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Chapter three. Please let me know what you think!
CHAPTER THREE: MUD, MIRE, AND MEN
Elisabeth-Lu shoved her hair out of her face with the back of her hand as she slopped the sticky wet paint onto the side of the shed. This was definitely not her favorite job! She would much rather be doing laundry, or dusting, or sweeping, or – well, just about anything but this! She sighed.
She looked up to see Con standing above her. She scowled, remembering what he had said about her cooking the other day beneath the tree. “What do you want?”
A teasing light lit her brother’s eyes. “Just watching you work.”
“Why?” She batted her lashes at him, and feigned an innocent expression. “Did you want to help?”
“Nope.” He grinned. “But if you’re almost done, I have some laundry I need washed, and my boots are getting a little dull if you wanted to polish them…”
She lifted her eyebrows dangerously. “Do you want to get whitewashed, dear brother? Because I’d be more than happy to oblige.” She held up her dripping brush.
He held up his hands in surrender. “Now wait one minute, Lis, you don’t want to get me all wet, do ya?”
“Did you want an honest answer to that question?”
“Come on, Lis, I have places to go tonight, if you get that stuff on me –”
Elisabeth-Lu narrowed her eyes, and in a slingshot fashion, pulled back the bristles of the brush and released them, letting a spray of white over the front of his dirt-smudged shirt. “Then why don’t you leave me alone and go about your visiting.”
“Oh, you’re in for it.” Before she would stop him, Con leapt forward and grabbed the bucket she was using.
“No, Con! Don’t you dare!” She lunged backwards, trying to avoid the bucket he lifted above her head threateningly.
“Hey Con, what’re you doin’?” Bar’s voice sounded to their right, distracting Con momentarily so Elisabeth-Lu could snatch the bucket back and dart to safety of her other brother.
“What do you think he’s doing, Bar? Certainly not being nice!” She wrinkled her nose snottily at Con.
“Here, Lis, let me.” Bar gingerly lifted the brush and bucket out of her hands. “Mom needs you inside and wants Con to finish painting the shed.”
Elisabeth-Lu snickered and wiped her soiled hands on her work dress. “Bye Con.” She gave a sassy wave in her brother’s direction. “Have fun whitewashing.”
He harrumphed in return, and snatched the tools from Bar’s hand. “Thanks a lot, brother.”
Elisabeth-Lu flounced across the grassy lawn to the house, glad to be rid of the tedious and messy job. She opened the back door with her left hand, which was cleaner than her right, and carefully moved inside, cautious not to get the paint from her dress on her surroundings. “Mother?”
She followed her mother’s voice to the foyer where she found her dusting the family portraits that hung on the wall above the entryway table. “Bar said you needed help with something?”
“Yes.” Her mother turned to face her, smiling merrily. “Lottie’s birthday is next week and I need you to go in to town and get some things. We – your father and I – have decided to throw her a surprise party, but we’re going to need your help.” She motioned fro Elisabeth-Lu to follow her as she moved back toward the kitchen. “I was going to send Con, but you know how he gets distracted whenever I send him to town.”
Elisabeth-Lu rolled her eyes. “Yes, I know.” She remembered last time her mother sent him into town for supplies with Elisabeth-Lu. As soon as they arrived their, her brother hopped off the wagon and declared he had some business to tend to. Two hours later when she had been scouring the whole town for her illusive brother, she found him sitting on the bench in front of the milliners, sweet-talking Susannah Woodward. “Hmm….it probably is best that I go. What do I need to get?”
“We’re going to need a few yards of that green paisley we looked at last week along with the some lace, I’m thinking of making that dress we saw in the Sears Roebuck Catalogue last week.” She pulled a folded piece of paper out from under the breadbox and handed it to Elisabeth-Lu. “Here is the list. When you get home, some of the things we’re going to have to hide in the cellar so she doesn’t see them. We don’t want to give her any hint of what we’re doing!"
Elisabeth-Lu perused the list. “Material. Lace. Gloves, stationary?”
“Those lovely cream ones that were in the glass case last Friday. I know she said she like them. The stationary your father said she should have so she can write letters to – well, she can write letters. I don’t know what they have at MacNiel’s General Store for that, so I’m leaving it up to you to pick some out.” Her mother leaned closer pointing to the rest of the things on the list. “These will be the things we need for her cake, and other food for the party.”
