Bethany House Publishers
Spencer, Kansas—Late April, 1936
Dear God in heaven, please let me be wrong.
Anna Mae Phipps hung her head over the sink basin as another bout of nausea tried to turn her belly inside out. She heaved, but nothing came up. Wasn't anything in there to come up—she hadn't even had breakfast yet. It wasn't a good sign, getting the heaves first thing in the morning. Especially three days running.
With a shaking hand, she grasped the corner of her apron, raised it to her lips, and wiped away bits of spittle. She straightened just as Harley rounded the corner from the bedroom. He snapped his suspenders into place and sent her a worried look.
"You okay, Annie? You're white as a ghost."
Please, God, we just can't have another one right now.
"I'm okay." She pressed her hands to her belly. "The heat is a bit too much this morning." She had hoped it was only the unseasonable heat that had caused her missed cycles. But now, the heaves ...
Harley nodded. Grabbing two biscuits left over from last night's supper, he crossed to the back door. "Gonna go out an' get the mules hitched. Headin' to town. Need anything?"
Need anything? She nearly laughed out loud. There were so many things they needed! Dorothy's shoes pinched so badly the little girl cried every time her mama got them out. The lye soap she used on their laundry gave baby Marjorie a rash. A soothing cream from the doctor would help, or maybe just a box of Dreft to use instead of that horrid lye soap. But Anna Mae knew it was pointless to give Harley a list. How would he buy the things she named? Fifteen cents a bushel for corn couldn't possibly meet the needs of a family of four. Or five.
She shook her head. "I suppose not. Except maybe a bag of beans. I've got a meaty hock in the cellar. I'll cook up a mess of ham and beans for Sunday's dinner." A meal like that could stretch to cover supper Sunday and lunch on Monday, too.
Harley stuck one whole biscuit in his mouth. "Jus' beans?" He spoke around the lump in his cheek. "Don't nothin' else sound good?"
Anna Mae clutched her stomach. No, nothing else sounded good. But if Dorothy were in the room, she would have some suggestions: white sugar, a peppermint stick, some bologna. How that child liked bologna on white bread. Anna Mae felt her stomach tilt.
"No, I can't think of anything. Just ... just take care of your own errands and bring me those beans, okay?"
She held her breath as he scowled at her, his lips parted as if ready to speak. Don't ask, Harley. Don't ask what's wrong again or I'm liable to tell you.
"Annie, if you could have one thing from town—something you really, really wanted—what would it be?"
She straightened her shoulders, her brows shooting upward. Harley wasn't one to play whimsical games. Not since the banks collapsed and the drought struck, making it almost impossible to eke a living out of the land. She wasn't sure why he was asking, but she had an answer. "I'd get a fine new hat to wear to church on Sundays. A straw one, with little wax cherries or some silk flowers on it."
A grin tugged at Harley's whiskered cheeks. "Cherries on a hat? Only place I want to see cherries is in a pie."
Anna Mae frowned and looked down at the scuffed linoleum floor. If he was going to poke fun at her answer, she wished he hadn't asked in the first place.
"Bet you'd be the purtiest gal there, wearing a hat like that."
Her heart caught in her throat.
"'Course, I always thought you was plenty purty, hat or no."
Had he paid her a compliment? How long had it been since Harley had paid her a compliment? She slapped her chapped hands to her face. "Oh, Harley ..."
His grin broadened. Snatching his battered hat from the peg beside the door, he plopped it over his shaggy brown hair before heading outside.
Anna Mae crossed to the open doorway and watched him stride toward the barn. Even in those worn-out clothes, there was no disguising the handsome man beneath. Wide shoulders tapered to narrow hips. Strong legs carried him across the dusty ground. Firm arms swung with determination, as if he were heading to a meeting of diplomats instead of their weather-beaten barn to hitch up mules to an old wagon.
It was Harley's way of walking that had captured her attention when he'd wandered onto the Elliott property eight years ago and asked her daddy for a job. There was such pride in the way he carried himself. And then she'd looked into his eyes—those twinkling blue eyes that made her want to look into them until everything else faded away. It had been a long time since she'd allowed herself to get lost in the depths of Harley's eyes.
