Cathy Marie Hake
Laney McCain has unabashedly had her sights set on Galen O'Sullivan for years. And though Galen has treated her as nothing more than his best friend's pesky tag-along sister, Laney dares hope that now is the time he will open his eyes and truly recognize the woman she's become.
But the arrival of Ishmael and Ivy Grubb, squatters on the O'Sullivans' land, diverts Galen's attention. Though the Grubbs are crass and uneducated, Galen shows mercy and allows them to stay in exchange for help around the farm. But it becomes a decision he lives to regret...
Laney McCain fought the urge to lick her fingers. The Fry's chocolate bar had come all the way from England, and it seemed wrong to waste even a dab of something so wonderful. Behind the cover of her hankie, she buckled to the temptation. One ... two ... three quick licks. Both bitter and sweet at the same time, the last little taste left her craving more. She smiled down at her neighbor, Dale O'Sullivan. "We're going to have to go back to that candy place!"
"Right now?" Greed lit the six-year-old's eyes.
"Yeah!" his brother Sean agreed.
"No." Laney used her hankie to clean Sean's chocolate mustache.
Dale hastily licked his own mouth clean and grinned. "I got it all, Miss Laney!"
"Yes, you did." She straightened up and scanned the crowded California State Fair pavilion as she tucked the hankie back up her sleeve. "You boys stay close. Here, Sean. I'll carry the pail now."
"Do you know where we're 'posed to go?" Dale grabbed a fistful of her skirt.
"No, but I see a gentleman over there who's wearing a name tag. We can ask him." Laney approached the bewhiskered man. "Excuse me. I have grape jelly and canned veg—"
"You're in the wrong place." Vexation creased the man's brow and lent a surly edge to his voice. "Produce is over in the west side of the pavilion. Tallow, lard, and preserved meats are here. Milk, butter, and cheese are on the south side. Grains and starches are north."
Sean O'Sullivan scratched his bony elbow and asked, "Are potatoes produce or are they starch?"
"Don't get smart with me," the man snapped.
Laney wrapped her left arm around Sean's shoulders and drew him closer. Her fingers made contact with the black strip of mourning crepe on her ten-year-old neighbor's upper arm, so she slid her hand higher and patted him while drawing his little brother closer to her on the other side. "I wondered the selfsame thing. I guess it doesn't matter much since I don't have potatoes."
"Guess not." Sean shrugged—a tense move that tattled on how upset he was.
"Your mother's over there with Hilda. See? They're entering their tubs of lard."
"Since I need to go over to the far wall with my jelly, Sean, why don't you go tell your mother that Dale and I will meet you all outside by that bench where we ate our chocolate?"
Sean looked up at her, his blue eyes filled with a mixture of sadness and anger. "Yes, Miss Laney."
"That's very helpful of you."
A moment after he left, the grumpy man harrumphed. "Didn't notice the lad's armband. Didn't mean to upset him."
Laney cast a meaningful look down at Dale, then tried to sound chipper. "I convinced the O'Sullivans to come to the fair with me. Two of your brothers and your mother came along, didn't they, Dale?"
"Uh-huh. But Galen stayed behind to work."
"Right smart idea." The old man bobbed his head knowingly. "Treat your servants well and they work harder."
"The O'Sullivans work harder than anyone I know." Laney smoothly set his false assumption straight by adding, "It's a pleasure to have them as our neighbors." And someday I'd like to be more than just their neighbor. It's proper to have a year of mourning; that's long enough to let Galen see that I'm not just his best friend's baby sister. He'll finally see how much I love him and his family.
Laney pulled the blue gingham cover off her pail and entered her jelly and vegetables in the competition when they reached the correct booth. A sense of accomplishment washed over her. Even six months ago she hadn't known how to cook anything. She'd only tried to make jelly once before—with disastrous results. Thanks to Mrs. O'Sullivan's gentle guidance, Laney now knew her way around a kitchen.
As she and Dale left the booth, he tugged on her sleeve. "Miss Laney?"
