Buck Wilmington was only seven, but already his world was a complex and subtly layered one, populated by many kinds of people. First and foremost there were "ladies," like his ma: white women who lived in the same house with you, who were pretty and smelled nice and dressed in frilly petticoats and silken wrappers and bright fancy clothes. Of ladies he had great experience. They were always nice to a boy; they hugged him and tousled his hair, mended his clothes when they got torn, sneaked him little treats and presents when they came home from "uptown," and loved him as his own mother did. They helped teach him to read and write and dance. Their children were his playmates and friends, although mostly these children were his own age or younger: by the time they turned eight or ten, they were generally sent away to school--the girls always--and he didnt see them any more, ever, though they wrote letters which were read aloud in the kitchen over breakfast, and the whole house sent them boxes at Christmastime, and when their mothers could get the time off they went to visit them, all dressed up like uptowners going to church. There were also "help" or "staff," mostly black women; these were also good friends, full of laughter and rich-voiced song and fascinating stories of animals that talked like human beings. Occasionally one had a wicked temper, but she didnt usually stay long. It was they who had taught young Buck that, while a person should work hard and conscientiously at whatever job he had, the trick was to pretend not to, and never to work at the hurrying pace that kills. White or black, he should cultivate the gift of tranquility in toil.
Men were of two distinct types. One worked in or about the house and sometimes even lived there: bartenders, house men, Silas the black stable/handyman, Mike the bouncer, Charles the piano player. These too were friends who could be trusted and often had lessons to teach, like Charles, who had just been showing Buck how to play scales when Ma had made up her mind to go to Tombstone. The other came to visit, mostly in the evening but not always. Usually they wore suits or were officers in the Army. They laughed and sang and gambled and ate and drank downstairs, and then after a while they paired up with a lady and went upstairs. Some were nice, and occasionally a lady even married one and left the house with him. Others werent. They drank too much or lost at the games and got into fights with each other or the house men, and Mike threw them out. Or they hurt the ladies in their rooms, and again Mike threw them out, usually after he had given them a few good punches to teach them a lesson, and in this case they were never allowed through the front door again. The children were expected to avoid them, which wasnt too hard because by the time they started to arrive it was usually past bedtime and Buck and his friends were tucked away in their communal nursery over the kitchen. Sometimes when he was uptown with Ma they would encounter one of these men, and Buck had learned at a very early age that he must never acknowledge knowing them, because, as Ma said, the men usually werent going to admit that they knew him--or her. Buck wasnt sure he understood why this was, though it struck him as ungrateful for the "gentlemen," as they were called, not to at least tip their hats and say good day to someone who had entertained them as a guest in her home. This caused him to look with considerable suspicion on any male who didnt spend at least half his time in or about the house. He, after all, had better manners than that, and he was only a little boy.
Last--in frequency of encounters and in Bucks estimation--came what Ma sometimes called "good women" and sometimes "uptown ladies." They seemed to belong to the gentlemen, because you would frequently find a gentleman walking with one (or more--in this case usually an older one and one or more younger). Buck thought the gentlemen didnt have very good taste, because these women often werent anywhere near as young or pretty or as nicely dressed as Ma and the ladies, and sometimes they had sour faces like theyd bitten on a green simmon. They would look down their noses at him and Ma with haughty, superior expressions, or sometimes through them like they werent there, and they never spoke to them, as gentlemen sometimes did if met while alone. Or theyd sniff and snatch their skirts away as if they thought that brushing against Buck or Ma would poison them. Buck didnt like them, and he sensed that the feeling was mutual, but he didnt understand why this was true. Of course a boy seven years old isnt supposed to know very much; all he can do is ask questions, and if he doesnt get answers to them he has to accept and be patient and hope that as he gets older the truth will be revealed to him.
