A reserved farmer and adrift woman sign up for more than they can handle.
|"Listen Mayor. I want to help I do. But you have left me in a situation that’s pretty impossible."
"As did you. You promised the materials would be here two weeks ago, and now they aren’t coming at all. If you had told me this the last time I was in town I might have made other arrangements. Now I’m behind schedule and none of the men you promised would be there will be."
"You make it sound as if we haven’t done you any favors Mr. Stone."
Adam ground his teeth. Were they never going to let him live it down. One month after his father’s death, he was overwhelmed running the orchard by himself. He got behind on the last two payments to the bank. There was a three month temporary grace given to him by the council in honor of his father, a longtime board member. That was five years ago. And yet that momentary lapse he seemed to be paying for ever since.
"The council decided —"
"The entire council wasn’t there —"
"It was a quorum. Now we’ve been over this. You said you could do the job. The children are counting on it. August 29th first day of school."
"You mean August 15th, when Miss Easton arrives."
"Well yes. "
"Right in the middle of my harvest."
Mayor Wallis had the good sense to see when he was putting other people in a bad situation. Unfortunately, since the mayor knew him since before he could walk, he seemed to think he was a father figure to Adam. A father figure just trying to strengthen his louse of a son. Never mind his son, was thirty four now, running the only successful orchard for miles. Never mind. Forcing himself up from the seat, he looked down upon Mayor Wallis for the last time. The only highlight of his entire day. The few moments he could look down on anyone.
"Four months. Harvest three crops, build a house for the teacher, and repair the school. No materials. No men. No pay.”
Startled, the mayor did not respond. Guilt lowered his eyes while he adjusted papers on his desk.
Adam continued, “You’ll get your house and school. But consider this my resignation for town council.”
“But you were interim…you can’t resign”
Adam walked to the door and put on his coat.
“Mayor Wallis….” He closed the door silently behind him.
Madeline cringed as her father cursed some more and then stalked out of the stables. She was quite certain kicking the wheel wasn’t going to help the situation, but her face still stung after her last unsolicited remark. This was definitely a problem. The train was going to be here tomorrow morning and there was no way they’d be able to haul back the goods now. If her father hadn’t just insulted the grocer he may have been convinced to keep their products on hand until they could come pick them up…but Pa rarely had friends in town for long. Maybe it was because of his constantly inebriated state or his inability to follow good on his word. Whatever the reason, it shamed Madeline to appear in public with him, but she had needed a new dress and he refused to pick out any simple fabrics on her behalf. Dennis would have blushed to the high heavens trying to get out of the store. So instead he was in the saloon following his father’s poor advice to see if he could turn the little money they had left into cash enough to buy a wagon.
Dennis was a rotten liar. He didn’t have a dishonest bone in his body. Unlike some of his brethren. He made life difficult for the McGregor family business, so he tended to be left at home tending the land and watching after Madeline. His mother had called him the Good One. His father called him the Weak One. What were traits of goodness to one was just unnecessary baggage to others. So how Pa thought Dennis could win at poker brought Madeline out of her shell. It also brought Pa’s palm across her face. So she sat in the corners of the darkening livery waiting for her Pa’s next alcohol induced scheme. She would have gone to pick up the fabrics she came for, but Pa had thought Dennis would need all the money he could get. So a day's wasted effort for nothing.
The doors of the livery opened as two men entered unaware of her presence. One strolled, while the other--the shorter--hustled. And talked. Hustling and talking, the stable boy couldn’t do one without the other so he proved. “I told Pa the Mayor had his priorities out of sorts. Oh well. That school is going to be grand. Just grand. See your horse is fine. I told ya Mr. Stone. I took good cares of them. Ain’t that right, boys? Grand just grand Mr. Stone.” The boy was walking the black mount out of the stables, as the taller man followed with his second chestnut horse. Madeline, leaning against the wall hidden in the shadows, couldn’t see his face as he had entered, but as he exited she saw the face of a man with a weight on his shoulders. But not too heavy that he couldn’t appreciate the small things in life. Like the chipper attitude of the stable boy.
“You just remember to ask your Ma and Pa about our arrangement.” He mentioned as he went back out to his mount. With the doors still open she could hear their conversation continue.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. Just fine.”
“Bring your Pa next Saturday soon as he can make it so we can line out the details.”
“Oh I can ride out your way by myself.”
