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Nevada Barr - Bittersweet.docx
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Imogene was silent.

            “I apologize to you, Miss Grelznik, I should have checked it myself. I’ll see to it everything’s fixed up.” He pulled the cardboard from the window and looked out. “Looks like there’s no firewood, either. I’ll be just a minute; the Beards’ll let me borrow some until we can get a load cut for you. They’re just down the way. Excuse me.” He backed out of the kitchen with the air of a man escaping. Imogene straightened the chair, and, after looking at the dirt-encrusted seat, returned to the living room to perch on her suitcase and wait.

            He came back in less than ten minutes, carrying an armload of wood. With him, similarly laden, was a stocky boy of fifteen with a wide, good-natured face. “This is Clay Beard, Miss Grelznik, Mrs. Beard’s second boy.” He indicated the hearth with a jerk of his chin. “Just set the wood down over there, Clay, and see if you can get a fire up.”

            Soon a fire was roaring in the grate, and Joseph had the kitchen stove going. Imogene moved closer to the blaze and held a foot out to the flames. Mr. Cogswell and Clay, having no work for their hands, stood awkwardly shoulder to shoulder as if awaiting further orders. “I’m awfully sorry, ma’am,” Joseph began again, “I could go get some of the women up—”

            “No need.” She escorted them to the front door. “I shall be fine until morning. Thank you both for taking such trouble. I can make do for one night; I have a few things with me.” Thanking them again, she shut the door behind them.

            “Lord, Lord,” she said quietly, peeling off her cloak and unpinning the little hat she had bought in Harrisburg to replace the one the wind had taken. There was a nail driven into the door frame, and she hung her things on it. Hands on her hips, she surveyed the room: a ragtag broom leaned in the corner. Imogene snatched it up like a weapon and attacked the months of accumulated filth.

            When the floors were cleared down to the tobacco stains and splinters, she unearthed a dented tin pail from behind the stove, filled it from the pump, and set it on the stove to heat. While she waited for it to boil, she dragged the mattress from the cot and pushed it out the front door.

            The town was dark and utterly still. She stood, watching the clouds scud away from the stars, until the water boiled and the clacking of the pail against the stove called her back inside. Using her skirt as a potholder, she carried the boiling water into the front room and sluiced the floor. “That should kill all but the hardiest denizens,” she said. When the floor had dried, she wrapped herself in her traveling cloak, settled in front of the fire, and wrote. The wood had burned down to embers, and the candle Joseph Cogswell had stuck on the corner of the mantel was guttering out as Imogene finished the letter.

            She threw it into the fire before the ink was dry.


            SARAH CLAMBERED OUT OF THE CARRYALL, KEEPING AN EYE ON THE gaunt, brown, yellow-eyed dog tied on behind, and helped her mother down. Margaret Tolstonadge managed her bulk with surprising grace. “Thank you, Sam,” she said as she pulled a heavy basket out after her. “Me and Sare appreciate the ride.”

            The church bells began to ring, and Sam grunted and blew his red nose on a cloth of the same color. “That’s a half-hour warning, Margaret. You get on with your visits.” With a barely audible “hmph,” Margaret pushed the basket at her daughter. Sarah grabbed her side of the handle to help carry it and dropped a lopsided curtsy. “Thank you, Mr. Ebbitt,” she said automatically.

            Nine-year-old Gracie Tolstonadge sat close to Sam on the wide front seat. “That’s jist half-hour warning, Sare,” she parroted. Sam smiled down on the little moon face thrust out between the layers of wool.

            “You got more sense than the rest of ’em together, don’t you, Missy?”

            Gracie beamed. “Can I drive, Mr. Ebbitt?” She smiled coyly up at him.

            “Come on.” He held his arm up and she ducked under it to stand between his knees. Sam eyed Sarah and her mother for a moment. “Mind your manners, Sarah, you’re gettin’ to be more’n a little girl. Don’t dally in late.” He called to the horses, and the wagon lurched forward.

            Margaret Tolstonadge firmed her generous mouth into a tight circle. “That man!” she huffed as he rolled out of hearing. “Always bossing everybody.” Sarah was pulling at her fitted coat, plucking it away from her chest. “Stop your fussing,” Margaret said. “What’s the matter with you?”

            “He makes me embarrassed,” Sarah mumbled.

            “Oh, for heaven’s sake.” She tugged Sarah’s jacket straight. “He’s paying you a compliment. Noticing that you’re becoming a young lady.”

            “I don’t see why he goes and spoils Gracie the way he does. She’s such a priss already.”

            “Little Miss Green-Eyes.” Mam smiled knowingly and Sarah sniffed. Margaret tucked her daughter’s fine hair back behind her ears. “Come on, let’s meet your new schoolteacher.”

            Carrying the basket between them, they made their way carefully up the muddy path. At the door, Mrs. Tolstonadge took the basket and turned back the cover to give the contents a quick inventory. “Let’s knock,” she said and set the basket down to rap on the door.

            “Mam, she’s thrown her bed out!” Sarah exclaimed, pointing at the mattress crumpled near the corner of the cabin. The door opened and Imogene loomed large on the top step, filling the doorway. Sarah snatched her hand behind her and stepped back involuntarily.

            Mrs. Tolstonadge sucked in her breath.

            “You are my first callers. Won’t you come in?” The schoolteacher stepped aside and gestured graciously.

            Margaret recovered herself. “I don’t know why I’m surprised, I’m the one that’s come on you unannounced. I’m Mrs. Emmanuel Tolstonadge. Margaret.” She extended her plump hand. “And this is my oldest girl, Sarah Mary.” She nudged Sarah. “Hon?” Sarah broke off staring and curtsied, rocking the basket dangerously. “And you,” Mrs. Tolstonadge finished with an air of triumph, “are the new schoolmistress.”

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