Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended.
Anna got more settled and comfortable. She sent back East for some things to be taken out of storage and shipped west. She began to feel that she'd be staying in Stockton.
Though the summer had been a little dry, the autumn was brilliant, a long serious of bright warm days and crisp nights. The grass on the foothills turned first gold and then a gentle silvery-grey as the autumn lengthened. There was just enough rain to avoid drought, but not enough to spoil many days.
Ana spent many of these days on horseback. True to her word, she had thought out a proper regime for Heath to follow. Riding was a good way to get out, get some air, without being too taxing. And, as she'd pointed out, Charger needed the airing too. Left so long in the barn, he needed to be reconditioned and even retrained.
Anna soothed her guilty consciencefor she was away from the surgery nearly every daywith the excuse that he was still perhaps her most serious patient, and that he needed direction and restraint. But the simple truth was that she enjoyed the rides. She had not been outdoors so much since she'd been a child. Even the commonplace landscape was new to her, who'd been used to the low-lying swamps of her home and the bustle of large cities.
Sky Meadow, Spring Meadow, Oak Grove, the North Ridge: though perhaps not as exotic as the landscapes Jarrod saw in Augusta Rodgers's parlor, they were fresh and lovely to her.
They did not talk much on their rides. Or, rather, he did not talk much. From time to time he pointed out practical things, such as animal tracks, told her what they meant. She, as usual, talked perhaps more than she should have, recounting the struggles and small victories of her growing practice. Of course doctors shouldn't gossip; but she felt certain she could trust his discretion.
Nothing thrilled her more than the sight of the big raptors, condors and eagles, their broad wings sharp against a cloudless sky. She felt a little guilty at her pleasure, for she knew the sight meant some poor rabbit or squirrel was doomed. But the great birds seemed like a metaphor to her for her new life.
One day they came upon a confusing mixture of tracks. "Show me what you've learned," Heath smirked. "What is it?"
"Good heavens. Those look like goats. But thosewell, more like a dog. Ponies. Is it the circus?"
"Better. Gypsies. Come on."
"There's a band that goes up and down the coast, mostly picking fruit. They stop here and pick our grapes every year. I'll take you around to Liana and you can get your fortune told."
"Oh, dear. But what if it's bad?"
"How can it be bad on a day like this?"
She accepted the illogic of the argument and they followed the tracks to the gypsy camp. The camp was as wild as the tracks, a bewildering mixture of dogs, goats, stout little ponies, and carts and conveyances of every kind, from a battered Conestoga to an elderly sulky. Heath spoke to one of the women. He dismounted and helped her down, then led her to the Conestoga.
Inside a small woman sat drowsing. Scarcely opening her eyes she held out her hand. Heath dropped two dollars in her hand. "Hers first," he said.
Liana gestured. A little unwillingly, Anna surrendered her own hand, palm up. Liana scanned it quickly and said, "You have too much here," touching her forehead, "so you don't listen here." She touched her heart. "When the choice comes you listen with this," she touched her heart again, "and all come well. Not easy. But well."
Well, that was sufficiently cryptic. Anna withdrew her hand. Liana took Heath's. "You been in a bad place. Dark. You almost out. You see right way. You take it. Don't be afraid. Hard road's a good road. Surprise a good surprise sometime." She dropped Heath's hand; the readings were apparently over. But as they were backing out, Liana said, "You find happiness."
"Which of us?" Anna asked; but Liana had dozed off again, or decided to ignore them. As they were riding away, Anna said, "I would have liked a few more details."
Heath laughed. "I don't think Liana has details. In fact, I suspect she passes out the same fortune pretty much every time."
"I think you're right. And I know of no scientific basis for palmistry."
"Well," Heath said, "no harm done."
But in the days afterward Anna thought, with some annoyance, of the gypsy's words. Anna knew only too well that she had a tendency to live too much by rational thought alone, but she thought she'd been doing better. Wasn't she handling her patients better/ Hell, wasn't she off on a week day visiting a gypsy, when she should have been waiting at the surgery in case she was needed? And what choice was the gypsy talking about?
