Page 5 of 34
After three days on the farm, Kate had come to the conclusion that there was nothing left to do. She had managed, with Becky’s help, to unpack and arrange all of her clothes. She had finally gone out to see the property on a morning walk with Mark, discovering a lovely shaded spot next to the creek that ran along the western edge of the farm. She had even stepped into the barn one morning and seen the cows, although this was unintentional—she had actually been merely going to inspect the garden when she had seen Sam riding down the hill toward the house, and she’d ducked inside the barn to avoid being seen.
Very shortly she realized that she’d done exactly the wrong thing for several reasons. First of all, the stench of the barn almost made her nostalgic for low tide back home. Second, the muck and straw covering the floor was most unpleasant, and she already was dreading what her shoes would look like when she got back to the house. Finally, however, she heard the heavy steps of Sam’s horse coming up right outside the barn door. Terrific choice, Katie. Hide in the barn he was headed for.
“All right, old girl, let’s go outside,” she heard him call.
Who does he think he’s talking to? So insulting! She stepped into view and aimed her most steely glare at him.
“There is no reason to speak to me like that,” she said, and she could tell by the shocked look on Sam’s face that he knew he had overstepped his bounds. She almost let a satisfied smile cross her lips, but she fought to keep an icy expression. “And if I want to stay in the barn all day long, that’s what I’m going to do. It belongs to us, after all.”
“Miss Taylor, I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know you were in there. I was talking to my cow.”
Oh, good Lord. “Your cow?”
“It’s the one back there in the corner, with the white tag on her ear.” Kate turned and glanced back; sure enough, there was a white-tagged ear flicking at her in the gloom. As she turned back to look at Sam, she was glad for the dim light in the barn, which hopefully would hide her burning cheeks.
“I was coming down to let them out to pasture,” Sam continued. “Did you need some help with something out here?”
“No thank you, Sam,” she said. “I was just looking around for…well, I was just bored and looking around.” Kate gathered up her dress and carefully stepped out of the barn, trying to make a graceful exit for once. When she was on the dry ground outside, she turned and looked back into the barn. Sam was up on the gate, one arm outstretched to scratch behind the cow’s ear, as if it were a giant puppy.
“What’s your cow’s name?” she called.
“She doesn’t have one. It didn’t seem very important when I bought her, and I never got around to naming her.”
“Well, I think you should name it,” Kate said. “That way you won’t have to call her ‘old girl’. You know, in case some other old girl is hiding in the barn too.”
His smile lit up the gloom of the barn. “That’s a good point, Miss Taylor,” he said. “I’ll have to think about it.”
Kate turned and went back to the house. She returned to the parlor, taking up the same spot on the sofa where she’d been before she had decided to go outside in the first place, again watching her brothers continue their game of backgammon. She reached to the side table for the letter to Laura that she’d been working on, but after rereading the first few lines she realized that it was going to be difficult to continue writing about the goings-on at the farm if nothing was going on.
She sighed and replaced the letter on the table. Half an hour later, with the only sounds the click of the backgammon pieces and the tick of the grandfather clock, she had nearly fallen asleep when there was a knock at the front door. Jake went running out to see who it was, returning to the parlor almost immediately.
“Kate, Sam is here to see you.” He stepped aside to reveal Sam, who thankfully hadn’t stepped further into the house with his boots fresh from the barn.
“Actually I’m here to see all of you,” Sam said. “I’m heading into town for a few things and I thought I’d see if you wanted to go along.”
Mark and Jake were on their feet before Sam had even finished speaking.
“You bet,” Mark said. “Let’s go.” He and Jake had already started for the door when Kate cleared her throat.
“Thank you, Sam,” she said. “That sounds lovely. I’ll only need a few minutes to get ready.” She could hear her younger brother sigh from across the room. “Appearances matter, Jake,” she said. “You might take my advice and change your shirt, by the way.”
Kate was fairly sure that among the grumbling she could hear the words “bed sheet”, but she paid it no mind as she went up the stairs, interrupting Becky as she was making the bed.
“Becky, I’m going to town. Let’s dig around in the closet and see what we can find.” A slight smile arose on Becky’s lips; the normally stern-faced girl had almost shone when they’d unpacked Kate’s clothes, and Kate had quickly realized that in spite of her own plain clothing, Becky had an eye for fashion and a real talent for picking out just the right combinations. On her first trip into town, Kate wanted to make an impression without looking like she had tried too much, and as Becky laid out several dresses, Kate realized that her selection had hit the mark exactly. Becky helped her get dressed and quickly did her hair; in only a few minutes Kate was headed back downstairs, where the men were waiting for her in the parlor.