“Alright.” Elisabeth-Lu folded the list back up carefully and then glanced down at her paint-spattered dress. “I’d better run upstairs and change before I go.”
Her mother smiled. “Good idea…and don’t forget to wash your face, you have paint on your nose.”
“No wonder it feels funny!” Elisabeth-Lu rubbed at her nose with the back of her hand. “I’ll go do that now. Could you ask Bar to hook up the wagon while I get ready?”
“I told him to do that before I sent for you. Now go on and get cleaned up.”
Elisabeth-Lu nodded, preoccupied with trying to remove the smear of white. “Alright, mother.” She took the stairs two-by-two, anxious to clean up. She entered the room and nearly tripped over a pile of Lottie’s clothing. “If only she would clean her side of the room once in a while!” She pushed the clothes aside with the toe of her boot and looked to her area of the room…and could do nothing but groan. Her side was just as messy as her sister’s.
“Bah.” She grumbled. “I’ll clean it when I get home.”
Closing the door, she stepped out of her soiled dress. She moved to the washbasin in her petticoat and chemise and sponged off – making sure to wiped her face as clean. Striding to her wardrobe she assessed her options before pulling out a fresh cream-colored blouse and a simple brown skirt. Elisabeth-Lu turned before the mirror.
“Much better.” After running a brush through her hair and tying back the caramel waves with a ribbon, she headed out the door.
“Will that be all, Miss?”
Elisabeth-Lu glanced up to see the clerk impatiently tapping his pencil on the clear glass counter. She bit her lip, glancing down at the list in her hand one more time and then back around the store again.
“No, I don’t think I’m quite finished yet.” She surveyed the candy jars on the far wall. “Could I have four lemon drops and – no, change that. I’ll take five peppermint sticks, and one lemon drop.” She bit her lip for a moment. “Actually – make that three peppermint sticks, two lemon drops and a licorice whip.”
“Is that all?” A touch of sarcasm touched the man’s voice.
Elisabeth-Lu frowned. How rude! “Yes, please.”
The irritated clerk frowned at her with annoyance as he retrieved the candy and wrapped it in brown paper. “Will that be charged to your parent’s account, Miss?”
He wrote it down on a slip of paper and added up the amount in the margin. “Here.” He shoved her packages toward her. “Have a good afternoon.”
“Thank you.” She stacked the parcels into her basket and made her way out of the store and down the boardwalk. What an unpleasant man! She couldn’t recall him smiling once the whole time she was in his store.
She lifted the list from her basket, checking over it one last time. Cinnamon…check…Salt….check. Ah, she knew the flour and apples were already in the wagon where she had watched the crabby clerk place them while she chose the material for Lottie’s dress. That left…baking soda…check…raisins…
“Oh no!” Elisabeth-Lu stopped abruptly. “I forgot the raisins!” She spun around, intending to head back to MacNiel’s General Store, but when she did, she miscalculated her spin and went pitching toward the mud-sludged road. “Oh no!”
She screeched, flinging out her arms to break the impending fall – but the endeavor failed and she landed in the road with a sickening squish, her hands slipping right through the slime. Gross. She tried to push herself up, but slipped right back down, landing in the mire from her hem to her nose.
Elisabeth-Lu carefully pulled herself to a sitting position, trying desperately to blink the mud off her eyelashes and see who was there. As the grime cleared away, she saw a little girl in a pink taffeta dress staring down at her from the walkway. A half-eaten lollipop was in her hand, and she stood there with her rosebud mouth drooping open.
“Mommy, Mommy, look!
A petite woman dressed head to toe in ruffles and flounces reached out to clasp her daughter’s hand, pulling her closer to her side. “Come baby.”
“But Mommy, look at the funny mud lady!”
Elisabeth-Lu’s face suffused with color beneath her undignified paint. Why did she always trip where people could see her? Accidents never happened to her when she was alone!
“Cecile, it’s not polite to stare. Leave the mud lady alone.” The alleged mother leaned closer to her child, the feathers on her fancy bonnet wavering cold brown eyes as she whispered…low enough to sound polite, but loud enough to be sure Elisabeth-Lu heard. “She’s probably a homeless woman.”
Homeless! She gasped. How dare she!
