The Forrest Family farm
Hickman Kentucky, 11:42 a.m.
The Forrest family had lined up ready for service like the staff of a well-to-do estate. Beside Edgar stood his wife, Lenora, Edgar Junior—also know as Doodle—and a young woman the visitors had yet to meet. Last in line was the shining face of Jackson, the youngest of the Forrest men. Silas thought of the youngest daughter Edgar had mentioned, who was ill, and wondered if she were upstairs resting.
Doodle broke ranks and took the reins of Herc’s horse as he dismounted.
Edgar, with his wife, Lenora at his heels, came to Silas’ aid in helping lower Emma from the saddle. She stirred, but remained limp, eyelids fluttering, but not opening. Silas set to ground and lifted her across his arms as Lenora came close to examine the girl.
“Why, she’s burning up!” Lenora said to Silas, feeling Emma’s forehead. “Follow me. We have a room up on the second floor. There’s a nice breeze and some cool sheets.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Silas said as he fell in close behind her authority.
Lenora shooed her gawking brood out of the way. “Myra, get dinner started while I tend to this poor girl.”
The young woman who she spoke to was one of the family Herc had not met. Myra was at least eighteen and shared the graceful face and fine skin of her mother. Her long brown hair was tightly bound in a round coil on her head and her clothes, though obviously old, were kept clean and neat. Herc noticed the pretty young Myra as she stole admiring glances at Silas. She had to be recalled to attention another time by her father before she slipped away into the kitchen.
“My boys will see to your horses,” Edgar said. He wore no hat, so he shaded his wrinkled eyes with a hand. “You want to take a look around, Herc?” He was obviously proud of what he had built from nothing.
“Why, yes, Edgar. That would be a delight.”
Edgar gave him a brief tour of the farm, starting with his barns and equipment, his various other smaller crops already deeply in growth, and ending at the immense seed beds for his pride and joy tobacco crop. He led Herc to the beds, lined side by side and covered with linen sheets tied down to a wooden frame.
He lifted a corner of one of the sheets to reveal a crowded mass of young tobacco plants. “These here are the finest the Jackson Purchase has to offer. They are ready to be sown in presently. Me and the family may not be the best company in the next few days as we will be pretty darned busy putting them to rows.”
“I ain’t much of a farmhand, but Silas did some as a boy and I promise our help when it comes to this chore.”
“Oh, now, I was not showing off here to get you to offer help . . .”
“I did not assume that, friend. You have opened your house to our sick companion and we will do whatever we can to repay that kindness. Who knows how long until we’re ready to travel, so we may as well earn our keep.”
“Very well, but I warn you: it is hard on the knees and back,” Edgar said, stretching to demonstrate the toll taken.
“I consider it good exercise. Too bad it will not be harvested before we depart. I like a good leaf in my pipe.”
“You have not to wait, my friend, for I have a good taste of last year’s treasures inside. Perhaps a good smoke before dinner?”
Herc did not reply, except with a greedy smile and a hearty pat on the farmer’s back.
Upstairs in the farmhouse, Silas laid Emma gently on the white cotton sheets. He took her hat off and laid it on a small desk beside the bed. Lenora pushed Silas aside, a towel draped across her arm and carrying a washbasin and ewer of water. Silas stepped away and inspected the room.
It was small, but homey, with plain but well-crafted furnishings consisting of bed, two night stands, a dresser and a rocking chair in the corner. It brought back memories of his sister’s room when they were children. He desired to leave, but felt his duty lie in staying near Emma. The afternoon breeze waved the thin lace curtains in the open window. Though the air was warm, it brought a welcome shift.
Silas stood, hat in hand, and peered over Lenora’s shoulder as she soaked the towel and wrung it out.
She was placing it across Emma’s forehead when she said in a whisper, without turning to Silas, “I have her from here, why don’t you go on downstairs but stay nearby. I can tell you are worried, but she needs rest now and not some fretting, swooning fellow standing over her.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied. Having been released—or shooed away—he stole one last look back at Emma as he left to find his way downstairs.
Unsure of the way to the kitchen, he took a step toward the back of the house, only to hear her calling, “The kitchen stairs are at half way point on the right.”
