Books We Love Ltd. dedicates the Canadian Historical Brides series to the immigrants, male and female who left their homes and families, crossed oceans and endured unimaginable hardships in order to settle the Canadian wilderness and build new lives in a rough and untamed country.
For those who lost their lives in the Great War and for those who survived without them.
Lest We Forget
Books We Love acknowledges the Government of Canada and the Canada Book Fund for its financial support in creating the Canadian Historical Brides series.
Annie Baldwin pushed the wide brimmed bonnet up off her forehead and wiped the moisture with a fold of her long skirt. Haying was better than digging potatoes in the fall or hoeing rows in the garden, she supposed. But why was it always so hot and humid when it was time to mow the meadow?
“Annie, get a move on!” Her older brother, Steve, waved at her impatiently.
Not bothering to waste the energy to answer, she dug the three tined fork into the windrow and added the long stalks to the stook she’d already half finished. If the weather held and the hay dried well, tomorrow one of her brothers would drive the big hay wagon to collect the stooks.
Methodically, the hay crew worked its way along the wavy lines of the windrows. The rhythmic clacking of the mower reached her from two fields away where Father walked behind Benny and Bessie, the big patient workhorses who pulled the mower. It was a blessing that field wouldn’t require her attention until after it was raked in a day or two.
“Land sakes, haying does seem to take forever,” Annie muttered, stabbing the pale green hump of partially dried grasses.
“Water, Miss Baldwin?”
“Oh my Lord!” Annie dropped the hayfork and put a hand to her chest. “George, you scared the life out of me.” She bent to pick up the discarded tool and to avoid looking at the young man smiling at her.
“Would you like some water?” He held a wooden bucket with a ladle in it. “It’s some hot today.” George’s English accent was different to her ear than Father and Mother’s Irish inflections.
“Yes, I do believe I could do with some water, George. Thank you.” Annie dipped the metal ladle into the warm water and drank, allowing some of the fluid to overflow and run down her neck into her bodice. She glanced out from under the brim of her bonnet and met his grey-eyed gaze. Offering him a faint smile she replaced the ladle in the bucket.
George touched his cap with a finger and then trudged down the row where Annie’s older sisters were also tying bundles to build into stooks. She let her gaze linger on the boy. Father borrowed him from the Millers who farmed closer to Eganville. Her ears still blistered from Mother’s lecture last evening. Annie shook her head and returned to the task-at-hand, letting her thoughts wander as her body methodically went through the motions. She was at a loss to understand why Mother was so upset over Annie exchanging a few words with the English boy at the end of work yesterday. Heavens they’d known each other for years, attended the same one room school before they grew too old. Why should Mother suddenly get such a bee in her bonnet over an innocent conversation?
Why should it matter if he was basically nothing more than an indentured servant? He was nice enough and worked hard, harder than most of her brothers, and certainly George did more work than her sisters. Annie reached the end of her row and stepped across to work her way along the next windrow back the way she had come. In the distance the waters of the Bonnechere River glittered in the afternoon sun, trees lining its borders stood motionless in the muggy June afternoon.
“I’d give my eye teeth to go jump in the river right about now,” she muttered. Not much chance of that happening. Annie paused to stretch her back, straightening up she glanced across the field to gauge how close they were to finishing this field. If they kept at it, they’d be done by dusk, she calculated. With any luck, her sister Rotha would have milked the cows and fed the pigs and chickens. She always managed to knock off before the rest of them and head back to the house on some frail excuse or another. If those chores weren’t done, it would fall to Annie as the youngest, to make sure they got done. She sighed, there was no telling when the woman would decide to pull her ‘lady of the manner’ act and decide such chores were beneath her.
