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Nevada Barr - Bittersweet.docx
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Imogene sniffed audibly.

            Sam came around to sit on the stool, looking at the wizened little face, wrinkled and red. “We’ll call him Matthew.” The baby hiccoughed and the nipple slipped from his mouth. Sarah adjusted him nearer and he nursed again, gurgling his contentment.

            “Matthew. I like that.” She smiled at her husband. “You want to hold him, Sam?”

            He scratched his beard. “No, you do the holding.” Carefully, Sam touched his son’s face. His fingers were immense beside the minute nose and tiny, round chin. Embarrassed by his oafishness, Sam drew his hand back. “Ugly little fella. Seems healthy, though.” He stood up. “Miss Grelznik, I’m running the girls home. If you need a ride, we’ll be going in a few minutes.”

            Imogene stopped to kiss Sarah’s cheek before following Sam downstairs. “He’s a beautiful baby,” she whispered.


            “NOT A THING, MISS GRELZNIK.” JACKSON POKED HIS YELLOW-STAINED fingers through a pile of mail. “You’ve been here religious since you got that letter from Philadelphia last week. You must be expecting something special. It’s a bit of a walk out here.”

            Imogene smiled and ignored the stationmaster’s hints. “Good day, Mr. Jackson.”

            “Don’t you go trusting to the weather this time of year; March is a funny month,” he warned as she stepped outside. “Wouldn’t do to have the schoolteacher froze to death.”

            Joseph Cogswell crossed the tracks to meet her as she left the station. “Good morning, Joseph. Aren’t you needed at the mine office this morning?”

            “Morning,” he returned. “I saw you coming in here and quick came down for a word with you. The payroll’s been done, there won’t be much clerking until Monday. I’ll be back before the men start coming for their pay.” He pulled his hat off and scratched behind one ear. Uneasiness radiated from him like heat from a stone. “Imogene, I had a letter from Philadelphia.” The schoolteacher’s back stiffened and she seemed even taller than she was. “It pretty much concerns you.”

            “I’ve been expecting it,” she said, half to herself. “Of course it wouldn’t come to me. He sent it to you.”

            He met her eye reluctantly. “I’d rather we didn’t discuss it here.”

            “I won’t be in most of the day,” she said, and left him, hat in hand, standing in the middle of the road.

            “Imogene! I’ll come by after work!” he called after her, but she didn’t slow down or turn.

            Jackson had come out on the station steps. “What’s the row about?”

            Joseph jerked his chin at Imogene’s retreating back. “Schoolteacher.”

            “She’s had a burr under her saddle all week,” Jackson said.

            Imogene closed the door of her house and slid the bolt home. Pulling the chair away from the window so she couldn’t be seen from the street, she picked up a letter from the desk. She had read it so many times the folds were in danger of tearing.

            17 February 1875

            My Dear Imogene,

            Mr. Utterback and I have had some rather bad news. William’s brother has taken ill; he’s an old man and William feels he may not recover this time. We will have left for Holland by the time this arrives. I’m sorry we shall miss our summer visit. Heaven knows when we will be home again.

            I have taken the liberty of giving Mr. Ramsey your address. I know thee forbade it, but Mary Beth’s little Rosemary is such a frail child and I’m afraid to leave him with no one to turn to—he is so grateful for the money you send.

            Affectionately, Alice Utterback

            Imogene pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes to blot out the leering image of Darrel Aiken. If Ramsey had her address, Darrel Aiken would have it. Now Joseph Cogswell’s demeanor proved it. The cat jumped onto the desk and sat on the letter, swishing her tail for attention, and Imogene stroked the yellow fur. “Hello, Dandy cat,” she said wearily. Dandy began to purr. “What am I going to do?” The cat batted at her hand as she rubbed her eyes again. “Oh, for a little cat mind.” She scratched the outthrust chin. “A little cat mind like yours.” Dandy butted her head against the teacher to get her ears scratched. “I can feel the foundations shaking again. He means to drive me even from here. But you needn’t worry your little cat head. I am your world, aren’t I?” Suddenly, Imogene pushed herself to her feet, the cat forgotten. “I’ve got to get out.”

            Outside, a pale winter sun shone from a sky full of white mare’s tails. There was no wind to sway the naked tree branches, and the day was unseasonably mild. February’s snow was beginning to melt in patches, and people were out of doors taking the air, knowing that winter was far from over, tomorrow might bring another blizzard.

            Staying near the edge of the road where the ground was driest, Imogene set off west, out of town, at a brisk pace. Bits of earth, kicked up by her heels, speckled the hem of her dress, and the half-frozen mud caked on her boots and wedged under her heels. Several wagons stopped, calling offers of a ride, but she waved them on with thanks.

