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Authors: Ellen Gray Massey

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BOOK: Morning in Nicodemus
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   During the rest of the day, they all three worked on the roof of the ten-foot addition to their sod house. Still leery of the snake and not wanting to be alone in the soddy, Liberty worked with them. On the ridge pole of cottonwood, the boys had already fastened willow rafters. Balanced up on the rafters, Marcus spread out a layer of brush they had cut from wild plums along the river. Next Liberty handed up to him clumps of prairie grass which he spread over the brush. Carefully, she and Virgil lifted up one by one the four-inch thick, three-foot long sod bricks which Marcus laid, grass side down over the entire roof. 
   With the outside of the roof finished, Virgil worked inside the room, tacking tar paper to the underside of the rafters. This formed an enclosed ceiling. It took both Marcus and Liberty to hold the roll of tar paper in place. They were all especially proud that they could afford the tar paper this time.
   “That's good,” Virgil said, admiring his work. The black tar paper ceiling hid the brush and grass. “Maybe this roof won't leak so much.”
   “Or be a home for pet snakes,” Marcus teased Liberty.
   She slapped him playfully. “You'd be scared, too, if a snake dropped down on you.”
Tired, but pleased that the room was almost finished and ready for their folks, before going to bed that night, Virgil asked Liberty, “Read again Pa's last letter.” Virgil wasn't ready to sleep. Now that they had the room for his parents, he wanted to hear again the words that said they would come.
   Marcus leaned over her as Liberty unfolded the letter. Getting closer to the candle on the table, she read, “My dear children. I pray that you are still well. Ma and I live from one of Liberty's letters to the next. I pester Miss Grace every time I see her to see if she's got another letter from you. We are both so proud of you.
   “This time I have some good news. Ma is well again. I got work at the Johnson Plantation. While working there, I get my meals and can save most of my wages. This job should last until September. I should then have enough for our two train tickets to Kansas.
   “My how grand that sounds. Kansas! We can't hardly wait. But, Virgil, don't worry about the house being made of sod, or that it leaks every rain. We will love it as we do you three amazing children. No one could have done more. Marcus, keep the grass out of the corn. I may be there in time to help you gather it.
   “We are counting the days until we leave.
   “Your loving Ma and Pa.”
   After discussing the letter again, all three were ready for bed. Tomorrow they would start building some shelter for the stock. Though winter was several months off, they now knew what to expect. None of them wanted to repeat last winter's hardships. Marcus and Liberty planned to stockpile cow chips, brush, and grass bundles for fuel. Marcus was already busy cutting grass and drying it for hay. He had the beginnings of a hay stack by the horse paddock. He'd need much more for their expanded stock. The cow would have another calf, the sow more pigs, and both mares would foal.
   And best of all, they harvested the five acres of wheat they managed to plant last fall. They would have their own flour now when they took the grain to the mill. They would have some feed for the stock. Liberty's geese would love it, as well as the pigs. Hardly any settler could expect to break ground and raise a crop the first year. Even if it was only five acres, they made a good start. Virgil had to admit that was mostly due to Marcus's efforts and good planning. And his own muscles and tireless energy.
   “Oh, Liberty,” Virgil said just as they were about to go to sleep. “I forgot to tell you. Jenny Fletcher invited you to come to the school she's started in Nicodemus. Bethel is already going.”
   “Really?” Behind her curtained-off corner, Liberty sat up excitedly. Her drowsiness disappeared. “Can I go?”
   “Ask Marc.” This was a rare time when Virgil was glad Marcus was in charge. He didn't have to tell Liberty she didn't have the time to go.
   “Marc, can I? Oh, how wonderful! A real school here in Kansas. Can I, Marc? Can I?”
There was no sound from Marcus's pad. 
   “Marc,” Liberty said loudly, pulling back the curtain. “I know you're not asleep.”
Marcus turned over and raising with his elbows supporting him, asked Virgil, “You said that Bethel is going?”
   “Yes. When I got to Martin's place this morning, she was already gone. Martin said that was where she was at.”
   Marcus paused a few minutes. “Lib,” he finally said, “let's agree that if you get all your work done, you can go.”
   “Oh, Marc,” Liberty said, jumping up and hugging her brother.
