In the salons of Paris, ladies laced into lavishly trained gowns turned sweetly on the arms of their admirers to the strains of Strauss. In New York City, cigarettes drawn from embellished gold cases were puffed by silk hatted gentlemen in horsedrawn carriages. But in Saverton, Missouri, it was all mud, cold and muck.
Harl looked up from the lye vat where he had just turned the remains of the last fat hog. It wasn't really a vat, just a hole dug in the clay-rich soil that had been studded inside with rock and then filled with lye. A week in that would cure a good size hog. "Get the god damned horse back in the stable," Harl was at the end of his rope. "Where do you think you're going?"
"I've had it for one day." Howard paused, holding the reins against the old brown mare's side and faced his 14-year old twin defiantly. "I'm taking Blue and the sled and going down the holler."
"What's down the holler?"
"Pa finds out, he'll be mighty peeved. He'll blister us both. You got a lot of work yet. You get the barrels out of the cave?" Since winter was coming on, the potatoes and onions had to come up from the cave down by the spring.
"Ain't nothing to you."
"Maybe it is." Harl felt a heat rising in him. How many times today? Seemed like everything Howard did irritated him like a bad flea bite. He shook his chestnut hair out of his face. He longed to wipe his stinging eyes, but there was lye all over his hands and he knew better.
Howard threw down the twisted hemp reins. "Like what?" He crossed to Harl at the lye vat. Harl picked up the paddle shaped mallet from the ash box and faced his brother. "What are you going to do with that, you ass?" Howard scoffed, pushing the paddle aside. "Why don't you ever fight like a man."
"Like a man?" Harl retorted. "What do you know about being a man?" He shoved Howard, who grasped him with equal vigor. The brown chickens scattered, shooting away with loud protests. The two fought deliberately, furiously in the chill air. They had always fought like this until some blood, no matter how little, was drawn.
Suddenly, Harl felt a dull thud in his back and let go of his brother. Howard fell away from him like a limp rag doll. Pa loomed over them both, the paddle poised for another strike.
"Get back to work right now," he snarled. "Get up." Harl jumped to his feet. Pa kicked at Howard with his bare foot. "Get your ass up off the ground," he yelled. The two boys lumbered away from each other like two brown bears. There was no point in appealing to anyone for a just ruling. Howard led the horse back to the barn.
At suppertime, bone weary, the boys sat at table without looking at each other. As usual, Ma didn't come to set at the table, but stayed on the crate behind the stove. When the boys were younger and there was just them and Davie, who died of the cholic, and Esther, they had just come from Franklin County, Kentucky. There was only one chair, and Pa sat in it. The others stood around the table. Later, they had crudely hewn stools cut form logs.
But it was when Ma took sick, after the seventh child was born, that a housekeeping woman was brought in. She was a nut colored woman with no front teeth, top or bottom, and she'd come from Indiana with two of her old children, Silas and Betsy. The next child born in the house was Elinor and she was born to Ma Judd--the housekeeper. After that, Ma took little interest in the goings-on of the house or the children.
Ma Judd ladled up the supper, and the children ate in silence. After dinner, Harl went back to the barn. Howard was up on the wagon again. "What are you doing now, you bastard?"
"Leave me alone." Howard warned. "You can't push me around like that and then get me beat by Pa."
"I didn't push you around and whatever you get from Pa is less that you deserve. Get off that box and finish what you started, you coward."
"What I started?" Howard slid off down onto the hay and put his fists up. Fight like a man."
"That ain't how a man fights. That's how a sissy fights." He put up his fists and minced. Howard threw him a stinging blow and he went over with his brother on top. They rolled in the dirt. Suddenly, Harl's anger completely consumed him. He drew out the knife he had tucked into his pants, the one he'd got from the trader who passed through last year with all his wares in a single trunk. Harl's arm shot out quickly, several times, before he even thought. The limpness of his brother's body confessed it all. Harl drew back. Horrified, he ran to the house.
Pa was sitting on the porch, cleaning his Sharps' rifle. Harl could barely raise his voice above a whisper.
"Pa, you gotta come. I think I done somethin' stupid."
"What's the matter with you. Most of what you do is stupid. I'm busy. Go away."
"No, Pa, this is serious. I've done in Howard."
Pa rose slowly to his feet. "What did you say?" He said severely.
"Howard..." Harl thought quickly. "We was fighting, in the barn. He pulled a knife on me and I took it away. I don't know how it happened, Pa."
