|All the world outside the house had turned white for Angelina's twelfth birthday, and Sam's thirteenth.
It was a dreamy vision all at once mild and noble and tame, a foot of glittering, fleecy white snow following along the smooth contours of the ground. Floating close overhead, the backlit sky glowed spectral and featureless with the diffused light of midday. A gentle but steady settling down of fresh snow occupied the narrow space in between Heaven and Earth. The soft world outside the window, white and mute, appeared to Joseph a magical and pure, new place, clean and cold, untrodden and untouched. It was an icy wonderland that stirred up sentimental notions of home and hearth and the incipient Yuletide season, not two weeks away.
Every year they celebrated the birthdays on December tenth, because Angelina had been born on the ninth, and Sam on the eleventh.
Partly muffled voices tottered out intermittently from the dining room, but only now and again did he bother to pay attention to what was being said. Now feminine laughter lifted in the other room, Walter's heavy baritone rising up accordingly to transiently puncture Joseph's solitude. He was telling some funny story about Indians visiting McGregor, chiefs named Black Dog and Little Crow, and with other names that no English tongue could pronounce. More laughter followed, but soon it quieted again and the conversation fell away.
The sweet aroma of baking bread wafted throughout the house. Joseph breathed on the glass and watched it fog. He drew a small circle there and a pair of squiggles. Meaningless window doodles.
It was cold sitting by the window, but he didn't mind. A fire crackled at the end of the parlor, but it was dying down. Soon he would have to go out to the shed to bring more wood inside.
All bundled up early this morning, he had ventured out into the biting cold to feed the animals and break the ice on the trough. The horses stamped and whinnied when he came into the barn, steam blasting from their big, velvety nostrils. Only a few inches of icy snow had crusted the ground then, and the air had been brittle in his lungs. But now, safe inside from the shivery cold, the warmth of the house enfolded him in its nestling embrace.
He raised his gaze. If the clouds were moving across the sky, he couldn't tell it. All was white and appeared motionless. All human activity seemed to have been postponed indefinitely. Everything had stopped, surely. Everyone everywhere must be suspended in the same spellbinding reverie.
It's a trick, he thought. Serenity.
The winter storm had only brought a temporary reprieve to the agitation that had been building for months in advance of the election. Now all that remained was this brief period of calm, and then. . . .What?
"There won't be a war," Aunt Charlotte had declared many times when others had been enthusing in the growing excitement. This war-talk bothered her. "How could there be? No country can go to war with itself."
In the other room their voices were relaxed enough today. The deceptive calm had overcome them, too. Aunt Charlotte, he knew, would be scurrying about with the teapot, nervously refilling cups, returning it to its hook, and fussing over the oven. Walter, her brother, was visiting from Prairie du Chien with his wife, Bessie. They had arrived the previous afternoon. Walter Garner seemed to move somewhat stiffly for his forty years, but maybe, Joseph thought, it wasn't because of his age but merely his formal manner. He wore a neatly trimmed black moustache and possessed dark, unblinking eyes that shone like polished obsidian, hinting at a deep-seated sense of wry humor. His wife, in contrast, seemed a featureless, prematurely old, gray doll. They were only the latest in a never-ending series of relatives and friends that Ben had arranged to have come stay at the house for a few days in his absence.
That had been the best thing about the Panic, Joseph thought: it had kept Ben away for weeks at a time in Chicago, and in Columbus and Cleveland, and sometimes farther east in Boston and New York, trying to recover the family fortune. For a few years several of the houses in and around Volga City had been left abandoned, families forced out of their homes to somehow limp back up the Ohio River valley, all their holdings repossessed by the banks. That was the period when you heard about nothing other than grain prices and overextended railroad companies and the Ohio Life and Trust and hard and soft currencies and interest rates, most of which meant little enough to Joseph. He remembered the night that Ben had tried to explain to Aunt Charlotte what was happening. It had begun as a fight over a shopping trip she had made to Dubuque. She had kept turning her back on him, refusing to hear him scolding her for her spending habits. Finally Ben had grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her around to face him, shouting that he had just lost ten thousand dollars. Then her face had gone white, first with anger, then that giving way to horror. Finally she had begun to pay attention.
