Thursday, July 31, 2014

Chapter 10

I woke up to an exasperated Sloan snapping, "I don't know Dan. The subject hasn't exactly come up you know."

"Well if she hasn't had a tetanus shot she needs one asap."

"Don't you think I know that?!"

My head was splitting. "Shhhh. If it will make you two be quiet you can go find my records in the office in the drawer marked MEDICAL. Dad made sure all of us ... animals and kids ... always had our shots. Now go away. You're too loud."

There was some feet shuffling and then a minute or two later I felt a cool, damp cloth across the back of my neck and I finally oriented myself enough to figure out I was laying face down on a bed. I felt the sheet being pulled down and that woke me up because there was nothing between me and it like there should have been. "Easy there Feisty. Lay still. I'm the only one in here."

"Don't care. I'm not going to be laid out like a side of beef on the butcher's block. I can take care ..."

"Teaghan. After everything else I really don't want to fight with you but you are going to lay still and I mean it."

I knew that tone. It was the same one Dad would use when he'd had all he was going to take. Embarrassed or not I stopped moving and the sheet stopped at my waist. Then I felt something dribbled on my back.


"Fine comment when you are about to be treated to my world famous cure."

"World famous cure for what? Absolute and total humiliation?"

"No, for that headache you've got."

"How'd you know ...?"

"You were rubbing her head in your sleep and whimpering."

He was speaking quiet like you do to someone you don't want to spook. Then I felt him rubbing the stuff into my back. The odor of it finally reached my nose. "Rosemary?"

"Uh huh. And a few other little things. Dr. Williams happens to know a thing or three and you'll let him take care of you."

"Why on earth are you talking in the third person? Only crazy people or those goofy actors on the radio talk like that."

He snorted. "OK, then how about this Miz Literal. I really do know a few things that might surprise you. I've been on my own a long time and learned what helped and what hurt."

"Because of your back?"

He paused and then answered, "Partially."

He kept massaging the oil into my back and after a while I felt like all my bones had gone on vacation.



I heard a chair scuff on the floor as it was pulled close to the bed and then a squeak as he sat down in it. "Teaghan I didn't mean for you to fall."

"I know that. I never thought you did. It was just a stupid accident. I'm sorry I made such a scene."

He was quiet for a moment then I felt the cloth lifted off and a fresh one take its place. "I'm ... I'm just as sorry about what the boys said. I'm a lot of things - hot tempered is one of them - but I've never stooped to hitting a female. I might have been born a bastard but I try like hell not to act like one."

I turned my head to look at him. "OK, so maybe we can just call it even. My mouth gets stuck in neutral or overdrive at the worst times and you like to slam doors instead of slam people. I can handle that if you can."

Sloan shook his head and said, "You're still toasted from the 'shine."

"Maybe, but I thought this was Marriage Rule #1 ... if the other person hurts we have a duty to be there for them. You're upset I got hurt and feel bad because you think you had something to do with it. Well I don't want you to feel bad 'cause I think it was just an accident so Rule #1 ... right?"

He swallowed and said, "Right."

I was about to fall asleep again when I thought, "Oh no. I hate to ask but do you think Charlie or Duncan would mind cooking for you? I ... I just ... can't ..."

"Shhhh. Everything is under control."

"And ... and I'll apologize to the boys. I shouldn't have been so nasty. Just because they are is no excuse for me to be that way."

"No, you won't. If you want you can explain why what they said hurt but you won't apologize. But I guess I'm going to have to explain a few things." He was quiet for a few minutes then said, "I don't remember my father but he's why my back is like it is. It took him almost killing me before Mom would leave him. She moved in with her brother because my grandparents in town had disowned her for getting pregnant with my brother when she was just fourteen. I could make a lot of excuses for my mother but why she was like she was is complicated and not a nice story. When she got pregnant my grandmother's sister said she'd take her in. She lived in the city and had always loved my mom, warts and all. But she died right after Mom got her GED and my mother went right back to ... to making bad choices. One of those choices was my father. I'm told there wasn't a day that went by that my mother and brother didn't get beat on. My brother got put in foster care twice and Mom swore each time she'd leave him and straighten out her life. Didn't happen; she just made it look good for long enough to get my brother back. Then I did something ... no one is sure what but I was only a year old so it couldn't have been anything serious ... but it set my father off. He reached over and grabbed a boiling pot of pasta off the stove top and threw it at me where I was crawling on the floor. He wouldn't let my mother get help for me for three days. By that time she finally was more scared of me dying than she was of what he would do to her. My grandparents helped her get out of the city and back to Kiln Ridge but wouldn't do more than that until she found a job and kept it. Mom wound up working for my uncle. But by then my brother had already ... I don't know ... absorbed too much meanness. I didn't know how much until after he died and the boys were like they were."

"How ... how old were they when you got them?"

"They didn't come to me first ... they went to my mother whom they learned they could terrorize all too easily. I got them two years ago when she died. It's a mess. The family tried to help and whether you believe it or not the boys are better than they used to be but there is still a lot of work to be done. I was hoping a stable home life would ... would ..."

"I'm sorry Sloan. Now I feel really bad about what I said ... but it was the truth. But maybe I was acting like a baby and shouldn't have shouted at them like that just because I was freaking out."

"We'll just have to start over from scratch, not like I haven't had to do that a time or two. As hard as it is to admit, sometimes all those two understand is a spanking. I wish it wasn't like that but it is."

After a moment I told him quietly, "I'm also sorry for making Mr. Burdock mad. I should have said something about the Market Day. I was ... was just trying really hard not to think about it being exactly two weeks since ... since ..."

"Don't even worry about that Teaghan. Burdock can take his upset and shove it sideways. I had a lawyer from outside the county check over the papers before I arrived and everything, right down to the marriage contract, is legal and above board. Burdock was just acting that way because he doesn't have a thing to hold over me like he thought. A new state law went into effect the day before I signed the contract to take over the farm that says a piece of property can only be taken by imminent domain once in a ten year time period. That means that the government can't take the property, sell it, then take it back then sell it again over and over."

"Oh gawd. Do you think that is what Mr. Burdock is going to try and do?"

"Can't. And I don't think that was his plan to begin with ... I just think he thought it would be his ace in the hole if I didn't tow the line."

"Tow the line for what?"

"I wish I knew ... but I mean to find out. I don't like feeling like the only joker in a stack of fifty-two." He stood up and reached over and kissed me on my ear. "Rest for a while. I need to check on things."

I didn't expect to sleep but I sure did ... clean through to the middle of the night when I woke up having to go to the bathroom. Getting out of bed without waking Sloan was not easy. Neither was slithering into a night shirt. The very idea of trying to put anything else on made me green in the gills. And let me tell you, sitting down to take care of business was painful.

I was sweating bullets by the time I got out only to open the door to find Sloan standing there. "You ok?"

Giving up having any dignity at all I told him, "Does wishing I was a boy give you a clue?"

"Well I'm glad you aren't a boy ... and one of these days just to show you I understand I'll tell you about the time I got a load of birdshot in one of my cheeks. And trust me when I say it isn't the ones you smile with."

"Ooooo, don't. If I laugh things are gonna jiggle and I'm not up to jiggling right now."

"Hmmmm ... I'm a gonna have to see me some of that ... when you're feeling better."

I shook my head and decided to just be grateful he was willing to put off what he always seemed to be after when the lights went out ... and sometimes not bother waiting even that long.

The next morning was not fun but there was no way I was going to lay around feeling sorry for myself and give people more to talk about. I spent most of the day on my feet and if I did have to sit down I did it where no one could see or make a comment that I was sitting half on and half off the chair. The boys ignored me which was fine. I understood from Josiah that they were feeling sorry for themselves because they'd finally pushed their uncle so hard he'd called into town to make an appointment with a counselor. That was fine by me too. I wasn't sure what Sloan expected me to do about their schooling. Most girls in the area were homeschooled but most of the boys from what I understood still caught the bus up on the highway. I left that problem for another day.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Chapter 9

"Well Teaghan, how is married life treating you?"

I turned around to find Mr. Burdock and a couple of his men blocking the light coming in through the barn door. I must have blushed because the men all snickered but Mr. Burdock told them to hush, that I was a good girl.

"I was disappointed to see that no one from the farm was at the market today."

"You'll have to speak with Mister about that. They're busy doing the accounting you asked for."

"Are they now. That's helpful to know. Most people don't seem to take that as seriously as the Board means for it to be taken."

I shook my head. "No sir, it was the topic of conversation at the dinner table last night every time I was in there."

"You don't eat with the menfolk?"

"Well ... I mean I did but there were the boys and then Mister and Mr. Dan that works for Mister."

Mr. Burdock nodded though I hadn't a clue what he was nodding about. I asked, "Would you care for some water or some tea Sir?"

Mr. Burdock smiled and I suddenly noticed how white his teeth were. "That would be fine Teaghan, real fine. Why don't you run along and do that and I'll hunt Sloan up myself."

I inched my way around the men and then walked as fast as I could without looking like I was running. Mr. Burdock on his own was ok but I can't say I liked his snickering men too much then or any other times either. I ran into Josiah and grabbed his arm. "Find Sloan would you? Mr. Burdock is looking for him."

"I know where he is. You might wanna stay in the house after this. Gonna be some strange men coming and going and you don't seem to care for that."

"I don't so thanks for the warning."