The red ball of sun in the hazy sky was just brushing the tips of the trees lining the river when Father stopped the mower by the gate. Annie stood the last bundle into her stook and trudged toward him. The two-acre field was dotted with upright cones of hay placed in wavering lines across the shorn grasses. She caught up to Steve and Evan, falling into step with her brothers. George joined them and they came to a halt where Father sat on the metal seat of the mower. Benny and Bessie stood hip-shot, eyes half-closed, tails swishing at the ever-present flies. It was odd how her father preferred to walk with the horses rather than ride, finding it easier on the body when the iron wheels hit gopher and rabbit holes perhaps.
“Time to call it a day,” Father declared. He clucked to the team and slapped the lines lightly on their rumps. With a jingle of harness and machinery the mower bumped down the grassy lane.
Steve and Evan outpaced Annie with their long limbed hill walker’s gait. Too tired to attempt to keep up, she let them draw ahead of her. She glanced up at George as he matched his stride to hers. He swung the empty water bucket in his hand. The uneven ground and tired muscles conspired to throw her off balance and she took a misstep, lurching a bit and bumping against him. Heat and electricity flared through Annie, she drew back as if she’d bumped into the pot belly of the wood stove. George caught her elbow and steadied her, his face colouring more than the heat and sunburn could account for.
“I’m so sorry,” she managed to say.
He shook his head and released her arm, avoiding her eyes. “Think nothing of it.”
When they reached the bank barn, Father handed George the lines with instructions to unhitch the team and make them comfortable for the night. A pang of sympathy lanced through Annie at the realization he would still have the mower to clean and oil before he would see any supper. Her eyes followed his progress to the barn, one hand resting on Bessie’s broad shoulder as he paced beside the big horses. Even though his shoulders hunched with exhaustion and his gait uneven, somehow he seemed happy.
“Annabelle!” Father growled. “Quit lallygagging about and go help with supper.”
She spun around and hurried to the house to change and wash. Please don’t let Father mention to Mother I was looking at George. I don’t think I can stomach another lecture right now. My belly is touching my backbone I’m so hungry. Annie hurried to the room she shared with two of her sisters and shucked her work clothes, taking them outside to shake the chaff and seed heads out of the long skirts and underskirts once she’d dressed appropriately for supper. Folding them neatly she left them on the clothes press by the wall. Tomorrow was another day.
* * *
Supper was a quiet affair, with everyone too tired to do more than eat. Mother sat primly at the opposite end of the table from Father looking like she was presiding over high tea. She appeared fresh as a daisy in spite of the fact she’d been adding rennet to the current batch of cheese for most of the afternoon. Annie rose when the men wandered off to take their leisure. In no time flat she had the table cleared. Piling them in the dry sink, she took the bucket from under the wooden frame and went toward the back door heading for the well in the yard.
She stopped short at Mother’s summons and turned. A tin bucket covered with a square of cloth was thrust into her hands.
“Since you’ve got to go out anyway, take this out to the workers bunked in the barn. Mind you don’t dawdle and don’t be fraternizing with that orphan boy. You’re better than that, child. Heavens, the boy’s an orphan and came over as a Doctor Barnardo boy, who knows what he picked up on the streets of Liverpool. Or on the ship.” Mother shuddered genteelly and gave her daughter a push. “Get along with you, girl. Mind you stay away from the younger brother as well. You hear me?”
“Yes, Mother.” Annie hooked the water bucket over her arm and held the pail with the workers’ bait against her side. Might as well deliver the food first, she reasoned. The three hired men must be hungry. Thank the good Lord the others who lived nearer went home at night. Dusk deepened to a darker twilight, a warm spread of buttery yellow spilled out the part-open door of the barn.
“Hello!” Annie hesitated, not wanting to walk in on something she shouldn’t be seeing. “I’ve brought supper.”
Amos’ grizzled face peered around the door before he swung it open. “C’min, c’min, lass.” The stocky Irishman grinned at her and waved her into the dim interior. “There’s a crate over to the wall where you can put that there bucket.”
