That got another smile out of Henry. He shook his head. "It's not the contagious strain of the illness." Henry lifted his hand to the preacher. "I'll walk, Will. And without my fine boots. It will be excellent practice for those long barefoot walks up in the clouds. But I do thank you for the kindness of your offer."
"Now who is the arrogant one? Where do you come by the certainty that it'll not be red hot coals you'll be trodding upon, Henry? Down there!" And Will Webb gave a thumbs-down toward the ground. Both men fell into laughter for a brief moment, until Henry gave a deep raspy cough and turned to take from his unbuttoned shirt pocket a clean fold of handkerchief and coughed into that, putting it into his trouser's back pocket when normal breathing had come again to him. The preacher ceased to guard his face and let sadness pull the muscles downward around his eyes and his mouth. "I am mighty sorry." Will shifted both reins to his left hand and held his open right palm out toward his friend. "May the peace of the Lord be with you, Henry."
Henry drew a finger to his hat. When Will gestured a final time to the seat beside him, Henry shook his head no. Will nodded and shook the reins. Bo pulled the wagon into the sloppy gray-mudded street, and Henry saw Will draw himself down against the cold rain.
"And also with you, Brother Webb."
Abe McAlister's daughter Ruth had returned his boots, but Henry walked barefoot more and more often, particularly on the longer trips to town. A chill September wind snapped at the trees, tore loose the first crisp yellow leaves and invited sweaters and heavier sleeves down from the closet shelves, but the sun would not be intimidated and shone brightly upon the ground. Henry's toes and the balls of his feet found the warmth there in the soil, and the fire in the earth coursed up his calves and thighs into his belly and settled in his chest, warming his breathing, relaxing the muscles of his shoulders and neck so that he did not withdraw into his collar from the whistling wind.
In all his years here in Idaho, the cold seasons of late autumn and winter, often stretching into delayed springs, did not suit Henry well. And now he would choose someplace warm to die. The doctor said it would probably bring him more comfort toward the end.
For two weeks the brochures Henry had written away for had come to the Nampa post office. Towns and counties in Southern California were therein wrapped in words so picturable and well-chosen, so vivid and sensual, that Henry could practically feel the climate. But today he was looking for another letter, the third such posting from Peter Stedman in Fairhope, Alabama, a town a dozen miles as the laughing gull would fly across the bay from the port city of Mobile.
Will Webb had advised Henry to consider a move to the high bluffs along the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, that one of his congregants had come back to Idaho from a visit with relatives in a coastal Alabama town founded only thirty-or-so years earlier. Will had produced for Henry an illustrated brochure "setting forth the advantages of Fairhope" given him by his church member, and in it one Peter Stedman compared the town and bayside area to a utopia: "Dear Friends, you will find here in the single tax colony of Fairhope and its environs nothing less than an idyllic and beautiful spot of Heaven, embroidered into a rich cultural and recreational tapestry to rival our large cities up East."
Henry doubted the veracity of the pitch, but sufficient curiosity was stirred in him, especially regarding the reference to Fairhope as a single tax colony, to prompt a letter of further inquiry to Mr. Stedman, who immediately responded.
Henry stood in the post office and opened the letter, Jeremiah in his cage shuffling mail into boxes, humming off-key. Henry began reading, his eyes moving quickly down the page. His heart began to beat fast as he followed Peter Stedman's lines about how the town had been founded in 1894 by freethinking followers of the economist/philosopher Henry George. And, that one E.B. Gaston had, in Iowa, recruited some 28 men, women and children to join him in the purchase of a tract of land where they would found, "with a fair hope of success," a reform community to stand against what they believed was America's wildly competitive society of rampant monopoly-capitalism and land speculation.
Excerpted from The Poet of Tolstoy Park by Sonny Brewer Copyright © 2005 by Sonny Brewer. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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