He never saw the fist come flying toward his face, but he felt the meaty impact as the knuckles dug into the sensitive flesh around his left eye, the painful twisting of his neck as his head snapped backward and toward the side at the same time and the crunching of his skull as it hit the knobby wood of the barn door. He knew better than to fight back and simply let himself slide down the door until he was sitting in the dirt and straw, full of horse urine and other nasty smelling detritus spilling out of the entrance of the rarely cleaned barn.
“What’d ya do that fer,” he moaned, while almost automatically curling in on himself to protect the more tender portions of his anatomy from the next attack he knew was coming.
“Fer makin’ a fool of yerself over that Red Whore at the church today.” The older man spat contemptuously. The dark chunk of spittle mixed with day old tobacco chewings landed on the toe of Carl’s boot. But he made no move to clean it off. “First ya waste yer time gettin’ in a biddin’ war, and LOSING!, with that McCloud boy over her. Then ya spend all o’ Sunday services makin’ eyes at her. I couldn’t show my face fer the shame of it.”
“But, Pa…” Carl started to protest that he hadn’t done more than look her direction once or twice. A vicious kick from his father’s boot to his ribs ended the protest in a painful ‘Ooomf’ of exhaled breath instead.
“Don’t give me no buts,” the old man grunted, reaching up to resettle the grimy hat that rested precariously on his unwashed black hair. “I didn’t raise ya ta be dippin’ yer wick in no disease ridden injun gal. Leastwise, not where’s others can see ya and laugh at ya fer it. Ya hear me? Ya got a hankerin’ fer some red meat, by all means, take care of it. But don’t go makin’ yerself and the rest of this family lookin’ like a fool while ya do it!”
Without another word to his whimpering offspring, he turned toward the house. Sniffing, he reached up and wiped the back of his hand across his upper lip to clear away the moisture trickling out of his bulbous nose.
“I’m hungry, woman,” he shouted out as he trudged toward the house. “Ya’d better have dinner ready and it better be hot!”
“Oh, I can’t believe you’re here,” Julia gushed, pulling out of the tight embrace she’d wrapped around him. “What are you doin’ here? You’re supposed to be in Sioux City, being a fancy City Manager and all.”
Johnson grinned down at her, his teeth a brilliant white slash across the dark skin of his face, and shrugged. “Looks like they didn’t trust a ‘nigga’ to handle the town’s finances.”
“That’s alright,” he went on. “We knew at graduation it wouldn’t be easy. That, as soon as they saw me, most places would send me packing, despite my recommendations and school record.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’ve got a lead on another job with a town called Plum Creek, out by Fort Kearney.” His smile grew even broader, if that were possible, and he added, “The stage came right through Rock Creek, so I figured I’d take a break from the trip and stop by to visit.”
“I’m so glad you did,” Julia squealed in her excitement. “I can’t wait to introduce you to my family.” She grabbed his hand and turned toward the house, pulling him along behind her.
Practically tripping over her own feet in her excitement, she almost missed seeing Jamie as she rushed toward the porch.
“Oh,” she exclaimed, skidding to a halt. “Abe, this is Jamie McCloud. His family owns the ranch with mine, remember? Jamie,” she gestured vaguely between the men, “this is Abraham Lincoln Johnson. He and I went to school together at Iowa State College.”
As if it could’ve been any other place, Jamie mentally groused, even as he forced himself to smile welcomingly and held out his hand in greeting.
Johnson seemed a little taken aback at first by the apparently unexpected offer, but then stepped forward and shook Jamie’s hand firmly. The two barely had a chance to nod in greeting and let go of each other’s hand before Julia resumed dragging the newcomer into the house.
“Ma! Pa! Come look who’s come for a visit!”
Jamie watched her go on her exuberantly joyful way with a strange sense of loss he wasn’t quite sure he understood.
Julia looked around the crowded family table in what had once been a fancy, formal dining room. It had long since degenerated into simply a large room with a big, scarred table and a happy, noisy group sitting at it while shoveling in as much food as possible. She liked it much better this way.
Looking down at her plate, Julia sighed in contentment. Dawn Star had made all of her favorite foods for this celebratory family dinner. There was a succulent roast pig, a beef and vegetable pot pie, fry bread with honey, applesauce and corn pudding. And she knew there were at least three pies, huckleberry, dried apple and sweet potato, sitting on the cooling rack in the kitchen, waiting for dessert time. She still wasn’t sure which one she wanted.
And all of her favorite people were here, her brothers and sisters, the McClouds, Jamie, and the one person she’d ever truly considered a friend at school.
“Is it always this….” Abe waved his hand a bit helplessly to indicate the rowdiness that was ‘this’.
Julia nodded. “I warned you,” she smiled. “Of course, it’s not quite this bad every week. The two families only eat all together like this once a month, so that cuts down on it. And several of the older boys often head off visiting, courting, you know, on a Sunday afternoon.”
