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The windmill stood tall and stately like a prairie lighthouse.
Kate Bradshaw shivered. She would sooner walk barefoot through a thistle patch than have to climb up there and grease the gears. But she had no choice. They must have water. She shuddered to think what would happen if the windmill quit and edged toward the ladder.
God willing, the drought would end soon, but the drifts of dust along the fence line reminded her how dry last year had beenand the two before that. She prayed the hint of spring green in the trees promised a better year ahead.
She'd put off the task as long as she could, hoping a friendly neighbor might happen by and offer to mount that high ladder and perform the dreaded task. None had.
The only sign she saw of another soul besides her children was a thin twist of smoke rising from inside the circle of trees across the road.
Another tramp, she suspected. One who preferred his own company to hanging about with the bunch near the tracks. Wandering men were a sign of the times. The crash and the drought had left hundreds of men unemployed. Homeless. Desperate.
"Momma, hurry up. I want to see you do it." Dougie, her son, just barely seven, seemed to think everything was an adventure. He didn't understand the meaning of the word caution.
Which gave Kate plenty of reason to worry about him. More than enough dangers lurked about the farm. Yet she smiled at her young son, loving every inch of him. He possessed her brown eyes and brown hair but looked like his father. He'd grow into a handsome man.
Mary, her blue eyes wide as dinner plates, tugged at Kate's arm. "Momma, don't. I'm scared." A tear surfaced in the corner of each eye, hung there a moment then made parallel tracks down Mary's cheeks.
Kate sighed. This child, her firstborn, a fragile nine-year-old, feared everything. The animals. The machinery. The sounds in the night. The wind. If it had been the roaring, moaning wind that shook the house, Kate could have understood. But Mary hated even the soothing, gentle wind, as much as she did the distant cry of coyotes, lonely and forlorn for sure, but never scary. Mary would never admit it to her mother, but Kate felt certain her daughter feared her own shadow. Even as she wiped the tears from Mary's face, she shoved back the impatience this child's weakness triggered in her. And wondered how such a child could be flesh of her flesh, how two such different children could have both sprung from the same union, the same loins.
She patted Mary's blond head. "I have to, unless we want the whole thing to break down."
Dougie bounced up and down, barely able to contain his excitement. "I can help you." He headed for the ladder.
More out of protective instinct than necessity Kate lurched after him. Thankfully, she knew, he was too short to reach the bottom bar.
At her brother's boldness, Mary wailed like a lost lamb.
"Dougie, stay back," Kate said. "I'll do it. It's not such a big job.Your poppa did it all the time. Don't you remember?"
"No." Dougie's smile faded. His eyes clouded momentarily.
Mary's eyes dried as she proudly recalled having seen her father climb the windmill many times. "I was never scared when Poppa did it," she added.
Kate ached for her daughter. No doubt some of Mary's fears stemmed from losing the father she adored. Her daughter's screaming night terrors pained Kate almost as much as the loss of her husband. Hiding her own fears seemed the best way to help the child see how to face difficult situations so Kate adjusted the pair of overalls she had donned and marched to the windmill, grabbed the first metal rung and pulled herself up. One bar at a time. Don't look down. Don't think how far it is to the top. Or the bottom.
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful unto me: for my soul trusteth in thee: yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast.
The metal bit into her palms.
She hated the feeling that headed for the pit of her stomach as she inched upward, and continued as though the bottom had fallen out of her insides. But she had to ignore her fear and do this task.
She paused at the platform, loathing the next part most of all. Once she stood on the narrow wooden ledge
Now was not the time to remember how Mr. Martin fell off while greasing his windmill and killed himself. She would not imagine the sound his body made landing far below.
A crow cawed mockingly as it passed overhead.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside still waters.
There would be no water for the Bradshaw family or their animals if she didn't take care of this task.
She no longer missed Jeremiah with a pain like childbirth, no longer felt an emptiness inside threatening to suck the life from her. The emptiness still existed, but it had stopped calling his name. What she missed right now was someone to do this job.
Shep barked and growled. The dog must sense the man across the road.
"Be quiet," Dougie ordered. Shep settled down, except for a rumbling growl.
Kate mentally thanked the dog for his constant protection of the children.
