Summertime freedom was a fine thing. Liam, ten years nearly, wriggled and itched and scratched and sighed and fidgeted and rolled his eyes through the whole of May whilst pretty little Miss Meadow did her durnest to inject some knowledge into her unruly and distracted class of fifteen youngsters. Aged five and one half (that’d be bouncy little Maisie Mott, eager to please and who wouldn’t shut up to save her life) to aged seventeen (spotted and mean as junkyard dogs, that’d be Trulon George and Bill Shimmer who sat way in the back), she was bound and determined to leave them all with a head full of knowledge what wasn’t there when the term started back last fall. Truth be told, though, Miss Meadow herself was distracted by the new green on the leaves outside those open windows marching down the sides of the little country schoolhouse, and the sweet-smelling breeze wafting and teasing the thin muslin curtains hanging delicately at each, her doing.
The world was nearly free, now, free from tyranny, free from death and destruction and distraction of the same. And her soldier James would be coming home. All the pieces intact and in place. Miss Amy Meadow, aged 19 and now destined to avoid spinsterhood, allowed herself a deep quieting breath through her nose, eyes closed just a fragment of a moment. The moment was fleeting, and altogether freeing, so she was jolted just a bit when, at the end of her repose she found herself just where and when and who she’d been. Luckily, only a couple of the bigger boys in the room noticed, but she shrugged just a whisper. These days, those hulking third time eighth grade farm boys noticed everything she did. At at first, she’d found it worrisome, always looking over her shoulder, her voice coming out a whit high when she scolded or instructed. But, these more recent days, she’d rendered them pretty near harmless. Them, pardon me, those afternoon chats with their mamas and papas, after long purposeful treks to their farms and abodes, pretty much guaranteed her safety. These were good and proud people, these people of the heartland. They would not abide a lack of respect for authority, either towards themselves or towards their young and dedicated teacher.
What’s more, most certainly indeed, she could turn her back on the looks, if she so chose. Mostly, she chose.
Of course, if these boys did happen to forget their manners, or the resulting consequences from their kin, she’d locked Grandpap’s old, oily revolver from the Great War down in the bottom left hand desk drawer, at the ready for what the Women’s College of Educational Excellence referred to as “real dangerous emergencies.” She’d not pulled it out yet, wasn’t sure what “real dangerous” might entail, but knew she’d shiver not a lick if the situation arose. Didn’t matter much where she aimed anyhow, on account it wasn’t loaded, the box of ammo being safe at home. Now Daddy? He was a belt and suspenders man, always had a backup plan. So Daddy? Worried as he was about those winter nights when the sun dipped early and his little girl was all alone with papers and planning, he’d passed on his to his eldest a shiny ball-peen hammer for safekeeping in the upper left hand desk drawer. Now that one did see the light of day once when big ol’ Arlo Hepper, eighth grade only twice, so far, had made an inopportune move one day last winter. Miss Amy Meadow was checking lessons, and Arlo’s worked its way to the pile’s top. She’d frowned a little, two little furrows fought between her eyes, then she shook her head.
“Arlo? Come on up here, Arlo, ” always toughening her voice, lowering it ever so slightly when she’d a point to make. She seemed not to notice how the room quieted, the air weighty and humid-like, though it was near freezing outside. Burly Arlo moved slowly, stretched out his long legs, and with deliberation, slid heavily out of his chair, pausing to stand purely straight, nearly six feet when his hair stood straight up. Like now.
“Come up here, Arlo, ” Miss Meadow asked again, giving him that teacher look, also learned in the Women’s College of Educational Excellence. “Bring your pencil.”
Here, ol’ Arlo smiled grandly, reaching into the top pocket of his worn plain school shirt, pulling out the nub of a pencil. Then, looking for a laugh, he pulled a worn red/pink eraser from his back dungaree pocket. The gallery from the back of the room provided an approving chuckle.
He ambled, no, sauntered, very nearly sashayed, toward the front of the little room, snickering and showing off. He was in no hurry. The littler kids twittered some as he passed, fearful of the outcome if they didn’t.
Still, Miss Meadow, calm and cool, stayed focused on the wrinkled, dog-eared paper on her desk. She even broached flattening it with a forearm.
“Now, Arlo, come on around here,” she aimed her own pencil at a spot on the pitted and polished wooden floor next to her straight backed chair. Ol’ Arlo grinned with evil intent out at the schoolroom population, dimples meant to woo, failed. He eased ’round to her side, large and looming. His shadow fell heavy over her, still, she chose not to pay him any mind.
“Now Arlo, look at this,” addressing page before her. “You need to pay more attention to the questions. Like this one here, ” she tippytapped her pencil on the offending exercise, ” You didn’t even bother to finish your sentence. And this one, ” She tippytapped another, sucking in, readying for a diatribe on attention to detail and completion of a task. Again, tips from her six months at the WCEE. She’d finished second in her class down to Kansas City, and was determined to prove her worth and skill.
