Luke & JJ
by Greg Bowden
It was after when a noise woke him. It sounded like a man trying to be very quiet as he moved through the barnyard and headed for the house.
He silently got up from his warm bed and yawned, then stretched his muscles, easing the sleep out of them, preparing himself for whatever action might be necessary. He carefully picked his way through the darkness of the hay barn, ignoring the small sounds made by the families of mice that lived under the floor.
Slipping silently through his door, he surveyed the barnyard. The moon was only a slim crescent, low in the sky but the stars gave enough light for him to make out the figure of a man approaching the gate to the dooryard. There was something familiar about the dark figure and so he was silent as he ran swiftly forward, all senses alert and ready to sound a loud alarm to the family if the man proved sinister.
The man reached out to him, offering a quick scratch behind the ears.
"Quiet, Dickens. There's a good boy. Don't want to wake the whole family now, do we?"
Dickens wagged his tail in assent. He hadn't recognized Eliot's scent because it was overlaid with the odor of whiskey and some sweet flowery smell. He had smelled that sweetness on Eliot more and more frequently but never the whiskey.
"Now go back to bed, Dickens." He gave the dog a pat on the back and went into the dooryard. Dickens waited by the gate until Eliot was safely inside the house before turning towards the chicken coop. As long as he was up it seemed a good idea to make a quick inspection of the barnyard.
When he was satisfied that all was as it should be, he relieved himself against the corral gatepost and then went back to his place in the hay barn. Nestling close to the human called Luke, he put his chin on his paws and let the warmth lull him back to sleep.
He was up again at three, preparing to escort J.J. down to the road but the sharp smell of soap on Luke reminded him that it was Sunday. J.J. didn't go out so early on Sundays so Dickens turned over and dozed off again.
A little before five he licked Luke on the cheek, telling him it was time to get up. Dickens was baffled by the human approach to sleep, this need they had for someone to wake them in the morning. He knew there was a bell in the house that woke Louisa, he sometimes heard its raucous sound in the winter when it was very cold and he was allowed to sleep in the kitchen, near the stove. He had some vague idea that humans would just go on sleeping forever if no one woke them.
Luke rolled over and reached up to Dickens, tugging on his ears. Dickens rewarded him with additional face licks. "Time to get up already, Dickens?" He yawned and stretched, causing Dickens to do the same. "Well, better get to it."
Luke got out of bed, straightened the blankets and climbed into his britches. He could already hear Eliot, singing happily to himself as he made his way to the dairy barn to tend to the cows. Dickens, sure that Luke would follow, dashed out to help.
Together, they made short work of the morning chores. Eliot and Luke milked while Dickens kept order among the cows. As the men finished with each animal Dickens escorted it out, sending it up, onto the hillside to graze. By the time Tom came to tell them breakfast was about to be on the table, the milk cans were resting in the cold water of the creek and the barn floor had been cleaned and swept.
Working along side him in the dairy barn, Luke had quickly become aware that something was biting at Eliot and by the time they were seated at the breakfast table the whole family was aware of it. Only J.J. seemed unconcerned as he attacked his plate of sausages and hot cakes.
It was, finally, Louisa who spoke up. "All right Eliot, just what is it that brings that lunatic look to your face?"
"I..." He looked around the table, hardly able to contain himself. "Well, I had a talk with Mr. Chase last night." Mr. Chase was the town banker and widowed father of Millicent Chase, one of the town beauties.
"And the point of discussion?" Louisa was pretty sure she knew; a mother's instinct is generally keen in these matters.
"Come on, Eliot." J.J. patted his brother on the arm. "Just say it straight out."
"Well, I asked Mr. Chase if I might seek Millicent's hand." His words began to run together with excitement. "And he said that I might and so I did and she..." He took a deep breath. "She said she would be most happy to have me as husband."
"Well, it's about time you took a wife." Mr. Williams said, rising and moving around the table to Eliot. "And a fine woman you've chosen, too."
Eliot stood up and shook his father's hand. "Thank you, sir." Tom and J.J. each hugged their brother in turn and then Luke offered his hand. Eliot ignored it and pulled him into a hug. "Don't be so formal, Luke. Hell, you're just another brother around here." He clapped his hand over his mouth and turned to his mother.
