Sally Little Britches
When I found Pa dead, I reckon I forgot about a whole passel of things, and that’s why that bucksaw was all rusted and dull. I left it and the double bitted ax layin’ out there in the snow for almost a week before I remembered. Now they were rusty-dull and almost useless for cutting firewood. That’s why me and Sally were so cold as the chill wind blew out of the north, and the cabin roof creaked with the snow load.
Pa had showed me how to sharpen a saw with a file of course, but I scarcely paid attention, because at the time I was hankering to take my Winchester up on the slope and bag me that big old buck. He also showed me how to hone an ax on the grind wheel, but I figured Pa would always be around so I was pondering something elsewhere and paid little attention to that lesson either.
Then there was the Rafter Double C, and what would happen when they found out Pa was dead.
Pa had been a surveyor contracted out to the Army, so when he saw our long, low valley surrounded by the heavily timbered hills, he staked out a full section and made inquiries. It turned out that it was government land he could claim and own by homesteading on it for a few years. But as the clerk also told him, big Jacob Connelly, of the Rafter Double C controlled all the land for miles around, so he would not be pleased with homesteaders, or as they were also called “squatters’.
But Pa weren’t afraid of nothin’. Ma said he once faced down a half dozen Comanche’s who come up over a rise and demanded that he hand over the Winchester that was layin’ across his knees. Pa just grinned and climbed down from the wagon, the muzzle of his Winchester drifting casually their way. He pointed at one man with a big nose and told him he could fix his nose by shooting it off. Then he jerked the rifle up, and the terrified brave fell off his horse trying to get out of the way. Pa began laughing, and the other Comanche’s started laughing too as the poor victim picked hisself up. Then Pa told him he had a beautiful nose after all, and he wouldn’t dream of shooting it off. They all laughed again, including the victim. Then they rode off, wondering at the nerve of the crazy white man.
We had the cabin up and roofed a full month before them Double C riders come riding up real slow-like, and gawking all around at the chicken house, pig pens, and small milking barn. Then they rode up to Pa and me standing on the front porch. Pa had his Winchester cradled in his arms easy like, and I had mine layin’ again a post where it was easy to hand and noticeable to anyone who might be interested.
One of the hands kneed his horse closer. He was one of those wiry lookin’ men that fooled others into thinkin’ they were not much for fighting, but neither Pa nor me was fooled.
“We’re Double C riders, and old man Connelly don’t cotton to no squatters on his land.” He bent to one side and spit an amber stream of tobacco juice in the dust, never taking his eyes off Pa.
“Well now, I do admire a man who knows what he likes, so you tell your Mister Connelly that while I appreciate his concern, this is not his land. I own it lock, stock, and barrel. You can see the recorded deed in the Territorial Office, if you’ve a mind to.”
With that, Pa spat his own stream of amber, just missing the hoof of the rider’s horse. Then he grinned, so I quietly picked up my rifle while they were all watching him and moved back to the far corner of the porch, so’s we’d have that bunch boxed.
What Pa said wasn’t true of course. It was recorded that we were homesteading this section, but if we left, all bets were off. We did not own it…yet. But we were not about to move. This was our home, and we were prepared to die defending it if need be.
Somehow, Pa’s Winchester was now casually pointed in their direction, but polite like. One rider twisted in the saddle to see what had become of me, and my rifle was pointed down, but also in their general direction. They was neatly boxed. I was almost as good with a Winchester as Pa, and Pa was the best. For a long moment, nobody moved as both sides calculated their chances. In a few moments, there was going to be dead folks lying around.
“Well, land sake’s Hiram, aren’t you going to offer these nice men a cup of coffee? And there’s fresh baked bread with raspberry jam if they’re hungry.”
Ma was not a pretty woman as such measures go. In fact, I reckon a body would say she was as plain as butter, but when she smiled like she was now smiling up at that Double C bunch, magical things happened. Men doffed their hats, and offered to assist her even when she didn’t need any. Women instantly became her best friend, and children suddenly behaved themselves. And when she smiled at Pa all those years ago, well, he never had a chance.
Them riders all grabbed for their hats, and held them over their hearts, nodding at Ma politely. That wiry man, who we later came to know as Pordy Jones, climbed off his horse and bobbed his bald head at Ma.
“Ma’am, I’d be pleased as April to have a cup of your coffee, and some of that bread and jam. And I’ll be beggin your forgiveness for our poor manners.”
He looked sideways at Pa, who nodded and waved him to a chair on the porch. Pordy turned around and barked at the riders.
“Well, don’t just sit there! Ask the lady if she needful for anything. Then come have some coffee, bread, and jam. And mind your manners, if’n you don’t want your ears pinned back!”