By the middle of October Heath seemed much better. He went to work on the stallion. But he didn't try to break him. Nick had tried and failed; Heath didn't seriously think he could succeed where Nick hadn't. But he wanted to try and gentle the horse instead. It was a long shot, but it was the only shot left short of gelding the stallion.
So Heath began a long, slow period of seduction. Kept penned far away from other animals, the stallion was lonely. For the first few days Heath did nothing but offer him apples and soft talk, a few kindly pats. After this he got in the corral, letting the horse get used to having a human that close. Then he took to working the horse on a lead, taking the horse through his paces without so much as a blanket on his back.
By the end of a month's nearly constant work, the stallion was ready to go back to the corral and take up a useful life. The other hands were still shy of him, so Nick and Heath took turns working him.
Heath considered that the formal end of his convalescence. He still wasn't fully up to strength; but his stamina was back, and he was ready to take on his old load. The rest would come with time.
That Thanksgiving was one of the happiest times they'd shared. Although Jarrod's trial started soon, he was able to spend the whole holiday at home.
Whatever lowness of spirit Victoria had detected in Heath was gone. Though he was quieter than the others, he seemed less restless or uneasy than she'd ever seen him.
Anna took Thanksgiving dinner with the family, and for once was not called away. ("Saloon's closed," as Nick pointed out.) It was the first true holiday meal she'd had in years; she was looking forward to Christmas, although she knew she'd be busier by then.
Victoria watched Anna closely over that visit. She could tell Jarrod was as smitten as before, perhaps even more so. The two talked happily over the books Jarrod had bought, and though the friendship between them seemed easy and close, Victoria could detect no special warmth in Anna's manner toward Jarrod. She clearly enjoyed his company, but, Victoria thought, no more or less than she enjoyed the overall family atmosphere.
Plans for a picnic were spoiled by a combination of rain and a sudden cold snap. Reluctantly, Anna left them on Saturday nightsince the saloon was open. She had a busy evening and a busier Sunday, for there was illness at the mission. It didn't seem to her to be the dreaded cholera, but rather some sickness caused by spoiled food, for some of the children and the fathers remained well. But Padre Esteban, nearly eighty and quite frail, was laid low by the dysentery. He appeared to have suffered a mild heart attack. Though Anna spent most of the day there, and tried what few remedies she had, she had scant hope that the padre would make it through the night. Esteban himself seemed less concerned than his brothers; to Anna he seemed resigned and accepting. As a Catholic she realized his attitude was the right one; as a doctor it struck her as a bad sign.
When she drove back to town it was dusk. To her surprise, Jarrod was sitting on her porch. "What a surprise!" she said. "I hope there's no medical reason for the visit."
"No, no, every one's just fine. Do you often drive alone this late?"
"Very rarely. Usually I have some companywhoever's fetched me. This is an unusual situation. I was at the mission all day."
"Audra mentioned some trouble."
"Not so bad as I'd feared. But Padre Esteban is very ill. I don't think he'll make it."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"I suspect we're both sorrier than he is. I've exhausted my bag of tricks. I think the brothers can do more for him now than I can. I thought you'd be on your way back to San Francisco by now."
"The train doesn't leave for a bit. But I don't think I'll be back again much before Christmas. However, that's no reason why I should be deprived of your company for so long. I do wish you'd come up for a few days. The opera is doing Cosi fan tuttiand this new Italian singer is very good. And there's quite a few other entertainments available. Wonderful parties. Isn't it time you met a little San Francisco society? You must be a little lonely by now."
"I don't see how I can leave right now, Jarrod. With the damp and the cold coming it'll soon be scarlet fever time, and pneumonia. And I'm not positive it's not cholera at the mission. If it is it could spread quickly."
"And of course you would come back if there was trouble. But until there's trouble there's no reason why you shouldn't have some amusement. I've got friends I'm sure you would like, and you wouldn't be dependent solely on my poor company."
"Your company is never poor, Jarrod."
"But it will be a little sparse once this trial starts. Still, I'm sure you'd be the toast of San Francisco, Anna. You'd not lack for invitations."
