Authors: Anne Mateer
Tags: #FIC042030, #FIC042040, #FIC027050, #Christian fiction, #Love stories
“Ma? You ready to go?” My words echoed through our tiny clapboard home. One large room and a kitchen downstairs, two tiny bedrooms and a water closet upstairs. The click of a door opening on the second floor answered.
“I'll be there when I'm ready.” The thunk of wood connecting with wood, shutting Ma back inside her room.
I knew better than to hurry her, even though I was sure she'd complain when we arrived late to the Wednesday night prayer meeting. For the hundredth time, I coached myself to hold my tongue and accept her as she was, not as I wished she'd be.
My brother was always so much better at that than I was.
“I'll be outside,” I called to Ma, shoving my bowler on my head, then jogging down the porch steps, reminding myself yet again that God had called me to take care of Ma. He'd chosen me to stay and Clay to go. No sense rehashing a situation that couldn't be changed. Ma needed me. My students and my basketball players needed me, too.
I rubbed a hand across the back of my neck. Already damp. The weather was far too hot for a late September evening. We
needed autumn to blow in. Maybe cooler weather would ease the foulness of Ma's temper.
Shoving my hands into my pockets, I crossed the yard and kicked the tires of my two-year-old Tin Lizzie, the roadster version, with a buggy-like bench seat, spoked wheels, electric headlamps, and crank-up leather top. And my favorite partâthe electric starter. I buffed a spot from the radiator hood with my sleeve, wishing the church sat two miles from our house instead of two blocks. Foolish to drive such a short distance, even in the heat.
Ma bustled out the door and down the steps. “Stop dawdling. We need to go.”
My mouth opened and closed. I found a smile, remembering the way Clay's easy grin would diffuse the sting of Ma's tongue. I fell into step beside her, offering my arm for support.
“Coach Vaughn!” I turned to see Reed Cliftonâ
to his teammates and classmatesâwave from down the street.
“Just a minute, Ma. I need to speak with Blaze.”
Her lips pursed as her hand slipped from my arm. My star basketball player loped toward us. I prayed his father hadn't been on a rampage against schooling again.
Blaze's eyes cut to Ma. “Ma'am.”
She nodded, then turned away, giving us the illusion of privacy.
Blaze leaned in and lowered his voice. “Just wanted to make sure you heard about Miss Delancey, Coach.”
I cringed. Just the mention of the woman's name made me want to don a tin cap and dive to the duckboards of a trench in France with Clay and the others. I shook off the willies. Come to think of it, she hadn't pestered me for the past few days. “What about her?”
Blaze threw me a cocky grin. “She's eloped.”
“Eloped?” I hooted. “And who is the lucky groom?”
Blaze's shoulders bounced with silent laughter. “My uncle Sal.”
“You're kidding.” I grinned. Until the next thought hit. Then I groaned. “I guess that means a new music teacher.”
Please, God, let her
be as old as Ma.
Maybe Principal Gray would see fit to hire a woman devoted to her profession instead of a husband hunter. But I doubted it. Every new, young female he'd hired had been more interested in her own future than that of her students.
“Chet? We're already late!”
I glanced at Ma and nodded, then returned my attention to Blaze. “You want to walk with us to the prayer meeting?”
The boy sobered, then shrugged. “Sure, but I can't stay.”
We started off again, Ma moving at a faster clip than normal, Blaze beside me, looking as if he wanted to speak but dared not. At least not until we reached the church building, its whiteness stark and bright against the browning landscape.
The congregation was milling about the yard, not inside the church. Escaping the heat? OrÂ .Â .Â .
Tight faces. Hushed voices. My gut twisted. Ma let go of my arm and hurried toward a group of older women. I lingered with Blaze, neither of us able to find conversation.
Blaze cleared his throat and backed toward the street. “Guess I'd better get on home.”
I nodded. He broke into a run, eager to escape whatever anguish had settled over those gathered here. Something was wrong. Very wrong.
Ma returned to me, eyes wide. She clutched at my arm. “It's Davy Wyatt. Nicked in the barber shop last weekend and
succumbed to blood poisoning. Left his poor wife with those four little children.”
I winced, my hand involuntarily rising to my neck. If a nick of the barber's blade could end a life, what chance did Clay have in the path of bullets and poison gas? My gaze cut to Ma, wondering if she thought the same thing.
Her features twisted, exposing both fear and pain. I'd prayed for years she could leave the past behind.
I softened my voice. “Let's go home, Ma.”
