HE TOOK THE PINCH OF cotton Sue offered and rubbed it between his short, pudgy fingers. “I’m truly sorry, Mis’ess Baylor. Two cents is all I can pay.”
She seethed but forced at least a show of civility. “Mister Littlejohn.” She spoke in a stiff staccato. “A week ago. Before everyone left. You promised three and a half to four cents a pound! You said depending on the quality. That is the main reason. The biggest reason. That I didn’t go with the others.”
The man smiled. “Oh, I might have said two and a half or maybe even three, but things change. You know that.”
She couldn’t stand being talked down to, especially by such a lying loafer.
“I wish I could help you, but two cents it is. I mean, besides, anyone can see.” He held the sample up. “It’s shoddy lint.” He shook his head. “Pardon me for saying, Mis’ess Baylor, but a granger you are not.”
“Anyone can see its excellent quality, you mean.”
A bit of breeze, a very little bit, stirred the top layer of dust from the street; it cooled her skin, but her insides still steamed.
He stuck out his bottom lip. “I’d advise you to take my offer. I can pay half now, the rest when I return.”
Sue studied his face while a hundred calculations ran through her mind. He certainly didn’t look like the weasel he’d turned out to be. Her cotton was as good as, if not better than, any of the loads that left last Thursday. She reached up and massaged her neck, then lifted her braid to let some air dry her sweat.
She glanced over at her wagons. Levi had Becky laughing hard. The children would be so disappointed. Maybe if—
No. She would not allow this thief to take advantage of her family. How could he even think to? The loathsome, immoral oaf! She’d worked too hard getting her crop in. Everyone had, even her nine-year-old, Becky. Why, at two cents, she’d hardly realize any profit after the extra seed and what she paid the pickers.
She squared her shoulders and, determined anew, faced him again. “I’ll accept three and a half cents per pound. All cash. Not a fraction less.”
“Two cents, ma’am. Half now, half when I get back.” He jingled the coins in his vest pocket.
Perspiration trickled down to the small of her back. The sun, though its climb had barely begun, already shone bright on the eastern horizon and heated the mid-September air so that every breath scorched her throat. Much like Jack Littlejohn, it offered no mercy. And like the air, her throat held no moisture, though she needed to swallow.
“You’re wasting my time. Good day, Mister Littlejohn.” She whirled and headed toward her wagons. Her face burned, and she knew full well that it had turned red. How dare that man! A grubby hand grabbed her arm and, whirling her around, jerked
her to an abrupt stop. She yanked away from his grasp and glared; she wished the fire inside her would somehow leap forward and set the despicable excuse of a human being ablaze.
“Keep your cheating hands off me.”
He almost looked apologetic. “Be reasonable, Mis’ess Baylor. Two cents is a right fair price. Besides, who else you going to sell to?”
She swatted at a fly buzzing about and adjusted her hat, never taking her eyes from the man’s. “I’ll burn my cotton before I sell it to the likes of you.” She stopped next to her first wagon and faced the second one. “Levi, we’re going.”
“But, Aunt Sue—”
Doing everything in her power to keep from bursting into angry tears, she glared. Never, never, never would she give that horrible man the satisfaction of seeing her lose control. She kept her voice calm and steady. “Levi, now!”
She climbed aboard and probably struck the reins against her mules’ backs a bit too forcefully. The poor animals hadn’t lied to her. She made a point to sound sweet. “Get up, now, Dex.” She clucked. “Hey, now, Daisy.”
She wanted to scream, but held it all in.
The wooden wheels creaked under the load. Metal clanged against metal. The harnesses strained as the four animals snorted and urged the two wagons, heavy with all her hopes and dreams, into motion. Plans had been to camp out, spend a night under the Texas stars in the heart of the small community she called home. Plans had been to order the children a pair of new shoes each and a bolt or two of fabric for some new clothes. But as she knew all too well, plans often changed.
One more time. Why did this keep happening? One more
time a man had tried to take advantage of her, bilk her because she was alone. Her father the judge would tell her that she should have insisted on a contract, or at least a deposit; she had absolutely no legal recourse against the charlatan. Should have paid to have it hauled like last year, but no. Well, that wasn’t an option now. How glad she was that her daddy lived so far away and would never know about her stupidity. She’d disappointed him enough for one lifetime.
What could she do now? She had to sell the crop. It represented all her savings, and if she didn’t get a fair price, she’d have to sell off some of her land—her husband’s and his brother’s legacy to the children. That no-good Littlejohn! Why had she taken him at his word?
She closed her eyes a moment and whispered, “Help me, Lord.”
God willing, maybe she could catch up to the cotton train, then make the trip with the Foglesongs and Howletts and the rest. Maybe only two wagons could travel farther each day; start earlier of a morning, and stay after it until dark. Those Jefferson buyers were big guns, too; paid in gold coin on the barrelhead.
Ideas and options raced through her mind as she steered the team out of the Sulphur Fork Prairie settlement toward her farm four or five miles south. A few she dismissed as crazy. Her blood still boiled. What a waste; all that way for nothing.