“I am sure you can Luke. Just do it for my sake huh.”
“You need my help?”
“No I got it.”
Next she heard some grunting and foot shuffling. They must be hooking up the grand wagon they saw outside to the horses. Madeline sighed, she remembered her father eyeing that wagon with such jealousy she thought for sure they were going to turn into thieves before the night was out. Fortunately her father hadn’t yet come to that conclusion. But if she listened closely she’d have heard his latest…
“That’s a mighty fine team you got there sir" Mr. McGregor drawled, leaning against the post at the front of the livery.
“They do well.”
“Cut clean with that wagon I see.”
The man continued to casual observe Luke's handiwork, as he aimed to beat his record in getting the team setup in record time. He tried his best to move away from the shifty older man trying to make small talk.
“I suppose you picking something up off the train?”
“I thought I was, but not anymore.”
"Hm." The older man spit on the ground and lifted himself up.
“How much would you want for that wagon?”
“Aint’ for sale.”
“Now just listen here. Give me a second.”
“Mitchell down the street — “
“Mitchell ain’t here. And I got something on that train I need. Mayhaps I can borrow it from you just for the next few days.”
“Pa!” Adam man glanced back at a woman rushing out from the stable, he hadn't seen before, then gazed back at her so-called father. Sure enough he saw the same golden eyes although rimmed with some bloodshot streaks stared back at him.
“Hush up Madeline. This is men’s work.” The sneer was quick but true. Adam hadn’t been getting a good read on the man from the first moment they conversed. He was up to something. His words had seemed friendly but desperate. Desperate enough to do something stupid. Like hit his daughter it seemed, if he had read the bruising on her face correctly. He didn’t have time or the inclination to worry about the man's honesty. Now that there was someone else involved, it seemed prudent to tidy this up nicely.
So Adam quoted the man a price. The girl’s gasp told him all he needed to know. They didn’t have it. Her Pa tried his best to seem as if they were considering it. The negotiating price would have been offensive if he hadn’t expected it. This was going nowhere. There was no way he was selling his wagon for a third of it’s value.
Another throat laden spit, and McGregor offered, “Unless money don’t meet your fancy.”
“What do you mean?”
“Trade my dear boy.”
“I thought you needed your goods.”
Coming in close he sneered, “How bout a wife?” It took Adam a beat or two, to square his thoughts. When he did shock overtook him and Adam couldn’t respond. Neither could his daughter. He heard an attempt at a strangled response from behind him, but then she sounded as if she hid back in the stables.
“She cooks. Cleans. The whole nine. I know. How could I part with my daughter? And simply for a wagon? But these are tough times you know, and I want to see her off good. Can barely hold our own back at the farm with 3 other grown boys to feed. I was holding out hope a nice boy would come by, but unfortunately two not so nice boys took a taste without asking and…well spoiled goods are hard to sell. So what say you, a wife for a wagon?”
Sick. Would have been an understatement. He couldn’t think. He looked back to find her gone, but he could hear the sobs. He could hear them. And they ate away at him. He turned his back on the man and entered the stables. “Hey no sampling —“
“SHUT UP or I will shoot you where you stand. Luke!” Luke had stopped his work long ago blatantly staring at this spectacle, “Yes sir.”
“Guard my horses and wagon with your life. ”
Adam closed one of the stable doors to afford them a bit of privacy, but leaving the other for light and decency sake. That’s the least she deserved, a modicum to decent behavior. The breeze didn’t hurt him either. He needed to cool off. He needed to take a moment before he spoke to her. Wherever she was in this must laden dust trap. Three deep breaths later, he paused and listened. She was in here, but refused to move or even breathe.
He called, “Miss?” A hard chuckle escaped his lips, “I don’t even know your name. Please miss. I feel I ought to apologize for your father’s behavior.”
Her wry laugh echoed to match his own in despondency. He heard it come from the sad state of a wagon in the back of the stable. “So are you here to take my father up on his offer.”
His silence terrified her. He slowly stepped in her direction. Ensuring his boots made sufficient sound so she knew where he was going, and could prepare accordingly. He stopped directly in front of the wagon and peered in. There she sat, propped against the side, per golden eyes peering out in humiliation. Her sobs had ceased, but evidence remained around her swollen lids.
“Not for the reasons you may imagine. This might offend your sensibilities, but I would have shot your father where he stood.”
