The late spring heat in the house made the air practically unbreathable.
Dolly jerked her head up from the sewing in her lap when she heard the wagon outside. She set the cloth aside and went to the window to see Karl, the delivery man from Haney’s mercantile, jump from the wagon. She went to the door with a smile on her face. He was there with her new wash tubs — the ones with wringers to press the water from the clothes.
“I can only bring this to your front porch, Miss Dolly,” the sinewy young man apologized. “I gotta make a run into Holbrook to pick up merchandise for Mr. Haney at the depot or I’d stay to carry it to the back and set ‘em up for ya.”
Dolly shielded her eyes from the bright sunlight with her chapped hand. “That’s all right, Karl. I can get it from here and set them up.”
She wasn’t sure that was the truth, but Dolly knew she needed to get the crate and its contents off the front porch and to the back before Martin got home and saw it.
Karl slid the large wooden crate from the back of the wagon and carried it to the porch. He stood waiting until Dolly dug into her apron pocket and fished out a nickel. “Thank you,” she said and handed the young man the coin.
“Thanks, Miss Dolly,” he said as he dropped the nickel into the breast pocket of his worn plaid shirt, “this’ll buy me a drink at Bud’s when I get to Holbrook.”
The driver hurried back through the gate, climbed back onto his wagon, unset the brake, and urged the horses up the dusty street. Dolly stared at the ungainly crate and pondered at how she was going to get it to the back porch where she did her laundry. She grasped onto the rough wood and lifted one end. She lowered it back to the porch, thankful it wasn’t too heavy.
“You need some help with that?”
Dolly lifted her head to see her neighbor, Trace Anderson, standing at the gate. Dolly felt her cheeks flush. She’d been sweet on the widowed man for a long while.
“I can probably get it, Trace,” Dolly said, “but I really don’t want to scratch the floor, dragging it to the back.”
Trace opened the gate and walked to the porch. “Where’s Martin?”
Dolly rolled her eyes. “Your guess is as good as mine. I have no idea where my brother is today.” She pushed open the front door and bent to take hold of one end of the crate. “It’s not too heavy.”
Trace squatted and picked up the other. “Not too heavy,” he said with a warm smile, “just awkward.”
Dolly returned the big man’s smile. “It’s new washtubs with a set of wringers to save my poor hands when I do the laundry.”
“It was nice of Martin to do that for you.”
“Yah,” Dolly said with a soft snort. Her brother hadn’t had anything to do with it. Dolly had paid for the tubs with the money she’d saved from the eggs and produce she sold to Mr. Haney.
They hauled the crate through the parlor, careful of the lamps, and through the tidy kitchen, where chicken boiled in a tall pot for dumplings, and out onto the back porch. “If you have a prybar,” Trace said, “I’ll pull this apart for you.”
“In the shed.” Dolly stepped off the porch into the yard and went to the little building behind the house connected to her chicken coop. She came back with the iron prybar and handed it to Trace who took it and began wrenching off the thin wooden slats of the crate. “I can do that,” Dolly told him, “if you’re busy in your shop.”
Trace Anderson ran a saddle and tack business attached to his home across the street from Dolly and her brother in Concho, Arizona. He did a good business with the Mormon ranchers and farmers in the area and was well liked in town. Women at church said he was one of the most eligible bachelors in the small community since his wife had passed two years before.
Dolly had set her eye on him some time ago, but the man had never paid her much mind. Ten years her senior, perhaps Trace thought she was too young at twenty-four to be a proper wife and mother.
“It’s no bother.” He pried the boards off the end of the crate and began to slide out the two tubs mounted on legs, so Dolly wouldn’t need to do the laundry on her knees anymore. He lifted out the two rollers and studied them. “What the heck are these?”
“Wringers,” she said with a proud smile. “You mount them to the tub, twist that handle there, and feed your clothes through.” Dolly shrugged her shoulders. “They wring out most of the water, so it doesn’t take so long for the clothes to dry.”
