Bud quietly closed the door behind him and made his way across the yard toward the thick woods that separated flatland from the river. As he moved through the brush, he settled his pack on his back more comfortably and thought about the trip ahead. He knew he shouldn’t be going to get Annie, should just make the trip alone, but he didn’t care right then. A man couldn’t be expected to live by himself forever, and that’s just what it felt like Caroline was forcing him to do. Yes, he felt forced. If he was a stronger man, maybe he wouldn’t feel that way, but he wasn’t, and a man can only take so much silence. It had been three years since Charlie died…and Caroline along with him. If not for Susan and Ellie, his two oldest girls—and Annie—he didn’t know how they’d all have made it this far.
He came through the brush at the edge of the Wilson property and peered at the house. He didn’t see her on the porch, but he was a bit early. The dawn was only beginning to break. He stayed where he was. As he waited there, crouched in the damp leaves in the gray morning, his mind drifted to when he first met her in the timber, years ago now. She’d come out to deliver her father’s dinner, which he’d left at home, and she stayed to chat with them. He didn’t take much notice of her then and only remarked later to her father that she was a real talkative little thing. Her father replied, laughing, “Yeah, she’d talk the hide off a mule.” Bud didn’t mind chatty people; if anything, he was grateful for them, because it meant he could talk less and get away with it. Over the last year he had come to enjoy Annie’s chatter. It took his mind off everything else and reminded him what it was like in those days when Charlie was alive, when everything was alive, and Caroline was up and about and ready to talk to him after a long day in the woods.
Suddenly she was there, taking care to not let the porch door slam, and carrying her shoes in one hand. She smiled when she saw him and lithely stepped across the yard toward the edge of the woods where he waited. Bud stood and smiled, then took her hand as she approached, steadying her while she pulled her shoes on. Her dress was simple, like the dresses Caroline wore, but she was not shaped like Caroline. Where Caroline was tall and slender, Annie was soft and plump, not overweight but pleasant to look at, with warm brown eyes that sparkled when she laughed.
Still holding her hand, Bud turned to walk deeper into the woods, and she let him lead her silently as they made their way toward the river where the raft waited. That was where they would begin their journey to town to get the supplies his family needed to sustain themselves over the next few months. He and Annie had made this trip together several times over the past year, and her ability to gauge just how much sugar and flour to buy had proved invaluable to him when it came to maintaining a household. He couldn’t fathom what he’d do without her. The first year without Caroline had been pure unadulterated chaos; there was no other word for it. Since Annie had come, he had found a way forward.
The relationship between Bud and Annie had only recently become physical, and he still struggled with it, cursed himself for it, but was unwilling to bring a stop to it. It was the only thing keeping him sane some days. As they reached the river, he dropped his pack to the sand and turned to kiss her. She smiled, said, “Good morning,” and ran her hands through his hair. He put his arms around the small of her back and thought about the blanket he’d brought to keep her warm on the trip down the river. He guessed they could probably shake the sand out of it all right.
As Bud poled the raft downriver and guided it around stumps and submerged logs, Annie sat with her arms around her knees and watched the muscles in Bud’s arms bulge and slacken as he maneuvered the pole. She certainly hadn’t intended to become a...a concubine at the ripe old age of twenty-one. She hadn’t intended to become involved with him at all, much less be a stand-in wife. But she had sort of fallen into it, and now she was stuck. Now she loved him, and now she loved his children. And now there was no way she’d leave him.
When she first started working for him, she thought him a statue, barely able to manage a word above a whisper and a nod in her general direction. She’d known him before, of course; she knew practically everyone in this town. She hadn’t passed two words to him before he hired her to help out at home. When she had first seen that house…that kitchen... She looked at him now and thought what a difference the last year had made in the man, at least in her eyes. She knew people talked under their breath, knew they shot glances at her in the street. She knew her mama worried, knew her daddy looked at her too long at times, trying to read the answers in her face instead of daring to ask. And they didn’t ask, merely watched nervously and judged silently, and she let them.