She thought about it. He was right; she was lonely. Though she treated many she confided in few, and his family remained her primary support. But San Francisco? Here people had begun to accept her, if grudgingly. There she would have to begin all over again, new rounds of explanation and justification. And for what? She truly valued Jarrod and the rest of his family. But she doubted there were many of that caliber to be found in San Francisco. She remembered her unsuccessful foray into Nat Sherborne's circle. No doubt this would be more of the same.
"Jarrod, thank you for being so concerned for me. And so generous. But really, for the time being, I have to say no."
Jarrod considered her refusal. At last, he said, "I hope it is just duty that keeps you here. Ann, we get on so well. I've grown very found of you. I've hopedwell, I hope that there might be a deeper friendship between us. I'm saying this poorly, Anna, but you know what I mean."
Anna had been half-expecting this, and yet she still found herself unprepared. She got up, paced a little. "I believe I do understand, Jarrod. Please believe that I value you as highly as any man I've ever known. And I treasure your friendship. But as to anything elseI cannot see it."
"Perhaps I've been too hasty."
"No," she said gently, firmly. "I don't believe time will alter my feelings, Jarrod."
"Is there someone else? Perhaps back East, or in London?"
She was still pacing, her back to him. "Someone else? No...there is no one back East, or in London."
There followed a silence as awkward as either had ever known. At last, Jarrod got up and went over to Anna. Placing a hand on her shoulder, briefly, he said, "I've sorry to have caused you such distress."
"Oh, you've no cause to apologize. And I'm flattered, truly. If I'm distressed it is at the thought of causing you any pain, Jarrod. I meant what I said about valuing you. I wouldn't want to lose that."
"Nor shall you. I'm off to San Francisco. When I come backwell, let's just forget this ever happened."
"Thank you, Jarrod. Believe me when I say it is no flaw in you that holds me back. I don't know why I feel this way. I just know that I do."
"And thank you for being honest. At least I know you're not playing some foolish courtship game."
"I wouldn't know how." She mustered a smile. "They weren't taught at Harvard."
"Apparently notI never learned them either. Anna, I hadn't told anyone of my intent to speak to you tonight. I would prefer this stay between ourselves."
"Oh, of course. That's my own wish, Jarrod."
"Well, then. I part from my still very dear friend. Good night, Anna."
"Good-bye, Jarrod. Good luck in your trial."
Jarrod walked to the train station on numb legs. He hadn't seriously considered rejection until he'd heard her firm no. By now he knew her well enough to
believe in her honestyand her certainty. He remembered his mother's warningthat Anna didn't seem a woman to be easily touched. Indeed. He'd tried and failed. Nor, after her firm denial, did he feel free to pursue her further. He would honor her feelings by letting it drop. He was too low to even think of a happier outcome farther down the road.
After he left Anna sat on the porch. A cooking cup of tea was in her hand. She realized she'd be lucky to sleep even with the help of her own herbal concoction.
She had thought, for a while, that Jarrod's interest in her was perhaps warmer than friendship. She was flattered. She'd spent all of her youth in school; she had never enjoyed the adolescent games of flirtation and courtship. To her knowledge she had never stirred such feelings in a man before.
And in such a man! She had spoken honestly; she did think Jarrod one of the very finest men of her acquaintance. In determination and moral courage he reminded her of her father. And she was, education and all, womanly enough and worldly enough to realize he was a fine marital prize.
Yet she had never considered accepting, or even prolonging, his proposal. Every scenario she had imagined had ended just this way: with a refusal. Her certainty had troubled her. How could she not be in love with a man like Jarrod? Intelligent, forward thinking, fair, a man not intimidated by her own drive and determination. She had wondered if she were flawed somehow, or cold.
It was not until tonight, until he'd asked her, that she'd understood the strength and the source of her certainty. Is there anyone else? he'd asked. Thank God her back was turned; he would have seen the color flood her face; perhaps he would have guessed what she herself hadn't known until that moment.
She'd been honest when she said there was no one back East or in London. No; her problem was right here. Even as Jarrod was asking, another face, with its heavy-lidded eyes, its fleeting half-smile, flashed before her. And she'd understood herself with a terrible clarity.
