It was a typical summer afternoon in Arrow Rock, Missouri. Hot, still, and humid. John Sites, the local gunsmith, stepped out of his shop and into the shade of a nearby tree. He’d hoped for an escape from the heat of his forge, and had been only mildly disappointed.The still air was cooler, but the humidity made up for much of the decreased heat.
It had been an increasingly typical summer day in John’s shop. Aggravating, uncomfortable, unprofitable, and painful, particularly for his young apprentice.
“Dum Kopf!” John growled, and then hissed as he noticed two Negro men walking up the hard pack road which ran along the front of his shop, and his home next door. The two looked at him, clearly having heard his remark.“Ira, Benjamin.” John called in his strong accent, as he nodded toward the men.He realized that at least Ira would know the meaning of the words from John’s homeland.
Ira had worked in John’s shop before the opportunity to take on an apprentice had arisen. Ira was far better at his duties, John thought, comparing the man to the boy resting uncomfortably in his room upstairs from the gun shop.Pushing thoughts of the boy aside, John watched as the two men continued up the road. An odd time of day for them to be passing, he thought.
Ira West worked most days at one of the nearby farms. A job he’d been able to get quickly after leaving John’s shop. Thinking of Ira’s departure brought on the unpleasant memory that Ira’s wife had also left the employ of the Sites, although she’d worked for John’s wife, Nanny Sites, next door to the shop in the Sites’ home.Ethyl West had assisted with chores around the house. Did a very good job of it too, John believed. Ethyl’s departure had occurred through John’s intervention.
Nanny, unlike her German husband, took no issue with slavery. Her behavior with the blacks she came into contact with was decidedly different than her husband’s.
John, spending his days in his shop, had been unaware of his wife’s treatment of Ethyl. He’d first become aware on a similar hot summer day the previous year.Then too, he’d stepped outside to escape the forge’s heat.Ethyl was hanging clothes in their side yard. Nanny stood immediately beside her, berating her incessantly for some infraction, in a hushed but angry tone. Ethyl, lips pursed, nodded as she worked, occasionally answering, “Yes ma’am.”
When Nanny noticed John, her jaw clamped shut. Familiar with his attitude, and not needing any heightened aptitude to read his expression, she spun on her heel and walked quickly back into the house. Ethyl turned, looked at John, pursed her lips tighter, and returned to hanging the wet clothes.
John knew very little English despite having been born in America. His ability to discern expressions and tones had heightened as a result. That evening, as Ira cleaned the shop for the day, John touched his shoulder.As Ira looked at him, John spoke and pointed through an open window toward his home.“Ethyl,” he said.
With a puzzled expression, Ira looked back at him answering. “Yes Suh, Mr. Sites. My wife Ethyl is at yo house, yes Suh.”
John noticed the tension which pulled at Ira’ eyes as he asked, “Ethyl happy?”
Ira’s mouth pulled tight.
Ira was happy working at the gunsmith’s shop. He and Ethyl appreciated the income, and Ira appreciated his treatment by John Stites. Not eager to endanger their much needed jobs, he hesitated to answer. His expression however, was all the answer John needed as to their wife’s interactions next door.
In a few weeks, through John’s efforts, Ethyl had been offered a job at the Carson’s farm doing similar work for Mrs. Carson. John had made sure he was present when Ethyl announced she’d be leaving. As she left the house, he suggested to his wife that she hire a white woman who did similar work for others in town. When Nanny suggested that Ira be let go as well, he responded, “I take care of my shop. You take care of our home.”
Again John’s observation of other’s expressions left him no doubts as to her opinion of his supposed non-involvement in her household responsibilities.
John had been sorry later that summer when he’d had to follow his wife’s suggestion. Due to his new apprentice, Ira had to leave in search of other work. The opportunity to take on an apprentice would have been foolish to pass up and there would not be enough work to keep both the apprentice and his hired hand busy.John was certain however that Ira would find work quickly, and he had.
John had not been as lucky with his apprentice as Ira’s new employer had been. The boy, Sam, had no head for the work. His inability to catch on quickly had been annoying, and his clumsiness had occasionally been dangerous. That day had served as testimony on both counts.
Sam had been struggling to keep the fire at the proper temperature as John worked on a sheet of flawed metal which had arrived by steamship from the Meramec Springs Iron Works a week before. With Sam’s assistance the previous job had gone slowly.His customers would not be happy about continuing delays. John had already paid for the metal to build the rod of the ordered rifle.He was not confident that he’d be able to return it for a refund. He doubted that he could expect the quick shipment of a new piece either.He was confident however that he could make the piece he had useful. The boy’s “assistance” was making that difficult.
