Treasures of the Heart
By Texas 2002
Thank you to Mr. Dortort who created the Cartwrights and the Ponderosa and shared them. And thank you to Ms. Sullivan who gave them new life. This story is purely for entertainment and is not intended to infringe on their rights or the rights of anyone else involved in these marvelous shows.
I used "Bonanza" tie-ins where possible but this is a "Ponderosa" story. If you are a strict adherent to the "Bonanza" canon - skip this. The author begs forgiveness for any historical or hysterical errors.
"A Visit From St. Nicholas" (which we know as "The Night Before Christmas") was written in 1822.
The Panic of 1837 is one of the reasons Ben heads south to New Orleans. The Panic was caused in part by land speculation in the West and lasted four years.
Yep, parts of Bourbon Street had mansions.
While Adam lived in the city, many merchants moved their businesses to Canal Street.
Adams description of the hurricane is what was referred to at the time as a "gale." It hit New Orleans on October 5 and 6, 1837. The "gale" was caused by Racers Storm which made landfall at Matamoros and then traveled east on the Gulf Coast before also striking parts of Louisiana and North Carolina.
Adams reference to the Natchez (Mississippi) tornado is based on one that moved up the Mississippi River on May 7, 1840 and struck Natchez at 1:45 p.m. Death toll estimates were more than 40 in the city and more than 260 on the Mississippi River because of the river traffic.
Independence, Missouri was the "jumping off point" for more than 300,000 pioneers who followed the Oregon Trail and cut-offs to other locations. Another major "jumping off point" was St. Joe, Missouri.
Adam Cartwright sits at the dining table while the logs glow red in the nearby fireplace. He taps a pencil on the tabletop as memories surround him. Something inside him must record these memories. He eases the pencil to the blank page of a new journal. This is what he writes.
Pas second wife - and the only mother I could remember - died from an arrow wound during an Indian raid west of the Missouri. Ingers death plummeted Pa into the dark despair of grief. I think all that saved him was my half-brother Erik and me.
After we buried Inger, we traveled a short distance back east. Mrs. Klement - who had lost her husband and two youngest children during the same battle - turned back, too, and was kind enough to help us with Erik until we reached a small town where we went our separate ways. Then, when Erik was approaching two years old, Pa decided it was time to resume our quest to reach California.
Pa and I spent years crossing the country from the eastern seaboard to the Missouri. I had a good sense of direction for a six-year-old so I was confused when Pa headed back east a bit and then south along the Mississippi River. I didnt understand how going that way would get us out West where Pa said our future was. Who cared if there was talk about trouble in some place called Texas and other areas Id never heard of? But I knew you only challenged Ben Cartwright when you had proof to back your opinion. And at six years old I was inclined toward feelings instead of logic. To someone as analytical as Pa feelings werent too convincing.
We stopped every so often so Pa could work. We reached New Orleans just a couple of months after my Erik turned four. I was the mature age of eight.
As I look back I realize how many problems Pa was having. Hed lost my mother and then Inger. He had two young boys to take care of and he didnt have help from schools - the people of New Orleans didnt advocate public education when we first arrived. Pa couldnt hire a tutor or send us to a private school. He couldnt even afford to have someone watch us during the day. I suppose he could have paid for one of the slaves who rented out but that went against his upbringing. He often came home with an odd smell on his breath that I later recognized as whisky. But I dont remember him ever being drunk.
There were times when he was the happy pa I remembered from most of our travels. There were more times when the slightest wisecrack, or if I rolled my eyes, or hesitated when he gave an order qualified me for a roaring scolding. Erik went quiet at times like that. He held my dog Thaddeus around the neck or patted him and reassured Thaddeus everything would be all right. Even now if you push Pa hard enough that anger flies out of him. His temper has led to more than one mans discomfort.
Being Pa, he located a small place for us to live almost as soon as we arrived. Also being Pa, he found work on the river and, a few months later, in a shop.
Mrs. de Ville, who lived across the street in a home slightly larger than ours, was the closest Erik and I ever came to having a grandmother. She served pastries filled with cream, taught us silly songs and funny tongue twisters, and told us wonderful stories. She expected us to be at her house every morning after Pa left for work so I could spend time reading and Erik could work on the alphabet and numbers. I still remember one of the tongue twisters she taught us: "The skunk sat on a stump and thunk the stump stunk - but the stump thunk the skunk stunk."
We had been in New Orleans forever it seemed to me, but it was probably only a matter of weeks, when our daily life took an unexpected turn. For nearly a week, we stayed with Mrs. de Ville. She allowed us to go home to play with and take care of Thaddeus and for me to do chores. But we were not allowed to roam the streets as we were accustomed to doing and I was not allowed to read the newspaper. I thought it curious that we didnt hear from Pa and when I finally said something about it she assured me he had gone "upriver" to attend to business. When youre a child, you learn not to ask many questions. Especially when you sense the answers wont be forthcoming. So I accepted her explanation even though I didnt believe it. And when I heard what people said later I dismissed it because my Pa would never kill someone.
When Pa returned, and life went back to normal, I took care of Erik. That was nothing new: though I never would have admitted it at the time, Erik was fun to be with. He was a happy little boy who loved to have me read to him and flattered my ego by asking me what Pas and my "big words" meant.
I didnt want Pa to know about all my activities because he was strict and his hand was hard when it struck my behind. I tried to explain to Erik that Pa didnt need to know when we tossed dirt clods into the closed courtyards but I didnt make my point until I threatened to not take him with me. The poor little fella hadnt known a day in his life without me so he learned early how to keep secrets. Erik never knew I wouldnt have been able to sit for dinner if Id left him alone.
I accept full blame for all the questionable behavior Erik learned during the following year or so. We went as close to the boats on the river as we dared and imitated the bad words the men said. Pa had been a sailor and I wondered if he ever used those words. I knew one thing he didnt want us saying them.
Even then Erik loved animals. My dog Thaddeus was no exception. By the time we reached New Orleans they were bosom buddies. Erik also loved every animal he saw on the streets so we saved most of our lunch to share with dogs and cats. And it wasnt too long before we found one home where the people didnt have a good latch on their horse stable. Thank heaven the animal was docile because Erik and I rode him bareback with a headstall and reins. We never kept him out very long because we didnt want to stretch our luck.
"We need to take him back," I said over Eriks shoulder one day. I always insisted he ride in front of me so I could grab him in case of an emergency.
"A dam." He pronounced my name with a long "a" so if you didnt know better you would think my little brother was talking about a dam. "A dam, how you knows hes a boy?"
"The horse?" All right, I admit it: I was stalling for time.
"Uh huh," came the innocent answer.
I closed my eyes a minute and prayed he wouldnt ask many more questions. "You know what we use to pee? He has one, too."
"Oh." He thought a minute. "So girls horses donts has one like girl girls dont?"
I was about six before I found out about girls. Some friends and I had planned to go skinny-dipping in a creek. I had nearly pulled my trousers down when Id noticed the girls were missing something. Id run back to the wagons, pulled Pa aside and told him with all the earnestness a six-year-old can muster that the girls had lost "theirs". Ill never know how Pa kept a straight face but he had used the opportunity to tell me about mares and stallions and women and men. Of course women and men only did it when they were married and in love. I couldnt believe Pa had done it twice once to get me and later to get Erik. Armed with my new knowledge I had gathered my buddies and told them all about women and men. Not one of them had believed me.
I was more than a little amazed that Erik knew at four what I hadnt discovered until I had been six. "Erik?" I asked as we rode the horse toward the stable. "How do you know about girls?"
"Pa and me talks. We was on the porch one nights and Mrs. Kemps shadows on the curtain."
Thank heavens. I ducked that bullet. Or so I thought. More of Eriks curiosity was triggered months later but Im getting ahead of myself.
We returned the horse, gave him some oats without ever thinking the owner would notice the lowering supply, and set off for more adventures.
The house where we lived was like many others in that area. It was built of brick and masonry and had two stories. The ground floor, which we never used because of the high water table, fronted on the street but there was a passageway by the side of the house that led to a secluded courtyard. The kitchen was across the courtyard from the house and there was also a woodshed. When we first moved there I thought it was just for keeping wood dry from the frequent rains but I developed different feelings toward it later on. Plants grew inside the courtyard with the lush abandon I still associate with New Orleans. Erik and I always left Thaddeus in the courtyard when we went on our adventures because we didnt want him to get hurt on the busy streets and Pa was the only one who could hold him on a lead.
Dont ask me why but there was one particular green plant Erik and I decided we disliked. What the vine had ever done to us I dont know. We discovered a great way to get back at it and slowly kill it. We emptied our chamber pot on the soil - but only when there was liquid in it because we didnt want Pa to catch wind of what we were doing so to speak.
I also have no explanation for why we did what we did that warm winter day other than we were boys. When we entered the courtyard our eyes glanced at the hated vine and we had the same idea at the same time.
That is what we were doing when our future mother saw us for the first time.
The gate opened and Erik and I looked to our right. Pa stepped into the courtyard with a beautiful dark-haired lady. And there we stood with our trousers unbuttoned as we contributed to the plants demise. To my knowledge, none of the men or boys in New Orleans wore drawers. I couldnt tell you about the women and girls. Erik still had trouble hanging on to his trousers while the front flap was unbuttoned so he stood with his long shirttail showing and it wasnt hard to see his behind through that.
Pa whipped off his hat, which was never a good sign, and his wide smile disappeared. The lady with him cupped her hands over her face and quickly turned around.
"In the house," Pa ordered as he pointed to the door. "And dont bother to button up."
Without a word he put me across his knees - he always spanked me first - gave me five swats, and then made me wait in the other room while he punished Erik. I was buttoning my trousers when I heard him give Erik three light swats. My little brother was crushed and cried so much Pa finally had to hold him and pat his back to quiet him down.
"Now," Pa said as he put Erik on his feet. "You will both come with me and apologize to Mrs. de Marigny." He pronounced her name "mare-in-knee" and thats the way I thought it was spelled until much later.
"Who dat?" Erik asked as he wiped at his nose.
"The lady who was with me in the courtyard." Pa put one of his big hands behind each of our shoulders and directed us outside. Mrs. de Marigny turned from admiring the flowers Pa said were hibiscus and her face was pinker than I remembered.
Erik went right to the point. He sniffled once and said, "I pologize, Mrs. - " He looked up to Pa for help.
"de Marigny," Pa pronounced.
"Whats he say," Erik murmured and she smiled so much her eyes twinkled.
I was next and since I knew she had probably heard Pa punish us I was flushing from embarrassment. For the first time in my life I stammered. The more I tried to gain control the worse it got and when I couldnt stop Pa leaned down and looked at me in concern. I took jerky breaths and tried again. The second time I kept saying, "I I I." If Id had a stick I would have broken it out of frustration.
Mrs. de Marigny put her gloved hand on one of mine and I looked into mischievous eyes I would later see mirrored in my youngest brother. "Perhaps we can talk later, yes?" she suggested in an accent that blended Creole and French. I knew nodding was a breach of good manners but thats what I did. She smiled at me as she had Erik. "And now you will accompany us to the café?"
Pa never allowed me to leave the house right after he spanked me so I knew there was no chance of going with them.
But Pas grin went from one side of his face to the other and there was no hint of the stern father who had spanked me. "Come on, boys."
My pa had not been that happy since we had arrived in New Orleans. This was the pa I had known as we had traveled before Ingers death.
Erik was also back to his normal self because he skipped on the brick sidewalk. By the time we arrived at the outdoor café I could sit. I told myself that walking worked out the soreness. But I knew Pa hadnt spanked me very hard.
Even though Mrs. de Marigny was kind to us that afternoon I was determined not to like her and I looked for any reason to add to my feelings. She was wearing one of the fancy hats I'd seen in the shops and a dress that showed more than it should have. She didn't have paint on her face but I was sure she was one of "those" women I had heard talk about. Two boys I knew had peeked in the windows and had actually sneaked into "sporting houses," Growing up on the plains gave me a sheltered childhood but I more than caught up in New Orleans.
I wish I had never heard about sporting
houses because mouthing off about them got me into big trouble
Mrs. de Marigny was after Pa to marry him plain and simple. What other explanation was there for the two of them walking arm in arm? It never occurred to me to wonder how Pa met her - he has always been too principled a man for the kind of companionship offered in business establishments. But I knew as sure as I was breathing that Mrs. de Marigny pretended to like Erik and me. One of my friends said as soon as Pa and she were married she would ship us back East or across the ocean to some of her relatives. Although I would like to travel more now, I wasn't keen on the idea back then. So I was determined to keep her away from Pa.
What did Pa need a wife for anyhow? Erik and I didn't need a mother. Pa and I were partners and lots of times he asked my opinion about something or what I thought we ought to do. We sat and talked man-to-man and then he patted my leg and said, "I think your reasoning is good, Adam. That's what we'll do." A youngster can forget a lot of correction when his pa praises him like that.
The last thing I wanted was for some woman to interfere in our lives. We were doing just fine.
I promised myself I would bring out the worst in her and Pa could finally see her for what she was.
The problem was she wasnt pretending. Much to my chagrin she was a beautiful lady, inside and out, with just enough spunk and humor to make her hard to predict and always more than a match for Pa. Even now I can hear her saying "Benjamin" as she scolded him for something he had said and then immediately laughing with him.
"Boys," Pa would say with a wink, "dont ever let a woman tell you what to do." And then he would look at Ma and ask, "Now what did you want me to do, Marie?"
Life would have been so much easier if I hadnt kicked and balked like an untrained colt. But I was determined not to like her. And during the next few years I proved one thing: I am my fathers son when it comes to being stubborn.
"I gots a question," Erik announced one night as Pa tucked us into our small beds in the room Erik and I shared. "Mrs. is a married lady?"
Pa knew where my brothers question was headed. " You have a question, Erik," he corrected. "And yes. Sometimes a Mrs. is married and sometimes she is a widow."
I laughed and Pa gave me a you were young once, too look. "The word is widow, son. It is a woman whose husband died."
"Whos Mrs. D'Mar DMary?"
Pas brows shot up and his smile filled his lower face. "Accompanying another mans wife around town can get you into serious trouble. Her husband died."
Erik played with the button on Pas right sleeve. "Dats whys you cans be with her?"
I giggled because I had learned a different meaning for the term "be with" from the same friends who had spied on the sporting houses. Before Pa could give me a look I turned my back to him and buried my head in my pillow. Of course I didnt stop giggling.
Eriks voice brightened. "I like Mrs. D'Mary, Pa. She pwetty and she let me eats dessert befores real foods."
"Oh she does." I could hear the humor in Pas voice.
"Nots enough sos I doesnt eats but just somes," Erik assured, afraid Pa was going to scold him.
The bed creaked as Pa stood.
"Pa?" Erik had something else to say. "Whens you be wit her agains?"
My giggles squealed into spasms of laughter and I gagged my mouth with the corner of my pillow.
"As a matter of fact," Pa said and I could tell from the sound of his voice he was near me, "she asked us to her home tomorrow evening."
I stopped cold and rolled over to find Pa looking down at me. "Do we have to go?" I asked.
Erik sat up. "I wannas go!" he said emphatically.
Pa gave me a warning look I pretended not to understand. "You will go and you will be on your best behavior."
"Okay, Pa." Erik nodded his head as if Pa had been speaking to him. Pa and I knew hed been directing his orders at me. "Pa, you tink I eats some desserts first?" Erik asked in excitement.
Pa clapped his hands together in play. "You lay back down."
Erik giggled and pulled his sheet over his head.
I turned onto my stomach and went into a full pout.
Sometimes I look back at what I did as a boy and wonder what I was thinking. Occasionally I have to accept the fact that I wasnt thinking, or I didnt care what the consequences of my actions were, or I convinced myself I didnt care about the consequences.
I learned about consequences while Pa and I were traveling. But in New Orleans I tested my pas orders, pushed his patience against the wall, and pressed to see how much he would tolerate from me. You would think by the time I was eight-years-old I would have figured most of those things out. But remember what I said about how stubborn I was? I honed that trait until it was as sharp as a carving knife.
Erik and I each had one set of nice clothes the set we called our Sunday clothes. I hated them more than I hated getting up early on Sunday to go to church. Most of all I hated the tie that I had to wear with the suit and I fussed with it and got more and more aggravated that afternoon before we went to Mrs. de Marignys for dinner. I finally threw it to the floor and ground my boot into it.
Pa, who was helping a chattering Erik, looked over at me and pointed to the floor. "Pick that up, clean it off, and put it on without another word, please."
I declared I wouldnt because I wasnt going to wear it.
Pa stood up, picked up the tie, and cleaned it off with the clothes brush. Then he sat on my bed, told me to lower my trousers, and laid me across his knees. The three licks on my bare bottom with the wooden part of the clothes brush took my breath. "Do we understand each other?" he asked.
I understood and I glared into the mirror once I was back on my feet. If he thought he could boss me around he was wrong. Just wait until we got to Mrs. de Marignys. Id show him good.
"We gonna walks, Pa?" Erik asked as we went out the courtyard door.
"I believe so, yes. Its a nice afternoon and if we need to we can take a carriage home."
"Thinks my legsll last?" Erik asked. For some reason he had the idea that if he walked too far his legs would get shorter and shorter until he didnt have any left. I dont know why he thought that. I could already tell he was going to be a tall boy in a couple of years. He was as stout as I was slender.
Pa laughed and lifted Erik to ride on his shoulders. "Well, lets rest them for a while just in case."
He turned and looked my way. I was lagging behind, my hands stuffed in the side pockets of my trousers as I kicked a rock. Pa asked me to come up beside him and I pretended I didnt hear. I thought maybe if I behaved badly enough hed tell me to stay home and then I could sneak off with my friends.
"A- dam," Erik said hopefully. "Pa says for you to comes up here so you dont gets runned over by horses or nothing."
Pa amended my brothers statement. "Come here before I take you back to the house."
I squinted at him and tilted my head. "Can I stay home then?"
Ooohh, I dont know what I was thinking. Like I said, maybe I wasnt. He lifted Erik off his shoulders, grabbed my right arm, and hauled me back toward our courtyard with Erik running after us. Pa picked up a slat lying beside a shutter he needed to repair and as soon as the courtyard door closed behind me I knew I was in for it. He bent me over his right knee and swatted me with that slat until I sagged. Then he asked if he had made himself clear. I managed to tell him I would behave.
