fiction, new from the book

new from the book: Chapter 1; late October, 1857

new opening, new tone, better story. still looking for a title.
warning: racially charged language, swearing

Henry swung in a wide arc over the creek, whooping and hollering. He left go and fell through the water to land directly on his ass. He came up sputtering, like the water was deep enough to drown, which it was, but it was not precisely deep enough that he’d gone under.

“Damnation, that water’s cold.” He raised his voice to be sure it carried to the boys waiting on the bank, making a fuss of splashing and wringing out his shirttails. No one bit. They knew he’d take the bet before they made it, and he knew he’d wrestle any one of them. No one suggests Henry wouldn’t grab that timber pulley rope and jump the crick without expecting him in the air ‘fore they’re done.

All of them had tempers, as anyone would tell you all the North Fork boys had. Barely did Charlie need to roll his eyes towards John before Henry jumped him. John couldn’t challenge both to shoot a running rabbit before they were arguing over whose shot killed it.

Most everyone thereabouts had a temper or some gumption or something that made them come to the hills and ridges and hollows of Western Pennsylvania. Sure, people started settling Brookville at the turn of the century. Henry’s momma had come with her daddy near as soon as anybody else, but even fifty or so years later with the trees coming down and more than a handful of doctors or barbers and lawyers and newspapers in the town proper, it was on the frontier of the East.

They sent their share of lumber and game down the North Fork and the Redbank to the Allegheny at the junction of the three rivers in Pittsburgh, and made men rich. Or they came for the land, and some said there was maybe coal in the hills, too. No matter why or how, people came from all over America and tried to have a life and family.

Eyes down on the rocks, Henry reached out a hand for a friendly pull up the bank or his gun, didn’t much matter which. “You fellers had best not’ve run off with my boots.” He grabbed air.

“God damn, Charlie.” He threw a little whine in at the end. Shouldn’t be surprised, he said. Probably saw a deer or somethin’ and got distracted from helping their best friend out of a crick.

Henry scrambled up the rocks, letting the last few words show his frustration. Didn’t matter he’d’ve done the same, but best not to let them get too cocky, think him weak. Better to show a little anger now and be calm when push came to shove, Pa always said.

His boots and his rifle sat where he’d piled them. Mister Horn had sent Henry to the woods that morning, telling him to make use of those shooting eyes and bring back a deer or two. Winter was coming. The crops were as in as they could be just then. Make use of the last warm spell. Couldn’t butcher in this weather, but it made for a fine day wandering the woods. Cold would be comin’ soon enough, Mister Horn said. Hogs could wait.

Something must have distracted John and Charlie. Or they just got tired of waiting. Henry gave an involuntary little shrug as he put his boots back on, but kept his ears perked. Hand near his gun, he tightened. Leaves rustled.

“Makin’ that much noise, it’s either a little creature or a couple of dumb asses looking to spook a man.”

John came out from behind a tree, saying to Charlie, “you ever noticed Hen’s habit of starting his sentences all quiet like he’s talking to hisself and ending with something near a yell?”

Charlie confirmed. “It’s a deplorable trait.” He shook his head slowly, like Henry’s method of speech happened to be the worst sin he committed.

“It don’t pay for us to shoot first and usually ain’t no time for apologies later. What’d you wander off for?”

“Got tired a you making like jumping in the crick was something new.” John thought himself funnier than Henry and he happened to be moodier too. “Some of us are jumping off work ‘stead of having a bona fide day in the woods.” Here he nudged slow Charlie, who hopped in with the desired affirmation and added more.

“uh huh, and we can’t be seen around some feller hollering at the creek when we should be workin’. We ain’t got no day off.”

Sighing at Charlie’s stupidity usually stopped whatever fight might be brewing. This time, no different than any other.

Henry finished up with his boots, saying, “I was sent to the woods to shoot a poor, innocent, dumb creature. Think Mister Horn’d keep me on working for ‘im if I shot Charlie?”

“We best be getting back. Don’t come runnin’ if you hear me hafta kill him,” said John.

“aw, man.” Charlie’s champion whining started as they turned away. Henry had no sympathy for John. Was his turn, Henry thought, after I spent all Saturday night trying to drag him quiet into a barn while he’s pukin’ all over. Some men just can’t hold their liquor. Speaking of, goin’ check that still.

Only a generation or two ago, men rebelled against their young country’s founding god himself George Washington over whiskey. Men from just south in Pennsylvania and Maryland rose up and carried their guns towards New York and Washington’s troops. Didn’t happen much before Henry’s mother moved to Port Barnett with her daddy, but that was long before she met Charles and married him and they made Henry and his sister.

