Gayla, though trembling and desperate to close the door, forced herself to stand still and watch as the man walked away from her, as he trudged across the rough stone porch and finally down the path which led to the main road. The heels of his heavy work boots dragged on the gravel of the path, sending little bits of rock flying off to the sides. With sounds like tiny crunching bones from beneath his feet, Gayla imagined he was a giant ogre marching back to his cave. It made her feel a little better. She could easily hear the man’s heavy steps from fifty yards away, which was how far he had to walk to reach Orchard Hill, the dirt road out in front of the Masterson property. Though he hadn’t gotten what he’d come for, Mr. Palmer was looking oddly cheerful; his shoulders were rolled back and his gait held the slightest skip to it. Gayla didn’t like him. She didn’t like him at all.
When Mr. Palmer’s head disappeared over the crest of the hill Gayla exhaled and slowly shut the door, closing herself off from him and allowing her flushed face to cool and return to its normal color.
“What was that all about?”
Gayla turned. Trudy was standing behind her in the hallway, a handful of the yellow skirt of her dress bunched in her fists at her bellybutton. It was a bad habit, bunching things, especially her clothes, in her hands when she was nervous. Gayla stepped toward her sister and gently tapped Trudy’s clenched hands with the tips of her fingers. Trudy released the fabric and it fell down, now wrinkled and damp with sweat, to hang with the rest of her dress.
“That was Cherie’s father,” Gayla said.
“What does he want?”
“He wants me to bring back Cherie.”
Trudy made a face as if she’d just gotten a whiff of a fresh cow pie. “That’s stupid.”
Gayla couldn’t help but smile. Simple terms, but so accurate. “Yes. It is.”
There was a pause as Trudy stared at her. “Your face is all red.”
Gayla sighed and wiped her hand across her forehead, feeling the damp sheen of sweat on her skin. She stepped away toward the kitchen for a glass of water. “Yes. I know.”
It was two hours before Greta came home. Gayla and Trudy had long since reestablished their cloud of sisterly comfort and feminine gaiety and were in the study, sitting on the plush rug in the glow of the afternoon sunshine coming through the big bay windows, glasses of lemonade beside them and laughing over a game of five-card poker.
Greta Lynch was a husky woman of fifty-five. She was broad-shouldered and red-haired and not what many men would call attractive. She had heavy features—a thick nose, a squared, almost masculine jaw—and her skin was dark and more wrinkled than it should have been at her age, probably the result of working many years out of doors, tending fields and hauling hay and patching roofs and doing all kinds of labor usually left for men. Greta had been the Masterson girls’ nanny for eighteen years and, within that time and especially during the hard years after Mr. Masterson died, Widow Masterson had discovered what a Godsend Greta really was: she needed no assistance in managing the whole of the property, from the few employees to ordering feed to doing maintenance work on the fences and home. Great didn’t seem to mind the toil; it was relatively light compared to the work she had grown up with.
The now-dissolved Miriam Estate, of which Greta called her “before home home”, had been a five hundred acre farm further south and somewhat inland, somewhere in the hills around Escondido, though Greta refused to ever point out where exactly it was, which primarily grew cotton and citrus and chickens. She’d earned the farm by marriage at the age of sixteen—her now-dead husband had been twenty-two years her senior and was a well-off and kind man—when her father had encouraged the nuptials so that Greta could have a better life. Greta’s father, Andy Lynch, an immigrant from Ireland who was raised in farming and who had arrived to America with a ten-year-old daughter and no wife, had been Willard Hazel’s prized employee. Willard Hazel, then twenty-nine, had only recently inherited the property from his deceased father and had no idea how to run the land on his own. By a stroke of providence he’d found Greta’s father at a shipyard, dirty and thin and fresh off the boat smelling of ocean spray and musty ship cabin, and brought him and his young daughter back to the estate named for his dear mother who’d died at his birth.
Greta worked on the Miriam Estate for Willard Hazel, Jr., since the day she stepped foot onto the property. Greta had always had a special place in her heart for chickens and was delighted to find a grand collection of coops waiting for her there; Mr. Hazel, after being convinced by her father that she had a knack for the birds, was only too happy to give the task of supervising the hen houses to the girl. “Those hens,” he said grumpily after declaring to Greta and her father that only a small percentage of the chickens were laying regularly, “are all cackle and no cluck.” Greta was an unwelcome addition to the group of hired farm hands in the first several weeks of her reign as Chicken Queen (as she liked to call herself); the men, ranging from burly to boney and old to young, but all gruff and dirty from head to toe, didn’t think much of a little girl taking charge of chickens, but her young charm and uncanny talent with poultry won them over. It wasn’t long before she had the flock in tip-top shape, turning the hens into proper egg layers at a steady egg per head a day. Mr. Hazel was both relieved and thoroughly pleased with the turn-around. In the weeks before the Lynch’s arrival he had been contemplating butchering the lot because they were costing him more to feed than they were bringing in. “I didn’t want to because they were my father’s favorite,” Willard confessed one night over dinner. “He said those chickens were my mother’s pride and joy and he couldn’t bear the thought of getting rid of them.”
