Night of the White Raven
by Ethan Miller
Mom was standing in the doorway, tall and thin. Her long blond hair, mixed with a little white, hung loosely over the front of her shoulders. In the early morning light it shone like gold, even with the tears flowing down her cheeks. She was the most beautiful person I would ever know.
As I slid down off my mule, Mom came running and my two sisters and brother were right behind. My feet had no more than hit the ground and she threw her arms around me, pulling me close. Her cheeks, wet with tears, pressed tight against mine, and she whispered over and over, “I love you.”
The two little ones — the twins — were holding fast to my legs. Frances had her arms around both Mom and me. She was crying. My own tears were mixed with Mom’s as she hugged and kissed me over and over. “Nathan,” she said, “please… take care of yourself.”
Finally, I pulled away, and wiped my eyes. Bending down, I hugged and kissed my sisters and brother, then stood and placed my hands on each side of Mom’s face as her hands covered mine. I looked deep into her blue eyes and could see the hurt she was feeling deep inside, and I saw the love she was pouring out to me as only a mother can. I saw the happiness she was feeling for me, knowing I was doing something I wanted to do — knowing I was growing up. But it still wasn’t enough to cover the hurt she was feeling deep inside, for she knew as well as I did that we may never see each other again.
It was on this sunny morning in the beginning of March that I rode away from the cabin that had been my home for the past fifteen years.
My life had begun in this log cabin, around 1803, and it was here that my father and mother staked out land that, in time, would become their farm. Our place was some distance from the settlement that had sprung up around Fort Pitt. It was here in this settlement that my father operated a gristmill where he ground grain into flour, grist and meal for the people in the settlement. He also supplied the garrison at the fort.
My father was stocky built with reddish-brown hair, a bushy beard the same color as his hair, and dark brown eyes. Dad wasn’t quite as tall as Mom, but with a temper that had no match. Most of the time he was patient and understanding, and a good, hard-working father. But sometimes he drank too much. Drinking and his temper didn’t go good together, and at such times the whole family suffered.
I was the oldest of four. I had two sisters and a brother. My oldest sister, Frances, was tall for her age, and as scrawny as a willow switch, with long, scraggly blond hair and beautiful blue eyes. She was the spit ’n image of her mother, and so much like her, she sometimes even acted like her. Frances was a very good girl, very patient and always willing to help. She had a lot of common sense for her age. I knew that one day Frances would be a beautiful woman, and make someone a good wife.
Then there was the twins, Abilene and Noel. Brother Noel, well... he was a chip off the old block, stocky built like Dad, and looked like him with his reddish-brown hair and dark brown eyes, with about the same temper to go with it. Noel was very different from Frances and Abilene in his everyday moods. He was always picking on the others and wanted his own way in everything. He was so much like Dad that it was even funny. Sometimes I wondered what he was going to be like when he grew into a man.
Now Abilene! Well, well... I guess she was kind of a different story. It was hard to tell about Abilene at such a young age. She didn’t favor Mom nor Dad in her looks. Her hair was light brown and she had grayish-colored eyes. I think she was more like Mom in her temper, and more easy-going, yet strong-willed. She could hold her own in a scrap with Noel. I had no way of telling what she would be like when she grew older.
Our father worked from daylight until dark operating the mill, and Mom tried to farm and bring up four kids. There wasn’t always a lot to go on. Dad’s pay wasn’t much, mostly bartering in grain or other things. For some reason I was never close to my father, and sometimes I think he resented this and blamed my mother. I knew he was always after her to let me help him work at the mill, even when I was about seven or eight.
For whatever reason she had, I never knew, but Mom would not let me go to the mill. She would simply say, “I have too much work around this place for that boy to do. Now that’s that! I don’t want to hear any more about it.”
I think this is the reason I became a lot closer to Mom, and from an early age I knew Mom depended an awful lot on me — maybe too much. It was Mom and I who did just about all the work. Dad helped whenever he had time, but it seemed he never had much time — not even for us.
Mom was a very loving person, full of affection, hard-working, with a lot of patience, easy-going, and very understanding. She was a strong woman in both physical strength as well as strong-willed. Kind and gentle, you could say she was almost the opposite of Dad.
We had two cows, a few pigs, a dozen or so chickens, and of course our horses. I did most of the feeding, and Mom would let me do the milking sometimes. Dad would barter for hay and straw for the livestock and the grain we needed, so we would have enough to feed the animals during the cold winter months.
I wasn’t long past seven. It was late spring, and Mom and I were doing the plowing. Mom was a strong woman, able to handle the plow. I would walk beside her and drive the team of horses. Frances was three then, and Mom made her stay at the end of the field and watch over Noel and Abilene, who were just babies, a little over a year old. We would plow from where they played to the other end of the field, then back to where they were. Then we would stop and rest. Mom and I would sit down on the warm ground, and Mom would hold and play with the two little ones. Then we would make another round.
