Hoggeeby Anna Myers
Howard Gardner is starving to death. All spring and summer, Howard and his older, more charming brother Jack worked as hoggees, driving the mules that pulled boats along the Erie Canal. In a misguided attempt to outshine his brother, Howard chooses to stay behind in Birchport for the winter to save his traveling money and send it home to his family. After his… See more details below
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Howard Gardner is starving to death. All spring and summer, Howard and his older, more charming brother Jack worked as hoggees, driving the mules that pulled boats along the Erie Canal. In a misguided attempt to outshine his brother, Howard chooses to stay behind in Birchport for the winter to save his traveling money and send it home to his family. After his winter job falls through, Howard fears that he might not survive the winter.
As desperate as Howard is, he is haunted by the sadness he sees in the eyes of Sarah, the granddaughter of the man who keeps the mules. Even though she's older than her two sisters, she never speaks, and she seems completely disconnected from the world. Sarah's family won't discuss her problem with outsiders, but Howard longs to help her in any way he can, and his quest to do so eventually reveals to him how he truly compares to his brother.
Once again, Anna Myers has crafted a moving, nuanced coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of an intriguing historical era.
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By ANNA MYERS
WALKER & COMPANYCopyright © 2004 Anna Myers
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE WINTER MAY KILL ME
The boy sat on the barn floor looking at the words he had carved with his knife on the flat board. The thought had come to him this morning. He had passed the stacks of small boards many times before, but this morning he was taken with the compelling idea of writing his story, of telling the facts of his life. Writing on paper would be easier, but he had no paper. He had no pen. He had no ink. He had only a sudden and demanding need to tell.
A moment had come, when first he settled himself at the task of carving, that he wavered. Who would want to know about a dunderhead such as himself? But, no, the record, he decided, was not so that someone would know. It was because of the need to tell. He traced the words with his finger and bit at his lip. Having written enough for now, he rose to put the board carefully into his haversack.
The movement made the mule, Molly, turn her head to stare at the boy with big dark eyes. "I'm a sorry sight, old girl," he said to her. He touched the cheekbone that stuck from his face and glanced down at the britches, hanging loosely on his body. "It would make my mother cry to see me so thin."
He patted the mule's side and leaned his head against her. "Thank you for sharing your stall with me," he said. He had always loved the mules, but his affection was even stronger now. It was, he knew, the heat that came from Molly's body and from the other mules in the barn that saved him from freezing during the bitter winter nights.
He burrowed back into the pile of straw. His one dirty blanket wrapped tightly around him, he listened to the breathing of the mules and worried. It would likely be starvation that got him. Would it be spring before anyone found him? No, old Cyrus, who came to tend the mules, would eventually notice the smell of his rotting flesh.
He did not know if Captain Travis, who owned the barn and who employed him during the warmer months on the towpath, would have him buried. Captain Gordon Travis was not a man who wasted money. If indeed there was a grave, there would certainly be no marker, not even a crude wooden one. The boy was glad. Any marker would be bound to bear the name hoggee with no capital letter. Neither Cyrus nor Captain Travis would know his name, Howard Gardner. To them he was only one of many hoggees, boys paid to drive the mules that pulled the boats up and down the great Erie Canal.
He had hoped to be a worker at O'Grady's Inn for the winter. "It's a dang fool notion," Jack had said, "working for Michael O'Grady, him as mean as a weasel, and you knowing nothing of working in a kitchen. You won't last until Christmas. Then what's to become of you? Come home with me."
It was hard to go against his older brother, but Howard had been determined. On the day he had first talked to O'Grady, things had gone well. He had seen a crudely lettered sign on the inn door and had stopped to stare at the sign. "Kithon Boe Neded," it said. It was their last day before leaving Birchport to go home for the winter. He had been walking past the inn on his way back to the barn.
Maybe he should ask about the job. If he got work for the winter, he thought, he could send all of his hoggee money home, more than Jack would have left to take with him after paying for transportation. Just once, he would be doing something Jack could not do. He walked into the inn.
Three customers sat at a small table eating, and a plump, pleasant-looking woman in an apron stood near the counter. "Excuse me, madam," Howard said to her, and he took off the wool cap he wore. "I've come to ask about the job, the kitchen boy."
The woman looked at him closely. "You know how to work, do you, boy?"
He nodded his head. "I'm a hard worker."
She made a clucking sound with her tongue. "You a hoggee, then?"
For a minute Howard considered lying. Many people looked down on hoggees, the lowliest job on the canal. Often Howard had heard the taunt, "Hoggee on the towpath, / Five cents a day, / Picking up horseballs, / To eat along the way."
But Howard was not a liar. "Yes, madam," he said. "I am a hoggee when there's canal work, but I need something for the winter."
