Mourning’s trousers and shirt. When he went back to town for their door he returned with two pairs of boy’s trousers and two flannel shirts for her. He also bought the mirror she’d been wanting – so she could try sketching her new “Michigan self” – and a pie safe someone had been selling cheap. The tin panels in its doors were battered, but it would do for storing the flour bin, dishes, and the pies he hoped Olivia would soon be baking.
Rain never stopped them from working, except for the day the wind started howling and the trees cracked loudly. When the first branches blew past, they both ran for the cabin and slammed the door behind them. They took turns standing at the peek hole to watch the trees bowing in prayer and snapping back up, angrily shaking their tops. That storm lasted the day and most of the night. Olivia passed it writing and sketching in her journal, shivering when the lightning and thunder seemed to make the sides of the cabin shudder.
“The wind is so much stronger in Michigan,” she said, casting a frightened eye at the roof. “Do you think that’s because everything is so flat?”
Mourning shrugged, sucked his front teeth, and got to his feet. “I got to go check on the team again.”
“You were just out there,” Olivia said. “What’s the point of you getting soaked every half hour? I’m sure they’re fine.”
He ignored her and had to use both hands to pull the door shut behind him.
“You’re going to blow the fire out doing that,” Olivia called after him, though she wouldn’t have minded if he did. She didn’t think having the cook fire was worth the way it ate up all the air in the oppressive little cabin. She would have preferred being able to breathe, even if it meant cold food.
The fire did seem about to go out when Mourning returned from the half-roofed barn carrying his mattress. He struggled to get it through the doorway and wordlessly lay it on the floor, as far from Olivia as possible. For the rest of the day he sat on it, playing his harmonica, whittling, or just staring at the wall. Olivia felt him watching her when he thought she wasn’t looking, but he did not seem inclined to talk. He answered any questions she asked, but did not initiate conversation. Finally, she put out the lantern and said, “Good night,” to which he grunted in response. After lying awake for what seemed like hours, Olivia lifted her head to see if Mourning had fallen asleep. The embers in the fireplace were still glowing and she could see him staring at her, his face a sheet of stone. She turned to face the wall, wondering if she had done something to make him angry. But the next day, when they emerged from their prison into the sunlight, he assumed his usual manner.
Mourning drove into town once a week for eggs and milk, but Olivia chose not to accompany him. It was too depressing. Besides, she thought it best that they be seen together as little as possible. And, most of all, she didn’t want to be gone if Jeremy came to call. Olivia had been keeping careful count of the days on her new calendar, and too many of them were passing with no sign of the sorely missed Mr. Kincaid. One morning they did, however, have visitors. She and Mourning were out in the farm together, struggling with an enormous tree stump, when a voice called out.
“Hey there, neighbors.”
A dark-haired, bearded giant stood at the side of the cabin waving his hat. A woman stood at his side, holding a basket covered with a white cloth. She barely reached his shoulder. Olivia walked toward them, mortified that she had been caught wearing trousers. She was soon close enough to recognize the woman.
“Mrs. Stubblefield, hullo, how are you? It’s so nice to see you again,” Olivia said, remembering something she had heard her mother (or perhaps it had been Tobey quoting their mother?) say more than once: “Good manners are for when there’s not a thing else in the world you can think of to say.”
“And you must be Mr. Stubblefield. I’m Olivia Killion. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He shyly shook the hand Olivia offered.
“None of that Mr. and Mrs. nonsense,” Iola said, making no effort to take her eyes off Olivia’s trousers. “We’re going to be just like family, so we’re plain old Iola and Filmore to you.” The friendly words did not resonate in Iola’s voice. She spoke in the tone of a mother biting back what she felt was well-deserved criticism.
Olivia smiled and nodded. “You must be thirsty after your long walk,” she said, trying to keep her voice light and cheerful, as if unaware of the woman’s glowering disapproval. “The water barrel is right over here. Please, make yourselves at home. We don’t have any chairs yet, but those stumps aren’t so bad. I’ll be right out, soon as I get out of these work clothes. It’s just so dangerous, trying to burn off a field wearing a wide skirt. I learned that the hard way yesterday – set my dress right on fire,” she lied.
She escaped into the cabin, closed the door, and released a long sigh. Then she hurriedly tore off her shirt and trousers, pulled a dress over her head, and ran a comb through her hair. When she came back out the Stubblefields were standing as she had left them.
“This is for you.” Iola reached down to pick up the basket that she had set in the grass and handed it to Olivia.
Olivia lifted the cloth to find four eggs, a jar of jam, and a slab of butter. “Oh my, that is so kind of you. Thank you so much. We certainly will enjoy it. Let me put it inside, out of the sun.”
“That’s what neighbors do for each other. We all know how hard it is starting out. Times we had nothing to eat but lumps of flour boiled in milk. Or in plain old water.” Iola followed Olivia toward the door and peeked in.
“Come in,” Olivia said and showed them to the inside stump chairs.
Filmore had to bend at the waist to pass through the door and the top of his head brushed the roof poles when he stood straight. It was dark and stuffy inside the cabin and far more pleasant out in the yard, but Olivia thought it more hospitable to invite them in. Iola seemed just as curious about the little cabin as the women back in Five Rocks had been about the Killion home.
“Where has Mourning gotten to?” Olivia wondered aloud. She stepped outside and saw that he was still working in the field.
