If You Believe
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More than day and less than night."
"She must have been quite a woman, Rass. I'm ... sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry about."
They lapsed into silence again. Somewhere a bird chirped. Wind whispered through the leaves of the trees, stirring the crispy, fallen reminders of autumn. From the hidden recesses of the river came the first bulging ribbits of lonely bullfrogs.
Tears burned Rass's eyes, turned the shadowy fields into a golden-red smear. "I never thought she'd die. . . ."
Mad Dog gave Rass's shoulder a comforting squeeze, but didn't say anything.
Rass gazed out across the orchard, feeling Greta's presence beside him. He fisted his hand, knowing that her essence, some ephemeral part of her Soul, lay within his grasp, had always lain within his grasp. It gave him strength and purpose and a sense of quiet well-being. "Sometimes, when I stand under the tree on the hill, I see her.
She's waiting for me."
Mad Dog shifted his weight from side to side and looked away.
"Am I making you uncomfortable?" Rass asked with a crooked smile.
Mad Dog let out his breath in a relieved gust. "Very."
"I know you don't believe me. Marian doesn't either. That's because you've never been in love, either one of you."
Mad Dog laughed. "No surprise there, Professor."
"One day you'll feel what I felt for Greta, and then you'll know. That feeling just doesn't go away. Not even if one of you dies."
"I wouldn't bet on me feeling that, Rass."
That's exactly what I'm betting on. Rass cleared his throat and stared up at Mad Dog. It was time to say what he'd come to say. "Will you take care of Marian for me while I'm gone?"
Mad Dog laughed. "How long you gonna be gone?"
Rass frowned at the answer. "Does it matter?"
"Sure it does. You're gonna be gone for supper, maybe overnight, I'll say yes.
You're leaving till spring, I'd say find someone else."
"I thought you liked Mariah."
"I do ... a hell of a lot actually. What's that got to do with it?"
"Well ... I thought you'd sort of like to stay. After all, you're still here."
"You haven't paid me yet."
Rass eyed Mad Dog speculatively. The young man was trying like hell to appear disinterested, but he couldn't mask his emotions completely. Deep in his eyes, Rass saw what he wanted—needed—to see.
Mad Dog wasn't as detached as he tried to appear.
Rass fished through the baggy, lint-softened interior of his pants pocket for his wallet. Flipping it open, he pulled out a crisp ten-dollar bill and handed it to Mad Dog. "Here you go. I'm paying you—more than I owe you for the week. You going to leave now?"
Mad Dog stared down at the paper money for a long, silent moment, then slowly he looked up and met Rass's gaze. "No."
Mad Dog flinched. "I'm not ready to move on, I guess."
"And that has nothing to do with my daughter?"
He sighed quietly and ran a hand through his shaggy hair. "I wish it didn't, Professor."
Rass did his best not to smile. "But it does."
Mad Dog squeezed his eyes shut. "Yeah, it does." He looked up suddenly, his gaze sharp on Rass's face.
"Don't make too much of it, Rass. I'm not the kind of man who stays anywhere too long."
"Maybe this time'll be different."
A grim smile pulled at Mad Dog's mouth. "I've had plenty of women say that, but somehow it never is."
Rass thought about saying more, but knew it wasn't the time. There were certain discoveries a man had to make for himself. "Well, I'm just going into town for a few hours. I thought I'd take Jake out to that Chinese restaurant for supper. But I don't like to leave Mariah alone on the farm. You know, in case there's trouble."
Mad Dog smiled. "Sure thing, Rass. I'll keep an eye on her for you."
Rass thumped him on the back. "I knew I could count on you."
Mad Dog laughed. "Now, there's a first."
"No one counts on me, Professor."
He looked up at the younger man's face. "Like I told you, maybe this time is different."
Rass let the sentence sink in, with all its possibilities, then he turned and walked away.
Chapter Fifteen Mad Dog yelled for Mariah, but there was no answer. She was probably hiding someplace, trying to keep out of his way now that they were alone on the farm.
He couldn't say he blamed her.
Grabbing his towel and soap from the bunkhouse, he headed to the house for his nightly shower.
He bounded up the sagging porch steps and rapped hard on the door. He didn't expect an answer, but he knocked just the same. Mariah always made a point of not being around when he took his regularly scheduled shower.
No one answered.
He reached for the brass knob and turned it, easing the door open. It creaked on its hinges and swung inward.
He poked his head into the shadowy house. It was a deathly quiet void. He slipped through the door and lit a lamp. Golden light cut a path through the shadows.
He closed the door behind him and went to the base of the stairs. "Mariah? Are you up there?"
Still no answer.
"If you are, I'm gonna take my shower." He started to turn away from the stairway, then stopped.
Mariah's room was at the top of stairs.
Up there, just a few short feet away, lay her secret sanctuary. Somewhere, amongst her personal items, was the trinket or doodad that would explain the sadness in her eyes and the bitterness in her smile.
Before he knew it, he was walking up the stairs. At the landing he paused and looked around again. The corridor was dark and empty.