I had the tea poured and was bringing it out to the back porch when I heard steps coming up the front and turned that way instead. I peeked out the window and saw Sloan not looking too happy but trying to be polite about it. I stood at the screen door until Dan saw me and poked Sloan. He looked my way and I lifted the tray and looked a question at him. He nodded and I slid out the door and put the tray on the table next to the porch chairs and then went to go back inside but didn't make it.

"Teaghan, why didn't you tell Sloan it was Market Day and that your family always brought a truck? One week was understandable since it was only you and you were grieving but two missed deliveries? We had people expecting goods from this farm to fill their orders."

I swallowed never having heard that particular tone of censure from Mr. Burdock. "I ... I ... um ... I thought Mister would be busy taking care of his business first. It's not not my place to say what ... I mean ..."

Sloan interrupted and said, "Go in the house Teaghan."

I jumped at the chance and bolted inside not caring if it looked like I was running or not. I grabbed Cheeser and went down to the basement where it was cool and quiet. I'd been trying not to think of milestones like this ... two weeks since Dad and my brothers had been taken away ... but I should have thought about Market Day if for no other reason than the salesman in Sloan would have wanted to know.

I got myself under control and started turning cheese wheels to give my hands something useful to do until my brain could catch up. After that I set a few crates of jars by the stairs to take up and wash. Josiah had told me that he thought some of the cabbages would need to be picked tomorrow so I decided to can some slaw first thing. I also needed to replenish the supply of maraschino cherries so that I could use up the last of the peaches and pears to make fruit cocktail with later in the month. I started marking off things in my head that needed to be done and I got that same old sinking feeling I did every time I realized that there simply wasn't enough time in the day to do what needed doing.

I heard a conspiratorial whisper and looked up at the head of the stairs to see the two boys whispering as if they didn't know I was there. "She's in trouble now. She embarrassed Uncle Sloan."

"You think he'll spank her?"

"Don't be stupid, big girls don't get spanked. But he might slap her if she runs her stupid mouth at him like she does at us. I'd like to see that."

They snickered and walked off and I realized that maybe they weren't as much like my brothers as I thought. That made me sad because no one could ever replace my brothers but I thought I'd at least understand Sid and Silas ... but maybe I didn't after all. My brothers never would have put up with anyone hitting a girl; they sure wouldn't get excited at even the possibility of it.

I stayed down in the cellar cleaning what must have been two hours when the door at the head of the stairs jerked open again. I nearly dropped the broom. "Did you hear me calling you? Where the Sam Hill have you been?" Sloan snapped.

"I ... I ... no. I'm sorry. I've been down here ever since you told me to go in the house."

"For two hours?! Not possible. The boys said they'd been all over the house looking for you."

"Well I've been right here."

"Don't lie on top of it."

"On top of what? And I'm not lying. I've been right here."

I heard someone mumbling in the kitchen. It turned out to be Duncan who said, "She's been down there right enough. Saw her myself when I brought back the percolator."

I started up the stairs and heard Sloan snap, "Well why the hell didn't someone say where she was?"

"Maybe 'cause you asked the wrong party Boss."

I was about three-quarter of the way up when Sloan slammed the door. He hadn't seen me on the steps. He also didn't know about the bent nails I use to hang the canning equipment on to keep it out of the way. He found out about it though when the vibration made the handle of the big canner jump from the nail and fall right on me.

I didn't yell but there was a loud crack when I fell against the baluster. Sloan jerked the door opened just in time to seem my arms pinwheel as I failed to keep my balance as the baluster gave way and I toppled over. Some bushel baskets broke my fall so that I didn't hit the floor square on but the wind still got knocked out of me. I was trying to drag air into my lungs only there was too many people around. I finally got my foot against Sloan's stomach and pushed which had them all falling back like dominoes. I rolled over and got up on all fours and finally managed to drag in the first real breath. Sloan tried to come back over but I didn't want to have anything to do with anyone until I could breathe right.

When I could I sat back on my knees, coughed and asked, "Where's the canner? Is it cracked?"

Sloan said, "You're cracked! Is anything broken? Let me ..."

"Stop it. I need to check the canner. It was Gram's and is the biggest one I have ... I mean you have. I've got to ..."

It took a moment to push through them and get the canner and then check it over. "Oh thank goodness. It isn't even chipped. I was so worried."

"Dammit woman, stop worrying about an old pot. You just fell a good ten feet!"

"It wasn't ten feet, more like five or six. The bushel baskets broke my fall. Oh no! How many did I break?!"

I tried to go check the baskets but Sloan started acting crazy. He picked me up in front of God and every one and started carrying me up the stairs.

"Stop that. You're going to strain something!"

"My patience is already strained now be still." He was growling for real so not only did I get still, I shut up. He set me in a chair but I had to stand up real quick. "Sit!"

I tried but it hurt too much. "I can't."

"I said ..." He saw the miserable look on my face and said, "You are hurt."

"No. I'm ... I'm fine. So ... um ... go. Yeah go and I'll take care of everything and ..."

"Teaghan I am not in the mood."

I'd had enough ... of men in general and him in particular. "Well I don't care if you aren't in the mood. Leave me alone."

I tried to go to my old room but one foot on the stairs told me I'd pulled something and wouldn't be running that direction. I turned to go another direction but Sloan was right there in front of me. "Teaghan you are driving me crazy! Now sit down!"

"I told you I can't!"

I spied the two boys watching avidly. "Teaghan dammit!"

Through gritted teeth I told him, "I have a splinter."

"You ... !" He stopped and then said more calmly, "What? Did you just say you have a splinter? Where?"

"Where do you think?"

The boys were howling with glee at my predicament. I rounded on them even though it hurt to do it and yelled, "I thought you were like my brothers. It would have been alright if you were just hard headed. I could have lived with that but you aren't like them at all. My brothers never would have lied to our father about looking around the house but not seeing me just to get me in trouble. My brothers would never be waiting around with baited breath waiting for me to get slapped. You're just a couple of hateful brats and I'm done trying to understand you or be your friend. I'll take care of you for Sloan but that's it! Now GO AWAY!!"

I pushed passed several stunned faces and went miserably to the room where I shared a bed and shut the door then almost cursed when I remembered there was no lock to keep anyone out. I took the chair from the corner and shoved it under the door knob and nearly sobbed at the pain that was now stabbing at me. The shock had worn off and now the splinter was making itself felt.

I slid out of my overalls and it wasn't an easy thing to do and then when I reached back to peel down my underthings I realized they were wet. When I pulled my hand back it was bloody. I gritted my teeth and did what I had to do but when it came time to pull the splinter out I realized it wasn't a splinter at all but a piece of wire handle off of one of the bushel baskets. I tried to pull it out but by that time I was nauseous. It felt like it was hung up on something and wouldn't come out. I was nearly ready to panic when there was a knock on the door.

"Teaghan? Teaghan, let me in."

I knew there was no help for it. I couldn't do this by myself. I hobbled over to the door and slid the chair away. I held my overalls up the best I could while the straps fell down the back. "Come in and shut the door. I need some help."

"I brought some tweezers."

"You should have brought pliers."


"Pliers. I ..."

I barely made it to the waste basket. Every time I heaved the piece of metal had me whimpering in pain. I didn't even try to stop Sloan when he tried to see and then he bit out a curse and held me until there were no more heaves. I tried to put me on the bed but I wouldn't let him. "I'll get blood everywhere. I'll lean against the door, just please pull it out. I don't even care if you laugh."

"I'm not laughing. And you aren't leaning against the wall. I don't know how deep this is."

"Then I'll lay on the rug. At least I'll be able to take it outside and wash it."

"Rug might be better. Floor is more stable than a mattress is."

In the end he did wind up having to get a pair of pliers but by that time I didn't care.

"Teaghan drink this."

"Gawd ... no way. Dad would have a fit if he caught me drinking liquor."

"Well your father isn't here and I need you to drink this to deaden the pain."

When I still refused he pinched my nose and tossed several big swallows down my throat. "You're hateful ... just hateful, you know that? Just go away and I'll do it myself."

"Hush and be still."

Suddenly I wasn't caring again. I was too busy trying to not be sea sick. But I cared when he pulled the metal out. And I cared when he poured disinfectant on the puncture wound and cleaned it up. And I cared when that combined with the liquor caused me to puke again. But by the time that was over nothing mattered and I just wanted to be left alone.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Chapter 8

"Sid, Silas? Have you fin ... er ..."

I walked into the dining room to find the boys literally asleep in their empty plates and Sloan and Dan looking very satisfied if tired.

"Well, I guess it was a good thing I hadn't gotten around to plating up their dessert. You want me to get them up or leave them alone?"

Sloan got a wicked grin on and then whistled a sound piercing enough to make both Shotgun and Cheeser give him disgusted looks from the doorway. The boys jumped out of their plates and I could see that both had gravy in their ears. I sighed. "Bed time boys."

They tried to get mulish but their yawns spoiled the effect. I watched them go up the stairs to make sure they actually got there and noticed they only stopped long enough for Shotgun to lick their faces clean. I shook my head thinking once again how like my brothers they could be and then turned and asked Sloan if they wanted anything else from the kitchen like a glass of milk to wash the cobbler down with.

Dan looked at Sloan hopefully so he told me, "That and when you come back can you bring the ledger you showed me? And the one from this time last year if it is easy to get to?"