The wind tugged at her trouser legs.
She clung to the top bar. This farm and its care were entirely her responsibility unless she wanted to give up and move into town, marry Doylewho kept asking even though she told him over and over she would never give up her home or the farm. Which left her no option but to get herself up to the platform and grease the gears.
The sound of the unfamiliar voice below sent a jolt of surprise through Kate's arms, almost making her lose her grip on the metal structure. She squeezed her hands tighter, pressed into the bars and waited for the dizziness to pass before she ventured a glance toward the ground. She glimpsed a man, squat from her overhead view and with a flash of dark hair. But looking down was not a good idea. Nausea clawed at her throat. She closed her eyes, pressed her forehead to the cool bar between her hands and concentrated on slow, deep breaths.
"Ma'am. I could do that for you."
The tramp from the trees no doubt, scavenging for a handout. Willing to do something in exchange for food as most of them were. But why, God, couldn't you send nice Mr. Sandstrum from down the road? Or one of the Oliver boys?
"I can't pay," she said. Jeremiah had left a bit of money. But it had been used up to buy seed to plant new crops and provide clothes for the growing children.
"I'd be happy with a meal, ma'am."
A glow of gratitude eased through her. She'd feed the man for a week if he did this one job. But she hesitated. How often could she count on someone to show up and handle every difficult situation for her? She needed to manage on her own if she were to survive. And she fully intended to survive. She would keep the farm and the security it provided for her and the children, no matter what.
No matter the hot, dry winds that dragged shovelfuls of dust into drifts around every unmovable object, and deposited it in an endless trail through her house.
No matter the grasshoppers that clicked in the growing wheat, delighting in devouring her garden and making Mary scream as she ran from their sticky, scratchy legs.
No task, not even greasing the windmill, would conquer her.
"I can manage," she called, her voice not quite steady, something she hoped those below would put down to the wind.
"Certain you can, ma'am." After a pause, the man below added softly, "It's been a fair while since I had a good feed. Could I do something else for you? Fix fence
Kate chuckled softly in spite of her awkward position. She wished she dared look down to see if he meant to be amusing. "Mister, if you chop all the wood in sight, there wouldn't be enough to warm us one week come winter. We burn coal."
The man laughed, a regretful sound full of both mirth and irony. "Don't I know it." he said.
The pleasure of shared amusement tickled the inside of the emptiness Kate had grown used to and then disappeared as quickly as it came.
He continued. "Makes it hard for a man to stay warm in the cold. Doubly hard to cook a thick stew even if a man had the makings."
Kate knew the feeling of unrelenting cold, hunkering over a reluctant fire, aching for something warm and filling to eat. Seemed no matter how long she lived she'd never get over that lost, lonely feeling. It was this remembrance that made her ease her way down the ladder.
She sighed heavily when her feet hit solid ground.
Shep pressed to her side.
Grateful for the dog's protection, she patted his head to calm him, and glanced about for her children.
Dougie bounced around the stranger, boldly curious while Mary had retreated to the shadow of the chicken house. Knowing how much Mary hated and feared the chickens, her choice of safety seemed ironic.
Kate faced the man.
He was taller than he looked from above, bigger, and lean to the point of thinness, his black hair shaggy and overly long, his skin leathered and brown from living outdoors, his eyes so dark she couldn't see the pupils.
But she liked the patient expression of his face. He looked the sort of man who would be unruffled by adversity. She mentally smiled. A roving man no doubt had his share of such.
His clothes were threadbare but clean.
It said a lot for a man that he managed to look decent under his present circumstances. And what it said made her relax slightly.
The tramp rolled a soiled cowboy hat in his fingers, waiting for her to complete her study of him. Suddenly, he tossed the hat on the ground and reached for the bucket of grease.
At first she didn't release the handle. She would have to do this job sooner or later. Then she let him take the bucket. Later suited her just fine.
He scurried up the windmill with the agility of a cat.
Kate watched his progress, squinting against the bright sun. Her chest tightened as he stepped to the platform and the wind tossed his hair. She shuddered when she realized he didn't hang on. She pulled her gaze from the man and grabbed Dougie's arm, putting an end to the way he bounced up and down at the ladder, trying to reach the first rung.
