“No, not that poem. Not tonight.”
Ben’s hand froze on the page, eyes flickering with a brittle hurt.
She sat straight with clenched hands, turning away from Ben’s face to stare into the fireplace in their cramped kitchen. It was too warm for a fire but was there anything bleaker than an empty hearth, especially one that held memories of a strong hand turning a hen above the flames for supper…
Her eyes went back to Ben as he closed the book, not with a bang as she would have. Even so, the tiny puff of pages caused speckles of dust to drift in the air, snared in a ray of fading sunlight. “It’s always been one of your favourites.” Ben’s voice was gentle—as always. Her toes curled.
“It is.” It was. “I just don’t feel like hearing it tonight, that’s all.”
Or any other night… or day… or year. Not when she remembered how He’d read it to her; unpolished, halting, struggling with the unfamiliarity of the words. Yet it was his voice that calmed her when Ben disappeared. And she’d needed that. But oh, God, she never realized in turning to him she’d be left to deal with so many other thoughts she had no right to be thinking.
Ben nodded, then stacked the books on the table, cupping the sides with his hands to make them even, shifting them a fraction, then starting the whole process over again. And again.
She should feel remorse for the hurt she’d caused Ben. She wanted to.
If her father had been here he would have tweaked her chin. “Ye can be hard as flint, Catha me’girl, for all your grand ways and pretty hair.”
She supposed the smile she mustered up was little more than a smudge. “I think I’ll step outside for a breath of air.” She took her handkerchief from the pocket in her skirt and pressed it first to her temple, then her forehead. “It’s so dreadfully hot out here this time of year.”
“I’ll come with you…if you like?”
“No.” She lifted her chin, tried to look brighter. “Besides, you’ve got your preparations for tomorrow.”
“They can wait.” He smiled, but his eyes asked if wrongs could ever be righted. She didn’t know. She, who was always so sure, didn’t know anything anymore.
Her petticoats felt as if they were stuck to her legs. She should adapt and follow western ways and wear fewer layers, yet here she was, still sweltering after all these weeks. “I won’t be long.”
Once outside she closed the door behind her and leaned back.
Who would have thought she’d ever be like that ‘Mad-aam Blaize’ – as He called her?
Good people all with one accord
Lament for Catha Cameron
The crickets were in full song. Two bugs flew into her face. She shooed them away then started walking across the uneven dirt that masqueraded as a playground.
Over in Main Street a man’s voice rose above the rattle of a wagon passing nearby. He sounded peeved, just as her father had sounded when she tried his patience.
“Catha, ye’ll not run through the house. Will ye do up the buttons on your boots, lassie. Ye’ll no come to church without a hat to cover that mess of curls.”
He’d always loved the Ancient Greeks. Many-a-time he’d look at her over the top of his spectacles, cradling the book in his hands before speaking his wisdom. “Thucydides said it, my lass. Self-control is the chief element in self-respect, and self –respect is the chief element in courage.”
Father had been a patient teacher. He’d taught her self-control. She’d learned to put it on every morning in Boston when she curled and pinned her hair and smoothed down her skirts. She clung to it with clasped hands and nods of approval when a student stumbled over the exact same word for the seventh day in a row.
Out here everything was so different. Each morning she cooked Ben his breakfast then waved him goodbye as he walked to the schoolhouse. She’d take up her duster and rob the mice of a few random crumbs, then devote herself to a day of quilting bees and baking and thoughts and feelings that had no business either in her head or her heart.
The truth of the matter was—she didn’t belong.
And the women in town made that more than clear.
Well, most of them.
She’d rather face an entire room full of Turk Coddles than brave the stuffy room behind the church where the women met, their conversation invariably punctuated with a loud silence when she walked in the door. This morning it had been even more awful; she was sure she’d heard her name mentioned as she went to open the door, then a movement at the window caught her eye and a loud shushing came from someone in the room.
Her hand froze on the knob, leaving her staring at the chipped red paint while a thousand emotions threatened to crush her into the dirt.
She should run away. All the way back to Boston. She should tell them all what she really thought of them. She should take the cake she held in her hands and throw it in their pious faces.
Hadn’t she told him they’d talk? That’s what people in small towns always do.
