Bartle Clunes - Chapter 6
El Dorado County, 1949 - A letter from a lost girl...
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Tuesday morning dawned near freezing. The rusty tin RC Cola thermometer on Bartle's front porch said thirty-nine degrees. He was on his way to Louvina's house with the dog and a small pile of scrap lumber in his truck … and a letter in his pocket.
Louvina expected him. She had made a cake with canned pineapple, bright red cherries from a jar, butter and brown sugar. It was now turned upside-down on a white china plate on her drainboard. The noon meal was already cooked and just needed warming. She had washed and combed out her hair, put on her good shoes, a clean checked shirt and corduroy trousers. She wanted to look nice for him, though she could not bring herself to wear a dress anywhere but to a funeral. She'd inherited her brother's entire wardrobe, and that was enough clothing to last her just about forever.
Bartle and Maggie arrived around ten, a cloud of white exhaust following behind them like a wizard's trick. The dog jumped out first, flying right over Bartle's lap and ran up to Louvina, head down, wiggling at both ends. He nuzzled her hand, circled around a couple of times in front of her, then he flopped and rolled over so she could rub his dotted pink belly.
“Good morning! Come away in.” She held the screen door open for them.
“How are you faring, Louvina McBean?” he asked, walking into her house. “I trust you made it home on Saturday morning with no trouble? I was worried about you. We need to get that truck fixed up for the winter roads.” He undid the buttons of his coat. The smell of home-made cake filled the house and brought to him an image of his mother, Kate, gone these 25 years.
“No trouble, Bartle. I had a fine little ride. You can rest easy. I will be an expert driver before long … if I don't kill myself first.” They stood in the warm, bright kitchen. “How about you and Maggie? Have you two established an understanding yet?” she asked, taking off her rick-rack apron.
“We have, yes,” said Bartle. “I have agreed to never eat out of his bowl if he will stay off of my bed. It is a difficult contract on his part, apparently, but I'm holding up my end of the bargain admirably.”
“A match made in heaven,” said Louvina. “Here, let take your coat, get you some coffee.”
“I would like to get right down to work, Louvina, if you'll show me where your spring is. I found some old pieces of lumber in the shed and brought them along in case they’re needed.”
She put on her jacket, tied a wool plaid scarf on her head against the cold, and led Bartle down to a large tree at the north end of her property where there was a small ramshackle pump house. He took a few measurements and wrote them on a scrap of wood with a pencil stub he had in his pocket. The two of them stood for a minute, shoulder to shoulder, admiring the morning view down the ravine and up the other side, all short yellow grass and scrub. The landscape was dotted with massive sturdy oaks, valley oaks, trees that had no particular value to humans beyond natural beauty and firewood, but which provided habitat for myriad small creatures and were testimony to the richness of the soil in which they grew. The entire scene was bathed in a thin white mist and the raucous bantering of jays and crows.
Bartle retrieved the bits of wood from the truck, surveyed what he had to work with, and got right to it. Louvina stood by a while, offering twice to lend a hand, but he told her 'no thank you' both times. As any woman would, she knew when she had been politely dismissed and went back to the house, leaving him to his work.
Bartle had been sawing and hammering for about an hour when Louvina called him in for his lunch. “Ten minutes, Louvina,” he yelled. “I am nearly finished out here. I will get this back down to the cistern and call the job done.” He drove in a few more nails, rough sanded the perimeter, and rolled the repaired round lid down to the pump house. He settled it into place. That should do it, he thought, pleased with the result.
At the house, Bartle left his dirty boots on the steps, slapped the sawdust off his pant legs. He hung his coat on a hook inside the door and went directly to the sink to wash up. “It is all fixed,” he said looking back over his shoulder. “Right as rain. I'll get out there and clean up that mess before I go.”
“Oh, no you won't,” she said. “You have done enough, Bartle Clunes. You just gather up your tools and I will put things in order out there later. I have all afternoon. Now come sit yourself down to eat,” she said.
Bartle absentmindedly picked up the Montgomery Ward catalog she'd left on the drainboard, and sat down at the table with it. Louvina pointed to a dog-eared page with a picture of the bright-colored, geometrically-patterned linoleum she had chosen. “It is already on its way, and they say it might take only a few days to get here.”
