For some reason, my western book I started last week keeps rolling in my head so I went back to working on it. Here is a sample of “SADDLE SPUR” the name I selected for it.
“Boy! Hitch up the team; take a few bushels of corn over to Red’s and get me some whiskey!” His father yelled slurring his words.
John looked over at his father standing on the porch swaying, holding on to the post. “You don’t need anymore!” John thought to himself but didn’t dare speak aloud, he might hit him, “He is too drunk to even walk this far!”
John left the kitchen garden heading to the barn. He put the team into the barn before he started hoeing the garden when no one else would. His stepmother seemed to think the garden tended to itself or it was his job. Another job he inherited when Ruby took her children and left. His father didn’t care because he seldom ate anything other than meat and bread anyway. John hated the idea of swapping the corn he raised for his drunken father’s whiskey. His father still treated him like a child even though John was now taller than him and slightly broader in the shoulders. Hard work filled John out.
Feeling more like a slave than family, John went into the barn, fetching the team that his father brought back after the war. John had only been eleven when his father went off to war fighting for the confederacy. The family never really owned slaves except Ruby who was a gift from his Mom’s father when she married his father. For as long as John could recall, his mother had been sickly staying in bed most of the time. Ruby was more of a mother to him than his own mother. She was always good to him, teaching him how to cook and prepare his own meals with her oldest daughter right with them. She used to remark that someday, he would have to make his own meals when she was no longer around. Ruby was good to him even when he laughed saying she would always be there to cook for them. She laughed but had a faraway look in her eye before sending him out of the kitchen. She seemed to have a soft spot for him but corrected him when he did something wrong just as if she was her own child.
Just before he left to go fight, his father went and purchased Rufus, he was so old he could hardly walk but he turned out to be the best thing for John. While his father was away, Rufus taught John how to farm, how to do things that others thought was beneath them. They became like best friends not master and slave. Rufus was unable to do a lot of things being of such an advanced age but he taught John how to do them. His father was so proud when he came home to find John had their forty-acre farm growing nice tall corn.
Right after the war, Rufus was granted his freedom but he stayed on in a shack at the edge of the forty acres that John built for him since he was unable to do so. Rufus would tend to the corn earning his keep when he could, John knew there were days that he couldn’t get out of bed, so John would slip over and cook for him along with making sure he had water. Rufus didn’t know if he had any kin still living, he knew he fathered several children on a plantation in Georgia but had no idea of where to find them now. Rufus couldn’t read or write but he was to John a very smart man.
Ruby, having her freedom took off right after the Union soldiers came to tell her that by law she was free. When Ruby left, she took as much from the house as she could load onto the wagon with her children. The soldiers let her have the run of the house taking items she claimed belonged to her including his mother’s silver serving tray that she used. John had no idea where she went but a few months after her leaving, his mother died. She had been dead less than three months when his father married a woman that had her plantation taken over by Union soldiers. His new stepmother was only a few years older than John with two young kids that acted like it was beneath them to do a single chore. His stepmother, Connie seemed to give him a coy look whenever his father wasn’t present. John didn’t like that; he knew about women. Rufus would have laughed at him for turning down the charms of a woman but John felt that was his father’s wife and it wasn’t proper. Working the farm and occasional fishing trips kept him busy and away from women until Connie showed up.
Even though John had thoughts about women but being he was barely over sixteen, knew that his time would come. John decided to bath down at the river after a hot day in the sun; that was when he met Mary, one of the daughters of another farmer, he was smitten by her. She was his age and had just finished bathing in the moonlight. He wondered if he arrived a little sooner if she would have been naked and what might have happened? Having no excuse to visit their farm, he kept bathing in the river hoping she would show up until he found she had married someone going off with him.
“Can I go with you, Johnny?” John heard a small voice say while he was hitching up the team. He looked down to see six-year old Thomas looking up at him with a pleading face. John knew that Thomas didn’t like to be around when his stepfather was drunk, he tended to be very abusive.
“Sure, Thomas!” a big smile appeared on his face rushing over and climbing up into the wagon.
“Can I go too?” John knew that voice was Charity his stepsister. She was two years older than Thomas. He hated to leave her alone here.