Now and again when they went uptown to shop, Buck and his mother would meet another "lady"--sometimes two or three of them in a group, sometimes with their children. These were always good encounters. The ladies would stand around and chatter and laugh and sneak sly glances at the gentlemen and the good women as they went by (often looking rather horrified), and the children would cluster together and exchange names and play, though they were supposed never to get out of sight of their mothers. You could always tell a lady when you met her, even if she didnt belong to your house: she was always dressed in fine clothes, brightly colored, with a fancy hat and lots of nice jewelry. She sashayed along as if she owned the street and wanted people to notice her, twirled her parasol and winked or fluttered a hand at the gentlemen as she passed them. There were roses in her cheeks and her lips were bright red, where good women were often pale or sallow and looked old and worn-out, and her hair was put up stylishly, usually with one or two long curls trailing down her back or over one shoulder, bangs or a fringe on the forehead, and cascades of loops and braids and ringlets. It was always safe to play with a ladys children, but a good womans children took their cue from their mother and ignored you, or sometimes (if they were boys) ganged up on you and called you names and even beat you up. This had happened to Buck a few times when he was younger, though now he had grown big enough for most of the boys to hesitate about trying him, and Mike had been teaching him how to fight--much better than the town boys could: they mostly just hit at each other wildly or rolled around in the dirt wrestling and striking, and if they did any damage it was more or less by chance, or because they had the weight of numbers on their side.
Ma had always taught Buck that even though the gentlemen and the good women didnt want to know them, he must return good for evil and be polite and helpful to them, if only because one day when he grew up he would probably live and work among them. And he must never fail to respect all women, even if they didnt acknowledge him, and to defend and help them if they were in danger. She taught him that this was how he could prove he wasnt what they thought him, though exactly what they thought him she never really made clear. "Were just as good as they are," she would say, "no matter what they think. They could just as easily be us if things had gone different for them; they just dont want to admit that. So in the end we have to be better than they are." And then she told him about the women who had fought in the War pretending to be men and how some of them had gotten to be sergeants and even officers. "They had to be better at the mens game than the men were, because of being women. So we have to be better than the good Christian folks because were starting from behind."
She also taught him about how Jesus forgave sinners and defended a woman the people wanted to kill with stones, and how a lot of people who called themselves His followers didnt live by His example. She taught him he must always believe in himself, remember that he was just as good as anyone else and that God loved him just as much, and that he should look for the best in everything and try to find the good in the people he met, no matter how hard they made it for him. He should pay no heed to the whispers and name-callings of "respectable" folk, but hold the truth in his heart. He should never start a fight, but if someone picked one with him, he shouldnt be afraid to whale the living tar out of them. He should stand strong for justice, which meant everyone getting what they deserved, whether it was good or bad. Because he was so much bigger than other boys his age, he should use his size and strength wisely and never be a bully. When he grew to be a man, he should never permit a woman or child to be hurt by anyone. "Maybe some day," she said, "you can be a marshal or a Texas Ranger or something." And she smiled to herself in a sly, secret way that he didnt understand.
None of the children in the house had fathers, though the ones in the stories Ma and the ladies read to him often did. This puzzled him at first, but Ma said he would understand when he was older. It never occurred to him to wonder what the definition of a "father" really was, or whether the children of the good women had them, though sometimes he would think it might be nice to have one: many of the children in the stories seemed to have good times with theirs. To him, his situation was the way all women and children lived. He didnt think very much about it. What troubled him more than anything else was the gentlemen who hurt the ladies, and the way so many of the uptown people seemed not to accept him or Ma as having any right to live in their world. He had wondered whether it would be any different when they got to Tombstone.
In Broken Bow his world had been turned upside down. He understood that death was final, that it could come from old age or accident or sickness or being killed, like getting shot. He realized that Ma was gone and not coming back, and felt sure she was in Heaven; she had always explained to him that good people went to Heaven, and she had always been good to him and to everyone else in the house, so how could she have failed to go there? He was bewildered at the fact that he hadnt been sent back to Kansas City to Miz Abigail, and didnt understand why Mr. Whittington and Sheriff Addison had lied about her not wanting him. The house he was sent to live in was confusing to him. There were no ladies, only children and staff and one man who lived there, Mr. Whittington. He soon learned that the other children, like himself, had no mothers, and only a few spoke of fathers. It puzzled him that there were many children who were older than he--why hadnt they gone off to school? He understood the concept of doing chores and was willing to take on his share, but farm work was unfamiliar to him and he often made mistakes. Most distressing of all was that the grownups who lived in the house with him--people who, according to his lifelong experience, should have accepted and loved him--seemed to think he was bad. They used words like "fallen" and "sinful brat" and "devils spawn," not only in referring to him but to many of the other children. If he spoke of Ma they caned him and told him she was "wicked" and had gone to Hell, and that he would too unless he "mended his ways" and "repented." He knew this was a lie, like the lie they told about Miz Abigail not wanting him. He was a good boy; Ma had always said so. He had no "ways" to "mend," nothing to "repent." But he soon realized that these grownups werent his friends, so he learned to pretend, to keep quiet and stay out of their way. Only with the other children was he safe.
