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Angel County, Montana Territory
It was a hot day for a wake. Joanna Nelson swiped the dampness from her forehead, closed the oven door with her foot and slid the sheet of biscuits onto the wooden cutting board. The kitchen window was open wide to let in the sweltering wind. It gave her a clear view of the horse and buggy lumbering along the road, kicking up chalky dust.
Few mourners had shown up for her pa's brief funeral in the graveyard behind the church. None had yet made their way to the house. Just this lone horse and buggy ambling tiredly through the heat waves on the dirt road. When the vehicle was near enough, she recognized the driver. Not a mourner, but one of the bankers from town, dressed up in his fancy work suit.
This was not a social call, she suspected. No, Edwin Wessox had been a regular visitor over the last year, because of the bank's worry over Pa's debt. With her father gone, this visit did not necessarily mean good news. Without a doubt, it concerned the mortgage on the farm. She knew, because this had happened to her once beforeafter her husband died, one year and three months ago. The banker had paid a visit to her not three hours after she'd laid her husband to rest.
Would they be allowed to continue on with the payments? Her stomach twisted in a nervous knot. Don't expect the worst, she told herself. She slid the biscuits from the baking sheet into a cloth-lined bowl. Her half brother had come to stay when the doctor had given Pa the diagnosis. Lee said he wanted to keep farming the land, although he didn't like farming.
It will be all right, Joanna. She took a deep breath and poked her head into the parlor. Leesat by the open window with a hand to his forehead, looking as shocked as she felt. He didn't so much as blink an eye, much less look in her direction. He clearly had a lot on his mind.
"The banker's coming," she said, then went back to her kitchen work.
She didn't know if that news would make her brother stir. They were not close; he'd only come after she'd telegraphed him. As she hefted the pot of beans from the oven, she tried to keep hopeful. Heaven knew, hard times had rained down on her before like the worst kind of storm. Things had started to get a little easier, finally, while she'd been staying here with her pa.
Please, Lord, she prayed, don't let things get worse for us. Praying these days was more habit than belief. She set the bean pot down on the battered wooden table and feared the Lord and all his angels had forgotten her.
Upstairs, she heard the patter of her young son's bare feet, as if to remind her of all she had to protect. Her little girl trailed after him. The two of them sounded like a stampeding herd barreling down the steps.
"Ma! Ma!" James burst into the kitchen and ran straight to her skirts, burying his face in her waist.
Daisy raced after him. She was too young to remember the consequences of her father's death, but was upset because her older brother was. She fisted her hands in the extra material of Joanna's skirt and held on tight.
Since she was as good as hobbled, Joanna left the potatoes to their boiling and scooped her little girl into her arms. Poor baby. Joanna kissed her daughter's brow and snuggled her close. "Why are you crying, little one?"
"I don't wanna live in the wagon. James said."
"Is that true? Did you say that to your sister?"
James held on tighter and didn't answer.
Too many losses, too many upheavals, too much uncertainty. Joanna hated how it had marked her children. "I have dinner on the table. Let me take a look at you. However did you two get so dirty?"
"In the attic, Ma." James tipped his head back to look at her, his sweaty brown hair sticking straight up.
She smoothed it down, wishing she could smooth away bigger troubles as easily. "It will be all right. Now, go wash your hands and faces while I see to our company."
The worry did not leave James's features when he released his hold on her, or when he took his sister's hand and led her to the washbasin by the back door. Joanna straightened, her skirts sticking to her as she left the hot kitchen for the front door.
Mr. Wessox was tipping his hat to her on the other side of the screen. "Ma'am, I'm sorry for your loss."
"Thank you." Dread quickened her heartbeat and made her hand tremble as she unlatched the door. "Please, come in. Can I get you something to drink?"
"No, I've come to speak with Lee."
Of course. It was a man's world, and Lee was to inherit the ranch. She knew that. But the nerves jumped in her stomach like oil on a hot pan as she hurried back to the kitchen. Her gaze went first to her little ones in the sunny corner. James was holding the towel for his sister as she splashed her hands in the basin.
What is going to happen to us, Lord? To them? She tried to believeshe had to believethat Lee would be able to stall the banker as handily as their father always had. She and her children would keep this solid roof over their heads. The garden was flourishing, the cow was giving good milk and the chickens were laying so well there would be plenty of food on their table.
Harvest season was coming up, and although Lee hadn't wanted to talk about it, he would clearly need her help when it came to threshing time. Joanna knew there would be harvest workers to feedthat was a large task he could not do without helpand then they had the canning and preserves to do and the garden to put up. Come winter, perhaps she could get some kind of job in town, cooking or cleaning for part of the day to bring in a wage.
All this had kept her up the last few nights, and it allher future and her children'sdepended on Lee and the banker. She couldn't help peering through the doorway, but the men were sitting in the corner, out of her sight. She heard the drone of their voices, too low for her to make out a single word.
"Ma, we're all washed up." James held the towel while Daisy dried her little hands.
"We're real clean, Ma." Daisy's flyaway blond hair stood out at all angles in the dry air. She looked like the precious blessing she was in the little calico frock and white apron Joanna had finished sewing last week, cut down from one of her own dresses. She wished they had money enough for a new piece of fabric, but Daisy looked dear, anyway.
"I'll dish up your supper for you, and you two can eat on the back porch in the shade." At their enthusiastic response, she took a couple of clean plates from the drainer and filled them from the stove.
