Penny Baxter felt under the weather with rheumatism, and therefore not up to the hunting trip that he’d planned with the Forresters, but he urged Jody to go on anyway. Eager for any time spent with the big, fascinating men, as well as for the hunt, but reluctant to leave Penny behind, Jody acquiesced conflictedly.
The hunt went well all day, and at the campfire in the evening, the Forresters brought out the whiskey in celebration, although no one pressured Jody to participate, knowing that Penny would not approve, and that the boy was not used to it.
Jovially, Buck instructed Jody, “Remember, boy, never drink ‘til the huntin’s done. Never hunt drunk.”
“’Cause you might shoot each other. Not a good idea,” he told him playfully.
Jody was so surprised by that answer that he spontaneously chuckled.
Lem took immediate offense, as usual, and challenged, “You think that’s funny?”
Jody was embarrassed. “No, it ain’t.” He looked at Buck. “Jest the way you said it.” He’d learned his father’s trick of meeting Lem’s provocations by turning his reply to Buck instead. His favorite Forrester gave him a slight smile of acknowledgement.
Mill-wheel commented blandly, “Your buddy Oliver’d think ‘twas funny. The idea of us shootin’ each other.”
Jody looked guilty. “Yeah, he would.” Then he thought about it for a moment, and changed his mind. He said more emphatically, “No, he’d not! He’s a nice feller, honest! Iffen you’d jest git to know him…!”
Buck responded quietly, “Ain’t much chance o’ that now.”
“No,” Jody said sadly. “But iffen things’d goed diff’rent, you’da liked him.”
Mill-wheel said suddenly, shrewdly, “Care to put that to the test?”
The young blond was instantly on guard. “What you mean?”
Lem eyed him. “Thought you trusted us.”
“I do. Oliver don’t. And I cain’t be responsible for….”
Buck cut him off. “What’s your idea, Mill-wheel?” He shot Jody a glance that said, Hear Mill-wheel out before you get defensive.
Mill-wheel said slowly, “What iffen jest one or two of us was to git together with him? Not you, Lem,” he added as he saw his beardless brother open his mouth. “Some neutral place,” he went on. “Not his place, nor ourn. The Glen, maybe. And…jest talk. ‘Bout anythin’. And you carry the message, Jody. Set it up.”
“Or set him up!” Jody was horrified. “Then it’ll be my fault if…!”
This time, Mill-wheel cut him off. “We promise not to hurt him. Jest talk.”
Buck offered, “I kin agree to that. The worst’ll happen, iffen we don’t git along, is we’ll jest leave.”
“That’s what I figgered.” Mill-wheel nodded.
Lem was grinning. “Care to make bets? I’m bettin’ he’ll be quarrelsome, and they’ll leave right quick.”
Arch’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll take that bet. I’m bettin’ Buck and Mill-wheel kin git along with anybody, long’s they’re tryin’ hard, and sober.”
Pack agreed. “I’m with Arch. ‘Sides, Oliver’ll be too scared to git uppity, after what done happened to him the other time. Put me down in this bet.”
Gabby protested, “This is Oliver we’re talkin’ ‘bout! The biggest hothead in Volusia! Put me down with Lem.”
Frustrated beyond decorum, Jody roared, “Wait a minute! I ain’t doin’ this! I cain’t! It might git him kilt!”
Lem sneered, “Whatsa matter? You got no faith in Oliver to behave, after all?”
Jody stared. “I got plenty o’ faith in Oliver, in Buck, and in Mill-wheel. But, Lem, you’ll know where he is, and when he’s there! And you been layin’ for him since the fight!”
Buck saw Lem’s temper flare, waved him down, and said mildly, “Jody, all we’re sayin’ is, tell Oliver. That’s all. Leave him decide.”
Jody was momentarily speechless in the face of that undeniably reasonable point. Then he thought of his next objection. “But you two?! Buck and Mill-wheel?! Okay, to me, you’re the ones who saved Pa, but to Oliver, you’re the two who ganged up on him when he fought Lem!”
Buck admitted, “I know. That’ll not he’p. But as I said, leave him decide.”