Many of them--the boys mostly, but some of the older girls too--talked secretly of running away, and Buck soon came to the conclusion that this was his best hope. His problem was that he didnt really know how to get to Kansas City, and his experience with the adults at the orphanage had burned him badly, making him feel that it might be a mistake to trust even those grownups who seemed friendly. If you couldnt count on even the people of your own house to treat you kindly and justly, how could you know who among outsiders was worthy of your confidence? He finally decided that what he needed was a partner, another child who wanted to run, preferably someone older and wiser. When Ezra Standish came to the Home, Buck sensed he was just the ticket. He wasnt big and he hated to do farm work, but he was smart--you could tell by the big grownup words he used and the way he was always watching and listening. He was older too--twelve, he said, though he wasnt near as tall as some of the other twelve-year-old boys in the Home--and knew more. And so when Ezra made his break, Buck went with him.
He wasnt quite sure how they had ended up where they were now--hed been sick at the time--but he found it a good place. It wasnt like Kansas City, of course: there was only one lady (that was Miz Sarah--he called her "Miz" because she was clearly the female head of the family, like Miz Abigail had been), one child younger than himself (Katie), and two men of the house (Mister Chris and Mister Vin), plus Adam, who said he was nine. But they were all kind to him, they had helped him get well from his sickness and kept him amused while he was stuck in bed, and they never called him names or hit him. Now that he was all better and had been out of bed for almost a week, he was getting lots of good food--much more than in the Home, and all of it delicious. Miz Sarah had let out some of Adams clothes to fit him, and he had a bedroom all his own, with a comfortable mattress and big fluffy pillow and clean sheets that smelled of sunlight. There were dogs in the yard and cats in the barn and they all liked to be played with--and Climber, of course, who was his; Mister Vin had told him that Climbers kind of animal was called "ringtail," which struck Buck as a very good name for them. And horses--beautiful spirited horses in all sorts of colors, driven in from the range by Mister Chris and Mister Vin (sometimes Adam helped, sticking like a burr to the saddle of his pretty spotted pony). Miz Sarah had explained that this was a horse ranch, which meant that it raised horses to sell, and that the ones he saw were often mares with their colts; if Mister Chris wanted even just one of the mares, like to doctor her because she was hurt, he had to bring them all in, because otherwise the stallion, who was the father of the colts and the head of the family, wouldnt know what was going to become of her, or who was going to take care of her, or whether he would ever see her again. That, Miz Sarah said, was how all good fathers behaved. Buck was utterly charmed by the colts--he had never seen one before he came here. They had such funny long legs and flippy little tails, and they were bright-eyed and curious, though often shy, like children newly come to the house.
He was expected to help with the chores, but everyone was patient and helped him learn just how to do things, praised him when he got it right, and corrected him gently when he didnt. No gentlemen came to call, and at first he was a little bewildered to discover that not only was he not living in town (that was at least a little familiar to him, from the Home), he couldnt even see the town. A couple of times one outsider did show up--a black man, like Silas, who said his name was Nathan and who listened to Bucks heart and looked down his throat like the doctor in Kansas City used to do, and left Miz Sarah things to dose him with. When he was first allowed to get out of bed for part of the day, after the measles spots went away, he was distressed to learn that Ezra wasnt there, and was worried that the older boy might have died, like Ma. But Miz Sarah had told him this wasnt true, that Ezra had gone back down to Broken Bow to get something that belonged to Buck, and Mister Chris and Mister Vin had gone to help him do it. Then, a couple of days later, just as Buck was getting settled for the night, there was a jingling of harness and a rattle of wheels from the yard, and Mister Chris calling to Miz Sarah, who hurried out, telling Buck to stay in bed. He did as he was told and heard voices drifting in through the window of his room, including a deep rumbly one and a light boyish one that he didnt recognize. Then there were footsteps down below and on the stairs, and people moving around in the room just down the hall. Buck could hear a familiar voice raised in a litany of indistinct complaints, though he couldnt make out the words, and he had all he could do to stay put until Miz Sarah came back and told him that Ezra was home, though he was badly hurt and would have to be in bed for a long time, and that Buck could see him in the morning.
