This is all 48 parts of my recent fiction serial, prompted by the photo shown on Maggie’s blog.
It is a long read, at 40,116 words.
I turned eleven in the fall of sixty-four, and the winter that followed was a hard one. The ground froze fast, and the snow came early. I was sitting by the fire one morning when momma rushed past, pulling her heavy shawl around her shoulders. She let some snow in as she opened the door on her way across to the outhouse.
She was there an awful long time, and I started to get worried. Eventually, I pulled on my worn-out boots and daddy’s old storm cape, and walked out back. I called through the door a few times, but there was no reply. There was nothing for it but to get close and look through the circle cut in the wood. Momma was sprawled on the plank across the box, and had blood all over her legs, which was pooling on the floor. She was whiter than the snow on the roof.
I ran all the way into town for Doctor Roy. By the time I got there, the sweat was freezing on me, and my breath felt like my lungs were full of ice splinters. He drove me back in his buggy, and stopped right outside the outhouse. After he looked at momma inside, I knew from his face she was gone.
He took me to the Bloy place, the next farm up to the north. May Bloy was my momma’s cousin, and her and her husband didn’t have no children. Ned Bloy and the doctor went back to sort out things at home, and they took George the hired man along too. George was getting old, but could still pull his weight with farm work and chores. They came back after dark, bringing daddy’s tools, the good plow, and the ox. George stayed on to tend to some jobs needing doing, and came back just before momma’s funeral that Friday. They buried her in the town graveyard. I reckoned it must have been some job to dig deep into that frozen ground.
Mrs Bloy cared for me until the next spring. The war ended, and my daddy came home from the army. They told him in town where I was, and I was on the Bloy’s porch when I saw him walking up the long path from the turnpike. His gray uniform was gone, and he was wearing brown homespun, no better than a tater sack. He shook Mr Bloy’s hand, and thanked him for all he had done, then kissed May on the cheek. She started crying, but he wiped away her tears. “Don’t fuss now, May.” I thought he looked more like my grandpa than my daddy. Not that I had ever seen Billy Fuller. May insisted he stay and eat, and he was asleep in the chair soon after.
The next morning, Ned bloy took us home in his flat wagon, the tools and plow in the back, the ox tied on behind. He had given daddy two horse-steaks and a bottle of whiskey, and told him to let him know if he ever needed help. We got the fire going, and daddy cooked the steaks. Then he sat drinking the whiskey, and smoking his pipe. He didn’t ask me anything about momma, and I thought it best to say nothing.
In the fall of sixty-one, my older brother Calvin was old enough to join up. Daddy thought he had better go with him, to watch out for him. The boy was impulsive, and had never been further from home than the town. Like most farmers in the county, we never had no slaves or bond-servants. They lived and worked on the big plantations around Richmond, mostly. Daddy talked to momma, reckoned she could cope as he wouldn’t be gone too long. I was very young, but remember momma crying when they left.
They ended up in the same company, part of A.P. Hill’s division. Calvin never came home. He was killed in Fredericksburg, on the first day. That was only some sixty miles from home. Daddy wrote and told us a Yankee sharpshooter did for him, and it was quick. They always said that though, when one of the boys got killed. Daddy only came home the once, after Gettysburg, in sixty-three. He brought me a big knife, and told me it was a Yankee bayonet. Then he showed us the scar in his side where he had been stuck with that very bayonet.
“He was a red faced boy, kinda plump. Reckon no more than eighteen, and ready to do for me. I bashed his head in with the butt of my rifle, and didn’t notice that there bayonet sticking in me until after. The doctor poured alcohol right in there, and an orderly sewed me up. Hurt like hades, I tell you”. He fashioned a belt for me from a leather strap, and said I should wear the bayonet in it at all times.
“You protect your momma now, Phin. Case them Yankees get down here causing mischief”.
Momma had kept the tobacco going while daddy was away. That still sold for cash, or could be traded for what we needed. The money was not much use, not Confederate bills, anyway. She would say, “Might just as well hang these on the nail in the outhouse, put ’em to some good use’. We never did get troubled by the Yankees that daddy warned me about. Though the fighting got close enough that we could hear the guns at times.
Then one day, we were hanging washing out front, when there was the sound of horses, a lot of horses. Cavalry came riding slowly up the turnpike, from the north. They had blue uniforms on, and I feared they would raid the farm, maybe hurt momma. But one of them just raised his cap and called out, ‘Good day to you, dear lady”. He had a funny voice, and I asked momma why he was talking so strange. She shook her head. “He’s Irish, Phin. Lots of them Irish fellas up north, I hear. They come all the way across the ocean to fight for the Federals. No wonder we’re losing this war”.
Three weeks after he got home, daddy walked into town one afternoon to see if he could sell the dry tobacco we had stored in the barn. He came back late, and woke me up to talk to me. “I spoke to Mr Shultz, the land agent. He says that some men from up north are in town, buying up land. They are paying with Yankee dollars, in gold. I told him to tell them to come see me, boy. So I thought you should know I am planning to move us on. Nothing left for us here now, with your momma and Calvin gone. The Bloys are getting old, and we don’t have any kin left alive. I reckon we ought to head west, look for a better life”.
I didn’t know much about the west, though I had heard tell of the gold rush, and injuns of course. I had never been outside the county all my life so far, so I didn’t know that much about anything. “We going to mine for gold, daddy?” He smiled at me. “No, that’s played out, boy. I reckon we will get ourselves a nice piece of land, build a homestead, maybe raise cattle or horses. What do you say to that?” I immediately pictured myself as a cowboy, yee-hawing, and rounding up the stock. It seemed like more fun than growing tobacco. “Sounds good to me, daddy’.
The two men were serious, sweating in the May heat in their thick wool suits as they walked around with daddy as he showed them our place. I wasn’t part of any negotiating of course, but I listened from the bedroom as they argued. Daddy had a price in mind, and they had a lower one in theirs. There was lots of talk about the yield of the tobacco crop before the war, and I knew for sure that daddy exaggerated how much we could grow. After a lot of talking into the afternoon, they left in their buggy. When I came out, daddy was smiling. “Those boys thought to cheat me, Phin, but I held out for the price I always wanted. We had better go say goodbye to the Bloys on Sunday, ’cause we will be leaving soon as I sign the papers”.
Over the next few days, we packed up the tools, and our few clothes and posessions. Once daddy got the money from Mr Shultz, he bought us some work clothes, boots, and warm coats. He told me most of the money was going on buying a travelling wagon, with a canvas top. We would be living in that with all our stuff, until we got wherever it was we were going. We needed a pair of calm mares to pull the thing too, but there would be enough left to get by on, and to buy the land when we arrived. One day, he took me out back and showed me the Henry Rifle he had brought home from the war. “Took this off a dead Yankee, Phin. He was lying right on top it”. He also had his pistol, a Navy Colt that he had taken to the war. He showed me how to load and fire both of them, setting up some stones as targets.
“You will have to know how to use these where we’re going, Phin”. He had bought me a hunting knife at the store in town. “That old bayonet ain’t much use as a knife. Only good for sticking in someone. But you hang on to it”. I watched him cleaning the rifle and pistol later, as I played around with my new knife.
I was growing up fast, and could feel the excitement in me.
Daddy got back with the wagon and horses a few days later. He had stocked up with all we would need while he was in town, and we started to pack our things into the back. I had imagined a much bigger wagon, like the ones used by the old pioneers that I had seen in picture books. I worried that our wagon wouldn’t have enough room for us two, once everything was inside. But daddy told me we would sleep on the ground most of the time, under the wagon. When the weather was bad, we could put the quilts on top of all the stuff, and make the best of it.
Being good with tools, he easily took the plow apart, so it didn’t take up so much space. There was our food, and fodder for the horses and the ox too. It was soon filling up, and he decided to take the two good chairs along. “We can sit on them ’round our camp fire, Phin, then use them when we build our house”. He hid the money and valuables in a leather bag inside a bag of corn, and showed me where, putting it to one side so as not to mix it up. By the time everything was packed away, I started to hope it wouldn’t rain, as I still couldn’t imagine where we would find space inside.
Mister Schultz rode out, to officially take posession of our farm for the Yankee buyers. He shook daddy’s hand, and wished us both luck. Then he handed over a good new map he had got from somewhere. It was a real map, drawn proper, with hills and rivers marked, stretching all the way west, including San Francisco. It had to be folded six times, it was so big. Much better than the hand-drawn one daddy had brought back from the war. And it was on funny paper, waxy-like stuff. The agent smiled. “You won’t have to worry about getting this one wet, Jessie, but keep it safe”.
As we turned the wagon west and drove away from the farm, daddy told me not to look back. “Keep looking forward, boy. We ain’t looking back no more”. The wagon was bumpy, and very noisy. Daddy had tied so many pots and pans and things to the sides, even a spare wagon-wheel, they made a fearful racket. And we could only go as fast as the ox could walk, as it was roped on behind. Daddy named the horses Ethel and Mary, but the ox never had no name. It was always just ‘the ox’. I figured it was going to be a long trip, and reckoned we would be lucky to be out of the state by the end of the week.
Before it got too dark, daddy showed me how to handle the horses. I would have to spell him from time to time, but we were not going to travel after dark, for fear of breaking a wheel, or driving into a ditch. Ethel and Mary didn’t need too much handling at that pace, and they seemed content enough to plod along with no coaxing. I just had to steer them around some bends, and away from the biggest holes on the track. It felt strange to be leaving our county, and heading for the Kentucky border. Daddy had marked a place to stop that night, close to a small river. It didn’t have a name, but he said he would know it when we got there.
It was almost dark when we stopped, and sure enough there was a small river, and a stand of trees where we could tie up the horses and the ox. Too late to go searching for firewood, we used some that he had brought in the wagon, and soon had a fire going. I had never been on a trip for fun, but it sarted to feel like one as he heated up some stew over the fire, and the flames made my face hot. With no outhouse, we did the necessary behind the trees, and I had the job of feeding the animals before we settled them. Daddy put some oilskins under the wagon, and placed the quilts on them. With a rough blanket over each of us, and using our folded arms for pillows, we soaked up the heat from the fire that he had just put more wood on.
He lay quiet, smoking his old pipe, and watching the flames. I wanted to ask him about the war, and what had really happened to Cal. But he didn’t appear to be in the mood for talking. Before we settled down, he checked the Colt pistol, and placed it just inside his blanket.
“Just in case”, he said with a smile.
Daddy got us up and moving just after first light. We made good going that day in improving weather, and he pushed on until it was almost too dark to see to get the fire going. So he lit the oil lamp as he got the food ready to cook. There were not so many people on the trail, though we had passed some men in uniform, looking footsore and shabby. They were walking east, and daddy reckoned they were heading home to other places in Virginia. “Some of those boys have had to walk a mighty long way, Phin, and they still have a ways to go yet”.
The next morning, some riders passed us. They looked fit and healthy, and were well-mounted. They didn’t say anything to us, or acknowledge us, but daddy got real uneasy like. He stopped early, just outside of a small town we could see up ahead. “Don’t reckon we need to go into that town, boy. The trail starts to get steep after that, and I’m fixing to follow a different way”. I was sure he was worried about those riders, and thought they would be in that town. “I reckon we stay close to the Powell River for a ways, that should take us between the hills”.
We may have avoided trouble in the town, but sticking close to the river was hard going. A couple of times we had to backtrack to get around some woodland areas too tight for the wagon to get through, and after two days of that, daddy was starting to think we might need to get some more supplies in the next place we came across. Finding an established trail with some obvious wheel-ruts, he kept going until we spotted a house close by. “You stay in the wagon, Phin, and keep the rifle close. I’m gonna see if anyone lives there”. He walked up the dusty path, and stepped over a fallen rail in the fence. Just then, the door opened, and a woman appeared, carrying an old shotgun. “Just stay right there, mister, and state your business”.
She looked younger than my momma, and was wearing a thick apron over a blue dress. Her hair was piled up high, but bits were straggling loose across both sides of her face. She had some shabby pull-up boots on her feet, and they looked to be too big. Daddy raised his hands. “Don’t mean you no harm ma’am. Just me and my boy here. See, he’s in the wagon there. I just wanted to ask where this place is, and if there’s a town or store nearby”. She didn’t lower the shotgun, and kept her eyes on daddy. “You’re in Hancock County Kentucky, mister. Sneedville is up the trail a bit. You will be there long before dark”. Daddy backed up. “Thank you kindly, ma’am. Good day to you”. She stood at the door watching us until I could no longer see the house.
On the way into town, daddy told me that there had been a lot of trouble in Kentucky. The state had come out for the Union, but a lot of the fellas who lived there decided to fight for the rebels instead. “Spilt up families, Phin. Lots of bushwacking and mischief went on. I reckon that lady is on her own with a child, no man around. With so many men on the trails both ways, she must be scared to death”. I wasn’t used to people not being hospitable and friendly, but listening to daddy, I could understand why she might have been afeared.
Sneedville wasn’t much of a place. Just one main street with the usual stores, a doctor’s office, and a livery stable. Most of the men hanging around and sitting on porches were still wearing bits of blue uniform. Some had legs or arms missing, and all eyed us with great suspicion as daddy stopped the wagon outside the general store. “If anyone gives you trouble, just fire the rifle, Phin. Don’t shoot anyone, you hear. Just fire it in the air”. I felt a little worried. I wasn’t used to my daddy being so nervous. He was in there for a long time, but nobody came up to the wagon. I had a hand behind me gripping the rifle though.
A skinny boy followed daddy out. They were carrying sacks of stuff that got dumped in the back of the wagon, and daddy gave the boy some change for helping. As we drove out of town, daddy shook his head, and spit. “The prices were all wrong, Phin. Store-keeper says it’s supply and demand, war shortages and such. But he charged me double ’cause I’m a stranger, that’s what I reckon”. He flapped the reins to make the horses walk faster, and the poor ox had to break into a trot behind.
When I could no longer see the town behind me, I felt relieved. My first experience of Kentucky had left me worried.
We soon found out that the woman had been lying to us. We hadn’t been in Kentucky at all, and were actually just south of there, in Tennessee. That meant turning north again, wasting a lot of time. I asked daddy why she would have lied. “I have no idea, son. Maybe she’s just ornery, or was hoping to send us wrong. Could be she even thinks she lives in Kentucky, as it’s so close to the border. Some folks are none too sure what state they live in. Either way, we have to get back on the right trail”.
So my thoughts about Kentucky had been based on being in the wrong state. But it still made me wonder about those unfriendly men in faded blue uniforms. What were they doing in a rebel state? I asked daddy, but he just shrugged. “Can’t say for sure. Men fought on both sides for their own reasons, ‘specially close to borders”.
Avoiding most towns of any size, and having to retrace our steps at times when the trail was impassable because of a weak bridge, it took us more than three weeks to get close to the Missouri border. And that was with daddy pushing the horses to the limit each day. I was tired from sitting on the wagon seat, and my rear end was hurting too. Sometimes I walked alongside, as I could keep up the same pace as our old ox. Daddy did well with the cooking, and making the best of our supplies, though the food was becoming monotonous, as it was mostly beans, taters, and old greens. He said he learned how to make do in the army, as there was always a shortage of good eating. The weather was hotting up, and we had to make sure to have enough water for the animals, as well as us.
Daddy wasn’t too happy about having to cross Missouri. Like some other states, there had been bad blood there at the start of the war, and raiders had made a lot of mischief. He figured they might still be up to their old tricks. He would look at his map, and talk to me about it around the campfire. “Reckon we will stay to the south of the state, do our best to hit the Kansas border by the end of next month. I have a mind to settle us in the Colorado Territory. Heard tell there’s good land there, and a whole lot of opportunity”. I hadn’t heard much about either Kansas or Colorado, so I just nodded, and carried on watching the flames.
Daddy could read some, but he didn’t write none too good. He could print his name though, and understand signs. Not that we saw many of those back then. I had learned to read and write at the church school in town, though that wasn’t regular once the war got bad. May Bloy would make me practice whenever we visited, as momma couldn’t read that well either. So I could do as well as most of the children in town, and knew my numbers too.
I tried to imagine life in Colorado, but it was impossible, as I had no idea what to expect. Daddy said it had mountains much bigger than the Blue Ridge, and it snowed hard in winter. He reckoned that the injuns still lived there in some numbers, but I had only seen them wild injuns in picture books, with their feathers and bows and arrows. The only ones I ever saw back home were old, and wearing normal clothes. They were the Rappahannocks, and peaceful like. But I put those thoughts behind me, as we had a long way to go yet, and two more big states to cross.
As we got the food cooking that evening, the horses got jumpy, and daddy looked back in the direction of the trail. A woman was walking in our direction. She was carrying a big bundle, looked like all her stuff wrapped in an old blanket. Most of the time it dragged on the ground, and she would heft it up for a few steps before it dropped again. From a way off, she called out. “Hey mister, can I share your fire, maybe some food?” Daddy frowned, and looked all around to see if there was anyone with her. “You alone, miss?” She nodded. “Sure am, just me”. Daddy didn’t say no more, so she just walked right in and sat down by the fire with a big sigh. Her button boots were ripped on the left foot, and her dress and coat were both filthy. I reckoned she wasn’t young, probably over forty.
Reaching across, daddy handed her a plate of taters and greens, and she started to scoop them off with her hands without even waiting for the spoon. She was licking the plate clean before I had even started eating. “Where you boys headed? I could sure use a ride with you. I could help out on the trail, even take care of both of you”. She grinned, showing missing teeth on top. “If you get my meaning”. Daddy shook his head. “Ain’t no room in our wagon, and we don’t need no taking care of. You can have some more food, and then you best be on your way at first light”. As he reached for her plate to ladle more food onto it, she pulled a pistol out of the pocket of her coat, and pulled back the hammer.
“Well that ain’t very neighbourly, mister. So I reckon I’ll just take it all”.
Daddy moved quicker than a snake, whipping that heavy old ladle across the fire, and smacking it into the woman’s hand. As the pistol flew from her grasp, it fired with a loud crack, and a big flash in the dark. Bringing his arm back across, daddy struck that ladle hard against the side of her head before she could dodge it, and she fell over to her left side, groaning. Then he turned and yelled at me. “Phin, get the small rope bundle from the wagon, quick now!” As I pulled the rope out from its spot, I could see that the old ox was on its knees, and making a funny sound in its throat. I ran back with the rope. “Daddy, it’s the ox, I think it’s hurt bad”.
He ignored me, and started to tie the woman’s legs together with the rope, threading it up along her back to fasten her hands too. “Pick up that pistol, boy. She ain’t getting it back”. When she was unable to move her feet or hands, daddy hauled her over close to the wagon, and tied her sitting up against the back wheel. She was still groaning some, but her eyes were open. I stretched out my hand to pass the pistol to him, and he shook his head. “You keep that. It’s yours now. Let’s go look at the ox”.
He lit the oil lamp so we could see behind the wagon. The ox was bleeding from a hole in the side of its neck, and didn’t seem able to stand. Daddy was furious. “Goddam our luck, boy, that stray shot’s gone and done for him. Get me the rifle, and I’ll put him out of his misery”. I scampered up to the wagon seat, and reached under where we kept the valuable rifle. Daddy put it close to the ox’s head, right between its eyes, and fired. Then daddy turned to me again. “Climb up in back and get my skinning knives, and fetch some of those muslin squares. You know where they are?” I nodded.
For the next hour or so, he butchered the best parts of the ox, handing the bloody chunks of meat to me to wrap in the muslin. Then he decided there was no point taking more, as it would turn in the warm weather anyway. He cut the rope that had secured the animal to the back of the wagon, and threw it inside. “We can leave the rest for the critters and birds”. We washed our hands with water from the small creek nearby, and daddy said we should get some sleep. I nodded at the wide-eyed woman. “What about her?” He walked over and ripped a strip of cloth from the bottom of her dress, wrapping it tight around her mouth. “She can set there, and think herself lucky she ain’t dead”.
When we got settled under the wagon, I looked at the pistol. Daddy pulled the pipe from his mouth, and nodded at the gun in my hand. “That’s a good Colt fourty-four, a nice four-inch barrel too. Easy to fit in a coat pocket, as we found out. Reckon she must have stole that from some poor fool, maybe even shot him with it. You be careful with that now, Phin, don’t play around with it”.