She moved carefully over the straw and hay strewn floor. The rich summer scent of fresh cut hay hung in the close air. It was slightly cooler now the sun was down, but the heat lingered in the sultry night. Annie set the tin pail on the crate and turned to go.
Her breath caught in her throat when her gaze fell on the long lean muscles of George’s back as he sluiced water over his head. The moisture gleamed in the lamplight, the waistband of his trousers black where the water soaked them. He raised his head, eyes wide like a startled deer. Snatching a ragged towel from a nail in the beam beside him, he held it to his chest like a shield.
“I’m sorry, Miss Baldwin. I had no idea you were here. Please don’t mind me.” The Adam’s apple bobbled in his throat.
“Of course,” she managed to stutter, tearing her gaze from his wiry frame. His ribs were visible; it was painfully obvious he could use more meat on his bones. Why Father feeds his dogs better. A wave of shame washed over her, although she had no say in how anyone was fed. “I brought supper.” She waved an awkward hand toward the cloth covered pail. “I must…I must go…” Without lingering further, she hurried into the night.
The pale light of the half-moon allowed her to pick her way to the well without too much trouble. She drew the oak bucket up by the windlass and dumped the contents into her own bucket. Letting the empty bucket slip from her fingers she waited to hear it hit the water below with a hollow thump. Her achy muscles complained when she hefted the full bucket and lugged it into the kitchen.
“What took you so long, Annie?” Her older sister Hetty demanded, hands firmly planted on her hips. “You weren’t out there sparking with that orphan English boy were you?”
“No, of course not!” She turned her back and heaved the water bucket onto the flat side of the dry sink.
“There’s no future in it. He doesn’t have a row to hoe except what belongs to someone else. You’ll never get a man to ask for your hand if you ruin your reputation by taking up with the likes of him,” Hetty declared.
“I just took the food out like I was told,” Annie muttered ladling water into the sink. She added soap flakes when it was full enough and started in on the supper dishes, fully expecting her sister to pick up a dishtowel to dry them, it being her turn to do so.
Instead, Hetty sailed out of the kitchen. “Father has things he needs me to attend to,” she called over her shoulder.
Her actions were nothing new, but the ease with which her sister escaped chores still scalded Annie. No sense appealing to Mother, Father’s word was law. No need asking where Rotha was either. She sighed.
The sun was still high in the western sky when Steve forked the last of the hay into the open doors of the loft. A fine sprinkling of hayseeds and dust danced in the golden slanted rays of the afternoon light. Annie pushed the bonnet back on her head and wiped the back of her hand across her forehead. Bits of chaff clung to her damp lashes and cheeks and itched terribly inside the confines of her bodice. Shaking the dust from her long skirts, Annie turned toward the house intending to slip behind the hen house and into the green shady bush of the shed hill. There was time before supper if she hurried and the Bonnechere River only required a short hike along a trail she knew.
Just a few minutes in the shallow pool under the willows by the bank would take care of the dust coating her everywhere and the infernal itching of hay chaff that seemed to have found its way into impossible nooks and crannies. Hay fork in hand, she got as far as the barn doors.
“Annabelle! Where do you think you’re going?” Hetty called. Her sister strode across the rough pasture between barn and main house, not a hair out of place.
It was unchristian to think ill of a family member so Annie repressed the surge of anger and the names she wouldn’t ever dare say out loud. Hetty was the apple of Father’s eye and could do no wrong. Even if she did do something she shouldn’t, somehow it was Annie who bore the brunt of Father’s anger. Mother never spoke up in her defence, even though she knew the truth. Ella Baldwin would never say a word to contradict her husband.
“I’m just putting the fork up,” Annie replied schooling her features into a pleasant mask. Drat, drat, drat! I swear she does it on purpose, just to vex me.
“Well, do it then. I need to speak with Father.” Hetty swept on like a ship in full sail toward the now empty hay wagon.
