“One dollar,” young Earl C. Calder said and looked at the farmer before him transfixed on the small the blue vial Earl held in his hand.
Earl didn’t blink in the mid-day sun, all 110 pounds of himself holding steady next to Ida. The vial of elixir they had emptied the night before still floated through him, but he didn’t flinch, not Madam Wilma T.’s son, born in a brothel and groomed for greatness.
“One dollar,” he said again and tapped the inky blue container. “This here blade of grass is the real thing, friend. Walked on by the Savior himself, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, one thousand eight hundred and sixty six years ago on his way to the cross.”
Beside him young Ida C. Morrow leaned her lithe body forward, holding out a weathered moccasin they’d found in the peddler’s belongings and patting its underside. “Sanctified,” she said, in her soft New Orleans’ murmur, “by the sole of He who died for our sins.”
She tilted her head down and smiled sweetly the way Madam Wilma had insisted the girls do at the brothel, especially the new ones fresh from their stations in the kitchen or laundry or sewing circles where they earned their keep until they reached their age of consent, a whole 13 years in New Orleans according to the Napoleonic Code in 1866. “Sweetness, girls. Sweetness sells,” the Madam would say. “Sweetness brings Papa Bear to the honeypot, and you, my sweets, are the sweetest honey pots in all of Orleans Parish.
Ida closed her eyes and shook her head. She steadied herself at the edge of the wagon. Her dark curls bounced and a stray strand plastered itself in the sweat along her temple. Sweetness, she thought, and suddenly she felt sick again, sick like she’d felt the whole of her 12th year watching her 13th birthday grow closer and closer.
The elixir she’d drunk with Earl the night before welled up in her and Ida forced a swallow. She hadn’t wanted any of it in Wilma T.’s employ, not the long hours in the kitchen ducking Cook’s ire, not the leers of the rich old men who came to the brothel waiting, waiting for the youngest girls to ripen into service, and most especially she hadn’t wanted the fawning, liquor-laced embrace of the displaced old mayor, desperate to salvage his Southern manhood on the tiny bodies of Wilma T.’s youngest conscripts.
“Yessiree, Bob, touched by the Savior’s soul,” Earl’s sing songy refrain filtered through to Ida, and she smiled again, sweetly. The farmer and his lanky son were leaning in to Earl now, ogling the blue vial he cupped in his hand, their curiosity ablaze. The blue of the bottle and the blue of Earl’s eyes danced before her.
She had wanted Earl, though, this pretty faced young man with the easy laugh and boyish swagger that had charmed his mother so. “Born to lead,” the Madam s had sworn, and for a quick flash Ida wondered if she were dreaming that he’d really gone and done it, broken free of his mama at last, broken the hold she had on both of them.
They had fled, snuck out of the brothel in the wee hours when the errant husbands and preachers and foreign sailing men had crept back to their wives and parsonages and vessels, the fire of their manhood tamed for one more night. Even the piano player had gone to bed when Earl and Ida had slipped out the kitchen door, their meager possessions stuffed in an old satchel, and skittered down the empty cobblestones to the edge of the opium district, when they’d run across the peddler lying doped up and snoring outside a Chinese laundry.
Taking the wagon had been Ida’s idea, and Earl had heartily agreed. “Why, it’s the perfect means of transport and disguise,” he’d said, and they’d scratched a Bill of Sale on the back of a flea powder label that had fallen off one of the peddler’s wares. “Sold,” Ida had pronounced and stuffed a handful of Confederate dollars into the sleeping peddler’s coat pocket, the worthless coin of rebellion, and off they’d gone, headed to Texas and a life unknown.
Leaning over the edge of that wagon, Earl C. Calder now lowered his voice to a gruff whisper. Ida strained to hear his proclamation to the farmer.
“Just one dollar, sir, for a piece of the sacred ground walked on by our Lord himself, yours to have and to hold here in Port Neches and wash away the sins of our souls.” Earl waved the blue vial again before the grizzled face of the farmer, the wet spring mud of east Texas caked across his overalls.
“Young sins, brother,” added Earl, lowering his voice like Ida’s whisper. “Yours and mine and Ida’s here. Sins of the father and sins of the son. Young or old as we are, we all have sins, mister,” Earl said and he knelt and placed his hand on the shoulder of the farmer’s tall, scrawny son standing wide-eyed and smitten before Ida.
“Sold,” said the farmer, and from somewhere deep in the pockets of his dungarees still stained with Confederate defeat, the farmer grabbed hold of a Yankee dollar, the wretched coin of capitulation, and gave it over to Ida perched between the boxes of elixirs and broad cloth and cast iron kettles that had once been the stock in trade of a Connecticut peddler.
