Side by side, they trudged up the steps of the big white building and across the wide front porch.
Littlejim loved the dark cavern that was Burleson’s Store. Bigjim often said the store sold everything from stick matches to pianos. There were so many things to see. Fine new saddles, garden hoes, plows, horseshoes, kegs of nails, shiny blue stovepipes, bolts of colored cloth, ladies’ bonnets, tinned foods, crocks of spices, and jars of candy lined the walls and stood on the counters. In barrels on the floor were displayed dried beans, pickles, and strips of salt pork.
Best of all, Littlejim thought, were the smells. Besides the fragrance of leather and kerosene, the store smelled of salt brine from the pickles, cinnamon from the spice shelf, and the almost- sour smell of the hoop of cheese Mr. Burleson kept in the round wooden crate on the high counter beside the shiny brass cash register.
Littlejim liked cheese better than almost anything, even candy.
Sometimes, when a customer’s due-bill was paid, the children in that family received a setup. A setup was a piece of free candy or some other treat selected by the child. Each child was allowed to choose a favorite, which Mr. Burleson presented with a flourish as he bowed from the waist. Mama’s bill usually had a credit balance from the butter and eggs she traded at the store, so Littlejim and Nell always received a setup whenever they went there.
“What would you like today, my pretty little Nell?” asked Mr. Burleson, as he began to whistle the melody of “Darling Nelly Gray.”
Nell blushed, but her blue eyes shone with delight. She stood gazing up at the round jars filled with peppermint sticks, large round jawbreakers, and the many colors of jellied fruits. At last she pointed to the jar which held long peppermint sticks spiraled with red and white.
“If you please,” Nell whispered shyly, “a peppermint stick.”
“One peppermint stick for my pretty little Nell,” said Mr. Burleson, walking around the end of the counter and presenting the peppermint stick with a bow and a flourish. “Why don’t you run up to the house and see Annie while I get your mama’s order together?” Mr. Burleson asked. “She misses you since her pa moved off the Creek. I’ll send Littlejim when the order is ready.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Nell, as she closed the door and went skipping across the porch holding the precious peppermint stick in front of her.
“And what’ll it be today, Jimmy? Candy or a sliver of cheese?” asked the bald man wearing a white apron. The sleeves of his starched white shirt were pushed up and held by garters.
“A piece of cheese, sir, if you please,” replied Littlejim.
“I’m partial to cheese myself,” Mr. Burleson chuckled. He walked over to the counter where the hoop of cheese was covered by a white wooden crate.
The door opened. Littlejim looked up. Andy McGuire and his father came in, bringing a gust of cold air.
“Where are your ten-penny nails?” Mr. McGuire asked. He said “Wher-rdr air-dr your-dr . . .” Littlejim had to listen carefully to understand the strange pronunciations. They were very different from the usual mountain speech patterns so familiar to Littlejim’s ears.
Andy came over to stand with Littlejim as Mr. McGuire made his way to the back of the store.
“Right over there. In the keg behind the plowshares,” said Mr. Burleson, as he carefully lifted the top of the round wooden crate and unwound the mesh from the golden wheel. Then he took a long sharp knife and cut two thin slices of cheese. He placed each slice on a small square of brown paper. He reached into a big tin and added two thick white soda crackers to the packets and handed one to each boy.
“Much obliged,” said Littlejim.
“Thank you, sir,” said Andy with a big smile. He had not expected to share Littlejim’s setup.
Wiping his hands on his white apron, Mr. Burleson nodded and walked toward the hardware section to join Mr. McGuire.
Andy and Littlejim walked over to sit on the ledge at the front windows. For a few minutes, they munched in silence.
“How did you like Mr. Vance’s autymobile?” asked Andy. “I can’t figure out how it could go without horses, can you?”
“Mr. Osk told me it was something to do with burning fuel inside the engine,” answered Littlejim.
“I looked real close,” said Andy. “I didn’t see a boiler anywhere nor any place for wood to stoke the fire.”
“It can’t be run by steam,” said Littlejim. “I can’t rightly say what makes it run, but it is a wonder.”
“Do you reckon,” Andy pronounced the “r-dr” as his father had, “that we’ll ever get to ride in one of those things?”
“Wouldn’t that be a proud day?” answered Littlejim. “To ride in a real autymobile!”
“Sitting tall and splenderous,” said Andy.
“Yeah, a proud day,” agreed Littlejim.
Mr. McGuire and the storekeeper walked to the door.
“We’d best be goin’,” said Mr. McGuire. “What do I owe ye fer my boy’s setup?”
“It’s on the house. He’s a fine boy,” said Mr. Burleson.
“Thanks be to ye. Good day,” said Mr. McGuire, throwing an arm around his son’s shoulders and guiding him out the door.
Littlejim watched the father and son walk across the porch, the boy enclosed in his father’s protective arm. A longing took hold of his stomach. “Why isn’t Papa like Andy’s pa?” he asked himself. His eyes stung. A voice interrupted his thoughts.
“From what Osk tells me, you are quite the scholar,” said Mr. Burleson. “He tells me you are his prize pupil.”
Littlejim blushed. Bigjim had told him a man ought not be too proud, but he could hardly keep from standing a bit taller and straighter when a fine man like Mr. Burleson offered words of praise.
“Miz Gertrude’s order is ready, Jimmy. Did Bigjim and Miz Gertrude have a fine Christmas?”
“No, sir. Papa says it’s just another day,” said Littlejim.
“Your papa’s a fine man, even if he is a mite soured on life,” mused Mr. Burleson, as he wrapped the packages with twine. “He needs to work a mite less hard. Him and Bob making a fortune selling the army timber, so’s I hear?”
“No, sir. Papa says times is hard, uh, are hard, what with the war and all,” said Littlejim.
Mr. Burleson laughed and wiped his hands on his apron. “Your papa would say times was hard if he was in heaven walking streets paved with gold. Bigjim is a tight man with a dollar.”
A lady wearing a feathered bonnet came into the store.
“Why, howdy, Miz Addie,” said Mr. Burleson. “Littlejim, you tell Miz Gertrude that I’ll take all the butter and eggs she can spare for the winter. Hers is the only yellow butter I see from Christmas ’til the spring freshet.”
Littlejim smiled. He wouldn’t give away Mama’s secret. During the cold winter months when Old Jerse’s milk made pale white butter, Littlejim had helped Mama with the churning. He had watched her scrape a carrot into fine scrapings with her little paring knife and set the bowl aside to drain. After a while she mixed the orange-colored carrot juice with the fresh butter, working it with her warm hands until it became a pale yellow. It wasn’t the same yellow as summer butter, but it wasn’t white, either.
“We eat with our eyes as well as our mouths,” said Mama. “Yellow butter seems to taste richer than white. Well, carrots are good food, too.”
Mr. Burleson walked with Littlejim to the big front doors and looked out. “Nell went up to play with Annie. You’d better go get her,” he said. “The old woman in the sky is picking her geese today.”
When Littlejim returned with Nell, Mr. Burleson came outside with a stack of packets in his arms. He set them on the edge of the porch and jumped off. Then he helped Littlejim to pack the sugar, coffee, thread, and a tiny precious tin of cocoa into the box on the sled.
Finally he lifted Nell off the high porch. Littlejim took Nell’s mittened hand and began the long walk back up the Henson Creek Road. The shoes of the two children made circles on either side of the long solid tracks of the sled..