Cold Comfort

READ THE FIRST CHAPTER

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The first shriek startled Wanda like a sudden blast of wind. Since noon, she’d heard nothing but the squeak of leather, the horse’s breath and footfall, the rush of water. Only broken weeds suggested there might be another traveler on the grassy road. She twisted in the saddle but saw no one behind, no sign of anyone on the slope of charred trees or across the rocky river.

The howls repeated, high blasts of fury, a woman somewhere at the end of her wits. Maybe hurting a child, or being hurt herself in a terrible way.

Wanda’s horse, a red mare, stopped under a young tree at the roadside. She kicked the animal’s fat sides and jerked on the reins to pull up its head, but it did as it had all day─exactly as it pleased. When it stretched its neck to graze, she stood in the stirrups, pulled her knife from its sheath and cut a switch from the tree. Before she could slap the switch against its rump, the horse took off at a trot. Her butt bounced and her hands gripped the saddle horn. It was too late to wonder if she was better off alone.

She’d welcomed the loneliness and hardship of travel from North Dakota to West Virginia, choked by engine smoke, bone-rattled and sleepless for three days and nights. Pacing depot platforms, waiting for the next train. Sitting near family groups, bouncing other mothers’ children on her lap, avoiding men, lying about herself.

In Elkins she’d bought the horse for the last leg of her journey. After a full meal and a night’s rest in the Delmonico Hotel, she had no fear of following an unknown road on horseback. Everything ahead should be familiar, though she’d left the mountains way back in 1900, fifteen years younger. She told the stableman she’d ridden before. He’d given her a skeptical look.

By midafternoon, she liked everything but the horse. The road wound through narrow, shady valleys beside a fast-flowing creek. The oldest trees were dead and black with char, but mountain air brought memories of finding her way in the woods. Little by little she replaced bad thoughts with wonder at shades of green, the grays of boulders and rocks, the glimpses of white in a blue sky, the sense of justice to come. With few people on the road, none she knew and no one near, there was no need to guard herself or pretend she was fine. Her goals felt right─get back at Granny, take something away, cure her own craziness or put it to good use.

The shrieks grew louder. Around a curve, the horse came to a sudden halt behind a mule-drawn wagon. A man sprawled on the wagon cover like he’d fallen backwards from the bench, while a young woman knelt over him, screaming and slapping his head. The man lay still enough to be dead.

In one smooth motion, the woman looked up, grabbed a shotgun from a sheath alongside the wagon and aimed it at Wanda’s chest.

“Hey, no need for that,” Wanda called.

The woman lowered the gun and thumped her chest like she was trying to slow her heart. “I’m sorry… sorry to greet you like this. There’s robbers…” She gasped. “I’m afraid…”

Wanda tightened the reins and wrapped them over her hand to keep the horse from wandering, like they’d shown her at the stable. “If you don’t want to be noticed, you shouldn’t make so much noise.”

The woman pushed away dark curls and brushed a sleeve over her eyes. She waved the gun toward the man. “He give out on me. Fell dead while we was driving along.” She had a new widow’s stare of disbelief.

Wanda rode a few steps closer. “Maybe he’s in a faint.”

“I’ve had my ear to his chest! There’s no air in him.”

His eyes were open and his mouth gaped. He didn’t look like he’d be slapping back.

The woman glanced at the sky, then up and down the road. Her shoulders heaved. “We can’t do nothing for him. I’ve been here a while, and I need this load off my hands. Can you drive my wagon?”

“I doubt it,” Wanda said. “Can’t you?”

“My hands is delicate, and John never showed me how.” She had round dark eyes, plump cheeks and a bow mouth. Maybe the type to make a man do everything for her.

“Now would be a good time to learn,” Wanda said.

The woman sucked in air like she was building to another sob. “The wagon has to be braked and all. I could never do it.”

