Oh, what an exquisite coat!
Summer Steadman stopped in front of Nickels' Dry Goods store, her attention grabbed by the sight. The wind pressed at her back, whipping strands of hair across her face. She anchored the hair behind her ear as she leaned closer to the window.
The coat, displayed on a wooden stand, had a printed card resting against its hem. Since the words were written in some foreign gibberish, she was only able to make out the price: seven dollars and fifty cents. But she didn't need to read the words to recognize the real ermine fur that graced the collar and cuffs or the elegant camel's hair fabric.
When her breath steamed the pane, hiding the coat from view, she swiped the moisture away with her hand. How sweet Tillie would look in that little coat! Its Mother Hubbard waist and pompadour sleeves gave the coat a grown-up, sophisticated look even though it was designed for a toddler. A matching bonnet hung from the display stand by satin ribbons. Summer closed her eyes, picturing Tillie's dark curls and bright eyes peeping from beneath the ermine brim. Tillie would have loved to wear a coat such as this.
Opening her eyes, Summer pressed her palms to the glass, straining for a closer glimpse. For a moment, she considered entering the store and purchasing the little hat and coat. Her arms ached with the desire to cradle her daughter. Perhaps cradling that coat, which was the same size as Tillie, would ease her loneliness.
Reality crashed around her. No ... cradling that empty coat would only remind her of her loss. "Oh, Tillie, my sweet baby," she whispered, resting her forehead against the cold glass as tears pricked her eyelids. Her heart tightened until she feared it might stop beating.
Forcing a breath into her lungs, Summer spun from the window and stumbled to the edge of the boardwalk. Frigid wind slapped her face, and she shivered. She needed to return to the hotel. The thought of that lonely room held no appeal, but what else could she do? Her long afternoon of querying for employment had proved fruitless. There was no reason to remain outdoors any longer. Releasing a deep sigh, she turned her steps toward the large wooden building across the street.
The pungent odors wafting from the dining room made her stomach twist with queasiness. She covered her nose with her scarf and passed through the lobby as quickly as possible, ignoring the elderly desk clerk. Safely locked in her room, she sank down on the homespun blanket covering the feather tick. With stilted motions, she removed her coat and let it flop onto the bed. She sat, staring at the plain plaster wall.
What would she do now? she wondered for the hundredth time. She wrinkled her brow as she considered her limited options. She could press on to Oklahoma and claim land, as she and Rodney had planned. But she had no desire to do this on her own, and how would she take care of a homestead? Her education--well-rounded even by Boston standards--hadn't included the skills needed for planting and plowing.
She could pay someone to take her to one of the larger towns nearby where she could purchase a train ticket back to Boston. But who would welcome her? Rodney's parents had disowned him the moment he announced his intention to leave for Oklahoma. They wouldn't desire her company now that Rodney and the children were gone. Her brother and his wife would not want her, either. They had been only too glad to see her married to Rodney and out of their house. Nothing awaited her in Boston.
Staying here was the only choice. But staying presented a whole other set of problems.
Most of the money Rodney had planned to use to start their farm remained in a hidden pocket of her reticule. A sizable sum it was, but even a sizable sum would be depleted if it did not replace itself. Given time, she would have no way to pay even for this humble hotel room. If she were to stay, she would need a means of support. But there seemed to be no opportunities available here.
Her mind replayed the response given at every place of business--a firm "No help needed" coupled with a look of distrust. Did they sense the stench of death she carried? Suddenly, unbidden, a row of grave markers appeared in her memory, the first carved with the name of her husband and four smaller ones carved with the names of her children. With a groan, Summer threw herself across the bed. Her nostrils filled with the musty odor of the old tick. She bent her elbow and buried her face in its curve as tears overflowed, soaking the sleeve of her dress.
"O God in heaven," she begged aloud, "why did you not take me, too? It is surely a punishment.... A punishment I know I deserve, but ... Don't leave me here alone. Let me be with my children...." Sobs wracked her body until blessed sleep finally claimed her.
Peter Ollenburger entered the hotel lobby, sweeping the hat from his head the moment he stepped over the threshold. He unbuttoned his jacket with one hand, glad to be out of the biting wind. The good scents of sauerkraut, sausage, and potatoes greeted his nose, and the temptation to seat himself in the dining room and order a dinner was great. Swallowing, he reminded himself that Thomas and Grossmutter waited at home with beans and salt pork boiling on the back of the stove. He turned his attention away from Martha Harms's cooking and focused instead on the hotel clerk. His boots clumped against the wooden floor as he crossed to the desk. "Guten tag, Bernard."
Bernard Harms blinked behind round-lensed spectacles. "Why, Peter, what brings you into the hotel? You have daylight hours yet to make it home."
Peter chuckled. "Nein, I am not checking in. You are right it would be foolish. I am here to ..." He scratched his head. What he was planning to propose would start the townspeople's tongues to wagging, for sure.
"Ja, ja, here to ... ?"
Peter felt heat climb the back of his neck. "I am here to talk to that frau whose family is buried east of town."
Bernard's eyebrows nearly disappeared into his hairline.