Greta, not having a mother of her own, worked even harder on revitalizing the flock after that.
A few years later, just seven months shy of sixteen, Greta’s father approached her one evening while she was studying The Hunchback of Notre Dame by candlelight in her bedroom. Reading had become a recent passion for her and she especially favored tales of far-away places, or damsels in distress and handsome men who came to their rescue. She fancied imagining herself as the beautiful Esmeralda, being sought after by the handsome Captain Pheobus. Her father, a quiet but patient and observant man, had noticed the eyes of the farmhands ogling his daughter and she, in turn, enjoying the attention and even spurring it on. He felt it was time to make her aware of a possibility that she may not have considered.
“Greta? Dear?” her father said as he squeezed his fingers gingerly through the crack she’d left in the door. She turned her head and saw the tip of his bulbous nose and one eye and ear peeking into her room.
“Yes, pa?” He entered, seeming nervous. Greta worried. “What’s the matter? Are you sick?” She abruptly tossed her book aside and sprung up from the bed, rushing over to him to check his forehead for fever and give him a once-over with her eyes to see if anything was out of place. He grinned at her, entering and shutting the door behind him.
“No, no, Greta, nothing like that. I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“Alright. What is it?”
“Let’s sit.” He ushered her back to her bed and they sat. The mattress was covered over with one of his wife’s quilts; it had little blue and green blocks surrounding hand-stitched scenes of chickens and horses and farmers hauling hay stacked high on little carts pulled by mules. His heart lept. By God, he missed her.
“What’s going on, pa? You’re acting strangely.” Her father looked up from the quilt to his daughter. She was a quite a woman, he knew; she looked just like her mother. Though muscular and tall, she was shapely enough, and strong. She had bright sky blue eyes—her only physical inheritance from her paternal side—which gazed out over the world with an adventurous anticipation. She had a laugh that the men could talk about for hours to alleviate them from the stresses of the day’s work into a lustful wonderment. He knew. He’d heard them talking.
“Darling,” he started, patting her on the knee, “there isn’t any hiding that you’re nearly a full-grown woman now. I seen how the men look at you.”
“Oh, pa…” Greta grumbled.
“And I seen how you look back.” He winked at her, grinning. Greta blushed and then looked down at the figure of a sheep grazing on a green background. She traced its outline with the tip of a finger. Her father tilted her face back to him with a firm but gentle grip on her chin. “Is alright, dear,” he nodded at her. The smile lines around his eyes deepened as he took her in. “There ain’t nothing to be ashamed of over it. Perfectly natural thing.”
“So… what have you come to talk about, pa? Certainly not about me growing into womanhood? Jass, well, she’s already talked to me about…”
Her father lifted his hand to quiet her. “No, no. Don’t worry about that. Jass is a fine woman, very helpful in lady-areas that aren’t proper for a father to talk about with his girl.” He cleared his throat and resituated himself on the bed. “I come to talk to you about Willard.”
“Mr. Hazel?” Greta stared at her father, waiting. When he only stared back, grinning, her patience evaporated. “What about him?”
“Well, you know Willard and I spend a lot of time together. We go over his books and his fields and his crop production and all that business and more every day.”
“Well, let’s just say farming i’n’t all Willard likes to talk about.” He stopped and gave his daughter a knowing glance. Greta’s head cocked to the side as she contemplated her father’s angle.
“You mean he talks about me?” she said, finally.
“Uh-huh,” he replied. He took some joy in knowing his wealthy employer was taking a romantic interest in his daughter, especially knowing the selection of women Willard had at his disposal.
“And, what?” Greta pressed, “you think it’s a good idea? You want me to take an interest in him?”
Her father’s grin disappeared and he shook his head fervently at her, scrunching his face like he’d taken a shot glass of vinegar. “No, darling! No. I don’t want to force any man on you, of course not. No, no, no… but…” he hesitated, squinting and eyeing her closely for any tell-tale signs of a lie, “…do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Do you have an interest in him, Greta?”
Greta paused. She hadn’t thought about it before. She spent so much time with the other hands that she hardly ever saw, much less conversed with, Mr. Hazel. Plus, he seemed far too old for her and she always saw pretty women in their nice dresses and clean shoes and done-up hair coming out from the city to visit him.
Greta’s father patted her on her knee again, jolting her out of her thoughts. “Perhaps that’s the wrong question,” he said. “Maybe a better question is if you have an interest in another man? Eh?”
