We were one of the first wagons to leave as we had the furthest to go and I was surprised to get a more than fair share of waves and not a few folks saying that they hoped they’d see me up to the church meetings when I got settled in at the Pappas place. Not ready to face that particular crowd of people I put it from my mind and instead started considering everything in the wagon and what needed to be done with it.
I was in the middle of making a list of questions when the man I intended to ask them to instead asked me, “Do you want to go this Sunday?”
It took me a moment to change gears and realize that he was actually asking me about going to the church. So much for being able to put it off. “I don’t recall you all going all that often.”
“We did when my grandparents were alive but you were always off keeping the little boys busy and out of trouble. During some of those long, hot summer sermons I bet I wasn’t the only one that itched to be out there with you.”
I must have blushed a bit but admitted, “I just liked the little boys. They’ve always been a fun bunch. Round about ten or so they turn into stinkers but younger than that and they can be fine company and accept learning without giving me any grief over it. Besides ten is when the grownups expect the boys to be able to sit still in service without jiggering and jollying around.”
He chuckled and I thought that I better get to my own asking. “Dino …”
“You finally ready to lay off the Mr. Pappas?”
I sighed. It was going to be that way was it? “I told you when we’re out in public I prefer to act like I got manners.”
“And I like it better when you act like you don’t.” He was smiling which told me he was just funning and we were too precarious since we were sharing the wagon seat for me to give him the elbow in the ribs he deserved for that comment.
Instead I told him, “Well your stomach wants sweets but it isn’t always a good idea to eat ‘em. Now stop fooling I’ve got some questions.” He chuckled again but then settled so that we could talk. “I haven’t done a lot of looking around so I hope I haven’t gone and created problems by asking to bring home all this fruit and produce. I don’t even know if you have a root cellar or a fruit closet or anything.”
“We have both … and a large wine cellar and even an ice room off to the side of the basement.” At my blank look that hid how surprised I was he said, “I told you the house was an old one and it’s been tinkered with a few times over the years. Before my grandparents owned it, it belonged to my grandfather’s uncle who came over from Greece and put in the original vineyards back before 1900. He married a local girl but they lost one son to the Spanish Flu and another one to mustard gas during World War One. My grandfather was the baby of his family like my father was in his. It was my grandfather’s brothers that helped in the vineyard but none of them stuck with it until my grandfather became old enough to fall in love with it and another local girl and that’s how he was the one in the family that eventually inherited it.”
I thought for a moment before saying hesitantly, “I don’t want you to think I’m greedy or needy but do you think maybe in the next day or two you could show me around the house and outbuildings more? I don’t want to duplicate if I don’t have to.”
“Duplicate in what way?”
“Well … for instance, I need to have some idea of your storage capacity. It won’t do any good to plant a bigger garden if you don’t have any place to put it. I need to see what you’ve got to see which holes I need to work on first and what kind of supplies I need to make do with. I’ve got some equipment for canning but the only jars are the ones that we managed to salvage today and those won’t go far. Going over everything will tell me if I can can or if I have to do a lot of salting, fermenting, and drying. And I also need some idea of when stuff was planted and what kind of harvest schedule you keep with your cash crops so I don’t get underfoot needing help.”
He cocked an eyebrow and said, “So you admit you might need help?”
My elbow wanted a work out but I kept it firmly held to my side. “I thought I asked you to stop your fooling. ‘Sides I never claimed that I wouldn’t need help. I’m getting bigger than I thought I would at this stage.”
Getting a concerned look on his face Dino asked, “It could be twins.”
“You mean because of Harry and Hannah?” At his nod I said, “Not likely because they aren’t natural twins. Mrs. Bly got them by in vitro.”
Harry chose that moment to ride up where he was sharing a horse with one of the boys and said, “That’s right, we’re unnatural twins and if you knew Hannah you wouldn’t have trouble believing it.”
“Oh for pity sake,” I grumped. There was no more making sense with either of them once they started their silliness and they drew the younger two boys into it as well. While they went back to passing the time, I went back to my planning.