“Mourning, come meet our neighbors,” she called, hands cupped around her mouth.
He hesitated for a moment and then drove his axe into one of the stumps and walked slowly toward the cabin.
“Iola and Filmore Stubblefield, I’d like you to meet my hired hand, Mourning. Mourning Free.”
“Pleasure,” Mourning mumbled, hat in hand.
“Surely, surely.” Iola nodded.
“Nice piece of land you’ve got to work,” Filmore said.
“Yes sir, it is,” Mourning said. “I best be gettin’ back to workin’ it. Nice meetin’ you folks.”
“Your boy put this roof on?” Filmore asked.
“Yes. Yes, he did, And he’s almost finished putting one on the barn. That’s where he stays. Out in the barn.”
“Fine job. Hard to get good help. How’d you come by him?”
“I … uh … asked around in Detroit,” Olivia lied badly. “Soon as I got off the boat.”
“And you picked up a colored boy and took him along with you? A complete stranger?” Iola raised her eyebrows to her scalp.
“Well, he’s not really a stranger. He … uh … used to live in my hometown. And some folks back home told me about him before I left, said he was in Detroit and he was a good worker and completely trustworthy. So I went looking for him. Lucky for me, he happened to be in need of a job.”
“Right lucky.” Iola studied her fingernails with a frown. “Where is your hometown?” She raised her eyes and trained a piercing stare on Olivia.
A sudden chill passed over Olivia and she suddenly felt afraid of letting this woman know anything about them, especially where they were from. Mourning was right, there were plenty of white folks you had to watch out for.
Olivia ignored Iola’s question and said, “Let me slice some bread for us to have with that butter.”
That day was the first time she had managed to get her bread baked clear through. They had gotten used to eating crusty rings, with the damp yeasty center cut out of each slice, but she could have won a prize for today’s loaf and was eager to show it off to her guests. She set out plates and knives, sliced the bread, and put Iola’s butter on a plate and a spoon in the jar of jam.
“You got a crate for setting your butter and milk in the river?” Iola asked. Her tone was suddenly neutral, no longer dripping with censure.
“I sure do.” Olivia nodded amiably. “I have to thank you again. It was so generous of you to bring this. Especially when you had to carry it all that way.”
“Neighbors are meant for doing kindnesses to one another. That’s what Jesus teaches us,” Iola said.
“I’ve met another one of our neighbors,” Olivia said. “Jeremy Kincaid. I suppose you must know him.”
Iola nodded. “That one’s a strange bird. But I guess he’s all right. Keeps his own counsel.”
“How long of a walk is it to your place?” Olivia asked. She put on a pot of coffee and then joined them at the table, spreading a thick layer of butter on a slice of bread.
“’Bout two hours. Could take more. Depends who you’re walking with.”
Olivia bit into the bread and exclaimed, “Oh, Mrs. . . . I mean, Iola, this butter is absolutely delicious!” Then Olivia turned to Filmore and made a lame attempt at conversation with him. “So when will you start planting your buckwheat?”
He had been sitting with his head lowered and eyes on his plate, seeming to hide behind his thick, curly black beard. Olivia had no doubt that he would much rather have been out in his fields. Making chit-chat seemed to be an ordeal for him, especially with a strange neighbor lady who wore men’s pants and lived with a colored boy. But he looked up at her and valiantly rose to the occasion.
“Don’t know that I will plant any. Didn’t come to much last year. Wild turkeys trampled it down, ate most of the grain. Had to go out every day and shoot one of ’em.”
“That’s too bad. At least you must have had a lot of good turkey dinners.”
“Yes, missy, that we did.” Apparently out of words, he hunkered back down over his plate.
After a short silence Iola seemed unable to contain herself any longer and gave Olivia a long stern stare. “Look, child, I don’t mean to be minding your p’s and q’s, but it ain’t right, you and that nigra, alone here like this. You probably think it ain’t my place to say, but I feel a Christian duty to speak my mind when I see a body leading herself into sin and peril. It ain’t Christian and you ain’t safe.” She nodded pointedly in the direction of the field.
“Oh, Mourning is –”
“People are so naïve.” Iola batted a hand as she cut Olivia off. “Especially young folks like you. Put your faith in anyone. Don’t know the things can happen in this sorry world. But you’ll see. You live a while, you learn. You listen to an older and wiser sister, you save yourself a world of trouble and sorrow. One thing I can tell you is you can’t trust these nigras. Their instincts are primitive. No self-control at all. Why it says so right in the Bible –”
“There’s no danger in Mourning.” Olivia broke in, her voice firm.
Iola did not respond; she simply stared.
Olivia was surprised by how little she cared for this woman’s opinion, considering the way she had fretted about what people out in Michigan were going to think and say. Now the only emotion she felt was anger. She hadn’t come all this way, hauled water and chopped wood, and generally broken her back, in order to live her life trying to please an old hag like her. Iola was just going to have to accept Olivia on her own terms or not at all.
ButOlivia took a deep breath and calmed herself, hoping to maintain an amicable relationship with this annoying neighbor. So far Iola seemed to be all there was, other than Norma Gay at the store. And Iola was far from alone in holding that opinion of colored men. If you refused to talk to anyone who was prejudiced against them, you’d soon have no one to talk to at all.