“Well, no. Not outright I don’t. I mean, some of the hands they’re nice enough, but they’re sloppy and rough on the edges. Besides that none of them can save a single penny!” Greta became flushed all of a sudden. Her father smiled. The topic of savings hit a soft spot with her. She kept a small strongbox in her room filled with cash and valuables, in case she and her father ever needed money to get away and start over, she’d told him once, long ago. “Not a single one has a dollar to his name; they all waste their wages on gambling and drinks on Sundays.” Greta pursed her lips and tried imagining herself in a serious relationship with any of the men with whom she flirted daily. It wasn’t but a few seconds before she shuddered, shaking any images out of her head. “Nope. I can’t see myself marrying any one of them, if that’s what you’re after?” she asked.
Her father made quick little nods with the slight bobbling of his head. Greta didn’t know where he’d learned to nod that way, but it was a peculiar characteristic and made her smile. She wondered if it had made her mother smile, too. “I wasn’t after it, darling, but it’s nice to hear.” He scratched the five-o’clock shadow on his chin and scooted a little closer to her on the bed. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and gave her a squeeze. “I just want you to consider Willard. Not pushing you, mind you, but consider ‘im. He’s a good man, and he’s got nothin’ to want for in all the world. And if you’re so inclined to make yourself available and open to the idea of being a Mrs. Hazel—“
“Pa!” Greta cut him off. “He’s over twice my age!” She paused, a realization hitting her, and gasped. “He’s nearly your age!”
“—I’m just sayin’, darling!” he lifted his arm from her and appealed to her, palms open and up before her as if asking for alms. “It’s not out of the question. Plenty young ladies your age marry older men. Consider it. They’re more stable. They’ve kicked out of their habits already the foolish ideas of younger men, like those fellas do’n there who you fluster about not saving a dime.” Greta nodded, raising her eyebrows at her father’s well-put argument. “He’s a hard worker, a smart man, he’ll give you anythin’ you want, Greta. He’ll provide a good life for you. Above all, I’m telling you, he’s taken an eye to you, for certain.”
Greta peered at her father through narrowed eyes with a dab of criticism. “And you’ve talked me up, have you?” she jabbed.
He laughed, patting her on the back. “I haven’t had need to, darling! You’re a beautiful woman, and smart, just like your mother when I married her. Heaven knows, I wasn’t nearly as prepared for marriage as Willard is, not in a monetary sense, anyhow, but, Jesus, I loved her…” Greta’s father’s words drifted off as they sometimes did when he was in a mood to pine for his wife.
Greta slouched. She missed her mother, too. She cut in, pulling him back from his grief. “But I don’t love him, pa,” she said.
“Well, then,” he said, looking over his nose at her. “How do you know you can’t, given a little time?”
Greta shrugged. She didn’t.
“Just think about it, Greta,” he pleaded again. “I’m not forcing you. You know I want you to be happy. I’m only asking that you spend some time with the man, give him a little attention, let him show you who he is. Willard isn’t all business; he’s not only Mr. Hazel, as you see ‘im. The man has a good heart and he’ll treat you well.”
So she did. And within the year she had become Mrs. Willard Hazel.
Even after taking position as wife of the boss, Greta didn’t shy away from hard labor. She tried housewifery for only three weeks—being taught cooking and dress and formal etiquette by Jass, the elderly maid who had once, by her own proclamation, served nobility in England—but the practice nearly drove her mad. One late morning after trying to fry up some chicken for lunch she’d screamed, tossed the bowl of batter on the kitchen countertop toward Jass (who had been innocently peeling potatoes for salad), declared, “I quit!”, and ran to her room to throw on her working pants. She then stomped outside to the nearest cotton field in her man’s button-up shirt and dirty stable boots and announced to the hands there that she was still the Chicken Queen (to which they appreciatively laughed) and they weren’t getting rid of her that easy. The men chuckled, clapped one another on the backs as if they’d all received a raise in pay, and chattered about their good fortune as Greta wandered off to check to see what kind of mess the boys had made of the coops.
Willard had been just on the other side of the field, off in the distance, riding around the perimeter of the farm to check on the progress of harvest, when he’d seen his lovely new wife making a bee-line for the field in her working clothes. He silently watched as she trampled through a flock of her beloved fowl on her way to the men, scattering the birds which were cackling in shock in all directions, and overheard her announcement to the crew. He sat high atop his horse, both hands on the pommel, smiling ear to ear, as he listened to Greta reinstate her position on the farm and the men, in stride, commend themselves with mild cheers and laughter.
He turned his horse and trotted the animal back toward the house. His wife had returned in full glory, but he was certain Jass could use some companionship after losing her first and only assistant.
The next sixteen years were spent favorably and in much the same manner, with a few tragedies in between to keep Greta praying and on her toes. Two years went by before she’d gotten pregnant; six months after that she miscarried. It was a boy. Both Willard and Greta wept, but he took it hardest. They couldn’t conceive again after that. The doctor said there was something wrong with her insides. It was the greatest tragedy of them all, since Willard loved children and Greta so desperately wanted to give him one.
