I was too tired and it was too late to do anything fancy so I just made several large pans of chicken pot pie. Mom and Sarah both usually left the pies and things like dumplings to me since I liked doing them and had been taught by my grandmother. My biscuits and light bread were good as well. But Mom and Sarah and Aunt Pauline did the cakes as they said I tended to treat the batter like the enemy and beat on it too much. Dad said I had gotten better but I know I still need some work.
I was putting the pans in the big oven when Sloan walked back into the kitchen and stopped suddenly in surprise. "I didn't mean for you to go to a lot of trouble."
I shook my head. "This isn't trouble. Trying to do much anything else would have been. Will they eat strawberries for dessert or do I need to make something else?"
I walked over to the frig and opened it up for him to see the berries all capped and ready to go. "I was going to make strawberry and rhubarb pie filling tonight but ... um ... I ... er ..."
I must have turned several shades of red and he finally understood because he turned a couple of shades of pink as well that clashed with his hair. "We'll talk about that. Do with the berries what you had planned. The men plan on going to town after dinner."
"Watch the curfew. Mr. Burdock was making a big deal out of it."
"They were going to stay there overnight ... hook up with sommmme ... errrrr ... old friends."
I put my hands on my hips. "I had two older brothers. I'm not a complete ignoramus. They're going to that place all the guys call Cassie's Cat House down by the river."
"You're a little young to know about that place."
I rolled my eyes. "I'm seventeen, not seven. All I've heard is how men have appetites that need to be met or there's gonna be trouble and that's why alot of this stuff has happened. It's like one of those stupid bodice-rippers that Hannah used to like to read. Only in this story it's too dang hard to know who the hero is supposed to be. I ..." My shoulders drooped. "Ignore me ... just ignore everything that comes out of my mouth. Pretend you never heard a sound I made. I'm gonna go find a hole and crawl in it."
Instead of being mad as I expected Sloan's shoulders start shaking and then his belly starts bouncing and then he's actually chuckling but in a way that told me he'd do more than chuckle if only he wasn't trying to control it. "OK, time to talk."
My mouth suddenly got dry and my hands wanted to shake so I stuck them in the pocket of the overalls I was wearing. "OK. Where?"
"Here at the table is fine."
I sat. He sat. Then we just sort of stared at everything but each other. Finally he cleared his throat. "Some of this is going to be ... awkward. For both of us. But it needs discussing." He stretched his neck and fidgeted a bit then not looking directly at me asked, "Did Burdock explain things?"
"That ... er ... that we're married."
"Oh. That thing." I swallowed. "He said it was a real marriage ... or would be ... when you decided."
Sloan nodded. "So you understand that part."
Wincing a little I asked, "You mean ... uh ... mechanically?" Suddenly he was looking straight at me and my face got so hot with embarrassment I thought for sure it was going to set off the smoke alarm. "Well what else am I supposed to call it? Sex is not exactly a word you bandy about these days unless you want to get a certain reputation and be given a hard time every time you try to go to the store."
Sloan wiped his mouth and I had a sudden suspicion. "Are you making fun of me again?!"
He shook his head but chuckled. "I wasn't making fun of you the first time you thought I was. And I'm not making fun of you this time either. It's just the way you put things." He scrubbed his face with his hands and then ran them through his hair that already looked like the last time it had seen a brush was several days back. "Look. Teaghan. This part isn't easy on me either so I'm just going to say it. I need to know how much ... experience ... you have with men so I know how to ... er ... proceed from here. I agreed to this marriage too but I don't want to live in a war zone and I don't want things to be any more difficult than they're naturally going to be. So help me out here will you?"
I didn't know whether to reach back and grab a skillet and throw it at him or to crawl under the table and hide. Since neither action was likely to get the conversation over any sooner I decided to just tell him like it was. "I don't have any ... experience ... if that's what you're asking. That kind of experience would have gotten the boy dead and me grounded for life or longer. Plus, I had two older brothers that were soldiers and the biggest kick they got was making Hannah's and my life hell when it came to having any kind of male friends. We got shadowed every place we went, even church, not that we got to do much of that after a while either. Any person of the male persuasion either had to be eighty years old and falling apart or two and still hanging on their momma or they'd get the twins' double barrel stare down. Dad was only better about it because he let the boys take the heat for doing what he'd do if they didn't. All Mom ever said was, 'Well Honey, that's just their way of saying they love you.' Which I guess it was, and which in hindsight I appreciate, but it definitely put the kibosh on any so-called experience."
"You're laughing again."
"Not at you exactly."
"Sure. Now can we move along?"
He tried to control his chuckles and said, "Well ... as to that ... what I mean to ask is if you've considered ... when ..."
"Oh Lord, I'm just gonna die." I put my hands over my eyes and said in a rush, "Look I made the bargain. I know what marriage entails. If you wanna tonight then ok. Just don't expect me to know what I'm doing exactly. And you're not allowed to get mad about that either because you made the bargain too. Besides Mr. Burdock said you were a little hesitant about buying a pig in a poke but that you were willing to live with it."