"Better take me out there." Pa looked at him slowly. "You sure it was how you said?"
"Sure. I'm sure." He followed his father past the smoke house to the barn. He hung back as Pa walked slowly to the body and stood over it. Minutes passed and Harl crept into the barn to stand beside his father.
"You sure did it, didn't you." He hesitated a moment and then cuffed Harl with his forearm.
"I had that coming, Pa. Sure I did. I'm real sorry. They'll hang me, you know. You'll lose both sons, Pa."
"Shut up and let me think." Pa was quiet for a few minutes. He pulled off his hat, and scratched his head. He looked at the knife. "That's your knife, Harl. You damned lyin' bastard. That's your god damned knife."
"He musta stole it from me." Harl shot Pa a sideways look. The old man didn't believe him, he could tell. "What's to be done, Pa?"
"Run back to the house. Get a blanket or two. No. We can't afford to lose the blankets. Take the boy's feet and we'll put him in the wagon and take him along the field road and down to the river's edge. We can bury him there. Throw a couple spades into the back of the wagon, too."
"Yes, Pa." He took ahold of Howard's legs. There was a small rusling noise at the door of the bar. "What was that?"
"I didn't hear nothing. Pay attention to what we got to do here, boy." They got him in the wagon and covered him with empty sacking.
"We won't be able to see nothin', Pa. There aint' a moon."
"You picked a fine time for this, you sure did." Pa spit and climbed onto the box. "Fine time. We can't wait 'til mornin'."
They drove the wagon until it was too dark to see the curving path and then got out. "You're right. It's too damn dark." Pa lifted the body from the back of the wagon and hoisted it over his shoulder. They walked to the river's edge, and Pa waded out into the water and then let the body go. "Throw those sacks in, as well. They got blood all over them."
Harl did as he was told and walked back to the wagon. "What now, Pa." He was genuinely terrified.
"It's over now, boy. You can't go back to the house, though. Stay here with the wagon until daybreak. I don't care what you do. I'll tell everyone you and your brother stole the wagon and horse and run off. Joined up to fight the Mormons. Sell the wagon, I guess, and get some travelling money and head for St. Louis, or Chicago."
"Can I ever come home? I mean, I know it ain't always been wonderful, but Pa, this is home."
"Well, once you get there, find someone who knows his letters and have them write us and say that your brother was killed on the road. Then you can come back if you want to, but frankly, I don't give a never mind one way or the other."
Harl nodded grimly and watched Pa's figure disappear in the night. He shivered and climbed up into the back of the wagon, drew his knees up and waited.
The following morning, Pa was awake early. Mrs. Judd ladled out porridge. They had earthenware plates but few cups and no bowls, save for the kind fashioned from gourds. "Where are Harl and Howard?" She lisped. Pa cleared his throat. "They're gone and so's the brown mare and the old wagon."
"Must've run off." Pa reached for the black bread. "I guess they're old enough to be on their own. By the time I was fourteen, I had lived on my own for two years. They could be anywhere. Ma know?"
Ma Judd shook her head.
"Don't tell her then."
Elinor looked at him curiously. At four, she was a pretty child, with red hair and dark eyes. She looked much like Mrs. Judd in her hair and skin coloring and yet had his distinctive eyes.
"No, Pa Taylor," she chirped. "They didn't run off. I seen Howard laying in the barn last night and they was blood all over him. Harl done it to him, and then you and Harl put Howard in the back of the wagon. Don't you remember?"
Pa jumped up and pushed the chair back. All eyes were shifted from the little girl to the father. "That isn't true, girl. You're a lying child, and I'll have to learn you not to tell stories."
Her eyes grew big at the prospect. "Take it back," he demanded. Ma Judd stepped forward and glared at the little girl who sat frozen, white under her freckles. "Take it back," he demanded again. "You didn't see nothing like that." Ma Judd put her hand on the little girl's head. "Burning up with fever." She hissed slowly. "Pa, feel her head." She nodded significantly.
Pa stepped over to the girl and put his hand across her small forehead. "Frightening. Might be the flux. Might be the cholera. Ma Judd, get this child upstairs to her room and don't let her come out. We don't want the others catchin' it. She'll probably die within the week."
Ma swept the girl away and breakfast continued. "Don't no one say anything about what she just said. It didn't happen, you hear?" Pa said significantly.
