Authors: Audrey Couloumbis
The reverend allowed Maude to chew on this idea for a moment before he added, “I doubt he got ninety miles before he died of something.”
This information might have bothered some. It appeared to bother Maude. But I liked the sound of Uncle Arlen even more than I had liked the idea of him. He sounded like a man of action. I figured I took after him in that way, although it caused me to be thought of as troublesome.
“Uncle Arlen sounds like Joe Harden, as true a hero as I have ever heard of,” I said, much to the enjoyment of the Peasley boys. Grins spread over their faces, and there was a great deal of jostling, at least until Maude gave one of them a swift kick.
She knew better than to kick hard, but she put a stop to the fooling around. On the whole, the Peasleys tended to be in favor of letting Maude handle their boys.
Mrs. Peasley said, “It would be an imposition on the man even if you did find him. He certainly couldn't know a thing about raising girls.”
Maude said, “I don't need raising anymore, and I can take care of what raising my sister needs.”
This was as outspoken as they had ever heard her to be. I was proud of her. But I saw, too, that it unsettled the Peasleys. It had never occurred to Reverend Peasley that Maude might have some backbone.
The very next evening, at Friday night supper, Mr. Wilburn made his move. “I've bought a wedding gift,” he said, “for the gal I'm going to ask to be my bride.” With those
words, he pulled a sheaf of papers, tied with a ribbon, from the inside pocket of his coat.
I'd noticed the thickness there, but I thought he carried a dime novel for me. There was a new issue of
Joe Harden, Frontier Fighter
due to come out. I wanted to know what kind of exploits had gotten Aunt Ruthie killed.
Mr. Wilburn showed us the papers he'd signed for the purchase of our house. The reverend and his wife looked so surprised, I knew they had nothing to do with it. I only hoped Maude wouldn't think I had put him up to it.
In fact, Maude said nothing at first. She panted a little, like a dog. She didn't touch the papers when he held them out to her.
It must've occurred to Mr. Wilburn that his gift might not be enough. Possibly he'd come prepared with the speech he made: “I know you come from a long line of kin who die young, and I'm right sorry for that. But I figger we're a good match, 'cause I ain't going to last forever neither.”
Maude's face was writ with regret and sorrow and gratefulness; I saw all that and I reckon everybody else at the table did too. But she couldn't say a word. It was like the breath had been snatched from her chest and she was fighting to get it back.
“You'd like to be mistress of your own house, now, wouldn't you?” Mr. Wilburn asked.
The pressure was on.
Maude still hadn't said a word. She only stared at the pages he held in front of her, her face all flushed and sweaty.
Mrs. Peasley laughed nervously and said, “This is more
than she could have hoped for.” The reverend chimed in with, “She's been struck dumb with the joy of it.”
“Maudie?” Mr. Wilburn said.
She begged me with a look to say something, to say the right thing. I didn't open my mouth, though, because I couldn't trust myself to say the right thing for Maude. I shook my head.
Mr. Wilburn touched the papers to her hand. Maude seemed to give up on me then. Something behind her eyes broke away, making me wish I had spoken up. But still I couldn't, because what was right for me was wrong, so wrong for Maude, I saw that now.
“My house,” she whispered, and two fat tears rolled down her cheeks.
I knew then why she had gone all around the house touching things she couldn't take with her. She loved it. She had known our parents, and unlike me, she could remember them there.
Mr. Wilburn had bought Maude's only home, and now he was asking her if she wanted him to sell it to her.
Maude herself was the asking price.
OU SHOULDN'T HAVE RUN OFF FROM THE TABLE
, Maude,” I told her when I found her buried under the covers in our bed. “You never told him a proper no.”
“What are you saying?” she asked, lifting the pillow off her head.
“That he thinks you'll marry him.”
“That's what you should have said at the table.”
“I know it,” Maude said. “What did the Peasleys tell him?” “That it was too much all at once: the house and the marriage proposal. To come back tomorrow, when the joy of it all will have worn off some and you'll be able to speak for yourself.”
“Why do they want me to marry him?” Maude said. “Don't they like me? Don't I work hard enough?”
“They can't have the church ladies wondering if, between the two of us giving her a hand, Mrs. Peasley has to do anything at all.”
Light dawned in Maude's eyes.
But before I could tell her the worst of it, that the Peasleys
wanted her married off but planned to keep me there—“You don't need to worry, Sallie, dear,” Mrs. Peasley had said to me before I was excused from the table. “I could never part with both of you”—the Peasleys knocked on the bedroom door and came on in.
“You've embarrassed us in front of a guest, Maude,” the reverend said. His very tone was so grave as to make me feel like we'd had another death in the family.
Mrs. Peasley's mouth was drawn up like a drawstring purse, but she loosened it just enough to say, “Mr. Wilburn will be joining us after services tomorrow. You will tell him you are honored to be his wife.”
“Oh, no,” Maude cried, “I could never—”
“We can put off the wedding for perhaps six months,” Mrs. Peasley said, like she was doing Maude a kindness, “even a year. To give you time to get used to the idea.”
Unless I missed my guess, bread-baking lessons were in my near future. “I'm going to live with Maude after she's married,” I told them.
“Oh, now that is just a poor idea,” Mrs. Peasley said to me.
“That's what we do in our family,” I said.
“You're part of our family now,” Mrs. Peasley said more firmly. “I can't allow it, Sallie, dear. It's hard enough to get a marriage off on the right foot without a live-in relative to muddy the waters.”
