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Guernicako arbola da. Haritz bat, Euskal Herriak tradizionalak sinbolizatzen da,” Pia Carranza said as she pointed to the spreading oak tree that sat inside an iron-rail fence behind her. She was surrounded by bright-eyed young girls in brown pigtails, and young boys with wind-tossed hair, all paying close attention as they listened to her teach her English-language class.
“This is the Tree of Guernica. Now, answer me in English,” Pia said, addressing the half dozen children who were sitting on the grass around her. “Why is this tree different from any other tree in all of Spain?”
“Because it was under this tree that the noblemen of Biscay and the kings of Castile and Aragon guaranteed us our liberties,” one of the boys replied excitedly. “And even though King Alfonso took our rights away from us, in our hearts we will always remember that among the Basques, each one is the equal of the richest, each one is the equal of the poorest, and no matter where in the world a Basque might go, we will always remember this tree and the promise of freedom.”
“Very good, Matia!” Pia replied, rewarding the boy with a big smile. “That is exactly right!”
“Oh, oh, Miss Pia made a mistake,” Matia said, giggling at his joke. “I am not Matia, I am Matthew.”
“How silly of me. Of course you are Matthew.”
Pia was twenty-one years old, a beautiful young woman with long, dark hair, high cheekbones, and brown eyes under long lashes. She had attended the parish school of Santa Maria de la Antigua until she was twelve years old. Then she left school to join her mother and her older sister, who worked in the parish bakery. Her father, Sabin Carranza, was in America working for Lander Segura as a sheepherder.
When Father Ignacio, the parish priest, returned from his studies in England and the United States, he was determined to teach his parishioners to speak English. He wanted them to be able to communicate with the many foreigners who were in Bilbao, the capital of their province of Bizkaia, but most turned a deaf ear to his prodding.
That was, all except for Pia Carranza. She had such an amazing facility for learning English that the priest relieved her from her duties at the bakery and had her teach English to the smaller children in the school.
Father Ignacio smiled at his protégé as she sat among the children, every one of them speaking English as if they had been born in California, Nevada, Oregon, or Idaho, the states with the largest Basque population. Here in Spain, because of the near insurmountable language barrier the euskaldunak faced, more often than not the boys were forced into the lonely life of a sheepherder, and the girls took jobs in boardinghouses. Father Ignacio was convinced that if these children should someday move to America, they would, by their knowledge of English, have many more opportunities.
When Pia saw the priest, she waved to him. “Come join us, Father. Ion—I mean John—is telling us about the new pelota court that is being built behind the plaza.”
“Let me see your hand,” Father Ignacio said as he turned Ion’s hand over. “Ah, there they are. Every young Basque boy must develop tough calluses if he is to be a good handball player.”
“Father, why can’t girls play pelota?” a little girl asked.
“Because girls have much more serious work to do, Kistiñe. Who would feed the oxen or tend the chickens if the girls were always out hitting a silly ball up against a wall?”
“I’m Christina. That’s what Miss Pia calls me, and I don’t think it’s fair that the boys get to play all the time and we have to work.”
“It will make us better people if we work hard,” Pia said as she hugged the child to her, “but for now our lesson is over. Why don’t you run home and see what your ama wants you to do before it gets dark?”
“It’s not ama, it’s mother,” Kistiñe said as the children rose to leave. “May we be excused, Father Ignacio?”
“Of course. I need to talk with Miss Pia.”
When the children were gone, the priest withdrew an envelope from the pocket of his black cassock. “This came from Idaho, today. When are you going to tell your father you can speak English as well as I?”
Pia lowered her head. “I’m not sure he would be pleased.”
“And why would you say that, my child? Any parent would be proud of his daughter when she is as educated as you are.”
“That’s just it, Father Ignacio. I am not educated in the ways that a woman should be. My sister can make the lightest bread in Guernica, and she can spin a fine thread from the sheep’s wool. I can’t even scour the floors without Elixabete coming behind me to do it again.”
“But who can pluck the hedgehog and split the osier for the baskets and tie the vines in the vineyards? And who spent the summer in the hills with the sheep when she was not yet twelve years old?”
“Thank you, Father,” Pia said as a smile crossed her face. “You’ve made me feel better.”
