Arduous: A Short Story
Adam Clegghorn was twenty-five. Been a Union scout in the army of Ulyssess S. Grant. Run two Rebel traitors through with his own bayonet. Come this close to burying a bullet in the skull of Robert E. Lee. His sharp eye and keen instincts had saved his regiment from an ambush. While they trapped the enemy in one of their own.
He won medals, accolades 'n such. Didn't brag about it though. Just doing his duty. Knew what needed to be done and done it, that's all.
Moved out west in 1866 after the war. Had a factory job back east for a spell before leaving. Couldn't stand it though. The noise. The people. Actually the crowds. The smell. Someone always telling you, 'Do this and Do that.' Boss was a muttonhead.
Came out west and set up a little spread for himself. Not so little after all. Breathe in that air, man! FIll your lungs with it. This is where a man belongs. Close to the land. Where a man can make something out of himself. Raise a family....
He'd been thinking on that for a year now. Prospecting seriously for a wife, too.
The 'He Has Risen Baptist Church' summer picnic 1870
Adam had been saved in '67. Joined the church. Became Treasurer in '69, after the last one, Blind Man Willie (he wasn't really blind) kicked the bucket at eighty-three. Adam had a head for figures.
After a day of swimming races round the creek. Three-legged sack races. A baseball game. A pie eating contest. And square dancing. It was time for supper.
Adam loaded his plate with mashed potatoes. Sweet, sweet corn on the cob with butter. Fried okra and green tomatoes. Black and white rice. Corn bread. And succulent, meat-falling-off-the-bone barbeque ribs!
Adam had been thunderstruck the first time he laid eyes on Eve.
Pastor Remy (for some reason everybody called Deacon Jones 'Pastor Remy') introduced them.
"Adam, my boy," Pastor Remy said, coming over to Adam's table. "I want you to meet Ms. Evelyn Longfellow."
Adam smiled with his eyes and nodded courteously. Not speaking yet because he had a mouthful and didn't want this beautiful woman to think him a pig.
"How do you do?" she said.
Adam. Leaping to his feet. Frantically wiping the rib sauce from his mouth and hands with a napkin. Finally managing to swallow and clear his throat.
"How do you do, Ms. Longfellow?"
"Very well, thank you. And call me Eve. Everyone does."
Pastor Remy nay Deacon Jones was yapping about something, there in the background. Adam couldn't tell what he was saying, nor did he care.
"May I get you something from the buffet?" Adam asked as they sat down.
After the picnic was over Adam walked Eve home. The night was made to order. Clear sky and all the constellations clearly visible.
Adam pointed them out to her and told all the names, and why they were given those names. He told her all about the solar system and all of the planets in it. He knew which one was the biggest, which the smallest, and all the rest in between. He knew what position they had in relation to the sun, what they were made of, and everything.
He told her about the North Star, Aurora Borealis, and about all kinds of heavenly bodies. Eve said that Adam must know just about all there is to know about the stars, leaning in close. Breast "accidentally" bumping his arm.
No, no, not really, Adam said, turning beet-red. Eve asked him if he thought the angels lived on one of those planets. Adam thought about it. Said that angels probably live real, real, real far away. But on the other hand....
He started talking about the recent advances made in astronomy. Said maybe one day they'd make a telescope so big and so powerful that we might be able to see the angels where they live, at that.
They said good night. Each of them knowing it would be the first of many nights.
Adam showed Eve around his farm. She said it was 'lovely.'
Adam felt a stab of irritation. Which he quickly surpressed. There had been condescension in her voice. Hmm, Adam thought to himself. He had heard that Eve use to kick up her heels as on of them 'dancin' girls' back east. And that she had scrimped and cobbled together some money to catch a stagecoach out west. Get away from that scalawag of a bar owner....
So she had no call to put on airs. None at all.
Breathe. Adam took a deep breath and let it go. The breath and his irritation. After all, she had been saved. And like him, therefore, redeemed by the blood of Christ, and all that. And people didn't become new creatures just by getting baptised. They did it also by moving out west.