We continued on that way, driving slow due to the load we pulled, until we got back to drop off Steven and Chris and pick up Kerry. The first thing out of the boy’s mouth was, “You were gone foooorrrrrrever.” The second thing was, “You did get peaches!”
“I told you I would Squirt. Now the question is did you mind your Aunt Adona like we bargained over?”
Cheryl broke in and said, “He was as good as gold, just like always … my sweet boy.”
I turned to look at Kerry whose chest was all puffed up but when he would finally meet my eyes he sorta wilted. “I … I knocked over the big fern on the porch and made a mess and the noise made the baby cry.” He looked ready to cry himself. “But I picked it up and swept up all the dirt and even Aunt Adona said I got it all.” He was so hopeful I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing.
I gave him my best serious face despite it and then said, “You really helped to clean up the mess you made?”
“Yes.” A cocked eyebrow and it got changed to, “Yes ma’am.”
“And you’re sure if I ask your Aunt Adona that she’ll confirm it?”
“I’ll go get her and you can …”
“Whoa Squirt … I’ll take your word for it. You don’t need to go thundering into the house with those boots. You’ll make work for whoever has to sweep up behind you.”
His face split with a grin and said, “So you’ll make a peach tarp?”
“I’ll make a peach tart,” I told him emphasizing the t. “But if you want it to get made before next Juvember you’ll need to help your daddy with the stuff in the wagon.”
“Aw … I’m not big enough.”
“Hah, that’s what you think. Even squirts can help with potatoes.”
“Speaking of,” Dino said. “Run and get Cousin Alec from over at the pump.”
Kerry shot off to do as his father directed and shortly Dino was explaining about the potatoes and greens while Cheryl’s younger children took them over to their porch.
Alec said to Harry, “You sure you aren’t going to need this to support you?”
Harry shook his head, “Naw sir. I’ve got to head out in a week’s time to get to my duty station for basic training before I turn eighteen. Who knows where I’ll be going from there since with my scores I qualified for the military over the civil patrol. Better for Riss to get the use out of it since she helped to plant them as much as I did. And since it was her idea to piece out shares I’m not going to quarrel with it.”
Alec persisted by then asking me, “You sure?”
“Yes sir,” I said shyly since I wasn’t used to being asked so directly about things like that. “You’re Dino’s cousin.” I shrugged not knowing how to explain it any better.
His serious look turned into a grin and even if it hadn’t Aunt Adona came down the stairs and said, “Of course she is sure Alec, that’s what family does.” To me she said, “Cheryl told me the ideas you gave her for Tina. Those potatoes will go a long way towards making up for having to remove cabbage from the menu for a while. In fact I’m making pierogies for dinner if you would care to stay.”
Dino shook his head, “I’m sorry Aunt Adona, maybe another time. We need to unload this wagon and I need to see to the livestock and everything else.”
“Of course Dear,” she said while holding her cheek out for a kiss. “Another time perhaps.”
It was a slow but short drive to Dino’s home and then they started the debate about what to do with everything. “Just put it in the barn if there’s room I told Dino.”
“No. These are your things and I told you there was room for them,” Dino insisted on arguing.
“Maybe so but just put them in the barn. I want to get things cleaned up and organized before I take on any more.”
The potatoes and the rest of it on the other hand was another problem completely. I told them, “Bring the fruit into the kitchen, if nothing else I might be able to start a patch of peach butter tonight. I guess just put the potatoes wherever you normally do and I’ll have to figure it out from there.”
They did as I asked under the watchful eye of the boss dog who was still deciding whether he was going to notice me or not and then they moved on to tend to the multitude of other chores that are the farmer’s lot in life. For myself I decided that it was unlikely to kill anyone if I stuck to something simple two nights in a row.
Looking in the dark recesses of the pantry I had found a pint jar of chunk chicken and a quart of mixed vegetables. While I peeled and sliced peaches for the peach tart I make a quick potato soup from a couple that I’d squirreled away in my pocket. I doubled the crust that I would need for the tart and used the other half to line a baking dish. I mixed the chunked chicken, the mixed veggies, and the potato soup together. I then ladled that into the crust in the baking dish and then made a half way decent lattice top cover with the little bit of dough I had left. I was able to bake the chicken pot pie and the peach tart at the same time, the only difference being that when the pot pie came out I sprinkled shredded cheese on top and let it melt into the already gooey mess.