He skulked by and did then find the dark, tight passage down. It was so dim, he had assumed it was an attic stairway leading up when he went by earlier.
He found himself in the kitchen as the beautiful Myra was cutting the legs off a hen in a corner butcher block. Her hands lightly bloodied, she fumbled with the cleaver as it spun sideways in her clutches each time she brought it down.
Myra was startled by his approach what with the noise the folks were making outside.
Silas came to her, setting his coat aside and rolling up his sleeves. He removed his gun and belt, placing them with his jacket. He motioned for the knife.”May I?”
Myra stared at him as if he had just walked into the kitchen from her dreamworld. He smiled faintly at her and took the cleaver. With wide eyes and open mouth, she backed away to let him have at the bird.
“Name’s Silas, Ma’am, Silas McDonough.” He said, working at the feet. “What are we doing here? Frying or roasting?”
“Myra,” she said nervously.
“My name is Myra,” she replied, wiping a few strands of hair from her forehead, leaving a small smearing of blood on her brow.
Silas pointed to it with a chicken foot in hand. “You have some, um, blood on your . . .”
“Oh!” She laughed shyly, wiping it away with the back of her other hand, also covered with blood.
“Now it’s . . . now you’ve made it a bit worse.”
“I’m so sorry,” she blushed as she looked at her hands and giggled uncontrollably. She flew to the sink, snatched up a small towel and wrapped it around the pump handle. She worked the pump frantically as if the blood may dye her flesh permanently.
“So, any word on the bird, Myra?”
“Oh, yes. I am sorry—we are frying it and the others,” she said as she wiped her face dry. She nodded to a basket on the floor next to him. It contained headless chickens in a jumble, blood dripping into a large pan below.
Myra, having the chickens taken from her list of chores, moved on to another task. Silas worked wordlessly and Myra copied him there. While he plucked the birds, Myra admired his skill and speed as well as his profile. She stared at him while she shelled green peas, many of the seeds missing the bowl before her and falling to the floor. He gutted the fowl while stealing glances up the stairs.
The kitchen was not large, but with no other chairs or furnishings, aside from the butcher block and the large, hip-high table in the center of the room, they had ample space between the two of them.
Feathers and pea tendrils mingled together on the floor as the two moved about the kitchen. He went off to rinse the cleaver while Myra put a splash of milk and salt in a pot of near-boiling water. He slid the gizzards off the block into a pail as she came from the pantry with a sack of flour.
They only broke the silence when Silas asked about the location of a skillet or how many potatoes she wanted peeled and she replied as briefly as possible with, “in the cupboard,” or, “a dozen and half or so.”
Once Silas looked up to find her mixing lard with her hands into a pile of flour on the table. She stared absently at his face.
“Is there something on me?”
She blushed full on three shades of red as she snapped her gaze back to her work.
“May I say a word?”
“Yes, what is it?” A faint look of hope in her eyes.
“You shouldn’t cut the fat in with your hands like that. It will flatten out your biscuits,” he offered. “You mind if I show you a trick?”
She did not know why she was disappointed, but she was. She flicked the sticky mess from her fingers with irritation, “By all means.”
“I’m sorry,” he hesitated, “I should not have been so forward. You are doing it fine.”
“No, please,” she insisted. She reproached herself for letting this stranger see her irritation. She pointed to the flour pile.
He took a long knife from the counter and stepped beside her. “The heat from your hands is going to melt the fat some. The key to flaky biscuits is letting some of the fat stay in small bits.”
He used the back of the knife to rapidly chop up and mix the flour together at the same time. He quickly swept from one side of the pile to the other with short strokes.
“See?” he stopped to ask. “See how the fat and flour mix up like a kind of coarse meal? If you do it with your hands, it melts and gets sticky. If you want ‘em flaky, then you don’t want ‘em sticky.”
She actually did see a difference from the mess she usually ended up with.
“You want the buttermilk now?”
She brought the small crock over and handed it to him, “You sure know a lot about cooking. I don’t know too many fellows know their way around a stove, let alone can peel potatoes in a flash like that.”
“I been taking care of myself and Herc for a while now, so . . .” he said as he made a well in the center of the flour and poured buttermilk in it. “I worked in a few hotels and such. I picked up a bit from them fellows. The Frenchies especially know their stuff. You mind giving me that wooden spoon?”
