Littlejim had been into town twice in the past, but he had forgotten the bustle of the place. It seemed to him that everybody was in a hurry. He and his father approached the spot where the main road divided into Upper Street, higher up the hill parallel to the river, and Lower Street, lower on the hill parallel to the river. The number of wagons and carriages increased. Here and there, an automobile added its noise to the confusion.
Bigjim pointed his whip to the left. The wagons would follow Lower Street down an incline to the place where the street ran alongside the railroad track beside the river. About halfway down the street stood the railroad station.
The street was muddy but had a board sidewalk, with parking for buggies and hitching posts for the horses beside it. They drove the wagons slowly past Spruce Pine Store Company and J. D. Lawing General Merchandise Company and stopped in front of Peterson’s Pharmacy. “Got to deliver these apples,” said Bigjim. “You mind these hosses. Bob’s team ain’t as skittish as Scott and Swain here.”
Littlejim climbed up on top of the load of boards. He could see the sign that read “Charles Peterson, Medical Doctor,” with an arrow pointing upward to the second story of the building. Next door was the sign for P. D. Price’s Provisions Company.
Mr. Price came out the front door of the building wearing a white apron that was stained with blood over his fat stomach. He was carrying a meat cleaver. A boy about the age of Littlejim followed close behind. A tall, stalwart man in a fine gray suit and hat walked with the pair.
“Howdy, Mr. Price,” said Bigjim.
“Howdy do, Jim,” said Mr. Price. “How be you?”
After Mr. Price had wiped his hands on his apron, the two men shook hands.
“Tolerable well, just tolerable,” said Bigjim. “Brought your Winter Johns.”
“Fine-looking fruit. Prime quality. Just prime,” said Mr. Price. Littlejim helped the other boy lift the baskets of Winter John apples down to the sidewalk, while the man in the gray suit walked ahead to inspect Uncle Bob’s team of Clydesdales. Then he walked back to examine the strong leg muscles of Scott and Swain.
“Come by after you get unloaded. I’ll settle up with Miz Houston then. Got a setup for your fine drayman here, too.” Mr. Price laughed.
Littlejim hoped the setup would include a choice of a slice of hoop cheese like Mr. Burleson usually gave him. His mouth watered. It was getting past his midday dinnertime, and his stomach had begun to growl.
The tall man walked up to Bigjim and tipped his hat. He flicked the ash off a long cigar.
“Mr. Houston, I’m George G. Green. I own the livery stable here. Do a little horse trading, too. That’s as fine a team of Percherons as I’ve ever laid my eyes on. Good team of Clydesdales, too. Wouldn’t like to sell, would you?”
Never before in all his life had Littlejim seen his father smile so broadly that he showed his teeth. But this time Bigjim grinned. His straight, even teeth shone from within his beard in the noonday sun. He rocked back and forth from heel to toe, toe to heel. His thumbs laced his suspenders.
“My pets, Scott and Swain? No, sir! I’d sooner sell that no-account boy there as part with them hosses. They be like part of my life’s blood.” Littlejim felt proud of Scott and Swain, but his father’s words stung. “Of course, the other team’s my brother’s, so’s they ain’t fer sale neither,” Bigjim continued.
Mr. Green walked over to Littlejim and picked up one arm. “Open your mouth, son,” he said with a broad wink.
Littlejim opened his mouth. Mr. Green pretended to examine the boy’s teeth as he had examined the horses’ and then slapped him on the back.
“Yep, fine young man you’ve got there. Wouldn’t mind having a son like him myself, but no market these days for boys.” He winked at Littlejim again. “Percherons, though, I’ve got a market for them.”
“Mighty good of you to ask,” said Bigjim, “but they ain’t fer sale. Good day.” He tipped his slouch hat and turned back to the wagons.
“If you change your mind, you’ll find me at the livery stable next to the Topliff Hotel on Upper Street. Good day to you both,” said Mr. Green.
He walked away and disappeared into a side street that ran between Price’s Provisions and the building with a sign that read “Bradley Masters, Painless Dentist, Upstairs.”
Bigjim pointed to a gray and black building on the left a short distance down the street. It had a sign that read “Clinchfield Railroad” on the side. A huge black locomotive hissed steam near the office entrance. Another engine headed in the other direction waited on the side track nearer the river.
“I’ll pull my wagon over there. You head up to Upper Street, to the next side street, and come down and line up at the siding at the other end of the station. Then you’ll be heading in the right direction for unloading. I’ll see Sam McKinney fer the papers.” His father pointed one long skinny finger across the wagon in front of Littlejim.
Littlejim’s eyes followed his father’s hand as he indicated directions. He nodded his head, trying to follow what the man said.
Bigjim had already pulled his wagon off to the rail yard. Littlejim directed the team to turn up the steep side street to the broad road higher on the hill. He had to wait in line until the wagons in front could move into the flow of traffic on the main street. While he waited, he took the papers on which he had begun his essay out of his pocket. Between moves, he read the lines aloud to hear how his words sounded.
At the intersection, he stopped the team to allow a buggy to pass down the hill. He dropped the reins loosely to his knee. A lone rider on a bay horse streaked by in front of Scott and Swain. The horses stepped back in tandem, skipping the brake blocks away from the wheels of the wagon. The papers with his essay written on them fell into the mud unseen.
that same moment, the locomotive down the hill behind the wagon released a puff of steam. Its whistle blew. The team lurched forward. Muscles straining in fear, Scott and Swain began to run as fast as their huge feet could move, dragging Littlejim and his wagonload of lumber with them as they turned the corner.
