Early Alias-Fall 1861

 

Child's Play

by

Dawn Rice

      

            "Get out of here, Kid, you're too little."

 

            Jed Curry stuck out his chin, grumpily watching his elder brothers cut fence posts. Michael and Sean swung their axes almost in unison, the sharp metal edges slicing through the wood as if it were paper.  Small chips of wood flew around them, landing in three heads of blond curly hair.

 

            "Kid, if you get hurt, Ma'll give you such a lickin'."  Michael wiped sweat off his forehead. At fourteen he was nearly adult height and towered over his younger brother, "Go play."

 

            "C'mon, Jed, go find something to do,"  Sean urged more kindly, brushing sawdust out of his hair.  "See if there's any lemonade at the house, or something to eat, I'm starving."

 

            "I could swing an ax,"  Jed Curry muttered to himself, flicking his slingshot. He passed the corner of the barn, then stuck his head back around the edge, watching Michael. Scooping up a small rock from the ground, he slotted it into his sling, aimed and fired one at his brother's backside. It landed with a satisfying thud, but Jed ran like a rabbit up to the house without watching the results. He knew he'd hit what he was aiming at; he always did. He just didn't want to be too near Michael when the rock found its mark.

 

            The farmhouse kitchen was steamily hot, bustling with women making jelly. Huge vats of berries bubbled on the cast iron stove, and rows of glinting mason jars were lined up on the plank table, waiting to be filled.

 

            Slipping in between calico skirts, Jed snagged still warm slices of bread off a plate not the sideboard.

 

            "Kid, get out of here, we're really busy,"  Maura Curry shooed her youngest son, juggling a pot-full of jelly off the range.  "You could get burned if I spilled this."

 

            "Mike'l n' Sean are hungry,"  Kid spoke up, dodging one of his elder sisters carrying a sack of sugar.  "They want something t'eat."

 

            "Katherine will send something out soon." Maura began scooping hot, crimson jelly into jars. "Now, stay out of the way. You're too little to be in here."

 

            "Isabella gets to help."  He stuffed the bread into his mouth before it was confiscated, sidling past bustling skirts towards the door.

 

            "I'm twelve," Isabella sneered.  "I'm older than you."  She wrote out labels for the jars with schoolgirl penmanship.

 

            "I'll be nine next week,"  Jed grumbled.  He slid down the wall of the house outside the kitchen door, hugging his knees.  Nobody wanted him around.  He was never old enough, never big enough and never in the right place at the right time.  Well, someday he'd show them.  Someday he'd be somebody and everybody would know who he was. He pulled out the slingshot, idly plunking rocks at the kitchen yard pump.

 

            "Kid, you're too old to be sitting around throwing rocks,"  His father's deep voice boomed across the yard.  "Finish your chores.  Milk the cows."

 

            "I'll be nine next week," Kid vowed.  "I'm gonna show everybody."  He ducked into the darkening barn, grabbing up milking pails. Bessy, Daisy, Iris and Belle mooed insistently at him, their huge udders heavy with milk. He began rhythmically pulling on the teats, filling buckets with frothy white cream.

 

            Several barn cats arrived, meowing as they slunk around Jed's feet, their tails sliding softly against his arms. With an agile flick of the wrist, Kid directed streams of milk into each cat's mouth, never spilling a drop.  He filled two buckets from each cow, until the barn was too dark to see his hands.  Then he sat, gently rubbing a kitten's head, enjoying the solitude.

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

 

            "Don't you follow us to school,” Isabella warned her brother.  "We don't want little boys around.”

 

“I'm not little,"  Jed negated, straightening up to his full height, even standing up on his toes.

 

            "Go play with the little boys,"  Isabella warned, flouncing down the road towards the one roomed schoolhouse, surrounded by several girls.  Children were congregating from all over towards the school, little groups collecting as friends reunited and games formed.