Brown globs dripped disgustingly down her face, interrupting her quiet tirade. So she didn’t look so clean. These things happened to everyone…right? Tears welled in her eyes as she tried to stand. The woman obviously had no heart at all – otherwise she would help a poor homeless woman!
“Will you be wanting any of these nails this week, Mr. West?”
Bryant grinned at Odie Bruaner, owner of Odie B.’s Hardware. “No, Mr. Bruaner, I assure you, I’ve got enough nails.”
The old gentleman scratched his head. “A hammer then? No young man can have enough hammers.”
“I think I’ve bought three from you in the last month, Mr. Bruaner. I think I’ll be good for a while.” Perhaps a few years? Bryant grinned. “While you were thinking of it though, I was wondering if – ”
“What in tarnation!?” Odie nearly jumped over the counter, his almost toothless mouth hanging open in shock.
“What is Mr. Bruaner?” Bryant looked around in a panic. “Is something wrong? Are you alright?”
“Did you see that?” Odie squinted his eyes out the glass windows in the front of his shop. “I coulda sworn that mud over there moved.”
Bryant shook his head, coming up behind the man. He knew Odie’s eyesight wasn’t very well but – Bryant stopped. Odie wasn’t seeing things. Bryant peered across the road to a mud puddle near the boardwalk. The mud was moving.
“Do you see it, son?”
Bryant shook his head in amazement. “There is a girl in the mud.”
“A girl?” Odie jumped back, sending Bryant a bemused gaze. “Well what are you waitin’ for? Go help her out!”
Bryant stumbled to attention, and moved quickly to the door. He stopped suddenly. “Do you have a clean hanky on you, Mr. Bruaner?”
“My Hildy always washes my hankies on Saturday.” He yanked a well worn, but clean handkerchief from his pocket. “Here, now go help that lady!”
Bryant grabbed the cloth and headed out the door and across the street. As he neared the puddle where the girl now sat up, back to him, he saw a flash of pink in the corner of his eye.
“Cecile, it’s not polite to stare. Leave the mud lady alone.”
Mud lady? Bryant resisted the urge to laugh. The name fit. The girl was covered head to toe in mud…but even that didn’t hide the scarlet blush seeping up her neck. He ignored the feminine voice that seemed to be whispering something to a little girl and stepped forward.
“May I help you, Miss?” He looked down at mud lady.
The woman turned slightly in the mire and lifted her hand for his assistance. As he grasped her hand she met his eyes with her gray ones – and gasped.
“Me? What?” Bryant looked down at her, confused as he helped her to stand. “Do I know you?”
As soon as she had a solid stand on the ground, she pulled back her hand and turned slightly so he couldn’t see her face. “Thank you for helping me, I’d better find my packages and go.”
“Wait Miss – can I at least offer you a handkerchief to clean your face with?” He grasped her arm, gently pulling her back around.
“No, thank you. I don’t need to – ”
Bryant stopped her mid-sentence as he reached out with the borrowed hanky, carefully wiping the muck off her face. “There you go, I’m sure you’d feel much better if you went over to – ”
She yanked away before he could finish, lifting her hand in the pretense of helping his cleaning efforts – but what he saw was obviously an attempt to hide her face again. Suddenly it dawned on him. The gray eyes. The accident-prone young lady from the woods. He stepped back, crossing his arms over his chest. “Why, if it isn’t Miss Dinglehoofer.”
“I need to go.”
He let his arms fall to his sides as a slow grin spread over his face. “Miss Dinglehoofer, do you make a habit of falling off things?”
She scowled. “No. Do you make a habit of being arrogant?” As soon as the words left her mouth he could see she wished to take them back. The blush brightened her cheeks.
Changing the subject to put her at ease, he motioned to the paper-wrapped parcels scattered on the ground around them. Good thing it was a fairly quiet town or they would have been run over by a wagon by now! “Can I help you gather your packages? I promise I’ll take my leave after I do.”
Her face softened apologetically. “Thank you.” She lifted a dirty finger pointing toward a wagon a few feet away. “That’s my wagon right over there, I think I can get the packages.”
He lifted his eyebrows, “I wouldn’t mind helping.”
She frowned and looked at him warily. “I can do it myself.”
He stepped back and tilted his hat in surrender. “Very well then. Have a nice day Miss Dinglehoofer.”
