by Briar Rose
More of this novel
|Hours later, Abby stood and stretched her back, looking with satisfaction at the cupboards, emptied and wiped down, inside and out. Her headache had only gotten worse as she worked, but she was determined to finish the job. Now, she still had the dishes and fresh supplies to put away. That would be the fun part, though, putting everything away where she wanted it.|
She turned as someone entered the kitchen behind her.
“Hi,…uh…” Shoot! Ephraim? Felix?
“Yes. Dan. Sorry. I’ll get it.”
Abby put a hand up to her forehead. Supper! She had been so busy that she had forgotten to fix anything. She checked the clock on the stove. After seven already?
“Well,…” She stalled for time. “When do you usually have supper?”
Worse and worse.
“Okay, well, we’ll have supper as soon as I can get it on.”
Dan just gave her a look she couldn’t interpret, or didn’t want to, anyway. He disappeared and Abby got to work.
During the next half hour, all of the Wilton men gradually found their way into the dining room or family room area. Abby was all too aware of her audience, but did her best to hurry along her simple supper of pancakes and sausage. The apple pie would just have to wait.
Finally, they all sat at the table and Abby bowed her head to pray. She jerked upright immediately at the sound of a general commotion. Beside her, Gabriel was standing on his chair reaching across the table, fork in hand, trying to stab at one of the pancakes on the platter being yanked back and forth by Dan and Ephraim. Felix was pulling on Gabriel’s shirt, trying to prevent him from kneeling on the plate of sausages. Mr. Wilton was yelling good-naturedly at the boys to quit fighting, everyone was sure to get some eventually. Caleb was laughing and hitting the table, making the silverware dance against the Corelle. Prince barked and jumped, trying to reach the elusive platter of pancakes, which, with any luck would overturn in his favor.
Abby turned her horrified gaze to Ben beside her.
“Ben, do something!”
“What?” he said. “It must be good.” And he reached beneath Gabriel to stab a sausage.
Under the strain of the day, the fine thread that kept Abby’s temper in check finally frayed and snapped. Abby physically recoiled, knocking her chair over behind her as she stood.
“Okay!” she yelled. The riot was suspended, mid-air.
“You want to act like animals?” She grabbed the disputed platter from stunned fingers. “You can eat like animals!” She turned the platter over, scattering cakes over the table, chairs and onto the floor. She slammed the platter onto the tabletop, ignoring the shattering sound, and stalked out of the room.
Behind her, she heard one of the boys say,
“Throw me one of them pancakes before Prince gets ‘em all.”
And then the usual hubbub of voices resumed, apparently giving no further thought to the female in the house.
Abby, her cheeks aflame with indignation and embarrassment alike, stumbled out the front door and gulped in the fresh air. She had only ever lost her temper like that twice before, both times with her father. Both times had ended badly for her, and with no effect. After that she had promised herself that she would never again allow it to happen. But, of course, it had happened, promise or no.
Her mind raced through all the arguments that sprang up to defend her outburst. Surely, after all that had happened to her that day, after how rude they had been, it had been justified. But then she came against the brick wall of her own pride, which sorely regretted displaying her temper, opening herself for criticism, even ridicule. In her mind’s eye, she replayed the scene she had so carelessly made: the stunned faces of the younger boys, the cynical half-smile on Caleb’s face, the sudden seriousness of Mr. Wilton, and the complete bewilderment on Ben’s face.
She supposed it might be funny someday, but not yet. Not yet.
Abby hit the porch post in frustration and rushed down the steps. She didn’t know where she was going; away from all Wiltons was all she wanted.
She walked around behind the house and saw several outbuildings of various unknown uses. She had grown up in the suburbs and couldn’t begin to guess what mysteries those buildings held. At the moment, the unknown seemed slightly sinister, although she supposed, rationally, that there probably was nothing more dangerous than horses or hay in any of them.
There were a couple of ranch hands sitting in front of one of the buildings cleaning tack. They glanced up at her, nodded in greeting, and returned to their work, apparently not the least bit curious about the appearance of a female in this male domain.
