Keeping Christmas. Marisa Carroll

Keeping Christmas - Marisa Carroll

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toward the woods.

      Settling against the wooden corner post, she pulled the cat from around her neck. The wound was healing well, she decided, brushing back the hair to better make out the rough stitches she’d put in place. Her mouth drew down as she recalled the horror of a steel trap and the howls of the wounded creature who’d strayed into its jaws. Pa had nailed her a good one for hiding the cat and not giving away its whereabouts, but it was worth it. Already Cat was walking pretty good. Before long, she’d be…Maggie’s eyes dimmed as the creature’s hopeless future loomed before her. No longer would Cat be able to hunt for food, or protect herself from predators.

      “I’ll take care of you. Don’t you worry none,” she murmured, her fingers tugging at the gray ears with tender caresses. Maisie watched from the grass below, sitting patiently, her gaze never swerving. “And you, too, Maisie.” Maggie lifted her shoulders, stretching, easing the cramps from sleeping in the loft. She’d settled down near the opening, watchful of her animals, and the floor had been hard and ungiving.

      In the room beyond the screened door, sounds promised the coming of a meal, or at least some sort of hastily prepared food, if she was any judge. A pan clattered, a spoon scraped, and water was pumped into a container. Who’d have ever thought a man could put together something to eat? Pa wouldn’t have been caught dead dealing with the kitchen stove or making a meal for himself. But he always managed to be there when Mama dished things up.

      Maggie leaned her head against the post behind her. For right now, for this moment, she was safe. If Pa was after her, she’d see him coming, for the lane was in sight. Beyond the barn, several men were heading in this direction, but they didn’t seem to be on the lookout, just making their way toward a long, low building where smoke drifted from the chimney and a clanging noise seemed to be a signal of sorts. She shrank within herself, lest she be seen by the men. Three of them there were, and so far they hadn’t taken any mind of her. She could hear them calling back and forth, and then they made their way through the doorway into the building next to the barn.

      “If I was smart, I’d be out there eating with the hands.” The big man was behind the screened door, talking to her, and here she’d been so intent on watching the yard that he’d managed to creep up on her.

      “Go ahead on,” she muttered, embarrassed at being caught unawares.

      “I told you I’d feed you,” he reminded her, and pushed the door open. “Why don’t you come inside? I’ve put the coffee on the front of the stove and found some bread and butter and a jar of apples. There’s some meat left from yesterday’s dinner.”

      “Don’t your wife cook?” Maggie asked suspiciously. “Ain’t she around?”

      The rancher looked at her, and shook his head. “No wife, and the cook went to be with her daughter for a couple of days. I’m making do with leftovers, but I’ll probably eat with my ranch hands tonight.”

      She leaned forward, peering suspiciously past him into the dim kitchen. “You all alone in there?”

      He held the door wide. “Come take a look for yourself.”

      Maggie edged closer to him, peering past his formidable bulk into the kitchen. An oblong table, covered with a checkered oilcloth centered the room, sturdy chairs positioned around it. Heat from the cookstove warmed her as she crossed the threshold, and the scent of coffee beckoned.

      “You got any milk for the coffee?” she asked, venturing to the far side of the table. A lone cup and solitary plate, with a knife and fork framing two sides, awaited her as she stood behind the chair. Her eyes widened as she beheld a pitcher filled with rich, yellow cream. “You put the top cream in your coffee?”

      He shrugged, facing her from the doorway. “Why not? Seems like a good way to use it up.”

      “My ma always had to churn it all. We drank the dregs. Never could take to the skim.” She reached for the pitcher and then halted, aware of the grime she’d managed to gather on her skin. “Reckon I could wash up a little first?”

      “Certainly.” He nodded toward the stove. “There’s warm water in the reservoir. I’ll get it for you.”

      Maggie watched as he filled a saucepan, dipping into the cavern that was attached to the side of the cookstove. He carried the pan to the sink, emptying it into a basin there, then pumped an equal amount of cool water from the well. His glance was accompanied by a small smile, and he stepped back.

      “Have at it. I’ll get you a towel.”

      He turned to the pantry, and she moved quickly to where the luxury of warm water awaited her. A thin bar of store-bought soap lay on the wooden sinkboard and she picked it up, lifting it to her nose. The scent was clean, and she inhaled it greedily. The basin was directly beneath the pitcher pump. She moved it to one side, then pumped once, allowing the water to splash over her hands. The soap turned dark with the residue of dirt on her hands and she rubbed her fingers vigorously before she pumped again, rinsing them. No sense in letting that nice, warm water get grungy right off, she decided.

      Again Maggie worked at her hands, pleased as the soapsuds dissolved her two-day collection of grime. Finally satisfied, she bent to the basin, wetting her face with both hands before she rubbed up a good amount of suds between her palms. The clean scent pleased her as she lifted her hands to her face and soaped its surface. She closed her eyes, her fingers working from forehead to chin and below, then from one ear to the other, wincing a bit as her bruises protested their cleaning. There was no help for it, she decided. The chance for real soap and warm water was an opportunity she couldn’t afford to turn down. She lifted a double handful of water, splashing it against her skin, and then blew out the soap that clung to her lips.

      “Here’s a towel for you to use.” He was beside her, and she stood erect, her heart beating furiously. His body heat touched her even as the towel was thrust into her hands. Tall and broad-shouldered, he loomed over her, and she shrank from him. Her eyes burned from soap and water combined, and she scrubbed gingerly at her face with the towel, then looked up at him, inhaling deeply for a lungful of air.

      “You could scare a body to death, comin’ up on them like that.” Maggie’s lips threatened to quiver with fright, and she would not have it. She tightened them, compressing her mouth into a thin line.

      “I beg your pardon,” he murmured. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.” His eyes dwelt on her face, his mouth again tightening as his gaze traced her damaged skin. “I should have brought you a washcloth, too, I suppose.”

      What on earth was the man talking about? “Whatever for?” she asked. “I’ve been usin’ my hands to wash with for more years than I can count.”

      “I always like to scrub up with…” He halted. “Never mind. Let’s just get you fed and find something for your animals.”

      Her animals! She’d forgotten them. The towel met the sinkboard and she backed from the man, then hastened to the screened door. A sigh left her lips, an audible sound of relief. Maisie and Cat were where she’d left them, the pair of them watching and waiting patiently.

      “They’re fine,” she announced, turning again to the table. “If you don’t mind, I’ll just take them out half of whatever you were gonna give me to eat.”

      His eyes turned dark, and he shook his head, an abrupt movement. “No. You’ll eat whatever you please, and then we’ll find more for the dog and cat.” He motioned to the chair and she obeyed his silent command, her stomach growling as she faced the food he offered. A plate with several chunks of beef, and beside it, a Mason jar filled with cooked apples. Even as she watched, her host unwrapped a loaf of bread from a kitchen towel and placed it on a wooden board.

      “You want me to slice some for you?” he asked, knife in hand.

      She nodded. “That’d be welcome.” The knife cut with ease through the brown crust, and white slices fell like slabs of lumber from a felled tree at the mill in town. She was pleased with the thought, and reached for a slice as he drew back. “Sure is nice and white.

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