by Norman A. Rubin
“It is difficult but not impossible to conduct strictly honest business. What is true that honesty is incompatible in amassing a large fortune.” — Mohandas K. Gandhi
The pages of history of the Wild West are filled with stories of the one-sided battle with the native peoples and the opening of the land to settlers and business entrepreneurs. Off course the Indians eventually lost out as the white settlers took over the western lands with gifts of beads and false promises.
There were many an honest folk amongst the new comers to the land and justice prevailed, except to the natives of the land. Their shops supplied the needs of settlers for a honest dollar; the good preachers brought the Word; smithies worked in the heat of their furnaces to see the shoeing of animals; doctors tended the sick and wounded, and when his cures were to no avail a friendly undertaker was there at the end of the road.
But beneath that gentile layer of honest folk striving to better themselves and the good land, there existed the sniveling worms of men and women who lived off the dishonest dollar. It came in the guise of the gambler with the card up his sleeve; the lady of the night who doped and robbed; the carpetbagger that was looking for political and lucrative opportunities.
And, off course, among the trashy folk was the commercial traveler who sold snake oil together with tracts of the Good Book. His medicament concocted of creek water and the taste of bitter herbs guaranteed to correct all that ails man or woman. The tracts told of the prophets and saints; many a deceived, delicate creature along the way was taught the lesson of fallen women — for only a ten cents a copy. And there were other bits of slim papered literature that was secretly offered by those hucksters; off-color booklets that titillated with stories about naughty women in various situations and illustrated poses — for only two bits.
Set back and listen to my story that tells about one such woebegone creature and his innocent assistant...
* * *
Jeb Stuart watched tearfully as the body of his father was lowered into the harsh earth; the same earth that had sapped the strength of the good paterfamilias to the end of days. Jeb stood tall next to his grieving mother as the preacher read the prayers for the departed. The wretched lad held his mother firmly by her arm and watched in bitterness and with hurt heart as kin and near neighbors shoveled the earth on top of the pinewood coffin.
Jeb Stuart was seen in the eyes of the mourners as a tall lanky youngster nearing his sixteenth year. He was freckled in the fullness of his youthful face with clear blue eyes shining under tousled, sand-brown hair. Jeb was known in the past years as a hard-working hand to his father as they labored together on their land. What book learning he had was credited to his mother, and he did her proud when he read the biblical chapter at the Sunday-go-to-meetings.
After the service of burial he accompanied his mother back along the sandy trail to their sod dwelling; he encircled the lamenting woman in his muscled arms to protect her in the moment of grief. With soft words he comforted her and his words gave her the needed strength to carry herself along the dreary way.
Quiet reigned in the crude hut as they entered with only the sound of the heavy tread of their feet. Soft sobbing could be heard from the woman as she set herself on a hard cane chair along a planked table. Her right arm was bent with the elbow on the wood and her left hand clenched in a fist that was pressed on a reddened cheek. Her son was behind equally quiet but his presence nearby was a comfort to her.
Within the dimness of the simple home their kin and concerned neighbors came and offered their sympathy for her loss. All were in the clothes of the men and women of the soil with the harshness of their toil etched on their faces. A sympathetic word or two from each in turn was expressed to the widow. Then, after a few minutes, they left the crudely furnished interior. Each in turn left the sod hut to face another hard day in exhausting labor on a few miserable acres of their own farms.
The only other person that remained in the aura of lament was a person known as Uncle Ebenezer, the brother of the late departed. Ebenezer Stuart was more like a scarecrow with a stunted form scrawny in appearance; his stick-like appendages were thin and bony, with crooked fingers tapering to a point. His facial features were Scrooge-like, being equally bony on a thin oval face with a beaked, veined nose, dark eyes between bushy brows and pursed lips. His hair was receding to baldness with strings of dyed black hair along his head; it was partially hidden under a shapeless beaver fur hat, rarely removed.
His bitter disposition was a crabby as his appearance, “Tol’ him once and twice more ’t ain’t no use farming this miserable land. No, he went right ahead. Look what it left him: nothing. Nothing to show for it!” he grumbled when he entered the sod hut. Then he folded his hands behind the dark of traveling coat and paced about the small confines of the small room grumbling and mumbling. “No, he had to be a dirt farmer!” he spoke in the curse of his tongue.
