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Authors: Ellen Gray Massey

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BOOK: Morning in Nicodemus
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   When the roundup was over, Mr. Walker told Bruce about the new settlement at Nicodemus and suggested he join the settlers there. 
   He could start a new life where neighbors were friendly. Then when he saved enough money, he could send for his family to join him. They would all be safe in Kansas in the all Black settlement of Nicodemus. He'd not have to worry ever again about a lynch mob or other persecution because of his race.
   The information that convinced Bruce to go was that Walker knew all about the Kansas territory and the new settlements on the plains for he was an Osage Indian who grew up there. More than that, he had been a distinguished Union scout during the Civil War in the Missouri and Kansas areas, and was a grandson of Pawhuska, the legendary chief of the Osages. Walker's Osage name was Walking Owl. He frequently joined his tribe in their summer hunts in Kansas near Nicodemus. Walker was the one who brought Bruce to the store in Nicodemus and talked the storekeeper into sponsoring him. After that, it was up to Bruce to earn the money to send to his wife and son.
   Nicodemus wasn't the place Bruce expected. The weather was harsh. Nothing like the mild winters and ample rain of Arkansas. No trees and only the murky Solomon River for water. Most of the settlers were as poor as he, a few like Martin paying just a few cents for an occasional job that needed more than one man. The storekeeper could pay him very little. All he could offer were his meals and a place to bunk in the back of his primitive sod store.
*     *     *
   When he finished telling his story, Bruce ran his finger over his scar and said, “I haven't been able to save any money, but in Nicodemus I'm not afraid. I won't be lynched.”
“No,” Marcus said, “you're safe here.”
   Liberty had tears in her eyes. 
   Though Bruce's story explained much to Virgil, he still couldn't shake all of his anger toward him. Many of the settlers had equally hard and difficult backgrounds, though he hadn't heard of any surviving a lynching. Still, finding a better life was why they all came. And they didn't become mean or steal horses. They fitted in and helped. 
   Virgil asked the question he had wanted to ask for a long time. “Why don't you put in for a government homestead? People come to Nicodemus to farm. To work for themselves. Why don't you?”
   “I don't have the five dollars I need to file.”
   Virgil could understand that. But why didn't he work in the next county on the railroad like he and Marcus had. Or gather buffalo bones to sell? Something, if he were so desperate for money. When Bruce hesitated, Virgil pressed him. “You must have more reasons you don't file for a claim than not having the fee.”
   Bruce still paused. He lowered his head and finally said, “Well,” he paused again. “Well, I don't want any of the places that are available.”
   “Why not?” Virgil asked. “There are still good ones. There's two abandoned farms on the main road and one east of here on the river. They're as good as any others.”
   “They really are,” Marcus said. “I bet the government agent will give you credit to file.”
   “What's stopping you?” Virgil asked.
   “Because the farm I want isn't available.”
   Virgil and Marcus exchanged glances. I was right about him wanting our farm, Virgil read in Marcus's expression.
   “And that farm you want is ours, isn't it?” Virgil asked.
   Bruce nodded.
   Virgil and Marcus exchanged glances again. 
   “We'd already figured that out. But why ours?” Virgil asked.
   “These others are just as good,” Marcus said. “Some have better locations.”
   Bruce didn't answer.
   “Why ours?” Virgil asked again glaring at Bruce.
   Bruce stood up, shook Virgil's hand and said, “Thank you for saving me from the river. I better get back to town. Fletcher may want me.”
   “Why our farm?” Virgil insisted still holding his hand.
   “I can't tell you that.” Bruce drew back his hand, turned away, and hurried back to Nicodemus.
Chapter Nine
   Liberty skipped into the soddy a few days later. She was singing, “There are signs in the sky that the darkness is gone.” She waved in front of her brothers a letter. “Look, Virgil. See, Marcus. The song tells it right.”
   “What are you talking about?” Marcus asked, catching her as she whizzed by him. He snatched the sheet of paper and looked carefully at it.
   “'Twas a long weary night,” Liberty sang.
   Virgil joined her singing, “But the morning is near.”
   “It's near here in Nicodemus,” Liberty sang unsuccessfully fitting the words into the melody.
   He and Liberty laughed as Marcus shook his head. “What's gotten into you two?” he asked.
   “Really, Lib? Is that a letter from Pa?” Virgil asked, looking over Marcus's shoulder.
   She nodded. Letters came oftener now that the storekeeper in Nicodemus was postmaster as well, even though he had to go to Ellis once a week to get the mail the train delivered.
   “Let me see it,” Virgil said, snatching the letter from Marcus. “Yes, they're coming.” Some of the hand-printed words came alive to him. He struggled to make sense of it, then handed it to Liberty. “What else does it say?” he asked.
   “They are truly coming this time,” Liberty said. “They even bought the tickets so they'd be sure they can come. They'll leave the end of September when Pa's job will be done for the season.”