At the end of the meal when the last drop of peach tart had been licked from everyone’s spoon Kerry said seriously, “I reckon you can stay.” We all managed to keep a straight face until after he had headed off to get his nightclothes on and then we started laughing so hard there were tears in our eyes.
“High praise indeed Ms. Keehn,” Dino said in the voice used by one of the circuit riding preachers that came through every couple of months. Well that set me off again.
Or at least it did until the thought of facing the man in my current condition started running through my head. I played it off by getting up and taking the dishes to be washed but I don’t guess Dino was fooled. I was sitting at the window trying to take advantage of the last bit of light to make some notes to myself on an old chalk tablet I used for such things when he came in carrying the lamp that I had returned to him that morning.
“You’re going to ruin your eyes that way.”
“There’s no sense in wasting kerosene. I’m almost finished.”
“And there’s no since in sitting in the dark when I have the kerosene to use.”
“It’s too hot to light it,” I told him.
He opened his mouth but then conceded the point. “It is hot, I’ll give you that. It’s so warm for June I hate to see what July and August are going to be like.”
I involuntarily looked to the sky and still didn’t see a single cloud. Between the moonlight and starlight it was resisting being full dark. “If we don’t get some rain soon we’re going to be in trouble. It was a cold dry winter and now it’s looking to be a hot dry summer.”
“Got news when we were at Alec’s that a storm front might be heading our way. We’ll know in a couple of days.”
I turned to look at him through the dark, “What kind of storm front?”
“Could be a rough one. I’m going to show you the storm shelter tomorrow. It’s down in the basement with just about everything else.”
I sighed and added “Pick all the peaches and nectarines that are ripe” to my list. Dino looked at the tablet when I finally sat down at the table and he said, “There’s no way you’ll be able to finish all of that tomorrow.”
“Maybe, maybe not … but I’ll make a good start on it at the very least if the Lord tarries and the creek don’t rise.”
That got a chuckle out of him, “You … you have a … um … way with words.”
I shrugged. It’s not like it hasn’t been pointed out by plenty of people before him. “To get a heads up, what would you like for breakfast tomorrow?”
He thought for a moment before asking hesitantly, “Can you make biscuits?”
I rolled my eyes, “Can your dogs hunt? I made my first batch when I was still so small I had to stand on a chair to mix the dough. Why?”
“Well, I saw there are some sausages in the smoke house that are drying out and thought … maybe … if …”
“OK, how about biscuits with busted down gravy and maybe some fried eggs if the feather dusters will cooperate?”
A grin split his face, “I collected six tonight. There might be more in the morning, I’m not sure. They seem to be settling back down now that Kerry isn’t teasing them.”
“Good enough.” I sighed leaned back in my chair.
“Is this too much for you?” he asked, concern clear in his voice.
“Is what too much for me?”
“Everything. Tammy … well …”
I gave him the eye and reminded him, “I asked you not to measure me by her.”
“I’m not but she’s the only one I have to go by at this stage.”
Realizing what he meant I said, “Oh, you mean the baby. I guess I’m still not used to the idea of him. It keeps sneaking up on me that I’m changing and have to take it into account.”
“You think it is going to be a boy?”
I shrugged, “I just want a healthy one which ever flavor it turns out to be. I’m just more used to little boys. I’m not sure I’ll know what to do with it if it’s a little girl.”
“You’ll raise her the same way you were raised.”
Without meaning to I said, “I wasn’t raised, I survived.” I knew as soon as it fell out of my mouth that I’d let him see some pain I hadn’t meant for him to see.
He leaned back in his chair as well and said, “It must have been tough.”
I snorted, “It sounds like I’m complaining and I didn’t mean for it to.”
“No, not complaining … but I’d … I’d like to understand if you’d explain.”
