!She had supper ready when Joe and the boy came in. She’d cooked beans on in a cast-iron pot hanging over the fire and baked cornbread and some sweet potatoes in the coals, pleasant work she was accustomed to. Joe’s brows lifted when he saw supper and bowls and cups out on the table. She crumbled cornbread in a cup and Joe poured buttermilk over it for the baby before lifting her to Anya’s lap. They all fell to with an appetite.
“My name is Anya, not Anna. I’ll stay and earn my keep till I can manage, but I ain’t no whore. Don’t come sniffing around me. I don’t want to owe you nothing. I’m gittin’ better so I can do for the baby and tend the house, but you need to keep the boy with you.” She looked him fiercely in the eye.
Joe looked her and raised his voice. “I’ll thank you to call me Joe. Don’t you think I could’a already done hurt you if I’d wanted? I don’t want nothin’ more from you than you take care of yourself and the baby.” He dropped his voice, speaking more to himself. “I been getting along without a woman for a long time, but I ain’t fell so low I got to take up with a stringy, beat-up neck bone like you.”
Poor Joe was unaware her hearing had improved and was surprised to have a hot sweet potato hit him in the jaw. “I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head,” she warned him through clinched jaws.
“Yes, ma’am.” He muttered. “Beggin’ pardon, ma’am. No call for me to be spiteful. We are both in a pickle and battling ain’t gonna help.”
“You keep to your place and I’ll keep to mine till I can do better.” The tension eased a bit now they understood each other.
They passed the evening watching the children at their play. Joe had brought them a kitten from the barn. The boy teased it with a bit of string, delighting the baby girl. Joe and Anya caught themselves laughing at it a time or two.
“What’s the boy’s name?” This was the first time it had occurred to her to ask.
“I don’t know. I just been calling him boy. His mama was sick when she got here and never told me nothing. She died the next day.” He stared into the fire.
“You mean these ain’t your young’uns?” She was incredulous.
“No, I don’t know nuthin’ exceptin’ their mama up and died soon’s she got here. I’d send ‘em back to her folk if I knew who they was. She come with nuthin’ but my letter, a bundle of clothes, and these young’uns after I wrote off for a wife. I buried her out in the mesquite and tried to take the kids back to Talphus fer the town or the church to do for ‘em and them miserable bastards run me off like a scalded dog. When I got back after doing chores that night, you was up in the house lookin’ at the baby. I thought I’d done buried their mama alive. It warn’t till just now the coyotes dug her body out of the grave till I knew you warn’t the woman I married. Oh, Lordy. I don’t know why I ain’t left well enough alone.”