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The Heart Seeks a Home
By Linda Ford
Truly YoursCopyright © 2000 Barbour Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved.
April 1914 in Alberta, Canada
She should have known better. The instant she saw them lounging at the edge of the railway platform and studying her from under wide-brimmed cowboy hats she should have been warned. Certainly when they ambled over to ask if she was Miss Lydia Baxter, and their startled looks when she said she was, should have given her cause for concern. When they announced they were to take her to the Twin Spurs Ranch, she should have grabbed her valise and stepped back on the train.
But now it was too late.
"There must be some mistake," she murmured, her voice catching deep in her throat. Mistake! If what they said was true, the word didn't begin to address the magnitude of her situation.
Quivers raced up and down her body. If she didn't sit down right now she was going to fall on her face. Her distress must have been evident to the two men, for one of them—the shorter, heavier one who had introduced himself as—but she couldn't recall his name—grabbed a chair and shoved it under her. She sank into it, her limbs shaking like straws in the wind, her face burning hot then, seconds later, cold and clammy.
"I'm sorry. I can't stay. You'll have to take me back." Her teeth rattled as she talked, and she gripped her hands in her lap to slow their shaking.
The men exchanged looks. The taller one shuffled his feet and looked around the room. The other leaned back against the door twisting his hat in his hands.
"Y-you must ta-take me back to town. I-I can't possibly stay here." She prayed they would not see how frightened she was. "I thought I was going to work for a family."
"A nice family for you," Reverend Williams had said. "You'll have a good home."
Suspicion burned at the back of her mind. Had he knowingly sent her to this situation? Immediately she dashed the thought away. It wasn't possible. He and Mrs. Williams would be as shocked as she to discover there was no family, only two young bachelors who steadfastly refused to look at her or respond to her demands to be taken back to town so she could get back on the train and go—
Go where? She had no place to go.
It didn't matter. Anyplace was better than this.
She cleared her throat. Two pairs of eyes flicked toward her. "Did you hear me?" she demanded in stronger tones. "You must take me back."
The one at the door straightened. "Well now, I don't rightly see how we can. You can see it's already dark out. And no trains run tonight. Guess you'll have to stay."
Lydia stared at him long and hard. Matt Weber. That's what he'd called himself when he sauntered up to her at the train station and hoisted her trunk on his shoulder with an ease that made her gasp. His brown mustache twitched under her scrutiny.
The other man stepped forward, and Lydia shifted her gaze to him. His name returned as well. Sam Hatten. Taller and slighter, his blue eyes met hers for a moment, then he looked away, rubbing a hand over his thatch of blond hair.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am," he said. "This really is as much a surprise to us as to you." He cleared his throat. "We were expecting a spinster, not ..." His gaze darted to her face and then past her shoulder. "But we decided we might as well make the best of a bad situation. Besides, it really is too far to go back to town now, and it is, as Matt says, already dark."
She shrank inward and hugged her arms around her. This was the worst situation she'd ever been in. There was no one in these hills to come to her rescue.
Matt jammed his hat on his head. "I'm going to put the horses away." And he fled out the door.
Sam turned and lifted the stove lid to stir the fire. "I think we should have tea," he mumbled.
Lydia couldn't breathe. Her heart thudded so loudly she was sure it drowned out the noise of Sam dipping water and pouring it into the kettle. She stared at his back as he stood over the stove waiting for the kettle to boil and then poured the hot water over the tea leaves in a squat brown teapot.
She couldn't think what she should do. These men were certainly not prepared to take her back to town. She studied the door but it didn't make sense for her to walk out into the dark. A shudder raced across her shoulders. From what she'd seen as they drove up to the house in the dusk it would be worth her life and limb to wander around these hills in the dark. And heaven knows what sort of wild animals would share the night. She shivered and looked again at Sam's back. Animals outside; two men in. What was the difference?
Sam set a teacup in front of her and filled it. He poured himself a cupful, sitting opposite her. Still not speaking, he added two spoonfuls of sugar.
The door rattled open and Lydia jumped.
Matt entered, grabbed a cup, and joined them at the table.
Sam stirred his tea and sighed. He looked long and hard at Matt then turned to Lydia. "I'm sorry, but I think you really will have to stay." He sipped his tea. "No doubt things will look better in the morning." Suddenly he rose to his feet. "I'll take your things to your room, and you can make yourself comfortable." He scooped up her bag and headed to the doorway of the next room.
She gulped her tea and lurched to her feet, hesitating as she struggled to think what she should do. Stay? Go? Sit? Follow her bag?
Her bag and the small trunk on the wagon contained all that remained of her life, so she hurried after Sam.
He stepped into a dark room.
She hung back while he lit a lamp then turned to leave, pausing at her side to look down and say, "You'll be perfectly safe, you know." He waited for her to step into the room then pulled the door closed as he left.
She stared after him. Safe? Hardly! There wasn't a place in the world where she could feel safe. For a while she thought she'd found a place with the Williamses. But that, too, had come to an end.
