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March had come in like a lion, and the lamb was nowhere to be found though the month was nearly over. Clouds the color of tarnished silver hung low over the eastern Kentucky mountains, spitting hard grains of snow. Cara Wilson Whitt stood on the porch wrapped in a knit mantle, disbelieving the scene in the yard. Six men gestured and talked in loud voices, the chief one being her husband. Dimm was not a talker. He never wasted words, but now he raised his voice, standing his ground.
There was the sheriff, a lawyer, the two accusers-Anvil and Walker Wheeler-her brother-in-law, Ace, and Dimm. And, oh yes, the cause of all the commotion: Pancake the mule.
Cara wondered for the thousandth time how it had come to this. How was it that Dimmert was in danger of losing his freedom for stealing his own mule? Ace had cautioned Dimmert about tangling with the Wheelers-perhaps his mule had wandered onto Wheeler property and they commandeered it, more or less. But Dimm knew his mule didn't stray. His animals were so well fed and pampered they had no reason to look for greener pastures. It ate at Dimm and he took to spying on the Wheelers. One day he saw Walker Wheeler take a club to Pancake when he balked at the traces, and he determined to get his animalback. It was either that or shoot Walker, and Dimm had never been given to violence.
When Dimmert relieved Anvil Wheeler of the mule, he didn't even have to get the winter-withered apple from his pocket to lure Pancake from his pen; the mule was that glad to see him. Of course the Wheelers tracked the mule's prints to Dimmert's barn and turned the case over to the sheriff .
Cara paced, her feet drumming on the wooden porch floor. She wanted to be out there. Dimmert would listen to her. But she kept her place like a good wife should. "Don't say nothing," she wanted to shout to Dimmert but didn't. "A mule ain't worth going to jail over," she would have cried out if a woman's words counted in a yard full of men. Dimmert didn't have much in the way of worldly possessions, but he had his pride. She knew better than to mess with that.
Ace sprinted to the porch. "We need that picture you had took, Cara, the one of you and Dimm with Pancake in the middle. Can you fetch it while I go down to the cellar for an apple?"
Sometime last year a traveling photographer had come by the place to make a picture of Dimmert and Cara. Dimm, of course, wanted Pancake in the picture. It was a nice portrait of Dimm in starched overalls and Cara in her Sunday dress with her hair swirled on top of her head-and Pancake's long bony head hanging between their shoulders. Dimm and Cara were staring straight ahead, sober as a preacher at a brush arbor meeting; not a smile creased either countenance. But Pancake was a different story. His smile was big and horsey, showing lots of strong, square teeth and so lopsided it made you grin to look at it.
Cara could hardly bring herself to leave the porch. She didn't want to tear her eyes off Dimm.
"I'll go get it," Dance, Ace's wife, who kept watch with her, offered. "Where do you keep it, Cara?"
"It's in the Bible in the corner cupboard," Cara said.
Dance opened the door, and a welcome drift of warmth sailed out along with the excited voices of Dance and Ace's children, who'd been sent in out of the cold. "You kids hush up," she heard Dance say before she came back out.
Lickety-split, Ace was back at the scene. The sheriff took the picture and the apple. He studied the likeness for a bit, then held it up beside the face of the mule.
"Can't they tell that's Dimm's mule?" she asked Dance. "Dimm don't lie."
"Lookee," Dance replied. "There's a brand on that critter's rump."
"Pancake doesn't have a brand."
"Exactly," Dance said. "That Walker Wheeler's gone and put his mark on Dimm's mule."
A cold wind railed around the side of the porch. Cara's skirts billowed. She anchored them between her knees.
The sheriff handed the apple to Dimm, who held it just in front of Pancake's long nose and did everything but stand on his head, but Pancake would not crack a grin or open his mouth for his favorite treat. The stubborn mule just stared balefully at Walker Wheeler, who was doing all the smiling today. Cara watched as Dimm laid his face alongside Pancake's in his sweet, forgiving way.
