TOBIAS KICKED THE wet, muddy snow off his shoes, hung his jacket on a peg, and threw a log into the tavern’s fireplace. The ancient ‘colonial style’ structure had only survived the Civil War because some northern colonel, who owed his rank more to his father’s money than to any military skill, took it over for his ‘field headquarters’ and thus saved it from the rampages of his undisciplined and poorly led soldiers.
“Evening, Belinda. I thought you were off tonight.”
“I was. Custer Mills won a huge contract to make fabric for a dressmaker in New York. They’re talking about putting on a second shift. Tecumseh Mills put on a second shift last Monday. Lots of people partying, and it’s Friday. I got called in to work the bar.”
Tobias nodded. “Big payday and a big contract. It’ll be a busy night.”
The strong scent of burning southern slash pine filled the room, mingling with the accumulated stench of a century of spilled beer and other fluids that had landed on the rough wooden floor. Calling what Tobias threw into the fire a log would be charitable. It was mostly bark attached to a small wood slab left after the nearby sawmill debarked a log. Leavings from the sawmill fueled many of the fireplaces in this mill town. Since most of the immediate landscape had been deforested and struggled to grow back, finding firewood was an ongoing battle. Stealing scraps from construction sites became an art form. The fabric mill where Tobias worked and the tavern where he lived closed on Sundays, so Sunday became his day for scavenging. Firewood was a top priority all year round.
Assured that the log, such as it was, had started to burn, Tobias sat on his hard wooden stool in the corner next to the fireplace. He picked up a newspaper the tavern owner had left for that purpose and began to read aloud. Tobias had been reading newspapers aloud to the tavern’s patrons since he was six. His mother had taught him to read at an age when most of the children his age in this small town were learning to sound out letters if they went to school at all. Now a tall, robust, muscular, handsome twelve-year-old, he was the spitting image of his mother, who worked as a whore upstairs in the tavern.
Tobias’s mother was beautifully statuesque. She towered over most of the men who were her customers. Arguments over who got to have her first and who had to wait were common and often settled by who was willing to pay the most. The tavern owner gladly raked in the extra money.
The fact that Tobias’ mother was the most popular of the women that worked in this whorehouse was one of the reasons the tavern owner let Tobias share his mother’s bed when she was not working. The tavern owner discovered that having Tobias read aloud kept the patrons busy buying drinks while waiting for the women upstairs.
Tobias became a permanent fixture in the corner of the tavern’s main room. He would start the evening reading the newspaper, but as the patrons became drunker, some of the news articles would anger them. Tobias switched to dime novels featuring adventures from the wild west to keep things peaceful. Some of the patrons were Civil War veterans, and others were veterans of the Indian Wars. A few had served with Sherman. Those who had served with Lee were smart enough to shut their mouths. More than one had ridden with Custer. Even the soldiers who had opposed Custer in the Civil War, which they referred to as ‘The War of Northern Aggression’, idolized Custer for his aggressiveness against the savages obstructing the progress of America’s ‘Manifest Destiny’.
The dime novel wild west adventures kept the men buying drinks long after they otherwise would have gone home, which thrilled the tavern owner. Constantly monitoring the mood of the bar’s patrons, Tobias became adept at predicting and diffusing conflicts before they erupted into violence. Fights that could have ended with injuries generally ended quietly when Tobias calmly and forcefully intervened. When a peaceful resolution was impossible, Tobias had no problem using his fists or the rigid toe of his boot. Dealing with drunks was a task that occasionally took more brute force than diplomatic skill, and Tobias had learned how to use both. The bar owner trusted Tobias enough that he could order free drinks if that was what it took to break up a fight.
As the only tavern in town, the clientele was manifestly diverse. Any deviate that thought Tobias might be available for some personal attention quickly learned that Tobias was not only not available but that he was perfectly capable of fending off such advances. When Tobias finished enforcing his will on the miscreant who did not accept a verbal rebuff, the man would probably have pain when pissing for the rest of his life. He would surely never father any more children. Most never returned to the tavern. The few that did found others who drank at the town’s only pub who were more amenable to their advances and conducted their assignations in secret.
Tonight became an exception. Two men, supervisors at competing fabric mills, arrived within minutes of the day shift shutting down for the evening. Most, but not all, of the mills were running two shifts, and the bar would be open almost until daybreak to service both shifts. Each man demanded to be taken upstairs to see Tobias’ mother immediately. The chief of police, also a frequent customer of his mother’s, arrived as the argument started. The police chief stood aside to his credit while the two burly men shouted at each other. Tobias’ mother came down the stairs to try and settle the conflict. She stepped between the shouting men.
The men drew their pistols within a second of each other and fired, apparently with the intent to kill their rival. Both shots hit Tobias’ mother, and she fell to the ground. Each man fired a second shot and hit the other. By this point, the police chief had drawn his weapon and killed the rival suitors with two bullets each.
In less than a minute, a fight between two married men, each with several children, legitimate and illegitimate, over a whore ended with three bodies dead on the floor. The whore’s son stood paralyzed in the corner.
The police chief pointed to six men standing with drinks in their hands. “Take the bodies to the morgue.”
The bodies were hauled away.
The police chief pointed to two other men. “Clean up the blood.”
The police chief approached Tobias. “She’s dead, son. Ain’t nothing you can do for her. She loved you better’n most women I know could love anybody. She was a good woman. It sucks, but you’re on your own. Ain’t nobody gonna take in a twelve-year-old son of a whore. It ain’t right, and it ain’t fair, but that’s how it is.”
Tobias sat on his little stool in the corner and continued reading where he had left off. Within an hour, the tavern was back to normal. The tavern owner approached. “Y’ know you been like a son t’ me, but I can’t let you keep her bed. I can’t afford not to make money on it. Y’ can stay the night, but y’ got to go in the morning. I got an old suitcase I can let you have.”
Tobias nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Tobias could not sleep. He packed the suitcase with everything he wanted to take. He hauled the suitcase and a gunny sack full of clothes down the stairs well before dawn. The tavern owner’s wife, who was also the Madam and the town’s only midwife, met him at the bottom of the stairs.
“Too bad about your mother. She was good people. We’ll miss her.”
“Where are y’ goin’?”
“To work,” Tobias replied. “I need the money.”
“No, I mean after that.”
“What should I do with your mother’s clothes?”
“Give them to whoever wants ’em. Ain’t no good to me.”
“Only one thing gonna keep you alive. Yer smart. Real smart. Think wit’ yer head, not wit’ yer heart, and never wit’ yer dick.”
Tobias smiled. “I’ll remember that.”
“I’m gonna miss you. You was the best assistant a midwife could ask for.”
“Talk to Belinda. She’s smarter than me and will be a good helper.”
The woman hugged him, handed him a cloth bag with bread and cheese, and sent him on his way.