Pa wasnt sympathetic about my plight but Erik was. His sky blue eyes were full of tears. "Ya shouldnt of talk to Pa dat way, A- dam," he reminded.
Pa lifted Erik back onto his shoulders and held the courtyard door open. "Adam," he said as he motioned. My feelings and bottom hurt so much I was convinced I would die before we arrived at Mrs. de Marignys. Pa didnt cut me any slack either: he walked at his normal pace and I was worried not to keep up so I had to take about three or four quick steps to his one.
I was walking - well half-running with my head down when Pas right arm smacked against my chest. I looked up at him in what Im sure was panic that he was going to spank me again but instead he told me to be careful as a delivery wagon went right in front of me. My hands felt so cold, despite the warm afternoon, that I put them in my pockets. Pa asked if I was all right and I murmured that I was. He walked more slowly and put his right arm around my shoulders.
The courtyard of Mrs. de Marignys home was the prettiest one I had ever seen. It was obvious from the flowers growing over flowers and the blooming vines topping the brick wall that she didnt have any boys relieving themselves outside. Her home was small like ours but when she welcomed us inside I stopped in the entrance as I saw the furniture.
Even to my young eyes the wood was beautifully carved and the architectural details of the ceiling and frieze in the parlor were amazing. I cant say that I noticed the fabrics that afternoon, although I did later, but I walked toward one of the chairs as if it were a siren calling a sailor. Somewhere in the back of my mind I heard Pa start to say my name and then I heard Mrs. de Marigny say, "No, no, he will not hurt it." I reached out to the ornate carving along the top of the chair and slid my fingertips along it, tracing the design. Then I slowly looked around and a table caught my eye. It stood as tall as the arm of a nearby chair and I walked to it and then leaned down to see the carving on the single post and the three feet. They looked like the lions paws I had seen drawings of in one of my books.
"It is a candle table." Mrs. de Marignys light green skirt rustled as she stepped up beside me. "I can read by it at night or on the cloudy days. It is also good for when I do the needlework."
Not knowing how to respond I said, "Yes, maam" and looked longingly at the books on a nearby shelf.
"Your father tells me you are a most voracious reader," she said.
I had no idea what that meant but I figured if Pa had said it then it was true.
"Many of them are in French but if there is an English one you would enjoy to read you are welcome to borrow it."
I looked to Pa and he nodded his approval. Then I glanced back at the books and finally returned my attention to Mrs. de Marigny. "Thank you, maam."
I told myself I didnt like her, I was determined to turn Pa against her and I was adamant that she would not become more important to Pa than Erik and I were. But there were all those books. Books just waiting to be held and read. Books that offered new places to explore and adventures I could act out as I drifted to sleep. Books to curl up with on rainy days and lose all track of time. My resolve weakened.
"And now for the meal. Are you ready, Erik?" She held out her hand and he quickly took it.
"Desserts first?" he asked as we walked to the dining room.
She bent down and motioned to a place at the table where a small bowl was set. "Only un peu so you do not lose the taste for dinner."
I started to tell her she didnt need to worry about Erik losing his appetite but I sensed Pa was not in the mood for my wisecracks.
Knowing the tabletop would be too high for Erik, Mrs. de Marigny had tied several pillows together with a wide ribbon and then she had tied the set to the back of the chair. Pa lifted Erik to the top of the pillows and my younger brother laughed as he bounced on them. Pa grinned at Mrs. de Marigny.
"I know you are much taller, Adam, so I did not know if you required a pillow aussi," she said.
Before I could answer Pa said, "He might need just one, Marie." We both knew it had nothing to do with reaching the tabletop.
My decision to ruin the meal had diminished with each word of Pas lecture and I tried too hard to be perfect. I dont know if youve ever noticed but the harder you try to do everything correctly the more you do incorrectly. I was perfect all right a perfect study in awkwardness. I turned over my glass; dropped several globs of rice on the floor which thankfully was wood; when I started to pass the meat dish to Pa I tipped one of the candle sticks and only his quick hand kept me from setting the tablecloth on fire; and then when I was cutting my slice of meat it sailed off my plate and onto Eriks. He looked up in surprise, not knowing who his benefactor was, and said, "Tank you."
By then I was completely demoralized. I quickly excused myself and before Pa could say a thing I went out the backdoor to the courtyard. I leaned against the wall, with my left arm protecting my forehead from the rough brick, and I gave in to all the tears of the day. I was pounding the side of my right fist against the wall when I felt Pas big hand around it and he gently stopped the action. His touch enveloped me.
He led me from the wall and, after he sat on one of the courtyard chairs, he pulled me into his lap. Not only did I consider myself too old for that kind of thing but my bottom was in no condition to rest on his leg. I started to get up but he tugged me. I inched my thighs onto his leg. He patted my back and I turned and cried into his shoulder.
He didnt tell me not to cry. In fact, he didnt say anything. Eventually, I felt better and there were no more tears. I sat up to wipe at my face and pretend I hadnt fallen apart. He put me on my feet, gave me a handkerchief so I could blow my nose and when I started to return it to him suggested I keep it.
When we entered the dining room Mrs. de Marigny and Erik were giggling and she was gracious enough not to remark on my abrupt departure. I sat down at the table and Pa gave me a reassuring smile.
"Pa?" Erik said. "Mrs. DMary tolded me a funny riddle."
All I remember about the funny riddle that Mrs. DMary tolded Erik was that it was the dumbest thing Id ever heard up to that time. But I gave Erik a grin and set about eating my dinner again. I didnt upset another thing at the table and then I guess I was acting so grown up that Mrs. de Marigny convinced Pa to let me have a little watered-down wine with dessert. It tasted awful to my unsophisticated taste buds but I wouldnt have let anyone know for the world. I drank the entire glass down like a thirsty man would welcome water and as soon as we left the table I promptly fell asleep sprawled on my stomach on the parlor rug. I didnt stir until I woke up disoriented but on my stomach in my own bed and Pa was calling us to breakfast.
I was a little fatigued that morning whether from the crying or the swats Pa had given me or the wine or some combination of the three I wouldnt venture to guess. So as soon as Pa left for work I went back to my bed, even though I was fully dressed, and lay on my stomach again.
"You sick?" Erik asked worriedly.
"I dont know," I answered into my pillow. "I dont feel good."
My little brother nodded and sat down between our beds. He pulled out a box that contained several different shapes of wood Pa had made for him. "I stay rights here and I gets you anything."
I smiled and reached down to pat his blonde hair. "Thanks, brother."
About that time Thaddeus came into the room, licked my hand and lay down in front of Erik. A bit later I heard Erik giggle beside me and then I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
I woke up with my heart in my throat and the gut-wrenching fear that Erik had wandered off. But a quick look revealed him beside my bed. Both Thaddeus and he had fallen asleep with the wooden shapes scattered all around them. I lay back down, relieved and trying to catch my breath, and then Pas voice came from behind me.
"Arent you boys hungry for lunch?" he asked.
He was in the doorway with his hands in fists so his knuckles were on either side of his waist and his fingers pointed outwards. I guess it was a carryover from his sailing days. He stood with his legs spread back then, too. And Im sure that came from his days at sea. Hed taught me early that the best way to fall in a moving wagon was to have your feet too close together.
Pa never came home for lunch which was one of the reasons we ran the streets like a pair of urchins after we visited with Mrs. de Ville each morning. He didnt expect us to stay home all day, but if he asked we had to tell him where wed been and with whom. He asked each of us separately and if our stories didnt match it was spanking time again. Well, it was a spanking for me. Erik got three gentle little baby swats. The best I can recall he only received two real spankings from Pa.
Erik and I hadnt developed the talent we had later on of telling Pa just enough of the truth that it sounded like we were relating the same story. By the time our youngest brother turned 11 we had trained him how to do it, too. Pa would frown because he would know something was afoot but he couldnt pin it on us.
Consequently my brothers and I had become great allies by the end of our journey west. Not that we didnt argue amongst ourselves from time to time but the minute our rivalries looked like they were getting out of hand and Pa stopped whatever he was doing we would assure him we had just been kidding and wed get out of his sight as quickly as we could. We might adjourn to the barn where wed pick up our dispute or back behind the corral or bunkhouse. But we made sure Pa couldnt see us. And it never came to blows because there would have been no way to hide the results from Pa.
Im getting ahead of myself again.
Pa looked from me to Erik. "Are you ill?" His face filled with concern. I never understood why he worried so much about either one of us. We were two of the healthiest boys ever born if you didnt count a few childhood illnesses. I had no knowledge then of the fevers the New Orleans area was known for, especially the yellow fever, or the fact that Pa dreaded an outbreak of cholera because his mother had died from it. We had known people who developed the grippe and lung fever up north in the colder climates but Pa had always insisted we wear plenty of clothes, sometimes all the clothes we owned, and we had managed just fine.
"No, Pa," I answered. "We were just kind of tired. Uh Pa?"
"Yes?" He walked toward Erik to wake him. Thaddeus looked up and thumped his tail.
"Whatre you doing home?"
He shook Erik gently. "Mrs. de Ville stopped by to tell me she hadnt seen you all morning and there was no answer when she knocked at the door."
Eriks eyes opened and he smiled sleepily. "A-dam dont feel goods. I watch hims."
Pa picked up my little brother. "I dont think Ive ever seen a better caretaker. Now lets get some food in the two of you."
We ate lunch with Pa, which Erik thought was a real treat, and then we walked Pa part of the way back to work until he told us we needed to head back home. I wanted to walk by the shops but he lifted an eyebrow and we dropped the conversation.
Erik and I played some games of hide and seek in a couple of the neighbors yards and then we found a big enough rock to kick back and forth to each other. And then we got bored. God help the bored boy.
We drifted back to the house talking about all the things wed buy if we found buried treasure somewhere because you didnt live in New Orleans for long and not hear all manner of stories about pirates and hidden gold. Wouldnt Pa be proud of us if we found a pile of gold? We could head west again and Pa wouldnt have to work until we got to California and we had a ranch. Somehow we had the idea there could be buried treasure in our courtyard. Dont ask I have no idea.
It didnt take us anytime to retrieve two large spoons from the pantry. I should explain that the majority of the items in the rented house came with the house and did not belong to us. The flatware was one of those items. And the two large spoons were part of the flatware. We ran out to the courtyard with Thaddeus hot on our heels and for about ten minutes we debated on the best place to bury treasure. Then we agreed it would probably be the space between the house and the wall, on the side by the street. I slipped into the back of the area so I faced the courtyard and Erik had his back to the courtyard. The soil was soft and in no time we were working with a sizeable hole. It must have been at least three inches deep. Thaddeus thought what we were doing looked like fun so he squeezed in beside Erik. His flying paws threw dirt all over the courtyard behind him.
You guessed it. We were deep in our endeavor, so to speak, when the courtyard door opened and Pa stepped in with Mrs. de Marigny. She didnt even cover her face with her gloved hands she burst into laughter. I had been on my knees but I quickly sat on my behind so Pa couldnt get to it. Erik heard Mrs. de Marignys laugh and stood up full of excitement. He was absolutely filthy.
"We finding golds." He ran to Pa but Pa held him at arms length in an attempt to keep his trousers clean.
"Gold," Pa repeated and looked at me. "And where did you get the idea theres gold buried in this courtyard?"
Erik frowned. "There gold everwhere."
"Oh there is." Pas eyes were still on me. "And who told you that?"
I closed my eyes because I knew what was coming.
"A-dam tolded me, Pa."
"Adam," Pa said and I opened my eyes. "Fill in that hole please and then I want to speak to you."
Pa took Eriks hand. "Lets get you clean in the meantime."
Erik stopped in his tracks. "I dont likes mean times, Pa. I only likes nice time."
"All right," Pa humored him. "Well get you clean in the nice time."
I started filling in the hole, slowly Ill admit, but Thaddeus was sabotaging my efforts. Mrs. de Marigny sat on a courtyard chair and called him to her. She rubbed behind one of his ears and he immediately fell in love with her. Before I had all the dirt in the hole, Pas shadow fell over me.
"No, Pa." I put a little more devotion into the job and finished up looking worriedly at the dirt Thaddeus had kicked onto the courtyard bricks. "Uh, Ill get a broom or something."
"No, youll bring over some buckets of water tomorrow to wash it. Right now I want to talk to you inside."
I was all on my own. Thaddeus and Erik were showering all their attention on Mrs. de Marigny and she was laughing softly with them and telling Erik how handsome he looked with a clean face and combed hair.
Pa held the door open for me and we walked up the three steps to Eriks and my room. He sat on my bed. "Would you tell me what you were thinking?"
Although I knew better, I shrugged my shoulders. What did it matter? He was going to spank me anyhow.
"You dont really believe there is gold buried somewhere in that courtyard, do you?"
I shrugged again. He could only spank me so hard before I started screaming and then Mrs. de Ville would come running to see what was wrong. Then again maybe she wouldnt. I wasnt sure if she was home.
Pa reached to unbutton my trousers and I panicked. I didnt want him to spank me and I really didnt want him to see my bare front, even through my shirttail, so I grabbed at his hands and he looked up in surprise. "We need to get you cleaned up," he explained.
I shook my head. "Ill get me clean." For the first time in my life I couldnt read his eyes.
He tilted his head and folded his hands between his legs. "Did you think I was ready to spank you?"
Trying to act like I didnt care I said, "Maybe." I was impressed by my bravado.
Pa leaned forward and put his big hands around my waist. "I believe when I spank you youre the one who lowers your trousers, not me."
I completely misunderstood him and thought he meant when he spanked me I had to take down my trousers but he didnt have to take down his trousers. I stared at him in stunned disbelief and my mouth fell open. Pa with his trousers down? My cheeks heated up and Pa leaned even closer.
His blue eyes were readable then - they were full of amusement. "Are you embarrassed?"
Well, you know what I thought of then, right? My friends and I used all kinds of words for "behind" when we werent around our parents. And I didnt hear the "em" in that word Pa used - only the next two syllables. My cheeks felt hotter, if that was possible.
Pa laughed in his deep, rich way and his hands tightened around my waist. "Your face is as red as an apple." He shook his head and motioned to my clean set of clothes. "All right, you clean you up. What did you do with the spoons?"
"Theyre in the tub in the kitchen," I answered and hoped my cheeks would cool down.
Just as he reached the door Pa looked back at me "Youre taking words a bit too literally."
I didnt want to ask him what that meant but on my way to the front door I stopped at the dictionary Pa always kept in the parlor and looked up the word "literally". I found out it meant to "interpret words according to their actual denotation". I had a larger vocabulary than the average boy my age but the word "denotation" set me back even more than "literally" had. When I finally found it in the dictionary and figured out what it all meant together I raised my eyes and there stood Pa, smiling.
Hed known everything I was thinking all along. My cheeks flushed again and he laughed. "Come on you little scamp," he said and he gave me a swat on the behind. But it was a real light one.
Erik and I had been brought up not to ask for things so Pa was safe from harassment as we strolled past shops or visited the park to watch a music presentation or a puppet show or something exciting like that. And though we never asked for anything, we loved to look in the windows and admire all the pretty, sparkling things inside. Erik liked all of it. I was attracted to wooden boxes.
When the weather wasnt too hot, or rainy, or sticky, or chilly, or a hundred other things it could be in New Orleans, Pa, Erik and I walked through some of the neighborhoods. That was the greatest gift in the world to me. The city had suffered several fires so most of the houses built by the time I was there, and Louisiana was part of the United States, were brick or masonry with tile or slate. The Vieux Carre, or French Quarter, was the most active, acceptable area because of the businesses there that centered on sugar, cotton, and river traffic. The street I loved to walk along, with my head tilted so far back its a wonder I didnt break my neck, was Bourbon Street. Some of the most elegant homes I had ever seen were there.
"Im gonna build houses like that," I announced as we strolled one day.
"Thats an excellent idea," Pa agreed. "What do you think youd have to do before you could build one like that?"
I thought about it long and hard and stopped to look one over. "Youd have to get some hammers and nails and wood and "
"Before that." Pa crossed his arms.
Again I gave it some thought and then I smiled at him triumphantly. "The place to build it. Youd have to have the place to build it."
"Very good," Pa praised. "And how about before that?" He leaned back on a tree trunk.
Glory but I was stumped then. It seemed to me all you needed was a place and then the tools and the wood and bricks.
"Wouldnt you need some other people to help you? Like the builders weve seen around the city? And the men who do special work like carving and painting."
"Oh!" I exclaimed in understanding. "Well sure."
Pa took a moment to call to Erik - who was wandering - and my brother came running back as fast as his little legs could bring him. "What have I told you about that, young man?" Pa asked.
Erik nodded. "Not to."
Pa sat on his heels and Eriks neck looked more comfortable. "Did you think I didnt mean it?"
He shook his head. "I knowed you mean it."
"Then why did you do it?" Pa always had a little trouble keeping a straight face with Erik.
"My rock wents there."
Erik nodded and his wavy blond hair blew in the breeze. "I has this rock, Pa? And I was kickin it likes me and A-dam do. And I has to go theres and gets it or it couldve been hurts by a horse or somethin."
Pa looked down for a minute and then lifted Eriks chin. "Next time ask me before you go after your rock."
"But you was talking and you says to say nothing when somebodys talking."
I smiled and looked down. Erik had Pa dead to rights.
Pa held up his left hand near Eriks leg. "Next time ask me before you go after your rock."
Erik eyed the big, calloused hand. "Pa? Dat could hurts my leg."
"Yes, it could."
"It make dat leg shorters dan dis one?"
I was red from trying not to laugh.
"No." Pa lowered his hand. "It will not make one leg shorter than the other. It will make it sting, though."
Erik nodded. "I knows that, Pa. It makes my bottom sting."
Pa picked him up and returned his attention to me. "So, you would need people to help you and to build special things for the house. How would you tell them what you wanted?"
That seemed simple. "Tell em."