"Come on, the man is going to want to eat when he's done." If she didn't provide a decent meal he would no doubt leave one of those hobo signs at the gate indicating this farm provided mean fare. Why should she care? But she did. She still had her pride.
"Mary, come on. I need your help." Mary shrank back while Dougie tried to pull from her grasp. Seemed to be the way she always stood with themholding Dougie back, urging Mary on.
She'd planned bread and fried eggs for them. Now she had to scrape together something for a regular meal. And she still needed to milk the cows, separate the milk, set bread to rise, a hundred other little tasks beyond measuring or remembering.
"Come, Mary." Her words were sharp. She sounded unforgiving. But she didn't have time to coddle the child.
Mary jerked away from the building and raced to her side.
As Kate shepherded both children to the house, she mentally scoured the cupboards for what to feed the man.
"Dougie, get me some potatoes." As she tugged off the coveralls and hung them on a hook, he hurried away, eager for the adventure of the dark cellar.
Kate smoothed her faded blue cotton dress. "Mary, bring me a jar of canned beef and one of green beans." Mary went without crying only because Dougie traipsed ahead of her.
Kate poured a cup of raisins into a pot and covered them with water to boil then scooped out a generous amount of her homemade butter and measured out half a cup of her precious sugar. She added the softened raisins, flour and spices then put the cake in the oven while the children did as she said.
Dougie brought back a basin full of potatoes, wizened and sprouted after a winter in storage.
Not much, but still she was grateful she had food for her children. She peeled the potatoes as thinly as possible so as not to waste a bit and set them to boil. She gathered the peelings in a basin to later take to the chickens.
Dougie watched out the window, giving a step-by-step description of what the man did. "He greased it. He's climbing down. Sure isn't scared like you are, Momma. He put the grease pail on the ground. He's watering the cows." The boy dashed out of the house.
"Dougie, wait." The skin on the back of Kate's neck tingled as she hurried to the door. She couldn't trust her child with a stranger.
Dougie raced to the man, spoke with him a minute and ran back to her. "Momma, his name is Hatcher. He says he'll milk the cows."
Hatcher? Sounded too much like hatchet for her liking. Was it his nickname? Earned by the deeds he did? She didn't like to judge a man prematurely but she'd sooner be overly cautious than have someone named Hatcher hanging around. "No. I'll do it," she said.
But Dougie grabbed the galvanized tin buckets and headed back outside before she could stop him. He rejoined the man who took the pails but stood watching Kate, waiting silently for her agreement.
Again she felt his quiet patience. Jeremiah had been like that. Slowly, she nodded, and her son and the man disappeared into the barn.
Suddenly a whole stream of worries assailed her. Was she foolish to let her son out of sight with a tramp? On top of that, she wondered if the man knew how to milk properly. Would she have to go out and strip the cows? She couldn't let them go dry. The milk fed herself, the children, the pig and the chickens. Besides providing their butter, the cream gave them the only cash they would have until the crop was seeded, and harvested. And that depended on having rain when they needed it, no grass-hoppers to eat the crop and a hundred other things. "It's in God's hands," she whispered. "He'll take care of us. He's promised." She forced herself to dwell on these comforting words yet threads of concern knitted around the promise.
She stood in the doorway, torn between hurrying out to the barn and the need to prepare the meal. The cake was almost ready to come out. If she left it now, they'd have burned sacrifices for supper.
"Mary, sit on the step and watch the barn."
"What for, Momma?"
"Just watch it and let me know if anyone comes out." She shoved her daughter outside, ignoring the stark fear in her eyes. "All you do is sit here. I have to finish supper."
She tested the cake, put it back in the oven, pushed the boiling potatoes to a cooler spot on the stove and emptied the meat and beans into pots to heat.
Mary clattered inside. "Momma," she whispered. "Ma'am?"
The deep voice, unexpected as it was, startled Kate.
She jerked her gaze to the man standing in her doorway, two foamy pails of milk in his hands.
Dougie raced in behind the man.
Kate let her tense chest muscles relax knowing the boy was safe and sound.
The man carefully avoided looking at her as he set the pails on the worn wooden table next to the door and retreated.