By Veronica Robbins.
Charlotte carried the heavy pails of water toward the garden. It was winter on the farm, twenty miles southwest of Stockton, but the air was warm, and Charlotte was perspiring. She calculated that those two buckets were buckets 1,804 and 1,805 that she had carried from the stream since she moved there almost two years before.
Two years. That meant it was three years since her sister, Clara, died from influenza.
I wonder how many buckets Clara carried up from the stream, thought Charlotte.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the squeals of Clara’s twelve-year-old twins, Clinton and Claire.
“You’re spilling too much!” yelled Claire. “If you slow down, you won’t spill as much.”
“What do you care?” Clinton spit back.
“I care because I’m the one she’ll probably make come back for more if there’s not enough.” Then she lowered her voice as if she were trying to whisper. “She hates me, you know.”
Clinton smiled and started running, laughing as the water bounced out of his buckets, cups at a time.
Charlotte laughed, too. She loved Clinton’s spirit. He was the one who reminded her most of Clara. Blond, happy most of the time, always smiling or laughing.
“I’ll tell Pa!” Claire yelled.
“No, you won’t,” said Charlotte. “Your Pa has enough to worry about without listening to stories of your petty quarrels. I’ll send Clinton back to get more water to make up for what he spilled.” She turned and smiled at Claire, but Claire just looked away. They walked the rest of the way in silence.
When they got back to the garden, Clementine, Clara’s ten-year-old, was pulling weeds as she had been told, while also trying to keep the baby, four-year-old Carson, from pulling up the plants.
Charlotte put her buckets down next to Clementine and said to the three oldest children, “Get the garden watered, then wash up for supper. Your Pa will be back soon.” Then she took Carson’s hand and led him inside. She gave him some spoons to play with while she started preparing supper.
She was tired, not just tired from the day, but tired from her life. She was only fourteen when her sister died, and fifteen when Clara’s husband, Cole, came to Jefferson City to ask her to marry him and help raise their children. She agreed because she loved her sister and her mother told her that’s what she should do. She had no idea how difficult it would be.
The children came in the front door and walked over to Charlotte to present their hands and faces for inspection. Claire still seemed angry.
“Claire,” said Charlotte, ”will you please set the table?” Claire didn’t answer, but she did as she was asked.
A moment later, they heard a horse approaching the house. Without any prompting, the children all scampered into their chairs at the table and Charlotte started spooning stew into each bowl, starting with Cole’s. They knew they would only have about two minutes until he had washed up and come in the front door. Just before he came in, Charlotte put a fresh loaf of bread on the table. She was standing by the door in time to take his hat when he walked in.
Cole took his seat, put his hands together and started to pray. The children had their hands in the prayer position, too, although it was never clear if they were actually praying or just posing. When their prayer ended, they all began to eat.
Cole was a very plain man, not handsome, but not ugly, either. His skin was darkened by the sun over years of working in the fields and with the livestock. He was strong, both in body and spirit, but he was also very gentle with Charlotte and the children. She admired his commitment to “discipline with love,” as he called it, and she did her best to follow the example he set. Charlotte was most grateful that he was a God-fearing man. As difficult as her life was, she knew it could have been much worse.
He encouraged conversation during supper. “The winter crops are doing well,” he started. “It would be nice to go into the spring planting season with a little money in the bank.”
“Oh, yes, it would,” Charlotte said. “Clem and Clinton have almost outgrown their clothes again.”
Cole smiled. “I was wondering how long you’d be able to keep letting them out before you said anything.” Then he said to Clinton, “Go out to my saddlebag and bring in the package I have in there, will ya?”
“Sure, Pa!” Clinton was almost out the door before his Pa finished speaking.
Clinton came back in with a large package, wrapped in brown paper. He gave it to his father who handed it to Charlotte.
“This is for the best seamstress I know,” he said with a smile.
“Oh, my!” Charlotte exclaimed, honestly surprised. “But Christmas isn’t until next week!”
“I thought we’d start early.” Cole stopped eating and watched as she started opening the package. She is so beautiful, he thought. It had taken him a while, but he finally stopped feeling guilty for falling in love with Charlotte.
He never expected to love her. He proposed because he needed someone to help raise his children and he knew that she would love them almost as much as their mother did. But when he started to have feelings for her, he was caught off guard. While she looked like Clara, she was very different. Charlotte was prettier, softer, better educated, and a much better seamstress than Clara, but Clara was hardy, joyful, and spirited. There were times when Cole wondered if Charlotte would be tough enough for this kind of farm life.
“It’s all so beautiful!” Charlotte pulled out several neatly folded lengths of material – plain blue, tan and brown for clothes for the boys, and two gorgeous floral prints for Claire and Clem. There was also a small package with many colors of thread and extra needles.
“I hoped you’d like it. Children, what do you think?”
Carson yelled, “Pretty!” and everyone laughed.