"What if you couldnt be there all the time?" Pa was sure making building a house more complicated that it needed to be. He motioned to the pretty trim around the top of one house and the carving at the top of three columns. "How would you be sure the men who were working on that did what you wanted? How could you help them see what you saw?"
"Draws it!" Erik piped up from where he hugged Pas side.
Pa and I looked at him like hed turned into a horse. "Thats right," Pa answered and then laughed.
"But how?" I asked in despair.
"Ill show you tomorrow." Pa patted me on the head.
"I want to know now," I pleaded.
"A-dam," Erik said and I swear he sounded like he was scolding me. "Pa mean it."
I threw my arms in the air and resigned myself to my fate.
Pa was as good as his word he always has been whether you want him to be or not and the next night he opened the trunk he kept in his room. Erik and I watched from a respectful distance. We might have been mischievous but Pa had made sure we knew to never disturb what belonged to someone else. Neither one of us had seen what was inside the trunk. The curiosity caused me to dance from one foot to the other.
It took him forever - and I wonder now if he did it on purpose - but Pa produced a roll of strange looking paper, some flat wooden sticks with black marks on them, and pencils. Real, honest-to-gosh pencils.
We were so excited he only had to tell us once to follow him into the dining room. He sat in a chair and I scooted chairs on either side for Erik and me. We both kneeled in our chairs and leaned to see what magic Pa would show us.
"Now lets see," he said as he tore a section of the paper off the roll. It was thin and yellowish not like any paper I had ever seen but then I hadnt seen much except the New Orleans newspaper. "Say you want to draw a column." Pa took the flat piece of wood and slid the pencil beside it. When he moved the wooden piece he had a straight line. "Thats one side." He did the same thing again a short distance away. "And theres the other side. Now for the top "
"Draws a horse," Erik said, a bit bored with the straight lines.
Pa laughed and shook his head. "I dont think I can do that." He held the pencil in the air.
Erik folded his arms in a perfect imitation of Pa and repeated an oft-heard Pa phrase. "You never knows until you try."
I laughed and Pa looked my way. "What is this? An insurrection?"
"Would you tell me or do I have to look it up?" I didnt want to leave the table or what Pa was showing me. "Does it start with a n or an e?"
Pa tapped me on the top of the head with the wooden stick. "It starts with an i and it means an uprising, a rebellion."
"A war?" I asked worriedly.
Pa rested his forearms on the table. "Do you think you could win a war with me?"
I shook my head. "I never fought a war. Did you?"
"Pretty close," he answered and then returned his attention to the piece of paper. "A horse," he muttered and started drawing on one corner.
When Erik finally saw Pas artwork he fell back in the chair, holding his tummy as he laughed.
Pa tilted his head. "I think its a fine-looking horse." I heard just a little bit of discomfort in his voice.
"Its not that bad." I tried to be diplomatic but then I looked at the sketch again, folded my arms on the tabletop, and put my head down - laughing so hard I couldnt have stopped for anything. I slapped my left hand on the tabletop, too.
"Its better than either one of you can do," Pa declared.
The challenge was issued and we Cartwrights never back down from a challenge. Erik drew on another corner of the paper and his horse bore a striking resemblance to Pas horse.
"Mine pwettier," Erik announced.
"No it isnt," Pa argued as he handed me the pencil. He growled at Erik who giggled and grabbed Pas hair.
"I wrestles the lion," Erik giggled and Pa buried his head in Eriks middle.
They were so busy playing they didnt pay any attention to me which was just fine. The only thing I had drawn with before was chalk on a slate. The pencil was the most miraculous thing Id ever held. I sketched quickly, allowing the lines to flow the way I remembered a horse looking and I sat back, pleased with my work.
"Wook, Pa." Erik held out a short index finger and Pa turned from their wrestling to examine my artwork.
That was the exact moment when something magical happened. It was the first time I did anything better than Pa. He studied my drawing for a long time and then tapped the column. "Draw the top of that the way you want it." I reached for the flat piece of wood and he stopped my hand. "Dont use a tool. Use your hand the way you did for the horse."
I obeyed and, although Im sure it would look crude if I saw it today, the capital on that column was pretty impressive back then.
"Hey, A-dam." Erik bounded over with energy. "Draws a rock. A real pretty rock."
"Rocks are all the same," I said with all the wisdom of an eight-year-old.
"No dey not." Erik scrambled from his chair and charged toward our room. He shouted over his shoulder, "I gonna show you."
Pa grinned at me. "He gonna show you." Then he patted my back. "Adam, you have a wonderful gift. Ill do everything I can to help you use it some day."
I looked up into his blue eyes and felt a kinship I had never felt before I probably glowed like a candle.
"See." Erik placed three small rocks in front of me. "Dey all different. Dis one smiles and dis one has da moon on it and dis one have a great big hole." He looked up at Pa. "You tink dat rock use dat hole to "
"No, I do not," Pa interrupted before Erik could send me into a fit of laughter.
Erik held his arms up and Pa lifted him into his lap. "What dat hole for?"
I held the rock up to my left eye and looked through the opening. I leaned close to Erik and in my scariest voice said, "To watch you while you sleep and one night all the other rocks will come and steal you away."
"No!" Erik yelled and hit the rock with the side of his fist.
That is how I got my first black eye.
"What the Zeus were you thinking?" Pa asked me two days later when my eye looked like a ripe plum. "Adam, sometimes I wonder if you have a brain up there."
"If I dont its your fault," I shot back and he frowned at me. "You helped make me, didnt you? Maybe you forgot something."
Pa removed the wet rag from my eye. "Youre going to forget what it feels like to sit if you talk back again. Now, put on your tie and well meet Mrs. de Marigny."
Wouldnt you think I had learned my lesson about that tie? We were meeting Mrs. de Marigny for a free musical presentation and I could think of nothing more boring. The concerts were kind of interesting when Erik, Pa, and I went but it sounded like a slow death if she went along.
I sat on my bed and glanced at the shuttered window to my right. An idea urged me into mischief. Id hide the tie and tell Pa I couldnt find it and then Id have to stay home because he wouldnt want me to go out not dressed properly. I knew hed search the room, or more likely make me search while he watched.
It was an idea that led to all kinds of trouble in the future.
A wrought iron rail was outside our shuttered window. Not all the homes had the decorative rails and I hadnt given ours much attention except to swing on it when I was really, really bored. One time Pa found me walking along the top of it. He pulled me down, threw me over one hip, and spanked me until I was sure hed split my trousers. Anyhow, I knew that iron rail could hold my weight so I climbed up on it. At first I intended to throw the tie on the roof but then an even better idea was born. I carefully climbed to the steep roof, balanced my weight, and stuffed the tie behind a flowering vine that covered the better part of that side of the house. I quickly slid off the roof, stepped onto the rail, and then went back into our room.
When Pa appeared in my doorway I made a great show of searching for my tie.
"Where did you put it when you took it off?" he asked.
"With my suit like you told me."
Pa stepped into the room. "Obviously you didnt." He leaned his hips against the foot of my bed and watched me continue to look everywhere in an exaggerated frenzy, even under our pillows. "Adam." I turned and he motioned with his right hand for me to come to him. I obeyed. When I stood in front of him he very slowly turned me by my shoulders and pulled my shirttail out of the back of my trousers. My heart pounded because I knew that he knew I was lying.
He slapped my upper leg.
"But I cant find it," I protested about the tie.
I jerked to get free of his left hand and his right hand cracked across my upper leg again.
"Pa!" I cried out.
He delivered another swat and after he gave
me one more I quickly positioned my hands to protect what
mattered to me more than anything else at the moment. "Tuck
your shirttail in," he instructed.
I was beginning to associate Mrs. de Marigny with acute backside distress.
Pa pointed his right index finger straight at me and his eyes squinted. "You will be obedient. And if you cannot be cheerful you will be polite. Do I make myself clear?"
After a gulp or two I answered, "Yes, Pa."
"And you will find that tie before Sunday or I will give you a half dozen swats."
Six? I rubbed at my leg and nodded.
Walking to meet Mrs. de Marigny I grew increasingly upset over my situation. Pa was always in his worst moods when we were with her and I for sure got swats every time she showed up. Pa had told me to be obedient and polite. Well, Id be that but I wouldnt be anything else.
"Oh, Erik, Adam how good it is to see you." Mrs. de Marigny smiled when we met her in her courtyard. "How lucky I am to be accompanied by the three most handsome men in the city."
Pa held out his arm but Erik took her hand. "I walks her this time."
Mrs. de Marigny chuckled and said she would be honored. Erik struggled with the courtyard gate but he held it open for her and then released it without a thought in front of Pa and me. Pa laughed under his breath. If Id done that he would have lectured me.
"Adam, your father tells me you are quite the artist," she said as the four of us walked abreast.
"Have you been to the houses they are building on the other side of Canal Street?"
"Perhaps we can arrange for him to see them, Benjamin? I am sure they would be of great interest to Adam." She looked up at Pa and tilted her head. I noticed she was not wearing a hat. And her hair was down like a girls, pulled back only at the sides. Why the heck did Pa insist on us dressing properly when she obviously wasnt? "Oh," she said excitedly. "We will have the outdoor lunch. Would that not be enjoyable?"
Oh great. More time with her. I decided there was nothing Erik, Pa and Mrs. de Marigny could talk about that interested me so I stuck my hands in my side pockets and ignored them. Instead I watched the people we walked past, the carriages and who was in them and what the horses looked like: when a streetlight wasnt working I wondered why in other words I did everything to avoid participating in the evening. My sulking ended abruptly when Pa grasped my arm and led me into an alleyway.
He was furious. His mouth was straight and his eyebrows angled toward his nose. "What did I tell you in your bedroom this afternoon, young man?"
I backed against the brick wall. I hadnt seen him like this since I had disobeyed him on the prairie one day and had nearly been killed by a wagon when it tipped over. I had learned then that when Pa called to me or gave me an order I was to respond immediately.
He squeezed my arm so tightly my eyes filled with tears. "Well?" His anger built in front of my frightened eyes.
"You said to obey, Pa."
"What else, Adam?" His voice lowered but that was not a good sign. When I didnt answer, he almost whispered, "What else, Adam?"
Honest to gosh I had visions of myself hanging on a meat hook like I had seen in the markets. "Polite. To be polite."
The arm that didnt have a numbing grip on mine shot out and he pointed in the general direction of where Mrs. de Marigny and Erik had their backs to us as they looked at the stars. "And would you tell me what is polite about ignoring someone when she speaks to you?" Pas blue eyes are by nature bright and non-threatening. But they filled with fire that evening. "Do it again and I promise you one deuce of a spanking. Do I make myself clear?"
I had no idea what a deuce was but it didnt sound very good the way he said it so I nodded. "Yes, sir."
"You will change your behavior now." He released my arm and put his hand on my left shoulder, gripping it tightly. When we crossed the street and joined Erik and Mrs. de Marigny, Pa was all smiles again.
"Guess what, Pa?" Erik said. "I tolded Mrs. de Marigny the name of that star."
"You are a very intelligent young man," Mrs. de Marigny praised. She looked my way. "I think perhaps all the Cartwrights are very intelligent."
I gave her a smile I really didnt feel and walked on the other side of Erik, as far away from Pa as I could get. That is where I remained all evening. When we sat for the concert - and I assure you it was no easy matter for me to sit without scooting - we were in the same order: Pa, Mrs. de Marigny, Erik and me.
"Do you enjoy the music, Adam?" She smiled at me and ran her fingers through the right side of her wavy hair to ease it behind her ear.
"Oh!" she exclaimed with delight. She thought she had found a fellow music-lover and I was anything but that at the time. "What is your favorite instrument?"
I sucked in a deep breath and looked at the people playing the music. I didnt know the name of one of those things they were blowing through or sawing on. I quickly came up with the only instrument I could name besides a harmonica. "The guitar, maam."
Pa leaned around her and looked at me with raised eyebrows. Oh glory what had I done now? I pulled in my shoulders and put my clasped hands between my legs.
Mrs. de Marigny was totally unaware of my concern about Pa. "The guitar is the most wonderful instrument when played well," she agreed. "I once knew someone who could bring so many sounds from it: weeping or laughing or dancing or even the giggle of water in a stream. Have you heard this?"
I kept my eyes straight ahead. "No, maam. I guess the guitars Ive heard havent been very good."
"No, no." she reached in front of Erik and patted my right arm. "It is the player not the guitar. As in all things, it is the person and not the object."
"Yes, maam." I didnt have any idea what she was talking about.
Some time after our conversation, Erik dozed off and felt no qualms at all about resting his feet on my legs and his head in Mrs. de Marignys lap.
"Marie." Pa held out his arms. "I can take him."
"No." She ran a gloved hand over his hair. "He is sleeping peacefully." She smiled at him and then murmured. "He is the sweetest child, Benjamin."
When hes not into mischief, I thought.
"Hes a good boy," Pa agreed.
I couldnt remember the last time Pa had said that about me.
That night after we returned home I lay on my stomach on my bed and tried to bury my face in the pillow. All I wanted was to escape the mixed-up way I felt.
I looked to my left and there stood Erik. Not wide-awake but pretty close. He patted my left check with a chubby hand. "I helps you look for your tie, okay? Pa wont gives you buncha swats Sunday."
That was all I needed to end such a miserable day: Erik had heard Pa spanking me that afternoon.
"Pa swatted yous four times for the tie," Erik said softly in the deepest of confidence. He knew how to count to ten and was up to m in the alphabet. "Yous dont cry," he added in amazement. "Yous holler outs but yous dont cry." That fact was amazing to my little brother who broke into sobs when Pa said "Erik" sternly. "I helps you looks for your tie."
I rolled onto my right side so I could see him better. "I know where it is."
"Uh oh" Erik grabbed the side of my bed.
"Dont worry," I assured him. "Ill get it first thing in the morning."
"Uh oh." Erik repeated and raised his right arm to point at the doorway behind me.
I knew who was there before I sat up. Pa leaned on the doorframe with his arms crossed. "So youve remembered where the tie is?" he asked.
Pulling my pillow in front of me and also pulling up my knees I wondered how many swats he would give me. I could sit at the moment but there was an aching reminder from our earlier encounter. "Yes, Pa."
"And where is that?" He didnt take his eyes off me. I felt Erik back toward his own bed.
"Sir?" I stalled.
He didnt repeat his question. He just stayed there, leaning in the doorway. That was fine with me. If he took one step my way I knew I would shake. I couldnt face anymore of his anger.
"Its " I paused. He didnt have to know it was on the roof because I wouldnt be getting it down until after he left for work in the morning. On the other hand, if I told him it was somewhere in the house hed make me retrieve it while he watched.
"Adam." I looked up. "It takes longer to make up a lie than it does to tell the truth."
Before I could answer Erik said, "Da truth get spanked, Pa."
"What dat mean?"
"Adam, why dont you tell him?" Pa shifted on his feet.
"It means not very often." I squeezed my pillow.
"Well, why you not say dat?" Erik asked.
Pa pointed. "In your bed now, young man."
"All right, Pa. Dont gets in a lather."
I buried my face in my pillow. Erik had heard one of my friends who had sneaked into a horse race use that expression. My younger brother loved new words. Most of the time he had no idea what they meant but every so often he hit the nail on the head.
Pa straightened slowly and stared at his four-year-old. He knew what that expression referred to in our area and was suspicious we had been frequenting the racetracks. "Excuse me?"
Normally when one of us said, "excuse me" we were apologizing for something - like belching at the table. So Erik asked, "What you do?"
I could feel my life ticking away and Erik wasnt helping much. "What did you just say?" Pa asked.
Erik climbed on his bed and gave Pa a peculiar look. "I say what you do?"
"What did you say before that?"
Erik held his arms in the air. "Pa, you shouldnt oughta picks on someone littler than yous. Dats what yous all da times say." If I hadnt been so worried about my future I would have laughed into my pillow.
"You told me not to get in a lather."
"Should you care when I am speaking to Adam?"
Eriks brow wrinkled. "I cares whole bunches, Pa. He my brother."
Pa wasnt winning and there was little chance he would. He turned his attention to me and I felt something go through me like I would later when we were traveling toward California and lightning struck not far from our wagon.
"Where is your tie?" He stepped out of the doorframe to lean his hands on the foot of my bed.
I was learning to respect those hands more than I ever had. I scooted as far toward the head of the bed as I could. "On the roof, Pa."
"On the roof."
He leaned his head back and looked at me from the bottoms of his eyes. "And how did your tie get on the roof?"
"I threw it."
"And how do you plan to get it down?"
Oh no. Id for sure be hanging on a meat hook in the market in the morning. "I can climb up and get it."
I closed my eyes so I couldnt see Pas face or anything else about him. "Yes, Pa."
"How do you know you can climb and get it?"
"Thats how it got there."
"You climbed onto the roof."
"And how did you get to the roof?"
He was making this so bad. All I could figure was he didnt want to kill me in front of Erik. He would take me out to the courtyard to do it. But hed have to lock Thaddeus in the house because Thaddeus was protective of Erik and me.
"Open your eyes."
I had a hard time obeying and tears burned my eyes. But I was determined Pa would not ever see me cry again. I wouldnt let him know how much it hurt to be spanked or not to be told I was good or to have him pay attention to Mrs. de Marigny or any of it. He walked to the side of my bed and looked straight down at me.
"Do not climb on the roof. When I get home we will use the ladder. Do I make myself clear?"
He ran his right hand through my hair. "Good night."
I muttered a goodnight and immediately rolled to my left side so my back would be to him. I heard him tell Erik goodnight and then whisper something in Eriks ear. My brothers giggle filled the air. Once again I felt left out - but I was beginning to care less and less.
When Erik and I werent commandeering someone elses horse, or destroying the neighbors gardens with our hide and seek games, or climbing in the trees and breaking small limbs, we were engaged in more exciting mischief with our friends. My group of pals was Henri, who was two years my senior; Etienne, who was about a year older than me; and then Dieter and Gus who were just a little younger than me. Our hierarchy was based totally on age and had nothing to do with intelligence. Henri, Dieter and Gus had younger brothers with whom Erik enjoyed playing games. More than once we left them in the care of one of the dark-skinned nurses and took off for adventures more mature boys had like leap frog, hoops, and marbles.
