Tuesday, May 9, 2017


"The words of a whisperer
are like dainty morsels,
And they go down into the innermost
parts of the body."
Proverbs 18:8

Tom felt the burn.  The town had hosted a festival to celebrate the building of the new courthouse.   It was supposed to be fun.  In fact, he'd twirled a gal or two around the dusty dance floor of the closed off part of Main Street already.  But as he'd walked toward his friend's little sister Adelia where she looked cute sitting on a hay bale, he was trying to get up the nerve to ask her to dance. But then he caught her whispering to her best friend. He'd overheard her say something that got under his skin.  So he started to walk past instead, but turned on his heel getting madder by the minute until he found himself standing before her shaking his finger in her face and growling. 

"Didn't your mama teach you better than that, spreading rumors about people.  I thought better of you, Adelia, but you've turned into a loose-lipped gossip like the rest.  You ought to be ashamed of yourself!  Why Preacher Gunther preached just last Sunday from I Timothy 5 where it spoke against "being idle, and tattlers also and busybodies."

He wondered who had the redder face, him in his anger or her in her embarrassment.  But soon she turned pale, white even except for a small smoldering pink circle of blush left on each cheek.  Before he knew it, the chit stood up nose to nose with him as he bent over glaring at her, and slapped him but good before saying, "That was talking about the younger widows who had begun to wax wanton, and you better not be calling me a wanton woman if you know what's good for you, Tom Fender!" Then she turned and swiftly walked away with her back stiff as a board and her head held high.

He heard a few who dared to laugh, but most just gasped.  Grown men knew better than to mess with Tom Fender.  It only infuriated him more to have been treated this way in public.

His friend Jacob was trying to pull him away while Jolene ran after her friend. The crowd around them had begun whispering. 

"Sheesh, Tom, I can't believe you just did that!"  Jacob said in a low husky voice.

Tom shook him off and said, "I don't like to be the butt of gossiping women, a bunch of molting hens pecking away at a man's good name."  Then he stomped off barreling his way through the gathered crowd to find his horse.  He swung up in the saddle and galloped off towards his ranch in two twists of a cow's tail.

Jacob took off to find where Jolene and Adelia had gone.  He didn't blame them one bit for leaving.  Tom acted meaner than a rattlesnake-bit coyote with rabies frothing at the mouth.  He had no idea what he'd thought he heard that had brought on that ugly scene.

It was as he figured.  The young ladies were at Adelia's house that she had inherited from her granny.  It was a tiny shotgun clapboard squeezed between the doctor's and the mercantile.  He knocked.  It took a minute before Jolene opened and stepped out to speak with him closing the door behind her.  In fact, truth be told, he had a crush on Jolene and was disappointed that she had left the street dance before he got to take a spin with her.  He heard Adelia's sobs through the thin walls. 

"What happened?  What did she say that set Tom off like that?" he asked.

"We have no idea.  She was just telling me that she was worried about her brother Thomas.  She heard that he'd run off and left town without even saying goodbye.  She'd just said, 'Rumor has it...' and that's as far as she got before Tom acted like the hind end of a donkey bucking and kicking at her like that.  Clear as I can figure, he must have a guilty conscience if Tom thought she was talking about him instead of Thomas, her brother.  You know what a mess her brother's turned into since their pa died."

"Shoot!  I'll bet that's what happened."  Jacob said hitting his hat against his legs sending out a puff of dust.

"But it gets worse," Jolene went on.  "What she was trying to tell me was that there were rumors that Thomas had been hanging around The Golden Slipper and had gambled away all their savings, the seed money needed for the new crop.  She heard from Joe Stokes that the bank had sent a notice that it was about to auction off their ranch for back taxes." 

Jacob whistled.  "That's really bad.  I can't believe Tom jumped her at a time like this.  I should rope him, drag him in and let her slap him all she wants."

"She won't get downwind a hundred yards from that skunk after tonight, so there's no use hauling him in.  She has no use for the man."

Jacob slid his hand over his face and looked Jolene square in the eye and said, "You're a good friend, Jolene.  I've a mind to ride out to his ranch and drag ol'Tom across the coals a time or two myself.  Maybe he's cooled down enough by now to see the error of his ways, that ridiculous 
display of pure stupidity in front of the whole town tonight."