“Ebenezer, Please have a bit of mercy!”
“No Mamie! Got to speak my piece,” he muttered and stopped in his pacing. With a bony finger pointed at her he condemned, “You were once a lovely gal, quite a pretty filly. Now look at you. A shapeless body in your worn rags. The misery of yer life be written on the creases on yer face and on the white of yer hair. Thet’s all me brother gave you. That’s all, except being thet fine son of yers.”
Ebenezer Stuart continued in the roughness of his speech. He lambasted his late, dear, departed brother as being a fool for attempting to farm this government land grant, “Should’ve left the miserable land to the redskins and not given to white folks. My brother was sure brainless and downright mad in thinking he could make an honest living from it.”
The youth, Jeb by name, attempted to avenge the harsh words about his father. He clenched his hard fists and made a move towards his uncle but his mother calmed him.
“Jeb; Ebenezer, please! We just laid my poor man in the ground. Let there be time for a bit of mourning. Please, for heaven’s sake.”
Tempers cooled followed by a tense silence; the only sound heard was soft sobbing of the woman’s lament. All were staring at one another; their tongues tied in the deepness of thought.
“Mamie, you’ve got to come to a decision fer yer future. Ain’t no use staying on these miserable few acres.”
“You’re be right in yer words Ebenezer. I’ve had a moment of thinkin’ settin’ h’yar.”
“The time might not be fitten’ with yer man lying fresh in the ground,” grumbled Ebenezer, “but it has to be done!”
“Agin’ ye speak wit’ a bit of sense. I should stop the sobbing fer a time and for us to spell words about me and me boy Jeb!”
Then the two elders voiced sensible thoughts and words. Decisions were reached. Ebenezer agreed to stay and settle all accounts, namely that the grant of land would be returned to the government. He would see to the sale of all equipment and livestock. Ebenezer also agreed grudgingly that all monies earned would be given to the woman with a small stake for her son.
Mother Mamie agreed to pack all her personal possessions and move back East and take up residence with her elder sister and her family. An offer was generously given when the news of sickness and death reached distant kin. “Plenty of room in our house. No need to worry!” was the written words in a letter that assured the grieving widow.
Her son Jeb would be taken into the capable hands of Ebenezer and taught the trade of commercialism, in which the good man was engaged. The mother was assured that her son would be well cared for in this engaging work. Also, Ebenezer would see to Jeb’s attention to writing letters to his mother.
After all that was agreed and settled, Ebenezeer unharnessed his mule from his covered wagon and stabled it. Then the brother waited for the proper time at the end of mourning before he committed himself to action in closing that bitter chapter.
Jeb Stuart in the meantime busied himself in the small vegetable patch, uprooting all the potatoes, turnips and onions that were seen to be ripe and fit to eat. The crop was meager, but adequate for a few meals on the trail ahead when he made his way with his Uncle Ebenezer. He rubbed the hard soil from the root vegetables carefully and packed them in a coarse sack.
The rest of the ripening vegetables, mainly wormy cabbage and shriveled tomatoes, were harvested to provide an addition to the few meals in their togetherness as family around the rough pinewood table. The family’s cow was milked for a few more times till she was led away by a near neighbor upon her purchase. Eggs were collected from the remaining hens and given to Mamie to be hard-boiled for her trip on the coming train. Then one by one he sacrificed the remaining poultry; some for meat for the last meals and others smoked for the trips of both his mother and uncle.
Only a grunting pig was left till the arrival of the butcher, a knowledgeable neighbor who knew of skinning, dressing the meat, how to trim the cuts and to the salting and smoking; the payment of trotters, tripe and a bit of fatback covered the cost.
Time was on Jeb’s hands after the simple chores. Curiosity got the better of Jeb and he decided to have a look-see into the interior of the covered wagon. With a torn piece of cloth dipped in a pail of water he managed to clean his hands somewhat. Then he went to the rear, grabbed the wooden tailgate and with a hefty jump boosted himself inside. It took him a moment or two to focus his eyes in the shadowy interior; within his clear sight he was able to discern camping equipment, a sack of provisions, along with wooden boxes and wrapped packages of various shapes and sizes.
