Hard Time Marrying Part 19

img_1599Upon Emma’s reference to pregnancy, Anya was so shocked she knocked her coffee over.  It ran off the table onto little Sally’s blonde curls.  Sally howled and both women jumped to see to her.  She wailed, but fortunately her face wasn’t even pink.  The next few minutes were full of mopping her up and changing her clothes.  By the time they’d finished, Rufus had stepped to the door and called Emma to go.  Anya composed herself enough to make her goodbyes, promising to ride over with Joe in a few days.

Sick with dread, Anya settled to rock Sally to sleep and consider Emma’s observation.        She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had the curse.  She hadn’t had to wash rags since she’d been here and didn’t know how long before that.  The abuse she’d endured before escaping and her confusion from her injuries had left her disoriented. The time had all run together.  It was true she’d put on a little weight, but pregnancy had never crossed her mind.  Her hand flew to her belly when she felt an undeniable swelling and her full breasts pushed against the bodice of the dress she’d taken from the store of things in the bundle Joe’s wife had brought with her.

Would this nightmare never end?  Just when it looked as though life might work out, this horror raised its head.  And all this after she’d insisted she wasn’t a whore!  Joe had already been saddled with two children from his dead wife and had tried to pass them off to the townspeople, only to be turned away.  She’d thought she’d never want to be a wife till this terrible turn and now realized a life with Joe and the children would have been precious.  Silent tears ran down her cheeks onto Sweet Sally’s sleepy head.

Joe and came in from outdoors to the tender sight of Anya rocking the baby in the light streaming through the window.  Little Joe ran to her for a hug.  Joe’s heart swelled with love for his family.  Life was turning around for him after all his years alone.

 

 

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Hard Time Marrying Part 16

Anya lay awake a long time thinking after Joe went to the barn and the kids slept, the baby snuggled up warm and sweet in the curve of her body.   In his rope bed near the fire, the boy cried out for his mama in his sleep and whimpered without waking.   Anya went to him, smoothed his hair and rubbed his back till he went back to sleep.  His warm little hand sought hers and she felt stirrings of pity for him, even though she tried not to.  She’d already lost the battle of staying detached from the little girl, and was beginning to wonder if she could take the poor motherless thing when she left though she saw the folly in that.  She had no friends, nowhere to go and no way to care for the child. Not only that, she might have killed the peddler.  The law was hard on a woman.  They might be looking to hang her right now. She needed to get far enough away to disappear in a sizable town. The baby would just hold her back. A woman alone would have a hard enough time providing for herself, even if she had nothing to hide. She had to get as far away as possible and seek work as a housekeeper or cook, since that was all she knew.  Having barely been to school, she couldn’t be a schoolmarm.  She’d had enough of men to know she’d never marry.  She needed to get to town where folks had enough money and house to need help. Her prospects were poor, but maybe when she got to Meadow Creek Church she’d meet up with somebody who could help get her on the road to something else.  It would break her heart, but there’s no way she could take the tiny girl.

Out in the barn, Joe was thinking his own gloomy thoughts.  He didn’t want Anya to go.  He started to hope she might stay and they could be a family.  Even though Anya hadn’t warmed to him, he’d gotten a little taste of family watching her doing for the baby and doing about the house.  It had been such a pleasure to come in last night and find supper laid out.  No one had done that for him since Ma died.  When Anya left, he and the boy manage, but who would do for the baby?  She was far too young to go around with him while he worked.

 

Hard Time Marrying Part 14

She gathered the children next to the wall in bed with her with the fireplace poker hidden the quilts.  It wouldn’t be much protection from an ax or gun, but she might be able to put an eye out before he got to her.  Fatigued, she leaned against the wall so she wouldn’t be caught lying down when he burst in.  Though she was never aware of drifting off, the sound of the man trying the door awoke her just as the sun was rising.  Peeking out the window she saw he had put a pail of milk and basket of eggs on the step instead of bringing them in like he had every other morning.   “Come on out and git this for them kids.  They got to eat.” Jack trotted happily behind him as he headed to the barn.  When she was sure he was far enough away, she reached for the provisions.  Unable to lift the heavy milk bucket, she had to take it out a dipper full at a time and wasted a good bit trying to strain it into a pitcher.  Filling the baby’s bottle, and struggled to change the wriggling child’s malodorous diaper before finally giving up to let her run free.   The boy tipped a chair and banged his head trying to get an egg. The eggs crashed to the floor. The baby howled in unison with her brother, though he didn’t need any help. She burst into loud wails faced with the hopelessness of the situation.  Clearly, she couldn’t take care of even herself in her condition.  Desperate, she opened the door to the man’s banging.  If he’d wanted to kill them, he could have sneaked up on them in the night instead of bringing breakfast to the door.

