Bringing Ezra Backby Cynthia DeFelice
September 1840 marks five months since twelve-year-old Nathan Fowler's life-threatening encounter with Weasel, the heartless man who stalked Nathan like a wild animal through the forest. Nathan hasn't been the same since, wary of every new person he meets - including the visiting peddler Orrin Beckwith. When Beckwith shows Nate and his family a handbill advertising a… See more details below
September 1840 marks five months since twelve-year-old Nathan Fowler's life-threatening encounter with Weasel, the heartless man who stalked Nathan like a wild animal through the forest. Nathan hasn't been the same since, wary of every new person he meets - including the visiting peddler Orrin Beckwith. When Beckwith shows Nate and his family a handbill advertising a show with a "white Injun," a man without a tongue, Nathan is sure the man is his friend Ezra, who lost his tongue to Weasel's knife. Determined to save Ezra from this traveling show of "human oddities," Nathan sets out with Beckwith from Ohio to Pennsylvania. On the way, Nathan encounters more people than he's ever met before, and he begins to learn a thing or two about human nature. The biggest shock, however, is Ezra himself, and it will take more than Nathan bargained for to bring him back home.
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Bringing Ezra Back
By Cynthia DeFelice
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2006 Cynthia C. DeFelice
All rights reserved.
The state of Ohio, 1840 ...
AN ITCHY FOOT means you'll soon go on a journey, folks say. If it's your right foot that itches, you'll start off for someplace far away. If your left foot is the itchy one, you'll go where you're not wanted. Mama had never set store by such notions, and I reckon she was right. But both my feet were itchy, and I couldn't help wondering what it meant.
I took off my shoes, got one look at the bumps and blisters, and had my answer. Like a fool, I must have stepped in the poison ivy vines that grew behind the barn.
I climbed up on the fence I'd been mending, and scratched my feet hard against the bottom rail. The rough wood felt good.
As long as I was taking a rest from work, I figured I might as well play a few licks on my fiddle. Since Pa got it for me, I took it with me wherever I went. When I was teasing sounds out of it, I forgot most everything else — including, I hoped, itchy feet.
I'd been playing for a while when a man appeared before me real sudden-like, out of nowhere, or so it seemed. Without thinking, I raised my right arm. I wished I'd been honing a scythe, or sharpening Pa's knife, or cleaning his rifle. At least that way I'd have a weapon in my hand instead of a fiddle bow.
"Whoa there," I said warily. "Who are you? And what do you want here?"
The man stopped and held up his hands, with the palms open toward me. "Whoa, yourself, young fellow," he said. "There's no call to be so tetchy."
I reckon I was touchy. In the year past I'd met a man called Weasel, and from him I'd learned there are people whose hearts are blacker than a moonless night. I'd gotten lost in that darkness, so lost I couldn't see my way out for a long time.
Since then I'd worked hard on the farm and had taken up the fiddle. Both helped to keep my mind off Weasel. Still, memories of him got mixed up in the jobs I did and the tunes I played. I reckon a body can't lose the knowledge of something once he's got it.
For one thing, I couldn't take to new folks right off, the way I used to. I didn't mean to be standoffish, but I could never be sure about a stranger, whether he was likely to want to do me harm, the way Weasel had. Pa and my sister, Molly, were about the only people I trusted. I'd say Mama, too, and our friend Ezra, but they weren't with us anymore. Mama had caught fever and gone to the next world. As for Ezra, he'd gone west to find his wife's kinfolk, and Pa and Molly and I didn't know if he ever got there.
I told myself this feller looked harmless enough. He was wearing a pack like the one Isaac the Peddler wore when he stopped by our cabin each spring and fall. Molly and I looked forward to Isaac's visits more than just about anything else all year.
"You peddling?" I asked.
The man nodded, and smiled broadly.
"Isaac's always been the one to come out to these parts," I said.
"Isaac gave up the traveling way of life," the man informed me. "He got himself a little store back east. Said he was too old to be toting a pack around in the wilds with nothing but God's earth for a mattress and pillow."
