It has been an eventful few days. Some people like to get over excited in regular doses; not me. I suppose the occasional extra giddyup and go in your life is necessary. It puts you through the fire, tests you, and strengthens you. Necessary or not, I’m that grateful when things return to the normal, everyday kind of ruckus.
“Kerry Pappas! You used my razor for what?!”
Yep, the everyday kind of ruckus is plenty enough for me. I ran upstairs – well run isn’t exactly what I did but I did move as fast as I could. Dino was standing in the door way of his bathroom, bare chested and bare footed, while blood ran into a towel he held under his chin.
“What on earth?!” I cried as I ran forward to see what Dino had done to himself.
In an extremely indignant voice he complained, “I left the razor where I always do; sharp, clean, and ready for its next use. I don’t have time to fool around in the morning. So today I get up, throw a hot rag on my face – thank you for the bucket of hot water this morning Love but I better not catch you carrying it up those stairs again in your condition – lather up and with the first swipe I nearly slice my face off!”
I looked at Kerry who was giving his father a strange look then turned back quickly when Dino added, “I find out that rascal has … get this Riss … shaved the boar’s backside so it wouldn’t itch!”
“But Daddy, you said that you shave you face because when you don’t it itches and that ol’ boar kept scratching his bu…”
“Kerry!” I broke in. “What have you been told about touching your daddy’s things?”
“Awwww,” came a plaintive voice.
Kerry knew the rules. He also knew what was coming because he broke the rules. In this case he was going to have to stay here at the house and do chores and not get to go with this father to the fields like had been the plan.
“I better not hear another word. I want that bed made. I want that floor swept. And then you hit that kitchen and make sure that wood box is full. Right now mister.”
Kerry went glumping into his room like it was the end of the world and I turned back to Dino. He had a gash next to his chin on his jaw line. “Good grief. Let me get the styptic pencil; it isn’t deep but there’s a good piece of skin missing.” Hearing his groan I told him, “It’s that or a salt poultice … or I could try some cayenne.”
“No! No … uh … just hand me the styptic pencil.”
“I’ll do it. It’s at a bad angle and will be hard for you to see.”
I could understand his reluctance. Using a styptic pencil must be akin to what it feels to have lock jaw. “There now, that’s better,” I said when I’d gotten the bleeding under control.
“You could … uh … kiss it and make it feel lots better,” he said huskily.
I backed out of the bathroom laughing. “Behave. And how you can think about that when I’m roughly the size of Hern Peter’s new bear rug …”
“Now Honey, you know that just makes a man more …”
“Daddy? Why are you chasing Miss Riss around the bed and calling her funny names?”
That’ll douse the flame I’ll tell you that much. I left the room while Dino got that deer in the head lamp look. I escaped and went down the stairs laughing, leaving him to explain things to his son.
In the kitchen I finished the cattail pollen pancakes that I had started before the morning’s first excitement. You take two cups of pollen, two eggs, two cups of flour, a cup of milk, one and one half cups of water, one teaspoon of salt, and one tablespoon of sugar. Mix it all together well, getting rid of the lumps, and then you fry the pancakes on a hot griddle just like you would plan pancakes.
I heard a “Yippeeeeeee!” right before a herd of elephants came stampeding down the stairs. I managed to step back from the stove right before I received a very enthusiastic hug, the kind only soon-to-be five year old boys can give.
“Now you’ll have to stay forever!”
I laughed as I felt my face heat up a little and said, “You sure you won’t mind?”
“You just wait till I tell the other boys. Miss Riss is going to be MY momma. Hey, is the baby going to be my brother?”
“Or sister,” I confirmed. “If you want.”
In a yell that rattled the windows he said, “Yeehaw!!! I’m not gonna be the baby of the fambly anymore!! I gotta go tell Stinky!!!” He slammed out of the screen door, crashed down the porch steps and I could hear him hoot and holler all the way to the kennel.
“I think my son approves; he isn’t going to be the youngest in our “fambly” anymore. What do you think?”
