Tea and Sympathy
Notes: This was a response to the October Challenge on the M7 Challenge list. Ezra is my best beloved, but I've always suspected Nathan is more fun at parties than he would have us believe.
"More tea?" the Missus cooed, snapping Nathan Jackson away from his rapt study of the china cabinet and back to duty.
Shuffling as quickly as he could in too-large shoes, the eight-year-old slid next to the massive silver tea service and tried to remember the rules for tea. Should he bring the cream first, or the tea? Come to think of it, which one was the creamer and which was the sugar? Which side did he pour from again? He could picture Cook, frowning down at the little boy plucked from the yard and assigned House duty that very morning.
"You mind y'self, chile," she'd warned him, twisting his ear to pull his attention back from the fascinating sights of the Big House, and the even more fascinating smells of its kitchen -- bacon frying, fresh-baked bread cooling on the hearth racks and ...ow, ow!! Cook was twisting his ear like she thought it might unscrew.
"You a House slave now," she hissed, twisting ear and head around until the boy focused again on the earthenware kettle and mugs of the practice tea service. "Missus don't stand for no foolishness. You break one teacup and you'll be back in them fields for the rest o' your born days, hear?"
So here he stood, in the first pair of shoes he'd every worn, trying not to scratch at the itchy wool breeches or tug at the swelteringly hot jacket of his fine new uniform. All the male slaves in the plantation's great house wore some variation of the pretentious outfit -- red wool and gold braid, the sort of thing a palace footman might have worn a century earlier, in a climate 40 degrees cooler.
Nathan fumbled with the tea strainer. Over his shoulder the Southern belles gossiped over their teacups, their honey-smooth voices stretching and bending the language like taffy.
"Lord," young Nathan marveled distractedly, as he rooted for the sugar tongs. "Who'd've thought there were so many different ways to say 'The Reverend drank too much dandelion wine at the cotillion?'" Tipsy...Inebriated...Tippling...Three sheets to the wind...Drunk as a skunk... He rolled the new words around his head, as if they might bump up against the instructions for proper tea service he'd filed away in there somewhere.
He was a clever child, a quick study and a willing worker. But for the life of him, all he could recall of the morning's tutorial was the moment when Cook gave in and sliced him off a hunk of that sourdough bread, still steaming warm from the oven, slathered with sweet cream butter and...ow, ow!! The teapot, the dainty pink china teapot with the sprays of cherry blossoms and the edging in what Cook said was real gold, was scalding his hands.
Hissing quietly to himself, he minced over to the plump ladies in their pastel gowns, hefting the hot, heavy pot toward the cup the Missus was holding languidly outstretched -- not even glancing his way, eyes and ears still riveted on the plumpest lady with the juiciest gossip. Sweating, eyes stinging, Nathan tried to lift the overfilled pot to the cup she held on a level with his eyebrows.
For a moment, he managed. He was big for his age, toughened already by years of hard work in the yards and gardens of the Big House. Most folks figured he'd be sent down to the fields before long, to put those growing bones and muscles to use. He wasn't supposed to be fine enough for the Big House, with its high ceilings, high-flown conversations and high expectations.
Suddenly, the child's wrist gave way. The hot beverage sloshed over the cup's rim and onto the Missus' lacy white glove. Screaming, more in outrage than pain, she flung the cup away, fluttering her burned fingers in distress. Nathan followed the cup with his eyes as he juggled the teapot away from the ladies. He clutched the pot to his chest, ignoring the scalding liquid that soaked his uniform and blistered his skin as he watched the teacup fall.
It bounced once, twice on the thick Persian rug, miraculously unharmed...bounced one more time... and shattered into a thousand pieces on the unyielding parquet floor.
The Missus was clutching her hand and screaming bloody murder, backed by a chorus of sympathetic shrieks from the tea party. Nathan just stood there, staring hopelessly at the ceramic ruin, unaware of the screams, the pain of his own burns or the widening puddle of tea spreading around the last pair of shoes he would wear for a very long time.
"Get that Boy out of here!" Missus shrieked as the House staff came running. "Get...."
+ + + + + + +
More tea, Nathan?"
