Chapter 12: Cousin Sam
Copyright© 2011 by TC Allen
Thanks again to John for his great help.
Ma's older brother was known as the black sheep of the family back then. He was older than Ma by about five years. He was a gambler, a drunk, and a brawler and never worked a day in his life when he didn't have to.
He ever sought the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. He was certain it was there waiting for him somewhere. Over the next hill or around the next turn in the road he would find his personal El Dorado, his goldmine. He knew it would make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. His "wife," as he called her, took off one day with another man and deserted him and their ten-year-old daughter, Samantha.
He shortened his daughter's name to Sam and took her with him on his next quest and the next one afterward. For six years he dragged her from pillar to post as he played poker, shot pool and sought the gold mine of his dreams. Finally, in the town of Leadville, Colorado, he ended up in a fight and was stabbed in the back in an argument over whether a deck of cards should have four aces or five. He was dead before his body hit the floor. The man who stabbed him robbed the corpse and fled.
His estate was the stake of one thousand dollars hidden away in the hotel room, his "nut" he called it. This was his emergency stake for poker and other gambling. So long as he was winning the money stayed home under a false bottom in an old Gladstone bag. When she heard the news, Sam removed some of the money from its hiding place in the bottom of the bag, packed her few belongings inside the old Gladstone bag and caught a ride on the winding narrow gauge railroad that ran from Leadville down to Pueblo, Colorado.
From there she bought train tickets to Woodman. Upon arrival she walked for over ten hours to get from town to our farm. She was footsore and weary of body and mind and had little hope for the future when she timidly knocked on our door. I was twelve years old when she arrived.
The first we even knew she existed was the night we heard a timid tapping on the back door. It was about nine o'clock and I was just getting ready to go to bed. "Who could be pesterin' us this time of night?" Pa wondered aloud as he went to the door and opened it.
"Are you my Uncle Walter?" I heard a young female voice ask in a timid voice.
"Well, I'm Walter Hansen, if he's who you're looking for. Come in and let's get this straightened out." Pa stepped back and I saw the strangest sight ever. In slouched a girl who looked to be about sixteen years of age. Her mousy brown hair was cut unfashionably short and ragged; She had an old Stetson slouch hat on her head. The worn and faded plaid shirt she wore was two sizes too large for her. Her jeans were worn and had a rip in one leg. She was a whipped looking bedraggled mess.
Ma came hurrying to the door. "Are you my Aunt Martha?" the girl asked in a plaintive voice.
"Well, you have the names right, but who are you?" Ma asked.
"I'm your brother Bob's daughter, Sam." She looked down at the floor and said in a low voice, "Daddy's dead, he got stabbed in the back in Leadville and I had to make my way here alone. I ain't got no other place to go. Kin I stay here and rest up for a bit?" She seemed so very lost and forlorn.
Ma hugged Samantha to her and said, "My dear, you're home. This is your home for as long as you'd like. Come sit over there on the sofa and tell us about you. Are you hungry? Come in the kitchen and I'll fix you something to eat." Ma was so excited. She hovered over the girl like she was afraid her new niece might disappear just any second. It was the first time I ever saw Ma so flustered and just out and out excited.
Pa broke in on Ma's fussing and said, "Let's go out to the kitchen table and just sit. Your Aunt Martha will fix you a bite to eat and we can have a cup of coffee." He called me over, "This is your cousin Davy."
She gave me a shy look and raised her hand in a little wave. I grinned at her and said, "I sure am glad I have a cousin." She blushed and we all went out and sat at the big trestle table in the kitchen.
Ma started the coffee and opened our gas refrigerator and pulled out the remains of a ham she had baked the day before. She cut off a healthy slice. She cut some bread off a fresh loaf and buttered it and applied mustard. The ham, a couple of slices of tomato and a couple slices of longhorn cheese completed her creation. She sliced it in four wedges and placed them on a plate. The coffee was boiling nicely when she took it off the stove and poured it through four layers of cheesecloth to remove the grounds.
She poured coffee for Sam, Pa and herself and a glass of milk for me. We sat and she told us about her life as a "boomer," going from one town to the next. Her gypsy like existence seemed so strange and exotic to me as I listened to her recitation, awestruck.
Slowly her eyes began to droop and to flutter when Ma exclaimed, "Oh you poor dear. You must be exhausted. Here, let's put you to bed. You come with me." She turned to Pa and said, "Walter, you and Davy go to bed. I'll be along shortly."
I headed to my room and Pa went to their bedroom. "Night, son." he called to me.
