Christmas Eve, December 24, 1843
A stinging, snow-driving blast of frigid wind forced tears
from the corners of the boy’s eyes.
Tightening the grip on his hat, Zachariah pulled the collar
of his coat even tighter.
Closer to the shack!
Closer to Johnson!
There it is! The little boy saw its squat, dim outline in the
His pace slowing, all else forgotten: candy, cold, anger
and hunger—all was forgotten.
Fear. All else was replaced with fear.
Approaching, his pace slowed even further.
He hesitated at the door.
His hand reached for the latch, came away,
Slowly, quietly. As quietly as possible, Zachariah opened
the door an inch… another… a few inches.
Leaning his head through the narrow opening, he looked
inside, then, squeezing between the doorframe and the
door… his lips moving silently, “Lordy! Oh, Lordy!”
Johnson was home.
Sitting behind the table in front of the fireplace, sprawled
upon a straight-back chair, his neck bent to the rear, his
head hanging over the back of the chair, his mouth fully
open, Johnson was snoring. His legs spread from side to
side, one hand hung limply to the floor. In his other hand,
held on his lap, there was a half empty bottle of gin.
A poorly made fire smoldered in the fireplace.
Upon the mantel were two flickering candles and an
unopened bottle of gin.
On the table, with a knife sticking through the middle,
was a partially eaten loaf of bread, another candle and…
…Lying on its side, another gin bottle… an empty
The boy took one step into the room… another… then,
with as little sound as possible, closing the door behind him,
holding the latch, hardly breathing, standing perfectly still,
hoping, Oh, Lordy! he prayed that Johnson would not
The rumbling of his stomach, in his mind, echoed throughout
the shack and, afraid the sound might wake Johnson, covering
his middle, pressing his forearm hard against his stomach, the
boy thought, If I can just get a piece’ a that bread an’ get into bed afore ‘e wakes.
He took one small, tentative step toward the table, then,
thinking he’d rather be hungry then beaten, turned to the
far side of the room, to his pallet.
A sputter and crackle as an overhanging bit of log burned
through and fell off the grate.
Snoring… snorting loudly, choking on a bit of spittle,
coughing, Johnson lifted his head, opened his eyes, closed
them, then, as though the effort of holding his head upright
was far too great, letting the back of his head drape over the
back of the chair once again, he returned to his
Zachariah waited one… two… three… four heartbeats
before taking another step…
A floorboard creaked loudly and, stopping in mid-step,
his right foot inches off the floor, the boy did not breathe.
Johnson stirred… His head lifted off the back of the chair,
held upright… then slumped onto his chest.
Waiting… Waiting, standing perfectly still the boy waited
until, hearing Johnson snore…
On tiptoes, he took one step, another and…
The rough-hewn wood floor creaked again, and…
Johnson lifted his head.
The boy stood still… not breathing… not moving, his left
foot poised above the floor.
Johnson stared into the fire. He yawned. He coughed.
He closed his eyes… He opened his eyes and, lifting the
bottle to his mouth, took a long gurgling swallow. Catching
on his lips, the suction of the bottle popped when pulled
from his mouth.
Again standing perfectly still, Don’t turn! The boy prayed
silently. Lordy, please don’t let him turn!
Looking at the boy, trying to focus his vision, “Uh…” his
words slow and slurred, “I been waitin’ on ya!” He stared at
the boy a moment, then took another long, lip-popping swig
from the bottle.
Knowing the drunker he was, the worse it’s going to be,
the boy’s eyes followed the bottle’s trip from the man’s lap
to his mouth… and back to his lap.
“Where ya been?” Waiting a moment for an answer…
receiving none, awkwardly pulling himself off the chair,
swaying backwards, straightening, planting the base of the
bottle on the table, leaning into the table, supporting himself
by the knuckles of one fist and with the throat of the bottle
held tightly in the other, “Where-ya-been?” Johnson
“I, uh, lost me way.”