They all seemed to like their new clothes-to-be, except Claire, who just mumbled, “It’s okay.”
Cole reached across the table and put his hand on top of Charlotte’s. She felt a rush of heat flow through her. She smiled, blushed, and then pulled her hand away.
“Tomorrow we’ll all go into town,” Cole said. The children cheered. The trip to town was long, and the children were only allowed to go once a month or so. When they went, it was a treat. “In the meantime, let’s finish our chores before it becomes too dark to see anything out there.”
When the chores were all finished, they all sat and listened to Cole read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a new book he had traded for ten pounds of potatoes recently. That was everyone’s favorite time of day. Cole read and Charlotte sewed, and the children listened to their father with rapt attention.
The children moaned when it was time for bed, but they went obediently. Clem and Clinton kissed both Cole and Charlotte on the cheek. Claire just kissed her father and went to bed without looking at Charlotte.
When Cole and Charlotte got into bed, Cole said, “Claire will come around, ya know.”
“Well, she sure is taking a long time, but I’m patient.”
“I know you are. You’ve been very patient with me.”
“It’s easy to be patient with you. You’re kind, and you act like you like me.”
“Act like it?” Cole sounded surprised. “I do like you. I love you!”
Charlotte blushed again. “I know you do. I’m sorry.”
As Cole snuffed out the light, Charlotte remembered their first night together as man and wife. They didn’t love each other then. It was an arrangement, an obligation. They made love that first night to consummate the marriage, but not again for six months. Now, two years into their marriage, it was finally starting to feel like she wasn’t just standing in for her sister. She was starting to believe that maybe Cole really did love her.
The sun rose the next morning, and Charlotte got up when she heard Cole putting on his boots. She pulled on her dress as she was walking into the kitchen where she filled the coffee pot with water and put it on the stove. She woke up the children and then started down the hill to the stream with her two buckets to get some water.
As she was coming back up the hill with her water, Claire, Clinton, and Clem were heading down the hill with their buckets. She reflected on how much of their life was about water. Water for themselves for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. Water for the animals. Water for the crops. It was life. Not having it meant death. That made the twice daily hike a little easier for some reason.
The ride into town was long, warm, and dusty. After an hour, the children were all asleep in the back of the wagon, where they’d sleep until they could hear the sounds of people milling about town.
Cole stopped the wagon in front of the feed store, which was next to the bank and the mercantile. He went into the feed store with Clinton and Carson. Clementine and Claire went into the mercantile, and Charlotte decided just to walk a bit to stretch her legs. Being alone was a rare treat that she didn’t plan on wasting.
Seconds later, three men ran out of the bank with what looked like bags of money. They were followed by two others who were shooting at them and they started shooting back. Claire came running out of the mercantile looking around.
“Claire!” Charlotte yelled from about fifty feet away. She saw one of the men move toward Claire. Terrified, she ran through the gunfire and wrapped her arms around Claire, pushing her to the ground.
Less than a minute later, the street was silent. Charlotte rolled over to let Claire up, and Claire screamed. Within seconds, Cole was at her side, and both he and Claire were looking at the blood staining her dress.
“No! No!” Claire screamed. Cole picked Charlotte up and started running to the doctor’s office a block away.
Claire followed, crying and shouting, “No! You can’t die! Please Aunt Charlotte. Don’t die!”
The doctor greeted Cole at the door. He had come to expect that when he heard gunfire in the streets, someone would soon be knocking on his door. He instructed Cole to lay Charlotte on the table. He started cutting back the bodice of her dress and soaking up the blood with her skirt and some other cloths. Claire huddled in the corner.
“It looks like two shots, both near her shoulder. We might get lucky here.” The doctor sounded optimistic.
Cole begged him, “Please, Doc. We can’t lose her.”
“I’ll do my best. Just let me gather some instruments and I’ll get those bullets out.”
When the doctor stepped away, Claire ran to Charlotte’s side. “Please, please be okay, Aunt Charlotte. I’m sorry for being mean to you. I love you. Please be okay.”
Charlotte turned and looked at her. “I know, Claire. I love you, too.” She reached her good arm up and stroked Claire’s cheek with her hand. “Don’t worry. I know.” Her voice was calm and gentle.
Cole leaned over her before the doctor started digging into the first wound to get the bullet.
“Try to relax,” he said. “Everything is going to be okay.”
Charlotte looked at him and smiled in spite of the pain. “I know it is.” She looked at Claire and then back at him again. “Now I know everything is going to be just fine.”
Veronica Robbins is a published author of both fiction and nonfiction who has been writing professionally for the last 20 years. In addition to writing fiction and poetry (her first love) she is also an expert grant writer and copy writer. When she’s not writing, she’s watching baseball, enjoying her children, reading, and trying to train her dog, Handsome, who so far has been very successful at training her. You can follow Veronica on Facebook or through her blog, A Writer’s Journey.