Mountains of Memories
Copyright © 2015 by Parker Sheaffer
Mr. McCarthy's store was like a wonderland to the mountain boy. The stacks and shelves and barrels of merchandise opened up a new world of smells and sights which excited his curiosity. Everywhere he looked there were bright colors and things he had never seen before. Mr. McCarthy, a lean man of fifty, was stacking some blankets onto a shelf. He greeted Mrs. Ogle and listened while she explained their need. The man looked the boy up and down while he scratched his head.
He said, "Might be I could use some help the way this city keeps growing. How old are you, boy?"
"Twenty, sir," Lucas answered automatically but immediately cursed himself for a fool. No one was going to believe that.
Sure enough Mr. McCarthy looked skeptical. Even Mrs. Ogle had raised an eyebrow in surprise. To them, Lucas was a slender youth in his early teens.
The man said, "Twenty? Now don't start off lying to me. How old are you really?"
"Uh, sixteen, sir. Sorry, sir."
"Sixteen, huh? Well, maybe, but you look more like thirteen or fourteen to me. Are you strong? I need a strong back to help me unload stuff."
Mrs. Ogle said, "He's a mountain boy, Earl. Of course he's strong."
"You'll have to sweep and clean the place, stock the shelves and help customers sometimes. Can you read?"
"Some, sir. I ain't too fast though," Lucas admitted.
"Well, I might be able to help you there. I used to be a school teacher. I'll let you sleep in the back storeroom and you can take your meals with me. I'll pay you what I can and I'll let you pick out some new clothes so you'll look respectable for the customers," the man said. He was affected by the boy's earnest manner and his handsome face and had already made up his mind to try the boy out.
Seeing that Lucas was going to be taken care of, Mrs. Ogle left them to talk about wages. She told Lucas to come to dinner that night and he thanked her sincerely.
Mr. McCarthy showed him to a small room built onto the back of the store. There was a single cot with a thin, straw-filled mattress with some nice blankets on it. There were hooks on the wall for his clothes and a chipped bowl and pitcher on a washstand in the corner. The room had a small window with a pretty piece of cloth as a curtain and it even had a rug on the floor. It was so much better than Lucas was accustomed to that he began to feel that life might just work out after all. He was eager to start work so he could learn about all of the new things in the store.
Like he said, Mr. McCarthy let him pick out some new britches and two new shirts as well as a good pair of boots. He said that Lucas needed to look nice and talk nice for the customers.
Everything did go well. The work was not difficult, especially for a boy who spent his days chopping wood and hoeing corn, and his cot was much better than the accommodations he had shared with his family in their small cabin. He even began to receive a little money for the first time in his life. Lucas was far happier than he had been during those past two years back in the mountains.
In the daytime he learned how to measure and weigh the tobacco and sugar and meal, how to keep the barrels and boxes filled with kerosene and tools, how to cut the bolts of beautiful cloth and how to keep inventory of all the treasures. He displayed his intelligence by quickly picking up everything necessary to keep a general store running and the old man was happy with his progress.
In the evenings Mr. McCarthy gave him lessons in reading and math so that he would be able to handle money transactions when Mr. McCarthy was out. Lucas also learned grammar and a little bit of science.
Earl told him, "Start out with this Primer by Mister McGuffy and that will help you with your reading. Then I think you would like reading Captain Lewis' book here about his expedition out west with Captain Clark. It's got a lot to tell about the wilderness that makes up most of this land. But feel free to read anything that you like on the shelf over there. Just be careful with them and handle them gently."
Lucas found that he enjoyed reading and he picked it up quickly, spurred on by the exciting tales and a longing to learn more of the world. One story that bothered him and gave him nightmares for a week was Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving. That book awakened a sense of fear that Lucas was trying to put behind him.
The former school teacher was surprised by how quickly the boy learned new things. His reading improved rapidly and he caught on right away to basic arithmetic. He even developed a nice hand at writing. As far as the store went Lucas only had to be told once about what things were, where they went and how much they cost.