When Pa came in from the barn about mid-morning, Ma Judd met him at the chicken coops. "Pa," she said severely. "What really happened?"
"I can trust you, can't I?"
"Ain't I been through everything with you already? Ain't I always been good to you?"
"It happened like what the child said."
"I thought so. Then what?"
"I gave Harl the wagon and horse and sent him away. He'll come back later on. Don't fret."
"What are we going to do about Elinor? She'll tell everyone."
"We'll just say she's sick and later on that she's lost her mind because of the high fever. We don't have much of a choice, Ma."
"No, you're right." Ma Judd wiped her nose and then her skirt. "You're right."
Harl sold the wagon at Chesterfield and went to St. Louis on foot. He found a man who could write and dictated a letter explaining that Howard had been killed crossing a stream against his brother's advice. Despite Harl's extensive search, he could never find his brother's body.
When the letter arrived, Pa ceremoniously took it to the land agent's office. When the agent read it, Pa reacted with appropriate shock. Harl returned to the farm two months later.
Elinor, meanwhile, "recovered" from her fever, but was reputed to have lost her mind. Her time was spent locked in the loft of the house, with only a small, boarded up window that let in slivers of light. She caused little trouble, except that when Harl returned she spent a considerable amount of time crying, which disturbed no one particularly. The house was too full of hungry children and poverty for anyone to concern themselves with the housekeeper's idiot daughter. Ma Judd brought her food each morning, and took away the night soil, but had little to do with her otherwise. She grew, without completely losing her reason.
Pa had several siblings in the area. One brother, Richard, had a farm on Briscoe Creek. Richard was several years younger and had married Pa's wife's sister, so all the children of each family were double cousins. There were four children in Richard's family, three boys and a girl. When the cholera, it carried away both parents and the eldest of the children. The other two boys and the girl were farmed out to Richard's brothers, and Celestina, who was ten, was shuffled off to Pa's farm.
She took an instant dislike to being there. She'd been there before, of course, on rare visits, and, like every other child in the neighborhood, been taken up to the attic to see the Housekeeper's Idiot Daughter. This was a warning to all little children in the area--that if they indulged in flights of fancy, they could count on Elinor's fate. She could still remember the girl in the room with the shutters nailed closed, with her pinched, deathly white face, a terrible shock of wild, red hair, and deepset black eyes. She had looked so terribly frail and hideously frightened. She had shrieked angrily at the company and they all withdrew.
She was told, in no unceremonious terms, that no one spoke to or of Elinor. When the fever took Ma, fully a dozen years after Howard's death, no one particularly mourned. She had been, for so long, a shadow person. Certainly, Ma Judd was pregnant again and anxious to marry Pa, was damned near victorious. The day of the funeral was grey and the clouds burst as the family stood beside the grave. Pa pulled his collar up around his neck. "Drop her in, God damn it," he snarled at the sexton. "I'm getting wet." Celestina stared at him. How could anyone be so heartless? she wondered. Surely this man and her father could not have been brothers.
Ma Judd and Pa were married the following week and Howard Lysander Taylor, Jr. was born three days after that. Celestina felt very sorry for him, being the offspring of two such hateful people.
It was now August. It had been terribly hot, and dry for a full fortnight. Ma Judd and Pa had taken the children over to Centerville for the first annual farm exhibition. Celestina had an earache and stayed home, and Edna stayed with her. Mid-morning, though, Edna finished her chores and had gone up the road to the Blackmuns to see after their new baby. All morning, clouds were piling up and by afternoon, it was clear there would be a huge storm. The light disappeared from the sky and the air outside dropped to an early spring coolness. When the storm broke, it was with such ferociousness that the tops of trees twisted around as if they were wagon wheels. They bowed deeply toward the ground. Through the grey wall of water that sprayed in every direction, Celestina could see the yard littered with broken limbs and thick hailstones. Ordinarily a brave girl, Celestina was frightened. Nothing could be worse than being alone in this.
She raced up the stairs, jumping as the lightning alternately illuminated and darkened the walls and floor. She pressed her face against the locked door. "Elinor, Elinor," she screamed. "Can you hear me?" There was a frantic whistling sound outside. She jerked on the door, but it was firmly locked.
"Elinor!" She screamed.
"Who is it?" The little voice came from the other side of the door.
"Elinor, it's me. Celestina. Your cousin."
"I don't know any Celestina. Are you a ghost?"