Jody squirmed. “If you don’t mind my askin’, what’s in it for him? Why should he risk it?”
Mill-wheel replied slowly, “Why, I figger that’s right obvious. Iffen he gits along with us two, he kin try two more, and so on. Iffen he gits along with all of us, maybe we’ll not threaten him no more, and he kin feel safe in his own town agin.”
Lem spoke softly, but ominously, “See, Jody, iffen he keeps on the way he’s goin’, sooner or later we’re gonna catch him. And the way things are now, that’d not be too healthy for him.”
Jody swallowed hard. What Lem had said was not news, but it was a lot more frightening to hear the dangerous man say it out loud, than to just know it as a fact.
Buck said in agreement, “We’re offerin’ him a chance to set it right, and maybe save his own life.”
Jody gulped again, and then managed, “Iffen I’m allowed to ask, what’s in it for you-all?”
Buck smiled for the first time in a while. “It’ll be interestin’.”
“You ain’t serious?!” declared Oliver.
Jody nodded. “Yeah, that’s jest what Pa said. The exact words.”
“Jody…! I don’t wanta die!”
He sighed. “They’re sayin’ this might be your best chance not to.”
“Well, dang, I’ll jest avoid ‘em!”
Jody eyed him. “Oliver, I’d not underestimate ‘em, iffen I was you. ‘Sides, ain’t a big town.”
Oliver turned his back, and walked a few steps away.
His younger friend continued to challenge. “Do you wanta hafta sneak around forever??? And be scared? And you only hafta git caught once, for it to be your last mistake.”
Oliver whirled. “And if they’re lyin’, this is it!”
“They ain’t lyin’.”
“I trust ‘em. They ain’t lyin’.”
“Ah nuts! The others’ll show up, and…!”
The boy cut him off. “The others’re makin’ bets whether you and two of ‘em’ll git along, or whether you’ll git nasty, and Buck and Mill-wheel’ll leave.”
“Whether I’ll git nasty!! Besides, Buck and Mill-wheel! Why them two?!”
“I know. They and I know that don’t he’p.”
“Don’t he’p?!” He stressed Jody’s understatement.
The child was becoming annoyed. “Well, jest remember, Oliver, them’s the two that saved Pa when he got snakebit, and that was after the fight.”
“Fine!” the sailor retorted sarcastically. “I’ll go git snakebit, then I’ll meet ‘em.”
“This whole thing is!”
“Fine. Like they said, it’s your choice. All I’m doin’ is givin’ you their message.”
Oliver stared more calmly into the wake of Jody’s having backed off. Another thought struck him. “Iffen you go back and tell ‘em I refused, they’ll know I ain’t got the guts to go near ‘em.” He reddened with embarrassment. Then his eyes narrowed. “Are you plannin’ on bein’ there?”
Jody sighed again. “I reckon I oughta. I kin he’p keep the talkin’ goin’, so’s it’ll not git too quiet and awkward. And I’ll pack us a picnic lunch.”
“A picnic,” Oliver marvelled. “A picnic with the Forresters. Well! What the hell.”
One very nervous Oliver sat at the Glen with Jody, and awaited Buck’s and Mill-wheel’s arrival.
Jody tried to give him reassuring smiles, but neither said much, for what was there to say? This either would work or wouldn’t, and if it didn’t, they might be about to face their worst nightmare. But if it did, Oliver could live without fear of the Forresters from then on. The stakes were indeed high.
When their two bearded companions arrived, Oliver did his best to smile. He tried to hide his relief that the two were, in fact, only two. “Howdy,” he said.
“Hey, Oliver,” Buck said genially. “How are ya?”
“I’m okay.” His smile grew shy and his eyes dropped, as he was thinking, I finally recovered from the beating; will I still be okay when you leave???
The two Forresters recognized his timidity, and correctly interpreted its meaning, but pointedly ignored it.
For a moment, no one knew what to say, and then Mill-wheel broke the ice with a harmless topic that he knew Oliver would be comfortable discussing. “Why do you like to go to sea?”
Actually, Oliver seemed stunned by the question. He couldn’t imagine anyone not loving it.
Mill-wheel clarified, “I mean, how kin you stand to leave the land, and go where there’s jest borin’ water?”