Seven years after their marriage, Greta’s father passed away from old age. One of the farm hands went looking for him one morning after the crew hadn’t seen him on his usual rounds and found him lying peacefully in his bed with a smile on his face and his wife’s photograph tucked underneath his pillow. Greta opted to have him cremated. She and Willard took a trip to the mid-Californian coast off of Big Sur to scatter his ashes over a cliff. Greta sung a hymn about going home as she watched her father drift down and out toward the ocean to live forever among the waves of the Pacific, saying that she hoped he might find his way back to Ireland from there, so he could be with her mother. Willard had hugged his wife and held her as she collapsed on the damp rock and wept like a child.
At the age of 55 in September, Willard caught a mysterious fever while hunting from which he never recovered. The doctor made trips out daily to check on him, each day’s passing only bringing him closer and closer to death. It was five days between perfect health and his perishing and Greta could barely handle the shock. After the funeral she’d locked herself in her room and stayed there for weeks, barely eating anything except for a light broth and crackers which Jass brought her. She was resurrected from her stupor one bright afternoon when one of her beloved hens—a Big Red named Bertha—had somehow managed to find Greta’s balcony bannister. Bertha perched on the bannister and clucked and cooed for her mistress. Greta emerged from bed and opened the patio doors leading out from her room, dressed in a faded blue cotton nightshirt which had belonged to Willard, and stood at the door, staring at the chicken. Bertha, with a vigorous and determined cluck, fluttered down from the railing and walked over to Greta, taking a comfortable seat atop her bare, chilly feet. Greta cried, picked up the chicken, fussed over her dark red plumage, her full crop and her substantial weight, and carried her inside. Within the hour Greta was dressed, back in her working clothes and hat, and marching her way down the dirt path toward the coops with the chicken, clucking happily with victory, tucked beneath her arm. The men whispered to one another and watched as she came down. No one said anything to her. She said nothing to them. The work continued. Greta was thirty-three.
The business of farming eased sluggishly downward following Willard’s death and the concurrent Agricultural Depression. The industry was slumping and moving northward, taking a hit from the big investors who were deciding that the farmland surrounding Miriam Estate was prime property for housing developments and city building, taking point from the fair weather and appealing landscape and the increase in interest in California by Hollywood. A number of Miriam Estate’s farm hands found better paying work as concrete pourers and contractors, so soon it was more profitable and more sensible for Greta to sell out than continue on. She sold off most of the land to the developers for a pretty penny, but gave a small handful of acres to a number of the more devoted employees, including the house and some outbuildings to Jass (who also agreed to watch over Greta’s larger belongings until she found a more suitable location for them), and moved northward with plenty of money to find a new place for herself, away from the madness of a growing suburbia. It was while she was riding the passenger train toward Bakersfield that she spotted a man reading a small, local newspaper of unfamiliar origin. He was facing her, but had his face covered over by the paper. He had folded it out to the Classifieds section and, directly in Greta’s face, in large print, framed by a thickly-bordered box, were the words “Farmer seeks Nanny/Maid for two young children. Good allowance. Free Room/Board. Some knowledge of farming helpful.” The ad said the farmer was just east of Stockton. At the train stop in Tehachapi, Greta exited her car, purchased a ticket which brought her as close to Stockton as possible, waited, and boarded the next train when it arrived.
Mr. and Mrs. Masterson adored Greta right from the start. She was gruff, but the fact that she was very obviously not trying to pull wool over their eyes and play a game of being the sweetest nanny they could possibly find impressed them. She also didn’t care about pay or living arrangements, and she wasn’t towing along a husband or children of her own; ‘In fact,’ Greta had said with a slight edge to her voice during her impromptu interview at the Mastersons’ doorstep, ‘my husband is deceased and I have absolutely no plans for remarrying.’
Thirty-seven year old Greta was introduced to Gayla and Trudy immediately as Miss Lynch. Gayla, a little brunette thing with a ponytail sporting a pair of dusty boy’s overalls and bare feet, and Trudy, a swaddling infant, were Greta’s loves at first sight. From the instant she saw them she imagined they were the girls she’d intended to have and she treated them with no less love than if they had emerged from her own womb. Greta was firm yet patient with the girls and, when it came to dinners around the table, the nanny had her own agricultural advice for the struggling farmer and his exhausted wife. The family quickly adopted her, and she them, and not a single regret for selling Miriam Estate ever came to Greta’s mind.
Greta loitered in the doorway of the study just long enough to catch the girls at the peak of their laughter. She wasn’t sure how it had happened, but Trudy, adorned in a snugly-fitting canary yellow dress and sitting cross-legged on their mother’s expensive rug, had a pile of cookies nearly six inches high in front of her. Gayla, though usually the better player, had her resources dwindled down to only two cookies. Trudy was laughing uncontrollably, tears streaming down her cheeks, at some mysterious something Gayla had said, and Gayla had tossed her cards into the air. They were fluttering down to earth when Greta came upon the scene.