Wanda’s rear felt numb in the saddle, but on this road the wagon bench would be a harder seat. “Maybe you should stay here awhile. Till you’re more yourself.”

“I guess I’ll go on. I feel relieved to have your company. I’m Virgie White. This here’s John, my husband.”

“Wanda Wyatt.” She and Virgie had a lot in common─dead husbands, screaming fits, and this near-abandoned road.

Virgie slid th­e shotgun into its sheath. “Do you live close to here?”

“A long way off.”

“You’re not traveling by yourself?”

“I do all right.”

­­“Good for you,” Virgie said. She laid her fingers on her husband’s eyes and closed his lids. Then she eased his feet from the bench and sat in their place.

“I’m sorry about your man,” Wanda said.

Virgie straightened like she was gathering herself. “This is no good time to grieve, but when is? Have we seen each other before?”

“It’s possible.” Sooner or later people in thinly-settled places met, saw or heard of everyone else, but Wanda had been away most half her life. “Will this road get me to Winkler?”

“It will, about a day from now. Is that where you’re riding to?”

“It’s on my way. I’ve come to see my granny, Lucie Bosell. She called me home.”

“Did she now? Lucie Bosell, and you come. That’s sweet.” Virgie smiled, a sign she’d set her mourning aside, or was rattled.

Wanda hated to ask, but anything she could learn about Granny might help. “Are you acquainted with Lucie?”

“I’ve heard of her. I think we’s in the same business.”

“What business is that?”

Virgie glanced at her wagon. “Corn business.”

“I see.” Most likely corn liquor. “Do you know where she lives?”

“Don’t you?”

“I ain’t seen her since I was little.”

“I believe the Bosells was burned out, same as John and me.” When she said his name, Virgie’s chest began to heave. Soon she was crying and blowing her nose.

Wanda waited for her to settle. “Mrs. White, I can’t drive your wagon. I can barely drive this horse. You’ll have to wait for somebody else.”

“I guess I can try.” Virgie picked up the reins.

“I’ll follow along. Use the brake if the wagon starts to go faster than your husband drove it.”

“I never paid much attention.” Virgie held out a rope. “Maybe you could ride ahead and encourage my mule. Put this lead on him.”

“Is your load heavy?”

Virgie puckered her brow. “Why you want to know?”

“I don’t want to be ahead if we go down a grade and you can’t figure out how to brake.”

“It’s somewhat heavy. It’s corn.”

Since the month was June, either the wagon carried a load of grain from last year, or Virgie’s corn liquor was under the tarp.

Wanda leaned from the saddle and fastened the lead rope. The mule nuzzled her horse.

Virgie sniffed. “A mule loves a mare, because its ma was a mare.”

The mare kicked out with its hind leg. Virgie giggled. “A little slap, there’s a good Ma.

Wanda supposed the giggle could be crazy grief, unless Virgie hadn’t cared that much for the man who’d dropped dead.

Virgie pushed down on a lever at the side of the wagon. “I think I got it. Let’s go. It’ll be dark before we get there.”

“To Winkler?”

“To Jennie Town, up a-ways. There’s a place we can stay over.”

Fifteen years ago, she’d boarded the train at Jennie Town, headed west to Fargo.

With the mule eager to get close, the mare stepped ahead at a better pace.

“Look to the brake,” Wanda said. “We’re starting downhill.”

˜

A waning moon dimly lit the building where Virgie halted her mule. “Here we are. Jennie Town, what’s left.”

Another settlement that had come and gone with its sawmill. By train, Winkler had been only a few hours farther up the grade.

“I think this was the depot,” Wanda said. A strip of light showed around a door.

“The depot, so it was. Roy’s made it into a public house.” Virgie called from her wagon seat. “Roy, you there?”

Wanda swung down from her horse, stiff as an old woman. She smoothed her skirt over her trousers. A scent of boiling potatoes set her mouth to watering.

