Patrick Henry and the Frigate’s Keel: And Other Stories of a Young Nation (4 page)

BOOK: Patrick Henry and the Frigate’s Keel: And Other Stories of a Young Nation
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“'Tain't what's fitting but what's practical,” Mrs. Jackson said.

“Unless you wait for new womenfolk from back East,” the parson said. “And there might be none coming this year.”

“Or wait for Millie Flann to grow up,” Mrs. Jackson nodded. “Fifteen's a mite too young to take on a widower's responsibilities.”

“But a bondwoman—”

“Put pride behind thee, Brother Harvey. It ain't for love you're wedding, but to have a woman on the farm.”

“True,” Pa agreed.

“You got the twenty dollars to buy out her year's service?”

Pa went through his pocket, sorting out money. In his wallet, he had an English pound and six old shillings. His other pockets gave out silver dollars and old notes. I never knew Pa was that wealthy. He and the parson counted it over three times.

“Nineteen dollars, sixpence,” the parson said finally. “A dollar's for the ceremony and sixpence for the church leaves eighteen. You ain't got other money, Brother Harvey?”

“None outside my britches,” Pa replied.

The parson rose and put on his coat. He gathered the money into his pocket and said, “I'll go to Brother Green and make the bargain.”

“The two dollars?”

“I'll make the bargain, brother. Come along.”

I went, too; nobody told me not to—in fact, I think Pa was kind of glad to have me along with him.

Pa kept glancing at the bondwoman while the parson argued the price of her indenture with Mr. Green. Folks said there weren't so many bond persons around as before the war, and other folks said that back East laws were being passed to keep persons from being bound into service. Being bound was the same as being a slave; a father could sell his daughter for ten years' service, and people in debt could be bound in by their creditor. Or if a man died in debt, his children could be bound into service by his creditors.

As near as I could make out, that was the case with this bondwoman. Back East, her folks had died, and she had been bound in for the debt. Mr. Green had got her from some river traders for a thousand pounds of parched corn, and I didn't think much of the bargain. But there wasn't but one woman in the house then, and Mrs. Green needed a hand to help with the cooking and the baking and the washing and the putting by. Since then, Mr. Green's son had married, and that's why Parson Jackson considered that maybe he could pick up this bondwoman for Pa at a bargain price.

The bondwoman sat in a corner, on a stool by the hearth, while Pa and the parson and Mr. Green argued about the price. The bondwoman wasn't much to look at; just a little thing with a white face and dark hair. She watched them, and sometimes she glanced at me.

“I ought to be making a profit, not selling at a loss,” Mr. Green said. He was a down-East Yankee, and I could see that neither Pa nor the parson thought a lot of him.

“When there ain't none to buy, the seller can't be choosy,” the parson said.

“There's one to buy, all right.”

“She's a bondwoman, and Brother Harvey here, he's buying her out of bondage. It's a Christian thing to do.”

“I paid out in good corn for her.”

Pa sighed and said, “Look a here. Suppose I pay that two dollars out this fall.”

“Won't be no profit,” Mr. Green protested.

The bondwoman looked down; then she put her face in her hands.

“I'll make it three dollars,” Pa said.

“My wife stitched her three calico dresses.”

“It ain't like she's a good woman,” Pa said. “I'm taking her to wife because a man can't keep a place out in the forest alone without he goes woodsy or mad entire. I got thirty acres clear and a hundred more to take the wood off. The boy needs a rod taken to him, and mine ain't the hand can do it.”

“Damn it, I don't!” I yelled.

Pa fetched me one and said, “Four dollars.”

The bondwoman looked up and murmured, “Please—”

Mr. Green glanced at her, then said, “I'll take it.”

“Done,” the parson said.

“How old is she?” Pa wanted to know.

“Four and twenty, and good health.”

I ran outside; I heard Pa calling for me, but I didn't come back. I wondered how he could forget so soon, after all the years with my mother.

It took us two full days to get back to our cabin from the stockade. That was because the horse couldn't carry all three of us; so Pa and I rode and the bondwoman walked behind. Her name was Rachel.

