Ella Mayfield And The Pawpaw Militia
By Fay Risner
Ella Mayfield was a pretty girl, but men seldom noticed so awed were they by her horsemanship and shooting skills, and that was the way Ella liked it. That morning, a flurry of dry leaves rustled along the ground and swirled past her thin trousers legs. They bounced off her worn shoes before settling in a pile against the cabin foundation. Dandy day for hog killing all right. A proper chill to the air for October of 1859. Surely chillier than she cared for. She pulled her hat down tighter on her head and hugged herself, rubbing the goose bumps off her arms. Her slim frame, in a faded, blue shirt and trousers, gave her a boyish look. Less cumbersome then a dress when she was hunting and fishing.
Ella wondered if anyone else in her family dreaded hog butchering day as much as she did. Most likely this was a day just like any other to the rest, considered hard work made light by many hands. Took a lot of meat for a family as large as theirs to make it through the winter in between hunting fresh game.
When the time came to do the butchering, Ella's brother, Brice, sent word by her brother, Crack, across McCarty's Branch to the Gabberts, Bill and Rebecca, both in their mid forties from near Bellamy. Ella’s 20 year old sister, Leonora, was married to 24 year old John, the eldest Gabbert child. Seven more younguns in that family so far. Ella’s friend, Eliza, 20, Peter, 17, Jefferson, 15, Mary, 9, Martha, 7, Willoiam, 4, and baby Elija. Ella figured the Mayfields and the Gabberts were like most families around Montevallo, Missouri. They seemed to multiplied like flies.
Ella’s mama, Jestine was 45 years old. She had seven younguns. Ella, 26, was the eldest. Right after her came Brice, 24, who a while back brought home his wife, Margarett, 18. She was a quiet, young girl, plain and mousy. When spoken to she rarely did more than smile or duck her head bashfully. Ella couldn’t figure out what Brice saw in that girl. She didn't look to have any gumption.
The Mayfield family didn’t gain anything by marrying off the third one down, Leonora, to a Gabbert when Brice brought home Margarett. Before Leonora in age was Sallie, 22, who left home when she was thirteen to married D.P. McGiboney. The littlest younguns at home were, Tennessee and Jane. They were thirteen and twelve.
Since their pa, John, died, Ella didn’t expect to have to share her bed with anymore sisters unless her mama took up with another man. That thought no sooner entered Ella’s mind then she scolded herself. Mama would never do that, at lease until she'd aged past child bearing.
Absentmindedly, Ella tucked a stray hair blowing in her face under her hat and behind her left ear. Her shoulder length, dark brown hair hung straight. Her eyes were as black as a crow’s when nothing bothered her, but at the moment, they glowed like red embers on a smoldering lump of coal. Her sun browned skin, high cheekbones and full lips once in a while caused her mama to tease her about being kin to Indians. Once, Ella asked how that could be. Jestine looked all innocent and said guess that bloodline came from Pa’s side of the family since Ella favored him. If there was an Indian in the Mayfield family tree, Pa took that secret to the grave with him. With that said, Mama smiled sly like.
Pa never kept secrets from his wife, but Ella didn’t dare question her anymore. Anything was possible in this country. The Osage Indian village was ten miles north east of Nevada City. Wasn't usual to hear men talk about taking a fancy to a squaw. Could have happened very easy if Pa's family lived near any Indians in Tennessee. Just as well she didn’t know such a thing as that about her own father, seeing as how Indian blood was something no one wanted to claim. The thought of that to most folks was as bad as a body having darky blood. Didn’t dare talk about that either if you knew what was good for you.
She reached for a sturdy stick leaning against the maple tree and stabbed at the thin layer of ice in the hound dogs drinking bucket. All the while envy welled up in her as she eyed the backs of Brice and Crack and their friend, Duck Phillips, headed for the timber. She wondered how in the world Duck managed to always show up when there was food. It’s a good thing Crack didn’t feel sorry for ever homesteading bachelor in Vernon County. A single man hurried the emptying of a family’s larder if invited often enough. The tall man had raw bone, good looks with swarthy skin, darkened from exposure to the elements, but that was all Ella could think to say good about him. He had the manners of a goat.
Brice had dark brown hair and dark eyes like the rest of the Mayfield younguns. He'd always took life too seriously. That was worse now that he’d married and became head of the Mayfield household. His gravely voice sure reminded her of Pa.
Crack, on the other hand, had no intention of settling down right away. A mischievous twinkle lit his brown eyes most of the time, aimed at ever pretty young girl within miles of Montevallo. The youthful timbre to his voice held a reminder of the childhood he’d just about left behind.