She stared at him. His fist continued to clench and unclench. His feet shuffled back and forth. He refused to make eye contact, but she could see the fury rumbling beneath the surface. And in her favor it seemed. That was so intriguing her bout of fear began to drift away.
“That’s probably not the thing to say to a potential bride…”. Humor. Grim humor, but evident nonetheless.
He rubbed his chin and cleared his throat. “I would take your hand if but to protect you from him."
"I don’t need protection from him.”
“So you slap yourself for the fun of it.” Her hand grazed her cheek self consciously. She pulled her hood up and looked away.
“He doesn’t…not always.”
“Just when he is drunk.”
“I have brothers, they will protect me if need be.”
“And where are they now?”
“Dennis is trying to earn money for the wagon. Mason — ”
“Where is Dennis?”
Dennis. The Good One. Sometimes she’d call him the Gullible One. He always did what his father said, no matter how dangerous or stupid. Her voice went low, “At the Saloon.”
The smile couldn’t reach Mr. Stone’s eyes.
“And the other…Mason?”
“He’s…just at the saloon.”
Her smile surprised him. Her predicament was obvious, and yet she found humor in something. Reading his confusion, she explained, “Really there is no reason for dramatics. I know it seems bad, but it just so happens you appeared at a time where everything in my life turned against me at the same time. It will all straighten out momentarily.”
He knew better than most the tendency for the odds to suddenly stack against you. Making rash decisions only tended to make the situations worse. However….
Looking back to the open stable doors and squinting, “and the marriage contracts?”
She bit her lip, and hung her head. “Those are new.”
He heard her momentary shame but then saw her straighten up. She was willing to fight for her freedom despite the fact no one else was looking out for her. He’d try once more.
“To be honest, I do have a dilemma. I am in need of someone who can keep house, and maybe help me in my orchard. This is going to be a hectic summer, and any help would be appreciated”
“So it’s a win for both of us”
“There is no way to know if i am a good man i suppose. the people in town will likely tell you I am a loner but one who pays his bills and makes good on his word. I have an orchard, house, and can provide.”
“The grocer, stable owner, the mayor”
“That was a joke.”
She couldn’t help staring at him. He was more than intriguing. A complete stranger. Willing to be her protector when all who were supposed to were not doing their duty. But he also wasn’t willing to push his agenda. He wasn’t here to force her, just give her an option. Finally, in so many years, she had an option. A real, solid option out. But, then..there was Henry.
“I wasn’t looking for a husband.”
“I wasn’t looking for a wife.”
"Then let’s save ourselves some headache huh? And act like this never happened?”
She began to scoot out towards the end of the wagon, about to jump down. He was in her way. He looked up into her eyes and nodded. Stepping back, he offered his hand.
Luke never felt so much relief as the moment when he saw Mr. Stone purposefully leave the stable and head towards this drunk crook. Mind you, he would have the story of a lifetime to tell at dinner, but at the moment he was really wishing he was back at home letting his father deal with this situation. The drunkard stumbled forward from leaning against the post oblivious to the murderous glare directed at him. Before he could speak, Mr Stone started up. “Quite honestly, I think you are giving me a rotten deal.”
“I had no intention of taking home a wife. And all you are doing is pawning your problems off on me. And I’d be out a wagon. Now what I see as a fairer trade is for you to give me your wagon in exchange for this one."
Even Luke, barely eleven years old, knew the idiocy of such a trade, and felt it his duty as a stable boy to steer his friend from unwise commercial endeavors, “Now Mr. Stone, see here that wagon is a pile of rubbish. Would take a month’s wages to fix.”
“Thank you Luke. I’m aware of the trouble. But I am in no need for a wagon for at least as long. It seems our friend here Mr…”
“Mr. McGregor is in more of a pinch. Seems the neighborly thing to do would be to help him out. So what say you Mr. McGregor. Wagon for wagon. Final offer?”
Madeline’s father blinked a few times, not believing his luck. He thrust his dirty hand out in an effort to seal the deal before the chance disappeared.
Mr. Stone stuck his out before he had a chance to think about what was really on Mr. McGregor’s hand.
“Congratulations Mr. McGregor. Have a good evening. Luke! You were a witness to this transaction. Unhook my horses, looks like I’m staying the night.” He turned and nodded back to Madeline who had hung back at the stable doors. “Ma’am.” And with that he walked away.