Annie returned the hayfork to the barn and hesitated in the shadow of the door, her heart twisting a bit in her chest. George had his head tipped toward Hetty who was plainly flirting with him. Annie shook her head and stepped into the sunlight. If he only knew what Hetty really thought about him or said about him in private. To her surprise, George frowned and shook his head before he took a step back from her sister and touched a finger to his cap before moving to tend to the horses.
She moved out of the way as the wagon rattled toward her, George on the far side of the horses as they passed. Annie entertained the thought of helping unharness the team, she did so love the horses and Benny was her favourite. Now that the possibility of a swim was out of the question, spending a few minutes with the horses would be a kind of reward. She might have known, like most of her wishes, it would come to naught.
“Annabelle!” Father waved an imperious hand at her.
“Coming, Father.” Gritting her teeth and forcing a semblance of a smile, she made her way back to the cluster of men, and Hetty. The woman in question was looking particularly smug, which usually boded ill for Annie. “Yes, Father?” She halted a few feet from him, tipping her head so the brim of her hat partially blocked the sunlight streaming over the tall man’s shoulders.
“Don’t be running off, girl. I need you to take the buggy to town and pick up the mail. I’m expecting an important letter.”
“But, Father—” She started to protest it was Rotha’s turn to get the mail.
“None of your impertinence, girl. Do as you’re told. I’ll hear no more about it.”
“Yes, Father,” she replied and turned on her heel, seething inside but not daring to let it show.
She stopped and turned back, clenched fists hidden in the dusty folds of her skirts. “Yes, Father?”
“Be sure to take George Richardson with you and drop him at the Millers on your way past. No reason to go down the lane, just drop the boy at the foot. I’ll see that Miller gets his wages by week end. Oh, and take his brother too, drop him at Munroe’s.” He turned his back in dismissal.
“Yes, Father,” she repeated and turned back toward the barn. It didn’t seem fair that poor George and Peter did all the hard labour, but Annie’d bet her best dress the boys would never see a penny of the wages. Still the Millers weren’t the worst, at least they kept George sort of fed and clothed by the look of him. The younger brother’s clothes were clean but patched and his bony wrists showed below the sleeves of the too small shirt. If anything, Peter seemed thinner than his brother. Annie sighed, the Munroes could barely keep themselves, little wonder they were hiring out the young orphan boy they’d taken in. At least the brothers ended up fairly close to each other, they were luckier than most.
She entered the shadowy barn and stopped to let her eyes adjust to the dim light. Long beams of sunlight shot through the gaps in the wall. Her brothers would have to patch things before the snow flew, she mused.
“Mister Richardson? Oh, there you are.”
The English boy stepped out from behind Bessie, a dandy brush in hand. “Hallo, Miss Baldwin. What is it I can help you with?”
“Father has asked me to drive into Eganville to fetch the mail. He wants me to drop you at the Millers, and your brother at Monroe’s on the way.” She ducked her head when his expression brightened. “Would you be so kind as to catch Molly from the pasture and hitch her to the buggy? Oh, where is your brother, by the way?”
“Peter’s waiting for me by the end of the lane. He forgot his bait pail where we stopped for lunch. If he doesn’t take it back there’ll be no lunch for him tomorrow.” George hesitated, glancing from the brush in his hand to the horse beside him. Shaking his head, he put the brush on the edge of a stall, gathered a head collar and lead shank from the front of another and disappeared out a man door on the side of the building.
Annie picked up the brush and finished grooming the stocky mare. Benny was already clean and had his head buried in a mound of hay. “C’mon, boy.” She pulled his head up and led the two horses out to the west pasture where she slipped their head collars off and turned them loose. Slinging the leather halters over her shoulder Annie returned to the barn and hung the halters where they belonged. The work harness was already in its place, but one of her brothers would have to clean it after supper. She’d bet her bottom dollar on that, if she had one.
“Come along then, miss.” George led Molly into the barn and gave her a quick brush, before backing her between the shafts of the buggy.