Isaac had always said he meant to settle someday, but I never reckoned he'd actually do it.
"I wouldn't say no to setting this pack down and partaking of a bit of refreshment, if you take my meaning," the man said.
Mama would have asked me where my manners were, keeping a visitor standing in the barnyard after all the miles he'd traveled. "I reckon you'd better come on inside," I said.
The man tipped his hat to me and smiled again. "Orrin Beckwith, at your service," he answered, giving me a little bow.
"I'm Nathan Fowler," I said. Then I forced myself to add, "Welcome to you."
We started toward the cabin. I hollered to Molly and she poked her head out the door. When she spied the peddler, she disappeared for a moment, then came out to meet us with a cup of cider in her hand. Duffy and Winston raced beside her, barking with excitement.
Pa was busy splitting firewood at the far end of the pasture. I whistled, loud, to get his attention. He straightened up and peered in our direction, his hands shading his eyes. The sun was pretty low in the sky, which meant Pa would be coming in to supper soon. But no matter what time of day it was or what we were doing, we always left off working when the peddler arrived. Sure enough, as soon as Pa saw us standing next to a figure with a pack on his back, he took one last swing with the axe, put it up on his shoulder, and started toward us.
I introduced Molly to Orrin Beckwith. Shyly, she handed him the cup. He drained it in one long gulp and let out a loud belch. Molly's eyes widened, and she giggled behind her hand.
"Pardon, young lady," said Beckwith, belching again, only quieter this time. "But that was far too delectable to sip politely. Is it your own home brew?"
"My compliments," Beckwith said, with another little bow.
Molly giggled, and I could see how pleased she was.
"May I ask you a question?" Beckwith said to her, real serious-like.
Molly looked surprised, then nodded again.
"What kind of bushes does a rabbit set under when it's raining?"
Molly's face twisted up the way it did when she was thinking hard on something. I was pondering the question, too, and the man's reason for asking it. Finally, looking disappointed, Molly said, "I'm sorry, sir. I don't know."
Beckwith paused for what seemed like a long time before he said solemnly, "Wet ones."
Molly shrieked with delight. "A riddle!" she cried. "Ask another!"
"All right, then," Beckwith said with a sly grin. "Here's an easy one for you. I turn green into white, then into yellow. What am I?"
I was interested in spite of myself. I thought and thought about it, but I was certain I'd never heard of anything that could make colors change like that.
Molly stamped her foot and pretended to frown. "That's not an easy one!"
"Want me to make it easier?" Beckwith teased.
"Yes!" Molly answered.
"I eat green grass and give white milk, which gets churned into yellow butter." Beckwith raised his eyebrows and waited.
"A cow!" Molly said.
I groaned. It was easy, once you knew the answer. I should have guessed it. After all, ever since we'd got our cow, Golly, it was my job to milk her every day, and Molly's to make the butter.
"Ask another!" Molly begged.
"All right," said Beckwith, acting as though Molly was plain dragging the questions out of him, "if you insist. Ready?"
"Ready," said Molly eagerly.
"Many of them go to the spring, but they never take a drink. What are they?"
Pa had been approaching all the while that Beckwith was talking, and he was close enough to hear the last question. He bent over and whispered in Molly's ear. She grinned real big and said triumphantly, "Footprints, that's what!"
"Well said, Miss Molly," answered Beckwith. "And I can see your father is no fool, either."
"I don't know about that," said Pa, stepping up to shake Beckwith's hand. "But I wasn't born yesterday, and I've heard a few riddles in my time. Welcome to you."
We all headed for the cabin. Inside, Pa put his axe down, and Beckwith took off his pack. He set it carefully on the floor, then commenced to rub his neck and shoulders.
I noticed Molly was staring fixedly at the pack, and I knew what she was thinking. She could hardly wait for the moment when it was opened. Truth to tell, neither could I. Accustomed as we were to making or growing most everything we had, we plain treasured the sight of the city-made goods and fancy notions the peddler brought.