“Climb on up!” John directed glancing at the porch; he had the distinct impression that their mother put them up to this. Seeing her take his father’s hand guiding him back into the house wearing a smile. They wanted to be alone. It was rumored that neither of the two children were fathered by the man Connie was married to especially since he was away most of the time. You know how rumors are, John pushed the thought from his head.
Climbing up on the wagon himself, he expertly guided the team over to the shed getting the corn his father wanted him to trade for whiskey. It galled him to think he spent nearly all day filling the shed with corn; this would leave it half empty. Winter would see the return of hunger time at the Strum family dinner table.
The two children remained seated while he climbed down and loaded up the corn. He was just about finished when he heard laughter coming from the room where his father slept. Supper would be late if at all, he thought getting back on the wagon.
“Giddy-up!” John said snapping the reins making the horses move. All the while his father was away; John only used the mule after soldiers came along taking their livestock. Rufus taught him well how to handle the mules; that tended to be quite cantankerous most of the time. This team of horses were a breeze for him to handle so he could letting his mind wander while the two next to him sat silently as he drove.
For the first two of the five years his father was gone, John let Rufus run the farm like he wanted. That surprised Rufus but he accepted the task but as John learned and got older, he turned running the farm over to him. Ruby ran the house, John only saw his mother on occasions mostly taking her meals in her room except once a month eating with him on Sunday. She never asked about the farm or where the food came from, she would just chat about how glad she would be when his father came home and things could go back to the way they were. He didn’t have the heart to tell her that things would never go back to the way they were.
“Mom said that I would have to learn how to cook because she is having a baby and can’t cook until after the baby is born!” Charity interrupted his thoughts by saying. John looked over at her realizing for the first time that she had green eyes. He never paid any attention before.
“That is not lady’s work!” Thomas piped up. John thought at Thomas’s mother, she was a lousy cook having slaves to do it before for her, she never learned to cook very well at all. John knew he was a better cook than her even though his meals tended to be plain. He sure missed Ruby. His father didn’t know that for the last six months before he came home, John, Rufus and Ruby with her children ate together in the formal dining room like they were family. The only day they didn’t was that special Sunday when his mother came down to the two of them sat in the formal dining room being served by Ruby and her eldest daughter, Callie.
“Mom says that not having blacks to cook for us, we have to learn!” Charity said with pride. John could tell she looked forward to learning to cook. He just wished she had a better teacher, someone like Ruby who could take anything and make it taste good. Many of a time, the table was barren during the war but Ruby always found something to make a filling meal out of. His fish, an occasional rabbit or squirrel along with an occasional possum. Any meat was welcome during those bleak times. He wondered, what did the two children sitting next to him, eat during those times.
John took the long way around to Red’s so he could check on Rufus, he never showed up in the fields after John made him something to eat. Normally, he would nap then join John taking care of the fields but not today, this worried John. John never told his father about this shack; he would want to kick Rufus off their land not caring where Rufus ended up. Feeling proud of his efforts, John looked at the row upon row of corn still to be picked. Today, without Rufus, he managed to only pick another ten acres leaving fifteen acres yet to pick. All the corn should be picked soon before it started to dry out, John wondered if he could ask these two for help to get done.
Rufus was more a father to John than his own father. John wondered why the white people he came into contact with hated the black people so much after owning so many for so long. Besides teaching John about the farm, Rufus taught him other things about life. John recalled the time that Rufus caught John sneaking around with Ruby’s oldest daughter. They were just about to do something when he walked in, Rufus stopped them sending her back to the garden to work or he would tell her mother what she was doing. Rufus then placed his arm on John’s shoulder making him walk with him as he talked. John was shocked and confused to learn that she was his half sister. He explained that after I was born, Lady Anne, that was what they called his mother, refused to allow his father to share her bed with her. She then told him if he didn’t or couldn’t control himself that Ruby was always available. John never thought about where the children of Ruby came from. It wasn’t until Rufus talked to him about the facts of life did he somewhat understood where Ruby’s children came from. Ruby’s oldest son worked along with the younger one in the fields with them until Ruby left taking her children with her. John had a warm feeling thinking about their talks and about being a man. A few months before the war ended and the soldiers, Rufus and John sneaked out with Rufus taking him to a neighboring plantation. There in one of the rundown shacks, he had his first taste of a female. Her skin was cream colored like Ruby’s daughter had been making John wonder, who fathered her. He didn’t learn until later that Rufus gave them some food in exchange for the woman’s daughter entertaining John.
