was a first round finalist in the
American Christian Fiction Writers
Noble Theme Contest.

He thought he knew the answers…Then he met the problems.

My Father, My Son

by Janice LaQuiere

Chapter One

Clio, Virginia – 1856

Charlie Cooper sat next to the lifeless body of his mother and brushed away the hair from her forehead. Silent tears rolled down his cheeks. His face radiated heat from his recent run, and his breath still came in ragged gasps. He brought his mother’s hand to his lips.

I can be strong, Mama. I’m the man of the family. I promise I’ll be strong until Papa comes home to us.

In the other room Aunt Martha continued sobbing. Through the doorway he saw her seated in the settee with his six-year-old little sister wrapped in her arms. The doctor entered and placed the still form of the baby boy next to his mother’s body. His hand touched Charlie’s shoulder, but Charlie pulled away. He didn't want the doctor's sympathy. He was a man now, and he would act like it. No one would know what his mother's death cost him.

“How old are you, boy?”


“Twelve? Well, I guess that's old enough. The neighbor women will be along to help prepare the bodies.”

Charlie nodded and listened to the doctor’s departing footsteps against the wooden floor. He reached over and touched the tiny baby. Such a perfect little human. He traced the outline of the tiny lips and the small eyelids. Except for the baby's bluish skin, he looked like one of the dolls on display at the mercantile.

A bowl of water used to bathe his mother’s head still sat on the nightstand. Charlie stared at it a moment, then dipped his hand in the cold water. He sprinkled the droplets on his brother’s soft black hair and signed a cross against his forehead. He struggled to remember the words of the parish priest from the old country. “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit," he whispered. "I christen you Samuel Cooper.”     “Charlie,” his aunt, Martha Campbell, stood in the doorway. “Whatever are you doing?”

“I had to name him, so I called him after Papa. It will make Papa so happy to know his son carries his name.”

Aunt Martha choked on a sob and rushed from the room. Emmeline stared after her, until Charlie called his sister to him. 

"I'm happy for Mama.  Emmeline climbed on the bed, and nestled herself against her mother’s body. She talked around her thumb. “Big Ed said Mama is real happy now. Jesus took her and baby brother to heaven. Mama's been sad since papa left, and I'm glad she'll be happy. I didn't like to see her cry.” Emmeline rested her head against the pillow and looked up at Charlie.

 He smiled back at her, glad that she didn't understand. If only he could be young again. Someday she would know what this day meant, and when she did he would be there to comfort her.

 “I gave Mama my shiny pebble to take with her.”

 The women’s voices from outside reached him. “Come on, Emma. Give Mama and Samuel a kiss goodbye, and let’s walk down to the stream.” Charlie leaned over and pressed his lips against his mama's cheek. It just couldn't be true, she seemed so soft against his skin. "I love you, mama. I love you." He couldn't tell her too many times.

 His arm wrapped around Emmeline's waist and he hoisted her off the bed and led out of the room before the others entered.


“Laddie, lay it against the frame and fasten it. We want the house pretty for yer mother's burial.”

Charlie pressed the coarse black fabric against the window molding and watched Big Ed arrange the folds before he nailed it down.

“Why did God let her die?” Charlie muttered.

“Och, laddie, don't go blaming God for yer troubles. He saw fit to take yer mother. She’s far better off with him, than she be here. Yer mother's been a wee bit ill since the boat ride from bonny Scotland. With yer father being off like he is, and with the wee one, it was too much for her.” Big Ed stretched out his large hand and tousled Charlie’s hair.

“Mama said for me to be the man in the family. How will I ever learn what I need to know? If only I knew how to do everything, like you do.”

Big Ed laughed. “Yer talking’ to a man who’s nary twenty-seven. I don't know everything, laddie. When yer papa comes he’ll be a teaching you.”

Charlie glanced up into Big Ed’s brown eyes. He was so strong, and a good head and shoulders taller than any other man in town. He looked like he’d been cut out of the rugged highlands of his birthplace.

“Run along, laddie, and fix yerself up. People will be coming.”


Charlie entered the front parlor where his mother’s body lay. The wooden coffin Big Ed had spent the night carving fragranced the air with fresh wood and pungent stain. The sweet smell of wild violets mingled with smoke from the kitchen cook stove. Emmeline sat against the wall in a straight-back chair. Her fingers toyed with the yarn in her doll’s hair and her new black dress crinkled when she shifted. Aunt Martha stood next to the coffin and talked in low tones with the blacksmith's wife.

Charlie crossed the room to his sister. “Come and sit by me.”

“I can’t. Aunt Martha told me to stay by her.” Emmeline hugged the doll to her.