“Isn’t that what a priest is for? Now run along and share your father’s news with your family.”
Pia hurried to the bakery where Zuriñe Carranza and her daughter were working.
“Ama, Elixabete, Father Ignacio got a letter from Aita,” Pia said as she entered the bakery where several women were working.
“Read it,” Zuriñe said excitedly. “Read it quickly!”
Pia opened the envelope and removed the letter, which had been written in a neat, easy-to-read cursive script.
It has been a long time since last I saw my wife and my daughters.
Since our old neighbor, Lander Segura, sent for me to join him in America, he has been a good friend and a generous employer. I have saved my money and have now hived off a thousand head of sheep that I can call my own. Floria Segura grew weary of being so much alone in Mountain Home, where there were few Basque women, so Lander built a house some forty miles away in Boise, Idaho. He turned it into a boardinghouse for the herders, called the Bizkaia. Floria has been running the place all by herself, but Lander thinks it is too much work for one woman. He has offered me a half interest in the boardinghouse if you, my wife, will come and help her. You and our daughters will live among Basque at the Bizkaia House.
Segura’s son Marko has a very responsible job at a bank. He has arranged for passage from Liverpool, England, for the three of you and a draft for some American money that will get you to Boise, Idaho, once you reach New York. (This is enclosed with this post. B.W.)
It is with happiness at the thought of seeing you that I close this letter.
Your husband and father, I remain Sabin Carranza
Note to Father Ignacio: This letter was written by Barton Wilson, M.D., a friend of Sabin Carranza’s. I would like to suggest that you prepare instructions in English that could be attached to the traveling clothes of Mrs. Carranza and the children. I further recommend that they take the ferry from Ellis Island to Jersey City, where they will get train transportation to Idaho. Their trip will be on the Baltimore and Ohio, the Pennsylvania, the Chicago and Northwestern, the Union Pacific, and their last transfer will be in Nampa, Idaho, where they will take the Oregon Short Line to Boise. I know this may be confusing, but it will be helpful if they have written directions to help them with their itinerary.
Pia withdrew the three tickets and the draft from the envelope. When she did so, she looked toward her mother and saw tears streaming down her face.
“Oh, Ama, is something wrong?”
“Every night before I close my eyes, I pray that your father is in God’s keeping and that he will soon be back in Guernica. I never dreamed that he would want us to come to California.”
Pia smiled when she heard the word California. Because so many Basque had emigrated to look for gold, a lot of the older people used the word interchangeably with America. She did not correct her mother but embraced her.
“Aita is proud of his accomplishments. Listen to this part of the letter again: a thousand sheep that I can call my own, and a half interest in a boardinghouse. I think to own a thousand sheep and a boardinghouse must make Aita a rich man, and he wants to share the life he is living with us.”
“Pia, you are so smart. Of course that is what he wants.”
“And it’s what I want, too,” Elixabete said. “I am happy that we will be going to America soon. Did the letter say when we would be leaving?”
“It did not, but the tickets are for the Lucania.” Pia looked at the date for the departure, and the color drained from her face as she fell into a nearby chair.
“What is it, Daughter?”
“The Lucania sails from Liverpool on September ninth.”
Zuriñe’s hand went to her face as she gasped. “How could he do this to us? How could he expect us to leave our home in nine days? I’m not going to go.”
“Would you rather stay here and bake bread from morning till night?” Elixabete pleaded. “Pia, will you go with me, because I’m going to be on that ship when it sails.”
“We’ll all go together,” Pia said. “Aita needs us.”
The sign on the front door of the big brick house read:
FRANK E. WILSON, M.D.
BARTON F. WILSON, M.D.
“How did this happen?” Dr. Bart Wilson asked the man who was sitting on the treatment table. The lower part of his left leg was covered with blood, and Bart was cutting away the trousers just above the wound.
“It was the ignorant horse, Doc. He didn’t see the barbed-wire fence and run right into it, catchin’ my leg between the fence and the side of the horse. Ripped me up good, it did.”
“Yes, I’d say it did.” With the cloth cut away Bart was able to see the wound. The gash was quite deep, but hadn’t severed the artery. He brought over a pan of hot, soapy water and a bottle of alcohol. After washing away the blood and the dirt with the soapy water, he took the cap from the alcohol bottle.
