Newly widowed, Ruth crosses paths with a rancher. What does he want? Complete.
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What will not woman,
Gentle woman dare
When strong affection stirs
Her spirit up?
Rice County, Kansas, 1871
A low moan from the bed roused Ruth from her stolen slumber on the floor. The wound had started to bleed again. She felt his forehead – fever, a fever that burned his whole body. He had not kept anything down for the last two days. The pillow was soaked through with blood, though she had bandaged his head tightly as she had seen her father bandage his patients’ wounds. But this was far more severe than any wound she had ever seen her father treat. She whispered to him— perhaps he would hear her— “Please Jack, please try! If you can hang on tonight and perhaps tomorrow, we can try to get to town, and then...” and then what?
Just the day before, the farmhand, Luke, had brought the doctor, but he had said that she was doing the right things. She shuddered. She had held Jack down as the doctor dug out the smashed lead ball and then looked away as he used her flatiron to cauterize the bullet wound in his leg. For the head wound, the doctor frowned and said nothing as he wrapped a bandage around it. When they were out of the room, he had warned Ruth to change it often, and that it would be painful for Jack, as if he could hear them talking about him.
After the doctor left, Ruth tried to keep a wet compress on Jack’s leg to reduce the pain from the burn, but he thrashed about so violently that it would not stay on his leg. Each time he moaned, it was as if Ruth were wounded, too. She had nothing to kill the pain; he could not keep laudanum down. As to his head wound— she had changed the bandage twice, and needed to replace it soon.
She must focus. If she lost him, how could she keep going? Even if he lived, how could she care for him and their son Gary— she pushed the thoughts aside. Don’t think about that. Just keep Jack alive, one hour at a time— keep his fever down, try to make him drink some water, keep him from thrashing about on the bed too much.
The doctor had helped her tie Jack’s feet to the bedposts, but he had worked the ties loose, and his ankles were ringed with red welts.
She peeled the stained bandage away from the gash in Jack’s head. That white stuff under the ridges of skin— it’s bone. It’s got to be bone, nothing more. With the old bandage gone, blood ran over her hands, the pillow, the bed. She quickly wrapped the new bandage around his head, but the blood continued to spill, and nothing she did stanched the flow. Her hands shaking, she wrapped it with a second bandage and a third, and at last it seemed to stop. It had to stop— he had lost so much blood already!
She wiped the blood away from his forehead again and sponged it with the cold cloth. His fever was so high, and yet he did not sweat! The doctor had said he could not see bullet damage in Jack’s skull, but he had grimaced as he studied the clump of grass, dirt, blood and mud that Ruth had cleaned out of the head wound. Some people said tiny creatures caused infection, and that they were in everything. That seemed impossible. If you cleaned a wound, and especially if you could cauterize it, it would often heal— imperfectly, but at least the man would live.
But even the doctor could not cauterize Jack’s head wound. The gash was far too large.
Jack moaned again and began repeating the same word. Wortheim. Wortheim. The foreman from the ranch on the next property had threatened them, and now— I promise you, Jack, if I find out he’s behind this, I’ll bring him to justice, if it’s the last thing I do.
Jack opened his eyes. Was he waking up? Perhaps he would— she grasped his hand. “Jack, can you hear me? Oh, Jack, I’m here— just hold on, and in a few days you’ll be all right.” Of course it was a lie. He’d be wounded for months— or more.
“Ruth—” His words came between gasps, and he stared straight at the ceiling. “I want— love you— farm’s—”
“Shh— don’t talk. Try to take some water.” She held the glass to his lips. He seemed to take it— perhaps he would sleep. But a few minutes later, the water ran down his cheek onto the bloody pillow.
He continued to ramble. “Farm— for you and Gary— don’t— don’t lose it— all we have— tried— but Wortheim, he— he—”
They were the last lucid words he said. He did take a few drops of laudanum. He needs the sleep, that’s all. Maybe— she wiped his forehead a few more times, but by nightfall, he sank into a peaceful stupor, and she knew it was futile. She stared at his handsome face, tanned by the Kansas sun. He never kept his hat on at the harvest, and his hair is still almost white blonde.
Since he was calmer, she removed the restraints from his feet. And when she did, he drew his legs up against his chest, as if to shield himself from the world. She tried, but could not stretch his legs out again.
The candle went out, and Ruth lay down on the wooden floor and tried to sleep. But the thin quilt was useless against the cold, and the wind howled through the window. So she sat up again and leaned against the bedside, holding back tears and listening to the prairie wind’s endless dirge.
She stayed next to the bed in the darkness, and sponged Jack’s forehead once more, but sometime near midnight, his hand lost its warmth and stiffened in her grasp.
The aroma of mashed potatoes, baked bread, fruit pies, and beef stew drifted through the house. Ruth sat near the door, numb. It can’t be— Jack can’t be gone. Soon I’ll wake up and he’ll be here—
But Gary clung to her with the strength of a three-year old. “Daddy, ride my horsie?”