Sighing, she turned away from the sight of her husband and closed the door against the wind that carried bits of grit into the house. Her gaze fell on the remaining dry biscuit on the table. She picked it up and nibbled an edge. Her stomach rolled. Maybe she should ask Harley to buy a tin of saltines. Saltines had helped her get through the early weeks of carrying Marjorie.
Dropping the biscuit onto the plate, she hurried through the back porch, swung open the screen door, and called to Harley. Wind whipped a strand of hair into her mouth. She tugged it loose and anchored it behind her ear.
He appeared in the wide doorway of the barn. "Yeah?"
"Can—" She pressed her hand against her stomach. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe it was just the heat. Maybe ... No. She knew. "Can you pick up a tin of saltines from the store?"
She couldn't tell since he stood in shadow, but she thought she saw him frown.
She swallowed. "Yes."
With a nod, he turned away.
Closing the door, she slumped against it and pressed her fist to her trembling lips. Dear God, they're supposed to be blessings, but this time it feels like a curse.
* * *
Anna Mae held Marjorie on her hip and battled to throw diapers over the sagging clothesline one-handed. The wind caught the wet cloth and slapped it against her face. The strong smell of lye soap filled her nostrils. With a snort of disgust, she threw the diaper into the basket and set Marjorie on the ground. The baby squalled in protest.
"I'm sorry, angel baby," Anna Mae cooed as she grabbed a handful of diapers and fastened them to the line with wooden picks, "but I can't hold you and hang clothes at the same time. Just sit there for Mama and be good until I'm done."
Instead, Marjorie pulled herself up on Anna Mae's leg and continued to bawl, reaching with chubby hands to be held.
Anna Mae scooped up the baby and stomped around the side of the house to where Dorothy played beneath the drooping limbs of a monstrous weeping willow. A small smile tugged at her lips as she approached her daughter's favorite playing spot. How she'd loved playing in the shaded shelter of those same limbs when she was a little girl. She found it comforting that, despite so many other things changing, the weeping willow's welcoming branches remained the same.
Pushing one straggly limb aside, she addressed her daughter. "Dorothy, watch Marjorie for Mama so I can get the laundry hung."
The five-year-old sat on her knees in the dirt, her fine blond hair sticking out in feathery wisps. At her mother's question, she scrunched up her face. "But, Mama, I just got ready for tea with Dolly."
Anna Mae's gaze swept across the chunks of tree bark and rocks set up as substitute plates and cups on the smooth ground. She wished she could give her little girl a china tea set, but at least she had been able to give Dorothy her own doll.
"Can't Marjorie come to tea, too?"
Dorothy's lips pooched out in a pout. "She messes it all up."
"I know, darlin', but I can't—"
Anna Mae turned sharply toward the voice. She hadn't heard the wagon rumble in. With Marjorie still riding her hip, she rounded the corner of the house to find Harley in the backyard, a crate in his arms. She scanned the area in front of the barn. Where was the wagon?
Harley's grin stretched from ear to ear. "Look here what I got."
Anna Mae inched forward and peered into the crate. She gasped. "Harley!"
"Thought you'd be pleased." He set the crate on the ground and bent down on one knee, shifting things around as he recited the crate's contents. "Got your beans. Plus sugar, coffee, cornmeal." He grinned up at her and winked. "Gotta have corn bread to go with that mess of ham an' beans, right?" He poked around some more. "Pound an' a half of bologna, some cheese, canned peaches, the biggest tin of saltines I could find ..."
The list went on, while Anna Mae's amazement grew.
"And"—he picked up an odd-shaped, tissue-wrapped package and stood, holding it out to Anna Mae in his work-roughened hands—"I got this for you."
Anna Mae tipped her head. "W-what is it?"
Harley tousled Marjorie's wispy hair before peeling back the tissue paper. "Didn't have one with cherries on it, but I thought these daisies were real purty."
Anna Mae's eyes widened as Harley placed a tan straw hat with daisies all around the brim on her head. "Harley! What's it for?"
A boyish grin tipped up one corner of his lips. "Oh ... just because."
Was she dreaming? She touched the hat with one hand. The silk petals of the flowers tickled her palm. Yes, it was real. She pushed Marjorie's hand down as the baby reached for the hat. "But ... but it must have cost so dear!" Tears sprang into her eyes. When had Harley ever bought her a present "just because"? Not since their courting days, for sure.
