Linda Bills was excited about moving to Texas. Her husband, Spargus, had already been there several times to find them just the right land to purchase. Gus, as he was often called, was a Methodist minister, and had been appointed to build a church in Texas, near the Oklahoma border. Gus had also decided that this would be his last church to build, at forty, he was starting to feel rather old and wanted to retire to a nice little farm. Linda, who was only twenty-five, had been a school teacher prior to her marriage, and had nursed his former wife and children before they died of smallpox. Gus had told Linda about how there was a mixture of good black soil, some trees, prairie, abundant sunshine and much drier than her hometown in coastal Georgia.
"Look, Linda, the train station is coming up. Oh, some of the ladies from the church are here to meet us, Mrs. John Crane wrote me that they would meet us and take us to the parsonage. You'll like Mrs. Crane, she was a school teacher in Mobile before she met John. The train is stopping, let's get our handbags together." Gus smiled fondly at his wife as he spoke. Linda merely stared out of the window, looking at the dusty station and the small crowd that had gathered to greet the train.
They finished gathering their belongings and Gus helped Linda off the train. "Reverend Bills, is this your lovely wife?" asked Mrs. Crane.
"Yes. Darling, this is Elizabeth Crane, wife of John Crane, the general store owner. Mrs. Crane, this is my wife, Linda Bills. I'm sure that Linda will be glad to help you with the Methodist women's group. Please excuse me for a moment while I round up a porter." Rev. Bills left the group in search of the porter while the other women looked over his wife. Linda Bills was not very tall, but she had lovely golden blonde hair with just a hint of red. Her eyes were pale green and very alert. She was well proportioned, had fair skin with a dusting of freckles, a cute pug nose, and full lips. She was not beautiful, but she was pretty and lively. Mrs. Crane decided that she looked like a good helper for the pastor.
"Mrs. Bills, won't you come into the station with us? We have some lemonade and cookies ready for y'all," drawled Mrs. Crane as she tucked her hand through Linda's arm. Linda could not resist, although she had been a minister's wife for less than a year, she had experience with these types of gentle yet domineering women from her teaching days. She allowed herself to be escorted inside, where it was mercifully darker than the white hot Texas sun. The ladies pressed the cookies and lemonade on her and questioned her about herself. She replied that she had taught elementary school for four years before meeting the reverend and had been asked to help nurse his sick wife and children. Unfortunately, they died after a few months, but she became well acquainted with the good pastor and married him a year later. Yes, she knew what to expect, she had a grandfather and several uncles who were ministers, she said.
"Ladies, thank you for taking care of my wife for me," Rev. Bills said as he entered the building. "I suspect that Mrs. Bills is tired after our long journey from Georgia, so we should take our leave. I will see you all on Sunday morning. Darling, the porter is waiting." He tipped his hat to the ladies, then offered his wife his arm.
The parsonage was several hundred yards behind the church and was rather grand in Linda's opinion. Gus took her through it eagerly, showing the four bedrooms, the large parlor, the dining room, his office, a sewing room for her and the detached kitchen and laundry room. It had a long hallway down the middle of the house to take advantage of breezes, gas heat and lighting (very modern) and wonder of all wonders, an indoor toilet, right next to the bathtub. Linda grinned wider and wider as Gus took her through the house and kept squeezing his arm as they toured. The house was so new she could still catch a faint order of wallpaper paste and lemon oil. Every room had large glass windows and thick rugs as well as ample lighting. She finally stopped in the parlor and carefully sat down on the sofa. "This is grand, Gus. How did the people afford such a grand house for the pastor?"
He smiled as he sat beside her and draped his arm around her. "Well, it was supposed to be a small house with two bedrooms, a dining room and an outhouse, but Elizabeth Crane's father died last year, leaving her piles of money. Since it was 'ill-gotten gains' as she said, she donated it for the building of the parsonage and the church, not taking any for herself. Her father was a riverboat gambler and she married John when she was fairly young to get away from her father. She insisted that as a Christian woman, she could not take any of the money for herself. Besides, John doesn't do too badly with the general store." He glanced up at the clock, noting that it was nearly dinner time. "I think that the ladies stocked the kitchen pretty well. Would you like to fix dinner first or unpack first? I need to go work on my sermon for Sunday."