Careening wildly, the team and wagon tore along Upper Street with Littlejim hanging onto the load of lumber for dear life. He grabbed for the brake lever. Nothing happened. It was loose.
The horses ran on. Dogs, chickens, people, and other vehicles scattered. Guests at the Topliff Hotel left their white rocking chairs to stare. Several men ran out of the Post Office to watch. As the wagon passed, some of the men began to laugh and point at the runaways. Littlejim tried the brakes again, but there were no brakes.
“Why don’t some of these men help me?” Littlejim asked the wind as it whizzed by his ears, between cries of “Whoa! Stop!” But everyone just stood on the sidewalk and watched.
The team had turned down the side street when Littlejim finally realized the reins were dangling between the rumps of Scott and Swain. He lay sideways, then turned around so that his body was partly off the load of boards, holding on with one hand. Finally, he caught the reins with the other.
Managing to sit up, he pulled on the reins. The horses did not respond. He pulled again, yelling, “Whoa. Whoa. Stop!” The team slowed down, then came to a stop in front of Peterson’s Pharmacy, headed in the direction opposite Bigjim’s wagon parked nearby.
Littlejim wiped his wet face on his sleeve and climbed up to stand on the boards on legs that wobbled from weak knees.
Just as he caught his breath, the train whistle blew again. The team bolted and away they went. The thrust of the wagon threw Littlejim backward on top of the load of lumber. The reins flew out of his hands, dragging beneath the horses’ hooves.
The wagon careened wildly down the street, up the hill, and along the sidewalk. The horses began to run first to one side of the street, then to the other. Drivers of other wagons and buggies scurried to safety, but Littlejim’s wagon barely missed one parked on Upper Street. Down the hill the horses ran. Along Lower Street, passing the railroad station, they barely slowed on the turn as they started up the incline.
Littlejim struggled to turn on his side. He saw his papa’s slouch hat and dark beard coming out the door of the station as he passed. Up the hill they went again. Littlejim’s fear was so big he could not breathe. He could feel the lumber swaying from side to side. He closed his eyes and prayed.
As they passed the livery stable, a tall figure ran out into the street. His fine gray hat flew into the mud. The man leaped to Scott’s side and managed to throw a leg over the horse’s back. Then he grabbed Swain’s bridle. Littlejim watched with relief as Mr. Green pulled the team to a stop. The load of boards jerked and swayed but remained upright.
“Are you all right, son?” Mr. Green asked as he jumped down the side of the wagon.
“The brakes were gone. Nobody would help me. Some of them were laughing at me,” said Littlejim, between gulps of air. “Thank you, sir.”
Mr. Green held his sides and leaned against the muddy wheel of the wagon. He caught his breath at last. “Son, they were laughing at your coat that hung on this board for your entire wild ride,” said the man, handing the coat to Littlejim. Mr. Green laughed then. Littlejim managed a smile. The man stepped up on the wheel, sat down beside Littlejim and guided the wagon into the railroad siding.
Bigjim came loping over to the wagon. “My Lord, son! What do you mean, letting that team get away from you? You almost lost me five hundred feet of prime lumber!” he shouted at his son.
The muscles in Mr. Green’s jaw tightened. His eyes narrowed. He stepped down from the wagon. He was slightly taller than Bigjim and in his fine gray suit, he was an imposing figure.
“Mr. Houston, your son was almost killed. He did a fine job of handling the team until the train spooked them. When the reins fell, he needed help. The horses were running like hell to beat tanbark.”
Mr. Green was almost shouting at Bigjim. He stood boot to boot with Littlejim’s father. Littlejim had never seen anybody shout at Bigjim, not even Uncle Bob. He thought Mr. Green must be a very brave man to dare to shout at his papa. Bigjim took a step backward. His eyes narrowed, but he spoke carefully, as if he was not sure what Mr. Green would do.
“I’m much obliged to you, Mr. Green, for saving my load. I’ll take care of tanning the boy’s hide when we get home,” said Bigjim.
Mr. Green reached up and slapped Littlejim’s shoulder. “Fine job, my boy. I’ll trade for you instead of that team any day your pa will trade,” he said over his shoulder as he walked away.
“Move over, boy. We have to get this lumber unloaded. I’ll handle the team,” said Bigjim, taking the reins.
“Papa, the train spooked the team. They skipped their traces, and . . .” Littlejim began.
“I don’t need no reasons. I saw what happened,” said his father. “I told Bob I shouldn’t bring you.”
Neither of them spoke again until Sam McKinney called Bigjim into the station. Littlejim sat on the lumber and closed his eyes.
“I wish the earth would just open up and swallow me,” said Littlejim under his breath as his eyes filled with tears of embarrassment and sadness.
“You hungry, son?” said a voice beside him.
Mr. Green stood there. On a piece of white butcher paper he held two slabs of yellow hoop cheese and a pile of thick white soda crackers.
The man climbed up, sat down, and spread the picnic on the seat between them. Then he reached into the pocket of his fine jacket and pulled out another white packet.
“Mr. Price’s finest salt pickles. You like salt pickles?” Mr. Green asked.
Littlejim nodded. He bit into the cheese and crackers.