“Ooooogh!” She was glad her daughter was riding with Levi and didn’t witness her outburst.
She simply had to get her cotton to Jefferson, and do it before the rains set in. The question was, Could she go alone? Levi would certainly be a help, but could he pull enough weight? Be responsible for such a long hard haul? Her nephew was a good boy and strong for fourteen, but— Who? Who else
could she ask? The answer came like a bolt of lightning—Elaine!
She’d see if her best friend would go. Larry could look after their kids. The baby had turned four her last birthday, and the oldest girl was sixteen. He shouldn’t mind all that much. Pulling to the right, she waved the reins on the mules’ backs again and turned toward the Dawsons’ place.
Anyway, the unexpected visit would bless the whole bunch, even Levi and Becky. They’d love having the children to play with for a while. That would give her the opportunity to propose her plan. She stopped the team on the shady side of the barn and climbed down. She went back to help her daughter off the second wagon before heading to the house.
“Mama, I’m not a baby.” Becky thrust her fists on her hips and frowned. “I can get down by myself.”
“Fine, little girl, but you had better watch your tone.”
Joseph, one of the middle Dawson boys, ran out. “Mama, Mama! Miss Sue’s here with Becky and Levi!”
A passel of children came from several directions, and laughter and greetings were shouted all around. Her friend waited on the porch, smiling. Sue so admired Elaine’s wisdom and appreciated her advice. As long as she’d known her, Elaine Dawson had never jumped into anything or made one snap decision. Instead, everything she did, every move, had been well thought out.
Sue wished she could be more like that. She needed Elaine’s cool head now. Her friend would just have to agree to help. Besides, with her along, the journey would even be fun. Once seated on the porch, with tea served and the children playing, Sue explained her predicament and asked Elaine to go with her.
“Are you crazy, Susannah Baylor?”
“No, I am not. You tell me, what choice do I have?” Sue hated the desperation dripping from her words. She sipped the tea Elaine had poured and watched the children playing, her mind spinning. How could she talk her friend into it? She’d used almost everything she could think of, but not one argument she’d offered had budged Elaine.
Finally, Sue surrendered. “Oh, fine, then. If you won’t go and help me, what do you think about Rebecca staying here? The trace would be so hard on her. The round trip is liable to take me a month or better.”
Elaine shook her head. “You simply cannot go. Listen to me! You and Levi cannot do this alone.” She leaned forward and held Sue’s eyes. “Now pay attention. It’s too dangerous. Anything could happen. There’s the Indians, thieves, and wild animals; the wagons or mules might break down. You’ll have the Sulphur River to cross, not to mention the White Oak Creek bottoms. What if you got stuck? What would you do then?”
“How about Larry going? I wouldn’t ask, but—”
“Please don’t, honey. You know he’s got way too much to do around here to be gone a month. We’ve already bought wheat seed, and our fields need a lot of work before they’re ready to plant.”
“Maybe I could hire someone in Cuthand, before I have to cross the river.”
“And you’d leave on that possibility. Come on, Sue.” Her friend’s eyebrows both went up, and her eyes, troubled only moments ago, suddenly sparkled. “I know! What about Henry Buckmeyer? I’m pretty certain he’s still around.”
“That layabout heathen?”
“No, wait a minute. You shouldn’t judge him on the gossip.
I’ve known his mother for years, and she’s a wonderful Christian woman. Everyone speaks highly of her. I can’t imagine she didn’t raise her son in the faith. He could be the perfect one to help you.”
“So what if his mother’s a Christian? You’d really suggest I spend a month on the trace with a single man? What about abstaining from all appearances of evil?”
“What about Doug Howlett?”
“He and Shannan went with the others, and took Samuel and the girls along with them.”
Elaine looked off toward where the kids played and sighed. “What about Hershel Massey?”
Sue drew back and pursed her lips. “Now who’s crazy? He’s at least eighty years old!”
“Really? He sure doesn’t look it.” Elaine tucked a loose strand of hair back into her bun. “Well, what I know for certain, without any doubt, is that you cannot go alone.”
“But you refuse, and I have to get my cotton to the buyers. It’ll be the first time in all these years that we won’t be living on the razor’s edge. The first time since Andy passed that I’ll have coin enough to actually buy more than just the bare necessities.” Sue angrily swiped at a stupid tear threatening to run down her cheek. “And if I don’t, and I can’t make any profits, I’ll have to start selling off the land. I just can’t do that, Elaine. So what do you suggest?” Elbows on the table, she hung her head, holding her face with both hands a minute, then looked back up. “Everyone I could’ve asked to help has already gone.”
The older woman dipped the fancy tea infuser that her mother had sent from back east in her cup. “There’s got to be someone. Let me think a minute.”
“Even if you thought of anyone, who would be willing to pack up and light a shuck on such short notice?”
“Nothing says that you have to leave today.”
“Elaine! Don’t you understand? I’ve got to get my lint to Jefferson. Before the buyers leave, before the rains set in. I can’t waste any more time if I’m ever going to catch up. Not when the train already has a four-day lead on me!”
“Well then, it looks to me like we’re back to Henry. Surely he’d be a help if he’s free to go. And since when do you care about what people think anyway?”