“What are you goin’ to do with that?” the man asked.
“I’m going to disinfect your wound.”
“Is it goin’ to hurt?”
Burt chuckled. “Oh, yeah. It’s going to hurt like hell. You want something to bite on?”
“No, go ahead. Pour away.”
Bart turned up the bottle and started pouring.
“Damn! Damn! That hurts!”
“I told you it would.” Now, with the wound cleaned and disinfected, Bart put a square patch over it, then began wrapping it with gauze. When he had the wound well wrapped, he held the gauze in place with pressure-sensitive tape.
“There you go, Mr. Barnes. You’re all patched up now. That’ll be five dollars.”
“What about my trousers?” Barnes asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You tore up my pants, Doc. If you had just took ’em off ’stead of cuttin’ ’em off, I coulda washed ’em clean. But you cut ’em up.”
“I’m sorry about that, Mr. Barnes, but had I taken them off, there would have been the danger of further contamination.”
“Yeah, but now I ain’t got but one more pair of trousers, an’ if I was to pay you five dollars for your doctorin’, why, I wouldn’t likely have enough money to buy me another pair.”
Bart drummed his fingers on the treatment table for a moment, then sighed. “All right, Mr. Barnes, we’ll call it even.”
“Yeah, well, it seems only right.” Barnes hopped down from the treatment table and walked around a bit as if testing the job.
“How does it feel?”
“It feels good, Doc. It feels real good. You done a fine job.”
“Try and keep it clean,” Bart said as Barnes left the office.
No sooner did the man leave than the senior Dr. Wilson came into the room. Frank was a sophisticated man, always wearing a starched white shirt, a brocade vest, and gold watch chain. He wore a neatly trimmed mustache that didn’t extend beyond the edges of his mouth, and his hair was streaked with more gray than brown.
Bart was taller than his father—well over six feet tall, with a flat stomach and broad shoulders. He had piercing blue eyes and light brown hair, and while he wasn’t disheveled, he made no effort to maintain as dapper an appearance as did his father.
“Did I hear right? Did you let that cowboy leave without paying?” Frank asked, his displeasure obvious in the tone of his voice.
“He said I cut up his trousers.”
“That was his problem, not ours. This isn’t Saint Alphonsus, and we aren’t the Sisters of the Holy Cross. People who come here pay for their medical care.”
“Tell me, Pop, if he couldn’t afford to pay us, was I just supposed to let him get gangrene?”
“You’re supposed to exercise a little common sense. Last week you treated a miner on credit, knowing full well he’s never going to pay. And for all I know, you only collect food and drink from about half the Basques you treat.”
“That’s not true, the Basques always pay. Maybe not right away, but they always pay.”
“This is a doctor’s office, not a bank for credit. You love being the hail-fellow-well-met, don’t you? You like to drink with your low-class friends and play games with the Basque. You live a high-dollar life, Bart, and where do you think that money comes from? If you don’t hold up your end of the practice, why should I keep you as a partner?”
“Yeah, why should you?” Bart replied in a short, clipped voice. He started toward the door.
“Where are you going? Office hours aren’t over yet.”
“They are for me.”
Pia’s world had been turned upside down. Never had it occurred to her that her father would send for his wife and daughters to come to Idaho.
Basque men had been leaving to go to South America—Argentina, Chile, Uruguay—since the First Carlist War in the 1830s, and after gold was discovered in California, many ventured into North America, hoping to make their fortune. But all left with the idea that once they earned enough money, they would return to their homeland.
The women stayed behind to take care of the etcheonda, the house. Once established, this physical place became the sturdy trunk from which the branches of the family tree emerged. The laws of succession, without regard to gender, had been in place since ancient times and were rooted in the social character of the people.
Pia looked up at the sturdy stone house that was the only home she had ever known. Wisteria vines twined up the doorway, covering a tablet embedded above the archway. With a stick, she pushed back the vines and read PAUSE AND REFLECT UPON YOUR LAST HOUR—YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT. 1610. This house had been in the Carranza family for almost three centuries.