Celestina sank onto the dusty wood floor, still holding onto the knob. She looked at herself carefully, her little bare feet and dirt streaked legs. "I don't think so."
"I don't like ghosts." Elinor said cautiously.
"Me either. I don't like storms. I'm terribly scared. Do you know any?"
"No. But I'm sure there are some. Maybe even here. I'm not too scared by the storm. After a while, everything scares about the same."
"Well, I have bigger things to be scared of. If the storm rips the house up, it would be fine with me." Celestina could hear the girl moving away from the door.
"Don't leave." She called.
"You aren't supposed to be talking to me, are you?"
"No. But everyone else is gone."
"I thought it was too quiet."
"Yes. They've all gone to Centerville for the farm show."
"I hope they get wet."
"Can't you unlock this door?"
"No. I'm a prisoner."
"Because I know a secret and I might tell if I'm let out."
"What kind of a secret."
"Do you promise not to tell?"
"Yes." Suddenly, she was more curious than frightened. "What do you know?"
"I know that Harl killed Howard and Pa helped get rid of Howard's body. That's what I know."
"Who is Howard?"
"His brother. Harl's twin."
"I think Uncle Howard is a bad person."
"I know he is."
"I think he was happy that his wife died. He said wicked things at her funeral."
"He's a bad man. I could tell you things about him and her that would curl your hair."
"My hair already curls. Are you really touched?" There was no answer. Finally, Elinor said, "Will you bring me something?"
"What? I can't open the door."
"A comb. For my hair. You can slide it under the door. I can see out the crack under the door. But I can only see the top of the stairs."
"Can you? Maybe if I get down on the floor, we can see each other." She knelt on the floor and peered into the dark crack, but could see nothing. "How old are you?"
"I don't know. How old are you?"
"Nine. My mother and father are dead and I had to come live with Uncle Howard. I hate it here."
"Howard is the name of the boy that Harl killed."
"Howard is the name of the new baby that the housekeeper and Uncle Howard have. They just got married." There was a silence from the other side of the door. "I think the storm is passing." The rain pelted on the metal roof, but it was calmer now. "So, I'll go get a comb for you. Don't you have one?"
"I don't have anything. Just one dress. No shoes." Celestina had no shoes either, but somehow the poor girl behind the door sounded so forlorn, she wished she had shoes for her as well. "I'll be right back." She pounded down the stairs and found the bone comb near the wash basin and ran back up the stairs. She slid it under the door. It was quiet for a few minutes except for an occasional, painful grunt.
"Is it working?"
Elinor's voice sounded as if she was close to tears. "It's terribly ratty."
"Just do a little at a time. Don't try to do it all at once. I'll sneak back up here at night and bring it back to you. In no time, it'll be alright." She thought of the time she had seen the girl. "Well, maybe it will take some time. Can you read?"
"No. I've never been to school. I can remember going to church once or twice, but nothing really besides that."
"Do you think you're touched?"
"No. I know exactly what I saw. Why do they say I didn't see nothing when I know I did?"
"Because if Harl killed his brother, he'll be hanged for it."
"You don't know anything, do you?" Celestine's voice came out sharper than she'd intended.
The girl began to cry outright. "Well, of course not. I haven't seen sun in years. I've been in this room since I was four. What could I know?"
"Please don't cry. You'll be my best friend, alright? When someone breaks the law--something serious, like murdering his brother, and gets caught at it, they have a trial and if the person is guilty they kill them. They hang them. They take a rope and tie it around the person's neck and then make them jump out of a tree, or have the horse run away from under them or the person is standing in a wagon and they have the horses pull the wagon away. Anyway, it's supposed to break the person's neck and kill them."
"Oh. And that's what they'd do to Harl for stabbing his brother to death?"
"Yes. And that's why you're locked up here, because if you tell it'll be all over for Harl and maybe even for Uncle Howard. Pass back the comb." It slipped under the door. "Edna will be back soon. I've got to go. Wait for me. I'll come to you at night and we'll talk more."
"What's your name?"
"Celestina. That's a nice name. Come back soon."
Celestina pressed her hand on the wood. "I will."
Suddenly, she had a wonderful secret. A marvelous secret. She floated through dinner. "You seem damned cheerful," Uncle Howard muttered. "For someone that had to stay home with the earache. You see that mess out there?"