Fool! she told herself harshly. For it was foolish. Whatever intimacy had existed between them had ended with his convalescence. In that last month they'd scarcely even spoken; during her long visits he'd made no effort to seek her out. In fact, she thought he avoided her. No doubt he thought her bossy, difficult, intrusive. Unwomanly, even.
Oh, how could she have let this happen? She could find nothing in favor of her feelings. Exceptexcept his strange ability to understand her, to get her to open herself. If Jarrod had strength and determination, his brother certainly had no less.
It was hopelesshopeless. And no doubt she had spoiled the friendship with Jarrod, and, by extension, with the family.
Yet, once lit, there was a tiny flame that would not go out. Once, she remembered, he'd called her beautiful. She same the name once, out loud, just to hear it. It was strangely comforting to realize she was human after all, that her strange and difficult life had not destroyed her capacity to love. Saying the name she felt a new flush come over her. How hard it would be to hide. How wonderful it felt.
With December came surprising cold; it was as cold as Anna remembered Boston. The cold had the perverse effect of tamping down disease. Through the early days of December she saw a steady stream of sore throats and runny noses, even a case or two of pneumonia. But no scarlet fever, no measles. Chicken pox ran through the new crop of schoolchildren, but it was quickly spent and caused no serious harm, though her stock of calamine lotion disappeared.
At the ranch life went on. Jarrod stayed away, caught up in his trial. This was not surprising, and yet Victoria was surprised. She was worried enough to go to San Francisco herself, under the guise of Christmas shopping, just to see how he was.
Victoria got into San Francisco in time to see the afternoon court session. However, the Coastal & Western attorney examined one witness most of the afternoon; Jarrod had nothing to do but object a few times. If he were troubled it didn't show in his courtroom behavior.
The courtroom was surprisingly full for so technical a case. As Victoria went forward to meet Jarrod, a striking young woman in dark green smiled and gave a small bow in her direction. "Mrs. Barkley, good afternoon," the young woman said and moved away.
Victoria was too surprised to respond. When she reached Jarrod, she asked, "Isn't that Hester Converse, in the dark green?"
"Oh, yes. Hester's been a devoted follower of the case."
"Have you spoken with her?"
"We see each other now and again at social functions. She's here primarily to annoy her father, who's a Coastal & Western director."
"I'm surprised. I didn't realize you knew Hester that well."
"I doubt anyone really knows Hester well, except perhaps Hester. But I must admit I like her better than I did. She's quite the wrong woman for Nick.
But there's no harm or meanness to her."
"I've been accustomed to thinking of her as a hardened flirt."
"Most unfair. She is popular, and she does enjoy it. Or did. But hardened is too hard a word. There's more goodness to Hester than she likes to let show."
"Still, she caused a great deal of trouble."
"But it's long since over. I know Nick certainly doesn't bear Heath any grudge. It's the sort of thing one does get over. So, Mother dear, what brings you to the city?"
"No, I meant what really brings you. Checking up on me?"
"A little. It's a hard habit to break. Is the trial not going well?"
"The trial is going fine. Let's go back to my office for a drink before I take you to supper. It's quieter there."
Jarrod sent his secretary home and poured two sherries. "I won't beat around the bush with you. Your motherly senses are spot on. Before I left I had a talk with Anna. It wasn't a formal proposalbut her position was quite clear. She does not foresee any possibility of a closer relation between us than friendship."
"Oh, Jarrod, I am sorry."
"You were right, it seems."
"That's small consolation."
"But I gathered you never really approved of the match."
"I wouldn't say I disapproved. I think you know how well I like Anna. She's a tremendous young woman. You were right to have persuaded her to stay. But I'll be honest. Yes, I always had doubts. Jarrod, do you think you and Anna could ever have accommodated yourselves, each to the other? Your work is taking you away more and more. Anna's is keeping her more firmly in Stockton."
"Stockton's not the only town where she could practice. But I wondered too. She seems very little interested in San Francisco or any of the things it has to offer. But perhaps it was just my company she wished to avoid."
