Forrest Farm, 5:45 p.m.
Silas and Herc sat across from each other at the plank table. The hosts had cleared the remnants of their fine meal. The last spasms of daylight splashed orange and pink on the western clouds, the sun dispatched for another day. Crickets overtook the twilight, chirping excitedly from branch and blade of grass.
Due to the noise of the damned crickets and partly because he had not had a drink in hours, Herc had a hard time concentrating on his old friend’s conversation.
Silas asked why he wasn’t partaking of the corn liquor Edgar had offered him and Herc replied, “I don’t want to be gettin’ all sloppy in front of them people.”
They were alone, for the family ventured off to perform the various chores required to end a day on the farm. Edgar tended to the animals while Lenora saw to the patients in her makeshift infirmary. The boys were clearing out a suitable manger for Herc and Silas in the tobacco barn and Myra was setting the kitchen in order, preparing things for tomorrow’s breakfast. She faintly whistled some undecipherable tune between the clacks and clanks of cookware being stowed.
“Why, I ain’t never known you to turn down free liquor,” Silas noted.
“We ain’t never been in a situation such as this and I feel it disrespectful to their hospitality if I tip the jug.” He looked away, indignant. His gaze drifted to the barn where Doddle and Jackson toiled. “You don’t think I can be dry when I want. Well, I can.”
“You feelin’ alright?” Silas said as he sat up. He grinned and pressed his hand against Herc’s forehead. “You ain’t catchin’ whatever Emma got, are you?”
Herc slapped his friend’s hand away. “You got comedy to spare sometimes. Maybe you ought to take it on the road. I simply don’t want to act a fool or set no bad examples in front of them children.”
“Hold on, Emma is almost still a child and you had no such compunctions about drinkin’ around her.”
“You need a tablet and a pencil so’s you can keep track of events, Silas. She is a woman and you of all people knows that. Besides, she already knows my foibles and quirks and is enamored by them. She done told me how she looks upon me as an uncle.” At those words, Hercules straightened and tilted his head upward as if sitting for a portrait.
“Given her exposure to uncles, she may not intend that as a compliment.”
“Don’t you go gettin’ salty on me. She likes me fine and she knows I will be there for her now, no matter what. You’re still tender about her not telling us the whole sad truth.”
Silas shifted the topic and scrutiny from himself. “It is the boy, Jackson, ain’t it? You done taken a liking to him and that’s why you ain’t drinkin’.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not,” Herc sniffed indignantly. He used Silas’ tactic against him, “Why ain’t you gone up to see her?”
” ‘Who?’ You sound like the owl. Who else in the world would I be talkin’ about?” Herc said as he slapped at a mosquito on his neck. “I done sat with her a spell and she was askin’ after you.”
Silas stared at the light from the kitchen slashing across the rough table surface. It was growing brighter the darker the night became. With his index finger, he traced the outline of it idly. “What’d she say?”
“Oh ho! No sir! You want to know what she has to say, you get your ass up there and sit with her. I ain’t doing your dirty work for you. You are being a stubborn fool because you perceive some slight that ain’t there. She kept silent about her uncle because it is a dark and painful business. She kept silent about the child she carries because of how people may think of her. Here she wasn’t too far off. See how you are treating her? And here you’re supposed to be helping her.”
Silas continued tracing another section of the kitchen window outline.
Herc stared at him and shook his head. “The longer you keep her at arm’s length, the longer it will be for her to trust you. Things that happened to her before we met her ain’t got a damn thing to do with us. She is a good girl and she needs our help.”
Silas looked up into the dark tree overhead. “Speakin’ of that owl, I wonder where he is.”
Perturbed, Herc slapped the table and stood. “You better step down off your high horse, friend, or somebody may shove you off.”
Silas kept his face upward but slid a sour look at Herc from the corner of his eye, “Is that right? Who might you be thinkin’ would do the shoving?”
“You know who—and it ain’t me, you idiot.” Herc stood, turned on his heels and skulked off.
Silas looked again for Ezra Bean. He whistled a low call his hidden companion “Hoo, hoo, hoohoohoo.”