I looked at him and realized in the gloom I could barely see him. That’s probably what made it easier. I also realized that I might be better off getting stuff out in the open now rather than later if we really were going to be working on something between us. After I’d finished explaining about Dad, and Mom and my little brother along with the rest of my family, how I decided to change, the epidemic, the Bly family, how in a weird way they had given me some reason to go on when I didn’t know what to do next … even about Sol and how I’d come to make such a fool of myself … I said, “And that’s the whole sordid tale. I reckon after all of that you know as much about me as I do.”
“I doubt it,” he said as he leaned forward and placed one of his hands over mine. “You’re full of surprises every time I turn around.”
“That can get tiring for some folks.”
“Not for me, not at this point in my life. I’m tired of nothing but doom and gloom. Laughter and surprises is exactly what I need.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of his hand over mine but it didn’t bother me like I thought it should. Made me wonder if I wasn’t fickle, being able to turn my back on Sol and so quickly consider someone new.
He was about to say something more when we heard one of the dogs bay followed by the others. We both stood up and hurried to the window. With no light behind us we weren’t visible but the moonlight showed the stealthy movement of something waddling with a strange gate across the yard heading in the direction that I knew Dino had his hogs penned up. Dino grabbed the bigger of the two rifles hanging near the kitchen door and then eased open the door.
The creature stopped at the sound and then sniffed the air. There was a grunt, it stood up briefly on its hind legs to sniff the wind and then went down again with an odd oomph and stood still. Neither one of us moved as we watched to see what it would do next. The creature knew it was being watched but finally decided it was too hungry to be bothered by it and slowly turned to lumber away, back on its original heading. In that moment I ducked down on my knees as I felt Dino raise the rifle, aim it, and then pull the trigger causing a roar that must have echoed up the stairs. Kerry screamed and I took off up the stairs meeting Harry on his way down. “Some shot huh?” he asked excitedly.
I told Harry, “Don’t let him go after that thing in the dark by himself.”
Kerry was nearly shrieking by the time I got to him. “Daddy!! I want Daddy!!!”
“Easy Squirt. It’s all right. You’re daddy was just takin’ care of business. Something was after the hogs is all.” I finally got him calmed down but he was shaking like a leaf and still asking for his father. I needed to go downstairs and find out what was going on myself so I said, “You’re too big for me to carry you but if you come downstairs with me you can hop up on the bed and wait for him there. How’s that?”
He scrambled so fast he nearly fell out of bed onto his head but I still managed to get him tucked up and he wasn’t shaking near so much. It was an hour before they came back and both stank from sour sweat.
I told Dino he’d better see his boy and then had to point him in the direction of the room I’d come to think as my bedroom. I got a couple of drinking glasses filled with cool water from the hand pump.
“He’s basically asleep. I’ll move him in a minute,” Dino said coming back into the room to take one of the glasses from my hand.
“You can leave him there. I reckon we’ll be up dealing with bear meat.”
Dino shook his head, “Unfortunately not. My shot was a clean one but someone has taken a shot at that bear before and only winged him. It went septic and there was a pocket of infection on his hindquarters. The infection would have eventually given him a bad ending if my bullet hadn’t done it first.”
Disappointed I nevertheless as was my habit looked for the bright side. “Well, at least you put the poor thing out of its misery. What did you do with the corpse?”
He said, “That’s what took us so long. As hurt as it was it still managed to get nearly a hundred yards away before collapsing. Luckily that’s near the drainage gulley. We rolled it so that the blood would drain down into a gulley away from the house area and I’ll burn the corpse first thing in the morning. I hate to waste meat but with that infection it is too big a risk.”
They finally cooled off and Harry went back up to bed. Dino asked, “You sure you don’t want me to move him?”
“No. There’s no sense in waking him. And this way if he wakes up scared again I can calm him back down without having to climb them stairs.”
Dino didn’t try to change my mind again which told me just how tired he likely was. If that hadn’t the slow tread of his feet up the stairs did. I climbed in bed after winding up and setting my old alarm clock that hadn’t seen use in years and went to sleep.
I rolled over when it went off and groaned. I shut it off and then rolled the other way only to open my eyes to find a face staring back at me grinning. The little devil laughed and said, “You snore. Wait ‘til I tell Daddy” before scampering away. I groaned again but this time for a different reason.