She chewed her bottom lip, then shook her head. “I need to go to her, Chet. Make sure she's all right.”
“Go to whom?” I'd met Davy Wyattâthe affable guy who ran the livery stableâa couple times, but we'd had little contact since I'd purchased my Ford. Ma wasn't overly acquainted with the Wyatts, either, as far as I knew.
“Jewel Wyatt. We roll bandages together at the Red Cross.”
Pastor Reynolds grimaced and settled his hand on Mrs. Wayfair's shoulder as she bumbled to the conclusion of the second verse of the closing hymn at Davy Wyatt's funeral on Saturday afternoon. She ended with what I assumed she meant to be a triumphant chord. If only her fingers had hit the right notes.
Ma's head shook with displeasure. “You'd think she could get it right for once,” she whispered. I nodded, observing Mrs. Wayfair's preening, as if she'd just played a perfect concerto. I'd been glad to wish Miss Delancey good riddance, but I already missed the way she made the piano music wrap around our congregational voices. Whether on my phonograph or in person, I did enjoy good music. It was the one thing Ma and I had in common.
Mrs. Wyatt rose from her seat on the front pew, her gaze fixed on the window that overlooked the cemetery. She swayed. The young woman beside her, also clad in black, leapt to her feet and steadied Mrs. Wyatt. Together, they approached the pine box. Mrs. Wyatt pressed her hand against the unfinished wood, over the place where her husband's heart rested. Then she turned and hurried up the aisle, the same hand now pressed to her mouth.
The rest of the family stood and filed past the coffin with solemn faces before escorting the Wyatt children outside.
Four men came forward and carried Davy Wyatt out the side door to his final resting place beside the church. I glanced at Ma, wondering if the scene brought back memories of her grief. Of
Low murmurings accompanied the rustle of women's skirts. I helped Ma to her feet, eager to escape the closeness of the large crowd. But before I could guide us toward the exit, a hand pressed against my arm. A lace-gloved hand.
Careful to keep a neutral look on my face, I raised my head.
Wide blue eyes stared into mine. Yellow curls peeking out around a pale face. “Mr. Vaughn! What a pleasure to see you.” She blinked twice. “You do remember me, do you not?”
I took a step into the emptying aisle. Her hand fell from my sleeve. “Of course, Miss Morrison.” I tipped my head in acknowledgment, not wanting to offend the banker's daughter. Then I let my gaze roam over the congregation of mourners. “But if you will excuse me, I believe I'm neededâover there.”
I gave a quick smile to diffuse her sputtering before I escorted Ma outside. I meant to join the men who stood in clumps, hands in their pockets, asking two-word questions and receiving one-word answers, but my focus snagged on Davy Wyatt's widow. She stood apart from the mourners, her face chalky above the
collar of her dark dress. Two little girls flitted around her skirt while a smaller child lay limp against her shoulder. Her grief seemed to draw a circle around her, preventing others from penetrating the space.
All except Ma. She bustled right up to the widow and laid a hand on her arm.
Mrs. Wyatt's face brightened a bit at the touch. They spoke out of my hearing. Then Ma reached for the sleeping child and nudged the widow toward the men shoveling dirt into a gaping hole amid a cluster of gravestones behind the wrought-iron fence. The gate creaked loudly under the woman's hand. She stopped, looked back. Ma nodded again.
I didn't want to watch her plodding steps through the cemetery as she attempted to avoid the resting places of those gone far longer than her husband. But I couldn't seem to turn away. Pastor Reynolds and her relatives followed at a distance for the short graveside good-bye. When Mrs. Wyatt knelt at the new grave, I lowered my chin, not wanting to witness the private moment with her husband. Had Ma ever wished she could visit Pa's grave in the sad aftermath? I couldn't imagine it possible, but then I'd never been able to make sense of the female mind.
I hung back with the other men as Mrs. Wyatt returned through the creaking gate. A man dressed in an army coat and breeches, complete with canvas leggings and a Montana-peak campaign hat in his hand, approached and took the sleeping child from Ma.
A blur bolted from the graveyard. Two ladies shrieked and jumped back.
“JC? JC, come back!” A feminine voice rose above the hum of the crowd.
I eyed the road open before the boy, a lonely stretch leading
as far as he could run. I stepped into his path. The boy slammed into me, stumbled backward. I caught his arms, held him upright. “Whoa, there! Moving pretty fast, aren't you?”
He wriggled and twisted, trying to escape my hold. I bent down, one knee in the dirt, peering up at the child's tear-streaked face. “I've got you, son. Let me help.”