Time after time we did this. I remember at the time how Mom was with baby and she would say, “Nathan, it won’t be long until you have a new brother or sister.”
It was days before we got all the plowing done, and more days went by before she and I got the planting done. At the time, I was too short to unhitch the horses. Mom fixed a place where we could pull the horses beside, and I could stand on and help her put the harness on and take them off.
It seemed like we had to go to church most every Sunday. Then after church, Dad always found someone to talk business with or he would go to the mill to work for the rest of the afternoon. Mom and the rest of us would go home. Sometimes, if it was a nice day, Mom would make something to eat and hitch up a horse in the buckboard and drive down by the river, where she would let me fish, while she sat in the warm sun and played with the little ones. Then she would holler, “Nathan, are you catching anything?” Sometimes I would say yes, but more often it was no.
After a while, she would holler for me to come, and we would sit and eat the things Mom brought along. And Mom would tell us stories of when she was a little girl in the old country. Mom was always very patient and loving with us. She never hollered at us the way Dad did, but when she did, we knew she meant it. I must say, Mom made for us a very pleasant home. It may not have been much, but it was home.
Both Mom and Dad said they came from the old country. I
think it was Germany. Sometimes they would talk in Dutch or German. Even though
I had to work hard, I would always love my parents, for it would come in handy
later in life.
It was early summer when the baby came, and Mom and all the rest of us were very happy about the new baby. Mom had to stay in bed for a few days. Dad would leave for work early, so that left the milking and feeding of the animals to me. Noel and Abilene would stay with Mom, and I would take Frances with me. Frances couldn’t do much, but she would try, and she always stayed very close to me, most of the time only a few feet away. She would say she was afraid of the big moo-moos… cows.
It wasn’t long until Mom was on her feet again. Things went well the first three months, then little baby Jeanette became sick, and about three days later, she died. I could see Mom was heartbroken, for she cried and cried for days after we buried Jeanette by the church. Dad didn’t say much, and he didn’t seem to be much comfort to Mom. It seemed she stayed away from him as much as she could. I couldn’t help but feel that Mom blamed him, and yet I knew she blamed herself most of all.
There was plenty of work to do during the summer and she buried herself in work. There was the tending of the different things we planted for food that would see us through the long winter. When they were ready, I would help Mom gather them and we would put them up in cans and store them in the underground root cellar, where they would keep quite well for most of the year. Other things went in there, too, like cabbage, carrots, apples — when we could get any — pumpkins, potatoes and squash.
By now, it was the end of fall, and before I knew it, it was winter and snow was falling. It was about then that Mom finally got back to being her old self. I was going on nine, and Mom decided it was time I started to school. She made arrangements for me to go to school half a day in the afternoon. In the morning, I had to help Mom with the work in the barn and house. Then, she would make me something to eat before I went to school.
When Dad found out I was going to school, he yelled at Mom. “Why isn’t that boy helping me at the mill? And why aren’t you teaching him?” It was as though she had nothing else to do.
Mom never gave in. She looked at him and said, “That boy is going to school, and that’s it!” There was never anything said after that.
When I first started getting my schooling, our teacher was an older man whose name was Mr. J.C. Beckworth, who wasn’t all that nice. He hollered a lot at the kids, but I must say, he made everyone listen, and we learned. At first, I didn’t like going to school. I would sooner have been doing something else. I never told Mom, for I knew how much she wanted me to be schooled. It wasn’t long before I came to like school and looked forward to going. It was here that I found other kids my age to talk and play with.
The years passed, and in the year I turned thirteen, it was that fall that we got a new teacher. Her name was Miss Lillie Martin. She was young and pretty, just seventeen. At least that’s what people said.
It was that fall that I became interested in trapping. During the summer, I had been doing some work, helping this man and woman who went to our church. While cleaning up their barn, I came across some old traps hanging on a peg. The man saw me looking at them over and over. After a while, he asked if I would like to have them.
I looked at him and finally said, “Gosh, I sure would!”
The man taken them off the peg and handed them to me. “Here, boy, they’re yours.”
That winter, I set out to do some trapping. I must say I didn’t do too well. It was toward spring when I finally caught one skunk and one ’possum. I didn’t know how to skin them, and neither did Mom. I asked Dad if he’d show me how to skin them.
“I don’t got time!” he hollered. “Now forget about that trapping and get some work done!”
I still had one afternoon of school left that week, and I was sure one of the kids at school would know how. I asked some of the kids and they didn’t know. Finally, I asked my teacher. She said she didn’t know either. Then she said, “Nathan, I heard of an old man who might help you.” She told me where I could find him.
When I got home after school, I asked Mom if I could go see
the old man.
She said, “After you get your work done on Saturday.”
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