Lou sat listlessly on the porch swing, barely pushing herself back and forth, back and forth; the swing creaked softly in time. Teaspoon watched her in silence for a moment, the lines on her brow and around her mouth, the shine of her eyes, all attesting to another painful conversation with Jeremiah. Teaspoon felt a familiar tightness around his heart as he did anytime one of his "boys" was hurting.
"Got room for an old man there?" he asked at last, sitting down beside her and breaking the swing's gentle rhythm. Lou only nodded. He put an arm around her and sighed, "Give him time, sweetheart, he'll realize what you did for him and Theresa one of these days."
"I don't know, Teaspoon. These days I think he might be right. I did leave them," her voice broke a little at the last with guilt and grief. "I should've stayed, maybe I - "
But Teaspoon would not let her finish. "Lou," he said, his voice uncharacteristically somber, "You acted for the best. And believe me, when that boy gets a little older and realizes that, he is goin' to feel like one low down snake to have treated you this way. I can promise you that." Teaspoon started the swing to swaying again and dug through his pocket, pulling out a bundle of faded calico. "Here, I want to show you somethin'." He pulled away the fabric and held out his hand to Lou. Cupped inside it was a tarnished locket.
He did not remember his real mother. The woman he called mother had tried to say nice things about her, but the reality was that Aloysius had been born on the wrong side of the tracks and the Hunters, who took him in and raised him as their own, were decidedly right side of the track people. They left Orleans for Texas not long after Aloysius came to them, and as he grew he felt thankful rather than regretful that he could not visit the shack he'd been born in, nor trace the older sister who'd left before his mother's death.
There were lots of Hunters. Four boys, all older than Al, and one girl, two years younger. They treated him no different than each other and they scrapped and teased and laughed together as though the ties that bound them were as strong as blood. The family worked hard, carving out a farm and a life on a frontier and Al loved every moment of it.
He was fourteen and was plowing alone under strict direction to finish the field that afternoon. But he lollygagged behind the mule and read a book on the sly. There was nothing unusual in the day, not in the sun that popped beads of sweat onto his forehead or the whir of cicadas or the pungent smell of freshly turned earth.
He looked up from his book at the sound of his name to find his mother standing at the edge of the field with another woman and one of his brothers trudging across the furrows towards him. His brother looked irritated when he reached him, "Ma wants you. Says I got to finish your plowing." He looked at the crooked work Al had already done and sighed. "This is all you've done? Pa said it's gotta get done today. How'm I gonna finish this?"
Al was not paying attention. "Who else is over there?" The farm rarely had visitors and even less rarely female ones.
"Some lady come by in a fancy coach. She's here to see you."
Al looked at his brother in confusion, "Me?" Maybe she was from a school. Al desperately wanted to get a fine education and had written a few letters of inquiry, but the only option that seemed open to a poor farm boy other than farming was the military. He felt his heartbeat pick up. Maybe one of the schools he'd written to had been impressed, maybe they'd wanted to offer a scholarship, maybe… A woman was unexpected, of course; he didn't know of any place with a woman dean or professor but then he lived in the middle of nowhere, a day's ride from even a small town; who knew what life was like in the larger world. And besides, who else could it possibly be? He jogged across the field, trying unsuccessfully to keep the grin from his face.
"Aloysius," his mother said when he reached them, her voice pinched tight, "You have a visitor."
Al tipped his hat in deference to the tall woman. Her dress rustled in the breeze. It was deep plum color, with black lace at the collar and wrists and it seemed to shine next to his mother's own faded dress and the dirty apron tied over it. For a moment, Al was ashamed.
"Aloysius!" The woman smiled and suddenly pulled him into a hug, taking no mind of the dust and sweat that smeared across her lovely dress. She smelt sickly sweet, of flowers and sugar and something else, something dark and musky. Al could not decide if it was a pleasant smell or not. Up close he could see the powder caked on her skin, which was not nearly as flawless as it had seemed from a distance. Her lips were dry and cracked and he thought they were painted. In the hollow of her throat glinted a cheap heart shaped locket. He felt his excitement melt away. This was surely not someone from a school. Al pushed away quickly, noting the disapproval in his mother's eye.