“You too.” She leaned down, clearly dismissing him, to pick up her parcels.
He shook his head and headed toward the hardware store. What a strange girl.
Elisabeth-Lu slumped down onto the edge of her bed, sinking her head into her palms. Why was she always so clumsy? Since she got home she had washed up in the big tin tub, and her hair was now piled up in a damp mess on top of her head. She had checked for bruises or cuts – but nothing was hurt. Nothing but her pride.
She sighed. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it had happened in front of anyone else. But to have it happen in front of the same man who had witnessed her indecorous fall from the tree? How embarrassing!
A shuffle in the hallway preceded the bedroom door softly opening and closing. Elisabeth-Lu looked up to see Lottie standing before her, a look of worry on her face. “Are you alright? Mother said you…uhm…fell while you were in town.”
Elisabeth-Lu rolled her eyes. “I fell all right – right into the biggest mud puddle in Southbrooke.”
Lottie gasped and covered her mouth – but not soon enough to cover the smile Elisabeth-Lu glimpsed. “I am so sorry! Though, that does explain the wet dress I saw hanging on the line a few minutes ago. I was confused why mother would be doing laundry when it wasn’t Tuesday.”
“I’m fine.” She pulled her legs up onto the bed and scooted back against her pillows. “It wouldn’t have been so embarrassing if it wasn’t for that man.”
Lottie’s eyes widened and she wiggled her eyebrows. “Man? Do tell, sister dear!”
Elisabeth-Lu huffed. “All you want to know about is the man.”
“Exactly!” Her sister nodded enthusiastically.
Elisabeth-Lu sighed once more, but this time couldn’t stop from smiling. “Well…” She pulled the afghan up from the end of the bed, covering her bare feet. “He’s about five-two, red stringy hair, quite portly – and do you want to know the best part?”
Her sister frowned, disappointed. “What?”
“His name is Fred.” Elisabeth-Lu said the name as if it were the most delicious thing in the world. “Fred Brussels.”
Lottie smirked, crossing her arms and sliding onto the bed beside Elisabeth-Lu. “Brussels as in Brussels sprouts?” She gave her sister a cynical look. “I don’t believe a word of it, Lis.”
Elisabeth-Lu laughed at her overly perceptive sister. “Alright, alright, before you get mad, let me tell you the truth.”
Lottie giggled, bouncing on the bed like an overexcited four year old. “Tell me!”
“He’s about six-foot, dark hair, and brown eyes.”
“And…he just happened to be the same man that saw me fall out of the tree last week.”
Lottie squealed. “You’re kidding! The same guy?”
“The same guy.”
“Did you talk to him?”
Elisabeth-Lu rolled her eyes again. “He helped me out of the mud and that was all. After that I gathered up my packages and left.”
“Hmm. Don’t you think it’s odd that you would meet the same man twice like that – in a logging city with hundreds of men?” Lottie stared off dreamily. “Maybe God is trying to tell you something!”
Elisabeth-Lu huffed. “Like I need to get glasses so I stop falling off things? Brilliant idea.”
Lottie scowled playfully. “I was thinking more like He’s telling you that you should start looking at men.”
Elisabeth-Lu gasped. “Charlotte Winton, I don’t need to be looking at any men!”
Her sister shrugged. “Sure, if you want to be an old maid for the rest of your life.”
Elisabeth-Lu looked at her sister sternly. “I’m done talking about this.”
Lottie smiled and bounced off the bed, heading toward the door. “Sure you are. But you better hope He’s not.” She pointing her index finger upward toward the ceiling. She stepped back and left the room, closing the door before Elisabeth-Lu could reply.
Elisabeth-Lu stuck her tongue out towards the door. She was not looking for a man…no matter how handsome one may be. She saw a flash of chocolate colored eyes in her memory, and shook her head. Just because he had cute dimples and gorgeous curly dark hair, didn’t mean she thought he was handsome! Just because she had never seen anyone look so good in a cowboy hat and denims, didn’t mean she liked him!
She snuggled back against the pillows, closing her eyes as she prayed. Dear God, please let my sister understand that I don’t like this man. Help her to leave me alone about it! Really, rugged and handsome doesn’t make him a candidate for marriage. Her mind began to fuzz as she dropped off into exhausted slumber with dreams of handsome cowboys playing out against her closed lids.
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