June 8, 1878
Hoping to block out the rhythmic squeak of Joe's bed, Lanie closed her eyes. The slow, hollow sound had broken into her midnight dreams and forced her to wake hours before the rooster's crow. Knowing the sun would come up before the squeaking stopped, Lanie moped out of bed and scowled at her brother's closed door. Stumbling downstairs to the kitchen, she cursed the repetitious noise keeping her awake.
Louder now, the squeaking quickened as if it hungered for the same fulfillment as the bodies that rocked it back and forth.
Lanie flinched at the sleepy voice. Damn Joe and his squeaking bed! The fool wouldn't be happy until the whole house was up and running.
She turned and gave her daughter's tired face a quick once over. "What's the matter, Char?"
Charlotte rolled her eyes, indicating Joe's bedroom above them, then sat across from her mother.
"Can't sleep?" Lanie yawned.
"What do you think?"
"It's just crickets, honey."
"Honestly, Momma, I stopped believing it was crickets a long time ago. Crickets would have to be near five foot to squelch like that," she added under her breath.
Lanie hushed her. "Let me keep thinkin' you believe it's crickets."
Through sleepy, half-closed eyes, Char smiled. "Fine, Momma. Uncle Joe keeps damn big crickets in his room--"
"Watch your tongue."
"And by the light of the full moon, they all jump on his bed."
Lanie hid her amusement and filled a pot with water. This would have to stop. Especially if Charlotte understood its source.
A thick thumping now accented the peak of every squeak. The headboard drumming against the wall usually signaled the near end of Joe's excursion and promised Lanie that peaceful sleep waited only minutes away. Silently, she thanked God for helping Joe make it quick tonight.
"You gotta talk to him, Momma," Charlotte said.
"I was just thinkin' that. Come on." She nodded toward the stairs. "Let's get back to bed. No need to embarrass Miss Sandra by being here when she comes down."
"Maybe some embarrassment is what they need," Charlotte teased. "I think I'll wait for that water to boil and have some tea."
"You'll do no such thing."
"Honestly, Momma, I'm sixteen. It's not as if Uncle Joe will be shocked that I know what their doin'."
"I'm shocked that you know." Lanie slid the teapot to the back of the stove. "Bed, Char. And not another word about it."
Char wrinkled her nose and frowned. Pushing back her chair, she stood with a huff. A hint of mischief sparkled in her dark brown eyes. "You're no fun, you know that?"
"Yes, I know."
She prodded Char up the stairs and glared at Joe's door in passing. Closing her own door against the noise, she crawled into bed beside her daughter.
"Crickets..." Char muttered, rolling onto her side.
Lanie dimmed the lantern and pulled her old wedding quilt up to her chin. Staring into the darkness, she slowly closed her eyes and strained to recall the last time crickets had jumped on her bed.
• • •
CHAR SPREAD A generous pad of creamy butter over her breakfast biscuit and looked daringly down at her uncle. Engrossed with his meal, Uncle Joe scooped forkfuls of mashed eggs onto a small biscuit and inhaled it in one bite. His cheeks swelled with the mouthful of food and collapsed with a single gulp. The moment the meal vanished, a deep belch exited the same way his breakfast had come in, sloppy and fast. He smacked his lips together and eased back in his chair. Taking on the manners of a prim nun, he daintily brushed the tips of his fingers together, ridding them of breadcrumbs.
"Keep cookin' like that and you'll fatten me up," he said.
Char swept his plate away then sat across from him. "It's not the food, Uncle Joe. If you eat like a pig, you're apt to take after one."
"You're almost as good a cook as your ma." He grinned and let out another satisfied smile. "Ain't no one can cook like Lanie."
Char nodded respectfully and bit her lower lip. She'd have to personally thank ol' Miss Sandra for putting Uncle Joe in such a chipper mood. Shifting her gaze to the ceiling, she hoped her mother wouldn't be down any time soon. At least not until she weaseled a "yes" out of Uncle Joe first.
"Don't know where she got it from," Uncle Joe was saying. "Lord knows our ma could choke a horse with some of her stewed concoctions."
"Gram didn't like to cook?" Char said, crossing her fingers under the small table.
If she could get permission from Uncle Joe about goin' to the barn-raising over in Amant, there'd be no reason to beg her mother, and no reason to waste her breath explaining that she was old enough to go without a chaperon.
"You know she couldn't," he said. "Your momma started tendin' to me and your gramps when she was just a colt." He measured her height against the low table. "I thank God every day I wasn't born a female."
Char nodded and shrugged. "So, Uncle Joe, how's that lady friend of yours doin'?"