 

            In the bare dirt behind the building, a handful of boys chased a ball, wrestling good-naturedly and shouting encouragement to their teammates.  Kid watched eagerly, hoping for an opening to play.  Michael, Sean and their cousin, Hannibal Heyes, were huddled together to formulate a strategy, and Jed ran over to join them.

 

            "Oh, Kid, get out of here!"  Michael snapped.  "You're too little to play."

 

            "But . . ."  He sighed as the boys surged past him, chasing the ball to the other goal-line.  "Caleb Hunter is playing and he's NINE."

 

            Hannibal Heyes dropped down next to Kid, nursing a bruised knee.  "Caleb Hunter is bigger'n me, Kid. You're too little."

 

            "It's not fair." Jed clenched his jaw, unwilling to let his cousin see tears. "Everyone is bigger'n me."

 

            "Yeah, you're short." Heyes grinned at him, "But you'll grow. Everybody does. Your brother Michael wasn't very big either."

 

            "An' he's huge now."  Kid grinned back.  He couldn't stay grumpy next to Heyes' infectious smile.  "Really way too big."

 

            "Enormous. I'd never want to be that big." Heyes shook his head.  "C'mon, Miss O'Reilly'll be ringing the bell soon anyway."  He hauled his cousin up by the hand and propelled him to the schoolhouse.  At eleven, Heyes had recently gained a few inches and could easily see over Kid's head.  Despite that, Caleb Hunter was still taller than both of them.  He preferred to stay away from Caleb Hunter.

 

            "D'jou have to do chores after school?" Kid asked over his shoulder as he joined the line of children streaming into the building.

 

            "Only a couple." Heyes nodded. "Come home with me. Ma's making cinnamon rolls."

 

            "Oh, yeah, It's Thursday," Jed agreed, before sliding into his seat.

 

            Classes proceeded as usual, with Miss O'Reilly keeping an uncertain hand on the unruly crowd.  The room was top heavy with older boys nearing the graduating age of sixteen.  Then, they'd be free and Katie O'Reilly wouldn't mind being rid of them, particularly the elder Curry brothers.  Now, the little one, the youngest, she quite liked.  He was polite, and actually paid some attention in class.  Some of the time.

 

            "Jed, can you answer the arithmetic problem on the black board?" Miss O'Reilly pointed.

 

            Caught day-dreaming, Kid jerked up in surprise.  He stared at the board uncertainly, then flicked a glance at Hannibal, one desk over. "Fourteen times nine?"  He voiced aloud.

 

            "First graders, eyes on your own problems," Miss O'Reilly instructed the three six year olds in the front row.  "This is third grade material."

 

            Heyes slid the deck of cards he'd been thumbing under his slate and wrote 126 on the front. He then knocked it accidentally to the floor.

 

            "Miss?" Isabella Curry held up an urgent hand, "Caleb Hunter is . . ."

 

            "No tattling, Isabella." Miss O'Reilly sighed. "Caleb, on the stool, NOW!"  She didn't have to be told what he was doing; it was always mischief and rarely schoolwork.

 

            Jed ducked his head to read the slate on the floor before Heyes' foot rubbed the numbers off.  Michael Curry watched over the edge of his history book, collecting more ammunition against his younger brother to use in the war between siblings.

 

            "Fifth graders, finish your division." Miss O'Reilly glanced over at Caleb, who had settled into his usual corner stool without a word of protest.  "Hannibal, pick your slate up off the floor. Jed, what, pray tell, is the answer?"

 

            "One twenty six," he supplied.

 

            "You took a long time to figure that one out,"  she admonished, "Practice your nine times tables all the way to twenty."

 

            "Yes, ma'am."  He slumped down into the seat.  He wasn't sure he remembered any of them.  He began writing.  Nine times one is nine.  Nine times two is eighteen. He smiled at that one.  To be two times nine.  He'd be out of school.  He'd find something that he could do that no one else could, and he'd be tall.  Nine times three is twenty-seven. Now, that seemed an eternity from now.  Twenty-seven. What would happen when he was that old?