There came no reply from their companion of the sky, but Herc, on his way to the barn, called back from the darkness. “He probably is as disgusted with you as I.”
Silas sat in silence and shadows. A mosquito flapped its clumsy, papery wings against his ear and he swatted at it. He sat with his back to the house, but craned his neck around to look up at Emma’s window. One of the thin curtains hung outside and swayed loosely in the breeze. Though no lantern illuminated the room from inside, he thought made out the faint outline of Emma in the shadows. He contemplated waving or calling out, but a tremor of cowardice crumbled that fancy. He quickly turned back around.
Though he was void of thought at the moment, the rattle of the glass panes in the kitchen door brought him to focus on Myra coming from the house.
She settled next to Silas, nearly touching, and stared at him in the dim light. “You know they are having a fair across the river in New Madrid?”
“I had no idea.”
“If Momma allows, perhaps you could escort me?”
“I do not think she would oblige. Aside from that, wouldn’t your father have a say in that? I doubt if I was your father—”
“If Momma says it is allowed, father has to be aligned. He does whatever she says. You say ‘if you were my father,’ and that is plain silly. You would have to have been, what, ten or twelve when you fathered a child my age? I am eighteen and a woman now—even in the eyes of the Church.”
“It ain’t the Church’s eyes whose stern gaze I am avoiding.”
“You sound as if you are afraid,” she said teasing him by bumping her shoulder into his. “You don’t strike me as a coward.”
Silas had stirrings of emotion and other things at her closeness and attention, but he pushed it aside. “I doubt it is cowardice so much as pragmatism and respect for your family’s hospitality.”
Her smile grew so wide, he saw her lovely teeth in the darkness. It reminded him of the Cheshire Cat from a children’s book he had read. She was a bit more innocently randy than the storied cat, but the smile still hung in the night and in Silas’ mind.
They both turned up to Emma’s window as they heard it close.
Silas felt pangs of his betrayal. “I do not think we shall have time for the fair.”
Her bright teeth vanished behind frowning lips. Silas could not understand how, but he reckoned he had just disappointed two young ladies with one fell swoop.
Myra brushed against him as she rose, sending him swaying. In the wake of her, he realized she had perfumed herself with rose water or some such. He pined for the simple life Herc and he had shared alone on the road.
Silas found the night cooling rapidly. He was unsure whether it was merely the natural way of things on the Forrest hilltop, or if perhaps the general view of him by his friends had dropped the chill.
He wandered from the table to his lodgings for the night. Each step scraped as he dragged his boots reluctantly. He needed was a good night’s sleep, but was certain Hercules would be in a sermonic mood before their eyes closed for the day.
The tobacco barn was easy enough to find in the dark, for he heard Hercules speaking loudly. Silas wondered if the old man was tuning up for the jawing he was going to deliver when he heard the voice of Jackson Forrest in the barn as well. The many wooden louvers of the building were closed, but the huge bay doors lay as wide open as his friend’s jaws.
The ground around the entrance was parched, packed earth. Silas rounded the corner to find Herc sitting upon a blanket with knees drawn up. He was close to the door just this side of three lengthy pits, four feet apart, dug two feet wide and one foot deep. These stretched parallel to each other from end to end of the barn.
Silas grew up in Kentucky and knew these barns. During the harvest season, these pits were filled with smoking embers that were stoked constantly in order to evenly dry the air for the tobacco leaves. Tonight, the only fire was in the center of the pit closest to Herc and it was tended to by Jackson.
The smoke drifted easily through the doors, but the heady perfume of the hardwood ash fire gave Silas a gentle and amiable feeling toward the pair. Silas always enjoyed the smell of a fine campfire. Herc listened attentively as Jackson told some thrilling tale about two schoolyard bullies, Jeb and Dillon.
Silas looked upon the two and noticed the true joy the old man found in the boy. Herc’s eyes flashed wide as Jackson took his final swing, cutting the legs right out from the fleeing Dillon.