Pa insisted on having the marriage ceremony performed that night. He said that the stock wanted feeding; anyway, he had spent all his money and might as well get back as soon as he could. I was brokenhearted about the money; I thought maybe he would buy me some sugar hards at the store.

So I stood there and saw him married to the bondwoman. I suppose, if she wanted to, she could have protested that being a bondwoman didn't mean she had to marry her new owner, but the parson had spoken to her about bettering her place in life, I guess. She didn't have a lot of spirit; she just stood there with her head down and became a wedded woman.

And the next morning, Pa woke me before sunrise. The horse was saddled up, and the bondwoman was there, looking pale and tired, her two calico dresses in a bundle under her arm. The bondwoman came toward me, as if to say something, but I shied away; I didn't want any truck with her.

I said, “Pa, let's be getting back.” And Pa nodded and climbed onto his horse. He reached down an arm and swung me up behind him.

“Come along,” he told the bondwoman.

I was glad it was that way; it made me see that she was still a bondwoman, and that Pa hadn't married her out of wanting someone to take Ma's place, but because he needed a woman to work out at the cabin.

At the river, Pa set me down on the other side and then went back for the bondwoman; and I could understand that, him not wanting her to spoil her dress when she had only three calicoes. We didn't go very fast, because the bondwoman had to rest every now and then.

We had smoky for noontime meal, and Pa let the bondwoman cook it. Pa and I ate first, but he didn't stint on how much smoky she ate; Pa wasn't the kind to stint on food. But a few slices were enough to satisfy her. While Pa was smoking his pipe, I took a good look at her, for the first time, really. She wasn't bad looking; not comely and big and strong, but white-faced, though not so bad looking. I saw that her eyes were blue and light; something I hadn't noticed before, since most of the time she kept her eyes cast down.

After Pa had smoked a while and figured it was time to start again, he rubbed his mustache and cleared his throat.

“Rachel,” he said, “my boy here, Davey, he's ten years old and growing like ragweed. I guess you'll cotton to him.” Then he knocked out his pipe and said, “You ain't much of a walker?”

“No,” Rachel answered.

“Don't talk much either.”

“No.” She never looked at him.

“Well, I'd just as soon let you ride, only it ain't fitting a bondwoman should ride and her master walks, even if she is wedded wife to him. Also, it ain't fitting a woman in calico should ride astraddle.”

“I think I understand,” she whispered.

Pa nodded and rose; he mounted his horse, and Rachel picked up her bundle and followed him.

That night, Rachel made her bed aside from us. Pa looked at her strangely and then said, “You'll be cold, away off from the fire.”

“I'll be all right,” she said.

“Good and tired, I reckon,” Pa remarked.

“No, I'm not tired,” she answered slowly. “A bondwoman can't know how it is to be tired.”

Pa shot a deer on the way home; he told Rachel she could start it salting and smoking the next day. The first thing he did when we reached the clearing was to point out Ma's grave.

“A good woman,” he told Rachel.

“Not like you,” I muttered.

It was fine, clear weather, the end of that May and into June. Pa said that if things held out that way, settlers would be flocking in thicker than bees. Pa cleared two more acres.

Rachel kept the house; one thing about her I couldn't deny, she kept things neat and spick-and-span. She made bread every other day, and she cooked growing things, like parsnip and redtop. And I'd see her washing out one of her calico dresses each day; evenings, she'd sit with her needle and mend.

But it wasn't enough for Pa, and I made sure it wasn't enough for me either. Pa was always finding fault with one thing and another; the meat wasn't smoked right or the cow wasn't milked right; the food wasn't cooked right. Not like Ma had done it; he kept reminding her about that, day after day, week after week. He wouldn't let her forget her place as a bondwoman. But that was before the hunter came.

Rachel was supposed to school me for an hour each morning. Even if she was a bondwoman, she had plenty of schooling, reading and writing and sums and subtraction, and history and even geography. That was another thing I held against her; Lord, I hated that schooling.

Well, one morning I heard her calling me. I came slow and easy, for all her calling, “Davey, Davey, where are you?”

“What is it, Rachel?” I asked her.

“Learning, Davey.”

“Well, damn it, why don't you leave me alone?”

“Please don't swear, Davey,” she said.

I said, “Rachel, I'll swear like I want to.”

