Read What Once Was Lost Online

Authors: Kim Vogel Sawyer

Tags: #Fiction, #Christian, #Historical, #Romance, #General

What Once Was Lost (6 page)

BOOK: What Once Was Lost
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Christina gave Cora a quick hug. “Don’t worry about needing a nap. Truth be told, I could have used one myself after our short night.” She lifted the chicken by one prickly foot and dunked it up and down in the pot. Steam seared her hand, but she gritted her teeth and continued to dip and lift until the feathers clung like a second skin to the bird’s carcass and the smell of scalded
down singed her nose. Holding the dripping bird well in front of her, she carried it to the table and stretched it out for plucking.

“Want my help?” Cora asked, her white face puckering as she gazed at the sorry-looking hen.

Christina grabbed a handful of feathers and yanked. “Mrs. Beasley wants gingerbread cake for dessert. Why don’t you retrieve the recipe from the little box over there and start baking. The ginger smell should make things more pleasant.” She wrinkled her nose as she yanked out a few more feathers, revealing pink mottled skin beneath.

“Yes, ma’am.” Cora wiped her hands on her apron and moved to the possum belly cupboard in the corner, where she began scooping flour from the biggest drawer. “Tell you what, Miss Willems. You just plan on turnin’ in right after supper, and let me do all the cleaning. That nap freshened me right up.”

As lovely as a long night of sleep sounded, Christina dismissed the idea. “I have other work to do after supper. I must locate pen and paper and get a letter posted to the mission board. They’ll expect a full report about the damage to the poor farm and information on where each resident has been housed.”

Cora angled a glance over her shoulder. “Everybody got a place to stay?”

Christina shook wet feathers from her fingers. “Florie and Joe are with the banker, Mr. Tatum, and his wife. Reverend Huntley arranged for Herman and Harriet to board with the church organist, Widow Dwyer. The butcher and his wife offered their back room to Louisa and Rose. Alice, Laura, and Francis have moved in with the seamstress, Tina Claussen. Wes insisted on staying near the horses, so he’s bedding down in the tack room of the livery stable. And Tommy …”

Once again Levi Jonnson’s smug grin and amused chuckle rose to torment Christina. She fell silent as embarrassment heated her face.

Cora turned, worry marring her brow. “Tommy’s all right, isn’t he? You found a good place for him, too?”

How Christina prayed that Tommy’s placement would prove to be good rather than harmful. But she shouldn’t concern Cora—the young woman had
been very kind to Tommy, more than most. She forced a smile. “Tommy is fine. He’s with the mill owner, Mr. Jonnson.”

Cora’s face took on a dreamy expression. “Mr. Jonnson … I recall seeing him in the mercantile one time. He’s a handsome man.” Her hands stilled in measuring ginger into a blue-striped bowl.

As Christina recalled his sturdy build, thick blond hair, and callus-dotted hands, heat filled her cheeks. “Yes. Well.” She pinched off stubborn pieces of down from the chicken’s flesh. “Handsome he might be, but he’s also quite cantankerous.”

As Cora pushed a wooden spoon through the cake batter, a wonderful aroma drifted from the bowl. “But he took in Tommy, you said. So he must not be too cantankerous.”

Cora had no idea how the man had balked. Or the way he’d treated her. And Christina wasn’t about to share those things with the young woman. She reached for a knife to gut the clean-plucked bird. “As I said, Tommy is fine. But …”

If only Papa were still alive, she could share her concerns with him. Despite Tommy’s rare smile of success this afternoon, she held real misgivings about the care he would receive from Mr. Jonnson. But she didn’t dare voice her worries to Cora or to any of the poor farm residents. They looked to her for guidance. She couldn’t lean on them.

Cora tipped her head. “But …”

Christina shrugged, offering another smile, which she hoped passed as untroubled. “Oh, it doesn’t matter. In no time at all, the mission board will provide funds to rebuild, and we’ll all be together under one roof again.”
Please, Lord. Soon …

Chapter 6

Tommy clung to the rope with one hand and held his other hand in front of him as he counted his steps to the outhouse.
Fifty-three, fifty-four …
The rope’s rough fibers pricked his palm, but he wouldn’t let go. His heart pounded. Although he’d already made this trek by himself three days in a row, he still battled dizziness when he was outdoors on his own. Fear made him break out in a sweat despite the cold wind that stung his bare cheeks, pulled at his jacket, and tousled his hair. If the wind tore him loose from the rope, how would he find his way back to the house?