A wooden case packed with filled bottles was the first to catch his attention. He removed one of the bottles and looked at its printed label, “Choctaw Snakeroot Healing Medicine”; it was followed by words attaining to the medicinal value of the contents that depicted a cure-all application to all ailments of man and of woman. The bottom of the label was signed, “Dr. Ebenezer Stuart, MDA, LLD.”
Then Jeb uncorked the bottle and took a deep sniff of the so-called remedial liquid, which caused him to gag and cough. “Lordy, thet stuff is real horrible,” he exclaimed to himself. He quickly replaced the cork and put the flask back into the box.
The wrapped packages then took the interest of Jeb but he dared not tear them open. He just gazed at the written words on the thick wrapping paper, which indicated that the contents within were biblical tracts from the Church of the Brethren of the Lord. A rather large package had a blessed wording, “Bibles to be given to the heathen savages for their salvation.”
Suddenly his eyes spotted a large tear in one of the wrapped packages with the sight of some of the contents. Jeb bent down and saw that the items were small literary booklets loosely packed. The boy with ease remove one and searched the title: “Naughty Times in a Parisian House of Ill-Repute.” But the language within was high and mighty and the illustrations sketchy and not interesting.
Another booklet was removed with the title in broad letters reading, “The Swell’s Night Guide,” which got his curiosity. He opened the small book to a page, which had a quotation on the top of the leaf, “I laid her flat, and tickled her feminine gender.” Jeb’s face reddened to the phrase, but the ringing of the anvil for mid meal salvaged his righteous soul. It forced him to return the booklet and hurry to the boards.
* * *
Jeb Stuart sat on the hard wooden seat of the buckboard with his hands on the leather harness straps that continually urged the cantankerous mule to go in a quicker pace. “Giddyap you lop-eared critter. Get a’moving!” Then with a curse he exclaimed, “Damn and tarnation, should of taken dad’s mule ’stead of selling hit. She be darn right easy to git along with.”
“Now, now, me boy, be gentle with Lady, she be a gentle animal in her cussed way,” uttered Ebenezer Stuart who shared the hard board. “Yes, my boy, we must be kind to the Good Lord’s dumb creature,” and he quoted a biblical verse from the Psalms.
Then with the spread of his open hands, Ebenezer gathered the vista of countryside within his sight. He told his nephew of that wonderful land which they were embarking, one of opportunity. He told of how it had been the gracious gift of the Lord, without a hint to the Indians. He told the youth to look about and see the wide open spaces waiting for the hand of man to fill it with their seed and their endeavors. But Jeb was too busy to listen; as the mule was no lady, she balked and kicked up her hooves at every opportunity that was seen in the dimness of the creature’s way.
A wooden framed farmhouse surrounded by straggly stems of corn stalks was sighted from a near distance. “Jeb, my boy, this looks like a promising place to transact a bit of trading. Jes’ look on and learn.”
Jeb urged the mule to side with the splintery porch, which was done with a kick and a neigh. His Uncle Ebenezer reached behind the seat and within a few moments he had three biblical tracts and a Good Book in his spindly hand. Then the miserly creature lifted himself from his seat and carefully alighted from the wagon. With soft treads he made his way on the creaky porch planks to the front door of the dwelling.
Without a word the youth followed his lead and jumped from the wagon and walked behind his uncle. He watched from a near distance as Ebenezer knocked slightly on the thin door. With a curious ear Jeb heard his uncle’s oily words to a slatternly woman who opened cautiously to the light tapping.
Jeb watched as his uncle went into his shtick and spiel. Ebenezer tipped his beaver ever so slightly as he introduced himself as a representative of the Church of the Brethren of the Lord. Then with a compliment or two with a bit of flattery to the woman he told of his mission to bring the Word to all the folks throughout the wonderful land. Ebenezer didn’t allow a word from the woman as he offered the enlightening words of the biblical tracts for only ten cents a copy and the Book, which was supposed to be a gift to the heathen, for only one dollar.
The confused farm woman stuttered in an attempt to speak, but Ebenezer continued in his holy rote without a pause, adding more flattery and the importance of his mission. The flustered creature blushed at the phrases, especially at his words of flattery. Then without a word she re-entered the confines of her dwelling, reappearing with a thin coin in her hand.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2005 by Norman A. Rubin