Out west, where you could reinvent yourself if you liked. Take a shot at being the person you'd wanted to be back east.
Adam had rigged up a little swing on his oak tree in back of the house. He pushed Eve on it. Gently. She whooped like a little girl. Kicked up her legs. And asked to be pushed higher. Her blond trellises flounced in the sunshine. And he was bewitched again.
They were married at the church. And since Eve had no family the congregation paid for the wedding. That's how highly they thought of Adam. Pastor Remy gave Eve away. The church all prettied up. Decorated with garlands and roses. Eve in white gown. Walking down the aisle on a red carpet. A little girl in white behind her throwing rice. The always cheerful 'Old Mama Lady Bird' playing the organ.
After the 'I-dos,' the reception. There was music and games. But the most important thing to Adam was the food. His mouth watered as he surveyed the tables full of food. Macaroni and cheese with a thick, brown crust on top. Fried okra and green tomatoes, one of his favorites. Fried chicken. Collard greens. Mashed potatoes. And let him at those barbeque spare ribs!
Adam ate like a starving man. He always made a glutton of himself when he was happy.
Happily ever after
Laramie Daniels was a thin man with a hooked nose. Eyes too far apart. Always looked like he was watching his back. He was a gambler and a speculator. He would bet on anything. The weather. The shape of the clouds. Two ants walking across the dirt. He'd bet on the outcome of pie eating contests, arm wrestling matches, three-legged sack races. He'd bet on which farmer would make the most money each harvest season. Anything. And not to mention the fact that he was also a professional card sharp.
Its like he didn't know he was alive unless he was betting on something. But what he really like to bet on (I should say 'speculate,' here, but he would say 'invest') was the stock market. Future land values especially.
For Adam and Eve the days, weeks, and months passed pleasantly enough. The farm life might not have been Eve's first choice. But she cooked and kept house well. She was a good partner to him. She knew how to make the best of things without coming off like a martyr.
In 1873 an economic depression hit the United States. Things slowed down quite a bit. Agricultural prices were down. Things were tough all over. Adam and Eve worked through it with determination. What other choice did they have?
They had each other. Their home. Their church. And their faith in God. To whom Adam prayed nightly for children. But to no avail so far.
Adam and Eve took a weekend off to go into town. Adam went one way to look at boots and a new type of feed-corn for his chickens. Eve went the other way to look at dresses (at least look if not buy) and get herself done up at the beauty parlor. They met in the middle of town for a late lunch/early supper before heading back home.
Eve waited to tell Adam about her conversation with Laramie Daniels....
They were getting ready for bed when Eve said, "Adam?"
"I was talking to Laramie Daniels today in town."
"Laramie Daniels? Hold on to your pocketbook when that guy's around!"
"Why do you say that?" Eve asked.
Adam said, "Hmm!" Then he frowned and said, "What did that snake oil salesman want?"
"Don't 'Oh, Adam' me. I say the man was literally a snake oil salesman as a matter of fact, among other things. He used to go door to door with the stuff. Said it was a miracle drug. Said it could cure indigestion, arthritis, rheumatitis, heartburn, sores and lesions, toothaces, backaches, heat rash, inflammation...."
Adam narrowed his eyes. "So what'd that snake oil salesman want?"
Adam had known Laramie during the war. The truth was that he was a tolerably good and brave Union soldier. Handy with a rifle. Adam even liked his politics.
Laramie had another reputation as well though. More shady. He had been a procurer on the black market all throughout the war. Adam didn't judge him especially harshly for it, not being the sanctimonious type.
"What's the matter with Laramie Daniels?" Eve asked.
"Its just that there's something.... uncontrollably sinister about him," Adam said.
And that was as best Adam could describe his feelings for Laramie Daniels. Adam did not dislike the man, actually. And Adam didn't think Laramie was especially dishonest, to tell the truth.
But Laramie was a fast thinker. Fast talker. A schemer and dreamer. Always on the lookout for the main chance. Always chasing the dollar. Never satisfied. Never still. And the thing was.... Laramie was a charmer. Could rope you in. Before you knew what you were doing.
