(Part three of the latest Jim and Toby adventure. Part One is here, Part Two here. Our heroes have found a dying woman, who extracts a promise that Jim and Toby, with American Albert Biddle, will care for her infant son.)
At Jim’s puzzled expression, Toby added, “He must be fed on milk. The Comanche would kill a buffalo calf and feed the milk in it’s stomach to a sick child… it is said to be very nourishing.”
“Urgh,” Albert Biddle shuddered in revulsion. “Not for the calf, I warrant. Poor woman – she must have gone to hide here when her husband was murdered … else she would have been killed as well.”
“You find a goat, Brother,” Jim suggested. “We shouldn’t stay longer than necessary. I’ll search the hut again for anything useful … and then I thing we ought to head for Laredo. The sooner we can give little James Albert Toby to this Graciela, the better for him.”
Toby nodded briefly, and set off down the arroyo in that gentle trotting pace which Jim knew could eat up the miles as fast than the four hooves of a horse at the same pace. Albert Biddle deftly tucked the baby in the crook of his arm. Jim regarded this competence with envy and alarm mixed.
“You do that very well,” he observed. “I’d almost be afraid to pick the little wiggler up, for fear that I’d break him, or drop him, or something.”
Albert Biddle smiled, wryly. “Oldest of eleven children – and we always saw the newest one as a kind of pet or doll. My mother was sickly … so we eldest usually looked after the littles.” He looked very straight at Jim. “But I’ll not delude you, Mr. Reade. This little godchild of ours is strong enough, but he’ll have a better chance of thriving in a woman’s care … and not out here in this near-to-godforsaken wilderness. We should hasten on to Laredo as swiftly as we can.”
“No argument there,” Jim agreed. “We’ll linger here for no more than it takes to fill all of our canteens. This is the last clean water before Laredo … and it’s at least another two days, on the trail that we’re following. I reckon we better do what needs to be done for Toby’s friends … he’s a one for doing right, you’ll notice … more than most Christians I could name.”
“See if you can find some swaddling cloths or some such for the little one,” Albert Biddle suggested, adding in some distaste. “Or a diaper.” The infant had suddenly pissed, in a thin little arching stream which dampened the arm of Albert Biddle’s coat. For the first time, Jim thought the Yankee appeared rattled, and chuckled.
“You’ll have to teach your godson to do something about that!” Jim observed.
“He’s yours, too,” Albert Biddle answered in some heat. “And when he’s bigger I can teach him to write his name in the snow, but for now some swaddling clothes would be of much more use.”
At the hut, Jim found a length of blanket – none too clean and smelling goats and wood-smoke – which they wrapped the infant in, and laid him down in a natural cradle formed by a drift of dried leaves and grass between the gnarled roots of a small cottonwood tree. Young James Albert Toby whimpered a bit – but there was no help for it. Albert Biddle set about filling all of their canteens from the spring, one by one, while Jim ducked his head under the low lintel of the goat-herder’s hut. No, it did not take him any longer to search it than it had for the murderer or murderers to ransack it, seeking whatever pitiful small comforts it contained. Two woven baskets, one smashed to slivers, the other in rather better shape, but both empty, a coarse sack which had once held flour, a straw-stuffed pallet which had likewise been ripped open as with a knife and the contents shaken about, a coarse pillow stuffed with sheep’s wool – also eviscerated. The puffs of wool and the straw had been tossed around the hut – as if the murderer had been enraged at such a poor profit. He brought out the pillow and some of the wool, thinking that they might pad a bed for the tiny infant, to discover that Toby had returned, leading a frantically bleating nanny-goat, trailed by a pair of small goats – also protesting noisily. The racket set young James Albert Toby to wailing energetically once again.
“I have no idea of what to do next,” Alfred Biddle confessed. “I expect that one milks the wretched thing, but I have never done such a task in my life.”
“What – you’ve never had a tit in your hand?” Toby jeered and Albert Biddle flushed bright red.
“I yield to your experience in that regard, Mr. Shaw,” he answered, suddenly gone all starchy and Yankee. The small goats bawled, the baby wailed – even the horses stamped in restless irritation – and Jim shot Toby an exasperated glance.