"I don't think it's you. She seems very happy in Stockton, as if this were the life she's really suited to. And she's won people over more quickly than I thought she could."
"True." Jarrod smiled ruefully. "I supposed when something seems too good to be trueit is. I must admit I'm breaking a confidence to tell you this. I'll trust you not to mention it to anyone elseeven Anna."
"If you wish."
"I do. And, Mother, I know how fond you and Audra are of her. And how she depends on you for what little diversion she allows herself. I hope this won't
affect your friendship with her."
"Of course not. I may not understand her feelings, but I do respect her standing by them. Accepting you would have been the easier thing for her to do."
"That's a mother, loyal to the last. I know I should have kept it to myself, but it's eased my mind to talk to you."
"And she gave you no hope at all?"
"None. She seems quite certain of the limits to her feelings for me. Damned certain. Oh, the trial's kept me busy, but it's mainly to avoid Anna that I've
kept away. I figured the sting would be easier by Christmas."
"But certainly you'll be home for that."
"Certainly. And I'll be on my best behavior by then. So of course Anna must be included."
Victoria sighed. "I do hate to see you disappointed, Jarrod. But perhaps this is all for the best."
Victoria kept her promise to Jarrod. In truth, she found his revelation had made little difference to her own feelings for Anna. Much as she liked the woman, Victoria had never truly counted on her as a daughter. And Audra was aware of no reason to disturb her friendship with Anna. So the same friendly pattern was kept up between the houses.
Victoria was in fact on the verge of going to see Anna one morning when it began to rain again. The weather had turned rainy since her return from San Francisco. She had a basket of eggs for Anna, whose hens had gone broody and stopped laying. No wonder. This cold rain was enough to dispirit even chickens.
"You look disappointed," Heath said as he came into the kitchen.
"I am. I was going into Stockton to drop these off at Anna's. But I can't fancy a ride, or even a drive, in this rain."
"I'll do it for you," he said quickly. "I've got to go into town anyway."
"Really?" she asked, surprised. "For what?"
To that he had no ready answer. He colored and looked away. Her recent conversation with Jarrod was still much in her mind; she quickly saw that Heath was suffering from the same affliction. "Oh, Heath..."
"I know," he said quickly. "I know what you're thinking. Mother, I know she's not for me. It doesn't grieve me. Maybe somedaysomeday when she settles with someone else, that'll pain me. But for nowwell, it's what I feel."
Good heavens. Anna Carroll in her dowdy work clothes was more dangerous than Hester Converse in all her finery. "Do you have any idea that she returns your feelings?"
"No, no, none at all. I'm just a tiresome cowboy to her. I never thought..."
He didn't finish his thought, though they both knew what he meant. Victoria realized, again, how powerfully he'd been hurt by Maria Montera. He'd learned not to hope; he'd learned not to think himself worthy. And perhaps in this case Anna was not the right sort of womanbut it was not a question of worth. Even Anna wouldn't see it that way.
Victoria had known, though it had never been discussed, how long Heath had brooded over that girl. Years. Now this, which would be another disappointment, and perhaps more years wasted. Quietly, she said, "Heath, I'm sorry."
"Don't be." He fiddled with a cuff, as he often did when nervous or embarrassed. "I though I'd die out on the North Road. Lucky I didn't. Nownow I'm just gonna take what happiness there is and not question so much. A little's better'n none."
"You deserve more than a little, Heath."
"I got more," he said simply.
Wordlessly she handed him the basket of eggs. He kissed her on the cheek and went for his poncho.
He passed Nick in the hallway. "You going out in this?" Nick asked.
"Errand of mercy," Heath said.
Nick was still shaking his head when he came into the kitchen. "He's addled," he said to his mother.
"There's a lot of it in this family," she said sadly.
Anna's door was opened by her Chinese girl. Heath tried to hand her the basket, but the girl shook her head and pointed toward the surgery, whose door was half open. Then she pointed to one of the parlor chairs and disappeared. Heath gave up and sat down.
He could hear Anna's voice in the surgery. "But he's got to eat his greens, Mrs. Smith. Else his teeth will get loose and fall out."