“I must run up to the house and see if Mother needs anything at Arlo’s,” Annie called before hurrying toward the house. If she went to town without checking to see if anything was needed for the household she’d never hear the end of it.
Leaving the house with the list clutched in hand, Annie lifted her skirts and ran across the yard. Ivan followed at her heels, Mother declaring her daughter was not about to go driving off unchaperoned with two field hands. George was just leading Molly into the barn yard when she arrived, slightly out of breath. “Just in time,” she greeted him. Shoving the list into her pocket she hitched her skirts and climbed into the buggy before George could come around to help her. He joined her on the narrow seat, careful not to let his thigh touch her skirts. Ivan hopped in the back, hanging his legs off the tailgate.
“I could ride in the back if you wish, Miss Baldwin,” George offered, avoiding meeting her eye.
“Don’t be silly, Mister Richardson. You’re fine where you are.”
“Your father…I don’t want to appear over familiar with a daughter of the house, like,” he insisted.
Annie glanced toward the house, but Father must have already gone to wash up. “If it makes you more comfortable then by all means ride in the back. It seems so ridiculous for you not to just stay where you are.”
“It’s a class thing, miss. Surely you see that? The Millers, and your father, are kind to me, but I know me place and take care to stay in it.”
Annie clucked to the mare and set off down the lane to the Eganville road. In the distance the Bonnechere River glistened between its green banks. She sighed in regret, wishing she’d managed to slip away for a swim earlier. Class, knowing your place. It all seems so horribly unfair. A person’s birth surely shouldn’t dictate and limit their opportunities to better themselves.
“Do you miss Liverpool over there in England?” She glanced at the silent boy beside her. His work roughened hands were clasped in his lap.
“In some ways. Not in others,” he replied.
Annie glanced at him with a frown. He didn’t seem inclined to enlarge on his brief reply. “Ho, Molly.” She pulled the mare to a halt beside the stocky youth leaning on the gatepost. “You can ride in the back, Peter Richardson. Father has asked me to give you a ride as far as the end of the Monroe’s lane.”
Peter touched a finger to the brim of his sweat-stained cap. Swinging the bait pail by its strap he tossed it into the wagon bed and hitched himself up onto the rough boards of the buggy bed. “Thankee, miss. It’s a sigh better’n walkin’.” He settled beside Ivan and the two put their heads together, whispering and giggling over something.
“Will you boys be coming to the Dominion Day celebrations?” Annie was careful not to look directly at the silent youth beside her. From the corner of her eye she caught the flush of red that darkened his already sunburned face.
“Miz Munroe says we’re all goin’,” Peter Richardson answered her from his perch on the tailgate. “You’re comin’, aren’t you Georgie?”
“Don’t know. And don’t call me Georgie.” George shifted on the hard bench, his fingers clenched on the rough fabric of his trousers.
“Surely, the Millers will allow you to attend?” Annie dared to look directly at him. “I heard Mother telling Father she’d spoken to Mrs. Miller and they were planning to attend.”
“Don’t rightly know, miss,” George mumbled.
“You still in hot water over that Amelia girl?” Peter chirped from behind.
“Go on with you,” George snarled. “That ain’t none of your business, Pete. Leave it alone.”
Annie regarded him thoughtfully. “The oldest Miller girl giving you trouble?”
He shrugged and turned to glare at his younger brother. He was saved from further inquiries by their arrival at the foot of the Munroe’s lane. Annie pulled the buggy to halt and waited for her passenger to jump off the tailgate.
“Did Father say if he needed you tomorrow?” She looked down on the curly head of the boy who loitered by the side of the buggy.
Peter nodded. “Mister Baldwin wants the corn crib cleared out, and the chicken house needs cleaning. Said he’d arrange it with old man Munroe.” He glanced toward the sun disappearing quickly behind the treetops. “Gotta get a move on, still got me chores to do to home. See ya in the mornin’, George?” Peter scuffed a bare foot in the sandy dust of the road.