Conditions were improving now, though. New neighbors were moving back into the abandoned houses, one by one. Soon, Ben promised, he'd be back home for good, and then life could begin to return to normal.
Too late for that now, Joseph thought.
Other than Ben's absence, the Panic had introduced few direct consequences into Joseph's life. He continued to perform most of the outside chores, while Aunt Charlotte persisted in affecting a public life of extravagance on her severely stiffened budget. But even her fancy dresses had grown threadbare. She'd fooled no one, Joseph thought.
Most of the abandoned houses were in town, not out on the farms, except among the new farmers who had spent every cent they owned to move West right before the troubles came. His own brothers seemed to be doing fine, although he had little contact with them. He'd seen Bill and Andy once or twice when they happened to pass through town on the way to Elkader or the river, but he hadn't seen John in years. If his brothers traveled at all, it was more commonly westward to Fayette than up this way. Sometimes he thought about riding down to visit the old places, but for some reason he never did. For one thing, who would tend the livestock while he was gone? Sam? Sam helped with few chores either outside or in the house, spending most of his time reading. Aunt Charlotte and Ben both hoped Sam would one day be a lawyer. Joseph suspected Sam was too dull to ever be a lawyer. Sam was the only one of their children for whom they sustained any ambition. Sam was still heavy, but he was growing taller, which mitigated against the frank fatness of his childhood.
Joseph had never been as heavy as Sam, but the same was true for him, too: he'd grown about six inches this year, and his baby-fat was melting away to reveal the emerging shape of a strong young man, but freckles still peppered the bridge of his nose.
Neither Ben nor Aunt Charlotte had ever pretended to give a second thought to any future career for Joseph. He did the work around the place. His role in the family was one of servitude. Angelina's role in the household, too, was long-since established. She was mostly responsible for taking care of her sisters ‑‑ Sarah, who was now nine, and Lillie, who was seven. One day the girls would grow up and marry and move away to support their husbands. Joseph understood these facts of life and he didn't mind. He supposed he was lucky enough that they had taken him in after his Papa and Mama had died.
Lucky yes, he thought, because a lot of people aren't so lucky. We could have lost our house too, like the Nogles did. Ben's got no brains, but he didn't lose the house, did he. Had to go out and work to keep it, but at least he did that. And no one's gotten sick. That's lucky too. Other people are always dying of terrible diseases or in accidents. Like those immigrants from Ohio last month who got caught in the prairie fire. His wagon all burnt up after he got kicked in the head by one of the horses, and then him lLooking up, seeing his wife trying to come out of the wagon holding a little baby and them all in flames. They said one of the kids, there was nothing left but a piece of his skull. Land of ash and bone. And howling windstorms wiping out whole towns out on the plains. Or even down south, on the river, into Illinois. A little girl went to fetch a pail of water and was carried six miles by the wind before it set her down into a destroyed house. They found her waiting, sitting on a feather bed. Or then there were those kids killed down by Cedar Rapids. Their teacher was about to start lessons as a storm boiled up, and just then a bolt of lightning struck the schoolhouse. How many killed? Three or four, I think. Blink of an eye, all gone.
Angelina didn't want to hear him talk about how he was lucky. She was more troubled by how he was treated in the family than Joseph was himself. The thought made him smile. It was funny because, while he had turned fifteen in April, and she was still a young girl, it was nevertheless Angelina who was always telling him he needed to stand up for himself.
Of course he had stood up for himself sometimes, but always it made Aunt Charlotte furious and ended with him being forced to endure a long, faintly ridiculous, talking-to from Ben, and then whatever punishment they'd concocted between them. It was useless to complain.
