Just off the train in from Charleston, Lakisha keeps close watch on her charge, Jolan. Trains and their workings are a mighty attraction to boys of his age. The conductor yells. “All aboard! Next stop Natchez!” And blast of steam hits them from the train’s revving pistons.
“Aza!” She calls the dog away from barking at the puffing steam around their ankles.
“Train’s leaving.” Jolan announces, “Conductor says, southwest.” He’s grabbing the dog’s collar and rocking back on his heels, sure in his assessment. An old pro now that he’s spent all these hours being underfoot of the conductor.
She’s glad to be off it at last, on this non-rocking platform. Other travelers greeting folks and carrying their belonging, off into the town of Jackson, stream on all sides of the pair. Five hundred kilometers from where the trio started in South Carolina to the east. The now stand waiting for the next leg of their journey. Both youngsters looking like siblings; a year apart at most. Though Lakisha is actually fourteen since last Spring. Just small for her age. “Yep. No more train for us.”
It had taken a whole day and night to reach Jackson from there. When folks guessed they were kin, they just shared secret smiles. Not bothering to set anyone right. Lakisha notices the long shadow Jolan casts in the morning sun. He’s gotten as near tall as she is.
“’Kisha, you still takn’ me to see my papa?”
“Now, Jolan, you keep at me about it…” She almost regrets agreeing, bringing him on this trip. Aza offers them a wide doggy-grin, his tail thumping. “We have to go the Ulis first. Library business comes first. Then I will take you to Baton Rouge.” Her enunciation crisp like Librarian Zenobia, back in Bluffton. “Your papa’s there. Not going anywhere, I’m sure.” She hopes they find him, a hand strays to the letter she carries in her coat, not trusting Jolan’s pockets. Only an address, and a year-old letter at that.
“So many folks here!” Jolan’s eyes are wide at the people still rushing past, meeting all who’ve just stepped out of every car’s door, a foot down on each little step. It was a long train. But finally he turns to ask, “Can we eat now?”
Lakisha’s expected this. “We have to find the Librarian—”
“But, I ain’t et since yesterday.”
“Haven’t, not ain’t.” comes almost automatically. She scans the crowd, “You had snacks.”
Jolan stamps his foot. “Real food, Lakisha. I’s hung’ry”
“Look!” Pointing, trying to distract Jolan. A wave. Preston? Definitely librarian robes. Tough from this distance, man or woman’s not clear.
“Hey, is that there’s Preston?”
Lakisha feels around in her pouch. Not much for food, since there’s still the need to pay for their trip now that the train part of things is over. Hope the Ulis folks give us room and board.
Preston indeed heads their way, weaving his way between all the ladies in fine clothes and businessmen everywhere. Lakisha’s thoughts aren’t still, Never been in such a large city. Too, big, don’t know folks.
“Lakisha.” A big smile on the Librarian’s face. “Jolan.” A hand on the eleven-year-old’s shoulder as if they’re equals.
“Preston.” Jolan gives another tug at Aza. “Do ya has some food?”
The librarian tousles the boy’s hair. Reaching into his bag, he produces a biscuit for each.
“Why...you...” Jolan works out some words around the bits that are already full, “ain’t at Bluffton?” At that, Lakisha winces, and offers a grim smile at this uncouth bit of boyhood.
With a smile at Lakisha, Preston explains. “I’m now the circuit riding librarian, for Hinds County.” He smooths his official sash.
“Congratulations, Mister Preston.” Lakisha feels proud for him. First Zenobia got promoted, now Preston. “Thanks also for meeting us.”
Five men pass this little greeting party. Natives. Their expressions fierce, focused.Carrying bows and swords. Lakisha doesn’t stare the way Jolan does, stray crumbs falling to his chest. She only thinks, Why I’m here. Job to do. All these rising tension between groups.
Preston gives a frown. “Sorry I can’t stay to help.” A head shake. “Off to an important meeting in New Orleans on the next outbound. But I’ve found a couple to give you a ride to Port Gibson.”
“How far is that from the town of Ulis?” Lakisha wonders if this is a good plan. She’d counted on more once she arrived. She was sent off so quickly, there wasn’t exactly time for a point-by-point instruction.
“Don’t worry, we’ve received a pigeon.” Waving to the west. “Ulis’s only five kilometers beyond that. You’ve been to Mississippi before?”
With her eyes wide, she wonders how he could have forgotten Bluffton, and the Library’s siege, It’as only last year! “No. Never.”
“Well, there are maps at the Library. You’ll meet many Creoles, at Ulis.” A smile this time. “They’ll look like you, but talk different.”
“Zenobia’s mention this. How they talk.” Lakisha’s had a year schooling on proper English. She’s ready for this next challenge.
“Well, it is English, just with a Mississippi twist.” He leads them up the street from the depot. “Mister and Missus LeBlanc brought their produce wagon over from Port Gibson, they’ll return today.”
It’s Jolan who asks, “So, we all can go with them? They’s got food? They like dogs. You reckon?” he waves toward Lakisha and Aza.
“They’ve agreed. You two and Aza won’t be a burden to carry.” Another frown. Then to Lakisha, direct, “You know your mission?”
He remembers me as just a little girl. “Zenobia told me to observe. Gather information. And report back.”
“Yes. We got a letter from Ulis, warning of brewing trouble.” A quick nod. “We have no one to send And Zenobia thought— Well. A girl might do just fine. In the early stages. You’ve been volunteered to be our eyes and ears. We’re sending for Scouts, but they may not arrive for a month.”
“I’ll do best I can.”
“Aza and I are hungry.”
Preston laughs. Lakisha grabs Jolan’s hand and tugs him along.
Reaching a stockyard, Lakisha observes wagons, carriages, and buggies. Both new arrivals stop to take it all in. “It’s huge.” Jolan points the sights out to Aza, Black snout at the ready, the pup seems to be working double-time. Both ears pointed forward, and dun tail at full mast.
Preston directs them to a couple loading a wagon which waits in front of a battered building, six stories high. It’s windows show the decay. And scars from the violence every large city must have known.
The middle aged man looks up, while handing up a sack to his wife.
“Librarian,” comes with a terse but friendly nod.
“Charles, please. And this is Maddie.”
Lakisha reaches out to shake his hand. “Lakisha Johnson, sir.” Then a touch to the boy. “This be Jolan.”
“Ma’am. Pleased to meet ’cho.” Jolan beams his pride at his grownup speech.
“Well hello, Jolan.” Missus LeBlanc climbs down to approach the boy, offering a hand and a smile. Aza examines her suspiciously, sniffing at a shoe, but behaves.
“Y’all joinin’ us to Port Gibson?” Charles asks the children. Indicates some blankets in the back of the wagon among the supplies. “S’pose there’s space, none a’ya on the hefty side, now ain’t that right, Mother?
“Thanks for agreeing to take them.” Preston nods. “They must go on to Ulis.”
Maddie answers. “Not travelin’ to Ulis this trip. Our deliveries take first slot. But, we can drop you just a bit from there, child.”
The Librarian considers this information. He’s quiet. But after a moment, a second nod comes. “You’re doing a favor. We thank you for it.”
“Yes. Thank you kindly, Missus LeBlanc.” Even Lakisha stares at Jolan for that.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish