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Authors: Lauraine Snelling

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Pearl (6 page)

BOOK: Pearl
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Ruby thought of the treadle sewing machine she had seen last time she shopped in Dickinson, the closest town of any size. While she’d read about them and seen one in operation when they lived back in New York, she’d never desired to own one like she did now. Still thinking on the things they needed but managed to get along without, she descended to the warmer regions and handed Opal her clothes.

‘‘Is someone else going to use the bath water?’’ Opal, now dried and wrapped in her towels, shivered in the draft from the long window. Floor to ceiling cupboards buried the walls on both sides of the narrow pantry.

Ruby made a face. ‘‘I forgot to offer.’’ She returned to the kitchen. ‘‘Milly, you want to take a bath?’’

‘‘It’s not Saturday.’’

‘‘I know, but we can add more hot water.’’

Milly wrung her cloth for a final time and wiped up the last of the scrub water. ‘‘No, might catch my death that way. If you ask me, you and Opal take far too many baths as it is. Not good for you. ’Specially not in the winter.’’

Ruby just shook her head and leaned into the storeroom to get pretty much the same answer from Daisy who, mouth round in her oval face, nearly dropped the flatiron in shock.

‘‘Don’t say I didn’t ask. We’ll use the water tomorrow to scrub the cardroom floor. If we could only train those men to either hit the spittoons or chew outside.’’ Her shudder came from her stomach.

Daisy brought the flatiron in for another exchange. ‘‘Sure smells good in here.’’ After setting the cool iron back on the stove, she peeked in the oven, inhaling as she held the door open. ‘‘Gingerbread. I don’t think anything can smell better.’’

‘‘Better than apple pie?’’ Milly came back in from dumping the water in a slop bucket on the back porch.

‘‘Bread’s best.’’ Ruby eyed the five loaves on the table, covered by clean dishcloths. ‘‘As long as you have your head in the oven, press on the top and see if it’s done.’’

Instead Daisy took a length of broomstraw they kept in a jar on the shelf behind the stove and stuck it in the middle of the cake. ‘‘Nothing on it.’’ She lifted the stove lid and tossed the straw in the fire. Using the potholders kept on the warming shelf, she pulled the pan from the oven and sat it on a wooden rack on the table to cool. ‘‘Tonight we can serve it with either whipped cream or applesauce. Or both.’’

At the beatific smile on Daisy’s face, Ruby chuckled. Whipped cream had been scarce for the months Johnson’s cow had been dry. Since she calved a couple of weeks earlier, they’d been churning butter, whipping cream, and letting some sour to serve on pancakes or use for sour-cream cookies.

‘‘Now I won’t have to take a bath for Easter, huh, Ruby?’’ Opal continued to dry her hair in front of the stove.

‘‘You wish. Easter is still ten days away. Would you like me to finish brushing and braiding your hair?’’

‘‘Please.’’ Opal handed her the brush and pulled a stool out from under the well-used oak table.

Ruby started at the bottom and brushed all the tangles out, working her way up through the thick hair. ‘‘Mm, you smell like roses.’’

‘‘Better than egg and flour.’’ Opal turned to look up at her sister. ‘‘Are you going to bake kolaches like at the Brandons’?’’

‘‘I think not. They take too much time.’’ Ruby shrugged at the look on her sister’s face. ‘‘Sorry. Maybe next year.’’

Milly stopped peeling potatoes to ask, ‘‘Whatever is that?’’

‘‘Braided bread with colored eggs nested in it. I think it is a Russian tradition.’’

‘‘What’s Russian?’’

Opal adopted her teacher attitude. ‘‘You use a sweet dough.’’ She’d been working with Milly and Daisy, teaching them to read during the summer until Ruby took over the schooling when the hotel business slowed down for the winter. ‘‘Russia is a huge country in Eastern Europe. Guess we need to study geography too.’’

‘‘You can find a world map in that last box of books Mrs. Brandon sent us.’’ Ruby had been a governess at the Brandon home in New York before she and Opal came west at their father’s bidding nearly a year before. Often when she allowed herself to think back, she felt sadness push down on her shoulders. Life had been so much easier then.

Milly, bone slender no matter how much Ruby tried to feed her up, let out a sigh. ‘‘I’ll never learn it all.’’