Each man toted a sharps rifle. They figured on doing the hog kill. Wouldn’t be such a hard job since the hogs had been baited at the edge of the timber with sour mash for a few days. Manner of fact, she didn’t see why she couldn’t try her hand at shooting a hog. She’d had years of practice hunting on her own. In fact, she considered herself a better shot than her brothers.
Ella darted past John Gabbert, D. P., Bill Gabbert and his younger boys, Pete and Jeff, busy preparing the butchering setup in the yard. She burst through the cabin door. Jestine looked up from mixing cornbread batter. Ella could bet the thought occurred to Mama that her eldest daughter moved like a wild Indian sometimes, but other times like a mad cow on a rampage.
Rebecca Gabbert, a tiny, brown wren of a woman, stopped stirring a stew pot and turned to see what the racket was all about. At the end of the table, Eliza and Margarett gave her a slight, curious nod. To get a head start, Eliza washed what dishes they'd already dirtied and Margarett dried.
Leonora continued to peel potatoes, frowning her disapproval at Ella from under her bent head. Ella knew that look. Leonora thought she should be helping the women. Only Sallie gave her a kindly smile. How much better off the world would be right now if everyone had the patience and kindness for people her fair haired, pretty sister did.
"What’s yer hurry, gal?" Widow Mayfield asked, watching Ella’s face closely. Even after raising a big family and working hard along side her husband, she seemed younger than most women her age. Ella admired the fact that her mother could work along side anyone and work their hind end off.
Jestine had an unfailing quickness for sensing when something was up with one of the family, good or bad. She’d turn her piercing eyes on one of her younguns and stare what was wrong out of them. When it didn’t suit Ella for Mama to know what was going on, she was leery of that trait. She tried to stay clear of Jestine when she knew her mama would disapprove, but there was no way around it this time.
"Goin' to take Pa’s gun out for a spell." Ella replied, snatching the sharps rifle from the corner.
"Whatever fur?" Narrowing her hazel eyes, Jestine lifted the cornmeal coated spoon out of the gray, crock bowl. She hit it on the rim to dislodge the meal while she stared a hole through Ella.
"Thought maybe I’d hep the men shoot the hawgs," Ella answered quickly on her way out the door. She knew better than to stick around and discuss the subject. Mama would try to talk her out of going. Trouble was men’s work was a lot more exciting and fun than women’s work. Besides the kitchen was crowded with working women right then. They didn’t need her. Ella cocked the rifle, anticipating a chance to shoot. She followed the beaten down path along the end of the corn field, now rows of corn stubs and shocks.
Pa loved this wildness place he chose to homestead. He always said that God made Heaven and dropped a bit of it right there in southern Missouri. She agreed with him. Shoulder high prairies along the creeks and bottoms for cattle and horses to graze. Fertile land to clear and plant crops on. Timbered hills full of game to hunt along with prowling bobcats and panthers for her to watch out for. Water holes a plenty to fish in. In season, all sorts of food to pick, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, grapes, wild plums, pawpaws and hickory, pecans and walnuts a plenty.
She came into view of the three men squatted down in the prairie grass until just their heads and shoulders showed. Light footed, she slipped up as close as she dared. Down on their knees in a row and a few feet apart, each man aimed at one of the three wiry, thick haired hogs. Unaware that humans were near, the hogs rooted with their long snouts to slurp up the sour mash out of the grass. Wasn’t a fourth hog for Ella. She curled her lips sideways in a disappointed snarl and leaned back against a hickory tree.
Ella like to admire the timber top, afire, blended ambers, oranges and crimson. Fall usually was a colorful sight to behold until the leaves browned. That is, until the leaves dropped and left the trees naked as plucked chicken. After five years of drought, trees were suffering from lack of water, loosing half their leaves early or dying. This long dry spell sure was a worry to the farmers.
High in a tree, a mockingbird mimicked other birds. A covey's bobwhite calls mixed with the sniffing hogs soft grunts. The sun glinted on rifle barrels lifted above the wavering grass. The rifles exploded at the same time, filling the air with gunsmoke. Squealing screams rent the quiet as two of the hogs dropped. The sow Crack shot squealed in pain. She shook her long snout from side to side and staggered for the trees. Ella saw her chance. She took aim and fired. The hog fell.
The men flattened to the ground and rolled to face her. Their heads peeked above the grass and their rifles aimed in her direction. Ella ducked behind the hickory. She pressed her body tightly against the rough bark.
"Don’t shoot. It’s Ella," she shouted.
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