At first light, daddy took off her gag, and gave her some water. Her dress was wet, where she had been unable to hold herself. She was bold, that was for sure. “Mister, why don’t you take me along? I can cook real good, and make you warm and happy at night. You can keep my pistol, and if you share with me, I promise I won’t do you down no more”. Daddy told me to fetch some of the hard biscuit, and a lidded can full of water. Then he walked it a hundred feet or so away from the wagon. “Phin, you come and untie her, while I cover her with the rifle”. As I pulled the ropes free, he spoke sternly to her. “Now lady, you can get up and start walking. There’s biscuit and water you can take if you want it, and you can keep your bundle too. I want to see you turn east on the trail, and if I see you again in my direction this morning, it ain’t gonna turn out good for you, y’hear?”
She rubbed her legs and hands where the ropes had been tight, and got herself up slowly. “Just doing what I needed, you must know that, mister”. Daddy ignored her, and flicked the barrel of the rifle toward the trail. “You get now, and like I said, don’t let me see you again”. Grabbing the bundle, she walked off, stopping to pick up the biscuit and water. Daddy followed her most of the way to the trail and stood watching for a while until she had turned the bend.
Losing the ox was a blow, but it meant we could push the horses faster. Even so, we had to be careful, as the trail had seen some action during the war, and some of the bridges across dry gullies and streams were still down. Daddy decided to avoid Springfield, and stayed south of that city on the plateau, still heading west for the Kansas Border. The journey had taken its toll on the wagon though. We had need of some new iron rims for the wheels, and daddy was almost out of grease for them too. Ethel was limping on and off, and there was nothing to be done but to find a blacksmith and get the horses shoed.
After long days of pushing across country, I was geting bored as hell too. We didn’t see many other people by staying off the main trail as much as we did, and daddy wasn’t much for idle chatter. On the map was a town called Carthage, and daddy was making for that place. He felt sure there would be a blacksmith there, and the chance to stock up on goods too. But we were still some ways off Carthage when we happened across what seemed to be a stockade up ahead. As we got closer, daddy said it looked like an old trading post. The sound of banging metal caught his attention, and he pulled off the trail and went through the the gap where big gates had probably once blocked the way.
Inside, there was a big general store, and a blacksmith working his forge under a wide canvas awning. Next to the store was a whiskey saloon, little more than a big wooden box of a building, with an old man sitting in a rocking chair out front. Daddy drove over to the burly blacksmith and asked if he could do what was needed with the horses and wheels. He nodded. “Get to you in a bit, mister. But I’ll need some help with the lever to get the wheels off the ground”. While we waited, we looked around the store. Daddy bought some of the food stuff we needed, as well as two bottles of good whiskey. And he bought me a straw hat too. The wool cap that momma had made me was getting too hot in the summer weather.
People were coming and going on horses and in carts too, but nobody paid us much mind. It took the rest of the day to get the work done on the wheels and horses, and the blacksmith started to get real chatty. “So you were headed for Carthage? That’s no good, mister. That town got tore up by the rebs during the war, almost nothing left of it. They started building again in places, but I reckon it’s gonna take years. Besides, ain’t no place near there to cross the Missouri. You gotta go north, for the steamboat. Forty miles, maybe more”. Daddy showed him the map, and he pointed at a spot well north of Carthage. “About there should do.” After daddy paid the man, we drove out, and camped further up the trail. Daddy said he didn’t want our goods to be a temptation to anyone spending the night in that other place.
It was further than the man had said, and took the rest of the week to get to the ferry crossing. Daddy had to ask a bunch of people along the way, but when we started to get stalled on the trail behind bigger wagons and groups of people on foot, it was obvious that we were heading the right way. The steamboat was big, with paddle wheels at the sides. But it wasn’t as big as the one we had used to cross the Mississippi. Daddy left me with the wagon, and walked past the line waiting to get on. He came back with a ticket, and told me it would be at least three or four hours before our turn. I watched the steamboat go back and forth that morning, and it seemed to not be troubled in the least by that fast river. We took the chance to feed and water the horses while we waited, and ignored the women walking up and down the line trying to sell us things. Including their own favours.
When we got almost to the front, one of the ferrymen said we should fold the canvas top down, and make sure to chock the wheels once we got up the ramp. He said we should stay with the wagon too, so the horses didn’t get spooked. Daddy had to urge the mares some to get them to pull us up the wide wooden ramp. But we ended up next to an open wagon full of lumber, right at the back of the boat. The trip across felt really fast, even quicker than when I had watched from the riverbank. Getting our wagon off wasn’t as easy as getting on. The horses started to back up, but didn’t like the weight of the wagon pulling them down the sloping ramp. It took some coaxing and calming before we got onto the muddy bank. I turned to daddy. “Are we in Kansas now?
He grinned, and shook his head. “We sure are”.
My first real sight of Kansas was the bustling town of Leavenworth. There were lots of bluebelly cavalry around, and I had never seen so many negroes lounging around doing nothing. It was a noisy place, and fierce hot too. Seemed like a Kansas summer was hotter than back home, real close and humid. Pretty soon, we had both sweated through our shirts, and daddy aimed to get out of there as soon as we could get around the crowded streets. We pushed on until the town was barely visible behind us, pleased to find a cooler spot to camp under some trees next to the river.
Before dark, a rider approached, and he held up both hands to show he meant no harm. He had a carbine in a saddle-holster, but no pistol we could see. His hat was real fancy, turned up on one side, with a bushy feather in the gap. And it was a gray hat. “Hoping to share some food, sir. I have good whisky in my pack. He nodded at the large leather bag tied on to his saddle. He swung off the horse like a man used to riding, and walked over to daddy with his hand extended. “Eugene Delacroix, at your service. Formerly an officer with General Forrest’s cavalry”. He spoke real nice, and his accent was southern, not local.
Daddy relaxed some at the man’s genial manner, and indicated for him to sit on the ground next to the makings of our fire. “Jessie Fuller, and this here’s my son, Phineas”. It was strange to hear my full name spoken. I couldn’t recall the last time I had heard that from anyone. Delacroix thought before he spoke. “I’m guessing you are a southern man, Mister Fuller. Did you see service in the war perhaps? I seem to have travelled across half this country, since leaving Louisiana”. Daddy nodded. “Army of Northern Virginia. Lost my oldest boy at Fredericksburg”. The man shook his head. “My condolences, sir. It’s been a bad time for so many, no doubt. Are you headed west? I thought I might take my chances in California”. Daddy had lit the fire, and I went to get the pot with the food.
“I was thinking about the Colorado Territory. Hear tell there’s good land there”. Delacroix pursed his lips. “Well, it hasn’t been opened up much, and of course you have to think about the savages. All sorts of injuns out there. You might be better to try your luck in this state. Kansas is growing fast, and it would save you a mighty lot of travelling”. He stood up when he finished speaking, and walked over to his pack, which was lying on the ground next to his grazing horse. He came back holding the bottle of whiskey, and I saw daddy relax when that was all he had in his hands. As I stirred the pot, the men drank the whiskey from tin cups, and talked stuff about the war.
After dinner, we settled the horses, and Delacroix smoked a thin cigar while daddy puffed on his pipe. Like he had just thought of something, he suddenly spoke real loud. “Why not Lawrence? That’s a well established town, and it suffered something awful when Quantrill’s men raided. I reckon they will need folks to help get it back to how it was before that dark day in sixty-three. You may just find your niche there, Jessie”. That man talked so sweet, and used words I had never heard. But he seemed to be convincing daddy, judging by the amount of nodding going on. I went to get ready to sleep under the wagon, and left them to it. But when I settled down, I made sure to have the short-barrelled forty-four close to hand. Lawrence or Colorado, it made no never mind to me, either way.
When I woke up the next morning, Delacroix was gone. Daddy said he heard him ride out at first light. “Reckon he talked some sense though, Phin. We could just keep going, or maybe take his advice and go see this town Lawrence he spoke of. Might be nice to settle for a piece, even if we don’t stay there”. I had no vote on that, daddy was just thinking aloud. But I had a feeling he had already made up his mind. He spread out the map, and traced his finger along it. “Reckon we have to head south-west, Phin. Let’s get the horses harnessed”. As we got busy, I asked him, “Is it far, daddy?” He shook his head.
“Reckon not. Maybe two days, three at most”.
By late afternoon, daddy was talking about finding a good place to camp for the night, when we came across a one-horse flatback buggy stuck on the trail. The man standing next to it waved as we approached, and walked toward us. He was dressed in a long black buttoned-up coat, despite the heat, and his hat looked like the hats I had seen the Quakers wearing back home. It was clear to see what had happened. from the way the buggy was lying to the left, resting almost on the wheel hub.
“Could you help me sir? The side spring has come off the mounting, and I have no tools. Otherwise I will have to unshackle my horse, and try to ride with no saddle into Leavenworth”. Daddy jumped down and examined the damage. “Reckon I can fix that enough for you to get there, mister. But you had better get a new spring when you can, this one’s kinda bent now”. The man beamed a big smile, finally removing his hat to mop the sweat from his head with a large white handkerchief. ” I am greatly obliged to you sir, I am the reverend Thomas Mostyn, at your service”. Daddy was already pulling one of his toolboxes from the wagon. “Fuller, and this here’s my son”.
As daddy worked on the buggy, the reverend got to talking. “You are on the road to Lawrence, sir. Are you intending to pass through, or do you have a notion to settle there?” Daddy stopped, and looked up. “Fella told me they need good workers in that town, to help rebuild it. I’m handy with tools, so figured we might stay there awhile, before moving on to the Colorado Territory after the winter. Mostyn chewed his lip. “I detect a southern accent, sir. May I ask, were you a Confederate during the recent troubles?” I thought it was a strange thing to call the long war something as mild as ‘recent troubles’.
“Yes I was, Army of Northen Virgina. But that’s all done with now” Daddy leaned back under the buggy, hitting something with a hammer. Mostyn got down on his haunches to peer under the cart. “Sir, you have been kind enough to do me a service, so allow me to return the favour. Lawrence is the last place you should be thinking of going to. I would not advise even passing through. Rebel raiders did an awful thing there, and even though it was years ago, and the war is over, there is bad feeling against southerners there. They are all confirmed Jayhawkers, sir, and many served with the Redlegs too. I would consider the safety of yourself and your son, and keep going west”.
When the repair was good enough, and the buggy was no longer leaning askew, daddy wiped his hands on his shirt, and went to fetch the map from the wagon. He spread it out on the back of the buggy, and turned to the reverend. “This here’s a good map. If you know this country, I’d be grateful if you could point us to somewhere where the war don’t matter none”. After examining the map, the reverend shook his head. “Sad to say this map is not accurate, sir. The border with Tennessee is all wrong for one thing, and some of the distances are greater or lesser than they are in truth. I would caution you against relying on it too heavily”. Then he took a deep breath. “However, I have heard that Wichita is a place of opportunity, though I have never been there”. He poked a finger at the map, and daddy leaned over to look.
“You can travel north of Lawrence, and cross the Kansas river by steamboat ferry at Topeka. The trail is well established since the early settlers headed west. But I would advise avoiding mentioning anything about your service in the war, until you are well south of that town. From there, you should find a new settlement on the banks of the Arkansas River. But watch out for the natives. Most of them returned to that region following the war, and not all are friendly”. Daddy shook the man’s hand. “Looks like Wichita it is. I thank you for your counsel, reverend”. Mostyn waved a friendly goodbye as he set off in the other direction, and daddy folded the map carefully.
“Let’s keep going a ways until we find a spot for tonight, Phin. Then in the morning we can start heading for Wichita”.
I climbed up onto the seat, wondering how many times we might be changing direction because of what someone said.
Outside Topeka, we passed by the railroad camp. It was alive with activity, wagons coming and going, and many tents set out in rows. Along the lines, we saw armed men on horses, holding their rifles ready to use. I was about to ask daddy why they had so many guards, when the reason dropped into my brain. Injuns. They didn’t like the railroad. Not only was it running across territory they considered to be theirs, the need to feed all the men working on it meant that the buffalo herds were being hunted real heavy like.
We carried on in a westerly direction for a day or two, then headed south until we found the bank of the Arkansas River. On the third day, we thought we might see some kind of town ahead, but there was nothing. As we settled down to camp in the late afternoon, a group of men on horseback appeared on the rise to our left. Daddy raised a hand, squinting, but my young eyes could see better. They were injuns, sure enough, and I counted seven. One was wearing a Yankee uniform jacket and cap, but the third one in the line was carrying some kind of lance. I spoke real quiet. “Them’s injuns, daddy”. He stayed still. “Don’t do nothing, Phin. If they ride on down, just stay calm”.
Well, they sat like that for what seemed like an awful long time. Then they just turned their horses, and were gone. I was nervy. “Do you think we should press on, daddy?” He shook his head. “Reckon if they want us, they would find us”. I couldn’t settle well that night, feeling jumpy at every sound, and sure those injuns would come and cut our throats in the night, and steal Ethel and Mary. Daddy had to shake me at first light. “Up you get boy, let’s get going before it gets too hot”.
Just after midday, we saw signs of life up ahead; hugging the bank of the river, and extending a ways inland across the trail too. Big tents, smoke from fires, and small boats on the river. As we got closer, some wooden buildings could be seen, mostly ramshackle affairs. Daddy turned to me. “This must be what the reverend spoke of. Let’s go on in and see what it’s like”.
The main building was a large trading post. It had a loading bay, and livery stables, as well as a busy blacksmith working outside. There were lots of tame-looking injuns around, as well as a few negroes who seemed to be working hard. The tents seem to mostly house settler families, and there was some sign of them growing stuff around too. But the biggest two tents were being used as a whiskey saloon, and a gambling house.
People paid no mind to us as we drove in. As an affable-looking man in a plaid shirt walked past the wagon, daddy called out to him. “Say mister, who do we see about buying land here?” The man smiled and shook his head. “Buying land? Just keep heading south, past anything roped off or fenced. Ten, maybe twelve miles, then you can pick anywhere you like”.
Daddy seemed perplexed. “What about the injuns though? They trouble?” He shook his head in reply. “Not since Chisholm built this here trading post. Now they get anything they need by trading with him. You will see their mud and grass huts outside town. Don’t reckon they will bother you none, mister”. Daddy touched his hat to thank him, and we carried on driving.
As dusk approached, daddy followed a small creek off to the left, and discovered a good clearing surrounded by trees. “This looks as good a place as any, Phin. Let’s get settled for the night, and tomorrow I’m gonna rope off some land”.
It all seemed too easy, to my young mind. Didn’t seem to me to be any reason why someone couldn’t just come along, cut down our ropes, and drive us off. But I knew better than to be contrary, and did as he bidded.
When I woke up the next morning, daddy was already unloading tools from the wagon.
Looked like I was living in Kansas now, some ten miles south of a place called Wichita.
My daddy was as good as his word. While the horses grazed in the clearing, he started to pace out a good distance, and strung rope between some small wooden marker posts. They extended along the creek, and well into the wooded areas too. He had told me to search around for firewood while he was busy, and after scouting round the land past the clearing, I had to admit he had picked a right nice place. That night around the fire, he smoked his pipe and told me his plans.
“First off, we need to make us a smokestack, a chimney of some kind. No point building a homestead first, then trying to add that later. We can make some mud bricks, and set them out to dry before Fall. You can start to cut down some of the small trees and strip the branches. I will show you how to pick ones that ain’t too heavy to move after. Meantime, I reckon we ought to go back into the settlement, and try to buy us one of them old army tents. Can’t be living under the wagon all the time it takes to build our new home”.
Despite the time of year, the season hadn’t changed much at all, and it was sure a lot warmer than it would have been back home. I was wondering if the Kansas winter to come might be as hard as some in Virginia. I didn’t like the idea of sleeping in a tent in the snow, and hoped it wouldn’t take my daddy too long to get building our cabin. Before we left for the settlement, we had to pack everything back into the wagon. Daddy wouldn’t chance losing anything he left just lying around.
It was pretty quiet there that morning. Just as we arrived, a cavalry patrol was leaving, and I could see their pennant bobbing around up ahead, obscured by the dust kicked up by their mounts. Daddy went into the trading post to ask about the tent, so I had to stay with the wagon. I was daydreaming, when a familiar voice made me jump and turn around. “Young Fuller? It’s you, I’m sure”. I saw the gray hat with the big feather, but I already knew it was Delacroix. His voice was as gentle and friendly as before. “So you found your way to Wichita? Are you pressing on, or settling here?” I looked around, but there was no sign of daddy. Delacroix got down off his horse, and tied it to the wagon.
“Reckon we are settling here, sir. Daddy roped off some land some ten miles south, and aims to build a homestead there”. He nodded, and flashed a big smile. I don’t know why I said it, but I suddenly felt the need to ask someone. “How come we can do that, Mister Delacroix? What’s to stop us getting run off, or someone else saying we are on their land?” I hadn’t wanted to ask daddy, but had a notion this fella would know. All I understood about land was that we had owned the small farm in Virginia, and had papers saying so. The handsome man chuckled. “Why the Homestead Act, young man. Your daddy must know about that”. I had never heard that mentioned by my daddy, so decided to speak up. “Could you tell my daddy about that, sir? I don’t reckon he knows”.
Not long after, daddy appeared from the side of the trading post, followed by two men carrying a big heavy canvas tent, folded in a roll. He was holding a wooden box full of pegs and ties. He nodded at Delacroix, probably still vexed that the man had told us to head to Lawrence. “Mister Delacroix, we meet again sir”. After the men loaded the tent in the back, and daddy put the box in with it, Delacroix walked over and nodded at the whiskey saloon tent. “What say you and I go and have a drink, Jessie? Your boy tells me you need to hear about the Homestead Act”. I chipped in, enthusiastically. “You go, daddy, I am fine here with our wagon”. I wanted to know.
They were in there for a good while, and daddy came out alone, smelling of whiskey, and smiling. On the way back, he told me what Delacroix had said. “Seems like Abe Lincoln made a new law, back in sixty-two. Any settler can claim one hundred and sixty acres, free and clear. You have to live on the land, and make it good for farming, or other uses. Once you have been there for five years or before if you want, you have to register the land, and you get a deed. Anyone over twenty-one can do it, even women and negroes who were slaves There’s a big catch though. It don’t apply to anyone who fought for the Confederates. So if anyone asks, I never joined up, never left the farm. Y’hear?” I nodded.
Seemed like the man in the plaid shirt had been right all along.
Once daddy got started, he worked really fast. The chimney and fireplace was up first, and we slept in the tent meanwhile. It was a very big tent, and the thick material kept the wind out nicely. But some nights the noise of the wind buffeting the canvas would wake me up. As it got colder, I appreciated the work keeping me warm. Daddy got me some work gloves to keep down the blisters, as my main job was starting to dig out the hole for the outhouse. We couldn’t keep using the trees, daddy said, or we would end up fouling the place where we intended to live. When that hole got as deep as my head, it had to be shored up with planks, to stop it collapsing on me.
He started on the frame for the cabin, and it looked mighty big to me. Once the outhouse hole was done and covered, we went deep into the woods to find the right kind of trees to cut down. Daddy said they had to be long enough to fit between the pins he had laid, but not so heavy that we couldn’t haul them back. Using the two-handed saw was real hard going for me, and most nights I was falling asleep trying to eat my dinner. But it was making me strong and tough, no doubt about that.
When he went on the necessary trips into town, I had to stay behnd to watch the stuff. He left the rifle with me, and told me to grab it if anyone showed up, but not to shoot it unless I was in real danger. I did feel a mite scared to be honest, but the rifle gave me confidence, and I kept it close when I was alone. Daddy had shot a wild hog with it a few days earlier, and when we discovered it had baby hogs hiding in a bush behind it, I felt real sorry for them when they run off squealing.
Turned out Delacroix was still in the settlement. He had taken to playing cards day and night, getting himself a reputation as a gambler. Then one day, daddy came back with a man on the seat next to him. He was called Henry, and had been employed to help out. He sure was a big fella, but seemed kinda slow like, when he talked. He had been promised three squares a day, and whatever clothes he needed. Daddy gave him some tobacco for his corncob pipe, and said he would pay him in Yankee dollars once we were up and running. He didn’t say much, but he smiled a lot. I reckoned he was younger than daddy, maybe thirty years old or so.
I liked Henry well enough, but with him sleeping in the tent, I soon found out that he snored real loud, and didn’t smell so good either. Next day when he had sent hm out to get firewood, daddy sat me down and talked about Henry. “Seems like he turned up here with his pappy, and then the old man died. He’s been sleeping in the woods, and getting work when he could. There’s something not right in his head, but he’s not mean. Still, don’t forget not to mention anything about me being in the army, Phin. You never know what he might say to strangers. I’m gonna get him some new clothes, and make him wash regular. He won’t smell so bad soon, but I can’t do nothing about that snoring”.