 

            "Hannibal Heyes, hand over that deck."  Miss O'Reilly's voice broke through Kid's reverie.  "I told you I'd confiscate those cards the next time I saw them."

 

            Heyes looked up, brown eyes all innocence. "I was using them to practice my division," he protested.

 

            "And how do you do that?"

 

            "He gambles," Isabella spoke up, nudging her seat partner, Sinead, who nodded in agreement.

 

            "I take five cards," Hannibal declared, "Three twos, an eight and four of clubs," he slid each card out of his hand as he named it. "Eight divided by two is four, four divided by two is two. . ."

 

            "Hand over the deck,"  Miss O'Reilly said icily.  "And write ‘I will not sass in class’ fifty times on your slate."

 

"Yes, Ma'am."  Heyes palmed several cards before handing the rest of the deck to the teacher.

 

            "You're way too young to be playing cards, anyway." Miss O'Reilly shook her head.  "It's a corrupt habit. Michael, Sean and Joseph, recite your history lessons."

 

            "Miss O'Reilly, what about more current history?" Joseph Hunter, the only boy who'd actually read the history, asked.  "What about the secession of the Southern States? The battle at Fort Sumter?"

 

            "We won't discuss that here."  She frowned. “Hannibal's crusade over the Alps will do for you."

 

            Heyes giggled, ducking his head over his slate.  He'd written ‘I will not sass in class’ only three times.

 

            Kid poked his cousin in the side, mouthing "Hannibal" and joining the giggling.  It was instantly contagious.

 

            With now half a dozen students laughing, Kate O'Reilly fumed.  Flipping open the watch pined to her blouse, she announced.  "Silent reading until dismissal.  And not a sound from any of you."

 

            Two dozen heads bent over readers, but several pair of eyes slid across the pages to glower at Heyes.

 

            Three o'clock arrived at long last and the entire student body erupted from the schoolroom.

 

            "You got us in trouble," Caleb Hunter sneered at Heyes, his hand on the smaller boy's chest.  "I don't like having silent reading."

 

            "Cause you can't read," Heyes said reasonably.

 

            "Hit him, Caleb!” someone urged, a crowd beginning to form. "Send Hannibal over the Alps."

 

            " Can't, no elephants." Heyes grinned, dimples flashing in both cheeks.  "Boys, I can't stay."  He backed away as a rock from Kid's slingshot dinged Caleb just above the ear. "Got to run!"  Heyes dashed through the jostling students, towards his already running cousin. They disappeared out of the school yard and up the road before Caleb could get out of the dirt.

 

            Both boys collapsed, laughing, under a large elm, arms around each other. "Thanks."  Heyes pulled out the last few cards he'd saved.  "Shame. I was planning on a game after school." 

 

            "Nobody'll play with you anymore."  Kid looked up through the tree to the sky. "You win too much."

 

            "I don't win enough, Kid, not enough."  Heyes fanned the four cards he had left. "Ten, jack, queen and king."

 

            "You need an ace."

 

            "Royal flush."  Heyes nodded.  "Too bad they're not in the same suit."   He watched absently as Kid lined up the sling shot with a dandelion fluff and pulled back the sling.  The flower's  head burst into a shower of white seedlings.

 

            "Betcha can't hit that one."  Heyes indicated a clump of dandelions another fifty feet further.

 

            "Can."  Kid eyed the flowers and demolished them with a twitch of the slingshot.

 

            "You're good."  Heyes pursed his lips.  "Can you hit anything you set your mind to?"

 

            "So far."  Kid shrugged,  "But it's not real useful."

 

            "You knocked Caleb on the head."

 

            "Yeah."  He brightened.  "Now, if it'd only help with multiplication tables. I'm hungry.  Cinnamon rolls?" Kid reminded.