Finally the sheriff gave it up. "Anvil, are you sure this here's your mule?"
"Sure as I'm sure Walker is my son," Anvil answered.
Walker guff awed, picking up the apple Dimmert had pitched to the ground and taking a big, crunching bite.
"What if Mr. Whitt just gives back this mule?" the sheriff asked. "I hate to take a man to jail over a simple misunderstanding."
"I'd settle for that," Anvil said. "That and an apology to Walker. Dimmert saying this mule's his stock is the same as calling my son a liar." He turned to Walker. "You don't lie, do you, boy?"
Walker took another big, slurping bite. "No, Daddy, I surely don't. I bought this here animal off old Clary Lumpkin two days before she died."
"Then that's that," Anvil said.
"Dimmert?" the sheriff said.
Now it was Dimm's turn to clamp his mouth shut like Pancake had done. Only his eyes did not stare balefully but instead shot sparks at Walker Wheeler.
"Come on, Dimm," Ace pleaded. "It ain't worth going to jail over."
Dimm let loose a veritable torrent the one time he should have kept quiet. "This here's my mule, Walker Wheeler. I know it and you know it! And you know you're a bald-faced liar!"
A deaf owl could have heard the collective intake of breath at Dimm's misguided speech. "I ain't giving Pancake over." Dimm stood his ground. "It will be a cold day in Satan's shoes before I apologize to the sorry likes of you."
"Well," Anvil Wheeler said, "I gave you a chance. Walker, get the mule."
Walker stood glued to his spot.
Quicker than a rabbit's kick, Dimmert's fist shot out and sucker punched Walker Wheeler. Bits of apple flew out of Walker's surprised mouth as he toppled backward to the ground. Surely as caught off guard as Walker, the sheriff rushed at Dimm and wrestled his arms behind his back.
Dimmert gave no protest, however, but stood meekly with his wrists crossed behind his back.
Mumbling and fumbling, the sheriff trussed his hands. "That was plain ignorant, boy."
Walker wasn't hurt other than his pride, but he couldn't resist throwing a taunt. "You'll pay for that, you horse's behind."
"I'll pay for more than that if you ever take a club to one of my animals again, Walker Wheeler," Dimm said. "You see if I don't."
Next thing Cara knew, the Wheelers were leading Pancake away.
Ace ran back. "Come tell Dimmert good-bye," he said to Cara.
"Good-bye?" she said. "I can't tell my husband good-bye."
Ace made to lead her off the porch.
She pushed his hand away. "Walker Wheeler stole the mule first," she yelled and saw the sheriff look her way. "Dimmert did nothing wrong!"
"Cara," Ace soothed, "don't be making a scene. That lawyer, Henry Thomas, says he'll get Dimmert out of the pokey pronto. All we'll need to do is pay a fine. He says it's just a formality."
Tiny black spots shimmered in Cara's vision. Her knees buckled. "Mercy, I feel like I'm going to faint." She was glad now for her brother-in-law's supporting arm.
"You can do this," he said. "Come on. Dimmert needs to see you strong."
Dance gave her a nudge. "Go on with Ace. You'll be glad you done it later."
"I'm so sorry, Cara-mine," Dimmert said, his words so soft only Cara could hear. "I never aimed to leave you all alone."
Cara wanted to lean into him. She wanted to let his strength absorb her weakness, but instead she drew herself up. "You're not to worry for one minute. We'll get this all sorted out."
"Come on now, Whitt," the sheriff said. "It's time to get going." Pellets of snow gathered in the crease of the sheriff 's black felt hat. His eyes met Cara's. They were not unkind. "Mrs. Whitt, you can come to visit."
Soon Dimmert was sitting on a pack horse behind the sheriff's big bay mare. He didn't look back as the horse was led away. Cara was grateful for that.