Bud was not aware of Annie watching him navigate the river, but was lost in his own thoughts, as usual. His gaze alternated between a gray sky shot through with the first pink and orange streaks of sunrise and its reflection in the water as he maneuvered the small raft with the flow of the river. His thoughts turned to the first time he made this trip alone, back when he was a nine-year-old boy with his daddy’s scull and a couple of biscuits in a pail waiting for him when he got hungry. That was before he was sent away and before he knew what it meant to really be hungry. He’d piloted the scull down to the village at the behest of his father, who needed a sack of sugar to finish setting the whiskey at the still. Robert had not wanted to send Bud to town alone at that age, but he couldn’t be away from the still while it was working. Bud had seen the struggle in his father’s eyes as he wrestled with the decision to send him into town on his own.
As an adult Bud could better understand his father’s dilemma. How could Robert help wondering if his son would have the sense to ask for the sugar without yapping about what it was for? Could he trust Bud on his own to make the purchase in Bart Golden’s general store? Robert would have had no doubts about Bud’s honesty, knowing he would spend the money he was sent with for its intended purpose. But could he trust him to not elaborate on the sugar’s destination within earshot of the likely five or six regulars who could be counted on to be warming themselves by Golden’s stove? Back then, Bud had a habit of talking to anything that would listen, including the cows in the pasture, about anything that came to mind. Robert had tried to impart to the boy that a bit of discretion in certain circumstances would be in his best interest. But he hadn’t wanted to stanch the boy’s knack for talking to folks; Lord knows, Robert didn’t know how to do it himself. A man of virtually no words was Robert; merely a grunt or a nod was the most anybody was likely to get, or a one-word answer if it was a lucky day.
But he’d given Bud permission to go to town that day while he worked the still, with instructions to get the sugar from Golden’s but not to stop and chat with any of the men he might see. If he was asked why he came alone for it, he was just to say that Pa was at home. Bud had never asked straight out why they didn’t talk about the still; he knew it was there and knew his pa and his uncle worked it, but he didn’t give it much thought beyond that. Especially when he was faced with the excitement of piloting the scull all the way into town by himself, who cared what it was for.
Just as he had then, Bud guided the raft along the river as it merged with the rougher waters of the larger Weaver River, although with considerably more skill now and a deft hand. Back then he’d practically wet himself making the curve, scared to death that he’d tip himself over and drown before he’d even gotten good and started. But he’d pulled it out then, getting better each time he went, and now it required no thought, his hands and feet moving of their own accord to the balance his body needed to guide the raft through the channel.
“How’re the kids getting along?” Annie asked him, breaking his reverie.
“They’re okay,” he replied. “Tom and Mac are painting the barn today, and the girls are pickin’ the beans, so they’re busy. They’ll be fine till we get back.”
“The same,” he said, not looking at her. It was something they talked about but not often, how Caroline was. It was awkward…the elephant in the room.
After Charlie died, Caroline had slowly and quietly shut down. Understandable at first, for no one had blamed her for not feeling like getting out of bed or not wanting to talk. But as time went on, she still wasn’t recovering, and no amount of pleading or cajoling motivated her. She was too ill, she said, though the doctor had been numerous times and said there really was nothing wrong with her. “Humor her,” he’d said in the beginning. “She’s had quite a shock.” But they’d all had quite a shock, and they’d all had to grieve. Yet the days still marched on, with timber to cut and mouths to feed, cows to milk and the garden to tend. Neighbors had come at first, helping with the children and bringing dishes and patting him on the shoulder and looking at him with sympathetic eyes. So much food, at first he despaired of eating it all, but then eventually the dinners stopped coming. Neighbors came by only once a week, then sporadically, and then not at all. As the months passed into seasons, he had hired Annie to come help with the children and the cooking and cleaning. She came from a large family herself, so she knew how to move things along, and she’d been a blessing. More than ten years his junior but capable, sensible, and cheerful in a house that needed waking up. The children had blossomed under her care, and Caroline had allowed it, barely noticing her presence, as she barely noticed anything.
They were coming around the last bend now, and the dock was in sight. She didn’t need the blanket now; it was getting warmer, and she folded it and tucked it away. She pulled the list of essentials she’d made the day before out of her pocket. “I think I might need close to five dollars, Bud.”