A few minutes later, Ma had enough cook stove firewood stacked up to last until fall, and the barnyard I’d been aiming to pick up was clean as I’d ever seen it. Then them cowboys set to on that coffee, bread, and jam, so Ma just kept on bringing it as Pa sat smiling on the porch. He winked once at me, and I knew what he meant. We’d have no more trouble from this bunch.
They was saddled up except for Pordy Jones, when he looked at Ma, hat still in hand.
“Do you reckon you could sell me a couple jars of that jam, Missus?”
Ma looked at Pa, sorta startled.
“Well, I suppose I could, but I reckon you can just take it. I’ve never sold any of my jams and jellies.”
Pordy Jones shook his head sadly.
“Ma’am, if you don’t mind my sayin’, you’re thinkin’ all wrong. That’s the best raspberry jam I’ve ever tasted, and folks would be willing to pay a pretty penny for it.”
He looked up at the riders, and they all nodded their confirmation.
“Now if you’ll allow, I’ll pay you for two jars, and don’t you never tell no one what’s in that jam. Keep it to yourself, and I’ll be sending folks to see you.”
Then he looked at Pa.
“Is them there hams and bacon slabs hanging in that smokehouse yonder for sale?”
It was Pa’s turn to be startled.
“Well, yes, I suppose they could be. Yes, of course.”
When Pordy Jones and his crew finally put their hats back on and rode off, they had four slabs of bacon, one ham, and half a dozen jars of Ma’s jelly. Ma and Pa just looked at each other and then commenced to laughing like two little kids. Me and Sally joined in, but we were not too sure what was so funny.
We all thought that Pordy Jones was the Double C general foreman, but it turned out that he was only boss of that one crew. There were four other crews and bosses, and one general foreman who oversaw it all. We were also told that he was a very dangerous man.
Ma invested in several cases of canning jars with paraffin blocks for sealer, and Pa slaughtered four more hogs, for curing and smoking. He also began to make cheese and butter after another crew asked if he had any. Me and Sally began picking berries by the bucketful.
By the time fall came around, we had us a good business going, and things were looking up when the biggest man I ever seen rode into the yard all by his lonesome and reined in right in front of me. He looked down at me with cold blue eyes, and took off his hat to wipe the sweat from the hatband. His hair was bright red. I just stared at him.
“Where’s your pa, boy?”
I pointed at the barn.
“Fetch him up, and be quick about it.”
Well, I was near thirteen years old and almost a man growed, so I didn’t take kindly to a stranger ordering me around in my own yard.
“Fetch him yourself mister. And I ain’t nobody’s boy!” I spat on the ground in case he didn’t get my point.
His head jerked back, and he scowled fiercely. Then he started to say something but stopped. For a long time, we just stared at each other, and then his mean-looking face broke into a big grin. He took off his hat and made a big swooping bow from his horse. He spoke again.
“Pardon me sir, but would you be so kind as to locate your father and tell him that a feller folks call Big Red, the Double C general foreman, desires a word with him?”
Well, I guess I grinned myself, and fetched Pa telling him who was here. Pa grabbed his rifle, as was the custom, and followed me. Big Red wasted no time on introductions.
“I heard tell you’re thinking of fencing off Diamond Springs?”
Pa nodded. “I already did.”
The big man’s face was naturally florid, and now it blazed an angry red.
“Double C cattle have watered there for years, and I won’t stand for this! You may own the land, but you don’t have the water rights!”
“In fact, I do have the water rights, but your cattle can still water from the spring.
“How do you propose they do that with a fence in their path?”
“Me and my boy here built us a flume and a stock trough on your side of the fence.”
Pa turned to me.
“Fetch our horses, Jack, and we’ll ride out there.
Big Red sat and studied our work for some time before anyone spoke. The spring was halfway up the hill, and used to run down to a boggy area that Pa didn’t much care for, so he dammed it up at the source, and the overflow ran down the flume to the long wooden trough. From there, the overflow emptied into a dry wash.
Big Red took off his hat and ran his fingers through that fiery mop of hair.
“I reckon I owe you an apology, mister. This here setup is far better than what used to be. Why, if I had a dollar for every cow we pulled out of that muddy bog…”
He grinned again, extending his hand to Pa, and Pa took it. Then, to my utter astonishment, he also extended his hand to me. It was the first time a full growed man ever done that, and I guess I hesitated. Then Big Red spoke softly.
“When a man gives you his hand, you take it with a firm grip and give it a shake. That’s when men are obliged to stop calling you ‘boy’.”
I grinned, and took his enormous hand in mine and gave it a shake. I felt like I had just taken a big step up on the invisible ladder of life.
When we rode back into the farmyard, Sally was standing on the porch watching us. She was two years younger than me at ten, but she had a wisdom about her that was far beyond her age. Big Red grinned down at her.