 

            The cousins meandered their way up to the Heyes homestead, detouring through two pastures and wading a small stream.  It was perfect Indian Summer weather and there seemed to be excitement in the very air.  Between the two of them, they made short work of mucking out the stalls before appropriating some tasty examples of Mary Heyes' baking.

 

            "What's your Ma baking?"  Heyes licked sugar off his fingers.

 

            "Just plain bread,"  Kid said  "She says there's too many of us for fancy baking."

 

            "C'mon, let's go up there,"  Heyes urged.  "There's always something going on at your house."

 

            The Heyes and Curry homes stood approximately a mile apart on a dead end road, with the Curry farm the last destination.  The two boys traveled the distance so frequently that they barely noticed the route anymore and were therefore surprised to actually see someone else on the road.  Two men on horses were nearly into the Curry's gate when the boys pelted up behind them.

 

            "Aaron! Ian!"  Kid yelped gleefully.  "You're back!"

 

            "Hey, Baby Brother."  Ian swung Jed up in front of him, into the saddle.  Aaron did the same for Hannibal.  "Missed you."

 

            "Were you in the War?"  Kid asked excitedly.  "Didja get to see any fighting?"

 

            "We got shot at,"  Aaron told him,  "And we shot back."  He dismounted in the yard, leaving Heyes on the horse.

 

            "Kid, it's not a game."  Ian frowned, "We saw more'n enough fighting."  He swung down from the horse.

 

            "Oh, my Lord!"  Maura Curry ran off the porch to embrace her elder sons, as most of the Curry family emerged from their various duties on the farm to greet the returning soldiers.  "Your father will be back from the fields shortly."

 

            "I told you there's always something goin' on at your house,"  Heyes declared to his cousin, dismounting almost in unison with the Kid.

 

            "Look at you two,"  Maura sighed.  "You look half starved.  I'll start some dinner." She herded several daughters back into the house.  "Mary Anna, go wring another chicken's neck.  Deirdre, start some more dough.  Isabella, Sinead, in the kitchen.  We got chores."

 

            "But . . . " Isabella fumed as she watched all the males head around the barn.

 

            "Butter churning, NOW,"  Maura finished her 'but'.

 

            "You got some new hardware,"  Sean said admiringly as Aaron slid his new pistol out of the holster.

 

            "Come around back,"  Ian encouraged his brothers.  "We can catch up out of Ma's sight."

 

            "C'mon, let's go,"  Kid urged Hannibal, trailing the older boys.

 

            "Kid, they're not gonna let you stay."  Heyes laughed. " You're too little."

 

            "I am NOT! I can't believe you're doing it, too!"

 

            "Kid, you're eight years old."

 

            "I'm nine next week,"  he hissed.  "And I'm gonna do something nobody else here can do."

 

            "What?"  Heyes asked, only half in jest. He did feel badly that Jed tended to get left out of activities, but he was plain little.  Being two years older, Heyes felt a natural superiority.

 

            By the time the younger boys caught up with the elder Currys, they were passing around a small bottle, trading ribald stories.

 

            "Quiet,"  Ian ordered, elbowing Sean.  "Little pitchers have big ears."

 

            "Ah, Kid, get outta here,"  Michael ordered, taking a swing from the bottle of moonshine.

 

            "I don't have to."

 

            "Let him stay,"  Ian soothed.  "Stay out of the way, Jed."  He lifted his youngest brother up and sat him on the corral fence.  "Han, you, too. We're gonna be shooting."

 

            "Aaron, pull out that six iron,"  Michael urged eagerly.  "I wanna try it out."

 

            "Wait, let me find some targets."  Sean rummaged through a pile that bore mute testimony of how often the older Currys had spent time behind the barn.  He pulled out several beer bottles and a rusty bean tin, pushing aside some crumpled playing cards.  After lining the bottles up on the opposite corral fence, he backed up, looking over at Ian.  As the eldest brother, he deserved the first try.  Sean snagged the moonshine from Michael and settled back to watch.