"I'll cook first. Those cookies didn't do much for me."
Gus laughed happily as he remarked, "Mrs. Bills, you can eat more than most men I know and never gain a pound!" He kissed her on the cheek, then went to his study. Linda looked around for a moment longer, then went to the kitchen to rustle up some dinner.
Linda and Gus quickly fell into a routine. Linda kept house and worked with some of the other ladies from church in organizing Sunday School classes while Gus preached, visited the sick and looked for a farm. Gus was secretly surprised at how passionate his wife was, his first wife (God rest her soul) had given him two beautiful boys (God rest their souls) but had been passive in bed. Linda, on the other hand, was so passionate that it sometimes took his breath away. He never dreamed that a woman could be capable of enjoying sex so much. He found himself sometimes dreaming about his wife's sturdy yet slender body during the day, the way that her abdomen was solid, the way her strong legs gripped him. Given their enjoyment, he wasn't very surprised when he noticed that her formerly flat stomach was starting to swell several months after their arrival in Texas. In due time, she gave birth to a boy, Louis James Bills.
When Louis was old enough, Linda took him to the general store to pick up supplies and so that Elizabeth, who was becoming her best friend, could ooh and aah over him. Elizabeth Crane had been to the parsonage several times, but had not seen Linda since she had left her bed. It had been a difficult delivery and Linda had nearly died in childbirth. Now, however, she felt much better.
John even had to leave the counter to croon at the baby. Elizabeth laughed at her husband, saying, "Mr. Crane, you have three young ones at home to croon over."
"Yes, but none of them have such green eyes, Mrs. Crane. Do you reckon he'll have dark hair like the reverend? It sure looks dark now."
"I don't know, Mr. Crane. Mr. Bills' whole family has dark hair and coloring, but my family has always produced blondes and redheads." Linda smiled, gazing lovingly at her son. "He's just wonderful, already sleeping through the night. His father is a grand help, having had two children already, God rest their souls." She started to say something else, but was distracted by the screen door squeaking as it opened.
Linda turned to see who had come in and nearly gasped in amazement. The woman who had come into the store was very tall, taller than her husband. She had piercing sky blue eyes, long black hair, tanned skin, beautiful high cheekbones and was dressed in men's clothes. She tipped her hat back and stripped off her leather work gloves as she glanced around the store. "Howdy Mr. Crane. I've come to pick up a few supplies." The woman sauntered up to the counter, pulling a list from her vest pocket and handing it to John Crane, then turned and looked at Linda and Louis. "Well, looks like a new little buckaroo. Cute little bugger, looks healthy." John quickly gathered the requested supplies in a box, then took the woman's money. "Thanks. See y'all next time!" she exclaimed as she hoisted the heavy box to her broad shoulder and left the store.
Elizabeth turned to see the puzzled stare of her friend. She quickly explained, "That's Laura Williams. Her husband George and baby Little George were killed by a band of Indians about six years ago. Since then, she took over her husband's ranch and raises cattle and horses most of the year. Most people think she is simply awful, since she wears her husband's clothes, drinks, swears and never darkens the door of any church any more. You might do well to stay far away from her."
John protested mildly, "But dear, she sells the best trained horses in these parts, not to mention the best cattle!"
Elizabeth snorted. "Husband, let's not disagree in public. Did you hear that old man Harbow proposed to her this spring and she laughed at him? She isn't natural, I tell you!"
"Dear wife, Harbow proposed to her because he was losing his farm to her over a game of poker. Some of the boys told me about it. I reckon he thought that if she married him, he would get his land back and her land. I don't blame her for refusing him, I heard that he beat his first wife."
Elizabeth glared at her husband until he amended, "Well, that was the rumor. He does attend church every Sunday and can spout almost as much scripture as the reverend. Sorry you had to hear all this, Mrs. Bills."
"Oh, don't worry, I've heard worse when I was teaching school. Sometimes little boys wag their tongues worse than little girls," Linda said soothingly. "Mr. Crane, can you have your son Doug bring my groceries and calico to my house? I'm afraid that Louis is quite a handful."
