As he ate, Littlejim began to feel better. “What does a fine young man like you do when he’s not chasing around this town with a load of lumber?” asked Mr. Green.
“I go to school,” said Littlejim between bites, “and I’m the dust doodler at Uncle Bob’s sawmill on Saturday. I build things out of wood, and I help Mama with the chores. I keep hoping Papa will be proud of me, but I can’t seem to please him. He still thinks I’m not much of a man and . . .”
His words came faster until they were all run together. “And I want to win the essay contest so my words will be printed in the Star, and maybe Papa will think . . .”
“Whoa, slow down. You are a smart young man. So your papa doesn’t think you’re the man you should be. Is that it?”
“Yes, sir. No matter what I do, Papa doesn’t think it’s as good as he could do it, and I want more than anything to prove that I am a man he can be proud of.”
Littlejim found himself telling the man about Bigjim and the pictures he saw in his mind and ideas he had about what it means to be an American. Then he told Mr. Green about Mr. McGuire’s death and how Lilac had destroyed the tobacco patch he planted for his father. At last he explained about the July Fourth celebration and the essay contest and why he wanted to win.
“Most of all, if Papa sees my words in his Kansas City Star, maybe he will be proud of me. I want to win the ten-dollar prize to buy some horses so I can go to the woods like Papa, but Mama says the prize money could be used to send me away to school, so I can be a scholar, like Mr. Osk says I am.”
“Which do you really want, son?” he asked.
“I really like to learn and to read, but Papa thinks a man should work in the woods and farm and chew tobacco. I always thought I would be a logger, but I really think I would like to go to school.”
“Ha!” said Mr. Green. “Well, son, men have different talents. A scholar is as much of a man as a lumberman. You should do what you feel is your own best work.”
No one in his life had been so interested in what Littlejim had to say except Mama. He talked on.
“I was working on my essay when the horses got away,” he said. “Here, I’ll show you.” He felt inside his pockets, then picked up his coat and checked there.
“They’re gone,” he said. “All my pages. Mama gave me the last pages of her tablet paper. They must have dropped off when the horses ran. I lost all my words. And that was the last page of Mama’s writing tablet.” Littlejim did not feel much like a fine young man just then. His eyes stung with tears of disappointment. “Now I’ll never win the competition. I won’t have my words printed in the Star. And I have failed. I’m just a no-account boy, like Papa said.”
The tears threatened to spill over onto his cheeks, but he dared not let them fall.
“What was your essay about?” asked Mr. Green.
“I was writing about what it means to be an American. I thought the words Mr. McGuire said that day he was killed were good ones. He said he came here with nothing, but now he had a home and family. He wanted his bones to rest in American soil.”
“Well, I guess most of us or some of our grandparents came here from somewhere else. That’s what this country is all about. We all came here as strangers and made this our home,” said Mr. Green.
“That’s what the man who runs the saw said and Uncle Bob, too,” said Littlejim. “He told me his grandfather hid in a barrel on a ship to come here, and Uncle Bob said our grandfather was going to be hanged, like a horse thief.” Littlejim found himself laughing at that.
Mr. Green laughed, too, and slapped his thigh. “It’s my opinion that many of us started to this land only one step ahead of the sheriff or the hangman. My grandmother was put into debtors’ prison in England for stealing bread for her children when her husband was killed and her money was stolen from her. She was sent to Georgia. She started all over and made a home. She helped her new husband make a fortune there.”
“I think that’s what I will write about,” said Littlejim, thoughtfully nibbling the last of his salt pickle. “I think maybe that’s what being an American means, not fighting in a war, or wearing soldiering clothes. Maybe being an American means coming to a new land as strangers and making it our home—like the Creek is our home.”
Suddenly, it all seemed to make sense, just like it had that day when he and Mama planted the tobacco bed. Now he was sure what his essay would say, even though he had lost his papers.
“My boy, I think you have your essay already written,” said Mr. Green.
Bigjim stepped up to the wagon at that moment. “You pestering this man, Jimmy,” said his father, frowning. He looked as if he wanted to say something to Mr. Green but dared not.
“No, sir,” interrupted Mr. Green, “I was pestering him. Asking him about Bob’s new circle saw at the mill. I’ve not laid eyes on Bob in years,” said Mr. Green. Bigjim was still frowning.
“Fine son you have there, Jim. Had a son like that myself years ago,” he continued. Mr. Green looked away. “Typhoid epidemic.” His voice was only a choked whisper.
Bigjim ignored Mr. Green and looked away.
“Sam’s waiting for us to unload,” said Bigjim, gruffly. “Can you bring the team closer to the siding?” He walked over toward the siding.
Mr. Green helped Littlejim position the wagon, then he said, “Good day, son,” and walked off across the buggy tracks in the muddy street.
Littlejim helped his father unfasten the chains and climbed on top of the load of lumber to hand the boards down one by one to the men who stacked them into the railcars. As he lifted the boards, his mind began to form words in rhythm to his movements. “They started all over. They made a new home. They started all over. They made a new home. They started all over. They made a new home . . .”
When the wagon was empty, Littlejim guided it back into the street and prepared to follow Bigjim’s lead up the hill to River Road.
A voice called from the sidewalk, “Jimmy. Jimmy, wait!”
Littlejim reined in the horses. Mr. Green came running up to the side of the wagon. He handed a parcel wrapped in brown paper to the boy.
“Good luck in the essay competition. I’ll watch for your words in the Star. If you win, I’ll come to the July Fourth celebration to hear your speech. Goodbye, son.” Mr. Green said.
The man shook Littlejim’s hand. Then he slapped Swain’s massive rump. “Giddiup,” he said.
Littlejim drove the horses hard to catch up before Bigjim missed him. The wagon was much easier to handle now that the load was gone.
When they had left the town behind, the horses plodded along, following the lead of Bigjim’s team. Littlejim opened the parcel. It contained a lined tablet of writing paper and a fat yellow pencil.
Littlejim grinned. No student at the Henson Creek school had ever had anything so fine with which to write his lessons. He placed the package inside his folded coat so Bigjim would not see it.
As they traveled back on the River Road, he thought about how grateful he was to Mr. Green for helping him handle Scott and Swain, and about all the people like him who had made this land their home, and about his home on the Creek that Mama filled with love, no matter what Bigjim said.