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"We're doomed," Jacob Hansen said in sepulchral tones. He matched into the room, shaking his grizzled head.
"You might as well board up town right now." Marta Hansen followed her husband into the dining room at Buffalo Bob's 3 OF A KIND. With the energy that so often accompanies righteousness, she plunked herself down at the table with the other members of the Buffalo Valley town council.
Joshua McKenna figured this kind of pessimism pretty much ensured that they Wouldn't accomplish anything. Not that he blamed the couple. For nearly twenty years the Hansens, along with everyone else in Buffalo Valley, had watched the once-thriving farm community deteriorate, until now the town was barely holding on. The theater had closed first, and then the beauty shop and the florist and the hardware store ... It hurt most when the catalog store pulled up stakesthat had been six years agoand then the Morningside Café, the one decent restaurant in town, had closed for good.
Even now, Joshua missed Melissa's cooking. She'd baked biscuits that were so light and fluffy they practically floated into your mouth. Joshua got hungry just thinking about those biscuits.
Businesses survived as long as they could on their continually diminishing returnsuntil they were driven to financial ruin and finally forced to close up shop. Families drifted away and farmland changed ownership, the bigger farms buying up the smaller ones. Large or small, everyone struggled these days with low agricultural prices. He had to hand it to the farmers,though. They were smart, and getting smarter all the time. Over the years, agricultural research and hardier strains had made it possible to urge a larger yield out of the land. Where an acre would once produce a hundred bushels, it was now possible to harvest almost twice that. Somehow, a lot of the farmers had managed to keep goingbecause they believed in their heritage and because they trusted in the future, hoping they'd eventually get a fair price for their crops. Since they stayed, a few of the businesses in town clung, too.
Joshua's was one of them, although he'd certainly been struggling for the last while. He sold used goods and antiques, and did repairs; in that area, at least, business was steady. It was his gift, he supposed, to be able to fix things. With money tight, people did whatever they could to avoid buying something new. He just wished his talent extended to fixing lives and rearranging circumstances. If it had, he'd start with his own family. Heaven knew his son needed help. His daughter and granddaughter, too. He didn't like to think about the changes in their lives during the past few years, and he hated the helpless feeling that came over him whenever he did.
His wife, Marjorie, had always dealt with the children, but she'd been gone ten years now. He often wondered if she'd recognize Buffalo Valley these days and wished he had her wisdom in dealing with its problems. She would've been shocked to learn he'd been elected president of the town council. A position he hadn't sought, but one he'd assumed by default when Bill Wilson had to close his gas station and move to Fargo.
"We're doomed this time," Marta repeated, daring anyone to argue with her.
"This town's survived all these years. We'll hold on now." Hassie Knight, who owned Knight's Pharmacy, said emphatically.
Hassie was a born optimist and the one person in town who was sure to see even this situation in a positive light. If anyone could come up with a solution, it'd be Hassie, God bless her.
Like him, Hassie had experienced her share of grief. She'd buried her son, who'd been killed in Vietnam nearly thirty years ago, and not long afterward, had lost her husband. Carl Knight had died from complications of diabetes, but Hassie had always maintained that the real cause of death was a broken heart. Her daughter lived in Hawaii, and Joshua knew Valerie would like nothing better than to have her mother retire nearby. Thankfully, Hassie had resisted Valerie's efforts. The old woman was long past the age of retirement, but she did much more than fill prescriptions. Hassie was the closest thing the community had to a doctor, and folks from miles around came to her for medical advice. Yes, Hassie Knight was a popular woman, all right. It didn't hurt any that she served the best sodas he'd ever tasted. The old-fashioned kind from the fountain in the corner of her store. Chocolate sodas and good advicethose were her specialties.
"We've hung on for so many years, we're already dead and don't even have the sense to know it," Marta said caustically as she crossed her arms over her hefty bosom.
"Will you stop!" Joshua pounded the gavel on the tabletop with so much force, the ice in the water glasses danced. He sat back down and motioned to Hassie. "Would you take roll call?"
Hassie Knight's bones creaked audibly as she stood.
"Roll call? Now that's gonna be useful," Marta Hansen muttered. "That's like what's-his-name, that emperor, fiddling while Rome burned."
She was obviously mighty pleased with her classical allusion. Must've been on Jeopardy last night, Joshua thought.
"Nero. The emperor was Nero," he couldn't resist adding. Still, he hated to admit it, but Marta was right. Roll call was a waste of time; all they had to do was look around the table to know who was present and who wasn't. Hassie, the Hansens, Dennis Urlacher and him. Absent: Gage Sinclair and Heath Quantrill. Joshua stopped Hassie before she had a chance to start.
"Fine, we'll dispense with the usual formalities and get on with the meeting."