Silas found his gear in a corner and released his blanket and pipe. He quietly edged closer to a spot on the opposite side of the pit with the fire. He did not wish to draw the attention from the boy. Herc did not break from his young friend, and without looking over to Silas, he produced a pouch of tobacco from his coat and tossed it square in the middle of Silas’ palette. Silas sat down and filled his pipe.
Jackson looked to the future as he said, “I bet if you put in a good word for me tomorrow, Poppa will let me come huntin’ with you all.”
Herc smiled, “I sure will see what I can do, but if he has his reasons for you not joining us, you promise not to get me in the tar if I do not press the issue?”
Jackson drew up a corner of his mouth in a pinch of disappointment as he laid his imaginary weapon across the fire. “Yessir, I promise.”
Herc noticed the boy’s downcast nature. “Now, don’t be getting all gloomy just yet. I ain’t even asked him. You ought not count your broken eggs before you even pull them out from under the hen.”
Silas knew Herc to generally be a Sour Sally but his new positive outlook was the result of his friendship with the boy, and it was welcomed warmly as far as Silas was concerned.
Lenora called Jackson’s name from the house. She yelled it so loudly, he could have heard it in the next county. He made a grand exit by backing up to the rear wall of the barn, taking a long, running jump and clearing all the fire troughs in a couple bounds. He landed hard by the entrance and turned to see if Herc had witnessed his athleticism. Indeed he had, for Herc and Herc clapped appreciatively. Jackson took a bow and slipped into the darkness.
No sooner had his shirttails flapped out of view when Ezra Bean swept through the door and winged his way to one of the upmost rafters. He weaved about the rods and ropes used for stringing up the leaves and found a suitable perch. He hovered aside it for a moment, landed and hooted a greeting. He fluffed his feathers out from head to toe and then back up again, his eyes flickering golden from the firelight below. He inspected the new quarters while he worked.
“I bet he was thinkin’ to himself, ‘When’s that little fellow going to shove off?’,” Silas said. He was puffing away on his pipe, making a point to not focus too much on Herc, but putting on a more obvious admiration at the way the smoke curled from his own mouth.
“He is a good boy, Silas,” Herc said, himself not looking directly at anything in particular. “You best not be too scratchy to him, or I might take it personal.”
“Hold on there. I was just supposin’ what Ezra Bean was thinkin’, not me.”
“Still, I have detected a touch of jealousy when the boy is about. Perhaps you are afraid I may spend more attention on him than on you.”
A chuckle from Silas turned to cough as he took too much smoke in. “Why, if I were really worried you may become a mentor to him, I might then begin to worry more about the boy than I would you.”
“Come now, I think I did a darn good job on you.”
“I was only joking, friend, and besides, we ain’t going to have too much time for him to get much attached to you. We should be moving along when the girl is in fairer health.”
“Why don’t you say her name, Silas? You afraid it may be giving in to forgiveness?” He sniffed. “You call her ‘the girl’ and it keeps her at a distance.”
The only sound was the crackle of the fire and the scrape of talons above as Ezra Bean settled in.
Herc released his friend from the badgering. “I sure do hope we can stay a day or few. I told Edgar we are helping to get those seedlings sewn.”
Tight lips from Silas. The younger man rolled forward to poke at the fire with a smoldering twig.
“All right. Let it blow. What is botherin’ you now?”
“How do you know somethin’s botherin’ me? Are you a dang mind-reader now?” Silas complained, but his incredulous grimace faded quickly. “All right, all right! You known me for a long time. My worry is we are in a bit too deep with this whole thing.”
Herc reclined back propping himself up on one elbow. “How you mean?”
“As I already complained, she has not been completely honest with us about a few things. Firstly, she did not tell us that Thoedore fellow was her Uncle, and—”
“We already done been over this ground.”
“Let me finish, dang it. She lied about our wages—”
“Hell on fire, Silas!” Herc spat as he shook his pipe out in the general direction of the fire. The ash ball came to rest a few inches from the pit. A thin trail of smoke drifted up. “She said the money’s waiting in Houston and Estelle vouches for every inch of her character, so . . .”