He crooked his finger at her, so she leaned down. "Do you got any extra of that grape jelly?"
"Back home I do. Why?"
He looked crestfallen. "Never mind."
"Are you hungry?" When he shook his head, Laney drew Dale off to the side and sat on a small bench. Taming her hoops took a fleeting second, and then she reached and pulled Dale onto her lap.
"My shoes'll make a dreadful mess of your pretty new dress."
"A little dirt never hurt anyone." She curled her arms about him. "Now suppose you tell me why you wanted to know about the jelly."
"I thought maybe if I put some on Hortense, nobody'd want her." He blinked and hung his head.
"Ahhh," she said softly, then cuddled him closer. "I see." Laney smiled, recalling her first jelly-making experience, which had ended with her discarding her work into the pig sty. Her brother, Josh, thought the hogs had contracted some ailment upon seeing the purple splotches on their skin.
Laney threaded her fingers through Dale's unruly red curls. All around them, the fair went on. But Dale's little world is falling apart.
Dale finally tilted his head back. "Galen says I've gotta be brave."
Her heart leapt at the mere mention of Galen's name. "If anyone knows about being brave, it's your big brother." Laney slowly stroked her hand up and down Dale's skinny back.
"'Farmers raise crops and livestock to sell. It's our job,'" the little boy quoted, but his voice quavered.
"There's no denying that you've taken fine care of Hortense. I remember when she was just a tiny piglet."
Dale nodded. His hair caught on the pin-tucked bodice of her gown.
For a few more minutes, they stayed silent. Laney spent the time plotting what to do so Dale wouldn't have to lose his pet. "I must say," she told him as she gave him a squeeze, "I think you've been exceedingly brave. Your big brother and mine could probably take a lesson or two from you. I've never seen a pair of grown men act the way they did at the railway station!"
Dale perked up and giggled. "Hortense sure and enough gave them a hard time, didn't she?"
"I can't say who behaved the worst: my brother, yours, or Hortense."
"You can't blame Hortense. She'd never seen a train afore."
"That's a very good point in her defense. Josh and Galen had no excuse. Then you"—Laney tapped his freckled nose—"just crumbled that cookie and made a trail that had her walk right up the ramp and into the livestock car. That was very clever."
"Not really. I didn't have a cookie to eat, then." Glum as could be, he added, "If I'd kept my cookie, maybe Hortense would still be back home."
Arguing about that would be pointless, so Laney whispered, "There's nothing keeping us from getting cookies now. I saw some enormous ones at a booth just outside the door—right next to the candy place. We could get a few chocolate bars to share and a couple of cookies." When Dale's eyes brightened, she shifted her gaze around the pavilion a few times, then leaned closer. "I think ..." She paused for a moment to stretch out the suspense.
Dale squirmed. "Whaddya think, Miss Laney?"
"I think"—she gave him a squeeze—"Hortense would enjoy a cookie, too."
His jaw dropped. "You'd buy a cookie for my shoat?"
"Hortense isn't any ordinary pig."
"No, she isn't." Dale couldn't resist boasting, "Hortense is very smart."
"There's only one problem, though."
"Yes." Laney nodded her head solemnly. "I don't know which Hortense likes best: sugar cookies or gingersnaps."
* * *
"What a darlin' lass you are." Galen O'Sullivan patted the spirited mustang's neck. "Aye, you are. Itchin' to run, too. Well, you'll be on your way soon." He led the mare out to the fence and scanned the horizon.
For months he'd been managing the Pony Express relay station. The riders were impressively punctual, the horses even-tempered, and the news from back East fresh instead of weeks old. If only the Pony were profitable.
Four-and-a-half months was a long time to board, feed, and groom horses without compensation—and that didn't take into consideration that Galen needed to stop in the middle of his farming chores to saddle up the exchange mounts and cool down the traded ones.
Then, too, he'd needed to do a lot of doctoring recently. The riders obeyed the order to ride hard and push the horses to the limits of their endurance. That kind of use invariably took its toll. Of the three horses that belonged to the Express, Galen usually had to keep one out of the rotation for medical reasons.
