I follow her out, straighten the doctor’s clothes, and smooth down his hair. “I guess we’d better get going.”
“I’m so sorry,” she says to me. “Say your apologies, children.”
“Dr. Blum.” That’s me, tapping the physician on the shoulder. “Time to go.” The doctor stands.
“I’m so sorry,” Willa says again.
“No harm done,” I reassure, giving the woman a gentle hug so as not to hurt her bruised body. “You need me for anything, send word through Patience, the midwife. I mean anything. She has a phone. You know how to get her? There may be a time you have to get out of here.” I whisper this last part.
All four of the girls walk us to the swinging bridge, the towheaded little ones holding Isaac’s big hands. When I look back, their mother stands leaning against the peeling porch, her hand on her neck.
It’s Independence Day in Liberty and the Hesters, Dr. Blum, and I stand in front of the pharmacy watching the parade. It begins with the Liberty High School band, wearing their worn dark blue uniforms, playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Then the Negro Drum and Bugle Corp from Delmont struts by dressed in spotless white shirts and black pants with black berets, raising their knees high and holding their proud heads back. Finally, near the end, come the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Charley Roote, dressed in his Spanish-American War uniform, is one of my delivery clients, and he catches my eye and winks.
“Daniel was in the Great War,” Patience whispers.
“He never talks about it,” I comment.
“He can’t. He’s not what you’d call a military man. He tells me stories sometimes, though. He was in charge of the horses for his platoon. One million men were wounded and died, but eight million horses also perished. It was awful. I think he felt worse for the animals than his fellow soldiers. At least the men knew what they were fighting for, or thought they did.”
The horses in the parade come last, all decked out with red, white, and blue ribbons in their manes and tails, and the vet, perking up, points out the ones that he knows or has treated. Little Danny is amused by their droppings.
Now it’s almost dark and you can hear the old-timey fiddle music from a few blocks away where Sycamore has been blocked off for a square dance.
“How about here, ladies?” It’s Daniel, spreading a quilt out among the other blankets on the lawn around the courthouse where people are picnicking.
“Looks good,” Patience agrees, and we lay out our small meal of cold baked beans, biscuits, and new potato salad.
A few minutes later, our meal is interrupted by cruel words. “Sit down, bitch! I can’t see through you.”
All heads turn, and in the growing dusk, I see Willa Hucknell, tending her blond brood, a few blankets away. That must be Mr. Hucknell! I’ve never met him before, and his words rip like a razor through the peaceful families eating their Fourth of July suppers. “I said sit down!”
The man, a handsome freckled-faced guy wearing a white fedora and white shirt open at the throat, sways above the picnic blanket like he’s two sheets to the wind. “Are you listening, bitch? Are you listening?” He gives the woman a whack across her head. Daniel jumps up, as do several other men, even Blum and, yes, even Patience. Danny covers his ears and I pull him into my lap.
“Alfred . . . please!” Willa Hucknell begs. She must be so embarrassed, I think. To be treated so roughly in public would hurt more than the slap.
“You fuckin’ ’shamed of me?” He slaps her again. What’s got into him?
“Hey there, Alfred. You old son of a gun!” Daniel Hester winds his way through the crowd to get to the Hucknells, trying to defuse the situation. Blum follows like a shadow, increasing their bulk, if not their power. “Ain’t seen much of you lately, Al. Had any more trouble with that three-teated cow?” Hester’s playing the good ol’ boy. He never says “ain’t” at home.
Mr. Hucknell mumbles something surly and plunks himself down, and Daniel turns back to our quilt, thinking the disturbance is over, but he’s wrong. Loud enough for the whole crowd to hear, Hucknell curses, “Fucking Doctor Hester, the veterinarian, but that cow never was right after he treated her. Charged me ten dollars, the quack.”
Daniel whips back. “Excuse me. What did you say?”
A few more people rise to see what’s happening, and some of the mothers lead their children away. There’s a nasal laugh up front and a short, stocky man yells, “Fight!”
Here Patience gently pulls on Daniel’s shirtsleeve. She’s wearing her second-best dress, a navy blue shirtwaist with tiny white flowers, and in the dusk the white flowers look like stars.
“He killed out best stallion, Devil, too.” The nasal voice is louder.
“Those are the Bishop brothers,” Patience whispers and points into the crowd. “They’d love to start trouble.” A beer bottle flies and shatters on the courthouse steps and at the same time Hucknell jumps up and pushes Daniel and Daniel pushes him back.
Then all hell breaks loose. Boom! Hucknell hits the vet in the face with his fist as the first of the fireworks goes off at the fairground. Boom! A white trail of light shoots into the night as two men rush forward and knock Daniel down. Boom! The trail of light bursts into red, white, and blue flowers, illuminating the crowd. Boom! Another skyrocket goes up. Blum gets into the scuffle and shows his new strength when he grabs one of the Bishop brothers and throws him through the air. Boom!
“Oh, shit!” Patience yells, heading into the melee, and I pull her back before she gets hurt.
“Somebody get the sheriff,” a woman screams. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!
Then two more men rush forward, heading into the throng. The bigger of the two puts his size twelve boot in our potato salad while the small guy busts his head right into Blum’s left kidney, a dangerous place, but the doctor swings around and traps the fellow in a headlock.
Boys on the courthouse steps are chanting, “Fight! Fight!” and by the rocket’s red glare, bombs bursting in air, the melee gets wilder. It’s as bad as a dogfight, and although originally it started with Mr. Hucknell and Daniel, all the men on the lawn are enjoying it.
Boom! Gold and silver blossoms light up the sky.
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