When she carried the full plates to the back door, she noticed a team pulling a wagon down their driveway. Well, good, at least someone had come. She couldn't make out the driver through the blistering glare of the sun. The big dark draft horses looked familiar, however. Then she recognized the man on the seat. It was their neighbor to the north, Aiden McKaslin. The dour, disagreeable man had come to pay his respects? That surprised her. He and Pa had not gotten along at all, even though they attended the same church.
"Sit down right here, you two." She set both plates on the small wooden table she'd brought out from the kitchen earlier. The chairs scraped as the little ones climbed up and settled in. "James, say the blessing, please."
"Yes, Ma." The little boy scootched forward in his seat and gave his sister a serious look. "Are your hands folded, Daisy?"
"Yes." She blew out a sigh of frustration, stirring the long platinum-blond strands of her hair. "He's bein' bossy again, Ma."
Joanna pressed a kiss to the crown of her daughter's head. It was hard being little. She remembered it well. "I need to go greet Mr. McKaslin, so you two mind your manners, all right?"
"Yes, Ma," they both said gravely.
She left them to the sound of James's serious prayer, trying to keep them in her sight through the window as she headed through the house toward the front door. She was surprised to see the banker and Lee in the front yard already, shaking hands. They were both smiling, and her brother seemed relieved.
Apparently their business was over. Their smiles had to be a good signthe bank must be willing to let her brother continue on with the payments. The burden of worry slid right off her shoulders like rain from a tin roof. Her children would have a solid, good home. It was a lot to be thankful for.
Aiden McKaslin pulled his draft horses to a stop and stared straight at her. "I've come to take back the cow I didn't receive full payment for."
"What? You're not here for the wake?"
"I'm busy, ma'am. I've only got time to take the cow."
"The milk cow?" Her children needed the milk. She looked to Lee, but he stopped chatting with the banker to shrug in a careless way.
"Let him take the cow, Joanna. We can't keep her."
"We c-can't?" She hadn't considered they might be that bad off. Her brother turned his back and continued walking the banker to his horse and buggy, which were parked in the shade.
Well, they could get along without a cow. Heaven knew they had been much worse off before and managed well enough. What mattered was that they could keep the house and land. This thought bolstered her as she hurried across the crackling dried lawn.
Aiden McKaslin stopped to face her. "I'll return the payments your father already made."
He tugged some folded twenty dollar bills from his muslin shirt pocket and held them out with a steady, sun-brown hand. A capable hand, she noticed, not quite able to meet his gaze. Shyness seized her, for he was a big man, tall and physically intimidating. She felt very small as she took the bills.
"Thank you, that's awful decent of you. I" She blushed, realizing how sorry she must look. She smoothed the grease spackles on her patched apron. "The cow is picketed out in the field. You can't see her from here, but she's just behind the barn in the shade by the creek."
"I brought my own rope, so I'll leave you her halter, picket rope and pin. You may be able to get another cow later on, and those will come in handy."
It felt as if a rock had settled in her throat, and she couldn't seem to answer him. She could only nod as she slipped the two twenty dollar bills into her pocket.
"I'm sorry for your loss, ma'am." He tipped his hat. She could see his shadow on the ground at her feet before he whipped around and strode away toward the barn.
"Ma?" Little Daisy stared at her through the slatted porch rails, clutching the weathered wood with her small hands. Tears stood in her eyes. "My plate slid off the t-table. It's all in the d-dirt."
From around the corner, just out of sight, James called out, "Weren't my fault, Ma!"
One tear trickled down Daisy's cheek. "I real s-sorry."
Joanna remembered to count to ten and then took a deep breath of the hot, dusty air. She reached between the boards and caught the wetness on her fingertip. "It's all right. Go help your brother clean up, then come around to the kitchen door and meet me."
"Y-yes, Ma." Her daughter hiccuped once, spun in a swirl of pink calico and padded off on bare feet.
Poor baby. Joanna watched to make sure no more tears fell as Daisy hopped down the step to kneel beside her brother. Their hands worked quickly. The mess couldn't have been very much. After she filled a second plate for Daisy, Joanna would see to the rest of the cleaning up.
She felt an odd tingling at the back of her neck. It wasn't a good feeling. She peered around, but Mr. Aiden McKaslin had already cut behind the barn and was out of sight and earshotand quickly, too. A staid bachelor like him, close to thirty years old, probably had an unpleasant opinion of children and their messes. She'd married a man just like that.
The last thing she intended to do was pay him any mind. The banker was driving away, kicking up more chalky dust into the heavy air. Lee headed off to the barn. Most likely to talk with Mr. McKaslin, who was likely tying the cow to the back of his wagon now.
If only they had enough money in hand. Joanna wistfully glanced into the blinding shafts of June sunlight. She would have liked to have milk for the children. But beggars could not be choosers, and she was glad for what they did have. As she hurried around to the door, she spied the garden beginning to crisp beneath the harsh sun. She'd have to remember to give the vegetables an extra watering after she was through in the kitchen.
While she dished up another plate, she caught sight of Mr. McKaslin returning from behind the barn with their Jersey cow on a lead rope. Something about the man caught her eye. She'd seen him in church, of course, but he was the type of worshipper who arrived at the last moment, kept to the back and slipped out before the final hymn. There was a sadness to him that hung over him like a storm cloud. It was that melancholy that kept him from being truly frightening.