She cringed the moment she heard the urgency in her tone. If she didn't pace herself, he'd know he was walking into a trap.
A smile curled the corner of his lips.
"I shoulda known something was up when you put a fine plate of food in front of me this morning," he said. "Why do you ask?"
Char nodded upstairs, indicating his room. "Why do you think?"
"Best watch that sass of yours," he said, his grin widening.
He was almost there, she thought. Almost in the palm of her hand. "I'm just warning you," Char said. "Momma didn't look too happy last night."
Uncle Joe sighed, his grin gone.
Char bit harder on her lip. She shouldn't have added in that last piece about her mother.
"Don't give her no mind," she said quickly. "We'll deal with momma another time."
Sipping his coffee, Uncle Joe said nothing. He seemed to be thinking on Lanie, but Char couldn't be sure.
Trying to catch his attention, she slumped deeper into her chair and let out a heavy sigh. Hoping he'd heard her, she glanced up. He hadn't moved. Folding her hands in her lap, she sighed again, twice as loud as the first time.
"What?" he finally asked.
"Oh, it's nothing," she mused.
He accepted her response with a shrug and pushed his chair away from the table.
Irritated, Char added a dash of helplessness to a third sigh, this time letting her arms fall heavily at her sides.
Towering above her, Uncle Joe paused. "All right, Charlotte. What're you trying to weasel out of me this time?"
"Why, Uncle Joe!" she gasped. "What do you mean, 'weasel'?"
A cross between stern and impatience cinched his brow. "Come on. Let's have it."
"I was just thinking," she said. "That's all."
"Well..." She chose her words carefully. "Well, since momma was up all night because of those crickets, that's what she calls them you know..."
Her uncle almost cracked a smile.
"Well," she continued, "she might stay in bed all day from pure exhaustion."
Apparently unaffected, he swept his hat off the table. "She might."
Darn! This wasn't working as well as she'd hoped.
"Well, you see, Uncle Joe, I needed to ask her permission--"
"Uh-uh." He waved his hand through the air, cutting off her words.
"But what if she doesn't wake up in time for me to ask her?"
"Then you don't get whatever it is you're trying to get," he said simply.
"But that's not fair!"
Char forbade herself the luxury of stomping her foot or slamming her hand on the table in a temper tantrum that would've gained her objective five years ago. It wouldn't work now though, not when she was sixteen and almost a woman.
Pursing her lips, she crossed her arms over her chest. "You can give me permission," she pointed out.
"I'm not your mother."
"You've done it before."
"I was near tarred and feathered for it, too."
"She almost skinned me alive last time, honey."
Grimacing, Char looked away. How did momma always manage to get folks shakin' in their boots?
Defeated, she collapsed into her chair. "Just ain't fair that I get punished because you were up all night with--"
"Crickets," he filled in.
"Crickets..." she echoed. "It's gettin' to where I hate those blasted things."
Uncle Joe chuckled and reached for the door.
"I bet you'd let your daughter go if you had one," she said, sullenly.
"I bet you're right." He stepped into the open jamb and puffed his chest up with crisp morning air.
Char lifted her gaze to see her uncle grinning down at her. It was hopeless now. He'd never give her permission.
"You'd probably tell her to go on her merry way and not even worry about the late hour," she added.
"You're absolutely right," he said. "But I don't, so I'm not. And neither are you."
Char open her mouth to speak, but Uncle Joe slammed the door on her words. Obviously, she wasn't as tricky as she used to be. That, or ol' Uncle Joe was catching on.
Pouting, she crossed her arms over her chest.
What a waste of a good meal!
She scowled at his exit, then shifted her gaze upstairs to where her mother still slept. One way or another, she'd get herself to that barn-raising.
• • •
LANIE HAD CLOSED HER eyes for what seemed like a breath of time when the eerie squelch of silence snapped her awake. Dust particles lined her tired eyelids, verifying the lack of sleep. Avoiding the creeping glare behind the daisy print drapes on her window, she pulled the comforter over her head.
You could always go back to sleep.
"Just one more hour," she answered the temptation.
Would it really make a difference?
Of course it would. She whipped her wedding quilt back. She'd be playing "catch up" all day if she didn't get started on her chores right now.
Scowling, she rubbed her eyes and swung her legs out of bed. The hard wood floor greeted her toes with a morning chill. Lanie winced and fell back on the soft mattress. She stretched her arms over her head and swiped them back and forth on Char's side of the bed.
For once, Char had beaten her to the kitchen. At least one of them had enough sleep to rise with the sun.
Bolting upright, Lanie shared her disgust with her reflection in the vanity across the small room. "Joe has got to stop..."