Mary Travis's quiet invitation pulled Nathan Jackson's attention away from the empty teacup in his hand. It was a nice cup, not so fine as some, but well made and decorated with a pretty spray of blue willow boughs. Smiling sheepishly, he held it out for a refill. No milk, two sugars.
"Now," he shook off the unwelcome memories and leaned forward conspiratorially as the newspaper editor filled his cup, adding two extra oatmeal cookies to the saucer for good measure. "Where were we?"
Mary matched his grin and leaned across the kitchen table, tapping her pencil on her notepad. "Mr. Johnston's grippe?"
"Mmm... Poor man's still laid up with mustard plasters so thick on his chest it's a wonder he can roll over," Nathan clucked. "Man his age..."
"Ought to have better sense," Mary completed the familiar refrain of their weekly get-together. Every Monday, the Clarion News published a list of the sick and injured of Four Corners and vicinity. Every Sunday afternoon, Nathan and Mary sat down for some tea and sympathy for the area's ailing -- less sympathy than tea, in some cases. Like the case of old Ambrose Johnston, who dove head-first into an icy mountain stream, only to find that the glint of silver he'd spotted on the stream bed came from the gleaming scales of a rainbow trout. The fish escaped, but Ambrose did manage to catch one granddaddy of a head cold.
Squinting thoughtfully, Nathan began: "Ambrose Johnston, 62, is recovering at home from an illness..."
"An ague?" Mary suggested.
"Mmm, good word. 'From an ague contracted' -- or would 'caught' be better? -- 'on a recent ...fishing trip?'"
"'Prospecting venture?'" Mary gnawed on the end of her pencil.
"Might strike folks as peculiar, Ambrose bein' a sheep rancher and all," Nathan mused.
Back and forth, they batted words and ideas, trying to describe Johnston's mishap in a way that would spare the old shepherd's feelings, but still entertain the Clarion readers in 150 words or less. Together, they spun the tale of an eternal optimist who looked for the silver lining in every... stream.
These teas began not long after Nathan first decided to hang his shingle in Four Corners. In the first three frustrating weeks, he had exactly one customer -- Yosemite the livery owner, kicked by a horse practically on his clinic doorstep. Nathan had been sitting in the clinic one afternoon, rearranging implements and re-wrapping bandages, when Mary Travis arrived at his door with a sprained wrist and an invitation to tea.
"To outsiders making inroads," the widowed businesswoman had said that day, raising her teacup in her good hand in a gesture of solidarity with the beleaguered black healer.
"To outsiders," Nathan had agreed, raising his own cup with care, trying to look as if he sat down to tea with white women every second Sunday. Before the second cup, the young editor had made him a business proposition -- free advertising in exchange for a weekly rundown of the area's ailing.
Almost immediately, his business began to pick up as a steady trickle of customers found their way up the steep livery stairs to his door. A few came because of the advertisements in the paper. Most came because Mary Travis, the undisputed head of Four Corners' Society, had invited this colored healer to tea. And that sent a message, clearer than the biggest headline, that Nathan Jackson was Somebody. There were some in this town -- shady businessmen, greedy ranchers, starchy matrons -- who could live out their days in Four Corners without ever earning an invitation to tea with Mary Travis. Nathan smiled to himself. After more than three years in business, he no longer needed to advertise, but he wouldn't trade these Sunday teas for the world.
After they polished off the sick list, he and Mary usually tackled the Heard Around Town gossip column. His peacekeeping duties made him privy to some of the juiciest rumors -- almost as good as the ones he picked up from bored convalescents. It amazed Nathan how much he enjoyed this weekly side-trip into gossip -- ahem, journalism -- although he could only imagine what the others would think about the hobby. Especially after the grief he gave Ezra for his overuse of the language. How could he explain the simple joy he found in wordplay, in working as an equal with a woman most of the world considered his better? As far as the others knew, these tea parties were just tea parties.
Almost makes you wonder what goes on when the others come to tea, he thought suddenly. The woman needed a powerful lot of news to fill that paper every week...Let's see, she's had Josiah to tea, only fitting, since he's the closest thing this town has to a preacher. Chris, of course, and he's brought Buck along with him a few times -- and Buck brought JD. Not much chance that any of them were moonlighting as inkslingers, especially not the kid. Vin...Vin comes by every week! He made a mental note to check the editions for any news that might have come from the tracker.