But quick as a lick, Arlo snapped like a snake in the woodland, pinning her wrist to the desk with a big ol’ paw. And in that same split second, Little Amy Meadow opted to employ a placid temperment instead of fear, and with her left hand, opened the top left hand drawer. With deliberateness of purpose, she pulled out the hammer, and looked that big ol’ boy dead square in his taunting eyes. Now maybe it was her staunch and fearless manner, or maybe it was the big, loud BANG when she pounded that hammer down hard on the desk, , but either way, Arlo thought better of his behavior and released her arm, slurking back to his seat near the cloak room. Little Miss Amy Meadow with the same smoothness of purpose, laid the hammer back in its resting place, and slid the drawer to its close.
“Class, ” one hand gripped the other beneath the desk, each trying to quell the quiver, but above the desktop, Miss Meadow swept a sweet smile across the room. “We’ve got a Springtime Musicale coming up real soon.” Mouths agape punctuated freckled faces and eyes popped from little towheaded noggins. Miss Amy Meadow tilted her head, and with syrup in her voice, said, “Let’s all get to planning, what do you say?”
That’s the moment Liam knew Miss Meadow was the woman for him.
So on this beautific, glorious, maddening Spring afternoon, Miss Meadow breathing in the lusciousness and Liam fighting the urge to burst out of his seat and run crazy-like through the tall waving grasses outside, the clock next to George Washington’s profile ticked slowly but surely to the end of the day. Liam, glancing at his buddy Barstow next row over, save one, sat poised on the edge of his seat, explosion at the ready. And if he didn’t know better, he was sure Miss Meadow was watching that same clock.
Rinnnng! Rinnnng! The little gold girly alarm clock on Miss Meadow’s desk rang tinny and shrill, and he could taste the metal racket at the back of his throat. Still, it was music to his ears and his heart, as heralded the end of the schoolday tedium and the beginning of all kinds of youthful scrapes and adventures, well, after the chores were done. But freedom was indeed ringing and the room emptied in no time! Liam and Barstow gathered up their belongings, each tossing books and papers in old burlap feed sacks, and met up outside on the far side of the twisted old oak just beyond the playground. Chirps and screeches and laughter, classmates bouncing and running and knocking off hats, whirled all around, but these two, they were focused on something else. Deep inside his gunny sack, Barstow stuck his arm way down, retrieving a small square parcel wrapped in newspaper, tied with red and white string on all four sides. Liam’s breath caught just a little. Barstow made quite a production of first laying the package reverently on the soft green patch of grass, a little worshipful in his long gaze, then untying the string, slow like, then turning over the package and loosening the brown paper at the edges. Liam was breathing hard, and trying hard not to grab the package and rip that paper right off.
This was Barstow’s day, though, this is how the transaction was done, and Liam knew his opportunity would come directly. So he held back, best he could, like a cat holds back while the mouse sticks his head out his mousehole, all attention, eyes and ears on the prize.
Now Barstow wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he knew how to preserve the moment. His scraped and workworn hands smoothed the paper slowly, deliberately, before finally, finally, he grasped a corner and pulled it back. He snitched a look at Liam, all focused and itchy, allowing himself a goofy open mouth smile.
“See here, Liam,” he coughed to hide a laugh, “I been thinkin’, and ol’ Arlo was telling me at lunchtime he’d trade me his old cast from when he broke his arm and let me climb inside his daddy’s old DeSoto if he could have first whack at this…”
“I’d say not!” Liam’s eyes blazed, balling his fists, ready right quick for that fight.
Laughing, more from sudden fear his best friend would lay one across his nose than from satisfaction, “Hey, Liam, I’s just pullin’ your leg! You get it next! ” Then, serious, “We shook on it.”
And with that Liam sprung, grabbing the precious package, doubling over it to see it rightly.
Ah, he couldn’t hardly wait! Shaking fingers, he touched the cover, ever so lightly. It was the newest, the best, the latest book in the “Red Ryder” series! The Red Ryder! The tough cowboy with the iron jaw and white hat and honest heart who lived for right and conquered evil, wherever it raised it’s ugly old head.
All the boys, ALL the boys, wanted to be him, wanted to see him, read all the books, scrounged change to see the movie reels. Red Ryder was a hero, a real man, a real man who won every battle, beat every villain. Mr. Walt Whitman himself was kind enough to publish the latest in the exciting series featuring this beloved cowboy of the west, whose abode on Painted Valley Ranch in the Blanco Basin of the San Juan Mountain Range involved rollicking adventures and encounters of the most dangerous kind. How they lived for delivery of these books! How they finagled and pleaded with the current reader to finish up and pass it along! Barstow’d just finished last night, tented under the covers, letting in just the light of the moon. His Aunt Marletta, over to Red Eye, ran a store and whenever a new “Red Ryder” showed up, why she’s pass it on to ol’ Barstow. It sure paid to have a friend like Barstow. It sure paid for Barstow to have kin like Aunt Marletta!