“Reckon so. ’Less the Millers have other plans for me. You go on ahead if I don’t show in the mornin’. Don’t wait on me.”
“Sure. Night then, George. Miss.” Peter pulled on the bill of his cap and nodded at Annie.
“Good night, Peter. Do be careful in the morning, Father mentioned he’d seen wolf tracks by the sheep fold yesterday.”
“Ain’t no wolf gonna bother me, miss.” Peter laughed and headed up the sandy lane with a careless wave.
“Giddup, Molly.” Annie slapped the lines lightly on the mare’s rump. With a sigh the horse leaned into the harness and the buggy lurched forward.
“Do you really think the Millers won’t let you come to the Dominion Day do?”
The boy at her side shrugged again and avoided her gaze.
“What did Amelia say that got you in heck with Mister Miller? I promise I won’t breathe a word of it to anyone. I’m always getting in trouble for things that aren’t my fault, but Father won’t hear a word against Hetty, and if she says I did or didn’t do something…Well, Father uses his belt first and doesn’t want to hear any excuses…” She was getting breathless from blethering on, but somehow couldn’t seem to stop the torrent of words vomiting out of her mouth.
“Do you always talk so much? And so fast?” George shifted on the seat to actually look at her.
Heat flashed up her neck and her ears burned. “I…no…not usually…I mean…nobody ever listens to me… I’m sorry.” She broke off and blinked to keep the embarrassed tears from escaping her lashes.
“No, it’s me that’s sorry. That was unforgivably rude of me. Please don’t tell your Father or I’ll not get any work from him and old man Miller will take it out of my hide.” His grey eyes held her captive for a moment before he dropped his gaze.
“Oh no! I won’t say anything to Father. I promise.” She paused and then pressed on. “Does Mister Miller really beat you?”
George nodded wordlessly.
“How awful! I mean Father takes a belt to me when I anger him, but he’s my father and it’s his right to mete out discipline. But…”
“But the Millers own me, lock, stock and barrel. Until I’m of age and there’s nothing I can do about it.” His face twisted bitterly.
“How did you end up at Doctor Barnardo’s? Did you have no family in Liverpool who would take you in?” Annie swatted at the mosquitoes that swarmed as they passed into the part of the low part of the road over shadowed with tall trees.
“There were family all right, just none who wanted us. Peter and me, I mean.”
“Was it a small family then?” Annie’s interest was piqued, his English accent seemed exotic and somehow exciting and she wanted to keep him talking.
“My da was the youngest of thirteen. Not one of them took any interest in us a’tall after he popped his cogs. Just Uncle James, he’s the one what got us into the Liverpool Sheltering Home and Barnardo’s. Done the best by us he could, I guess.” George glanced at her as if defying her to pity him.
“What was it like? At the home, I mean.” Annie kept her eyes on the mare’s rump moving rhythmically before her.
“It were all right, I guess. Fed us and put clothes on our backs. Made us go to school some.” He chewed on the side of his thumb nail.
“Were they mean to you?”
“Not on purpose like, no. There were so many of us no one paid any mind to us unless we was bad or turned up missing.”
“The home is in London’s east end, lots of street kids trying to stay alive by selling matches and flowers, sweeping the street for the toffs to cross. If ye was lucky ye could get on with a gang who had a territory to collect dog shit…beggin’ yer pardon fer m’language, miss.”
“Dog poop? Why would you collect that?” Annie shifted to look directly at him. “You pulling my leg?”
“On my word, I’m not. The tanners use it to cure the hides. Pures they call it.”
“Ewww.” Annie wrinkled her nose. “It’s bad enough turning the cow patties and horse manure into the garden in the spring and fall, and using it to help chink logs, but dog…Ewww.”
“It’s not so bad when you know it’ll get you a few pennies and food in yer belly.” George shrugged.