Her brothers leaped up, ready to go, as soon as she stepped into the room. Sam rose more slowly, a smile spreading over his face as he looked at her.
Kate quickly patted her hair to make sure everything was in place and glanced down at her dress. “Is something the matter?” she asked.
“Nope,” Sam replied. “Not at all. Are you ready to go?”
“I believe I am.”
They stepped outside and Kate waited on the porch with her brothers while Sam went for the carriage; in only a few minutes they were heading up the long drive that led from their property to the main road. After days of being cooped up on the farm, it didn’t even matter that the landscape was just more of the same: gently rolling hills covered in green. It was just a relief to be out of the house, and as they went along Kate felt her mood improving.
Rounding a sharp turn, Sam had to rein in the horses to avoid hitting a group of men walking along; they had been hidden by the thick brush growing alongside the road. It looked like they were all dressed simply, but it was difficult to say for certain due to the enormous amount of mud that their clothing bore. It seemed as if they’d been wallowing in the dirt. As they drove past them, Kate couldn’t help but stare, earning a glare in return from one of the men. His eyes were eerily bright against his grimy face. A shiver ran through her and she turned forward again.
“Who were those men walking back there?” she asked.
Sam threw a quick glance backwards. “Diggers,” he said. “Probably going into town for supplies.”
“What do you mean, diggers?”
“They’re miners. Around here, we just call them diggers,” Sam said. “That was John Tilton’s farm we just passed; this spring he found lead ore on his property, and he’s been having men work it ever since.”
“It looks like those men haven’t bathed in months,” Kate said. “I do believe I could smell them as we passed.”
Sam laughed. “Yeah, they don’t spend too much time around water. Some of them even live in holes in the ground.”
Kate turned to look at Sam, but his face revealed no hint of a smile, no indication that he’d been joking.
“You must be kidding.”
“I’m serious,” he said. “Sometimes they just dig holes in the hillsides and live there. They call those guys badgers, in fact. Look up there.” He pointed to a rise off to their left; near the top of the hill, a gunny sack had been tied to a couple of poles stuck into the ground. In the wind, the makeshift door waved back and forth, revealing the tunnel behind. “Somebody lives in there.”
“Those poor men,” she said. “It’s like being an animal.”
“It’s a hard life, that’s for sure,” Sam said. “Especially now. They say that the lead is harder to find now, so they’re not making as much money as they used to. A lot of men have gone out to California to mine gold instead.”
The thought of living in a hole in the ground sent a chill though Kate’s body, and she shivered in spite of the sunlight that was drenching them. “Unbelievable. I never would have imagined that in the modern world people could actually live like that,” she said. She hadn’t really thought about it before, but at that moment she became very thankful for her large, comfortable bed inside her large, comfortable house.
They drove on in silence for several minutes, content to simply watch the landscape. The road led them over the gentle hills, some of which were covered with broad swaths of corn and wheat in orderly rows, and others that still wore the long prairie grass of unfarmed land.
“Warm day today, isn’t it, Miss Taylor,” Sam said, glancing over at Kate, who was trying to shield herself from the sun with her hand, but without much success.
“Yes, quite warm. Just another thing I’ll have to get used to, I guess,” Kate said. “Back home—I mean, in Boston—we didn’t spend much time riding out in the country like this.”
“We’re almost there,” Sam said, and pointed to the next hill rising in front of them. “In fact, once we get over this hill we’ll practically be in town already. You’ll be able to see it from the top.”
Sam slowed the horses as they neared the crest of the hill, stopping the carriage just when the town below came into view.
“This,” he said, “is Mineral Point.” Sam extended his hand as if revealing an artist’s masterpiece.
“Wow,” Mark said flatly.
“It ain’t Boston, that’s for sure,” Jake said.
No kidding, Kate thought. Sam started down the last incline toward town, but Kate was sure that things weren’t about to improve by seeing them up close. In fact, the view from atop the hill had been very instructive. The entire town could be seen laid out as if looking at a map. A very small map.
The town, such as it was, seemed to have just one large street that cut through the center like a knife, splitting Mineral Point into two halves. As they descended, she could see a few things that were clear even at a distance. There was the church, of course, standing aside from most of the other buildings in town as if not wanting to get too close to them, its steeple towering over the other buildings and its graveyard lying low. Nearest to them, just at the close edge of town, was a school, either recently built or recently painted; the white building practically gleamed in the bright morning sun. The main street appeared to be lined with false-front buildings and a few larger buildings she couldn’t identify from afar; the rest of the city spread itself out around the center in no recognizable pattern. Shacks nestled up next to good-sized houses, streets ran at odd angles and there was even an thin sliver of cornfield that poked at one edge of the city, like a leafy green spear surrounded by homes on all sides.