“Howdy, little britches!”
Sally looked him square in the eye.
“My name is Sally, if you please.”
Big Red took off his hat and made another big swooping bow from the saddle.
“Yes’m. Sally Little Britches it is!”
Sally tried to keep a straight face but failed. She smiled and waved her hand at Big Red in dismissal as she went back into the cabin.
For the next four years, we built buildings and made the necessary improvements needed for comfort and also to meet the homestead requirements. Then one day, Pa proudly announced that as of that day, we had exactly one year to go to fulfill the five year requirement. We celebrated that night with a cake Ma baked special, and went to bed late.
Ma died sometime that night in her sleep.
It was the sort of thing that ran in her family, and nobody knew the why of it. Her aunt and grandmother had also simply dropped dead for no apparent reason. Ma had never mentioned it, but Pa knew of it and it was never far from his mind, but he hoped that she would be spared. Now it had come at last, and she was gone.
Ma was always the first up before dawn, making coffee and frying bacon by the time Pa woke. That morning, the sun was breaking over the horizon before Pa opened his eyes and he knew immediately that something was bad wrong because ma was still lying there beside him. At first he thought she was still asleep, but when he touched her she was cold and stiff. His sobbing woke me up.
The funeral was attended by folks from miles around. By that time, Ma was well known and loved by everyone. We buried her on the knoll where she could look down on us, and maybe smile. Then, one by one, them folks all left and me and Sally were alone with Pa.
Ma’s loss weighed heavily on all of us, but Pa was never the same. Oh, he went on like he knew ma would have wanted, and he saw to me and Sally, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it.
Then one morning, Sally picked up her buckets and headed for the briar patches to pick berries. I followed her and took buckets of my own. We picked for a time, and then I asked what she was going to do with the berries, what with Ma gone. She looked at me at me like I had no sense at all.
“I’m going to make jam of course.”
“You mean you know how?”
“Well of course I do. Do you think I could have helped Mama all those times without learning how?”
For a long time we picked berries in silence, and then I noticed that the front of Sally’s dress was damp. At first I thought it was dew, but then I realized there was no dew. I put down my bucket and walked over to her. Then I saw the tears streaming down her cheeks and realized that she was finally crying for her lost mother. I took her bucket from her small hands and put it down. Then I put my arms around her and she did not resist. For a long, long time we stood like that, and if I was to be honest, I shed tears of my own. But poor little Sally had lost her beloved mother far too soon, and her little shoulders shook with grief. Finally, she backed away, and smiled up at me through her tears.
“Thank you, Jack.” She patted me on the arm and went back to berry pickin’.
Things were never the same between me and Sally after that. We both had to grow up before our time and take Ma’s place. We never bickered again, and came to love each other like Ma would have wanted.
When folks heard that Sally was making Ma’s jams and jellies, business picked up again, and Sally surprised everyone with a new batch of her own. When the cowboys came around, they now took off their hats to honor ‘Sally Little Britches’. She took it with good humor, and soon most folk called her that.
She turned thirteen that November, just a week before Pa died.
Like I said, Pa was never the same after Ma died. He didn’t eat well, and I’d hear him late into the night moving about restlessly. I found myself taking on more and more of the chores around the place, as he sat on the porch lost in thought and facing the knoll where Ma lay. Then one morning, I couldn’t find him.
He was laying by the path coming down from Ma’s grave, and just like Ma, he was cold and stiff. The doctor from the Fort said it was probably his heart, and not bein’ able to accept Ma’s passing. I guess pa just grieved himself to death.
We laid him next to Ma, and once again, folks from all around came to pay their respects. Then we were alone again. I was sixteen, and Sally Little Britches was barely thirteen.
After that cold night with not enough firewood to keep us warm, I was in the tool shed working hard on sharpening that bucksaw when I heard riders and a wagon. It was Big Red and four hands.
He came up to me and stuck out his hand. I took it and gave it a shake. He nodded at me.
“I’ve come to fetch you two and take you to the big house. Mister Connelly would have a word with you about your homestead land now that your folks are gone. He heard from me that you don’t like to be ordered about, so he’s requesting your presence, not ordering it. You can come along or not, as you choose.”
Pa always said it’s best to face the bear than wait for him to attack when you don’t expect it, so I nodded.
“It’s almost a full day’s ride, so fetch your belongings and possibles to the back of the wagon. Pordy Jones here will stay here and look after things.”
Sally looked at Pordy and shook her small finger at him.
“You can have that open jar of jam, and there’s a loaf of fresh bread in the box, but you stay out of my pantry, you hear?”
Pordy grinned and winked at her.
I looked at Pordy too, but shamefaced.