“If you ain’t gonna be able to feed these young’uns, let me in so I can.”  She had no trouble understanding his shouted instructions.  He got straight to work, breaking up cold cornbread into warm milk, since the eggs were lost.  Gesturing for her to sit in a straight chair at the table, he handed her the baby girl propping her between Anya’s injured arm against the wall and raised his voice. “You feed this baby.  You need to earn your keep.  That other arm works fine.” 

While Anya fed the girl, she sneaked peeks at the man, trying not to get caught while he crumbled cornbread into the boy’s milk.  He made no effort to fix Anya’s meal, turning to hear and shouted.  “Now when you git your fill, clean this mess up.  I got too much to do to take care of youngun’s and an addled woman.”

Anya lost her fear as her face flamed with fury at the insult. “Addled!  I ain’t addled!  I’m jest kind’a deaf but I’m a’getting’ better!  And don’t go hollerin’ so loud at me.  I ain’t off!  You’d act addled too if you got cracked in the head.  At least I ain’t crazy enough to claim you’re my husband!  Just give me a few days more an’ I’ll be out of here.  I just gotta figure a way to take care of myself and git to a town.”

The damn holding back Joe’s frustration broke.  “I’ll be glad to see the last of you, but I got a crop to put in and cain’t take time to haul your sorry ass thirty miles to town. Me and these kids ain’t gonna starve on account of you!  You ain’t nothing to us!”  He didn’t even realize it was the first time he’d referred to himself and the kids as a unit. “The circuit preacher will be over to the Meadow Creek Church in two weeks for revival.  I’ll take you the twelve miles over there and some of them do-gooders from church can put you to work or git you to town.  It ain’t nothing to me what you do.”

“I ain’t staying here another night.” She spouted, slamming her open hand on the table.

“Suit yourself.  Talphus is thirty miles east and Meadowcreek Church is twelve miles northwest of here.  Them church folks will be gathering after spring planting.  Good riddance!  Come on Little Joe.  Now, you watch the baby out of the fire.  Me and Little Joe got work to do.”  He grabbed the little boy’s hand and slammed the door on the way out.

Hard Time Marrying Part 12

She awoke to a murderous headache and a deafening roar in her ear, the warmth of  the flickering fire beckoning her.  Pulling herself to her feet by clinging to a table leg, she made her way toward it.  As she turned to warm her backside, she caught sight of the baby girl on the bed.  From deep in her battered brain, love for her baby sister nudged her.  Drawn to the bedside, she studied the baby, hardly cognizant of the other child.  Dropping to the edge of the bed, she tenderly touched the child’s burning cheek and tried to gather her to her bosom. Unaware of the man who’d entered the room, her last thought was of her lost baby sister as she slid back into the darkness, barely aware of being ministered to.

She held little memory of the next few days, though her headache dulled and the roaring in her ear became less demanding.  When she could stay awake, she focused on the baby, a blue-eyed blonde, so much like her sister.  A small boy trailed the man constantly.  Thinking still made her head ache, especially when she had the nightmare about a pistol and a man.  The Dream always slipped away like dark silk as shuddered awake, but left her in a cold sweat.  In her dream, she was always trying to get away.

The man was busy but quiet.  He and the boy were rarely in the house, except to bring in milk, do chores, and eat.  He did nothing to threaten or disturb her, but she wanted nothing to do with him or any other man.  Had she been able to think more clearly, she’d have wondered about the mother of the children, but that was too onerous a task for her addled brain.

 

 

Hard Time Marrying Part 10

For the first time in weeks, Anya slept deeply under the willows without fear of her captor.  In the fickle manner of West Texas, as the temperate day drew to a close, a cold wind swept in clouds from the North. She roused shivering as the rain peppered her with sleet. Knowing she’d die if she just lay there, she managed to rake a bed of leaves and burrowed in, somehow surviving the bitter night.  At first light, she emerged, battered but choosing life.  The day warmed as though there had been no icy storm in the night.