I did that and was turning to leave when Sloan stopped me and asked me to sit down and help them decipher the postings. "Nothing to decipher; all the entries should be self-explanatory. We always made sure things were clear in case we had to deal with a tax man. My grandfather had trouble of that sort before I was born so the family was kind of a stickler about it. The farm receipts are in filing cabinets up in the attic if you want those too."

Dan moaned and I thought something was wrong until I saw he was smiling and had a terribly silly look on his face like a lovesick hound. I looked a question at Sloan who was grinning and shaking his head. "Don't worry about Dan, he's just happy. You've made our next few weeks a lot easier."

"How so?" I asked finally getting curious despite my personal vow to stay out of it so I wouldn't get my feelings bunched up.

"Burdock - and through him the BOCC - are asking for an accounting."

I sighed. "You know I like Mr. Burdock, and I hope I'm not out of line here, but the one and only time I ever heard Dad say something that was aggravated about him was that Mr. Burdock likes to be too deep into people's private business."

Both men nodded. "No denying it. The man does like to know what is going on and give advice. But in this case what they are doing is taking an account of the farm's value and then they'll expect another one this time next year to compare it to."

"What for?"

Dan said, "They haven't exactly said. I think it is mostly a power trip."

Sloan shook his head, "Feels more like a threat."

I asked, "You mean like an 'or else' kind of thing? Keep things going like we want them to or else?"

Sloan nodded. I felt my first niggling of unease. I thought I'd only have to deal with losing the farm once but it sounded like there was something more going on.

I muttered, "He wants the tobacco I suppose. That's what he was after last year."

Sloan and Dan looked at each other in some silent communication. Sloan asked, "Your father and Burdock were friends?"

"Of a sort. They served together early in the war. Dad was real young ... I think he was still a Private. Mr. Burdock was only a little older but he was an officer ... Dad still ... I mean used to ... call him LT when they were joking around."

Sloan nodded. Dan opened the ledger for both years and started comparing them and then said, "Whooowee Boss. I thought I'd be having to furlough the men next month but if things compare we'll be struggling for them to have their annual time off. Lord ... have ... mercy." He looked at me in surprise and asked, "And your father and brothers handled this all by themselves?"

"I helped ... and Mom and Hannah before that. My grandparents were also around and part of things but my grandfather had a little dementia and could only work sometimes. All of them going and me being the only extra helper is why I have to do things a little different. I'll harvest and prep the stuff we keep but won't get to preserve all of it until things slow down towards the end of September and into October though that is when the apples are coming in strong and the cider press seems to be going all day."

Dan wanted to know, "What do you mean prep rather than preserve?"

"I use the big freezers and coolers. We used to have a lot more cows so have - I mean you have - a big walk in cooler that kept the milk before it went to the market. Same with eggs and hog meat. But Dad had started to cut back on the animals so that we could grow all of our own feed instead of having to purchase it so we hadn't needed the big coolers so much. Then when Mom and Hannah and Gram were taken by the virus or flu or whatever they are calling it now I kept getting behinder and behinder. I was getting frustrated and so was Dad and the boys. Then I figured out how to just prep stuff until I had more time to actually can things up. Dad and the boys thought it was a fine idea and even re-built the big dehydrator so that I can move the drying trays without help. Josiah knows what it is because he asked if I needed it cleaned out before the apples start coming in. You might actually want to talk to him about things. He might not be able to tie his own shoes but he seems to know up from down and left from right when it comes to things on a farm."

Sloan said, "You seem to have taken to Josiah awful quick."

"Taken to him? What's that mean?"

Dan nudged Sloan and gave him a look then smiled and said, "I think he probably means about like you've taken to Charlie and Duncan."

"Oh. Well I ... they're nice actually. They don't get in my space, don't track dirt in when they come to see if I have some seasoning or an extra pitcher or what have you and they definitely know what they're doing when it comes to stretching groceries and I like that. With Josiah I suppose it is because he reminds me of a boy I knew when I still went to school. He got kicked in the head by a horse when he was little and it did something to him. He was really good at measuring and building but ask him to do almost anything else and it hurt to watch him try. And I ... well ... the rest of the men are kinda ok I guess but I wish they wouldn't mob me when all I do is bring a platter of cookies down to the trestle tables after lunch. It was like watching chickens squabble over the corn ... and just as noisy too." I looked at Sloan to find a surprised look on his face and I asked worriedly, "Did my mouth run away again?"

Sloan slowly smiled and said, "No. Mine did." I didn't understand then and didn't have time to ask because he went on. "Did your father ever hire extra help?"

"Sometimes my cousins would come for a summer job but not since ... for a while I guess - time is kinda running together for me but it should be easy to find in the ledgers ... it was before the virus swept through. As far as I know none of my family is left ... not close family ... but there might still be a few in Florida but they'd be 2nd or 3rd cousins to me ... and by marriage at that. If you are looking for someone that knows more about the farm than I do I'm sorry, there just isn't anyone. And as for hiring outside the family occasionally Dad would let someone exchange work for a meal or two and a place to flop but there hasn't been much of that since Mr. Burdock has set those patrols to keep vagrants from the bigger cities from overrunning the area like they almost did right after Cease Fire One. Some still come around but they're mostly of the homegrown variety ... family has kicked them out, evictions, that sort of thing. Dad used to get irritated because people were always talking about being hard up for jobs but the few times he did want to hire anyone no one wanted to do field work ... or they wanted an arm and leg and Jezebel's crown for doing it."

Both men expressed their understanding and they asked questions for about another hour before I said, "I'm sorry but I really do need to go check on the animals before it gets too much darker and then finish up the kitchen."

Sloan looked outside in surprise and then consternation. "I meant to do that."

"Why? It isn't something your used to doing and you have your business stuff to take care of." I left before he could treat me like I was breakable again. He'd been doing it off and on all day and it was embarrassing and reminded me of what he'd caught me doing the previous night.

It didn't take as long as I had expected because Josiah had already done it, even the milking. He'd grown up on a farm before getting drafted and he had told me the animals were restful to him. After I saw how the cow with a crumpled horn took to him I knew he knew what he was doing but Dad had taught me never to take anything for granted so I checked anyway.

Back in the kitchen I finished up what I had started and was drying the last pan to put it away when I remembered there were still dishes in the dining room. I looked at the nasty water in the sink and knew I'd have to start over with clean wash water. I put a kettle on the stove to heat to boiling rather than drain it out of the cranky hot water tank as I wanted to rinse my hair before bed.

I peeked around the door and saw the men had moved to the office. I shook my head and hoped they'd put all of the ledgers they had out back themselves, grabbed the dishes, and got them to the kitchen. The men had practically licked their plates clean so wash up was fairly easy and left me time to do my hair.

I decided it was safer to take my bathing stuff and use the upstairs bathroom and was doing just that when someone suddenly got into the shower with me. I nearly shrieked and would have except for the hand over my mouth. Sloan had what I came to learn was "the look" in his eyes and whispered, "Best way to save water known to man."

I did manage to get my hair rinsed but just barely. The tub was not at all meant for two grown sized people to be in it at the same time but Sloan didn't seem to care. I was getting used to him wanting to do things all the time but it seemed every new experience was just one more way I found out how to be embarrassed, certainly having the light on was disconcerting. The only thing that got him calmed down was when the hot water ran out. His back had been to the spray and it was with some satisfaction that I saw it was his turn to nearly shriek. In fact it gave me the giggles something awful.

We both scrambled out and I was trying to hurry but when you are wet clothes just don't want to go on quickly. He was grumbling and struggling with his own clothes and my eyes happen to accidentally glance and see his backside and he still had goosebumps from the cold water. Well that set me off again and this time I couldn't hide it.

"Why you little ... I finally see a laugh and it's because ..." He mocked growled real quiet and for some reason that was funny too. I finally made it out the bathroom door and back down the stairs and into the room after grabbing a change of clothes for the next day from my old room. I was still snorting and hiccuping because the giggles are horrible things, once they attack all you can do is ride them out.

I was biting my lips trying really hard not to keep giggling when I heard Sloan open the door. "And you're still at it!" he said. I turned quick because he sounded mad only when I looked at his face I could see he wasn't. He did however have two of my dresser drawers in his hands.

"Hey! That's my clothes!"

"I know they are."

"But why'd you ... I mean ... "

"Marriage Rule #2 ... when you share a room you share the whole room." He put the drawers on the bed and then walked to the chiffarobe and pulled open the cabinet and then the two bottom drawers. He was picking up my clothes and was about to dump them in when I realized with absolute mortifying horror that it was my underthings drawer.

"Wait! Stop that!" I told him trying to take the white cotton unmentionables away from him. "No ... oh Sloan stop. This will just get in the way of your stuff."

He was holding things up out of my reach and i poked him in the side like I had my brothers when they were pulling the same prank but I guess he hadn't been expecting it at all and everything came tumbling down when he scrunched up in surprise. "Oh look what you've done. No wait! Don't look. Close you eyes right now!"

I was scrambling around trying to grab everything and wad it up so he couldn't see when he picked something up off the floor and I nearly died. "Teaghan, if it is all the same to you could you never wear this?"

I jerked the barely used nightgown out of his hands and told him, "Don't worry, it's too small ... most of what I have is. Now close your eyes."

"Nope. What do you mean most of what you have is too small."