“So, how’d you two meet?” Harry interrupted, reaching across the table for the platter of biscuits resting in front of Abe, ignoring his mother’s and Lou’s glares at his lack of table manners.
“I didn’t know there were any coloreds at Iowa State,” Jed added between bites of corn pudding.
“There aren’t many of us,” Abe smiled. It was obvious from the reception he’d received the question was truly simple curiosity, nothing more ominous. “I’m only the second Negro to graduate. Our biology instructor, George Washington Carver, he was the first. He’s just finished up his Master’s degree.”
“I heard he was leaving,” Julia said. “Going to some new school out East, specifically for Coloreds.”
“That’s the rumor,” Abe said.
Julia shook her head. “I still can’t believe he gave up painting to become a biologist. Did you get the chance to see any of his work?”
Chewing industriously, Abe just nodded.
“They’re great, aren’t they? I particularly like his painting of Lake Laverne,” she continued. “Makes me want to just dive in!”
“You’re the only person who’s ever seen that lake who’d say that,” Abe laughed.
Julia shrugged, slinging a sidelong glance at a silent Jamie. “What can I say? It reminds me of the swimming hole here. I’ve made a lot of great memories at that swimming hole.”
Jamie glanced down, remembering some of those hot, sultry, summer days they’d spent together cooling off in the waters of the swimming hole, she in her chemise and pantalettes, he in his longjohns. By high school though, he’d started avoiding those days. The temptation to see and do just a little more, a little too much, too soon, had become almost overwhelming.
“Yeah, like the time you--” Rose started in. But Harry interrupted her with a glare.
“Hey, don’t interrupt them,” he growled, half playfully. “They still haven’t answered my question.” He turned back to Julia. “How’d you meet?”
Julia ignored the slightly suspicious tone in her over-protective brother’s voice.
Jamie watched Julia as she spoke animatedly with her friend, Abe, as she called him so easily. He wanted to feel mad, angry, furious. Mostly he just felt sick to his stomach at the ease with which she related to the other man. She never relaxed that much with him!
“Didn’t you write once that you’d met over a game of some sort?” Dawn Star put in from several seats down the table.
“Croquet,” Abe smiled, nodding. “We met over a game of croquet.”
“What’s croquet?” nine-year-old Mary Margaret asked.
“It’s a game where you use a big… hammer-type bat called a mallet to hit balls on the ground through a series of hoops,” Julia explained. “I don’t see the fascination in it. Baseball and tennis are much more fun. But it was all the rage on campus.”
“You couldn’t walk five feet without stumbling over someone’s game,” Abe laughed. “And that’s precisely how we met.”
“We weren’t playing, we were just headed to our classes, in opposite directions,” Julia added.
“When I tripped over a wicket I hadn’t seen lying right in the middle of the walkway. Tumbled head over teakettle, right through Miss Julia here, taking her down with me.”
“It all happened so fast I didn’t have time to get out of his way and he took my legs right out from under me.”
Jamie had to look away from the couple seated across from him at that. Now he was feeling jealousy. It was obvious Abe had had the sort of contact with Julia that Jamie had longed for for years, even if it had started out as an accident.
“Once the dust settled, we introduced ourselves,” Abe finished the explanation.
“Of course, that’s not when we became friends,” Julia added softly. “That wasn’t until a few days later.” She blushed at the memory. “Rather, I should say mornings later.”
Jamie stiffened. If something had happened to make her blush… he couldn’t even allow himself to complete the thought. Although it was obvious he wasn’t the only one having it, judging but the sudden change in his uncle’s countenance.
“What do you mean?” Buck asked, a father’s concern coloring his voice as he eyed Julia’s obvious discomfort.
Julia’s blush deepened and her mouth open and closed twice while she tried to figure out how to phrase things. “Well, it was the time of the Sun Dance,” she finally said. “I couldn’t come home ‘cause it was mid-term but I didn’t want to miss out on everything. So, I headed out to Skunk Creek over the weekend and built a small sweatlodge.”
“I was still exploring the area and had decided to hike down along the creek toward town and just as I rounded a bend in the creekbed, she comes bursting out of the lodge, whooping like a… well,” he paused and laughed, taking in the rambunctious crowd about him, then shrugged and continued, “like a wild Indian as she ran straight toward the creek and dove in. I’d never seen anything like it in my life.”
“I didn’t know he was there, of course,” Julia muttered, unable to meet anyone’s eyes as her family laughed at her humiliation.
“When she surfaced, she was singing some sort of haunting song in a language I’d never heard before, arms raised toward the early morning sun,” Abe smiled, eyes raised toward the ceiling as he lost himself in the memory. With a quick shake, he brought himself back to the present moment and looked about the table again. “Anyway, that’s when I realized she was no more a fine white lady than I was.”