She fetched the spoon and in the transfer, their fingers brushed against each other. She tried to linger, but Silas grasped the spoon and worked the dough.
She went to the stove and set a large cast iron skillet on the heat. As she spooned fat into the warming pan, she asked, “I know it is none of my business, but is that your wife upstairs?”
He stopped stirring, but did not look up.
She quickly added, “I am sorry! I should learn to keep my nose out of other people’s business.”
He paused and said, “You need to stop apologizing in your own kitchen. To answer your question, she—Emma, that is—Emma is a friend we are helping out through some troubled times.”
Still with spoon and lard in her hands, she came over to him. “What kind of trouble? Momma and Poppa wouldn’t say much, but they said you needed a place to stay. Are you all on the run? Did you rob somebody? Oh! I’m so sorry. My mouth gets ahead of my mind sometimes.”
Silas laughed. “No, Myra, we did not rob anyone, but I best not say more for now.”
“Is she your girl?”
Silas shook his head and bolted for the rolling pin on the other side of the kitchen—far away from Myra.
“Poppa says you all was on the boat that exploded. How did you survive? Is that why you all’s in trouble? Did you blow up the boat?”
“I swear, you do have an imagination. No, we just happened to be on the only boat that decided to blow up last night.”
Soon, the young country girl was asking detailed questions about the city of St. Louis and what life was like there. Silas answered her as best he could, though many of her notions were fantastic. He felt true accounts would shatter her wonder of the metropolis, therefore he said as little as possible.
“Poppa said he will take me upriver one day so I can see the city, but I wager with times as hard as they are, he will try to push Memphis off as nearly the same thing.”
“Memphis ain’t half bad.”
“So you say, but I would like to judge St. Louis for myself.”
She noticed him looking at the stairs again. Cooking together in her kitchen gave Myra a sense of familiarity, therefore she did not think twice when she blurted out, “You’re sweet on her, though, ain’t you?”
It was Silas’ turn to pink up in abashment. “You should move the pot of potatoes over on the stove. If you high boil instead of simmer them, it makes them gritty.”
Standing behind Silas, Myra stuck her tongue out at him just as her mother came down the steps.
Lenora looked at her daughter with pursed lips and a flat glare. “Myra, come help me change Francis’ sheets.”
Myra brushed her hands upon her apron and joined her mother at the base of the steps.
“You want I should help you, Ma’am?” Silas asked as he cut out biscuits from the rolled dough with an old tin can Myra had given him.
“No, thank you; I think it may frighten my daughter if she were to awaken to find a strange man pulling the sheet from under her. Your friend is doing better, I believe. The fever is breaking and she wakes for but a moment or two.”
“Has she spoken to you?” Silas asked, intentionally paying too much attention to his tin can.
“She has asked where she is and also if you were nearby.”
Silas was shaking a biscuit into his hand, and upon her statement, he looked up and the dough missed his hand, falling onto the table in a cloud of flour.
“By that,” Lenora quickly added, “I mean you and your friend Hercules. I told her you all were fine and waiting for her to get better so you all could continue your travels.”
The two women started up the steps. Out of earshot, in the tight space of the mid-floor landing turn, Lenora spun on her daughter and gripped her arm tightly. “Don’t you go getting any ideas about that fellow, Myra. He is not here but for the time it takes for his friend to rest up and then he will be off in the wind.”
In the dim light, with the smells of biscuit dough clinging to her, Myra rolled her lying eyes and scoffed. “Mother, please! You don’t think I fall for every tall, good-looking, blue-eyed stranger that comes riding by, do you?”
Myra continued up the steps in a superior gait.
“Yes, I do,” Lenora whispered behind her. “And who knows what kind of trouble those three have found. Besides, he is traveling with a woman and she is pregnant.”
This stopped Myra mid-step. She spun upon her mother and put her face down close to whisper conspiratorially, “Really? Do you think the child is his?”
“The girl herself is but a child and I think, yes, both children may be his.”
“What in the world does that mean, Mother?”
“In her fever, she told me she was raped. She claimed she bore not only the horror of it, but the horror of the child being the seed of incest. He does not appear to be old enough to be her father, but perhaps her older brother . . . it is just too much the think on.”