“If you get into trouble, give a holler. I’ll come running.”
The promise Mr. Jonnson had made the first time he’d sent Tommy to the outhouse alone trailed through his head. His fear eased. He’d be all right. Mr. Jonnson was in the house, fixing breakfast. Only seventy-eight paces in all. He could holler loud enough to be heard from seventy-eight paces.

Seventy-six, seventy-seven …
His palm smacked the outhouse wall. Batting at the damp wood, he located the door and creaked it open. With the door’s edge firmly in his grasp, he finally released the security of the rope and stumbled inside. The walls blocked the wind, and he sighed, his warm breath whisking around his nose.

He giggled, remembering Mr. Jonnson saying that once spring arrived, he might not need the rope to find his way to the outhouse—his nose could probably guide him. That Mr. Jonnson … Even though he was mostly serious, every now and then he said something funny. Tommy liked those moments. When Mr. Jonnson joked with Tommy, he felt normal. Normal, not a helpless blind boy who had to be tiptoed around and treated all careful-like the way most people did. Even Miss Willems.

His business finished, Tommy fastened his britches and pushed the door
open. His nostrils filled with the crisp scent of late winter as he caught hold of the rope again. He sniffed the air as he counted his way back to the house. Another aroma—rich, musky, leaving a tang on the back of his tongue—reached his nose. He’d never smelled anything like it before Miss Willems brought him here, so the scent had to come from Mr. Jonnson’s mill.

The man spent most of the day away from the house, working in his mill. What did he do out there? The sounds were interesting—scrapes and
thuds
and rhythmic
whish-whishes
. And the smell … Tommy breathed deeply, savoring the essence. Curiosity tied his insides into knots. What made those sounds and interesting smells?

Before the accident had stolen his sight, he’d asked lots of questions, and Pa had always shown him the answers. But afterward when he asked, “What’re you doin’, Pa?” Pa got mad and told him to get his groping hands back before he ruined something. So Tommy didn’t ask. But he couldn’t help pondering and wishing he knew.

He stepped into the house, and the savory smell of bacon chased the unknown scent from his nostrils. His stomach rumbled. He licked his lips and shuffled in the direction of the table with his hands outstretched, eager to sit and have breakfast. Just as his fingers encountered the back of his chair, Mr. Jonnson spoke.

“Huh-uh. You haven’t washed up yet.”

Tommy stood with his hands outstretched, waiting for a dripping cloth to drop into his hands.

“Well, now, don’t just stand there.” Mr. Jonnson’s voice came from the kitchen area. “You know where the washbowl is. The water’s warm, and soap’s in the dish to the right of the bowl, like always. Wash your face while you’re at it.”

Heels dragging, Tommy angled his body to the left and counted eight steps. On the final one his hip bumped the stand where Mr. Jonnson kept a washbowl, soap, and a length of toweling ready. Warm water splashed his front, and he grunted.

“Just water.” Mr. Jonnson’s calm voice came from behind Tommy. “It’ll dry. Dip your hands and soap up. The eggs and bacon are getting cold.”

Again Tommy paused. The man was close—so close he felt his breath on the back of his head. Would he push up Tommy’s sleeves? put the soap in his hands? He waited, but the
thump
of boot heels on the floorboards told him Mr. Jonnson was walking away. Tommy drew in a breath. Part of him appreciated Mr. Jonnson treating him like any other boy, but part of him was afraid. If he made a mess, he couldn’t clean it up. A person had to see a mess before he could clean it up. And he didn’t want to make messes for someone else.

He tipped his head, listening. Soft clanks and clatters carried from the kitchen—Mr. Jonnson serving up the breakfast. Tommy was on his own. His hands shaking, he shoved his sleeves to his elbows and carefully felt around on the stand for the soap. His fingers found the smooth lump. He lifted it and dipped it in the water, then rubbed it between his palms. The scent of lye stung his nose, and his hands became slick. He plopped the wet soap back into its dish, returned his hands to the water, and wrung them together until all the slickness washed away. Then he leaned forward and rubbed his wet hands over his face. Droplets dribbled down his chin, and he gingerly felt around for the towel. The rough cloth in hand, he rubbed his face first, then wadded the fabric around his hands until they felt dry.