"Yes'm, I'm sure he'll be glad to. I'll see you Sunday. By the way, did we tell you that the general store is donating the candy for the church picnic?"
They chatted several more minutes, then Linda and Louis left. Linda walked along, thinking about how nice the Cranes were to herself and her family. But that Williams woman! Linda had never seen any woman so tall or so bold to wear men's clothes or look so good in them. For a moment, she let herself start to construct a story around the few facts she had heard about Laura Williams, then laughed at herself. "Still writing stories in your head, eh girl?" she thought. Louis started squirming and crying as she walked along, making his needs known. "Baby, it's just a few more blocks!" she told him, kissing his face. She walked faster to make it home before he started really tuning up...
Another month passed by, with Louis growing like a weed. Linda had seen Laura Williams around town a few more times, usually either at the general store or with her cowboys, herding cattle or horses to the stockyards for sale. Each time, Laura would wave broadly at Linda, provoking scandalous comments among the other bypassers. Did their beloved minister's wife know that awful woman? or was Laura just being her usual brazen self? Didn't Mrs. Bills know that just last year, Laura killed a fine, upstanding citizen in cold blood? Charles Tyler could have never tried to besmirch her like she claimed in court! However, the jury was too dependent on her horses and cattle and too afraid of her to convict her. There were also rumors that she allowed her cowboys to run a rustling ring, but it was never proven. Well, she couldn't allow herself to think about that, she was too busy helping Elizabeth and the other ladies plan the Fourth of July party.
In fact, the party was just a few days away now, but they had run into a snag. Many of the men (even the church going faithful!) wanted to let Lenny serve hard liquor at the picnic grounds. The ladies, especially from the churches, did not want hard liquor served. This was to be a family event, they explained to their husbands. Finally, the Reverend Spargus Bills talked to all sides and convinced the men that it would not be a good thing to serve hard liquor at a family gathering. Most of the men backed down, for they genuinely liked Rev. Bills. He usually understood them and was always willing to help with anything, including working in your fields. Some of the young bachelors who roomed in town when not working as porters and engineers for the railroad, were pretty mad about missing their hard liquor and decided to get even.
The day of the Fourth dawned bright and clear with just enough breeze to make it pleasant in the morning. It would be a scorcher by afternoon, near 100 degrees, but everyone was excited about the parade, the speakers, the food and the fireworks that night. As Linda dressed Louis, she asked her husband, "Gus, do you think that those railroad men will cause any problem? They seemed very upset with you weighing in against serving hard liquor."
Gus smiled at his lovely wife, kissing her before replying. "Oh, they're still pretty mad, but they should also realize that there is a temperance movement growing in the country. Maybe I'll move them with the Holy Spirit tonight more than other spirits could move them."
Linda groaned at his pun as she finished dressing Louis, then put him down so she could help Gus finish buttoning his shirt, not that he really needed the help. The Bills family was finally ready, with hampers of food and baby supplies. They walked down to the picnic yard near the court house and separated as Linda went to unload her hamper and Gus went to talk to the other ministers and speakers. Linda then took Louis over to the shade trees, where several young women were looking after all of the babies.
She turned to go back to the tables when she literally ran into Laura Williams. "Excuse me, Mrs. Bills," the woman drawled, "we seem to have collided."
Linda shook herself, saying, "No harm done. Now, if you will excuse me-"
Laura laughed softly, low in her throat. "Maybe, maybe not. Nice spread here today, too bad there isn't any hard liquor to wash it down with."
Linda, who had started to walk off, stopped in her tracks and turned back to the tall woman. "Do you drink hard liquor, Mrs. Williams?" she gasped in astonishment.
Laura grinned, saying, "Sometimes I do, but never in public. I drink with my hired hands, but not much. I can't afford to get drunk, there's too many thieves and Indians around. You know, you could call me Laura."
Linda was torn, mesmerized by the woman's lively blue eyes and deep, musical voice. She would die if Elizabeth or Gus caught her talking to Laura, yet there was something fascinating about her... "But we haven't been properly introduced."