“I can’t believe it!” Gayla said, stifling a laugh but trying to act seriously disgruntled. “I can’t believe you beat me! How? Where? Who taught you to play poker like that?”
Trudy caught her breath and wiped a tear from her flushed face. “Oh, Daniel,” she said between giggly breaths. “He teaches me all sorts of things.”
“Oh, really?” Greta said, waltzing into the room as if she were part of the conversation. Her dull, green calico skirt—just the right shade to offset her fading red hair—swished back and forth as she came across the room. She smiled broadly at the two girls, the wrinkles around her eyes deepening, and sat down on the carpet with them. She focused her attention on the younger sister. “And what else, other than poker, does that boy teach you, my dear?” Trudy suddenly flushed, but not from laughter. Gayla’s jaw dropped and she almost burst out giggling again, but stopped herself long enough to allow her sister time to respond.
Greta slapped Trudy’s knee and erupted in laughter. “Oh, dear girl. This is no inquisition! You’re not in trouble.” Trudy smiled and exhaled her relief. Greta leaned in a little closer to her. “I do like Daniel, after all. He’s a hard worker and a proper gentleman, I’m sure.”
“Yes, of course,” Trudy said, giving a firm nod.
“It’s nice to know you approve, Greta,” Gayla chimed. “I wouldn’t want to think you’re letting my little sister run around with a scummy fellow.”
“Yes, well, speaking of scummy fellows,” Greta said, turning her attention onto the newly-single young lady. “You seem to be doing much better.”
Gayla nodded. “Yes. Trudy brought me some chamomile and mint tea and we had a nice talk. I’m feeling much better.”
“I’m glad,” Greta smiled and reached out to squeeze Gayla’s shoulder, giving it a little shake at the finish.
“But you missed the uproar, Greta,” Trudy said. Greta looked between the two, perplexed. She noticed Gayla cast a warning glance at her sister and Trudy suddenly turning pink.
“Uproar?” She waited. Neither girl was ready to confess. She crossed her arms over her ample breasts. “Come on, now. Let it out, one of you.”
Gayla sighed and turned toward Greta. “It was really nothing. Just grumpy Mr. Palmer looking to seek his revenge on me for Amrid’s wild tastes.”
“Hm,” Greta said, dropping her arms. “Be careful of that man. He’s got a mean streak to him.”
“Oh, he’s all puff, Greta.” Gayla tried to sound more confident than she was. She saw the look in the man’s eyes when he’d threatened her and her family and recognized it as nothing less than the fury of stubborn determination.
Gayla stood, brushed the wrinkles out of her dress, and waved her caretaker’s critical gaze away from her like she were shooing a swarm of gnats. “He came here stomping about like he owned the place, wanted me to play detective and hunt down Cherie for him.”
“And what did you tell him?”
“I told him to eat dirt,” Gayla said with a glint in her eye. Greta, though, seemed less than amused.
“Watch yourself, dear,” the nanny said. She stood and readjusted her own skirt. Not wanting to be left on the floor alone, Trudy quickly followed suit. “I’ve heard stories about him and his temper. Don’t provoke him.” She shook a stout finger in Gayla’s direction. “Your mother is having a hard enough time as it is keeping this farm profitable without having the pain of handling a vehement neighbor.”
Gayla scoffed at the mention of her mother. “My mother wouldn’t know what was happening on this farm if it were headlined in the papers and you know it, Greta. Don’t try to fool me like I’m some senseless child. Just because I’ve been heartbroken over Amrid the past few weeks doesn’t mean I’ve completely lost my mind.” She walked toward the chair by the window and sat down, looking outside at the rolling fields and dots of trees and outbuildings as they diminished off into the distance. The sky was a canvas of burnt orange mottled with thin, streaking hazy-purple clouds. She saw a swirl of dust billowing up into the sky from where the road disappeared over the crest of the nearest hill. A car was coming.
“Your mother—” Greta said, sitting in the chair adjacent to Gayla. “—she’s… confused. She’s trying to figure out what to do, what there is for her to do. She loves this farm, but it’s not her life. She likes the city, always has. She has old friends asking her—”
“Asking her if she’ll come work for them. Yes, I know,” Gayla said bitterly.
“Look, Gayla, she isn’t doing anything purposefully to spite you. She only came out here to be with your father. Her own brothers and sisters and parents—your grandparents and extended family—they’re all in Sacramento. But, what can she do? Sell off and uproot you two? She can’t do that, and you know you wouldn’t allow her to. So she’s stuck, living a double life. It’s the only way she knows how to move on.”
“Why doesn’t she just sell it to you?” Trudy interjected. “You know all about farming and everything. You’re family. You have every right to it if you wanted. You could take good care of this place, and us. I mean, you already do, anyhow.” Trudy moved closer and sat on the arm of the chair Greta was in. The nanny grinned lovingly and rubbed the girl’s arm.