Abe had seen Julia in the all-together? Jamie fumed. What liberties hadn’t she allowed him to take? He didn’t know how much more of this conversation he could withstand.
“But he was a gentleman about things,” Julia smiled, getting over her embarrassment quickly. “He turned his back and didn’t even peek while I dressed. Then, we talked.”
“A lot,” Abe laughed. “We almost missed curfew at the dormitories that night. But we came out of it the best of friends. We were the only two there who truly knew what it was like not to belong. Any time we had a problem, we could take it to the other, for a sympathetic ear, maybe even an offered solution. I don’t know that I’d have managed to finish without Miss Julia’s support.”
Julia punched him roughly in the shoulder. “Oh, you’d have finished with flying colors,” she mocked. “I’m the one who’d have flunked out of my math classes and been sent back to study Domestic Economy with the other ‘ladies’.”
She shuddered in mock horror.
Jamie watched the couple with a desperate, growing fear that he’d waited too long and lost what he most desired in this world before he’d even tried to reach out for it. The delicious food turned to sawdust in his mouth and he could barely swallow.
“So, Willy, how’s school?” Dawn Star asked, mercifully turning the conversation away from Julia.
Willy shrugged. “It is. I don’t know if I want ta go back. The classes just don’t seem worth it. I can learn more from reading and being stuck in a classroom all the time just don’t sit right with me. I’m thinkin’ ‘bout joinin’ Uncle Billy’s Wild West Show. He was in Kansas City this last winter and took me out ta dinner. He said I’d be welcome anytime.”
“I don’t know if I like the idea of you gallivanting all over the country at your age, son,” Kid said reprovingly.
“Oh, Pa, please,” Willy scoffed. “You were younger ‘n me when ya took off from Virginia on yer own. Ma was my age when ya both started ridin’ fer the Express. I don’t see how me joining Uncle Billy’s Wild West Show could be more dangerous than that.”
Jamie relaxed as his father and brother picked up a long-standing argument. This he could handle, he thought, quickly shoveling food into his mouth while he could stomach it.
“Times were different then, son,” Kid started to huff. “We grew up faster, we had to. You--” He stopped in mid-sentence to look down at Lou, who had placed a staying hand on his arm and was shaking her head.
“Let him be,” she smiled. “He just got home. You’ve got plenty of time to start yelling at each other. Let’s just enjoy this reunion meal, alright.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Kid smiled, nodding to her while patting her hand gently.
“Well, I’m thinkin’ ‘bout continuin’ my studies after I graduate,” Jed put in.
“What do you mean?” Julia asked.
“I graduate next year,” he shrugged, slathering a generous helping of butter on his biscuit. “But the University of Nebraska is starting a new School of Veterinary Medicine. I’d really like to go.”
“If you’re interested in veterinary medicine, you should really consider Iowa State College,” Abe suggested. “They just built a brand new Veterinary Hospital, with all the latest equipment for treating diseased animals. And the school is much better established.”
Jamie glared silently at Abe through his eyelashes. How dare he interfere in family business? Who did he think he was, anyway, trying to lure his most reckless brother away?
“I don’t know….” Jed murmured. “Ames is an awful long way away.”
“You always said you wanted to see more of the world,” Buck said.
“You could certainly do that at Iowa State College,” Abe smiled. “I’ll have the sweet potato, Mrs. Cross,” he nodded at Dawn Star as she began dishing out the desserts. “Why I haven’t had a good sweet potato pie since I left home five years ago.”
“Oh, you’ll love my Ma’s,” Julia gushed. “It’s the best. I think I’ll have it, too.”
The food Jamie had managed to swallow turned to poison in his stomach and began to make a bid for freedom in a most unpleasant manner as he watched and listened to Julia fawning over Abe.
“Anyway,” Abe continued. “I was saying, you would certainly have the chance to see the world from Ames. Why, just last year the college sent a delegation to Russia to study trees and bushes.”
“Russia? Imagine that,” Willy exhaled in awe. “Maybe I just need ta change colleges.”
“Sweet potato pie, Jamie? I know it’s your favorite,” Dawn Star offered.
Jamie jerked as if he’d been struck with a branding iron. “Uh, no thanks, ma’am. I ain’t hungry. If y’all’ll excuse me,” he said gruffly, wiping his mouth hurriedly with his napkin and setting it neatly next to his plate, then rising to his feet. “I’ve got chores ta see to.”
Without another word, or look at the supremely well suited young couple sitting side by side across from him at the table, he ducked out the door and leapt off the edge of the porch, breaking into a fast trot across the yard to the blessed dark protection of barn. He didn’t know what he was doing or where he was going, really. He just knew he had to get away from the biggest, harshest loss of his life.
Julia watched him escape out the door with a worried frown. What was going on? Why was he taking off again? She turned to look her questions at Lou, who shook her head in a ‘Not now’ gesture.