"Beg pardon, ma'am. I know better than to speak like that at your table."
"I should hope you do. And see to it that you hold to that same rule when the table is your wife's." She smiled then, and rose, folding herself into his arms. "I'm very happy for you, son, and for Millicent as well. Now," she took her place at table again, "let us all finish our breakfast. We mustn't be late for services, especially on this day. Eliot, I must pay a call on Millicent and her father."
"Yes, ma'am. I believe she looks forward to that."
Mr. Williams turned his attention to J.J. "Do I understand from your behavior that you already knew about this?"
J.J. nodded. "Yes, sir. I woke when he came into the bed last night. He was anxious to tell about it to someone and so I had the news early."
Louisa smiled to herself. Of course J.J. had the news early. He and Eliot were very close, J.J. relying on Eliot for advice and talk about what she characterized in her mind as "men's things" while Eliot took a certain pleasure in his role as older brother and mentor. He'd tried so hard, she knew, to be the same to Tom but Tom subtly rebuffed him, wanting to be independent and self reliant. But J.J. was different and always welcomed Eliot's advice and gentle counsel. Her smile broadened. Given the slightest chance, she thought, Eliot would make a fine father.
When breakfast was finished, Eliot excused himself. "If you wouldn't mind," he said to his mother, "I would like to escort Millicent to services this morning. Kind of make it official."
"Of course, you must," she said, feeling that he was already slipping away from her. "But I'm sure it will turn a few heads; I suggest you ask Reverend Shaffner beforehand to make an announcement lest his preaching be interrupted by the wagging of tongues."
Sunday dinner the boys were free to do as they wished until time for evening
chores. Eliot, of course, elected to spend the afternoon with Millicent,
strolling around the town and accepting congratulations from the ladies and
looks of envy from the younger men. Tom, settled into a chair on the porch, had
decided that it was time to attack a new book on economics that his uncle
Robert had sent from
"What're you making?" J.J. asked, settling down next to Luke.
"A whistle. See?" He held up a short piece of the branch. "You cut it just right and the bark slips right off." He demonstrated, carefully pulling the bark off the greenish wood inside. "Then you cut a little off here..." He carved at the wood, cutting a groove and a notch. When he was finished he cut a smaller notch in the bark and then slipped the two back together. He held the whistle out to J.J. "You want to try it? Blow through here." He indicated the end with the groove.
J.J. was startled at the loud, clear sound it made.
"I bet that'll get ol' Dickens' attention." Luke took the whistle from J.J. and blew through it himself, happy with the sound.
"Not when he's out chasin' squirrels like he is now. He doesn't hear anything then. Hey, Luke, you want to go swimmin'? I know a fine place where it's dammed up and deep enough to dive."
Luke thought for a moment. "Naw. I don't think I do."
"Oh, come on, Luke. It's really a good place. Deep and so clear you can see the bottom."
"You go on, J.J. I think I'll just sit here a spell."
"Well, the thing is, I can't go by myself. Ma insists you never go swimmin' alone, you always gotta have someone with you." J.J. got up and pulled on Luke's arm. "Come on, Luke."
"J.J., I... Well..."
J.J. let go of Luke's arm and sat back down, sensing his discomfort. "Luke? What's the matter?"
"Well, see, I never lived where there was much in the way of water so..."
"You mean you don't know how?" J.J. laughed, grabbing Luke by the arm again. "Why didn't you say so. I'll show you. It's easy. Really it is." He pulled Luke to his feet. "Come on."
At the creek, naked in the cold water, Luke had his first swimming lesson, supported by J.J.'s big hands and his enthusiasm. When, finally, they tired of it, they climbed out and lay on the grass, feeling the sun warm their chilled muscles.
"You learn quick." J.J. said, rubbing a cramp out of his shoulder. "Couple more times and you'll be swimming good as me."
"I guess I got a good teacher." He rolled up onto his side.
"That's a mighty handsome thing." J.J. said, touching the ring Luke wore on a piece of rawhide tied around his neck.
looked down at the ring. "It was my mother's. She gave it to me that day
"It must be hard, loosing your ma like that."
"I guess." Luke swatted absently at a fly. "I was only eleven so I don't remember too much what it was like, havin' a mother. I don't think about it much." He needed to change the subject. "J.J., can I ask you something?"