She put her arms around him and clutched his arms, clinging to him in her lost misery. She glanced at the coffin a few feet away. “No, sweetie, no horsie today.”
“I wanna ride Missy!” He squirmed as if to run outside, but she held him fast. Broken conversation from the farmers outside filtered through the window.
“— Carter! or Rausch! or Giroux! I seen ’em do it!”
“— No better than murderers—”
“— A gun everywhere I go these days! Even church!”
“— Put up with this much longer. We ought to string up a few of them cowboys, or else they’ll—”
Ruth turned away and tried to shut out the angry words. She glanced across the room to the coffin Luke had fashioned from pine boards in the barn. He had helped Ruth dress Jack in his Sunday suit, and had put Jack’s hat on his head to hide the deadly wound. They had finally closed the coffin lid, and if she hadn’t known it was Jack, she would have thought him a complete stranger.
Peter Kessler came in, removed his straw hat, and stood near the coffin for a moment. He patted Ruth’s back. “I’m so sorry, Ruth.” He shook his head and stood nearby.
Ruth nodded but said nothing. It seemed he might say more, but after hesitating near the door for a moment, he scowled and went outside again.
Mary Hatcher looked up from cutting the loaf of bread she had brought. “I’ll bring more food next week, and Tom can come over to butcher those two carcasses you got in the barn.”
Ruth looked up as Gary squirmed in her lap. “Thank you, Mary. You’ve done so much for me. I do appreciate the food, but I don’t need any more meat butchered. I have a half side right now.”
Luke needs to take those carcasses in the barn back to Mr. Andersen as soon as he can get them over there. I can send a note with him to explain. She closed her eyes, and for a few moments, blocked out everything but the comforting weight of Gary on her lap. She could picture Blake Andersen reading her note and surveying the carcasses in the buckboard. He probably didn’t think much of Jack or me. All the ranchers, including Andersen, dressed much better than any of the farmers.
Cold swept through the room, interrupting her thoughts, and Tom Hatcher came in and closed the door against the chill. His voice held a trace of anxiety. “Ruth, can you come outside to talk for a few minutes?”
She nodded and stood stiffly, as Mary Hatcher held out her arms. “Let me take Gary for you.” Ruth set Gary down and he went to Mrs. Hatcher, then she threw on her cloak and joined the farmers outside.
They stood in a circle near the door, as if to close out any ranchers who might drop by to pay their condolences. Ruth drew her cloak tighter but the chill seeped through.
Tom looked at her meaningfully. “Ruth, tell the sheriff what Jack said before he died.”
She could have recited it in her sleep. “Wortheim. He kept saying it the whole time he was dying.”
“Wortheim! I knew it!” Peter Kessler shouted. “I knew he was behind this! He told my wife if he caught us with cattle carcasses he’d—”
Sheriff Brown stopped Kessler with a shake of his head.
Ruth went on. “Wortheim was here two weeks ago. He told us that the cattle that were foraging down in the creeks were infected. He said the meat was no good and we’d die if we ate it.”
Peter hooked his hands into his belt. “That’s a lot of hogwash. There’s nothing wrong with them cows! They was healthy enough a couple months ago to break through my fence and trample half my wheat! And then Wortheim had the nerve to accuse me of stampeding them through the fence! Told me if I killed the cows he’d—”
The sheriff again froze his story with a glare.
Sheriff Brown turned to Ruth. “Did he threaten you or Jack, Ruth?”
“Yes. He said if we took the carcasses or killed the cows, he’d personally shoot both Jack and me—” And now that Jack is gone— what if Wortheim comes back? I can’t fire a gun, I can’t ride like Jack could, Luke might not be nearby— and what about Gary— she shook her head and looked at the men. “I’m sorry.” A lump formed in her throat and she turned to go back to the house.
Mary Hatcher rushed down the stairs and met Ruth as she moved away from the men. She turned to the men as she took Ruth’s arm. “You can get your story later! The poor girl’s husband isn’t even in the ground yet, and you come over here, bothering her to get more dirt on the ranchers. Don’t you have enough to do without running around looking for more fights?” She pulled Ruth back toward the house. “Ruth, dear, come inside now and help me for a while.”
They reentered the house. Ruth wandered into the kitchen and filled the coffee pot with water. She glanced over at Mary. “What are they going to do?”
“Don’t worry about that. They’ll talk and fuss for a while, then they’ll see Wortheim at church or in town, and they’ll threaten him and that will be the end of it. If he’s responsible, he’ll be put in jail, just wait and see.”
* * *
Later that day they dug a grave for Jack in the common cemetery, away from the church.