He was one of those kind of people/gamblers/speculators/schemers and dreamers. Not a conman. Adam had to be honest about that. He had never known Laramie to deliberately tell a lie. Just that lots of times his schemes weren't well thought out and they left human and sometimes property wreckage in their wake. His wake. Laramie Daniels's wake.
Yet the amazing thing was that he, Laramie, always, always, always seemed to be well protected from the blow back from his misadventures -- misadventures because nine out of ten of his schemes backfired, blew up in somebody's face!
But then again, one out of ten......
Adam came back into his body to hear Eve talking about the hot stock tip that Laramie Daniels was telling her about in town today. There was fertile land up north of where they were. The railroad is coming! Gonna join east and west. Make this the greatest nation on Earth. A commercial and industrial powerhouse!
Eve said that Laramie was looking for investors. And that everybody (just everybody) was getting in on railroad stocks. Getting in on the ground floor.
Adam said that, first of all, they should have nothing to do with the 'stock market.' Cause all it was was gambling when you got right down to it. And in a gambling joint, Adam went on, the odds are always, always, always with the house.
'Surely you, of all people should know that,' Adam wanted to say but wisely didn't.
Eve said that the stock market wasn't gambling. It was the way businesses raised money to expand their enterprises. And the railroads were expanding. They were inevitable. Any modern country's got to have railroads. Especially one as big as the United States.
But Adam maintained his objections based on the fact that it had been a character like Laramie who brought her the tip. And he still harped on the inherent riskiness of the stock market.
Eve countered these objections by reciting the various prominent people in town who were also a part of the investment pool.
Adam was impressed with the roster of eminent personages involved. No fools were they. Still, Adam said, "Yeah, well old Laramie can say anything..." But as he said that he remembered he'd never known Laramie Daniels to tell a deliberate lie.....
Adam and Eve went round and round like that for some time.
"But what does Laramie know about railroads?" Adam said as they were sliding into bed.
Eve explained that Laramie was working as a middle man for a company that was in the process of opening a branch office in the territory. "He's their representative," Eve said. "We'd be investing in the property company that's developing the land for the railroad."
"What's the name of the company?" Adam asked.
Eve snuggled next to him and handed him a colorful, glossy brochure. "Apple and Garden Land Developers, Inc." printed across the top in big, bold letters.
As he closed his eyes Adam promised to think about it.
Over the next two weeks Eve kept after him. This was their big chance. She argued with him. Cajoled him. Begged him. Reasoned with him. Threatened divorce. She didn't think she could stay with a man who stood by and watched everybody get rich.
She used the Bible against him. Talked about the parable of the talents. Said that investing to increase wealth was practically a commandment. Adam was dubious.
Eve said, "Adam. If we were to miss this chance. It would be like your holding us back when everybody else is experiencing the RAPTURE! I'd hate you forever."
Adam stared at her, dumbfounded. Eve swiftly apologized for saying the part about hating him forever. Of course it wasn't true, she said unconvincingly. She said that she wanted this opportunity for "us," "you and me." She said how they both deserved a little luxury in their lives. It was just that she felt so powerfully passionate that this was the right thing to do.
"I love you, Adam," Eve said, stroking his cheek. "It's all because I love you."
Then she went on to... show Adam how much she loved him. That went a long way. It helped, to be sure. But that part about hating him forever still lingered....
Wednsday of the following week Adam found Laramie Daniels seated alone, at a table all the way in back of a saloon he was part owner of. He was dealing solitaire.
When he saw Adam he beamed. "Adam, my old comrade in arms! How the hell are you?!
Adam sat and they made small talk for a spell. Talked mainly about old times in the army. Some of the characters they'd known. The times they'd had... when they weren't being shot at.
Laramie asked him if he cared to play a 'sociable' game of cards. "Two-handed poker?" Laramie said.
"No thanks," Adam said. He was already here willingly giving up one hundred dollars. He'd be sent home without his shirt if he played cards with Laramie. He did accept a cherry-wood cigar and a brandy, since Laramie was offering.
Fifteen minute later Adam put the hundred dollars in the gambler/speculator's hands. "There you go," Adam said. "... for America."