‘‘But you and Daisy can both read good now and do your sums,’’ Opal said.

‘‘
Well,
not good.’’ Ruby always tried to correct Opal’s grammar and manners. After all, some standards were necessary, even on the frontier. As Bestemor always said,
‘‘It’s how you behave when
you’re alone that says who you really are.’’

‘‘Oh yes. Read
well
.’’

‘‘Your penmanship has improved too. You’ve both learned a lot.’’ Ruby started at Opal’s forehead and fingered out three sections to begin French braiding.

Daisy brought back another sadiron to the stove, unhooked the wooden handle, and attached it to a hot iron. ‘‘I heard my name. What did I do now.’’ She leaned over and inhaled gingerbread flavor. ‘‘I think we’ve all been working so hard we should have a cup of coffee and a piece of that gingerbread.’’

‘‘Before supper?’’ Ruby braided a ribbon into the end of a braid and tied it off with a knot and a bow. She shook her head at the pleading looks on all three faces. ‘‘Oh, all right, but cut the pieces small. Who knows how many we will have here for supper.’’ ‘‘There’s only two guests.’’

‘‘So far.’’

‘‘But it’s getting toward dusk. Belle said she’d be back to practice.’’ Milly glanced out the window. ‘‘It’s snowing again, and here I thought spring had finally took over.’’

Belle had been the madam in the days before Ruby stepped in at her father’s dying request and took over Dove House, long before Ruby even knew what kind of situation she and her little sister were getting into.

Just the mention of Belle’s name brought something to mind that Ruby mulled over more and more often of late, sometimes even keeping her awake at night when her body was so exhausted it screamed for rest. Strange things like something missing and showing up later, never where it was supposed to be. The townsfolk, even though they knew the real situation by now, still looking at her like she’d become one of the doves instead of changing their lives around. She was sure money had been missing more than once. Was it all Belle, or should she be watching all of the others to catch the culprit?

‘‘Sometimes I think spring will never come,’’ Daisy grumbled. ‘‘We’ll be stuck in winter forever.’’

‘‘Me too.’’ Ruby caught herself sighing along with Daisy. Would ten days be enough time to perfect the Easter music for the girls to sing? The irony of three soiled doves singing at a worship service in a former saloon, resurrected as a dining room, made her smile inside. What would the fair citizens of Little Misery think anyway? She caught back her snort at the word
fair
. Ha. If they came at all.

CHAPTER FIVE

‘‘Every year at Easter we all got new clothes.’’ Opal sighed nine days later. ‘‘I really miss the Brandons.’’

‘‘Brand-new?’’ Milly wore envy like a petticoat, mostly hidden but peeking out at times.

‘‘Well, usually Alicia, the Brandons’ eldest daughter and two years older than me, hadn’t worn them much before I got them.’’

‘‘Like that blue coat you got hanging in your room?’’

‘‘Um-hm. Matching shoes and hat too. Along with the dress.’’

Opal smiled, a dreamy smile that spoke of good memories.

‘‘Well, I never. Like in a picture book. Bet you was sad to come out here.’’

‘‘Yes, but I wanted to meet my papa.’’

Milly’s snort suggested perhaps Opal had not made the best choice. After all, Milly had been the maid when Dove House had a less than savory reputation. Not that Opal had had anything to say about the matter.

‘‘I ain’t . . . er . . . never had . . .’’ Milly flinched as she corrected her own English before someone else could do it for her.

‘‘Good.’’ Opal grinned back, her approbation making Milly’s smile even wider.

‘‘Never had a new dress for Easter, or any time, until Cimarron sewed this for me.’’ She fingered the folds in her dark serge skirt. ‘‘And now I have two new skirts and another waist. Ruby ripped my old things up, said they was—were almost too patched for rags. Patches on patches they wa—were.’’ She rolled her eyes heavenward. ‘‘Land sakes, tryin’ to talk right is harder’n, well, about anything I ever done before.’’

‘‘Did.’’

‘‘Oh!’’ She stamped her foot but gently, as if to make a point and make Opal laugh at the same time. ‘‘See, what did I tell you?’’

Everyone liked to make Opal laugh.

Opal leaned closer and dropped her voice. ‘‘Ruby’s got a surprise for you.’’

‘‘Opal?’’

At Ruby’s call the two stepped apart and stopped giggling.