As the eldest child of the eldest child, the etcheonda would pass to Elixabete when her father passed away. In the interim, Elixabete had arranged for their cousin Bernardo and his family to occupy the house. There was no question that the house, which had a personality of its own, would stay in the Carranza family.
Tears gathered in Pia’s eyes as she walked down the hill toward Guernica. As she passed the house that was the closest to hers, she felt some resentment. It was the Segura etcheonda, and because of Lander Segura she was being forced to leave her homeland. Because of Lander Segura she had not seen her father for thirteen years.
Mr. Segura had been their first neighbor before he left Guernica, becoming one of the first Basques in Nevada to build a large flock of sheep. Thirteen years ago, he had sent for the oldest three of his five sons to come herd sheep, and he had asked Sabin Carranza to come as well. Her father had agreed, telling his family he would be back in no more than five years. But then four years later, Lander had sent for his wife and his two younger sons. Nevada was getting too many sheep, and Idaho was the new promised land. Lander needed the rest of the Carranza family to help with the sheep, and now to run a boardinghouse.
Sabin Carranza was still in America, and Pia didn’t like it. She didn’t like it at all.
She walked down to Guernica, studying every little detail, noticing things that had always been there. The strings of red peppers, dried beans, garlic, and maize that hung from the red and green balconies of the houses were swaying in the wind. The colors of the houses, ocher and lemon and pink and yellow and red, made Pia think of fruit in a basket. Would Boise have anything that could compare to this? Would this boardinghouse her father now half-owned be a place that brought joy and happiness to its residents, or would it be filled with transient people who had no story, no history?
She continued down the street, hoping to fix forever the images and memory of this place; its sights and sounds and aromas.
There was the fruit shop where Mr. Borotra and old Mrs. Uribe were haggling over the price of a basket of plums, the plums washed and shining purple.
In the window of the wine shop, acrid goatskins and bota bags were waiting to be filled with Spanish wines from the great casks.
In front of a drinking shop, two older men were sitting at a small, square table exchanging in loud voices tales of the places they had been, and the sights they had seen in their long lives.
Just beyond the shop windows displaying colorful berets, scarves, and yellow oilskins, several young boys were playing pelota. She watched as they bounced the ball off the brick wall, shouting enthusiastically of their accomplishments and groaning in their defeats.
Though it had not been her intended destination when she left the house, or perhaps it had been, she found herself standing in front of the Tree of Guernica. As she had tried to impress upon her students such a short while ago, this tree was the most revered symbol in all of Bizkaia. The blood coursing through her veins had compelled her to return to this very spot, where Basques had stood since before the time of Christ.
Quietly, Pia began to sing:
“Sing it in English.”
Pia had been so lost in her thoughts that she had not heard Father Ignacio come up behind her.
“Yes, you can. I’ve heard you sing it with the children.”
Father Ignacio began the national song and Pia joined him.
The tree of Guernica is blessed
Among the Basques; absolutely loved.
Give and deliver the fruit unto the world.
We adore you holy tree.
“See the meaning is the same if you sing it in Euskera or in English. And you, my child, are the same if you are in Bizkaia or Boise. You will always be an euskaldun, no matter where you go.”
“Oh, Father, is it a sin not to want to honor your father’s wishes?”
Father Ignacio laughed. “Well, it makes a difference which Father you mean. If it is God the Father, then, yes, you should honor his wishes, but if it is Sabin Carranza, well—that’s different. But I think it is God the Father’s wish that you go to Idaho.”
Pia’s brow furrowed as she looked toward the priest.
“I mean it. I have never had anyone learn English the way you have. Don’t you think that could be a gift from God? Why did He give you such a gift if He didn’t mean for you to use it?”
Pia smiled. “I learned English because I had an outstanding teacher.”
Father Ignacio nodded his head. “Would it be prideful if I agreed with you?”
Both laughed, and Pia’s melancholy began to lessen.
He took Pia’s hand and led her to the iron fence that surrounded the Tree of Guernica.
“You will not leave your home, because for the Basque, home is the family. As long as you are with your family, you will never actually leave home. Right now, your family has been your mother and sister, but soon you will be reacquainted with your father. And, when you get married, your home will be even bigger as you will love and cherish your husband, and the children you will have. No, Pia, do not be sad. The best is still ahead of you.”