* * * Three weeks later Cara tossed and turned the whole night long. The bed was big and lonesome what with Dimmert gone. Midnight found her on the porch of their small but sturdy cabin, staring out into the darkness like she could conjure up her husband if she gave a concerted effort. It might not be so bad if she owned a rocking chair. Rocking soothed an unquiet mind. But she didn't have a rocker, so her thoughts roiled like sour milk in a churn, and there wasn't much comfort in the idea of visiting Dimm in jail.
She wouldn't be so lonesome now if she weren't so isolated. What had possessed her to let Dimm drag her from their spacious three-room house on Troublesome Creek up here halfway to nowhere? Ah, but Cara already knew the answer to that. Dimmert Whitt was the sweetest man she ever laid eyes on. Plus, he had an interesting face, not really handsome but arresting, like you could study it all day and never get the least bit tired. And that gingery hair-the color of spice cake fresh from the oven-Cara was a sucker for that hair.
Still unable to sleep, she decided she was thirsty and got up for a drink. The screen door squeaked as she opened it and went to the water bucket on the wash shelf.
Taking a dipper of well water from the granite bucket, she drank it before giving in to a yawn, and then her feet traced the familiar path to bed. After a quick prayer for Dimm's safety, she held his feather pillow close, like she would have held him if he were here.
The morning would be better. Morning's first light always filled her with promise; seemed anything was possible then, even Dimm's salvation. Thanks to her friend Miz Copper, she had radish and lettuce seed to set out in her spring garden. Nothing made a body feel better than a hoe in hand and fertile soil underfoot. Dimm was right about that part. This side of the mountain couldn't be beat for growing things. Pulling the cotton quilt over her shoulders, she turned, seeking comfort.
As Cara drifted off to sleep, she thought of Copper Pelfrey and how good she was to come all the way from Troublesome to bring plants and seeds from her garden. When Cara had first spied the Pelfreys yon side of the creek, she got so excited she dropped her favorite yellowware bowl and broke it all to flinders. Now what would she mix her gritty bread in? Quick like, she'd tucked up her hair and hung her apron on the peg behind the door. She reckoned it'd been three weeks since she'd spoken to another soul-except for Ace Shelton, who came by once in a while to see if she needed any little thing.
Miz Copper brought more than lettuce and radishes. She brought marigold and zinnia seed for planting in May and a little poke of money for Dimmert's lawyer. Copper's husband John made himself scarce. He said he needed to patch that hole he saw in the barn roof while she and Copper visited. But Cara knew he was sparing her embarrassment. He knew she'd be mortified to take money from anyone but his wife-and that was hard enough.
"How are you, Cara?" Miz Copper asked after she settled at Cara's table with a cup of fresh-brewed sassafras tea.
"Good," Cara said, but she couldn't meet Miz Copper's eyes.
Miz Copper laid her hand upon Cara's own and said again, "How are you?"
Tears pooled in Cara's eyes. Miz Copper had always been discerning and kind-ever so kind. "It's hard," she replied. "I've never been alone a minute in my life, and now alone is all I am."
"Oh, honey," Miz Copper said. "You could come stay with us."
"Dimm would want me here."
"Yes," Miz Copper agreed, "I expect he would."
Cara squeezed her eyes shut. The least little bit of sympathy and she was near tears again. "Do you remember the brave girl I used to be? Remember when my mama had the twins and I was the one helping?"
Miz Copper moved her chair close. She put her arms around Cara, and Cara leaned her head on her friend's shoulder. "I sure do. I never met a braver girl than you were that night."
Cara felt her tears wet Miz Copper's shoulder. "I don't know what happened to that girl. Now every little thing spooks me."
"Part of that is your being alone. I remember when I first came back to the farm after Lilly's father died. I felt so overwhelmed and weary at times, I cried just like you're doing now."
"What did you do? How did you stand it?" Cara asked, straightening up so she could see Miz Copper's face.
"I turned to the Lord," Miz Copper said. "You'll see; God won't put more on you than you can bear if you will turn to Him in your sorrow and your fear."
Cara nodded. She knew Miz Copper spoke the truth, but she didn't know for sure if God would listen to one such as herself, one being such a stranger at God's door.