JC stilled, red-rimmed eyes finally meeting mine. “You cain't help. Cain't nobody help. 'Cept God. And He let my daddy die.”
The childhood ache of missing Pa hollowed my stomach. “You're Davy Wyatt's boy, aren't you?”
He nodded and looked to the angry faces of those standing just beyond us, those ready to snatch him up and scold him for running.
“You're right. Nobody can bring back your father. But I can listen if you want to talk.”
His eyes pinched almost shut as his arms tensed beneath my hands. “Talk about what?”
Two men I'd met on Wednesday night tried to pry JC from my grasp. I refused to let go. This boy needed to know someone understood his situation, understood how he felt. “Whatever you want. Your pa. God. Life and death.”
Mrs. Wyatt pushed through her relatives, huffing and puffing, hat askew, dust clinging to wetness that streaked her cheeks. JC wrenched himself from one of the men who'd grabbed his arm and threw himself into his mother's embrace. Mrs. Wyatt knelt in front of him and pushed back his damp hair.
“Don't run from me, JC. Please.” She pressed a kiss to his forehead. When she stood, her gloved hand closed around his small fingers. She studied me for a moment. “I'm so sorryâ”
I waved off her apology. Her expression softened. “Thank you. Mr. Vaughn, isn't it?”
A tiny smile curved her wide mouth. “I might have known Louise would have such a compassionate son.”
I glanced at Ma. She looked away. Maybe I didn't know my mother as well as I'd imagined.
The surge of energy that got me on the train Wednesday night carried me through Thursday, Friday, Saturday. The minutes blurred into hours, my hands never stopping, my mind never settling. Not until the last mourners left Jewel's house. The last unrelated mourners.
If only Mama were here. But she rested near the new mound of Oklahoma soil that covered Davy. And we didn't have Daddy's guidance, either. He resided in a bed in my brother Don's home, two hours north, half of his once-strong body rendered useless by a stroke. I pushed the image from my mind, unable to deal with my grief over Daddy on a day already filled to the brim with sorrow.
My two brothers, two sisters, and I remained. Three of my siblings were old enough to be my parent. Jewel and I were closest in age, but even then, almost ten years separated us.
“Why don't you and the children go on to bed.” My eldest sister, Janice, threw the statement at me.
Long before her suggestion, I knew they didn't want me in
their powwow. Even though I was twenty-five years old, they still considered me a child. I wanted to sass back that I could stay awake with the grown-ups, but then I figured seeing the children to bed would be more pleasurable than the ensuing discussion. Besides, Jewel looked done in. I'd hate for her to worry over one more thing.
I managed a sad smile for Jewel as I shooed the children up the stairs.
All but ten-year-old JC. Him I had to drag.
We reached the bedroom my nieces and nephews would share until I returned to the university. JC sulked in the corner. I pushed up the sleeves of my dress, anxious for any relief from the warm night, before gathering the children's nightclothes.
Two-year-old Russell wiggled and laughed until I lifted him into his crib. Then he stared over the railing with solemn eyes, thumb jammed between his full lips.
Eight-year-old Trula's hair hung in limp strands around her face as I unbuttoned her dress. Had it been only this morning I'd pulled the rags from her locks and arranged the curls of gold down her back? She tugged the thin white nightdress over her head and crawled into bed.
Four-year-old Inez whimpered, climbed up beside her sister, sighed, then stilled. I brushed my hand over the child's damp face.
JC remained huddled in the corner, arms crossed over his narrow chest, face twisted into a scowl. But I recognized the pain beneath the anger. I motioned him to me. He shook his head. “C'mon,” I whispered. “You need sleep, too.”
His head shook again, more violently this time.
I crouched down beside him. “I understand, JC, I really do.”
The corners of his mouth quivered, and tears filled eyes the
color of the walnut gramophone casing downstairs. So much of Davy in those eyes. I almost couldn't bear to look. I pulled him to my chest.
“What will happen to us, Aunt Lula?” The muffled question soft and wet against my dress.
“Jesus sees, JC. And you have your mama still.” I stroked back his dark hair, kissed his sweaty forehead. “Cry now, if you want. No one can see you here.”
His body slacked, letting go of its grief in the circle of my arms. I stroked his hair, rocked us back and forth, and begged God to help my nephew untangle the mass of confusion and sorrow I knew stirred inside him. Slowly, his breathing evened, anguish surrendering to the oblivion of sleep. I hefted him onto the bed beside the girls, who curled into each other like two puppies. In the crib, Russell lay splayed on his back, arms and legs akimbo.