"It wasn't so much." His blue eyes sparkled with pleasure. "An' it looks real purty on you, just like I knew it would."
Dorothy ran around the house, her cotton dress flying up to reveal her dirty knees. "Daddy! What'cha got?"
Harley bent down to capture the little girl in a hug. He rubbed his whiskered cheek against her smooth one, making her squeal. Then, kneeling in the dirt beside the box, he answered, "Got all kinds of goodies. Lookee here." He pulled out a small brown bag and handed it to the child. "Peek in there, Dottie."
Dorothy unrolled the top, peeked in, and squealed again. "Gumdrops!"
"That's right. But you gotta make 'em last. Don't eat 'em all at once."
"I won't!" Dorothy popped a green gumdrop into her mouth and beamed at her father.
Anna Mae shook her head. She took off the hat and held it against her hip. "Harley, this is all wonderful, but—but where'd you get the money?" Her heart pounded in sudden fear. "You didn't take out a loan, did you?" If they lost the house, what would they do?
Harley shot her a frown as he straightened to his feet. "'Course not, Annie, I got more sense than that. No, I—" He scratched his chin. "I sold the mules."
"You did what?" Marjorie squirmed, reaching for the hat again, and Anna Mae plunked it back into the crate. Suddenly she couldn't bear to hold it.
"Sold the mules." Harley's voice sounded gruff.
Marjorie slipped lower on Anna Mae's hip, and she jerked the baby upward so abruptly the child began to howl. Anna Mae raised her voice to be heard over the ruckus. "Those mules were the only thing we had to keep this farm going! You can't work the land without those animals. What were you thinking to sell them off?"
Harley's jaw thrust out. "I was thinking my family needed fed. It was either butcher 'em or sell 'em. Didn't figure you'd be willing to cook 'em up if I did butcher 'em, so I sold 'em and bought enough grub to get us through the next month at least."
"It was a fool thing to do, Harley."
Harley's face drained of color, then filled with red. He pressed his lips together so tightly they nearly disappeared, and his hands balled into fists. Anna Mae sucked in her breath. Never had she seen Harley so angry. Instinctively, she shrank back, cradling Marjorie's head in the crook of her neck. Even Dorothy stopped sucking on her gumdrop and peered at her father with round, frightened eyes.
But Harley didn't storm at her or raise his fist to strike her. He stayed rooted in place with his neck arched so taut the tendons stood out like rope. For long seconds he stared into her face, his eyes narrowed, fury seeming to spark from him. Then, slowly, he relaxed his shoulders. His hands opened to pick up the crate.
Resting the crate against his belly, he rasped in a low, tight voice, "Don't ever call me a fool, Annie." He pushed forward, and she slid sideways to avoid being bumped with the crate. She watched him stomp into the house and heard the thud of the crate hitting the table. When he stomped back out, he passed her without a word, heading for the barn.
"Mama?" Dorothy looked upward, her blue eyes—so much like Harley's—wide and fearful.
Anna Mae tweaked her daughter's tangled ponytail. "It's okay, darlin'. You eat your gumdrops and don't worry."
The little girl ambled back to her play area, the bag of gumdrops in one dirty fist.
Anna Mae patted Marjorie, who hiccupped with her crying, and looked toward the barn. Should she go talk to him? Apologize? Then she raised her chin in stubborn pride. No, she hadn't said anything that wasn't true. Selling those mules was foolish, and only a fool man would do such a thing! Why hadn't he asked her about it first? Those mules had belonged to her daddy. She remembered the pride in her father's eyes when he'd brought the team home, claiming he was moving up from driving a milk cow in his fields. Harley had no right to sell those mules without talking to her.
Leaving the remaining wet laundry in the basket beneath the clothesline, she stormed into the house and slammed the door as hard as she could. But when she turned, she spotted the crate on the table. The new straw hat sat on top of the other contents. Her heart turned over. He'd meant well.
But what would they do without those mules?
Where Willows Grow by Kim Vogel Sawyer
Copyright © 2007; ISBN-13 978-0764201837
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.