“Bless you, sir,” said Ida, smiling kindly again, and she tucked the man’s dollar into the pocket of her muslin skirt, frayed at the hemline and flecked with grass stains. She took the small blue vial from Earl’s finger and handed to the farmer. “May it bring you a lifetime of blessings from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” she said. “The one and only son of God.”
The farmer took the small bottle in his rough hands and brought it to his lips. “Thank you, lassie,” he muttered, and laying his hand on the shoulder of the boy beside him, turned to go.
“Sir,” Ida suddenly called to him but the farmer, unaccustomed perchance to being addressed as such, didn’t turn. “Brother Believer,” Ida called again and this time the man stopped and turned, and Ida scampered down from atop the peddler’s wagon.
“As a show of our appreciation, sir, we give you this switch dipped in the River Jordan by John the Baptist himself,” Ida said, reaching out to hand the man a long slim twig stripped of leaves.
“Lest any wickedness descend upon your only son here,” Earl added, rushing over to Ida’s side, “as he wades into the perilous waters of manhood.”
The farmer, startled perhaps by such magnanimity, stepped forward and took the switch and lowered it to his side. “Thank you kindly, younguns,” he said, looking from Earl to Ida. “Ways of the world’s a troublesome road, that’s a true born fact.”
And with that, the farmer laid his arm across his son’s back and the two of them strode off toward the mule-drawn wooded wagon beside the Opelousas Trail folks traveled on in these parts, cattlemen and preachers and immigrant folk, the same rough road Santa Ana had once walked on shackled and chained by triumphant Texans on a long walk of shame to New Orleans.
Earl turned and winked at Ida, who smiled and wiped away the Texas sweat on her brow. She lifted the hem of skirt out of the dust and turned back to the wagon. Earl held out his hand and Ida took it as she stepped back up on to the wagon’s seat.
Gently, Ida ran her hand over the leaflet a drunk and defeated Confederate soldier, the right side of his body mangled, had left at the brothel, taking advantage of the Madame’s soft spot for the fallen South. Ida had stuffed it in her apron pocket and shown it Earl and he had grinned and kissed Ida on the lips the way he’d done only once before and Ida had blushed and Earl had blushed and right then and there they’d sealed the deal of running off together.
They’d tacked the leaflet inside the peddler’s wagon as soon as they headed out of New Orleans. “Great is Texas” read the pamphlet. “Great! Grand! Glorious!” “Ranchers Paradise,” “Cheap Land – Low Taxes”
“Tell me again,” Ida said, turning to Earl, this pretty faced boy into whose hands she’d thrown her whole lot in life, “how we’re gonna turn the Devil’s Desert into God’s Green Earth.”
Earl walked over to the blue beard grass growing on the side of the dirt road leading up to the Texas line. He reached down and pulled another tuft of the long blue blades out of the ground.
“Why it’s just like what we just did with these here blades of grass, Ida,” Earl said. “We took a piece of something worthless. Something stepped on every day by the poor saps coming and going from the burdensome business of life, and we turn it into something grand, like the paper says. Great and grand and glorious, just like Texas.”
“Praise the Lord,” Earl said, plucking the blades of beard grass one by one from the cluster and wiping them off on the belly of his shirt. “This here’s gonna be our goldmine, Ida.” He picked up an empty blue vile from the box next to Ida and threaded a new single blade of beard grass gently inside and popped the cork back on.
“Why, it’s just like God’s work, Ida,” Earl said, holding the bottle before him. “We’ll just feed the faithful in the promised land. And what’s the harm in that?”
“Guess God ain’t gonna smite us dead like I first thought he would,” she laughed, and she pulled the farmer’s dollar coin out of her pocket and plopped it into the rusted tobacco tin hidden beneath the bins of thimbles and boxes of nails.
“You know, giving that farmer that switch of dogwood, the one—what did you call it?—the one ‘Dipped in the River Jordan by John the Baptist himself.’ That was stroke of pure genius, Ida,” Earl said. “And a real nice gesture, too, specially coming from a gal as sweet as you. We gotta keep that in,” he muttered, looking deep into Ida’s dark brown eyes.
Ida laughed and felt again a warmth sweep over her like the balm of the elixir, and suddenly she didn’t regret any of it, not the leaving, nor the stealing, nor the trickery that was all they had to save themselves in the great wild land of Texas.
“Why thank you, Earl,” she said. “I think it was well worth that farmer’s dollar.”
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