"I guess I'm just happy I lived through that storm, Uncle Howard," Celestina smiled coyly. It would be very important to make Uncle Howard believe she thought the world of him. "I can help clean up the brush in the morning."
"Hmph. You can. Well, it's about time you started acting like one of the family. It's bad enough I have to take in my brother's brat, but then you don't work good and you got a disposition like a lemon."
"I think the storm changed that, Uncle Howard. I was never so glad to see anyone as I was to see you and Aunt Ma." She smiled as coquettishly as possible, then blanched. Perhaps there were others sins in Uncle Howard's closet, which she would be loathe to learn. "I'd love to help clean up the yard." She deftly pocketted a sweet johnnycake. Anything flat could be slid under the door as a treat for her newly discovered friend.
Her sleep patterns began to change, so that in the dead of night, she was wide awake, and could slip up the stairs to talk with Elinor. She always brought the comb and tried to bring a treat each time. Weeks went by and summer fled. The burning heat was no more, but gone with it were the fresh colors and now the world was burnished greys and browns.
"Celestina, can you do something for me?"
"Anything you like. What?"
"Find the key."
"Oh, girl, I'm sure that Great Ma keeps it on her all the time." Since Harl had married up with the Simmons girl from over at Spencerville, and the babies had come, Ma had been known as Great Ma. "I don't think I could get it."
"Then you got to figure out a way to get the window free so I can get out."
"What would you do if you got out?"
"Leave. I'd leave. Go away."
"But what would you do?"
"Listen, Celestina, what's going to happen to me? When Great Ma and Pa die, what'll happen to me then?"
"I don't know." Celestina hugged her bare knees and shivered. "Do they ever leave? All of them?"
"Not since the Centerville Exhibition."
"When's the next one?"
"Not until next summer."
"How long is that?"
"Eight months--a long time."
"I can't wait a long time. I'll die. You must find a way to get me out of here sooner than that."
It was all Celestina could think of for the next several days. If Uncle Howard and Great Ma had been church going folk, Sunday would have provided the perfect opportunity for the getaway. But they weren't. Besides, there was the problem of the key. Still, she was managing to squirrel away small amounts of food--hard tack and fruit leather in the corner of the barn under some hay.
There was no cash money to be had in the house, and Uncle Howard kept a nightly count of the cat and 'coon skins. There was no way to get away from the place, really--with only a mule the likelihood was that when the opportunity presented itself, the family would be out with the wagon, and the mule. Besides, it was getting cold, Celestina thought ruefully as she went to the hog pen with their meagre supper. With no shoes, she had to stop every ten or twelve paces and warm her feet in her long, woolen skirt.
Candlemas was drawing near. "Half the fodder and all the corn untouched by Candlemas," was the rule if the animals were going to survive the winter. They were down farther. The potatoes had molded in the cave. Uncle Howard and the older boys still at home went out daily with the old gun, and the younger children had set small snares in the hopes of trapping a rabbit or even a turkey. Celestina was afraid. She wasn't really part of the family, and when and if the pinch came, she and Elinor would be the first to starve. She would have to engineer something to make good their escape.
She slept less and less. Night after night, she rocked back and forth on the straw tack until the rest of the children were asleep and then sneaked up to Elinor. "It has to be soon," Elinor cried. "I haven't eaten in two days, and I'm weak."
"Doesn't your stomach hurt?"
"No. Not anymore. Not after the first day. Now it's all just dull--I don't really feel much of anything."
"I'll get you some food, I promise."
She crept to the larder, but there was little there. She had rat holed away food in the barn and she crept from the house to the loft. Suddenly, she knew what to do. She shimmied down to the feed area and pulled out an empty feed sack and, returning to the loft, filled it with the provender. A second sack she filled with the cured skins that were hanging inside the barn. She ran to the south side of the house and deposited the bags beside the elm tree. She crept back upstairs with a piece of hard tack. "Here. Eat this," she said quickly. "Are you ready to go?"
"Yes, as much as I can be. Have you shoes?"
"No. Only Great Ma and Uncle Howard have shoes. Do you have a blanket?"
"Wrap it around you. We'll have to share it."
"What are you going to do?"
"Something wicked. Don't speak, but be ready to go. I'll come to you by the window."
She ran back to the barn, this time with the oil lamp and threw it as hard as she could against the wall. The flames spilled out onto the wall, igniting the dry hay. She ran back to the house, and crept into the bedroom. She woke the youngest child. "Lilly, Lilly, you best go to the outhouse or you're going to wet the bed."
