When once I set out with John Westley, to find Walter’s cabin, it did not cross my mind he already had an idea where it might be. Every road must come to an end. Reaching it seemed a matter of course once you’d started out. That long ride by horseback never once caused me to ponder all the alternative destinations we’d passed along the way.
Setting out for a place without such an idea where to find it can not be considered the best of ideas. The road through Willow Bend proved quickly it would never arrive at Les Clochers. It turned more sharply once we were out of town. Before sunrise, it had reached its end in the middle of another road.
My ideas of north and east belonged entirely with their relation to the Velvet Inn. I was lost and Mae with me. The night was still too dark to tell which direction the sun would rise, so we rested on our bags waiting for the sky to change color.
Mae’s idea of carrying light differed somewhat from mine. Neither did she possess my strength having never done a chore in her life. We had exchanged burdens, however Mae’s capacity for complaint was not to be moderated.
“It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire, isn’t it?” she groused, staring close at her hands in the dark. “These blisters will be the death of me quicker than Abbie’s cause.”
“Fire ‘d be nice an’ warm, I expect,” I said. “How is it we ‘s in a fryin pan?”
“Blisters are serious business,” she said. “Girl, Eugenie back in New Orleans got the blisters. Caught an infection and lost all her fingers. Every one.”
My hands endured many blisters at the mercy of Walter’s chores. I still had all my fingers. “You reckon maybe we should find someone to sell us a horse?” My voice was suddenly filled with excitement. The thought of how I loved Trissie and realizing I had money enough to own such a magnificent creature was nearly more than I could bear.
“Are you crazy? You can’t go letting on you’re carrying all that money. We’ll be robbed!”
“There are thieves, everywhere, Kate. They come crawling out of the woodwork at the smell of money.”
“Woodworkin’ doesn’t smell at all like money.”
Mae didn’t answer. The sound of hoof beats on the road reached our ears from the distance and we both looked sharply in their direction. We listened as they got gradually louder. I could feel Mae’s panic rising with each step.
“We have got to hide!” she whispered.
I looked about. Fences of bob-wire corded off the land on both sides of the road. “Where you expect we’re gonna hide?”
“Well, we cannot let him see us.”
“Who?” I could make out the horse, and the shape of a carriage up the road in the distance.
“Whoever is coming! He is a thief, sure as you know. I told you, they smell your money!” Mae took up my bag and pulled at my hand. There was a thicket near the road up a piece and she ran off toward it, throwing herself and the bag behind it. “Kate!” she called.
I didn’t understand the thieving Mae spoke of. Why someone was going to take money just on account of the smell of it made no sense. It mostly smelled unpleasant to cause you wondering where it had been. But it didn’t make sense one of us lying in the thicket and the other standing on the road, so I picked up her bag and followed her. We lay there quiet.
The clopping of hooves drew near. I could feel them in the earth where we lay, and I put my cheek to the ground way I used to lay feeling for Trissie coming home summer days. Mae began shaking. I hurt for her some. It must be awful to fear things so. We waited for the carriage to pass, but the reins slapped a couple of times and the hoof beats slowed and stopped next to the thicket. Mae held her breath fit to turn herself blue. A heavy pair of boots hit the ground. They took a few steps our way. A rifle cocked and a dark shadow of a man stood over us.
“You gals in trouble?” a gruff voice asked after studying us a time. I looked up. He was clearly not a man of manners as he kept his hat.
“You a thief?” I asked back.
Mae made a squeaking noise. I stood to look at the man, a squat fellow with a lot of hair about his face. He smelled like horse manure only different.
“Depends,” he said. “What you got worth stealin’?”
Mae stood and hid behind me. She sought to stay my voice, but I wasn’t of a mind to be silent. It was clear she’d made a mistake. Thieves could not really smell money way she said. Perhaps it was on account of the manure in their clothing.
“We got two whole bags of belongin’s,” I said. “There’s no cause to thief ‘em though on account of they smell nice. Can you tell us which way goes no’theast to Les Clochers?”
“Les Clochers? Can’t say as I ever heard of it. That a town?”
“I don’t rightly know, I reckon. Leon said he knew folks work there. Might be a plantation.”
The man scratched his head with his hat. “East is thataway.” He jerked a thumb in the direction he’d come from. “Ain’t no plantations goin’ east though. Less you goin’ clear to Miss’ippi. Only plantations these parts is west, Baton Rouge way.” He nodded his head in the direction he was headed. “You wanna go that route, I can ride you part the way, you don’t mind makin’ a few stops ‘long the way.”
Mae grabbed my arm. I considered our situation. She was not likely to overcome her fearing, however the walk to Les Clochers was beginning to seem like a very long one, and Mae already bemoaning the condition of her hands. Perhaps of more concern was the absence of a road lead to the northeast.
“That’d be kind of you, I expect.”