“You’ll need to sharpen the bucksaw in the shed so’s you can cut them logs to stove length. Then you’ll need to sharpen that ax so’s you can split ‘em up for firewood. I left both out in the weather when Pa passed on, and they’re rusty. There ain’t no firewood cut. None at all.”
Pordy come up to me and gently put his big hand on my shoulder.
“You done fine, Jack, what with all that happened. Don’t know that any of us would have done better.”
They didn’t call it the Big House for nothing. Our little place was pretty, sure enough, but this house was the grandest thing I’d ever seen. There were four big columns holding up the front porch roof, and I counted five chimneys! Five!
The lawn and trees were all brown with winter, but anyone could see that it would be all green and shady, come spring and summer. All the ranch barns and outbuildings were far enough down the road to keep the flies in check, but they too were a beautiful sight.
Big Red led us into the house, and knocked on the largest pair of doors I had ever seen. A deep, booming voice told us to come on in, and the man seated behind the desk was the grandest site of all. His massive head was covered in pure white hair and his face was almost hidden by a long white beard to match. He looked at us with unsmiling and piercing blue eyes, obviously sizing us up. Then he came from behind the desk, but to my astonishment he never got up. He was wheeling himself in a chair.
He was a huge man, even sitting down, and I guess my mouth sorta hung down, because he waved a hand at me.
“I fell off a horse a few years ago, and now I am stuck in this damn contraption.”
He looked at Sally.
“You must be Sally Little Britches, and I’m asking your pardon for my rough talk. I’m not used to have a lady around.”
Then he looked at me.
“I know you don’t own that land. I also know you have less than a year to prove up on it, but with your father and mother gone, two children like you don’t have much chance, now do you?’
Well, I got mad right away, and was about to light in to that old goat, when I felt Big Red’s firm hand on my shoulder. I decided to shut up and see what was going to happen.
“George here tells me that you two are a real asset to folks in these parts, so I have a proposition for you. I’ll see to it that Martha and Joe move in with you and look to your needs while you last out those last few months and prove up on your land. Martha and Joe Callahan have cooked for us and maintained the house long enough. Time for them to retire, and they will after this last little chore.”
George? That was the first time I’d heard Big Red’s given name.
The old man wheeled himself over the desk and picked up a few sheets of paper.
“This is your part of the bargain. You’ll sell me things like chicken, milk, cheese, and most of all, your raspberry jam. You’ll also allow Martha to teach you the things you don’t know to complete your education. Agreed? If so, sign here, young Jack.”
While I was reading the paper, the old man wheeled himself over by Sally. He put his huge hand on her small shoulder, and the craggy old face broke out in a smile.
“So you’re the famous Sally Little Britches. I am pleased to make your acquaintance, my dear.”
To my utter astonishment, Sally curtsied politely to the old man. Where she learned that, I had no notion. The old man grinned and looked up at Big Red, who smiled and nodded his head.
That night was the first time I ever slept on a store bought mattress. But even though it was so comfortable, it was a long time before my mind stopped racing, what with all that had happened. And of course, I was surprised that big Jacob Connelly had decided to allow us to stay. At last, I drifted off and slept peacefully.
“I understand that Mister Callahan and I are to have the privilege of going home with you and Sally.”
Martha Callahan was a grandmotherly lady with gray hair and a kindly, easy way about her. When she smiled, which was often, she reminded me of Ma. We were eating breakfast, when she cautioned us not to eat too much. When I asked her why, she smiled again.
“Why, today is Thanksgiving Day, that’s why, and I have four turkeys in the ovens, plus all sorts of pies and, well, just all kinds of good things to eat! So don’t get too full of breakfast.”
I guess with all that had happened, I plumb forgot what day it was. I wasn’t even sure what week it was, but it became a fine day with lots of laughter, and cowboys doting on Sally Little Britches. There was even a few jars of her jams on the table. She blushed at all the attention, and for the first time, I realized that my little sister was turning into a lovely young lady. It was a good day, and I just wished Ma and Pa could have been there. Maybe they were.
It was late the following afternoon before we got back to the home place. There was a big pile of firewood cut and split, and both the saw and ax were razor sharp. I found Pordy Jones and thanked him for his kindness. His face and bald head turned crimson at the praise, so I shut up.
The Double C cowboys all bedded down in the barn, and the next morning, Martha Callahan fed them early just like Ma used to do. Then they saddled up and set off for the ranch. I called out to Big Red and he rode on back, looking down at me from high on his horse.
“I know you had something to do with old man Connelly’s decision to let us prove up on this land. I’m forever grateful for your courage in standing up to him.”
Big Red broke into his big grin.
“Hell, Jack, it wasn’t all that hard. My name is Connelly too, and that old man is my daddy!”