After hearing the news about Isaac, Pa said, "Did you stop off in town, Mr. Beckwith?"
Orrin Beckwith nodded. "Spent two nights and a day there. Bedded down in the livery stable and set out first thing this morning for you folks. Took me since sunup to get here."
It would be dark before long, so I wasn't surprised to hear Pa say, "We'd be pleased to have you stay for supper, and the night, too, if you'd care to."
I tried to push down the uneasiness that rose up inside me at the idea of a stranger stopping off with us. We'd always welcomed Isaac to spend the night. Anyone who came this far would expect the same.
"Thank you, sir, to both of those kind offers." Beckwith rubbed his hands together and looked around the cabin. "Something does smell mighty good," he said.
"It's stew," Molly said. "Nathan shot a squirrel yesterday, and I made blue biscuits."
I smiled. Molly was ten years old, and ever since Mama died, she'd done most all of the cooking chores. I reckon she didn't notice the look on Orrin Beckwith's face at the mention of blue biscuits. I'd felt the same way the first time I'd watched Ezra add ashes and maple syrup to his cornmeal dough. Beckwith would soon find out how good it turned out.
Beckwith waggled his eyebrows at Molly and said, "Speaking of blue, I have some indigo." He leaned down at the same time to take something from his pack. "It's come all the way from India."
"Indigo! Did you hear that, Pa?" Molly said excitedly. "Some blue in my quilt would sure look pretty."
"And I have madder root," Beckwith went on in a teasing sort of voice.
"Oh!" Molly gasped. "That makes red! Mama always said there's nothing cheers up a quilt like a touch of red."
"The good ladies of town agree with you there, Miss Molly," Beckwith said. "They'd have bought up all my dyes ..."
I watched Molly's face crumple with disappointment.
Beckwith grinned at her. "But I said I needed to save some for a certain young girl I'd heard tell of who lived a mite farther on."
Molly's cheeks flushed and her eyes sparkled. It was good to see her so happy. I wasn't sure I favored the way Beckwith was going about his business, though. He was making out that he was doing her a special favor, when he was only trying to get her to buy his dyes.
"Oh, and one of those good ladies from town sends her greetings," Beckwith went on, with a sly wink in Pa's direction. "A certain Abigail Baldwin asked me to pass along her best wishes to you all."
It was Pa's cheeks that turned red then. Pa had danced a fair bit with Miss Abigail at the spring dance in town, and Molly was hoping she might be our new mama someday.
With another wink, Beckwith reached into the pack and held up a horn comb and some brightly colored hair ribbons. "You may be interested to know she was admiring these, and everyone present agreed they looked right fetching in her auburn hair."
Molly said, "Oh, Pa, they would look pretty on Miss Abigail, don't you think?"
I knew Molly could use help with her chores, and she said she wanted some female company to talk with, instead of just me and Pa all the time. So I didn't say what I was thinking, which was that I liked Miss Abigail all right, but I didn't much take to someone new being part of our family.
Pa answered Molly with a nod, and looked regretfully at the ribbons. He didn't make a move to take them, though, and I knew it was because we had little money to spare for fancy things.
Then Orrin Beckwith turned to me and said, "For you, young Nathan, I have the latest in straight razors from England."
I was twelve, and hadn't noticed even the first sign of a whisker.
"If you're not shaving already, you'll be needing to before my next visit, by the looks of you. Why, you're near as big and strong as your pa."
I was flattered at the notion that I looked grown enough to sprout a beard like Pa's, but I didn't let on.
Beckwith eyed me close, sizing me up, it seemed like, the way Pa might look at a horse he was fixing to buy. "You hold your cards mighty close to the chest, don't you, son?" he observed. "Now that I think on it, I imagine a sensible young man like yourself is more interested in practical matters."
He took a knife from the pack. I knew right off it was a Barlow. My friend Colin Whitefield, whose pa owned the store in town, had one.