Even in the nexus of darkness between the filtered light from up and down, Lenora saw her daughter turn ashen. The girl stuttered, “. . . but . . . but he was so nice . . . and . . .” Her words trailed off, dropping to the floor.
“Needless to say, until I speak with your father on this, you should keep your distance from that man.”
“But, Momma, Silas does not strike me as that kind of fellow.”
“Oh, it’s ‘Silas,’ now is it? I knew I should not have left him alone with you.”
“Momma, he seems so kind and sweet, and any man who knows how to cook like he does cannot be as evil as all that—although he does get a little bossy about his potatoes . . .”
“Perhaps not as evil as ‘all that,’ but evil enough he could be. Besides, I was not meaning him being alone with you so much as you being alone with him.” Lenora gave Myra a poke and they both continued up the stairs.
When the women returned to the kitchen, Silas had already begun frying the chicken.
Lenora came over and nosed about his work. She looked at him suspiciously, taking the long fork from his hand. She nudged him out of the way and turned a piece of thigh in the skillet to inspect it. Evidently, it was up to snuff, but she only begrudged him a barely audible, “Humph.”
It was a long, grueling process to Silas as she went through each dish he was simultaneously tending to. She tasted his mashed potatoes. She poked her head in the oven to eye his biscuits. She shook the skillet the peas warmed in. She gave no indication of acceptance or disapproval, reminding Silas of a rather cranky sergeant from the war. Even if he was satisfied, he never gave anyone the satisfaction of knowing it. The French chefs he worked under were similar, but when a good dish was made, they at least told you so.
Lenora lifted the lid on a pot and peered inside at some simmering liquid. “What in the world is this?”
“It’s a broth,” he said. “I figured Emma may not be eatin’ solid right off, so I whipped it up for when she can start takin’ liquids.”
“You are right about that,” Lenora sniffed at the contents. Silas saw her close her eyes, a tremor of a smile threatened to break out in the corner of her mouth. “What is that smell? It’s . . . nice.”
“That, ma’am, is either the dried mushrooms or the the ginger.”
“We ain’t got no ginger or mushrooms around here! Where’d you come up with them?”
Silas went over to the counter and picked up his cook’s roll. “I went out and got my things. I always keep a few necessaries in my kit.”
Myra had gravitated to a brown mound in the middle of the kitchen table. She poked at it and pulled a small bit from the sticky mass, “What’s this here?” She asked, popping it into her mouth before waiting for a reply.
Her eyes lit up as she chewed the dough. She reached down and pulled another taste when her mother slapped her hand.
Lenora turned on him. “How in the world did you find time for that? And why is it so dark?”
“I saw y’all had some molasses in the pantry and I went ahead and got it started . . . you know? For dessert, sort of?”
“Oh, my,” Myra said with delight, a rosiness lighting in her cheeks. “It’s kind of spicy!”
“A little cayenne and some chili powder,” he replied proudly. “It ain’t too hot, is it? I hope you don’t mind me sort of takin’ over—it’s just once I get rollin’ in a good kitchen like this, well, they ain’t no stoppin’. Is everything lookin’ acceptable? I didn’t overstep, did I?”
The nervous flurry of questions whipped past Lenora, but she only heard the mother inside her telling her Silas had done all this to keep busy. Even the way he quickly started rolling out the cookie dough gave her a glimpse at his need to stay distracted. His worry was evident.
“Who taught you how to do all this?” Lenora asked. “Your momma? Sister? Maybe your wife?
Her questions, like the motes of flour, drifted slowly through the afternoon light. He did not look up. His arms and strong hands pressed out the dough. “No, Ma’am, I did not know my mother and my sister passed when she was a child.”
The awkward silence was pushed away as he continued, laughing, “and I dare say I have not found the woman who would endure my oddness or stubborn nature.”
The men outside had begun a game of horseshoe pitching below an elm tree near the back door. The clink of shoe on peg and hoots of laughter echoed into the kitchen.
The women fell in and picked up the final tasks to finishing the meal. There was a slow simmer of idle banter between the three cooks. They first steamed through a round about the humid weather, then immersed themselves into the plight of the tobacco farmers and then percolated over the topic of the riverboat disaster. He answered their curiosity and shared their sadness at the tragic loss of life.