"You stay here, lass. I'll fetch a dipper for the rider. He'll be by anytime now."
Galen went into the cabin and grimaced. He'd been busy trying to handle everything on his own. The house showed it, too. Instead of being orderly and redolent with the aromas of Ma's good cooking, the place would send any woman into a swoon. An unmade bed, dirty dishes, and a crusty-looking pot on the cold stove all declared Galen's lack of domesticity.
Pumping water into a bucket, he tried to recall where he'd last seen the dipper. The day Ma and his brothers had left for the fair, he'd used cups. The next two days, he'd used the bucket and dipper. That morning he'd caught water in a mixing bowl and drunk from the rim. After all, Ma always allowed her sons to lick the bowl when she mixed up a treat. Surely she wouldn't deny a thirsty son his fill of water!
But she'd have a conniption if he offered a rider water from her mixing bowl.
The distant drumming of hooves warned Galen he'd better hurry. A few minutes later, he shoved a quart-sized Mason jar at the rider. "Water."
"Thanks." He drained the whole thing.
"Ma's at the fair in Sacramento. This'll have to do." Galen handed the rider a large pear from his mother's orchard. Though it wasn't part of the business arrangement with the Pony Express, Ma refused to allow any man to come across their land without offering hospitality. She usually had a sandwich or a baked treat ready for the riders.
"You here alone?"
"Aye." Galen yanked the leather mochilla from the lathered mount and slung it over the saddle of the waiting mare. All four pockets of the carrier were full. That must be a good sign—that business was picking up.
"Talking to yourself yet?"
Galen laughed. "Aye."
The rider nodded sagely. "You can even answer yourself. If you start arguing with yourself, that's when you know you're Bedlam-bound."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"Bet Miss McCain's been dropping by to bring decent grub."
"She's in Sacramento at the fair, but even if she hadn't gone, it wouldn't be fitting for her to come here."
"She's a proper young lady. No one would ever imagine her misbehaving. She's here so much, she's practically like family already. When are you finally going to pop the question?"
"I'm not. She's like a kid sister—nothing more."
The rider shook his head and swung up into the saddle. "She's got her heart set on you."
"What do you know? You come by a couple of times a week for a few minutes."
"I know a woman in love when I see one. You're going to break her heart."
"She'll grow up and forget her foolish notions. I'm sparing her feelings by ignoring a young lass's passing fancy. Off with you now. God go with you."
Galen watched as the horse and rider disappeared from sight. Turning back toward his fields, he heaved a sigh. Lord, I've already got far too much on my plate. You promise you won't give us more than we can bear. Well, I'm at that point. I'm worried about Ma. She's mourning Da somethin' fierce. And try as I might, I can't fill his shoes by playing father to my little brothers. Tending both the farm and the Express with Colin's help this summer had taken all their effort. Now with Colin going back to school, Galen knew he'd be stretched to the limit. That's everything, Lord—my family, my finances, my farm—everything's in disarray. Can't you please help me out?
He grabbed the lathered horse's reins and walked him for a gentle cooldown, then rubbed him, soothed him, and finally allowed him a small drink from a pail. "That's it for you, boy-o. Though you're wantin' more, 'twould make you founder. In a little while I'll let you drink to your heart's desire and feed you well."
Galen weeded and watered the huge garden surrounded by Ma's fruit trees. The McCain ladies—Laney and Josh's bride, Ruth—had been helping Ma garden, pickle, preserve, and such for months now. Their companionship helped keep Ma going, especially after she lost Da. That being the case, Galen knew he couldn't very well tell Josh to keep his kid sister at home. He'd learned to ignore Laney's attention.
He worked well into the evening, then did more by lantern light in the barn. Finally Galen went into the house. It was far too hot to bother lighting the stove to cook anything. The end of the loaf of bread Ma had baked and left for him was stale. He ate it along with a hunk of jerked meat and a pear.