"I doubt it.  I think he's more prideful than that and will never back down.  I'd bet you ten dollars, if I had it, that he won't even apologize--not that she wants to hear his voice ever again no matter if he crawled the whole length of Main Street on his knees pleading to high heaven with her to forgive him.  Nope.  It ain't going to happen."

"It's a real shame too.  He was her brother's best friend for a lot of years until Thomas started hanging out with the wrong crowd.  Tom had even let it slip tonight that he thought Adelia had grown up into a right purty gal, and he was thinking about asking her for a dance tonight."

"Truth be told," Jolene stepped closer until Jacob could smell the sarsaparilla on her breath which made him wonder how sweet her lips would taste.  But he chewed his lip instead as Jolene continued whispering, "rumor has it that Adelia's been sweet on Tom since she was knee high to a cow's belly.  Howsomever,  I think that sweet went rancid tonight however."

"Worse than clabbored milk on a hot day in June," Jacob said.

"Worse than lemonade without sugar and ten days old fermented enough to get a mule drunk," Jolene continued while watching Jacob's lips draw closer.

"Sweeter than sarsaparilla..." and he kissed her just brushing her lips to get the taste of her.  They both jumped back.

"Jacob Hendrick, you should be ashamed of yourself kissing me here in front of God and everybody!" she hissed.

"God doesn't mind, does He?" and he kissed her again. 

This time she didn't jump back, that is until Adelia called, "Jolene, are you still here?"

"Coming," she called while smoothing down his shirt where she had twisted it with her fist when he kissed her. 

Jacob just beamed her a smile as wide as the state of Texas, tipped his hat and strode off looking as puffed up as a bow-legged rooster.  Jolene however waited a minute more for the heat to cool on her cheeks trying to wipe the smile off her own face before going back in to offer comfort and succor to her best friend.

"Who was that?" Adelia said as her sobs ran down and only shuddered ever so often. 

"It was Jacob.  He was real sorry that Tom had acted like that."

"Don't even say that name," she looked at Jolene like she had said the worst cuss word in any cowboy's vocabulary. 

"Sorry, but near as we can figure, Jacob and I, is that he thought you were talking about him instead of your brother Thomas." 

"Well, maybe he shouldn't stick his neck in where it doesn't belong.  It might get it chopped off next time," she grimaced. 

"I don't think it will happen again.  You sure taught him a lesson he won't be forgetting for a long while."

"Nah, it meant nothing to him.  He probably growls at anybody who tips his angry cup until he spills it all over himself and every bystander now and again."

"Maybe so, but I bet your hand is still smarting from that slap.  He'll wear that handprint on his cheek for a few days, I wager.  I'm sure it could be heard clear across the dance floor even over the fiddles."  They quit playing and all the couples stopped swinging, except old Mr. Hemming and his wife Lucretia.  They are so deaf that they'd dance through Gabriel's trumpet and miss the second coming."

"I'm done thinking about it and talking about him.  I have bigger problems than that.  What I was about to tell you is that rumor has it my brother's really and truly lost the ranch. I have no way to support myself!  Maybe if old Mrs. Wilkes retires, I can apply to teach school.  Until then, I'll ask around town if anyone is hiring.  If not, I'll take in laundry if I have to in order to survive.  Before they sell the ranch out from under me, I'll bring my chickens in and maybe sneak the milk cow in as well."

"You can borrow our wagon.  I'm sure my father won't mind."

"I could drive out in the morning and come back after dark with my cow maybe."

"I can help you," Jolene offered.

"No, but thank you.  It's something I have to do by myself.  I'd like nothing better than to wake up in the morning and find Thomas plowing up the cornfield finding it all just a bunch of silly rumors," she sighed.

But it wasn't.  By the time she got to the ranch, her poor cow was bawling, miserable with a full udder, and the chickens were squawking wanting out of their pen.  Yet it wasn't until she saw the notice posted on the front door that she felt like somebody had slapped her worse than she'd slapped Tom last night.  Tom.  Now when she needed a friend, he had turned against her.  He most certainly had showed his true colors though, she thought with a shudder, the arrogant hot-headed stubborn mule.  

After milking the cow, she went into the house to pack a trunk.  She took the rest of the books off the shelf, including her parent's Bible.  It was evident where she took a couple of pictures off the wall, with the bleached out wallpaper contrasting the protected portion behind the frames.  Delia took every quilt her mother had made and stacked them on top of the books and family photos. Since she already had her grannies dishes back at her house, she only took her mother's apron and a tablecloth they'd embroidered together with a few of her favorite pretty plates tucked in.  Finally, she gandered one last look around the house, and dragged her trunk out to the wagon.  She barely could lift it into the bed.