 

            Kid hooked his legs around the fence, grinning over at Heyes.  Finally, he was one of the older boys. Maybe if he worked it just right, one of them would accidentally pass him the jug, too.

 

            Ian stood loosely, wearing the gun in his holster, slung low on his hips.  With an easy, fluid motion, he pulled the gun from the holster, sighted at the targets and fired.  The first beer bottle shattered, as did the second, but he missed the third.  The next beer bottle lost it's neck, but remained up on the fence, and finally the tin can toppled over, wounded but not fatally.

 

            "Slick,"  Michael said admiringly.

 

            "I wanna do that,"  Kid sighed.

 

            "In your dreams, Kid."  Michael laughed as Aaron set up some more targets.  "This is for your elders. You're a little kid."  He shoved against his brother's knee, nearly toppling him off the fence. Only Heyes' quick hand kept Kid from falling.

 

            "Michael, leave him alone,"  Ian warned, seeing things hadn't changed between his two youngest brothers.  "You're bigger than he is."

 

            "I could do that,"  Kid repeated more softly so only Heyes could hear him.

 

            "Y'know, I think you could."  Heyes watched as Aaron buckled on the gunbelt.

 

            Aaron had an almost innate sense of the gun.  It seemed part of his hand as he cleared the holster and aimed without seeming to.  Four of the five targets were decimated, but the bullet flew just above the bean tin, barely skimming the upper edge.  It teetered for a moment, but stayed upright.

 

            "Your turn, Sean," Aaron said, gloating just a little at his prowess. He knew Sean would never top that.

 

            Sean had the same easy skill as his brothers, and a decent aim, but he'd only fired a pistol a few times before.  He took out three bottles and sent the bean tin toppling off the fence, without actually piercing it with a bullet.

 

            "Getting good,"  Ian encouraged.  He swallowed a mouthful of 'shine, setting the jug on a fence post before digging into the garbage pile for a few more bottles.

 

            Kid sidled down the fence rail towards the bottle, eyes on his elder brothers.  He was within a foot of his next passage into manhood when Sean grabbed the bottle to take a drink.

 

            "Better luck next time."  Heyes commented, a smirky grin deepening his dimples.

 

            "All ready, Michael."  Ian pulled the bottle away from Sean, waiting as Michael buckled on the gunbelt.

 

            Michael didn't even pause.  His hand swung the gun up, fingers pulling the trigger in one motion.  He had amazing speed, but cockiness and impatience threw his timing.  He destroyed the first bottle, but missed the next two.  Taking a steadying breath, he slowed down and shattered the fourth and fifth bottles.  "I want this gun."

 

            "Can't have it."  Aaron held out his hand, "One practice per brother. I'll need to buy more bullets."

 

            "I got money.  Please, Aar."  Michael let the gun dangle from his trigger finger. "I like shooting."

 

            "Later, target practice is over."

 

            "How 'bout me?"  Heyes spoke up, jumping off the fence.  "I want to try."

 

            "Me, too,"  Kid agreed.

 

            "Oh, C'mon, not the kids."  Sean groaned.

 

            "Why not?"  Michael said generously.  "Let 'em show off.  They won't hit a thing."

 

            "I told you, I ain't got much more ammunition,"  Aaron argued.

 

            "Let the children play with the guns,"  Michael sneered.  "They'll get it out of their minds and leave us  alone to do real shooting."

 

            "I'll get some bottles."  Kid ran over to the midden pile, collecting several objects. "Heyes! I found you TWO aces."

 

            "I wondered where those went last Saturday."  Sean stared at Michael, remembering their recent game.

 

            "The gunbelt will never fit you, Han."  Aaron tried to buckle it around his cousin. He looped Heyes' own belt around the holster to keep it up.  "Go ahead, try."

 

            "Don't let Aunt Mary find out you're letting him pick up a pistol.  " Ian shook his head.  "Not to mention Ma."

