Read an Excerpt
The Seventh Mother
By Sherri Wood Emmons
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Sherri Wood Emmons
All rights reserved.
I remember how it started, the beginning of the end. Of course I didn't know it then.
We were in southern Idaho and it was July. Daddy was working for the summer at a little campground that sat in a broad, grassy prairie between two mountain ranges. It was a nice place, hot and dry so you always had to carry a bottle of water with you. A curvy, slow-moving river ran just east of the campground, and lots of geese and ducks lived there. Sometimes we saw wild elk in the fields. Once at the river, I even saw a mother moose with her baby, standing on spindly legs in the water. If I'd had a camera, I would have taken a picture of them. I didn't have a camera, but I still remember how the mother glared at me as she stepped between Daddy and me and her baby. She was protecting him, I guess. That's what mothers are supposed to do.
Near the entrance to the campground sat a tiny, dusty restaurant called Zella Fay's Cafe. That's where we ate most of our meals. Zella Fay was an enormously fat old woman with a patch over her left eye and a bad temper. I never had the nerve to ask why she had an eye patch. She kind of scared me. But she made the best beef stew I'd ever had, and she always gave me an extra biscuit. Sometimes she let me take leftover bread from the restaurant to feed the ducks.
To the east, we could see the Teton Mountains from our campsite, with snow on the tops even in the summer. A boy who was staying at the campground in June told me that Tetons meant "titties" in French. Then he pinched my chest hard and laughed. I wanted to punch him. I let my hands curl into fists so tight my fingernails bit into my palms. But I didn't hit him, of course. He was a guest, and we had to be nice to the guests because they were paying to be there. They were paying for us to be there, too, Daddy said. Sometimes I hated that.
Anyway, that night in early July, I was lying on my bed—it was a shelf, really, in an alcove that jutted out of the trailer when we set up camp. I was staring at the roof, bored and kind of thirsty, wishing I could turn on the light to read. I was supposed to be asleep, but it was still light outside, even though it was almost nine o'clock. And it was still God-awful hot. I lay on top of the sheets below the screened window just over my bed, waiting for the breeze I knew would come eventually. We had air-conditioning in the trailer, but Daddy didn't like to run it at night. Once the sun set, it always cooled off so much I had to pull my quilt over me. Daddy said the fresh air was good for us both.
Outside, I heard Daddy talking softly and then laughing. I peeked out the window and saw him dancing in the grass with Emma, his arms wrapped around her waist. She tilted her head back to laugh and then saw me watching them from the window. Before I could drop the mini-blind, she smiled and winked at me.
I liked Emma. Actually, I liked her a lot. She took care of the horses at the campground, and she let me help feed them and sometimes brush them. Most days, she led the paying guests on trail rides into the surrounding foothills, telling them the history of the area, pointing out photo opportunities, and making sure they didn't get hurt ... or worse, hurt the horses.
Emma knew every horse in the stable by name. She knew each one's likes and dislikes, its weaknesses and its stubborn streaks. She said the most important job she had was pairing a horse with a rider who would appreciate it. That and making sure that everyone got back to the campground in one piece.
For three years, Emma had been working at the campground. She was a year-round employee, taking care of the horses even after the campground closed for the season and the snow set in for months on end.
Daddy and I were only there for the summer. When the season ended and the campground closed, we would move on to the next place where Daddy could find work. Some people called us workampers, because we moved around so much and lived in a trailer. Daddy said we were modern-day gypsies or maybe even pioneers. He said stuff like that.
I was reading about the pioneers that summer. The week before, Emma had taken me to Victor, a little town that sat right up next to the mountains. We went to the Emporium for huckleberry shakes and then to the library to get some books about the people who'd come across the Teton Mountains in covered wagons to settle the area. Compared to those wagons, our trailer seemed pretty fancy. We had an electrical hookup and running water. We had GPS and even a satellite TV, which Daddy let me watch sometimes, but only after I had finished my lessons. Mostly, we used the TV to watch the Weather Channel. When you live in a trailer, you really do have to watch the weather.
Of course, compared to the houses I saw in the towns around the campground, our trailer seemed kind of shabby. There were some fancy houses in that valley, all brand-new and beautiful, with huge windows facing the mountains and sprinklers making "cheche-che" sounds as they sprayed water across the huge lawns. Zella Fay at the restaurant complained all the time about how much water people wasted on those lawns. They were mostly vacation homes, Daddy said. People built them just to come for a few months in the winter, when the ski hill was open. During the summer, they sat mostly empty, their windows glinting sunlight back at the mountains.