"Sure, I guess so. What?"
"Well, I don't mean any disrespect or anything but how come every living thing up on the farm is named so funny? I mean..."
J.J. laughed. "That's Ma. She always liked to name the animals after famous people. Poets and such as that."
"Like Dickens? I thought maybe he took his name from runnin' like the dickens."
laughed again. "No, the Dickens he's named for wrote long novels, kind of
gloomy. Ma read one to us once. I didn't much like it. But
A light broke in upon my brain, --
It was the song of a bird;
It ceased, and then it came again,
The sweetest song I ever heard.
"Something like that. I don't know if I got all the words right."
Luke was impressed. He didn't have any poetry committed to memory except for a naughty couplet which he didn't fully understand. "How 'bout you, J.J.? What poet are you named for?"
J.J. rolled onto his stomach. "None. Only the animals get named that way. With us, Eliot's named for Grandpa Williams and Tom, he's named for Grandpa Darby."
"No one exactly. See, when both grandfathers were done with Ma wanted to name me for a poet, man called Shelley. Percy Shelley. But Pa, he wouldn't let her. Said it wasn't right, callin' the animals after these poets and then do the same to a child. So Ma said in that case she'd name me for what I was." He paused dramatically.
"So what did she name you?" Luke sat up, waiting expectantly.
"She wrote down 'July's Joy' in the bible. 'Cause it was July when I was born and I was a joy to her."
"That's your name? July's Joy?" Luke swallowed the laughter bubbling up in his chest.
"I know it sounds funny, Luke, but that's what she named me. And it's nice, you know, that I was a joy to her what with the pain of bearin' me and all."
Luke fought off a sudden pang of envy. He had no idea where his name came from except it was in the bible. And no one had ever said he was a joy to them, at least not that he could remember.
"She once told me she expected I'd be called 'July' but Tom couldn't say it right and it came out 'JJ'. So that's what I'm called." He turned over and squinted at the sky. "Sun's gettin' low. I expect we'd better get home for evening chores."
As they slowly walked up the road, J.J. shyly asked Luke, "how is it you came to leave your pa?"
Luke winced. No one had ever put it quite like that. They walked in silence while. "We didn't get along, J.J. That's all I can tell you. We just didn't get along." He fell silent again, hurt showing in his eyes.
J.J. threw his arm around Luke's shoulders and pulled him close. "I'm sorry, Luke. I didn't want to make you sad."
Luke attempted a smile. "You didn't, J.J." He put his arm around J.J.'s waist, "I'm happy to have a friend like you."
As they walked happily down the road together Luke tried to banish a tiny thought beginning to form at the edge of his mind. It won't happen, he thought to himself. I won't let it.
When they got back to the farm they found Tom out in the barnyard, just starting to feed the chickens. "Tom?" called J.J. "What're you doin'? Where's Ma?"
"'Bout time you got home. Ma's gone over to the Noyes', with the others. Old man Noyes had a spell or something and Mrs. Noyes came screaming over here, looking for help. So I got left to do the chores. Here." he thrust the feed bucket out at J.J., "You finish this and I'll go see to the cows. Come on, Dickens."
While J.J. finished feeding the chickens and getting them into their coop, Luke went around back and chopped the wood for the stove, stacking it neatly just outside the kitchen door. Then he went out to the barn and helped J.J. water and feed the horses, all except for Robert Browning who had evidentially been hitched to the buggy and taken over to the Noyes' place.
As they were washing up and beginning to wonder about their supper, Eliot came hurrying up the lane.
"Poor old man," he said quietly, "out digging in the vegetable garden. I guess maybe it was too much for him and his heart just burst. Didn't last but a few minutes after we got there." He looked shaken. "Pa's already taken him down to the undertaker's. I'm on my way to see if Millicent will come up and help sit with Mrs. Noyes. She seems like she's in a bad way and Ma thinks Millicent might offer some help."
"We'd better go over there. The animals will need caring for." J.J. nodded at Luke and Tom.
"Sure. Come on, let's go."
"I'll see you there." Eliot said, "soon as I get Millicent."
To be continued.
Comments, suggestions or criticisms always appreciated and always answered.