Pastor Lassiter’s words flowed over her, the familiar funeral service somehow foreign. “Earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection—”
And now Ruth stood, alone in the midst of friends. She looked for her home in the distance, and traced a little trail of smoke curling up from the chimney. The rest of the service washed over her unheeded. It seemed cruel to leave Jack in that lonely windswept place, studded with spindly yellow prairie grass on a bluff overlooking the county.
The group broke up and the Hatchers took Ruth home in their buggy. Mary hugged her as Tom came around to help her down. “I’ll come see you in a couple of days.”
Ruth nodded, then stood in the farmyard and watched their buggy retreating to the dirt road. She saw that it was near sunset, the long cloud trails glowing orange and pink against the soft blue sky.
The cow’s lowing broke the farm’s silence and brought her back to the present. She went inside to prepare supper, and sent Luke out to milk the cow, feed and water the horse and chickens and to settle them for the night, and to bring wood in. She started the wood stove, and when the oven was hot, she put a donated meat pie into the stove and made up a new pot of coffee.
Gary ran up to her. “Mommy!”
She picked the little boy up, set him on her lap, kissed his blonde hair and held him closer as the tears came. She let herself cry until supper was nearly ready, then she steeled herself to face the meal.
Luke came in but Ruth did not know what to say, so she merely recited the blessing. “Lord we thank Thee for Thy bounty. Amen.” They ate the meal in silence. The farm hand went out to his bunkhouse, and Ruth sat in the parlor as evening drew on, watching the fire burn down to coals.
Luke went out to his bunkhouse, and Ruth sat in the parlor as evening drew on, watching the fire burn down to coals.
She thought of Jack and happier times in Illinois— how he first came to her mother’s boardinghouse that summer, working for the railroads. In the evenings, she served him and the other boarders their meals, and he would catch her eye and smile, making her heart thump in her bosom.
He had strolled with her around the house, away from everyone, and kissed her in the moonlight of the sweet warm Illinois summer evening.
“I’m gonna start a farm, Ruth. You can buy hundreds of acres for a song! There’s nothing to raising wheat, either. I’ve been reading the magazines and anyone can do it, if you work hard. Mr. Youngman sent me this brochure, and if I pay him a hundred dollars, he’ll mortgage the rest. That way I don’t have to homestead only 160 acres like everyone else.”
She took the brochure, frowning in confusion, but Jack’s bright eyes reassured her. He loves me, and he can make the farm work. I’ll work hard, too, and make Mother proud.
But now, three years later, even though she’d never understood the books, in her heart she knew the farm was in trouble. Maybe they could have succeeded with Jack here, but now that he was gone— she had looked at the cryptic numbers in Jack’s books. How could she ever figure the books out? And even if she could somehow farm the land, with the threats from the ranchers, how could she bring Wortheim to justice? I don’t even know where to start. But I must. If I can’t figure it out, I’ll lose everything and have to go back to Illinois when Gary and I can get to the train in Ellsworth.
She watched Gary bounce a little carved cow along the edge of the rag rug before the fire. How much he looked like Jack! The similarity made Ruth want to cry again, and she needed to think. She dashed off the tears and stood up, pacing in front of the fireplace. The first thing is to get rid of those sides of beef. I never should have let Jack talk me into keeping them.
Jack had brought them home in the buckboard a week before he was shot. “Look, Ruth! We have a surprise, courtesy of old man Andersen! He sent us enough meat for the winter!”
Ruth’s mouth fell open. “No, Jack, you can’t take those cows! They belong to Mr. Andersen! And what about what Wortheim said?”
“How will Wortheim know? Besides, these cows were already dead, down by the pond. Luke helped me bring them back— we’ll have meat all winter.” He and Luke began to drag the first of the carcasses into the barn.
“But Jack, if the cows died, how do we know the meat is good? That man Wortheim told us they were sick!” Ruth followed them as they dragged the heavy bulk to the door of the barn. “Look, it’s Mr. Andersen’s brand!” She pointed. A black brand was visible on the dead cow’s rump, a capital “A” with a circle around it.
“Oh, it’ll be fine, you’ll see. We’ll have a roast tonight from the leg. I’ll bring it inside as soon as I can cut it off.” They dragged the carcass to the back of the barn. Jack stopped near her on his way to get the next carcass. “Besides, after he dammed up the creek and stole nearly half our water, and his cows ruined our garden, I’d say this is small repayment.”
Ruth shook her head. “We never figured out whose cows they were, and we don’t know that he dammed it up. Anyway, he can take the water while it’s on his property. We have to take what’s left over, you know that.”
“I don’t know that! Mr. Youngman said that the creek was free running— no one’s ever dammed it up before. Andersen suddenly building a dam for his cattle tank is pretty low, when he knew we needed the water to keep the wheat going.”
“Maybe we need to go talk to him—” She stopped. It was useless to argue. She knew he had essentially stolen the meat, and he knew it too, but was justifying it to himself.
Later that night, she lay awake, still tasting the metallic flavor of the roast. It had smelled heavenly, but the taste had repelled her. She had surreptitiously removed most of Gary’s portion from his plate and thrown it down for Luke’s dog.