In general, it is rumored the most talkative and gabbling of domestics is the washerwoman. The statistics gathered to arrive at this generalization likely did not include a lazy spring afternoon in a hot Kentucky farm kitchen, for the next course of topics were a bit bubblier than the previous. They sizzled around Emma and her plight at home, then spattered onto Silas with questions of his relation to her, and finally boiled over with the scalding subject of Emma’s pregnancy.
“How did you discover she was with child?” Silas asked as he removed the biscuits from the oven.
“Once I got her out of that manly attire, she was clearly beginning to show,” Lenora said as if it were as simple to see as apples on a tree.
Silas turned red and tightened his lips to a grim line. Lenora ventured no nearer the topic, for she knew Silas cared for this girl, but was perturbed by her condition. She had known from Emma’s delirious confession that her uncle was the father, and was relieved to find Silas was not her uncle. He was injured over the news of her pregnancy, so she dodged the conversation like flies avoid vinegar. Myra badgered him with another query when the girl caught the glare and sideways shake of her mother’s head.
This man was growing on Lenora, and she worried about him and what the future may hold for the trio as they moved down the road. She felt surely Silas, as good and kind as he seemed, was still only a man in the end and would let his pride stand in the way of his happiness.
With the meal near ready, Lenora asked Silas, “Would you care to go on up and take some broth to Emma? If she is awake, I reckon she may need some.”
“I would rather not,” he replied curtly, belying his discomfort. “Is your daughter well enough to take some? I hate to pry, but Edgar did mention her to me earlier.”
Silas immediately regretted broaching the topic, for a mild veil of sadness and resignation drew across her face. “I am afraid she would not tolerate it.”
She looked up to him and quickly amended, “—Though I am sure it is quite healthful and delicious, but she has not taken much beyond tea and the medicine Doctor Holloway prescribes.”
“What does the doctor say about . . . I am sorry, I did not learn her name.”
“Her name is Francis—after Edgar’s mother. The doctor believes she has some rare parasite. She has not gotten much worse, and she sleeps well, but she will not gain health, either. He feels she needs a treatment only available in St. Louis, but we haven’t the money right now to send her off.”
Myra went to the stove and ladled some of Silas’ broth into a bowl for her mother to take upstairs.
“I am sorry,” Silas said, motionless for the first time since he walked into the kitchen. “I should not pry.”
Lenora laughed. It was a warm and guileless gesture. “Silas, all we been doing to you for the last half of an hour is prying into you all’s business.” She accepted the broth and a spoon from her daughter and turned away from Silas toward the stairs. “You done got your lid pried right off and we stirred everything up inside you. The least you should be allowed is to ask some of your own questions. Welcome to our kitchen.”
She climbed the stairs and left Silas and Myra to gather dish-wear and utensils for supper.
Silas had worked triple shifts in the Hotel Crawford kitchen before and he was not as worn out then as he was when these two women were done with him. Still, the dinner was good and the company fine. They gathered at a long plank table with benches beneath a nearby towering oak. A prayer was offered and the visitors were asked to be looked over by the Almighty. The food was passed and savored as much as the conversation. Since Lenora had warmed to Silas, she complimented him on his cookery, especially his potatoes and biscuits.
“These are so silky and light,” she said as she leveled a spoonful before her eyes and audited them. “How do you manage that? Then there’s those biscuits! They sure beat mine. They are so flaky, they may blow away with the wind.”
Silas glanced over to Myra. “I cannot divulge my secrets, but I believe your daughter might have picked up on the technique.” He smiled at her, silently astounded at the strength of Lenora. She had a gravely ill daughter upstairs and yet she found not only the time to be gracious and generous to strangers, but also the inclination to make them feel welcomed.
“Myra sure needs the lessons in cooking,” Jackson said, which drew a swift kick in the shin from her under the table, felt by everyone settled around the planks.
The late afternoon shadows drew longer across the lawn there beside the little farmhouse on the hill. The supply of biscuits and chicken and potatoes and buttered peas dwindled as the friendships swelled. Crickets sawed their lazy songs and the one-eyed hound, head still wrapped in a handkerchief, snapped at flies which may or may not have been there.