I wanted to tell them I'd show them some muddy water, but I decided to do like Maude, who had gone very still. Everything was out in the open now, clear as a sheet of glass, and the facts were indeed ugly enough to take the breath away.
We sat quiet for a good five minutes once the Peasleys went back downstairs. Even though Mrs. Peasley did mention she could use a hand in the kitchen now that supper was done with.
Maude knew as well as I did, Mrs. Peasley wouldn't lift a hand to do the dishes. She'd taken to having a tiny bit of something in a glass after dinner, sitting in the parlor with the reverend. They looked like they were playing king and queen.
I hatched several plans for revenge. Those Peasleys would rue the day they asked me to wax the pews. Or bake a pie. Or bathe their children. I knew I couldn't bring myself to drown one, but a little soap in the eyes never killed anybody. Mrs. Peasley tended to be real anxious about soap in the eyes.
“What are we going to do?” I asked when it came clear that Maude must have hatched a few plans of her own. She was up and moving about the room.
“I'm running off,” she said.
“Maude!” She had never been so daring. “When?”
“Tonight,” she said like I'd grown stupid. “Didn't you hear them? They want me to tell that man I'll marry him.”
“They won't marry you off tomorrow,” I said.
“I can't tell him I'll marry him and then run off,” Maude said. “If he really cares for me, that would be cruel.”
“Are you telling me you want to leave tonight to spare Mr. Wilburn's feelings?”
“However much they can be spared,” Maude said, “yes. If I leave tonight, I'll look ungrateful. But if I lie to the man to buy myself a few more nights of sleeping in a warm bed, he looks like a fool. I can't do that to him, Sallie, even if for no
better reason than he was kind enough to bring my little sister a handful of dime novels.”
If she was hoping to make me ashamed of myself, she was barking up the wrong tree. I didn't twist Mr. Wilburn's arm to bring me those books. He'd only done it to soften up Maude. Aunt Ruthie wouldn't have apologized for me, and neither would I.
“Just put him off for a little while,” I said. “We have to make plans.” This was true; we'd starve or freeze to death if we didn't make preparations. Anyone who read
Apart from that, I admit to wanting mostly to ruin at least one batch of bread, to burn some pies, to oil those pews so heavily no one could sit on them for a month of Sundays. I said, “Maybe we could pretend you have a little fever to buy ourselves some time.”
“I can't take you with me, Sallie.”
T ISN'T SAFE FOR GIRLS OUT WEST,” SHE SAID. “IT'S NOT
kindly even to men. And winter's coming on…”
Like a picture flew from her mind to mine, I saw her sitting frozen to her horse in the middle of the plains. I said, “I can't take it, Maude, never knowing what happens to you. I'd rather die frozen to my horse.”
“You don't have a horse,” she said, getting mad, “and neither do I.”
“You can't expect to make it to Independence without one.”
“I'll travel light,” she said. “Maybe someone will offer me a ride.”
Maude was not a stupid girl, but for the first time I wondered if she could make it to Independence without me. “You said it yourself, Maude, you're going west, where Reverend Peasley didn't think Uncle Arlen stood chance enough to make it ninety miles.”
Maude rattled off a variety of arguments, each one weaker than the one before. “If you stay, Sallie, you'll be fine
here. Losing the house is no bother to you. And the Peasleys will keep you. They'll practically have to.”
“Maude, take me with you. I don't want to stay here.”
“I don't even have a plan,” Maude said on a low, plaintive note.
“Let me do the planning,” I said to her as I reached for the candle.
Which is how we came to be standing in the barn when the moon was high, our carpetbags once more filled to bursting. But this time we'd left our dresses behind. My high-top boots too.
Moving silently through the darkness in my nightgown, I'd raided the collection for the poor, hunting up some boys' clothes. Maude and I were outfitted in rough pants, flannel shirts, and lined jackets. We had a change of clothing, should we need it, and even some long underwear—they had holes but I knew I had washed them thoroughly.
I had put on a pair of lace-up boots, the kind farm boys wore. And I'd made a real find of an old pair of riding boots with hard, pointy toes. The leather hadn't cracked open anywhere, and they looked likely to fit Maude.
I tried for felt hats, the kind with a brim like a shed roof, which I knew was a necessary. There were only two, one more battered than the other, but both of them fell so low as to cover the tip of my nose. I figured one of them might work out for Maude. We had cold-weather gear, if we didn't mind holes in the fingertips of our gloves, and if we could bear the scratchiness of scarves that were given away because they'd shrunk to pure ugliness.
While I was busy, Maude had rolled up the quilts and blankets we had brought with us from home and tied them with whatever she could find, from bootlaces to the curtain ties. I didn't mention the quilts we had to leave behind, and neither did Maude. As we dressed, I said, “We have to cut our hair, so we'll look like boys.”
Maude wouldn't allow it until I reminded her that she'd told me it wasn't safe for girls. “We won't look like girls,” I told her and, making good use of Aunt Ruthie's scissors, hacked my own hair off first.
Maude proved to be more talented in this direction. She smoothed out my edges just right and showed me how to do hers. While I cut her hair, Maude said, “It's good we have such deep voices.”
I didn't reply. Such careful work demanded that I keep my tongue clenched between my teeth.
“You can't remember Momma's singing voice,” Maude said wistfully. “So clear and high. It always saddened me that neither of us got it.”