Despite the beating she’d endured, she walked through the hours, often falling, then struggling back to her feet in search of help.  Eventually, she stumbled upon a milk cow grazing in the distance.  Laboriously, she made her way toward It, hoping it wouldn’t wander off.  She stroked the gentle beast, before dropping to her knees, grasping an udder, and squirting warm milk into her mouth.  Strengthened by the cow’s life-saving gift, she leaned against the kind beast, comforted by its warmth..  Anya kept pace with the cow, occasionally milking her or resting while the the beast grazed.Thankfully, the cow didn’t object to her company.

As the afternoon shadows lengthened, the cow seemed charged with purpose and picked up her pace.  Anya took hold of her rope halter to keep up.  As they climbed over a rise, a homestead came into view.  Anya released the cow and she picked up the pace, trotting with purpose as her bag with its engorged udders swung side to side.

Hard Time Marrying Part 7

spring-beauty-splashHe checked on the woman and children several times always finding them asleep.  The children’s breathing was regular and less shallow.  The pink of their cheeks faded as the fever dropped.  Twice more he fed and diapered them and assisted the woman to the pot.  The next two days were much the same, more feeding, more dosing with Dr. Marvel, more changing, and always, more washing.  The little boy rallied first, trailing Joe.  From time to time, he called for Mama, but overall seemed contented.  Joe looked forward to the woman regaining her strength and assuming her responsibilities.  She was attentive to the baby girl who still lay abed with her.  Thankfully, the baby finally got hungry enough to accept the bottle after a few tries.  It made it easier to get the Dr. Marvel’s in her, anyway.  The woman could barely stay awake long enough to feed the baby but kept it at her side.  On the fourth day, the woman began to eat regular food, though she mashed it first.  One day, she coughed and spit a cracked molar into her palm, increasing Joe’s guilt about burying her alive, though he still didn’t remember hitting her with the shovel.  Joe had hopes when she’d learn some English soon, since he didn’t understand a word she said when she did speak to the baby or cry out in pain upon moving.  She had picked up on coffee, milk, baby, hurt, boy, pot, and a few other words, but there was no conversation yet.  She never called him “Joe.”

Though there was no real talking between, Joe sensed a change.  The woman was able to leave the bed for longer and longer periods, and kept the baby on her hip as she padded around the cabin. Her bruises were fading and she was able to hold the baby with her left arm and feed it with her right. She was turning out to be a beauty, but looked so young to be a mother.  It warmed him to see the tiny girl laugh at her mother, though the boy clearly preferred Joe.  Joe had expected him to show more interest in his mother once she was out of bed, but he didn’t.  Maybe boys just liked men. Joe rigged a rough rope bed in the corner near the fireplace for the boy, thinking he could make a trundle when the girl was older. He was starting to think of her as “Anna” instead of “the woman.”  Anna only referred to the girl as “Baby” and the boy as “Boy.”  One day, he brought her the first Spring Beauty and she called him “Joe.”  Joe was glad of her and the children, glad of the life opening up to him.

That night the coyotes woke him.

Hard Time Marrying Part 5

baby-bottle

Though he considered himself unfit for human company, Jack and the barn cats didn’t concur and worked their way in next to Joe, slipping into the snug cocoon of the hay-covered saddle blanket and his heavy barn jacket.  The breathing and occasional stamping of the milk cow and the horses in their stalls eased him. This bit of his life was unmarred.  Comforted by the company of the beasts, he slipped into exhausted sleep.  Upon awakening to Ol’ Sal and her kittens purring, his spirits rose and he felt better about himself.  He lay in his nest enjoying their company till he turned to settle back in for a few more minutes.  Reaching up to feel slime in his hair, he found Ol’ Sal had rewarded him with the gift of a dead rat.  He sprang up, flinging the nasty rat, startling Jack and set the kittens to every way, his reverie ended. 

He dawdled as long as possible over the milking, spraying milk into the mouths of the dancing cats.  Rosie’s waiting calf lunged at her when he released them in to the feedlot. When the little heifer had gorged on her mother’s milk, Joe separated them, letting the cow out to graze.  Rosie ambled off without a care, leaving Baby Blossom bawling behind her. She’d be back lowing to be milked before sundown.  Joe chuckled thinking he must have looked a fool getting rid of that rat.  Tossing a clean towel over the milk, he passed out some hay and grain to the horses and opened the barn door to the corral, making sure the water troughs were full.  After tossing a few ears of corn and watering the hogs, he could no longer delay going back into the cabin.  If the kids had lived through the night, they’d need feeding, too.  If the sick woman couldn’t nurse the baby, he’d have to feed her using the bottle and some of that canned milk the town had provided before booting them all out of town.  The light was just breaking in the East on a cold, clear, windy West Texas day when he headed toward the house.