   “You know there may be some times you can't if we need you here?”
   “Yes, I know. I'll do it. I'll work extra hard to get everything done. You'll see. And then when I learn enough, I can be a schoolteacher just like Jenny.”
   “Well, maybe,” Marcus said. “But now you better get some sleep. We've got lots to do tomorrow.”
   Liberty lay back down. She was soon asleep with a smile on her face. She had discovered a way she could work for herself by being a teacher. Virgil smiled with the knowledge that his parents would surely come this time and he might be able to go with Likes-to-Hunt on the Osages' fall hunt. Marcus counted up the months until he would be twenty-one. With the folks here to work the homestead, he could get his own farm. And maybe Bethel?
   All three young people slept soundly.
Chapter Seven
 
   Whenever possible on Sundays the Lander siblings attended church in town. Wearing their best clothes and riding their carefully curried horses, they arrived in time for the service. Afterwards they joined the other young people for visiting. The settlers always took advantage of any opportunity to see one another, for days on end on their farms were very lonely. On this day there was a covered-dish dinner laid out on boards and sawhorses on the north side of the building out of the hot sun and incessant wind. No matter how hard the times were, the people found something to bring to the dinner to share with their neighbors. 
   This day's two popular dishes were Liberty's stew made from rabbits Virgil trapped and an assortment of wild greens Virgil gathered. She was also especially proud of her mess of garden peas. With the spring near their house, she was able to water the plants during the recent dry spell.
   When Virgil filled his plate, he looked for Bethel. She was with Liberty and a group of girls. He sat down beside her.
   “This stew is really good,” Bethel said. “Liberty said she'll give me the recipe.”
   “It's what my mother used to make when she cooked for the Massa . . .” When he realized what he'd said, he stammered. “I mean . . . I mean the plantation boss. I hate that word and I won't let Lib use it.”
   “I know what you mean,” she said. “It's hard to change what you were taught to say, isn't it?”
   “Yes.” Virgil was pleased that she understood him so well. “Ma taught Lib all about cooking. Lib wrote it all down so she would know how to cook when we got here. Only here, we don't have some of the ingredients. Like Ma used beef instead of wild rabbit in this stew.” He grinned and joked. “We spared the calf this time.”
   “Of course.” Bethel laughed. “But seriously, now that Papa isn't here listening to us, we can talk. How are you getting along on your farm?”
   “We're building a herd.” He knew he was stretching the truth here with their one cow and calf, but he couldn't help impressing her. “We'll soon get enough stock that we can butcher a calf.”
   “I know you will.”
   “Yes.”
   “From what Liberty says, you keep your family supplied with meat even if it's wild animals,” Bethel said looking at his strong, athletic body. “You Landers have more meat than most of the rest of us here in Nicodemus Township.”
   “I guess we do. I hunt a lot.”
   “You like hunting, don't you?”
   “Oh yes. I love being out on the prairie or on the river looking for game or just exploring what is out there. I'm learning more about this country every day. There's plenty of food stuff around here if you know what to look for and aren't too picky what you eat. The river draws animals. During dry spells, all I have to do is to wait by the river and they come to it.”
   “That takes more patience than I have. Isn't it boring just sitting and waiting?”
   “No, not at all. I can study the area, the ground, the plants, the birds. You'd be surprised how much life there is around a river. It's quiet and peaceful there. And beautiful. It's like it is the center of the world, and all life revolves around it.”
   “Now you're getting poetic. To me, the river is shut up inside steep, ugly mud banks that cut through the grass. Even the water isn't clear like back in Kentucky.”
   “Well, there is something beautiful everywhere. In the river, in the grass. You just have to look for it.”
   “Marcus sees a different kind of beauty. He sees what this land can produce,” Bethel said.
   “Yes, that's Marc. He wouldn't recognize a pretty scene unless he could see corn growing on it.”
   Bethel looked at Virgil, the lines between her eyes deepened. “What's wrong with that?”
   “Nothing.” Virgil didn't know what to say. “I mean that he's just practical.”
   “Yes. Out here you have to be.”
