The Forever Man
U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269
Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont L2A 5X3
The Forever Man
lives in South Carolina, on the outskirts of Charleston, with her husband, her number-one fan. Working in a new/used bookstore is an ideal job for her, allowing her access to her favorite things: books and people. Readers’ comments are more than welcome in her mailbox, P.O. Box 60626, North Charleston, SC 29419-0626.
To my sisters, Marion, Norma and Nancy.
They knew me “when”…and love me still!
And to my sister-in-law, Thelma, who is an unpaid but much appreciated fount of information. What I don’t already know about horses, she does, not to mention apple orchards and some other good stuff. Best of all, she never laughs at my dumb questions!
But most of all, to my own “Forever Man,”
Mr. Ed, who loves me!
Chapter One (#ulink_8e61f387-a6b5-5921-a16c-40f29b109597)
“I believe I have a solution to your problem, Miss Johanna.” The Reverend Hughes folded his hands precisely and rubbed one thumb the length of the other, his eyes never leaving the young woman seated across the table from him.
Johanna nodded politely. Entertaining well-meaning townfolk had become a way of life over the past months. Seemingly, setting her life in order was the goal of every person who’d known Fred and Mary Patterson.
“When your daddy died, I knew it would seem like the end of the world to you, Johanna. That’s why we’ve all been putting our heads together, trying to help you get settled.”
She was about as settled as any old maid ever was, Johanna figured, but perhaps the preacher had a trick or two up his sleeve. If he could come up with a way to clean up the last of the garden, milk six cows and tend to a yardful of laying hens, besides lugging six bushels of apples into the fruit cellar during the next twelve hours, it would be a miracle fit for a sermon come Sunday morning.
“Are you listening to me, Miss Johanna?” Theodore Hughes leaned over the table, his eyes filled with concern as he sought to meet her gaze. “I feel the events of the past months have sent you into a true decline. You almost appear to be in the depths of despair this morning.”
It was more she’d like to be in the depths of her feather tick this morning, Johanna thought. Her every muscle aching, her eyes burning from lack of sleep and her empty stomach growling were surely enough reason to feel despair. If she was the sort to fall into that trap.
“Perhaps I came too early in the day, my dear. However, I felt it could never be too early to bring good tidings your way.” Leaning over the table in her direction, the preacher smiled with kindly humor.
“Good tidings?” She’d heard nothing but foolishness and claptrap from the steady stream of townspeople heading her way lately. Good tidings might be a relief.
“Your daddy left you a fine place, Miss Johanna. But if you can’t tend it properly, you won’t be able to hold on to it, what with the mortgage at the bank and your stock to care for and the rest of the apple crop to get in.”
She knew all that, Johanna thought glumly. She’d had four solid offers from neighboring farmers wanting to buy her place, one offer to teach school in the next county, and a proposal from Neville Olson. Whether he wanted to marry her or her farm, she hadn’t quite determined before she escorted him off the porch.
“You’re a woman of means, Miss Johanna,” the preacher told her quietly. “I’ve been concerned that you not be taken in by any scalawags or given poor advice, even by well-meaning folks hereabouts. And late last night, the good Lord sent the answer to your problem right to my door.”
Johanna resisted the urge to place her head on the table and close her eyes. Whatever the man was nattering about, she was too tired to care. Moving the big ladder from tree to tree, then climbing it, to pick apples all day yesterday had about done her in. As a matter of fact, if she didn’t get moving, chances were she just might not be able to resist taking a nap on the kitchen table, preacher or no.
“…one boy is about seven, the other just a little fella. Mr. Montgomery—Tate is his given name—is willing to come out here right away, this forenoon in fact, and talk it over with you.” Face beaming, the preacher paused for breath. “I’m just delighted with this turn of events, Miss Johanna. I feel it’s a real answer to your problem, one your daddy would have approved.”
Johanna blinked. Somewhere along the way, she’d lost track of this conversation. Who in the dickens was this Mr. Montgomery? And what did two little boys have to do with her?
“I’m aware you must be awestruck by the providential aspects of such a happening,” the preacher continued. “I felt the very same way when everything began to dovetail together last evening. Why, I almost drove right out here then, but it was almost sundown, and I knew you’d be ready to retire for the night.”
Fat chance, thought Johanna. At sundown, she’d been separating the milk and getting ready to churn the butter for delivery to the general store in town today. A two-mile walk, one way. She lifted her hand to press against her middle. No wonder her stomach was grinding away beneath her palm. She’d gone without supper last night, and now the preacher had dragged her in from the barn before she had a chance to eat breakfast this morning.
“I’m sure you’re at a loss for words, Miss Johanna. I understand that sometimes a heart is too full of thanksgiving to utter a sound.” Rising from his chair, the young parson offered Johanna his hand. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours, by noon at the latest, with Mr. Montgomery, my dear. God will surely bless this endeavor. You’ll see.”
The chicken feed sailed through the air with a swish, scattering over the hen yard. Clucking and pecking, the pullets moved about, sidestepping and nudging each other as they attended to their breakfast.