Sue finished her tea in one gulp. This wouldn’t be the first time she’d disagreed with her friend, even though Elaine did usually sound the voice of reason. “Well, I’m just sorry. He’s been nothing but a lazy, old . . . hermit, mama’s boy.”
“He isn’t old, Sue. He’s in his early thirties at most.”
“Well, I don’t think he would be any help at all. Probably more of a burden who’d only slow me down.”
“He’d be a man with a gun, and he was with Jackson in New Orleans.” Elaine reached across and captured her hand. “Susannah! What you’re considering is too dangerous! It’s a long way to Jefferson, and a hard trail.” She stood and turned her back with her fists on her hips. “You cannot go alone. And I’m sorry, but I won’t keep Becky. I’ll not play any part in this idiotic scheme of yours.” She faced her again. “Please, at least go see Henry.”
Sue shook her head and sighed.
“Just go ask him; see if he’d even be willing to go. Leave your wagons and the kids here for the day, take Larry’s bay, and go out to the Buckmeyer place right now. Won’t you?”
She didn’t like her hands being tied behind her back, and that’s exactly how she saw the impossible situation. But maybe
her friend had a point, though she hated to admit it. She probably did need help, but Patrick Henry Buckmeyer? If she was a betting lady, she’d give odds that he’d never worked an honest day in his life.
Succumbing to Elaine’s pleas, she heard herself agree to go, and her friend leapt into action. “Larry!” she hollered. “Would you please saddle up your horse? Sue’s going to need to borrow him for a little ride this morning.”
Becky’s high-pitched screams pulled Sue’s attention to the children. On the ground, her daughter squealed and giggled at Levi’s tickling. The Dawson children all scurried away from them. She jumped up and ran after her best friend, shrieking with delight. She stretched out her arm and touched Sophia Belle, only a year older. “You’re it!”
For their sake, Sue told herself. She couldn’t let them down. Life had been too hard already on ones so young. Her thoughts wandered to their fathers, and the vision appeared full force again, starting to replay in her mind for the thousandth time. But she shook it away, refusing to allow it to paralyze her as it usually did. Not now, not today.
“Sue?” Her friend’s husband stood beside his horse at the bottom of the porch steps. “Got him all ready for you.”
She came back to the present and rose, reaching for the reins. The man was top-notch, a hard worker and good provider. “Thank you, Larry. I’ll be doing my best to get back before dark.”
“No trouble. Be safe.”
Elaine walked up and slipped an arm around his waist. “We’ll keep some supper out for you and Henry.”
Sue huffed, shook her head, swung into the saddle, and then straightened her bothersome dress. She should have worn
Andy’s trousers, but since she’d been going to town . . . “We’ll see.”
Elaine laughed. One thing Sue loved about her friend was her carefree, boisterous laugh. “Sue Baylor, if you’re crazy enough to head off on the Jefferson Trace with eight thousand pounds of cotton by yourself, then you’re absolutely right. We will see.”
Setting her heels against the gelding’s flanks, Sue clicked her tongue. Levi and Becky waved, obviously thrilled over their extra time at the Dawsons’. She decided to head home first, then loop around to the Buckmeyer place. The layabout probably was either gone or drunk, and it would be a wasted trip. Maybe she could hire some help along the way.
The bay moved into a comfortable lope. She arrived at her house well before high noon. She had made a mental list on the way, and the first thing she did was to change into her dead husband’s trousers—she wouldn’t be trying to impress anyone. Then she hurried about gathering her few remaining coins and collected a change of clothes for herself and each of the children. She rolled her skirt and stuck it in the bag, too, just in case.
From the back of the dresser drawer, she pulled out Andy’s pistol and stuck it into her waistband, then put all the extra powder and shot in her bag. She preferred shooting the flintlock, but figured she might need all the firepower she could muster on the trace. Levi was a decent shot, but having another gun could be a lifesaver. Elaine was definitely right about that at least.
Outside, she opened the barn gate. “You take care of your calf, Bess, and stay out of the bottoms.” She watched her old cow amble off, then looked around with a strange foreboding. A notion swept over her that she’d never see the place again.
Did it mean the journey would go bad? Was the Lord trying to tell her not to go? If something happened to her, what would Levi and Becky do? Take no thought for tomorrow played through her head. She couldn’t think about it. She wouldn’t. She would only think about getting her cotton to market and trust the good Lord to help her.
She packed everything on the horse and mounted, hardly able to believe it had come to this. That very morning when she’d set out before sunup, she and the children had been so excited, full of hope and expectation. She shook her head. No matter. She’d chosen the only logical course. What else could she do? She clucked her tongue.
On the ride toward the Buckmeyers’ place, she considered what she knew of the lazy mama’s boy known to all by his middle name. Henry Buckmeyer, indeed. Everyone on the prairie knew all about his war stories as well as his drunken brawls, but the tales of him serving with Andrew Jackson certainly didn’t fit with her picture of a soft, indolent sloth who mooched off his poor old mother. There was no promise he’d even be there.
A part of her hoped he wasn’t.