The hot day was nothing compared to the temperature and temperament of the gunsmith as he and Sam struggled in the small, cramped, increasingly uncomfortable shop. As John shouted that again the fire was too hot, Sam grabbed a bucket and dropped it. Water rushed into the fire and steam shot back at the boy. Screaming, he’d dropped to the floor just as Nanny entered the front door of the shop with their lunch.Also screaming, her fingers released the sandwiches and freshly drawn well water to drop to the floor as well.
Carrying the boy to their old residence over the shop, John and Nanny treated the blisters on Sam’s arms, neck and jaw with ointment John kept on hand for his own occasional burns. The blisters, bright red and filling with fluid, along with the boy’s moans, made clear his great discomfort. Forcing him to drink a full glass of whiskey, John left Nanny watching over the boy as he went back downstairs to put out the fire and clean his tools and the shop.
Within half an hour, Nanny came down saying that Sam was sleeping. Her expression left John uncomfortable that sleeping was the proper word for the boy’s condition, but she clearly needed to be away from him. “I opened all the windows to let out some of the heat,” she explained in crisp German.Her ability to speak in both languages allowed John to carry out business despite his limited English. “Check on him before you come home,” she pled.“I’ll have your bath ready.” Spinning on her heel, Nanny hurried from the shop, across the yard and toward their home.
Once finished with the tools and having put the partially repaired metal plank away, John exited his shop and had gotten half way up the stairs to the second floor when the day took its revenge on him. Leaning over the stair rail he’d dry heaved, managing to bring up only foul tasting bile which he spat into the grass below.
Sitting on a step, as he caught his breath, thinking, well, one good thing happened today. Spitting again, he muttered, “I missed my lunch.”
Wiping at his mouth, he closed his eyes. His head dipped slightly forward as he breathed slowly and deeply.His head rose again as the sound of distant singing reached his ears. A church choir, attempting to escape the still heat inside their church, were singing outside and their voices were carrying. John’s lips pulled into a tight line as he kept his eyes closed and listened. The words were lost to him, but the voices were beautiful, and the sentiment reached his heart. After a few moments, he opened his eyes and looked up toward where the boy, Sam, was laying. His fists slowly clenched. Moving them to cover his eyes, he began to quietly cry.
Several moments later, he pulled a cloth from his pocket, wiped at his eyes and face and then stood. Again looking over his shoulder, and up the stairs, he decided to check on the boy after he’d bathed.If he didn’t cool himself, he feared, he’d collapse and be in little better shape than the boy.
Opening the back door to his home, John looked across the kitchen to Nanny who stared back in silence. “He’s fine,” John lied. “I’ll check on him again after my bath.”
Nodding, she pointed to the metal sits bath against the back wall of the kitchen. Beside it was the bucket she’d used to bring in the well water which filled the wash tub sized bowl in which his feet and calves would rest.
After undressing, John settled onto the seat and began filling his cupped hands with the cool water. He’d then empty them onto the back of his head. Nanny quietly carried his clothes away and moments later returned with clean ones for him to change into.
After his bath, John dressed and stepped into their dining room. His hand on the back of one of the dining room chairs, he allowed his gaze to wander the room.
Large furniture filled the room. A side board, china cabinet, the dining room table. A fine linen table cloth covered the table which they only used on Sundays, or when they had company. His jaw clenched as he looked at the two place settings.2 plates, 2 bowls, 2 sets of flatware, and a celery bowl were arranged along with an empty vase awaiting flowers.His eyes shifted back to the china cabinet and then above it to where a framed hair wreath, carefully woven by Nanny, was hung.Hair from her mother and sister had been used to create it. He’d always puzzled as to what comfort Nanny took from it.
As he stood there, still hot, still smelling of the fire, metal, and chemicals he used in his trade, he thought of his son, Charles, who died at age 10. His sweet child whose apprenticeship John had already been anticipating. As John thought of him, he understood, for the first time, how having a piece of Charles nearby, where he could touch it, touch Charles, if he chose, could be a comfort.
His gaze still on the wreath, he heard Nanny come down the stairs from their second floor and enter behind him. “I’ll go check on the boy,” he said as he turned to face her.
Stepping over, he took her hand for a moment. He noticed that her eyes were now on the hair wreath. He wondered if the events of the day had led her mind to Charles as well. Without asking, he released her hand and left the house by the front door.
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