"He said what?!" And then he was off laughing like a lunatic and I really was wondering if they'd put me in jail for spousal-cide if I wasn't exactly a spouse yet.
I got up to check on the oven and I heard him get up in a hurry and come over. "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings."
"I did but I didn't mean to. It's just I have found myself in some crazy situations before but this takes the cake. C'mon and sit back down."
Not having much choice I did as he asked.
"Teaghan ... yeah. One of the reasons my men are leaving for the night is so that we can ... get compatible with one another." We both winced at how that sounded but he kept bulling through it. "We'll work on it and let's just leave that alone for a while." I nodded and I think he was as relieved as I was to get on to another subject. "Now, about the farm ..."
"What about it?"
"That's the thing ... I don't know a thing about it. Burdock said it was a good farm but didn't include much else in his communique' and frankly didn't give me much of a chance to ask any questions. So all things considered a pig in a poke pretty much sums it up."
"Can I ask you something?" At his nod I asked, "What do you do? For a living I mean. Mr. Burdock said you had farm experience but from where I'm sitting ... I don't know ... you just don't seem like a farmer, or not any one that I've ever met."
Leaning back in the chair Sloan said, "I have farming experience but maybe not exactly how you took what Burdock said. I grew up working on my uncle's dairy farm. Until he lost it to foreclosure anyway. We all went to live in town with my grandparents after that and I hired out with whoever would take me. Found out that I was good at sniffing out deals and started working as a middle man in the supply chain. It progressed to what I do today."
"And that is?"
"I'm a reclamation specialist."
"Oh. You're one of those guys that go and reclaim abandoned property."
"Yep. You got a problem with that?" he asked a little belligerently.
"Why should I? It's a job isn't it? Better than stealing stuff or letting things rot when so many people need stuff they can't get for themselves."
"Some people say it is stealing."
"Puh-leeze. People that say that don't know nothing."
"And you do?"
"And how. My brothers were going to get into that line of work ... until they found out how much paperwork is involved and how much hard work for maybe not that much return. Jeremiah in particular. He said if he was going to have to sweat as hard as they had he'd rather do it farming with Dad 'cause at least then he'd know he'd eat on a regular basis. The one experience they had was enough to convince them it wasn't for them; they did the reclamation on the old Turner place that used to sit not too far from here. The paperwork alone - the permits and reports and tax statements - was a huge nightmare even with me and Hannah helping to fill things out; and so was trying to guard the site until they were through and could get everything to market."
"Well, it appears you do know."
"Told you I did. Which kind of makes me ask, are you giving that up to farm full time or ... uh ... " Worriedly I asked, "Are you looking to put the farm on the market?"
"No to both. The farm is going to be my home base and give me something to fall back on when reclamation work gets less profitable."
"Eventually. That's the nature of having a market driven economy. The farm is basically ... let's just call it my ace in the hole ... my retirement plan."
He sighed. "I don't mean to belittle what the place meant to your family but you need to understand my side of things."
"I do. I might not want to but Dad said that I needed to be a realist. It's why he and the boys taught me to take care of myself. It's why I could shoot those men without too much ..."
"Too much what?"
I looked him straight in the eye and said, "I hope you don't expect me to shed any tears over them. They are part of the group that killed my family. But also don't think that what I did was about revenge because I didn't even know anything had happened to my dad and brothers at that point though I kind of figured something was up from the things they were yelling to try and scare me." I had his attention. "Sloan ... I can call you that right or do I need to call you Mister?"
"Sloan is fine."
"Ok ... Sloan then. Anyway it was just I knew what those men were after and I was just as determined they weren't going to get it. I don't like that I had to kill the ones I did ... regret that it came to that ... it wasn't my choice for them to act like that. But I made the decision to defend myself and that's what I did."
Sloan nodded. "That's the way I heard it and that's the way life is sometimes. You do what you gotta do."
"Ok then. Just so long as we understand each other."
"On that we do. It also means I won't have to put a bodyguard on you when I'm not around which is one less expense. Now for the rest of it. Like I told you, I helped out on my uncle's dairy so I'm aware of the amount of work involved in farming. He even grew some of the feed he needed and my aunt always had a big garden we all had to help with. But I'm not sure what kind of set up you have here."
I blew my breath out through pursed lips. "Wow. Well ... hmm."
"That doesn't sound promising. If there are troubles ..."