"Just remember that one day you won't have to live here anymore." Andy had told him that last summer when they were alone together for a few minutes. "You'll get some work somewhere, and you'll save up some money, and you'll get to move out of this place. Just keep that in mind."
Joseph recalled that hot afternoon when Andy had come through town, stopping for no more than an hour for a glass of Aunt Charlotte's cold iced tea. While he was resting, Andy had told them about a trip he'd made with his wife in the spring, taking a steamer all the way down to St Louis, and then a train across Missouri to St Joseph. The streets of St Joseph had been full of scruffy-looking deadbeats and rickety wagons crudely painted with the words "Pike's Peak or Bust!" The big news in town was that they'd just brought a famous abolitionist named Doy to the jail, a Kansas nigger-stealer. Ben, who happened to have been home at the time, asked Andy if the Missouri border was as bad as they said. Andy said no, he thought the Panic had cooled everybody down. "In fact," Andy said, "It's a lot of the old troublemakers on the border who are packing it in for Colorado."
"We had our own gold rush last year," Ben said. "You hear about that? Down at Strawberry Point?"
Andy frowned, squinting at him from the corners of his eyes. "No."
"That's right," Ben said, "Down by your place. Surprised you didn't hear about it. And then they even found a little bit of gold up here near Volga, I think it was up at Chicken Ridge." He turned his gaze to his half-brother. "That right, Joe? Was it at Chicken Ridge?"
"I don't remember," Joseph said, bored.
"Yeah, Chicken Ridge," Ben said, "or maybe down closer to the Osborne place. I don't know, I just heard about it. Course nothing came of it."
In a glancing exchange, Andy had given Joseph that mock-pitying look that said they shared a secret, and the secret was that Ben was a little sappy, and Andy felt sympathy for Joseph. All in one quick glance.
A little while later, when Andy was getting ready to leave the house and continue on his journey, Joseph walked with him past the gate. That was when Andy said to remember that it wouldn't always be this way.
What would it be like, Joseph wondered now as he watched the snow fall, to leave behind everything that you knew and head off into the West in a covered wagon. It must be like intentionally walking off the edge of a cliff, he thought. To cross Iowa and enter into Nebraska Territory, or go on to Oregon, or California. Or to go south along the Mississippi River all the way to New Orleans. Or even just to make the loop trip that Andy and Aunt Emily had made to Missouri. Suddenly a longing to get away filled up every atom of his being. He couldn't remember having even seen the Mississippi River, and that was less than thirty miles away. It seemed impossible to imagine that he would ever get to go on any big trip anywhere. He felt stuck.
But maybe Andy's right. Someday I'll get out of here. I just have to be patient for a few more years.
A few more years seemed a very long time to wait.
The parlor was very quiet. The logs in the fireplace which had been popping had now settled down into red glowing coals. Aunt Charlotte and Walter and Bessie were speaking in the other room, and now and again Joseph found himself listening to their conversation.
"I do wish we had a piano," he heard Aunt Charlotte say. "Do you remember when we lived in Rutland, and Mother had the lovely piano? She had such a fine singing voice."
"And so did you," Walter replied.
"Not like she did. And not like you, either. Oh Bessie, you ought to have heard Walter sing then!"
"He used to sing," Bessie said. "He never sings now."
"He used to be such a fine, fine singer," Aunt Charlotte said. Her voice faltered a moment before she went on. "Ben was going to get us a piano. He did get us a piano, but it was lost."
"Lost?" Walter said.
"Yes. He was having it sent by steamer all the way from Cincinnati last year, but the boat burned up at Cairo, if you can believe it."
"Oh no!" Bessie said.
"He had insurance, of course, but it didn't fully cover the loss."
"Better than nothing, I suppose," Walter said.
"He ought to have sent it by train," Aunt Charlotte said.
"The river's so dangerous," Bessie said. "And those steamers! Floating tinderboxes, I say."
