Authors: Cynthia DeFelice
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To Buzz, again
The state of Ohio, 1840Â â¦
AN ITCHY FOOT
means you'll soon go on a journey, folks say. If it's your right foot that itches, you'll start off for someplace far away. If your left foot is the itchy one, you'll go where you're not wanted. Mama had never set store by such notions, and I reckon she was right. But
my feet were itchy, and I couldn't help wondering what it meant.
I took off my shoes, got one look at the bumps and blisters, and had my answer. Like a fool, I must have stepped in the poison ivy vines that grew behind the barn.
I climbed up on the fence I'd been mending, and scratched my feet hard against the bottom rail. The rough wood felt good.
As long as I was taking a rest from work, I figured I might as well play a few licks on my fiddle. Since Pa got it for me, I took it with me wherever I went. When I was teasing sounds out of it, I forgot most everything elseâincluding, I hoped, itchy feet.
I'd been playing for a while when a man appeared before me real sudden-like, out of nowhere, or so it seemed. Without thinking, I raised my right arm. I wished I'd been honing a scythe, or sharpening Pa's knife, or cleaning his rifle. At least that way I'd have a weapon in my hand instead of a fiddle bow.
“Whoa there,” I said warily. “Who are you? And what do you want here?”
The man stopped and held up his hands, with the palms open toward me. “Whoa, yourself, young fellow,” he said. “There's no call to be so tetchy.”
I reckon I
touchy. In the year past I'd met a man called Weasel, and from him I'd learned there are people whose hearts are blacker than a moonless night. I'd gotten lost in that darkness, so lost I couldn't see my way out for a long time.
Since then I'd worked hard on the farm and had taken up the fiddle. Both helped to keep my mind off Weasel. Still, memories of him got mixed up in the jobs I did and the tunes I played. I reckon a body can't lose the knowledge of something once he's got it.
For one thing, I couldn't take to new folks right off, the way I used to. I didn't mean to be standoffish, but I could never be sure about a stranger, whether he was likely to want to do me harm, the way Weasel had. Pa and my sister, Molly, were about the only people I trusted. I'd say Mama, too, and our friend Ezra, but they weren't with us anymore. Mama had caught fever and gone to the next world. As for Ezra, he'd gone west to find his wife's kinfolk, and Pa and Molly and I didn't know if he ever got there.
I told myself this feller looked harmless enough. He was wearing a pack like the one Isaac the Peddler wore when he stopped by our cabin each spring and fall. Molly and I looked forward to Isaac's visits more than just about anything else all year.
“You peddling?” I asked.
The man nodded, and smiled broadly.
“Isaac's always been the one to come out to these parts,” I said.
“Isaac gave up the traveling way of life,” the man informed me. “He got himself a little store back east. Said he was too old to be toting a pack around in the wilds with nothing but God's earth for a mattress and pillow.”
Isaac had always said he meant to settle someday, but I never reckoned he'd actually do it.
“I wouldn't say no to setting this pack down and partaking of a bit of refreshment, if you take my meaning,” the man said.
Mama would have asked me where my manners were, keeping a visitor standing in the barnyard after all the miles he'd traveled. “I reckon you'd better come on inside,” I said.
The man tipped his hat to me and smiled again. “Orrin Beckwith, at your service,” he answered, giving me a little bow.
“I'm Nathan Fowler,” I said. Then I forced myself to add, “Welcome to you.”
We started toward the cabin. I hollered to Molly and she poked her head out the door. When she spied the peddler, she disappeared for a moment, then came out to meet us with a cup of cider in her hand. Duffy and Winston raced beside her, barking with excitement.
Pa was busy splitting firewood at the far end of the pasture. I whistled, loud, to get his attention. He straightened up and peered in our direction, his hands shading his eyes. The sun was pretty low in the sky, which meant Pa would be coming in to supper soon. But no matter what time of day it was or what we were doing, we always left off working when the peddler arrived. Sure enough, as soon as Pa saw us standing next to a figure with a pack on his back, he took one last swing with the axe, put it up on his shoulder, and started toward us.
I introduced Molly to Orrin Beckwith. Shyly, she handed him the cup. He drained it in one long gulp and let out a loud belch. Molly's eyes widened, and she giggled behind her hand.
“Pardon, young lady,” said Beckwith, belching again, only quieter this time. “But that was far too delectable to sip politely. Is it your own home brew?”
“My compliments,” Beckwith said, with another little bow.
Molly giggled, and I could see how pleased she was.
“May I ask you a question?” Beckwith said to her, real serious-like.
Molly looked surprised, then nodded again.
“What kind of bushes does a rabbit set under when it's raining?”
Molly's face twisted up the way it did when she was thinking hard on something. I was pondering the question, too, and the man's reason for asking it. Finally, looking disappointed, Molly said, “I'm sorry, sir. I don't know.”
Beckwith paused for what seemed like a long time before he said solemnly, “Wet ones.”