The woman smiled at him. "I expect you'll do, boy," she said, "but it's my husband, Mister O'Grady, thinks as he ought to have the say about things around here." She motioned to a table near the counter. "Set yourself down there," she said, "and wait. He'll be along in a wink."
Howard was surprised when the woman brought him a big mug of tea and a slice of freshly baked bread with butter. "Food goes with the job," she said. "Might as well get started." She'll be a good one to work for, he thought. He had just swallowed the last bite of bread when a burly man with a dark beard came in from the back.
Howard jumped to his feet. "He's come about the job, O'Grady," Mistress O'Grady said as she cleared plates from the customers' table. "Seems a likely lad."
O'Grady made a grunting sound and shot Howard one quick glance. "What's your name?" he asked.
"Howard, sir, Howard Gardner."
"Well, Howard," said the man, "the pay's eight dollars a month, but you can eat what's left over in the kitchen and sleep in the back room."
"Very good," said Howard. It was more than he made on the canal. "Do I have the job, then, sir?"
O'Grady nodded his heavy head. "Show up here day after tomorrow morning at seven sharp," he said, and turned to his wife. "Has the butcher's boy been here?" he shouted.
"He has not," said Mrs. O'Grady, and the man stomped away, back into the kitchen.
The woman shook her head and looked at Howard. "He's moody, that one is," she said. "You'll need to learn when it is you need to ignore him and when it is you need to jump out of his way. I'll give you signals when I can." She smiled. "It's me that does most of the cooking, though, so it's me you will be a helper to mostly. O'Grady is fond of staying out front to take the money."
Howard, knowing he could send all his money home with Jack, felt tall and capable. Now he could send his mother extra money, too, something Jack couldn't do. "Thank you, madam. Hoggees are used to being yelled at." With a promise of returning on time, he put on his cap and went out the door. Outside, he put out his hand to pull down the sign with the misspelled word. Something stopped him. Mistress O'Grady had said her husband liked to tend to things about the inn himself, so he decided to leave the sign.
Two days later when he came back and knocked at the back door, it was opened by a boy, one taller and stronger than Howard, with a familiar face that gave Howard a feeling of dread. Howard backed off the stoop. Before him was Mac O'Hern. Mac stepped out onto the back stoop, closed the door, and leaned against the doorpost.
"You're not wanted here, Gardner," he said, his lips twisted into a sneer.
"I am," said Howard. Determined to fight if he had to, he stepped back onto the stoop. "I want to see Mister O'Grady."
Mac laughed. "You've seen me, that's seeing enough. You've not got yourself a big brother to fight for you this time."
Just then the door opened wide and Mister O'Grady stood in the doorway. "See to the boiling water, Mac," he muttered.
Howard, relieved, moved back onto the stoop, but before he could say anything, O'Grady yelled, "Away with you, you little beggar. I've no use for you. After I learned your last name, I hired me a decent lad with Irish blood." He waved his hand and almost struck Howard's face.
Howard opened his mouth to protest, but the man gave him no chance. "Don't bother to come out with a lie. Your da is a bloody Englishman, ain't he?" The man peered wildly into Howard's startled face.
"Sir," said Howard. "I told you my name. My father's people were English, but he was born in this country. Anyway, my father is not alive," said the boy. "He's been gone these two years now, and my mother, sir, she was born in Ireland."
"It's a lie," thundered O'Grady. "No Irish lass would marry an Englishman, and I've no wish to hear sad tales about your father's death. An Englishman is an Englishman, as vile in death as in life." He slammed the door.
Mac had stolen his job by telling O'Grady he was English. Howard stood on the doorstep. Suddenly the winter cold cut through his coat, and he began to shiver. Still staring at the closed door, he backed down the step and stopped just at the edge of the canal only a few paces from the inn door. He turned and looked at the water. It was quiet now. A few days earlier it had been alive with colorful boats. Shouts from workers on the line boats that carried freight had filled the air, along with music and the talk of passengers on the packet boats. Birchport had bustled then with travelers talking, arguing, or laughing as they journeyed.
The town seemed strange to him now, and cold, dreadfully cold. The canal was being drained. Soon it would be almost empty, leaving only enough water so that people could ice-skate. Howard had no ice skates, and he had no business being in Birchport, New York, when there was no water in the canal.
He would find other work. He had to. Jack had gone on the last boat down the icy canal, and even if there had been another boat, he had no money for fares.
For two days he walked about the village, stopping at the taverns, the other inn, the blacksmith shop. One owner after another shook his head. No one in Birchport needed extra help during the winter. Finally at a dry goods and grocery store, he had some hope.
"Our son has up and gone down to the city to work," said the owner. "You can read, you say?"