The fire was no more than embers. The small cabin reeked of urine, excrement, and fever.   He dreaded looking, but saw the boy lying to one side of the woman who’d turned to face the wall.  The child’s rapid breathing was shallow, snot crusted around his nostrils, his cheeks flaming pink.  There was no doubt about the scarlet fever.  He’d come uncovered and must have been near frozen in his sodden clothes.  Joe hastily covered him and turned to make up the fire before investigating further.  He’d have to get some food into the child and get him into a clean, warm bed to have any hope of saving the him.  He took care not to disturb the others as he heated water and looked for something to serve as clean bedding and clothes should the woman and girl be alive. Living alone, he’d never bothered with the niceties of bed-linens, settling for a simple straw-filled tick and a couple of quilts.  From the fetid smell, it was clear this one would have to be boiled and re-stuffed.  While the water heated, he brought a load of hay from the barn, along with his old barn coat and a couple of the cleaner burlap bags.  He pulled a couple of ancient quilts from a shelf, not even wondering what hand might have made them.  He’d often thought of tossing the ragged bedding, but was glad now his housekeeping had been lax.

In readiness for the tasks ahead of him, he opened the parcels, finding a baby bottle, four flannel gowns, a few cans of peaches, some crackers, two bars of soap, in addition to several cans of peaches, canned milk, a bottle of Dr. Marvel’s Wonder Tonic, two rough towels, and the bolt of flannel.  In a moment of tenderness, someone had added a couple of peppermint sticks.  He warmed a pain of milk, poured some water into a wash pan, and laid out the towels and soap.  He tore off a few strips of flannel to use for diapers.  For now, that would have to do.

milk-label

 

 

Hard Time Marrying Part 4

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Bedded down in the barn, Joe couldn’t forget how cold the woman must have been in her shallow grave.  He’d meant to heap rocks over it to keep the coyotes out later, but would be spared that trouble now.  The ghastly thought of her clawing her way out flashed every time his eyes closed.

Giving up on sleep, he cursed himself for being fool enough think of marrying.  His ma had died when he was nine.  No mention was ever made of his pa.  The gruff, old bar-owner let him sleep in the store room till his death three years later.  After that, Joe worked for his keep on a hard-scrabble ranch where a crotchety old rancher ran a few longhorn cows.  They never struck up a friendship, so Joe kept to himself the little time he wasn’t working or sleeping.  In the absence of friends or relatives, the old goat left the place to him.

At twenty-nine, Joe scratched out a spare living on his place neither happy nor unhappy.  His solitary life suited him till Peggy Bartlett caught his eye.  He didn’t normally mix with folks much, but he took meals with the family when he had a few days work with her pa.  He never even spoke to her, but couldn’t forget her quick smile or soft hand on his shoulder as she leaned to fill his coffee cup.

Joe never even considered courting a woman, but on a whim, wrote out an inquiry for a wife upon seeing an advertisement in a  newspaper.  He’d forgotten about the whole business when he received a response from Anna Meuller, offering herself for matrimony, in exchange for a ticket.  He wrote back, offering marriage, a ticket, and decent treatment.  The business contracted, the rest was history.  What a fool he had been!  A man like him had no business trying to marry.

 

Hard Time Marrying Part 2

“These young’uns is got scarlet fever. You ain’t leaving ‘em for this town to deal with. Jist take ‘em on back where you come from.”  The sheriff steadfastly refused responsibility for the children.

“But they ain’t mine.  I don’t even know their names.”

“Ya married their ma ago ain’t cha?  Then they’s yourn!  I hate it for ‘ya, but I ain’t gonna letcha leave ‘em here to sicken the whole town.  We’ll getcha some provisions to help out, but that’s it.  Ya got to git out’a town with them sick young’uns.  Pull this wagon out to that mesquite tree ‘n  I’ll git ‘cha some supplies.

Morosely, Joe waited on the edge of the sorry town as a wagon pulled up.  Shouting at him to stay back, a gimpy old geezer rolled off a barrel of flour, putting a burlap bag of beans beside it, and piling a few cans of milk, a bolt of material, and a few paper wrapped parcels on top of it.  He went on his way, leaving Joe to wrestle them into the wagon the best he could, stowing them so they wouldn’t crush the burning children.

Joe felt as low as he’d ever had, pulling up to his rough cabin. He knew nothing about children or the sick.   Maybe these poor wretches wouldn’t suffer too long.