The little girl woke and rubbed her eyes. "Have to peepee?"
"Yes, you want I should go with you?"
"No. I can go." The little girl was gone only a few moments when she ran back into the house, shrieking. She roused the entire family in a matter of seconds and Uncle Howard and Great Ma ran to the barn in excitement.
Celestina picked up the ax by the woodpile and ran upstairs. She beat the heavy blade repeatedly against the door until her arms were tired. Again and again, she struck at the wood and the handle, sweating not only from the exertion but from the fear that someone would return and find her.
"Hurry!" Elinor shrieked. She tried to pull the wood shards into the room.
"I'm doing it as fast as I can." The hole became larger. She reached through. "Can you get out?"
"Yes." Head first, Elinor appeared in the hallway. "What now?"
"Come quickly." They ran down the stairs. Celestina grasped Elinor's arm and fairly dragged her through the kitchen. "I have a bag of food and some skins outside."
"Wait!" Elinor pulled back.
"Don't. We've got to hurry. Someone could come back."
"I want this," Elinor reached out in the darkness.
"Come on." Celestina pushed the door open and shoved Elinor through. "What is that, a broom?"
"The gun, goose."
They ran to the elm tree. "Take this bag," Celestina ordered, throwing the bag of skins to her cousin. She shouldered the food bag.
"It's heavy," Elinor wailed.
"Then take this one. Let's go."
They half-ran through the orchard with its skeletal apple trees and down toward the gully. Celestina knew the land well enough from berry picking in the summer, and Elinor struggled to keep up her more agile companion. She held the gun aloft like a trophy. Finally they stopped and sank down on the hard earth. Frost was beginning to glow on the branches of the trees and the stalks left from the summer.
"What about Indians?"
"What about Indians? Are we in danger?"
"No more so than we are from Uncle Howard if he should find us. In fact, right now I think I'd far rather see an Indian than him. We've got a fighting change with a red man. We'll make for the river--maybe we can find a boat. I can trade the skins for passage to St. Louis or maybe even New Orleans."
"What are we going to do?"
"I'll think of something. But we best keep moving as much as we can because they'll be after us in no time. Just as soon as they realize we're gone."
"First they have to deal with the fire."
"Yes, but then..." She rose and straightened her skirt. "Come on. Let's go." They followed the creek bed down between the statuesque hills. The water was cold, but low. Fear drove Celestina, but she tried to realize how difficult it was for Elinor, who had never, in twelve years, played outside or worked or strengthened her body at all.
"Are you alright?"
"Don't worry about me." She sounded terrified.
Celestina stopped and grasped Elinor's thin shoulders. "Listen, girl. You're free now. You got me now. I'm your Mammy and your Pa, and I'm going to keep you safe. Trust me. You ain't gonna be hungry and you ain't going to be locked up ever again." Elinor smiled faintly. She was a horrid little shrivelled creature. "I'm gonna feed you and make you as fat and greasy as a Michaelmas goose. Now, come."
The river road was close at hand and they slid down into the narrow path from the small bluff. "Good thing we came in here. The drop is much greater all around."
Elinor shifted the bag wearily. "What now?"
"We'll just walk south until daybreak. They may be out on the road looking for us, or they may just let us be. It depends on when Howard discovers his gun and skins gone."
"And after daybreak?"
"We'll just have to watch and listen for people on the road and hide until we know who they are. If it be friends, they may take us away. If not, we'll stay hidden."
"Maybe they won't care."
The sky began to lighten, silhouetting the trees against its gradual brightening. They stopped to eat a few bites but only for a few minutes. They kept going south. No one passed them on the road. By midday, they were very weary. Celestina was a strong girl, but her legs were tiring.
"How far have we gone?"
"Maybe ten miles. We should be close to Winfield. How I wish we'd been able to steal the mule as well."
"Perhaps we can find a farmer with one."
"To steal? We'd hang."
"Or trade a skin for."
"There are wild horses."
"Could we find one?"
"We could pray and maybe God will send us one."
Elinor closed her eyes. "I don't know how to pray."
"Dear God, send us a horse. Send us a horse to help us escape to the Promised Land like your children in Israel. At least a donkey."
"Will it work?"
"I don't know. I don't pray much. I've gotten my daily bread, of course, except for recently. Keep walking."