Still, our trailer was way better than the motels we used to live in, Daddy and me. Some of those places had been downright scary, with skittering roaches and mice. Once Daddy even killed a big gray rat that was hiding under our bed. And every few months, or even every few weeks, we'd move to another motel room and scrub it clean with Lysol and start all over again. At least with the trailer, we took all our stuff with us. And my bed in the alcove shelf was always my bed, with my own sheets and pillow and Bugsy Bear, the stuffed panda my mother bought for me before I was even born.
I raised the mini-blind again and peeked out the window. Daddy was kissing Emma's neck now and his hand was on her butt. Then I knew that she was probably going to be my new stepmom. For a minute, I let myself hope that she would stay. But almost as soon as the wish formed, it disappeared. I knew Emma wouldn't stay too long, no matter how much I wished. They didn't ever stay, not any of them.
Two weeks later, Emma moved her things from her room at the bunkhouse into the trailer. She didn't have a lot to move—just a duffel bag and a backpack. Daddy made space in a drawer beneath their bed for her things.
That night, I squeezed my eyes shut tight and tried hard to sleep, willing myself to see cartoon sheep or anything else I might count. There was no door to my little shelf/alcove and only a flimsy accordion door across the hallway into Daddy's bedroom. Like I said, a lot of women had come to live with us. And I really hated hearing them at night.
That night, Emma's voice rang out as clear as day.
"So Jenny hasn't ever been in a real school? Do you think that's a good idea?"
Daddy's voice was soft and low. He knew how everything worked in the trailer, knew I might still be awake. "She's doing a homeschool program on the computer. We move around too much to enroll her anywhere. She's better off this way."
"But ..." Emma's voice trailed away. I heard Daddy kiss her.
"But nothing," he said finally. "We use an accredited program. She has her laptop. We have the Internet. She's as smart as a whip. And she's fine."
"And you are more than fine." Emma's voice was breathy and soft.
I squeezed my eyes closed more tightly.
"Let me show you how fine I am." Daddy laughed.CHAPTER 2
I know it was stupid, moving in with Brannon so fast. But I was lonely before he came to the campground, and he was funny and sweet and so good with his daughter. And my God, he looked so good. When he and Jenny first arrived at camp, I watched him around the place for a few days before I talked to him, his dark hair just curling damp at the base of his neck, his arms and chest muscled and taut under his white T-shirts. He was something to watch, all right, so lean and tanned and glistening with sweat. Even Zella Fay at the diner said so, as we stared at him out the window over lunch one day.
"Yeah, he's a looker, all right." Zella Fay poured more coffee into my cup and almost smiled, watching Brannon outside, hauling wood to the fire pit for the big bonfire that night. "And the little girl seems like a good kid," she added, turning from the window. "She's real polite. Sometimes she even helps me with the dishes. I give her a dollar."
I'd seen the daughter around, too.
"How old do you think she is?" I asked.
"Ten," Zella Fay said. "Eleven in August."
"I wonder where her mother is." I was fishing now.
"Dead," Zella Fay said. "She died when Jenny was three."
I raised my eyebrows. Normally, Zella Fay didn't engage in gossip, but she was full of information today.
"Jenny hangs out here sometimes when it's too hot outside," she said. "Does her schoolwork at a booth or just follows me around. She seems kind of lonely."
"I'll bet," I agreed. "It must be hard on a kid, moving around the way they do."
Zella Fay nodded and swiped the counter with a towel.
"Seems like he's a good dad," she said, glancing out the window toward Brannon. He was stacking logs in the fire pit now, building a balanced pyramid. "I've never heard him raise his voice to her. He pretty much dotes on her."
"That's nice." I smiled to myself, watching Brannon build the pyramid. "It must be nice to have a dad who dotes on you."
When I left the diner that day, I stopped by the fire pit and introduced myself.
"Hey, I'm Emma. I work with the horses." I smiled at him.
He wiped his forehead with a blue bandana and grinned back at me—a crooked, beautiful, wide grin.
"I'm Brannon," he said, holding out his hand. "Brannon Bohner. Nice to meet you."
"Looks like hot work," I said, taking his hand and nodding at the pyramid.
"At least it's not muggy," he said. "Last summer I worked at a campground in Alabama. Imagine heat like this with ninety-percent humidity. It felt like I was working in a sauna."
"Zella Fay just made a fresh batch of iced tea," I said.
"That sounds good." He wiped his forehead again. "Will you join me?"
So I went back into the diner, where Zella Fay was still watching us, and sat down in a booth instead of at the counter.
"Can we get two iced teas, Zella Fay?"
She raised an eyebrow at me now, then poured two big glasses of tea and set them on the table before us.
"How 'bout some pie?" She halfway smiled at Brannon. "I got fresh peach pie today."
"That sounds good." Brannon smiled at her, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "Has Jenny been in this afternoon?"