The sailor smiled beatifically. “Did you once see the moonlight across the ocean, you’d not ask that.”
They grew thoughtful at his answer.
“And it’s also seein’ new lands, diff’rent people….”
“Hm. I reckon might be kinda special.”
“’Tis.” After a pause, Oliver queried, “You-all travel much?”
“Kentucky,” Buck said as Jody handed him a sandwich.
Oliver wore a blank look, clearly trying to fathom how the Forresters had pulled that state out of a hat, when choosing a destination.
Mill-wheel saw his puzzlement and explained, “Horse-tradin’.”
“Oh. I figgered you fellers either hunted for your meat, or raised your horses and beef, and sold ‘em ‘round here. I didn’t know you goed that far. Izzat fun?”
“Sure. And we earn a heap doin’ it.” Mill-wheel received a sandwich.
Buck added, “But mainly we enjoy it, ridin’ off like that, all six of us, whoopin’ it up.”
As Jody placed a sandwich beside him unnoticed, Oliver’s eyes widened at the mental image that the words provided.
Mill-wheel chuckled at his expression, and couldn’t resist teasing, “Whoopin’ it up, and whoppin’ every feller in our path.”
Buck gave him a mildly chastising look, while Oliver paled.
To rescue them all from the potential awkwardness, Jody grinned. “Dare I admit, when you two and Lem goed off to Jacksonville, Pa said, ‘There’ll be broke jugs and broke heads all along their track.’”
“Did he?!” Buck burst into laughter, and was quickly joined by Mill-wheel.
Oliver, however, was choking on his sandwich. Mill-wheel thumped him on the back. When Oliver could speak, he said, “Jacksonville?!”
“Yeah,” said Buck. At the sailor’s expression, he added, “What?”
Oliver answered a question with a question. “When?”
Oliver’s eyes grew wide, and he said nothing.
Buck’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. “That’s near ‘bout when you was there, runnin’ off with…with her, wa’n’t it?” Buck referred to Twink, the point of contention between Lem and Oliver that had started the trouble in the first place.
“Close enough.” Oliver marvelled in horror at the near miss.
“You a’most got caught,” Buck guessed amusedly, at his expression.
Mill-wheel pointed out meaningfully, with feigned joviality, “See why today’s peaceful meetin’ is a good idea?”
Oliver nodded wordlessly.
They laughed at his expression.
“Umm…, what made you-all go there???”
“We’d done caught a mess o’ bearcubs…with Penny…and takened ‘em to trade for supplies.”
Oliver stared at Jody, and the latter nodded.
“So…you two…and Lem….”
Buck grinned. “Yeah, we three do seem to travel around together a heap, don’t we?”
Oliver automatically scanned the surrounding scrub. The Forresters realized his misconception.
“He ain’t here,” Buck said, slightly admonishingly.
The tall blond blushed with intense embarrassment at having been read so accurately.
No one seemed to know what to say next, so Jody jumped in helpfully. “Oliver? You and Grandma like the same kinda music they do.”
“Oh yeah?” said Oliver.
“Fiddle music. I’ve heered you and Grandma say it’s your favorite. Well, the Forresters make fiddle music.”
Buck nodded. “There’s enough of us, we got our own band. Each of us plays a diff’rent instrument.”
“That’s great.” Oliver sighed. “Wish I had brothers.”
Mill-wheel grinned. “To he’p you agin us, when things git rough?”
Oliver smiled back. “Well, that, too. But I was thinkin’, to travel around with, and make music with.”
They were touched by his admiration.
Buck offered, “Iffen this works out, maybe we kin invite you home, and play you somethin’.”
Jody smiled warmly.
Mill-wheel got carried away. “Hell, we could take you home tonight….”
The color drained from Oliver’s face.
“Or…maybe not,” Mill-wheel finished stupidly.
Buck said tolerantly, “Might be a mite soon.”
Mill-wheel said lamely, “Well, Jody, be sure to bring this subject up with Arch and Pack, when you do this with them, and agin with Lem and Gabby.”
Jody had nodded at the Arch and Pack reference, but Oliver had paled further at the mention of Lem.