I looked at him like he must have trouble hearing. "I mean most of what I have is too small. Now stop it and give that back."

"OK, Miz Literal ... why is most of what you have too small."

"Because I don't know who would have died of embarrassment more, me or Dad or my brothers if I had asked them to pick me up this sort of thing in town ... not to mention the one time I did tell them I needed a new nightgown they came back with that monstrosity. I mean I never even played with Barbies that was Hannah's thing when she was little and it is pink ... flamingo glow in the dark pink ... and it doesn't even fit ... it is too tight through the ... er ... shoulders. They didn't even look at what they bought, just told the sales lady they needed something for a little girl. Little. I was sixteen. It was awful but they looked so pleased with themselves ..."

Suddenly I wasn't laughing but was in danger of doing the opposite. I turned away but didn't get far because Sloan pulled me into his arms and whispered, "The rules of marriage remember? This is rule number one."

"You made that up."

"Nope. Well ... it may not have a number but that is most definitely a rule."

"Really?" I asked peeping up at him.

"Really," he told me so solemnly I was suspicious all over again.

I pushed him away, though not very hard, and went back to picking up the stuff that had gotten scattered all over. Sloan sat on the bed and asked, "Aside from the fact that your father and brothers have hideous taste in women's clothing is there some reason for most of your clothes to be too small?"

I sighed and almost called him a knucklehead but saw he was serious. It was obvious that he'd been missing out on certain realities of life. "Sloan, how was I supposed to go to town and pick out clothes? You know how things are. Females of any age can't go places without nearly having a bodyguard. We stopped even going to church because my brothers were always getting in fights because they thought someone was looking at me. I mean it was kinda that way before the virus - Hannah had it really bad with the boys being so mean, especially after they got back stateside - but at least Dad used to tell them to knock it off. After the virus killed so many Dad actually told the boys to do more of it and no one was to get close enough to even share the same breathing space as me. I mean literally. It just became not worth it. I was able to salvage some of Hannah's and Mom's stuff but I'm built different than they are ... er ..."

"Er what?"

"Different. Oh for heaven's sake ... you know they were kind of well ... pear-ish and I'm built more like Gram's side of the family ... not ... pear-ish."

He got a wicked look on his face and I was getting all out of patience. "Oh geez. Just move so I can put this stuff someplace else."

"Nope. Pick out what you want to keep and slide the rest under the bed. And hand me my note pad and pencil off the dresser."

I tossed it at him and tried to turn so he couldn't see what I was doing. It was at that moment I realized how dismally small a space my keepers actually took up. I'd patched and stitched things up as best I could - everyone had to these days unless they were made of money - but suddenly I was self conscious. I slammed the drawer shut when I realized Sloan was looking over my shoulder.

I stood up and tried to back out but he pulled me over to the bed. "I like to look Teaghan."

I closed my eyes and tried to stick my fingers in my ears. "TMI Sloan ... definitely TMI."

He gently pulled my fingers out and held my hands in his. "Stop that. I mean I like to look ... at you. I'm your husband and you're my wife. And I ... like ... to ... look."

"You are so strange. I never know when you are going to act like those men in Hannah's books and when you aren't."

"OK, Marriage Rule #3 ... stop thinking about what those fictional men were like and start knowing what I'm like. And let me know what you are like."

"Uh ..."

"You've already told me you aren't too fond of pink. What about other colors ... what do you like?"

"I don't know. Why on earth are you asking for?"

"Because I am. Now what is your favorite color? Red, Blue, Yellow ... Purple?"

"I don't really have a favorite ... I guess maybe green. Yeah, I like green."

"Green? OK ... what about flowers? You like flowers or anything else in particular?"

"I'm not particular. Why? Do you like flowers?"

He chuckled. "Sometimes. They're useful on occasion."

"Uh huh ... probably to get you what you want. Salesmen used to give pots of flowers to Mom too."

"Like I said ... they can be useful on occasion. What about lace?"

"Lace? Are you serious? Are you playing a game with me?"

"No ... like I said, I'm trying to find out what you are like ... and what you like."

"Well you're doing it in a strange way ... and ... and your hands are just ... busy. Aren't you tired?"

"Nope. Now, what have you got against lace?"

"I don't have anything against lace ... it just isn't all that practical. And it's expensive. And it itches."

"OK ... you like practical and non itchy."

"Oh now I know you're playing some kind of game. Stop making fun of me."

"I'm not making fun Teaghan," he said. "I'm having fun. There's a difference. And I want you to have fun too."

There was no getting any sense out of him after that ... not for a lot longer than you'd think a man would take after working all day but eventually he did fall to sleep. It took a lot longer for me. Sloan's marriage rules made me want to think too much.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

Chapter 7

It was dark and I sat on the floor of the utility room trying to make sure no one heard me. There were strangers all over the house and my heart ached so bad I'd had to escape to the only place I could go that wouldn't wake anyone up. I'd almost slipped down to the cellar until I remembered that the door had started squeaking again because Jeremiah had forgotten to do something about the hinges. So I had gathered Cheeser into my arms and just let my misery flow.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when a voice in the dark said, "That cat is the calmest of its species I've ever seen. He's nearly as wet as if he'd been given a bath and yet he's just letting you squeeze the air out of him."

I tried to hide what I'd been doing and get up but instead Sloan sat on the floor with me. "Did I hurt you this time Teaghan? Or scare you? Be honest."

I sniffed and said, "No."

"Did one of the men upset you? Was it the boys?"

"No and no. I'm sorry I woke you. I ..." and then the tears started again and I couldn't turn them off.

"Teaghan I can't fix it if I don't know what it is."

Not being in a state of mind to even wonder why he would want to I told him, "No one can ever fix it. You can't bring people back from the dead." Then I laid my head on Cheeser and told him, "I want my Dad. I miss my brothers too and your nephews act just like they sometimes did when they were younger and it hurts to remember that but it makes me want Dad even worse; he always knew how to handle them. I want Dad so bad I can't stand it. It's not the same as when Gram and Mom and Hannah died ... they were so sick and hurt so bad it was a relief when they went. There was no room in the hospital so we took care of them here at home, I took care of them and got to tell them good bye. I never got to say bye to Dad. We were all in such a hurry that morning. We just gave each other a quick hug and then he was gone. I can still see them ... Dad driving and the boys riding shotgun because the trucks going to market sometimes get mobbed. They died in such a mean and evil way. And now he'll never hug me again. And I'll never see him again to tell him anything much less I love him. He'll never be around to laugh or tell me I did good on something or even for me to hear his snores to let me know even though he was asleep he was nearby if I needed him. And when you started snoring after we did ... you know ... I just couldn't take it anymore because it was just one more thing. So please ... let me alone for awhile. There's nothing anyone can do to make this better and I just gotta get someplace inside myself that I can live with it. Just like I did when everyone else died and I got left behind."

I just sat there in my misery but I must have fallen asleep at some point. Only I didn't wake up on the utility room floor like you would expect but in the bed I'd been sharing with Sloan. It was just as dark outside as it had been but I sensed it was early morning and time to start the coffee. I tried to ease out of the bed but Sloan's arm came around me and he asked almost right in my ear, "You feeling better?"

Not sure what to say except be honest I answered, "I'm feeling ashamed. I wish you hadn't seen me. Please don't tell anyone."

"Why would I tell anyone your business or mine for that matter?" he asked softly.

"I don't know, just please don't."

"I won't." I heard him sigh. "I keep forgetting how young you are. You shouldn't have had to lose your father like that."

"I don't think it matters how old you are. I remember when Mom's dad died. I was little but I still remember it. It was awful. He had a heart attack while he was driving and him and one of mom's brothers died when the car veered off the road and hit a tree. But it wasn't so much how they died as that Mom loved her daddy alot. He was the one that raised her and her brothers after her mom couldn't handle her life and left when Mom was little. We called her dad Grampy and he was pretty cool; he even knew how to bake cookies though sometimes they came out kinda flat and hard like frisbees. And then when the flu took Dad's dad ... he had to go sign all the papers at the hospital and everything. It was only the second time I'd seen Dad cry ... the first time was when my brothers came back from the war all in one piece. By the time Mom and Hannah died I'd seen him cry too many times but never when he thought people could see him. He let me be there but no one else."

My nose was getting stuffy and my chest tight so I stopped talking. I tried to sit up and when I did Sloan sat up with me. "You don't have to get up right now if you don't want to."

I shook my head. "And do what? Lay around feeling sorry for myself? I did enough of that last night. I ... I don't even know ... I mean how did I get here?"

"I carried you."

"Oh gawd."

"No need to get blasphemous. You aren't that heavy."

I turned trying to see his face and he kissed me full on. We'd done what married people do but he hadn't kissed me on my mouth very much. When he stopped I didn't know what to say.

"Teaghan ... look, you don't need to go crawl in a hole if you need to cry. Let me make it not so lonely for you."

I shook my head. "Why would you want to do that? You don't even know me."

He sighed. "No though that is a strange thing to say after what we've been doing. All I know is this is turning out to be easier and harder than I ever thought it could be. But you were asking about what the rules of marriage are and this is one of them. When one of us hurts its the duty of the other not to just run away and ignore it. Now just come here for a minute. I might not be able to fix it but I can at least let you know I won't run away from it and leave you to face it all alone."