As soon as he woke the next day, Buck was out of his room and into Ezras, where he was somewhat horrified to find the older boys leg encased in pieces of wood and propped up on a pile of pillows. Mister Vin was dozing in the chair by the window and he woke up at the sound of Bucks bare feet on the floor. "Hell be okay," he said softly. "He done got his leg busted, is all. Wont be able to walk on it a spell, but itll get better in time. Now dont wake him, it was some rough gettin him back here in the buckboard."
Buck stared at his sleeping friend in awe. Ezra was paler than usual and there were bruises on his face. "What happened?" he whispered.
"Had him a tussle with Sheriff Addison," said Mister Vin. "Got hisself shot, thats how his leg got hurt. But we got your mas things back, and we mightnta done that iffen Addison hadnta fell in with Ez and come to knowin he hadta get outve Broken Bow right quick."
Buck didnt exactly understand this, but he realized that Ezras getting hurt was somehow connected to the older boy having decided to do something on his behalf. He already felt a profound sense of gratitude, bordering almost on worship, toward Ezra: he had taken Buck with him when he ran away from the orphanage, rescued him from all the horrors of the place, taken care of him on the trail, and now brought him here to what he was coming to know as "CL-Cross" or "the Larabee place." That Ezra would put himself in the way of being hurt so badly for Bucks sake made a powerful impression on the younger boy. "Is he gonna die?" Buck whispered, remembering the times he had heard of people who died from getting shot.
"Naw," said Mister Vin in such a scornful way that Buck knew instantly it was the truth. "Hell hurt some, and might be hell kinda have to learn to walk over again, like a baby, but the doc down to Broken Bow says hes gonna be fine."
Buck knew that Dr. Burnell was a good, kind man and a good doctor, even though he hadnt been able to make Ma better, so he accepted this. Later that day Nathan came and spent a long time in Ezras room, and there was a sound of hammering and a lot of talk between him and Mister Chris and a few complaints from Ezra, and when Buck went in the next time he found his friend hung like a fly in a web from a strange contraption of cords and weights, which made him scared and angry, because he knew that ropes were used to keep animals from going where they wanted to, and people too sometimes, in stories. Mister Chris explained it all to him, very carefully, as if he were used to answering a boys questions. "Vin told you Ezras leg is broken, didnt he? Well, the pieces of wood are called splints; theyre to keep Ezra from bangin the leg by accident and hurtin it more, and to make sure that when the bone is healed its all straight and strong the way bones are supposed to be. The ropes are called traction, and Nathan says theyre needed so the leg wont swell up and maybe get an infection in it."
Buck liked Mister Chris; he didnt exactly know why, but he felt this was a grownup he could trust and depend on. Perhaps it was because he saw how Adam and Katie seemed to love him; having known quite a few other children in his short life, he had come to trust their reactions to the adults in his world. He had gradually come to understand that Mister Chris was Adam and Katies pa, which was just another word for "father." It seemed to fit with what the stories had to say about fathers, and Buck decided he liked the concept. He wondered how he could get one of his own.
Today was the day Miz Sarah did her ironing, and because the weather was so nice she had set up her board on the back porch. Buck helped Adam with the chores, and then Adam had to go help his pa with the mower, so Buck decided to see if Miz Sarah had anything she wanted him to do. She was very glad to see him and asked if he would mind playing with Katie and keeping her busy. Buck was happy to oblige; he had often helped amuse the little kids in Miz Abigails house. Miz Sarah warned them not to go any farther than the outhouse, which was set in the middle of the back garden, about thirty yards from the house, and masked with sunflowers, and Buck promised to remember. He always did his best to oblige Miz Sarah; he thought she was a lady. She didnt look much like Ma, or dress in fine clothes, and her hands were a little rough from the hard work she did, but she always touched him gently and spoke kindly to him, and behaved toward him as Miz Abigails ladies had. And she could cook even better than Bella in Kansas City, which Buck wouldnt have believed was possible until he saw it, or rather tasted it.