“Sure would save a soul’s hands some from all that twistin’.” He studied the tubs. “Which one you want them on?”
“Makes no never mind,” Dolly told him, and Trace began affixing the wringers to one of the galvanized tubs. “Martin would say this was a waste of good money, but it’s my hands they are saving and not his,” Dolly said with a nervous laugh. “And it was my money I bought them with — not his. Martin will probably say I’m taking the lazy woman’s way out of doing the washing.”
Trace cleared his throat as he turned his curly, head of brown hair to stare at Dolly. “You shouldn’t pay any attention to what Martin says about you, Dolly. I know you work hard to keep Martin’s house in order and tend to the garden and the chickens.” He stared into her blue eyes with his hazel ones and Dolly couldn’t look away. “He’s got no call sayin’ the things he does to you or sayin’ it the way he says it.”
Dolly was stunned by the man’s words. How could he know what sort of things Martin said to her? She glanced at the cheese cloth over the open kitchen window and sighed.
Martin was a yeller just like their father had been. When he’d been drinking and wanted to make a point, he thought saying it louder would do the job. Trace had lived across the street from them for over ten years, first with his late wife, Lucy, and then alone. How many of Martin’s foul-mouthed rages had he heard? Were they the reason he’d never paid any attention to her?
Sudden embarrassment caused Dolly’s cheeks to flame and that filled her with anger. She took a deep breath and tried to gather some control of her irritation. “I’m sorry Martin’s ranting has disturbed you, Mr. Anderson. I’ll be certain to remind him the windows might be open the next time.”
Trace, with a frown on his handsome face, tightened the final nut and tested the security by wiggling the wringers with his large hand. “I think that’ll do it.” He stared at the pile of wooden slats strewn across the porch. He nodded to the mess. “Do you want me to carry those off for you?”
“I’ll break them up for the cook stove,” Dolly said without looking him in the eye, “but thank you.”
She smelled her chicken boiling in the kitchen and stepped around the big man, who towered over Dolly’s five feet seven inches by a head and had shoulders, so broad he had to turn them to get through most doors. “I need to check the water in my chicken before it scorches in the pot.”
Trace turned his head toward the kitchen door. “It smells good,” he said with a grin, “but all your cookin’ smells good, Dolly.”
Dolly smiled as she lifted the lid from the blue enameled pot. He’d been smelling her cooking? Well, he did live just across the way. Dolly liked to cook and took pride in her meals. She was also proud of her weed-free garden and her plump chickens.
It still riled her some that Trace had been paying so much attention to what was going on at her house when he had never given her more than a nod in passing in public. Dolly knew Trace had never been much of a conversationalist though. Maybe he was more of a listener than a talker. She smiled to herself. The Lord knew she could use someone to listen to her for a change.
Trace stepped into the kitchen. “Well, I guess I’ll be goin’ if you don’t need anything else,” he said as his eyes scanned the tidy kitchen, “but remember what I said. Martin’s got no reason to call you lazy or treat you the way he does.”
Dolly felt her cheeks flush again. “I appreciate that, but Martin has been taking care of me since Mama and Daddy died.” She bit at her lip as she pondered what to say next. “He put his life on hold to look after me.” She parroted the things Martin always said to her.
Trace snorted. “He treats you like a child and uses you like a house slave, Dolly. You’re not that skinny little girl who lost her parents anymore,” he huffed, “so have a little pride and stand up for yourself like the grown woman you are now. You’ve done more than your share to pay that worthless drunkard back.”
“I owe my brother for looking after me all these years,” she protested, defending her brother with tears stinging her eyes, “and what right have you to listen in on our private family squabbles anyway, Trace Anderson?”
“There isn’t much of a way to avoid listening in,” Trace smirked, rolling his eyes. When Dolly made no reply he marched out of the kitchen, through the parlor, and out the door.