A straggly-bearded man with a lantern came around the side of the building and limped to the wagon. “Virgie. I been wondering where you got to. I see you brung somebody.” He peered at Wanda, then at the body on the tarp. “Is John sick or drunk?”

Virgie sniffed. “He ain’t neither. He fell over dead.”

“What?” Roy lifted the lantern over John’s body. “You sure?”

“Feel of him.”

Wanda stood beside her horse, un-greeted, ignored, and hungry.

Roy touched John’s arm. “Holy horseshit, you’re right. He’s getting stiff. Virgie, I’m sorry. What we gonna do now?”

“Bury him,” Virgie said.

Riding had beaten Wanda down and left her prickly. “I’d like to eat and stay the night,” she said.

Roy leaned to Virgie and lowered his voice. “I mean what we gonna do about our business.”

“You’re gonna pay me and we’ll bury John and then we’ll see. If you’re wondering who this is, it’s Lucie Bosell’s granddaughter. Wanda’s her name.”

Roy lifted his hat. “I’ve spoke to Lucie once or twice, but I didn’t know there was no young Bosells. You’re welcome to Roy’s, ma’am. Welcome anytime.”

“Thank you,” Wanda said.

The depot door slammed against the wall and a shaft of light flowed out. Against it stood the dark, bulky shape of another man, who bellowed, “I got you this time!”

Wanda flinched as his boots thundered across the platform, and she took a step back when he jumped off near the mule. The mule startled, jerking the wagon.

Virgie leaped from the wagon and grabbed the mule’s bridle strap.

The man wrenched it away. “Roy, this is my product! Her and John stole it from me.”

“Hargis Boone, you liar!” Virgie latched onto the harness, slapped at the man’s arms and kicked like a kid in a tantrum. The mule reared and Roy shouted.

Wanda held onto her horse, which was now shaking its head and backing away from the fracas.

The man named Hargis appeared to be winning. He shoved, and Virgie fell against the mule. It sprinted forward, rattling the wagon and nearly throwing John’s body to the ground.

Virgie and the men ran after the wagon. When the mule slowed, Hargis latched onto the harness and pulled his way to the mule’s head. Catching up, Virgie took the shotgun from its sheath.

Roy shouted, “Now, now…”

Wanda cupped her hands at her mouth to carry her voice. “Virgie! Hargis! Why not talk this out while we eat?”

Virgie kept the gun pointed. Wanda sheltered her horse at the shadowed side of the depot and watched from the corner, ready to leave if the argument got worse. If there were other houses left in Jennie Town, they showed no lights. The safest thing might be to get back on her horse and bed down later, somewhere along the road.

Hargis ignored the gun and stepped close to the wagon. “What’s the matter with John? He looks dead drunk.”

“Just dead,” Roy said.

“You don’t mean it.” Hargis’s voice broke.

Virgie swung the gun toward her dead husband and back to Hargis. “Dropped over from the strain of life. You threatening with the law didn’t help.”

“He stole my corn.”

Since Hargis had gone from bluster to whine, Wanda figured the fight could be winding down.

Roy stood off to the side, holding the lantern. “Virgie, Hargis, let’s talk.”

“We don’t need to talk,” Virgie said. “Roy, get my money.”

“I ain’t sure I should buy,” Roy said. “Not till you two settle.”

Virgie sweetened her tone. “Hargis and John had a deal about the corn.”

“He never paid,” Hargis said.

“I didn’t say he paid, I said you had a deal. Wanda, come and hold my gun while I take Roy inside to get my money.”

“I’ll stay outa your quarrel for the time being,” Wanda said.

Virgie aimed the shotgun at Hargis’s lower parts. “Roy, do what I said or I’m gonna shoot. Right about there.”

Hargis hurried to the other side of the mule. “Go ahead, Roy, get her money. She’ll pay me later. Ain’t that so, Virgie?”

“I don’t know,” Virgie said. “My man just dropped over and I can’t think straight. You sure John never paid?”