Wth the extra help, the cabin was soon taking shape. As Henry trimmed off the corners of the logs, daddy cut out some small window squares, and worked on shutters to cover them inside and out. I was given the back-breaking job of flattening the dirt floor, using a contraption he built. It was a box with two handles, and the inside was full of stones. I had to lift it up and slam it down again, over and over. He would come and check, pointing out places that needed more pounding. I sure hated that contraption, but it did the job, and it wasn’t long before daddy could start to lay the planks that made the floor dry.
After making two ladders, daddy and Henry started on the roof. I was set to cutting out thick grassy turf from the edges of the clearing. Once the roof planks were on, the turf would be laid on top to protect the wood from the weather. When fall was well and truly over, and the bare trees and chill mornings heralded winter, daddy lit the first fire inside, and brought the two good chairs from the wagon. Him and Henry sat in front of the big fire, smoking their pipes, and watching the cooking pot bubbling.
I sat on the box that had been full of stones, happy to know I wouldn’t be using it no more.
That winter wasn’t so bad. Nothing like as bad as some where we had come from. Daddy and Henry worked on improving the inside of the house, and it wasn’t long before we had two rooms sectioned off behind the main room around the fireplace. Henry had his own small room to sleep in, and thought it was grand, and daddy and me had the larger one, using two slat beds he had made from scrap wood. I watched daddy working with the wood, and he used the dark nights to show me how to use his tools by the light of the oil lamp and the fire. I followed his guidance, and he decided that I should make my own chair to sit in. I made it bigger than I needed, so I could grow into it, but they laughed when I sat in it and looked small.
My daddy made a good table too, using two big planks to fashion benches either side. He would sit there and show Henry his map, trying to teach the man where he was living. One evening, Henry traced his finger across to the west coast, up to Oregon, and then further up to Canada. He shook his head in wonder. “Mighty big, Mister Jessie”. I asked him where he came from. I had asked him before, and he always shook his head. “Can’t recall, Master Phin”. That night he thought about it some, and suddenly seemed to remember. “Rochter. No work. Pa says we best go west”. Daddy spent a long time looking at the eastern half of the map. “You mean Rochester, Henry? Look see, near this big lake?” The map didn’t mean much to the big man, but at mention of the lake, he smiled and nodded vigorously. “Big lake! Yessir, Mister Jessie”.
Daddy showed me the map. It was Lake Ontario, and Canada was on the other side of it. Henry and his pa had come a long way.
With no crops growing that we could eat, everything we couldn’t shoot had to be bought or traded in the settlement. Daddy didn’t trust Henry’s sense to leave him alone at home, so I spent a lot of time around the homestead while they were away. I walked around the property, getting to know every inch of it; from the edge of the creek, right through to the back of the woods. Daddy showed me how to make a small box-cart, for bringing back the firewood I chopped. It had waxed runners on the bottom edges, and I dragged it with a rope harness wrapped around my shoulders.
As the weather warmed up with the change of season, I decided that I was happy in Kansas.
One afternoon, daddy came back with some news. Chisholm had talked to him about him being good with tools, and suggested he could get regular work as a carpenter, helping to build the settlement up into a town. Many of the tent-dwellers had decided to stay on, and there was even sign of another expansion across the river. There was something in it for Chisholm of course, as he would supply the materials; like good seasoned lumber, nails, and other necessaries. He offered my daddy a month’s credit on his first needs, and said he would pass on all requests for a man who could build a house, or fix things in wood.
I was surprised to hear that daddy wanted me to work with him and Henry.
“It will mean leaving the place untended, but we will have all the tools and valuables with us in the wagon. I can teach you stuff, and you can carry on when I’m gone”. It also meant that we wouldn’t be farming, so other than hunting for meat, we would be reliant on buying from the trading post. I concluded that Mr Chisholm was a right good man for business.
The first offer of work was from Reverend Parker. He wanted to build a proper church, and stop preaching from his old tent. He had collected subscriptions from his congregation, and and had a mind to build a good-sized church with a tower to house a bell that he would order later from back east. Daddy had to haggle some, but he had an idea that the preacher had more money than he had told his flock he would have to pay, and was of a mind to pocket the rest. They came to an agreement over a bottle of whiskey, and daddy set a date for commencing the work once the lumber was all in place.
But on the way back, there was some consternation at the gambling tent, and we heard shooting. Delacroix staggered out clutching his side, and bleeding like a stuck pig. Seeing us in the wagon, he raised his arm, and called out.
“Mister Fuller, sir. I am in need of your assistance!”.
Considering all the blood, Mister Delacroix seemed happy enough. I helped him up into the back of the wagon, and he fished around in his coat to find a cigar to smoke. Winking at me, he smiled. “How ya doing, young Fuller? Enjoying life in Kansas?” I nodded, still sore at him for his idea that we should have gone to that nest of Redlegs, Lawrence.
Back home, he told the story as daddy washed his wound with water mixed with whiskey. Seemed someone had accused him of cheating at cards, and pulled a knife. Delacroix had whipped out a pistol and shot the man close to his face, taking off most of his ear. When the man’s friends had come close, he had fired twice more to discourage them, before realising that he had been cut bad. There was no lawman in Wichita settlement, so he thought he best get gone until it all calmed down. “Sir, I was plumb happy to see you, I declare”. As daddy sewed up the wound with a darning needle and some tent cord, I had to admire how he didn’t even flinch.
Henry seemed very taken with Eugene, and offered his bed for him to rest in. He slept on the floor in front of the fire for the next three days, as we all nervously waited to see if men would come from town looking for him. Then he asked daddy to drive him to the edge of town, so he could recover his horse from the livery stable without anyone getting the notion that we had helped him. “I have a mind to carry on to Texas, Mister Fuller. I hear tell there are lots of cowboys working steers down there. Seems to me they might have money to gamble with. I thank you for your help and hospitality”.
He was always so polite and well-mannered. One reason I never trusted him.
Two days later, we started work on the church. I was set to nailing frames together, long pieces of wood arranged on the ground by my daddy. Him and Henry started levelling the ground and digging out the big holes where the support posts would sit. The weather was fair that Saturday, and people came to watch us work, including Reverend Parker. It wasn’t long before others started to ask daddy to work for them once we had finished. Reverend Parker intervened, reminding us that we had agreed to make the benches for the congregation to sit on, and the rostrum for him to preach at. To my surprise, daddy rubbed his beard, and nodded at me. “My boy will be making those, Reverend. He’s good with wood, just like me”.
Using some paper that had been wrapped around long nails, and our stubby marking pencil, I made a list of the names of the people who wanted work done, and a rough idea of what would be needed. Daddy would visit them to give them a price once the church was almost done, and he called to them as they walked away. “First come first served now. Just as the names are on this here list”. When we were alone again, he smiled and shook his head. “Well, I reckon we got enough work to last until winter at least, maybe more. I might have to think about taking on more help”. Then he told Henry to start making some longer ladders while he worked on the window frames and shutters.
When the church frames were finished, we got some local men from the Trading Post to help us haul them up on ropes, as daddy checked that the support posts were dropping in right. He gave them some money for whiskey and tobacco, and said we had done enough for the day. It had been a long day, but I had enjoyed working at the settlement, and meeting lots of new folks. We wouldn’t be working the next day, as it was a Sunday, but on the way home, daddy told us that we would be laying fence rails around our property instead. I would have liked to have a day doing nothing, but that wasn’t to be.
At midday, we were all hot and thirsty after the morning fixing rails. A buggy drove up to the house from the creek path, and we walked over to see who it was. The man driving got down, and offered his hand to daddy. “Shawn Ryan, late of the city of New York. Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir. We are to be neighbours, I understand. I have claimed the land on the other side of the creek”. I looked over at the buggy. The older woman I took to be his wife was stout, and smiling. In the back sat two girls, one with bright red hair. She looked away when I caught her eye. The other one was older, and favoured her mother in looks and size.
Daddy made the introductions of our names, but didn’t mention where we hailed from.
Daddy did the mannered thing, and invited the Ryans inside. Fortunately, they also had manners and declined, seeing as we were working. Mr Ryan walked around a bit with daddy, making polite noises about how well built our homestead was. When they had driven off, daddy told us what Ryan had said. “He’s living in town, renting rooms from Chisholm. Reckons he has no intention of living on the land here, but going to raise hogs he has bought from back east. Said he’s a book-keeper, at least was in New York. Hoping to get work at that once the settlement expands. Asked me to come build him a house when that happens. When the hogs get here, he has arranged for two negroes to manage them. S’pose they’ll have a shack or such.”
I had hoped we might get a break if they came inside to visit, and was also disappointed not to see more of the redhead. But it was back to the fence rails before we finished off the shelter for the horses by making the roof better.
We didn’t see the hogs get delivered, but we sure heard them. The squealing was coming from across the creek as they were unloaded. Within two days, we could smell them too. I went through the trees to look across the creek, but could only see the top of a tent in the distance. I guessed the negroes were going to have to wait for their shack.
Once the church was finished, Reverend Parker invited us to be guests of homour at the inaugural service. Daddy said we couldn’t rightly say no, so we wore our cleanest clothes and combed our hair. I wore my straw hat too, and Henry cleaned his boots with handfuls of grass. They had finally fixed the bell into its small tower just a few days before, but the reverend wouldn’t let them test it. He wanted to save that bell for Sunday. Daddy said I had done a good job with the benches They all looked the same length and width, and he had tried sitting on some, declaring them sturdy.
After the service, there was a party of sorts on the land behind the church. There was punch and beer to drink, and some cakes and pies to eat. Even though the the Irishman Shawn Ryan was almost certainly a Catholic, him and his family had been in church, and stayed on so he could mix with the men in the crowd, presumably trying to sell his services. I tried to catch the eye of his redhead daughter, but she stuck close to her ma. However, her big sister came over holding two pieces of pie, and offered me one. I gulped it down, as it was sure tasty. She nibbled at hers, sort of ladylike. When I nodded my thanks and walked away, she followed, catching up to stand by my side.
In that short walk, she talked like there was a prize for talking. Mr Ryan was her daddy, but Mrs Ryan was his second wife. The redhead girl’s name was Elizabeth, and she was her half-sister. She said her name was Maggie, Margaret in full, and she remembered my name was Phineas. I thought it was mighty strange that Maggie looked so much like a woman who wasn’t her ma, but said nothing. I put it down to the fact that they were both big-built. Every time I turned to listen to her, she gave me what daddy called ‘the big eyes’. Young as I was, there was no mistaking that.
When I asked about Elizabeth, she seemed vexed. “Don’t concern yourself with her. Pa is sending her to school back east in September. My Pa’s old aunt is paying for it, and she’s gonna live with her. She’s gonna be gone for years. But I ain’t going nowhere”. The implication of those last words wasn’t lost on me.
I could see a crowd gathered around my daddy and Henry. So I excused myself. As I started to walk away, she said something that stopped me. “I really love your accent, Phineas. Where are you from?” I swallowed hard, trying to think of somewhere that didn’t join the Confederacy where they might have something like my accent. “Maryland”. That seemed to satisfy her, and I walked off.
The men talking to daddy were all praising the work on the building of the church, and asking when he would be free to do jobs for them. He was shaking his head, telling them he was busy with promised work, and they started to offer more money if he moved them up the queue. Seemed like good house-builders were scarce down there. He had started to raise his hands to silence them, when there was a commotion out front of the church. People were standing in a line, and others heading there to see what it was.
It was a whole company of Union cavalry, fully-equipped, and with a supply wagon behind too. A man called out to the officer riding up front, and he stopped, raising his arm to slow the column. “It’s the injuns. Trouble up north, Sibley County. We have been sent to help the militia”.
When everyone started mumbling and murmuring, daddy took the opportunity for us to head home.
That injun trouble up north didn’t amount to anything in Wichita. Folks said it was because Mr Chisholm was half-injun, so got on well with those living nearby. He also traded cattle with them, so they had no need to go off hunting buffalo.
The next job we did in town was to build a proper premises for the blacksmith. Daddy negiotiated a price that would include any ironwork we needed at home, as well as horseshoes, and rims for the wagon wheels. While we worked there, a man came and spoke to daddy. Said he heard we had a good plow we weren’t using, and asked about using it. He couldn’t afford to buy it, but offered to pay a portion of his crop come harvest time. Said he had come to the same arrangement with some German Dunkers, to use their ox. Daddy shook on the deal, and got me to write the man’s name down on my paper.
Wichita was definitely growing every month, and spreading inland from the church. Across the river, the so-so settlement there was bustling, and now had a name, Delano. Weren’t nothing much over there except drinking dens and good-time girls, but the small rowboat ferries did a brisk trade taking people back and forth. Daddy said we wouldn’t ever be going to Delano. “Nothing but loose women, gamblers, and drunks there, Phin. That mixture always spells trouble”. Henry made us laugh when he asked, “Mister Jessie, what’s a loose woman?”
The biggest job for us that year was building the hotel. It wasn’t much of a hotel, just a bigger whiskey saloon with some small rooms out back. But the owner had grand ideas, and had someone paint a sign reading ‘Wichita City Hotel’. That job kept us occupied for some time, and daddy employed a Portugee man who used to be a sailor in Maine. He spoke fair English, but I had a lot of trouble understanding his accent. And his skin was so dark and his hair so black, some folks mistook him for an injun. His name was Benedito, but we just called him Ben. He did the heavy hauling, as he had no trade except being a fisherman on the ocean. Daddy paid him off every day, and he used to drink most of his dollars away over in Delano. But he always showed up for work that summer.
Others were claiming land close to our homestead, and folks in town started to call where we lived Derby. Nobody could tell us why, but someone had decided to call the town expansion that, and it started to stick. When a man spoke to daddy about work on a barn one day, he said, “It’s close to your place, Mr Fuller, out Derby way”. I was getting used to working with the wood now, and it wasn’t unusual for daddy to leave me alone on some small jobs. At the end of the summer, he took me to the livery stable and showed me a big old horse that was saddled. “That’s your horse, Phin. Call her what you like. I reckon its time you had your own transport, and you can use it to carry your box to work.”
The box he referred to was a tool box he had me make. He got me a leather strap to fix to it, so I could carry it with no hands, and then he surprised me by buying me some of my own tools. I felt real grown up then. I called the horse Lizzie, as the chestnut colour of her reminded me of a certain girl’s hair.
After Elizabeth went off to school back east, we started to get visits from the Ryan family again. Mr Ryan had the town butcher slaughter some hogs to salt for winter, and he brought us half a hog wrapped in muslin as a gift. I guessed he was hoping to get his house-building moved up the list. There was a new trader in town, by the name of James Mead. He had bought up a lot of land north of the city, mostly places already owned or claimed, and given up. He usually got it cheap, and it hadn’t been long before he set up his own business, trading buffalo skins mostly but anything else folks would buy. Mr Ryan had wangled himself a job with Mead as a clerk, and was keen to move out of the rented rooms into a house on some land near Mead’s place.
After rubbing at his beard for a long time, daddy agreed to start on Ryan’s house next year, saying he would send me off to do the smaller jobs, like building outhouses, and patching fences. Ryan walked over to me with a big smile on his face. “You are growing up, young Fuller. Reckon you should know my Maggie talks about you all the time. Seems she has a notion to be your sweetheart”. I didn’t know what to say in reply, so he tapped the side of his nose, and winked.
“You could do a lot worse, my boy”.
As Wichita continued to grow, it wasn’t long before other men arrived who offered to build shops and houses. We now had competition, but daddy weren’t bothered. He had good connections right from the time we had arrived, and the list of jobs outstanding was always more than we could manage. It felt strange to ride into town now, and see a main street had taken shape. The barber, another saloon, and even a ladies’ dress shop. Nobody was yet trying to sell the same goods as Chisholm and Mead, but there was a barrel maker and a second livery stable.
By the end of sixty-seven I was fifteen years old, tall and strong. I rode around on Lizzie doing jobs, and people knew me by name.
The Ryan house was finished early the next year, though not as grand as Mr Ryan’s early plans. Seemed most of his hogs had got sick, and he didn’t have as much money as he had expected. It had a parlour, and a kitchen of sorts at the back. Three other rooms served as bedrooms, and he had daddy make a covered porch out front. Mrs Ryan and Maggie made a kitchen garden for vegetables, which they tended when he was at work doing his clerking.
When I was up that way, Maggie would wave to me as I rode by. But I didn’t stop.
The main thing making the town so prosperous was that the cattlemen used it as a stopover on the drives. The stock would be fed and watered in big pens at the edge of town, and those men would come into the main street looking for fun, whiskey, and women. That meant most of them headed over to Delano, but not all of them. There started to be a fair amount of trouble in town, with the cowboys roistering and cavorting. It got so everyone knew to avoid the place after dark when the drives arrived. The cattle also attracted rustlers, and we heard tell of gunfights around the herds.
Mr Mead was now the big man in town, and I found out that Chisholm had been working for him all along. In fact, he had sent Chisholm off to start up new trading posts with the injuns further west along the old pioneer trail. But we carried on as normal, making a good living, and friendly with most. If anyone asked, daddy carried on with the story that we were from Maryland, and he hadn’t joined up on either side. But he was edgy with all the new arrivals in town, checking the faces of any men to see who might recognise him. There was still a lot of bad feeling after the war, so he came up with a plan. It was right clever, and I have to say it surprised me.
One night, he sat me down and told me, after Henry had gone to sleep.
He had a notion to drive up to Topeka with Henry, and register our claim in his name. Then he would get a lawyer up there to write that Henry owned the property, but I would be his next of kin. That way, when Henry died, it would transfer to me, and still be in our family. He was sure that Henry would agree, as he wouldn’t understand it anyway, and would do anything daddy said. Although he was slow in the head, Henry could make his mark, and daddy said I should teach him how to write his name as best as he could.
So I set to that task in the evenings, and also got Henry to tell me as much about his life as he could recall. By the end of the month, daddy had prepared him for the trip to Topeka, making him repeat everything they were going to do there. I was to stay behind and look after things until they got back.
They had only been gone two days, when two riders came to the house at first light. I put the forty-four in the pocket of my coat, and walked out to see what they wanted. They said that Ben the Portugee was hurt bad, and he was down by the riverbank, close to where the rowboats crossed over to Delano. He had told them to ask daddy for help, and money to pay a doctor. I didn’t tell the men that daddy wasn’t home, just said I would sort things. After they left, I saddled up Lizzie, and got some money from the metal container daddy hid under the seat box in the outhouse.
With the pistol still in my coat pocket, I set off for town.
It was still early when I rode into town, and there were not that many people around. Down by the boat ramp where the ferrymen operated, there was no sign of the Portugee. I saw one man rowing back from Delano, and as he tied his boat up I asked if he had seen anything of Ben. “The Portugee? Not this morning. It’s still early for that fella. He’ll be sleeping off a skinful, or in bed being warmed up by one of them gals”.
I had a look around some of the alleyways nearby, but saw no sign of Ben. I wondered where someone so badly hurt could have got to, so led Lizzie down to the doctor’s office. It took some knocking, but he eventually came out to the door, wearing a nightshirt. He wasn’t best pleased at my questions, and told me he hadn’t treated any injured man that morning. Then as I turned to leave, he called after me. “Say young Fuller, you sure those two riders weren’t figuring to rob your place after you left?”
I felt a cold sickness in the pit of my stomach, and jumped straight onto Lizzie. It hadn’t even occurred to me that it might have been a ruse, and as I pushed Lizzie fast for home, I was thinking of what they could have taken. The Henry Rifle was valuable, but my daddy had that with him, and his tools were in the wagon too. They might be looking for the cash box though. Folks knew we were doing well, and there was no bank in Wichita at the time. I felt stupid to have fallen for it, but also scared that they might be hiding somewhere, waiting to bushwack me. But the money I had taken for the doctor wasn’t enough to rob a man for. Or was it?
As I got in sight of the homestead, I could see that the two horses were tied to a rail of the fence near the house. I slowed Lizzie down, and considered my options. I hadn’t seen any guns on those fellas, but they were likely to be packing. If I just blundered in, they might just shoot me down on sight. I left Lizzie grazing, and went along the edge of the creek on foot, still with no sure plan what to do. Once I was in sight of the front of the house, I could hear noises inside. Then the younger one came out with my tool box, and upended it onto the ground. He turned and yelled “Ain’t nothing in here ceptin’ tools”. Then one of our best chairs flew out the door, followed by the older man. “Has to be here somewhere, keep looking”.
