Bartle Clunes - Chapter 5
El Dorado County, 1949 - Louvina spends the night...
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About midnight Louvina was awakened by a rumpus outside the window. Some nocturnal creature was rooting around out there, snuffling, scratching about, making a racket. The room was cold, but she got up from the warm cot to see who the intruder was, the floor icy under her bare feet. Pulling back the curtain, she found a family of raccoons nosing around in the yard, their midnight playground. A broom was knocked over and chewed on, the bucket of kindling, up-ended. They climbed onto the water trough to drink and wash up, snooped around the wood pile looking for grubs and bugs, poked around in the bed of her truck.
She turned to get a drink of water at the sink and was surprised to see a light on in Bartle's room, visible at the crack under the door. Now why is he awake? she thought, standing there a minute, hearing no sound. Maybe he can’t sleep and is reading? It was not her business, but Louvina didn't often allow conventions of good behavior to impinge on her curiosity. She tiptoed over, listened at the door, and softly knocked.
“Bartle?” she said. “You all right in there?” There was no answer for a few seconds.
“Yes, I am.” He opened the door about six inches. The sudden burst of light made her blink. “I couldn't sleep so I got up to work. I am sorry I disturbed you, I tried to be quiet. I often work at night.”
“I was not disturbed by you. There are raccoons raising Cain in the front yard. But ... what work are you doing, Bartle ... if you don't mind my asking?”
“I don't mind,” he said, shaking his head. “Come in if you like.” He stood back and opened the door.
Louvina was taken aback. “Why … I thought this was your bedroom!” she said.
“No,” he answered. “Not as a rule.” One of Louvina's braids had lost its tie, and her red hair was hanging loose on one side. She rubbed her sleepy eyes, turning slowly to take in the room. Bartle thought she looked like a young girl.
She spied the pile of blankets on the floor, the sleepy dog stretched out on them, tail thumping.
“Bartle! You don't have a bed in here? You’ve been lying on the floor? Oh my!” She was mortified. “No wonder you couldn't sleep.”
The room was cluttered. Three tables were covered with pots of paint, tubes of paint, jars of paint, tin cans full of brushes, a box of pencils, a carton of what looked like crayons, an open red metal tool box. Thick tablets of paper were tucked between the tables. A large easel stood against the wall with an unfinished painting of trees resting on it. A small stand on the table held a sketch of old worn and wrinkled boots. Three finished canvases leaned against the far wall. Several hung on the other walls.
“I am so embarrassed, Bartle! I just invited myself to stay out there on your cot, assuming you had a bedroom back here. I am so sorry for my foolishness and for being such a nuisance.”
“You are no nuisance to me. This is not the first time in my life that I have slept on the floor,” he said, “nor will it be my last, most likely. Now go back to the bed, please. It is cold and it is late. I'll just finish up here and lay myself down, if I can get this hound to move over.” He smiled, pushed her out of the room, and closed the door soundly.
Louvina jumped back into Bartle's bed, and found little warmth left in it. She lay awake for a long while, listening to the mockingbird who was singing his heart out in the moonlight: “Tree. Tree. Tree. Badger Badger. Weep! Weep! Weep! Badger. Sure. Sure. Tickle-tickle. Tickle-tickle.” She fell back asleep to his pre-dawn song.
Rising just before six, she washed her face, put on a pot of coffee, made up the bed. She caught her reflection in the old mirror hanging near the kitchen door, and having no comb, she arranged her hair with her fingers, twisting it into one long braid. She stepped out onto the porch to breathe, drinking in the foothills’ fragrances of bunch grass, madrone, pine, oak, and wet earth. A red-tailed hawk was already gliding in the updraft looking for her breakfast.
The smell of coffee quickened Bartle back to consciousness. He wandered out of the back room and sleepily filled a mug. He joined Louvina and Maggie on the porch.
“Good morning to you, Louvina McBean,” he said. “Thank you for making the coffee. I hope you finally got some rest last night.”
“Yes, I did, thank you. More rest than you, I dare say,” she frowned.
“I slept fine,” he lied. They drank their coffee out in the brisk morning air. A large dragon fly danced by. Maggie nosed around the yard following raccoon trails from pillar to post, and let out one long howl to Louvina's delight. “You'll stay for breakfast, won't you?” asked Bartle. “It's early yet.”
“I am a troublesome house guest and I know my welcome was worn out hours ago - since about five-thirty yesterday afternoon I would imagine!” she said. “I will stay for breakfast if you will let me cook it, and then I'll be on my way.”
Without answering, he went out back to the chicken coop to see if his fat Barred Rocks had done their duty. He found four eggs and brought them back in.
Louvina cut four slices of bread. She made a hole in the center of each piece with a water glass. Laying all four slices in the buttered skillet, she broke an egg into each hole, and fried both sides. Bartle watched with interest. She put the cut-out pieces, the butter, and a near empty jar of jam on the table. She took two apples from the window sill and quartered them, and that was breakfast. Maggie looked hopeful, but he would have to wait.
After they had eaten and cleaned up the kitchen, Louvina retrieved her boots and put on her coat and hat. Bartle walked her out to the truck and made sure she got it started and turned around safely. After that she was on her own.
Louvina called out to Maggie, opening the door for him to jump in. But the dog was nowhere to be seen. “Well, shoot, it looks like Maggie may have decided to take up residence with you, Bartle. If it doesn't work out, I'm sure one of you will let me know. I thank you again for your hospitality and I hope I am welcome here again sometime, for all the trouble I have been,” she said with a sweet smile.
“Louvina, you are good company and we had a fine time, all except for the sleeping on the floor part, which only served to remind me to be a more grateful man for even having a bed. I'll be around to see you in three days, as I promised, to replace your cistern lid. Meanwhile, you get that linoleum bought.” He winked at her through the rolled down window, laid his hand on her arm. “You take care now,” he said, and he slapped the fender as solid punctuation.
She put the old truck gently into first gear, looking confident, and pulled off down the drive. He heard the transmission give a sigh of relief as she found second gear half way to the road. Bartle watched her until she turned off his lane and he sent up a short benediction to Whomever might be listening. He looked down to find Maggie sitting by his side and patted his head. “Good dog,” he said, watching as the old Studebaker was just rounding the hill out of sight. So far, so good, he thought.
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