She stared at me with those wide blue eyes of hers, and then she said, “Why do you call me that, Davey?”

“What?”

“Rachel.”

“That's your name, ain't it?” I demanded.

“Yes, but I'm your mother.”

“You're a bondwoman,” I said. “I seen my Pa pay out your price—eighteen dollars cash and four dollars owing.”

She reached out a hand as if to find something, but found nothing and stood there with that arm outstretched, trembling. I was frightened, thinking that she would fall, but then she seemed to get hold of herself, moved over to a bench and sat down. All that time her eyes never left my face.

“How about the schooling?” I asked her.

She said, very slowly, “You can go out today, Davey—without schooling, please.”

I didn't wait to hear any more; I ran outside, whooping and yelling.

But that night Pa put it to her. I was up in the loft, supposed to be sleeping, but through the open hatch I could see Pa sitting at the table with his pipe in his hand.

“Rachel,” he said.

I could hardly make out her voice. “What is it?”

“Davey tells me you didn't give him his schooling today.”

“No, I didn't.”

“Why not?”

There was a long silence then, and finally Rachel said, “He called me a bondwoman.”

“And was the hurt of that so that you couldn't school him?”

“There was no hurt,” Rachel said; “only shame.”

“How?”

“You wouldn't know!” she cried. “You wouldn't know!”

Well, it was fine weather all along, and Pa turned the black earth like it was cheese and rooted out stumps and put in his crops. The hunting was good, too, and as much work as he did, Rachel matched him. He never let up on her for work, making sure, I guess, that she would pay out the eighteen dollars and the four owing. She salted meat and smoked meat, mended britches and sewed shirts, and did the cooking and the putting by. Her skin turned brown, and her eyes seemed to be lighter and lighter blue. She wore her hair in two long braids down her back.

And then the hunter came.

Out in the deep woods, paying a call wasn't a measure of distance. Hunters came by and paid their respects after they walked a thousand miles down from Canada country, and then, maybe, a walking man would range down to Kentuck or off to French Orleans. Packmen, mostly Scotch and Jewish, would come by with their two mules loaded up with trade trinkets. “Hello,” they'd say, and then be off for the land of the Ojibway; and then pay their respects five months later back to New York and Boston to sell their furs.

The hunter's name was Jim Fairway, and he was a walker, all right, a woodsy man who never had homespun on his back, nothing but buckskin and fancy Indian beadwork. A thousand miles was grass under his feet. A big man with long yellow hair.

He came into the clearing one day, walking soft and easy, and twirling his long rifle over his head. “Hullo, there!” he yelled. “Hullo, there, you Sam Harvey! … Hullo, there, Davey!” He seemed sure glad to have listening folk to hear the sound of his voice.

I came running, and Pa laid down his work to grin at Jim. He liked Jim, even if Jim was no-account and woodsy.

“Where you from, Jim?” Pa called.

“Canady.”

“Walk it?” Pa asked.

“You don't sight no horse,” Jim grinned, swinging me up to his shoulder. I sure liked Jim.

“Well, set and rest,” Pa said. “Set and rest.”

“Pleased to.”

“Seen Injun sign?” Pa asked.

“Some.”

We were all walking toward the cabin now. Pa said, “This is been a mighty fine year, without no trouble.”

“You get trouble when you don't the least expect it,” Jim said, and Pa crossed his fingers. I knocked wood on the stock of Jim's rifle.

“Where's Susan?” Jim asked.

Pa sobered and pointed to the grave. “Two months now,” he said.

Jim shook his head and squeezed my arm. We walked on a while, and then Jim said, “Must be mighty lonely out in the deep woods with no womenfolk.”

“Well, it is and it ain't.”

“Can't raise a boy proper without womenfolk,” Jim said.

“No.”

“Can't a man live without them either, less'n he goes wild or woodsy,” Jim said. “This time I figure to get me a wife and a piece of land to plow and break wood out of.”

“Why, that's fine,” Pa said.

We were at the cabin now. Jim put me down and laid his rifle against the wall. Pa led the way inside; Jim came in last.

BOOK: Patrick Henry and the Frigate’s Keel: And Other Stories of a Young Nation
12.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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