“How did—Whoa, mare! Ho!” Annie sawed on the lines as the little mare shied violently to the right and attempted to bolt.
“Let her go! Let her go! Look!” George pointed to the bushes at the side of the road. His work-roughened hands closed over hers and wrested the lines from her.
Annie gripped the side of the buggy seat, her heart in her throat. The black bear surged out of the thick raspberry brambles lining this part of the road, her two cubs close behind her. “Dear Lord.” She clung to the seat while George sent the buggy careening down the dirt road. She glanced behind after a moment once she’d had a chance to gather her thoughts and slow her racing heart. “She’s not chasing us, I think it’s safe now.” She laid a hand on his forearm, the muscles like steel bands beneath her fingers.
George slowed the still flighty mare to a prancing walk. “There, my pet. ‘Tis, all right now. Easy now, pet.” He soothed the mare and Molly settled to a walk shaking her head hard enough to set the bridle chiming.
Annie took the lines back and pulled the mare to a halt at the foot of the Miller’s lane. “Here you are.” She glanced the way they had come with a nervous twitch. What if the she bear is still there when I drive home?
“You worried about that old bear?” George made no move to get off the seat.
She nodded, ashamed of herself for being such a coward. Father would tell her to keep a stiff upper lip and get on with it. Fear and bear be-damned.
“You want I should ride into Eganville with you and back this far? There’s enough daylight left so the Millers won’t be expectin’ me home just yet. They’ll be expecting me to walk from your place.”
“Would you?” Relief made her light-headed and a bit ashamed of her fear. “Are you sure you won’t catch heck because of it? I don’t want to get you in trouble, or me either, if Mister Miller tells Father I made you late getting back.”
“What the mind doesn’t know, the heart can’t grieve over.” He grinned at her, grey eyes warming to silver in the dim light under the trees.
“I think I would like that very much.” Annie turned to fix her brother with a stern stare. “Mind you don’t say anything to Father about this, you hear? It’s just to make sure we don’t run into any trouble with that momma bear on the way home.”
Ivan met her gaze solemnly. “Cross my heart.” He suited action to words. “Promise.”
“All right, then. Git up, Molly.” She shook the lines at the patient mare who broke into a sprightly trot which made Ivan squeal with laughter and clutch the side of the buggy box.
The road took a turn just before the town came into sight. George shifted uneasily and cleared his throat. Annie glanced at him and pulled the mare to halt. “Is something wrong?”
“It might be best if I wait for you here. Word travels…” He let his words trail off.
“I suppose you are probably right about that. Those gossip Gerties would love to have something to fill Hetty or Mother’s ears with about me. Are you sure you’ll be all right waiting here?” She glanced at the thick brush bordering the road. “The flies will eat you alive, I’m afraid.”
George jumped down into the dust and grinned up at her. “I’ll be just fine, miss. You just stop somewheres nearby on your way back. I’ll be waiting.”
“If you’re quite sure…”
“Time’s a’wasting. You best get a move on.” George slapped the mare lightly on the rump and disappeared into the raspberry brambles and choke cherry bushes.
Leaving Ivan to watch the buggy, Annie made short work of collecting the mail. There was a big box of something heavy for Father from Ireland along with a batch of papers and letters. She stashed them under the seat of the buggy before going to Arlo’s to purchase the items on Mother’s list. She returned shortly after with a bag of flour balanced on one shoulder and the rest of the items weighing down the basket in her other hand.
“There, all done.” She heaved the basket into the back of the buggy and flipped the flour down beside it. A fine dusting of white powder puffed out of the canvas bag. “Mind you don’t get that all over you, Ivan,” she cautioned her brother. “Come ride up here with me.” She patted the wooden seat beside her.
“Can I drive?” Ivan clambered over the back of the bench and plopped down at her side.
“No. Not in town, for sure.” Annie shook her head. “You know Father says you’re still too young to drive the buggy.”