The sun rose higher in the sky and Celestina realized that once the dreadful fear had lifted, she was terribly exhausted. Celestina dropped down on the ground. "I can't go any farther," she said. Elinor sank down beside her.
"Rest, then," she said. "I'll keep watch."
It was mid-afternoon when Elinor woke Celestina in great excitement. "It worked!"
"Not exactly. Look!"
It was an old bull standing in the road. "They can pull a plow, surely he can carry us."
Celestina was skeptical. "We can try." She stood up and smoothed her skirts. "We can try." She approached the beast slowly and petted it gingerly. She put her arms about his great neck and pulled herself on. He stood, intransigent. She offered a hand to Elinor and pulled her astride. Their bare legs slapped against his side and he lumbered slowly up the road.
"I need a switch," Celestina complained, but they swatted the beast with their hands until he picked up to a slow, lumbering gait.
Within the hour, they could see the chimneys of little Winfield. Hardly a town, it was just a handful of little houses clustered together. They alighted from the animal and led him into town. The ferry came here and if they could get aboard, they would be across the river and closer to safety. The ferryman's house was on the west side of the street, a low house of vertical wood logs, built by a Frenchman.
Celestina rapped on the door and when the ferryman's wife answered, she tried to appear as unsuspicious as possible. "Is the ferryman about? My sister and I would cross the river."
"Where are you girls going?"
"To St. Louis. To work as maids."
"Where ye from?" The toothless woman asked cautiously. "Ye ain't hussies are ye?"
"No, on my soul. We've come from up north of..."
"What about the beast?"
"Can you take him, too? Our father died and left us only a few things--the bull and a few...things."
The woman drew the pipe from her mouth, spit into the frozen dirt and hollared for her husband. "Can you pay?"
"What do you have?" She looked quizzically at Elinor, who hung back with the ox. "Can't she talk?"
"Yes, of course. But she's terribly shy. Can we get a meal?"
The ferryman came to the door and peered out over his wife's head. "Want passage over the river," she said decisively. "And supper. But we haven't struck a price."
"What have you got?"
"I'll give you a 'coon skin."
"No, taken in the fall. It's still good, the heat didn't get to it."
"No, hung in the barn. Look at it," she pulled it from the bag. "Fine stuff. My father got it right before he died."
"Who was your father," the man demanded.
"Not from around here. The name's," she hesitated. "Farmer."
The man fingered the fur. "Well come on it and sit to the table. We have some supper on and you and your sister are welcome."
They fell to the table with relish and ate. Hard times hadn't touched the ferryman's house like they had at the farm. Celestina's stomach hadn't been so full in many months--possibly since she had come to the Taylor farm, and she doubted if Elinor had ever eaten her fill. These people probably had beds, too, not just straw ticking. And sheets as well.
"Going to be maids in the city, you say?" The wife said. "You look a shade too ragged. In the city, they like the wenches to have a scrubbed look."
"Oh, we'll scrub. Just as soon as we get there."
"What are you going to do with the beast?"
"I," Celestina hesitated. "I don't know."
"I'll make you a deal. I'll give you each cobbler's shoes and a dress for your animal." Celestina glanced at Elinor. It surely was faster to walk than ride the beast. A dress and shoes. Elinor pulled at her sleeve and whispered in her ear. "Don't do it."
"Because we have to sleep outside and the animal is big and warm. He'll keep us from freezing."
"My sister and I will not sell the animal, but could trade you another skin."
"Nay, tis the beast I want."
The ferryman rose. "Best be going," he said. The old woman looked disgusted, and shook her head. "Best take something along. You're likely to freeze out there, but I'll not have you starve." She wrapped the hard crusted brown bread in a kerchief with a slab of cheese. "Take this. It'll keep you til morning at least." They thanked her and bid her goodbye. They followed him to the river. The river was slow and calm. He left them on the landing on the east side. Darkness was approaching and they led the animal away from both the river and the road. Celestina laid down her bundles and the gun and pulled on the beast's head until he laid down. Elinor spread the blanket on the ground and they laid down, close together against the ox. "What if he crushes us?" Elinor whispered.
"At least we'll be warm." She was suddenly glad Elinor had insisted on keeping the ox. They would figure out what to do about clothing later on. She looked out across the river. The world was wide, and they would never be caught. She was free, and so was Elinor. They had an ox and skins and food and a gun. The rest would come soon enough. She laughed out loud.