“All right, get what you need together, and I’ll come by Mason’s in about an hour to settle and help you with it.” She was careful not to touch him, not to stand too close. They were in town now, and she felt all eyes were upon her even though no one was even looking in their direction. Milton was a growing town, and several stores were open already, with people going about their business. It had its own post office and a train station, and the streets were starting to get busy. The timber mill had built this town and continued to sustain it, the rivers providing the thoroughfare by which the town prospered. Bud docked the raft and pulled the rope tight. Mason’s General (Bart Golden long since in his grave) was one of the largest establishments and carried just about everything. It was there that Annie headed, basket in hand. Bud headed to the timber office to see James Allen, the owner of the mill and the man to whom Bud sold the timber he cut and floated downriver.
“Morning, Bud,” Allen said as Bud walked into the front office. Bud took off his hat and nodded.
“Allen,” Bud replied. The two shook hands. Allen was nearing sixty now but was still a healthy, barrel-chested man, nearing six foot three and close to two hundred seventy-five pounds. He’d been a brawler in his younger days but always an affable chap who shook hands after he’d beaten his opponent, and he usually did beat them.
“What can I do ya for?” he asked.
“I’ve got about an acre almost ready,” Bud said, “and I want to know what you’re payin’ right now.”
“Well, I can pay about a dollar a log. Is that all right?”
“Dollar and a half?” Bud countered. He knew how to deal with Allen; he’d been doing it half his life.
“Dollar and a quarter’s the best I can do.”
Bud nodded. He’d hoped for a dollar and a quarter, and he’d known Allen wouldn’t part with a penny if his life depended on it, and yet they still had to go through this charade every time Bud sold timber. “Yep, that’d be fine. Start sendin’ ’em down day after tomorrow, all right?”
“Sure, just tag ’em and send ’em on,” Allen said, pulling a bucket out from under the counter. “Blue for Bud,” he said to himself, thunking the bucket on the counter and pulling over his notebook. A blue strip of cloth from the bucket would be tied around each log Bud sent down the river, and the boys on the dock would remove the cloth strips as the logs came to the mill. They would toss the strips in buckets, the girls would sort them, and later Allen would tally them and mark them in his notebook as Bud’s. At the end of the timber run, Bud would come collect his payment. Together with what the garden brought in, what he got for the timber had been enough to clothe and shoe the kids and have a little left over to put by. He’d never be rich, not by a long shot, but as long as the timber and his body lasted, he would have an income.
Bud’s father had given him eighty acres when he turned twenty-one, and he had pastured about a hundred head of cattle over the years since then. He still had a good number. But timber was where the money was right now, and his herd was bit thinner than he would like, so he’d cut about five acres of timber and sold it to Allen over the past few years. It had sustained him and Caroline for the most part and kept his father fed and out of his business. Bud’s brothers Nick and Frank had each gotten fifty acres when they reached twenty, but Frank was just about worthless (as were his acres), and Bud avoided him if he could. It wasn’t hard because Frank oscillated between the bar and home and rarely went anywhere else, so their paths seldom crossed.
“How’s the family?” Allen inquired, looking up from his notebook when he finished his entry. “School’s starting soon, an’ we’re getting a new master this year, I heard.” Jennie Finch had been the school’s teacher for the last few years, but she had married last spring, so she wouldn’t be back.
“I heard someone from Fall’s Church was takin’ it on,” Bud replied. That was all he knew and really all he cared to know, if he was honest.
“Millie’s gonna be in her last year. Gonna sit for her exams in the spring, she says.”
“She always was a smart one,” Bud said, not really knowing what the exams were for or if Millie was smart or not; it seemed to be the thing to say, and Allen seemed inclined to chat this morning. Bud never had been good at small talk, once he got grown. His ability to talk to a post had vanished with his boyhood. He didn’t waste words, and couldn’t seem to get the hang of the ebb and flow of chatter that some other folks enjoyed. He didn’t mind if others talked, but he didn’t like to be held captive. And Allen could talk all day if he got going, so Bud thought it best to get a move on. “I’ll be sending those logs down soon and be back in town next week. Sound all right?”