"Perhaps we could go up to the house and have some lemonade while we talk," said his mother in tones Al recognized as scolding. He nodded and followed her, the woman ecstatically grabbing his hand and walking beside him.
"Oh, it's like a dream to finally see you again," the woman gushed. Her voice was carefully calibrated, as sweet and soft as a sparrow's song. "There were times when I thought I might never find you. This farm is awfully out of the way - but lovely," she added hastily noting the sudden proud lift of his mother's chin. She looked at Al with a smile, "Do you remember me at all?" Embarrassed, Al shook his head.
The woman's face seemed to fall and his mother said in a flat voice, "This is your sister, Al, Miss Leroy."
On the porch, lemonade in hand, Al looked from his mother's pursed lips to the woman, who seemed suddenly nervous. She waved a gaudily painted fan against the heat and pushed at her hair where the perfect curls had begun to fall and wilt. She laughed anxiously and with a glance at his mother spoke. "I know I haven't seemed like much of a sister, Al. I know I should have written, should have kept up. But I didn't know where you were at first, and I was, well, I've been…" She looked again at his mother and dropped her eyes to the ground, "Times were hard at first. It was very difficult just takin' care of myself, but," she looked up at him and smiled again, "That's all changed now and I've been savin' up, bought a house, and I've come for you. We can be a family again."
"Come for me?" Al looked immediately to his mother, who said nothing.
"Of course," the woman continued, "Soon as I heard mama died that's what I've been workin' for. You're my brother, and I oughta be takin' care of you. Now, the Hunters have been real good people takin' you in like they did but there ain't no reason for you to be livin' off their charity anymore. Not when you've got real kin."
Al was stunned. He looked at his mother who was surreptitiously wiping away a tear. She spoke quickly, her voice poised between anger and sadness, "It weren't charity. Al's a true joy and we've loved him like one of our own."
The woman looked perplexed and fanned herself faster, the perfect pitch of her voice becoming lost. "And I appreciate it, Mrs. Hunter, I do. But I'm here now. It's only right Al be with his real family."
Al took one look at his mother's face and immediately spoke up, "No." The two women looked at him in shock. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but I can't go with you. This is my home and this is my family."
The woman looked as though she might faint. Her pale face went even whiter and her hands trembled. "Surely you will want to think about it, first. I know we hardly know each other, but we are blood."
Al shook his head. "That might be true, but the Hunters have been the only family I've known. It's too late for anybody to go changin' that." He noticed his mother's smile out of the corner of his eye.
The woman remained speechless, staring at him. A tear forged a path through the powder on her face. The pieces seemed to click together for Al for the first time. His mother's frosty demeanor, the woman's dress, her smell, the makeup. He knew little of the world, but he knew enough to know what she was and what she had done and the price she had paid to build a home for him. And knowing it changed nothing.
"I didn't see her again," he said, squeezing Lou's hand and letting his eyes go misty. "Mother of course offered her a place at the farm, but they were both set in their ways and Fancy knew well enough to say no. There were a few letters now and then. She thought I didn't know, so there wasn't a lot she could tell me about herself or her life. I never knew how she got that house. If she was being kept by a gentleman or if she had girls working for her by then, I don't know. She died a few years after I met her. Had given directions to somebody, I suppose, because a package came to the farm. Her locket and seven hundred dollars that she'd sold her pride to save for me." He looked at Lou and hugged her gently. "He'll come around, Lou. Once he gets old enough to see that things ain't never black and white, he'll come around."
Teaspoon carefully wrapped the locket back into the bit of calico and tucked it into his pocket. He and Lou stayed on the swing until the sun had set and both their tears had dried.