Why did they ever leave Boston? This wasn’t how their life was meant to be.
But she was her father’s daughter, wasn’t she—so she took a deep breath, turned the knob and walked inside smiling as if it was the best morning of her life. “Good morning, ladies.”
Eight faces turned her way. Some haughty, some smiling, some disinterested and one face looked openly hostile. “Morning Mrs Cameron.”
“Oh my, you’ve all been so busy this morning.”
Eight women could fit with reasonable comfort at the quilting frame, which left Catha having to be squeezed in at an end and spend most of her time avoiding poking someone in the eye with her elbows. The other women were already busy with their needles and threads—and tongues no doubt. Apparently they’d met earlier than their usual time without telling her. Such a stupid slight to her but why did it sting her to the core? For a moment she had a ridiculous urge to burst into tears.
“And what’s that you have in your hands, my dear?” Ma Thompson was probably near eighty, her eyesight almost gone, yet could sew blindfolded if she had to and her stitches would be the neatest of anyone’s.
The kindness in the old woman’s tone made Catha want to cry all the more. Now she was really being ridiculous.
“Boston Cream Pie, ma’am.” Her third attempt finally triumphant after the first two refused to rise. She lifted the checked cloth to show them. At least her hand wasn’t shaking.
Young Becky Fellows stood up to get a better look. “Ooh, you did a bang-up job, Missus Cameron. It looks awful good.” She put a hand to her stomach and blushed. “And this one here’ll probably like it, too.”
Poor Becky. Catha worried about her. She was still such a child, stick thin with straw-coloured hair that hung in limp strands.
Mrs Coddle took one look at it and sniffed. “Never eat fancy foods. They give me indigestion.”
And at her words, the other four women who’d been gazing at her pie with anticipation sank back into their seats and gave Catha their usual stony smiles.
Catha kept a smile pinned to her lips. “Oh, what a shame. Perhaps you could take a piece home to Mr Coddle?”
“Nope, he ain’t got no time for supping on cake neither. It’s harvest time.”
Mrs Wilson nodded her head but her look was kindly. “It’s true Mrs Cameron. The men are all busy this time of year.”
And like birds perched on a bough, six heads nodded in unison.
Ma Thompson gave Mrs Coddle a poke in the ribs. “My pa was dyspeptic. Used to make him belch somethin’ awful. We all thanked the Lord when the grippe finally took him.”
Mrs Coddle wagged a finger at her. “Your ma should have had him take a teaspoon of baking soda in a glass of water.”
Ma Thompson hooted with laughter at that. “My pa wouldn’t get in a tub of water to wash, let alone swallow it. Course if it was mixed with spirits he’d make an exception.” She winked at Catha.
Becky giggled and Catha suspected one or two women might be smirking but their heads were bowed and she couldn’t be sure. “Well, I’ll just set it down on the table. I’ve got some plates and forks here in my basket. If anyone would like to try some, they’re more than welcome.”
The morning went by and her pie, the one she’d been up most of the night cooking, sat untouched on the table. She was beginning to have a lot of empathy for the two deflated efforts that sat on her kitchen table at home.
“Missus Cameron, might I have a piece of your pie, ma’am.”
It was Becky and Catha could have hugged her. “Of course you may.”
“Could you cut two please, ma’am. Grandma Thompson would like some too.”
Well, at least two women enjoyed it. Maybe she should have tried something less fussy? A plain apple pie perhaps? The thing was, her apple pie would never compare to the ones these women cooked.
Ben had somehow fought and found his place in this town but she was still an alien. How many years would it take for her hands to be wrinkled and callused and her dress out of fashion and adorned, not with lace, but a mud-stained hem? If she knew a shop where she could buy one she’d do it then and there.
She saw the way they looked at her hair and white hands. If they only knew how she envied their even sewing and familiar chatter as they babbled about little Charlie’s first tooth or Mrs Wilson’s ailing mother.
She tried to listen and take note of which woman married which man and how many children each family had and who was betrothed or widowed and a hundred other things the women chatted about—but her brain was sorely addled. Every time she tried to thread a needle she got lost in that time again. She heard the velvet drawl; saw the sinews in his hands, that dimple in his smile; still marvelled at a conviction that was willing to oppose any threat, just because it was right and had to be done.
