The following story was written for the Write Stuff February Creative Carnival.
Caleb heard Ellie Crawford's laugh, bubbling even over the water rippling across stones in the creek. Looking ahead, he saw her chestnut curls bounce against her back as she walked the rutted track beside Will Murray. She'd tossed Caleb a bright smile as they passed, but kept right on talking to Will. Beside Caleb, his friend Seth hopped perilously close to the bank. He was too pleased to be free of school for the day to notice Caleb's sudden gloom.
"Got me paper, so's I kin make Sairey Ann a nice bit o' paper lace come Valentine's Day."
Caleb kicked the ground savagely.
"What's eatin' you, Caleb? Ain't it a fine afternoon?"
"It's less'n three weeks, and I got no idea what ter give Ellie."
"Caleb, you got ter git that girl outta your mind. You sure she ain't witched you?"
"She ain't witched me none, Seth! Cain't you see she's special?"
"Sure is what she wants folks ter think, ain't it? Callin' Wildcat Holler nothin' but a trap, an' mockin' our ways."
"She reads a lot, Seth. She thinks on things most folk don't bother with."
"What you talkin' 'bout?" Seth scowled.
"I been thinkin' 'bout this. Look at my Paw. He's got him that field, up on the slope above the holler. What use is it?"
"Not much, I reckon. So what?"
"Every few years, he starts him a crop, but it never amounts ter much."
"That red clay's not much good for anythin', anyhow."
"That's right. We ain't got good soil, and most folk never do manage ter get out of the holler. The old folks talk 'bout a time when there wasn't as many people, and things wasn't so hard."
"'Course they wasn't. Fewer mouths to feed then."
"That's all Ellie's sayin'. Other places git too crowded, folks move on. Here, we ain't got the means ter. We're trapped here."
"You're really set on her, ain't you?"
"Will, he'll git her a fancy card someplace. What kin I do?"
"You could be handy ter folks, pick up a few cents."
"Say I do, Seth, where'm I gonna git a fancy card?"
"Nowheres I know." Seth paused by the path leading to his cabin. "Caleb, I still say you got ter git that girl outta your mind. Ever'body thinks your folks're shiftless. You got no chance."
Trudging home, head bent to hide his tears, something in a book borrowed from the schoolmistress came to Caleb. He raced back, arriving, breathless, just as she was about to leave. At his plea, she found the book and let him take it again. He thanked her, as politely as he could through rising excitement, and hiked off to a quiet clearing, where he began flipping through it.
After a couple of hours poring over pages full of tiny letters, he finally found it. There was even a drawing. He smiled, shut the book, and thought about what he wanted to do, until he had it straight in his head. Then, he pondered how to do it all without anyone noticing.
As he planned, he began cutting short, stout twigs, then snatched a ball of twine from the shed behind his family's cabin without being seen. He hid everything under a bush, then lay awake that night until everyone else slept. He stole out of the cabin, grabbing the big skinning knife from the wall, gathered up his supplies, and flitted through the trees to the upper field.
It lay spread out in the moonlight, and he worked as quickly as he dared, pounding pegs into the earth then stringing twine between them once they were in place. All too soon the moon set, forcing him to creep home as dew settled chill on the ground. He dozed whenever he could that day, then returned the next night. It took more than a week just to lay out the twine. The moon was waning, and he feared he would not finish in time.
After that, he continued working by feel after the moon set, hands guided by the rough twine, and spent even more time on the mountainside. He was so tired the schoolmistress and his Maw both asked if he was sick. On the final night, slipping away with an old wheelbarrow, he was nearly caught. The wheel squealed and woke the hounds, who bayed in reply. Caleb froze, but Paw just shouted and tossed a boot to quiet them down.
He had most of the edges cut, but hadn't been able to do anything that might show yet. He worked harder than he'd thought possible, and finished just as the eastern sky paled enough to reveal fog choking the holler where the creek ran. He groaned, sure all his efforts were wasted, but there was nothing he could do. He rushed home, washed off under the pump, and pretended he'd woken early.
He ate a plate of his Maw's biscuits slathered in hot bacon grease, then set off towards the schoolhouse, feet dragging. The fog was thinning, but not quickly enough. He tried to avoid everyone, but Ellie came up beside him.
He looked down, and she giggled. "Hello, Caleb. Happy Valentine's Day."
Caleb felt his face burn. "Happy Valentine's Day, Ellie." He hesitated, then felt the morning breeze pick up. He glanced up, involuntarily, and saw the fog scattering. Ellie followed his gaze. There, on the mountainside, he'd cleared a broad strip of turf in the outline of a heart. The red clay stood out against the grass. Inside the heart, letters spelled out, 'Ellie, my heart's yourn'.
She stared, then turned to him. "Caleb! How did you manage that? How did you ever think of it?"
Caleb shuffled his feet. "I read about this horse
, in England, up on a hill. That give me the idea, and I planned out how ter do it."
She slipped her arm in his, gently tugging him beside her. When they walked past Will, she didn't even glance his way.
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