I have to confess here that I thought all dark-skinned women were called "nurses" just the way Henri, Gus, Dieter and Etienne were Creole, and I was Cartwright. And I am embarrassed to admit it but I had no idea about free people of color in New Orleans or anything about slavery until I was much older - and then it shocked me.
I wish I could remember Gus, Henri and Dieters brothers names but I cant. It is enough to remember Eriks chatter all the way home when he had been with them. They played with puzzles and if they were lucky they could swing or play hopscotch. Some of the boys had toys like he had seen in the shop windows and he was greatly impressed by that and wanted to know how they had gotten them.
"They bought them," I explained as we trudged home one day. I was weary to my bones because Henri, Dieter and I had been out by the swamps seeing how close we could get to the alligators before they snapped off a big twig. Heavens we wore out many a guardian angel.
"They boughts them?" Erik asked of the toys. "How?"
I looked down at his upturned face and tried to wipe away a smudge on his right cheek. "With money, Erik."
"Money." He rolled the word around in his mouth.
"Like what Pa uses when we get food and stuff," I explained.
"Does you and me has money?" He was eager-eyed and I knew he wanted to buy a toy.
"No, Erik, we dont have anything."
"How comes not?"
That was a good question. I mulled it over a while. "Well, we cant work and we dont have anything to sell."
Erik thought so long and hard on that he was quiet all the time I did my late afternoon chores. Pa placed a lot of trust in me by letting me anywhere near the kitchen even if it was detached from the house. At the time it seemed perfectly normal to work there, especially since it was my chore to chop kindling and store it in the woodshed and get the kitchen fire going before Pa returned home in the evening. Many times I was also expected to have vegetables peeled or bread in the warming oven to the side of the fireplace.
With the benefit of hindsight I realize that Pas spankings were never as hard as I thought they were at the time. That didnt keep me from taking them to heart. In addition I never recovered quickly from reprimands. Erik was lucky - he cried and received Pas reassurance that the world was not going to end. I kept the hurt deep inside and refused to let him see it. Or so I thought.
My way to get along with him as he became more serious about Mrs. de Marigny was to avoid him. As soon as dinner was over I went to my room. When Pa asked if I would like to read the newspaper for Erik and him I told him I was kind of tired because Id had a busy day. When he asked about my busy day I told him it was nothing he would be interested in, just the usual things like London Bridge. When I mentioned London Bridge he asked if I knew he had been to England. I replied respectfully that yes, he had told me. He noticed I wasnt using the paper and pencils and asked me why. I told him it was something you had to feel right about doing. I did not speak of swamp adventures. And then I excused myself.
Many nights after Pa was asleep I sat on the floor in Eriks and my room with my knees pulled up and stared at the stars. I couldnt see many of them in New Orleans, probably because of the streetlights. Then again nothing could compare to the stars on the prairies and plains. So many nights I had lain on my bedding beside Pa looking up into a sky that felt like a thick protective blanket. And there in the darkness were my friends the stars. They had names and stories and guided me from one to the next. Pa taught me how to know directions by them and how they changed during the year. I missed the prairie, the sound of wagon wheels, the blowing of horses, the shouting of men, the crack and pop of a campfire, the whisper of a breeze, the unmistakable smell of rain on dry grass - and the dark, comforting sky with the bright points of light. Every night I prayed the next day would be our last in New Orleans but I knew better than to ask Pa when we were leaving.
I was clearing the dinner table one evening when I noticed Pa walking out to the courtyard carrying the blankets and other bedding we had used in our wagon. We sure as heck didnt need them in New Orleans so I thought maybe he was storing them in one of the buildings out back. I didnt dare believe it meant we were leaving. I stood looking at the clean tabletop as I tried to decide how I would pass the short time before bed when Pa lifted me. At six feet tall, he has a definite physical ability to take care of himself and a reserve of strength that has caught more than one opponent - and son - by surprise. When he lifted me that night he held me in the crook of his right elbow with his forearm under my bottom but I wrapped my arms around his neck and my legs around his waist to keep from falling.
Pa laughed and patted my right thigh with his left hand. "I havent dropped you yet, have I?"
"No, Pa," I answered softly.
Erik tugged impatiently at Pas left trouser leg. "Come on, Pa, hurry fore they gos out."
Pa winked at me and turned to walk to the courtyard with Erik running ahead of us. "Hes convinced the stars will burn out," he said in a low voice.
I grinned at the thought.
"Adam?" Pa kept his voice soft, as if he were telling me a secret. His strides werent as wide as they usually were so my ride in his arms was as gentle as his voice.
He walked even more slowly and held me closer than he needed to. "I couldnt keep our family together without you by my side, son."
My throat tightened and went hotter than my cheeks had ever been.
"Are you still my partner?"
I leaned into his shoulder. "Im still your partner." His shirt muffled my answer.
He patted my right cheek with his left hand and said something that showed immense intuition. "Dont hold so much in, Adam. Its not good for either one of us."
Pa is direct when he thinks its necessary yet he can also be subtler than anyone I know. On the surface he was asking me not to hold in my emotions. But I understood the unspoken message: he knew how I felt about the changes in my life. And even though he spent more time with Mrs. de Marigny, I was still important to him he still needed me. Just knowing that eased my sadness.
He stopped in the doorway and I raised my head.
"Whatre we doing, Pa?"
He smiled at me as Erik all but danced a jig on the quilts laid out on the courtyard bricks. "We are going to stretch out and teach your little brother some more about the stars."
Erik and I fell asleep that night under the stars on either side of our pa.
As the weather warmed, which didnt take long in New Orleans, Pa was more strident about where we played and what we did. Neither one of us was too inclined to test his patience but one place he had specifically warned us not to go near was the swamp. He didnt have to repeat himself with Erik. I had already convinced the little guy that alligators roamed our streets at night and thats why we couldnt go outside after a certain time. But my buddies and I thought the fringes of the swamp area were the scariest and hence the most enticing places we had ever known. In their own way, they are hauntingly beautiful. Trees with trunks that swell out at the bottom; gray spiraling clumps of Spanish moss hanging from massive limbs and often reaching so close you have to push them away; birds you are not likely to see or hear anywhere else; and the slow glide of the boat as you paddle through the water.
The only bothersome thing is the mosquitoes and their vicious bites. Well, maybe the mosquitoes and the alligators. If you havent seen an alligator you would not believe how long they are and how wide their mouths open. When youre an eight-year-old boy you can easily imagine one of the reptiles swallowing you whole and then burping out your hair and teeth. They would ease into the water and we would get away as quickly as possible. We never had one in the water, floating like a log, attack us and I dont know if that was fortune or a satiated alligator. They also roared. Even though, despite what I had told Erik, they did not show up in our neighborhood at night we could hear them roar and often we could hear the frightening sounds of a dispute. We never knew who won. We decided they would keep on fighting and then there would only be one remaining alligator and he would be the biggest and meanest ever born.
If we didnt always use our heads about some things, Dieter, Etienne, Gus, Henri, and I were smart in one way: we never took one of the cute baby alligators home. My judicious behavior was not based on the fact that the little darling would grow into a ferocious meat-eater. No, it was based solely on the fact that when our Pa found it - and there was no doubt he would find it - he would know I had been at the swamps.
My buddies didnt worry as much as I did because their fathers were Creole. They didnt argue with their fathers decisions but by the same token their fathers tended to spoil them.
If Pa ever spoiled me like my friends fathers spoiled them I blinked and missed it. I know there were times, especially before he married Inger, when he went without while I didnt. I always had what I absolutely required. He expected me to not ask for things. Even more importantly I learned to be grateful for gifts and considerations. I was always grateful except for one time recently when Pa and I had a falling out on my birthday. I understand now what he was trying to teach me - but I didnt agree with him for a while. When I was growing up, the idea that someone could disobey their father and then receive a pony or a new set of clothes or the toy theyd been asking for was as foreign to me as some of the languages I heard spoken on the streets.
I dont want to give the impression Pa isnt a loving father. He teases; pulls stunts like cheating at checkers; starts water fights; dumps hay all over us and then holds his arms up and pleads innocence; will explain things to the best of his ability and if he needs to know more he looks for the information with us; he challenges me to a horse race and if I win he reaches across, pulls my hat down over my eyes, and puts his horse into a full gallop. And perhaps most importantly, despite all the hard times he has faced, he has a positive outlook on life and a strong belief in family.
I can also talk to him about anything - even when its something he doesnt approve of. He listens with reassuring attentiveness. And then he guides me through my decision: what did you base it on; was I influenced by what someone said or did or by something I read or saw; did it seem like a bad decision from the beginning or with hindsight. His questions continue until he asks the last one: given the same circumstances and the same knowledge would I do it again or would I strive to learn more before I acted? He expects his sons to be obedient and respectful but he also wants us to have a mind of our own.
I was using that mind of my own when I went to the swamps after hed warned me not to. Heaven knows I wasnt using that brain he kept asking me about. Given the same circumstances and the same knowledge I would not do it again and I wish I had known more before I acted. When youre eight-years-old, though, nothing can happen to you. Nothing at all. But it can happen to your best friend.
One day after we indulged in our usual small adventures - including a ride on the horse we had named Good Boy - Erik and I decided to meet Pa when he came home from work. I told Erik we would wait at the corner where Pa always made us stop when we walked him to work. But Erik was developing a mind of his own, too. I watched in shock as he ran down the brick sidewalk. Then I went after him like a dog chasing a rabbit. I was close enough to grab his collar when he squealed out, "Pa!" and vaulted into our surprised fathers arms. Mrs. de Marigny was walking beside Pa and I stepped back a bit. I suppose it looked courteous but believe me it was out of total self-interest. As I said before, I had noticed a direct relationship between being around Mrs. de Marigny and getting swats from Pa.
"Maam," I said politely.
"Well this is certainly a surprise." Pa looked at me.
I wasnt about to tell him that Erik had gotten away from me. That would get me in trouble. And if I told him Erik had gone running off that would get my brother in trouble.
"Did you start the stew?" Pa shifted Erik to the hip opposite Mrs. de Marigny.
"Yes, Pa. And the breads warming and the tables set."
He turned his head and smiled at Mrs. de Marigny. "Well need one more place at the table. Marie is joining us."
I knew if I rolled my eyes hed put Erik on his feet and throw me over his hip to do damage then and there, so instead I told Mrs. de Marigny it would be nice to have her for dinner. Then I realized that sounded like we were eating her for dinner and I corrected myself. "It will be nice to have you join us," I said.
When we finally settled at the table, Mrs. de Marigny praised my stew and actually had a second serving - probably because her first had been small.
"I helped," Erik said. I wondered why sometimes he said "I help" and other times he said, "I helped." It was one of those unfathomable things about him at that age. Come to think of it, he can still be unpredictable.
"Your father is very fortunate to have such fine cooks," she responded. "I am sure it is a good thing for him to return home to such trustworthy sons and welcoming food."
Well, we had her fooled even after all our encounters. I dont think Pa would have called us trustworthy - mischievous might have been a better adjective. I must have grinned when I looked down because she spoke lightly. "You do not think the food is welcoming or you do not think the sons are trustworthy?" she asked.
My head jerked up and I looked at her worriedly. "No, maam. I mean, yes, maam." Heck, I didnt know what I meant.
Pa gave Mrs. de Marigny a nod. "The food is always welcome. Im not sure how trustworthy the two scamps are sometimes."
"Oh, Benjamin, but you should thank the saints they are so healthy."
Now what did healthy saints have to do with anything? And exactly what were saints? Id heard Pa say "Saints above!" more than once so I knew they were somewhere up there.
She put down her spoon and broke a piece of crusty French bread from the larger slice on her plate. I never did discover a way to eat it without leaving crumbs everywhere. "Is there no way you can leave the city?"
Leave the city? Did that mean we might head out on the trail again for California? I sat very still, hoping they would forget Erik and I were at the table and continue their adult conversation.
Pa frowned and slid his spoon around in his bowl but he didnt raise it to his mouth. "Well talk about it later, Marie."
Intent on discussing it then, she leaned forward and focused all her attention on him. "You must listen, Benjamin. The fevers, the illnesses, they begin in July. We lose so many of the babies, so many children. The heart breaks when a child is lost."
The conversation had turned serious and Erik was wide-eyed. "How come they loses their childs? They dont listens when their pa say not to wa - what that word, Pa?"
His innocence broke the tension in the air. "Wander, Erik"
"Thats how dey lose babies and boys and girls? Dey dont knows not to wa - wadner?" This was coming from the boy who ran away from me on a busy New Orleans street.
Mrs. de Marigny rubbed at her forehead and then she smiled gently. "Your father he has told me I should speak frankly with each of you."
Eriks lips puckered and he threw his hands into the air. "I dont unerstand nuthin."
She nodded sympathetically. "To speak frankly is to speak with the true words - not to speak with the sweet words that make it more easy to hear. It is hard to say some words, Erik."
He nodded, wide-eyed, thinking he understood. "I knows it. Deres whole bunches of words Pa and A-dam says and dey hard fer me."
She reached at an angle and rested her small hand on his. "Erik, when I say these people they have lost babies and children - when I say this I mean the babies and children have died."
Erik and I learned early in our lives about death. My mother died hours after I was born. Eriks mother died when he was only a few months old. I encountered people dying from frightening illnesses during Pas and my travels. Erik and I knew what it meant when we killed an animal for food. The first time I saw Pa shoot an animal I couldnt force myself to eat. By the time we were close to New Orleans I, too, had become a good hunter. I enjoyed shooting Pas rifle.
And then came my day of reckoning. We heard something stalking alongside us in the brush. When we caught brief glimpses of it, it looked like a large cat. Pa raised the rifle and as his finger eased on the trigger my stomach heaved. Not because of the panther or Pas aim - which I knew was true. I had forgotten to reload the rifle when I had used it earlier in the day.
Pa pulled on the trigger and nothing happened. Well, not nothing. He turned on me in white-hot fury and yelled, "What in Zeus were you thinking?"
I swear it was his roar that sent the cat running because it left in a hurry.
First Pa made me load the rifle and put it in the wagon and then he grabbed my arm and just about carried me to the rear of the wagon where Erik wouldnt see what happened. Not that it mattered much because he sure heard. Pa had a belt he had worn as a sailor. Because he usually wore suspenders, the belt was in the wagon so he could put it around his waist to hold up his trousers when we were caught in rain or got soaked crossing a stream. He kept a grip on my arm and that belt came flying out of the wagon in his right hand. He bent me over and laid it across the seat of my pants again and again until my knees gave way and I begged him to stop. He threw the belt back in the wagon and motioned for me to go around to the front. I couldnt hide my tears from Erik, or the slow, pained way I moved. I asked Pa if I could walk and got an intimidating frown in answer. So I obeyed and managed to climb up to the wagon seat. Then I leaned over and wailed so loudly that Erik started crying.
"Get in the back," Pa ordered. "And not another sound."
I climbed to the wagon bed, which had empty space because we were close to New Orleans and had less supplies. I stretched out on the blankets and continued to whimper.
"Adam, Ill give you another one if you dont stop," Pa snapped.
I buried my head, bit into the quilt, and sobbed as quietly as I could. I shook violently until I quit crying. And I never forgot to reload a weapon again.
Erik pulled me back to the present when he asked, "They die, Mrs. DMary? Somebody shoots dem?" Alarm grew in his sky blue eyes and Pa lifted him into his lap.
"No, son, nobody shot them. They died from fever."
"You gets real hot," Erik nodded that he understood.
Pa stroked my brothers hair back from his forehead but he spoke to Mrs. de Marigny. "I think its the swamps, Marie. Something about that water in the warm weather. Thats why my boys arent going near them."
Ut oh. I directed all my concentration to my stew.
"Mais non. It is not only those who live near the swamps, Benjamin," she argued. "We have lost many here in the city. Those who can afford to, they leave. There are the storms and the fever and the deaths."
Pa wrapped his arms around Erik and looked her straight in the eyes. "Why dont you leave?"
She sat back in her chair and frowned at him. "You know this is not something I can do."
"It isnt something I can do either."
Mrs. de Marigny raised her chin. "Then I will pray to the saints."
New Orleans society had as many rules as a pine tree has needles. There was no understanding the people. They went to church but they had one of the biggest entertainment areas I have ever heard about. The men went to that part of the city to drink, play cards, and enjoy themselves with other women while their wives stayed home. In the beginning they looked down on Americans as being crude and yet they were the bawdiest people I knew until the 1849 gold rush. Some of the Creole and American families owned slaves. In addition there were free people of color engaged in businesses and real estate and some were quite wealthy. Believe it or not, it was not unusual for them to own slaves. I couldnt make sense of it when I was eight and Im not sure I can now.
I didnt know much about Mrs. de Marigny other than that Pa said she was a widow. Henri, who knew something about everyone, said she wasnt really a widow - her husband left her and took everything they owned. It wasnt exactly a topic I felt comfortable discussing with Pa.
Henri was also the one who first hinted that something bad was going on between Mrs. de Marigny and my father.
"They are not," I said defensively when it was just the two of us playing marbles behind his house.
He smiled and leaned his head back. "A woman does not allow herself to be alone with a man." He sounded like he was quoting something he had heard.
I pretty much understood what he was saying. "They arent alone. Were there."
Henri walked away from the marble game and grabbed a rope we swung on. He twirled around on it. "That isnt what people whisper."
Like I said, Henri knew a little about everyone. "What people?"
He smirked and ignored my question. "Your pa and Mrs. de Marigny are doing what folks do in the sporting houses."
Even then I wanted facts. "Who says that?"
"Your Pa and Mrs. de Marigny dont have a chaperone. And theres only one reason for not having a chaperone - youre doing something you shouldnt."
Where Henri was getting his information I have no idea unless he was overhearing his parents.
I charged home with Erik in tow and went straight to the dictionary. I was standing there, struggling to figure out what letter chaperone started with and where to go then, when Pa came in the door. I looked up at him in disbelief because in my quest for knowledge I had completely forgotten my afternoon chores. At a time like that, when you will be punished anyhow, the truth is always the best course of action.
Erik was lying on his stomach playing some game he had invented. He looked up, said hello to Pa, and went right back to what he was doing. The fact that he didnt run to Pa for a hug showed how absorbed he was.