Ruby came through the door from the dining room, humming under her breath. ‘‘All right you two, what are you up to now?’’

‘‘W-why? Nothing.’’ Opal donned her most innocent expression, an act of supreme expertise.

‘‘Oh really?’’ Ruby turned her head slightly to the side, a sure sign she didn’t really believe her younger sister. The way Opal was growing, she wouldn’t be called little sister much longer.

‘‘Have you seen Belle?’’

Both the girls shook their heads.

‘‘The others are ready to practice, and she promised she’d play the piano.’’ Ruby made a tsking sound through clamped teeth. Belle could always be counted on to play dance hall and drinking music. But hymns? Anything to cause friction. Could nothing go right this day?

The sound of scraping boots at the back door caught their attention, and with a blast of cold air, Belle sailed into the room, snowflakes dusting the shoulders of her black wool shawl.

‘‘So is everyone ready?’’ The feather on her green felt hat dipped over one eye. With a twitch of a hand, she settled the upper drape over her full skirt.

That’s new,
Ruby thought, trying to remember if she’d seen the outfit before.
Why is it Belle can afford new clothes when the rest
of us sew our own or make do with what we already have? I better ask
Charlie if she’s been skimming off the card take again. Surely she
wouldn’t. She promised me to deal fairly and keep only a third of the
winnings. Ha! Only if she felt I wouldn’t check. But what about the missing
money?

The argument in Ruby’s head seemed to go on continually. No matter how hard she tried to subdue or ignore the inner discussions, any confrontation, especially those with Belle, set her head to clamoring. She often wondered why Belle stayed on at Dove House. Although why not? She obviously made enough money running the cardroom to buy the things she desired. Her room and board were cheap, and unless she volunteered like she had for the Sunday music, she had no further responsibilities. Unlike the rest of them who worked from before the world even thought of dawn to well after dark.

‘‘The others are waiting for
you
.’’ Ruby emphasized the word, waiting in the hope that Belle would get the hint.

‘‘I won’t change then.’’ Belle, amber eyes lined with kohl, lips red as raspberries, and with the hauteur of a foreign royalty, entered the dining room, even the door staying open longer, as if timid about wrinkling her skirt.

She better wear something less . . . less . . .
Ruby struggled for the proper word.
Flamboyant, provocative, brazen. Why didn’t I reprimand
her for her tardiness? Bring her to task for her rudeness?

Why don’t I do a lot of things?

Because I get tired of being Mother Superior or headmistress. The
bickering, the lack of enough help, my stars, how can I complain about
having so many guests? We need more help.

Some days one needed . . .
She paused in her mental ruminations and castigations to listen to the lovely harmony coming from the dining room.

‘‘Don’t they sing pretty?’’ Milly paused in bringing ironed linens from the storeroom where Daisy spent most of her time with a flatiron and its cousin the ironing board. Table linens were stored in a cupboard off the dining room and bed linens at the end of the second-floor hall. Charlie had built the cupboards last fall, much to everyone’s delight. Especially Cat who liked nothing better than sleeping on a stack of starched tablecloths or pillowcases, if anyone made the mistake of leaving a cupboard door open. Cat took her job as mouse hunter seriously and had become such an adept hunter that news to stay away from Dove House must have spread about the local mouse population.

‘‘Why didn’t you sing with them?’’

Milly shook her head. ‘‘Can’t carry a tune in a rain barrel.’’

‘‘Who told you that? I’ve heard you humming when you work, and you do just fine.’’

‘‘Really?’’

It was always amazing to Ruby how a bit of encouragement and a smile could change Milly from a washed-out mouse to a glowing marigold.

‘‘Ah, Milly, why didn’t I think of encouraging you sooner? I’m sorry.’’

‘‘Maybe next time. Opal, now, she can sing like the meadowlarks in the summer.’’

Ruby listened more closely. All the voices blended so perfectly, one would think they’d been singing together for years instead of days. Perhaps the girls had. It was so seldom she thought of them as ‘‘the girls’’ any longer. In the year since she’d inherited the hotel, many things had changed, most importantly, the lives of the women who’d once been known as soiled doves and who now worked with and for her, more as friends than hired help. Until someone caused a ruckus, and as she’d slowly learned, the culprit was more often than not, Belle.

BOOK: Pearl
10.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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