“This town looks like it was laid out with no rhyme nor reason,” Kate said.
Sam snorted. “That’s the truth,” he said. “It was growing so fast a while back that nobody seemed to care very much about how it looked. It’s calmed down a little bit now, though.”
The traffic on the road had increased markedly as they came closer, with large, overloaded wagons struggling up the hill, passenger carriages streaming everywhere, and a good number of men on foot, all dressed in what Kate now realized was the uniform of the lead miner: muddy boots, dirty trousers, sweaty shirts. More than a couple of the diggers stared at her openly as they passed, sending a shudder through her as they leered.
Once they entered the town proper, Sam pointed out several places along the way. “You saw the school as we came in,” he said. “Over there’s the post office, and that’s Mike Turner’s barbershop.”
“What’s that big building over there, the one with the columns?” Kate asked, pointing to an unusually ornate structure. The classical design and large size made it stick out from the smaller, plainer neighbors.
“Oh, that’s the theater,” Sam said. “Time was, they had lots of big plans for the place, but they pretty much just use it for town meetings and the like. Once in a while we get traveling shows, though,” he said, pointing to a large poster which had been tacked to the front doors.
“A Shakespeare production?” Kate said, reading the poster. “Really? They actually perform Shakespeare here?”
“Why not? We’re cultured,” Sam said.
Kate smiled at the image of a theater full of diggers, caked in mud, swirling drinks in hand at the intermission and going to retrieve their shovels from the coat check after the performance.
Kate turned to her brothers. “We should go see it! It’s been ages since we were at the theater,” she said. “I wonder where you buy tickets.”
“Couldn’t be easier,” Sam said. “Usually when we have shows like this come through, John Gray sells them at his store. It’s just up here,” he said, pointing to a huge false-front building with a bright red-and-white sign reading GRAY’S GENERAL STORE. “I figured I’d take you all there anyway; we can ask about the tickets.”
As they pulled up in front of the store, Sam expertly guiding the carriage between two others, Mark and Jake both leaped down and started up the steps, leaving Kate perched on the seat.
“Boys,” she called, but neither of her brothers appeared to hear her.
“No problem, Miss Taylor,” Sam said. He put on the brake and hopped down, moving around the carriage and raising his arm to take her by the hand.
“Thank you, Sam,” she said, placing her hand in his and stepping down. “It’s nice to see that not everybody has forgotten their manners.”
“My pleasure,” Sam said. He hurried up the steps and opened the door for her. “After you, Miss Taylor.”
“Again, thank you, Sam,” she said, stepping inside.
The store was even larger than it appeared from the outside; though the space inside was somewhat narrow, with only three aisles, it extended far back and created a very spacious room. Or, at least, it would have been spacious had it not been crammed full of items, but the store seemed to offer everything one could possibly want. The first aisle had every sort of canned foodstuff Kate could imagine running down one side, while the other had baskets of fresh vegetables waiting for purchase; the second aisle was stocked with goods for the household, and the third seemed to be devoted to tools, farm supplies and odds and ends that hadn’t fit elsewhere.
“Afternoon, folks,” called a clerk, who was perched on a ladder behind the counter, dusting some cans on the shelves behind. “Let me know if you need any help finding anything.”
While her brothers headed to the last aisle to look at the tools, Kate started down the middle aisle to the household goods, with Sam following behind.
“Sam, if you’d rather look at the farm items, I don’t mind,” she said. “You said you needed to pick up some things.”
“That’s all right,” he said. “Won’t take me more than a minute; I know just where everything is over there. Haven’t spent a lot of time here, though,” he said, picking up a china cup to examine it. “If you don’t mind, I’ll just go along with you.”
“I don’t mind at all,” Kate said.
They slowly continued down the aisle, stopping now and again to look more closely at kitchenware, bedding, and a large section of fabric and sewing supplies. When they reached the end of the aisle, they turned and returned to the front of the store by going up the first aisle, pausing frequently to look at the canned goods and vegetables. By the time they again met up with Kate’s brothers, more than half an hour had passed.
“My goodness, I don’t think anybody would need to ever shop anywhere else,” Kate said.
“Yeah, they’ve got pretty much everything under the sun in here,” Sam said
“Hello, Sam,” Kate heard behind her, and she turned to see a tall man in his fifties, so thin that his shirt collar hung loose around his neck. He reached out and shook hands with Sam as he approached them.
“John, good to see you,” Sam said. “I want you to meet the Taylors. This is Mark, Jake and Kate. They’re Bill Taylor’s kin.” Sam turned back to Kate and her brothers. “This is John Gray, the store owner.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you all,” Gray said, shaking hands with everybody. “We’d heard you were coming out after Bill passed. How are you all settling in?”