Now she had to figure out how to bring her chickens into town.  As she stood there with her hands on her hips, the sheriff rode up. 

"Saw you bring a wagon out here.  You know you aren't supposed to take anything from the place from now until the auction."  The man had the decency to at least look miserable telling her this.

"I am only taking my personal items that did not belong to my brother.  These chickens were given to me by my grannie, and I'm taking them back to town with me."  She stalked into the pen and began gathering eggs.  "That's my cow too.  My father gave her to me since I was the only one she'd let milk her."

"You might get by taking a few chickens, but I have to draw the line at taking the cow.  A cow belongs to the ranch, and that's a fact."  He eyeballed her trunk, but wisely kept his mouth shut.

"Well, I didn't see anybody here milking her.  She could get sick and die neglected like that if infection took hold."

"Now missy," the sheriff tired to cajole her, "I was coming out here to do just that this morning, just got a little behind with some jail business."

She harrumphed loudly.  Adelia truly would miss her cow Josephine, however, not to mention the milk, cream and butter.  Between eggs and that, she'd hoped to have enough sustenance until she could find work.

"So, Sheriff, how long have you been coming out here to milk my cow?"

"You mean how long has it been since your brother high-tailed it out of here?  Rumor has it that he didn't have the nerve to look you in the eye enough to say fare-thee-well.  That right?"

Adelia didn't answer him.  She hated rumors, especially when they turned out to be true, like that with him losing the farm and all.

"Since Monday, last," he finally said.  "Have you figured out how you'll get those chickens to town?  Do you even have a pen for them there?"

"Of course.  That's where most of them came from, Grannie's house.  I just haven't figured how to put their traveling shoes on."

"Since you already milked the cow, I'll look in the barn to see if there are any crates in there," he grumbled.  Catching chickens probably wasn't high on his to-do list today, she'd wager.

"Thank you, sir."  Adelia looked over the chickens trying to choose which ones she'd take and which ones she'd leave behind.  She'd even take a rooster.  If it got too mean, she'd chop off his head pretending he was Tom, and boil it for dinner. It made her realize, she'd better raid the pantry while she was here.  She'd be needing all the beans and flour and cornmeal to survive on.

"What'cha got there?" he asked looking all business while hauling out a few crates.

"Just some food stuffs threatening to go bad.  I thought I'd better get to them before the boll weevils and mice take over. 

The sheriff just huffed.  "I guess I won't stop you.  After all, that's slim pickings for a gal to survive on.  Seems to me, a girl like you should be thinking about getting married.  There are plenty fellas around who'd jump at the chance to court a pretty girl like you."

She snorted in an unladylike manner.  "You mean like Tom Fender?  No thanks.  You can let the word out that I'm looking for work, and squelch any rumors that I'm looking for a man."

"Now you know, sugar, that there's not much work for a woman to be had outside of marriage, especially when she just slapped a respected rancher more boldly than any man in town would dare," the Sheriff said in a wheedling voice while standing back as she chased chickens around before putting them in the crates.  At least he had the kindness to nail the lids down for her.  He probably wouldn't trust her with a hammer right now the way she was shooting murderous looks at him for saying that about the thin-skinned, quick-triggered tempered, finger-shaking man who was on her most unwanted list right now.

She hated being talked down to and bit her tongue before it spit out words she'd be sorry for.  Adelia knew she had to keep a lid on her anger at least until she had the chickens crated and could drive out with her wagon clucking and bumping down the road back to town.

She couldn't resist saying through gritted teeth, "At least may I take some chicken feed back with me?"

He sighed long and loud, "Just don't be telling anybody I let you do it.  They'll think I'm going soft."

Coming out of the barn with a heavy feed sack over her shoulder, she couldn't help quipping, "I left the milk in the barn for you, Sheriff, since you say I can't take my own cow home with me."

"Now, Adelia..."

But the rumble of her wagon on the ruts drowned out whatever else the man had to say.