Dolly let the tears she’d been holding back slide down her cheeks. If he thought she was a woman now, why hadn’t he ever paid court to her?
* * *
Trace swallowed hard as he stomped across the narrow street separating his house and tack shop from Dolly and Martin’s. Why had she gotten so cantankerous? He’d only been trying to help. How was he not supposed to listen to Martin’s drunken rampages when the man yelled every word?
He yanked open the front door and stormed inside his house. He’d been listening to that bastard beat and degrade that girl for ten years. Trace shook his head in frustration as he stomped to the pail of water on the kitchen counter, lifted out the enameled dipper, put it to his lips, and swallowed the cool, sweet water. He hoped it would cool his temper, but it didn’t.
Trace returned to the worn canvas settee and dropped his girth down onto it. He picked up the framed tin-type photograph and ran a calloused finger over Lucy’s smiling face. “I’ve done the best I could for that girl, Lucy,” he whispered. “I went to Reverend Haskell about Martin beatin’ her the way he does, but the old man told me to mind my own business. He said Dolly was Martin’s responsibility to raise the way he saw fit. He told me to remember what the Good Book said about sparing the rod and spoiling the child.”
Trace returned the photograph to the table. “I even went to Martin about courtin’ her after a proper mourning period had passed,” he whispered, “but the drunken bastard laughed in my face and told me I couldn’t afford his bride-price for her hand.” Trace shook his head again. “I know you liked the girl, Lucy and so do I. She’s grown into a fine woman.” Trace smiled at the photograph of his wife. “I was in her house today and it’s so clean I could have eaten off the floor, but she has no respect for herself. Martin’s beaten it out of her.”
Trace picked up the harness straps he’d been working on before going to assist Dolly and began to stitch them together with a needle and sinew. He couldn’t get the pretty blue-eyed redhead across the street out of his head though. He’d watched her grow from a gawky girl into a shapely woman.
He remembered how Dolly had been there for him after Lucy had passed, trying to give birth to their child. She’d wept at the funeral, and then come to the house and taken charge of the kitchen where women from town had brought platters and dishes of food.
Those days had passed in a blur of sadness and tears, but he remembered the skinny young woman in his house, cleaning, making him food, and pressing him to eat. Trace honestly didn’t know what he’d have done without her help during that time. He’d asked Dolly to stop coming after he’d overheard some of the women at church remark about the unseemliness of him having the girl in his house so much so soon after the death of his wife.
Trace had suspected they were jealous of Dolly because they hadn’t thought to send their eligible daughters to his aid. Later in the conversation, he’d heard one of them remark that she hoped he never set his eyes upon her daughter. The big man had killed poor Lucy, filling her belly with a babe so big it couldn’t make its way out and she didn’t want to take a chance like that with her poor girl. Filled with grief and guilt, Trace had told Dolly he thought it was time he tried to get along on his own and asked her to stop coming over to clean up after him and do his laundry.
He’d missed her company but thought it best for the both of them. Now years had passed, and Dolly had grown into a beautiful young woman. She had all the qualities a man could want in a wife, but Trace knew her brother had turned every young man in town away when they’d asked to court his pretty sister.
Martin wanted to keep Dolly to himself to tend to his needs as a housekeeper. Was that fair to Dolly? No woman wanted to take the unemployed drunkard, Martin as a husband. He’s going to turn her into an old maid, living with and looking after her brother because he’s made her feel guilty. Trace had heard the man tell Dolly that no man would ever want to take her as his wife because she was a lazy, worthless human being with the looks of a dried up old cow.
Trace thought back on the day he’d gone to Martin’s door and ventured to ask him to court Dolly in the hope he could save her from yet another beating and haranguing.
“What’s on your mind today, Anderson?” Martin had said upon answering the door, his breath reeking of alcohol.
“I want to talk to you about Dolly, Martin.”
“What about her?” Martin stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind him. “You finally gonna pay me for all the work she’s been doin’ for you over there?”