Laura lifted her hat, running her hand through her hair, then re-settled her hat. "I'd get John Crane to introduce us, but he's too afraid of what his dear wife would say. Yes, I know that Elizabeth is your friend, she was mine at one time until I dared to continue living life after George and little George were killed. She thinks I should have gone around in mourning for several years, but I had to eat and make money to pay the cowboys." They started walking back towards the tables as Laura talked. They reached the tables and Laura waved gaily at Elizabeth, then turned back to Linda. "Mrs. Bills, I'd better bid you farewell before I completely ruin your reputation. Just remember this: I am not Pandora." She grinned again as she sauntered off, lighting a small cigar.
As Linda stared after Laura, Elizabeth walked up. "Dear, what was that woman saying to you. Who is Pandora?"
Linda answered abstractedly, "Pandora was the girl in Greek mythology who opened the box that let all the evil into the world. She managed to close it up, leaving only hope in the box. Didn't you learn any mythology as a child?"
"No, Linda, I only learned practical subjects. Where did you learn about such pagan stories?"
"My uncle Charles. He was a theology professor at Harvard University and often taught the classics courses as well as theology. I wonder where she learned them?"
Elizabeth sighed in exasperation. "Linda, the only stories you should be concerned with are Bible stories!" Before she could say anything else, the first group of hungry people arrived, waiting to be served.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully until time for the fireworks. A group of the young railroad employees who had complained earlier of the lack of hard liquor showed up, rolling several barrels of hard liquor with them. The sheriff met them at the edge of the lawn, asking them to turn around and go home. They refused; they were already drunk and planned to get drunker, they told him. Linda grew uneasy and turned to her husband, asking, "Gus, should I get Louis and go home? This looks ugly."
"Yes, dear, you should. I'm going to back up the sheriff and try to get these boys to take their hard liquor and go home. I'll be home soon." He hesitated, then quickly kissed her cheek and walked off.
"A public display of affection between husband and wife! How positively scandalous!" a voice said behind Linda. She turned to see Laura lounging in the shadows, watching her. Before she could retort, Laura held up her hand to silence her, suddenly watching intently. She turned back to Linda and said quietly, "Get your baby and come back here. I'll make sure you get home safely." Linda just nodded, then ran off to retrieve Louis.
As Linda came back, she heard voices screaming and turned to see what was happening. Her husband and several other men were hacking the hard liquor barrels with axes and fireworks were going off. The young men were starting to fight with the other men to save their hard liquor. She saw an errant streak of flame heading for the fight, then the hard liquor whooshed in a ball of flame, encompassing many of the men nearby. "Spargus!" she screamed, starting to run towards him. She was caught by a strong pair of arms and turned away from the deadly scene. For several moments, she was only dimly aware that she was being held carefully, so as to keep her from watching but so as not to crush her baby. She nearly fainted, but managed to hold on to consciousness, finally swimming back. She became aware of rough cloth against her face, hearing the soothing rumble of a woman's voice in her ear, saying something that she didn't quite make out, smelling the scents of tobacco, horses and leather. She stood there numbly until she stopped shaking so hard, then finally pulled away, looking up into Laura's concerned face. "Will you be okay?" Laura asked quietly.
"No, but I have to be," Linda answered. She turned back to the fire, watching as the fire brigad swung into action, dashing water on the flames, slapping wet sacks over the flames, trying to keep the dry grass around from igniting. She watched for a few minutes, then saw her friend Elizabeth start beating one of the men, only to be viciously attacked in return. When she saw the knife slashing across Elizabeth's chest, the world blacked out.
Linda Bills drifted between sleep and waking for some days, waking only when necessary to feed Louis or take care of her own needs. She vaguely remembered people talking to her about the funeral and the disposition of Gus's estate. Through everything, Laura Williams sat next to her, making sure that no one took advantage of Linda in her state.
