Luke & JJ
by Greg Bowden
Both Luke and J.J. managed to stay out of Hiram's way for most of the next three days, except for meals. Louisa found herself worrying about Luke because he wasn't eating as he should and seemed always to ask to be excused from the table before the meal was half finished. J.J. was a little better, but then he could skip breakfast with the excuse he would be late for work and he ate his mid-day meal in town. At supper he just pretended Hiram didn't exist.
For his part, Hiram remained polite and respectful at table and did his work as he always had. After supper he smiled at J.J. and made quiet reference to 'taking care of each other'. J.J. turned cold and felt like he was going to be sick.
Wednesday night was worse. After supper Hiram mentioned to John that he'd just looked at the buggy harness and it was in dire need of repair; he thought he should get right to doing it. When John agreed that it needed to be done right away, Hiram also asked if J.J. could come and help him as it would get the job done in half the time.
"Seems a good plan," John said. "J.J.'s pretty good at that kind of thing. You go on ahead and I'll send him out."
When John asked J.J. to go out and help Hiram, J.J. seemed to pale a little and seemed reluctant to go. Just then Luke came into the kitchen after another cup of coffee. He stopped, cocked his head at J.J. and said, "What?"
"Oh, nothing. Hiram just needs me to help him out in the barn, with the buggy harness. That's all."
Luke's eyes hardened for a moment and then a small smile came to his lips. "Seems odd, sir," he said to John, "as I repaired that harness myself, just yesterday. Can't have come apart already."
"Strange. Well, I suppose Hiram saw it needing mending yesterday and.... Well never mind." Just then Tom came in, looking for any apricot pie that might have been left over from supper. His father put a hand on his shoulder. "Tom, do us the favor of running out to the barn and telling Hiram that the buggy harness seems to have been repaired and so J.J. won't be needed after all." He gently pushed Tom towards the door. "Do that for us, will you?" He turned to J.J. and Luke, shaking his head. "Don't know what that man was seeing. Well, get on with what you were doing."
When Tom came back, J.J. and Luke were working a jigsaw puzzle on the kitchen table. "What's with the buggy harness, anyway? Hiram seemed awfully mad about something. Said to tell you 'that's it, last chance'. Then he stomped off. What's he mean?"
J.J. looked up from the puzzle. "I don't know. Maybe nothing. He was probably just mad because he didn't see that Luke had mended the harness." He shrugged his shoulders with an equanimity he didn't feel.
That night Luke's dreams were so bad that even Tom couldn't ascribe the noise to anything but a man in pain.
The next day, late in the morning, Luke saw Eliot and Hiram come up the drive in Eliot's new buggy. It struck Luke as odd since it was only a short walk between the Old Adobe and Lilac Farm but he paid little attention to it and went back to weeding the vegetable garden. He didn't even bother to look up when he heard the buggy leave, a half hour or so later.
That evening, when Hiram failed to appear for supper, both Luke and J.J. were more relieved than curious. When J.J. finally did inquire about his absence John said something vague about him eating elsewhere.
When the meal was cleared from the table and the dishes washed, John looked up from the seed catalog he was studying and told J.J. and Luke that they were expected at Lilac Cottage. "Something Eliot wants to discuss, I think. And no doubt a chance to sample Millicent's coffee. I understand she is trying a new method." He smiled to himself. "Be sure to take the torch," he added. "It's growing dark out."
Walking along the path to Lilac Farm, Luke said, "Something's happening. I can feel it."
J.J. turned cold. "You think Hiram..."
Luke stopped suddenly. "I forgot to tell you. I saw Eliot and Hiram this morning. Driving up in Eliot's buggy."
J.J. took Luke's hand and held it tight. "How did they look. I mean, were they..."
"Couldn't tell. I was up in the vegetable garden and didn't get a really good look. They didn't stay long, though, maybe a quarter hour." He held J.J.'s hand in both of his. "You're cold. Here," he stripped off his light jacket, "put this around you." Then he risked a quick kiss and a hug. "Come on. We won't find out anything 'till we get there."
They were met at the door by a grim faced Eliot who led them directly to some chairs at the far end of the porch, not even giving them a chance to pay their respects to Millicent.
Eliot settled himself in the porch swing and looked at them for a long time. Finally he spoke, his voice quiet and controlled.
"Hiram Rodale came to me this morning, wanting to talk. Said he had a story to tell." He held up his hand, fending off any interruption. "Let me get through this first, please. I'm sure you know the subject of his tale," he looked at J.J. for a long moment before continuing, "so I shan't repeat it. I..." His voice cracked. "I don't think I could."
Luke could see how hard this was for Eliot and he tried to soften it. Almost in a whisper he said, "It wasn't like that, Eliot. Not the way he'd of told it. He just wanted..."
"I don't give a good God Damn what he wanted or how he told it," Eliot shouted. "I only..."
The cottage door opened and Millicent stepped out on the porch. "Gentlemen, please, not so loudly. It does no good." She put her hand on her husband's shoulder. "Perhaps some coffee? And a lamp. It's grown quite dark." She didn't wait for an answer but hurried back into the cottage. By unspoken agreement the three sat in silence, each lost in his own thoughts and fears until Millicent reappeared, carrying a tray with three coffee cups and a small, shaded coal-oil lamp.
There was a sudden flurry of activity, J.J. pulling up a small table, Luke distributing the cups, while Millicent went back in to get the coffee pot. She also brought out a plate of sugar cookies which had been flavored with orange, something J.J. had taught her to do.