Aunt Martha reached out and rested her hand on the girl’s shoulder.

“She said she needs me, Charlie.”

Aunt Martha didn't even stop talking. She just tilted her head and motioned Charlie to a place near the door. He stepped away and took a seat in the corner. He might be not be able to sit by Emmeline, but Aunt Martha couldn't make him greet a bunch of strangers right when they walked in. He hardly knew any of the adults in town, except by reputation. If only they would just leave him be.  He nodded at their polite condolences, but kept his eyes trained on the floral carpet. He didn’t know what to say or how to respond. Let them spout their sympathies to Emmeline and Aunt Martha.

The late spring day drew to a close, the room darkened and Big Ed lighted the candles. Charlie glanced over at Emmeline dozing in her chair, and wished he could wrap his arms around her. “Aunt Martha, should I put Emma to bed?”

Aunt Martha fingered the brooch made with her sister’s hair. “No, Charlie. I moved Emmeline’s belongings to the room adjoining mine. I’ll take care of her now.

“Edwin, carry Emmeline to her bed, please. I’ll put her in her bedclothes.”

With a quick step Big Ed scooped up the small girl and pressed her head of yellow curls against his massive chest. Emmeline looked like a soft black feather in his arms.

Alone, Charlie hugged his knee and stared at his mother’s casket. The simple carving in the side reminded him of a snail’s trail in the morning light. He listened to Big Ed’s returning footsteps echo against the walls, like the thumping of his heart at night when he laid his head against the pillow.

“Ye be goin’ to bed, laddie?”

Charlie shook his head. “I reckon I’ll stay up with you and Aunt Martha.”

“If that be what yer wanting.”

Big Ed crossed the room to the casket. He stood and gazed into its depths. His large hands clasped in front of him. The house remained quiet except for the sounds of Aunt Martha readying Emmeline for bed, and the distant scrape of a chair leg against the upstairs floor from one of his aunt’s boarders. Charlie stared up at Big Ed and saw the flickering lamplight reflect off a tear trickling down his tanned cheek. Charlie rose and slipped his hand around Big Ed’s arm.

“What is it, laddie?” Big Ed's voice sounded strange.

“Aunt Martha told the doctor’s wife that she doesn’t think Papa is coming back. She said we haven’t heard from him in so long that ‘more than likely he left us high and dry.’”

Big Ed glanced down and Charlie saw fire in his eyes. “Martha said them words? Yer faither’s a good man. He went west, but he means to send fer ye. Give him time.”

Charlie swallowed hard and pressed his cheek against the rough wool suit coat. “Do you think he’s dead?”

“Och! Bairn, only the Good Lord knows!


The next morning the sun seeped through the young leaves, and filtered down on the people huddled in the shadows of the church. Charlie gripped Emmeline’s sweaty hand. He forced himself to focus on the minister's words, but they were strange to him. He didn't know what redemption and justification meant.

The minister's final sentence cut through his thoughts. “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”

Charlie stared at the wooden box in the earth. His mother would finally own her plot of ground—six feet of pure Virginia soil, twenty steps south of the church door.

The shovelfuls of dirt rattled against the wood and he watched the clods break apart against the casket. The women were sobbing again. He wished they would be quiet. If they wouldn't carry on he'd be fine. He wiped away Emmeline’s tears and wrapped his arm around her. If he held her tight, he would be able to stay strong. He needed the comfort she brought him.

Dirt piled up in the hole, and the crowd began to disperse. Aunt Martha jerked Emmeline’s hand from his grasp. Charlie's gaze followed them across the narrow lane and toward the house. He turned his head back toward the hole until the men tamped down the mound of dirt.


Charlie found a seat on the back porch steps, away from the milling guests. The smell of fried ham, permeated the air. He picked at his sandwich. It tasted more like sawdust than anything edible. He tore of a bread and threw it to the neighbor's dog.

 “Hey, Charlie!” Snooky Johnson, a schoolmate, ran up to him. “That’s awful about you and Mr. Caldwell.”

 Charlie jerked his head up. “Mr. Caldwell? What do you mean?”

 Snooky stepped backwards. “Uh, oh. I didn’t know you didn’t know. I just heard your Aunt Martha telling my ma she apprenticed you to Mr. Caldwell.”

 Charlie dropped his sandwich. “No. That can’t be true. Who’ll take care of Emma if I have to leave? Are you sure you heard right?”

 “That’s what she said.”

Charlie jumped up, his hands grabbed Snooky’s shirt. “What else did she say, Snooky? Tell me. Did she sign the papers?”

 “She said you’d be a working boy tomorrow.”