Meanwhile back on another ranch, Tom was swinging from feeling glad he'd giving Miss Adelia a deserved set-to, to feeling like a heel for letting his temper get the best of him like that.  He remembered the hopeful look and sparkling eyes when she first noticed him coming near.  But then after she went back to whispering, he'd unloaded on her.  Served her right.  He just hoped giving her a piece of his mind taught her a lesson, but good.  However, his conscience said otherwise.  He thought back to how her cheeks had turned as red as an apple before she went pale.  That's when he'd gotten worried.  Tom didn't know if she was about to pass out or not, and realized he'd gone too far.

Of course just then, Jacob had to show up to work slamming things around in a huff and not speaking to him except a grunt here and there.  Finally Tom had enough.  He was the boss, after all. 

"Just tell me.  I know you got a bee under your hat," he ground out.

Jacob swung around on him and unloaded then with both barrels.  It was enough to make his heart tighten up and make him sweat up a storm. 

"You are some kind of idiot making a scene with that little gal, you know.  'Cause if you don't, anybody who was in town can tell you so.  Have you stopped to even think that, yes though your name is Tom, her brother's name is Thomas.  So what if you heard the words, Tom, rumor, gambling, Golden Slipper, ranch strung together.  It wasn't about you, you know.  Miss Adelia was talking about her brother for goodness sakes!"

Jacob had to go kick a few bales of hay and a bucket before coming back to finish him off where he sat seized up hardly letting his breath come in or out of him.  "You do know what the rumors are, don't you?  Thomas has lost every penny they had gambling at the Golden Slipper and is losing the ranch for back taxes.  It's coming up for auction soon.  Rumor has it the low-down, yellow-bellied cur slunk out of town without even telling his sister what he'd done, not even telling her goodbye.  If it wasn't for the little house her grandmother gave her, she'd be out on the street right now.  She has no way to support herself howsoever, just a few chickens to lay her eggs is all." 

Jacob spit awfully close to Tom's boots.   Any other time, he'd lay him out flat for such disrespect, but this time Tom knew he deserved that and more.  He could only groan.  "I was so stupid!  Why didn't you stop me?"

"I tried, but no, you wanted to display your stupidity for the whole town to see.  Most folks had already heard the rumors, everybody but you I guess.  Just so you know, you're not thought very highly of right now in town or hereabouts."

"I don't think very highly of myself.  I'll stop by after church and apologize tomorrow."

"Don't even think about it.  She has a loaded rifle full of buckshot by the front door waiting for you."

"You're serious?"

"As serious as sin.  I don't think she'd talk to you even if you burned your backside in hell for a time before coming back from the grave to beg her forgiveness."

"She's a Christian.  Adelia has to forgive me," Tom insisted.

"She can take her sweet time about it, as far as anyone is concerned."

The next day was Sunday, but Tom decided to lay low and ride the range to see if he could find a cow that needed to get out of a ditch or something.  But no, everything was placid on his home on the range with well-behaving bovines one and all.

By the next Sunday, Tom hoped things had cooled down, and people would forget his incivility. But it wasn't to be.  Every head turned when he'd walked in, and if glares could kill, he'd be deader than a prairie dog stomped to death by a stampede.  He took his hat off and walked down the aisle anyway, spurs jingling.  He sat down behind the only one who had not looked back to see that he'd arrived for the gauntlet.   Adelia. 

As soon as he thudded into the pew, she hopped up and walked back down the aisle with her head held high never looking at him once, no sideways glance or a blink his way even.  He stretched his neck like the rest of the congregation to see where Miss Adelia was off to.  Jolene was squirming until she jumped up with the first wheeze of the organ and chased her friend as she made her way out of the church yard, and dang it if she didn't cross the street to join the Presbyterians.

The song leader tried to wave his hands to lead the people in a hymn, but the buzz of whispers was worse than a swollen swarm of bees looking for a new hive.  And their stingers were all pointed and coming straight at him.  Before he knew what he was doing, he hopped up out of his pew and took long strides out the door.  Dang it if Jacob wasn't hard on his heels.

Once outside, Jacob roughly threw him around whispering, "What do you think you are doing.  You can't follow her over there."

"It's a free country.  What if I feel like listening to a black robed, cigar smoking, whiskey drinking man of God preaching about those elected to hell and those elected to heaven and  every other petal on the tulip.  What's it to you?  You can go right back into the Methodist fold if you want."