But no one got sick. Luke, Jack and Gary seemed healthy, and Jack went ahead and partially butchered the first side, putting some of the meat in the smokehouse to make jerky. Ruth prepared the meat he brought in, making dinners like soup and stew, and meat pie with as little meat as possible.
“Why don’t you make a roast this Sunday?” Jack sat next to her on Sunday over yet another dinner of stew.
“Oh, I might— but the cuts we’ve been using— the meat’s too tough for a roast. I’d never be able to get it tender enough to cut.”
“Hmm. I’ll have to get Tom Hatcher to help me do it right.”
But he had ended up putting it off, and then, before Tom could come over— she looked around and spotted the farm ledger on the desk. She sighed and instead picked Gary up from the rug. The little boy snuggled against her, and she put him in his bed, then went to her room, and undressed for bed. It would be cold to sleep by herself, and she had thrown away the bloody pillows. The last clean pillow was thin and uncomfortable, and she thought absently that she would have to start saving feathers again from the chickens to make new ones.
She shuddered a little, but this was the only place to sleep. She knelt by her bed and bowed her head. “Please, God, help me.” She lay down and wept until she fell asleep.
Blake Andersen frowned at the carcasses lying in the farmer’s buckboard. The gaunt cattle had died of some sickness, that was obvious. He read the note over again.
We found two of your cattle dead near our pond. We were so tempted by the meat that we gave in and ate some of it, but it isn’t ours. Please send me a bill for the missing portion.
Mrs. Jack Thomas
They had returned the meat and hides when they could have kept them. That was remarkable. But they also wanted to pay for the missing meat. That was impossible. With as many cattle as he had already lost to sickness, starvation and farmers? What difference did a couple more dead cows make to him?
He shook his head and limped back to talk to the skinny man who had brought the carcasses. “Did her husband send you?”
“No, sir. Mr. Thomas is dead.”
“Dead! How did that happen?”
“He was down by our stream, and we think he got in a fight. He was shot in the leg, and someone bashed him in the head, or a steer kicked him. We don’t know.”
Shock ran through Blake’s gut. “Do you know who did it?”
“We think it was a rancher’s man.” The hand didn’t look Blake in the eye.
Blake sighed. He didn’t need these useless sides of beef, and he didn’t need more trouble with the neighboring farmers. They were already killing his cattle if they wandered onto their farmland, or sometimes even if they went near the fences.
“Mark!” A ranch hand appeared. “Take these over and skin them, then bury the rest of it. The meat is probably tainted. Put the skins with the others for the tanner.”
“Yes, sir!” Mark waved for his fellow hand, Jake, to help him. They dragged the cattle off to the slaughter area to remove the hides.
Luke still stood near the wagon, as if he was unsure of what to do. “There’s no bill. How many hands are over on your farm?”
The hand looked down at his boots. “Just me.”
“Just you? Is someone coming to help her run the place?”
The hand looked up and frowned at Blake as if this were ridiculous. “No, sir. Just me.”
Blake persisted with his questions. “But she only has her son— he’s about two, isn’t he?”
Blake shook his head. No one else would help her run the farm? That was impossible— she would never succeed. The farm was too big even if her husband were still alive. What had possessed them to try to farm so much land?
Blake ran his hand through his hair and put his hat on again. “Come with me.” The man obeyed him, as other men had followed his orders, on the ranch and during the War. They rarely questioned his right to command; they simply obeyed. He limped into the slaughter area, ignoring the pain in his leg. Mark and Jake had started to skin the stiff carcasses.
Blake pointed to a carcass they had just skinned that morning. “Put that side of beef into this man’s buckboard.”
Mark and Jake gave each other surprised glances, but then shrugged and did as they were told. Blake turned to the hand. “Do you know how to hang the side?”
Luke nodded. “Yes sir.”
“Good. Mark, go over to the Thomas place next week and butcher this meat so she can use it.”
“But I got work to do—” he stopped at Blake’s glare. “Okay, if you say so.”
Blake turned to the farm hand. “Take this to Mrs. Thomas and give her my condolences— what did you say your name was?”
“Didn’t say. Name’s Luke. Luke Waverly.” He held out his hand for a handshake, which Blake accepted. Luke’s grip was firm, but his gaze wandered and he didn’t look Blake in the eye.
“Blake Andersen.” Luke didn’t need the introduction; he, like everyone in the county, knew the rancher’s name.
“Thanks for the meat, Mr. Andersen. I’ll be going home now.” Luke hoisted himself into the driver’s seat and flicked the reins, and the horse started forward. Soon the buckboard was a small spot near the gate, a cloud of dust rising behind the wagon.