Even Jody shook his head. “I still wonder how this’ll go with Lem. I gotta suggest, assumin’ it goes good with Arch and Pack, like it’s goin’ with you two, we might be better off havin’ all o’ you show up, ‘stead o’ gittin’ Lem and Oliver alone, or jest with Gabby and me.”
Oliver was clearly conflicted. He didn’t know whether to nod eagerly for their help, or to shake his head fearfully at the multiple danger.
Buck and Mill-wheel understood, and agreed that it was a question to resolve.
At the next picnic, Oliver was a bit less nervous, but Jody a bit more. Oliver was less afraid, because he’d never been beaten up by Arch and Pack. Jody was more apprehensive, because he didn’t know those two as well as he did Buck and Mill-wheel.
“Tell me more ‘bout your leetle Fodder-wing. Jody told me he figgered he seen Spaniards. I seen real ones in Spain,” Oliver inquired politely.
They nodded appreciatively. Pack said, “He had sich an imagination.”
“Well, leetle ‘uns should.” Oliver ruffled Jody’s hair. “It’s part o’ the charm o’ bein’ young.” Then, he asked them, “So? These Spaniards Fodder-wing seen. What’d they look like, accordin’ to him?”
“Like us!” Arch chuckled. “Long black beards.”
“Well,” said Oliver tolerantly. “Black hair sounds right, for sure. And it’s natural your boy’d compare ‘em to you-all. You’re who he was used to.”
Jody dug out the sandwiches.
“So, where else you been, ‘sides Spain?” Pack said.
Oliver smiled. “Jody’s favorite is the South China Sea. It’s the one he allus wants to hear ‘bout.”
“’Cause you see whales there!” Jody was excited, his bright blue eyes instantly glowing at the thought.
This was the first time that any of the Forresters had seen this side of the boy: Jody’s natural responses to Oliver, and to his personality. It amused them. It was as if they were seeing into a private relationship that they could never have expected to view or to share.
Smothering a smile, Arch asked, “What’s so excitin’ ‘bout ‘em?”
Jody stared, at a loss; he had never imagined anyone questioning whales’ points of fascination.
So, Oliver replied, as his own eyes twinkled mischievously, “Whales’re even bigger ‘n Forresters!”
Arch and Pack laughed good-naturedly.
Pack asked, “Jody? You rather see one o’ them critters than hunt bear?”
“No, I’d not. But it’d be excitin’ to see one jest once.”
“Maybe I’ll take you with me sometime,” Oliver offered. “When you git a mite older. Think your pa’d mind?”
Jody was intrigued. “I dunno; kin we ask him?”
“Sure, why not?” Oliver was jovial and at ease.
Arch’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. “Oliver, you don’t seem real nervous ‘round us.”
This put Oliver slightly on guard. “Uh, some. Not too much, I reckon,” he answered carefully. He was trying to precariously balance between exhibiting a healthy respect for their prowess and potential danger, and showing a friendly trust in their peaceful intentions. But despite himself, he couldn’t resist looking around, and adding timidly, “But, should I be?”
Arch’s and Pack’s smiles turned wry. Instantly, the sailor realized, “Oh! Buck and Mill-wheel musta told you they noticed me bein’ nervous, right? I reckon I was, a lot more, that day.”
“Why?” Pack wondered. “’Cause that was the first meetin’?” He grinned. “Or ‘cause you ain’t never tangled with us two before? And you have, with them.”
Oliver smiled confessionally. “Both. But mostly the second.”
Both Forrester males smiled back. “That’s understandable,” Arch allowed generously.
Jody said hesitantly, “Um, fellers? Whilst we’re on the subject…, sorta…, Buck and Mill-wheel said we should talk with you two ‘bout who-all should be at the third picnic. Should it really be jest Lem and Gabby? Or should all six o’ you come? Might be less awkward…and safer…if ‘twas all o’ you. You two and Buck and Mill-wheel could he’p keep the talkin’ goin’, and…well…, you could watch Lem in case he gits any funny ideas.” He was eloquently communicating to them the depth of his own faith in them not to get any “funny ideas” of their own.
But Oliver automatically swallowed hard, just at the verbalization of the thought.