The young man shook his head, and in his frustation he stamped on the chair, snapping the legs. Then he kicked my tool box so hard, one side broke off. I saw red and stood up, holding the pistol in my right hand and pulling back the hammer too. I walked fast, but it was a while before they noticed me. “You fellas get now, ain’t nothing here”. I was pulled up to my full height, pointing the pistol. I suddenly didn’t feel scared no more.
The younger one raised his hands, but the older one sneered. “Just tell us where you keep the cash, boy, and we’ll leave you in peace. You ain’t gonna fire that pistol, so put it down before something happens”. I shook my head. “If you fellas got pistols, you had better take them out slow and drop them on the ground. Ain’t no money here, my daddy took it all with him”. I was actually relieved that they hadn’t thought to look in the outhouse, and managed to keep my head still and not look across at it. Neither man showed any pistols, but the older man pulled a big hunting knife and started toward me. “Why you pup, I’ll make you tell us”.
I still don’t know how I came to pull the trigger, but there was a mighty loud bang, and the older man fell to the ground. The young one called out “Luke, Luke!”, and knelt down next to him. I pulled back on the hammer of the single-action pistol agan, and he screamed, “Enough mister, don’t shoot me! No need! Luke’s hurt bad.” I was sure breathing hard, but I kept the pistol on him as he pulled at his friend on the ground. The older man had a fair hole at the side of his neck where the bullet had caught him, and was bleeding bad. He made a few sounds that meant nothing, and the young one turned to me again.
“Just let us go. He’s sure bad, and I won’t give you no trouble” I waved my pistol in the direction of their horses, and said, “On your way, and don’t let me see you around here again”. It sounded strange to hear myself say that, almost too growed-up. It took a while for him to get Luke onto his horse, and he slumped forward as he got in the saddle. I kept them covered as the younger one mounted up, and followed them all the way to the trail. When I was sure they had gone, I went back to find Lizzie.
But before I could reach for her reins, I fell to my knees and sicked up everything in my stomach.
I unsaddled Lizzie and settled her in the shelter with her feed. Inside the house, the men had been busy. Everything was either thrown around or just broke. Only the table and benches were as they had been. They had tried lifting some floorboards on one side, probably using the big knife. But there was no space under there to hide anything, as they soon found out. They had rooted around up in the chimney too, so there was soot everywhere. I waited a good time to make sure they hadn’t sneaked back, and went to check in the outhouse. The seat box was intact, and the cash box still in its spot inside.
That afternoon, I spent the time cleaning up, and repairing what I could. The smashed chair was past mending, though I was able to fix the beds, put back the floorboards, and make my toolbox good too. Once it got dark, I had some cold meat to eat, and sat in the dark with no fire. If them fellas were coming back, I wanted to be ready for them. I fell asleep in my own chair, still holding the forty-four.
Come sunup, I wasn’t about to leave, convinced they would come back to get me. I kept busy making a new chair from the good wood daddy kept in the bedroom. It took all day, and wasn’t as good as the one they had broken, but passable enough for Henry to sit on. I stayed around the house for five more days, with my nerves never settling. Then on the sixth day, I relaxed a little and started work on extending the horse-shelter into a stable of sorts. Later on, not long after dark, I heard the wagon drive up outside, and my daddy’s voice talking to the horses. I ran out straight away, babbling on about what happened, and how stupid I was to believe the story they told me. Daddy calmed me down, and took me inside to talk to me while Henry unhitched the mares.
Smoking his pipe and sipping whisky, daddy listened patiently, moving his hand up and down to slow me up when I talked too fast. When Henry came in, he related the story to him, in an easy way that Henry could understand. Then he turned to me, and I swallowed hard, wondering what he would say.
“Phin, you did well son. You were right to shoot that Luke when he came at you with a knife. If he died because of it, he only has himself to blame. Though if he recovered, reckon we will see those two again. I’m gonna get us a couple of scatterguns to keep handy, just in case. And you have to tell us both what they looked like, as much as you can recall. I need to know if they are hanging around in town. But all we lost was that old chair, and you are safe, which is the main thing”. I was mighty relieved, and went to get the fire going under the dinner pot.
After we had eaten, daddy rubbed his beard for a while. “I’m gonna have to go and see if I can find Ben. Seems to me he might have steered those two in our direction. No hurry though, that Portugee will show up soon enough. Doubt he’ll be able to keep away from whisky and women for long”. Then he showed me the papers that proved Henry owned the claim, and I was the only beneficiary. It hadn’t occurred to daddy that if anything happened to me, he would have no rights to the homestead.
A week went by, and life returned to normal. I rode around doing the small jobs, and daddy and Henry found Ben as he waited for a rowboat to Delano one evening. Daddy told me he looked sheepish and shifty, and when it was suggested he leave town and head west, he just looked at his shoes and nodded. The next morning as I rode near the Ryan house, Maggie appeared. She was running down to the fence, waving at me. It would have been too rude not to stop.
“Phin, you’ll never guess. Elizabeth is home with our aunt. Why don’t you come in and say hello?” I didn’t get into the house, as Elizabeth was stood at the open door. I took my hat off and smoothed my hair, standing on the porch feeling like a little boy. She was sure pretty; all gussied-up, with her hair piled high, and an expensive looking-necklace around her chalky-white throat. “Why Phineas Fuller, my how you have grown”. She was talking real fancy, almost like some foreigner. Smirking at me a little when she noticed the attention I was paying her, she lowered her voice.
“Take a good look, country boy. I will be leaving for Europe with my aunt soon. She is going to show me the world”.
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”.
The new arrivals soon proved their worth. Daddy had not only promised them a free house to live in, but also a fair share of any crops, and cash payment to Walter for any work he took on. And they had some good ideas too. Goats for milk and meat, and a few pigs to fatten up for eating. Mary and Susan were good with a needle and thread, and could make waistcoats from skins to keep us warm, as well as mittens and bedcovers too. They worked hard, and it seemed to me and Henry that daddy had made a right good choice in Walter.
I was given the job of working with Walter to build their cabin. It weren’t to be nothing fancy, just one big room with a curtain across the back to separate the sleeping area. Walter fetched the mud from the creek to make the chimney bricks, and the women helped fashion them as I concentrated on the wood working. Daddy brought planks from town for the floor, and Walter chopped trees for the log walls. Mary was in a fine mood, so happy to be settling down. Susan didn’t say much, but she smiled whenever I showed up to help.
Walter worked like nobody I had ever seen before. Out at first light digging the clearing to make ready for planting next year, and shifting the hard earth like it was flour. Daddy made good shelters for the pigs and goats, and went into town to arrange the purchase of them. He came back with news.
Shawn Ryan had sold his place next to ours, as his pig farm had never took off. Ryan’s negroes were in town looking for work, and one had offered to work for us raising the pigs. But daddy told him we didn’t need him, as we were only getting a few. Rumour was it had been bought up by a cattleman for keeping steers, and that same man was buying any adjacent land he could find. The railroad was heading south from Topeka, and once that arrived, the town was sure to grow real big.
Once their cabin was finished, and the tent put away, Walter and the women settled in well. They still cooked and cleaned for us, as well as washing our clothes. Nobody had ever told them to do that, and they seemed happy to help. Most evenings, we all ate together in our house, and they went to their cabin after dinner. Mary was real nice to Henry too. Seemed she thought a lot of people who were slow in the head, something to do with her background, daddy said. In a strange way, it started to feel like family, although we couldn’t have been more different.
Our homestead was feeling smaller by the time winter came around. With the plots prepared for crops, Walter’s house, and the new pens for goats and pigs, the only spare land was the woodland to the north. That was going to keep us in firewood though, so we had no intention of clearing it. With less work in town now, daddy set to building a barn next to our cabin. It took me and Henry to help of course, and even Walter was needed once the roof went on. We were going to need it to store next year’s crops, and it would come in right handy for storage too.
Daddy sat me down one night and talked about the future. He was real grey now, even his beard, and the sides of his hair were turning silver. “This town’s gonna grow much bigger, Phin. There are a lot more men working now, so we are not gonna get so much work. We have to think more about what we grow, and the animals we keep for food. I reckon there’s still plenty of game further south, so we should think about a hunting trip this winter too. You’re coming up eighteen next year, and I want to be sure you’re happy to stick with your old daddy. If you want to strike out on your own, you know that’s fine with me”.
I told him I was just fine there, and had no notions to move on anywhere.
That winter weren’t too bad at all, though we lost some of the barn roof in the strong winds that came from time to time. Mary asked daddy to get some buffalo hides in town, and she made us all fine heavy coats to wear in the cold. They didn’t smell so good, but boy, were they warm. Susan made me a hat that came down over my ears, and she lined it with some old cotton too. When I walked around trying it on, everyone laughed.
One chilly afternoon, two men rode in. They were smartly dressed, and quite old. One had a big moustache, hanging right off his jaw.
They said they had come to see Henry.
Daddy invited the men into the house, and told me to fetch Henry from the barn. As they tied their horses to a rail, the one with the long moustache nodded in the direction of Walter, who had come to see who was visiting. “Thet neegra of yours is carrying a shotgun, mister. T’aint a good idea for folks to see him with that”.
His accent was unusual, almost like a whine, and not familiar to my ears at all. Daddy held his hand up to stop Walter coming any closer. “Walter ain’t mine. He works here. He’s his own man, lives in his own house too”. The other man looked older, and was fat. He didn’t say anything, but shook his head.
I came back with Henry, telling him to be careful about what he said to the men, and not to say nothing if he wasn’t sure. Daddy had poured some whiskey, and they were sat around the table. Henry sat down and took out his pipe. Moustache man reached into his inside pocket and removed some folded papers.
“Says here you’re Henry Dench, and you have staked claim to this land. Is that a fact, Mr Dench? Henry glanced at daddy, then nodded. “Well then it’s your lucky day, Henry. If I may call you Henry? ‘Cause I’m about to make you a fine offer for this place. Enough for you to start over anywhere’s that takes yer fancy. See, I bought the Ryan place next to this one, and two more to the east behind you. I’m aiming to build cattle pens for when the railroad starts to attract the big drives to Wichita”.
Henry listened politely, lighting his pipe and filling the room with sweet smoke.
“Ain’t for sale, sir. We are happy here, and want to stay on the homestead. Getting crops ready for next harvest, and got a good business going with building too. No need for us to start again. But I say thank you for your offer, all the same”. The man hadn’t mentioned a price, but I got the feeling Henry wouldn’t sell for a king’s ransom. The older man started talking. He had an accent I did recognise. Dutch, or German.
“Mister Dench, you are too hasty. Listen to our offer, and think about the future. Very soon your homestead will be surrounded by cattle on three sides. There will be a lot of noise, a great deal of dust, and in hot weather, those beasts will drink the creek dry. Why not move on, find somewhere more pleasant? There will be room for your workers to stay on with you, and you can start again someplace else. Once the railroad comes, Wichita will change completely. You won’t recognse it, I promise you”. He slid some papers across the table. You will see our offer is well above market value, and all you have to do is sign. We will arrange to pay you in cash or gold, and you will have six weeks to pack up”.
Blowing out a cloud of smoke that covered both the men, Henry shook his head. He didn’t even bother to inspect the documents, not that they would have meant a great deal to him anyway. “My mind is made up, mister. I ain’t selling, and don’t care about how many cows are living around us. But I say thanks to you again for your consideration, and there’s more whiskey if you care for some”. The men looked at each other, and both downed what was left in their glasses. Then they stood up, and moustache man folded the papers before returning them to his pocket.
As they walked to their horses, the fat man turned back to Henry. “The offer’s good for a month. We are in the hotel if you change you mind”. Once in the saddle, moustache man looked over at daddy. “Take that shotgun off your neegra, mister. That’s free advice”. When they were gone, Walter walked over. “What them fellas want, Boss Jessie?” Daddy had told him not to call him boss, but he couldn’t stop himself. Daddy spit on the ground, and looked over at the dust where they they had reached the trail.
“Trouble, Walter. They want trouble. And don’t call me boss, y’hear?”
It wasn’t long before daddy found out who the men were. The moustache man was Bill Mathewson. He had made his money from buffalo hunting and skins, and was buying up land along with the German, who was called Grieffenstein. That German was a successful merchant and trader who soon had a hand in most things bought and sold in Wichita. But with no railroad yet, all they could do was to keep accumulating property, hoping to cash in later.They left us alone for a while, but pretty soon the building jobs got less, as they made sure never to use us for any construction or repairs. Reckon they also told their friends not to employ us too.
Daddy said he weren’t that bothered. We had a good amount of money behind us, and the steady stream of new settlers meant that there were still jobs to pick up from time to time. One good thing was that Shawn Ryan went to work for the German, and after that he never called on us no more. And when I rode past their place, Maggie didn’t come out waving no more neither.
The next spring, railroad men started to lay the rails heading north to Newton. That would connect with the railroad that had already reached there, so it seemed it wouldn’t be long before trains from up north would soon be arriving in town. But on the homestead, life was still good. The planting got done, and with less work for us in Wichita, we set to improving our own buildings, and doing repairs. Daddy and Henry got some work over in Delano, building a new saloon near the riverbank. We had always avoided that place, but Henry said ‘Work is work, Mister Jessie”. That left me working around the homestead with Walter.
Susan used to bring us something to eat and drink mid-morning. As we stopped work to eat, she would show me her practice at writing in an old notebook daddy had given her. She was doing good, and keen to learn more. Reading the old Bible was hard though, ’cause of all the funny names and old words. I thought to get her a better book, next time I was in town. One day, as she cleared away the plates and cups to take back to the house, she gave me a smile. It was a certain sort of smile, and it made me notice her in a way I hadn’t thought of before.
She was sure pretty, I had to admit.
When I got to the new General Store in Wichita, the man told me there was no call for books, but he could order some for me from Topeka if I knew which ones I wanted, and paid up front. Then he suggested I go see Mrs Parker, the reverend’s wife. She was running a school for little kids from her house behind the church. She was a nice lady, and happy to make some suggestions. I wrote down what she recommended, and went back to the store and paid for them. I ordered a copy of Moby Dick, also Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Mrs Parker said that was about slaves before the war, and Walter might like to hear it read. The books were mighty expensive, and the man in the store said they would take three weeks to arrive.
Daddy picked them up for me on his way home one evening, and that night after dinner, I read some chapters from Moby Dick as everyone sat around the fire. The characters were so well-described, it was like we could see them in our heads, and hearing about fishing for the big whales was something new to us all. As they were leaving, I handed Susan the copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wrapped in some white cotton, and told her it was for her. I don’t reckon anyone had ever given her anything before, as her hands were trembling, and I could see tears in her eyes as she took it. Turning in the doorway, she said, “Will you help me with the words I don’t know?” I smiled and nodded.
All through that summer, we carried on working around the house, with daddy and Henry away most days finishing the saloon. They also got more work at the hotel, adding more rooms at the back. The hotel owner said he paid no mind to what the rich cattlemen said, and he was happy because daddy did good work at a fair price. The corn, potatoes, and greens were growing well, and Walter did indeed show his skill at producing a fine crop. Which we later harvested and stored.
Around the time I was coming up eighteen that fall, Susan gave me a package wrapped in some soft hide. Inside were a pair of moccasins she had made me, all sewed real fancy, with small beads and injun designs. She said I could wear them around the house when I took my boots off, to save tearing holes in my socks.
I put them on and walked around some, declaring they were the most comfortable shoes I had ever owned.
Before the next winter set in, daddy talked about the hunting trip again. He reckoned a few days away would provide us with some deer and wild hogs, not to mention plenty of game birds. As well as the Henry rifle, daddy had bought an old fifty-calibre Hawken from a man in town to take along. It was slow to use, but daddy said that it could knock down the biggest buck from a ways off. We both tried it out in the woods, and it sure had some kick to it.
Henry was going to use my horse and tool box while we were away. He could do a few small jobs locally, and Walter would be busy sorting and storing the crops. Mary had woven some baskets, and she said they were fish traps. Her and Susan were going to take them up to the deepest part of the creek and set them. Mary said salted fish would make a change from meat come winter. I wasn’t much for eating fish, but I had to admit that Mary could make anything taste good. Even beans.
Daddy told me to leave my forty-four with Henry, and he made sure they both had the shotguns handy, just in case of trouble. Susan made me a dandy case for my hunting knife, and her and Mary packed us up enough food for a month. Heading south not far from the banks of the Arkansas River, we could see how so much more land was being settled, or fenced off. Derby was growing, no doubt about that.
After travelling all that day and the next, we turned inland and daddy started to get the feel of where we might see some game. The pastures at the edge of the woodland looked good, so we got the wind against us, and set up a hide of sorts, leaving the wagon in a dip where it would not be spotted. After a dull morning with nothing happening, a herd of deer appeared walking out of the trees to our left. Daddy readied the Hawken to take the leading buck, and told me to aim for the biggest doe, which was at the back of the herd. He counted us down from three, and we both fired.
When the smoke cleared, the herd had scattered. The big buck was stone dead on its side, daddy had got it right through the neck. But my shot had hit the doe in the top of her leg, breaking the bone. She was dragging the leg as she tried to run. Daddy spoke quietly to me. “Hit her again, Phin. Don’t make her suffer now”. My second shot was still too rushed, but brought her down. As we walked over to finish her off, I apologised for being clumsy. Daddy smiled. “You’ll learn Phin. Can’t be helped. Why don’t you go back and get the wagon, bring it over to them?”
By the time I got back, he had gutted the animals, and tied their legs so we could lift them up, and fix them to the sides of the wagon. It was too cold for us to sleep outside if we didn’t have to, and we didn’t like the idea of sleeping next to the dead animals inside.
The next morning, we drove for a couple of hours before seeing some woods up ahead. Daddy thought they might be a good place to find hogs, so drove off the trail and hid the wagon at the edge of the woodland. We blocked the wheels and put the brake on, leaving the mares some feed as we walked inside. It was dark and damp in there, with lots of ground cover hiding many of the roots. We had to walk real careful, and stay quiet. Daddy couldn’t smoke his pipe neither, as the hogs would smell it. We were both wearing coils of rope around us, to use to drag out any we managed to kill.
But after creeping around for a good while, we heard no sound that might be hogs. Daddy whispered that we should turn back, and try for some more deer somewheres else. I could just see the light at the edge of the trees, when there was a crunching sound, like someone running through a big pile of leaves. As I turned to look at daddy, he raised the Hawken, with his back to me. But he had no time to fire before a huge hog crashed out of the undergrowth into him, knocking him down, and causing him to drop the rifle.
I raised the Henry and looked along the barrel, but I was afeared to shoot in case I hit my daddy. Then there were two shots, and the hog fell over on its side. To my left, I heard some grunting and squealing as the rest of them ran off from where they had been hiding, and I walked over to help daddy up. But he couldn’t stand. He had shot the hog with his old service pistol, through the pocket of his long coat where he kept it. But it had bit him bad, the long sharp teeth tearing his thigh. It was nothing like the pigs we kept back home. Covered in dark hair, with a huge head, it looked fierce even though it was dead.
Daddy’s shout snapped me out of it. “Phin, take your belt off son, you need to strap it around my leg. Real quick now!”
I fixed my belt around daddy’s leg, and he pulled it real tight. I was staring at the wound, and could see the muscle of his leg through the blood. He gritted his teeth, and spoke quietly. “Phin, get the Hawken for me, then go get the wagon and the long rope. I ain’t leaving this hog behind”. I did as he said, running until I thought my lungs would burst. When I got back to him with the rope, he had dragged himself up against a tree, and there was a twig twisted inside the belt around his leg. “Tie the hog’s legs, then fix the rope to the wagon axle. Drive it forward until the hog’s dragged out, then come back for me”. I nodded.
He didn’t look none too good, but I wasn’t about to go against anything daddy told me to do.
Using the long-barrelled Hawken like a crutch, and holding on to me, daddy managed to hop out of the woods, though he fell forward two or three times. I got on the back of the wagon and managed to haul him up onto the boards. He was as white as a clean sheet, and sweating real bad. “Now wrap that rope on the hog around the footboard, and bring the end back here”. With both of us pulling on the rope, we got the hog up level with the wagon. Then I tied off the slack, and jumped out to swing the animal into the back of the wagon next to daddy. He wanted water, then he wanted whiskey. He drunk some, then poured more over his leg, shaking his head and screwing up his eyes at the pain.
“Get us home, Phin. Push the horses”.