 

            Heyes hefted the pistol.  It was heavy, but he felt suddenly mature, one of the guys. He didn't have the Curry brothers' innate ability, but he had style and a careful aim. He'd never held a pistol before, but had shot a rifle.  The pistol was smaller, colder in his hand and the recoil was different.  He slammed two tin cans off the fence and chipped the neck off the bottle.

 

            "You didn't think he could do it, did you?"  Ian chuckled to Michael.  "Hannibal’s growing up."

 

            "That was great!"  Kid jumped up from the dirt where he'd been collecting more targets.  "Now, it's my turn."

 

            "Jed, you can't even see over the fence."  Ian tried to talk him out of it.  "He barely kept the belt up, you can't."

 

            "I CAN,"  Kid insisted, stubbornly setting his jaw.

 

            "He can't even hold up the gun, " Michael scoffed.

 

            "Let him try?"  Heyes tried to fasten the belt around Kid's waist. It slid to the ground, prompting guffaws from Michael and Sean.

 

            Ian looked down at his youngest brother, blue eyes to blue eyes.  "This is the only time. Don't tell Ma."

 

            "Never."  Kid hung the buckled belt over one shoulder and across his chest like a bandoleer, with the holster on his right hip.  He cradled the long pistol in both hands, a thrill running down his spine.  Despite the size and weight of the gun, it felt right in his hand, like it fit him.

 

            Heyes looked at his collection of targets.  "Not hardly any more bottles left, Kid." He set up two tin cans, one bottle missing a neck and a rotten apple. "There's only the old cards here, and I want those."

 

            "Stick some of 'em up there,"  Kid instructed, holstering the gun.

 

            "Who can hit a playin' card?"  Aaron laughed.

 

            "Kid can hit anything."  Heyes informed him proudly.

 

            As the older Currys settled back against the fence, passing the jug amongst each other, Kid faced the line of targets. He took a slow breath, focusing on the gun.

 

            He grasped the gun butt, his wrist protesting the weight, and easily cleared the holster.  He had the same inborn ability as all his other brothers, but with an almost unnerving speed and accuracy.  He blasted holes through the tin cans, then shattered the beer bottle.  A direct hit made sauce of the apple. Without even seeming the aim, Kid put a hole through the spade on the ace.

 

            "My God,"  Ian whispered, the other three Currys standing stunned, staring at Jed.

 

            "I knew I could do that better'n you,"  Kid boasted up at Michael.

 

            "I knew you could, too."  Heyes threw his arms around him, lifting him up off the ground.  "You're better’n' anybody."

 

            "That's unnatural."  Michael grimaced.  "Beginner's luck."

 

            "Where did you learn that, Baby?"  Ian asked, crouching down to Kid's level. "How can you shoot like that?"

 

            "Don't know. I just can."  Kid felt filled with pride, like his body was growing bigger.

 

            "Well, you're really good."  Ian pulled the gun belt off him, "But don't play with this.  It's not a toy.  Bullets can kill you."

 

            "I know."  Kid relinquished the gun, frowning at Ian's concerns.  "It's not hard to pull a trigger."

 

            "But it should be."  Ian looked around at his family, four nearly identical blond haired, blue eyes boys and one brown haired, brown eyed boy, feeling suddenly fearful.  The war had already swept up he and Aaron, and he had no doubts that Sean and possibly Michael would follow them back to the battlefield when they left the next day.  Would he ever see Jed or Hannibal again, and how would the War have changed them?

 

            "Supper's ready!"  one of the sisters called from the house.  "And Hannibal's to go HOME!"

 

            "If I didn't think Ma would whup us all, I'd tell Pa how this one can shoot."  Aaron threw an arm around Kid's shoulder.  "Bye, Han."

 

            "Bye, Han."  Kid beamed.  "Can I shoot again after supper?"

 

            "No!"  Chorused all the elder Currys, but Kid didn't mind.  He'd showed them, he was big enough to something better than anybody else and there were still six days until his birthday.  Maybe he'd grow a couple inches by then, as well.  At least he could try!