The two sitting next to him would glance at him but they could tell his mind was far away so they stayed quiet. Just happy to be allowed to be with him.
Pulling to a stop in front of the one room place Rufus lived in, it was really an old shack that they kept tools in that John closed up to make a place for him to stay. Rufus didn’t want to stay in the old slave shack that he lived in before especially after John’s father said a lot of unkind words but John had talked Rufus into staying after learning he had no other place to go. Together, they tore down the old shack and used the lumber to enclose this one. Rufus seemed happy learning that John wanted him to stay. John was sure Rufus thought of him as his only family. John knew he loved the old man. Even if everyone else thought it was wrong.
Climbing down, John walked over to the shack. Pulling on the string that lifted the latch from the outside, he went in. Going inside, he couldn’t see so he opened the wooden shutters to let some light in.
Rufus lay in bed like he was sleeping but he didn’t wake up like he normally did when John let light into the shack. Walking over, he touched Rufus, the body was cold. Telling John that he must have died in his slept. Fighting back the urge to cry, John went out behind the shack finding the tools that Rufus used, a hoe, rake and a shovel. Taking the shovel, he went over to the edge of the road and started digging. John knew that taking the body into town would do no good besides; he didn’t have the money to pay for a proper burial even if the whites would allow him to do so.
Shoveling through the tears that flowed freely, John dug the grave ignoring the two on the wagon squawking about being here so long. He didn’t bother to tell them what was going on.
Once the grave was dug, John went back inside wrapping Rufus up in the blanket that he used as a sheet and covering that John gave him when he saw Rufus had none. Used to hard work, John carried Rufus with ease out to the grave. Finding Rufus’s fishing line, John tied the body up with it. Unable to lower the body gently, John did his best in getting it down into the grave hoping Rufus would understand and appreciate what he was doing for the man he felt was his father in his heart. After shoveling the dirt back into the grave. John went over finding some wood to make as a marker. Since Rufus usually quoted the bible while working, John knew he memorized the passages he spoke of; John said a prayer and some kind words over the grave. Taking his knife, he craved in the wood; “Rufus” John didn’t know anything else to say. Standing with his old confederate hat that his father gave him when he first left for the war, John stood in silence looking at the grave. Everyone that he loved was gone! His father was a stranger that came back home after the war. He was quick to slap or hit Johnny as he called him when he did use his name. Now, his father’s attention was on other things.
John didn’t notice Thomas and Charity come over to the grave. Charity had her head bowed out of respect but Thomas looked at John saying, “I don’t see any sense in crying over some dead nigger!”
John didn’t respond to Thomas instead said, “Let’s go!” putting his hat back on his head. Charity took his hand as they walked back to the wagon. She seemed to feel his pain.
“I saw another funeral of a dark man, those around stood singing songs and praying,” Charity remarked as they walked to the wagon.
“I don’t know any songs,” John said as they paused in front of the wagon still holding hands. I should have checked on him earlier when he didn’t show up to help me! What is done is done!
Climbing back up after helping Charity up, it was hard for her to climb up wearing a dress besides, he felt close to her for the first time since she arrived with her mother. For a long time they never spoke his name or were around him, just watched him. Neither of them felt like family.
They rode in silence to Red’s with Charity sitting beside him with her hand on his leg. Red learned how to make Kentucky whiskey; he lost an arm in the war and now made his living making whiskey. Government troops tried on several occasions to find his still raiding his barn where he kept his whiskey but didn’t know he dug a cellar under the house that was filled with aging whiskey not the rotgut they found.
After dickering for a few minutes, John unloaded the corn then Red brought out three kegs of whiskey saying next time to bring some sorghum or no deal. John assured him he would tell his father so they started back even though it was dark.