Blake thought back to the last time he’d seen Mrs. Thomas at church. She was so slim and delicate, not at all suited for farm work. Her blonde hair always seemed perfectly arranged, her dresses well-made, simple but stylish, and her fair skin protected by a bonnet or a wide sun hat. Her little boy followed her everywhere, but her husband hardly attended church. But he had seen neither of them for several weeks. He thought perhaps the family had moved away, given up farming.
They should never have started a farm on that low-lying land— it floods in rainy years. They got a bad deal. I wonder who sold it to them. Lying speculators, probably. And now— she can never farm such hopeless land by herself.
He reentered the house, and the housekeeper Nancy met him at the door. “The sheriff’s here to see you. He’s in the dining room.”
Blake passed through the dining room to the kitchen, washed his hands and returned. “Morning, Sheriff.”
The sheriff ignored the greeting. “Your man Wortheim is causing problems. He may have killed Jack Thomas. We can’t prove it yet, and the widow doesn’t have hard evidence.”
Blake stared at the sheriff. “Are you going to arrest him?”
“No, she didn’t give us enough information, and I don’t have enough evidence for an arrest, Andersen. But your man threatened to shoot her husband, and he was shot. I wouldn’t keep a man like that around if I were you.” The sheriff pushed his hat back on his head.
Blake frowned. The sheriff had no call telling him how to run his ranch. “I’ll take care of it, so go on back to town. I’ll see what he has to say. If I hear or see any evidence against him, I won’t protect him from justice.”
“Fine. I may be back if something turns up.”
The tall man turned and slammed the door. He’s on the farmers’ side. But he’s been fair in the past, and he probably doesn’t have a grudge against Wortheim or me. Blake limped to the door to watch the sheriff’s buckskin horse gallop away.
So the foreman had threatened Jack Thomas. Blake sighed. Wortheim could take a foreman job with just about any other rancher in the area. He seemed to get more work out of the men than Blake himself. If Wortheim left, Blake would have to promote one of his men or hire a new foreman. Several cowboys in town needed jobs, but they might want to go back to Texas for the spring calving and drives, just when they were needed most for the roundup here.
A spasm of pain struck his leg then, and he clutched the door frame to support himself until it passed. Too much walking today, or maybe snow was on its way. He could sometimes feel a storm coming.
When the pain subsided, he opened the door and went out on the wide porch. “Jake! You seen Wortheim?”
Jake jumped down from the corral fence, and his wide brimmed hat flew off his head. “Yeah! He’s out in the north ridge area. You want me to go get him?”
“Bring him back here right away, and don’t take no for an answer!” It would take an hour to ride there and back. Blake thought he might rest his leg, but there were the accounts to look over. It would have to wait.
He trudged to his desk and went over the numbers again, though he could have figured them in his sleep. He stood to lose half his herd this year if the winter were as severe as he thought it might be. Some of the hands would leave for Texas for the drives after the spring calf roundup. When they returned in the late summer with the gaunt longhorns, a skeleton crew would brand any remaining cattle. In the fall, they would drive their cows to Ellsworth. But the year ahead would be difficult, and and if another drought, or a prairie fire, came to Rice County, he would be finished. Nothing would be left for Chris, except the land and the house. He had imagined the house full of children at one time, but now—
He regarded the library’s dark walls, paneled in cherry and pine. Hunting trophies hung in the dining room down the hall, and bare floors prevailed throughout the house. The kitchen was primitive and lacked a stove; they cooked meals over a huge fireplace. The cook, Okie, was a veteran of the cattle drives, and so did not miss such modern contrivances. There was no parlor, and the rooms flowed into each other with wide doorways and no doors. A great dark stairway made of half-logs cut from oaks on the banks of the Arkansas River led to the second floor bedrooms.
Loud voices outside aroused him from his thoughts. The men always joked with Wortheim, though warily, as if they were afraid not to laugh at his jibes.
Wortheim stood in the library doorway and regarded Blake down his nose. “What you want to see me about, boss?”
Blake stood, ignoring the pain in his leg. “Did you threaten the Thomases?”
“What you mean, threaten? I told them to leave our cattle alone. The sod-bust— farmers is killing them left and right. If you want to let them rustle your cattle, that’s up to you.” He shrugged and leaned his skinny frame against the doorjamb, chewing his tobacco wad.
Blake’s eyes narrowed as he watched the foreman for a sign of guilt or remorse. “Mrs. Thomas said you threatened her and her husband. Now he’s dead.”
Wortheim wiped his hand on his dirty pant leg, his face blank. “You accusing me? I never shot no one.”
“How did you know he was shot?”
“I don’t. I guessed.” Wortheim tipped his hat back and looked out toward the front door, as if the conversation was over and he had better things to do.
“I think you know more about this than you’re saying.” Blake held onto the desk to keep from walking over and throwing the man out of the house.
The foreman jerked himself away from the door jamb. “I ain’t got time for this. I ain’t done nothing.”
“Nothing but threaten to kill a man and his family! Clear off my land. You’re fired!”