Now by the time the books made their rounds of all the boys in the county, it was well worn, well read, well loved, with most of the fellows of readable age able to quote by heart the most exciting bold and risky undertaking of Red Ryder and his side-kick Little Beaver. Dirty hands, big and small, almost reverently passed it along, trading precious wealth, or just good will, to get moved up in line. Honor bound by similar economic straits and the unwritten code of decency and honesty, never was a book lost or stolen or hidden away. The boys, they’d replay the best bits, taking turns playing Red and Little Beaver, and even the horses Thunder and Papoose. They’d laugh over and over again, or hold their breath over the latest threat to hearth and home in the now familiar Blanco Basin, shaking their heads solemnly at the daring exploits and bravery of ol’ Red. But the end of the tome’s journey, the dust jacket was likely in tatters or missing altogether, the binding glue disintegrating, pages often detached but always slid into their proper numerical spot.
And now, it was Liam’s turn. He turned it over and over, taking in every nuance of the brightly colored cover illustration. There was Red Ryder, front and center, every boy’s western warrior, white hat, red shirt, iron jaw, glowering at the menacing scoundrel lurking behind a rock! Watch out, Red, he’d surely shout later, look out, he’s behind you! Oh, he could tell this would be a good one! Like all the others. Now, he’d wait till later to read every word, twice even, of the outside, then slowly and with great precision and with mind fully engaged, begin with the cover page, (he now felt a strong kinship with Mr. Whitman, rightly giving him his due) , devouring every word, pondering every dilemma, shooting at every snivellin’ black hat, riding to the rescue of every gentle lady, right alongside ol’ Red. Every time.
Nearly pristine, all but a little dot in the corner of the back of the paper cover. Liam squinted close at the book, then squinted close at Barstow, who gave a quick nod, then looked off across the nearly empty schoolyard. Okay, then, maybe an tearjerking ending this go around. Good to know. He’d take care.
After the required scrutiny, Liam sighed deeply, signalling acceptance of the coveted volume. They stood up, brushed off the backs of their britches, dust billowing and sticks scattering, then solemnly shook hands. This was how the deal was done and honor was kept. It was now up to Liam to protect the precious commodity while it was in his posession, then pass it down the line, with the same watchful care. Eventually, ever time to now anyhow, the book would end up back with its original owner, Barstow Dillashaw, his name written in cursive and in ink on the inside cover. Miss Meadow would be impressed. His penmanship marks weren’t high.
Barstow nodded once more, then headed down the road crossing in front of the country school house west, his family’s place better’n a mile down the road, then another half mile up a dusty lane. Chores were a’waitin’.
Liam, though, Liam shuffled about a bit, lifting a hand goodbye, then bent carefully to rewrap his treasure. He didn’t want to be late, his own at-home chores were waiting for him, too, and he’d be tempting fate were he too late and a sibling had to step in. Wasn’t sure, Liam wasn’t, who was more wrathful, Daddy, or a put out brother or sister. He’d move double time once on the road, just to be sure. Right now, though, Red Ryder was tops on his mind, and he added another layer of paper from his takehome work, again, just to be sure.
Concentrating hard, he missed the footfall behind him, and nearly jumped out of his skin when, “Liam, what you got there?” floated into his ear.
Now the voice was melodic and kind, not menacing at all, seein’ as it belonged to Miss Amy Meadow, but unexpected still and Liam found himself reddening fast, collar up.
“Well, I was just locking up for the weekend,” she smiled, noting his discomfiture, looking back toward the little one room whitewashed building. “You heading home now, Liam? No hanging about, now.”
He straightened, croaking, “Well, Ma’am, I was just a’headin’ that way. Got work,” he trailed off, losing his train of thought. He shoved his parcel down to the bottom of his sack, slinging it over his shoulder, making moves to move east, up and away the opposite direction of Barstow’s trek.
Miss Amy Meadow eager to take off her own self, waved and backed away, “See you Monday, Liam! You get your work done, hear?”
Catching his breath, he delayed his departure just one more bit. Just one little moment to savor that sweet sound. Born and labeled “Liam” at that same birth, most all his folks and pals called him “Lem.” But Miss Amy Meadow, she was always pronouncing his name “Lee-am,” accent on the “Lee,” special like, like maybe he was a major or president or owned a car dealership. Living was good right now for ol’ Lee-am, real good. He breathed deep and full, then set out.
He planned to marry that teacher one day, once he was growed full. He didn’t know the where or the how or the when, just the would.
Then he stepped up his pace. His chores was callin’. Mama’n Daddy counted on all their progeny to do their fair share ’round the farm. No reason, no justification, no reward. It just was. So he just did.
And Red? He was callin’, likewise. He was nearly busting out of that book , and would, too, guns blazin’, as soon as Liam released him.
He doubled his trot to a near run. He aimed to please them all. No doubts. It just was. And he would.