He was so very different.
No, it wasn’t just him—everything was different out here: the people, their rules, their prejudices, the way they talked and dressed and ate and lived and she’d tried so hard to fit in. She really had.
She strove the neighbourhood to please
With manners wondrous winning;
And never follow'd wicked ways--
Unless when she was sinning.
Unless when she was sinning…
It turned out there were ways to sin she’d never known before she came to this town.
Every so often Annabelle would rush up to her after school and put a hand in hers and say, “I wonder what Johnny’s doing,” and sigh the longest sigh.
She’d caught herself sighing as well. But she had to forget that time. She should put it right out of her mind.
He’d done something to her, from the moment he stepped out in front of the horses as they careened down the street. She didn’t know how and she certainly never meant it to happen. But now, everything felt disjointed, like she was out of place. She used to know who she was, exactly what she wanted. What Ben and her both wanted. What was it she’d told Johnny?
We always knew we needed a special kind of fulfilment. Now it all seems so empty. It isn’t easy trying to live with emptiness.
When Ben returned the void should have been filled. At first it seemed easy to forgive Ben for deceiving her. She was so thankful to see him alive. When Johnny left she kept herself busy with tending to Ben’s hurts and taking the class until Ben was well enough. Things were beginning to feel normal again— until Ben tried to hold her. That was the first time the feelings for him hadn’t come. Only it was worse than that. She didn’t even dare put a name to the sensation that almost made her shudder as he reached for her.
And Ben was so desperate for a family. “Let’s have four or five or six?”
He hadn’t pressed her since that one night they’d lain together. He hadn’t said anything—and neither did she—but that was the start of this twisting inside her that wouldn’t let up.
Her feet stopped and she found herself at the door to the school house. The old one. The townspeople had given them a new building, especially built as a school with proper desks and shelves. Murdoch Lancer had written to say he and Johnny would be there for the opening. Her hand went to her chest even now as she remembered reading his letter. She’d been so scared. She didn’t think she could look at him as he came in behind his father, let alone talk to him. Not without him seeing what was in her eyes. What if he saw she was miserable? Would he know that things weren’t right? Or maybe he’d see nothing at all…
But all her fears had come to nought. There was trouble at the ranch and they hadn’t come.
And she’d wanted to cry—she who never cried—because she had trouble here as well. Heart trouble. She didn’t know how or why but a piece of it had slipped away and she wasn’t sure it was coming back. It rode out on a cream horse, wrapped around a gold star.
“Catha? Catha, are you coming in now?” Ben’s voice. Always so gentle. Then why did she want to slap him or yell at him or say a hundred things she’d only regret?
Her finger traced the name on the old board. It had only been three months but dust blew onto everything out here. It got in her hair and on her washing and in her eyes.
She hadn’t been able to rub the name off. At first it was the children who insisted it stayed. At least once a week she came out here and tried but she just couldn’t pick up the rag and wipe it clean. It was silly, she knew. Even dangerous. But when she stood here and looked at the letters, he seemed so near. So real.
Who was it who said, ‘You can’t shut out the past’?
Dear Lord it hurt so much to think of that time when Johnny had been her saviour, so why did she cling to it so? What was happening to her?
Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of our lives.
She covered her mouth with her hand, then placed her other hand over that one and still the sobs came. She’d been so perfect—life for her and Ben had been so perfect. She’d thought Ben could do no wrong; that together they’d change the world. Then how was it they’d crumbled at the very first assault?
No, she crumbled.
She tried so hard to be strong. She told Johnny to leave, that it wasn’t right.
“What difference does it make? None of it’s true.”
“No, none of it’s true.”
And that was the worst blow of all; Johnny, the one who’d been brought up in this so-called uncivilized West, he was the one to show her the true meaning of honour. All she’d seen in his eyes was confusion and hurt when she told him to go. What a shrew she must have seemed.
She hadn’t heard the door open—and there he stood.
It’s the man who sows the seed and tills the soil who deserves the harvest.