“I suppose,” she said, “but what would an older lady like me do with it? I’m well beyond my prime, sweetheart. I’m getting too old to run a farm on my own and you’re nearly old enough not to need me. Besides, it’s your inheritance. Don’t you want it?”
Trudy shrugged. Gayla didn’t say anything, but watched as the cloud of dust drifted higher and the object stirring it came closer. It started as a dark box hovering over the horizon but then, as it came into view, she could see the body of the automobile was in fact a dark blue. As it came even closer, Gayla’s suspicions were confirmed when she realized the car was in fact a truck. More precisely, a 1930 Chevrolet. Behind the wheel, Gayla saw the familiar angular and handsome face of a young man, still yet a boy, his long black hair whipping in front of his eyes from the wind of the rolled down driver’s side window. His arm hung out the opening and he was slapping his palm on the outside of the door. Gayla imagined he was humming something. He was always humming something. Gayla found the quirk irritating but liked the young man enough, otherwise.
“Daniel is coming,” Gayla said with some enthusiasm. Trudy instantly beamed. She danced as she stood in place, rotating her hips side to side and causing her skirt to frolic around her legs.
“Aren’t you going to meet him at the door?”
“I don’t want to seem too eager,” Trudy said plainly, still swishing her dress and smiling.
Greta laughed. “Good girl.”
Daniel was a common occurrence around the Masterson household and had been for some time. Being far from his own family, he frequently stopped in for dinner or, more recently, came over on his days off to spend time with Trudy. He was a lanky boy of seventeen years and reminded Gayla of a hillbilly Jimmy Stewart. Being such a frequent guest, Daniel often let himself into the house unannounced. The three ladies sat quietly, grinning to one another, awaiting the young gentleman’s trademark entrance.
It was an abrupt, jarring whoosh as he thrust open the front door followed by the traditional hearty slam. They heard him fumbling around as he predictably bounced on one foot to take off a boot, and then bounced on the other foot to remove the other boot. Amidst all this, his young fresh baritone of a voice echoed down the hallway and throughout the house. The ladies laughed. There was no mistaking when Daniel arrived.
“Trudy? Trudy, are you here?” he hollered.
“In back!” she yelled. Daniel came tromping in, dirty socks and all, and abruptly stopped at the entry to the room, obviously not prepared to say hello to the entire Masterson troupe. Dressed in simple clothes made for farm work, he still had bits of straw and mud caked to his pants and boots and bits of grass in his raven black hair. The long sleeves of his button-up shirt were rolled to his elbows, the workload of his day showing itself in streaks of sweat mixed with farm dust on the arms where he’d wiped his face and around the top of the collar where his neck had rubbed. He was a dirty mess, all six-foot-two of him, but the women expected no less. Daniel nodded and raised his hand to his forehead to customarily tip his invisible hat in greeting. “Hello, ladies.”
“Hello, Daniel,” Gayla and Greta said in unison.
His serious visage turned star struck when he looked over Trudy in her yellow get-up. His smile was something to behold. A mass of white teeth glimmered in contrast with his tanned, dirt-laden skin. He gave a slow, gentle whistle as he surveyed the young lady, wide-eyed. “You look very nice today, Trudy,” he said finally.
“Thank you, Daniel.”
“But, I must say,” he turned serious again, setting a hand behind his back. He gingerly stepped forward toward her, making sure to avoid toppling the neat stack of cookies arranged on the floor or crushing them with his boot into the carpet. He stopped right in front of Trudy and leaned toward her. “I don’t think that’ll do for fishing,” he whispered.
Trudy giggled. “Of course not, you toad! I’ve got my other clothes for that.” She fidgeted a little and cocked her head to one side. “Besides, fishing isn’t ‘til Sunday. What’re you doing here now? It’s not nearly dinnertime yet.”
“I, uh,” he looked suddenly embarrassed and glanced over at Gayla, then back at Trudy. “I’m actually here to see your sister.”
“Well,” Gayla said, standing, “that’s quite a change of pace.” Even as tall as she was she still had to give her neck a significant kink to look Daniel in the eye. Dirty, she thought, and too young for her likes, taken besides by her sister, but handsome indeed.
“It’s, um, it’s important,” he stuttered. Gayla stared at him expectantly, as did the other two. Daniel realized he wasn’t going to obtain private audience with her and continued on. “It’s about Mr. Palmer.”
“Ha!” Gayla trumpeted and walked toward the carpet. She knelt down, picking the cookies off the floor and balancing them all in one hand. “That old bulldog? He came barking at me today about his daughter. What about him?”
“So he has come to see you?”
“Yes, just this afternoon. Crazy old bat.”