Earl was very pleased with his new helper and secretly took great pleasure in watching him as he worked around the store. The boy was beautiful with his black hair, blue eyes and young face. Sometimes he looked like a little angel and Earl began to feel things that he had kept locked in his heart for many years. Feelings of longing and need that young boys had always awakened in him were now bubbling to the surface each time he looked at Lucas.
Earl lived above the store in a couple of nicely furnished rooms and Lucas took his meals there, unless Mrs. Ogle asked him to supper. At night Lucas would lie in bed and think about his past, the demons, his family, the city and his uncertain future. The awful experience that disrupted his life was becoming indistinct and fading from his memory. He could no longer see the faces of the demons quite as clearly and he began to sometimes wonder if it had actually happened. But there was no getting away from the fact that he still wasn't growing.
In fact, he had noticed something else about himself. He was unnaturally healthy. Diseases were sickening and killing other people in greater numbers as the war brought hunger to so many. They suffered and often died from consumption, colds, measles, even the flu, but none of it touched Lucas. One day he dropped a glass bowl and cut his hand picking up the broken pieces. The cut looked serious but it healed in two days without leaving a scar. He kept the bandage on his hand for several more days anyway so that no one would see that it had healed.
Trouble had come quickly to Knoxville when the war started. Most folks in Knoxville were for the Union. While they believed in State's rights they knew that the underlying problem was slavery. They said that slavery was a bad thing and, besides that, the hilly land of east Tennessee wasn't a good place for big plantations like they had down in Georgia.
However, Tennessee had declared for the Confederacy and the city of Knoxville was in the control of the southern forces. This led to a great deal of disagreement among the citizens. It became harder for Earl to get supplies and goods as the fighting intensified between the two sides, but they were getting by and they had food, and some money was still coming in.
The two of them got along very well and Earl quickly developed a real fondness for the young boy. Their relationship changed one evening at supper when somehow a bowl got knocked over and Lucas suddenly had a lap full of hot green beans.
He jumped up and Earl told him to pull his britches down quick so he wouldn't get burned. As the man scooped up the ruined food and wiped at the boy's clothes with a rag he found that he was looking right at Lucas' crotch. The slit in the front of his long johns gaped slightly and provided Earl with a glimpse of the boy's privates. They both paused and looked silently at each other for a moment, then a little breathless, they cleaned up and finished their meal.
Neither of them spoke about it, but they were both affected by their brush with intimacy. A week passed during which Earl had found several opportunities to touch him on the shoulder or leg and Lucas always responded with a smile, which made the man feel emboldened and excited.
Then one night Lucas heard a noise in the store. The wooden floor creaked as someone approached his room. He waited, not breathing and not knowing what to expect. He was relieved to see that it was Mr. McCarthy opening his door, dressed in his nightshirt and holding a candle. Lucas started to ask what was wrong, but Mr. McCarthy shushed him. The man blew out the candle and Lucas felt the man's hands touch his legs and chest. As his nightshirt was lifted and pushed up, cool air brushed his bare skin.
Then the man started to climb into bed with Lucas. Earl's weight was uncomfortable, but Lucas didn't struggle or protest. While Lucas had heard of this sort of thing, he had never experienced it. His romantic encounters had consisted solely of kissing his friend, Les, but he was curious and grateful to Earl for being good to him so he held still and let the man take him. It didn't really feel good, but it was bearable. Earl was silent and quick and left the boy without either of them saying a word. Now, as Lucas cleaned himself, he had one more new thing to think about.
Nothing was said about the incident the next day or the next. Both of them were embarrassed and avoided the topic, but a few nights later there was a repeat of the encounter. Earl began to visit him once or twice a week and Lucas was always left unsatisfied. There was never any tenderness or romance to the act. The visits always took place in the dark and never a word was spoken, not even a thank you. Lucas didn't really care.
He was happy just being away from the mountains and he quickly learned the ways of the city folk. He dressed nicely now and had learned good manners and now spoke more properly, and less like a mountain boy. He also progressed in his studies until he could read complete books and do some simple accounting. Earl came to rely on him and, because the customers liked him so much, he began to trust the boy enough to let him run the store for a couple of hours every now and then.
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