Around the middle of the morning Miz Sarah decided to take a break and called Buck and Katie into the shade of the porch. She had made a pitcher of tart, refreshing lemonade, and gave each child a cold biscuit and molasses, "to hold you till dinnertime." Then she took something out of the pocket of her yellow gingham apron and handed it to Buck. "Is this your mother, Buck?" she asked.
The boy recognized the locket at once, and the picture too: Ma had taken him to have it made right after she decided to go to Tombstone. His finger trembled a little as he touched the image of her face. It had been long enough since her death that he had begun to forget what she looked like; seeing it brought everything back in a rush, all the good times theyd had, the things shed taught him, the journey theyd made from Kansas City to Broken Bow, and the last time hed seen her, lying in Dr. Burnells extra bed, her pretty face pale and drawn with pain. "Yesm," he whispered.
"Shes very lovely," said Miz Sarah. "What a pretty dress shes wearing."
"It was her best one," said Buck. "She used to wear it Saturday nights cause that was when the mostest gentlemen would come."
Miz Sarah gave a sort of little flinch. "Ezra told us that you said you came from Kansas City. Where did you live there? Do you have any family that might want you to go back and live with them, now that youre over the measles?"
He told her about Miz Abigails house above the river and how he and Ma used to get into town from there, and about the ladies and the other children and how Miz Abigail had always called them "a family," and how Ma had said he was to live with Miz Abigail if she died. He couldnt exactly tell what she thought of this; the expression on her face was very strange, not exactly sad, not angry, and certainly not haughty and scornful like the good women in Kansas City. Again he found himself wondering where the Larabees fit into the categories of people he knew. This wasnt a house like Miz Abigails; that much had become clear to him early on. But it wasnt like the orphanage either. It was almost like some of the homes in stories, with a ma and a pa and a brother and sister. But since hed never experienced such a thing himself, he wasnt sure he believed in them. Two or three of the kids in the orphanage had talked of having them once, but hed been half convinced they were making it up, just so they could keep thinking there was something in the world besides the misery theyd been trapped in.
"Do you like living here, Buck?" Miz Sarah asked, when hed finished.
"Yes, maam. I like it fine," said Buck. "You all been real nice to me."
Miz Sarah took a deep breath. "You know your mothers dead, dont you?"
He felt tears burn his eyes and sniffled them back angrily. He was a big boy and he was on his own now. "Yesm," he said in a subdued voice.
"And you know my husband--Mister Chris--is the sheriff here?"
"Yesm." Ezra had told him that. Despite his bad experience with Sheriff Addison, Buck had no set, preconceived notions about law officers. He knew they existed, but they had never been an important or negative presence in his life. He didnt realize that this was because Miz Abigail, like all the more discreet madams and prostitutes in the larger cities, was able to ply her trade with very little interference, protected by her contacts among the upper levels of male society; the fines and fees--literally bribes--she paid were quietly assessed and tendered, and since the house wasnt operated as a "public nuisance," there were no raids on it and very seldom any official visits by the police. In fact, Buck was actually more familiar with the higher levels of law enforcement: he knew that some of the "gentlemen" who visited regularly were well-known and respected lawyers, men who had argued famous cases in court, and one was a judge--a very important man, Ma had told him, who could do whatever he wanted and never had to pay.
"Well," said Miz Sarah, "one of the things a sheriff does is make sure that when children have no home, their families are told about it. Mister Chris thinks he can get in contact with Miz Abigail, though it might take him a while because you dont really know her address or her last name; he can send a telegram to the police in Kansas City and see if they can tell him about her. So if youd like to go back there and live with her, like your mother said you would, you can probably do it. But Mister Chris and Mister Vin and I have been talking about it, and wed like to have you go on living here with us, for always. What would you think about that?"
"Always?" Buck repeated doubtfully.
"Yes, until youre grown up, anyway. Wed be your family, like the people in Miz Abigails house used to be. And Mister Chris and I would go to Judge Travis and hed write a paper that made you our son, like Adam is."
Buck frowned in puzzlement. "Is that how you got Adam too?"