The funeral was awful. Linda had to make decisions about it. The body was too badly burned to be recognized as anything but a skeleton, so it was a closed casket funeral. The only thing she remembered from the funeral was Laura sitting beside her in a clean suit, glaring at anyone who dared whisper about her comportment or lack thereof. Linda did not cry at the funeral of either her husband or her best friend, Elizabeth. She was still in too much shock to realize exactly what had happened. One thing that did penetrate her fog was that she would have to find a new place to live. The church was sending another minister soon and she could not live in the parsonage. Laura helped her pack, then moved Linda and Louis to her house, much to the chagrin of the congregation.
Linda and Louis moved into a spare bedroom at the surprisingly elegant house on Laura's land. The house had five bedrooms, a large kitchen, two bathrooms, a study, an formal parlor, a dining room and an informal den. Laura commented wryly that her husband had expected to fill it with many children. Linda indicated that her new room would be fine. It was large, airy, had a closet, a large bed, chest of drawers, a water pitcher stand, a large rocking chair and a large warm rug on the floor. An older man with one leg off at the knee tended the household. Laura told Linda that he was a veteran of the War Between the States and was perfectly harmless, but a wonderful cook.
The second night that she was there marked the first nightmare for Linda. She was sleeping soundly until she saw the events played out again, hearing the agonized screams, smelling the burnt flesh, watching the fire brigade trying to keep the fire from spreading. Linda had no idea that she screamed out loud until Laura came rushing into the room and picked her up from the bed, taking her to the rocking chair to soothe her. Laura cradled Linda like a baby, rocking her, asking, "What is it? Are you having nightmares?"
Linda looked up at the concerned face, blue eyes gently boring into her own eyes. She swallowed several times before she could speak, finally whispering, "I saw it again, Laura. I watched Gus and Elizabeth dying, burned in the fire as if a sacrifice to the gods." She shuddered at the memory but went on. "It was awful, the smell, the screams, the feeling of helplessness. Laura, why did God take away my best friend and my husband?"
Laura reached up her free hand to stroke the red gold hair, tentatively, remembering for a moment how it was to comfort her baby when he had nightmares. She brought herself back to the present, answering softly, "I don't know, Linda. I stopped believing in God when my husband and child were killed by Indians. The minister at the church before your husband claimed that I needed to only believe in God, that he would provide everything. God didn't provide anything but vultures, human vultures who tried to swoop down and take away my land and livelihood. I stopped going to church, started wearing George's clothes and stopped caring what anyone thought of me." She kept stroking Linda's hair, mesmerized by its exquisite silky texture, then concluded, "So, now the 'good people' of the town think I am some horrible creature because I dare to be myself and to make money. I think what makes most of them so angry is that my ranch is more profitable than most of the ranches and farms around here." She chuckled at the thought, then abruptly changed the subject. "So, what can you do besides be the perfect minister's wife?"
Linda shifted slightly in Laura's arms, settling more comfortably before answering, "I taught school for several years before I met Spargus, but most places won't let a married woman teach anymore. Or, I guess a widow teach. To tell you the truth, I have no idea what to do. Gus was planning to buy a farm, but he never had the chance. I have no home, don't want to go back to my parents' house and I have a baby to bring up. Women aren't allowed to do much."
Laura snorted in disgust. "Women can do anything they damn well please, pardon my language. However, you and Louis can stay here as long as you need to. I'm sure that Peter would love the help in the kitchen. You can also teach some of the cowboys here--some are not that old, not properly men even, but never finished their schooling." She thought a moment, then suddenly switched subjects again. "You did catch the reference to Pandora. I am pleased."
Linda smiled. "Yes, I did. My Uncle Charles taught at Harvard and came to visit us in Georgia every summer. He taught me Greek and Latin, as well as Greek mythology, saying that it was too bad that I couldn't be a classics professor at Harvard. He taught mostly theology, but also taught the classics as well."
"Ah, he taught you well. In that case, feel free to browse my library, my husband was a collector of all sorts of books. George, my husband, traveled all over Europe before we married and managed to purchase many rare books, mostly from nobles and royalty down on their luck. That man could sniff out a bargain anywhere! Sometimes I miss him tremendously, but then again..." Laura's voice trailed off. A silence descended for several minutes, then Laura yawned. "I'd better get back to bed, morning comes pretty early around here. Will you be okay now?"