 Charlie picked up a clod of dirt and hurled it at a rooster atop the fence pole.

 Snooky backed away. “Maybe I better go. I think I hear my ma.” He turned and ran off.

 Charlie stared hard at the ground. He wanted to be alone, to get away from the gossip of the neighbors. Let them drink their lemonade and eat their ham sandwiches, but he didn't want any part of it.

 With a quick turn, Charlie raced toward the empty barn and clambered up the rough wooden rungs of the ladder. Tears stung his eyes and blurred his vision. He threw himself on top of the crude hay pile.  “Aye, the dead dinna have no heart that hurts. He fell back into the familiar brogue of his childhood. Oh, Mama…”  For a second he held his breath, but the troubles of life overwhelmed him and he shook with a convulsive sob.

 Through his tears, he stared at a ray of afternoon sunlight which brightened the wooden slats of the loft. With his mother dead, and Amos Caldwell his employer, it didn't seem life should go on.

The dull throb in his heart ached, and he longed for his father. But for all he knew, his father might be dead too? Charlie burrowed into the hay. I have to stay strong for Emmeline. If the two of us stick together, we’ll be able to help each other until Papa comes home. Isn’t that what Mama would want? Papa’s gotta come home sometime. The words echoed in his brain and felt empty in the solitude of the barn.

Charlie coughed back a moan. Aunt Martha shouldn't send him away so soon after his mother’s death. She claimed to care so much for Emmeline, but Emmeline needed him now. He knew how much he needed her. She was the last person left for him to love. How could Aunt Martha do this?

Charlie felt a tight grip on his shoulder. The tender squeeze worked its into his heart. Charlie wiped away the bits of straw stuck to his damp face, and rubbed his shirtsleeve across his eyes.

 Big Ed stood over him, still dressed in his suit, with his thick hair combed smooth. Even through his own pain, Charlie saw the dark circles under the man’s eyes.

 “Yer heart is so full of yer troubles that it breaks?”

 Charlie pulled his knees up to his chest and nodded.

 “Aye, not all news is a laddie meant to hear.”

 “What does it matter? They had to tell me sometime. Aunt Martha doesn’t like me, that’s all there is to it. I reckon that if it’s her heart that’s set on hiring me out there ain’t a body that’ll be stopping her.”

 “Och! Yer mother lies dead and yer worked up about behaving like a man and earning a living? Is that the laddie yer father and mother growed? One who’s feared to dirty his hands? If yer mother could hear ye, she’d give ye a thrashing."

 “Big Ed, it’s not that I'm afeared to work. Why, I haul as much as any boy in this county. But if Aunt Martha just wants to make me a slave she can get her money faster if she sells me on the auction block.”

 Big Ed squatted down and touched his shoulder. “Yer aunt ain't going to make you a slave, laddie.”

 “You know Amos Caldwell whips the boys that work for him. An apprentice ain’t no better than a slave. Only difference is in seven years I can go, and there’s no slave that can do that. I won’t be able to see Emmeline but once a month, if that. What’s she to do without me?”

 “I’ll grant ye, Amos owns a firm hand, but yer a hard worker, ye’ll do fine. No whip 'ill ever get laid on you. My laddie, yer aunt can’t care fer both of ye. I would that there be someway that I could help. Martha is yer guardian, and she won't pay heed.”

 “There’s no pleasing Mr. Caldwell.” Charlie sat staring at the barn wall. He couldn’t see any reason why Aunt Martha couldn’t keep them together. If there were chores to do, he wouldn’t shun them, and he’d earn his keep. He'd help care for the boarders. Aunt Martha just didn't like him. He knew how unsettled he made her. Only yesterday she told the cook an orphan laddie was a troublesome laddie, and no good would come unless he’s had a job. But he never thought she'd send him away.

 Charlie wrapped a piece of hay around his finger. “Aunt Martha loves Emmeline. She treats her like maple sugar candy. Mama used to say that she’d spoil the girl.” He shifted his gaze to the oak knot in the beam overhead. His thoughts seethed, but he knew what he must do. He lifted his chin and gripped Big Ed's hand. “Big Ed, I'll go, but promise me….”

 “What is it, laddie?”

 “Promise me you’ll see to it that Emmeline is cared for properly. What with Papa gone, and me not home, she ain’t got no men folk around to do her bidding. Aunt Martha don’t mind you hanging around. Some of the boys even think she’s sweet on you.”

 Big Ed shifted and frowned. “Yer friends talk too much. But dinna fret about Emmeline, Charlie. I’ll take good care of the lassie fer ye. Ye’ll be back afore you know.”

 ©Janice LaQuiere 2005


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