Molly shrieked with delight. “A riddle!” she cried. “Ask another!”
“All right, then,” Beckwith said with a sly grin. “Here's an easy one for you. I turn green into white, then into yellow. What am I?”
I was interested in spite of myself. I thought and thought about it, but I was certain I'd never heard of anything that could make colors change like that.
Molly stamped her foot and pretended to frown. “That's not an easy one!”
“Want me to make it easier?” Beckwith teased.
“Yes!” Molly answered.
“I eat green grass and give white milk, which gets churned into yellow butter.” Beckwith raised his eyebrows and waited.
“A cow!” Molly said.
I groaned. It
easy, once you knew the answer. I should have guessed it. After all, ever since we'd got our cow, Golly, it was my job to milk her every day, and Molly's to make the butter.
“Ask another!” Molly begged.
“All right,” said Beckwith, acting as though Molly was plain dragging the questions out of him, “if you insist. Ready?”
“Ready,” said Molly eagerly.
“Many of them go to the spring, but they never take a drink. What are they?”
Pa had been approaching all the while that Beckwith was talking, and he was close enough to hear the last question. He bent over and whispered in Molly's ear. She grinned real big and said triumphantly, “Footprints, that's what!”
“Well said, Miss Molly,” answered Beckwith. “And I can see your father is no fool, either.”
“I don't know about that,” said Pa, stepping up to shake Beckwith's hand. “But I wasn't born yesterday, and I've heard a few riddles in my time. Welcome to you.”
We all headed for the cabin. Inside, Pa put his axe down, and Beckwith took off his pack. He set it carefully on the floor, then commenced to rub his neck and shoulders.
I noticed Molly was staring fixedly at the pack, and I knew what she was thinking. She could hardly wait for the moment when it was opened. Truth to tell, neither could I. Accustomed as we were to making or growing most everything we had, we plain treasured the sight of the city-made goods and fancy notions the peddler brought.
After hearing the news about Isaac, Pa said, “Did you stop off in town, Mr. Beckwith?”
Orrin Beckwith nodded. “Spent two nights and a day there. Bedded down in the livery stable and set out first thing this morning for you folks. Took me since sunup to get here.”
It would be dark before long, so I wasn't surprised to hear Pa say, “We'd be pleased to have you stay for supper, and the night, too, if you'd care to.”
I tried to push down the uneasiness that rose up inside me at the idea of a stranger stopping off with us. We'd always welcomed Isaac to spend the night. Anyone who came this far would expect the same.
“Thank you, sir, to both of those kind offers.” Beckwith rubbed his hands together and looked around the cabin. “Something does smell mighty good,” he said.
“It's stew,” Molly said. “Nathan shot a squirrel yesterday, and I made blue biscuits.”
I smiled. Molly was ten years old, and ever since Mama died, she'd done most all of the cooking chores. I reckon she didn't notice the look on Orrin Beckwith's face at the mention of blue biscuits. I'd felt the same way the first time I'd watched Ezra add ashes and maple syrup to his cornmeal dough. Beckwith would soon find out how good it turned out.
Beckwith waggled his eyebrows at Molly and said, “Speaking of blue, I have some indigo.” He leaned down at the same time to take something from his pack. “It's come all the way from India.”
“Indigo! Did you hear that, Pa?” Molly said excitedly. “Some blue in my quilt would sure look pretty.”
“And I have madder root,” Beckwith went on in a teasing sort of voice.
“Oh!” Molly gasped. “That makes red! Mama always said there's nothing cheers up a quilt like a touch of red.”
“The good ladies of town agree with you there, Miss Molly,” Beckwith said. “They'd have bought up all my dyesâ¦”
I watched Molly's face crumple with disappointment.
Beckwith grinned at her. “But I said I needed to save some for a certain young girl I'd heard tell of who lived a mite farther on.”
Molly's cheeks flushed and her eyes sparkled. It was good to see her so happy. I wasn't sure I favored the way Beckwith was going about his business, though. He was making out that he was doing her a special favor, when he was only trying to get her to buy his dyes.
“Oh, and one of those good ladies from town sends her greetings,” Beckwith went on, with a sly wink in Pa's direction. “A certain Abigail Baldwin asked me to pass along her best wishes to you all.”
It was Pa's cheeks that turned red then. Pa had danced a fair bit with Miss Abigail at the spring dance in town, and Molly was hoping she might be our new mama someday.
With another wink, Beckwith reached into the pack and held up a horn comb and some brightly colored hair ribbons. “You may be interested to know she was admiring these, and everyone present agreed they looked right fetching in her auburn hair.”
Molly said, “Oh, Pa, they
look pretty on Miss Abigail, don't you think?”
I knew Molly could use help with her chores, and she said she wanted some female company to talk with, instead of just me and Pa all the time. So I didn't say what I was thinking, which was that I liked Miss Abigail all right, but I didn't much take to someone new being part of our family.