Allen shook Bud’s hand. “Sounds fine,” he said, a smirk starting to show. He caught it and busied himself with putting away the notebook as Bud turned to go and left the office. Well, I think he might have used up his allotment on me, he thought, hiding a smile as he walked from behind the counter and started out to the mill. The quiet but running joke among some of the men in town was that God had given the Braxtons only fifty words apiece when He made them, so they had to use them judiciously. Robert Braxton barely put two words together in public—at least when he was sober—and his boys, Bud, Nick, and Frank, had turned out to be just as closemouthed. It was impossible to carry on a conversation with any of them beyond the barest of facts. None of them were awkward, exactly, just silent, and they couldn’t be prevailed upon to hold up their end of a discussion unless they were pointedly asked a question. Frank had turned out to be a drunk, but Bud was dependable enough, if taciturn. And the man had a pretty good head for numbers; Allen would give him that.
Bud walked back to Mason’s General Store and found Annie looking through some bolts of cloth near the rear of the store.
“Hey. How’d it go at the mill?” she asked quietly as she noticed him come up the aisle.
“Fine,” he replied. “Allen’ll take the timber, and I’ll come back next week. You almost done here?”
“Almost,” she said, holding out some cloth from one of the bolts on the shelf. “Susan has outgrown most of her dresses, Bud. She’s got to have some new ones for the winter. Bethy can wear the girls’ old ones, but they all will need shoes this winter. They’re in awful shape, and they can’t be passed on anymore.”
“All right. Buy the cloth for the dresses today, and next week when I collect from Allen, we’ll bring the whole lot with us and see about shoes.” The thought of bringing his brood to town made him physically tired, if not a little sick, and he sighed.
He made his way around her, letting his hand graze her bottom as he moved behind her in the aisle and started back up toward the counter at the front of the store. A little gasp escaped her, and she quickly turned to see if anyone was looking their way. “Bud!” she whispered, smiling. He didn’t reply but kept walking to the counter where Alvin Mason stood counting buttons.
“Mason,” Bud said, leaning his elbow against the counter. “Need to bring the young’uns in for some boots next week. Have you got some in for the winter?”
“Came in yesterday. What’re you needin’?”
“The whole lot of ’em; the baby too. They keep on growin’, and I cain’t hardly keep up.” He didn’t elaborate, partly because he didn’t have the words and partly because he had no idea what sizes the children wore and couldn’t have guessed what to ask for. He was entirely and wholly out of his element. Bud wasn’t an especially perceptive man when it came to certain subjects, and cloth and buttons were beyond his wheelhouse.
“I prob’ly got everything you need.” Bud nodded and straightened up as Annie joined them at the counter. Alvin smiled at the young woman and took the bolt she placed on the counter. She was pretty, and Alvin didn’t begrudge Bud his “help.”
“How much you need, there, Miss Annie?”
“Three-and-a-half yards, if you don’t mind, sir,” Annie said, smiling back.
“Sure thing. Just lemme get Sarah.” He turned to walk to the back room, but just then a sharp, thin woman came through the curtain and joined him behind the counter. “Good morning, Mr. Braxton,” she said, her eyes completely ignoring Annie and settling directly on Bud. She apparently did begrudge Bud his help.
He hooked a thumb at Annie and said nothing. “Need three-and-a-half yards, if you don’t mind, Miss Sarah,” Annie said, her smile still broad but now undeniably fake. She wasn’t stupid, and Sarah’s disdain was nothing more than anything else she had encountered in town. Annie, however, was made of stronger stuff, and she could throw just as well as she caught.
“Sure,” Sarah replied, accepting the bolt Annie pushed in her direction. “Anything else?” She continued to look at Bud while speaking to Annie. Bud looked pointedly at Annie and avoided Sarah’s steel gaze altogether.
“Not for now,” Annie said, not the least bit rankled that Sarah still ignored her. That was fine; she could play that game too. “I’ll be out in a minute, Bud,” she said to Bud, indicating that he should go, and Sarah would be forced to talk to her. Bud was visibly relieved.
“Yep.” He tipped his head to Mason. “Mason.” And with that he walked out to the raft to wait on Annie and think about the timber.