Agnes and Ben rode in companionable silence for a distance before Ben started in. “The creek’s not running near Hans and Ernestine’s place either. If we have to, Hans said we can haul water from their well for a bit, but that sure isn’t a permanent solution. If our well really has been ruined, I’m not sure what we’ll do.” Agnes could tell how invested Ben was in their farm. She had to admire how he had plunged into this marriage deal with both feet.
There was no real way around it, if the well were gone, then what choices did they have? Agnes pondered on it as Barney and Mabel carried them back home, the two runaway horses tethered behind. Agnes figured Ben was contemplating the water situation too, but other things were on his mind. His voice interrupted her reverie.
“You know that couple we heard tell of a few weeks ago at church? The ones who settled into Old Man Torgensen’s place?” Agnes secretly smiled as she continued to ride ahead. Torgensen had died a year before Ben even arrived in town and yet in the months he had spent here, he had picked up the local news and made it his own. Agnes realized Ben was looking to her for a response. She did remember that people seemed all awhirl about some couple, but she had stayed out of the gossip. She generally tried to stay out of the gossip.
“Only vaguely,” she answered, flicking her eyes away from the trail momentarily to answer Ben.
Ben nodded. He didn’t seem to mind that Agnes didn’t care about the town going-ons as much as he did. “Looks as though this new couple is a negro man and a white woman. Folks think the wife is expecting and a lot of people are uneasy about it.”
Agnes could suddenly see why this couple’s arrival had caused a stir. How had she missed this news? Maybe she should suffer through some gossip to make sure she wasn’t ignorant of the world--or what constituted her world anyway.
“The Rutherfords are talking like the earthquake was a sign from God.” He looked over to Agnes to gauge her reaction. He continued when she nodded. “That maybe God is showing forth his vengeance on this family and the whole town too for letting them stay here.”
The idea sounded absurd to Agnes. She wasn’t sure exactly what caused earthquakes, but she knew it was a lot bigger than to be caused by the choices a few people made. Agnes had religion--she always made sure to say her prayers. But, she thought at the end of the day, maybe God just let earthquakes happen. When the earth needed to move, that’s what it did and it paid no mind to the people who walked atop it. Agnes considered Ben’s news.
“The Rutherfords have always been a bit fanatical. They might be the only ones talking.”
“I don’t know, people seemed a bit unnerved to think the races are mixing and that this man and woman are probably living in sin to boot. Nobody seems to know exactly what the marriage laws are in the different states. When they first came to town to buy supplies, the woman referred to him as her husband. Word is they got a cold reception at Miller’s store. I think they’ve been holed up ever since. They sure haven’t tried to make it to church.”
Agnes couldn’t imagine anyone getting a very warm reception from Mrs. Miller the merchant, perched behind the counter like she was on a throne. She could only imagine what this new couple might have faced.
Agnes considered. “Kansans have a way of talking things up, but in the end they tend to leave well enough alone. That’s why most of us moved here. We don’t like people meddling in our business. No matter what we may think about what others are up to, we give them space too.”
“Maybe we should ride by and check how they’re doing, maybe let them know what kind of talk is going around.”
Agnes wondered about the corral that needed fixing, the broken windows and dishes, the collapsed chimney, the terrifying lack of water. She was longing to get back home, assess all that was wrong and try to fix up what she could.
“Shouldn’t we wait until tomorrow? There’s so much that needs to get done and the daylight isn’t going to last forever.”
Ben conceded, but he looked troubled about it.
Agnes’s heart started beating fast as they rode into the yard and she remembered how the earth had betrayed her earlier that day. She forced herself to breathe and focus. What to do first? Ben hitched the horses and he and Agnes worked together to cobble together some repairs for the corral.
“That should hold for now. I’ll cut down some timbers tomorrow and finish the job right,” Ben offered. With the horses secure, they turned to the well. Ben couldn’t detect the foul odor that Agnes had smelled right after the earthquake. Agnes couldn’t either, but she didn’t feel ready to test the water. Ben went to the barn and caught two kittens from where they had nestled into the hay. He deposited them into a crate along with a scrap of burlap sack and a dish of well water. “They’ll be our canary in a coal mine,” he explained. Agnes had a sour taste in her mouth from putting the innocent creatures at risk, but she supposed Ben’s experiment was better than one of them trying the water and being wrong. Hopefully, the kittens would be just fine in the morning.
Ben hitched Barney and Mabel to the wagon and he and Agnes rode down to the river with their water barrels. The river still wasn’t running right, but there was more water than when they had surveyed it earlier in the day. They managed to put together a few full barrels to take back to the house, but they had to wrangle them through thick, squelchy mud to do it. The two looked a fright by the time they loaded themselves back on the wagon along with their cache. Ooze splattered them from head to toe. At one point, Agnes had gotten mud in her eyes, but only made it worse when she tried to wipe it away with her mucky hands. She tried to find a clean bit of apron to do the job, but finally Ben had come to her rescue with a surprisingly clean handkerchief.
The effects of the trembler would be felt for a long time. There wasn’t much to do about the chimney and collapsed lean-to outside the kitchen for now. Upon closer inspection, Ben determined the stovepipe for the oven was fine, so they could keep cooking indoors for now.
When all was done in the yard that could be done, Agnes turned toward the house. Her body was aching from her slight injuries in the earthquake and the physical exertion of trying to restore some semblance of normalcy to their lives. Ben came up behind her as she faced the house with hesitation. Was she ready to return to the scene of the crime, so to speak? Ben quietly took her hand and led her haltingly up the steps. Agnes felt the steady pressure of Ben’s hand in hers clearly. It calmed her soul while at the same time quickened the beating of her heart.
The kitchen was a mess, dishes scattered everywhere, the one fancy broken china plate bearing witness that sometimes things, once broken, can’t be made whole again. Agnes decided she wasn’t going to let the earthquake break her and set forth cleaning with a fury that surprised Ben. She wasn’t going to let this quake win. She was going to prove to the world that it would take a lot more to collapse her than just some shaking. Agnes made the broom her weapon of choice and did battle with the kitchen and front room while Ben tacked up oilcloth around the windows that had broken completely.
As night fell, the two finally flopped into chairs in the front room. Agnes tried to concentrate as they discussed tomorrow’s projects, but her eyelids were so heavy, it felt like they were being tugged down by forces outside her control. The next morning, Agnes couldn’t remember going to bed, but there she was, still filthy and with a quilt laid over the top of her. Ben must have carried her up.
Agnes had never felt such a kinship with Ben as she did yesterday. She tried to remind herself why it was she refused to consider her marriage more than a business arrangement. That wasn’t what Ben had signed up for. Who was to say he would even want her? She was unwilling to risk her heart. She knew that--just like her china plate--if it ever got broken, it could never be fixed right again.
Check back tomorrow to see what happens!