"I kin get false teeth," a boy's voice said.
"You'll find them expensive and uncomfortable. It's easier to eat your spinach, Jackie. Fruits, too, if you can get them, Mrs. Smith.
Apples and oranges are especially good, though I know oranges are hard to find right now."
"I like potatoes," the boy said.
"That's fine, but potatoes don't count."
"I bin givin him this," a woman's voice said.
"Oh, this is no good, Mrs. Smith. These tonics and patent medicines are just a little alcohol with some flavoring. You might as well give him a nip of whiskey for all the help it'll be."
The door to the surgery opened; Anna shooed out her recalcitrant patient and his mother. She turned to Heath with a smile of real pleasure. "Heath! How nice to see you. But surely you didn't come in this weather!"
"I drove in. Hardly wet at all."
"Just fine. Mother wanted to make sure you got these."
"How good of her to remember. My hens haven't been laying and I don't know what to do about it."
"Shut up the rooster for a week away from the hens."
"But why would that work?"
"Don't know. But it does."
"You Barkleys are all fonts of useful knowledge. I already know far more about hens than I really want to. But I guess that's the price of liking eggs."
"Well, I should be going."
"Nonsense. Let me at least give you some coffee to warm you up before you go."
They went into the kitchen. The Chinese girl had disappeared. There was a steady drip from a damp spot in the ceiling. "That's some leak you got," Heath said.
"It's not even the worst one. Come in here."
In her bedroom there was an even larger stain with a nearly full bucket under it. She seemed unembarrassed by having him in her room.
He looked around with interest. The room was neat but warm, with a small mug of flowers on the night stand. There was a motley collection of paintings, some large, some small, all portraits, on one wall. "These all your folks?"
"Oh, yes. Of various degrees, of course. For example, that's my great-uncleor great-great, I forget which. But he was a bishop. This one is a grandfather many times removed. He was the first in the family to come to America. Isn't it a lovely painting? Imagine wearing all that lace every day! And that watercolor there, that's my mother."
"You look like her."
"Thank you, but I doubt she'd appreciate that. She was a redhead and quite a beauty. This is my brother Charles when he was just twelve. But a good likeness. And this is my father. I kept most of them because he had all of them in his study. He was especially fond of that one of my mother. He kept it over his desk."
"None of you?"
She smiled. "I'm not likely to forget what I looked like. But that little one therethat was taken on my tenth birthday. I insisted on having the pony in the picture. Of course he wouldn't stand still long enough. It might be an elephant."
"Don't you have a home back east?"
"The house is still standing. The property's leased out to a farmer. No point in letting the land go to seed. But I have no desire to go back to the house ever again. It would be unspeakably empty. But I keep some of the family things with me."
"How long's it been leakin like that?"
"It's always leaked a little. But with all the rain the last week it's gotten out of hand. The kitchen just started today."
"You shoulda told me sooner. It's probably nothin serious. You got a hammer?"
"Surely you jest. I have no idea. There's a sort of storeroom off of the kitchen. Perhaps there's one there?"
"How'd you hang your pictures without a hammer?"
"I used a boot."
Shaking his head, smiling to himself, he found a hammer and a few planks of wood in the storeroom and went out onto the porch.
"Good heavens. You're not going out on the roof now!"
"Won't take but a minute. This ain't a real fix but it should help. Keep that ceiling from coming down on your head tonight."
Up on the roof it was easy to find the leaking areas, but he had to move carefully; it felt like some of the boards underneath were rotten.
The nails sunk in as if the wood were wet paper. When he came down he was well-soaked, though he'd only been out a few minutes.
Back in the kitchen Anna had built up the fire, pout on fresh water for coffee, and laid out a dry shirt. "You've come to the one maiden lady's house where you can actually get a change of clothes. I'd lend you a pair of britches but I doubt they'd fit. That shirt should be fine. Oh, don't fuss at me. I can't have you catching pneumonia over this."
He laid his wet shirt and vest over a chair near the fire. The shirt she'd put out for him was fresh from the laundry.
Anna was at the stove, cracking eggs into a large bowl. "For a man who claims to be a simple cowboy, you've got a few marks on you.
