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Authors: Catherine Richmond

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BOOK: Spring for Susannah
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She fumbled with her shoelaces. “I'll pick more plums for breakfast.”

He chuckled. “How will you go to the outhouse when the plums are gone?”

“Then it will be time to pick apples.” Her face burning, she made her escape into the quiet morning.

The temperature rose while she picked. Without the softening of rising dew, each blade of grass stood in sharp relief on the horizon.

“He'll be expecting breakfast. I'd better get moving.” She forced her feet back to the soddy but found it empty. Ah. The washtub had been dumped. Coffee simmered over the stoked fire. She sliced salt pork and potatoes into the cast iron skillet, then set the table. The dog bounded in, sniffing for scraps. He positioned himself by the bed; his coffee-bean eyes tracked her every move.

“So now you're going to stare at me, just like your master.” Susannah scratched behind his ears and stroked his spine. A cloud of fur covered her hand. Examining him, she discovered countless tufts falling out of his coat.

“Mmm, breakfast!” Jesse said from the doorway. Susannah stepped back, pressing her hands together. “What've you got? Jake's hair? Every spring he loses enough to make a second dog. Birds love it, makes good nesting material.”

“Yet he's otherwise healthy.”

“Yep. Ivar's hounds are walking fur factories too.”

Susannah squeezed together the tufts she had collected. When she opened her hand, the hair puffed back into a ball shape. “Do your neighbors use this? For quilts or sweaters?”

“You can ask next time we see them.” He reached around her and she scuttled to the door, letting the fur blow away.

He said “we.” Apparently he had no immediate plans to ship her back. Although if he had to serve himself breakfast like he was doing now, he might reconsider. Susannah hurried to pour his coffee. “When might that be, when we see the neighbors?”

“After the harvest is finished. We'll go to the store with them. If you think of any supplies we need—”

What didn't he need? She'd better start small, in case his lack of necessities was due to a shortage of money. “Perhaps jars for canning? I'd like to put up some plums. No, that won't work; they'll be gone by then.”

“I've got canning jars in the root cellar. Brought them out on the wagon but didn't know how to use them. Plum preserves! Can't wait! Anything else?”

“Many recipes call for eggs.”

“Yep. Bought wood for a chicken coop this spring. Know much about birds?”

Susannah nodded. “I've raised Rhode Island Reds.”

“What a team we'll make!” He stood and reached for her. She stepped back, bumping the shelves. For a moment or two he held his arms out, then finally let them slap down against his legs.

“Guess I'd better get moving.” He washed down the last of his breakfast with coffee, watching her over the rim of his cup.

“What are your instructions regarding dinner?”

“Laundry'll keep you hopping, so fix something easy, something you can tote. Jake'll know where I am.”

“What time?” She scanned the room. “There's no clock.”

“I'm ready when you are.”

Susannah winced. Would she ever be ready for him?

Chapter 4

Is this going to be a lesson in forbearance,
God? I asked for wisdom, not patience!

J
ake, stay. Watch over Susannah for me.” Jesse's voice carried from the yard, and then he was gone. The dog's toenails clicked on the threshold.

Susannah dropped her breakfast into his bowl. “You finish this. I can't eat a bite. Feels like I swallowed a sparrow.”

Jake inhaled the meal and then rested his head in Susannah's lap. She stroked his velvet ears. “So how did Reverend Mason make your master agree to this arrangement? I'm not wealthy, not pretty, and not trained for any work. So there you have it, the sorry tale of my life. What do you think?”

Jake seemed to grin as he panted.

“I suppose I'd best earn my keep.” Susannah got up, put two more logs on the fire, and set water to boil. The stove was a basic four-lid model, without the water reservoir and warming oven considered essential in Detroit's kitchens. Water had to be hauled from the spring instead of a pump.

This city girl would manage.