   Virgil and Liberty beamed at each other in their happiness. With his eyes full of mischief, Virgil held out his hand to her and bowed with a sweeping, exaggerated motion. Liberty batted her eyes and took his hand. They both broke out laughing as Virgil began to hum. While Liberty danced around her brother, they harmonized on the last four lines of the song:
   “There are signs in the sky that the
   darkness is gone -
   There are tokens in endless array,
   When the storm which had seem-
   ingly banished the dawn,
   Only hastens the advent of day.”
   “Are you two crazy?” Marcus asked, shaking his head. He picked up the stool they knocked over and snatched Virgil's fife from the table before he could get it to play the tune.
   “No,” Liberty answered, “only happy.” She held out her hand to him. “C'mon, join us.”
   “I'm happy, too,” Marcus said smiling as if to prove it, “but I'm not gonna dance and sing words from that ole song.”
   “Oh, Marcus, loosen up. Have some fun once in a while,” Liberty said. “‘The day is coming.' Next month Ma and Pa will be here.”
   “And ‘the morning is near,'” Virgil sang. He grabbed his fife from Marcus and blew a few notes in spite of Marcus struggling to snatch it again.
   “All right,” Marcus said, “but put that thing down. If they're coming, then we all better get to work to finish their room.” Even while still talking, he walked away to get the brace and bit he needed to drill holes in the window frame for the pegs to fasten it into the thick sod wall.
   “Virge,” Liberty said, “did you read in Pa's letter that they'll bring your fiddle with them?”
   Virgil nodded as he grinned at Liberty.
   “Pa also said that he's gotten some new strings and resin so it will be ready for Virgil to play when they get here,” Marcus said with a sly smile.
   Liberty and Virgil stared at him.
   “Virge isn't the only Lander brother who has learned to read,” Marcus said. “I don't never want to have a letter from Ma and Pa that I don't know what it says, like I did last spring when I had to ride two days back from Ellis for my sister to read it to me. Next time I get a letter, I want to read it myself.” 
   “How did you—” Liberty started to ask.
   “I listened when you taught Virgil. I'm not deaf, you know.” With a self-satisfied smile, Marcus strode into the parents' new room. “Coming, Virge?”
   Virgil grinned at Liberty and flicked his eyes to his brother. “Yes, Mister Boss Man, I'm coming.” Virgil jigged his way into the room to a fiddle tune he played in his head.
*     *     *
   A few evenings later when Virgil walked down to the river to his fishing hole, he once again saw Bruce. 
   This time Bruce stepped carefully along the bank, poking the ground with a long stout stick every few inches. Though Virgil's anger at Bruce boiled up again, this time he held it in. There must be a good explanation why he was so obsessed with this spot. Without attempting to conceal himself, he stood in the path watching, fishing pole over his shoulder. Bruce continued his careful search of the river bank area.
   What did the fellow expect to find here? It was only a little patch of rock. Not even valuable rock like marble, just limestone and sandstone. What's so special about that? Back in Kentucky the country was filled with it. In the rough hilly areas, there was more rock than soil. Then he realized that here in Kansas this was the only spot for several miles where the rock was exposed like this. Under all the grass there was nothing here but soil. So, he reasoned, Bruce is probably interested in the rock to build a house for his family when they come. 
   Of course that's it. Marcus and he had talked about building more permanent buildings when his folks got here. They even toyed with the idea of using this rock for the walls of the room they were constructing for them, but opted for the available sod they already stockpiled. Quicker, even if sod houses were only temporary. But a few of the more prosperous people in Nicodemus were already using stone in parts of their buildings. 
   Marcus had studied the stone outcropping at their ford. The brothers talked briefly about it. They agreed that it might be suitable if they knew how to cut it into blocks. 
   The thought of learning that skill excited Virgil. He knew that with some instruction, he could master it easily and would enjoy doing it. Much better work than plowing and cutting sod.
   Virgil's anger toward Bruce abated. Of course, checking out the stone was what Bruce was doing here, and its presence was why he wanted this place. The rock for building would be free and wouldn't have to be hauled in. That made perfect sense.
   “Hey!” Virgil called out not unpleasantly.
   Bruce jumped as if he heard a shot instead of Virgil's voice. Eyes darting in all directions, he turned toward Virgil and gave a feeble, “Hello.”
   The two men stood facing each other, Virgil holding his fishing pole and Bruce his stout stick. Neither moved nor said anything. A frog plopped into the water, creating a series of circles within circles on the quiet water's surface. A fox squirrel chattered at them from the top of the tallest cottonwood tree. From the direction of the house came the low of the cow as Marcus tied her up to milk her.
   “Do you think this rock here is good enough for building?” Virgil finally broke the silence to ask.
   “Huh? Oh, er, I don't know.”
   “Do you reckon if we cut these rocks that they would hold together in blocks, or will they crumble?”
   “A-a-ah . . . a-a-ah, I don't know.”
   “Marcus and I have talked about it,” Virgil continued, ignoring Bruce's stammering, “but we haven't had time to check it out. We'd sure rather have stone walls than sod walls, wouldn't you?”
   Bruce nodded.