“I will miss you, Father, and I will miss this place.”
“Of course you will, but you are going to take it with you here,” he said, pointing to his head, “and here.” He put his hand over his heart. “But now I have a special gift for you. Hold out your hand.”
Pia did as he directed, and from his closed hand over hers, she felt something. When he took his hand away, she saw an acorn.
“The Tree of Guernica. Keep this with you, and you will always have a part of the place where you were born. And should you find you cannot come back, plant this acorn and nourish it until it grows into a tree itself. The Tree of Guernica is an idea, my dear, a belief in the rule of law and in freedom, and what better place to experience that than in the United States?”
Father Ignacio insisted upon taking the Carranzas to Bilbao, where they would board an ore ship bound for Liverpool. He pulled up in front of the house in a two-wheeled cart pulled by a team of cream-colored oxen. When she saw the cart, Pia lowered her head. She had thought they would take the steam tram the twenty miles to the city, but perhaps the slow, laborious trip in the cart would be best.
As the sign read: PAUSE AND REFLECT UPON YOUR LAST HOUR—YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT.
Pia had always thought that statement chiseled in stone above the door referred to the end of life, but perhaps it could mean her last hour in the house as well.
“Come in, Father. Ama and Elixabete are going through the house one last time, making certain they have not overlooked a single dust mote. They wouldn’t want Augustina and Bernardo to think they were poor housekeepers. May I offer you the last of the goat’s milk and a crust of bread?”
“I would like that.”
The priest took a seat at a large table covered with a red-squared oilcloth. This kitchen, as in most Basque households, was the center of family life. The blue-and-white-tiled walls, the buffet filled with the plates and pewter, a huge fireplace with a stone oven in the chimney, the wooden floors now ashen from years of scrubbing—everything was shining with cleanliness, even the crucifix that hung above the mantel. Pia fixed all of this in her mind, as Father Ignacio patted her hand gently.
“Oh, Father, I didn’t hear the bells on the oxen,” Zuriñe said as she came into the kitchen. “I would have been ready. Do you know it’s been thirteen years since I last saw my husband? Do you think he will remember me?”
The priest smiled beneficently. “Of course he will. Have you ever known a Basque man to forget his wife? In the eyes of God and in the eyes of a Basque, you are married until death do you part.”
“I know. It’s just that I pray for Sabin every night. I should not doubt that he is safe and well.”
As Pia listened to the conversation, she put herself in the place of her mother. Why hadn’t she realized that her mother was experiencing as much angst as Pia was, but for a completely different reason? Pia hated to leave. Zuriñe couldn’t wait to get there.
Pia decided in that moment, for the sake of her mother, she would embrace this new adventure with gusto.
When Father Ignacio stepped to the holy-water stoup that hung by the door, he took the fresh sprig of boxwood and dipped it in the water. One by one he blessed Pia’s mother, Elixabete, and Pia and prayed for safe passage.
And then he blessed the house.
“Heavenly Father, bless this house that has stood the test of time and keep it ever in the hearts and minds of those who have lived here, so that wherever they may be, this house and this place shall forever be with them, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
As Pia crossed herself and uttered the amen, a calm that passeth all understanding came over her. She could leave now, secure in the belief that a part of her would always be here . . . and a part of here would always be with her.
“Here’s Manly, all saddled up for you, Doc,” Julen Alonzo said, leading the bay Arabian from the back of the Boise Stables.
“Thanks, Julen. Are you still saving all your money?”
“Bai. I’m going to go back home and buy my own piece of land someday.”
“You are a good man and a hard worker. I’m sure you’ll do whatever you set out to do.”
“Will you be back this afternoon?”
“I don’t think so. I may not come back,” Bart said, swinging into the saddle.
“Oh, no, Dr. Wilson. You have to come back. You’re the only friend the Basques have in this town.”
“Julen, you know that’s not true. But just so someone knows, I’m going up to Silver City to visit my grandpa. I’ll be back by the end of the week.”
Bart smiled as he kicked Manly and started toward the Boise River. How had it happened that he had become the go-between for the entire Basque community? Maybe it was because he didn’t look at a sheepherder as some second-class citizen, and they didn’t look at him as a derelict, the way his father did.
