Asa Crook was a real person. I am trying my best to give utmost respect to historical persons in my writing. If I failed, please understand that I mean no ill will toward any readers who might be related to him.
People want land for different reason. For some folks, land is subsistence. We live on a piece of land, and we can’t ask much in return. It tolerates us, as we take what we need. It would just as soon open up a hole into nowhere, and bury us all inside it. It is strong, and inexorable. The land belongs to itself unequivocally.
And then, for some folks, land is power. Land grows things despite itself. If you convert the product of that land into something that people want; lumber, or butter from the cattle you have raised, or gold you have sluiced off a riffle, you can exchange the fruits of the land for something you want. Something more, something better. If you own more land, you own more power. Power brings you riches and fame, which allows you to buy more power.
I’m not sure where I land on this (the pun was intended). Maybe someplace there is a middle ground (Ground. Get it? Never mind. Alpharetta is the only one who ever liked my jokes). I’m no railroad baron or mining company boss. But I’m also not going to roll over the moment my homestead is four feet underwater when Pistol River overflows its banks.
And if land was power, certainly my friend Asa Crook had lots of both. Recently the county had elected him as their representative up in Salem. He was a small, rounding man, dressed in a black wool suit. What was left of his mousy hair was parted just-so to the side, and an anemone mustache that curled over his mouth. I don’t know how he wasn’t sweating through that black suit of his. Maybe you don’t feel the need to sweat when you own more land than the Walkers, and the Lawrences, and the Ismerts, and the Prestons all put together. Not that he was a stranger to hard work. He was quite a stout fellow in his heyday.
We had been clearing brush all morning with Coalman Gillespie and a bunch of hired Indians, when Ace rode over schoolhouse ridge looking all sensible and organized. A huge smile was under that mustache. “Friend William,” he said, holding out his hand. “Your place is looking fine. Fine indeed!” He was a human magnet. Everybody outside his circle wanted to be inside. And those inside his circle generally wanted to be even closer.
I smiled back, and shook his hand. “How is your wife?”
“Oh, Ellen, you know her. Working hard, working hard.”
Coalman sidled up next to me and squinted. “How you doin’, Mister Crook?” he said, removing his floppy felt hat to wipe his brow, his bared forearms all coiled and sweaty.
“Mister Gillespie,” Ace nodded.
“Won’t you come inside?” I asked politely. “Alpharetta’s just pressed a fresh batch of apple juice.”
“Do you know, I believe I will.” He exclaimed, and he dismounted, tossing the reins to Coalman without looking at the boy.
“Coalman, could please you take care of Mr. Crook’s horse?” He glared at nobody in particular and led the horse to the hitching rail. I went inside, beckoning Ace to follow me into the house.
The kitchen was whitewashed, with a plank table occupying most of its center. We walked inside and with a jerk of my head, I motioned for Asa to sit on one of the long benches. Our home smelled of smoked meats and baked bread and of the onions hanging out of the way in the dark. To our left, an eternal pot of red beans was simmering on the stove, next to another pot, kept at a low boil so we had hot water. The room had been gloriously well lit ever since I had put in a window on the eastern side of the room. Alpharetta loved watching the sun rise while she kneaded dough in the morning. I pulled out two large pewter mugs from the cupboard and drew golden liquid out of the oak barrel in the corner, setting one in front of Asa. I threw a leg over the bench, and sat across from him.
“Now, what can I do for you, Mister Crook?”
“Come now, Zahnie. How many years have we known one another?”
“I came to Pistol River twenty years ago, I suppose, give or take a few years.”
“That’s right. So you’ve more than earned the right to call me Ace. What’s with all this Mister Crook business?”
“Well, look at you!” I gestured to the somber black suit he was wearing. “It’s like you’re headed to a funeral, or posing for picture. You might be a politician or something.”
“Damn right I might be.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Well, I didn’t vote for you.”
“Zahnie!” He acted shocked, but his eyes sparkled with a story. “Remember that time we were up in the mountains on the Preston place, catching the wild cattle?”
“I sure do. You hired two men just to haul Ellen’s stove up into the woods, piece by piece, so she could cook for us. And I remember who had to haul it back, too.”
“Wasn’t it glorious?” He looked up into the rafters, letting his arms drop to his sides.
“I couldn’t get out of bed for two days.”
“They say you should lift with your legs and not your back, Zahnie.”
“Shut up, your honor.” I smiled at the memory. Remember how we were just young and crazy enough to build that cattle chute in a breezeway between the two cabins, and connect the whole thing to a corral? They were so wild they wouldn’t come near the cabins and so smart they wouldn’t come near our cattle chute.”
“And then that one bull came running through at full speed when I was standing in the chute. Something spooked it out of the woods.”
“Yellow jackets can be pretty angry certain times of the year.”
“I’m pretty sure your jacket was brown, Zahnie.”
I grinned. “I’d never seen anything move as fast as you. You just leapt up both sides of the chute, grabbed the rafters, and straddled the bull while it ran straight underneath you.”
“Almost lost my nuggets that day,” the short man laughed.
I snorted. “You probably deserved it.”