The poor mares must have wondered what was going on, as they had never been pushed so hard. I kept going until it was too dark to see the trail, and daddy yelled from the back. “Stop now son, afore we break a wheel or the horses’ legs”. I got a fire going, tended to the hot horses, and then tried to make daddy more comfortable. From the light shining out the oil lamp, I could see the leg was still bleeding, though not as much. I tried to get him to eat something, but he shook his head. Pulling the stick out of the loop, he slackened the belt, and sighed. “More whiskey, son. You eat”.
At first light, daddy woke me from a heavy sleep by calling loudly. “Rouse yourself, Phin, we need to get going. Now!” I got the horses ready, then set off. Daddy called again. “Better not push them all day, boy. Start off slow, then quicken them up after full sunup”. That was one hell of a day. I kept hoping we would see some other people, and I could ask for help. I didn’t stop but once, to help daddy tighten the belt again, and grab a bite for myself sitting next to a stream where I watered the horses without unharnessing them. Without the need to stop and look for game, I kept the wagon going until the horses started to slow up, and the sun was setting.
Daddy called from the back. “That’s enough now. Get a fire started, we’ll be home tomorrow”. I managed to get him to eat some of Mary’s bean and potato soup once it was warm from the fire. He had wrapped a thick cloth around his thigh, then put my belt tight around it. The whiskey was all gone, but he drank down two cans of water like a man with a mighty thirst. That night I lay down between him and the dead hog, and there was no warmth from neither of them.
He was still sleeping when I woke up, and when I shook him, he didn’t come round. I put my cheek against his mouth and could only just feel his breath. Before the sun was breaking through the misty morning, I started to recognise the surroundings, and knew we would soon be near Derby. I pushed those poor mares real hard, and it wasn’t long before I was turning off the trail with our homestead in sight.
With me yelling fit to bust as I approached, Walter came running, followed by Susan and Mary. Walter lifted daddy as if he was a baby, and carried him inside. Mary rushed in to clear the big table, and Susan put her hand on my chest to stop me following. “See to the horses, Phin. Ma knows what to do. Henry’s already left for work, but Walter will be out directly”.
Walter came out later, to help with the deer and the hog. His face was serious. “How’s my daddy, Walter?” I wanted to go in and see him, but the big man shook his head. “Best leave him to Mary, boss. He don’t look too good”. He reached over and touched my shoulder.
“Not good at all”.
Susan came out of the house and ran past me, carrying a basket. She headed for the tree line in the distance, and disappeared into the woods. Walter fetched two pails of fresh water from the creek, saying he was going to set them to boil. I couldn’t hear anything from inside. If daddy was in pain, he was braving it well. I was dog-tired after the trip home, but couldn’t relax until I had some idea what was going to happen.
When Susan got back, her basket was filled with tree moss and bark, and mushrooms of some kind. She hesitated before going inside, and turned to me. “Stay strong, Phin. My ma will do her very best”. I was still sitting outside when Henry got back from town on Lizzie. I had to tell him the story of the hog, and how bad daddy was. He was sure that Mary would work miracles, and he went off to help Walter deal with the meat we had brought back.
Mary finally came out and waved me to come inside when the sun had almost set. Susan had food on the go, and the fire was roaring hot to keep daddy warm, Mary said. He was still on the table, his leg wrapped in a big bundle of clean cloths with Mary’s concoction against the wound. She had washed him as best she could, but he smelled bad still. Susan went to get Walter to carry daddy to his bed, and when he was laid in there under some warm skins and blankets, they scrubbed the table clean. Mary finally told me what she thought. “I have done my best with my sort of medicine, Phin. I got his fever down, and I reckon I might get him to take some soup tonight. But that wound is sure deep, right past the muscle, and a hog’s mouth is a dirty thing. He might need a doctor from town if he ain’t no better this time tomorrow”.
I took some hot water outside, and washed in private. Susan brought me clean clothes to change into before I went back in to eat. After dinner, Walter told me that Mary was going to sleep in my bed, to tend to daddy during the night, and I should make a bed on the floor in front of the fire. I was so bone-tired, I went to sleep before Susan and Walter left for their cabin.
Daddy was awake the next morning, but not making any sense when he was talking. Mary told me not to worry. “It’s the mushrooms, Phin. Make him forget the pain”. She had fixed a length of wood to the outside of his leg, to stop him trying to bend his knee. I had to hold a hand over my nose and mouth because of the smell in our bedroom. I don’t know how Mary stood it all night. Outside the bedroom, Mary put her arm around me. “Best send Henry into town. Tell him to get a good doctor, the young one I heard mention of”. Henry took my horse and set off. The mood around the homestead was bad, and only Walter was doing any work that day.
Henry came back with someone following him in a one-horse buggy. It was Doctor Frazer. He had a funny accent, because he was from Scotland. He didn’t like to be called British either. Told me he had made his way to Wichita from New York the previous summer, hearing that we needed more doctors once the town became a city. I had seen him once for a bad tooth, and he had pulled it for me real quick. One look at daddy’s conditon, and he shook his head. “This leg has to come off, or your father will surely die tonight. Ask your man to get my other bag from the buggy”. I told him I would get it, and I was trembling as I brought it back.
Henry and Walter came in to help, and Mary told Susan to take me outside until it was over. The doctor made daddy drink something from a glass bottle, and it sent him senseless. As I walked outside with Susan, I heard him telling Walter to get daddy out of bed, and back onto the table in the next room.
It wasn’t long at all before Walter came out, carrying something wrapped in a bloody cloth. I knew it was daddy’s leg, didn’t have to ask. He walked off somewheres, intending to bury it, I guessed. Mary came out, making an effort to smile. “That doctor’s good, Phin. He was real fast, and now he’s tidying things”. I felt cold inside, and couldn’t imagine how fixing the stump on daddy’s thigh could be called ‘tidying things’.
I knew the stuff from the bottle had worn off when I heard daddy yelling my name.
Daddy was lying on his bed. They had dressed him in a nightshirt that was one of Walter’s so it was way too big. He looked a lot better, and though he was still talking too fast, he was at least making sense. “You saved my life boy, have no doubt about that. He had to take my leg, or I would have died for sure. So don’t you go worrying none. You did the right thing, I promise you. Now you pay the doctor before he leaves, I don’t want us to be owing no money”. He pointed at his coat, which was on the floor. “There’s money in there, Yankee dollars”.
I took the money and went back to where the doctor had finished washing his hands in a bowl. I held all the money out to him and he took three bills. “That’s enough, Phin. I will come back tomorrow and check on your father. Make sure he gets plenty to eat, and stays warm. I reckon he can have some of this for the pain, but make sure he doesn’t drink it all”. He handed me the small glass bottle, smiling as he said that. With that, he put his coat on and walked out to his buggy carrying his bags in each hand. I heard daddy call me again, and went back in. “Tell Mary she done real good, and Walter too. And Phin, you oughta think serious about their Susan. That girl is a jewel Phin, she really is”.
Leaving him to rest, I nodded and walked outside. I was already thinking very seriously about Susan.
Over the next few days, I took over daddy’s jobs, and me and Henry left every morning for work. With the railroad arriving the following spring, lots of new businesses and storage areas needed building, and there was suddenly more work than we could handle. I was accepted as a man now by most everyone, and many people would come up to ask how daddy was doing. News travelled fast around Wichita.
After a couple more visits from the doctor, and the careful care and attention from Mary, daddy was looking more or less recovered, and eating well too. I was sure the wound must be terrible painful, but if it was, he didn’t let on none. I made him some crutches, so he could get into the main room without being carried. Susan took them off me and sewed some soft leather cushions for them, stuffed with rabbit fur. I fixed them to the crutches with some small tacks, and daddy got up real easy using his good left leg.
I told him that when he was ready to tolerate it, I would make him a dandy false leg, one that he could put a shoe on. He stopped drinking his coffee, and smiled. “Ain’t no good, Phin. Doctor had to take my leg off real high, so there’s hardly anything to fit into a wooden leg. I’m gonna have to learn to get around as best I can on these here crutches. You did a great job on them, by the way. And tell Susan the cushions are real comfy”. It hadn’t occured to me that daddy couldn’t have a false leg, and I started to think about all the things he wouldn’t be able to do any longer.
Longer winter nights were good for courting. I would sit quiet with Susan once Walter and Mary left and daddy and Henry had gone into their rooms. As far as things went, I was supposed to be improving her reading, which had come on real fast. She had read Moby Dick twice now, and though some words and names gave her trouble, she could make sense of it. She was going to read the other book to Walter and Mary first, keeping note of any words she didn’t comprehend.
I would walk her back to their cabin carrying a lamp, and one night I stopped short. “Tell me, Susan. Do you ever give any thought to getting wed?” In the lamplight, I could see she was blushing, and she shrugged rather than reply. I carried on. “Only I don’t reckon I could ever find a better young woman than you to marry, but before I ask your ma, I should make sure you think the same as me”. She allowed herself a wide grin. “You should ask them both, Walter too. He may not be my natural pa, but he’s as good as any I ever wanted”. Taking that as a yes, I leaned over and kissed her awkwardly on the cheek, and she ran off giggling.
After dinner the next night, I waited until Walter and Mary were back in the cabin with Susan, and I walked over and knocked politely on the door. I stood with my hat in my hand, real respectful like. Walter was grinning as he opened up, and I knew right off he was wise to why I was there. Susan was out of sight behind the curtain as I stumbled over my prepared words. When I had said my piece, Mary walked forward and kissed me, then Walter grabbed my hand and shook it so hard I thought it would fall off.
When Susan ran around the curtain and threw her arms around my neck, I had never felt happier.
Daddy was sure pleased when I told him the news, and Henry gave me a big bear-hug too. After I told him, daddy sat thinking for a while. Then he lit his pipe and said he wanted to suggest some things.
“Phin, before any wedding, I think we should build a house for you and Susan. Maybe behind Walter’s cabin, closer to the woods. You two will need your privacy, and you will still be close by. Henry tells me there are men in town offering to set up water pumps. They can dig down on the property, find water, and set up hand pumps. That has to be better than walking back and forth to the creek, and we have the money for it. When you’re in Wichita, ask around about them. Fella told Henry they’re Italians or some such. And you had better speak to Reverend Parker too, arrange a date for the end of Spring”.
Everyone on the homestead pitched in. I wanted a nice plank house for me and Susan, not one made from logs. Walter dug out deep foundations, leaving room for a raised porch at the front. It would only be two rooms, but daddy said I could order real bricks from Topeka for the chimney. Susan and Mary set to making quilts, rugs, and bedding, and Henry built daddy a bench in the barn where he could work sitting down to fashion window frames and shutters. I watched him working, and he seemed happy. “How about real windows, Phin? We can get some glass from town, and still have shutters on the outside”.
Reverend Parker smiled when I told him, but then he put his hand on my shoulder. “Sad to say some folks might not take to you getting wed to a half-breed, Phin. But I could come out to your place and marry you right there. How does that sound?” Part of me was angry that he felt like that, but we didn’t go to church that often, and Walter and Mary hadn’t seemed too bothered about a ceremony of any kind. Walter had laughed when he told me, “You two could just jump the broomstick, that’s fine with us”. When I told them what the Reverend had said, they all seemed relieved. Daddy told me, “He’s right, Phin. You don’t want no trouble with those church people”.
The house was almost finished by the time the weather improved. Mary and Susan started to whitewash the wood, and Walter lit a big fire to prove the chimney. Me and Henry were still working on jobs around Wichita and Delano, then coming home to carry on until dark on my house. Once there was no frost, the Italians came out to fix the pumps. They were from New York City, but from an immmigrant family that had settled there. The older one reckoned he would find the water real easy, as we were so close to the creek. They dug down with a big boring screw, trying various sites until they hit good water. Then they laid some pipes between the cabins and the house, before burying them back out of sight. Pretty soon, each place had a pump just outside, and they were working well.
I guessed it must have all cost a lot of money, but daddy had a meeting with the men inside the cabin to arrange a price, and he paid them himself when the job was finished. After seeing them off the property, he turned to me. “This means we won’t be dependent on the creek so much, Phin. If those cattlemen do as they said, it won’t bother us none”.
When the house was fit to live in, I made two good chairs for the porch. Susan put all her stuff inside, and even made curtains to hang in the windows. Daddy bought us new cooking pots and such, said it was his gift to us. Henry made a heavy table from some old wood, and polished it real nice. Then on the Sunday, daddy smiled when he said, “Best you ride in to see Reverend Parker today, son”.
The wedding day was cloudy, but at least it didn’t rain. Mary had made Susan a beautiful dress that she could wear at other times, and dressed her hair with some flowers, injun-style. I had a new long black jacket and black hat bought in Wichita, and while I was there I had a haircut and shave too. The Reverend came in a buggy with Mrs Parker. He brought the big Bible, and the Church Register too. Mary cried when he said we were man and wife, and then he wrote our names down official like, in the Register. Susan had used Walter’s name, Washington, as she wanted nothing to do with the man who had taken advantage of her ma.
There was good eating and some whisky after, and when Mr and Mrs Parker went home, Walter winked at me. “Time to carry Mrs Susan Fuller over your threshold, I reckon”. He stopped calling me ‘boss’ that same day.
Wichita soon became the favourite destination for the big cattle drives coming north from Texas. With the railroad able to take live steers up to Topeka, then on to the big city stockyards and markets like the one in Chicago, the town was soon booming.
With the cattle came more people. Not just the cowboys involved with driving the huge herds, but anyone looking to make money on the back of the industry. It wasn’t long before people started to call Wichita ‘Cow Town’, and that name sure stuck.
More people and all that money meant more saloons, more whorehouses, and a whole heap of trouble. As well as the fights, there were shootings, and places getting smashed up. It weren’t much better across in Delano either, as that place was a magnet for drunks, gamblers, and troublemakers. At least most of the ructions happened at night, and we made sure to always be home before it got dark.
One good thing about it was the extra work. With so much expansion, there was more work than we could handle, including lots of new stores, saloons, and a bigger and better hotel. We got some full-builds, and some part-jobs, but we were always working. Daddy stayed home most of the time, but continued to make what he could using his new bench.
The town offcials, who liked to call Wichita a city, had got together to raise the money to form some sort of law enforcement. They gave it the fancy name of The Wichita Police Department. Despite the appearance of lawmen on the streets, it seemed to me that people could pretty much still do whatever they wanted. And when the big cattle drives arrived, some of the places even shuttered up once those crazy cowboys hit town.
Married life was good. We stayed in our house for dinner now, though Walter and Mary kept up the habit of eating with daddy and Henry. Susan seemed to take to her wifely role like a duck to water, and I never saw her not smiling, not once. On a very hot day in late summer, she came to talk to me as I was washing in the cold water from the pump. “Phin, you’re gonna be a daddy. What do you think of that?” I suppose I should have jumped up and down, picked her up and swung her around, something like that. But it didn’t seem real. Despite my age and my size, I still thought of myself as a boy. Maybe because I still lived so close with daddy, and looked to him to make so many decisions.
I didn’t do no jumping nor swinging, I cried instead. They were happy tears, and Susan knew they were.
Daddy and Henry shook my hand when they got the news. Mary and Walter already knew before me, as Susan had asked her ma lots of questions to confirm what she thought. After pouring me a glass of whiskey, daddy rubbed his beard. “Reckon you should have your own money now, son. Instead of just buying what you need from what we all share, seems like time to make proper arrangements”. Daddy was a fair man. Me, him, and Henry would get equal shares, and we would each pay a part from our shares to Walter and Mary, so they had their own income.
There was a bank in town now, in a sturdy building on north main street. It was called The Wichita Bank, and run by a man named Fraker. Naturally Mr Mead got involved too, as the richest man around. Daddy said we should open up business with them, as we couldn’t keep using the old cash box and hiding our money in the outhouse. We all got accounts with that bank, ‘cepting Walter. He wanted to take his share in ready cash, and that was fair enough.
That fall of seventy-two, I turned nineteen. I was going to be a daddy come February, and realised I had to step up and stop relying so much on daddy. Henry didn’t mind none that I was in charge. Although he had picked up some skill with wood by then, he still mainly did the heavy work, as well as some sawing and hammering. With advice from daddy, I started to price up new jobs, and haggle some with merchants and suppliers too. By the time some light snow told us winter was on us, I could build almost anything I was asked to, and had my own reputation as a businessman.
The baby came early. Susan woke me one night and told me to go fetch her ma. It was cold, and snow on the ground. I had built the fire up before we went to bed, and threw more wood on it as I got dressed. Mary wasn’t concerned. She said Susan might have counted her days wrong. “She’s young and strong, Phin. Don’t you worry, she’ll be fine”. I suggested going into town for a doctor, but Mary shook her head. “Leave her to me, but best you go and sleep in your daddy’s cabin”. I doubted I would get any sleep, but went and sat in the old cabin with the glowing embers of the fire to warm me. Daddy and Henry were both snoring, and I didn’t wake them.
Next morning, Henry had gone off on his own to do some jobs, and daddy was in the barn fixing something. I told them I had to stay home for once. It was early afternoon when Mary came to get me. She was looking tired, but beaming a big smile. “You have a daughter, Phin. She’s sure a beauty”.
We named her Sophia, after granny Fuller. And Mary, for Susan’s ma.
Not long after Sophia’s second birthday, we had new lawmen in town who were finally getting on top of the trouble. James Earp had been joined by his younger brother, Wyatt. Both were working for Marshal Meagher, and dealt out punishments there and then, usually with the butt of a pistol. Some complained that they were too harsh, but those cowboys soon learned to fear them, especially the hot-headed Wyatt.
On the homestead, life was still good. We had more pigs by then, and Walter seemed to have a way with them, as well as the crops. Little Sophia stuck by her mama most of the time, and loved to be around the animals, or out in the field. Mary had got us some chickens for fresh eggs, and my little girl liked to feed them too.
There had been no more babies. Susan told me she was sorry about that, but I told her not to mind. I was a happy man just how things were.
It was a Sunday when the men rode in. Susan was in the house making dinner, and daddy and Henry were sitting outside their cabin enjoying the warm light evening. We saw the dust approaching from the trail, and I got a bad feeling. I looked across at daddy, and he nodded. So I went inside and got the Henry rifle, as well as daddy’s pistol.
I counted six of them, dusty-looking cowboys on sweaty horses. Some had red sashes around their waists, something I had seen before in Wichita. The leading rider got off his horse, and walked up to me, smiling. “You Phineas Fuller, Jessie’s boy?” I nodded and pointed at daddy in his chair. “And that’s my daddy”. Henry stood up and went inside, then Walter walked around front carrying an empty pail that had contained the pig food.
“Alright if we water the horses, Phineas? I nodded and pointed at the pump. “Maybe your negra could fill that pail for me?” Walter dropped the pail in front of the man, and I said “Reckon you can manage that yourself mister”. The others were getting off their horses and looking around, but only that first man did any talking, as he worked the handle to fill the bucket. “Got yourself set up real nice here, Fuller. Real nice. But I got you a good offer from my boss. He wants to buy the place for grazing, told me to fix a price”.
Before I could say anything, Henry came back outside carrying a shotgun. “It’s my place, mister. And it ain’t for sale. Tell Mr Mathewson that”. The man dropped the half-filled pail and turned to Henry. He had stopped smiling. “I never said it was Mathewson, mister. But I got a price in mind that’s real good. Maybe you wanna put that scattergun down and talk nice?” Two of the other men walked forward, and daddy raised his arm to show the pistol. I stood my ground. “You heard Henry, mister. Ain’t for sale. You’re welcome to water, but then you had better go I reckon”.
The man raised his hands and started smiling again. “You got a cripple, a half-wit, and a negra. Don’t reckon we’re scared none, Fuller. But we ain’t here for no trouble, just to do business”. His accent was jarring me. Probably west Texas, certainly not from around these parts. This time I smiled, and lowered the rifle. “No business to be done, mister. If you don’t want water, then you had all best be on your way”. He turned to the others and jerked his head. They slowly got back on their horses, and started to ride off. But he was the last to mount up, turning to Henry with a wide grin.
“You’ll see us again, I promise you that”.
When I was sure they had gone, I walked over to daddy. “Should I ride into town, daddy? Maybe tell the Marshal?” Daddy shook his head. “Meagher only cares about what happens in Wichita, Phin. Likely they could pay him off anyways. We are gonna have to be more watchful from now on though”.
By the time the weather had got real hot, they hadn’t returned. But I was uneasy all the time back then, and trying hard not to show it in front of Susan and little Sophia. For a couple of months, daddy and Henry had been taking turns staying up nights, and sleeping during the day. But after the harvesting of the crops, we all finally relaxed. It was so hot that late summer, and I had trouble sleeping. Susan was restless too, and thought she might be expecting again.