They said Monongahela rye was sweeter on the tongue. And it made for a better next morning, but Henry could attest too much of anything on Saturday made church a hard place to be Sunday morning.

He went slow through the woods, as was his habit. Never knew when you’d creep up on some animal busy sniffing out a mate. Nothing ever knew what hit it, and the meat tasted sweeter when it knew no fear in its moments of dying.

Henry wondered if the boy were watching as he took the unseen fork in the path toward the crick. Theresa said he would be, this late in the day, until just before supper time. She also said Henry could follow his nephew home for supper, but only if he brought her a fat rabbit, too. He said something in return about looking at a fat rabbit, but ran off too soon to hear what exactly his sister screeched after him. Henry grinned, thinking back and looking forward.

“Ha! Gotcha!” Henry leapt from behind a tree, and the boy nearly keeled over from fright. Made it easier to grab him and hoist him upside down by his legs. They tussled. Catching sight of his attacker as he tried to writhe away, the boy stilled.

“Uncle Hen, why you always gotta sneak up on me? Momma says you’re an overgrown kid, but you’re almost as old as her.”

Moving over to check on the fire and the piping, Henry tossed a look over his shoulder. “Why these children always callin’ me old,” he said, grinning. As though I don’t sneak up on ‘em better than anyone. I work as hard as their mommas, and twice as hard as they daddies.

“We celebrated your birthday in August. Thirty is old, Uncle. I can’t think how ancient that makes momma.” They jawed back and forth for a bit.

For the most part Henry Southerland and his nephew Tom stayed in the comfortable area of teasing the women most admired in their lives, even when those women weren’t available to hear it. To be fair, better to tease those ladies when they weren’t present. It saved a man or boy’s ears from a boxing. Though running didn’t always save a man from the sound of a powerful set of lungs, or from what he’d get from her when he came slinking back, either.

Henry handed off his gun and told the boy to keep a watch out for rabbits. He doused the fire in piss and dragged the branches over their setup. Not as though Theresa’s neighbors didn’t know where they kept it, “Tom, you ever bother to lay a false trail here?”

“I did on the way home last week.” Eager boy.

Slow. This ain’t John, Henry thought. I gotta teach ‘im, or he’ll not learn. “On the way home don’t exactly foil anyone looking to follow you here, does it?”

Tom cocked his head. At least he’s thinking.

Crack. Maybe not thinking, maybe watching something at the edge of the clearing.

“I hate to waste a rifle on a rabbit, but you know what Momma said.” Tom handed his uncle back the gun to bound into the underbrush. Henry hadn’t seen anything moving, distracted by a chill that remained from jumping in the crick fully clothed.

“That’s a fine fat one,” he said as the boy came back holding tomorrow’s supper aloft. “Now, you listenin’ about leaving trails?”

“I hear.”

“I know you heared. Did you listen?” Henry pressed Tom to think before he answered.

The boy sighed. “What’s the use of it? Daddy brings people back here to sell direct from the spout.” He got on with cleaning the guts out of the rabbit. Lord knew he’d hear it if he presented one still stewing in its innards.

Henry shook his head. He thought of the shame of a footloose man forced to raise children who had their own pa nearby. At least this one learns, if he don’t apply the wisdom I show him. Helpless ain’t a fine feeling. Empty words won’t help either of us.

“You throw those guts away from here. ‘Nough animals smell more’n this mash and there won’t be none left to bring the neighbors back to.”

“Uncle.” Exasperation sat better on the boy’s face. There may be nothing more disheartening than the look of a son who’s got more common sense than his father and knows. Henry saw Tom look too often that way.

“Let’s see what your momma has to say about that rabbit. I’ll carry the jar.”

Theresa Southerland married Tom senior figuring she’d make something out of him, the way her momma took a runaway with only sense enough to move on and on and on and fixed him into a husband and father and landowner. She later figured she must lack her momma’s knack with folk.

“That boy is shiftless,” Susan said the first time Tom came courting. Her daddy rolled his eyes the way he did at all his wife’s pronouncements. Few worked as hard as Susan wanted them to, least of all Susan herself. Theresa giggled as she always did, their confederacy of two filling the home with laughter until Susan reluctantly gave in. She usually would, and with surprisingly good grace. Henry’d charmed her into it.

Theresa shook her head as she brought in the wash. Momma told her to never try to fix a man. A woman could only prod him into following his better angels, she said. Theresa figured now she lost all her common sense, lovestruck with the first man under her skirts when she married Tom senior. It’d been back for a quite a while.