Looking up I blushed and I told him, “I think you need a shirt on before I lose track and burn these pancakes.” He gave a decidedly male laugh and then went to oblige me.
The field hands and Alec and Ajax arrived just in time to help themselves to the pot of chicory I had made. AJ showed up as a single rider a few moments later and was offered a cup as well.
I still wasn’t sure what to make of AJ. He acted like he was a three-piece-suit city boy but I’d seen him strip and work as hard as any of the field hands and it was obvious he got plenty of physical activity doing something and I’m not talking about the kind you get behind a desk shuffling papers. He could be intimidating and it was obvious he was used to having his way and for a reason; Dino was the only one that seemed able to ignore that part of him though it was obvious he gave him respect.
The biggest difference between AJ and the rest of his family is that his laughter and smiles were fewer and never seemed to make it to his eyes. And those eyes had seen too much of something; what I didn’t know and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know either.
I’d tried to thank him for what he did but he just brushed me off. “Now look here, I don’t care for being beholden to people but I guess I owe you more than thanks. I’m just not sure what to do about it but there is no need for you to be cranky just because I said thank you. I swear, you and Dino are related all right.”
He’s a few inches taller than Dino which makes him tall enough to irritate me. Especially when he chose to use that height to look down his nose and ask, “What, precisely, is that supposed to mean?”
Just to see if I could get a rise out of him I sashayed over, grabbed the step stool, parked it in front of him, climbed up and said in something more approaching eye-to-eye, “It means that the two of you act like my gratitude is migraine inducing.”
I could see his chest bouncing a bit but he just stepped back and said, “Short women should not poke bears.”
Right back at him I said, “Tall men should not act like grouchy ol’ bears.”
A coughing, wheezing sound came out of his throat and then he got a peculiar expression on his face. He bowed like he was some court jester and then high-tailed it over to his horse and took off.
Dino came over from the trestle table where he had been eating with the men and asked me quietly, “Is AJ bothering you?”
“Nope. I think I might have run him off though.”
“You might have … Riss,” Dino said giving me a stern look. “AJ is no one to mess with.”
I looked at him all wide-eyed and said, “I’m not messing with him. I was just trying to say thank you for what he did for us and he gets all fidgety then goes galloping off without a by-your-leave or nothing. What on earth do you Pappas men have against a simple thank you?” Dino just rolled his eyes and told me again to watch for AJ because his moods could be “mercurial.” I’m not making it up, that’s what Dino said word for word.
That was yesterday. Today AJ kept his distance. I let him. I was just too busy to mess with trying to draw out a man what didn’t want to be drawed out. I was still finding spots for the supplies that Dino had brought back with him. When I asked where on earth he had gotten everything, especially the twelve cases of brand spanking new canning jars he kind of hemmed and hawed. I didn’t push but I was beginning to get an idea from that and a few other things the men let drop when they didn’t know I could hear them that I most definitely did not want to know what else AJ Nichols did for a living.
I had Dino take the flour and cornmeal and set them in the coldest part of the ice room, up off the floor on this rolling rack thing I’d uncovered as the basement had been organized. None of the ice left in there was fit for human consumption, and a lot of moisture was starting to collect and run to the drain in the floor, but at least it still cooled things off. I was hoping that if I could keep flour and cornmeal in there until it started freezing outside again it would slow down any weevil infestation.
Weevils are a fact of life. My grandfather said they were just extra protein. My grandmother said they were unsightly and any good housekeeper would be horrified to find them in her flour. Well, I don’t know about horrified but I surely didn’t like to waste time having to sift them out so it didn’t look like I’d dropped the pepper shaker into the bread when I was baking. Hannah wasn’t very careful and would leave the lid off of the flour canister so weevils were a constant bother.
There’s three hundred pounds of turbinado – or raw – sugar hidden down in the basement. I wasn’t asking where it came from and Dino wasn’t telling. All he said was, “Use it sparingly, there’s no telling when or if there will be any more of that with the way they bombed south Florida last month. For everyday use we’ll try and trade for sorghum and then use the honey as well.”