"What?" Laramie said.
"Nothing. Just something Eve said to me." Adam rose to leave and did so.
The service was over. The congregation filed out. Down the stairs. Smiling and shaking hands with the preacher man as they leave. Telling him what a grand service it was, as usual. And that's the truth too.
Reverend Ingersohl (nobody knew his first name or dared asked) was born to preach the word of God. The Voice of Doom. Calling all to come and repent. Reverend Ingersohl was the pastor of He Has Risen Baptist Church. He would have been perfectly at home with the Old Testament prophets.
Reverend Ingersohl was a great, imposing presence of a man. Tall as Abraham Lincoln at least. With three times the solid beef on his frame. Bull neck and wide shoulders knotted with muscle. Arms big around as most men's thighs. Hair shoe-polish black with a shock of white dramatically splitting it in half, front to back. Bushy white eyebrows. His voice could go off like TNT when he was emphasizing certain points in the sermon. He used to make a living hunting whales for their oil back in New England.
It was the last Sunday in April. The last Sunday of the month. And as is his duty as treasurer, Adam stayed behind after the service to work on the church's books.
When Reverend Ingersohl had approved of Adam for the job as treasurer, the preacher man spoke to him in his back office of the church. He reached behind a stack of books and pulled out a bottle of whisky.
He turned to Adam and said, "Good source of warmth. A habit I got into on the whaling boats."
Adam loved the Lord and all, but he never turned down a drink. So the preacher man didn't have to drink by himself. No sir, he didn't have to worry about that!
The preacher man told Adam about the job. What the treasurer position entailed. What his responsibilities would be. Asked Adam if he had a problem with any of that.
Adam said 'Yes, sir' and 'No, sir.' Thanked Reverend Ingersohl for the opportunity. Promised to do his very best for the church. Reverend Ingersohl assured Adam that he had complete confidence in him.
Next the preacher man opened the top drawer of his big desk and pulled out a box marked "Tree Fund" across the top. He opened it up and Adam saw a bunch of bills tied up in rubber bands. A lot of them.
The preacher man said, "You don't have to audit this box, Adam. I'll take care of it. It's the 'Tree Fund.'"
"The 'Tree Fund?'" Adam said.
"Yeah," Reverend Ingersohl said, taking a slug of whisky. "I've been putting money aside for many years now. I got a special project in mind."
"Shouldn't you keep that at home?" Adam asked, thinking the preacher man was keeping his own money at the church.
"No, it's church money, Adam. Part of the revenue we collect goes into this box, for the Tree Fund."
"What's the tree fund for?" Adam asked.
Reverend Ingersohl explained that he was determined to do his part to beautify the territories. "Before I die," the preacher man said. "I am going to plant one hundred thousand trees!"
"Wow!" Adam said, trying to imagine it.
"Here you go," said Reverend Ingersohl. "A little token for you. To commemorate you joining our little church staff."
It was a golden tie clip. In the shape of a great, big, mighty oak tree.
Adam thanked him. And wore it all the time from then on.
Return on investment
Funny thing was... the stock did well. Rose in value and everything. When Adam and Eve had cashed out they got a ten-to-one return. One thousand dollars! And they had old Laramie Daniels to thank for it. Sure enough a railroad did come out to these territories.
Adam's first instinct was to play it safe. Quit while they were ahead. That was the thing to do. Be thankful to Him for their good fortune and quit while they were ahead. That was the thing to do. But it was hard. So hard. Even Adam had to admit that.
On the other hand there was so much they could do with a thousand dollars. Why, now they were in a good position to provide for children. When and if Adam and Eve ever have any. Adam could build a mighty fine nursery for a baby with that money. And have plenty left over.
They could expand the size of the farm. Hire a few hands. Really make this an enterprise of substance! What a legacy to leave to their children.
While they supped Eve had listened patiently to Adam's ramblings -- between every mouthful of food he gulped. Yes, they could do all that and more with the money, she agreed. But there was no reason to halt their foray into the stock market. She said that it wasn't gambling if you're investing in America. That's what they had done and therefore prospered.