"But..." his friend sputtered before raring back back and punching him, hard.  "That's for Miss Adelia!"The fight was on then.  Next thing he knew, they were rolling around on the ground like mad dogs while both churches emptied to come out and watch 'em.  Everybody but Miss Adelia and Miss Jolene, that is.  They sat waiting inside for the service to resume after the two sinners were done with their carnal fits of anger. 

Tom noticed that right off when he finally stood huffing and puffing and slapping the dirt off his hat and looked inside to see her sitting stiffly in the pew facing forward.  Miss Jolene stole a few glances back chewing her lip.  He guessed she was worried for Jacob, but the man had held his own.  They didn't exactly shake hands or slap each other on the back, but a few hard punches wouldn't separate friends, at least he hoped.  Tom was running out of friends right quick like.

"Some pal you are," he growled.

"It was a dirty job, but somebody had to knock some sense in you," Jacob retorted.

Rumor had it that the Presbyterians pews were padded with red velvet cushions while the Methodists stuck sanctimoniously with their hard wooden benches.  Maybe next Sunday, he'd sit behind her there, but he was too dirty and bruised right now to enter the house of God.    By the look on the preachers' faces, he wasn't welcome to either place of worship today. 

He rode off hearing the hymns start up again, "Blest Be the Ties that Bind."  Both congregations were heartily singing in unison today.

One eye was swelling shut and a rib felt a little cracked or bruised by the time he got back home.  He set water to heat for a bath.  He needed to soak and think and maybe even pray a little.  Lord knows he needed help down here.

He soaked and thought, soaked and thought some more, threw in a few desperate prayers, but couldn't come up with any plan to mend the fences between Miss Adelia and himself.

Finally, he slapped the water in the tub and yelled, "That's it!" so loud it scared the barn cat back out the door where it had slunk in to look for tasty morsels to steal, like mice caught in his mouse traps, dinner on a wooden platter.

"I'll bid on Thomas' ranch and give it back to her!  After all, we're neighbor, and it is the neighborly thing to do."  They had been living side by side all of their lives with properties adjoining each other. Tom jumped up to wrap a towel around himself and then sat at his desk with his boots and cowboy hat on so he could look over his accounting books.  He couldn't concentrate without those things on his head and feet.  That's how Jacob found him.

Tom heard a gasp, a snort, followed by a chuckle, then another, before a full-on belly laugh broke out. 

"Are you asking for another pounding?" he spit out at his friend through clenched teeth.

"Not with you wearing only a towel," he chortled.  "Sorry, boss.  I just came by to make sure I still had a job on the ranch."

"Of course you do, unless you keep laughing at me that is.  I'm just sitting here trying to figure out a way to get back into Miss Adelia's good graces and I think I might have found it!"

"Good luck with that.  I think a short and to the point note of apology would be about all you can do," he looked more serious.  At least you can join the Presbyterians so she can go back to the Methodists next Sunday," Jacob added.

"I was thinking about that.  Those padded seats are tempting anyway.  I can fall asleep in one church as easily as in the other," he grinned.

"That'll be the day when you fall asleep in church," Jacob sneered.  "Even when you've been up all night delivering a calf, you still manage somehow to keep awake.  I've never figured out how you do it," he said.

"I just pretend it's my father up there lecturing me, and all I can do is be ready to say, 'yes sir,' and 'no, sir.'  That's all."

"Me, I'd be running from another whipping if I thought of my father up there instead of the preacher." Jacob shook his head.  "It's not a pretty picture.  I hope I can get it out of my mind before next Sunday or I'll be running back down the aisle hollering to save my life!"

"Well, you've got a week to do that, and I won't mention it again if it's so horrifying," Tom smirked.  "I think running out of church two Sundays in a row is close to being the unforgiveable sin," he said with a crooked smile.

"Hey, can I use that bathwater in there?  You got me pretty dirty, and on a Sunday too," Jacob asked.

"You threw the first punch."

"But you're the one who knocked me to the ground, and rolled around with me."

Tom waved him away with a laugh.  "Help yourself."  But what really made him smile was that he thought he might be able to swing buying the ranch if the bidding didn't go too high, that is.  He'd been needing to expand his rangeland anyway.  Yep, it had been a good year for cattle, just not for farmers which was most of what Thomas had done on his place.  That had put his old friend on the brink, then the gambling and drink sent him over the edge.  He shook his head.  He felt badly for Adelia mostly.  He'd lost a good friend in Thomas when he'd started seeking solace in the saloon rather than God.  He'd have to keep praying for him.

