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The Forever Man

By:Carolyn Davidson

The Forever Man
Carolyn Davidson

       Chapter One

"I believe I have a solution to your problem, Miss Johanna." The  Reverend Hughes folded his hands precisely and rubbed one thumb the  length of the other, his eyes never leaving the young woman seated  across the table from him.

Johanna nodded politely. Entertaining well-meaning townfolk had become a  way of life over the past months. Seemingly, setting her life in order  was the goal of every person who'd known Fred and Mary Patterson.

"When your daddy died, I knew it would seem like the end of the world to  you, Johanna. That's why we've all been putting our heads together,  trying to help you get settled."

She was about as settled as any old maid ever was, Johanna figured, but  perhaps the preacher had a trick or two up his sleeve. If he could come  up with a way to clean up the last of the garden, milk six cows and tend  to a yardful of laying hens, besides lugging six bushels of apples into  the fruit cellar during the next twelve hours, it would be a miracle  fit for a sermon come Sunday morning.

"Are you listening to me, Miss Johanna?" Theodore Hughes leaned over the  table, his eyes filled with concern as he sought to meet her gaze. "I  feel the events of the past months have sent you into a true decline.  You almost appear to be in the depths of despair this morning."

It was more she'd like to be in the depths of her feather tick this  morning, Johanna thought. Her every muscle aching, her eyes burning from  lack of sleep and her empty stomach growling were surely enough reason  to feel despair. If she was the sort to fall into that trap.

"Perhaps I came too early in the day, my dear. However, I felt it could  never be too early to bring good tidings your way." Leaning over the  table in her direction, the preacher smiled with kindly humor.

"Good tidings?" She'd heard nothing but foolishness and claptrap from  the steady stream of townspeople heading her way lately. Good tidings  might be a relief.

"Your daddy left you a fine place, Miss Johanna. But if you can't tend  it properly, you won't be able to hold on to it, what with the mortgage  at the bank and your stock to care for and the rest of the apple crop to  get in."

She knew all that, Johanna thought glumly. She'd had four solid offers  from neighboring farmers wanting to buy her place, one offer to teach  school in the next county, and a proposal from Neville Olson. Whether he  wanted to marry her or her farm, she hadn't quite determined before she  escorted him off the porch.

"You're a woman of means, Miss Johanna," the preacher told her quietly.  "I've been concerned that you not be taken in by any scalawags or given  poor advice, even by well-meaning folks hereabouts. And late last night,  the good Lord sent the answer to your problem right to my door."

Johanna resisted the urge to place her head on the table and close her  eyes. Whatever the man was nattering about, she was too tired to care.  Moving the big ladder from tree to tree, then climbing it, to pick  apples all day yesterday had about done her in. As a matter of fact, if  she didn't get moving, chances were she just might not be able to resist  taking a nap on the kitchen table, preacher or no.

" … one boy is about seven, the other just a little fella. Mr.  Montgomery-Tate is his given name-is willing to come out here right  away, this forenoon in fact, and talk it over with you." Face beaming,  the preacher paused for breath. "I'm just delighted with this turn of  events, Miss Johanna. I feel it's a real answer to your problem, one  your daddy would have approved."

Johanna blinked. Somewhere along the way, she'd lost track of this  conversation. Who in the dickens was this Mr. Montgomery? And what did  two little boys have to do with her?

"I'm aware you must be awestruck by the providential aspects of such a  happening," the preacher continued. "I felt the very same way when  everything began to dovetail together last evening. Why, I almost drove  right out here then, but it was almost sundown, and I knew you'd be  ready to retire for the night."

Fat chance, thought Johanna. At sundown, she'd been separating the milk  and getting ready to churn the butter for delivery to the general store  in town today. A two-mile walk, one way. She lifted her hand to press  against her middle. No wonder her stomach was grinding away beneath her  palm. She'd gone without supper last night, and now the preacher had  dragged her in from the barn before she had a chance to eat breakfast  this morning.                       


"I'm sure you're at a loss for words, Miss Johanna. I understand that  sometimes a heart is too full of thanksgiving to utter a sound." Rising  from his chair, the young parson offered Johanna his hand. "I'll be back  in a couple of hours, by noon at the latest, with Mr. Montgomery, my  dear. God will surely bless this endeavor. You'll see."

The chicken feed sailed through the air with a swish, scattering over  the hen yard. Clucking and pecking, the pullets moved about,  sidestepping and nudging each other as they attended to their breakfast.

Johanna watched with pride as her white leghorns preened in the morning  sun. She'd raised this year's batch from her own eggs, culling off the  old hens and canning them up for the winter. Three young roosters still  awaited the chopping block, the rest having become food for her table  throughout the summer. Now her chicken coop held over thirty laying  hens, their eggs providing her with a tidy sum every week at the general  store, when she carried them in to Joseph Turner. That, with the butter  she churned twice weekly, she was managing to keep her cupboards  decently filled.

"Now to tend to filling my stomach," she told the hens clucking around  her feet. "As if you care, so long as you get your breakfast." Edging  them aside, she made her way to the gate of the chicken yard. One of the  broody hens had escaped again, and was claiming a place for herself  beneath the lilac bushes near the corncrib.

"You'll end up in the stew pot if you're not careful," she called to the  clucking hen. "I don't have time to hunt down your eggs every day, and  it's too late in the year to be sittin' on a clutch of eggs.

"I'm not up to chasing her today," she muttered to herself, scraping her  soles on the metal bar she'd placed just outside the gate. After  removing the layer of chicken droppings she'd managed to gather on her  shoes, Johanna headed for the house.

A bowl of oatmeal was about as nourishing as you could get, she figured,  watching the water as it came to a boil in her smallest kettle. She  scattered a handful of oats from the box over the water and added a  pinch of salt. In moments she'd sliced a thick slab of bread from the  loaf on the tabletop and spread it with fresh butter. The oatmeal  bubbled as she worked, and she stirred it, testing the thickness. Pa had  always said she made oatmeal just right.

The spoon held in midair, Johanna considered the thought. In retrospect,  it had been about the only thing she'd ever done that pleased him.  Mama's bread had been lighter, her pie crust more tender. Even her  chicken and dumplings had been ambrosia for the gods, if her father's  memory was to be believed.

Johanna, on the other hand, had spent the past ten years being judged as  somewhat imperfect by the father she'd tried so hard to please. "I  picked six bushels of apples yesterday, Pa," she said into the silence  of her kitchen. "If you hadn't sold the horse, I could haul them to the  fruit cellar on the wagon. Now Mr. Turner will have to make a trip out  if he wants them for the store."

Pa had done all sorts of strange things those last few months, as if his  mind had slipped into another world. And perhaps it had. Selling the  horse had been the final straw, to Johanna's way of thinking. Then  staying in town to play poker with the hired hands from around the  county on Friday night … something he'd never done before. He'd lost every  penny in his pockets before he headed home. Johanna shook her head at  the memory. Pa had never been much of a hand at cards of any kind. He'd  walked home at midnight, two miles down the road from town, and  stretched out on the porch to sleep.

She'd found him the next morning, all the life sucked out of him, like  the west wind had taken what little zest for living he had left once  Mama died. Three months he'd been gone, and she could still see him  there, a faint, rare smile curling his lips, as if he saw something  beautiful afar off.

The oatmeal was tasty, sweet as two spoonfuls of brown sugar could make  it. The cream was rich, yellow and thick, and she poured it with a  generous hand. Her jersey heifer was worth every red cent she'd paid for  her, and more maybe, from the color of that cream. Pretty little thing,  too, with those big eyes.