Caught up in the fever of imperial 'Manifest Destiny,' as was just about everybody else at the time -- indeed, as was Adam -- Eve said that it was obvious that the United States of America was God's chosen country. The new Israel.
Adam couldn't argue with that.
Eve was glad to hear it and continued. She said that since America was God's chosen country, anything its people did to help America grow stronger and richer could only be Holy. Because these things helped God with His mission on Earth (whatever that was), which He meant to fulfil through his chosen country, America, the new Israel.
Eve said that she believed God would continue to bless them as long as they invested in railroad stocks.
You know, Adam was just about almost right there with her. But there was a tiny logical flaw in there somewhere -- wasn't there?
Eve did what she could to help him make up his mind. She rose, threw the dishes to the floor and sat on the table in front of Adam. She leaned over and kissed her husband on the mouth. Full-on. Hard. In a ravenous, devouring way. With tongue.
Agent of God
How about that? Adam thought to himself. Old Laramie Daniels was doing God's work, whether he knew it or not. Adam couldn't believe it!
But not wanting to blaspheme, Adam recalled that all things are possible with the Lord. He had the power to take the unlikeliest of vessels and use them to His ends.
Laramie continued to offer stock tips. "Sure things" that "can't fail." Adam only agreed to that advice concerning railroad stocks. Nothing else. That way it wasn't gambling. It was investing, believing in America, God's new Israel. Investing in railroads was an act of faith.
Adam and Eve continued to prosper... helping Laramie do "God's work." They were dressing markedly better. And their donations at church increased significantly. There was getting to be something different about the way they talked, walked, and held their bodies. With more refinement, some would say.
Adam talked again about going full out. Expanding the size of the farm. Building up a substantial legacy to bequeath to their children (when and if they ever had any). After all, God's new Israel has got to eat, don't they?
Eve turned Adam's enthusiasms in a different direction. She said to Adam that he was the most brilliant man she had ever known. Very well-read. Though without the benefit of much proper schooling. She said that she was in awe of Adam's knowledge. Of the stars and just about everything in the night sky. Of plants and animals. Of rocks and trees. Of wind and water. Of history and theology. Adam was an autodidact. Of man and God.
Why not use this opportunity to better himself? Eve said. She said that she and Adam were still young, and that he could be and do so many things. He could further his education and then the sky would be the limit.
He could be a lawyer. A dentist. A doctor. A scholar. Wouldn't it be exciting to work with the famous Charles Darwin? Adam might go into politics, Eve said. And then who knows how high he could rise?! Maybe... maybe.... Territorial Governor!
Yep, Adam said. That was something to think about alright. Squinting as he threw back a strong whisky. And lighting a cigar. Puffing on it as he contemplates.
Laramie Daniels was over to the house on some business. As he and Adam finish up we find them drinking good brandy and puffing cigars. Very good cigars. Cubans.
From his inside breast pocket Laramie pulled out a deck of cards. Which he apparently never went anywhere without.
"How 'bout a quick game of cards, Adam?" Laramie said, doing all kinds of one- and two-handed shuffling tricks with the cards.
"Easy stakes," Laramie said. "No money, easy stakes. Tell you what. I lose and I'll go home. If I win, you invite me to dinner."
Laramie won and stayed over for dinner. The result of all the food, sociabilitiy, desert and coffee, and extra cigars and brandy was this: Laramie bought their little farm!
Yeah, the gambling speculator, Laramie Daniels bought the Adam and Eve Clegghorn's farm. Yeah, well, Laramie said he liked the area. Most beautiful country he's ever seen. Adam and Eve had a charming place. He loved what they'd done with the place. He wasn't getting any younger. Wanted to finally put down some roots somewhere. Get married.Start a family.... He was getting tired of traveing all over creation to make his living.
Offered a good price for the place. A very good price. In cash. Which he brought with him.
Done and done. Laramie would move in in a couple of months, if that was alright with Adam and Eve. It was.
Laramie said he'd have his lawyer bring around the contract later on.
"Good Night. Thank you for a wonderful and fruitful evening," Laramie said.