When the cups were filled and the cookies passed, Millicent excused herself and returned to the house. Her husband silently thanked her and wondered again how he had come to be so blessed. As he tasted the coffee, some small corner of his mind also thanked his mother for whatever magic she had managed.
Eliot began again, "as I said, I had a visit from Mr. Rodale. Whatever the
reasons behind that visit, and whatever Mr. Rodale expected to gain from it, I
do not know." He looked from J.J. to Luke and back again. "Nor do I
care," he added firmly. "Mr. Rodale was put on the stage to
set his coffee cup down. "The stage to
"None of us can afford for this family to be broken apart, J.J. It was small enough price to pay."
broke in, a small catch to his voice. "How about your
pa? How did he take... what Hiram had to say?" He had a knot of
pain in his chest. The slight fragrance of the orange cookies suddenly brought
back that night, two years ago, when he'd left
"Pa is a very wise man, Luke, and he wanted to know nothing of what Mr. Rodale had to say. He got the idea, somehow, that an improper advance had been made towards Millicent. I saw no reason to change that idea."
The coffee was cold but Eliot poured himself another cup anyway and helped himself to the cookies. He had recognized the fear in Luke's voice and suddenly realized that something very like this must have happened to him in the past.
"And now?" There was defiance in J.J.'s voice. There was strength there, too, but Eliot wasn't sure how well that strength might serve him.
"Now we must decide what is to be done."
"Eliot, what do you care about... Well, about what we might do? You once tried..."
Eliot interrupted, his voice tightly controlled although both Luke and J.J. could hear the anger in it. "What I, or any man, might do, living out in the camps, is of no consequence here. But I will not," he emphasized the word, leaving no room for argument, "have those things happening in my mother's house." He looked at J.J., his eyes shining in the lamp light. "Not even our brother, cocksman that he is, would think of taking a woman into his bed in that house—unless that woman was his lawful wife. So," he said, rising from the swing and placing his cup firmly on the table, "there will be no more of that, in the house or anywhere else it might be discovered."
"We're careful, Eliot. No one would ever know..."
"J.J.," Eliot said with deadly calm, "Hiram Rodale knew. For God's sake boy, he watched you do it. No, there will be no more."
"I will not leave him." It was Luke, his voice barely above a whisper. "I love him and I will not leave. Unless..." His voice dropped and the others had to strain to hear him, "Unless he tells me to go."
Eliot turned his back on them, staring out into the darkness. "Another thing you will not do is dignify this—whatever it is—with that word." He turned back to face them again, his eyes pleading. "Men do this, yes, when there are no women to... But J.J., Luke, you cannot think that whatever passions you might feel will last. It is not... I cannot bring myself to say it."
"Love, Eliot? Why can't you say it? That's what it is, between Luke and me. It's love. And it won't go away."
Eliot sighed again. He'd been very afraid of this. "Then you shall have to." He sat back in the swing, his head in his hands.
J.J. rose and went to sit on the swing, putting his arm around his brother. "Please, Eliot, don't hate us for this. We didn't ask for it but we can't turn away from it. Could you turn away from Millicent, from your love for her and hers for you?"
There was a long silence among them, a silence none of them knew how to break.
"Eliot?" It was Millicent, at the door. "Eliot? Have J.J. and Luke gone?" She stepped out on the porch, carrying a new pot of coffee. As her eyes became accustomed to the dim lamp light she saw Eliot on the swing, J.J.'s arm around his shoulders. "Is something wrong?"
She looked at Luke, his arms hugging his chest as though he were cold.
raised his head and smiled at her. "No. Nothing's wrong. It's just that...
Well, Luke and I, we're... We've decided to go away for a while." Seeing
shock in her eyes he hurried on. "Just a while.
We're going to seek our fortune." He laughed at the sudden surprise on
Luke's face. "Well, there's not much in the way of fortunes to be made in
"Where are you going?" She poured coffee, looking at J.J. through narrowed eyes. "What will you do?"
Luke spoke up. He hadn't known it but he had been preparing for something like this ever since that day on the porch, when Tom tried to teach him to play chess. "We'll go to one of the camps, one of the gold mining towns. J.J. will bake bread and I'll dig gold. That's where fortunes are made, out in the gold fields."
J.J. felt relief wash over him. He, too, had a pretty good idea of what might have happened to Luke in the past, although Luke never spoke of it, and tonight he had suddenly become afraid that Luke would leave, thinking it the best thing for J.J. When Luke said J.J. would bake bread while he dug gold, J.J. knew it would be all right. They would be together. "Yes," he said, "we'll go to one of the mining towns. Even Tom, who knows all there is to know about money, said that's where the fortunes are made."
Eliot accepted coffee from his wife. My God, he thought, they're really going to do this. Is it that strong, the feeling between them? Could it be like what Millicent and I feel? Could that be? Aloud, he said, "Yes, if it has to do with money, Tom's the expert."
"Or with women," Millicent said. "Now, if you men will excuse me, I'm very tired. But I shall want to hear all about your plans tomorrow." She took the cold coffee pot and went into the house, knowing they needed to be alone.
"Working in one of the mining towns is possibly a good idea," Eliot said, "if you must... be this way. The men there are much more accepting of this... this kind of thing. But may I offer advice? Do not be obvious about your, uh, attachment to one another. And go to a large, busy place."
"Yes!" J.J. smiled. "I know just the one. The draymen were talking about it just today."
"Where?" Luke asked.
"Devil's Shaft. That's the place. Devil's Shaft."
To be continued.
Comments, suggestions or criticisms always appreciated and always answered.