"No. I'm just sort of ... well ... trying to figure out where to start." I stood up and went over to a glass fronted cabinet and opened the door. I reached in and took out the most recent farm ledger and brought it back to the table. "I'm not sure how big of an operation you are used to dealing with. I've heard dairies can be pretty big so what you have to understand is that we are a family farm, not one of those big corporate ones like in the Midwest. We do things to be as self-sustainable as possible to lower our expense but sometimes that does cut into making a profit in the market since we have to keep fields and yields to a manageable size." I opened the ledger up to the last page and entered the information on the 'gus that I had harvested that day. "See here? Dad liked us to all sit together at night and enter what we'd done for the day ... planting, harvesting, hunting, injuries, illnesses both human and animal, fuel purchases, mechanical repairs ... you can find it all in the ledgers. And the ledgers go back for years and years. They line Dad's office ... uh ... I mean the office. More than years they cover generations. Some of the family kept better notes than others. Some are more like journals and others are more like bookkeeping only. Some you'll have an awful time deciphering because of the handwriting and how old the ink is."
"Generations?" he asked with an astounded look.
"Yeah. My family has owned - sorry, did own - this land since before the civil war, the first one. Carpet baggers tried to take it from us but we beat them by simply marrying them and turning them onto our way of life."
Sloan smothered another involuntary chuckle and said, "Go on."
"You wanna know about the farm this will be a good place to start."
"Can you sum up the more recent history?"
I looked and sure enough there was another one of those doggone twinkles. "Fine." I wanted to do something to wipe that smirk off his face but I sensed an underlying dangerousness in him that I'd be foolish to meddle with at that stage ... maybe ever. "I got the last of the 'gus ... asparagus ... today. Usually I don't harvest it this late but the weather has been funky and things ran a little later than normal. I still have rhubarb to harvest and should have until the end of the month though by then I might just be sick of it we've had such a bumper crop. I'd love to get rid of some in town but Mr. Burdock nixed that saying we weren't the only ones with bumper crops and he had it coming out the ears at his place. The field strawberries are almost give out but the ones in the strawberry tiers and the hanging pots in the greenhouse are still giving enough that I get a couple of pints a day. We need to combine the wheat in the next day or two so long as there isn't any rain and the almanac doesn't call for any. The hay needs to be windrowed ... you know what that is?"
He nodded, "You cut it, let it dry in place, then you windrow it so that dries all the way through, then you bail it."
I smiled as he'd gotten it exactly right. "I wasn't sure ... most people think you just cut it and bail it all at the same time. Most of the alfalfa has been cut and is ready for windrowing. We've got other types of hay on the opposite side of the farm but we usually turn our own animals out into it ... except I doubt the cows could keep up with what we have although with the goats in there it'll help."
"One of Jeremiah's old 4H projects that just kinda took off and Hannah and I ... well, I kept it up after Hannah wasn't around to help. Jeremiah didn't care one way or the other and Dad let it be my project so I could have money of my own. Although I guess the goats are yours now too."
"We'll get back to that, just tell me about the farm."
I told myself to stop moping because reality wasn't going to change just because I wished it to be a different way. "The barley went to market that day with Dad and the boys. What we normally keep from the yield is already bagged up and down in the basement. I'll show you that when you want to."
He got up to look and then sat back down. "We'll get to show in a bit, let's finish tell."
I shrugged. I tried to hold onto my pride without falling to the mopes. "The early apples will be ready to pick probably starting next week and then rolling through the various types - unless we have a failure - there will be apples to harvest through into November and we usually get a good out of town market for them."
He interrupted with a question. "What are you harvesting right now that you haven't already mentioned?"
"In alphabetical order?" He just raised an eyebrow and let me pick. "It isn't that much ... boysenberries, broccoli, cherries, domestic greens, pot herbs, peaches, nectarines, and like I said, the potatoes need to be dug. I always pick wild greens and anything I find out in the woods and hedgerows because you never know when if you don't you'll regret it. Things don't get crazy busy until next month but Dad always had us on a schedule so that nothing came in all at the same time. Or that was the plan, sometimes you can't stop what nature is going to do no matter how much planning you do."
"So July is the busy season."
"July and August ... and the first part of September. August and September are when the main field crops come in ... corn, sorghum, the silage from both of those, and then the tobacco which is strictly for the local market. Granddad had switched the tobacco out for soybeans when Dad was a little boy but last year we couldn't get seeds for soybeans so Dad went back to tobacco as a filler crop and it sold so well that he put in another crop which he sowed the beginning of May. Tobacco is a lot of work and I don't know that I could do it by myself and have enough to take to market."
Sloan scribbled something on paper then asked me, "Why do you think you're going to be doing it by yourself?"
"You said ... well ... I thought you were going to leave me here to work the farm while you kept being a Reclamation thingie."
He nodded slowly. "It might be that way some of the time but I've got two teams - one is in the field now - so basically I will be able to set my personal schedule somewhat. I just need to get a feel for things first."
We talked more and I told him about the crops we usually harvested each month and what their strengths and weaknesses were as far as marketability. He'd ask questions and I did my best to answer them even if some of them didn't make sense to me. I smelled that the pot pies were ready at almost the exact same moment there was a lot of heavy boots on the porch and someone called, "Boss?!"