"Good Night, Mr. Daniels," Eve said.
"Good Night, Laramie," Adam said.
Just as they closed the door on Laramie's back. Eve pushed Adam against the door. She grabbed the back of his neck with one hand and kissed him on the mouth. Unbuckling his belt with the other hand.
Eve's mouth slid down Adam's body. Lower and lower and lower....
Adam and Eve continued to do business with Laramie Daniels. Investing in railroad stocks only. They had ups and downs. But in the main they prospered. Seeing a steady rise in their income.
They had set up residence in a suite of rooms in the new hotel downtown. And by this time they were reading the business section of the New York Times and Wall Street journal every morning; they even got themselves one of those stock ticker machines. They were thinking of relocating to New York. There was still a little voice in their heads (especially Adam's) that told them that they were doing "God's work." But that voice was getting quieter and quieter.
The amount of investment capital they needed to get the rate of profit they needed.... wanted, to maintain their burgeoining lifestyle, kept going up! That was alright as long as the Lord continued to bless them. And why woulnd't he?
But there came a time when He tested them. Making sure of their faith.
The losses started to come. One after another. As the air was getting let out of the railroad bubble. Though there was nobody around to tell them, that is what it was.
Laramie urged them on. Telling them not to lose heart. Not to be put off or discouraged by the occasional turbulence of the market. Said that corporate capitalism and the stock market were the greatest wealth-creating machine ever devised by man.
Laramie told them to invest in this stock and that one. Each time saying that this was the one that was "sure to come in" and recoup their losses. Adam and Eve, seeing no choice, plunged in. Thinking that their luck had to turn around soon. It just had to.
Having long ago forgotten or abandoned their "golden rule" about only investing in railroad stocks, they branched out. With similarly underwhelming results. They needed money. They were running up unpaid bills all over town. Getting cooly polite letters from creditors. They put on a brave face in public. But in private even Eve was pulling out her hair.
Though the very idea made him physically ill. Adam knew where they could get a fast couple of thousand dollars.
And so it came to pass that the last Sunday of the following month. Adam stayed behind to do the church's books. Eve went home without him. But "home," at this point, was the forest. Thrown out of their suite at the hotel. They were sleeping in the forest.
Later that night Adam and Eve came back. Adam used the key Reverend Ingersohl had given him. To let themselves in the side door. Then smashed the lock. To make it look like a break-in.
They went right to where the money, 'The Tree Fund' was and took the money. Before leaving they wrecked the place. Made it look like vandals had come inside. Made a mess of everything. Threw papers on the floor. Overturned the trash basket. Scattered the books around.
They did all this. Careful not to have actually damaged anything except the lock. Eve had wondered if they shouldn't burn the place down. But Adam couldn't bear that. Couldn't bear to deliver that final insult to Reverend Ingersohl. A man of God who had put so much trust in Adam... He overruled her. There was no need. No one had seen them. And no one would ever be able say it was Adam and Eve who had committed the theft.
But because there is no such thing as a perfect crime. They were exposed the following Sunday. Adam had dropped his tie-clip. The one Reverend Ingersohl had given him. The one Adam always wore.
The ill-gotten gain hadn't done them any good. It was blown. Good money after bad. The whole market was in free-fall. In the middle of the service the preacher man had confronted Adam and Eve with their sin.
Adam and Eve were ashamed. Trying to hide their faces in their hands. The preacher man told them in a booming voice to leave his church and never come back. His long arm pointing at the door.
Adam and Eve left. Shunned by the whole community.
With no friends left and no family, and exactly fourteen dollars left to their name. There was only one thing they could do. They went back to Laramie Daniels, who owned what had been their farm. And asked if he would please take them on as tenant farmers. Which Laramie kindly did
So they were back where they had started. Earning their daily bread by the sweat of their brow. But only it was worse, a step down this time. And up to their eyeballs in debt. For God knew how long.
But on the bright side. At least Eve was with child. Twins it would be, the doc had said.
More by this Author
This is a story about an experiment in human loneliness. It is one of the longer lengths for flash fiction.
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