“Did you see the money?”

“John didn’t always tell me everything.”

“A skinflint. You never should of married him.”

“You’ve said it often enough. He’s dead, so you can stop now.”

“I’ll have to count the jugs,” Roy said.

“There’s twenty-six.” Virgie bawled like a lost calf. “How am I gonna get along?”

Weary of them all, Wanda rested her head against the building.

Virgie sniffed. “I got to think of my future. Hargis, let’s make a deal.”

“I had a deal with John.”

“Shut up, I’m gonna keep your deal. I mean let’s help each other. How’s that sound?”

“It don’t sound good with you holding a gun. I ain’t sure I trust you.”

“It’s time you tried,” Roy said. “Virgie’s your sister, and she’s got nobody else I know of. That right, Virgie?”

Virgie sniffed. “Stepsister, but family all the same.”

Hargis pointed to Wanda. “How about her? Can we trust her, hearing this and all?”

Roy held the lantern over Wanda and beamed like he was offering a gift. “This is Lucie Bosell’s grandgirl.”

Hargis stepped close, straightening his shoulders. “Well blow me over. Miss Bosell, how you do? I’m a friend of your family.”

She wasn’t surprised. Hargis Boone seemed the type her granny might tolerate. “My name’s Wyatt.”

Virgie lowered the gun.

“Let’s find a place for John,” Roy said.

˜­

Roy, Hargis and Virgie buried John that night, then generously sampled his corn liquor and cried over his hardscrabble life. Wanda sat with them, with one hand on the knife hidden deep in her skirt pocket, and the other brushing Hargis away each time his arm draped over her shoulders. He had a strange-shaped head, the bottom small and the top squared like a box. He also had arms like a blacksmith.

The tavern had no other patrons. Dim light did not hide the grit on the floor. Roy served potatoes and onion stewed in goat’s milk and gave them a choice of hard cider or corn liquor. Wanda sipped water from her canteen and wished Virgie would stop whining.

When Hargis wasn’t shifting his arm to her shoulder, he was leaning close to whisper, roughing her cheek with his prickly beard. “You’re lucky to find me, Miss Bosell, because Lucie and me is close. Not many people know where she is, but I can take you to her doorstep.”

She watched their shadows on the walls and made no new attempt to correct her name. With Granny well-known, Bosell was the one that would stick.

Her lack of comment didn’t stop Hargis. “How is it again that Lucie’s your granny? Do you belong to Ruth or Piney?”

Lucie’s letter had said nothing about Wanda’s aunts, and this was the first she’d heard their names in a long time. She wanted to hear more, but did not want to talk about family with this man. “My folks are dead. Nobody you’d know.” She feared he might.

“They say Lucie’s distillery blowed up and started one of the big burns,” Roy said. “Hargis, did Lucie ever say if that’s true?”

Hargis shrugged. “Lucie don’t like questions. She don’t say and I don’t ask. Miss Bosell, do you know something on that score?”

She tightened her lips.

“Never mind.” He winked.

She knew the most important thing. The one time she’d met Granny Bosell, she’d been about twelve, old enough to see the old woman was deaf and dumb to anyone but her own self.

Lucie had written a year ago. “Come and bring your man if you got one. I’ll make it worth your while.” At the time, Wanda had laughed at the notion of obliging her in any way. Then Homer died, and his space in her life filled with anger for an old wrong.

Hargis might know the way to Lucie’s door, but having him along would be as comfortable as a rope around her neck.

When Hargis and Virgie commenced to mourn life’s sorrows, Wanda slipped away to one of the depot’s stuffy bedrooms. Talk about Lucie had revived bad thoughts. The old woman wouldn’t be offering charity, and even if she did, Wanda wouldn’t like taking it.

She’d never doubted herself until Homer was gone, then she’d labored through her days pretending she wasn’t crazy. Work should have let her sleep, for she spent long hours ironing bachelors’ shirts and scrubbing their union suits. Her child should have brought some comfort.