Were you in the War?"
"Yes. But I never got so much as a scratch in battle. Most of the damage was done more recent. This one's from when I was guardin an empty town, from a looter. This oneI don't know who he was. Think he'd robbed a payroll. Thisfrom a crazy neighbor."
"I hope the neighbor's not on the loose."
"No. Mother had to shoot him. He tried to kill Audra."
"And your back?"
"From a range war. Old desperado used carpet tacks and nails instead of buckshot. Cheaper."
"What happened to him?"
"He lived to meddle in quite a few other local wars. But he tried to muddle in one around here and got himself killed."
"My God. This is a violent country."
"It's a hard country. There ain't always enough law to go around. And this you know about."
"I still consider that some of my finest handiwork. But I guess I'm wrong. If you'd already survived all thatyou must have the constitution of a ox. I don't suppose I made much difference."
"I wouldn't agree. From the time it hit me I knew it was worse than anything else. I didn't think I'd live long enough to get home. Never thought that before." Seeing the steaming platter of eggs, he said, "Boy howdy, I hope you ain't expectin me to eat all that. You musta used every egg I brought."
"No, only about half. Besides, I'm going to eat some too, and you've seen I have a most unladylike appetite. Have a biscuit. I'm not much of a cook, but like every good Southern girl I can make a mighty fine biscuit."
The shirt was snug through the shoulders, but it would do. He tucked into the meal. The biscuits were good, as was the coffee. "Glad to see you don't skimp on the bean."
"I figure you can always lighten it if it's too strong, but you can't make it stronger if it's weak."
"Mama always made it weak, tryin to stretch it. That was about the only thing I liked about the Army. They were generous with the coffee ration."
"Where were you?"
"Tennessee, mainly. From Chickamauga to Nashville."
She frowned. "But you were so young..."
"Sixteen. Got taken prisoner at Nashville." He smiled grimly. "Just about the biggest Union victory in Tennessee ever, and I got taken."
"Not tonot to Andersonville."
"No. Carterson, in Texas. Don't know why. Andersonville was a lot closer. Somehow they managed to march us clear past half the Union army. I was there for five months. More'n half the men with me died there."
"My God. I'm sorry."
"Ain't your fault. I reckon most Southerns wouldn't have held with the way that place was run."
She shook her head slowly. "We weren't Southern sympathizers. Oh, my brother was, along with half my cousins. He was with Lee up til Spottsyvlania, where he died. But my father was loyal. He was a doctor with the Army of the Potomac. You seeeven in the South we were strange. Catholics. Oh, some had slaves. We had. But my grandfather didn't really hold with it, and my father freed those his father hadn't. Neither of them had the heart for it."
She was turned to the fire, but her eyes were downcast. He could see only her profile. "You did have a bad war."
"Didn't we all? We didn't know for sure about my brother until after the war. My father went to Virginia to find him, but it was impossible.
He didn't live a year after that."
"You were on your own then?"
"Yes, pretty much. Father had already done everything he could to make things easier for meset aside money for school, gotten some of his classmates to look out for me. By the time he'd died I'd already been gone so longI'd gone away to boarding school when I was twelve, right after the war started. One of the cousins would have taken me in. But they didn't approve of my being a doctor. It was easier on my own."
"Couldn't have been easy any way."
"No...It's funny. Some people have their lives handed to them, never have to think. Others, we have to make our own way, fight for a place. I guess you know what I'm trying to say."
"Reckon I do. I reckon I also know it's a lot harder if you're totin the load all alone."
"Aren't you angry?" she asked suddenly."
He wasn't surprised. "I was. About almost everything. It's wastin, but it's hard to stop. I've only let go of it little by little."
"Why didn't your father help out?"
"Mama never told him. Butbut I wonder sometimes. If he loved her, whyn't he ever just try once to see her? Maybe things would have been different." His face got harder. "Course, may be they wouldn't. Don't know what he would have done, really. I think Mama never told him because she was afraidafraid he'd turn on her, I guess, deny her. She had a hard lifea hard life for someone who did nothing worse than love someone. That part I can't quite forgive."
