This is the twentieth part of a fiction serial, in 832 words.
I was polite as I could be to Elizabeth Ryan, and wished her a good trip to Europe. She folded her arms, still smirking. “I doubt you will see me again, Phin Fuller. My life is in New York City now”. I nodded to her and her sister. “I’d best get on now. Good to see you both”. As I rode away from the house, I considered that after all was said and done, I had just had a lucky escape. But there was no denying that red hair looked so damn pretty.
Between daddy’s work and that of the other carpenters, the town was taking shape along the riverbank, with houses now appearing even past the old cemetery that had been there since the start of the settlement. Men were working over in Delano, and it was easy to see the tent encampments slowly giving way to wooden structures over there. With Ben long gone, I worked with Henry and daddy, now, leaving the small jobs until the winter.
When I turned seventeen, it was the fall of eighteen-seventy, and five years since we had left Virginia. There was a petition raised in Wichita to have it declared a city. Most men signed it, including daddy and Henry. Someone made the trip to Topeka to submit the request to the Federal authorities there.
After leaving me fixing rails while they went in for supplies one Saturday, daddy got back early. As he passed by, I could see he had people in the back of the wagon. A big negro jumped down, then turned and helped two women onto the ground. Daddy waved to me from the house, as Henry drove off to settle the horses. I wiped my hands on a rag, and walked over.
“Phin, this here’s Walter. He’s gonna come work for us, grow some stuff on the land and watch over the homestead. That’s his woman Mary, and her daughter. Walter extended a hand, and I shook it. It was the first time I had ever touched a negro. The woman was a squaw, plain to see. She was wearing a dress, and her hair was all long and twisted, but there was no mistaking an injun. The younger one looked at her shoes, then up at me. I could tell she was a half-breed, but not Walter’s. I nodded to Mary, and politely said “Ma’am”. The girl smiled. Reckon nobody had ever been so respectful to her ma.
“Let’s get the tent from the store, and get them set up, Phin. Next week, we can start on building them a house before the weather sets in”.
I followed daddy to get the tent, and Walter helped us put it up within sight of the house. Mary and her daughter were in the house fixing dinner for later, and Henry went over to finish the last few rails on the fence. We left Walter unloading their few things from the wagon, and as we walked to the house, daddy told me their story.
“Walter was a slave down in Georgia. He was born here, and soon showed he could raise things real natural like. They put him to work in the market garden, and he stayed working with the vegetables and such. When he heard that Abe Lincoln had freed the slaves, he took off. He tried heading west, where he was fixing to get to the Kansas abolitionist towns. But he had a hard time keeping away from people who would have tried to take him back, and eventually joined the Union Army by hooking up with some of Sherman’s men. After the peace, he took off west again, working where he could and walking most of the way. Then he met Mary and her daughter and decided to protect them. Mary’s an Osage. Ain’t her real name of course, but it’s what she goes by. Her daughter is from a white man who took advantage of her in Missouri fifteen years ago. She’s called Susan”.
We ate a fine dinner that night. Mary and Susan did a great job with making our regular victuals taste great, and they even cleaned up the house while dinner was cooking. They both spoke good English too, and Walter could read and write a little bit, so he was teaching them from an old bible he carried. Daddy offered my help, in between puffs on his pipe. “Phin reads real good. Maybe he could teach the girl”. Susan looked up at me and blushed when he said that.
The next morning when we left for work in Wichita, daddy handed Walter a scattergun and a handful of cartridges. “You been in the army, so I reckon you know how to handle this. Anyone comes on this property giving you trouble, don’t be afeared to use it”.
As we drove out along the creek, Henry shook his head. “Mister Jessie, don’t reckon you should be giving no gun to a negro”.