Silver City was close to seventy miles from Boise, and until one got to Murphy, a little settlement just across the Snake River, there were no towns of any sort. Bart considered stopping at a sheep outfit’s home ranch, but he decided he would prefer being alone. Just after he crossed the Snake, he found a spot that was grassy and free of rocks. Removing Manly’s saddle, he ground-tethered his horse to a greasewood bush. Gathering up some sagebrush branches, he soon had a fire going, but he didn’t know why he needed one. Retrieving a bottle of bourbon from his saddlebag, he sat down leaning against his saddle.
“Here’s to the great Dr. Wilson.”
Bart took a long drink, enjoying the burn of the straight whiskey in his throat. The altercation between him and his father was not unusual. This time it was over money, but it could well have been that he didn’t stitch up a wound with small enough stitches, or that he was using too many supplies. But the thing he hated most was when his father said he played too many games with the Basques, or that he gambled too much, or that he saw too many women, or that he drank too much.
Sometimes Bart wondered why he was a doctor—or at least, why he was a doctor in Boise, Idaho.
When he’d graduated from Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, Bart had wanted to go to Chicago to work alongside Jane Addams and Ellen Starr at Hull House. This was a settlement house modeled after those in England, whose purpose was to have a mingling of social classes, especially among recent immigrants. He embraced the words of Samuel Barnett, the founder of Toynbee Hall, who had said, “to learn as much as to teach; to receive as much as to give.”
Frank Wilson didn’t understand how much the “dirty Bascos” or the “Celestials” had to teach. In the beginning, Bart had tried to tell him, but it soon became apparent that his father would never get beyond the idiosyncratic ways of either culture.
Bart enjoyed having the Basques and the Chinese not only as his patients, but as his friends. But he also realized that his friendship and charity wasn’t all for altruistic reasons. If he was being truthful with himself, he knew his friendships were a way to aggravate his father.
That, and drinking and carousing with women.
He took another swallow from his bottle and settled back on the ground, his head resting on his saddle as he watched the sun set over the mountains.
Bart reached Silver City just before noon the next day. He had no idea why his grandfather Eli Wilson still lived here. At one time War Eagle Mountain had been the site of some of the richest gold and silver mines in the country, but when the Bank of California shut off credit in ’75, the money had dried up and everyone thought the big bonanzas were over.
Eli had left his wife and son right after the War Between the States. Lottie was a Southerner whose family had fought for the South, and Eli was a Northerner who had fought for the North. She had never forgiven him. And he had never divorced her.
Eli joined his brother, Ike, who had a placer operation on Jordan Creek. When Ike died from an infected foot that developed gangrene, Eli inherited the claim. He worked the claim until it played out, and he was planning to return to southeast Missouri to make amends with his wife and son. But before he could leave, the ores on Florida Mountain were discovered. From that strike Eli Wilson had become a rich man.
Bart rode down Washington Street until he got to Avalanche, where he turned to go to his grandfather’s house, a little cabin that looked no different from any of the other modest homes of the dying town.
When he reached the house, his grandfather was out front, working up a patch of ground behind a wooden fence. Tall, with white hair, Eli was neither clean shaven nor bearded. He wore a perpetual white stubble that he shaved about once a week. At the moment his hair was shaggy, and he was wearing denim trousers and a faded shirt.
Bart smiled when he saw him. If Eli had been walking the streets of Boise in such attire, passersby would have been so moved to pity that they might have offered to buy him a meal.
There was absolutely nothing dapper about him, and this distinct difference between Bart’s father and his grandfather had made Bart’s grandfather a hero of his.
Bart dismounted, tying Manly’s reins to the fence.
“Comin’ to borrow money, visit, or did ya run away from your pa again?” Eli asked as he continued to turn over the dirt.
“Do you have another fork?”
When Bart went to get the fork, he saw a gray-haired woman hanging clothes on the line. “There’s my favorite woman!”
“Bart!” the woman replied, dropping a handful of clothespins. “Your granddaddy’s goin’ to be so happy to see you!”
“What about you, Aunt Suzie? I haven’t had a good bite to eat since I left Boise and I’m sure enough hungry.”