He went on dreaming.  If Adelia didn't want to move back to the ranch house, even though he'd be planting the hay and running his herds on her place, maybe Jacob would want to move in there and manage it for her as well as work for him.  Maybe he'd feel like he could court that girl Jolene he was sweet on and have a real future there--a better future than Tom could hope for.  There wasn't anyone like Adelia for him.  But he'd spoiled that for good.  Giving her back her family's ranch was the best he could do.

The more he thought on it, the happier he felt, and the worst.  Hanging out with cows all day made a man hanker for a little more at the end of a day.  At least he had a good cook and housekeeper in Mrs. Harding.  But she was as old as dirt, though she never slowed down.  He liked that she'd quit trying to give him advice since he took over for his father and treated him respectfully.  Even if he sat around in boots and a towel all day, she kept her mouth shut.  Yep.  That's the kind of wife he wanted, a nice and quite one who wouldn't slap him down, even if he needed it now and then, and one prettier to look at than Mrs. Harding.

He sighed and went to put on clean Levis and undershirt.  It was too hot for much more.  It had been a day, one he wouldn't mind forgetting, and soon he was asleep on his bed before he pulled his boots back on.

Adelia was hot and bothered.  She paced while Jolene wrung her hands.  "Such Animals!"  she cried.  "It was worse than when Mr. Devers' dogs chased Miss Abbot's cat into the church."

"I remember," Jolene said.  "That was quite a row." She smiled for the first time today.

"It was nothing compared to what that rascal, impudent awful man did on the Sabbath.  Imagine!  He managed to interrupt both churches services.  I bet the Catholics were about to head down too and take bets on a winner.  Thank the Lord, it ended before it came to that.  It was bad enough as it was.  By the way, how's your Mr. Hendricks?"

"You mean Jacob?" she gasped.  "I don't know.  I am a little worried.  After all, it's not every day a man has a fisticuff with his boss without getting fired."

"If he does, I'll march right over to his place and give him a piece of my mind!" Addie slammed down her Bible making Jolene jump.

"I thought you weren't speaking to him," she said in a squeak of a voice.

"I'm not, but I'm not above writing him a scathing letter though.  That's what I'll do right now, in fact," Adelia said with a nod of her head.

"Oh," Jolene worried.  "I think I'll go home now.  My mother will want my help putting the dinner on, what with the preacher and his wife coming over.  I dread having to listen to that conversation."

"Now you know why I declined your invitation to join you today, as much as I appreciated your kind offer.  I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to keep my mouth shut concerning one man in particular, you understand."

"Yes, yes I do.  Well, come by if you need anything Adelia.  I will always be there for you."

The two friends hugged before Adelia found herself alone.  She missed her brother, deeply, at least the man he used to be.  In the past, he'd take Sunday dinner with her.  A single tear escaped.  She was surprised she had any more left in her as many buckets as she'd already cried.  All she could do was pray for Thomas.  So she went into her room and knelt by her bed.  But with her hands folded and her head bowed, she had a niggling feeling that her prayers would not be heard if she had ought against another, if she had unforgiveness in her heart.  She got back up and brushed off her skirt.  She was not ready yet.  The pain was still too fresh.  She couldn't forgive that stinking Tom Fender yet.  Her brother Thomas was on his own before God for now, even if he had to do without his sister's prayers for the time being.

She saw Tom lingering in front of the Presbyterian Church the next Sunday.  She'd already decided that she would have to grit her teeth and bear it if they were going to be under the same roof in church.  Why should she have to leave her church to avoid him?  So it was a relief to see that he'd switched churches instead of her.  When he caught her looking at him, he tipped his hat before riding away. 

"Was that Tom?" Jolene asked Jacob who came up behind her.

"Sure as shooting.  I do believe the man is enjoying the padded pews," he continued with an extra sparkle in his eye and a grin he couldn't wipe off his face.  Adelia did believe the man was truly smitten with her best friend.

But just thinking about Tom Fender left her in a huff, so she walked away leaving the two lovebirds to walk more leisurely together.  Jolene had kindly asked her once again to come to Sunday dinner, but she knew that Jacob had also been invited and wanted to give them space.  But truth be told, she did feel a little squeezed out.