   Virgil eyed Bruce wondering why he was so antsy and tongue-tied. When they talked with him before, he seemed willing enough to talk. Here he was acting like a idiot. As if he never heard of a stone house before. Though exasperated by not getting anywhere by being pleasant, Virgil continued in the same tone, “It'd be good if you could have a stone house already built when your wife and boy get here.”
   Bruce nodded again. “A-a-h.” He dropped his stick. “A-a-h . . . I gotta go.” He hurried past Virgil and walked rapidly on the trail to the main road.
*     *     *
   “This is my kinsman I told you about,” Likes-to-Hunt said to Virgil a week later.
   Beside Virgil's friend stood a man even taller than Hunter. Though he was dressed like most of the ranchers, Virgil knew from his fluid movements and posture that he was an Osage even without Hunter introducing him as a kinsman.
   “This is Walking Owl,” Hunter said as if presenting a great personage.
   “I'm pleased to finally meet you,” Walking Owl said. “Likes-to-Hunt had told me many things about you.” His voice had no trace of the pioneer dialects. Had his back been turned, Virgil would have thought from his speech that the man was a college professor. Even his stance revealed his self-reliance as he stood smiling, at ease in whatever world he was in.
   “He said you are a natural hunter,” Walking Owl said, “That you had to leave your parents in Kentucky and be responsible for your younger brother and sister until they can join you here.”
   Virgil laughed. “That's sort of right. I'm not a farmer, but Marcus and Liberty need me. So I'm here.”
   “You've done well,” Walking Owl said, glancing at the ten acres of crops, the walled-up spring, the stock, the gaggle of geese, and the expanded sod house. He picked up the cat that was wrapping himself against his legs.
   “I guess.” Virgil looked at the scene Walking Owl saw as if for the first time. Then he realized that his parents would also be pleased at the progress.
   “Your hunting ability has helped achieve all this,” Walking Owl said as he stroked Nicky. “Would you like to accompany us on one of our hunts?”
   “Oh yes!” Virgil exclaimed, though he tried to act more mature before his guest. “I'd really like to when I can get away from here. It would be a great honor.” He turned to Hunter with excitement in his voice. “My mother and father are coming in a few weeks. Maybe I could go then.”
   “Good,” Walking Owl said. “Then the honor will be ours. Join us on our fall hunt into the Colorado mountains.”
   Virgil could hardly contain himself. He wanted to jump and skip like Liberty did, but didn't think he should act so childish in the presence of this older, dignified Osage. Virgil could tell that Walking Owl liked him. His eyes looked unwaveringly at him with kindness and approval. So, instead of expressing his joy, Virgil merely gave a dignified nod.
   Hunter, on the other hand let out a whoop and clasped Virgil's hand in delight. He pumped it up and down grinning all the time.
   “Likes-to-Hunt tells me you've had some trouble with Bruce Wallace,” Walking Owl said, setting Nicky down. The cat scampered away.
   “Yes, he stole one of our horses,” Virgil said, wondering how this Osage knew about that. He started to say more. Then he put together what Bruce had said of his flight from Arkansas. He deduced that this man was the rancher in Missouri who helped him and brought him to Nicodemus. “You helped him after he was lynched?”
   “Yes, he was almost dead when he got to my place,” Walking Owl said. “My wife doctored him and nursed him so that he could work, but we couldn't cure his spirit. He never smiled. He rarely talked so that we had to drag out of him what happened. He never did tell the name of the men who lynched him, but he did tell us his wife's name and his town. We finally traced her down. She had hidden in the woods behind their cabin. When the lynch mob fled, scared off by the gunshot, she ran to her parents' house. She is still there, last we heard. She thought that Bruce was hung like the others.”
   “Bruce didn't tell us all these details,” Virgil said. 
   “The fact that he told you anything is good news. He rarely talked about what happened to him. He kept alone most of the time. When I told him his wife and boy were safe, he gave one little smile, the first we'd seen. After that he did seem to go through the day with a better spirit. He had given up as if the rope had broken his neck instead of scarring it. Even when I told him about Nicodemus and brought him here, he didn't respond much better.” Walking Owl paused. “I thought a new start here would bring him out of his despair.”
   “I admit,” Virgil said, “I hated him when he was so mean to us and ended by stealing the mare. He won't even homestead a place. There are several ready, even with buildings where people have given up and left. 
   “All he seems interested in is running us off our place so he can get it. I sometimes find him on the river, just poking around.”
   Virgil didn't want to talk anymore about Bruce. He was interested in this Osage elder. After Liberty's meal, mostly from produce Virgil had hunted and gathered, they talked late into the night. 
   The siblings asked many questions about Osage history, about Walking Owl's experiences as a Union scout during the war, and his recent ranching success where he was living in both the Osages' and the White man's world.
   “We can live together and still keep what's good in both worlds. It can be done,” Walking Owl said. “All races can live together peaceably and profitably. You three have a great start here in Nicodemus.” He paused and looked at each of the siblings like a seer divining their future. “You'll all do well,” he stated as a fact.
   “How do you know that?” Marcus asked.
   Hunter said, “He's a grandson of a chief. He knows.”
   “Well,” Marcus said again, “tell us what do you know.”
BOOK: Morning in Nicodemus
13.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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