"No, he was born to us, like you were to your ma. But the Judges paper would make you just as much ours as he is. Youd live here and wed feed you and clothe you and Id teach you to read and write, and if you got sick again Nathan would come out and take care of you. Youd have your chores like you do already, and when you get bigger youd help with the horses, like Adam is learning to do." She hesitated. "And youd call Mister Chris Pa, and--well, I know you loved your mother, and if you felt it wasnt right to call someone else Ma Id understand, but Id like it very much if you would call me that. Because thats what Id be to you now that your own cant any more, and I think youre a very fine boy and Id be very proud if you would be my son."
He looked up at her with wide eyes. "How do you know I loved Ma?"
"Because youre a brave, sweet boy, and all brave sweet boys love their mothers. And because when you were sick and had that awful fever, you called for her and talked in your sleep, and anyone who heard you would know how you felt about her."
"Oh," said Buck softly. He considered everything shed said. "Id have a pa?"
"Yes. Mister Chris wants very much to be your pa, he told me so."
"Would Adam be my brother?" He knew about brothers and sisters from stories, and hed even known some: Miss Isabelle had had two little girls, aged two and five, when he and Ma left Kansas City, and Miss Elenora had had a boy off in military school and another one about his own age, and Miss Virginia had had one of each--a girl almost fifteen in a convent school in St. Louis, and a boy eight years old just about ready to be sent off.
"Yes, and Katie would be your sister," said Miz Sarah, looking over at the little girl playing with Climber and her rag doll by the siderail of the porch.
"What would Mister Vin be?" asked Buck.
Miz Sarah laughed, not a mocking laugh but a gentle one. "I guess hed be about the same thing he is to Adam--sort of a much bigger brother, or maybe a young uncle. Hes only four years younger than I am, you know."
Buck pondered, then: "What about Ezra?"
Miz Sarah looked at him in surprise. "What do you think he should be?"
"I dunno," Buck admitted, "but Id like it an awful lot if he could be somethin. You know what, Miz Sarah? I dont think hes got a pa. And Adam told me his ma went away to San Francisco and left him. Dont that mean hes like me ands got no family?"
"Well," said Miz Sarah, "Im glad you were the one to suggest it. The fact is, Mister Chris and I decided to ask Judge Travis to let Ezra stay with us too. Hed have to anyway, until his leg heals up, and we dont know when his mother is coming back, so we thought it would be easier for everyone if he just kept on doing it after hes able to walk again."
Buck searched her face eagerly. "Really?"
"Yes, really. Of course hes not like you; his mother isnt dead, and shell probably want him back someday. But until she does, he can stay here. And you can stay always--if you want to. We dont want to make you do it if you dont think youd be happy with us. We know what a terrible time you had in the orphanage, and we dont think children should be made to stay in places where they arent happy."
"Im happy," he said at once. "I like it here better than anywhere, even Miz Abigails, cause of the horses." Then he hesitated. "Are you sure you wont mind if I dont call you Ma? It aint that I dont like you, its just--"
"I know," she interrupted. "I had a ma when I was a little girl about your age, and she died, like yours did. My pa never thought too hard about getting married again--I guess he could never find anyone he liked well enough--but I think if he had Id have felt the same way you do."
He thought that over carefully. It was good to know she understood what he was feeling. "Id like to stay and be your son," he said at last, "and Mister Chriss son, and Adam and Katies brother. And Ezras too."
"Thats wonderful," said Miz Sarah. "Judge Travis is due back in Four Corners the end of this week, and JD will send us word when he comes. Then we can all go in and get the paper written for you." She looked down at him with sparkling eyes. "Now, may I give my new son a hug?"
She put her arms around him and pulled him close, and he wrapped his own arms around her and laid his head against her middle the way he used to do with Ma. She was soft and firm at the same time, like Ma, because of her corset, and she smelled of Sapolio soap and the rosewater and glycerin she used on her hands after theyd been immersed in water and just a little hint of English lavender. He could hear her heartbeat against his ear, steady and comforting. It was nice to have a lady hold him again.
Suddenly he sat up. "I gotta run and tell Ezra!" he exclaimed, and squirmed out of her embrace and bolted through the door into the kitchen, across it and the dining room beyond.
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