"Yes, sir," Howard said, "and write a clear hand."
They were discussing wages when the storekeeper's wife came from behind the shelf containing bolts of cloth. Howard could feel her eyes on him. "He's scrawny, Otis," she said, wrinkling her nose. "We can do better. You know we can."
"But he can read and write. Cipher, too," said the man. He looked at Howard. "You can cipher, can't you, boy?"
"Even in my head," Howard said, leaning toward the man. "Twenty take away six is fourteen. Give me bigger numbers."
The storekeeper looked at his wife, and Howard held his breath, waiting.
She frowned. "Otis, we need a boy with a strong back. We'll find one that can lift and cipher." She went back to her bolts of cloth.
"I'm a stronger than I look," Howard said softly, but he knew there was no hope.
The storekeeper shook his head. "The missus don't rightly take to you, lad," he said. "Lots of canal boys wanting work right now. I'm sorry." Howard turned away quickly, afraid of the tears pushing at the back of his eyes. "Wait," the man called. He cut a piece of cheese from a block on the counter and held it out to the boy. "Here," he said, "take this."
Howard looked back at him, wanting to refuse, wanting to say the man should save the cheese for the strong boy he would hire. "Pay your own way, son," his father had often said. "In this old world, it's best for a man to pay his own way." His father, though, was dead, and the hunger that gnawed at his insides was alive. He reached back, took the cheese, and bolted from the store.
Old Cyrus knew he slept in the barn, had known from that first night when Howard had been turned away from O'Grady's. Cyrus was a crusty old man with gray hair and a long gray beard. He had steel gray eyes, too, and there was no softness in them. He did not like hoggees, but he did like the mules for which he cared. It was because of Molly that Mac O'Hern hated him, and it was because of Molly that Cyrus let him stay in the barn.
It had happened before Molly had become Howard's favorite mule, not long after Jack and he had come to work for Captain Travis. Mac had worked for the captain, too, but on a different boat. Mac and Howard happened to lead their mules at the same time into a rest barn. After six hours of duty, Mac was putting Molly away when Howard noticed three open wounds oozing blood on the animal's rump.
He came over for a closer look. "What happened?" he asked Mac.
"Ain't none of your business, as I can see." The boy turned the animal into a stall, fastened the latch, and started to move away.
Howard put his hand gently on the animal's flank, bent to examine the wound, then whirled to see Mac walking away. Howard reached out to pull at Mac's arm. "You whipped her, didn't you?"
"Told you once! It ain't no matter to you."
"It is a matter to me! You've no call to hit an animal that hard." Howard made his hands into fists, but it was too late.
"Maybe you'd rather I hit you then," yelled Mac. His fist collided with Howard's chin, and Howard fell back hard. For a few seconds everything was black. When he opened his eyes, Jack was there, come from the ship that was unloading passengers, and he and Mac were fighting.
Mac was even heavier than Jack and slightly taller. He knocked Jack onto the station floor and jumped on top of him. Howard scrambled to his feet to help his brother, but Jack had already rolled Mac over and was sitting on him.
Jack lifted Mac's head and slammed it hard into the barn's floor. "You want to apologize to my brother now and then dress the wounds on that mule?"
Mac did not answer. Instead he gouged at Jack's eyes. Jack fought him off, grabbed a handful of hair, pulled it hard, then lifted his head by the hair and pounded it twice into the floor. "Now," he said, "have you had a change of mind, my lad?"
Mac said nothing, and Jack lifted his head again. "All right, all right," the boy muttered. "I'm sorry. Now let me up."
Jack did not turn him loose. "Say, 'I'm sorry, Howard.' And say it like you mean it." He lifted Mac's head again.
"Wait," he said. "I'm sorry, Howard. I really am."
Jack got up then. "Now clean that wound," he said, pointing to the mule.
After watching Mac dress Molly's wound, Howard and Jack went back to their boat. When they stopped at the main barn on the return trip for fresh mules, old Cyrus had demanded to know what had caused the injury to the Molly's rump.
Howard, following his brother's lead, had claimed not to know. It was an unwritten law that no hoggee told on another. But they heard later that when Molly kicked Mac hard as he tried to put her in the barn stall, old Cyrus fired him. "When a mule don't like a hoggee," the old man said, "the hoggee has got to go." He scratched his head. "Hoggees just don't be as important as mules in this operation."
Somehow Cyrus had learned the story about Molly and Mac. "You be the one as fought that worthless hoggee over hitting Molly," Cyrus said when he found Howard asleep in the barn.
"I am," Howard answered Cyrus. Then he remembered to give credit where credit was due.
Excerpted from HOGGEE by ANNA MYERS Copyright © 2004 by Anna Myers. Excerpted by permission.
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