I finally got to sleep one night after sitting out front to escape the heat inside. I just stayed in the chair, and didn’t remember nodding off.
The screaming woke me up. I knew right away it was Mary.
I rushed across to Walter’s cabin, still half-asleep, and stumbling in the dark. Mary was on the ground outside, pointing in the direction of the trees on the bank of the creek. “Walter, they took him. Help him, Phin”. I ran off where she was pointing, not even thinking that I had no weapons, not even my knife. Yelling as I ran, hoping to rouse Henry and daddy. I couldn’t see a thing, but could hear horses in the distance. By the time I got there, I just made out the rider at the back. He was wearing a big white hood, and urging his horse on.
Then they were gone.
When I got back to Mary, Susan was there with her, and Henry was saddling up Lizzie. In the light of an oil lamp, I could see Mary had a bad injury on her face. It looked like her cheek was broke, and she was talking funny, in between spitting out blood. “I was asleep, something hit me hard on the face, almost sent me senseless. Men with hoods, they hit Walter with something, then two of them carried him out. I crawled to the door, but they were already gone. That’s when I screamed for help”. Susan was crying as she tried to do something about her ma’s face, but Mary just pushed her hand away. “Go and find him. You’re wasting time”.
Daddy came over on his crutches, holding a lamp in two fingers of his right hand. “Hold on now. Henry, unsaddle that horse. Nobody ain’t gonna find nothing when it’s this dark. Besides, those men could be waiting for you, and you wouldn’t have a chance”. He turned to my wife. “Susan, take your ma inside her cabin and clean her up. We will set out at first light and do our best to find Walter”. Mary started screaming again, and Susan held her close to comfort her sobbing ma.
Henry drove the wagon, with daddy sitting in the back, leg stretched out. I rode Lizzie up ahead. We headed south, in the direction of the biggest cattle spreads, but truth be told we had no plan, and no real idea where to look. Daddy had the Hawken and his pistol, and I had the Henry rifle as well as my forty-four, Under the wagon seat, Henry had two shotguns, both loaded and ready to use. If we found those fellas, there was sure going to be a reckoning.
Mid-morning, we saw two riders herding steers along a fence line close to the trail. I rode up close to the fence and waited for them to get close. “You fellas seen anything of some riders with white hoods on? They would have a tall negro with them”. The older man spit some tobacco in my direction, and a younger one with a fancy black hat spoke up. “White hoods? You dreaming boy? You had yourself a nightmare? Where y’all from anyway? You sound like a Johnny Reb”. The older man laughed out loud, showing brown teeth and the big plug of tobacco rolling around in his mouth. Black hat pointed in the direction we had come from. “Best you turn around and go home. You farmers ain’t welcome here”.
They rode off after the steers, and it had already dawned on me that they knew full well who we were.
Late afternoon, we stopped to rest and water the horses. Henry pointed at some trees, east of the trail. “Look there, Phin”. Henry must have had real good eyes. It took me a while to see what he was talking about. A thin wisp of smoke rising, like you might see from a campfire. Henry took up one of the shotguns, and turned the wagon left off the trail. I went to the side, grabbing the forty-four into my right hand. In the back, daddy sat up straight, and rested the Hawken on the edge of the wagon board.
Just inside the first few trees, we stopped. Henry jumped down from the wagon, and I heard my daddy groan real loud. “Oh no, not that. Oh dear God no”. The next moment, Henry fell to his knees, dropping the shotgun in front of him. I turned Lizzie around a big tree, and what I saw made my eyes open so wide, I felt they might never close again.
Walter was hanging upside down, from the lowest branch of a tree. His feet and hands were tied with rope, and that was tied off across on another tree branch. What was left of a small fire was still glowing and smoking under his head. It had burned his face off, but there was no mistaking it was Walter. I felt like I might pass out, and leaned against the tree, the bile rising in my throat but refusing to come up. Henry started crying, big tears rolling down his cheeks and falling onto the ground. Daddy snapped us both out of it.
“You’ve seen enough, I reckon. Now cut him down and get him in the wagon”.
When we got home, it was almost dark. Susan sobbed and cried, but Mary was strangely quiet. She said she already knew Walter was dead, just felt it inside. “He died bad. I don’t want to see, but I know he died bad”. She brought an embroidered blanket and some kind of necklace from her cabin. “Wrap him in this, put the necklace inside. I will use it to recognise him when we meet again”. Using some oil lamps for light, me and Henry dug a grave behind their cabin, close to the edge of the woods. Henry rolled Walter’s body up in the blanket, and put the necklace inside before the last fold. By the time we had filled in the dirt, it was late.
But none of us could eat any dinner.
The next day at sunrise, I was woken up by Mary singing some strange song. I went to the window, and watched her. She was wearing a long dress made from buckskin, and moccasins on her feet. Kneeling down beside the grave, holding her hands up to the sky, and singing that same song over and over. Susan came to the window beside me. “My ma is singing Walter’s spirit to the hunting grounds, Phin. She might be there all day”.
I asked daddy if I should go and report what had happened to the Marshal. He shurgged. “What are you gonna say, Phin? Some riders who you don’t know took Walter in the night. The next day we found him killed hanging from a tree. Who is the Marshal gonna arrest for that? One less negro in the world aint gonna bother him none”. I knew he was right of course, but it didn’t make me any less angry.
After that day, Mary stopped cooking and washing for daddy and Henry. She was civil enough, but wouldn’t go inside their cabin again. Susan was happy to take over, but she was worried about her ma. “I don’t think she will ever forgive your daddy, Phin. She’s sure that you and Walter could have caught up with the men and stopped what happened. Don’t reckon I will ever shake her on it”. Little Sophia was too young to understand, but when she went looking for Walter, it made Susan cry. I painted some stones white, and arranged them around the grave. Daddy sat at his bench and carved a wooden marker with Walter’s name on it, and I fixed it into the ground. But Mary never looked at any of it.
Three days later, Mary came to the house to talk to me. “Phin, you married my girl, so you’re like a son to me. I want you do you me a favour. I need a horse, and things for travelling. I will be leaving here to find my people. I want to go back to the Osage. You folks have been real kind to me, but there’s no life for me in this white man’s world. I will walk if I have to, but I reckon you owe me something for my time here, and leaving my girl behind as your wife”. I assured her that she could have anything she wanted. I didn’t try to talk her out of leaving. She was her own woman, and I knew better than to talk down to her. I went into town, leaving her with Susan and Sophia, as I knew that would be a long farewell.
I got her a gentle bay mare, a saddle, and one of the new Winchester repeating rifles. She would need something to protect her on the trail. Then there was a cooking pot, water bottle, and tinder box, as well as a rain-slick for travelling in bad weather. Plus new saddlebags to keep it all in. Then I gave her some money, to add to what she and Walter had saved from their share. She left the same afternoon, barely nodding goodbye to my daddy and Henry, who were watching from out front of the cabin. Susan cried all that night, and then she never cried about it again.
Life had to get back to something like normal. Henry and me started back at work, and Susan managed the crops and animals as best as she could. Daddy did what he was able, in between working on the small projects at his bench. But the rage inside about what had happened to Walter never went away.
On the first day the leaves were falling, two riders appeared just before we were due to eat dinner. I walked out to see who they were, carrying my pistol. It was the smiling cowboy from before, and the second one was the man with the fancy black hat that I had spoken to during the search for Walter. They got off their horses and walked in my direction, the smiling man holding up his hands. He looked around, then placed a quizzical look on his face, still smiling. “You seem to be short one big buck, Fuller. Did he up and run off? They are likely to do that, y’know”.
The fifty caliber bullet hit him on the side of his neck, and went straight through. He dropped to his knees, his mouth opening and closing like a stranded fish. Black hat started to reach for a forty-five in his belt, thought better of it, and turned to run. But Henry was already there, and fired both barrels of the shotgun straight into his gut, flinging him back a full six feet. Daddy had shot the smiling man with the Hawken, the long barrel resting on the edge of the window. Henry had run around behind them at the same time, to be ready.
I looked down at the smiling cowboy. The big bullet had almost taken his head clean off.
Daddy came over on his crutches. “Phin, take up their pistols. I want you to fire both of them a couple of times, then put them into their hands like they were holding them when they got killed”. I did as he asked, firing Black Hat’s into the log walls of the cabin, and Smiling Man’s across at the crop fields behind me. “Now saddle up and ride into town for the Marshal. Tell him there’s been a shooting here, and two cowboys are dead. He should want to get out here before dark”.
Henry shook his head. “Why don’t I just dig a hole and bury ’em? Let the horses go, and they’ll find their way home”. Daddy had a hard expression on his face. “No, not that way, Henry. I want them to know what happened to their men. That way they will know what will happen to any others who come riding in here looking for trouble”. He turned to me again. “Phin, you be sure to tell the Marshal that these fellas came riding in here, and started shooting as soon as they saw you. Me and Henry dealt with them before they could drop you”. I nodded, still hardly believing what had just happened.
Marshal Meagher didn’t look none too pleased when I told him my story. Wyatt Earp was in the office. He smiled and shook his head. “I reckon those two had it coming, and didn’t expect no farmers to put up a fight, Marshal”. Meagher left him in charge, and rode back with me to the homestead, after arranging for the nearby undertaker to follow on with his buckboard, and two plain coffins.
I suppose I had expected the lawman to write stuff down. Maybe tell us we had to go to court, even lock us up for a spell until we did. But there was none of that. He listened to the story again, told by Daddy and Henry. They didn’t mention the suspicions about Walter, as there was hardly any point with no proof. After looking at the bodies and shaking his head a few times, Meagher waited until the undertaker arrived, then walked over to his horse. “Fuller, you may have started something here today. I hope you’re prepared to finish it. Don’t expect any help from me and my men now, you’re too far out of Wichita for that to happen”. Daddy just nodded.
The strange thing is, we never did have any more trouble. Even when I was in town, those cowboys never spoke to me. And none of them ever came to the house again.
I had to admit that daddy had done the right thing. Life went back to normal once again, and Susan told me she was sure she was expecting. She seemed very happy about that. But all through the winter, she never seemed to get much bigger. When she was carrying Sophia she had swollen up, but this time she looked much the same as when she wasn’t expecting. Then one stormy night I had to go out and help Henry secure one of the barn doors, which was almost blown off its hinges by the wind. When I got back in the house, Susan was sitting on the floor in front of the fire. “Phin, you gotta go fetch Doctor Frazer. Tell him it’s real bad”.
In the light from the fire, I could see she was sitting in a pool of her own blood.
Poor Lizzie was pushed to her limit that night. As soon as I roused the doctor, I turned straight round and galloped her back home. I had got Henry to sit with Susan while I was gone, and daddy had come over too, covering her with blankets as she was shivering so. The doctor told us to go out while he examined her, and he was in there a good while. “I’ve got her back to bed, Phin. She’s lost the baby, I’m afraid. I don’t think it ever grew, to be honest. But when it came away, it made her bleed bad, and she is going to need plenty to eat and drink, and lots of rest. I can ask a woman from town to come in tomorrow to nurse her if you want”. I was just glad she was alive, and agreed with anything he said. Then as he was walking to his horse, he spoke quietly to me.
“I doubt she can ever carry any more children though. Another baby might kill her”.
When she was six, Sophia started at the new school. The old church school run by the Reverend’s wife wasn’t big enough to cope, so the city built a new one, and we signed little Sophia up for it. There were two teachers; a lady from Wisconsin, and a man from Rochester, New York. His name was Joseph White, and he had come west to start a new life with his family. I got Susan a small buggy and a nice trotting horse, so she could do the trip in and out to the school each day. Sophia called the horse Victor, and she really loved that animal.
Work was doing good. I employed two brothers who were excellent wood-workers. They were called the Karimov twins, and had come all the way from Russia to find work. They stayed at the homestead, taking over Walter’s old cabin, and I paid them a fair wage. They looked after themselves pretty much; cooked their own food, and kept to themselves. They spoke in their own language most of the time too, but understood enough to know what to do at work.
Life with Susan was different then. We had to be careful that she didn’t have no babies, so things changed a lot between us. Not that we didn’t still love each other of course, but it couldn’t be like before. To help with the animals and the crops, we took in a stray woman. Her name was Angela, and she was originally from Ireland. She had been a bond servant at one time, and when her boss had died, she had been put out to fend for herself. Susan found her hanging around near the school, looking for work or charity. I made her a bed in the main room, and we used to stand it against the wall during the day. Angela was a hard worker, and so grateful for our help that we could trust her with anything.
The summer of eighteen-eighty, daddy said it was time to think about making my house bigger. He drew up some ideas on scrap paper, and reckoned we should build another floor on top. With the twins there to help, it seemed like a good idea, and we started the work before the weather turned. That year the city also took over Delano, and Derby was almost on the edge of town now. People said that there were twenty thousand living in the area, and it sure felt busy every time we went into the centre.
Though Daddy was slowing up some, Henry was as strong as ever, and still worked as hard as he ever had. I turned twenty-seven that fall, and seemed to have the respect of a lot of prominent men in town. Recommendations were still coming in, and once again I was turning down work. Daddy suggested I open a yard in Wichita, maybe take on some more men. But I liked being around the homestead still, and travelling around on the jobs. I didn’t just want to be some boss worrying about workmen and premises.
The upper floor was on the house by the time it turned cold. It had been a lot of disruption, and some considerable expense in wood and materials, but it sure looked impressive. Angela got her own room too, and cried like a baby when she saw it was just for her. Susan started a garden, just for the pleasure of looking at the flowers and plants. She ran the planting down along the approach to our house, and I told her it looked mighty grand.
Daddy got real sick that winter. He wasn’t breathing too good, and could no longer tolerate smoking his pipe. Doctor Frazer rode out to see him, and did what he could. Old Henry nursed my daddy real good, waiting on him whenever Susan was too busy with the chores or fields. When she got home from school, Sophia would sit next to daddy’s bed, and show him how her reading was coming on. He sure loved my little girl, said she reminded him of my ma.
Three days after Sophia’s eighth birthday, Henry found daddy dead in bed. He came up to the house to tell me, and we sent the twins out to work in the wagon, telling them we were staying home. The ground was real hard in the cold weather, but we set to with picks and shovels, and dug daddy a nice grave right next to Walter’s. Susan gave me an embroidered cloth to wrap him in, and I made a simple coffin from some wood in the barn. Me and Henry put daddy in the ground, and Susan read something from Walter’s Bible as we filled in the grave.
I said I would paint the stones and make the marker once better weather came in the spring.
Sophia did alright at school. Nothing exceptional, but she was good at reading and writing, and liked to hear about history too. But as she got older, her main interest started to be about Teacher White’s son, John. He was called Jack by everyone, and was almost four years older than Sophia. By the time she was almost fifteen, Jack had already gone away to study at college. He hadn’t made no promises, but everyone knew they were sweet on each other. He wrote her letters, telling her how he wanted to be a newspaperman like his grandfather back in Rochester, and she sat and read them after dinner, over and over. She quit school not long after her birthday, and stayed home to help Susan, and to learn the kind of things women do.
After he got back, he helped his pa around the school, but he was restless to return to Rochester. Then one night, Sophia told her ma that he had kissed her and asked her to marry him. It had been on the fourth of July celebration organised that year of ninety, when Sophia was seventeen. Susan told her to tell Jack to come talk to me, and ask permission just like I had done with Walter. He came out on the next Sunday, with his pa. He asked me to let him have my girl for his wife, and told me he was fixing to go back to Rochester, and work on his grandpa’s newspaper. I asked him to wait until Sophia was eighteen, but Teacher White told me the old man was ill, and wanted to train Jack on what to do before he died. I said I would think about it.
When I spoke to Susan that night Sophia was already up in her room crying, sure that Jack would leave without her. Angela had taken her up some food and sat with her, but told us she wouldn’t stop sobbing. Susan said there was nothing for it but to let her go, and we should arrange the wedding real soon. “He’s a good man, Phin. Not just tall and handsome, but real clever too. And he will have his own newspaper”. She had no idea just how far away Rochester was, even though she knew Henry had come all that way with his pa, years earlier. She had even asked Henry if he knew of the White family, but of course he remembered very little about his past.
Reverend Parker was too old and senseless to do any preaching and marrying by then, so the new preacher married my Sophia and Jack. There wasn’t even time for much of a celebration, just a family meal in one of the good hotels. Joe White was going to take them the short journey to the train at Newton, as the local railroad only took stock and goods, not people. As they drove off in Joe’s buggy, Sophia didn’t even turn and wave. I reckoned I would never see her again.
And I never did.
In the fall of ninety-one, the twins came to tell me they were quitting, and setting up on their own over in Delano. I paid them off and shook their hands, then got Henry to give them a ride into town in the wagon. When he got back, Henry asked me if I was going to take on some more men. I shook my head. “Don’t reckon so, Henry. We have been working hard for a long time now. I need to take some time off, finish off the house properly, and maybe do some easy small jobs for regular customers. We have a lot put by, and it will be nice not to to be under all that pressure now”. Henry smiled.”I could take down Walter’s old cabin. Nobody’s using it now, and it would make more space”. I shook my head again. “Reckon not, Henry. Don’t seem right, with the memory of Mary and Walter and all. We can use it for storage for now”.
The next year when the snow had gone, we were working on the roof of the house when the big ladder slipped away and Henry fell with it. He said he was alright, dusted himself off and smiled. But he wasn’t standing straight, so Susan made me take him in the buggy to see the doctor. Frazer had a partner now, a young man from Chicago who had bought into the firm, and he examined Henry. Doctor O’Connor was up with all the latest medical advances, and soon came to a conclusion. “You have broken your back, I’m afraid, one of the bones high up, near your neck. That’s why your shoulder hurts so much, and why you can’t stand straight”. Henry looked at me, and I asked O’Connor. “Can you fix him, Doc? I can pay if he needs surgery”.
The serious man rubbed his chin. “Well, they might operate on him, but he would have to go back east, to one of the best hospitals. Even so, an operation there might just leave him paralyzed. I wouldn’t recommend it”. He turned to Henry. “Best thing you can do at your age is to rest. No more heavy work, and definitely no ladders or carrying”. When he had gone, Henry spoke to me seriously.
“Before we go home, we need to find us a good lawyer”.
As I got older, I didn’t remember that much about my mother. She died not long after my tenth birthday, and I struggled to recall her features. I could look at photos of course, but that was never quite the same. I did remember some of her stories. She told me her grandmother was an Indian Squaw, and her grandfather was a Civil War hero with one leg. But she wasn’t too sure what side he had fought on. As for her parents, all she said was that they were farmers in Kansas, and her daddy built houses too.
Once she was gone, my father would sometimes drink too much whiskey, and talk about how he had met her down in Kansas, bringing her back home after the wedding. “We tried for so long to have a baby, and Sophia would cry herself to sleep saying it was never going to happen. When it finally did, she said she was too old for children, but she had to go ahead and have you of course”.
Even as a youngster, hearing that didn’t make me feel exactly wanted or loved. My mother was thirty-five when she had me, in the spring of nineteen-o-eight. She took to her bed most of the time after that, and Mrs Macaulay came in to run the house and tend to me.
On the heels of the end of the war came the Spanish Flu. Mother was one of the first to go. Father got sick with it too, but he recovered. In an effort to cheer me up after her death, he bought me a camera. It was expensive to get the film plates developed, so I was restricted to a few shots now and then. It was big and unwieldy, and heavy to carry on the tripod, but I dearly loved it. The photos would come back from the newspaper where he had them developed, and I would look at them in my room.
By the time I left for college, I had a smaller one I could easily carry, and had even got some of my photos published in the newspaper. Father wanted me to take over as the managing editor after my studies. That had always seemed the natural thing to me. After all, he had done the same before with my grandfather, and we still lived in the old family home; too big for just the two of us of course.
I was very happy when I started working there. It was only a local paper, though some articles were syndicated all over the state, and even got picked up for publication in New York City. I still took some of the photos too. Election speeches, new bridges or municipal buildings, and any parades that went past. As a graduation present, I had been givent a new Packard, and loved to drive that around. I met Velma because of that car. She was working as a waitress in a roadside diner, raising money to pay for her training as a nurse. That summer was one of the best I can remember.