She walked over and hung her arms over the railing of the paddock. The residents of the paddock, two small grays, didn’t even seem to notice her. They remained where they were, comfortably silent, head to tail. Just as well, she thought, I’m tired of turning heads today.
Abby stood in the weakening sunlight and tried to make order of the blizzard of emotions whirling in her mind. Finally, she laid her head on her arms and gave up thinking. She simply listened to the sounds of the evening around her: close by, one of the horses stamped a hoof and switched her tail; further off, cicadas rasped out their song, and bullfrogs by some unseen pond competed for who could give the loudest and longest call.
After a while, she heard the back door of the house open and close.
She hadn’t been aware of relaxing there by the paddock, but now she felt her shoulder muscles tightening. What now? Who now? She lifted her head reluctantly and turned around to see Ben standing, looking at her. The light was too far gone to see any expression on his face, and, besides, Abby was too tired to try.
“The boys are clearing the table,” he said quietly. “The pancakes are gone. Uh, Prince got quite a few.” He paused in the embarrassed silence. “But we left you some sausage.”
Oh, how kind, was the sarcastic reply that leapt to Abby’s mind.
Aloud, she said, “Okay, thanks.”
At that moment, Abby heard a snuffling sound close by her head and felt a whoosh of hot air down her neck. She gave a little scream and whirled around. The horse, startled by her reaction, gave a start of her own and danced away from the railing.
In an instant, Ben was at the railing, holding out his hand to the mare and mumbling comfort. The gray looked dubious, but in a moment, she tossed her head and ambled up to the railing where she received the attention she had come for in the first place. Her partner, the other gray, pushed in for her share, as well.
Abby’s heart rate slowed as she watched Ben work his magic. She realized that the horses, completely uninterested in her, had spotted Ben right away and had come to see him.
Abby laughed. “They’re downright flirting with you.”
Ben chuckled, apparently pleased with the female attention.
“Do you want to pet them?” Ben asked.
“Oh, no, I wouldn’t want to interrupt,” Abby replied with a laugh.
Abby carefully stepped closer, afraid to spook the animals. She had only ever been close to a horse once or twice in her life and was thankful for the heavy metal bars separating the grays from her now. She reached out a tentative hand and stroked the neck of the closer one. The gray stood and endured the caress, although it was obvious that she far preferred Ben’s touch.
“Do you ride?” Ben asked.
“Me? No.” Abby was acutely aware of the warm presence of her husband close beside her. “I’ve only ever seen real, live horses a few times. I’ve read books about them, but I don’t really know much about them.”
Ben just shook his head. For his part, he could not imagine a childhood without hours on horseback.
“Would you like to learn? How to ride, I mean.”
Abby turned, brown eyes bright, soft lips parted in a sudden smile, and said,
“I’d love to. When do we start?”
At this distance, Ben could see fringes of light eyelashes, a scattering of freckles across nose and cheeks, a small scar above one eyebrow. The soft curves of her cheek and neck invited him to run a finger along them. Ben didn’t have much woman-sense, but he had enough horse-sense to know that he shouldn’t follow his impulse. Abby might not have appreciated the comparison, but Ben knew a skittish mare when he saw one.
Instead, he took a quick step backward, putting some much-needed distance between them, and seemed to study her.
“Of course, you can’t wear that skirt. You’ll need jeans, and some heavier shoes. We’ll get you some good boots when we go into Ft. Worth.”
“Jeans?” Abby said, rather blankly. “I don’t have any.”
“Father doesn’t think women should wear anything but skirts.”
They were both silent for a minute.
“You’re about the same height,” Ben said in sudden inspiration. “You could borrow a pair of Caleb’s.”
Abby secretly doubted that Caleb would willingly loan her anything but a poisonous snake, but she agreed that it might work.
“Well, it’ll be a couple of days before I have any time to ride with you. Tomorrow we’re going to start the fall round-up. We’ll have men here by about 4:30 in the morning.” Ben had gone back to petting the horses, but now he glanced at Abby. “I told ‘em you’d have some breakfast for them.”
At least he had the sense to look a little nervous about that.