For some reason, the idea that any of the other six regulators might share his secret pastime rankled. He didn't really want to see how his unschooled words would measure up to Josiah's prose, or Vin's poetry, or, Lord help us, anything written by Ezra -- a man with a thousand uncommon ways to describe the common cold.
Mary was still giggling over Ambrose and the One that Got Away as she ran down the remaining items for the Sick Call column: One baby recovering from the croup, one broken toe, three people down with minor ailments, one gunshot wound. Her smile faded.
"How is he, really?" she asked anxiously, tapping the last entry. Nathan had given her a brief update when he arrived, but she was ready for the full details.
Nathan grimaced. "Sleeping, I hope. You can't drag the man out of bed on a good day, but dig a bullet out of his ribs and he takes it into his head to go wandering all over creation, half out of his mind with shock and fever...." he trailed off, rubbing neck muscles knotted by anxious days and nights by the sickbed. Not to mention the frantic hunts for the odd places the delirious lawman chose to hole up -- the hayloft, a broom closet in the Saloon, the Potters' root cellar. The fever finally broke yesterday afternoon and the patient had been sleeping soundly ever since, which was the only reason Nathan felt secure enough to step across the street for an hour.
"That calls for a celebration," Mary said, pencil poised. "Local lawman Ezra Standish is recovering from a gunshot wound he suffered while foiling an attempted robbery Tuesday night...." She cocked an eyebrow at Nathan, waiting for details.
"While on evening patrol, Mr. Standish spotted two men breaking into the town's clinic...." the newspaper jargon flowed easily from Nathan's mouth, helping him frame the events of that night, giving him a measure of control over the ugly memories. The sound of breaking glass that startled him out of his sleep, the rough hands grabbing him, demanding his cash box, rooting through his supply cabinet, grabbing bottles of laudanum. The rush of relief as a familiar Southern drawl made a few pointed suggestions to the would-be robbers. Gunshots. Ezra staring down at the spreading crimson stain on his shirt, green eyes seeking Nathan's in mute appeal, a moment before he collapsed on the clinic floor. Hours spent picking shattered bone and bits of cloth out of the track the bullet had gouged across Ezra's lower ribcage.
After the dry recital of fact, Nathan and Mary backtracked, polishing their words, piling on adjectives and adverbs at will.
"Did we already use 'dastardly?'"
"Dunno, Mary, that kinda sounds like one of JD's dime novels. How about 'craven'? Got that one from Ezra himself. Speaking of which," Nathan tilted the notepad and studied the emerging news item. "Instead of dancing around with words like 'valiant defense of the unarmed healer against the miscreants,' maybe we should try something a little more straightforward? 'On Tuesday night, Ezra Standish saved Nathan Jackson from a couple o' no-account, miserable, thieving, cowardly, drug-addled, lowlife...." Nathan broke off, blinking hard at the table as Mary patted his hand.
"What's wrong with 'dastardly?'" a tired voice drawled from the doorway that separated Mary's living quarters from the main Clarion office.
"What the--?" Nathan yelped, scrambling out of his chair as he spotted Ezra leaning wearily against the doorjamb with a small stack of newspapers in his arms.
"C'mere and sit your sorry, holed hide down 'fore you fall down. What're you doin' out of bed?" With hard words and a gentle touch, Nathan steered the bleary gambler to a small sofa. Ezra sank down with a grunt, wincing as Nathan swung his legs up and onto the furniture, boots and all. The newspapers fluttered to the floor.
"Sorry. So sorry to disturb," Ezra wheezed, gesturing to the cooling tea kettle and nearly empty tray of finger sandwiches and cookies.
Nathan felt his forehead, but found no fever to explain Standish's latest escape from the sickroom. Ezra ducked his head irritably, cursing the smart mouth that foiled his clean getaway. All he'd wanted was to grab a few back issues of the paper and sneak off to the bathhouse to soak his aching ribs and catch up on the gossip -- ahem, news -- of the past week. But the sad saga of Ambrose and the silver trout had captivated him, and he'd edged closer and closer to the newswoman's apartment, waiting for the next bulletin.