“So far, so good,” Mark said. “It’s quite a store you have here.”
“That’s nice of you to say. Have you all had a chance to look around?”
“Just now,” Kate said. “There’s a lot to see.”
“Well, let me know if you can’t find anything,” Gray said. “And by all means, let me know if you need any help settling in or whatnot.”
“John, before I forget, they wanted to go see the next show at the theater,” Sam piped up. “Do you have tickets?”
“Sure do. Just remind me when you’re ready to go and I’ll get some for you.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Kate said. “You know, I think I’ll have a new dress made for the show,” she added, turning to her brothers. “I saw some nice fabric back there. Now I’ll just have to find a seamstress.”
“Funny you should mention that,” Gray said. “As a matter of fact, my wife is the best seamstress in town.”
“She is? When do you think I could see her?”
“You can see her right now, if you like. She has a little space back in the storeroom,” he said, pointing toward the rear of the store. “Sam can show you back there and she’ll get you all set up.”
For the next hour Kate was in the company of Mrs. Gray, a businesslike woman whose face seemed to only exhibit variations of the same vaguely annoyed expression as Kate flipped through a folder of clippings showing a selection of women’s clothing. She finally found a drawing of a dress which caught her eye. With a fitted bodice, pagoda sleeves and braided trim, Kate imagined that it would make a fine addition to her wardrobe.
“You sure you want this design? I’ll have to make silk undersleeves for you too,” Mrs. Gray said. “That’ll cost you extra.”
“That’s no problem,” Kate said. “This is the one I’d like, in the dark green cotton you have on display out there.”
Mrs. Gray grunted at her and proceeded to quickly take her measurements. “When do you need it by?”
“We’re going to the Shakespeare performance at the theater,” Kate said. “So I’ll need it no later than next Saturday morning.”
“Gonna be a rush job,” she said. “That’ll cost you extra too.”
Kate forced a smile. “That won’t be a problem, I assure you.”
Mrs. Gray scribbled a few lines on a scrap of paper and handed it to Kate. “You can pay up front,” she said, then turned back to hunch over her work table with her shears and began to cut some fabric.
Kate found the men outside on the steps, and after sending Mark in to pay for the tickets and her dress, they returned to the carriage and resumed their tour of Mineral Point. Kate found it difficult to pay attention, although she couldn’t fault Sam—when the highlights of the tour consisted of the town hall, the saloon and the barbershop, it was hard to stay interested. On the other hand, the thought of the upcoming show, complete with a new dress, was the first thing she’d had to look forward to in quite a while—the first thing she’d been excited about since she’d learned they were coming to Wisconsin, in fact.
The ride back out to the farm looked a lot different this afternoon; when she’d passed over these roads a few days earlier, Kate had been hungry, exhausted from traveling and covered in road dust—certainly in no mood to appreciate the view. Now, however, on a warm day beneath a brilliant blue sky dotted with clouds and surrounded by lush green fields, things were different. She felt almost optimistic. She felt almost happy.
As they arrived back at the house, pulling up to a stop in front of the porch steps, Sam put on the brake and hopped down in a flash, immediately turning and raising a hand to help Kate down from the carriage.
“Thank you, Sam,” she said, and she felt an unusual warm glow in her tummy when he smiled at her. He really was quite handsome, she realized, with thick black hair and shining dark eyes that seemed cut from onyx. How come I didn’t notice that before? Oh yeah—I was too busy tripping on sheets and hiding in barns. She looked at him for a long while before she realized that she was still holding his hand, and she only reluctantly let go.
“My pleasure, Miss Taylor,” he said. “Well, I guess I’ll see you later. I’d better get the cows into the barn before it gets too late.”
“Speaking of that, did you think of a name for your cow yet?” Kate asked as she went up the steps after her brothers.
Sam looked at her for a moment. “Actually, I was thinking about it on the way back. How about I name her Kate? You know, after you?”
Kate’s back stiffened. “You want to name your cow after me?” she asked, fighting to keep her voice even.
“Sure, if you want me to,” he said. He smiled at her as if he were genuinely pleased with the idea.
“So when you look at that cow, the first thing you think of is me?”
His jaw dropped slightly. “Well, I, uh—”
“When you look at that huge, stinky animal, the first name you think of is mine?”
Now it was finally Sam’s turn to blush. “Miss Taylor, I didn’t mean any disrespect. It was supposed to be—”
“Thank you for the ride into town. It was lovely until just now.” Kate stepped into the house and slammed the door shut behind her.