The eastern rim of the sky had not even hinted at dawn when Abby heard the first pickup pull into the drive. By the time she looked out the window twenty minutes later, the drive and yard were filled with pickups and horse trailers and more cowboys than a John Wayne shootout. In the haze of a grayish dawn, they stood among the pickups and on the porch in small clumps, smoking and chatting. The conversations were quiet, but a current of excitement ran beneath the commonplaces.
To Abby, the men all looked alike, each clad in boots, blue jeans, chaps or chinks, long sleeved shirts and cowboy hats. She looked through the crowd until she found Ben, standing with his father and talking to three other men. He, too, was dressed like the rest, but even with his back turned, Abby had no trouble picking him out. It must have been the way he stood; no, the way he creased the crown of his hat as he rested it on his thigh; or was it the glint of the rising sun on blond hair?
At the smell of burning pancakes, Abby ran back into the kitchen.
“Hi, there! I’m Honey!”
Abby turned from where she was flipping pancakes and saw a woman with her hand out in greeting. The woman’s hair was an unnatural shade of blonde and swept into what some might have called a beehive. Her smiling lips were blazoned with bright red lipstick and her fingernails were painted to match. Her head-to-toe denim was anchored in a pair of red heels. She was older than her outfit might have suggested, mid-sixties, Abby guessed, looking into her face. Abby shook the proffered hand and smiled.
“I’m Abby,” she said.
“My husband is old Tom out there.” She jerked her head to indicate the front porch. “We’re your nearest neighbors. I figured you wouldn’t have any help and all these big men to feed, so I says to myself, I says, ‘Honey, you get on over there and help that girl! She’ll get no help from them Wilton boys, I know that for sure.’ So I told Tom I’d go ‘long with him this morning. He’s getting pretty old to sit the whole day in the saddle. He complains about his aching muscles for two days after. But he’d rather die in the saddle than give up a day like this. He’s been doin’ it for too long to give up now, he says.”
Here she broke off to laugh and shake her head. She had settled herself to cracking eggs, seeming to know exactly what needed to be done next.
“I wouldn’t want him around under foot all day, anyhow. You know how men are when they got nothing to do.”
Honey rattled on pleasantly. No reply seemed necessary, and Abby listened, amused, and grateful for the help.
By the time the crowd of men was served and out the door, Abby felt sweaty and exhausted. It was barely 5:30 in the morning and she was ready to go back to bed.
The last two men out the door were Ben and old Tom. Old Tom was old, with snowy white hair and skin wrinkled and leathery from years of outdoor work. He was tall and thin, beginning to be a little stooped in the shoulders. But he had a perpetual twinkle in his eye.
Old Tom handed his plate to Abby and said, “Thanks, Missy. Good food like this should hold us over ‘til our first stop.”
Ben came up behind Tom with a grin and slapped him on the back.
“Tom comes along for the food,” he explained to Abby. “He measures distances by how far it is to the next chow.” Both men laughed at that.
Tom sauntered over to whisper something in Honey’s ear and make her giggle.
Ben handed his plate to Abby and said, “Thanks.” He wanted to say more, like how well she had done with such a big crowd, but the words wouldn’t come. He wasn’t used to being so self-conscious or speechless, even around women. But somehow around Abby he could only fumble out a few awkward words.
Abby smiled wearily, unaware of the effect she had on him, and took the plate.
Ben turned to cover his embarrassment and headed for the door.
“Is that any way for a newlywed to act?” Tom roared out. “C’mon, boy, kiss her good. Don’t be embarrassed on our account. We’ve known you since you was in diapers. Go on!” Tom and Honey grinned.
Ben and Abby turned startled gazes at the older couple. It was hard to say who blushed harder at that moment, bride or groom.
Ben stammered, “Well, ah…”
Tom raised his eyebrows in a subtle challenge.
Ben wiped suddenly sweaty palms on his jeans.
He walked over to Abby and grabbed her by the shoulders. Abby stared into his face, not knowing what to do. Her heart had set up such a panicked flutter it was hard to breathe, let alone think.