“Fine. You want side with your girlfriend on this and not hear me out, then I shall just grumble on to myself. You know, usually it is you that goes ’round waving the flag of the devil’s advocate. I ain’t used to it and you sure ain’t giving me a chance to explain my worries. You asked, so the polite thing to do is shut your face and let me get it out. I always let you empty your gut when you feel the need . . .”
Herc sighed and rolled his eyes back so deep in his head the pupils vanished. “By all means, please continue.”
Grudgingly Silas did continue. “My new concern is whether we actually do have some law after us now. In some circles of society, what we done—guiding this girl away from her home and guardians—could be confused with kidnapping. Why, they may even have some stiff penalty for crossing state lines with her, too. I realize she was abused, but perhaps her uncle had some rights when it came to punishing his niece for being a . . . for losing her . . . for being without virtue. She ran off and got pregnant and her uncle, being the head of the house, had a right to punish her, I suppose.”
“I don’t even know where to start hacking away at that tangle of stupid you’re snagged in.”
Silas shrugged, palms upward, “Enlighten me, oh wise one.”
“First off, ain’t no man—parent or otherwise—got the right to beat a grown woman like he did. I don’t mean just beat, either. He done whooped up on her hard, from the way Estelle tells it. I mean for you to think about the war and why we done fought. We fought against slavery—at least I did and that don’t just include black folks. That extends to women and children too. Ain’t no human supposed to be treated like a bad dog or ornery mule.”
“Fine. I agree he was a scoundrel and deserved more than what I gave him, but what about her being pregnant? I mean, in terms of character and—”
“You are not one to be sermonizing on character. Face the truth, boy, you liked her fine till you learned she was with child. Now you done stamped her with a scarlet letter when you don’t even know her. You should not let that weigh so heavily against her.”
“You sure stand firm on her side. How come you don’t think her being so loose should stand against her character?”
“Because, you jackass, she was raped by her uncle. That child she carries is his,” Herc sat up and spit to the side. “Damn, you sure are thick sometimes.”
The news struck Silas like a hard slap. He realized it was a secret she had told Hercules but had not seen fit to divulge to Silas. This became a petty wedge, himself on one side and Emma and Herc on the other. He was embarrassed and angry at the same moment.
“How long were you two going to keep this news from me?” Silas said as he stood and paced alongside the pit.
“Boy, you sure do have a whole bunch of silly feelings getting bruised up right now. Can’t you look past yourself for one damn minute and see how badly this girl needs us—both of us—to be there to help her? Your pouting and kicking at clods ain’t going to help her get where she needs to be.”
Silas felt like a small boy again, Hercules Bennet taking him by the shoulders and leading him through the thick Georgia forest to safety. He knew the old man was right. He knew being stubborn and petty about the imagined slights was not going to get him anywhere but back into darkness.
Silas flopped down cross-legged before the fire, resigned to giving up on being mulish. He sighed heavily and looked deep into the licking flames.
“Good,” Herc nodded. “Now that I talked some sense into you, is there any other burden I can relieve you of?”
Silas peered up and warned, “I reckon there’s still the matter of them laws on the books about carrying this here girl across state lines—whether she wants to go or not.”
Herc broke into an impish grin, his old man’s teeth twinkled dimly like fireflies in a distant meadow at twilight. “Silas, we done already tromped all over every known law of man. It’s the laws of God we need tread lightly around. This girl needs to get away. She needs to be with her kin that can love and protect her. If that ain’t God’s law, I don’t know what is. We gotta go stomping all over a whole field of them other men’s laws? Well, to hell with them.”
Silas nodded, but only quickly. Ezra Bean hooted, punctuating the conversation to a close. On opposite sides of the fire trough, both men removed their hats. The gun belts came off next as they both placed them nearby, handles within reach, and then covered themselves with their extra blankets.
Silas lay on his side as he looked through the barn door and watched a light in Emma’s room wink out, followed by the others throughout the house. Herc, sleeping the sleep of the just, snored loudly. Silas fretted for half of an hour, imagining all the foul things yet to come. He ran out of topics to worry over, or simple fatigue arrived, but either way, he finally fell asleep there in the empty tobacco barn.