"Yes, I think so. I'll try not to have any nightmares from here on out." Linda climbed out of Laura's lap and back into her own bed. "Thank you, Laura."
"You're welcome, Linda. Good night." Laura stood up, stretched, then left the room. Linda watched her leave, then pulled the sheet back up over her and promptly fell asleep.
The next morning, Linda finished unpacking her few clothes and Louis's clothes, storing them in the chest of drawers. She changed his diapers and was in the middle of feeding him when she heard a knock on the door. "Who is it?" she asked.
"Laura. May I come in?"
Linda pulled Louis's blanket higher, then answered, "Yes, come in."
Laura sauntered into the room, looking around. "Looks like you unpacked. I meant what I said last night, you can stay here as long as you wish." She looked at Linda, a picture of serenity and maternity, calmly feeding her son. The blanket started slipping and fell to the floor before Linda could grab it. "I'll get it for you," Laura said as she strode across the room, sweeping the blanket off the floor and giving it back to the young mother. She caught a brief glimpse of Linda's breast and pink nipple before Louis took it back in his mouth. For some reason, the picture caused a jolt of excitement in her gut, which she promptly ignored. "I've already had breakfast and must go check on some of the cattle today. Peter is doing laundry today, so if you need anything washed, you might give it to him pretty soon. He left some breakfast for you on the stove along with a pot of coffee."
"Thank you. Louis and I appreciate your kindness. I do have a favor to ask; if anyone goes to town soon, may I give them money to buy a new cradle? I forgot to pick up Louis's cradle when we packed and I'd hate to ask the church for it back."
"Sure, I'm going tomorrow. But why don't you just use little George's cradle? I still have it and it's in good condition. I'll have Peter bring it in for you, if you'd rather."
"That would work, do you mind terribly?"
"Not at all, Linda. Well, I'm off to work." Laura paused by the door for a moment, wishing she could stay longer. Since most women in town avoided her, she was sometimes hungry to talk to another woman. "Remember, make yourself at home." She couldn't avoid it any longer, she had to go to work.
Soon after Laura left, Louis finished his breakfast and Linda dressed him for the day. She picked him and and went to the kitchen, where she was greeted by Peter. "Mornin' ma'am. Miz Laura said that y'all would be along any time now. Let me git yore breakfast here." Peter swung, pivoting on his good leg, deftly assembling her breakfast on a plate, then limped over to set it on the table. "Could I hold the litter feller? He's so cute, Miz Bills."
Linda nodded, handing over the baby. Peter settled him in his arms, making silly noises and faces as Linda got down the business of eating her breakfast. When she had finished most of her meal, she asked, "Do you usually take to babies so well? Not many men are that comfortable with babies."
"Oh, I had a whole passel of younger brothers and sisters, Miz Bills. I was the oldest of fourteen, ten of which lived past their childhood. My mama was pretty sick most of the time, so I learned to diaper and feed babies. My paw thought it was unmanly, but he was so busy trying to keep the farm going that he didn't have much time to say so. I shore miss my brothers and sisters, though. I joined the Confederate Army when I was but a lad of seventeen and promptly got my laig shot off. Miz Linda's husband, George, took me into his command and appointed me the cook. When he and the missus moved to Texas, they toted me along. I cooked and helped Miz Bills with little George." He cooed at Louis, then turned back to Linda. "He's quite a good baby, I haven't hardly heard him cry since Miz Laura brung y'all to the house."
Linda finished her coffee, then asked seriously, "Peter, what happened to Laura's husband and child?"
He settled in his chair more comfortably, then replied, "Well, when we first settled here ten years ago, they had just married. Little George was born here just after the house was finished. About six years ago, a renegade tribe of Indians came through, trying to rustle the cattle and horses. Mr. George came flyin' out of the house, it was night you see, and was shootin' at them and hollerin' fer them to git away. They shot him full of arrows, then came in the house and carted away most of the food. They killed little George in his bed, his regular bed, he had growed out of his cradle, then went and raped Miz Laura. She managed to fight some of them off and I wasn't much help, for they busted my wood laig. Sorry if my tale is upsettin', that's just the facts 'round here. I nursed her back to health and she swore that a band of Indians wouldn't keep her down, that if she could survive that, she could survive anything. She became a hard woman, livin' more like a man. I've tried to help her every way I could, but I couldn't heal her inside, you see." Louis started whimpering and Peter started jiggling him until he settled back down.