Ben bent and placed a light kiss on the end of her nose. Then he stood and shot a rakish grin at Tom.
“Oh, youth is wasted on the young!” Tom said in disgust. “Here, let me show you a thing or two.” Tom grabbed Honey and dipped her over his arm. He gave her a passionate kiss before whirling her to her feet again. They all laughed at the grin he threw back at Ben.
Abby’s laughter was as much from relief as from Tom’s display of male bravado. She knew that someday she would have to kiss Ben, and it would be bad enough that he would know how ignorant she was. But she certainly didn’t want to look foolish in front of Tom and Honey. She was more than thankful for Ben’s intuition and resourcefulness.
“All right. Come on, old man. We’ve got work to do,” Ben said.
Ben and old Tom went out the door together, conversation turning already to the day ahead of them.
“Well, let’s get this place cleaned up!” Honey cheerfully grabbed an armload of dirty dishes and set to work.
When the kitchen was clean again and Abby had set out meat to thaw for supper, she and Honey sat down at the table to share a cup of coffee.
“Ah, that’s better,” Honey sighed, settling into a chair. She had kicked off her shoes some time during the clean up, revealing bright red toenails.
“Oh, thank you, Honey. I don’t know how I could have done this without your help.” Abby took a sip of her coffee and stretched the kinks from her back.
“I was wanting to come over and see you anyway, so this was just a good excuse. I have to say I was worried about any girl coming out here to take care of these Wilton men. They can be pretty wild and hard to handle. Sara - that’s their mother - would have kept them in line, I’ve no doubt, but she didn’t live long enough to have much effect. She died right after Gabe was born, nearly twelve years ago now.” Honey sighed and looked into her coffee mug. “She was my best friend.” Honey looked up and smiled. “But I see that you’re a good hand in the kitchen and I think you’ll do fine. Not every girl could take on a bunch like this this morning. Where’d you learn to handle a crowd like that?”
Abby laughed. “Well, I have eight sisters at home, so I’ve been handling a crowd for a long time.”
Honey whistled low. “Eight sisters. My, oh, my. So, you traded eight sisters for five brothers and a husband. I’m not sure that was a fair deal,” Honey teased. “How did you and Ben meet, anyway? All we knew was Ben went on a business trip and, next thing we know, he says he’s got a wife coming along in a few weeks. Coulda’ bowled over me and old Tom. We didn’t think Ben would ever get married after…well…”
Honey gave a significant look which was lost on Abby.
Honey returned to her question. “Well, so how did you meet?”
Abby smiled and took a sip of coffee.
“Our fathers were friends in college and they have kept up through the years. My father knew that Mr. Wilton’s son was looking for a wife and he wanted to get me married off, so…they arranged it between them.”
“That is an odd way of doing it these days, isn’t it?” Honey said. “Considering the rate of divorce these days, though, I’d say it might not be such a bad idea. But, go on.”
“Well, that’s about all there is to it. One day, Father brought home Ben and the minister from the local Presbyterian church and we were married.”
“But you had met Ben before, right? Or written letters or something? Some of those e-mail things?”
“No,” Abby smiled ruefully. “My father thrives on throwing people off balance and he certainly threw me off that day. He hadn’t mentioned even the possibility of marriage to me, and then, there was my groom. He didn’t ask me if I wanted to get married or if Ben was the one I wanted to marry or anything. He just knew that I would obey.”
Abby could hear the hard edge that had crept into her voice. She didn’t want to betray her bitterness, though; that was her own burden. So, she smiled brightly.
“But, Ben’s so good golly handsome, I couldn’t turn him down, could I?”
Honey laughed. She had heard the tone of Abby’s voice as she talked about her father, and it was a very odd situation. But she did have some tact, so she followed Abby’s attempt to turn the conversation.
“He is a looker, isn’t he? All the girls in high school tripped all over themselves when he walked by. Quarterback of the football team, homecoming king, the whole nine yards. But he only had eyes for one girl.” Honey stopped and sipped her coffee.
Abby had the feeling she should ask about that girl, but something held her back, maybe a fledgling jealousy, maybe simple shyness.