"Mariah?" He called her name tentatively, hoping now that she wouldn't answer.
He crept toward her bedroom and gently turned the knob. With a single push, the door swung inward on its arc.
The room was austere and cold, lit only by the bloody red haze of a dying sun. No fresh flowers brightened the dresser, no scrap of lace softened the scratched wood of the washstand. A white coverlet lay stretched across the four-poster oak bed like a layer of new-fallen snow. Not a single wrinkle marred the stark linen. There was no hint, no evidence at all, of the woman who slept beneath it.
He felt . . . disappointed but had no idea why.
The dresser caught his eye. Slowly, feeling keenly out of place, he crossed the shadowy room. The top of the dresser was empty but for a meticulous pile of hairpins in a cracked china saucer, and a wooden hairbrush. There were no knickknacks, or photos, or mementos. No dried rose from a long-ago love affair.
Gently he eased the top drawer open and found it filled with precisely folded undergarments. He closed the drawer quickly and opened the others, one by one.
It wasn't until the bottom drawer that he found anything even vaguely enlightening.
There, folded in a small, neat square, was a thin blue blanket, its edges lovingly embroidered in yellow and green flowers and puffy white lambs. Beside it lay an old-fashioned baby bottle and a tarnished silver rattle.
He thought of the hours that embroidery had taken, the time that someone had spared to make the hem just right, the blossoms perfect. Greta, no doubt. The woman had made certain that the blanket was just right for her baby. And Mariah had saved it all these years along with her bottle and rattle. Wasn't that how women did things? Pass special items down from generation to generation.
For the Throckmorton women, it all ended here in a half-empty, forgotten drawer.
Mariah had no children to wrap lovingly in the blanket. But she kept the baby things all these years, obviously hoping for the future.
Frowning, he eased the drawer shut. Did she still hope for a child, had she ever? Or was this the resting place for forgotten dreams? The questions made him feel edgy, opened the way for feelings he didn't want to have.
Straightening, he moved cautiously toward the ar-moire. He knew what he'd find before he opened it, and he wasn't disappointed. It was filled with dozens of drab, brown dresses and tired aprons.
She didn't even own a dress of another color. Why? he wondered. Why was she so obsessed with looking drab and unobtrusive?
Feeling unaccountably sad, he left the room and went into the hallway, closing the door behind him. He was halfway down the stairs when he realized why he felt uncomfortable.
He stopped and glanced back up the stairs. It dawned on him, what he'd found in her room.
It was a room exactly like his. Empty, impersonal. The room of a person who chooses not to exist. It was a place with a bed, but no memories. A place to sleep; not a place to dream.
His frown deepened. He'd made a mistake in coming here tonight. He'd wanted to see a room filled with ruffly knickknacks and lacy gewgaws. A room like any other, to indicate that she was a woman like any other.
What he'd found was the lonely, empty refuge of a woman strikingly disconnected to the world.
A woman he understood all too well.
Mariah strode briskly from the washhouse, a set of clean sheets wedged under one arm. In her other hand, she held a half-full wash bucket and a broom. Soapy water sloshed over the metal rim and splashed her feet as she walked.
She needed something to keep her busy while Jake and Rass were gone. Anything to keep her from thinking about the fact that she and Mad Dog were alone here.
Hard work, she decided, was the best defense to runaway nerves. So, bucket in hand, she headed for the bunkhouse. Today was cleaning day; it always had been, and she refused to allow her careful routine to be upset by Mad Dog's presence.
She'd carefully scheduled his showers—every night at seven-thirty—and he was always in the bathing room for at least thirty minutes. Thus, she figured she had at least half an hour before Mad Dog finished his shower and came looking for her.
And she knew from experience that she could clean the bunkhouse in less than twenty minutes.
When she came to the small, darkened outbuilding, she paused and set down her bucket and broom. Without bothering to knock, she pushed the door open.
Dark silence tumbled back at her.
She straightened her spine and went to the bedside table. Lighting a lamp, she looked around and made a quiet, tsldng sound of displeasure, then went to work.
The bunkhouse was small, and took no time to clean. She swept the floor, washed the window, swiped the dusty dresser, and shook out the curtains.
Then she paused, breathing hard, swabbing the sheen of sweat from her brow.
Glancing around the room, she saw a gray-white bag slumped in the corner. It was his bag, she realized instantly. The only thing he'd brought with him.
She wondered what was in it, what he valued enough to carry from place to place.
"Maybe I'll just unpack for him," she said aloud.
Yes, that was reasonable. A friendly thing to do.
Cautiously she moved to the corner and kneeled down. She pulled on the fraying rope drawstring. The bag fell open. A threadbare black shirt, twisted into a tight, wrinkled ball, rolled toward her, hovering at the canvas lip.
She pulled it out, staring at it a long moment before she folded it and put it in the dresser's middle drawer. One by one, she drew out his belongings—two pairs of faded, holey blue jeans, a patched flannel shirt, a ragged oilcloth coat, socks, and underthings. She folded and put them away, then opened the bag wider and peered in. A collection of tattered notebooks and loose sheets of paper lay in the bottom.