Orrin Beckwith held it out to me. "In my humble opinion, this little beauty is the single finest tool there is. A man out here on the frontier has to be prepared to protect himself and his family, and to do the work that needs to be done. For example, you were mending fence when I showed up."
I'd taken a break from fence-mending to play on my fiddle, as Orrin Beckwith well knew. He gave me a smile, like we shared a secret, and I scowled at him.
"This knife will notch out a fence post like cutting butter. You'll find it comes in handy for just about any chore that comes your way. Take it, see how it feels."
The blade was so shiny I could see my own face staring back at me. I felt the blade with my fingertip. Sharp. Strong. All of a sudden I wanted it, not as much as I'd wanted a fiddle, but nearly. I looked at Pa.
"It's a fine knife, Nathan," he said. "But I reckon for now we can make do with mine."
I felt a stab of disappointment, and looked away so's Pa wouldn't see it in my face. I knew he'd had to trade a wheel of our homemade cheese, some dried beans, some animal pelts, and some money on top of that, to get me my fiddle. I couldn't expect to get a knife, too.
I handed it back to Orrin Beckwith without a word. But I felt like somehow he knew how much I wanted it. It unsettled me to think he could see right through my skin to the inside. I wished I could do that, instead of wondering all the time what folks might be thinking.
Then Orrin Beckwith said, "There must be something here I can tempt you folks with." With a flourish, he opened the pack all the way up. Molly ran over, squealing with excitement. She exclaimed over each and every splendid item Beckwith took out and spread on the table for us to see.
There were cards of buttons and papers of pins, hooks and eyes, spoons, bowls, plates, rings, brooches, washboards, liniments for horses and for people, too. There were shoelaces, silk and cotton goods, Bibles, and almanacs; handkerchiefs, candles, seeds, caps, gloves, and mittens. If I hadn't seen it all come out of that pack, I'd have bet money — if I had any — that it would never fit back in.
Molly was sniffing a cake of sweet-smelling soap, and running her fingers over a shawl Orrin Beckwith said came all the way from China. Suddenly Beckwith looked at Pa, who was working a pair of scissors in the air, getting a feel for them. Pa was squinting his eyes to get a better look.
Orrin Beckwith's expression grew almost crafty. "You a reading man, Mr. Fowler?"
"Yes," said Pa. "But now that you mention it, it's been getting harder and harder for me to make out the words."
I looked at Pa with interest, and some worry, too. "What do you mean, Pa?" I asked.
"Well, say you used your mama's quill and ink to write something, and then a drop of water fell onto the paper."
"The ink would spread out and make the letters all wiggly," I said.
"That's what letters look like to me these days," Pa explained. "I have trouble with what's right in front of my face, but I can see clear across the far pasture just fine." He gave a little shrug.
I tried to imagine what it was like to see all wiggly.
"Mr. Fowler," Orrin Beckwith said, breaking into a big grin, "if you'll step right over here, I believe I will be able to fit you with some spectacles that will solve this troublesome problem in the wink of an eye." He laughed at his little joke, then untied a cloth pouch and unrolled it. Inside were about ten pairs of carefully wrapped spectacles. "There are five different strengths," he explained.
I heard in his voice that he was proud to have such fine wares.
"It's a matter of finding the right strength as well as the proper fit. Please," he added, gesturing for Pa to help himself.
I watched as Pa put on one pair after another. Molly handed Pa one of the Bibles from the pack, and with each new pair he moved the book closer, then farther, then closer again. "Hmmm, that's better," he'd say, or, "These make my head spin!"
Finally he said, "Well, now, isn't that something?" He continued reading for a while. Then he took off the spectacles and said, "Mr. Beckwith, I thank you. Someday, when we've saved up a bit, I aim to get me some of those specs. In the meantime, I reckon I can see well enough."
Excerpted from Bringing Ezra Back by Cynthia DeFelice. Copyright © 2006 Cynthia C. DeFelice. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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