I answered, "Night, Pa," went in my room, got undressed and fell asleep the instant my head hit my pillow. The next morning I lay awake for a few minutes before getting up. I was excited to have a brand new cousin who was so different from any girl I had ever seen before in my life. Finally I got up and dressed and headed out the door. The sun was just peeking over the horizon, lighting the morning sky with endless shades of crimsons and oranges compliments of the insane weather we were having. I walked out the back door out to go get the cows.
After doing it twice a day for most of their lives you'd think those cows would have sense enough to come in to the barn for milking by themselves without having someone go get them. But cows are "dumber than in-laws," as the saying goes. You usually had to go out and drive them in.
Once in a blue moon they would be at the barn waiting for me, but very seldom. They knew where they were going and which stall was theirs. However if someone didn't go out and start them in, they would stay out in the fields and bawl because their udders hurt from not being milked. I know some people who act the same way also, come to think of it.
Sam was already up and on the back porch sitting on the railing when I came out of the house. "Hi." She greeted me in a bashful voice. She still wore the same clothes she had on the night before; even to the old soft brimmed slouch hat on her head.
"Hi," I answered. "I'm going out to get the cows in for milking, you want to come along?"
"Sure," she answered and scooted down off the railing and joined me. We went down the broad steps side-by-side. I noticed she walked a little sore footed and went slower than usual as we headed toward the barn. The cats all hurried up and began rubbing against me, meowing to be picked up and petted. I picked each up in turn and give it a few rubs down its head and back, set it down and picked up the next one.
"Do you think they'd let me pet them?" Sam asked timidly.
"Sure." I answered and scooped up a cat and deposited it in her arms.
The one I handed to her was a longhaired Angora. It had wandered in from somewhere, probably lost by one of the "movers" who streamed on the state road that ran by the south end of our farm. They were headed for the Promised Land of California.
Sam carefully stroked the longhaired cat and it started to loudly purr its happiness. "It's so soft and silky," she exclaimed.
"Didn't you ever pet a cat before?" I asked her.
"Well, once, a long time ago. We moved around so much there was never a chance to have any friends or pets. Mamma said they got in the way of her entertaining and Daddy said they were a waste of time." All at once, her glamorous life didn't seem so glamorous. No friends or animals in her life seemed terrible. Such a thing was almost unbelievable to a boy raised on a farm in the midst of a loving family.
We went out and found the cows all bunched together where they usually were every morning. I hopped up on the back of the old brindle Guernsey and waved at Sam to follow. Clumsily she scrambled aboard the old cow and we led the others back to the barn. I slipped off and Sam followed, her face flushed with the excitement of the newness of it all.
Pa was already there waiting for us, ready to start the milking. I took my stool and a bucket and Pa took his stool and another bucket and we started to milk. Sam was almost beside herself with excitement. She had never seen a cow milked before. Then, when the cats lined up side by side and began their yowling chorus, begging for their rations of milk, she laughed and squealed like a little girl at the strange wonder of it all.
I squirted milk into one cat's mouth and then into the next one's. She wanted to do it and I showed her how to squeeze the teat and make the milk stream out. She was clumsy at it and got more on the cats than she did in them. The cats strove mightily to keep the stream of milk in mouths and not on their bodies.
"Davy, you're falling behind." Pa was a stickler for getting the work done first and on time. Play was for after the work was all done "Also, you might want to save some milk for the bucket," which was his not too subtle way of hinting as how I had better get back to work.
"Sorry, Pa," I said, not really too sorry.
"I'm sorry, Uncle Walter," Sam said in an uncertain voice. She acted like she was afraid Ma or Pa would tell her to get on down the road.
Pa ignored her. "Lets get the rest of the chores done, Davy," Pa told me and we went to the milk shed to run the milk through the separator. I took some of the separated milk to the chicken pen and poured it in the wooden trough, which Pa had made just for this purpose. There was still a little left over from the previous evening's milking. I added to it and the chickens, just waking up, hurried out of the hen house and scurried over the get as much in them as they could.
Watching chickens drink anything is funny. They dip their beaks in the liquid, scoop a very small amount with their beaks and bring their heads straight back and stretch their necks toward the heavens while wiggling their tongues so whatever they are drinking will run down their throats like water going downhill. Chickens lack some of the muscles needed for proper swallowing. Besides, their beaks just aren't as flexible as lips.
Sam watched and laughed. Everything was so new to her. Sharing the experiences with her made me laugh too as I was able to share some of the newness she was experiencing with her.
She followed me back to the milk shed and watched as I mixed the separated milk and hog mix together and carried it out to the hogs and poured it in their long wooden trough.