Soon after, the Great Depression hit hard, and things got tight. Luckily for us, people bought newspapers just as much as before, if not more. We didn’t have to lay anyone off, and though some of the regular advertisers went bust, we kept the paper going all the way through. When Velma got her registration, she went to work in New York City, at the big hospital in The Bronx. She was happy to get the job, but it meant I didn’t see her so much. When she came back to stay with her folks, she looked tired, and had stopped talking about us getting married. She was keen to become a supervisor, and when I mentioned an engagement, she smiled and said, “No rush, we’re still young”.
My father was only sixty-one when he got sick. It just slowed him down at first. The doctor said it was too much stress, too many cigarettes, and maybe too much whiskey too. Within two years, he couldn’t walk that far, and he told me I had to take over at the paper. I was only twenty-five, but I felt ready.
And it was an exciting time. We had a new president, Franklin D Roosevelt. There was trouble brewing in Europe, and FDR announced his New Deal to end the Depression. Then he allowed the sale of beer, beginning the end of Prohibition.
There was a lot going on to write about in the paper, and I forgot all about Kansas.
I fooled myself that something would come of it with Velma. We still dated when she came home to Rochester, but I doubt she ever loved me in the same way that I thought about her. For me, she was everything, all I wanted. For her, I was just a habit, someone safe to rely upon.
Although we were mainly interested in local news, ther was a lot going on outside of America to write about. In thirty-five, Italy invaded Abyssinia. I had to use a map to explain to the readers where that was, and some of the staff writers wondered why I would even bother to tell the readers about it. I had to remind them that we had a lot of people in America with Italian relatives, and they would surely be interested.
The following year, the King of England died, and there was the Olympic Games in Germany. Jesse Owens won four gold medals, which showed those Nazis something. At the same time, there was a civil war going on in Spain, so I made sure to cover that too. George Tillman was my deputy, and he was sure all my foreign news was going to kill the paper stone dead. He sat in my office chewing an unlit cigar, holding his head. “Julian, you gotta realise our readers don’t want to read this stuff. They like to read about what’s going on in New York State. Most don’t even care what happens in Chicago, for Christ’s sake!”
But I stuck to my guns, and kept the world news on the front page.
Something else happened at the end of thirty-six. My father died. He was in hospital for tests, and got worse. I got the call at home, and drove in to see him just before the end. All he did was nod and smile. But he held my hand, something he had never done before. I was twenty-eight, and pretty much alone in the world.
The house was too big for me, but I couldn’t bear to part with it. I advertised for a new housekeeper to live in, and took on the second one I interviewed. Mrs Margaret Johannson was a widow in her late forties, and had good references from a lady in Syracuse. Her previous employer had recently died, and she had been living in a cheap hotel for a few weeks after losing her room as well as her job. I arranged for her things to be sent up from Syracuse, and she started the following week. Velma acted surprised when I told her over the phone, and for a brief moment, I wondered if my part-time girlfriend might be a teeny bit jealous.
But there was no need. Margaret treated me like the son she had never had, and employing her was one of the better decisions I made in my life.
It appeared to me that the world outside America was going crazy. The fascists were winning in Spain, and Japan had invaded China. They even attacked one of our gunboats on the Yangtse River, causing a lot of bad feeling against Japanese-Americans. And my determination to keep world news at the forefront was proving to be a good plan. George had to reluctantly admit that sales and subscriptions were at an all-time high. Seemed like the good people of Rochester were interested in the outside world after all.
After Austria was taken over by Germany, Jewish refugees stared to arrive in east coast ports in large numbers. Not long after I wrote an editorial about that, FDR issued an order that we could take no more, and Britain did the same thing. Then Hitler invaded part of Czechoslovakia, and I started to get a real bad feeling about Germany’s ambitions. One of our biggest advertisers was a company with a German name, even though the owner was as American as me. I spoke to him over the phone and sugested he might think about changing that, but he just laughed.
Then came thirty-nine, and we all know what happened that year. Franco won the civil war in Spain, adding another dictatorship to Europe. Germany made a move on Poland, over the city of Danzig, and things got real serious in Europe. Then in September, Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany.
That was one of the biggest headlines of my career.
But there were bigger ones to come.
Once the Japs bombed Pearl Harbour, I thought I should do something positive. I was thirty-three years old, single, and healthy. Or so I thought. But the medical officer at the recruiting office decided otherwise. “Heart murmur” he said. That was news to me, as I felt fit as a fiddle. But it got me rejected, so I threw myself into my work at the paper, covering as much of our involvement in the war as I could find out about. Then there were the casualties of course, local men lost or maimed.
Velma also volunteered, and she was accepted. She went as a nurse of course, and came back to say her farewells to me and her family when she received orders for the Pacific. I looked in her eyes on that last date, and knew immediately we would never marry. But I still gave her a locket with a photo of me inside, if only for old time’s sake.
With so many men off to the war, everyone left behind had to pull their weight at the paper. I went back out as a photographer as well as my other jobs, and George worked round the clock to make sure we always got published on time. They were tiring times, but we knew we were lucky compared to the men fighting and dying in the Pacific, and later in North Africa and Europe.
Then there was sad news from Velma’s family. She had died of fever on some island in the Pacific that nobody had ever heard of. So as well as everything else, that war cost me the life of the only woman I ever loved.
After the A-bombs, and the final peace, we had the Nuremburg trials to cover. Then the start of The Cold War, not forgetting Korea of course. When that ended in fifty-three, I felt exhausted, even though I was only forty-five. I had to consider the fact that maybe that medical officer had been right about my heart all along. George wanted to retire, and I couldn’t very well object after he had worked so hard. But I had lost the fire inside necessary for a good newspaperman, and seriously considered an offer from one of the big groups to buy out my by now very successful local paper.
My lawyer Al Greely was dealing with the contracts surrounding the sale when he called me one day, and asked me to come and see him about something else. In his office, he held up a letter, and gave me the gist of what it said.
“This is from a respected law firm in Wichita, Kansas, Julian. They have asked me to approach you about an inheritance. I presume they didn’t have an address for you, as they sent it to me through the newspaper, as your company lawyer. They are acting on behalf of a man named Phineas Fuller, who claims to be your grandfather. He is ninety-nine years old, and has asked you to visit him in Wichita as he has property and funds to leave to you in his will. He will be one hundred in the Fall, and wants to see you before he dies”.
I have to tell you I was pretty surprised. I had always presumed my grandparents had died a long time ago, as my own father never spoke about them at all. I remembered the stories about the one-legged civil war veteran and the Indian squaw, but they were my mother’s grandparents. She never said much about her own parents, and I never knew why that was.
I took the letter from the lawyer and read through it. Phineas Fuller of Derby, Wichita. The grandfather I had never known. That sent a chill up my back. I looked over at Al. “Write back and tell them I will come. Meanwhile, see the sale through for me, Al. I know you can get a good deal. If I have to sign anything, you can mail it to me down in Kansas”. I asked for the address of Phineas and the Kansas lawyer to be written down, then handed the letter back. “I will be leaving soon, Al. That might be just the vacation I need”.
I decided to take the train as it was less stressful for me. Truth be told I had never flown in a plane, and had little inclination to do so. And driving alone for almost twenty-four hours had no appeal whatsoever.
Outside the train station, I asked the cab driver if he knew the address in Derby. “The Fuller place? Sure, I know that”.
The door was opened by a pleasant, elderly lady. “You must be Julian. I am Mrs Mallory, the housekeeper. They are waiting for you inside, please leave your bag in the hallway and go straight through”. I entered the open double door she indicated with her arm, and was met by a very fat man who looked to be about my age. He extended a hand. “Brad James, the lawyer who wrote to you. Pleased to meet you”.
Just behind James was a man sitting in a large wooden chair. It had to be my grandfather, but he didn’t look old enough. I had been told he was ninety-nine years old, but I wouldn’t have put him a day over eighty. He smiled, revealing very white teeth that I guessed were expensive, and false. “Excuse me for not standing, Julian. I tend to have to pee when I stand up, and wouldn’t like to have to walk straight past you to use the lavatory. Besides, I don’t move so fast these days”.
James stayed back near the door, and I walked over to the chair, extending a hand to the grandfather I had never met nor spoken to. His handshake was firm, though the skin on his hands betrayed his age more than the rest of him. “Delighted to finally meet you, grandfather”. He waved that away. “No need for that now you’re a grown man. Just call me Phin. Sit down, son. Would you care for something to eat or drink?” I shook my head, trying to take it all in. The house hadn’t seemed to have changed since at least the twenties. It was more like a museum than a home.
His voice was warm when he spoke again. “Can’t say whether or not you look like me. Don’t see so good these days, y’know. Not the details, anyways”. I hope you can stay for a while? I have a great deal to tell you”. I told him I could stay as long as he liked, and he insisted that I stay at the house. “Plenty of room here, and family is especially welcome”.
Brad James excused himself, saying he would return the following day with papers for me to sign. Phin grinned. “It’s all yours, Julian. You’re all I got left now”. Mrs Mallory prepared a meal anyway, and she helped Phin through into the dining room, via a stop at a lavatory in the hall. He was right when he said he didn’t move that fast, I had to hold back to save walking into him.
The housekeeper spoke in a whisper to me. “He is so excited about your visit, but you must promise not to let him stay up too late. I like him to eat early, then he takes his medicine and goes to bed by nine”. I assured her that I had no intention of disrupting their established routine.
Over dinner, I let him talk, and was fascinated by the story he started to tell. When he went to bed, I had coffee in the living room and made some notes about what he had said. It dawned on me that his life story would make a great book. From the Civil War to the end of the Korean War, and everything in between. The start of the migration west in a big way, and the frontier towns full of cowboys, gamblers, and gunfighters. He had seen it all.
The next morning at breakast, I asked if he would mind me telling his story in a book, and he grinned. “Moby Dick, now that’s a good book. You ever read that one, Julian? Do you think you can be as good as Mr Melville?” I told him I had read it, and would try my best to do his story justice.
Mrs Mallory intervened, as she had overheard the conversation from the kitchen. “Not for too long each day now. He has to rest in the afternoons, or he can’t eat dinner. And don’t you go getting him too excited neither”. Phin turned his head in my direction, and gave me a big wink.
Brad James arrived with the paperwork, and gave me some things to sign. Phin had already signed his parts. He also handed me a fat folder full of papers. “You can look these over at your leisure, or pass them on to your lawyer if you wish. They are shares, stocks, and the like. Also the deeds to the land, and various monetary amounts due to you upon the death of Mister Fuller”.
When James turned to leave, I asked him if I could ride with him back into Wichita. I had some things I needed to buy.
It was true that I might have lost the spark needed to carry on as a newspaper man, but I had found something inside to replace that. I wanted to tell Phin’s story, and in doing so tell the story of my own family too. I asked Brad James to let my lawyer’s office know that they should just go through with the sale, and they could contact me at Phin’s house if need be. Then I got some more clothes, a portable typewriter and lots of paper, and finished up by buying a tape recorder and plenty of tapes.
I wanted to live that story through Phin’s own voice and expressions.
Mrs Mallory had laid it out for me. After breakfast, we could sit on the porch in good weather, but Phin should have his blanket anyway. Then no more than three hours before he had a rest before lunch, followed by his afternoon nap. Then one more hour before dinner, before he got too tired after eating.
I had to marvel at his memory. His great age hadn’t diminished that in any way at all, even his recall of all the names, and small details like what he called the horses, or whether a woman he encountered had missing teeth. For the next month, I ran the tape machine, and just let him talk. When he was resting, I wrote the notes up in my room upstairs, making sure to have the door closed, so the noise from the tapes and typing didn’t carry down to where he slept.
It was enjoyable living there too. Mrs Mallory was an excellent cook, and I was putting on weight rapidly. Phin acted like he had always known me, and I was a grandson visiting like it was nothing unusual. Walking around the property was eye-opening too. I tried to picture it as he described it when they first built the homestead. And the row of graves, still carefully tended, brought home the loss that still left him misty-eyed, even now. Though on the other side of the creek, rows of identical smart houses had replaced the grazing land that had caused so much dispute in his younger days.
Using my newspaper connections, I gained an introduction to the editor of the main newspaper in Wichita. He was happy to let me spend time browsing in his archives for research, though I admit I found some of the newspapers of Phin’s time to be rather scant on fact, and high on sensationalism. But I did find references to Wyatt Earp, who lost his job after a little more than a year, because of his ‘Tendency to bash people’. He was also involved in a scandal over the election of a new marshal, and decided to look for a new job in Dodge City.
Jessie Fuller, Phin, Henry, and all the others never once made the paper back then. Just as well, as most of the features were about gunfights, and gamblers killed in shootouts.
Over the course of those thirty-one days, Phin told me about how Jessie had fought in the war to protect his older son, but he had been killed anyway. Then his mother’s tragic death in the outhouse, and Jessie’s return from the war in sixty-five. How they intended to make a new life in Colorado, but only got as far as Kansas before his daddy decided to end his journey there. I wanted to know why he had never heard news of me, and something of the family rift that had meant so many decades of separation.
Finally, I just came out and asked him.
He rubbed his chin, much like his father might have rubbed his beard. “Weren’t no rift, Julian. Nothing like that. Sophia got married to your daddy, and went north to New York State. That was her choice, and her life to live. When she died, your daddy sent me a letter telling me the news. My one regret was that I couldn’t bury her on the homestead, with the others. But he sent me a small photo of you, and the address of the newspaper he was running. I had to hope that you had taken it over, just as he had. But I didn’t get in touch then. You had your life to live, just as your mama had done”.
We continued the story right up until Henry fell from a ladder and was diagnosed with a broken neck. I pushed the time allowed a little, asking, “What happened then?”
But Mrs Mallory stopped me at that moment. “That’s enough for today, Julian”.
Phin made up for his poor eyesight by using a powerful hand-held magnifying glass, When he looked at things through it, his eye appeared enormous. I had brought a few photos to show him. My mother holding me as a child, my father standing next to a new car, and one of the house we had lived in that had belonged to my grandfather. There were also some of my favourite press photos that had appeared in the newspaper.
He studied them in detail, taking his time. When he looked at the one of my mother holding me, I watched one single tear roll down his face and drop onto the photo with a splash. Leaning forward, he handed them back with a nod. “You have talent with a camera, Julian”.
To compensate for his hearing loss, I had to speak very loudly. At times that raised to a shout, and he would lift a hand. “No need to shout, Julian. I’m not deaf you know!”
The very best thing was just to run the tape, and listen to him. I didn’t ask a lot of questions, not wanting to interrupt the flow of his recollections. I tended to start with a prompt, and then just watch and listen as he spoke without pause. “So what happened after Henry went to see the doctor, Phin?”
“He wanted to go see a good lawyer, so I took him to one. He had the man write up papers transferring the deeds of ownership for the land to me, cancelling the old bequest that would have only happened if he had died. Lawyer McDowell had to come out to the homestead the next day after working up the papers, and he took the original deeds away to have everything notorised and made right by the City Councilmen. Henry turned to me and said, It’s all yours now, no telling how long I will last after that fall. But he did last, and I made sure he was looked after. Angela moved into the cabin, and cared for him at times he found it hard to cope. She still did her field work with Susan, but used to help Henry as soon as she was done”.
He seemed to be dwelling on that for a while, and had been distracted from the conversation, thinking about Henry. So I asked a question, to bring him back to what we were doing. “How did you cope without Henry, Phin? Did you take on any extra help?” Phin shook his head for a long time, as if he was judging how to answer that.
“We had already scaled back the building jobs. Once the twins left, I had said we should do small jobs. There was plenty of money, and still some of daddy’s gold in the bank. That was increasing in value all the time, and years before he had told me to only use it as a last resort. So I did the maintenance and small jobs for a couple more years, Susan and Angela tended the animals and grew the crops. It was enough for all of us to live comfortable. Henry died a few years after that fall, just didn’t wake up one morning. Susan and Angela helped me dig the hole out back to bury him next to the others. Seemed only right they should all be together.
Not long after, Angela took up with a man. He worked in the hardware store, and seems he had taken a shine to her. He wanted to try his luck further west, and Angela came and asked if it was okay with us if she married him and left the homestead. Of course we said it was perfectly fine. She didn’t have to feel obliged to stay with us. I gave her some extra money after the wedding, and wished her well. There was talk of California, but I never did hear how she fared after. Life was pretty quiet after that, got to be said”.
He stared past me, and I guessed he was going off on one of his daydreams about the past again. Placing his hands over his thighs, he suddenly slapped them down, and looked up at me with a grin, as if he had suddenly remembered something.
“Then the men came with an offer. Different men, not cattlemen”. I was keen to know about that offer. “What offer was that, Phin?”
I had to wait to find out though. Mrs Mallory appeared and said he had to have his nap.
I waited until after dinner to remind Phin. Mrs Mallory had allowed him a small whiskey, heavily diluted with water, and as he sipped it, I turned on the tape recorder.
“Did I tell you about my forty-four, Julian? That was a good pistol. Short barrel, easy to hide. I still have that, my daddy’s old bayonet, and the Henry Rifle. Well, they’re yours now. Never found out what happened to daddy’s Hawken though. Might turn up one of these days”. He was going over old ground, so I tried to bring him back to the conversation from earlier that day. “What about the offer you mentioned? Who were those men?”
“There was a war in Europe then, just started that summer. We got into it you know, much later though”. I stopped him recalling world war one, trying to get him back on track. “I remember that war, Phin. I was ten years old when it ended. What about the men? What did they want?” He looked over his shoulder, in case Mrs Mallory was around. Then he extended the arm holding the glass and nodded at the whiskey bottle on the table next to me. I splashed a little more into his glass, and he carried on talking.
“Oil, Julian. There were a lot of automobiles around by then. No interest to me at all. I never did bother with one. But all those vehicles needed oil, and those men guessed the war would come to us, and we would need more oil. They wanted to drill on my property. Test-boring, they called it. It would mean losing a couple of the crop fields, and cutting down some of the trees on the northern boundary. But they offered me a lot of money, just to dig some holes. Susan was dead against it, but I had a feeling about it, a good feeling”. He swallowed some more whiskey and nodded to himself, as if recalling that day like it was yesterday.
“Something my daddy said once came to mind. Cash is all very well, but you have to think about the future. Cash tends to pass through your hands, and before you know it, it’s gone. So I tried a deal with those fellas. Some money up front to cover the disruption of all that hole-boring, but I also wanted some shares in that company. I had the idea that they were right. The world needed oil, and lots of it. They needed it in Europe to fight the war, and America needed it for al those automobiles. But those men said no, and went away”.
Raising the glass halfway to his mouth again, he stopped and started to chuckle, his bony shoulders moving up and down. “But they came back, Julian. You bet they came back. The next summer, before I turned sixty-two, they came and offered me a better deal, and included the shares. We had some papers drawn up, all legal like, and then they came with a contraption for drilling their bore holes. The money they gave me up front was enough to make up for the loss of a couple of fields, the trees that got felled, and a whole lot more besides. I had a notion that they must have raised a lot of money to get that venture going, but I didn’t have to do no wood working after that year, no sir”.
Sensing it was getting close to his usual bedtime, I hurrried him along. “There’s no trace of oil exploration here now though, Phin. The property looks good. You have all that nice planting still, and it is very pleasant to stroll around the edge of the woodland, and down by the creek”. Phin started to laugh, and the shaking that accompanied it made me reach over and take his drink away, in case he spilled it.
“They didn’t find nothing, Julian. No oil, not even gas. Hole after hole they tried, but there was nothing. They even sent soil samples away to Kansas City, but there was no oil on this property, not even a trace. One of them came to tell me, even said he was sorry. But I didn’t mind none. All I had to do was fill in the holes, and the place would be back to normal again. ‘Cept I now had shares in that company. I was sure they would find oil somewheres, and they did”.
He started laughing again, but this time it became a long wheeze, and that turned into a cough. Mrs Mallory heard that, and came bustling in from whatever she had been doing. She looked at me like a teacher looks at a naughty boy in class.
“Come now, Julian. You should know better than to get him excited like this”.
Phin’s doctor arrived the next morning, called by Mrs Mallory following the wheezing fit the night before. I agreed to give him some time off from telling his story, and started to go through some of the papers given to me by Brad James. The share certificates made me whistle as I flipped through them. Boeing, Cessna, Stearman, and Beechcraft. They were all successful aircraft manufacturing companies based in and around Wichita, and Phin had some shares dating back to the early days of their founding. One sheaf of paper made my eyebrows raise. He had a big holding in White Castle, the burger chain. I never realised they started out in Wichita.