She yanked her nightgown off and shoved it under the disheveled comforter. Opening her clothing trunk with a bang, she scowled at the array of light brown and faded gray cottons inside.
She snapped a dull shirt and skirt out of the trunk and slammed the lid shut. "Waking up in the middle of the night, listening to that damn squeaking and thumping at all hours..." She searched the floor for her discarded shoes. "And with a child in the house too..."
Had he no morals?
Her anger reaching a new peak, she tried to ignore her sleep-deprived headache and quickly dressed.
Just what did Joe think they were running? A bordello?
Tying her short hair back with a thin leather strap, she clenched her teeth together. She'd put an end to this once and for all. With a deep breath, she swung her door open and stomped down the stairs.
"Joseph Winters! We need to talk!"
"He's out at the field," Char answered from the kitchen. "In a dang chipper mood too. Wonder why..."
Lanie didn't have to see her daughter's face to know she was smiling from ear to ear. She entered the kitchen and slumped into a chair. "Momma?"
Leaning forward, Lanie rubbed the sleep from her eyes. "What, Char?"
"I was wondering if you'd been thinking about what I asked you?"
"And what was that?"
"About the summer potluck."
Lanie lifted her head to catch a smile matching her daughter's anxious tone. Both drilled an unwanted wake up call through her aching head.
"I already figured it out," Char said. "Uncle Joe can clean out the barn. Doc Wiggins plays a fine fiddle. There can be dancing and eating--"
Lanie cut off the morning chirp with a wave of her hand. "Yes, I thought about it."
Hesitant, she sighed. "I think it's a fine idea."
Char leapt from the chair. "You won't have to do a thing, Momma. Honest. I want to host it all myself."
Hosting the event was where Lanie's reluctance hid. No doubt, the entire town would come. And while some were dear friends, there were also a few who tended to stick their noses where they didn't belong.
For Char's sake, however, such an event held importance, even if only to her.
"Oh, and something else, Momma," Char said, nibbling the corner of a biscuit.
"Can't it wait until I'm awake?"
"But they're havin' a barn raisin' over in Amant. Can I go?"
Lanie pursed her lips, glaring at Charlotte for pushing her boundaries so early in the morning. She knew Amant was off limits. They'd argued over it enough times to write a novel on the subject.
"Charlotte Beth, you know that's near two hours away," Lanie said. "And you know I don't have time to take you. Joe and I have our hands full as it is."
Char cleared her throat, a clear signal that Lanie should pay attention. The younger snapped her shoulders straight, pressed down her dress front, and lifted her chin defiantly. "Momma, I'm sixteen years old. I think I'm grown enough to decide which events I should attend. And I think this barn raisin' would be very... very--"
"Educational?" Lanie prompted.
Lanie warned herself not to laugh at Char's attempt for a womanly poise. "I'll consider it."
"Uncle Joe said when you were my age you and--"
"Uncle Joe is a drunk."
Char's eyes widened. "He is not."
"Well, he's half loony."
"I'm telling him you said that."
"Good. And while you're at it, tell him to stop filling your head with lies of what I once did. The man can hardly remember last week, much less twenty years ago."
"So can I go?" she asked again. "Geoffrey Adams already asked me. And I was thinking that maybe you and his pa could come with. That is, if you won't let me go alone."
Lanie wrinkled her nose. Geoffrey's pa, Jared, was far from being a man she wanted to attend occasions with. There was nothing specifically wrong with him. He was a gentleman to be sure, but he wasn't Lanie's hope for an escort. Then again, she couldn't possibly allow Char to attend the event alone.
"I said I'll consider it," she repeated.
With Char's hand still attached to it, a mug appeared beneath Lanie's nose. Warm and tempting, its robust aroma quelled her headache.
"You better consider quick." Char placed the mug on the table. "Because it's tomorrow mornin'."
"Then you best hope I make my decision by then." Lanie arched an irritated brow at her daughter. "And if I haven't decided by tomorrow, then you'll remember to give an earlier notice next time."
Char slumped in the chair, a reaction Lanie had expected. "Uncle Joe said I could go."
"Uncle Joe is not your ma."
"And it's a damn shame he's not."
"Watch your tongue."
Pushing a chestnut strand of hair behind her ear, Char stuck out her bottom lip. "Maybe if crickets jumped on your bed as often as they did Uncle Joe's, you wouldn't be so cantankerous."
Lanie gripped her cup before it could slip from her hands. The hot coffee penetrated the mug and merged with the heat of her fingers. If Char thought she was doing anything simply because her uncle approved, she had another thing coming.