"Yet you seem quite close to Victoria."
"She's been awful good to me. I don't think one in a thousand has her heart. I don't think I could do what she's done." He looked at her squarely. "Are you angry?"
"Yes, sometimes. When I first came herewell, you didn't see it, but I had a terrible chip on my shoulder. I still get too riled if I'm challenged. It's a waste when you feel you have to prove yourself everyday, all over again. It's getting a little easier. But I still get terribly frustrated when I see waste or foolishness. Or at how little I can really do sometimes. I'm about as well-trained as any doctor anywhere. And that's the truth, not a boast. But there's so much I can't help. That keeps me up at night."
"But that's life."
"But it shouldn't be. Why do we live in a world where a third of all babies born will die before they're old enough for school? Why do we live in a world where a simple cut can turn gangrenous and kill? Why are we so ignorant?"
She toyed with her coffee cup. "But that's not the whole story. Oh, my limitations drive me crazy sometimes. But that's not what really makes me angry. Heath, when I was a childwell, I had everything. Ponies. Dogs. In the summer we'd have wonderful picnics on the bay, and my brother and I would put out little pots to catch crabs. When it got really hot we'd go to the mountains in western Virginia, where Mother could take the water at the Springs." She shook her head. "I'm saying it wrong. I'm talking about thingsand it's not the things I miss. Father left me well provided for; if it was just things, I could have the things. It'sthem. They're all gone and I don't know why. And after all this time I still haven't really accepted it. That's what makes me angryand I don't know how to make it stop."
It was far more than she'd intended to say. Embarrassed, she busied herself with clearing away the plates, refilling the coffee pot.
"Anna." He said her name so rarely that it made her look up. Stockton was full of the harsh accents of New England and the Midwest. It was rare for her to hear her name in a familiar drawl. "I wish I could say somethin smart or wonderful that would make you feel better. I can't. All I can tell you is time does make things better. The empty placesthey don't really get filled. But there's other things that come along. Makes the empty places easier to bear."
"Is that your prescription, doctor?" she said with a forced brightness.
"It's the best I got, I reckon. I seem to remember you preachin patience pretty regular."
That made her smile, but, afraid of betraying her feelings, she quickly looked away into the fire. He thought it was the warmth of the kitchen fire that made her cheeks pink. She was naturally pale; the color was rare and becoming to her. He would have liked to touch her, to lay her head on his shoulder and feel some of her sadness ease away. He'd felt, almost from the beginning, that there was a strange closeness, a similarity to them, as if they spoke a language few understood. For him that sense had been the gateway to love; but he thought sometimes he made her uncomfortable, unhappy, even.
So he did not move, and they sat for a time, each thinking of the other, but trapped in their own shyness and uncertainty. And yet there was a restfulness to their quiet. In the cramped hominess of her kitchen there seemed no need for more talk. He could have watched the fire throw shadows across her cheek forever.
But at last he said, "Well, I reckon I spoiled my appetite for supper. Guess I'm dry enough to go get wet again."
"Leave your shirt. It's still pretty damp."
"Soon as the rain stops I'll come by and fix up that roof. If that wet spot in your bedroom gets any bigger don't sleep there. It might come down."
"That's a charming thought."
"If it's leaked so long the beams might be rotten. And the plaster, too. I'll look after the roof's been taken care of."
"Can you do all that? I hate to put you to any trouble."
"Sure. It's a slow time anyway. And I'll get a chance to show you some of my best handiwork. Don't float away, you hear?"
"I'll try not to. Heath, I'm so glad you came by. Thank you." She watched him drive away until he went around a bend and could be seen no more. She went back into the kitchen, humming to herself. Her rational mind was scolding; but her heart was as light as a feather.
With a schoolgirl possessiveness she decided he wouldn't get the shirt back; she'd say she'd sent it to the laundry, from whence it would
never return. The vest was another matter; that she'd have to return. But for now she stroked the soft suede, smiling. It had a faint scent of tobacco and horses to it, scents familiar to her from childhood.
She told herself it was silly to be so happy over so little; but she was.
The End of Part 4