“Well, I’ve never milked a goat – but I have a cow. But we don’t have a bucket for the milk, or a bottle, even – to feed the baby with. They need to suckle on something soft, something that dribbles a little milk …” Inspiration struck him, and he grinned at Albert Biddle. “I think you’re gonna have to give up your fine gloves, Mr. Biddle. Or at least, one of them.”
“There is no end to the hardships I endure on the frontier,” Albert Biddle observed dryly.
“And a canteen,” Jim added. “We milk the damned goat here, should be enough for the baby until we get to Laredo. I don’t want to be dragging three goats all the way there. Traveling with a crying baby will be bad enough… speaking of that – how are we going to carry him on horseback. Have either of you got any idea?”
“I have, James,” Toby added confidently. “A cradle-board, such as our people use. I can make one – not one such as my mother would approve – but from what little we have here. Children of the age of this one here – they travel in security, on their mother’s backs, or on a pack horse and offer little trouble to anyone.”
“A kind of infant portmanteaux?” Alfred Biddle ventured and Toby nodded. Both Alfred Biddle and Jim watched with much interest – aside from their own tasks – as Toby took out his own knife, unraveled the dried rawhide strips which bound together the simple wattle door of the hut and set the rawhide to soak in water.
As Toby worked at his task, Jim cornered the nanny-goat and milked her, aiming the thin white stream of milk into one of Albert Biddle’s canteens. The goat protested loudly, as did her kids, but Jim carried on, undeterred. When the canteen sloshed agreeably, Albert Biddle sighed, and with a knife cut a tiny slit into the thumb of one of his gloves. Jim poured a bare spoonful into the glove, and Albert introduced the soggy glove thumb into the mouth of young James Albert Toby, who looked until that moment to have been working himself up to fury the equal of that of the young goats. Almost instantly, the cross expression gave way to one of gluttonous satisfaction, as he sucked avidly on the glove thumb. Albert Biddle added more milk as James Albert Toby’s exertions emptied it. The silence was most welcome, although the trio of goats still emitted the occasional dissatisfied bleat. Jim owned to feeling a small amount of satisfaction himself. Yes, between them they had met the first major hurdle in caring for their godson.
And it appeared that Toby, in his quiet and competent way, was meeting the second challenge – that of carrying the child with them. Jim had a sense of what his friend meant to accomplish – knowing how rawhide thongs might soften and stretch when wet, yet once dried, to shrink and become as hard as wrought steel. Toby set aside two of the sturdiest lengths of wood which had been part of the door, and took up the undamaged basket, which had once been a sturdy yet flexible one woven of palm-leaves in the fashion of Mexico. It had an oval shape; with the dampened rawhide, Toby bound the two lengths of wood in parallel to the length of the basket, and bored both lengths through to accommodate a short length of grass rope. From the damaged basket, he took the sturdy willow hoop which had formed the handle, and bound it at right angles to his construction with more of the wet rawhide. Jim had seen infants among Toby’s people, the Lipan Apache and the Tonkaway carried in cradle-boards as Toby was constructing, so he grasped the sense of what Toby was making – with more haste than care in the usual fashion of cradle-boards, which were often ornamented with beads and small talismans to amuse the tiny passenger. Jim and Toby both acknowledged the need for haste.
“We will need for the rawhide to dry in the sun for a little time,” Toby said at last. He sat back on his heels, setting his creation aside and looking straightly at the other two. “What of Armando and his woman, James? We have not the time to dig a proper grave for them, not if we wish set out before sundown.”
“The hut,” Jim answered. “It is set into the ground and not very sturdy at all. I cannot think that anyone would care to live in it now, knowing what has happened here. Put them together in their home – let it be their tomb – and push down the walls and the roof to cover them decently, in lieu of the customary rites. ‘T’will serve as a grave marker also, for such of their kin – aside from this young lad – who care to make pilgrimage.”
Albert Biddle was already nodding his agreement. “I do not care for the thought of lingering in this place. If ever a place may be haunted by the spirits of the unhappy dead, this would be it.”
To be continued.