There were also jugs of distilled white vinegar (we can get cider vinegar locally), baking soda, coffee, a box of first aid supplies and some hard to come by medicines, reloading materials, a hundred feet of new rope and several clean but not new tow straps, a box of a bunch of different spices and seasonings packed in zipper baggies, five pounds of vanilla beans (that someone probably gave a body part for), several metal containers of olive oil, a case of vodka, three cases of rum, a large burlap bag of curing mixes, and the list goes on including several bolts of cloth, two of which were denim. There was also some things for the baby like cloth nappies and then what brought a huge blush to my face when I found them, some particular feminine supplies.
I was just trying to figure out how to ask Dino if he had ordered everything in the wagon when he walked in and tried to look over my shoulder. I slammed the lid down on the box but Dino lifted it back up. It took him a moment to process what he was seeing then he closed the lid. He turned a serious look to me and said, “I wish I could take the credit Riss. Knowing AJ he just assumed if Cheryl and the girls were ordering that stuff that you’d expect some too.”
I was irritated by the tired and disappointed look on Dino’s face. “Well Mr. AJ Nichols can just knock off his assuming. I know how to take care of myself and I’ll thank him to remember it in the future. As a matter of fact he can …”
I got a kiss to bring me down off my soapbox. “Are you sure you aren’t a red head under all them curls? Or did Harry’s contaminate you?”
“Oh you …”
He was still tired but at least he didn’t look so bad around the eyes any more. They found out that they’d lost nearly an entire acre of the last grapes. “Riss, some of it is storm damage, you have to expect that and build it into your harvest so you don’t fall short, but some of it … you could tell from the barefoot prints we had scavengers. An acre is bad but we can absorb the loss … but we can’t absorb that kind of loss very often. I want you to … well I suppose you do anyway.”
“You want me to what?”
“Keep everything picked out of the gardens and orchard as much as possible. I don’t now if you remember how it was in the beginning but Alec said people would come right up in daylight and just take anything they needed out of your garden, off your porch …” He trailed off and then added. “It may be the furthest fields this time but they could be at the house next.”
“I thought you said there was a big, tall fence around the outlying parts of the vineyard with bamboo planted outside of that.”
He sighed and then stretched his leg and I could see him wince. “There is. We found where they cut the fence. Chester and Rick already have it repaired and they followed the trail back. It was a couple of teenage boys that, along with a younger sister and their mother, have taken over one of the abandoned trailers at the old fish camp trailer park.”
“Anyone I would know?” I asked him seriously.
“No, they’re from the city. The husband was with them until about two weeks ago. He said he was taking the family’s last few dollars on their EBT card and going to buy groceries … he never came back. The boys said he’s done it before but never for more than a couple of days at a time. They didn’t have anything to eat.”
“I’ll put together a basket and …”
I gave him a look for the rough finality of the order. He shook himself and pulled a curl by way of saying he was sorry. “Alec is putting the boys to work. They’re old enough and big enough to pass without running into problems. All they need to do is keep their noses clean and their heads down. They’ll get paid in groceries but they’ll also be working off the damage they did to the vines. He’s set Clarence to keep an eye on them … keep the Klukkers from sniffing them out.”
“Oh,” I said, understanding finally dawning. Racial tensions had their occasional flair ups in the cities but it was a constant, quiet thing in some parts of the country. Newton and our part of the district didn’t put up with it much but Cherry Gap and a few other places simply accepted it as part of normal life. But even here we had a few that took a man’s skin color to be more important than his soul. “What about the mother and daughter?”
“The mother seems to be all right but you stay away from the girl, at least until she gets the cornered rat look out of her eyes. She’s fourteen going on forty and dresses like it too. If any of them brings down trouble on their heads it will be her.”
Lord-a-mercy. Wasn’t there enough trouble in the world? Not knowing what else could be done I focused on my own responsibilities and at that moment it was planning me a dress I could stand before the Judge and be married in. It’s just no matter how I cut it I’m going to look like the Lusitania sailing out of port.