He drug us both back down on the bed and he held me. I was getting distracted by the sound of his heart under my ear when there was a loud bang on the ceiling above us. I jumped and Sloan growled. "I'm gonna ..."

"You know this is a war don't you?" I sensed Sloan looking at me in the dark so I explained. "It's a war of wills. They don't like that we are trying to make lemonade out of the lemons life has handed us. They want us to be as miserable as they are apparently feeling. If we can outlast them we'll win."

As another bang came from the ceiling Sloan got out of bed and started pulling his jeans on. "What the hell are they doing?"

"Sounds like they've found the spot in the hallway that runs right across the top of this room and are dropping the big dictionary trying to make you mad."

"Trying? They sure as heck have succeeded."

"Ignore them, don't give them the attention they are trying to get ... they want your attention on them and them alone and they'll take it anyway they can get it. Instead work them hard today. They'll be paying for getting up so early and hopefully fall asleep before they can do much mischief tonight."

My eyes had adjusted to the dark and I could just make out the wicked look on Sloan's face. "You know, I like the way you think. If they thought moving baskets and a few boxes around yesterday was work, let's see how those limbs of satan feel about stacking bricks and cinder blocks."

Friday, July 25, 2014

Chapter 6

"You the new Mrs.?"

I just stood there like a post and slowly edged in front of the boys so that the man in front of me didn't have a clear line on them. Just because a man has some gray in his hair doesn't mean he isn't dangerous. I knew that from Dad. The boys tried to run at the man but I jerked them back.

"Hey! What's the idea?! Turn loose!"

Then there was a piercing whistle and Sid turned to me and griped, "I'm gonna tell Uncle Sloan. He don't like anyone man handling us."

I still didn't say a word - or turn them loose - and was eyeing the stranger who suddenly called, "Over here Boss!"

Sloan walked into the orchard with a smile on his face but it wilted a bit when he took in the scene. He came over and said calmly, "Teaghan, this is Dan ... Dan Cummins. He's the Site Coordinator for the business and a damn fine one at that."

Remembering the name I said, "Dan ... he can restore almost anything."

"That's right, I told you about him last night. He's already looked at those bookcases and said they aren't as bad as they look and he can have them fixed before nightfall."

I started to relax and realized I still had a death grip on the boys collars. I had managed to embarrass myself again. Mumbling a hasty apology I told them all, "I'll leave you to your business." But when I tried to make my escape Sloan startled me by putting an arm around my waist and pulling me closer to him.

"C'mon. Let me introduce you to everyone. They don't bite, I promise."

I could feel Dan staring so I did my best not to make more of a fool of myself but it was strange to have some man's arm around me like Dad used to do with Mom. I felt like I was playacting and decided Sloan must be too, trying to put everyone at ease.

The boys tried to complain about how I'd been working them to death and then nearly strangled them on top of it. Sloan told them, "You don't seem near death's door to me and a little work never hurt anyone."

"A little work?! Uncle Sloan we've been carrying baskets ALL MORNING LONG! How much longer do we have to do what she says? She's a ... a slave driver!"

They sounded so much like my brothers used to when they were younger that I had to smile. But Sid spoiled it by snarling, "What are you laughing at Ugly? You can't ..."


Sloan had popped the boy square in the mouth, not hard enough to do damage I could see but definitely to make an impression. "I hear you talking to her like that again and you'll think last night was a sweet dream!"

Sid and Silas both got mean and mulish expressions on their faces as we all stopped half way between the orchard and the house. I sighed. "Honestly, I'm starting to think that you two are even more hard headed than my brothers were and I didn't think anyone could be that bad. Look, I'm not asking you to love me to bits and pieces 'cause frankly you aren't exactly all that lovable to me right now. I'm not sure I even care if you like me or not. But whatever beef you've dreamed up in your heads get over it and take the time to see I might have some good points. Things don't have to be as rough as you are trying to make them for your uncle."

"Ain't trying to make them rough for Uncle Sloan. We just want you to go away you heifer."

Sloan had raised his hand again but I put mine on his forearm to forestall what the boys were just begging for. Instead I shook my head at the them. "Well I'm not going. I made a contract with your uncle. A legal and binding one. And I don't break my word. If you want to keep making yourselves out to be donkey's behinds I really can't stop you but I will warn you that you aren't going to have your way so in the end, all you are doing is going to make your own selves miserable when you could be having some fun with all this."

"Oh yeah right."

"Fine. Think but you want. But until you two stop acting like a couple of little jerks I'm not making you any of my pies and I'm not going to tell you where all my brothers' best secret spots are. And I know them all 'cause I spied on them and they never even knew I was around. Granted, you might be able to find a few on your own but you won't find the best ones without my help. And when you see how much your uncle likes my cooking you'll wish you had behaved a little better too. I will also laugh my butt off when you run into Watchit or some of the other surprises around here all for lack of a little warning."

Sid said, "Don't care about your cooking, you're probably just going to poison us. Don't care about your dumb ol' brothers dumb ol' secret places either. And this place doesn't belong to you anymore." But Silas followed up with a cautious, "Who's Watchit? That's a dumb name."

I ignored Sid though his words had been too close to being hurtful and told Silas, "So says you. But trust me, the name fits."

Sloan was angry. I was thinking maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut and given the boys less ammo but at the time that wasn't my way. Sloan's arm fell from my waist and I stepped back as he marched the boys to the porch leaving me uncomfortably alone with the man called Dan.

He said, "The boys ain't at their best."

I shrugged.

"They've had it rough and this ... er ... situation has caught most of us off guard."

I nodded. "Wasn't exactly how I saw my life happening either," I told him before sealing my lips again against any more potential foolishness.

There were a couple of men on the porch already. In fact there were men all over the place and I could feel a panic attack coming on. I tried to back up but Sloan stepped off the porch and called me over. "Teaghan!"

I squared my shoulders and tried to walk bravely into the lion's den and I think Sloan somehow sensed it 'cause some of the heat left his eyes. "I want to introduce you. The sooner you get to know who belongs and who doesn't the less jumpy you'll feel. You've already met Dan." I nodded. "Well these two men here are Charlie and Duncan ... they're the camp cooks."

It nearly turned me cross eyed when they said, "Ma'am." I felt my face grow hot and for some reason it was easier to take the closer I was to Sloan. I almost wanted to hide behind him but he turned and drew me forward.

To the men who had suddenly gathered all around Sloan said,"I explained the situation and told you what put us here. Give Teaghan some space to get to know you, she's had a rough time and hasn't been used to having more than her father and brothers around for a while now."

I glanced up at Sloan and realized he was trying to be nice. I felt ashamed of being a coward and that's something I'd never thought I was. I squared my shoulders, straightened my spine, and though I couldn't look at anyone of them square in the face I said, "How do you do? I'm sorry we're meeting for the first time under such ... er ... unusual circumstances. Would anyone care for some cool apple juice? Or water? I put some jars of tea brewing for supper but it should be ready by now if you'd prefer that."

Charlie stepped forward and said, "Water would be fine. Leave the tea for what you planned it for. This lot ain't that particular. But if you've got a moment, Boss said there might be some things out of the garden we can use to feed the crew with so we can stay out of our supplies."

I looked at Sloan and he nodded. "Some will have to be used to feed the men. Burdock might be expecting that he keeps getting as much as he has in the past but our needs and the company's need come first. Foolish to trade off only to have to purchase more."

Nodding my understanding. "OK. But ... um ..." Dad and the boys would have listened to my reasoning but I wasn't really sure what my place was. Sloan looked at me like he was waiting so I took a breath and said, "Well, to avoid foolishness how about using what has come in a bumper first?" I turned to the men Charlie and Duncan and said, "I've got a hundred foot row of turnips and their tops that are ready. My brothers used to take a truck to the farmer's market once a week and could get rid of the whole load but ..." I shrugged and stopped trying to think in that direction, of how things would change even if no one meant for it to hurt me. "And there's rows and rows of potatoes that need to be dug before too much longer that can be boiled while the greens are cooking. And if you are going to be working you'll need some protein so how about for supper I pull out a roast and cut it into stew chunks and bring up some quarts of hominy and a man-sized hominy stew can be made. I'll throw in a strawberry and rhubarb cobbler and for those that might not like that I can make a peach cobbler."

Charlie's bushy eyes were up in his hairline but Duncan piped up and said, "Save the taters for tomorrow, too hot to be digging out a hill at a time today. If the turnips are sweet we'll bake 'em and mash 'em."

"I ate one raw just like an apple day before yesterday to save heating up the house in the middle of the day."

Duncan smiled and nodded like he approved and when they asked me to point them in the direction I decided to show them since it would be easier. Sloan followed and stayed at my side after assigning the boys to Dan who proceeded to put them to work emptying one of the many storage trucks parked along the road. It was strange but made me feel safe at the same time to find Sloan's arm on my waist once again.

We came to the turnip field and Charlie whistled. "Sweet mother of God, that's a lot o' turnips."

"My brothers made some of their extra spending money off the turnips every year. I'm sure that if they even are thinking of what they were forced to leave behind they'll just be happy they aren't going to waste." I turned away, once again caught off guard by how much it hurt to realize I'd never see the two oversized pains in my backside ever again. Being ten years older than me they had been both brothers and second fathers in their own way.

I stepped away to stare at the trunk of a tree and try and compose myself while the men talked with Sloan. It finally penetrated that I heard buzzing and looked to see the beehives that Jeremiah had set up were battling with something that had crawled up into the box.