Joseph heard footsteps at his back, someone coming up the hallway. He recognized the sound and turned around on the chair.
Angelina came into the room with her long hair folding like a dark hood around her elfin, almost boyish features. Her hair was black and a little bit coarse. She smiled when she saw him, the corners of her mouth dimpling in slightly, and she came his way. She was in her party dress, and he suddenly noticed that she was growing too. Her eyes were alert and shining. She had always seemed more intelligent than her years, or if not more intelligent than at least brighter, more aware of her surroundings. Aunt Charlotte always seemed distant and cold, he thought, while Angelina always seemed close and warm. Her complexion was a little dark, but she never failed to instantly brighten any room she entered. He thought how even the older girls at school seemed more dumb and boring than Angelina. There was a footstool close by the red velvet chair where he was, and she pulled it closer to him and sat down on it. She was carrying the wooden box full of tiny beads that Walter and Bessie had brought for her birthday. She opened it up and he saw all the little pocket-drawers inside in which the colorful little pieces of glass were carefully segregated by color and shape. She took out a needle and thread and resumed work on something she had begun earlier in the morning.
"What are you making?" he asked.
"Just a necklace. It's just practice. Later I can make a purse, or sew the beads onto a dress or something." She looked up from her work at him. "You don't want to join them in the other room?"
"Naw. I've just been watching the snow."
She nodded and turned back to her work, falling silent.
He watched her for a while. It was something she liked to do, come find him and sit by him in silence, going on then with whatever it was that she was doing. It seemed like she had always done that, that she came to wherever he was, in the house or outside. Not getting in the way, just being nearby. He thought maybe she viewed him as her big brother the protector.
My little sister, he thought. It was always puzzling, though, because she wasn't his sister. Not really. One more time he tried to work it out in his mind.
Papa's name was Judiah Garner, and his Papa was Oliver Garner, who died in Pennsylvania before I was born. Oliver and Olive. And John Wesley is one of Papa's brothers, which makes him my uncle. He lives down in Iowa City, past Cedar Rapids; he's come here a few times to visit, because Aunt Charlotte is his daughter. And I always forget, she's not really my aunt but my cousin, but we called her that right from the first because of how pushy she was. Who called her that first? Andy or Bill; probably Bill, right after we met them the first time when they came to Volga City, but after I came here to live she wanted me to call her that because it sounded like she had more authority to boss me around than if I called her Cousin Charlotte. . . .Mama first married a Broyles; his name was Malcolm. That makes Ben my half-brother, and so Aunt Charlotte is my cousin and my sister-in-law too. Or my half-sister-in-law. So if Ben was a son of a Broyles and a Jordan, then he has no Garner blood. No blood connection. That's why it was okay. But if there was enough distance. . . .because for example sometimes cousins get married, even first cousins. So then what are Aunt Charlotte and Ben to each other? Papa was his step-father, so John Wesley I guess is his step-uncle, so Aunt Charlotte is his step-cousin. And. . . .so what does that make Angelina to me? Am I just her uncle, and that's all there is to it? Her father's brother. . . .But that can't be right because Ben's not my full brother, and besides she must be like a second-cousin by way of Aunt Charlotte, and something like a, a. . . .half-niece-in-law by way of Ben. But she's my sister too, or she seems like she is sometimes, even though she's a Broyles and I'm a Garner. Or something like a half-sister, or maybe just some kind of foster-sister, or. . . .I don't know, it's too hard to work out. Sam's never going to be my brother, that's for sure.
He watched Angelina working for a while. Another lull had fallen over the conversation in the dining room, but momentarily Joseph heard Walter speak up.
"That reminds me of a story. There's a butcher in McGregor whose name is Sciville, or something like that. An Englishman. I don't guess you ever heard of him?"
"Can't say as I have," Aunt Charlotte replied.