   Virgil looked beyond the few rough structures in Nicodemus. Without a tree, bush, or other adornment, they stood in bleak contrast to the miles and miles of prairie visible in every directions. He smiled as he thought he could see almost to Canada. Nothing on the horizon but more grass. “I sometimes think I don't fit here. Maybe I should have been born an Osage, like Hunter,” he said.
   Bethel looked at his black skin, cropped, tightly-curled black hair, and full lips framed by a line of a neatly-trimmed mustache and beard. Then she giggled and said loud enough for the other girls to hear, “You'd sure make a strange-looking Indian.”
   The young women around them laughed. “We're glad you ain't an Indian,” one of them said, poking him in fun.
   Another broke off a tuft of grass and held it behind his head like a feather. “Big-Chief-Traps-Rabbits,” she said pretending to christen him. 
   Virgil was enjoying the girls' attention, although he noticed when they mentioned Marcus that Bethel frequently glanced across the yard to where Marcus was discussing the progress of the corn crop with a group of men. She seemed to watch Marcus more than anyone else.
   The young people were silent for a few minutes while they finished eating their dinners. 
“My parents are coming soon, maybe before the summer is over,” Virgil said to Bethel. “We think they will really come this time.”
   “Oh, that's good.”
   “Yes. We can hardly wait. It's been almost a year and a half since we've seen them.”
   “That's a long time. I can't imagine not seeing my folks for that long. I couldn't live.”
   “Yes, it's hard, especially on Liberty. She's having to grow up too soon.”
   “But she likes it here, doesn't she?”
   “I guess. She never complains.”
   “No, she wouldn't. What about you, Virgil? How do you like it here?”
   “It sure beats living in the South. But I'm not a farmer like Marc. I don't think I'll ever be. I'll sure be glad when the folks get here. I won't be tied all the time to the farm then. I'd be able to . . .” He paused when he saw the frown on Bethel's face.
   “Will you leave when they come?” she asked when he didn't finish his thought.
   “I don't know. It depends.” He hesitated before he said honestly, “I might.” When he saw that she frowned again, he added, “But not for good.”
   “But your claim?”
   “We'll work that out. I'll come back enough to meet the government requirements to prove up on it. I just won't have to work day and night on it. I can—”
   “But you have to work on something to make a living,” she interrupted him. “Here in Kansas you're working for yourself.” As she said this she glanced from him to Marcus who was gesturing excitedly in his group and raising his voice in his enthusiasm.
   They could hear some of his words. “Corn crop . . . cattle . . . next spring.” Then he seemed to be talking about politics. Words such as “town council” and “next election” were sprinkled with agricultural ones.
   “Yes, I own a quarter section. It's mine. No debt.” Virgil gave his attention to Bethel as he straightened up proudly. “I do work for myself.” Or more accurately for Marcus, he thought. He glanced again toward his brother who was looking their way. Marcus smiled at Bethel who smiled back.
   Marcus finished his comment to the men and with a couple other young men sauntered over to Virgil and Bethel just as Jenny Fletcher, the young teacher, also joined their group.
   “Oh, Miss Jenny,” Liberty said to her, “I can come to your school.”
   “That's wonderful.” Jenny smiled. 
   “I'll come tomorrow. Marcus said I can go in the afternoon for awhile. Will that be all right?”
   “Yes, I'll look forward to having you. Come when you can.”
   The group of young people laughed and talked rapidly since they rarely had time for visiting with others.
   They soon would all have to return to their lonely homes.
   When he first arrived at the church, Virgil had seen Bruce Wallace sitting in the back row. He noticed that instead of joining anyone for dinner, he took his plate of food to the back of the store where he ate by himself. Virgil was glad Bruce didn't come near him, as he was still angry about the horse stealing stunt and was afraid if Bruce taunted him, he might start a fight. He certainly didn't want to do that here in the churchyard with Bethel with him.
   Bethel saw him watching Bruce. “Don't be too hard on him, Virgil,” she said. “He doesn't have anything.”
   “That don't give him the right to steal.”
   Bethel didn't say more.
   “Play us some music,” a young man asked Virgil. “Let's have a song afore we have to go home.”