"Lovely," I said after spotting the snakes tail hanging out of the entryway. "Just flaming lovely. Ticked off bees and a ticked off snake." Mumbling and grumbling about stupid snakes that didn't have the brains God gave a stump I drew my glove onto my left hand and pulled my pistol out of my holster with my right. I turned to look at the men and chirped a whistle to get their attention and when I had it I told them, "Hold your ears."

I reached over, grabbed the snake's tail pulled slow until it was most of the way out then gave a yank and a throw. I shot as it went flying and saw with no small amount of personal satisfaction that the body went one way and the head, what was left of it, went another. I stepped over to make sure that I had identified it correctly and nodded with with yet more satisfaction. Sloan came over at a run and then snapped, "What the devil?"

"Young rattler. Might have been after a mouse or something. We had a population explosion of them last year when some brainless wonder introduced them to take care of the rats in his silos. I'd druther he'd gotten cats ... cats you can at least fix to control the population. None dare show their face around the barns and such ... Watchit and her family makes sure of that ... but we started finding them in the gulley and in the fence rows this spring. They've turned into a nuisance."

Charlie chuckled and said, "Ma'am I don't think he was talking about the snake so much as your shootin'."

I turned to Sloan wide-eyed wondering if he thought it was improper for a female to carry a gun. "Uh ... mmm ... er ..."

Sloan just kept looking at me while Duncan said, "You're mighty damn quick."

"Oh. Well. Dad and my brothers ... they were soldiers ... they said that if I was going to carry that I had to learn to shoot because they didn't want to have to pick a stray one out of their backside." I shrugged uncomfortably and added, "They kinda rode me until I was as proficient as they thought I needed to be."

Sloan put his hands on his hips and snorted. "If that's just proficient I'd hate to see what they considered real talent." Not sure how to take what he said I just kept silent and then slowly, even though it nearly killed me, offered him my revolver.

He took it and looked it over. I knew it wasn't exactly the prettiest gun ever made, it was the one my grandmother used to carry and was older than Dad had been, but Dad had carved new insets for the handle for my sixteenth birthday and it felt like an extension of my hand when I held it. When Sloan handed it back to me I almost couldn't believe it and some of the relief must have shown in my face because he asked, "Family heirloom?"

"Uh ... from my grandmother. It was hers. She gave it to me when her arthritis made shooting it too painful. I was nine but Mom wouldn't let me carry it regular until I turned twelve."

Charlie's chuckle turned into an outright laugh and he said, "Oh you're gonna fit in just fine." He nudged Duncan who joined in the laugh and then said they were going to go back and get a wagon.

Sloan and I followed more slowly and as soon as the other men were out of earshot I asked quietly, "Was he being sarcastic? About me fitting in?"

"No," he answered and then placed his arm at my waist again. "I suppose I should be grateful that you didn't shoot me yesterday."

Remembering I grimaced. "Sorry."

"I'm not. I am however glad you got over your fright as quickly as you did. I hope you'll do the same with the men. Some of them are rough around the edges but we've all worked together for years now and I can testify that there's not a bad egg among 'em."

"Oh ... I'll ... I'll do my best."

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Chapter 5

I was thinking about the night as I cut out biscuits and thought that Hannah's books were totally off the mark. I'd never participated in something so embarrassing and strange in my entire life. I'm a farm girl so it isn't like I didn't know the facts of life but I'd honestly never really associated what I knew with what my personal reality would be. It didn't look like it brought too much peace of mind to Hannah who alternated between sighing over some boy to crying over some boy. And after Mom and Hannah died I just didn't have the time to worry about it; certainly didn't have any scope to experience any of it.

Sloan on the other hand seemed to get a lot out of it even though I just wasn't seeing the attraction myself. I think he tried to get me into the spirit of things but to be honest I kept getting caught between being totally wiggy and totally humiliated. Although there were a few times I was tempted to give into a fit of the giggles at the noises Sloan made. It sounded like a cross between the way a man sounds when he's been throwing hay bails all day and like our old bull sounded when he was getting lovesick for the company of one of the heifers.

I was wondering what the look on his face would have been if he had known what I was thinking when the man himself walked into the room and stopped short. Neither one of us knew quite what to say so of course my mouth took on a mind of its own. "The doctors must not have been very good at their job because I didn't notice that you had any flexibility problems last night."

As soon as the words left my lips I would have gladly jumped off the train trestle that crossed Armstrong Gulch. But apparently it wound up being the perfect thing to say because Sloan relaxed and smiled ... a real smile not just a teasing one to hide what he was thinking. He nodded and then sniffed the air. "Smells like ... wait, is that coffee?"

"Sort of. It's my grandmother's recipe. There's some real coffee beans in there but there's also parched and roasted roots and acorns. You might like it. Dad and my brothers did even after drinking that real stuff you can still get overseas. Breakfast will be ready in a minute. If you don't like it then we'll figure something else out. Are the boys up yet?"

"Actually ... well I left them sleeping until we ... er ... had a few minutes."

"For what?"

"Just ... just wanted to make sure ... oh hell, I feel like a twelve year old that's snuck into a look-and-see for the first time. Just tell me you're ok ... after last night."

"Oh. That. Well ... hmmm ... I've got a few kinks in places I didn't think you could get kinks in but they'll work out as the day goes by. Why? Do you have kinks too? I can get that liniment. You were breathing kinda hard last night. I never knew that it was supposed to be such a lot of work."

He looked at me then kinda flopped down on a bench at the breakfast table and put his head in his hands and started laughing. I asked, "What?"

"Nothing. Just ... are you always this blunt?"

"Well for heaven's sake ... you don't think I go around talking about this stuff to just anyone do you? And the only reason I'm talking about it with you now because you asked and well I thought ... I mean ... I've never been married. I don't know what is supposed to be off limits and what isn't. I guess I didn't ask but should have. Have you ever been married? Do you know what the rules are?"

He got serious and said, "Was once, when I was still young and stupid. It didn't work out and she left."


Quietly he said, "It was a long time ago Teaghan. I was barely twenty when it ended."

"You were still older than I am now."

He winced. "Don't remind me. I wasn't too happy when I found out how young you were. I can live with it though so long as you don't get all ..."

"All what?" I asked when he acted like he was rethinking what he had been going to say.

"Well ... silly, flighty, bored and wanting something else in life."

I thought about it for a moment and then said, "Hannah ... you know my sister. Anyway she used to get like that because she was cooped up on the farm after having already experienced dances and dating and things like that. She'd already had boys ask Dad if they could come sit on the porch with her or walk with her after church to get ice cream on the corner. She even worked in town for a bit and had a serious boyfriend before he got drafted. Mom noticed me watching her and wondering what was going on and she explained to me how it might have been better if Hannah hadn't had those experiences and then she wouldn't have realized she was missing anything when it had to be taken away for her own good. Well, I never had those experience so ... I don't guess you can miss what you've never had, or so they say. And if I do get bored all I have to do is look around and find something to do ... it's not like we've got a shortage of chores that need doing. And if I do start to annoy you all you have to do is say something. I'd rather know and have a chance to fix it than not and suddenly have it blow up in my face. And stop looking at me like I'm some sort of puzzle ... I've got all my pieces, they sometimes just get a little rearranged."

He continued to look at me strangely for a moment and then nodded like he'd made up his mind about something. "You're alright, you know that Teaghan?"

"Well I hope I am. Why would you think I wasn't? You usually have to get to know someone before you can decide whether they're alright or not."

Sloan shook his head. "A man gets suspicious when things go too easy. You're making this a lot easier on me than I expected."

"Well, I agreed to the bargain. You agreed to the bargain. Kinda wrong of us to start complaining at this late date don't you think? I guess last night means we're really married and have to deal with all that comes with it. I don't know that we'll ever have things like my parents did giving how and why we're starting out but I don't see any reason why we have to be too much worse off. You seem mostly nice and you've admitted that I'm alright too. So if we work at getting along ..." I ended with a shrug.

Sloan opened his mouth to say something but looked to the ceiling when it sounded like a herd of hogs had gotten upstairs somehow. Sloan shook his head and sighed. "They've been pulled pillar to post and it is going to take a while for them to come around. I'd hoped otherwise but after last night ..."

"Like I told you, my brothers could be awful hard headed too. Dad used to put them to work to exercise out the worst of it. Do you have chores for them?"

"Well that depends, what do you have to work on today?"


"Yep. If I get something out of this marriage you should too. And the sooner those two trouble makers realize how things are going to be from here on out the better for both of us. And that's a lot of biscuits."

I took the abrupt change in subject with grace and answered, "Well, we've still got flour from last year's wheat and just to be honest ... I'm no good at sweet talking and you said you don't like it anyway, and I'm no salesman, but I can cook and Dad and my brothers were usually less surly if their stomachs were full. I figure this is just my part to make things more peaceful around here. And on that subject, will your men be back anytime soon?"

"By lunch; they're meeting up with my other crew that just finished a job and will lead them here with the remainder of my stuff."

I swallowed. "How many?"

"Men? Call it an even two dozen." At the look on my face he smiled. "You won't have to do all of the cooking. Each team has a cook and they'll set up camp ... anything growing in that open field to the side of the road in?"

"No, it's fallow this year."

"OK, they'll set up their camps there and ... what is your face scrunched up about? Is there a problem?"