Now, as Mary bustled around, wedging pillows behind his back and draping a blanket across his legs, Ezra shot an embarrassed look at the healer. "I must apologize for interrupting the creative process, Mr. Jackson."
Nathan blushed, wondering if he was being mocked. "I ain't creative," he huffed. "Mary's the writer. I just fill her in on who's ailing and such."
"On the contrary. You have quite a way with words," Ezra grimaced a bit, remembering a few choice phrases the healer had hurled his way in the past. "So it is small wonder you are responsible for one of the Clarion News' most popular features... Please, Mrs. Travis, do not disturb yourself. I really must be going."
Mary just smiled. "Don't be ridiculous, Ezra. We were just celebrating your road to recovery," she said, returning to the table with a fresh cup and saucer. "We should have thought to invite the guest of honor." She bustled back to the kitchen, in search of more substantial fare for the convalescent.
"Nonsense, dear lady. I shall collect my periodicals and leave you to the fascinating work of composing a suitable elegy in my honor..." Standish tried again, moving to rise. Nathan clamped a hand down on the sofa back, pinning the gambler in place.
"Milk?" Nathan smirked, snagging the pitcher with his free hand.
"Again, no thank you. I am surprised at you, Mr. Jackson -- keeping an invalid from his bed."
"Sugar?" Mary returned to the table with a plate piled high. The gambler slumped as far as his ribs permitted, resigned to his fate. Nathan tipped a few heaping spoonfuls into the cup and nudged the plate of cookies closer. Man needed to build himself up.
"And now, Nathan," Mary called over her shoulder. "Maybe you could start filling Ezra in on tomorrow's Heard Around Town column?"
Ezra perked up. "You collaborate on Heard Around Town as well?" He loved the gossip column.
For the past month, Clarion readers had been gripped by the perils of Pauline Pratt, a hapless local spinster who had taken it into her head to embark on a grand tour of Europe. So far, she hadn't made it past Saint Louis. Daily, she sent plaintive letters and telegrams back to Four Corners, bemoaning the strange lands, strange foods, strange customs and even stranger people she'd encountered in the godforsaken Midwest.
Nathan hesitated for a moment, then scooted his chair closer to the Southerner and began the report.
"She sent another letter."
"Mr. Larabee?" Ezra spluttered. "Why, in heaven's name?"
"Well, that's a story in itself...." As he began to spin the tale, Nathan watched Ezra slowly relax, the lines of pain and tension easing from his face as he lost himself in poor Miz Pratt's frantic plea for the Seven to travel immediately to Saint Louis to deal with the impertinent bellhops at her latest hotel.
It took the combined efforts of Josiah, Nathan, JD and two strong padlocks to keep Chris out of the telegraph office until his temper cooled. Buck and Vin had been laughing too hard to be of much use to anyone.
"More tea, Ezra?" Mary asked as the story wound to a close, setting down her pencil with a chuckle and reaching for the teapot.
Ezra's eyes dropped to the china cup in his hands, staring at it as if he had never seen the like. And suddenly it occurred to Nathan that Ezra never had seen Mary's tea service, never had been invited to tea: this gambler, this con man, this gaudy, shady drifter who made his living in society's shadows.
Nathan thought again of the plantation tea party, imagined how easy it would have been for Ezra to blend right in -- under another name, a different identity, as part of yet another con. He could picture him, the suave Southern beau, sipping tea, flattering fat ladies in tight gowns, knowing all the while that if they knew who and what he truly was, they wouldn't consider him fit to pour their tea.
'Ain't we a pair?' Nathan thought, trying to catch the Southerner's eye. Wanting to let him see that he knew who and what Ezra Standish was and knew he did belong, was welcome, did deserve to be here taking Sunday tea with decent folk. Just like Nathan did.
Evading the look, Ezra slipped on his game face, accepted the refill -- no milk, two sugars -- with thanks, and smiled brightly at the others.
"To your health, Mrs. Travis, Mr. Jackson," he said, raising his teacup in a shaky toast.
Nathan smiled, raising his own salute to his unlikely friend: To outsiders making inroads, Ezra.
Comments to: JenBr11@aol.com