The foreman turned back, and his jaw dropped. “You can’t fire me! Your hands don’t know nothing about running this place! And you can’t ride more than five miles without passing out! You’ll be washed up in no time—”
Blake reached for his gun. “Get off my land, now! I want you gone by sundown!” His voice reverberated through the library.
Wortheim stood in the doorway, unwavering. “Fine! But half the hands will go with me, and you know it’s not a threat!”
Blake could suddenly no longer stomach the man standing on his land. He felt sick, as if he himself were responsible. He cocked his pistol at Wortheim’s chest. “Get out! Now!”
“I’m going! But without my help, you’ll be off this land inside of a year, mark my words!” The foreman stomped out to the door, his spurs clinking on the floor. The heavy door slammed.
Wortheim was gone by sundown. He was only able to convince three men to go with him, but Blake was so short-handed that now he needed Chris every day. Until he could replace Wortheim and the others, he would have to ride the range himself in the cold and snow.
The winter promised to be hard, and he suddenly felt older than his 40 years.
* * *
Blake sat in the library, reading a letter from John Fowler, his commanding officer in the War.
“My wife and plan to visit the Arizona territory next spring. We want to start a ranch, and the land agents tell me there are hundreds of acres of open land near Tucson. The cattle can eat the desert weeds, everyone says. Roundup is hard, but we must leave Massachusetts. The damp weather is making my wife’s rheumatism worse, and I want my two sons to have a better life. Teaching college is not the best future for these boys of mine.”
Arizona desert land. Not much snow there, probably. He sighed, put the letter into the envelope and left it on the desk as a reminder to write back.
The last few days had been long, and his leg felt as if a burning brand had taken the place of his bone. And although his best ranch hand, Sam, had taken the foreman position, he really wasn’t up to the job. The reliable cowboys weren’t in town now that the winter was upon them; most of them had returned to Texas to start the spring drive, waiting out the bad weather in Kansas. So Blake hadn’t found the right man to work the ranch. Chris was some help, but he was unreliable, and Blake found himself yelling at the kid more than he ever had, getting less of a response— he had to keep an eye on him every minute or he’d disappear.
The other ranchers suddenly had stopped riding over to visit on Saturday nights to talk over county matters as they had previously done. It might be the severe weather, but Wortheim might be stirring up the other ranchers against him. If he saw them at church or in town, they avoided him, and mumbled single syllable answers to his questions about their ranches. When he asked if they had any spare hands, they said “no.”
If that was how they wanted it, fine. He had gotten along without them when he first came here to run the ranch, and he could do it again.
Ruth stepped down from the buckboard and turned to catch Gary before he tried to jump from the high seat. She caught him under the arms and set him on the ground, where he immediately ran to pet Missy’s nose. She took Gary’s hand and steered him toward the church as Luke led the mare to the side of the church. He lined up the wagon next to the other buggies and wagons, and followed her inside. But Luke would sit in his own place, close to the door.
She pulled her cloak closer as she trudged to the door, turning her face from the relentless cold wind. The deep winter snowfalls had not yet arrived, but little white piles of snow lay on the northern sides of the buildings, hiding in the shadows from the sunshine. The bare ground belied the constant, insidious cold. The church, though the windows were frosted inside, was warm in comparison.
Peter Kessler caught up with her just inside the door. “Ruth, did you hear? Andersen fired Wortheim the day after the sheriff came to see you. He shouldn’t threaten us any more, ’cause I heard he left for parts unknown.”
Perhaps Wortheim would leave now! “Thanks for telling me, Peter.” She gave him a smile.
Mary Hatcher motioned for Ruth to step over to where she stood. “Ruth, you and Gary can stay with us. Please think about it, won’t you? We do have room, after all. You’ve been through two months alone, and you’re tired, I can tell.”
Ruth nodded, with a wave of dismay. “Yes, thank you again— but your house must already be so crowded with your children! And my animals— they won’t fit into your barn, and then you’d have to feed them— no, I don’t see how I could.” And I don’t know how I’d repay you for the food. I’d be a terrible burden. I still haven’t figured out the books. Now, you could come over and live at my place— her frame house would be much more comfortable than the Hatcher’s soddy. But Tom Hatcher was proud, and the Hatchers were homesteading their land. Technically, they were supposed to live at their farm to prove up their claim. So she said nothing.
Mary went on.“We could see how it went, Ruth. Tom could help you get the spring planting started on time, too.”
But that was a vain hope, and Ruth knew it. Everyone said it would be a long, cold winter. The Hatchers would struggle to get through safely to spring.
Ruth shook her head. “Thank you so much, Mary. I will consider it— perhaps next Sunday we can talk.” And with this, she hurried Gary to their usual place in church, a bit isolated from her closest neighbors.
With Gary seated, Ruth surveyed the church as it filled. She wore black, properly dressed in mourning for the first time. She could not tell if there was enough money for black fabric to wear every day. Mourning dress on Sundays would have to do while she took care of other matters.