"No. Just trying to think what all they'll need. There's a bathroom out in the barn and there are the two in the house ..."

"They can use the one in the barn or ... er ... "

"Find a tree?"

"Yeah, something to that effect."

"OK, just make sure it isn't anywhere near the wells or pumps. And ..."

"Dan was saying something that there were several of both around but he didn't know if they worked. He tried to check but it looked like they were intentionally disconnected."

His statement was also a question so I explained, "We kept them that way unless we needed them, to keep people from stealing ... or spiking them."

"Trouble with vagrants?"

"On occasion. Or vagabond families or former soldiers looking for a place to land for a few days free of room and board. Dad always left the outer most rows of anything for people to glean but they sometimes decide they are owed more than what they have any right to. You probably know by now that the farm is surrounded by deep gullies on two sides, and backs up to a ridge on a third. Only easy way on and off the farm is by the front road. We've never had near the problem that that some have had but it does happen. It's also why we were mostly left alone during the War Between the States."

"Uh huh, telling me which side your family was on," he said with a grin.

"Actually according to the ledgers all the family wanted by then was to be left in peace by both sides but that obviously didn't happen. So anyway, what about cobblers?"

"Excuse me?"

"If I don't need to fix a full meal I can fix pans of cobblers. It would actually help me use up some of the fruit that is too ripe to can outright that I don't have room for in the freezers because of the meat in there ... there's rhubarb of course, but I also have peaches, cherries, and boysenberries that are getting soft. I mean ... I mean you have."

"Now don't get sensitive. You don't have to stop saying it a certain way just because things have changed. You do still live here."

"I just don't want to make a foolish mistake. I don't know what will set you off."

His brows drew down and he said, "Wondering what is going to set me off will for one. I'm not a monster."

"Of course not, you went out of your way to not scare me last night so that proves it. I just mean I don't know what your buttons are and I'd rather not find them out the wrong way and create a mess that didn't need making. If someone is going to push 'em let it be someone else and I'll sit back and observe so I don't make the same mistake."

He gave me another strange look and a chuckle and said, "And do you have any buttons?"

"Trampling things down that don't need to be trampled. Mud being drug in the house when boots could be taken off at the door. People turning their nose up at food or being wasteful of it."

"Well that was quick."

"Better that you know. I don't have a particularly bad temper, and for the life of me I can't imagine why I've talked so freely with you when I never have with anyone else ever, but Dad used to say that when I got busy I could be a little hard to have a conversation with because either I was stringing too many words together or only spitting out one or two at a time. I'll have to get used to you and ... oh my gosh ... what are their names? I haven't even asked a thing about them. You must think my wits have gone begging. Oh Lord, I really am losing my mind ... and the biscuits are burning on top of it."

I remembered to grab the oven mitt before I did serious damage and sighed in relief to see the bottom of the biscuits were golden instead of dark. While Sloan ate a biscuit that was legitimately too hot to handle and told me the boys' names were Silas and Sid and that they were nine and eleven, I slid the rest of the finished biscuits on a platter, put them in the warming tray and put the next two sheets of biscuits to cook. I also tested the skillet I had on the stove top and it was ready to be greased and the scrambled eggs poured in. In another skillet I set slices of country ham to cook. I also poured Sloan a cup of what we called coffee and asked him if he doctored his or drank it black.

"Black usually." He took a careful sip of the hot brew and then tip the cup in my direction to let me know it was good enough as is.

I was relieved. I'd made coffee that way my whole life and was thankful that would be one less thing I would have to change and learn to do a new way.

I finished breakfast and plated it up while Sloan argued with the boys about washing their hands after they had made a sullen appearance. When it looked like they were set on making a scene I told them, "Your hands may look clean to you but germs are so small you can't see them with the naked eye and they still manage to kill people every day. So if you want to eat, you'll go wash. I do not think your uncle wants to spoil his meal thinking about all the nasties that could be flowing down your throat while he is trying to eat like a civilized man." I got a lot of eye rolling but won the battle when I set Sloan's plate before him and continued to refuse to serve them. They didn't do it with any grace but at least they did it which I figured was a point for me.

Sloan went back to discussing what we'd been on about before. "What's on the list to be done today?"

"More than I can get done. I'm running behind."

Silas sat back down at the table and asked, "Are you lazy that you can't get your work done?"

Sloan growled under his breath but I asked Silas, "No. Are you?"


"Hmmm. I'll guess we'll see if that is true or not because your uncle says you'll have jobs today."

Both boys turned to Sloan in comical horror. Sloan grinned evilly and said, "Yep."

Chapter 4

Sloan pushed me behind him as I tried to run down the hall. "Boys?!"

"We didn't mean to Uncle Sloan!"

Sloan muttered a creative curse and went towards the boys' voices. I walked into my room to find both of my book cases collapsed across my bed.

"Oh Uncle Sloan. It looks like you aren't going to be sleeping here tonight. She's got a big mess to clean up."

I was staring at the destruction then turned with a jerk when I heard two solid whacks. Sloan had caught each boy a good hard one across their backsides. The boys stood there in shock for about two seconds before jumping around and yelling as they grabbed their butts.


The boys stood stock still with dawning comprehension that their uncle was extremely angry. "I warned you two what would happen if you got up to your tricks. You both promised me you would behave and give me time to work things out. We aren't even here 24 hours before you ..." I could see a vein pulsing in Sloan's temple and knew that the stories of red-headed tempers were certainly true for this particular man. He grabbed each boy by an arm and started hauling them down the stairs. I didn't know what he had planned but I'd seen my father get just as fed up with my brothers though it had been years since they'd done something to rile him as badly as Sloan obviously was.

"Sloan!" He stopped and spun and looked back up to where I was standing on the landing. "Look, I know they're your nephews and ... and I know what they did was just plain wrong whatever their reasons might have been. But I had me two brothers that could do things that made them seem mean as snakes sometimes ... but they weren't really bad at heart ... just god-awfully hard headed."

"Hah!" he barked. "Hard headed doesn't even begin to describe these two. I want an accounting of everything that broke and ..."


The tone of my voice actually stopped him. "Just don't. Some things can't be bought or replaced. What is broken is broken. I'll deal with it. If they start getting the idea that I can be bought off ..." I shook my head. "I'm not that kind of person Sloan even if me agreeing to marry you makes me seem like I am."

I turned and went into my bedroom and shut the door as the full enormity of the choice I had made finally penetrated. I was married to a man I didn't know, one with a nasty temper, who had two nephews that hated me without any reason beyond I existed. I did it all so I wouldn't have to leave home. Only my home wasn't my home anymore, it belonged to Sloan and I was just part of a package deal. And I was supposed to do something with him that I'd never done with anyone else ... and not out of love but in exchange for my own room and board.

Tears leaked out of my eyes but I kept brushing them away impatiently. I wasn't the only one crying however as I heard Sloan give the boys what for. I heard them all coming back up the stairs and then the door slowly opened.

"The boys are going to apologize and then help you pick up this mess."

"I'll deal with my things. There's glass all over the floor and they're liable to just get it stuck in their feet."

"You sure?"

"I'm sure," I told him still not turning around.

The boys mumbled apologies between sniffling and then fled to my brothers' old small bedroom they had shared before declaring that they had needed their own space when they turned thirteen. I heard footsteps come back and then Sloan was there trying to stand the book cases back up. "Don't bother. The legs are cracked on both of them and they'll just fall again."

"I'll get Dan to fix these."

"Don't bo ..."

He snapped, "I said ..." He stopped and moderated his voice trying to sound like he had before the boys played their mean trick. "Dan is actually a good carpenter. I've seen him restore stuff I didn't think anything could fix." He sighed and then looked around the room and I tried to see it through his eyes. I'd had the same room since I was a baby. For some reason Mom thought I liked pink ... actually I can't stand it but I always hated to tell her that because she loved the color pink. I had more pink clothes than should be allowed by law. My bed sheets were pink. The walls were pink and the curtains were white with pink roses that Mom had hand embroidered herself.

I told him, "I know ... it's pink."

"Yeah. It is. Like pink do you?"

"Can't stand it if you want to know the truth but Mom and Sarah thought it was 'darling.' Sarah's room was about the same until the health department came in and sprayed some kind of crud all over the place in there. It stained stuff so bad that we had to strip everything out. The boys and I cleaned it up and it has just sort of ..."

"The room down the hall? I wondered why it was the only one in the house that was completely empty."

"Yeah, that one." I had to wipe my nose or risk a snot dribble running into my mouth.

He noticed and asked, "Are you crying?"

"Not really. Just ... "

He took my shoulders and gently but firmly forced me to turn in his direction. He muttered a curse then let go. "I'm sorry for this. Hell of a way to start things between us."

"Isn't your fault and I'm being stupid for crying. Just let it go."

"You say that like you mean it. Were your brothers that hard on you? Uh ... was ... was it your father?"

"What? No! I mean they were hard men but not to me. I guess if I'm like anything it is ... look life basically ... well it sucks. You said you're thirty right?"


"Well I bet you have some memories from before the war."


"Well I don't. And you have family left ... your nephews and that cousin or other that Mr. Burdock mentioned."

Sloan gave a slow, "Yeah."