But before she could even enter her little house, Adelia was startled to hear a cow mooing.  She cautiously went around back and was surprised to see one staked in her grass leisurely grazing.  The cow looked up with its liquid eyes and blinked her long lashes.  It was Josephine!

Adelia ran over and put her arms around her cow with exclamations of joy and wonder.  How?  Who?  Why?   Then the precious cow got kissed right between those beautiful brown eyes.

Soon she marched over to the Sheriff's house not caring if she interrupted his Sunday dinner.  He was a Presbyterian after all, and they got out earlier than the Methodists.  Hopefully, he was done eating already anyway.  His spinster daughter who ran his household answered the door unsmiling. 

"Is your father home?"

"Is it urgent? He has deputies on duty you know.  My father doesn't need to be at every woman's beck and call."

Just then the sheriff came out with his napkin tucked in under his chin.  "Miss Adelia?  I thought I heard your voice.  Does this mean you found your Josephine?"

"Yes!" She gasped then suddenly realized the auction had been yesterday.  The ranch was officially no longer in her family.  Her face fell.  "How?" 

"The new owner wanted to give you your cow back as a gift.  It seems he didn't want to be responsible to milk her anyway," he grinned.


The sheriff looked down and kicked at the rug in front of the door.  "He didn't want to let that be known yet," he said not looking her in the eye.

"Wasn't it a public auction?  Isn't it public knowledge?"

"Not too many were in the position to bid on a ranch as nice as yours, Miss Adelia.  Only a couple of bidders showed up, and the man with the top bid wants to keep it under his hat for now."

"But how can I thank him for Josephine?" she asked.

"All in good time," the man grinned.  He had a piece of spinach stuck to his tooth, so Adelia decided she had spent enough time talking to the man.

"I'll let you get back to your dinner.  I'm sorry to have interrupted you."

She walked slowly back home trying to puzzle it out.  Adelia sat down to try to eat the crackers and scrambled eggs she was having once again, but could not choke them down.  How wonderful it would be when she could milk her own cow and enjoy the cream and butter that went with it.  She shoved away thoughts of losing the ranch her father had worked so hard on, the one her brother had carelessly and foolishly lost.  She burst once again into sobs.

Someone knocked on her door.  How inconvenient.  Now her eyes were red and puffy and her nose was runny.  She blew her nose and dabbed her eyes with cold water, and slowly walked to the door hoping whoever it was would go away.

Nothing could have prepared her for who was standing at the door with a bunch of wildflowers.  She went to slam the door in his face, but his boot stopped it, even if he yelped, "Ouch!"

She turned her back with her arms crossed as he continued to stand in her open front door. "Miss Adelia, I would like to beg your forgiveness.  If at all possible I'd like to bury the hatchet.  In fact, I have one here we can ceremonially use." 

"Of all the nerve!  Do you think bringing me a bouquet of flowers would make all my pain go away?  Do you even have a clue how much you embarassed me, how much you hurt me.  I thought you were a friend of my family's.  But now that I'm the only one left, you crushed me.  How do I know that you won't plant the hatchet in my back?"

"Come now, Adelia.  You've known me longer than that.  If God can forgive me, I was hoping you could too." 

She glanced over her shoulder.  He did look contrite, and quite handsome, if she was really noticing--which she wasn't, of course--like she used to.  He had on his Sunday suit, his brushed black cowboy hat and polished boots.  The flowers were pretty and couldn't be that easy to find in this hot weather. Besides, she was tired of carrying her anger, getting up with it, letting it weigh her down all through her day, and not even being able to be rid of her burden at night, especially when she'd close her eyes and the horror of it all still went round and round in her head.

She finally sighed and said, "I do forgive you, Mr. Fender.  But..."

However, he'd thrown his hat in the air,  whooped and swung her around until she was quite dizzy.  Put me down! Mr. Fender!  I beg of you."  She was looking to see who had heard the commotion and would look out and see them acting foolishly, more fodder for the gossips.

"If you cannot conduct yourself like a gentleman, I'll have to reinstate my hard feelings, sir."

He slid her down but did not release her.  "Not until you call me Tom, not Mr. Fender."

"But what if you get confused again whether I am talking about you or my brother?"  She knew she was being facicious, but could hardly give in so easily.  She indeed felt much lighter having let go of her unforgiveness.  Besides, as long as they kept talking about it, his arms would stay around her in a most comforting manner.  Let the ol'gossips talk!