Honey returned to their original topic.
“So, why didn’t Ben bring you home right away? You couldn’t have taken a honeymoon; he wasn’t gone long enough.”
“No, he flew out later that evening. He said he had to get home. My father would have sent me with him if he could have, but Ben insisted I needed time to pack my things and adjust to the idea. I think he was rather shocked that my father hadn’t told me about him.” Abby sipped her coffee, lost in thought for a moment. “That one kindness is what really induced me to follow through with the marriage. Otherwise,” Abby said, glancing at Honey with a laugh, “I would have bolted for Canada with a bad dye job and a false name.”
Honey left soon after with the promise of more visits and of help whenever it might be needed.
“I know it can be hard, those first few months of marriage,” Honey said on her way out the door. “And having a houseful of brothers and a father-in-law watching won’t make it any easier. But remember that God can work miracles, and he can make even the weakest marriage strong in time. In His time.”
Abby took advantage of the empty house to make a full inspection of her new home. She took stock of supplies and repairs needed, thankful now for the years of training she had received from her mother. For all she was so meek and quiet around Father, Mama was an efficient and diligent housekeeper, and Abby had been her right hand since she was old enough to wield a dust cloth.
Abby’s final destination was the upstairs room where all of the boys slept. As she reached the top step, Abby gave an involuntary gasp. The devastation and chaos were indescribable. Abby looked around her at the complete and utter mess of five teenaged boys and made a command decision: this would have to wait. She knew the extent of what had to be done in the rest of the house and decided that if it didn’t bother the boys to live this way, she wouldn’t let it bother her, either. The room would have to continue the way it was. For now.
As Abby descended the stairs again, she glanced out the window and saw, on a distant rise, a dark, undulating mass moving slowly toward the ranch buildings. Gradually, the figures became more distinct and Abby could discern individual cattle from the cowboys on horseback, and could even pick out the dogs racing in and out among the herd. When she opened the back door, she could hear the sounds of the herd, lowing and bawling all the way. She heard the cowboys shouting to each other, and whistling to the dogs as they approached the pens.
Abby put up a hand to shade her eyes from the scorching mid-day sun and unconsciously sought out Ben on horseback. They were still a long way off, but there he was, riding one of the grays she had met the night before. His attention was focused on the herd, but as Abby watched, he turned his head toward the house. He saw Abby and raised a gloved hand to touch the brim of his hat in greeting. She didn’t know if he could see it from such a distance, but she couldn’t stop the grin that sprang from the sudden lightness in her heart.
She scolded herself for that ridiculous grin and hurried back into the house to begin working on a lunch she could carry out to the men.
By the time Gabriel came in the back door, Abby had the food ready and only needed the extra hands to help her carry it.
“Well, how’s it going?” Abby asked by way of conversation as they walked.
Gabe grinned at her.
“Great!” He then went on to describe some superb riding he had done and how he had been instrumental in the success of the morning. Abby smiled and nodded where appropriate. Gabe, not yet twelve, seemed to accept Abby simply and completely, with none of the complicated attitudes and emotions of his elders. Abby relaxed in the open rapport he offered.
As they neared the pens, Abby and Gabe could see the men dismounting and beginning to gather in whatever shade they could find, waiting for their lunch.
Abby set out the lunch in the shade of a horse trailer, and stood back as the men helped themselves. Each one said a polite, “Thank you, ma’am,” as they took their food. They were sweaty and grubby, all of them, but seemed thoroughly content in that state. Abby was thankful she didn’t have to stand any closer to any of them – the smell was bad enough where she was.
For once, Caleb was polite, almost friendly, in fact. After the others had finished their lunches and Abby was starting to clean up, Caleb handed a plate to her and said,
“Why don’t you stick around and see what we’re doing?”
Surprised but pleased, Abby agreed.
“I’ll just finish cleaning up here and then I’ll come over.”
“Great,” Caleb said with a smile. He pointed to a spot not far away. “If you stand there, you’ll have a good view.”