"Where was I? Oh, yes, Miz Laura has had a tough row to hoe. She tried to get past this, but the townfolks didn't help much. Because she was strong and could actually keep the ranch going, they thought she was too masculine. So, she became more like a man, trying to fulfill their picture of her, I reckon. She started smoking cigars, drinking, card playing, and really ripping loose. A couple of years ago, Charles Taylor tried courtin' her, but she said she wasn't ready. I was in town one night with the boys when he took her to dinner at the hotel. I happened by the hotel for a drink when I saw him try to take her to his room. Ma'am, he wuz pawin' at her bodice, so she got mad and yelled for him to quit. He wouldn't, so she shot him dead. After that, no man tried to tame her. Oh, dang, he's droolin' on me. Hand me yore napkin, please. There we go, you want to go back to your mama?"
Linda took her baby back. "Thank you, Peter. No wonder she's so bitter. But why did she help me?"
Peter rubbed his chin thoughtfully, saying, "I don't rightly know. I reckon that you were the only woman in town who never flat out ignored her or tried to get away. Plus, you lost your husband in a tragic way, she can feel for you." He started to say more, but just concluded, "I'd better start workin' on lunch. The boys will be mighty hungry come noontime. Why don't you run along and visit the library? I'll call you when it's time to eat."
July finally gave way to August, the heat unabated. Linda fell into a routine of taking care of Louis, reading in the library and helping Peter with meals, which he protested at first, then relented. Laura started sitting in the library with Linda after Linda put Louis to bed, drinking coffee and talking about different books. Linda noticed that as they discussed various books that Laura's eyes would start to sparkle and she would lose the cynical face that she showed the rest of the world. One night they sat discussing the myth of Demeter and Persephone, how Demeter mourned for her daughter when the lord of the underworld had her, and how they rejoiced when rejoined. Laura held the book in her hand that she had been reading the myth out of, shutting it gently, then asking, "Isn't that a beautiful explanation of the seasons? Having lost a child, I can really feel Demeter's sorrow at losing Persephone."
"Yes, but these are just myths. Surely you don't believe-"
"Better than believing that one god made the entire world in six days, then casting out his children just because they ate a fruit that he practically dared them to eat."
"Why Laura, that is disrespectful!"
Laura snorted and got up, going over to the small bar and pouring herself a glass of whiskey. She eyed Linda speculatively as she tossed back the contents of the glass, then poured and gulped a second. Finally, she put the stopper back in the bottle and sat back down. "Disrespectful, my ass! Linda, don't you know what the good so called Christian folk are saying about you now? They are saying that you live in sin with me here, taking my money without thought for how it will affect your baby! Yet, I suppose they all coo over Louis after church services!"
"As a matter of fact, they do! I've explained that I help around the house-"
"Has John Crane made any advance towards you?"
Linda stared at Laura, wondering where that switch in topics came from. "No, he hasn't. He is still mourning Elizabeth and trying to raise their three boys. He is nice to me, but the Cranes were good friends of mine and Gus's. He wouldn't dare-"
Laura snickered, replying, "Are you quite sure? I was getting one of my horses shoed today and he was at the blacksmiths. He didn't know that I was there, listening as he told the other men how he would love to take you for his wife, that it would take the stain off your name and give him a housekeeper to boot. He's had trouble keeping his little darlings disciplined and is considering sending them back east to a boarding school. Elizabeth's mother, he said, would be more than willing to pay for it, then all he would have to do would be to hire a nanny for Louis and have you to himself."
"Not John, God, no!" Linda stood up and walked to the window, staring at the moon, trying to make sense of what Laura was telling her. John Crane, plotting to marry her? She liked him, but was not ready to share her life with any man. Why couldn't people keep their noses out of other people's business? she wondered. And why was Laura drinking so much? She rarely drank any spirits around Linda. She heard the clink of glass again, then turned around in time to see Laura downing a third glass. "Why are you drinking so much?"