“Imbecile!” Stumbling around the table, attempting to
intimidate the boy—which he most certainly did—standing
directly in front and above him, “Me money!” Johnson
demanded, holding his hand forward.
The boy did not move.
“I says, ‘me money,’ if ya please!”
His mouth suddenly dry, Zachariah could not speak.
“Boy, I says to ya once more,” bending forward, speaking
directly into his face, bringing his open hand under
Zachariah’s nose, “Gi’me’ me money!”
The boy did not move.
Staring ominously at the boy, Johnson then looked to
the floor near the door. “An’ the ‘quipment?” Bringing his
face even closer to the boy’s face, causing him to step
backward. Bellowing, “Where’s the ‘ell’s me ‘quipment?”
he grabbed Zachariah by the lapels of his coat.
Finding his voice, “Please! I didn’t do nothin’!”
Holding him by the material in his clenched fist, lifting
him till only the tips of his toes touched the floor, “Wad’a’ya
mean ya didn’t do nothin’?” Johnson screamed in the boy’s
face. “What the ‘ell ‘appened? Everythin’ was well enough
when I left ya! I tol’ ya not to get the ol’ bastard mad!
What’j’ya do? An’,” pointing at the bent, dented top hat atop
Zachariah’s head, “what the ‘ell’s this?” He began to cough,
and doubling over, released Zachariah.
Backing away, “Master Johnson, Sir,” he stammered. “It
weren’t my fault! Ol’ ‘obbins, ‘e wouldn’t pay me! ‘e said we
got dirt on one’a his settees! But I didn’t do it! I weren’t
nowhere near it! An’ all’s it was anyways was a little
smudgin’a soot an’ I told ‘im I’d’a been able to clean it, but
‘e wouldn’t let me, an’ ‘e threw me outta the ‘ouse without
the ‘quipment, an’ I begged ‘im for the payment, an’ ‘e
slammed the door shut an’ wouldn’t even gi’me back the
‘quipment!” Stopping, taking a breath, the boy went on
quickly. “An’ then these two ladies an’ men came by an’ even
they tried to tell ‘obbins to gi’me me payment an’ ‘quipment,
but the ol’ bastard wouldn’t listen to ‘em, too, an’ ‘e tol’ ‘em
‘e’d call a copper if’n they didn’t go, an’ one’a the gentlemen
felt bad, it bein’ so cold an’ all, an’ gim’me this ‘ere ‘at.”
Catching his breath, Johnson knew—even through the
alcoholic fog in his brain—that it was not the fault of the
boy. Johnson knew if he’d stayed on the job and not gone off
drinking Hobbins would have paid him. But, once again,
having only this means of venting his anger and frustration,
and being drunk as he was, he again attacked the boy.
Repeating, “All was well ‘nough when I left ya!” Taking a
step forward, once again grabbing Zachariah by the lapels
of his coat, twisting the material in his fist, he viciously pulled
the boy’s face to his.
Smelling the foul odor, feeling the heat of Johnson’s
breath and the spray of his spittle, “Don’t ‘urt me!” the boy
begged. “‘obbins threw me out an’ ‘e slammed the door an’
it weren’t my fault!”
“I left ya to do the work an’ get me money!” Frenzied,
“An’ what did ya do?” His drunken fury having no bounds,
he shook Zachariah till the boy’s head whipped back and
forth, till the hat shook from his head, fell to the floor and
rolled between their feet. “Ya lost me money, that’s what ya
did! An’ ya also lost me me oldest customer! That’s what ya
did!” Consumed by anger, swinging him by the material of
his coat, Johnson made two full circles.
On the first rotation the boy’s feet left the floor and, with
a loud crack, his ankle connected with one of the straight
back chairs, knocking it onto its side. On the conclusion of
the second rotation Johnson let go of the coat and, his arms
flailing as he went through the air, his head thudding against
the frame, smashing into the door, Zachariah slumped to