Caleb really was handsome. Abby compared him to the only young male measuring stick she had, Ben. Unlike his brother, Caleb had dark hair, and he was a little shorter, but he had the same blue eyes. Like Ben, he had clean-scrubbed features, and could look quite innocent when he wasn’t scowling. And, like Ben, he had a charming smile, when he chose to employ it. And that was the major difference between the brothers, Abby thought. Where Ben had a smile and a friendly word for everyone, Caleb spoke to few and, for the most part, kept to himself. He wasn’t outright hostile to anyone other than Abby, but he was certainly a loner.
Abby pondered what might have led to his sudden friendliness today. Maybe he had resigned himself to having Abby around and whatever resentments he had formed were gone. Abby still could not figure out what had started the animosity in the first place, but was eager to believe that it might be over.
When Abby had the lunch things packed up, ready to go back to the house, she walked over to the spot Caleb had recommended. She hooked her arms over the top railing and watched curiously.
Ben and several other cowboys were on horseback, gradually cutting the calves out of the larger herd. In one corner of the corral, Caleb squatted beside a small fire, feeding the flames and arranging the coals to his liking. Mr. Wilton and the rest of the men lounged against the fence rails, talking and laughing. One cowboy was sharpening a knife on a whetstone, one was scraping the rust off of a wicked-looking curved blade, and another was pulling liquid into a large syringe.
Abby’s first thought was that they planned to slaughter the calves. But that was ridiculous, she told herself, it made no sense. But what were they going to do?
Abby’s attention shifted back to the men on horseback as one rider, Abby thought it was Sandy, roped the hind legs of a calf, looped the rope around his saddle horn, and dragged it, kicking and bawling, to the fire.
Suddenly, the crowd against the railing was in motion. Dan (or was it Ephraim?) grabbed the rope; Ephraim (or was it Dan?) grabbed the calf’s tail. Using the calf’s own momentum, they flipped it onto the ground and Dan/Ephraim kneeled on its neck while the other sat on the ground, grabbed the flailing top hind leg, and pulled it out straight behind.
Immediately, the cowboy with the syringe injected what Abby would later find out to be antibiotics and mild pain killers. With a quick circular motion, the cowboy with the curved blade dug out the horn buds. Gabe took a long metal stick out of the fire and seared a brand into the hide. The fur where the branding iron landed burst briefly into flame, sending up a puff of acrid white smoke. Felix cut notches in one ear.
Finally, the cowboy who had been sharpening his blade on the whetstone knelt by the calf’s belly. He swiftly cut off the tip of the scrotum, pulled out the testicles, sliced them off, and threw the bloody mess into a bucket beside the fire.
In another moment, the calf was on its feet again. The whole thing had taken only a few minutes.
Abby didn’t know enough about calf anatomy to identify the process with the proper vocabulary, but she knew enough to feel her stomach heave. She closed her eyes and clapped a hand over her mouth until she had control of her stomach again.
When she opened her eyes, the first thing she saw was Caleb doubled over in laughter.
Abby looked around and saw the other brothers and cowboys chuckling at the joke.
Mr. Wilton took pity on his new daughter-in-law and limped over to stand beside her at the rail.
“You okay, Abby?” He smiled kindly at her bewildered face. “Don’t mind that,” he said, gesturing toward the fire. “You’ll get used to it.”
“But why didn’t anyone warn me?” Abby tried to keep the note of whining out of her voice.
“Well, that wouldn’t be any fun, darlin’!” Mr. Wilton grinned and patted her shoulder with a gloved hand, then turned and went back to work.
Soon another calf was roped and dragged to the fire, but Abby didn’t stay to watch. She gathered up her bags of lunch leftovers and walked back to the house.
She didn’t mind a little joke. She wasn’t paranoid enough to think that most of the brothers and cowboys were being malicious; they were just having some fun. Or what passed for fun in this place.
What bothered her was the feeling that Caleb had set her up to look foolish, and had done it with the intention of hurting her.