Before falling into bed for the night, Galen filled the big half barrel they used as a bathtub. After shaving in a few curls of lye soap, he gathered up all of the dishes and dumped them in to soak overnight.
Loud rumbles from his stomach woke him the next morning. Galen thought of all the eggs he'd gathered over the past four days, then looked at the soaking dishes and promised himself he'd rinse them and set them out to dry so he could have eggs tomorrow morning. For now he settled for a hefty wedge of cheese from the springhouse and more fruit.
Round about noon, whilst weeding the garden, he heard a sneeze and straightened up. "Rick Maltby! What brings you here?"
"A guilty conscience." Rick lifted a pasteboard box. "And a mercy meal. I figured by now you'd be starving."
"Close to it." He motioned to a shaded spot. "Meet you over there."
"If you don't mind, I'm—" the town's lawyer sneezed again—"a-a-allergic to something out here."
"We can go into the house on one condition."
Maltby sneezed again. "Anything."
"Give your word that you'll never mention what you see."
"What are you talking about?" Maltby let out a typhoon of a sneeze. "Out with it, Galen. My hay fever is—"
"Come on." Galen strode toward the house. "The house is a wreck. Ma'd wring my neck if she ever caught wind of my letting things go."
"It's not funny in the least." Galen glowered at his so-called friend.
"Yes it is. I'm relieved I'm not the only grown man who hates the thought of disappointing my mother!" Once he stepped into the cabin, Maltby let out a long, low whistle. "That's quite a collection."
Galen gathered the dishes from the towel he'd spread on the table that morning. Stacking them in the cupboard, he changed the subject. "So you've a guilty conscience?"
"I do." Maltby sat down and shoved the box across the table.
Finished putting most of the dishes approximately where he thought they belonged, Galen sat down and pulled off the lid. The sight and scent of fried chicken made his mouth water. He forced himself to rise again.
"What're you doing?"
He tore his gaze from the box. "Getting us plates."
"I've already eaten. I figured you'd just save some for supper."
Galen sat back down and rubbed his hands together. "I'm not sure what to pray first—thanksgiving for the food, for you being such a fine friend, or that Bill was cooking at the Copper Kettle today."
Rick didn't crack a smile. "I'm not feeling as if I've been such a good friend to you, Galen."
Galen froze and looked at the food with nothing short of horror. "Ethel was cooking?"
"Bill cooked. If Ethel had, I wouldn't have brought you anything." Relief flowed through Galen. "You brought me good food; that proves you're a grand friend."
Maltby let out a long sigh. "I approached you and your father about running the Pony Express relay from your farm. I've recently heard the company is in arrears insofar as their payroll is concerned."
"That's not your fault. Da and I prayed together and made the decision to manage a station."
"You could cite your father's death and the company's failing to meet their obligations as reasons to sever the contract. I'm willing to represent you at no cost."
"That's generous of you, Rick, but I'm giving them a fair chance. I won't welsh on a deal. Da's passing is no excuse for me to back out of a business agreement."
"But the Pony is failing to pay up."
"I can't deny wishin' they'd cough up the money. Still, I'm noticing the mochillas are full these days. Maybe they needed a little time." Galen shrugged. "Perhaps 'tis the farmer in me. I understand there are times when we can't see growth because the plant has to set down roots first."
"The offer stands—at any time, if you want my help, it's yours."
Galen inclined his head in acknowledgment. "As for hard feelings about money—forget that. 'Twould be a sorry excuse of a man who ruined a friendship for the sake of greed." Galen pulled out a perfect golden brown drumstick and waved it a few times. "But don't put that comment to the test if you're thinkin' of reaching for a piece of chicken."
For the first time since he'd taken a seat, Maltby smiled.
Decent food and someone to talk to went a long way toward perking up the day. After Maltby took his leave, Galen went back out to work. Late in the afternoon, he squinted off into the distance. What he saw curdled his blood.
Bittersweet by Cathy Marie Hake
Copyright © 2007; ISBN-13 978-0764201660
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.