But the only reference to any oil company holdings was a sales invoice, for the sale of shares in Derby Oil. As we were in Derby, I guessed Phin had got in from the start with that company too, and later cashed out to invest in something else. I made some notes about that, so I would remember to ask him the next time he was well enough to continue. Bank statements and property deeds indicated holdings of something close to one million dollars, an amount I had never imagined, considering Phin’s rather frugal lifestyle. With the money from the sale of my newspaper due in a few weeks, I was never going to have to work again.
With my head buzzing after going through the documents, I went for a walk around the homestead. The line of well-kept graves kept drawing me back to them. Walter Washington, Jessie Fuller, Henry with no surname on his marker, and Susan Fuller. It didn’t escape my notice that there was enough space next to Susan’s grave to allow for Phin. I had to ask him some more about my grandmother, that was for sure.
Mrs Mallory made me wait a whole day, tending to Phin in his bedroom, and gently scolding me again for getting him over-excited. The rest had done him good though, as the next time I turned on the tape recorder, his eyes were bright, and his recall as sharp as ever. I started by asking him about the shares and investments.
“Well I tell you, Julian. Those oil shares made me a small fortune, and I wasn’t about to just rest on that. Once the war was over, people started to arrive in Wichita, and they needed houses. So I bought some land, and I hired the Russian twins to build houses on it. They had a much bigger company by then, and they brought more Russians from back east to work for them. But I kept the deeds to the houses, and rented them out. With the money from that, I invested in Mr Cessna. He was building small airplanes that ordinary people could buy, and I reckoned he had a good idea. Then it seemed only natural to invest in the competition too, when Lloyd Stearman and Walter Beech came along.
There was a depression too, you will know about that of course, as you were a grown man. So I cut my losses in the oil company, and used the money from that sale to buy into Boeing, which took over Stearman’s works in Wichita. Quite some time before that, a man named Walt Anderson came to see me. He had some crazy idea that he was going to sell burgers for just five cents, and open a string of restaurants all over Kansas. He needed just three hundred and fifty dollars to get started, so he could match his partner’s investment. I gave him two hundred for a small share in the company. You will have heard of it by now, White Castle. One of my better decisions, I reckon. Anyhow, it’s all yours now. The investments, the land and house, the rents, and all the money in the bank. Get yourself a good tax lawyer, or those Federals will snatch it back off you”.
Other than talk of his daddy’s bayonet, that was the first time Phin had mentioned anything relating to the civil war, by calling the government ‘Those Federals’. I made a note to ask him a lot more about that. Meanwhile, I wanted to know more about Susan Fuller. There was a sense of regret in his voice as he spoke, and he rubbed his face before answering.
“She was my only love, Julian. Your grandma was such a strong woman, and she went through so much. Walter was as good as a daddy to her, and he was murdered by the damn cowboys. They tried to make it look like the Klan had done it, but we all knew better. Then her ma went back to the tribe, and we never heard what happened to her. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she couldn’t have no more kids, and her beloved Sophia upped and left for Rochester with your daddy. To her dying day, Susan never heard from her, and never knew why. I told her that some folks are just selfish, but she wouldn’t hear a word against our girl.
Truth be told, we ended up living here like strangers. She took no interest in my investments or financial dealings, and she used to say life was better when we worked for a living, raised the animals and grew crops, and lived in cabins. Her life became her garden and planting. I let her buy anything she wanted, and even got her help for the weeding and hole digging and such. She still did my washing and cooked my food, but by twenty-eight we hardly spoke a word to each other.
The next spring, she went out to tend to some of her favourite flowers, and she didn’t come back. I found her face down in the dirt. I knew she would want to be buried with Walter and the others, so that’s where she is”.
Talking to Phin and getting to see more of Wichita led me to make a decision. I had nothing to keep me in Rochester now, so I broached the subject one morning over breakfast. “Phin, how would you feel if I came to live here permanently? I have already sold the newspaper, and Brad James could contact someone to arrange to sell the old house and everything in it. To be honest, there is very little there of any sentimental value to me, and I can buy new clothes here in Wichita. It would have to be okay with Mrs Mallory too of course”.
He hesitated, and cleared his throat before answering. For a moment I thought I had exceeded his hospitality and been too presumptive. But there were tears in his eyes when he spoke.
“Julian, nothing would make me happier. And as for Mrs Mallory, she thinks you’re the bees knees, whatever she says to your face. Get it done, and clear up your affairs. You’ll be a Wichita man now, and a famous writer one day too, I’ll be bound. Maybe get near as good as Mister Herman Melville”.
Excited by his reply, I phoned to arrange a taxi to take me into the city. I had things to do that day, so there was no tape recorder session.
Brad James was pleased to have all my business, and treated me like royalty. He introduced me to his friend who managed one of the banks, and between them they set everything in motion for my residence in Kansas. That afternoon, I wrote letters to six big publishing houses, outlining my idea of a book, and giving them a taster of what it would contain. At dinner that evening, Mrs Mallory came in from the kitchen and gave me an impromptu hug. “You are very welcome here, Julian. You have brightened up the place, and taken years off of Mister Fuller, believe me”.
The next afternoon when Phin was having his nap, Ann Mallory and I engaged in a little conspiracy surrounding his forthcoming one hundredth birthday. She was adamant that he would be upset if there was too much fuss, but I wasn’t about to let such an important date slide. I resolved to contact the local newspapers, radio stations, and even the new television company. She wanted to invite people to the house for food and drinks, allowing for the fact that it would be too cold to be outside in the Fall. She gave me a list of those she thought should receive invitations, and I promised to get them sent out. When we had made our notes, and decided on decorations and food, she furrowed her brow.
“Julian, we will have to let him know. He can have a fierce temper when he’s riled, and might well take to his room and refuse to come out”. I assured her that I would tackle Phin, and while I was at it, I asked if she would stay on with me after he had gone. She choked up a little, and reached for an embroidered handkerchief in her apron pocket. “Why Julian, that would mean the world to me. I don’t know what else I would do once Mister Fuller leaves us. Your offer is accepted with my gratitude”.
As promised, I did tackle him. And as she predicted, he was none too pleased.
“You know what will happen, Julian? Well, you don’t know, but they will dig into my past, and someone will find out that my daddy was a Confederate from Virginia, and had no real claim to this land. I tell you, Julian, let it go. Nothing good will come of it, once those Redlegs and Yankees get their teeth into the story”.
I asked him for more details, and got it all down on tape. “But Phin, Henry had the title to the land, and left it to you. That means there is no problem about your daddy being a rebel. By the way, why has Henry got no last name on his grave marker?”
Phin smiled. “‘Fore he died, Henry told me that the Fullers were his real family. He didn’t reckon that he could be called Henry Fuller on his marker, so just asked for ‘Henry’. He said his own family didn’t treat him good, because of his problem with learning. But me and my daddy didn’t care, and neither did Walter, Mary, or Susan. He cried when he told me to just put ‘Henry’ on his marker. He said he can’t claim to be a Fuller, but being buried with the rest was the next best thing”.
After almost wearing him out with argument that afternoon, he stuck to his guns. No television, and only the newspaper if I wrote the piece.
And definitely no photographs.
For the next few weeks, I made the most of my time with Phin and the tape recorder. I had received five outright rejections from publishers, but one expressed moderate interest and asked me to send a completed manuscript in due course. As that company was reasonably well known, and in New york City, I allowed myself a moderate sense of expectation. I also bought myself a new car, a Chrysler Town and Country station wagon. That seemed like the right kind of automobile for a man of my age who lived in a suburb of Wichita.
Ann Mallory was excited to see the car when it was delivered, and wondered if it would be possible to take her into Wichita to browse the stores. Up to then, she had everything delivered, and the chance to actually look around the stores was something she had almost given up on.
I also ordered myself a new camera, the small Leica IIIf. But I had to wait a while for that to arrive from Europe.
Phin kept going at the same rate, and I got the history down right back to the day he found his mother dead in the outhouse of the farm in Virginia. When he continued the story by telling me about living with the neighbours until Jessie returned from the war, I stopped him. “What about before that, Phin? What was life like for you all before the war came along in sixty-one?” He sucked his bottom lip into his mouth, and looked past my shoulder before replying.
“Nothing much, Julian. Just small farming, family, making do. I suppose you might call it a hard life, but it didn’t seem so to me when I was a boy”.
As the weather got colder that October, I started to write my article for the newspaper, determined to celebrate Phin’s remarkable one hundred years of life. How he had come from a subsistence farm in Viginia, and ended up as a wealthy businessman in Wichita. He didn’t want to read it, said he trusted me to get it right. With that responsibility, it became one of the hardest things I had ever written, and I tore up draft after draft before I was happy with it.
When I took it to the editor of the newspaper one week before Phin’s birthday in November, he skimmed it, and smiled. “It’s long, Julian. Very long.” I appreciated that, as a former newspaperman myself, but tried to make a case for including all of it.
“Yes, it is long, but look at the life he has led. How many men have lived to be one hundred in Wichita? How many came from the poorest background, little education, and made such a fortune from nothing? Phineas Fuller should be celebrated. He has lived through some of the toughest times in this country, and come out on top. That’s a real American success story, right there”.
He published the whole thing, though he was upset that Phin refused to allow a photograph to accompany it.
On the day, Phin didn’t bother to read the article. He said it was too much trouble, having to use his magnifying glass. But Mrs Mallory insisted on reading it all out to him, along with the dozens of cards and telegrams he received later. She got emotional that day, and cooked a special dinner. Brad James called in to offer his best wishes, and so did the bank manager. But ther had been no invitations sent out, under strict instructions from Phin to have no party or official celebration. There seemed to be no point in buying him any gifts either. All in all it was something of an anti-climax.
But I had a special surpise for him after his nap.
Looking around in the attic to see if I could find any solid mementoes of his past, I had come across a buckskin case, hand-sewn with fringes, and embroidered nicely on one side. It contained the Hawken Rifle, along with percussion caps, and ammunition. There was also the cleaning kit and ramrod, all good as new. I knew little about guns, so had taken it into Wichita to be looked at by a gunsmith. He cleaned, polished, and oiled it for me, telling me how he hadn’t seen one since he was a boy, and had never seen one in such good condition. When I went to collect it later, he showed me how to load and fire it, without actually letting it off.
When I walked in with it, Phin shook his head and grinned. “You found daddy’s old Hawken? I knew it was around somewheres. Let’s go outside, and I will show you how it works”. I helped him out onto the porch, and let him show me how to load it. “Do you want to shoot it, Phin? For old time’s sake?” He laughed. “That thing’s got a kick like a mule, I reckon you better do it. Just point it at the sky though, it’s got one hell of a range”. I lifted the heavy rifle to my shoulder and gently pulled the trigger. The noise of the shot was much louder than I had expected, and Phin slapped his thighs with delight.
“That there rifle saved my life, Julian”.
Although that winter wasn’t as severe as what I had been used to in New York State, the cold weather definitely slowed Phin down. He also became unusually cantankerous at times, and I had to be very careful what I asked him. Trying to push him on why my mother never wrote to her parents, and why they never tried to contact her resulted in an unexpected fit of temper that took me by surprise.
“Ain’t no use asking me about that, Julian. None at all. I have no idea what caused the problems between Sophia and her ma, but whatever it was included me too, even though I wasn’t aware of it. First I knew was when they drove away from the hotel in the buggy, and she never so much as glanced back at us. I tried asking Susan, but every time I did, she either started crying, or shut herself away in a room. Whatever it was, I reckon it died with my wife, and your ma. Some things just never get told. You’re old enough to realise that, I’m certain”.
After that, he claimed to be feeling too tired for a few days, and refused any sessions with the tape recorder. Ann Mallory told me to pay him no mind. “He will come round, Julian, don’t you fret”.
I used the time to start on the manuscript proper. I was unable to decide at first whether to start with the letter received by my lawyer, or go back to the winter in the civil war when Phin found his mother dead. After trying both, I settled on starting the book with Phin finding his mother, and work it up to the time I found out about the grandfather I had known nothing about for all my life. It was coming along nicely by the time Phin had calmed down sufficiently to resume our sessions.
Acting as if his outburst had never happened, he smiled as I switched on the machine. “Now then, where were we, Julian?”
“You found Susan dead in the gardens, I think you said it was nineteen twenty-nine. What did you do after that, Phin? You would have been sixty-six years old at the time”.
He reached for his whiskey. Mrs Mallory had finally agreed that there was little point making him add water to it. The man was one hundred years old. What was the worst that could happen? I suspected that she was also emboldened by my offer to keep her on. It no longer seemed so essential to keep old Phin alive, I suppose. Besides, it made life so much easier for her, not having to keep arguing about whether or not he drank too much coffee, or had a whiskey at night. After a good slug of the booze, he shrugged.
“Truth be told, I did nothing much at all, Julian. Didn’t have to. I had more money than I could spend, and I took on a housekeeper, a black lady named Ella Mae. She couldn’t live in though. Back then was the same as now. White folks didn’t have no live in black women servants, ‘specially if they were a white man and widowed. But Ella Mae was worth her pay, and more. How that woman could cook. I never ate better than when she was around, I tell you. And that woman had a lot of gumption. She used to walk here from her place, six miles each way, every day, in all weathers. I offered to get her a cab each way, and she just laughed. ‘I can’t go in no white man’s cab, Mr Fuller. And there ain’t no black men driving cabs that I’ve seen’. I knew what she was talking about, after what happened to Walter, and folks looking sideways at my Susan ’cause her ma was an injun”.
When he got near the end of the whiskey in his glass, he seemed to drift off into a reverie. But he had more to tell.
“Ella Mae stayed here until forty-two. But then the airplane factories started to take on people because of the war, and they were paying real good. She left me to work in one. Not building planes, you understand, she worked in the kitchens of the big canteen. I offered to match her pay so she would stay, but she wanted to get what she called a proper job. So I advertised for a live in housekeeper, and along came Mrs Mallory. Widowed by the war, and needing money and a place to live. She’s more like a friend to me, Julian. I never actually think that she works for me. But don’t you tell her that now.”
He winked at me as he said that.
“I reckon I should go and get some sleep now, son. But we will do more tomorrow”.
The start to Phin’s one hundred and first year had been rainy and cold. I continued to try to get something down about what had happened to him in the lead up to his deciding to contact me, but his replies were accompanied by a series of shrugs and head shaking.
“That won’t be much of a chapter, Julian. The war came, and I made even more money from the companies I had invested in. They were all doing well, manufacturing stuff for use in the war. More people came to work and live in and around Wichita, and I sat here thinking about the old days, while paying people to do everything I used to be able to do for myself. Hell son, I was ninety in forty-three, with the war still having some ways to go. What did you expect me to be up to?”
He was right of course. Writing about some lonely old man sitting contemplating his life for twenty years between the ages of seventy and ninety wasn’t going to make much of a chapter. The bulk of my book was going to have to be the events before Henry fell from the ladder. I tried again about his connection to my parents.
“So you got sent a photo of me as a baby. You knew my father had gone to Rochester to take over the newspaper, that gave you a point of reference. But why did you leave it so long to make contact? Why wait until my parents were both dead to finally contact me? Was it just so you could leave everything to someone?”
He was eating a slice of cake that Mrs Mallory had given him with a glass of milk. I had to wait until he finished it.
“I know it’s hard to understand, Julian. But Sophia made her choice, and it wasn’t for me to go against it. Once I knew about you, I had always decided to leave you everything. Ask Brad James, it was all down in my old will and testament. But I had a hankering to see you. You are the only family I have left, and all that remains of my Sophia. But I will tell you something I hadn’t mentioned. Brad’s daddy used to run that law firm before he got sick and Brad took over. I had him contact a private detective in New York State. He found a reliable man in Buffalo, and I retained him to keep a check on you, and how you were getting on”.
That was a revelation that took me by surprise. “How long had you been doing that, Phin?”
He thought for a moment. “Well his first report mentioned your daddy being in hospital, and you taking over the running of the paper. It must have been about twenty or more years ago. When Brad’s daddy passed, I got Brad to keep it up, using the same company in Buffalo. So I knew you were okay, and how to get in touch if need be”.
Mrs Mallory came in then. “Nap time now, that’s enough until after dinner”.
By the time the weather was brightening up, I had just about done with the tape recorder sessions. I had concluded that Phin wasn’t about to tell me any family secret about Sophia never getting in touch, and I was genuinely beginning to wonder if he even knew why that had happened. If he did, he appeared determined to take it to his grave.
I spent more time at the desk in my room, getting the draft tidied up into a manuscript I could send to the publisher in New York. My talks with Phin then tended to happen after dinner, and I noticed him going back over old ground more, his mind seeming to wander on occasion. Talking about his daddy or Susan made him more emotional than it had last year, and sometimes he would wave his hands at me and just stop talking. He didn’t seem to know that I had finished my research, and kept telling me stuff I already knew.
One morning, Mrs Mallory came and knocked on the door of my room. “He’s crying, Julian. No idea why, but he’s sure broken up”. I went back down with her to see him, and wa shocked at how distressed he was. But he wouldn’t answer any of my questions, and just kept shaking his head. When he calmed down, he started to say random things that had nothing to do with what I was asking him.
“That Delacroix, you know, Eugene? He got himself shot dead, for cheating at cards. Place called Abilene, we were told. That woman with the teeth missing. She tried to hold us up once. Daddy said he saw her in Delano. Selling herself she was. Oh my Lord I cannot imagine who might want to buy her! Walter Washington was a strong man, one of the strongest. My how that man could work”. Ann touched my shoulder, and shook her head.
“He’s not right. I’m calling the doctor”.
By the time the doctor arrived, Phin had stopped rambling and we had managed to get him onto his bed. After a brief examination, the doctor walked out with us, speaking quietly.
“Given his age, there is not a great deal to be done. I suspect a stroke, or larger bleed on the brain. No telling how long he might last. It could be one day, or a year, depending. I can arrange for him to be moved into a care facility, a good clinic I know”. I shook my head. “I don’t think so. He will stay here with us, and die here when his time comes. Perhaps you could arrange for some home nurses to come in and help? We will need them on a permanent basis, night and day”.
Assuring us that he would get that sorted out by nightfall, the doctor shook our hands and left. I helped Mrs Mallory get Phin out of his clothes and into bed, and could see how upset she was, though she held it in.
The nurses were reliable and kind. Older women used to caring for people like Phin, they would chat to him in a conversational tone as they tended to him, even though he never replied, and rarely even opened his eyes. They were compassionate, and made him comfortable.
After six weeks of that, with the weather improving day by day, I took Ann Mallory into Wichita to give her a break by looking around the shops. I had to arrange a literary agent anyway, and I went to see Brad James after sending my telegrams to New York. He apologised for not coming out to see Phin, but I told him there was no point. I also checked with him about local funeral homes to supply a good coffin eventually, and asked him to recommend a company to dig the grave in the space next to Susan. He said he would also check with the authorities that Phin could actually be buried on the homestead. But I told him to forget that, as it was going to happen whatever anyone said.
Ann looked refreshed when I met her outside the department store. She had bought some new summer clothes, as well as stockings and new shoes. She had also made an appointment with a good hairdresser for the following week. We drove home in bright sunshine, with her telling me what she planned to cook for us that evening.
The nurse called Nancy was waiting outside when we got back, smoking a cigarette in front of the porch. As soon as I saw her face, I knew. So did Ann Mallory, who gasped “Oh, my” and began to cry.
He had slipped away quietly not long after we left for town. Nancy had telephoned the doctor, and he was going to come out after his visits to do the formal necessities.
I felt strangely calm, and not at all upset. Phin had led an amazing life, lived to a considerable age, and ended up rich and comfortable. Whether or not he had been happy in later life was debatable, but he had certainly made the best of his situation. And close to the end, he had reconnected with the only family he had left.
He was buried next to his beloved Susan, close to his good friends, and the daddy he admired so much. I painted some stones white to outline the grave, just like the rest. Then I had a carpenter in Wichita make a wooden marker with his name and dates on it. As they set it in place, I thought that it would be nice for me to be buried alongside them. But who would be around to do that? And who would I leave everything to?
Not for the first time in my life, I wished I had married and had children.
The book became my child. Here it is, if you are reading it. Not only the story of the Fullers, but my story too, right up to date.
I was surprised how long it took to arrange. Phin died in fifty-four, and now it is the late summer of fifty-seven, and the publisher has just announced a release date. They asked me what sort of cover I wanted, so I used the Leica to take some photos of the house, and sent them the one I liked best. It will be called The Homestead, as you know if you have bought it. My agent threw me, when he asked what pen name I wanted. I hadn’t thought to use one, but an idea came to me immediately, using my father’s first name, and Phin’s last.
That combination seemed very appropriate.