Mary’s offer weighed on her. The neighbors had come over often for the first month. But as time had gone on and with three heavy snowfalls, the visits became less frequent. The work of one farm kept a man busy; two farms would be impossible.
Jack had kept old copies of farming magazines, Prairie Farmer and American Agriculturalist. They helped a little, although they discussed new implements, seeds, ploughing patterns, and planning crops, and not much about running a farm from day to day. Sitting in church for a few hours, even after the trip through the cold countryside felt luxurious. Ruth slumped a bit against the wooden pew. I would just love to have one day with no work.
She had searched the pantry the previous evening for canned goods. Her garden had given only a small bushel of corn, a bowl of peas and some withered green beans; the rest fell prey to the cows and drought. And now, even with one less person to feed, Ruth had only a jar of corn and two of green beans, a pound or so of flour, some sugar and coffee, and three shriveled potatoes.
Mr. Andersen’s beef cuts hung in gunnysacks suspended from the barn rafters, and that had tided them over so far. Ruth had used as little as possible, so it would last through the winter. Still, she needed other stores besides beef. Papa had been adamant about balanced meals, and she didn’t want to endanger Gary’s life by feeding him nothing but meat all winter. She had no idea if the bank owed her anything from the sparse crop they had sold that fall. She could make no sense of Jack’s records.
Ruth rehearsed her request again. Pastor Lassiter, could you spare— no— Could I exchange some eggs for— but no, the hens were giving her only two or three eggs a day as it was. I’ve tried to tithe, and now— no, that wasn’t true either. Jack had never contributed his share of offerings or tithes. It was wrong to withhold their share, but she had not challenged him. I’ll replace everything he gives me later, when I can. Perhaps that will do well enough.
The pastor spoke of forgiveness. Forgiveness? What will you do, Ruth? You don’t know who, or whether, to forgive. You don’t even know what happened to Jack— Feeling eyes on her, she swallowed a surge of grief. Smile, and show them you’re all right. You don’t need pity— just a hand up for a short time. In the spring, you’ll—
A muffled giggle shook her from her thoughts. Gary was on his hands and knees peeking under the pew at the attendees behind them, then hiding, then peeking again.
“Gary, stop, now.” Ruth set him down beside her and retrieved a toy carved horse from her pocket. That captured his interest for a while, as he ran the little horse up and down his leg and on the pew.
Before she knew it, the sermon was over and they were praying before the benediction. With Gary in tow, Ruth moved to the back of the church. She complimented the pastor on the sermon, then hung back in the vestibule until it seemed the congregation was gone.
The pastor came into the church, and Ruth followed him to the front. Her face grew warm and she looked at the floor. “Pastor Lassiter?”
He turned and regarded her. “Yes, Mrs. Thomas?” He seemed to know what she wanted.
“I know Jack never came to this church.” She swallowed hard, then forced herself to continue. She studied the wooden church floor and blurted out the words. “I have to stay on at the farm until spring, but my store of food is very low. Is there any way you can help me? I’ll replace them as soon as I can—”
She could just hear him asking her why she was staying on at the farm. It’s my last promise to Jack. He wanted me to try to work things out for Gary—
She looked up, as he did not answer for a moment. He regarded her wisely with his brown eyes, ran his hand through his wispy gray hair, looking over her shoulder. “Come with me.”
She followed him behind the pulpit, out the back door of the church and around to the church’s side wall, then down some dark stairs. “We have a few items in here that were donated to the church. Take what you need, and let me know when you are finished. We keep this area locked.”
The cellar was cool and dark, but the items inside had not frozen. Ruth took as little as she could: a bag of flour, a few onions, and some canned vegetables. Thank you, Lord, and I do promise to give eggs, butter and whatever else I can, as soon as I can make it up and bring it here.
She carried some of the items to the buckboard, then returned for the flour.
Grunting with the weight of the sack, she put it in the back of the wagon. “Luke, watch Gary for another minute. I’ll be right back.”
She saw the pastor as she rounded the corner of the church, and waved at him to signal that she was finished. He waved back, and she hurried to the wagon.
Luke reached over to help Ruth climb up. “Ma’am, I’m going to my girl Louise’s house for dinner tonight, so don’t set a place for me.”
“But Luke, I’ve already roasted the meat Mr. Andersen sent us! Gary and I won’t be able to make a dent in it—”
Luke frowned and his shoulders sagged.
He wants to see Louise. It’s been two weeks. “Oh, very well. I’ll save some for you.” I’ll have to make soup or stew again for the rest of the week from the leftovers, I suppose. But it was a shame to waste such a nice cut for soup or stew when she could use tougher meat for that.
The buckboard reached the edge of the church property, jerking sharply in rutted road, and they rode in without speaking for a few minutes, the wagon’s springs creaking.