Damn! How many times had she warned Joe not to interfere with her parenting?
Char's gaze had shifted uneasily to the table. "Sorry, Momma. I didn't mean anything by that."
Sliding her chair back, Lanie stood, mug in hand. "I want the kitchen clean when I get back, you hear me?" She'd deal with Joe's meddling now, and Char's sass later.
Lanie wanted to forgive the statement, but she couldn't. The truth left too deep a wound. If she had someone, maybe she wouldn't be so cantankerous. But her feelings on the subject were nothing Char could understand. She'd married once. And once was enough for any woman.
And as a result, she was a lonely, bitter widow, just like her mother.
"Joe!" Lanie called before she reached the edge of the field.
He looked up from pampering a mule, nodded once in her direction, and returned to his task.
"Joe, we need to talk," she said when she'd come close enough that she could speak without shouting.
"Mornin', Lanie." He gestured her mug. "That hot coffee you got there?"
"Sure is. Joe, we need to talk."
"Amongst other things."
Joe swiped the floppy straw hat from his head, exposing sleek black hair streaked with silver strands of age. Deep laugh lines traced his mouth and eyes, reminding Lanie of their father before he'd passed on. Wiping his leathery cheek with the back of his hand, he replaced the hat and finally acknowledged her with a shrug.
"You outta let her go," he said. "She's not your baby any more."
"And she never was your baby," Lanie pointed out. "I want you to stop giving her permission and telling her stories about my childhood. The more you stick your nose into my affairs, the harder it is for me to run them, and the less likely Char is to mind me."
"It's only one barn raisin', DeLanie. Geoffrey Adams isn't cartin' her off for marriage. And there'll be plenty of folk there to keep an eye out for her."
Lanie stroked the light mule's stale, dark mane. "It's not about that. You know I'll let her go more than likely. My point is, I'd like to make that decision without Char bragging that Uncle Joe already said yes."
Joe smirked and swiped his cheek again. "I know what you mean. But I never gave Char my permission."
He shook his head. "That child's pushing you. And she'll keep on pushing 'til you give her way and let her grow a little."
"Why, that little liar..." Lanie sipped her coffee. What a way to start the day. "Did she tell you that half-ocked idea of hers? About me going with Jared Adams?"
"Ol' Jared ain't so bad," Joe said, tightening the mule's harness. "He hasn't talked about nothing else since you sat with him at the spring potluck."
Lanie wrinkled her nose.
"It's that or let Char go alone," he added.
"Or not go at all."
"And you know she'll be spittin' fire over that."
Lanie sighed and glanced over her shoulder at the house in the distance. "She does have a temper."
"Just like her momma."
"I do not have a temper, Joseph Winters. I'm just tired. And that brings me to another problem."
"Char already told me."
Lanie tilted her head to one side. Char was just full of surprises this morning. "And what exactly did she tell you?"
"That the two of you were up last night listening to the crickets jump on my bed?" Brows raised, Joe waited for a response to the reference. When she didn't answer, he laughed. "Crickets, Lanie? I can't believe you told her crickets."
"Oh, hush up. I shouldn't have had to tell her anything at all."
"Crickets," Joe laughed again. "Nice way to put it."
"We have to come to some kind of agreement, Joe. You're keeping me up half the night sometimes. And Char too. I think one of us should move into Momma's cabin by the river."
The smile fell from Joe's face. "No."
"It's just sitting there empty. One of us might as well use it."
"Things are fine the way they are," he said, solemnly.
Lanie pursed her lips. When would he realize that she wasn't his baby sister anymore? "Joe, I'm thirty-two--"
"Thirty-five," he corrected. She waved her hand at the insignificant detail. "It doesn't matter. The point is, I'm long passed old enough to care for myself. I've been giving it a lot of thought and I think me and Char might move our belongings out there."
"And I'll just follow right behind like last time." Joe's gaze narrowed and darkened. He stepped closer to her. "Listen, Lanie, I know it ain't easy for us to live together, but I don't want you living out there by yourself. And I don't want you living here by yourself. Let well enough alone."
"It's not well enough," she bit out. Ready for battle, she put her hand to her hips. "Damn it, Joseph Winters, you can't coddle me forever."
He stepped back, the familiar shine returning to his eyes. "Not forever. Just 'til you get married."
"It's almost worth it just to get you out of my way."
Joe chuckled and wiped his hands on his thighs. "I hear Jared Adams is lookin' for a wife."
"Well, he can just keep on lookin'. I'm not that desperate for sleep yet."