"Thank God someone in this town is willing to listen to reason," Marta said, glaring across the table at Hassie.
It was only natural that the town pessimist and the town optimist would be in constant opposition. "You and Jacob have as much to gain or lose as the rest of us," Hassie snapped. "A positive mental attitude would help."
"I'm positive," Jacob said with a nod. "Positive that Buffalo Valley is as dead as Eloise Patten."
"If she was going to up and the unexpected like that, the least she could've done was tell someone she wasn't well," Marta said in her usual righteous manner.
"That's the most ridiculous thing you've ever saidwhich is really saying something." Hassie's face reddened, and Joshua could see she was having difficulty restraining her temper. The truth was, the Hansens exasperated him, too. How they'd managed to run the grocery during these hard times when they had such a negative outlook toward, life was beyond him. Still, he was grateful their store had survived. Joshua didn't know what would happen if they ever decided to leave Buffalo Valley.
"All right, all right." Joshua wiped his brow with a stained white handkerchief. "We'll move on to new business."
With obvious reluctance, Hassie reclaimed her seat.
"We all know why we're here," Jacob said. "The school needs a teacher,"
"Does anyone mind if I sit in?" Buffalo Bob asked, pulling out a chair before anyone could object.
Marta and Jacob glanced at each other and seemed to understand that if they raised a fuss, Hassie would make a point of asking Marta to leave, since she wasn't officially a member of the town council. Joshua suspected the only re, on she attended the meetings was to advise Jacob on how to vote.
"We'd welcome your help," Joshua assured Bob.
Without a word Dennis Urlacher, who owned the Cenex Gas Station, shoved his chair aside to make room for him. Bob Cart was an ex-biker who'd settled in the town a couple of years earlier after winning the bar, grill and small hotel in a poker game. He'd immediately rechristened himself Buffalo Bob.
Joshua looked down at his notes. "As you all know, Eloise Patten is gone."
"She's more than gone," Marta Hansen interrupted. "She's dead!"
"Marta!" Joshua had taken about all he could from her. "The point is we don't have a teacher."
"Hire one." Buffalo Bob leaned back on two legs of his chair, as if he figured they were all overreacting to this crisis.
"No one's going to want to teach in a town that's dying," Jacob grumbled, shaking his head. "Besides, I never did think much of dividing up the schools, Bussing our grade-schoolers over to Bellmont and then having them send their high-schoolers to us was a piss-poor idea, if you ask me."
"We already did ask you," Joshua barked, no longer making any attempt to control his impatience. "It won't do any good to rehash what's already been decided and acted upon. Bussing the children has worked for the last four years, and would continue to do so if Eloise hadn't passed on the way she did."
"Eloise should've retired years ago," Marta complained under her breath.
"Well, thank God she didn't," Joshua said. "We owe her a lot." Eloise Patten had been a godsend to this community, and if no one else said it, he would. The schoolteacher had been the one to suggest splitting up the elementary and high school students between the two towns. The Hansens' attitude was typical of the thinking that was detrimental to such progressive ideas. The small farming communities, or what remained of them, needed to rely on each other. It was either that or lose everything. If Buffalo Valley was going to survive when so many towns on the prairie hadn't, they had to learn to work together.
"We've got to find us a new teacher, is all." Dennis could be counted on to cut to the chaseto state the basic, unadorned facts. He owned and operated the only gas station left in town and wasn't much of a talker. When he did speak, it was generally worth listening.
Joshua knew that his daughter, Sarah, and Dennis had some kind of romance going between them, despite the decided efforts of his daughter to keep it a secret. Joshua didn't understand why she felt it was so all-fired important nobody know about this relationship. After her disastrous marriage, Joshua would've welcomed Dennis into the family. He Suspected that Sarah's reluctance to marry Dennis had to do with her daughter, Calla, who was fourteen. A difficult ageas he remembered well,
"We could throw in living quarters, couldn't we?" Buffalo Bob was saying. "For the teacher?"
"Good idea." Joshua pointed the gavel at the hotel owner. "There's two or three empty houses close to the school."
"Nobody's going to want to live in those old places," Marta insisted. "They're full of mice and God knows what else."
"We can always clean one up."
The others nodded.
"In case no one's noticed, there's a teacher shortage in this state." This came from Jacob, and as if on cue, Marta nodded.
"We could always advertise," Hassie began tentatively.
"Advertise? We don't have that kind of money," Marta said in a sharp voice.
"If we don't advertise, what exactly do you suggest?" Joshua asked.
Jacob and Matte looked at each other. Jacob got heavily to his feet and leaned forward, bracing his hands on the edge of the table. "I think it's time we all admitted the truth. Buffalo Valley is doomed and there's not a damn thing we can do about it." Marta nodded again, a satisfied expression on her face.