Tom ain’t shiftless, exactly. He just don’t have any gumption. “Best say it to myself and the quilts ‘stead of the children,” Theresa said. Last real good wash day before the weather turns for worse. She rubbed her hands together. “Swear I feel a chill in the air. Winter’s comin’.” No happiness to come from hands red raw from hot and cold and fire and smoke.

“Boy, women talk to themselves more than they do to men, and they run our ears ragged.” Henry hit his intended target with ease. Tom grinned. Listening to his momma and uncle was like the actors that come down to Brookville. They’s funnier, too, ‘cause he knew ‘em.

“I listened to you babble in the cradle, brother. No woman jaws as much, and with as little said, as you.”

Henry made a grab for her, but Theresa shuffled behind a quilt on the line. They chased between the clothes like they’d done as kids. What’d you bring me turned to demanding woman and why you need presents all the time?

Theresa bent over, hanging on to the pole with one hand, the other fluttering about her chest. She alternated between fanning her face and waving off Henry, still advancing. Cheered me right up, a little laughter, she said. Henry taunted. “You ready to cry uncle, sister?” Tom did for her, repeating it as he jumped up on Henry’s back.

Henry winked at his sister and let the boy take him to the ground. He snagged her skirt on the way down. Theresa squawked. “I’ll have you down the crick taking the mud out of these clothes on the rocks yourself,” she said.

Breathing deep to continue scolding, the pile of them nearly toppled over at Henry’s shiver. She got a good look at her brother and hustled everyone into the cabin.

“Why’re you out jaggin’ around with your clothes wet?” Henry shrugged. You’d think a grown man would have sense enough to put on a dry shirt, walking around the woods. Give me those things, there’s stew on the fire from the pieces of dinner for supper soon. Tom’ll dish while I put these on the line. I’ll holler for my husband.

Theresa kept moving, shoving dry clothes at her brother, telling her son what to do, and bustling in and out the door. Tom senior strolled in, “what’s there a fuss for?” He carried a rabbit bigger than his boy’s, the furthest from shiftless a man could look. Tom kissed Theresa’s diatribe from her mouth. He nodded at Henry and went back out to hang both rabbits without waiting for an answer.

“Best go help your father stretch those skins. Go-on,” said Theresa. “Supper’ll be set when you’re back.” Tom looked at his uncle with the sympathetic face of a boy used to a scolding and skedaddled.

“You got some sort of disease makes you sweat when it’s cold?”

Henry considered a story about a fancy woman and special ointment, already spinning details in his head. His sister pretended she’d no dealings with that sort of woman, but everybody bought liquor. Theresa saw the story coming, gave him a look, and waited.

Better not press his luck. “I jumped the crick.”

“Over it or in it? ‘Cause no one gets wet to the skin makin’ it the whole way over.”

“Left go early. Funnier.” Henry thought himself funny enough, laughing as he stepped behind the quilt dividing the bed from the rest of the cabin.

You’d think I had another boy to raise, with that one only twelve, the other needin’ a woman to nudge ‘im along. This one. Theresa shook her head.

“You ever notice you nag and twitch just like Momma?” said Henry. She smacked him alongside the head over the rope holding up the quilt. “You ever notice you never stopped needin’ it?”

Charles Horn stepped into the shed, ducking under the door jam as he did. That boy’s never been a lie abed, always in amongst the trees ‘fore the sun and back to start work early with some game to eat. “Henry. Henry. Henry Southerland.”

He shook the figure under the quilts. His hand came back damp. “Henry. Sun’s nearly over the trees. Wake up.” Henry rolled over, blinking, “the hell?” I don’t believe I feel good. “Mister Horn?” Theresa, Tom Junior? “Has somethin’ happened?”

Henry made to jump out of bed as he sat up. Instead he slid over towards the side. Horn fetched him up alongside his own body to keep Henry from falling to the dirt floor. “You are not well, boy.”

Horn never would get out of the habit of thinking of his hired hands as children, even the ones with families and grandchildren of their own. He propped Henry against the wall. Stepping back out, he looked to the men already half done butchering the first hog.

“Somebody who ain’t working too hard run to townn for a druggist.” If’n he can’t help Henry, I get a doctor here. That wife of mine’ll want to nurse him. Looks like he’ll need it.

Horn stuck his head back in to check on Henry. Still propped up against the wall. Eyes closed. Back outside, to his youngest, “holler for your mama, tell her Henry’s sick. Fever.”