   Everyone clapped. Several voices urged him. Virgil pulled his slim, homemade musical instrument from the special pocket Liberty had sewed in his coat. “I had to leave my fiddle in Kentucky,” he said to Bethel, “but I made this. It makes music of a sort. Not like the fiddle, but it's better than nothing.”
   Bethel admired it. “It's like a Scottish fife I saw once. I love it.”
   Virgil laughed. “Sorta like a fife.”
   “C'mon, Virgil,” a farmer said. “Make some music.”
   Virgil put his fife to his lips and holding it in front of him with both hands, he fingered the holes he had made in the hollow reed. He played the melody of one of his favorite hymns, “Deep River.”
   The farmer sang the words, “Oh don't you want to go to that gospel feast? That promised land where all is peace?”
   Others at the dinner heard the music and joined the group of young people. “Play ‘Jacob's Ladder,'” someone asked. When he got to the chorus, everyone sang, “We are climbing Jacob's Ladder. Soldiers of the Cross.” 
   Someone sang out the words to another song, “Nobody knows the trouble I see . . .”
Virgil switched to that tune as everyone joined in, 
 
 
   “Nobody knows the trouble I see
   Nobody knows but Jesus.
   Nobody knows the trouble I see
   Glory hallelujah!”
 
 
   Taking his fife from his mouth, Virgil sang a verse, “Sometimes I'm up, sometimes I'm down.”
   The crowd joined in, “Oh yes, Lord.”
   Virgil's strong bass rang out again, “Sometimes I'm almost to the ground.”
   “Oh yes Lord,” was the response.
   After that there was a long pause.
   “Hey, isn't this supposed to be a party?” a man's voice called out. “No more sad songs.”
   Another added, “Let's have a little dance.”
   Virgil smiled as he fingered his fife. He played only three notes of “The Blue-Tail Fly,” before the group joined in singing as the men selected their partners. “And brush away the blue-tailed fly.”
   Though he didn't stop playing, he scowled when he saw Marcus dance with Bethel. Bethel was looking at his brother with a smile on her pretty face and her sparkling eyes dancing along with her feet. 
   When everyone continued singing the words, providing a rhythm they danced to, he put down his fife and went to Bethel. 
   “May I have this dance,” he tapped her on the shoulder as he cut in.
   Marcus backed off. Bethel's smile vanished, though she nodded yes. His face set and his body rigid, Virgil finished the dance with Bethel.
   When the singing stopped, Bethel excused herself. “I've got to go.” She gave Virgil a look he couldn't decipher as she helped her parents gather up their belongings from the dinner.
   Virgil didn't say anything to his brother or sister as he left the merry group of people who were still singing favorite songs. He heard them singing “Go in and out the window.” He noticed that Marcus was the single man in the middle and Bethel had rejoined the group.
   They don't need me, he thought as he untied the rope fastening Lady to the rail beside a dozen other horses. He purposely ignored Bruce sitting alone on the front steps of the store. He was in no mood to talk with him now. The thought occurred to him that he shouldn't leave Liberty's horse tied where Bruce could easily take her, but he knew there were too many people around for Bruce to try to steal Beauty again.
   Stupid thought. 
   With his hand on the saddle horn ready to mount, he glanced back to the crowd. They had reached the line in the song, “I kneel because I love you.” Sure enough, Marcus was kneeling in front of Bethel. Just a silly dance, he thought as he quickly mounted Lady and loped south out of town on the main road toward the river.
   Before he reached the crossing, he turned off the road onto the trail to his farm. 
   Without pausing at his horse paddock or soddy, or even looking at the corn now almost shoulder high, he continued to his ford.
   Ground-tying Lady, he sat on the rock outcropping and stared west up the stream at the water flowing slowly but steadily toward him. 
   When Lady snorted, he said, “That's right, Lady. There's lots of country upriver where this water comes from. Someday . . .” He stopped. Then he said with assurance, “Someday we'll go there.”
 
 
*     *     *
 
 
   “Come here, Liberty,” Jenny Fletcher, the schoolteacher in Nicodemus said. They were in the impromptu classroom Jenny had fixed up in one of the rooms in her brother-in-law's hotel. Liberty laughed every time she used the word “hotel” for this primitive building with some spaces for paying guests.
BOOK: Morning in Nicodemus
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