“I’m over-thinking this,” she muttered to herself, trying to shake off her worry. “But this can’t go on.” She knew that, somehow, she had to make the brothers respect her, even if they never liked her. But she had never had brothers before. She had no idea how to get the attention of a bunch of guys, let alone guys like her ranchin’, ridin’, rough-and-tumble brothers-in-law.
Later, after showers and supper, Caleb and the other brothers piled into the old, blue pickup, eager to get to town and hang out with friends for a few hours. Caleb leaned out of the driver’s side window to yell at Ben, who was sitting on the top porch step,
“You comin’? Or are you whupped?”
A few years before, that comment would have had Ben charging down the steps, ready to beat the tar out of his brother. Now, he just looked at him and shook his head a little. If he had learned anything in the last few years, it was to only choose the fights that were worth fighting. And tonight, it wasn’t worth it. Caleb was trying to bait him, God only knew why, but he wasn’t going to get a fight. Not tonight anyway.
The pickup spun out of the driveway in a swirl of dust.
Some time later, Abby was working in the kitchen when Ben strolled in the back door with Prince at his heels, as usual.
She didn’t turn around, but Abby heard his boots on the tile floor, his boots which had mud and who knew what else on them hitting the tile floor she had spent hours cleaning that afternoon. She swallowed her annoyance and scrubbed harder at the pan in the sink. She was tired out after another long day of hard work and continual tension and was in no mood for stilted conversation.
Apparently, Ben felt no such reluctance because he leaned against the laundry room doorway and nervously cleared his throat.
“Thanks for…today. All the food you fixed…and everything.”
“You’re welcome,” Abby answered quietly, still not turning around.
Ben stood, looking at the back of her head, wondering if he ought to say anything else. She hadn’t mentioned the joke with the calves, so, hopefully, that meant she hadn’t minded. Even if she had minded, though, if she wasn’t going to bring it up, neither was he. No point in talking about it if she didn’t want to.
Satisfied that he had made the right decision, Ben left the kitchen, still wearing his boots as he crossed the freshly vacuumed rugs in the dining area and family room.
Abby noted the progress of the muddy boots and pressed her lips together, determined not to say anything.
When the kitchen work was done, Abby wearily sat at the dining room table with a pen and a blank piece of paper in front of her. She had promised her mother and sisters she would write, but now that the task was staring her in the face, she could not think of anything to say which would not sound like complaining.
Dear Mama and dearest sisters,
My new husband can’t say a full sentence to me, my oldest brother-in-law hates me, and I am the only one who does any work around the house. They all wear their muddy, smelly boots all over the house, even after I have just cleaned. I am slowly making my way through the laundry and I’m sure that no one had done laundry for at least a month before I got here. I am tired and sore and am still picking tiny bits of glass out of my hair after falling on my rear end and breaking a glass yesterday. It is hot and smelly here and I hate cowboys. The only good thing here is that, so far, my husband has not come to share my bed. I think I’ll have to shoot him if he tries.
Abby glanced at the old shotgun above the mantelpiece and speculated on whether or not it might still work.
Suddenly, she heard a footstep in the hallway. As Ben stepped into the room, she guiltily crumpled up the letter she had never intended to send.
“Oh, hi,” he said, as if surprised to find her there. “I just came to get some tack I left in here the other day.” Ben walked over to the couch and started searching.
“I boxed up all of the horse stuff I found in here and had Gabe take it to the barn for me. It’s probably out there.” After venting her spleen in writing, Abby felt enough better that she could say that without annoyance. Ben obviously had not noticed that she had cleaned the family room - tossed dozens of old magazines and newspapers, returned boots and shoes and school books to their owners, dug out dirty socks and almost three dollars in loose change from under the couch cushions, vacuumed enough dog hair and old food from the furniture and rug to make her wonder if anyone had ever run a vacuum in there, and filled a box with metal and leather pieces she could not have identified to save her life. To her, the room was transformed. But, apparently, neither Ben nor any other inhabitant of the house had noticed.
Just then, Mr. Wilton snorted slightly in his chair, and put his head up.
“Ooh,” he moaned. “I must ‘a fallen asleep there.” He glanced apologetically at Abby and started to rise stiffly to his feet.