The first fit had struck after she sold Homer’s Model T. No one then saw her scream and pull her hair. The fit left her cold and weak, but brought relief, like waking from sickness. Other outbursts followed, often with men who tried to take advantage. She didn’t scare herself until the day she wrenched Evie from her chair, threw her platter of beans against the wall and a cup through a window. Evie, eight years old and too quiet, had covered her ears and run into the yard. Still in a fury, she’d ordered her to come inside, but Evie had run away to May Rose, Wanda’s stepma.

When Wanda reached the cottage, Evie was playing with other children on the hard orphanage grounds, where grass had no fair chance to grow.

May Rose offered a cup of tea, which she drank, standing, watching her child. Evie stretched her arms and held tight to girls in her line, all facing a line of boys. The girls chanted. “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Henry right over.” A knock-kneed boy ran to break through their linked arms. The girls held fast, and they circled the boy and added him to their line of defense.

“It was like I changed into someone else,” Wanda said. She was afraid to say crazy, demon-possessed.

May Rose stood close with her arm around Wanda’s waist. “Children try us in every way. Evie’s lost her pa. You’ve lost your husband.”

“Almost a year ago. I don’t know why I wanted to hurt her. You know Evie. She’s no trouble.”

May Rose, who burdened her life with other people’s heartaches, tried to find hope in everything. “You have a lot of worries.”

“I never worry.” She couldn’t afford their house. Could barely put food on the table.

“This will get better. I’ll help.”

“Ma, I’ve got nothing.”

“You can stay with me.” A two-room cottage that belonged to the orphanage.

At the curb, children gathered behind a wagon where a man flaked chips from a crystal block of ice. She and May Rose watched them run back to the playground, sucking on slivers. Evie, a red-haired freckled remake of Homer, looked happy as any.

“It’s an awful feeling,” Wanda said.

“Let Evie stay with me for a while. Till you’re better.”

She didn’t expect May Rose to suggest she work at the orphanage. The children looked fine, but they had troubles enough. The tea calmed her. “I might make a trip.”

“Travel can be good,” May Rose said. “New places help us see different.”

“I’ve thought about Granny’s letter. Maybe this is a good time to see what she wants.” She smiled so May Rose would think she wanted a healing trip, not a chance to turn her fits on someone who deserved them. Granny had offered, hadn’t she, something worth her while? It might go a long way toward easing her worries, if worries was what she had.

“West Virginia is so far away. And you’ve said you don’t like your granny.”

She’d never said “don’t like.” She’d said “hate.”

“A trip like that will not be restful,” May Rose said.

“Ma, I know. We traveled from there to here.”

“I was young. I had no idea.”

“You’re still young.”

“I’m thirty-six.”

Her stepma had a glowing smile and crown of golden hair. Beside her, Wanda felt large and plain and often older. She was twenty-eight.

“You had to come,” Wanda said. “I need to go.”

On the playground, children taunted: “Red Rover, Red Rover!”

˜

Wanda lay awake long after Virgie stumbled into the tiny bedroom and fell on the bed. Without Homer, she hated herself. She also hated Homer for not being here to straighten her out.

Chirping birds woke her before first light. She tip-toed to the public room, where a lantern burned among jugs and dirty plates. She carried the lantern to Roy’s horse shed. With a lot of grunting and error, she threw the blanket over the horse’s back, then the saddle, then pulled the bridle over its head, the first time all by herself.

The air felt frosty for June. She left the lantern by the trough and led the horse to a rock for an easier mount. When they turned onto the road, she looked back. The depot was shadowy and quiet. She hoped Hargis had drunk enough to sleep until noon.

END OF CHAPTER 1 Amazon Kindle ($2.99 US)
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One response to “Cold Comfort

  1. Brilliant! Wanda’s come a long way… in more ways than one. Congratulations on writing another great book.

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