And Ben did deserve the harvest. He wooed her with flowers and poetry but it was his dream of travelling west with a suitcase of primers that really won her heart. And he was a good man.
And what did that make her?
She didn’t try to hide her tears. She simply couldn’t.
“Catha?” He took a step forward, then stopped. “Catha, I’m so sorry.” His face crumpled. “I never thought about what I was doing to you. If I’d known…”
She ran to him and let Ben take her in his arms and he held her with a fierceness she’d never felt before.
They didn’t speak—no endless analysis and wondering what was right. He simply wrapped his arms about her and waited for her sobs to stop.
She cried it all out. At least she tried to. As hard as it was, she knew that was right. She couldn’t go on like this.
After a while, Ben spoke. “I was reading Emerson after you came out here.
day and be done with it.
You have done what you could.
Some blunders and absurdities, no doubt crept in.
Forget them as soon as you can, tomorrow is a new day
She’d never heard Ben quote those words quite as he did now. She looked up at him. How was it she hadn’t noticed that new set to his shoulders?
“Catha, I made some blunders.”
She almost laughed through her tears. “That’s something of an understatement Ben Cameron.”
“I still can’t believe I let you down like that. I just kept thinking that with Johnny Lancer here, he’d be here to protect you and somehow things would work out right because he knew how to deal with these people.”
Ben took out his handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. And all the while she prayed silently that the right feelings would come, and the right words, and tried to push down that part of her that wanted to run away. Eventually she snatched the handkerchief from him and blew her nose, then wiped at it and wiped her eyes again, then took a few steps back. Ben was watching her.
She took a breath and lifted her chin. “I have another wise saying for you, one that you’ll need to learn if you want to impress Turk Coddle.”
Ben looked unsure, like you do when you first meet someone and their ways are unfamiliar to you, but he smiled. “I can always do with one of those.”
“I’ve learned a person needs to ‘take up the lines.’ If you get thrown off a bronc or knocked down in your first fight then you have to get up and go again.”
Ben was chuckling now. “I can’t imagine you in a fistfight.”
She looked in his eyes and took a deep breath. “We... I... got thrown—quite badly as it turns out—but I want you to know I’ve taken hold of the reins again.” She kissed him, lips barely touching lips. And if it wasn’t as sweet as it once was, she knew in time, that it would be again.
It had to be.
After all, God-willing, they had a lot of tomorrows to look forward to together.
Then, feeling very much like she was still on that out-of-control buggy, she took a deep breath and took hold of one of Ben’s lapels. “Do you think you’d like a boy or a girl when we have our first child?”
Ben took a step back then took hold of her shoulders. “Catha, I won’t press you to have a child until you’re sure. It has to be right for both of us.”
“I know. But I have to find more to do than sweeping and quilting and I’m not very good at either.”
Hope bubbled in Ben’s eyes. “If you’re sure.”
Dear God, of course she wasn’t sure. But that horse was standing in front of her and tossing his mane with a mocking air. So she kissed Ben. It wasn’t perfect perhaps, but at least the familiarity felt right.
They stared into each other’s eyes, then Ben’s gaze flickered to the blackboard. “If it’s a boy, I think we should call him Johnny, after the man who taught me what it was to be…”
She put a finger to his lips. “No, if it’s a boy we’ll name him after your father—the man who gave you the dream that brought us both here.”
“Catha, I’ll never be my father.”
“No, Ben Cameron, you’re not, but you’re still a man of many talents.”
“Will you come inside now?”
She squeezed his hand. “Not yet. In a little while.”
Ben looked a little worse for wear, like he did after the fight with Coddle. Perhaps they both looked like that. It’s painful to be thrown from a horse.
“I like to come out here and think, too.” He looked around as if he was still seeing the shattered schoolroom after the fight. “It reminds me that courage can’t be found in a book. You have to find it inside yourself. You showed me that Catha, when you didn’t give in to Coddle and kept the school going. I can never thank you enough for that.”
Her eyes went to the name on the blackboard.
Ben’s eyes followed. “To think I had to come all the way out here to find out how to be a man. We can learn so much from these people.”
Once Ben had left, she walked over to the board.
The cream horse was never coming back. And that was how it should be. And if she told herself that often enough it would surely be true.