            By the time she reached the Ebbitt farm, she had walked off some of the anxiety that gripped her. She stopped at the gate to smooth her hair back into its pins. The dog saw her and set up a ruckus that brought Sarah to the window and then to the front door. She was dressed prettily in bright blue checks, her hair tied up in a rag.

            “You stop!” she hollered at the dog. The barking grew shrill and Sarah lobbed a piece of wood at his head to obtain silence. “I hate that awful old dog. I wish Sam would get rid of him. Especially now, with the baby.” She kissed Imogene on the cheek. “Did you walk all that way?” Sarah ushered her in and took her wrap. The house was warm and smelled of food and babies. A fire roared in the big cookstove and another, smaller fire blazed in the potbellied stove in the front room. Imogene went straight to Matthew. He waved his tiny fists from a basket set among piles of dried beans on the kitchen table; Sarah was in the midst of culling.

            “I needed some air,” Imogene said. “And I needed to see new things today. Old irritations were getting me down in the mouth.”

            “Old irritations?”

            Imogene looked at Sarah; her young face was smooth and happy, her cheeks still softly rounded from the weight she had gained when she was carrying Matthew, the hazel eyes wide, innocent, vulnerable despite the hard year behind her. The teacher looked away. “It’s nothing, really. Silliness. I’m sure it will all blow over.” Sarah still looked troubled, so Imogene brightened her voice and smiled. “Really. It’s nothing. I needed to see the baby.”

            Pushing her face near Matthew’s, she rubbed his nose with hers and was rewarded with a heartfelt gurgle. She scooped him out of the basket and cradled him. The baby’s soft brown curls feathered onto a moon face. His nose and mouth were clearly defined, and his blue eyes bright and interested. He looked gravely over Imogene’s arm at his mother and wiggled his feet. “He’ll have to go East to school,” Imogene said seriously. “There will come a point where my teaching won’t begin to be enough. And you meet people at the University that help to smooth your way in business.”

            “Sam wants him to take over the farm.”

            “That’s nonsense. If Sam wants someone to take up with the carts and cows when he leaves, then let Walter do it.”

            Sarah’s eyes lighted up at a sudden thought. “You said you wanted to see something new. Do you?”

            “Why? What have you got that is new?”

            Sarah threw her apron on the table and pulled on an old coat of Sam’s. “Better get your coat on. It’s turning nasty, looks like.” Imogene nestled the baby back into his basket, and having shoved it so far from the edge of the table that nothing short of an earthquake would dislodge it, she followed Sarah out the kitchen door.

            Inside the barn it was dark and cold. Along the sides, where the cattle fed, the heat of the livestock softened the air. Summer’s mountain of hay had dwindled to the height of a man, exposing twenty feet of plank floor. A cart sat in the open space, a square wooden box with a bench seat just barely large enough for two people. It had a fresh coat of dark blue paint and the seat had been padded and covered in sandy-colored canvas.

            “The pony’s in the paddock out back. He’s the color of the seat, with a lighter mane and tail,” Sarah said as Imogene admired the little conveyance.

            “So this is the chariot for the firstborn son. I had forgotten.”

            “I had too, but Sam remembered and about a week ago he came home with the pony tied on behind the wagon and the cart just sort of tumbled in the back. It was broken in a couple of places and all rough and splintery, but he fixed it up nice for me. I’ve already driven it twice, before the thaw made the roads so sloppy. Maybe Sam’ll let me drive you into town.”

            “Have you gone so far alone?”

            “No. Just to home and back. And Walter was with me on the way back. But I could do it. Driving a cart’s just fun, but it ain’t hard. Isn’t hard.”

            “You wouldn’t dare take the baby would you? The seat is so narrow, I’d be afraid he would fall off.”

            “Look behind.” There was a wedge-shaped crate made of sturdy slate and nailed to the cart bed. “Sam put that in for me so Matthew could ride. Sam’s going to be a good father, maybe. Mam says he’s sure showing the earmarks. He’s different now that the baby’s come.”

            However, Sam said the roads were too bad to take the cart out, and Sarah solaced herself by walking a little way with Imogene before saying good-bye. Imogene did not tell her of the letter.

            The wind had come up and the day had turned cold. The schoolteacher wrapped her scarf over her nose and mouth, walking as fast as the uneven footing would permit to stay warm. She had gone nearly half the distance when Mr. Jenkins happened by with a load of goods he was bringing from the depot, and gave her a ride. The closer they got to the town, the more withdrawn Imogene became, losing the glow that Sarah and her child had given her. By the time Mr. Jenkins let her off in front of the dry goods store, she was as agitated as she had been when she left Joseph that morning.

            “You’d better get yourself home and indoors,” Mr. Jenkins said. “Looks like maybe you’re coming down with something. You feeling all right? One of the girls’ll make you something hot to drink.”

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