“No, Gayla, no, no, you don’t understand. He’s not crazy, but I wouldn’t doubt it if’s he’s gone mad. Cherie was more than his daughter. She was a… business deal.” He finished the sentence with some degree of apology.
“What?” Gayla stood up and turned to him.
Greta cut in. “You can’t be serious, Daniel. What do you mean she was a business deal?”
Daniel looked over to Trudy for some moral support. Trudy’s eyes were wide, one dark brow raised, and she nodded at him to urge him on. He hesitantly turned back to Gayla, who was waiting and clutching nearly a dozen cookies to her chest with one hand. They all knew Daniel wasn’t the type to jump to erratic conclusions and waited in silent suspense as he struggled to find the right words.
“Cherie, she was a business deal, a bargaining chip. She was part of some big arrangement between Mr. Palmer and Hubert Riley—”
“Hubert!” Greta interrupted. “That old man?”
“He’s younger than he looks, Greta,” Daniel said, somewhat defensively. “Just a little older than Willard when you married him. He’s a nice enough fellow—I’ve worked with him a few times—as long as you don’t get on his mean side. But, really he’s—”
“But why?” Gayla pulled at Daniel’s shoulder, urging him back on track. “What was this arrangement all about?”
“Land. What else?” Daniel shrugged. “Cherie was supposed to marry Hubert in exchange for two hundred acres of property that backs up to Mr. Palmer’s east boundary. That land is prime property—real fertile and it’s got great water—and Mr. Palmer’s been coveting it for years and Hubert is becoming disinterested in the business, especially since his son doesn’t seem to be fond of farming. It’s disappointing, really, since the Rileys have a long history of land ownership. But, you know that. Back to the Gold Rush days, I’ve heard. Why they even—”
“Daniel!” Gayla shouted. She slapped his chest with the back of her hand. “Focus!”
“Sorry,” he apologized. While right and proper and genuinely charming when calm, Daniel was a scatterbrained mess when something got him excited. He stared down at the floor and rubbed his hands together quickly in front of his mouth as he blew into them, as if trying to relight the train of thought that had suddenly evaded him. “Oh, yes!” he said finally, pointing a finger up in the air. “So, Mr. Palmer wants that land real bad, see, and ever since he found out Hubert had a soft spot for his daughter he’s been promising her to him—playful-like in neighborly conversation, you know?—to see if he’d bite. And, by God, Hubert bit all right! When he realized Cherie was turning eighteen next year he about jumped out of his pants.” Daniel’s face turned beet red right then and he turned to Greta off over his right shoulder. “Sorry, Miss Greta. That came out all wrong.”
“Don’t be sorry, Daniel,” she said, shaking her head and crossing her arms over her chest. “You’re probably more accurate than you intended.”
Daniel nodded back and turned once again to Gayla. He could tell by the look on her face she was getting impatient. “So, anyway, banter between Mr. Palmer and Hubert eventually turned into serious discussion which turned to a handshake deal, not three months ago.”
“Why hadn’t any of us heard of this? How do you know everything you’re saying is true? How do we know that this isn’t all just farmhand gossip?”
Daniel stood up stock straight and combed his hair through with his fingers. “Well, I’m trustworthy, aren’t I? You know me, Gayla. I’m not prone to wishy-washy hearsay and rumors. And I hear things, by God! I’m not deaf. Mr. Palmer doesn’t always have enough to keep me busy, so I’m back and forth, punching hours with Hubert when I have some off chance. I meet fellows on both sides, and some of the ladies, too, including Cherie. Well,” he added, “until recently, that is.” He looked shyly at Gayla and she waved his apprehension off with a swish of her hand and turned away toward the hall. She was trying to be upbeat about Cherie and the mess she’d made—not only for Gayla, it seemed, but for everyone—and she feigned detachment when really, at the mention of either Cherie’s or Amrid’s name, she was breaking up inside. This latest development, though laden over with the stink of the Palmer family, was at least interesting and full of enough conflict to distract Gayla from her own personal problems. Gayla pondered, clutching the cookies to her chest and walked away, down the hall, into the kitchen. She could hear the footsteps of several legs following her.
“I don’t have time to be a detective!” Daniel pleaded to her. “But all the boys, they talk about it. You know how they lust after Cherie. Trust me, its fact.”
“It doesn’t sound too far-fetched, from what I know of that wicked man,” Greta harrumphed. She went over to a nearby cabinet and pulled out a small cordial glass and a tall glass jar. She pulled the cork and proceeded to dribble in a few swigs worth of a burgundy-colored cherry concoction she fermented on her own during off hours. It was one of her few little pleasures, something she had learned while on the Miriam Estate. The smell and taste of the drink reminded her of Willard.