“I’m sorry, Mrs Cameron. I hope I’m not worrying you none, but your husband told me I could find you in here.”
“Becky.” She was so surprised to see her that her voice rose a notch.
“I can go and come back another time if you like.” The poor girl looked quite wretched as she twisted the edges of the apron that covered her swelling belly. “I know it’s awful late and all.”
“Don’t be silly, Of course it’s all right. You’re one of our first visitors. Why don’t we go into the house and I’ll make us some tea.”
Becky shook her head. “If you don’t mind ma’am, I’ve only got a few minutes. My Harry worries something fierce if I’m out at night.”
“Is there something I can do for you?”
Becky could barely lift her eyes from the floor. “It’s about the quilting bee, ma’am.”
“Oh.” Catha clasped her hands. So that was it. Mrs Coddle had finally got her way no doubt and the women had sent Becky here to do their dirty work for them. They didn’t want her in this town and they didn’t want her at their quilting bee and they…
“You see ma’am, we know you ain’t too good with a needle…”
Well, all this was to be expected she supposed. And she shouldn’t let this hurt get to her. It was just a silly quilting bee after all. What did it matter? She should be glad to be out of it.
“So the ladies figured you probably wasn’t getting much enjoyment out of the morning.”
Bless the child, she certainly had that right. And she looked so miserable that Catha couldn’t bring herself to force the girl to speak further. “Becky, it’s okay. I can always find something else to do.”
Becky began to look hopeful. “You understand then? I’m not real good at speaking but Mrs Coddle said I should come ‘cause you’ve taken a liking to me.” She blushed as she said that and offered Catha a shy smile.
Catha did her best to return the smile. “I do like you Becky. I like you a lot. I hope we can always be friends.”
“You see we don’t want to bother you none but seeing as you’re with us for the quilting then I…we that is…well, we wondered if you’d be willing to teach us our letters, just like you taught the children.”
“None of us have much book learning and,” she patted her stomach, “I don’t aim for this one to have a ma that can’t read. Iffen you’d be so good as to teach us ma’am, we’d all be real grateful.”
Catha put a hand to her forehead. “And none of you can read?”
“Grandma Thompson can read some but the rest of us never found the time for book-learning. But Mrs Coddle said we’d all look like fools if our children are reading books and all we can do is look at the pictures.”
“Oh Becky.” Catha had to take a deep breath. She felt almost dizzy. “Of course I’ll teach you all to read. I’d be honoured.”
Becky’s mouth fell open, like a girl whose birthday wish is granted the moment she thought it. “Oh thank you, Missus Cameron. Thank you,” she whispered, with wide eyes. Then she clapped a hand to her head. “I forgot to say that we aim to pay you. When we talked about it this morning, before the quilting bee, Mrs Coddle said I had to be real clear on that point.”
“Gracious, we can come to an arrangement on that score. We’ll talk about it later.”
Becky nodded, staring at Catha like she’d just given Becky the world. Then suddenly, she took Catha’s hands in hers. “I just can’t believe it. To think I’ll be one of them folks that has a row of books on the mantle. Now won’t that be something.”
“It will be indeed.” And Catha laughed. How strange that sounded, like a forgotten memory suddenly brought to mind.
Becky left in a whirlwind of thank-yous leaving Catha standing alone in the middle of the old school room.
She stood there for a long time.
By the time she went inside, night had fallen.
She still wasn’t used to the quiet out West and at night the silence almost echoed in her ears. She heard the squeaks as Ben got into bed, then nothing until an owl hooted outside. She’d seen one the last few nights, sitting on the railing near the old school house. Just sitting there. Waiting.
Catha blew out the lamp, then sat on the settee. The dark was comforting tonight.
She’d been right when she said to Johnny that you can’t shut out the past.
But sometimes you have to try. No matter what, you have to try.
The owl hooted again, no doubt waiting to swoop upon some of the mice that ran around the old school house. Every so often they’d poke their noses out then scuttle across the yard. She was quite sure several families had taken up residence in there by the scratching and squeaks she’d heard over the last few weeks.
Well, the mice were welcome to it. There was nothing in the old school house for her any more.
Not even a name on the blackboard.