I envied Russell, unaware of the meaning of all the commotion. I imagined JC did, too. Russell wouldn't remember his father. Not losing him. Not having him around in the first place. Unlike JC, who would miss Davy every day of his life.
While the others talked, I packed my suitcase. Then I crept down the stairs and perched on the next-to-bottom step. The glow of electric light from the parlor splashed the hall floor and exposed my worn shoes while the voices scraped against the rawness of my heart.
“Lula's the obvious choice,” Janice said. “She's the only one who doesn't have other responsibilities.”
My back jerked straight, shoulder blades pinching. No responsibilities? I had a class to teach. My own studies to complete.
But to them, no husband and no children equaled no life. Anger burned hot and fast, like a prairie fire, almost lifting me to my feet. But I kept my back end firmly attached to the step.
“Will she do it?” My other brother, Ben. Older than Jewel but younger than Don and Janice. I imagined him tapping his foot, looking at his pocket watch, eager for the train to take him back to his Texas home.
“She'll have to.” Don's deep voice, followed by his heavy tread. “Jewel can't deal with all this alone. Especially not if her boy is determined to be reckless.”
My chest tightened. Did they not remember what it was like to lose a parent? Or maybe it felt different as an adult. I didn't know. I only knew I still ached for Mama. Already grieved for Daddy. Understood JC.
“Hush, Jewel.” Don again. The sofa creaked, as if protesting another occupant. “Lula is the least encumbered. We'll just tell her this is the way it is. It'll be best for her anyway. Keep her from chasing Daddy's fantasy.” He snorted, then laughed. “A woman PhD.”
My lips pressed into each other, and my heart picked up speed. They might not esteem my college degree or understand my need for graduate work, but they couldn't dictate my life. I wouldn't let them. Daddy wouldn't let them.
No, I couldn't count on Daddy. Not in his current state. I'd have to fight for myself. Jewel was a grown woman. She'd be fine on her own.
Strong, even strides carried me into the front room. Every head turned in my direction.
“Here's Fruity Lu now.” Ben rubbed his hands together and grinned. My fists clenched at my sides as my jaw tightened.
His face blurred as anger roiled through me like storm clouds across the Oklahoma sky.
“Now, Ben.” Don reached my side and slid his arm around my shoulders. He led me to the sofa, sat me next to Jewel. Jewel dabbed her eyes with a soiled handkerchief and managed a weak smile. Compassion softened my frustration. I reached for her hand.
Janice cleared her throat. “Lula, you'll have to stay here and help Jewel.”
“I can't.” I looked into the face of each of my siblings, Jewel last. “You know I love you, Jewel, but I have a scholarship for my graduate studies and a job teaching at the university. The term is well underway. I have obligations to fulfill.”
Voices burst forth all at once, words jumping over one another, fighting to be heard.
“Graduate work? A college degree was bad enough.” Janice.
“You need a husband, not more schooling.” Don.
“I always told Mama she'd spoiled you selfish.” Ben.
While the others glared, my gaze rested on Jewel, usually more my champion than anyone else. Jewel let go of my grasp and stared at her hands. The handkerchief twisted between them now. She understood, didn't she? My heart clenched.
Janice huffed. “I'd take you all to my house, Jewel, but I have no room. You know that.”
Jewel nodded, balling the handkerchief into her left hand. “I know.”
Don cleared his throat. “Audra and I are taking care of Pop. It's all we can handle on top of the ranch and our own kids.”
Jewel nodded again, stared out the window.
Don and Janice looked at Ben. His focus darted between them. “Don't look at me! I only have two rooms over the mercantile. I
can't handle a woman and four children!” He flipped open his gold pocket watch. “I have to go or I'll miss my train.”
He threw me a wicked grin. “Of course, Fruity Lu wouldn't have stuck it out anyway. You know how she is. First this, then that. It'd be like leaving Jewel with yet another child.”
I lunged toward him. Don stepped in front of me, held me back. Ben chuckled, plunked an awkward kiss on Jewel's cheek, and patted her shoulder before he dashed away.
I dropped back down on the sofa beside Jewel. Good riddance. Ben, of all my siblings, goaded me with his never-forgotten taunt of “Fruity Lu” and his self-importance. I'd show himâand the others, tooâthat I wasn't that girl anymore. I didn't give up. I didn't quit. And no matter what any of them wanted, after church tomorrow I'd return to the university and the degree that would lay Fruity Lu to rest forever.