The heat in Peter's neck increased. "Ach, Bernard, I know what thought you have! Put it from your mind." He coiled his fingers around his hat. "My son has been home since he broke his ribs. He is behind on schoolwork, and this I do not like. I cannot help him much--a big stupid man I am. But Reverend Enns, he tells me this woman speaks as if she has had much schooling. Maybe she can help my Thomas, ja?"
Bernard shook his head, the light glinting on the thick lenses of his glasses. "Hmph ... I would not mind her sitting somewhere other than in my hotel room all day long."
"She is here now?" Peter was not sure if he wanted Bernard to answer ja or nein.
"She is here--she returned a bit ago. She is in room seven."
Peter twisted his hat in his hands. Despite the unseasonable chill of late October, his palms began to sweat. "Sieben. Ja, I will go and ask her, then."
Bernard came around the corner of the desk. "I will go, too. It is not proper for a single man and a single lady to be without a chaperone."
Peter nodded at Bernard's words. He would not even propose this if his wife's grandmother did not reside at his home. Although Grossmutter was crippled from arthritis, slowing down the work she could do, her mind was sharp. A good chaperone she could be.
Bernard leaned his elbow on the edge of the high desk. "Will you pick her up here each day to come teach Thomas?"
"Nein. With the cold weather coming, I cannot ride back and forth from home to town every day to fetch her." Besides, Peter understood from the reverend that this woman needed a place to stay that would cost no money. Reverend Enns was sure she would return to the East when she had regained her strength. She would need her money for travel, the reverend had said. Trading room and board for teaching would be a good exchange; the woman would not have to spend her savings.
"Then she will ... live with you?" Bernard almost whispered the final words.
"She will live in my house, if she says she will come."
"In your house?" These words seemed to squeak out. "Peter, have you thought this through?"
Peter scowled. "Ja." For sure, he had thought it through or he would not be here.
"But where will the woman sleep?"
"With Elsa's grandmother, in her room." He had not yet mentioned this idea to Grossmutter, and for a moment he felt guilty for involving her without her permission. But the old woman was a kind-hearted soul. Surely she would not disagree.
Bernard shook his head, his expression solemn. "Peter, it cannot be done. Even with the grandmother there, the woman cannot live under your roof. The council will never approve it. She ... she is unmarried. And she is not of our faith."
Peter bit on his lower lip, causing his beard to splay forward. He had not considered that the council might disapprove. He scratched his head. "I am a bumbler for sure. I had thought ... But now I do not know...." He bit his lip again. Thomas needed help, and he had felt this woman was the answer to his prayers. But now? He sighed. "I guess I will not talk to her after all. I did not think all things through." He turned to leave.
Bernard caught his arm. "Peter, what about the shariah?"
Bernard nodded. "It is snug and dry."
Peter stroked his beard. "The shariah ..." He used the shariah for storage, but he could move those boxes and barrels to the barn. The woman would have her own little place, close enough to walk to the house and work with Thomas each day but far enough away to keep the gossip hens from clucking too much. Peter grinned. "Bernard, you are a clever man."
Bernard puffed out his chest and tapped his gray temple with one finger. His eyes sparkled. "Come, Peter. We will go ask her." He led the way down the dim hallway to room seven and knocked briskly on the closed door.
Peter held his breath. What would the woman think? A woman left as she had been, in a strange town without a man to support her, was bound to feel helpless. No doubt she mourned all she had lost. Four liebchen and her husband, the reverend had said. Peter understood mourning. How he had mourned his Elsa when she had gone to glory. She had been his playmate in childhood, his best friend in youth, and his dearest love. Yet he, Thomas, and Grossmutter had managed to go on together, with God's help.
And now God had put this woman and her plight on his heart. He hoped she would see the sense of his plan. Thomas needed someone, and Peter was sure it would do the woman good to have someone to fuss over. It was a good plan now that Bernard had thought of the shariah.
It seemed a long time had passed since Bernard knocked. No sounds came from behind the door. Peter looked down at Bernard, concern filling his belly. "You are sure she is in there?"
Bernard nodded, his forehead creased in contemplation. "I saw her come in. She looked sad--more sad than any other day since she started staying here last week."
Peter's brows came down. "You do not think she would do something ... foolish?"
"You think she might ... ?"
Peter swallowed hard. "When one is deeply sorrowful, one can be foolish."
Bernard raised his fist and pounded on the door. "Frau Steadman! Frau Steadman!" His shrill voice carried down the hall.
They heard a scramble from behind the door, then a key in the lock. The doorknob twisted, and the door swung open to reveal a disheveled, wild-haired woman. Her eyes bore dark smudges; her cheeks looked hollow and pale. Her blue dress hung on a frame too thin for it. Peter's heart turned over in pity, but at the same time he wondered if the reverend could have been right that this woman was well educated. She did not give the appearance of great intelligence as she gaped at the men with wide red-rimmed eyes.
"Yes? W-what is it?"
Peter stepped forward, making a little bow. "Frau Steadman, mein name ist--" With a shake of his head, he reminded himself to speak English. "Frau Steadman, I am Peter Ollenburger. I have come to ask you to move to my home and--" His sentence went unfinished. Much to his surprise, the woman's face suddenly turned white, and then with a little cry she collapsed in a heap at his feet.