Butchering continued. No sense in standing around, waiting. Alicia began bustling through making some broth and fetching water before she tended to Henry. Bell arrived on a horse. “I thought you’d be walking,” said Horn, greeting him.

“Boy said your regular hand was sick, twitching with fever. Got a horse from the livery, figured I’d get a move on,” said Bell. Let’s have a look see. Bell followed Horn in, blinking to get used to the dim light. As he examined Henry, Bell asked over his shoulder why Horn didn’t send for a doctor. “We’ve only got about thirty of ‘em in town.”

“You bein’ from Philadelphia and all, thought you’d be better educated.” And cheaper, too. Apothecary’s less expensive. You’da gotten some when we had to buy medicine off you, so no complaining. Trust a man from outside less than one from here, but I’ll take the first comer. Wouldn’t do to tell the man he sent a boy for whomever he could find first.

Bell smirked. “Wouldn’t dare run down a fellow medical professional, but I have seen some things.” Southerland seemed a run of the mill fever case. Strong, healthy, kept cool, maybe some bleeding, should recover soon enough. Bell prescribed what he thought best. He cut a vein, left a tincture. Said he’d be back to check tomorrow.

Having gone to the house during the examination, Alicia carried broth into the cabin. “How much he charge us for what we already know?” She settled in with a basin of cool water, lantern lit to keep watch through the night. “Take that blood outside. I don’t approve.”

Her husband did as he’d been told. Next he’d hear about how Alicia’s granny taught her the ways of the woods. How she’d learned kindness and nourishment and keepin’ the body together cured most folk of most illness. None of this bloodletting nonsense, said Alicia. Strong broth helped anybody not throwing it back up. Horn muttered most aways back to the house, hoping some of that barley soup stayed for his own supper.

Nothing much changed over the next couple days. Henry alternatively sweated and shook, sometimes jarring Alicia’s hand so the spoon caught between his teeth. Theresa came by to check on him once, awful thankful to Mrs. Horn for her nursing her brother. She ‘bout ran home, clutching Tom junior to her, grabbing his forehead for signs of fever, ranting about foolhardy friends who left men to freeze in a crick.

Bell kept on his practice of practicing at medicine. The fever never broke. Henry got louder and shriller then stopped talking altogether. Alicia kept coaxing him to sip here and there. Only time he perked up was when Tom junior came to help. Henry still didn’t speak.

Couple days later, Bell told the Horns that night would tell the future. “His fever’ll break by tomorrow or not at all.” Theresa and Tom junior took Alicia Horn’s place. Susan Southerland refused to believe her strong baby boy would be taken away by a fever. She stayed home.

Bell went looking for a drink. After a couple ryes at the American Hotel, he opened his mouth to Doc Simmons. “Word is, you’re looking to practice surgery on somebody who won’t yell, JG,” he said.

Simmons looked at him, gauging Bell’s ability to keep his mouth shut. Not high, he figured. Seen ‘im full of drink, running his gums. Not much better meself Simmons allowed. “I am.” Not like half the doctors in Brookville didn’t know he had his eye on bein’ a surgeon.

“Well, that nigger’s not going to make it. The one on Horn’s place I’ve been seeing to.”

God damn. Simmons looked around to make sure no one heard. Even in 1857 in an establishment with drinking there were folks who’d get high and mighty about the Lord’s name. He’d’ve been better off sayin’ fuck, really. Simmons breathed deep. Wouldn’t do to look too eager. Bell probably saw all sorts of autopsies, illegal or no, over East.

Bell leaned in, saying, “I don’t mind telling you. I’ve never seen a dead body not in a casket or under a quilt.” Shit. All drawn out, quiet like an exhalation. Simmons shot his whiskey and felt better. “What’re you an apothecary for, then? Never mind. Has he died?” Bell filled in the details of Henry Southerland’s illness.

Simmons thought about the first time doctors in Jefferson County performed an autopsy. Oh, three-four years ago, in the winter. Simmons interrupted Bell’s speech with another round. “Good ol’ Monongahela rye” they toasted.

“You hear about the last man we dissected?” A lie, Simmons had nothing to do with stealing that Irishman from a Clarion graveyard. “He froze to death, ‘cause he drank too much water in his whiskey.” Bell at least laughed like he was impressed.

“Come with me, when I check on him in the morning,” said Bell. “Plan what to do if he dies.” They concluded they’d better stop drinking and parted.


One thought on “new from the book: Chapter 1; late October, 1857

  1. Pingback: new from the book: Chapter 2; October 30, 1857 | vmrvictoria

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