“Where’s Horsie?” Gary looked at Ruth with his eyes wide.
“No rides on horsie today, she’ll be tired when we get home.” He probably wanted a ride on Missy, like the times Jack walked the horse around the barnyard with Gary on her back. But without alfalfa, Missy didn’t have much stamina these days. She would have to ask Luke what to do about that.
“Where’s my little Horsie?” Gary felt in Ruth’s pocket. She knew what he meant now, and pulled Luke’s hand back on the reins to stop the wagon.
“Luke, he left his wooden horse in the church. Can you wait while I go back and get it? He’ll never let us hear the end of it if we don’t.”
Luke frowned a little, but Ruth jumped down to the dirt road so quickly that he didn’t have time to refuse. She hurried back to the church, annoyed with Gary, with Luke, with Jack and with God. Nothing makes sense anymore. Everything is so complicated, chores and errands take forever— please, God, I just want to rest.
The church was unlocked – thank God she didn’t have to disturb the pastor again – and in their pew was the little wooden horse. She retrieved it, put it into her pocket, and turned to leave.
She was startled to see Mr. Andersen still sitting at the back of the church. Had he heard her ask for the charity goods? She had been so bent on following the pastor that she never looked to the left or right, and he could well have heard what she said. She could feel his eyes on her and her face grew warm as she headed quickly back to the door. With a sigh of relief, she passed through the door to the vestibule without having to speak to him.
But as she pushed open the church door she stopped. What was she doing? He had sent her a whole side of beef, and she had walked past him as if he were a piece of furniture. She could at least thank him, if quickly.
She reentered the church and turned deliberately to the side where he sat. “I wanted to thank you for the meat you gave us.” She held out her hand for a handshake. “It was very generous of you.” She noticed that his black coat and matching trousers were of good wool and well fitted, unlike the farmers’ store-bought clothes, which usually fit the gawky men poorly. She thought of Jack’s dress clothes stored away in the attic. She could give them to Luke, but no, he was too slim for them. Perhaps the church could use them, if she could bear to look at them again.
Mr. Andersen shook his head. “It was nothing.” He shrugged his large shoulders and still sat with his arms folded, his green eyes’ regard resting on her hair, curled into its Sunday arrangement. He did not offer to shake hands.
She held her ground. “It was generous, and I thank you again, Mr. Andersen.” She studied his tanned face, still handsome in middle age, and continued to hold out her hand, until it was painfully obvious he was being rude.
Finally he stood, stiffly, unfolded his arms and took her hand. His grasp was firm and warm, but the handshake was brief. She stood before him for a moment, looking up at his dark hair and impressive build, but did not back away from him.
The impulse hit her suddenly, and she gave in to it. “Mr. Andersen, we have a lovely beef roast cooking at home, and no one but my son and me to enjoy it. My farmhand Luke has an errand to run and will not be there to eat with us. I would be most gratified if you could join us for dinner.” Her heart pounded.
A silence fell. “Dinner?” He frowned, as if surprised.
“As soon as we get home. You could follow us there. It will be ready soon, and you could eat with us— me and my son.”
His eyes twinkled. “Ah, the little fellow climbing on the pew.”
She smiled. “Yes, he thinks everything in the world was put there for him to explore. Do say you’ll come!” And suddenly it was important that she convince him.
He paused. “Can Chris join us, too? He’s waiting outside.”
“Of course! We have much too much food. I’m used to cooking for more than just—” she stopped, realizing what she was about to say, and her throat grew tight. She had said too much— perhaps she should find a way to back out, before he agreed—
“I’ll get him, if you don’t mind waiting for us, and follow you there.”
So it was done. “Good.” She turned away before she thought of another objection, her heart still pounding, and hurried back to the buckboard. “Mr. Andersen and his son Chris will follow us. They’re to have dinner with us.”
“Can’t bear to see good meat go to waste, eh ma’am?” Luke’s expression did not change as he stared ahead at the road.
“No, but it won’t, even if you won’t be there to eat it, Luke.” She hoped she had just the right balance of reproach and teasing.
The trip to the house was quick, and Ruth climbed down before her guests arrived, to avoid that “helping a girl down from the wagon” routine that Mr. Andersen might try. Jack had never indulged in that little ritual, except when she was expecting Gary and was not yet in confinement.
The silence at the farm was broken by the clip-clop of the Andersens’ arriving horse. For a quick moment, Ruth was tempted to walk over to their buggy and beg off, tell them she was ill, that she had changed her mind.
But then, Mr. Andersen’s generosity had been so great, in forgiving Jack’s theft, and then actually turning her request for a bill into a gift, that she could not turn them away now. Mr. Andersen had seemed surprised at being invited for dinner, and it gave her a small insight into his life, as if some barrier he had set up had been breached.
Besides, we are neighbors. But what would the farmers – what would Jack – say at having a rancher to dinner at our house? She set the thought aside and hurried to set the table.
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