Arch grinned at him sympathetically. “Don’t choke.”
The pale, tall blond smiled self-consciously. Buck and Mill-wheel had indeed shared with their family every detail of their day with Oliver. Knowing that made him wonder about something else, and he asked, “Did Buck and Mill-wheel already tell you ‘bout this question, too? About who-all should come to the next picnic? And did it all git talked out in front o’ Lem?!”
“Sure,” said Arch easily.
Oliver shook his head. “Lem musta thought it was funny.”
Arch shrugged, as if it had been no big deal.
Pack urged, “Well, Oliver? Who-all do you want at the third picnic?”
Oliver bore a look like a lost lamb. “I don’t know iffen I kin face six o’ you at once!”
The two blackbeards nodded understandingly.
But Oliver wasn’t finished. “On the other hand, I don’t wanta be alone…or near-alone…with Lem!”
They smiled sympathetically.
Jody looked at it the more cheerful way. “I think that means, you’re all invited!”
When the six Forresters swaggered into the Glen, Oliver watched them, thunderstruck, and Jody tried to appear relaxed.
The only one that Oliver had not seen in a relatively long time said, “Howdy. I’m Gabby.”
Oliver said, “I ain’t. I’m speechless.”
It broke the ice. The Forresters roared, and Buck clapped Oliver appreciatively on the back. They all sat down leisurely with the two blonds, looking calm and receptive, even Lem. Oliver looked at them in wonder, and felt that he should somehow show some appreciation of his own.
“I…want to thank you-all for meetin’ with me, peaceful. You…ain’t had to do this, and I’m…grateful.”
A few of them looked embarrassed.
“’S’all right,” said Buck tolerantly, mildly.
“Oliver?” Gabby wondered curiously. “Was that there fight with my brothers, the only fight you ever been in?”
Oliver automatically looked at Lem and Buck and Mill-wheel. “Why?” He smiled self-consciously. “Did I do that bad a job??”
They smiled back, Lem somewhat smugly, at the sailor’s concern.
“Nothin’ o’ the sort,” Buck assured him. “You ain’t stood a chance agin three of us.”
“And we ain’t goed home and laughed at ya,” added Mill-wheel.
Even Lem contributed, “Nah. For a feller way in over his head, you done all right.” From Lem, that was high praise.
Oliver, of course, recognized their smug boasting for what it was, but did not let on, and kept his return gaze humble.
“I was jest wonderin,’” Gabby said.
Oliver nodded slowly. “There’s been a few other times. On ships, mostly.”
“Did you ever win?”
A few of the others gave Gabby a quizzical look, thinking that this was pointless.
“Only once,” Oliver confessed.
“Agin one feller?”
“Did you ever git ganged-up-on, on ship?”
“Gabby, what…??” Buck demanded in consternation and discomfort.
“I’m jest keepin’ the talkin’ goin’,” Gabby protested.
“Only one time,” Oliver admitted softly. “Agin two fellers.”
“Did they mess you up bad?”
“Pretty bad. Not as bad as….” He tried not to glance at the three who had been his former opponents. “But they got keel-hauled for it. The captain don’t like nobody roughin’ up his first mate.”
If the Forresters needed an explanation for any of that, they didn’t ask.
“Why was them two riled at ya?”
“’Cause I was the captain’s first mate.”
They looked caught off guard at the simplicity of his reply. They had clearly been expecting it to have been about yet another woman.
While the blond was carefully keeping his answers nonconfrontational, mild, he was becoming annoyed and uneasy. Why was this particular Forrester deliberately making him uncomfortable? Oliver began to gather that Gabby was not overly bright, and maybe really didn’t know that he was causing misery; perhaps he actually thought that he was just making conversation. To divert the issue a bit, Oliver turned the tables. “It true you-all fight amongst yourselves?”
“Sometimes we do,” Mill-wheel said evenly, not much more at ease himself, during this awkward topic.
“Ever gang up on each other? Two agin one, four again two…?”
“Three agin one?” Buck quipped mildly, breaking some of the tension. There was a slight chuckle. Then he admitted more seriously, “Yeah, now and agin.”