“I supposed I did,” he said with another chuckle. “Ah. Those were days. Times were hard. Hard but good.”
We were both silent as we took a few sips from our mugs. Then we set them down simultaneously, pewter rapping the planks. This brought him out of reverie.
“Well, Zahnie, I’m a politician now.”
I nodded, once, to my old friend. “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”
He blew out a puff of air.
“What do you need, Ace? Just come out and say it.”
“I’m that transparent, eh? Well, all right then.” He thought about his words for a minute. “Zahnie, do you have everything you need?”
“Of course I do. I have this place. I have Alphie, and I’m happy.”
“What about that day? What if you had more?”
I went stiff. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes you do. What if, on that day, you’d had the right supplies?”
I said nothing, so he continued. “They wouldn’t have died you know. At least not all of them. What if you had a sluice to bring water down from the hills? Or maybe a house built from brick instead of this, this…” He gestured around himself. “Hewn timber. What if you had linens and medicines? What if you had coal oil instead of wood fires? What if you had ammunition? Can you say, honestly, in your heart of hearts, that they would have all died?”
“I don’t want to think about it,” I told him quietly.
“I know you don’t, Zahnie, but you have to listen to me. I’m simply saying, having the right tools could have made all the difference. You’re smart. You had people who love you.”
“I still have Alphie,” I interrupted.
“Yes you do, and she’s as fine a woman as can be found in this county. But I’m saying, what if Hiram had lived? What if Mary Lee or Sarah or Elias had made it? This country is a harsh one and it does not give itself willingly to us.”
“What are you getting at?” I demanded.
“What I’m getting at is this. If you’d had medicine, if you’d had bandages, if you had neighbors who could be here in ten minutes instead of six hours, your children would have lived. You wouldn’t be homesteading. You’d be a land owner.” He took a huge swallow from his mug and slammed it onto the table. He wiped his mustache on a sleeve. He was getting loud.
“That’s all I’ve got to say. If your friends had a way in, if you had supplies… If you could even get supplies. What we needed is roads through here. Not just a ship that docks at Arch Rock every six months, trades our butter and wool for …” He grasped for words. “For the things we actually need. Flour. Sugar. Pins. Cast iron stoves. For God’s sake, man. For medicine.”
I was furious. I spat out, “You brought my children up because the county needs roads? “Damn you, Ace.” Tears began to run from you eyes. “Just… Damn you…”
“No. You misunderstand me. We need what the roads can bring. We all need…”
At that moment Alpharetta came in, wiping her hands on the canvas apron she wore. Her graying hair was tied back in a bun and she shook her head, sweat flying off.
“Whoo!” She exclaimed. “It’s hot as August out there. Of course, now that I give it some thought, it is August, ain’t it?” She smiled. “The new boy just told me some news. I was cutting brush out there with the Indians, and he just come up and tells me that the honorable representative Asa H. Crook was here, in my very own kitchen?”
We both stood. I blinked away tears and just as quickly replaced it with a smile. Ace might have knocked over a bench. He recovered quickly and clasped hands with my wife. “Missus Zahniser! What a pleasure to see you! My compliments on the fine crop of apples this year!”
“Why thank you. They are Gravensteins. From Denmark. Sweetest apples in the country. But this year the apples was all my doing, and only me. Mother Nature, God bless her, had nothing to do with them. I’m just sweet enough.” she winked. “And just the right amount of tart, I might add.”
Ace smiled broadly. “Indeed you are! And, Madam, if you ever tire of this big lanky drink of water… I’m sure I know a man who would fall head over heels for such a beautiful woman as yourself.”
She blushed slightly, but rejoined with “And if I ever needed a tree stump with a sea lion mustache, I’m sure I know right where to find him.”
We all laughed. Alphie winked at me, and I felt better somehow.
“Now what’s this about roads, Ace?”
“Oh. You heard that?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes. “Hard not to, what with two grown men shouting in my kitchen,” she added. “If you make my bread dough collapse and there will be hell to pay.”
He began again. “About that dough. What if you had all the flour you needed? What if you didn’t have to store it up, and pick out the weevils? What if…”
“Cut the crap, Ace. Nobody likes a politician around here.”
His face went stiff, but he nodded. “All right. The county needs your bit of property adjoining the river. We need to build a road through, and then put a bridge on that land.”
“Is that all? Now that wasn’t so hard to say, was it?” asked Alphie in a sugar-sweet tone. “You just needed to ask.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he admitted.
“And if you ever bring up the children around Zahnie within my hearing: I swear, Asa H. Crook, you will catch my own personal version of hell for you.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he said again.
“Now finish your apple juice and get out of my kitchen.” We had been dismissed. We both tipped back our mugs, nodded to my wife, and left through the back door, meek as schoolchildren.
“You boys rinse out those mugs and bring them back, you hear?” she shouted.
Asa cocked an eyebrow at me. “That’s one formidable woman.”
I nodded, the thin patch of once-blonde hair falling into my eye. “Why do you think I married her? She *made* me.”
We rinsed out our mugs and brought them right back to the Missus.