Ivan stuck his lower lip out in belligerence before glancing at her sideways. Annie’s stomach clenched at the sly expression on her brother’s young face. It was like looking at smaller male version of Hetty at her worst. “Of course I understand, you wouldn’t want to cross Father, would you?” He studiously picked at some lint on his trouser leg. “I’m sure Father will understand why the English boy rode into town with you. Don’t you think?” Ivan turned innocent guileless eyes on her.
She hesitated for a moment, weighing her options. By rights, she should tell the little fiend to go chase himself. However, he was a Baldwin through and through with the tenacious stubbornness and willfulness to stop at nothing to get what he wanted. Damn. He’ll run right to Father before I can get the buggy unhitched.
“Fine.” Annie heaved a sigh. “Once we get clear of town you can drive for a bit. Mind you don’t breathe a word of this to anyone or we’ll both get our arses tanned.”
“I thought you’d see it my way.” Ivan regarded her with a smug smile.
“Don’t push your luck,” she warned him. “Git up with you, Molly.”
The buggy rolled down the road following the river. As soon as they cleared the outskirts Ivan began bouncing on the seat. “Now? Now? Can I now?”
“Hush, Ivan. You can take the lines after we find George.”
“Oh all right.” The boy crossed his arms over his chest and huffed with impatience.
Scanning the brush crowding the edges of the road, Annie stopped at the point where she thought they’d left the English boy. “Hush, Ivan,” she commanded before he had a chance to whine again. “George? It’s us, come out!”
The bushes crackled and trembled behind her. The mare threw up her head and bunched her hindquarters. Annie swallowed against the tightness in her throat. What if it’s another bear? Or… Fingers tight on the lines, she held the mare in check, ready to urge her forward if the shaker in the bushes wasn’t who she hoped it was.
George pushed free of the brambles and jogged to the buggy. “I thought you’d missed me.” His voice was a little breathless.
“It took longer than I anticipated at Arlo’s. Climb up, I want to be home before full dark. Shove over, Ivan.”
George put a foot on the wheel hub and levered himself onto the buggy. He started to sling a leg over the sideboard of the wagon bed.
“Sit up here with us,” Annie invited. “Stop that!” She hissed at her brother who stuck his sharp bony elbow in her ribs. Sometimes the old-fashioned stiff corset Mother insisted she wear had its advantages. Not often though, she sighed again.
“Not ‘til you let me drive,” Ivan insisted.
“Fine, here.” She handed him the lines. “Be careful now, and keep your mind on what you’re doing.”
“I know what I’m doing,” he declared. “Haven’t I driven the work team when we’re picking up stooks?” Ivan clucked to the mare, who moved forward at a slow pace, but not before turning her head to glance at Annie as if to question her sanity.
George squeezed in between her and the far edge of the narrow seat. He unconsciously scratched at the back of his neck.
“Were the bugs bad in the bush?” Annie waved a hand to chase away a swarm of mosquitoes that rose from the wet land the road dipped down into.
“Feel like a pin cushion, the beggars got a good meal out of me.” He offered a rueful grin.
Molly plodded along, ignoring Ivan slapping the lines on her rump. Annie twisted her hands in the folds of her skirts, at a loss for words. The uneasy silence continued, wearing on her nerves until she couldn’t stand it any longer. “Do try and come to the Dominion Day celebrations,” she blurted out the first thing that came to mind, immediately mentally kicking herself for being over eager. Heavens above, what will he think of me? Mother would claim I’m leading him on by showing such interest. She bit her lower lip, hating the heat that rose in her face.
“Aye, well. I’ll do my best. Pete is almost positive the Munroes are planning on bringing him along.” George paused and sighed, a calloused hand rubbing at the thin stubble on his cheeks.
“I do hope you will be able to attend…I mean it would be nice for you and your brother to be able to spend some time together and ...