She dropped to the edge of the bed and hunched over her knees.
Oh, Mother, if only you hadn't left me I wouldn't be at the mercy of others. Thinking of her mother brought a measure of calm.
A great weariness overcame her, but she commanded her leaden limbs to move. The first thing she must do was secure the room.
She checked the door, but there was no lock or key.
A straight-backed chair sat in the shadows by a desk and she carried it to the door and shoved it firmly under the knob. It wouldn't stop much but would at least warn her if someone tried to intrude.
With arms that seemed too weak to function, she opened her bag and removed her brush. She pulled the hairpins out and let her hair fall loose down her back, brushing it with little care then braiding it into one thick plait for the night. Her thoughts unraveled as she twisted the braid.
Was it only this morning she had said good-bye to Reverend and Mrs. Williams and kissed the children?
How could they have sent her to this place?
She had trusted them when they brought her with them from England to Canada, promising she would always have a home with them. A bitter taste rose in her throat. A promise easily forgotten after two short years when Mrs. Williams' niece, Annabelle, wrote asking if she could stay with them. It was clear she was a hired servant easily disposed of.
She choked back tears. As she returned the brush to her bag her hand touched her Bible and she brought it out, tenderly stroking its soft cover. At the end of a day Mother would sit in her rocker and no matter how weary, she'd read a chapter to Lydia.
"Lydia," she'd say in her gentle voice, "I want you to remember, God is faithful. He cares for you in a special way. He will never leave you nor forsake you."
It had been easy to believe those words while Mother was alive. Lydia shuddered, remembering some of the unwelcome surprises the world had offered a young girl alone in the world.
She looked at the Bible on her lap. "You were wrong, Mother," she whispered. "God doesn't care about me. No one does."
With trembling hands and aching heart, she pushed the Bible back into the valise and, without removing her clothes, crawled into bed. For a moment she thought about leaving the lamp on then sighed and turned it down until it died. Her eyes felt too large for her face as she stared into darkness that reached past the walls of this room into her future and down to her inmost being. She lay tense and wide-eyed as the night deepened, afraid to shut her eyes in case ... in case ...
* * *
Light glared through a large square window. Lydia blinked and shot up to a sitting position. She hadn't expected to sleep so soundly nor to meet the morning unharmed.
Beyond the walls of the room muted noises warned her there were still two men in the house. Boot-clad feet thudded across the floor sending echoes of dread into the pit of her stomach. The sulfur smell of a match was followed by the pungency of wood chips burning. The aroma of coffee called her to get up.
Instead, Lydia lay down and drew the covers up to her neck. Bits of conversation drifted to her.
"... can't keep her ..."
"... until something else ..."
"... misunderstanding ..."
She was sure the soft voice belonged to Sam, the blue-eyed one, and the deeper voice to Matt, the stockier one.
A knock at her door sent her scurrying deeper under the covers. She lifted her head enough to see the chair still hooked under the knob then lay in a quivering huddle.
"Miss Baxter? Lydia Baxter? Are you there?" It was Matt outside her door. A louder knock and another call. "Lydia Baxter?" Then a call to the other one. "She's still in there, isn't she?"
Sam's voice joined Matt's. "Miss Baxter? Are you in there?"
Her eyes widened as they rattled the knob and she clutched the covers to her chin. Any minute they would break down the door.
"If you're there, please answer."
They wouldn't hear if she screamed. Nobody would.
Suddenly the chair jumped and Lydia screeched. The door opened a crack and two heads appeared in the space. She shrank back, her hands knotted along the top of the quilt.
Matt chuckled. "I see you're all right. Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes." He ducked out of sight.
Sam hesitated for a heartbeat then, letting his breath out in a whoosh, silently followed his partner.
Lydia waited for her trembling to pass then swung her weak legs over the side of the bed and reached for her bag. Her hand touched the Bible where she had shoved it last night, and she jerked it out. It fell open to the bookmark. Mother's words came to her.
Read a few verses every day then pray about your day, expecting and trusting God to guide you.
Lydia's hand hovered over the pages, but it was a habit too old to ignore. And somehow to do other than Mother had instructed made Lydia feel guilty, so she read Psalm 54, the reading for the day. The words so perfectly fit the ache in her heart that she bent closer and read them again. "Save me ... hear my prayer ... strangers are risen up against me ... God is mine helper ... he hath delivered me out of all trouble."
She closed her eyes and breathed the words deep into her soul then whispered a prayer for God's help and intervention.
Only then did she return the Bible to her bag and pull out the pink and blue printed shirtwaist. It was dreadfully wrinkled, but she shrugged out of the soiled and equally wrinkled white one she'd slept in and pulled on the clean. Freeing her hair from its braid, she brushed it quickly, with little regard for the results. Not bothering to check for a mirror, she simply twisted her hair into a knot at the back of her neck and pinned it in place.
At the door she took a long, shaky breath. She must convince these men to take her back to town. Immediately. She lifted her chin and stepped into the kitchen. In order to keep her hands from trembling, she clasped them together at her waist.