She sorted the laundry. A sleeve from his undershirt, tacked with a running stitch, covered a rip in his sheet. The hem of his pillowcase had come undone. From under the bed Susannah pulled shirts with torn shoulder seams and threadbare elbows, canvas pants with frayed knees, socks with missing heels. He'd worn his best yesterday.

“I feel like a burglar, rooting through this man's possessions.” Susannah shook out a wad of yarn, finding a moth-eaten sweater. “Except he has nothing worth stealing.”

Jake plopped his head to the floor and looked up with sorrowful eyes.

“Present company not included.” She stroked his head.

As she lifted the pile, she jostled the crate next to the bed and knocked off a couple of books. She let the laundry drop. Books were too precious to leave on the floor. What did he read? The Bible, of course.

“Here's the real problem,” she confided to the dog. “God doesn't consider me worthy of His attention, so I stopped praying.” She returned the book to its place. “I asked God to heal my mother and He didn't. I asked Him to spare my father and He didn't. And I asked for a husband—”

Now she had one. Had God remembered her after all this time? Not likely. She was here and married, but there was no guarantee she'd stay that way for long.

The second book was a ledger. Neatly penciled entries showed every penny spent for the past three years.

Flour $6/100 pounds
Dried apples $25/barrel

Prices seemed high, but then, so were the quantities.

Lamp chimney 30c
Black thread 10c
Guitar string 15c

Guitar? She looked around. There it was, propped in the southwest corner, protected by a canvas bag. Maybe he wasn't such an ascetic after all.

While the whites soaked, Susannah looked for a shovel. She found it on the manure pile, its handle cracked. The wood was dark gray-brown, smooth from use, but the splinters were clean, fresh. He'd broken it last night, after he'd learned about her. If only she could mend it for him and mend herself into the wife he needed.

Using the pitchfork, she broke the dirt in front of the soddy and planted the limp shoots from her mother's garden.

“Now, I know you've had a rough week,” she told the seedlings as she patted the dirt around the roots. “I have too. And this is the wrong time of year to transplant you, and you probably won't like your new soil, but I want you to grow anyway.”

She brought a bucket of springwater and gave them a drink. “See that apple tree? It rode for weeks on a wagon. You can survive four days on a train.”

Susannah sat back on her heels. “Here less than a day, and I'm babbling to a dog and some half-dead plants. How did Jesse survive two years alone?”

The nervous flutter in her stomach returned as she prepared dinner. Jake led her past the spring, where she refilled the jug, then up the slope. At the crest of the hill, hot wind surged out of the clear sky, erasing yesterday's wagon tracks.

On a speck of cultivated land in the wilderness, Jesse cradled golden-brown wheat to the rhythm of “The Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Jake raced to him. The man waved his bandanna.

Susannah faced the wind and felt it pull at her hair as if she were riding. She had always loved being on horseback. When the gardener enlisted for the Union cause, she had eagerly taken on the exercise of her father's patients. Even at a walk or slow trot, she reveled in equine power. More than anything, she wanted a horse of her own. The Underhills, in a rare showing of parental unity, explained that their daughter had no need for such frivolity. But the wanting didn't stop.

Now here she stood on open grassland all the way to the horizon. A rider could go on forever—

“Susannah, what are you thinking?”

She flinched and her stomach churned. No use mentioning her spendthrift wish. “N-nothing.”

“Your face was all soft and pretty.” He raised a skeptical eyebrow. Finally he marched to a cleared spot on the edge of the field. “Mrs. Mason, your table.”

“Thank you.” She laid out the food.

“Got company up here today.”

“Where?” Susannah scanned the horizon.

He pointed northwest. “See that smudge? Ivar. All the dust he's raising, guess he's hired a cutting machine this year. He'll probably finish a week ahead of me.”

“Why didn't you do that?” Susannah examined a strip of beef jerky, looking for a ladylike way to eat it.

“If this harvest pays off, maybe I will next year. Got to get chickens this year.” He took three giant swallows from the jug. “And how was your morning?”