Time passed easily as they chatted, even laughed a little, remembering good times. You couldn't be around Miz Copper without smiling.
Miz Copper's daughter, Lilly Gray, came in from the porch. "Mama," she said, "Daddy John says he's almost finished with the roof."
"Lilly Gray, you are as pretty as a picture," Cara said.
The girl leaned against her mother's knees and laid her head against her mother's shoulder. She looked up at Cara from underneath long black eyelashes. Her finely arched eyebrows, heart-shaped face, and porcelain skin reminded Cara of a china doll. Shyly she said, "Thank you, Miz Cara."
"Show Cara the locket Daddy John gave you for your eighth birthday."
"Oh, that's real pretty." Cara admired the intricate scrollwork on the small gold locket.
"It opens," Lilly said, coming to Cara. She fiddled with the jewelry and clicked the latch. "It's got pictures of my two daddies. See?" She held the open locket out. "My one daddy Simon and my now daddy John. Daddy Simon is in heaven with Jesus."
Cara met Miz Copper's eyes over the top of Lilly's head. Miz Copper gave a little shrug. Cara felt embarrassed to be complaining about being alone. The story of what happened to Miz Copper's first husband was widely known. He was thrown from a horse and mortally wounded, leaving her a widow with a baby. Miz Copper brought Lilly to the mountains and set up housekeeping on her own. Cara would do well to follow her example.
Cara felt like crying for herself as well as Miz Copper. She felt like crying for all the pain in the world. Instead she changed the subject. "Where's your little brother today?"
Lilly snapped her locket closed. "Oh, he's home with Miss Remy." She sidled closer to Cara. "Do you want to know a secret?"
"I purely love a good secret," Cara replied.
Lilly Gray cupped her hand around Cara's ear and whispered, "We're going to have another baby."
Mr. John appeared in the doorway. "Hey, girls, we'd best get started if you want to call on Fairy Mae."
Lilly skipped out to meet her daddy. "Can I hold the reins this time?"
"Sure as shootin'," Mr. John said. "We'll wait in the buggy, Copper."
Miz Copper drained her tea, then pushed her chair back and withdrew a leather sack from her skirt pocket. "Ace was good enough to come by and tell John how much Dimm's fine is, Cara."
"I'll pay you back every cent," Cara said, embarrassed but grateful.
"No need," Miz Copper said while tying her bonnet strings under her chin. "John said he owed that to Dimm for helping clear land last fall. Count it out before you pay the fine. I believe there's enough extra to tide you over." She hugged Cara hard. "I'm praying for Dimm and for you, dear heart."
"Thank you," Cara said, her voice husky with unshed tears. "I'm real happy about your new baby."
Miz Copper patted her still-flat stomach and laughed. "I expect little John William will be right peeved when this one comes. He's used to being the center of attention."
"Good thing you've got Remy Riddle to help out," Cara said.
"My goodness, yes. She has been an answer to prayer." She held Cara's face between her hands. "Now you take care of yourself."
"You too," Cara said, holding the screen door wide. "You take care of yourself too."
Now Cara pounded her pillow and laid her head in the indentation. She was trying to be strong since that visit. She was trying to follow Miz Copper's model; she really was. Daytime wasn't so bad, but nights were pure torture.
Her mind stirred up again, dragging out worn trunks of worry like a widow in an attic of memory. She threw the covers aside, her feet hitting the floor. Where had she hidden that money last? First she'd put it in the sugar bowl; it was empty anyway. But that seemed too obvious, so she'd moved it to the top of the corner cupboard. When that didn't satisfy, she pried up the end of a loose floorboard in front of the fireplace and stuck it down there. But what if a mouse took a liking to that little leather sack? Silvery moonlight spilled in through a high window and lit that place in the floor like a spotlight. If a robber came in, he'd make a beeline there.
Excerpted from SWEETWATER FUN by Jan Watson Copyright © 2009 by Jan Watson. Excerpted by permission.
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