Matt sprang to his feet. "Here, have a chair." He pulled one from the table then straddled his own, arms resting on the runged back.
"How about some coffee?" Sam held a steaming cup toward her.
"Thank you," Lydia whispered, welcoming the warmth as she clutched the cup in cold hands.
"Well now," Matt began. "Let's talk about your job."
Lydia cleared her throat. "Excuse me." It was barely a whisper and she tried again. "Excuse me. This really is impossible. You must take me back. I thought I was going to work for a family. Not for two—" Her voice faded again. "Bachelors."
Matt looked at her with narrowed eyes. "We understand that. And you can bet we were equally surprised."
His unblinking stare made Lydia duck her head. He continued. "Where were you planning to go?"
She jerked her head up and met his unwavering brown eyes. "I ... it's ... there ..."
"Do you have a place to go? Family in this country?" His dark eyes probed for answers.
Mutely, she shook her head.
"What about money? You got enough to get you someplace and take care of yourself until you find something?" Again that probing, prodding look.
She thought of the twenty dollars Reverend Williams had given her as a farewell gift and wondered how far that would take her.
Sam leaned over the table and fixed her with his blue eyes. "You see we're finding we have too much work to do outside to look after things in the house."
Her gaze swept around the room and she knew at a glance that he spoke the truth. The whole room was littered several feet high and wore a grimy coat.
Sam smiled acknowledgment of her silent assessment. "So this is what we have in mind. You stay here and work." He leaned back and before she could answer, added, "We'll pay you well, and when you find another place or a job you think is as good as here, we'll take you there immediately. Deal?"
Matt leaned forward on his arms, a lazy expression on his face, but Lydia guessed he was waiting for her answer as anxiously as Sam, who tipped his chair back and kept his eyes on her.
"Seems to me it would help us all out." Matt's low drawl filled the silence as Lydia stared from one man to the other.
"What will people think?" Lydia blurted out the thing uppermost in her mind.
Matt sat up, a scowl drawing his brows together. "I do not think right and wrong are determined by what people think or even what they say."
She shrank back from the anger in his voice.
"If people want to find something awful to say then they will whether or not you or I give them cause." He jerked to his feet and rubbed his thick black hair into a mass of curls.
Lydia glanced nervously at Sam, but he rose and went to the stove to stir the porridge, seemingly unaffected by Matt's reaction.
Matt rested a foot on his chair and turned to face her, a half smile on his face. "The way I see it is we need a housekeeper. And you need a place to stay."
Lydia stared at Sam's back and again at Matt's crooked smile. She certainly needed a place to stay, but Matt's words were only partly correct. It sometimes mattered a great deal what people thought. And she didn't need a third opinion to know it was wrong to live here alone with two men.
Matt nodded, taking her silence for consent, but from someplace deep inside her, Lydia discovered an inner strength that surprised her. She pulled herself straight in the chair and pushed her back against the hard rungs. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I understand your predicament and I'd like to help out." Her voice grew stronger with each word. "But I cannot stay here under these circumstances"—She threw her hands in the air—"without some sort of chaperon."
Sam turned and stared at her.
Matt dropped his foot to the floor with a resounding thud that jarred up Lydia's spine, but she did not shrink back or lower her gaze. These men must understand that she would not allow herself to be put in such a situation.
Sam turned and filled bowls with steaming porridge and carried them to the table along with a pitcher of milk. Lydia's mouth watered when she saw the thick layer of yellowish cream floating on top of the milk. It was breakfast-time yesterday that she had last eaten, and suddenly nothing seemed as important as food. She pulled a bowl close.
"Help yourself." Sam pushed the cream and brown sugar close. Matt spun his chair around and sat down.
Lydia paused, glancing from one man to the other. From that same unprobed strength, she smiled, and keeping her voice soft, said, "Perhaps someone should give thanks first."
Matt's eyes narrowed. Sam practically jolted in his seat. Silence hung over the table. Finally, Sam cleared his throat and mumbled, "Go ahead."
She nodded and bowed her head, murmuring a short, simple prayer. "Amen." She reached for the pitcher and poured a generous amount of cream into her bowl. There was sweet comfort in the warm, rich food, and for a moment Lydia forgot her predicament.
Sam pushed aside his empty bowl and stared into his coffee cup. Suddenly, he slapped the table with his open palm, almost causing Lydia to jump from her chair. "I got it!" he shouted. "Granny Arness!"
Matt glowered at him. "What about Granny Arness?"
"I was talking to Eldon Reimer in town awhile back, and he said something about not needing her anymore but there didn't seem to be anyplace for her." He shrugged. "Don't rightly remember all he said. I wasn't paying much attention."
Matt sat back, his face thoughtful. "It just might work."
Lydia leaned forward. "Who is Granny Arness?"
Excerpted from The Heart Seeks a Home by Linda Ford. Copyright © 2000 Barbour Publishing, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Truly Yours.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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