Agnes had imagined delivering their news and being on their way, but the couple was treating the visit as a social call. Agnes felt embarrassed that she was empty-handed. Maybe she should have baked an apple pie or at least brought some preserves.
Ben jumped down from the wagon and then came around to help Agnes down. Agnes, true to form in most social situations, was feeling awkward again and her feet balked. Ben, possibly sensing her discomfort, lightly took her elbow and guided her forward. “We’re the Spencers. We came to check on how you fared during the quake.”
“I’m Solomon Williams. This is my wife Beth.” Beth raised her hand in friendly greeting and Solomon stepped forward and put his hand on Beth’s shoulder protectively. Solomon was the first negro Agnes had ever seen, much less met. She had lived in the same town her entire life and everyone she knew personally was white. Everyone knew about the bleeding Kansas territory and the slave question during the war, but slavery was a foreign concept to Agnes. When she was a child she sometimes saw Indians from the Pawnee and Osage tribes and knew some of the women had white husbands, but with the reservations nowadays, no Indians came passing through. She knew the current laws permitted all men to become landowners and people had speculated in town that there would be an influx of ex-slave homesteaders, but as far as she knew, Solomon was the first non-white to lay claim. And bringing his white wife with him.
Fortunately, the earthquake hadn’t hit the Williams too hard. There was plenty to do at the farm to make it both comfortable and profitable, so the tremor didn’t damage anything that wasn’t in disrepair already. The couples exchanged pleasantries and Beth invited them in. There was hardly anything in the way of furniture: a squat bench, a large log turned on end to function as a table and one comfortable rocker which Beth offered to Agnes. Beth had a way of making Agnes feel at ease--maybe it was the way Beth seemed to listen carefully and didn’t judge or her witty sense of humor. Whatever it was, Agnes took an immediate shine to her.
As they visited, Agnes couldn’t help thinking there wasn’t much about this couple physically that matched. The different skin colors was a bit jarring to her, but she found--surprisingly, happily--that it didn’t bother her at all. Additionally, Mrs. Williams was very short in stature and plump with a round, cherubic face. Solomon was taller even than Ben and was solidly built. He was deliberate and solemn and each movement seemed pre-determined and calculated. Beth flitted about like some small bird. She wasn’t manic, but energy seemed to radiate from her body. Even just sitting there, she practically hummed with vitality. Beth figuratively embraced them with open arms while Solomon’s welcomeness was much more reserved.
No, Agnes observed, not much matched physical wise, but the looks they gave each other paralleled the exact same love and tenderness. When Beth and Solomon gazed fondly at each other momentarily, Beth felt like an intruder on something special. They sat close together on the small bench. Beth’s feet barely touched the ground while Solomon’s stretched out substantially. Agnes glanced from her chair across to where Ben sat on the upturned log. Did he sense their passion too?
When Beth got up to offer them some refreshment, Agnes could see where her dress was beginning to strain across her abdomen. She hadn’t mentioned it yet, but the town was right--she must be expecting. The buttons on that dress weren’t going to be able to do their job much longer. Beth caught Agnes looking and ran a hand over the bump self-consciously. Agnes spoke without considering her words first. “I know how hard it is to start up new on a homestead. You’re about the same height as my late mother. You’re welcome to come by our home and see if there’s anything from her wardrobe you could make over.”
Beth’s eyes lit up. “Thank you! We weren’t able to bring much with us.” Her countenance clouded over for an instant, but it passed quickly and sunny Beth was back.
“I’m glad you can use them. They’re certainly not doing me any good.” They all laughed at that comment. Agnes could look most grown men straight in the eye.
Beth returned with water for everyone and a plate of humble bread. “I’m sorry we don’t have any butter or jam.” She looked from Agnes to Ben and said with a friendly tone, “And how did you two meet?”
Agnes started a bit. She had never had to explain their unconventional marriage to anyone. The whole town knew their business. She was sure people wondered just how married they were, so to speak, but no one had the gall to ask and she wasn’t about to inform anyone.
“It’s a little unconventional,” Agnes stalled, wondering what to say next.
Ben interrupted. “My mother’s cousin, Mrs. Larson, introduced us. She plays the organ for the congregation. You can meet her when you come to church.”
Agnes was grateful for Ben saving her from an awkward conversation, but was surprised he had invited them to church. He was so casual about it, it sounded like they would be welcomed by the whole town.
Beth’s eyes twinkled. “I hope we can meet her. And it sounds like there may be more to your story. But, that can wait for another time.”
Ben finally stood. “We really need to get going to town for that lumber, but it was nice to have met you.” He rocked back and forth and stuck his calloused hands in his pockets for a moment and then pulled them back out. He cleared his throat. “We also wanted to say that there’s been some talk. Umm, we don’t know how many people. But, some people are talking like the earthquake is related to your moving here. That maybe it’s God’s wrath for letting you be here.” The last sentence especially seemed to pain Ben to say it.
Quiet Solomon looked confused for an instant and then surprised them by giving a throaty, mirthful laugh. “The Lord and I are on good speaking terms. I doubt the earthquake is my fault, but I’ll check in with Him just to make sure.” And then with more composure, “There’s nothing Beth and I and Maggie here,” motioning to the rifle in the corner, “can’t handle.”
The Williams saw Ben and Agnes out. They climbed on the wagon and Ben pointed the horses toward town. “What a remarkable couple,” Agnes said. She hadn’t heard their whole history, but she found herself hoping that she would have another opportunity to visit and get to know them better. She wondered how a couple could fall so deeply in love that they would defy much of society and try and build a life together. She recalled the energy that seemed to zip between the two as they sat on the bench together.
On their once a week forays to Sunday meeting, she and Ben routinely kept their distance on the wagon seat. Agnes had developed a unique and guarded way to sit while traveling along the bumpy road; she braced one foot against the side of the wagon and then locked her elbows and held tight to the bench so she wouldn’t accidentally collide with Ben and embarrass them both. It wasn’t comfortable, but it avoided the discomfort of unintended contact with Ben and it seemed the lesser of evils. Agnes realized she was doing it now out of habit. She forced herself to relax and adopt a posture more like Ben’s. She released her death grip from the plank and laid her hands stiffly in her lap--still not quite right, but an improvement. Now she and Ben swayed in tandem as they drew closer to town. Agnes realized the rocking of the wagon was slowly moving her and Ben toward each other on the swaybacked plank. She allowed herself to draw closer. They hardly ever touched each other without a good reason. Did she have a good reason now?
The earthquake is bringing neighbors together but will it be the catalyst for Agnes and Ben too? Check back for more tomorrow!