“You done over there?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, come on, then. Let’s eat.”

Tommy dropped the towel on the edge of the stand and felt his way to the table. He slid into his chair, his fingers eagerly searching for the edge of his plate. Good smells rose from the plate. At the poor farm they’d always used eggs for baking instead of plain old eating. Tommy licked his lips, eager to taste them.

Chair legs scraped on the floor, so Tommy knew Mr. Jonnson was sitting. Miss Willems always prayed before they ate, but Mr. Jonnson didn’t bother. So Tommy slid his fingers along the plate’s rim and found a fork. He picked it up,
poked it around on his plate ’til he’d stabbed a bite, then filled his mouth with a chunk of fried egg. He couldn’t resist releasing a low “Mmm …”

Mr. Jonnson chuckled. “A real treat, isn’t it? Since it’s Sunday, I thought we’d have something special.”

Tommy lifted another bite. “We goin’ to church since it’s Sunday?”

“No.”

Something in the man’s tone changed. Just a little, but enough to make the fine hairs on the back of Tommy’s neck prickle. He swallowed the bite of flavorful eggs. Even though he tried not to ask questions, one spilled out anyway. “How come?”

Mr. Jonnson harrumphed. “I have no use for hypocrites.”

Tommy scowled. Although hunger made him want to dig in, he braved another question. “What’s a … a hypocrite?”

“Somebody who says one thing but does another.”

The man’s voice lost its usual musical quality and held a hard edge. He sounded more like Pa than like himself. Tommy shivered, his pleasure in the fine breakfast slipping away.

“If you ask me, churchgoers are the worst kind of hypocrites.” Mr. Jonnson’s fork scraped on his plate again and again, as if he was chasing the food around. “So I keep my distance.”

Tommy’d been a churchgoer before his accident. He’d gone with Ma and his brothers and sisters. After his accident, after Pa took him to the poor farm, he sat in on Bible reading, singing, and prayer with Miss Willems. She called what they did “church.” That meant, in Mr. Jonnson’s eyes, he was a hypocrite. Someone to be avoided.

A sharp
clank
—the fork smacking the plate—made Tommy jump. “Eat up, boy. When you’re done, I’ll show you how to wash dishes. It’s time you started earning your keep.” Chair legs screeched. Boot heels thudded away.

Tommy ate every bit of food he could find on his plate, but the eggs and bacon had lost their appeal. An ugly thought filled his head. The more things he could do for himself, the less time Mr. Jonnson needed to spend with him.
Maybe Mr. Jonnson wasn’t helping him learn because he liked him but because he wanted to avoid him.

Maybe Mr. Jonnson wasn’t so different from Pa after all.

Cora slipped into the church pew beside Miss Willems, her face flaming. Since they’d come in late, thanks to Mrs. Beasley insisting they clean up the breakfast mess before leaving, the only open pews were way in the front. How she’d hated parading past all those well-dressed parishioners who cradled Bibles in their arms the way Ma used to hold a jug of spirits. Ma had never taken Cora to church—she said church folk were uppity. Cora wrinkled her brow, puzzling over Ma’s comments. Miss Willems sure was different from the way Ma described church folk. Maybe Ma wasn’t so all-fired right about everything. Maybe—her heart fluttered as a tiny root of hope tried to take hold—Ma wasn’t even right about Cora.

While the preacher read from his big black Bible and then talked, Cora fiddled with a torn cuticle on her thumb and sent a quick glance over her shoulder. Her heart lifted when she spotted the familiar faces of the poor farm residents scattered among the congregation. Florie and Joe, Louisa, Rose, Alice and her youngsters … Wes was there, too, way in the back, sitting between Herman and Harriet. She waggled two fingers at him in a little wave, and he offered his great big, face-splitting grin in reply.

Miss Willems cleared her throat, and Cora zipped her attention forward. But she didn’t listen. The preacher’s deep voice might put her to sleep if she wasn’t careful. Tiredness wore at her bones. Part of it was the work. Resentment pricked. Mrs. Beasley kept both her and Miss Willems so busy they hardly had time to sit. But part of it was—She shut out the thought. She shouldn’t allow such disgraceful reflections while sitting on a church bench!

BOOK: What Once Was Lost
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