Gayla dropped the cookies onto a small plate on the countertop and brushed the crumbs from her hands and front of her dress. She glanced over at Greta, who was sipping at her liquor and staring out one of the big kitchen windows, then turned back to Daniel. He was leaning forward against the island in the middle of the room, both hands bracing against the thick butcher block walnut top and slightly hunched. He had a mass of black hair falling down in front of his face but, as usual, he didn’t bother to brush it back. He was looking rather beaten up and exhausted. No, Gayla thought. Worried. Fearfully worried. Trudy was standing just behind him and off to the side, her eyes darting between her beau and her sister; she was trapped in a state of confusion, waiting to see who would make the next move. Gayla did.
“Okay,” she said, stepping closer toward him just on the other side of the island. She rubbed her forehead with her thumb and forefinger and inhaled deeply. “Forget about whether this is gossip or not. So what?” Gayla lifted her eyes and leaned forward. “What does this have to do with me?”
Daniel let out a little snort, as if she should have already figured it out, and stood up straight. “Gayla,” he said. “Don’t you see? This whole situation, this arrangement between Mr. Palmer and Hubert, is somewhat… um… what’s the word I’m looking for…” Daniel snapped his fingers several times, trying to concentrate.
“Taboo?” Trudy offered.
“Yes. Taboo. Thank you, darling.” He glanced at Trudy quickly to acknowledge her help. It was enough to leave Trudy beaming. “The reason nobody knows—the reason you haven’t heard of it and the reason the boys on the farms don’t talk about it outside—is nobody is supposed to know. If Mr. Palmer even heard us whispering about it in the barns or in the fields he would beat us right off the bat then kick us out. Little Jimmy, that’s what happened to him. Mr. Palmer was quick to douse the fire, made a show of pummeling the kid in front of everyone, right at suppertime, and then fired him—right then, in the middle of supper!—announcing to the whole bunch that the business about Riley and Cherie was a big blathering lie and we ought not be talking about his daughter that way and if he heard rumors going around again he’d fire the lot of us.”
“He fired Little Jim?”
“Sure did. Just like that,” Daniel snapped his fingers. “Still, not a one of us were convinced that the rumors weren’t true, though; we all know how Hubert was floating on air after that handshake and all of a sudden Palmer is whispering about plans for expansion. But, you know, with jobs right now, we can’t afford to lose ours, so the guys keep their mouths shut. Ain’t none of us talking.
“Somehow Cherie got wind of the whole thing, anyway. Somehow she found out. My guess it was from Jimmy; she and him had a thing going, you know, so he must have said something to her after he was beat and let go. I can guess she would’ve demanded an explanation for his bloodied face. And, boy, she was frantic, Gayla. By golly, you should’ve seen how she flipped when she found out! Stormed right into the barn and started tearing her own father a new one. That family, they are something else. She hates Hubert, that was loud and clear, though. Nobody could help but hear that part. For what reason, I’m not sure, but I’ve always noticed she avoids him like the plague.”
“So have I,” Gayla interjected. She recalled evenings spent with her former friend and the discussions they’d had. The mention of Hubert’s name turned the Palmer girl green.
Daniel continued. “She was desperate. That’s why she ran away. And Amrid was her best ticket out. He lives in the city, he’s got money, he was willing to take her away from all of it, no questions asked, or so I heard. Granted, the fellow’s an idiot for leaving you, Gayla, and for embarrassing you like he has, but now he’s gotten himself in a bigger mess than he realizes. Mr. Palmer will stop at nothing to get that land, and that means he’ll stop at nothing to get Cherie back here so he can follow through with his deal.”
“So what did you come rushing over here for, then? Just to tell me about poor Cherie and her sad little predicament?” Gayla rolled her eyes and sarcastically shook her hands in the air, then dropped them limply to her sides to give Daniel an annoyed glare. “I don’t give a damn about her, Daniel. Her and Amrid can run off to the moon for all I care. What does this have to do with me?”
“Mr. Palmer’s a violent man, Gayla. I don’t know what Cherie told you, but he’s a mean son of a bitch. I overheard not three hours ago what his plan is for getting his daughter back and it has everything to do with you. I was up on the roof of the barn re-shingling and he came stomping in, not fifty feet below me, griping to himself and some other fellow about how you had treated him when he came over. He’s mad, Gayla. Real ticked off.”
Daniel walked around the kitchen island to stand face to face with her. His voice, before excitable and quick, suddenly turned low and slow and very quiet. The change in his tone made Gayla’s skin crawl. Daniel slowly lifted his arms, sighed heavily, and gripped her shoulders with both his hands, holding her in front of him. She looked him dead in the eye, an unexpected chill overtaking her. She’d never seen Daniel so serious in all her life, and it frightened her.
“He’s going to use you, Gayla—manipulate you, threaten you, threaten Trudy, burn your house down, maybe even kill someone, whatever it takes—to get what he wants, because he’s under the impression that you are the only one who can convince that idiot Amrid of his mistake, the only one who can make Amrid break it off with Cherie, and bring her back home so he can conclude his deal with Hubert Riley.”
Want more? Read PART IV…