“Why does our new father drink so much?” Charity asked after they left Red’s.
John took a long time to answer but then finally did. “I think he drinks so much since the war, I don’t recall seeing him drink a lot before then. The war I understand has a way of changing a man.”
“Thank you John,” Charity said making John feel closer to her that she didn’t call him Johnny or boy like his father tended to. “Mom said you are our big brother and should listen to you even though you love niggers.” Charity added causing John to feel cold toward her again. In a way he was glad Rufus was dead, Thomas would surely tell on his visiting Rufus and now of his burial. How could anyone just glance at the skin coloring of anyone and say they were nobody. Rufus was his mentor, father and friend. John pretended not to notice when Charity laid her head on him as she nodded off from the motion of the wagon. The bright full moon made the trip home less dangerous. John, hoped he didn’t run into any soldiers on his way home. Whether they were Yankee or ex-confederate, they would take the whiskey from him to enjoy their selves.
It was near midnight when John brought the wagon to a halt outside the barn. Seeing the house was dark, he felt his way inside the barn to find the coal oil lamp and lit it so he could see what he was doing. He found the two kids hung right with him, scared to go to the dark house alone.
“I got to unhitch the team, you guys can either stay with me or go on up to the house. I’m afraid you missed supper!” John said taking the lantern out to unhitch the horses. Like a couple of puppy dogs, they stayed right next to him. John knew they both slept on the way home with Charity leaning on him with Thomas leaning on her. They only woke up when he stopped the wagon, climbing down.
“That’s okay, there is some apples left that you brought home the other day.” Charity remarked hanging right with him even trying to help unhitch the horses. Thomas stayed close but wasn’t about to do any nigger work. John wondered what kind of life he would have thinking that way. If you didn’t do work yourself, how would you expect others to work with you? John wondered. He and Rufus had been a team sharing the work until Rufus became unable to do so. John’s father made despairing remarks about John working like a slave but knew that the work had to be done, he wasn’t about to do it.
Once John had the team inside the barn, he removed the harnesses before placing them in their stalls giving them a little feed. His horse, “Wildoats” nudged him when he passed, so John turned and gave him some feed also.
When the soldiers came taking all the horses but leaving the mules, Wildoats showed up one day after a battle not to far away trying to get to the feed in the barn. He was in the process of being gelded but had no markings on him to show ownership. Rufus told him that it was his horse now. The first year here, they would hide him when the soldiers came around not trusting them to take him as well but the next two times the army came around, once by the northern army and another time by the return of the confederate soldiers, they both only took food giving them worthless papers or nothing at all. Only the northern soldiers seemed intent on taking it all. They also took whatever valuables his mother had as well even though she had most of it hidden. Rufus told him to brand him, less chance of anyone taking Wildoats. They heard out west that people branded their livestock so no one could claim them; he made a branding iron that was simply a big J for John placing it right where he saw brands on the horses for the union army.
A year after he acquired Wildoats, John went to town finding the local blacksmith shop with several saddles for sale. John suspected the owner or whoever sold them to him collected them from some battlefield because they were all worn showing signs of bloodstains. Trading some work and corn to the blacksmith, he learned how to shoe a horse as well as having a saddle, a bridle and blanket for his horse. He kept that hidden in the hayloft when he wasn’t riding Wildoats. It had been a challenge to break Wildoats but now he was calm and a lot of fun to ride being almost four years old.
John’s father wanted to sell his horse the first time he saw it but John threatened to jump on him and ride away never to come back. He relented but every time he got drunk, he talked of selling Wildoats saying he would bring a good price besides, John had no time for horseback riding, having much to do on the farm.
John would take Wildoats to the fields every morning not trusting his father. Wildoats didn’t need a rope to keep him close to wherever John was; he followed John around like a puppy would come to John with just a slight whistle. They were friends preferring each other to any one else.
After giving Wildoats a little affection, John took the lantern leading the children to the house. He chuckled seeing them afraid of the dark even the moonlight was not enough to keep them from suspecting a boogieman in every shadow.
What do you think? Give me a few comments on whether you like it and would want to read more.