“Well, I can fix that in a heartbeat.” Suzie embraced Bart. “I took some fresh bread out of the oven not thirty minutes ago. How would some butter and honey meltin’ down into some hot bread sound?”
“That’s why I rode all this way.”
“You get on out of here while I finish hangin’ up my basket, and I’ll take care of you. Eli’s around here somewhere.”
“I saw him. Where’s the extra fork?”
“In the lean-to.”
“I’ll never understand that woman. She wants a turnip bed,” Eli said when Bart returned with the fork and climbed over the fence to join his grandfather.
Neither man said anything for a while as they worked.
“You didn’t say. Is it money or Frank?”
“I’ve got plenty of money.”
“He can be an ornery cuss when he wants to be,” Eli said, shaking his head. “He gets that from his mother, you know. She’s the one that raised him, not me.”
The two men didn’t say another word for the next half hour as they continued to turn the dirt. Bart knew that his grandfather was like that, and he was comfortable with it. Finally the little square was all turned.
“If you two are ready to eat, it’s on the table,” Suzie said, stepping out on the little front porch.
“I’m ready,” Bart said.
He couldn’t help but compare this cabin, which was one good-size open room that served as the kitchen, dining room, and living room all in one, with the big house in which his parents lived. There was a small annex where Eli and Suzie slept, and a loft that was reached by a stepladder, and that was it. There was no bathroom and no running water, but they did have electricity.
When they were seated, Aunt Suzie brought out the bread and honey. She’d also fried up a piece of ham and had some black-eyed peas.
“You know Aunt Suzie’s a Southerner, too,” Eli said.
“I know,” Bart said.
Suzie Yarborough wasn’t really Bart’s aunt, though he had called her that for as long as he could remember. Suzie was the woman Eli had lived with for over twenty years. They were never married because Eli was still married to Bart’s grandmother, who lived on a cotton plantation in New Madrid, Missouri.
“Have you heard anything from Missouri?” Eli asked as he carved into a piece of ham.
“Her brother died a while back, but she seems to be doing all right, now.”
“Does that mean Lottie’s running Trailback all by herself?”
“She’s got some good people working for her, but, yes, she’s running the plantation all by herself.”
“It’s a shame she’s such a stubborn woman. She could be out here enjoying her son and you and your sister, but, no, because I fought for the Union, she’ll never do it.”
“I know she’s grateful you pay the taxes on Trailback,” Bart said.
“What did you and her son get into it about this time?”
“I don’t think he likes the way I do business. He thinks I do too many charity cases.”
“I may have made a mistake with your pa. When I hit it big, I thought I could make it up to him by givin’ him a good education and anything else he ever wanted. But he’s not got what his uppity friends call empathy. Now, you, Bart, you’re a good man and I’m proud of you.”
“Thank you. I appreciate that coming from you, sir.”
“Don’t give up on your pa. He and I have butted heads for many years. That’s probably the biggest disappointment of my life,” Eli said.
Suzie took Eli’s hand in hers and began stroking it, which indicated to Bart that the two often discussed this subject.
“I don’t want to see that same thing happen with you and your father, do you hear?”
“I hear what you’re saying, Grandpa. Just coming out here and being with you has helped.”
“How much money do you think your charity work costs the practice?”
“Really, not that much. Most of them pay something over time. It could be a chicken or a lamb or a gallon of milk or something like that.”
“Do you ever get any turnips?” Eli asked.
“I don’t think so, but I suppose I could ask for them,” Bart said as he smiled at Suzie.
Eli reached into his pocket and drew out a money clip. He began counting out the bills in his pocket, and it was close to five hundred dollars. He slid all the cash over to Bart.
“Here, put this money in the kitty when you treat someone who can’t pay. That ought to take care of Frank, don’t you think?”
“Grandpa, you don’t have to do this. I have money.”
“I know you do, but what good is it going to do an old man like me? Look around you. Suzie and I are as happy as anybody in this whole country, and the only thing she needs to make her happy is a turnip patch. Now take the money and put it to a good use.”
“Yes, sir.” Bart picked up the money and put it in his pocket. He wanted to tell his grandfather how dangerous it was to carry around that much cash, but he held his tongue. Eli Wilson didn’t need a lecture from Bart about how to conduct his business.
Posted August 7, 2013