Mae’s hold on my arm tightened. “Kate, we can not just get on some cart with a stranger. I mean no disrespect, sir.”
“Mae, I don’t expect you can carry that bag ’til the sun comes up, let alone ’til we get to Les Clochers. We’ll accept the man’s kind offer.”
The savior of Mae’s blisters made his acquaintance as Duncan. He was a dairy man explained the scent of manure about him. The dairy he worked was to the east, and he was out making his milk deliveries. His carriage was loaded with metal cans. He put our bags in the back with the milk, and we sat to either side of him on the carriage bench.
As we rode along to the west, the sun rose up behind us. Mae sat reticent, perhaps silenced by her fearing ways. Her usual chattering was absent, however I was full of questions. I marveled at the mystery of Mr. Duncan going about the labor of his deliveries. I’d never had opportunity to observe a man labor at anything more than his chores. I became quite taken with curiosity he was good enough in his patience to oblige.
“Where ‘d all this milk come from?” I asked.
“You never seen a cow milked before?” Duncan returned in his coarse voice.
“I reckon I never seen a cow.”
“The Hell you say! Never seen a cow! You been livin’ under a rock?”
He looked at me in like wonder for a time. “Well, you gotta squeeze the milk out of their teats into buckets. Push up, squeeze from the top while you pull.” He loosed one hand from the reins to show me, squeezing one finger at a time. “Takes a strong hand to be good as a calf, but it comes natural once you’re used to it. Not too strong though, or she’ll kick the daylight out of you.”
“What’s a calf?”
“Oh that’s just a name for their babies.”
I was confused. “Milk comes out of their teats to feed their babies?”
Mae drew a sharp breath.
“Sure,” Duncan said. “Calf’s gotta eat.”
My head was full of daydreaming about Marie’s story of being a nursemaid. I remembered sitting puzzled while she talked about giving Katherine’s baby suck, too concerned with Walter touching her teats to ask what else she’d done with them.
“I got teats,” I said. “No milk ever came out of ‘em.”
Duncan laughed. “You gotta milk ‘em same time every day ‘s the problem!” He laughed harder, coughing and choking fit to spook his horse. “Same time every mornin’ or they’ll dry up on you like a whore mad you ain’t paid her.”
I fell quiet as Mae.
After watching with great interest at the first stop, I began assisting Duncan with his deliveries. The milk cans were quite heavy, but the empty ones returned were easy work for me, and I enjoyed fetching them to his carriage while he carried the full cans to their place. I fancied myself to be a milk maid working for Duncan’s dairy. By the time Duncan announced we were arriving at our last delivery, I expect walking with Mae’s bag would have been less of a chore. I did not relish the idea of carrying it on further by foot.
Duncan’s last stop was a large white farm house with a tall broad porch and two large shade trees to either side of it. It stood at the end of a long drive paved with gravel. Two empty milk cans had a little station house to their lonesome and Duncan turned his carriage down the drive toward it. An elderly colored woman of some considerable girth was stood nearby, singing and hanging linens out to dry in the sun. It reminded me of Leon, singing his songs of the Heavenly land while chopping his wood, beautiful, carrying out across the sounds of the outdoors. She hushed her singing at the sound of our carriage, and walked out to greet us at the station house.
“Hap’ Tuesdee, Massa Duncan!” she called out.
“Mornin’ Josephine,” he called back.
I hopped down from the cart to fetch the empty milk cans.
“You gettin’ too old in yo’ bones, lets li’l girls do yo’ work fo’ you now?” she laughed as she came puffing up.
“Girls? The Hell you say! Thought they was rabbits.”
“Sure. Found ‘em hidin’ in a thicket up near Willow Bend Road I did.” He unloaded a milk can from the carriage as I brought the first from the station. “Only got one can for you this week. Run of the mastitis. All these damned flies I ‘spect with the muggy weather. I could make it up next week, but I ‘spect the old man be wantin’ a credit.”
Josephine had reached the station and picked up the second empty can. She began carrying it toward me. “You right ’bout that. Ain’t no use three cans. Half time last o’ the two feedin’ them mangy cats. Now wha’s two girls doin’ hidin’…”
A sharp cry cut her short and she clutched at her chest with both hands. The empty milk can dropped to the ground. The lid rolled away and I ran to chase it following my self-appointed duties as a milk maid.
“What’s the matter, Josephine,” Duncan asked, setting the fresh milk in the station. “You lookin’ like you done seen a ghost.”
“‘Haps I is seein’ a ghos’, Massa Duncan,” she said. “‘Haps I is.”
I returned with the lid and picked up the empty can. I could see nothing would have startled her so, but when I looked back to her, it was me she was staring at.
“As I live an’ breathe, chile,” she said to me. “If you ain’t the spit an’ image o’ li’l Marie Deshotels!”
© 2013 Anne Schilde