“Fine, thank you. Except I couldn't find your clothesline, or bluing, or washboard . . . or flatiron.”

He shook his head. “Remember, I've been baching it.”

“I'm sorry. I don't mean to complain.” She choked down a bite of cornmeal biscuit. In the list of matters never to be discussed, money held first place. Yet if she had known something of her father's finances, she might have been able to fend off the banker's attack.

The big question loomed over her: could this man afford a wife? She glanced up, making eye contact for only a second. It was enough.

“Guess you're wondering if you landed in the poorhouse. No, I'm not having money problems—” He grinned. “Unless you count lack of money a problem.” He gazed at the horizon. “Susannah, when this farm gets going, I'm going to build you a two-story house with bay windows, a swing on the porch, a fancy six-lid stove in the kitchen, a piano in the parlor so you can teach our children to play.”

Another strike against her. “I don't know how to play the piano,” she said. “I'm sorry.”

“Then we'll hire a piano teacher.” Her eyebrows must have shot up, because he added, “He can sleep in the bunkhouse with the hands. There'll be a big barn out back, a smokehouse so we can have meat besides sowbelly and salt horse. Cows, sheep, chickens, horses, a buggy, and a sleigh. There's a banker in St. Paul who'd loan me the money in an eye blink, but I won't borrow. Too many times I've seen some farmer go in over his head. One bad crop later, he's thrown out, nowhere to go, nothing to start over with.”

Jesse chewed on his beef jerky and took a bite of biscuit.

“Back in '57, the neighbors just south of us lost everything. Here it is, fifteen, sixteen years later, and I can still see the faces of those boys as the bank sold their beds, the milk cow, their schoolbooks. Pa gave them a ride into Buffalo so they could look for work. Just the clothes on their backs.” He shook his head. “Guess God has all those verses in the Bible about the perils of debt for a reason. My brother ever preach on the subject?”

“Yes.” Susannah picked crumbs off her skirt.

“What happened with your pa? He get in pretty deep?”

Susannah cut her gaze away. “Last week was the first I'd heard of any difficulty. He paid his bills on time. A few people in the area were behind on their veterinary accounts, but he never seemed too concerned. Mother ran our house by Mrs. Child's book.”

“My ma swore by
The Frugal Housewife
too. See, we do have something in common.” His smile held a hint of challenge. He quoted, “‘The best economy is to do without.' Mrs. Child would sure be impressed with this little farm.”

“It's fine.”

“Matt said your pa was busy. Must have been good at doctoring animals.”

“He was busy because he was one of the few college-educated veterinary surgeons in the state. Perhaps he was better with animals than money.” She polished a plum with the corner of her apron, then took a deep breath and delivered the rest of her bad news. “I hope Reverend Mason can raise enough from the sale of the house to clear the debt. I didn't bring a dowry—”

“You brought yourself. Don't need anything more.” He put his hand over hers. “I'm taking care of you now.”

It was a lovely thought. All those years caring for Mother, Susannah wished for someone to care for her. But this man hung on by a frayed thread. She nodded to show she'd heard him.

He stood and stretched. “Best get back to the wheat so I can come home early.”

“I suppose that's as clean as a dirt house can be.” Susannah set the broom in the corner and dabbed perspiration from her forehead. Late afternoon sun painted indigo shadows across the packed-earth floor. Jake stretched beside the bed, his ears twitching to her words. “Dirt house. Mother would have said I married down but at least I'm married.”

Susannah sliced a carrot into the stew. “As for Father, he never concerned himself with the house or its appointments. He never voiced an opinion about the conduct of others, including me and my lack of a social life. Except”—she added a turnip—“when I was twelve, I won the school award for orthography. All he said was, ‘You're missing a button on your sleeve.'” A lump rose up in her throat. “Foolish of me to hang on to that hurt, isn't it?”

BOOK: Spring for Susannah
12.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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