I looked up and took a deep breath. "Pa, I didnt get my chores - I didnt do the afternoon ones."
He said something he had never said before. "Well discuss it later." He motioned to our bedroom and he looked bothered. "I need to talk to both of you."
Erik sat up and his eyes went wide. "Pa, we didnt dos nothin. We been goods. Mrs. Villell tell ya."
"Why do you think youre in trouble?"
" Cause we usually are," I answered without controlling the sarcasm in my voice.
Pa leaned down and looked me in the eyes. "I havent forgotten about those neglected chores - " And then he stopped as if hed hit a brick wall. He stared behind me and finally motioned with his left hand. "Now, boys."
My brother looked longingly back at the rug. "I be back," he said to his game. Then he craned his neck. "Right, Pa?"
"Youll be back."
Erik smiled in relief.
In our room Pa told Erik and me to sit on Eriks bed facing him and he sat on mine. More on the edge of it than anything, leaning forward with his forearms on his knees and his hands clasped. "Boys you know I love you."
"Uh huh," Erik nodded so strongly his hair bounced a bit.
This was it. He was ready to tell us Mrs. de Marigny and he were getting married. Pas voice softened but it wasnt with anger. "I have reasons for giving orders."
Wait a minute. Where was this headed?
"Just as I had a reason for ordering you not to go near the swamp."
Erik slid off the bed and went straight to Pa. "I didnt go dere. Alley-gadors eats you up fast."
Pa put his right hand behind Eriks neck. "Yes there are alligators. But I have a feeling there are other things to worry about." His eyes settled on me. "Have you stayed away from the swamp, Adam?"
I mustered all the courage an eight-year-old can have. "No, Pa. We went there."
"Henri and Etienne and Dieter and Gus and me."
His tanned face went pale. I thought he was disappointed in me for disobeying him. He motioned for me to walk to him.
"Adam." His voice was gentle like it was the night he carried me outside to see the stars. He put his arms around me and hugged me so close I heard his heartbeat and felt his warmth through his shirt. "Son, Dieter died today."
I quit breathing and then I started slipping, but I didnt know where. "Head down, Adam," Pa instructed.
Erik started crying and the bed moved as he climbed up beside us. "Dieter like a dead birdie?"
Pa moaned and whispered something he couldnt bring himself to say aloud. "Are you better Adam?" I nodded as I slowly straightened my back. "Come here, Erik." He held out his left arm and my brother obeyed without reservation, eager for the reassurance Pas strong body offered. "Erik, Dieters brother died from the fever, too."
"He - he like me, Pa," Erik protested. "He didn gos near da swamp."
Pa stayed quiet for the longest time. "No, he didnt go near the swamp. It may be that the fever spreads from one person to another. We dont know anything about it except that the people who leave for the summer dont get it."
"What we do, Pa?" Erik asked. He rubbed at his eyes until they were pink.
"Well see," Pa answered. "I think well leave for a while and come back when summer is over." His voice held a sound I had never heard before. It was partially the determination I was accustomed to - but there was an element of doubt as well. I couldnt imagine what Pa would be doubtful about.
Erik didnt want to sleep alone that night so I let him climb into my bed. He sniffled and cuddled near me but finally fell asleep on his back. I tossed and turned, cried, wondered if Dieter had known he was dying and if it had hurt, and I wondered if there was really a Jesus and if he would take care of Dieter and help him not be scared. Id never known Pa to be wrong and if he thought there was something about the swamp that had made Dieter sick would Gus and Henri and Etienne and I be next? Would we lay there with fever burning us to our deaths? I was miserable for hours and I heard the clock in Pas room strike twice.
I lay on my stomach, crying, and then Pas hands held my shoulders and turned me over. "Son, here, have a sip." He held a small glass to my lips and I recognized it as the mixture he gave us when our throats were sore.
"My throat isnt - " I started but he shook his head.
"Drink it down, Adam."
I obeyed and wondered how the liquid warmed my stomach when it was cool in the glass.
He pulled down my shirt because it had not fared well during all my tossing. Then he reached across my face and hand-combed my hair. Finally he raised his chin and looked at me from the bottoms of his eyes - determined to take my mind off Dieter. "Tell me why you didnt do your evening chores."
My tears made my eyelashes heavy and hard to see through so I rubbed at my eyes. "I cant, Pa."
"Did you forget why you didnt do them?"
"No, Pa. I cant tell you."
"Adam weve never kept secrets before. Lets not start now."
I dont know how long he sat there waiting on me but eventually the warm liquid made me sleepy. And when Im sleepy I have a bad habit of not paying attention to what I say. "How do you spell chaperone?"
He spelled it out slowly. "How did you hear it used?" he whispered and I realized he was trying not to wake Erik.
"Henri." I felt dozy for a moment. "Henri said when you dont have a chaperone its - " another swirl of sleepiness "- its cause you want to do something you shouldnt. And, and," I paused to yawn as big as an alligator. "He said Mrs. de Marigny and you didnt have a - a - chaperone and you were doing - " I drifted for a moment. "You were doing what - people - do in - those - sporting houses."
"Would you like to tell me how you know about sporting houses, young man?" Pas voice had a definite edge to it.
"They told me - " My world tipped and all I wanted was sleep.
"Your friends told you?" Pa asked. I realized the warmth on my back was his hand rubbing it but I couldnt remember rolling over. "Youve never been near one?"
He must have smiled when I said, "My pa wont - he wont let me past the market. If he - if he found out hed spank me til - til my bottoms red as a apple." My grammar was sliding downhill as much as I was.
His hand continued to rub my back and then right before I drifted to sleep he gave me one of those gentle pats on my bottom. I struggled to come to the surface and tell him goodnight but my neck was too weak and my tongue was too tired.
I woke up the next morning to the mellow voices of adults. I always found it easy to fall asleep to the same sound. I recognized both of the people: Mrs. de Ville and Pa. I suppose it was a measure of how close I felt to Mrs. de Ville that I padded barefoot and wearing only my shirt into the room that had our dining area at one end and the parlor at the other. They were in the parlor. Pa leaned back in the chair Erik and I had come to think of as his with his right ankle crossed to his left knee. The moment he saw me he lowered his leg and patted it for me to sit in his lap. It seemed I was doing that a lot lately even though I still considered myself too old for it. I decided it was all right as long as my friends didnt see. At the thought of friends, and Dieter, a sharp pain shot through me.
Pa looked terrible. His eyes had swollen and he hadnt shaved. He raised a cup of coffee to his lips and looked over it and the top of my head at Mrs. de Ville. "So you dont think it would be wise?" he asked after a sip.
She was impeccably dressed, as always, and sitting on the settee. Many a time I wondered how anyone sat with her back as straight as she did and still managed to cross her feet. At least I inferred from the toes of her shoes that her feet were crossed.
"I think it would be most unwise. It starts like this, slowly. And then - " she shook her head. "The crowds must be avoided. And most certainly a family that has suffered the fever. I will send a card of condolence. Will you wish to sign it also?"
"Yes, maam, please." Pa placed his coffee cup on the table beside us.
"Benjamin, have you considered leaving? Your sons are at great risk."
He leaned his head back. "I want to leave, Mrs. de Ville. But theres the matter of work of steady work."
She thought several moments and then stood so abruptly that Pa almost didnt get me out of his lap to stand. "I must think on this," she announced. And then she looked at me. "And you are not to go out except to come to my house. You understand this?"
"Yes, maam," I said sleepily.
I was in my shirt, munching on some cheese and bread after having checked on Erik to be sure he was still alive, when there was a gentle knock at the front door. Pa sat in his chair and stared and it took a minute before he realized we had a visitor. He ran his hand through his hair, slid his suspenders over his shoulders, and slowly walked to the heavy door Erik and I had so much trouble opening.
"Bonjour, mon aimee," declared a joyful womans voice. "Or whatever the blazes it is they say around here. If you wanted to live in a foreign country why in heavens name didnt you go to Italy?"
A small, light-haired woman stepped through the doorway and Pa pulled her to him, holding her longer than Id ever seen him hold any woman with the exception of Inger. I stopped eating my cheese and watched closely.
"My God its good to see you." Pas voice broke as he said it. He stroked the back of her hair and then pulled her close again.
She stepped back and looked up at him because she was not very tall. "You look like something the wharf rats wouldnt be seen with."
"Its a long story." He ran his hand through his hair again.
"You tell me yours and Ill tell you mine." She suddenly became serious. "I need your help, Ben. More than I ever have." Raising her skirt until I saw a scandalous amount of her ankle and lower leg, she collapsed on the settee Mrs. de Ville had just vacated. She slumped in a way Pa was always scolded Erik and me for doing. "Whats the stiffest drink you have?"
"For heavens sake dont dilute it."
Pa laughed. "Or youll what?"
"Ill twist your nose like I used to do. And if I cant reach that -"
She caught sight of me and straightened with a huge smile on her face. A smile that was exactly like Pas. "Saints above! You must be Adam!"
"Yes yes, maam." I put down my cheese and started to walk to her but then I remembered I was in only my shirt.
"Oh honey, dont be shy." She laughed so easily I liked her instantly. "I had four brothers. They ran around in shirts. One of their favorite games was to - "
"Barbara." Pa shook his head at her as he poured her drink.
"Oh for heavens sake," she muttered. "Since when did you become such a Puritan? You used to do it with John all the time." She leaned toward me, her eyes bright with mischief. "Havent you and your little brother run through the house trying to flip up the back of each others shirts so you can swat each others behinds?"
Erik and I thought wed invented that game. We only played it after Pa left for work and more often than not rolled on the floor in laughter when we finished. Pa had chased his brother John that way? I was still having trouble believing Pa had ever been a little boy.
Pa handed her a small glass filled halfway with the liquid he kept in a pretty glass bottle in the dining room. He had ordered Erik and me not to tamper with it for any reason and it was one of the few times we never disobeyed him by letting our curiosity get the better of us.
She sipped from the glass and closed her eyes, obviously enjoying her drink. Then she held out her hand to me. "Since your father seems to have forgotten any vestige of manners in his trek west I will introduce myself. I am Barbara Cartwright, your fathers cousin."
Good behavior dictated that I approach her, long shirt and socks or not. I politely shook her hand. "Pleased to meet you, maam."
"Adam." Pas strong voice entered my awareness and he motioned toward my bedroom. "Please get dressed and wake your brother."
I really wanted to stay with the interesting lady but Pa had asked me to do something so I answered, "Yes, Pa," and walked down the hall.
"Oh, Ben," Barbara said. "Hes an absolute delight. And he has the most beautiful blue eyes I have ever seen."
"Yes," Pa answered. He sounded like he was picking up a Southern drawl in his speech. "Hes a boy to be proud of."
I skipped in my sock feet all the way to Eriks and my room.
Barbara was one of the best things to happen to me in New Orleans. She helped me learn again that when you lose someone, however much you cared for him or her, life goes on.
Barbara understood death as strongly as I had since I watched Ingers life bleed away while Pa was unable to help her. I was going through the grief of Dieters death - and anyone who has experienced it can tell you how unpredictable grief is. One moment you laugh and then the giggles melt into tears. You are angry but dont know why and then you want to be alone and stare into a deep, dark hole hoping it will swallow you.
The afternoon she arrived, Barbara took me by the hand and, much to Pas consternation, we walked to the street vendors. I was uncomfortable doing something Pa didnt care for but he didnt absolutely say "no" and I caught the slightest smile when he told Barbara to take care of me. After we bought something to eat we sat on a bench by the park and talked.
It didnt take long for my repetition of "maam" to get on her nerves.
"We simply must talk about this, Adam," she insisted. "Why dont you call me Barbara?"
"No, maam. I cant do that. Pad spank me."
Her lips curved up and two dimples appeared, one in each cheek. "Then how about Miss Barbara."
"Would you maybe check with Pa?" I thought he might come closer to accepting the idea if she proposed it.
"All right. I will speak to Benjamin." She studied the architecture of the Cathedral across from us. "You are fortunate, Adam. This is a beautiful city. Its too bad about the fevers and storms."
I looked down for a moment, thinking of Dieter and his brother.
"May I tell you something?" she asked. And she waited until I looked back at her, noticing she had the same color of blue eyes as Pa. "Your father and I are close. He is like an older brother to me. The reason I am here is because I need his help. And the reason I need his help, and understand how you feel about losing Dieter, is because my father died recently."
My concern about how I felt transferred to Barbara. "From fever?"
"No." She took a deep breath. "From the same thing that killed your fathers mother."
"Chol-era," I said slowly because the word still gave me trouble. "Im sorry about your pa, maam." I remembered how she had laughed when she had told me about her brothers running around the house in their shirts and asked if they could help her.
To this day I have never seen a face sadden as quickly. "They are all gone."
"Gone?" I leaned closer to her and Im sure my eyes were twice their normal size. "Where?"
She patted the hand I had resting on my thigh. Normally I would have been uncomfortable with such close contact from anyone except Pa but there was something about Barbara that made me feel she had known me from the day Id been born. "I lost one brother in a shipwreck. One was killed in a hunting accident. Another fell to his death."
"What about the last one?" I prompted.
Now it was Barbaras turn to look down. "He drank too much alcohol and he liked to frequent pubs - and he never learned to control his temper. He shot a man and the mans friend shot him."
I thought Pa and I had been through hard times with my ma and then Inger dying. Barbara had lost her entire family.
Since we had both finished our food, she took me by the hand and we walked toward the house. "The flowers here are so colorful," she said. And then she sat on her heels and looked straight into my eyes. Her next words burned into my soul. "What we must do, Adam, is enjoy our lives and celebrate theirs in our memory. Do you understand what I am telling you?"
She stood up and her serious nature evaporated into teasing. "I have to speak to Benjamin about this maam situation immediately or I shall go absolutely berserk."
Berserk. Glory but I liked the sound of that word. I rolled it around in my mouth, even though I had no idea what it meant. But it couldnt be a bad word because a lady had said it. Well, Barbara had said it. Sometimes my cousin was anything but a lady. But she understood me as few people did. When thoughts of Dieter closed around me and she saw me staring at nothing she hugged me from behind or held my hand. She didnt say a word but she was there.
During Barbaras visit I saw a side of Pa that I had never experienced. It wasnt that he hadnt teased Erik and me but he became uncommonly playful. I had no idea, until later, that his behavior had to do with his growing love for Mrs. de Marigny as she slowly eased him out of his past. Since Barbara was around, and staying with Mrs. de Marigny, I rarely saw one without the other and decided with eight-year-old logic that Barbara was the reason for what I was experiencing. After all it couldnt be Mrs. de Marigny for whom I was trying to cultivate a growing dislike. Kind words and sweet smiles were not going to fool me.
There is no doubt about one thing - Barbara and I had more adventures than I ever had with my friends. I am not about to list them all, mainly because I cant remember them. Im sure given enough time Barbara and I, especially without Pa around because there is a bit of me that is still intimidated by him, could remember more than a dozen escapades. So here are the ones I recall, a few with Barbaras help when she visited our ranch recently.
By the time Barbara arrived, despite Pas warnings not to climb on the roof, I had become so adept I could jump from one building to the next. Of course you have to understand there was not a great distance between the houses but often enough there was a difference in the pitch of the roof that caught me by surprise. More than once I rolled down a roof and grabbed the first thing I could - anything from a rail to the corner of the roof. When, in the deepest of confidence, I shared my skill with Barbara she nodded knowingly.
"Me, too," she said in the parlor one afternoon. "Im about as good at it as you can be."
I gulped. "You are?" She could have been telling me she was a crack shot like Pa I was so surprised.
Her next statement almost knocked me off my feet. "Your father taught me."
"Pa!" I yelped and she quickly held her finger to her lips and glanced around. Then her face filled with mischief. "Want to look for ghosts tonight?"
I was eight-years-old. Why would I not want to look for ghosts?
Waiting for Erik and then Pa to fall asleep was excruciating. But finally I heard the clock strike one. Barbara and I had agreed to meet at the street corner a little after one so I slipped out the window and onto the roof.
How she did it I dont know, but my cousin learned more about New Orleans in a few days than some natives ever knew. One thing she learned about was a small alleyway, kind of like Pirates Alley, which ghosts were supposed to frequent. So we huddled into a narrow doorway and kept our eyes open. Suffice it to say we didnt see any ghosts - I mean you didnt think we were going to, did you? But I received a little more education than I think even Barbara had counted on that night. That alleyway, it turned out, was a favorite of men escorting women who probably had never seen the light of day. Some of the women strolled along and almost looked respectable. Some of the couples stopped to kiss and then take a few steps and then kiss some more. And then there was one couple that caused me to flatten against Barbaras skirt. The lady, well, woman, leaned back against the brick wall and the man kissed her neck and then a little farther down. When his hand slid under the hem of her dress, Barbara yanked on my hand and we ran in the opposite direction.
I caught my breath before I asked. "Were - were they married?" I knew from the look on Barbaras face that the man and woman were not. "But Pa said the only people who make babies are the ones who are married and they do it because theyre in love. Were they gonna make a baby?"
Irony filled her tone of voice. "I hope to heaven they werent."
Okay, I admit it. I was totally confused. I was pretty sure I knew what that man and woman were interested in. But they werent married, they werent in love, and they werent going to make a baby? Had Pa told me a whopper or was there something more I didnt know? I had a feeling it was the latter.
"Adam." Barbara squeezed my hand as we walked. "I think it would be better if you didnt ask your father anything more about marriage and making babies for a while. At least until Im gone, all right?"
I told her I wouldnt and we returned to our respective houses. As far as I was concerned all those people using the alleyway had scared away the ghosts. I asked Barbara if she thought there was some night when there werent so many people going back and forth and she said she doubted it.
We met again and went to Pirates Alley. Looking back that was a stupid thing to do. I dont mean that there were pirates around - well at least none you would recognize as pirates. But smugglers used that narrow alleyway on occasion. Luckily it was an off night when we once again hid in a doorway.
Then we decided to have a daytime adventure that was more perilous than roof climbing and nighttime adventures. Despite Pas repeated warnings - and since I was a youngster it was probably because of them, too - I took Barbara to the swamps. I expected her to find them scary like my friends did but she thought, like I did, that they were beautiful in their own slightly threatening way. All right, they were threatening as all get out.