"Why not?" Laura replied. "Damn their honor anyway! I'll suffer any charges they dare to bring against me, but not against you. No one else ever offered to help you!" She whirled around, staring at Linda. "Has anyone ever offered to lift a hand? Christian charity, my ass! Damned bootlickers never lifted a hand to help you. I'll-"
Linda got up and walked over to Laura, putting a hand on Laura's arm. "Laura, you're quite distraught!"
"Well?" she hissed back, "did any of them offer to help?"
Linda thought back for a moment, slowly realizing that not one person offered to help. Laura had freely opened her house to Linda and Louis, even donating clothes and cradle for Louis, giving without expectation. Yet, Laura claimed not to believe in God, but she was showing more Christian behavior than the congregation. She said softly, "No, you were the only one to offer assistance, for which I am grateful."
Laura stared at the petite woman for a long moment, then said, "I'd better get to bed. Thanks for the conversation."
"But our study-"
"Damn the myths, I'm not in the mood tonight. I'm drunk and plan to get drunker; you really shouldn't see me in this condition. Goodnight."
Linda looked at Laura for a moment, then turned on her heel and left. She met Peter in the hall and asked, "Does Laura often do this? Get drunk and angry?"
He shook his head sadly, then answered, "Just once a year, the night her family was killed. If I were you, I'd stay away from her. She'll get herself to bed, don't worry about that. Miz Laura will be mighty quiet in the morning, probably go away to the cemetery for a spell, then act as if nothing were out of the ordinary. Good night, Miz Bills." He stumped off. Linda stared at the closed door for a long moment, then finally went to her bedroom to check on Louis. He was sleeping peacefully, so she finally changed her clothes and went to sleep.
Several hours later, Linda woke up to an earth-shattering howl. She sat up in bed, trying to figure out where it came from. Coyotes maybe? Louis woke up crying as another howl sounded, so Linda went to soothe him. No more howls sounded, so she was finally able to get him to sleep. After she laid him back in his cradle, she heard muffled talking, so she went to investigate.
As Linda stepped out of room, she saw Laura slumped against the wall outside of her bedroom. Linda hesitated for a moment, not quite sure what to do when Laura looked up and saw her standing there. Laura attempted to stand up, mumbling, "Leave me alone with my ghosts, Linda." So, this is where the howls came from, Linda thought.
"Let me help you to your bed, Laura," Linda murmured, trying not to wake up Louis. Despite her protest, Laura did not resist as Linda held out her hand to help her up. Once Laura was on her feet, Linda helped her get to her bedroom and on her bed. "Now, what were you doing in the floor?"
Laura didn't answer right away, concentrating on stripping her clothes off, looking for her nightgown. Linda felt her face flushing as she beheld the other woman's body, more beautiful than she ever imagined any woman's body to be, with definite lines marking the tanned skin that saw the sun with the creamy skin that stayed covered up. Linda realized that the last nude adult female she had seen was Gus's first wife, but it was emaciated with illness, not beautiful like Laura's. Laura looked up and caught her looking and grinned wolfishly, then quickly donned a mask of boredom. She finally found her nightgown and yanked it over her head, covering her lovely body.
The two women stared at each other for a long moment, aware of what had just passed between them. Finally, Laura spoke. "Linda, I apologize for waking you up. Did I disturb Louis?"
"He's asleep now."
Laura seemed to have sobered in the last minute and now lit the wall lamp with steady hands. She sat on the bed, then motioned to the rocking chair, saying, "Please have a seat." Linda sat carefully, on the edge of the chair at first, then finally surrendering to the comfort of the chair. Laura looked at her steadily and said, "Linda, this is the first time someone else has been in my house during the anniversary of the attack. I usually get drunk, have nightmares, then spend the next day sobering up. I apologize for my behavior, it is uncalled for. I had told myself that I would not get drunk tonight, that I had more respect for you than that, but the things that I heard in town made me angry and for some reason the story of Demeter and Persephone made me unbearably sad, especially with you sitting there."
Linda looked at her, not comprehending something, she knew. "What things?"