“Aha. Darned nice,” he fibbed. What he thought was, well, it's your kitchen, Louvina, and you'll have to live with it. He told her again that he would help install it as soon as it came in. Sitting down, he noticed the huge basket of clothing in the corner. She took in ironing to keep herself afloat, and it worried him.
She had cooked a thick potato-carrot soup for him, and some turnip greens with ham hocks. There was a fresh-baked loaf of bread and unsalted butter. During their dessert, which Bartle praised highly, he told her he had received a letter yesterday that he wanted to talk to her about. He took it from his pocket. “It's from Wyoming,” he said.
“From your nephews, then?”
“No,” he said, pausing, “It is from my daughter.”
“Wait! You have a daughter? What? I cannot remember you ever saying anything about having a daughter, Bartle?”
“I didn't mention her to you, I guess. My daughter, Ayla. She was born in 1932. I've not seen her for … must be fourteen, fifteen years now. She will be near grown.
“Well, I am dumbfounded. How does it happen, Bartle, that you haven't seen your daughter? Tell me about that.”
“It is a long story. Let me just say that my wife was a clever woman, real smart and lively, but she became interested in another man, a man she had met in Cheyenne and she ran off with him, taking my little girl with her. I searched for them for more than two years. Believe me, Louvina, I went everywhere within five hundred miles in all directions. They flat-out disappeared. I gave up after a while and came out here. I've been here in California some thirteen years now.”
“You never let on,” Louvina whispered.
“Well..... no. It never came up I guess.” He paused for a minute, pouring himself a second cup of coffee. “Then I got this letter yesterday. It's the first time I have ever heard from my daughter. Would you read it, please?” Louvina read aloud:
My mama died three months back. Just before she died, she told me that I still had family in Pine Bluffs, Wyoming and that I should go there. I traveled on the Greyhound hoping I might find you. Now I am with my cousin Cameron's family for a couple of weeks or so. They say you looked for me for a long time. I hope you will be happy that I am found. I am 17 years old now and here is a picture of me.
Your daughter, Ayla
Louvina studied the little photograph - a tall girl with straight hair, wearing dark trousers and a white shirt, sitting on a fence rail. A strong looking girl with large dark eyes, her father's long nose, his crooked smile and square jaw. Louvina's heart ached at the immediate thought of her own lost daughter, who had died of the influenza back in Iowa.
Bartle stood up and walked to the window looking out at the hills. “I never thought I would see her again. I don't for the life of me know what I am going to do, Louvina,” he said quietly.
She went to him and put her arms around his waist without thinking. She could feel his bones, the flat, strong muscles of his back. She leaned her head lightly against his chest; it was the first time she'd ever touched him. “You are going to welcome your daughter home, that's what you are going to do.” She went to the cupboard over the stove and brought down the bottle of whiskey. She poured a little into their coffee, and they drank to the return of his daughter.
“It is a new chapter in your life,” she said. “An ending and a beginning. And, if you want, I will help you settle this sweet girl into her new home with you in any way I can.”
“I'll have to build on a new room for her ……… she will need her own private place……,” he said distractedly. “I need to get started on that right away, and.....”
“Bartle,” Louvina interrupted, “she could stay here with me a while until her own place is ready in your house. I could fix up Calum's bedroom and make it look more girl-like. I would be happy to have her here,” she offered with true sincerity. “She would be good company.”
About two o'clock Bartle gathered his tools together and put them in the truck. He resolved to write to his daughter as soon as he got home. Louvina walked out with him and thanked him one more time for the work he had done for her that day. Maggie leapt into the truck. Bartle stood in front of Louvina and put his hands on her shoulders. He gave her a breath of a kiss on the cheek. “We'll talk again right soon, tomorrow afternoon maybe? And then I hope you can help me figure this out.” She nodded. He smelled delicious to her, like whisky, cherries, flannel, and the clean male sweat that comes from outdoor work.
She watched him drive away. He has his dog and he'll have his daughter, she thought, seeing the truck disappear around the bend. Now all he needs is a good woman to bind that family together. And I know the very one.
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