The first time Barbara saw an alligator I swear she clapped her hands in open delight. When she did it she reminded me of Erik who was obediently staying with Mrs. de Ville. I dont think Pa had any idea what Barbara and I got into during the day, much less at night.
Well, he caught me one time.
Barbara and I agreed the first night that we would only wait for the other person for a quarter of an hour, which we could determine by the tones of one of the bells in the city. After that we would consider the nights adventure cancelled. One time my night was cancelled before it even began. I waited until Erik and Pa were asleep - or so I thought - and then I started to crawl out of bed. I was ready to put my left foot on the floor when my shirt flipped back and Pas strong hand hit my bare behind with a crack. I dropped on my stomach on my mattress but I was defenseless. Believe me, at that time of year in New Orleans we didnt use even a sheet over us, much less a blanket. I quickly rolled over but his left hand turned me on my stomach.
"What do you think you are doing?" he asked, holding my left shoulder down.
"I was getting up to use the pot," I lied and he knew. Another pop stung my bottom. I quickly decided I didnt like the way the early morning was turning out.
"Do you want to tell me what you were really doing?"
I ask you, was that any time to smart-mouth Pa? Wouldnt you think even a halfway intelligent child would have been respectful? Not me. "No, Pa, I dont want to tell you what I was doing." Third swat.
"Lets try that again." Pas voice was not amused. When I didnt answer fast enough for him his tone went threatening. "Adam."
All right, this was the end. He would put me across his knees and spank me until I wilted when I told him what I had been planning to do.
"I cant talk with my face in the pillow," I said and then cringed when I thought he might consider it more back talk. Luckily he didnt and he allowed me to roll over. I knew he wasnt going to ask me the question again so I answered. "I was going to climb on the roof, Pa."
He sat down on the side of my bed and in the moonlight I could see him studying my face intently. "And why were you going to climb on the roof?"
It was the first and only time I lied without hesitation. "I wanted to look at the stars."
"Look at the stars."
"You can see the stars from the courtyard, son."
"I suggest you confine your stargazing to the courtyard and before bedtime."
He left the room, slowly shaking his head and then I heard him undressing in his room.
"A-dam?" Erik whispered.
Oh no. What now?
"I didnt tells him."
"I know," I whispered in return. "Thank you."
"Nah." The swats were stingers but the hurt wouldnt last long - I hoped.
I rolled onto my stomach. "Erik, would you go to sleep?"
"I gots to asks you somethin."
I smiled in spite of my run-in with Pa. "What you gots to ask me?"
"Would yous take me up dere?"
My heart didnt stop beating but it came close. "Erik, promise me you wont try."
Promises have never been something we Cartwright sons take lightly. Erik moaned. "A-dam, dat not fair."
"Promise me. Ill show you when youre older."
"Ten!" Erik exclaimed.
Pas bed creaked and I threw my pillow across my behind.
"Get to sleep," Pa ordered from the doorway.
I kept my pillow in protective position but I propped my chin on my crossed arms. From the sides of my eyes I saw Erik sit up. "But Pa, A-dam say he wont teachs me hows to be on da roof til Im ten. Dat not fair."
"I was teasing," I quickly added.
"Was not. You makes me promise not to dos it now."
Pa had heard enough. He put his hands on either side of his shirt. "Do you two remember what is hanging beside my chair in my room?"
"Your bell," Erik answered without reservation. I continued to watch him, astounded at how open he was with Pa at a time of impending death.
"Belt, Erik," Pa corrected. "Do you remember the time Adam forgot to reload the rifle and I used that belt on him?"
I broke into cold chills despite the warm night.
Erik nodded and pulled up his knees. "Its was sad, Pa."
I dont know what I expected him to say but it wasnt that. I think he caught Pa by surprise, too, because I tilted my head and saw Pa slide his left hand over his face. "Yes, Erik, it was sad."
"A-dam were sad and I were sad and you were most saddest," Erik continued.
I lifted my head. No way Pa had been sadder than me with my blistered behind.
"You pulls me close and kind of sort of lets me hold da horses."
Pas and my eyes met in the moonlight. I had been in the back of the wagon that day as I had cried my heart out until I had fallen into a troubled sleep. I had never given a second thought to what Erik or Pa had been doing.
Erik was so far off topic Pa had that look on his face like he did when we caused him to forget what he was originally discussing - which we did a lot without intending to. Then he remembered and he looked at Erik instead of me. "Please go to sleep so I wont have to use my belt on you."
My little brother was not intimidated like I would have been at his age. I never could reconcile that behavior with the same little brother who fell apart when Pa said his name sternly. All I could figure out was he felt hed been dealt a huge injustice - all three of Pas sons tend to get our fur up about injustice. Erik squinted his eyes, slid off his bed, and padded over to Pa. His little arms swung like a parading soldier. "Dat belt you dont hits someone littler than you. Dats picking on and you all the time says not to do dat." Those words became one of Eriks routine lectures to Pa. And then he added a few more words. "You use dat belt cause A-dam done real bad when he not do dat rifle. But I hasnt done real bad. And sides you dont likes dat belt cause dat belt makes A-dam cry so you cry."
I eased my face off my crossed arms and into my mattress. What was Erik talking about now?
I knew what Pa did without looking. After all, Id known him for eight years. He leaned from the waist with his hands still on his hips and looked Erik straight in the eyes. "Erik, get into bed now or I will put you across my knees and spank your bare behind."
"Fer what?" Erik demanded.
Oh glory! I dont care how cute you are, you dont talk to Pa that way.
Did I want to lift my head and watch or not? Could a short, upset four-year-old triumph over a man whod fought the perils of the open sea and crossed no small amount of the country? Would Erik follow Pas orders or would I hear Pas strong hand smack Eriks little backside?
"Fer - " Pa corrected his speech "For what?"
"I ask you first," Erik pointed out.
All right, I didnt resist. I propped myself on my right elbow and watched with utter amazement.
Erik pointed his left index finger at Pa and Pa pointed his right index finger at Erik. I laughed out loud and Pas head snapped my way. "You will not get involved in this."
I held up my left hand with my palm spread as an indication of truce.
Poor Pa forgot the subject again. But Erik didnt. "Whats you spanks me fer?" he demanded in the most incensed way I had ever seen. "I says maam and sir, I dont dos nothing bad. I dos what you says, and I eats what you says, and I counts to fifteen, and I reads all da way to r, and what else I suppose ta do?"
I fell on my backside - which didnt hurt at all - held my stomach, and laughed until tears streamed down my face and dripped onto my shirt.
Over my gales of giggles I heard Pa scold, "Adam". But I was way past stopping.
Pa resumed his role as the adult in the room. "You will get in your bed now, Erik, or I will spank you."
"You not in your bed."
"Dont start it, young man."
I rolled to my side just in time to see Erik stomp back to his bed. "Sometimes yous no fair."
Pa followed him and lifted him onto the bed. "Does that mean sometimes I am fair?"
Erik plopped his head back onto his pillow. "You maybe is sometimes."
Pa laughed deeply. "I maybe is most of the time, you scamp."
Erik wrapped his arms around Pas neck. "You really spanks me for not being in bed?"
Pa looked at me meaningfully. "Why dont you ask Adam about that?" He held up a warning finger. "But in the morning."
"Yes, Pa," we said in unison.
Pa was no more out of the room than Erik whispered. "He pretty good pa."
"Yeah," I whispered back.
"Get to sleep, you two," Pa called.
I turned into my pillow, still surprised that my bottom didnt hurt.
Because of Barbaras and my adventures I didnt pay much attention to what was happening in the rest of the family or even with my friends. I caught up quickly one night when Mrs. de Marigny and Barbara were our guests for dinner and then Barbara went across the street to visit with Mrs. de Ville. Youd have to spend a lot of time finding two women more different than proper, respectable, old money Mrs. de Ville and bouncy, devil-may-care, spend money now because you cant take it with you Barbara. But the two women enjoyed each other so much that very few days went by when Barbara didnt make time for a visit.
Pa had put Erik and me to bed but I wasnt the least bit sleepy, as I often wasnt that early in the evening, so I listened to the sounds of Eriks deep slumber thinking that might lull me off. It only made me more aware that I wasnt asleep. It was almost impossible to speak with a normal voice in the house and not be overheard because of the open design and the few number of doors. So in the same way I had heard Mrs. de Ville and Pa talking the morning after Dieter had died, I heard Mrs. de Marigny and Pa speak while I couldnt fall asleep.
Pa sounded earnest and mentioned something about "away" and "upriver." I heard mention of Mrs. de Ville more than once. It was high time to eavesdrop. I tiptoed to the doorframe between Pas room and the dining room and parlor, and stayed flat against the wall.
I dont know if youve ever eavesdropped, or if you would admit it if you have, but I tend to look down at the floor. Somehow that helps me hear better. Not that I eavesdrop any more, you understand.
When I was plastered against the wall so to speak, I heard Mrs. de Marigny and Pas voices as if I were in the room with them. Id thought they sounded serious while Id listened to them from my bed, which was in the other room, but I didnt know the half of it. Their tone was solemn.
"Benjamin," Mrs. de Marigny said softly. "The boys, they need more time. You should tell them and then allow them to express how they feel."
"My sons dont tell me what to do," Pa said. He was bent forward with his forearms on his thighs. I could tell it from his voice.
There were footsteps as Mrs. de Marigny paced. "Of course they do not tell you what to do. You are the father. Nevertheless - " a brief pause "- they must not feel they have been put to the side, Benjamin. This could cause much trouble." More footsteps. "There is more. I live in the house and enjoy the furnishings only because of my aunt and uncle. They could not have me fall into desperation because of how it would look for the family."
"Ive told you before that doesnt matter."
"It does to me, Benjamin."
Pas boot falls indicated he had stood. He was probably walking to her. "Marie, that is the old way. We have love and that will see us through."
"But love has so little to do with it in this city."
"Love has everything to do with it."
"The others will not ever accept you, Benjamin."
There was a long quiet time and I decided he was either holding her or kissing her or maybe both. They tried to be discreet as he courted her but when you have two boys running around its hard to get a kiss in edgewise.
"Now have I convinced you?" Pa laughed softly. "We could do that whenever we wanted. We would wake up warm beside each other. We would - "
"Ssh, Benjamin." Mrs. de Marigny laughed as he had. "And we will hope the boys they sleep soundly."
My ears heated up. Id never heard Pa speak like that. Not even with Inger. But they had made Erik so they must have talked some time.
"All right," she said after a moment. "We will marry."
Marry! My sock feet chose that exact moment to slide on the wood floor and I landed hard on my bottom. I scampered up and made a run for my bed, where I landed on my stomach. The bed fell to the floor with a crash and Erik, who hated lightning and thunder, jolted awake. "Pa, dere storm!"
There wasnt yet but there was about to be. Insane as it was, I stayed on my bed even though the foot of it wasnt supported and the head was almost at a 45 -degree angle.
Pa lighted our lantern and surveyed the room. Erik rubbed his eyes, his blonde hair tousled by his sleep, and he looked around in confusion. "Where storm go, Pa?" Then he frowned at my bed. "Dat look pretty funny."
"Do you want to tell me how it got that way?" Pa asked me. It happened again. I couldnt read his eyes to save my life. And I desperately wanted to save my life.
"Uh, I dont know. I was just asleep and it moved and then it creaked and then - "
"You are the worst liar God ever put on this earth."
Mrs. de Marigny stepped to Pas side and exclaimed, "Mon Dieu! You are all right, Adam?"
Pa leaned against the doorframe. "He is for the moment."
Embarrassed beyond words that Mrs. de Marigny saw me in my shirt, I pulled my knees up and wrapped my arms around them. But then I felt a coolness on my bottom and quickly put my legs out straight.
"Mrs. DMary. You makin breakfast?" Erik asked as he lay back down on his pillow.
"No, it is still evening."
"You makes breakfast tomorrow?"
Her faced turned pink. "Not tomorrow. But soon perhaps?"
"Get to sleep, Erik. Adam - " Pa motioned for me to follow them into the parlor. I did so with great trepidation. If he spanked me in front of Mrs. de Marigny I would run away from home. That was all there was to it. No one was going to spank me in front of a lady, not even Pa.
In the parlor he and I sat on the settee and she sat in one of the small chairs Erik and I kept trying not to tip over when we ran through the house. Pa turned sideways so he could see me. But I looked down and traced one of my big toes on the pattern in the carpet.
"Son, you know Ive been with Mrs. de Marigny quite a bit lately."
I wasnt sure which was worse: worrying about a spanking or knowing Pa was about to tell me he was getting married again. I was in such an uncertain mood I found no humor in the words "been with."
"I like her whole bunches," Erik piped up from the doorway.
Pa was taken aback. "When did you quit obeying me?"
"Pa, I good," Erik said. "But I not extra good."
Mrs. de Marigny exchanged a look with Pa. He resembled a sinking ship.
"I am glad you like me, Erik. I like you and Adam, too," Mrs. de Marigny said. "I will be your mother."
My little brother frowned. "Hows you dos that?"
"Well," Pa thought a couple of moments, "there will be a - " He simplified his language for Erik. "There will be a group of people who all come together. Mrs. de Marigny and I will promise to love each other forever. And then we will be what is known as married."
Erik laughed. "Mrs. DMary married." He liked the sound of it and repeated it several times.
"No, son. When she and I are married she will be the wife and I will be the husband. And her name will be Cartwright like ours is."
That confused the devil out of Erik. "She like that?" he asked suspiciously. "Cartwrights always boys."
"Your mother was a Cartwright."
The new knowledge astounded my brother. "Her was?" He thought long and hard. "Mrs. DMary be Mrs. Cartwright?"
"But, Pa, I wanna calls her Ma."
Pas eyes slid to Mrs. de Marigny as he answered Erik. "She would like it if you would call her Ma, son."
Erik clapped his hands. "A-dam, we gots a ma!"
The fact that I didnt respond told Pa all he needed to know. We were in for trouble.
The trouble wasnt Mrs. de Marignys fault - it was completely mine. She was a pretty woman with dark hair, lips that always smiled, and the gentlest voice I have ever heard. Her cooking spoiled me. She encouraged me to read, shared my love of poetry, praised my drawings, and after months of sharing the same house I came to understand that she was watching out for me and not trying to control my life. In short it was not who she was but what she was. As far as I was concerned, Pa was replacing Inger - the only mother I remembered. And since I found it impossible to take out my anger on him I directed every morsel of it at the person who least deserved it. Her forgiveness is a measure of how wonderful she was.
I could not accept what was happening at home so I spent more time with Barbara. I went out on the roof and told myself I didnt care if Pa caught me. I didnt care about anything anymore. My attitude changed substantially when he caught me one night and gave me a reprimand that caused me to cry. But the next night I was out again and that was Barbaras and my big night - the night we walked all the way to the gambling boat.
I need to amend that. I dont know if the men were supposed to be gambling on that boat or not but they were. I had a pretty good feeling that Barbara had no business being there but she persuaded them to let her on board. Then, slick as you please, she got me on board, too. The men were playing dice in one area under the deck and cards in another. Fear shot up my spine as I thought of what Pa would do to me if he knew Id been around dice. Memories of that belt hanging in his bedroom almost blocked my vision.
One of the men at the table looked up and smiled at Barbara. "You thinkin youll sit in for a hand, honey?"
"Just one," Barbara said. To my disbelieving eyes a man stood up and pulled out a chair for her. "I wouldnt want to embarrass you gentlemen," she said with a wink. They passed a bottle her way but she declined.
And then they were into the poker game. I understood nothing about it but I was pretty sure the person who pulled everything in the middle of the table toward them was the winner. The men laughed and talked with Barbara and encouraged her to stay for another hand.
Over at the dice game the men drank from a bottle and did not get along as well as the poker players. There might have been some relationship between the bottle and the fighting. I was meandering around, wondering what all the things I saw were used for, when a fight erupted and two knives appeared from nowhere. The men slashed at each other, jumped back and held both hands in the air, until one man gave his leg a swing and the other fell on his back with a crash. His knife skidded to a stop in front of my boots. The other man straddled him and held his knife close to the unarmed mans throat.
"Aw come on, Robert," a burly man at the dice game said. "Howre we goin ta win his money if hes dead?"
"We can take it off him," Robert growled through his beard.
"Now man! Even I have my limits."
Slowly but surely Robert stood and then he held out a hand to help the other man to his feet. I didnt know whether to pick up the knife at the toe of my boot to offer it back and hope the man didnt think I wanted to fight or whether to just leave it alone. My answer came when Robert motioned. "Well, give the man his knife, boy."
I have never moved so carefully in all my life.
Encouraged by Roberts acknowledgement of my presence, I stepped closer to watch the dice game and learn how to play it.
Well, I tried. All I could determine was that the men were in a type of semi-circle sometimes and they called out bets that were unfathomable to me. The next thing I knew they sat on their heels in a circle and there was something magic about rolling a three at one time and then a seven at another time. My brain hurt from trying to figure out what on earth they were doing. I finally decided I would ask Henri about the game since he seemed to know as much about everything as he knew about everyone. The game Henri taught me was simpler but a quick-fire way to lose your favorite marbles.
Finally Barbara said she had to leave and the men grumbled. When she pushed the money back to the middle of the table instead of keeping it they all laughed. "If you cant remember what you bet then just divide it evenly," she said. I noticed she didnt take any of the money for herself even though I knew she had played with some.
Most of the men stood when she did and one asked, "Dont you need someone to walk you home?"
There wasnt a one of them Id have trusted to walk me topside much less home but I kept my opinion to myself.
Barbara seemed to consider the offer a moment and then she shook her head. "No, I dont imagine theres much my guard here and I cant handle." She motioned to me and then pulled open her purse. "And then theres this." She laid a knife on the table. "And this." I swear to heaven it was a small pistol like I had never seen before.
Another man nodded as she re-armed herself. "Id say youre ready for just about anything."
A third man grinned widely. "Been a pleasure, Miss."
Barbara tilted her head. "Now how do you know Im not married?"