Wood was more plentiful and a lot cheaper than metal and easier to use. Nearly all the plastics we take for granted today had not been developed yet. Besides, wood swelled when wet and sealed itself off at the seams, so nothing was lost.
One big old sow, trailing four piglets came waddling up to the trough and started snorting the milk down. The four babies all took their places and greedily nursed while their mamma fed herself on the milk and mix. "Ooh. Look at them." Sam exclaimed, "Could I get to pet one?"
"Well, only if you want to be made a meal of by old Mamma Pig. She gets real mean when her babies are disturbed," I told her in my best imitation of Pa lecturing me about something.
"Oh," Sam said, chastened. "I didn't know. Playin' cards and shootin' pool is night work and I never learned about such things as chickens and cows and pigs." She looked wistfully at me and said, "I guess I missed out on a whole lot." We walked back to the house together side by side in silence.
Although she still seemed exotic to my young mind, I felt sorry for all the things she had missed out on, especially the love neither of her parents gave her.
Ma fried ham, eggs, and potatoes, made flour gravy and had warm bread already sliced on the table along with fresh butter and plum preserves from the cellar, all waiting for us to eat. It was our usual morning meal. Pa sat at the head of the table and Sam and I sat next to each other on one side. Ma served up the food and sat at the foot of the table.
Pa bowed his head, which was the signal for us to do the same. "Oh Lord, we thank Thee for this food and ask Thee to bless it to our bodies that we may go forth this day and do Thy bidding. Amen." Ma and I echoed "Amen." Sam self-consciously trailed a mumbled "Amen" of her own and we dug in.
"This is just like restaurant food." Sam enthused.
Ma stiffened her back but said nothing. To even speak of her cooking and café cooking in the same breath was intolerable. Pa laughed and said, "Your Aunt Martha's cooking is what the café people wished they could dish out." Ma relaxed now the record had been set straight.
"Well, usually what we ate was stew or soup and day old bread. We never ate like this unless we was flush and could eat out." Again the sad look came over her face as she thought of her father in a lonely pauper's grave up there in Leadville. The authorities had held an impromptu coroners inquest and pronounced it "accidental death" since he accidentally let the fifth ace fall out of his sleeve holder and carted him off before the young woman even knew he was dead.
She smiled sadly and said, "Well, Daddy was always braggin' how he was goin' to 'get up there an' live high. At least he was buried high, Leadville bein' the highest town in the US of A, bein' as how it's over ten thousand feet high." She sighed and dug in. The food on her plate disappeared in short order.
"Davy," Ma said as we started to push ourselves away from the table, "Why don't you and Samantha go gather the eggs? I realize it's a little early, but you go on ahead." What she was really saying was, "Davy, get out and do something, your Pa and I wish to speak in private with no young ears close by.
I knew better than to argue, "Yes ma'am," I told her. I motioned for Sam to follow me and we took the egg basket and were on our way to the chicken yard. The chicken yard actually was three acres of grass, wild oats and weeds fenced in with fine mesh wire to keep the varmints out. Every varmint alive seemed to conspire to get at our chickens and their eggs. There was a smaller pen, complete with gate, that surrounded the hen house. This was rarely used except when we were thinning the flock to sell off the non-producers as meat to the produce man in town.
Sam had never gathered eggs before in her life. This was all so new to her. So many of the things I took for granted she saw as new and exciting. Of course, being a young boy on the threshold of puberty, I had to ham it up and be a "man of the world." I bragged about how strong I was and how much Pa depended on me.
Of course I told her how important it was to take the eggs carefully out of the nests and place them gently in the basket. As soon as I had a layer of eggs completely covering the bottom of the basket, I'd lay a muslin cloth across them and use it as a sort of shock absorber for when I placed the next layer in.
We were averaging about six dozen eggs each and every day. We ate a few while the rest were carefully placed in the egg cases and sold each week to the "butter and egg man" from the creamery.
"Now we have to find the hidden eggs," I told her after we had taken the eggs from the henhouse nests down to the root cellar and deposited them. "You'll get a kick out of this." I promised her.
I showed her how some chickens hid their nests. She laughed when I explained how it didn't make any difference how many times I "found" their hidden nests, they went right back and used the same hiding places again. We found another dozen or so eggs and were almost ready to head in when I saw some weeds quiver.
I stopped dead still. "Stop." I hissed at Sam. I looked around and found an old tree limb about three feet long. "There might be a snake in there." I cautioned. Since weeds and bushes don't move by themselves, there had to be something that caused the movement. Very gently I reached out and parted the weeds with the end of the stick.