"Not since lunch." Zella Fay waddled into the kitchen, returning with a huge slice of pie, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. "She's down at the river with the kids from seventeen, the pop-up. Their mama's with them. She's all right."
He nodded before digging into the pie. Zella Fay stood at the table, watching him chew.
"Best peach pie I ever had," he said, swallowing.
She waddled back to the kitchen, smiling.
"So ..." He turned his attention to me, that crooked smile thawing the cold places in my past. "Are you from around here?"
I shook my head. "Arizona," I said.
"Beautiful country," he said. "How did you end up at the Flying J?"
"Oh, that's a long story," I said, laughing. "I'll bore you with it sometime. How about you? How did you find your way here?"
He took a long drink of iced tea and sighed, relaxing into the red-vinyl booth. "We've been moving around for a few years now, my daughter and me."
"I've seen her around the place," I said. "She's a beauty."
He nodded, grinning. "She takes after her mom, that's for sure."
"Actually, I think she looks a lot like you ... at least from what I've seen.
I felt myself blushing and hoped he didn't think I was some kind of stalker. But he just grinned again.
"She's a good girl," he said. "She's smart, too. And she seems to like it here."
"Maybe sometime she'd like to come see the horses?"
"I bet she'd love that," he said. "Thanks."
He rose and wrapped the bandana around his head.
"I'd better get back to work."
"I'll see you around, Brannon."
I watched him walk back to the fire pit. He was something to look at, all right. Behind me, I heard a snort. Zella Fay was laughing behind the counter.
"You be careful what you wish for, honey. That man is dragging around a whole lot of baggage."
"You mean his daughter?"
"For starters," she said.
I shook my head and smiled. "He seems like a nice enough guy."
"Just be careful," she repeated. She waddled back to the kitchen, glancing back over her shoulder. "Just you be real careful."
A week later, Brannon asked me to join him for lunch with his daughter. We were at Zella Fay's, of course. It was the only place close by to eat. I watched him order for himself and then for Jenny, shaking his head when she said she wanted a milk shake to drink.
"That's a dessert," he said. "You can have milk or juice with lunch."
"Juice," she said. "But can I have a milk shake after?"
"Let's see how you do with your lunch."
Zella Fay brought us big bowls of chili, a small plate of jalapenos, and a pan of cornbread. Her one good eye locked onto me, as if to say again, "Just be careful." I smiled at her.
"So," Brannon said, putting his arm around Jenny's shoulders. "Did you know that Emma works with the horses in the barn?"
"That's cool," the girl said.
I breathed in deep and said, "I was wondering if maybe you'd like to visit with them after lunch."
I smiled at her. After a long minute, she smiled back. It was a cautious little smile. It almost broke my heart.
"I'd like that," she said softly. "Thank you."
Jenny took to the horses right away. More important, the horses took to her. She was very gentle and spoke quietly to them, offering carrots and apple slices carefully in her outstretched palm. Sometimes I let her give them sugar cubes as a special treat. Before long, she became my constant shadow whenever I was at the barn. She shoveled hay and manure without my asking. I taught her how to brush down the horses, being careful never to stand behind them, where she might get kicked. And I discovered early on that Brannon had been right. Jenny was as smart as a whip.
"How do you know how much to feed them?"
Jenny was petting Buck's nose while I brushed the huge horse down.
"It depends on how big each horse is and how much exercise it gets," I said. "Buck here is almost two thousand pounds and he does the trail almost every day, so he needs more food. Angel"—I nodded to the dappled horse in the stall across the way—"she's a little older and a little bit smaller, and she doesn't get ridden as much, so she needs a little less."
"So it's a percentage of their weight?" Jenny looked at me with her startlingly blue eyes, so at odds with the dark hair curling to her shoulders.
I stared at her for a minute. It seemed a complicated concept for a ten-year-old.
"Yeah," I said finally. "It's a percentage of their weight, plus their activity. In the summer, they get most everything they need from grazing, and I supplement with some hay. Come winter, they'll get more hay plus a little bit of grain."
"Do you stay here all winter, too?" Jenny's blue eyes widened.
"Yep, I'm a full-timer here."
The little girl leaned her forehead against Buck's nose and sighed.
"It's plenty cold here in the winter," I said, watching her closely.
"And we get a lot of snow. It's darned isolated, once the snow starts."
"I bet it's pretty, though." Her voice sounded far away.
"It is beautiful," I agreed. "But it's not for everyone."
"Daddy says we're going to Kentucky this fall. He's going to work in a big warehouse until after Christmas."
"That sounds nice," I said. "I've never been to Kentucky."
"We drove through it before. It's okay." Jenny shrugged. "It's a lot like everyplace else."
Excerpted from The Seventh Mother by Sherri Wood Emmons. Copyright © 2014 Sherri Wood Emmons. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.