“Ever mess each other up bad?”
“Sure,” said Lem, relishing it.
“Hard to imagine.”
“You’re loyal to each other.”
“Agin outsiders. But we quarrel plenty, when alone.”
Increasingly uncomfortable with the entire conversation, Jody said, “Let’s eat, shall we?” He’d worried about awkward silences; now all he wanted was to stuff a sandwich into Gabby’s mouth and shut him up for having begun this. He could see why Oliver felt the need to retaliate, to keep the focus on them, rather than on him, in self-defense. Now Jody thought that he knew where Gabby had gotten his nickname.
Jody wasn’t the only uneasy one. Buck finally fixed Gabby with a glare and said, “What’s goin’ on with you, startin’ this? And don’t gimme no more o’ that business ‘bout keepin’ the talkin’ goin’. You’re tryin’ to start somethin’ and you know it.”
Even Lem regarded Gabby curiously. Gabby hung his head ruefully and confessed, “I hate to lose my bet.”
Everyone stared. Oliver turned palest white.
Incredulous, Mill-wheel demanded, “Your bet that it’d be easy to provoke Oliver?”
Mill-wheel was incensed. “You was willin’ to git this here feller kilt over a bet??”
Gabby shrugged noncommittally.
Lem laughed without humor. “And ever’body figgered it’d be me, ‘d make trouble.”
There was a terribly awkward moment. Buck and Mill-wheel looked ready to clobber Gabby, who gazed back mildly. Arch and Pack were plainly disgusted. Lem was slightly amused. Oliver was pale as death, and Jody squirmed.
Lem said wryly, “Oliver, you may jest git to see two of us, or four of us, gang up on Gabby.”
No one doubted which two or four he meant. Buck and Mill-wheel saw Oliver shiver at the thought, and realized that he didn’t even want to witness their violence, ever again. The two exchanged quick glances with each other, and with Arch and Pack, and then Buck announced, “Nah. I’ll jest say, ‘Gabby, shut up.’”
“But I might git it later.” Gabby actually grinned.
Oliver looked quite rattled at that. These Forresters certainly had an enthusiasm for their fights, even the potential victims.
A totally quiet moment ensued.
Ill at ease even with the silence, Jody fumbled at the sandwiches.
While the food was handed out, Oliver produced a bottle. The Forresters could see that his hands were shaking. But, although he might be uneasy about one quirky Forrester, there at least hadn’t been any violence, and Oliver was evidently counting his blessings. Forcing a broad smile, he said, “I figgered we could celebrate.”
“Whiskey?” Buck guessed.
“Wine.” Oliver blinked.
After a pause, Mill-wheel said, “Well, at least it’s good to know you’re a drinkin’ man.”
Lem said, “That reminds me. You-all recollect that’s what started this whole idea to begin with. Oliver, a coupla weeks ago, we were tellin’ Jody we never go huntin’, drunk. ‘Cause we might shoot each other.”
“Sounds like a good policy.” Oliver struggled to pry the cork out of the bottle.
“Don’t you think that’s funny?” Lem persisted.
Jody tensed; Oliver was the only one who didn’t know that he was being tested. Jody mentally kicked himself; he should’ve thought to warn Oliver. But he’d forgotten the question entirely.
Oliver was confused. “Funny? What’s funny?” Suddenly, the cork came out of the bottle with a kick and a bang. Oliver jumped in shock, and then broke up. “Now that’s funny!”
Lem’s brothers began to grin at Oliver’s innocent, spontaneous, sincere passing of Lem’s test.
But Lem didn’t give up yet. “I mean, don’t you think it’s funny to think of us Forresters shootin’ each other?”
Oliver stopped laughing about the cork, and stared at him. “No it ain’t funny. What’s funny about it? Are you testin’ me??”
Mill-wheel grinned easily. “Yes, he’s testin’ you, and you passed. Let’s eat!” He dug Lem in the ribs to get him to drop it, and they all pitched in.
Jody beamed proudly, silently, at Oliver.
After the feast, Buck rose, and pointed back toward their horses, grinning. “Let’s git our instruments!”
They’d brought them along. And they had a concert right there in the Glen.
to the Yearling site...