"If you were you wouldve brought your husband."
Everyone in the room laughed. I was more than ready to get out of there.
Barbara was extraordinary as far as I was concerned. I was convinced we were ready to get our throats cut in that boat and then those men would have tossed us into the river and no one would have ever found us. But she stepped out to the street and swung her purse in one hand while she held mine with the other. I still wonder how we ever got to our "meeting-corner" without being attacked.
"Adam," she said but didnt wait for one of my "yes maams" that were slowly, immeasurably driving her insane. "I want to talk to you about your fathers marriage."
"Im not talking," I said and even I could hear the sulk in my voice.
"I know you arent. Youre listening because I am talking. Your father has given up a large part of his life to be sure you have what you need and to be with you as much as he can be. He has also done what he can to see that you are happy and safe. And now he has found happiness and love. I think the least you can do is want him to be happy."
I stuck my hands in my pockets. "It doesnt matter what I want. Hes happy."
"It would mean a great deal to him if you could tell him you are glad he is happy."
I stopped and looked at her. Anger not unlike some Id witnessed in Pa flew out of me. "That would be a lie because Im not glad! Shell get rid of us, you just watch."
Barbara frowned at me and then shock whitened her face. "For heavens sake, why do you think shell get rid of you?"
" Cause Gus said so." My chin jutted as I defended my beliefs.
"I dont know who this Gus is but he could not be more wrong and you are a silly child for believing such nonsense."
Glory she knew how to hit a guy where it hurt. Being called a silly child was about as insulting as you could get with a worldly eight-year-old.
I decided I didnt like Barbara, either, and I didnt say another word to her during the walk home. I didnt say goodnight to her when we went our separate ways and I didnt say good morning to her when Mrs. de Marigny and she joined us for breakfast. When she approached me later to see if I wanted to go out that night I told her I didnt. She went over to see Mrs. de Ville the way she always did and took Erik with her. Pa and Mrs. de Marigny left the house and I curled up on my bed and read.
After a while, Mrs. de Marigny and Pa returned to our home and excitement filled her voice. "I am so pleased that they will meet you and the boys. It will be especially delightful to see the boys reaction, non?"
"That it will," Pa agreed. Then he chuckled deeply.
Oh no. It sounded like we were going to visit someone soon. That meant my dumb good clothes and that stupid tie. While we were eating dinner Pa informed us we were going to Mrs. de Marignys aunt and uncles home the next day to meet them before the wedding. Erik was all excited and asked if they maybe had candy. I would have gone into a pout if Pa hadnt been watching me like a hawk on a mouse.
Even though I had no plans to meet Barbara, I climbed to the roof that night and walked to one of the parks and back. I had no trouble seeing thanks to the streetlights and I had been so many places with Barbara I felt as safe outside as I did in my own home. Except that home proved a little risky.
As I backed through our bedroom window and a hand bent me over a knee. My bottom exploded in a pain I remembered only too well. Pa quit after ten licks and I was crying like I had the day I forgot to reload the rifle - although thankfully he hadnt given me as many licks this time as he had that time. When I finally stood up and looked at Pa I was a bawling, belligerent son. For once I was smart enough to keep the belligerence unspoken. Pa grabbed my chin and held it firmly, "If you ever disobey me again, I will use this belt on you with your trousers down. Do I make myself clear?"
I cried, "Yes, Pa" and he released me to crawl onto my bed.
"Adam," he warned from the doorway. "Get quiet or Ill use it again."
He had no idea what that threat did to me. I shook and breathed in short gasps. The shaking was uncontrollable - as if I were freezing. And the gasps made me light headed and my chest hurt until my fingers went numb.
"Pa," Eriks heartbroken voice came from the darkness. "Please dont hurts him no more."
But Pas voice held no sympathy. "If Adam doesnt want to hurt he knows how to avoid it. Get to sleep."
Eriks sniffles stopped only a few minutes before mine did.
The next day Pa gave Erik and me a stern lecture - come to think of it thats the only kind of lecture he gives - about not being outside. We could go to Mrs. de Villes or we could stay home. The fever was spreading. Then he informed us we would be meeting Mrs. de Marignys aunt and uncle that afternoon.
"How we do dat and not gos outside?" Erik didnt understand and he frowned.
Pa walked to the front door to leave for work. "They are sending their carriage."
Eriks arms spread as far as they could. "Dat big?"
Pa pinched Eriks nose. "Probably even bigger."
"You gonna helps me wid da good clothes?"
"Yes, Ill help you get dressed." Pa reached for the door handle.
"Pa?" Erik grabbed a trouser leg and tugged. "I got a question. Why it called dress when it trasers?"
Pa tilted his head. "I dont know. That might be a good thing to find out at Mrs. de Villes today. Good bye, boys."
"Bye, Pa." Eriks cheerfulness was almost overwhelming.
I nodded and softly said, "Pa," and then returned to my room to sleep. Whenever the world was more than I could take I found sleep to be the best way of hiding. But Erik wouldnt leave me alone.
"A-dam." He shook my bed and me. "You gotta gets up. We gotta see Mrs. Ville."
"You go see Mrs. Ville," I said sullenly.
Sudden worry was in the bright voice and he climbed up beside me to pat my back. "Pa hurts you bad, huh?"
"Bad enough." I shifted and closed my eyes. I didnt know how to tell Erik there was more hurt inside than outside.
"A-dam, alls you gotta do is dos like he says. How comes you dont?"
How comes you dont? Not for the first time I recalled how Id immediately obeyed his orders when wed been traveling. Was my disobedience a way of getting back at him for abandoning our goal to reach California and have a ranch? As far as I was concerned if he hadnt kept his promise to me then I didnt owe him any respect or obedience. The only problem was Pa didnt see it that way - and he never would. Respect, obedience and honesty are not only expected they are required. The sooner you accept that the sooner you stay on Pas good side.
That afternoon Erik was his usual chattering self as Pa helped him dress. He told Pa about our day with Mrs. Ville and some special pastries that had dark cream in them and were really good. And then he told Pa the funny story they had read about a chicken and how hed picked out a bunch of the letters. Pa laughed with him and then Erik announced, "I go watch and I stays in." He ran to the door with the soles of his shoes slamming on the floor.
I dressed in my suit and tie without any fuss and decided to wait in our room, dreading the afternoon ahead. Finally Erik called out, "Dere here!" and I walked to the living room as I fought a sick stomach.
Mrs. de Marigny waited for us in the carriage. She wore a beautiful soft coral dress and she welcomed us with a kind smile. Erik was beside himself with excitement and Pa had to keep telling him to sit down. Finally Pa realized warnings wouldnt work so he made Erik sit in his lap and Erik loved that because he could see out.
I had my back to the front of the carriage and sat on the seat edge because my bottom was still recovering from its encounter with Pas belt. So at first I didnt see what Erik did. I knew the streets and neighborhood looked familiar and then Erik went very still and gave me one of those looks only brothers understand. We were in trouble. I wrinkled my brow, wondering what it could possibly be and Erik slid from Pas lap to sit beside me. He leaned over, put his hand around my ear and whispered, "Wes close to Good Boys house."
I shrugged and told him not to worry. Wed just act like wed never seen the place as the carriage went by.
The problem was that the carriage didnt go by. It stopped right in front of Good Boys house. I dont know who nearly peed first - Erik or me. Pa helped Mrs. de Marigny out of the carriage and then Erik and me. As he put me on my feet Good Boy neighed in recognition.
"Isnt that something," Pa said. "He acts like he knows you."
Good Boy neighed again and I nearly ran up the walkway to the front porch. "Adam," Pa called. "Theres no reason for bad manners, son."
"I - I was just thinking about what you said about not being outside because of the fever." I danced from one foot to the other, anxious to get inside but not because of any concern about the fever. I was afraid Good Boy was going to point to us and ask why we were ignoring him.
Mrs. de Marigny and Pa took forever to negotiate the brick walkway. They admired the flowers and laughed about one or two things I couldnt understand. Erik stood beside me and looked up at me with worried blue eyes.
"You tink Pa gonna spank me, A-dam?"
"Not if we dont tell him," I said.
"Wont dat be a lie?"
I bent down and pretended I was tucking in his shirt. "No."
Except for a fleeting time in his life, Erik has always been a stickler for rules. "It sound like a lie."
"Its not telling everything."
"I don unerstand," he said in frustration.
I pretended to dust his trousers. "Dont worry."
"It sound likes Pa spank me eder way."
"Just let me handle it, all right?"
Eriks hands went to the sides of his waist. "You da one got Pas bell yesterday night."
I stood up with anger rising. "Fine, Erik, you go ahead and tell him the whole story and youll wish to gosh you hadnt when he gets through with you."
Erik and I never fought and when Mrs. de Marigny and Pa stepped onto the porch Pa looked at us with raised eyebrows. "Whats this?" he demanded.
"Nothing, Pa," we both answered.
He continued to study us a moment and then the front door opened like magic and a dark-skinned man asked us to step inside.
We may have been a handful at home but my brother and I behaved as wed been taught when we visited. Especially when we were in the huge hallway that ran the entire length of the house. At the other end, through large doors with glass in them, I saw gardens that seemed to stretch for miles.
"Tante Ailene and Oncle Denis may I introduce my fiancé Benjamin Cartwright and his two sons Adam and Erik. Benjamin, my aunt and uncle, Ailene and Denis Dubois."
Erik and I waited politely as the adults shook hands and Pa kissed Mrs. Dubois hand. And then the attention shifted to us. Pa had stressed with us that we should look adults in the eyes without realizing how hard that was with the really tall ones like him. Mr. Dubois was even taller.
"We meet at last," Mrs. de Marignys uncle said. His slow smile scared me and I guess I pressed back against Pas leg because his hand went to my shoulder. "My horse was quite accustomed to the daily exercise. He has missed you since the fever has become so bad. You have missed him, too?"
Have you ever felt the earth opening up at your feet as it prepares to swallow you whole? I felt it opening and it couldnt swallow me fast enough.
Erik was speechless - which was either a sign he was holding his breath or had died standing up.
"I hear from Mrs. de Marigny you have become pretty good horsemen." Pa spoke from behind us.
When Erik finally spoke his soft observation was an amazing understatement. "We be in bad twuble, A-dam."
Pa leaned down and spoke to us softly. "You might want to reconsider borrowing someones horse without their permission. Out west they call it horse theft and they hang a man for it."
Out west? So he hadnt forgotten!
"Shall we?" Mrs. Dubois hand swooped past the skirt of her dress as she directed us into a parlor that scared me to death. Mrs. de Villes house was fancy but comfortable. That room was full of shiny woods that met at all kinds of angles and every piece of furniture had gold on it. The fabrics looked like they would tear if you sat on them wrong. Erik and I looked up at Pa, awaiting instructions, and he suggested we sit on a settee. I helped Erik up and then sat down myself. My legs swung. Both of us perched on the very edge of the piece of furniture. I did so because of my hurting bottom. If Erik sat back his legs stuck straight out. I wondered if he was as ready as I was for the visit to end.
A dark-skinned lady a nurse as far as I was concerned - silently entered the room and set a tray of fancy cups and saucers as well as a pitcher of coffee on the table between Mrs. de Marigny and Pa and Mr. and Mrs. Dubois. The same lady appeared again, just as quietly, and set out a tray of bread, cheese and desserts. Mrs. de Marigny and Pa sipped coffee and enjoyed the desserts while they spoke to Mr. and Mrs. Dubois about the wedding - that I learned was two days away. Erik and I didnt have anything to eat or drink. Truth told we were scared to move because the house and Mrs. de Marignys aunt and uncle were overpowering and uncomfortable to be around.
Despite everything Pa taught us about behaving when we were with a lady we both fell against the back of the carriage seat when we started home. Eriks sigh of relief was almost comical.
"So what do you think of my aunt and uncle?" Mrs. de Marigny asked. I assumed she was speaking to Pa until he cleared his throat.
"Maam?" I sat up and wondered what the polite answer was.
"You are not very comfortable with them, this is true?" Her eyes slid up and down me.
"Uh," I stammered. "I never met them before, maam."
She gave me a knowing smile. "Adam, as your father says, you are the worst liar God ever put on this earth."
Pa laughed and put his arm around her shoulder. She leaned forward and patted my knee. "Do not worry. They have saved me from destitution. You know this word?"
I looked down at her hand and then up. "No, maam."
"It means poverty. You know this word?"
Only too well at times. "Yes, maam."
"Because of how I was left to live they helped me. The place I live belongs to them."
I was interested in only one thing. "The books too?"
"Oui, the books, aussi." Mrs. de Marigny clasped her gloved hands in her lap. "I look forward to becoming a part of your family and not depending so much on them. You understand?"
I understood only too well. I didnt want to share any more time with them than I had to even if they were kind to her.
"Mrs. DMary?" Erik leaned forward and spoke softly. "Whens I call you Ma?"
She laughed and Pa grinned. "As soon as the marriage is complete, little one."
He straightened. "I not so little, Mrs. DMary."
Her head tipped as she apologized. "I meant no harm, Erik. It is only that you are smaller than me."
"I be taller soon," he challenged and Pas eyes widened.
But Mrs. de Marigny held her own and without heat. "But of course you will. This is as it should be. The young men should always be taller." Then she leaned across the aisle in the carriage and moved her left index finger ever so slightly. "But they should always be courteous, too, yes?"
"Yes, maam. Or dey get spanked."
Her eyes filled with delight and she looked over and up at Pa. "It is good motivation, nest pas?"
Pa winked at her. "Ive found it keeps them on the straight and narrow."
We returned home where Erik and Mrs. de Marigny became involved in something in the parlor that involved giggles. Since Pa told us to remain in our good clothes I took a breather in our bedroom. I was standing at the window tapping on the glass when Pa walked up beside me and put his right hand on my left shoulder. "You sure are quiet. What are you doing?"
He stepped around and leaned his hips on the window ledge. He crossed his arms and looked at me. "Thinking about what?"
I continued to stare at the wall of the house outside our courtyard. "Nothing."
"Nothing, hum. How do you think about nothing?" I heard the playfulness in his voice but I couldnt respond - I was too tired inside.
"You look at something," I answered. "And you keep looking at it and then you dont see it, and you dont hear anything, and you dont think." He put his hand over mine to stop the rapping of my fingers.
After I took a deep breath I made my announcement. "I wont disobey you anymore, Pa. Im tired of hurting."
He pulled back slightly and his smile faded into a straight line
I just knew he was going to lecture me about riding Good Boy, or about not being nicer to Mrs. de Marigny, or about almost being rude at the Dubois home. I walked over to my bed and lay down on my back, hoping he would take the hint and leave me alone. That was not going to happen. He patted my right leg in a silent request to sit next to me and I scooted a little.
"Adam." He hesitated and took a deep breath the way I usually do when I have to discuss something difficult. "Son, I need to be sure you understand why I used my belt last night."
Talk about the last subject I wanted to discuss.
"Walking on the roof is dangerous."
"You did it." See what I mean about talking back?
Pa was surprised that I knew about his youthful escapades but he didnt let me have the upper hand. Erik might get away with it but I was the oldest and I was subject to stricter rules. I knew that and Pa knew that. "What I did or did not do when I was your age is not what we are discussing, young man." Notice he didnt say he hadnt?
I put my hands behind my head in an act of extreme bravery - or complete stupidity considering he had a bit of access to my upper leg and could easily roll me over for complete annihilation of my bottom. He squinted his eyes a moment and continued. "I used my belt because my warnings and spankings havent stopped you from disobeying me."
Any version of the word "disobey" always gives me a cold sensation inside and that day was no different. Something must have changed about my face or eyes because he waved his right hand and spoke in aggravation. "What do you think it is when I tell you not to go up on the roof and you wander around New Orleans until late at night? Son, thats disobedience."
He sat up straight and ran his hand through his hair. "I dont know how Erik and you get me off the subject as fast as you do."
Well if that wasnt what he wanted to talk about what was? I didnt recall saying much to distract him.
He took another breath. "What you said about how youre tired of hurting - " He paused and leaned forward, his hands clasped between his spread knees. "The Bible tells me to guide you now so you will be a man people can trust and admire. I understand that my disapproval hurt you on the inside just as much as my belt hurt you on the outside." His shoulders gave way slightly. "I remember wanting to hear my father tell me how proud he was of me. I didnt hear it often enough, Adam. And Im sorry if Im repeating his mistake."
Not knowing what to do, I followed my heart. I eased to my knees and struggled until I sat across his lap. Then I wrapped my arms around his neck and we remained silent for a long time - Pa with his chin propped on the top of my head.
When he spoke his voice was husky. "I sometimes get upset about what you do, Adam. But I have always loved you. And I have always been proud of you."
I gave him a little back talk - I think to lighten the mood. "I get upset with what you do, too, Pa."
He laughed so strongly I shook in his lap and then he popped me lightly on the side of my leg. "Someday that mouth of yours will get you in a lot of trouble, youngster."
"But youll be there to help me, wont ya?"
He gave me an affectionate chuck under the chin. "Im probably the one youll be in a lot of trouble with."
As strange as it sounds, I enjoyed the day Mrs. de Marigny and Pa exchanged wedding vows. I found out later it was not a large wedding by New Orleans standards and did not follow Creole traditions. But it was just right for a boy struggling to understand the uncertainties in his life.
We returned to the Dubois home for the ceremony and, after Mrs. de Marigny and Pa were married, the house filled with laughter, dancing, and good food. Erik called Mrs. de Marigny "Ma" but I couldnt do it. Inger had been "Ma" and to call anyone else that was to deny she ever existed. I got by for a long time by saying "maam". Longer than I should have. In my thoughts she was still Mrs. de Marigny.
Mr. and Mrs. Dubois hosted the wedding that was attended by Mrs. de Marignys sister Jeanette and her husband, Mrs. de Ville, a gray-haired gentleman who had known Mrs. de Marigny since she had been a child and Barbara - who wouldnt have missed it for anything. I wondered why none of my friends parents or my friends attended but, when I asked, Pa explained it was because of the fever.