His eyes darkened.  Adelia, please.  I know you've forgiven me truly if you can call me Tom again, like old times.

"Alright, Tom.  For old times sake."

He let go and she felt bereft.  She hadn't let herself dwell on it too much, but she'd been truly lonely since her brother left and especially now that Jacob was sparking Jolene.  

Going over and picking up his hat and the flowers where he'd dropped them, Tom stood before her grinning like a little boy on Christmas morning. "Well, are you going to take your flowers? Or should I feed them to Josephine?"

"Joso...How do you know I got my cow back?"  For the first time in her life, Adelia felt faint.  Her knees were buckling so she gripped his collar.  "You didn't!"

"What if I did?"

"But how?  How could you afford it?"

"Cattle have done well the last few years, better than the farmers have fared."

"Truly?  But you already have a ranch with the nice ranch house your father built."  It was made with logs and adobe, keeping it cooler in summer and warmer in winter besides being very comfortable.

"I was going to give you a choice if you wished to live back at your ranch or stay here in town.  I could manage your ranch for you..."

"You mean your ranch," Adelia corrected him, but he was looking at her with the gaze she'd only dreamed of.

"No, it's yours, Adelia."  His voice sent shivers with jolts to her heart and ricocheting jitters clear down to bounce around in her stomach.  "If you'd rather live in your little house here in town, I thought I might ask Jacob to live there to help manage it as well as to continue to work for me.  Besides, if things go like he hopes, he might need something better than a bunkhouse to bring a new little wife to."

Adelia gave a half laugh and half cry.  "This is too much.  I don't know what to say!"

"You don't have to decide now.  But would you like to ride out to your ranch with me.  It's a nice enough day."

It was hotter than blazes, but he had someone's horse and courting buggy waiting.  At least it would shield them from the direct sunlight.  Adelia decided she needed to get out of her house to gulp fresh air and nodded to the man who had come to her rescue.  What if she had not forgiven him?  She couldn't even imagine it now.

They drove in quiet until they were out of town.  The summer sounds of nature took over humming along to the birdsong.  Every now and then, a gust of cooler air blew up from off the river.  He reached over and took her hand.  She stared down at it and decided she quite liked it.  In fact, she threaded their fingers together.  He looked over at her with his eyebrows raised.  She only smiled.

Once at her ranch, Adelia twirled, her skirt billowing around her.  She held it down so the breeze wouldn't blow it up higher.  For the first time, she really and truly saw her old home.  It was empty, almost like the heart of it had died with her father.  She felt weary of holding it together, and noticing all the neglect her brother had let it fall into.  "It's in rather sad shape, isn't it," she whispered. 

He gave her a hug and wiped away a tear. "It can be fixed up.  It's your choice, you can continue to live in your grannies old house, or stay here once again, or there's even a third choice..."  For once in his life, Adelia was surprised to see this strong man so nervous, who almost always knew what he wanted and went after life like it was a steer to rope.  But now, he had his hat off his head and over his heart.  A drop of sweat was dribbling down from his temple.

"What do you mean?"  Her brows were knit together in confusion.

"Miss Adelia, I wasn't planning on asking you yet, but maybe now's the time.  If you prefer, I mean if you would choose..." he took a deep breath and continued.  "The other option is to marry me and come live in my house with me.  There's nothing that would make me happier."

Adelia gasped.  If he hadn't caught her, she would have had to sit down on the ground.  He swept her up and put her on the old porch swing instead.  "It's too soon.  I'm sorry, I just wanted to put all the cards on the table.  Ever since I knew how badly I hurt you that night--I swear I was coming over to ask you to dance with me, now that you've grown up to be such a beauty--I've done nothing but think of you.  When I wake, when I go about working my ranch, when I lay awake in my bed at night unable to sleep with thoughts of you spinning round my head and falling into my heart, I can't get shuck of you for a moment.  You're my ever-waking thought.  If you hadn't forgiven me today, I think I would have gone crazy.  Besides," he winked, "I'd like to go back to being a Methodist again."

She finally caught her breath and belted out an unladylike laugh.  "I think my house in town is too small and this house is too hard to come back to, but your house is just right.  Yes, Tom, I'd like that very..." but that's all she managed to say before he kissed her, making the old swing creak and sway in the way she'd always imagined it when she'd dreamed of Tom Fender kissing her.  She just had never dreamed the rumors of how nice a kiss could be, until now. 


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