"Well again, I don't. Between the war taking my cousins and the flu taking everyone else but my Dad and brothers and then some crap headed jerks taking them away ... I don't have anyone. I'm the last one left of more than seven generations that have lived and worked here and I couldn't even manage to save the farm and keep it in the family. And all the rest of it that isn't even worth talking about because it doesn't change it from just being the way things are. As I see it I've got two choices ... I can go crazy or I can make the best of things. Gran used to say 'Sugah, crazy just isn't my calah.' And I learned to feel the same way. So if it makes me seem unfeeling or whatever I'm not. I've just decided crazy isn't my color and that's all there is to it."

Sloan snorted. "That's one I've never heard. I'll have to remember it. And I wasn't kidding ... I still want an accounting of what's been broken. It isn't to buy you off ... it's to make the boys understand accountability. I told them last time they broke something I was done shelling out my hard earned money on their carelessness and meanness."

"There's not much here you could replace. If your Dan can fix the shelves that would be nice. I know they're old but ... they were handmade by one of my great uncles. The books can be taped or glued back together. The other stuff ... its just memories. Might be best to pack them away anyway." I stood up and brushed my hands off. "I'll deal with this tomorrow. I need to check the animals one last time."

"I'll do it."

"The animals don't know you, it would probably confuse them rather than settle them down."

"Then I'll come with you."

I'd heard the same tone in Dad's voice when negotiations were over so just nodded in the direction of where the boys lay. In a voice louder than necessary Sloan said something to the effect that they'd better be asleep and not move or they'd get more of what they got earlier and a little more besides for still not learning their lesson.

It took longer than I expected as Sloan didn't know his way around in the dark and then insisted on asking questions. "Cows look in good order though that one with the crumpled horn has a mean disposition."

"Yeah, she can be ornery, but she milks like a dream. She's always stayed fresher longer than the others. I'd love to see her have another calf and see if the characteristic breeds true."

"Ornery or a good milker."

I looked at him and I think he was trying to tease me out of my upset. I tried to smile just because he was being nice but it was a lot of work. "Either or. She's kicked the stuffing out of more than one stray dog that came looking for trouble. That's why ... oh my gosh, where's Shotgun?"

"I made the boys tie him up."

"Doesn't he usually sleep with them?"

"With me actually."

"He's your dog?"

"Yeah. The boys were supposed to look after him while they were staying with my cousin but ..."

"Hmm. Well, Boone sometimes slept inside. Or outside. He was an either or type of dog."

"Your father was fine with that?"

"Yeah. We used to have strictly outside dogs and strictly inside dogs but eventually only Boone was left and he pretty much went where he pleased ... except the dining room. Dad didn't care if he sat and stared from the door way but the dining room was off limits."

"Hmm. With all these silos is there a rodent problem?"

"No, Watchit and her progeny pretty much take care of that issue."


"Barn owl. Jeremiah saved it from a cat when it was just a chick and hand raised it. The crazy thing stayed wild even after the boys tried everything to tame it. They named it because even as a chick the bird wasn't shy about going for a finger or nose."

"Uh ... oh! Watch It. Watchit. Clever."

"They thought so. She's getting on up there in age for a barn owl but she'll still swoop down on you and bat you in the head with a wing for fun now and again when she's bored."

"Mmph! Ow! What the hell?!"

I turned to find him dancing around trying to detach something from his leg. "Yay!! You found him!! I thought he was lost forever. Now Cheeser stop it. Turn loose right now so I can hug you to bits and pieces you naughty kitty!" I detached the small, tail-less manx cat from Sloan's jeans and then proceeded to do what I had threatened.

"My god, is that thing actually purring?"

"Oh you just don't know. He's my kitty. He ran away during ... I thought maybe they'd gotten him like they did Boone. I was worried I'd just walk up and find his carcass where he'd crawled off and died. Or that maybe Watchit had gotten him. He's too small to be out at night." I was rubbing my nose in the small cat's fur and he sounded like a Diesel engine. I put him inside my overalls and he curled into a ball and finally stopped shaking.

Sloan rubbed his shin but didn't say anything so we visited the rest of the animals before heading back to the house. While I set a food dish and litter pan for Cheeser in the utility room Sloan went to check on his nephews. The old house carried some mumbled sounds from the room but Sloan didn't mention anything when he came back down. He did however say, "I understand if what happened has put you off what we talked about."

"No ... no we made a bargain."

"You sure?"

"Yeah ... just don't expect ..."

"Fireworks. You mentioned that." He took a breath like he was about to say something and then stopped. Turned to go then came back. "You never asked why I wasn't in the military."

"Oh ... I guess I ... well not everyone gets drafted."

"It wasn't because of that. I couldn't pass the physical."

I looked at him and just waited. "My back ... you ... well it will be dark so you won't see it but you ... you might feel it. I've got burns ... it compromised my flexibility. I tried every branch and none of them would take me."

"I haven't noticed if it has stopped you. You got up the stairs as fast as I did."

He nodded. "I just couldn't pass their one test where you have to be able to bend over to some degree or other. I couldn't do the number of situps they required either."

"Six packs are overrated. They actually look a little weird if you want to know the truth."

He choked on his spit and squawked, "What?"

"The sit up thing ... you do it to get six pack abs right? I just think they look a little creepy is all ... like a jigsaw puzzle where no jigsaw puzzle should be. And about the burns ... Dad had them too. It's why he was able to retire instead of having to stay another tour. It was his hands and up his forearms. Mom used to make him this liniment for when his hands would get sore or the skin too tight. I made it after she ... anyway, there's some in the utility room cabinet if you need it."

"Uh ... no ... no that's ok. So ... uh ... I'll just go finish unpacking my stuff and ... uh ... you ... you come in when you're ready."

Chapter 3

"Boss, you sure you don't need us to hang around?"

Sloan growled and said, "Get lost Dan."

Dan snickered and I was really glad I was still in the kitchen cleaning up the pile of dishes that had been made. I was doubly glad when one of the boys asked, "Why do we have to take a bath and go to bed Uncle Sloan? We never go to bed this early."

"'Cause I said so. Now move your butts. I've just about had all I'm gonna take tonight. Got it?" I heard feet stomping up the stairs and I shook my head. If my brothers had ever acted that way Dad would have taken their heads off at their ankles. Dad was all about respect ... of course he earned it and didn't have a problem giving it when it was earned.

I'd nearly dropped the last pan to be washed when I felt a hand touch my shoulder. "You're jumpy."

"Not usually," I told him.

"Something about today?"

I shrugged and answered honestly, "Something about tonight."

"You ... er ... wanna wait?"

I glanced at him and saw it was an honest offer. I shook my head. "Like I said, I made the bargain ... just don't expect fireworks or whatever is supposed to happen."

"I take it you read your sister's books too?"

"Lord no. I tried a couple of times but they always gave me the giggles or embarrassed the heck out of me. Hannah caught me sneaking a book back into her room and when Mom found out what we were fighting about Hannah got in trouble for reading what Mom said was no better than porn. Then right after that they got sick and never ..." My throat closed up and I stopped talking.

"How old were you when the virus hit?"

"Fourteen when the first wave hit. That took my grandparents. Second wave less than a year later eventually got my Mom and Sister. Dad and the boys - my brothers - went a little crazy there for a while."

"Are you really seventeen?" he asked out of the blue.

I turned to look at him and said, "Yeah. I know I don't have the polish the town girls do - my brothers told me that often enough I was too much of a tomboy - but I probably know more about reality than a lot of those girls do. I'm pretty sure I'm not going to go screaming into the night like a ninny so long as you don't do something to scare me on purpose. If you do all bets are off."

He snorted in surprised and then shook his head. "OK. Deal." He was quiet for a moment then said, "I need to finish bringing my gear in. I need a place to put it."

I put the pan into the dish drainer and then gave it some thought. "Don't take what I'm going to say the wrong way but ... my bed just isn't going to work." I stared off through the window above the sink rather than look at him. "And the ... well ... no ... don't get mad but I just can't do this in my parents' bedroom. I haven't even ... even cleaned it out yet." I swallowed. "You want upstairs or downstairs?"


"Then ... yeah, that's probably best. C'mon and I'll show you."

I walked down the hallway and opened the door onto a fairly large bedroom with a big sleigh bed and a fireplace on the exterior wall. "This was my great grandparents' bedroom while they lived. Gran called it the guest room but since we never had guests it never got used. But the mattress is the newest one in the house and it should be long enough that you won't have to sleep kitty corner to keep from hanging off."

"Is that a comment about my height?" he said with a smile, trying to break the tension.

I shrugged. "Well you aren't exactly short. You're about the same height as my brother Jason and since you are let me warn you there are probably a couple of door frames upstairs you are going to bang your head on if you forget to duck. The main part of the house was built in the 1850s when most people were shorter than they are today. The rest of the house has just been built on around it and is more accommodating."

"Really? Doesn't seem like the house has been added on to from what I've seen."

"That's the point. So ... the only thing is there isn't a closet per se ... there is a chiffarobe."

"My aunt used to call 'em clothes presses."

"You lived in an old house too?"

He shook his head. "Mom and I lived in a little trailer a ways off from the Big House."

I heard a story in there but I was too nervous to ask. I turned to walk out and Sloan stopped me with a hand on my arm. I straightened my spine and turned around trying not to let him see how I felt. He then patted my shoulder. "This is a good deal for both of us if we just ..." I nodded. I don't know what he would have said after that because we both herd a crash and tore up the stairs.