The night of the wedding Erik and I had the fun of sleeping at Mrs. de Villes on the tallest, biggest bed either one of us had ever seen. There were two huge carved posts at the foot of it and a headboard that almost touched the ceiling. The bed had a set of small steps we climbed up and then we plopped on the bed and marveled at how soft it was.
I dont know whether Erik was pretending to be my age or I had lowered myself to his age but we tossed pillows and wrestled on our knees and giggled until Erik had the hiccoughs.
"What is this?" Mrs. de Ville asked as she entered the room. Even though she looked as if she were scolding us we knew her well enough to see the slight smile on her lips.
We quickly sat down, making sure our shirts didnt leave anything private on view, and tried to be still but our giggles took over.
"It is usually the people who married who have the chiavari but it seems you two are having your own."
"Chiavari," I repeated. "Whats that, maam?"
She sat in the chair beside out bed and rocked it back and forth as she rearranged a shawl around her shoulders. "The friends they come to the house and they make noise of all kinds until the wife and husband invite them inside."
Erik was confused. "Why dey do dat?"
"For wine. Then the friends leave the wife and husband alone."
My little brother shook his head and tugged at his shirt hem. "Dat silly."
I had a funny feeling all of a sudden. We were at Mrs. de Villes while Mrs. de Marigny and Pa were at our house. Glory, what if they were making a baby!
At first I didnt mind the idea of another brother - the possibility that it might be a girl never occurred to me - because it would keep Mrs. de Marigny busy and I would have more of Pas time. But then that more natural feeling took over: what if Pa loved the baby more than he loved me?
"So," Mrs. de Ville said, "since you are not sleepy I shall bring you a treat. And then you will be quiet, yes?"
Erik loved surprises. "Yes, maam."
Mrs. de Ville was quizzical. "Adam, you will share in our treat?"
I snapped out of my reverie. "Oh, yes, maam."
The very second she was out of the room Erik rose to his knees and looked at me. "What you thinking, A-dam?"
Should I tell him? He might know about boy horses but there was no need to worry him about the possibility of another Cartwright boy. I gave him a smile and pushed him back and wrestled him to the mattress until he said "uncle."
I wondered if we would spend the next night with Mrs. de Ville but we spent the morning with her and then returned home where the smell of something good drifted to us from the kitchen. When we stepped inside Mrs. de Marigny turned and smiled at us as if she had always been there.
She asked how we were and Erik ran to where she worked with dough on the table. He scrambled up a stool and excitedly told her all about the bed and the late night treats and how hed beaten me at arm wrestling and then all of a sudden he stopped and asked, "Where Pa?"
"He is in the city," she answered. "Hiring the men."
I have never been shy when it comes to wanting to know what adults are doing. "Hiring men for what?"
She stuck out her lower lip and blew some stray hair off her forehead. Erik thought it was funny and imitated her. The only problem was that his hair wasnt that long. The front of mine sure was. Even though she hadnt answered my question I tried her trick and Erik laughed again. "You looks funny." He pointed at me.
I lifted him from the stool and swung him around. "It runs in the family."
I should have known better. The moment he was back on the stool he said, "What run?"
How to explain that one? "It means everybody in the family tends to have it. So when you said I looked funny I was saying everyone in the family does."
Erik held onto the top of the stool and leaned my way. "Pa look funniest."
The fact that Mrs. de Marigny watched us in amusement as she worked didnt escape my notice. It was strange to have someone there when it had usually been just Erik and me. "Better not let Pa hear you say that."
"How comes not? He make funny faces when he tell stories."
Erik was right. After dinner Pa told us stories about people he had known and silly things he had done. He made all the faces for the people and pretended to be offended by our gales of laughter. Sometimes we screamed so loud as we rolled on the floor that he nudged us with the toe of his boot and told us if we didnt quiet down wed be arrested. And just when we were hopelessly out of control he got this really serious look and said, "Adam. Erik. Why cant you behave yourselves like civilized young men?" We knew he was teasing but we did our best to look scolded. We were terrible at it. Then, despite our pleas for more stories, he would announce it was bedtime and chase us into our room. If we washed up and took off our trousers without any complaining he sat on Eriks bed and told us a more quiet story about somewhere he had visited when he had sailed - leaving us to dream about exotic places.
"Whos that saying I make funny faces?" Pa stood in the doorway to the kitchen, a mock frown creasing his forehead.
Eriks left arm shot out in my direction. "A-dam, Pa. He says you look funniest."
I felt my eyes get round. "I did not!"
The next thing I knew Pa lifted me off my feet, his forearms under my bottom. "So you think I make the funniest faces?"
"Pa!" I yelped. "Eriks telling a fib as big as he is."
"Um hum." Once my heart slowed down I heard the humor in Pas voice. He turned on his heels, holding me close. "Marie? Who said I have the funniest face?"
"Oh, but Benjamin, I concentrate so hard on the pastry I do not pay attention." She looked from the tops of her eyes and gave him a smile that would melt mountain ice in January.
Pa shook his head. "I guess Ill have to throw you both in the river."
"Pa!" I yelped again. Although he had insisted each of us learn to swim almost as soon as we had learned to walk he never let us do so in rapid streams. The thought of him tossing us in the Mississippi was ludicrous.
"Pa," Erik pleaded our case. "We donts do nothing bad. We laughins all."
"Laughing at your pa?" His voice was even more playful. "I never laugh at you."
Erik got off the stool and did his soldier march to Pa. He obviously didnt realize Pa was teasing. "You laughs at us all da times."
Pas grin spread. "I laughs at you?"
My little brother nodded once for emphasis. "All da times."
I glanced over at Mrs. de Marigny. I had never seen her smile so wide. She had a dimple in one cheek.
"Pa?" Eriks hands went to his waist and he frowned in concern. "You needs ta talk better."
"Why does I needs ta do dat?"
I turned into Pas chest to hide my laughter.
" Cause you is growed up."
Pa nodded solemnly. "Youre right. Now, we need to discuss throwing you in the river."
Erik squinted. "Yous laughin bout dat."
"Yes, Pa. Cause it dont evers take you dis long ta dos somethin."
I shook so hard against Pa he tightened his grip so he wouldnt drop me.
"Do you two scamps have your chores done?"
I wiped my eyes as he put me on my feet. "No, Pa. I go dos them now." I fought for a deep breath.
"A-dam," Erik scolded.
Pa gave me a mock serious look. "You shouldnt oughta make funs of your brother."
Erik and I were nearly clear of the deep doorway, certainly out of sight, when Mrs. de Marigny said, "Oh, Benjamin, they are such a delight. They make me so happy."
"Theyre good boys," Pa agreed and then he caught sight of us looking at him from the doorway. He gave us a knowing wink and bit into an apple.
I smiled back at him and ran to do my chores.
Living with Mrs. de Marigny required a lot of adjustment on my part - more than it did for Erik. Dinner was definitely better that night than when Pa cooked. And Mrs. de Marignys and Pas conversation was interesting. Eating my soup and staying very quiet I figured out Pa was hiring men to work on a house Mrs. de Ville had in the country. We would be leaving after my birthday to stay there until late September or early October and by then the fever season would be over.
"You gonna hammer and saw?" Erik asked when he was about to burst with questions.
Pa tore some bread from the loaf. "Yes, Erik."
"Could I maybe hammer?"
There was a pause while Pa chewed his bread. "May I hammer," he corrected and I knew we were headed downhill.
"I thoughts you said you was gonna." Erik rested his elbows on the table.
Pa laid down his spoon and leaned back in his chair, folding his hands and making a tent of his index fingers. "Erik, you said could I maybe hammer and I corrected you. Instead of asking if you could or can do something you should ask may or might. "
Poor Erik. He thought about what Pa had said, looked down at the tabletop and said more to himself than to any of us. "Deres so much ya gotta learns to be growed up."
Mrs. de Marigny was sympathetic. "I will help you a little each day while we are in the country. Would this be good?" She motioned. "You are growing so fast people they will think you are older than you are."
"You tink I get big?" Eriks chest swelled.
"Ah, Erik, you grow every day. Look at how tall you become to Adam."
I didnt think she needed to call attention to what I was already noticing. The way I figured it I had maybe four more years on him and then we would be even in height. The fact that he would be ten at the most and I would be maybe fourteen was not helping my pride one bit.
"You help me sound old, Ma?" Erik requested.
"Please," Pa added.
And of course my brother added earnestly, "Pa wants I should sound older, too, Ma."
Mrs. de Marigny looked as serious as possible, despite Pas sigh of defeat. "Then we shall do as your father requests, yes?"
Erik leaned toward her, as he often did with me, in the strictest of confidence. "Ma? I dos whats Pa say. He nots happy when Is dont."
"A wise young man."
Why was it Erik couldnt see the brightness in her eyes and the quiet laughter between Pa and her?
That evening, as was our custom, we sat on the rug and Pa told us more of his outrageous stories. Now that Im older I doubt he could have met so many people if he had been at sea all his life. But as always his stories, voices, and faces brought out giggles, then chuckles, and finally the uncontrollable laughter he had been leading us toward from the beginning. There was a slight change in our routine that night. Mrs. de Marigny sat in a chair as she sewed on a pale fabric with colored thread and when Erik and I scrambled off the rug she smiled at us. Erik immediately ran to her and hugged her around the neck. A second later he looked around the parlor and asked, "Where you sleeps, Ma?"
I was an old hand at this. After all, Id traveled with Inger and Pa and Id never known them not to sleep beside each other.
Pa was standing next to me but he leaned back. "Erik, once a woman and man are married they sleep together."
He considered Pas revelation with his arms crossed. "But what if we needs you Pa? What if Ma asleep?"
I shook my head. "Erik, what do we ever need Pa for?"
"Hims has ta tell us ta get quiet and get to sleep." Erik was not only growing his answers were coming faster.
Pa sat on his heels and studied Erik. "I better not have to wake up in the middle of the night to tell you that."
"No, Pa. I means in da beginnin of da night," Erik assured. "When you says dat about da bell."
"Belt," I corrected and caught the alarm on Mrs. de Marignys face.
"Belt?" she asked in immediate and deep concern.
My brother walked back to her. "Pa has dis bell and hell use ifs you don do what he says."
"Erik." Pa stood slowly. "I have never used that belt on you."
Eriks blonde curls bounced as he shook his finger at Pa. "You says you would."
"I said I would spank your bare bottom."
"Pa!" Erik looked back at Mrs. de Marigny as he apologized for what he viewed as Pas breech of good manners. "Pa shouldnt oughta talk dat way in front of a lady." He turned back. "You hurt Adam wit it."
We didnt really need to be discussing my punishments in front of Mrs. de Marigny as far as I was concerned. Especially since her eyes were widening in concern. Pa agreed with me and clapped his hands. "No more of this. Into bed. And dont forget to wash up." He chased us as he always did and, because we got ready for bed without a fuss, he told us one of his quiet stories.
I was peacefully drifting to sleep when I heard Mrs. de Marigny softly say, "Benjamin, Adam he is too small that you should use such a thing as a belt. He has a deep heart, that one. He is much like a beautiful young horse. You must be tres careful of his spirit."
Maybe I liked her a little more than I thought.
The smell of Pas pipe tobacco eased into our room. "I used it on him when we were on the trail and his forgetfulness endangered us. And I used it when my warnings and spankings didnt stop his roof climbing."
"Climbing on the roof!" She laughed. "I did the same thing."
"So did I. But that doesnt mean it isnt dangerous." Yep, that was Pa. Sticking by his rules.
"Oh Benjamin, we did not become hurt and neither will he," she coaxed.
"He will if he continues to disobey me," Pa vowed.
Mrs. de Marigny changed the subject in the blink of an eye. "Barbara comes to visit tomorrow. And the day after she leaves for St. Louis." She pronounced St. Louis the way the French do and I practiced it in a whisper because I liked the way it sounded.
"I wish she would come with us to the country." I heard Pas chair rock.
"And why is this?" Mrs. de Marigny teased. "So you can - how do you say - keep an eye on her?"
Pa laughed softly. "I was thinking more of some short reins." He rocked a few times. "Talk about someone whos like a young horse and has a lot of spirit. I wasnt tame when I was her age but Im a man. She scares the devil out of me sometimes."
"Cest bon," she teased. "That leaves only room for the goodness." Then her voice lowered. "Do you think the boys they sleep yet?"
"I think the boys will be asleep soon," Pa answered.
Sure enough, he was right.
"So whats this I hear about you going to the country?" Barbara asked as we sat on the rug the next morning.
I was relieved that we were on good terms again, though I wasnt sure how it had come about.
"Pas hired a bunch of men and theyre going to fix up Mrs. de Villes house." I was proud of my adult knowledge.
"Will you be helping them?" She shoved at my hand and made me cause a mess with the wooden shapes I had been building with. "Oops, how clumsy of me."
I shot her a "you meant to do that" look and resumed my efforts. "I figure Ill help them if they pay me."
She leaned her back against the settee and laughed loudly. "Is that so? I think if your father orders you to work youll do it quick as a wink."
Feeling particularly cocky I told her maybe I would and maybe I wouldnt.
"Give them enough rope and they hang themselves every time," she said as she looked over my shoulder.
I didnt understand at all. "Maam?"
Then there he was. Pa appeared out or nowhere and sat on the settee. He rested his right ankle on his left knee.
"I was just teasing with her." Even I could hear the sickly sound in my voice.
Pa nodded. "Barbara always has been a troublemaker."
She twisted her neck and popped him on the knee. "You ought to be able to recognize one given all you did, Benjamin."
His grin was all that eased his next sentence. "Ill put you across my knees yet."
Barbara was about as intimidated as a grizzly bear. "Ill pull all your hair out while youre asleep."
He pursed his lips together. "Ill put pepper in your tea."
She was not to be outdone. "Ill put mustard on your shaving brush."
Then Pa started it and I couldnt believe my ears. "Oh yeah?"
Barbara turned toward him as she kneeled. "Yeah."
Pas voice got a little louder. "Oh yeah?"
"Yeah!" she shouted.
A look Id never seen passed across his face and in the next instant he had her by her waist and laid her across his knees. I froze in shock and fully expected Pa to raise his hand and start swatting her. I'd never in all my life known him to put someone across his knees unless he meant business. Barbara must have felt the same way because her hands flew back to protect her bottom. But to my further astonishment Pa loosened his grip and let Barbara twist off his lap just as quickly as he'd upended her.
Im sure you could have knocked me over with the touch of a leaf.
They both laughed and Pa said, "Something youre afraid of?"
"You dont scare me," she said from where she knelt on the floor.
For the first time it occurred to me that I had no idea how old Barbara was. Age doesnt really matter to most children except when youre determining who leads your group of friends. Id heard Pa say something about being twenty-nine or something and I was amazed at what he could still do for being that old. But sudden curiosity got the better of me and I forgot my manners.
"Maam? How old are you?"
"Adam." There was unmistakable rebuke in Pas response.
Barbara, however, gave me a wink. "Ill give you a clue: Im younger than your father."
"Gee, maam, everybodys younger than Pa."
She howled in laughter and Pa said, "Excuse me?"
"Well, I mean not everybody." I tried to save myself. "There are lots of men with gray hair at the market and I bet theyre older than you."
Barbara leaned forward holding her stomach.
"Saints above, Adam, you make it sound like Im older than dirt." Pa moaned.
Older than dirt. I liked that. Id have to use it to impress my friends.
By that time, Barbara had regained enough composure to say, "I am ten years younger than your father. Do you know how to take ten away from twenty-nine?"
It took me some time, and a little bit of finger counting, but I finally came up with a timid answer. "Nineteen, maam?"
"Almost twenty." She winked at Pa and I was pretty sure that meant he would soon be thirty.
"Glory!" I was in complete awe. "Think Ill ever be twenty?"
She tapped me on the nose. "I can guarantee it. And youll still have the prettiest blue eyes God ever made."
I shook my head. "Ma and Pa made me, maam."
I couldnt understand why that statement caused Pa to grin and sent Barbara into more laughter.
Saying goodbye has never been easy for me, perhaps because I learned at an early age how unpredictable life is and that you may never see that person again. Even now, when Pa leaves for a few days of hunting or a short trip to another town, I can get through the days because Im busy. But when night surrounds me, and the house grows quiet, and the fire burns low, and I remember the past, I am always surprised at the remnants of the little boy inside me. The man in me knows Pa is capable of taking care of himself - after all he has taken care of me all my life - but that small touch of boy inside me is fearful. I have never told Pa because I dont think he would understand. But then he has a never-ending ability to surprise me. Maybe he knows without my telling him.
My dislike of saying goodbye made my separation from Barbara one of the most difficult things in my life. In an odd way it was harder than losing my mothers because they did not choose to leave.
But Barbara could have changed her plans. She could have gone to Mrs. de Villes country house with us. I didnt understand why she wouldnt and I stood in front of her, full of frustration, crying and ashamed of my crying at the same time. The best I remember I even stomped my foot - something I hadnt done since I had been Eriks age and Inger had spanked my bottom soundly for such a display of temper.
Barbara reached for me and I turned away, my arms crossed and my mind made up that I didnt like her anymore.
"You are without a doubt the most stubborn Cartwright in a long line of stubborn Cartwrights," she said. "Why dont you want me to travel?"
My tears became so hot that I shoved them away with my hand. "You wont ever come back," I sobbed.
"Of course Ill come back. Why do you think I wont?" She walked to me and looked down with a frown indicating she did not understand.
I swiped at my eyes and then at my nose. "You dont have anyone like Pa to protect you."
At last she understood. She sat on her heels as she had on the street that day and took my hands in hers. "I promise you I will be careful if you promise me you will be."
I was not to be consoled. "But awful things happen."
Barbara has always spoken truthfully, even when you dont want to hear it. "Yes, Adam, awful things happen. But wonderful things happen, too. And we mustnt be so afraid of the awful things that we lock ourselves away and lose the chance to enjoy the wonderful things."
Despite her reassuring words, or maybe because of them, I threw my arms around her neck and probably wouldnt have released her except that Pa tapped my shoulder and said, "We need to get Barb to the boat." When I stepped back he looked down at me. "Do you want to go, Adam?"
I shook my head. "Ill stay here, Pa."
Barbara turned at the front doorway and blew me a kiss. I didnt see her again for thirteen years.
Go to Part 2