"I knew him a little," Walter continued. "I'd made a few purchases at his shop when I was on this side of the river. Seemed a decent enough fellow, a little daft, perhaps. A little deaf in one ear, so you always had to raise your voice, and he'd cock his head and squint his eyes to hear what you were asking for. Not too bright, but how bright do you have to be to be a butcher? Anyway, I hadn't been over in a while, but I came across on business in early May, I think it was, a couple years ago, and I went to the butcher shop to get something to eat. But instead of the butcher I ran into an old friend of mine, Sandford Peck, who was also looking for old Sciville. Turns out the law had been tipped off that the butcher was involved with some thieves who had been working the river, and Peck asked if I wanted to join his posse. I agreed to do so.
"There were only a handful of us, six or seven. The tipster had told Peck that Sciville was hiding on an island near the old Indian mounds where the Sny Magill reaches the river. We took a little skiff down and captured Sciville and two accomplices of his, an old half-blind man and a young boy no more than nine or ten.
"This is where the story gets interesting, because we quickly learned from these rascals that they were only in cahoots with a bigger gang run by a former veterinary doctor from McGregor who went by the name of Dr Bell ‑‑ Peck and the others knew of him, but I didn't. Our prisoners claimed Bell wasn't far away, that he was on a boat loaded with stolen property."
Bessie's voice now cut in. "There had been thefts reported in Prairie du Chien," she said, "but no one had put two and two together yet."
"And in McGregor," Walter said.
"Different things stolen out of people's yards, and even out of their homes when they were away," Bessie said. "Even a few boats had been stolen, or sometimes boats were just ransacked when no one was on board."
"We took our prisoners back to town," Walter said. "That was the end of the story for me, so I missed out in what happened afterward."
"Thank goodness!" Bessie said.
"Why? What happened?" Aunt Charlotte asked.
"Well, I only found out the details yesterday when we crossed the river again. I guess the next morning after I left, Peck and his posse went back down the river looking for Dr Bell, using the boy as their guide. Peck and his men were hiding in the brush and the boy called out to Bell from the shore where his boat was tied up. When Bell came out on deck, Peck and the others came up out of the brush to arrest him. Then a gunfight ensued, with even Bell's wife shooting a shotgun at the posse. Peck managed to hit Bell a grazing blow off the head, but quickly the boat slipped away downstream and disappeared into the fog."
"You mean they got away?" Aunt Charlotte said, sounding aghast.
"For a while," Walter said. "The next day Peck returned with a bigger posse, but Bell was long gone. Still, they found two abandoned boats that were loaded down with more than five thousand dollars worth of stolen property."
"It gets better than that," Walter said. "It turns out that Bell had scores of pirates working for him all up and down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. It was a regular business enterprise. Everything came to Bell, and everyone got a cut. Eventually the stolen goods would be shipped down river all the way to the gulf, and everything was sold in Texas. Who knows how many thousands of dollars worth of property they stole throughout the country."
"I don't believe it!" Aunt Charlotte said. "And did they ever catch this Dr Bell?"
"It took a while," Walter said, "but I believe they caught him in Michigan."
Angelina looked up from her sewing at Joseph. "The bread will be done soon," she said.
He inhaled, smelling it. "Yes," he said.
"Do you think there's going to be a war?" she asked, slightly angling her head.
He looked at her closely. "Yes," he said.
"Andy told me. I believe Andy."
She was silent for a moment, absorbing this, and then she said: "What will happen when the war starts?"
He shook his head.
"I don't know. No one knows."
She nodded. "Do you think Papa will have to go and fight?"
"I don't know. He's more than thirty years old. He might. But maybe because of his business he won't have to."
"How about. . . .you and Sam?"
"I don't think so. We're not old enough. It will be over before either of us would have to go."
She put the necklace she was making down into the box which was open in her lap. She reached over to his hand and held onto it.
"I hope you never have to go."
"Me too," Joseph said.
He thought: Me too.