Immediately Ben was beside him, helping him up.
“Now, Pop, I told you you’d be sore. You shouldn’t have been out there today.”
“Don’t coddle me, Ben. I’ve been working calves for a good many years. I think I know what I can handle.”
He took a moment to steady his feet under him and to get his cane adjusted.
“I think I’ll sleep in tomorrow, so don’t wake me,” he said to Ben.
“Oh, that reminds me,” Abby said from her seat at the table, “when do we leave for church?”
Ben and his father looked at her and Ben said,
“Church?” He looked a little uncomfortable. “We don’t usually go to church.”
“Oh,” Abby tried to keep the disappointment out of her voice. “So, you have church at home?” It shouldn’t have been a big deal; that was what they had done at home. Father had never found a preacher with whom he could agree on much of anything, so every Sunday, or Sabbath Day, as he called it, at eight o’clock in the morning, he gathered his female flock around him in the living room where he read a Scripture passage and expounded on it, sometimes for as long as two hours. After this, he quizzed his parishioners on their knowledge of the Bible and on what progress they were making in personal piety. Instead of encouraging any personal growth or piety in Abby, those Sabbath Days had served to cement her determination to leave the isolation and oppression of home.
“No, we don’t really do any kind of church,” Ben said.
“But, Mr. Wilton,” Abby objected in a horrified voice, “you read your Bible.”
Mr. Wilton chuckled.
“Yes, I do,” he said mildly. “But I’ve never felt that how often I set foot in a church building has anything to do with how much I love God. I can worship God anywhere on His green earth I feel like it. Now, I’m going to bed. Good night.”
Mr. Wilton hobbled out of the room, making an obvious effort not to look as stiff and pained as he felt.
Abby sat, staring at the crumpled sheet in front of her. P.S., her mind composed, they don’t even go to church.
The front door closed softly and Abby looked up, realizing that Ben had gone out. Oh, no, she thought, I’m not letting this go. She found Ben sitting on the porch steps, chewing on a piece of long grass.
The setting sun was casting long shadows across the yard and driveway. Residual heat from the day seemed to shimmer and evaporate above the tall grass and pin oaks. The bullfrogs and cicadas had set up a familiar rhythm. This time of day did seem to invite the world to sit and put up its feet and savor the end of a long day.
But Abby couldn’t just put her feet up. She had something to say. She looked at the back of his head, took a deep breath and blurted out,
“Ben, will you take me to church tomorrow?”
There was a long pause, then, without turning around, he said,
Just like that? He wasn’t even going to consider it?
“Why not?” Abby struggled not to sound belligerent and was only partially successful.
“It’s too far to town.”
“Oh, your brothers can make it to town on Saturday night to do who knows what but it’s too far to go to church?”
Still he didn’t turn around.
“You can drive yourself, if you’d like.”
Abby turned on her heel and let herself back into the house. She forced herself to shut the door softly when what she felt like doing was slamming it shut with all of the force of impotent rage welling up in her. Once again she had not the ability to make her own decisions. At every turn she was thwarted by her father, then by her husband. She was thwarted now by her own ignorance. She couldn’t drive herself to church. She didn’t know how to drive. Women driving was another thing of which her father would not approve. It allowed them too much independence and made them prideful.
Abby let out a growl of frustration. Then, with sudden inspiration, she ran for the stairs.
Ten minutes later, she looked at herself in the mirror, wearing a pair of jeans for the first time in her life. First, she had rummaged through the piles of clothing in the boys’ room and grabbed the first pair that looked like it would fit. Then, she had grabbed the oldest tee shirt she could find in her drawer, a shapeless white thing she usually wore to bed. Then, she had sorted through the pile of old and discarded cowboy boots by the back door, finally settling on a shabby brown pair. She dressed quickly and glanced at herself in the mirror. She hardly recognized the girl she saw. But that was the idea, wasn’t it? Before she lost her nerve, she rushed out the front door and down the steps. At the bottom, she whirled, her braid sweeping out behind her, and faced Ben.
“Teach me to ride,” she said breathlessly. “You said you’d teach me to ride.”