Johanna watched with pride as her white leghorns preened in the morning sun. She’d raised this year’s batch from her own eggs, culling off the old hens and canning them up for the winter. Three young roosters still awaited the chopping block, the rest having become food for her table throughout the summer. Now her chicken coop held over thirty laying hens, their eggs providing her with a tidy sum every week at the general store, when she carried them in to Joseph Turner. That, with the butter she churned twice weekly, she was managing to keep her cupboards decently filled.
“Now to tend to filling my stomach,” she told the hens clucking around her feet. “As if you care, so long as you get your breakfast.” Edging them aside, she made her way to the gate of the chicken yard. One of the broody hens had escaped again, and was claiming a place for herself beneath the lilac bushes near the corncrib.
“You’ll end up in the stew pot if you’re not careful,” she called to the clucking hen. “I don’t have time to hunt down your eggs every day, and it’s too late in the year to be sittin’ on a clutch of eggs.
“I’m not up to chasing her today,” she muttered to herself, scraping her soles on the metal bar she’d placed just outside the gate. After removing the layer of chicken droppings she’d managed to gather on her shoes, Johanna headed for the house.
A bowl of oatmeal was about as nourishing as you could get, she figured, watching the water as it came to a boil in her smallest kettle. She scattered a handful of oats from the box over the water and added a pinch of salt. In moments she’d sliced a thick slab of bread from the loaf on the tabletop and spread it with fresh butter. The oatmeal bubbled as she worked, and she stirred it, testing the thickness. Pa had always said she made oatmeal just right.
The spoon held in midair, Johanna considered the thought. In retrospect, it had been about the only thing she’d ever done that pleased him. Mama’s bread had been lighter, her pie crust more tender. Even her chicken and dumplings had been ambrosia for the gods, if her father’s memory was to be believed.
Johanna, on the other hand, had spent the past ten years being judged as somewhat imperfect by the father she’d tried so hard to please. “I picked six bushels of apples yesterday, Pa,” she said into the silence of her kitchen. “If you hadn’t sold the horse, I could haul them to the fruit cellar on the wagon. Now Mr. Turner will have to make a trip out if he wants them for the store.”
Pa had done all sorts of strange things those last few months, as if his mind had slipped into another world. And perhaps it had. Selling the horse had been the final straw, to Johanna’s way of thinking. Then staying in town to play poker with the hired hands from around the county on Friday night…something he’d never done before. He’d lost every penny in his pockets before he headed home. Johanna shook her head at the memory. Pa had never been much of a hand at cards of any kind. He’d walked home at midnight, two miles down the road from town, and stretched out on the porch to sleep.
She’d found him the next morning, all the life sucked out of him, like the west wind had taken what little zest for living he had left once Mama died. Three months he’d been gone, and she could still see him there, a faint, rare smile curling his lips, as if he saw something beautiful afar off.
The oatmeal was tasty, sweet as two spoonfuls of brown sugar could make it. The cream was rich, yellow and thick, and she poured it with a generous hand. Her jersey heifer was worth every red cent she’d paid for her, and more maybe, from the color of that cream. Pretty little thing, too, with those big eyes.
* * *
The sun was hot, shimmering on the hay field east of the house. Another week or so would make it ready for cutting, Johanna figured. Hardy Jones at the mill in town had made arrangements to come in and take care of it. Shares were better than nothing, and close to nothing was what she’d have if she did the arranging herself. Menfolk were afforded more respect than women, no matter how you sliced it. At least she’d have hay for the cows, enough to last till spring, after this last cutting.
She counted the wooden crates of apples as she neared the orchard, knowing the number even as she sounded them out aloud. Pure foolishness, Pa would say. Prideful behavior, thinking well of herself for such a simple task. She flexed the muscles in her calves as she bent to pick up the first crate. The muscles had been hard to come by. Climbing a ladder, moving it from one tree to the next as she went, was a far cry from a simple task, as far as she could see. At least for a woman alone.
Her lips tightened at the thought. She’d better get used to it. Either that or cut down the apple trees. And that she could never bring herself to do. The three acres she’d devoted to her apples was her favorite place to be, even if the work did about wear her down.
A “Hallo” from the house caught her ear as she straightened, crate held before her. Lowering it to the ground, she lifted one hand to her brow, shading from the sun’s glare as she tried to make out the visitors waiting at her back door. She saw a wagon, filled to the brim, canvas stretched tight over the whole of it, the three figures on the seat looking at her. From the far side, the preacher waved from horseback.
“Yoo-hoo, Miss Johanna! I’ve brought Mr. Montgomery along, like I promised.”
What the dickens had he promised? Johanna’s brow furrowed as she struggled to remember the conversation she’d had so little part of. Whatever his plan, she’d apparently agreed to listen. She set off for the house, her long-skirted strides hampered by the tall grass between the orchard and the house.
The man had shifted on his perch atop the wagon seat to face her. His enigmatic look was measuring as she headed toward him, and his mouth was drawn tight. Looked like he’d swallowed a persimmon. Not a bit of friendly to him, if she had him pegged right.
And then her breath drew in sharply as she caught sight of the ridged scar that rode his high cheekbone. He lifted one hand to tilt back the brim of his hat, exposing his face to full sunlight as she watched. He lowered that broad, long-fingered hand to rest against his thigh, and his mouth twisted at one corner, as if he were daring her to react to his imperfection.