"You'll find someone soon enough," Joe said, resuming his inspection of the mule. "I know you say you don't want to, but not every marriage is like the one you had. I know being married to that bastard, Zeke, was hell. But you can't base every fellow on that."
Ignoring his gaze and his words of wisdom, she stroked the mule's neck. "I don't want to discus it."
"Tell me you don't think of it sometimes," Joe said. "Just tell me you don't."
"Every fellow thinks about it. Why, if you're lucky, you might find a fine gentleman like myself."
Glancing up, Lanie returned his jesting smile. "No, thank you."
"And why not?"
She tugged the floppy hat further down his forehead. "Because, Joseph Winters, you're cricket happy."
Joe laughed, just like Lanie knew he would. She could never stay mad at her brother long enough for it to matter. She turned and headed for the house.
"You comin' in for dinner?" she called back to him. "Or should I bring it out to you?"
"What are we having?"
"Stew from last night."
Joe nodded once. "I'll be in."
Lanie cringed when she reached the porch steps. They'd never settled on a solution for his middle of the night excursions. Now how did that happen? Didn't she go out there for the express reason of settling this? She shook her head and started up the steps. Once again, he'd managed to change the subject.
"Find a husband," she repeated his words. He might have quieted her for now, but she'd catch him at dinner and settle this once and for all.
"What did he say?" Char asked when Lanie entered the kitchen.
"He said you already talked to him."
Slipping her apron off a nail in the wall, Lanie wrapped the straps twice around her waist and tied them at her stomach. "I want you to stop involving your Uncle Joe in our business."
Placing a dishtowel on the nail, Charlotte dried her hands on her skirt and avoided her mother's ordering glare.
"I wasn't trying to involve him, Momma," she said. "It's just that... Well, it's nice to tell him what's going on once in a while. I know he's not my pa, but sometimes I like talking to him like he is."
"You can talk to me."
"I know that, Momma, and I do talk to you. But some things I like to talk to Uncle Joe about. I guess those are the same things I would talk to Pa about if he were alive."
Lanie narrowed her gaze on her daughter, wondering if her words were true or manipulating. "Well thank your lucky stars that he's not alive. Because he never had a very good ear as far as listening went."
"Oh, he did, too."
"You were six. You hardly remember." She stacked the breakfast dishes, not wanting to broach the subject. "And it's luck that you don't. Zeke wasn't--"
"I remember he used to hold me on his lap and tell me I had his eyes."
"It doesn't matter much now, does it?" Lanie said, closing the door on the subject.
Deep lines engraved the frown over Charlotte's brow. "You were always so cross with him."
"Never mind that," Lanie said. "It's shopping day. Get your chores done and you can come to town with me. I'll be out at the coup when you're ready."
Lanie stomped down the porch steps.
The same eyes, indeed!
Zeke Yeager had been trying to convince himself every time he'd told Char that. She had her father's eyes, all right. But they weren't Zeke's. Nothing on that child belonged to Zeke. And it was a damn good thing, too. The last thing Lanie wanted was proof of her marriage to that man. She couldn't bear to look into her Char's eyes if she saw Zeke Yeager there.
It was difficult enough already to look at her daughter without recalling her true father's identity.
"No you don't," Lanie murmured. "Don't even think about it."
Too late, a familiar sadness churned her stomach. She could hardly remember him anymore. He'd been real. Charlotte was proof of that. But the memory of him had faded along with her past, locked behind the door she chose to keep firmly closed.
It wasn't your fault, she reminded herself.
She'd told him about Charlotte. But he'd chosen not to write back, not to answer her letters. What more could she do?
"Austin Gray," she whispered. Just as quickly, she swept her gaze around the yard, for fear that someone might've heard the taboo name.
Kicking the chicken coup door open, she recalled the opaque memories of their love. Or what she'd thought was love. Scooping a wooden bowl full of chicken feed from a large barrel, she crossed to the furthest corner of the coup.
"Stop it," she ordered herself, but her thoughts would never listen. On the rare occasions she thought of him, days could pass before she'd let the memories go. Days full of sadness, questions, and regret.
She'd been so naïve then. So foolish and immature.
Scattering fistfuls of feed to the scampering chickens, Lanie ignored the pointless memories. He'd chosen not to return to her. She couldn't change that now. Just as she'd chosen to take Zeke as her husband when she discovered she was with child. Nothing could change or amend the past.
Closing the coup door, she consciously listed her shopping agenda. In the back of her mind, Austin's name rang like a bell in her ear, reminding her of the promises they'd made. The promise that meant nothing once she said "I do" to Zeke, and the pain Austin caused when he never returned.
Copyright © 2003 by Cass Andre